Return of the Weird: Lovecraft's Modern Legacy

It may or may not be a secret that I am a huge fan of the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, and the other writers of pulp fiction who knew him. In contrast to more modern creators of horror, who legitimately frighten with in-your-face monsters and death (but not too obvious)—I'm thinking of the movie The Descent along with Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, very much inspired by Lovecraft actually—Lovecraft's "cosmic horror" conveys that sense of bleakness in the face of a universe that very much does not give a fuck about you. The realization that mankind's petty notions of morality, our flimsy models and scientific pretexts, all fail to grasp the true unwavering indifference of the rest of reality... that's a pretty weird feeling. And while I don't accept Lovecraft's philosophy that the universe is ultimately unknowable—science marches on!—it's easy to see the creeping horror of just how much of the universe is hostile to human life, or barely comprehensible to human reason.

So where can we find such horror now, if at all? Cinema is awash in the blood of movies like Saw and even legitimately good creepy movies like Paranormal Activity aren't exactly in the same vein as something of the Cthulhu mythos. (And what actual Mythos-inspired movies there are mostly suck, except for the faux-authentic silent-movie adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.) Lovecraftian horror has always been a cult thing (ha!), no matter how broad-based. However, if one knows where to look...



Songs of a Mad Dreamer, by Thomas Ligotti
This is the closest thing to Lovecraft that I've read since, well Lovecraft, but it has a distinctly modern vibe. Whereas Lovecraft's stories often deal with, uh, things, which can be roughly described even as they require more than human sanity to fully understand, Ligotti almost abandons such things altogether. The guiding principle of his work seems to be Not as it seems, and even the familiar analogs are hinted at and then thrown into an abyss of ambiguous creep-factor. And Lovecraft is most famous for "cosmic" horror, Ligotti stays on Earth, or sort of, where it's really really hard to see beyond the sky. The chief themes here are loss of control and loss of identity—naturally, he's a big fan of mannequins, masquerades, and marionettes. And I think there's an extra facet of horror in the peculiar qualities of the agents who work against his stories' protagonists. They're individual; they're "small" in scale, but large in influence; and they are basically acting alone, on their own mad whims. Unlike Lovecraft's tragic heroes, who by their own curiosity stumble into a forbidden zone of mind-blasting insanity, Ligotti's protagonists are singled out and drawn into that trap, with little or no sense of agency. I should add that, aside from the Silence of the Lambs oh-shit moment of the first story in this collection, no other story gave me anything but a nice feeling of "ooh, spooky." That sadistic grinning appreciation for the mood. A horrific catharsis, maybe.

And let's not neglect the other hallmark of Lovecraftian horror: the language. This is where Ligotti benefits from Lovecraft's antecedents—Jorge Luis Borges, to think of one immediately. His prose, filled with the requisite archaisms, is dreamlike, phantasmagorical, and very often poetic. It's like being caught up in a whirlpool of molasses, paradoxically difficult to swim through but dragging you down at a decent clip.

Overall the stories of Thomas Ligotti deserve a hearty recommendation from me to any fan of subtle, lurking horror.

Marble Hornets
You may or may not have heard about this YouTube series, but the horror really is Lovecraftian. This is the stuff which makes you go "What the...?" during the first few minutes but then keeps you up at night and makes you check all the dark alleyways when you walk home.

The initial story is similar to The Blair Witch Project: A guy receives a bunch of tapes from his friend, supposedly unedited footage from the friend's student-film project "Marble Hornets." It's only after Alex disappears without a trace that the guy takes an interest in the tapes. As the guy (named Jay) finds out, his friend (Alex) was having some seriously weird stuff happen to him—namely, being stalked by what the Internet calls the Slender Man. Then Jay starts investigating further, and in true Lovecraftian style, curiosity leads into the mouth of madness. Being an Internet-based series, there's also supplementary narratives being played out on Jay's Twitter account and a mysterious YouTube channel called "totheark," which posts video responses to Jay's entries that can only be described as cryptic. Naturally, there are a lot of people on Internet forums who do their best to make sense of everything.

The best thing about Marble Hornets as a work of horror is its restraint. The Slender Man (or "the Operator," as the series' creators call their version of the character) is creepy because he does nothing—literally, the biggest action he's done is open a door, but holy shit he opened that door! The show leaves much to the imagination and uses the found-footage, video-recording conceit to full effect and for maximum uncertainty. A lot of the creepy stuff makes its mark on the video itself, in the form of distortions, inserted frames, and so on. And just like Ligotti, there are twin overriding themes of loss of identity and loss of control, especially in the second season. You definitely start to doubt the motives of everyone involved, and whether they're fully in control of their own actions.

The popularity of the Slender Man meme on the Internet (which is considerable) has spawned other video series, blogs, and so on. Also parodies, which are often hilarious.

After the huge disappointment of Guillermo del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness adaptation being dropped by Universal Pictures (well, he dropped them—that's what they get for wanting it as a PG-13 movie!), it's heartening to find something to pass the time and fill that Cthulhu-shaped hole in my aesthetics.