Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Outsider, by H.P. Lovecraft

Hands down one of the best Lovecraft stories, and one that I could probably listen to over and over again. There are a lot of literary parallels between this and other writings that are said to inspire it, but in any case, this is sad and haunting genius and I love it.

I will point out, as I have before with Lovecraft stories, that my description of the story leaves no secrets as far as the plot is concerned so don't read further if you intend to read the story for the first time and desire some element of surprise.

The Outsider is a story of a man- at least, he believes himself to be human- that has lived his entire life in solitude, locked in a castle where he has never encountered anyone else. He is lonely and sad, and decides that he is going to break free. He climbs through the highest tower and through a trap door in the ceiling and ends up on the surface of another world entirely. He wanders across the surface, elated and rejoicing in his freedom, and comes across a castle filled with people having a party. He joins them, happy to finally be amongst others, but they scream in terror and run when they see him. He assumes something else has scared them, and traces around the room looking for it, when he spies the figure they're presumably afraid of and creeps slowly towards it. It is horrifying indeed, and is described as being of another world, decaying and twisted. In reaching up his hand to sheild himself from it, his fingers brush the surface and he recoils and runs in terror back to his castle, realizing that he can never be anything but an outsider, for the surface he touched had been a mirror and the twisted figure within was his own reflection.

I can't even count the number of times this, or something similar, has been done. Some of them predate this exact story, and some of them follow it, but this will always be my favorite telling of it.

The Horror at Red Hook, by H.P. Lovecraft

I can't find a good image to associate with this story.

This story focuses on a cop, Detective Malone, who has a fear of large buildings that he attributes to a case he worked on in a district called "Red Hook", which is supposed to be based on New York. He goes on to tell the story, and you follow him back to a case he worked on. Kidnapping was running rampant in Red Hook, as was gang activity, and Malone believed it to be related to what he suspected was an underground cult lead by a man named Robert Suydam. Detective Malone takes you through the case, until finally he ends up in the basement of Suydam's apartment during a raid, and finds a door that opens into this abyss that sounds like it's Lovecraft's idea of hell, in which he witnesses a parade of demonic figures carrying Suydam's corpse. Meanwhile, the apartment is crumbling around him. Authorities later find Detective Malone under the wreckage, laying next to a fetid pool that contains the remains of Robert Suydam, and convince him that the door to hell was all a dream. They also find underground canals leading from Robert's home to different places like the basement of a church and the docks, and are able to confirm that children, etc. have been smuggled through these passageways, which are sealed. Rejoining the Detective in "current day", he goes on to mention that he's heard the passageways have been reopened, etc.

Lovecraft himself apparently didn't like this story, and called it "rather long and rambling", and I have to agree with him. It doesn't have the attention holding brevity of his other stories. There were several times that my mind started drifting. I have noticed, too, in reading about it that it's been panned for racism. I didn't particularly notice it, but again, I couldn't get into this one so I simply may have missed it. However, where this isn't one of my favorites, the storyline itself is one of the more detailed and modern. I believe there've been movies attempted on this and I am not surprised. It's a good storyline. What really stands out to me, though, is the description of this hell that Malone gets sucked into. Lovecraft goes all out in this one, unleashing this powerful torrent of imagery on the reader/listener that demonstrates the depths of this man's twisted imagination. Let me see if I can find a quote to provide to illustrate my point:

"Somewhere dark sticky water was lapping at onyx piers, and once the shivery tinkle of raucous little bells pealed out to greet the insane titter of a naked phosphorescent thing which swam into sight, scrambled ashore, and climbed up to squat leeringly on a carved golden pedestal in the background.

      Avenues of limitless night seemed to radiate in every direction, till one might fancy that here lay the root of a contagion destined to sicken and swallow cities, and engulf nations in the foetor of hybrid pestilence. Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding. Satan here held his Babylonish court, and in the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved. Incubi and succubae howled praise to Hecate, and headless moon-calves bleated to the Magna Mater. Goats leaped to the sound of thin accursed flutes, and aegipans chased endlessly after misshapen fauns over rocks twisted like swollen toads. "

Final consensus is that it's probably my least favorite so far, though as aforementioned, some of the descriptive ramblings he goes on when recalling Malone's "dream" are pretty admirable.

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

I'd heard about this story many times, but had never actually read it. When I came across it in my search for audiobooks, I decided it was time to hear it for myself. Bonus that it's read by Ralph Cosham, who I recognized and loved from the Watership Down audiobook. The story is about a traveling salesman named Gregor that wakes one morning to find that he's been transformed into a giant beetle. It sounds ridiculous, and it's true that there is a LOT of comedic aspects to the story, but it's also very sad.

First, though, we'll talk a little about what made me laugh. I mean it, too. I was driving down the road laughing, people that witnessed it probably thought I was mad, and they're not terribly far off. Anyway- Gregor wakes up and sees that he's become a giant beetle. He then realizes for the first time how small his room is, and tries to go back to sleep. Unfortunately, being that he is now a beetle, he can't roll onto his side as is his preferred method of sleeping, which he laments- not being a beetle, mind you, he laments that his being a beetle prevents him from sleeping comfortably. In fact, I don't recall that he ever directly feels sorry for himself about actually BECOMING a beetle, merely the different changes that are made as a result. Later in the book, his father is trying to chase him back into his room and does so by lifting his foot high in the air and bringing it down to the floor while moving towards Gregor, which causes Gregor to scuttle backwards again and again clumsily. This goes on for some time, Gregor observing how slowgoing the process is, and the imagery had me in stitches.

What's sad about the story, while maintaining an amusing quality, is that Gregor lives with his mother, father and sister and wholly supports them- or did, at least. They live in a rather large apartment and Gregor is the only one that worked. You get the distinct impression that he did so diligently and without complaint, and he even attempts to get up and go to work as a beetle, apologizing all the while for his state and promising he'll figure out how to fix it. Of course, everyone else is horror stricken that he's a giant beetle and ultimately lock him in his room. His parents want to avoid acknowledging him completely, but his sister brings him food while they're sleeping or absent. Eventually, the parents and sister end up having to get jobs to maintain their lifestyle. They complain constantly about how inconvenienced they are by having to work, and how awful it is for them to come home and have this giant bug waiting for them in their house and demanding of them. The ironic part is that Gregor, having a large heart and who has always cared for them without complaint, still finds it in himself to feel terribly guilty about being a bug and therefore inconveniencing them. He even goes out of his way to cover himself with a sheet and stay perfectly still when his sister comes in to feed him so as to not frighten her or cause her to have to view him in that form.

I won't go so far in my description as to talk about the ending in the event that someone's reading this that hasn't read The Metamorphosis, but I can see why this book is widely studied in a lot of colleges. It really sets the perfect example of martyrdom, guilt, greed and both selflessness and selfishness alike. The ending was abrupt but with purpose, and I found myself both infuriated by, and ashamedly identifying with, Gregor's family. Definitely a good read if you're the type that enjoys being introspective, especially. Though the idea of a man turning into a giant beetle comes across as fantastical and crazy, this is one of the more honest examples of writing I've read in a very long time.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Music of Erich Zann, by H.P. Lovecraft

This is another favorite of mine. It's about a poor college student that accepts a room in this strange apartment building on this weird street where all of the buildings lean one way or another. Lovecraft mentions that on certain parts of the street, if the buildings on either side are both leaning inward, they almost touch at the top. Certain buildings have bridges from one to another. These aren't necessarily important details, but I find them absolutely charming imagery.

So the student starts hearing music from upstairs. It's crazy, haunting music, using notes and melodies that the protagonist has never heard before. He eventually decides to visit the man upstairs, who is a mute man named Erich Zann, who plays the viol. I will admit I had no idea was a viol was (it is, in fact, a type of viola, which I was guessing) and had to look it up after hearing this story. In any case, the man plays him a rather boring song, and the student gets frustrated and insists that he's heard more. He attempts to whistle one of the melodies that he'd heard Mr. Zann playing on previous nights, and Zann becomes agitated and kicks him out, even going so far as to petition the landlord to move the student further away in the building. The student is still able to hear him play nightly, however, and one night hears his music become frantic and then cease. Worrying about the old man, he visits his room and rouses him. In the course of his brief visit, he looks out the man's window and sees that it's not a view of the street, but rather an endless and violent oblivion which Erich Zann believes to be the entrance to another dimension. Before he rushes from the room, he discovers that the music Erich Zann plays is to keep back creatures that are fighting to get in through the window.

Like 'The Rats in the Walls', I really have no negative critique to offer as far as this story is concerned. One thing that both stories have in common, that I absolutely love, is a subtlety that hints at a terrifying, alien, monstrous existence rather than the physical and dynamic presence of monsters. I was not surprised to see, when looking up the correct spelling of the name 'Erich Zann', the huge amount of bands that have named themselves, their albums, or a song in some manner after this story. What an awesome and terrifying concept, and an unbelievably haunting role it would be, to play the gatekeeper between dimensions, armed only with a musical instrument. Can you imagine the things that man may have witnessed hurtling towards his window?

The Shunned House, by H.P. Lovecraft

Supposedly this is the actual house that inspired this story. I think it's nice.
This isn't one of my favorites. The end is great, but there's sooooooo much lead up. He goes through generations of people, all becoming sick and dying while living in this house, and any babies born while in the house are still born, etc. The story is written from a man who's fascinated by it, and his uncle, and after the owner is unable to rent it due to all of the deaths and sicknesses linked to it, they ask if they could be granted access to it. To at least leave some intrigue, the man and his uncle encounter some vicious supernatural occupants in the basement of the home and that whole description is rather entertaining and creepy. I do like this story, but I feel like such a large part of it is spent detailing the history of the house and that the entertaining meat of the story is rushed a bit.

It looks like this was made into a movie in 2003 that got a terrible rating- so I'll give you a bonus recommend and tell you to not bother with the movie ; )

The Rats in the Walls, by H.P. Lovecraft

I hadn't heard/read this one before, so I happily obtained it when it was recommended to me by a friend that knew I was Lovecrafting it up. It is so utterly fantastic it almost defies description. I can so clearly hear Wayne June saying "The Rats in the Walls" every time I think about it and that alone sends a shiver down my spine.

In this story, a man inherits an estate and moves there, with several cats. He begins to notice that at a certain time of night, there's a scuttling sound as of rats in the walls and the cats start going mad clawing at them. The noise can get very loud at times, even seeming to make the rooms tremble. The cats seem to always follow the sounds down to the subcellar door. The man eventually invites some friends over to help him scout out the sound and discovers that an altar in his sitting room can be pried open to reveal a path descending downward. They follow it and discover a terrible subterranean city in which there's evidence of human beings having been raised as cattle and cannibalized by his ancestors.

I mean, really now. Do I even need to say anything else? That's just perfect. There's nothing I would change about this story at all. Nothing.

The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft

This is the ICONIC story that has inspired games, movies, comics, etc. etc., almost so much that I should tag it as 'Classic' as well.

The story is based on the writings of fictional character Francis Wayland Thurston, found among his belongings after his death. Within them, he describes having found notes left by his granduncle, whose abrupt death was somewhat questionable. Along with the writings was found a small figurine that Mr. Thurston describes as "A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings", which is later identified to represent Cthulhu. Further research reveals that this figurine was used in "voodoo-esque" rituals in which human bodies are being used by a cult that's formed to worship the "Great Old Ones". Thurston uncovers a lot of history behind the cult and eventually sets out on his own to investigate a shipwreck of suspicious detail, which leads him to conclude that he now knows too much and will likely be killed, for "the cult still lives".

There are certain subjects that, to me, are more likely to induce fear. Cult activity and ritual sacrifice are among those. This is one of my favorites for that reason. It not only includes a lot of those topics, but presents them in such a way that they're so conceivably being read from actual manuscripts found among a dead man's personal belongings. I also feel that overall this story is more likely to appeal to those that aren't necessarily huge Lovecraft fans, because its focus is a lot more on ritual and rumor and less on the beasts themselves.