A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Crowther, the secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society, tweeted:

My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer.  Modern readers are looking for more diversity.

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W.S. Gilbert. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why.  (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)

Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing.  His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.

And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist.  Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis.  His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.

Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)

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H.P. Lovecraft (Image via Wikipedia)

So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?

The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion.  In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.

Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.

Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is.  Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.

I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me.  It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.

So, why did poetry fall out of fashion?  I have no clue.  It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned.  And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.

(As an end note/bit of self-promotion: for those readers who like both Gilbert and Lovecraft,  I once wrote a short horror story entitled “The Revival”, very much in the Lovecraftian vein set around an amateur production of Ruddigore.)

[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens.  But, fair warning…]

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“Annihilation” (Image via Wikipedia)

Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”.  This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.

The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X.  The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.

Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.

Before long, the team begins to distrust one another.  The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself.  The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.

It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.

No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere.  VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty.  Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.

Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her.  At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.

Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it.  She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside.  She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.

After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp.  Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it.  After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.

She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler.  She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world.  Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.

To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book.  While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached.  When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.

It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving.  Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genres creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.

After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition.  At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.

After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore.  The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.

I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere.  Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it.  VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity.  He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.

There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though i have frequently been found guilty of too little description.)  He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.

But in spite of these flaws, it nevertheless remains one of the creepiest books I’ve read. If we use Lovecraft’s own definition of a weird tale:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.

ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.

A couple years ago, I blogged about “The Mothman”–the mysterious creature seen in West Virginia in the 1960s and associated with the collapse of the Silver Bridge.  I also featured the Mothman as a minor element in my book The Start of the Majestic World.  And so I decided I should watch the movie The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, as this year’s Halloween horror movie.

“The Mothman Prophecies” poster, via Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Gere plays a reporter named John Klein, whose wife gets injured in a car accident. Right before the accident, she sees a vision of a winged creature.  At the hospital, it’s revealed she has a preexisting brain problem that will ultimately lead to her death. Before she dies, she makes sketches of winged creatures that orderlies at first call “angels”, but which Gere sees are far more sinister.

Klein goes for a long drive one night as he despairs over his late wife, and finds himself in West Viriginia, with no memory of getting there.  He goes to a nearby house for help, where he is held at gunpoint by the residents, who insist he has been there at the same time on the past several nights.  He is rescued from the situation by a police officer. (Laura Linney) She tells him that strange things have been happening in the town of Point Pleasant lately, and slowly they begin to get drawn into the mysterious events.

People in the town have been seeing visions similar to those of his late wife.  Soon, people start to get phone calls from a strange buzzing voice, (more shades of Lovecraft’s “Whisperer in Darkness”) identifying itself as “Indred Cold” and foretelling impending disasters.

Eventually,  Klein tracks down a mysterious Professor named Alexander Leek (the late, great Alan Bates) who has encountered these strange events in the past.  He gives Klein some info, implying that they are caused by preternatural creatures whose motivations are completely beyond his comprehension, but he ultimately advises Klein to stay out of it, for the sake of his life and his reason.

I won’t spoil the plot–to the extent that there is one–but I bet you can guess whether Klein follows his advice or not.

This was pretty much the very model of a Lovecraftian, weird tale/cosmic horror/mystery movie.  To quote Lovecraft’s definition:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Yep.  That is this movie.  I’ve complained before about movies over-explaining things, and Mothman Prophecies could never be accused of that.  Everything is weird and mysterious and unexplained.

Also, the atmosphere in the movie is just pitch-perfect.  It was filmed in Pennsylvania, but they captured very well the tired, depressing look of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  It is a grim, eerie place, and the movie conveys that vibe wonderfully.

This was the film I’ve been asking for all these years: Scary, without being excessively violent.  Spooky and creepy, and never giving away too much about the threat.

So, given that, my verdict must be 5 out of 5, must-see, awesome, A+ movie, right?

Nah, not really.  It was good.  Better than I expected.  But not great.  There was something missing from it that prevented it from being truly great.  And I don’t know what it was.  It actually makes me feel bad, because it is almost as if they made a movie exactly to my specifications, and then I said, “meh, it’s all right.”  I feel like it’s more my fault for not knowing what I wanted.

I think the problem might have been that the weirdness wasn’t tied together adequately.  But that’s very tough to do, especially when you consider that doing so runs the risk of making it all seem too neat, and thus not weird.

It’s a good movie, lacking one unknown element that prevents it from being great.  My recommendation: watch it, figure out what that element is, and then you will know how to make a truly great weird horror movie.

Chris Franklin at Errant Signal wrote a good post about the game Quake.  He says a lot of things I have subconsciously thought, but never been able to articulate about the game. And it’s helped me to understand why I like this fairly unremarkable game so much.

He describes it as: “a game that’s part Lovecraftian gods and vile chapels from beyond human knowledge, part medieval fantasy horror full of bloody knights and dark castles, and part SciFi adventure of shooting space enforcers with hyperblaster lasers.”

In the sequels, they removed the first two elements, turning it into just a generic sci-fi adventure. Too bad; the original was far more interesting.

Franklin sums up the game’s mood thus: “Quake is unified in its attempt to spread an almost over the top, self-indulgent gloom with a hint of smouldering anger.” Small wonder I’ve always liked its mood, and find myself occasionally replaying it despite its completely mediocre gameplay.

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Image via Wikipedia.

Longtime readers may know that I, like most sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, enjoy the works of of H.P. Lovecraft.  Apart from his racial views–which are thankfully absent from most of his better stories–I like his writing,  his evocative settings and memorable, unique monsters.

That said, his plots frequently aren’t as good as they could have been.  The Shadow Out of Time needed to have the middle third edited out.  The second half of The Whisperer in Darkness gives away a certain critical plot twist way too early.  The Dunwich Horror is just bad.  Ironically, though Lovecraft wrote critical essays and letters asking for subtlety in horror fiction, his own stories often failed do this, and would clumsily reveal too much detail about his creatures.

The Call of Cthulhu is probably his single most famous work.  In fact, his Cthulhu creation may be more famous than he himself is, being a sort of shorthand for the ultimate evil in certain circles.

The problem is, Call of Cthulhu isn’t a very good horror story.  Well, to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are.  The opening paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in all literature.  But then we have the last third… (I’m about to spoil the story, so be warned.)

Part of the problem of the last third of CoC is that the first two parts are so good.  Lovecraft builds up to the horror gradually, hinting and letting his narrator–and by extension, the reader–glimpse and guess rather than just outright explaining  what Cthulhu is.  With all this weighing on his mind, we come to the the adventure of Second Mate Johansen.

The mere fact that anybody even found R’lyeh in the first place is a problem.  It would have been better if its existence had only been guessed at–perhaps in “old legends telling of a weird island that has since vanished”, or something along similar lines.  Having somebody actually find it eliminates a key element that is often underused in horror, but of which Lovecraft ought to have been cognizant: that is the element of uncertainty, of wondering if all the narrator’s suspicions might be merely incipient madness.

Even worse is the part where the sailors actually witness the awakening of Cthulhu.  No matter how overwrought Lovecraft makes his prose, he can’t possibly make this monster live up to the hype he’s given it.   So, it was a big dragon-squid, was it?  That’s… somehow disappointing.

But the worst of all; the fatal flaw that almost ruins the story for me, is what happens next: the last surviving sailor makes it back to his ship and rams Cthulhu with it.   And this actually forces Cthulhu to retreat!

This is just awful horror writing.  This Elder-God, this unspeakably powerful, incomprehensibly awesome creature can be defeated by one guy with a boat?  Why not just have the Navy station a battleship out there and repeat this every time the Great Old One becomes troublesome?  Actually, that’s not even necessary, because it apparently only wakes every few “vigintillion” years anyway, which means Johansen probably has saved humanity for the rest of its existence. This is such a classic mistake, there’s even a page on TVTropes named for it: “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

I think Lovecraft must have realized this was pretty weak, so he tried to imply at the end that the cultists (here are those blasted racial ideas of his creeping in) were going to sabotage all efforts at learning about the existence of Cthulhu or R’lyeh.  But the problem with that is, the cultists are repeatedly shown to be incompetent throughout the story. Johansen and his crew-mates were able to defeat their sentry ship without even realizing what they were doing.

All in all, what an awful way to ruin a potentially terrifying monster!  The lesson for aspiring writers: if you invent a Terrifying, Scary, Nearly Omnipotent Monster, don’t ruin it by letting it be defeated  easily.  And it’s best not to actually show it in action at all, but rather to just show hints of it.

Have you heard of Mothman?  Legend has it that a winged humanoid was seen flying around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the late 1960s.  The sightings are connected with the collapse of the Silver Bridge, with folklore suggesting that the “Mothman”, if not directly responsible, is at least a harbinger of bad luck.

Statue depicting the Mothman. Image via Wikipedia

What this legend reminded me of was the H.P. Lovecraft story The Whisperer in Darkness, which tells a tale of strange flying creatures in the Vermont hills.  The “Mothman” stories even tell of  buzzing noises and strange animal disappearances just like the events in Lovecraft’s short story.

What’s even more interesting is that, in the first chapter of Whisperer, the initially skeptical narrator writes of the prevalence of these kinds of legends the world over:

It was of no use to demonstrate… that the Vermont myths differed but little in essence from those universal legends of natural personification which filled the ancient world with fauns and dryads and satyrs… When I brought up this evidence, my opponents turned it against me by claiming that it must imply some actual historicity for the ancient tales; that it must argue the real existence of some queer elder earth-race, driven to hiding after the advent and dominance of mankind, which might very conceivably have survived in reduced numbers to relatively recent times – or even to the present.

Well, add West Virginia to the list of places that have such legends.  The description was so close to Lovecraft’s flying aliens, the Mi-Go, that it is a bit uncanny.  (Of course, the skeptic in me says that the most obvious explanation is that whoever started the legend had read the story.)

There was also movie made about the Mothman legend about ten years ago, entitled The Mothman Prophecies. I haven’t seen it, but it seems like it plays up the paranormal/conspiratorial nature of the story.

Spoilers ahead!

As you probably know, the film is a prequel of sorts to Scott’s Alien, which I have never seen.  Nor have I seen any of the sequels.  So, I can’t comment on what the events depicted in this film mean for the rest of the series.

The film begins with some archaeologists finding cave paintings of giants pointing at a constellation of stars.  These paintings match up with similar ancient artworks from other, distant civilizations. Based on this, a wealthy old man finances an expedition on the spaceship Prometheus to this constellation to meet the alien creatures presumed to be there. The man explains in a video to the crew—after they have woken up from years in suspended animation—that he will be dead by now, but his dream is that they meet the aliens. This is also where the film’s best line occurs–“By the time you see this, I will be dead.  May I rest in peace.”

The main characters are the two archaeologists, Drs. Elizabeth Shaw and Charles Holloway, a robot named David, and the cold, corporate-type heading the mission.  The supporting crew of the good ship Prometheus are all a bunch of outrageously clichéd and stereotyped characters, most of whom are so undisciplined and incompetent that it’s easy to see why they need David to run the entire ship.

Naturally, they go exploring caverns within the alien planet and soon enough some of the obnoxious secondary characters get attacked by aliens. Gradually, as crew members become infected, they ultimately conclude that the humanoid aliens–the giants in the paintings–were wiped out by a sort of bio-weapon they were creating—to wit, snake-like aliens found roaming around the tunnels. Despite this, the wealthy old man, who is not dead after all but had been secretly in suspended animation, has gone to talk to the last surviving alien.

Unfortunately, said alien reacts about like you would expect, killing the old man and ripping apart the android.  Then he blasts off in his spaceship and Dr. Shaw somehow intuits that he’s going to destroy the Earth.  Luckily, the crew of the Prometheus makes a suicide attack on his vessel, and bring it to the ground.  He survives, and pursues Dr. Shaw into a wrecked escape pod, but she is saved at the last minute when one of the snake-like aliens attacks the humanoid alien.  The film ends with Dr. Shaw stealing an alien ship and flying off to find the real alien home world.

If that summary seemed rushed, I apologize—but so did the movie.  It always seemed to be building to some big payoff, only to have the big payoff happen in a rush and then hurry on to the next thing.  There was a rather  disturbing scene which I shall not describe, but which is moved on from so quickly it feels unbelievable, given the circumstances.

The acting in the film is very good. It’s too good actually, because the acting outpaces the quality of the characters.  The biggest exception to this is Charlize Theron, who plays the corporate commander of the mission—her acting is mediocre, but then so is her character, so it’s hard to blame her.

Michael Fassbender plays David, whose most notable character trait is that he is obsessed with the movie Lawrence of Arabia.  Fassbender does a good job channeling Peter O’Toole-as-Lawrence, but it’s not clear why David does this, except maybe that they thought by inserting references to a better movie, they could raise the quality of their own. The robot’s motivations are generally very hard to follow, and it was never completely clear to me who he was working for.  He seems to make decisions based solely on what needs to be done to advance the plot.

Noomi Rapace does a very good job imbuing Dr. Shaw with some charisma and likeability, which is vital because otherwise the movie would be unwatchable.  You can’t help but root for her character, despite the fact that a lot of what she and everyone else on the mission does is stupid.  Or if not stupid, utterly inexplicable.  (Actually, the assignments break down like this: utterly inexplicable plot-driving actions: David.  Obviously stupid actions: everyone else.)

It’s never clear why or how things occur: how does Shaw know the humanoid alien is going to destroy the Earth?  How does the pilot suddenly figure out that it’s an alien weapon-making plant?  How did they even manage to make the giant leap that there must be intelligent life on this one planet in this constellation based on some cave paintings?  It’s a weak basis for launching a trillion-dollar space mission.

I read on IMDb that Guillermo del Toro delayed his film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains of Madness because Prometheus was so similar to his plans for the film.  I’m surprised I didn’t realize it until I read Del Toro’s quote, but yes, this is not surprising, since the plot of Prometheus is similar to Lovecraft’s book.  Both stories include explorers finding remnants of an alien civilization driven to the point of extinction by monsters of their own creation.  In both stories the aliens are suggested to have created humanity.  Prometheus even includes the same kind of chases through dark mountain tunnels described in Mountains of Madness.

The difference, as I might have predicted, is in certain subtle touches that make Mountains more interesting.  In Lovecraft’s novel, the “creator” aliens are treated as tragic figures, destroyed by their own scientific ingenuity.  (Like Frankenstein or, “the Modern Prometheus”) In Prometheus, it’s just one set of bad aliens vs. another set of bad aliens.  Even more significantly, at the end of Mountains, there is ambiguity as to what the final horror was. The reader never learns what Danforth saw behind the mountains.  There is some ambiguity in Prometheus‘s ending as to what the creator aliens were doing, but it feels more like ambiguity resulting from sloppy writing than a deliberate effect.

I realize after reading this, you must think I hated this movie.  I certainly  didn’t think it was great, but I didn’t hate it either.  Apart from the one disturbing scene, I found it a decent suspense flick while watching it, and most of the problems didn’t become apparent until I started to think about it afterwards.  It’s just that the film ultimately lacks anything really frightening or intellectually stimulating. It would have been better if it had ended with the alien setting off for Earth, his motivations open to interpretation, and Shaw and the rest were left to fend for themselves on the alien world.

Thingy had a great idea on her blog last week. The idea is to take one basic scenario and then write it in the style of different authors. Be sure to read her post first. I loved it, and I just had to try a few of my own. But read Thingy’s original post and get the aforementioned “gist” before you read mine.

H.P. Lovecraft (Cosmic Horror)

Into the blasphemous January gale stepped Jack Wilmarth.  By the banks of the inconceivably ancient Massachusetts river, he surveyed the queerly-shaped yews.  At length, he selected a log and aimed with his axe a blow at it, but the bizarre atmosphere of that eldritch locale distracted him, and he chose an unfortunate angle and wounded his thumb.  As the wound spread onto the snow, he turned to behold a strange motor approaching along the ancient mountain paths trod in antiquity by the native tribes…

P.G. Wodehouse (Humor)

“What ho, what ho—it seems young Jack has made a frightful fool of himself!”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Well, the young buffoon seems to have gone out for a bit of a ramble and thought to himself he’d try his hand at wood-chopping—you know, like those frightful blighters who go about in check shirts and great hats do—but it seems he rather gave the wood a bit of miss and hit his own hand instead.  Caused a bit of a scene on the snow, I mean to say!  Must’ve looked like the first scene of A. Christie’s latest, I should think!”

“Most distressing, sir.”

“Yes, well, if his fiancée hadn’t happened by in her car so they could biff off to hospital, I think we might have found ourselves reading about the poor fish in tomorrow’s obituaries.  Still, all’s well that ends well, what?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivism)

The weak, contemptible looter Jack was far too incompetent when he stepped out of the cabin to chop wood.  He was weak-willed, and incapable of realizing Man’s natural superiority over nature, and so foolishly cut his thumb and bled deservedly in the snow.  For he had failed to comprehend the eternal philosophical truth that…

[5,000 similar words omitted.]

…he raised his head to see a beautifully-made automobile approaching through the wood, demonstrating Man’s mastery of metal to conquer the Earth.

Thomas Hardy (Tragedy)

Jack made his egress from the small-gabled forest cabin of round logs, with a view to perhaps building a fire to warm him and heat his comestibles.  But alas, it is often the case that Fate will frustrate the efforts of mortals endeavoring to improve their situation, and so he was dismayed to injure his thumb on the instrument he used for the task.  He saw the snow around him turn crimson, and glanced up to see a vehicle in the lane beyond the cabin, but it passed him by.  It is ever so that cruel Fortune will present to us the means of salvation, only to just as quickly snatch them away…

(A Role-Playing Video Game)

[Set Player Name.  Player name = “JACK”]

[You see a door inside the cabin. Open it? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Exits to snowy morning scene.  You see an “Axe of Unbeatable Strength” Use? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Damage: self = 10 x 2 CRIT. Damage: Log = 0.  HP – 20]

[Play cinema scene of car pulling up.]