Saturday, April 30, 2016

Personal Note: On the Horror of Invasive Plants and Others

In Michigan we have had an excruciatingly slow and cold spring so far, but with recent rain and kinder temperatures there’s been a long awaited explosion of diverse vegetation—both desirable and undesirable.  I have been spending over an hour each night, digging, weeding and deadheading until the street lights come on.  It’s been mostly pleasant work, fulfilling my need for physical labor after a hectic day of meetings and tapping away at the computer.

A year or so ago my wife and I made the fateful mistake of mulching our gardens heavily with hay instead of straw.  Like many naïve gardeners, we assumed that the terms were synonymous, that a bale of hay is equivalent to a bale of straw.  To the untrained eye, they appear to be the same material.  But straw is cleaner, mostly free of seed heads, while hay contains millions of stowaways, and generally consists of entire plants of various species, dried and bundled up.  The dire consequence of applying hay to the garden is visible in the following years.  It is too late for us; you can still save yourself and your yard.

Our generous application of hay in nearly every corner of our yard resulted in a spectacular number of new weed species being introduced into our gardens.  The immigrants are botanically interesting, at least for a few moments, but are overwhelming in their numbers. Most appear to be highly invasive.  The worst are various grass species that grow rapidly and spread aggressively by way of underground runners.  There are also diverse clovers and mustard-like forbs that are difficult to uproot once established. 

This challenge to the integrity of our gardens is in addition to our historic struggle to control and assimilate certain problematic minorities of plants: Vetch, Adenophora, Bishop’s Weed, Bugleweed and some of the more aggressive Sedum species.  These are plants that we intentionally brought to our gardens long ago to serve various specific purposes, but now insist on popping up everywhere in the yard, even in the better cultivated areas where the more desirable flowers reside.

Usually I am enthusiastic about plant diversity.  With a greater the number of different species, the yard is more attractive to interesting birds, insects and other creatures, and overall, the collection of gardens and patches of lawn seems healthier and more resilient during the late summer drought.  But now our gardens—and our cities—are a chaos of multiple species and cultures.  Part of me wants to restore order and homogeneity, and soon. 

Perhaps this motivation is instinctual in gardeners, landscapers and property owners.  I want to return the gardens to their original pristine state, before the onslaught of the invasive plants.  I share the enthusiasm for eco-fascism that drives the Natural Area Preservation movement, the folks who relentlessly hunt down invading species—the much maligned buckthorn, honey suckle and garlic mustard—hacking and ripping them out of the ground to create Lebensraum for our precious native plants.  It is a kind of xenophobia translated and transplanted into the garden and landscape.  But most gardeners and nature preservationists forget that in a given plot of land, all plants were immigrants once.

Nevertheless, I told my wife that one of my goals this year was to eradicate certain species from the yard forever, in particular Lady Bells (Adenophora stricta), Spearmint (Mentha spicata), and Bishop’s Weed (Aegopodium podagraria).  She gave me a sad, knowing look, but I was undaunted.  We must persevere in our cause.  We must.

Over the years I have had some success at oppressing the dandelions and vetch, diligently removing individual outbreaks I’ve discovered while on reconnaissance in the yard.  While I cannot claim to have exterminated them entirely, I have relegated them to various ghettoes in the yard:  the tiny patch where the wheelbarrow leans against the house, the narrow strip behind the compost bins, the stony alley along the fence.

But while I was accomplishing this important responsibility, masses of bugleweed emigrated from neighboring lawns, creeping across the property lines and overwhelming sections of our back yard.  Our neighbor on the right, an ancient veteran of World War II, no longer has the strength or ground forces to police his own borders, and so the ivy, spurge and crabgrass readily cross back and forth across our western frontier. 

Even more problematic, with respect to horticultural security, are our neighbors to the east.  Their policies toward immigrant species are much more liberal, (that is, lax or nonexistent), allowing some of our vegetable bad actors to flourish in pockets just on the other side, creating havoc in the landscape along that treacherous line.

Then there is our neighbor to the north, with whom we have had a simmering border dispute for decades.  (See also Personal Note: Attack of the Tingids.)  They have allowed, (intentionally?) their ivy groundcover—which is seeking the comparatively sunnier regions of our backyard—to spread from their zone into ours, establishing new and virulent colonies.  Though we have no direct proof, we suspect them of clandestinely funding this vegetable growth with secret applications of an organic fertilizer, which of course is difficult for authorities to trace.

So we are horticulturally besieged by marauding invasive species, approaching from three out of the four points of the compass.  The solution cannot simply be “build a wall” as some have advocated.  Many weed species can easily send their airborne seeds over the top of it, or tunnel beneath such a structure with their extensive root systems.  Paving the entire yard, turning it into a parking lot or an extension of the road, would likely be effective for only a decade at most.  And some would undoubtedly complain about the environmental impact of such a project.

Though grim business, it may be that constant struggle and vigilance is the only solution to the challenge of managing the encroachment of invasive plant species.  Preserving the identity and coherence of the garden, its glorious historical past, its bright colorful future, requires it.  The alternative is green chaos: a slow steady strangulation of our instinctual efforts to ensure order, control, productivity, and peace for our posterity—the entanglement of the good, the true, the beautiful—the American way—in the tendrils of an unruly and disrespectful Nature.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bouquets of Doom

Thomas Ligotti’s “Les Fleurs” is a brief but effective riff on the diary-of-a-madman format often seen in horror fiction.  The story originally appeared in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986).  Within just the first five sentences Ligotti masterfully encapsulates the maniac’s obsessions and his modus operandi—a grim version of “say it with flowers”.  Though there are victims—at least 2—and plenty of ominous foreshadowing, their peculiar fate is really a backdrop to what is essentially a psychological character study.  A timeline of just under six months, neatly bracketed by almost identical journal entries at the beginning and the end, documents one cycle of the narrator’s fateful interactions with the lonely and the trusting.  The story is a marvel of economy and focus.

The nightmarish elements of the story are more subtle and restrained in “Les Fleurs” than in later work by Ligotti.  There is even an occasional bit of offhand humor that seems to amplify the more horrific aspects.  The narrator has a practice of laying flowers on the graves of people who share the same name as his victims—there are evidently no remains of them left to entomb—but he is unsuccessful doing this for his latest victim. He is reduced to leaving the commemorative bouquet at the headstone of “someone named Clarence.” 

Lovecraft fans will appreciate the reference to a Shoggoth-like sculpture that is somehow connected with the disappearance of the narrator’s victims.

“Watch that”, I warned.  She let out a little “Ow”.  “Is it supposed to be some type of cactus?” she inquired.

Though he denies it, the narrator is an artist who strives for realism in his work—just like Pickman—and apparently paints from life.  There is also an intriguing conceptualization of the narrator’s mind: it is not one unified personality but a secret paranoid assembly that seeks to restrain his incautious romantic ventures.  (“Those lonely souls, mes frères!”)  Most disturbing line:  “The inconspicuousness we need for our lives could be lost, and with it would go the keys to a strange kingdom.”  There is a lot going on in this short, effective piece.

“Les Fleurs” recalls Charles Baudelaire’s classic book of French poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).  The occasional French phrase in Ligotti’s text, and the fact that the narrator is an aesthete like Baudelaire perhaps makes Ligotti’s story some sort of homage.  Was the famous poet and essayist a model or inspiration for Ligotti’s narrator?

Over the years I have read excerpts from Les Fleurs du Mal, dropped here and there like lilting, spent blossoms into books of psychology, philosophy, and horror—but never the work in its entirety.  One of my more adventurous high school English teachers had us peruse one selection from Baudelaire, which I recall was a little “off”, even unwholesome, especially compared to the breezier and brighter examples of poetry we are typically encouraged to read. 

Baudelaire’s poetry, now that I am becoming more familiar with it, has an alluring toxicity, something you might consume if you were dared to do so.  Les Fleurs du Mal is remarkably dark and morbid—of a piece with the mood of Poe or Lovecraft, though less self-restrained or self-conscious.  The earthiness is appealing; in fact, several of his poems dwell on matters beneath the earth:

Wherever the soil is rich and full of snails
I want to dig myself a nice deep grave—
deep enough to stretch out these tired old bones
and sleep in peace, like a shark in the cradling wave.

What little I know about Baudelaire suggests he is in a line of similarly dark and cynical writers, impatient with conventional pieties, authors like Poe, Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Smith, Burroughs, and Ligotti.  They were all seduced by the dark side—or perhaps they saw the bright side all too clearly.  H.P. Lovecraft, in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) has this comment about Baudelaire and the 19th century traditions from which he came:

Later on we see the stream divide, producing strange poets and fantaisistes of the symbolic and decadent schools whose dark interests really centre more in abnormalities of human thought and instinct than in the actual supernatural, and subtle story-tellers whose thrills are quite directly derived from night-black wells of cosmic unreality.  Of the former class of “artists in sin” the illustrious poet Baudelaire, influenced vastly by Poe, is the supreme type…

From a Calvinist perspective, these gentlemen are adept at depicting the total depravity and hopelessness of humanity, yet will not concede to any possibility of deliverance of transcendence.  Whether or not one agrees with them, their courage and integrity on these matters is admirable.  As Baudelaire charmingly puts it in his opening comments in Les Fleurs du Mal (“To the Reader”):

If rape and arson, poison and the knife
have not yet stitched their ludicrous designs
onto the banal buckram of our fates,
it is because our souls lack enterprise!

Charles Baudelaire was not only an accomplished poet and essayist, but an astute critic in mid-nineteenth century Paris.  For example, a section of Les Fleurs du Mal that was later appended to the original book describes his perception of efforts to modernize Parisian streets and architecture:

Old Paris is gone (no human heart
Changes half so fast as a city’s face)

And only in my mind’s eye can I see
The junk laid out to glitter in the booths
Among the weeds and splintered capitals,
Blocks of marble blackened by the mud;

There used to be a poultry-market here…

Baudelaire’s lifestyle was similar to that of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work he translated into French in the 1850s and 1860s.  Though brilliant, both authors were reliably decadent, avant-garde, drug addled wastrels—but their work was enormously influential.  Not surprisingly, Baudelaire was once prosecuted as “an insult to public decency” for some of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, and suspected by some to be an advocate of Satanism, though this seems a misperception. 

Like a number of the afore-mentioned authors—Poe and Lovecraft come to mind—Baudelaire struggled with limited finances, ill health, and inconsistent productivity as a writer.  There are interesting similarities of temperament and family relationship between Baudelaire and Lovecraft, and their work achieved renown and influence only after their untimely deaths.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Like a Moth to a Flame

Clark Ashton Smith’s The End of the Story (1930) features a portal or magical gateway, a device not uncommon in several of his dark fantasies, and generally familiar to readers of horror, fantasy and science fiction.  Probably the best known example in Smith’s work is The City of Singing Flame (1931) and its sequel Beyond the Singing Flame (1931).  Phillip Hastane, the author’s psychic detective and alter ego, attempts to determine the fate of a missing friend and fellow writer. In the process he discovers an ancient “trans-dimensional” portal, still in good working order, linking Earth and an alien planet in another dimension.  (See also An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal and ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal Redux).

Portals of a kind are also featured in Xeethra (1934), a story from Smith’s Zothique cycle, as well as in the more straightforward occult tale, The Devotee of Evil (1933).  In Xeethra, the main character finds a lush green valley in the midst of a desert, and enters a fissure in the wall of a nearby cliff.  The cavern opens onto a vast subterranean garden that suspiciously resembles Eden.  When he consumes a forbidden fruit, sacred to the ruling demon Thasaidon, Xeethra becomes “unstuck in time”, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s character of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.  (See also Forbidden Tree and Forbidden Fruit in Zothique.)

In The Devotee of Evil, Phillip Hastane is on hand again, this time to observe the weird demise of a megalomaniacal occultist named Averaud.  Averaud has developed a technology, best used in “thin” places—for example, an old house haunted by at least one murder—to amplify and allow passage to “perfect evil”.  This rarely turns out well, and doesn’t here.  (See also Unseen, Unfeared, and Unheard; compare Smith’s story to William Sloane’s 1939 novel The Edge of Running Water.)  Readers can probably supply many more examples of these weird gateways in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith and his colleagues.

Although the various portals in Smith’s stories differ superficially in setting and technology, all of them involve an ecstatic, even sexual experience for the user, and become an addiction and an obsession that cannot be escaped.  Readers in a more psychoanalytic mode can speculate about the underlying basis for these portals.  Here is a passage from The City of Singing Flame:  

But I had not gone much further when I realized the peculiar mental and emotional spell which sound was beginning to exert upon me.  There was a siren-like allurement which drew me on, forgetful of the strangeness and potential perils of my situation; and I felt a slow, drug-like intoxication of brain and senses.  In some insidious manner, I know not how nor why, the music conveyed the ideas of vast but attainable space and altitude, of superhuman freedom and exultation; and it seemed to promise all the impossible splendors of which my imagination has vaguely dreamt.

The attraction of the portal and what may lie beyond it is irresistible, and its victims are drawn to it like moths to a flame.  In fact, Smith cannot resist this homey metaphor, and describes the demise of two lepidopteran aliens:

The entities with scarlet wings, whom I previously mentioned, were standing a little apart from the rest of us.  Now, with a great fluttering, they rose and flew toward the flame like moths toward a candle.  For a brief moment the light shone redly through their half-transparent wings ere they disappeared in the leaping incandescence, which flared briefly and then burned as before.

The End of the Story is in Smith’s Averoigne cycle of stories.  Sometime in the late 18th century, a young law student named Christophe is enroute to his father’s house near Moulins, but gets lost in a storm. The highway he is travelling becomes a narrow footpath that leads to an old monastery.  Though a subtle change, he seems to have left the contemporary world behind and entered an earlier one, closer in time and sensibility to the events depicted in stories like The Disinterment of Venus (1934) and The Beast of Averoigne (1933).  The effect of going back in time via subtle changes in scenery and architecture is similar to what H.P. Lovecraft accomplishes in He (1926) and a few years later in The Silver Key.  (See also With Him, in New York City.)

Christophe’s diversion to the monastery is only a prelude to a more fateful passage.  As a guest of the abbot he is allowed unsupervised access to a library of ancient texts, both Christian and pagan. One of these he is forbidden by the abbot to read, and naturally, this is the one he is obsessed with studying.  It is the fragmentary account of one Gerárd de Venteillon, who visited the fearful ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes some years previously, and was never seen again. 

Interestingly, the Abbey of Périgon and the Château des Faussesflammes occupy the same psycho-geography as the Cistercian monastery and the ruined castle headquarters of the vengeful sorcerer in Smith’s The Colossus of Ylourgne (1934).  That is, they lie across from each other in close proximity, with a valley separating them.  Smith seems to intend a comparison or rough symmetry between conventional religion and occult or pagan practice.

Christophe becomes obsessed with Gerárd’s story and with the mysterious ruins he can see from a window in the monastery.  He wants to know what happened, wants to know “the end of the story”.  Beneath the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes he encounters a portal to another dimension, a hazardous but alluring gateway to pagan Greece—and a rendezvous with one of its more disturbing female denizens.  Gerárd was the first of her male victims, of record at least, and Christophe will not be the last.

The narrative is artfully constructed, a story-within-a-story, and the announcement in the first few lines of the main character’s eventual disappearance emphasizes the sense of unavoidable destiny.  But Smith has more in mind than exaggerating the dangers of intimacy, sexual or otherwise.  There is interesting symmetry between past and present, youth and old age, Heathendom and Christendom, sunny, spring-like Greece and dour, gloomy Averoigne.   The End of the Story is remarkable for a pagan rant uttered by a satyr against Christianity:

The power of Christ has prevailed like a black frost on all the woods, the fields, the rivers, the mountains, where abode in their felicity the glad, immortal goddesses and nymphs of yore.  But still, in the cryptic caverns of earth, in places far underground, like the hell your priests have fabled, there dwells the pagan loveliness, there cry the pagan ecstasies.

But interesting questions remain:  Why does the abbot keep the manuscript, which sent the narrator and many others before him to their doom?  Who wrote the account of Gerárd’s disappearance, or observed its events?  Smith seems to suggest that Christendom and Heathendom are two halves of the same coin.  Or perhaps they are intertwined, snake-like—in a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial to both, but disastrous for their followers.