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May 16, 2004

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H.P. Lovecraft: A Loud Kind of Subtle

Recently I was reading the introduction to an anthology called The Children of Cthulhu, a collection of modern horror stories "inspired" by H.P. Lovecraft and his "Cthulhu Mythos".  (And, if you don't know what that is, gentle readers, check out my earlier essay, Plush Cthulhu Must Die!.  Yes, now.)  I read things like that from time to time just to drive myself nutters.  Here we have an anthology being marketed using Lovecraft's name and what is the first thing we find?  An introduction explaining how the authors don't like any of the previous Lovecraft imitations, nor apparently do they respect the master's own original style of writing.   To them, "Lovecraftian" refers to something much more vague and hard to pin down.  Which, conveniently, allows them to market an anthology of stories which any rational person would say has dick all to do with Lovecraft.

If the editors of The Children of Cthulhu were alone in this opinion, there would be nothing more to say.  What does it matter?  (Although my dentist tells me that I have developed a bad habit of grinding my teeth.  So, you see, these things do cause noticable harm.  Someone will be receiving a bill, you can bet on it.)  But, sadly, they are not alone.  Ask just about anyone to explain why Lovecraft's stories were so effective, they will tell you the same thing.  Lovecraft's stories confront the reader with the scariest horror imaginable -- an awareness of our own insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things.

Now, I would not dispute that that is certainly part of what, for lack of a better term, I will call Lovecraft's "secret".  Many of his best stories are indeed frightening because humanity is reduced to a decimal point on the cosmic equation.  The universe is seen as the playground of titanic, god-like forces, which we, puny mortals, are only illusively aware of, for whom the existence (let alone the concerns) of a furless biped with hemorrhoids means about as much as a fart in a fogbank.  (I just made that up.  No, really.)  But, to me, there was a lot more to Lovecraft that that.  And, frankly, I'm tired of seeing stories marketed as "Lovecraftian" simply because, in the author's mind, they are "about" our insignificance in the cosmic scheme.  That is way too broad a definition. 

More specifically, I am tired of authors and supposed fans of Lovecraft who purport to praise his original stories even as they mock the literary style in which those stories were written.  To my mind, where Lovecraft was concerned (to quote a fellow countryman of mine) the medium is the message.

There is no doubt Lovecraft wrote in a very archaic, very dated style.  But, first off, we have to recognize that that style hasn't just become dated with the passage of time.  Even in the years when Lovecraft was writing, his style was considered old fashioned.  The reason I think this is important to remember is that it indicates that his style was a specific choice made for specific reasons, rather than a fluke of changing fashion.

So, what was that style?  First there was his use of big, multisyllable words.  Sometimes it seems the reader needs to keep his Funk and Wagnall's on hand just to make sense of all those jaw-busters.  A lot of modern writers see his use of big words as a flaw in his writing.  Something for which he is at best forgiven.  A small lapse in an otherwise accomplished performance.

Well, not to me.  To me, Lovecraft's "secret" was intimately dependant on those big words.  Lovecraft was going for an effect, people.  He recognized, just as good filmmakers recognize, that the monster is never as scary as when we can't quite make it out.  It is scarier in the dark than in the light.  But how to achieve that effect with the written word?  By using really big words (along with convoluted old fashioned sentences), there is literally a brief delay before the reader understands what the author is describing.  The reader takes a moment to "decipher" the text.  By the time the reader has figured out what the words mean, a sort of distancing has taken place.  The event itself (the "seeing" of the monster) has already passed, and, only belatedly do we realize what it was we missed.  In this way, it is the equivalent of seeing the monster out of the corner of your eye.  A glimpse -- nothing more.

At the same time, by using really big words to describe the monster, we are also put at a distance from the picture which those words conjure up.  What I mean is, if we describe a man as "displaying distinctly piscine traits, notably in the ocular conformation", it sounds a lot creepier than if we say he had "fisheyes".  "Fisheyes" is too literal; it seems corny, and so less frightening.  By using less familiar words,  we understand what is meant, but in a more detached way.  It is as if we were reading a story written in another language, which we had to translate as we went along.  The act of translating serves to render the picture less clear.  A step removed.  Again, the monster is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.  At least it has that effect for me.

In the legendary graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, the superhero, Green Arrow, tries to describe Batman.  "You're mysterious," Green Arrow tells the Caped Crusader.  "But it's a loud kind of mysterious."  That perfectly describes Lovecraft's style.  But, instead of mysterious, I might say, Lovecraft was subtle... but it was a loud kind of subtle.  On the one hand, his writing is as "loud" as you could ask for.  He doesn't steer away from really wild, jaw dropping monsters.  Look at the beastie in "The Dunwich Horror".  When it is finally revealed in the climax, Lovecraft doesn't spare the horses.  We get our money's worth.  No pussified "psychological" horror for he.  Lovecraft was playing with the big boys. 

But then, through his use of sixty four dollar words and long, erudite sentences, the whole thing is muted, made distant and indistinct.  Subtle.  But a loud subtle.

You see?

And you just can't get that same effect without all those nasty big words.   I'm sorry but you can't.

And another thing...

One thing which you aren't likely to hear anyone calling Lovecraft is "funny".  And yet, I think humour too is a fundamental part of what makes his stories work.  I remember watching the movie Psycho in a film class with about a hundred film students.  It came to the climax when the heroine has snuck into the house while Norman is being distracted by her boyfriend down at the motel.  Norman realizes he is being duped, puts the tin lid on the boyfriend, and goes tearing up the walk to the house.  Seeing him coming, the heroine looks around for some place to hide and sees...the cellar.  Yes, children, the cellar -- where, we know, "mother" is lying in wait. 

At that moment of highest tension...the audience...laughed.  In fact, they were in hysterics.  But they weren't laughing at the movie.  They were laughing because the scene was so obvious -- so wonderfully, gleefully, audaciously obvious -- in what it was doing.  They were laughing because Hitchcock and Stefano knew so perfectly how to push all the right buttons, bringing everything together into a brillant scene that makes you laugh even as it has you on the edge of your seat with terror.

That was a trick used again and again by Lovecraft.  I may be wrong in this, but I think, in most of his stories, the reader is supposed to have figured out what is going on long before the protagonist does.  The "surprise ending" is no surprise at all, nor was it meant to be. The protagonist wanders through the story, wondering at all the strange events and things which he sees, but the reader has no such confusion.  We know precisely what is happening.  And our understanding contrasted with his confusion -- that makes it funny.

Alternately, even when the protagonist does seem to figure things out, he often remains remarkably unflappable.  In spite of all the references to "blasphemous" this and "unholy" that, Lovecraft's heroes all seem to have graduated from the British School of the Stiff Upper Lip.  And that too makes it funny.  A protagonist will calmly describe the appearance of a citizen of Innsmouth, wondering why he feels an unaccountable revulsion, unable to put his finger on quite what it is...and the reader is thinking, Jesus Christ, the guy looks like a great big FROG!!! For my money, that's humour.

But that humour doesn't lessen the fear which is of course the brass ring of a horror story.  In fact, it is a product of that fear.  We are laughing because we are scared and Lovecraft knows it.  We are laughing at a job well done.  We are sharing the joke.

The point of all this is that anyone who tells you Lovecraft was a great horror writer even as they dismiss the style in which those stories were written has missed the whole fecking point.  His style was a necessary part of his stories.  But here's a question.  Can we learn from Lovecraft without actually having to write an obvious imitation of his style?  For example, I wrote my own Lovecraft-styled serial, In the Dark of Kingston, but that was meant as a homage to Lovecraft.  It was meant to evoke the master.  But what if you want to chart your own course, while still using the basic tricks which he employed?   Can it be done?

I think so.  Lovecraft's technique was to create a distancing between word and meaning, to provoke a delay between when the reader reads a description and when his brain deciphers and thus understands what the description describes.  To do that, he used big unfamiliar words and archaic sentence structures.  Today, though, we could do the same thing but using modern technological jargon.  Any specialized argot will do, from sci-fi technobabble to military grunt-speak.  As long as the words are unfamiliar, requiring a moment for us to "decipher" them, they should have the same effect.  Watch a movie like Ridley Scott's and Dan O'Bannon's Alien.  There are moments in that flick when the use of technical jargon has that same Lovecraftian effect, giving us an out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye glimpse of horror instead of a full on face shot.  Or try Michael Crichton's novel, Prey. Nobody does "The Lovecraft Effect" quite like Mr. C.

The point is Lovecraft knew what he was doing, damn it.  Yes, he confronted us with the horror of our insignificance, but he also made us laugh.  And, most of all, he knew how to be subtle. 

But a loud kind of subtle.

Oh yeah, and he had a thing about tentacles, too.  Tentacles are good...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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