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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 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.

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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. 

Hasuga's GardenHasuga’s Garden is a strange and dream-like fantasy novel. It follows a woman named Alanee, who is taken from her small village to the sprawling and mysterious “Consensual City,” the seat of the government, ruled by the mysterious “High Council,” which includes the enigmatic Lady Ellar, the lecherous Sire Portis, and the telepathic seer, Sire Cassix, among others.

Alanee explores the bizarre city, discovering its festivals and rituals, guided by a young woman named Sala, who introduces her to many of the fantastic sights and sensations the place has to offer. Alanee also develops affection for a pilot named Dag Swenner, though he soon goes MIA during a cataclysmic event in some remote part of the world.

Slowly, Alanee discovers the truth of how the city really works. At the center of government, out-ranking even the councilors, is a seemingly-omniscient child-like being named Hasuga, who governs everything with his mind. The council allegedly shapes his wishes to some extent, but it is his will the reverberates across the world

Hasuga has, for as long as anyone can remember, been a five-year old child, but recent events have compelled the council to advance his age. Now he is entering puberty, and experiencing the accompanying desires. Alanee is brought to him, apparently to “assist” with this. Hasuga sends his mother away, much to the woman’s chagrin, and begins to spend time with Alanee, who is a bit fascinated, but mostly repulsed by this being. (Personally, I kept picturing him as the Nihilanth from Half-Life, which probably made Hasuga more frightening than he was supposed to be.)

Things get weirder from there. There are political machinations, apocalyptic prophecies, sex, war, romance, and ultimately an eerie meditation on the nature of reality itself.

That’s about all I can do as far as summarizing this book, because it really is just so far out there that it defies description. It’s a fantasy, broadly speaking, but with many other elements. You could quote different portions and make the book sound alternately like an Orwellian dystopia, (some of it seems like a satire of central planning, in fact) a poetic allegory, post-apocalyptic horror, or an erotic romance. 

At times, it does seem to cry out for an analysis from the perspective of Freudian/Jungian symbolism. I’m generally not a fan of symbolist interpretations, but when you consider that major elements of the tale involve a boy—if you can call Hasuga that—losing interest in his “mother” and becoming obsessed with another woman, and ties this to themes of civilizational decay and rebirth, what else can you think? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a Freudian allegory is just a Freudian allegory.

I’m going to talk more about that shortly, but first, I have to talk about the prose in this book. It’s gorgeous. Haunting and lyrical, with descriptions of the most minor things being given in lavish detail. Some readers might find it slow, but personally, and perhaps surprisingly, I loved it.

The story is told in the present tense, which I found odd at first—it created a certain distance between me and the characters. (Which is counter-intuitive—you’d think it would make it seem more immediate.) I got used to this as I read, and it ultimately added to the surreal atmosphere. 

There are a handful of typos and glitches, but overall, I thought the writing was excellent. There were a few times when characters would speak in plainer language–commonplace slang words, which seemed a little jarring. This may have been the intent, however; since usually when this happened, the character was supposed to be speaking in a shockingly blunt or even crude fashion. It just seemed strange to read modern slang, because otherwise the language seems foreign and distant.

The entire universe of this book, in fact, seems foreign and distant. It’s not clear exactly when or where it takes place, although there is a hint in some of the book titles mentioned fairly late in the story. 

If I had one major complaint about the book, it’s the way the character of Hasuga’s mother is handled. She’s introduced well, and we learn a little about her, and then she’s largely out of sight, out of mind for the remainder, save for one brief, rather troubling scene close to the end. I felt that the character was under-used, which was a real pity. I may be in the minority here, but I like to read about female characters who are something other than beautiful young heroines with some grand destiny. I don’t mind the latter per se, and Alanee is certainly a fine character, but there are so many other female characters in Hasuga’s Garden who are complex and interesting, especially Lady Ellar, and I kind of want to read more about them than about the naïve beautiful young girl in an exotic city.

But then again, that may be the point. After all, events at the end of the book reveal that the structure of this world and its people are far from normal, and it may be that it’s all meant to be a reflection of the God-child’s own warped personality. Like I said, there are some serious existential puzzles at the heart of this story. It’s different, it’s weird, at times it’s downright disturbing—but it’s also well-crafted, thought-provoking and gorgeously written. I recommend it. And once you read it, feel free to come back here and comment, because it’s one of those books that it’s best to talk about with someone else.

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’ve talked before about the story that first made me love horror–the “Wishbone” children’s adaptation of Sheridan le Fanu’s Green Tea.  But there was another book I got for Halloween that same year that was probably just as important: Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe.

Bunnicula is the first in a series of children’s books. All the books are narrated by “Harold,” a pet dog whose owners find a small rabbit at a cinema showing of the original Dracula film–hence the name. Harold sees Bunnicula as simply a sweet little bunny, but the family cat, Chester, begins to suspect there is more to the little creature when he finds vegetables lying around the house, strangely drained of their juices.

Chester comes to believe that Bunnicula is a vampire, sustaining himself by draining the vegetables. Harold believes his friend simply has an over-active imagination. Throughout the series, the major conflict is between the practical Harold trying to keep the peace, and Chester, who sees, or thinks he sees, supernatural danger lurking everywhere.

Yes, these are books for children, and they’re not even meant as “scary” books for children–they’re just humorous tales that reference classic horror tropes. But even though it’s a children’s series, it has some concepts that I love. The opening of the first book: a showing of Dracula, in an old movie theater on a rainy evening, is a perfect beginning for a scary story. And it was never settled whether Bunnicula really was a supernatural being, or if it was all in Chester’s imagination. Even when the conflict gets resolved, there are differing explanations as to why. Chester always has his own idiosyncratic reasons for ceasing to threaten Bunnicula.

Oh, and there’s also a dachshund who might be part werewolf later in the series. That in itself is a brilliant concept.

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Look at this–it’s almost like a Hammer Horror film poster!

But I think the illustrations by Alan Daniel are the biggest part of what makes the series so good. They are done in a realistic, sketch-like style that feels grittier than the tone of the writing–in a good way. The whimsical prose works well with the serious sketches. (Admittedly, it might also be due to my personal memories as well–when I see those drawings, I turn back into a nine-year-old boy reading by himself at the library on a gloomy autumn night. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.)

While looking up the relevant facts about Bunnicula for this post, I discovered that it has been adapted into a series on the Cartoon Network. I have to say, I don’t care for the style of those drawings. Not that they’re bad, and indeed the series may be fine on its merits, but to me, a key thing about Bunnicula is how normal, even mundane, the basic setting feels. The inherent weirdness of a vampire rabbit has to be balanced by ordinary and unremarkable circumstance.

I vividly remember when the family dentist asked nine-year-old-me what I was reading and I answered: “A book about a vampire rabbit.” “That sounds weird!” he exclaimed in reply. He was a nice guy, but pretty conventionally-minded, and I think the idea of a vampire rabbit was just too crazy for him. I think I recall this so clearly because it was the first time in my life that someone wrinkled their nose at me and said, with a mix of incredulity and suspicion, “Why are you reading such weird stuff?” (Unsurprisingly, it was not the last.)

I hadn’t thought about it in twenty years, but I’ll bet you Bunnicula was where my love of weird fiction started.

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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.

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Poster for “It Comes at Night” (Image via Wikipedia)

It Comes at Night is a highly misleading title for this film. Actually, everything about the marketing campaign is misleading. It’s not really a traditional horror film at all. Aside from a few disturbing images and jump scares, its primary focus is horror of the psychological and atmospheric sort, rather than any physical monsters.

Of course, this brand of horror is very much to my taste. The most frightening things, I’ve always believed, are not what we see, but rather what we imagine. Ultimately, the root of all horror is the unknown, because in it the human mind traces all the most terrible threats.

And from this, it should follow that It Comes at Night would be a truly terrifying film after all, because it certainly provides the audience with plenty of unknowns. But in spite of that, it’s not as scary as one might expect.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin by summarizing the plot–don’t read ahead if you don’t want to know the spoilers.

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