Monday, July 27, 2015

Epilogue: Some Hazards of Immortality

The last three posts have featured various means of altering the experience of time, either by travelling through it to some unknown destination, using obscure methods to delay its physical symptoms—which symptoms inevitably culminate in good old death, decay and oblivion—or else succumbing to the temporal manipulations of others, a species of psychic possession and insanity. 

Americans, among others, tend to prefer the second approach, which is basically a diligent application of practical know-how.  This approach—in the 1970s I believe it was called “the science of life extension”—allows at least a temporary sense of control over our dwindling fate.  

Proper diet, regular exercise, positive attitude…and when these fail, taking the right vitamins, the right medications, seeing the doctor more often, (the general practitioner first and then on up to various medical specialties), enduring various surgeries, hair transplants, and examinations of all orifices, avoiding smoke, gluten, black mold, electromagnetic radiation, animal products, negative people, lightening, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, asteroids, the Apocalypse—these things might help a bit.  Probably wouldn’t hurt…

H.P. Lovecraft addressed the matter of life extension very effectively in his 1928 story Cool Air.  The method he proposed involved refrigeration combined with sheer willpower, though it severely limited the freedom of movement enjoyed by Dr. Muñoz.  Lovecraft’s story contains an echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845).  Poe’s character was confined to a bed as he prolonged a kind of life after death.  To be fair to “life extension science”, these two fictional characters did not postpone death as much as adapt to it for a time.  Yet a point is eventually crossed where it seems that efforts to extend life become methods of prolonging death.

The stories by Lovecraft and Poe, as well as an interesting film adaptation of Cool Air were discussed in two earlier posts; see also The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning and  In Articulo Mortis—Some Options           .                               

Earlier this year I participated in an online discussion of the pros and cons of extending the human life span.  The group that hosted the discussion was composed mostly of older science fiction enthusiasts—“boomers”—who conceivably found the topic interesting, timely and personally relevant.  Here, in no particular order, were some of my responses to group members’ contributions.       

“On Extending the Human Lifespan”

Several have suggested various methods for prolonging life past the century mark, and who knows what future techniques may bring. But why would someone desire to live more than a century, other than to avoid the unpleasantness of dying and death?

Unless youthful health and vigor could be maintained, wouldn't this simply prolong the burden of old age?

My hunch is that greater longevity would bring increased tedium and dissatisfaction to the golden years. Imagine if our favorite rock bands could never die, so that we would be treated to an eternity of "Golden Oldies". We would deserve this for our idolatry of youth and perfect health.

It would also be disastrous for young people, who would be kept out of the economy and the creative arts for a much longer period than they are now because those spaces would be occupied indefinitely by codgerdom.

If adulthood spanned centuries, what happens to adolescence? Would any of us want to be teenagers for a dozen decades? How will society cope with a juvenile delinquency rate that peaks around age 75? And so on—too horrible to contemplate.

I am not talking about physical adolescence so much as the difficulties young people will have--for example, taking on adult roles in the work force, or acquiring control of ever dwindling capital and property—in an economy where older folks never go away. I would predict an extended adolescence in that regard. (Or perhaps, "delayed adulthood".) We're already seeing this happening now.

As for souls, reincarnation and the like: I think that increasing the human lifespan, and thus avoiding death, raises moral and ecological issues that are fundamentally religious in nature, whether you favor the "hard science" end of the continuum or the religious one.

And to wax biblical for a moment, would the insights of an Ecclesiastes, (or really any other wizened sage), be significantly improved with another 100 years or two of life?

So far we are assuming that sometime in the future everyone will have access to the means to prolonging their lives.  What if longevity was only available to the wealthy, and disproportionately assigned like any other social resource?  SyFy's Helix addressed the interesting question of what kind of society could emerge if a minority of people live seemingly forever while the majority only enjoy the normal human lifespan. The show's creators suggested that such a society would be some kind of tyranny, given human nature. It seems unlikely that extended longevity would be shared with "the rabble".

Which brings me to a final thought. If you are going to be evil, you had better do your worst before your 70s and 80s. Our natural—dare I say God-given?—lifespans are an ecological check on the amount of evil our species can individually and collectively can do in a lifetime. What will become possible if human lifespans are extended into centuries? My fear is that the effect of increasing human longevity will merely extend and magnify the evil humans are capable of.

[One of the participants challenged the gloominess of this view.]

I'm wondering now if extending human longevity will not be so much about endless adulthood—which could be a drag—but an alternate path for the human organism, a further development and refinement of the youth culture that emerged in the middle of the last century.

(Recall that only a century or two ago children and youth were seen as "mini-adults", not as a separate option for humans to experience the world—which was one of the justifications for child labor during the Industrial Revolution.)

Given the impact on Earth's overpopulation, could extending the human life span be a spur to space exploration and settlement—which is where all the young folks will need to go to find room?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

3. Time: Not on Our Side

In the last couple of posts there was discussion of two traditional methods of escaping ‘time the avenger’: either inventing a device that allows travel forward and backward along this fourth dimension, or extending an individual life—at least its outward appearance of youth and vigor—with various potions and arduous surgeries.  The latter option is the most popular today, since a reliable and safe time machine—unless it arrives from the future—is probably centuries away.

But what if others were able to interfere with our experience of time, take us from our present moment and insert us somewhere else in the temporal stream? Three decades before Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck in time” in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Lovecraft’s character of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee suffered a bizarre form of amnesia lasting from 1908 until 1913—he seemed to friends and family to have become someone, or something else.  Both characters endure a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, Pilgrim as a result of his experiences in World War II, Peaslee because of his benevolent incarceration among the highly advanced Great Old Ones, “…the greatest race of all; because it alone had conquered the secret of time.”  Which “secret of time” consists of the ability to exchange minds with others, a device Lovecraft used in many of his stories.  

Lovecraft skillfully describes the psychological symptoms Peaslee experiences soon after returning to his body, which is the focus of his memorable The Shadow Out of Time (1936).  This is one of Lovecraft’s most important stories, originally published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories.  Despite its flaws—there is no dialogue, characterization, or much action—the eight-part novella consolidates and elaborates ideas that Lovecraft introduced elsewhere in his fiction. 

Its broad panorama of Earth’s existence in time and space, combined with its well-wrought depiction of the Great Old Ones and their interaction with human destiny form the basis for all kinds of interesting narrative possibilities.  Had the author survived the late 1930s, The Shadow Out of Time would have made an excellent starting place from which Lovecraft might have launched additional novel-length projects.

Where are the Great Old Ones when you need them?  What if instead of sending one of their own colossal minds into the future, they had nabbed Lovecraft’s 1936 brain and exchanged it with that of a current day undergrad at Brown University?  Lovecraft could continue his career, perhaps updating and correcting all that has been done since to his unique mythology, and maybe getting involved with historical preservation efforts in Providence.  

As for the transplanted college student, he or she could have a remarkable multi-cultural experience some 50 million years ago, existing inside the body of creatures composed of “enormous iridescent cones, about ten feet high and ten feet wide at the base, and made up of some ridgy, scaly, semi-elastic matter.”  This may be preferable to amassing thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Travel through time and space by way of a mental transference of some kind appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories, among them Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919), Hypnos (1923), The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), The Challenge from Beyond (1935) The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and The Evil Clergyman (1939).  Lovecraft’s conceptualization of mental transference appears to overlap the categories of psychic possession and reincarnation in some of his work, but even here time travel of a kind is implied.  (See also Clinical Lovecraft, Help, I’m a Centipede! ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best, A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender, and Lovecraft an Anglican Priest?.)                                                                                                             
It is striking that this motif—leaving one’s own body and inhabiting another—occurs so often in Lovecraft’s fiction. The author was a materialist and an atheist and unlikely to believe in the existence of mind or soul outside the physical body.  While it is tempting to think Lovecraft may have waffled on this issue, it may be that his preoccupation with this theme merely reflects personal discomfort with his own physical being; he famously perceived himself as ugly, awkward and unattractive and his life as frustrating, unsuccessful and pointless.  Surely he wanted to leave at times and exist as someone else, somewhere else, if only in his imagination.

In The Shadow Out of Time, Lovecraft uses mental transference and time travel as a vehicle to showcase many of his more provocative ideas: that an ideal, advanced society would be governed by some form of “fascistic socialism”, that, in terms of evolution, humans are not the last or even the best species to develop on earth, that significant human achievements may be traceable to outside influences, that ancient knowledge of mankind’s predecessors is preserved and handed down through the activities of secretive cults.  Here is just one example:

It [the Great Race] had learned all things that ever were known or ever would be known on the earth, through the power of its keener minds to project themselves into the past and future, even through gulfs of millions of years, and study the lore of every age.  From the accomplishments of this race arose all legends of prophets, including those in human mythology.  

With the exception of parts V-VIII, which describe Peaslee’s terrifying discovery of tangible proof of the Great Race in Australia, most of The Shadow Out of Time takes place in a library—either Peaslee’s own or that of the Great Race eons ago in Earth time.  But what a library!  There is a lot to study here, which makes The Shadow Out of Time a critical read for those interested in a deeper understanding of all things Lovecraftian.   

As in so much of Lovecraft’s fiction, the principle activity of the main character—nearly always a stand-in for Lovecraft himself—is research to find out the real truth about himself and his world.  And as in many of Lovecraft’s adventures of self-discovery, the awful truth is somehow “connected with the ceaseless fear of the dark, windowless elder ruins and of the great sealed trapdoors in the lowest subterrene levels.”

H.P. Lovecraft often acknowledged his weaknesses as a story teller, but most would agree that he excelled at creating memorable settings and more importantly, disturbing conceptualizations of the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it.  Given his other equally ambitious work from this time—longer, more involved stories like At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath—it is clear that Lovecraft’s skill as a writer was continuing to develop and that his favorite concepts were being refined and extended in interesting ways. 

In particular, The Shadow Out of Time lays out Lovecraft’s more sophisticated, cosmic “mythos”.  Not the hokey “Cthulhu Mythos” Derleth and others assembled from parts of Lovecraft’s work, but a more disturbing pantheon indifferent to humanity, all the more frightening because unfamiliar and incomprehensible.


Lovecraft enthusiasts will be interested in a new book due out this September from occult scholar, John L. Steadman, H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition.  Steadman’s intent is not to assert that Lovecraft was in any way a “practicing occultist” but to demonstrate his considerable influence on Western occultism and aspects of the New Age movement, a phenomenon S.T. Joshi touched lightly on in his two volume biography of the author.  This is a fascinating topic and worth more attention than it has received to date.  The publisher is Red Wheel/Weiser.

Monday, July 20, 2015

2. Time: Not on Our Side

Of course, one way to fend off the ravages of time is to diligently study forbidden books like von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten or The Pnakotic Manuscripts, and then through a series of self-administered surgeries, convert one’s physique to one more closely resembling that of a reptile.  This daunting process is the subject of The Survivor (1957), an earnest recycling of Lovecraftian motifs by a man credited with ensuring his dead mentor’s place in the pantheon of classic horror writers, as well as pilfering Lovecraft’s work to establish his own career.

Two decades after his death, Lovecraft apparently collaborated with August Derleth to produce The Survivor and several other stories in the late 1950s, though his contributions and revision work are not nearly as evident as in the joint efforts he completed while still alive.  (He seems to have slowed down some.)  The version discussed here, along with one other Derleth-Lovecraft collaboration, can be found in a horror anthology from the early seventies, Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1972), edited by Peter Haining. 

Haining considered the two collaborative pieces as coming “from the joint pens of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth”, and profusely thanked the latter through whom “a cache of forgotten tales came to light.”  According to the editor, Derleth had managed to obtain notes and outlines—“some of which were almost complete plots”—from the estate of Lovecraft’s close friend R.H. Barlow.  Haining, in his introductory notes called The Survivor and one other Lovecraft-Derleth collaboration “the gems of the collection.”

Lovecraft enthusiasts can depend on his able hagiographer, S.T. Joshi, to set the record straight.  The complex relationship between Derleth and Lovecraft is deftly analyzed by Joshi in volume two of his excellent biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence (2013).  According to Joshi, one of the reasons Farnsworth Wright rejected work by Derleth as early as 1931 was because, quoting Wright, “you have lifted whole phrases from Lovecraft’s works, as for instance: ‘the frightful Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred…’”—Wright goes on to list several more examples. 

To be fair, Joshi acknowledges that Lovecraft himself was unconcerned about this.  He even enjoyed the fact that he and his colleagues—Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, among them—routinely shared “my Azathoths and Nyarlathoteps” as they created background material for their stories. 

But what Joshi cannot abide regarding Derleth’s contribution to Lovecraftian mythology is his imposition of an essentially Christian world view on Lovecraft’s other worldly beings, one that sees Cthulhu as a kind of fallen angel like Lucifer, and the Elder Gods and the Old Ones as avatars of good and evil.  The notion of the Cthulhu Mythos is believed to have originated with Derleth, after Lovecraft’s death.  Joshi feels that The Survivor is not a true collaboration but primarily Derleth’s work, fashioned out of “some very sketchy notes (mostly dates) written on a newspaper cartoon.” 

The Survivor begins rather tediously for several pages.  Derleth emulates Lovecraft’s habit of providing interminable backstory before a final climactic italicized ending.  However, The Survivor will still be interesting to dedicated Lovecraft fans.  It is crammed with references and phrases taken from several of Lovecraft’s stories, and these are entertaining to spot in the text. 

The smelly old house—“it was a musk I had encountered several times before—in zoos, swamps, along stagnant pools—almost a miasma which suggested most strongly the presence of reptiles”—recalls the odiferous residence in Lovecraft’s The Shunned House (1928).  The mysterious Dr. Charriere, who apparently has contrived to live for centuries, is probably a close colleague of the refrigerated Dr. Muñoz in Lovecraft’s Cool Air (1928).  (See also Lovecraft’s Haunted Houses and The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning). 

Before descending into weird paleontology, Derleth’s pastiche surveys the “bibliography of doom” often consulted by Lovecraft’s characters, and substantiates the presence of a worldwide secretive cult associated with Cthulhu and Dagon, as depicted in Lovecraft’s well known The Call of Cthulhu (1928) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936).    

There is a cringe-worthy depiction of Lovecraft himself in the story, which may have originally been intended as a touching tribute to Derleth’s mentor.  The narrator consults his fellow antiquarian, the ailing and bedridden Gamwell—probably named after Lovecraft’s maternal aunt, Annie Gamwell—regarding the old house he is about to inhabit.  Periodically he returns to the older gentleman in hopes of ferreting out additional detail about the house and its mysterious occupant.

It may be that one of the ravages of time, at least one experienced posthumously, is to see an author’s creative product decomposed—deconstructed?and reincorporated into lesser works by the literary equivalent of saprophytes and detritivores.  The content of The Survivor, drawn heavily from works Lovecraft completed in the late 1920s, suggests that it was penned much earlier than when it was published.  Derleth may have ignored the admonition to “wait until the body is cold” before beginning to siphon off some of Lovecraft’s more noteworthy ideas. 

Yet Derleth stands in a long line of genre writers who seek nourishment from the remains of his predecessors—living or otherwise.  Because contemporary pop culture is so focused on recycling and re-using the work of the past 100 years or so—as opposed to creating much that is original—Lovecraft’s unique contribution to horror will continue to endure and shamble about, not unlike Dr. Muñoz and Dr. Charriere.