Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hope and Horror

Tolkien was a watershed in fantasy, but I've always found myself drawn to what went before rather than to what came after. The analogy's not perfect, but H. P. Lovecraft has something of the same role in weird horror, and in much the same way I generally prefer to explore his predecessors. Not that I'm denigrating either author; it's just that they're so big in their respective genres that nothing that came after could be quite free of their influence, either positively or negatively. They brought about a loss of (literary) innocence, and to me there's always something wild and free about their forerunners.

For instance, while more developed, Lovecraft's mythos or whatever you want to call it is tame compared to what you find in Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Robert W. Chambers, Oscar Wilde, &c. By tame I don't mean boring or not worth reading; I simply mean that it's been taught its place, answers when called, and retires when dismissed. For all their eldritch grandeur, Lovecraft's alien gods are too well delineated to be truly horrifying to me, and I've always read him as a fantasist rather than as a horror writer. But Machen's Pan, while of course quite familiar in a cultural sense, has something unspeakably perverted and wrong about him.

Hodgson is my favorite of the aforementioned authors; this spring I read his masterpiece, and one of my favorite novels: The House on the Borderland. Not content to recount a brutal battle with swine-things from the mysterious subterranean world beneath his house, after the manner of The Boats of the "Glen Carrig", he expands the scope to cosmic proportions, traveling far beyond the compass of even The Night Land. Here H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, another favorite of mine, was clearly an influence (and how much a one, I wonder?), but House delves much deeper into the temporal abyss.

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Now, this is neither here nor there, but when I was a kid I was a huge fan of the Infocom games – I've beaten Zork I, II, and III, which, if you've played them, should impress you! – and the setting of Zork I vaguely reminds me of The House on the Borderland. The programmers seemingly took grues from The Dying Earth:
It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
What is a grue, you ask?
> what is a grue
The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.
I wonder if they were Hodgson readers as well?

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As an OCDS I sometimes ask myself, Self, what business does a person with religious pretensions have reading (or writing!) supernatural horror? Shouldn't the things I read and write have some kind of moral or eucatastrophe or epiphany or something? Certainly the kindly old ladies I meet with every month would be scandalized if they knew the sorts of things I've put out there, which happens to be one of the chief reasons I write with a pen name. And some of my unpublished pieces – my Hodgson fan fiction, for instance – are quite openly at odds with received dogma. But more than anything, what characterizes supernatural horror is a plot of hopelessness, of despair that an end exists to be attained, i.e., the negation of a theological virtue. Otherwise it would be a thriller or some such thing. Who ever read Lovecraft hoping the protagonist would somehow get out of it all and find that, really, God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world? But isn't it an imperfection or a sin to dally in such crooked fancies?

Part of the answer (if there is one) is, I think, that stories are works of art, and not religious tracts. A stunning revelation, I know. But it's one not many people these days seem to understand, and it's not just religious-types. For instance, if you make the progressive in your story a good guy, and the stick-in-the-mud a pharisee or a doofus, then everyone will think you're scoring points for progressivism (or whatever -ism you like), even if you're actually attacking it by exposing its weaknesses in some subtle way.

Graham Greene understood the narrative weakness of making your protagonist the one who's right about everything, and the Catholics in his novels tend to be no-goods, like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory. In Brighton Rock, for instance, the crusading protagonist is a modern pagan named Ida, while her opponent, Pinky, who eventually gets what's coming to him, is a vindictive, hateful little hoodlum and a Catholic. Plenty of readers conclude that Greene is attacking Catholicism – just look around on the Internet – but by giving Ida her head what he's actually doing is exposing every joint and rivet in her naked worldview and allowing the reader to see its inherent poverty and blindness. It's the contrapositive of optima corrupta pessima.

So people nowadays facilely assume that the white hats are the truth-tellers and the black hats the liars, and that what happens in a story is a working-out of the way the author thinks the world should be. But even granting that authors with an ax to grind can be slightly more sophisticated in their approach, can we admit authors who deliberately subvert their own worldviews?

I say yes. Because the point of a story – especially a short story, as I see it – is to form a beautiful pattern, and if its inner logic calls for the violation of some deeply held truth, well, then truth must be violated. In the story, all that matters is narrative truth, plot-logic, and the writer who sins against it sins against beauty, a transcendental in its own right. Furthermore, the thing about Lovecraft and his circle is that there's a very great element of playfulness about it all. We can play make-believe, can't we?

And even if I were to cede that literature must have a moral purpose (which I do not), who's to say that it can't be a thought experiment in which I start with certain assumptions and take them to their logical conclusion? Consider also that even great saints can experience hopelessness – e.g., Thérèse of Lisieux, the young Carmelite whose temptations to blaspheme and despair while dying of tuberculosis were censored from the earliest editions of her autobiography – and it might be said that there's something cathartic about stepping into a malign cosmos for a brief moment. Because, really, that's the human condition, that's what we face every day. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me" (Pascal).

So, there's that, a little apology in case any of my church-lady friends find this blog, which, since I doubt they're out trolling the Internet for musings on weird fiction, seems unlikely enough.

See also: Catharsis and the Post-Apocalyptic


  1. I love the word 'tame.' So many things he created became genre tropes that then became explicated and then used and reused. Pre-HPL horror indeed has a wildness to it that can be really unsettling. Machen's stories and the best of Blackwood continue to haunt me years after I first read them.

    Rereading HPL and his devotees, as I've been doing lately, it's clear the best works are those that avoid the stock elements (gods, malignant tomes, etc.)

    1. Yeah, I've found your reviews of mythos fiction entertaining. I guess it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle.