Goth, Death, and Lovecraft, Oh My! A Halloween Special
- Goth, in all its forms, appeals to the dark side of the human spirit.
- Humanity’s greatest fear is not the unknown, it is the certainty of our own mortality.
- H.P. Lovecraft’s intergenerational legacy of horror.
H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) is a revered writer of supernatural horror fiction. Although little known during his lifetime, he is now regarded as one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century.
Born in Providence, RI, as Howard Phillipps Lovecraft, he began writing stories and poems as early as age 7. He published his first short story in 1916 and over sixty more tales in the next two decades, mostly in pulp genre journals. His 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” introduced the mythology of a terrifying cosmic entity who would appear in several subsequent Lovecraft stories as well as books, films, songs, and games by other artists.
Lovecraft’s work is characterized by its dark themes, fantastical imagery, and dim view of humanity. Although modern commentators criticize the racist tone of some of his stories, his writing would influence numerous literary figures, including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and such film directors as John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. His imagery has appeared in rock songs, TV shows, and video games, and his stories are still regularly reprinted.
- Art & Design
On this Halloween week, you may be tempted to think of Goth as nothing more than a synonym for depression, but in truth, as Tori Marchiony reports, a dose of darkness can shed light on the human condition.
Alicia Smith: I think there is an aspect of certain celebration. If you like these aesthetics, doesn’t mean you’re sad. It just means maybe you like the nighttime a little more than the daytime, and there’s nothing necessarily bad or wrong with that.
For generations, the early 20th century American writer, H. P. Lovecraft, has been terrifying readers. We find out how.
Jillian Sayre: The reader is not just implied but present in his stories.
And humanity’s greatest fear is not the unknown. It’s the certainty of death. We’ve been coping with it artistically since time immemorial.
Joanna Ebenstein: This idea that death is something exotic and scary is so new.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Goth, in all its forms, appeals to the dark side of the human spirit. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, even in the shadows, there is light.
Sometimes, a single word contains many definitions. Goth is one of them. The Gothic is a slippery and ever-evolving aesthetic concept. It is stone and it is rock. It is dark even as it seeks enlightenment. So, what does Goth actually mean? Starting in 12th century France, Gothic trends in architecture would result in massive eerily beautiful buildings, much like this one, all over the world.
Sarah Guérin: In a lot of ways, Gothic is never something that goes completely out of style, that is always an architectural mode that’s appreciated somewhere from its birth in the 12th century all the way to today.
And though at first filled with light and celebration, many of these buildings fell into disrepair, and over the years, increasingly decrepit versions of these once grand spaces came to embody a sense of foreboding. By the 18th century, such sites would offer perfect settings for many of the dark and psychologically thrilling tales of the Gothic literary movement.
Ellen Ledoux: The Gothic is all about the carnivalesque, about people’s unspoken desires, the things that are socially unacceptable. The reason why the Gothic tries to put you in that space is so that you think about: Well, what does constitute the human? What does it mean to be alive?
The literary genre and its many offspring, including Southern Gothic, Female Gothic, and New Gothic, all have a great capacity for melancholy. And beginning in 1970’s Britain, this penchant for brooding would manifest again in fans of so-called Gothic music, a loosely-defined genre of emotionally driven rock and roll, featuring plenty of black clothing.
Alicia Smith: It came out of punk and just was sort of more introspective, moody, emotional, just kind of spooky atmosphere.
(“Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” 1982)
White on white translucent black capes
Yet the very first use of the word ‘Goth’ referred to an East Germanic ethnic group. It included the OstroGoths and VisiGoths, two tribes that helped bring down the Roman Empire. The first Gothic buildings appeared many centuries later and resulted from three key innovations brought together on projects in and around Paris. They were: The ribbed vault, the flying buttress, and the pointed arch.
Guérin: The pointed arch is a improvement on the Roman innovation of the rounded arch. And essentially what the pointed arch brings is that it translates this lateral push into a stronger vertical push. But there is still a little bit of this lateral push that’s going to come off, even from a pointed arch, and that is where flying buttresses come in. A flying buttress is a strong piece of masonry that pushes against the building right where there’s the most force, so it accepts these lateral or horizontal thrusts that are coming off the vaults. The way that Romanesque architects accepted those lateral thrusts was by just having thick heavy walls. It’s going to accept all of that outwards push. But the Gothic architects wanted to have big windows, so they don’t want to have big, thick heavy walls. They want to have light entering in. So it’s almost like that you’re swinging that wall out 90 degrees to get your buttresses. So it’s bringing it out so that you still have the thick heavy masonry, but it is on the perpendicular and allows light to come into the building. And then the third innovation is the ribbed vault, and essentially what it does is, it makes the load-bearing parts of the vault strong in a heavy masonry. And the parts of the vault that are not needed for load-bearing are in a really thin, light material, such as slate.
AJC: Is there an emotional quality that we associate with the Gothic as much as those architectural tenets of it?
Guérin: The emotional qualities of Gothic are really in tune with awe and wonder. It exceeded expectations of what a stone building could be. They were higher with thinner walls with more light than people had ever seen before, and it was feeling of awe and incredulity when they entered into these buildings and they were still standing.
But not everyone was so fond of the style. Gothic architecture eventually got its name in the 1530s when the godfather of art history, Giorgio Vasari, described the approach as monstrous and barbarous, but named it Gothic. Today, the term may still be slung as an insult but with a different set of connotations. Alicia Porter Smith found community in her hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, with a group of young people who also liked listening to Gothic music and wearing dark clothing. But in the 1990s, Smith found her subculture on the wrong end of the satanic panic and decided to retaliate with a website offering her view of things.
Smith: A lot of the Goth websites were directed towards a Goth audience, and so I wanted to explain it for the non-Goth to kind counter some of that sensationalism and misinformation.
AJC: And what were some of the loudest misconceptions being expressed at that time?
Smith: Well, that we were a gang, which was untrue, or a cult or devil-worshipers or sacrificing animals and leading your children astray and didn’t understand that it was very tongue-in-cheek and very just about aesthetics and music and culture and not about Satanism or evil.
AJC: Argue with me that the point is not to just wallow and have the woe is me.
Smith: Outwardly it seems that way, but it’s an exaggeration. It’s a theatrical expression of that, and I don’t think people who are truly depressed are very creative about their appearance or creating music, creating art. They sort of have that energy sucked out of them and want to stay in bed. But Goth culture is very creative, and it is very expressive. And so, when you have a place that’s safe for you to express those things that might be considered abnormal or bad, they’re not necessarily bad, they’re an aspect of life, like death is an aspect of life, and it’s not an obsession with it, but it isn’t a denial of it either.
A fixation on the macabre is present in almost every work of Gothic fiction. At one time, the deliciously debauched tales were widely considered nothing more than trashy entertainment, but Ellen Ledoux, author of Social Reform in Gothic Writing, sees them differently.
Ledoux: Oftentimes people read the Gothic as this fantasy that’s about transgression and rape, criminality, theft, extortion, all of these things that we think about as negatives in society, but the more that I read, the more that I found that the books were engaging with actual political discourse of the day. So, this is during the revolutionary period of both America and France and across Europe, and so people are questioning issues about women’s rights, about property rights, about enfranchisement, population pressure, public health, all of the things that come out of the Enlightenment. And Gothic texts, they aren’t just fantasies about being bad. They actually create this sort of alternative space in which you can do thought experiments.
Thought experiments like: What would happen if a benevolent person was given access to unlimited resources? And what fate is likely when a scientist attempts to play god? Gothic stories are defined by a simple trinity: an antiquated setting, a hidden crime, and the transgression of physical boundaries. The very first such tale was The Castle of Otranto, written by the eccentric son of a British Prime Minister named Horace Walpole.
Ledoux: He’d never had any children, he didn’t get married, and he spent his whole life doing what’s called antiquarianism, so collecting these odd objects from the past. And he recreates this castle at his house outside of London, but it’s all like a theater set. It’s papier-mâché and trompe-l’oeil paints that makes it look like an inside of a cathedral or an inside of a castle, but it’s not actually real. And then he uses a lot of money to make the outside look like a miniature castle.
AJC: He sounds like a fun guy.
Ledoux: Oh, he was, yeah, he was a really fun guy, as far as I can tell. He collects sort of theatrical people around him. He is very stylized in the way that he interacts with the world, his lap dog, and for that reason, also, was a little bit of an outsider. So even though he’s part of this really enfranchised elite group of people, he’s always a little bit on the outside looking in. And that’s also part of this Gothic authorship. It almost always tends to be women, people who, for whatever reason, their sexuality or their psychology or their family doesn’t quite fit into mainstream society and so their looking at things from the outside.
Gothic authors are expert at channeling their feelings of alienation into forms of expression that can be shared. They invite readers to examine the ugliest aspects of the human spirit and return from the depths unharmed. And today, Goth remains a refuge for the outsider. For Alicia Porter Smith, the permission to explore the shadows offered by Gothic literature and music alike has helped her to forge many life changing relationships.
Smith: A lot of people that became drawn to this group were sort of misfits in some way or another. All the freaks had to stick together just to avoid getting beat up when I was young. – Was there a joy in gathering together? – I think there is an aspect of a certain celebration. If you like these aesthetics, it doesn’t mean you’re sad. It just means maybe you like the nighttime a little more than the daytime, and there’s nothing necessarily bad or wrong with that.
Indeed, this may be the Gothics ultimate lesson, a reminder to embrace the full spectrum of life’s experiences because there may just be beauty lurking in all of them.
Humanity’s greatest fear is not the unknown, it’s the certainty of death. And we’ve been coping with it artistically since time immemorial.
As the world becomes increasingly secular, traditional religious rituals seem to offer less and less comfort, even though it turns out people are just about as anxious as ever about their own mortality.
Joanna Ebenstein: There’s this thing that’s going to happen to each of us that we’re not allowed to talk about or think about or have any interest in, or it makes us, like, weird and bad.
Not that Joanna Ebenstein feels in any way weird or bad about her lifelong fascination with all things morbid. And when she decided to research the ways that high culture throughout history has dealt with death…
Ebenstein: By looking at all these images of death, you really start to overwhelmingly feel that we are the outliers here, not the rest of history. In our culture, in an unprecedented way, death has disappeared from public view, and it’s an unknown. I think it’s scary because we don’t see it, and it’s not a part of everyday life. And what’s so interesting is until 1910, our way of looking at the world wasn’t even possible. Three in five kids died before reaching adulthood in the Victorian Age, we killed our own meat, people died at home. Like, this idea that death is something exotic and scary is so new.
Ebenstein organized her findings into a blog, which later became a library, and eventually a museum, before returning to her own personal collection. A great number of them are known as memento mori, objects created with the intention of reminding the viewer that they, too, will one day die.
Ebenstein: They go back to at least the Roman age, but the way we think about them’s a Christian conception. And basically, the idea is to urge you to contemplate death, so that, when you die, you are ready to meet your maker and not go to Hell, so to live a more pious life on Earth. In the Baroque era, it became really popular to have little objects for home use, not just for church or cemetery that would remind you that you would die. So, it was suggested that you might even have memento mori maxims painted on your wall at home, or you might have a watch or a cane head or art or up shade or little skulls in different things.
There was also Ars Moriendi, or The Art of Dying Well, a sort of illustrated instruction manual for do it yourself last rights. It was circulated widely as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, and there weren’t enough priests to go around. But, of all the objects Ebenstein has encountered, her favorite is this, the hand crafted anatomical Venus.
Ebenstein: The best known ones are made in 18th century Florence, Italy, to be the center piece of the first truly public science museum that was open to everyone for free, men, women, and children. But now, only 200 years later, it’s completely beyond our comprehension, and that really interests me. This idea of death and beauty being oxymoronic or paradoxical is new.
New and possibly already obsolete. Artist Caitlin McCormack is part of a movement of young people interested in old ways in thinking about death. McCormack used her own crocheted skeletal sculptures as a way to process her grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s and eventual death.
Caitlin McCormack: I started crocheting, because I needed the meditative, repetitive thing to sort of get lost in. And that mirrored the repetitive way we were constantly reminding her of everything in her life, because she was forgetting everything so quickly.
AJC: We all want this to be a happy ending, but was it cathartic for you to do this with, at the back of your mind, the knowledge that this was honoring them?
McCormack: Yes. In doing this and developing this process I realized that the reason I make these pieces is to reflect on other painful traumatic experiences. So, each piece I do is the embodiment of a specific memory that may or may not have deviated entirely from the authentic seedling of the experience.
AJC: And are these all grief related?
McCormack: A lot of them are bad experiences. I’m most inclined to focus on the negative.
AJC: Most of us are.
McCormack: Yeah, exactly, especially I think with—I mean if you’re making skeletons and bones, as much as I think they’re beautiful and intricate and lace-like, they’re still a reflection of pain and suffering. I think a lot of people imbue the pieces with their own meaning. Death is inevitable and everyone can find an experience in their life that relates to a skeleton.
AJC: Is it your intention for these works to be a form of consolation to other people in the way they have been to you?
McCormack: Absolutely, to provide comfort and kind of a sense that you’re not alone, it’s a universal experience in that, in looking at this piece, your pain is not outlandish or something that you don’t have the right to experience.
And that’s exactly the point, that confronting our fears may be the best way to free ourselves from them.
The early 20th century American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft was born into a solid New England family. It was assumed he would go to Brown University to study astronomy, but there was a problem.
Darrell Schweitzer: He discovered he couldn’t do the math.
But he could write, so much so that he would become posthumously one of the most influential horror writers ever. Through his mostly short form contributions to pulp rags lie “Weird Tales,” and regular correspondence with fellow writers, his universe has become the backdrops for countless creations since.
But his influence on popular culture comes with some baggage.
Jillian Sayre: He was racist and had antisemitic and had terrible world views.
Mike Bukowski: Then you have stories like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” which is basically about racial purity, and “The Horror at Redhook” which is just a giant essay on xenophobia.
Schweitzer: Well not a real cosmopolitan multicultural guy.
Sayre: He is not necessarily your favorite person, but as a writer he produces these sort of sprawling epics that are really provocative for a study.
Jillian Sayre is a professor of English at Rutgers University, among her most popular classes, a seminar called “American Horror Story.”
Sayre: This is not about demonizing a racist writer, but about how that writer allows us to think about ideas and prejudices that we all carry with us inside.
And all horror succeeds by demanding a visceral emotional reaction instead of a rational or logical one.
Sayre: Horror needs you in order to complete its work. A lot of times in the story you’ll have this sort of mirror reflection of your process in the story itself, so that the reader is not just implied but present in his stories. And a lot of them are his testimonies to invoke a sort of “you” of the reader, one that always comes to mind is the beginning of “Arthur German.”
Narrator: Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it, pure demonical hints of truth which sometimes may get 1,000 fold more hideous.
But despite being a contemporary of some of America’s literary greats, Lovecraft’s style is of an earlier age.
Schweitzer: If you’ve been raised on the idea that Hemingway is the ideal of a literary person, then you know you’re going to have a problem.
John Ashmead and Darrell Schweitzer are co-authors of Tales from the Miskatonic Library, an anthology of tales about, found in, inspired by, or stolen from Lovecraft’s mysterious fictional university library.
Schweitzer: So his style may be described as a mix of Poe, the Spectator, and Edward Gibbon, and so it’s very measured and it’s very stately and it is designed to be read aloud. There’s not a lot of dialog in it.
Sayre: Everything is sort of hyper descriptive, but also doesn’t reveal very much, so it implies things.
John Ashmead: There’s a nice command of how much detail to put in. And rereading his stuff you see, knowing how it’s going to come out, how little waste there is, he was very much of a craftsman. He got rid of everything that wasn’t needed to support the fact and then, that’s the story.
But sometimes just enough detail was still too much as illustrator Mike Bukowski’s art, when he set out to draw all the monsters in Lovecraft’s sprawling universe.
Bukowski: There was one particular creature in “At the Mountains of Madness,” that is described with paragraphs and paragraphs of minutia, like down to the length of its fingers. And I just couldn’t grasp it because it was such an alien entity, it almost looked like something, like when I finally figured it out, it almost looked like a microscopic oceanic creature, something like that. But I had to sit down and physically draw it to figure out what he was talking about.
For almost a century, artists like Bukowski have kept Lovecraft’s legacy relevant by constantly reusing and re-imagining his world. So much so, that by the 1990’s, Lovecraftian concepts have become deeply embedded in collective memory.
Joseph Hallman: The idea of Cthulhu or Necronomicon are these familiar little things that can now be called upon from childhood or from nostalgia.
Lovecraft’s influence on composer Joseph Hallman was manifested in a work called Imagined Landscapes: Six Lovecraftian Elsewheres. Like Lovecraft, Hallman’s goal was to leave the audience on the edge of its seat.
Hallman: Most importantly the idea of obscuration of sound so that the audience wouldn’t understand where a melody was coming from or where a sound was coming from. So I would color the sound with multiple instruments playing a single note or playing a note in a different way that is unfamiliar. So it’s very cool to watch performance of this piece because the audience is always looking around to try and figure out who’s playing what. And so that’s a big part of it, sort of unseating the aural expectation of what a classical music piece should be.
And even when it came to the traditions of his genre, Lovecraft was all about unseating one of the most fundamental talents of horror: fear of the unknown.
Sayre: What really horrifies his protagonists is discovering what they don’t know, is making known the unknown, and a lot of his protagonists respond by encouraging people not to know. “Don’t keep exploring Antarctica, don’t look in these places, don’t read this text,” sort of thing. The knowledge of it doesn’t bring any additional power, it in fact just makes you more aware of your own vulnerability.
Schweitzer: I’m sure he would have been both thrilled and terrified by the current astronomical discoveries. For example, that planets are common and that most stars have them. And by the deep sky photos we see from the Hubble Telescope, we’re seeing hundreds or thousands of galaxies. There could well be yet another intelligent species who will never have anything to do with us. So his basic message is, “The universe is not about us. We are only a small episode in a much larger cosmos. We are not the center.”