I am always amused by conspiracy theories. Here’s a good one currently going around, as reported by The Daily Mail, that the strange on-air bouts of incoherence by various people on television are the result of secret experiments by the U.S. military.

It’s a fairly good conspiracy, but I dare any conspiracy-minded readers to peruse H.P. Lovecraft’s novel The Shadow Out of Time and not come away with an infinitely more terrifying, and slightly more plausible theory. Here is an excerpt:

“The collapse occurred about 10.20 A.M., while I was conducting a class in Political Economy VI – history and present tendencies of economics – for juniors and a few sophomores. I began to see strange shapes before my eyes, and to feel that I was in a grotesque room other than the classroom.

 My thoughts and speech wandered from my subject, and the students saw that something was gravely amiss. Then I slumped down, unconscious, in my chair, in a stupor from which no one could arouse me. “

I don’t want to give away too much. “Most merciful thing in the world” etc.

[Warning! This post contains spoilers for H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.]

Via Ross Douthat, an interesting piece in The New Yorker about filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, which among other things documents his efforts to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness for the big screen. One line that made me hopeful:

“[O]ne of the most disquieting aspects of Lovecraft’s novella is that the explorers are being pursued by monsters in a vast frozen void, and del Toro wanted to make the first horror movie on the scale of a David Lean production.”  

That is exactly the sort of style one should seek in adaptation of Madness, in my opinion, so I’m glad to hear that. On the other hand, del Toro also seems to take particular delight in making the monsters of the story especially horrifying and grotesque. This is a fine thing by itself, and there is a distinct art to creating compelling creatures that follows a long cinema tradition.

But, in my opinion, the monsters are not of primary importance in Madness, or in Lovecraft’s work generally. Lovecraft did describe his monsters in great detail, it’s true, but this was part and parcel of his literary style overall. The feeling of oppressive “cosmic horror” is what’s key–the precise nature of the monsters is not important.

For me, the truly terrifying part of Madness is contained in these lines, perhaps the most fascinating lines in all of Lovecraft’s work, in which the protagonist muses over the alien “Old Ones”, killed by their creations:

 “Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!” [Emphasis mine]

All of the evocative setting, and all of Lovecraft’s meticulous descriptions, build to this moment, where sinister parallels are drawn between the fate of the bygone civilization and humanity in a disturbing, and (by Lovecraft standards) emotionally powerful revelation.

I disagree with the title of the New Yorker article. Personally, if I were adapting it, the Shoggoths–like whatever the assistant sees at the novel’s end–would be left entirely to the imagination of the viewer, though I would carry it a step further than even Lovecraft did, and make it so the Shoggoth was never even seen by the protagonist, only by his assistant. Though I can see, whether he would want to or not, that del Toro would never be able to sell this idea.

And, I mean to say, it’s del Toro’s film. I’ve never seen his other work, but I hear he’s good. He’s made more award-winning movies than I ever have. I’m not trying to attack him or say I don’t think his movie will be good. I’m saying he has a good idea to make the movie, but if he gets to do it, it needs to be done right if it is to avoid being the typical horror film.

“I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim,
Where they roll in their horror unheeded, 
Without knowledge or lustre or name.” 

Have you heard about the theory that there is a hitherto-unknown giant planet out at the edge of our Solar system? It sounds intriguing, although most scientists seem to be leaning against the idea now.

The Time article linked above also makes mention of a theory popular in the ’80s about “a faint, far-off companion star to the Sun was sending down a rain of comets when it reached just the right point in its orbit.” (The name for this hypothetical object was “Nemesis”, by the way.)

What I don’t quite understand is how, if it really is there, we could have gone this long without noticing it, since we can see well beyond the Solar system already.

Anyway, like it says in the article, the smart money at the moment says that the supposed giant planet probably doesn’t exist. But if it turns out that it does, I want them to name it “Yuggoth“.

Permit me to annoy you with a silly eccentricity of mine: I don’t like it when poets and songwriters use rhymes that don’t, as it were, rhyme. By this, I mean rhyming  “name” with “lane”, or “town” with “around”, for example. (Incidentally, H. P. Lovecraft also complained about this in his essay “The Allowable Rhyme”)

I’m not necessarily saying this is wrong–who determines what is “wrong” in art, after all–but it does slightly irritate me. I suppose this is because the first time I ever paid attention to rhyming was when reading/listening to W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics and poems and he never (well, hardly ever) tried to rhyme things that didn’t actually rhyme.

Now, admittedly, I quite enjoy Warren Zevon‘s lyrics as well, and he committed this crime against rhyme quite often–probably at least once every song. So, I mean, I try not to be closed-minded about it. But at the same time, I think when people start deciding its okay to rhyme “mike” with “right” or some such, it seems to take the challenge out of it a little, maybe.

But then, I’m not a poet or songwriter, so I realize I’m really not in a position to make the rules on this.

(As a related aside, I did once think that it when be interesting if you used words like “lane” and “name” in poetry if they were incorporated into the structure of the poem itself–e.g., in a typical ABAB rhyme scheme, you could have all the A’s be rhymes and all the B’s be things like “lane” and “name”.)

“That amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth”–The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H.P. Lovecraft. 1927 [Emphasis mine]

“Two huge bubbles that emit gamma rays have been found billowing from the center of the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers have announced.”–National Geographic, November 10 2010.

Then there’s also this matter to consider, which seems innocuous enough until you see the picture on this page.

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.”
         —The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers. 1895.
As I’ve said before, The King in Yellow is one of the better works of weird fiction I have ever read. (The first four stories, that is.) Chambers creates a bizarre atmosphere without ever letting it become tedious or over-explaining it. 
The way he establishes all the disparate characters, only to reveal them to be linked by the mysterious play, is a rather ingenious way of slowly creating a sense of dread in the reader. It is also interesting to me how the symbols of decay that crop up throughout the stories add up to give it a very pessimistic tone. It feels to me more like something that would’ve been written in the 1920s, not the 1890’s. I suppose that’s why it appealed to Lovecraft.
But enough of my babbling! The point is, it’s a good story to read around Halloween, in my opinion. 

“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.”–H.P. Lovecraft. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” 1927.

I didn’t plan to write more about horror movies, but this post set me thinking about it. Well, this, coupled with the fact that it’s October, and for years I’ve wanted nothing better than to see a good, solid, terrifying movie during Halloween month.

But I can’t, because what passes for a horror film these days is mindless ultra-violence. None of the horror films of today are remotely frightening. They are, at most, grotesque. Which is not at all the same thing as frightening, and it’s a sign of how very pathetic the whole genre has become that they continue to profit.

Audiences nowadays are seemingly only capable of viewing a film on a visceral level. There is no wish, it seems, for a kind of intellectual horror–which is the only kind that really interests me, at least in a film or book. (There are a few video games where pure shock and grotesqueness can work.)

Actually, though, video games are more intellectual than the idiocies which are committed by alleged horror filmmakers. Doom 3, flawed though it was by the bad melodrama of arch-villain Dr. Betruger, at least actually did introduce “outer, unknown forces”, as Lovecraft described. Indeed, most video gamers have read some Lovecraft somewhere down the line, and hence have (probably inadvertently) picked up a few principles of cosmic horror.

(It’s revealing that when they made a movie based on the Doom series,  they had to change the whole story to make the monsters not the supernatural legions of Hell, but rather mere genetic mutations. Scientific explanation of the monsters ruins horror of said monsters.)

This is the second, related flaw I see in modern horror films: when everyone isn’t being gruesomely terrorized, they are explaining the origin, physical properties, and, if possible, psychological profile of whatever the monsters are.

I assume this is some sort of attempt to make the story intellectually engaging, but it invariably ruins any conceivable fear that it is to be had from the story. (Also, the state of writing being what it is in horror films, it’s generally painful whenever anyone says anything, so the less said, the better.)

Finally, since the idea of “horror” is increasingly synonymous  with “violence”, filmmakers are ceasing to make their monsters monsters, and instead making them merely insane criminals. Well, I suppose that’s scary enough in its way, but nothing that couldn’t be remedied with a better police force, better prisons, and perhaps a shotgun.

(As an aside, why is more gun ownership the implicit moral of many of these supposedly “Liberal Hollywood” movies? Do they not realize it?)

Horror movies are in a state of severe decline and appear to have a crippling lack of originality and inventiveness. Violence is a basic and ancient human activity, and therefore requires no imagination to throw into a film. The over-explanation of everything serves to make the films more mundane still. Criminality is, again, a fact of life which requires no imagination to think up, only access to a police blotter.

Imagination, then, is what the horror filmmakers of today lack. They have no ability, it seems, to think outside the natural laws of the everyday world and seize upon some truly unsettling idea of incomprehensible forces, preferring instead to let their lazy minds settle on whatever base emotion they happen to have.

Leo Grin, at the conservative site Big Hollywood, complains of “Hollywood’s love affair with Satanism”:

“Modern Hollywood wants us to believe that supernatural forces of Darkness are frighteningly real, even while they dismiss all supernatural forces of Light as laughable superstition.

 Hollywood is cheating in the horror movie arena just as they do in the political and social arenas. They are, by turns, scaring us and seducing us with deeply anti-Christian mythological monsters, while simultaneously mocking anyone who believes in the corresponding existence and power of supernatural forces for good. It’s yet another attempt to scrub any trace of God from our popular culture, spitting in the faces of the upwards of eighty percent of Americans who identify as Christians, and in the process disappointing the near one-hundred percent of theatergoers who don’t want to drop thirty bucks on a movie where villains and nihilism conquer all.” 

Well, to me, an effective horror flick needs to either end with the monsters triumphing over the heroes or, even more effectively, it needs to end with the heroes believing themselves to have won, only to reveal that the monsters are, in some form, still around or could come back. Otherwise, it implies it or they have been thwarted, and therefore no longer could even theoretically pose a threat. You can’t really have a happy ending in a horror story; at best, you can have a temporary reprieve for the heroes.

Also, it has always seemed to me that this scenario Grin describes–real monsters, no God–would be the most effective to scare religious people. I mean, if the purpose of a horror movie is to be scared, what could be more effective for scaring a pious person than the idea that there is no God? (And, of course, I think the inverse would also be true: movies like The Exorcist or The Omen, which are premised on the idea the Bible is true, should be much more frightening to atheists than to Christians.)

Then again, I may be wrong about that. After all, the bleak, near-nihilism of  H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories–especially the Great Old Ones–was inspired partially because, as an atheist, he found the “Christian” horrors wholly unbelievable and hence, not scary.

I’ve always been bothered by the common horror-story trope that vampires can’t be seen in mirrors. If they can be seen with the naked eye, it means they reflect light. If they reflect light, they will be visible in mirrors. But, in addition to not making sense, the whole idea seems needless and tacked-on; which kind of detracts from the scariness of vampires, I think.

So I searched on this phenomenon, and it turns out, according to “J” at Yahoo answers, that people believed that mirrors reflected the soul of a person, not just the actual person. Vampires, having no souls, don’t show up in mirrors.

For some reason–and forgive me for going all geeky here–I find this to be rather absurd. I don’t know why; and obviously it’s silly to complain about this being unbelievable–vampires are mythical creatures and therefore the whole thing is no more unbelievable than the rest of it. And yet I can’t help but find that sometimes some elements of the fiction screw up the rest of it for me.

Some people find this irritating, and I guess I see their point.  I know sounds ridiculous to demand “believability” from fictional stories. But forgive me if I believe that fiction needs to have “internal logic”. More than that, there is a chance of a writer putting in too many fantastic or unreal elements, so that it all becomes utterly unbelievable and ruins the immersion.

One of the most illuminating explanations of this problem comes from a rather unlikely source. In his book A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and SullivanGayden Wren writes:

“Most… Gilbert and Sullivan operas rely on a single preposterous element–the witch’s curse in Ruddigore, for example, or The Yeomen of the Guard‘s masked marriage–which are subsequently treated plausibly enough that each opera as a whole seems logical.” (Emphasis added.)

What Wren describes is indeed a key part of G and S’s humor, but I believe that writers of the horror genre would have even more to gain by following this method. You can maybe get away with an anything-goes illogicality in comedies. It is often very jarring in a horror story.

To tie all this back in with the vampires: I suppose this overabundance of implausibility is an inevitable consequence of the way mythology and folklore work–a story gets new facets and touches every time it is retold. The vampire myth–on which, I admit, I’m no expert–seems remotely possible, and thus scary, if you’re just going on the premise that there exist beings which can subsist on human blood for a very long time.

I can easily imagine that this was how it all started–but over centuries other details, like turning into bats, can’t go out in sunlight, vulnerable to crucifixes, holy water, garlic etc. all got thrown into the mix by various people.

All this adds up to make the whole myth much less scary. One unbelievable element I can take; a dozen is much harder. And while I’m never going to actually believe in anything I read in a horror book or see in a movie, it is possible to subconsciously be put on edge by a well-done horror story.

This is one reason I like many of H.P. Lovecraft‘s stories. He was fairly successful, I feel, at using only a single implausible idea–the “Great Old Ones“–and then following it logically. I certainly don’t believe such ideas, but it sounds remotely possible. (And unknowable, since the Old Ones exist in other dimensions and in far reaches of the Universe.)

In something of an irony, though, much of the “Cthulhu mythos” was redesigned by August Derleth and now suffers from the same flaws that befell other myths–too many unnecessary elements thrown in that spoil the original frightening elements. (For me, this is. Some love Derleth’s work. To each his or her own.)

Still perhaps this quest to find horror that really does seem believable while being simultaneously entertaining is a Quixotic one. After all, there’s only so scared one can get reading a book or watching a movie. Even my favorite horror movie ever, The Omen (The ’76 one, not the ’06 remake) still suffers from too many unbelievable and needless elements that are unrelated to the central premise.

I guess to really get immersed in a horror story, my best bet is probably video games. After all, at least in games like Doom 3, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space, you are the one wandering around in the dark, not passively watching or imagining some character doing it. So, even if there are implausible elements, it’s easier to forget about them.