The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom we could blame this violation were it to happen to us. We had the potential within us all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and its has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave-sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.