Building Twisted Worlds

An unseen, unknowable monster, peering into our dimension through a screen, lurking in the static.

"An unseen, unknowable monster, peering into our dimension through a screen, lurking in the static." Mark Riechers/Midjourney(CC0)

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October 28, 2023

We've always told ghost stories, huddling around campfires, scaring ourselves silly. Today there’s a new venue for spooky stories – YouTube, where creators are turning cobwebby VHS video tapes and other relics of the early internet into a new genre – analog horror. In this hour, we celebrate weird fiction in all its forms, going back to the original eldritch being himself, H.P. Lovecraft.

The Labyrinth

In “Somnium DreamViewer,” a mysterious company has developed the technology to capture still images from our dreams — with unsettling effects on our waking hours. Creator Holly Fernwright explains the inspiration behind the series.

Ghostly image

Kelly Link writes what she calls "slipstream fiction" — magical realist with a strong dose of weird.

an unspeakable terror humming in the distance

Dean Lockwood talks about the important role that sound plays in creating the cosmic horror of Lovecraft's work.

what lives in a black hole

H.P. Lovecraft's influence on pop culture has exploded in recent years. But why? Erik Davis is a cultural critic and the author of the essay, "Calling Cthulhu: H.P. Lovecraft's Magickal Realism." He fell under Lovecraft's spell as a teenager.


Show Details 📻
October 28, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. I never went to camp, but even I heard the scary campfire stories. Around this time of year, they were always just in the air, like the hook. There's a couple, alone in a car at night. Teenagers on a date somewhere secluded. Dark forest road, empty beach. They've parked and they're making out when they hear an announcement on the radio that there's an escaped serial killer on the loose. The announcer says, "You'll know him if you see him "because he has a hook instead of a right hand." And just then they hear this soft little scrapey sound. And so of course they freak out and drive home and they think, phew, we're safe. But when they open the car door, there's a hook hanging on the door handle. This used to scare the hell out of me. There are other versions. There are versions where the car runs out of gas or breaks down. One of them gets out to pee or go for help, but when they get back, the other one's dead or else they both die. However you hear it, it always ends with a bloody hook. People have been hearing scary stories like these and then remixing them and then retelling them for basically as long as we've been sitting around campfires. That's the folk part of folklore. And for the digital generation, it's just the same. Only they're gathered around the flickering light of YouTube. Sharing stories about Slender Man in the back rooms And adding new variations in common threads and message boards. Every generation invents its own horror tropes, and this year, there's a new genre keeping folks up at night.

- [Holly] So the basic premise is it's focusing around the company, Somnium Microtechnologies, and it's set in this alternate reality 1980s.

- [Anne] This is Holly Fernwright, the creator behind the YouTube series, Somnium DreamViewer.

- [Holly] The product is a device that you put on your head before you fall asleep, and then as you dream, it records images and it prints out essentially a handful of like Polaroid images from your dreams.

- [Anne] Holly's part of a new wave of YouTube video creators finding inspiration in yesterday's technology. Decay videotapes and low res graphics are the raw materials for building fictionalized worlds set in the recent past, creepy alternative worlds where sinister creatures roam the late night airwaves and mysterious corporations are trying to capture your dreams.

- [Speaker 1] Everything else, cars, roads, trees were still there.

- [Narrator] Ease Dose, relief from your worst nightmares.

- [Holly] It's part of a genre that started rising to prominence, I guess in the last couple of years called analog horror. And it's these horror series that are based around that analog era of video from like the '80s, '90s, early 2000s. It's essentially like drawing into these, this sort of generation's memories of not really VHS, but that sort of switch between VHS and digital of these very hazy sort of memories. But I think it's just something about the medium itself that draws people in.

- [Anne] Producer Mark Rickers often finds himself up at 2:00 AM wandering through deep, dark rabbit holes online. So he reached out to Holly to find out more.

- [Holly] I was trying to explain this genre to my colleagues, and one explanation we kind of came to is this idea of a haunted house. It's a Victorian home, it's old. It has like a bunch of features that the homes we're used to don't have, and that history, you can kind of draw some mystery and some horror from. And this is almost like applying that to video technologies. It's like haunted videotapes instead of a haunted house.

- [Mark] Yeah, like I'm a '90s kid, and so there's a lot of memory associated with that, and I think that's also the case for a lot of people who really enjoy this genre. But I think the other thing that makes it really popular is it's not particularly difficult to do like a VHS effect in a lot of video editors. And so a lot of people who are kind of just starting out in writing and creating art, creating video, it's something that's very achievable for them, just very low barrier of entry.

- [Narrator] Attention. If you or a loved one was diagnosed with sleep paralysis, night terrors, waking dream hallucinations, permanent nightmare syndrome, or any nightmare related disorder, in conjunction with use of the Somnium DreamViewer or other Somnium Microtechnologies products, you may be entitled to financial compensation. The rise of nightmare related disorders in this country in recent years has only worsened. Use of brain affecting devices produced by Somnium Microtechnologies may have put you at risk of dreams resulting in fear, despair, anxiety, and panic.

- [Holly] I try to include little Easter eggs for people who are as nerdy about VHS as a format as I am. Also, I try to build this sort of technological alternate reality where everything is kind of based on VHS as a data storage medium just because I find it funny. But in the most recent episode, there's one little piece of text that eludes to encrypted VHS, which is a concept that I find incredibly funny.

- [Mark] I enjoyed that. There's a tag on one of the tapes where there's basically like a popup chat.

- [Holly] Yeah.

- [Mark] It looks like a comment section that pops up over a VHS tape, which I thought was just a really hilarious mashup of eras.

- [Holly] Yeah, each of these, a lot of these episodes kind of came from like, oh, I should do something that's like one of those mesothelioma commercials, or I should do something that's like, you know, I'm looking through these like old archives of old commercials and old tapes. I'm like, oh, I should do something that's kind of like riffing on this. But I try to stick very close to the 4:3 aspect ratio, very much trying to make it look like it could have been revved off of an actual VHS tape.

- [Mark] Why is that important to what you want to make?

- [Holly] Because I think that having that level of believability to it, so I wanna make sure that if there are things that are wrong, it's because I'm telling a story where the world is wrong.

- [Speaker 2] When it arrived in the mail, I immediately opened it. I watched the instructional tapes and I began using it that very same day. Of course, it worked exactly as advertised, but I began to notice something strange happening over time. As soon as I started using the DreamViewer, all my dreams had a strange undercurrent. It wasn't something I could put my finger on at first, but the inhabitants of the dream worlds that I visited all seemed to get more and more reclusive, paranoid and despondent as time went on. However, that changed the day I had one particular dream. The first thing I remember was that I was in a massive cave of blue ice. Winds howled around me and I could feel the cold gusts against my face. I wasn't alone though, this older man and I were journeying further into this cave and soon we came across an old house frozen in the ice. We worked to free the door from the ice and opened it. Once inside we broke apart some wooden furniture and made a fire. I asked the man, why are we here? And the first words that I had had spoken to him, he said, "I cannot escape from here, "but you can if you can break your fate." Then he raised one gnarled finger up and pointed at the warped glass of the window. I stood and peered through the glass. Outside I saw a shadowy door standing on the other side of the cave. At first, I couldn't make out a single feature, just a black rectangular shape, but as I stared, I could pick out more and more details in its presence. It shook me to my core. Its frame consumed my entire vision. It was something that somehow I knew was there before, but I had never truly seen. Its perspective was off, its corners bent the wrong way. Something about it was just wrong. And I woke up, I could remember the details of my dream as well as any, but when I tried to remember even a single detail of that door, it slipped from my mind like trying to grasp flowing water in my hands. I could feel that there was once detail in that form, but now it was completely missing from my mind. After that, my dreams always ended the same way. I would go through this world for some time, not always the ice caves, of course, it could be in a forest or a city, it didn't matter. But then at some point I would look at a faraway wall, or into a corner of a room and I would see that door. But once I saw it, I would just stop and stare and it would slowly fill my vision in my mind until I woke up. It didn't matter if I used the DreamViewer or not. I would only have these dreams and I would always see the door.

- [Holly] Around the time that I started the series, I got hired as a technical writer. There was some thought that kind of bubbled up that was like, man, I'm gonna have to write all this dry, very boring, very technical documentation, and I do a lot of creative writing, and I just didn't want it to like impact that side of me. You know, there was some part of me that was like, hmm, like maybe if I invest like so much of my time into this, I was trying to find some way, I think, to like merge those worlds.

- [Mark] Yeah, what's it like as a creator? You have all these fragments and pieces and they're, seems like some videos are kind of more tonal and kind of setting up the world a little bit. Other times you're establishing characters, so how does that affect the process of writing something like this?

- [Holly] Almost all the dreams that I describe in my series are based on my own dreams, and I think that's also why I have been kind of like hesitant to collaborate with other people on. It's just like a deeply personal story to me. And I guess part of the reason why I wanted to explore dreams as a concept, I know it's not exactly the most original horror concept, or even the concept of viewing dreams. The reason I wanted to do that is the concept of trying to hold onto a dream is kind of inherently ridiculous. It's like trying to catch smoke, right? It's this amorphous thing that's gonna slip away within, you know, 20 minutes of you waking up and it's gonna change slightly as you remember it. And so when VHS starts become popular around the '80s and '90s, it was trying to do something similar with home media. You're finally able to record sound and video and hold tightly onto these memories and share them. And then as the years go by, the tapes degrade and these errors creep in and colors start to bleed and warp. Now we're in this era where if you put your mind to it, you can keep something frozen perfectly in lossless high definition. I think that the magic of that decay is kind of lost.

- [Mark] Yeah, this isn't spoiling anything for folks who haven't watched it, but I was watching the first episode and there's a slide that says, why am I having nightmares that appears on the screen? I just noticed like a super quick flash. So I paused the video and backed it up just a couple of frames and saw the text. "We are trapped in your mind waiting for you to return."

- [Holly] Yeah.

- [Mark] And that must be hidden in a single frame of video.

- [Holly] There's some stuff that's hidden in single frames.

- [Mark] Yeah.

- [Holly] The funny thing about that one is when I created that first episode, I really had absolutely no idea I was gonna go with it. So that particular clue, it's very vague because I was like, I know I want something creepy to be going on here, but I wasn't like totally, I didn't have everything totally nailed down to I think a couple of months after I started it. So, but yeah, like hiding those little single frame things are I think I also included a cipher in a video that I made just as an update to say like, hey, I'm not dead. I'm gonna put out some videos soon. I'm just busy, but I just, I made this real quick thing with like a cipher in there that was just some names of some characters that would appear in future episodes encoded, and people were like, oh, what does this mean? Decoding it.

- [Mark] Yeah, I was gonna say, I think I saw there were two people in the comment section immediately piecing that together, which was very entertaining.

- [Holly] There's some people in the comments, I see, I have it set so all the comments, give me a notification on my phone. It's nice because it just kind of reminds me, I gotta keep working on this. But also--

- [Mark] I was gonna say, as someone who also creates stuff on the internet, that sounds like a nightmarish way to live.

- [Holly] It kind of became a nightmare after I, it was manageable for a while and then I got a really big spike in views after another popular creator did like an analysis video on mine, and then I was getting dozens of comments. It's gotten a very good reaction. So it's been nice just to kind of see people appreciating and interacting with my stuff every day. That's better than doom scrolling, I guess.

- [Speaker 2] My husband tries to get me to open the front door sometimes. He'll be home from work, bringing back groceries or trying to see the kids again. He'll scream, cry, plead, even fly into a rage when I don't answer him for hours. I don't look through the peephole anymore. I know it's not him. I buried him last year.

- [Narrator] Do these stories sound familiar? If you or a loved one suffers from waking dream hallucinations, there is help. Special medical facilities for those suffering from waking dream hallucinations are available at no cost in many major American cities. These facilities can help prevent the spread of the disease and the suffering that it brings. Remember, the entities that you see are not real. Call now for a free consultation.

- [Mark] You recently started releasing videos again, and it seems like there's a lot more story coming.

- [Holly] Yeah.

- [Mark] So where are you headed?

- [Holly] Well, I have this grand episode idea that I've been sitting on for a while that is gonna require, to put it lightly, I need to fill a room with blood and I don't know how I'm gonna do that.

- [Mark] That seems like a challenge.

- [Holly] So I'm trying to figure out if I can do it in miniatures, or 3D, or some kind of something like that.

- [Mark] Just to kind of close things out, what scares you?

- [Holly] Yeah, I mean like, if you want like the real answer, I would have to say just losing memories, I think.

- [Mark] What makes that so terrifying for you?

- [Holly] I don't know, I think a lot of people, young able-bodied people haven't really been in situations I think where they're completely out of control. And I think me personally, I like to think that I'm in control of my space and my body and my mind most of the time, you know? Knowing that there's things that slip away from you and not being able to do anything about it, I think is one of the real true horrors of the world.

- [Mark] I think a lot of people could relate to that fear.

- [Child] Mommy, mommy, I had a bad dream last night.

- [Mommy] Aw, baby. Daddy's still asleep.

- [Anne] Holly Fernwright talking with producer Mark Rickers about Holly's analog horror series, Somnium DreamViewer on YouTube. You can find a link to the series and the rest of Holly's work at You'll also find a playlist of some of our favorite analog horror video series there. Perfect spooky season viewing for the next time you are up late at night. Coming up, weird fiction writer Kelly Link. She can make you shiver and laugh at the same time. We'll talk with her next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Writer Kelly Link has been called a literary sorceress. Nobody twists reality quite like she does. What starts as a story about getting stuck at an airport hotel after a conference, or house sitting for a friend suddenly turns into a speculative mashup. She writes about unhelpful wizards, undead babysitters, a people-eating monster with a sense of humor, an old lady with a handbag that's a portal to other dimensions. She and I talked when she had just come out with Pretty Monsters, a collection of stories written for young and not so young adults.

- I asked if there's a difference.

- [Kelly] I suppose there's a difference. A lot of the stories I originally wrote for young adult anthologies, anthologies of ghost stories or anthologies of modern fairytales that were specifically for children. There's actually some overlap between the first two collections and Pretty Monsters. There are three stories, all of which originally I had in my head as I was writing them, that they were stories that I would've enjoyed when I was say 14 or 15.

- [Anne] Of course, a lot of the characters in the stories are teenagers themselves.

- [Kelly] Yes.

- [Anne] Is that an age you especially like writing about?

- [Kelly] You know, I've heard people say that every writer has an age, a specific time period that they're drawn to write about. And this may be a historical moment in time that you find yourself coming back to over and over again. I'm drawn to stories in which a character is experiencing something for the first time, in which they're entering into a new world. It might be a fantastic landscape or it might be a new kind of situation that they haven't encountered before. And there's a mesh between that kind of storytelling and the kinds of stories that young adults like, obviously.

- [Anne] Well a great many of your characters encounter situations that are definitely out of the normal. We should start by talking maybe about the first story in this collection called The Wrong Grave. Will you tell us about that one?

- [Kelly] Sure, this is a story that I wanted to write for a long time. There's a story, a true story, about the poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who buried his poetry with his long-term partner. In fact, I think they were married, and these were the only copies of the poems that he had. And at a certain point he dug her back up in order to retrieve the poetry, which is a story that's always really stuck with me. And I also wanted to write a story that was a fairytale in a way about a guy who does something and encounters a supernatural being and has to get out of that sticky situation that he's gotten himself into. And so in my story, it's a teenage boy who wants to be a poet who has done the same thing that Dante Gabriel Rossetti has done. He's buried his poetry with his dead girlfriend. And so he goes and he digs it up and gets into trouble.

- [Anne] It's got a great beginning. Could you read just the first paragraph of it?

- [Kelly] Sure. All of this happened because a boy I once knew named Miles Ferry decided to go into the resurrectionist business and dig up the grave of his girlfriend, Bethany Baldwin, who had been dead for not quite a year. Miles planned to do this in order to recover the sheath of poems he had, and what he'd felt was a beautiful and romantic gesture put into her casket, or possibly it had just been a really dumb thing to do. He hadn't made copies. Miles had always been impulsive. I think you should know that right up front. He took the poems, handwritten, tear-stained, and with crossouts under Bethany's hands. Her fingers had felt like candles, fat and waxy and pleasantly cool until you remembered that they were fingers. And he couldn't help noticing that there was something wrong about her breasts. They seemed larger. If Bethany had known that she was going to die, would she have gone all the way with him? One of his poems was about that, about how now they never would, how it was too late now. Carpe diem before you run out of diem.

- [Anne] You know, this is both an outlandish premise and yet somehow it seems perfectly in keeping with a teenager. You know, it's that self-absorption.

- [Kelly] Well, these are fun characters to inhabit when you write a story because their responses are sometimes very large. Teenagers are given the dramatic gestures and yet you sort of sympathize with them because even as an adult, you remember being a teenager and you remember having these outsized emotions.

- [Anne] Yeah, and poor Miles thinks he's gonna be a great poet and he needs to rescue his poems for posterity. The things go rather spectacularly bad for him once he digs up his girlfriend's grave, 'cause well, for one thing, it turns out he is dug up what seems to be the wrong girl. I wondered if you could read a bit of the section where he discovers his mistake?

- [Kelly] Sure. I'm reading the section in which the adolescent poet Miles has successfully, with the aid of a special shovel, dug up the coffin of the girl that he thinks is his girlfriend. And in fact, it turns out that he's not only dug up the wrong grave, but when he gets the lid open, it turns out that the wrong dead girl in there is a little bit more lively than you might expect. The wrong dead girl spoke first. "Knock, knock", she said. "What?" Miles said. "Knock, knock", the wrong dead girl said again. "Who's there?" Miles said. "Gloria", the wrong dead girl said. "Gloria Pulnik. "Who are you and what are you doing in my grave?" "This isn't your grave", Miles said, aware that he was arguing with a dead girl, and the wrong dead girl at that. "This is Bethany's grave. "What are you doing in Bethany's grave?" "Oh no", Gloria Pulnik said. "This is my grave, "and I get to ask the questions." A notion crept, like little dead cat feet over Miles. Possibly he had made a dangerous and deeply embarrassing mistake. "Poetry", he managed to say. "There was some poetry "that I accidentally left in my girlfriend's casket "and there's a deadline for a poetry contest coming up. "And so I really, really needed to get it back." The dead girl stared at him. There was something about her hair that Miles didn't like. "Excuse me, but are you for real?" she said. "This sounds like one of those lame excuses. "The dog ate my homework. "I accidentally buried my poetry with my dead girlfriend." "Look", Miles said, "I checked the tombstone and everything. "This is supposed to be Bethany's grave, Bethany Baldwin. "I'm really sorry I bothered you and everything, "but this really isn't my fault." The dead girl just stared at him thoughtfully. He wished that she would blink. She wasn't smiling anymore. Her hair lank and black where Bethany's had been brownish and frizzy in summer, was writhing a little, like snakes. Miles thought of centipedes, inky, midnight tentacles. "Maybe I should just go away", Miles said. "Leave you to rest in peace or whatever." "I don't think sorry cuts the mustard here", Gloria Pulnik said. She barely moved her mouth when she spoke, Miles noticed, and yet her annunciation was fine. "Besides, I'm sick of this place, it's boring. "Maybe I'll just come along with."

- [Anne] I can't tell who I like better, Miles or the dead girl.

- [Kelly] I'm very fond of both of them. Miles does some very impulsive sort of thoughtless things, but I'm certainly sympathetic to anybody who values poetry so highly, even if it's his own poetry.

- [Anne] Poor Miles. The dead girl turns out to be remarkably difficult to get rid of too.

- [Kelly] Well this is what happens when you get into a sticky situation with somebody. It's hard to disentangle yourself, especially if they have a lot of hair.

- [Anne] So another archetype of our fiction besides the graveyard setting we were talking about is the scary campfire story. And that's a convention you play with in a story you wrote called Monster. Could you describe that one?

- [Kelly] Monster is about a kid who is at a boy's summer camp and is not having a particularly good time, and they've gone hiking and they're going to spend the night on a hill, Lookout Hill. And there have been reports from other campers of a monster on this hill. And in fact they do encounter the monster, which only sort of adds to the fact that the whole camping experience has not been a good one.

- [Anne] Well, in this particular story, it's a horror story. So of course the monster that the kids in the other cabin have been scaring your kids with turns out to be real. Only since it's a Kelly Link story, it's not actually your everyday sort of monster. Could you read a bit about what happens when the monster shows up?

- [Kelly] Sure. The monster had one Simpson twin under each arm. The twins were screaming. The monster threw them down the path. Then it bent over Brian Jones, who was lying half inside one of the tents, half in the snow. There were slurping noises. After a minute it stood up again. It looked back and saw James Lorbeck. It waved. James Lorbeck shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the monster was standing over him. It had red eyes. It smelled like rotting fish and kerosene. It wasn't actually all that tall the way you'd expect a monster to be tall, except for that it was even worse than Bungalow 4 had said. The monster stood and looked down and grinned. "You", it said. It had a voice like a dead tree full of bees, sweet and dripping and buzzing. It poked James on the shoulder with a long black nail. "What are you?" "I'm James Lorbeck", James said. "From Chicago". The monster left. Its teeth were pointed and terrible. There was a smear of red on the dress where it'd touch James. "You're the craziest thing I've ever seen. "Look at that dress. "Look at your hair, it's standing straight up. "Is that mud? "Why are you covered in mud?" "I was going to be a monster," James said. He swallowed. "No offense". "None taken", the monster said. "Wow, maybe I should go visit Chicago. "I've never seen anything as funny as you. "I could look at you for hours and hours "whenever I needed a laugh. "You really made my day, James Lorbeck." The snow was still falling. James shivered and shivered. His teeth were clicking together so loudly he thought they might break. "What are you doing here?" he said. "Where's Terrance? "Did you do something to him?" "Was he the guy who was down at the bottom of the hill "talking on a cell phone?" "Yeah", James said. "Is he okay?" "He was talking to some girl named Darlene", the monster said. "I tried to talk to her, "but she started screaming and it hurt my ears, "so I hung up. "Do you happen to know where she lives?" "Somewhere in Ohio", James said. "Thanks", the monster said. He took out a little black notebook and wrote something down. "What are you?" James said, "Who are you?" "I'm Angelina Jolie", the monster said. It blinked. James' heart almost stopped beating. "Really?" he said. "No", the monster said, "Just kidding."

- [Anne] I'm curious, the scary story, whether it's a ghost story or a classic horror story, it's been around for such a long time. What do you think is the perennial appeal? Why is it that we like to scare each other in stories?

- [Kelly] I think being afraid in some ways is the same thing as falling in love. It's of a shorter duration, but there's the same charge as going out with somebody and realizing that you really, really like them. Reading a story and getting that frisson of terrors is somehow very pleasurable. And it tends to be very individual that things that might scare another reader are not necessarily gonna scare me when I'm reading. In fact, you know, I'm not a big fan of movies like Saw, I would much rather watch a movie in which you never see the bad thing that happens. In fact, you're sort of straining to see it at the same time that you're hoping that you don't see it. I think that there's something that's hardwired in us that we get a certain kind of pleasure out of being a little bit afraid. And I don't think it's so much that when things are bad, that it's a relief to read a a ghost story and have that same thing internalized, 'cause frankly, I like ghost stories when things are really good, when the economy is good, when there's somebody in the White House that I like, I still wanna read a ghost story in the same way that I do when the economy is in the toilet. I have been told though by editors who have worked in publishing and by writers who write horror novels, that in terms of popularity, that you can sort of trace publishing and see that when there's a Republican in the White House, that horror novels do really well. And when there's a Democrat in the White House, that mystery novels end up being the genre that sells the best.

- [Anne] And do you think there's a reason?

- [Kelly] I don't know, I just, I'm hoping to be able to chart this. I feel like horror has been on the rise for the last couple of years in publishing. You know, frankly, I wouldn't mind a couple of years in which people are really looking for mystery novels.

- [Anne] Writer Kelly Link, her new collection of reinvented fairytales is called White Cat Black Dog. And we were listening to a conversation she and I had in 2008 about her earlier classic collection, Pretty Monsters. Next, maybe you prefer your monsters over the top, covered in fangs and horns and oozing slime. In that case, no one did mythic terror better than H.P. Lovecraft. And we'll explain why after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. One of the elder gods of horror was the writer H.P. Lovecraft, author of an entire literary universe of mythic monsters. He died in 1937, but his work is as popular today as ever. And if you haven't read Lovecraft, it can be hard to explain exactly how he made horror so visceral. Media critic Dean Lockwood says he did a lot of it with sound.

- [Dean] In Lovecraft's stories, there's a lot of attention given to the possibility that our exposure to certain weird things in the world will drive us insane. There's that element of insanity. But I think that Lovecraft is perhaps more interested in our bodily responses to horror, affect. So he talks about the way in which sounds, for example, have a kind of physical impact. And he describes sounds that are not really sounds, that are something else that describes them as sense impacts. So I think rather than sound, Lovecraft is really interested in vibration, in some kind of alien vibration flooding our bodies. He says that we should understand the weird as an attitude of odd listening, as if we were listening for the beating of black wings, or some kind of scratching at the edge of the known universe. When we see something, it's as if we master it. We have some kind of protection. We're distant from it. Vision seems to presuppose a certain distance from the phenomenon that we're witnessing. But with sound and this vibratory aspect of sound, it moves through us. It's proximates, it's within us. So you can't stand back from a sonic horror. It floods you. It sweeps through your body. For Lovecraft, the horror is really the cosmos that we find within ourselves. It's the black gulf, the interstellar gulf within humanity. There's something non-human, something alien that's at the heart of our existence. And all of his best stories I think are encounters with this otherness, this weirdness within. Part of the experience of reading Lovecraft is to try and get your head around this language, this strange form of expression. And it's not just the individual words or the alien languages that he's invented, it's actually a matter of his style as well. One of the things about Lovecraft is that he has a certain notoriety for being an appalling writer, which I think is probably quite mistaken. I think there's something quite deliberate in the way that is convoluted contorted style, is again, a way of introducing a certain kind of alienation into the reading experience. The alien presences, the monsters within Lovecraft, the various entities. One of the things that they tend to have in common is that they inveigle themselves into human communities, they imitate human behavior, human language and human speech. So in a story such as the Whisper and Darkness, it's precisely about discovering that those around you are imposters and that there is something very wrong with them. This idea of mongrel vibrations, there's something mongrel or mixed about humans that they have this element of alienness within them, which in Lovecraft often manifests in very disturbing ways. It's well known that he was extremely racist. It could be interpreted, this kind of fear of the alien, and this preoccupation with the alien is an inflection of that racist. But it becomes something else, I think, it becomes something more kind of existential you might say. He's interested in this idea of the strange cosmos in which we find ourselves. That's why I talk about weird ecology. Our lives are entangled with really unsuspected forms of life, ways of being, ways of sensing, new sensations. And one of the ways he figures these new sensations is through imagining a kind of insectile form of life. So insects are his monsters, his creatures. They speak in ways which betray the kinship with insects. So they speak and the language breaks down into a kind of buzzing or rasping as if there were insect reading.

- [Alien] The black goes off the woods with a thousand young.

- [Dean] I mean that's another interesting aspect of Lovecraft, which is not often remarked upon. He's interested in new technologies in media, and also the ways in which they are alienating in their own right. So these technologies are used in order to record and to make our lives easier and more efficient. But they also have their alien aspects as well. So he imagines that a new technology could be invented, which plugs us into those weird realms around us, which is a frightening prospect. Often Lovecraft has made sense of it in terms of being a kind of response to society and politics around him. The first World war for example, or changes in capitalism. But also I think one of the things that's really remarked upon is that the year that he really starts to write his best known cosmic horror stories, which is 1926 with The Call of Cthulhu, was also the year in which the first national network radio station in America began broadcasting. So the great phase of cosmic horror and Lovecraft's writing coincides with really the inception of commercial radio broadcasting, which he never actually overtly discusses, but it must have had a huge impact upon him. Suddenly these radio sets within the home, the tentacles of commerce creeping into everyday life are kind of living with this new kind of noise, if you like. I suspect that given Lovecraft's interest in science and technology, was something that filters through into his stories.

- [Anne] Dean Lockwood is a media critic and author of an essay about the ecology of noise in H.P. Lovecraft, it's called Mongrel Vibrations. There has always been a cult following for H.P. Lovecraft stories, but over the past decade or so that cult has exploded. His work is hugely popular now. It's influenced dozens of writers and directors. But why?

- [Narrator] Land of light. The army of darkness shall sweep down.

- [Anne] Erik Davis is a cultural critic and the author of his own cult classic, a book called "TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism "in the Age of Information". Like a lot of readers, he discovered Lovecraft as a teenager.

- [Erik] In a way, Lovecraft charted a path between some of the appeal of the old gothic supernatural tale, and then increasingly a very modern form of horror, which still had the sort of cosmic resonances of those older forms, but now stripped of their kind of Victorian clap trap and brought into a more urgent and even sort of journalistic world. So there's a quality of realism to the stories, almost a sense as if you're entering a kind of liminal zone where it's not really clear what's true or what's not true. And this is something that the characters in the stories are undergoing themselves as they read forbidden literature, as they discover strange synchronicities that all point to some unhallowed secret that we as readers can kind of glimpse usually before the protagonists do. But in many ways, it's a process of building a story more like a detective story, let's say, than a classic ghost tale. And there's something about the way the books draw you into their fantasized reality that make them quite intoxicating, certainly for the adolescent me. But I think that's partly what the current craze is or the sort of abiding craze is, is there's a a way in which Lovecraft is inviting us all to play a game in which his world is more real than most fictions can achieve.

- [Anne] So let's talk a bit about H.P. Lovecraft himself. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. What was his childhood like?

- [Erik] He simultaneously was a pampered child who was doted upon and came from money. And yet the family was a deeply disturbing situation for him. His father dying of most likely syphilis, and his mother essentially going mad. And he's raised by his aunts in progressively more degraded circumstances. So he goes from a privileged childhood to abject poverty through most of his life. So these things all certainly played a role in people of a psychoanalytic bent might point toward the physical ravages of syphilis as a possible source for his ghoulish, tentacle monsters and such. But it's certainly the case that he had a peculiar childhood and one in which he sort of responded to by becoming a bookish person himself, but more particularly rooting himself in the past. And that's part of what's interesting about Lovecraft is on the one hand, he was very much a man of his time intellectually. He accepted the model of science. He accepted that we were on a meaningless ball of dirt, hurdling through the outer vortices of the cosmos. And that all of the old fairy stories of Christianity and religion were all bunkum. And he sort of lived in the face of that kind of existential condition. And yet at the same time, he was a deeply conservative man, aesthetically probably more than anything. He loved the history of New England. He loved Georgian architecture. And indeed in his fiction, you see a sort of nostalgia and a real sensitivity to these earlier eras when he thought humans just figured out a better way to be in the midst of a world that was ultimately a meaningless chaos.

- [Anne] You've painted a picture of a man who was very rational, very materialist, educated and are modern scientific language, and yet who wrote and created a whole kind of mythological world which he sourced partly from dreams. And that was very much about the unknown and the existence of another side of reality. Were those two things at war in him?

- [Erik] That's a good question, but I think not. And I think that actually it's the way there weren't at war with each other that partly explains his enduring appeal. And this is what I mean by that. If you really fully inhabit that modern scientific materialist view, you can't really ascribe any purpose or meaning to human life, to the planet's existence, to existence in any sense. I think that it leads towards a kind of cosmic or metaphysical pessimism about ultimate values, ultimate meanings, ultimate purpose. And these monsters or these entities, though they have a kind of mythological or supernatural heir to them and they weave their stories into the ancient stories of the past and savage rights and old magics, they are not really part of that supernatural mythological world. They're really science fiction creatures in the sense that they're in a rationalist scientific world. And so in some ways, their alien character, their amoral character, their impossible to understand character, not so much evil as just outside us, completely without any care for us, that in some ways they embody that very quality of the materialist universe of a sort of meaningless cosmos that just spins through and cares nothing for our little human stories and hopes and fears.

- [Anne] Are you saying that the horror he channeled was the horror of living in our modern world?

- [Erik] To some degree, yes. I think that to live in a world where morals and purpose and meanings are such fragile things in the hard light of a certain way of approaching science, which isn't the way that all scientists think by any means, but is the way that many people, particularly in the 20th century came to think through them, when we think about existentialism, when we think about the sort of aesthetics of the absurd or even Dada and things like that, Lovecraft was seeing something similar and instead chose to sort of tell horror stories that played with the edge of that kind of pessimistic cosmos.

- [Anne] It's been 125 years since Lovecraft was born. Why do you think we're still talking about him?

- [Erik] Well, I think that the game he started to play, the Cthulhu mythos, let's call it, is a very, very infectious game. And like Star Trek, like you know, World of Warcraft, there's something very fun about playing an a sort of imaginative game that scales, that goes through the generations, that has more and more layers of reference to it. So once it gets going, it has a really powerful inertial quality. That said, it's still pretty remarkable how long it's been going. And so part of the answer is just things that people have done with it. So making this wonderful roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu, which then spins off into other kinds of games so that gamers sort of play with it. He's really sort of the godfather of horror. All horror writers are gonna have their take on Lovecraft, or their way of referring to Lovecraft in a way that very few other horror writers have. And finally, I just think there's something particularly appealing about these gods precisely because they are a modern mythology, that they speak to a particular junction when fantasy became science fiction, to talk about literary genres, but also when the kind of supernatural world that fed us with some kind of vision of broader, more mysterious universe, when that sort of gothic imagination became something else or tried to find itself again in the new, perhaps bleaker but still remarkable landscapes of the science-infused imagination of the 20th century. And our cosmology is completely bizarre now from astrophysics to the size of the universe. I mean, it's just absurd and amazing how bizarre the world that we live in is, even compared to 100 years ago in terms of the model of the universe. And there's something about that resonance that really works with Lovecraft stories, even if they're taking place in these very kind of dated environments.

- [Anne] It sounds like if we hadn't discovered black holes, Lovecraft would've invented them.

- [Erik] Indeed. And there's something living inside them too.

- [Anne] Stop.

- [Erik] See, it's infectious.

- [Anne] Thanks Erik.

- [Erik] All right.

- [Anne] Erik Davis is the author of the essay, "Calling Cthulhu: H.P. Lovecraft's Magikal Realism". That's Magikal with a K. We actually did a full show about H.P. Lovecraft back in 2015. Reckoned with his racism, discussed some of his lesser known contemporaries, and interviewed modern authors that he inspired. We've got a link to that show on our website. Can find it at So thanks for taking an hour to get a little scary with us. Hopefully considering what hides in the dark is as cathartic for you as it is for us. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin Public Radio by Angelo Batista, Shannon Henry Kleber, Charles Munroe Kane, and Mark Rickers. Our Technical Director and Sound Designer is Joe Hartke, with help from Sarah Hopeful. Steve Falsner is our Executive Producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. thanks for being with us and don't forget to lock the door and check under the bed tonight. See you next time, I hope.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
October 30, 2023