Alan Baker is the first to admit that the idea of cosmic horror might baffle newcomers to the genre: “after all, what does it mean? What’s cosmic about it? And what’s horrible about it?” Let any doubts be laid to rest by the author’s chillingly concise explanation: cosmic horror’s basic premise is “the protagonists’ realisation of humanity’s utter insignificance in a universe that is vast, impersonal and profoundly unsympathetic” – and a universe which is “very far from empty: it contains forces whose power, intelligence and amorality are inconceivably great”, not aliens, but something whose staggering otherness is enough to destroy the mind or totally annihilate anyone who comes into contact with them. And if that idea raises the hairs on the back of your neck, Alan’s novel, The Lighthouse Keeper, will have you enjoyably terrified for weeks.
Most of the things in fiction that send chills down the spine are legacies from darker, more ignorant ages. People have been scaring each other with tales of werewolves and vampires for centuries, but writers in the early twentieth century found themselves having a much harder time scaring a society raised on scientific rationalism. The solution for H P Lovecraft et al was to create a landscape of terrifying and incomprehensible otherness, to raise goosebumps with the idea that ‘we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far’.
Alan is eager to point out that, for a lesser-known genre whose first flowering ended 80 years ago, cosmic horror has had an enormous influence on modern popular culture. The screenplay for Alien, a cultural touchstone itself for cinematic science fiction and horror, was inspired by the work of H P Lovecraft, cosmic horror’s most famous practitioner, while the seed of the cryptic and addidictive TV series Lost was apparently found in A Merritt’s The Moon Pool. While Alan would recommend both of these authors for those intrigued by the possibilities of cosmic horror, we’d suggest starting right here on CompletelyNovel with the Lighthouse Keeper. As good a read for fans of Susan-Hill-type ghost stories as diehard Lovecraft readers, it’s gradually gathering a following of readers who cannot forget the strange and frighteningly alien place that the novel shows lies just one wrong turn away from comfortable everyday life.
The Lighthouse Keeper has far more to offer than just scaring its readers stiff – although the knowledge that Alan has based his book on real events moves the novel just too close to home for comfort. Reading the lyrical descriptions of the desolate islands in the far north of Scotland and the lighthouses that shield sailors from their craggy coasts, you’d struggle to believe that Alan has never set foot on the Flannan isles, nor ever been inside a lighthouse. While he credits a visit to the Northern Lighthouse Board website for much of the necessary information, he made a deliberate choice not to over-do the research. “One of the questions you have to ask yourself when writing a story set in a very specific time and place is how much detail do you use? If you’re not careful, you end up writing a manual on how to run a lighthouse, instead of a novel!”
The sea appears as almost an extra character in Alan’s novel, evoked so vividly you can almost taste the salt spray, and makes the perfect backdrop to the events on the Flannan Isles. Alan points out that the sea has a tremendous resonance for human beings: as well as being the source for so many of our ancient myths and for modern legends like the Bermuda Triangle, it offers a fair share of real dangers too. Beyond the actual threats of shipwrecks, storms and drowning, Alan believes the oceans capture our imagination because they remind us of “the infinitely larger all-encompassing ocean of space, which in turn can be said to mirror the equally mysterious ocean of the subconscious mind” – which together make up Lovecraft’s “black seas of infinity”. The sea is so apt a setting for horror because “we’re surrounded by oceans of one type or another – and we’re only just beginning to learn to swim”, and Alan can’t help but hint at what’s circling below us in the waters…
Alan doesn’t remember when he first heard of the Flannan Isles mystery – probably, he thinks, “in one of those wonderful paranormal mystery books that were once so popular” – but a long-standing fascination for mysterious disappearances and so-called ‘paranormal vanishings’ drew him back to the story. Once his imagination was fired by the mystery, the website of Mike Dash, a researcher of just these sort of events and “a veritable mine of information on a wide range of peculiar phenomena”, helped him flesh out the tale. The final touch was inspired by a comment from his “agent” who suggested adding a present day element to the story.
In his next novel, Alan tackles another great unsolved mystery, the so-called Dyatlov Pass incident, which took place in the Russian Ural Mountains in the winter of 1959. Bad weather forced a party of nine friends on a ski-hiking expedition to take refuge on the slopes of a remote mountain known as ‘the Mountain of the Dead’ in the local tongue. None of the nine were ever seen alive again. When rescuers eventually found their camp, they found that the skiiers had, for some reason, cut their way out of the side of their tents, rather than opening the flaps, before fleeing down the mountain, half-dressed and some without shoes. Post mortem examinations found, unsurprisingly, that many had died of simple hypothermia, but the doctors had a harder time accounting for the strange injuries suffered on some of the party, consistent with a high-speed car crash. They were even less able to explain how one of the party had come to have her tongue removed.
Alan assures us that he’s enjoying writing this novel as much as the last “…although I have to say I’m not sleeping too well at night”. And, after hearing his summary, neither are we.
Excellent article, Kat, about what must surely be one of the most outstanding pieces of new writing available to read on CompletelyNovel.
Making one’s readers ‘enjoyably terrified’ is no mean feat. My heart was racing throughout Lighthouse, just as my eyes were racing across the pages in order to discover the fate of the protagonists…
As Heidi says, it will certainly be a treat to read Baker’s next novel.
Thank you so much, Kat, for your excellent article on The Lighthouse Keeper. And thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind words. It gives me a warm feeling inside (or should that be cold, clammy and filled with eldritch terror?) when readers say how much they’ve enjoyed the book.
I’m still hard at work on my next book (working title: “Dyatlov Pass”), which will, hopefully, raise a few more goosebumps!
And thanks to Heidi, too!
Yep – definitely looking forward to the next novel too!
As Alan seems to modest to point it out, I’d like to let everyone know that he’s uploaded more of his work to CN, including one of his earlier novels that seems along the same unsettling lines as The Lighthouse Keeper (I’ve only just started reading, so I can’t say for sure). It’s called The House of Ten Kingdoms, and is here:
I now really want to read The Lighthouse Keeper. It sounds like it captures the imagination and I’d like to “feel” the sea salt while reading in the rain this wet summer!