Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Leader of Horror: HP Lovecraft

Very few authors have reached the level of cultish devotion in the realm of horror writing as HP Lovecraft. Not exactly obscure per se, he has always been overshadowed by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, one of Lovecraft's admitted inspirations.
Yet the echoes of Lovecraft's writing resonates throughout much of today's popular culture, even if you aren't aware of it. Nobody rivaled his themes but many have carried on the spirit of his terror in everything from video games, writing, movies and comics. His stuff was genuinely terrifying, and stands out even more today than in his own time.
I shall do my utmost to be devoid of spoilers here, and simply do what I can to analyze the style of writing, the influences, and why you should check it out.

Many confuse gore and violence with scary. Wrooooooooooooooooooooong! Wrong you fools! Gore and stuff popping out making loud noises is not scary. True horror comes from suspense and strong atmosphere. More than most, Lovecraft dealt with the fear of the unknown and certain truths that rock the foundations of understanding. That is far better. Lovecraft's horror is so complex and fascinating that it is difficult to explain in words why I and others love it so much.

First off he uses a distinctly different style than most people. Unlike the writing of ERB and REH, Lovecraft did almost all of his stories as epistolary novels. Basically done in the form of first person journals, he is able to bring a surprising amount of depth and weight to the table. Lets face it, on the outlook a journal doesn't look that scary. But when you dive inside, that's where the fun stuff starts.

His best known creation by far is Cthulhu, the dreaded tentacle-faced thing that dwells within the sunken city of R'lyeh. Usually just seen in pop culture as a giant monster with wings and tentacles coming from his face, this thing is infinitely more terrifying in the story Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is the herald of beings beyond our understanding, and to merely look upon them rends one's sanity like an axe through paper.
That was part of the genius of his work. What is more frightening? A person attacking you with a sharp implement or learning that everything about you is balanced on the edge of a razor, that unfathomable horrors lie just beyond our realm and that merely looking upon them will land you an all expenses paid vacation at the Padded Cell Hotel? I thought so.

For what Lovecraft wrote about was not the petty squabbles of flesh and matter we know, but of otherworldly things that bend your mind and to think about to long warp your sense of reality. In his writing we are protected by a veil of blissful ignorance, and to break through it is to reveal unspeakable terrors that send the human brain reeling. Death is the least of your worries in his work.

Cthulhu himself is just a vanguard for The Old Ones, cosmic entities who exist in more than one dimension and whose very existences defy our known laws of reality. Ah, but lets not get ahead of ourselves! As almost all of his stories take place in his Cthulhu mythos and little else, although this isn't true for all.

Truth be told, as I sit here I realize I've never before had so much trouble trying to pin down a writer's style. I even ran it past a close friend of mine who also reads his work, and when I asked help for analyzing this my compatriot basically shrugged, said "Heck if I know man" and went to bed. Not a good sign.
I'll do the best I can in writing this out, but please don't be too harsh, for I feel I shall not do well in this area. The stories have very little chronology, but that matters little. It's not so much a series per se as loosely associated but distinctly related experiences taking place within the same mythos. Sometimes we have the person writing the journal acting as a narrator, sometimes not. Sometimes it feels like a detective that is writing down all the clues they've gathered together over a tough case, others it feels like someone who only knew the detective gathering all the clues.
It's difficult to keep a steady bead on things seeing as how we have no recurring characters, there is only one city we visit more than once that I'm aware of, that being Arkham, scary races and monsters only get one story each and are at most only mentioned thereafter, etc. It's weird.

Reading through some of his stuff it feels like he was experimenting with different writing styles, trying to find a comfortable rhythm. Some of his stuff gets bogged down in quagmires of exposition while at other times you get gripped with a feverish intensity that keeps you going. Jeez, just trying to identify it all makes my head hurt. Perhaps I'd best skip the style itself and move onto his themes and more prominent stories. Yeah, I like the sound of that idea.

His favorite theme by far was that humanity is not as powerful and important as we think it is. In almost every story humanity manages to triumph over amazing odds in the face of monsters, zombies, aliens, ghosts, robots, disease, famine, plague, meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. We've been taught that just about everything that can be thrown at us we can overcome in some way. The dystopian future of Terminator with the war with Skynet was bitter, traumatizing, yet had some faint ray of hope. Star Wars showed the power of The Force where a young man with determination sent an oppressive regime recoiling. Lord of the Rings had but young hobbits overthrow a near-indestructible warlord in spite of overwhelming odds of all kinds. Stories that give us hope in the face of our greatest adversity.

Lovecraft douses those ideas like a candle beneath a tidal wave. In his viewpoint, humanity is not a powerful, capable race that is destined to race through the stars, but unbelievably tiny, unimpressive, miniscule vermin that are not even worth the effort of extermination. Earth is but one marble in an incomprehensible void that is barely noticed among the far more powerful races and beings that work beyond our knowledge. To them we aren't rodents. We're not even insects. We barely even classify as microscopic life. The fate of our race and world is not in our hands. We are but tiny life forms forestalling the inevitable doom of our planet.

Crap, even the stakes in Lord of the Rings if Sauron got the Ring isn't so bleak and depressing. Scattered over our world are beings, races and items that are beyond our understanding and if tampered with will bring about our destruction.
That is where the horror lies, and is usually presented in a very compelling manner. Mostly it will be someone who has just undergone an ordeal, or knows someone who just had the ordeal, and writes down the story in their log. The things usually start off innocent enough: Slightly out of the ordinary sounds in creaky buildings, people acting a bit unusual, that sort of thing. Then sometimes people go missing. Rumors of strange conversations taking place when supposedly one person is about. Odd smells being emitted from sealed off rooms. People bearing most unusual character and features.

This is where Lovecraft really shines: Setting an atmosphere of dread and strangeness. You get the distinct feeling that things is off and not right, but you don't know what. The oddities get more pronounced and escalate. Along with the characters you wonder and form theories, but worry that knowing the truth is far worse than you suppose. The methodical exploration of these changes often take place over the course of years, but somehow give great depth in very short passages.

The greatest example I can think of is one of my favorites: The Color out of Space. A meteor of unknown matter lands in a farmer's yard that behaves very strangely. To avoid spoilers, I won't give details, but suffice it to say that it is very weird and scientists from Arkham are most interested, but it eventually solves itself in a short time. Or so they think. After the meteor is gone the plant life and landscape changes in a manner that is most definitely wrong, yet you can't point to just one thing.
If you've ever been in the woods and noticed that something was just plain off in a way you'd have difficulty describing, multiply that by five and you'll have an idea of what this was like.
The atmosphere of something amiss is beautiful, and is undoubtedly one of the best examples I've seen.

In The Dunwich Horror we get something similar, but more related to a building and the inhabitants, namely a strange person by the name of Wilbur Whatley. The boy's father is unknown and despite being quite young grows at a fantastic rate and has most unusual features about his physical form. Even at one year of age he can walk and speak, something most certainly not normal. Always dressed in a very tight suit he has difficulty in the rural town of Dunwich, and actually has to carry a revolver on himself at all times due to the fact that no dog will allow him safe passage. Each dog treats him like a horrible animal and try to attack him if the chance presents itself. Nor is it normal that his grandfather continues adding space to their home, knocking out walls, moving things around, adding space, yet all the cattle he purchases never seem to maintain their number.
At certain times of the year odd sounds resonate from the hills like drums while the boy and his few relatives prance around in stormy moonlight. It is only years later though when things truly get bad.

Another favorite of mine is The Shadow over Innsmouth. A young man who is taking a tour of the antiquated towns and cities of the Eastern US stumbles upon a very old but little known town known as Innsmouth. Very few people go there and very few of the natives visit any of the surrounding towns. The locals themselves have a most peculiar look, which I shan't repeat here. Suffice it to say that you can't look upon them without feeling unnerved. Many strange tales cloak this township. Almost no one goes there if they can avoid it, and those that do visit never wish to return if they leave. Some disappear. There are stories of queer sounds in the many boarded up buildings and guttural language, of forbidden pacts made with demonish beings. The only clues our character finds are from the drunk ramblings of the ancient drunkard Zadok. What he says is too freakish to be possible... Yeah, keep up the wishful thinking.

The most famous story of course is Call of Cthulhu. In that we learn just how bloody close our world came to becoming the domain of dimensional gods beyond our ken and of eerie cults that lurk in the most remote regions of the world. Store this one away for a future nightmare.

Another influential one is At the Mountains of Madness. Honestly, the execution through most of it was boring. It was only through force of will that I finished that one. Yet never before had a story made me feel so small, so insignificant, and so insecure. It pulls the rug of Knowledge out from under your feet, upsetting all that you thought you knew about our planet and makes you want to curl beneath your bed.

Very often mentioned is a queer book, The Necronomicon, written by one known as The Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. Within the haunted texts lie incantations and knowledge that shouldn't be within the hands of mortal men, and all who read it are more worried about the path of the world.

A story unrelated to his mythos but amazingly interesting is Herbert West: The Reanimator. Following in the metaphorical footsteps of Doctor Frankenstein, Herbert West and his compatriot, our narrator, start off as young, idealistic doctors near Arkham attempting that which man has tried for millennia: To bring the dead back to life. Obviously this is easier said than done, but the sheer variations on how to attempt this with West's special formula are unnerving. But as his desire to get his formula to work increases, his value of human life ironically decreases proportionately, until things get far out of hand.
This one is easily one of my favorites.

He has many other stories as well, most dealing with his mythos.
Yet his influences on others has been astounding. As my aforementioned friend once said "Everyone and their mom has been influenced by Lovecraft."
If you are a gamer, then no doubt you've heard of the Mass Effect RPGs. The ominous threat of the return of the Reapers throws a pall of dread over everything, and their return spelling the doom of all sentient species. This was a distinct theme of Lovecraft and the idea wonderfully applied.
Stephen King, one of the most prolific authors today directly sites Lovecraft as an inspiration.
The Evil Dead movies take obvious cues, flat out having a copy of the Necronomicon in their possession.
The new awesome Monster Hunter International series takes obvious inspiration, making references here and there and actually integrating the concepts very well within action packed writing.
The Aliens movies have a distinctly Lovecraftian flavor to them, the art designer for the xenomorphs and the hive himself saying that his art was in the grotesque spirit of the Lovecraft stories. Surely, the xenomporphs are one of the few things that harness horror so effectively!
The story At the Mountains of Madness is said to have inspired the story Who Goes There, written within the same decade. Who Goes There led to the movies The Thing from Another World and one of the greatest horror movies of all time, The Thing.
Arkham Asylum from the Batman series is a nod to the city of Arkham where many of the Lovecraft story took place around, and had a decent asylum where many characters ended up.

References are spread throughout all kinds of games, books and movies. The list goes on and on.
Lovecraft channeled the gothic horror and traumatic experiences of his life into his writing, and that is what gives it its charge. While some of his stories were flat out boring (I've been actively warned about Kadath) he had an amazing capacity for hooking the reader and pulling them along. The characters usually weren't that deep, often being rather simple. But it wasn't about the protagonist type characters. Really they were just there to tell us the story, rather than for us to get to know them.

In the end it was the bizarre, macabre spirit he enriched his work with that made it stand out and even to this day is some of the most terrifying stuff a person can read. While not exactly the biggest stone in the foundation of horror, he was certainly one of the strongest stones and has resisted the battering of negative critics and weathered the competition. If anything, he's gotten more popular as time has gone on, as well it should. There is very little else like his stuff out there.

If you want scary, you now know where to look. You can find just about all of his stories here. Beware the white on black text!

In conclusion, all three of these writers had distinct drawbacks and weaknesses. But their positives vastly outweigh their negatives, still standing strong and tall even today. While there are some writers who are in fact better, few can claim to have such diversity, imagination and influence. Each captured a tangible spirit of their respective genres and branded their emotion into their pen strokes. One can almost taste the energy in these stories, and that is what keeps them alive. You can tell when a writer is throwing their heart into what they are writing, and that passion will suck you in.
Of course, knowing grammar helps a good bit too!

In time I shall review a few other influential authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, maybe another two or three.
But now I wish to delve into another group who are more than deserving of their recognition: Riflemen, explorers, hunters, and woodsmen. Not to mention a few of these being some of the best shots with firearms that ever lived!
I shall review a few of my all time favorite adventurers, men and women who withstood astounding odds and went about doing great deeds for little other reason than they wanted to. Here are the gents I shall take a look at:
"Karamojo" Walter Maitland Bell, Colonel James Corbett, Simo Hayha, Annie Oakley, and Samuel Baker.

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