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Showing Cthulhu

The title popped up in a discussion of House of Leaves, so I wound up reading The Red Tree last night, pretty much in one go.

That should tell you right there that it’s a page turner, and well-worth the read—the writing is elegant and cruel and it was genuinely very scary, go forth, read, enjoy.

Meanwhile, I think these might be spoilers, but it’s kind of hard to tell, and I ramble a lot, so…err…take with a grain of salt.

The problem with supernatural horror, as Stephen King said in Danse Macabre or On Writing or somewhere or other, basically comes down to the bit in Call of Cthulhu where sooner or later, you either have to show Cthulhu or you don’t, and no matter what you do, somebody’s gonna get pissed. (I’m paraphrasing madly here, it’s early.)

If you show Cthulhu, it’s not nearly scary as the build-up—NOTHING is ever as scary as the build-up, I think that may be human psychology in a nutshell—and if you don’t, a fairly large subset of people are going to throw your book across the room yelling “WHAT? All that, and the alien turns out to be her FATHER?”

Okay, I might be mixing my works of fiction a bit here, but you get the point. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The Blair Witch Project was scary…and then it was over, and a lot of people walked out of the theatre pissed, self-included. (Also, I wanted EVERYONE IN THE ENTIRE FILM to die.)

Signs, by M. Night Shymalan, was scary for the first thirty minutes…right up until you saw the alien, which could handle intergalactic space-flight but not doorknobs, and then you spent a lot of time checking your watch and sighing heavily.

This, it must be said, is  only true of supernatural horror. When the hero’s a plain ‘ol human serial killer/deranged fan/cannibal/whatever, then it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Show as much as you like. People are scary. You can never get to the end of the scariness of humans with chainsaws.*

Having said that, I will say that supernatural horror gets a pass in the way mystery DOESN’T. You write mystery, the mystery damn well better get solved, or you have broken the contract and I will growl and snarl and never read any of your books again. With supernatural horror, the contract is different, and you run the risk of getting to the end and never hearing more than Cthulhu breathing heavily in the background, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is BAD.

On t’other hand, you have to write REALLY REALLY well, or I get grumpy. I do not do well with cryptic or ambiguous or open-ended non-endings. They make me grumpy. This perhaps marks me as a less enlightened being who could never remember what the heck post-modernism actually meant in class, but there you are.

The Red Tree somehow managed to fall in between these two extremes. It was creepy. You didn’t see Cthulhu, exactly, but you got awfully close. A whole bunch of weird stuff went on. There were a few really unsettling bits that never got more than a cameo and that I really would have liked to have explored, but for the most part, I didn’t come away feeling wretchedly unsatisfied, the way I did with, oh, In the Woods, say. There wasn’t a blow-by-blow explanation of what the heck went on, but you were able to walk away from it going “Whew, bad shit went down there!” and have a good sense of the general outlines. It was vaguely Lovecraftian, if Lovecraft had a sad, confused, sympathetic narrator, and vaguely House of Leaves, if that hadn’t had a raging douchebag for a narrator and the house was a tree and…okay, well, maybe not quite that much like House of Leaves.

And you know right away that the narrator is dead—that’s not a spoiler, it’s on the first page–-so you don’t really expect a finely tuned bit of closure, and as Kiernan is NOT Lovecraft, the heroine is not scribbling a paragraph of hysterical adjectives by candlelight as death approaches, instead of running away like a sensible being, and all in all, while I am enough of a closure junkie that I might have liked a little more, I did not walk away going “WHAT? THAT’S IT?” and it was genuinely pretty freaky.

(Tangentially, since I was reading this as an e-book, it was kind of awesome because she kept referring to various other books and quotes and whatnot, and I could just open a window and google it, which made for a very rewarding reading experience on that front.)

I am sympathetic, really, to the plight of authors in this case, because showing Cthulhu is HARD. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have done it really well. Hell, Lovecraft rarely pulls it off worth a damn, and he invented Cthulhu. China Mieville could do it—Perdido Street Station is basically a whole conga-line of Cthulhus—and on the movie front, Alien didn’t just show you Cthulhu, it took you on a guided tour of his nasal passages. (Also, for having far less budget, Pitch Black did pretty well, I gotta say, although it went all action-adventury and wasn’t really horror. Them were some creepy beasties. Mind you, I may have been blinded by Vin Diesel’s biceps.)

Stephen King, who can scare the bejeezus out of me with humans…well, every time King writes an alien, God kills a kitten. Except for From a Buick 8, which was basically a Lovecraft tribute, and which worked wonderfully for me, possibly because it’s told through a series of narrators and you don’t expect them to be able to express mind-bending extradimensional eldritch horror, and they do a pretty good job.

We won’t talk about Dean Koontz.

I myself don’t write horror. I can do creepy for brief stints, but I can’t sustain it worth a damn. I am the person watching the horror movies yelling “Just leave town, moron!” so…y’know. Unless it involves Mothman. God, I hate Mothman.

I tried once, in my misspent youth, to write Lovecraftian horror and rapidly discovered that I was not very good at it, since my interior worlds tend to be rather kind and I always want to stop and talk to the weird freaky things, and I’d wind up with, at best, a peculiar fantasy where the narrator did fieldwork with ghouls or spent her days banding night-gaunts in an effort to understand their migratory patterns. (You can see that in my attempts with the Gearworld blog, and honestly, no, I have no idea when I’ll need to work on it again, I’m very sorry. Problem is…well…closure. I’d want explanations for too many things. Also, I had to borrow the Spring Green Man for another book.)  So those early attempts, which are thankfully lost to history, mostly involved the heroine winding up in an alternate universe resembling the Hopi Second World, where the North American camel never went extinct and I’d get hung up on the camel for ten pages and then get distracted by something else and we would never get to any actual horror bits.

One of these days I want to write about a possessed garden haunted by the deranged ghost of the heroine’s grandmother who wants her to meet a nice boy and settle down and which ends with the UPS guy nailed to a chair by ropes of rose canes and forced to make awkward small-talk with the heroine while she searches for a can of gasoline and a match. And there, I just did. Whew, good to get that off my chest. Now I can get on with my life.

I have no idea what the point of all that was, except that The Red Tree was good, even without quite showing all of Cthulhu.

*Horrible mutant alien squid all through Resident Evil 4, and the ones that SCARED me were the guys wearing burlap sacks over their faces and carrying chainsaws. Brrrrrr.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


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Awww, the post title had me hoping for another one of your Happy Cthulhu pictures, or something along those lines!

You can do creepy. In art and text. You might even be able to pull off a short story that could count as horror. But you're more the some other genre with some elements of horror type.

Ed's story counts as horror in my definition. On several levels.

I totally agree about the general idea you're talking about here, though. Real horror isn't what you show, it's what you don't see. (Human threats are different. That's sort of its own sub-category of horror, at least in my head.) The monster is scarier when you can't see it. Or can only see part of it. Your imagination fills in the rest, and you know what scares you better than any writer does.

I like the thought of various genres, and the sort of contract the books have with their audience, and what happens if they break the contract.

Real horror isn't what you show, it's what you don't see. (Human threats are different.)

I'd argue that it's what you don't see that makes a human threat horrifying too. You don't see WHY this person is acting threatening. You can't see the brokenness till it's too late.

From A Buick 8 is still one of my all time scare myself books to read. I often argue its one of King's best.

I read that in a frenzy of terror late one night, thinking I wouldn't be scared if I finished it. I was wrong.

"Psycho" is an excellent example of doing it right. The film slowly burns towards the reveal, you're never sure what horrible thing is going on, what's causing all this. Then reveal happens and you're like OH SHIT, never saw THAT coming, yet it all makes sense.

The beautiful thing about Psycho is, I mean, if you're American you basically grew up knowing the plot, you KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS MOVIE, EVERYBODY knows what happens in this movie--

--and it's still scary as fuck. I saw it the first time in college, and, well, *yes*, I KNEW WHAT HAPPENED, because it's Psycho and EVERYBODY knows what happens and still holy sweet *Jesus* that's a scary movie. Now *that* is horror done right. All the gore fests of most current horror, that's just gross. Psycho is scary.

It, like Shakespeare and Casablanca, is one of those rare things in life that actually is that good, despite everybody saying how good it is. Y'know?

Yes, this.

I *like* King's more supernatural stuff, but I like it more as dark fantasy than as horror per se. IT was scary in places, but that's because of the whole clown thing (and because there was one non-clown scene that pushed my ARGH NO WHAT button), and the other stuff I've read of his that creeped me out was either human, human-created, or shown only on the periphery.

Also, I would totally read your Lovecraftian universe stories.

I want to study the migratory patterns of night-gaunts! Where was that when they were giving us all those stupid career aptitude tests in high school?

Have you read any earlier Kiernan? Her Daughter of Hounds is a rather intriguing novel on the border between horror and fantasy; the horror's of a Lovecraftian bent (like much of her œuvre) and the fantasy's rather Arabian Nights-esque. I quite liked it.

Funny you mention this; I had a conversation just last night about horror movies and books. I contended that the scariest horror movie I'd ever watched was The Haunting Of Hill House for just the reasons you mention above-- you don't *quite* see anything, except for maybe in the scene with the wallpaper (which scared me badly, btw) and yet the pervading sense of horror and menace and the seduction of the house just grows and grows. Brrrrr... My friend said that she'd just read a book titled The Yellow Wallpaper and suggested I read it if I don't particularly plan on sleeping anytime soon, and I suggested she read the short story The Red Lodge by H.R. Wakefield if she felt like doing the same...

And then we got into discussions of horrible mutant shark movies, and well, the same criteria don't precisely apply.

Yellow Wallpaper is creepy, but it's not supernatural--descent into madness kinda style. It definitely has stuck with me, though...

Shirley Jackson (Anonymous) Expand
Thanks for the rec! I'm going to check out this book.

But... how could Cthulhu hold the cans? He's too big. And drippy. And probably hasn't had enough sleep; no waking the Cthulhu before he's rested.

If it makes you feel any better on the horror front, the first appearance of the hyena cultists in Black Dogs had me positively gibbering.

I think Lovecraft went into you're 'alien fieldtrip' issues with Shadow out of Time. Once his stories got too long, they stopped being scary and just got weird and (in the case of SooT) kinda cute.

Out curiosity, does the Tommyknockers count as showing aliens or not showing aliens? Because I think part of the horror there was not knowing what they were becoming, even when you eventually saw the desiccated corpses or whatever. (It's still my favorite King book of all time, and one of the only ones where the ending actually seemed appropriate.)

I always try to write things that aren't horror and they always, inevitably, become horror. C'est la vie.

*shudders* Now THERE'S a book that still haunts my nightmares...

For years I was afraid of under my bed, not cause there was monsters under it, but because that's where my old paperback copy of Tommyknockers ended up after I threw it away from me in fright.

I couldn't resist and googled "Cthulhu conga"

PS re films where showing the monster spoilt it

Dog soldiers was scary, right up to the point where you actually saw the werewolves.

One Hammer horror movie was really scary, again until you saw the monster. (No I don't remember which one)

Horror movies are better when the suspense is kept and isn't spoilt by actually seeing the monster.

As a horror genre wimp, I'd much rather read about a paranormal naturalist than any actual horror plot. (Stories where all the protagonists die just feel wrong to me.)

Oh my GOD that would be awesome!

And now I'm picturing the Crocodile Hunter as someone exploring the Lovecraft universe. "Now this here's your standard cultist. We've got to be real careful here, cause if they notice us, we'll be tied to that altar and sacrificed faster than you can sneeze!"

I actually really like that your worlds are generally rather kind and people actually get some important talking done.

I'd like to recommend Kiernan's novel Threshold which makes me jumpy for ages every time I read it and deals with the same sort of monsters as The Red Tree.