Sometimes, you must have an awakening, and if it’s a good ‘un, it will hurt. Your chest will cave into heartbreak. You will screw your eyes shut against sudden terror of the future, maybe even of your fellow humans. You will suffer the swift, disabling evacuation of all your grounding assumptions about how the world works or should work or will work. It happens. It happens all the time everywhere. And it’s important to remember in these bowel-loosening moments that is part of the human condition. Much horror is prescriptive – stake the head vampire, salt the corpse, aim for the head — but history is not, and our world is no more solid than our ancestors’, though theirs is now dust. Some horror remembers that.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is the final film in what director John Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy, also including 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince of Darkness, although the films aren’t joined by any conventional narrative or continuity. In casual use, apocalypse has come to mean nuclear annihilation or the end of civilization, but it literally means unveiling, and that’s what really unifies the trilogy: the revelation of an inhuman universe. While The Thing makes individual identity unreliable and Prince of Darkness tears down man’s artifices of religion and science, In the Mouth of Madness addresses the fabric of reality itself. It’s a surprisingly textured film that is honestly better the second or third time around because it’s built to be meta, and scenes that seem innocuous, redundant, or cheap scares on the first run-through assume their proper significance on a rewatch.
The story follows John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator who’s always looking for the con. It actually begins with Trent being thrown into an insane asylum, but soon enough he tells his story to a doctor who suspects Trent isn’t as crazy as he seems (David Warner, being underused), unboxing the story within a story in fine Lovecraftian tradition. Trent is hired to investigate when gloriously-named publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) reports bestselling horror author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) missing, along with a manuscript that apparently drove Cane’s agent insane. Trent does some research and in a flash of inspiration divines that hidden in the covers of Cane’s books is a map of New Hampshire, leading to the heretofore fictional town of Hobb’s End. Trent immediately suspects Harglow of concocting a publicity stunt, but Harglow sends Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), with Trent to this Hobb’s End to recover his missing author and manuscript. It’s a road trip that takes them out of space and time.
Once they find Hobb’s End, Styles immediately begins recognizing people and places from Cane’s work, and prompts Trent to read from his Sutter Cane paperbacks like they’re Lonely Planet guides. (You might also recognize a fair bit from H.P. Lovecraft’s work, including lifted passages attributed to Cane.) Spooked out, Styles confesses to Trent that she and Harglow had invented a publicity scheme like he suspected, but the town wasn’t part of it, and she tries to convince him that Cane has literally written Hobb’s End into existence. Trent balks at this and assumes the town is in on the joke, but slowly, the hamlet begins to reveal signs of corruption he can’t debunk – monster children, a little old lady torturing her husband, a suicide who grimly tells Trent “reality isn’t what it used to be,” Styles’ transformation, and then, finally Cane himself, who explains he is channeling the will of Old Ones into reality through his work. Not only that, but he wrote Trent to take the manuscript back into the real world, so the corruption could spread there and let the Old Ones in. Trent refuses, but he returns to Harglow to find the deed done anyway; Cane apparently retconned it. The book has been in the stores for months and the movie’s about to premiere. Trent seeks refuge from apocalypse the only way that seems left to him – he kills a Sutter Cane fan to get himself committed to an asylum. But even walls built to contain madness crumble against the insanity without, and eventually Trent finds himself at a movie theater, and laughing, loses his mind as he watches the same film we’ve been watching.
The lexical apocalypse of In the Mouth of Madness anticipates both Anthony Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything, with its language-borne, reality-remaking virus, and the video game Alan Wake, with its titular horror author fighting shadowy forces brought to life through his own fiction, and it shared with the same year’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare a self-consciousness that would make the fourth wall tremble. Its self-consciousness isn’t just clever genre references, though it’s full of nods and winks and is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft in particular, from character names to Cane’s bibliography. Throughout the movie, there are little details that suggest nested and altered realities on the level of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Things like Trent’s asylum cell and hotel room at Pickman’s Inn in Hobb’s End both being number 9, or Trent accidentally anointing himself with ink before the stunning revelation that Cane’s books hid the map to Hobb’s End in a way that both marks his eyes and also prefigures his asylum confinement. When Trent reads about the landmarks in Hobb’s End in front of same, on a second viewing, it will appear almost as though he’s invoking them from the text. Then there’s the repeated lines “I see you” and “He sees you,” “he” in this case ostensibly being Sutter Cane, signifying the incursions of Cane’s new reality. And while Cane is all-seeing, Trent is always looking behind things — behind covers, behind paintings – rehearsing for the moment you finally see him look behind the ripped fabric of space into the Old Ones’ dimension. And most tragically, over and over, Trent insists on what is and isn’t reality, little realizing when he’s actually insisting on the truth of Cane’s invented world.
To watch In the Mouth of Madness several years on, you have to wonder how much faster the downfall of the human race would have been if it had been set in our time, with cell phones, social media, and broadband. To wit, Trent and Styles have a great exchange on the way to Hobb’s End:
Trent: What’s to be scared about? It’s not like it’s real or anything.
Styles: Well, it’s not real from your point of view, and right now reality shares your point of view. What scares me about Cane’s work is what might happen if reality shared his point of view.
Trent: Whoa, whoa, whoa — we’re not talking about reality here. We’re talking about fiction. It’s different, you know.
Styles: Reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places if the insane were to become the majority. You would find yourself locked in a padded cell wondering what happened to the world.
Trent: Yeah, well, it wouldn’t happen to me.
Styles: Ah, it would if you realized everything you ever knew was gone. It would be pretty lonely being the last one left.
At the time, Styles’ pronouncements on the nature of reality might have seemed too abstract to give much credit outside of a horror movie or a philosophy class. It’s a little more striking now though, when we actually live in a time where we negotiate reality through filtered newsfeeds and argue about demonstrable facts.
I think that Lovecraft worried about reality’s point of view, too. It’s well-known that H.P. Lovecraft was a racist; for a writer who deferred so much to the unnameable and the unspeakable, he didn’t leave much ambiguity about that. It’s an issue that leaves some fans or would-be fans uncomfortable, and complaints about which finally lead the World Fantasy Awards to retire its Lovecraft statuette, the Howard, in 2015. Lovecraft is hardly alone among artists with terrible ideas. Artists, after all, are usually people. A lot of the power of Lovecraft’s horror undoubtedly comes from his own feelings of xenophobia and alienation, but I don’t think you can use the transitive property to transfer his racism along with the chills his racist-inspired horrors could produce. But I do think you can access much of the same fear Lovecraft apparently felt no matter who you are if you’re feeling like reality has stopped sharing your point of view. If your institutions, your health, your privilege were to desert you, the desolation can be precipitous. The stakes are gorier, but In the Mouth of Madness does a good job of underlining the fragility of shared reality in faithful, Lovecraftian measures. Trent’s fate is actually sadder than Styles’ imagined survivor’s because he’s not wondering what happened to the world. He knows. He’s seen.
At all times, we are the vulnerable, squishy creatures in the teeth of fate’s caprice. Forgetting that daily so that we can live, laugh, love, maybe get into a war in the comments section of a Reddit post, or get really pissed off that someone is only driving 5 miles faster than the speed limit on the commute home is the consummate achievement of both evolution and civilization. We must do this though; if we didn’t, we would be Lovecraft characters, and the species would die. And species do die sometimes. There’s no reason we shouldn’t. Still, we don’t, and sometimes a good horror story is helpful in that capacity. Horror in the mold of Lovecraft, like In the Mouth of Madness, allows you no comforting boundaries or talismans, but it does offer a useful apocalypse, a momento mori. There may come a time when you don’t feel like reality does share your point of view anymore, and you’re like John Trent, laughing-but-not-laughing alone in the dark. And if that time comes, you might think about it and realize that this loneliness and fear is a universal thing, and it’s that perspective that can save us from Trent’s fate. At least the parts not involving ancient tentacled horrors.
Did Angela ever tell you her favorite color is blue?