Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fear of the Unknown

After seeing one too many references to HP Lovecraft, I decided to check out a book containing the long story At the Mountains of Madness and other shorter tales from the library. I wasn't at all familiar with his work or reputation, other than that he appeared to be a major influence on the dark fantasy genre, his books are supposed to be good, and I associated him with something called Cthulhu. So I was curious to see what all the fuss was about and get a sense of what it means for writing to be "Lovecraftian" in nature by going to the original texts.

This was clearly crazy-thinking on my part, which was made almost immediately clear when I picked up the book last night around 11:00 p.m. and read the words "supernatural horror" on the back cover. I read the introduction (not scary) and the first sentence of the story - "I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why" - and stopped. Did I really want to get into this at all, despite the promisingly quaint writing style?

I am, in pretty much every way it is possible to be, easily frightened. I have actual phobias about heights, enclosed places, near-total darkness, blood, bugs, a particular type of regular spot pattern on living things (esp. the spores on the back of ferns, as I discovered when my mom got a dozen roses with ferns as the greenery - just looking at this photo makes me feel utterly creeped out and it is not nearly as bad as the spores on the fern my mom had, which were not quite so "budded" looking), and certain open-space situations. I have a rabbit-like quality of being scared first and asking questions later. I am extremely easily startled and have just in the past few months been freaked out by such horrifying things as a piece of lint, a shadow, the sound of a piece of paper sliding off the desk, a fold in a blanket (OK, that was like 5 minutes ago when I thought there was a cat's head on the bed and it turned out to be Robert's purple blanket sticking out from under a sheet such that it looked like pointy kitty ears from a small round head), the logo on the Nike sports bra I was wearing, and a dozen other things I can't remember. As has been established by testing at the optometrist's office in my youth, and last week in a side-by-side experiment with Robert involving the ability to identify playing cards held to either side of the head, I have excellent peripheral vision, which only increases my tendency to see and become immediately scared of something out of the corner of my eye.

I am also basically scared of any unfamiliar place. A couple years ago, my boss D and I had to give a presentation at a conference in town and I was feeling pretty nervous about it on the day. But then D suggested that she drive us both over there and we went into the conference room and I stood up at the dais and in about 2 minutes, my sense of anxiety was utterly gone and did not return. A normal person would be nervous about speaking in public whereas I had been almost undone by anxiety over having to (1) drive to an unfamiliar location and (2) go into an unfamiliar room. I think there is a good chance that I would be less nervous about having to give an extemporaneous speech to 100 heads of state in my employer's main conference room (where I have made a lot of presentations over the years) than having to drive across town to meet a good friend at a restaurant I've never been to. It's nuts, but there it is.

I am absolutely, positively not one of the "sensation seekers" that you read about in psyc 101 who have a "propensity for 'thrill and adventure seeking' (the desire to engage in activities with some physical risk), 'experience seeking' (the desire for new experiences through nonconforming lifestyle and travel), 'disinhibition' (the penchant for drinking, partying and a variety of sexual partners) and 'boredom susceptibility' (aversion to routine experience and predictable people)." Whatever those various brain chemicals that people with risk-taking personalities are believed to be low on, I must have gotten their extra portion. I even prefer somewhat bland snacks, like popcorn. If the evolution of the human race had depended on me being willing to travel farther afield to pick berries, we would have been done for. My danger alert is set to yellow 24/7.

So as you would predict, my interest level in being scared for entertainment value is basically zero. I hate horror stories because rather than getting that heart-pumping, brain-chemical-rush feeling of being alive that comes from encountering something scary, I go from my usual state of being on edge to being, you know, completely unpleasantly horrified. It is my feeling that I am both starting from a higher level of excitement/stimulation and am hugely sensitive to any dangerous, scary stimulus. Enduring something scary for the thrill of it is utter nonsense to me. I think the X-Files and Tales from the Crypt TV shows and the Lincoln-Child novels are just about at the edge of my horror story comfort zone. I was not able to successfully watch the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes and it was a Disney movie (although I was about 11 years old or something at the time).

Particularly scary is anything that deals with supernatural horror, hence my recoiling from the Lovecraft book when I saw those words. Despite my absolute disbelief in the existence of any supernatural realm/beings, that shit scares the bejeezus out of me. It is definitely operating at a visceral, sub-rational level.

As Robert and I were talking about this whole laughable "Sally is going to read an HP Lovecraft Story As if" situation in bed last night, I realized that I was feeling a hair nervous even having that damn book in my apartment and only half-jokingly mentioned that I felt the urge to lock it out on the balcony but was able to resist doing that because I knew that a mere door would not be enough to keep the creepy things out. Robert pointed out (helpfully) that this kind of book is harmless until the words are read, and I was like, Oh yes, sort of like how nothing bad happens on Buffy until somebody actually reads the spell from the ancient grimoire. I was comforted by the realization that there were rules in place to keep that book from working its terror on me as lay vulnerable in my sleep.

Robert said that he hasn't read any Lovecraft stories but that he was familiar with a Lovecraft-based role-playing game in which certain events had an associated probability that your character would go immediately and irrevocably insane from them. Yikes.

Clearly the reasonable course of action for a scaredy-cat like me is to simply read about this stuff on wikipedia and having done so, my curiosity is both somewhat appeased and somewhat spiked. I found this description of what constitutes "Lovecraftian horror" interesting:

Several themes found in Lovecraft's writings are considered to be a component of a "Lovecraftian" work:

Anti-anthropocentrism, misanthropy in general. Lovecraft's works tend not to focus on characterization of humans, in line with his view of humanity's insignificant place in the universe, and the general Modernist trend of literature at the time of his writings.

Preoccupation with viscerate texture. The "horror" features of Lovecraft's stories tend to involve semi-gelatinous substances, such as slime, as opposed to standard horror tropes such as blood, bones, or corpses. [Note: I think slime is much less horrifying than blood, obviously. But if any of his terrible beings had fern-spore-like spots, ack.]

Antiquarian writing style. Even when dealing with up-to-date technology, Lovecraft tended to use anachronisms as well as old-fashioned words when dealing with such things. For example, he used the term "men of science" rather than the modern word, "scientist" and often spelled "show" as "shew". [Note: I basically like this kind of old-school style in a story like this. It is quite possibly this aspect of "Lovecraftian" writing that keeps appearing in the description of other stories that I have enjoyed reading.]

Detachment. Lovecraftian heroes (both in original writings and in more modern adaptations) tend to be isolated individuals, usually with an academic or scholarly bent. [Note: Ditto.]

Helplessness and hopelessness. Although Lovecraftian heroes may occasionally deal a "setback" to malignant forces, their victories are temporary, and they usually pay a price for it. Otherwise, subjects often find themselves completely unable to simply run away, instead driven by some other force to their desperate end.

Unanswered questions. Characters in Lovecraft's stories rarely if ever fully understand what is happening to them, and often go insane if they try.

I also liked this first line from "The Call of Chthulu": "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." I think if I could get past the horrifying content of his tales, I would enjoy the writing. Perhaps a particularly well-done humorous parody of an HP Lovecraft story would be more my speed.


Tam said...

So what I'm hearing is that HP Lovecraft is the "debased world" version of CS Lewis (who clearly occupies the "heroic world").

Sally said...

Yep, I had also seen the parallels to CS Lewis.