Thursday, May 21, 2015

Staring into the Abyss: An Appreciation of the Work of H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft portrait by Sean Phillips

In our hyper modern age where science fact and fiction meld to combine into some odd amalgam of the banal and the fantastic it is quite easy to mock earlier incarnations of horror. Demons, spirits, and gods from our prehistoric era had control of man’s fate and history for centuries until eventually our mechanical revolution laid waste to the old religion to make way for the cult of science and so-called rational thinking. Within this stream of history, what has often plagued mankind’s nightmares has taken on many different shapes. From bloodthirsty animal predators and indifferent bacterial microbes to the emergence of ever more deadlier science experiments gone wrong the things that terrify us have not dissipated only expanded. Within the realm of horror fiction, writers and artists have attempted to give shape and form to all our fears and neuroses but more often than not the work put out by them falls just short of being anything other than entertaining.

The horror writers whose work have transcended the constraints of the medium and pushed the genre into unfamiliar territory are a paltry handful. In American arts and letters the uncontested master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe had in his short time on this earth singlehandedly had given birth to the modern mystery genre and also established the tropes of psychological terror. In Poe’s literary universe the character’s inner psyche was the primary source of all manner of horror. Trapped by feelings of guilt or an all-consuming sense of dread Poe’s characters began the stories already tormented by fate until finally by tale’s end they went insane, or worse, dead.

The template Edgar Allan Poe devised when writing his horror and mystery stories were utilized by many admirers, but the output of many of these writers were often just pale imitations. Of course there were authors and poets like Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Conan Doyle who took elements of Poe’s style and made entire literary careers out of them, but no single writer since Poe’s death had emerged to further push the boundaries of the horror genre until the second decade of the 20th century when a Rhode Island recluse by the name of Howard Philips Lovecraft penned his first short story for the United Amateur and began his brief but very influential career as a writer and creator of the weird fiction genre.

Typical for many neophyte authors at the turn of the century H.P. Lovecraft earned a relatively meager wage as a writer for the pulps, a burgeoning magazine market wherein wannabe scribblers would write short stories or installments of longer novella length work in the hopes that one of the many genre magazines would pick them up and publish them. For Lovecraft, his chosen home in the pulp market was the magazine Weird Tales, a publication that became famous for giving future greats like Lovecraft, Conan writer/creator Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Bloch, future Psycho scribe, their first start.

When talking about Lovecraft and specifically the stories he wrote it’s impossible to not discuss the genre of weird fiction, a genre that he helped invent. As Lovecraft wrote in his most famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

In pure layman’s terms what separates weird fiction from typical slashers is that whereas the latter reveled in gore and a lumbering flesh and blood monster that would stalk its victims until finally put down and then resurrected again for subsequent sequels, in weird fiction the horror stems from, as Nietzsche famously wrote about humanity, the abyss looking back at us. In Lovecraft’s best stories the protagonists would be faced with the cold indifference of far more ancient and inhuman creatures and be destroyed by that knowledge.

Though quite shy and still very much an amateur the themes, images, and obsession with non-corporeal terror can be seen as early as 1919 when Lovecraft’s short story Dagon was published in the pulp magazine The Vagrant. In the story, a morphine-addicted sailor recounts the story of how he managed to survive in the middle of the Pacific after a German sea-raider sinks his cargo ship. Managing to cling onto a lifeboat the unnamed narrator floats in the middle of the vast ocean until finally running aground on a piece of exposed seabed. Exploring the newly discovered landmass the man’s exploration of the island reveals a desolate landscape, ancient hieroglyphs depicting a cult of fish men, and a large, possibly religious, monolith jutting out from a seemingly bottomless pit. As the hero of the story approaches the monolith to get a better look at the pictograms carved on it a giant cyclopean creature emerges from deep beneath a canyon and starts to chase after the unnamed narrator.

Fighting for his life he manages to make it back to his lifeboat and depart the island with the creature in constant pursuit of him. The story then cuts to a San Francisco hospital bed where the sailor lays stark raving mad, and screaming of a creature named Dagon who is still after him. It’s never quite clear whether what we’ve just read was the truth or the ramblings of a drug addict though since Lovecraft ends the story with the unnamed sailor having committed suicide; a derivative ending to a carefully crafted horror story but nevertheless Lovecraft’s ability to imbue his text with such oppressive dread and mystery was present from day one of his burgeoning writing career.

More stories soon followed, a large chunk being serviceable sci-fi, horror, and fantasy stories, a few genuine masterpieces of the weird fiction genre, and a couple of embarrassing clunkers. Throughout this entire time though Lovecraft did not live in a vacuum. Having enjoyed a very active correspondence with countless writers and fans Lovecraft freely gave of his time to discussing various topics and even helping to edit the work of young writers like Robert Bloch just as they began stepping into the scary world of freelance writing. What separates Rhode Island’s most famous horror writer from other writers, pulp or otherwise at that time, is that Lovecraft also encouraged fans of his work to ostensibly write fan fiction or use elements of his own unique literary mythology as a way to not only spread his work to new fans but also lend a certain credibility to his stories.

Places like Arkham and Miskatonic University, grimoires like the Necronomicon by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, and creatures like Cthulhu and Azathoth were first born in the mind of one man and then disseminated by fans, through their own stories, to a wider audience. Before the internet and at the cusp of the media revolution H.P. Lovecraft seemed to have understood the power of what would be now derisively called “fanboy culture,” though unlike our modern-day fanboys early sci-fi and fantasy fans did not have the safety of anonymity or instant gratification provided by the internet. Yet, even without these modern “amenities” Lovecraft’s work touched a nerve in diehard horror aficionados and also audiences who could care less about weird fiction.

Though we might consider ourselves far more “educated” than Lovecraft’s original readers it’s important to note that the pulp writer’s outlook on life and his thematic obsessions are just as prescient now as they were back then. Scientists, thinkers, and technologists nowadays are working to bridge the literal and metaphoric gaps that once separated people and cultures apart, but even with all these advancements 21st century men and women still suffer from the same neuroses; loneliness, loss of faith, lack of purpose; that Lovecraft’s original readership suffered from.

As an avowed atheist and a prodigious reader on many philosophical and scientific treatises Lovecraft’s personal viewpoint on humanity can, at best, be classified as cynical. In the Lovecraftian Universe man is not at the center of the cosmos. We are often unwitting tools of older more powerful beings, labeled gods from faraway stars by characters in these stories. This existential idea pops up in stories like Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space, and The Whisperer in Darkness. In each of these tales explorers, amateur scientists, professors, and other learned men are investigating what at first seems like a benign supernatural phenomenon or ancient secret. As the story progresses and the protagonist-narrator uncovers more and more facts what was once thought to be an isolated incident or case has ramifications throughout the planet. Unlike many cut-and-paste horror, sci-fi, and fantasy stories what typifies a Lovecraft story is the sudden and, oftentimes, blunt realization that mankind is no match for the countless things that go bump in the night.

This sentiment, though taken up by many writers, has taken on a life of its own within the medium of film. As early as the 1950s, 14 years after Lovecraft’s death, films like The Thing from Another World (1951) premiered and thrilled audiences with a story about a group of scientists stationed in a research outpost in the Arctic having to fight off a humanoid plant creature who is merely the first wave of a possible invasion on the planet. Evoking Lovecraft’s first and only novella At the Mountains of Madness the RKO-backed studio picture had a far more hopeful ending than Lovecraft would have cared for but nonetheless the film was a success and ushered in several popular alien invasion and atomic-age monster movies during the 1950s.

Although much has been written on these early sci-fi pictures being allegories for the Communist scare that ran rampant throughout America and Western Europe or the fears many had of a nuclear holocaust, films like The Thing from Another World or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) the influence of Lovecraft’s work is present even if diluted by studio intervention and the zeitgeist of the time. By the late 60s and early 70s, though, as the myth of America had begun to fade away auteurs like George Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter began making their own horror films. Pictures like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Martin (1978), Dark Star (1974), The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982), and many more evoked the turmoil occurring in Post-Watergate/Post-Vietnam America but whereas earlier horror films had a preconceived monster to defeat, be it a vampire, wolf man, or creatures from black lagoons, these post-modern horror pictures did not rely on anthropomorphized demons to scare us. These terrors, like Lovecraft’s own creations, have often unknown origins and are not motivated by human reason. They lurk in the darkness and prey on our fears that we truly are insignificant creatures.

The best example of this almost nihilistic viewpoint is Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), a film indebted to The Thing from Another World and the work of baroque horror director Mario Bava. Lovecraft’s influence is prevalent throughout the picture though since the eponymous alien is a creature of mysterious and ancient origin; later films in the series would crib chunks from Lovecraft’s own At the Mountains of Madness to fasten on a very complicated mythology. In this first installment though a group of blue-collar salvage crew workers awaken from cryogenic sleep after their ship picks up a transmission from an unknown planet. Acting on orders from their corporate bosses the crew descends to the planet and discovers, just as the unnamed sailor in the story Dagon had, a desolate city and ancient pictograms depicting monstrous creatures. Eventually one of the crew, investigating an odd-looking titan-sized humanoid astronaut, gets attacked and, unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, impregnated by a crab-like alien crustacean. Brought back onboard the crew is slowly picked off one by one after the gestating alien in the impregnated crewmember bursts forth suddenly during one of cinema’s most iconic dinner scenes and begins a cruel game of hide and seek with the surviving crew members.

As the 90’s approached the culture became obsessed with personal computers and the internet it would seem that Lovecraft’s stranglehold on, at least the horror genre, had finally waned, but in reality two of Lovecraft’s most devoted disciples would make their debuts during the decade and in turn would make their own unique marks in pop culture. The first, Mike Mignola, is a graphic novelist whose unique drawing style has been described by revered comic scribe Alan Moore as “German expressionism meets Jack Kirby”. Famous as the creator of Hellboy, Mignola’s work has, from the start, shown an intense desire to catalog and connect ancient myths and legends to our modern world. In publication now for about 20 years what has kept Mignola’s work from being irrelevant and also indebted to Lovecraft has been the blend of great storytelling, a devotion to a visual pulp aesthetic, and an ethnographic concern in documenting all the various disparate world myths and combining them into one big mono-myth.  In Hellboy’s first few issues the big red hero had to do battle with the Ogdru-Jahad, a race of giant tentacled monsters that evoked Lovecraft’s own creation, the Great Old Ones, ancient monster-gods from earth’s prehistoric past, and by the end of Hellboy’s current story arc Mignola’s big red hero has done battle with a who’s who of monsters, gods, and demons from literature, film, and ancient folklore. Where else could Mignola take his iconic creation next? Well to hell of course; a landscape rife with all manner of mystic beings and horrific creatures.

Garnering the public’s attention during the same year as the first Hellboy publication Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has been a devoted horror fan since he was a little boy. His prodigious appetite for literature and film would eventually lead him to starting his own special effects company in his hometown of Guadalajara and then in 1993 premiered Cronos, a vampire tale that mixed the grotesqueries of the body horror genre with the sincerity of the best family dramas. An avowed Lovecraft aficionado just like Mignola, del Toro differs from his literary hero in two important ways. First is the focus on female characters, specifically pre-pubescent girls, and second is the depiction of his monsters as sympathetic beings while his human characters are often shown as flawed and often cruel creatures. This devotion to the study of monsters can be seen to parallel Lovecraft’s own obsession with astronomy biology, geology, and other natural sciences. Unlike Lovecraft though, del Toro’s work even if frightening has a warm human drama at the center of his stories that many of Lovecraft’s best stories lack. Del Toro may utilize cosmic horror to feed his stories but it is the intimate drama between people that has always fascinated him.

For all the praises heaped on Lovecraft’s work as a weird fiction writer his deficiencies as a man has always been a problem for many scholars and fans. His virulent racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism have been written about ad-nauseam by many critics. And though it might be easy to write off these flaws in his character as stemming from the era that he lived in that excuse would be a cop-out. Lovecraft, like all men, was imperfect. His misplaced hatred for many groups stemmed from his fear of change. Living during a very transitional period in America’s history H.P. Lovecraft was witness to many changes to his idea of “America”, an America that was predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant becoming “tainted” by foreign invaders. Yet through all of this, the man was capable of some change. He married a Jewish woman in the early twenties and though the marriage lasted only a few years her influence had given Lovecraft the courage to venture outside of his comfort zone. H.P. Lovecraft harnessed his fears and neuroses to create some of the most influential horror tales of the last century and though some literary snobs may push him to the wayside because of the genre he worked in their prejudices speak more to their flaws than they do to Lovecraft’s own. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Lovecraft Providence wgah'nagl fhtagn!!

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