During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I spent the whole of a steaming afternoon reading Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” a novella that left me chilled and horripilated in spite of the oppressive heat.
Whoa, that really happened, I told myself. By which I didn’t mean that the government had buried the findings of the hapless Miskatonic University expedition to the Antarctic, though burying the findings is just what the expedition leaders do in the story. I didn’t (much) believe that there was a ruinous megapolis of barrel-bodied and star-headed Old Ones in the icy waste, or that protoplasmic shoggoths still oozed through its halls and tunnels, merrily detaching the heads of all they encountered via a suction that would make a Dyson convulse with envy.
What I did believe, and what had happened, was that I had found another path into the stories I wanted to tell as a fledgling writer. It was a path darker than Tolkien’s road going ever on, and even more far-flung than Cherryh’s star routes, despite coming so perilously close to home.
I didn’t think in terms of an artistic credo. That sort of terminology would have to wait until well into my college career. I thought: “I want to write something that makes another reader feel this way, cold and goose-bumpy on a hot summer day, exhilarated by horror.”
Exhilarated? Can’t be the right word, can it?
Lovecraft made me think it could be.
An initial xenophobic lens is often evident in Lovecraft’s fiction, with anything beyond mundane human experience to be view with suspicion, even abhorrence. For instance, the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” tells us that humanity’s threatened by “terrifying vistas of reality,” i.e., we aren’t the only or the oldest or the toughest gang in the cosmos, nope, not by a long shot. Therefore we must either “go mad…or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Can’t deal. Just can’t. The horror! Lovecraft’s protagonists, including the Professor Dyer who narrates “Mountains,” are forever bemoaning their loss of Mythos virginity and trying to protect others from a similar fate.
And yet these protagonists are ravished in both senses of the word: “carried off by force” and “enraptured.” Confronted by the weird, theirs is a dual reaction, one both of horror and amazement, shrinking and attraction. They shouldn’t read that book (usually the Necronomicon), or question that babbling old codger who’s the sole (human) witness, or enter that underground labyrinth (of night and abnormality and unaccountable fetor.) They always do, though, because weird stuff is too cool to resist, and even if expanding one’s mind to cosmic proportions hurts, still, you end up with a bigger mind. You know the real scoop. You’re the Wedding Guest, damn it, sadder but wiser. You’re the cat curiosity killed, but satisfaction brought you back.
About that real scoop, and those revelations that inspire the horror and wonder at the heart of the weird tale: to be effective, they need to punch hard, and that can only happen if we believe in them long enough for the fist to hit home. That requires a balance between the familiar and the outré, and for both to be handled with precision. In Lovecraft’s best stories, he minutely describes his monstrous subjects and the build-up to their discovery. In “Mountains,” we get details on the Miskatonic University expedition that include its members, its financing and provisioning, its transport, its routes down to the latitude and longitude, and the specs of that crazy Pabodie rock drill that makes its program of strata sampling feasible. Slowly Lovecraft filters in the weirdness, without losing any of the exactitude. For example, biologist Lake’s dissection of a dead Old One is a masterpiece of cryptoscientific description. Like his ghoulish painter, Richard Upton Pickman, Lovecraft aspires to capture “pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity.” He is no romanticist but a “thorough, painstaking, and almost scientific realist.”
Returning to that which (at least temporarily) killed the cat. Without curiosity, there could be no science, nor any escape from xenophobic aversion into sympathy. In Dyer’s shocked eyes, the Old Ones are at first only “radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn,” but after exposure to the mural art which no strangeness of geometry and technique can render less than sublime, he realizes they are fellows of another species rather than abominations pure and complex. He can pity their return to a home destroyed and regret their deaths in the plastic embrace of the shoggoths they once ruled. He can exclaim, “Whatever they had been, they were men!”
Who knows? If the shoggoths would take a break from vacuum-decapitation, maybe Dyer could come to appreciate even them. At least from a safe distance.
In the end Dyer writes: “Half-paralyzed with terror though we were, there was nevertheless fanned within us a blazing flame of awe and curiosity which triumphed in the end.” Doesn’t that horrifying yet thrilling triumph always shine through in the best weird fiction? After all, if our characters didn’t read those arcane books and open those thrice-locked doors, crawl into those caves and chase those shadows, we’d have no weird fiction.
And that would be a fate worse than shoggoths.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available June 24, 2014 from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.