Friday, May 31, 2013

The Lurking Fear and the Prodigal Son

In the beginning of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Lurking Fear, (originally published in 1923), the intrepid narrator has brought two strong men with him to spend the night in the shunned and deserted Martense Mansion.  The ruins of this once great house perch near the top of Tempest Mountain, so named for the unusual frequency of dangerous weather.  There has been a terrible conflagration in nearby Leffert’s Corner, where a storm and the collapse of an underground cavern have left 75 of the villagers horribly dead or missing. 

The narrator describes his career as “a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.”  With his assistants, he plans to spend the night in the very bedroom of Jan Martense, a member of the doomed clan who was mysteriously murdered back in 1763.  It is clear, even from the first section of the story, (“The Shadow on the Chimney”), that the narrator’s career is about to take off in new directions.

The room where they will spend the night—two of them, their last night—is on the second storey, on the southeast corner of the house.  The narrator surveys his surroundings, a decrepit old room filled with debris.  Lovecraft describes the room carefully and attends to details.  He wants to construct the scene in such a way that “The Shadow on the Chimney” will actually fall on the chimney.  But before that unsettling event appears, there is another unusual feature of the fireplace and chimney:

“Opposite the large window was an enormous Dutch fireplace with scriptural tiles
representing the prodigal son…” (emphasis added)

The story of the prodigal son, which comes from the New Testament, is in the book of Luke, chapter 15, vs. 11-32.  In the biblical story, a young man, eager to leave the family farm, asks for his inheritance, and later squanders all of it on wild living.  Destitute, he returns to his father, asks him for forgiveness, and is welcomed back with a celebration.  (“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”)   Jesus uses this parable to show what the Kingdom of God is like, at least with respect to forgiveness and repentance.  But what is this Christian reference doing in the middle of a Lovecraft story about underground flesh eating ghouls?

The fireplace is not mentioned again, but this detail about scriptural tiles, though minor, is striking.  Lovecraft is not known for his religious piety.  The worlds he created in his fiction are almost completely devoid of grace, salvation, and hope.  (Exactly why this should be would be fruitful to explore further.)  It seems unlikely that this mention of the prodigal son is accidental.

The reason for the appearance of the scriptural reference becomes clearer later in the story.  After the early demise of his two friends, and the gruesome death of a reporter who joins in the investigation later on—this occurs in the second section, entitled “A Passer in the Storm”—the narrator descends into a compulsive madness as he continues his search for the lurking fear.

In the third section of the story, (“What the Red Glare Meant”), a story-within-a-story is told about Jan Martense, the descendent who is doomed to an early and violent death.  Lovecraft describes Martense as a young man who

“…from some kind of restlessness joined the colonial army when news of the Albany Convention reached Tempest Mountain.  He was the first of Gerrit’s descendants to see much of the world; when he returned in 1760 after six years of campaigning, he was hated as an outsider by his father, uncles and brothers, in spite of his dissimilar Martense eyes.  No longer could he share the peculiarities and prejudices of the Martenses, while the very mountain thunderstorms failed to intoxicate him as they had before.  Instead, his surroundings depressed him; and he frequently wrote to a friend of plans to leave the paternal roof.”

Which he is never able to do, because it becomes clear that his family murdered him not long after his return from military service.  Even in death, he receives no consideration or justice.  The loyal friend of Jan Martense later arrives looking for him, exhumes the grave, and finds proof of the murder.  He presses charges, but to no avail.  Evidence linking the crime to his family is meager.
Jan Martense, then, is the prodigal son that Lovecraft refers to in the beginning of the story when he describes the scriptural tiles decorating the fireplace.  It is a foreshadowing of what might have been, if grace had existed in the universe that Lovecraft depicts.  Unlike the biblical tale, the young Martense does not return to forgiveness and celebration, much less to a feast and reconciliation.  Lovecraft has reversed the outcome of the original parable, and offered an alternate lesson.

In the fourth and final section of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear, “The Horror in the Eyes”, the implications of the narrator’s terrible discoveries are revealed.  “The thing will haunt me”, he has the narrator say near the end, “for who can say the extermination is complete, and that analogous phenomena do not exist all over the world?  Who can, with my knowledge, think of the earth’s unknown caverns without a nightmare dread of future possibilities?”

With this knowledge in mind the narrator has come to a new and frightful understanding of the nature of the world.  Why is Lovecraft so enthralled with this dark, pitiless world, riddled with loathsome tunnels, and “endless ensanguined corridors”, filled with demonic creatures?  Why are we?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Watching The Lurking Fear During "No TV Week"

Years ago, when the children were younger, they suffered a dreadful initiative promulgated by the local school system.  They were forced to sign contracts in which they promised to omit television from their lives for five days.  The intention was to encourage more active forms of entertainment, to foster reading and family interaction.   As with all good intentions, this one certainly inserted a cobblestone or two into the emerging road to Hell.  But there was a bright spot along that wide boulevard:  I was able to watch an evening of television on the Friday of that week without competition or controversy.

My selfishness was justly and deservedly rewarded.  What was on TV that night was The Lurking Fear, (1994), and because parental discretion was advised, I could banish the entire family from the basement—where television belongs—and watch this film without interruptions.  At least not from them.  The network—can you guess which one?—provided generous commercial interruptions, so many that soon the movie resembled one of the victims of the ghouls it depicts.  

The Lurking Fear was very loosely based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name.  It would be more accurate to say it contained elements of several of his stories, a pastiche of several Lovecraftian themes and settings:  hereditary horror, the corruption and devolution of isolated communities, a monstrous elder race, a defiled church, and subterranean tunnels of filth, terror and decay.   The original story is one of a number of Lovecraft stories that contain ghouls.  You probably have read Pickman’s Model, for example, or seen the Night Gallery episode that features this story, (second season, eleventh episode).

Produced by Full Moon Productions, and similar to other products of that company, The Lurking Fear is pretty low budget, which does not necessarily mean dreadfully acted and awfully written, as was the case here.  However, the film did contain occasional moments of cleverness.  The ghouls show evidence of intelligence and problem solving ability.  They are not just blood thirsty brutes.

Basically, what happens in the movie is this:  the last member of the Martense clan is released from prison after serving time for a murder he did not commit.  He returns to his home town and meets with an old crony of his father’s.  His father had been a criminal of some repute.  The father’s friend, once a petty thief, but now an undertaker, asks the younger Martense’s help in locating a huge sum of stolen money that his father had buried. 

A cryptic map reveals that the money is buried in the grave of the policeman who set his father up, in the cemetery of Leffert's Corner.  The young Martense reluctantly agrees to help.  He finds out later that three old associates of his father are also after the money.  These include Benton, their leader, one of his henchman, and his evil blond gun mall.

It is sometimes the case that a tedious crime drama can be enlivened by the appearance of an occasional flesh eating ghoul.  But the reverse is rarely true.  Ghouls are a distraction, as are hardened criminals, and with both competing for attention, the film quickly loses focus.  Perhaps the intent was to bring about the unholy matrimony of crime and horror in order to produce even more unspeakable offspring.  One of the earliest precedents for this that I can recall is Roger Corman’s Beast from Haunted Cave (1957).

Meanwhile, holed up in an ancient church adjacent to an old cemetery are several of the townspeople, among them an alcoholic doctor, a laborer, an expectant mother, (possibly carrying the evil spawn of one of the ghoulish subterranean creatures), the parish priest and a female demolitions expert who is reminiscent of the Ripley character in the Alien movies.  She is by default the leader of this group. 

They are hiding in the church because Leffert’s Corner has been under increasing attack by subterranean ghouls who feed on the townspeople and steal their babies.  Evidently this has been going on for some time now, and they have had enough. The townspeople want to blow the creatures up.  At this point, boomers may want to sing the old disaster song, “There’s Got to Be a Morning After”.

Unfortunately, what Lovecraftian elements are present are frequently eclipsed by the film noir inspired gangster characters, who goofily lose control of the situation, then regain it, then lose it again after several spur of the moment scuffles with either the good guys or the inconvenient ghouls.  Because the gangsters are so nasty, (and, relatively speaking, the better actors as well), they are often scarier than the ghouls, and steal the show.  The ghouls are offered few lines.

In the film, the character of Martense is a brawny, tan young man who speaks with a pronounced southwestern accent.   Almost no one in a typical Lovecraft story would have a tan.  The character’s demeanor and dialect would outfit him better for a country western music video or an advertisement for barbecue sauce.  He was wildly incongruous with the setting of the film, and with Lovecraft’s fiction in general.  Lovecraft’s protagonists tend to be pale, emaciated scholars from old New England families. They would never take off their shirts, nor involve themselves in physical fights.  Horrors!  Nor would they have been drawn from the criminal classes.

The film was choppy due to the careless editing for television—admittedly not the best place to view any movie.  At the end, the audience will not be sure exactly what happened to the characters assembled in the church, and how Martense, the pregnant woman, and the female demolitions expert escaped all of the explosions and flames at the end. 

Movies of this kind rely on a lot of explosions to move the plot along—typically in all directions, along with the debris.  But there is an inverse relationship between the quality of a film and the number of explosions it contains.  Increase one and the other is diminished.  This film contains a fair number of explosions.

It was disappointing how little was done with the revelation that Martense is related by “bad blood’ to the ghouls in the tunnels beneath church and cemetery.  This is often a key point of a Lovecraft story:  the protagonist discovers an evil he has in fact inherited, that is a part of his identity, and from which he cannot escape.  The news is usually either shattering psychologically or queasily reassuring to the character at the end.   

According to tradition, Martense should have eventually converted to ghoulhood, but nothing actually follows from his discovery of the dreaded “Mark of the Martense.”   He makes some desultory remarks at the end about being afraid of what was “inside him”.  Typically there is at least a change in dietary preferences at this point.

The film’s strongest point was the attention to details of the setting:  the run down little town, the decaying church, the building storm clouds.  The underground tunnels with openings in the walls or floors of homes, all ineffectually boarded up—these were effective in creating a chill.  A town under siege from something below—think of Tremors (1990)—is deeply unsettling and a powerful source of suspense and horror.

The makeup and costuming of the ghouls was pretty convincing, although the creatures were shown in their entirety too early in the movie.  The film, though not satisfying, was not boring. With the exception of some old Night Gallery episodes from the early 70s, and some very recent films, it is difficult to find movies that respect the integrity of Lovecraft’s work.  Somewhat older films, such as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) were fairly true to the original, but lost some of the flavor of the original stories by incorporating elements of more modern horror and thriller films.  (Both of these films from the 80s featured the talented Jeffrey Combs in key roles; he is completely underutilized in The Lurking Fear). 

To be fair, it is probably very challenging to film a Lovecraft story, since so much of the action is research, discovery, rumination and marveling at—or fleeing from—awesome and frightful entities.  Lovecraft is effective at establishing setting and mood in his stories, as well conceptualizing what is truly and supernaturally horrifying.  His settings and ideas are unfortunately often relegated to mere ingredients to be sprinkled into films that are otherwise more action based.  While it would be difficult to make a purely Lovecraftian movie, he clearly has influenced many films by contributing a vocabulary of settings, creatures and mythologies.

“No TV” Week ended the Friday night that I watched The Lurking Fear.  However, before returning the basement and television to the children, I felt the need to examine the walls and floor for signs of disturbance…

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning

If I were a 127 year old reanimated corpse, a physician no less, who needed an ambient room temperature of less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, I would likely not live in Malibu, California.    I would do better somewhere in my own home state, much further north, where this temperature is more readily found throughout the year.  Or I might prefer New York, the original setting of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air”, though not in summer.  And I would certainly avoid living on the third or fourth floor, in an apartment that faces south.  I think I would be most comfortable in the basement. 

That said, the film Cool Air (2012), is a pleasure to watch, and contains a number of creative adaptations that enhance the underlying themes of darkness, decay, death and the unwholesome clinging to life.  Lovecraft purists will appreciate that the film does follow the original story fairly closely despite some modernizations.

As with the 1967 film The Shuttered Room reviewed above, a female character, the doomed Dr. Shockner, is the focus of much of the movie.  (This is one area where modern adaptations of Lovecraft’s work depart from the originals, which are often devoid of women in any significant roles.)  Her relationship with the male narrator, chronicled and described through numerous extended voiceovers, drives much of what happens. Viewers more accustomed to visual action and intense dialogue in a horror film will find these voiceovers tiresome at times.  But they are very much in the style of a typical Lovecraft story, and definitely develop the mood and themes of the tale.

As in the original Lovecraft story, Charlie Baxter, a struggling writer, locates an inexpensive place to live, and soon becomes aware of the idiosyncrasies of his housemates, in particular, of the reclusive Dr. Shockner, who lives upstairs.  Soon after arriving, there is an ominous spill upstairs, a strange smell, and the leaking of fluid onto the ceiling of Baxter’s apartment.  Dr. Shockner must live in a refrigerated apartment due to an unusual chronic illness, which she also treats with various ancient concoctions.  

Baxter is later stricken with a heart attack and stroke, and struggles up the stairs for help from the doctor.  This is how the two principal characters meet.  She restores him, and as he recovers, their relationship deepens.  This is no ordinary doctor-patient relationship, however.  Dr. Shockner is alternately maternal and seductive throughout their bedside conversations.  Her unfolding intent is to initiate him into the secret knowledge that was passed down to her from her physician.  (He is briefly mentioned as a Dr. Torres of Valencia, who was also the mentor of Dr. Muñoz, the doctor’s name in the original story.)

Played by Crystal Laws Green, Dr. Shockner is a mesmerizing figure.  Her hoarse, breathy voice and sardonic, sepulchral smile convey intelligence, arrogance, willfulness and passion, but also world weariness and ultimately, resignation.  As Lovecraft puts it, her methodology, described in the original story, involves understanding that “the will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself.”

One of the characters, a young autistic woman named Estella, is used sensitively and not exploitively in the plot.  She is the daughter of the conniving landlady, and knows but cannot express the awful truth of Dr. Shockner’s work.  She is also a patient of doctor’s, and her mother insists that her “treatments” continue.  Baxter approaches her gently and respectfully.  With effort, she answers some of his questions but leaves him with many new ones; her halting conversation of the unfolding horror amplifies its effect.  Indeed, much is left unsaid.  There are not many details offered about the doctor’s methodology or paraphernalia.  As in the original story, this is left to the viewer’s imagination.

There is a subplot involving a fellow tenant, whose wife is kept in a freezer in the basement, (she does not get many lines). This does not add appreciably to the overall story, and might have been the focus of its own film, perhaps a sequel to this one—“Cool Air II”.  Happily, by the end of the film, the tenant and his wife are reunited in a relationship that will remain new and fresh as long as the power stays on.

There is an interesting role reversal involving Charlie Baxter and Dr. Shockner toward the climax of the film.  They have switched places at the bedside—now he is ministering to her, and has become the stronger of the two.  Her impending doom forces her to rethink her method and theory of preserving life at all costs.  For his part, Baxter continues into his future forever changed by his relationship with Shockner.  The film’s score, and a mix of interesting sound and visual effects, augment the mood of darkness and despair.

Some readers will recall the early 70s television show Night Gallery, hosted by Rod Serling.  A second season episode shown in December of 1971 contained a segment entitled “Cool Air”, written by Rod Serling himself.  Unlike the 2012 film or the original, this version is a love story.  A woman, played by Barbara Rush, narrates a tragic tale of her friendship with the doomed Juan Muñoz, a brilliant physician and another protégé of Dr. Torres of Valencia. 

The woman, Agatha Howard, has found some letters of Dr. Muñoz’ among the papers of her recently deceased father.  Muñoz and her father had been friends, fellow physicians, both committed to the battle against death, though Muñoz was by far the less conventional of the two.  Ms. Howard would like to discuss these letters with Dr. Muñoz and learn more about his work.  He cannot leave the confines of his chilly apartment, so they agree to have dinner at his place.  As with Charlie Baxter above, much of the story is told by Agatha Howard in mournful voiceovers.    
She visits often, their relationship intensifies, and she frequently sits enthralled in his discussion of Goya, history, and other aspects of Spanish culture.  She appreciates the tragedy of his life, his lonely confinement, his persevering spirit.  Over dinner, Muñoz tells his guest that he is a now a widower; the awful reason for his wife’s suicide becomes grimly understandable later in the episode.

Inevitably there are mechanical and power failures that threaten the doctor’s existence.  There are desperate searches for ice and repairmen.  A loud storm seems to announce that this travesty of nature must come to an end.  The doctor’s tissues reach a point of dissolution that cannot be reversed.  Along with his colleague Dr. Shockner, in the film described above, he concludes that his theory that the human will is able to sustain the outer shell despite organ death is ultimately inadequate, even with technological assistance.  At this point, Serling cannot resist inserting the line “Physician, heal thyself.”

In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, the unnamed narrator is also a frustrated writer, who first encounters the doctor just as Charlie Baxter does in the 2012 film.  He has a heart attack and immediately seeks his aid.  Unlike Charlie Baxter’s experience, he does not actually die.  After Dr. Muñoz revives him, he becomes a devotee and disciple.  There is mention of mediaevalist incantations, ancient volumes and unorthodox treatment.  Dr. Muñoz half jokingly suggests that he can teach the narrator to live, or at least have some conscious existence, without any heart at all.  Inevitably, the doctor’s hubris cannot save him from decay and death; even his precious, life prolonging willpower falters at the end.  Unlike Charlie Baxter, the narrator of Lovecraft’s original story does not preserve the work of Dr. Muñoz, but destroys it.

What is interesting in all three versions of this tale is the near complete absence of any reference to an afterlife or a power higher than the individual human will—which dies in the end along with physical existence.  (There is brief mention of reincarnation as an option in Serling’s version, but this is dismissed.)  It would be interesting to determine why Lovecraft left this aspect out, and what led him to this perspective.  So much of what fascinates me about Lovecraft’s work is what is not there, and elements that are added or emphasized by later interpreters of his material.

As an aside, the modulation of attitudes toward Spanish culture is noteworthy as one proceeds from the original story to the 2012 film.  In Lovecraft’s story, consistent with his generally negative view of foreigners and members of other ethnic groups, he disparages the characters of Spanish descent and contrasts them with the purer, nobler protagonist and the cultured physician, Dr. Muñoz, who possesses “a physiognomy otherwise dominantly Celtiberian…the whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding”.  He describes the landlady, Mrs. Herrero as “a slatternly, almost bearded Spanish woman” and his fellow tenants as “Spaniards a little above the coarsest and crudest grade.”

In contrast to this, Serling’s adaptation glorifies Spanish culture in dialogue about history and art, against a musical score of passionate classical guitar.  Agatha Howard at one point attempts to surprise Dr. Muñoz with a gift of imported Spanish olive oil.  Finally, in the 2012 film, the ethnicity of the landlady and her daughter is implied, but is otherwise completely unremarkable in the milieu of Southern California.    

Besides Death, all three versions of “Cool Air” include a preoccupation with a loss of wealth and status, of better days long since gone.  The doctor has lost everything despite his or her brilliance and accomplishments.  The writers who narrate the physician’s demise, in both Lovecraft’s original and the 2012 film have seen better days themselves.  In this tale, even the architecture has declined along with the social class of its inhabitants.

“There is,” Lovecraft has his narrator say “…an infinite deal of pathos in the state of an eminent person who has come down in the world.”  Perhaps this is a painful autobiographical note.     Death is not the only preoccupation of the author.  The human will is no more able to sustain physical health indefinitely than it is to sustain its socioeconomic status.  Is this why the physician in each version insists on living at the top of the stairs?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

First Post

My wife put aside an article for me from a magazine published by the university's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  Entitled “Mountains of Madness”, it described how H.P. Lovecraft used a news story about Laurence McKinley Gould, an Antarctic explorer, as the basis for his novelette, At the Mountains of Madness.  Gould was temporarily lost during an expedition to the South Pole in 1929; he was later found and returned to camp safely.  In 1987, a Lovecraft scholar named Jason C. Eckhardt was able to demonstrate that Lovecraft had used Bryd’s expedition as source material for his story, which is one of his best, in my view at least.  At the Mountains of Madness reads more like a science fiction adventure story than much of his work in horror and the supernatural.  It is also relatively free of the “purple prose” that he is prone to use.  It was delightful to read at the end of the article that the book is currently “in development as a major motion picture directed by Guillermo del Toro”.  I believe he also directed Pan’s Labyrinth, which was excellent.  (The project was evidently abandoned in 2011, but the famous director perhaps wants to try again this year.  Apparently Tom Cruise is interested in one of the parts.)     

Lovecraft movies are few and far between, and often disappointing.  A few that I recall as being fair to good are “Die Monster Die”, loosely based on The Colour Out of Space, “The Dunwich Horror”, “Herbert West, Reanimator” , and “From Beyond”.  I also liked “At The Mountains of Madness”, but this had nothing to do with the novelette; it was more of a pastiche and an homage to Lovecraftian themes.

I recently went down to Best Buy to see if there were any Lovecraft inspired horror DVDs.  I found two:  The Shuttered Room (1967) and and Cool Air (2012).

I watched The Shuttered Room last night.  As with many Lovecraftian movie titles, this film had little to do with the original short story, though the setting and character names have some similarity.   The action takes place on “Dunwich Island” among several members of the Whately clan, who know of a terrible secret hidden in the family’s old decrepit mill.  The family bears a curse, and it is the misfortune of the lead character, played by the beautiful Carol Lynley, to discover what it is. 

What is interesting about the film is how it differs from a typical Lovecraft story.  The most obvious difference is that the protagonist is a woman—most Lovecraft stories are nearly devoid of women.  The people of the village, ignorant, drunken, violent, and leering, are also depicted at times sympathetically as victims of poverty and economic depression.  One of the young women in the village dreams of going to an airport to see how an airplane lands.  One of the young man imagines blowing up one of the power pylons that bypassed his island, so that rich people in the big city can wake up and experience a power outage.  This movie was made in the 60s, when concerns about social justice were prevalent.  (Lovecraft typically ascribed the behavior of the lower classes as to race or ethnicity and left it at that).

This was a low budget film, so I appreciate what its creators attempted with limited resources.  The photography is interesting, as is the music, which is mostly jazz—but the characters frequently whistle or sing vaguely celtic tunes.  There are several arresting visual metaphors.  The shuttered room of the title has a red door with an eye hole surrounded by inward pointing nails.  What can this mean but that seeing the truth is going to be painful and dangerous?  The lead character reminisces about a large doll house in her room.  As a child she had the unsettling notion that people were staring out of the house at her while she lay in her bed.  Later she hides inside the dollhouse from an attacker.  There is a lot of climbing in this movie—up stairs, up hills, onto docks--lots of physical struggle, running, and fighting.  Images of barb wire and chains also add to the disturbing tone.  Also, unlike the ending of a typical Lovecraft story, when Lynley's character comes face to face with the secret of The Shuttered Room, it isn't cosmic terror she experiences so much as compassion and grief--even a psychic connection in which she shares the other's pain and distress.