Sunday, August 31, 2014

3. A Miniature Island from Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Island of the Fay (1841) is a short but effective prose poem, originally published in Graham’s Lady and Gentleman’s Magazine. In just a few pages, the author ranges from broad philosophical speculations to a single dramatic and somber image that personifies his ideas.

A fay—I had to look this up, too—is an archaic term for elf, fairy, or sprite.  But this is not the cute, diminutive lawn ornament or a cousin of Tinkerbell.  Depending on the particular folk tradition, a fay can be a demoted angel or pagan deity, a spirit of the dead, a demon, the personification of some elemental force, or even the secretive remnant of a vanished race. 

Poe makes this explicit connection when he comments about the island he observes in his brief tale:

“If ever an island were enchanted,” said I to myself, “this is it.  This is the haunt of the few gentle Fays who remain from the wreck of the race.”

Etymologically speaking, the word 'fay' is ultimately derived from the Latin fātum, meaning fate, or fata, ‘the Fates’.  This connotation makes sense, given the use Poe makes of this concept in his story.   
The Island of the Fay begins with several broad philosophical comments about the importance of solitude to the enjoyment of music as well as the appreciation of nature.  The latter experience he elaborates into a remarkably pantheist world view, which also includes an early statement of what H.P. Lovecraft and his principal biographer would describe as the cosmic, or cosmicist perspective.  Expressing his awe of the beauty of nature—dark valleys, rocks, flowing water, forests, mountains—he remarks:

“…I love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole—a whole whose form (that of a sphere) is the perfect and most inclusive of all; whose path is among associate planets; whose meek handmaiden is the moon, whose mediate sovereign is the sun; whose life is eternity; whose thought is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose destines are lost in immensity; whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalculæ which infest the brain…”

The mood is positive and expansive, at least initially.  The author goes on to talk about the wonders of astronomy and infinite space, the relative significance of humankind, and the concept of God in the center of such a vast universe.  But the mood changes significantly as the author finally begins his narrative:  “It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of mountain…” 

As the sun is beginning to set, the traveler discovers a tiny island in the midst of a small river.  From his vantage point, he can see the entire island, east to west, which he divides in half on the basis of the late afternoon sun’s illumination.  The western end is verdant and idyllic, a midsummer scene of bright green grass, butterflies, and flowers—most notably Asphodel, a plant in the lily family that is associated in Greek mythology with the underworld and the dead.

The eastern end, in growing shadow, is naturally the section of the island where Poe, as the narrator, focuses his attention.  He carefully blurs the edges of shadows, trees, and water to create a mysterious, dream like setting.  As in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Uncharted Isle, discussed in an earlier post, the author is careful to make it ambiguous whether or not events are hallucinatory or real.  An optical illusion caused by the setting sun creates the visual impression of shadows forming in the trees and dropping into the river to be absorbed in the increasing darkness.

At the illumined end of the island the form of a female Fay appears.  She is standing upright in a little canoe that she guides along the edge of the island into the dark region.  Once there she becomes filled with shadow and drops into the black water.  The narrator observes this cycle repeated, and concludes that each time she makes this circuit, it

“…is the cycle of the brief year of her life.  She has floated through her winter and through her summer.  She is a year nearer to Death…”   

Eventually darkness overwhelms the entire island as the sun sets, and the Fay disappears from view.  The image is somber and poignant, and also links the melancholic vignette with Poe’s broader speculations at the beginning of the story.  The horror here is subtle, and the mood is more one of resignation than a need for sudden flight.  Unlike Smith’s The Uncharted Isle, or Blackwood’s terrifying The Willows, the narrator of The Island of the Fay does not actually visit the island; he observes it at some distance.  It is after all a very small island, and Poe has used it to ruminate on the pitifully small place a human lifetime occupies in the vast universe.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

2. An Island in a River

“Our insignificance perhaps may save us.”

The genus Salix contains several hundred species of deciduous trees and shrubs that thrive in the northern hemisphere, especially in wetlands and along river banks.  Commonly known as willows, these plants are remarkably tenacious, able to sprout roots from broken branches and twigs, and known for their tough, pliable wood.  Often they are intentionally planted along streams, because their spreading and interlacing roots help hold the bank against erosion.  The sap is watery and abundant and full of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.  Their flowers are the familiar catkins seen in spring, before the leaves appear.  Botanically speaking, willows are dioecious; there are male and female willows which are differentiated—if one should care to do so—by specific structures in their respective catkins.    

Because of their analgesic properties, willows are associated with medicine in various cultures.  Besides their role in the management of pain, the sap has also been used as an astringent and a diuretic.  However, because of their close proximity to water, willows are also connected with magic and spiritual processes, especially involving the moon.  Willows are considered sacred to the goddess Hecate.  In English folklore, they have an untrustworthy, evil character—suspected of being able to uproot themselves and follow passersby, muttering to them.  This makes them an unreliable addition to the landscaping.

So it is no accident that Algernon Blackwood featured the habits of this tree in his classic weird story, The Willows (1907).  Of this particular work H.P. Lovecraft makes the following comment:  “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.”  Elsewhere Lovecraft praises Blackwood for his ability to describe “…the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision.”

The Willows is probably familiar to many fans of weird fiction, and continues to appear in anthologies of weird fiction.  It is mandatory reading for anyone who would like to gain a deeper understanding of what is possible to accomplish in this genre.  Over a century since its publication, the novella is still able to provide chills and a sense of cosmicist awe.  Aspiring horror writers will find it worthwhile to study Blackwood’s subtle technique of using minor details to alter perception and mood as the story progresses.

The plot is straightforward and bare-boned:  two adventurers ride a canoe down the Danube River during flood season, and arrive at an island where they pitch camp for a few days.  But the gist of the story lies in the malevolence of the setting—a tiny island covered with willows that is inexorably being eroded away by the violent flood waters—and the psychological responses of the two men to their predicament.

The story begins in the sunny, urban areas of human habitation, just outside the Austrian city of Vienna. But as the narrator and his friend travel downstream, the mood darkens and grows more ominous, even as the waters become more turbulent.  Blackwood personifies the Danube River through vivid description of its behavior in various locales along its course, suggesting that the spirit of the water develops and matures as it travels downstream.  As the two men drift away from civilization, Blackwood also simplifies the landscape:  the river spreads out and becomes a roiling marsh, filled with ever shifting shorelines and small islands populated only by willows.  Beginning to feel uneasy, the narrator notes that his growing disquiet is somehow related to

“…my realization of our utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements about me.  The huge-grown river had something to do with it too—a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless every hour of the day and night.”

Trapped on the island for several days, the two men experience physical, psychological and spiritual threats to their existence.  As the river relentlessly whittles away at the edges of their landfall, the men suffer a parallel erosion of their sanity.  From the perspective of Jungian dream psychology, the ever diminishing island, the surrounding wetlands filled with gesticulating willows, the presence of the moon and the frequent shape-shifting going on all around marks this setting as typical of the albedo stage of dream imagery.

Carl Jung created an alchemical metaphor to describe stages of dream fantasy that progress as the unconscious wrestles with some problem or frustration.  Like the transmuting of lead into gold, the unconscious refines “base material” in three stages.  These are broadly speaking, dark, intermediate and bright in quality.  The nigredo is the initial point in the cycle of dream imagery, typified by themes of decay, disintegration, dismemberment, and gloom.  Two other phases follow.  There is an albedo phase in which dream images and change form and identity, shifting back and forth, and become lighter and more illumined—options are being considered.  The Willows seems to float precariously here. 

In the rubedo phase, a synthesis or solution is finally achieved, characterized by brightness, color and energy.  The cold dark base metal of nightmare is transformed through an intermediate quicksilver stage to bright, warm gold.  The sun comes out.  It is uncertain at the end of The Willows whether the narrator or his friend reach this stage, or ever escape from the dwindling bit of land that sustains them during this psychic onslaught.

The interactions of the two men are interesting.  The narrator is constantly seeking a rational explanation for the strange events, while his pragmatic friend—referred to as “the Swede”—intuitively understands their predicament, and its religious implications.  In some sense, they represent two halves or perspectives of the same mind.  Blackwood has accurately depicted the psychological torments of trying to comprehend an entity that is all powerful, unearthly and unconcerned with humanity.  At one point, the narrator is trying desperately to relieve himself of growing anxiety and panic.  He is heartened by a comment his friend makes:

“…he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to have the thought out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words from dangerous wandering to and fro in the mind.”

In a comment earlier in the story, the narrator offers what might be a core insight to be distilled from the men’s adventures on this weird little island:

“By Jove, though, was it all hallucination?  Was it merely subjective?  Did not my reason argue in the old futile way from the little standard of the known?”

In the end, when faced by the psychic horrors infesting an island in the middle of the Danube—a place no human is supposed to be—it will not avail one to think or talk or ponder.  Better to paddle like mad, or even swim.

Friday, August 29, 2014

1. Islands of the Weird

Psycho-geographically speaking, an island is an excellent setting for a horror story.  Land encircled by water seems able to concentrate or distill what is weird and frightening.  Fog Island.  Voodoo Island.  Skull Island.  Isle of the Dead.  The Island of Lost Souls.  Island of Terror. 

Though there may be rumors of its existence, the typical island of horror is a place almost completely unknown, far away from well-traveled routes and not on any ordinary map.  Its treacherous isolation makes it difficult to find or approach—and nearly impossible to escape.   Often the island is found by accident, as a result of shipwreck or navigational error or sheer desperation. 

In some sense, ‘horror island’ is a psychological and spiritual place, and so unlikely to appear on any map.  It is a miniscule patch of verdant land, some rocks, a beach, some hills, a mountain crest, a saving brook of fresh water—adrift in a roiling oceanic unconsciousness.  It is a dimly lit circle of awareness somewhere in the human mind—the scariest place on earth.  What island horror is waiting there for the hapless explorer or desperate castaway to discover?

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Uncharted Isle (1930) was originally published in Weird Tales; it shared that November issue with—among others—Robert E. Howard’s Kings of the Night, Edmond Hamilton’s The Cosmic Cloud, and one of H.P. Lovecraft’s poems, Fungi from Yuggoth: 4. Antarktos, (“And only pale auroras and faint suns/Glow on that pitted rock, whose primal sources/Are guessed at dimly by the Elder Ones.”).

In The Uncharted Isle, a castaway named Mark Irwin awakes from several days of delirium at sea to find himself in the lagoon of a mysterious island.  Everything about the place is strange, from its weirdly archaic flora and fauna, to the oddly positioned sun above.  That this is no ordinary bit of geography is clear from the narrator’s initial response:

 “More and more decisively, I knew that there was something wrong:  I felt an eerie confusion, a weird bewilderment, like one who has been cast away on the shores of an alien planet; and it seemed to me that I was separated from my former life, and from everything I had ever known…”

Smith skillfully blurs the distinction between reality and delirium; in the The Uncharted Isle the narrator might just as well be describing a nightmare, or elaborating on a dream journal entry.  He climbs to the top of a ridge and peers down.  Below him is the unfamiliar architecture of an ancient harbor town.  As he explores the town and observes its strange inhabitants, the dream-like elements intensify.  He cannot attract the attention of the inhabitants and seems invisible to them.  Their activities are fascinating, but mysterious.  What are they doing?

For their part, the citizenry seem as anxious and disoriented as he is.  They are preoccupied with maps and contraptions that they calibrate to the position of the sun overhead.  Something is wrong, perhaps with time and space itself.  At night Irwin observes that the stars and constellations are distorted.  Desperate and fearful, the townspeople resort to a solution which horrifies the narrator, and drives him from the island in panic.

S.T. Joshi notes that The Uncharted Isle was one of Clark Ashton Smith’s favorite stories.  In a footnote, he quotes the author as remarking that “while having a basis in theoretic science, the tale is not merely an ordinary science fiction story, but it can be read as an allegory of human disorientation.”   

Yet with the exception of some speculation about a localized “abrogation of dimensional laws” somewhere in the south Pacific, and descriptions of exotic technology, there is actually little science in the story.  Rather, the sense of disorientation Smith creates is that of a vividly recalled dream, of awareness and lucidity adrift in a sea of unconsciousness.  What will it discover there?