Some really interesting and valid points here. Thanks.
Personally I always like to be aware of the craft that went into something, whether it's a written piece, a movie, or even my wedding ring. I agree it does often prevent full immersion, but it's the way I am. I did degrees in art and psychology and I worked as a costume prop-maker for 8 years, so whether we’re talking about how a suit of armour was made for a film or what an author was thinking as he wrote something I tend to look at the details. A piece of writing has to be pretty special to make me forget it's words on a page, but it does happen and HPL has managed it at times. The bits in the CM about the yawning gulfs of indifference in a universe not made for us can make me forget I’m holding a book; and the image of Nyarlathotep striding across a world in flames and ruin and uttering a never-ending scream has stayed with me so long I have no idea where I even read it!
I took from Jake W's post that the stories were making him uncomfortable because of where some of them are rooted, which is perfectly understandable.
That’s correct. A little uncomfortable. But for me it’s also a question of the effectiveness of HPL’s descriptions. With any art form the artist is trying to provoke or evoke something in the observer/reader, usually by drawing on their own experiences or feelings and representing them in a way others can access on some level. HPL wanted to convey horror, but also revulsion. The revulsion is often the stuff I have the most trouble with.
In The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath the description of the turbaned merchant with the bumps on his head is clearly meant to be revolting. I don’t find head-bumps revolting though (in fiction at least), possibly because I grew up watching Andorians on TV. As I listened to the part in the podcast where Carter is drugged I imagined one bump slipping from under the turban but saw it with an eye at the end of it glaring at Carter. This image made me shiver because of the contrast of the laughing (albeit an evil mirth) merchant with an intense inner malevolence revealed, perhaps involuntarily, from elsewhere on his body. More so than the fact I had imagined an eye where it shouldn’t be, which no doubt was an image my mind created from something as down to earth as a snail.
I’m not trying to claim I’m better at horror than HPL by the way! Just that to me a bump on the head doesn’t strongly convey ‘otherness’ and that, even if it had, ‘otherness’ is not horrific to me in itself so I suppose I must’ve subconsciously felt the need to embellish it so it stayed true to the spirit HPL intended.
Not to forgive the intellectual and moral failings of his xenophobia, but it's enough for me he wrote great stories, and his truly great story, IMHO, are about Cosmic Indifference, not scary foreigners.
I agree that the cosmic indifference is, on one level at least, terrifying. To my mind easily the best part of his legacy. Especially scary and unsettling if the culture you grew up in inculcates a belief in a nurturing, homo-centric universe.
What I’ve noticed is that ‘scary’ foreign and/or ethnic people in the stories are closer to the forces that inhabit and create that indifference; that their ‘alienness’ (i.e. the fact they’re not of Anglo-Saxon descent and with high, noble brows and upright posture, &c.) allows them access to things so utterly abhorrent to the ‘right-thinking’ ‘well-bred’ protagonist that they are marked out as truly alien. This is where HPL falls over in my opinion and where his stories lose power.
I think what Jake W might be saying is that HPLs "Cosmic Indifference" is really Lovecraft applying that xenophobia to a planetary scale. His aliens are the ultimate Other, inky black tentacled masses that have no real form, completely alien from the human condition.
Exactly. And I’m not making a judgement about that. It’s interesting to me that perhaps HPL’s short-comings inspired some great work. When the xenophobia reaches the planetary scale it becomes, paradoxically, more accessible to me due to its utterly alien qualities.
I’m sure we’ve all had nightmares in which we’ve felt paralysing fear of something out of sight, something we can feel is behind us and we know means us harm, but can’t explain what it is. And if we try it suddenly sounds pathetic (my two most memorable examples are, if I merely describe what I eventually ‘saw’ in the dreams, a gorilla and a smoky figure wearing white Mickey Mouse gloves – totally lame! But in the dreams these were just vessels of the fear my brain was pumping around itself and the images alone can never capture the experience itself).
HPL’s genius is that, quite often, he is able to take the nightmares and put them in the minds of other people. He taps into universal fears. But he loses me when he relies on simple human-scale xenophobia.
…there is only two things we can do, "either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
And all too often it’s the foreigners who choose the latter path, bringing madness and doom to ‘civilised non-foreigners’.
I don't think HPL's Cosmic Indifference is a metaphor for anything. I could be wrong but I think HPL really understood the cosmos could swallow our insignificant asses and not even realize it, even if we assume it had some agency. Just my opinion.
I think this is, to a greater extent, true. I think he must have read about Einstein’s theories and had a good grasp of contemporary cosmology. He appreciated that the speck that is everything to us is miniscule by comparison to the wider universe.
Yet the dark powers are still interested in this speck and want it back.
Part of the horror comes from this threat of the outer to the inner and from those within that are complicit with the outer.
To make the threat seem real HPL had to draw on his own human experiences. His personal fears don’t always cut it with me (like the tube-train monster) as they relate very closely to his time, as does much of the xenophobia. Xenophobia is, to some extent, hard-wired in to our brains though, so it seems a good tool to use if you can disguise it enough to make it palatable. Where he doesn’t I don’t buy it. Where he does I’m right there with him buying in to the fear!