Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Lovecraft is Dead — Long Live the King

by Unknown

"I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the Twentieth Century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." - Stephen King

What this quote tells us is that SK respected HPL and his work but says nothing about the influence HPL may have had on the World’s best known modern horror author.

Stephen King himself (SK from now on) is fairly definite in his definitions of horror and it’s purpose. He refers to reading it as “death rehearsal” and compares the awakening of the understanding of one’s own mortality with the sexual quickening that occurs in our teenage years. Ignoring for a moment the horror tales that represent clear cut, real, fears (cold war, nuclear monsters, out of control fascist governments) the kind that SK and Lovecraft both wrote were about the shocking speed at which everyday things can unravel and take on a terrifying strangeness.

The stories we read by these authors (and of course Koontz, Poe, Tolkien, Herbert, Laws, etc) are a way of externalising the sub conscious knowledge of our own mortality in such a fashion that we can deny the contents (there’s no such thing as vampires) but still feel the real tingle of fear as understanding that something bad will happen to you! After all, compared to cancer, heart disease, war and car crashes—a plain of alien archaeology or a village of vampires is not really up to much.

We (the fans) have seen an evolution of SK’s work from straight ‘in-your-face’ horror to a far more Lovecraftian mode of suggestion and off-camera strangeness with more subtle sources of disconcertion. Where once there was the chainsaw wielding crazy there is now the soft clink of metal on metal as you lay in bed, listening. Ironically he has dropped almost all of the traditional monsters (ghoul, vampire, or alien) during this time and replaced them with atmospheric but far more ephemeral creations which are far better suited to one of Mr Lovecraft’s tales than SK’s early works.

A strange and otherworldly Buick replaced the simple monster car, Christine, although it can easily be argued that these two characters are in the same story told twice, one with a slightly different emphasis and one by a more mature author. (When SK actually wrote Tales From a Buick 8 is open to some argument and for myself I have always thought that the author in Bag of Bones who uses a stash of old, never released work to hide his writer’s block sounds a touch too auto-biographical and too flavoured by wry pain to be completely made up).

In Tales From a Buick 8 the characters are developed almost to the exclusion of the story to the point where you find yourself living and working with them every time you pick up the book. In Christine the teenage male stereotype is almost a blank in the prose—simply filling the role of victim. Ironically perhaps, this makes this story seem far more Lovecraftian simply by virtue of the lack of characterisation. Indeed, many feel that there are no main characters in some of HPL’s stories but simply spaces into which the reader can step. However, Christine contains simple cause and effect with easily understood motivations and good old-fashioned carnage. This is where Tales picks up that other old favourite of HPL—the capricious nature of the universe and essentially ineffable factors that control us all. In Tales the characters reach an accommodation with the unknowable and remain there—quite happily in most cases!

King wants you to forget that you are reading, he despises the poorly turned phrase as it forces you to pull back from the involvement required to be scared. Lovecraft, I never felt, cared that much about his reader—it was almost as if he was simply writing down what he saw.

The old and decaying creature / house / place hiding it’s ugliness with a glamour of some kind is a recurring King theme. Another is his useage of talismanic weapons to defeat evil. Yet another is his tendency to use similar character types (broken author with an old head wound anyone?) This recurring character type may be at least semi-autobiographical; certainly King described his car accident and long road to recovery in several of his books (admittedly in fairly oblique terms). This links to HPL in as much as many of his stories are meant to be based upon his nightmares. The usage of the fictional Miskatonic University supposedly also represents his dissatisfaction at his failure to attend a real educational institute of any note. These elements, although interesting, do not really demonstrate any real similarity between the authors; I believe good authors just put something of themselves into their work.

In the better of SK’s books (and I am NOT starting the debate as to which those are) the forces at work are often unknowable or have very poorly defined motivations. This is, I feel, as it should be and certainly owes something to the body of work that was started by HPL. The truly modern author assigns clear-cut motivations to everything (which I though was the one weakness of Bag of Bones—everyone had a motive) but somehow I can’t imagine that Pennywise had a bad upbringing or that the carpetbag carrying figure from Gerald’s Game was bullied at school.

It is the very imprecise nature of these monsters that often highlights the banality of everyday violence or the attending impure nature of the ‘bad’ characters. The horror that Pennywise inflicts in his thirty year cycle really only serves to highlight the terrible futures that the children involved could face and the casual brutality that the town bullies offer. I have always thought that IT and The Body (possibly the finest coming-of-age story for boys ever) felt like a single story cleaved in two with the failed lives of most of the characters in The Body representing what would [should?] have happened to the heroes from IT if they hadn’t been selected for greatness by those weird unknown forces that for some reason are represented by a cosmic turtle!?!? The character that killed himself felt like he had wandered into the wrong book by mistake—and didn’t survive the error.

SK himself talks about HPL as an influence but not his main one. The elements of HPL’s style in SK’s work are more likely to stem from the fact that they are (were) both awesome authors than from any deliberate imitation. In many ways they are polar opposites—HPL would never have written Tommy Knockers! I would argue that the single greatest influence on SK was, well, SK. I have been a fan for a very long time and during that time I have cherished many of his works as old friends (I have read two copies of The Stand literally to pieces). During this time I have enjoyed the evolution from [moderately] formulaic pieces, albeit brilliantly written, to genre defining stories and novels. HPL would never have written Apt Pupil (yes, yes I know about the dates) or Tommy Knockers. The Stand owes nothing to him (except in as much as Randall Flag is a personification of a force with no real explanation as to why). IT could possibly only have been written by SK. Needful Things initially is not a horror story in any sense that fans of HPL would allow but then Leland Gaunt’s nature is exposed and suddenly we’re back on familiar ground of the shape shifting ghoul / vampire monster.

So what am I saying? Good question. HPL is important. I love his stories. I feel some people may overstate his influence on certain authors but that doesn’t detract from him at all. I guess I’m saying this—on a train I’ll read Lovecraft and on holiday I’ll read King. One has me checking the locks on my doors and keeping a baseball bat under the bed, the other has me jumping at shadows that I can’t quite see into.

You figure out which is which.

1 comment:

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