By Kimberly Smeltzer
Where do we find Lovecraftian horror to write about?
If asked in the real world, it can be quite a pin-dropper.
I asked this in a review I did recently for Matt Carpenter’s anthology, “A Lonely and Curious Country“. Now, its premise was that we can find Lovecraftian horror in unexpected places, not just in the usual hotspots: Miskatonic University, Innsmouth, Arkham, the Blasted Heath, and so on. Unfortunately, a number of the stories in there were set in those very places, and this was my only real gripe about the anthology. Not that there weren’t plenty of stories that delivered on the premise: there certainly were.
But it raised the question: just where DO we find Lovecraftian horror, if not in the decrepit town of Innsmouth, the dusty libray shelves of Miskatonic, etc.?
I posited that Lovecraftian horror can indeed be found anywhere. Among the examples I gave were an amusement park, an abandoned radio station, and a moving shoe box by the side of the road, just off the top of my head. I’d like to go a bit further than that now.
Let’s take a look, first, at that good old standby: Innsmouth. Now, Innsmouth is a fantastic setting for horror for one whopping reason: its parent story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a great example of the herd mentality. In fact, any cult anywhere is going to be a great example of this, but let’s stick with Innsmouth for a minute.
An entire town is the villain here. Fear of the horde is a primal human fear, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth illustrates this beautifully. It’s part of the reason zombies are as wildly popular as they are: it tickles the primal fear of the horde that we all share, as well as fear of The Other. Its protagonist has no idea what is in store for him as the Innsmouthians search the town for him and he barely makes his escape. We feel that fear along with him as he hides in desperation.
So where else can we find a horde to fear besides sunny old Innsmouth? Well, try any ball game. Try any rave. Try any tent revival. Try any political rally. Go there, and say something against their team/music/religion/political figure. Watch what happens.
You suddenly don’t want to do that, do you? Yeah, me neither.
This is not even touching on the more popular religions of the day and the insane lengths people will go to to defend their religion of choice.
But since I went there, let’s go there.
You practically can’t turn on a TV today without hearing something about extremists of some kind. Islam is a popular subject for the newshounds, but it’s far from the only one. Extremists come in all shapes and sizes, sadly. The Westboro Baptist Church has been having all kinds of fun giving their religion a bad name over the years. Christianity itself was considered a cult in its early days.
Now, here in the U.S., we have freedom of religion, which means that people are free to practice their religion in alleged safety. This means the emergence of many a once-hidden religious practice out into the open, or it’s supposed to. Most are pretty harmless. But can we not find, perhaps, Nyarlathotep’s name scrawled in a teen’s diary one night, or devotees to Shub-Niggurath trekking out to the woods on some warm spring night? Can we not find, perhaps, a pyschiatrist’s notebook teeming with notes about the strangely similar dreams her clients have all been having lately?
But weird cults aside, Lovecraft wasn’t all about religion. He was about science and banality and the unknowable. Which brings us straight to Miskatonic. The dusty shelves of the forbidden section of the library is both seductive and terrifying.
Two things: the unknown and the isolation.
The unknown is perhaps the ultimate primal fear. It’s the reason we fear the dark. It’s the reason we fear public speaking, why we fear the initial stages of a relationship. Because we have no idea how we will be received. Will the audience start throwing tomatoes at us? Will our intended laugh in our face and leave us in the dust? Will we accidentally wander into the forbidden section of the library (do those even exist? If so, COOL!!!) and read something we shouldn’t?
The allure and the mystery of Miskatonic is that anything could be happening there. There could literally be anything lurking amongst those echoing halls, hidden in those library shelves, waiting for innocent hands to seek them out. Lovecraft’s constant theme song is “This Knowledge Is Too Terrible To Know”. So many of his stories start with the narrator directly warning the reader: Do not read this story! The contents herein are not meant to be known! You will be happier not knowing what I know!
This is both an allure and a terror. We are hard-wired to be curious about the world, and at the same time terrified of what lies outside the safe little box of our knowing. When we step into Miskatonic, we are putting ourselves out there for everything to find. We are endangering our minds and souls with every book we brush past in the library, with every darkened classroom that we sneak past without knowing why, with every mysterious new teacher or student we are introduced to, every strange sheet-covered class experiment.
Come to think of it…this is totally high school. Huh.
And with that, we come to the dread of every single teen in high school: Isolation.
Have you ever been called up to the front of the class, then forgotten what you were going to say? Or suddenly gotten tongue-tied and felt every judging eye in the room centering on you like the Terminator? And you’re all alone with no one to save you and the clock ticking slower and slower and is that pee you feel dribbling down your leg? …Yep.
Isolation is yet another primal fear, a throwback from our early nomad ancestors, when your punishment for being bad was being left behind when the group moved on. Isolation meant you were predator food. And of course, it meant your chances for procreation were zero. Fear of rejection is still one of the very hardest to overcome. Isolation is still taboo even today.
Now…combine isolation and the unknown, and you have yourself a tunnel of terror from which there is no escape.
What lies out there in the dark? What is it that’s waiting to eat you slowly? With no one to listen to you scream?
Where else do we have the unknown and isolation? How about that broken-down old cabin in the woods? Or that abandoned research station outside of town? What REALLY happened to shut down that old high school? What’s with that mysterious word scrawled onto the boarded-up window of that old bed-and-breakfast? Did that old planetarium on the hill REALLY shut down over zoning permits…? Hmm…
The arctic serves a similar purpose to Miskatonic in Lovecraft’s stories. We have the isolation, and we have the unknown. But there, we have the added bonus of clear, constant physical danger: a nastily harsh environment that is trying to kill you at all times. If the cold doesn’t get you, the wildlife will. Not to mention the million-year-old virus that’s been waiting underneath the ice for just the right research team to dig up a nice lethal ice core for study.
But then we have still one more added bonus, which is another basic premise of Lovecraftian horror: an uncaring universe. Yes, the environment is trying to kill you, but it isn’t personal. You’re just…there. Sorry.
Now, this can be more difficult to go out and find than most. Humans have tamed a good portion of our environment and nestled ourselves in it, and it seems easy to survive when we’re all cozy in our centrally heated homes, with food just ten minutes away at the grocery store. But plunk us down in the middle of, say, the forest, with no survival skills and no cozy RV to jump into. Or the desert. These are other popular backdrops in Lovecraft’s writings, and they all work for the same reasons.
Isolation, the unknown, a harsh environment, an uncaring universe that barely knows you’re there…
Oh heck. We’re right back in high school again, aren’t we.
So with all this potential hanging about in the ether just waiting to be plucked, why don’t we ever see Lovecraftian Horror: The High School Years? Why don’t we see The Horror That Came From the Planetarium? Why is it so easy for us to default back to Innsmouth, when there are perfectly good revival tents and political rallies and football games that could be plumbed? Is it really because they’re such good old standbys for some reason? Is it that the names are immediately recognizable to those in the Lovecraft community and are quicker to invoke feelings of dread and disgust?
Or is it that we just never really think to wonder what might be lurking in the back of the refrigerator? That we cling to the disconnect between ourselves and our little world, and the alien worlds dreamed up by Mr. Lovecraft? That thinking that the horrors are lodged firmly in the book instead of right under our noses protects us from them?
Do we really want that protection? Really?