Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Lovecraft: Scared, Not Scary...

So I've been reading a lot through the quarantine; which in my case involves plenty of Lovecraft (and his various imitators); and what I've discovered (and not for the first time), is that the master of cosmic horror really isn't all that scary.  He just isn't.  His creations are interesting enough; and that's a big part of it.  But Lovecraft has never been truly frightening, non-euclidean geometry be damned.  So why is he so damned effective?  And why does anything "Lovecraftian" automatically bear the horror genre's stamp of approval? 

I think it comes down to fear.  And between the reader and the writer, there's two possible sources of this.  A truly good story elicits fear in the reader, which is obviously the gold standard for any writer in the genre.  Scare your reader and you're a pro.  Pet Sematary (the book, not either one of the amazingly shoddy adaptations) did this.  You can frighten your readers by appealing to their humanity and threatening all they hold dear once that human connection is established.  Make 'em care, make 'em relate; then scare 'em...

But Lovecraft was far too isolated, too socially maladapted (and not in the edgy, hipster sense) to write compelling, relatable characters.  He simply didn't understand the minutiae of daily life and relationships except to mention these in passing, often with an air of relief to have it done with.  He was the ultimate mamma's boy, afraid to leave home.  We quite rightly denounce his racism and xenophobia (often with an air of superiority), while ignoring the genuine fear and insecurity behind it.  Crowded streets, loud voices, unfamiliar people and languages; these things would be terrifying to Lovecraft's brand of (social) insecurity.


And herein lies Lovecraft's pedigree: he (the author) was scared of everything: the outside world, the present day.  He was frightened of it all and sought escape in the familiar New England landscape and an idealized antiquity that never was.  The Dreamlands were all that he held dear, and he admits it.  But the howling Void, with its squishy alien creations, was analogous to the real world with all its noise and sex and social demands.  Lovecraft couldn't scare his readers.  He lacked the skill and experience.  But boy could he channel his own fears to atmospheric effect.  And if you can't scare your readers, scare yourself.  

I'm not sure Lovecraft did this on purpose; but he did it.  And it speaks to why he was so effective.  Good horror, whether literary or of the gaming variety, demands fear.  And that fear needs to come from somewhere.  Otherwise, Cthulhu is just tentacles and the mythos just another enemy organization to defeat.  And now we come full circle to the present quarantine and my reading list; and armed with this newfound knowledge, am convinced that the best Lovecraftian horror is nowhere to be found in most mythos literature.  Might I suggest...

Harvest Home (Thomas Tyron): There's nothing supernatural about this book.  It has a bucolic New England town; but I'm guessing God is absent.  And yet its (first-person) protagonist makes a horrific discovery when he and his family settle there.  A discovery that shakes all that he holds to be good and true.  He ends (spoiler) maimed and mad.

Revival (Stephen King): This lengthy tale (also rendered in first person) chronicles the life of a boy who becomes a troubled man, all in a very ordinary world.  Ghosts and ghouls have nothing on the horrors of real life.  Nothing at all.  From tragedy to addiction to the pleasures of love and friendship, we follow our hero through the decades of his life and the gradual reveal of something profoundly disturbing about reality.  De Vermis Mysteriis is mentioned, so the Lovecraftian angle isn't accidental; but there isn't a tentacle in sight, and that's good.  

Neither of the above, especially Harvest Home, would be the first thing anyone might think of as Lovecraftian; but that's only if we see Lovecraft through a geek-culture lens.

Anyway, the pandemic (and its implications) are frightening enough; but if you're looking for Lovecraftian stories to while away your isolation, just know that this hides in strange and unexpected places.  Tentacles are only scary if you're allergic to seafood.  Now I'm not saying this stuff isn't lots of fun.  Read it if you've got it.  But I am suggesting that some of the best Lovecraftian fiction comes in unexpected places precisely because its progenitor wasn't scary at all - he was merely scared - and that just might be enough to produce great horror...

13 comments:

  1. I think a lot of Lovecraft worked because he was first to introduce Cosmic Horror. But since we've all grown up with Cosmic Horror it really doesn't scare the way it must have back in the day. It's like the old Bela Legosi Dracula which was so scary people passed out, but now we let little kids see it because it's so tame it's hard to imagine anyone actually being truly scared.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed, with a further observation: what modern readers appreciate about Lovecraft and cosmic horror is the emotion behind it, the mood it paints. Cosmic horror is all about the realization that the universe and humanity's place in it isn't as nice and tidy as we imagined, but that we are basically a cosmic accident in an uncaring and ultimately incomprehensible universe. A lot of us are OK with that concept, so it's not horrifying, but early 20th century writers and artists were finding it much harder to accept.

      Similarly, the greatness of the Browning/Legosi Dracula film for people today isn't that it scares us, but that the imagery is creepy, like the scene where Renfield is at the foot of the stairs snickering maniacally. It doesn't make our heart beat faster or give us an adrenaline rush, as it may have for people in the '30s. But the image and feeling sticks with us.

      Delete
  2. What's scary is very individual. Lovecraft has scared me (reading about the hills of Vermont in "The Whisperer in the Darkness" while among those same hills) and King has scared me (The Shining), but Pet Sematary didn't particularly scare me. Its probably scarier if you're a parent. I haven't read Harvest Home but I did see the miniseries they made of it decades ago. Again, not scary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right, of course. What's frightening is subjective and rather personal. I'll add that movie/television adaptations are usually the worst possible way to experience a book (Pet Sematary never got it right)...

      Delete
  3. Another example of something that conveys fear without necessarily frightening the audience is the original Wicker Man movie. For people with a certain background, it might be very scary. But for most people, the main character is a huge jerk and we half feel he deserves what he got.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll have to rewatch that. It was effective for sure, and not just because of the incomparable Christopher Lee...

      Delete
  4. If these two (or rather three if you include Pet Sematary) books represent your reading list I sure do hope you'll reveal more of it. I think you're on to something here and personally I prefer Lovecraftian/Cthulhu Mythos stories without tentacles. I've already read Revival (loved it) so I'll take a look at Harvest Home. Keep 'em coming! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I recommend Dark Gods and The Ceremonies, both by T.E.D. Klein (and, very sadly, his only written works)...

      Delete
    2. Will check him out - many thanks!

      Delete
  5. The Cosmic Horror shall one day obliterate those only pretending to fear. For of the reader, Lovecraft asks like InXS, "are you one of my kind"? Any answer must necessarily be an individual's. No safety net. No sanity. The Cosmic Horror!

    ReplyDelete