Monday, September 29, 2014

Tloong vs. Murm on the Red World

Clark Ashton Smith is best known for his distinctive horror and fantasy, as well his poetry.  However, in the early 1930s he attempted to expand into the field of science fiction.  He wrote a series of stories featuring his character of Captain Volmar, an early version of the various captains—Archer, Kirk, Picard, Janeway—who piloted the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The Red World of Polaris was intended to be the second in the series.  Smith had been encouraged by the relative success of the first story Marooned in Andromeda (1930), which introduced Captain Volmar, though he only played a minor role in this debut.  (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda).

According to Ronald Hilger and Scott Connors, who edited an interesting collection of Smith’s CaptainVolmar stories back in 2003, the second story was not as well received by Hugo Gernsback of Wonder Stories.  It was criticized for being overly descriptive, lacking in plot or complications, and devoid of interesting action.  These are fair criticisms.  Much of the story is essentially a travelogue about what the crew of the starship Alcyone observes on a strange planet orbiting Polaris.  There is almost no dialogue, and the characters are essentially interchangeable because undeveloped.  Smith himself was apparently ambivalent about the work.  Hilger and Connors quote a letter of Smith’s in which he responded to the magazine’s feedback:

“…if human motives are mainly what they want, why bother about going to other planets—where one might conceivably escape from the human equation?  The idea of using the worlds of Alioth or Altair as a mere setting for the squabbles and heroics of the crew on a space-ship, (which, in essence, is about what they are suggesting) is too rich for any use.  Evidently Astounding Stories is setting the pace for them with its type of stellar-wild-west yarn.  There doesn’t seem to be much chance of putting over any really good work, and a survey of the magazine field in general is truly discouraging.”

The Red World of Polaris is not one of Smith’s better works, though it is interesting to see the author’s indelible style translated and coarsened by the expectations of pulp science fiction circa the 1930s.  The story contains many familiar science fiction tropes that are still in use today:  tractor beams, amorphous polypoid monsters, (APMs), alien thought projection devices, a technologically brilliant but doomed civilization, genetic mutations—even a mad scientist.

(Editorial comment:  why is it often the assumption that extraterrestrial civilizations, when we encounter them, will be superior to our own?  That they may be inferior in some respects, and vulnerable to our encroachment, seems equally as likely.) 

As in many similar stories of the time period, extraterrestrial names are nearly unpronounceable conglomerations of consonants.  The “Tloong” are a technological race of alien brains encased in robot like exoskeletons, whose principle occupation is the pursuit of scientific knowledge.  They are threatened by a veracious subterranean organism of their own creation, the “Murm”.  Volmar and his crew—who are labeled “Ongar” in the alien vernacular—arrive just in time to observe the final conflagration.  Smith gives considerable attention to the visual details and conceptual aspects of Tloong culture and architecture—that is, the setting; with a few more plot twists and some identifiable characters, a version of The Red World of Polaris would have made an entertaining Star Trek episode.

The second installment of Captain Volmar’s adventures was rescued from obscurity and published in an anthology of the same name in 2003 by Night Shade Books.  Except for a couple passages, in which he describes the bizarre ecology of the planet and later its catastrophic demise, Smith’s poetic, hallucinatory depictions are absent from the story.  The Red World of Polaris otherwise closely resembles other pulp science fiction tales of the time in its emphasis of concept over narrative and characterization.

Like his colleague H.P. Lovecraft, Smith struggled to adapt to the then emerging field of science fiction, which rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.  Neither accomplished a successful transition, save for perhaps a few stories at most.  Fortunately, Smith went on to write his marvelous Averoigne and Malygris stories, among other dark fantasies.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Horror Theory: Your Mind as Slide Projector

It seems part of our natural inclination toward idolatry and hubris that we repeatedly compare our minds to some technology we have created.  There have been many examples of this throughout history, involving new, complex or marvelous inventions as the subject of the comparison.  Thus over the centuries the workings of the human mind have been compared to that of steam engines, light bulbs, electrical currents, telephone switchboards, and more recently, computers. 

Current attempts by some neuroscientists to reduce mental and even spiritual phenomena to an elaborate calculation involving genetics and neurochemistry at the cellular level is also an example of this metaphorical thinking. But it is an idolatry; the transcendent quality of the human mind and soul will hardly be lodged in the interstices of matter.  In our self-congratulatory awe of the machines we have created we forget that we ourselves our created.  “What a piece of work is man!” as Shakespeare has Hamlet say.  To be fair, the human mind can seem overwhelmingly complex both in structure and activity.  In situations like this, it is common to use metaphorical thinking in order to understand an entity that is subtle and mysterious.

Metaphorical thinking attempts to explain the unknown in terms of the known.  It chiefly involves drawing superficial comparisons between something not fully understood and something that is concrete and familiar, or at least more readily comprehended.  Metaphorical thinking does not produce knowledge per se, though it often masquerades as such.  As in poetry, it serves principally to alter one’s perspective or point of view—at least one’s appreciation—of some object.  Metaphorical thinking is crucial to politics, advertising, religion, philosophy and psychology.

An early example of understanding the human mind in terms of a new and popular technology is described in Terry Castle’s “Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie”.  The extract that I have is from Ken Gelder’s fascinating anthology of horror criticism, The Horror Reader (2000).  Phantasmagoria is defined these days as “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined”, as Merriam Webster’s dictionary puts it. 

We have all experienced phantasmagoria in literature, film, at rock concerts, and after imbibing certain substances.  Castle reminds us that phantasmagoria once specifically referred to a technological marvel of the early 1800s, a precursor to the modern slide projector, (and later cinematic technology), called the “magic lantern”.  The device was used to stage “ghost shows” which were immensely popular in France and England at the time.  Castle describes the magic lantern, invented by Athanasius Kircher in the 1600s, as follows:

“Kircher’s device, from which all of our modern instruments for slide and cinematic projection derive, consisted of a lantern containing a candle and concave mirror.  A tube with a convex lens at each end was fitted into an opening in the side of the lantern, while a groove in the middle of the tube held a small image painted on glass.  When candlelight was reflected by the concave mirror onto the first lens, the lens concentrated the light on the image on the glass slide.  The second lens in turn magnified the illuminated image and projected it onto a wall or gauze screen.  In darkness, with the screen itself invisible, images could be made to appear like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air.”

Castle goes on to describe the showmanship involved in conducting a typical magic lantern show, which used scary and gothic imagery from history, mythology and biblical themes, set to creepy music and sound effects, and projected in sepulchral locations.  The illusions were of sufficient quality to frighten many in the audience.  These shows were very popular, so much so, that by the 1860s technological advancements created a market for “do-it-yourself” magic lantern kits for domestic use.

Because of the technology’s popularity, references to phantasmagoria began to show up in the horror literature of the time; Castle cites examples from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and especially Ligeia (1838).  Describing the images depicted on tapestries and drapes in the bridal chamber, the narrator of Ligeia, who is admittedly an imbiber of opium, remarks:

“To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a further advance, this appearance gradually departed; and, step by step, rounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.”

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith can probably recall similar passages from the more hallucinatory passages of stories like The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) or Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933) among others.  Though produced nearly a century later, these stories seem to contain an echo of phantasmagoric imagery.

Clark Ashton Smith, for example, makes explicit reference to the magic lantern in his The Red World of Polaris, (an interesting story retrieved from obscurity in 2003).  An alien overlord shares the contents of its mind with the crew of the starship Alcyone, using a similar device:

“One of the delegation left the room forthwith, and returned with a singular instrument, scarcely comparable in its form to anything used on earth, with many lenses of a transparent material arranged behind each other in a frame of spiral rods and arabesque filaments…There, as the men gazed, a picture suddenly sprang into life, as if from the slide of a magic lantern, and filled the entire opposite face of the wall.”

Another example of phantasmagoric imagery can be found in the climax of Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936), when the now supernaturally disordered mind of Robert Blake can no longer produce a grammatical sentence:

“…There is a monstrous odour…senses transfigured…boarding at that tower window cracking and giving way…I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…”

Castle notes that phantasmagoric imagery in literature often indicated the operations of a diseased, traumatized or intoxicated mind.  From here the technological metaphor appears in psychological speculations about the nature of hallucinations and perceptions of supernatural phenomena.  Phantasmagoria shows appeared at a time when the rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment was being applied to the debunking of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well as the broader effort to understand the human psyche.  It was a ready-made technological metaphor; soon, supernatural phenomena were seen as projections of a diseased mind, just as the magic lantern projected contrived images of ghosts.

That images of supernatural horror may be projections of the mind instead of perceptions of external phenomena is seen in many ghost stories as well as horror, science fiction and fantasy generally.  One example that comes to mind is the Freudian entity that attacks members of the starship crew in the magnificent 1956 film Forbidden Planet.  It turns out that a scientist has been using alien technology to amplify his intelligence, which has also resulted in projecting and giving form to repressed feelings of anger and rage—“Monsters from the Id!”

Castle makes the astute point that rationalist attempts to debunk and internalize supernatural phenomena as products of a disturbed psyche have in effect “spectralized” the mind.  Insofar as frightening thoughts and images can recur and terrify, the mind may be said to be haunted and disturbed by phenomena no less real because internal.  Instead of explaining away supernatural phenomena, Castle feels that the rationalists merely blurred the lines between reality and the products of a disordered mind.

A special case is the nature of dreams, which Castle does not address in her article. Nor are there persuasive explanations from the rationalist camp for these nightly phenomena that we all experience.  In our dreams we create entire worlds ex nihilo with which we interact as if they were real, in which “we live and move and have our being.”  Where do these worlds come from?  What sustains them while we are there?  What sustains the real world we think we know?

The phantasmagoria shows of the early 19th century illustrated the wonderful tension and ambivalence between supernaturalism and rationalism.  As in our movie theatres today, audiences knew that the illusions were artificially created, technologically contrived.  Yet they were still terrified by them and sought them out, even applauding improvements in the effectiveness of the “special effects”.  From a psychological and even religious perspective one can ask why—if we in fact no longer believe in ghosts, demons, monsters, and the like—we seek ever more graphic and technical proof of their existence in our horror entertainments.  Is it that we are merely trying to get a closer look at the contents of our minds?  


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Island Memories

The U.S. Virgin Islands lie about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, and consist principally of four islands: Saint Croix, Saint John, Saint Thomas, and Water Island.  Collectively, their land area is equivalent to approximately twice that of our Nation’s Capital.  The first three islands were named by Christopher Columbus, who discovered them by accident back in 1493. Saint Croix, originally known as Santa Cruz, is the largest. 

Henry S. Whitehead set many of his “jumbee” tales on Saint Croix and the neighboring islands. It apparently was a very scary place, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Judging by the content of his narratives, the islands were frequently overrun by ghosts, evil homunculi, restless products of dismemberment, fish-zombies and other phenomena.  So much so, that the natives often accepted these supernatural idiosyncrasies as familiar, even routine.  Whitehead derived all of these horrors from the folklore and supernatural understandings of the other immigrant population in the islands, people of African descent who were forcibly brought there as slaves generations earlier.

To be fair, Whitehead was actually curious and often respectful of the social and cultural differences he found on Saint Croix.  Nevertheless, his casual racism will offend some readers.  But contrast this attitude with that of his friend, H.P. Lovecraft, who was often dismissive or worse towards other ethnic or racial groups.  Whitehead might have said ‘I am Saint Croix’ in the same sense that Lovecraft said ‘I am Providence’.

Saint Croix and its sister islands were a quiet, attractive Caribbean destination in Whitehead’s day: whitewashed, leisurely, polite, and sunny.  It was a pleasant if perplexing locale for Whitehead’s principal narrator, Gerald Canevin and his amiable Caucasian friends. Yet the juxtaposition of the bright tropical climate with the dark history of racial oppression and colonization, white with black, as well as the uneasy friction between different cultures created optimal conditions for social nightmares to germinate and grow. Whitehead’s bemused, detached tone also sharpens the edge of the reader’s growing dis-ease.  Whether or not it was the author’s intention, the selection of an island seems to magnify the unfolding horror, as if it were a lens we would rather not look through.

Black Tancrède (1929) is superficially a “beast with five fingers” tale of vengeance, of which there were several examples in the horror entertainments of the time period, (see also Some Beasts With Five Fingers).  But the appearance of this trope near the end of the story is almost an afterthought, nearly an item of humor, and occurs after the real horror has been presented in gruesome detail.  The story begins at the Grand Hotel, literally a white hotel for white people.  The author lovingly depicts it as almost a monument to colonial power and privilege:

“The Grand Hotel of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands glistens in the almost intolerable brilliance of the Caribbean sunlight, because that great edifice is whitewashed in every corner, every winter.  Built somewhat more than a century ago, it is a noble example of that tropical architecture which depends, for its style, upon the structural necessity for resistance to summer hurricanes.  Its massive walls of stone brick, and heavy cement are thick and ponderous…but it is still as impressive as in the days when the Danish Colonial High Court sat in one of its sections; when its “slave-pens” were especially known for their safety.”

There has been a continuing disturbance in Room Number 4 at the Grand Hotel:  guests report a loud rapping at the door around 4:00 a.m. each night of their stay.  Gerald Canevin, the narrator, is an Americanized version of William Hope Hodgson’s “Carnacki, the psychic detective”.  Staying at the hotel with his cousin, he decides to investigate the phenomena, beginning with a survey of the area’s troubled history.

This is personified in the experiences of a hapless ex-slave named Black Tancrède, who fled Haiti for the island of Saint Thomas. There he resided in one of the slave pens that now, a hundred years later, form the basement of the narrator’s house.  Whitehead, always sensitive to racial and ethnic gradations, describes the man as “a full-blooded black African”.  Tancrède was a refugee from the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, in which slaves overthrew their colonial masters, but then succumbed to political turmoil and despotism.

Tancrède soon fell into debt in Saint Thomas and became re-enslaved to one of the Danish colonists.  He escaped to a nearby island, enjoyed relative freedom but hard labor, and later became involved in a slave uprising against the Danish colonial powers in 1833.  Captured, he was ‘made an example’ for other insurgents, chiefly through grotesque physical torments. 

Whitehead does not spare the reader the awful details, and this is the most disturbing part of the story. With his last tortured breath, Black Tancrède curses his tormentors, two of whom meet grisly ends themselves not long afterward.  But a third does not, nor does the judge who sentenced him to such a cruel death.  Canevin later has a personal encounter with this “jumbee” when he spends the night in Number 4; some additional research allows him to connect the hotel room with the horrific events of a century before.

The events in Black Tancrède may remind readers of the 1992 horror film Candyman, (based on Clive Barker’s story The Forbidden), which also involves the son of a slave who suffers racially motivated torture and death, but returns to wreak havoc on those who invoke his spirit—a racially charged urban legend that becomes horribly real and enduring.  However, in Whitehead’s story, the projection of Black Tancrède’s rage is a mere echo of the terror than befell him a hundred years earlier; his historical “reach” is diminished to a hotel nuisance. 

This seems to be a strategy of psychic distancing and minimizing of the trauma: the author seems to be saying ‘it’s over now, it happened long ago, things are better now’.  He whimsically disposes of the grotesque artifact first by pocketing it, (because it no longer has any power), then tossing it into a kitchen fire.  Will the spirit of Black Tancrède ever achieve complete justice? 

Yet Black Tancrède, along with Cassius (1931) and The Passing of a God (1931), is worth reading to appreciate Whitehead’s unique perspective on American race relations circa the late 1920s and early 1930s.  His bizarre images depict anxieties about racial integration, miscegenation, and cross cultural influences.  It is striking that he has his characters go offshore from the American mainland, to a bright sunny island, to explore these dark and perennial themes.  The U.S. Virgin Islands are still considered “organized, but unincorporated United States territory”, much like our national psyche. And just like our troubled history of race relations, the islands are volcanic in origin, and remain at risk for earthquakes and violent storms.