Thursday, December 31, 2015

Talismanic Terrors in Lovecraft and Ligotti

Amulets, statuettes, rings, skulls, stones and similar items—are a commonplace in horror and fantasy fiction, as well as some forms of still vibrant religion.  Imbued with magical and miraculous forces, talismans are able to help users subvert natural law, communicate with mysterious entities, and revive connections with an irrational and awe-filled past.  These objects of formidable power come from times and places unaffected by the tiresomeness of materialistic science—a so-called “enlightened” view that would evaporate their dark energies and replace them with mere gadgets needing batteries.

It is of course through tangible means that we can come to any understanding of the intangible, the incomprehensible, and the unspeakable.  Perhaps the current enthusiasm for talismanic objects and procedures in our society is traceable in part to Roman Catholic “sacramentals” like holy water, incense, and the relics of saints, among other paraphernalia.  At least one occultist has noted that among the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church alone has preserved its magical heritage in the beauty and sensuality of its rituals.

Etymologically, the word talisman is associated with root words in French, Arabic and Greek that have to do with consecration or initiation into religious mysteries.  Depending on circumstances, a wide variety of objects can become talismanic, either serving as protection against evil forces or as a way to garner and focus positive energies to accomplish some end.  At one end of the continuum is the familiar crucifix, historically effective against vampires, demons and witches, though its efficacy is now sadly in doubt.  At the other end is the rabbit’s foot or some variation, useful in securing good luck in some venture.  It seems important that a talisman be handed down—historical and familial connections amplify the talisman’s power—and that it undergo some sort of manufacture or alteration.  That is, it must be made, and somehow designated as empowered.

Despite his avowed materialism, H.P. Lovecraft made extensive use of talismanic objects in his horror fiction.  A jade amulet pilfered from a desecrated grave brings grisly doom to several characters in The Hound (1924).  In The Temple (1925) the crew of a German submarine succumb to the powers emanating from an ivory figurine of a youth’s head.  A crucifix comes in handy when subduing the evil witch Kezia Mason in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933).  Finally, there is the famous “shining trapezohedron” that summons an avatar of Nyarlathotep in The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  Lovecraft enthusiasts can probably identify additional examples.

Lovecraft was certainly not alone in using talismans as plot devices.  Robert E. Howard also makes frequent use of various occult paraphernalia, some of them reappearing in stories from different fictional time periods.  For example, there is the ring in the shape of “a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes”.  It causes severe marital discord for a modern day couple in the 1934 story The Haunter of the Ring.  But it is likely the same ring used by the enslaved Stygian sorcerer, “Thoth-amon of the Ring” to vanquish his captors millennia ago, in the 1932 Conan story The Phoenix on the Sword.  (See also With Friends Like These… and King Conan and Job Satisfaction.)

Lovecraft and Howard make fairly conventional use of talismans as instruments of vengeance, protection, or invocation of dark powers.  It is interesting, at least to me, to compare their use of these items and that of a contemporary master of horror, Thomas Ligotti.  Such objects are not uncommon in his fiction, but seem to serve a different purpose, and have a different effect.  Like Lovecraft, Ligotti is a materialist, even a nihilist in the view of some critics, and unlikely to abide traditional supernatural assumptions about magical amulets, rings, statuary and the like.  In this regard he is more honest and consistent than Lovecraft was in his work.

In Lovecraft’s The Temple, a talisman appears in the form of a finely wrought ivory figure of the head of a boy.  It has the same effect as Coleridge’s dead albatross, and brings with it a series of disasters and madness to the submarine crew and its captain, culminating in the discovery of an ancient undersea temple.  In Ligotti’s chilling The Frolic (1985), a similar figure appears, fashioned of blue ceramic, but in a completely different context.  The figure is created by the inmate of a nearby prison, and the wife of the prison psychologist has inadvertently purchased it for him, thinking the doctor will appreciate its artistic merit. 

This object has no intrinsic power like a conventional talisman, but it does connect the principle characters with the increasing awareness of an approaching nightmare.  In a sense, Ligotti’s talisman is an example of the Jungian notion of synchronicity—an a-causal but meaningful coincidence.  Its appearance is also a prelude to a terrifying, archetypal horror for parents of young children.  Interested readers may want to look at how Ligotti uses the word “thousand” in The Frolic, as well as the dream-like pun or play on words involving the daughter’s name and a quotation from the psychopath—very clever and very unsettling.   

More elaborate use of a talismanic device can be found in a later story by Ligotti, The Medusa (1994).  A rose-colored stone appears in four different locations throughout the story, including the last scene, in which the protagonist finally encounters the titular entity he is seeking.  The stone does not cause the lead character’s demise, but its repetitive and insistent appearance links the episodes of his nightmare and his weird fate together.  Yet by itself, the stone is incidental and easily overlooked. 

In the forward to Noctuary (1994) his third collection of short stories, Ligotti suggests that fatalism—the sense that personalized doom is foreordained—is the “necessary framework” of weird fiction.  This seems to be the underlying mechanism of stories like The Frolic and The Medusa.  (From a Calvinist perspective, this can be seen as a subcategory of predestination.)  The curious objects that appear in Ligotti’s stories cannot be used actively to summon or protect, as in Lovecraft or Howard above, but have become passive signposts signaling a fateful horror’s proximity.  You and it are going to meet, no matter what.

The Frolic is one of Ligotti’s earlier stories, published in his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986).  The story already contains much of the technique and style that make his later work so effective and memorable.  It is worthwhile to read a Ligotti story twice, first to appreciate its effect, and again to appreciate how this effect was achieved.  Ligotti makes skillful use of repetition and echoing of imagery or parts of imagery throughout the text, a kind of subliminal telegraphing of impending doom.  The reader may experience a growing uneasiness and not know why, even as his or her unconscious is already connecting the dots. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Currently Accepting Guest Posts

If you share my interest in early 20th century horror, fantasy and science fiction, please consider becoming a guest writer at The R’lyeh Tribune.  Perhaps deep in your blog’s archive there is at least one piece that “waits dreaming” or “that is not dead which can eternal lie”, and might walk again if the stars are in the correct alignment.

There is no financial compensation for contributions to The R’lyeh Tribune, but guest bloggers will have the opportunity to provide links, feature their work and offer a short bio as part of developing their author platform.  
Now in its third year, The R’lyeh Tribune continues to explore early weird fiction and its impact on contemporary horror entertainment.  The blog initially focused on the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his colleagues, but has since broadened to include some of Lovecraft’s predecessors.  The R’lyeh Tribune has also examined Lovecraft’s influence on subsequent weird fiction produced after the two world wars.

From time to time there has been discussion of more theoretical aspects of horror, touching on philosophical, psychological and sociological perspectives.  Judging by reader response, interest in this material remains strong, and numerous contemporary authors continue to build on the foundations laid by Lovecraft and his contemporaries nearly a century ago.


1.      Articles should be 600 to 1000 words in length.
2.      Submissions should be entirely the author’s work, with adequate citation of sources as needed.
3.      Topics can include H.P. Lovecraft and members of his circle, as well as contemporary work that exemplifies Lovecraft’s influence.
4.      More theoretical topics are welcome, especially pertaining to the nature of horror and its connections with religion, psychology, modern society and the occult.
5.      If desired, The R’lyeh Tribune can provide you with an archived post or new material for your blog in exchange for your guest appearance.
6.      Sorry, no fiction, poetry or graphics can be accepted at this time.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

3. Case Study with Robot

Two earlier posts commented on the nature of robots in stories by Edmond Hamilton and Ambrose Bierce; this short series concludes with a discussion of a still earlier story, E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic of German Gothic fiction, The Sandman (1817).  The direction of this review has not been forward, into the brighter, technologically more elaborate contraptions of early science fiction, but backward, towards the automaton’s darker roots in idolatry and hubris. 

Originally, the robot’s menace lay not so much in its speed, strength, and mechanical otherness as in its ability to become a döppelganger, a double of one of us.  Insofar as the robot, like an egregore, takes on the characteristics imagined for it by its creators, it becomes literally much more than the sum of its parts.  Worse, this artificial creation, man-made in shoddy imitation of the Creator, soon becomes independent of us, with grim consequences. 

In Gothic horror, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece exemplifies this insight, and is the template for much subsequent literature about terrifying robots.  It is no coincidence that by the early 20th century, Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”—essentially an abridged version of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount—had to be imposed on robots, despite the relative ineffectiveness of such moral and ethical guidelines for their human predecessors.

H.P. Lovecraft gave E.T.A. Hoffman short shrift in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), calling his novels and short stories

…a byword for mellowness of background and maturity of form, though they incline to levity and extravagance, and lack the exalted moments of stark, breathless terror which a less sophisticated writer might have achieved.  Generally they convey the grotesque rather than the terrible…   

Hoffman’s inclusion of levity—he himself appears as a character in the form of an intrusive author in The Sandman—as well as his preoccupation with strong and mysterious female characters may have rendered his work less interesting to Lovecraft, even unintelligible.  This is unfortunate; one wonders how Lovecraft might have fared had he been strongly influenced by other Gothic writers besides Edgar Allan Poe.

Hoffman’s story is not primarily about a robot, though there is one who appears midway through the work, a female automaton named Olimpia.  She precipitates the lead character’s demise, but is not the cause of it.   The Sandman is mainly a psychological case study of one Nathanael, a romantic prone to extremes of mood and grandiosity.  Hoffman’s description of the young man’s emotional state and shifting perceptions may suggest the modern diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. 

Hoffman anticipates Freud and psycho-analytical approaches to mental illness; The Sandman was published well over a century before discoveries in brain science illuminated the neurological and genetic origins of some psychiatric problems.  A childhood trauma predisposes Nathanael to later delusional behavior and suicide.  The titular “sandman” refers to a fairy tale the young Nathanael hears from an old woman.  Here is a description of the evil Sandman and what he does:

“He is a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding.  Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owl’s beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.”

Nathanael is very impressed with this story, which is later conflated with the mysterious death of his father, possibly at the hands of the story’s villain, Coppelius.  This mysterious figure reappears at various times in Nathanael’s life, and takes the form of one Giuseppe Coppola, “the weather-glass hawker” who also sells eye-glasses, and a pocket sized telescope with near magical properties.  The theme of vision and perception—eyes—pervades the entire story.  There are also at least two döppelgangers in this complex story, the evil Coppelius/Coppola and the beloved Clara/Olimpia.   

Nathanael’s deterioration is chronicled in three letters which open The Sandman:  Nathanael writes his cousin Lothair, but sends it by accident to Clara, Lothair’s sister; Clara writes Nathanael back, chiding him for his dark ruminations about Coppelius; Nathanael, getting the address correctly this time, writes Lothair again, this time offhandedly mentioning his discovery of Olimpia, his professor’s daughter, “whom he keeps locked in a most wicked and unaccountable way, and no man is ever allowed to come near her. 

Clara’s letter is the most interesting.  She is self-effacing, as women of that social class were expected to be in that era, but also shrewd and perceptive.  A natural psychologist, she offers an explanation of Nathanael’s neurotic anxiety and paranoia about Coppelius:

Naturally enough the gruesome Sand-man of the old nurse’s story was associated in your childish mind with old Coppelius, who, even though you had not believed in the Sand-man, would have been to you a ghostly bugbear, especially dangerous to children.  His mysterious labours along with your father at night-time were…nothing more than secret experiments in alchemy, with which your mother could not be over well pleased, owing to the large sums of money that most likely were thrown away upon them; and besides, your father, his mind full of the deceptive striving after higher knowledge, may probably have become rather indifferent to his family, as so often happens in the case of such experimentalists.  So also it is equally probable that your father brought about his death by his own imprudence, and that Coppelius is not to blame for it.

To lend credence to Clara’s analysis, the author then interjects—“Strictly speaking, indulgent reader, I must indeed confess to you…”—and provides additional back story about the family and Nathanael’s mental status.   

Nathanael tries to apply Clara’s therapeutic recommendations, but is distracted by Olimpia, with whom he becomes increasingly obsessed.  The special telescope that Coppelius/Coppola had sold him seems to alter and magnify his misperceptions of Olimpia—he overlooks her blank stare, wooden legs and repetitive speech, does not hear the whirring of the clockwork mechanism inside her, becomes the butt of his friends’ jokes, forsakes his beloved Clara. 

Olimpia seems to adore him and have no other interest but to respond to his needs and sit with rapt attention as he reads to her his stories and poetry.  She is all he ever wants in a woman, but all he wants is a machine.  (Ironically, when Clara did not appreciate Nathanael’s work, he called her a “damned lifeless automaton.”)   

Nathanael enjoys an ecstatic evening of dancing and intimacy with Olimpia, but is later devastated when he discovers that she is a robot.  One horror of the tale is that Nathanael is unable to save himself despite the psychological insights offered by his friends.  He remains prey to both Coppelius and Olimpia because his perceptions of reality, especially his visual perceptions, remain forever colored by his childhood trauma.  The eyes have it.

The Sandman was famously deconstructed by Sigmund Freud in his essay The Uncanny (1919) a century after Hoffman’s story was published.  (See also Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Par....)  The summary and analysis presented here cannot do justice to the marvelous subtlety and complexity of this work.  Hoffman’s story is in the same category as Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Walpole’s earlier The Castle of Otranto (1764) and other Gothic classics—important foundational works of horror.