Sunday, April 26, 2015

Personal Note: On My “Critical Method”

The R’lyeh Tribune is now nearly two years old, having begun back in May of 2013. Two years is still young for a blog, but like its human equivalent—I am thinking of my granddaughter at this age—the site is beginning to learn how to talk, how to get places, and how to get into things. 

Judging by the modest but steady number of page views, there is still considerable interest in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature produced between 1920 and 1940.  This is roughly the time period in which H.P. Lovecraft, the focus of this site, was active and influential among his peers.  Lately it has been gratifying to see the re-publication of a number of key authors from this era, now that nearly a century has gone by since their initial appearance.  It seems it takes at least 100 years to filter and sort the creative products of a society, to pick out the silver and gold from the dross.  As I approach that span of time myself I am coming to appreciate that process.

The R’lyeh Tribune will continue to explore the work of Lovecraft and his colleagues, and the importance of their contribution to the field of weird fiction.  As long as Kaleidoscope Books in Ann Arbor continues to operate, and the health and vigor of its proprietor is sustained—God bless and keep him!—I will have access to a deep vein of pulp horror, science fiction and fantasy.  That place is a goldmine, and about as hazardous:  patrons must step lightly to avoid sudden book-falls from overladen shelves above.

I would like to say something about my evolving critical method, if my opining and bloviating can be so glorified.  My approach to this literature is derived from a number of assumptions I have taken about pulp fiction, and perhaps all fiction:

1.      Most of what we consider “literature” is autobiographical in both content and purpose, even if inadvertently so.  It serves as a record, a psychological residue of its creator’s subjective experiences, and more broadly, those of his or her society.
2.      An in depth study of a body of work reveals both the psychology of the author as well as the sociology of the time period in which it was transcribed.
3.      The production of literature is not an individual but a collective effort, drawing inspiration from a matrix of ideas and social experience prevailing at the time of writing.  It is essentially a collective conversation, a dialogue forwards and backwards in time, across generations and across cultures, involving both authors and readers.  Authors are readers, who also happen to write.
4.      The critical role of the author is in recording and codifying both the—and I must turn to German at this point for the right words—Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist, the encompassing world view and spirit of the times, in his or her own style.
5.      Style is the only distinguishing characteristic of the individual writer, an expression of his or her spirit.  The form and content of a work are limited by human capabilities and interests—which are finite and universal—and so must be endlessly recycled and recombined.  Except for the soul of every single human life—my granddaughter’s for example—‘there is nothing new under the sun.’
6.      Finally, horror literature and fantasy, and to a lesser extent, science fiction, serve a religious function, insofar as they address perennial human anxiety about evil, death, the supernatural, the purpose of life, the nature of reality, and what ultimately is waiting for us out there in the dark forest of the unknown.  Our tepid, comfortable, suburban faiths—if even we subscribe to one!—have long since banished these unsettling subjects to the genres under investigation here.  Despite his atheism, or perhaps even because of it, H.P. Lovecraft wrestled mightily with these perennial terrors in his foundational work.  

None of these ideas are particularly original, and not everyone will agree with my approach.  More experienced readers may be quick to discern the limitations of this point of view, and I welcome their criticisms.  However, it being the 21st Century, no one can have the last word on the relative literary value of a work, much less its interpretation. And does that really matter anymore?

With all these considerations in mind, I will close by mentioning—crowing, really—that I was at my favorite used book store yesterday and found a treasure published by Arkham House back in 1952:  Tales from Underwood, a Collection of the Best Fantastic Stories of David H. Keller.  Keller was an associate of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and according to S.T. Joshi, once possessed Lovecraft’s astronomical notebook that covered the period 1909-1915.  Keller was a country doctor and psychiatrist who turned to writing for publication relatively late in life.  I am just getting acquainted with this author, but suspect that his work will exemplify some of the principles I discussed above.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Easter Island as Martian Outpost

Four decades before Erich Von Däniken published his pseudoscientific Chariots of the Gods (1968), Edmond Hamilton wrote a science fiction story involving prehistoric colonization of Earth by extraterrestrials.  Von Däniken’s premise was that long ago, people of color required the assistance of “ancient astronauts” to build spectacular monuments and to develop religious texts that were a response to the awesome alien technologies.  Caucasians apparently did not need as much guidance in these areas. 

In Hamilton’s Across Space (1926), the early arrival of the extraterrestrials—in this case Martians—is not helpful architecturally or in any other way.  The survival of their subterranean colony over eons may eventually doom all of humanity.   

Both authors were impressed with the strange megaliths on Easter Island, enormous stone heads built by ancient Polynesians perhaps as early as 400 C.E.  Each are about 13 feet tall on average and weigh as much as 90 tons.   Called “moai” by the inhabitants of the island, the elongated facial features on hundreds of these statues follow a standardized pattern, possibly modelled on some powerful individual from the distant past.  Interestingly, the heads are positioned with their back to the ocean, facing inland, and nearly encircle the island like a fence.  Not much is known about their purpose, who made them, or how they were moved across the island.  Thus they must have been created by aliens from outer space.

Von Däniken, who never set foot on Easter Island, hypothesized that technologically advanced beings were once stranded there, and taught the locals how to build monoliths resembling robots.  Given the remoteness of the island, this implied that the “ancient astronauts” flew there in some sort of air craft.  Hamilton imagines that the heads are all that can be seen of much larger statues, almost completely buried by time, and originally positioned to commemorate ancient Martian kings. (Strictly speaking, the statues are busts, not just heads, with shoulders and arms visible.)  In Hamilton’s story, the Martians are physically capable of flight, having large bat-like wings.

Across Space was originally published as a three part novella in the September, October and November issues of Weird Tales in 1926.  Other stories that appeared in those issues included H.P. Lovecraft’s interesting He, Henry S. Whitehead’s racially charged Jumbee, and Frank Belknap Long’s The Dog-Eared God.  His first serial story, Across Space followed Hamilton’s first Weird Tales entry, The Monster-God of Mamurth, (see also A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication).

Across Space begins as an end-of-the-world story.  Unlike the later space opera stories for which he is best known, Hamilton places Across Space in a contemporary, early twentieth century setting.  Here is his description of an idyllic, pre-apocalyptic day in the life of the narrator, a university student named Allan:

All through the land that sunny morning, in New York and Louisiana and Idaho, boys and girls were laughing and shouting, men in offices and factories were talking of automobiles and radio and golf, dogs were barking and children running to school, women sweeping porches in neat suburbs were chatting across their front yards of fashions and recipes and bridge.

Astronomers discover that the planet Mars has unaccountably left its orbit and is now on a collision course with Earth.  The specter of imminent annihilation causes panic around the world.  Every night the crimson orb of Mars, now a δυσ ἀστήρ, a dys aster, a bad star, looms ever larger in the evening sky, bathing the world in an ominous reddish light, terrifying humanity.  The news brings pandemonium:

…we received appalling reports of rioting and disorder…Murder was rampant and the dwellers of the underworld came out to rob and burn and kill...Chicago was a mass of flames…in Washington, a wild mob besieged the government offices…As hope waned, millions turned toward the promises and comfort held out by religion…Wildest of all was New York City…going to its death in a blaze of light and splendor…

Here Hamilton sets down the basic imagery expected in many subsequent stories and films about the end of the world, especially those of the 1950s and 1960s.  Not until much later in that century and in the beginning of our own do we see the end of our world as potentially an inescapable, but quiet event—“not with a bang but a whimper”, as T.S. Eliot wrote.

The planet’s relentless approach seems to have some connection with mysterious emanations from a volcano on Easter Island.  Naturally, only the narrator and two other scientists on earth are aware of this.  Allan and his doomed mentor, Professor Jerome Whitley, fly to the remote island to investigate.  It is common in the pulp fiction of the time that earth shattering problems require only a few characters to devise a solution in time to save the entire human race.

Not only do the scientists discover a preposterous Martian plot to conquer the earth, they uncover evidence of early Martian settlement, a remnant of which now survives in a vast subterranean city beneath one of the island’s extinct volcanos.  Eager to increase their ranks and revivify their dying civilization, the aliens contrive to bring their home planet closer to earth in order to expedite illegal immigration as well as attack.  The author’s interesting depiction of the troubled history of Mars and its interaction with Earth provides familiar source material for similar interplanetary sagas.

What little science is present in Across Space involves an elementary understanding of magnetism as applied to the north and south poles of the planet Mars:  the Martians have built a device in the crater of the volcano to focus and aim the magnetic field of earth at their home planet, a kind of tractor beam.  However, as the red planet approaches, the science in the story departs, to be replaced by pure fantasy:  when the atmospheres of the two planets are close enough to touch and intermingle, the bat-winged Martians will be able to fly across from their home planet to join their brethren on Easter Island.

The influence of A. Merritt’s The People of the Pit (1918) can be seen in the depiction of an underground city, the Martian’s reliance on telepathy to control their slaves, and the notion of an ancient and malevolent survival of nonhuman civilization in remote parts of the globe.
(See also Death by a Thousand Figures of Speech.)  Hamilton was reportedly an enthusiastic fan of Merritt’s earlier work.

Across Space also shares some interesting similarities to The Mound, the creepy and ambitious collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop which was published in 1940 but written a decade before.  (See also 1.H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2.But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting ). Both stories involve subterranean civilizations, grotesque fleshy robots commanded via telepathy, and decadent or declining alien societies.  However, it seems unlikely that Hamilton’s story directly influenced Lovecraft’s.  It may be that both drew on a common matrix of speculative ideas for inspiration.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Philosophy of Vegetable Existence

In some respects, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The Lotus Eaters (1935) is similar to his first published science fiction story, A Martian Odyssey (1934).  However, the later story shows increasing sophistication in terms of alien biology, planetary setting and characterization.  Conceivably, The Lotus Eaters could have been called “A Venusian Odyssey”, though the author’s intent is more ambitious than in the earlier adventure.  This is a story of big ideas as well as interesting characters, two important qualities in the best science fiction. 

The Lotus Eaters was originally published in the April 1935 issue of Wonder Stories, which also included work by Frank Belknap Long, John W. Campbell, Jr., Donald Wandrei and Paul Ernst.  To put this in a Lovecraftian context, Weinbaum’s story was published the same year as Lovecraft’s dreadful The Quest of Iranon and his interesting contribution to the “round robin” tale The Challenge from Beyond, (see also Help, I’m a Centipede!)  It was also around this time that Lovecraft completed a draft of one of his best stories, The Shadow Out of Time.

In The Lotus Eaters, a husband and wife team set out to investigate Venusian life forms just beyond the habitable “twilight zone” of the planet, which separates its fiery sunlit side from the frozen region eternally shrouded in darkness.  In terms of geo-psychology, the duo’s exploration of the dark half of Venus, (of love?) dimly illumined by the light of their flickering head lamps, seems to depict on a planetary scale the exploration of the conscious and the unconscious mind.  (Freudian ideas about consciousness were popular in Weinbaum’s time.)

The author describes the planet Venus as having an orbit and rotational pattern similar to that of Mercury: one side of the planet always facing the sun while the other half remains in shadow.  It is now known that Venus does rotate on its axis, though very slowly, completing one revolution in about 240 Earth days.  Its orbit and rotation are synchronized with the Earth’s in such a way that when their respective positions are closest, Venus always presents the same face to Earth. 

Weinbaum imagines that the atmosphere is breathable and that temperatures are tolerable in the narrow twilight zone separating dark and light halves.  Though Venus and Earth are similar in size, composition, and gravitational force, the air pressure on Venus is actually comparable to being about one mile beneath a terrestrial ocean, and surface temperatures exceed 870 degrees Fahrenheit.  Of course, if the author had used only the facts as we now know them, The Lotus Eaters would not be as interesting a story, nor as long.

The notion of a habitable zone on an otherwise climatically hostile planet is common in science fiction.  It seems to represent the supernatural equivalent of a “thin place”, a transitional zone where unknown and unexplained phenomena can occur within an arm’s reach of what is perceived as familiar and stable.

“Ham” Hammond and his wife Patricia Burlingame venture out into the Venusian dark side, and soon encounter its exotic ecology.  Along the way they speculate about the evolution of Venusian life forms and their adaptation to this cold dark environment.  What is interesting about their relationship—at least for the times—is that Burlingame is clearly the leader, a brilliant biologist and courageous to a fault.  Hammond, who apparently has married well above his social class, is essentially a follower, mostly useful in getting the two out of occasional scrapes with the more aggressive fauna.

This is a recurring image in Weinbaum’s fiction, that of an empowered, intelligent and ambitious woman.  This depiction of competent and independent women sets Weinbaum’s stories apart from the work of his colleagues.  (See also Maladaptations).

The couple discover a race of creatures “…like inverted bushel baskets, about the size and contour, veined, flabby and featureless save for a complete circle of eye spots.”  Burlingame speculates that the creatures are actually warm-blooded plants, capable of mobility, and imbued with a strange but powerful intelligence. 

A conversation begins with one of the creatures the couple has named “Oscar”.  The creature is highly echolalic, repeating portions of what Hammond and Burlingame say.  However, it is not merely imitating them.  Oscar is rapidly acquiring their vocabulary so that it can communicate its thoughts to the Earthlings.  Weinbaum is invoking the Whorfian Hypothesis here—the notion that language structures thought, that words and linguistic categories must first exist before certain ideas or thoughts can occur.  He plays with this idea in several of his stories.

Other interesting notions are considered.  What sort of intelligence or psychology would evolve in an advanced form of vegetation?  What would motivate a highly intelligent plant?  Burlingame hypothesizes that vegetable life is motivated by necessity whereas animal life is motivated by desire.  Awareness and individuality are shared by Oscar and his kind, (“We are all Oscar.”), who reproduce asexually via aerial spores. 

Tragically, Oscar and his kind are doomed by their passivity to extinction at the hands of the local predator, Triops noctivivans, a kind of three eyed hyena-like creature that hates light.  These monsters circle the two humans just outside the glare of their headlamps, getting ready to attack them as well. They provide the element of suspense.

Besides the presence of a strong female character, other images and themes that recur in Weinbaum’s work are present in The Lotus Eaters.  Oscar’s physique and habit of repeating human speech calls to mind the incomprehensible drum shaped creatures in A Martian Odyssey as well as “Oliver” the echolalic parcat who is Grant Calthorpe’s annoying pet in The Mad Moon.  One of the pleasures of reading a horror or science fiction author in some depth is to see how favorite ideas are developed over time.  For example, in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, the entity known has Nyarlathotep evolves in interesting ways across such stories as Nyarlathotep (1920), The Haunter of the Dark (1936) and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).

Some form of narcosis, hypnosis or hallucination is often present in Weinbaum’s work.  Readers familiar with A Martian Odyssey will recall the “dream beast” that nearly eats the narrator.  In The Mad Moon, the indigenous blancha fever causes reality bending hallucinations in its victims.  In The Lotus Eaters, the soporific clouds of spores that Oscar and his kind are constantly ejecting produce both physical and philosophical resignation, the principle Venusian hazard for Hammond and Burlingame.   (Hallucinogenic imagery also appears often in the work of Clark Ashton Smith.)

There is no reference to hopeful remedies for human illnesses in this story—a preoccupation of the author, who may have realized at the time that he was dying of cancer.  Does Oscar’s intellectual acquiescence to certain doom reflect his creator’s?  At one point there is this grim discussion of how Oscar and his kind reproduce:

“Yes.  The spores lodge against our bodies and there is a—” Again the voice died.
“A fertilization?” suggested the girl.
“Well, a—I know! An irritation!”
“That causes a tumorous growth?”
“Yes. When the growth is complete, we split.”
“Ugh!” Snorted Ham.  “A tumor!”
“Shut up!” snapped the girl.  “That’s all a baby is—a normal tumor.”

In his short career, Stanley Weinbaum was enormously influential as a science fiction author, both for the quality of his writing and his provocative ideas.  He should be more widely read, if only to appreciate his enduring contributions to the field.