Friday, October 31, 2008

The Reason for the Season

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. It's that rare day when death and evil, two important aspects of the human condition, but that are usually hidden from sight, briefly come into full view. It's also a day of horror, of entertaining ourselves with tales of horrific monsters that rise from their liars at night to wreck havoc upon mankind. And most importantly, it's a day of Lovecraftian horrors.

I hadn't even heard of Lovecraft till a few years ago, when I bought a copy of The Best of H.P. Lovecraft - Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. After reading Rats in the Walls and the Outsider, I was hooked, but my absolute favorite short stories are From Beyond and Shadow out of Time. While reading, I try to visualize what's going on, and if I'm lucky, I occasionally get a feel for the mood as well. In From Beyond, the panoply of otherworldly horrors was readily supplied by my imagination and frightening me terribly. I caught furtive glances at them only in part - a glistening forked tail here or membranous wing there - barely restraining the urge to apprehend anything in whole. But in Shadow out of Time, I was more intrigued than truly frightened, wondering at the cities of the Great Race, their ingenuous use of their consciousness-switching technology, and nervously eyed the trapdoors of the city.

Lovecraft revolutionized American horror - combining both ancient occult with futuristic science fiction, and coating the result with his philosophy of man as a minuscule nothing existing in the shadow of unimaginably powerful horrors, whom he cannot defeat and cannot survive against - death and madness are utterly unavoidable. Further, all of mankind's vaunted notions of progress, good, order, even God fail in the cosmic scheme of things. And the worst part is, the terror is right here in front of us all along, occurring in ordinary locations - that apartment building just off the Rue d’Auseil, that old farmhouse where it is said strange human-like voices can be heard late at night, the strange people of Innsmouth, that poor professor of political economy who suddenly fell ill mid-lecture, even that strange old book deep in the recesses of Miskatonic University's library.

It's interesting the prominent role that science and materialism plays in Lovecraft's work, as opposed to the magic or supernaturalism. Science is what enables Tillinghast to break down the barrier between our dimension and the creatures from beyond, what enables Herbert West to reanimate the dead, and the Great Race drove back the Flying Polyps with electrical weapons and mastered their form of time-travel purely through scientific research. And all of the Great Old Ones, for all their god-like appearances, are in fact wholly natural beings, albeit native to quite a few more dimensions than us.

Lovecraft offers us the thrilling vistas of cosmic horror, from dreamlike spectres and hideous creatures hiding in the dark, to nigh-omnipotent alien visitors. He's a big part of American horror and thus Halloween. So don't forget to celebrate Cthulhu Day!


Joshua said...

This isn't quite accurate. Although there's a large amount of emphasis on science there are clear elements of what come across as magic or magical. For example in "The Dreams in the Witch House" Keziah Mason is described as a witch and she makes child sacrifices to some entity. So even if the story has scientific elements there is a definitely magical element. There are other examples. While there is a definite emphasis on "science" in some sense of it it isn't clear that Lovecraft saw it as that distinct from magic. There may be something like Clarke's Third Law going on here.

Hydra said...

But even in Dreams in the Witch House, there's math. :P

But to the point - yeah, I know there's magic. I'm not suggesting that none of the short stories contain magic/supernaturalism, because they clearly do, and a lot of the stories have nothing to do with science at all.

I'm just saying that overall, his emphasis on science is notable, especially for the horror genre. I mean, there's technologically advanced alien races like the Mi-Go and Great Race, various mad scientists, and plenty of investigators with a scientific background. Especially in From Beyond and Shadow out of Time, the scientific musings are very noticeable.