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The Horror of Variation

Mining for ideas for Uncanny Midnight Tales, I've been reading and/or re-reading Lovecraft, which is always a mixed bag. He was inventive, and had quite the knack for coming up with a peculiar scenario and then revealing it a piece at a time from an unexpected angle. Reading something like "Whisperer in the Darkness" or "The Dunwich Horror" is a joy for a devotee of the Weird Tale such as myself.

On the other hand, after reading a bunch of his stuff all at once, I keep thinking of the line from 7th Voyage of Sinbad: "He who fears the unknown will one day take fright of his own backside." I realize that he was writing horror stories for the pulp market, but dang. His protagonists are scared of anything slightly outside the very narrow range of their specific lot in life. A guy up the street who once actually went to some other country? Scary. A house with a bad roof? Scary. Immigrants? Scary. Discovery of planets other than Earth? Scary. The color purple? Scary. The fact that China exists at all? Scary. Anybody from any kind of rural area anywhere in the world? Double-plus scary.

I don't know enough about Lovecraft the man to know how much of that reflects his actual nature, and how much is being layered on for effect. But after a while, I for one find myself saying, "Geeze, grow a pair, willya?" I mean yeah, I can see the idea of being swallowed alive by a shapeless gibbering horror tending one towards fright. The idea that there is a subterranean race of semi-human, semi-canid creatures that feast on bodies from graveyards? Fair cop, that's pretty creepy. Aliens that take off your face and wear it like a mask? Yeah, that's scary.

But the idea, just the idea, of time-travel? I can't see that being scary. The possibility of life on other planets? Not scary. Italians? Well, okay, a few of them are pretty scary, but not all of them as a body. The general concept that mankind is not necessarily the center of the universe? I hate to break it to you, but that's been around since Copernicus and most people manage to handle it without having a nervous breakdown.

Stephen King famously said that "the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary;" in Lovecraft, this trend is amplified to the level of downright xenophobic paranoia. Retreating from "the other" is not enough — by God, the only thing to do is crawl right back into that womb, where you're safe!

-The Gneech


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 22nd, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
Your take on Lovecraft is spot on. He really does reflect the fears of not just sort of early 20th century small town New England parochialism, but that of a semi-paranoid loner. If Lovecraft were in one of his own stories, he would be the creepy guy that the protaginist had to investigate.

Which is why I always prefer my Lovecraftian Gaming tempered with a little bit of adventure, even pulp. Not only does "I hide more" get old quick, even if we are to say that some how reality bending phenomena have a deep impact on the human mind beyond the mere words in a game that is essentially description of imaginary events how many times and ways can you say "you see something odd, make a SAN check." This is why, as a mechanic for such, I prefer Unknown Armies concept of Failed v. Hardened in multiple catagories as more reflective of both reality and ficition. Not that anyone will play UA with me. The one person who would still shudders at the mention of a NPCs name from a game played over 5 years ago.
May. 22nd, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
Arkham House published a volume of HPL's letters. For all the man's racism, sexism, and general xenophobia, he had one trait that made it all forgivable: he was keenly aware that these were flaws, mocked himself regularly, and wrote his stories both to work out his issues and exploit them for a buck. He turned a seafood allergy into at least three classics of American literature!
May. 22nd, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC)
So...wait... you mean Cthulhu is the product of a bit of bad octopus? A blot of bad sashimi?!?!
May. 23rd, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
We're a trap!!!
May. 23rd, 2009 06:28 am (UTC)
Wow, Dickens' to Star Wars in three words...
May. 22nd, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
I think "writing fiction for the pulp market" explains a fair amount of it (although as athelind mentions above, the man did have issues -- hell, he had lifetime subscriptions!). I've seen similar "repetitions of theme" in other short-story collections; I suspect most authors, especially in the earlier days of pulp, never gave much thought to how the stories would read if taken together all at once, in a collected volume, in a single sitting.
May. 22nd, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Lovecraft and Me...or Why I Pretty Much Gave Up On Lovecraft
I used to read Lovecraft quite a bit, actually. I was, I admit, FAR younger than I am now. I think what did him in for me was the sudden realization that he was either a major tease, or sadly lacking in real imagination. I mean, you can only read what amounts to "It was so horrible that if I described it you would go mad so I won't" so many times before you go mad anyway.

For me, Koontz is one of the best horror writers currently on the market, if only because so many of his protagonists are possibles. The first Koontz book I ever read was "Strangers," and I was absolutely hooked. I NEED that "this is improbable, but COULD happen" element to be really frightened by a horror book and why bother if it doesn't keep me awake at night? That said, I do enjoy King, just because he tells a really GOOD tale, and I love his habit of cross referencing to other books he's written in a very subtle way. Peter Straub? Good ghost stories, but he ticked me off with his description of Panama City, Florida in "Ghost Story." I'm FROM Panama City, and there is only ONE motel in the WHOLE TOWN that even MIGHT be accurate as to local and description, and that is a third rate business motel on the bay, NOT a tourist motel. ALL of those are located on what used to be miles of beautiful white sand beaches next to aquamarine Gulf waters (it's pretty much wall to wall condos now). Left a lasting bad taste for him in my mouth that I just can't seem to get past.
May. 25th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
To borrow a bit from the first Simpsons Halloween special, maybe people were just easier to scar back then. Just look at the original "Friday the 13th". Pretty tame by today's standards.
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