Monday, September 30, 2013

An Antiquarian’s Dream

In his short career, H.P. Lovecraft wrote several stories that take place in locations quite distant from Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, or Dunwich.  A few are set in ancient times, among Greeks or Romans, and are distinctive for their author’s cleverness and prodigious command of history and linguistics.  A couple are gems.  One of these is The Very Old Folk, published posthumously in 1940.

Even the framework of the story is complex and multi-layered: it is a story inside a dream conveyed in a letter.  “Dear Melmoth,” it begins, “I have myself been carried back to Roman times…”  Melmoth?  Is this Melmoth, as in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel published in 1820?  But why is this here?  The end of the letter, which contains the dream narrative, closes with “Yrs for Gothick Supremacy--C∙IVLIVS∙VERVUS∙MAXIMINVS.”  So there is some playfulness here.

S.T. Joshi provides some interesting history about the origins of The Very Old Folk in his important biography of the author, I Am Providence, The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, (2013, the unabridged version).  Lovecraft described the underlying dream—which he felt was generated by a reading of a 1921 version of the Aeneid—in several letters to his colleagues, among them Donald Wandrei and Frank Belknap Long. 

They encouraged him to elaborate on the dream material and make it a fully fledged, publishable story.  It is uncertain whether Lovecraft’s remarkably detailed renditions came from direct recall of the dream material or his later fashioning of it into a more coherent fictional narrative.  The very process of recording a dream often imposes narrative and chronological structures on what is often undifferentiated imagery.  In any event, Lovecraft’s powerful imagination produced the core of an interesting, multi-faceted tale.  It is unfortunate that he did live enough to develop it further.

(Interestingly, Joshi mentions that Lovecraft allowed Frank Belknap Long to use the content of his dream narrative in a short novel Long wrote, called The Horror from the Hills, published in 1931.)

In The Very Old Folk, the narrator becomes a Roman military officer on an expedition to what is now Spain.  ‘Hispania Citerior’ is at the outer edge of the Empire, an unruly frontier ruled over by a Romanized minority.  The local population is being terrorized by hill people, who kidnap townspeople and sacrifice them in their infamous rites—these occur on the nights before the Kalends of Maius and the Kalends of November.  (We would recognize these days as May Day and Halloween—faint echoes of their original significance as pagan agricultural holidays.) 

As ‘L. Cælius Rufus’, the dreaming narrator represents the face of Roman law and order, and is perhaps too eager to restore it, especially since it is the night of the autumn Sabbath.  The hill people are already beginning their wild celebrations as he leads a force of 300 men up the mountain to disrupt the worship service.  It does not go well for the Romans, who are vanquished by an amorphous entity that has been called down by the celebrants.  A dying elder officer says these words:  ‘Malitia vetus—malitia vetus est…venit..tandem venit…’, that is “Wickedness of old—it is wickedness of old...happened...happened at last…”  The dreamer awakes at this point.

Though not developed much beyond a dream narrative, The Very Old Folk is interesting and clever, and certainly had potential as a longer work.  There is reference to Cthulhu Mythos notions of a pantheon of ‘Old Ones’ along with their secret societies of worshippers.  There is the familiar trope of nameless rites on mountain tops.  But unlike typical Lovecraft stories, what is different in this fragment is that it contains a differentiated set of characters—not just the single narrator who represents an avatar of the author. There is also action and struggle and not merely resigned acceptance of a grim cosmic fate. 

Given that this story appeared relatively late in the author’s career, one wonders to what extent it shows evidence of the further evolution of his talent.  What if Lovecraft had applied his knowledge and enthusiasm about history and linguistics to the creation of more historical horror stories?  Often, they seem more unique and less imitative than other things he wrote.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Isn’t Horror Better Than Science Fiction?

Originally I wanted to make a much stronger statement: “Horror is better than science fiction”—but realized that writing something like this would betray my ignorance of the other genre.  Whether a timid question or a bold statement, it is still a subjective judgment—my judgment.  Yet all opinions, conclusions, categorizations, and theories are ultimately subjective.  In so far as the truth is what is useful for us to believe and in so far as we create our various worlds by the things we pay attention to, subjectivity—belief—will always rule our minds.  Reason and so called objectivity will always serve faith.  Belief trumps reason every time—in my not so humble opinion.

It seems that horror entertainment is entirely comfortable with the subjective view—it is after all our natural experience of the world.  It requires “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” as Coleridge once said.  The experience of horror fiction is the enjoyment of a story, which one may or may not believe actually happened—but this is after its telling.  A similar process goes on in the appreciation of a drama, whether live, on TV or in a movie. 

But the experience of science fiction often entails an explanation, an artificial distancing from the source of wonder through its objectification.  The appearance of science—in a story, a sales pitch, a political speech—is a kind of certification.  “You can believe this because it is, well, scientific.”  When someone says ‘studies show that…’ or ‘the research indicates that’—in other words, that some person or organization is being objective in their pronouncements, run away.  (At least be suspicious.)

Although the best science fiction incorporates elements of fantasy and horror, it is encumbered by a reliance on the trappings of science, often manifested in an overlay of technological imagery.  Science fiction stories become indistinguishable from other genre writing—Westerns, Romance, Detective Stories, Adventure Stories, War Stories—if all the futuristic gadgetry is removed.  It may be that the emphases on science and technology—needed to shore up credibility when a ‘suspension of disbelief’ is called for—is an unfortunate side effect of the Age of Enlightenment, (from which our society has yet to recover).

An effective horror story requires a ‘suspension of disbelief’.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it requires a replacement of more familiar beliefs about the world and how it works with new beliefs more congenial to the story.  H.P. Lovecraft, in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), writes that in a true weird tale

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

In my view, Lovecraft was much more effective as a horror writer than a science fiction writer.  In fact, there is very little actual science in his later work in that genre.  With few exceptions, (The Colour Out of Space, At the Mountains of Madness), his attempts at science fiction amount to inclusion of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, typical of the pulp fiction of his time.  George Allan England was a strong proponent of this approach, (see the earlier post this month, “If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…”).
One can see Lovecraft struggle with this negative influence in The Shunned House, (1928) which starts out as an interesting horror story but bogs down as soon as all the scientific equipment arrives.  It may be that Lovecraft was anticipating the changing market for speculative fiction.  He began to have success about a decade before the beginnings of the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction.’  But what he wrote most successfully about were his dreams—nightmares, really.  The raw psychic material that he fashioned into his stories is about as subjective as an author can get.

Perhaps Lovecraft was also succumbing to the logical consequences of a faith in objectivity, materialism, realism, cosmicism, relativism, atheism—all these isms!  But can someone write convincingly about the supernatural without an implicit belief in its possibility?  Can anyone be truly objective about what is horrifying?  One can however reduce the terror, gain some distance, and buy some time by using that holy of holies the scientific method.  One can be objective—but the horror is still coming.  Better run.     

Whatever its reality, objectivity is an attempt to escape human beliefs, feelings and values and their determination of our understanding of the world.  There is no real separation between subjective or objective perception—at most a difference of degree.  The striving for objectivity is hopelessly and inextricably entangled with very human motivations—selfishness, pride, greed, fear, anger.  Ignorance of this, whether willful or unconscious, leads to all kinds of evil.  It is replacing what Martin Buber has referred to as an “I and Thou” relationship—subjective and compassionate—with one involving “I and It”.  Or trying to, at least.
Lacking this sensibility, scientists in the pharmaceutical industry can rush dangerous, untested medications to market.  Scientific discoveries can be enthusiastically applied to the development of ever more ghastly weapons of mass destruction.  Social scientists can ape their colleagues in the ‘harder’ sciences by gilding their preposterous conclusions about human nature with a veneer of mathematically objective statistical methods.  Scientists who study environmental and climate changes can come to conclusions that vary with their source of research funding. 

To be fair, ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ are surely not the only professions affected by the hazards of objectivity.  Those on fire with a faith in objectivity and reason above all other ways to understand the world—whether teachers, doctors, journalists, psychologists, or science fiction writers—can be every bit as evangelical as the most fervent fundamentalist.
Unlike science fiction, horror avoids the false objectification of that which terrifies.  Indeed, it is by making an experience a subjective one that the reader is brought ever closer to the source of the horror.  We must face our fears, because “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”, as FDR famously said.  Insofar as these fears are lodged in our very subjective minds, we must approach them, see them clearly, and name them.  Horror helps us to do that in a way that science fiction does not.

H. P. Lovecraft famously wrote “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  But it is necessary for our salvation that we continue to try and do so.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

3. A Supernaturally Dysfunctional Family

As in Out of the Deep, which was discussed in the previous post, De La Mare does not appear to have much sympathy for his lead character Arthur Seaton, who is also doomed.  How he meets his end is a mystery, but the reader knows from the beginning that he will probably have an untimely one.  Seaton’s Aunt (1923) is occasionally seen in anthologies of early 20th century weird fiction; it was originally published in a collection of Walter De La Mare’s short stories called The Riddle and Other Stories.  This book, by the way, is an excellent place to start for readers interested in this master of quiet, subtle, psychological horror.

Unlike Out of the Deep, the story of Seaton’s Aunt is not the profile of a single individual so much as the analysis of toxic relationships and their consequence for one member of a family.  Readers who have experience in family counseling and family therapy may be spooked by the author’s supernatural “systems approach” to Arthur Seaton’s predicament.  However, because this is a horror story, there will be no intervention.   The author merely has his narrator observe the demise of Seaton over time—which may or may not be related to the ministrations of his overbearing yet malevolently wise maiden aunt.

No one likes Arthur Seaton, including the author, who describes him as looking “distastefully foreign, with his yellow skin, and slow chocolate-coloured eyes, and lean weak figure.”  These are traits he shares with his mysterious aunt, and also disturbingly, with his fiancé later on.  In the beginning of the story, Withers, the narrator, and Arthur are both school boys.  Arthur is frequently bullied and ostracized by his class mates, but Withers reluctantly befriends him.  He goes with him to visit his aunt for an overnight stay. 

The aunt for her part does not like Arthur either.  She neglects and belittles him during the visit.  “When I look upon my nephew…I realise that dust we are, and dust shall become.”  Arthur, an orphan like the character Jimmie, in Out of the Deep tells Withers that the house and property are actually his to claim when he comes of age.  When that time comes, Arthur plans to have his aunt “hand over every blessed shilling of it.”  He strongly doubts that the woman is truly his aunt.

But Arthur is terrified of her, just the same.  He believes she is watching him all the time.  In fact there are odd drawings of single eyes scattered all over the house—one has a caption underneath that reads “Thou God Seest ME”.   He tries to demonstrate to Withers the extent of her supernatural powers and her communications with the spirit world.  Seaton tells Withers that his aunt is in league with the devil, had probably killed his mother, and draws “swarms” of invisible ghosts into the house every night—these can just barely be heard in the dark if one concentrates.  “She just sucks you dry”, Seaton says.  “She simply hates to see me alive.” 

In one suspenseful scene, the boys creep up to her bedroom to see what the old woman is up to in the dead of night.  But Withers is not persuaded, and accuses Seaton of making all of this up. Seaton’s fears and the observations that support them appear to exist only in his imagination.  Yet on the way back to bed, Withers experiences “a kind of cold and deadly terror” that sweeps over him, sending him running to bury himself under the covers. 

After the visit, the two boys go their separate ways, and years pass.  Near the end of the story, Arthur Seaton intends to marry a young woman named Alice.  Withers visits them and the aunt for dinner at the Seaton house.  The aunt is dismissive and ambivalent about the impending marriage.  There is a tone of cynicism and sarcasm as she regards the couple—and humanity in general—from a distance.  Later in the evening, Withers has a disturbing conversation with the aunt while the couple is still out walking in the garden.  She reveals herself to be world weary and intelligent, but also cold and reptilian.

There is a sense that marriage might allow Arthur to transcend his aunt’s influence and have a more normal life, but the hope is feeble.   Readers who are familiar with biographies of H.P. Lovecraft, (S.T. Joshi and L. Sprague De Camp have written very interesting ones), may imagine a parallel with the triangulation that occurred among Lovecraft, his wife Sonia, and his aunts.  The circumstances are very different, except for the strong and controlling influence of the family matriarchs.

Seaton’s aunt is by far the most interesting character in the story.  “I was never lonely in my life…I don’t look to flesh and blood for my company.”  (I once had an old maiden aunt who said something very similar:  “I would rather be alone, than wishing I was.”)  Ancient, powerful and supernaturally perceptive of others, she is an archetype of the “crone”—part witch, part matriarch, part mediatrix with the spectral world that surrounds us.  She is still alive after Arthur Seaton has passed, and though she ages visibly, it is clear at the end of the story that she will be around for some time to come.

Friday, September 27, 2013

2. A Doppelgänger from De La Mare

S.T. Joshi has remarked that Walter De La Mare was considered by Lovecraft to be one of his favorite authors. Joshi suggests that he may have been influenced by the British author’s novel, The Return (1910).  Lovecraft devoted a small section of his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature to several of De La Mare’s more familiar supernatural stories.  He praises the author as “among the very few to whom unreality is a vivid, living presence; and as such he is able to put into his occasional fear studies a keen potency which only a rare master can achieve.”

De La Mare’s Out of the Deep (1923) is basically a ghost story, but it is also a subtle psychological profile of its principle character, as many ghost stories seem to be.  It is never certain whether the various apparitions and effects in the tale actually exist separate from the character’s mind.  This uncertainty leaves the narrative open to interpretation, and makes it all the more haunting and disturbing.

Upon the death of his uncle, a young man returns to the mansion where he lived as a child.  Jimmie—he keeps this infantilizing name throughout the story despite his adulthood—is ambivalent about living in the house and has no emotional attachment at all to its contents.  He is soon stealthily selling off its valuables to raise cash.  It is clear that his childhood in this vast mansion was fearful and unpleasant.

He chooses to sleep in his uncle’s lavish bed. This is a kind of triumph, after having been banished as a child for many years to a tiny attic room.  He remembers “that high cupboard in the corner from which certain bodiless shapes had been wont to issue and stoop at him…crab-patterned paper that came alive as you stared…” and the window cold with menacing starsHe has never been able to sleep very easily, especially in the dark.  He surrounds himself with candles when he goes to bed.  De La Mare creepily describes how Jimmie likes to sleep in this bed:  laid out straight, as if in a casket.

There is a sense that Jimmie does not belong in this house, and perhaps that he never did.  The cold treatment he received from his uncle, aunt, and one of the servants, and his lonely friendlessness might engender sympathy.  But the author has none for him, seeing him mainly as an opportunist and a usurper, though trapped by childhood memories of anger and fear.  He has inherited the home, but does he really deserve to own it?

So much seems to depend on the pulling of various bell cords scattered about the house.  These were used to summon the servants, now long gone.  There is one above his uncle’s old bed, and also one in the dark little attic room where he was once forced to sleep.  He obsesses about these:  if he pulls one, what might it summon in this empty house?  In one oddly hallucinatory scene, he pulls the bell cord above his uncle’s bed—it was earlier described as “the sumptuous crimson pleated silk bell-pull, dangling like a snake with a huge tassel for skull…”—and sees “the hidden fangs flickeringly jet out…”

A servant does appear at his bedside—and the silent figure closely resembles him.  Over several days other apparitions follow, but they do not really interact with Jimmie much.  They go about their business, as Jimmie grows increasingly obsessed and agitated.  Why are they there?  Whether in his own mind, or manifested by the ringing of the bells, these ghosts are forces just beyond the edge of his comprehension.  Jimmie’s eventual fate is foreshadowed from the very beginning of the story; he is doomed to return to a place that he never truly escaped.

A haunted house can be seen emblematic of the haunted person’s mind and emotional state.  Exploring forgotten or hidden rooms—or avoiding them as we do in nightmares—may signify a coming to terms with forgotten capacities, memories, interests, and traumas.  Or might not.  For one reason or another, the character in Out of the Deep, is not able to resolve his bitterness, and so he remains inside a tiny, four cornered nightmare.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

1. Walter De La Mare’s Subtle Horrors

What is most striking about Walter De La Mare’s stories is their quiet subtlety.  Settings, characters and the events are carefully but indirectly rendered, leaving it to the reader to sketch in the rest of the pattern.  Characters’ emotions—always modulated and restrained—are depicted almost without any words at all, but are conspicuous and powerful in the absence of any overt description.  It is not always clear whether the substance of the story is a dream, a spectral presence, or an actual reality.  This gives his work a haunting, open ended feel.

The Creatures (1923) is not really a horror story or even a ghost story, and yet it contains elements of both.  It is a tale within a tale: the narrator, traveling by train across a desolate landscape of hills, farms and rocky shoreline, is trapped by courtesy when he shares a car with an intense gentleman.  The latter has something he needs to tell him, and rants poetically and philosophically about how ‘forsaken” human society is, how we are all merely “visitors, visitants, revenants, on earth…”  The terrain outside reminds him of something he had seen long ago, as a younger man.   He proceeds to tell the narrator all about it.  But did it really happen, or was it just a strange dream?

As a young man the speaker often wandered the countryside, intentionally trying to lose himself in it.  “How shall a man find his way unless he lose it?” he asks rhetorically.  The land he describes is one of dream, full of unforeseen possibilities, “on the edge of life”—and so unlike what is possible, living in cities.  One afternoon, almost by accident, he finds a strange old farmhouse, which announces its presence with an odd musical, harp like sound.  An elderly couple, an old man and his caretaker, give him rest and some food to eat.

The “low grave house, grey-chimneyed” is described in rustic detail, but without any particular focused view.  There is a feeling of great age, richness, and serenity, both in the house and its inhabitants, but also of sadness and melancholy.  Arrangements of flowers are pretty, but may be funereal.  Birds seem unafraid and are nearly in the house at times with its owners; the old man of the house appears to address them “in a low sibilant whisper”.   

It may be that the young man falls asleep after his meal with the old couple, but the transition to dream is seamless and not easy to delineate.  There is this ominous line:  “…my consciousness sank deeper and deeper, stilled, pacified, into the dream amid which, as it seemed, this soundless house of stone now reared its walls.”

Two figures suddenly appear in the doorway, a boy and a girl.  There is something unusual about them.  They are “dwarfish”, and speak in slurred, guttural, shrill tones—speech that appears to be broken, barely intelligible English.  Though childlike in manner, they are physically much older, perhaps in their late teens.  Their bodies are strangely out of proportion.  (Today they might be described as developmentally disabled).  The two of them are friendly and welcoming to their guest, and lead him outside to tour their garden.

This is not an ordinary garden.  In fact, it is a version of the Garden of Eden—if that famous garden extended its borders to a rocky shore of the North Sea.  “Yet how can one call that a garden which reveals no ghost of a sign of human arrangement, of human slavery, of spade or hoe?”  De La Mare describes a wild landscape of mossy boulders, lichen covered trees and scrabbly uncultivated fruit trees.  “It was the harbourage of birds…It cried ‘hospital’ to the wanderers of the universe.”  The memory of the place leads the speaker to return to his earlier concern:  the forsakenness human society and its separation from “a world of welcoming and fearless life…”  

Later, the young man wanders away and returns to a much less ethereal world.  At an inn he is served by a friendly but judgmental woman, whom the speaker compares to her pig.  She informs him about the nature and history of the strange family he visited.  “And did you see any of the ‘The Creatures’?” she asks, referring to the old man and his two children, who are named Maria and Christus, it turns out.  The latter are “simples”, the anticipated product of the man’s unholy union with “a woman from the sea” who had lived with him in sin. 

The innkeeper gives the young man directions to the woman’s grave, in a section of the church graveyard distant and separated from ‘the elect.’  It is a simple rough hewn stone, “with but a name bitten out of the dark rough surface, ‘Femina Creature.’”

It is not possible to do justice here to the marvelous lyricism Walter De La Mare employs to unsettle his readers and touch them on so many levels.  The story offers subtle criticisms of modernity and urban life, prejudice, and human arrogance.  The Creatures contains Biblical references to the fallen nature of humanity, the Garden of Eden, the parable of the talents, and Judgment Day among other themes.  Yet it is not a traditional religious story.  There is no moral.  It is rather a haunting depiction of one man’s wrestling with spiritual questions.  Something very important has been lost, and we may not even realize it, much less understand what it is.