Spooktober, Day 19: The Shadow over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft

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“Where does madness leave off and reality begin?”

[Content warning for discussion of racism]

HP Lovecraft’s inclusion in Spooktober was inevitable: he is arguably the most influential voice in horror of the twentieth century. Lovecraft transformed horror by detaching it from its religious underpinnings: his monsters are not ghosts or undead creatures (evidence of a Christian or at least spiritual afterlife), but immense, unknowable cosmic abominations, as old and as vast as the universe itself. Terror in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos comes not from the ghostly hand on one’s shoulder, but from looking up at the stars thousands of light-years away and realising how small and pointless our lives are, and how fragile our sense of reality can be when it is challenged.

When deciding which of Lovecraft’s stories to discuss, I wanted to choose something that best represents Lovecraft’s eccentric worldview. Note that I don’t want to pick Lovecraft’s “best” story, just the one that best sums up his themes. I wanted to discuss something that represents the best of the author as well as the worst while mitigating some of the latter: because whether we wish to admit it or not, Lovecraft espoused views that are at best uncomfortable when expressed in a modern context.

In the end, decided to go with one of Lovecraft’s most famous novellas, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, since I feel it is one of his most accessible, and one of the meatiest of his stories. It tells the tale of Robert Olmstead, whose genealogical tour takes him to “rumour-shrouded Innsmouth” in rural Massachusetts, where he makes a startling discovery about the town, its inhabitants, and his family past.

Innsmouth ties into the rest of Lovecraft’s mythos since the denizens of the town explicitly worship the thalassic monstrosities mentioned in Dagon and The Call of Cthulhu. But it also stands on its own merits as one man’s slow realisation about what is going on, both to Innsmouth and to his own body. More than most of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Olmstead feels like a modern literary protagonist undergoing a distinct narrative arc. His story benefits from multiple read-throughs. I remember feeling disappointed at the twist ending, thinking that it was an unearned cheap scare that relied on coincidence designed to cap off the story; but on multiple read-throughs, it’s clear that the hints are there if the reader is paying attention.

The Shadow over Innsmouth splits neatly into two halves: the first half builds tension by introducing the many rumours and tall tales surrounding the town, and drip-feeding the reader hints about what’s going on in Innsmouth. The second half feels a little weaker: the narrative switches from horror to action as Olmstead tries to escape Innsmouth. Lovecraft’s notoriously baroque prose isn’t well suited to action, and the pace suffers.

Moreover, the second half is when the author’s infamous xenophobia begins to take over. Lovecraft’s racism is, unfortunately, baked into the DNA of Innsmouth. It’s not as explicit or unpalatable to modern sensibilities as, say, The Horror At Red Hook, but it’s there all the same. It’s suffused with the fear of “miscegenation,” of the “dilution” of white racial purity through mixing with others. Innsmouth is a literal breeding ground for stunted, inhuman horrors that will in time overwhelm civilisation with their numbers, a motif that has been repeated in racist polemic right down to the present day.

It would be tempting to ignore or downplay Lovecraft’s noxious worldview as the product of his time (though in truth his views were extreme even for the 1930s), though it is more useful and mature to engage with it critically. Horror has always leaned on problematic tropes: it’s an inherent risk for a genre that seeks to disturb and to shock. I used to think that it was okay to compartmentalise the racism of Lovecraft’s as something our society had moved past: but the events of 2017 have shaken my hope that we have moved past such toxic views. Lovecraft’s racism can and should shock us, and it’s perfectly acceptable to pull away and refuse to engage with his work.

So, consider this a provisional recommendation: The Shadow over Innsmouth is not and should not be for everyone. Many of the themes it explores— man’s insignificance, body horror and alienation— are still relevant, but I’ll leave it up to each reader as to how far they want to delve into the cosmic abyss.

Read The Shadow over Innsmouth here, or listen to the BBC radio adaptation here.

 

Spooktober, Day 18: Good Omens by  Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

“Kids! Bringing about Armageddon can be dangerous Do not attempt it in your own home.”

Is Good Omens a horror story? No, it’s far too intelligent for that.

Good Omens (or, to give it’s full title Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) was a unique collaboration between the late and much-missed Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman when the former was known principally as the author of The Sandman graphic novels. It is, in the broadest sense, a comedy about the end of the world.

The end times are near. An angel and a demon, who have become too fond of humanity conspire to swap a baby destined to become the Antichrist. The child grows up in rural Oxfordshire, where he learns the value of friendship while using strange powers to bend reality to his will as the Four Horsemen begin to gather. It is becoming clear that this has all been prophesied by a startling accurate and incredibly useless prophetess, the author of such unexpected insights as  “Do Notte Buy Betamacks”.

So no, Good Omens is not, strictly speaking, a horror story. But it’s a loving but critical send-up horror tropes, eschatology and prophecy. Gaiman and Pratchett’s joint fingerprints are all over it: the grisly postmodern twist on genre fiction of the former married to the knowing satire of the later. Good Omens could easily have been a stand-alone novel for either author, and we’re fortunate to have this one-time meeting of the minds. I’d recommend it to anyone who is a fan of either author or just fancies a good laugh at the absurdity of apocalyptic thinking.

Spooktober, Day 17: The Enigma of Amigara Fault, by Junji Ito

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Alright: Let’s talk about comics.

Junji Ito is recognised as the doyen of modern horror manga. Is artwork is by turns beautiful and freakish (often at the same time), and he has a fertile imagination for unknown and unknowable monstrosities. And while Uzumaki and Tomie are both excellent examples of his longer volumes, I can’t think of a better introduction to his work than his short piece, The Enigma of Amigara Fault.

It starts with an earthquake that opens a fault in Japan, where scientists make a remarkable discovery: innumerable holes in the mountainside, all shaped like the human body. No one knows where they came from, or why they are there, but it is soon revealed that the holes in the mountain are calling to people, that visitors to the site are drawn to find the hole that fits them and go inside. What happens to them in there? How far does the hole go? What’s on the other side? You’ll have to read it to find out…

There’s not much else to say about the story that doesn’t spoil it. Suffice to say that Ito preys on some fundamental human fears of claustrophobia and the irrational drive towards self-destruction. Ito gives the reader just enough explanation, so the mystery makes sense instinctively while leaving enough unsaid to leave them stumbling in the dark. Ito’s also the master of the horrific reveal, or visual jump-scares, using each turn of the page to rachet up the horror. The Enigma of Amigara Fault is a quick, easy read for anyone new to Ito, or to manga in general, and I thoroughly recommend checking it out.

Read The Enigma of Amigara Fault here.

Spooktober, Day 16: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

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Today in Redundancy Theatre, we talk about how Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the seminal novel by Mary Shelley, nee Wollstonecraft Godwin, that pioneered science fiction, and how it is Quite Good.
Does Frankenstein need a plot summary? Is there anything new to say about it? Shelley’s masterpiece has been imitated, adapted, ripped off and commercialised for so long that its plot has been hard-wired into the Western imagination. It’s the tale of a man creates life in his own image, only to reject it when he is horrified at its appearance, but he cannot escape his responsibility, and in the end, it destroys them both. Is it a metaphor for childbirth? Which is the real monster: Frankenstein or the creature? How might it have turned out if Frankenstein had owned up to his mistake? These questions have plagued the essays of English Lit students for decades, and no doubt will continue to do so for as long as the English language is in use.
Maybe the reason Frankenstein has endured and prospered (besides Boris Karloff) is its thematic richness. Most of its themes remain relevant today. The idea that knowledge and the pursuit of progress can be dangerous in and of itself has echoed throughout horror media, from Lovecraft to The X-Files. The name “Frankenstein” has become shorthand for the notion that science must be limited by the bounds of conscience, of dangers of tampering in God’s domain: we still reach for the word to label our fears over genetically-modified crops and designer babies. The word itself conjures an image of lumbering, composite monstrosity— it’s telling that Shelley claims the idea came to her spontaneously in a dream, half-formed and uncreated, stitched together in a patchwork epistolary framework. Frankenstein was a breakthrough in the notion that horror doesn’t need to rely on the supernatural, on the fear of God and the afterlife: Victor’s undoing comes entirely from his own hubris, from the physical world that he sought to master and pervert. It’s a book that dared to transgress taboos regarding the human body, childbirth and abortion by presenting the creature as something half-formed and spurned, both by its creator and society. Nearly two centuries since it’s publication, Frankenstein retains its capacity to ask difficult questions and leave the reader uneasy. Familiarity and pastiche have not robbed it of its power.

(While doing the research for this post, I learned that Shelley was eighteen when she started wrote Frankenstein, and now I feel like my whole life has been a failure)

Spooktober, Day 15: The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

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“Because, you see, everything you know about the way this universe works is correct—except for the little problem that this isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back—see Al-Hazred, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Poe, et cetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics—computerised or otherwise—draws them forth. (And you thought running that fractal screen-saver was good for your computer?)”

The Atrocity Archives is the first book in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross. It’s narrated by Bob Howard, a standard computer nerd who currently works for the British civil service, in a secret department known as the Laundry, whose remit is to protect Queen and Country from the threat of extra-dimensional threats to reality. They mostly deal with the unspeakable, gibbering horrors they face with an excessive amount of paperwork.

In the universe of the Laundry Files, magic is real, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Magic is in effect a highly advanced form of mathematics, algorithms that create portals to other realities and allow the Things within to slide through. The problem is that humanity is doing an awful lot of these magical calculations with the help of their computers, and as the population grows and the number of minds performing “magic” increases, the world edges closer and closer to the apocalyptic cataclysm known to the Laundry as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN

I’m still not sure what genre to classify the Laundry Files as. Is it a comedy? Cosmic horror? Stale beer spy fiction? It’s all these things, and a lot more. Stross has Terry Pratchett’s gift of using comedy to make serious points: Bob makes wisecracks that will feel familiar to dorks the world over who feel frustrated with excessive bureaucracy. But it’s clear that there is a layer of horror beneath the laughs, as in the case of an ordinary couple who choose not to have children because when (not if) the stars are right and the Old Ones rise, they don’t want their offspring to suffer through it. It’s a smart, hilarious take on office culture, an exciting spy thriller and a genius deconstruction of Lovecraft’s worldview that I cannot recommend enough.

Spooktober, Day 14: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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Okay, so, confession time: I haven’t actually finished Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. So I’m not sure If I’m really qualified to comment on it, except to say that it’s really weird and really good, and it gives me a headache.
The plot, as far as I can tell, is formed by a series of narratives nestled within one another, distinguished by different typography, accompanied by enough footnotes to scare Terry Pratchett and a series of attempts at editorialising. A tattoo artist and unreliable narrator tell the story of how he discovered a manuscript that purports to be about a family’s discovery of the non-Euclidean space within their home and their tragic, misguided attempts to document it. And as the mystery deepens, the books itself starts to unravel— as in, the typesetting changes, so that entire pages might include only a few words, or a paragraph might be arranged into a triangle. It’s a bizarre, mind-shatteringly strange read, in which the very format of the page reflects how reality is warping inside the character’s home.
Somehow, I feel like I’m still not doing justice to House of Leaves. I’m still not sure it’s even a horror story or even a story in the conventional sense of the word. I can’t even fully recommend it: since the format is so inherent to the experience, the book tends to be expensive. But I think it’s worth tracking down and taking a look. It’s not for everyone: much like Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s so deliberately offputting that it might test your patience. But it’s also entirely unlike anything else you’ve read, a monstrous example of what can be done with books as a media. It helps that it’s superlatively written whenever it’s making sense. Just be brave and give it a go.

Spooktober, Day 13: Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn

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“He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room,— a woman all in white.”

Horror is universal, but ghost stories don’t always have the same cultural context. In Britain, ghost stories are usually reserved for the winter months: for Halloween, as summer dies and gives way to winter; or at Christmas, when the night is darkest, and the whole world seems filled with a neverending chill. But in Japan, ghost stories are associated with summer: they are told at twilight on warm nights, to cool the blood. According to Shinto belief, humanity shares the world with a myriad of gods, spirits and mysterious creatures: and if we wander too far, or speak to the wrong person at sunset, we may not come back the same.

Lafcadio Hearn was one of the first writers to bring Japanese folklore to a broader Western audience. Hearn’s life is fascinating in itself: a Graeco-Irish journalist who immigrated to New Orleans (he wrote an obituary for Marie Laveau) and later settled in Japan and wrote many books about his adopted homeland. His work has been adapted several times for TV, film and anime, and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is perhaps his most enduring work.

Ostensibly, Kwaidan is a collection of ghost stories and folk tales that Hearn collected, translated or heard from others, though it’s possible that he created or at least embellished some of the stories himself. The tales serve as bite-sized tastes of Japan’s folkloric fringe: they include yuki-onna, the snow woman, who preys on travellers lost in a blizzard. Then there’s Hoichi the Earless, the minstrel doomed to play for a band of ghostly samurai. And it includes the tale of Akinosuke, who dreams a whole new life for himself, only to see it disappear when he awakens. There’s also an entire appendix devoted to Hearn’s fascination with entomology if you want to read about why ants are better than people.

Kwaidan is a strange book, written by a strange man, about strange things. It’s written in the direct, matter-of-fact tones of fairy tales the world over, with little of the concern for characterisation or mood one might see in “real” horror, but the simplicity of Hearn’s prose allows the reader to put together the pieces for themselves as they imagine the strange creatures within. The stories work best when they are read allowed as they were intended: as the sun goes down and the light begins to change, and you long for a chill to run down your spine…

Read Kwaidan here

Spooktober, Day 12: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

One of the themes that have come up repeatedly while writing these posts for Spooktober (“The Spooksiest Time Of The Year!tm”) is that great horror is not always about supernatural monstrosities invading our every day lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic thriller, Rebecca.

It’s a tale as old as time: girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl moves into boys expansive stately home in the country, girl finds herself haunted by the ongoing presence of boy’s impossibly glamorous ex-wife, girl is threatened by boy’s obsessive old housekeeper, boy’s house burns down. How often have we heard that tale?

It’s a novel about a haunting that doesn’t include a single (literal)  ghost. Rebecca herself is a presence and character despite her posthumous status:  Because so much of the action is going on in Mrs de Winter’s head, blurring the line between reality and imagination. She is a character in a constant state of anxiety, forever comparing herself to her predecessor and making assumptions about what other characters think about her. She is, in a sense, gaslighting herself, just as Mrs Danvers subtly undermines her self-confidence and keeps alive the memory of the former mistress. Du Maurier’s genius lies in her ability to build up this sense of unease into fear as the story progresses. Anyone looking to write horror or build tension would do well to read, study and absorb the lessons of Rebecca.

Spooktober, Day 11: Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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“Are you OLD?”

“No. I’m only twelve. But I’ve been that for a long time.” 

It’s 1981. Young Oskar is living with his mother, bullied at school and faces visits from his alcoholic father. Then he meets, Eli, the girl who’s just moved in next door, and he’s finally found someone who understands him. There’s only one problem: Eli is a vampire, and the man claiming to be Eli’s “dad” may or may not be a child molester who provides Eli with the blood they need to survive.

Let the Right One In works because like the best vampire stories, it’s not really about vampires. There are monsters-a-plenty in Lindqvist’s world, all of them terrifyingly real: bullies, alcoholics, neglectful adults and child molesters, to name just a few. Honestly, the horrors in Oskar’s life are so unsettling that a centuries-old haemophage looks positively quaint in comparison.

Maybe that’s why Oskar’s relationship with Eli works so well, since Eli is, strangely enough, the warmest and most sympathetic character in Oskar’s life. It subverts our expectations on the innocence of childhood, yet somehow reinforces them at the same time. Their relationship may be unconventional, but its also genuinely sweet and tender, and you can’t help but hope that their friendship will somehow endure the carnage going on around it.

Let The Right One In is a masterpiece of Scandi noir, an extended meditation on the dark side of the human soul. It’s unrelentingly brutal, which only serves to make its moments of joy gleam all the brighter. It’s essential reading for anyone who thinks vampire fiction has gotten “soft,” or for a crossover thriller with light supernatural elements. After all, not all monsters have fangs…

Spooktober, Day 10: The Ring, by Koji Suzuki

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‘Before you die, you see the ring…’

Today’s entry in our Spooktober marathon is going to be a little different because although The Ring was initially a novel by Koji Suzuki, I’m going to be talking mostly about the film adaptation(s). Why? Because The Ring is one of those rare anomalies where I honestly believe that the film adaptation is better than the original novel. Partly it’s because I’ve only read the book in translation; partly it’s because the films excise some of the more problematic aspects of the novel (including, the more sordid details of Sadako’s backstory, and Ryuji’s rather tasteless enthusiasm for sexual assault). Mostly I think it’s because this is a story that works better with a supernatural bent than a pseudo-scientific explanation: Sadako in the film is a ghost, in the Japanese tradition of vengeful onryo, rather than a combined electromagnetic/psychic manifestation of syphilis. But then, the first movie was directed by Suzuki himself, so it’s not like I’m downplaying his role by stating a preference for the film.

It’s also unusual in that the western remake is not only competent but arguably as good as the original. So whichever interpretation is your favourite is up to you.

In case you’re not familiar with it, The Ring is the story of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and the desperate quest to find a way to stop it. Although it felt fresh and new to a Western audience, The Ring is actually working within a rich tradition of Japanese horror: ghoulish spirits seeking vengeance with power they never had in life; haunted, animated technology; the invasion of the everyday by the uncanny. It all reads like a subversion of the typical ghost story tropes, leading to an end that puts a genius (and savage) twist on the hope that appeasing the spirit will deflect its vengeance. Yet it’s also subtle: the Japanese film only features one horrifying moment towards the end, but I still had to stop and switch on the lights a couple of times while watching as the tension built but was never really allowed to deflate. It’s a work that lingers long after it’s over by playing on our paranoia, by stoking the fear that our everyday environment and all our technological comforts could be used against us.