The moment has arrived – the time that possibly three or four people have been eagerly anticipating since I started this blog thingie here. For my first Octoberween, let’s talk about H. P. Lovecraft!
Except, not Cthulhu. Not Dagon or Innsmouth. Not even the fungi from Yuggoth. Nope. Let’s talk about “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”
This is not exactly as obscure as “The Festival,” which I was also tempted to do. But, in the scheme of things, it’s not exactly the story that makes Lovecraft famous. Carter’s second story is better known – one of Lovecraft’s longest works, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. But let me tell you what I did all day today. I read way too many creepypastas.
If you don’t know what these things are, they’re basically short stories told online, typically with the traditional “I have to tell someone what happened, and my friends would never believe me” conceit. If you’ve read Lovecraft, you see where I’m going with this already. But these stories are typically posted first on a message board somewhere (often on 4chan’s /x/ board), and they claim they are real stories. Many of them are genuinely creepy for one reason or another. “Squidward’s Suicide” has enough small details from the narrator, who worked as an intern for Nickelodeon Studios and saw the missing episode of Spongebob Squarepants in which a depressed Squidward kills himself because of a bad concert performance, while hidden frames reveal the person who hijacked the video inserted stills from a film where he gruesomely murdered children. Details of the images prove the children were alive while tortured and filmed.
So these things can be pretty fucked up. “Ben Drowned” is I guess one of the most famous, in which a haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge turns out to have an evil figure named Ben – probably a name it stole from its first victim, a child it forced to drown itself – and Ben torments the poster of the story. The whole thing blew up into an ARG by the original poster.
What does all that have to do with Lovecraft? Well, “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is basically a creepypasta. In the edition I own it in (well, one of three books I own that has the story) it takes seven pages, and is the statement made to the police in Carter’s defense. He’s been accused of killing his friend Henry Warren. Really what they did was discover, in an old book, that something terrible was buried in an ancient mausoleum that had been lost to a cypress swamp in Florida. Carter’s nerves are too bad to risk going down, so despite his protests, he’s left behind. But Warren takes a phone with a line down into the crypts. He sees something terrible, warns Carter off, but Carter stays long enough to hear Warren die – though he doesn’t realize that. He begs Warren to speak to him, at story’s end, a new voice on the line says that Warren is dead. The story ends on that line.
In structure and content it almost entirely predicts creepypastas. It’s also one of my favorite Lovecraft short-shorts (very short, vignette-type stories). So guess who’s a really good audience for creepypastas? Yup, me. And possibly I shouldn’t have spent all day on them – the smile.dog pictures might keep me awake tonight.
What can we get out of this? Well, first, though maybe you don’t need to be convinced of this, creepypastas aren’t necessarily void of creativity and value. We can also see the outlines of the sort of fantastic horror Lovecraft wrote so well, laid bare of the particular methods he used. There’s dread (terror + horror + mystery), there’s a sense of the unknown contacting our world, and there’s a refusal to entirely answer the questions it raises. What was in that book Warren had? Carter can’t remember, the trauma shook it out of him. What was in the crypt? Carter never finds out. Interestingly, in the letter Lovecraft wrote to some friends, with what amounts to an early draft of the story, Loveman (a real-life friend of Lovecraft who was turned to Warren for the story; this was all a dream of Lovecraft’s to start with) says something about “legions.” So it’s possible Carter stumbles on an underground world of horrors, as in several of Lovecraft’s later stories (off the top of my head, “The Rats in the Walls” and At the Mountains of Madness qualify). We have no idea. Carter has no idea. In seven pages, Lovecraft constructed a story that’s a cliché now, but that takes the older horror stories that came before and strips them down to their bones (pun intended, I promise). So many people mirror it today online, possibly unconsciously, because it’s so effective. There’s no reason we have to have an answer to everything.
Here’s a weird movie to bring up: Jeepers Creepers. By all accounts it’s a terrible movie, but I saw it in theaters and enjoyed it. It probably helps that I was on a note-quite-but-nearly date. The reason I liked it was that it’s a pretty typical slasher movie, with two changes: it’s cross-country (which has been done before; I think one of Spielberg’s early movies, Duel, is about that). It pretty much just hand-waves the slasher as “a demon” and never explains any fucking thing about how it can keep up with everyone and kill them like it does. There’s something about wanting eyes because it lost its own when it was a person, or it was summoned by that person, or something. Honestly, no one cares.
Horror has a hole in it. There’s a spot, large or small, where no information goes in or out. Because horror is about what people don’t know. It often lags behind science a little. Ghost stories weren’t really popular until people didn’t really believe in ghosts any longer. But they were just emblems for the idea that something could be there, invisible but pernicious, dangerous but unseeable. Lovecraft’s dangerous unseeable thing was the force of nature itself. He famously wanted to write stories “that would scare atheists” – so no ghosts, no spirits, no werewolves. The uncaring cosmos is the monster in Lovecraft’s worlds. And yes, in some stories there might be magic. “The Statement of Randolph Carter” might be about liches and mummies. There are a few hints in there. But they are what they are because there’s a mystery there, a wondering about how exactly life leaves the body.
And if people online realize that there’s a mystery in that interaction we take for granted between ourselves and video game characters? If they realize we lean forward toward our tvs a little more when we’re playing Zelda than when we’re watching a movie? Well, there’s horror in there.