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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cthulhu fhtagn, baby!

I am a major fan of H. P. Lovecraft. Yes, I know he’s way too fond of turgid phrases like “eldritch, soul-searing, oozing chaos from the freezing vacuum of space,” but man, that guy could come up with a scary story when he set his mind to it.

In my opinion, “The Dunwich Horror” is one of the most perfect horror stories ever written, and I still remember hitting the sucker-punch last line when I first read it (at about age 13) and being absolutely blown away.  Okay, maybe I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I was completely caught off guard.  (And if you haven’t had the experience of reading this story, I won’t spoil it for you; and you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you’ll undoubtedly figure out the twist long before I did.)

Likewise “The Shadow over Innsmouth” – another story with a great ending, and possibly one of the best chase scenes ever written.  I knew that it was fiction even when I first read it, but the places are so well-described, and mixed in with real place names, that it is a sore temptation to believe that it’s real.  Apparently the tourist bureaus and libraries and so on in Newburyport and Ipswich are constantly being asked “which way to Arkham” – funny, but it must get old after a while.  Lovecraft himself was a complete disbeliever in all things supernatural, and made no sly attempts to claim that his writings were subtly camouflaged non-fiction.  He stated outright that The Necronomicon doesn’t exist, that Abdul Al-Hazred wasn’t a real person, there is no Miskatonic River (nor a university of the same name), and so forth.  However, this didn’t stop me, on a driving trip through eastern Massachusetts, from taking the road along the coast south of Newburyport, and looking offshore for Devil’s Reef.  (I knew I wouldn’t see signs for Innsmouth – after all, the locals like to deny it actually exists.)  When I passed a sign for Rowley, I felt like I was in real danger of being abducted by half-human, half-alien worshipers of Dagon and Cthulhu.

I’m not entirely certain what’s so appealing about his mythos stories – it’s a pretty bleak view of the universe, and after a while, they all kind of sound the same – you just know that the protagonist is either going to bump into some Elder-God-worshiping cult members and be in a heap o’ bad stuff, or will turn out to be secretly part of the cult himself.  (I say “himself” because Lovecraft seldom wrote anything about female characters – he was apparently painfully shy in real life, and even in his writings, he hardly knew how to handle women.  The few women who make appearances usually don’t fare well – look what happened to poor Lavinia Whately.)  But his best writing includes visual images that are so powerful that, once read, you are unlikely to forget them.  The visions through the spectral window in The Lurker at the Threshold left me so thoroughly creeped out that it was a struggle to make myself look through a stained-glass window for some time afterwards.  The following passage from “The Dunwich Horror” still strikes me as terrifying as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does:
Thursday night began much like the others, but it ended less happily. The whippoorwills in the glen had screamed with such unusual persistence that many could not sleep, and about 3 A.M. all the party telephones rang tremulously. Those who took down their receivers heard a fright-mad voice shriek out, 'Help, oh, my Gawd! ...' and some thought a crashing sound followed the breaking off of the exclamation. There was nothing more. No one dared do anything, and no one knew till morning whence the call came. Then those who had heard it called everyone on the line, and found that only the Fryes did not reply. The truth appeared an hour later, when a hastily assembled group of armed men trudged out to the Frye place at the head of the glen. It was horrible, yet hardly a surprise. There were more swaths and monstrous prints, but there was no longer any house. It had caved in like an egg-shell, and amongst the ruins nothing living or dead could be discovered – only a stench and a tarry stickiness. The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.

It’s the ones which have a different take on things that are the best.  You get the feeling that he was just kind of babbling in stories like “Celephais” and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” but “At the Mountains of Madness” is wonderful – what other writer in the 1920s would have thought of setting a story in Antarctica? And there’s “The Temple,” set on a German U-boat during World War I; "The Colour Out of Space," about a meteorite that carries a most strange life form; and most strikingly, “In the Walls of Eryx,” set on (of all places) Venus.   (This was before scientists knew how hot Venus was, so you gotta cut him some slack; it’s an amazing story, and probably the most different piece he ever wrote.)

Anyhow, if you’ve read Lovecraft, you undoubtedly know what I’m talking about; if you’ve read my writings, you’ll recognize one of my major influences (although I hope my voice is my own, and not simply derivative of Lovecraft’s).  If you haven’t read anything by him, do yourself a favor and read “The Dunwich Horror.”  You’ll never again look at stone outcroppings on hilltops the same way.

1 comment:

  1. I do love Lovecraft, and need to revisit him, I think. I've even made gestures at writing what could be construed as a Mythos short story, which is one thing I truly dig about Lovecraft; he and other writers in his "circle" all at one time or another contributed to the Mythos, he didn't lock it down and cry "mine, all mine!" I even have a stuffed Cthulhu or two floating around.