Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Cthulhu Mythos as Side Show Attraction

“…I would have made your flattened, punctured fragments immortal!”

The replacement of a live human being with a wax or clay effigy, so lifelike that it seems like the real person, has been a staple in horror entertainment for a long time.  A maniacal artist, often grandiose, aggrieved, or humiliated by his peers, works marvels in sculpting accurate replicas of individuals recently gone missing.  The horrible punch line of course is that the sculpture is not a replica at all.  The artist turns out to be not so much a talented sculptor as a skilled taxidermist. Or perhaps, waxidermist.

Readers may recall such classic films as Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)—“Images of wax that throbbed with human passion!”—and House of Wax (1953), with Vincent Price as the vengeful owner of an incinerated wax museum.  In Roger Corman’s classic Bucket of Blood (1959) the artist works in clay instead of wax, using a creative process that involves the exsanguination of his victims before they are immortalized in plaster.  Corman’s film manages to be quite funny and satirical in some scenes, despite the appalling subject. 

An earlier version of this theme can be found in H.P. Lovecraft’s collaboration with Hazel Heald, The Horror in the Museum, (1932), which may have been inspired in part by A.M. Burrage’s The Waxwork (1931).  There are similarities in the plot of both stories, though conceivably they are both derived from an earlier source.  Lovecraft offers a variation on this theme; the waxen effigies are of nonhuman models, and humans are not rendered lifelike so much as spectacularly deadlike.  

The Lovecraft-Heald work is interesting because it contains elements that were developed in other Lovecraft stories and collaborations.  Readers familiar with Lovecraft’s work will find echoes of At the Mountains of Madness (1936)—a polar expedition to an archaeological site is described—and The Mound (1930), with its imagery of dismemberment and physical disfigurement.  Various members of the Cthulhu Mythos are listed, along with familiar unpronounceable interjections like “Ei! Ei! Ei!” and “Iä! Iä! Iä!”  There is also reference to the well-known bibliography of doom: the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon, and the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.

Little is known about Hazel Heald.  De Camp comments that she was “a stout, auburn-haired divorcée” from Somerville, Massachusetts.  Joshi notes that she published just five stories, all of them revised or ghostwritten by Lovecraft, probably in 1932 or 1933.  (See also A Small Town Horror.)  In his view, these revisions were closer to original creations by Lovecraft than mere editing would have produced.  Of The Horror in the Museum, Joshi writes:  “I fervently hope that “The Horror in the Museum” is a conscious parody—in this case, a parody of Lovecraft’s own myth cycle.”

Near the beginning of The Horror in the Museum, Stephen Jones is challenged by George Rogers, the owner of a gruesome wax museum, to spend the night in his establishment.  Jones agrees, if only to prove to Rogers that his “effigies are just effigies” and on the condition that Rogers destroys his latest sculpture—which is kept in the “adults only” section of the museum, behind a padlocked door.  Rogers is a gifted artist who over time has boasted of collecting “certain things in Nature that no one had found before” during his far flung travels.  Jones is mostly concerned about his friend’s deteriorating mental health, and resolves to sleep among Roger’s grotesque creations.

This is after he helps Rogers dispose of an oddly exsanguinated and flattened dog, listens to Rogers’ story of his eldritch adventures in a remote Alaskan archaeological dig, and is provided an overview of Roger’s peculiar theology and religious practices.  But this sets the stage for the most entertaining part of the story, which is Jones’ long nerve wracking night in the museum.  There is some genuine creepiness here.  Readers will know there is something behind that padlocked door.  Why go to the trouble to lock up a wax effigy?  

The theology is bizarre and not a little confused.  Clearly idolatry is in view, and one suspects a biblical source as the inspiration for the mad artist’s frequently repeated line: “for the blood is the life”.  It is probably from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, chapter 17, verse 11:  “For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”  This chapter deals extensively with the prohibition against eating blood and sacrificing to idols—the primary focus of The Horror in the Museum.  For all his official atheism and materialism, Lovecraft still relied on religious understandings as source material for a lot of his ideas.  (See H.P. Lovecraft Goes to Church.)

Rogers refers to his newest creation as “It”.  “It” is a god, and he is Its high priest.  Furthermore, worship essentially consists of feeding “It”.  But readers may not easily understand Rogers’ motivation.  Does he want to be taken more seriously?  Does he want to become all powerful through the intervention of his god?  But what kind of deity can be subdued behind a locked door?  Or needs a human to feed it in order to escape starvation?  This is reminiscent of another biblical passage, this one from Psalm 135, verse 15:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold
Made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak;
Eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but cannot hear,
Nor is their breath in their mouths.
But those who make them will be like them,
And so will all who trust in them.

Something like this happens to Rogers, the would-be leader of a new and barbaric religion.  Orobona, the artist’s “dark, foreign-looking assistant”, (i.e. the inscrutable ethnic henchman—a stock character in this literature), smiles knowingly at his master’s demise.  This occurs not long after an over the top monologue that will remind readers of countless rantings of mad scientists over the years.  In a climactic scene Jones sensibly declines an offer from Rogers:  “I would have made your flattened, punctured fragments immortal.”  Jones is unimpressed —alas, a missed opportunity for fame.

With respect to monsterology, the creature that shambles through The Horror in the Museum is much less amorphous than many of Lovecraft’s creatures, and easier to visualize in terms of appearance and action.  “It” occupies space as a physically threatening predator.  Whether an ethereal, indeterminate horror is more effective than a realistically defined one may the topic of future discussion.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

“Beautiful Dreamer, Wake Unto Me”

In arguably one of its better episodes, the latest installment of SyFy’s Dominion focused on the classic theme of grown children struggling to reconcile with their parents.     It being such a dark show, this family dynamic involved extortion, pistol whipping, exorcism, and euthanasia via strangulation.  The emotional conflict of a young woman taking on the mantle of adulthood was sensitively portrayed in the Riesen home, while the challenge of a young man seizing the reins of power and authority from his father was the insightful focus over at the Whele house.

At the encouragement of Alex, the Chosen One, Claire meets her eight ball mother, who is chained to the floor in a large storage room.  She learns the awful truth that her father has been having a long running affair with the lower angel who possessed her dead mother’s body.  Understandably, she experiences a short period of denial, and wants Alex to shoot her—he had almost done so in the last episode.  From the eight ball we learn of the difficulties of being one of the lower angels, a kind of bodiless, disenfranchised underclass clinging to the lower rungs of heaven.

We also learn from Claire’s zombified mother that the human soul can still survive in some form in a body possessed by an angel, that eight balls—they do not like to be called that—are often remorseful for taking human bodies, and believe that they can be redeemed by the Chosen One.  Alex obtains “The Apocrypha”, an ancient book that contains a prayer for evicting lower angels who have possessed human bodies.  Inhabiting human bodies is something angels apparently have been doing for centuries, causing their victims to be frequently misunderstood and mislabeled.

(The real “Apocrypha” is a collection of books that are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and placed in the Old Testament; Protestant Bibles typically do not contain these books.  They are interesting for containing the scriptural basis for the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.)  

Claire and her mother are reunited, if only briefly, after the latter convinces Claire she is genuine and trustworthy.  The eight ball knows the lullaby that Claire’s mom used to sing to her, the annoying and sappy “Beautiful Dreamer”, originally composed by Stephen Foster and published in 1864.  Here is the first verse:

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd away!
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

In last week’s episode, Claire’s eight ball mother had purchased a music box that played this tune and snuck it into the Riesen house as an engagement gift.  She also knows Claire’s secret childhood nickname.  It is “Izzy”, short for Elizabeth, the name her mother originally wanted her to have.

But Claire is definitely not an “Izzy”, at least not any more.

In a scene reminiscent of the classic 1973 horror film, The Exorcist, Alex reads from the Apocrypha in order to “evict” the spirit of the angel from Claire’s mother.  Mother and daughter are together at last, but only for a few moments.  The process is so traumatic that Claire’s mother is left comatose, and in a closing scene, Claire administers euthanasia by clasping her hand over her mother’s nose and mouth.  (SyFy series seem to make not infrequent use of euthanasia in some form to effect a dramatic departure of interesting minor characters.)

Ironically, Claire uses knowledge of her father’s affair with the eight ball to blackmail him into stepping down from the council, allowing her take command.  She achieves what the conniving David Whele has failed to do over the past couple of episodes.  The fact that Claire can blackmail her father and implement a mercy killing of her mother  in the same episode reveals this “woman of the people” to be quite ruthless in her ambitions.

Meanwhile, over at the House of Whele, David confronts his son about his leadership of the fanatical Church of the Savior, and its fundamentalist branch of “Black Acolytes”.  The Acolytes are in league with the evil Archangel Gabriel—who knew?—and thus forced to have their clandestine gatherings in dark, candle-lit basements.  The elder Whele arranges to have all the congregants massacred during one worship service, and his son vows revenge against his father.

There is a climactic scene at the Whele household, where William holds his father at gunpoint, his dad jeering and egging him on.  He is about to shoot his father in the head—a suspenseful moment for me, because the evil Secretary of Commerce is my favorite character so far—but then backs off.  Even better, William instead beats his father unconscious with the gun, has him dragged to a gathering of the surviving Acolytes, and forces his father to convert to the new religion by undergoing the excruciating initiation ritual.  Finally the two have an activity they can share in and thereby deepen their relationship—a bit more intense than cub scouts or high school sports or fishing.

More sophisticated viewers than I will find all of this preposterous and over the top.  But if one approaches the show as a nightmarish, somewhat Freudian inspired psycho-drama, where repressed anxieties and hostilities are graphically acted out on screen, it can be very engaging.  The religious theme brings with it the hope of some kind of future redemption for all involved.

Dominion is on SyFy Thursday nights at 9:00 E.S.T.  See the show’s website at for more details.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tsathoggua And His Fans

Tsathoggua is a minor deity in the pantheon of “old ones” created by H.P Lovecraft and his colleagues.  There is reference to him in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time (1936).  The narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, rattles off a list of earthly minds that have been captured by the Great Race for study, including “three from the furry prehuman Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua…” 

The entity is also mentioned in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), which is his first appearance in a published story.  The doomed Henry Akeley, who is under the surveillance of a nearby colony of aliens, tells that narrator in a letter that “I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azatoth…”  In my view, this is one of Lovecraft’s strongest attempts at science fiction.

Two other stories by Lovecraft that cite the loathsome Tsathoggua include At the Mountains of Madness (1936), and his collaboration with Hazel Heald, The Horror in the Museum (1932).  In the latter story, “Black Tsathoggua moulded itself from a toad-like gargoyle to a long, sinuous line with hundreds of rudimentary feet…”—which suspiciously resembles a description of Tsathoggua in one of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, discussed below.  In At the Mountains of Madness, the narrator speculates that “the devotees of Tsathoggua were as alien to mankind as Tsathoggua itself.”

In a letter to Helen Sully, who was feeling “hopeless, useless, incompetent & generally miserable”, Lovecraft offered some empathy, commiseration, and this admonition:  “So…for Tsathoggua’s sake, cheer up!”

Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone (1931) seems to contain a reference to the batrachian deity.  (See also Bibliographies of Doom )  A “huge monstrous toad like thing” appears on top of the monolith in the gruesome climax of the story.  Though not named, the creature seems to match the description of Tsathoggua.  The fact that several of these stories were published by various authors within a year or two of each other suggests some kind of sharing or collaboration, an outbreak of Tsathogguaism circa 1931.        

Tsathoggua appears as one of several supernatural entities early in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Seven Geases (1933).  In that story, the aggrieved wizard Ezdagor says, “You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad…He will rise not from his place, even in the ravening of hunger, but will wait in divine slothfulness for the sacrifice.” (See Geas Who Is Coming to Dinner.) 

The depiction of Tsathoggua had changed in interesting ways since his initial appearance in an earlier work, Smith’s The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.  The story was originally written in 1929, but published in Weird Tales in 1931.  (Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness came out in August of that year; Smith’s in November.)   The story establishes Clark Ashton Smith as the original creator of Tsathoggua.  

In diction and style, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros will remind some readers of stories by Lord Dunsany, for example The Hoard of the Gibbelins (1912) and How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles (1912).  The story concerns two thieves who in a moment of grandiosity decide to raid an ancient basaltic stone temple of its jewels and antiquities—in the dead of night.  There are clever euphemisms and innuendos scattered throughout the early part of the story:  “…the fact that we had no funds for our journey was of small moment, for, unless our former dexterity had altogether failed us, we could levy a modicum of involuntary tribute from the guileless folk of the country-side.”     

But the tone of the story darkens precipitously as the two begin their journey through a dark forest to arrive at an ancient, abandoned city.  To create dis-ease and intensifying fear, Smith makes effective use of details about the flora and fauna the men encounter.  Their eventual altercation with Tsathoggua changes the adventure story into a nightmare.  As in many of Smith’s stories, a grisly detail mentioned at the very beginning of the story returns to view full circle at the end—a very effective device.  The Tale of Satampra Zeiros in my view is one of the more effective “mythos” stories and is recommended reading.       

(Tsathoggua also appears more extensively in the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon, but these resources are not as readily available.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Two Ghosts and a Conjure-Man

In his tragically short life of just thirty years, Robert E. Howard was a very productive author.  He began writing as a child, publishing his first story in 1925, when he was eighteen years old.  Forty-eight of his stories would appear in Weird Tales, along with twenty-one poems.  He also published in Argosy, Strange Tales, Fight Stories, Action Stories, Oriental Stories, (a.k.a. Magic Carpet), Ghost Stories, Strange Detective Stories, Thrilling Adventures, Spicy Adventure Stories and Sport Story Magazine—which gives a sense of his range of interest.

James Gunn, in his fascinating 1975 history of science fiction Alternate Worlds, describes the economic challenge of being a pulp fiction writer, especially during the Depression era when Howard established his career.  Gunn writes that “—every pulp writer trying to make a living from selling words for one-half cent to a penny had to be prolific or starve…”  Gene Wolf, in his introduction to a collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, remarks that Howard nevertheless was able to use his writing to generate the highest income in Cross Plains, Texas, where he lived.

In the early 20th Century, an aspiring horror, science fiction or fantasy writer was often financially driven to produce a great number of stories in a relatively short period of time.  He or she had to constantly expand into new subject matter and markets, and adapt to fluctuations in the public’s interest or taste.  H.P. Lovecraft tended to sneer at pulp fiction and the more mundane aspects of the writing business; productivity and marketing were not his strong suit.  In contrast, Robert E. Howard rose to this challenge, and aggressively explored new territories for his adventurous fiction.  He published poetry and hundreds stories in a variety of fiction genres.

In some respects the struggles of pulp fiction writers circa the 1920s and 1930s resemble the difficulties of current day bloggers and e-book publishers.  The low rate of remuneration creates an emphasis on voluminous output and continuous self-promotion.

Much of Howard’s work was published or adapted by others long after his death in 1936.  Though of uneven quality, many of these items are interesting to Howard enthusiasts because they contain the germs of ideas developed elsewhere in his fiction, or show the development of various themes and motifs that preoccupied him.  Following are a few stories that were published posthumously that readers may have come across.

In Robert E. Howard’s Restless Waters (1974), several ship captains gather in a sea side tavern to drink and keep warm during a terrible storm.  It is 1845, and Captain Starkey has contrived to marry off his hapless niece to a business associate in order to avoid bankruptcy—his plan may have involved the murder of a potential informant and the banishment of the girl’s fiancé to distant port.  The evil captain’s plot is revealed in a claustrophobic discussion around a table in the bar.  As the storm intensifies, something appears at the window to interfere with Starkey’s plot.  This one is very moody and melodramatic.

Colleagues are also drinking around a table in Delenda Est, (1968), albeit some 1500 years earlier than the setting of the story above.  “Delenda Est” may be an abbreviation of a well-known Latin quote from Cato the Elder:  “et praeterea censeo carthago delenda est”—“and furthermore, I declare that Carthage must be destroyed.”  (Except that the city intended for destruction in the story is Rome.) 

Readers will want to bone up on the history of the Punic Wars as well as the later attacks by barbarians against the declining Roman Empire.  This is the setting for Howard’s vignette.  A mysterious figure gives timely advice to a barbarian ship captain on the eve of an attack on the Eternal City.

Delenda Est is interesting to compare to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Very Old Folk, (1940), published a few years after Lovecraft’s death.  (See also An Antiquarian’s Dream.)  Lovecraft’s setting is somewhat earlier in history, and involves a Roman military expedition that encounters a supernatural force as it struggles to maintain control over a conquered people.  Delenda Est is an interesting variation on ghost stories involving “vengeance from the grave”, and seems as if it would have been an excellent opening to a much longer work.

The setting of Kelly the Conjure-Man (1964) is roughly cotemporaneous with Restless Waters, though it takes place in Arkansas instead of along the New England coast.  Howard imagines a survival of West African Vodun, (commonly called “voodoo”) among the slaves of one backwoods community in pre-Civil War America.  Vodun beliefs and practices are personified in “Kelly the ‘conjer man’, a terrifying and powerful folk wizard.  The story is more of a character sketch or back story to what might have been a much more extensive work.  Kelly disappears suddenly—it would be interesting to know why this happened.

The racism in Kelly the Conjure-Man is casual and likely offensive to many readers.  There is this remarkable passage near the end:

“In every community of whites and blacks, at least in the south, a deep, dark current flows forever, out of sight of the whites who but dimly suspect its existence.  A dark current of colored folks’ thoughts, deeds, ambitions and aspirations, like a river flowing unseen through the jungle.”

Howard’s acknowledgement that people with a different history and culture may have “ambitions and aspirations” of their own, suggests at least a proto-diversity awareness.  White America was hardly out of the woods with respect to sensitivity, acceptance and respect for other cultures early in the last century—not figuratively or literally.  (For a more visceral experience of Howard’s treatment of racial prejudice and anxiety see A Racist Nightmare).  Nevertheless, Howard’s views on race are much more nuanced than many of his colleagues at the time.