Saturday, November 30, 2013

Neuroaesthetics: Brain Imaging for Authors and Their Readers

Neuroaesthetics is an application of brain imaging methods to the experience of works of art.  Lately this endeavor has focused on the expression and appreciation of visual and musical creations.  The field has grown over the past decade in tandem with advances in MRI, PET, CT scans and similar technology. Semir Zeki, one of the field’s proponents, likens artists of all kinds to neuroscientists, insofar as they also explore the capacity and potential of the human mind—whose ultimate basis is the sum of countless neural and neurochemical  processes occurring in brain tissue. 

Dr. Zeki states in the conclusion of his Statement on Neuroaesthetics:  “It is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres—in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art—that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man.” (

The Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London an institute devoted to research in this area.  Its goals include investigating the connection between creative processes and brain functioning, encouraging neurobiologists to include art and creativity as part of research leading to greater understanding of the brain, and exploring the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. 

Underlying this work are the assumptions that “visual art must obey the laws of the visual brain”, that the purpose of visual art is the same as that of the visual brain—to acquire knowledge—and that visual artists are essentially doing the same thing that neuroscientists do, just with different tools and methods.  (

Presumably, these assumptions will apply to other areas of the brain dedicated to different forms of creative expression, for example writing and its complementary process, reading.

As an aside, your humble blogger is by training a speech-language pathologist.   At a professional conference earlier this month in Chicago, I attended a presentation entitled “The Believing Brain: Prefrontal Cortex and Brain Injury Recovery” authored by Jordan Grafman of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  New brain imaging techniques have also been applied in the investigation of parts of the brain involved in ‘human social beliefs’—specifically, attitudes about religion, morals, and the law. 

To date, no single location or circuit in the brain that appears to be dedicated to these higher level functions—there is no ‘God spot’.  However, in one study, fMRI scans showed increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex on both sides of the brain, in the associative areas of the temporal lobes, and in portions of the occipital and parietal regions during religious thinking tasks.  Interestingly, some research suggests that damage to areas of the pre-frontal cortex and deeper limbic system tissue may alter political beliefs and judgments about morality and the legal consequences of behavior.

In today’s New York Times is a fascinating article about a neuroaesthetic experiment involving a Dutch author and journalist named Arnon Grunberg, (“Wired: Putting a Writer and Readers to a Test”, NYT, 11/30/13).  The author’s brain is being scanned as he writes his next novella.  Brain activity readings are coordinated with the location of Mr. Grunberg’s cursor as he writes sections that have various dominant emotional tones.  Eventually, 50 subjects will be asked to read Grunberg’s novel as their brains are scanned—the data will then be analyzed with respect to patterns that might show a connection between the author’s creative process and its perception and appreciation in the brains of his readers.

An obvious practical application:  imagine if publishers could hook up a focus group of readers to brain imaging devices and evaluate in advance whether a book could become a bestseller.  In the case of horror fiction, would a given manuscript excite the areas of the brain responsible for sensations of fear, horror or passion?  Or would it merely stimulate the centers responsible for sleep?   

Marketing the book, even creating the book, could be tailored to the neurobiological responses of a reader test group.  Maybe even literary criticism itself can be found to have a predictable, quantifiable neurological basis.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Occult Occupational Hazards

If you have ever been assigned the thankless task of translating the dreaded Necronomicon, you know that the job can be risky business.  Rendering the Medieval Arabic into Latin or English is complex and challenging.  What if you get some of the archaic wording wrong?  Or, more terrifying, what if you get it right?  Translators play an important and underappreciated role in horror stories about the occult.  Depending on the nature of the original text, longevity in the field is not a guarantee, even with considerable competence.

(Astute readers of H.P. Lovecraft will recall that the original title of the Necronomicon was Al Azif, an Arabic reference to the nocturnal sounds some insects make that are thought to be the howling of demons.  Lovecraft, in his History of the Necronomicon (1927) records that Abdul Alhazred himself suffered the consequences of being a translator and compiler of forbidden texts.  He was believed “to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.”)

It is a good idea to keep your day job, assuming that you survive.

One of Clark Ashton Smith’s best known and beloved stories is The Return of the Sorcerer (1931), originally published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror.  With some modifications, the story was adapted for television by Halsted Wells for an episode of Night Gallery, (September 1972). 

In the original story by Smith, the narrator, a man named Ogden, answers an ad seeking a translator of Arabic.  He is quickly hired by John Carnby, a strange and reclusive scholar of the occult.  As a condition of employment, Ogden must reside in the old man’s house, where he is asked to translate sections of the Necronomicon.  There is some urgency; the old man needs two specific passages rendered in English as soon as possible.  Carnby has a copy of the book originally compiled by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred—the complete version, not the abridged and erroneous Latin volume of Olaus Wormius.

As soon as Ogden begins his work of translating the key passages, Carnby grows increasingly agitated and distraught.  There are strange, unidentifiable sounds just outside the door of the study, and Smith skillfully allows the reader to gradually piece together—literally—the horror that is coming into full view.  It seems that being a sorcerer also brings with it certain occupational hazards, especially if one has an ambitious and talented twin brother.

What is in view here is an occult version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Here are the lines from Genesis that identify the source of evil Cain’s motivation:  “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.  So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.”  (Genesis 4: 4-5)  Here are the parallel lines in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Return of the Sorcerer:  “I hated Helman, and he hated me, too.  He has attained to higher power and knowledge, and was more favored by the Dark Ones than I…I feared him, and I could not endure his supremacy…”

Ogden’s work helps to illuminate the awful predicament that Carnby is in, but the translated sections of the Necronomicon prove to be too little, too late, and justice will be done.  The translator escapes in the end, after being forced against his will to view the final handiwork of the aggrieved brother.

An interesting feminist twist on Clark Ashton Smith’s story is offered by the adaptation that appeared in a third season episode of Night Gallery, in September of 1972.  Vincent Price plays both of the twin brothers, and Bill Bixby is the translator, Noel Evans.  The plot is essentially the same—vengeance by way of superior sorcery skills—but there is a third character, the mysterious and beautiful Fern, played by Patricia Sterling. 

She is the “indispensable” assistant who may also be the sorcerer’s lover—but which one?  She also attempts to seduce Noel, the translator, right outside Carnby’s study, leading to all kinds of social awkwardness.  A hint about Fern’s ultimate agenda is given over dinner in one scene: she remarks that there is only one female sorceress for every thousand male sorcerers.  Price and Sterling have some fun with campy lines, but in the end, none of the men, not even the translator, are a match for the return of the sorceress.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Ghoul as Objet d’Art

“I wanted to do in sculpture what Poe and Lovecraft and Baudelaire have done in literature, and what Rops and Goya did in pictorial art.”

This is the ambition of Cyprian Sincaul, the sculptor depicted in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hunters from Beyond (1932).  It is appropriate that Sincaul’s statement contains an homage to Lovecraft—it should really be to Richard Upton Pickman—who was likely an important source of his artistic inspiration.

There are interesting similarities and differences between Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hunters from Beyond and H.P. Lovecraft’s better known Pickman’s Model (1927).  Readers may want to have a dictionary at hand.  Like Pickman’s Model, Smith’s story is encumbered by Lovecraftian verbosity and a tendency to use obscure adjectives, (mephitic, feculent, inominate, pullulating, etc.)—it may be that the cadence and verbosity of text is itself an homage to Lovecraft’s style.  But Smith is by far the more readable author.       

Both stories involve reclusive artists whose subject matter is derived less from their nightmarish imaginations than from real life.  The joke in both stories is that the artists are both realists.  Pickman’s Model is generally familiar.  A well done television adaptation of the story appeared in an episode of the Night Gallery, (#11, second season, December 1971).  As with nearly all of Lovecraft’s adaptations to film or television, women are added to humanize and make more credible the cast of characters.  The possibility of a doomed romance between a woman student and the artist is suggested, but is not present in the original story. 

Pickman is a painter whose macabre and grotesque subjects excite primal fear in their audience.  The narrator is given a tour of the studio by Pickman, which allows Lovecraft some fun in ticking off what amount to scenes from a freakish carnival side-show.  (My favorite is the bit where several laughing ghouls are shown perusing a Boston guidebook that describes where “…Holmes, Lowell and Longfellow lie buried…”).  Pickman becomes increasingly agitated; his mysterious disappearance is connected with subterranean passage ways underlying an older part of the city.

Smith’s story is located on the other side of the continent, in San Francisco.  The narrator, a writer named Phillip Hastane, is on his way to visit his cousin, a sculptor named Cyprian Sincaul.  On the way, he visits a favorite old book store which is very close to his cousin’s studio.  While studying a book about Goya, he is startled by a ghoulish apparition that may resemble some of the images he saw in the book.  The description of the creature, a kind of gargoyle, is very reminiscent of the ghouls painted by Pickman: apish beasts with canine faces, talons, and deep set glowing eyes.

Shaken, he arrives at Cyprian Sincaul’s studio to discover that his cousin is fashioning creatures exactly like the one he saw in the book store.  Sincaul applauds the narrator’s apparent psychic powers, and goes on to make an artistic argument about the need to have direct experience with the subjects of one’s creative products. 

He criticizes Hastane’s literary efforts:  “You are very clever and imaginative…You try to depict the occult and the supernatural without even the most rudimentary first-hand knowledge of them…Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are palpably made up.”  In view here is the more general critique of genre fiction from the ‘write what you know’ school of creative writing.

(But ‘what we know’ is so little…)

After a period of mediocrity and derivative work, the sculptor has become masterful and compelling because of his direct contact with the source of his inspiration, beings he calls ‘the hunters from beyond’.  Perhaps he means to help his writerly cousin achieve similar heights.  But ‘the hunters’ have their own agenda, which appears mainly to be dragging human souls into their dimension for some undisclosed but likely unpleasant purpose.

There is a significant difference between Pickman’s subjects and Sincaul’s.  Lovecraft’s ghouls are tangible, slimy, subterranean creatures—an unknown or forgotten species, but still subject to the same natural laws that their human counterparts are on the surface.   They are animals, perhaps a depiction of humanity’s repressed animal nature—or Lovecraft’s for that matter—and are chiefly concerned with eating and procreating.  Pickman himself is a half breed, the very earthy product of an unsanctioned union between human and ghoul.

In Smith’s story, ‘the hunters’ are ethereal and ghostlike, appearing in various locations but essentially intangible and harmless until they can seduce and draw their victims into their dimension, which appears to be a version of the Biblical Hell.  Their hunger is for the soul, not so much the body.  One wonders why, from an evolutionary perspective, they would need the composite features of a carnivore.  It would seem that metaphorically speaking, the form of a scavenger or parasite might be more appropriate.

However, both smell pretty bad when present.

The tiresome theoretical discussion about artistic creativity is enlivened by the presence of a naked woman.  Sincaul has hired a model named Marta to complete his compositions.  She is described as “beautiful, in a dark, semi-Latin fashion; but her mouth was sullen and reluctant; and her wide, liquid eyes were wells of strange terror…”  Before she is rendered soul-less and comatose by a visit to the hunter’s dimension, she tries to get Hastane to rescue Sincaul from his obsession with the hunters.  She has fallen in love with the sculptor, and is fearful that he is literally going to Hell for his work.

Of course, the sin in view here is idolatry, and in the end, Smith logically has the sculptor destroy his evil images in a fit of terror and remorse.  If this were a Lovecraft story, the idols would more likely have been squirreled away and handed down through history and generations, to wreak havoc again later.  Evil wins in a Lovecraft story, or at the very least, only suffers a strategic retreat.  Smith’s character, though consumed by hubristic ambition early on, remains human at the end, remorseful, wizened, and compassionate.  Pickman, animated by strange passions and filled with barely concealed contempt for his fellow anthropoids, apparently succumbs to his other-than-human nature.

Yet the most striking difference between Clark Ashton Smith’s story and virtually all of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears near the beginning of The Hunters From Beyond:  the naked lady.  Lovecraft’s fiction is almost completely devoid of any women, unclothed or otherwise, and this absence of one half of humanity detracts from his importance as a writer—at least of fiction.  What may not be apparent to many new fans of Lovecraft’s work are his strengths as a writer of nonfiction.  He was a very able literary critic, chronicler, and commentator, despite expressing some views that would be considered politically incorrect these days.  It would be helpful for his reputation, as well as horror fiction enthusiasts, to have volumes devoted to his literary criticism, social commentary, and satire.


And while we are on the topic of ghouls and their appetites—have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Benson’s Ghostly Bric-a-Brac

E.F. Benson’s The Witch-Ball (1928) shares several similarities with an earlier ghost story of his, The China Bowl, (1916). The latter was discussed in a post last August, (“A Couple of Hauntings from E.F. Benson”).  Both employ relatively common objects—a bowl, a colored glass ball—as conduits for justice from beyond the grave.  One underlying assumption seems to be that the spirits of the recently dead—that is, the recently murdered—can maintain communication with the living through everyday objects they used while on this side of the veil.  Another assumption is that what the dead most want to communicate to those of us who are still temporarily alive is a cry for justice.

Benson’s talent is evident in both stories, but his experience and achievement as a writer is more evident in the later story.  Characters are more finely drawn, and there is considerable attention to setting and detail.  So much depends on a line of recently planted willows that form a border between a kitchen garden and the marshland behind.  As in other Benson stories like The Face and The Passenger, as well as his famous Negotium Perambulans, the fate of the characters is preordained—in fact, almost predestined in a Calvinist sense.  They arrive at exactly the right place and the right time for their unanticipated encounter with the supernatural.

Margery, her cousin Dick, (who is the narrator), and Margery’s husband Hugh are vacationing in a rural area of Sussex.  In an old curiosity shop Margery and Dick squabble good naturedly over a blue “Witch-Ball”, which Margery wins with a coin toss.  But Hugh does not like the item.  “What a marvelous piece!” he says, “But I don’t like it, Margery: there’s something uncanny about it”.  We learn from the narrator that Hugh, though a practical man of business, has clairvoyant tendencies. 

Margery cleans and polishes the strange blue globe and displays it in the house.  The object immediately begins to have a disturbing effect the moods of the three friends.  At one point Huge and Dick gaze into the ball and see an image of a house, a garden and a woman.  Not only is Hugh clairvoyant, but the two men have a telepathic link that seems to amplify each other’s powers—they have evidently gazed into crystal balls together before.  There is some oddness here—why is this not the case when Margery looks into the witch-ball?  Some sort of triangulated relationship seems implied here.

On another jaunt, the trio later discovers a charming cottage, recently abandoned by its owner, with a sad, neglected kitchen garden.  Fans of Benson’s ghost stories will recall that in The China Bowl, another piece of attractive real estate was similarly abandoned under mysterious circumstances.  Margery loves the place, but her husband is uneasy—something is wrong despite the idyllic setting.  Dick realizes with a shock that he has seen this place before—in the blue glass globe.  Readers will not be too surprised when Margery does some research and discovers that the witch ball was one of the items auctioned off when the cottage was closed down.

Now the trio has the witch-ball in hand and has been to the house where it originated.  Object and location have drawn the three—the two men in particular—into a supernatural corner of the world where a mystery will be revealed.  The climactic scene is one of Benson’s more gruesome moments.

Several of E.F. Benson’s stories have been discussed in this blog; fans of this wonderful author may be interested in these earlier posts: