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Thursday, November 29, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft part 5: At the Mountains of Madness (part 1)

For the past few weeks I've been perusing some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, as selected by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi in his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. This week we continue our sampling of Cosmic Horror with one of Lovecraft's few novels and perhaps his most ambitious work: At the Mountains of Madness.

H.P. Lovecraft had a life-long interest in the Antarctic regions, going all the way back to when he was twelve and wrote treatises on the early explorers. Perhaps his strange sensitivity to cold which made him unable to bear temperatures lower than 20 degrees gave him a morbid fascination with the polar regions. More likely is the fact that by the early 20th Century, Antarctica was one of the few remaining unexplored regions on the globe; a blank spot on the map which the imaginative writer could populate with his own creations.

One of Lovecraft's role models, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym involving a voyage to the South Polar seas, which Lovecraft references in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft closely followed news accounts of the real-life Antarctic voyages: Shackleton's failed attempt at the South Pole which ended in triumph, and Scott's successful one which ended in tragedy; and more recently, Byrd's airplane flight over the Pole. Mountains of Madness incorporates elements from all of these and more.

The narrator is unnamed, as is frequently the case in Lovecraft's stories. I have to wonder if this is an aspect of Lovecraft's theme that man is an inconsequential speck in the cosmos; that the character's exposure to Cosmic Horrors has not only threatened his sanity, but somehow diminished his sense of identity. In a later story, however, the character is identified as Professor William Dyer.

Dyer is a geology professor at Miskatonic University and leads an expedition sponsored by his school to the Antarctic. But he begins his narrative by telling us that he relates his tale only with the greatest reluctance. He and his colleagues, the ones who survived, all agreed to supress the complete facts of the expedition; and Dyer has only broken this silence to prevent a new expedition from inadvertently stumbling into the horrors they found and releasing... ah, but that comes later.

The chief mission of the expedition is to collect mineral and fossil samples from the Antarctic Continent, using a revolutionary drilling apparatus devised by Professor Pabodie, the team's engineer. Lovecraft describes the progress of the expedition in detail, and for a while all goes well. The drill works perfectly, and Pabodie has devised a melting system to get down to the base rock in places where it is covered in ice. (The idea that core samples of the ice might be valuable as well does not seem to have occurred to Lovecraft, although perhaps it just lies outside the interest of Dryer the geologist).

Lake, the chief biologist with the team, becomes excited by unusual triangular striated markings in in a layer of slate, which he believes to be the fossilized prints of an unknown creature. It was known in Lovecraft's time that Antarctica once had a tropical climate rich with plant and animal life. Shackelton had discovered seams of coal there during his expedition. But the unusual striations are found in a pre-Cambrian layer of rock dating back to a time when there were few known life-forms of any complexity.

Lake persuades Dyer to let him take the four planes and some of the men and equipment to a previously unexplored region of the continent, hoping to find more samples of Archean slate with these fossil imprints. Dyer and the rest of the team remain behind at their current base to prepare for their next move. And so Dyer does not actually witness Lake's discoveries. Like the men of Dunwich watching Sentinel Hill through a spyglass in "The Dunwich Horror", we get what happens next second-hand.

The initial radio reports from Lake are exciting. His team have discovered an unknown range of mountains even higher than the Himalayas; so high that their tops have been swept clean by the high Antarctic winds and are completely devoid of snow. The upper slopes of these peaks bear peculiar clusters of box-like formations which Lake initially attributes to weathering and erosion. Bad weather forces one of Lake's planes down on a plateau in the mountains' foothills, and so he establishes a camp there.

Although the rock formations of the plateau are a comparatively recent sandstone and not the ancient slate he was hoping for, Lake sets up the drilling equipment. That is, after all, what they're there for. The apparatus breaks into a wide cave in a layer of limestone, stretching out in all directions. The cavern contains a treasure trove of fossils, evidently plants and animals washed into the cavern at some point in the Pleistocene Era. Among the fossils, Lake's team finds more of the strange triangular tracks they had found in the Archean slate 600 million years older. They find something even more peculiar: several pieces of green soapstone, roughly star-shaped, each with a series of tiny dots in a regular pattern.

Then they find the Thing.

At first it seems to be a large fossilized plant, barrel-shaped and about six feet in length, with five ridges spaced out around its circumference. It has wing-like membrane apendeges. The specimen is not stone, as a true fossil would be, but it seems that the tough, leathery stuff of its form has somehow been preserved. They find more specimens that are more complete and find that they seem to have groups of flexible arms on each body ridge and a starfish-shaped head on the body's top. In one of his radio dispatches, Lake says:
"Complete specimens have such uncanny resemblance to certain creatures of primal myth that suggestion of ancient existence outside antarctic becomes inevitable. Dyer and Pabodie have read Necronomicon and seen Clark Ashton Smith's nightmare paintings based on text, and will understand when I speak of Elder Things supposed to have created all earth-life as a jest or mistake."
Clark Ashton Smith was one of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents, who was a poet and and artist as well as a writer. Lovecraft's suggestion that life on earth -- including human life -- was an accident rather than the result of Intelligent Design -- or worse yet, a practical joke by the gods, fits in again with his theme of Man's Insignificance.

Lake finds a total of fourteen of these "Elder Ones" as he calls them and hauls them back to his camp. This is difficult, because the dogs they brought along to haul the sleds on overland trips detest the smell of them and become highly agitated in their presence; much as the dogs of Dunwich hated Wilbur Whateley. He notes that the flesh of these creatures seems to be softening somewhat under the rays of the antarctic sun, and resolves to study them.

That is Lake's last radio message. A storm comes down off the mountain with tremendous winds which cut off all contact. When the storm ends, Dyer is unable to raise Lake's party. Since each of the airplanes Lake took had a wireless, it seems impossible that all the radios should be irreparably damaged. So what happened?

Dyer has the expedition's fifth plane brought to his camp from the expedition's initial base on Ross Island, and takes the rest of his team to find out what happened. The flight is a long and a trying one, but eventually they reach sight of the impossibly high mountains. As they approach, they see a bizarre mirage over the mountains of a weird Cyclopean city.

Lake's camp, when they arrive, is a shambles; apparently wiped out by the windstorm. The tents and the ice shelters Lake's men tried to build have been wrecked; the drilling equipment smashed. Eleven of the twelve men in Lake's party are dead, and one man, named Gedney, is missing. Dyer says little more about what they found at this point, other than to say that the next day he and Danforth, one of the graduate students with the expedition, took the plane into the mountains to explore further; and that after returning from that trip Danforth was close to a nervous breakdown and all the men of the expedition agreed to keep silent about it all.

NEXT WEEK: What did Danforth see, or thought he saw, that brought him to the brink of madness? What did he and Dyer find on the other side of those dark and gigantic peaks? And what ever happened to Gedney? Next time we cross over into an incredibly ancient world to discover the secrets of The Mountains of Madness! Tekeli-li!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft Part 4: The Dunwich Horror

We've been looking at a few of the stories of horror master H.P. Lovecraft, as selected by S.T. Joshi for his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Previously we listened to the scrabblings of "The Rats in the Walls" and squinted "The Colour Out of Space". This week we once again visit the more eldrich corners of backwood New England to experience 'The Dunwich Horror.'

There's a saying that to an Englishman, a hundred miles is a long way; and to an American, a hundred years is a long time. We've seen Lovecraft play with this type of scale in "The Rats in the Walls", where he set his story of generational evil stretching back to prehistoric times in England, whose rich, layered history has room to accommodate such a span; and in "Colour Out of Space", where the narrator assumed that the dark rumors about "the strange days" come from ancient legend and is surprised to learn that they occurred within living memory.

Perhaps one of the reasons Lovecraft set so many of his stories in his beloved New England was because as one of the oldest colonial settlements in America, it possesses a sense of depth to its history that, say, Ohio or even New York lack. The ancestors of the Whateley family in the story originally left the town of Salem in 1692 Readers don't have to know that was the year of the Salem Witch Trials to make the association. Lovecraft goes back even further, mentioning circles of standing stones which crown some of the hills in the area, evoking an atmosphere of prehistoric, or at least pre-European times. (Although a curious comment in the text suggests that the stones on Sentinel Hill overlooking the village of Dunwich could be of "caucasian" origin. Does he mean the early white settlers? Or an unknown group of pre-historic white men predating the local Indian tribes? Characteristicly, Lovecraft does not elaborate.)

Lovecraft begins his story, like many of his others, by establishing the atmosphere of the setting. This is something he does quite well. Although he gets some justified mockery for his over-use of shambling, amorphous  non-euclidiean adjectives, he usually saves them for later, when the actual horror begins to encroach. He is quite capable of establishing a tone of quiet menace without them. I think he learned this from Poe, who said that every sentence in a short story ought to go to creating a single mood and that this should be established at the very beginning.

He describes the tiny village of Dunwich, in north central Massachusetts. You could describe it as a Town that Time Forgot That the Decades Cannot Improve... only not in a pleasant, Lake Wobegon-ish way. It was settled, as mentioned, by families fleeing from the Salem Witch Trials; some of whom brought with them the dark practices the Salem Puritans feared. In isolation, many of these families have become inbred and degenerate.

Two of Lovecraft's favorite horror themes, which no doubt come from his upper-class New England upbringing, are inbreeding and miscegenation, both of which invariably lead to degeneration. This is perhaps most obvious in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" but we get it here too in the family of Wilbur Whateley, a clan of New England rednecks, despised and a little feared by their more respectable neighbors. (Throughout the story, Lovecraft differentiates between the the decadent Whateley's and the comparatively undecayed branch of the family.)

Old Man Whateley has a reputation as a wizard, and his old farmhouse holds a large collection of old books inherited from his heretical forebears. A widower, he lives alone on his farm except for his daughter Lavinia. She is described as an albino with crinkly hair and has some other undescribed deformity, the nature of which Lovecraft leaves to the imagination.

One night Lavinia has a son. Who was the father? The neighbors have their theories, and Lovecraft is too much the gentleman to voice what those rumors are. Old Whateley, however, says "Ye needn't think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts."
"I calc'late her man is as good a husban' as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn't akt no better church weddin' nor her'n. Let me tell ye suthin; -- some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!"
The child, Wilbur, is dark, as opposed to his albino mother, and has a goatish look to him. He is born on Candlemas, an obscure feast day of the Christian Church which corresponds to one of the four important celebrations of the Witch's Sabbath, (and which has been reclaimed as a celebration by modern Wiccans). Throughout the story are other mentions of Christian feast days with pagan connotations.

Lavinnia is proud of her ugly son and mutters about the great powers he will have and his tremendous future. The boy does seem exceptional. He grows at a remarkable rate and is able to walk and to speak at an early age. His mother takes him with her to the bonfires she lights at the stone table and megaliths atop Sentinel Hill on Hallowe'en and other significant holidays. She keeps him buttoned up in clothing which covers almost his entire body. Dogs and other animals seem to instinctively dislike him.

The Whateley's have little to do with the rest of the community. The only contact they have is to buy livestock. After Wilbur's birth, Old Whateley begins buying cattle from his neighbors, and paying in gold -- very old gold coins. Oddly enough, the size of Whateley's herd never seems to increase much; and his livestock always seems thin and sickly, bearing strange wounds on their necks.

Old Whateley also begins renovating parts of his farm. He starts with one of the old sheds, which he repairs with fresh clapboards and a new lock. Then he begins working on the unused upper floor of his farmhouse. He guts the floor, pulling out all the walls and partitions and boarding up the windows, and eventually removing even the ceiling so that the story is open to the attic. Visitors to his farm notice that a vile odor comes from the shed. They also hear noises of something large walking around in the upstairs part of the farmhouse. Wilbur's room, like that of his mother and grandfather, is on the ground floor.

Whateley teaches his grandson to read from the many ancient, arcane and blasphemous tomes that have come down through the family. "He'd orter hev 'em as well sot as he kin, tho they're goin' to be all of his larnin'."

By the time Wilbur is four years old, he looks like he's fifteen; he's growing fuzz on his face and his voice is beginning to break. He carries a gun with him when he goes into town to protect himself from the dogs, who become violently agitated by his presence.

He is about eleven years old, and by all appearance a fully grown man, when his grandfather dies. The doctor from the nearest large town is summoned, but can do nothing to save him. The whippoorwills are gathering outside the house and raising a tremendous racket. It is believed in that area that whippoorwills come for the souls of the dead and dying -- "psychopomps" is the word Lovecraft uses -- and Old Whateley is sure that they are coming for him. Old Whateley has some last words for his grandson.
"More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows -- an' that grows faster. It'll be ready to sarve ye soon, boy. Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant tha ye'll find on page 751 of the complete edition, an' then put a match to the prison. Fire from airth can't burn it nohaow."
The doctor doesn't know what to make of this and puts it down to the ravings of a dying man. It makes sense to Wilbur, though.

His mother is starting to become worried about him. The pride she felt at how special he was is becoming overshadowed by fear. He's doing something and she doesn't fully understand what it is. And she cannot speak to anyone about what she does understand. Sometime later, the whippoorwills are heard again around the Whateley farm, and Lavinia is never seen again.

Wilbur moves all his books and belongings into another of the sheds in the farmyard, and then starts gutting the inside of the rest of the farmhouse, carefully boarding up all the windows and doors, just as his grandfather had done previously. He has now grown to about seven feet tall. And about this time he ventures out into the wide world.

He travels to the town of Arkham, to visit the Library of the great Miskatonic University. Well, maybe "great" is an exaggeration; in another story Lovecraft calls it a minor college; but it does have an excellent collection of rare and arcane books of occult lore, including the legendary Necronomicon.

A few words about the Necronomicon. I think August Derleth erred in calling his organizing of Lovecraft's stories the "Cthulhu Mythos." The central unifying element in Lovecraft's foetid oeuvre is not Great Cthulhu, but rather the Necronomicon, that celebrated compendium of dark and eldritch lore, compiled by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred in the 8th Century. The book turns up in several of his stories, often providing helpful information about Elder Gods and/or driving its readers to madness. In the 1970s there were a couple books published with that title, claiming to be the "real" Necronomicon, but they were rather pedestrian hoaxes about your ordinary garden variety of occultism. The True Necronomicon in it's purest state exists only in the ravaged imagination of Abdul Alhazred... whom Lovecraft invented.

Wilbur has his own copy of the Necronomicon, a worn and damaged edition of John Dee's English translation. Dee was an actual historical figure, an occultist who was a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth, and Lovecraft's friend Frank Belknap Long added a connection between Dee and the Necronomicon in one of his own stories. Wilbur wants to compare his own copy to the superior Latin translation in the M.U. Library, particularly the portions corresponding to page 751.

The librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, dubiously permits Wilbur to look at the book; but he's frankly suspicious of the strange creepy young man who sets the dogs on campus howling. He knows a little bit about Wilbur, having heard about the young prodigy with the interest in the occult and visited him a couple years earlier. He's even more suspicious when he looks over Wilbur's shoulder to see exactly what he's reading: a passage about the Old Ones who dwell in a space other than our own and who someday will rule again when humanity is no more, and about Yog-Sothoth, the guardian of the gate to the Old Ones' dimension. Wilbur asks to borrow the University's Necronomicon, but Armitage refuses.

"Maybe Harvard wun't be so fussy as yew be," Wilbur says as he leaves.

This encounter with the now adult Whateley has confirmed some suspicions lurking in Armitage's mind. He muses on the rumors about Wilbur he heard in Dunwich.
"Inbreeding?" Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. "Great God, what simpletons! Shew then Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal!"
"The Great God Pan" was a story by the English fantasy writer Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft's influences. The main character in the story is the offspring of a human mother and a non-human creature of great power; much like Wilbur Whateley.

S.T. Joshi calls "The Dunwich Horror" a flawed story, and criticizes Henry Armitage as a as a rather conventional and boring horror story hero. I'm not sure I agree. I don't think Armitage is the hero. Oh yes, he figures out what Wilbur is up to and he is ultimately the one who defeats the Horror, but he isn't the protagonist. Wilbur is. Wilbur Whateley is really the central character and the most interesting character in the story. Despite what happens to him next.

Wilbur doesn't get Harvard's copy of the Necronomicon either. Armitage has written ahead to warn them. He's beginning to get desperate. He needs that book; but he also needs to get back to his farmhouse. He left Something back there which needs looking after.

A couple weeks later, Armitage is awoken by the campus watchdog who has caught someone trying to break into the library. Then the dog's growls are accompanied by an inhuman scream... and a chorus of whippoorwills. The dying body Armitage and his colleagues find on the floor of one of the library's reading rooms in a puddle of greenish-yellow ichor is unmistakably Wilbur Whateley. It is also definitely inhuman. Wilbur's head and hands were man-like, if ugly and goatish; but the watchdog has torn away his coat revealing a hideous chimera of a body.

Even more astounding, after his death, much of Wilbur's body simply melts away. Whateley was the union of a human and a creature from another universe whose physical laws are different from our own. Just like the meteorite in "Colour Out of Space", his physical mass was incompatible with our universe and could not remain long without something holding it here.

Wilbur's business in Arkham is left unfinished. The something he left behind in the farmhouse will have to fend for itself. The real Horror is about to commence.

A couple weeks later, the folks around Dunwich hear reports of something monstrous and huge lurking in the hills. The hired boy working at a nearby farm comes across footprints as big as barrel-heads of a creature bigger than an elephant but with many, many more legs. Another boy reports that the old Whateley farmhouse has been destroyed. It looks like it has been blown up with dynamite, and foul, dark, sticky substance coats the wreckage.

The locals come to the obvious conclusion. Wizard Whateley "must a raised sunthin; in that there nailed-up haouse as ain't even so human as he was." But the authorities in the nearby town do not take these reports seriously, and the local newspaper prints a humorous paragraph about the "record-breaking monster the bootleg whiskey of Dunwich had raised up."

The people around Dunwich see nothing funny about it. Something destroys Elmer Frye's barn and kills half their cattle, draining them of blood. The next day tracks are found going up Sentinel Hill, where the Whateley family used to perform their wild rituals.
Thursday night began much like the others, but it ended less happily. The whippoorwills in the glen had screamed with such unusual persistence that many could not sleep and about 3 a.m. all the party telephones rand tremulously. Those who took down their receivers heard a fright-mad voice shriek out, "Help, oh, my Gawd!..." and some thought a crashing sound followed the breaking off of the exclamation. There was nothing more.
A group of men go out to the Elmer Frye place the next morning and find the house crushed like an eggshell.
...amongst the ruins nothing living or dead could be discovered. Only a stench and a tarry stickiness. The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.
Meanwhile, Henry Armitage has been busy. After Wilbur Whateley's death, the authorities had gone to the shed in his farmyard where he lived. They could not work up the courage to investigate the boarded-up farmhouse with the vile odor emanating from it, but they took away some of Wilbur's books, including one which seemed to be his diary. The diary seemed to be written in some kind of code, apparently based on an ancient language, so it was given to Armitage to decode. For the past several weeks, he's been working on it and has finally cracked it.

From Wilbur's diary, Armitage learns the true purpose for which Old Whateley groomed his unnatural grandson. Wilbur is to open up a portal to another universe and summon the beings there to earth in order to cleanse the earth of all humanity. The creature in the farmhouse was to be Wilbur's servant to achieve this. Wilbur's death in the library has forstalled this horrific plan, but what of the Other?

It is only then that Armitage hears the rumors that have come out of Dunwich and realizes that Whateley's servant is now running loose. Armitage gathers the colleagues who with him witnessed Wilbur's death and are most likely to take him seriously, and together they go to Dunwich.
The end comes where it must: on the top of Sentinel Hill, in the megalithic ruins where Livinia and Wilbur used to hold their bonfires. Armitage and the Men of Science confront the creature, armed with spells from the Necronomicon and spray-guns filled with the powder of Ibn Ghazi.

We do not get a close look at the battle. We remain with the men of Dunwich, observing it from a distance through a spyglass. The creature is invisible, but briefly becomes visible when dosed with the dust from Armitage's spray gun. It's a hideous, many-legged, tentacled creature, but most horrific is the huge half-face taking up much of the top of its body, looking horribly like Old Man Whateley. As the scientists cast their magic spells -- yes, that's what they do -- the creature cries out in agony. And it's indistinct, guttural cries suddenly becomes words in English:
"Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah -- e'yayayayaaa ... ngh'aaaaa ... ngh'aaa ... 'yuh .. h'yuh ... HELP! HELP! ... ff--ff--ff FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!..."
Lightning strikes the altar-stone on the hill, and an overpowering wave of stench sweeps over the hillside. And the the thing is no more.

The folks in Dunwich then remember what Old Whateley said years ago: some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!" Armitage confirms this. The Horror which had besieged the communtity for the past several nights was not a fiend from hell summoned by Wilbur.

"...It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."

NEXT: We continue our look into the worlds of H.P Lovecraft by venturing into the Antarctic wastes. Do you dare seek what lies "At The Mountains of Madness"?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everything Is Broken; or: It Takes a Village to Survive an Apocalypse

Everything is Broken, by writer John Shirley is perhaps not exactly a SF novel, but it does fit under the general umbrella of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. Shirley emerged on the cutting edge of cyberpunk in the 1980s-- William Gibson once called him "cyberpunk’s patient zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent". Since then has written some notable science fiction and horror, as well as political satire and commentary. The Apocalypse of Everything is Broken is a relatively small one: not a nuclear Armageddon or an ecological attack or a zombie invasion; but the catastrophe his characters face is no less frightening.

It's the Tea Party.

Russ Haver is a rootless young man who has been drifting since leaving college. Lacking a purpose in life, or more importantly, an income, he accepts his father's offer to come to Freedom, a small coastal community in Northern California. Russ isn't too thrilled about meeting his Dad, who divorced from his mother many years ago, but he doesn't have many options and he's to the point where an entry-level lawn-care job in a rinky-dink little town looks good.

Freedom is a small town with ambitions of becoming a resort community. It's name used to be Ferry Landing, but the mayor, Lon Ferrara, persuaded the town to change it to better fit his conception of a libertarian utopia.

We meet several of the residents of Freedom. Lon Ferrara, the mayor and a prominent businessman, who has gutted the town's infastructure and emergency services in the name of privatization and small government; His brother Mario, who runs the local tavern and does pretty well, mostly by going along with what his brother says.

Jill Hushbeck, a vocal member of the liberal Old Guard of the community, who used to be editor of the town newspaper before Ferrara bought it out. Brand Robinson, a weary and cynical writer. Pendra, a nice girl who lives with her grandmother next door to Russ's Dad and who becomes friends with Russ.

Then there's Dickie Rockwell, the leader of a local gang; a punk who has visions and who believes he has been touched by destiny to make Freedom his personal domain.

Russ has only been in Freedom for an hour or less when the tsunami hits. There have been reports of earthquake clusters up and down the coast for the past week; now one has triggered a tsunami which strikes the town. Like the Wrath of God smiting the sin of tacky tourist traps, the wave obliterates most of the community.

Russ finds himself with Pendra and with his Dad among the small group of survivors who band together in the aftermath of the destruction. Lacking a fire department or any emergency services, cut off from the rest of the world by the wreckage left by the wave, with no power or fresh water, they they desperately try to hang on until help can arrive.

But other people have other agendas. Lon Ferrara has just seen pretty much his entire business empire wiped out; but he still runs the town and he is not letting FEMA and the Black Helicopters take it away from him. He declines any outside aid and plans to re-make Freedom into his personal fief.
Dickie Rockwell has much the same goals as Ferrara, except he's less subtle about it. He simply loots whatever he wants and kills anybody who gets in his way. Ferrarra recruits Dickie's gang to augment his own personal militia, but it is soon obvious who is really in control.

In one scene where Dickie's gang has broken into the house of an elderly couple and is about to kill them, Rockwell launches into a rant which underscores the theme of the novel: where Ferrara's self-centered anti-government philosophy will lead.
"Oh well, the police!" Dickie said, strolling around the bloody smear. "Now they want the police! Our ol' pal Mayor Ferrara got rid of them! And you know he got rid of anything connected with 'big government,' so that means no one's here helping, which means, guess what -- real freedom in Freedom! You people are free! We're free! You're free to defend your shit and we're free to take your shit! It's like the pioneer days when they crossed a fucking mountain range and found some people living on the other side and they killed them dead and took their shit away! Now we get to do that! We came over the mountain -- so, we can just take your shit! It's the inspiration of history! Breathtakin' as the Grand Canyon! Ain't freedom grand?"
The story isn't entirely Good Liberals vs Evil Libertarians. There's a flakey New Age "life coach" and a middle-aged stoner who fit into the conservative stereotype of the liberal who are useless or worse. Ferrara even talks up "pooling resources" for the greater good, although in his case the greater good is himself. The author has a strong appreciation for the Right to Bear Arms; it's what enables the surviving townsfolk to defend themselves against the Mayor's militia. The hero, Russ, learning how to use and respect a firearm is a big part of his development from a drifting youth to joining the adults.

Thinking about this book reminded me of some of the other post-Apocalyptic stories I've read. It struck me that a lot of them were about community rather than individualism. Which is odd, given that most people who prepare for Armageddon seem to lean the other way. One of the first post-Apoc novels I ever read was Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, set in a small Florida town isolated by a nuclear war. How the people in trapped in the town work together is a major part of the story. In David Brin's novel The Postman, it's stated that what caused the Fall of Civilization was not the limited nuclear exchange, or the ecological disaster or the financial collapse -- the country could have survived all of those -- but rather the survivalists who took advantage of the crises to loot and destroy the remaining props of the social order.

Of course, as soon as this notion came to me, I thought of exceptions. Ayn Rand's Anthem came to mind, which is entirely about the exaltation of the Individual over the Group. And the hero of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold is a square-jawed rugged individualist. On the other hand, Anthem is set many generations after the Fall of Civilization and says nothing about how people initially survived. And although Heinlein is certainly a strong libertarian, he also uses as a recurring theme the individual's responsibility to the community in which he lives.

And perhaps this is a science fiction theme too. Poul Anderson, one of my favorite authors, was like Heinlein a libertarian; but he was also an engineer and I think this latter is why so many of Anderson's stories dealt with fighting against chaos.

In Everything Is Broken, the community is able to defeat the forces of chaos and so will be able to rebuild. Russ, who at the beginning of the crisis can only follow his father's lead, grows in maturity so that he is not only accepted by the "adults" of the community; he is an adult. By the novel's end, he has found a purpose in life. He's going to go back to school to study law enforcement. He wants to do something to contribute to the community.

Monday, November 12, 2012

H.P Lovecraft Part 3: The Colour Out of Space

We're going through a sampling of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose blending of science fiction and horror and a tremendous influence on both genres, selected by S.T. Joshi from his collection The Annotated H.P Lovecraft. Last week we descended into the depths of Exham Priory to discover the ghastly secret of the de la Poer family in "The Rats in the Walls". This week we investigate a horror of a different... (heh heh) ... colour.

"The Colour Out of Space" was one of Lovecraft's favorite stories, and not just because it gave him the opportunity to use the British spelling of "colour" in the title. Lovecraft felt that too many aliens in science fiction stories were simply humans in funny suits, like the "rubber forehead aliens" in some Star Trek episodes. Lovecraft saw no reason why aliens should have either human shapes or human motivations, and he strove to make his Entities From Beyond wholly incomprehensible. In "Colour" he succeeded, probably better than any of his other stories.

I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school, and it was my first exposure to Lovecraft. I didn't care for it. The story didn't seem to have a plot. A lot of things happened, but the characters mostly observed them. Or were consumed by them. And I found the ending disturbing and unsatisfying, (which is probably the reaction in his readers Lovecraft was going for). Upon re-reading it now, I can appreciate it a little better.

The unnamed Narrator of the story is a surveyor, who has been sent up to the wild hills west of Arkham to survey a new dam. The fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts is perhaps the center of the Lovecraft Universe. It often turns up in Lovecraft's stories, usually in connection with Miskatonic University, located in that town; and Lovecraft sometimes referred to those particular tales as his "Arkham Cycle". Lovecraft loved the weird, wild corners of New England and placed Arkham and the Miskatonic River right in the middle of it.

While surveying the area the new dam will flood, the Narrator finds a strange, grey patch of land; five acres of desolation upon which nothing grows and which the locals call "The blasted heath."
It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire, but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little to the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it seemed sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim. As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight.
The locals don't talk much about the blasted heath, other than to mutter vaguely about "the strange days". At first the Narrator assumes that this is some old legend of the region, but he learns that the "strange days" occurred within living memory. Old Ammi Pierce knows most about it, but people warn him not to pay attention to Ammi's crazy tales.

So naturally, the Narrator goes to visit Ammi; and after hearing the old man's story, the Narrator decides to return to Boston and resign from the job. He does not wonder that Ammi might be a little cracked or that the local dislike talking about the blasted heath; he doesn't want anything more to do with it either and will be happy when the new reservoir obliterated the cursed spot. He hurries back to town before nightfall; he feels uncomfortable with the thought of being out under the stars of the open sky.

Another writer might have given us Ammi Pierce's story in the man's own words, using the surveyor character only as a framing device. Lovecraft does not. He allows the main narrator to paraphrase Ammi's tale of the strange days. Perhaps Lovecraft just didn't want to write the whole story in dialect, which was a good call on his part; it would have been annoying. Telling the story this way lets the narrator control the foreshadowing and the pacing of how events are revealed. It also allows the narrator to fill in certain technical and scientific details which Ammi would not be able to clearly understand.

The strange days began about fifty years previous, when a meteor landed in the field of Ammi's neighbor, Nahum Gardener. The meteorite caused quite a sensation, and some Professors from Miskatonic University in Arkham came to study it.

The meteorite is quite puzzling; it shrinks in size overnight; it shows no sign of cooling; it's substance is soft and yielding rather than hard and brittle. Most noteworthy, the scientists find a globule inside it of a peculiar color, (sorry, colour), which when struck with a hammer bursts like a bubble, leaving a spherical cavity. The samples taken back to the University for study do not react with any known acids, but do react with the glass containers they are placed in, gradually disintegrating both the beaker and the sample. Most noteworthy, spectroscopic analysis of the samples reveal unknown bands of color, similar to the color of the mysterious globule. Lovecraft describes the analysis in great detail. He had an interest in chemistry in his youth and in spectroscopy in particular, and his description builds the mystery.

A couple days after the meteor lands, a freak thunderstorm comes and the meteorite site is struck repeatedly by lightning. The next day the meteorite is gone. The scientists are disappointed, but they shrug and go back to Arkham.

That autumn, the trees in Nahum's orchard grows a bumper crop of large fruit; but the harvest is disappointing. All the fruit is bitter and uneatable. The same proves to be true of the melons and tomatoes growing near the meteorite site. Nahum guesses that the meteorite has poisoned the soil somehow. His crops upland from the meteorite seem unaffected though. More strange signs appear. During the winter, Nahum notices that the animal tracks he finds in the snow seem peculiar. In the spring, skunk cabbages growing up through the mud have a peculiar colour -- much like the globule -- and emit an odor foul even for skunk cabbage.

Neighbors begin avoiding Nahum's farm, and the Gardeners stop going into town. Soon Ammi is the only neighbor to still visit the Gardener farm. He notices that their water has a bad taste to it and tells Nahum to dig a new well, but Nahum ignores the advice.

Things go from bad to worse. Nahum's wife slowly goes mad and he locks her up in her room. We think of insane family members locked in attics as something out of Jane Eyre, but as late as the 19th Century the state of mental health care was such that there were few better options for treatment, especially for poor rural families. Nahum and his sons go about their routines listlessly, like automatons, and they continue to drink the water. The animals all come sick with a strange malady, their flesh becoming grey and brittle; and all the vegetation on the farm emits a faint glow at night of a peculiar... colour.

One of Nahum's sons falls victim to the same disease as the farm animals. Another goes mad and disappears. What of the third? When Ammi asks of him, Nahum distractedly says that he "lives in the well." Ammi goes upstairs in the farmhouse to try and talk to Nahum's wife. What he finds is horrifying. She too has met the same fate as young Thaddeus and the livestock. She's just not dead yet. Her body still moves as it slowly crumbles. Ammi also encounters something like a cloud, or some hateful current of vapour and for a moment strange colours dance before his eyes.
When he returns downstairs, Nahum has also turned grey and crumbly.
"Nothin' ... nothin' ... the colour ... it burns ... cold an; wet ... but it burns ... it lived in the well ... I seen it ... a kind o' smoke ... jest like the flowers last spring ... the well shone at night ... Than an' Mernie an' Zenas ... everything alive ... suckin' the life out of everything ..."
Ammi flees the farm and goes to the police. Three policemen, along with the coroner  the medical examiner and the local veterinarian accompany him back to the Gardener farm to investigate. They find the grey remains of Nahum and his wife. Examining the well, they find the skeletons of the two missing boys.
Their investigation takes longer than Ammi would like and night falls. Light begins pouring out of the well and the trees outside the farmhouse begin to writhe on their own accord with no wind to stir them, the tips of their branches glowing like St. Elmo's fire. The very planks and beams of the old farmhouse begin to glow eerily.

A column of the unknown colour shoots out of the well, straight up into the sky, taking with it all the trees, all the wood, everything organic in the farm. The men only barely escape.

Something had come with the meteor, that was clear; something from another world, something the sucked the life out of every living thing it touched; something which had now returned to the stars which spawned it, leaving nothing but grey desolation behind it.

Or has it completely gone? Ammi has his doubts. As they fled the farmhouse, Ammi looked back and thought he saw something feebly rise after the cataclysm, only to sink back down into the well. And the toxic grey blight of the blasted heath continues to spread about an inch more every year.

Once the dam is built, the waters of the reservoir will cover the site and put an end to the last vestiges of the strange days. Perhaps. But the Narrator thinks he will not want to drink any of the water in the Town of Arkham when it does.
Meanwhile I hope nothing will happen to Ammi. He saw so much of the thing -- and its influence was so insidious. ...I would hate to think of him as the grey, twisted, brittle monstrosity which persists more and more in troubling my sleep.
NEXT:  What's with weird Wilbur Whateley? And what does it have to do with the Necronomicon? The hills are alive with the sound of "The Dunwich Horror"! Tell 'em Yog-Sothoth sent you!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft Part 2: The Rats in the Walls

Last week we took a very brief look at the life and career of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the Grand-daddy of Cosmic Horror and Elder Godfather of the Necronomicon. From here we're going to look at a few of Lovecraft's best stories, as selected by S.T. Joshi in his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. We're starting off with "The Rats in the Walls", a tale which Joshi calls "a nearly flawless example of the short story in its condensation, its narrative pacing, its thunderous climax, and its mingling of horror and poignancy."

"The Rats in the Walls" was an early story of Lovecraft's, published in Weird Tales, and considered by some critics to be the first story specifically written for the pulp market.
It's narrator, a man named Delapore, comes from a wealthy Virginia family whose founder had come to America in the 17th Century because of some un-named scandal. The records relating to this family secret were lost when the Delapore's house was burned during the Civil War, and so the narrator is ignorant of this secret when he goes to England to research his family history and buys the ancient family estate, Exham Priory.

The Priory is a ruin, having been left vacant for centuries. The locals will have nothing to do with it, and Delapore has to bring in outside contractors to renovate. The de la Poer family, it seems, has had a bad reputation going back to the reign of Henry III, and Delapore's ancestor, Walter de la Poer, murdered his entire family with the help of four servants after making a "shocking discovery" and then fled to America. That the locals do not blame Walter for this says something about the family's reputation. The narrator begins delving into his family's history with the help of Captain Edward Norrys, one of his son's army buddies whose family had owned the land on which Exham Priory stands.

Although the narrator claims to be repelled by the gruesome hints of his family's misdeeds, and is repelled by the one black sheep on the American side of his family, (a cousin who "went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War", one gets the sense that he has a morbid fascination with it all.

Shortly after moving into the renovated Priory, the narrator finds that the cats, of which he owns several, seemed to be highly agitated in the building. He notes in particular that the old black tom cat he brought with him from the States seems disturbed about something in the house.

I mention the cat in particular because it's an example of one facet of Lovecraft that many modern readers can find disturbing -- and not in the way he hoped they'd be disturbed. Lovecraft was raised as a child of privilege in an exclusively white upper-class New England home, and from that upbringing unpleasant bits of racism occasionally arise in his writing. His exposure to a more cosmopolitan environment when he lived in New York and widened his circle of friends mitigated these views to some extent; but at the same time, struggling to find work in a city flooded with immigrants helped intensify his dislike of foreigners.

We saw a hint of his racist attitudes in the narrator's comment about his cousin the voodoo priest. Here we get something a lot less subtle. Lovecraft names the narrator's black cat "Nigger Man".
I am sure Lovecraft was not intending to be offensive here. He named the cat in the story after his own cat. The cat has no connection to blacks in the story other than his color. I suspect that this was more of an unconscious, oblivious racism arising from his sheltered upbringing rather than an intentional demeaning of a race of people; I find his comment about the cousin who lived among the negroes more indicative of Lovecraft's attitudes about race than the name of the cat is. Still, there it is.

Whatever the cat's name he seems agitated about something. At first the narrator guesses that some sort of odor, undetectable by human senses, was emanating from the walls. Either that or the place is infested with rats; there was a local legend about swarms of rats pouring out of the Priory a couple months after Walter de la Poer's departure. But the workmen had found no evidence of rodents during the renovation project.

At the same time, the Narrator begins having hideous dreams:
I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with a his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.
The cat's nocturnal agitation leads the narrator down to the Priory's sub-basement, a crypt constructed in Roman times and used to worship an eastern god named Attys associated with the goddess Cybele. The foundations of the temple were believed to have dated back to the time of Stonehenge. Now the narrator can plainly hear the sounds of rats scrabbling in the walls which are driving the cats crazy.

He summons his friend Norrys and together they investigate the crypt. The cat seems intent on something underneath the crypt's big stone altar, but the two men can't budge it. Here Lovecraft does something remarkable.

He has his hero do the sensible thing.

Instead of trying to break into whatever lies beneath the crypt on their own, as characters in a bad horror movie might, the Narrator and Norrys recruit several eminent authorities, experts in the fields of archaeology, history and psychic phenomena to help investigate the mystery. Lovecraft did not like the "idiot plot" where the protagonists have to act like idiots in order for the plot to work. His heroes are perfectly willing to bring in experts to aid in facing the Unknown.

Not that it helps the protagonist much.

The Narrator and his team of Eminent Men of Science uncover an ancient stairway beneath the prehistoric altar; stairs worn down by unknown millenia of footsteps. Scattered about the steps lie bones; mostly human, but many displaying sub-human qualities, suggesting that they have degenerated. Some of these sub-human skeletons seems to be quadrupeds. They also see the bones of many rats

At the bottom of the steps they find a huge grotto; the grotto from the narrator's dream. In that grotto are several structures from varied periods of history: a neolithic circle of standing stones, a Roman ruin, a Saxon house. One of the buildings contained the remains of pens where once dwelt the pale, flabby beasts of the narrator's dreams. Most ghastly, perhaps, is the most recent building, dating to the early English period, containing a butcher's shop and kitchen.

This is clearly the secret that William de la Poer discovered; an antediluvian cult whose unspeakable practices had continued down through the Romans and through the Narrator's own family.
The Narrator ventures beyond the buildings into the dark abyss deep in the grotto. He loses track of his companions and begins to rave. His free-association rantings spiral backwards in time, going from modern English, to Elizabethan, to Middle English, Latin, Gaelic and finally degenerating into inarticulate grunts.

He ends up in an insane asylum. Exham Priory has been dynamited to forever seal the secret beneath it.
When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it, They must know it was the rats, the slithering  scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep...
Even in the barred room in the asylum, he still hears the noises of the rats, the rats in the walls.

NEXT:  HPL's Wonderful World of the Colour Out of Space! Taste the Rainbow!  Fear the Rainbow!