Tag Archives: John Carpenter

From the archive: In the Mouth of Madness: “Reality is not what it used to be” (part 1)

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.

The King In Yellow and other meta origins

Image from tvtropes.org

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 MadnessThe 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.

John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy – My Horrific Life

Join Erica and I as we discuss three of our favorite movies – the three movies that make up John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” – “The Thing”, “Prince of Darkness”, and “In the Mouth of Madness”.

In the Mouth of Madness (part 3): “You are what I write”

The Black Church is the gateway for humanity’s destruction.

In this final post on John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, I’m going to explore the film’s take on religion in general and Christianity in particular. I’m a bit surprised that the film has not drawn fire from Christian media watchdogs. Perhaps the film flew under the radar of most Christian viewers, but my Christian friends who have watched it don’t seem to regard it as particularly offensive.

In the Mouth of Madness makes a number of overt claims that would be regarded as heretical. In the church confessional booth scene, horror author turned deity Sutter Cane informs protagonist John Trent, ” Do you want to know the problem with places like this? With religion in general? It’s never known how to convey the anatomy of horror. Religion seeks discipline through fear, yet doesn’t understand the true nature of creation. No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work.” He goes onto explain that his books have been translated into 18 languages and have sold over a billion copies. “More people believe in my work than believe in the Bible… It’ll make the world ready for the change. It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the Old Ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe, the faster the journey.” Later, Cane informs Trent, “I’m God now.”

Popular horror author and deity Sutter Cane

The idea that belief create reality is a subversive one, especially if that means that people create gods and not the other way around. It calls to mind occult theories of tulpas and thoughtforms.

What’s potentially more inflammatory than the overt text is the subtext. It became apparent to me–after many viewings–that In the Mouth of Madness is actually about Calvinism. And it presents one of the best arguments against Calvinism, at least if one has any investment in the belief in free will and in God’s inherent goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it was named for the 1500’s theologian John Calvin, whose ideas were branded heretical by the Catholic Church. Calvin’s ideas still hold some weight among some Protestant denominations, though are hesitant to embrace all of its tenants. (Hence, you hear people describe themselves as four-point Calvinists as opposed to five-point Calvinists.) The big issue with Calvinism is that it opens a big can o’ worms regarding the nature of evil and whether God is good. Other forms of Christianity address these issues by stating that God is absolutely good, but evil exists because God allows his creations to have free will. Free will may be limited, because all people are born into sin and are incapable of absolute holiness, but people still have a great deal of freedom to make choices. In this model of Christianity, humans also have the free will to reject or accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Therefore, God does not damn anyone to hell. Rather, some people elect to be sent there. It’s a decent explanation for why the world is so awful without besmirching God’s goodness.

In contrast, Calvinism posits that all of humanity is absolutely depraved and have no free will to avoid sinning, nor to freely accept or reject salvation. Instead, God “predestines” some for salvation and others for eternal damnation. (This is not the same as an all-knowing God knowing the outcome of every human choice before it happens.) Adherents who fail to see the nightmarishness of this have simply not followed the logic through to its natural conclusion. A belief in zero free will and in predestination cuts to the heart of any argument in God’s inherent goodness and justness. After all, how just and righteous is it to eternally damn a large segment of one’s own creation when they never had a choice to do wrong in the first place, nor the choice to reject an offer of salvation?  It seems that such a God would be damning people for the lulz, or as Calvinists would prefer to say, “for the good pleasure of His will.”

Trent takes a deeper look into the Word of God.

Trent protests, “God’s not a hack horror writer.” But a purely Calvinistic God surely would be. How else could one explain the entirety of human history, which reads like a long list of atrocities? Such an account only fits in the horror genre, and is nastier than anything conceived by even the most extreme writers. God would be an like an author who develops characters and scripts their every action in advance, writing out their ultimate ends in His infallible Word. His creations can consult his Word to see how it all turns out, but have no free will to exercise in the outcome. This is exactly what happens in In the Mouth of Madness, in which Cane, the Creator, does all of this with the added sadism of giving his creations consciousness and allowing them to labor under the illusion that they are real people who have a will of their own. Which is, I guess, also the same sadism present in Calvinism and other versions of theological determinism.

A funny meme (author unknown) offering a gentle reminder to anyone seeking to make anything great again.

Continuing the analogy of Sutter Cane as God, John Trent could be read as a perverse and inverted Christ, “the Word made Flesh.” This is where In the Mouth of Madness departs from Calvinism or any other form of Christianity, because Trent doesn’t deliver salvation to anyone. Rather, he is the unwitting and unwilling carrier of Cane’s “new Bible,” which will doom the entire human race. And for the people who don’t read, there’s a movie version.

Trent adorned with and surrounded by crosses

Of course, not everyone takes offense at the notion of a sadistic puppeteer god who pulls the strings of creations who falsely believe they have a self, as we’ll see in my review of Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

 

In the Mouth of Madness (part 2): “The sooner we’re off the planet, the better”

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.

An ominous painting foretells the fate of residents of Hobb’s End

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.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: “Logic collapses on the sub-atomic level”

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.

A church holds the future end of humanity

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.

A possessed woman reaches into the other side of the mirror.

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.

 

John Carpenter’s The Thing: Identity Crises

I have so much love for the films that comprise John Carpenter’s so-called apocalypse trilogy, but I am in the minority for loving In the Mouth of Madness the most of the three. In fact, I would posit that the entries in the series get progressively better due to increasingly complex and intriguing concepts. All three films feature Lovecraftian concepts to some degree. All three are also obsessed with the dissolution of personal identity. And all three films challenge popular notions of reality.

(Beware of spoilers ahead.)

The first of the trilogy, The Thing, was full of fantastic special effects, but was still grounded in conventional science. Most people who are reading this blog already know that the Carpenter film was a remake of a 1951 film The Thing from Another World, which was in turn adapted from the John Campbell story Who Goes There?. In The Thing, an alien life form is able to “take over” our terrestrial life forms, replacing their cells with its own cells, and perfectly imitating the original life forms’ appearance, memories, and personality. Aside from mind-bending special effects, the creepy thing about this movie is that your friends may not be your friends. Even creepier, you  yourself may be a Thing and not even know it yet. Creepiest yet, if the Thing were able to replace all life on the planet, there would be one species constantly hunting and eating itself in its many forms, making life on earth a sort of grotesque biological recycling facility.

The “Thing” in the process of imitating a dog.

There are aspects of the Thing’s physiology and behavior that the characters can’t explain, but it’s clear that these things eventually could be explained by science. At the end, science and good-old-fashioned masculinity save the world from this stealthy form of alien takeover. Even though it’s implied that the two surviving characters will meet a bad end, it’s reassuring that the world is safe and order is restored.

As we’ll soon discuss over the next few days, this isn’t the case with Prince Of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.

 

Happy New Year from My Horrific 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.”