Final part of a consideration of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (1994). The ideas in this essay were partly developed in conversation with Elliot Chapman and George Daniel Lea.
In The Mouth of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore’s Providence, metafiction, the ‘fourth wall’, China Miéville’s ‘arche-fossil’, and the Marxian ‘real abstraction’.
In the graphic novel Providence, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, H.P. Lovecraft is bred to be a redeemer or messiah by a secret society or cult whose aim is nothing less than the rupturing of the division between reality and fiction to permit the re-entry into reality of the Old Ones, the Old Gods, the Outer Monstrosities, the presiding cosmic entities of the haute Weird. In an early twentieth century America which seems to partly be the world in which Robert Chambers sets The Repairer of Reputations (first story in The King in Yellow), closeted gay journalist Robert Black makes a tour of lovecraftian events and characters which represent the activities of the cult – events and characters which directly mirror and reiterate events and characters we know from Lovecraft stories. He meets H.P. Lovecraft, who listens to his tales and reads the material he has amassed. Lovecraft then turns this material into his own fiction. Mirroring the rise of Lovecraft as a massively freighted cultural touchstone in the real world, Lovecraft’s fiction then goes on to reach a critical mass of critical appreciation and cultural belief, which triggers the apocalypse desired and engineered by the cult. As a result of a concentration of semiotic hegemony and cultural influence, Lovecraft’s fiction comes into being. Lovecraft’s fiction, and his cultural footprint, thus becomes a conduit for outside entities who take over humanity’s collective consciousness, bringing our nightmares into reality. The Old One entities are depicted as a kind of corporate cloud of sentience which, via its human representatives among the cultists, wants and engineers this turn of events.
I am not in a position to engage in responsible criticism of Providence itself, having only read it once – and that a few years ago – but it seems to owe something to John Carpenter’s 1994 movie In The Mouth of Madness, or at least to be mining a startlingly similar seam, albeit with a more dense, literary, and specifically referential (though not reverential) approach to Lovecraft in particular.
Moore has the advantage of being able to consider the recent extraordinary upsurge of interest in Lovecraft, and the history of Lovecraft’s growing bottom-up success which fed into it, even as he – Moore – contributes to it, enfolding his own consideration into the phenomenon he is thinking about and vice versa.
One of the things about John Carpenter as an artist is that he sometimes seems almost uncannily ‘of his moment’ but also intensely prescient of forthcoming cultural preoccupations. As with Halloween, The Thing, and They Live!, with In The Mouth of Madness, Carpenter was well ahead of the curve.
The curve in question is the already-mentioned upsurge of critical and popular attention being paid to Lovecraft – and, to a lesser extent, early twentieth century Weird fiction in general – since the early 2000s. Once scornfully dismissed by no lesser light of literary criticism than Edmund Wilson himself, Lovecraft is now the subject of sustained serious critical attention, and has been appreciatively utilised by philosophers like Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker. At the same time, he has been adopted and promoted to great prominence by mass culture in the West in a way few would have predicted.
Yet this Lovecraft ‘naissance’ (you can’t call it a renaissance, since Lovecraft’s success has only ever been posthumous) is the result of a long simmering and long growing semi-underground popularity, which makes him one of those artists whose canonical status is, to an extent, a result of democratic pressure, pressure from below. (This is an irony, given the reactionary, elitist, and authoritarian politics he espoused for most of life.) The question of this recent Lovecraft critical-scholarly-philosophical-popular ascension has been pursued in the collection of essays The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, which is well worth your time if you’re interested in this.
But before popular artists like China Miéville and Guillermo del Toro and Alan Moore started playing around with Lovecraft in the twenty-first century, Carpenter was already there with In The Mouth of Madness in 1994. Despite the film often being dismissed as mere ‘homage’, Carpenter and his writer De Luca arguably do more actual thinking about the meaning of Lovecraft’s metaphysical politics (or political metaphysics… it works either way) than these other artists manage. Thus Carpenter anticipates not only the absorption of Lovecraft into mass culture but also the trend of using him as a serious philosophical touchstone.
Indeed, in the post-pandemic and post-truth era, In The Mouth of Madness looks like a film whose time has come. Even more than we already were pre-Covid, we are now living in the ruins of a still active civilisation, in a post-apocalypse distressingly similar to the pre-apocalypse. Like John Trent at the end of the film, we live in a world ravaged by an irrational and communicable agent of chaos, but not the irrational and communicable agent of chaos we were expecting. Trent spends a lot of the film thinking that the problem is that Cane’s fiction is a viral corruption of reality, only to find that the problem is actually that reality was always virally corrupted… or even that reality just is a viral corruption. In much the same way, we all spent a lot of 2020 thinking that the problem – aside from the undoubted horrors of the very real virus itself – was the chaos that the virus would unleash in our economies and polities… until it became abundantly clear that, in fact, the virus was at most catalysing an insanity already there, an insanity of economic chaos, political disorientation, rampant conspiracism and ‘conspirituality‘, and rising fascism, that was all already there, a pre-existing apocalypse that we call ‘normality’. Like Trent, we have discovered that we’re not in danger of an armageddon consisting of the blurring of fiction and reality. but already living in just such an armageddon – and that we have been since capitalism entered its great spiral of apparently eternal decline, and endlessly-deferred terminus, somewhere around the early 1970s.
There is a question at the centre of In The Mouth of Madness which the film implicitly asks, answers explicitly – or at least has one of its characters answer explicitly – but which it also leaves open. The question is this: are Sutter Cane’s ‘Old Gods’ actual pre-existing and underlying entities which he contacts via his fiction and then brings into the ‘real world’, or are they his own creations which then become real? As I say, Cane himself has a very definite opinion on this. He says that the One Ones pre-existed him and that they found him via the rupture in reality created by the mass belief of the public in his fictional world. However, there is a trap door in Cane’s logic that he does not seem to have noticed. If his fiction is instantiated via the belief of his readers, and his fiction concerns the Old Ones, how can we know that the Old Ones themselves are not just as much his creations as Hobb’s End? After all, the film follows just such a fictional entity ‘become real’: John Trent!
The point here is not that we can puzzle this out, that we can eventually arrive at a ‘first cause’, an explanation, a rational determination. No, the point is that this is an infinite regress. There is a möbius loop here, a paradox, which – Catch-22-like – keeps on spiralling deeper and deeper down into its own endless inwardly revolving circles of narrative logic. In this film, a fiction, we watch fiction – fiction about fiction becoming real – become real. The narrative we see is both interior and exterior to the fictive fictional narrative (i.e. the unreal novel in the story). Trent is both outside and inside the book. He is a ‘real’ person who discovers he is a fictional character in a book and he is a character in a book who believes he is real precisely because he encounters the narrative in which he is a character, as fiction.
In this breathtakingly complex, near unique, narrative schema, elements of the objectively and subjectively fictional declare themselves reality, and remark upon their own fictions breaking into their own reality, which is of course fiction twice over – in that it is fiction to us and discoverable as fiction to the characters in it. The fictions which are fictively real descry a degree of logic in all this, given that their own fictions are about the rupturing of reality by fiction. Yet when they discover themselves to be fictional, they are not discovering themselves to be fictions in our world, fictions from our point of view. They are not discovering themselves to be fictions in the John Carpenter film In The Mouth of Madness; rather they are discovering themselves to be fictions while remaining diegetically sealed within the fictional narrative of that film.
We noted in the very first of these posts that In The Mouth of Madness keeps its depiction of fiction breaking into reality carefully within the bounds of its own diegesis; it does not show the fiction of the film breaking into ‘our’ reality, the reality of the audience. The fourth wall is not broken. This is why, unlike so much metafiction, this film is not cheaply ‘clever’. It confines itself within a limit that is often broken in metafiction – usually by comedy, or in a comedic moment – and thus it presents us with a closed narrative system. Insane and irrational, but nevertheless closed and internally reified. It is the closedness, the hermetically sealed borders of the narrative, which permits its interior spiral of paradox to be an infinite regress. You can only have an infinity of mirrors when two mirrors are looking at each other, and not when you are looking at yourself in one.
In a narrative with a broken fourth wall, there is always a rational endpoint, namely: actual reality. As soon as a text (other than a form of first person literary realism like the epistolary novel) peeps out at us and says “Hello you out there! Hello Reader! Hello Audience!” it declares itself forever and always simply a text, a fiction. We ourselves, once introduced into the narrative, close it. It is all very well to pretend that bringing the reader or viewer into the text suggests that the reality of the reader or viewer is somehow undermined… but what then? How is it undermined? And even if it is undermined, where do we go with this? Where is there to go with this?
The first few centuries of modern philosophers played around with this sort of thing endlessly when they were searching for criteria of truth. They got nowhere, or at least nowhere intelligible, until they ended up back at the practical need to rationalise the brute fact that the world is probably real because… well… it just feels really real, and those of us living in it can hardly deny its reality, and even if we do then we are led to no profitable or useful conclusions. If Descartes and Berkeley can’t get anything useful out of such speculations, what chance popular metafiction?
An example of such failure in a near-contemporary movie which tries to express many of the same cultural and social moods is The Matrix (1999). There is a tension inherent in The Matrix between two irreconcilable approaches the text is trying to take towards narrative ‘reality’. It’s best seen in the “There is no spoon” scene. The film is trying to use the Matrix, a place where reality is manipulable by the mind because of its inner nature as illusion and code, as a metaphor for a real world which is manipulable via consciousness, a reality which can be spiritually transcended by the properly attuned and trained mind. But the mechanistic nature of the Matrix belies this metaphor, especially since it is literally counterposed to the non-Matrix, non-code, non-illusion reality of life outside it. And that isn’t even a fourth wall break. More sly “There is no fourth wall.”
But at the brute level of aesthetics, fourth wall breaking always fails. Because when the fourth wall is broken, that actually seals the fiction. It is simply that it is sealed within more than four walls. It is sealed within the walls of the TV set, then the living room around it, etc. The broken fourth wall is a foreclosure, a collapse, a shrinkage, that only looks momentarily like a widening of horizons. As such, it is the backhanded triumph of the vulgar and smug and dogmatic ideological ‘realism’, and thus the ultimate in failed bourgeois aesthetics.
Without this broken fourth wall, In The Mouth of Madness is able to depict – via an unruptured mimesis – a reality which itself has no rational endpoint, no logical starting point, no topos and only endless, insane logos.
(In this connection, it’s interesting to reiterate that, in Providence, Alan Moore goes out of his way to not set the story in ‘our’ early twentieth century, but rather in something like the early twentieth century of Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. That separation between the world of the main narrative in Providence and our world is never broken, but rather carefully curated, even as the world of the main narrative punctures – and is punctured by in return – the world of Lovecraft’s stories.)
This strange, goofy, tongue-in-cheek, rather cheap 90s Horror film thus takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Kafka’s The Trial, and The Castle, and the Ficciones of Borges, and as a text able to use ‘closed paradox’ (paradox that never self-terminates no matter how many times it self-cancels), within a heightened textualism, to illuminate the absurdity of what we call ‘ reality’ in modernity, the insanity of the social systems, and the normative ideological justifications, of bourgeois civilisation.
This is a rather grand claim, especially since we’re still being quite abstractly formalist at this point. What is the film saying that justifies it?
To answer that, I think we have to come back to the question of Lovecraft. The collection of essays I mentioned says on its back cover that the contributors are trying to answer the question “Why Lovecraft? Why now?” I’ll adapt the questions for my own purposes: why did John Carpenter decide to make a Lovecraft movie? I tried to answer “Why then?” last time, by situating the film in the context of the 1990s imperial and ideological crisis of the ‘End of History’. I still need to answer “Why Lovecraft?”, especially since – aside from a few interesting and apparently unconscious experiments with the literary modernism he consciously disliked – there is little metafictional in Lovecraft.
Last time, I mentioned Miéville’s description of the Old Ones of the Weird as ‘arche-fossils’. To quote Miéville in full this time:
…though always described as ancient, and half-recalled by characters from spurious texts, this recruitment to invented cultural memory does not avail Weird monsters of Gothic’s strategy of revenance, but back-projects their radical unremembered alterity into history, to en-Weird ontology itself. … The Weird entities have waited in their catacombs, sunken cities and outer circles of space since aeons before humanity. If they remain it is from a pre-ancestral time. In its very unprecedentedness, paradoxically, Cthulhu is less a ghost than the arche-fossil-as-predator.
– China Miéville, M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire
I talked about the innate reactionary yearnings of the haute Weird (i.e. Machen), and – adapting Miéville – I said that the Weird “invents a new ancient tradition, pretends its repression, and then has the novelty Ancient One return from nowhere,” adding that this is “an expression of how capitalist society subjects us to the seemingly traditional, ostensibly venerable, effectively enshrined rule of… its own anarchic innovation.”
I think this is the key to understanding where the Old Gods and Old Ones and Outer Monstrosities of the Weird come from. In the early twentieth century, as capitalist society is reeling under the combined crises of economic shock, first world war, imperial decline, and pandemic(!), we get a reactionary negation/adaptation of the Gothic which seems to take, as one of its prime tasks, the rerouting of the genre away from any expression of buried and returning guilt, redirecting it towards a kind of howl of incomprehension. In the relocation of the threat from the comparatively recent past to deep archaeological and geological time, or out of the realm of the physical entirely, the Weird expresses the profound unease of the era at seemingly unprecedented crises and ruptures in the bourgeois dream of uninterrupted progress. It does so from a specifically reactionary direction, from the specific point of view of the relatively privileged citizen of a world which seems, for the first time, to see existential crises creeping towards such citizens, and for no reason that the bourgeois positionality can encompass. Like the Gothic, the Weird is a literature of estrangement, of anxiety expressed. Like the Gothic, the Weird is equally a literature of comfort. But the specific loci of anxiety and methods of comfort have shifted as the tectonic plates of capitalist modernity have shifted – fundamentally with the accelerating and unpredictable interactions of imperialism and industrialism, the very interactions which were the underlying distal cause of World War One. The Weird tries to both express the horror this privileged social bracket experiences as a result of these apparently unprecedented and interlocking crises while also offering the comfort of putting the crises back into a kind of deep context, a context so deep it becomes near mystical. The Weird invents the Old Ones to be the embodiments of crises that have never been seen before, and which cannot be rationally understood (they must not be, for to rationally understand them is to erode the very system upon which the privileged person sits), but which are also eternal, unavoidable, ancient, unalterable facts of life. The process of expressing the incomprehension leads inexorably to a kind of abstraction which then ineluctably leads to the abstracted thing being turned mystical, and thus being ‘enclosed’ (as it were) within the bourgeois culture of the horrified – but yet soothed – onlooker.
It will be noticed that In The Mouth of Madness expresses a similar kind of societal estrangement and anxiety at a different point in history, namely at the point where industrialisation and imperialism appear to have met limits that are also the removal of limits, when a stable global capitalist-imperial arrangement has just imploded, i.e. the end of the Cold War, and the threat is the ‘End of History’, i.e. the removal of all barriers to the triumphal bourgeois civilisation.
The moment creates a space for a kind of knowing invocation of the Weird, the reactionary cosmic horror. The arche-fossil beckons, asking to be allowed to return to active service as a signifier, just one last time.
The other key lies in the very growing and expanding cultural influence of Lovecraft we mentioned above. At a cultural moment when Stephen King (another touchstone of the film) was commercially hegemonic, the idea seems to have popped into someone’s head: what if Lovecraft were that popular? The specific aspect of Lovecraft at this time in the development of his cultural footprint might be the very cultic nature of his popularity, the way it feeds into fears about cults that were particularly strong just then. Sutter Cane can be read as a cult leader of a kind. He spends his time holed up in a church that also seems to be his own personal compound, which at one point is subjected to an armed siege. He exercises life or death control over an entire community of people. He creates their reality. He ‘writes’ one into committing suicide. He recalls David Koresh. (The Waco siege occurred in 1993.) He suggests Scientology. He anticipates Heaven’s Gate.
Moreover, he understands himself as having created a new religion which transcends all previous religions by inspiring greater actual belief.
Do you want to know the problem with places like this? With religion, in general? It’s never known how to convey the anatomy of horror. Religion seeks discipline through fear — yet doesn’t understand the true nature of creation. No one’s ever believed it enough to make it real. The same cannot be said of my work.
– Sutter Cane, in the script of In The Mouth of Madness by Michael De Luca
What previous forms of society have failed to do, even with organised religion, Cane has succeeded in doing via the power of the era of mass capitalist consumer cultural production. He has saturated the market to the point where he has saturated human consciousness globally. The capitalist epoch has unleashed the productive forces, invented new ways of exploiting labour and thus producing and accumulating wealth, that would stagger previous forms of class society. Similarly, the capitalist epoch has done the same with ways of enforcing power. And finally, with ways of producing and enforcing belief, understanding, consciousness. As the industrial tractor is to the plough, and the modern CCTV network is to the night wardens, so is the modern mass consumer cultural product to the priest reading from the Bible to his parishioners every Sunday. The content of the ideas is almost unimportant, except that modern culture – with its access to concepts of deep time, as in the Weird – can anatomise horror more convincingly than any Last Judgement painting. The means of mental production in the late capitalist era are simply more powerful, more hegemonic, more in tune with the horror of the cosmic – and, crucially, they are here being employed in that very age of bored, comfortable lassitude attending the supposed ‘End of History’.
Even so, there is that trap door in Cane’s logic.
In making the apocalypse the work of real pre-existing underlying ancient monstrosities and simultaneously making the apocalypse (including the monstrosities) the work of a human author, the film – almost behind its own Weird back – is hooking directly into the most profound locus of connection between the uncanny story and radical critique, because it makes the horror and the apocalypse into a ‘real abstraction’.
For Marx, capitalism is the rule over human beings of ‘real abstractions’, things that are unreal, spectral, non-concrete, non-specific, non-tangible. The real abstraction is the ultimate synthetic form of the commodity fetish, and of alienation… which is really just another way of saying it is capital. It is the domination of human life by things like time and money and gender, and more profoundly value, which only exist as social relations that we human make, but which also appear as massive systems and material conglomerations of power and wealth and matter, which rule over us, which subject our lives to their tyranny. This is the essence of alienation, and thus of capital itself. The separation of humans from the means by which they may engage in labour that is truly individual and social at once is the separation of humanity from its most basic species being, its nature as an animal that conducts labour as an imaginative, creative, expressive, foresighted social process. This is the system whereby the abstractions generated by the separation dominate human lives, and humans have to subject themselves to the rule of the unsympathetic alien powers that are real in the sense that we will suffer if we ignore them, yet unreal in the sense that they don’t need to exist, don’t pre-exist us, rely upon us for their existence and reproduction. This is the essence of the radical charge in the uncanny story, the domination of the human subject by the inhuman object which is nevertheless a human creation, by the immaterial and spectral and intangible and inhuman thing which is only an alienated aspect of ourselves. The supernatural story literally reifies this abstraction into an uncanny alien force and thus expresses with full power the experience of living in this mode of alienation, the modern and capitalist mode of alienation.
In The Mouth Of Madness puts this across with extra force because, in an almost Ligottian way, it connects the real abstraction to capital directly, and capital’s modern manifestation as a global system of private control or cultural reproduction, by having the unreal abstraction manifest through, and because of, and from within, a product of the mass culture industries, produced by a mass capitalist publishing industry that spans the globe and thus globalises the alienation apocalypse.
There is no question of In The Mouth of Madness simply reiterating the Weird and, in the process, allowing it to regurgitate its reactionary claims and reactionary comforts all over again. The film is quite happy to use the Weird, Lovecraft, cosmic horror, the arche-fossil, etc. But, like the moods and inflections of the fashionable social theory of the era (which is itself sometimes more like Weird fiction than sociology), the Weird is fodder for it, to help it express its own moment, and the ‘deep time’ of that moment.