Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In Articulo Mortis—Some Options

If you are nearly dead, and would like to animate your mortal remains at least for a short while afterwards, there are a number of options.  Everyone is unique, and situations will vary.   There may need to be a customization of technique.  Though dead, you still have choices.  Two of the many possibilities are familiar to readers of H.P. Lovecraft, and his mentor from beyond the grave, Edgar Allen Poe. 

These methods are described in the respective authors’ stories:  Cool Air, by Lovecraft, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, by Poe. 

Cool Air, (and some of its movie and television adaptations), was reviewed in an earlier post last May.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, a frustrated writer has a heart attack and immediately seeks the aid of his mysterious upstairs neighbor, Dr. Muñoz.  After the doctor revives him, he becomes a devotee and disciple.  There is mention of mediaevalist incantations, ancient volumes and unorthodox treatments, but it is his cold, refrigerated apartment that is most striking and most necessary.  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.  In fact, this is what he has been doing himself for many years.  Inevitably, the doctor’s hubris cannot save him from decay and death; even his precious, life prolonging willpower falters at the end. 

A successful mesmerist wants to set the record straight in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, which Poe originally published in 1845.  He has been able to carry out a scientific experiment—on his friend Valdemar—to determine the answers to three questions.  Can a person close to the point of death be hypnotized?  Are the effects of hypnotism weakened or strengthened by the nearness of death?  Finally, and most importantly, can the process of death be arrested by a hypnotic trance?   (The answer is ‘yes’ to all three.)

M. Valdemar is dying of “phthisis”, a condition which allows a relatively accurate prediction of the time of death.  (Phthisis is an older term for pulmonary tuberculosis or “consumption”.)  Valdemar consents to be mesmerized by the narrator just as he is about to die.  The mesmerization process is successful.  Valdemar’s awful death is described clinically—this story is essentially a case study—and so are his responses to the doctor’s probes after death.  The narrator’s tone throughout the story is cold and analytical.  It is the doctor, not so much the undead corpse of Valdemar, that makes this tale creepy and disturbing.  Valdemar has our sympathy, but the doctor is fearfully lacking in compassion or empathy.  Eventually the mesmeric trance is broken and Valdemar’s remains abruptly dissolve.

Refrigeration or mesmerism?  Which is best for you?  Lovecraft’s method requires great strength of will and is essentially an active process.  Poe’s technique is much more passive, and depends on the power of the mesmerist’s will over the deceased subject.  There are several other considerations; these are summarized in a helpful chart provided below.

Corpse Re-animation Techniques Compared*

H.P. Lovecraft
Edger Allen Poe
Preferred Method
Willpower with refrigeration.
Fictional Resource
Cool Air
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Strong will, (reading Nietzsche helps).
Qualified hypnotist.

Reliable refrigeration technology.
Excellent rapport with patient.
Equipment and power bill can be high.
Relatively inexpensive.
About 18 years.
About 7 months.
Less dangerous than zombification.
Less dangerous than zombification.

Mobility is still possible at home.
Effective at typical room temperature.

Food can be left out with less spoilage.
Mesmeric rapport can be shared.
Must stay indoors in frigid apartment.
Stuck in bed or on examining table.

Hoarse voice.
Hoarse voice.  Oral or dental problems.

Visiting with guests is awkward.
Not much to talk about.

Power outage, equipment breakdown.
Tedium due to inactivity.

Confusion over burial arrangements.
Confusion over burial arrangements.

One can ask whether Dr. Muñoz or the unnamed mesmerist in Poe’s story were really successful in prolonging life.  It seems they were more successful in prolonging death.  Nowadays, it is our unwholesome pre-occupation with exercise, diet and healthy habits, along with the obsession to extend life through extraordinary means that seems to accomplish the same gruesome end.   Is it our agnosticism that drives us to deny and delay what cannot be avoided by anything containing the breath of life?

Whether to animate your remains beyond their appointed time is an important decision.  Consider that you may have more meaningful pursuits in the afterlife—if you are a believer—than inhabiting a corpse, or the ground, for that matter.  Despite the relative effectiveness of both approaches, when the final end comes know that there will be a rapid dissolution of the body into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.” 

So be thoughtful of others.

*The method described in Lovecraft’s Herbert West—Reanimator is, strictly speaking, more akin to zombification, and is not considered here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Under the Olive Tree

Trees of various kinds show up Lovecraft’s stories, typically as props to support the setting and mood.  In The Hound, there are “…grotesque trees, drooping sullenly to meet the neglected grass…”  Randolph Carter speculates about the “spectral and unmentionable nourishment” that supports an ancient willow in a cemetery in The Unnamable.  In The Outsider, the narrator is initially surrounded by “twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft.”    Trees become animated under the influence of The Colour Out of Space, “…twitching morbidly and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the moonlit clouds…”  Lovecraft did not appear to like trees, or at the very least, saw them as a conduit for otherworldliness and evil.

Because their roots descend into the dark mysterious underground and draw sustenance from the dead, Lovecraft sees trees as unwholesome and ensnaring.  Not for him is the more universal view of trees as a symbol of life, wisdom, growth and resurrection—no “Tree of Life”, nor even “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Despite his fascination with pre-Christian religions and pagan rituals, Lovecraft rarely if ever included trees, as the pagans frequently did in their ceremonies thousands of years ago.  For example, oaks were favored by the Druids and by Germanic pagans as part of their religious practices.  Lovecraft  favored megalithic circles of stones and altars installed in the “high places”—so often condemned by Old Testament prophets—or else subterranean edifices for secret, nameless rites.  But not trees.

However, he departs from his usual perception of trees in an interesting—and odd—short story called, appropriately, The Tree, originally published in 1921.   It is written in a form that resembles a fable by Aesop, except that moral instruction is not so much in view as human depravity.  A Latin phrase opens the tale:  ‘Fata viam invenient.’  That is, ‘the Fates will find a way.’  Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for ancient Greek culture pervades the story, which is set “on a verdant slope of Mount Maenalas, in Arcadia…”

Two friends, both sculptors, live together in “brotherly love” despite their widely differing personalities.  Musides is the more outgoing of the two, and enjoys the local night life, while Kalos likes to wander the nearby olive groves alone, communing with the local spirits.  In other words, Kalos is Lovecraft himself, circa 500-600 B.C.  It is interesting that Lovecraft sets this story in ancient Greece, where such a close relationship between two men would be less remarkable than it was in his own day.  In the description of the two sculptors, one can perceive an echo of Randolph Carter’s petulant comment in The Statement of Randolph Carter:  “Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him.”

The Tyrant of Syracuse commissions both men to compete against each other in designing a new statue of Tyché for his city.  Tyché is the Greek goddess of wealth and prosperity, associated with luck and good fortune.  Both men commence working on their designs, sharing their ideas with each other but with no one else.  Kalos eventually becomes ill and slowly dies, despite his friend’s care and ministrations.  Before he passes, Kalos asks Musides to plant twigs from certain olive trees close to his head where he is to be buried, and Musides carries out this request.

Musides goes on to complete the statue of Tyché, which takes several years.  Meanwhile, one of the twigs he planted by Kalos’ head has grown into an enormous human shaped tree, with one large branch ominously hanging over the home and workplace of Musides.  Just as he is about to display his work to emissaries of the Tyrant, a strange storm brings the gigantic olive branch down on both the statue and Musides, destroying them both.

The story is odd because of the disconnection between the characters’ motivations and feelings for each other—at least their official ones—and the outcome at the end.  Were they really all that affectionate toward each other, or were Musides and Kalos driven by cold competition?  Why did Kalos suddenly decline and perish before the completion of the contest?  Was Musides murdered from beyond the grave by an envious arboreal Kalos?  And finally, given that the statue is of the goddess of wealth, is this an expression of Lovecraft’s failure to achieve prosperity and fame?  The story does not clearly answer any of these questions, which makes it all the more haunting and disturbing.

Lovecraft published a short poem of five verses called The Wood later on, in 1929.  It is interesting, though not especially effective.  A vague story is told of how an ancient forest is cleared to make way for a city.  The city prospers until a drunken minstrel inadvertently invokes an ancient curse, which destroys the city and restores the primal landscape.  The moral appears in the last verse:  “Forests may fall, but not the dusk they shield…”   In The Wood it is not so much the trees that are to be feared but the darkness they may conceal.  It is too bad that Lovecraft did not develop this interesting idea further.

Probably for Lovecraft, the most disturbing and problematic woodland species was his own family tree, in particular, the branch of it that he occupied.  Was this that very branch held threateningly above the sculptor’s doomed celebration of Tyché, goddess of wealth?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Meanwhile, Somewhere in the Sargasso Sea

William Hope Hodgson’s The Mystery of the Derelict (1907) is classified as one of his ‘Sargasso Sea’ stories, after the unique setting in which they occur.  The Sargasso Sea, located in the Atlantic Ocean, is unique among ocean bodies of water in having no land boundaries—its borders are roughly determined by ocean currents, the Gulf Stream among them.  The region is conspicuous for vast mats of floating sea weed, comprised of various species of Sargassum.  The seaweed provides important habitat for many different kinds of marine organisms, among them shrimp, crabs, fish, sea turtles, whales, and birds—though not for the particular creature featured in Hodgson’s tale.  The water is unusually clear down to 200 feet beneath the surface.

The area is associated with the notorious Bermuda Triangle.  Historically, there had been the popular notion that ships could become trapped by the extravagant growth of Sargasso weed.  Sailing ships were actually more likely to be delayed by the relatively calm winds and ocean currents, which is why this region was also known as the “doldrums” or “horse latitudes”.  The latter name is a reference to the unfortunate practice of throwing horses overboard to save on drinking water when ships were delayed by the absence of wind.  The Sargasso Sea has been an ideal location for supernatural or otherwise unfamiliar events to take place, and is the setting or inspiration for numerous horror and science fiction tales.

In the The Mystery of the Derelict, the four-masted sailing ship Tarawak stalls in the open sea after drifting into an area of calm wind and weak current.  The sea weed has grown especially thick here, forming thick banks that almost look like land.  The crew discovers two ships in the neighboring water, one an ancient derelict, and the other, a smaller, faster moving barque.  The other ship appears to be in difficulty, but the crew of the Tarawak can barely observe this due to the distance between the ships.

There appears to be a violent struggle aboard the smaller ship, of which the men of the Tarawak can catch only brief glimpses.  Lights are moving erratically about the deck, and there are the cracks of gunfire, which they can just barely hear when the wind dies down.  The crew assumes that there is a mutiny on board the other ship.  In view of the horror that is later revealed, the element of distance from which this terrible conflagration is observed makes the incident poignant and disturbing.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  But also, “In space—or far out at sea—no one can hear you scream.”

Hodgson describes a vast outcropping of sea weed, which almost forms another world.  In a large rowboat, ten of the crew of the Tarawak cautiously edge up to the two mysterious boats.  One has been abandoned for a very long time, the other more recently.  The scene is reminiscent of a similar one in the movie Alien, (1979) when a party from the Nostromo lands on the planet to explore another derelict, this one an alien spacecraft.  Inside they find the remains of a crewmember that died a gruesome death. 

Another modern example is the arrival of the rescue party in Event Horizon (1997).  A starship of the same name is found in a deteriorating orbit around the planet Neptune—an appropriate marine reference—and all of its crew are dead.  What happened here? 

The discovery of a derelict, whether it is a vessel that travels the sea or outer space or even the open road, is often used to begin a tale of horror or science fiction.  In some respects, the abandoned vehicle is a metaphor for a person, what remains of him or her.  Who was this?  What happened to them?
(In Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, surely the predecessor for many stories of this kind, the old sailor who tells his story is the derelict himself.)

The men of the Tarawak first explore the recently abandoned barque, and then the ancient rotted ship, mindful of a storm that may soon strike.  It is eerily quiet, gloomy and spacious inside the old wreck, except for “a low, continuous, shrill whining…” Very soon they must flee for their lives.

The Mystery of the Derelict is one of Hodgson’s better sea stories.  One can easily imagine old sailors and shipmates sitting around a table and reminiscing about the events in this tale.  “Remember that time when we were stalled out in the Sargasso and…”  Though the incidents as they are depicted might be the stuff of tall tales, there is enough realism to give the story some plausibility and “bite.”


HiLo Books has recently re-introduced William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, originally published in 1912.  This novel, along with The House on the Borderland, and The Ghost Pirates, are three of his more famous works of fiction.  HiLo Books produces “The Radium Age Science Fiction Series”, which endeavors to re-introduce classic weird fiction from the years 1904-1933. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

So Many Tombs, So Little Time

All of Lovecraft’s poetry and stories form an intricate organic whole, with interconnections that link images, themes and characters.  And because virtually all of Lovecraft’s work is autobiographical, he has left his readers an elaborate and detailed map of his psyche.  While each of his stories can stand alone, a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of them can come from reading works at different points in his life and career. 

The Lurking Fear, Pickman’s Model, The Unnamable, and The Hound all contain an evolving conception of a predatory graveyard ghoul.  In the Vault, The Outsider, The Tomb, and The Statement of Randolph Carter are all meditations on what goes on in the crypt ‘after hours’.  The limits and fragility of eternal life are explored in Cool Air and He.  Obsession leading to demonic possession is a theme in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunter of the Dark, The Dreams in the Witch House, and The Rats in the Walls.  The author’s fascination with dreams and especially nightmares is clear in such stories as The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, and The Festival.  These are all general examples of how Lovecraft’s stories interconnect around his favorite topics.

On a more micro level of analysis it is interesting to see how specific images and characters are reiterated in various fictional settings.  In The Tomb (1922), Jervas Dudley falls asleep beside a padlocked crypt and awakens with the knowledge of where the key is located:  it is in an old rotting chest in the attic.  Seven years later, in The Silver Key, an apparition of Randolph Carter’s grandfather tells him where to find a key that will allow him access again to his dreamland: it is also in an ancient ornate wooden box in the attic.  Not only that, but the locked door is in a location very similar to the crypt Dudley explores in his dream—“a haunting sepulchral place whose granite walls held a curious illusion of conscious artifice.”

Near the end of The Tomb, Jervas Dudley is helped by an old servant, an old man who shares his interest in graveyards and necromancy.  The old man confirms the reality of his visions, which everyone else had assumed were psychotic delusions.  This validation by an older man occurs in several of Lovecraft’s stories, among them, The Alchemist, The Strange High House in the Mist, He, and The Festival.

In The Tomb, as Dudley’s obsession with the contents of the old Hyde family crypt grows, he experiences subtle changes in his personality and appearance, and finds himself becoming someone or something else.  He discovers that he is actually related to the Hydes, in fact, he is the last of their line—as Lovecraft was in his family.  The uncovering of an hereditary horror occurs in stories as diverse as The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Rats in the Walls, and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The fact that The Tomb takes place in and about, well…a tomb…links it to all the other stories Lovecraft has written about grave site explorations and meditations.  In a future post I would like to explore Lovecraft’s preoccupation with graveyards and what lies beneath and beyond them.  Suffice it to say that whenever a character descends in a Lovecraft story—and this action occurs over and over again in his fiction—it almost always is toward the grave.

It seems unlikely that the repetition of images, themes and characters in Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry is mere recycling.  Rather, I believe it represents the author’s heroic struggle to understand and make peace with the issues that troubled him, using a vocabulary of images he arranged again and again in various permutations, in hopes of getting the clearest resolution.  It is what makes reading even relatively minor stories of his like The Tomb compelling and memorable.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bad Dog II

For whom would you feel more sympathy?

A.  A couple of decadent, psychotic, Necronomicon-reading grave robbers?
B.  The 500 year old spirit of a ghoul who wants his stolen amulet returned to him?

I lean towards ‘B’.  I cannot think of more unattractive human characters than the ones in Lovecraft’s short story, The Hound, (1924).  The two men, one of them inexplicably named St. John, do not work, have unlimited time and money, and are motivated chiefly by boredom and a hunger for morbid thrills.  (Later, they are motivated by a fear of being shredded to bits.)  They are indistinguishable from each other. Fortunately, St. John winds up “an inert mass of mangled flesh” midway through the tale, reducing the potential for confusion.

Evidently they live on a planet where there are almost no other human beings.  The tedium of their lives is relieved only by periodic grave robberies—all over the world—with which they supply their secret museum with gruesome specimens.  Lovecraft gleefully inventories some of the contents of this museum, ratcheting up the yuck-factor of the story.  The author also incessantly repeats lists of Halloween paraphernalia—full moon, grotesque trees, lots of bats, gravestones, an occasional vulture, a wolf howling in the distance—to set the tone.  This is tiresome after the first repetition.

An excavation of a grave in Rotterdam nets them a jade amulet, depicting a crouching hound with wings.  What a find!  Regrettably, the model for the jade figurine, and its implacable owner, is much larger and fiercer and angry.   The boys return to England, but soon begin to experience sights and sounds of being stalked by…well what could it possibly be?

The narrator's friend is soon predictably mauled and shredded on his way home from the train station.  This is an oblique reference to the 1911 story by M.R. James, Casting the Runes, which was later made into the classic horror film, Night of the Demon, (1957).  The monster in the James’ story and the movie is very similar to Lovecraft’s Hound and Lovecraft was an admirer of the British author.

The narrator returns to Holland in hopes of returning the amulet and avoiding a fate similar to his friend’s.  Comic relief of a sort is provided at one point when thieves break into the narrator’s hotel room and make off with the little figure.  They are swiftly and gruesomely dispatched, not having abided the 7.5th Commandment, which is “Thou shalt not steal what is already stolen.”  At the end of the story the narrator awaits a terrible end, having verified that the contents of the grave in Rotterdam and the monster now stalking him are one and the same.

This is not one of Lovecraft’s better stories.  It reads as if portions of it were still a rough draft, lacking important detail or adequate transitions between scenes.  Neither the characters nor their chief occupation are believable.  Their fate is predictable very early in the story, as is the appearance of the monster.   

All of Lovecraft’s stories appear to form an organic whole, with connections and echoes of other stories always present.  For example, the character of St. John dominates and leads the narrator in The Hound, just as Harley Warren does with the narrator in The Statement of Randolph Carter.  There are references to the Necronomicon, Abdul Alhazred, and the plateau of Leng.  The Hound also shares similarities with Lovecraft’s other stories that feature ghouls, though this monster has more canine features.

This story has a graphic treatment in volume 2 of The Lovecraft Anthology, published by SelfMadeHero.  All of the grizzly details are included.   

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bad Dog

Lovecraft is not known for his poetry, but it is unfortunate that he did not write more of it, for had a knack for a certain type of verse.  Readers may be familiar with some of the items in Fungi from Yuggoth, his collection of sonnets.  Most of these were published in the early to mid 1930s.  Several are interesting in what they reveal about the author’s preoccupations, and also contain themes related to his prose works.
In L. Sprague De Camp’s biography, several examples of earlier humorous or satirical verse are cited—these were written by Lovecraft to criticize or chide certain members of the United Amateur Press Association, or to comment on current events and controversies.  In S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft, Nightmare Countries, mention is made of Lovecraft’s very early interest in Mother Goose poems, which he was able to recite at age 2.

Lovecraft was a stickler for formalism in rhyme and rhythm schemes and was highly critical of free verse, which was growing in popularity in his time.  Nearly all of his poetry shows close attention to technique and mechanics, though content and theme can at times be obscure.  His enthusiasm for formal structure in poetry had the beneficial effect of reducing the adjective laden verbosity often found in his work—his rhyme and rhythm schemes required fairly concise expression of ideas and images.

One of his more ambitious and clever poems is Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme, originally published in 1919.  It is essentially a fairy tale, told entirely in iambic pentameter, a traditional and relatively simple pattern of verse.  The poem tells the story of a frightful interaction between two very different couples in a small French village.  The Sieur De Blois and his evil Dame, (“Twice fear’d and hated”) are cruel shape-shifters who dominate the small village where a humble bailiff and his wife live with their young son.

The terror begins on the day of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2nd.  In Christian tradition, this day commemorates the presentation of the child Jesus, and is a significant detail in the story.  On this day in the cold heart of winter, the bailiff’s otherwise healthy son dies, and the influence of the evil Dame De Blois is suspected. (“…village legend darkly would imply that Dame De Blois possess’d an evil eye…”)  The grieving mother later discovers a serpent approaching the coffin of her deceased son, and splits its head with an axe.  Later, when spring comes and the snow melts, the Dame’s body is discovered with a similar wound.  Lovecraft allows the reader to imagine the horrible connection between these two events.

A year goes by, and when Candlemas arrives again, a powerful winter storm blows up and threatens the little village.  A pack of wolves also arrives and surrounds the home of the bailiff and his wife.  The largest of the wolves then begins to attack the house, and manages to break in through a window.  He grabs the bailiff’s wife in his jaws and drags her to the place in the room where their son’s coffin had been placed.  But the axe is again wielded, this time by the bailiff, who strikes the alpha wolf in the head, mortally wounding it.  The storm, virtually an ally of the wolves, blows down the walls of their shelter, leaving only the chimney and the hearth standing.  (This seems to be an echo of “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!”)  The wolves move in for the kill.

Given Lovecraft’s famed atheism and materialistic world view, it is hard not to notice that in the middle of this conflagration with the wolves, a Christian miracle occurs.  Above the mantel of the still standing hearth is a crucifix, which glows radiantly and makes all the wolves run away or disappear.   Meanwhile, the alpha wolf drags itself off to the marsh where it disappears, as does the evil Sieur De Blois.

In Lovecraft’s short story, The Lurking Fear, there is also an explicit Christian reference that shows up on the mantel of a fireplace, a depiction of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son.  He uses this to foreshadow an anti-prodigal son story-within-the-story.  In The Festival, Lovecraft’s Christmas offering, the author playfully substitutes Aldebaran for the Star of Bethlehem.  Candlemas refers to the presentation of the Christ child; psychopomp refers a mythological figure that guides souls of the dead to the afterworld—was Lovecraft artfully and blasphemously reversing the story of the Christ child?

Unlike much of Lovecraft’s work, Psychopompos contains multiple named characters, including three different women, (Dame De Blois, the bailiff’s wife, and the old woman who tells the story).  There are multiple character viewpoints, a variety of emotions—even a happy ending.  There is nice symmetry between the depredations of the evil shape-shifters and the triumph of the bailiff and his wife, in the reappearance of the axe as a weapon, and in the cycle of seasons leading to a vengeance that is thwarted.   

Some of the author’s verbal deftness almost sets apart some of his lines as “quotables”.  (One of my favorites:  “Seclusion oft the poison tongue attracts, and scandal prospers on a dearth of facts.”)

Some readers may wonder why Lovecraft never applied his knack for clever rhymes more commercially.  Probably he would have considered this demeaning or otherwise beneath him.  He obviously needed the income, especially in New York City.  Could Lovecraft have been successful in advertising?  Could he have written for greeting cards?