Monday, 25 November 2013

Recollections - 2013-14 Session Three: H.P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls" (1924), "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928) and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1936)

For our third session this year the Gothic Reading Group continued its exploration of more 'contemporary' Gothic by looking at three short pieces by the seminal early twentieth-century horror author, H.P. Lovecraft. One of the key questions our discussion revolved around was Lovecraft's relation to the Gothic. This was partly because the question was an interesting one (effectively posed by the writer himself, who wrote a long and well-informed essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature") and partly because Mark kept bringing it up and wouldn't let it go. As collective penance, Mark has taken it upon himself to summarise the session here. This is penance for Mark, because he is an eighteenth-century specialist who knows relatively little about twentieth-century horror; this is penance for everyone else because Mark is an eighteenth-century specialist who knows relatively little about twentieth-century horror. . . but he does know where to find ridiculous youtube videos. Read on for ridiculous youtube videos.


That is not Dead which can Eternally Remediated Lie. . . Lolshoggoths?

So, as admitted in the preamble, I'm not really a Lovecraft person. I bought a collection of his early stories in my undergraduate days and was more impressed by the essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature" than I was by the two or three fictions I bothered to read before getting back to worrying myself about the clarity of the Female Gothic as a generic category and / or how to beat the quiz machine in our local pub. The one thing I do know about Lovecraft, however, is that he is responsible for a surprising amount of the internet. By which I don't mean that the world wide web is a product of the Elder Gods' dream communication and that Tim Berners-Lee is secretly a high priest of the Order of Dagon. I'm simply referring to the fact that there are almost as many comedy remediations of Lovecraft's wibbly-wobbly tentacle monsters online as there are funny pictures of cats. And some fusions of the two.

This was actually the least freaky Cthulhu-cat picture Mark found.

This familiarity shaped the Reading Group's discussion in a couple of ways. We seemed split fairly evenly between members who were well-versed in Lovecraft and others (like myself) who had a general idea of his 'mythos' but hadn't read much of the fiction that spawned it. Some of the first questions we asked of each other, therefore, were: "what is it about Lovecraft that makes his work so definitive?" and "is he actually scary?"

Calling out Cthulhu

For me, Lovecraft runs into trouble with adjectives. Cthulhu may well be nameless, indescribable and maddeningly incomprehensible, but he / she / it is also "greasy," "slobbering," "sticky" and "flabby"; when a ship is desperately driven into it the creature "bursts" like "an exploding bladder." It's easy to be facetious about this sort of thing (I know, I have been) but it's not surprising that Lovecraft ran into trouble when he found it necessary to tell what, by his own definition, couldn't be shown. It remains fair to say that his fictions are much more successful in depicting the effects of their monsters on characters even if they struggle to reproduce their affect for the reader.

By Lovecraft's own admission - or at least his narrator's - this was more or less unavoidable: Cthulhu, it seems, possesses a property of the sublime that borders on the Kantian: "the most merciful thing in the world" being "the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." This was something the group considered as, yet again, a distinction between Horror and Terror aesthetics made its way into our discussion (well, we are a Gothic Reading Group, after all). One of our members observed that Lovecraft prefers to describe his horror as "latent" and another pointed out the interesting sense in which his narration seems to try and manage a transition between dream-states and conscious writing. "Cosmic horror," it seemed, wasn't simply about the exceptional transition from manageable (or imaginable) Terror to incomprehensible Horror, but rather about a sense that Horror is innate and normative within an ontology that human consciousness does not grasp. This in itself is more or less announced by "Cthulu's'" opening lines, yet it did lead us into thinking about Lovecraft's vision of the human: something that seems central to his horror, but is made less explicit within it.

Their souls make his tummy happy.

The implication of "cosmic horror," of course, isn't just that human comprehension is impossible, but that it is fundamentally irrelevant. As one of our members pointed out, Lovecraft's fictions are a record of the attempt to make sense of their monsters. In a sense that's obviously at home within the Gothic tradition, these are found and / or assembled manuscripts as in "Cthulhu" or potentially unreliable testimonies that are very aware of their own status and process as writing. The latter is the case for "Rats" and "Shadow," each of which attempts to depict key transitions in their narrator's consciousnesses. Towards the end of these stories such transitions can seem quite jarring, yet, as another member convinced me, re-reading reveals a much more subtle development. . . does Captain Norris look a little plump to you?

Within the narratives themselves different disciplines of human knowledge and enquiry are deployed to make sense of the horrors that are encountered. "Rats" is a particularly good example of this as the contents of the "twilit grotto" beneath Exham Priory are rapidly appraised and inventoried. Dr Trask "the anthropologist" is able to identify a range of "types" in the skulls and bones that litter the area and the renowned archaeologist Sir William Brinton is able to classify buildings and translate their inscriptions on the spot. Like the narratives themselves, however, these processes of classification and record are eventually overwhelmed. Dr Trask may be able to tell different skulls apart, but collectively they constitute a "degraded mixture which utterly baffled him": the individual points of human knowledge are readily available, but their ordering - or "correlation" - is impossible. Similarly, the various buildings represent an array of different periods, from prehistoric tumuli to seventeenth-century butcher's shops: they suggest a chronology, but their arrangement is more synchronic. Visible "in one terrified glance" the various buildings have not replaced or overlaid each other, but exist in parallel. Though the different structures may be assumed to have superseded each other in their use by the cavern's occupants, their simultaneous presence compresses human history and distorts the chronology through which it understands itself. It is not, therefore, that the arsenal of human knowledge is merely ineffective within Lovecraft's vision, but that it somehow fails to correlate with its objects, whose ordering collapses once enough material has been coordinated.


We wondered how this compared with Lovecraft's immediate predecessors and contemporaries within the Gothic tradition and with our sense of that tradition as a whole. Viewpoints on this varied, but the group seemed to agree that it's a kind of nihilism that distinguishes Lovecraft's vision. Whereas what we might think of as a fin de siecle Gothic tradition - including texts such as Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde - seems to speak of a possible collapse into degeneration and the potential pathologisation of even "heroic" characters, in Lovecraft this already seems to have occurred. To put it very crudely, the narrators of tales like "Rats" or "Innsmouth" discover that they are already 'Hyde' and, whereas the writing and assembling of information will eventually corner and defeat Stoker's Count, in Lovecraft such processes exceed themselves and invite more 'horror.'

This also seemed to speak to Lovecraft's place within the Gothic. We approached this issue from a couple of angles, asking what might define a a pre and post 'Modernist' Gothic and coming up with different answers and definitions. One thing that seemed interesting was the way Lovecraft telegraphed, but re-arranged Gothic materials in a tale like "Rats." Exham Priory, with its local legends and subterranean chambers is clearly a familiar piece of Gothic stagecraft, with its blueprints stolen from castles like Otranto or Mazzini. Its secrets are also familial and - as the conclusion frantically reveals - grounded in a sense of dynasty and land-ownership. Yet, as I suggested previously, the contents of Exham's cavernous grotto seem to pull the rug out from under this more familiar Gothic structure. We frequently understand the Gothic - in its most typical sense, at least - as being about an attitude to history and its contents. These have a tendency to re-appear and to ask questions of the present and the identities (personal and social) it constructs. The Gothic presents history as a palimpsest of sorts, in which layers do not always neatly succeed each other. Yet, for all that, this vision of history still possesses a normative quality of linearity and comprehensibility that the Gothic works to unnerve or disrupt. In Lovecraft's cavern, history is not linear, but parallel: the sequences and successions that the Gothic pierces through are simply collapsed. Even the Gothic doesn't help make sense of or structure what the cavern reveals as Lovecraft himself suggests when he has his narrator observe that "not Hoffman nor Huysmans could conceive a scene more wildly incredible, more frenetically repellent, or more Gothically grotesque" than the contents of this cavern which out Gothics the Gothic. I'm sure different readers and critics may entertain different perspectives on this (we took a few different views within the groups) but for me, personally, this seems like an interesting distinction between an earlier Gothic tradition and Lovecraft's 'cosmic horror.'

Warning: may actually induce madness.

We considered several contexts for this 'cosmic horror' and the nihilism (perhaps for want of a better term) that seemed to underpin it, including the more obvious - the prevalence of degeneration theories, for example - but also including the slightly more abstract. We talked about some of the ideas that might have been important to Lovecraft, including new concepts of deep-time and of the survival of life in hostile ocean environments. We also thought a little about Lovecraft's position within a particularly American Gothic tradition, concerned with developments and survivals in isolation, harking back to the work of Brockden Brown and forward to contemporary television serials such as True Blood.

Cosmic hell is other people and some of them have gills.

One topic that seemed particularly interesting was Lovecraft's place as a writer working in the aftermath of the First World War as we noted the prevalence of implicit and explicit references to human conflict in these tales. The protagonist of "Rats," for example, struggles to make sense of himself and his family in the wake of his son's death following injuries in the First World War. The bones that litter its secret grotto reveal a mass carnage that offers an uneasy analogue for the horrors made real in the mechanised warfare that opened the twentieth-century. Innsmouth, meanwhile, is a city whose growth seems to have been stunted by the results of the War of 1812, leaving it more isolated and dependent on new forms of trade. The possibility it horrifyingly predicts is not simply that a titanic beast will emerge from the sea and quickly wipe out humanity in the style of Godzilla (or Pacific Rim - yes, we did end up talking about Pacific Rim). Instead "Innsmouth" seems to predict a mass-invasion where overwhelming numbers will lead to victory for the 'deep ones' in a much more conventional war of attrition - albeit with the use of weaponised Shoggoths. In "Cthulhu" such references are less direct, but one member did suggest a surprising but intriguing connection, noting that the awakening horror upon which "Cthulhu" pivots recalls W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming" (1919) - a poem whose narrator tells us that, in the wake of the war:

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

As an offshoot of this discussion we briefly considered the separate relationships Lovecraft and Yeats had with occult organisations such as The Golden Dawn and its members. What interested us most about these overt or coded references to warfare, however, was the way they fitted with the more successful aspects of Lovecraft's horror: the sense that other people were far more frightening - and directly dangerous - than the gelatinous monsters they served. 

... and that seems like a sufficiently cheery note upon which to end this recap. As ever, our discussion was wide-ranging and interesting. I'm particularly grateful to those members of the group whose Lovecraftian lore far exceeded my own and who were generous with their knowledge and insights at those points when the discussion most needed it. I'd also like to thank those who brought along various extras for the session, including the recent The Call of Cthulhu silent film which played in the background as we chatted and the awesome knitted Cthulhu who watched lorded over us with his little woolly tentacles. He'll see you out:

It's not all doom and gloom...


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English working on eighteenth-century Gothic and travel-writing. He's had that Cthulhu Fhtag'n song in his head for days.

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