Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Horror of the Amphibious

An excellent location for a horror story is wet land—a swamp, bog, marsh, or quagmire.  These settings are disturbing because they are in-between, not entirely water nor land.  This indecisiveness can be a source of disorientation and dread.  It is easy to hide, or become lost, or sink beneath the mire in a place where solid ground mixes inextricably with floods and currents of water.  This is the realm of the amphibian, born in the water, able to crawl on land, attracted to light, but always linked physically and spiritually to its dark, watery origin.

In terms of Jungian dream psychology, wetland regions can be seen as part of the albedo stage of dream imagery—especially when glowing by the silvery light of the moon.  Metaphorically speaking, the base metal of lead is being transmuted by alchemy to the intermediate stage of silver on its way to becoming gold.  Darkness is approaching light.  But the material is in flux in the albedo stage.  What is typically separate or opposed is united only temporarily in an unstable balance. Categories lose their boundaries; things change shape.  Tadpoles become frogs. 

Psychologically speaking, albedo dream imagery is charged with the energy of creativity and a search for solutions. Successful resolution of spiritual and psychological conflict yields a final stage where there is brightness—warm reds and golds are the signal colors of the final stage.  Failure to determine a solution involves sliding back into darkness and deterioration, where the process begins again. 

Though it is hazardous to oversimplify, many of Lovecraft’s most powerful visions can be placed along this alchemical continuum. Lovecraft’s work is all about dreams, and his imagery progresses from darkness to light and back down again, as he struggled heroically to transmute the darkness of his life into something brighter and more illuminating.     

Lovecraft’s story The Moon Bog (1921) is one of my favorites, for various reasons.  But L. Sprague de Camp dismissed it as mediocre in his 1975 biography of the author, and so did S.T. Joshi in his more thorough I am Providence, The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013).  Joshi says that the story was ‘written to order’ for a meeting of amateur authors on St. Patrick’s Day.  He describes the tale as “a very conventional supernatural revenge story”.  He feels that it is “unusually trite and commonplace” due to its simple message regarding “the spirits of Nature avenging and warding off desecration by human beings”.

Because of the atheist ax Joshi is often grinding, it may have been difficult for him to appreciate one of Lovecraft’s more overtly supernatural stories.  The Moon Bog also fails to support Joshi’s thesis that Lovecraft thoroughly renounced ‘supernatural horror in literature’ as a part of his evolution as a writer.  Though not as well known as other work by Lovecraft, this tale is significant for its connection to many of his later stories in the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’.  

The Moon Bog tells the story of the narrator’s wealthy friend, one Denys Barry, who returns to ancestral lands in Ireland to purchase and rebuild an ancient castle.  The renovations include plans to drain a nearby swamp, which contains an island with mysterious ruins.  The local people will have none of it, being fearful of legends concerning a buried city and its now spectral inhabitants. 

Barry invites the narrator to stay with him as the work commences.  In a series of nightly dreams that become ever more intense and horrible, the narrator becomes aware of a baleful influence emanating from the ruins on the island—drawing all the workmen, Denys Barry and the narrator himself into the bog to re-enact ancient religious ceremonies connected with the local moon goddess.  In a kind of reversed children’s fable, the men are transformed into frogs, the narrator suffers temporary insanity, and the doomed Denys Barry experiences a terrible assumption into the heaven of the moon goddess.

The Moon Bog is interesting on several levels.  The legendary city lurking beneath the bog was an outpost of ancient Greek society, and Lovecraft creatively superimposes his fascination with Greek mythology and culture on the Irish countryside.  In the climactic scene, the lonely ruins on the island in the marsh are transformed into the splendid “apex of a temple on a mountain top”, and the narrator finds himself praying to the ancient Greek deities.

Lovecraft cleverly links the homely piping of frogs in the swamp with the wild flute playing he hears at night as the ancient rituals are manifested spectrally below.  As in an albedo dream—and half of this story is a series of remembered dreams that take place in the moonlight—images of the past are mixed with the present, the sounds of nature blend with the sounds of ecstatic religious worship, and the narrator’s horror becomes alloyed with a strange attraction and fascination. 

Despite his prudishness, Lovecraft movingly identifies the libidinous attraction of unhallowed rites: “Trembling with a terror oddly mixed with ecstasy I crossed the circular room to the north window…there my eyes dilated again with a wild wonder…”  This very primal motivation is hinted at in later stories that contain evocations of the “old ones.”  

Readers of Lovecraft will find connections to some of his other stories in The Moon Bog.  A descendent of ancient English noblemen returns to ancestral lands to restore Exham Priory in The Rats In the Walls (1924), also with disastrous consequences.  There is a reference to Mount Maenalus, the location of the doomed sculptors, Kalos and Musides, in The Tree (1921)—both stories were published in the same year.  St Toad’s (1943), a poem in his series Fungi from Yuggoth, may express the author’s anxiety about batrachians. 

Amphibious humanoid hybrids are depicted in Dagon (1919) and then receive greater development much later in Lovecraft’s famous The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936).  This last story is a wonderful example of how transformation in some setting that is in-between, like an albedo dream, can express deep horror.

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