Tensions

Posted: 21st July 2015 by Christian in Blog
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In the 18th to the early 20th century, horror fiction was Gothic fiction. From England to Russia, Gothic was king.
Romanticism, which was know for it’s powerful emphasis on aesthetics, beauty, wonder, and it’s embrace of emotions, was the big thing back then. Weld that to morbidity, gloom, fear, doubt, dread and you’ve got a Gothic. (It’s all a bit more complex than that, of course, but I’m not a literary critic, or historian.)

 

You know the big ones. Frankenstein, of course. Dracula, the most popular of all the Gothics.  The Yellow Wallpaper,  the Devil’s Elixir. Poe and his collection of madmen and dead beauties, sums up to me one of the pivotal themes of the whole genre. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Sexist, sure, but it’s combination of the visually pleasing with the morbid is perfection.
The Gothic is dark dungeons and sinister doubles, and shadows, and locked rooms, and sexually attractive predators, and darkness and shadow and mad monks and weak priests and eerie buildings. Rookeries, castles, monasteries, mountains, forests, the location is Gothic. It’s doubt and power and sex and fine velvet and madness is Gothic.

You know what Gothic is. Freud called it ‘the uncanny’, the opposite of familiarity.

But then came the 20th century and the romantic and aesthetic quickly gave away to the industrial and the Modern and books got cheaper and it was no longer just aristos and high bourgeois types who would read and so the immediate impact of Gothic was blunted for newer generations of readers. They craved new horrors.

And one writer in particular would give it to them. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft broke with the Gothic absolutely. Among his peers, Clark Ashton Smith undoubtedly writes a better sentence and has much better characters, but he keeps one foot in a world of vampire women and old bleak castles. His vision overlaps with Lovecraft but is not as pure. Robert Howard, writing his Conan stories, seemed totally unaware that there was such a thing as a literary convention, writing what seems a short every week about macho dudes.

But it was Lovecraft, himself a Romantic, but who’s fiction seemed to quite reject aesthetic and beauty. His lonely scholar rarely discuss their food, their music, their friendships. (Although they like buildings.) They certainly are never sexual, although they are often frightened by things sexual.

But of ghosts, sinister madmen, priests, all the Gothic  elements, we find little or nothing. Sex is a horrifying prospect, not a darkly hidden treasure. The body is no longer a location of desire and sinful joy, but a location of disgust. In the Weird, we find the old elements of fear have little power.

We find the tentacle.

What Lovecraft represented was The Weird.

H.P didn’t create the use of tentacle as a symbol of Weirdness. I’d argue H.G Wells’ Martian invaders were the first. Those misshapen, monstrous colonists in their tripods. Then the proto-Weird stories. William Hope Hodgson, a maritime man, who bought in the recurring link between the sea and Weird horror with his “Boats of the ‘Glen Garrig”‘. Let’s not forget Captain Nemo and Ned versus that bastard squid. But it’s Lovecraft and Cthulhu that solidify the Weird as a new form of horror.

What do we have now? Boring things. Men in masks, eager to slash us. Zombies, our own participation in capitalism come to taunt us. One more camera recording us, making us voyeurs, obsessed with looking, looking, like we look at wars. It’s not a great time for horror if your tastes run to ought but watching people get hurt in rooms.Horror comes alive when it melds to science-fiction these days. From the delirious B-movies of the 50s, to the chilly, clever Aliens and The Thing. And aren’t they Weird?

Gothic never left us, of course. It stays around. From Christopher Lee and his girls in white dresses to, God help us, I, Frankenstein, we still have sexy dread. But when we want something perfectly suited for our tastes, the old, lumbering death-zombie Cybermen are cool, but the tentacular, Brutalist Daleks are what really loom in our imagination.

My next project, I want to look at this a bit more, this explosion of the Weird into the Gothic.
I think it’s going to have Martians in it.

Which will be terrifying cause that Jeff Wayne thing still fucking spooks me, thanks to being played it many times as a child, in car, scared but fascinated by those tentacles.