Are You Happy? The Books Between Evil Dead and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

A dimensional incursion has occurred between the genre of comic book superheroes, and horror has occurred. It began, cinematically, in Moon Knight, with just a hint of it in No Way Home, but now the singularity has happened and I decided that I couldn’t contain it anywhere other than in this textual laboratory.

Have you ever began something with a singular purpose – like a Sacred Timeline – and then through a series of tangents, spin-offs, unfortunate events, and poor life decisions, or varied Choose Your Own Adventures you find yourself in a complicated web where you have to confront all of these things in some kind of existential test filled with dread? This is basically Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I could go into Marvel lore – both comics-wise and cinematically – but let’s be honest, so many others have, and are, already doing so in the different planes of reality. So now, I ask you – my readers – to take after the example of the Infinity Warriors that some of you already are, and remember the Creed:

No Spoilers. Because, after this moment, reading past this point means that all the responsibility falls onto you. You were warned. 

When you look past sorcerers, in this world with their martial arts and academic leanings, and witches with their raw power and their own erude learning, what you are left with is a magician. And while Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff are sorcerer and witch respectively, it is Sam Raimi that is the magician. And what are magicians excellent at displaying?

Misdirection.

It’s a trait that carries over from his work in the horror genre: where you think that the plot is going to go one way, or the story is going to end in another, but something else happens entirely. And in Sam Raimi’s case, it is usually a mad-cap situation that goes down.

The events of the film play behind my third eye’s mind. We see an alternate version of Stephen Strange, called Defender Strange, with one of the few human singularities or cosmological constants in the multiverse – America Chavez whose ability is to travel all realities – fleeing a monster covered in runes and incantations. We think, and we are primed, to believe that he will sacrifice himself to save America’s life by letting the monster attack and kill him. We are led to believe he will send her away as the creature corrupts and changes him into a zombified version of himself: an undead body warped and twisted by an evil spirit to become an antagonist as America gets the mainline Marvel Cinematic Strange to help her escape evil. 

Instead, we see them trapped attempting to get the Book of Vishanti in this plane between universes, and Strange decides to drain America of her power: effectively killing her instead of letting the pursuing demon’s master have her power to travel the multiverse instead. This is such a prelude to the critique of Stephen Strange – all the Stephen Stranges throughout the multiverse and the one we know – that will happen throughout the film: taking him to an uncomfortable psychological place.

This is where we see Stephen Strange and his arrogance: his inherent, deep-set need to know best over the needs and consent of others. He can even violate the friendship and trust of anyone at his side if it threatens “the greater good.”

And then, the Stephen Strange we know wakes up: having seen all of this as a nightmare. But we know it wasn’t just a dream. As it turns out, and as America explains later on to him and Wong – the former sorcerer Librarian and current Sorcerer Supreme – there are people powerful enough to dream themselves into their alternate selves in other realities: to get a glimpse of what their lives might have been like if other roads had been taken. It is eerie, and disturbing when you think about what we all dream about, assuming this only applies to “the important,” especially given that America herself never dreams when she sleeps: as she is the only one of her kind in the multiverse.

Think about it. Imagine all those dreams where you die. Or you are still in high school. Or you are losing your apartment.

Or you find yourself falling.

Consider that all of these scenarios happened to you, or are happening to you, in the multiverse. And then take that realization, and apply it to those other selves dreaming of you. This existential dread is just the beginning, and it’s something that Stephen Strange has to face when he looks at the corpse of Defender Strange on the rooftop before him. I mean, holy Gothic horror Batman: looking at your dead double or Doppelgänger after hearing that he betrayed the girl he was friends with would shake your core faith in yourself, I don’t care who you are. Talk about the foreshadowing and ill omens you do not want. Forget having a living harbinger telling you that you are going to fuck something up by messing with it in the horror genre, just look at your own dead body, and think to yourself: I need to seriously reconsider my life.

And with this foray into the morbid uncanny in mind, let’s look further into some messed up character psychology. We are primed to think there is a Big Bad, some kind of powerful demon or supervillain that sent these monstrosities after an innocent girl like America: to get her power to expand their power throughout the multiverse. So what does Doctor Strange do? Well, he realizes he needs help. He has an entire legion of his fellow brother, sister, and sibling sorcerers in the temple of Kamar-Taj to protect America, but he knows that having a fellow Avenger might help: someone with familiarity with the Mystic Arts.

Wanda Maximoff has had a bad time of it. When you look at the intertextuality or continuity of her between films she had killed the man she loved for nothing, fell into delusion and denial over his death and unconsciously used Chaos Magic to take over an entire town and recreate her lover and make children from nothing, was manipulated by an ancient witch, and then lost all of what she built, and ends up in the possession of the Darkhold: a tome of dark magic that corrupts the essence of the person using it. We’ve seen the Darkhold affect Agents of SHIELD: scientists, soldiers, and even an artificial intelligence, and none of it was pleasant. So imagine how horrifying a concept it is for someone of Wanda’s ability to be influenced by this book. 

To give you an idea of what the Darkhold is: it was, in the comics, created by followers of an Elder God of Darkness and Chaos named Chthon as a way to leave his mark on the world from which he was banished, and to eventually come back into it. Now, Chthon refers to the earth, but also has very Lovecraftian overtones, and the Darkhold is essentially Marvel’s — and Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog’s — version of the Necronomicon. Nothing good ever comes from possessing a book of forbidden knowledge. And, like the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, it has copies. And while I am still unsure if Agents of SHIELD is canon, or not a parallel reality to the mainline cinematic universe, that copy was taken by Ghost Rider elsewhere to be destroyed, presumably in hell or some infernal plane like it. Agatha Harkness had another copy, which Wanda had taken from her.

So basically, this book is inspired by Marvel’s equivalent to a Great Old One, who in the comics made Scarlet Witch to conquer the world and multiverse. It is a nice parallel to Alan Moore’s analogue to the Necronomicon in his and Jacen Burrows’ comics work Providence, the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya, or The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars with its own prophecy of the Redeemer: a figure will return reality into an inherently non-human chaos. Basically, Wanda is Chthon’s Redeemer even if, like Moore’s Lovecraft depiction, she doesn’t intend to be.

But comics and scholarly geekery, and whether or not Moore was inspired by the Marvel Darkhold or some other Mythos story, we come back to Sam Raimi. If you have watched the Evil Dead Trilogy, you have seen the Necronomicon before. The Naturom Demonto, or the Necronomicon Ex Mortis is a book that details Kandarian funerary rites, prophecies, and passages that allow for the summoning of demons. Mainly in Raimi’s films, whenever this book with a cover of warped human, or demon flesh and made by the Dark Ones, is opened and people stupidly read from it in a cabin within the woods, it summons demonic spirits. And these entities are all about possessing people, turning their bodies into living, gibbering, autonomous weapons called Deadites that maim and kill human beings out of amusement. And you can only destroy them by cutting them into little pieces. Generally, once you call on the power of any version of this book: from Lovecraft’s with its rituals to deal with Great Old Ones, Marvel’s Darkhold with its black magics, or Raimi’s Naturom Demonto or Ex Mortis, it never ends well for anybody.

So we have Wanda, whom Strange approaches, in her meadow and her snug little cabin to help guard the life and soul of a young girl. But like any horror film, you see that cabin is cursed by the proximity of the Darkhold and Wanda has only been masking the diseased nature of the land around them by her own magic. It only takes Strange a moment to realize that the human disaster that is Wanda Maximoff has been the one secretly sending those monsters after America: so she can use her powers to travel to the multiverse to be with alternate versions of the sons she lost.

Wanda is also the second person in that film, after Stephen’s former lover Christine Palmer, to ask him if he is truly happy. And she confronts him with some truth bombs about his hypocrisy in opposing her: about how his own selfishness, and also keeping his own counsel in dealing with the Time Stone cost so many lives while she wants to do is go to her children. We see that her delusion hasn’t abated. She’s simply consumed by the power of the Darkhold and the obsession of her getting her family back: at all costs. And if she has to kill a young girl to do it? Well, the girl is an anomaly and therefore not human, and according to Wanda “she doesn’t count.” I mean, it is not atypical. After all, witches sacrifice children to empower themselves, or accomplish their goals all the time in folklore. Just not superheroes.

So yes. It is safe to say that Wanda the Scarlet Witch has traded reason for madness.

Horror films love to deal with that age-old trope of the road paved with good intentions. And here, too, Stephen avoids answering the question about whether or not he’s happy.

The following fight between Wanda and the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj is nothing short of a deadly one-sided slaughter, with some resonance with Raimi’s own Army of Darkness. Wanda doesn’t resurrect the dead, or summon more demons. She simply preys on the minds of the adepts, and uses her raw power to overcome their traps. 

But it becomes clear, as America Chavez’s power is activated by intense fear and she and Doctor Strange are sent throughout the multiverse that the only way to stop a Darkhold-infused Scarlet Witch is to find the Book of the  Vishtanti : the Darkhold’s positive opposite empowered by Elder Gods opposed to it. 

So the Book of the Vishanti, that can basically create a spell that can instantly accomplish its goal, feels reminiscent of August Derleth’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos: in that he wrote stories where the Elder Gods were good, and the Outer Gods were evil. One can see Marvel, in making their conception of the Darkhold that made it into this film, thinking of Chthon as some kind of equivalent to an Outer God, and the three Vishanti deities as Elder Gods. Certainly, there is some influence there, even if the  Vishanti  and Chthon are all Elder Gods in Marvel’s mythology. 

Yet it is also important to talk about these books, and books of power themselves, in the context of Sam Raimi. Books are important in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film series. The Book of Vishanti is supposedly the only one of its kind in the multiverse, much like a text equivalent to America Chavez, whereas the Darkhold has multiple copies in different realities based off the Temple Cthton created on Wundagore Mountain in one plane. In Army of Darkness, Ash Williams is sent back in time due to the events of Evil Dead II, the sequel and revision to the first film, and he has to find the right book – in this case the Necronomicon Ex Mortis – to fight off the scourge of the Deadites and return home to his time. He ends up in a graveyard facing what seems to be three copies of the Necronomicon – two of them being false – and when he finds the right one he fails to speak the magic words (which were inspired from the alien Klaatu’s orders to his robot ally Gort in the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is funny when you consider the presence of the Illuminati’s Ultron Iron Legion). The Necronomicon, in the case of Raimi’s third film in the trilogy, isn’t just the source of chaos in existence, but it has potential solutions as well. However, there is a more direct parallel between the Book of Vishtanti and Raimi when you look at Evil Dead II, the Necronomicon also possesses missing pages that contain a space-time vortex spell, and a prophecy of “the Hero From the Sky” that Annie Knowby, the daughter of Professor Knowby and Henrietta Knowby – who is possessed thanks to the Kandarian Demon and made into a Deadite also referred to a lot of the time as a witch – uses to banish the evil of the book, and accidentally Ash as well. Of course, the Ex Mortis itself is a lot like the Darkhold with its own prophecy of Wanda as the Scarlet Witch.

Of course, there is an interesting parallel in that Ash Williams fails to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex Mortis peacefully in Army of Darkness albeit by his own foolishness, while Stephen Strange and America Chavez also fail to keep the Book of Vishtanti when Wanda obliterates it. 

Interestingly enough, and speaking of the destruction of books, the burning the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Raimi’s films also eliminates  the Deadites, while the obliteration of the Darkhold – while it also costs the life of the person that damages it, as we see in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – essentially robs its user of much of its magics: including the ability to dreamwalk.

Dreamwalking is another fascinating element in this film and its mythology. It is a practice, taken from the Darkhold, that allows the user to possess any of their alternate selves through the multiverse. So imagine that while normal dreaming lets you see through the eyes and minds of your alternates at times, dreamwalking gives you the power to control your alternates like puppets: overriding their sense of choice and freewill to do whatever you want. It is a terrifying skill, and one that apparently angers the damned. It isn’t to be used lightly. In fact, Wanda only utilizes this power when she has no other way to reach Stephen Strange and America in the multiverse. And when Stephen Strange ends up using another copy of the Darkhold to dreamwalk back to his own reality, he is accosted by spirits that twitter, taunt, and torment not unlike Deadite demons except they are essentially demonic shadows without bodies: the very same he begins to utilize against Wanda before she can absorb America’s power. 

But when you get back to the entire plot of the film, it is one great horror misdirection. The hero at the beginning of the film attempts to kill his charge for his conception of the greater good. Another hero has gone mad, and is willing to terrorize murder a young girl to find her created chidren in another realm: committing war and essentially genocide against an entire ancient order to get to her.

Yet I think that what ultimately gets to me is the absolute personal horror in this film.

Not only do you have the fact that fear is the only thing that America Chavez can use to activate her power to travel to, and portals to other realities, and her living with the burden of having accidentally banished both of her mothers to other planes, but it all comes back to Wanda Maximoff and Stephen Strange. Wanda Maximoff continues to make a whole series of moral compromises: from sending monsters after America, to slaughtering an order of sorcerers defending a child, to essentially violating and controlling her alternate counterpart in the Illuminati reality – even abandoning her in the plane between realities without knowing or caring if she has powers to get herself back – all the way to tormenting and potentially killing Wong, and draining the energy out of a young girl as Agatha Harkness tried to her back in WandaVision. It is sad to see a misguided hero become essentially a villain, or at least a seriously corrupted antagonist, and it is only after America Chavez literally gives Wanda a reality check by forcing her to see her alternate and her sons terrified of her that she sees what she has become. This realization, that she is basically a monster, that she looked into the abyss and became the things that used to torture her and use her, that she swore to destroy, that “her children” were afraid of her, breaks her. 

And then we have our friend Strange himself, the supposed hero of this film. What we find is what happens when a man who thinks he knows best is pushed to the nth degree in different realities. The Illuminati themselves, created by one version of Doctor Strange, also believe they know what they need to do for the greater good, and overestimate their power: costing the majority of them their lives. Black Bolt and Mr. Fantastic die horrific, grisly deaths for superheroes under the Scarlet Witch between the former having no mouth and he must scream, and the latter being peeled away like a cheese stick: complete with Captain Carter getting cut in half by her own shield, and the Rambeau Captain Marvel crushed by her own statue. Poor Professor Xavier, whom I actually thought would be the worst of the lot, was actually the most compassionate in wanting to free Stephen Strange from their capture of him, and even attempting to remove Wanda from her captured alternate’s mind before she snapped his neck. It’s a strange thing to see when you consider Xavier’s interplay with Wanda in the Marvel Comics when they were sometimes allies, and oftentimes enemies as she was Magneto’s daughter.

The reason I mention the Illuminati’s deaths, most of them not particularly graphic but some of their off-screen and shot angles of demise allowing the imagination to fill in the blanks and make it worse, is that they die because they captured Stephen due to them having killed their own Doctor Strange, and other variants of him. Essentially, what Stephen Strange discovers, and what they reveal to him, is that the Strange of their universe attempted to use the Darkhold’s dreamwalking against Thanos and, as a result, destroyed an entire other universe. He hadn’t told them, or his version of Christine Palmer what he was doing – taking it on himself to “wield the scalpel” – and it cost trillions their lives. 

It is like Defender Strange’s attack on America writ large, and making Stephen Strange see his gamble against Thanos in his reality and allowing him to understand the cost in doing so: even if it was the only way from his perspective with the Time Stone. But it gets worse. Stephen and Christine end up in a dying universe, looking not unlike the fractured reality of The One Who Remains in Loki. It is there that Stephen meets what can be called Sinister Strange, who is mostly mad and failed to save his universe: who has taken it on himself to absorb the power of the Darkhold, and murder his alternates for fun in other universes. Essentially, this Doctor Strange took the burden of his failures, and of doing everything himself, messed up, and hated himself so much he kills himself in other places, over and again. And when Stephen realizes the full extent of this, and duels with him, the other’s death is more like a mercy killing.

Because what Stephen Strange finally confronts in looking at his mirror darkly, is that he is afraid of failure, of being alone, and he drives people away in response by embracing perfectionism. He sees his arrogance, and the price it exacts on himself, and everything around him in other planes. And instead of being able to use the Book of Vishanti and its Light magic, he must use the copy of the Darkhold that destroyed the mind of his counterpart: facing darkness, using Dark Magic and the realms of the damned accomplish what I think is one of the best subversive aspects of this film. He can’t take the easy way to victory. He has to work, and suffer for it. 

Stephen Strange manages to dreamwalk into the corpse of Defender Strange while he is trapped in Sinister Strange’s universe, essentially reanimating him, and weaponizing the spirits of the damned attacking him around him to use against Wanda and her own servants. Essentially, to borrow yet another comics franchise analogy with another underhanded sorcerer, he Constantines Wanda before encouraging America to draw on her own determination to use her power, and give the Scarlet Witch her wake up call. In essence, Stephen Strange has to function as his own Deadite entity to possess the dead body of his alternate self to defend the girl that this same alternate had once befriended and tried to kill. The Zombie Strange we’ve seen in previews, who had all been typecast as an antagonist, is actually a hero using dark magic to protect a girl’s life, and give her a chance for agency. 

Usually, in a Sam Raimi film a spirit possessed or controlled body is a problem, such as with Ash Williams’ or even Ash himself. Ash too had to face down his own doppelgänger in Army of Darkness, a few times over, his own strange little alternate selves and demons in the mill before having to deal with his undead one later. Another interesting parallel to Ash Williams and Stephen Strange is that they both have tremendous pride that can lead them into doing terrible things such Ash not saying the words in the graveyard and unleashing the Army of Darkness, and Stephen Strange believing he can take any problems head on without consulting anyone.

The differences are that while Ash just kills his undead counterpart, and doesn’t seem to learn a damn thing in the films, Stephen Strange does learn to trust the help of others through using his undead double – which is hilarious in retrospect as I was telling him to burn the body under my breath as I thought the Zombie Strange would be the beginning of an undead plague –  and lets America Chavez make the decision and judgment call that saves them.

In the end, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s own horror beats and sensibilities, complete with the twist at the end where everything seems resolved until that third eye opens on Stephen’s forehead like his sinister counterpart’s: that surprise, weird, ending that characterizes his Evil Dead work. It is something of a mess at times, and some parts feel more diluted than others, but it definitely succeeds in capturing the weird, the uncanny, and even the zany of Raimi and the world of Doctor Strange. I can totally forgive the insanity and haphazardness at times, especially when you consider you are dealing with madness. It is a story without a villain — save for an evil book that enables terrible behaviour and Monkey’s Paw wishes — but plenty of monsters to face, and antagonisms within the characters themselves. But then you need to ask yourself: at the end, when everything is said and done, and you have a moment, and you think about all the possibilities and your choices, and what you have seen: did you find what you were looking for?

Are you happy?

I think I already know my answer. And maybe one day, I too will stop hitting myself. 

Journal of an Olympian

Yo, Chris. Like we said, they were going to wrap up that Armitage Racist Sex Cult shit faster than DJ Jazzy Jeff getting thrown out of a Bel-Air Mansion. I still can’t believe the depths of this evil, crazy shit. It’s almost literary levels of what the fuck. How I get these? Groundskeeper Grandpa’s shack built more solid than that fucking house of horrors. Damn, man. I told you not to go in there. And hey. I’m TSA, remember? I got friends. Just, Jesus Chris. This fucking title too. Made a whole fucking memoir. Like Mein Kampf. Kind of glad most of it got burned in your fire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

— Rod

It won’t be long now.

I’m afraid, of course. Any sane man would be, even at the cusp of an achievement like this. If there is even the slightest margin of error, I …

Marianne is worried too, but I’ve assured her that I will be all right. We will be all right. 

I’ve taught Dean well, and he already has a fine family of his own. They know exactly what to do. I see all of the issues now, in retrospect. The mind has to be prepared for the process, both parties to form the Coagula. It isn’t just the host, but the brain — the mind — of the pilot as well. I am so glad that I detailed that video recording while I still could, before this vessel fails, and I can finally get a new one. I hope it will be comforting to those who will join our Order. Perhaps, even our family. That Missy, she is a fine woman for Dean, and the rest of us as well. 

There were mistakes, I will admit it. Perhaps some hubris on our part. On mine. The Doppelganger Experiment was supposed to make this process easier. After all, while they did fail to have any influence over the populace despite what we might have promised that Administration, I still think they would still stand to be fine donors for those of us who are more fortunate. It was a stepping stone, certainly, to gaining the resources that we’ve needed to make this Transmutation possible, and the friends and allies to keep us strong and focused. The poor coloured Doppelganger already lost his original counterpart. I still think it’s unfortunate that the initial process was messy, at best. I suspect that that brain had been too damaged, even with Dean’s brilliant hands and the teachings of our Order such as we established them. Again, we didn’t account for the psychology of the mind, or needing another mind as a foundation to bolster the parts of the brain required to function. Or Missy. We really needed a Missy, back then. Even so, the subject survived with a few of his memories intact, though not enough to grant us — or our allies — any other leverage. If only we could have told the world that we saved such a man, such a politician. 

I’m so sorry, Mr. President. 

That had been our first real experiment. And it was a long road. Up until my time, the Order had pursued Transmutation, immortality, the Holy Grail, through spiritual means. There were so many leads. We had people, family even, in all different branches of endeavour, especially our greatest and most prominent American institutions. We even had a family member in the Orne Library itself, at that University in Massachusetts. We regained so much lore from him, back when we were the Knights Templar. He did a fine job, keeping out the … undesirables, the riff-raff, the dilettantes, and the unclean, while leaving the choicest morsels to us, and our friends. Recommended scholars only. Unfortunately, he was never the same after the Late Spring of ’27. He’d already been a fierce opponent of miscegenation, but that business in that village of inbred hicks broke him. He couldn’t see what needed to be done. It’s a shame, what happened to him in the 1930s, but he’d already been a shadow of his former self. He’d have been horrified at what we’re trying to do now, at what we are transforming into out of pure necessity. But we never had time for short-sightedness. We had to move on.

The Manuscripts were too fragmented, and only hinted on ways to do what we had to bloodlessly. Transcendence and a simple exchange of minds would have been nice, but we are still not evolved enough. It would have been too wasteful to let those other minds, and their skills die. Or worse, allow them to exist in our old shells without proper guidance. No, the body is still the only thing we have to work with, and the more sophisticated, if crude the better. No, two things from the University encouraged us, and me once I took over. I’d heard the stories about the coloured boxer in Bolton, and it was easy for those doctors to revive him. Even if my time in Germany hadn’t happened, even if I didn’t see the future in blood and muscle overtake me, I already knew achievements like these would be possible. That strength. That endurance. That resiliency. But then, there were the records. From Pluto. To think the world doesn’t believe it is a planet anymore. If only they knew the extent of it. Those records were incredibly useful. Only, we don’t want canisters. 

Flesh and blood is the key. Flesh and blood are the tools to ascension. 

The coagula is the way, the merging of Lower and Upper Egypt into the body of an eternal empire. The gods knew this, in any culture. They could cleave themselves together. And like Aristophanes’ story, that is exactly what we will do as we find our other, better halves, and guide them into perpetual life. Adaptation is the key. It always was. Artificial selection, cultivation, and a gentle guiding hand is all that’s needed to shape the perfect form to marry towards the perfect minds. 

Dean and Missy are a part of that in a more metaphorical sense. Hands and mind. Jeremy is a little rough around the edges, but he will come around. He favours the body, just like his Grandpa. I can respect that. Hell, I will be able to keep up with him when this is all said, and done. But the true prize is Rose. My darling granddaughter. She’s saved me. In some ways, she’s saved me more effectively than her parents. She has a new friend. She’s bringing him here soon. And I can’t wait to meet him. 

I’m tired. It’s been a long couple of decades, and there were a few times that I doubted our path. That I doubted myself. I am afraid, but it is just a shadow of the adrenaline I used to feel when I ran those races. When I sprung down towards that finish line. It was the fear of failure, of being left behind, of collapsing under my own weight. It was the terror of being humiliated, shown up, used up as someone better than me took my place. Because I was too slow. Because I wasn’t fast enough. 

But soon all our hard work will pay off. Everyone: the Greenes, the Kings, the Wincotts, the Jeffries, the Waldens. Even Tanaka. They will all profit from the fruits of our labour, and the discoveries of our alchemy. Baser elements transmuted into gold and platinum.  From mud into marble. 

From Black to White.

And they will always remember that it was the Armitages that brought them these gifts. And we will always lead them, and the Order, well. 

I can’t wait for Marianne to feel my strong, dark arms wrapped around her, and a stamina that will never tire. And virility that will never end. And she will have her time as well. Rose already has a new friend for my darling. I am so proud of her.

And I feel so fortunate to you too, Walter. Hopefully we will get a chance to talk before the procedure. You deserve far more than just an impersonal video tape. You will be my new lease on life. You will be my ascension to a new space that was barred to me. Titans need to be protected, and restrained. Centimanes will guard our gates. And Cyclopes will create our lightning. And you will be my lightning, Walter. You will let me strike faster, and harder than I ever did before. I will be able to start again. 

Yes. Thank you, Walter. Thank you for volunteering to give me this new chance. 

Because I haven’t forgotten Berlin. I’ll never forget that day. I will finally do it. 

I’m going to beat you, Jesse. 

I’m going to beat you.

Holy supervillain rant crazy rants, Batman. Pretty sure fucker was talking about Cthulhu shit, bro. Cthul. Lu. Shit. And the Clones around America too. Damn, dude. Not sure what we’re going to do about that. Kind of above my pay grade.

But there’s a whole list of names here. All those old white families. Cocky sons of bitches. And a bit about what they were going to do to you. And what these asshole sons of bitches did to so many others. Don’t worry. We’ll find them, Chris. We’ll get them. One name at a time. 

Dreams and Rats in the Attic: Charles Band’s The Evil Clergyman

I just came off of writing about Re-Animator and a cinematic Cthulhu Mythos, and here we are again. In fact, I meant to look at The Evil Clergyman first but when has anything been temporarily linear in my writerly laboratory, or in a writer’s world in general?

This is The Evil Clergyman, directed and produced by Charles Band, and written by Dennis Paoli. It was created in 1987 for an anthology called Pulse Pounders but it was shelved when Empire International Pictures closed, only for a workprint to be rediscovered in 2011, and then shown at the Chicago Flashback Weekend and put onto DVD in 2012. This is all information that you can find online, and I only found out about it thanks to the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Mutant Collective when I made a thread about some people’s favourite Lovecraft stories adapted into films. 

I am interested in looking at what Band did to make this film, and the differences between the movie and H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name. I find that the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories tend to do a lot of what I call “reptilian matter-grafting.” If you’ve read some of my work on the Horror Doctor already, you pretty much know the procedure and where it comes from: the directors and writers take a story from Lovecraft and his Mythos, adapt the overall narrative and spirit of the story, and then implant parts of his other stories into the film to give it that more overt Cthulhu Mythos feel. This isn’t always the case, of course, with the first Re-Animator film and the original Castle Freak — both made by Stuart Gordon — being examples to the contrary, with the latter having grown from “The Outsider” and into a whole other direction, but The Evil Clergyman has been mutated to make a very compelling visual tale from what Lovecraft has left behind, with some ethereal, sexual, and Gothic romantic sensibilities added in by Band and Paoli for good measure.

Neither the film, nor the story have protagonists — or characters — that are named. Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman” has an unnamed narrator who is, presumably, male that comes to the attic of an ancient house in order to satisfy his curiosity about its former occupant: an Anglican priest that owned the entire house, and vast library of magical books. The house has an elderly male caretaker, who possibly belongs to an order watching over the structure, that warns the narrator not to touch or manipulate anything in the attic room. Some “abominable order” finally “took charge” and he says that he and some others don’t know what happened to the priest’s body. There is mention of a strange object on a table that resembles a match box, and he tells the narrator to especially leave it alone: as it might have had something to do with what the priest did in that room.

Well, you can figure out what happens. The narrator does, in fact, have to meddle with the contents of the room. His curiosity is his potential undoing, as the caretaker of the house tells him. He shines a pocket flashlight on the match box object, which induces a violet radiance from it. Now, this is fascinating because its effects are reminiscent of elements from two other Lovecraft stories: Crawford Tillinghast’s electronic resonance wave device that lets one see and interact with another dimension in “From Beyond,” and the plane of existence that one poor mathematics student Walter Gilman accesses in his sleep in another warped attic in “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

Sure enough, the unnamed narrator’s act of shining that light triggers the object, and he doesn’t find himself in another realm, but he seems to be caught within the past of that room. He sees the priest, with olive skin and a dark beard, throwing his books into the fire. Interestingly enough, the section of the room with the fireplace is on the window side of the room with a wall that slants sharply, reminiscent of the strange non-Euclidean angles of “The Witch House” and while the priest had been burning all of his books, they are all on the shelves in that room in the present day. The priest is confronted by his fellow priests led by a bishop. And it’s only when he gestures at the object on the table that they back away from him with genuine fear.

It’s interesting how Lovecraft describes the priest, and his relation to his former brotherhood. He is “evil-looking” but also nervous, grim, and both filled with hatred and fear. The other priests despise, and are terrified of him: and they actually leave him there through a trap-door, cursing him. The whole tableaux is fascinating because there is no sound. The narrator is only seeing this happen, the past seemingly reenacting itself through images and gestures, though — in the typical Lovecraft literary style — he can still smell the scent of the books as they burn. When the priest takes a chair and rope, and attempts to hang himself, the priest is actually aware of him and seems to smile in “triumph.” However, the narrator, sensing something is profoundly wrong with this situation, manages to turn the light on the priest — either through his flashlight, or the match box device — and it turns the man’s skin sallow. His flesh turns violet and pink — reminiscent of the mechanism in “From Beyond” again, and he flees in terror to the trap door, and falls. The narrator rushes there, and sees nothing except villagers who look at him, with absolute fear.

The narrator passes out, only for the old man to find him and help him realize that he’s become an exact physical duplicate of the priest. Apparently another man had done similar, and when he realized what happened, committed suicide. The old man is terrified of using the device further, as it “would only make matters worse to do—or summon—anything,” and he says to the narrator “You’d better thank heaven it didn’t go further. . . .” I don’t think there has ever been the case of a Lovecraft character physically transforming into another beyond the mind transfer technique we see in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and the merging of alternate selves in the Lovecraft collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price’s “Beyond the Gates of the Silver Key.”

“The Evil Clergyman” itself is an excerpt from a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1933, and it is apparently a dream he recounted to his friend Bernard Austin Dwyer. It reads like a fragment, and certainly has a dreamlike quality to it, and it had been published as a short story in Weird Tales in 1939, two years after his death.

Band’s film also resembles a dream, but it has more of an erotic and darkly romantic slant. The Evil Clergyman isn’t the story of an unnamed narrator, but of a priest and his lover. The lover is played by Barbara Crampton, and she is young and while tentative, passionate, and not afraid of her sensuality. Jeffrey Combs is the priest, of course, and he resembles the character quite a bit save for his facial structure, skin, and a lack of a beard: but he is every bit the intelligent spirit of that character extended into eroticism, and possessive malevolence. The music track, created by Richard Band, has a lilting, sad, reminiscent quality that spirals into madness, and whispering evil.

Charles Band and Dennis Paoli begin the story with the lover coming to a castle, as opposed to a house, where she confronts its landlady — played by the formidable-looking Una Brandon-Jones — into letting her visit the room in which the priest, the man she loves, hanged himself.

The atmosphere is set right from the Gothic castle with its ornate door knocker to its stone emblems, and the room which resembles nothing more than a small and modest cell, with a window, a bed, and of course the chair. There are no books here. No library. No strange devices left on a table. The window doesn’t open out into “the ancient roofs and chimney pots” of Salem that Lovecraft loves to describe in many of his stories with great and beauteous detail. It is just this small room where sex and love used to happen: pleasant memories soured by suicide, and grief: moments of the past once present turned bitter by the arbitrary passage of time.

The exchange between the young woman and the landlady is pretty intense as well, with a jealousy that is there in the older woman’s words, and her reference to “the worm eating beauty” being more than a little reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm.” This landlady seems to know, or thinks she knows, the priest, and makes the young lover aware that the chair in which he stood to hang himself keeps moving back in a certain spot in the room. The old woman even has the temerity to mock the noises of the love-making she heard back in the days in which the lovers met in this room. The power exchange, for all of the young woman’s defiance, does seem to be to the old woman’s favour: through her obvious triumph over her discomfort. I mean, that portrait we see of a hanged man above or near the bed is a little too much on the nose. We also get a nod to Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” when the old woman complains about hearing them scurrying in the walls of the castle — just like in the one owned by Delapore in England. The old landlady mentioning the rats, and leaving the trap with the flower in it begins the setup.

The grief, and mourning that Barbara Crampton conveys once the old woman is gone, as she sits on the softly sunlit windowsill is palpable. She’s lost someone important to her. Someone that made her feel alive. And then, she starts to hear his voice. We see his arms wrap around her, and drive her mad with feeling. Then it is gone. And then, we see him materialize in the corner of the room.

Lovecraft doesn’t write about sex, and physical acts are always “squamous” or “unnamed,” but what happens is neither as the two lovers — reunited despite death — begin fucking like mad on the bed. But underneath the bed, like a rejected parody of a Narnian beast is David Gale — you know, our creepy friend Dr. Hill from Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator — small, and dressed as a rat. He is chuckling, gross, and utterly pleased with himself.

The dream, like Richard Band’s musical score, spirals into a nightmare, as Barbara Crampton’s character wakes up and it’s night somehow — time not working the same in this chamber. There she meets the apparition of a Canterbury Bishop, played by David Warner, who tells her that her priestly lover had killed two other women before her, and that when he came to confront him about his crimes, he smashes his head in with a holy chalice. This is obviously a riff on the head priest of a group in the short story, but the gruesomeness, with the effects, are expanded on here. The Bishop looks on the young woman with disdain, and disgust, but he is also afraid. And Barbara Crampton has no idea what’s going on, or what is real anymore.

Eventually, we find out that the rat is the familiar of the priest. In fact, I will bet my sanity that David Gale’s twisted rat creature is essentially the same species, or kin, to  Brown Jenkin from “The Dreams in the Witch House” — an extra-dimensional entity bonded to the witch Keziah Mason who escaped to another plane from jail during the Salem Witch Trials. What we see unfolding after a while, is Crampton’s character realizing that Combs’ priest did kill himself. She sees him hanging himself again, and then talking to her from being suspended by that noose asking her to “kiss her like she used to” when she tells him she can’t reach his lips. Autoerotic-asphyxiation, and post-mortem having created a massive rigor mortis erection for a mortal blowjob aside, this macabre erotic act — designed to apparently give the young woman a chance to be released from the room — is interrupted by the bishop. She ends up beating him to death, again.

All of this, this ghostly afternoon delight turned into a nightmare with attacking rats, and a bleeding priest, and the harrassing figure of her hung lover — and not in the good way — seems to break the woman’s mind. After almost reenacting the act of murder on the bishop, she goes to the chair, takes the noose that’s been there from where her lover hung himself again, and hopes it will all end as she commits suicide. It’s an interesting parallel to the unnamed male narrator who tries to save the priest and then attacks him with the light, only to try to warn him from falling to his doom through the door. Crampton’s character is horrified at killing a man, lost in the dream logic of killing a dead man, and it prevents her from interacting with Combs’ character.

Now, it could have been left here. This could easily have been the lover losing her mind from grief. But then we have Combs talking with his familiar. They come to an agreement. He has a certain fondness for the woman, even loves her in his own way. But he wants her body. All of her body. In exchange, he promises the familiar her soul, but not before having to kiss him.  I keep thinking about “The Witch House” and how Keziah Mason can still manifest in the physical world: probably because the dimension she went to Lovecraft’s story, along with her link to her familiar from that realm, arrests her aging process, but the priest died. His physical body is gone. If he wants to come back, through his magic, through his own familiar, he needs a new vessel. He needs a new body. 

But I can’t help but wonder. At the end of the film, the priest seems to have taken over his lover’s body, freeing him from the contained dream-reality of the room. And yet, he has all of her memories, especially when the landlady’s words are turned against, her own chin is grabbed and she is told “You were never that pretty.” Because, sure enough, as the young woman leaves — confident, cold, and calculating — we see the rat familiar screaming, dying in the mousetrap the old woman left behind. Now, it seems simple. Whereas in Lovecraft’s short story, the priest fails to possess and rewrite the existences of two individuals — only succeeding in making them look like him — whereas in Band’s film the priest is triumphant in transferring his consciousness into his former lover’s body akin to how Ephraim or Asenath Waite took over her husband Edward Pickman Derby’s body in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The unnamed narrator in the short story pays for his curiosity with the loss of his physical identification. The young woman in the film pays for her yearning, and grief with her very identity.

Yet the familiar is betrayed. He’s left to die. I get the feeling that the priest had influence over everything in that castle. He may have been with the landlady when she was younger, or at another time, and had her leave the trap there. Obviously he lured his lover there, maybe even others. He killed the bishop in that place, it seems, and yet no one reported it or investigated. And he had this deal with his familiar. Does the familiar’s death mean that the woman’s soul is freed? That she has bonded with her lover in her body in a strange form of symbiosis? A twisted form of liberation? Was the bishop representative of staid and close-minded Christian morality, and the familiar a debased lust that threatened to consume any meaning of passion? Is the attic a Jungian representation of the woman’s very mind?

Either way, I feel like this is one of those occasions where the film adaptation of a story is superior to the original source material, while changing the letter of its non-Euclidean law to match its eldritch spirit, and not shying away from pleasure turned into revulsion, and alien madness. It’s funny: almost everyone from Stuart Gordon’s Mythos films were in this movie, even the writer and musician involved in Re-Animator. It’s also fascinating to note that Gordon made his own adaptation of “The Dreams in the Witch House,” part of the Masters of Horror series that I still need to check out.

But this was a beautiful piece of a nightmare turned into a darkly lyrical almost thirty-minute film, and I am glad it was rediscovered, and it deserves its place in the Cthulhu cinematic Mythos. 

Reattaching An Amputation? Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator

I didn’t think I was ever going to write anything on Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. I just didn’t really see the need. It is a film that has just the right amount of uncanny terror, visceral effects, titillation, and camp to make it a lively viewing experience. And between the twistedly morbid curiosity of Herbert West as played by Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott’s overwhelmed scientific straight man Dan Cain, and the gorgeous and rightfully terrified Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey you had the entire acting dynamic made.

It’s true. Re-Animator — co-written by Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and William J. Norris — has a few changes from its source material, namely, the serial short horror story H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Dr. Halsey, the erstwhile mentor of West and Cain doesn’t have a daughter in the story, as Lovecraft seemed reluctant to have many female characters, never mind romantic interests, or anything romantic for that matter. The character of Dr. Allen Halsey doesn’t die as a result of West and Cain’s meddling, but rather of typhoid fever while attempting to save countless patients from an epidemic. That, in of itself, makes him different from Dr. Alan Halsey  the Dean of Miskatonic University in Stuart Gordon’s film: for while he is also an old-fashioned doctor that doesn’t like West’s experiments, he cares more about appearances, grant money, and class than the Halsey of the serials. In the serials, in “The Plague-Daemon,” Dr. Halsey is reanimated by West and his assistant, beats the hell out of them, and runs off into the night as opposed to being captured and lobotomized by Hill. Cain isn’t named in the story at all, and is just an unnamed narrator — a function which happens a lot in Lovecraft — who is the assistant of West who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man in contrast to Combs’ iteration of the mad scientist. Lovecraft himself didn’t like this story, being derivative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a pulpish manner.

So of course it’s one of those stories that’s easy to adapt to cinema, and honestly the fleshing out of West’s assistant as a man with good intentions instead of a pedestal narrator, and the presence of Barbara Crampton to show the emotional impact and consequences of all their experiments, works for me. But you have, undoubtedly, already heard and read about all of this if you are horror fans.

Let’s focus on Dr. Carl Hill.

If you’ve seen the film, you know what kind of man Hill is. Hill is arrogant, he plagiarizes the work of better doctors and scientists, he has a creepy infatuation with the much younger and completely uninterested Megan, and he becomes the monster he was always meant to be after Herbert West kills, and reanimates his severed head and body, building for himself a little army of army to obey his every whim in a quip-filled rivalry between him, and West. David Gale plays Hill as a completely over-the-top antagonist, ridiculously so, but it is a counter to West’s combination of cold detachment, and demented obessession with his work. Hill is ego-driven, lecherous, and just a terrible human being that has no qualms about performing lobotomies on even former colleagues to get what he wants — and this is before he’s killed, and gets transformed into one of West’s creations.

So where do I start with this? In some ways, Hill is more of a banal character than West. West is about The Work, about experimenting with life and death, whereas Hill wants fame and power and flesh. Hill doesn’t exist in the serials at all. However, that isn’t entirely true. In the “Herbert West – Reanimator” serial chapter “The Horror From the Shadows,” there is a man working with West and his assistant — now both full-fledged doctors as opposed to medical students in the fields of World War I — named Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee: a British-Canadian military doctor and pilot:. This is a funny link, given how David Gale is a British actor, though he depicts an American doctor who prides himself on class. He shares a lot of fascination with West’s experiments, and even participated in some in situ. Aside from his interest in reviving the dead, however, and perhaps some of West’s more esoteric explorations, Clapham-Lee doesn’t get much more character development after he’s decapitated in a plane crash … and West decides to attempt to reanimate his body parts separately.

This is where Dr. Hill is derived from, poor Sir Eric, and it is pretty much the last in a long like off poor life — and undeath — decisions that seals our friend Dr. West’s fate in the last of the serials “The Tomb Legions.” What happens here is nothing short of a cold, methodical hunting and takedown of West, who is hiding out with his assistant, as a mysterious man who seems to wear a waxen face — and is carrying something, always, in a bag — finds all of West’s creations, and purposefully take him apart in an ancient series of catacombs under an old house before vanishing behind a wall completely, leaving the narrator traumatized and afraid for his very existence.

You can see where a lot of the inspiration behind the ends of Re-Animator, and Bride of Re-Animator came from to this extent. But something perplexing always bothered me about Re-Animator itself, and I was never able to put it into words before this point. 

You see, there is one scene in the film where Hill stares intently at West, after attempting to blackmail the latter based on the knowledge of his crimes, into giving him his notes on the serum: or re-agent. He orders West to give him his work, and for more than a few moments West is speechless. He’s transfixed. Now, bear in mind that throughout this whole film Herbert West has been caustic and sarcastic as all get-out with everyone from Dan, to Megan, to Dr. Halsey, ranting at the police in Switzerland at the University of Zurich, and especially making barbs at Dr. Hill’s expense. But now, with the potential for revealing his illegal work on corpses, and what he did to Dr. Halsey, West is suddenly quiet? He just shuts up?

So, in an early draft of the script, it’s revealed that Dr. Hill is — of all things — a hypnotist. That’s right. This man of questionable science, whose work is apparently by West’s standards woefully outdated — specifically his knowledge of the brain and the surgery thereof — incorporates techniques that attempt to influence a suggestible mind. According to Joe Bob Briggs, it was the film’s music composer Richard Band, who suggested to Stuart Gordon that this element be excised as it would be implausible for two impossible things to happen at once with already a certain kind of belief suspension in place. Joe Bob was against this happening, referencing what seems to be Aristotle’s Poetics in that one should have two impossible things occurring in a work. I’ve attempted to look it up, but from what I can see Aristotle mentions something about how “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”
In other words, perhaps Joe Bob was trying to intimate that in a world with reanimation already occurring, hypnosis in conjunction with that feat isn’t that farfetched, and that by attempting to just stick with revival of the dead, something is lost: the rest of it just becomes “the improbable possible.”

But according to what I’ve found, Aristotle essentially says that if you need a secondary impossible thing to make a primary impossible element work, you should use it.

And that is where Joe Bob and I differed, at least at first. I personally thought that this wasn’t needed: that adding hypnosis into a story about creating the undead in the way it is portrayed confuses the issue. What story is trying to be told here? And then, there is the Cthulhu Mythos fan in me that is also annoyed. By the time of “Re-Animator’s” segment “The Horror From the Shadows,” Herbert West seems to have come to the existentially terrifying conclusion that a previously living human organism’s parts have independent qualities: they are only interdependent — connected by nerves and viscera — because of evolution. There is no intrinsic force compelling them together. There is no life force. No soul. He is already experimenting with “lizard tissue” to make little animated creations from parts at this point in time — something we see him do in Bride of Re-Animator.

In other words, there is no intelligent design behind humanity.

Yet.

What I thought was brilliant about Lovecraft’s serials is how the other undead are mindless except for Sir Eric — our Canadian Major — who has not only retained his consciousness, but a sense of vengeance against West for turning him into an abomination. Moreover, Sir Eric is a decapitated head that understands the science of reanimation, and all of West’s dirty little secrets. He is a brain that controls his own animated body.

So why can’t Sir Eric control other reanimated bodies if they are potentially interdependent limbs, or extensions of a powerful will?

See, this is what worked for me with Dr. Hill. He lobotomizes Dr. Halsey’s undead form, not merely to keep him from potentially talking to the authorities if he ever got his faculties back, but to make him more suggestible. You see him, after his own death, doing this to other corpses in advance before reanimating them. It’s brilliant, and horrible. And I just thought that hypnosis is just a cheap way to explain something far more Lovecraftian and terrifying in that there is no intrinsic meaning even in human life and sentience: all just processes formed together by chemical forces and influences until someone learns how to manipulate them to do twisted and banal things, leading to a terrible and perpetual insomnia of eternal hatred.

Of course, the undead in the film are clumsy and directionless whereas the ones in the serials move fast, and with focus. This changes a bit when Dr. Hill controls them, but he barely has fine-motor control over his own body at times, never mind the bodies of others. And there is still the fact that West is awkwardly paralyzed just looking at him in that one scene.

So, in my early articles I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t change a thing about Re-Animator, even if it is not up to Lovecraft’s standards: the serial, or the film derived from it. But now? Years later, after seeing some attempts at a Cthulhu Mythos shared cinematic universe in Color Out of Space, and the remake of Castle Freak, as well as seeing the cultists as displayed in The Deep Ones, there is a solution.

You see, I’ve changed my mind. What if Dr. Hill, as seen by Herbert West, is into defunct and “quack-science,” but it goes further than his “stealing” of Dr. Hans Gruber’s work. What if he is also into the theories of Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy, some very racist and eugenics shite. It’s true that unlike the serials that take place at the turn of the twentieth century and WWI that Hill exists in the 1980s, but I can see him subscribing to these ideas. And what if he is a cultist of Cthulhu or Dagon himself, but instead of making it blatant with what he says, you can just see it in his study — that typical arrogant office with shelves of idols stolen from other cultures, but nothing really specific … Until you see the Elder Sign medallion that he flashes out to hypnotise or mesmerize people. It should have been short, and to the point, and a good nod at the literary heritage from which this film was grown.

In this sense, it works for me because we establish Dr. Hill: as not only a terrible human being and an arrogant narcissist, but also believing in some abhorrent practices, and his mysticism would make him doubly hated by West even as he rubs it in the younger man’s face. He still continues to lobotomize patients so his rituals make them “more suggestible” and it says a lot more about the Western colonialism in how he treats women, perhaps other minorities, and the vulnerable. It also doesn’t take away from the insanity of the whole film. It just adds another layer. One, or two lines, even West being disparaging of Mesmerism and hypnotism, and Hill hamming it up with “there are forces that work in mysterious ways,” which also leads to West attempting to animate Hill’s parts after he kills him with the shovel … it just sits well with me.

Obviously, this injection into the body of Re-Animator wouldn’t be possible now as it isn’t fresh anymore, and David Gale and Stuart Gordon aren’t with us anymore. And the film is great as is, and discussion of these film adaptations always seems to come down to an issue about either the inherent meaningless of existence, horrifying mysticism, or just plain entertainment. But like West, I guess I still like to play with other people’s toys: a fact that will probably never change here, at this Horror Doctor’s laboratory.



A Cosmic Joke: Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice

I’ve thought about horror before: about what it is. Sometimes, I’ve considered it to be a throwback, or a continuation, of the old tragedies that invoke pity and fear in their audience. Other times, I looked at the genre as something that creates suspense and spectacle, and creates an adrenaline and endorphin rush in everyone that reads, or watches it. Horror, for me, had been twist endings, gruesome effects, strange creatures, and a love of being scared: of seeing that your life is better compared to those of the sufferings of fictitious people who might — or might not — be like real people.

These days, I think horror is elastic. Plastic. I’d argue that it has the most flexibility out of many of the genres in their different media. And, in this case, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Kris Straub’s horror comic Broodhollow where I focused on how horror is often similar to a joke.

Oh, we are all about dissection here with The Horror Doctor, and learning from what we take apart and put together in weird arrangements. But I think both the form of a joke — the idea of wordplay or the pacing of a story brought to a fitting end that makes fun of itself or laughs with, or at, its subject — and the ever-adapting form of a genre works when you look at the shoggoth build-blocks that are H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and its mutations that arise. In this vein, I thought I had some idea as to where Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice would go, and for the most part I wasn’t particularly surprised: even as the Devil — or entity — is in the details, and the punchline.

And in a vast School of Spoilers. Reader and dreamer’s discretions advised. 

For me, the details seemed simple enough. Isaac Pickman (played by Ludovic Hughes) and his wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to his family home on an island in Norway that he and his mother escaped from at least two decades before: trying to solve the mystery as to why they left at all. 

There are already a few details here. Isaac’s last name, for instance, is a callback to “Pickman’s Model” and the Salem family that exists in the Cthulhu Mythos in general. As Barbara Crampton, who plays the local police officer and community leader Renate would be familiar in another film that she produced — the remake of Castle Freak — like the Mythos surname Whateley in Romania, Pickman isn’t exactly a Norwegian or a Nordic last name: and what I love is the fact that the townspeople actually call Isaac on that when he attempts to tell them that he came from this place: something I felt needed addressed, or didn’t sit right in the otherwise brilliant and Mythos-loyal Castle Freak

But there seems to be no resonance with Richard Upton Pickman with Isaac, or his mother, save for the tiny little issue of the fact that she murdered her husband before fleeing with her child so many years ago. The name, however, is useful in showing a Lovecraft-familiar audience that this world does, indeed, take place in the Mythos. 

Isaac’s paternal last name is Jorstad. Jorstad has a few Nordic meanings. Mainly, the word refers to, apparently, seven common farmsteads, but is also derived from older Norse words for “battle,” “winner,” or “victor,” and “wild-boar helmet” or “wolf.” There are no Mythos meanings or interpretations, but the name tells you a lot about what Isaac sees himself as, or what he wants to be. He comes to this island, with his pregnant wife Emma, to claim the property of this lost house but you begin to see that he is profoundly unsatisfied with his life: with a middling desk job, and superficial relations of friends and family. There is something … missing inside of Isaac, a part of him that he can’t quite grasp, and he hopes for answers on this island. 

And he gets them. Renate, at first quite inquisitorial, asks him if he knows what happened to his father. And it becomes apparent, if it hadn’t been in the first scene of the film with its opening credits, that not only is Isaac’s father dead but his mother killed him. Later, we realize that Isaac had actually known many people in the community and partook in some of their rituals too. He is profoundly disturbed by this revelation, and it continues to affect everything he does thereafter. 

Emma comes to this island to help her husband find these ties, not knowing what their jurisdiction is here, very pregnant and morning sick, not liking the water — not at all — and wanting to settle the house’s affairs, get some money, and go back to America and their normal life. She is profoundly stubborn and clear about that, while Isaac himself is passionate and gets carried away by his temper even from the beginning of the whole film. Their arguments, in the beginning are playful banter, but this changes as the house and the whole land around them begins to affect them. 

I thought this would be straightforward, as I said before. I’ve written about Dagon, and The Deep Ones — films that adapt the Deep One Hybrids, and their god Dagon, and Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. And what I was anticipating, even hoping, was that what we would get was that Isaac’s family and community were Deep One-Hybrids that existed in Norway instead of America or the Pacific as they had in Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, we find ourselves in a cinematic narrative ruled by a murder house, an insular cult not unlike the one in The Deep Ones but with many families and children, lots of water — water everywhere — sea creatures, and the Slumbering One. 

The townspeople are, well think of them if you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar, as less friendly versions of the Hårga commune except they don’t seem to use drugs, they live on an island, and the couple have not been invited to their shores until they realize who they are. In fact, as the directors and even Paul Kane — whose short stories “Men of the Cloth” and, arguably also, “Thicker Than Water” inspired the creation of Sacrifice according to the Luna Press Publishing interview Paul Kane: Writing The Colour of Madness — were all, in turn, influenced by the folk horror elements of The Wicker Man. Interestingly enough, the film was moved from its original location from England in “Men of the Cloth” to Norway, not unlike Aster setting his film up in Sweden, to avoid too many comparisons to The Wicker Man according to an interview with the directors and Gig Patta from LRM Online. So you can see how all of these elements play off of one another. 

It is fascinating to see how they combine Cthulhu Mythos elements with Nordic culture. For instance, Renate has a mural that depicts “The Tree of the Shadow on the Shores of the House of the Dead,” which is called in short “The Slumbering One.” They have rites of baptism called Altarisganga, and they even have tentacle-themed curtains, and a whole lot of — let’s call them what they are — Cthulhu plushies. Yes. I chuckled at seeing them, thinking: “so this is where they are going to go with this.” The towns folk also wear white robes and green amulets not unlike aesthetics the Esoteric Order of Dagon in other Mythos films, but you can see that they could be Nordic pagan garb as well: not including the very clear fact that it’s not Dagon they are worshiping. 

They also claim that they “navigate well,” which aside from the Nordic Viking implications that some bar patrons go into quite crassly, also seemed to be a great Green Herring with regards to them being Deep Ones swimming in the water. But more than that, they use a phrase as a greeting and a farewell where they will tell someone to “Dream well.” Uh huh. It took me a moment, because while Neil Gaiman loves to sign his books with that phrase due to his Sandman series, we all know what those words actually mean in this particular context, when you consider who is dead and lies dreaming in his House under the sea. The community citizens think that their deity, or patron, guards their island and that his dreams affect them. Even a child is having a nightmare that is apparently their deity’s nightmare, but their mother passes it off as just commonplace and a matter of fact. 

But Renate is clever. As the town official, and head of their cult — or religion — she actually goes as far as to compare the Slumbering One to folktales of Iceland’s elves, Ireland’s leprechauns, and even mainland Norway’s trolls. It is a well placed series of dialogue that, with Barbara Crampton’s put-on Nordic accent is delivered well. 

But there is another symbol that pops up as well: that of the house. The generations-old Jorstad family home has mythical resonances for me, as well as personal ones. It looks like something the old Nordics would have made, with their sharp angles and almost bone-white insides. The family of one of my late partners of Finnish descent built, and used to own, a house like it a few generations ago in Canada, and I delighted in making horror story ideas about it when I visited once for Christmas and the New Year: with its fairytale, almost folkloric starkness, and austere beauty. It had even been in a mining town near a lake. You could sense the history of family in there, and see the lives lived in it. I could see the Jorstad home as once having been comforting in a similar way before everything came to a head. 

The house, aside from both the strange cramped angles of it reminiscent of the home in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and the Jungian undertones as a symbol of a person’s psyche going deep into the basement of their collective unconscious, is both a dream house: and a murder house.

It is a dream house in that it symbolizes Isaac’s lost and nostalgic childhood, and a place to properly settle where he feels he can belong, and become a part of something more due to the … lack inside of him. It is also a murder house in that his father was killed by his mother in that very place, tainting it forever even as he wants to reclaim it for himself, and his new family. And, while find out later that this home, like many others, is a part of a land that does engage in human sacrifice: which is quite the extended metaphor for the house as an individual and cultural consciousness. Clearly, Emma has reservations about this. It isn’t just the ghost of the violence that happened here, in this place that can almost be a haunted house, or the fact that there are visions and occasional sounds of Cthulhu Mythos chanting, but it’s also the oppressive weight of its isolation with the island and the increasingly aberrant psychological behaviour of her husband.

I know that in their Convo X Fango interview with Angel Melanson, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Stevens, and Ludovic Hughes do talk about the latter’s character becoming more unhinged, and the strength of Stevens’ Emma as she deals with nightmares, and the other’s actions. But I think one issue with the film’s pacing is while we do see the interplay between husband and wife at the beginning, their transition into a frayed relationship sometimes seems uneven, and how they react and deal with trauma and revelations doesn’t always come across well. For instance, when Renate tells Isaac what happened to his father, for all that Emma was showing him support in remembering his childhood at the beginning, you don’t see her giving him comfort when he realizes his father was murdered his mother when he’s being interrogated for something that happened when he was a child. 

Hell, even the two of them seem to gloss over this when going to dinner with the woman who reveals all of this. This is a Hitchcock Fridge moment where, if I found out my mom killed my dad and took me away from this village, it would genuinely fuck me up. I mean, grief and loss are processed differently, and we see Isaac attempt to do that, but I just … I would imagine just wanting answers, and then really desiring to leave. This is not the only leap in logic that happens here, though in a world of the supernatural that doesn’t say much, but I just like a form of continuity. 

The conflict between Emma and Isaac makes sense to me in that they grow to want different things. It’s no coincidence that the bar patrons refer to Christopher Columbus not even having been born before their ancestors colonized America and then later Emma calling Isaac “as threatening as a gold fish” when he tries to act violent. The man seems to suffer from a kind of trauma even though he didn’t know, or remember what happened to him in that previous life: having been raised by his mother and the Pickman family, I assume. It reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, where a British architectural historian named Jacques Austerlitz gradually looks into his past as a child having been adopted by a Welsh family from his parents that sent him away before he could be taken, like them, by the Holocaust. Technically, Austerlitz never experienced the Holocaust or the camps, or even remembered his parents that well, but that loss was still there and the trauma remains to a point where it hospitalizes him and he needs to know more about where he came from. 

Isaac has not experienced genocide, even indirectly, but he did feel the loss of his father and his world, and that community: and a sense of belonging. I feel that Emma doesn’t quite understand this, and it is hard to communicate that fact. Sometimes, I even sympathized with Isaac and found Emma’s attitude terribly insensitive with regards to that trauma. At the same time, she has seen the rites and rituals of the community, along with a very disturbingly worded prayer during the Altarisganga along with the microaggression of one townsperson touching her pregnant belly without her permission, and endless nightmares and premonitions of what is to come. 

I think the confusing transitions are inherited in some ways from Paul Kane’s original “Men of the Cloth” story: where an entire family, a mother and father along with their children trying to help their father discover his roots in a small rural English village, go from one situation into a wildly ridiculous early-Clive Barker short story scenario.  I also see “Thicker Than Water” with its nearly submerged houses in the endless moving water puns and motifs, running everywhere, a spiritual medium bringing a slumbering god’s dreams and nightmares through dream and murder houses. 

I also think some of the rather superficial characters with their shallow needs carried through as well, though the cast definitely give them more nuance. I love how Emma calls Cthulhu “the lazy one” to Renate, and I was totally expecting her to pay for it later. And then, there is another cultural element that leads to the ultimate abusive blowup instigated by Isaac on Emma: the Tupilaq. 

The Tupilaq is an effigy, almost a scarecrow figure, of the Slumbering One to show a household mourning one of its family members. Weirdly, after looking to see if it exists in real life on the Internet, I found that a Tupilaq is apparently a Greenlandic Inuit avenging monster made by shamanism or witchcraft. How this crossed over to an actual Norwegian Island, if it came from there or from the First Nations of Greenland in the film is unknown. These are tools made of animal and human parts, even from the corpses of children, to create a monster to attack one’s enemies. Most have not survived, but according to Wikipedia Inuit tribes began to carve them out of bone for European travelers fascinated with the concept. In the case of Sacrifice, these effigies seem to have their roots in Kane’s “Men of the Cloth” and they are made of people too — especially children — though in the film they just depict a death. I imagine there are some issues of cultural appropriation you can get into here. The Jorstad house doesn’t have this version of a Tupilaq, as — supposedly — their family wasn’t there anymore, but Renate and her daughter Astrid have one to commemorate their husband, and father, respectively. I will get back to this later. 

It is Isaac that starts to make a Tupilaq for his murdered father, and representing him wanting to stay on the island. But I also think it’s possible that Renate didn’t tell the couple the entirety of for what those effigies are actually used: along with the rest of their rituals, as it turns out.

I think it’s appropriate that, in looking at this film and to quote Astrid, played by a luminous Johanna Adde Dahl, and also a line used by Kris Straub in Broodhollow that “science tells us how, but not why.” And while she is using this to talk to Isaac about an emerald aurora borealis and the stars, it summarizes that I can conjecture how this film and story is constructed, but I prefer to go into questions of why, and its possibilities. Isaac is mostly focused on how to get what he thinks he wants, but Emma is concerned with why, and wanting to get away from it before that knowledge consumes her, and their child. 

And here is where the joke has its punchline. Astrid refers to the cosmos and one’s place in it. And Isaac’s pedantic cultist buddies, one in particular, likes to talk about the universe as well in a way very reminiscent of cosmicism: of Lovecraft’s idea that humanity is insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and its infinite apathetic and malignant horrors. It seemed clear to me that Isaac and his people were Deep One Hybrids, but they are not. This isn’t Innsmouth in “Thicker Than Water.” It is more the villagers in “Men of the Cloth” pleased to fix up “lose threads” from their insular place. 
I believed that Emma would kill Isaac, and take their child away in a repeat of the traumatic pattern where his mother killed his father, but that doesn’t happen either. 

Instead Isaac, who believes he will sacrifice his wife, ends up being the sacrifice himself. It’s a little strange how they do it. Why they went to the whole trouble of knocking out Emma and tying her on the coastline altar and letting Isaac carry the sword when they could have just taken him and killed him — as they and his father intended to do to him years ago — is beyond me. I think it is for dramatic effect to have that twist. I mean, come on: his name is Isaac. We know what Isaac means in the Old Testament: a father’s sacrifice to his deity. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know how … though the why is obvious. The Slumbering One is sending out nightmares. He isn’t pleased that a sacrifice had been foiled, or the community disrupted. Balance must be restored. Also, Renate doesn’t seem too upset killing Isaac, thinking it would have been better to kill him before he became an abusive self-deluded pathetic man. And Emma lives, at least until the child is born. 

But why? Well, I have a theory of my own. The cosmic joke about Isaac might begin with the fact that his mother isn’t from the island. She is an outsider. His father specifically married her and somehow got her to the island. My theory is that every couple of years or so, the island intermarries with an outsider to create a child that will be sacrificed to appease their deity who resembles Cthulhu. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother killed his father and left with him before this could happen: while not informing him of the truth. But I wonder, and perhaps only Barbara and the directors can confirm this, if there is another, more personal reason Renate kills Isaac: and why Astrid is so utterly fascinated with him. 

Renate is visibly upset over Isaac’s father’s demise even years later. It could be because of the disruption of the metaphysical and communal balance, but I wonder if there is more. Apparently, Isaac’s mother told him that his father had “another family” and that is why they left. Now, it is probably a reference to the cult of the island, but he inferred that his father had an affair and another partner and children. What if the reason — the true reason — a Tupilaq wasn’t built for Isaac’s father is because … it actually was? We never know who Renate’s husband is, for instance. And she is keen on finding the woman that killed him: perhaps more just a police officer’s zeal for a case opened twenty-five years? 

Maybe there is more than one reason why Renate wanted Isaac dead. Perhaps that’s why she wants Emma alive: either to keep that bloodline going … or to eventually make another sacrifice. Wouldn’t that be a great cosmic punchline to a fascinating film so rich with a created mythology combined with pre-existing ones. Perhaps horror isn’t a revelation of knowledge people are not meant to know, or knowing they aren’t important. Perhaps it’s that there are other powers inherent in reality that play with lives, that are amused by such. And, at the end, perhaps the true sacrifice is no only one’s sense of self-importance, or sense of belonging, but one’s own peace of mind. A sleeping mind isn’t always a placid one.

And with that knowledge, I wish you a good night. 

Dream well. 

My Favourite Lovecraft Story

As I write this, it is now Yuletide.

It’s already a darker time of year with shorter days, and longer nights, but when you add into the setting a Pandemic, there is this faded almost ethereal, even melancholic aspect to the entire thing: like you are asleep, or something is asleep, trapped in a place between a dream and a nightmare — and neither of you can wake up. Or, perhaps, we are all awake and we don’t want to be.

It’s in this particular state right now, in this strange twilight of an eerie calm and sadness, but a reflective point at a darker time that can easily give away to light that I’m thinking about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, this shouldn’t surprise anybody. If you’ve read this Blog, or seen any of my other writings on Lovecraft, you know how much I appreciate the world he created, and shared with so many others. But after the Happy Holidays and towards the time of the New Year, why would I be thinking about his work in particular?

It’d be so easy to say that “The Festival” fits into the theme of the time with its Yule-like rituals at Kingsport, Massachusetts and summoning winged byakhees, and a narrator reluctantly drawn into these family doings, and discovering — or nearly revealing to himself — what they really are. But Cthulhu Mythos holiday celebrations, and awkward family gatherings, remote through space and time, are not going to be the basis of this post. No. I’m going to answer another question.

What is my favourite Lovecraft story?

But before I do that, I want to talk about something I’ve realized: having read about it elsewhere, and truly understanding just how far it goes. H.P. Lovecraft has always identified himself, in some way, with the figure of the outsider. I know I’ve written about his early short story “The Outsider” and its influence on Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli’s Castle Freak, as well as the remake created by Tate Steinsiek and Kathy Charles but it goes so much further than that. You can argue that every writer has something of a literary stand-in for themselves, but some are more overt than others.

Lovecraft is no exception. He always has a character who just never quite … fits in. Be it Charles Dexter Ward, who is a young antiquarian that just wants to roam the old streets of his neighbourhood and gets in far over his head as his own ancestral history literally kills him, or Edward Pickman Derby who is a stunted young occult scholar that finds someone he thinks can understand him and takes everything from him, and even Wilbur Whateley who is seen as “a freak” and just wants to understand his purpose and bring back his father, or Professor Peaslee whose life is stolen from him for a time by the Yithian that takes his body and the Great Race of Yith always outside space-time in other the bodies of other beings: never quite a part of what they observe, or record, but desperate to keep going and keep their words and research alive.

I can go further and look at poor Arthur Jermyn realizing that something bad and “unhealthy” is in his family line, or the distant and frail Dr. Muñoz whose delicate health needs to be preserved, or Walter Gilman who is a student having what seems to be a nervous breakdown but is dealing with experiencing another reality out of the norm. Hell, I’ve always seen the Deep One Hybrids of Innsmouth as resembling the Easter Island statues who, in turn, look like Lovecraft. And if you read the stories, we all know what happened to those people.

I’m sure there are many other examples of parallels you can find as subtext of elements between Lovecraft’s own life, and those of the characters — the humans and otherwise — in his stories.

You might think, to those of you who’ve read or heard of the stories, that “The Call of Cthulhu” is my favourite story due to its epistolary makeup of accounts, journal entries, and the idea of poets and artists being sensitive to a change in the air as something ancient and powerful shifts in its undying slumber. Certainly, I appreciate “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in which Mr. Ward finds the secrets of resurrecting the dead, and learning their secrets through an ancestor that regularly did so to gain incredible knowledge and power. “At The Mountains of Madness” is an epic science-fictional horror story where humans go to Antarctica — to a place of snow and ice much like this time of year — and uncover alien predecessors on Earth who, in turn and for all of their completely non-human qualities, are far less terrifying than the shoggoth they created that went horrifically out of control. And I definitely loved “The Shadow Out of Time” and that whole idea and reinforcement that Earth was ruled by more powerful and terrifying species in its prehistoric era, and whose effects transcend all of space and time.

There is something oddly comforting in knowing that the human species is so small, and inconsequential compared to these vast and alien horrors that makes you really appreciate that little space of safety: at least, for those who identify with the protagonists and their lifestyle and place in the society depicted. I always imagine this vast chaos, and then endless darkness, and then this bubble of academia, and books, and poetry where friends can debate and correspond together away from that terrible uncertainty: even if it’s all an illusion. In that place, which may be less Lovecraft’s and more the place in my own heart created from that writing with corresponding elements taken from those words, I found peace and a little less heartache: and even the creatures and horror were simply inevitable and the pressure to perform and exist, and fit in didn’t matter if we all are truly that small. That weight, in the middle of that terror, lessened for me, and the loneliness became just a little bit less.

I have definitely been influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, but its the Dream Cycle that is closer to me. Dead Cthulhu may lie dreaming in his house at R’lyeh, but his dreams are only part of something far larger that link the unconscious and conscious minds of the world together, and complete planes of existence. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle illustrates this the most, from his earliest to later works. This is where I saw the horror genre verge into the truly fantastical for the first time years ago when I was on my own in my Undergrad.

I saw “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” where the protagonist journeyed from the waking world all the way into the Dreamlands and met a whole wide variety of Lovecraft’s creatures and gods: one of the most epic and bizarre odysseys I’d ever read at that point in my life. The vistas of the entire experience still stay in my mind, and I respect the crossovers the novella had with so many of his other stories, and how it all came full circle. Then, you have “The Quest of Iranon” which I’ve written about before: where the eternal youth Iranon — apart from everyone, sometimes respected, other times laughed at — walks the world to find his beloved dream home, only to realize it is a lie, and he gives up, withering against the harshness of reality and goes off to die.

But it is the last story I’m going to talk about: featuring the protagonist from “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Unnamable” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”

“The Silver Key.”

Randolph Carter is a scholar who has lived most of his life. He used to see the world more clearly. It was brighter. More beautiful. He knew his place in it, or at least he thought he knew it. He had the ability to effortlessly enter the Dreamlands and explore its vastness and potential. He had a family that loved him, and a forest to explore, and the potential for so many adventures. Over time, however, he got older. His family declined and he lost his childhood home. It became harder for him to enter into the Dreamlands on his own, and to see the magic in the world. Carter studied literature and philosophy in an attempt to drown out that pain of loss, of that waning connection with beauty. He became cynical and jaded, even bitter but he could never escape that longing for … that feeling back. He explored what he could of the weak places in reality, studying occultism and nearly getting destroyed in the process.

Out of all of Lovecraft’s protagonists Randolph Carter survives the longest. He doesn’t die, or go mad for quite some time, which is quite the achievement. One day, after using his resources to attempt to reconstruct his childhood home far away from the land where he was, to feel that sense of wonder again to fill that emptiness that had grown inside of him, he eventually finds out about a silver key. It turns out he finds it in the Dreamlands through the help of his long-dead grandfather, and it’s subtle how it all transitions from reality into dreams as Carter uses the key to go back to his old home, and meets with his family again, and he’s not an older man but a young boy whose life is just starting: and everything he’s lived through is a vision that he had of his own future. He’s back where he was happy — back where he belongs — away from the disappointment and heartbreak of adulthood, and ready to plumb the depths of the Dreamlands proper.

I didn’t expect this story. You can see aspects of it in “Iranon” and even in “The Dream-Quest” when Carter realizes that the place he wants to go to is his childhood home of Boston. But “The Silver Key” is something special. It broke my heart, but also reached it during a time when I was lost, or at the very least wandering around aimlessly if only in my own head.

Let me be clear. H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a perfect man. He was a racist that believed in eugenics and had Anti-Semitic views among many other radical and unpleasant flaws. But in this story, I can’t help but realize in retrospect what many of his narrators — his characters — were really looking for. Lovecraft himself lost his beloved grandfather, and his family estate, his father and mother had mental and physical illness, he himself had terrible health, and he couldn’t deal with the outside world beyond Providence, Rhode Island. He married a woman and couldn’t support the marriage in New York, and everything he did just seemed reactionary: at least in the earlier parts of his life.

Many people claimed that he was less of an outsider and alien than the people that he discriminated against, of which there are a few writers who are re-appropriating those aspects in their Mythos stories. But one revelation I’ve had, this Yule during the darkest time in the world at the moment, is that almost all of his narrators in the midst of the fantastical and the horrifying were all looking for something. These outsiders, trapped by the ravages of time, but detached from it and almost everyone else, wandered. They roam. They are all trying to find something, to deal with a fear inside of them, or the a sensation of emptiness or something missing, or an incredible sense of longing.

And in “The Silver Key” I realized that in this inherently non-human world, this uncaring or malicious universe and the need to stay in that small, glowing bubble, Randolph Carter and so many of Lovecraft’s main characters just want one thing. They want to find, or rediscover, or return to a place where everything made sense, where they know their place in the world, where they can get away from the insanity and the madness. Where they know who they are.

In the end, they just want to go home.

Lovecraft ends up giving Randolph Carter a fate worse than death with his writing collaborator E. Hoffmann Price in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” — his “becoming the monster or the alien” trope for his protagonists that don’t go mad or die — but it isn’t the same. It never is. You can never really return to what used to be. You can never really go home again.

You can’t go back. No matter how badly you wish you can.

The stories we relate to say a lot about the people we are, the places we’ve been, and the experiences we’ve had — or didn’t have. We change over time, much like the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep as he wanders the world and planes of life influencing everyone around him. Even when he attempts to trick Carter in “The Dream-Quest,” there is perhaps something of a lesson in that act.

Even if you can go back, you aren’t the same anymore. It’s something crudely illustrated through what happens to Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” but it’s no less true. Still, what is the Silver Key but an artifact with a series of arcane symbols — or words — inscribed on it taking you somewhere else entirely, a place both familiar and different, another variation on a theme of a lived life, and so many other places besides in dreams and nightmares. And perhaps, in this place, through the gates of our imagination, as small as we are, and as strange as everything else around us is, the story that is the Silver Key can help us realize that while we are the outsider, while we feel displaced, we carry that home within us. Even as we travel. Even as we wait. As we sleep.

Even as we dream under the waters. Until the New Year.

The Shadows Over Dagon and The Deep Ones

I’ve been thinking a lot about Castle Freak and the origins of both the original and the remake, where Stuart Gordon and Tate Steinsiek along with Dennis Paoli and Kathy Charles respectively draw from and adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s stories to create their own cinematic narratives. In my own article on Gordon and Paoli’s Castle Freak, I considered what would happen if they — or someone else — had told the story of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and used that protagonist to replace Randolph Carter in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”: essentially stitching together another story to tell a whole other tale. In fact, I’ve engaged in similar speculation before when considering what might have happened if in their cinematic adaptation of From Beyond,  someone had incorporated elements of “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” alongside “From Beyond” to create a whole other kind of narrative.

All of this thought is derived from my experience watching Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space, which is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella of the same name: where Stanley takes the main story, which is meatier — if you will pardon the unintentional pun with the word meteor given the story premise — and made it feel like it was part of Lovecraft’s whole Cthulhu Mythos on screen through word-dropping names, institutions and geographical locations: with the potential to explore more through The Dunwich Horror. Stanley seems to want to continue through “The Dunwich Horror” while Steinsiek and Charles have already grafted it onto Gordon’s offspring derived from “The Outsider” and seem to want to go and make their own retroactive mutation of Re-Animator: though how much of it will be from Gordon, or from the serialized narrative of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” with their own twist is another matter entirely.

I find it interesting how when thinking about Castle Freak I wanted to go the entire ghouls and Dreamlands route, where there is a thin line between the waking world and dreams reaching into inhuman realities in a sort of terrible dark fantastic odyssey — definitely a part of the Cthulhu Mythos with “The Dream-Quest” and “Pickman’s Model” — while Steinsiek and Charles went into some good old Yog-Sothothery with “The Dunwich Horror” grafting.

But Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli also had to expand on the matter of another reanimated Mythos experiment much in the way Steinsiek and Charles did, and West might have done as a filmmaker utilizing the bodies of other stories as he did during his stint with his partner in one of the serials — or chapters — set in World War I.

I am thinking about Dagon. And by focusing on Dagon, I am looking at Lovecraft’s infamous novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and where else it leads. “Dagon” itself is the title to another Lovecraft short story about a former soldier who, after fleeing being captured by Imperial German forces, finds himself on a piece of land emerged from the ocean inhabited by non-human ruins, and what ultimately in later stories in the Mythos become the Deep Ones: aquatic humanoids that worship their own Great Old Ones. This unnamed protagonist is hospitalized after returning to civilization, and he attempts to kill himself when he can’t get anymore morphine to drown out the feelings of terror associated with his memories of dealing with the creatures, and the idols of their god Dagon, but there is this implication that at least one of them tracked him down to finish the job. This story is one of Lovecraft’s earliest to introduce the Cthulhu Mythos, and the rest of the elements of Dagon, and the Deep Ones are expanded in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

Gordon and Paoli themselves simply take the title of this first short story, or the name of the deity of Dagon, and simply adapt — or transplant — “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” into another clime entirely. Gordon and Paoli’s 2001 film Dagon takes place in Spain, in the town of Imboca: the equivalent to Innsmouth. The town itself is just as water-logged and rotten as the costal town in America. While Robert Olmstead in “The Shadow” is a student from Oberlin College fascinated with antiquarian studies and his own genealogy — a thing that never ends well in Lovecraft stories — Paul Marsh (played by Ezra Godden) had been a graduate of Miskatonic University, and is vacationing on a yacht with his girlfriend and their older friends before a storm seems to appear out of nowhere and force at least the two of them to seek help in Imboca.

Paul does have some foreboding about the situation as he’s been having dreams about a mermaid or siren beckoning him and revealing her fangs. He is also filled with no only a sense of dread, but as he says to his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño), a lack of purpose as well. There are also some unexplained pink slashes on his ribs at the very beginning film, and he is always having medication for a stomach ailment presumably caused by stress.

There are differences between the two stories: “Shadows” taking place during Prohibition, and Dagon in the early aughts, and the main character of the former being alone, and the latter having his friends and a lover as well as a female entity interested in his existence. The horror in the novella is more subtle through Olmstead’s description of smells, and the strange “Innsmouth look” of its inhabitants — that uncanny valley of not quite human tinged with no small amount of xenophobia in the writing, while it becomes very clear to Paul Marsh and Barbara that most of the people in Imboca are not human at all, and even those that pass are definitely not normal: almost ridiculously so.

The film is blatant about it. The people of Imboca are pretty ineffectual mobs who  take too long in chasing Paul around, and lose him every time, whereas the citizens of Innsmouth slowly do subtle things such as manipulating the door locks at the inn that Olmstead is staying at, or conveniently making it clear the bus out of their town isn’t working so that they can grab him during the night. Olmstead is more worried about saving himself, while Paul wants to find his girlfriend who goes missing in Imboca: even after he is told that she’s dead.

Fascinatingly enough, :Robert Olmstead and Paul Marsh do see the gold that the Deep Ones are infamous for possessing, and the implements they make out of it. However, while Olmstead sees an example of an ornamental crown or tiara held at a museum, which the people of Innsmouth had been trying to get back for ages, Paul and Barbara simply see the priestly inhabitants — Imboca’s version of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that rules in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth — wearing them, and in particular their High Priestess.

The designs of the Deep Ones, and the Deep One-human hybrids of Imboca are fairly on par with their descriptions from Lovecraft. Apparently, Bernie Wrightson — an American artist famous for his illustrations of Frankenstein, and being the co-creator of Swamp Thing — created many designs for what was going to be a Shadow Over Innsmouth film in 1991: some of which made it into the Dagon adaptation instead. The rituals of the Deep Ones are made clearer in Imboca, with many of them wearing the flayed skin of the humans they have captured for sacrifice and, presumably, food given that some of the bodies are being held with animal meat in storage. It’s strange because I don’t think the Deep Ones of Innsmouth eat humans, and they don’t wear human skins: for disguise, ritual, or otherwise, but it is an interesting conceit for the creepiness in that film. Like I said in my other post before this one, “nameless and blasphemous rites” which, surprisingly this time around are not orgies.

The parallels between the short story and the film are fairly straightforward, though Dagon tends to be more graphic and illustrate exactly what happens. Both Lovecraft’s Obed Marsh and Orpheus Cambarro are sea captains that corrupt their desperate towns respectively with promises of sea bounty, and gold: save that while Innsmouth had a massive human uprising that needed to be put down by the Deep Ones with their shoggoth servitors and Elder Signs, and the survivors were forced to interbreed with them, Imboca mostly had compliance with a few dissenters that were useful as sacrifices and examples of what happens when one defies the god Dagon.

Ezequiel, the old man is played by Francisco Rabal, is pretty much Imboca’s equivalent of Old Man Zadok (Zadok Allen) who is one of the few humans left in Innsmouth. Yet while Zadok mostly just tells the story of the Deep Ones infiltration and control of Innsmouth, going as far as to say Marsh found them during his travels in the Pacific and the Caroline Islands interbreeding with peoples there — and then being disposed of “off screen” for saying too much to an outsider — Ezequiel also explains his past, albeit with a very thick accent that’s easy to miss every other word, and actually helps Paul Marsh out until he is pretty much skinned alive by the priest of the village.

It is made clear that the Deep Ones have mated with humans in Imboca over a period of time, yet Dagon is different from “Shadow” as Dagon himself, this Great Old One from the sea, is more prevalent and puts on a physical appearance: going as far as to, of course, need human female sacrifices to … impregnate in the village’s rituals. This is what happens to one of their friends, and then eventually Barbara herself.

Robert Olmstead somehow manages to flee Innsmouth, perhaps even being let go, and informs the American government that — essentially — takes all of Innsmouth’s citizens into concentration camps, and even damages the underwater cities of the Deep Ones with their submarines. But Paul Marsh doesn’t run away, but attempts to set the church where the inhabitants conduct their rituals on fire … and fails. He fails to both rescue or kill Barbara, who is pregnant with Dagon’s brood, and to kill the rest of the villagers.

At the end, both Olmstead and Paul learn the terrifying truth of their origins. After Olmstead leaves Innsmouth and calls the authorities on them, he investigates his family tree and realizes that his grandmother Eliza Orne had been related to the Marsh family, and he begins to physically transform into a Deep One. This revelation: that he isn’t human, and he inadvertently committed genocide on his own people almost breaks Olmstead, bringing him almost to the brink of suicide by an automatic rifle. Instead, he dreams of his grandmother and ancestor Pth’thya-l’yi — who are still alive due to the immortal lifespans of the Deep Ones — and they order him back to them, to pay a penance for his actions but to nevertheless take his place among them. He ends up rescuing his cousin from a sanitorium who is more transformed than he is, and hopes to live out their lives in the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei.

Paul Marsh meets the High Priestess Uxía Cambarro — the mermaid from his dreams — who almost seduces him, and it is only at the climax of the film that her father, who is mostly transforms, stops the villagers from killing Paul with the revelation that Paul is his son from a mother that fled Imboca, and the half-brother of Uxia. I didn’t know, when I first saw this film, that Paul’s last name was Marsh otherwise it would have been a dead giveaway as to who, or what, Paul truly is. Uxia and some of the other Imbocan villagers are strange in that they have octopus tentacles instead of amphibian features, seemingly another departure from Lovecraft’s depictions of Deep One physiology, though it may have been combined with aspects of Cthulhu. It is worth noting that I recall them reciting the chant “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” which refers to Cthulhu as opposed to Dagon, though Cthulhu is part of their pantheon, and is noted as such in “Shadows Over Innsmouth.”

Paul Marsh, realizing that he is a Deep One hybrid and having lost the woman he loves, and knowing his half-sister wants to be with him for all eternity with Dagon attempts to burn himself alive with kerosene (for some reason, the Deep Ones in Dagon possess a fear of fire), but Uxia stops him and throws the both of them into the grotto under the church, making the stripes on Paul’s ribs turn into gills and making his transformation complete. There is your usual horror cinema titillation with female nudity and sex scenes, especially in Stuart Gordon’s horror, though it is strange not to see Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs having any roles in this Lovecraft adaptation, considering they were in Re-Animator, From Beyond, and even Castle Freak. Dagon‘s production value feels a little wonky — especially in its special effects — but the ending is very Lovecraftian, and it fits well with its original source material.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories don’t have female characters in them, or relationships depicted, though sex here is illustrated as something grotesque and horrible much like Lovecraft would obliquely refer to it in his writing. And this becomes more prevalent in a film like Chad Ferrin’s 2020 film The Deep Ones.

The Deep Ones is a movie made almost two decades after Gordon and Paoli’s work, with a dedication to the memory of Stuart Gordon similar to that of the Castle Freak remake. Ferrin, the director and writer of this film, also does something with Innsmouth and Dagon. However, unlike Gordon and Paoli, he doesn’t take Innsmouth and attempt to transplant it into another geographical locale, but he attempts to reinvent it.

In this film, the characters do not find themselves in Innsmouth but a small, gated community off the Californian coast called Solar Beach. The cultists here, as the couple’s friend Deb comments, seem to be a tamer version of those who might attend the Burning Man Festival, but they resemble more the stereotype of swinger couples: of older men with younger wives that engage in communal rituals. Certainly, Russell Marsh — again, that old Marsh family — played by Robert Miano seems more like Hugh Hefner than the masked and deformed High Priest father from Dagon, or the shadowy and unseen Barnabas Marsh from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In fact, if anything Russell resembles more of a sea captain, at least in aesthetic: which would make him closer to an Obed Marsh of sorts. His wife, Ingrid Krauer, played by Silvia Spross has more of a Stepford Wife feel, as Kim Newman in his own review of the film notes about the entire situation.

The protagonists themselves are a couple named Alex and Petri (played by Gina La Piana and Johann Urb respectively) that are grieving over a miscarriage and attempting to heal and start over again at an Airbnb that is Russell and Ingrid’s home. The creepiness here isn’t so much the surroundings that look immaculate, even beautiful, but the incredible intrusiveness of the Marshes and their insular community. Literally, the entire house is secretly hooked up with surveillance cameras even as the Marshes invite themselves back into the Airbnb to “take care” of the younger couple, putting some unknown substance in their food, and having their doctor friend, who for some reason is played by the actor Timothy Muskatell in drag, take a urine sample from Alex to look at her fertility.

You can already see where this is going. Hell, even the gate outside of the Marsh residence made Airbnb has the same Esoteric Order of Dagon symbol as the one in the church in Gordon and Paoli’s Dagon. And the good doctor’s husband, who helps host their party at their own residence for the younger couple, has the first name Obed. The cultists themselves do not look mutated, or have that strange fish-like Innsmouth look. In fact, they just resemble affluent rich white American citizens but it is their blandness that makes them so disturbing, and their pervasive, reasonable explanations for strange things. This pervasiveness does become a little heavy-handed when Russell is able to hypnotize Petri with his gold cigarette case: making him “look into the light.”

As far as I know, Deep Ones and their followers in Lovecraft aren’t capable of hypnotism or even changing people without Deep One blood into something inhuman. It was smoother for me with Dagon because we find out Paul is a Hybrid like his half-sister Uxia and from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” we now they can communicate with each other in some kind of communal dream which, given the fact that they are related to — and even worship Cthulhu, especially given how they also make that iconic chant to him “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” (Hail! … Cthulhu Dreams!”) — makes a lot of sense. But the fact that Russell uses gold to mesmerize Petri does track with the fact that the Deep Ones possess this ore with abundance and use it to maintain power over humans. Innsmouth did have a gold refinery created by Obed Marsh after all, and Dagon did bring gold to Imboca in the film of his name.

Again, fascinatingly enough, the Marshes and their neighbours have access to a special wine, which they ply Petri with in their seduction of him, that they create in their own personal refinery amongst their locally grown food substances: those Marshes and their refineries. It is also interesting to consider that Alex explains to Deb that Petri might see the father-figure in Russell that he lost with the death of his own father, and then you realize that Dagon in the Cthulhu Mythos is referred to as Father Dagon.

I’d tempted to think of The Deep Ones as something of its own genetic splicing with the Mythos by Ferrin, except for one other element. It isn’t the Deep Ones that we do see, which are few and far between, though there is a young girl with webbed fingers and a fish-face here and there. Rather, it is the addition of a fascinating character named Ambrose Zadok. This is the female analogue to Zadok Allen from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” played by the excellent Kelli Maroney — and easily the best thing, aside from the villainousness of Robert Miano, about this film — who is looking for her lost daughter: a daughter that we realize isn’t missing, but was taken by the Solar Beach cult to their master Dagon. Ambrose is desperate, nearly deranged with grief and fear for her child, and her presence is explained away — gaslit — by the Sheriff who has never heard of Mayberry or Andy Griffith: I mean, seriously, these Deep Ones and their human converts are trying to infiltrate into human society, and they were doing so well. How couldn’t they know about the all-American Andy Griffith Show?

The cultists are indeed fairly good at seeming normal, but there is always something a little off, or a little zany about them. They are awkward, almost cringe-worthy in how they view the protagonists as potential converts … or sacrifices. Kim Newman mentions that their all-white upper-middle class background almost speaks volumes about privilege, and racism in Lovecraft and America. Just like in Dagon, we also see Dagon but the person playing him is smaller than the giant in Gordon and Paoli’s film, and like Paul Marsh and Barbara neither Alex nor Petri — like a dish where specimens are observed and experimented upon — escape, and they join the madness.

There are elements that put me off of The Deep Ones. The production value is different, almost made-for-television. The film’s over-reliance on the theremin’s sound effect for bizarre and creepiness becomes almost campy after a while, and I found that despite having Petri and Alex possessing their own little couple ritual based on how they first met, they were forgettable, and their friend Deb is irritating. In fact, I feel like they were lampoons of the normal white couple of privilege who have the resources to rent a high-end Airbnb, and can afford to ignore the bizarre nature of everything going on outside of their sphere, and the suffering of people like Ambrose Zadok until their final transformation into the Stepford cultists that they want to be. They start this entire film off wanting what the Solar Beach community wants: children and family, and they get exactly that. Granted, Alex does try to think of Ingrid — Marsh’s wife — when she and Deb realize she had been captive, as we’d seen at the beginning of the film, until seemingly brainwashed into becoming pregnant with Dagon’s child.

This is another aspect as well. It seems being pregnant with a child of Dagon is to have something of a symbiote that continues hypnosis by infiltrating the body: as we get with Ingrid’s womb-tentacle into Petri’s mouth after he’s first mesmerized. It’s similar to the tendril and eventual vaginal eye that comes out of Rebecca Whateley and her Freak sister in the Castle Freak remake as they are children of Yog-Sothoth. We also see in Dagon that Ingrid has the ability to psychically possess Petri after the death of her husband, and herself. Indeed, at the end of the film, both Alex and Petri are acting like Ingrid and Russell respectively when welcoming another couple into the Marsh home that now belongs to them. Aside from the symmetry of the film ending much like it begins, with a woman running and then succumbing to fear, and acceptance of the unknown, what seems to happen to Petri at least is reminiscent of the mind transfer ability seen in “The Thing on the Doorstep” with Asenath Waite, or Ephraim Waite, which is appropriate I suppose when you consider that these Lovecraft characters also came from Innsmouth, and perhaps learned that spell there.

When looking back at Chad Ferrin’s The Deep Ones, I can appreciate the Mythos elements and what he does with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but I feel like there is a missed opportunity with Kelli Maroney’s Ambrose Zadok character. The interactions between her and Russell Marsh in her car, which he can somehow just go right into — which makes me think he and Ingrid do have some powers of their own — stand out the most, especially when he confronts her about how “she knew what she wanted” and “she knew the price.” That is a story all in itself, and I feel like that while it is appropriate that Deb dies being distracted by that creepy little Deep One Hybrid girl reminiscent of the children she’s left with her sitter, it may have been even more effective if that’s how Ambrose dies — with the implication that she made her own compromise with her daughter’s life and had second thoughts far too late — instead of being lured out with her voice, and all but killed off-screen.

I like to compare these films and their source material together. It makes me think about what a big production or an adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” might look like. Cthulhu, Father Dagon, and Mother Hydra represent a polytheistic idea of dreams and nightmares being one with reality, and how humankind is not that far removed from what they are. Water is another theme: a medium of magic that can call on, and summon things between worlds, or force us to see that they already exist among us: oddity hiding right in plain sight. I have always been interested in the Deep Ones, in the idea of people secretly having non-human ancestry that manifests and they become the beings that they are truly meant to be. I can even see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water playing with this idea: where the Amphibian Man can be seen as just as much of a Deep One as a Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Elisa Esposito is a Deep One-Hybrid abandoned by the side of a river: with slashes on her neck that become gills with the Amphibian Man. I’d love to compare “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Dagon with The Shape of Water.

Suffice to say, that tropical literary embryonic tissue that Herbert West and his assistant experiment with keeps growing into different ligaments and directions, continues. I wonder what other mad scientists and filmmakers will make of it all next. Can we always see the same horror twice? Is it always going to be the same deep, dark, dream?

The Shadows of Tate Steinsiek’s Castle Freak

I so desperately wanted to call this “The Shadows Over Castle Freak,” but I would be mixing metaphors, and inaccurately too.

In my post “An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak,” which focuses on the original Stuart Gordon 1995 film and its tenuous foundation from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Outsider,” I talked about a possible Cthulhu Mythos remake of the movie by bonding it with the cannibalistic lineage of a family like the last scion of it in “The Rats in the Walls” along with the ghouls of “Pickman’s Model,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” But director Tate Steinsiek and writer Kathy Charles take another Mythos track entirely in their re-imagining of the film.

I had a few ideas for remaking Stuart Gordon’s film, a cinematic piece that I still think is good in its own right but as I was writing it all out for myself in an attempt to say something somewhat original about Castle Freak, I took a look at a preview of Steinsiek’s film and realized they actually made the central protagonist Rebecca Reilly.

When I first saw Castle Freak, I always thought the character of Rebecca was a wasted opportunity. Rebecca is a character who is made permanently blind by a car accident caused by her father John in the original film, and taken to her family’s ancestral Italian castle. More often than not, she was helpless and completely ignorant of what was going on all around her when she wasn’t wandering away, and endangering herself. In the 1995 film, Rebecca is very much her parents’ girl: used in a tug of war between both grieving adults to hurt each other, and threatened by the titular freak.

I remember, watching Gordon’s film that I would have liked to see Rebecca have more agency. She is blind, but she has other senses and she can still ask questions and assert her own personality. In addition, I wondered what her interactions with “the Freak” would have been like given that she can’t see. I considered that she would potentially perceive “the Freak” — her secret uncle Giorgio Orsino — differently, much in the way that the blind man did without prejudice with regards to Frankenstein’s creature. But Gordon decided to make part of the terror a character couldn’t see being victimized by a being she didn’t know, and to whom she was vulnerable. But I am glad to see that Steinsiek and the rest of the production made a different choice with the remake.

I think that while this is a film that can be seen on its own, I am more fascinated with how it can be properly appreciated in parallel to its 1995 predecessor, along with its own literary source material. In my last post, I talk about how several characters in the 1995 film are shadows of each other, especially John Reilly and Giorgio Orsino, and the late child J.J. and Giorgio. In this work, the characters are more shadows of Gordon’s work, and H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror.”

The film begins in Albania as opposed to Italy, with a woman flagellating herself in the name of the Christian faith while abusing her deformed offspring in a dungeon chamber. What we found out is this woman, this recluse not unlike the older Duchess D’Orsino in Gordon’s film, is Lavinia Whateley (played by Kika Magalhães) who keeps her deformed daughter as a prisoner. For those readers who recognize that name and saw the story I reference, I think you might already begin to know where this is going.

Unlike Giorgio (played by Jonathan Fuller), who escapes the dungeon after a week of starvation and breaking a finger to release himself from his chains, the unnamed “Freak” (whose actor is strangely seems not to be credited) is released from her bonds (her female gender being something I only realized later into the film) to find her mother already killed. In some ways, it almost feels like a poetic justice for what the Duchess did to her son in the spiritual predecessor to this film: especially when you see “the Freak” both hold and whip her dead mother and tormentor’s body into so much pulp. However, like I said, if you know “The Dunwich Horror” you realize the story is already radically different.

Lavinia Whateley is a character that lived with her father in Dunwich, Massachusetts. Lavinia comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror” is a girl used in her father’s — the Wizard “Old Whateley” — ritual from an incomplete version of The Necronomicon to summon the Great Old One Yog-Sothoth to impregnate her. Poor Lavinia has two twin children by Yog-Sothoth: the deformed but brilliant Wilbur Whateley who attempts to steal a complete edition of The Necronomicon from Miskatonic University to summon his alien father, and fails — and an invisible, giant monstrosity that consumes a lot of cattle and runs rampant and killing whatever is in its way when his brother dies before being stopped by Miskatonic University’s Professor Henry Armitage and his fellow faculty members. Lavinia herself is portrayed as being albino with some cognitive issues, and she disappears by the time the story truly begins: either having been killed by Wilbur, or consumed by her other invisible son.

Lavinia Whateley in Castle Freak is the exact opposite of her literary counterpart. She is darker skinned and haired, and while she is also terrified over what happened to her — made to bear those children of Yog-Sothoth by her father — she sends one of them away to another family for a better life, and keeps “the Freak” bound: all to make sure the twins never unite. Unlike the Duchess from Gordon’s work, she doesn’t do this completely out of grotesque vanity and a mad sense of petty spitefulness, but to make sure that the two sisters don’t summon their father into the world and endanger it. Of course, it’s not all altruism even then. Lavinia is the victim of rape from her father, who had summoned and been possessed by the entity — whose own father seems to resemble her deformed daughter, and is perhaps indicative of some “tainted bloodline” as one villager tells the protagonists later in the film (and reminiscent of the De la Poers from “The Rats in the Walls”) — and probably sees her daughter as everything she hates in her own bloodline, hence her own self-flagellation and her rapist.

Whereas we see the Duchess whipping Giorgio with her flail to punish his disloyal father, we see this version of Lavinia punishing her daughter for what her own father did to her and the daughter later using the same flail on her corpse after she is freed, on the people that try to kill her, and having it used on her again by the man she sleeps with later. There is a different trajectory of generational pain and horror here that seems to say something about female trauma and survival which varies from Gordon’s film, and is non-existent in “The Dunwich Horror.” A fascinating thing to note is Whateley being a vessel for Yog-Sothoth to impregnate his own daughter is similar to a plot point in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comic series Providence: where the analogue to Old Man Whateley, Garland Wheatley also commits incestuous rape on his daughter Lavinia counterpart Leticia to create Wilbur and the invisible terror John Divine.

And then we get to the protagonists. Rebecca Reily — or Reilly (played by Clair Catharine) — is different from her counterpart in Gordon’s film. She is more independent, and assertive. She’s still young, but she’s already lived a life of independence and hard living. Rebecca later explains that she was adopted into the Reilys, a nice nod to the original film, but we hear nothing further about them. She is with her boyfriend who, also on alcohol and cocaine leaves a party with her and almost promptly crashes their car: blinding her permanently in the process.

This is where a fascinating dynamic begins. Rebecca’s boyfriend’s name is John, an obvious parallel to the original Rebecca’s father John Reilly from Gordon’s movie. There is no mother or father in this film, Rebecca’s own mother being dead and the entire reason the apparent representative of her birth family — the Whateleys — gets her to go back to her ancestral castle in Albania.

John (played by Jake Horowitz) is a hard-partyer, as Rebecca used to be. He also has issues with control. He flirts with other women to make Rebecca jealous, he is addicted to alcohol and drugs, and he likes to make decisions on Rebecca’s behalf: especially after their accident. Like John Reilly of the 1995 film played by Jeffrey Combs, he seems to have issues with personal responsibility, but unlike him he wants to dominate everything and doesn’t even bother listening to what Rebecca has to say. He, too, feels like Rebecca blames him for their car accident and — while admittedly she was also under the influence when she asked if she should drive instead — his vices seem more the result of superficial influences than anything else as opposed to John’s whose came from a broken home.

If anything, Rebecca’s former life of hard partying comes from a sense of loss that she didn’t understand at the time, having been separated from her birth mother and not particularly fitting in with the Reilys. She knows, already, that there is something different about herself: if even on an unconscious level. Much of the film is Rebecca attempting to find out more about her mother and the Castle she never knew her family had. Rebecca desires to know her roots, and why her mother gave her up so many years ago, sending her all the way to America. John keeps dissuading her of this, and attempt to expediate the process of selling her ancestral property, all the while downplaying the fact that she knows that someone else is in the Castle with them.

Whereas John Reilly’s temptations overcome him after his wife Susan, played by Barbara Crampton who also is the producer of Steinsiek’s Castle Horror, rejects him utterly due to their death of their young son in their accident, Steinsiek’s John doesn’t attempt to commit suicide or see a sex worker in the Castle but he does use the contacts of Marku — the apparent Whateley family lawyer — to get a drug dealer over, who ends up being stabbed to death with heroin needles by the Freak as opposed to being mauled horrifically like the sex worker did by Giorgio in the original film. He does, however, begin to have sex with his friend Shelly after a fight with Rebecca about seeking her family history — and lying to her — reaches a head.

That is another fascinating aspect about John and Rebecca’s dynamic: that Rebecca wants to trust John in literally telling her what is going on around them, and John either glosses over details such as finding her mother’s flail, or outright lies about the colour of her mother’s robe that she ends up wearing. Whereas Susan and John Reilly’s martial problems are the result of his impulsive actions and her inability to forgive him, Rebecca and John’s relationship problems are the result of trust issues: with Rebecca wanting to know more about who she is, especially now that her life has changed so much, and John wanting to go back to controlling her, and having a sense of dominance with the money he plans to get with her from the ancestral estate.

Rebecca herself adapts to her ancestral home relatively quickly. I love how the film shows that because she’s lost her sense of sight, her other senses have increased: such as her auditory senses that allow her to hear the being that is her sister clicking and clacking as she maneuvers herself through the walls. She can also trace her steps, presumably through tactile input, to move around the Castle unassisted and with an idea of where she’s going. It isn’t perfect. Rebecca does get lost, and even injures herself — almost fatally — before her hidden sister actually catches a statue from falling on her.

But there is also doubt as to whether or not Rebecca’s senses are just the result of a woman adapting to her loss of sight. For instance, she begins to have dreams of her mother’s last moments, and parts of her life. Sexuality, and shame also figure into it as well. There is some synchronicity that begins to happen as a result of sexuality: with a vision of her mother masturbating with her flail and Rebecca also climaxing during the dream. And the Freak herself is seen masturbating while watching Rebecca and John have sex through a hidden passageway — and then killing John’s friend Shelly during intercourse with him, after he’s blindfolded to essentially rape him. But Rebecca also sees her mother dealing with her grandfather, and a cult, and sometimes hears her talking to her: warning her.

Rebecca is a shadow of her mother, slowly beginning to realize what she went through in these walls, while also finding out about her sister. And, unlike John Reilly and Giorgio Orsino, she doesn’t reject her sister. Rather, she wants to find her, and understand what is going on. It is the Freak, still unnamed throughout this entire film, who avoids Rebecca for the most part. Rather, the Freak only kills a man who intrudes on her home, the man who killed their mother and robbed her of the chance of doing so — while also having threatened John, whom she had sex with — John’s friends that are hunting her, and then John after he tries to kill her, and Rebecca at the climax of the film.

What we find out is that Rebecca and the Freak have a visceral reaction to being played together, or even physically touching. Their reunion marks the passage of Yog-Sothoth — the Key and the Gate — into the world of humanity. Essentially, Rebecca Whateley and her sister are the equivalents of Wilbur and his invisible, hideous brother respectively, though obviously while Wilbur knew what he was and sought knowledge to bring about his father into the world, Rebecca just wanted to know who she was, and ultimately seems to succeed where Wilbur failed. The Freak herself is cannibalistic, possibly like Wilbur’s brother, though it seems she is only starving: even though much of her physiology seems to be the result of her father — or extra-dimensional parent — as opposed to Giorgio’s deformities being created out of torture. Rebecca definitely takes after their mother, as “The Dunwich Horror” to paraphrase the terrifying concluding sentence of that story.

So what does all of this mean? Well, Lavinia Whateley is more sympathetic in this film and you realize there is something of a reason as to why she performed these actions outside of petty cruelty. The Freak is the result of that torment but also of neglect and physical and sexual needs unmet: not unlike an archetype of the grotesque feminine. While one can argue that the Freak is the physical representation of abuse of women, and the resulting internalized self-hatred, Rebecca is also part of that legacy: who attempts to come to grips with it, and show empathy but in the end is not only almost made a victim of that misogyny by John — who equates her to her sister as a “freak” — but because of her own biology.

In the end, their parent — their “father” — does manifest, and it awakens a mutation in the both of them … and it is something that Rebecca definitely does not want. The cult that their grandfather led, even though he is long gone, still exists. The man that released the Freak and killed their mother, who attempted to curry favour and use the Freak for her bloodline with the Great Old One Yog-Sothoth, is dead, but one of Rebecca’s friends — a young man named The Professor — has the Whateley copy of The Necronomicon and helps Yog-Sothoth to come into the world whether the sisters want it or not. The cults also all appear to be men. And as for Yog-Sothoth — it is hard to ascribe a gender to this being as it seems to resemble a meshing of two beings, of male and female — which is mirrored by the Freak, and eventually Rebecca. They seem to be, at the end of the film, reaching maturity — a form of horrifying growth or transformation, a parody of puberty as far as human female Great One hybrids go. They lose their agency to the cult, and more than that, their own bodies.

I feel like there is so much to say about that in particular, about these gender relations and sexuality and doubles — specifically the synchronicity between mother and child, and twin sisters, and male exploitation of such, and the horror of realizing one’s life is not one’s own and that perhaps that feeling of being “The Outsider” — the story both films were arguably based from — or not fitting in, or feeling like you are different isn’t just a psychological one. Really, I think the body horror at the end might have mixed those metaphors.

It isn’t perfect, this experiment of grafting “The Outsider” and “The Dunwich Horror” into an Albanian setting. Whateley sounds more like a British surname as opposed to a Southeast European one, which took me a little out of immersion. I wish they could have made an Albanian equivalent to that surname. I also wonder why the cult was so hands off aside from one exception in securing the twins, and how one of them — just one of them — had been able to pose as the legal representative. They make such a big deal about the Great Old One cult having so many connections as well, and they do almost nothing until the end of the film: practically being all pantomime like the followers in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

But there are definitely some awesome Lovecraft Mythos moments, and respectful nods to the original Castle Freak film. For instance, one of the characters finds some vintage wine from Casa Orsino, dated 1926, while Dunwich itself appears on a town sign when John and Rebecca are driving. Also, the Whateley copy of The Necronomicon is far more fortunate than the one in “The Dunwich Horror” which is an incomplete copy inherited from Wilbur’s grandfather that forces him to attempt to steal a whole one from the Miskatonic Library. In Castle Freak, it seems the Whateleys were able to steal a whole Latin translation of the book from the Library back in the 1920s.

And the young Professor? Well, it turns out he has a name. In the mid-credits, he meets with an older man in an office, and another young man whose back is turned to the viewer. He is called “Armitage.” This is a completely different analogue to Henry Armitage, an older man who attempts to thwart Yog-Sothoth’s release and his children, whereas this version of him is a young scholar — enlightened by a tentacle grown from the Freak’s womb not unlike the mutated pineal gland from the head of Jeffrey Combs’ Crawford Tillinghast in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond — who wants the power and knowledge of the Great Old Ones. He also calls the other young man “West,” who has a vial of glowing bright green fluid, perhaps … some re-agent on the desk nearby.

Could this be a hint that there will be a Re-Animator remake? I will admit, I cackled at that scene. It also makes me think. Robert Stanley, who adapted “The Colour Out of Space” into Color Out of Space, is interested in also adapting “The Dunwich Horror” into film, which has some overlap with what Steinsiek does with Castle Freak. There is definitely room for different interpretations, and I would love to see them compared together should Stanley create his own take on it. After watching Color Out of Space, I’d hoped for a Lovecraft adaptation of similar quality. And Castle Freak is definitely a creation that fits that parametre in my mind, with more emphasis on sexuality in the squamous and horrifying manner that Lovecraft himself always hinted on in his “nameless and blasphemous rites” and Stuart Gordon all but plugged into his own work through titillation and spectacle. As such, it’s not only a love letter to Lovecraft, but to Gordon as well, and if this is an indication of a cinematic shared Cthulhu Mythos universe, I definitely want to see where this goes next.

After all, the thing about Yog-Sothoth being the Key and the Gate, aside from some sexual innuendo, is that it can be both the language that familiarizes audiences with that world, and the story that audiences also want to see: a gateway into some eldritch cinema.

An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.

Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.

I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.

Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.

Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.

Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.

John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.

I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.

This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.

And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.

Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.

And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.

Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.

At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.

The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.

Where is Giorgio’s coffin?

At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?

It gives me inspiration: to try something else.

I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”

There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.

So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.

But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.

I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.

So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.

Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.

Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.

The Path Back to Aira: H.P. Lovecraft’s Quest of Iranon

It always comes back to Lovecraft, for me.

When I peel back the opaque shroud of time from my mind, I remember that H.P. Lovecraft was pretty much another writer like Edgar Allan Poe to me, before I actually read his work. Certainly, when I read “The Tomb” in those early days, it didn’t disabuse me of that notion, though I had no idea of the depth of his terrifying vision and how it fit into — and beyond — the evolution of humanity until I read “The Rats in the Walls”: problematic elements, and all.

Then, one day, after getting and reading The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft with Neil Gaiman’s introduction telling us how extremely racist he was, as if it hadn’t already been clear, and my own head being filled with Lovecraft’s epistolary first-person scholarly tales of meeting horrific things that have always lived side by side with what we think is normal, though devoid of sex beyond anything squeamish and disgusting, and certainly far from intimacy tat was anything other than camaraderie I found “The Quest of Iranon.”

I remember reading it that first time. It was evening, I think, and I was sitting on the bench at Vanier College at York University. This was my Undergrad year after all my carefully laid plans fell apart, and I was tired of being so structured: and I just wanted to take the courses that interested me and — for the first time — genuinely explore my surroundings. I was pretty young then, about twenty-four or so, and between the end of my first relationship, quitting my Creative Writing Program, and not taking a full course load anymore I guess I was in the place where these stories would affect me.

They spoke to me then, with grandiose language — heightened diction, my teachers called it — but also about dreams, and nostalgia, and loss. “The Quest of Iranon” has gotten some flak over the years. Some have said it is heavily derivative of Lovecraft’s favourite writer and once of his influences, Lord Dunsany. I imagine others have seen it as a lot of navel-gazing on the part of the protagonist, and melodramatic self-pity. I know at least one person who has no patience for this story, and saw it as tremendously self-indulgent and perhaps even a little preachy. When I was reading Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Arkham and Beyond, he referenced Brian Humphreys in his “Who Is Iranon?” who read the ending of the story to mean that Iranon’s physical translation is literal and entails that he is related to the Gods, or the Great Old Ones in some way before stepping into a space that changes him. It is the closest horror interpretation, or Mythos one, I’d seen at that point.

For me, aside from some Cthulhu Mythos or Dream Cycle references — world-building crossover — the horror of the narrative is entirely different. I read the story as as a parable or a metaphor. Iranon is an artist. He fuels himself on his passion and his dreams. He goes to one place that wants him to get a “proper job” in order to survive, only mildly tolerating his natural abilities, and completely ignoring the fact that they just toil for the sake of work, and forgetting the finer things with which they could strive. It’s the dreamer verses the cold, grim real world trope, which I’m sure has felt trite to people who have actually worked at manifesting their dreams, but it’s also an observation about how fickle fame or respect for someone’s art can be as Iranon goes to another city and eventually, for all his initial favour, is replaced by the new. A lot of these ideas and themes are refined in Lovecraft’s later works “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

But Iranon’s goal, to return to Aira — this beautiful land where he is a Prince — is the one thing that keeps him going. He travels the world, telling stories about this place where he feels like he belongs, and he understands things, and it allows him to remain vital. This impulse maintains his sense of youth. I imagine that others can’t even believe it, like his friend Romnod who follows him as a young boy, his constant companion for a time, only to settle in a city and die an old drunkard.

People laugh at Iranon. Or they ignore him. Or they simply don’t see him at all. And yet he continues traveling, and playing, and making his songs, still seeking his lost home. He still wants to return to Aira.

It’s only at the end, when he encounters an old shepherd at the edges of a desert, that he realizes the terrible truth of the matter.

There is no Aira.

The implication is that the shepherd and Iranon were friends years ago, beggar’s children. Iranon himself had been an orphan telling everyone about the magical city of Aira where he said he was a Prince. When Iranon remembers this truth, his self-delusion is gone. His dream is dead. He withers away, looking and feeling every bit his age. And realizing that his whole life was basically a lie, he goes to die in the quicksand rather than continue on with the rest of his miserable existence.

It’s that whole trope of “Forbidden Knowledge” or “You can’t handle the truth” that leads this formulaic story — with Iranon constantly asking every stranger he meets if they know where Aira in an almost poetic verse — to that predictable place. It’s so easy to scoff at that, or say it isn’t scary, or look down your nose and have no patience for dreamers that aren’t professional and don’t see their passion as actual work. You can even argue that it’s something of a maudlin tragedy, and you can see it in Lovecraft’s other stories: in “The Outsider” whose protagonist realizes he is an abomination and tries to forget, and some of his more racist works like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or even “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” where the protagonists realize they have inhuman ancestry in their blood, and either flee from their fraying humanity, or kill themselves.

Lovecraft has always stated that humanity’s greatest fear is that of the unknown, while at the same time positing that if people realized the ultimate truth, it would destroy their sanity.

I think “The Quest of Iranon” works for me because it makes me think of another interpretation of horror. Imagine you have this idea of who you are, and where you come from in relation to that. Consider that you are constantly having that sense of self challenged, and struggling to undertake the actions that make you happy. You go through all of that, and you keep that certainty alive and it strengthens you. Perhaps it is challenged, and you learn, but that core of you is still there, and it inspires you to go onward, and keep living.

And then imagine, one day, you find out that everything that you thought — that you genuinely wanted to be be true — is not only false, it never happened. You were never going to find your home. You were never going to find that peace. You were never who you thought you were.

The horror in “The Quest of Iranon” is more than just coming to the discovery that you are the alien, the monster, or the Other. It’s that you just aren’t that important. You’re not that special. And some people might cynically acknowledge that and think you were foolish for ever thinking otherwise, that this what adolescents and young adults have to accept in order to grow up, but consider what happens to someone when they believe they can never be happy unless they find the thing that, in reality, doesn’t exist. And everyone else is fine with that, or they can move on, or settle down, but you just … can’t.

I think that everyone has had a moment like this. Obviously, we don’t all go into quicksand and die, but sometimes we want to forget this disappointment. Sometimes you just want to forget those dreams that you thought were so important and now they just embarrass you, or anger you, or merely make you terribly sad in that they are not reality, and they will never be.

I’ve thought about Iranon from time to time, and Aira, and the place of youth that we all cobble together from our better memories as some kind of idyllic past that didn’t happen, but you wish it had. Or maybe it did happen in a different form. Even Iranon thought, despite knowing better, that some cities might have been his Aira and enjoyed them for whatever time they were worth.

To this very day, I don’t know the way back to a place that probably never happened, or didn’t the way I thought or wished it would. But there is nothing to laugh about that, or turn your nose up from. It doesn’t make you superior to believe that you are beyond this yearning, or nostalgia, and especially not if you look down at others for feeling this way. Maybe the horror is when you’ve felt like you lost something you never had, and everyone else just doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand you. Or see you.

It’s a haunting story, “The Quest of Iranon” especially during a time when dreams are important to take our minds off of a terrifying reality, or to add meaningful flavour to it. Art has kept us going through seclusion, and united us. Maybe Aira doesn’t exist, but perhaps something imaginary needs to have been, and to be.

I haven’t been in Undergrad in years. I’ve met and lost friends along the way. I’ve been in different places. I’ve still dreamed. Perhaps, one day, I will rediscover my Aira, or the very least find the strength and will within myself to let it go.