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.  

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