Author Topic: As Above, so Below (dread in Lovecraft, Poe, others)  (Read 206 times)


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(puppets by Paul Klee)

A story cannot immediately cause fear, or arguably even surprise. Unlike a painting, where the observer identifies the totality of the surface of the work instantly, in a written story one has to traverse a forest of words and then reflect on the journey. Often the traveler is bored by the surroundings, or even mockingly identifies the artificial inclusion of some element meant by the author to cause a sense of dread or uneasiness – certainly it will take us longer to establish whether our time was lost, but perhaps we will end up being even more unforgiving when we do.

All art, of course, has to function by triggering emotions and thoughts, and it might be true that achieving this in writing is even more difficult, because here the artist must maintain the reader’s interest for long enough and then manage to lead to a satisfactory conclusion. Lovecraft’s presentation of the lost world under the Exam priory, in the story “Rats in the Walls” wouldn’t have been as potent had it been instantly revealed in a large series of paintings, like in those monster-infested triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch, even if we assume that all the forms would be rendered in the most impeccable manner. This is because, unlike with a painting, a story acquires an effect in stages, and the writer has to use a refined psychological economy to bolster the sense of the uncanny.

This careful construction of a ladder which seamlessly leads the reader to a different, less safe place, is no easy task. However, much like with any other formation, a ladder also is bound to feature a few specific elements: First of all, it should connect spaces which are on different level. Something lies restless below, seeking to rise up, is moving about on the surface, unaware of treacherous depths, wanders about until it is met with a wall or other stout barrier or becomes fatigued by running in seemingly endless open road. In all cases, there is an obstacle, a pillar that protects or a wall which impedes – and as the foul fumes first find their way to the surface when the stone cover of a crypt is removed, likewise does the sense of impending revelation precede the actual passage where it may be provided in detail.

I think that, in essence, when dread is actually achieved, it was because the reader willingly entered a well-constructed labyrinth where the Minotaur was waiting in the forking paths. A story that is potent enough to cause any degree of dread seems to be succeeding not due to the author being in a position to factor the uncountable different readings there may be of it, but due to the opposite reason: the author drastically limited the paths a reader was allowed to observe and take, while at the same time encouraging the reader to keep exploring the miniature clockwork of hidden surprises, making use of planned diversions and, at first, virtually inconspicuous allusions – invisible when they first appear, yet meant to cast long shadows as the narration progresses.

A few writers excel in this type of calculation. Perhaps the German romanticist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, was the most skilled in this art, while the American, E.A. Poe, likely was the most devoted to building up to a specific climax. Lovecraft, for his part, was no stranger to labyrinthine plots and - despite Borges’ rather austere remark about the author from Providence, who he presented as “unwittingly parodying Poe” - he was entirely aware of the dynamics he had to use and developed a number of elegant ways to give that final push to the alarmed reader – though perhaps Lovecraft, mirroring his own battles with personal nightmares, more often than not chose to push the reader firmly to the opposite direction, when the mythical Minotaur came too close for comfort.

(from https://www.patreon.com/Kyriakos)
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