Halloween Spook-off: Modern Horror vs Lovecraft

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Good evening, boils and ghouls! It’s that time of year again; Michaelmas is over, the pumpkins are growing on the pumpkin trees or whatever, and put-upon moms everywhere are slaving away on Thor costumes that will be worn exactly once. It’s time to pretend we’re all pre-Christian Celts scared of an impending solstice by reading books about octopus monsters and heavy metal bands. We’ve been doing this to ourselves for so long that that one batch of candy corn they made in 1930 is almost depleted. Many attempts have been made to perfect the art of existential terror: Shirley Jackson, Steven King, the Hanson comeback album. Are we getting better at creeping each other out, or are we living in the shadow of spoopy authors of old? Specifically, do we still need to turn to eminent typist and occasional author H. P. Lovecraft to get our chilly thrills? I have here three recently published horror stories, which I will hold up to the old master, and award points in the form of skeletons. Come into my witch’s hut (sorry for the mess; I had some children over for dinner), if you dare!

Our first story is Old Wooden Bones by Jacob Mahurien. Old Wooden Bones is a first person story in which a young hiker of indeterminate age and gender (we’ll call them Pat-tagonist) stumbles across the destructive aftermath of a terrible secret. In the backwoods of California, Pat-tagonist is enjoying the late fall weather when they lose their way and find a mysterious path that leads through unkempt hawthorns to a pristine mountain village not found on any map. The buildings have all been charred, and still smell of ash and smoke despite being apparently very old. Pat is either a looter or an arson inspector, because they don’t think twice before rummaging through the ashes looking for anything of value. And voila, they find a lump of gold one one thousandth of a football field in diameter! No sooner does Pat start schlepping back to civilization than they see smoky visions of crispy villagers, bemoaning the fact that they dug too deep, and warning Pat to return the gold. After making a valiant effort to simply ignore the dreams and visions about miners breaking through a vein of ore into a vault of pure evil, Pat finally gives in and returns the gold.

There are a lot of horror tropes going on here. The mining too deep thing and the prompt appearance of the ghosts are a little cheesy, but the story is short enough to justify this kind of Chekhov’s Uzi. The stolen gold haunting the thief shows up in about 85% of all pirate ghost stories, but it feels a little weird here since Pat’s period of torment and regret is both too short to be significant, and too long to justify given how little Pat really seems to need a giant lump of gold. This story desperately needs an Expensive Grandma Operation, or a foil best friend to help ground the main character. The lack of characterization actually makes Old Wooden Bones feel very Lovecraftian. I was reminded of Nameless City, in which a completely anonymized man digs into a city of ancient aliens. But most of all, what evokes Lovecraft is the fact that the thing that was unleashed on the town, even as it features in Pat’s dreams, is never described, and named only “the unknown.”

Lovecraft is notorious for driving the Bluesmobile right up to Daly Plaza, then copping out in the last paragraph with some statement about how the narrator could never hope to report on what they saw. Apparently he got notes on this during his lifetime, because he wrote a whole diss track in 1923 called Unnamable, in which people get scared of something and then insist that it’s so scary that it’s impervious to both nouns and verbs. I have made my feelings on this matter known in the past:

“Similarly baffling is the Lovecraft truism that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Like, literally what? My internal demons and I laugh over salad about how stupid this idea is. What’s scary is all the stuff that’s chasing me of my own creation, the stuff I know every contour of. What’s scary is that any of those voices in my mind might be right about me. Bleeding Christ, give me the unknown! Give me whatever bashful, Disney-eyed beast slouches toward the Bethlehem of your untroubled mind, Howard Phillips. Swapsies, no backsies.”

Where Old Wooden Bones succeeds is in the fact that it doesn’t matter what the evil looks like. Being told “Oh, man, I wish you could’ve been there; you woulda been hella scared” is very different from seeing the effect that something has on a mountain village and its inhabitants, and not being shown the thing that did that to them. The unenviable state of the villagers, and their persistence in advocating for their property inside Pat’s own mind, is where the spookiness ultimately comes from, not the nature of the evil itself. I am awarding one skeleton to modern horror, and zero skeletons to Lovecraft in this first round.

Next up, Dealings in the Dark by Samantha Moran. Dealings in the Dark opens with Alexandra running from some demonic beast through the woods to a haunted cabin. There she summons another demon for protection. Apparently, she has had a Calvin-and-Hobbes-style relationship since childhood with some evil spirit named Iroth, which the author openly admits she doesn’t know how to pronounce, so I’m just going to call him Hobbes. Hobbes tells her that, though she doesn’t remember it, she signed a contract in blood as a small child to save the life of her friend Selena, whom he ripped to pieces (Selena, not the contract). Seems like a bit of a setup if you ask me; why bother with all the fastidious legalese if you’re just going to cook the books? Anyway, Hobbes wants Alex to retrieve a special ring for him, setting in motion a series of events and realizations that batter the poor woman’s sanity.

I have to spoil this one in order to talk about it, which is too bad because the twists and turns are pretty effective. It turns out Alex’s grandma had the ring, because she was a witch, which means Alex has goopy witch blood flowing through her veins, which means she can wield the ring and turn Hobbes back into a stuffed tiger. But then! Then it turns out Hobbes was merely a pawn of an even bigger demonic entity, Selena! Gasp! Selena claims ownership of the blood contract (again, this is not how contract law works, why are these demons even pretending to care about contract law?), which Alex must repay by replacing Hobbes as her new lacky.

Again we have some vaguely Lovecraftian elements, like the abrupt unhappy ending. But the main point of comparison is the unsettling discovery about one’s own past. See, the thing is, I don’t think Lovecraft was being completely sincere when he said all that about the unknown, or perhaps he meant it but was uncurious about what the unknown actually meant to him in practical terms. Because I believe Lovecraft’s fears were very specific. He had a small number of things that clearly scared the absolute shit out of him (which I imagine resembled someone squeezing a six foot Goghurt tube), and showed no understanding that these were his pet fears and not the default horror that lives rent-free in everyone’s brain stem.

One of Lovecraft’s biggest personal anxieties was discovering the impurity of one’s own bloodline. Our boy was shitless at the prospect of learning that his own genetic foundation was compromised. This took a lot of different forms. In Old Bugs, one of his earliest stories, a young man discovers that the town drunk is secretly his father. In The Rats in the Walls, a young man discovers that his distant ancestors were cannibals; this is a problem because he finds this condition to be hereditary. The secrets of one’s ancestry are scary precisely because, in Lovecraft’s mind, parentage is destiny. This is the point where Racism bursts onto the set like Kramer, to the general applause of the studio audience. In Arthur Jermyn, a young man discovers that his great grandfather fucked a gorilla, and this news distresses him so much that he lights himself on fire. As we all learned during the AIDS crisis, people fucking monkeys in Africa is a gateway racism, and sure enough, by the mid-twenties Lovecraft was in full “Wouldn’t it be scary if miscegenation” territory.

I’ve written before about the typology of racist writing. There’s personal racism that doesn’t directly affect the text. There’s stereotyping and caricature, which make a story gross to read but still functional. And then there’s the type of racism that breaks the story itself. The Horror at Red Hook isn’t just a horror story that features racist stereotypes. The existence of mixed communities is the thing that’s supposed to be scary, so it loses all of its bite for readers who aren’t on Gettr. People love to talk about this one story in isolation and say “Well, yeah, Red Hook was racist” without acknowledging that this is what Lovecraft believed the whole time, and its flaws are on full display across his body of work. Dealings in the Dark manages the twists and turns of discovering things about your ancestors and yourself in a way that actually packs a punch. Once again, modern horror earns a skeleton, and Lovecraft skulks away with nothing.

I broke my own rule featuring Panicus Satanicus, because it is Tom Duffy’s sophomoric release. But come on, the title is literally Panicus Satanicus; I am genetically incapable of not reading a book with that title. The story begins when Plague (nee Steve) and Bloodfist (nee Jon) have a falling out and Steve quits their heavy metal band. When it seems that Steve has driven off with the van and equipment, Rhea lets the rest of the band crash in her apartment over the bar where they just performed. Then everybody gets kidnapped by a freaky religious cult. There are various attempts to escape, subdue the kidnappers, coax devotees to come to their senses, the usual antics. Eventually the psycho cult leader makes good on his promises of being blessed by some sort of deity by peeling off all his skin and not dying about it. The gang has to come up with some van-based hijinks to defeat him before it’s too late.

This thing is a grab bag of horror tropes. Besides the cult, we have actual supernatural forces, human sacrifice, van theft, and possibly ghosts. But the horror of Panicus Satanicus comes from societal anxiety. Hostile, ignorant moral panic is the foundation of almost everything bad that happens to the protagonists. There is some extremely gooey body horror in the finale (I would say “here for it” interspersed with clapping emojis, but nobody can give me a straight answer on whether or not that’s appropriative, so just imagine me being quietly but enthusiastically here for it), but mostly the fear comes from the question “how much can you trust the strangers around you to not tie you to a stake and burn you to death for listening to Mastodon?” Since we all rely on civilization to deliver our ice cream and equitably apportion our airplane armrests, the question of social trust is inherently terrifying, especially since deep down we kind of all know the answer.

The closest Lovecraft gets to the unknown being scary in a sincere way, not as a feeble dog whistle for racism or a DIY scare kit that the reader can assemble on their own time, is when he talks about the greater universe. In a few stories, like At The Mountains of Madness, the proposition of a vast and ancient firmament full of intelligences and natural forces that do not care one bit about the well being of the human race is presented as some mind-flaying notion that would drive anyone who thinks it to the brink of insanity. To give him the benefit of the doubt, this idea was probably scarier when people thought the universe was a blue dome hovering a couple hundred feet over their turnip farm. I think to some extent these scares all derive from the same place: the lingering doubt that the warm fuzzy ideas that allow you to go about your life without turning into a puddle of anxiety, that allow you to feel like you understand how the world works, could in fact be utter bullshit.

There is one story, From Beyond, that handles this better than most. In it, a classic mad scientist breaks down the barrier between this world and another, with vaguely destructive effects. It has that trope where peasants and servants have a kind of instinctive fear of anything that will ultimately prove dangerous, like horses in a western movie. But the danger of this mysterious portal between universes eventually gives way to the danger of scientific ambition unconstrained by common sense, so it touches on both of the anxieties I just mentioned. I’m half convinced this story was ghost written, because it displays an awareness of scare-progression not seen again in Lovecraft’s work. I think I have to award one skeleton each to Tom Duffy and H. P. Lovecraft on this, bringing the total to three skeletons for modern horror, and one lonely skeleton for the old boy.

We’ve all gone through a Lovecraft phase, just as we all went through a phase in high school where all we read was Edna St. Vincent Millay poems about suicide, and we quoted Edgar Allen Poe like it was real books for grown ups. Just as we learned to put down the Anne Rice and Goosebumps, it’s time to grow out of our society-wide reverence for a bigoted stick insect whose idea of terror was anything that would set Cecil Rhodes’ mustache twitching. Nobody knows nostalgia better than I do; I’m so old my book is on Project Gutenberg. But modern horror has a much firmer grip on what actually makes a story scary. Happy Halloween everyone. Good night, and don’t let the bed bugs bite, because if you do, you might come to like it.

Hell is other people’s manuscripts.