Category: cthulhu

Close Encounters of the Cthulhu Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: written by Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Richard Dreyfus (Roy Neary), Francois Truffaut (Lacombe), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (Laughlin), and Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary( (1977): It’s amazing how much Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays like a horror movie for much of its length — indeed, like an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” The film moves from location to location to show various strange events and mysteries that occur across the planet. There’s a documentary feel to the location work and the narrative structure, as mysterious U.N. investigators led by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban travel the Earth to investigate UFO-related incidents. 

In the purposefully mundane domestic sequences that focus on dissatisfied husband and father Richard Dreyfus and single mother Melinda Dillon, we see Spielberg and uncredited screenwriter Paul Schrader ground the movie in the day-to-day life of working-class Americans. And then the UFO’s show up and gradually change everything. And as with many of the characters in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Dillon and Dreyfus are tormented by nightmares and visions as the alien arrival on Earth approaches.

I don’t know that either Schrader or Spielberg ever read “The Call of Cthulhu.” It has such a sturdy narrative approach to the creation of globe-spanning cosmic horror that it’s more of a surprise that more film-makers haven’t stumbled upon the approach before. The main difference here being that the story is ultimately about the arrival on Earth of friendly aliens and not all-conquering alien monsters. But the aliens do enough odd things along the way that a certain measure of fear recurs throughout the movie, most notably when aliens kidnap Dillon’s young son for reasons that are as murky as anything else when it comes to possible alien motivation.

The arrival of the UFO’s at the conclusion of the film stands as a high point of practical, non-CGI visual effects. It’s a showcase of model work, cloud tanks, mattes, and an assortment of other ‘tricks’ honed to near-perfection during the non-CGI years. It’s also a beautiful-looking climax, with its glowing alien spacecraft set off against the night sky and the looming stump of the mountainous Devil’s Tower.

The Lovecraftian melding of documentary-style attention to detail and the unfolding of revelations to increasingly weirded-out protagonists serve Spielberg’s vision well. The acting is solid throughout and, in the case of Truffaut’s visionary, quite charming. What the aliens are doing doesn’t necessarily make much sense, and there are some groaners in the dialogue towards the end (an exchange about Einstein is especially dumb). But overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a splendid movie, and one that probably would never be made in today’s marketplace. Highly recommended.

The Call of Cthulhu: adapted by Sean Branney from the story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Andrew Leman; starring Matt Foyer (Narrator), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Patrick O’Day (Johansen), and David Mersault (Inspector Legrasse) (2005): The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS)’s first long-form foray into film-making is now 10 years old and still dandy. An amateur film made for a pittance, it outshines most professional horror movies with far larger budgets both in its faithfulness to its source material and in its aesthetic pleasures.

Lovecraft’s seminal Cthulhu Mythos novella saw publication in 1926. HPLHS adapted the novella under the conceit that it had been adapted for film in its publication year. Thus, The Call of Cthulhu is a silent movie that looks and acts like a silent movie, right down to the occasional defects in the viewing experience (dig that hair on the lens in the early going!). 

We do get an excellent musical score, so one can either assume that one is in a 1926 film theatre with live music or that The Call of Cthulhu has had a score added for its ‘modern’ release. Whatever suspends your disbelief. But The Call of Cthulhu isn’t simply an homage to the film-making tropes of the late Silent Era: it’s a compelling horror movie in its own right. 

Clever visual riffs on Van Gogh and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seem appropriate to the subject matter; the stop-motion Cthulhu we see towards the end of the film is a terrific use of period-appropriate visual effects that actually manages to be disquieting as it lurches across the screen. Model and prop work are also beautiful throughout the movie, with a couple of different yet equally disquieting Cthulhu idols and a terrific approximation of Cthulhu’s home/prison R’lyeh, risen from the waves for a brief moment.

It’s a worthwhile expenditure of an hour to watch The Call of Cthulhu. Would that big-budget horror and fantasy movies showed this level of skill and artistry. Highly recommended.

Back to Cthulhu

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories: And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt; Appointed by Chet Williamson; Bloom by John Langan; Casting Call by Don Webb; Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan; Dahlias by Melanie Tem; Dead Media by Nick Mamatas; Houndwife by Caitlin R. Kiernan; King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas; The Abject by Richard Gavin; The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer; The History of a Letter by Jason V Brock; The Other Man by Nicholas Royle; The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; The Wilcox Remainder by Brian Evenson; View by Tom Fletcher; Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem; and When Death Wakes Me to Myself by John Shirley.

When it comes to both the general (horror fiction) and the specific (H.P. Lovecraft), S.T. Joshi’s credentials are impeccable. His emendations and annotations to Lovecraft’s fiction have been a gift to the reading public, as has his other work.

This is certainly a mostly enjoyable anthology with a somewhat misleading title forced upon Joshi by his publishers. The first of these anthologies was simply entitled ‘Black Wings‘ in its original hardcover publication, a quotation from an essay by Lovecraft about horror. ‘of Cthulhu‘ was added to the paperback release to grab the eye of the reader. However, the addition makes the title of the anthology somewhat erroneous. Writers riff here on all of Lovecraft’s output, and on the more general aspects of his approach to cosmic horror. This isn’t a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology. So if you want a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology, look elsewhere. It will probably also have ‘Cthulhu’ in the title. They’re not hard to find.

None of the stories selected by Joshi are bad in the way that Cthulhu Mythos pastiches can be bad (though I’m definitely not alone in my enjoyment of even the most clumsy of attempts to replicate both Lovecraft’s style and content). Really, none of them are bad at all. They do fall within a range that also fails to ascend beyond the level of, ‘Well, that was enjoyable.’

But wait. Was I frightened by anything here in a cosmic, metaphysical manner? No. Steve and Melanie Tem’s stories do disturb on a metaphysical level. John Shirley’s piece is a delightful romp, but not a scary one. Jason Brock’s “A History of a Letter” does a solid job as an epistolary work of mounting unease, though the jokiness of the footnotes cuts against total investment. Caitlin Kiernan’s story does invest totally in its horrific elements, but it’s a character study, not an exercise in terror.

Another problem shared by several stories is, well, an absent middle — “Dead Media” and “The Abject” pretty much jump from detailed introduction to loopy conclusion. And the loopiness of both sudden conclusions works against horror. It doesn’t help that “The Abject” has been critically overdetermined, starting with that title, which is actually attached to a large, scary rock in the story. I kept waiting for a Phallic Mother to appear and, you know, it sort of does.

Dire consequences await many of the protagonists of these tales, at a much higher rate of Dire than that found in Lovecraft’s whole output. One of the things that you can count on in modern Lovecraft-related fiction is that down endings and cosmic disaster are the norm and not something that may arrive in the near future but does not arrive in the text itself. When the disastrous ending becomes standard, that standard becomes cliche.

It’s an interesting development in horror fiction, suggesting that at least when it comes to the fiction they produce, an awful lot of today’s writers are far more misanthropic and defeatist than the notoriously misanthropic and “futilitarian” Lovecraft ever was. Some of them make me long for the Derlethian deus ex machina that ended many (but not all) of Derleth’s Lovecraft pastiches.

There may be a fairly high level of literary acumen on display here, but the endings too often echo the endings of the last twenty years of horror movies, in which supernatural evil always triumphs. And when evil always triumphs, as T.E.D. Klein noted in a riff on an earlier critic’s musings, then I don’t see what the point of the point is other than knee-jerk nihilism. Lightly recommended.

100 Years of H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s Legacy: edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg, (1990) containing the following stories:

  • A Secret of the Heart by Mort Castle: Solid tale written in a convincing homage to 19th-century diction, with a tip of the cap to all those ancient white-male antagonists in Lovecraft’s stories.
  • The Other Man by Ray Garton: Garton combines something Lovecraft didn’t really deal with (romantic relationships) with a suitably surreal and sinister voyage through the Dreamlands.
  • Will by Graham Masterton: Terrific piece of history-based Lovecraftiana featuring shenanigans in England during the Renaissance.
  • Big “C” by Brian Lumley: Fun, too long, slight. The ending seems to be telegraphed from about the second page of the story.
  • Ugly by Gary Brandner: A Lovecraftian object figures in another story of a (non-Lovecraftian) romantic relationship gone wrong.
  • The Blade and the Claw by Hugh B. Cave: Interesting voodoo tale from the venerable Cave would seem more at home in a tribute to Frank Belknap Long due to its subject matter (and Long’s classic short story “Second Night Out”, aka “The Dead, Black Thing.”
  • Soul Keeper by Joseph A. Citro: A nod to the New England landscape and the sort of weirdos hiding in it that often showed up in Lovecraft stories that include “The Shunned House” and many others.
  • From the Papers of Helmut Hecker by Chet Williamson: Delightful comic romp takes shots at a few modern writers.
  • Meryphillia by Brian McNaughton: Pitch-perfect riff on Lovecraft’s ghouls from his ‘Dream Cycle’ period.
  • Lord of the Land by Gene Wolfe: Haunting, disturbing tale of cosmic horror and Egyptian mythology in the American heartland.
  • H.P.L. by Gahan Wilson: Out-and-out comedy reads almost like a sitcom pilot for a really weird show about Lovecraft and friends/fiends.
  • The Order of Things Unknown by Ed Gorman: Tenuously Lovecraftian but still enjoyable and terse.
  • The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson: Absolutely top-level novella by the prolific Wilson combines very specific period- and regional detail about New Jersey’s Pine Barrens with the sort of quasi-documentary search seen in many of Lovecraft’s stories, and a fascinating extrapolation of regional ghost stories into a basis for cosmic horror.

A very solid anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft’s birth in 1990, this one, like most HPL-related volumes, remains in print today. There really isn’t a bad story in the bunch, though a few seem very weakly related to Lovecraft’s work. This possesses the most weirdly jaunty cover to a Lovecraft-related volume I’ve seen in a long time, because of colour choices and not subject matter. Also includes a useful, poignant introduction from Lovecraft’s friend Robert (Psycho, Star Trek‘s Jack the Ripper episode) Bloch, and similarly useful and enjoyable afterwords by the assorted authors. Recommended.

Lovecraft Again

Future Lovecraft: edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, including the following stories and poems (2011):

In This Brief Interval by Ann K. Schwader
In the Hall of the Yellow King by Peter Rawlik
Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep by Nick Mamatas
Tri-TV by Bobby Cranestone
Do Not Imagine by Mari Ness
Rubedo, an Alchemy of Madness by Michael Matheson
People are Reading What You are Writing by Luso Mnthali
Harmony Amid the Stars by Ada Hoffmann
The Comet Called Ithaqua by Don Webb
Phoenix Woman by Kelda Crich
PostFlesh by Paul Jessup
The Library Twins and the Nekrobees by Martha Hubbard
Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee by Molly Tanzer
Skin by Helen Marshall
The Old 44th by Randy Stafford
Iron Footfalls by Julio Toro San Martin
This Song Is Not For You by Avery Cahill
Tloque Nahuaque by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas
Dolly in the Window by Robyn Seale
A Cool, Private Place by Jen White
Venice Burning by A. C. Wise
A Day and A Night in Providence by Anthony Boulanger
A Welcome Sestina From Cruise Director Isabeau Molyneux by Mae Empson
Lottie Versus the Moon Hopper by Pamela Rentz
The Damnable Asteroid by Leigh Kimmel
Myristica Fragrans by E. Catherine Tobler
Dark of the Moon by James S. Dorr
Trajectory of A Cursed Spirit by Meddy Ligner
Transmigration by Lee Clark Zumpe
Concerning the Last Days of the Colony At New Roanoke by Tucker Cummings
The Kadath Angle by Maria Mitchell
The Last Man Standing by Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso
Exhibit at the National Anthropology Museum in Tombouctou by Andrew Dombalagian
The Door From Earth by Jesse Bullington
The Deep Ones by Bryan Thao Worra
The Labyrinth of Sleep by Orrin Grey
Deep Blue Dreams by Sean Craven
Big Bro by Arlene J. Yandug

This really is a collection of short stories and poems, which explains why a 350-page book has so many entries jammed into it. No novelettes allowed, much less novellas! Most of the works appear here for the first time, with a few exceptions.

As the title isn’t Future Cthulhu, some selections have only a vague aura of Lovecraftian menace hanging about them. “The Last Man Standing,” for example, is a nice little story that would perhaps be better found in an anthology called Future (Mary) Shelley.

Other stories pile on the references to the work of Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, and others of their ilk to such an extent that they read like hypermanic fan fiction — “In the Hall of the Yellow King” probably most of all reaches a level of intertextual inertia that starts off amusingly and ends up in the Hall of Inutterable Goofiness (a female spawn of Cthulhu! With boobs! Seducing…oh, never mind).

There’s some nice work here, whether the droll offering from Nick Mamatas, the documentary riff by Tucker Cummings, or the pitch-perfect “The Damnable Asteroid,” whose author gets the fact that while most of Lovecraft’s stories were downbeat, their endings were not necessarily so — conditional victory over the forces of darkness was a recurring plot point, no matter how dire the overall situation. A lot of stories here instead go for the destruction or conquest of everything by dark forces; that gets pretty tiring after awhile.

I wouldn’t call this a great anthology — the poems especially are a real drag. But I’ve certainly read higher profile homages to Lovecraft that were worse, and the shortness of the works allows one to sample an awful lot of writers one may not have heard of. In general, though, I’d argue that homages to Lovecraft — and the Cthulhu portion of his body of work — are best attempted at novella length. Recommended.