Friday, October 21, 2011

Cthulhurotica

The movie began to play. . . It was a procession. Men held torches to light the way. One could glimpse men and women copulating in the background, behind the rows of slaves with the torches. If you looked carefully, you might see that some of the people writhing on the floor were not making love to anything human. - from "Flash Frame" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


So Emily did this post recently on sex scenes in literature and got a record number of comments. Most of my comment was concerned with trigger warnings vs. pearl-clutchers but just for the hell of it, I also brought up the Cthulhurotica anthology. Yes, it is indeed an anthology of Lovecraftian erotica. This thing exists and I have read it. Since it is nearing Halloween I have decided to review this thing which I have read.

Before we begin, I would like to dispense with a particular concern the fair reader may have. Specifically, that genre which is called tentacle hentai which involves tentacles, as does Lovecraft, who has tentacles but not love. Cthulhurotica contains exactly three instances of girl-meets-cephalopod and one guy-meets-octogirl but the action either happens offscreen, is vaguely implied, or briefly glimpsed by a third party who is then rendered unconscious. If you are a fan of such action, this is not the book for you.

So anyway, Cthulhurotica was published last year and edited by Carrie Cuinn, who had long wondered at the near-complete lack of any sort of romance, sexuality, or even female characters in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His heroes are invariably chaste, bookish Anglo-Saxon men from New England who stumble upon nameless horrors in the pages of ancient Latin texts in musty libraries. Women, when they appear, are background characters who get taken out of the story pretty quickly - think "The Colour Out of Space" or "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." Two important exceptions occur in "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Thing on the Doorstep," semi-sequel to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Those three stories are also the only ones Lovecraft wrote (other than "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," which I haven't read) concerned with marriage, children, and reproduction, which he portrays as harbingers of degeneracy and doom. Lavinia Whateley has twins (somehow) by the alien god Yog-Sothoth who plot to open a gateway to extradimensional horror. Asenath Waite turns out not to be a woman at all but a man inhabiting the body of his daughter in a body-surfing attempt at immortality. Her family is from Innsmouth, a town ruined by interbreeding with a race of grotesque fish-frogs who worship Cthulhu. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is generally accepted by critics to be an allegory for miscegenation.

In reading his stories, it is easy to see Lovecraft as a repressed and neurotic individual with complexes upon complexes. He had original ideas that have influenced the entire scope of twentieth-century horror but for all his alien geometries and mad revelations, he's either neglected or twisted one vital part of the human experience. As Emily puts it,
. . .The way I see it, sex is an integral and enjoyable component of human existence. There is no reason a scene depicting sex can't be just as subtle and revealing of human character as a scene in which characters prepare a meal together, or get ready for a party, or fight in a war. Furthermore, it seems to me that to exclude sexual activity from the literary scene in any kind of systematic way would be to restrict unnecessarily the palette with which we paint our own existence. Most people, at some point in their lives, have sex. Shouldn't it therefore be a valid literary subject? Peoples' sexual lives can sometimes reveal aspects of their psyches difficult to depict in any other way: after all, many people are at their most vulnerable during sex, and some expose aspects of themselves which they hide away at all other times. . .
Jennifer Brozek in her essay "The Sexual Attraction of the Lovecraftian Universe" agrees, pointing to common elements of Lovecraft's fiction that welcome an erotic interpretation. The most obvious is the attraction of the forbidden and the powerful and the myriad ways such power dynamics can be explored, subverted, and deconstructed. Atmosphere is also important: Lovecraft is known for his lush descriptions of decaying towns, dark forests, and arcane ruins that become veritable Scenery Porn. "''Food porn' and 'woodworking porn,'" Emily points out, ". . . can get as gratuitous as they want: there is no cultural stigma around watching cooking shows or looking at craft magazines, so we don't feel we need to apologize." Hell, there's even a site called Bookshelf Porn. "In my case I think this gets a NSFW designation," said one of my post's comments.

Thus, Cthulhurotica was envisioned not so much as a collection of sex stories but as an exploration of a possible human responses to Cosmic Horror left untouched by the traditional Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, quite a few of the stories are pretty PG-13 and I don't think any of them qualify as all-out X. They're a diverse bunch, some directly inspired by specific Lovecraft works (such as "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "The Silver Key") while others are more subtle in their influence. The book is divided into three sections but there doesn't seem to be any sort of theme uniting each one. The opening piece, Gabrielle Harbowy's "Descent of the Wayward Sister," does a great job setting the tone for the rest, turning Lovecraft on his head by centering on a bold female character who greets the monstrous with open arms (literally). An unapologetic thief and prostitute, she's a rule-breaker on the margins of Victorian society already, as opposed to some stuffy New England aristocrat. Don Pizarro's "The C-Word," on the other hand, is a quiet modern tale of two lovers, a young man and a woman seventeen years his senior. Except she lives in Innsmouth, which adds another layer to the issues of aging and physical change that have caused her to push him away.

Richard Baron's "The Cry in Darkness" is a semi-sequel to "The Dunwich Horror" featuring secondary character Mamie Bishop, whose new husband is perplexed at her obsession with pregnancy and sleepwalking episodes that routinely take her into the dark rural night. The ending is one of those wham! conclusions, similar to that of the great escape in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," that fades to black and assumes the unreal quality of a dream. "Transfigured Night" by K.V. Taylor had a potentially silly "castaway on a deserted island" premise but quickly redeemed itself with its mood of sinister expectancy and a truly disturbing instance of the "last man on earth hears a knock at the door" variety. It also subverts Lovecraft's favored motif of intellectual seduction through crumbling tomes and hidden history. Leon J. West's "Amid Disquieting Dreams" was a deeply disturbing study of addiction and masochism, while "Le Ciél Ouvert" by Kirsten Brown ends the book with a rapturous blend of cosmic revelation, sexual transcendence, and all-out reality-warping.

My favorite story by far was "Flash Frame" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, publisher at the Innsmouth Free Press. As I mentioned at Emily's post, "Flash Frame" is best described as a cross between The Ring and The King in Yellow. Creepy, creepy, creepy and just perfect for Halloween. I won't spoil it for you but suffice to say, this one is exactly what Lovecraft (or Chambers) plus erotica should look like. Unnerving, commingled disgust and perverse fascination, hints of an uncanny wrongness and secret malignant forces at work. (A lot like Roberto Bolaño, come to think of it.) Moreno-Garcia has just become one of my favorite people working in the Cthulhu Mythos today. Do check out the Innsmouth Free Press if you haven't already.

The rest of the book didn't do much for me, unfortunately, although I did come away from Cthulhurotica with the feeling that Carrie Cuinn had accomplished what she had set out to. I've read a few Lovecraft anthologies over the past year, mostly from Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu fiction line, and after awhile they do tend to blend together and become predictable. There's only so much you can do in following Lovecraft too closely and writing about mind-shattering discoveries and towering monsters and lurking doom in the family tree. There's also the risk of merely perpetuating Lovecraft's many, many Unfortunate Implications by failing to do any deconstruction, alternate interpretations, or exploration of new angles. I also applaud Cuinn for selecting a large number of female authors and authors from different culture backgrounds, both sorely needed in the Lovecraftverse.

Cthulhurotica also includes a few illustrations by various artists and three essays: "Cthulhu's Polymorphous Perversity" by Kenneth Hite, "Cthulhurotica, Female Empowerment, and the New Weird" by Justin Everett (discussed in my Arthur Machen post), and Brozek's "The Sexual Attraction of the Lovecraftian Universe." All of them quite thought-provoking and a great way to round out the book. According to its website, Cthulhurotica, despite the initial squick reaction it doubtlessly inspires in many, has received such a successful and positive reaction that plans for a second volume are in the work. Submissions will be open later this year. *thumbs up* I support this endeavor.

4 comments:

Emily said...

I love this post! And am mightily impressed that you (and by extension Cuinn) provide an actual compelling reason that such a collection might be an interesting and even sensical proposition. Certainly the work of "repressed and neurotic individual(s) with complexes upon complexes" invites an approach that takes apart & plays on those complexes. How better than to make the sex explicit. So glad you posted on this!

carriecuinn.com said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed the book! We are indeed going to be putting together a second volume, along the same lines of but also expanding on the first. If you'd like, I'll make sure you get a review copy when they're ready.

silviamg said...

Did I hear my name being mentioned? *bumps in*
Thanks for the nice words. "Flash Frame" is currently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu. It's one of several Lovecraftish stories I've worked on, but the only one that I've sold.
Come to think of it, of the five, four have a sexual element. Though not a fun one.
"Flash Frame" was rejected by another publisher as not horrific enough and I often have trouble publishing my stuff because it slips between genres, so I'm not sure if the others will see the light of day. They all take place in Mexico City in different time periods, from the 60s up to our current decade.

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: Thanks! It's really a wonder to me more people haven't done deconstructions/reinterpretations of H.P. Lovecraft, since his works just beg for it. Look at "The Dunwich Horror" for example. Wilbur Whateley is supposed to be this horrible monster but there's so much in the story that makes him sympathetic it practically deconstructs itself. He's a half-breed outcast who can't fit in human society, has spent all his life in isolated backwoods poverty, and was probably brainwashed by his batshit insane grandfather. The next on my list of Lovecraft Anthologies To Read is Stanley C. Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft because of his story "The Black Brat of Dunwich" which portrays Professor Armitage as the crazy one and Wilbur as some poor guy just trying to find a way to control his monstrous brother. I would also like to see someone do something similar with Innsmouth, since we're supposed to applaud a federal raid on a poverty-stricken town home to a despised minority group.

Carrie: I'm glad you liked my review! I wasn't sure how it turned out because I had to finish it quickly last night, since I had been in the coffeeshop with my laptop for over two hours and had purchased only one measly cup. I would have liked to discuss the stories themselves more but I think the premise of Cthulhurotica alone is already intriguing. Would definitely love a review copy of the next one.

Silvia: Welcome to my blog! Have I mentioned how much I love the Innsmouth Free Press and what you're doing for female and multicultural writers? I definitely plan on purchasing your new Gothic anthology. I'm really surprised to hear "Flash Frame" was rejected for not being horrific enough because I found it very horrific in what was left unresolved. We have no idea what that thing was and I found that to be the scariest part and totally within the Lovecraft tradition. Would love to see more of your Mexico City stories.

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