Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lovecraft was easily scared

So, I've been listening to an audiobook collection of four Lovecraft stories: "The Call of Cthluhu" and "The Dunwich Horror" plus two short pieces, "Dagon" and "The Hound". I enjoy Lovecraft, but that's because I read him as a fantasist. As a horror writer, I think he's a dud for the simple reason that his stories aren't frightening. I have an active imagination and hence am easily spooked, including by writers like John Bellairs, and Clark Ashton Smith, and M. R. James, but not by Lovecraft.

Listening to the opening paragraphs of "The Dunwich Horror" helped clarify why. The simple truth is that Lovecraft found lots of things frightening that most of the rest of us just don't get scared by. Like fish. And if you don't share his assumptions, then the triggers he puts into his stories don't go off.

To  highlighting just how many things Lovecraft found frightening, here are the first four paragraphs from that famous story, interleaved with some observations by me:

When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.

--to a city dweller, the countryside is a strange and somewhat disturbing place

      The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road. 
--roads are a little unsettling in themselves, esp. narrow ones

The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, 

--trees are scary, especially when they're large

and the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. 
--plants are scary when they grow well

At the same time the planted fields appear singularly few and barren; 

--plants are also scary when they don't grow

while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation.

--run-down farms are scary

      Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strewn meadows. 

--farmers sitting on porches? scary

Those figures are so silent and furtive that one feels somehow confronted by forbidden things, with which it would be better to have nothing to do. 

--locals who keep to themselves? better not risk it

When a rise in the road brings the mountains in view above the deep woods, the feeling of strange uneasiness is increased. 

--mountains? scary

The summits are too rounded and symmetrical to give a sense of comfort and naturalness, 

--round mountains? that's just crazy talk

and sometimes the sky silhouettes with especial clearness the queer circles of tall stone pillars with which most of them are crowned.

--stone circles: scary

      Gorges and ravines of problematical depth intersect the way, 

--gorges and ravines: yup. scary

and the crude wooden bridges always seem of dubious safety. 

--bridges? scary. 
(actually, as an acrophobiac, I'm with him on this one)

When the road dips again there are stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes, 

--marshes? scary

and indeed almost fears at evening when unseen whippoorwills chatter 

--birdsong? at night? scary!

and the fireflies come out in abnormal profusion to dance 

--fireflies: scary
(is Lovecraft the only person who ever lived
who's afraid of lightning bugs?)

to the raucous, creepily insistent rhythms of stridently piping bull-frogs. 

--frogs: scary

The thin, shining line of the Miskatonic's upper reaches has an oddly serpent-like suggestion as it winds close to the feet of the domed hills among which it rises.

--rivers are scary, especially when they meander

      As the hills draw nearer, one heeds their wooded sides more than their stone-crowned tops. Those sides loom up so darkly and precipitously that one wishes they would keep their distance, 

--hills are better the further away they keep

but there is no road by which to escape them. 

--don't want to get too close to those round hills
(I hear they rise wild)

Across a covered bridge one sees a small village huddled between the stream and the vertical slope of Round Mountain, 

--small towns: creepy

and wonders at the cluster of rotting gambrel roofs bespeaking an earlier architectural period than that of the neighbouring region.

--old buildings: scary

 It is not reassuring to see, on a closer glance, that most of the houses are deserted and falling to ruin, 

--collapsing buildings: okay, that can be scary

and that the broken-steepled church now harbours the one slovenly mercantile establishment of the hamlet. 

--God given way to Mammon? 
some find that scary, others just kinda sad

One dreads to trust the tenebrous tunnel of the bridge, yet there is no way to avoid it. 

--again, I'm with him on the bridge thing

Once across, it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, 

--"that good fresh country air", as my father-in-law used to call it

as of the massed mould and decay of centuries. 

--really old stuff is scary, the older the scarier
(for an antiquarian, HPL was spooked by age)

It is always a relief to get clear of the place, and to follow the narrow road around the base of the hills and across the level country beyond till it rejoins the Aylesbury pike. 

--getting back on track after an unintended detour: definitely a good feeling

Afterwards one sometimes learns that one has been through Dunwich.

--i.e., that creepy place with the farms and falling-down buildings
and a bridge and trees and hills.
And fireflies. Don't forget the fireflies.

--Luckily, I shd soon have an audiobook of his dreamland stories, Lovecraft's best work, so there's that to look forward to.



JL said...

I also read Lovecraft mainly as a fantasist, and I also think his dreamland stories are far more than Dunsanian imitations, but indeed amongst his best work.

However, as enjoyable as this catalog was to read, I think you're being a little bit unjust here -- it's not that Lovecraft was afraid of trees or mountains, small villages or the countryside (however, most biographers seem to agree he was indeed a bit afraid of the sea and all things sea-related, like fish).

The triggers he's trying to put into these paragraphs are e.g. a sense of confinement ("stone walls press closer and closer", "no road by which to escape them"), a sense that something is "wrong" about nature (trees "too large", plants "not often found" or "singularly" in some way or the other), a sense of the secret and the forbidden (villagers "so silent and furtive"), of old age (the stone circles), of impending danger (bridges "of dubious safety"), of degeneration and decay ("the massed mould and decay of centuries").

Most of these are just traditional Gothic standard motives. And it's a matter of his (debatable) style: Relying heavily on descriptions (telling, not showing) and his beloved adjectives and adverbs, in many cases it's not so much the thing itself which HPL presents that's frightening (or at least, should be); but the quality he ascribes to it, or even just the fact that it possesses this quality in an "unusual", "extraordinary" way.

Thinking of that other post, I think HPL's prose didn't age very well, especially in comparison with today's taste. Which probably is the reason his horror stories are popular with a vast youth culture nowadays, if for all the wrong reasons.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear JL:

Yes, of course it's unfair to mock a writer's work like that. But behind the mocking was a serious point:

I can see clearly enough what Lovecraft is trying to do; I just think he fails to do it. And I'm suggesting a good part of the reason why is that Lovecraft relies upon a shared visceral response which, for many of his readers, simply isn't there. Any of the things he includes in those opening paragraphs can be made sinister, but they're not sinister in and of themselves.

Adjectives I think get a bad rap. We all have our favorite words and phrases; HPL just uses his favorites a little too often. In the hands of a real master, like John Bellairs or Clark Ashton Smith, they can make a scene truly unsettling. It's been a long time since I posted on either; think I'll need to remedy that.

--JDR, who now has the Dreamlands audiobook and is looking forward to hearing it.

Magister said...

Lovecraft loved the countryside; it was not scary to him.

Marc G said...

I think what Lovecraft was going for here was a sense of the modern term, "uncanny valley", applied to the landscape, where things which should be fine are close but not quite right, making them more disturbing than if they were really strange.