Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Depths: Horror and Beauty

You can learn a lot about someone by looking at his pipe of choice. An old, beaten up corncob gives off a very different vibe than a flawless, recently polished, Danish freehand. I am not asserting that one is better than another, but it is telling.

With that in mind, I pose a question to you: What does this pipe tell you about a person?

Quirky? Geeky? Possibly insane? I think all of these are probably accurate assessments, since I have recently be fortunate to acquire this monstrous beauty.

Stephen Downie, hailing from Canada, is an incredibly talented pipe carver and artist; not only that, but, fortunately for me, he is also a geek. When I first stumbled across Stephen's website, the pipe of his that caught my eye was the Balrog from Lord of the Rings. This pipe was not just a decent imitation of the fiery beast, but a fantastical representation, complete with vertebrae and horns. In addition, I saw his rendition of a Greenman, a zombie, and a king. These pipes are all pieces of art, but Stephen does not simply limit himself to “Creatures of Smoke” as he calls them, but also does the more classic designs with grace.

Due to his talent and inclination towards the geeky and macabre, not to mention his being an all-around great guy, he was a natural choice for my desire to have a pipe based off of Cthulhu, the famous Great Old One invented by H. P. Lovecraft in the late 1920s. He is said to waiting in the sunken city of R'lyeh, and might be emerging very soon. Thanks to Stephen Downie, he appeared a little earlier than was prophesied.

I have an obsession with Cthulhu, as my lady can testify: I have posters, backgrounds for my computer, many books, including a leather-bound Necronomicon, and now a pipe. She has asked quite often why this obsession exists, and there are frankly many reasons.

First off, the story is very well written, but that is not the primary reason.

Cthulhu and the entire mythos surrounding him, in my mind, capture all of what is good about horror. Cthulhu is beyond our comprehension, a thing of such greatness that we are dwarfed by the very concept of it. So far beyond our comprehension is Cthulhu that the very sight of him will cause us to go insane. This is horror in its most perfect form – it is not the ghost or monster who jumps out and yells, “Boo!”, causing you to jump a little. This is cheap horror that I label as “American Horror”, which I juxtapose with “Japanese Horror”.

In “Japanese Horror”, a Lovecraftian horror, evil simply is. American horror has a desire to explain evil: it has a source, and that source has an inspiration. Think of the most well-known American horror movies: Michael Myers from the “Halloween” movies, Jason from “Friday the 13th”, Freddy Krueger from “Nightmare on Elm Street”, along with all of the mass-murderer movies. All of the evil that occurs in these movies has a defined, understandable source; there is always a bad guy who can be caught, killed, stopped, or otherwise dealt with.

For the most part, this is not the case in Japanese / Lovecraftian horror. Evil is simply a fact of nature and we are merely caught in its path. Another one of the aspects that makes this horror successful is that it emphasizes the smallness of Man. Humans are often not targeted by the wrath of the evilness, but are simply in its path, like an anthill in the path of a toddler. The child did not intend to destroy the anthill, but the ants can do nothing against a force so much larger and beyond its understanding.

There is a scene in my favorite science-fiction TV show, Babylon 5, that sums this up perfectly. One of the characters, Catherine Sakai, encountered something while exploring a planet, Sigma 957. She asks an ambassador from another race, named G'kar, what it was:

Catherine Sakai: Ambassador! While I was out there, I saw something. What was it? 
G'Kar: [points to a flower with a bug crawling on it] What is this? 
Catherine Sakai: An ant. 
G'Kar: Ant. 
Catherine Sakai: So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports it's hard to keep them out. 
G'Kar: Yes, I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, "what was that?", [laughs]  how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They're vast, timeless, and if they're aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants, and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know, we've tried, and we've learned that we can either stay out from underfoot or be stepped on. 
Catherine Sakai: That's it? That's all you know? 
G'Kar: Yes, they are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Miss Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone. 

That is the true and perfect terror: to be so dwarfed physically and mentally. The horror that impacts you in your stomach and your mind is so much purer, so much better, than anything that makes you simply jump. The horror that, when you are done reading or watching, leaves you silent and stunned, leaves you in a state of ennui and emotionally drained, is a thing of beauty. That is Japanese horror; that is the genius of H.P. Lovecraft; that is Cthulhu.


  1. Ethan, not much of a fan of horror, but a huge fan of Stephen Downie, surely one of the most talented and most congenial pipe makers ever.

    Your analysis of the different types of horror was quite interesting and adds context to the amazing pipe that Stephen created for you.


    Congratulation to both of you for this phantasmagorical collaboration.

  2. Have you read Charles Stross's Laundry series? You will like it. Modern day geek protagonist against the horrors of the deep.

  3. I will have to check that out! Sounds like a lot of fun.

  4. To smoke Cthulhu, is to love Cthulhu.

    (scientific fact)