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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

IN THE SHADOWS OF LOVECRAFT COUNTRY


I have this adorable green Cthulhu plush toy; well, two actually.  One is a proper stuffed animal, with floppy wings and the cutest little face feelers.  The other is a large, soft pillow shaped like the Great Old One's head, complete with tentacles.  What Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) would make of his most famous creation--a titanic mass of world-destroying alien horror--reduced to something that elicits the same response as puppy dogs and kittens, I don't know.  But he is certainly in good company.  Bram Stoker's arch-vampire helps children learn to count on Sesame Street, and Mary Shelley's manufactured monster is now a berry-flavored breakfast cereal.  Lovecraft has joined a rather curious pop culture club.

How do old monsters go from horrifying to huggable?  Part of the problem might be overexposure.  When Stoker penned Dracula in 1897--or when Le Fanu wrote Carmilla a quarter century earlier--readers must have been terrified by the notion of beautiful young girls mysteriously experiencing blood loss and wasting away.  Today, however, there is hardly a single person out there who wouldn't immediately know to stock up on garlic and religious accessories at the sight of two puncture marks on a victim's neck.  Vampires (or more politely, as Buffy put it "Undead Americans") are as common as the common cold.  If fear of the unknown is the greatest terror humans can know, how could we expect vampires to still be scary?  Lovecraft's monstrous alien thing is in the same boat.  We've seen him in comics and video games, RPGs and CCGs, and he's been Cartman's best friend in a Totoro-inspired South Park.  He's become so well known that every four year he runs for President on the slogans "No more years" and "Why vote for the lesser evil?"

But there is something deeper going on here.  In Danse Macabre, his brilliant analysis of the genre, Stephen King described the work of the horror writer as 'psychic judo,' seeking the psychological weak spots of the reader and striking at them.  The problem is, weak spots change.  Sometime towards the end of the 20th century for example, vampires stopped fleeing from crosses.  Then they stopped being 'evil.'  They became sex symbols.  And having eventually lost all credibility they started to 'sparkle.'  This is because society changed.  For the Victorian reader, the most horrifying thing conceivable was being eternally 'damned' and denied the grace of God.  They didn't see vampires as 'immortal,' but rather forbidden from ever entering Heaven.  But if you remove God, damnation, and the soul from the equation, vampires suddenly become attractive.  They sleep all day, party all night, and live forever.  There is no longer a downside.  In an age of Botox, plastic surgery, and endless hours in the gym, who wouldn't drink a little blood to look like the cast of The Vampire Diaries?

Frankenstein is a similar case.  In 1818, the idea of man playing God was radical.  Nearly two centuries later we've split the atom, walked on the moon, and mapped the human genome.  Playing God?  Been there, done that.

And then there is Lovecraft.  In his youth, Howard lived in a universe consisting of a single galaxy, still run by a benevolent God, and following the nice and tidy laws of classical physics.  The world was widely considered a few thousand years old.  In his lifetime, Einstein and his ilk turned Newton inside out, Heisenberg completely reshaped what mankind knew or was even capable of knowing, the world became millions of years old, the universe billions, and our galaxy was just one of countless others.  We went from being God's favorite ape in a neat and tidy cosmos to a microscopic speck of dust in a universe run by chance.  Well...at least that is how it seemed. Lovecraft's weird stories zeroed in with laser-like intensity on all this uncertainty.  He wrote of man's insignificance, of the immeasurable age of the cosmos, of our civilizations being just brief blips in the endless Aeons of time.  This was heavy stuff for its day.

The problem is, most of us have gotten used to these ideas.  There are still flat-earthers who--like four-year-olds covering their ears and chanting "I can't hear you"--deny science and try to live in fantasy land, but reasonable people far outnumber them.  We know the universe is billions of years old and bigger than we can wrap our heads around.  We know the planet was not created for our benefit and just as there were dinosaurs before us there will be something else after.  We've digested this.  And because of that, Cthulhu doesn't pack the same existential wallop.  Hermey the wanna-be-dentist had pulled the Abominable Snow Man's teeth, and now he plays nice with Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, and the gang.

Ironically, the stuff in Lovecraft that still 'works' isn't the cosmic horror, but the nasty stuff critics have always condemned him for.  The underlying racism and xenophobia common in his work continues to be a psychological sore spot for people today.  In both Europe and America, a fear of invading "primitive cultures" (we politely call them "developing countries") undermining our way of life still exists in the hearts of many people, a fear that Lovecraft would have merrily responded to. And while few people continue to advocate racial purity--as Lovecraft did--the Westboro Baptist Church and Justica Scalia's "argle bargle" of a dissent show that a pervasive fear of "unnatural" and "deviant" sexuality still abounds.  This is yet another area of discomfort Lovecraftian fiction exploits.  And most obvious of all, Lovecraft's fear of religious mania and zealotry remains as pertinent now as ever.  Millions of people live daily with a deep seated fear of foreign religions, and we have all seen the extremes that belief can drive people to.  For all these reasons stories like Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, an insane basket of xenophobia and sexual deviancy and alien religion, continue to push our buttons, even if The Call of Cthulhu does not.

These themes in Lovecraft, mixed with more common ones such as nihilism, body horror, and fear of death, continue to strike those psychic pressure points.  Yog-Sothoth and Shub Niggurath and Great Cthulhu may have lost their original punch, but it is hard to match the degenerate shock and horror of The Rats in the Walls.  There is still gold in them thar hills of Lovecraft country, if one knows how to pan for it.

1 comment:

  1. This would have made a fantastic thesis. So what your predictions? Which fearsome figures will fall prey to corporate consumerism next. Which psychic pressure points will become fluffy, accessible and ordinary? Is this to say we're not afraid of anything anymore?

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