Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Amoeba in the Attic

Amorphous, shapeshifting monstrosities are not uncommon in horror or science fiction.  H.P. Lovecraft’s stories often ended with the appearance of “a colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance starred with shining malevolent eyes” or “a seething dimly phosphorescent cloud of fungous loathsomeness” or even worse:

“…that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling…”

Readers familiar with Lovecraft will probably recognize these examples from He (1926), The Shunned House (1928), and the classic The Colour Out of Space (1927).  As was noted in an earlier post, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories, and possibly a source of inspiration, was a novella by Anthony M. Rud called Ooze (1923).  The image of an amoebic-like entity also occurs in Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933), though it is not so much a voracious predator as the undifferentiated origin of life:

“Headless, without organs or members, it sloughed from its oozy sides, in a slow, ceaseless wave, the amoebic forms that were the archetypes of earthly life.”

The preoccupation of horror writers with enormous, all consuming, slimy amoeboids, combined with technical advancement in movie special effects later led to such films as The Blob (1958), The Green Slime (1968), and The Thing, (especially the 1982 remake), among many others.  One of my favorite amoebic monsters appears in the movie The Angry Red Planet (1959), where it chases the presumptuous visiting earthlings away from the Martian city.

Amoebic monsters are not always indiscriminate and insatiable predators, though.  In some horror fiction, they act in the service of an oppressed or beleaguered child.  Perhaps they are a manifestation of repressed rage and hurt, and transform these energies into a shifting, shadowy form that acts much as the microorganism does.  Here is the depiction of the creature in Manly Wade Wellman’s 1938 story Up Under the Roof:

Awareness of that sound grew upon me, first slowly and faintly, then with a terrifying clarity, over a number of hot, wakeful nights…The movement was huge and weighty, of a bulk that I judged was far beyond my own…It did not drag or walk, but it moved.  Years later, I was to see through a microscope the plodding of an amoeba.  The thing up under the roof sounded as an amoeba looks…

The twelve year old narrator of the story listens intensely, night after night as the sound of the entity in the attic above his head increases ominously.  Its growth seems to parallel the estrangement and belittlement he experiences as an unwanted member of the household.  In Up Under the Roof, the boy must face his fears—which may or may not be imaginary—and he does so without endangering anyone but himself. 

This is not the case in later stories by other authors, which show a disturbing evolution of the themes of children’s powerlessness and uncommunicated despair.  It is interesting to contrast Wellman’s story with similar items published a decade or so later.  For example, in Theodore Sturgeon’s Shadow, Shadow on the Wall (1950), a young boy creates a glowering, tentacled shadowy creature—“It was something like a spider, and something like a gorilla.”—and then applies it to an abusive stepmother, who is absorbed, as if by some monstrous protozoan.  In Richard Matheson’s classic horror story Born of Man and Woman (1950), the child narrator is despised and kept in a cellar, where he collects a murderous rage against his parents.  He—it?—is gradually revealed to be a slimy, indeterminate, multi-legged creature himself.  There have been numerous variations of this theme over the decades since Matheson’s story was published.

I’m not sure what exactly was going on in the 1950s, but there seemed to be an increasing number of horror stories about children turning the tables on adults in the most horrendous ways.  Besides the work by Sturgeon and Matheson above, there was Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life (1953), later made into a very disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone in 1959.  In that story, a sadistic three year old boy has absolute, god-like power over his small community.  In Ray Bradbury’s Zero Hour (1951) children all over secretly conspire with extraterrestrials to conquer the world.  And of course, there was William March’s The Bad Seed (1954), the premise of which is too horrible to contemplate for very long.  

Sliding over, encircling, dissolving, and devouring all of this was The Blob (1958)—an amoebic entity first detected by disrespected adolescents, who later go on to save the world.  In this context, it is interesting, at least to me, that two of the most popular toys of this period—Silly Putty (1949) and Play-Doh (1956)—were formless, protean substances on which children and adults could imprint the contents of their imaginations.  What is a giant amoeba but a kind of amorphous modelling clay, able to take the shape of a child’s fear or hatred of its parents, as well as the form of its parents’ anxiety and despair?   

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