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Things That Go Bump in the “Might”: SciFi’s Scary Stories

Of course, after plentiful pages of such pleasantly poetic prose, one begins to wonder if anything will ever be revealed, and whether the reader will ever find out just exactly what caused Dyer’s companion, Danforth, to lose his sanity. I won’t spoil that little mystery, but I will give an example of one of the horrors Lovecraft describes: “It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterranean distance, constellated with strangely colored lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder. But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare, plastic column of fetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus, gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, rethickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapor. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. Still came that eldritch, mocking cry—‘Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!’”

Now with such uncanny aliens rather than humans being the horrors of the story, one might think At the Mountains of Madness may not be the best example to use to support my earlier claim that scifi horror shows us what is terrifying in ourselves. This ‘thing that should not be’ seems not that much different than a ‘thing that goes bump in the night,’ an evil that perhaps isn’t supernatural since it is explained scientifically, but which certainly isn’t human and which therefore doesn’t really tell us anything scary about human nature. But bear with me.

Joshi describes Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic’ philosophy as one “wherein mankind and the world are but a flyspeck amidst the vortices of infinite space” and says that what we are to derive form it is “a brutal sense of mankind’s hopelessly infinitesimal place in the cosmic scheme of things.” That may indeed be the idea Lovecraft wished to impart. However, it’s been 75 years since At the Mountains of Madness was written, and given developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other fields, I think rather than seeing us as insignificant compared to the Old Ones, we should perhaps start to see ourselves as potentially being the Old Ones. The Old Ones created servants for themselves by altering the very fabric of primitive organisms they found on Earth, but those servants ultimately turned upon their creators and drove them to extinction. It’s Frankenstein all over again. As an allegory for humanity, the lesson of the Old Ones is not that we humans are insignificant. It’s that we might make ourselves insignificant through our hubris.

Indeed, all three of the novels discussed here seem to have that same message. By exploring how abuse of scientific advances can result in self-created horrors, science fiction – especially scifi horror — reminds us to be careful and thoughtful in our use of science and technology, for careless and thoughtless use may lead to our destruction. We might well be our own worst enemy.

And that is scary, don’t you think?

Works Cited:

Joshi, S.T. “Introduction” to Joshi, S.T., ed. An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H. P. Lovecraft (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991). [at http://www.stjoshi.net/]

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. At the Mountains of Madness. Serialized in Astounding Stories, 16, No. 6 (February 1936), 8–32; 17, No. 1 (March 1936), 125–55; 17, No. 2 (April 1936), 132–50. [full text at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/mm.asp]

Plato, Republic. Jowett, Benjamin, trans. [full text at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html]

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. 1818. [full text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84]

Guillermo del Toro (Interview, May 27, 2010) [http://www.aintitcool.com/node/45341]

Wells, Herbert George. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance. 1897. [full text at http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/WelInvi.html]

About the Author: Henry Cribbs somehow managed to sneak his science-fiction poem about Schrödinger’s cat into the literary art journal Lake Effect, and has also published book reviews for Philosophical Psychology, Chicago Literary Review, and Black Warrior Review. He taught philosophy and creative writing at the University of South Carolina for several years, and now forces his high school English students to read Ray Bradbury. He currently serves on the editorial board for Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.

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1 Rogers Alley { 10.01.10 at 7:57 pm }

I found that the short story ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ was a bridge between horror and science in Lovecraft’s writing. The formulae used by Keziah Mason were magic as the Puritans understood them, but it can be argued that they were math equations that opened a fourth dimension.

2 Pete Wood { 10.04.10 at 3:51 pm }

The scariest SF I ever read was Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream”. Yikes! That kept me up at night. Check it out, if you dare.

3 Redstone Science Fiction #5, October 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 10.04.10 at 10:21 pm }

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