Sunday, May 7, 2017

2. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World



In the previous post, three factors that determine the believability and effectiveness of a narrative text were discussed.  These included its verisimilitude, the degree to which readers are willing to suspend disbelief about its contents, and whether there is sufficient novelty or “cognitive estrangement” to produce a change in the reader’s understanding of the world. 

Given the outlandish content of weird or speculative fiction, how do readers know what they know of the fictional reality depicted in the story?  How does the author persuade readers, at least for a time, that what he or she is narrating is the truth?  How does it come about that a terrifying idea can be experienced as a visceral reality by the reader?  The latter would seem to be a reliable gauge of the author’s effectiveness.

H.P. Lovecraft’s well-known proto-science fiction story, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931) was used in the last post as an example of the author’s skill in using a number of conventional techniques to produce an effect on the reader.  These techniques underpinned the elements of verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement, producing in the receptive reader a feeling of growing paranoia and alarm.  Lovecraft accomplished this by degrees, relying on the following traditional approaches in horror fiction:

•Using a narrator who is an expert on the subject.
•Appealing to the presumed authority and veracity of members of the upper class.
•Compiling written evidence.  The assumption here is that what is written or published has greater weight than the spoken word.  (Those of us in the health care field know “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.”)
•Using the Necronomicon and similar resources that have wide credibility or notoriety, and fearful respect.
•Making objective measurements of disturbing phenomena using some type of instrumentation.

These are all essentially appeals to authority.  In fiction, as in reality, not just anyone can say that some proposition or finding is true.  Mere eye witness is insufficient.  Either a matter of truth is decided consensually, or better, by some recognized authority, who gives his or her approval to what is already suspected by others.  Reality, like history, is written by the victors, the ones who won the war or the debate, by those who have assumed the authority to say what is true and useful to believe.  But I digress.

It was also noted in the previous post that these conventional props of believability—an expert narrator, written documentation, and so forth—are less effective now than they were in Lovecraft’s time.  These days, we are much more likely to question the authority and veracity of our social betters, our experts, our institutions and other sources of received truth.  This is having an effect on our perception of what can now be considered the truth—a development accelerated by our advancing communications technology.

Another of H.P. Lovecraft’s most important and influential stories is “The Call of Cthulhu”, which was published in 1928.  S.T. Joshi notes that the work demonstrates “the greatest structural complexity” of anything Lovecraft had written up to this time. Readers know that “The Call of Cthulhu” is the first substantive contribution of backstory to what some would later call the “Cthulhu Mythos”.  (“The Mound”, a Lovecraft-Bishop collaboration written in 1929 but published in abridged form in 1940, is also a key source of mythos material.)  

Elsewhere Joshi praises “the rich texture of this substantial work:  its implications of cosmic menace, its insidiously gradual climax, its complexity of structure and multitude of narrative voices, and the absolute perfection of its style—sober and clinical at the outset, but reaching end heights of prose-poetic horror that attain an almost epic grandeur.”  It is one of Lovecraft’s best stories, and displays his considerable strengths as a writer.  It should be considered mandatory reading.

Francis Wayland Thurston, the increasingly anxious narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” is already dead at the start of the story.  Ominously, it is his testimonial Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston that readers first encounter at the beginning. Thurston is “sober and clinical at the outset”, as he begins a systematic presentation of the facts gathered from a variety of sources.  His objective and disinterested approach to the material makes his cautious deliberations more persuasive. 

Like Wilmarth, the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), Thurston “connects the dots” by perusing a variety of written sources.  These include newspaper reports, his uncle’s detailed notes and manuscript—his uncle being the renowned Professor Angell, another “expert”—and the “postfacto diary” of a traumatized Norwegian sailor.  Thurston also conducts an interview with the troubled artist Wilcox, who he comes to see as a credible, though unusually psychic witness to the unfolding horror. 

But the most substantive evidence comes from a police report, the gruesome discovery by Inspector LeGrasse of an active Cthulhu cult operating in the swamps of Louisiana.  LeGrasse receives the imprimatur of the American Archaeological Society, whose expertise he consults regarding the origin of a frightful statuette and the translation of a barbarous chant, the infamous ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.’

It seems quaint now, but the reliance on law enforcement—often in combination with local academia and possibly the military—was a frequent motif in horror entertainments well into the 1960s.  Men in uniform or men with advanced degrees once had the unchallengeable authority to investigate, explain and eventually control terrifying phenomena on behalf of a frightened citizenry.  These days, not so much. 

What is noteworthy about Lovecraft, and consistent with his grim, cosmicist world view, is that Inspector Legrasse, Professor Angell, and the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu”, despite their brilliant insightfulness, are powerless to do much about the horror they have uncovered. (In the case of the two or three academics, they succumb fairly rapidly to it.)  Here Lovecraft was prescient about the true extent of our understanding of the world, and of our ability to control it.

There is one additional way in which Lovecraft establishes credibility in “The Call of Cthulhu” and in several other stories he wrote—“The Horror at Red Hook” (1927) comes to mind.  It is an ugly method also utilized by his colleague Robert E. Howard, though remarkably not so much, if at all, by Clark Ashton Smith.  That is, Lovecraft’s ample use of racial and ethnic stereotypes, a set of assumptions that was probably consistent with many of his readers’ attitudes toward people of other races. 

If indeed there was a conspiracy, a secret cult bent on resurrecting earth’s greatest evil circa the late 1920s, wouldn’t it have involved foreigners, people of other races, “a nautical-looking negro”, “half-castes and pariahs”, “mulattoes”, “West Indians”, “Brava Portuguese”, “an immensely aged mestizo named Castro”—in other words, the poor?*  One of the most powerful means of establishing credibility, both in fiction and in some provisional version of reality, is to confirm and support the prejudices and assumptions of the reader.  This technique is still as effective today as it was in Lovecraft’s time.  

Given our emerging romantic and post-fact world, it seems there is less and less desire to retain clear boundaries between traditional categories like objectivity and subjectivity, fact and opinion, science and religion, and other classifications once thought, or perhaps hoped, to be mutually exclusive.  The next and final post of this series will apply some of Lovecraft’s attempts at verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement to larger philosophical questions about the nature of truth in a post fact world.

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*In contradistinction to Legrasse’s report of the activities of Cthulhu worshippers in Louisiana, Richard Cavendish, in his book The Black Arts (1967), reports of an actual Caucasian cult, the “Adamites” of Oroville, California.  The priestess and her husband, believing themselves to be avatars of Eve and Adam, practiced nudity, bonfire dancing, orgies and animal sacrifice—not necessarily in that order.  In 1925 they reportedly burned a lamb alive, possibly as a deliberate act of blasphemy—nearly as horrifying as the events witnessed by Inspector Legrasse, and another instance, if one were needed, of life imitating art.




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