New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 9: The Call of Lovecraft

I mentioned in last week’s newsletter that I’m trying to read more consistently this year—at least a book a week. I’m sure my story is the same as that of many other adults: I used to read a lot when I was younger, and then the internet came along and I stopped reading so much (substitute “life,” “job,” “kids,” etc for your own personal situation). I can’t get rid of the internet (I happen to be Extremely Online, something I’m not ready to let go of yet), but I can be more intentional about my time. I wanted to aim for a slightly ambitious number, because otherwise I’d leave it all for the back half of the year. I also chose a high number precisely because I buy too many books already. We live right around the corner from a good branch library, and my reading goal is as good a motivation as any to dust off my library card and save some money. I hoard books, but I try to buy books that I know I’m going to want to keep on my shelves. I feel a little more free to explore with inter-library loans, because I’m not making an imagined lifetime commitment to the books I take home with me.

So far, I think it’s working out. I don’t feel bad bailing on books I know I don’t want to finish any more. I have a solid stack of gardening books that have proven invaluable for wrestling our backyard into shape. And I’ve been able to branch out into genres I’m less comfortable with: memoir and horror.

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I still consider myself to be a horror neophyte. (I know, I know, I wrote a book about the Alien movies, but I wasn’t thinking about horror when I first wrote my proposal; I was thinking about the places where science fiction and evil and the act of creation bump up against each other.) I grew up fearful. I thought the genre wasn’t for me. I’ve since figured out (partly through the process of writing my book) that I love a good scare, and I love contemplating the depths of a horror movie, especially when it’s straightforward and unpretentious1. But there’s a lot I haven’t seen or read; I constantly feel like I’m catching up. So when I saw a collection of H.P. Lovecraft short stories on the shelf at the library a few weeks ago, I picked it up almost without thinking.

Most of what I knew about Lovecraft was through cultural osmosis: the ubiquity of Cthulhu in internet memes circa 2011, a few episodes of Lovecraft Country before I bailed on the TV show when it first aired, a Mountain Goats song (there’s always a Mountain Goats song) and the understanding that Lovecraft was very racist, even for his time. When I brought the short story collection home with me, I was nervous about that last part. I wanted to read him for myself, to form my own opinion instead of parroting what I’d read about him secondhand; I wanted to understand why he’s still so influential, despite his flaws, nearly a hundred years after he wrote his stories.

The specific collection I checked out was a rocky start. The introduction was written by Robert Bloch2, who rambled for dozens of pages with little point or purpose. I think he wanted to give an exhaustive introduction to Lovecraft’s life, background, and work, but the essay mostly exhausted me because I couldn’t hold the disconnected pieces together in my head. Bloch kept jumping around to the parts of Lovecraft’s life and work that interested him most, and skimming over the rest. The most telling piece of the introduction was Bloch’s assertion that Lovecraft was not, in fact, racist; this assertion is followed immediately by a short story called “The Rats in the Walls,” a story in which Lovecraft explicitly names a character’s cat with a horrific racist epithet.

The rest of the stories in the collection went down a little easier. In some cases, this was more troubling than that first short story, because Lovecraft uses cultures and religions other than his own as a shorthand for the unknown, the exotic, and the terrifying. It’s the same thread at the heart of horror like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which uses prejudice against Eastern European cultures to stoke fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. Lovecraft is better than Stoker at this trick, for better and worse; Stoker describes his vampire using physical stereotypes that are intended only to repulse the audience, while Lovecraft deploys those stereotypes first to incite curiosity in the reader, then invariably flips them over to reveal dark conspiracies of horror and death.

The thing that really bothers me is that Lovecraft is an incredible writer. His ability to set a mood is top-tier, and I kept returning to the opening paragraph from “The Call of Cthulhu,” which feels appropriate for our own day and age and swirl of dark revelations about the world and how things are:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in their own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

I keep wanting to say that “I had a hard time getting around the racism” in Lovecraft’s work. The more I think about that impulse, the more uncomfortable I am with it, because it implies that racism is a thing that I can excise from his stories; if I can ignore those threads just enough, then I can enjoy reading him without guilt or discomfort. At the same time, I don’t think I can fully throw away his stories either. They’ve been included in the weft of genre storytelling for so long that they’re inseparable from its fabric, and to ignore them is to leave the ugly parts of genre fiction unconfronted, to allow them to metastasize further than they already have. Reading Lovecraft felt like holding up a mirror to my own heart, and the ugly things I found hiding in the image were things I know I need to confront, and would much rather not have seen.


What I wrote:

I wrote about voyeurism and the act of witnessing in the movie Bad Times at the El Royale for Bright Wall/Dark Room. The movie was a box-office bomb when it came out back in 2018; I really wish more people would see it, because it’s perceptive and gorgeous and has quite a few interesting things to say. If you haven’t yet, it’s available to rent on most streaming platforms.

What I talked about:

On this week’s episode of Seeing & Believing, we reviewed Thor: Love and Thunder. Kevin and I didn’t love the movie, and we broke down why it didn’t work for us (as opposed to previous Thor and/or Taika Waititi movies). We also discussed Jonathan Demme’s 1986 movie Something Wild, which is a pairing that I swear makes sense in my head. If you haven’t seen Something Wild, it’s currently streaming on the Criterion Channel; I think we had a really good conversation about morally murky movies based on our rewatch.

What I watched:

I rewatched my all-time favorite vampire movie, Near Dark, for an upcoming essay. I’m saving most of my thoughts about it for that piece, but as a taste test, I’ll be talking about the way the movie shows American individualism and vampirism as states of being that rhyme with each other. Near Dark isn’t currently available for streaming, but your local library might have it on disc, or you can join me in my one-woman crusade to get Criterion to release a 4K restoration.

If you like what you’ve read here, please consider subscribing. Thanks for reading!

1

At some point I’ll write about the phrase “elevated horror” and why it sucks, but that’s a newsletter for another time.

2

Best known for writing the novel Psycho. He was a devotee and protégée of Lovecraft’s, and I suspect he was too close to his subject to give a clear-eyed introduction to Lovecraft’s work.

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