I am in a H.P. Lovecraft book club.
We meet every Sunday we can, when I should be in church.
I am really enjoying it, because it is giving me a reason to discuss and contemplate some excellent literature, especially in terms of short stories. I can say from experience that writing a good short story is extremely difficult. It’s the hardest form I’ve tried, and Lovecraft is a master of it.
He is also working in a genre I had never read before: horror. Usually, an author is trying to craft characters, build a plot, things like that. Lovecraft does this, but on top of all that, he wants fear. He wants to scare you. And Jesus, does he succeed. He doesn’t use a single trick, like an O. Henry; he can do this in a thousand different ways. He can scare you in the first person, in the third, with absolutely no dialog, or all dialog, with cosmic insanity or magic or a single sentence. He paints fear.
One of the colors he uses to do so sticks out to me: silence.
He uses it in a couple stories I’ve read. One story in particular, ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,’ Lovecraft describes creatures called ‘night gaunts’ with no eyes that flap their wings in complete silence. I thought that was so odd, at the time, that the flapping of wings would make no sound. It was like a splinter in my head.
Now I’m a librarian. I like quiet, I like being alone, possibly to the detriment of my health and social skills. But silence as an instrument of fear is fascinating because it’s so absolutely alien to me. It’s probably alien to you as well.
Think about the last time you were in silence. I mean real silence, not just being alone. For myself, I probably turn a speaker on within 50 seconds of entering my house. I use my laptop primarily, but I have a radio, a TV. Even at work I have my headphones. I swim in noise all the time. I avoid silence like crazy.
I know there are people that can sit in silence and be perfectly contented: aesthetics, monks, those types of people. Humans can do that, but it’s hard, especially now that our ability to produce noise is so enhanced compared to most of human history. All of the things I use to do this are relatively recent inventions. The speaker itself was only invented in the mid 19th Century, let alone the computer, the internet, tablets, and the electric keyboard I use to navigate all of these things.
Even if we don’t have an anechoic chamber, normal, run-of-the-mill silence can make people afraid. People have spilled tons of ink talking about awkward silence, let alone the silence we experience when we’re alone.
What’s to fear? After all, it’s just a lack of noise. What’s scary about that? And further, silence is necessary for our development; we need it to be mindful. Any time we bring our mental powers to bear on a problem or developing a skill, we need silence to excel. It is what we need to bring our ideas into sharp relief. And therein lies the rub: those ideas are, likely, uncomfortable.
Henry Rollins said that he must constantly act, whether it’s travel or music or writing, to keep his mind off of his mistakes and regrets. He then proceeds to tell a story about how he vomited on the Trans-Siberian and ate a vomited carrot out of a toilet. I don’t know if you could call this stand-up, but he’s onto something here. If you ever want to truly kill an emotion that you have, you don’t need anything but noise.
That is where our fear of silence comes from. No one is free from doubts or dreads. They are always there behind your shoulders, and in silence, you can see them all too clearly.
Some people, when they experience silence, see angels.
Most, I think, see night gaunts.