Sunday, June 29, 2014

2. Mirrors, Upon Further Reflection

Henry S. Whitehead was an associate of H.P. Lovecraft and collaborated with him on several stories.   He began corresponding with Lovecraft in late 1930, not long before his death.  Of Whitehead, Lovecraft once said “He has nothing of the musty cleric about him; but dresses in sports clothes, swears like a he-man on occasion, and is an utter stranger to bigotry or priggishness of any sort.”  Whitehead’s novella Cassius (1931) was discussed in a recent post, (see Homunculus).  Whitehead wrote just over 40 stories, and more than half of them saw print in Weird Tales.  He did most of his writing between 1923 and 1932, when he died at the age of 50.  In the mid 1940s his work was published by Arkham House in two collections of short fiction. 

One source suggests that Whitehead was strongly influenced by the writing of Edward Lucas White and William Hope Hodgson.  Several of his stories were set in the West Indies, and often featured voodoo, ghosts, and related supernatural activity.  S.T. Joshi, in his biography of H.P. Lovecraft, comments that Whitehead’s “urbane and erudite weird fiction is one of the few literary high spots of Weird Tales, although its lack of intensity and the relative conventionality of its supernaturalism have not won it many followers in recent years.”  Until fairly recently, Whitehead’s stories were out of print, but Ash Tree Press published a collection called Passing of a God and Other Stories (2007).  More detail about this interesting author may be found at:

Henry S. Whitehead’s The Trap (1931) is a “secondary revision” by H.P. Lovecraft, defined by S.T. Joshi as one “in which Lovecraft merely touched up—albeit sometimes extensively—a preexisting draft.”  This is in contrast to the “primary revisions”, in which it is clear that Lovecraft did most of the writing.  According to Joshi, Lovecraft wrote most of the central section of The Trap.  This is according to comments Lovecraft made in a letter to R.H. Barlow.  However, in a later publication, Joshi estimates that the last three quarters of the story are Lovecraft’s contribution.  Alert readers can observe the shift from Whitehead’s urbane conversational style to Lovecraft’s denser, more verbose prose.

There are other differences between the two authors which make this collaboration disjointed and problematic.  When Lovecraft’s section begins, characters and dialogue vanish, to be replaced with pseudo-scientific theorizing and laborious historical back story.  Typically in a Lovecraft story, historical detail precedes the main action of the story, as a way to build up both the credibility and the sense of impending horror as events unfold.  In The Trap (1931), it is offered as explanation after the main conflict is resolved, almost as an afterthought.

The Trap (1931) is an example of a particular type of trans-dimensional portal, one involving a cursed or transmogrified mirror.  An old mirror of mysterious origin is set up in a school teacher’s quarters, where it attracts the attention of one of the students.  A boy is sucked through the mirror into the fourth dimension. He is able to communicate telepathically with his teacher when the latter is dreaming.  It is through these dreams that the narrator of the story is able to understand the nature of the boy’s predicament as well as perceive the strange world on the other side.  Rescue is potentially hazardous but fairly straightforward to accomplish, given assumptions about how the mirror operates. 

Rescue is delayed several pages by considerable speculation and explanation of the history of the mirror.  However, the story is interesting conceptually—a detailed account of what it might be like to enter the fourth dimension by way of an oddly fashioned reflective surface, and the impact of such an adventure afterwards.  When the boy is examined after his rescue, he is found to be left-handed instead of right-handed, and his internal organs are rearranged on opposite sides of his body—this trope shows up again in later science fiction concerning transport across dimensions.

It is interesting to compare Whitehead’s The Trap to A. Merritt’s Through the Dragon Glass (1917).  (See 3. Through a Gateway ).  The older story essentially relies on magic to explain the operation of the mirror, while in The Trap, an effort is made to enlist science in determining how it works.  Here, Whitehead’s and Lovecraft’s collaboration is a transitional work, marking a shift away from supernaturalism towards a more materialistic explanation of weird events.  (See also Lovecraft’s The Shunned House, written just a few years before.)  Science shows up, almost like a guest who arrives too early, and there is an awkward tension.  Lovecraft in the end falls back on using an occult origin to explain the mirror’s weird properties.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

“You Need Me to Connect You to Him”

The citizens of Vega, in Syfy’s new series Dominion, would benefit greatly from an outbreak of the Narvik B virus.  This human engineered pathogen gave the cast of last year’s Helix a clear focus:  everyone was trying to steal the virus, or get away from it, or prevent its spread, or recover from its effects.  There has been an outbreak of sorts on the SyFy channel lately—of religion.  Both Dominion and Helix touch on religious themes.  Helix for example addressed issues of immortality, ethics and mankind’s hubris.  The new shows on SyFy appear to involve considerable reflection on religious ideas and imagery.  Amen!

(Cultural note:  why are there so many shows and movies lately dealing with the Apocalypse?)

Despite overt discussion of faith, (unavoidable in a show containing angels), Dominion lacks a central focus to keep the show headed in more or less one direction, at least so far.  Viewers may find it difficult to follow, much less remember, all the interweaving subplots.  Where is all this heading?  To be fair, there have only been two episodes, and viewers are still getting to know the principle characters, and come to a working understanding of all the details of this fascinating alternate universe.

Vega is besieged by marauding angels.  They are essentially airborne zombies that can cling to walls, ceilings and roofs like flies.  They attack from outside the city’s defenses, but as of last night have managed to disguise themselves and infiltrate the city as spies and assassins.   Within Vega’s walls there is political unrest, an emerging religious fanaticism, problems with a nuclear reactor, struggles between two powerful families, and numerous romantic entanglements.   War is looming with the rival city of Helena—as if there was not already enough armed, and winged, combat. According to the show’s inventive theology, God has abandoned this mess, leaving the angels and humans to fight a long and inconclusive war.

For some reason, the angels only kill humans one at a time, avoiding the weapons of mass destruction that humans might use in similar circumstances.  This is going to be a long war.

In one of the more profound moments of the second episode, the archangel Michael and his supernatural opponent Gabriel land like crows on a distant cliff side to talk about humanity’s fate.  Michael tells Gabriel that their “father” would be ashamed of what he has done to mankind, but Gabriel argues back that God cannot stand the sight of humans and has abandoned them.  After all, Gabriel says, humans were given immortality, and paradise, and bodies made in the image of their Creator—“and turned the planet into a pit.” 

Michael tells Gabriel that the issue really is not humanity at all.  His violence is simply lashing out in anger because he feels he himself has been abandoned by God.  But Gabriel has the last word, a dig at Michael’s own insecurity:  Will the humans continue to see Michael as their savior, now that they have their own “Chosen One”?

There is a passage in 1 Corinthians—6:3—where Paul is criticizing believers for taking their legal issues to court instead of resolving them among themselves:

“If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?  Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?  Do you not know that we will judge angels?

Not a few angels may have been irritated by this presumption, given that they were on hand doing with will of God long before the arrival of mankind.   In Dominion, Gabriel implies that God loved humanity more than the angels, a great injustice.  There is certainly precedent for angels going their own way when impatient with their Creator.  Denied a promotion eons ago, the angel Satan and was cast out of heaven and sent to hell, where he began a second career as mankind’s nemesis.  But the devil is conspicuously absent from Dominion, probably because he is not needed at the moment.

No one would mistake the theology of Dominion for anything approaching Christianity.  For one thing, the notions of “turn the other cheek” and “love thy enemy” are completely absent.  There is the Church of the Savior, whose followers have faith in the arrival of a human “Chosen One”, but this recalls Old Testament prophecies about a national deliverer for the nation of Israel, not a Christ-like figure.  The leaders of Vega and her rival cities of Helena and Delphi seem reminiscent of the corrupt and violent warlords depicted in the Old Testament Book of Judges, (“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”)

Another Old Testament reference may have been a source of the idea for the closing scene of the second episode.  Viewers discover that General Riesen has been going outside the walls of the city to consort with a female angel.  Heavens!  In Genesis, just before the account of Noah and the flood, there is this mysterious reference: 

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.  They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” 

There is still debate about just who the Nephilim were, but the passage is suggestive.  Humans having intercourse with supernatural beings—where have we heard of this before?

The second episode contained a lot of loose ends as far as the plot goes, but interesting back story was offered.  The rival city of Helena is run by women who worship a female deity.  Sisterhood is powerful because the women control the only surviving air force on the planet.  Expect some awkward moments should “God the Father” ever return to His creation.  The Machiavellian Senator Whele revealed that before the war he had been a televangelist.  Now a complete agnostic, Senator Whele did retain the insight that his power and influence over others rested in being a middleman:  “You need me to connect you to Him”.  (Machiavelli ought to be made the patron saint of Vega.) 

There are also fascinating details in the architecture of the city, the interior décor, and the behavior of the various social classes that create a fantastic, yet weirdly familiar parallel universe.  In Dominion, Syfy has created another engaging science fiction/fantasy, and gets points for reintroducing discussion of important religious ideas in an entertaining and provocative show.

Dominion is on SyFy Thursday nights at 9:00 E.S.T.  See the show’s website at for more details.   

Thursday, June 26, 2014

With Friends Like These…

The neighborhood where John Kirowan, John O’Donnel, and John Conrad live is a very busy place, supernaturally speaking.  These three gentlemen are stock characters who appear in several of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories from the early to mid 1930s.  Professor Kirowan will remind some readers of William Hope Hodgson’s psychic detective, Carnacki, though he is much less verbose and overbearing.  O’Donnel likes to collect rare and ancient weapons, which sometimes cause him to channel the reincarnated spirits of forgotten warriors.  Conrad is another member of this circle of friends who shows up often in these stories.  None of them ever have to work, attend to their families, or take the garbage out.

Kirowan is the narrator of Dig Me No Grave (1937) in which a neighbor, two mansions over, is seized by a demon in fulfillment of a contract for his soul.  Conrad is also a witness.  In The Children of the Night (1931), O’Donnel becomes a murderous Aryan warrior after being knocked on the head by a Neolithic flint mallet.  He nearly kills a suspicious houseguest—Professor Kirowan was also at that party. 

In The Dwellers Under the Tomb, (published posthumously in 1976), O’Donnel and Conrad team up to uncover a bizarre premeditated murder:  a greedy brother fakes his own death in hopes of luring his identical twin to the grave site.  He wants to kill his brother and take his place.  The mayhem is complicated by the appearance of “the dwellers” referenced in the title.  

(With the exception of the villains, these characters all seem to be a fictional representation of the circle of writers that visited and corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft.  Perhaps Howard simply re-imagined his colleagues as successful intelligentsia, and surrounded them with the horrors they created in their stories.)

John O’Donnel is the narrator of The Haunter of the Ring (1934), originally published in Weird Tales.  He arrives at Kirowan’s study eager to show off his latest acquisition, a “jewel-hilted Afghan dagger”.  As he flashes the knife, Kirowan’s other guest, a mutual acquaintance named James Gordon, reacts violently.  “Keep back! Get away from me!” he screams. 

Gordon is bit jumpy, and who wouldn’t be?  His wife Evelyn has tried to kill him three times in the last week.  Could her frightening behavior have something to do with that “ancient and accursed ring” she is wearing, the one that won’t come off?  The one that depicts “a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes”?  It turns out the ring was a belated wedding gift from an earlier suitor, one Joseph Roelocke, whom Evelyn turned down in favor of James Gordon.   

After Evelyn’s fourth attempt to kill her husband is apparently successful, Kirowan suspects the worst.  He and O’Donnel speed across town to Roelocke’s high rise apartment.

In case the reader is uncertain of Roelocke’s true nature, the author describes him as an “elegant sophisticate” and a “young exquisite”, who displays “infernal indolence and blasé indifference”.  One suspects this is code for homosexual, but the villain is perhaps less classifiable.  When Kirowan and O’Donnel confront Roelocke in his apartment, he is wearing a Chinese silk dressing gown decorated with dragons.  He is draped languidly across a divan, smoking a cigarette.  Worse, his real name is Yosef Vrolok.  Combining widely disparate ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes seems intended to amplify the sense of evil and treacherousness in this diabolical character.
From a previous encounter, Kirowan knows that Roelock—Vrolok, (warlock?), is in reality a notorious Hungarian vampire and occultist.  And not only that: years ago he stole away from Kirowan the only woman he ever loved.  (On the other hand, Evelyn was probably not the only woman Vrolok ever loved.)  There is a climactic but confusing struggle between Kirowan and Vrolok, and Gordon somehow survives being shot in the head by his wife.  Vengeance and reincarnation are in view, but not very clearly, and readers may find The Haunter of the Ring one of Robert E. Howard’s less coherent stories.


Fans of Cthulhu Mythos inspired stories may want to check out Acolytes of Cthulhu (2014) a new anthology just out.  Edited by Robert M. Price, it contains selections from the 1930s, 40s, 60s, 70s and 80s—alas, nothing from the 1950s!  The book is valuable in showing the development of this literature in the decades immediately following Lovecraft’s passing.   

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mirrors and Portals

Not to know the truth, at least not right away, is sometimes better, especially in regards to love and infatuation.  This seems to be the moral of Clark Ashton Smith’s, The Enchantress of Sylaire (1941), an item in his Averoigne cycle of stories.  This adults-only fable was published in Weird Tales, along side of a second installment of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Manly Wade Wellman’s It All Came True in the Woods, and a novella by Ray Cummings, The Robot God.

(A great quote from Cummings:  "Time... is what keeps everything from happening at once.")

The Enchantress of Sylaire contains Smith’s characteristic ambivalence about absolute differences between good and evil, a division typically blurred by the self-interest of his characters.  The story also includes his clever symmetry and circularity in the plot:  many of his narratives seem to end in some sense where they began, but with a powerful resolution the second time around.

Though simple in form—a seemingly straightforward fairy tale—the author is attempting to say something subtle and profound about relationships between men and women, and the impact of time on perceptions of the beloved.  The naïve young Anselme has recently sworn off women after being rudely dismissed by the haughty demoiselle Dorothée.  But his commitment to this plan soon wavers.  Near his hermit’s camp in the woods he encounters the lovely Sephora as she is bathing in a woodland pool.  Sephora is the enchantress referred to in the title, and Anselme is immediately smitten by her intense physical beauty.

Unfortunately, Sephora is accompanied by a large, threatening wolf.  Sephora tells Anselme that the canine is harmless, and she should know:  the wolf is her previous lover and a sorcerer, whom she has changed into a wolf.  “The pool is cursed from old time with the infection of lycanthropy—and Sephora has added her spells to its power,” the wolf later explains to Anselme in private.  From the wolf, whose name is Malachie, Anselme learns that Sephora is an ancient lamia, “…who feeds on the vital forces of young men.”  Malachie provides Anselme a special mirror to see Sephora as she really is—a hideous and treacherous monster.  Will he use it?

In Greek mythology the Lamia was once a Libyan queen and mistress of Zeus.  When his wife Hera found out about the two of them, she killed all her children, and changed Lamia into a serpentine creature that hunted and fed on the children of others.  Later traditions combined her legend with that of local vampires and succubi, and she became a being that seduced and exsanguinated young men.

The poet John Keats described this mythological being in his poem The Lamia (1884):

“She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shown, or interwreathed,
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s fire
Her head was serpent, but ah, bittersweet
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair…”

Exsanguination is certainly a risk Anselme is willing to take with Sephora, despite Malachie’s warnings.  Can her ex-lover really be trusted anyway?  In an amusing twist at the end of the story, Anselme uses the “Mirror of Reality” with good effect—but not on his beloved Sephora.  Doesn’t something like this happen among all lovers?

It is interesting to compare The Enchantress of Sylaire with a two part story Smith had published about a decade earlier, The City of Singing Flame/Beyond the Singing Flame (1931).  (See also An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal and ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal Redux)  The earlier two stories strive for “scientifiction” and employ a “trans-dimensional portal”, the operation of which is explained in terms of a “spectral flaw..a sort of super-dimension, abridging the cosmic intervals and connecting universe with universe.”   Ten years later, Smith dispenses with this, and Sephora the Enchantress merely guides Anselme to a nearby huddle of Druidic monoliths, the portal to her domain.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

“I’ve Got an Angel in Pursuit!”

SyFy’s new show Dominion, which premiered last Thursday night, is a fascinating mix of exotic theology, totalitarianism, and comic book action.  The show takes place in the near future, after an apocalyptic battle between humanity and the angels.  God has unaccountably left and gone away, allowing the angel Gabriel to lead a horde of “lower angels” to wreak havoc against mankind. 

These evil angels are capable of possessing humans and converting them into super powered yet articulate zombies, able to scale walls and ceilings as well as leap great distances.  Unlike zombies, the Possessed can be dispatched pretty much like ordinary humans, with bullets, knives or swords—a head shot is not necessary.  But they are fast, and some can actually fly.  Alex Lannon, one of the main characters, encounters a few of them—they are called “eight balls”—during a reconnaissance mission outside the walled city of Vega.  Alex must flee back to the safety of the city, which provides an opportunity to demonstrate the city’s defensive capability, in a scene very similar to one in Starship Troopers.  

Only the archangel Michael, who has broken with his fellow seraphim and cherubim, stands between Gabriel’s minions and beleaguered humanity.  He is the tireless defender of the remnant that has survived the conflagration.  Yet Michael’s human defendees feel considerable ambivalence about the rigid code and hierarchy he has imposed on them to ensure security and survival.

(If this is what the angels are like, how bad can the demons be?)

Although only 25 years have elapsed since the war with the angels, humanity has regressed nearly a thousand years in social, political and economic organization.  People live in fortress city states, where   candles, religious statuary, and Greco-Roman architecture exist side by side with plasma screens, high-tech weapons, and video surveillance cameras.  Resources are scarce; emissaries from rival cities must barter for food, medicine, wives, and a nuclear reactor.  The archaic costumes, set design, and urban scenery really suggest an alternative universe, where the Medieval “Age of Faith” co-exists with advanced technology.

As in Helix, the first episode of Dominion introduces a plethora of characters and subplots, so viewers may want to take notes, (or visit the show’s website at  The city of Vega, where the show begins, is a totalitarian world filled with conspiracies, bizarre religious beliefs and social unrest.  The people grumble under an oppressive caste hierarchy that mirrors the organization of the angels in heaven. The Archangel Michael rules and defends Vega from on high, but delegates authority to General Riesen, the “Lord of the City”, and David Whele, the conniving and power hungry “Secretary  of Commerce”.  (Will capitalism and corporate interests ever be fairly portrayed on TV?)

The noble General wants to arrange a marriage of his beautiful daughter Claire to the Secretary’s fanatical son William, thus politically uniting the House of Riesen with the House of Whele in hopes of bringing about political reform.  As “Principate”, William is head of the Church of the Savior, which holds that a human has already been born who will lead mankind to victory over the angels.  

Only the most fundamentalist of Christians will find this notion blasphemous, because the theology in Dominion is so well off the beaten track of orthodoxy.  If anything, the traditional faithful may be charmed to see people actually engaged in prayer on television, and the concept of simple faith and piety is a recurring theme, (especially when contrasted with the machinations of the treacherous Secretary).

Claire, who wants justice and democracy for the people of Vega, is much opposed to marrying the Secretary’s son William.  She is secretly in love with Alex Lannon, a soldier in the Archangel Corps.  This relationship will certainly complicate things over the next few episodes.  Meanwhile, the Secretary is secretly involved with Arika, the beautiful emissary from the rival city of Helena, who wants to make a deal for nuclear technology.  Alex Lannon has befriended a poor orphan named Bixby, whom he wants to escort to the distant democratic city of Delphi.  He plans an escape from the walled city of Vega with Bixby and Claire, but an angel attack near the end of the show thwarts this.  (As with Helix, the underlying format of Dominion, despite all the weaponry and exploding evil angels, is the soap opera.)

There is some speculation as to whether “the Chosen One” has arrived in Vega, and this matter is clarified in the pilot, when a miracle occurs involving mysterious, hieroglyphic tattoos.  None of this has to make sense. 

Given its wildly imaginative alternative universe, frenetic action and engaging subplots, the show can be forgiven for borrowing heavily from a number science fiction movies and shows.  In fact, viewers may enjoy spotting the contributions from Starship Troopers, the Matrix franchise, Blade Runner and perhaps even Les Miserables, among others.  Some of the urban sets depicting the oppressed citizenry of Vega reminded me of the old 1980s science fiction dystopia, Max Headroom.

Dominion is on SyFy Thursday nights at 9:00 E.S.T.