Monday, June 10, 2013

Looking Up and Looking Down (Mostly Down)

Terror can come from all directions, but in Lovecraft it almost always comes from below, either under the ground, or under the sea.  Here are just a few of the many examples in his work.

From The Outsider:  “In the dank twilight I climbed the worn and aged stone stairs till I reached the level where they ceased, and thereafter clung perilously to small footholds leading upward.   Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock; black, ruined and deserted…But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness of my progress; for climb as I might , the darkness overhead grew no thinner…I shivered as I wondered why I did not reach the light, and would have looked down had I dared.”

From Dagon:  “…but I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine.  I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night.”

From At the Mountains of Madness:  “Not long afterward a steep descent in a long, low, doorless, and peculiarly sculptureless corridor led us to believe that we were approaching the tunnel mouth at last…Then the corridor ended in a prodigious open space which made us gasp involuntarily—a perfect inverted hemisphere, obviously deep underground…with low archways opening around parts of the circumference but one, and that one yawning cavernously with a black, arched aperture which broke the symmetry of the vault…It was the entrance to the great abyss.”

From The Shadow Over Innsmouth:  “…The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn towards the unknown sea-deeps instead of fearing them…I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton madhouse...We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many columned Y’ha-nthlei…”

From The Rats in the Walls:  “Above the hellishly littered steps arched a descending passage seemingly chiseled from the solid rock , and conducting a current of air…It was then that Sir William, examining the hewn walls, made the odd observation that the passage, according to the direction of the strokes, must have been chiseled from beneath…After ploughing down a few steps amidst the gnawed bones we saw that there was light ahead…It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away further than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion.”

Similar passages can be found in Pickman’s Model, The Lurking Fear, and The Shadow Out of Time.  In The Colour Out of Space, considerable time is spent peering over the edge of a weirdly contaminated well, which is then later explored by several of the characters, two of whom do not return to the surface.  It seems in so many of Lovecraft’s stories that some terrifying and awesome discovery, the awful truth, lies beneath the ground, or beneath the waves.   Is this because what is dead, or forgotten, or “waits dreaming” can be found there?

Did Lovecraft ever in fearfulness look skyward?   What would he have made of the warning in the science fiction classic, The Thing from Another World (1951)—“Tell the world. Tell this to everyone, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies."  Why are so many of his horrors located in some version of a basement?  (Often an underwater basement.)

Plenty of scary things can go on in the attic, as in The Exorcist, (1973) or Hellraiser (1987), among others.  About a decade before The Exorcist, there was a wonderful episode in the first season of the original Outer Limits, called “The Guests”.  The plot involved a young drifter who happens upon a house filled with several fairly desperate, unpleasant people—sort of a “hell is other people” scenario.  None of them can leave until a gelatinous alien intelligence in the attic has completed its study of the nature of human kind.  In fact, the whole house is a manifestation of the alien’s powerful intellect.  Insofar as a house can figuratively represent a mind, all three films would have the seat of that mind—the brain—in the attic.

But what about downstairs, in the basement?  Why does Lovecraft make all of these interminable trips downstairs in his stories?  There is the obvious Freudian psychosexual interpretation of all this verbiage about tunnels and caverns and stairways, but this is trite and simplistic.  Surely Lovecraft would consider it even vulgar.  Something else may be going on here.

From The Odyssey, Book XI of Homer:  “Now as my men were on their way I said a word to them:  ‘You think you are on your way back now to your beloved country, but Circe has indicated another journey for us, to the house of Hades and of revered Persephone there to consult with the soul of Teiresias the Theban.'  So I spoke, and the inward heart in them was broken.  They sat down on the ground and lamented and tore their hair out, but there came no advantage to them for all their sorrowing.” 

Odysseus is making the hero’s journey to the underworld, a theme that occurs frequently in mythology and classical literature.  He will go down to visit with the dead, many of whom he knows, and obtain the knowledge only they possess.  Then he will return to life and the living, ready for future adventures.  The old word for this is katabasis, from the Greek, meaning to go down or descend, often in a supernatural context.

Odysseus makes this journey only once.   Lovecraft must make the descent again and again and again. He does not bring anything back from the underworlds he visits, other than the terrifying awareness of his assured destruction.  Perhaps he never actually finds what he is looking for in these perilous explorations, and so must revisit these dark places, whether by way of a cistern in Boston, or a well somewhere west of Arkham, or some titanic ruin in Antarctica.  The secret is still underneath him somewhere, deep in the earth, deep beneath the sea, and so that is where he keeps looking.    


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