Gods and Monsters

A story from the vault: When we were 11 years old, my best friend and I used to don black robes and wander the streets of the Upper West Side in the middle of the night, carrying signs that read, on one side, The End of the World Is Nigh, and, on the other, Give to the Cult of Cthulhu. What nameless dread, what eldritch excitation, drove us to risk mugging or worse (the Upper West Side hadn't been gentrified yet) in service of a fictitious—and implacably evil—deity? On the one hand, the fear, familiar to anyone who was a child during the Cold War, that the end of the world really was nigh; on the other, the stirrings of adolescence, blasphemous and unspeakable, at least for two boys who could put words to everything but what they felt. No wonder we were drawn to the stories of Cthulhu creator H.P. Lovecraft, whose specialty was the kind of horror that can't be put into words, and relies instead on adjectives like nameless and unspeakable, and on exclamations in an unpronounceable made-up tongue: Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) lost his father to paresis when he was seven, and his mother to madness over the 20 years that followed. His literary production—some 50 stories and three short novels—shows an understandable anxiety about the older generation. Lovecraft invented the Old Ones, pyramid-shaped aliens frozen in the Antarctic wastes; but in case they weren't enough, he also invented the Ancient Ones, a pantheon of gods that included the octopoid Cthulhu; and in case they weren't enough, he came up with the Elder Gods, who lived in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and took little interest in human affairs.

In his unimagined life, too, Lovecraft took pains to give his work ancestors. His 1927 essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" is a 70-page catalog of masters of "the weird tradition," which ran, he claimed, from the Elder Gods Petronius and Pliny the Younger, through Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Gilded Age writers R.W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, to (by implication) Lovecraft himself. Many of these writers have since become obscure, but the new anthology The Colour Out of Space, edited by D. Thin, drags them from the hoary vault in which they have slumbered, and presents, for perhaps the first time since 1927, the Lovecraftian tradition as Lovecraft saw it.

Eldritch Wizardry: Lovecraft in repose
photo: Courtesy Arkham House Publishing
Eldritch Wizardry: Lovecraft in repose

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The Colour Out of Space and Other Tales of Cosmic Horror
Edited by D. Thin
New York Review Books,
354 pp., $13.95
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Not all the stories have survived exhumation equally well. Bram Stoker's "The Squaw," which contains no horror more cosmic than an enraged cat and a roomful of medieval torture devices, telegraphs its conclusion almost from the first paragraph; Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle," although foreboding enough, reads like a sketch for the better-developed Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. For sheer Gothic ornament, there's no surpassing M.P. Shiel's "The House of Sounds," which tells the story of an ancient family who have, for some reason, chosen to inhabit a giant brass bell in the middle of the North Sea. Clang! Crash! There's noise enough, but unless you happen (as I did) to live downstairs from two children and a long-toenailed dog, the story may leave you more perplexed than terrified.

Ambrose Bierce, on the other hand, springs back to life with such alacrity that you have to wonder whether he ever really died (he disappeared in 1913, on his way to meet Pancho Villa's army). Bierce was a journalist, and it shows; he makes the supernatural creature of "The Damned Thing" sound as plausible as a state fair in the Midwest, while "Moxon's Master," about an ornery chess-playing automaton, contains eerily contemporary meditations on the nature of consciousness. Meanwhile, R.W. Chambers's "The Repairer of Reputations" conjures up a militarized, isolationist America, complete with state-funded suicide booths, which would have done the great paranoids of the 20th century (Burroughs, Dick, Pynchon) proud. And Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" describes the thoughts of a victim of the supernatural so exactly that you wonder—almost—whether you, too, might at some point have been menaced by the Beyond.

Almost. The curious thing about these stories is that none of them are really frightening—not half as scary as Upper Broadway in the early 1980s, or being an 11-year-old boy, or the prospect of nuclear war. None of them, for that matter, are as frightening as the Lovecraft story that gives the collection its title, about a patch of Massachusetts made strange by a glowing meteor—the story "more or less predicts the effects of the atomic bomb," admitted Edmund Wilson, who otherwise abhorred Lovecraft. Ironically, given that Lovecraft believed that the heart of the weird tale was the suspension of the laws of Nature, "The Colour Out of Space" succeeds because of its prescience about what those laws would turn out to be, and because it uses the Lovecraftian adjectives—nameless, unspeakable, eldritch, monstrous, sinister—with restraint. Stranger still, the story that displays a truly Lovecraftian excess of language is Henry James's "The Jolly Corner," the only selection for which the master might have rebuked D. Thin. Lovecraft had little use for James, whom he accused of "inevitable pomposity and prolixity"; and "The Jolly Corner" is not the least pompous or prolix of James's works. The horror of the story lies in its syntax: Will this sentence ever end? Why does the narrator gibber so? But the careful reader discerns in James's compound clauses a spectral presence that is the mature counterpart of Lovecraft's teenager-friendly terrors: a grasping at the—almost—unspeakable gulfs not of the Beyond, but of the self. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

 
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