The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival celebrates that. So many filmmakers, veteran and budding, try making Lovecraft’s otherworldly creations visible -- a unique challenge as Lovecraft was brilliant at describing creatures that somehow don’t, feel, right, for this world. Angles may seem wrong, body symmetry may seem not to fit in this dimension, the entities’ actions may seem unexplainable, with the hint/threat that simply comprehending the true extent of these creatures and their power would drive humans to insanity.
This can be heady, inspiring stuff. And one artist inspired by it is author Caitlin R. Kiernan (greygirlbeast), who the film festival has tried hard to bring to Portland. This year the stars aligned -- come to think of it, “stars aligning” seems an appropriate analogy for the Lovecrsft-related -- and Kiernan is in Portland this weekend. I’ve known her online since 2003; yesterday we met in meat-space.
I saw her on two panels and later heard her read from Lovecraft Unbound, a story collection edited by fellow fest guest Ellen Datlow. Datlow, wanting something a little different from many collections of Lovecraft-influenced work, had asked for “Lovecraft without the tentacles.” The authors mostly obliged; Kiernan only, um, hinted at them (in an especially oblique way) in her 2007 story “Houses Under the Sea.”
Now to back up to early in the fest yesterday. After recognizing Kiernan in the upstairs lobby of the Hollywood Theater -- she A) is tall and B) was wearing a straw hat and sunglasses -- I made my way into the theater where two of her Saturday panels would take place. I introduced myself to her before the panel started, and told her I was glad she was able to fly this time. She said her “passport situation” had finally been sorted out and she was happy to have reached Portland, but that “airplanes are not a civilized way to travel.” We both hoped for a resurgence of dirigibles. I then turned around and spoke briefly with Kiernan’s partner, photographer/ sculptor/ dollmaker Kathryn Pollnac (a.k.a. Spooky, a.k.a. humglum), who was sitting in the audience. She’s been away from Portland, her former home, about as long as I’ve lived there myself. I hope the visit has been fulfilling and satisfying for her. Then the panel started.
“I’m Stephenie Fucking Meyer,” Kiernan said by way of introduction at “Riffing on Lovecraft,” where she, Datlow, and fellow authors Marc Laidlaw, Ed Morris, Robert M. Price and Michael Shea talked about being influenced by Lovecraft. Then she got more serious and on-topic, talking about the draw of Lovecraft and his sense of cosmic time, and the way many of the elements that scared Lovecraft enough to write about them -- the weight of time against which the whole of human history is basically a sliver of a microsecond, the power of the sea, even sexuality -- are elements she’s drawn to, attracted to. She and others spoke of Lovecraft’s writing style -- such as his opulent word choices (she and Datlow argued over how to pronounce “squamous,“ which Datlow said “SQUAW-mous” and Kiernan said “SQUAY-mous; I‘m a scientist“) -- and his power of description. The thing is, Lovecraft seemed to want to resist describing what his characters see but then really would describe these wrong-seeming creatures in quite a bit of detail. They talked about adapting his ideas to different topics: Price talked about tying Lovecraft to politics. Sexuality came up, too: Kiernan and others make sex and sexuality explicit in many of their Lovecraft-influenced works, like Kiernan‘s wonderful and harrowing 2009 novel The Red Tree. Also discussed: Lovecraft’s bigotry, which is evident and maddening, and only partly explained (and not excused) by the bigotry of his era. At the panel’s very end, an audience member pointed out, pointedly, that the bigotries of our era were likely to be clearer and inexcusable in the future, citing anti-Muslim prejudice. Unfortunately, he mentioned it with only seconds to discuss it, meaning it really wasn‘t discussed.
After a brief break was “The Cosmic Horror Movement,” again with Kiernan and Shea, plus Jason Brock, Cody Goodfellow, Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire and Don Webb. They discussed trying to find a more human face on the sort of horror Lovecraft described: a lot of Lovecraft’s human characters aren’t that interesting (and their dialogue is FAMOUSLY stilted and awful), and making the human protagonists of their Lovecraft-influenced works is one potential way to, I’d say, improve on what Lovecraft did. Pugmire, for instance, talked about bringing his point of view as a practicing Mormon (including missionary work in his youth) and being queer (his word choice) to his Lovecraft pastiches. The draw of Lovecraft’s work was so evident in this panel and the others I saw: they have fun with it, they’re challenged by it, they “think bigger” because of it. Made me more excited about their work, seeing them get excited and inspired.
Over all this, I avoided being “hover-y”; I knew they’d be visited by many people, and didn‘t want to be pushy and monopolizing. (I heard that other fans had done Kiernan and Pollnac a favor and brought bacon-maple Voodoo Doughnuts to Friday night’s opening festivities.) Soon after 9, right before I left -- tired, wobbly and happy -- I got the aforementioned picture with them. I left giggling.