Sunday, June 30, 2013

Horror Therapy (HT) for Individual and Collective Nightmares

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft are filled with references to dreams, or may often be dreams themselves, fashioned into short stories or poetry.  In some of his work, as in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, he actually steps back from the story to discuss his own psychology and philosophy of dreams. 

Shorter writings—prose poems like Nyarlathotep, The Strange High House In The Mist, and Celephaïs, and poems like The Nightmare Lake appear to be elaborations of entries from a dream journal, or perhaps, a nightmare journal.  How Lovecraft uses dream imagery as a fictional device was discussed in earlier posts.  In Lovecraft’s stories, dreams provide a means to communicate with other beings, open a doorway to other universes, are a channel for prophecy, and forge psychic links with malevolent entities and past events. 

Horror and Science Fiction as Dream Therapy
Is it possible that Lovecraft recorded and elaborated on his own nightmares so that his readers were spared this difficult and unnerving work?  In view here is the notion that horror writers and horror media producers are doing the “dream work” for the rest of us.  Science fiction also has this function—recording and creatively displaying the nightmares of our society for conscious reflection.  The most recent example of this is the aptly named Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) which contains explicit references to such current anxieties as the ethics of covert war, use of drone attacks, terrorism, and the horror of 9/11.

May You Stay… Forever Jung
Just as the dreams of an individual appear to go through cycles of development—see Carl Jung’s insightful alchemical metaphor of the nigredo, albedo and rubedo stages of dream imagery—surely something similar must occur in our social and collective unconscious.  Briefly:  our dreams appear to go through a phase where death and deterioration are a dominant theme, (nigredo), then a fluid and changeable state, (albedo), and finally a bright, energetic phase where a solution or synthesis of the psychic problem is produced, (rubedo).  The process, which repeats itself again and again, roughly parallels the alchemical transmutation of lead into gold.  Something like this seems to go on with horror and science fiction over time.

We can apply these Jungian categories to some of Lovecraft’s more dream laden material.  His poem, The Nightmare Lake is clearly a nigredo stage dream:
                        I saw the stretching marshy shore,
                        And the foul things those marshes bore:
                        Lizards and snakes convuls’d and dying;
                        Ravens and vampires putrefying;
                        All these, and hov’ring o’er the dead,
                        Narcophagi that on them fed.

The Strange High House In The Mist is in the intermediate, albedo stage:

                        “All around him was cloud and chaos, and he could see nothing
                        below the whiteness of illimitable space.  He was alone in the sky
                        with this queer and very disturbing house…” 

Randolph Carter’s return to his Boston home at the climax of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, is an example of the last stage, which is the rubedo:

                        “Stars swelled to dawns, and dawns burst into fountains of gold,
carmine, and purple, and still the dreamer fell.  Cries rent the aether
as ribbons of light beat back the fiends from outside.  And hoary Nodens
raised a howl of triumph when Nyarlathotep, close on his quarry, stopped
baffled by a glare that seared his formless hunting-horrors to grey dust.”

Lovecraft and Racial Fears
Why is Lovecraft often suspicious of foreigners and their unfamiliar ways and appearances?  Asians and Africans seem almost always to be members of cultic conspiracies in his fiction.  He writes near the beginning of The Call of Cthulhu:  “The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical looking negro…” 

Later in the story, another character, the doomed Norwegian sailor Johansen, fights off a boatful of “swarthy cult-fiends” but is later apparently assassinated by “two Lascar sailors”. (Lascar, or Lakshar, is an old term that refers to sailors or servants from India).  The implication seems to be that people of color are conspiring to bring back Cthulhu in order to destroy white Western Civilization circa 1928.

Why in 1928?  Throughout the 1920s in America racial conflict increased markedly because of the immigration of various ethnic groups as well as the internal migration of African Americans into northern cities.  White supremacist movements, segregation and public lynchings all increased in these years.  In Massachusetts, not far from Lovecraft’s home, the notorious trial of Sacco and Vanzetti resulted in their execution for robbing a shoe factory and killing two men.  Italian immigrants, it is believed they were unjustly charged because of their anarchistic political beliefs, and because they were foreigners.   It seems reasonable to suspect that fear of miscegenation and being overwhelmed by other ethnic groups is reflected in Lovecraft’s depiction of the Cthulhu cult.  

We are uncomfortable and dismissive of racial and ethnic stereotypes from the vantage point of the 21st century, but Lovecraft and his contemporaries would not have been—it was part of their fears and their world view, which was changing even then.   

Where Have All The Monsters Gone, Long Time Passing
And speaking of the 21st century, why is it, with the exception of Cloverfield (2008) that our cities are now relatively free of gigantic marauding monsters?  It was not always so.  Why are our farms and towns no longer being destroyed by enormous ants, (Them, 1954), a giant octopus, (It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955), giant locusts (Beginning of the End, 1957), giant spiders, (Tarantula, 1955) a Venusian dinosaur, (20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957), or invading aliens, (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 1956)?

Probably it is because our nightmares have changed.  What we are most afraid of at the moment has changed.  We are very much afraid of something else right now.

Nightmares Past, Present and Yet to Come
Why are our homes now menaced by the walking dead?  Why is there such a popular film franchise as Saw (I-VII)?  What are our collective nightmares about today?  Fears about government surveillance, terrorism, identity theft, immigration reform, national security, disease, technological change--Lovecraft and his contemporaries would find many of these very familiar, because they are inherent in the human condition. 

Dreams and nightmares are a kind of hypertext for our minds, both individual and collective.  Click on them and you are taken somewhere else, a place where something unknown can become known to you.  What will be the subjects of future horror media?  Given that horror and science fiction entertainments are a kind of dream journal for the entire society, they provide the valuable service of bringing our deepest fears into consciousness, where we can deal with them.  What is it that we need to be talking about with our therapist?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Recommended Graphics

Over the past couple of years, I.N.J. Culbard has produce two very fine graphic novels based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and At the Mountains of Madness.  The adaptations take some creative liberties with the material, but to be fair, this is due in part to the form: graphic depictions must rely on dialogue and imagery to carry the story, rather than straight text.  For the most part, the original stories are very recognizable in graphic form, which is more than can be said for film versions.

Some may find Culbard’s version of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward a challenge to read.  (I had to read it twice to appreciate some of the details, but the effort was worthwhile.)  This is because the original story is complex and multi-leveled.  It moves back and forth between the late 1600s to the early 20th century, laying down an historical back story that ominously intrudes on the present.  There is necromancy, vampirism, conspiracy, and stolen identities—something for everyone—as well as the hint of a world shattering conjuring of forces “outside the spheres”. 

The monstrosities that appear in the book are presented with a light touch—the horror is relatively subtle—and the focus is on relationships and characterization.  Much is left to the imagination, and transitions between scenes are skillfully handled by the artist.  This is basically the tragic story of a young man’s naïve dabbling in forbidden matters, and the dire consequences that follow.  “I did it for the sake of knowledge—now, for the sake of all life and Nature, you must help me thrust it back into the dark.”

At the Mountains of Madness is an earlier publication, (2010) and so was a little more difficult to find.  I ordered my copy through our local Vault of Midnight store.  (Fellow Michiganders and others should check out .)   This one is also very well done, and quite a bit more gruesome in some of the frames than the first book.  Both the original tale and the graphic novel tell an old fashioned adventure story, but with elements of science fiction thrown in. 

Readers will be reminded of The Thing From Another World, (1951), and especially its 1982 remake, The Thing.  Those movies were based on the novella Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell, which was published in 1938.  This was two years after H.P. Lovecraft published At the Mountains of Madness.  There are some similarities between the two stories, but the source of the horror and its implications is very different in each case.

An expedition to Antarctica finds much more than anticipated—a terrifying discovery about the history of the earth and its inhabitants. The survivors hope to keep this a secret from a blissfully ignorant humanity, and work to prevent any further exploration of the mysterious southern continent.  They may or may not be successful. 

Both of Culbard’s adaptations use the device of ending the story almost exactly where it begins, enhancing the overall power of the tale.  The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness are published by SelfMadeHero, (

Several years ago, the folks at Boom! Studios had Chuck BB illustrate Lovecraft’s prose poem, Nyarlathotep, (2008).  This is not a graphic novel.  Instead, Lovecraft’s apocalyptic nightmare is depicted in 11 drawings that capture the anxiety and terror of his vision.  In language reminiscent of Old Testament prophetic writings, the author describes the arrival of Nyarlathotep, who “came out of Egypt”.  He is a kind of anti-Christ who has come to uncreate the world we know so that the “gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods” can follow.  The artwork complements the text nicely and is not a distraction.   

Boom! Studios also carries several anthologies of stories inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as a graphic novel series.  I have not had a chance to try out any of these yet, but they look very interesting, (

Finally, I am looking forward to a live theatrical production of The Intergalactic Nemesis tomorrow afternoon.  You may have already heard of this stage play based on a radio drama of the same name.  I am just starting book one of the graphic novel series that has been released as a companion to the show.  It looks like a lot of retro fun.

Friday, June 28, 2013

5. “I shall ask him when I see him…”

This is the final post in a series about Lovecraft’s character, Randolph Carter.  Four of Lovecraft’s earlier stories were discussed in terms of changes in Carter’s personality that result from his several adventures, and the extent to which his development reflects Lovecraft’s own changing perceptions of his life.  The stories reviewed included The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Unnamable, The Silver Key, and The Strange High House In The Mist.

(I did not include Through The Gates Of The Silver Key.  Though an interesting tale, it seems that E. Hoffman Price’s style and additions obscure whatever Lovecraft may have contributed to the story in their collaboration.  And I will save The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath—surely the culmination of Randolph Carter’s struggle to reconcile dream and reality—for future posts.)

From the start, it can be said that these four stories interrelate in a way that conveys the sadness, loneliness and frustration in Carter’s life and perhaps in his creator’s life as well.  The first two stories begin in graveyards, where the interlocking challenges of mortality and the meaning of life are plainly in view.  In The Unnamable, Carter remains above ground, cowering as his friend is overwhelmed below by what he discovers in the tomb.  A little later, in another graveyard, the ghost of a centuries old horror is the nexus of Carter’s struggle with his Puritan heritage, with materialism, and a “self-satisfied deafness to the delicate overtones of life.”

Randolph Carter’s inability to reconcile his idealism and romantic nature with the demands of modern life gets almost academic treatment in the first few pages of The Silver Key. Here the narrator offers Lovecraft’s critique of modern times and explains his discomfort with the viewpoints and social expectations of his contemporaries.  Meanwhile, Thomas Olney, his alias in Kingsport, has resigned himself to the day by day, year by year reality of modern life, “and done uncomplaining the suitable deeds of a citizen.”

There are fictions within fictions in these stories.  Is it believable that Randolph Carter was a World War I veteran, in the French Foreign Legion?  That he was a successful writer of novels?  That he had a butler named Parks and unlimited funds?   That Thomas Olney had a “stout wife and romping children”, or was a successful philosophy professor?  The internal inconsistency of these details suggests they are probably examples of wishful thinking.  More likely, Randolph Carter/Thomas Olney remained a struggling writer, and “For a while he sought friends, but soon grew weary of the crudeness of their emotions, and the sameness and earthiness of their visions.”
In the last two stories, two solutions are offered to the problem of the character’s midlife crisis.  (Which crisis is the result of that terrible distance between dreams and ideals on the far shore and the reality at the edge one stands on.)  The seeds of this struggle of can be found in the first two stories.  Carter eventually returns to his childhood, where dreams and reality are never far apart.  Olney enters into a mystical communion with elder gods, where dreams and reality can unite.  By leaving his soul there, he can thrive in the suburbs, as “his good wife waxes stouter and his children older and prosier and more useful…”

Sadly, the solution that is never seriously considered by Randolph Carter—the ancient solution—is the one that includes family, friendship, meaningful work, and religious faith. 

Randolph Carter's most elaborate adventure, in Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) was discussed in a series of posts in early 2016.  See also:


Thursday, June 27, 2013

4. Randolph Carter alias Thomas Olney

Randolph Carter does not appear in The Strange High House in the Mist, but someone very much like him does.  With the exception of a few minor details, the character of Thomas Olney is almost indistinguishable from Carter.  They share the same world view, and both struggle through a midlife crisis that leads to a profound change in their psyche.  But rather than leaving the modern world and retreating to a childhood full of wonder and fantasy—the solution offered in The Silver Key—Olney finds a different answer to questions about the ultimate meaning of life.

This story was discussed in an earlier post about “night gaunts”.  The Strange High House in the Mist, originally published in 1931, is basically a prose poem.   It is more effective in the imagery it creates about a mysterious house high on a sea cliff, than for any feeling of a clear narrative.  It is also one of the relatively few Lovecraft stories that emphasize climbing to great heights, as opposed to descending to mysterious and ultimately terrifying depths.  As in The Silver Key, the purpose of the ascent is to find an answer or a solution.

Thomas Olney is a philosopher and college instructor, a teacher of “ponderous things”.  Lovecraft describes him as having eyes that “were weary with seeing the same things for many years, and thinking the same well disciplined thoughts.”  He moves his family to the old and mystical seaport town of Kingsport.  Visible from the town and towering above it are several crags, the tallest of which “hangs in the sky like a grey frozen wind cloud…a bleak point jutting in limitless space…”  On the very edge of this cliff, its only door facing the sea and mist is the ‘strange high house’.  The setting is reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.  The house clearly exists on the border between two worlds.

Though nearly inaccessible from all directions, Olney resolves to climb up the cliff and visit the strange house.  Before he does so, he consults the “Terrible Old Man”, who tells him some stories about mysterious events surrounding the house.  When he reaches the walls of the house, he finds no means of entrance.  The mysterious but friendly inhabitant of the house—a kind of wizard in long beard and archaic clothes—invites him in through one of the windows. 

They spend the evening together, discussing ancient history and mythology.  There are ominous attempts by something to get into the house with them, so the windows are secured.  As it grows darker, “the bearded man made enigmatical gestures of prayer, and lit tall candles in curiously wrought brass candlesticks.” At the appointed time, he opens the “ancient door of nail-studded oak beyond which lay only the abyss of white cloud.”  What follows is a hallucinatory visitation by two ancient gods and their entourage.  Neptune and Nodens take the two men on a ride into the mists:  “out into the limitless aether reeled that fabulous train…”

Meanwhile, back in Kingsport, Olney’s family “prayed to the bland proper god of Baptists” for his safe return.  He does return, seemingly whole, but the Terrible Old Man senses that Olney has changed. In fact, he has left his soul behind in the ‘strange high house’.   The now terribly normal Olney returns to a routine and respectable life in the suburbs.

In the epilogue, the narrator observes that the lights are brighter now in the window of the ‘strange high house’; the music is louder, and there is singing and laughter.  Worse, the young men of Kingsport are now less reluctant to make Olney’s ascent, and may join him in visiting the place.  The implication is that the attraction and radiance of the strange house will grow stronger.   There is a religious sensibility suggested here, a calling, a quest, enlightenment, and conversion.

In a sense, The Strange High House In the Mist it is not a house at all, but a church or temple, a place where mystical communication with ancient deities is still possible.  This is Olney’s solution to problem of the apparent meaninglessness of life, and was perhaps the alternative Randolph Carter might have considered.  With his soul converted and given over to this religion, Olney can endure his temporary sojourn in the “dull dragging years of greyness and weariness…”  The Strange High House In the Mist will clearly stand forever.

Facts and Impressions of Randolph Carter a.k.a. Thomas Olney

•He was a philosophy professor at a small college by Narragansett Bay.
•He had a “stout wife and romping children”.
•He and his family were Baptists, another denomination in the Calvinist tradition.
•He consulted the Terrible Old Man before and after his adventure on top of the cliff.
•Following a mystical religious experience, he settled out in the suburbs with his family and enjoyed an unremarkable life.