Thursday, June 11, 2009

HP Lovecraft, Spatial Explicity

Here's something I never thought I'd do in public: discuss HP Lovecraft.

I was driven to do this because I just finished The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It is a big, attractive hardcover release about vampires. These are your worm-like, Klaus Kinski / 'Salem's Lot vampires. Klaus is insanely beautiful AND does a good Nosferatu. Not everyone can do that.

(CUT long para describing the three species of vampires and their complete literary history)

The Strain is another telling of the Bram Stoker classic. Think of it as CSI Dracula. I couldn't put it down until, oh, about half way through when it turns into Hot Zone Dracula. One infection after another. No surprise that the vampires are going to get ahead of the silly humans, right? Still, there are some nice touches in the book.

What does this have to do with Lovecraft? The evil nemesis is named Eldritch. By using this fine old Lovecraft word, I believe the authors were trying to summon the idea of The Old Ones, and apply it to their equally old master vampire. But by starting with the Dracula story I, the reader, could not shake my preconceptions of previous vampire masters from other novels and movies. In this I was not disappointed. The new boss was the same as the old.

So this got me thinking about why the Lovecraft reference didn't work in this context, and I came up with two conclusions. The first is the most obvious: By giving the vampire master in The Strain so many walk-ons, he was scary but he certainly wasn't mysterious or unknown. The second observation is that Lovecraft fiction is always spatially explicit. More about that in a minute.

How do you know when you're reading Lovecraft?
Others can summarize far better, but I recognize HPL when I read about the existence of a horror from beyond that influences and feeds upon human society, yet remains mostly hidden until some bright guy follows a thread that leads to ultimate knowledge. This knowledge includes the futility and meaningless of human life in the face of this indestructible force. After the revelation, our bright guy is insane.

(CUT self-serving para about how serial killer porn is a form of HPL.)

In the viral model of vampire lit, vampires quickly overwhelm their host community, they're lurking on every threshold and chaos reigns but vampires are for the most part visible and easy to kill. Even the master can be killed. A call to arms results in a final cleansing, and even if some survive, we still have the refuge of daylight. It's essentially hopeful, and so is The Strain (despite the fact the authors are promising two more of these books). I would not say that Lovecraft is hopeful, except for the notion that knowledge of the true nature of the world is always better than ignorance.

Let's look at this spatial, geographical issue. In Lovecraft there is another world, an unsafe world, cocooned within ours. Maybe it's underground, in sub-basements. Maybe it's in some twisted streets in a bad part of town that you could swear weren't there yesterday. Maybe it's Antarctica—inaccessible to most but very much a part of our world. But in each story, it's a real place and the evil inhabits it.

A modern author who owns the Lovecraft geography is Peter Straub. Sometimes it is just a scent, while in other novels he dives in. But it is always present, a delicate awareness of place that exists outside our daily awareness. Straub is probably the only author who's given me dreams. Note I didn't say bad dreams. Just dreams… because I want to find those places too.

Anne Rice does good geography and atmosphere, but it is not hidden or unknown. Like her vampires, the places are normal because the vampires make them normal. The Strain attempts to define territory by using the subway system under the ruins of the World Trade Center, and making a point about how vampires are drawn to places of tragedy and evil. But the geography was predictable. Nasty, but not inhuman. The chance the authors had to inculcate that place with powerful evil was lost, even though they had modern tragedy at their finger tips.

Another guy who does great spatial evil is Mikal Gilmore in Shot in the Heart. Every place he talks about has a dreamy, Lovecraftian sense of disorientation. I'm familiar with many of the Oregon locations. They are truly haunted for me now, as if the tragedy had been present all along and I just hadn't seen it.

From a writer's point of view, setting does half the work of characterization. Say the words Derry, Carpathia, Crouch End. You know where you are. The Eldritch name set me up to expect perilous dis-location, when The Strain is a more traditional vampire story.

Who is my favorite vampire of all time? The terrifying and dangerously sexy Gary Oldman. Every girl needs a guy like that to lure her away from hearth and home.

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