Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.
Imagine yourself at a dinner party that never ends.
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a film that stays with you. It revolves around a pair of young women who stumble into the clutches of a weird geriatric cult devoted to gaining a glimpse of what comes after death. The method favoured by the cult is to torture and mutilate people until their agony becomes so intense that they experience a spiritual awakening that allows them to see beyond the wall of death. The only problem is that while the theory may be sound, the methods and subjects remain unrefined and so the cult spends most of its time torturing people only for them to die before they reach enlightenment. Anyway… the film ends with one of the protagonists being taken to that point of divine ecstasy and managing the whisper some truth into the ear of her torturer before succumbing to her wounds. The torturer then casually picks up a gun and blows her own brains out but it’s never made clear what the protagonist saw or why the protagonist kills herself. While “The Green Meadow” is not as good a story as Martyrs is a film, I would argue that they share an energy that is both quietly downbeat and ambiguously morbid.
Written somewhere on the cusp between 1918 and 1919, “The Green Meadow” was a collaboration between Lovecraft and the poet Winnifred V. Jackson. Much like “Dagon” and “Polaris”, “The Green Meadow” is based on a dream but in this case the dream is Jackson’s rather than Lovecraft’s.
While I am still dreading the arrival of the Dreamlands stories proper, I must admit to a certain degree of methodological fascination with these early stories. I have tended to think of the Dreamlands stories as works designed to ape the imagery of dreams but the number of early pieces inspired by actual dreams suggests that I might have put the cart before the horse as Lovecraft was clearly experimenting with the use of dreams as writing prompts.
Nowadays, writing prompts tend to be things we associate either with fan fiction or with the kind of self-help literature that is aimed at people who aspire to some kind of professional creativity. Setting aside both of those arenas, it is worth bearing in mind that all artists have workflows and I suspect that this run of dream stories is a result of Lovecraft trying to use his own dreams as writing prompts. As such, I think that “The Green Meadow” casts an interesting light on Lovecraft-the-creative as he clearly felt confident enough in his workflow to modify his process and move on from writing about his own dreams to writing about the dreams of others.
A lot of the commentary of “The Green Meadow” stresses the fact that Lovecraft would also collaborate with Jackson to produce the better-known story “The Crawling Chaos” but the thing that most struck me about this story is the fact that its imagery is clearly derived from “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. I know that it was much harder to find books and stay abreast of important works back in the early 20th Century but it can’t be an accident that ten years after the publication of “The Willows” someone claims to have a dream involving sinister trees and riverbanks falling into bodies of water.
“The Green Meadow” is not a long story and about a third of its length is given over to a wonderfully OTT framing device according to which the story is a fragment of a much longer manuscript that was discovered in a meteorite, handed to a bunch of academics for translation, and then accidentally destroyed. The commentary around the story seems to be quite vague as to where this meteorite is supposed to have come from but I think the vibe and imagery serve to situate it much closer to the afterlife than another planet or the world of dreams…
The story itself comprises a first-person diary entry written by an ancient Greek who seemingly wakes up on an island adrift off the coast of a larger continent whose coastline is populated with sinister malign trees. Also visible to our traveller is a vast meadow that seems to be populated by people who sing.
The dream-logic of the story is less evident from the things that appear in the dream and more in how those objects relate to each other. We know there are sinister trees and we know there is a meadow but how these objects relate to each other is unclear as the traveller notes that sky, sea, and land seem to melt into and then detached themselves from each other almost at random. As with Blackwood’s willows, the traveller’s position vis-à-vis the trees is not so much a question of distance and orientation but of psychological intent. The trees are over there somewhere at a distance of “malign hatred and demoniac triumph” metres.
The phrase that makes me believe “The Green Meadow” is about the afterlife comes right at the end:
I knew now the change through which I had passed, and through which certain others who once were men had passed! and I knew the endless cycle of the future which none like me may escape. . . . I shall live forever, be conscious forever, though my soul cries out to the gods for the boon of death and oblivion. . . . All is before me: beyond the deafening torrent lies the land of Stethelos, where young men are infinitely old.
The reason that some Lovecraft scholars hedge their bets when interpreting this story is that Lovecraft would return to the idea of Stethelos is a later story situated in the same dream-like fantasy land as Lomar from “Polaris”. However, if we refrain from clomping our nerd-hoofs and resist the urge to force a load of stories together to make a coherent setting, I would argue that “The Green Meadow” feels a lot more like an afterlife story than a story about dreams.
That vision of people never dying but forced to sing for all eternity reminds me of Western ideas of the afterlife in which the righteous are rewarded with an eternity spent at the worst party imaginable. Think of all those Viking warriors trapped forever at Odin’s feasting hall or all of those Medieval Christians who followed the rules and achieved eternal life only to be compelled to spend eternity sat at God’s feet singing songs about him being awesome, handsome, and super well-hung. Sure you get eternal life, and an eternity in song might be better than an eternity being tortured but I would rather wink out of existence than spend a billion years at an all-Viking dinner party.
I mean… I’m sure it would be fun for the first few months, you’d spend the first few weeks sharing drinks with your lost friends and relatives, then you’d make new friends, then you’d catch up with the new people who died after you but after a while you’d get sick of hearing that story about how Sven Blood-Gargle once hit a monk so hard that his intestines spurted out of his arse. You’d get sick of the ale. You’d get sick of the songs. You’d get sick of seeing the same thing every day and then you’d have to keep experiencing those same sights, tastes, and stories for a billion years and then another billion after that. In Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, a group of rich people arrive for dinner at a friend’s house only to find themselves too polite to leave. Within a few hours, the situation is strained. Within a day, people are arguing. Within a week, people are shitting in antique vases and threatening to kill anyone who might nudge them through an open door. Forced to contend with a billion years of tedium, people would lose first their minds and then their humanity. Given a long enough timeline, all afterlives dehumanise. They take people with their own hopes, dreams, loves, and weaknesses and reduce them to the role of set dressing in a theatrical performance designed to service the needs of something inhuman.
You can imagine a religious text containing the vision of the afterlife contained within “The Green Meadow”. The text would speak of immortal fellowship and of men spending eternity in joyous song. However, an eternity spent in joyous song would look exactly like the meadow described in this story: A green featureless space filled with humans who have been reduced to nothing more than mindless automatons, inhuman statues chanting meaningless words for the glory of some unseen and seemingly uncaring deity.
Now imagine yourself as a geriatric billionaire. A person so obsessed with their imminent death that you have devoted large chunks of your fortune to capturing and torturing people on the off chance that their final agonies might offer you some vision of what happens to us after death. Imagine receiving a late-night call from your chief torturer, being driven to your secret torture chamber and being ushered into the presence of a young woman who has had all of the skin flayed off of her body. Her face slick with tears and distorted into a beatific grin, you lean into her cracked lips and she whispers to you that death is an eternity spent stood in a field singing. Your heart soars and then the truth hits you… what would it be like to sing for ever? What would that feel like? What would that look like? That thought would almost certainly have you reaching for your gun your motivations for pulling the trigger would be anything but clear.