Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Peering Into the Dark: Lovecraft’s Great Depression

Once again, we gave TMI custodian Kris Kendall the assignment the rest of us were too lazy to tackle: Read a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Lovecraft's reputation makes for a daunting task, but in a surprise only slightly bigger than our realization that Kendall can read and write, the smelly bastard actually had something to say.

Read the weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft during the dreary month of January.

The stories by the “godfather of modern horror” echo the long, dark, cold and soggy stretch of the first month of the year, when the carnival of the holiday season has left town. Bleakness rules all in January, and it’s the defining tone of Lovecraft’s work.

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, selected and edited by Joyce Carol Oates, comes highly recommended and there’s good reason for that.

Her curation of the shorts and novellas builds logically, beginning with the “The Outsider” – a sort of character study that has been imitated so many times, it nearly suffers from its own influence.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad story – on the contrary, Lovecraft builds to his big (obvious to modern readers) reveal skillfully, like a waltz for the doomed that ends in ugly, minor chords meant to shock and horrify.

Then the real recurring themes of what people think of as “Lovecraftian” begins with “The Music of Erich Zann” and “Rats in the Walls.”

The former introduces the idea that there are other worlds, other dimensions, near our own and that the barrier between them is thin, perhaps easily breached. While the latter introduces a theme that Lovecraft returns to in subsequent works: family lineage.

He writes of ancestry that reaches so far back in time that our brains can scarcely grasp the distance. And in that distance are ugly behaviors, ugly genetics, that ripple forward into the modern world.

“The Shunned House” – at least in the Oates collection – acts as a sort of rest stop before the big, well-known stories begin. And we’d argue that it’s a lesser tale, but it left too much of an impression. However, “Shunned” illuminates the major problem with Lovecraft: he rambles and repeats himself.

Like Charles Dickens and, to a lesser degree, Lovecraft's predecessor in horror, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft writes as if he were paid by the word. He was. “Shunned” exposes the Lovecraft novice to the author’s tendency toward unnecessary length in pursuit of a bigger paycheck.

Lovecraft’s garrulous narrative is absent entirely from “The Call of Cthulhu.” The story was published in 1926, four years before Lovecraft would begin corresponding with fellow Weird Tales contributor Robert E. Howard. But it’s reasonable to aver that Lovecraft was reading Howard’s work by then. Perhaps Howard’s electric, two-fisted prose influenced the efficiency of “Cthulhu.”

Structured like the classic Victorian horror tales, “Cthulhu” begins with the declaration that it was “found among the papers of the late Frances Wayland Thurston, of Boston.” The opening paragraph stands as one of the best passages in this collection, a concise portent of what is to come, but also a clever assessment of why humankind seems incapable of advancing very far before collapsing.

Part murder mystery and part action yarn, “Cthulhu” introduces everything that would come be known as what Lovecraft associate and superfan, August Derleth, called “ the Cthulhu Mythos.”  There are ancient cults worshiping a beast straight out of Revelations, global conspiracies in place to deny the existence of those cults, and geometry so otherworldly, that human senses can’t properly perceive it.

Ringing, siren-like, above it all is the nightmare realization that beings from across the galaxy, and often from worlds outside our own universe, have been to Earth – some of them are still here, waiting for the right conditions to rise up again and snuff us out like spent matches.

Lovecraft revisits that idea repeatedly with “The Dunwich Horror,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” In doing so, he expands his rogues gallery, subtly but methodically linking his beasts by showing how they fit together into a history pre-dating, and later concomitant to, our own journey out of the cave and into the false security of civilization.

But for all the monsters and mythology, an equal amount of the dread that permeates Lovecraft’s writing comes from his doomed heroes. In fact, his protagonists rarely qualify as heroes, as many of them end up dead, or mad, and always along the way, fall headlong into the deep isolation that comes with the knowledge they acquire.

Inside joke!
Without having read a proper biography of Lovecraft, it’s pure speculation that the man was probably depressed through most of his life. At the very least he was deeply cynical about the world – for he outright states multiple times that humans are not nearly so advanced or evolved as we like to think. If we don’t destroy ourselves first, there are plenty of outside forces just waiting for an opportunity to do the job for us.

He illustrates that anxiety well in “The Colour Out of Space.” The story concerns a New England farmer, in the rural hills west of Arkham, a stand-in for Salem, Massachusetts. A meteorite lands in the fields of the farm and poisons everything it touches, including the minds of the farmer and his family.

In pure book report terms: The corrosive power of a cosmic force could easily stand in for events in our mundane lives that are sometimes unbearable, and like the dying, mad farmer of “The Colour ...” those things can destroy us. But for some reason, or lack of reason, we are drawn to the destructive agents.

Lovecraft himself had what is described as a “nervous breakdown” before he graduated high school. Both his father and mother had similar events and both died within a few years of those breakdowns, though neither died as a direct result of the breakdown.

Knowing that fact makes the reading of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a more potent experience. The story of an isolated fishing village in Massachusetts probably best embodies Lovecraft’s pet idea of family history and biology working in tandem to cast our fates in stone. None of us has progressed far past our ancestors.

But let’s leave the analysis for greater minds because “Innsmouth” is a ripping good tale. It’s the kind of creepshow dread that The X-Files did so well. An educated city dweller ventures into the rural unknown, where his status as an outsider is immediately recognized and used against him.

The last third of the story has more of that “Call of Cthulhu” action – an escape scene that takes up an entire night, where the simple task of leaving becomes nearly impossible.

And that brings us back to the beginning. No matter what T.S. Eliot says, January is the cruelest month. The nights are long, the days are dark. Cold and wet rule the forecast. February is January’s petulant little sister, so don’t worry if your journey into H.P. Lovecraft’s writing spills over into the weeks of Valentines and alleged whispers of spring. The terror is there to keep you company.