Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Insurrection, Emboldened by Voodoo

It is especially disturbing to read a story like Black Canaan these days.  Robert E. Howard’s nightmare about a black uprising in the deep south is unpleasant reading not so much for the horrible and violent events it depicts—which are typical of a “shudder pulp” circa the mid-1930s—as for the racist attitudes everywhere on display, and the realization that such attitudes are still ours today. 

Which attitudes are overtly expressed in the story:  the “N-word” is virtually the only word used to refer to African-Americans and their local community throughout Black Canaan.  Howard’s language and assumptions about African-Americans easily compete with H.P. Lovecraft’s and H.S. Whitehead’s at their most virulent—a disappointment for this reader.  The story appeared in Weird Tales in 1936.  Current readers may speculate:  how did the magazine’s editors view this story?  How was it experienced by the magazine’s readership at the time?  What fears was Howard trying to exploit in his fans?   

The contemporary erasure of this type of hate speech from public dialogue has not removed the racial fear and hatred it signifies.  I read Black Canaan just a few days after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in Missouri accused of shooting to death an unarmed black teenager.  As a middle-class Caucasian I admit that my eyes lingered too briefly on the specter of racial injustice and police brutality; my eyes were soon drawn to scenes of rioters in Ferguson burning down numerous businesses in the wake of the court’s decision.  Though an expression of frustration and outrage, it looked more like a black uprising, a threat to order and safety and privilege.

This is the theme of Robert E. Howard’s Black Canaan, set somewhere in the lowlands of Louisiana near the end of the nineteenth century.  Kirby Buckner, the narrator, a son of the local gentry, is drawn back to his hometown of Grimesville.  The village is in a dark, isolated region called “Canaan”, an hour or so outside of New Orleans.  It is anything but a Promised Land.  The people struggle to make a living at farming in a poor swampy backwater that Howard intentionally depicts as a jungle, as in African jungle.  The white people live in Grimesville, a supposed outpost of civilization; the blacks live in Goshen, which lies deeper in the swamps and overgrowth.  The racial metaphor is clear, as skin color darkens, the land becomes more primitive and treacherous, more like Africa.

If there is any cleverness in this story, it is in the author’s choice of the two Biblically resonant names of Canaan and Goshen.  Canaan of course is the Promised Land, given to the wandering Israelites.  Goshen is the older location.  It was an agriculturally rich area of Egypt given to Joseph’s family, who were allowed by Pharaoh to migrate there to escape a terrible famine. In Black Canaan, Howard overturns these allusions and makes them terribly ironic.  Canaan becomes a vortex of evil, racial hatred and pagan idolatry, drawing its inhabitants into the dark waters, towards violence and primitiveness.

When Kirby Buckner arrives in Canaan, he discovers that people are fearful of yet another black uprising.  “The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten...”  Terrified whites are fleeing their farms for the relative safety of Grimesville.  This time the trouble seems different in quality and potency.  There have been murders and disappearances, and talk of a visiting Voodoo priest named Saul Stark.  Buckner also has an encounter with a sorceress in league with Stark, who casts a spell on him—the “Lure of the Bride of Damballah”—drawing him against his will to attend the “Dance of the Skull”.  It is clear that the insurrection is powered by voodoo and black magic; Buckner’s enthrallment to the sorceress also invokes the supreme horror of miscegenation.

Using his knowledge of diabolical magic, Stark is able to “put people in the swamp”.  That is, through a series of tortures and invocations he is able to convert his opponents to grotesque frog-like servants who lay in wait in the dark waters of the swamp.  This may be Buckner’s fate unless the Dance of the Skull can be disrupted in time.  At this point, shadowy Canaan, the whites and blacks that live there, and the amphibious mayhem that is being unleashed are clearly figures in the realm of the unconscious, of unassimilated fears and barely repressed hatreds of ‘the other’.  Howard’s nightmare is that blacks may someday prevail in their struggles, and drag familiar white society into the dark waters of their strange beliefs and evil ways, and drown it there.  That there may some justice in this, or at least legitimate revenge for centuries of enslavement is not one of the author’s insights—other than unending fear of retribution by aggrieved blacks.

In 1936, when Black Canaan was published, there were still people alive who had witnessed the American Civil War or its immediate aftermath.  There were also people still around who had experienced slavery first hand or knew of the enslavement of family members.  Not much more than a human lifespan separated modern America from the horrors of slavery or the Civil War that ended it. It does not seem too far a stretch to see that early twentieth century weird fiction like Black Canaan was in some sense still processing the trauma of that experience.   Dark fantasies like Black Canaan, as well as the disturbing events just last week in Ferguson, remind us that we are still asleep, and that the nightmare continues.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Correlating The Contents of Lovecraft’s Mind

A new biography of H.P. Lovecraft is out this month from Plexus Publishing, Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft.  It is no surprise that such an influential writer as Lovecraft would become the subject of numerous biographies over the years, books that sought to connect his unique vision and grim world view to the tragedies and torments of his life.  Of these earlier books, probably the most familiar are L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft, A Biography (1975), and S.T. Joshi’s monumental two volume work, I Am Providence (2013).

Both of these are useful, and have their strengths.  De Camp’s purpose is to show how Lovecraft sabotaged his talent and efforts through poor organization, lack of self-discipline and immaturity—while acknowledging the impact of a traumatic family history on his troubled adulthood.  The book is critical in tone, and could have been subtitled How Not to Succeed as a Genre Writer.   Joshi’s book is an essential reference, very thorough and detailed, but probably overwhelming for the general reader.  However, I Am Providence is indispensable for those who are intrigued by Lovecraft’s work and want a deeper understanding of the social and historical context in which it was created.

The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft occupies a position intermediate between these earlier biographies.  Roland’s book will be interesting and accessible to the general reader who would like to know more about the life of this complex individual, and how it is expressed in his writings.  The biographer’s intent is to investigate “how Lovecraft’s disturbing creations may have been an attempt to exorcise both his inner-demons and the elemental abominations which haunted his recurring nightmares.” 

This is no small task, given that both Lovecraft’s life and work were full of contradictions.  What he wrote about himself in his letters was often at odds with the content of his poetry and fiction.  He was an avowed atheist, but one who made frequent reference to biblical passages, whose terrifying “Old Ones” were manifested through religious ritual, and whose settings often included churches and graveyards. Officially a materialist, Lovecraft’s metaphysics of the dream world held that dreams were as real as so-called reality, and probably more so.   In life, he felt that he was superior to the rabble and especially to ethnic, racial and religious minorities.  Yet he considered himself feeble, frequently incapacitated, physically ugly, and a failure.

Roland provides an overview of Lovecraft’s early life, drawing attention to the formative influences of his grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips and that of his mother, Susie Lovecraft—arguably the two most important people in his life.  The figure of Lovecraft’s grandfather haunts much of his fiction, a recurring ghost-like image who imparts wisdom and guidance, if little comfort.  The complete absence of women from nearly all of Lovecraft’s work must surely reflect the deep ambivalence he felt about his relationship with his mother.  A third influence that Roland and other biographers have chronicled was the steady decline of the family’s economic status following the death of the grandfather.  Lovecraft enjoyed a pampered “Golden Age” early in life, and then subsequent impoverishment, with its accompanying anxiety and sense of gathering doom.

Nearly everything Lovecraft wrote was autobiographical in content—he is the main character in the majority of his first person narratives.  His synopses of dreams, his poetry, fiction and correspondence all comprise a remarkable psycho-emotional record of his fears and disappointments.  This record artfully documents his struggles with depression and sanity following the deaths of his grandfather and mother, the subsequent loss of the family fortune, and his inability to succeed as an adult or as a writer in a challenging period of history.  He conducted himself as if he were a devout Puritan, yet had no hope or belief in a salvation.  Near the end of his life he was still trying to resolve the contradictions in his life and find a purpose—even an identity—for himself.

Roland makes a reasonable attempt, as others have before him, to diagnose Lovecraft on the basis of this psychic record.  He concludes that Lovecraft’s behaviors and interactions with others are typical of those identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome, a classification unknown in Lovecraft’s time.  This is probably not too far off the mark, and does account for Lovecraft’s famed preference for solitude, his inability to sustain focus at times, and his experience of being overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, and change in his routine. 

Yet the biographer cannot resist more traditional psychoanalytical interpretations of some of the sexual imagery in Lovecraft’s work, as well as his troubled relationship with his mother.  Nor can the rest of us; it seems very appropriate that an era that produced Freudian understandings of repressed human motivations should also produce repressed authors like H.P. Lovecraft.  In this regard, Roland offers an interesting interpretation of The Call of Cthulhu. He sees this classic tale as an explicit dramatization of Lovecraft’s subconscious fears “erupting” into consciousness.  Conceivably, Lovecraft may have benefitted from such insights, if he had possessed the means to access mental health services. 

In one of the book’s strongest chapters, (9. “The Haunter of the Dark”), Roland ties many of these psychological observations together into an analysis of Lovecraft’s style and content.  Why was he so enthralled with atmosphere and architecture?  How are Lovecraft’s struggles with family trauma reflected in such well known stories as Arthur Jermyn, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth?  Later on, Roland makes a reasonable, poetic defense of Lovecraft’s use of adjectives and adverbs, his ‘purple prose’—a frequent and perhaps unfair criticism of the author.

H.P. Lovecraft is increasingly popular and influential nearly 100 years after his death, despite having so little in common with the majority of his readers then as now.  For much of his life he did not work, was not interested in women, and was a “gentleman” in a country that is merciless to such affectations.  By some standards he was not even a particularly good writer.  Yet as Roland points out, Lovecraft is still able to conceptualize what is truly and supernaturally horrifying to us in the twenty-first century, especially at a time of great loss of faith in traditional religion and other institutions, in political authority, and even the reliability of science.  In some ways he foretold our growing dismay and fear of cosmic insignificance.

In The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft, readers will find an interesting discussion of the author’s principle works, as well as the historical and familial circumstances in which they were created.  The tone is thoughtful and affectionate, but not uncritical.  The book is graced by numerous rare photographs, several of them depicting Lovecraft actually smiling.  There are some interesting asides about Lovecraft’s use of dream incubation and creative visualization as adjuncts to writing.  Near the end is a helpful overview of Lovecraft’s various translations into film, television, graphic novels, visual media, music and other cultural products.  Finally, the appendices contain fascinating material written by Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Davis that will be of interest to fans. 
Overall, Roland’s biography provides a solid introduction for those who want to deepen their appreciation of Lovecraft and his contributions to weird fiction.   

Monday, November 24, 2014

Don’t Take Me to the River

“I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife.
I throwed her in the river
Which was a dreadful sight.”
—from Down in the Willow Garden

Reading Clark Ashton Smith’s The Face by the River reminded me of this classic bluegrass murder ballad.  The song is ancient, probably from England originally, with numerous versions. Its essential story is timeless and archetypal.  A lot of people have been murdered down by a river.  The song and Smith’s story share a number of similarities: the riverside murder of a sweetheart, a depiction of the murderer’s troubled mind, and the relentless arrival of justice. 

However, the motive for the crime is different.  In the song, the doomed narrator relates that it was his father who suggested to him “that money would set me free...if I would murder that dear little girl whose name was Rose Connally.”  The subsequent murder is premeditated:  he lures her to the riverside, gives her poisoned wine to drink, stabs her to death, and casts the body into the water.

Circumstances are different in Smith’s tale.  Businessman Edgar Sylen has been having an affair with his stenographer Elise.  But as his interest in her wanes, her demands for his attention increase.  During a twilight walk by the Sacramento River, she threatens to tell his wife about their relationship. Sylen impulsively grabs her by the throat and strangles her—she falls into the water and rapidly sinks into the darkness.  It seems almost defensible as an accidental homicide except that

Sylen was not aware of any consuming remorse for his act, in the usual sense of the word.  But certainly he had reason to regret it as a piece of overwhelming and irremediable folly, into which he had been driven by the goading of some devilish fatality.    

In the third verse of Down in the Willow Garden, the narrator does experience remorse for the crime.  But it is oddly not for the victim so much as for his grieving “pappy”:

Now he sits in his own cottage door,
Wiping his weeping eye
Looking at his own dear son,
Upon the scaffold high.

Edgar Sylen’s path to justice is much more circuitous and psychologically driven.  Soon after the murder he begins to see Elise’s face everywhere, especially in water, or in the faces of other women.  He cannot bear to go near rivers, cannot establish new relationships, cannot settle anywhere.  He is struck at how all the rivers and willow-lined banks he sees in his meanderings resemble the Sacramento River.  It is probably no accident that willow trees and water imagery—traditional signs of the Divine Feminine—figure in both the old murder ballad and Smith’s The Face by the River.  The only item missing from this motif the moon.

Sylen is increasingly disturbed and obsessed by a pale optical defect or illusion that persists in the corner of one of his eyes.  It grows and shifts to the center of his view.  Soon it is all he can see.  This being a story by Clark Ashton Smith, one can expect the main character to circle back to the beginning, arriving there profoundly and irrevocably changed.

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Face by the River was written in 1930, but not published during his lifetime.  (Interestingly, Down in the Willow Garden, though a very old bluegrass standard, was first recorded in the U.S. in 1927).  The story is markedly different from the rest of Smith’s fiction.  It takes place on Earth, in a familiar location, (California), during contemporary time, and depicts events realistically, without any supernatural overlay.  The symptoms Sylen experiences can easily be explained in clinical terms—as the product of a mind under duress. 

In some explanatory notes about Smith’s story, S.T. Joshi quotes H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote: “The element of relentless Nemesis-pursuit in ‘The Face’ is very effectively handled—& given a realism too seldom cultivated in tales with this theme”.  It is interesting to compare The Face by the River to another of Smith’s tales of psychological horror, Genius Loci (1933).  In the latter tale there is a strong supernatural element at the end, but much of the story resembles clinical observations of obsession and progressive loss of sanity in several of the characters.  (See also When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus).