This Week’s Prompt: 27. Life and Death. Death—its desolation and horror—bleak spaces—sea-bottom—dead cities. But Life—the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles and leviathans—hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle—rank slimy vegetation—evil instincts of primal man—Life is more horrible than death.
The Resulting Story: The Snake and The Shade
There is a lot to cover in this prompt, my fellows in mortuary of writing. Mr. Lovecraft’s prompt is neatly divided and thus we can cover the extensive ground quickly, but you’ll forgive me if it takes some time to get to the plotting of it all. That must wait until the end.
Death, given that it is the lesser of our two topics, will get perhaps the least coverage. Desolation as a notion, and the concept of the wasteland and horror of emptiness, is a fairly familiar one to modern audiences. I would point to a number of examples, but the Nothing of the Never Ending Story does exceptionally well as desolation made manifest. The sea bottom dead city and the ruin call to mind, personally, a poem by the great Poe. The City In The Sea, which certainly inspired a certain piece of Mr. Lovecraft’s own writing, is certainly what is alluded to here. I recommend the poem highly, it is one of my personal favorites. It’s motifs, however, have little bearing on the second phase of conversation however. Life.
Life as a horror is…less common. First a brief review of the creatures presented to us: we have described here a number of familiar features. First there are the vast unheard of reptiles and leviathans. As we have already covered dragons (here) and leviathans (here), I will leave this be. Next, of course, is the ‘hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle’. I presume Mr. Lovecraft means dinosaurs, but you might have heard these creatures more resembled poultry than nightmares.
Still, the conjuring of the jungle is important. Jungles are nasty areas, impenetrable regions to most (as Mr. Lovecraft might say) civilized peoples. They do not abide well with agriculture, having fairly poor soils that require slash and burn, and worse still have all sorts of diseases and infections through out them. And of course people live there, and often are believed by their neighbors to have terrible powers.
Life’s danger, mostly then, is of unlimited growth. Growth unconstrained and uncontrolled. This as concept has a number of echoes, in science and science fiction. To begin with the more grim, such a terrible notion might be summarized as cancerous. Cancer is the out of control growth that Lovecraft fears, a never ending mutation and spread the consumes an otherwise healthy host. The parody of proper life (if we use such a phrase) unrestrained by death is a fatal one.
Moving to the nearest fictional relatives, the idea of life without death as being terrifying is fairly old. The trapping of Death by Sisyphus results in that very sort of chaos. Further cases of immortality as a curse, such as the Sibyl, abound in classic literature. Certainly, this fear of boundary violation is deeply rooted in a fear of the dead themselves, but we covered that (here). In more modern fair, Marvel comics has the (in)famous Many Angled Ones, who descend from a universe without death. They are terrible creatures, unstoppable and mighty. To be without Death is to be truly terrible.
Life giving entities are also fearsome. We have discussed Tiamat, but perhaps now ought to mention Gaia. Gaia, while now thought of as the kinder being, did sire many races of monsters to usurp gods. She sent forth giants to topple Zeus, and from her come the Cyclopes and the Hundred Handed Ones. Before Gaia, there is the primeval Khaos who spews forth new wonders constantly. Never ending creation is chaos and anarchy, and thus terrible indeed.
The connection runs even in Lovecraft’s own works. Abhoth and Azathoth are life giving entities who create almost mindlessly. Life without purpose almost defines the shoggoths, creatures of absolute horror and dread. These entities are terrible, ancient, and eternally giving birth to horrors against man and culture.
And, as with Jungles, there are sometimes things living among them.
When we discuss ancient reptilian creatures in weird fiction, however, we set upon a second set of serpentine stories: the intelligent serpent. The Naga, for example, of India are a set of dieties that are powerful and deadly. They have their own cities beneath our own, conflict regularly with the Garuda bird, and offer there service to Shiva. They were, like many serpents, river creatures and new secrets of poison.
A stranger American breed persists, of a hypnotic snake in Hoosier territory. There, it is said, snakes manipulate children and cows into giving them human food and drink in order to grow large and terrible. This mental manipulation is a common trait in media with snakes, of course. The serpent Kaa has hypnotic eyes, the Dragons of Middle Earth have alluring speech, and Jafar (another Disney character, unrelated to the noble vizier) uses a serpents staff to bend the sultan to his will.
There are also the Gigantes, the giants born of Gaia we mentioned earlier. Sadly, little is known, except they had serpent legs. Even more obscure are those three primeval serpents (Ananke, Chronos, Zas) of Olympus, who built the world. But we must pass them by.
For the last batch of weird serpent creatures are the most modern: The serpent men. Found in Mr. Lovecraft’s works and Mr. Howard’s, the serpent men are a recurring force in pulp literature. Common traits include advanced technology, cultish organization, ancient civilization (at least prehuman), and a penchant for disguising themselves. Conspiratorial minds add (in their paranoia) other abilities to this already strong list: mind control, blood rights, and interbreeding. I will not grant the strange madmen more than the strange powers madness gives their delusions, but what writer can’t exploit such stuff. Serpent men(or lizard men, in some cases) have since spread to other works: tabletop games, the works of Doctor Who, the movie V, Star Trek, and others.
For the story, then, and the horror of Life over Death, the best means is perhaps contrast. Death may be given the beginning. Perhaps our protagonist wanders out of a desolate wasteland or a wretched heath. He sees, in the distance, the signs of life. This in turn gives him hope. But as he approaches and enters, he finds the hope false. The life dreadful and hostile. And what fate in such a place awaits him, who can say? After all, from life come man’s wicked instincts, my fellows.