Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Necessary Darkness

When people learn that I write, they often ask who my favorite writers are and who has influenced me. The answers to that question change often and can depend on what sort of writers we're talking about. For a blend of science fiction and fantasy I'd probably mention Roger Zelazny while more science-based SF brings Asimov to mind. Fleming gets credit when it comes to espionage material and Doyle was the detective master of the 19th century and Chandler's work, which came a little later, certainly makes the list. Then there are all the comics creators that made an impression on me, guys like Stan Lee and all his co-conspirators like Kirby and Ditko and the mighty Buscema. But when I think about influences, one thing comes to mind: the fact that most of those writers are people whose work I encountered before I began writing myself. They had an important role in shaping my imagination when I was a kid and was more able to get lost in fantasy worlds than adults can. While I still enjoy reading many authors' works now, there's a difference when a writer reads and there is a certain sort of analysis that goes through the mind, mostly subconsciously, but which makes it harder to get completely pulled into the story and lose the awareness that one is reading the work of a person. There are not too many writers whose work has made a big impression on me in recent years. But I thought I'd write about one very big exception in today's blog.

Several years ago, I finally got around to reading the works of an author who I'd been aware of for years but had never sampled. Yes, I knew of his vast influence and I knew the basics of what he had written about, so I thought I knew what to expect and I was quite prepared to not be impressed. I was wrong. For the first time in many years, I found myself truly sucked into a very effectively constructed world of stories that has had a massive impact on my own work and is, as far as I'm concerned, unique among fiction writers whose work I've read. The man I'm talking about has inspired many imitators and influenced many writers for many decades, but I don't think anybody else can really do what he did the way he did it. That man's name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and he's now way up there on my list of favorite writers. I'm going to attempt to explain why.

Some of the creative people who have managed to impress me the most over the years have done something that very few writers or directors can do successfully, they've created entire universes in which a reader or viewer can get so completely absorbed in as to feel like they have entered, for the duration of a book or movie, a different world. George Lucas did it with Star Wars, as anybody who was a kid in the 80s can testify, and Tolkein certainly did it too. Those two built dreams, worlds where things were wonderful. Yes, the Star Wars universe and Tolkein's Middle Earth held bad things too, but they were optimistic places, places where good succeeded eventually through bravery, perseverence, hard work and grand struggles. Dreams are great things, but they are only one side of the experience of being human and so are only one side of the possible contents of the imagination. Somebody has to craft the other side, the side we don't usually want to face but eventually must, the nightmare side. That's where Lovecraft comes into the equation. Lovecraft's work is the counterpoint to the heroic epics of both mythology and modern heroic fiction and in that respect, he was the best.

Lovecraft was not "just another horror writer." His work goes beyond that because it dares to go where others won't. Ask people to name a horror writer and they will often come up with the name of Stephen King. I like King well enough and I've read a handful of his books, but he is, for the most part, what you might call an optimistic horror writer. Yes, terrible things happen to his characters, but one of his primary themes is hope. There is usually some safety at the end, some survivors and some chance of normalcy after all the insanity and terror. Most horror stories have boundaries, borders, points where things have gone as far as they can and that's it. Lovecraft had no boundaries. His characters went where they never expected to go and in most cases did not come back, sometimes physically and almost always mentally. King, for example, sends us to strange places but always with a frame of reference of normalcy and with the familiar still intact. You can return to the waking world from a Stephen King nightmare, but Lovecraft won't let you come back. If you go where his characters go, there is no path upon which to return. The familiar and the safe is wiped away forever.

Lovecraft has had his share of critics. People complain about his "excessive" use of strange adjectives, but I like it, for those words, that phrasing, creates the seperation from the familiar and mundane that makes HPL's work what it is. His words are like shadows that slowly build up the darkness and the mystery and the sense of dread around us like a thick forest that we slowly drive into and soon find ourselves surrounded by those menacing trees before we even realize we've begun to get lost. And there have been complaints too that Lovecraft often follows a simliar formula in many of his stories. That may be true, but you know what? It works. We know the protagonist is going to find out the hard way about some incredible secret and we know he's never going to be able to look at the universe in the same way again (if he even survives) and we know how the thing is going to progress and we still can't help being dragged along the path that will drop us into that bottomless abyss. It always starts out slowly and then it just builds and builds and builds and the agitation grows and we're going on that trip of no return whether we want to or not. Lovecraft was relentless, mercilless, uncompromising.

He also dared to do what few writers have dared to do with regard to the mythology that he slowly built up over the course of his career. Sure, we've all heard of Cthulu and the other god-(or demon)-like things (characters?) that populated the depths of the seas and the distant reaches of space and the nightmare segments of our own minds in Lovecraft's work and those things can seem a bit cliched because of their use by so many imitators  over the years since the original author's death, but let's think about his portrayal of gods. As humanity has founded its many religions over the course of many centuries and the myths of humankind have accumulated, one thing has been a constant: man likes to make his gods look and act like him. The Greeks, the Romans, the Sumerians, the Norse, the Egyptians (to some extent) and certainly most modern religions have given human characteristics, personalities, and often faces to their deities. For the purpose of religion, I suppose this makes sense to create a frame of reference and an understandable point of view when pondering the mysteries of the universe and our existence within it. But, if we really think about what a god would be, maybe it's not something so human. Maybe it is, whether "good" or "evil," if those terms can even have any valid meaning when it comes to someting so far beyond mere humanity, something that can't really be explained in human terms at all. Lovecraft understood that. A Lovecraftian god is truly alien. It's not human-faced and semi-familiar, but just barely within the borders of what we can imagine with our very limited senses and minds. Lovecraft's characters, when they realize the existence of his cosmic entities, truly face something far, far beyond anything they ever expected to have to attempt to perceive or interpet. That's powerful stuff.

Having said all that, there's one key element that really, I think, glues all the pieces of the Lovecraftian puzzle together and makes it all the more frightening and intense. When a fictional universe is created, it's often portrayed as seperate from the world in which the reader or viewer lives. Stars Wars took place not only in another galaxy, but also a long, long time ago. Tolkein's world may be our own, but it's very far in the past as was Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. Lovecraft provided no comfortable seperation between our world and his. All the cosmic secrets, all the mighty forgotten gods, all the horrors and shadows and things that must not be spoken of are right here, inches away from us as we sit and watch TV or go to work or try to live our simple little mundane lives. Lovecraft's monsters (and "monsters" seems like too mild a word) are right there, maybe even in the room where you're reading this blog, but hidden in the little folds in time or in the spaces between the spaces that we think we can perceive and understand. A Lovecraft story starts with the familiar and when the not so familiar comes jumping out and changes everything, it was right there all along, down the road we've passed but never turned down or on that one dusty library shelf that we've never browsed before we heard the title of a certain obscure book whispered. As alien as Lovecraft's horrors might seem, they are very, very close to us, and that makes them even more disturbing.

If anyone reading this loves fantasy and horror but hasn't read HP Lovecraft, if you think you've heard too much about it or been exposed to too many things he's influneced for the original to still have an impact, ignore that feeling and try it anyway. Turn out all the lights except the one you need to see the book. Eliminate all background noise. Turn off the TV! Be alone with that book and let the master take you on a trip. Just don't expect to ever come back.

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