Digging Into Horror – A study in HP Lovecraft

Digging Into Horror – A study in HP Lovecraft

I have a few highlighted passages in Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 2 by Eugene Thacker with my annotation, “aaaaaaaaah!” written next to it. Here is the first:

…something exists, even though that something may not be known by us (and is therefor “nothing” for us human beings)… (p. 41)

Shortly thereafter, I have this highlighted:

Darkness is the limit of the human to comprehend that which lies beyond the human… knowing of this unknowing… the conciliatory ability to comprehend the incomprehensibility of what remains outside… (p. 41)

Next to which I have annotated, “we only know so little about how we only know so little.” I then highlighted the following:

…there is nothing outside, and that this nothing-outside is absolutely inaccessible. This leads not to a conciliatory knowing of unknowing, which is really a knowing of something that cannot be known. Instead, it is a negative knowing of nothing to know. There is nothing, and it cannot be known. (p. 42)

I have annotated, “we don’t even know what we don’t know,” followed by “aaaaaaah!” again.

Cosmic horror is more or less predicated on these principles–  that we are insignificant and blind to the order of the universe, allowing for the possibility to dream up monsters of the dark that are, by our nature, incomprehensible. The general conclusion of most stories that fall into this genre is that a character having been exposed to the unknowable will inevitably go insane.

All horror on some level follows this notion, whether intentionally or not– good horror allows our own minds to scare us instead of the monster on screen. Jaws famously buried its shots of the shark under several iterations of editing, John Carpenter’s The Thing never shows the true alien’s form (only the perversion of the host’s body it’s replicating), Jason Voorhees and Mike Meyer’s hide behind dehumanizing masks, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead “zoomcam” follows from the perspective of the damned, but we only only see the evil manifested in the body of the possessed victim. The monster loses its potency once you see it in the light– once it’s realized, it can be killed.

So what sets the works of HP Lovecraft apart from the rest is how he’s able, in prose, to bury the horror so deep that it gradually creeps up on the reader. At first it seems like a magic trick. Until you see the cards.

The culmination of reading HP Lovecraft is unlike anything else I’ve read: for me, it was a joyful experience. I tried to pay attention to how Lovecraft crafts that lovely feeling.

First, he tells you the ending up front, usually in the first sentence of the story. From Dagon: “I am writing this under appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” You know from the outset that the narrator is insane and will be dead soon, likely by suicide. It reminds me of the theory that spoilers only enhance the enjoyment of something, because you know what you’re looking forward to. It’s a clever device that answers a question and asks another– you know the ending, now don’t you want to find out how it got there? Eh? It also plants a seed of anxiety in the reader and puts them on edge– they know something’s going to happen, just not when.

You’re going to need that little push to get through a lot of his work, too, because HP apparently loved writing in arcane language. Most of his work came out in the 20s-30s, so it’s pretty dated by modern standards–and by the standards of the time. It’s dry and academic and I’m 90% certain that it’s written stiff on purpose. I kind of love this because its so antithetical to Lovecraft’s literary contemporaries– whereas Hemingway and EB White preached “brief and concise” to get the idea across effectively, Lovecraft prefers “vague and elevated” language to confuse the reader. Reading the geographic descriptions of a simple landscape often gets convoluted in its crags and valleys and deviations, such that the reader becomes lost. When describing “cyclopean” architecture and the horrific attributes of the ancient alien creatures, the high-brow, academic language remains indirect and it fails in its description. It’s supposed to, as what’s being described is unknowable.

A note about the academic tone worthy of mention is how seemingly tangential it is.  At The Mountains of Madness, for example, Lovecraft spends a frustrating amount of time establishing a consensus on the best arctic drills to use during expeditions; The Whisperer In The Dark, along with The Call of Cthulhu, lingers on the “reasonable” explanations behind the strange inquiries at hand. The Dunwich Horror begins so raptly obsessed with the town’s history, that while one knows that something bad will eventually happen there, it strikes a chord ironic that anything out of the ordinary could happen when described in such a dry tone. I think this discourages a lot of readers from following through. I know it made me reticent. But after reading through a lot of these stories, I think it’s a brilliant, if not stubborn, move. You need to start at a place of reason and scientific certainty, only to let those ideals betray you later on. It’s a long grift, but one that works.

There’s also the fact that Lovecraft is inconsistent in the descriptions of his horrors. As I pointed out earlier, Lovecraft’s not trying to amass a rigidly defined mythology, but rather utilizing a loose one to tie his stories together. Monsters change shape from story to story, and the ambiguity of the descriptions only lends itself to how effective this is– although I don’t really have any evidence that this was done intentionally, I’m following the hunch that this is what makes HP’s work so damn haunting. Especially for those poor souls who have investigated the entire pantheon. Nyarlathotep shows up in a bunch of works, almost never fitting the same description twice, the Mi-Go are alternatively described as Yeti-like and crab-like fungoids… but my favorite is Yog-Sothoth, who generally goes unseen save for a benevolent lightning strike to banish some abomination back to the void. Admittedly, the following passage comes from a story I haven’t yet read, “The Horror at the Museum”:

Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth—only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.

First pause to recognize how nondescript that is, and yet it conjured some image in your mind. Second recognize how he nods to your own imagination, in addition to the narrators,  with the very first word, effectively robbing the narrator of certainty. Now let’s take a look at a passage describing, not Yog-Sothoth, but one of his human half-breeds, from the hilarious vantage of a hillbilly:

“Oh, oh, my Gawd, that haff face–that haff face on top of it… that face with the red eyes an’ crinkly albino hair, an’ no chin,’ like the Whateleys… It was a octopus, centipede, spider kind o’ thing, but they was a haff-shaped man’s face on top of it, an’ it looked like Wizard Whately’s, only it was yards an’ yards acrost….” — The Dunwich Horror

I find this passage particularly fantastic firstly because it contains a very uncommon break from the academic prose in favor of the native tongue of hill people– and even the layman can’t articulate precisely what the creature looks like, only approximating that it looks like an octopus, or centipede, or spider with a giant ugly face on it. Second, it’s incongruous with the description from Museum, even though we know by the final line of Dunwich, that “it looked… like the father.”

This kind of indirect, approximate horror can be found in the narrative structure itself. I mean, it has to be, right? If it’s in the language and “canon” then the story itself needs to mimic the same philosophy. HP does not disappoint. In The Dunwich Horror, the final spectacle is seen only from afar and those that watched it through a telescope were mentally injured:

Curtis, who had held the instrument, dropped it with a piercing shriek into the ankle-deep mud of the road. He reeled, and would have crumpled to the ground had not two or three others seized and steadied him. All he could do was moan half-inaudibly.

It becomes a game of telephone. It’s not that what Curtis saw was reported, but his reaction to the thing he saw, thrice removed from the reader. You attach to Curtis’s reaction, but you still want to know what he saw.

Even better is how the Whisperer In Darkness plays out, beginning with the “ending up front,” motif:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.

 And neither does the reader. It’s all suggested, all unknowable. The story continues in the now obligatory academic skepticism of strange supernatural happenings, when the narrator makes a pen-pal out of a true believer who seeks an academic understanding of the Mi-Go. The horror happens “off-stage” to that character, writing an epistolary arch of curiosity, fear and finally acceptance and friendship with the alien race. When the narrator visits him, he understands something is off, but only sees traces of the Crab-like fungoids, never the things themselves. When he speaks to a human being’s brain in a jar, that too is met with skepticism, with a narrative eye looking for clever deceits, but it’s never answered one way or the other as to whether a person or a recording provided the dialogue. Even when he’s speaking directly to one of the fungoid creatures, it’s a ruse born of either crafty mask work or expert taxidermy. He leaves it as a question as to what.

After everything (and often at the beginning), Lovecraft will give the opportunity to jettison the narrative from the reader’s mind, and suppose that the narrators really are insane. It’s a red pill, blue pill binary. Red pill, and it’s a fall towards an investigative rabbit hole as the rules of biochemistry and physics begin to deteriorate, before culminating into, possibly, a fervent spiritual awakening subservient (or antagonistic) to higher gods.

Blue pill, it’s a sick fantasy from a sick mind. Which is how Lovecraft wants you to swallow it. The cognitive dissonance between trusting one’s own interpretation over the rational accounts of those who have encountered unspeakable, unknowable horrors, is perhaps the juiciest turn of all. It forces the reader to linger in that space of nothingness and unknowable-ness long after the book is put back on the shelf.




Planning Your Escape

Planning Your Escape

You ask any number of readers (or gamers, or cinephiles, etc) why they read and I’ll bet you a shiny Sacagawea dollar that the number one answer is going to be “being teleported to another world.” (Popcorn flicks – “to turn my brain off for a while”; video games – “veg out and kill shit”; Netflix – “Chillll.”) Some call this “escapism.” I’m not here to judge the value of escapism, because I already know from personal experience that it’s practically necessary for the survival of my sanity. But looking at escapism from the creative perspective and the work that goes into it, there’s a few things I’ve noticed.

In writing circles, there’s a dumb phrase floating around called “World Building,” in which the writer conceptualizes the setting that their story is going to take place.

I’m pretty sure it’s a trap.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the world you’re trying to  convey to the audience. Understanding spacial relationships within the story is important, too. Fleshing out characters, even minor ones, crucial. But I feel that writers often get stuck in this development phase and it’s tempting to stay there.

Consider HP Lovecraft, often considered the premiere cosmic-horror author, and to do this, consider all of HP Lovecraft’s annoying goddamn fans (BYE, NERDS! Don’t let the red X button hit you on the ass on your way out!). Lovecraftian nerds love to piece together an overarching mythology to Lovecraft’s work, because that’s what human beings do– we organize, label, and critique things. But if you start writing a comprehensive universe first, you’re essentially working backwards. My take is that HP built outwards (very elaborately) to satisfy the needs of the stories he was working on. From the Cthulhu Mythos wiki:

The view that there was no rigid structure is reinforced by S. T. Joshi, who stated “Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”

Something to take from this is the likelihood that intricate, pre-fabricated (in the writer’s notebook) worlds can inhibit creativity. Think about it. If you built a world that featured, I don’t know, a fountain of banana flavored pudding, you’re very likely to move the direction towards that useless fountain instead of where the story needs to go. You’re going to feel obliged to show off your pudding fountain; if you didn’t, you would feel as if you’d wasted your time world building. That’s how you write yourself into a corner. Which is how lazy and contrived plot contrivances (eg- deus ex machina solutions) occur. Keeping things open allows for opportunities, forces the writer to make choices, and to arrive at something unexpected– you know, also known as “the joy of writing.” To offer another example, you can figure out exactly when Venture Bros turned shitty– and it’s at the precise moment that the comedic vehicle of the cartoon was exchanged in favor of in-depth story extrapolation. Compare that with Metalacolypse, which always brings its story to the brink of explanation and then blatantly disregards it. Metalacolypse stayed fresh because it stuck with its comedic guns, favored character over plot, and didn’t get stuck up its own ass.

Another take: Much like character sketching, developing values and rule is more important than the details (although the details should imply the values and yada yada yada). HP Lovecraft is not consistent with his “cosmogony”. He is consistent in his themes and paradigms (“the universe is an uncaring, mechanical place,” “true horror cannot be understood by human minds” etc). To offer another example, the Harry Potter universe isn’t the most consistent– except in its subversion of the ordinary (“This boot is a teleportation device!” “There’s a piece o’ soul in this snake!” “School is fun and zany!”) and its overarching themes (“Love is magic, PEOPLE.” “Racism is bad!”) which makes the series charming and feel cohesive.

A third take: Much of the Lovecraftian universe was organized and expanded on by other writers. The current expansion of the Harry Potter universe feels like an unnecessary shill. The expanded Star Wars universe (with the fine exception of KotOR) is an exercise of human futility. Seems weak to me. Don’t write fan fiction for your own story. Don’t write fan fiction. Write your story.


And I know what you’re thinking: Tolkien did it. Sure, Tolkien did it, but there’s some caveats to that argument. I haven’t read the Simarillion (fight me, why doncha), but I know that Tolkien included only a mere fraction of his notes in The Lord of The Rings (showing immense creative restraint to convey only enough as was necessary), and that he baked in his Roman Catholic values into the grain of the narrative which guided the story through its paces, instead of offering some kind of railcar tour of a bunch of stuff in Middle Earth. It’s also important to recognize that Tolkien was a philogist— he studied classical languages, literature and their historical context– and a large part of what Tolkien was doing was combining a lot of epic poetry and European mythology into a series more easily digestible by his modern audience.

There’s been a lot of fantasy churned out since Tolkien and a lot of it only goes so far as to mimic his work. But if you study the epic poems Tolkien sourced as influences (well hello, fellow English majors. How come you all look so sad all the time?), you need to remember that they are representing the world as it was– Beowulf was a modern narrative upon its original telling. So was The Green Knight. The world described in those poems is the world that they lived in with the addition of other worldly forces at play. After Tolkien we fetishized his aesthetic as the ultimate expression of fantasy– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so much as it has become a tad stale as it may no longer reflect the world we live in.

It seems trite to conclude that the way to combat stale universe development is to “just look outside for inspiration! That’s what the poets of the middle ages did!” But it still has to be said. So remember:

  • Aesthetics are important, but not absolute. Like the way you can change your shirt if you spill nacho cheese on it.
  • It’s about a convincing atmosphere…
  • …which is often rooted in reality and then somehow subverted
  • Stay consistent in values
  • Heavy exposition drags. There’s no goddamn reason I need to know “that it rains sometimes on Klthgbak Mountain, a place our heroes will never visit, but will often think of, as Tostito Mojito’s mother was born on Klthgbak Mountain while it was raining.” You like that? I just made that up. Quit being part of the problem.
  • The Devil is in the Details but just this one time, the Devil is not your friend.
  • I bet you HBO calls me tomorrow hoping to develop Mountain Thinkers starring Christian Bale as Tostito Mojito’s mom because THE WORLD IS BROKEN.