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.

6 thoughts on “Showing Cthulhu

  1. TL says:

    What was your overall opinion on House of Leaves? While it seems like everyone I know who’s read it has liked it (or at least kind of liked it) it seems like no one can agree on what meant what, or which parts were actually good. I agree on the narrator (and I actually think he could have been removed completely without harming the story), but other than that I enjoyed it.

  2. erebor452 says:

    If the book is part of a larger series, do you give the author a pass on solving the mystery? Or must the author include a down payment (or continuing payment) in each book of the series?

    Do your requirements extend to television and movies, as well as books?

    I’m pretty curious– I don’t have particularly strong views on the subject, but after thinking about it, I notice that most stories I’ve read/heard/seen do have a definite X-dunit ending, at least to some extent.

  3. owlor says:

    Part of what makes Lovecraftian horror work for me is because it makes my instincts useless. I’m driven to investigate and understand and in a Lovecraft story, that might as well be a death sentence. I’d be the guy madly scribbling notes while the monsters are after me.

    Because of that, I’m not sure if showing or not showing Cthuluh is the most important part, what makes it scary is being able to identify with the characters trying to find out more even if you KNOW it will end badly.

    The risk of not showing cthulu is that if the door remains closed, eventually people will realize nothing’s gonna jump out from it… maybe. I mean, I’ve had several D&D session entierly devoted to trying to get trough a random door while the increasingly frustrated DM tried various unsubtle ways to tell us that no, really, it’s just a door. It isn’t locked cus there’s treasures or clues in there, it’s locked cus you’re in a town in the middle of the night and people do stuff like that. No really, you’re not getting past that door cus you need to go back to the plot railroad.

    So maybe keeping the doors closed on Cthulu DOES work, cus people are gonna keep wanting to open it..

  4. Pippen says:

    I read the Red Tree per the suggestion of this post and…..thank you…..I think.

    Every couple months I get the need to read something scary (which is always a bit of a bad idea in retrospect, but that’s beside the point) and this fulfilled that need (in the same way lighting a bonfire with a blowtorch and twelve bottles of gasoline fulfills the need to light a match).

    I read it with a terror-filled gaze up until ‘Pony’, at which point I put it down and backed away for a bit going, ooooh, I need to go read something cheerful, or not cheerful, just not this. This worked for about a week (and might have lasted longer, but I was still going through Dresden Files withdrawal at this point) and then I picked it up again. You can’t NOT finish it. It was wonderfully written and also freaking terrifying.

    Honestly, it probably deserves a second read, if only to perhaps make a bit more sense of the story, although I doubt that will happen for a while.

    The thing that made this book so terrifying was that there was no “big uber scary thing surrounded by generally alright problems”, it was several deeply, DEEPLY unsettling things surrounded by only deeply unsettling things with a few parts where it seems less bad then it could be, and the icing on the cake is the knowledge that the narrator is going to die at the end.

    So yeah…..thanks.

Leave a Reply