Writing daily here’s been a very interesting exercise, if only because it’s made me ponder writers I’ve got a lot out of it and think about why I’ve found them so engaging. But I haven’t written about two of my great teenage obsessions – M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.
MRJ’s ghost stories – and Edwardian ghost stories in general – fascinated me as a teenager. I think it was the combination of the profoundly comforting, secure world that most of them begin, and the subsequent destabilisation / revelation of the limits of that world.
I see MRJ as the great poet of threatened repression. Read from that point of view, so much of his imagery is so resonant – the menacing bedsheets in ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’, the terror implicit in people having fun together when you’re on your own in ‘Number 13’, and, perhaps most memorably, the mouth buried beneath a pillow in ‘Casting the Runes’ –
‘So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.’
Intimacy – or the prospect of intimacy – is deeply destructive to worldviews built on repression. The English are a famously repressed bunch; hence, I would suspect, the attractiveness and emotional power of MRJ’s haunted explorations of emotional frigidity at breaking point, as it’s exposed to the possibility of contact.
And what about HPL? My first reading of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is one of the great book experiences of my life. I read it when I was about 14, on a skiing holiday – arctic wastes in prose, arctic wastes outside the window, mountains shadowing both.
HPL opened up whole worlds for me – worlds I found oddly attractive. Reading any one of the ‘real world’ stories (as opposed to the out and out fantasies), I was always falling for the locations – Boston, Arkham, Old New York, and so on. Notwithstanding the cosmic horror and sanity blasting reality of HPL’s world, these are places I’d love to live in.
Partially, that’s because HPL’s universe is such a beautiful place – the romantic sublime in all its awesome power made wildly successful pulp horror fiction. In HPL, terror often comes from enforced scale shifts, from a sudden, panicked realisation of the true place of humanity in the universe, and the consequent utter meaningless of our lives.
But once you’ve got over that, what mysteries and wonders to behold…! Even if, by implication, you have to lose your humanity to do so – becoming an ageless toad thing to swim to Unknown R’yleh, or a strange cone-like creature in a globe spanning prehistoric, pre-human civilisation, or a disembodied living brain in a glass jar carried between the planets by giant, cosmic insects.
And it’s worth remembering that humanity itself can be a source of the terror of difference for others – the implied experience of the resurrected alien characters in ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is fascinating, as is the protagonist’s changing response to them. He moves from terror to interest to respect to empathy, finally saluting the key characteristics that the profoundly alien and the profoundly human share.
‘Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’
And of course to make the cosmic terrifying, it helps to have something cosy and homely to set it against. Hence also the appeal of Lovecraft’s earthbound locations – they need to be comforting and attractive, to make the rupture from them all the more upsetting. They’re nostalgia made stone; in literary terms, they function absolutely as idealised but artifical and eminently frangible Edens.
So that’s H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James; two writers that hypnotised me, both playing with innocence and experience and finding horror in the relationships and transitions between the two.