Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Creeping Tentacles of Lovecraftian Horror -- and Janice Erlbaum!

cthulhu.jpg erlbaum.jpg

I’m pleased to see that today marks the release of the new book by Janice “Girlbomb” Erlbaum, whose previous book was my May 2007 Book Selection. That earlier book recounted her harrowing experiences as a teen runaway and shelter resident, and the new one, Have You Found Her, recounts her experiences as an adult returning to the same shelter and taking one of the girls there under her wing. And the first of several readings of material from the book occurs tomorrow night at 8pm at Happy Ending (302 Forsythe St., on Broome St.), which I’ll attend, sore throat permitting.

Janice displays that admirable willingness to confront reality — even the ugly bits — with honesty and humor that I’m implicitly praising on the blog this month. Much of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror writing (reviewed here yesterday) also concerns moments of confrontation — finally beholding the full horror of what’s really going on behind the veil we mistakenly think is reality — and that tone, as well as certain favorite tropes of Lovecraft’s, have recurred frequently in later sci-fi and horror works.

Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” famously depicted ancient alien horrors being unearthed in the Antarctic, an idea that recurred in:

The Thing (already made into a movie twice, with John Carpenter possibly planning to remake his own movie)

X-Files: Fight the Future

Alien vs. Predator

Carpenter also comes darn close to using the title (though not the Antarctic setting) for his thoroughly Lovecraftian (and good) horror movie with Sam Neill, In the Mouth of Madness, which employs the narrowing-veil-between-reality-and-a-horrible-other-world trope.

Bablyon 5, of all things, spawned a TV-movie called ThirdSpace in which members of the space station’s crew experience unsettling dreams of an ancient city that turns out to be a malevolent force encroaching on our universe.

Hellboy was even more blatant, with a cabal of occult Nazis summoning a tentacled god from the depths of outer space — with this summer’s impending sequel, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army perhaps bringing us still more Lovecraftian elements (not coincidentally, there have also been rumors that Del Toro might direct At the Mountains of Madness).

References to the Old Ones and other ancient, pre-human menaces abound in comics and sci-fi novels (John Byrne made such beings the “First World” of which DC Comics’ New Gods characters, created by Jack Kirby, are supposedly the “Fourth World” descendants, soon to be replaced by a Fifth World — but more about that in May).

I even played around with references to Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” in one of my old college newspaper columns, likening the mind-blowing reaction of the narrator upon seeing Cthulhu’s non-Euclidean tomb to the mindboggled reaction I had to seeing a giant stained-glass window of the Michelin Man — who was dressed in a loin cloth and kickboxing toward the viewer — on display at the Museum of Modern Art about seventeen years ago, part of an exhibit of the many strange old ads featuring France’s beloved rubber-bodied map salesman cartoon character, whose nickname “Bip” is not, it turns out, the sound a carhorn makes in French but rather a shortened form of “Bibendum,” since the character’s original slogan was that Latin word, roughly meaning “Let us drink!” and he often held a beer stein — unthinkable today in a character meant to encourage travel by car.


Would that horror movies, which currently seem to be emphasizing torture and gossip-like viral threats to teenagers, would devote more effort to truly mindbendingly-disturbing, rather than simply grotesque, things. I think Poe, David Lynch, and (for all his flaws) M. Knight Shyamalan are on the right track. Indeed, I’d often thought before seeing Shyamalan’s work that it was odd few directors had tried to create horror from moments such as the all-too-quiet ones preceding thunderstorms, when the peaceful field in front of you just doesn’t look quite right, the lighting being slightly off, that sort of thing (instead of just something jumping right at you!). The quiet and unsettling 1970s movie Picnic at Hanging Rock probably got that tone down as perfectly as any movie ever has, and everyone should rent it right now.

And I suppose Blair Witch had its moments, primarily the ones created by its quieter passages — the weird, old Colonial-days stories that could have been straight out of Lovecraft or some creepy Puritan legends I remember reading as a kid in New England — not the shaky-cam-in-the-woods stuff, in my (perhaps unpopular) opinion. The fact that the Blair Witch sequel, with more money to burn, was reportedly a completely hackneyed, conventional supernatural thriller seems like vindication of my view that there wasn’t much there there to begin with.

If mindbending moments (of which the first Ring had a few, I suppose) are good horror fodder — like that time I thought the family cat Oscar had a piece of straw on his chin and he opened his mouth to reveal a large, live grasshopper within, which flew out at me — I think filmmakers everywhere could learn a thing or two by going back and rewatching the (once more, very Lovecraftian) British 1960s sci-fi movie Quatermass and the Pit, likely an influence on X-Files, in which Londoners are plagued by terrible dreams and visions of hobgoblins but discover the source is an unearthed Martian spaceship rather than demons. This explanation is little consolation, though, as our heroes gradually realize that humanity’s whole idea of demons is in fact an outgrowth of psychic emanations from this ancient vessel, and that furthermore humanity was created by the Martians to be a race of berserk, telekinetic warriors. This, needless to say, portends trouble.

Greil Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces, possibly the most important book ever written about punk, strangely digresses for pages about this film and its anarchic energy — and I don’t blame him in the slightest.

If there is anything to be learned from dark dreams, perhaps it’s time, right here in this blog entry, that I started the potentially-regrettable club I’ve long contemplated: a Bad Dreams Club in which members deliberately try to give themselves nightmares and then recount them to each other. Dreams are nature’s virtual reality, after all, and it seems a shame not to explore them. Do you dare?


Christopher said...

Though many will disagree, I found “Event Horizon” (with Lawrence Fishburn and Sam Neill) to be one of the more creepy and disturbing films I’ve seen as an adult. I was out of sorts for days after seeing it and couldn’t shake a sense of insidious dread. The people I saw it with and I were all silent for the first ten minutes of our car ride home from the theater, until one of us said, “That shit freaked me out” and the rest mumbled agreement.

As for M. Night Shyamalan (not “Knight,” I believe, but he somewhat pathetically made it up in college anyway), I liked “The Sixth Sense” (in spite of knowing the twist going in) and thought “Unbreakable” was underrated. Everything after that has been total shit (though I know you liked “The Village”).

Todd Seavey said...

I liked _Event Horizon_, too.

And though _2001_ (of which _Event Horizon_ is sort of a dark cousin) is no horror movie, it’s hard to beat the apes’ encounter with the Monolith for a sheer sense of existential dread — in some ways (to tie things into the religion/atheism theme on the blog this month), _2001_ is really the ultimate “intelligent design” movie, it must be conceded, since the one unifying idea, if there’s a plot there, is that some progressive force is driving evolution (ape to man, moon-explorer to Jupiter-explorer, submissive computer to self-defending computer, man to godthing) rather than it being a random process.

The Monolith/apes scene, then, is arguably the best filmic depiction of how terrifying it would be to behold the face of God, if there were one, and it’s pretty effective, I’d say.

P.S. I hope Chris doesn’t mind me mentioning, by the way, that my previous entry, also about Lovecraft, inspired him to read “The Call of Cthulhu” aloud to his infant (and thus unharmed) daughter, which amuses me.

P.P.S. And I think Xine needs to rewatch _2001_ as an adult with an interest in theology, now that she has the slower pulse and more sophisticated tastes of a grown-up and won’t just get bored and cranky about it as she did when she saw it as a child.

Christopher said...

And today she said her first words. While no symbols crafted by the human mind can truly capture their monstrous blasphemy, they sounded something like, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” or was it “ga ga GAA dadada gahh”? Hard to say. In either case, kids make the darnedest incantations!

Janice "Aw Shucks" Erlbaum said...

Todd, I am beyond honored by your association of me with Lovecraft. If I can inspire existential dread in just one person…*sniff*…

Todd Seavey said...

Tweren’t nothin’ — and after all the complaining comments I got on this site after writing an entry criticizing feminism about a year ago, I have to support the woman brave enough to write this:


Though the Erlbaum feminist credentials remain more impeccable than mine, of course.