Saturday, October 20, 2012

Essay on Lovecraft

Sun Rays inside Ruins of Church; source: ; taken by:Robert & Mihaela VicolI'm trying to read all the Britannica Great Books and I am now over half of the way there. I just finished Montaigne's Essays and I have to say they're not only full of wit, but many are disquieting as he humbly goes against the current. What strikes me most at this point, nonetheless, is how he goes about writing them. Sure, an essay is supposed to be a free, unconstrained text, but Montaigne's go beyond what I expected. His essays are nothing like your usual high school assignments. He doesn't have a structure that I can point my finger at, or build a case around whatever he's writing about, much less get to a conclusion. He just lets himself go with the flow and keep on writing on and on until he feels he has exhausted the topic. He could easily stop at any point and no one would be the wiser. Length is no impediment whatsoever; a couple of his essays could fill a volume each by themselves. I do not mean to limit myself, but I feel that I couldn't write like that, firstly, because I lack his knowledge, wisdom and style; and secondly, because I do feel the need to get somewhere with whatever I'm writing about; if I'm going to take pen and paper, or more likely keyboard and text processor, I better give the reader something that is worth her while, that is, getting to the point I want to get across. The absence of the point, or kicker, bothers me. Notwithstanding, I'm going to give it a go right here, right now and see what it's like.

I have decided on Lovecraft. He's not my favorite writer, nor an overly problematic one. Yet, he and his creations give an ample field to delve into. Foremost, he takes the reader deeply to places and vistas where, up to his arrival to the writing world, were seldom explored. If you read Don Quixote, you can ride alongside knight and squire around Spain and get the feel sensation of the roads, thickets and inns and meet characters along the way. Likewise, when you read Tom Sawyer you get to feel as one of his friends, sail in the Mississippi and feel the oppressive darkness of MacDougal's cave while being hunted by Injun Joe. These, and others are vicarious experiences. It is no surprise to you, but you can travel around the world just by reading and if the writer is up to the task. You can see the plains of Russia, the jungles of South America, the inside of the pyramids… whatever. There still are however, places and beings that are not there, make-believe stuff that could start with the simple, yet powerful question: what if? Lovecraft's value, in my opinion, starts with this. With him, you're taken were no one else has gone before. His stories, are not so wild as to make them opaque. No, they start with plainly recognizable premises. What makes them different is that they quickly take the reader to the shadowy regions of Earth and beyond. This nether, creepy regions turn out to be of great interest themselves: so much that them, and their denizens begin to take a life of their own, firstly by related stories originating from Lovecraft himself, then by other authors in his, at the time, small circle and finally by anyone who has been exposed to the material, and has decided to explore a bit further by taking up the pen, keyboard or multisided die.

We have seen on the silver screen and on paper what one man can do just by himself. Take for instance, Tolkien, who towers all around in this aspect. He builds an entire world, with its own mythology, races, history, languages and set of rules and he does all of these by just having a hobbit live in a hole. I believe this took an awful amount of thought and time and, if I remember rightly, he didn't set himself on work crafting from the start; it just opened the gates for his own imagination to keep building on. Lovecraft, on his part, also started alone just trying to write up a story at a time with no thought (as far as I know) of chaining them together, though some subtle, and then not so subtle, inner references began to emerge. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft found himself with somewhat competent fans, who built on his foundations. Generalizing from self, which admittedly is suspect at best, I have not come across any notable non-Tolkien work that takes Middle Earth as basis. Maybe it is because of their fundamental approach to their work: Tolkien's work is close-ended in the sense that he tries to leave as few loose ends as possible, while Lovecraft looks for open-endedness  as a theme and a device, the latter likely unconsciously, with the result of leaving fans and others with more hooks to work with. Maybe what I mean is there is a strong canon with Tolkien, not  so with Lovecraft. (The same strong canon case is that of the Star Wars universe: it is so strong that there is an actual curator. Despite the action figures and the Lego sets, most things in that universe are pretty set.) Or maybe post-Lovecraft mythos expansion has something to do with copyright. By the way, I don't believe that Lovecraft wrote everything from scratch; he did take, or borrow, at least some concepts, such as Hastur, from previous writers but without plagiarism or misconduct on his part.

Before leaving this world building aspect, I have to mention that there are some other writers that do specifically set themselves to build a world, or a cosmology in a planned manner and end up with nice clockwork results. The best example I can think of, or at least the one I have had in my mind all along, is the Death Gate Cycle. This, is a series of high fantasy novels consisting of seven books. The authors, Hickman and Weiss, not only come up with one world, but with SEVEN of them. The first four worlds are treated separately in the first four books. Starting with the fifth book the characters from previous worlds world begin to interact with each other. I have heard that a Game of Thrones books are also meticulously crafted, but their length, and the fact that the first one requires two credits for download, have prevented me so far from reading them. I also haven't watched the TV series. Oh, that is mainly because I fear I might like them too much. So, back to our subject, even though there are multiple interrelations between Lovecraft's own stories and those of other fans and authors, this doesn't mean that one cannot enjoy each story by itself.

The first time I ever got acquainted with Lovecraft's name was back when I was six or seven at my local bookstore. His books were prominently displayed at the horror section and the artwork on the cover was, and still is, pretty scary for a young boy. I guess some of them gave me nightmares, especially the one of the Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath with the multi-eyed, multi-mouthed tree stump being wailing at you (a shoggoth?). The only other scary cover from that period is that of the Dancing Devil from one of the Three Investigators books. Looking back to that cover (it's the all-red one), its impact on me has dropped to zero. The suit on the figure now even looks fake. Back then, I had to avert my eyes. Eventually, I did read many of the Three Investigators books, some of them which are pretty good, but never got around to reading what the mystery of the dancing Devil was about. Probably it was someone in a suit trying to scare people off much the way of what happens in almost every episode of Scooby Doo. Now, flashforward to the present day. Thanks to the net, I have found that the cover artwork for the Lovecraft Del Rey books was commissioned to the artist Michael Whelan, who came up with two panels. Individual figures from each panel eventually ended on separate covers. You can still see them nowadays on the Del Rey editions. What gets me is the contrast of the reds on the grays. Having had time to consider, I would say that the depictions are not really Lovecraftian. Part of the point of the stories is that he is not that explicit. Other than that figure in the window, which I think of as a Martense, as it appears in the cover of the Lurking Fear, and the tree stump, if that really is a shoggoth, not much could be called his. Well, the wasteland could very well be Kadath. To me, current illustrations are not this good.

There is still another instance of a Lovecraft cover from my childhood. This one is from HP's Supernatural Horror in Literature. As I remember it, when I first saw the cover of this book it was in a two-story bookshop with a balcony overlooking the ground floor. Copies of Supernatural were neatly piled in the space between the end of the staircase and the balcony railing. I think it was divided into two volumes… No, that is not correct: it has too few pages to merit division. Well, as I remember it, on the cover of one was the face of the mummy of Seti I and on the other a similar head in shape, but this one made all in wax with dripping globulets covering the face's features down to the mouth. How can one forget?

The stories themselves tend to be formulaic and that's fine. Typically a narrator begins describing himself, the circumstances of his involvement, the growing horror that unfolds and in the last line or paragraph the final revelation, where the comforting realities of the everyday world are shattered. Also, madness ensues. Complete loss of sanity is a common theme all throughout. One would think that getting to know more would make one better prepared to deal with life. With Lovecraft's characters this is not the case. Either by intense study of forbidden knowledge or by delving into the mystery at hand, they unequivocably arrive at realizations that shouldn't have been stirred. The ultimate norm in Lovecraft's stories is that some things are not meant to be known. In real life I have not heard of anyone going mad by studying too much. I guess it might be possible and maybe perhaps not so rare, but it doesn't appear to be a problem to society at large. Of course, there are people who obsess themselves with whatever hobby they have, but even those are quite tame. It is not as if institutions are filled with them or anything, despite the widespread availability of knowledge. So, one of Lovecraft's worst fears has not come to pass. By the looks of it there is no forbidden knowledge from beyond being tapped as of now. Going back to Montaigne, he does warn that knowledge has been overhyped and it is not as good as people suppose it to be. Even Ecclesiasticus warns against it. Kahneman, in Thinking: Fast and Slow and Taleb, in the Black Swan each somewhat second this view by showing that knowing more about a subject can lead to worse results than not. This happens notably to pundits and experts primarily in the social sciences. Fortunately, or not so fortunately, the decreasing returns of knowledge apply mostly to their predictions about the future. Raw, working expertise is still protected. The only other problem with knowledge is that there is too much of it. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (take that, monsieur essayist).

The ultimate source of forbidden knowledge in Lovecraft for one reason or another is the Necronomicon. Despite its cool name and dark hints it doesn't exist in real life. Proof of it is that there are no pre-Lovecraft references to any such tome. There are books under that name, some of which  you can even buy at Amazon, but all of them are of recent writing, or are a compilation. Judging a book by its cover, the most interesting one that I have seen was  a wood-covered one with the figure of a contorted face in very high relief; this one at a street market. These fake Necronomicons are not without value. I think I read that Simon's Necronomicon is a good source of Sumerian mythology. Now, let's assume that the Necronomicon does really exist and there is a copy around somewhere. This poses what I call the problem of the Necronomicon. Suppose we found it, what we would do with it? If it were the real deal, reading it would be out of the question. Selling it or publicizing it, would surely get it into the wrong hands. Keeping it shelved at home would gnaw on our minds either by our own fancy or by supernatural instigations. Finally, destroying it would be a shame, after it having survived so many centuries. The problem appears a no-win scenario in any case. Unexpectedly, St. Augustine in The City of God (Bk VII chs 34-35) describes this same problem with a parallel text, the lost books of Numa. To him, the solution is a no-brainer.

So what stories would be recommended for novice? Sure, the mythos and the references can be difficult to interpret if you're just starting out, but most of them are well behaved and do not get in the way. This means that the stories are self-contained and do not require from reader any previous background knowledge. So start wherever you want.  The ones that I like best are the Shadow over Innsmouth, the Lurking Fear, at the Mountains of Madness, the Shadow beyond Time, the Rats in the Walls. Those that I just don't like mainly encompass  dreams and the silver key.If you want to introduce someone to Lovecraft and he likes war stories give him to read the Temple. The easier recommendation is to get The Best of H.P. Lovecraft from Del Rey if you really want to plunge into the thick of it. 'Best' is a subjective term of course, but I don't think anyone will be disappointed on the whole by the selection.

Lovecraft's writing is very good. Not as good as Poe's, but better than average. At times he does go overboard with adverbs, but I feel this only adds to his charm. There are some authors that make their mark through a good idea, but are not very good at wrting them. Take for instance, Stoker, who has crafted one of the most memorable characters in literature, Dracula; I do not think he's a very good writer. The first four chapters from the novel are very interesting, and his idea of unfolding the plot through journal entries, recording, and diaries etc. is appealing. But, he leaves many unexplored venues he could have delved into deeper, such as the Castle or the gypsies, or Renfield. What's Renfield's purpose after all? He has an interesting affection, but it doesn't support the story. He just stands there. He himself could have played a more important part other than being locked up. In some adaptations of the novel, he's rolled with Harker into a single character presumably to add more depth to both, or just cut the character count. And that's another problem of the novel: there are too many characters. Arguably, the most important one, Quincy Morris, is also the most out of place (a Texan in London?). So much that I have seldom seen him included in any adaptation. In the Lair of the White worm, the whole story is uninteresting. No, scratch that, the premise is interesting, but the delivery has been better realized by other authors.

Before leaving Renfield's subject altogether, I find that that another similar character to him is Patrick Hockstetter from Stephen King's It. His fridge is perhaps the 'worst' part in the novel.  Somehow I felt that Patrick's outlook would have served him better at the end. Mr. King is arguably the third member of America's triad of terror. Of his vast output I have only read the aforementioned book and another short story which I will deal with later. Some of his novels are so long that it makes me not to want to invest so much time on them. Lovecraft, who leans on the shorter side of things, tallies another favorable notch. Don't misunderstand me, if you've got the time to spend, Stephen King is the way to go.

So what about the Lovecraft inspired works, namely those that deal with the mythos? I must say I have been disappointed with the stories I have read so far. I bought Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos which compile several ones, one even by Stephen King. I found most of them forgettable and all of them lacking of Lovecraft's magic. Sure, they deal with the set universe, and expand it, but nothing much better than what a good fan fiction writer could pull. Special mention goes to My Boat. I do not know why, but this one stayed with me best.

Now, for a truly Lovecraftian experience, help comes from an unexpected direction: interactive fiction. Interactive fiction is one of the best game formats ever in my opinion. Of antediluvian origins, that is, the late 70s, these are textbased games which describe the setting and the action on a computer screen, let the user type in what he wants his in-game character to do, and respond accordingly. The best-known series from this genre is Zork. Published by Infocom it is still referenced to on the net. What brings down this game concept, other than the lack of graphics, which dissuade casual gamers, is that on the whole, they are very, very hard. And sometimes unfair: you may be unable to solve a puzzle, and thus finish the game, if you do not type the exact phrasing the computer expects.

Game writers are also Lovecraft fans and so, there are some Lovecraftian games out there, though generally not very good. One stands above the crowd though: Anchorhead by Michael S. Gentry. This game borrows elements from the Dunwich Horror, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the Shadow over Innsmouth but all mixed into a new seamless result. There is much exploring and gradual discovery of the horror which is a Lovecraft landmark. And there is also very good writing. No Lovecraft fan writer can get by without it. I just could not resist posting for  you a sample from the game (no spoiler here):

(The main character looks at a painting)
>look at the scene
A young apprentice butcher learns his trade in a slaughterhouse. The older man -- heavyset, thick jaw and sloping brow -- holds his cleaver above a severed calf's head, looking expectantly at the boy as though demonstrating the proper technique. The boy, holding a smaller cleaver of his own, looks on attentively. It would be reminiscent of something by Norman Rockwell, except for the frankly alarming amount of gore. The aprons and faces of both master and apprentice are streaked with blood; blood pools on the chopping block and overspills the gutters; blood drips from the walls and from the skinned carcasses that can be seen hanging in the background. The two butchers stand ankle-deep in a reeking abattoir.

And... there's something wrong with the boy. Most of his body is hidden behind the chopping block, but there are details about the parts you can see that... don't seem to fit quite right. The arm holding the cleaver is slightly misshapen, for example, the fingers deformed in a way that you can't quite make out. And his neck seems just a bit too thick, and his head seems just a bit too large and blocky. His face looks normal enough, except that it seems to have been placed just slightly off-center. It's a very subtly disturbing effect.

You shake yourself suddenly, and realize you've been staring intently at the painting for minutes on end. You step back and rub your tired eyes. When you look again, however, the picture you were just examining is no longer in front of you. None of the other paintings have moved as far as you can tell, but that particular scene seems to have disappeared without leaving so much as a blank space on the wall.

Lovecraft is not about gore; it is the second paragraph that has made this part memorable for me. I absolutely loved this game and thoroughly recommend it. There was just one part (at the well) that suffered from the interactive fiction curse of demanding the proper command from you and not an approximation to move on.

Now, there are also tabletop pen and paper role-playing games based on the mythos. The best-known is named appropriately Call of Cthulhu and he has been around for at least a couple decades now. There are a few groups that post their games online in podcast form. The Role Playing Public Radio, RPPR, generally comes up with short, interesting stories and settings. In the regular shows they give advice on conducting and playing better and more fun games. Another nice group is ydsc, but their games tend to be too prolonged. There are surely some other good groups out there. Be wary when listening to any of these especially on critical rolls because the players at the table readily yell at the microphone on triumph or frustration blowing the listener's ears off. I solved this problem for my own listening and will post it later.

What about other media? There are some Lovecraft movies but I believe they generally have a bad rep. I have only watched one were Lovecraft is seen stealing the Necronomicon from a monastery and then pulling his tales out of the tome. I also believe that there are a number of mainstream movies and series the take elements from him, but never place him as the main focus. Animation and anime have been more active of late. Cthulhu has been seen playing golf in the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

In my narrow view of the world, the biggest Lovecraft related work in the last year has been Nyarko-san. Hailing from Japan, this consists in light novels, some manga series, and at least three animation runs.  The main feature, Another Crawling Chaos, is the one to watch for those interested. There is an uncorroborated claim that sales of Lovecraft's collected works spiked over there when this came out.

My English literature teacher back in junior high once said that the most important scene of any movie is the first one. I do not remember why so, or if it is even true, but I like to play the game from time to time. I think that the reason for the first scene being so relevant is because it sets the mood for the rest of the movie or show. The best example I have seen so far is the tombstone in the 2004 movie The Village.

In the case of Nyarko-san, the first scene made me cringe. "My, this is going to be a rough ride" I thought to myself. Red Night. Unholy charnel music. Ichor... Fortunately, it is all a red herring. Still,  those few moments immediately brought to my mind another anime show, 11 Eyes, which also happens to contain some Lovecraftian aspects. Towards the end of that show, I was strongly suspecting that it might end badly. Returning to our subject matter, Nyarko-san has essentially no unfolding plot. Things only happen; mainly to the protagonist, Mahiro. What the show has in full hands are references to Lovecraft's works and other anime shows. Some of these are pretty obscure, so you can enjoy yourself in an Easter egg hunt. Overall, the show starts really good, but it's novelty and fun decline after each successive episode only to pick up again at episode nine. The show kind of tries to be respectful of Lovecraft and his universe, but ultimately lets itself loose.

Would Lovecraft approve or, my, even like it? Hard to tell, him being dead and I without an inkling of his personal opinions; maybe if I read his letters (which are published)… I think he would find the concept cute, but pretty much the way dad finds cute when 18 month junior shreds his paperwork into confetti. As said, the show tries to be respectful, but fails at it; it just goes haywire. It is available legally for free at Crunchyroll.

Now, I don't want to leave without another word on Lovecraft himself. Here's an update. There has been another bigger release in the not-too-distant-past: the two-volume 'definitive' biography of Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi I Am Providence: The Life And Times of H.P. Lovecraft. As I understand it, this is the second or third incarnation of the same work by Mr. Joshi, bigger, meaner and more complete than ever before. I'm torn on this one. On one side now I could really learn what the man was like; perhaps know about his inspirations for some of the stories; settle if he was mad himself, which I suspect, but don't really believe; and have the pair of volumes themselves which I'm certain can dazzle visitors. On the other, I'm not sure if I want to read over a thousand pages  and get to know him that well. I'd like to get through other projects first (the Great Books for one), before wholly immersing myself in such a long read. Also, I'd like to leave some mystery about him in my mind. An Xray of him would yield a much better essay, but where would the enchantment go? From what I read here and there, Joshi's monument is well regarded. I have access to his previous bio shot, Dreamer and a Visionary : H. P. Lovercraft in His Time , through my local library and might check it out to see if it wins me over.

So Lovecraft lives.  As of late I have come to the realization that of the generally accepted Great Books, none belong to the horror/terror genre.   I wonder why this is so. Does the genre repel? Is it inherently inferior? Poe is the best regarded,  but I've not seen his works taken as first magnitude or ranked among the world's best. Maybe the genre's figure is yet to appear. I don't know. I read Lovecraft because its fun, not because I think he'll make me better. 

So that's that. End of the essay. Must confess that I cheated a bit by first listing all the subtopics I wanted to write about and only then threading them. Still, I incorporated some ideas that came to mind as I was writing, so it was not an entirely premeditated affair. In the end I couldn't keep a pure free flow, but I liked the experiment nontheless.


Marlene Saffan said...

I guess reading a lot of books and thinking about the concepts of the book is the best way to write good articles. Look at good essay hooks if you need some help in writing.

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