Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft Review (2/2) - "Not Another F-king Squid-Monster"

Welcome back to the cosmic ballet, as I take a second trip through the works of popular-only-when-he's-dead horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. As I mentioned in the first instalment, Lovecraft is unarguably one of the most influential writers of the Twentieth-Century. His brand of horror - which focused on unimaginable alien entities, the occult, dreams, and the terror of the infinite void that is space - has impacted everything from European death metal bands to Digimon. And so it only felt right to finally review the man's works on this blog.

Last time I focused on my favourite pieces, the Good. This instalment will focus on his worst pieces, the Bad, and the ones which are either so-so or kept from greatness by generally being a bit of a mess - the Ugly. And let's be fair, there are plenty of crap Lovecraft stories. They pop up everywhere like crazy people in Lovecraft's New England.

Note: these are my opinion, no need to sacrifice me in a sex and death ritual to a Great Old One if I insult your favourite story.

The Bad:

The Dream Cycle (Various)

Ugh. There are university creative writing courses home to less pretentious wank than Lovecraft's Dream Cycle. I've made no bones about the fact that I hate the Dream Cycle: it's meandering, self-indulgent, and stuffed with purple prose and meaningless imagery.

A dozen or so of Lovecraft's stories and poems congregate under the Dream Cycle banner like soap scum under a sponge, and they all try to emulate the style of Lord Dunsany. In case you didn't know, Dunsany was an early-Twentieth century author whose writing style can best be described as 'fantasy land travel guide' writing. Like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign run by Ben Fogle.

It was this style Lovecraft attempted to steal, akin to a younger brother copying his older brother's dress sense and looking like a right tit. The end result was the likes of Celephaïs (1922) and What the Moon Brings (1923); stories which lack any real narrative and exist simply spout detailed descriptions of dream-cities. And the ones which do have a narrative - The Doom that Came to Sarnath (1920) - read more like the background fluff you would find in the instruction manual for Dark World.

The other issue with the Dream Cycle is that it is quite literally a collection of stories based on Lovecraft's dreams. Now more power to Lovecraft if this is actually true - only a unique mind could conjure up striking Alice in Wonderland/ The Wizard of Oz style imagery when asleep. For my part, I usually dream about girls I saw on the bus, going to work without a tie on, and eating food I've already eaten. People who drone on about their 'weird' and 'random' dreams are, in my experience, fucking tedious and utterly convinced of their own hype. In this regard, the Dream Cycle is Lovecraft's hubris. He is so enamoured with his imagination that he forgets to do anything of use with it.

And the stories always end with the protagonist realising that he is in a dream, thus snubbing out any potential pay-off. The White Ship (1919) ends with the protagonist and titular ship sailing off the edge of the Earth. And then it was all a dream. This sort of cop-out bullshit happens all the time in the Dream Cycle. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927) is the worst offender: threatening to show the Old Ones finally doing something as Randolph Carter is sent by Nyarlathotep to Azathoth's court at the centre of the universe. And then it was all a dream. There are no stakes in dreams. Because you can't die in a fucking dream; well, not unless you're in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Fortunately, I too realised that I can stop the Dream Cycle whenever I want. By chucking the book in the bin. So off you go, Through the Gates of the Silver Key (1934).

Herbert West - Reanimator (1922)

This one is probably my fault. I saw Stuart Gordon's 1985 adaptation (Re-Animator) long before I read the original story. And that film is a tough act to follow. Jeffrey Combs was a perfect choice for the ultra-campy mad scientist Herbert West. Super babe Barbara Crampton is in it too. Trying to top that is a folly akin to trying to best Patrick Stewart in a cool, bald, British guy contest.

So naturally Lovecraft's original short, Herbert West - Reanimator, feels a bit stodgy in comparison. The serialised format doesn't help matters, as Lovecraft repeatedly recaps the story at the beginning of each chapter. It's a bit like the letter you get from distant relatives at Christmas which tells you all the boring things they got up to throughout the year.

Herbert West - Reanimator is notable for two reasons: it is perhaps the Ur example of zombies being reanimated corpses who attack and kill the living; the story also represents Lovecraft at his most playful with his work. Given that he had to force himself to write the story for the measly $5 per instalment, Lovecraft phoned it in like a McDonald's employee on the last hour of their shift. The end result is a story that's pulpier and more formulaic than usual, but also somehow much drier and lacking the typical Lovecraft touch. Not that the Lovecraft touch is necessarily a good thing - especially when he's equating black boxers with literal gorillas.

There are good aspects to Herbert West - Reanimator; the Wax-headed Man is genuinely creepy, Herbert West exploiting World War One for a limitless supply of fresh bodies is a nice touch, and the balls-to-the-wall gore is a refreshing change from Lovecraft's usual technique of verbose adjective-soup to describe some accursed, ghastly, abhorrent, preternatural, unthinkable horror.

In many ways, the style feels like a send up of Frankenstein - only Herbert West restores life, not creates it. Objectively, Herbert West - Reanimator is a fairly average quality horror story, lowered in my perspective mostly by my appreciation for the Stuart Gordon film. For one thing, in the original story there's no Barbara Crampton and David Gale bringing new meaning to the term 'giving head'.

The Temple (1925)

For what it's worth, I actually quite enjoyed The Temple on my first read. It's K-19: The Widowmaker meets The Shining, as we jump aboard a U-Boat in the midst of World War One. The Temple has a lot going for it: a mythos story set in a major theatre of war, a claustrophobic setting, a paranoid group of characters, and high-stakes drama. The men aboard the U-Boat fight over the top bunk, and who gets to be in the trench in the secret game of storm the trench with the sausage bayonet.

After a battle with a British freighter, the crew aboard the U-Boat discover a strange artefact. At the orders of the protagonist - Lieutenant-commander Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein - the crew bring the artefact onto the submarine and promptly experience bizarre phenomena, which causes the submarine to slowly breakdown. That the protagonist isn't a humourless scholar-type, but a bombastic lieutenant-commander in the German Navy works in the story's favour. Initially. It gradually becomes less so once he starts to read closer to a character from a Seventies British comedy continually denouncing"ze imperializt svine".

If you're thinking the situation with the crew plays out like a more mundane cross between The Thing and Event Horizon, you'd be right. Except it's as though those films were directed by David Lynch, so there's a ton of superfluous supernatural elements and bizarre imagery which doesn't lead anywhere. Eventually the story comes to a head with Altberg, the sole survivor on the now powerless U-Boat, stumbling upon a strange city on the ocean floor. He images it to be Atlantis, but it's almost definitely R'lyeh. Unfortunately as nothing is explained, it might as well be the Kingdom of Caring for all it matters. I haven't been blue balled like this since Coyote Ugly.

The Ugly:

The Horror at Red Hook (1927)

You know that episode of The Simpsons where Homer has that inexplicable, frothing hatred of New York City? Well, Lovecraft was like that: he lived in the actual Red Hook for a while, and fuck me if he wasn't a martyr about the whole thing. The Horror at Red Hook is essentially one long old man rant, in which Lovecraft vents his frustration against New York's 'gangs of young loafers and herds of evil-looking foreigners'. If Lovecraft were alive in the Twenty-first Century he'd just do a Trump and send out tweets at 3am.

The thing is, though The Horror at Red Hook is too hot for the Age of the Snow Flake, it's actually not a bad story. Lovecraft is able to successfully transfer his unique brand of peculiar rural horror - with occult evil bubbling under the surface of normality - to a sprawling urban setting. The obvious boon of this transference is there is hardly a better setting for misanthropic horror than a city. Just go for a walk through your city's centre: that hollow sensation eating at you is nihilism. 

Red Hook follows Thomas Malone, an Irish-born New York detective, as he investigates Robert Suydam, who commits the crime of being a foreigner and doing alright for himself. On the night of Suydam's marriage to a well-to-do woman, Suydam and his wife are found dead in mysterious circumstances. This leads to Malone raiding Suydam's flat and finds an entrance to Hell. A gate to Hell: I'd like to see what the Tories' bedroom tax law would have to say about that.

It's a decent enough story and uses the claustrophobic chaos of its urban setting to build up a palpable sense of dread comparable some with of Lovecraft's superior writings. The jaded cop, investigating the seedy underbelly of a big city, accidentally discovering the gate to Hell is quite a nice idea. Unfortunately, like The Street (1920), Red Hook is a story entirely about racism. And not the productive type of racism which drives empires and inspires Disney characters.

The Horror at Martin's Beach (1923)

If you've ever been to a British seaside town then you'll already know that the beach is a source of infinite depression and horror. Whether it's the towns themselves, which are essentially mental asylums with better souvenirs, or the glass bottle and dog shit ridden beaches, the seaside is yet another benign method used to torture us Brits. Lovecraft clearly understood this and thus penned The Horror at Martin's Beach with his wife Sonia Greene, when he wasn't busy being a 'satisfactory lover'.

As much as I like this one, I've put in this section because it's technically not Lovecraft's work, and it's not a particularly well written piece. It reads more like a report on what Lovecraft did on his summer vacation than anything else. But the central hook - a vengeful invisible monster dragging an entire town's worth of hypnotised people to their watery graves - helps to elevate the story above the mediocre writing style. Martin's Beach begins with a fishing crew battling and killing a massive sea monster, and ends similarly to the Bournemouth chapter in James Herbert's The Fog.

You never do precisely found out what the invisible monster is, but presumably it's some horrible creature from the depths of the sea. What is it with Lovecraft and horrors laying below the surface of the water? It's like sharing a bath with someone who has loose toenails. 

At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

This novella, which takes cosmic horror to the frozen continent of Antarctica, is as cinematic as Lovecraft gets. It's proto-John Carpenter; a group of geologists undertake an expedition to Antarctica after discovering the remains of several ancient alien lifeforms, and undercover the remains of an ancient civilisation. The scope of At the Mountains of Madness is ambitious, with Lovecraft knuckling down on his cosmos spanning mythology to create a singular vision of alien conquest and colonisation. The story's not exactly coherent, but it does attempt bring to interconnectivity to Lovecraft's various stories about middle aged lecturer types preventing the tentacle-apocalypse.

At the Mountains of Madness, unfortunately, plays out like an episode of Ancient Aliens with its theories on ancient astronauts and hidden cities in the frozen wasteland. Lovecraft was clearly damn well pleased with himself when he introduced this elaborate Earth colonisation myth; he must have had a right shit-eating grin after he essentially came up with Star Wars.

I wanted to put this one on the 'good' list, as the story about a group of scientists uncovering ancient evils in Antarctica is an excellent one. And ATMOM expands upon some of the more obscure elements of Lovecraft's repertoire (The Elder Things, Star-Spawn of Cthulhu, and The Mi-go); as well as giving the Shoggoths - horrifying protoplasmic abominations - their stand out moment.

Unfortunately, At the Mountains of Madness is actually rather boring; focusing on banal details and fanciful ideas. Any momentum Lovecraft is able to build is quickly stomped dead once the purple prose and meandering passages start flowing like it's his time of the month. Lovecraft is so far up his own arse he brings new meaning to the term 'Deep One'.    

Cool Air (1928)

Shortly before Lovecraft died in 1937 he was begining to make a cohesive vision out of the cosmos initially presented as unfathomable and chaotic. August Derleth - akin to that one friend who dates your ex-girlfriend because he can't get anyone else  - continued Lovecraft's work, and went further in creating an overall structure. The end result was a shit-ton of lore. If the post-Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos lore baggage was sin, a new reader would feel like a Catholic schoolboy on his first day of Sunday school.

Cool Air is therefore a breath, fresh air, as it's straight forward Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Machen fan-fiction. The unnamed protagonist rents an apartment in New York where, after a heart attack, he encounters the peculiar Dr Muñoz, a man obsessed with defying death and keeping his room as cold as my girlfriend's feet. Cool Air has a compelling central mystery, a smidgen of body horror, and decent characterisation. All buried under the fact that it's yet another story about how Lovecraft hated being happily married in one of the best cities on Earth for artistry.

The teacher-student relationship between Dr Muñoz and the protagonist forms the central thrust of the narrative. Muñoz, however, is the sort of affable eccentric who, in old school horror, are usually murderers. Indeed it's obvious to all that he's harbouring some terrible secret. And not just that he enjoyed the new Ghostbusters film. This secret turns out to be that he died eighteen years before the story and simply refused to surrender to death. By keeping his body cold via an elaborate air conditioning system, he's able to stave off cellular decomposition. Dude's as cold as ice.

The Colour Out of Space (1927)The Shadow Out of Time (1936)

Both The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow Out of Time represent the culmination of Lovecraft's later writing style; a comfortable mix of science-fiction and cosmic horror. Whilst he had previously edged into sci-fi territory before with Herbert West - Reanimator and From Beyond (it was written in 1920, published much later), these two stories are fully entrenched in sci-fi tropes. The stories themselves are fine, and Lovecraft's writing is the usual fair; the main reason they're on this list and not the 'good' list is because I prefer Lovecraft when it deals purely with ancient evils like Jimmy Savile.

The Colour Out of Space is something straight up out of contemporary film or TV series. It's an excellent example of Lovecraft's ability to take a small-scale setting and inflict upon it large concepts. A small farming community is struck by a meteorite with unusual properties. This meteorite gives off colour outside the normal visible spectrum, corrupts and poisons nearby vegetation, and drives people insane. Essentially rocks fall and everybody dies.

Lovecraft's depiction of the defenceless community being powerless to stop the corruption is true cosmic horror. Some unlucky Lovecraftian characters are forced to tangle with Cthulhu or Dagon but at least they have chance of survival; even if it's a chance the size of a gnat's todger. The Colour Out of Space is Lovecraft's most frightening work because of the entire situation is just so fatalistic. Whatever the corruption is, it's too alien to even be comprehended, let alone 'stopped'. An object drops out of space and people die, that's either cosmic horror or the Challenger space shuttle. 

It's The Shadow Out of Time that drives the existential elements of the Lovecraftian subgenre up to eleven, however. Imagine of great race of hideous aliens who have perfected the technology to Quantum Leap into the bodies of humans. Lovecraftian horror is at it's best when it's tackling the futility of the human existence. The idea of an alien - the Great Race of Yith -  possessing the ability to take over a man's body and call his boss a bastard and sex up his wife is probably as bleak as it gets.

The Shadow Out of Time is enormous in scale, with Lovecraft spinning a tale of an extraterrestrial civilisation whose existence spans aeons. The Yith possess forbidden knowledge that bridges the gulf through time, and Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, the story's narrator, even gets to meet historical figures who have also fallen victim to the Yith. But it's the human cost of the Yith which makes TSOOT horrifying. Nathaniel has to deal with the fall out of his years of "queer amnesia" as well as the sanity taxing knowledge of the Yith's existence and their ultimate fate at the hands of the Flying Polyps. And then the kicker is he discovers the truth of his experience of sharing a body with an alien. In the words of Sting: "Whoa. I'm an alien, I'm an evil alien; I'm a Yithian in a New Englander."

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