Posts Tagged ‘Guillermo del Toro’

I’ve mentioned things like “Lovecraftian horror’ or “cosmic horror” before on this blog, but I’ve never really gone into what those terms mean. And given that someone on the Internet is probably wondering what those terms mean and I need a break from trying to figure out how to end a short story, I thought I’d take a moment to look over what it means when horror fans call something “cosmic horror.”

I actually summed up cosmic horror pretty well last month with a little joke that I shared on my social media. Here’s how it goes:

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Yog-sothoth.

Yog-sothtoth who?

Your mind couldn’t handle the answer.

Now you’re probably confused by that joke. But in actuality, it summarizes what cosmic horror is pretty well. Namely, there are answers and truths to questions that the human mind can’t handle. And not just answers, but even beings, beings that don’t fit into any sort of recognizable mythology or concept of good and evil. In this sort of horror, humanity is the equivalent of ants in the grand scheme of things, and if they come across any of the things that they shouldn’t–beings of unimaginable size and power, truths that go against everything we’ve ever believed, abilities and technologies that seem blasphemous to human viewpoints–the very contact could kill us or drive us insane. And even if our minds survived in some recognizable state, we would be forever changed. And probably not for the better.

If you haven’t grasped why that’s so scary, let me use an analogy: imagine you’re a farmer living in England in 1066, and a man from the year 2166* comes by and tells you that the world isn’t flat, but round; that the Earth flies around the sun and not the other way around; and that space is a cold and mostly empty void rather than a sphere surrounded by God’s Heaven and angels. Well, you’d obviously think the man from 2166 was crazy. But then he takes you back to his time, and he lives on a ship orbiting the Earth. You see the round Earth below while you float weightless in space and see the dark void beyond Earth. And things like science, gravity, etc. mean absolutely nothing to you. And everything’s new and strange to you, lights too bright and shadows too dark, and the sounds you hear make no sense.

Can you start to see how this could tear at someone’s mind? That someone could be afraid of this?

A universe of incomprehensible beings and terrible secrets is the basis of cosmic horror.

And that’s why cosmic horror has been so popular since HP Lovecraft basically created it back in the early 20th century (which is why it’s also known as Lovecraftian horror). It basically takes the old Judeo-Christian concept of good vs. evil, God versus the Devil, etc, which is essentially a closed and somewhat understandable system, and throws it wide open to a universe where there are multiple forces, none of which are easy to grasp or empathize with, let alone categorize into good vs. evil.

But how do you write it? Well, it’s more than including big, powerful beings that drive people mad (though that is often a feature). They’re more a vehicle for the broader theme: a sense of helplessness, that the universe is big and dark and full of awful things, that humanity is inconsequential and our dealings with the big players never lead to anything good. That, and a sense of untapped mystery can’t hurt. Think the first two Alien films or a dark version of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s aliens, and you might get the idea.

If you want a better grasp of cosmic horror, I’d suggest looking at some of Lovecraft’s stories.** I recommend The Temple, The Call of Cthulhu, and The Dunwich Horror. I also recommend checking out other writers who use cosmic horror, including Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and so many more. Heck, I’ve got a few stories that have some cosmic horror in them. If they ever get published, I’ll let you know.

Cosmic horror can be hard to wrap your mind around sometimes, but once you do, it can open you to all sorts of terrible worlds. And if you can stand what you find, perhaps you will delve deeper. Just be careful when you do. You might not be the same when you come up, after all.

Do you like cosmic horror? What cosmic horror works would you recommend to the unitiated?

*Assuming humanity lives that long, what with global warming and a rising population. You know it’s true!

**If you can stomach his racism. Yeah, I love his work and contribution to horror, but I hate what he believed. If he were around today, I’d either punch him, ignore him for being an asshole, or recommend he take some anti-anxiety medication, get some therapy and maybe some exposure to other communities.

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Well, it’s been a year since I last had a Lovecraft binge (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for my previous binges). And while I didn’t read any actual Lovecraft stories in the year (holy cow, that long?) since my last binge, he was certainly never far from my mind. I read a lot of fiction influenced or modeled after his work, including the Lovecraft/YA novel Awoken* (read my review here), shopped around my own Lovecraft-themed story The Red Bursts (still working on that), and wrote an article about why there’s not more adaptations or even a cinematic universe based on his work. No, surprise, after all that I was ready for another dive into his work. And boy, did I enjoy the eldritch swim.

So if you’re not familiar with HP Lovecraft (and I’d bet good money that you’re not), he was an early 20th-century author whose ideas and stories proved very influential on storytellers like Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Allan Moore, among others. He’s considered the father of cosmic horror, the idea that humans are basically ants in our universe, that there are beings and truths so great and terrible that even glimpsing them can cause madness and death. It’s pretty bleak stuff, if you think about too much about it (which I have).

So this time around, I read “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Lovecraft’s only finished novel, “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “History of the Neconomicon” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” as well as several fragments, one letter excerpt, and one parody story, but I won’t go over those. And I got to say, these were definitely some of the most enjoyable of Lovecraft’s stories. They were consistently creepy and kept me engrossed in the story, as well as with the most accessible language (dude liked to pretend he was a contemporary of Poe, rather than a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway). Or am I just used to his style now?

The interesting thing about these highlighted stories is, they also mark Lovecraft’s shift from pure horror to science-horror. Sure, he’s done that before–“Herbert West: Reanimator” is the story of two men trying to discover the key to bringing back the dead using science, a theme also explored in “Charles Dexter Ward,” but more thriller and magical than science-fiction–but here there was definitely a more sci-fi element in his work. “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” both involved aliens, with the former involving a sort of alien infection and the latter involving aliens that have been visiting Earth for centuries.

Why did Lovecraft make this shift? Well, around the time these stories were written–late 1920’s and early 1930’s–was also the birth of science fiction as a proper genre. Pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories were huge sellers, and since pulp rags like these were where Lovecraft normally published his work, he would’ve been aware of the young genre and its exploration of humanity’s possibilities through space exploration, technology, and aliens. It’s no surprise that he’d take elements from those stories and give them a freaky twist. And lo and behold, it led to Lovecraft writing some of my favorite works by him (especially “Colour Out of Space.” God, that was freaky, considering that what happened in that story could maybe happen in real life).

Honestly, I’m glad I decided to check out HP Lovecraft two-and-a-half years ago. Sure, his early works can be hit-and-miss, but as time went on, he got better. And by this point in his bibliography, he was very good at writing stories that stayed in your mind. It’s a shame he didn’t achieve more of a following during this time, because maybe then we’d have more works by him (sadly, he died in 1937 at barely forty years of age), and he’d be more well-known today.

And while I’m done with my latest binge, I’m looking forward to my next one, whenever that is. Especially if the stories from this point on are as good as the ones I read this time around. And seeing as At the Mountain of Madness is the next story in my collection, I’d say that’s a definite possibility.

Have you read these stories or others by Lovecraft? What are your thoughts on them?

*Funny story about Awoken: so I follow this woman named Lindsay Ellis on YouTube (check out her channel here) who does a lot of videos on our media and culture. Yesterday she uploaded a video about whether or not the hate over the Twilight franchise was warranted. During said video, she mentions she and friend/frequent collaborator Antonella “Nella” Inserra wrote Awoken as a parody of Twilight, only with Lovecraft characters instead of vampires. My mouth hit the floor. I had no idea that the novel was a parody of Twilight, let alone written by those two women under a pen name. Though now that I think about it, it explains quite a bit.

I reached out to both women on YouTube and Twitter, letting them know that I read the novel, my ignorance of its authorship, how much I actually liked it, and that I reviewed it on this blog. They asked for a link, and I sent it to them. Since then, I’ve gotten hundreds of views from their readers/viewers on that one review, and the number of reads is still growing. Wow. Didn’t expect that. Pretty cool. Probably won’t last a week, but it’s still cool.

Also, I learned about Poe’s Rule: if you write a parody of something, unless you ad a healthy dose of comedy, people will think it’s serious fiction in a particular style. Which is apparently what happened to me, as these readers are telling me. Good to know.

Guillermo del Toro’s films are very much like Tim Burton’s films: there’s a distinctive feel and style to them that sets them apart from other films. A tendency towards the strange and the dark, creatures not oft experienced by man nor treated that much in modern fiction, etc. And such is the case with his latest venture, The Shape of Water, which del Toro says was inspired by when he saw Creature from the Black Lagoon as a kid and was disappointed that it wasn’t a romance between the Creature and Julie Adams.

I have to say, all these decades later, the concept has aged well.

The Shape of Water follows Elisa, a mute custodian at a government facility in Baltimore in 1962. One day, the facility receives an amphibian-man creature from South America, which is kept in a room that Elisa cleans. The two start interacting and romancing, leading to a plot to save the creature from the facility and those who would do him harm.

There’s a lot going for this film. For one thing, it’s beautiful. Everything from the sets to the costumes looks right out of the late 50’s, early 60’s, the lighting is used in different ways to highlight moods and atmosphere, and there are even throwbacks to classic films from that period, including a short musical number that I feel like was inspired by the ones American Horror Story does every couple of seasons. The acting is also pretty stellar: Sally Hawkins as Elisa is wonderfully expressive through facial expressions, body language, and sign language. Octavia Spencer (can that woman do no wrong?) and Richard Jenkins as Zelda and Giles, Elisa’s friends, are full of pathos and charm. And Michael Shannon as the antagonist Strickland, while feeling like a hammy caricature at times, is entertaining to watch on screen.

And oh my God, the make-up on the Amphibian Man (which is his listed name in the movie, I checked). That is award-winning stuff. It looks so real, and as far as I know, mainly CGI-free. That’s really impressive.

All that being said, there were a couple of issues I had with the film. For one, once you kind of understand what sort of film you’re watching, you can kind of guess the plot. It’s been done before, though not with Amphibian Men. So if you can guess the story archetype, you probably will guess where the story is going to go.

There’s also this theme of tolerance and the difficulties of otherness that pervades the film, which you would expect. There’s the Amphibian Man, which isn’t even human. Elisa is mute, Zelda is black, and Giles is gay. Obviously, the filmmakers are going to bring this up. And I’m not opposed to that, I love stories that explore the difficulties of being on the outside for no other reason than being who you are. The problem is, the theme is handled differently from scene to scene. In some scenes, like a scene midway through the movie at a diner, it’s handled very well. But at other times, the handling feels kind of clumsy, which kind of brings down the impact of the theme.

Regardless, this is a wonderful film. If you’re going in for a science-fiction/horror story, you won’t get that. But if you go in for a visually appealing and well-done love story with some sci-fi elements, you’ll end up getting your money’s worth at the theater.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give The Shape of Water a 3.8. Take a dip into a strange new world, and see for yourself if there’s something to love here.

Now if only del Toro could do an adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, which he tried to do a few years ago (but only after I’ve read that particular HP Lovecraft story). That would be awesome.

For a while now I’ve been reading The Complete Collection of HP Lovecraft on my Kindle. I figured it was about time, seeing as I haven’t been very exposed to his work up until this point, and the man has been a huge influence on greats like Stephen King, Allan Moore, Guillermo del Toro, and quite a few more. And since I am always looking to learn from other authors, I figured I should spend ten dollars of Amazon gift cards and see what happens.

Well, you get what you asked for. I didn’t realize that when I bought the collection, that it was 1112 pages! The length in itself is not such a problem, I’ve read books that long before. The thing is, Lovecraft…well, he’s hard to get through sometimes, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, there’s his style, which goes a little something like this:

And as I treaded up the stairs, filled with an anguish that panged the organs within my bosom to no end, I found my wife waiting for me in her chambers, her frown prominently featured upon her face. And I knew that my life had been transferred into a situation seriously detrimental and quite hazardous to my health, for that face on my wife at this hour could only mean that she had discovered my liaisons with Ellen the hotel maid from down in the village. I had endeavored to keep our trysts unknown from all but the walls of Ellen’s room, however it seemed that I was not secretive enough, as evidenced by the porcelain my wife volleyed at my head.

Okay, that’s a bit of a parody, but you get my point. Who talks like this?

Also, some of his early fiction isn’t that good. “Memory” is just a weird little flash fiction piece about a ruined city and a conversation between two beings about the city; “The Street” is about the houses on the titular street killing Communists after the street goes from a nice neighborhood to a slum; “Polaris” and “The White Ship” are obviously both dreams taken too literally, and “The Tree” is just not scary.

Also I noticed that so far, very few women appear in the stories. Several characters are mentioned as having wives, but so far the only woman who has any actual significance is the titular character of “Sweet Ermengarde”, and that’s a story parodying popular romantic melodramas of the day! But given that Lovecraft had a strained relationship with his mother, a turbulent one with his wife, and was dominated by his aunts in the later parts of his life, maybe that has something to do with it.

Lovecraft makes you wonder if maybe this guy is coming for you.

However, while I have my problems with Lovecraft’s early work, I have to admit that some of his stories do hit the mark, and even are a little scary. “The Tomb” is definitely somewhat chilling, as is “Dagon” and “The Picture in the House” (the former bears resemblance to Cthullu stories, while the latter has implications of murder and cannibalism). And I actually very much enjoyed “The Temple”, which was very strange and creepy.

I can’t say about the rest of his work, but for the early stuff I think what makes the successes so great is that they leave impressions on you. They make you think to yourself, “Imagine if that actually happened. That would be kind of creepy…” And then you take a look around yourself to make sure that a slippery slimy creature or some guy with wicked magic or something isn’t near you. Lovecraft is very good at leaving those sort of feelings with you. He makes you wonder, makes you think that there’s something just beyond the corners of our eyes or in the darkest parts of our world that we don’t understand, can’t understand, and that any interaction with that something or somethings would be very dangerous for us.

So there is definitely a reason why HP Lovecraft has stuck around and become well-known as a writer of weird and terrifying fiction. And as I progress from his early work to the stuff that he’s more famous for, like “Call of Cthullu” or “The Colour out of Space” or “History of the Necronomicon”, I’m sure I’ll find more reasons to like this guy (hence the reason this post is titled Part 1).

In the meantime though, I think I’ll take a break from his stuff. Like I said, he’s great when he’s good and I’m already learning a lot from him and seeing some of his influence on my work already, but he’s dense and hard to get through, and after so much of prose like my parody paragraph, I need a break if I’m going to continue someday. Besides, I finished on “The Nameless City”, which has that famous quote in it. You know the one:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

I can’t think of a better stopping point than on a creepy story that has that weird couplet in it. Can you?