Saturday, February 27, 2016

Lovecraft Meets Earth Mother

Though the focus here is on early twentieth century horror, fantasy, and science fiction, it is fascinating now and then to sample contemporary fiction modelled on the work of Lovecraft, Smith, Howard and others in their circle.  What became of Lovecraft’s Mythos, Smith’s Zothique, or Howard’s various barbarian heroes as the decades rolled by?  Or more sociologically:  what became of their racism, xenophobia and misogyny as American society struggled to become a multicultural nation while remaining true to its founders’ ideals?  

I have begun reading an impressive collection of novellas and short stories by Ross Smeltzer, a new author who recently published his first book, The Mark of the Shadow Grove, (2016).  Smeltzer describes his fiction as “often tinted with shades of Lovecraftian horror” and “my homage to authors who have inspired me to write, including Lovecraft and his predecessors.”  But this seems too modest an appraisal. Smeltzer makes subtle and clever use of Lovecraftian motifs in a way that is respectful, affectionate and incisive. 

The Mark of the Shadow Grove shows that the author has mastered and incorporated Lovecraft’s ideas and transmuted them into fiction that addresses contemporary anxieties.  The first offering in the collection, “The Witch of Kinderhook”, examines the relationships of power between men and women, and humankind’s problematic interaction with Nature, which the author suggests are really two aspects of the same underlying problem:  whether to regard women and the natural world as equal partners in life or as mere resources to dominate and compartmentalize in a quest to shore up the masculine ego and will to power. 

The occult emphasis on the eternal feminine is pervasive in this novella, and suggests a cure—probably an “herbal” one—that Ebenezer Carver, the principal villain, is incapable of receiving.  Carver is a necromancer, likely a colleague of Joseph Curwen, the evil ancestor in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, (1941) and about as reputable.  Carver’s foil is the mysterious and powerful Katrina Schermerhorn, an Earth Mother and witch, an arendiwanen in local Mohawk parlance. 

While Carver works his day job as coroner for the City of New York (circa the 1820s), Schermerhorn labors on her farm and in the nearby woods, applying her vast and ancient knowledge of herbal pharmacopeia.  Carver wants the witch’s expertise about obscure hallucinogenic fungi to help with his “scientific” experiments in necromancy; this leads to a fateful confrontation which is also emblematic of the classic struggle between science and the supernatural, man and nature, masculine and feminine. 

A recurring observation in the text is that ‘the way of things’ is towards death, decay and a kind of vegetable regeneration.  The author’s description of the surrounding countryside, of crumbling stone fences and farmhouses succumbing to vines, moss and fungi emphasizes this theme of decay, the passage of time, and the impermanence of human ambition.  It is a perspective that clearly favors Nature and those who in wisdom would submit to Her.

Documenting this meeting of dialectically opposed forces is the necromancer’s apprentice Tom, who is the narrator of “The Witch of Kinderhook”.  Smeltzer initially portrays Tom’s relationship with his master as a duplicate of the one between Randolph Carter and Harley Warren in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920)—“Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him”.  This type of relationship appears in numerous Lovecraftian bromances. 

However, by the end of the novella, Tom is decisive and no longer passively accepting of his master’s abuse and direction.  He has observed and considered both sides—personified by the megalomaniacal necromancer and the mysterious Earth Mother—of what amounts to a philosophical, even a moral debate. In the end, he makes a terrifying choice.  However, the climax of the story seems as though it could be the opening of a much larger, more elaborate story.

Lovecraft fans will enjoy finding several allusions to well-known stories like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) among others.  Smeltzer also manages to incorporate autobiographical material about his mentor:  Lovecraft’s hatred of New York, his fascination with colonial architecture, his disdain for sea food, and his reverence for the antiquarian books that comprise a bibliography of doom.  Smeltzer also makes an insightful comment about Ebenezer Carver that seems intended for Lovecraft: one character opines that Carver “is a mystic, but he yearns to be a man of reason.”  It is assumed that these two modes of apprehending the world are irreconcilable, leading to inevitable conflict—a grim, fatalistic observation and one certainly applicable to Lovecraft.

In “The Witch of Kinderhook” the author endeavors to use period terminology and grammatical forms in creating the early nineteenth century setting, and is mostly effective and consistent without encumbering the reader with too much obscure vocabulary.  However, there are a few jarring anachronisms.  The Lovecraftian term eldritch appears twice, at the beginning and near the end, probably to signal the author’s respect for the origin of some of the motifs he uses.  This is permissible.

But at one point, the narrator labels the witch’s explanation of her ancestry as “Sphynx-speak”, a locution probably derived from George Orwell’s 1984 and unlikely to occur in the early 1800s.  The witch at one point describes the earth-wisdom she has received from her mentor as being “gifted” to her.  This particular use of the word gift as a verb did not infest our language significantly until after the early 1930s, and is probably impossible to eradicate now.

These are minor quibbles though, probably more upsetting to verbal obsessives than anyone else.  (An occupational hazard—your humble blogger is a speech language pathologist by training.)  One anachronism was interesting to find though:  on the witch’s bookshelf, among various esoteric texts, is a copy of The Book of Simon the Magician.  Contemporary occultists may have read this book or a similar one by “Simon”.  This is the pseudonym of an author who actually published a version of the Necronomicon in 1977.   Simon linked the entities described in the Necronomicon to the mythology and religious practices of the ancient Sumerian civilization.  Is this book also on Smeltzer’s bookshelf?

“The Witch of Kinderhook” is a coming-of-age story, a New Age spiritual treatise and an homage to Lovecraft.  It also manages to weave in a synopsis of Odysseus’ encounter with the witch Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, and provide a brief overview of Native American spiritual beliefs!  The story works both as an effective horror tale and a fictional presentation of some perennial philosophical and psychological questions. 

I especially liked the character of Doctor Knyphausen, the professor with the “Innsmouth look” who appeared too briefly early in the story.  It would be great if he showed up in a subsequent work, perhaps in continuation of Tom’s adventures with the Witch of Kinderhook.


“The Witch of Kinderhook” appears in the collection The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016) published by
Fantasy Works Publishing, Fordsville, Kentucky USA. (

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

An Egregore on X-Files

Like many fans of the original show, I was delighted to see Mulder and Scully back at work again in the new X-Files.  The first three installments were entertaining, especially the third, a wonderful spoof of the “monster-of-the-week” episodes of old, and a parody of late 1950s early 1960s “guy-in-a-suit” monster flicks. 

Did you feel just a bit of a chill near the end of that third episode? The sociopathic serial killer, who was the real villain in the story, is disappointed upon capture when he cannot give his prepared statement to the press.  It was a reminder that even our cold blooded killers need celebrity and media attention to feel that they actually exist and have purpose in life.  (Interested readers may want to look at Mark Seltzer’s disturbing 1998 study, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture.)

But the fourth episode of the new X-Files, (“Home Again”) was especially intriguing to this viewer, because it contained an instance of an egregore, a subject of growing academic interest, at least to me.  This concept has been discussed in several previous posts.  An egregore is a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes the form given it by the preconceived notions of those sensitive enough to detect it, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it.  At some point in its development, an egregore can take on a life and a will of its own, and is not easily eradicated as long as its believers continue to exist.  (Readers may know of alternate terms for the same phenomenon.)

Some of the early twentieth century horror literature that demonstrates this idea of the egregore includes Clark Ashton Smith’s Genius Loci (1933), H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936) Manly Wade Wellman’s Up Under the Roof (1938), and Theodore Sturgeon’s Shadow, Shadow On the Wall, (1950).  This is hardly an exhaustive list. 

In Genius Loci, an artist and two of his friends are drawn inexorably to their doom in a desolate marsh by an entity they have brought into being through the obsessive attention they give it.  Smith implies that the manifestation and activation of this malign presence is an artistic process—requiring an artist.  (This is also the assumption underlying the horror in the recent X-Files episode.)  In Wellman’s story, a young boy must face an amorphous, amoeba like creature that his imagination has created in the attic above his bedroom.  In Sturgeon’s story, an abused child embodies his rage in a shadow on the wall, which grows large and aggressive enough over time to devour his awful stepmother. 

Though not a precise fit, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark arguably falls into this category, insofar as the doomed Robert Blake brings about a manifestation of Nyarlathotep by focusing his attention through the use of the Shining Trapezohedron.  He eventually becomes psychically possessed and later destroyed by the entity.  It seems a commonplace among those who would invoke an egregore—either willfully or inadvertently—that they soon lose control of the monstrosity and are overpowered by it. 

More contemporary treatments of the phenomena can be found in two stories by Thomas Ligotti, Nethescurial (1991) and Purity (2003).  Readers can probably think of numerous additional examples of egregores in horror entertainment. It is a very powerful idea, probably ancient and archetypal.

The fourth episode of the new X-Files contained a textbook example of an egregore and what it is capable of doing.  Mulder and Scully investigate a series of gruesome murders involving brute decapitation and dismemberment.  The victims are various city officials or members of the upper class, who have been evicting homeless people from sections of wildly misnamed Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.” 

The source of the carnage is an entity called “Band-Aid Nose Man”, who looks out for the interests of the address-less poor, materializing whenever self-serving bureaucrats and hypocritical property owners threaten to evict them from their pathetic impromptu shelters.  In one memorable scene, Petula Clark’s 1965 hit Downtown is the background music to the ghastly demise of an annoying upper class suburbanite.  It was a perfect juxtaposition of pop banality and gruesome rough justice.    

It turns out that an urban artist named Trashman has brought this baleful entity into existence.  Trashman has fashioned a larger than life-sized clay figure and imagined it as a vengeful agent of justice for his fellow poor people.  The artist’s explanation of how “Band-Aid Nose Man”  came into existence, as told to Mulder and Scully in barely comprehensible street language, is nearly verbatim the traditional explanation of the egregore phenomenon. 

Once empowered by Trashman’s fervent imagination and angst about the plight of his friends, Band-Aid Nose Man inhabits a form and will of his own.  He literally takes matters into his own hands, drawing and quartering those who would oppress the poor of Philadelphia.  One can easily imagine a being like Band-Aid Nose Man being transmuted into the avenging anti-hero of a new graphic novel series.

The idea of the egregore is interesting for reasons other than its frequent appearance, or perhaps materialization, in horror and fantasy literature.  In a more general sense it may be the base material for the creation—through imagination, visualization, dream imagery and worshipful attention—of gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural phenomena.  Is it the prima materia for idolatry?  For the evil we cannot resist? 

Or is the egregore merely a kind of psychic screen for the projection of human fears and desires, a building block for delusional thinking?  Is the relationship between human consciousness and the egregore symbiotic or parasitic? Does the concept have application beyond the occult field to literature, religion, political movements, popular culture, or celebrity?    

With respect to horror and fantasy literature, the process that engenders the egregore may be the troublesome link between nightmare, religion and fantastic art.  This will become a recurring topic of investigation for The R’lyeh Tribune over the coming year.


Previous discussions of egregore-like phenomena include the following:

When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus (Genius Loci by Clark Ashton Smith)
The Amoeba in the Attic (Up Under the Roof, by Manly Wade Wellman)
At Least Three Pestilences (The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft, and other stories)
Howard and Frank vs. the Brain Eaters (The Space-Eaters, by Frank Belknap Long)
Nethescurial as an Egregore (Nethescurial, by Thomas Ligotti)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

4. The Subway as Urban Basement

This is the last installment of a four part series about horror stories set in the cellar or basement—it’s time to come back upstairs!  Initially, the discussion focused on the experiences of a single child, terrified of the darkness below, but later broadened to include the cellar as a metaphor for a secret (Bradbury) or oppressed (Matheson) adolescent rebellion.  In contrast, H.P. Lovecraft’s well known The Rats in the Walls (1924) makes the basement the top of the stairs leading down to forgotten horrors, a kind of past life regression involving archaeology instead of hypnosis.

So far, the journey downstairs has been a personal or familial one, an exploration of the shadows beneath a single home.  However, insofar as all cellars and basements serve as an annex to Hell, it would seem that the shadows down there commingle and interconnect at some level.  Just a little further down, what lies beneath all our houses, our towns and cities?  The subject of collective subterranean horrors is a familiar one in weird fiction and weird entertainment. 

Just a few examples include the ferocious underground mutants in the 1984 film C.H.U.D., (“Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller”), the disgusting entity known as Fluke Man from the 1994 X-Files episode “The Host”, and the aptly named “Judas breed”, an enormous cockroach that replicates the form of its human prey in Mimic (1997).  There are many more examples of this subgenre of horror, all of them probably commenting on some problematic aspect of our social lives together.

In stories like The Lurking Fear (1923), The Festival (1925), The Horror at Red Hook (1927) and Pickman’s Model (1927), H.P. Lovecraft explored the nether regions lying beneath the ordinary architecture of cities and towns, all connected by tunnels leading off towards various nightmares.  (See also The Horrors of Immigration).  His ghoul cycle of stories exemplifies this, including some episodes in his novel-length fantasy The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).  It is a tribute to his achievement that his work continues to inspire anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction even today, the popularity of which shows no sign of abating.  But younger authors were already emulating him at the time of his death in 1937.

One of these was Robert Barbour Johnson, an artist, circus animal trainer, and writer who eventually settled in San Francisco.  He was an associate of Clark Ashton Smith, as well as the Satanist Anton LaVey, and a member of the local chapter of the Fortean Society.  He published only a handful of stories in Weird Tales, and is best known for Far Below, an homage to Lovecraft that contains some original touches of his own.  The story occasionally appears in anthologies.

Lovecraft readers may recall this passage in Pickman’s Model:

Gad, how that man could paint!  There was a study called ‘Subway Accident’, in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.

This seems to be the inspiration for one of the gruesome incidents in Johnson’s Far Below, which also directly references Lovecraft as an “authority” on the subject of ghouls.  Also mentioned one of the author’s most intriguing entities, Nyarlathotep.  Far Below is told almost completely in a monologue transcribed by the narrator.  His friend, a well-paid employee of the “Special Subway Detail”, lectures him on the secret nature of his work and the history of his department.  Which department is charged with monitoring and managing periodic eruptions of ghoul-like creatures from a subterranean fissure adjacent to the deepest subway line beneath New York City.

But the revelation that “cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers” are active beneath the streets of New York—reported in the first few paragraphs of the story—is not the primary horror in Far Below.  The ghouls were evidently present even before the arrival of white men on Manhattan, and their history is intermingled with that of the great city, with disturbing incidents sprinkled throughout legend and folklore—“Even some of Washington Irving’s writings have a nasty twist to them, if you once realize it!”

Unlike the underground denizens in Lovecraft’s tales, Johnson’s monsters may elicit some sympathy from readers.  The subterranean creatures are treated brutally by the city’s representatives over the centuries. After all, they were the island’s original inhabitants, and might have a reasonable claim to their underground domains.  Are they a stand-in for the beleaguered Native Americans, or impoverished immigrants?  Do they constitute a metaphor for the urban working class, or the poor?  The view is further darkened by the fact that the city government has been aware of the problem for decades, and has expended considerable resources to keep the matter under control and under wraps.

Though the narrator grows increasingly anxious as his friend divulges more and more about the city and its special department, his friend seems oddly devoid of overwhelming anxiety or terror.  The tone of his monologue is one of matter-of-fact disclosure, even confession.  It is clear that his unique career has had an impact on his world view, daily habits and even physical state.  But it is ‘all in a day’s work’.  Compare this response to the reactions of Lovecraft’s narrators in Pickman’s Model and The Horror at Red Hook.  They are horrified, while Johnson’s city worker is merely jaded and resigned.

This is Johnson’s contribution to the Lovecraftian image of devolved, cannibalistic humanoids—that their oppression can be seen as an aspect of human corruption, greed and will-to-power.  Not only that:  in Johnson’s hands, the management of the monster has been urbanized and turned into a mundane job, the original horror shifted from the ghoul to its human handlers, who are the real monsters.  It is no surprise at the end of the story that the member of the Special Subway Detail can no longer leave his desk job, so “far below” the city streets.

One of the pleasures of reading weird fiction is to trace the development of ideas originated by Lovecraft and others across generations of writers and time periods.  Johnson published Far Below not long after Lovecraft’s death, but was already articulating very contemporary nightmares about urban problems.  One wonders whether Lovecraft could have transcended his racism and xenophobia sufficiently to appreciate Johnson’s insights, or written a similar kind of horror story. 

As I write this, the city of Flint, Michigan—just an hour’s drive from here—is reeling from the poisoning of its water supply at the hands of an incompetent and evasive city (and state) government, who denied the existence of the hazard for over a year.  Children may be the primary victims, suffering lifelong neurological damage from accumulating lead in their bloodstreams—an instance of what some are calling environmental racism.  It is not hard to see a parallel to this real life horror in the actions of Johnson’s venal city government.

This concludes a brief survey of cellar and basement horrors, hardly exhaustive and minimally representative of the field.  A book could easily be written about this subgenre of horror, perhaps connecting it with the sociological and psycho-architectural aspects of our urban and suburban lives.  What really lies beneath our familiar and well-traveled floors, hallways, city streets?  What is moving around down there, trying to find stairs to climb?  We would like very much for our cellars, basements, subway tunnels—even lower levels—to be clean, dry and well illumined.  Which of course they never can be to our satisfaction and peace of mind.