Saturday, February 28, 2015

1. Some Batrachian Business

Swamps, bogs, and marshes make excellent locations for both nightmares and horror fiction.  These are “thin” places, disturbing because they are in-between, not entirely water or land.  Nor are their inhabitants committed to making a final choice between dry land and the dark, watery depths.  Evolution’s relentless progress is stalled here—‘bogged down’—so that the primitive swims with the advanced, each trying to drag the other into its sphere.  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 the deep, dark, watery origin.

In terms of Jungian dream psychology, wetlands typify the albedo stage of dream imagery—especially when glowing by the silvery light of moon or stars, and obscured by wandering mist.  Dream imagery is in flux in this locale.  What is separated or opposed is united, if only temporarily, in an ever shifting, unstable balance. Categories lose their boundaries; things change shape.  Tadpoles become frogs and toads, who must later return to lay their eggs in the water, hopping, crawling and swimming around a primordial circle. 

Psychologically, the albedo stage is suffused with a creative energy that is directed toward a search for solutions.  Resolution of spiritual and psychological conflict brings the dawn, a final stage where there is brightness and clarity.  Failure to find a solution leads to sliding back into darkness and deterioration, into the slime and murk, where the process begins again.  It is the sliding backwards, the sinking into the miry depths, which forms the gist of a nightmare—and a horror story. 

Clark Ashton Smith’s Mother of Toads (1938) is an interesting if not particularly edifying fable. It may say something about humanity’s troubled relationship with Nature.  If the tale has any wisdom to impart, it is probably something like ‘hell hath no fury like a toad-shaped sorceress scorned’, to misquote William Congreve.  Mother of Toads is in Smith’s Averoigne cycle of stories, along with The Disinterment of Venus (1934), and several others.  These are set somewhere in medieval France, where a barely established Christendom vies with paganism, witchcraft and magic. 

Both Mother of Toads and The Disinterment of Venus contain surprisingly overt sensuality and sexuality, given the timeframe in which they were published.  (See also Mater Dei!)  As a result, stories by Clark Ashton Smith often sound more contemporary to today’s readers than the work of many of his peers. 

S.T. Joshi notes that Mother of Toads was originally sent to Spicy Mystery Tales, where it was rejected.  It seems that the story would not have been a good fit with that publication, despite the prurient content of some of the passages.  The sexuality in Smith’s tale does not seem designed to titillate, as was the case with the typical contents of that magazine.  Its purpose is to amplify a perennially disturbing theme: masculine fear of the “Earth Mother”, and horror of the feminine in general.  Mother of Toads was eventually published in Weird Tales after the author cleaned up the more salacious passages.

In Mother of Toads, a young apprentice to the local apothecary rejects the advances of an obese sorceress, whose physical attributes closely resemble those of the many toads that surround her bog side abode.  He attempts to escape from her following a night of drug-addled love-making, but must face her countless batrachian familiars, who leap up in waves to block his flight.  Unless the reader has a phobia of toads or frogs—that is bufonophobia or ranidophobia—this scene and the climax are more revolting than horrifying.  This may have been the author’s intended effect.  
Despite the prevalence of toad imagery, Smith makes no reference to Tsathoggua, the amphibious god who was his contribution to the pantheon of Cthulhu Mythos deities.  Tsathoggua first appeared in Smith’s The Tale of Satampra Zeiros (1929).  It may be that the appearance of this entity is limited to the author’s Hyperborean cycle of stories. 

Several of Clark Ashton Smith’s colleagues wrote stories especially tailored for bufonophobes and ranidophobes, H.P. Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman among them.   These will be discussed in a subsequent post.   


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Foreplay, With Tentacles

Whispers was one of several praiseworthy attempts to revive horror magazines following the demise of Weird Tales, which ended its original run in the fall of 1954.  The magazine became a respected source of weird fiction and artwork in the 1970s.  Created by editor and publisher Stuart David Schiff, Whispers was named after a fictional periodical mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft’s story, The Unnamable (1925). 

Readers may recall that at the beginning of that tale, Randolph Carter and his friend Joel Manton are sitting on a decrepit old tomb as twilight gathers.  They have resumed an ongoing philosophical debate, and Carter is miffed about Manton’s criticism of the writer’s most recently published story. Carter, the narrator, describes the public’s response to his work:

My tale had been called The Attic Window, and appeared in the January, 1922 issue of Whispers.  In a good many places, especially the South and the Pacific coast, they took the magazines off the stands at the complaints of silly milksops; but New England didn’t get the thrill and merely shrugged its shoulders at my extravagance.

Some suspect that this episode echoes the real world reaction to one of Lovecraft’s more notorious collaborations, The Loved Dead (1924) which was also published around this time.  (See also Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia)  At any rate, the magazine that was published in the 1970s featured short fiction, reviews, and essays by a number of important writers, among them Karl Edward Wagner, Manly Wade Wellman, Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei, E. Hoffman Price and Fritz Leiber.  Several of these authors were members of the generation that followed H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and their colleagues, and were strongly influenced by them, at least initially. 

Whispers also published five of Hugh B. Cave’s stories, including Ladies in Waiting.  By comparison, the original Weird Tales published 13 of Cave’s stories—several decades earlier.  Cave was still quite active in the mid-1970s, and continued to publish into the early years of this century.      

Ladies in Waiting is an interesting pastiche of a number of horror tropes. It includes a haunted house, a nightmarishly compulsive return to an earlier place of terror and eeriness, reference to ancestral evil, and also—more typical of the 1970s than the 1930s—an overt mixture of horror and sexuality in the climactic scene.  In this regard, it is more successful than Lovecraft’s The Loved Dead, but also benefited from several decades of decreasing squeamishness about human sexuality.  Ladies in Waiting also shows the further evolution of Cave’s shudder pulp technique and typical themes. 

The tale is a long way from some of Cave’s earliest weird menace stories, like The Corpse on the Grate (1930) and The Murder Machine (1930).  However, it contains several elements in common with the earlier work, in particular, characters who are drawn against their will to a strange doom, and an application of weird hypnotism as a prelude to an implied rape.  However, unlike a typical shudder pulp story, there is no naturalistic explanation for the supernatural events that unfold.    

Norman and Linda Wilkins return to an old, unoccupied house somewhere in New England.  Earlier that year they had been trapped by a snow storm and forced to spend the night there.  There had been car trouble, and when Norman came back inside after tending to the vehicle, he found his wife oddly dazed and disoriented.

And was he also imagining the odor?  It had not been present in the musty air of this room before; it certainly seemed to be now, unless his senses were playing tricks on him.  A peculiarly robust smell, unquestionably male.

Norman senses that the house is haunted and his wife is somehow possessed by the spirit of the place.  Against his better judgment, he returns with her a second time, after she begs him to take her back to look into purchasing the old place.  Along the way, a useful real estate agent provides helpful backstory.  The previous owners included a woman whose ancestor was one of the witches hanged in Salem, and her husband. He died in an asylum for the insane.  Hmmm.

The real estate agent gives the couple a key to the house and allows them to visit it again, unescorted.  Events soon begin to repeat themselves.  There is a flat tire, and Norman goes outside to repair it, leaving Linda to wander back into the house, alone.  In his frantic search to find her again, he is assailed this time by a sweet perfume and invisible, caressing sensations all over his body—which sensations also commence to unbutton his shirt.  Norman’s experience at this point recalls Jonathon Harker’s passive and ecstatic acquiescence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when one of the female vampires is about initiate him with a bite to the “neck”.  Judging by the sounds coming from a nearby room, Norman’s wife is receiving a similar treatment.

When Norman comes to his senses he is suddenly able to see the denizens of this house—they are not vampires, nor are they precisely human.  They are Lovecraftian monstrosities, amorphous, female and tentacled—and hungry for more of him.  This didn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it didn’t have to.  Cave’s compulsive and circular plot indicates that this is a nightmare about sex, guilt, infidelity and entanglement.  Hence, no need for the rational explanation that typically concluded his shudder pulp tales.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer: The Diary of "Mad Dan"

What if Lovecraft had explored other pulp genres besides horror and the supernatural, as Robert E. Howard and other colleagues had done?  What if he had attemped the kind of shudder pulp stories that Hugh B. Cave was notorious for?  It seems that he did, and an example of this can be found in his preposterous collaboration with Hazel Heald, The Man of Stone (1932).

Coincidently, both Lovecraft and Cave lived in Rhode Island; Lovecraft in Providence and Cave in nearby Pawtuxet.  They never met in person, but did occasionally correspond.  The two differed greatly in work habits, style and degree of success.  It is interesting to compare a story by Lovecraft with one by Cave with respect to pacing, subject matter and characterization, among other parameters. 

Though they disagreed about the professionalism of writing for pulp magazines, The Man of Stone is not very different from the “weird menace” stories of Hugh B. Cave, (especially the second half of the story).  Perhaps by the early 1930s, a cash strapped Lovecraft felt the need to dabble in shudder pulp fiction to locate additional markets for his work.

In The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (1975) Robert Kenneth Jones describes this subgenre as one preoccupied with supernatural and terrifying events which later turn out to have a naturalistic explanation.  Such stories often featured a monster or some other horror that is eventually explained as the result of some exaggerated biological process. There is frequently a madman or diabolical villain, who may be a slighted family member or lover.  Finally, shudder pulp writers added “spiciness” to their tales by including a woman who is threatened or abused by a malefactor.

The Man of Stone contains all of these elements.  It begins as a typical Lovecraftian bromance.  Jack, who is the narrator, accompanies his close friend Ben Hayden as he investigates strange happenings in New York State.  Hayden is stubborn and impetuous, “and once he had heard about those strange statues in the upper Adirondacks, nothing could keep him from going to see them.”  Their friendship recalls that of Randolph Carter and Harley Warren in The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920): “Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him.”  (See also 1. What Happened to Randolph?.)

In The Man of Stone, Jack goes on to say that he was Ben’s closest friend for years, “and our Damon and Pythias friendship made us inseparable at times.”  This is a reference to an ancient Greek legend, probably more obscure today than it was in Lovecraft’s time.  The story of Damon and Pythias exemplifies male friendship and devotion; Damon is so steadfast that he is willing to sacrifice his life for Pythias.  This devotion so impresses their captors that they are freed at the end of the story to resume their adventures. 

The allusion to ‘Damon and Pythias’ occurs in various literary works over time as metaphor for male bonding.  Lovecraft’s The Tree (1921) is also a reflection of Lovecraft’s interest in the ancient Greek conceptualization of male friendship.  (See also Under the Olive Tree.) In the context of The Man of Stone, it is an odd reference.  Neither Jack nor Ben endure any self-sacrifice for the other, and are primarily observers at the scene of a crime.  In fact, they disappear entirely from the story when attention shifts to passages in the diary of the villain.  The phrase ‘Damon and Pythias’ serves mainly as code describing their close male friendship.  

Which is the only relationship possible between characters in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.  Women are conspicuously absent, if not banned.  In the very few instances where women do appear, their femininity is well concealed behind monstrosity and malevolence.  In The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)—tellingly one of Lovecraft’s last stories—Asenath Derby is merely a shell occupied by the spirit of her evil wizard father, and later on by her impotent husband.  In The Dreams in the Witch-House, (1933) an asexual ogress sacrifices infants to the Old Ones.  It cannot be accidental that women receive such treatment in Lovecraft’s work and that male companionship is depicted as the ideal.  (See also ‘Bromantic’ Relationships in Lovecraft.)

However, in The Man of Stone, a young woman is depicted much more sympathetically—she is merely dead and calcified as the story begins.  Jack and Ben arrive at a remote location in the Adirondacks, where they soon discover several petrified corpses, one of which is that of the villain.  He is named “Mad Dan”, perhaps to assist less astute readers.  The other bodies belong to Mad Dan’s wife Rose, and Arthur Wheeler, a sculptor.  Jack and Ben soon find Mad Dan’s journal and are able to unravel the mystery.  The last half of the story is told in diary entries.   

In the journal account, Rose became a model for Wheeler’s work, and the two spent a lot of time together.  Suspecting the worst, Mad Dan concocted a potion that turns people instantly to stone.  The recipe for the potion is conveniently derived from the Book of Eibon, and there is some backstory about Mad Dan being a descendent of a long line of occultists and necromancers.  The mish mash of Cthulhu Mythos terminology with weird biochemistry marks this effort as a transitional work, a halfway point between weird fiction and what we might recognize as science fiction.
At one point, Mad Dan locks Rose in the attic and attempts to get her to drink the potion, (Wheeler had already been tricked into imbibing the evil drink, quickly becoming much like his statuary, though exhibiting much greater detail.)  Here are two passages from Mad Dan’s diary, after he “took a whip to her and drove her up in the attic”:

“March 9—It’s damn peculiar how slow that stuff is in getting hold of Rose.  I’ll have to make it stronger—probably she’ll never taste it with all the salt I’ve been feeding her.  Well, if it doesn’t get her there are plenty of other ways to fall back on.  But I would like to carry this neat statue plan through!..I sometimes hear Rose’s steps on the ceiling overhead, and I think they’re getting more and more dragging.  The stuff is certainly working, but it’s too slow.  Not strong enough.  From now on I’ll rapidly stiffen the dose.”

“March 11—It is very queer.  She is alive and moving.  Tuesday night I heard her piggling with a window, so went up and gave her a rawhiding.  She acts more sullen than frightened, and her eyes look swollen.  But she could never drop to the ground from that height, and there’s nowhere she could climb down…Sometimes I think she works at the lock on the door.”

Oh, my. 

Lovecraft was a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom S.T. Joshi identifies as an important influence on the author’s philosophy and world view.  But the most obvious influence here is Nietzsche’s infamous aphorism about relationships with women:  “Thou goest to women?  Do not forget thy whip!” and perhaps also “In revenge and in love, woman is more barbarous than man.”

Incredibly, the journal begins with the villain’s gleeful and deranged contributions, but finishes with a lengthy statement written by his would be victim Rose, who has contrived to vanquish her madly jealous husband using his own device.  She then commits suicide herself.  (Which also seems vaguely like something out of Greek tragedy.)

Though an actual person, Lovecraft’s collaborator Hazel Heald might as well have been a pseudonym.  This is probably the case for many of the joint efforts considered to be Lovecraft’s “primary revisions” of work by others.  S.T. Joshi believes that all five of the stories Lovecraft revised for Heald “were based on mere synopses and were written by Lovecraft almost entirely on his own.” 

Joshi feels that the weaknesses in The Man of Stone are a result of Lovecraft being constrained by a scenario he would never have chosen for one of his own stories.  This seems generous.  In my view, Lovecraft’s various collaborations suggest an effort to expand beyond his typical material, experiment with edgier subjects, and develop new markets while under financial duress. 

The majority of these primary revisions were completed in the late 1920s through the middle 1930s—an economically difficult time for pulp writers.  Not only did Lovecraft struggle unsuccessfully to adapt to the growing taste for science fiction and “spicy horror”, he apparently concealed some of these efforts as revisions that were published by less gifted writers.