I used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit oI used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit off of his name, put it on the cover of all sorts of middling short story collections--cliche and badly-written stuff that (if the reader is lucky) might actually contain one or two stories by the original author.
However, in this tale, Lovecraft proves that he can write just as badly as his gaggle of followers. It is meant to be a story of the fantastical, of the supernatural, of mystery and suspense--yet it is full of the very things that kill off any sense of wonder or the uncanny. Nothing demysticizes like familiarity, and this book is full of precise descriptions of his monstrous creatures, their histories, their habits--Lovecraft even spends a few paragraphs telling us how they like to furnish and decorate their living rooms. A tip for writers of the supernatural: if you want a being to be mysterious and unsettling, don't go off on a tangent about its commitment to feng shui.
In the Annotated Lovecraft, where I most recently read this story, noted critic S.T. Joshi claims that Lovecraft wasn't a pulp author, but something else, something greater--yet this story, one of Lovecraft's most well-known, is rife with all the worst habits of the pulps: pointless details, repetitive descriptions, crutch words, extensive exposition, little change in tone or voice, convenient plotting, and impossibly insightful protagonists. Beyond that, Lovecraft doesn't even deliver on those things that make pulps worth reading in the first place: verve, action, dynamic characters, and tension.
The whole story is basically a scientist explaining to the reader a series of carvings that he's looking at. The actual plot--the fact that he and his team of researchers are trapped in Antarctica and think that something is killing them off--is treated as a secondary concern.
The thin story is padded out by interminable details, the same comments and observations, repeated over and over, page after page. Like a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons, every new room is needlessly described: they entered a spheroid oblong, 63 yards long and 41 yards wide, the walls were worked stone, covered in carvings depicting some tentacled creature.
There are always carvings.
As we go along, the protagonist describes it all to us minutely, with a level of insight that grows increasingly laughable. At one point, he mentions that he can somehow tell, by a series of ancient stone-etched pictures left by an alien race, that they had lost the skill of telepathy and switched to spoken communication. In the real world, archaeologists struggle their entire careers to figure out what particular people, places, events, and objects are being represented in surviving remnants of murals, but our plucky narrator doesn't suffer a moment's confusion on how aliens artistically rendered telepathic powers some hundred million years ago.
Indeed, the entire expedition seems to have a level of knowledge and familiarity with 'eldritch tomes' and 'esoteric history' that is quite impressive. Keep in mind that these aren't paranormal researchers, but regular geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, &c.--and yet, every time they enter a new room, they never fail to comment that this or that carving reminds them of something they once read in the Necronomicon. They throw off references to the mi-go and the shaggoth as if discussing nothing so remarkable as varieties of sparrow, and recall in detail historical events of a hundred million years ago with the utmost nonchalance.
Apparently, far from being an incomprehensible mystery the mere overhearing of which accursed syllables invokes incurable madness, the History of Cthonic Horrors is in fact a basic undergrad class required at all proper universities (and Marty's favorite topic when he's trying to impress drunk girls at the Young Scientists mixer).
Now, perhaps the fact that the narrator never fails to halt his headlong flight from horrid monsters in order to examine and explain the carvings is meant to represent the fellow's meticulous character--which brings up an important writing lesson: once a fact has been established in the text, it does not need to be reiterated ad nauseam. You don't have to mention the character's clothes and sword in every scene, because once those things have been described, the reader isn't going to suddenly assume the character is suddenly naked and defenseless just because the scene changed. Having the character demonstrate this trait once or twice in a story is perfectly effective, without wasting a lot of space reiterating.
Reading this interminably long list of details reminded me of nothing so much as discussing writing with a teenage would-be fantasy author: ask about his book, and he'll spend forty minutes telling you what color swords the southern nation has, how many priest-kings ruled in succession over the Lost Isles, what city-states exported the most grain in the decades since the mana-plague, and the convoluted rules he's put together for how a fire spell works.
In short, by the end, he hasn't mentioned anything that resembles a story: no sense of character, psychology, pacing, tone, plotting, structure, theme, climax, pivotal scenes, conflict, tension, style, language, dialogue--never forget that, when it comes to a good story, setting is irrelevant. Get together some costumes and props, build a set, arrange the furniture, get your lighting perfect, and guess what: you still don't have a play.
Yet you can perform Shakespeare in a blank room, all the actors dressed in nondescript black, and you'll still get a great story, great characters and emotions and moments. Change the setting to a space station, an elf kingdom, a Wild West boomtown, a port full of pirates, and it doesn't matter--the story is still the thing that carries it.
It's frustrating to watch an author just obsess over details, because overall, it's something they do to please themselves, not their audience. It's like a set dresser carefully filling all the drawers on set with realistic, accurate props that will never be used in the play, never seen by the audience. At some point, it's just a self-indulgent game.
However, that doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of this story--indeed, it has consistently been popular, republished over and over throughout the years as a 'Lovecraft classic'. It's chock-full of exposition and explanation, and there are few things that fandom likes more. To have Lovecraft's world, his mysteries, his horrors laid out so simply, so fully, makes them easy to understand, easy to tie together--and easy to obsess over. That collection of little details, of the inner-workings of a fictional world is what much of fandom is built on.
A proper mystery, a story of true terror and fantasy doesn't give out simple explanations, because that would undermine the very sense of terror, of the fantastical on which such a story is based. Mystery and explanation are antithetical to one another: once the mystery has been explained, then the mystery has ended. Yet, there are many readers who come away from a fantastical story asking 'what really happened?'--which, of course, is the wrong question, because what really happened was that an author sat down and created a piece of fiction from his imagination. There is no reality outside of the story, the story exists to be a good story, to have feeling, pacing, and structure that works. A story does not actually exist in any concrete world 'out there' to be discovered and enumerated.
The error Lovecraft makes here (the same error Mike Mignola made with Hellboy recently) was taking a strange and fantastical world and trying to 'lock it down', to make it into something explicable, predictable, fundamentally known. Some might suggest that this urge opens up that world to other authors, by allowing them to know what 'really happened', but in truth, it closes off the world, it limits fundamentally what that world can be, and what stories can take place within it--not only for other prospective authors, but also for readers.
It shrinks the whole thing down and makes it more easily digestible--which is diametrically opposed to the supposed theme of Lovecraft's stories: that there are things, both objects and ideas that are larger than we are, that are too grand for us to ever truly understand, things that cannot be simply encapsulated through a simple summary of events. This story, more than any other, is a betrayal of the very thing that set Lovecraft's work apart, that made it interesting and influential in the first place. Instead, we get something along the lines of 'true tales' of Atlantis and the Hollow Earth that charlatans were peddling at the time, and which have since transformed into shows about 'Ancient Aliens' on the History Channel--and it's quite sad that that's the most visible legacy of Lovecraft's work--well, that and cute Cthulhu plushies....more
Style is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has thStyle is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has their own style, even though some don't realize it--indeed, it is those writers who are least aware of their style who will be dominated by its little vicissitudes.
We spend our whole careers cultivating our style, improving it--and yet, style is also a crutch, a limitation. As Bruce Lee observed: the best style is no style at all--to be able to move fluidly, unpredictably from one moment to the next, doing precisely what is required when it is required instead of falling back on tired old habits.
It is what we all would be, if we could: equal to any genre, any mood, any audience--but alas, far-flung ideals are not to be held in our meager grasp. Style develops not only through our strengths, but our weaknesses: through practice, we become increasingly aware of what we do well, and what trips us up, and we modify our style to take advantage of that.
Of course, it tends to become self-fulfilling, since the more you work within your area of comfort, the more skilled and specialized you become. Many authors who distinguished themselves by turning their years of knowledge and experience onto their preferred type of story end up stumbling awkwardly when they step outside of that, and discover that their chosen voice is not universally applicable. Style is always a trap--but it's also a necessity.
Campbell has the enviable reputation of being the 'greatest living horror writer', named a worthy successor to the likes of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Chambers, Bierce, Poe, and M.R. James. Certainly, he demonstrates an able pen here, but this collection is not the one to convince me that he belongs in the Pantheon of Terrors.
The lead story gets a pass, since it's the first one he ever submitted for publication--a plot-free mass of explanations and worldbuilding that apes the worst of Lovecraft's style. It inspiring for any writer to see just how far Campbell has come from these early roots, that he does eventually develop the ability to tell a story, and not a bad one.
However, unfortunately the key term in that compliment is 'a story'--almost all the tales in this collection could have been created by my patented Ramsey Campbell Story Generator:
John is a (Writer/Literary Agent/Publisher/Editor) and he likes (Jigsaw Puzzles/Hiking). His favorite music is (Bach/Mozart/Schubert). He has no children, no wife, no girlfriend--not really any family to speak of. He just doesn't really connect with people, he prefers to be alone. His few 'friends' are jerks who he avoids, when he can. He finds people on the street threatening--especially youths--though he always watches them from his window.
On the way home from work, he always has to walk by a dark and dingy (Underpass/Bus Shelter/Abandoned Building/Alleyway), lit only by the (Sodium/Mercury) light of the streetlamps. He heard that someone died there, once. He finds part of a dead (Cat/Pigeon), but the next day, it isn't there. In the shadows, he hears sounds like (Armor Clinking/Rustling/Scratching).
He tells himself it's 'probably (Old Papers/Bags/Rats/Birds)' making the sounds. He sees something in the shadows: a (Plastic Bag/Heap of Clothes/Pile of Trash)--at least it 'must be a (Bag/Heap/Pile)'. A little later, he realizes something is following him--probably the teens, he thinks, but no, it's something else. He tries to stay calm, but panics and runs, then slips and falls, hurting himself. He has a sudden, inexplicable revelation of just what this thing is, what's happening to him, and why.
He thinks for a moment he's gotten away--but no, it's right next to him. It's a lumpy hobo shape, its body the wrong shape for a person. It's reaching for him, making moist noises. As it closes in, he's thankful he can't see its face.
Now, this isn't a bad story--indeed, taken on its own, each story is perfectly good: well-written, well-structured--but that doesn't make it any more interesting to read it over a dozen times in a row with slight variations. It's almost as if Campbell is trying to refine a very specific, focused style--a one-story style, as we develop in the process of drafting and editing: ever focusing, tightening, improving--this collection provides an apt example for why we don't include all our early drafts alongside the final copy.
Now, there are a few stories that stand out, but not always in good ways. There is precisely one female narrator in the collection, but it's still the same story, just with a perspective shift: we still have our standard Campbell Protagonist, while the woman narrator seems to be one of his various jerk friends.
Tellingly, the woman is alone, like all of Campbell's narrators, but unlike the men, she doesn't prefer it that way, instead falling into the tired role of the old maid, desperate to make a connection, but too afraid to do so. She's also the only narrator allowed to survive, in the end--women are too delicate to kill off.
Otherwise, the women in the stories stick close to archetypes: they are either mother figures, nagging wives, sex objects, or witches. While the default villains are men (even when inhuman, they take the shapes of hobos), the female villains are all witches. Additionally, while the male threats seem to be evil and powerful unto themselves, the witches are portrayed as secondary, having power only through sexual relationships to men, a la the old 'Bride of Satan' trope, they are not evil objects themselves, but merely its subjects.
There are some cute novelty stories in the collection: an evil hack author, an evil story collection editor, an evil vacation slide show--which do help those individual stories stand out a bit more.
The oddest thing is that the last two stories in the collection are completely different from everything that came before: experimental, unpredictable, unusual--with variance in voice and tone that are estimable. To end such a repetitive book on an incongruous change felt almost like a punchline--though what the joke might be, I couldn't say.
Whatever it was that woke Campbell from his literary slumber, it should remind all of us of the necessity of being shaken up, driven from safe pastures and forced to fend for ourselves for a bit, to figure things out all over again. We never know when these moments will come, or where they will come from, but that is the other side of the coin when we are developing a style: first we labor narrowly, focus, recreate, rehash, perfect--and then we must be thrust outside of that, forced to come to terms again, lest we grow too complacent, too narrow in our view, too satisfied with what we have.
Whether Campbell deserves his laurels, this collection is not fit to demonstrate, but the fact that it does demonstrate growth is a good sign--I only wish the thing had been edited down more effectively--hitting the high points and leaving out the in-betweens, as a 'best of' collection should....more
In 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about inteIn 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about interdimensional terrorism. Almost no one has read it, and those who have do not seem to think much of it.
To critics, it is a mere curiosity, only of any possible interest to completists of Ford or Conrad's works--so, to any of you who have been looking for reasons to dismiss my opinions and paint me as incoherent, here is the gift: I found this book perfectly fascinating. But then, I have come at it from a much different direction than any critic I have seen.
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a speech on Beowulf that completely changed the way scholarship on the poem was approached. Prior to this, the poem was studied for almost purely historical reasons: as a portrait of a time in history of which we have very little documentation. However, Tolkien argued that the critics were missing much of the meaning and subtext of the work by ignoring the symbolism of the fantastical elements: the monster Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
The same oversight seems to have taken place in the approach to this book: critics talk about common themes of Ford's and Conrad's, such as the obsolescence of nobility and the class system, or the foul cruelties of colonialism. They talk about how the book represents the politics of the times, how certain events mirror and comment on history. Yet they completely ignore the central symbolic thrust of the work, the extended conceit which ties the whole thing together.
Unlike most critics, I was primed to look for the meaning behind the fantastical elements, coming to this book not from the context of Conrad's and Ford's more famous works, but from the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Hodgson, and Blackwood--here, once more, is the tale of that sensitive man, the artist plagued by an otherworldliness that draws him on inexorably to the forfeiture of his very humanity--and of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Moorcock, and Griffith, of powerful revolutionaries set to topple the order of the world.
Since magic is the physical representation of an idea, a metaphor sprung to life, it behooves us to ask: what does the magic in this tale represent, and how does it operate within the work? Most intriguing for analyzing the tale is the fact that--unlike most critics claim--the supernatural element is not merely 'tacked-on', but is a vital part of both Conrad's and Ford's presentation.
To Ford, these alien beings infesting our world--a la 'Body Snatchers'--are the very spirit of the changing Zeitgeist. It is their arrival, and their insidious effect on society that will inevitably destroy a thousand years of hereditary rule, plunging the whole world into a war from which it will emerge reborn, a new land of new ideas which leaves the old powers amongst the ash.
To Conrad, it is the subtle treachery of colonial influence, the ability of the ruling power to seduce, to use and abuse its subjects, to make them doubt, to reshape their minds from within, all without their recognizing it, to cause them to betray and subjugate themselves through art, ideal, faith, and symbol.
And all of this meaning is wrapped up in a single character, a woman, who with the protagonist creates a rather odd romance: a romance of the colonized mind, a romance of personal obsolescence--but then, perhaps it really isn't so odd, after all.
The subtle turns of the way her alienness is explored would do credit to any of the classic authors of Supernatural Horror. Firstly there is the fact that as we're looking at it, we can't be quite certain if it's even real, or if perhaps the girl is simply mad, or playing a trick on our hero--an idea he clings to desparately.
Additionally, it is implied that somehow, we are descended from these beings, that they are our source, but that we have since forgotten, ceased to see the wonder of other realms, and grown petty (and a bit unhinged)--and that they periodically return to recolonize us. Of course, there is a sort of hint of Dunsany's Elfland in this: the mystical, untouchable realm which fades away, but which makes us dream, and which we constantly recall in potent images and feelings, without ever realizing it.
Then there is the impression that, not only are the thoughts of these outsiders infectious and transformational, but that they must be careful not to be changed, themselves, by their interactions with humanity--it is a more delicate way of playing with the notion that 'man himself is the monster'--he is not so in a physical, violent sense, but in the cosmic, Lovecraftian one: that perhaps in this universe, man is the incomprehensible, insane force, not the merely the staid victim--the notion of idea as a disease, of the infection of the meme, recalling the absurd but seductive theory of Julian Jaynes.
Of course, there is also a colonial commentary here: that even as the colonizer forces her will upon the other, she in turn is changed by their biases and values, no matter how carefully she guards herself against that influence, the natural tendency is for both sides, conqueror and conquered, to draw ever closer together, and even to bind.
In that sense, there is a deep parallel between this story and Kipling's famous representation of a love affair between overseer and vassal: Without Benefit of Clergy--and an even closer similarity to Tagore's less-romanticized reversal, The Postmaster--excepting that in this case, it is the woman who possesses the power of standing and knowledge.
It is also interesting to see Ford and Conrad, not yet successful authors when they collaborated, write about the life of the struggling author: the hopelessness of it, the sense that one is always 'selling one's self' to do work that is little more than propaganda for the state, contrasted with the intense desire to do something worthwhile.
There is also a great deal of clever drawing-room humor, which I expect is Ford's, as Conrad's humor tends to be less that of the wit and more the ironic and morbid cynic. From Conrad, we get those utterly characteristic digressions, a sentence here or there where some fundamental aspect of human life is encapsulated in a few profound phrases.
Of course, there are some problems, as well--both authors are young, trying to find their way, and the whole project was, to them, an attempt to make a bit of money--meaning there is some deprecating cleverness to the fact that it is about a writer who gives up his artistry in order to write things that will pay. The most prominent issue is Ford's constant use of the word 'infinite' in his metaphors. Of course, we understand that he is trying to touch on matters of the sublime 'Fourth Dimension', but it could have been done with more variety instead of simple repetition.
The Fourth Dimension itself was coined by H.G. Wells, a friend of both writers, whose success with The Time Machine inspired them to write this fantastical political tale. Wells tried to publish an essay on the topic, exploring the concept that time (like heighth, width, and length), might be seen as traversable, or at least as a coordinate for describing matter, but it went over the head of his editor, who told him to put it in a story, which he did.
In that sense, The Inheritors can also be read as a time-travel story, and that it is not a more perfect place which colonizes us, but a more perfect time. To put it briefly: there are so many fantastical and speculative threads coming together in this story that it would be quite dizzying, if it weren't all performed by subtle implication. Really, we never know just what is going on--all we can do is take in clues and surmise as best we can.
But of course, that's the whole nature of the fantastical: that even when it touches us, we are unable to explain it, to make sense of it, to wrap our minds around it. We tell ourselves that it is impossible, we try to ignore it, to concentrate on art or love--on those mad human passions that always draw us away--and yet the fantastical has a way of getting inside of us, no matter how we try to fight it off, of changing us, in such a way that we can never quite go back to the way it was before.
We are left suffused with a feeling of strange nostalgia, and of a kind of bitterness--that now we are worldly, we have seen, and cannot be simple again. But then, the true searcher in the dark would never choose simplicity--for if the world has broken one's heart, at least it can be said you loved it--and in the end, that is the true message of Ford's and Conrad's strange little book, too long unknown, ignored, dismissed, but no longer lost to me, or to you.
Lovecraft once said:
"Conrad's reputation is deserved -- he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality -- that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual"
And it seems such a shame not to know what he might have made of this book.
This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts seThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament....more
Man, I could have illustrated this book, myself and done a better job. Always sad to see an RP book with such flat, uninspiring illustrations when soMan, I could have illustrated this book, myself and done a better job. Always sad to see an RP book with such flat, uninspiring illustrations when so many books have been improved and uplifted by the art within them. The writing is likewise awkward, especially when the author is trying to get poetic. The thing about White Wolf books is you really have to get the feel right in the flavor text, or the whole thing becomes quickly and long-windedly tedious. The rule set is alright, but I get somewhat tired of the cookie-cutter nature of the different World of Darkness settings. I think in terms of feel, I actually prefer the old Mage--it wasn't as streamlined or balanced, which was a problem, but it was often strange and wondrous and possessed a real complexity that allowed a lot of different play styles.
The single most important thing for a system based on story and character is that the world is varied enough that we can make a wide variety of characters, and fully-realized enough that it is a world that we would want to explore, a world where we can present many different ideas and scenarios. This setup all seemed too locked-down and small to really allow for that level of exploration.
I struggled trying to make a character in this rule set, because instead of being able to create the character I envisioned, I was forced to cut corners and fit him into the narrowness of the pregenerated system. The whole thing is so Western, so stuck in a very particular magical tradition that it becomes bothersome to try to construct anything that doesn't fit that standard. I feel like it might have been more effective to give the different Mage societies different cultural backgrounds and approaches to magic, instead of just going with 'the law mages, the nerd mages, the rebel mages, and druids who lack self-control'. If instead the branches had represented European, Asian, African, and Native American philosophical approaches to magic, it would have given the world a lot more depth and room for interpretation.
I mean, I'm sure they'll fill those in later with other sourcebooks, but to me that seems the wrong approach. The main book is the setting, so it should be grand and wide-spanning in its ideas, whereas later books can focus on one or another particular approach. By instead basing the setting on only one approach, the whole thing is limited from the get go.
Now of course, I can modify and re-interpret things to get them to fit conceptually, but as has been said many times before: if the player has to rewrite the setting and rules to make things work, that means the original game was flawed....more
Between the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling')Between the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling') and actually reminding the reader in as many words that the theme of the book is 'the grotesque', I now know what it's like to read a book with the iconoclastic spirit of Gormenghast as written by an author lacking the wit or idiom to carry it off. It's affected, trite, and tiring. Mostly tiring....more
Another paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with theAnother paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with the idea, especially after reading his House on the Borderland and finding it to be refreshingly uncanny. Unfortunately, the Carnacki stories are so flat and formulaic that they add very little to the subgenre.
Every case follows the same pattern: a group of men gather at Carnacki's house and sit around for a bit before he suddenly launches into his story: he's called out to investigate some occurrence, he describes some incident as giving him the 'creep', he refers to a number of other cases 'which you fellows certainly remember' (but which are never, themselves, described), he piles on a lot of colloquialisms, follows this with some goofy made-up terms ('Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual'), mentions someone 'lacking pluck', describes a vague feeling and insists 'we must know what he means', eventually blinds himself with a camera flash, sets up his 'electric pentacle', then explains the whole matter (barring a few mysterious details), and sends his friends out into the night.
Sometimes, the cases are supernatural, while other times we get a full 'gothic explique' that tries to account for the apparently supernatural elements as mere tricks. So, there is some variation in the subject matter, but not very much, especially when compared to the John Silence tales.
Worse than that is the fact that Carnacki himself is a very flat character, somewhat unflappable and matter-of-fact, but otherwise entirely unremarkable and without much sense of interior personality, despite all his friendly colloquial expressions. In Silence, for example, we get a figure who actually seems affected by the cases in which he takes part, who has an investment in the people involved, and in what those cases suggest about the reality of the world. Silence has a perspective, a sort of bias which makes him feel like an actual person caught up in a lot of strangeness.
Carnacki, on the other hand, is so matter-of-fact about everything that there is very little unique about his approach. He's not a figure who must deal with the implications of the supernatural, of the long-term effects they have on a human mind, but an implacable force that solves whatever is before him. Certainly, sometimes he has a fright, but the horror in these tales is all of a very physical variety.
There is always some menacing thing, some murderous force which is acting upon him, which must be fought and overcome. The force is never dangerous to the mind, or the perception of the world, only to the physical body. As such, the Carnacki stories form a prototype of the jump-scare movies which are popular today: there are always half seen things in the shadow of the corner of the room, lurking around every corner, malicious and violent and only held off by Carnacki's magic circles.
I do have to say that I find the idea of his 'electric pentacle', a vacuum tube ring which protects him from supernatural forces to be terribly amusing. Again, it somewhat negates from the supernatural aspect, turning the thing into a physical scientific investigation, but its such a wacky, Ghostbusters idea--I only wish he'd been able to do more with it, that the stories had been odd enough and psychologically intriguing enough to make of the pentacle more than a mere plot object.
There's also an odd continuation of the pig-based horror that Hodgson explored in House on the Borderland, which illustrates just how lucky Lovecraft was to base supernatural monsters on his intense distaste for seafood, since kosher law seems not to translate as well into the disturbing and horrific....more
Read, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh,Read, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh, this character's going to die soon because the author just resolved the ongoing tension they had with the hero" or "Ah, the mysterious stranger must actually be the orphan child of the Baron that people keep talking about". To people who don't know how to do it, it seems like a magic trick, but the only thing you need to do is pay attention to details and to ask yourself "where is this story going to go next?", and it becomes surprisingly obvious.
Anyone who has read one of those endless 'Cthulhu collections' which contain one story by Lovecraft, two by the editor, and the rest by nameless authors knows that horror stories are particularly prone to follow certain patterns. If the character finds a big, carven stone gate in a cave, you can bet he's going to go in there and discover some weird, ancient stuff. If the old farmer won't let him see the barn, you know there's something bad in there.
And at first, reading The House on the Borderland, one of the all-time classic works of supernatural horror, I thought I had things pinned down pretty well. We ease into a familiar old 'evil creatures' story for the first third, with our main character getting more and more weirded out by all the strange things happening around his old house. However, if you'd asked me to predict the rest of the book based on the beginning, I wouldn't have come anywhere close.
Suddenly we're wrapped up in time and dimensions, in a kind of grand metaphysical horror that seems to be completely removed from everything that happened before, and it's only at the end that it all finally comes back around and the reader is able to piece together just what has been going on.
Usually, early, influential works in a genre are fairly straightforward--often, they are fumbling, as the author tries to figure out what it is they are trying to say. Hodgson's story, on the other hand, is more wild, imaginative, and unfettered than any modern horror tale I've read. It really stretches the limits of the reader's comprehension, and leaves behind many intriguingly incomprehensible images.
It is sometimes a bit slow-going, and there is also the problem that some of the elements seem a bit silly. Of course, if you saw them in real life, in the flesh, they would be terrifying, but Hodgson isn't always able to bring home to the reader the pure weirdness of it, to shake us up enough that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. That's something every great horror author must be able to do in order to be effective, particularly in the early parts of the story, where seemingly normal but odd things are slowly building to a head. However, many of the ideas and images Hodgson gives us are perfectly unsettling on their own, without any need for an intermediary.
If I was ever concerned that the supernatural elements I put into my period horror stories are 'too strange for that era', I clearly need not worry. No one is going to out-weird Hodgson any time soon--nor, I think, do any other living writers provide much of a threat to his well-earned reputation....more
Sometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural horSometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural horror is a great resource for readers and writers alike, as it mostly consists of a list of his favorite authors and their most notable and unusual stories. Really, an editor should go through the text, collect all the stories and authors Lovecraft mentions, and then make them into a shot story collection, with this essay as an introduction--hard to think of a more effective primer to the genre than that.
Unfortunately, I wish that Lovecraft had gone into greater depth about the style and methods of horror writers, particularly when he was going through all the example authors. If he had taken certain stories and passages and used them as illustrations for how to achieve this or that effect, then this would be an indispensable analysis. As it is, you get a lot of plot outlines along with generalized bits of praise or condemnation from Lovecraft, himself.
He includes many of those longer Gothic works, talking about certain moments which manage to rise above the formulaic melodrama and tacked-on romance that tend to dominate such lengthy, ambling tales, but it's hard to feel that it's worthwhile to wade through all that just to get to the few superlative instances. His discussion of Hawthorne's longer works, in particular, made them sound much more appealing than my actual experience with them, years ago. Then again, Lovecraft, himself is known to indulge in verbose exposition, so he may find that style less off-putting than I do.
Likewise, Lovecraft's chapter on Poe is much more laudatory than what I would write, as I find most of his work to be uneven and repetitive to the point of narrowness in terms of images, ideas, themes, and tone. Lovecraft, himself, does acknowledge some of these problems, but as with the rest of the essay, it could have done with more specific examples and laying out of ideas. It looks like I'll have to return to the stories, themselves for instruction, and hope that proves to be enough.
Amusing that Lovecraft outright rejects the 'Gothic Explique'--when an author tacks on a bit at the end that tells the reader how all the apparently supernatural events actually have a reasonable explanation such as mass hypnotism, a dog covered in phosphorescent mushroom spores, or a full-sized human skeleton rigged up as a marionette--also known as the 'Scooby Doo Ending'. Then again, I'm not fond of it, myself, especially in a profoundly supernatural tale where the explanation must become absurd in order to account for everything that has happened.
But so far, I'm happy to report that my book seems to lie within the guidelines set down by Lovecraft, so that, at least, is a promising sign....more
December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteriDecember 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysterious manner, one of the premiere American horror authors passed on into the undying realm of night. Bierce was the preeminent innovator of supernatural stories between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft--and to be quite honest, I'd place him head and shoulders above either of them.
While those authors tended toward a dour, indulgent, overwrought style, Bierce preferred a lighter touch, built upon precise, carefully-constructed prose and driven by a deeply morbid wit, somewhere between Nietzsche and Alexander Pope. What may be most interesting about his tales is that, despite their simplicity, they often require quite a bit of thought from the reader: when you reach the end, you know something terribly unnatural has occurred, but piecing together precisely what happened requires a moment of reflection, where the discrete details of the story come together to imply something much more grandly dark than the apparently simple narrative would seem to contain.
To me, the sheer mirthlessness of Poe and Lovecraft denies their stories a certain depth--they are not capturing the whole human experience, but concentrating obsessively on one particular part, as befits the natures of such odd, affected men--men who we imagine to be just as off-putting as the strange, damaged characters in their stories. Bierce's aberration if of a different sort: that of a deep cynic who turns to laugh at the world, at its every aspect, life and death, joy and horror. In missing this from their stories, other horror authors reject a large part of the palette with which horror and madness can be painted.
Chambers dabbled effectively in this laughing tief, as well--but with more uneven results, as his horror career slowly transformed into a series of bland drawing-room romances. Dunsany also has a sense of wit, and of the humor of desperation, but none has so devotedly focused the breadth and depth of their talent on the intersection of the amusing and terrifying as Bierce.
Some of the stories in this, the last of two such collections Bierce published, are similar, but there are also those inexplicable and masterful standouts which differ in both their approach and the effect they achieve from any other horror author. In the end, there is no mistaking Bierce's handiwork, it is in every line: in every carefully laid comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation....more
I came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium EI came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium Eater' about some clever reprobate's adventures through the Victorian. If you know anything about this book, then you can imagine my shock and wonder at discovering the story it actually contains.
It begins simply enough, as a witty picaresque set in Scotland and making some mockery of self-righteousness and Calvinist pre-destination in particular. But then the thing breaks off, it becomes suddenly clear that it is impossible for it to continue as it began, and we are split off into a second telling of the same events from a new point of view, a la Rashōmon. This second version is much darker and the prose becomes experimental, until we seem to be dealing with a crazed serial killer attended and impelled by a strange figure who may be the devil himself--if indeed he exists, at all.
The narrator is what we'd call a 'flat character', as despite his doubts and concerns, he remains static throughout and does not go through a great revelation about his state. This can be somewhat frustrating, as often, the only thing we desire of the character is for him to show the slightest bit of self-awareness, but the story is also a kind of satire of allegory, and those of us who recall The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman, and Everyman will see that Hogg's work provides a sort of parallel to Candide, and that the wooden characters are a fuel for mockery, and for deeper thought.
Yet I found Hogg's work much more interesting than Voltaire's, for as much as Voltaire turned the allegory on its head, in the end that's just an inverted allegory, relying on the same stereotypes for its message, but mocking instead of lauding them. Hogg, on the other hand, manages to make the whole thing conflicted, self-consuming, deluded, and mad. His treatment of Calvinist doctrine might be said to play rather straight, but all the other notions his story is concerned with intermingle and subvert beyond any straightforward interpretation.
But for all that, I'm not sure what to say about it. As a piece of art, it is powerful and unusual, prefiguring existentialist and experimental literature, but for what it all means, I feel somewhat less qualified to say....more
This most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, BiThis most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bierce, and Chambers as worthy of even a discerning reader. Like many such stories, it starts somewhat slowly, establishing first that picture of normal life from which we must soon, and by gradations, deviate beyond recall. I grew to feel it may have been a bit too slow--though it is always difficult to strike such a balance. So much of the story was carried on the particular delivery of the concept, so I'm not convinced that quite so much preparation was really necessary.
But then, Blackwood does sometimes struggle with delivery, falling back on repetition to ensure that his points come across, which makes sense for an author writing in an experimental genre for a wide serial audience and who may be concerned about coming off as too obscure--but whether it was a bit of long-windedness on his part or editorial preference I cannot say.
In any event, after the setup is complete and we start descending into the otherworldly, the story starts to pick up pace, and by the time the concept is laid before us, I was deeply impressed by the insight and imagination with which the thing is handled. The presentation of the uncanny is so complete, so infectious, and so grand in its implications that I am hard-pressed to compare it to any other contemporary author but Dunsany, who achieved a similar effect in fairy tale.
Indeed, it's difficult to name another author who so subtly depicted the cosmology of shifting worlds until Moorcock (who did it in a rather rough style) or the Strugatskys, who took on the same event and expanded it until it dwarfed the entire world of man. It is no wonder that this work is so influential, because it asks many difficult questions of the reader, and invites us to expand upon it, to sit and dwell and try to produce our own understanding of just what is actually going on, and what it means for the insignificant people caught in the middle.
It has certainly altered the way that I think about the writing of horror, and it goes to show that the particular treatment an author gives their idea can make or break a story....more
When reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were realWhen reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were really that horrible, but that the protagonists thrown into them happen to be rather skittish, lily-livered, and needing only the slightest nudge to push them off the edge in the first place. Lovecraft's heroes, in particular, can be rather touchy fellows.
So there has been a desire to explore what it might be like to see a more strenuous and competent individual trapped in the same situation. After all, we get glimpses of these characters, such as the denizens of Innsmuth, the magic-working cultists, and Lovecraft's Tale of Charles Dexter Ward, where it is clear that it's possible for people to get a better grip on the paranormal world, and even to use it to their own advantage.
Of course, these days, the pendulum has swung rather to the other end, and you're likely to see shotgun-toting sorcerer heroes who shoot at Cthulhu with rocket launchers, until the term 'psychological horror' is no longer remotely applicable. It's not that characters should be defeating the elder menace, any more than they should 'defeat' a hurricane, but it is interesting to see a character with a greater penchant for survivability.
Paranormal investigation has quite a long history in literature, with sorcerers and priests capturing and exorcising ghosts and other spirits, but the modern notion of the non-denominational specialist has a much more recent origin: the Theosophical movement of the Victorian period.
During this time of high colonialism, Europe was bringing back myths, practices, and ancient texts from every corner of the Earth, and then trying to get them all to match up into some kind of metaspiritual tradition. Predictably, the whole thing was a nonsensical, poorly-researched mess, and thus, wildly popular. Clubs were started up, seances were held, and charlatans rooked old ladies out of their inheritance. Blackwood, himself, was a member of the most notorious of these societies: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
So, by the time he got around to creating his fictional investigator, the whole thing was all rather tired, which is quite clear in the stories, for Mr. Silence is constantly taking pains to separate himself from that 'other class' of psychics who make extravagant promises and talk about possessing a 'gift'.
So it's interesting that one of the first full-time paranormal investigators in fiction (that I'm aware of) is already somewhat subversive and on the edge--but then, as a calm, rational figure after the style of Dupin and Cuff, he's somewhat out of place with charismatics and wealthy eccentrics.
Blackwood here retains his unfortunate habit of sometimes over-explaining or giving us information more than once, but for that, the stories are well-devised and contain some quite interesting cosmological hints. Oddly enough, two of the three stories in this collection take the most profound interest in the ways of cats and their relationship to the spiritual realm which, while perfectly interesting, didn't seem to profit from re-examination, particularly not within the same brief collection.
However, I am curious to see what else Blackwood might do with the character, particularly if he manages to put him into more sticky situations. So far, we've seen him competent and self-controlled--often the real danger comes from whether he will be able to save the other characters from themselves before its too late--but I'm curious to see what Silence is capable of, when pushed....more