Pallid Adaptation

Director Richard Stanley’s long-overdue return to feature filmmaking, Color Out of Space (based on the 1929 Cthulhu Mythos tale by H.P. Lovecraft) has generated a lot of buzz in recent months. Having finally caught the film myself (it’s now streaming on Shudder), I regret to say that my high hopes going in ended up undercut by disappointment.

My biggest issue with Color Out of Space is that it stars a terribly miscast Nicolas Cage. The actor, in fine, Razzie-worthy form here, does his typical shtick, throwing an over-the-top temper tantrum seemingly every ten minutes. While these tirades aren’t particularly funny, they do succeed in compromising the tonality of the film. I’m pretty sure that when Lovecraft wrote his piece, goofy wasn’t the note he was going for.

Paradoxically, the same aspect that makes the film noteworthy also works against it. The updating of Color Out of Space into a modern-day context no doubt makes it more accessible as a cinematic narrative (Lovecraft’s nearly century-old, pulp-era story might seem too outdated now if strictly translated onscreen). Nevertheless, the repeated manifestations of post-meteorite-crash alien menace in the form of disrupted technologies–garbled cell phone and TV reception, deadened car engines–prove too formulaic and familiar to be effectively unsettling.

There are some terrifically trippy visuals here, as well as grotesque effects reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (Color Out of Space begs the creation of a new Oscar category: Most Disgusting Scene Featuring Alpacas). Ultimately, though, the film (despite the spectacular pyrotechnics of the climax) fails to establish itself as a work of the cosmic horror subgenre. The palpable sense of dread that Lovecraft was so adept at inducing in his reading audience is largely absent here. A pair of voiceover monologues bookending the film capture this element of Lovecraft’s work perfectly, but I wish everything heaped between in this lengthy and uneven film managed to do so as well.

For all his pop-cultural prevalence, Lovecraft is a quite difficult writer to adapt, and “The Colour Out of Space” clearly presents special challenges. Richard Stanley deserves credit, for example, for visualizing the source text’s explicitly indescribable color as a gruesome fuschia. At the same time, the representation of the inchoate monstrosity lurking in the Gardner farm’s well in the form of a winged alien insect seemed too specific and reductive (marring the fear of the unknown upon which Lovecraft traded). Color Out of Space is a laudable effort, but unfortunately a less-than-successful one.

 

Loving Lovecraft Country

Perhaps the show I have been most eagerly anticipating this year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country (adapted from Matt Ruff’s terrific 2016 novel). High expectations can often lead to bitter disappointments, but after watching this week’s season premiere, I am already mesmerized.

“Sundown,” the pilot episode, presents a great cast (the always-stellar Michael Kenneth Williams hasn’t even appeared yet), portraying likable, believable, stereotype-defying characters. The costume and set designs are first-rate, bringing mid-1950’s America to vibrant life. And the plot appears quite faithful to the source novel (save perhaps for a scene involving the transformative effect of a “shoggoth” bite).

Most admirably of all, the series reflects Ruff’s skillful handling of racially-charged subject matter (as the real, historical horrors of slavery, segregation, and discrimination are juxtaposed with imagined cosmic nightmares). The worst aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s racism are bluntly acknowledged, via character reference to the writer’s notorious poem, “On the Creation of N—ers.” But Lovecraft Country engages with its eponymous weird-wordsmith (and pulp-era genre fiction in general) in a way that is critical without ever turning tendentious and entertainment-ruining. The protagonist Atticus Freeman sounds a telling note when his reading choices (specifically, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars) are questioned early in the episode: “Stories are like people,” he asserts. “Loving them does not make them perfect. You just try to cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” Such a perspective is no doubt refreshing, especially in the current (cancel-)cultural climate where Lovecraft-bashing has become oh-so-fashionable, and expressed readerly appreciation of the classic Cthulhu Mythos tales can easily serve as an open invitation to indictment.

For fans looking to drive deeper into Lovecraft Country, there’s a companion podcast, Lovecraft Country Radio, that is well worth the listen.

Lovecraft Country airs Sunday nights on HBO.

A Rebuttal to Lovecraft Haters

H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, simple and plain.

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of the horror genre.

Both of these statements can coexist. To be disgusted by the fact of the former does not necessitate a disavowal of the latter.

This notion does not seem to have been given much consideration these days, in the midst of a rampant “cancel” culture with its rush to politicize/ostracize/erase. Case in point: the recent stoking of the flames of controversy by those who were offended by the awarding of a Retro Hugo (a retroactive honoring, in this instance, of fiction from 1944, a chosen year predating the existence of the Hugo Awards) to Lovecraft. I was alerted to this ostensible issue by a recent essay (more like an op-ed piece) posted by Meghan Ball on the Tor Nightfire website, entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists: On Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos.” I have no intention of defending Lovecraft–whose indisputable racism is indefensible–here, but I do feel that there are problematic aspects of Ball’s rhetoric that need to be addressed.

Ball takes unabashed umbrage at Lovecraft’s posthumous win:

Literally the most racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist jerk in the entire history of horror as a genre got an award. Even more galling, somehow, is that apparently he won for “Best Series” which is a thing he never even really wrote. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Haven’t we suffered enough?

First, it needs to be clarified that this Retro Hugo was awarded to “The Cthulhu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others.” The distinction was not given to Lovecraft alone, yet Ball is quick to cast Derleth and others aside here. Such singling out of Lovecraft (who, as the original creator of what has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos, no doubt deserves prime recognition) suggests someone eager to take shots at the genre’s easiest target.

The grouse that Lovecraft never wrote a series is mere semantics. What I find more relevant is the competition that the Cthulhu Mythos was grouped against for the Retro Hugo. Looking at the other nominees in the “Best Series” category, I don’t think this qualifies as an upset win. Nor do I think the award is the result of any sort of reactionary conspiracy by the voters.

Ball’s lament about suffering is a bit much, smacking of the hyperbolic and melodramatic. And before anyone accuses me of writing from a position of privilege, let me just say that as an Italian-American, I would have been tossed by Lovecraft into the same cauldron of nauseating vitriol. Personally, though, I don’t feel particularly damaged by the choosing of Lovecraft (and others) for the Retro Hugo, or deem it some torturous development for writers in the horror genre.

In the subsequent paragraph of her piece, Ball’s struggle to come to terms with the acknowledgement of Lovecraft continues:

This literally did not have to happen. The point of these awards is to highlight achievements in the genre that never got awarded. I imagine there was a group of very well-meaning people who thought maybe they could uncover lost gems or highlight authors who never really got their due in their lifetime.  Instead, they appear to be a way to give the same few names more accolades, and seem rather alarmingly unconnected with what is going on right now in the genre. The phrase “read the room” comes to mind.

The operative phrase here is “I imagine”: Ball speculates on the intended spirit of the Retro Hugo awards. Her view skews toward the honoring not merely of the overlooked, but to the under-represented. Her comments speak to a seeming resentment of Lovecraft’s enduring popularity (honestly, would anyone be so outraged over him had he faded into obscurity along with his pulp brethren?), and implicitly interrogate anyone who dares to contribute further to it in any way. Even more bothersome is Ball’s complaint that giving such award to Lovecraft represents a dangerous disconnect with current goings-on in the genre. Does the citing of work circa the mid-1940s have anything to do with what is transpiring in 2020? Is it the obligation of the Retro Hugo Awards to “read the room”? I am reminded of the politicizing of the Oscars in recent years, where the recognition of intrinsic artistic merit has been eclipsed by the desire for gestures toward social justice.

Next, Ball professes:

I love Cthulhu as much as anyone else. That’s why I am here to say: enough is enough with Lovecraft. He has become the racist albatross around the neck of cosmic horror, and I am so sick and tired of it. It’s not “Lovecraftian horror,” it’s “cosmic horror,” because one man does not have a copyright on wondering what horrors lurk beyond the stars.

After having herself just focused exclusively on Lovecraft as the awardee (ignoring the other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos), Ball proceeds to call for a broadening beyond him. More off-putting is Ball’s arrogating to herself the responsibility for being the conscience of, and mouthpiece for, the genre.

Indeed, time and again, Ball enacts a disconcerting slippage between “I” and “we”:

As a community, we have outgrown Lovecraft. We’ve moved beyond him. While his influence will always be there, cosmic horror is undergoing a diverse and powerful transformation into something way beyond what ol’ Howard ever envisioned. […] Cosmic horror is being turned into something wonderful and new in the hands of talented women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors. It would have made Lovecraft hide under his bed, quaking in his boots, and I love that. That is what should be celebrated now, yet we keep picking at Lovecraft like someone picking at a scab, never letting it heal.

There is some vagueness here as to what Ball wants to celebrate: the emergence of new voices in cosmic horror fiction, or the imagined (in vindictive mindset) causing of distress to Lovecraft? That scab analogy is also interesting, considering that it’s the denigrators of Lovecraft who appear the most compelled to pick away and keep the putative wound fresh.

And allow me to digress slightly here to address what I believe to be a disturbing trend in the genre: the systematic discrimination against writers of perceived advantaged background. I am talking about the calls for submissions to anthologies and magazines that strictly limit the demographic; straight white males need not apply. This exclusionary measure offends on several levels, not the least of which is the suggestion that such writers are incapable of creating characters of different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than their own (these same writers doubtless would be excoriated for a lack of diversity in their cast if they failed to offer such representations in their work). These days, the author’s identity seems to supersede the fictional product itself. But as another genre giant once asserted, “It’s the tale, not he who tells it” (although, I am sure that today Stephen King would be loudly rebuked for employing such a masculinist pronoun).

Returning to Ball’s bouncing of Lovecraft:

I think everyone who considers himself a fan of horror or science fiction or fantasy is just tired. I know I am. […] We’ve also been going through so many terrible things the past few years, with revelations within the genre space of sexual harassment, racism, ableism, and homophobia. It has been a very long few years. That’s why the act of giving H.P. Lovecraft an award feels even worse: it’s just another step backwards. I’m not saying that you can never read a Cthulhu story again, you just shouldn’t be giving an award to the person everyone uses as the ultimate example of racism in the genre at a time when we are still very much dealing with racism in the genre.

Again, Ball problematically assumes that she can speak on behalf of “everyone.” Making Lovecraft the figurehead for everything that is wrong with the modern genre doesn’t seem very fair, either. The man has been rotting in his grave for nearly a century now; he shouldn’t be implicated in acts of sexual harassment, ableism, homophobia or even racism currently being committed by other genre figures. And how gracious of Ball to grant that we can still read Cthulhu stories (one suspects, though, that she does so grudgingly).

The disgruntled Bell, meanwhile, wonders whether the Retro Hugos shouldn’t just be dismantled as an awards program. She points out that “these awards seem to be doing further harm to a genre already reeling, and we do not need to keep flagellating ourselves like this. We don’t need to keep contorting ourselves and bleeding out on the altar of ‘proper canon’ created by dead white guys to show fealty to our chosen genre.” Earlier, Ball championed the positive developments in the genre; here she posits a “reeling” genre in serious crisis. The tendency appears to be to tout empowerment or alternately play a victim (admittedly, I find that elaborate masochism conceit a bit of a head-scratcher) whenever it best suits the narrative. Ball’s scornful dismissal of “dead white guys,” reducing genre history to a convenient, pejorative catch phrase, speaks volumes about her antagonistic perspective.

Ball concludes with the denouncing pronouncement that the “Retro Hugos, as well as the 2020 Hugo Awards themselves, were a massive step backwards, awash in the glorification of a past that was primarily white and male, dismissive of anything new, and borderline hostile to changes made for the better. How many people saw Lovecraft’s win and decided this wasn’t the genre for them?”

My immediate response to Ball’s overreaction is, how many people saw Lovecraft’s win (at a conference set in New Zealand, no less), period. How many genre fans really care about this year’s Hugo winners, let alone a retroactive award for the year 1944? I would venture that more–by which I mean a select cadre of–writers (determined to build their own platform by climbing up on a soapbox) than readers were chagrined by Lovecraft’s win.

In any event, the keyword here is “decided.” It links back to Ball’s opening paragraph, where the author declares it an “abomination” that “a group of people decided to give H.P. Lovecraft an award.” Ball clearly cannot accept that this award was the product of a popular vote–that others might actually hold a viewpoint different from her own.

I’ll say it again: Lovecraft was a flat-out racist. I regret his bigoted ignorance, and pity him for whatever biological/environmental forces warped his outlook so terribly. But I am quite capable of deciding for myself, without the influence of self-appointed genre spokespeople, whether or not Lovecraft’s benighted perspective taints my enjoyment of his fiction, or stymies my willingness to engage with his weird tales altogether.

Ultimately, Ball’s essay–emblematic of the Lovecraft bashing that has grown so fashionable, and so tiresome in its rehearsal of the same racism argument–ends up promoting the very intolerance of others that it bemoans. Perhaps the author should be more careful going forward about throwing Lovecraft statuettes from her own glass house.

 

Mob Scene: “Herbert West: Reanimator”

In my last Lore Report, I noted an angry mob scene (the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 in New York City) that resulted from real-life incidents of body snatching. The same dynamic can be seen playing out in fictional form, in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 weird tale, “Herbert West: Reanimator.”

Lovecraft presents a gruesome variation on the Frankenstein story; like his literary precursor, Victor Frankenstein, the eponymous medical man West seeks to bring the dead back to life. As his outre experiments naturally require a supply of dead bodies, West is not hesitant to resort to grave robbing. West’s series of maniacal miscreations over the years, though, come back to haunt him in the story’s climax. A “grotesquely heterogeneous” “horde”–led by a headless nightmare in a Canadian officer’s uniform (Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, reanimated by West six years earlier in Flanders during World War I)–breaks into West’s sub-cellar laboratory in a home neighboring a Boston burial ground. The frightfully silent assailants might not be wielding torches and pitchforks, but their own hands prove sufficiently deadly. The story’s horrified (and perhaps unreliable) narrator recounts: “Then they all sprang at [West] and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”

“Herbert West: Reanimator” (a tale undoubtedly overshadowed by Stuart Gordon’s gory, campy film adaptation) was dismissed by Lovecraft himself as a piece of hack work, but this proto-zombie story offers plenty of macabre mayhem and grim thrills. And its climax reverses the angry-villager formula that would be popularized by Universal horror films a decade later. Here it is not a group of stoked locals stalking a creature, but the vengeful monsters themselves who have banded together to track down and viciously execute the unscrupulous resurrectionist West.