26 August 2011

The Wandering Void: On Lovecraft and the independent horror film Tuesday, 09 August 2011

H.P. Lovecraft opens his essay ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’ with the following declaration:
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualizing more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.
Lovecraft’s references to weird fiction suiting his “inclination best”, having “curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis”, and “laying stress on the emotion of fear” which itself is “our deepest and strongest emotion” all strike me as kin to the some of the key reasons horror fans give for loving the genre. One of the strongest and most cohesive groups of online horror fans exhibiting such traits and that I have been a part of (not just as a researcher, but as a horror fan myself) is the Horror in Film and Literature discussion list. In fact, it is a testament to the strength of the community that this largely e-mail based list has stayed together despite the ascendancy of social networking and all the changes in online communication since the 1990s. Fellow member Kate Laity has already published an account of the group in the collection Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, but it can also be said that the overwhelming impression that the group creates is one of a shared and intense love for the entire spectrum of horror in the arts and popular culture. It is a love that flows over into the practice and crafting of horror as well as the chat about it. It is an intelligent, focused and imaginative group, and that can be seen in the fiction, films and art that the members of the group have created over the years.
One of the most recent productions by a member of the list is the film House of Black Wings written and directed by David Schmidt, and it is notable that in an era of graphic horror it is inspired by Lovecraftian themes. The cinema has not always treated Lovecraft’s fiction well or given it due credit as a primary form of American Gothic. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive lists only 14 film adaptations of his work. Nevertheless, his influence is unmistakable in popular culture with themes and moods that evoke a Lovecraftian feel in a wider range of films, television, novels, comic books, music and video games. What is perhaps most notable is that in the last five years or so there have been a number of interesting independent and non-commercial Lovecraft films, often made by and for fans. With the availability of and access to low cost and widely available filmmaking equipment and technology in recent years (not to mention the ease of distribution, Schmidt’s film can be obtained from Amazon), fan filmmakers have been able to hone their skills and produce the kinds of films they want to see.
Echoing Lovecraft’s own statement about his writing, the website for House of Black Wings declares that:
As filmmakers, we have a deep respect for this genre and we want this movie to explore truths about the human condition and the culture we live in, as well as dig into the shadowy places of our psyche. We are working to tell a story about complex characters who reflect the people we know, and we want to take our audience on a dark journey of fear and fascination, dragged through the brambles of imagination and into the void beyond.
In the film, a clearly Lovecraftian house contains and encloses the opening into the void that is inhabited by nameless terrors and unimaginable beings. Maurice Lévy writes that:
The old colonial homes dear to Lovecraft’s heart, with their irregular gables, their bizarre framework, their transomed windows—all the residences of another age that incite meditation and dream—become through dream sinister places where nameless abominations rule.
Lovecraft’s dwellings are “baleful and menacing”, they contain doors that open into the void, and are “cracked and unwholesome” or conversely “unreal and faraway”. They are “peopled with swarming horrors” who “malevolently assimilate the flesh and souls of their unfortunate tenants.” The Lovecraftian house thus “demarcates and isolates the malefic region”.

What is most impressive about House of Black Wings is its creation of this baleful architecture and the malefic spaces/entities it contains. The Blackwood building where the action is set, an apartment complex rather than a single house, is haunted in many ways. The grounds are covered in torn, discarded paper which uncannily reappears the moment is it cleared away, tenants scratch at and talk to the walls, neighbours disappear with alarming noises in the night, the owner Robyn and her friend Kate are plagued by dreams, the detritus of the old house contains and spews out secrets from the past, awful (awe-ful) creatures emanate from the walls. All is overlaid with the sound and the imagery of wings. The very architecture of the house is an eruption of “infinite, cosmic spaces”. Nothing about the house is logical or ordered. “What’s with this place?” Kate asks Robyn, “None of the stairwells match, none of the apartments…”

Papers that Kate finds in the basement, written by the ghost of the woman who once lived in the house, provide the reason:
Such obsession cannot be healthy. Father has built the Blackwood according to his dreams; but where do these dreams come from? I am certain it is them. I hear their wings in the walls. They have swarmed here from the wandering void.
It is dreams—and them—too who show Robyn what to include in her artistic creations. To the original builder, Carlton Drood, Blackwood is The House on the Edge of Nothing, a child’s tale he has published as a book. Here the house is described as being “on the edge of a great unseen world where it was forever night, and the winged beings that lived there were wise and knowing”. The very fabric of the house itself belongs in the “dark world, beyond the stars”. His daughter’s diary reveals that the house and these winged creatures are less than benign:
What has happened to this place? I fear the winged shadows. I can hear them moving in the walls. Scratching and scraping their unimagined claws and tendrils in the walls. I imagine I will see them soon and then what will become of me.

Blackwood is a symbolic, cosmic and architectural house-within-a-house. It is the house on the edge of nothing of Drood’s fiction. Robyn’s latest art project (her work has been described by a critic as “dysfunctional dollhouses”) is a cardboard house, a set of rooms containing tableaux of Kate’s dreams. At the climax of the film both women are trapped within the maze-like spaces between the walls. It is here that Robyn and Kate gain a glimpse of the void.

Fittingly, then, the film is an effective evocation of Lovecraftian themes, and since it originates from the imagination of fans who possess an intense love for the genre it is perhaps a more fitting and appropriate homage to Lovecraft’s version of American Gothic than many a commercial product. It has been a pleasure to end this series of guest blogs with a nod to the fans who have made both my own fandom and my academic pursuits such a pleasure over the years.
  • K. A. Laity, ‘From SBIGs to Mildred’s Inverse Law of Trailers: Skewing the Narrative of Horror Fan Consumption’ in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, edited by Steffan Hantke (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
  • Maurice Lévy, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (Wayne State University Press, 1988).
  • H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Volume 2: Literary Criticism (Hippocampus, 2004).

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