Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] Cool Air

An innocuous piece of urban horror ("It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis, and in the teeming midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house"), "Cool Air" is good, but not great, a story from the Machen-Stevenson "Baghdad-on-the-Thames" (or in this case, "-Hudson") tradition. I disagree with Joshi and Cannon, who rank it above Lovecraft's other urban-horror tale, "The Horror at Red Hook". I liked it better, as the man says, when it was called "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" or "The Novel of the White Powder."

****

I'm fairly sure that Lovecraft was having his little joke when he describes Dr. Muñoz as "obviously of superior blood," given what we later find out about the good doctor's blood. This brings up the possibility that he contrasts Dr. Muñoz intentionally with, and thus purposely denigrates, the other lodgers, "mostly Spaniard a little above the coarsest and crudest grade." The same can be said of the contrast between Muñoz' cultured Lovecraftian tones with the stereotyped diction of the landlady, Mrs. Herrero. I'm not sure if it makes it better, or worse, that HPL is consciously using racial or ethnic stereotypes to improve his fiction.

****

Note that we have entered the realm of the dead -- not just the cold, but the "room smelled like a vault of a sepulchred Pharaoh in the Valley of Kings." Note that workmen and laborers (what HPL would no doubt consider "the lower orders") instinctively fear the doctor, just as animals do a vampire or werewolf. In the absence of animal life, Lovecraft (and other writers of urban fantasy or horror) need some sort of spoor denoting a disturbance of the natural order.

Because Muñoz is not merely a scientist, but a magus. Just as alchemists used highly technical equipment in magical pursuits, so the doctor uses not just "an absorption system of ammonia cooling" and "a scientific enhancement of will and consciousness" (mesmerism? psychic powers?) but "exotic spices and Egyptian incense," and "the incantations of the mediaevalists." We have another note about how Lovecraftian magic functions: "he believed these cryptic formulae to contain rare psychological stimuli which might conceivably have singular effects on the substance of a nervous system from which organic pulsations had fled." We're more than halfway to the Essential Saltes already.

****

And just what awesome story hooks lie under this section?
"He acquired a habit of writing long documents of some sort, which he carefully sealed and filled with injunctions that I transmit them after his death to certain persons whom he named -- for the most part lettered East Indians, but including a once celebrated French physician now generally thought dead, and about whom the most inconceivable things had been whispered."
****

And this is just an average Lovecraft story.

NEXT: "The Call of Cthulhu"
(12 comments | Leave a comment)

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] He

"He" is another example of Lovecraft's preferring, even privileging, incident over action in weird fiction. It's very like "Nyarlathotep," albeit with a merely personal apocalypse at the coda of the general one revealed in the windows. There are also structural and topical similarities to "Erich Zann," including the sorcerous window, the musical theme (it's the hellish music of the future that drives our narrator mad), and the insistence on silence during the revelation.

****

"He" is firmly, inextricably rooted in New York history and topography -- like many other great ghost stories, it's about a place more than it is anything else. Hence, this is one of those stories I had to re-read after leaving Oklahoma City in order to fully appreciate it. For me, Chicago is Lovecraft's New York and Lovecraft's Providence in one. This passage, in particular, is exactly how Chicago hit me when I first crossed the Michigan Avenue bridge:
I had seen it in the sunset from a bridge, majestic above its waters, its incredible peaks and pyramids rising flowerlike and delicate from pools of violet mist to play with the flaming clouds and the first stars of evening. Then it had lighted up window by window above the shimmering tides where lanterns nodded and glided and deep horns bayed weird harmonies, and had itself become a starry firmament of dream, redolent of faery music, and one with the marvels of Carcassonne and Samarcand and El Dorado and all glorious and half-fabulous cities.
For me, then, "He" is a profoundly true story. However, I differ from Lovecraft's narrator, or perhaps Chicago differs from New York:
I saw at last a fearful truth which no one had ever dared to breathe before - the unwhisperable secret of secrets - the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.
One of the many wonderful, terrifying things about Chicago is the degree to which Chicago is, indeed, a sentient perpetuation of its past. I tried to get that across in my Unknown Armies campaign, and in the pieces I contributed to the Unknown Armies 2nd Ed. corebook and to Chicago Workings for the World of Darkness.

Not that Chicago doesn't have its "imperfectly embalmed" bits, too.

****

The description of Lovecraftian magic in this tale is one of the best:
"To -- my ancestor ... there appeared to reside some very remarkable qualities in the will of mankind; qualities having a little-suspected dominance not only over the acts of one's self and of others, but over every variety of force and substance in Nature, and over many elements and dimensions deemed more universal than Nature herself."
It is my profound hope that between "He" and "Dreams in the Witch-House" it will be possible to determine just what Lovecraftian sorcery is good for besides summoning things that will eat you.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

****

Joshi, at least, thinks there might be a shoggoth there at the end: "a colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance starred with shining, malevolent eyes," although the story makes it fairly clear that it is the vengeance-spirit (the ghastly soul-symbol?) of the "half-breed red Indians" coming after the squire. This, by the way, is not one of those stories that particularly refutes Lovecraft's racism, although he interestingly borrows from Poe by describing the squire as "too white."

****

As I've mentioned before, I basically agree with Houellebecq's assessment of "He" as Lovecraft's autobiographical rejection letter to New York City. This is probably where I should grudgingly admit that H.P. Lovecraft would likely have made himself miserable in Chicago, if he'd taken the offer to become editor of Weird Tales in March of 1924. He certainly would have hated the weather, and sad to say, he might well have been blind to the glories of Chicago architecture. But still ... Competent editing for Weird Tales! Lovecraft in Chicago! If only ...

NEXT: "Cool Air"
(14 comments | Leave a comment)

Monday, March 12th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Festival

This story always puts me in mind of eels, who migrate, transform, and die when it's time. Like the eel, our narrator feels an "ancestral call" to gather at a specific spot, in this case a vast cavern underneath Kingsport. (Which is itself a kind of architectural Sargasso, but that's pushing the metaphor.) Once there, he will undergo a metamorphosis that will change him forever and be unable to return to his normal life. Of course, this being a Lovecraft story, he panics instead and flings himself into the underground river (talk about your potent tropes -- this one goes back to before Sinbad), where he washes up back in the "normal world." (Here, again, the connection with the apocalyptic "Dagon" and its unreliable narrator.)

He is the eel who woke up and saw himself trapped in his ancestry, trapped in an immense pattern he didn't create, and one that will easily survive his insignificant defection from it. In my reading, "The Festival" is Lovecraft's cosmic fatalism in miniature: all humanity is trapped in the patterns of entropy, evolution, and geology, to be destroyed by sudden unknowable catastrophe or erased in slow grinding erosion. The human who sees this clearly -- the eel who wakes up -- can't change it. The act of awakening, meanwhile, separates him from the rest of society.

****

Although I have to say that the Miskatonic University Library's policy of letting inmates at local insane asylums study the Necronomicon is probably not helping matters.

****

It's also interesting that in "The Festival," Lovecraft locates the center of the cosmic evil beneath Kingsport, which he based on memories of a 1922 visit to the beautifully preserved colonial town of Marblehead, Mass., which he described as "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence... That was the high tide of my life." Somehow, for Lovecraft, the act of perceiving his utopia simultaneously undermined it, perhaps by awakening his cosmic perception: as he put it, the sight "identified me with the stupendous totality of all things..."

NEXT: "He"
(2 comments | Leave a comment)

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Rats in the Walls

With all due respect to his two perfect Dunsany pastiches ("Cats of Ulthar" and "Doom that Came to Sarnath") and to the under-rated "The Music of Erich Zann" (which we'll come to anon), "The Rats in the Walls" is Lovecraft's first truly great horror story. If HPL had suddenly chucked it all away in March 1924, or gone on to write nothing but architectural travelogues, this story would still be remembered and anthologized.

With stories this good, I don't propose to spend quite as much effort dragging out their structure and such, or summarizing previous criticism.1 I can't help, however, joyously remarking on the deft way Lovecraft turns Poe's "House of Usher" inside out with this one. We get the same conceptual play on words, as Delapore descends simultaneously into the putrid bowels of his "house" (Exham Priory) and his "house" (the De la Poer lineage). Like Usher, Delapore's line is extinct -- his son dies of his WWI injuries. We get the same excitation of the sense of hearing as the symptom, almost the literal entry-way, for the horror.2 But unusually for Poe, "Usher" is not particularly fixated on Usher's interior psychological life, whereas equally unusually for Lovecraft, "Rats" is very much concerned with the interior life of Delapore. In this story, Lovecraft proves himself able to master Poe's tools and move on -- it serves as the solid foundation for his triumphant farewell to Poe, "Charles Dexter Ward."

****

In my own case, reading this story also let all the light in at once about the "house as violated human body" subtext that William Hope Hodgson used in House on the Borderland. Indeed, "The Rats in the Walls" is a great, if somewhat over-loud, haunted house story as well -- the comparisons with, say, The Shining just jump out at you.

****

On a far more pointless note, the use of President Harding's death as a thematic sting just before Delapore's final descent may be unique in popular fiction. This is the sort of detail that just hangs there and niggles at me -- did some unknown cadet Delapore kill Harding? Was President Harding somehow protecting the world against the Rats in its Walls? Yes, yes, I know it's just a weird thematic choice. And Roswell was a weather balloon, Buzzkill Bob.

****

For those of you running Elizabethan horror games, I'll note that the last Baron Exham, the heroic Walter De la Poer, discovers the awful truth about his family and flees Britain during "the reign of James the First." Surely you can do something with that, perhaps tied in with John Dee's researches into the ancient Welsh language, which of course the De la Poer basements would preserve...

****

This is also one of the few HPL stories to have anything like a typical PC investigator party in it. There's a dilettante, a former pilot, an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a cat, and a renowned psychic (with whose weak-minded powerlessness Lovecraft has a great deal of fun). They're even "bearing powerful electric searchlights and implements of excavation." No shotguns, though. Tch tch tch.

[1] I would like to point out that again, Lovecraft removes, or denatures, race from his source material even as he emphasizes lineage and ethnicity. HPL borrowed the stress-atavism concept from a rather distasteful story by Irvin S. Cobb in which a Frenchman of mixed blood, run over by a train, cries out in an African dialect words used by his ancestor who had been gored by a rhinoceros. Sadly, of course, HPL named Delapore's cat in the story after his own beloved N-(word)-Man, and there are those "howling negroes" on the old family plantation (Carfax, a lovely Dracula tribute), so there you go with that. In other, happier racist-writer news, though, it's thanks to the cod-Celtic he used at the end of "Rats" that Lovecraft got a nitpicky letter from Robert E. Howard, and thus began their legendary correspondence and friendship.

[2] Much as we saw words as the manifestation of, and theorized them as the entry-way for, the horror in "Statement of Randolph Carter."

NEXT: "The Festival"
(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Hound

A silly story about silly people. Perhaps only someone as sexless as Lovecraft could describe the self-proclaimed decadence of these two aesthetes so hilariously, although Wilde could possibly have taken a run at it, if he'd been in the mood for a little self-parody. (Joshi claims "The Hound" is self-parody, and it certainly has something of that Kim Newman mashup feel, between the shout-outs to Beckford, Doyle, Poe, Bierce, and Huysmans.) If one ever filmed it, it would almost have to be with two hyper-serious adolescents, to keep the feel correct. Down to the brand names and set design -- the endless Lovecraftian "Gother than thou" catalogue never seems more endless than in these introductory paragraphs, which borrow cred from the Symbolists, the pre-Raphaelites, the Decadents, Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Goya, while one can only double up in helpless laughter at the notion of "nauseous musical instruments" for the production of "dissonances of exquisite morbidity and cacodaemoniacal ghastliness."

Plus, the only attempt ever put to paper to wring italicized horror from the words "in the Dutch language."

****

But I like "The Hound" far above its merits. Not only does it introduce the Necronomicon, and give that lovely shout-out to the "corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia," when I read it as a 13-year-old, it actually worked for me. The titular hound is also just a really cool-ass monster, the astral projection (literally, "the ghastly soul-symbol") of the Dutch ghoul-lich who somehow learned the secrets of Leng way back in the 15th century. Indeed, the lich may have stolen the hound-amulet, and yet somehow escaped its judgement.

****

Judgement, need I remind you, that arrives "astride a Bacchanale of bats from night-black ruins of buried temples of Belial." Astride ... a Bacchanale ... of bats ... chittering in the Dutch language!

NEXT: "The Rats in the Walls"
(6 comments | Leave a comment)

Friday, March 9th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] Herbert West -- Reanimator

Re-reading this piece, it's not nearly as terrible as I remember. Perhaps this is because I'm low-balling it, but I don't think so; it's a genuinely rollicking story, although not without stylistic discord. If it didn't have to keep summarizing itself (the editor was an idiot) it would be still better.

****

"Reanimator" is one of the earlier uses of (I would argue) a good fictional trait fairly specific to HPL -- the exercise of Lovecraftian philosophy, by a Lovecraft character, ends in disaster. (Imagine an Ayn Rand novel in which the selfish, brilliant protagonist dies hated, miserable, impoverished, and alone. Or, to bring it down a notch, a Robert E. Howard story where the proud barbarian is tricked by the wily city folk and winds up exhibited in a zoo or pulling a manure cart for a plantation.) Herbert West, like Lovecraft, believes that life is purely chemical -- and demonstrates that belief, and inevitably loses not only his life (in gruesome fashion) but earlier, his scientific mind as well (replacing it with "mere morbid and ghoulish curiosity"). Lovecraft regularly kills his Mary Sues, often for the crime of believing what Lovecraft believes. Not always -- Randolph Carter survives where Charles Dexter Ward doesn't (although Joshi argues fairly convincingly that both those novels are conscious epilogues to previous Lovecraftian aesthetics) -- but more often than not.

****

Re-reading the story, I was struck again by the sheer awesomeness of Herbert West's tissue culture, "obtained from the nearly hatched eggs of an indescribable tropical reptile .... It was better than human material for maintaining life in organless fragments, and that was now my friend's chief activity. In a dark corner of the laboratory, over a queer incubating burner, he kept a large covered vat full of this reptilian cell-matter; which multiplied and grew puffily and hideously." I swear, if I ever came up with something that neat, I'd take the rest of the week off.

NEXT: "The Hound"
(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Outsider

Just to start off, I think that there's very little that can improve on Lovecraft's own self-criticism:
To my mind this tale--written a decade ago--is too glibly mechanical in its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of the language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself be tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.
I haven't got the vaguest idea why August Derleth made it the title tale of his first HPL compendium, and I've got only condescending, insulting ideas why it seems to take such central place in Lovecraft criticism since. (Because it's a great, bloody obvious hook for various forms of cheap or downright meretricious psychoanalysis, is why, for starters.)

Lyrically, it's just bad Poe. J. Vernon Shea wrote that if discovered in an attic with no author's name "The Outsider" would "pass for a lost tale of Poe," to which I would add that there would be little doubt why Poe left it unsigned and put it in an attic. It's not that the lugubrious, purple style of the thing is bad, in and of itself -- Poe could, and did, churn out prose much like it, in really good stories. But in "The Outsider," it's just not in service to anything. Where Poe uses the warm fog of such language to create a psychological sensation linking the reader and narrator while exploring the narrator's inner life, Lovecraft's wordage is just larded on to extend the distance to the ending (which HPL lifted from Hawthorne).

HPL adds insult to injury by using an epigraph from Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes," which is as full of sex and life and genuine mystery as "The Outsider" isn't.

Amazingly enough, George Wetzel manages to say something actually interesting about the piece, so I'll rip him off. He casts "The Outsider" as one chapter in Lovecraft's evolving ghoul-cycle, pointing out that "The Outsider"'s combination of crypts, dreams, and a decayed corpse with fading (or ancient) human memory are all topoi of Lovecraft's ghouls. For Wetzel, the ghoul-cycle begins with the unnatural extension of life through cannibalism in "Picture in the House," continues with the twin themes of self-discovery and buried ancestral horror in "The Outsider" and "The Rats in the Walls," and emerges triumphantly in "Pickman's Model" and "Dream-Quest," where the full ouroborous pattern of the ghouls is revealed. Although it's dressing the corpse in borrowed cerements, I have to say this is almost a convincing reason to re-read "The Outsider."

NEXT: "Herbert West -- Reanimator"
(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] The Picture In the House

Lovecraft wrote some great first lines in his day, but there's only one or two that can stand up there with "Seekers after horror haunt strange, far places." The trouble is that people seem to miss his further point, in the delight of the phrase -- that your own backyard is scarier still, if you stop to look. This was one of HPL's unsung contributions to horror; bringing it home rather than setting it in "Italy" or "Geneva" or "Transylvania" or some nebulous no-place like Poe. Yes, Machen had the same instinct, and Stoker was clever enough to briefly bring a foreign vampire into the beating heart of Victorian London, but HPL did it more intensely than either. And yes, HPL did his share of globe-trotting writing, too -- I just think this seeking after horror at home is one of his sterling "Copernican Revolutions" of weird fiction; no less influential for all the occasional Aristarchuses and Nicolases of Cusa before him. There'd be no Stephen King Maine without Lovecraft's New England; it's the richness of reference to something you know intimately that separates the real from the phony. My Chicago-set Unknown Armies game and my LA-set Call of Cthulhu campaign (both set in the late 1990s) were richer, realer, and scarier than many of my other games -- including the Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran in college with settings entirely restricted to Maine in honor of this story (and of Stephen King).

***

This, to make a very unfair comparison, is partially why I'm less than impressed with the adequate horror-pulp Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher. They're supposedly set in Chicago, but for all the Chicago-ness they exhibit, they might as well be set in Arkham, or Metropolis. Or Toronto, which is apparently where they're filming the TV show.

***

It's fun to peel the layers back on the titular picture, which is of a cannibal feast of "the Anziques." (Again, HPL avoids centering on race, noting instead that the "Anziques" are depicted "with Caucasian features.") Just now, I told you about the picture, as written by Lovecraft, as relayed by the narrator, as described by the Old Man, as illustrated by "the brothers De Bry," from text printed in a Latin edition, of a book originally written in Italian, by an author telling another traveler's story. That's eight levels between you and the cannibal feast. (And since HPL never actually saw a copy of Regnum Congo, but depended on descriptions and some reproductions in book by T.H. Huxley, that's either one or two more levels in there somewhere.) This is a raw version of the interleaved, almost archaeological narrative that HPL will come to master fully in "The Call of Cthulhu."

***

One more great phrase from the story, less well-known than the opener: "hungry fer victuals I couldn't raise nor buy..."

***

Of course in Chicago, that describes foie gras, too. Dammit.

NEXT: "The Outsider"
(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] Nyarlathotep

Although we get bits of it in "Dagon":
I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind -- of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

and a hint in "Arthur Jermyn":
Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species ... for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

it's in "Nyarlathotep" that we get Lovecraft's full-blown Apocalypse. Like "Dagon," "Statement," and "Celephaïs" written from a dream, this prose-poem doesn't even pretend to have a plot. It's all incident. The parallels to the Book of Revelation are obvious -- we have the turmoil of war and weather, and a harbinger figure emerges (out of Egypt, not Babylon -- but then Christ came "out of Egypt" at least once) for his Second Coming, spreading an almost literally Antichrist-like gospel of technology and nightmare. He "opens the seals" and shows a vision of the end of the world, which then happens, leaving the New Heaven and Earth unified in Him. It's really, really good, and repays re-reading both for under-emphasized tropes in HPL (as in "He" and "Shadow Out of Time," the Yellow Peril conquers the world in the future) and for language and theme. Only Castro's ranting apocalypse from "Call of Cthulhu" is its equal, and it's distanced by being placed in another voice.

****

I will lose my eliptonist's license if I don't note that pulp scholar Will Murray has theorized that Lovecraft based this story on the "electrical showman" tours conducted by Nikola Tesla around the turn of the century. Speaking in my skeptic's voice, I don't believe it -- there's no evidence -- but I'd accept the notion that Tesla put some of the flavor into the atmosphere that Lovecraft drew on for Nyarlathotep's atmospherics: "Then the sparks played amazingly around the head of the spectators" certainly sounds Tesla-ish, but the rest is just wishful thinking of the sort I heartily endorse.

NEXT: "The Picture in the House"
(4 comments | Leave a comment)

Monday, March 5th, 2007

[Tour de Lovecraft] Celephaïs

I confess that I find most of HPL's 'Dunsanian' works second-rate, except for "The Cats of Ulthar" and "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," which latter is almost perfect pastiche.

But in service to our project, I re-read "Celephaïs" and found that it makes a whole lot more sense, or is at least a whole lot more fun, if you treat Ooth-Nargai, et al., as Faërie. Then, it's the fairly creepy (not least because quasi-sympathetic) story of a man seduced by the Other Side, not a mawkish exercise in artistic self-pity and whining. Indeed, read thusly, it merits comparison with Machen's "The White People," which is not something I would have thought remotely plausible before now.

That said, I think HPL intended it to be artistic criticism as much as anything, and it fails at that resoundingly, not least because the story doesn't actually obey its own dictates, striving far too clumsily for effect rather than acheiving effortless transmission of antique beauty. But again, it was a very early, very amateurish effort.

NEXT: "Nyarlathotep"
(14 comments | Leave a comment)
Previous 10 | Next 10