Wednesday, March 24, 2010

We're Going to Get Bloody on This One

If you’ve read Lovecraft you know the man had tells. I’ve mentioned his worship of the god that is setting. He defines the term “story of the weird” with his eerie backdrops and other-worldly creatures. His other-worldly language and names for these monstrosities is also one of his great strengths. Most of the time encounters with these abominations leaves the people in his stories broken mentally or dead, but rarely bloody, rarely grotesquely maimed.

Not this time.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” gets bloody, and the story is better for it. Poor Walter Gilman is another of Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists who has stumbled into the greater world of other dimensions, witchcraft and death. He is something of a math whiz, and this knowledge coupled with his unfortunate dwelling conspire to pull him into Keziah Mason, the Black Man, and Brown Jenkin’s trans-dimensional world of shadows.

Lovecraft has an excellent concept in this story: that advanced math and old-world folklore combine to unlock the secret knowledge of trans-dimensional travel, immortality and the ability to move through solid objects. A scoop or two more of quasi-scientific knowledge and this story comes dangerously close to science fiction. Some of the details of witches and their dark powers are described by Lovecraft: “The hidden cults to which these witches belonged often guarded and handed down surprising secrets from elder, forgotten aeons; and it was by no means impossible that Keziah had actually mastered the art of passing through dimensional gates. Tradition emphasises, that uselessness of material barriers in halting witch’s motions; and who can say what underlies the old tales of broomstick rides through the night?”

Gilman has recurring dreams that grow stronger and more vivid containing a bent crone of a woman and the little rat-creature Brown Jenkin. These tour-guides-from-hell drag him through to other dimensions inhabited by horrors only Lovecraft could conjure.

Each morning Gilman awakes with physical evidence of having left his bed, but no evidence that he left his room: “At once he saw there was something on the table which did not belong there, and a second look left no room for doubt. Lying on its side – for it could not stand up alone – was the exotic spiky figure which in his monstrous dream he had broken off the fantastic balustrade.”

I have no evidence that this is the first instance in fiction of physical evidence being retrieved from the dream/subconscious level of existence and being brought into the physical/corporeal world. However, it has to be one of the earlier, if not the first, instance of this sort of plot point. Modern readers will recognize this sort of thing from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in which dream monster Freddy Krueger can kill you in your dreams and your living body dies in its sleep. Later the “Matrix” movies make use of this sort of thing in which a person’s mind is in a “game” and if a person is killed in the game/matrix their body dies in the real world.

This, for us today, is not an original idea. As I read this story I was struck by how original this might have seemed to Lovecraft’s earliest readers.

Gilman gets pulled further and further into this other dimension and is included in hideous blood rituals that kill toddlers. He tries to stop this ceremony to no avail, and eventually is killed for his attempts at stopping these acts. As Elwood, a fellow tenant and student, befriends and tries to help Gilman he witnesses Brown Jenkin dispatch Gilman most gruesomely: “It would be barbarous to do more than suggest what had killed Gilman. There had been virtually a tunnel through his body – something had eaten his heart out.”

Earlier in this story as Gilman fought the crone Brown Jenkin also bit and bled to death a two year old gathering the baby’s blood in a rune-covered light metal bowl. As I said in the opening, this is a very grisly and blood-soaked tale by Lovecraft standards. This actually comes as a bit of shock and that is a welcome addition to the narrative.

As with nearly all Lovecraft the exposition-style of storytelling is frustrating and drags things to a crawl. Once a person knows this about Lovecraft you can make your peace with it and read Lovecraft for the other pleasures he provides. However, “The Dreams in the Witch House” has some logical disconnects and plot points that conspire to scuttle the overall narrative.

First, I love the coupling of math, witchcraft, other dimensions, and folk lore. I think this is brilliant, and the promise of Gilman “stumbling” into this knowledge and the other-dimensional witches coming to him through his dreams all works well.

But after the contact is made with Gilman the reader is left asking why? Why did they include him? I thought they would try to kill him to keep their secret and to maintain their other-dimension hiding place. When they didn’t try to kill him I wondered what their purpose was. He didn’t help them do anything. He fought them when they killed the two year old boy, and then they do kill Gilman.

This is a plot point that could be solved with just a couple lines of dialogue:

“Who the heck are you people?” Gilman asked looking around the other-worldly landscape.

“I’m Keziah Mason,” she said.

“The witch? What do you want from me?”

[Insert any reason for their contact with him you’d like.]

However, this conversation never takes place. This is a big deal as it is kind of the heart of the story. Gilman cracking the code of these other dimensions is great. Lovecraft could have had him stumble upon these baby-killers in the walls. He could have had them trying to off Gilman. Instead it’s played as a half-assed middle ground that just doesn’t work very well.

The other major logical disconnect is the lack of options Gilman has. Lovecraft almost alleviates this when he has Gilman move in with Elwood on the second floor. But fresh rat holes and eerie lights descending around this room aren’t enough to motivate Gilman to hit the road. He just goes further and further into these other-dimensional dreams and eventually to his doom.

It’s too passive. He’s too passive. He’s a student, and a math genius. Why can’t he fight? Why can’t he stand and fight The Black Man? Why can’t he step on Brown Jenkin? I cheered when he kicked the little deformed rat, but it just bounces back and eats his heart out.

The story doesn’t need Walter Gilman to win. He’s against some pretty major foes, foes who have defied death for a long time and who know the secrets of the dimensions far better than he does. But he goes too easily into this story. A little more fight in him and this would be one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. But he’s too weak and that weakness saps the story overall.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Mother Will Love the Satan Right Out

It’s all there, right in front of the reader, and in front of Rosemary. Ira Levin wrote such a tight, straightforward novel and at the same time open to all kinds of interpretations when he gave us “Rosemary’s Baby.” The story is simplicity itself: young couple is finding their way in the big city, he wants to climb the ladder of his business, in this case acting, she wants to have kids and start a family. Within that simple family dynamic all the horror in the word resides.

Levin winds this story so tightly that with each quiet little revelation you feel the tension tick up a notch. Yet, even as the story is coming to a close the reader is rooting for Rosemary to be wrong. Each of her worries: the history of the building, Terry’s suicide, the tannis root, Guy’s whereabouts and how he came to have tickets to a show, Hutch’s coma, Donald Baumgart’s blindness, all of it really could be mere coincidence. The reader, for Rosemary’s sake hopes so. But of course she isn’t so lucky.

From the first meeting with the Castevets Levin shows his hand. Sure, it’s just a peek, but the clues are all there. Roman Castevet says: ““No Pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike”” (Levin 55). Later in that same conversation Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary’s husband, responds: “Guy smiled. “Well,” he said, “that’s show biz”” (Levin 56).

The disdain for the Pope and God in general, are right there for the reader to see. But Levin has his story so well written, the reader not only sees the seeds of the Satanists the Castevets turn out to be, but also how Rosemary is an outsider and Guy is fitting right in with them. “Rosemary, in one of the straight-backed chairs, felt oddly out of things, as if the Castevets were old friends of Guy’s to whom she had just been introduced. “Do you think it could have been a plot of some kind?” Mr. Castevet asked her, and she answered awkwardly, aware that a considerate host was drawing a left-out guest into conversation” (Levin 61).

The story continues to isolate Rosemary and to draw Guy into the circle around her. Not long after the dinner party at the Castevets Guy is alone with Roman for a while. Rosemary is visited by Minnie and Laura-Louise and given the necklace Terry was wearing when she committed suicide. It is a charm full of what the Castevets call “tannis root” that Rosemary thinks stinks. She decides not to put it on. Guy responds “Guy, in the doorway, said, “If you took it, you ought to wear it”” (Levin 70).

This kind of tension building continues as Rosemary is further ostracized (or is she just being paranoid?). Levin never plays dirty tricks on the reader; he places it all out there for us to see. We see the moment Guy either joins the Satanists directly, or at least they act on his behalf by striking Donald Baumgart blind. This is offstage; the reader is with Rosemary at a play called The Fantasticks. When she returns the whole house smells of tannis root. Rosemary just assigns the odor to the charm Minnie gave to her. The reader knows there is more to it than that as Guy is scrubbing himself in the shower.

Near the end of the novel Rosemary runs into the person Guy said he got the show tickets from. He never gave them to Guy. This minor piece of information is nothing in the grand scheme of things, maybe just a simple misunderstanding or a lapse in memory on Rosemary’s part. But by the time this information is revealed we’ve seen Hutch, Rosemary’s surrogate father, lapse into a coma, heard odd music and chanting, watched Rosemary have an unusual and painful pregnancy. Even more, we’ve watched Rosemary systematically get cut off from the rest of the world.

All of this tension building, this tight plotting, this excellent set up and building of suspense shows master craft work by Levin. He truly has a masterpiece of suspense here. It’s no wonder it’s stood the test of time.

However, my favorite aspect of this story is that it doesn’t turn out to be some paranoid delusion on the part of Rosemary. Everything she fears comes true. Levin gives the reader, and unfortunately Rosemary, a real supernatural encounter with Satan. This is done in a dreamlike haze as Rosemary has been drugged, but it is real. It did happen, as Rosemary learns when she breaks into the Castevets apartment in the final scenes of the book.

To take a supernatural occurrence like that, and place it within the relatively mundane (but interesting and well written mind you) confines of a New York City apartment? That is the essence of horror. To take a relatively absurd concept (sex with the devil) and give it a concrete real-world adult application is impressive. For me, that is where the great horror lives.

Finally, once the reader gets to the end and realizes that Rosemary isn’t a paranoid basket case (but the reader is never really sure until Rosemary sees the picture of the burning church in the Castevet’s apartment, you really do have to wait that long), Levin isn’t through with the surprises.

You’ve guessed the group has conspired against Rosemary. You’ve guessed that something untoward is happening. When Rosemary finally sees her baby (Andrew, not Adrian) she is horrified by his eyes, Levin could have ended it there. The movie ends it there basically.

Instead her maternal instincts take over. Sure, he’s Satan’s spawn, but he’s also half hers: “He couldn’t be all bad, he just couldn’t. Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one …” (Levin 244).

So, instead of Rosemary leaping out the window like Terry did before her. Instead of using the knife to kill her baby, Rosemary becomes his mother. It’s a great twist, and, even better, a believable twist. Rosemary is a bit of a pushover (voted the way Laura-Louise wanted her to, letting the Castevets steamroll her time and again, etc.), but she really is the only good person in the whole book. She trusts, and the reader believes (or really wants to believe) that she can foster that goodness in her baby boy.

Beyond that, it is a blunt and, once again, obvious point by Levin about the power of good and evil. If Rosemary is the only good, and obviously Satan is the focal point of evil, then their child has the potential for both, just like all of us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

We're Going to Innsmouth, Bring the Tartar Sauce

This story has so much potential it is frustrating how it loses narrative momentum three quarters of the way through. Many of Lovecraft’s hallmarks are here: abundant and lush (too lush, I’ll explain later) setting, other-worldly creatures, underground tunnels, a hapless or bystander type narrator, and a twist ending (sort of).

Innsmouth is a dying coastal city in which rumor and legend hide a truly horrible transformation. The slowly decreasing population has a distinct “Innsmouth look” described as such: “His age was perhaps thirty-five, but the odd, deep creases in the sides of his neck made him seem older when one did not study his dull, expressionless face. He had a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears.” As the reader continues in this story that “Innsmouth look” strikes fear as you learn that this isn’t just some family trait, this is the outward visual manifestation of a horrible transformation taking place, and it is happening to the entire town.

As always, Lovecraft bows at the altar of setting in this story. The reader is treated to pages and pages of seaside ruin, empty decrepit houses, seafronts and factory buildings, ocean surfaces and architecture. This attention to setting derails the narrative momentum of this story in Chapter IV. For seven pages, a full quarter of the story, the reader is treated to an absolute overkill of details of buildings and train tracks, windows and walls as the narrator escapes the fish-frog hordes searching for him. This section should have been full of suspense and dread. This section should have had the reader on the edge of their seat. Instead the reader is waiting for the whole cat and mouse (or human and fish-frog if you like) affair to end.

Why? On page one Lovecraft ruins the suspense by telling us it was this narrator who called in the government. We know he (or she) is going to live. We know there is no real danger. Chapter IV ends with a parade of fully transformed fish-frogs making their way past the narrator as he hides along the forgotten train tracks. This is good stuff, the “big reveal” if you will, but it comes seven pages after the reader has been lulled to sleep.

The fish-frogs themselves are outstanding. Once again, Lovecraft has dug into the crust of the earth and found an other-worldly evil that universally creeps out the reader. The idea that there are millions upon millions of these things down in the depths is terrifying. The best use of these creatures to strike horror in the reader is this: “For at a closer glance I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were far from empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town; and even at my vast distance and in my single moment of perception I could tell that the bobbing heads and flailing arms were alien and aberrant in a way scarcely to be expressed or consciously formulated.”

Hordes of anything are usually scary, hordes of fish-frogs who sacrifice humans and mate with other humans really have the reader freaked out. As the story goes and the reader thinks back to the description of Joe Sargent (the bus driver) the line between human and the “Innsmouth look” and the fish-frogs who come shambling out of the water is made. The idea of not being able to blink, of limbs elongating and becoming webbed, of gills growing out of the soft flesh of your neck truly does horrify a reader.

But then we come back to a plot point I found “fishy” if you’ll allow the Innsmouth pun. Lovecraft tells the reader through the drunken ravings of Zadok Allen that once the transformation is near completion a lot of the newly formed fish-frogs take trial runs down into the depths. This is an excellent plot point and one the narrator desire illustrates well as the story closes. As the transformation nears completion these near fish-frogs are boarded up in homes and shunned from the light of day.

If they seek water, and truly live in water, why wasn’t water more of a plot point for Lovecraft? Why wasn’t the town dotted with ponds or pools? Why didn’t Innsmouth build a canal or dig the harbor into the heart of the city? I kept waiting for the narrator to discover the underground tunnels (a Lovecraft staple, he loved the idea of subterranean connections, he probably loved the subway system) were actually underground canals. If that didn’t happen I was expecting the waterfalls the bus drives over to get into town to come into play as a place budding fish-frogs go to frolic and stretch their gills. I know, personal expectations cannot be blamed on the writer, but if the water and the drive to return to the water were so important to the transformed, then water could have played a bigger role in this story (and could have been used to up the creep factor as well).

Now we come to the narrator. He ends up becoming what he dreads in this tale. That seemed to come out of left field, but wasn’t a deal breaker. After reading the story, though, and knowing of the town’s long history of oddness, disappearances and superstition, the reader does wonder one thing: what is so special about this narrator that his stories and explanations were enough to motivate the government to swarm in record numbers to essentially eradicate the fish-frog threat. From the opening of the story: “The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting - under suitable precautions - of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront.” The narrator goes on to tell of a submarine that torpedoes the Devil Reef as well.

So, what gave this narrator the power to get action that all the rumors, gossip, and disappearances previously did not? It seems a minor question, but one that is pretty important after completing the story.

All in all, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” works on one level (creepy). With a little tweaking, and a more real-time narrative voice, this story could work on every level (creepy, tension filled suspense, vested interest in the narrator, good narrative flow). Fish and/or frogs are not by themselves creepy or horrifying. Humans generally dismiss them as lower creatures. Lovecraft takes that notion of the lower creature and twists it to make them superior to humans. In doing so he takes a rather mundane animal and makes it creepy. That is a great credit to this story. Taking that element (creepy critters) and ratcheting up the other elements of storytelling and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” could have been a masterpiece.