Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Death by Metaphysics

Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1946) opens with the classic debate between a materialist, also named Frank, and his author and journalist friend Halpin Chalmers.  Chalmers is the visionary dreamer, impatient with modernism and dogmatic science.  He is more comfortable with a subjective and intuitive approach to understanding the nature of reality.   

The discussion closely resembles that between Randolph Carter and his “orthodox sun-dweller” friend Joel Manton in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Unnamable (1925).  The stories seem to be mirror images of each other.  It is interesting that in both the author—as first person narrator—argues from the opposite side of the debate that is more characteristic of his views. 

Thus Lovecraft, through his fictional representative Randolph Carter, argues in favor of supernatural explanations for what he and his friend Joel Manton are about to experience.  Long, as ‘Frank’ in The Hounds of Tindalos, urges his friend Chalmers to be cautious and trust in science rather than succumb to the hazards of occultism and subjective experience.  Ironically, Manton the materialist suffers the most harm from the supernatural horror in The Unnamable, while Chalmers the mystic has his head handed to him—literally—in The Hounds of Tindalos.

Long was a friend of H.P. Lovecraft’s.  They met as members of the United Amateur Press Association around 1920.  S.T. Joshi notes that the two were different in temperament and in world view.  Long, ten years younger, went through ‘phases’ where his intellectual passions included avant-garde literature, mediaeval Catholicism, and Bolshevism, among other subjects.  This served as a basis for good natured debate between the two.  Reading the repartee between Frank and Chalmers, one can imagine a similar spirited discussion between Long and Lovecraft.

The Hounds of Tindalos is told in five sections.  The first two contain the aforementioned philosophical debate as well as a description of Chalmers’ experiment and its aftermath.  The author takes a powerful drug called ‘Liao’ to expand his consciousness.  It allows him not only to travel back in time, but perceive the underlying nature of reality.  Chalmers persuades Frank to take notes on what he experiences while under the influence. 

In a hallucinatory passage Chalmers experiences all of human history and the evolution of life on primordial Earth.  Long borrows and modifies ideas from Chinese Taoism to describe a dark and threatening view of what lies beyond normal awareness in the fourth dimension, where the evil ‘Doels’ and ‘Hounds of Tindalos’ lie in wait.  A confusing section seems to suggest a role for these evil entities in the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.  However, Chalmers states “They are beyond good and evil as we know it.  They are that which in the beginning fell away from cleanliness.”

After his experience, Chalmers begins to deteriorate.  Hysterically afraid, he has his friend help him plaster the corners of his room so that all the sharp angles are replaced by smooth curves—“Frank, they must be kept out...They can only reach us through angles.  We must eliminate all angles from this room.”   Frank doubts there is reality to Chalmers’ terrible anxiety.  He ascribes it a drug-induced psychosis.  (Perhaps the breakdown is also caused by too much metaphysics).

The remaining sections of The Hounds of Tindalos are fragments.  The narrator’s voice disappears and the story becomes less coherent—this may have been Long’s intent.  A newspaper reports an unusual tremor and subsequent fires in the city; there is also news of the grizzly death of the occult writer Halpin Chalmers.  In the fourth segment, a biologist describes the chemical contents of a strange blue slime that covered Chalmers’ remains—the slime is alive, yet lacks enzymes typical of familiar life forms. 

Finally, the story ends with a haunting passage from one of Chalmers’ writings, where he speculates—and explains to the reader—how life might thrive in another dimension.  “Some day I shall travel in time and meet it face to face.” The story can be read as a cautionary tale:  writers who eschew science and materialism for a solo journey into the underlying nature of reality risk insanity, sliming, and decapitation.      

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