- Reyes (2014), describes Body Horror as being a “fictional representation of the body exceeding itself or falling apart, either opening up or being altered past the point where it would be recognised by normative understandings of human corporeality.” How do The Void and Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth make use of this definition to explore themes of the unknown?
The Shadow Over Innsmouth spends the majority of it’s narrative establishing the otherness of the villagers and the slow, gradual process which transforms them as they age. The twist ending is incredibly effective because it turns what was once an external force into an internal threat that cannot be escaped. Notably the transformation not only disfigures human features but changes them their body to adapt to a completely new way of life dwelling in the sea as well as the land – notably, before space the sea was the void humanity felt compelled to explore, and Lovecraft seems to play on this idea throughout many of his works.
In Umberto Eco’s Five Moral (2002) pieces Eco states that even without a God to act as a basis for morality human beings are able to establish a sense of ethics because they share a common physical make up. Once we recognize these rights of the body (e.g. while there culture that condone slavery and cannibalism no human being would agree that being hung upside down is preferable to being right side up) we can recognize how our behaviour affects others. “The ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene” (Eco, 2002, p. 22). It is this principle on which a humanistic worldview is built.
However, Lovecraft confronts the reader with the idea of the Deep Ones not only as an alien entity (differentiating them from other creatures in his oeuvre such as Cthulu or the Shoggoths) but also a corruption of our human biology. As “an atheist and materialist who saw in science the ultimate arbiter of truth” (Joshi, 2007, p. 99) it is obvious to him that a physical change is accompanied by a psychological one. For further emphasis, the final sentence of the story twists the 23rd Psalm’s final of “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” into “in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever”. Religion is an essentially human invention, but for the narrator it has been twisted past the point of recognition.
The Void is also concerned with challenging the concept of humanity, although in a different way. The antagonist Dr. Richard Powell aims to transcend humanity and conquer death through resurrection. Since he experiments with himself he embodies both the mad scientist archetype and the monsters they create, although it is not a purely utilitarian goal and is in fact motivated by the loss of his daughter. Even before physically transforming he had been committing brutal ritualistic murders and had abandoned conventional human morality a long time ago. His borderline sadomasochistic self-mutilation is reminiscent of the Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), extra-dimensional beings from hell who pursue and grant extreme pain to humans who summon them in search of pleasure – not as punishment but because to them pain and pleasure are the same thing. Similarly, Powell’s physical transformation completes his psychological transformation, embracing an alien sense of values. While Carter’s wife Allison begs not to be transformed Powell sees this as liberating her from death.
The story carries the implication that conquering death would mean abandoning humanity as well. As Reyes states creatures such as zombie and the undead are frightening because they challenge “notions of what constitutes human life” (2007, p. 65). Those who are resurrected did not do so willingly and are hideuously deformed, and the only undead showing intelligence is Dr. Powell himself who was fully aware of what he was doing.
What is the philosophy of cosmicism and how is it used to convey a sense of dread in both The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Void?
Cosmicism is the philosophy that there are no divine powers in the universe and human beings are insignificant, leaving them at the mercy of incomprehensible entities who are largely indifferent to their existence. Cosmic horror stories confront human beings with this knowledge, and while characters may try to bargain with, appease or understand these entities or phenomena they ultimately have little agency or capacity to change their own situations. Stories in this mould can often be differentiated from conventional science fiction and fantasy because it does not try to humanize space but instead emphasizes it’s indifference and strangeness (Stableford 2007).
Much of this is a result of the time period Lovecraft wrote in. While he had learned much of science and by reading books from the 19th Century many of those theories and concepts were overturned, and while science had made great progress these revelations brought new questions with them that made the future even more uncertain as it became clear there was more to the universe than humanity could observe at first glance, and it was unknown how much ever could be grasped. (Joshi, 2007).
Forbidden knowledge is a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work, most famously in the form of books containing spells and incantations (Stableford, 207), but In The Shadow Over Innsmouth it is a much more innocent curiosity concerning the narrator’s own ancestry which is punished (although it is arguable that by discovering the truth he at least has the chance to shoot himself before changing). Because the Deep Ones are able to breed with humanity and are to some extent human-looking the most terrifying implication of this is that the unknown can come from within a person.
In contrast, The Void is arguably not a cosmic horror story, at least not in the purist sense, despite sharing many of the hallmarks of it. Not only do the characters physically resist the otherworldly creatures quite readily (and it is easy enough to imagine this conflict being resolved much more one-sided if the protagonist’s simply had a few more guns or people fighting on their side) but Deputy Daniel is implied to be alive in spirit if not in body, and reunited with his dead wife in some capacity, and even in self-sacrifice has saved the world. Two characters are shown celebrating their survival, and the tone of the ending is hopeful and bittersweet. While it is true there have been bittersweet endings in Lovecraft’s works where human characters were able to hold back the tide, such “The Dunwich Horror” (Joshi, 2007), no implication is made that the Lovecraftian entity intends to keep trying to return and the whereabouts of the cult go unexplained despite the fact they could easily provide this hint of doubt. Humanity has won.
Barker, C. (Director). (1987). Hellraiser [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Film Futures
Eco, U. (2002). Five Moral Pieces. London, United Kingdom: Random House
Joshi, S.T. (2007). Icons of horror and the supernatural [2 volumes]: An encyclopedia of our worst nightmares. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Icons-Horror-Supernatural-volumes-Encyclopedia/dp/0313337802
Joshi, S.T. (2007). The Cthulhu mythos. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4906539-dt-content-rid-10035612_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Cthulhu%20Mythos%20Article%20final.pdf
Reyes, A. X. (2014). Body gothic: Corporeal transgression in contemporary literature and horror film. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Stableford, B. (2007). The cosmic horror. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4906539-dt-content-rid-10035611_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Cosmic%20Horror%20Article%20final.pdf