This whole "blog every day for a week" thing would go a lot easier if I remembered to do it before 11:30 pm at night. Okay, what happened today? Well, I finished reading Laird Barron's Imago Sequence, which is essentially a book of short stories riffing on the Lovecraft style. If that's not a familiar name to you, H. P. Lovecraft was a pulp fantasy writer in the early 20th century who specialized in writing stories around the basic of theme of "that which man was not meant to know." Building from the general tradition of Gothic horror, his stories generally had the same pattern to them: a man stumbles by accident onto some ancient ruin or otherworldly artifact and the mere contact with it starts to unhinge him. He gets more and more obsessed, and the more he uncovers, the more insane he becomes. Often, the whole thing revolves around a being beyond human understanding who doesn't even acknowledge our existence, but would drive us insane if we looked at it. It's that sort of thing, nine times, with variations. There's a mysterious photograph series, a sinister farm, a Wild West locale. Always something just different enough to keep it all fresh.
Essentially, the Lovecraft mold works because it's playing with our basic modern sensibilities. Where we, deep down, believe that all of our problems can be solved with sufficient knowledge, the Lovecraft story presents the deepest threat to that, something utterly beyond our comprehension, where the more we learn, the worse off we are. Now, I love a good genre story. Something that can create new movements while working with a known frame is like poetry, in my book. (Unless it's actually poetry, in which case, ugh.) That's why I've read romances, 18th century rake hero plays, and westerns--I like looking for the variations. And I think that's something people can relate to. We want to be surprised, but we still want a sense of the general frame of the story. We use what we know to guess what happens next.
The thing, that metaguessing should be the death knell of the Lovecraft story. Minor variation or not, you know how it's going to end. You've got a guy going from ignorance to knowledge, and he's going to go off the deep end in the process. (And it's almost always a guy--the only version I've ever heard with a female protagonist was Alan Moore's Neonomicon, and that went into a monstrous pregnancy direction--weird for a creature who barely acknowledges our existence.) And because our knowledge of how the plot works gives us that advantage, it's contrary to the theme of the story. But it still happens. I suppose it's similar to the case as with regular horror--we know how a slasher flick works, but we still enjoy being surprised within that frame, even though knowing that frame is there damages the surprise. I think the explanation there is that there's a difference between the "art horror" we get from watching something we know isn't real and the actual experience of horror. I suppose that could apply for the Lovecraft story too, since it's a subset of horror, but... something seems off about that explanation to me. Meh. If I pursue it, and wind up stark raving insane, at least I'll be able to respect the poetic justice. That's what you want in insanity, right?