23 April 2012

Topography of the Psyche, or, the Craft of Lovecraft

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.


I want to share a theory with you that has been simmering because of my recent plunge into Lovecraft. In the past month I've been working my way through some early parts of the Cthulhu Mythos. I started reading a story or so at bed time, and almost immediately began having vivid dreams that drew heavily upon their imagery.

The more I read, the more I started to see resonances between Lovecraft's stuff and certain other experiences I've had. I think I'm onto something here, something we can maybe use in our writing, possibly to great effect.

Via Webcowgirl's review of Orono Productions' Dunwich Horror

Bear with me.

I've participated in my fair share of guided visualization classes. If you've ever listened to a "meditation" CD that takes you on a little journey using imagery, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well, you should give it a whirl. Basically, a guided visualization CD or instructor will have you close your eyes and picture or imagine different places / images in order to effect a healing or transformation.

(Sidenote: I distinguish between meditation proper and guided visualization, though you'll hear people call guided visualization "meditation." For my money, meditation is about trying to think about nothing / emptying your mind. Guided visualization entails slipping into a hyper relaxed state and going on a little journey.)

In any case, there are a few guided visualization formats out there. Most of them use specific features to get you to engage and shift different aspects of your psyche. These features are often topographical in nature: describing the physical features of a landscape, including hills and valleys, mountains and seas, as well as artificial features like buildings. You picture going down a forest path, or climbing stairs (up or down - I'll get to that). You enter a temple on top of a mountain, or drop into a secret passage that takes you into a room deep underground.

Maple of Ratibor

How you travel in a guided visualization determines which part of the psyche you're accessing. (I am no expert - this is my understanding of how it works based on taking classes.) If you travel to a mountain top, you're engaging with higher consciousness / matters of the spirit / your higher self. If you go down or underground you're entering into the realm of the subconscious. Other features can symbolize / assist with transitions between dimensions: traveling on a boat across water will help you shift into a deeper engagement with the self; entering a temple signifies a movement into the realm of the sacred where you can seek guidance or receive energies to help you on your path.

In guided visualization, the end goal of these journeys is to integrate new energies, make shifts in your life, or transform stale patterns or negative modes of thinking that no longer serve.

Lovecraft used topography lavishly in his stories, albeit to entirely different effects. I think his use of topography has a great deal to do with how infectious his work is. Have you ever encountered someone who is a big Lovecraft fan? How they'll talk about the Cthulhu Mythos or other aspects of his work, without really being able to explain what makes it so amazing? There's a certain glazed-look, foaming-at-the-mouth quality to these people, as if they've not only read him and liked him, but shared in his madness. (I say "these people" but I've had to wipe away my fair share of foam in my recent discussions of my readings.)

If you take a look at the Cthulhu Mythos list of stories, you can see how many writers in the early years contributed to it. Lovecraft was apparently a very active correspondent then, and he drew many minds into his worldview. His vision is dark, to say the least. One might also call it paranoid.

I think it works on people so effectively because Lovecraft's stories invite you to travel across vivid physical landscapes. You travel across wide plains; out open windows and into cities across mountains and time; you jump onto trollies in abandoned wildernesses; you journey down the longest, darkest staircases.

In using topography like he does, Lovecraft is perhaps accessing the same mechanisms as guided visualization. However, rather than finding the light-filled temple of the soul at the heart of the journey, he populates his destinations with nightmares.

The twentieth century was in many ways a nightmarish period. World war, economic depression, the honing of new tools of mass murder, the rise of modernism, the termination of philosophical thought in an especially dreary form of skepticism - these all pointed toward a loss of meaning. Lovecraft's stories take you to a place that you always suspected was there: it's dark, it's cold, and it's full of creatures who simply do not care, whose mere touch will transform you, violate you, and end you. They whisper, "You always knew this was it. As bad as you dreamed it could be, it is, and worse."

There's something powerful in using place, or - to give it the most mundane of its names - setting - the way Lovecraft did. Writers, this is worth emulating, yes / yes?

By Robert Atkinson


From "The Nameless City"

Then a brighter flare of the fantastic flame shewed me that for which I had been seeking, the opening to those remoter abysses whence the sudden wind had blown; and I grew faint when I saw that it was a small and plainly artificial door chiselled in the solid rock. I thrust my torch within, beholding a black tunnel with the roof arching low over a rough flight of very small, numerous, and steeply descending steps. I shall always see those steps in my dreams, for I came to learn what they meant. At the time I hardly knew whether to call them steps or mere foot-holds in a precipitous descent. My mind was whirling with mad thoughts, and the words and warnings of Arab prophets seemed to float across the desert from the lands that men know to the nameless city that men dare not know. Yet I hesitated only a moment before advancing through the portal and commencing to climb cautiously down the steep passage, feet first, as though on a ladder.

It is only in the terrible phantasms of drugs or delirium that any other man can have had such a descent as mine. The narrow passage led infinitely down like some hideous haunted well, and the torch I held above my head could not light the unknown depths toward which I was crawling. I lost track of the hours and forgot to consult my watch, though I was frightened when I thought of the distance I must be traversing. There were changes of direction and of steepness, and once I came to a long, low, level passage where I had to wriggle feet first along the rocky floor, holding my torch at arm’s length beyond my head. The place was not high enough for kneeling. After that were more of the steep steps, and I was still scrambling down interminably when my failing torch died out. I do not think I noticed it at the time, for when I did notice it I was still holding it high above me as if it were ablaze. I was quite unbalanced with that instinct for the strange and the unknown which has made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidden places.

In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus; later chanting over and over again a phrase from one of Lord Dunsany’s tales—“the unreverberate blackness of the abyss”. Once when the descent grew amazingly steep I recited something in sing-song from Thomas Moore until I feared to recite more:

“A reservoir of darkness, black
As witches’ cauldrons are, when fill’d
With moon-drugs in th’ eclipse distill’d.
Leaning to look if foot might pass
Down thro’ that chasm, I saw, beneath,
As far as vision could explore,
The jetty sides as smooth as glass,
Looking as if just varnish’d o’er
With that dark pitch the Sea of Death
Throws out upon its slimy shore.”

Time had quite ceased to exist when my feet again felt a level floor, and I found myself in a place slightly higher than the rooms in the two smaller temples now so incalculably far above my head. I could not quite stand, but could kneel upright, and in the dark I shuffled and crept hither and thither at random. I soon knew that I was in a narrow passage whose walls were lined with cases of wood having glass fronts. As in that Palaeozoic and abysmal place I felt of such things as polished wood and glass I shuddered at the possible implications. The cases were apparently ranged along each side of the passage at regular intervals, and were oblong and horizontal, hideously like coffins in shape and size. When I tried to move two or three for further examination, I found they were firmly fastened.

9 comments:

Jocelyn Rish said...

I think the only Lovecraft I've read was the required reading during school, which is pretty shameful since I claim to be a horror writer. But your post has definitely inspired me to go read some more. I'm impressed with the way you connected the power of his writing to the power of visualization

Wishing you continued success with the A to Z challenge,
Jocelyn

Cassandra said...

Very intresting read! I might look into doing this Story a Day in may with you!

Mark K said...

I wish I could write with the same vividness and eloquence as the authors of that period displayed, but as the nature of the written and spoken language is morphed by society and evolves into its ever changing form, I suppose I am more or less stuck with what I have.

As for Lovecraft - I've read one of his stories, and although the writing was beautifully descriptive the story was so bloody depressing. Put me off reading any further Cthulu works. Are they all that bleak and depressive?

Elizabeth Twist said...

It is the darkest of dark stuff. Highly recommended because he has a lot of moves that have evaporated from the horror canon and would be worth revivification.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hi Cassandra! Definitely consider Story a Day. I found it way more challenging than NaNoWriMo, if you've ever done that, but it really stretched and strengthened my writing muscles.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Stories that are pure exposition like Lovecraft's are out of fashion, as is purple prose.

Yes, his stories are all bleak and depressing, as far as I can tell. (Fanboys and girls, please correct me on this if I am wrong.) In fact I think his whole point was to impose his bleak depressiveness on others. On the other hand, watching a bleak depressive man perfectly express the blasted quality of his inner world is inspiring. To quote the movie Alien, "I admire its purity."

Gina said...

I love your post. Not only I'm learning about guided visualization (and pretty excited about trying it myself) but I think you might have a point here! I never thought about it this way, but I think it is quite right. Awesome! I'll be back for more.

Thanks for stopping by my blog
From Diary of a Writer in Progress.

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Interesting this visualization tour idea. I'd be keen to try it just for the experience. But, yes, let's not confuse things that are not quite meditation with meditation.

I read some Lovecraft Cthulu stuff a few years ago. Neat stuff. Such an aura about it - of despair perhaps. I always intended to read more but my reading list has grown into a monster even Lovecraft never conceived.

Mark K said...

You're quoting Ian Holmes at me! You minx! One of my favourite films :)

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