Cosmic horror and conspiracy fiction.

[NOTE: In this post, I’m going to spoil, to different degrees: the short stories The Call of Cthulhu and The Repairer of Reputations, and the film JFK.]

I like horror fiction–specifically “cosmic horror” of the sort exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft and, in some of his works, Robert W. Chambers. I have, in the past, expressed my preference for this over the grotesque type of horror that is more prevalent today, especially in film.

I also, as long-time readers know, enjoy conspiracy theories and conspiracy-related fiction. What I hadn’t realized, amazingly, until recently was how similar these two genres are. In the past, I’ve often supposed that it is simply too difficult to convey on the screen the same sense that can be conveyed on the page, but I realize now that the conspiracy genre is nearer the style a cinematic weird-tale should take.

H.P. Lovecraft’s assertion that in “the true weird tale… A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present” is also, in a way, a description of conspiracy fiction, even if the conspiracy in the story is entirely man-made.

Oliver Stone’s film JFK–a masterful film, if a poor history–evokes a sense not unlike the best sort of cosmic horror or “weird tale”. Although there is no doubt that the conspiracy is wholly man-made, it is revealed piecemeal so as to gradually build up the terror of thing. (It need hardly be said that I believe in the truth of this conspiracy about as much as I do in Cthulhu. I am treating it purely as a work of art, and ignoring its real-world political meaning, such as it is.)

I suppose the real genre I am after is what is called the “thriller” or “supernatural thriller”, but that somehow seems like a cheap term to describe the kind of thing I mean. Somehow such films always tend too much toward the conventionally grotesque for my tastes.

The movie The Omen –my favorite horror film–is not so different in its structure from JFK, bizarre though that sounds. Both gradually build up to the revelation of “outer, unknown forces”. In the The Omen, the forces are the Biblical forces of Evil, whereas in JFK the forces are the “military industrial complex”, but though we–and even most Kennedy conspiracy-theorists–know intellectually that this is a man-made institution, it nonetheless can assume almost supernatural, or rather preternatural, powers over the course of the film.

Indeed, much of the similarity in these works stems from the fact that Cthulhu/aliens, Gods and Devils, and Super-secret Spy organizations make for powerful antagonists to whom all manner of dramatic powers may be given by the writer.

Now, it’s well known that aliens and religion are often the stuff of conspiracy fiction. (The Da Vinci Code, Deus Ex) But, from what I have seen, the conspiracies which involve them seldom manage to become truly like “weird fiction” in the Lovecraftian sense, because they usually rely on high-level human involvement in the conspiracies, and either turn out to be too mundane or just too confusing. One problem with writing man-made conspiracies is that they ultimately must have some logical, human motivation, which Cthulhu and the Devil and such do not require.

To be really good, (in my opinion of course) a good conspiracy and a good horror story must not over-explain. I know I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating. Lovecraft himself, I think, went too far into explanation in his famous The Call of Cthulhu. What I remember about that story is the piecing together, not the anti-climactic revelation of the Old One. Again, Chambers’ The King in Yellow, especially “The Repairer of Reputations” is an excellent example of how to do it, in my opinion. Chambers was a great practitioner of horror, Lovecraft a great theorist.

Or, to go back to JFK, the film is largely a big buildup to a finale in which nothing is resolved, only the nature of the conspiracy has been, to some extent, revealed. (It might–and I’m only realizing this now–be possible to interpret the film with Garrison as an unreliable narrator, much as Hildred is in Repairer of Reputations.) It’s not pushed too far, and not over-explained, but it is gives you enough to comprehend the magnitude of the danger without being too sure of the details.

The sort of horror film I would like to see would rely almost entirely upon frenzied discovery and investigation, like a good conspiracy story. It would require hardly any explicit violence–it could probably get a “PG-13” rating–and express the scope of the horror in a manner similar to JFK: through, as Lovecraft memorably put it, “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge”.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?