Monday, October 31, 2016

Dreams, Butterflies, Manikin Horrors

In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.  (Job 33:15-18)

Horror fans are most likely aware of the interesting relationship between dreams—or more specifically, nightmares—and horror entertainment.  Several of the best known horror tales of all time, among them Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all had their origins in the nightmares of their respective authors.  Quite a number of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories were fashioned from remembered dreams, among them “Dagon” (1919), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), and “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), among others. 

Lovecraft’s perspective on the nature of the dreaming experience is described in the opening paragraphs of his well-known “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), in which he expresses the familiar, if unsettling view that “…this less material life [i.e., dreaming] is our truer life, and that our vain presence on this terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.”  Lovecraft’s version of Zhuang Zhou’s famous question—whether he was a man dreaming about being a butterfly or the other way around—is more complicated these days with the advent of virtual realities created by astounding new technologies. 

In a more contemporary venue, Thomas Ligotti has some fun with Zhuang Zhou’s conceptualization in his 1986 story “Dream of a Manikin”, discussed below.  Various authors have used dream imagery for inspiration and indeed, aspiring horror writers have been encouraged by some to keep a log of nightmares as source material. 

H.P. Lovecraft used dream imagery as the germ of longer, more elaborate narratives, either embellishing a particular image, or rewriting dream material into a more recognizable story format.  His “The Evil Clergyman”, published a couple years after his death in 1937, seems to show an idea that is midway through this process, an incomplete sketch that is not quite a story yet.   

S.T. Joshi feels that many of Lovecraft’s tales were prompted “…by some innocuous, fragmentary image that comes to occupy a very small place—or indeed no place—in the finished tale.”  This underestimates the predominant role dreaming and dream material have in Lovecraft’s fiction and in his collaborative work.  Lovecraft’s well-known biographer describes “The Evil Clergyman” as “hardly worth discussing”, but this seems to give the item undeserved short shrift.  It is interesting as a transitional piece, mined from a letter Lovecraft wrote to an associate, who called initially called it “The Wicked Clergyman”.  The story appeared in the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, and combines both supernatural and proto-science fiction elements.  (See also Lovecraft an Anglican Priest?)

In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated October 22, 1933, Lovecraft comments on one of the latter’s dreams, as well as two of his own.  One of these is the origin of “The Evil Clergyman”, and the other seems very suggestive of what later became “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936):

Your unusual dreams are tremendously interesting, and much fuller of genuine, unhackneyed strangeness than any of mine…Some months ago I had a dream of an evil clergyman in a garret full of forbidden books, and of how he changed his personality with a visitor…Then about a year ago I dreamt I awaked on a slab of unknown substance in a great vaulted hall, dimly and obscurely lit, and full of similar slabs bearing sheeted objects whose proportions were obviously not human.  From every detail I gathered the horrible notion that I could be nowhere on this planet.  I also felt that my own body was like those of the other sheeted shapes…

A different approach to the use of dream material can be found in the work Thomas Ligotti.  Although he makes use of bizarre or arresting images, it is the structure of the dreaming experience itself that appears to create the nightmarish coherency of his stories.  Through repetition and clever, nearly subliminal use of evocative phrases, through subtly morphing settings, imagery and character relationships, Ligotti creates disturbing, dreamlike meditations that challenge conventional assumptions about reality and the nature of existence.

An example of this is his intricate short story “Dream of a Manikin” which can be found in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986).  The story initially appears to be a lengthy letter from the narrator to a fellow psychiatrist—a collegial discussion of a patient named “Miss Locher”, whom the two have treated.  (It should be noted that psychiatrists are already intrinsically creepy because of the hubris of their presumed expertise, and hence culturally defined authority, regarding the human mind—which is the scariest place on earth.)   

It is clear early on that this case study—whose dreams are analyzed and found to be weirdly connected with events in the narrator’s life—is not the real focus of the correspondence.  Typical of Ligotti, the narrator’s intellectualization of Miss Locher’s nightmare, his objectification of her, is a pathetic strategy to maintain distance from the real horror.   By degrees he discovers that Miss Locher’s experience is only part of his own larger and more encompassing nightmare: it’s his relationship with his female colleague, one that drives him to question the reality of his own existence separate from her:

After hearing Miss Locher tell her dream story, I found myself unconsciously analyzing it much as you might have.  Her multiplication of roles (including the role reversal with the manikin) really did put me in mind of some divine being that was splintering and scarring itself to relieve its cosmic ennui, as indeed a few of the well-reputed gods of world religions supposedly do.                                                         

Ligotti is playing with a number of ideas in “Dream of a Manikin”.  One is the notion, ever more popular these days, that the human soul or personality is not single or unified, but a collective of competing subroutines, a “we” more than an “I”.  And he also has some fun with Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly story, (he names him Chuang Tzu), which his clueless narrator tries unsuccessfully to dismiss.  Near the end, he wails:
Forget other selves…Only first and second persons matter (I and thou).  And by all means forget dreams.  I, for one, know I’m not a dream.  I am real Dr.—…So please be so kind as to acknowledge the reality of my existence.

Like a number of his stories, “Dream of a Manikin” is worth re-reading to appreciate its subtlety and depth of ideas.  The image of a divided self, or even a dis-integrated “body politic”, is especially resonant this election year.  Whoever or whatever unites the warring parties of a single soul, or of a nation, gets to say what reality actually is.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Weirdness of Ultraviolet Light

Writing to Clark Ashton Smith in July of 1932, H.P. Lovecraft offered his opinion on the direction of weird fiction in the first half of the twentieth century:

What to my mind forms the essence of sound weird literature today is not so much the contradiction of reality as the hypothetical extension of reality.

Earlier in this letter he had concluded that “the pendulum will swing back more or less, though of course spectral tales can never occupy the place they did when intelligent and cultivated people believed in the supernatural.” 

This is a different and evolving perspective when compared to earlier remarks Lovecraft made about the nature of weird fiction in his masterful Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927).  Describing the characteristics of weird fiction, which he derived from a thorough historical survey of the genre up to his time, Lovecraft concluded that such literature typically contains a “breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” and “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature...”  

Five years later, Lovecraft modified this insight to acknowledge the growing importance of realism and science in speculative literature.  Stories that once depicted the “defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” now began to deal with “the hypothetical extension of reality.”  It is tempting to see in these remarks an acknowledgment of the emerging genre of science fiction, only a decade away from its “Golden Age”.  Both Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft dabbled in science fiction, with mixed results.  Neither were especially successful at it, though their attempts are interesting.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” (1930) is one such attempt, which combines elements of pulp science fiction and crime stories of the time period.  It appeared in Amazing Detective Tales, a magazine edited by Hugo Gernsback.  It was Gernsback’s second attempt at establishing a science fiction magazine.  (It was originally called Scientific Detective Monthly.)  The magazine lasted only about a year and a half, following several name changes, and tended to feature “gadget stories” of which Smith’s was one.  Other authors who published in Amazing Detective Tales and its variants included David H. Keller, Edmond Hamilton and Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason.

“A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” (1930) is not one of Smith’s better stories, and the author himself was apparently unhappy with the result.  The plot is fairly preposterous.  The narrator is furious for over a decade because his best friend married the only woman he ever loved.  He schemes to commit the perfect murder by knifing his rival while both are in the fourth dimension, leaving no trace of the crime upon his return.  Ramsey Campbell notes that the author sends his evil protagonist to a weird landscape—this happens by way of trans-dimensional device derived from weird science—but traps him there with nothing to do but observe the corpse of his victim for eternity.

Nevertheless “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” is interesting for various reasons and worth perusal.  Smith’s description of the alternate dimension is moody and effective—nightmarish in tone and reminiscent of scenes in his darker fantasies.  The device that allows the narrator and his victim to be transported to the fourth dimension is comparable in some ways to the one depicted in H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934). Both stories feature weird scientist villains and unsuspecting victims trapped by incomprehensible technology and its effects, though in both tales the evil inventor becomes a victim himself when the invention malfunctions.  Justice is achieved via ultraviolet radiation.

Here is Clark Ashton Smith’s explanation of how his character’s trans-dimensional portal works:

…the desired vibration was attained by condensing ultra-violet rays in a refractive apparatus made of certain very sensitive materials which I will not name.  The resultant power was stored in a kind of battery, and could be emitted from a vibratory disk suspended above an ordinary office chair, exposing everything beneath the disk to the influence of the new vibration.  The range of the influence could be closely regulated by means of an insulative attachment.  By the use of the apparatus, I finally succeeded in precipitating various articles into the fourth dimension…they were functioning as atomic entities in a world where all things had the same vibratory rate that had been artificially induced by means of my mechanism.

This seems fairly straightforward.  It simply involves applying special vibrations to alter the locations of things at the atomic level, the basis for various sci-fi transportation technologies for decades.  In Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Tillinghast’s invention also makes use of ultraviolet waves, not so much to transport matter into another dimension as to render objects and entities in other dimensions visible to our dormant sense organs, in particular by stimulating the pineal gland, “the great sense organ of organs”.  The hazard in this is that said entities can also view us.  “Don’t move”, cautions Tillinghast, “for in these rays we are able to be seen as well as to see.”

Though discovered in the early nineteenth century, ultraviolet wavelengths were extensively researched in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of technological developments in the production and measurement of artificial light as well as theoretical advances in the physics of electromagnetic radiation.  For example, it was in the 1920s that scientists determined that the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects the earth from solar ultraviolet radiation.  The first ultraviolet lamp or “black light” was invented in 1935.  As with the weirdly glowing substance radium, increased scientific attention to ultra violet radiation led to its appearance as an important element in the speculative fiction of the time.

Having already fed the servants to various entities made visible by his invention, Tillinghast contrives to have the narrator suffer the same fate:

You tried to stop me; you discouraged me when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you!  What swept up the servants?  What made them scream so loud?...Don’t know, eh!  You’ll know soon enough…

It is typical of Lovecraft that his characters become aware of a ghastly cosmic threat but then wait passively and anxiously for their inescapable demise.  Smith’s protagonist at least concocts a plan and actively pursues it into the fourth dimension, albeit for evil purposes.  Is it that these stories depict “evil” as active and decisive, while “good” is usually helpless, passive, uninformed?  “From Beyond” however is unique in being one of the relatively few Lovecraft stories in which a firearm is discharged against the approaching horror.

In the context of ultraviolet radiation and its appearance in weird fiction, it is worth mentioning an earlier story written by Francis Stevens, her often anthologized “Unseen—Unfeared” (1919).  In Stevens’ story, “actinic rays” are used by a mad photographer—too much time alone in a dark room!—to reveal a world of invisible monstrosity.  (Actinic waves are defined as short wavelength radiation capable of producing photochemical effects, like ultraviolet light.)  Writing a decade before Lovecraft and Smith, Stevens’ depiction of this alternate universe is Hawthorne-like in its emphasis on moral depravity:

Out of the ether—out of omnipresent ether from whose intangible substance the mind of God made the planets, all living things, and man—man has made there!  By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lust and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!

(See also Don’t Look Now, But….)         

In Stevens’ story, ultraviolet light reveals humanity’s true nature; in Lovecraft’s story, ultraviolet radiation reveals phenomena separate from and uncontrolled by mankind; in Smith’s “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension”,  ultraviolet light is a device by which one man attempts to enhance the efficacy of murdering another—which perhaps brings this weird illumination back to Stevens’ and Hawthorne’s sensibility. 

These examples show the arc of development Lovecraft identified in the weird fiction of his time, moving from “the contradiction of reality” to “the hypothetical extension of reality”.  And all three stories illustrate—in spectral black light—how emerging technology and scientific understanding enter and inform our nightmares, and from there emerge as speculative fiction—documentation to ponder and enjoy.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lefferts and Lownsberry Corners

In H.P. Lovecraft’s beloved ghoul cycle tale, “The Lurking Fear” (1923), the inhabitants of Lefferts Corners are victimized by an agitation of “a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity.”  Disturbed by thunder and a bolt of lightning that breaks open their underground lair, a horde of voracious ghouls descends on a community of squatters, leaving 75 of them gruesomely disassembled and incomplete. 

But the narrator is not so disturbed by the awful carnage or subsequent attacks. These unfortunates were, after all “a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes.”  Consistent with Lovecraft’s horror of miscegenation, the antiquarian narrator’s most shattering moment comes when he discovers that a once great family has genetically devolved over the centuries due to a history of intermingling with a subterranean race.  The discovery suspiciously parallels events in the history of Lovecraft’s own family, which steadily declined in stature and financial security following the death of his father, who contracted syphilis in his travels, and his grandfather, who may have succumbed to the stress of a business failure.

Meanwhile, to the west of the Catskills Mountains, over in Pennsylvania, the citizens of Lownsberry Corners are menaced by “a she-devil from Hell” in David H. Keller’s “The Bridle” (1942).  Though published nearly two decades later, the fictional settings of the two stories are nearly cotemporaneous.  Lownsberryites are described by the narrator early on:

As I became better acquainted with my neighbors I found that only two families were comfortably situated.  The others, including the parson, stayed because there was no way of getting out.  They were cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and hungry all the time.  The storekeeper was king of finance at the Corners.  The pastor received four fifths of his meager stipend form the Home Missionary Society of his denomination.  The rest of us seldom saw a dollar.

As in Lefferts Corners, the people of Lownsberry Corners are poor; they reside in an economically depressed region.  Keller’s backstory about the founding of the community is a textbook description of the demise of small agricultural towns that spring up, exhaust their natural resources, and then fade, trapping their least fortunate citizens in perpetual poverty.  In Lovecraft’s remote Catskills region, the impoverished residents “sometimes leave their valleys to trade handwoven baskets for such primitive necessities as they cannot shoot, raise or make.”

The two stories are different from each other in several ways, but share an assumption common to the horror fiction of the time:  that the appearance of supernatural and primordial evil is often likely to occur among the poor and uneducated.  Its detection and perhaps its vanquishing depends on an intervention from enlightened members of the upper classes.  Only recently in horror entertainment—perhaps since the 1970s—have authors of speculative fiction acknowledged that monstrous evil can come from the aristocracy as well, from malevolent corporations or wealthy megalomaniacs.  (As always, it is the middle-class that suffers.)

Though problematic when implemented as a political or economic system, Marxist theory has been a useful analytical framework to apply to the cultural products of a given society, especially one undergoing economic destabilization or oppression.  In José B. Monleon’s 1990 essay, A Specter is Haunting Europe:  A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic, the point is made that bourgeois society’s opposition to the increasing political power of the poor and disenfranchised is often reflected in the content of fantasy and horror literature.  Insofar as the economically marginalized are perceived as a source of crime, disease, ignorance and violence, they become a ready source of nightmarish inspiration.  Their separation from polite society contributes to the poor being perceived as other, as an object of fear.

This seems to be what is going on some of Lovecraft’s more xenophobic and racist passages.  Readers may have come across examples of this perspective in stories like “He” (1926), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), and “The Call of Cthulhu”—that the poor and ethnically or racially diverse are either the source of, or are complicit with an emerging horror.  It is interesting to note that in Lovecraft’s ghoul cycle of stories, a monstrous underground race—which may symbolize Lovecraft’s fear of diversity, “mongrel hordes” and loss of social prestige—actually evolves across stories.  In “The Lurking Fear”, the creatures are

Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…

Could Lovecraft be talking about the proletariat? Immigrants?  And yet, a couple decades later, in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1943), one of these creatures, a ghoul convert named Richard Upton Pickman, becomes an important ally of Randolph Carter in his quest to find his “gold and marble city of wonder.”  Part of this evolution involves a shift from the abstract and general—“God knows how many there were…there must have been thousands…”—to the individual and personal, to Pickman. 

Is it too much of a stretch to think that Lovecraft’s fear of the other was eventually replaced with a willingness to embrace it?  Doesn’t this show, on a personal level at least, the therapeutic benefits of horror literature, of horror treatment?  Does horror offer hope for the world?  (It has been suggested by some that Lovecraft modulated his extreme racist and xenophobic views later in life.)

Speaking of treatment, David H. Keller—a practicing psychiatrist until he turned to horror writing later in life—also addressed embracing the other, in this case the feminine other, in his disturbing “The Bridle”.  But here the prognosis is not as good as was the case with his younger contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft.  “The Bridle” was discussed briefly in the previous post.  The short story is essentially a misogynistic metaphor in which the narrator, who is suspiciously a doctor like the author, presumes to control a powerful and willful sorceress, literally “breaking her in” like a new horse.  Could this story be autobiographical in any way?  Keller often visited rural communities in his practice. 

The story is effective and horrifying, but probably not for the reasons intended by its author.  Contemporary readers will find the narrator’s motivations and methods uncomfortably dark and violent, in spite of the author’s demonization of the sorceress and use of conventional religious trappings to restrain her.  He succeeds, at least temporarily.  In the context of the story “bridle” and “bridal” are synonymous.  But Keller leaves the matter open-ended, the conflict unresolved:

But I’m determined to conquer her.  When I do I’ll again remove the bridle; she will be willing to be baptized and marry me, becoming a gentle, loving wife, and faithful…Of course, I realize she may kill me first, in an unguarded moment, kissing my body to death with blows from her hardened hooves.  But come what may, I must have her with me, woman or mare, because I love her.

‘Physician heal thyself’ one wants to say, but of course he cannot do so, and this is the crux of the horror.  Neither will escape this arrangement without violence, an especially dark depiction of relationships between men and women.  Keller was quite reactionary, even for his time, but the concept of “bridling” a wayward bride is still not unfamiliar in many areas of the world, including our own.

But don't these sorts of things—ghouls, shape-shifting witches, the oppression of the poor, violence toward women—only happen in out of the way places like Lefferts and Lownsberry Corners?