Saturday, September 1, 2012

VanderMeer's Weirdness and the Lovecraftian Zeitgeist

I just read an excellent post by New Weird champion Jeff VanderMeer regarding the pervasive and clinging influence of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction on the modern Weird Tale. It's a thoughtful post, and I recommend you check it out. Jeff made several good points that I want to speak to. Lovecraft was recently (and perhaps rightly) canonized into the American Literary pantheon, where he joins fellow pulp author Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others. With this indoctrination came a flurry of critics and reviewers who took gleeful aim at Lovecraft's exposed backside and planted their boots firmly. Call him a racist, sure, but it doesn't stop him from being widely read, nor from joining the ranks of authors that includes Jack London. Most people--make that, most free thinking people--are able to contextualize what they read and account for situations and language that are outside of our modern experience. Were that not the case, we'd never get through Heart of Darkness. Or Huckleberry Finn. And I don't see those books coming down off of the Classics wall, either.

So, Lovecraft is here to stay. But what are we really getting for our money? I'll tell you what we're not getting. We're not getting his writing style (like we did with, say, Raymond Chandler). We're not getting his driving, rhythmic prose (Lovecraft was more interested in a pile-up of words to create a sense of dread). We're sure not getting any kind of enlightened or original thinking regarding, um, anyone not a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. So, what's left?

We get Cthulhu. That's the takeaway for most people. And honestly, it's really the only thing worth taking. Subtract the Cthulhu Mythos from Lovecraft's corpus, and what's left? "From Beyond," "Herbert West: Reanimator," and a handful of Dreamlands books that owe more to Lord Dunsany than anything else.

The Cthulhu Mythos is Lovecraft's invented mythology of vast, mathematically improbable aliens who are locked in an eons-old struggle for supremacy, and who are so unfathomable to humanity that the more we find out about them, the more we realize we're not the center of the universe, and thus the more we go insane. It's this idea that make Lovecraft ideal reading for any teenager with entitlement issues. What could be scarier for a fifteen year old but to learn that the world doesn't revolve around them?

But it's become much more, and thus, a lot less, than that. For all of the other Mythos stories that Lovecraft wrote, the eponymous Cthulhu rules the roost. He (it) was the subject of only one story, "The Call of Cthulhu," but that story has torn free of his wood pulp tomb and taken on a ubiquity that would make Justin Bieber envious.

Cthulhu has become a self-generating meme, a thought bomb that infects all aspect of popular culture as generic symbol of ultimate evil. And the stuff you can buy to show that you're in on the joke is too numerous to mention: dice bags, t-shirts, glassware, ski masks, books, games, comics, music, stickers, and so much more. It's enough to make you go crazy. Yeah, I went there.

I know that the vast proliferation of Cthulhu merchandise out there really chaps S.T. Joshi's ass; here's a guy who campaigned for over a decade to bring Lovecraft's work into an academic and more respectable light. Imagine how he feels whenever he sees a pair of Cthulhu house slippers at a convention. Or the eleven-thousandth bumper sticker that says "Cthulhu 2012: Why Vote For the Lesser of Two Evils?" A slogan, by the way, that has been around at least since 1988. I know because I had that bumper sticker on my Volkswagon Beetle. What scared the hell out of a generation of authors and readers is now a throwaway joke. No, worse, it's the punchline to a throwaway joke.

I think I know exactly where Jeff is coming from in his article--maybe not so much from pop culture and a little more towards reading and writing. He writes: 

The shadow of Lovecraft blots out and renders invisible so many better and more interesting writers.  The point isn’t to reject Lovecraft, but to see Lovecraft with clear eyes and to acknowledge that weird fiction should not and simply cannot begin and end with one vision, created by a man who passed away in 1937.

And he's 100% correct. I think just about everyone went through, or will go through, a Lovecraft phase. I think it's somewhat necessary, because so much of Lovecraft has permeated the pool of influences. How much of it sticks on you, and what you make of it, of course will vary greatly. What made those initial stories so revolutionary was the fact that no one else in the 1920s and 1930s, with the possible exception of Harry Stephen Keeler, was thinking the way Lovecraft was thinking. Those stories took us to a place in Lovecraft's head space that was creepy and frightening to visit. I think that's a defining characteristic of what comprises a weird tale--it's getting into a head space, or the nexus of two seemingly incongruous trains of thought, and watching them blow up into one another.

There's a literary term that is bandied about in the Texas SF/F community: Texas Weird. It signifies that, without exception, we're going somewhere that no one else thought to go to because we're not in the same head space as the author. This applies whether you're reading Scott Cupp, or William Browning Spencer, or Joe Lansdale.

I know there's other examples galore. I merely used Texas Weird because it was close at hand. Reliance on Lovecraft as one of the ping pong balls in the giant metal bingo hopper of your imagination is fine. When you start using this formula:

Nerdy Bookish Guy + Strange Old Tome x monster with unpronounceable name /
 Guy goes nuts = cornball ending

Then you have lost the fight already. This is tired thinking and it was played out when Lovecraft was still alive. He lived to actually interact with and indulge his pastichers. Hell, he encouraged them. The only one of his correspondents who actually got the substance of what Lovecraft was trying to do was Robert E. Howard in his story, "The Black Stone," and Lovecraft said so himself. Everyone else copied the plot points and changed the names like a Great Old Ones Mad Libs game. And yes, I'm talking about Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, and so many of the other writers on Lovecraft's Christmas card mailing list.

But that's not the problem, not any more. The problem is that Cthulhu Mythos fiction has become its own genre. Think about it. There are rules, expectations, conventions. We expect certain things to happen, and they do. It's sad, really, when you think about it.

Jeff also wrote:

Part of moving past Lovecraft’s influence is also to acknowledge that his definition of “the weird” isn’t as applicable to modern weird — that, in essence, we need a new manifesto, even if it is a fragmented and various one: a kind of anti-manifesto in that the need here is to explore the boundaries, the interstices, as well as the center.

I think it's pretty easy to come up with a non-Lovecraftian weird tale canon that includes him as one of the many authors who contributed over the years. Certain stories from my dim and distant past come instantly to mind. Stephen King's "Lawnmower Man," for example, really disturbed me when I first read it. So did Clive Barker's "New Murders in the Rue Morgue." Both of these shorts take a very left of center approach and when you get to the reveal, you never see it coming. They are, in a sense, traditional horror stories, if you look at them as a series of beats. But their content is what makes them so weird.

Of course, your mileage will vary on the above, but I know you can think of other examples where you read the story and it was just so foreign and so obvious an idea at the same time that it literally bounced around in your head for a while. That's what good weird fiction should do. Kelly Link does it, and does it well. So does Jeff. There are a number of modern-day practitioners of the weird tale, and so many more waiting to take a shot. But as long as people are making and buying Cthulhu plushies, this will be an uphill battle.


Jim Hague said...

This' been something I've been struggling with as a reader and writer and HPL fan - the man's influence is vast and pervasive, and rightly so. The 20th century masters of horror - Bloch, Campbell, TED Klein, King, among others - owe HPL a huge debt, much as S&S fiction and more owes REH. HPL's work, and work set in the Mythos, is an evergreen space on bookstore shelves. And yet...

And yet. I ask myself - has the Mythos run aground? And I mean the Mythos specifically, not weird horror or cosmic horror in general.

Now, don't get me wrong - I love HPL. I own games based on HPL's work. I do, in fact, have a bunch of Cthulhu plushies. Those last are what vexes me the most - Cthulhu, and by extension the Mythos, has become something of a joke in some circles. People brag about how they'd never, ever be driven mad by seeing or experiencing something, by the incredible knowledge, etc., that the Mythos threatens its protagonists with. That modern psychology shows us, science shows us, blah blah blah. It's Smart Guy Syndrome, internet Tough Guys fluffing themselves up...and *missing the point*.

But maybe, if you dig, there's something to that. Maybe it's time for the weird to move past the tentacled beasties, the unpronounceable names, the well-tread, well-documented roads of the Mythos, precisely because they *are* so well-tread. We know too much. We've seen the tentacled alien wizard behind the dimensional curtain, and it's spoiled the awful surprise. It's almost common, almost trite.

One of the best cosmic horror films I've seen recently was Yellowbrickroad. Plot-wise, it's similar, but only superficially, to Blair Witch project - documentary film-makers go off into the Vermont woods in pursuit of a weird thing that caused an entire town to descend into madness, murder, and destruction. It starts with a supremely creepy set of audio clips and still photos, segues into a scene set in a seemingly-innocuous government office, a mysteriously classified file, and heads straight for the Fuckyouupatron from there.

These guys, they're well-prepared - they have maps, two catrographers, a pair of historians, a psychologist, a medic, a jack-of-all-trades intern, and a woods-wise Forestry Service guide, along with a local that's tagging along. They're well-provisioned. GPS. Multiple checks to make sure that nobody starts acting weird.

And none of it helps. When they get out of sight of civilization, they're in the Bad Place. We never see anything physically there, not really (except for a brown felt fedora), but we *hear* it - blasts of incomprehensible sound, jazz music, bits of dialogue from The Wizard of Oz; there is no explanation for any of this. When the cartographers admit that their measurements aren't matching the maps or the distances traveled, we know it's bad. There's a clear point in the film where the guys making it tell the audience that they are Done Messing Around.

But never, ever, is there a complete explanation; no tentacled monsters, evil tomes, weird cults, nothing. Just people walking into a Bad Place and suffering the consequences. It's bleak and brutal and legitimately scary. It's the very definition of Cosmic Horror, mankind against a degenerate, hostile universe that blithely chews them up and vomits out the remains, and there is no escape.

So maybe it's time to set the Mythos aside for a while, put it on the proverbial forgotten shelf in the darkest corner of the library to fester and corrupt in its own juices, and return to later. Cut back to the very core of cosmic horror, and, in time, return to the Mythos' forgotten terrors.

Mark Finn said...

No argument from me, Jim. And thanks for the yellobrickroad recommendation. I'll have to track that down. It sounds cool.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia said...

"We're sure not getting any kind of enlightened or original thinking regarding, um, anyone not a white Anglo-Saxon protestant."

I beg to differ, as the very Mexican lady who owns Innsmouth Free Press. We have featured a number of international writers and POC in our magazine issues and anthologies (I've even translated some stuff into English for the press). Lovecraft land is a vast and unexplored continent. We are just looking at the borders outside New England.

Mark Finn said...

Silvia, I didn't write that sentence very well. I meant that within HPL's own work, he's not real interested in the Great American Melting Pot. I didn't mean to imply that people of color and from other countries couldn't write compelling mythos fiction. Far from it. I've got the Lairs of the Hidden Gods books, for example, and I found the Japanese culture to be a perfect fit for some of the more squamous mythos elements.

Sorry for the confusion, there. I was typing in a hurry.

Mark Finn said...

PS: I love your books. I'm planning to submit to the upcoming S&S mythos anthology.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia said...

Thanks, Mark!

Any popular sub-genre or category (be it zombies, vampires, steampunk)needs to regenerate itself or it goes stale and dies. That goes for Weird fiction and Lovecraftian fiction. One of the issues we have is that Weird and Lovecrftian and Mythos fiction are different categories but they sometimes get lumped into one by people.

I've had people say of some of our anthologies that there was not enough Lovecraftian stuff in them, but what they mean is Cthulhu Mythos. I consider Lovecraft's stuff to go beyond that (he also wrote fantasy, for one). There are many works I might consider Lovecraftian which don't really mention any Mythos deity by name. And, of course, it is silly to demand that a Weird fiction anthology be filled only with Lovecraft stuff when such a category might be applied to a bunch of other writers.

Mark Finn said...

I can get behind what you're saying, Sylvia. I can think of a number of projects that were Lovecraftian, be they books, movies, or something else, but not directly invoking the Cthulhu Mythos. I think I'm really just tired of Cthulhu as a meme. It's become one of those tired old things that everyone references to, I don't know, show that they are members of the secret club. The problem is, the club went public decades ago and hasn't looked back since.

I still enjoy well crafted mythos fiction, and also Lovecraftian stuff, and part of what I like about it now is that it's coming from so many new and different diverse sources that it's fresh and interesting to me again.

I just don't want to see any more Cthulhu Legos projects. Even in jest.