Friday, January 31, 2014

Better Read the Contract

Robert E. Howard’s Dig Me No Grave (1937) was published just a month before his friend and colleague H.P. Lovecraft passed away of cancer.  Howard himself had died the previous year of a self administered gunshot wound.  His story belongs to the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, and contains reference to such Lovecraftian elements as Yog-Sothoth, “Kathulos”, “Elder ones” and a 50 year old wizard who never appears to age, (as well as a devolution to eighteenth century English in a couple passages).  Coincidentally, the story is about an acquaintance of the narrator who has died under mysterious circumstances and left peculiar instructions regarding the disposal of his earthly remains.

Dig Me No Grave shares some characters with an earlier story by Robert E. Howard, The Children of the Night (1931).  The curmudgeonly Professor Kirowan, a minor character in the earlier story, is the narrator of this one.  John Conrad, a friend of Kirowan’s, was the host of the party in The Children of the Night.  (At that gathering, two of their colleagues, animated by racial memories of an epic battle between “Aryans” and snake-people, get into a brawl in Conrad’s library.)

In Dig Me No Grave, Conrad asks Kirawan to come with him one night to the house of one John Grimlan, a renowned and feared occultist who has just died.  Grimlan has left post mortem instructions for Conrad to carry out.  These involve reading the contents of an envelope Grimlan has left for him.  It is of course the dead of night when they have to do this.  Grimlan’s residence is essentially a haunted house with bats, candles, an antique lock, cold drafts, and a dead body on a table in the library.

The library is one of the most dangerous rooms in horror stories from this time period.

The two men are startled by a third visitor, a mysterious ‘Oriental’, who encourages them to proceed with Grimlan’s instructions.  Conrad begins reading out loud.  The document initially reads like a contract—“which I entered intoe of mine own free will & knowledge beinge of rite mynd & fiftie years of age…”—which in fact it is.  The rest of the story is the fulfillment of that contract. 

What is interesting about both of these stories—as well as the 1932 story People of the Dark and the posthumously published The Little People (1970)—is that Howard was developing his own ‘mythos’, a cycle of stories centered on a hidden race of snake-like subterranean creatures.  Humanoids with reptilian features, they were able to mate with humans and so propagate their genetic traits as well as their “unspeakable” religious practices into subsequent generations.  Dig Me No Grave, coming later in the cycle, seems to consolidate and refine some of Howard’s ideas about this vile, forgotten race.  We learn that they worship Malik Tous—“the old Serpent—the veritable Satan!”—yet favor the incongruous emblem of a peacock with a spreading tail.

In my view, the stereotypical ending of Dig Me No Grave—a version of ‘give the devil his due’—was a disappointment.  With an interesting title and such an ominous lead in, I expected that the evil old wizard would have found a way to cheat death again.  What are Elder Ones for, anyway? 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

With Friends Like These…

Out of over 2 billion human beings living on planet Earth in 1932, Vizaphmal of the planet Satabbor selects the one that is about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  This is Theobald Alvas, almost certainly a caricature of H.P. Lovecraft and a character in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Monster of the Prophecy (1932).  Numerous similarities as well as the use of ‘Theobald’—a version of one of Lovecraft’s most frequently used pseudonyms—clearly identify Smith’s character with his famous colleague.

It was not uncommon for people in Lovecraft’s circle of writers to use fictionalized versions of each other in their stories.  These authorial characters typically experienced gruesome ends, often prompting a similar story in response from the emulated writer. 

Probably the most famous example of this is Robert Bloch’s The Shambler From the Stars, (1935).  In that story, a version of H.P. Lovecraft is exsanguinated by an invisible tentacled creature, following the oral reading of a passage from Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936), Robert “Blake” is dispatched in turn by an entity with a “three lobed burning eye.”   

Another example is Frank Belknap Long’s The Space Eaters (1928), which was discussed in a previous post, (see Howard and Frank vs. the Brain Eaters).  In that story, “Frank” chronicles “Howard’s” demise after contact with invisible brain-eating aliens from another dimension.

Smith’s The Monster of the Prophecy is unique among these stories for having a happy, even humorous ending.  Vizaphmal, who is telepathic, quickly surmises Theobald’s dismal situation.  Theobald is an unsuccessful poet and writer, trying to make a living in New York—just as H.P. Lovecraft tried to do from 1924 to 1926. 

Theobald has written a poem, Ode to Antares which reflects his—and Lovecraft’s—enthusiasm for astronomy.  Not coincidently, Vizaphmal is an Antarian from the planet Satabbor, which orbits the enormous red star, many light years away.  Rather than drown himself in the river, Vizaphmal persuades Theobald Alvas to accompany him to his home planet.

Vizaphmal uses a device somewhat similar to that in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to transport the two to Satabbor.  Once there, Theobald discovers that he is a pawn in Vizaphmal’s plot to seize control of the government of Ulphalor, the largest principality on the planet.  It turns out that the appearance of Theobald—a ‘monster’ by Antarean standards of beauty—fulfills a prophecy in the Antarean equivalent of the Old Testament.  (That Lovecraft himself could fulfill a biblical prophecy is a nicely ironic touch.) Theobald’s host uses this fact to wrest political power from the reigning wizard.   

But Vizaphmal’s coup d’état is swiftly toppled by an angry mob of fundamentalist Cunthamosi worshippers, and Theobald’s fortunes under the old regime are abruptly and cruelly reversed.  He is soon on the run from religious extremists, who employ horrible procedures and devices very similar to Earth’s Inquisition.  Some readers—fans of Robert E. Howard in particular—may be disappointed in the nonviolent, happy ending, but others will appreciate the clever symmetry, given how the tale began.

Typical of a Clark Ashton Smith story is the wildly imaginative and hallucinatory description of the alien planet’s terrain, ecology and principle inhabitants.  This is primarily an adventure story, with some political intrigue and a touch of romance thrown in.  The Antareans have a complex social structure that mirrors their bizarre biology and ecosystem.  Their multiple and odd-numbered limbs and appendages suggests a Lovecraftian influence.  Underlying the novella is a deep affection and sympathy for the main character, who is finally able to achieve all the aspirations that were denied him on planet Earth.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Horror from the Home State

A couple nights ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of previewing an independently produced horror film shot on location in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.  Over pizza, beer and popcorn a gathering of us discussed the making of The Cabining with its director and screen writer, Steven Kopera.   The Cabining was completed last October, followed by a recent final editing of the version that we previewed late last week.

If you have ever attempted to make a feature length film, you know how arduous it can be:  developing the concept, writing the script, obtaining financial backing, auditioning actors, dealing with camera people and other technicians, securing the locations for shooting the film, dealing with technical glitches, (including Michigan’s weather), and managing all the personalities involved.  Imagine doing all this while working full time at a local university.

Though the film begins in Los Angeles, most of the story occurs in a guesthouse on Lake Charlevoix, near Boyne City.  This a beautiful rustic area in northern Michigan—clear, cold lakes surrounded by pine forest.  Bruce and Todd, two struggling young screenwriters, cannot get their script for “Bloody Hell” accepted in Hollywood.    

“Bloody Hell” is apparently an all too typical slasher flick that takes place in an isolated cabin in the woods, (where so many annoying characters have met their demise, in countless films).   In one painful scene, Bruce and Todd must endure the merciless criticism of a reviewing committee.  Not only is their script shredded for being hackneyed and unoriginal, the entire field of horror movies is dismissed as “derivative”.

The two are asked to rewrite their material with something more imaginative and original.  But where will they go for inspiration?   Bruce, the less restrained and reflective of the two, proposes that they spend a week at “Shangri-La”, a lake-side vacation home in northern Michigan.  They arrive at the place along with several other earnestly struggling artists: a musician, a fiction writer, a painter, and a local sculptor who fashions works of art out of things he finds in the woods.  All of them are staying at Shangri-La, hoping to find creative inspiration in their respective fields.  The bodies soon begin to pile up, but so do the pages of Todd’s new draft of the screenplay.

The Cabining is an amusing send up of cabin-in-the-woods horror movies, with outrageous characters and plentiful one-liners.  My favorite character was Jasper, the local sculptor and prime suspect, who almost never appears in any scene without a blunt instrument in one hand and something dead in the other.  Jasper gets some of the best lines, delivered with a perfectly half-crazed, deadpan expression.   

The tone of the film is very similar to a spoof of another horror subgenre, The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, (2009).  (See Blasphemy!) That film also features a couple of bros who find inspiration—in this case for comic book writing—in a series of supernatural mishaps in rustic locations. 

The makers of The Cabining seem to have had as much fun skewering horror clichés as they do the characters in their film. The gore is tasteful and never gratuitous or overdone—it really is not the main point of the movie, which is satire.  The official trailer of the film is available at  

An interesting interview with the movie’s director Steven Kopera can be found at The Horror Hothouse blog, located at

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Hand of Man

“I don’t know how to say this, but things have gone downhill since you got infected.”

Dr. Allen Farragut offers these cheery words to his brother Peter, who is stretched out on a table in the isolation room at Arctic Biosystems.  In that top secret laboratory near the North Pole, an outbreak of the strange Narvik-B virus is in its fourth day.  Peter was one of the first individuals infected, and has endured extreme pain, uncontrollable rage, paranoia, the conversion of his blood to black slime, and zombification.  But he has also experienced superhuman strength and possibly a preternatural enhancement of his sense organs.

In the last episode of the Syfy channel’s new series, Helix, Sarah Jordan had developed a test for the disease that allowed staff of the research base to be divided into healthy and infected camps, with the latter banished to Level R, in the basement of the facility.  But the test was later found to be inaccurate in the worst way:  it either fails to detect the active virus in all cases, or yields false positive results in otherwise normal individuals.

And there have been other disasters while Peter drifted in and out of consciousness in the isolation room.  Belleseros destroyed the satellite uplink, severing communications between the base and the outside world.  Rebels among the banished scientists on Level R have found a way to shut off the air supply to the upper level, in order to blackmail Dr. Hatake and his minions.  (A wonderful touch:  Dr. Hatake’s red coffee mug displays the words “Keep Calm and Carry On”.) 

Viewers learn that Sarah, the beautiful and earnest young intern, is dependent on gabapentin, and later morphine, to stave off the pain and tremor caused by her cancer.  Ironically, she is diagnosed by a fellow doctor whom she is treating for the Narvik-B infection.  The stricken doctor happens to be an oncologist.  The show is full of these intriguing ironies.

Meanwhile—and there are a lot of “meanwhiles” in this complex, ambitious series—Dr. Doreen Boyle, the curmudgeonly veterinarian makes a remarkable discovery.  Not only are the infected humans a vector for the Narvik-B virus, the virus itself is a vector for a completely unidentifiable strand of DNA.  The purpose of the virus—the mechanism of the disease—is to deliver the genetic material into the human victim, who then undergoes horrific mutation.  “Say hello to my little friend”, she says to her buddy Belleseros, gazing at a schematic on the computer screen.  “We’re looking at the hand of man.”  

(At this point, my wife and I disagreed about the origin of the unusual DNA strand.  I think it is extraterrestrial, but she thinks it was engineered by scientists at Arctic Biosystems via gene-splicing techniques.)

Meanwhile, downstairs Julia has come under the protection of a woman who first appears with a gas mask covering her face.  They rummage through food lockers in the basement in order to survive Dr. Hatake’s cruel isolation of the infected staff on Level R.  In one of the cabinets Julia discovers irrefutable evidence that she has been at the lab in the distant past.  Besides excelling at leaving behind many unanswered questions, the show’s creators are adept at introducing mystery after mystery to engage their viewers’ imagination.  The plot resembles one of those Russian Matryoshka dolls: within one doll is another, and inside that doll, another, and so forth.

What is the real purpose of Narvik-B and its companion, the unidentified strand of DNA?  Is it for biological warfare?  Was it an attempt to develop a universal anti-viral agent, a cure-all for all of humanity’s ailments?  Or is its purpose something completely different and unanticipated?  Was the outbreak at Arctic Biosystems an accident, or planned?  And one final question—to the creators and writers of Helix:  Why did you kill off one of my favorite characters, in such a gruesomely ironic way?

Check out the ‘study guide’ at Helix | Syfy.  Helix is on SyFy Friday nights at 10:00.