Tuesday, June 11, 2013

About Night-Gaunts

“Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,
But every night I see the rubbery things,
Black, horned, and slender, with membranous wings…”

Lovecraft wrote a number of poems, among them Night-Gaunts, from which these lines were taken.  These creatures appear in his short story, The Strange High House in the Mist and in the novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. 

The Strange High House in the Mist, originally published in 1931, is essentially a prose poem, and more effective in terms of the imagery it creates than for any feeling of a clear narrative.  This story and Kadath are two of just a few Lovecraft stories that emphasize climbing to great heights, as opposed to descending to mysterious and ultimately terrifying depths.  The night-gaunts make an appearance in the first story, but are not specifically named—Lovecraft is skillful in barely suggesting their presence:  “Then Olney saw lingering against the translucent squares of each of the little dim windows in succession a queer black outline as the caller moved inquisitively about before leaving; and he was glad his host had not answered the knocking.” 

In The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, published about a decade later, the night-gaunts are one of a number of entities that Randolph Carter encounters in his hallucinatory adventures in dreamland.  They are named and more explicitly described, and Carter is actually captured by them as he climbs the fearful and mysterious Ngranek Mountain:  “And between him and the Milky Way he thought he saw a very terrible outline of something noxiously thin and horned and tailed and bat-winged.  Other things, too, had begun to blot out patches of stars west of him, as if a flock of vague entities were flapping thickly and silently out of that inaccessible cave in the face of the precipice.” 

Earlier in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Carter asks some people that he meets along the way “if night gaunts sucked blood and liked shiny things and left webbed footprints, but they all shook their heads negatively and seemed frightened at his making such an inquiry.”  He has also been warned that night-gaunts “are known to haunt most persistently the dreams of those who think too often of them.”

In my view, night-gaunts are one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most interesting creations.   They are supernatural, yet fleshy; menacing but mysterious and unpredictable.  They are literally unidentifiable and unknowable.  They seem to be most active in the borderlands between worlds.

“Out of what crypt they crawl,” Lovecraft writes, “I cannot tell”, but one place worth looking might be The Cave (2005), an interesting though ultimately unsatisfying movie made a number of years ago and still available on DVD.  As monster movies go, it is more sci-fi adventure than horror in tone.  Despite a setting that is intrinsically nerve wracking even without menacing creatures, the film contains little suspense, and almost feels like a documentary in style.  However, it contains several Lovecraftian motifs which make it interesting to watch.

The film begins as a flashback in the Carpathian Mountains of Rumania, which form the boundary of a region once known as Transylvania.  Thirty years ago, a team of explorers finds an ancient church ruin that has been built over the mouth of a cave.  Ancient statuary and murals depict an epic struggle between winged demons.  Heedless of this obvious warning, the team destroys the ornate seal over the cave’s mouth using explosives. 
A landside ensues and the men fall into the cave and are buried inside.  As they recover in the darkness, they hear strange sounds and movement elsewhere in the caverns.  What could it be?

The film then moves ahead to the present day, where a crack team of underwater cave divers has been hired to explore the recently rediscovered cave.  Fear of darkness is now mixed in equal measures with fear of drowning, fear of crawly things, and fear of enclosed spaces—fear of sudden attack by humanoid bat demons is added later as a sort of condiment for this dish. 

The movie is fairly preposterous, but there is an interesting idea proposed by one of the biologists:  all of the organisms in the cave, including a couple of the hapless crew, are infected with a parasite that causes rapid genetic mutations in the host.  The mutations can be beneficial.  They allow the animal to survive more easily in the cave environment, and also allow it to join and interact with the other creatures in the cave ecosystem.  More could have been done with this idea.  However, among humans at least, the parasite and the unsettling changes it produces do little for team spirit.

Only the setting of this film held my interest consistently.  One scene in particular was particularly arresting:  the team of divers is wading neck deep across a subterranean pool, the water glowing a phosphorescent bug green beneath them—just disembodied heads floating across the glass like surface. 

The humanoid bat demons are so-so with respect to costuming, and not very convincing.  As a species they are also very easy to distinguish from the night-gaunt:

“But ho! If only they would make some sound,
Or wear a face where faces should be found!”

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