“Come with me, and I’ll be your guide,” H.P. Lovecraft said to me.
“I’m no Virgil, but you’re no Alighieri.”
 We set off into the night, separated but a scant few paces–
Our path lit by twinkling jack-o’-lantern faces.
The October moon was low, the westward wind howled sad.
“Lovecraft,” I asked, “Why did you have to be so bad?”
He stopped, and regarded me a while, then said:
“I was full of hate because I was afraid.”
Then he added, “But it may be my hate-filled heart
Alone could have produced my weird and fearful art.”
We walked in silence then, entering the grove
Where in the night wind, the hulking boughs creaked and hove.
Through the shadows, in the flickering moonlight’s glow,
I touched the dial on my pocket radio.
I half-expected I would hear, from some high desert, a distant Bell;
As if to summon me away, to Heaven or to Hell.
But only buzzing static greeted me instead–
The growling traces of a signal long ago gone dead.
I put the radio away, thinking it was foolish of me,
When suddenly, I thought I heard beating wings above me.
But gazing up, saw only that chill autumn sky.
My companion chuckled, “More things are here than you and I.”
We came into a clearing, the dead leaves crackling ‘neath our feet
And upon a huge, smooth stone, he bade me take a seat.
“Listen!” he commanded, “Listen to the cosmic hum around!”
I obeyed, and heard–no, felt!–that omnipresent sound.
Shapes and visions flashed inside my troubled mind–
Ghosts and devils, fiends and demons, ghouls of every kind.
Methought I saw whole worlds, whole realms our own beyond
And smoky black crevasses that in our own existence yawned.
“Do you see?” he asked, recalling me to that shadowy forest floor.
“I do,” I answered. “I see it all. And I would know more.”
He laughed. “Know more? No more! ‘Nevermore,’ as the poet Poe would say–
What we have seen exists only on life’s fringes, and there it’s bound to stay.
The nature of the weird and frightful is that it’s forever out of reach.
You and I are still upon the placid island–if only on its beach.”
He paused, and looked carefully, clinically at me.
“But,” he said at last. “You can still listen to that darkly murmuring sea.”
I closed my eyes, and listened, and could hear the awful roar–
Whether the black surf of the ocean, or the leaves that rustled o’er.
At last, my eyes I opened, and my companion had disappeared,
Leaving me alone with that tingling dread sensation of the Weird.
Upon the ground where he had stood, I saw a folded note.
I picked it up and from it read aloud the words he wrote:
“You and I, we are both strange and frightened men
Who find ourselves with but one tool to wield–the pen.
With this, we must gather and impart unto our friends
The things that we have seen–the things that shall remain when all else ends.”

tales-from-the-annexeThis is a collection of short stories by Audrey Driscoll, author of the Herbert West series, a brilliant re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s brilliant but amoral scientist. The first seven stories in the collection all tie in with the series. It’s probably not necessary to have read all the books to enjoy them, but I’d say at least The Friendship of Mortals is required reading for sufficient grounding.

“The Nexus” is told in a classic Lovecraftian fashion, in that it is a document contained in a letter. The letter’s author is Professor Quarrington of Miskatonic University. Quarrington reveals his ties to the Starry Wisdom cult, which features in one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, “The Haunter of the Dark.” He goes on to explain how, through his own peculiar skill for predicting the future, he sees great potential for good or evil in his student, Herbert West.

“Fox and Glove” is a mystery story, wherein West’s friend, librarian Charles Milburn, seeks to locate a specific book in the home of a recently-deceased bibliophilic professor to win a bet. Milburn enlists West’s aid in helping him acquire some clues, as only West can, and then sets about uncovering the mystery using his own knowledge of cataloging. One of my favorites from this collection.

“From the Annexe” is an exploration of the homoerotic elements of West and Milburn’s relationship. This story is probably the one that adds the least new information for those who have already read the series, but it’s still a fine character sketch.

“A Visit to Luxor” is a prelude to Driscoll’s novel, She Who Comes Forth. West–now traveling under the name Francis Dexter–and his servant Andre encounter a mysterious man in Egypt.

“One of the Fourteen”–West, again as Dexter, is forced to confront someone from his past at a pub. This story has more outright fantasy elements than the others, and demonstrates how far the protagonist has moved from the ultra-rationalism he displayed in his earlier career.

“The Night Journey of Francis Dexter” is similar to the one before, as Dexter is once again confronting something from his past. He intends to atone, but finds altogether more than he bargained for, and is again caught up in fantastic supernatural horrors.

“The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey” is the most intriguing of all seven of these stories, because it is the prologue to an as-yet unwritten sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Even as she is dying, Alma Halsey is compiling information on the strange behavior of her grand-daughter since her return from Egypt.

In addition to these seven stories of the Herbert West series, the collection contains seven more standalone stories, and in my opinion, while the West stories are all good, this part is where it really starts to shine.

“Welcome to the Witch House” is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. Just as she did for Herbert West, Driscoll reinvents Lovecraft’s setting, populating it with real, human characters instead of the paper-thin ones HPL wrote. Driscoll’s retelling only gets as far as setting the stage for the action that takes place in Lovecraft’s story. As she notes in the afterword, she felt she had nothing to add to the rest of it, and abandoned the effort. I beg to differ. Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s most fascinating works to me–not because it’s good, but because it’s so weirdly flawed and yet so inexplicably compelling. To me, it contains both the best and worst aspects of his writing all at once. Driscoll’s touch would be most welcome.

The Ice Cream Truck From Hell” was originally posted in serial form on Driscoll’s blog. I read it when it was originally published, and I read it again when I bought this collection. It holds up beautifully on re-reading. The atmosphere is marvelous, and the characters–from young Will, the protagonist, to his troubled friend Harold “Doof” Duffy, to Will’s pompous father–are all expertly drawn. Both times I’ve read it, it’s made me think of Bradbury; specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes. The atmosphere of two kids wandering around in an October evening is wonderful, and the sinister ice cream truck and its crew aren’t even the most unsettling elements. Make no mistake; this collection is worth buying for this story alone. 

“The Colour of Magic” is about a young man named Marc, who is forced to share his home with a peculiar tenant while his mother is away. The strange lodger does nothing overtly threatening, and seems to be just a dreamy lover of incense and yoga, until she asks Marc to help her paint her room, at which point it becomes clear she is acquainted with far more esoteric forms of mysticism. It reminded me a little of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann–the mysterious older person who is clearly in touch with something far beyond the everyday. Beautifully written, of course, and leaves the reader with just enough information.

“A Howling in the Woods” is about a young boy abandoned in the woods by his father when he hears a mysterious noise. Eventually, he is found again, but not after some strange transformation has taken place. There’s a bit of an environmentalist message to it, although everything is left very ambiguous. But the atmosphere is once again first-rate.

“The Glamour” is about a middle-class teenaged girl who becomes convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a posh family. Her obsession with confirming this notion leads her to an even more surprising discovery. This was really well done–at first, it felt like it could just be a YA story about a girl whose imagination had run away with her. But, as is so often the way in Driscoll’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye…

“The Blue Rose” is set in a society that seems to have been created after some dimly-remembered cataclysm. Deon is an artist who wishes to create a blue rose for an important ceremony, and he ventures outside the protective city limits and into the dangerous “blasted lands” to do it. The world of this story is first rate, and I’d be delighted to read more set in this place. Like “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell,” I’d read this before in another collection, but happily re-read it. It struck me on second reading that it really is about art, and the risks artists must take to make it. Creating art involves a kind of danger, if not generally the physical kind depicted here. To make something great is to run a risk, and often involves sacrificing a bit of oneself.

“The Deliverer of Delusions” is not actually the last story in the collection. It comes between “Witch House” and “Ice Cream Truck.” I presented all the others in the order the author arranged, but I had to save this one for last, because it’s a sequel to “The Repairer of Reputations,” by Robert W. Chambers.

Longtime readers probably know that I consider “Repairer of Reputations” to be the greatest work of weird fiction I’ve ever read. It’s simply perfect–spare, yet layered with fascinating ambiguities. It doesn’t overwhelm you with weirdness, it doesn’t announce its weirdness ahead of time, nor does it play it out too long and let it become mundane or tiresome. It gradually sinks its claws into you, and by the time you even notice something strange is going on, you’re in too deep to get out. It’s just a masterpiece.

I won’t say any more about it. If you like weird fiction–and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do–you should read it. Try not to read anything more about it before you read it, if you can. It’s important to go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.

So! That’s my take on “Repairer of Reputations.” Naturally, the idea of a sequel by a different author, even one as supremely gifted as Audrey Driscoll, filled me with trepidation. Can anyone write a sequel to another author’s work? A good story is like a distillation of a writer’s vision. Properly done, it conveys a whole mental image built up gradually in the synapses of an author’s brain. Can another author presume to match the resulting gestalt so perfectly? Should they? 

I have to be very careful what I say here, because I’m trying not to spoil either story. So, I’ll just say that “Deliverer of Delusions” is a worthy sequel to “Repairer of Reputations.” In fact, it adds on another layer to the original tale that I had never considered. Is it as good of a story? In my opinion, not quite. (It’s much shorter, for one thing.) But it follows the ancient principle “first, do no harm,” and detracts in no way from its legendary predecessor, and will be an enjoyable treat for fans of Chambers’ original story. But do read the original before you read this one! I must insist upon this; to do otherwise is simply a disservice to both stories.

Those are my reviews of all the stories in this collection. And yet, I feel my work is not done here. I’ve spoken of the trees, but not the forest. A proper collection of stories is more than the sum of its parts. I have compared Driscoll to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Chambers–and she is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside them. 

But it is unfair to her to merely say she writes admirably “in the manner of…” Driscoll’s style is uniquely hers. Reading this collection made me appreciate this more than ever. As I said above, stories are distillations of a vision, and a collection of stories is a window into an author’s mind; the creative world they inhabit that enables them to turn the everyday–an overheard distortion of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” for instance–into a whole world, complete with people and stories and history and mystery. 

It’s become a cliché to say that all of <some group of fictional works> take place in the same shared universe. But that’s true for authors. In some sense, all of an author’s works take place in a universe that exists within their head.

And the greats, like Driscoll, can take us to that universe and introduce us to the people, show us the color of the sky and let us smell the air. We come back again and again, and feel like we carry some part of the place around with us even when we leave. Tales from the Annexe transports you to a world of horror and mystery, magic and wonder. It’s a must-read.

220px-Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterNote that it’s Color out of Space, not The Color out of Space. The H.P. Lovecraft story it’s based on includes the definite article. (Also, Lovecraft used the spelling “colour.”) I’m not sure why they changed it.

Before I talk about this movie, I’d better briefly discuss that Lovecraft story. The plot is this: a meteorite crashes on the property of a New England farmer, and soon, the vegetation and animal life begins to mutate, and the farmer and his family begin to suffer mentally and physically. The culprit is clearly the strange color seeping from the meteor–a color like none ever seen on earth. As Lovecraft’s narrator puts it:

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all. Its texture was glossy, and upon tapping it appeared to promise both brittleness and hollowness.

Eventually, as is often the way in Lovecraft stories, the farmer and his family go mad and die. Witnesses describe seeing the mysterious color shooting into the sky, and the farm is reduced to ashen desolation.

Lovecraft considered the story one of his best. Personally, I think it’s pretty mediocre. It’s a cool idea–imagine, a color no one has ever seen!–but as a story, it’s kind of plodding. The farmer goes out one day and the chickens have mutated. Then the next day, the cows have mutated. Then the next day his son starts feeling ill. And so on. Each time, people wonder, could it possibly have anything to do with that weird meteorite? (Answer: duh.)

Lovecraft wrote the story in 1927, and the framing device is that it’s being told to our narrator by an old man who is one of the few who still remembers the bizarre event, which began in 1882.

The film adaptation places the setting in the present-day. It’s still a remote New England farm, but they have smartphones and internet connections and TV. Also, the family is given a pointless backstory. The mother is a cancer survivor. The eldest son is a pot-smoker. Oddest of all, the daughter is Wiccan, which makes it feel vaguely as if the film is trying to make some sort of moralizing commentary, although it’s not very coherent if it is.

Whenever people adapt Lovecraft stories, they try to flesh out the characters. And unless you’re Audrey Driscoll, that’s usually a bad idea. Lovecraft sort of, um, hated people, so his characters are generally little more than cardboard cut-outs. By his own admission, he didn’t care about human interest elements. I get that this goes against normal screenwriting advice, which is to make people relate to the characters, but it’s better to stick with the flimsy sketches Lovecraft used than to do what this film does: try to make them interesting by giving them random quirks and eccentricities. This made them seem like a bunch of oddballs even before the meteorite strike.

The bigger problem here, though, is the modern setting. In 1882, if a meteorite hit and began to poison the groundwater, you can imagine that the rustics wouldn’t immediately connect the two things. Likewise, you can see that if a malignant extraterrestrial entity began devouring everything on your property, you’d have fewer options for escaping. Even riding into Arkham would mean a long ride on treacherous roads.

In the present-day setting, none of this applies. The film tries to convince us that these people are super-isolated, and that somehow nobody believes this meteorite is worth looking into, and that everybody is so stupid they crowd around the meteor crash site right near the well, and don’t think that maybe that’s a concern, even after they know there is something wrong with the water.

This is two strikes against the movie, but these issues could be overcome. Otherwise, it plays out more or less like Lovecraft’s story: gnawing dread, weird mutations, unfathomable eldritch abominations from unlighted realms in infinite blackness, blah blah blah. The family gradually dies horribly, the farm is reduced to ash, and only our narrator, the surveyor Ward Phillips, is left to tell the tale of the horror from the stars that he witnessed.

But there’s another problem here. The first two strikes were understandable. But now we’re really down to the very core of the issue.

Lovecraft wrote a short story that asks the reader to imagine a color no one has ever seen. Now, that is, of course, impossible. We literally can’t think in those terms. We know the colors that we can see, and imagining another can’t be done. It’s a brain-teaser; trying to think a thought that’s literally unthinkable. It’s not enough to sustain an entire story, in my opinion, but it’s a neat concept.

Do you see the problem now?

This movie ought to have been called The Magenta Lens Filter That Killed Everyone. That’s what happens. We get a bunch of weird hallucinogenic magenta effects, hideous mutants bathed in magenta light, and then eventually it all ends in a magenta-colored explosion of static.

I’m sorry, but that’s not effective. It’s nothing against magenta; any other color would have been just as ineffective. Because it wouldn’t have been a new color. It couldn’t be.

Of all Lovecraft’s stories, this is the one that is by far the least-suited to being adapted for the screen. The idea of a new color is the only thing driving it. Take away that mind-bending premise, and you’re left with a story about some people gradually dying of radiation poisoning.

What really irritates me is that this movie so badly wants to be a film like Annihilation, a 2018 science-fiction/horror film also premised around the concept of a meteorite causing sinister mutations.

The thing is, Annihilation had explanations for why its characters behave the way they do. The main characters are a team of military scientists entering the poisoned zone created by the meteor. First and foremost, they’re doing it because they’re trying to understand the bizarre phenomenon that’s occurring, and second they each have personal psychological reasons for wanting to find answers. They all have solid justifications for being there, and not just running away screaming, which would be most people’s logical reaction.

The plot of Annihilation is structured as a journey. It’s always reminded me a bit of the Fisher King from Arthurian legend, complete with a protagonist who must journey into the dangerous unknown on a quest to heal both themselves as well as the sick land around them. It has an arc to it.

Color out of Space has no arc, no structure. It’s just a lot of weird special effects that gradually get more grotesque. (For the record, Annihilation‘s alien-mutant color palette was also more creative.) There’s no development. Which, to be fair, is also true of Lovecraft’s story, but again, he at least had an interesting idea at the core of it. The film doesn’t.

This film is the first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations planned by director Richard Stanley. The next one in the works is The Dunwich Horror. 

Well, hopefully that film will at least be better than the dreadful 1970s version. But Dunwich is another odd choice for an adaptation. In many ways it’s similar to The Colour out of Space–remote New England farmers troubled by blasphemous creatures from the depths of space unimaginable. Yawn.

Why don’t they adapt one of Lovecraft’s good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Haunter of the Dark”? “Nyarlathotep” and “The Hound” are creepy, unique, and evocative–good candidates for cinema. Or just throw a pastiche of Lovecraft ideas together and call it Azathoth. Any of those would be better than this.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.

When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.

Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.

It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.

The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.

But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.

Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.

(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)

Lovecraft had an uncanny ability to bring people together, and it was that ability that allowed the sub-genre that bears his name to exist. As the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society wrote in tribute to him, in one of their more sentimental Lovecraftian song parodies, “Mythos of a King”:

He was hardly famous, and never rich

Unless you count his friends.

But his Gothic pen has inspired men

And his vision still extends.

For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft.  Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.

***

Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.

Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.

Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”

Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart. 

Hardly anybody likes H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dreams in the Witch House. Even H.P. Lovecraft didn’t like it, and subsequent readers have generally considered it one of his worst.

And, by pretty much any objective measure, it’s  a bad story. For one thing, there’s no surprise or subtlety to it—Lovecraft beats the reader over the head with the legend of Keziah Mason, and her rat-like familiar, Brown Jenkin. I think he was trying for ambiguity, but he was failing spectacularly at it. Walter Gilman, the doomed protagonist of the tale, should be able to see what’s coming a mile away; the reader certainly can. 

In a good weird tale, there should be some question as to whether the supernatural doings are real, or simply a hallucination by the protagonist. Lovecraft was trying to do this, but he didn’t. The evidence favoring the supernatural explanation is simply overwhelming. And needlessly drawn out. When an author tells you on page one that a witch and a rat-like monster are up to no good, the final page should contain a bigger pay-off than “a witch and a rat-like monster were up to no good.”

Lovecraft, I’ve come to realize, had no idea how to hint or imply something. This is a problem when writing horror, because it is a genre that depends heavily on subtle hinting. And Lovecraft kind of knew this, but he couldn’t do it. So what he would do instead is write this:

“Eventually there had been a hint of vast, leaping shadows, of a monstrous, half-acoustic pulsing, and of the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute—but that was all. Gilman decided he had picked up that last conception from what he had read in the Necronomicon about the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a black throne at the centre of Chaos.”

He seems to have believed that by prefacing an outright statement with “A hint of…” that it would count as an actual hint.

Also, there are a number of lines that just sound downright silly. Like:

“What made the students shake their heads was his sober theory that a man might—given mathematical knowledge admittedly beyond all likelihood of human acquirement—step deliberately from the earth to any other celestial body which might lie at one of an infinity of specific points in the cosmic pattern.

Such a step, he said, would require only two stages; first, a passage out of the three-dimensional sphere we know, and second, a passage back to the three-dimensional sphere at another point, perhaps one of infinite remoteness.”

It sounds so easy! And then we have this masterful bit of understatement:

“May Eve was Walpurgis Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham…”

In addition to these technical flaws, Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s nastiest tales. The sacrifice scene at the end is grotesque, and of course, it wouldn’t be Lovecraft without casual racial bigotry. What’s truly odd is that Lovecraft creates a story in which the poor, un-educated, and superstitious immigrants are clearly right in their beliefs, and the WASP upper-class is demonstrably wrong, and yet Lovecraft likes the WASPs better anyway.

It’s a badly-constructed, badly-written, and badly-paced tale, with a heavy emphasis on gore and none of the subtlety that Lovecraft at his best was capable of. And it comes with a side-serving of class arrogance and racial hatred. (BTW, I am a descendant of Eastern-European immigrants to the northeast United States, rather like the ones Lovecraft treats with utter contempt in this tale. Who are you calling “clod-like,” HPL?)

So, why do I re-read this horrible little tale every April?

Part of it is, I read it for the first time as a college student during spring term, and so I had some instant sympathy for poor Walter Gilman. Studying for exams is stressful enough without being abducted by long-dead witches and taken into other dimensions.

Also, Gilman is, in his own way, kind of heroic. He does ultimately fight back against the evil cosmic forces, and to some extent succeeds in thwarting them—even if it doesn’t work out well for him. Unusually for a Lovecraft character, he doesn’t just observe the horror and go mad, but takes some sort of corrective action. I kind of like that, even though the scene itself is six different kinds of ugly. (Also: why does the witch recoil from the crucifix? Oops, did someone have to undercut his entire atheistic literary philosophy in order to make his plot resolve itself?) 

And finally, this book introduced me to Walpurgis Night, which is a great way for a Halloween-obsessed lunatic such as myself to get a mid-year fix. It’s not the really strong stuff, but it can keep me going for those long six months.

In his essay Good Bad Books, George Orwell defined same as “The kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished… They form pleasant patches in one’s memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”

This is what Lovecraft and a lot of the “pulp” writers of the era were doing. There aren’t any pretensions about these kinds of stories. (Indeed, since Lovecraft never intended to publish Witch House, he had no reason to be pretentious.) 

That’s probably why stories like Witch House, that suck by standard measures, still have this quality of being re-readable. They’re authentic—when you read Lovecraft, you’re not getting what editors and publishers thought was a good book. You’re getting undiluted “Yog-Sothothery,” as Lovecraft called his peculiar style, straight from the bottle. 

It’s almost like Lovecraft, in spite of his prejudices and unwillingness to curb his own bad writing habits, was able to tap in to some core principles that make for a good horror story.

Describing Keziah Mason, Lovecraft wrote:

[S]ome circumstance had more or less suddenly given a mediocre old woman of the Seventeenth Century an insight into mathematical depths perhaps beyond the utmost modern delvings of Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein, and de Sitter.

Similarly, it seems as if some circumstance gave a mediocre man of the 20th century an insight into writing horror that is perhaps beyond many modern practitioners of the genre.

This is just a video of a bonfire I had on April 30 a couple years ago. Not really related, but do you know how hard it is to find free images associated with Walpurgis Night?

I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.

It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)

The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.

This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.

My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.

Thoughts?

WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

Annihilation_(film)Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.

The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist  giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.

Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.

She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.

The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.

After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”

In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.

The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.

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Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in “Annihilation” Image via IMDb

This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.

Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.

Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.

As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.

Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day

After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.

She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.

Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.

The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.

Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.

I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:

“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, and textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”

Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:

I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”

I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.

After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)

This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.

The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.

Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.

For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)

Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.

The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.

If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.

And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.

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Natalie Portman in “Annihilation”. Image via IMDb


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51GOZPH3rhL._SY346_I stumbled across the author’s blog by chance while at KingMidget’s Ramblings. I was excited to see that she, like me, was a fan of Weird and Lovecraftian fiction, and I read her spot-on analysis of the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which I love. And so I decided to check out The Friendship of Mortals, the first entry in her series featuring Lovecraft’s corpse-reanimating doctor, Herbert West.

The plot broadly follows that of Lovecraft’s original episodic short story until the end, but with numerous edits, alterations and additions. It is a “reimagining” (or “reboot” in modern lingo) rather than a mere retelling. For one thing, it’s far longer. Lovecraft’s original seems like a mere outline in comparison.

Very often, when people say their work is “Lovecraftian” what they mean is that it has some names or artifacts from Lovecraft’s mythos, or perhaps that their tale concerns large alien monsters resembling sea creatures. Very few writers imitate Lovecraft’s tone, which is detached and serious. Usually these wannabe Lovecraft stories are written in the somewhat flippant manner of a Stephen King narrator, with a few references to “Cthulhu” and “Abdul Al-Hazred” thrown in.

Within a few pages of Friendship of Mortals, I was blown away by how well Driscoll managed to imitate HPL’s style. The tone, the pacing, the careful descriptions of everything from people to books to the architecture in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham – all of it was there, just as in the canonical stories of Lovecraft himself. While Friendship of Mortals may take its general plot and characters from one of Lovecraft’s shorter (and generally less well-regarded) tales, its style and pace resemble his longer and more developed works, particularly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

This would be impressive enough on its own, but Driscoll manages another feat: she explores the psychology and backstory of not only West, but the narrator (unnamed in Lovecraft’s original, but here named Charles Milburn) and other characters of her own creation. And though the human element was something that Lovecraft, for good or ill, deliberately minimized in his stories, Driscoll examines it, and does it well, without ever becoming unfaithful to his style.

Each of the major characters—West, Milburn and Alma Halsey, Milburn’s lover– are given detailed backstories and for the most part behave in believable and consistent ways. The romance between Milburn and Halsey was particularly impressive, because Lovecraft never wrote romance. In general, one of the major red-flags that a would-be Lovecraft imitator is about to become decidedly un-Lovecraftian is the introduction of sex or romance.

But Driscoll somehow pulls it off. As I was reading the love episodes between Halsey and Milburn, I thought to myself “If Lovecraft had written romance, it would have been like this.” That might sound like a joke, given Lovecraft’s antipathy toward all emotions except fear, but I mean it as a sincere compliment: Milburn and Halsey’s affair, while being relatively explicit, still seems in keeping with the period setting, both in terms of how it is described and what the lovers actually do.

Driscoll reinvents the vignettes of Lovecraft’s serial, changing or removing certain details here and there, fleshing out the views of the sentimental and romantic Milburn and the rational, calculating Doctor West, and then bringing them, over the course of West’s increasingly disturbing experiments, into conflict. Minor characters are just as vividly-drawn as the major players, from one of West’s numerology-obsessed professors to his overbearing businessman father.

Driscoll plays down the horror and violence of the original, but the relatively little space given to the monstrous results of West’s experiments renders them more powerful as a result. It’s dark and disturbing stuff, but again, true to the spirit of the source material.

I have a few quibbles: the book is lengthy and slow-paced, which readers expecting a thriller may find forbidding. But I doubt Lovecraft fans will be put off by this, as HPL could take his time with a story as well, and part of his style is its slow, gradual pace. A feature, not a bug, in other words.

In the last quarter of the book, the psychological character-development aspect takes center stage over the plot and horror elements, which some readers may find disappointing. Milburn’s philosophical musings, while quite interesting, begin to overtake all the other components at this stage.

One other note: there is one scene in which a character uses a racial slur—it’s perfectly logical for the time and circumstances, but nevertheless it is shocking enough to see on the page that I think I ought to warn readers about it. But again, anyone who has read HPL’s own works will have seen far worse, alas.

But these are all ultimately minor points, which don’t detract much from the book’s many virtues. The Friendship of Mortals is the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the next installment. It’s certainly a must-read for Lovecraft fans, and I think it works quite well even for readers to whom things like the “Necronomicon” or “Cthulhu” are meaningless, provided they like a good psychological drama with tinges of the supernatural.

I can’t stress enough the magnitude of what Driscoll accomplished here—she took one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories and made it into his greatest novel. I say “his” just because she imitates him so well that at times, I swear I could forget the author’s identity, and believe that HPL really had returned to flesh out his tale of the amoral re-animator and his increasingly reluctant assistant. Like Dr. West, Driscoll has made her subject live again.

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Robert W. Chambers, author of “The Repairer of Reputations”

As long-time readers know, I love the story The Repairer of Reputations, by Robert W. Chambers. I wanted to write an analysis of it, but it’s such a carefully-constructed story that I didn’t know how to do it without quoting huge sections at length.

Then I had an idea. The story is in the public domain. (It was published in 1895.) So, I thought, why not post the story with my comments included? That will be an easy way for people to read the story and for me to comment on specific things that I think make it work so well.

So that’s what I did.  It’s so long that I put it on its own page rather than do it as a blog post. You can read it here. I hope it’s useful to anyone who wants to write weird fiction.