Thursday, February 16, 2017

Age of dark intent: A few notes on Leiber's The Terror from the Depths

“What has haunted my dreams for nearly forty years is a strange sense of adventurous expectancy connected with landscape and architecture and sky-effects”
H.P. Lovecraft (SL 3.100).

It's shocking to think that "The Terror From The Depths" is four decades old.  It reads like one of our contemporary Lovecraft pastiche Easter-egg-hunts with which H.P.L.'s epigones and their anthologists and vanity publishers burden the reader.

The chief strength of the story, like Leiber's splendid 1962 "A Bit of the Dark World" lies in its evocative descriptions of the mountains and hills of southern California:

....almost as long as I can remember and certainly ever since Anton Fischer’s tragic and abrupt demise, nothing has ever bulked large with me save my own brooding and this brick house set in the hills with its strange, queerly set stone carvings and the hills themselves, those sandy, spongy, salt-soaked, sun-baked hills. There has been altogether too much of them in my background: I have limped too long along their crumbling rims, under their cracked and treacherous overhanging sandstones, and through the months-dry streams that thread their separating canyons. I have thought a great deal about the old days when, some Indians are said to have believed, the Strangers came down from the stars with the great meteor shower and the lizard men perished in the course of their frantic digging for water and the scaly sea men came tunneling in from their encampments beneath the vast Pacific which constituted a whole world to the west, extensive as that of the stars. I early developed too great a love for such savage fancies. Too much of my physical landscape has become the core of my mental landscape. And during the nights of my long, long sleepings, I hobbled through them both, I am somehow sure. While by day I had horrible fugitive visions of my father, underground, dead-alive, companied by the winged worms of my nightmare. Moreover, I developed the notion or fantasy that there was a network of tunnels underlying the paths I limped along and corresponding to them exactly, but at varying depths and coming closest to the surface at my “favorite spots.”

....And the hills helped me as much as my home. For a month I roamed them daily and walked the old familiar paths between the parched and browning undergrowth, my mind full of old tales and scraps of childhood brooding. I think it was only then, only with my returning, that I first came fully to realize how much (and a little of what) those hills meant to me. From Mount Waterman and steep Mount Wilson with its great observatory and hundred-inch reflector down through cavernous Tujunga Canyon with its many sinuous offshoots to the flat lands and then across the squat Verdugo Hills and the closer ones with Griffith Observatory and its lesser ’scopes, to sinister, almost inaccessible Potrero and great twisting Topanga Canyons that open with the abruptness of catastrophe upon the monstrous, primeval Pacific—all of them (the hills) with few exceptions sandy, cracked, and treacherous, the earth like rock and the rock like dried earth, rotten, crumbling, and porous: all this had such a hold on me (the limper, the fearful listener) as to be obsessive. And indeed there were more and more symptoms of obsession now: I favored certain paths over others for ill-defined reasons and there were places I could not pass without stopping for a little. My fantasy or notion became stronger than ever that there were tunnels under the paths, traveled by beings which attracted the venomous snakes of the outer world because they were akin to them. Could some eerie reality have underlaid my childhood nightmare?—I shied away from that thought.

Leiber suggests the cult quackery popular in southern California is the result of a certain "call" going out:

....Many people migrate here, healthy as well as sick, drawn by the sun, the promise of perpetual summer, the broad if arid fields. The only unusual circumstance worthy of note is that there is a larger sprinkling than might be expected of persons of professed mystical and utopian bent. The Brothers of the Rose, the Theosophists, the Foursquare Gospelers, the Christian Scientists, Unity, the Brotherhood of the Grail, the spiritualists, the astrologers—all are here and many more besides. Believers in the need of return to primitive states and primitive wisdoms, practitioners of pseudo-disciplines dictated by pseudo-sciences—yes, even a few overly sociable hermits—one finds them everywhere; the majority awaken only my pity and distaste, so lacking in logic and avid for publicity are they. At no time—and let me emphasize this—have I been at all interested in their doings and in their ignorantly parroted principles, except possibly from the viewpoint of comparative psychology.

And they were brought here by that excessive love of sunlight which characterizes most faddists of any sort and that urge to find an unsettled, unorganized land in which utopias might take root and burgeon, untroubled by urbane ridicule and tradition-bred opposition—the same urge that led the Mormons to desert-guarded Salt Lake City, their paradise of Deseret. This seems an adequate explanation, even without bringing in the fact that Los Angeles, a city of retired farmers and small merchants, a city made hectic by the presence of the uncouth motion-picture industry, would naturally attract charlatans of all varieties. Yes, that explanation is still sufficient to me, and I am rather pleased, for even now I should hate to think that those hideously alluring voices a-mutter with secrets from beyond the rim of the cosmos necessarily have some dim, continent-wide range.

Indeed, our narrator's father, a stone mason, seems to have heard the call in Kentucky, and moved his family to the region in response.

....My father’s stone engravings were indeed quite fanciful and even a little disconcerting in their subject matter and location. One was in the basement’s floor of natural rock, which he had smoothed. From time to time I’d watch him work on it. Desert plants and serpents seemed to be its subject matter, but as one studied it one became aware that there was much marine stuff too: serrated looping seaweeds, coiling eels, fishes that trailed tentacles, suckered octopus arms, and two giant squid eyes peering from a coral-crusted castle. And in its midst he boldly hewed in a flowery stone script, “The Gate of Dreams.” My childish imagination was fired, but I was a little frightened too.

One curious coincidence pertaining to the Cthulhery of the story:  The narrator describes a "Miskatonic Project" [into which all Lovecraft's major plots are enfolded].  Robert Bloch's misbegotten 1978 "novel" Strange Eons features an "Arkham Project" with the same X-Files brand of remit.

"The Terror from the Depths" originally appeared in the 1976 DAW anthology The Disciples of Cthulhu.  I'm sure I read it there when I found a copy of the paperback in the mid-1980s.  It is certainly the strongest story in that collection, though Ramsey Campbell's wonderfully-titled "The Tugging" is a close second.  I re-read it this week in my eBook of Ross Lockhart's 2012 anthology The Book of Cthulhu II, from which the above excerpts are pulled.

Leiber creates a world strangely consonant with Robert Frost's magnificent 1928 poem, "Once by the Pacific."

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last Put out the Light was spoken.

Jay R.


Appendix A:

....Late in life Leiber finally broke down and produced an avowed Lovecraftian pastiche, writing “The Terror from the Depths” when invited by Edward Paul Berglund to contribute to his anthology, The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976). The result is an extraordinarily rich and complex novelette that, as Byfield (57–58) has shown, is a model for Leiber’s incorporation of the mythic theories of Jung and Joseph Campbell in his later work. On a superficial level, “The Terror from the Depths” can be read as a vast in-joke: it would require a lengthy commentary to pinpoint all the tips of the hat to works by Lovecraft scattered through this story, including something so insignificant as the cry “Merciful Creator!” (TD 301), borrowed from “Pickman’s Model” (DH 22). More interestingly, Leiber has written a loose sequel to some of Lovecraft’s most celebrated later tales, especially “The Whisperer in Darkness,” whose protagonist Albert N. Wilmarth plays a major role in the story. Wilmarth, amusingly enough, bears a striking physical resemblance to Lovecraft himself. Although Leiber of course never met Lovecraft, he had by this time read enough about Lovecraft’s life and mannerisms to capture some of his characteristic behaviour-patterns:

He [was] . . . a tall young man, cadaverously thin, always moving about with nervous rapidity, his shoulders hunched. He’d had a long jaw and a pale complexion, with dark-circled eyes which gave him a haunted look, as if he were constantly under some great strain to which he never alluded. . . . He’d seemed incredibly well read and had had a lot to do with stimulating and deepening my interest in poetry. (TD 290)

The narrator, Georg Reuter Fischer, even remarks to Wilmarth at one point: “‘You know, . . . I had the craziest idea—that somehow you and he [Lovecraft] were the same person’” (TD 310). Lovecraft himself, indeed, plays a minor role in the tale. Conversely, Fischer (whose first and last names are derived from Leiber’s friends Georg Mann and Harry O. Fischer, and whose middle name is Leiber’s own) is clearly modelled on Leiber himself, so that the story’s scenario—in which Wilmarth acts as a sort of mentor to Fischer in the pursuit of arcane knowledge—echoes Lovecraft’s own brief tutorship to the young Leiber.

More than mere imitation, however, “The Terror from the Depths” strives both to recapture some of the textural richness of Lovecraft’s best stories and, perhaps, to show that profound portrayals of human character are not incompatible with the general “cosmic” orientation of Lovecraft’s work. To put it very crudely, Fischer finds himself simultaneously attracted and repelled by the cosmic forces dwelling under his Southern California home; and his first-person narrative reveals, entirely unbeknownst to himself, the degree to which these forces have throughout his entire life affected his mind and guided his actions to the final cataclysmic conclusion. Leiber here has drawn from many of Lovecraft’s tales: Cthulhu’s control of dreams (“The Call of Cthulhu”); the possible attractions of yielding to the non-human (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”); the compelling quest for scientific knowledge in the face of personal danger (“The Whisperer in Darkness,” At the Mountains of Madness). And yet, the result is a story that features considerably more psychological analysis than Lovecraft ever included in his own work.

Accordingly, “The Terror from the Depths” can on one level be seen as Leiber’s attempt to “rewrite” “The Whisperer in Darkness” so that it has more to say about the “real world” and “real people.” Recall that one of Leiber’s criticisms of Lovecraft’s tale is that Wilmarth is presented as excessively gullible—a comment that may point to Leiber’s overall dissatisfaction with the portrayal of character in Lovecraft’s work generally. The same cannot be said of “The Terror from the Depths,” where the slow absorption of both Fischer and Wilmarth into the physical and mental grasp of the cosmic entities is depicted with subtlety and psychological insight. In Lovecraft’s tale Wilmarth is also momentarily attracted by the prospect of cosmic insights that might be made available to him: “To shake off the maddening and wearying limitations of time and space and natural law—to be linked with the vast outside—to come close to the nighted and abysmal secrets of the infinite and the ultimate—surely such a thing was worth the risk of one’s life, soul, and sanity!” (DH 243). But in the end he draws back and flees to the safety of the human world. Leiber’s scenario shows that the mere option to yield or not to yield to the non-human has become a moot point, since Fischer’s mind has long ago been captured by the cosmic beings. What Leiber has done here—and, really, throughout his work—is to break down the simple dichotomy of external horror and internal horror, showing that both can be, and usually are, fused into an enigmatic and chilling union.

It cannot be repeated frequently enough that Fritz Leiber was one of the few writers of the “Lovecraft Circle” to have fully assimilated the Lovecraft influence and gone on to produce vital, original work that reflects his own (not Lovecraft’s) themes, concerns, and philosophy. The same cannot be said for the Lovecraftian work of August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Brian Lumley, and even Ramsey Campbell. Campbell became an original writer only when he repudiated the Lovecraft influence that dominated his first volume, The Inhabitant of the Lake (1964), and went on to write the very different work for which he is now justly acclaimed. Leiber never had to make such a clear break, perhaps because his youthful conceptions were already pointing in a somewhat Lovecraftian direction (especially in the mingling of horror and science fiction), so that he could use Lovecraft’s work less as the source of abject imitation than as a spur to his imagination. Leiber never attempted to imitate Lovecraft’s distinctive style (save, as an homage, in “The Terror from the Depths”), and instead drew upon fundamental Lovecraftian themes, moods, and aesthetic principles—the impingement of vast extraterrestrial entities upon the earth; the focusing upon a hapless, solitary human being caught in the web of cosmic forces; the intellectual terror of a defiance or subversion of natural law; the need to modernise the weird tale by utilising modern science as a source of terror—as the foundation of his early work. Night’s Black Agents is a testimonial to how much Leiber has learned from Lovecraft, but many other works could be cited to flesh out the picture.

In the end, however, Leiber remains a writer capable of expressing his own unique vision; the most important lesson he drew from Lovecraft was some clues on how best to express it.

S.T. Joshi, "Passing the Torch: H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber" in The Evolution of the Weird Tale.. Hippocampus Press. 2004.