Edit Blog Post
Published: April 9th 2020
In my coronavirus self-quarantine, I’ve been busy reading, writing, listening to music, watching old movies and playing online chess. Today I decided to listen to a H. P. Lovecraft short story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu
’, read on Youtube by Ian Gordon. This was the first time in almost 50 years years I’d read/listened to Lovecraft, and it was an interesting experience. I chose this story not because it is my favourite – that accolade goes to ‘The Dreams in the Witch House
’ – but because it is quintessential Lovecraft, embracing all his strengths and weaknesses and featuring the central figure of the Lovecraftian mythos: Cthulhu.
After the reading, I happened to glance at other listeners’ comments, two of which are:
“Jesus, how did we let our language slip to such a bland state? I feel like I'm a millionaire sipping at my million dollar bottle of wine while i stare into the fireplace.” “I feel like verbal champagne is being poured into my ear”
These comments remind me of my teenage self, when I had just discovered Lovecraft and was reading every story by him I could lay my hands on. I was blown away
by his imagination – the idea that, before humans, the Earth was ruled by a grotesque elder race, remnants of which are still to be found lurking in the modern world – and by his style. Yes, that style was “like verbal champagne
” to the young impressionable me. Compared to Lovecraft, the English language I was used to did indeed seem “bland
These days I am not so easily impressed. I still enjoy the ideas behind Lovecraft’s stories, but I find his style tedious and overblown, more like drowning in treacle than sipping champagne.
Here is an extract from ‘The Call of Cthulhu
’, describing a ship's encounter with Cthulhu somewhere in the Pacific Ocean: Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47° 9′, W. Longitude 126° 43′ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.
There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration. All this Johansen did not suspect, but God knows he soon saw enough! I suppose that only a single mountain-top, the hideous monolith-crowned citadel whereon great Cthulhu was buried, actually emerged from the waters. When I think of the extent of all that may be brooding down there I almost wish to kill myself forthwith. Johansen and his men were awed by the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon of elder daemons, and must have guessed without guidance that it was nothing of this or of any sane planet. Awe at the unbelievable size of the greenish stone blocks, at the dizzying height of the great carven monolith, and at the stupefying identity of the colossal statues and bas-reliefs with the queer image found in the shrine on the Alert, is poignantly visible in every line of the mate’s frightened description. Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close
to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality. Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity. Something very like fright had come over all the explorers before anything more definite than rock and ooze and weed
was seen. Each would have fled had he not feared the scorn of the others, and it was only half-heartedly that they searched—vainly, as it proved—for some portable souvenir to bear away. It was Rodriguez the Portuguese who climbed up the foot of the monolith and shouted of what he had found. The rest followed him, and looked curiously at the immense carved door with the now familiar squid-dragon bas-relief. It was, Johansen said, like a great barn-door; and they all felt that it was a door because of the ornate lintel, threshold, and jambs around it, though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door. As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable. Briden pushed at the stone in several places without result. Then Donovan felt over it delicately around the edge, pressing each point separately as he went. He climbed interminably along the grotesque stone moulding—that is, one would call it climbing if the thing was not after all
horizontal—and the men wondered how any door in the universe could be so vast. Then, very softly and slowly, the acre-great panel began to give inward at the top; and they saw that it was balanced. Donovan slid or somehow propelled himself down or along the jamb and rejoined his fellows, and everyone watched the queer recession of the monstrously carven portal. In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset. The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membraneous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there. Everyone listened, and everyone was listening still when It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air
of that poison city of madness. Poor Johansen’s handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight. Three men were swept up by the flabby claws before anybody turned. God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. They were Donovan, Guerrera, and Ångstrom. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was
swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse. So only Briden and Johansen reached the boat, and pulled desperately for the Alert as the mountainous monstrosity flopped down the slimy stones and hesitated floundering at the edge of the water. Steam had not been suffered to go down entirely, despite the departure of all hands for the shore; and it was the work of only a few moments of feverish rushing up and down between wheel and engines to get the Alert under way. Slowly, amidst the distorted horrors of that indescribable scene, she began to churn the lethal waters; whilst on the masonry of that charnel shore that was not of earth the titan Thing from the stars slavered and gibbered like Polypheme cursing the fleeing ship of Odysseus. Then, bolder than the storied Cyclops, great Cthulhu slid greasily into the water and began to pursue with vast wave-raising strokes of cosmic potency. Briden looked back and went mad, laughing shrilly as he kept on laughing at intervals till death found him one night in the cabin whilst Johansen was wandering deliriously. But Johansen had not given out yet. Knowing that the Thing could surely overtake the Alert until steam was fully up, he resolved on a desperate chance; and, setting the engine for full speed, ran lightning-like on deck and reversed the wheel. There was a mighty eddying and foaming in the noisome brine, and as the steam mounted higher and higher the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly. There was a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where—God in heaven!—the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn was nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the Alert gained impetus from its mounting steam.
This style of writing may be termed purple prose. It seeks to awe the reader by being ornate, flowery and bombastic. It uses impressive-sounding adjectives (e.g. Cyclopean, measureless, vast, loathsome, supreme, nightmare, incalculable, hideous, monolith-crowned, cosmic, unbelievable, dizzying, stupefying
) and adverbs (e.g. imperiously, poignantly, slipperingly, leeringly, phantasmally, interminably, monstrously, anomalously, slobberingly, gropingly
), melodramatic imagery and superlatives to an excessive degree. Such writing might be interesting in small patches, breaking the flow of more down-to-earth English, but here it becomes tedious, monotonous and self-defeating.
After discovering H. P. Lovecraft, I came across the short stories of M. R. James. Over the years I have reread them time and again, and they never cease to delight me. ‘The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James’
has become one of my sacred books. My favourite stories by him are ‘Casting the Runes’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
and ‘Count Magnus’
The difference between Lovecraft and James is vast. Whereas Lovecraft bombards the reader with horror, James hints at it. Whereas Lovecraft’s horror is gigantic and nebulous, horror for James is local and well-defined. Whereas Lovecraft uses purple prose all the time, James never uses it,
preferring a dry matter-of-fact style. James succeeds through understatement, whereas Lovecraft bores the reader with his never-ending hyperbole.
I have just listened to the great Michael Hordern reading ‘Count Magnus
’. What a difference from ‘The Call of Cthulhu
’! Here is the ending of ‘Count Magnus
’, an example of James at his best and most typical: Poor Mr Wraxall! He set out on his journey to England on the next day, as he had planned, and he reached England in safety; and yet, as I gather from his changed hand and inconsequent jottings, a broken man. One of the several small note-books that have come to me with his papers gives, not a key to, but a kind of inkling of, his experiences. Much of his journey was made by canal-boat, and I find not less than six painful attempts to enumerate and describe his fellow-passengers. The entries are of this kind: 24. Pastor of village in Skane. Usual black coat and soft black hat. 25. Commercial traveller from Stockholm going to Trollhättan. Black cloak, brown hat. 26. Man in long black cloak, broad-leafed hat, very old-fashioned. This entry is lined
out, and a note added: ‘Perhaps identical with No. 13. Have not yet seen his face.’ On referring to No. 13, I find that he is a Roman priest in a cassock. The net result of the reckoning is always the same. Twenty-eight people appear in the enumeration, one being always a man in a long black cloak and broad hat, and another a ‘short figure in dark cloak and hood’. On the other hand, it is always noted that only twenty-six passengers appear at meals, and that the man in the cloak is perhaps absent, and the short figure is certainly absent. On reaching England, it appears that Mr Wraxall landed at Harwich, and that he resolved at once to put himself out of the reach of some person or persons whom he never specifies, but whom he had evidently come to regard as his pursuers. Accordingly he took a vehicle — it was a closed fly — not trusting the railway and drove across country to the village of Belchamp St Paul. It was about nine o’clock on a moonlight August night when he neared the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out
of the window at the fields and thickets — there was little else to be seen — racing past him. Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter a hood. He had no time to see their faces, nor did they make any motion that he could discern. Yet the horse shied violently and broke into a gallop, and Mr Wraxall sank back into his seat in something like desperation. He had seen them before. Arrived at Belchamp St Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived, comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this day. They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough. He is expecting a visit from his pursuers — how or when he knows not — and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God? People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of ’em did, and none of ’em wouldn’t speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God; and how the people as kep’ the ’ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part. But they do not, I think, know that any glimmer of light has ever been thrown, or could be thrown, on the mystery. It so happened that last year the little house came into my hands as part of a legacy. It had stood empty since 1863, and there seemed no prospect of letting it; so I had it pulled down, and the papers of which I have given you an abstract were found in a forgotten cupboard under the window in the best bedroom.
There is nothing sensational here. The style is restrained and unemotional. There are no superlatives, no bombastic adjectives. The horror is understated and thereby all the more potent. I find 'Count Magnus
' a hundred times scarier than 'The Call of Cthulhu
Here we have two polar opposites in the realm of horror fiction: unsubtle, sensational H. P. Lovecraft and low-key, understated M. R. James. I would recommend H. P. Lovecraft to anyone who has not read him but, at the risk of sounding like a literary snob, I think he appeals more to juvenile tastes. Although I adore M. R. James, I realize he will not appeal to everyone, because he is so dry and English. I think some readers may find him boring. A good starting point for anyone wanting to explore M. R. James would be Michael Hordern’s splendid Youtube rendition of ‘Count Magnus
’. After reading this story countless times, it still gives me the shivers whenever I return to it.
Tot: 0.147s; Tpl: 0.014s; cc: 8; qc: 23; dbt: 0.0751s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (10.17.0.13); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.1mb