[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…]

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer
“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 genre’s 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.

I expected “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu” to be unwatchable.  Anytime you see a DVD for $2.00, you can’t have high hopes.  But, Lovecraft movies aren’t super-common, so I thought I’d give it a try, fully expecting to stop watching after five minutes.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

The movie stars Kyle Davis as Jeff Phillips, the last living relative of horror-writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Jeff and his friend Charlie (Devin McGinn, also the film’s writer) are entrusted by a secret society to protect an ancient relic that the Cult of Cthulhu is trying to steal to awaken the infamous Sea-Monster-God.  Only Jeff has Lovecraft’s genetic ability to resist the telepathic powers of the Cultists, which drive all others who meet them insane.

If this premise sounds a little silly, well, it is.  That’s because the movie is a horror/comedy, but I’d say it’s about 80% comedy, and 20% horror.  And it works.  It’s a very amusing little adventure, while still being reasonably faithful to the principles of Lovecraftian-ism.

The monster special effects are horribly cheap and hokey-looking, but it all works because (a) it’s a comedy and (b) Lovecraftian horror isn’t really about the monsters you see; it’s about the monsters you don’t see. Granted “Lovecraft” and “comedy” are two words you don’t often see together, but in this case, the two blend pretty well.

Is it a great movie? No, but it’s a lot of a fun for anybody who enjoys Lovecraft’s “Yog-Sothothery” but doesn’t take the “Mythos” too seriously.  It’s the most successful blend of cosmic horror and  comedy I’ve seen since the great “Fishmen” musical adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

The only other thing I’d add is that if you are offended by coarse language, you might want to steer clear.  There is a lot of swearing, although it never felt forced or like “swearing for the sake of swearing”. There is also a fair amount of violence, what with the monsters eating people etc., but frankly, the effects are so silly it barely qualifies as violence in my book.  Your mileage may vary.

I have been reading some of the works of Lord Dunsany lately. He was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft, and I  can definitely see some traits in him that Lovecraft would adopt in his writing.  I think Dunsany was on the whole a better writer than Lovecraft, but I enjoy the subject matter of Lovecraft’s stories more.

Lord Dunsany. Image via Wikipedia.

That’s not to say Dunsany’s tales aren’t interesting–it’s just that too many of them are pure fantasy, with the attendant tropes of what we would now call “sword and sorcery”, and I don’t care for that stuff.  I guess it’s because it’s hard for me to relate to characters in these medieval-esque fantasy lands.  In general, I prefer horror set in a recognizable time and place that actually exists or existed.  But that’s just my preference, and there are certainly some exceptions.

Not all the Dunsany stories I’ve read are typical fantasy, though.  One that I enjoyed quite a bit was “The Ghosts“.  I can’t quite decide what to make of the story–it is alternately kind of scary and kind of funny.  I don’t know if both of these effects were intentional.  The overall effect is quite weird, but then that is the point of such stories, isn’t it?

 

 

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.

Mothman_statue_in_Point_Pleasant,_West_VirginiaWhat 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.

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.]

Fox News headline: “Alien life clues in Antarctic Ice?” The story says, in part:

[Scientists] don’t expect water samples from Lake Vostok will hold alien life, though any life it contains may have taken a slightly different evolutionary path than what appears on the planet today.

As the rest of the article goes on to say, it wouldn’t be “alien” life at all–just other forms of Earth life. So the headline is perhaps slightly misleading, although it does sound like it could hold some interesting stuff. But the scientists’ hopes that it will tell us something about alien life are all so heavily based on conjecture–they’re hoping to find life that might resemble life that might exist in some similar places that are “suspected” to be on the moons of Jupiter. It’s hard for me to get too excited about that.

I just wish they wouldn’t “hint at strange survival in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.” And it’s the Antarctic, which automatically demands a Mountains of Madness reference.

(Just so you know, I’ve always treated these real-life similarities with Lovecraftian tales as mere humorous coincidences.*)

*But sometimes, “I am inclined to wonder—and more than wonder.”