Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft gets into some pretty advanced concepts in this story, such as using complex math to gain access to multi-dimensional worlds.

This story uses the same mythos as that of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but actually pre-dates that story by three years.

Our narrator is named this time—Walter Gilman. (Why the same name as the alien-infested hotel in Innsmouth?)

We are in the “legend-haunted city of Arkham.” Gilman has taken a room in Witch House on purpose because he is fascinated by the history of Keziah Mason, who was on trial as a witch. She had told the judge “of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through walls of space to other spaces beyond. The strange angles in Gilman’s room have a curious effect on him and lead him to become more and more obsessed with thoughts of travel to another dimension. He does succeed, but at the cost of his sanity and his health. Lovecraft has Gilman continually question his own sanity, probably because we know that insane people think that they are perfectly same; because Gilman is rational enough to question his own sanity, he is sane.

He contacts the witch and her evil little familiar, Brown Jenkin, and from there, it is a slippery slope into oblivion.

Lovecraft has his protagonist tell everyone around him about the supernatural goings-on: his fellow boarding house mates, his professors…and they all believe him and help him out as much as they can. They don’t try to have him committed. This is unheard of in more recent fiction.

Gilman has dreams that result in objective reality, such as the little gizmo that is left behind after one of his nocturnal jaunts, his house mate looks through his keyhole and sees the blinding light that his emanating from Gilman’s night time bedroom.

His descriptions of the other dimension are fascinating. “…the tiles were cut in bizarre-angled shapes which struck him as less asymmetrical than based on some earthly symmetry whose laws we could not comprehend.”

We don’t know that much about Gilman, but Lovecraft does get into his head and tells us exactly what he is feeling: the obsession along with the blinding fear. When he risks his life to avert the sacrifice of a baby by the witch and her cohorts, he proves to us that he is a worthwhile, likeable guy. He kills the witch but is also killed himself by horrible means or something (presumably Brown Jenkin) burrowing completely through him.

Lovecraft repeatedly refers to a magical book called the Necronomicon, which is completely fictional. People have tried to find it or recreate it over the years, all for naught.

I was very drawn in by this story and impressed by the advanced concepts of math having an effect on multi-dimensions. He was way ahead of his time.

Lovecraft didn’t care much for people. I read a quote of his, "... all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." Despite this, in Dreams in the Witch House Lovecraft draws us into his characters with his attention to detail and by the deep perspective of his characters.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

This book amazes me, because it doesn’t get dated. The same is true for the film version Directed by Roman Polanski. I watch it once in awhile just because it’s so good.

The book got passed around my junior high class, because it had a cool “sex scene.” It also had a whole lot more. When I originally read this book (when I was still too young to see the movie), I remembered being terrified for Rosemary, hoping she’d be able to get away from all those crazy people (no don’t take those funny herbal drinks) and get to safety in order to have her baby in a secure place. It was a surprise to me at the end that she was the mother of Satan’s child. That line, “What have you done to his eyes,” will always haunt me. I thought they were going to kidnap her baby for a human sacrifice, and for that reason, I kept rooting for Rosemary to wake up and escape from those people’s evil clutches.

On this latest reading of the book, I find that it loses none of the appeal. Levin is able to do that very rare thing of making you completely suspend belief. In giving it a really close read, I could see the beauty of the book, how all of the pieces (that on first a first reading you might gloss over) fit together to bring us to the conclusion. It’s an absolutely linear story with no narrative tricks, but flows so well, you can read it in one sitting (which I just did.)

The first hint that something is amiss is when Guy and Rosemary move the huge dresser to find that it’s hiding a closet behind it. Rosemary asks why she would block the closet that has her vacuum cleaner. At first Rosemary was the one who was enthusiastic about getting the apartment, so it makes me wonder at what point guy made a pact with the devil. (Most probably when Roman pulls Guy off for a talk when the Castevets have invited them over for dinner.) When Rosemary’s friend, Hutch tries to discourage them from renting there because of it penchant for weirdly brutal happenings, Guy poo poos it. At that point, we know that Guy is a selfish and manipulative jerk, but we don’t think he’s actually evil.

Throughout the book we only know what Rosemary knows. We are lulled into a false sense of security with everyday details. Once Rosemary starts to realize that something is wrong, the book becomes impossible to put down. At no time does anything overtly supernatural or dangerous take place. Indeed, it could all be in Rosemary’s head. We know it’s not, but nothing definite in the book happens to prove otherwise until almost to the ending.

Rosemary has a passive obedient nature which could be said to characterize a woman from the early 1960’s. She defers to the experts and does what everyone tells her to do. When Dr. Sapirstein tells her to drink Minnie’s strange drink, she doesn’t question it.

There was also a cold war paranoia that was very active at the time, and Rosemary’s Baby reflects that fact that you really can’t trust your next door neighbor. He might be a commie or a Satanist. When she feels that she’s been raped by some demon, (“This is really happening,”) the day after she doesn’t trust herself and brushes it off as a nightmare.

There are certain points in the book in which you think Rosemary might have a change. One is when her friends come to their apartment for a party and she agrees to get a second opinion about the pain. The other in when the Castevets announce that they are taking a trip to Europe. Levin gives us a little relief from the tension. We kind of sigh at that point.

Rosemary catches Guy in a couple of small lies and thinks he might be having an affair. The things are subtle and don’t add up to a lot individually, but together, they let the reader know that Guy is working with the Castevets for some evil purpose, even if Rosemary has been too na├»ve to see it.

After Rosemary has the baby, she at first is told that it’s dead but later goes through the fake closet to find it. After the initial shock wears off, Rosemary softens up to the idea of the baby. “Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well?” The book ends with her baby-talking to the new infant, which is really more chilling than having her run away in terror.

Why this book works for me:

The characters are well defined and believable. Is Guy in league with the devil, or is he just kind of a jerk? At the beginning we’re not sure; later on, we know. Are the Castevets well-meaning busybodies or are they truly evil?

The viewpoint is limited to Rosemary’s perceptions. We have angst because we are literally in Rosemary’s shoes. Isn’t horror all about limited viewpoint so we don’t see the monster behind the door?

The suspense rises as we become more and more sure that Rosemary is in real, not imagined, danger. The book gives us a growing sense of dread as Rosemary realizes that she can trust no one.

Levin provides the day-to-day details of Rosemary’s life right down to what kind of haircut she gets and what kind of dish detergent she uses. This immerses us in the fictive dream. Still, Levin doesn’t over-do it with details; he manages to give us just the right amount.

He keys into our deep-seated fears of evil and (particularly if you were brought up Catholic) the devil in a way that gets right down deep into our psyches.

I ask myself why this book doesn’t get dated, even though it is a 60’s period piece. I think it is that the characters act like real people and they are true to their personalities. As Hemingway said, “Good writing is true writing.” …even when it’s about the spawn of Satan.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft

This is my favorite of the Lovecraft stories we’ve read this tern. Again, Lovecraft uses the device of the evil place, “that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. While he is out travelling, our young narrator becomes intrigued by stories about a town called Innsmouth.

Lovecraft uses the word “queer” about 666 times in describing Innsmouth. The town is queer, the odd-angled buildings are queer and lord knows the people are queer. It was thought that the town founder, old Captain Marsh, made a pact with the devil. The inhabitants have “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right.” They seem to some kind of aliens, but not of the South Sea or Asian variety as they would like you to believe. He also describes that strange jewelry they leave behind. “…it was the queer otherworldly quality of the art which made me uneasy.”

Lovecraft does a splendid job of describing the utterly alien feel of the town, how all of the houses are boarded up but he can sense a strange life force behind the seemingly empty buildings. He talks about the Masons and the “Esoteric Order of the Dragon.” When the narrator is riding the bus into town he sees a stone church with a rectangle of blackness at the basement. He gets a shiver as he sees the pastor pass back and forth with one of the alien tiaras on his head. We feel the shudder, too. I grew fascinated with his use of odd angled architecture to indicate that the narrator had passed over into another dimension, as though somehow that passage was dependent upon mathmatics.

The narrator finds an old timer in town who tells him the true story of the town, including that fact that they kidnap people for human sacrifices to their god who lived under the sea. He plans to spend the day there and leave at eight o’clock at night, but the bus he is supposed to ride out of town becomes disabled. He is forced to stay at the Gilman hotel in town, a grim, horrible, dangerous place. As the sun sets, out narrator’s dread increases. His door has no lock so he removes a lock from one of the internal doors and replaces it. In the night he hears someone rattling the lock. When they don’t succeed they go to his side door.

In this scene Lovecraft instills a perfect sense of blood curdling dread in us. We feel this man’s plight in no uncertain terms. He builds the suspense gradually, along with the fact that we know that they collect human sacrifices, which gives the reader a definite sense of the creeps. The descriptions are so good you feel as though you are there and wonder what you would do in his shoes. “Then the lock of the connecting door to my room was tried softly.” This subtle action is more creepy to me than all of the ghosts crashing into people’s rooms in Hell House.”

The one thing that makes this not as scary is that we know from the beginning that the narrator lived and told the authorities about his experience. I wonder why Lovecraft used the device of a frame story to tell this tale? I think that lessens some of the tension. He may have dibe it to give credence to his story and make it seem like a real person giving an account.

One thing that helps is that we know that the narrator is scared and that makes us more scared. “A wave of almost abnormal horror swept over me.”

He does manage to get away from the evil monsters and goes to the authorities who actually do believe him. This is unusual for the conventions we’re used to in horror stories. We’re used to people keeping these kinds of things to themselves so no one thinks they are crazy. If they did go to the authorities, they would never believe them.

The twist ending is excellent, and you can see how Lovecraft set up the fact that the viewpoint character is actually one if them with the fact that the half-breed aliens don’t start to look really alien until later in life.

To me this is an entirely successful story. No wonder it spawned generation of admirers of the Cthulhu myth.