Saturday, December 28, 2013

2. But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting

The last post provided an overview of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most important stories, The Mound.  The work was a collaboration with Zealia Bishop, who provided the germ of the idea.  However, scholarship has determined that Lovecraft, through his extensive revision and rewriting, really made the story his own.  The Mound is one of Lovecraft’s most significant creations because it is a consolidation and culmination of many themes in his work—there are numerous connections with much of what Lovecraft wrote earlier and later on in his career.

Briefly, The Mound tells the story of an American Indian ethnographer who goes to a remote area of Oklahoma to investigate an ancient artificial hill that superficially resembles an Indian mound.  There have been strange reports and legends from both the nearby townsfolk and the local Native Americans.  The researcher discovers a four hundred year old parchment buried at the top of the mound. 

The manuscript is in Spanish, written by one Pánfilo de Zamacona y Nuñez, a member of Coronado’s expedition to the southwest in the 1540s.  Zamacona tells a harrowing tale of his adventures in a subterranean realm he calls K’n-yan.  Later on the investigator has his own terrifying encounter that confirms the Spaniard’s strange tale.  But there is much, much more to this story.

The modern day investigator dutifully interviews the locals and pores over scattered reports of disappearances and insanity covering a period from 1892 to 1928.  But it is Zamacona’s exhaustive and detailed manuscript, preserved a strangely marked metal tube, which forms the core of the story.  Much of Zamocona’s record amounts to what we might call a speculative anthropology.   S.T. Joshi notes that The Mound is an example of Lovecraft’s use of an alien society as a metaphor and a criticism of his own.

To Zamacona, K’n-yan and its capitol city of Tsath appear to be a utopia. The citizens rarely die, there is no poverty or illness, and an elaborate system of eugenics ensures the vitality of the ruling class while supplying industry with biogenetically engineered slaves.  The government “was a kind of communistic or semi-anarchical state; habit rather than law determining the daily order of things.”

Relationships among men, women and children are egalitarian, loose and flexible inside of “affection-groups”.  The Mound contains several pages of descriptive material that outlines the features of this society and its place in pre-history.  K’n-yan appears to be extremely stable and advanced relative to the human societies on Earth’s surface, but is also decadent.  

And this is the source of the horror in the story.  Zamacona notes that the population has declined and no longer fills the vast underground cities.  The energy, creativity and religious sentiment of the Tsathians is subordinated to the quest for entertainment and sensual pleasures, to aesthetic experiences and re-enactments of their grand history.   Ever the materialist, Lovecraft accounts for the ghostly appearances on the mound in terms of the Tsathian’s highly developed mental talents, which include telepathy and the ability to dematerialize and re-materialize at will—an ability that requires focused training.  Nothing spiritual here. 

Yet for those of us who are comfortable with some supernatural explanations of phenomena, there is an interesting comment later in the story. The author describes how the Tsathian’s entertain themselves by re-enacting ancient battles on the surface in their semi-dematerialized forms.  He comments:  “Some philosophers thought that in such cases they actually coalesced with immaterial forces left behind by these warlike ancestors themselves.”  What could these ‘immaterial forces’ be but a survival of something outside the physical body?

More disturbingly, the Tsathians turn to their amphitheaters for gruesome entertainment, just as the Romans did—“where curious sports and sensations were provided for the weary people of K’n-yan.”  The ‘sports and sensations’ involve the psychokinetic surgical mutilation of members of the underclass.  As is demonstrated later in the story, such mutilations are also an aspect of the remarkably cruel and brutal system of justice.

At the end of the story, the narrator discovers the shocking fate of Zamacona after the explorer had attempted an escape from K’n-yan.  Without going into much detail, Zamacona’s terrible punishment involves placement of his identity inside the body of another—a device that occurs in several Lovecraft stories and interesting because of its recurrence.  The Shadow Out of Time (1936) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) are probably the best known stories where this device is used.  Typically, the identity of one character—who is ‘good’ or of superior character—is trapped inside that of another, who is either alien or degenerate.  What is this about?  Here are some other examples:

A highly intelligent being from outer space is trapped inside the body of a mental patient in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919).  Edward Derby is repeatedly transferred into the body of his evil wife Asenath in The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)—even after she has been murdered.  In The Challenge from Beyond (1937) George Campbell’s mind is transferred into the body of an extra-terrestrial that resembles a centipede.  Finally, a narrator discovers he has been transferred into the body of an Anglican priest in The Evil Clergyman, (1939) possibly one of the most horrifying ideas Lovecraft could have conceived.

A couple of posts cannot do justice to the depth and ambition of Lovecraft’s The Mound.  The speculative anthropology is thought provoking, while the ending is quite powerful and haunting.  This story is recommended to all who would seek a deeper understanding of what was on Lovecraft’s mind at the height of his career.

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