Friday, June 24, 2016

Yoo-hoo, Cthulhu

After sporadic participation for two years in a writing group where everyone is pretty much dedicated to genre fiction, I decided to join the crowd. I've started by reading a few tales by H.P.Lovecraft (1890-1937) about the secretive and threatening interstellar people who live among us, especially in various places in New England. Their leader or god or some such being is named Cthulhu, which I gather is pronounced "Ka-thu-loo." Or "Khlûl’-hloo" (see note).

The Cthulhu worshippers have a lot of other gods and leaders too. Sometimes they live under the sea and sometimes they fly from outer space into mountainous areas like the Himalayas or Vermont. They always smell bad and look scary; details vary. Sometimes they want to kidnap humans and take their brains. Sometimes they intermarry with humans and produce a new and creepy hybrid race. The stories I read were always about someone who tries to learn too much about them and then escapes and tells his story. Whatever the story line, they are VERY VERY scary and make us think of all the alien types of humans that we hate. After all, the genre here is horror. This special case of horror was invented by Lovecraft. Other writers have been imitating or adapting Lovecraft's creations for something like the last 80 years.

Before this new influence in my life,
I knew the name H.P.Lovecraft as a rock band,
but that hasn't been relevant since the 1960s.
Anyway, I have been reading anthologies of stories by Lovecraft and his followers. Despite the hype, I think he's a pretty good author, and I like some of the imitations too.

Food in literature is always a filter that I like to use to figure out what an author is up to. In Lovecraft's tales, terrorized researchers always seem to be working alone in scary places to find out about the Cthulhu cult. From time to time, they get hungry, but they definitely have a minimalist attitude about food.

For example, the informant in the story "The Shadow over Innsmouth" arrives in the New England town of Innsmouth where the mysterious creatures live in order to learn about them and about his own family from there.

Towards the beginning he writes: "For some reason or other I chose to make my first inquiries at the chain grocery, whose personnel was not likely to be native to Innsmouth. I found a solitary boy of about seventeen in charge, and was pleased to note the brightness and affability which promised cheerful information. He seemed exceptionally eager to talk, and I soon gathered that he did not like the place, its fishy smell, or its furtive people. A word with any outsider was a relief to him. He hailed from Arkham, boarded with a family who came from Ipswich, and went back home whenever he got a moment off. His family did not like him to work in Innsmouth, but the chain had transferred him there and he did not wish to give up his job."

Making an effort to exist in Innsmouth he says: "Disliking the dinginess of the single restaurant I had seen, I bought a fair supply of cheese crackers and ginger wafers to serve as a lunch later on."

And on his final night when he is about to face off against the monsters and make his exciting escape the narrator: "looked around for a dinner of some sort; noticing as I did so the strange glances I received from the unwholesome loafers. Since the grocery was closed, I was forced to patronise the restaurant I had shunned before; a stooped, narrow-headed man with staring, unwinking eyes, and a flat-nosed wench with unbelievably thick, clumsy hands being in attendance. The service was of the counter type, and it relieved me to find that much was evidently served from cans and packages. A bowl of vegetable soup with crackers was enough for me, and I soon headed back for my cheerless room at the Gilman; getting an evening paper and a flyspecked magazine from the evil-visaged clerk at the rickety stand beside his desk."

Not to belabor the point, but the absolutely ordinary and featureless cuisine of Innsmouth is one of the big contrasting features with the local horror show going on with its residents! (Quotes from The Cthulhu Mythos MEGAPACK, Kindle Locations 4892-4836).

The monsters too may need food. So we learn from this sentence in the story "The Whisperer in Darkness" which is set in the unsettled mountains of Vermont: "They could not eat the things and animals of earth, but brought their own food from the stars." (MEGAPAK, Kindle Locations 9864-9865).

The Cthulhu Mythos MEGAPACK included orignial stories by Lovecraft (such as the ones I've quoted) and also related stories by other authors. The second book I've been reading, New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, contains Lovecraft-influenced stories: one from 1929, the rest from the twenty-first century. Many of the authors mention hunger, foods, and use eating in a many ways too varied to generalize.

Food is really not a bad way to frame horror, actually. For example, this analogy by the narrator of the story "Pickman's Other Model" (1929) by Caitlín R. Kiernan: "'Very well, Lily,' I said, moving the glass ashtray on the table closer to her. She scowled at it, as though I were offering her a platter of some perfectly odious foodstuff and expecting her to eat, but she stopped tapping her ash on my floor." (New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, Kindle Locations 491-493).

I'm finding these stories quite enjoyable, though they do not horrify me as some other stories or poems or music has in the past done. In particular, I think Neil Gaiman is the scariest novelist in my reading experience. The Graveyard Book and Coraline are eerie! And those are supposed to be for kids!

However, for the purest and most beautiful horror I can imagine, I recommend Jesse Norman's recording of Der Erlkönig, poetry by J.W.von Goethe, music by Franz Schubert. (If like me you can't follow the German words, both the original poem and a translation appear here.)



Norman's portrayal of the various voices of the song -- the father, the son, the supernatural elfin King and his daughters, and the narrator, are incredible. The drama and horror are incredible. That's all I can say!

NOTES:

The two story collections that I've been reading are:
  • New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran with stories by Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and several more.
  • The Cthulhu Mythos MEGAPACK ®: 40 Modern and Classic Lovecraftian Stories edited by John Gregory Betancourt and Colin Azariah-Kribbs with stories by by Lovecraft, T.E.D. Klein, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and several others.
On the name of the creature:
  • Lovecraft once explained  how to pronounce Cthulhu: "The name of the hellish entity was invented by beings whose vocal organs were not like man’s, hence it has no relation to the human speech equipment. The syllables were determined by a physiological equipment wholly unlike ours, hence could never be uttered perfectly by human throats... The actual sound – as nearly as any human organs could imitate it or human letters record it – may be taken as something like Khlûl’-hloo, with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The u is about like that in full; and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound, hence the h represents the guttural thickness." (from "Ten things you should know about HP Lovecraft")

On the Youtube video:
  • Youtube videos sometimes disappear and no longer show up as embedded videos -- if that happens to the one I've embedded above, I recommend that you google "Erlkonig Jesse Norman Youtube" for a replacement.

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