Beyond the Wall of Sleep fails to fully realize the pessimism of its premise, but it sure has some radical sci-fi mystical imagery.Read More
The Statement of Randolph Carter reads like Thomas Carnacki’s letter of resignation.Read More
Both the fact that Dagon is presented as a suicide note, and the circumstances around naming the story’s titular monster, paint a picture of a world in which we humans are unimaginably significant, born into doom without the knowledge of our bleak circumstances, and cursed to suffer at even the slightest enlightenment to the true nature of all things.Read More
With the rise in popularity of Lovecraftian icons and tropes in pop culture and entertainment—tentacled alien gods are showing up everywhere from Magic Cards, to the trailer for Stranger Things 2, to Monopoly—the foundational texts of cosmic horror are often misrepresented. The popular mythology built around Cthulhu and his nasty crew of monstrous deities is often attributed to the Great Old One’s inventor, H.P. Lovecraft, but the cephalopod-ish dragon on the front of a pack of cards is rarely representative of his true literary origins. As a nerd, a pessimist, and a recovering know-it-all, the general state of Lovecraft’s legacy irks me in the same way pedants get annoyed when jocks call their Halloween costume “a Frankenstein” when they're really dressed as Frankenstein's monster. That’s why I’ve decided to do something about it. That’s why I am starting The All Has Read Project.
Starting next week, on February 13, I will be writing about my experience as I undertake a task of unknowable consequence. I intended to read all of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories and novellas, beginning with the works that comprise the author’s Arkham Cycle (where all the tentacles and gods and scary books came from). By writing my thoughts here on Everything Is Scary I hope I can bring a progressive, modern eye to the oft misrepresented texts, highlighting their import ideas and dragging some of Lovecraft’s bigger problems and hypocrisies out into that light (white supremacy, I'm looking at you). I want to dispel my own misconceptions about Lovecraft and the genre he helped inspire, comparing the author’s original ideas to their 21st century counterparts.
So here is how this is going to work: every two weeks I’m going to publish a reading diary of my thoughts on one of Lovecraft’s stories, comparing the content to art and entertainment from today that takes inspiration from it, modern re-interpretations of the material, my previously held misconceptions, and other entries in this digital forbidden book club. Since all of Lovecraft’s work is readily available to read online, I will be posting a link to the next story at the end of every entry, so you can read along with me. And I hope you do. I hop you join me as I dive into the fabled Necronomicon, never to emerge until all has been read.
The first entry in The All Has Read Project: Dagon
Nick Cutter's novel, The Troop, uses empathy and comapssion to haunt its readers.Read More
Today on EVERYTHING IS SCARY, we are pleased to welcome Calgary-based author Axel Howerton! Axel's latest novel, FURR, from Tyche Books, is an urban fantasy from Tyche Books, the first in a series titled Wolf and Devil. FURR tells the story of Jimmy Finn, a seemingly ordinary guy having a really bad day. He's either losing his mind, or becoming a monster.
From the South three sisters fair
ran athwart the gloom...
Dressed of fur and fierce of tooth,
The maidens of the Moon.
I just read Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot but I am completely positive that Danny Glick can't get into my second story bedroom window. I think.Read More
In The Singing Bone, some questions can never be answered.Read More
What can H.P. Lovecraft's The Festival teach us about madness in horror?Read More
The climate is changing and maybe there’s nothing we can do. Our world is not one that requires us, and as we all start to make that realization we turn to cosmic horror in order to better understand our pessimistic, apocalyptic fears. Elder Things, Dreamlands and colours from out of space all offer us a fantasy window into realities that don’t require human eyes, and perhaps are best viewed with other unspeakable senses. When it comes to these horrific viewing glasses few are as clear as Gyo, by Junji Ito.
A horror manga about an ancient germ from the depths of the ocean, Gyo works as an allegory for climate change. Part pandemic thriller, part creature feature, the story begins with the invasion of Okinawa from the sea. Marine life with sharp, spindly legs begin to crawl onto land and terrorize the human population. The invasion spreads to the rest of Japan and eventually the world, before moving to the next, much more horrific stage.
From the very first chapter, Gyo evokes the creeping feeling of cataclysmic global change by characterizing its monster as an invisible invader. The fish with legs are heralded by a terrible stench, described by characters as being reminiscent of hot human corpses. To the reader, such characteristic makes you double blind. Not only can the menacing germ not be seen, you can’t smell something in a story. You are left knowing that the helpless characters are overwhelmed by a paranormal odour because they are constantly screaming about it, and while you’d think that to be a mercy, there’s something very upsetting in being told about a sign of danger that you can’t notice yourself.
I held my breath while reading Gyo because of the fictional smell. It was a subconscious reaction to the horror on the page, and it amplified my gasps when the book actually left my mouth agape in shock. There are images in Gyo that—while not as deeply nightmarish and intellectually disturbing as some of what’s contained in Ito’s more famous Uzumaki or his one-off the Enigma of Amigara Fault (which is contained at the end of the delux edition of Gyo from Viz Media and actually keeps me awake at night)—actually left me in disbelief.
The whole effect is a suffocating feeling as you progress deeper and deeper into an adventure that simply can’t have a happy ending for humans. Gyo is the tale of a world turning its back on humanity, taunting us with the stench of our own decomposing bodies as if to say Nothing lasts forever, but you are much more fleeting than I.
What really hammers the whole thing home, and therefore makes Gyo essential reading for the modern horror fan, is the sense of guilt Ito pours into his characters. The humans blame each other for the monstrosities, the stench and inevitably their own failure to save themselves and eachother. Yet, not a single person within its pages did anything wrong. As the need to point fingers recedes, Gyo settles into a passive, contemplative mode only achievable in moments of deepest pessimism. What if no one’s to blame? What if we are so insignificant that we didn’t even cause our own tragic demise? When it’s all over, and we are wiped out by an indifferent entity with nothing we would call memory, did we even exist in the first place?
Gyo is available anywhere you can buy manga. Go get it.
We must always be reading until we too can say all has been read.Read More
Dagon, written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1917 and first published two years later by The Vagrant, is often credited the first of the Providence author’s Cthulhu Mythos building blocks. Part confession, part suicide note, the short story details a nameless narrator's traumatic experience in the Pacific ocean during the first world war. It’s a fantastic piece of strange fiction, blending history and popular science with hallucinatory nightmare imagery. And while it doesn’t leave one with chills or impending nightmares, thanks largely to its campy purple ending, there is a kernel at the heart of Dagon that functions as true, distilled cosmic horror.
Written in the first person, so as to keep the reader guessing at the veracity of the narrator’s profoundly surreal claims, Dagon sacrifices its shot at an effective ending with its final lines. For Lovecraft, this is an oft cited problem by critics and fans alike. While the beginning and middle acts of stories that employ the possibly insane unreliable narrator trope greatly benefit from the limited perspective given to a reader, there are very few scenarios in which the ending can properly land with a terrifying beat (though there are some fantastic examples of this being written around: House of Leaves solves this with footnotes; The House on The Borderland frames an unreliable narrative inside of yet another; Dracula is a compilation of separate accounts). The most famous Lovecraft fail in this respect is probably in the second last paragraph of The Rats in The Walls, which has its narrator go gibberingly mad during the act of writing.
The same problem is apparent with Dagon. The story concludes with the narrator either hallucinating or witnessing a giant creature he remembered from his nightmare at sea at his window (there is debate among fans and scholars as to which is the case). The cyclopean (in size, not in eye-count) amphibious monster has come for our storyteller, and the last we read is this fantastically Lovecraftian paragraph:
“The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!”
When talking to people about Lovecraft’s fiction I often come across the same criticism: most modern readers don’t actually find his work scary. It’s a difficult remark to debate, given the example above. The author frequently undercuts his spooky verite techniques meant to make his stories seem real by ending them with printed exclamation points following words no person would ever sincerely write. No matter how many times I read The Rats in the Walls—and I adapted it into a play—I will never believe it possible to devolve into a gibbering maniac while writing a personal essay. Still, there is a current of horror before these endings that makes them bone chilling, and it’s there that I find Lovecraft’s fiction still resonates as horrific.
The body of Dagon puts its narrator on a plain of black slime that has risen volcanically from the Pacific ocean under his small boat. It is here, under a bright sun in an oppressive sky, that he encounters a great monolith and a giant, ancient creature of the deep worshiping it. After returning home, our storyteller describes the lasting effect of this vision in his justification for killing himself:
“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may be at this very moment crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshiping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite.”
The sentence recalls some of the most horrific passages of 20th century literature. To me, it immediately evokes the line from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot, which was written decades later:
“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”
It’s an existential dread at the core of Dagon, and really the majority of Lovecraft’s work, that makes it so effective as horror. Combining a control freak desire to shed light into every dark corner on earth with the usual signifiers of human frailty (giant creatures, the equating of revelation with madness), Dagon reminds us that even right now, something terrible is happening. We are powerless to see the horrors of the moment in our places of safety, and even more important in preventing them. It’s enough to drive a reader mad! Atys . . . Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann . . . agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! . . . Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrrlh . . . chchch . . .
Nick Cutter’s The Deep is the modern epitome of cosmic horror. This is ironic because rather than having to do with the cosmos - the indifferent reality beyond our darkest skies - the Canadian horror novel is set in the deepest depths of the Pacific ocean. It is a 394 page nightmare that never lets up, and from which you cannot wake, combining true human suffering with the bleak sci-fi strangeness that made H.P. Lovecraft into a legend.
The Deep is horror of the highest concept, piling situation on top of situation until the stakes could literally not be any higher. Our planet is ravaged by a new plague called the ‘Gets which causes humans to slowly forget everything until they can’t remember basic bodily functions and die. A possible cure miraculously appears in the eleventh hour of our demise, and a science team is sent to an undersea facility, the Trieste, to study it. Contact is lost, portentous events occur, and the main character Luke is sent down to the station in order to make contact with his AWOL super scientist brother.
What follows Luke’s descent into the Marianas Trench is scream-worthy but also compelling. Cutter doubles down on the theme of memory, making his main character experience intense reveries through which we learn his past. These flashbacks, which tap into the very human horrors of childhood abuse and the life-rending tragedy of child abduction, anchor the larger than life sci-fi setting in a place of relatable pain. For every scene of creative body horror there is another to balance it by tapping into true feelings of pain vulnerability.
Despair oozes from the pages of The Deep. There is a great deal of suspense throughout the book and it delivers on all its nauseating promises. In a way, the whole novel feels like a puzzle box. Cutter, through the present tense of Luke’s flashbacks and the Crichton-esque set up of the Trieste, manages to connect numerous episodes that are chilling on their own, but when combined form a coherent map of utter bleakness.
The Deep is not a happy book. Hope is nowhere to be found, just frailty, tragedy and viscera. Yet, there is a deep vein of humanity at the core. Luke’s relationships with his brother, mother and son squeezed at my heart, and when things got surreal - reality blending with memory - I found myself crying for monsters and soon for the world.
Like the best Cosmic horror, The Deep invokes our latent desire to know that bad things happen for a reason, then toys with it. It conjures a purpose and agency behind the otherworldly horrors beneath the waves and the quotidian horror of everyday life only to then tell you the reasons for our pain and suffering are indifferent to us. The causes behind our pathos, if determined by an intelligence, are as inaccessible to us as the private pain of other people or the secrets at the bottom of the ocean.
Reading The Deep is an exercise in dark thought, filled with the stuff that can keep you up at night. But it is also an exercise in compassion. By accessing the darkness of a thing beyond our understanding, Nick Cutter has propped up out most characteristic and noble trait as a species. We are weak, fragile creatures who come apart easily when under pressure, and understanding this is the best possible victory we can hope for.
“That night we talked about the tower, although the other three insisted on calling it a tunnel.”
When we reach the limits of language, we find ourselves on the border of madness and contradiction. It is the place of the Lovecraftian gods, where up is diagonal, down is light pink and forward is twirling. The concept of this absurd state of thought is rich in horror, and it is often invoked in the genre - especially in the weird fiction subgenre - to evoke that elusive paradoxical thought we call the void. The trope very rarely is used to great effect (I particularly find it campy and fun to parody) but when it works, like in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, it really makes it tough to sleep at night.
Annihilation is the first entry in Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 weird fiction masterpiece The Southern Reach Trilogy. The best fiction I read last year (I included it on my Best Of 2014 list for Popshifter), The Southern Reach manages to tell a beautiful story about humans encountering the world-without-us - a place at once familiar and impossible to comprehend because it is a thing we cannot behold by virtue of its definition. It’s the goal of cosmic horror, to conjure this paradoxical thought, and VanderMeer does it with style and sublime aesthetic that manages to feel addictive and terrifying all at once.
The key to achieving this negation of humanity for the reader lies in a prominent symbol introduced at the top of Annihilation: the tower. The book is told from the perspective of an anonymous biologist, one member of a four woman team sent on an expedition into the mysterious Area X. The story begins when they encounter a structure within Area X that does not appear on their map of the strange wilderness. This is the tower, but it is also not a tower.
Described in the book initially as a circular slab made of coquina and stone with a rectangular opening onto descending stairs, the biologist’s companions all rationally call it a tunnel. That said, the biologist labels it as a tower before even that most basic description, illustrating something tall rather than deep. The word, which effectively describes the exact opposite of what it’s labeling, is used for the duration of the first volume so that as a reader when you see “tower” you picture a tunnel.
What’s more is that through our implicit trust of the narrating biologist, who is incredibly sympathetic despite her cold demeanour and air of mystery, we understand that her dissonant naming is involuntarily affected - a result of being in Area X. She almost immediately admits, through the description of her nomenclature logic, that her insistence on the word “tower” is insane:
“At first I only saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the last expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but leaving this underground part of it inland. I saw this in vast and intricate detail as we all stood there, and, looking back I mark it as the first irrational thought I had once we had reached our destination.” p.7
By describing a tunnel as a tower, VanderMeer manages to familiarize readers with negation. By virtue of being wholly visible, a tower has perceivable limits. A tunnel does not have this. Only the parts that have been experienced can be said to even exist, and beyond that anything else is implied or expected based on hope or human estimate. Additionally, by invoking the negative label, the author has avoided the awkward unspeak pitfall of having to write out things like “I fell up and to the right, sliding down, (or was it out?)” Since tower implied height instead of depth, the mind-bending is taken care of in passages like this:
“With the tower, we knew none of these things. We could not intuit its full outline. We had no sense of its purpose. And now that we had begun to descend into it, the tower still failed to reveal any hint of these things. The psychologist might recite the measurements of the “top” of the tower, but those numbers meant nothing, had no wider context. Without context, clinging to those numbers was a form of madness.” -p22
Annihilation and its subsequent volumes (Authority and Acceptance) go on to require the reader to continue thinking difficult, contradicting thoughts, and it is because of the tower that it all works out to such great effect. The Southern Reach Trilogy can be called a magnificent achievement in horror simply for its depiction of that impossible place with a builder that cannot be imagined, a place that cannot exist yet feels so real.
Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia In The 1980s is a new book from Spectacular Optical. It includes exactly what it says on the tin: each chapter addresses a different aspect of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Its 300 plus pages cover an entire decade of pop culture, including movies, music, television, gaming, and even Dungeons & Dragons.
The chapter which I contributed, "All Hail The Acid King: The Ricky Kasso Case In Popular Culture," examines the murder of Gary Lauwers in Long Island in 1984 by the titular and self-professed Satanist Ricky Kasso. I became interested in this case thanks to the Wiseblood (a.k.a. JG Thirlwell and Roli Mosimann) song "0-0 (Where Evil Dwells)."
As I delved deeper into the facts surrounding the Gary Lauwers murder, I felt conflicted. The details were truly more horrific than I expected. Ricky Kasso, in a fit of rage over Lauwers' theft of some mescaline, stabbed him to death and then buried him in a shallow grave. Kasso allegedly demanded that Lauwers swear his allegiance to Satan before taking his life. Regardless of the supposed Satanic angle, it was a vicious crime made more gruesome by the fact that Kasso buried Lauwers in a shallow grave and then took local teenagers into the woods for the next two weeks to gawk at the corpse while he gloated over his accomplishments.
Since Kasso committed suicide in jail after his arrest for the crime, the two others present - Albert Quinones and James Troiano - were the only ones left to answer to the judicial system. When Quinones received immunity for testifying against Troiano that made the list even shorter. Their accounts have always been considered unreliable thanks to their copious drug use; in fact, this was why James Troiano was acquitted of Lauwers's murder in the end.
A terrible crime was committed and no one was ever truly held accountable. Spending weeks reading about the case and analyzing the various songs and films that addressed it genuinely freaked me out. Do I think this murder was committed because Ricky Kasso worshipped Satan? No. But that didn't make it any less disturbing to me, especially when I started finding message boards full of people praising Kasso and talking about him as if he was some kind of hero or inspiration.
Perhaps the origins of the Kasso's crime were different and his body count far less, but it reminds me of how Charles Manson has become a pop culture hero over the last 46 years, despite being responsible for the slaughter of seven people over two days in 1969. This man and his followers, who held a city captive in terror until they were caught (and for a good length of time afterwards, considering what happened to people like Barbara Hoyt and Ronald Hughes) appears on T-shirts and has a whole cadre of people who think he was set up, or weirder still, innocent (Google it).
I confess to owning and wearing a button that says PASS THE BUCK TO CHUCK as some kind of impotent "statement" about the US presidential elections. Hell, I even dressed as Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) for Halloween once. Clearly, there is a thin line between academic fascination and fetishized adulation. What frightens me is that I may feel sick reading about poor Gary Lauwers and get angry with those who insist Charles Manson was framed, but that thin line is one I've probably crossed more than once.
If you'd like a copy of Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia In The 1980s, you can order it online. If you live in the Toronto, Ontario area, it's available for sale at the TIFF Bell Lightbox bookstore.
My brother Nick and I, who are of similarly morbid minds, often find amusement in watching our mother squirm when we tell her that the only people tortured by death are the survivors. It’s an idea we both find empowering, I think, because it allows us to assert our rejection of dull afterlife mythologies while at the same time proving our love for humanity. We both have talked at length on why donating dead bodies should be common practice.
We differ on one detail, my brother and I, and it’s on the nature of the border between life and death. It’s an argument that comes up whenever we have hypothetical conversations on the advent of commercial teleportation which we both acknowledge will revolutionize global travel, but only I believe will usher in a new era of mass accidental suicide.
Under the conventional idea of teleportation - which suggests that a person enter a transporting chamber, be dissolved into base components, converted into light, and then reassembled at a desired destination - I see death as an integral part of the process. The human body, when torn apart, would die. Upon reassembly, the person with all your body and memories will be you to the outside world, but I am skeptical that it will be the same “me” that went through the in-door. My brother doesn’t contest this, but he offers the possibility that it is inconsequential.
Nick says that the present mind is the only one that is real, and that the me of yesterday is as dead as the hypothetical me that entered a teleporter in Toronto only to transfer my continued brand presence to the new me at my futuristic destination (ie. Space-Paris, Space-Berlin, Japan etc). He argues that the continuous living that I assert as my identity, my parts handing off life to the next generation like some sort of billion cell relay race, is false. My brain apparently shuts down when I sleep to the point of practical brain death. While his evidence is that of an impassioned enthusiast arguing with his brother while drinking, I can’t dispute that the reason for my stubborn stance of continuous-being is fear, especially since, as I type this sentence, I realize he is probably right.
The tenuous border between life and death is the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s aptly titled The Premature Burial. The short story begins with folk philosophy on the nature of history and the important role genre can play in describing unpleasant happenings, then goes on to detail numerous cases of individuals who had appeared dead and thus buried alive, only to revive under darkly comic circumstances. Reading the beginning of The Premature Burial today evokes Mary Roach by way of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - addictively curious, overwritten with the euphemism of the period, and grave-minded.
When the narrator eventually reveals himself to have had a premature burial experience of his own, the story turns to supernatural horror. The storyteller has a condition called catalepsy, which essentially sends him into comas, and therefore stokes his fear of living internment. It is in the one of these near death episodes that he is taken by some nameless gibbering entity and shown the graves of the world, some filled with living bodies.
Inspired by his deadly encounter, the narrator takes every precaution possible to ensure if he is buried alive while catatonic that he will be promptly rescued. Unfortunately, he suffers an episode while away from home and fears he must be burried in a n unmarked grave before finally realizing he is in the berth of a boat travelling down the James River and henceforth changing his life to be less controlled by his phobia. Classic Poe.
What strikes me as so prescient about The Premature Burial is its fascination with the border between life and death that’s spurred on my fear of teleportation. There is an entry to the world beyond, a tenure away from the living, and then a return to the world we know. In Poe, this is a much less convenient time for the participant, who will have not travelled very far in his or her flicker between moments of living, but the allegory fits with my brother’s theory more than mine.
The only difference between life and death is self evident, so to continue on in your journey is to negate any deaths you may have momentarily fallen into. The lesson is that death between lives is not truly death, because the only true death is one that puts us beneath the ground never to return
Humans are animals, and that doesn’t square well with us. Famously narcissistic and filled with hubris, our species places itself upon a pedestal, defining the worth of other animals through comparison to ourselves. We place an incredible amount of importance on an animal’s human-like features, going as far to value the life of apes and dolphins hire than uglier, dumber mammals like the wretched naked mole rat. But the truth is, human superiority is a facade. We are not objectively better than other types of animal in any way that goes beyond having evolved thumbs and language, and this lack of importance is frightening.
If you take that assertion back far enough you can see it in the Abrahamic Religion’s creation myth. In the book of Genesis, humans were created in the image of God. It’s a powerful message when categorically differentiating homosapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom, aligning our own species closer to the divine than the lower lifeforms that we cultivate, domesticate, mutilate and consume. But if you pull a Nietzsche and kill God with your brain, come at things from an evolutionary perspective, it becomes very clear that the only difference between us and the jungle cats is that we are uncomfortable with nudity and David Bowie never wrote a good song about being a powerful human.
(Just let this song play for the rest of the post)
This fear of not being special, which is essentially the fear of a godless world, is the closest I can come to a conclusion as to why people hunt big game. It is a fear that is particularly modern, and an act that was just recently a major topic in the human news circuit. Last week a dentist from the Midwestern United States named Walter Palmer went on a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe and shot a lion.
Much ado has been made about the fact that the poached lion had a name, Cecil, and was under protection by the state, but talking about the cat as an individual misses the point. Palmer apologized for killing a known lion, while reaffirming that big game hunting is still a hobby he enjoys legally and responsibly. He cared about the anthropomorphic aspects of the beast, but his statement on the matter, along with his well documented history of killing large animals for sport, implies that he would not have cared about a nameless apex predator. That’s what he had planned to do, and had Cecil not been named I suspect the subsequent controversy would have been fairly muted in comparison to what we saw in the media and across the Internet.
Immediately upon hearing that Cecil had been baited, shot, beheaded and skinned then left for the carrion while his 12 cubs were left to be slaughtered by the next dominant male to take his place, the first thing I thought of was horror. One of the greatest weird tales in the English language, and one of my personal favourite horror stories, The Cats of Ulthar by H.P. Lovecraft is a short, contemplative parable of what happens to humans that hurt cats. Lovecraft was an ardent lover of felines, writing his own pet into The Rats in the Walls, and Ulthar inverts the natural human assumption of superiority over other animals.
The Cats of Ulthar takes place in the titular fictional town, which is home to an ornery couple who are known to capture and torture stray cats to death. A caravan of ancient nomads pass through Ulthar, and a child from the group has a pet black cat that he loves. One night, the cat is captured by the killers and meets the same fate that awaits all strays in the town. When the townsfolk tell the distressed boy about what happened to his cat (they know because of the noises they heard in the night), the boy turns his head to the sky and prays.
The image of this is sublime, and evokes and inversion between the human God in Genesis and the animal gods we deny out of fear and pride:
It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.
The shadowy figures recall the story’s introduction, in which the narrator outlines the deep divinity of the cat, placing its secret knowledge higher than our feeble human understanding and, in true Lovecraftian fashion, tying the feline form to its Egyptian spiritual roots (a trope that he often employed as a shorthand for lost knowledge and the perils of narrow modern thought).
Sure enough, the night after the boy’s prayer, the living cats of Ulthar converge on the house of the couple who killed their brethren. When the townsfolk notice that the lights in the house on the edge of town aren’t turning back on at night they investigate only to find two skeletons, picked clean of meat. After this event law passes in Ulthar that no human shall kill a cat.
The Cats of Ulthar is a perfect example of how horror can challenge the human hubris seen in horrendous acts like big game hunting, inverting assumed rules of existence to promote humility. It is relevant in the wake of the killing of Cecil the Lion partially because it enables a divine retribution on those who would commit such arrogant crimes against nature (which is satisfying), but also because it challenges our own assumptions of morality (which is humbling).
Due to the place we’ve put ourselves in our own historical narrative we operate under a self serving rule: that which is human is good. But maybe we don’t know any better than the cats. This code, which has its roots in our biological imperative to survive, allows us to destroy beautiful things, other animals that are no less important than us. We’re all just animals, after all, and cosmically you’re no more special than a cat, no matter how many of them you kill
Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald won the Hugo Award in 2004 and for good reason. The premise of the story seems like an exercise in paradoxical thinking: what if Sherlock Holmes existed in the world of H.P. Lovecraft? In the introduction to his 2006 short story anthology Fragile Things, Gaiman summarizes the obvious problem:
“...the world of Sherlock Holmes is so utterly rational, after all, celebrating solutions, while Lovecraft’s fictional creations were deeply, utterly irrational, and mysteries were vital to keep humanity sane.”
The text of A Study in Emerald can be read on Gaiman’s website. It is a variation on A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and focuses on the murder of a member of the royal family. An Afghanistan war veteran (our narrator) and his almost impossibly astute consulting detective of a flatmate, while pursuing the details in the case, are set into a battle of wits against a set of doppelgangers we eventually learn to be the real Holmes and Watson.
Gaiman’s story takes place in an alternate London in which the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft have conquered humanity and instated themselves in our ruling positions. My favorite passage, which describes Queen Victoria, also serves as an example of the Eldritch tone Gaiman brings to his strange 18th century London:
“She was called Victoria because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen because the human mouth was not shaped to say her true name.”
As the mystery progresses, it becomes clear that a type of humanist morality is being invoked and we are following the story of unwittingly evil detectives. Holmes and Watson, the antagonists of A Study in Emerald are labeled as restorationists, who wish to overthrow the Elder Things that have conquered our species, opting for a world that is truly for us. A note left for the narrator's evil-Sherlock summarizes these thoughts:
“I send you this not not as a catch-me-if-you-can taunt, for we are gone, the estimable doctor and I, and you shall not find us, but to tell you that it was good to feel that, if for only a moment, I had a worthy adversary. Worthier by far than inhuman creatures from beyond the pit.”
The sentiment from one Holmes to another, darker Holmes is affirmative of the human spirit and never fails to fill me with hope. In the face of unceasing oppression - whether it be that of institutional religion, a Lovecraftian allegory for it, or simply the void itself - nothing is a stronger weapon than a reminder of humanity and the good we do to each other.
A Study in Emerald, in creating an opposition between genres, illustrates why detectives are true heroes in the face of horror. The instinct, as Gaiman articulated, is that classic mystery fiction and cosmic horror are diametrically opposed, but it is actually in their blending that we can understand how to live heroically underneath the looming void.
There is a great, long standing tradition of detective stories crossing over with horror. Paranormal investigator fiction is one of the most popular and accessible horror sub genres because it allows for the possibility of understanding through a heroic detective. From William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki The Ghost Finder and his electric pentacle to Mulder and Scully, horror has been made accessible through the tropes of detective fiction for over a century.
It’s true that in many ways having a deductive hero at the center of a horror story subtracts from much of the actual scariness of a narrative, but the lessons we can learn from these stories are deep and affecting. This is particularly true in more recent examples like True Detective where the horror is subtle and the unknown is in many ways unknowable. In this case, the detective’s role is to gaze into the void and when they find no answers, return to the world a better human after having confronted a boundary.
The detective, when placed in the tradition of cosmic horror, is heroic for holding on to humanity in the face of forbidden knowledge that would drive weaker willed individuals mad. They are the explorers and prospectors of existential frontiers, a testament to our unshakable human condition. They, like Gaiman's strange Sherlock, are able to look into the darkness for meaning and upon finding the incomprehensible accepting the challenge of living as a human in the abyss.
Cthulhu gets all the credit, but the first of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird pantheon of other gods was Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, introduced in a very short story that shares his name. As a work of classic horror fiction, Nyarlathotep is mostly recognized solely for the creation of its titular deity who, in addition to appearing in several other of Lovecraft’s more popular stories, has a prominent place in the expanded Cthulhu Mythos (particularly the RPG and board games). But Nyarlathotep is quite remarkable on its own as a piece of microfiction, if for no other reason than presenting a distilled example of climatological horror.
Horror of the unknown, which is the base of all true horror, further deconstructs to a confrontation with the border between the world that we live in and the one that would exist regardless of our continued survival. It’s a paradoxical thought, because in order to think we also need to exist, but there is a primal, nauseous part of our minds that, while unable to comprehend non-existence, can begin to contemplate it. In fact, we can come close to observing it, by beholding sublime meteorological events like severe storms that are both unthinkably larger than us and completely indifferent to our lives.
It is through this relationship between human and weather that we are introduced to Nyarlathotep:
“There was a daemonic alteration in the sequence of the seasons - the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces that were unknown.
“And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt.”
Aside from being a delicious example of Lovecraftian prose at its most heavy metal, the above passage is more than an overwritten bit of pathetic fallacy. In your average ghost story, this literary device is imposed by the author to guide a reader to certain conclusions about what she should be feeling - darkness is shorthand for mystery and anticipation, storms foreshadow drama, a sunny day means safety. In Nyarlathotep this is not the case; the weather is more than just style and shorthand.
In Nyarlathotep there is a connection between the weather and the elder one’s arrival. Rather than a signal for you to be uncomfortable, the god-killingly hot autumn that the narrator of the story experiences is essential information to the horrific narrative. Nyarlathotep has arrived on Earth - a non-human in the world for humans - and our planet has become less for us as a result.
The Crawling Chaos takes the form of a lithe man, dressed as a Pharaoh, who travels the world and performs Tesla-esque public marvels. It’s through viewing one of these magical performances, which are described as projections of apocalyptic visions, that the narrator attempts to reject Nyarlathotep’s divinity:
“And when I, who was colder and more scientific than the rest, mumbled a trembling protest about “imposture” and “static electricity,” Nyarlathotep drave us all out, down the dizzy stairs into the damp, hot, deserted midnight streets.”
The narrator sees a glimpse of the paradoxical world without him and rejects it in a manner most befitting a white man of the early 1900’s: by forcing it to fit his paradigm. Later, he and friends drink and mock the horrors they saw, but the weather is still changing regardless of their beliefs. People can no longer sleep through the wee hours of night, opting to fill it with screams instead. Also the moon is green.
It’s while finding his way home under that strange moon that the narrator finds himself brought forward into Nyarlathotep's apocalyptic vision and made to behold the world without us.
“...I half-floated between the titanic snowdrifts, quivering and afraid, into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable.
“Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low.”
At play here we have the language of weather mixed with Lovecraft’s oft-parodied un-speak (hands that are not hands, climbing a ladder but falling in the diagonal, etc). The hot autumn that accompanied Nyarlathotep has grown to consume the planet and now everything is cold. What follows is the most horrific of all Lovecraft’s cosmic pictures, the graveyard of the universe that we will one day fertilize, in which things still happen despite our absence.
It feels embarrassing to admit, especially in the face of our own very real (but still poetically Lovecraftian) climate change, but the natural human reaction is to assume that once we’re all dead everything will just come to a stop. The knee jerk reaction is that hurricanes, heatwaves, tornadoes and inter-dimensional invasions can only happen to us, the audience. But that is not the case, and that fact is the wonderful, horrific majesty of Nyarlathotep.
“I replaced your books with other books. The covers are the same, but the content has been altered. I don’t think you read enough, but that is not why I did it. I changed every single word of some of the books. In others, just a single comma on a single page. This is a metaphor, but I’m not quite sure what it represents.”
-The Faceless Old Woman That Secretly Lives in Your Home, Welcome To Night Vale 31, “A Blinking Light up on the Mountain"
Looking at my bookshelf, I am horrified. There, side by side and mostly out of order, are the physical instructions on how to imagine hundreds of specific stories. Most, bound in attractive and colourful covers, contain stories I like - some that I love - and sit there as a self-assurance. One day, I say to myself, I will re-read those books. The stories on their pages are not ethereal. They transcend time. This is what I say, but I know it’s not true.
The Chuck Palahniuk books I loved so much as a teenager but am slightly embarrassed by now, fantasy novels based on tabletop games with titles like Trollslayer, innumerable H.P. Lovecraft anthologies - they sit there, each one having played an important role in time of my life, promising to bring me back to those specific formative moments I spent in its pages.
But nothing transcends time, truly, and the fact is, with the exception of the books on my shelf that I already have read multiple times, the stories on my shelf might as well have self destructed the moment I finished consuming them, Inspector Gadget style. Unless I’m going to lend it to a friend, an exceptional book stays on my shelf solely as a comforting failsafe. What if I need to pull a quote from one of my five editions of Dracula? What if there’s an emergency and I need to intimately refamiliarize myself with Stephen King’s The Stand? What if I just need to escape to a simpler time when I thought I was the only guy who really got Fight Club?
Those times will never come. The books on my walls are a manifestation of my denial. Deep down in me there is a fear that the good things I’ve experienced are gone forever (because they are) and when I look upon the rows of book spines on my shelf I see doors to those moments. If I were to pick a book off the shelf, however, and re-read it, my experience will be different thanks to a million different circumstances. The past is inaccessible. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In My House could have changed the contents of my books and I wouldn’t even know it.
In That Is All, the final book in John Hodgman’s Complete World Knowledge trilogy of fake almanacs, my fear of losing the past is made manifest. On the very first paper surface of my copy, above the word “All”, is the ominous (or is it portentous?) instruction to destroy the book, one day at a time. Each of the book's first 365 pages is part of a page-a-day calendar for the final year of human existence, the year of Ragnarok (originally scheduled for 2012, but hey, it could still happen).
Known as Today in Ragnarok, Hodgman’s future-gazing calendar of literary destruction is the perfect medium for a story about the end of all existence. Spanning multiple narratives and calling back to the predictions the author made in his previous two fake almanacs, his page-a-day of doom contains all the horror tropes you could ask for right alongside the best Stephen King jokes ever written.
As you read of the fabled nerd jock convergence, Nick Nolte’s June 9th awakening as the Mayan bird-snake god Quetzalcoatl, the return of an old-timey radio show everyone remembers but never actually existed, and a giant wave of blood from another dimension, the destruction should ideally be represented in the absence of book behind the page you’re currently reading.
Of course, as a person trapped in the ever changing present and terrified of the irretrievability of the past, I can never bring myself to actually go ahead and destroy the book. Part of me knows that I’m not alone in this, and that the instructions to destroy “That Is All” are in fact a thematically resonant joke, but they do illustrate my relationship with art perfectly. I am precious about it, I treasure it, I use it to build a fictional space from where I once came as a younger man. The books on my shelf look like the hallway I tell myself I’ve been walking through, that I can access somehow, and the first entry in Hodgman’s calendar is a reminder that they're just cleverly positioned mirrors.
In the audiobook version of That Is All, (which is the only audiobook you absolutely must own), the Today In Ragnarok section is placed after the main text and prefaced with the impossible instruction to break off a piece of whatever device you are using to listen in order to represent the passage of time. This underlines the insincerity of the request (the book is comedy after all), but I can’t help but wish I actually did have that strength of will to let go of an experience after it’s occurred.
But I can’t. My past is precious to me and the future is too unknown. If I were to reread every book I own, I would put them right back on display, each one now holding a new impression of me, the reader. They would all still loom over me, as they do now, from that shelf, serving as a comforting lie that I can always go back.
Still, I am aware of that lie, and in it I see the horror of my being stuck to the present moment. If only I would have the strength of will to do as Hodgman says, and arrive at day one of Ragnarok with nothing but a black piece of thick paper that used to be a book but now just says “THAT IS ALL”.