This podcast Erica and I tackle “Meta Horror” – movies and books that either comment on the genre or generate self-awareness that their characters are not real. We love this genre!
In our last post, I discussed the various literary influences apparent in In the Mouth of Madness. Today, I’m delving a bit deeper into some of the tropes and philosophies that informed Lovecraft’s work, and this film in turn.
In the Mouth of Madness opens with John Trent being admitted to an insane asylum, where he recounts his story to an investigator (David Warren). One of the most common tropes in Lovecraft’s work is the notion that some truths are so terrible as to cause the knower to go insane. Consider this noteworthy opening quote from “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In some Lovecraft stories, acquiring forbidden knowledge not only causes insanity, but forces bodily mutations upon the victim. This is apparently a trope within Sutter Cane’s fiction and also happens to unfortunate readers of his newest novel, In the Mouth of Madness. In some respects, these mutations are reminiscent of transformation scenes in John Carpenter’s earlier film The Thing.
Misanthropy was rampant in Lovecraft’s fiction. In a letter to Edwin Baird, editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft wrote of a young writer who wished to pen a story of a mad scientist who strives to conquer the world by unleashing a plague. To Lovecraft, this vision unoriginal and simply did not go far enough. “Good and evil, teleological illusion, sugary sentiment, anthropocentric psychology–the usual stock in trade, and all shot through with the eternal and inescapable commonplace…Who ever wrote a story from the point of view that man is a blemish on the cosmos, who ought to be eradicated?…I told my friend, he should conceive of a man with a morbid, frantic, shuddering hatred of the life-principle itself, who wishes to extirpate from the planet every trace of biological organism, animal and vegetable alike, including himself…Only a cynic can create horror–for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, longs to pull them to pieces and mock them” (Quoted in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror) .This attitude is rampant in Sutter Cane’s work, and John Trent offers a similar opinion at one point when he tells Linda Styles, “The sooner we’re off the planter, the better.” However, Trent is ultimately unable to maintain that stance–or perhaps it was mere posturing all along–because he tries desperately to save humanity in the film’s final act.
The last and perhaps most important Lovecraftian trope is identity-based horror. (And here I spoil the best scene in in the movie.) In “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Lovecraft writes, “No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.” Savvy viewers would know that John Trent is set up for such a fate, given his arrogance and frequent comments along the lines of “I’m my own man; nobody pulls my strings.” The revelation that he is not his own man and in fact has no free will is expected, but the specific nature of this revelation delivers a gut-punch arguably superior to similar twists penned by Lovecraft himself. In a confrontation with between Trent and Sutter Cane, Cane reveals, “This town didn’t exist before I wrote it, and neither did you…You are what I write!” Trent sputters and protests that he is not, in fact, a “piece of fiction,” Cane responds, “I think, therefore you are.” Trent is not even left with the solace of having once been human. He simply never was what he believed himself to be, and technically, was never real.
I will further discuss the notion human existence as puppet existence in our final post on In the Mouth of Madness and its religious implications, and in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
Today we discuss In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s final entry in his so-called apocalypse trilogy. It’s also my favorite of the three films. It has layers of complexity that allow for multiple viewings. As a result, I decided to break up my commentary for this film over multiple entries. Be advised that I will be spoiling every major plot point and trope in this film. But, I will be discussing aspects of the film that aren’t generally known or discussed.
In the Mouth of Madness is a 1990s meta-horror film about an insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) who is hired by a major publishing house to find missing author Sutter Cane, and deliver his newest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness, for publication. It’s a big deal because Cane outsells all others.
With a name like Sutter Cane, it may seem that he is based on Stephen King. However, it’s quickly apparent that he is actually modeled primarily on H.P. Lovecraft. As you can see from the covers below, and others glimpsed in the film, the titles are derivative of Lovecraft titles, including “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “The Color out of Space,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.”
Excerpts of Cane’s writing are distinctly Lovecraftian: “Trent stood at the edge of the rip, stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown, the Stygian world yawning blackly beyond. Trent’s eyes refused to close, he did not shriek, but the hideous unholy abominations shrieked for him, as in the same second he saw them spill and tumble upward out of an enormous carrion black pit, choked with the gleaming white bones of countless unhallowed centuries. He began to back away from the rip as the army of unspeakable figures, twilit by the glow from the bottomless pit, came pouring at him towards our world…”
That said, many viewers may not recognize that this film borrows concepts from a ’90’s meta-horror short story collection…An 1890’s meta-horror story collection, that is. Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos. The King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellowwhich is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease.” Consider the excerpt below from “The Repairer of Reputations”:
“When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect.”
As with In the Mouth of Madness, characters who read The King in Yellow go insane, become convinced they are characters in the book, and meet a variety of nasty ends. One of the characters in The King in Yellow is even named J. Trent. Adding an additional layer of complexity, The King in Yellow borrows concepts and characters from Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce.
When watching this film, there are a few ways to interpret it. One is that the book is a type of mind-virus, and everyone who believes it becomes convinced that they are characters in the book. Another is that Sutter Cane has indeed been promoted to a god-role and can write reality as he wishes. Or as Cane’s editor Linda Styles states, “What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view…Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become a majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell, wondering what happened to the world.”
In the next posts, I’ll discuss the film’s relationship to other Lovecraft tropes and its religious implications.
Metafiction is nothing new. Some scholars argue that even ancient texts such as The Odyssey have meta elements. I noticed meta elements in other classic works such as Tom Jones and Tristam Shandy.
In what will be the first and probably last time I mention Jane Austen in this blog, it should be noted that her first novel, Northanger Abbey, was a metafiction satire of horror’s ancestor, the gothic novel. Within the first page, Austen tells us that the protagonist, Catherine, is a fictional character, and that she is determined to be the heroine of her own gothic fiction story. Catherine spends her free time reading books such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all of her decisions are made through the lens of genre convention.
I’m always discovering new things, so there may be other precedents in horror fiction proper, but the first metafiction horror novel I discovered was The King in Yellow. Prompted by reference to the book in Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, I hunted down a pricey copy in the 1990’s, and it was quite a challenge. Now, The King in Yellow is readily available in both print and ebook editions, and has inspired tribute anthologies such as A Season in Carcosa. Perhaps you can thank the popularity of True Detective for bringing it into more mainstream popularity.
Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and borrowed concepts from Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be?: An Inhabitant of Carcosa & Other Stories. In turn, it influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos and films such as John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. The King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellow which is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease” across Europe. People who read the book go insane, believe that they are characters within the book, and in some cases are driven to acts of extreme violence. Although the final stories in the collection lose their way, the first few are effective and disturbing, making this a worthwhile read for fans of horror and weird fiction.
This month, Todd and I celebrate our birthdays. It is also the birth month of one of our horror heroes, H.P. Lovecraft!
What better way to celebrate our birth month than to make it all about ourselves, and by extension, celebrate meta horror films and novels, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror too!
“Meta” is a term that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t know the proper definition. Dictionary.com helpfully offers the following definitions:
I typically don’t recommend books unless I have read them in their entirety, but I’m going to make an exception, because the clock is ticking on a great bargain. Thanks to StoryBundle, I’ve acquired some great Lovecraftian fiction and non-fiction ebooks. And since we are celebrating Women’s History Month here at My Horrific Life, I want to direct your attention to two books in particular. The first is She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short stories written by women. Fans of Lovecraft will note the absence of women in his fiction. The stories in this collection are not only written by women, but feature women as the main characters. Purists will be pleased as the stories are faithful to the Mythos and its core philosphy. The stories I’ve read thus far really capture the weirdness and dread of Lovecraft’s fiction, minus his extravagant verbiage.
The other woman-authored book is Priestess: The Collected Blackstone Erotica by Justine Geoffrey. This one is…different. If you like the perversity and explicit porniness of Edward Lee’s fiction, this may be the perfect collection for you. Let’s just say that nothing is left to the imagination, and poor H.P.L. is likely rolling in his proverbial grave.
While you can purchase these through Amazon at the links above, the most economical bargain is through the StoryBundle Lovecraft collection, which is only available for the next 14 days. In case you aren’t familiar with them, StoryBundle curates collections showcasing indie authors, and lets the buyer pay what they want…within reason. Most basic bundles start at $5, with an option on unlocking all of the books in the bundle for $15-20. You can also decide if you want a portion of your purchase to support a charity. Once you purchase a bundle, the DRM-free ebooks can be downloaded to your computer or eReader of choice.
I haven’t had time to delve deeply into most of the other titles, but am intrigued by When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’Lyehian Spirituality by Scott R. Jones. This seems like a great book for anyone who has had any sort of “religious experience” while reading Lovecraft’s fiction, but who doesn’t relate to the religious texts and grimoires created by Donald Tyson and other occultists. I’m sure I’ll be reviewing it in depth in the future.
The entire Lovecraft Bundle can be purchased for a minimum of $15, and like their other collections, it won’t be offered again once the bundle expires. The other books in this bundle are shown in the image below.
In honor of Black History Month, I’m taking a break from covering erotic horror to review Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: A Novel, which I’ve been reading for the past month. I love the cover art, which melds the images of a Lovecraftian tentacled monster with the hoods of KKK members, and bears the tagline, “America’s Monsters Exposed.” As the title and cover art suggest, the novel depicts not only the distinctively American fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but also the very real horrors of racism in the Jim Crow South and 1940s America as a whole. It’s a fitting combination, because for all of Lovecraft’s creative genius, his major character defects were his racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Although his personal correspondence and stories indicate a softening of these attitudes later in his life, perhaps in part due to marrying a Jewish immigrant from Russia, some of his early writings were atrocious. Ruff references this when protagonist Atticus expresses his enjoyment of Lovecraft’s fiction, only to have his father ruin his enjoyment by pointing out, with no small degree of gleeful sadism, an early Lovecraft poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers.” Repeatedly, the novel illustrates the complicated relationship between African American readers and the fiction created by racist white authors, as illustrated in the following dialogue:
“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. “
“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”
“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”
Not only is Atticus shamed by his father for enjoying the fiction of a racist such as Lovecraft, he is questioned by white people who can’t comprehend that a black man could be appreciate science fiction, let alone be a reading enthusiast at all. One of the most harrowing scenes occurs when Atticus is pulled over by a southern police officer–not because of a traffic violation, but because a black man couldn’t possibly own a decent car. When the officer searches his car trunk and finds a collection of science fiction and horror novels, along with evidence of his military service, this proof of Atticus’ intellect and past heroism arouses further suspicion that the car and the belongings must have been stolen from a white man. Indeed, while the novel does feature Lovecraftian monsters and occult rites, these things are not nearly as terrifying as the mundane horrors of the Jim Crow South.
Sadly, despite the progress we’ve made in this country, we aren’t necessarily much better. Consider this occurrence from my graduate school days. My program brought in an African American FBI Special Agent to teach a class on cybercrime, and while hurrying from one end of campus to the other with his laptop tucked under one arm, he was stopped by a police officer who suspected that he had stolen the laptop. Even after showing her his FBI badge and explaining he was on campus as a guest instructor, she offered no apology whatsoever. He later recounted his experience to my class with the explanation, “The black man can’t have nice things.”
As awful as the examples of racism are in the book, the book isn’t entirely dire and oppressive because the the interconnected narratives tend to offer happy endings for the characters, who are able to outwit the villains. This is especially refreshing considering how the horror genre often treats black characters as expendable.
I admit, I’ve been bad about actually posting reviews for things related to this month’s theme of romantic and sexual horror. Frankly, it’s because I haven’t felt in the mood. Not only am I bored by the entire romance and erotic genres, it seems that in this post-PC era of “grab ’em by the pussy” dark-ages style sexual conquest, romance is dead.
So after watching several 1970’s lesbian vampire movies in the hopes of finding something, anything, worthy of discussion and deconstruction, I remembered my vast home library of horror fiction. In the process, I rediscovered a now out-of-print short story collection, Vampires, Wine, and Roses, featuring stories by classic and contemporary authors. Fortunately, copies are plentiful on the secondary market, in both a trade paperback format and a handsome hardcover edition (pictured above).
Although a couple comedic shorts by Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are a bit out of place, the collection as a whole is great reading for anyone with a hunger for classy and romantic vampire stories. Here, we have stories by Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton, Anne Rice, Rod Serling, Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Ray Bradbury, and others. Despite the inclusion of contemporary authors, the effect as a whole is that the reader is transported to a more genteel time. This isn’t an ideal collection for those who are looking for explicit erotica, but nonetheless conveys a great deal of passion and genuine creepiness.
Today we discuss the second installment of John Carpenter’s “apocalypse trilogy,” Prince Of Darkness, perhaps one of Carpenter’s most misunderstood and criminally underrated films. It’s also daring by virtue of using concepts of quantum physics as the glue combining Christianity and aspects of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
As discussed in my last post, the first installment in the trilogy, The Thing, was ultimately reassuring. Because of a basic scientific understanding of the threat, order could be restored and a stealthy apocalypse avoided. Prince of Darkness undermines both science religion, institutions that provide comforting explanations for the nature of the universe and our place in it. This is explicitly discussed in the film, during Dr. Edward Birack’s lecture. “From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930’s proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we’ve sought to impose order on the universe. But we’ve discovered something very surprising: while order DOES exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind!” However, at the start of the film, we learn that both religion and science are under threat, respectively due to suppressing aspects of reality and failing to understand it completely.
The instability of reality is also addressed in Professor Birack’s opening lecture: “Let’s talk about our beliefs, and what we can learn about them. We believe nature is solid, and time a constant. Matter has substance and time a direction. There is truth in flesh and the solid ground…. None of this is true! Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level… into ghosts and shadows.” The uncanny and seemingly illogical discoveries of quantum physics open up the possibility of science acknowledging the validity of religion. The film’s surrealistic special effects support this theme, defying logic and the laws of Newtonian physics.
When a Catholic priest requests that Birack and his graduate students study a mysterious container in a church basement, their findings undermine orthodox Christianity as well. Birack provides a radical proposal to the Priest: “Suppose what your faith has said is essentially correct. Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a god willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Well, every particle has an anti-particle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror image instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light.” Prince of Darkness is not the first work to contemplate a parallel and opposite universe. I’ll discuss chiral and mirror-image words further in future posts. What’s unsettling here is that the evil world, ruled by Satan or anti-God is in fact the “normal” or default reality. In this instance, our world is the aberration that needs to be corrected or stamped out. The concept of the mirror world is revisited repeatedly when possessed characters attempt to use mirror as gateways into this other universe.
In case you find this view of religion intriguing and are wondering where Jesus fits into this, a document concealed by the Church reveals that He was a benevolent extraterrestrial. This point is never mentioned again.
In the end, neither science nor religion can provide refuge for humanity. As the evil force warns a scientist via her computer screen, ” The Holy Ghost won’t save you. The god plutonium won’t save you. In fact…YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!” As with The Thing, humanity is saved at the end, but the victory is only temporary. A vision of the future reveals that evil will merely wear a new face.
In our next post, we will contemplate how the apocalypse could be started by something as benign as popular fiction.
Not many tarot decks in my collection fit this month’s apocalypse theme, aside from the Zombie Tarot (reviewed last November) and the Necronomicon Tarot by Donald Tyson. And boy, is this one bleak.
In case you aren’t familiar with Tyson, he has written a series of books (Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred, Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon, Grimoire of the Necronomicon, and The 13 Gates of the Necronomicon: A Workbook of Magic) outlining a system of occult practice based on H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the various Elder Gods, monsters, and aliens of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos.” That Lovecraft indirectly spawned an occult system and a tarot deck is ironic, considering that he was vocal about his atheism and that he worked with Harry Houdini to debunk fortune-telling and spiritism. Authors such as Tyson would argue that Lovecraft was an unwitting prophet with insights into the malign forces at work in the universe.
Tyson’s Necronomicon Tarot is intended as a companion piece to the aforementioned books, and follows the Rider-Waite format. It is not a beginner-friendly deck, however, and those used to working with Rider-Waite images may not see the resemblance. (It’s there, but obtuse and twisted.)
Despite Lovecraft’s dislike of religion and fortune-telling, the art of the Necronomicon Tarot does, for the most part, faithfully convey concepts and themes present in H.P.L.’s fiction. But…if you know Lovecraft’s fiction, you can guess this makes for some pretty depressing readings. Between the often grisly art and Tyson’s dark interpretations of even the most positive cards, you will end up with a cold and unforgiving answer to any query, reminding you of your insignificant place in the universe and of all of the indifferent forces influencing your meaningless life.
While most people associate the New Year with new beginnings and seek to fully embrace life’s possibilities, we here at My Horrific Life are celebrating the eventual end of the human race, which may come sooner than we think. We won’t discriminate about the means to this end, as we delve into all manner of fictional, religious, and theoretical possibilities, including Biblically-inspired narratives, disease, nuclear war, climate change, zombie hordes, linguistic viruses, alien invasions, and a takeover by Lovecraft’s elder gods.
Stay tuned for reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film and fiction, including a spotlight of John Carpenter’s so-called “apocalypse trilogy.”