Lovecraft Redux: Scaaaaary Old Men (TQP0102)

Posted: October 13, 2008 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,
Scaaary Old Man

Scaaary Old Man

It’s a cold, boring day at the office, so I’m going to talk about H. P. Lovecraft again. Because that’s my thing.

Here’s something interesting:  Lovecraft is widely-recognized as a genius of horror.  His books all have pull quotes from Stephen King and Clive Barker, introductions by Robert Bloch and Joyce Carol Oates and Neil Gaiman, and are adorned with descriptors like “legendary master of the macabre.”

Personally, though, I’ve only ever found three of his stories to be especially creepy.

Before I get into that, though, I want to elaborate a theory that I have.  It’s my belief that, when it comes to horror, people are basically scared by one of two things:  things that are “real,” and things that are fantastic.  Real things are things like serial killers, plane crashes, botulism.  Fantastic things are vampires, psychic ghosts, a disembodied “fate” that keeps arranging outrageous coincidences in order to kill you (but somehow never just thinks of hitting you with a lightning bolt).

This is not, obviously, to say that a person who’s afraid of real things is afraid of every potentially-frightening real thing, and likewise with fantastic things.  I think that this is just how it breaks down.  I, for example, am not frightened by real things.  I could watch movies like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Strangers or even, to a degree, something like 28 Days Later, and not be disturbed.  On the other hand, after I saw The Ring, I had to sleep in the dryer for a week.  My own philosophy of horror has always been:  I refuse to be afraid of any problem that I could solve by hitting it with a brick.

I believe that this dichotomy in things that are scary is an expression of thinking to go from the concrete to the abstract.  It is perfectly sensible to be afraid of things that constitute immanent personal threat–if  a Texan has a chainsaw, it is good to be afraid of him.  Watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a way of training your limbic system under what circumstances it needs to shoot you up full of adrenaline, thus protecting you if you ever go to Texas.

If you’re like me, though, and you never do anything, and you never go anywhere, then all of the alarms in your brain that are quite naturally adapted to make you afraid of tigers and people with sharp bits kind of don’t have anything to do.  And, because you (like me) are bored, your imagination goes off on a little holiday from reality, and takes all of those alarms with you.

What I’m saying is that being afraid of real things is pretty natural, but being afraid of fantastic things takes a certain amount of work.  You’ve got to think about it, consider it, obsess over it to give yourself the creeps about it.  Lovecraft’s approach to horror was founded entirely on this method.

So, as I was saying, Lovecraft only ever wrote three stories that scared me:  “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Haunter in the Dark,” and a fragment from the Dream Cycle that I read once and have subsequently been unable to find again.  Why is this?  That the master of 20th century horror only wrote three scary stories?  Because in the same way that my own sense of horror is refined, required an almost-conscious leap of the imagination to include things that could never possibly exist,  Lovecraft’s sensibility is even more delicate.

What I said about Lovecraft being terrified by implication is certainly true.  There’s rarely any direct danger or threat to the main characters (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Lurking Fear,” and “Shadow Over Innsmouth” being exceptions); more often, the danger is to the character’s sanity–but what kinds of dangers?  What is it that, in Lovecraft’s imagination, might drive a man mad?

I’ve discussed, in brief, the “immensity” and the “agoraphobia” present in much of his work, but there’s another piece relating to that that I’d like to touch on:  Very Old Men.

I don’t know why Lovecraft was afraid of Very Old Men, but his obvious terror of the idea permeates much of his work (along with an apparent fear of miscegenation, which is even another post).  One of his earliest short stories, a piece of juvenalia called “The Alchemist,” takes the conceit of an immortal enemy as its central theme.  We see it again in “The Evil Clergyman,” “He,” the character of Robert Suydam in “The Red Hook Horror,” and (probably most tellingly) “The Terrible Old Man.”

To a lesser degree, I think that this is also the theme of things like “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “Cool Air,” and even “Herbert West:  Reanimator.”  When Lovecraft talks about the undead, he doesn’t have shambling, oozing, corpsey zombies running around (in fact, I’m not sure that idea even existed prior to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead)–the undead in “Cool Air” and “Herbert West” are living, thinking human beings that have been preserved beyond death.  They are a basic violation of the natural order, but a violation that is so counter-intuitive to human wants and expectations that it almost seems impossible to understand his fear of it.

Human beings have always wanted to overcome death; what’s so scary about someone succeeding?  I don’t know, but the structure of some of these pieces–“He” and “Cool Air” in particular–posits this unnatural extension of life as the “punchline” of the story.  Lovecraft was specifically positing that living beyond the natural limits of human life was the horror.  No monsters, no sanity-destroying tomes of forbidden knowledge, no immanent apocalypse.  The Evil Old Men aren’t even doing anything especially evil.  They’re just extremely old.

The theme of “Charles Dexter Ward” lends a little bit of insight into this.  “Charles Dexter Ward” is not about an old man that has become immortal, but about a young man who discovers the means to resurrect the dead.  Not as zombies, but as regular, real-live human people, using the “essential salts” of their corpses.  Practically, I imagine this looks a lot like that Adam West Batman movie, where the Joker and the Penguin are able to dehydrate a bunch of thugs, sneak them into the Batcave, and then bring them to life by adding water.

In any case, the principle of “Charles Dexter Ward” is that the dead can be returned to life well beyond even what Lovecraft somehwat conservatively imagined as the horrifying limit of human life (his oldest human antagonists usually top out at two or three hundred years).  Using these “essential salts,” men can be restored to life from thousands of years ago.  They will invariably be evil, of course, though evil in a particularly difficult-to-define way:  suffice it to say, you can tell just by looking at them.

If we accept that the theme of especially long-lived evil men is an extension of the them of “Charles Dexter Ward”–namely, a fear that certain evils that are long-since passed might return to haunt us–it becomes apparent in even more cosmic forms in other works.  “Call of Cthulhu,” for example, famously hinges on the couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,

And with strange aeons, even death may die.

Cthulhu isn’t simply horrible because he’s immense; he’s horrible because of the unfathomable, hoary depths of time in which he is sunk.  “At the Mountains of Madness,” which concerns a number of archaeologists scaring the piss out of themselves by deciphering a billion-year old history of life on earth from some eldritch bas-reliefs, again hinges on this idea that there is something deep and old and long-forgotten that still has the power to reach forward in time.

“The Shadow Out of Time” is the most explicit example of this, and is often called Lovecraft’s masterwork, for this very reason.  Whether or not it’s a masterwork depends a lot on what you think the author was trying to do–but there can be no question that the premise of the story is one that is meant to dwarf mankind’s self-centered narcissism by virtue of the sheer immensity of the timeline he proposes.  In “Shadow” a man is drawn back in time by a civilization that existed hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs, and that had itself replaced an even earlier civilization. Moreover, that past civilization was actually the minds of an even older civilization than the first two, and from space, and eventually intended to send its minds farther into the future, to replace a civilization of giant insects that would replace humanity another million years from the present.

All of these together seem to me to show a blossoming of a rarefied sense of horror–each step, from unnaturally preserved old men, to resurrecting the dead, to cosmic terrors from beyond the end of time, is contingent upon a gradually-increasing terror of the implications of the vastness of time itself.  There’s a leap, somewhere, between the basic, confrontational and human horror of being afraid of something that might be able to harm you directly, and into an imaginary sense of fear that, I’m sorry to say, outpaces even my own sometimes hallucinatory inner life, leading Lovecraft to describe a terror that I can’t even understand except at the most intellectual level.

  1. JNOV says:

    Well, the Best of Lovecraft we ordered from the library came the other day. My kid is reading The Rats in the Walls. I get the book when he’s done.

    Jr told me that the main character’s cat is named N-Man. Hmmm. I have trouble separating writers from their work sometimes, but I try my best. And I still feel conflicted about it. My question is how do you separate an artist from their art, especially when their art has offensive aspects to it? It’s easier to do with the visual arts — even with most porn — but written racism is harder for me to ignore. If I agree that a racist writer is a great artist, am I condoning his racism?

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    Ah, good question. I forgot that that might be an issue. Lovecraft was a terrible racist–I mean, just a really, really racist old bastard. And a misogynist. And a classist, and kind of an Anglophile.

    But there are three things: firstly, he was writing nearly a hundred years ago, which I know makes it possible for some people to say, “Well, everyone was really racist back then.” (As opposed to everyone just being mostly racist today.)

    Secondly, it’s actually not usually as prominent as that. Even in some of the other stories where he reveals his fascination with “mixed blood,” it’s often at a fantastic level, and rarely the point of the story. I’d definitely stay away from The Horror at Red Hook, though.

    Thirdly, I don’t know. From my personal experience, it’s easy for me to just read through and dismiss a lot of that stuff, like: “Chaff, chaff, chaff. Good idea. Chaff. Good idea. Chaff, chaff.” I can see how that might not be more troublesome for people with different backgrounds, though.

    I guess that isn’t really helpful. I don’t agree with Lovecraft’s racism, and I certainly don’t think it’s an admirable quality, but as far as his fiction goes, that stuff is all exoterica, anyway.

  3. JNOV says:

    I think it’s very helpful — it’s been something I’ve struggled with for years, especially since I love Faulkner. I don’t see Faulkner himself as especially racist, I could be wrong, but a lot of what he wrote convey racist views.

    Sometimes I think we give people a pass when we say they are products of their times, but I also think sometimes that’s a valid argument. I certainly see differences between my parents and me and between my son and me, and these differences can be attributed to changes in society. Our experiences are just different.

    I suppose my problem lies with admiring people who create things I love, and from all you’ve written and from all my son has told me, I think I’d love this guy’s writing minus the chaff. And maybe I don’t have to love the man himself. I’m just prone to that type of worship.

  4. Ed G says:

    I am not a total Lovecraft-phile, so I haven’t read any of his correspondence. Therefore, I wonder to what extent developments in the realm of physics, cosmology and quantum mechanics during his lifetime affected his work. Because the way you describe his “fear of the depth of time” sounds very much like the reaction of a man whose cozy New England world was utterly shattered by the revelation of the universe’s size and age.

  5. threatqualitypress says:

    There’s surely something to that. Lovecraft was, from an early age, an avid reader in a variety of fields, including archaeology and astronomy. Neptune had been discovered (relatively) recently, and you can see that borne out in his predictions of a terrifying NINTH planet, full of cognizant insectoid fungus. Likewise, Richard Burton’s books were extremely popular at the end of the 19th century, which contributed a lot to Lovecraft’s ideas of cities lost in the vast abysms of time, or whatever.

    All of these things were kind of going on during his lifetime; if I had to guess, I’d say that there’s a good deal of merit to the idea that rapid advancement in science and archaeology–especially compared to how slow it had been only a few generations earlier–was a main motivating factor in HPL’s existential anxiety.

  6. jge says:

    Stumbled hereto from your actual post hinting to Hsiangs review of The image sequence, that links to this post.

    I agree with your distinction between the two kinds of fear. This touches on my experience with Stephen King. He likes to tell you exactly how gory an alien lifeform is, and what it looks like. He tries to be realistic. This is even more the case with King-Films, e.g. IT. The tension building is fine, but when I see a giant scorpion spider with teeth I tend to laugh, not to fear. Lovecraft avoids this by narrating not the fearsome elements but their effect on his heroes. (Alas, he often overdoes it.) Because the narration gives us only their perceptions, meaning: only filtered “reality”, we, the readers, don’t get the real stuff. According to Lovecraft mythology we would go mad. You can believe it or not. I often don’t.

    I haven’t read your other posts about Lovecraft yet. What do you think about the role of the religious in his work? I don’t speak of the “ancient dieties” but of his choice of words. E.g. he likes to call a colour “blasphemous”, or the geometry.

  7. […] If you want me to ditch my rational mind at the door, great, but then don’t expect any dread — any of the real, eerie, existential fear that is the true goal of good horror.  Dread, the increasingly abstract fear, the one that you leave the theater with, the one that, literally, haunts you — that is something that you make out of rationality.  It’s built on plot, on theme, on characters.  It’s tenuous (and it requires a particularly refined audience; H. P. Lovecraft was one of the world’s best horror writers because he was the world’s best horror reader). […]

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