Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.
My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.
This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.
I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.
First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City, a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:
The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.
The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.
My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.
So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.
‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.