Monday, September 2, 2013

4. Final Remarks about PYF

In the past three posts, a procedure for calculating the Primal Yuck Factor or (PYF) was described and then applied to four of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.  The PYF is a quantification of physically revolting or repellent features in a horror story. It offers a means of analysis and comparison across stories in this genre, or across the stories of a single author.  

The PYF is not an absolute figure, and does not explain a story’s effectiveness or quality.  Certainly there are other factors that determine the success of a horror story:  a clear plot in which a struggle or conflict is resolved in some way, a setting that creates uneasiness and fear in the reader, and characters that the reader can identify with or care about.

Here is the summary table from the last post, which compares some data across the four stories reviewed.

Comparisons of PYF Across Four Stories

Title of Story
Number of References to Repellent Images
Number of Different Sensory Presentations
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Picture in the House
The Hound
In the Vault

The Transition of Juan Romero starts off well and builds interest with two intriguing “back stories” about the narrator and his subject.  The story takes place in an exotic location, at least for Lovecraft, (out west in a gold mining camp).  The imagery of something horrific coming up from underground depths, of weird sounds and rumblings and bottomless abysses, is intrinsically unsettling.   (Caves powerfully combine claustrophobia, acrophobia, and nyctophobia.)   But the story suffers from a lack of focus and clarity, and the weak sensory presentation has little around which to coalesce and achieve a single effect.  The PYF is relatively low in this story.

In The Picture in the House, visual imagery is emphasized, and graphic presentation and repetition increase the suspense.  Considerable effort went into the development of the ominous setting, along with subtle details suggesting that the old man of the house is unnaturally old.  Only a few shocking sensory details are relied on by the author to create a sense of imminent danger for the narrator.  Despite a relatively low PYF, revolting and repulsive imagery is used economically and effectively.

Despite a relatively high PYF, The Hound is the least effective of the four stories reviewed.  The problem seems to be overkill—the sheer number of unpleasant references and the annoying over use of some of the images.  Furthermore, the sensory presentation is set on “high graphic” throughout the story, with almost no modulation. This has a dulling effect.  The story does play on all five senses, which theoretically might have resulted in a more memorable experience for the reader.  But the moral here is ‘less is more’.

In my view, the most effective story reviewed in this series of posts is the first one, In the Vault.  It has the highest PYF, 5.1.  Part of this is due to the reliance on touch as a mode of sensory presentation, which has the second highest rating among the senses, (“score 4”).  The horror is intense because of the character’s immediate physical contact with it—there is no saving distance left between Birch the undertaker and his violently unhappy customer.  But there is more to the tale than these scenes of primal fright.

The plot of the story strongly emphasizes a crude and gruesome justice—readers know that something bad has to happen later on.  The taboo, claustrophobic setting of both the tomb and the occupation contributes dis-ease.  The character of Birch is cleverly, even affectionately drawn.  One can picture him, and for once it is not Lovecraft himself. 

The author uses imagery conveyed by smell and touch, rather than the more typical hearing and sight, during much of the story.  Since hearing and smell are two of our “early warning systems”, and vision is critical to escape, the character of Birch is especially vulnerable to the horror in the vault.  Lovecraft keeps the details suggestive and indirect for awhile, then cranks them up to graphic visual detail at the climax of the story.  In the Vault is one of Lovecraft’s better horror stories because of this artfulness.

Going forward, it may be illuminating to gather PYF ratings for additional stories by Lovecraft and other authors, to see if there are any overall trends and patterns.  Though not the most important element in a work of horror, it does seem that the PYF can augment more traditional analyses of plot, characterization, setting, and theme.  My plan is to continue to use this procedure as part of my effort to achieve a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work of horror writers like Lovecraft and his colleagues.  Perhaps in a future post there will be additional comparative data.  Some questions I would like to try to answer:

1.  Do some of the authors from this time period have a generally higher PYF than others? 
2.  Over time, does PYF change across an author’s body of work?  Across the whole genre?
3.  Is there an ideal PYF, below or above which the story’s effectiveness can suffer?
4.  In horror stories, how does PYF interact with plot, setting, theme and characterization?

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