Saturday, May 28, 2016

For the Life is in the Blood

“The Rule of Old Blood” is a satisfying conclusion to the trio of novellas in Ross Smeltzer’s recently published The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016).  (The first two were discussed in previous posts, see also Lovecraft Meets Earth Mother and Cernunnos and Shub-Niggurath).  Though each story can stand on its own, the three are artfully linked through recurring imagery, back story and theme.  The author’s subject is an ambitious one:  illuminating the more horrifying aspects of power struggles between men and women, as well as our hostile relationship with Nature. 

Smeltzer suggests that these two conflicts are a reflection of the same underlying decision: whether we interact as partners with the eternal feminine, as embodied in the natural world, or attempt to exploit, dominate and compartmentalize her in a quest to shore up the masculine ego and will to power.  The author signals his perspective very early in the book with an arresting dream image of the vagina dentata.  A strong feminist and environmentalist sensibility informs all three novellas. Smeltzer succeeds in translating ideas drawn from H.P. Lovecraft—and, in the case of “The Rule of Old Blood”, Clark Ashton Smith—into a work that addresses contemporary fears.

Readers familiar with Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasies will find elements in “The Rule of Old Blood” that suggest homage to the visionary creator of Averoigne and Zothique.  A love of language and allusion is evident throughout the book, but especially in the last novella.  As with the work of Clark Ashton Smith, readers are certain to acquire new vocabulary, a beneficial side effect.  Because of Smeltzer’s book, I have acquired the words odalisque—first encountered in a Smith story—caryatid, termagant, scofflaw and my favorite, exenterated.  The latter holds a position near an all-time favorite, exsanguinated.  Readers will not have to look up these latter two to know they describe something really bad.

Aspiring writers are often exhorted to write short sentences, using the active tense, and avoid obscure, multisyllabic words—that is, to write like Earnest Hemingway.  It will take decades to undo this unfortunate advice.  Slavish devotion to this rule makes sense if the ambition is only to write product manuals for an audience that reads at a sixth grade level or below.  Effective creative writing must be free to make generous use of the full range of vocabulary and grammatical forms available, active and passive voice, short familiar Anglo-Saxon words, and less familiar, foreign sounding terms containing ancient but still powerful connotations. These tools allow for expression of subtle emotions and nuances of thought and memory—ideally disturbing ones, in the context of horror literature.

Smeltzer does not make overuse of obscure terminology, any more than Smith did.  Exenterate is the right word to use in the particular context he provides:  he describes what a minor character has done to a newspaper—taken it apart and left it much less organized than when he received it.  (I now have a word for what my wife accuses me of doing to the Sunday New York Times.)  But the metaphor is one of disembowelment and evisceration, which is quite a bit more gruesome than the task might otherwise suggest.  Why is this here?

The appearance of exenterate seems to be one of many examples in the text where seemingly unconnected and repeated images subliminally impact the reader’s unconscious.  Thomas Ligotti does something similar with language, indirectly building up an image or mood in the corner of the reader’s eye—a suggestion of impending gruesomeness and disaster—with what appear to be incidental, easy to overlook references.  Unobservant readers will find themselves growing increasingly disturbed by the material, but not know exactly why.  The technique is marvelous when it works, as it does here.   

“The Rule Old Blood” is full of such cleverness, as is the whole collection.  There are sly allusions to both H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and events in his life.  The Necronomicon appears on one character’s “bookshelf of doom”, alongside the much more treacherous Alibek Codex.   At one point the narrator, an investigative reporter named Jim Scordato, channels Lovecraft’s hatred of New York City, and of modernity in general.  (The story is set in roughly the same time period—the early 1920s—when Lovecraft experienced his disastrous sojourn there.)   Scordato’s boss, a stereotypical, hard driving big city editor, is named Munsey, probably after the Munsey magazines, purveyors of genre fiction that were popular at the time.

The Mark of the Shadow Grove, and “The Rule of Old Blood” in particular, are full of thought provoking ideas and troubling insights. There are interesting passages about class consciousness, labor relations, Freudian psychoanalysis, conventional religion, matrilineal culture, and Greek mythology.  There is some inventive Old Testament theology concerning whether devils, lacking souls, can directly impregnate mortal women.  (Apparently they can.)  It was amusing to read Smeltzer’s critique of psychoanalysis, and by extension, Freud, in a series of vignettes.  The lead character, fearful that he is losing his mind and succumbing to a death wish, consults an Austrian doctor named Holzman.  Freud’s famous essay The Uncanny—mandatory reading by the way—is referenced to good effect: the concept of “the double”, and entity that is both familiar and unfamiliar, is key to the narrator’s fate.  A lot to ponder.

Smeltzer makes frequent use of dream imagery and dream analysis as foreshadowing, and to mediate some of the back story, taking a cue from Lovecraft and other horror writers who have done the same.  The old staple of reading a journal—actually two—that contain ever more bizarre content figures in the narrator’s growing awareness of his own doom.  There is an echo of Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), sans the xenophobia but suggestive of subterranean horrors beneath the city’s bright facades.  The scenes in which the narrator visits the studio of Virginia Schiaparelli will remind readers of Lovecraft’s story “Pickman’s Model” (1927), though Smeltzer’s touch here is a light one.

“The Rule Old Blood” begins with the lead character being sent by his editor to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy heir and art collector, a gentleman who left behind a journal of strange, incoherent entries.  He was last seen on his way to meet the mysterious and alluring Virginia Schiaparelli, an avant-garde artist.  She embodies the spirit of a powerful and independent woman, and becomes by far the most interesting and memorable character.  Scordato’s growing relationship with this cosmic femme fatale reveals their common history and destiny, and leads them back to their origins—and a terrifying understanding of their true nature.  Like many Clark Ashton Smith stories, there is a pleasing symmetry and circularity to Smeltzer’s work.  Characters come back to their beginnings, but completely transformed, and also doomed.

The three novellas, set in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, interconnect in interesting historical and thematic ways.  The author varies the point of view, alternating between masculine and feminine.  At the climax of the third story Smeltzer radically shifts the view one last time for a powerful effect.  Collectively, the three stories that comprise The Mark of the Shadow Grove are a masterful updating of the Lovecraftian Mythos, and provide unsettling insights about the nature of gender differences and humanity’s relationship with the natural world.     

Sunday, May 22, 2016

“Egregorology” in Weird Fiction

Robert H. Barlow’s “The Night Ocean” (1936) has the distinction of being “the last surviving piece of fiction on which Lovecraft is known to have worked.” This according to S.T. Joshi, in his indispensable two volume biography of H.P. Lovecraft, I am Providence (2013).  Barlow’s remarkable story can be found at the very end of an anthology of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations with various authors, The Horror in the Museum (1970).  It is as if the editors of this menagerie of Lovecraftian horror saved the best, or one of the best, for last. 

(“The Night Ocean”, along with “The Mound” and the titular “The Horror in the Museum” are probably the strongest stories in the book.  The Horror in the Museum is highly recommended to those readers who would like a deeper appreciation of Lovecraft’s influence on other writers.  Works in this volume are representative of the first generation of “acolytes of Cthulhu”—see also Robert M. Price’s wonderful 2014 anthology of the same name.) 

As with Barlow’s “Till A’ the Seas”, discussed in a recent post, (See The End, by Ar-Ech-Bei and Others.), the original typed manuscript of “The Night Ocean” still exists.  It shows Lovecraft’s handwritten edits—estimated to affect no more than 10% of the material, per Joshi. The voice of the text is distinctively not Lovecraft’s, though there is imagery—some fragments of unusual jewelry and a horrifying but indeterminate bit of detritus washed up on shore—that recall some of Lovecraft’s own disturbing visions. 

The story will remind readers of Algernon Blackwood’s classic “The Willows” (1907), insofar as the fearful contents of the narrator’s mind seem projected on indeterminate natural phenomena:  shapes forming in the fluttering leaves of trees, or in this case, ripples of water and sea grass, and in patterns of clouds overhead.  Both stories are set adjacent to moody, changeable bodies of water.  Praise for “The Night Ocean” from Lovecraft and others is connected to its close resemblance to classic weird fiction by the likes of Blackwood, in which “Plot is everywhere negligible, and atmosphere reigns untrammeled.”  Joshi adds that “the avoidance of explicitness” contributes to its quality, making it a “richly interpretable story.” 

A contemporary example of one who excels at creating nightmarishly amorphous visions is Thomas Ligotti, and it is interesting to compare some of his stories with “The Night Ocean”.   Ligotti is the author who comes instantly to mind when reading this passage from Barlow’s work:

The day was in late September, and the town had closed the resorts where mad frivolity ruled empty, fear-haunted lives, and where raddled puppets performed their summer antics.   The puppets were cast aside, smeared with the painted smiles and frowns they had last assumed, and there were not a hundred people left in the town.  Again the gaudy, stucco-fronted buildings lining the shore were permitted to crumble undisturbed in the wind.

“The Night Ocean” is also interesting because much of the content has to do with the formation of an egregore.  This is loosely defined as a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes a shape 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, the egregore can take on a life and a will of its own, separate from the imagination of its creator. At that stage, the egregore is not easily vanquished so long as its believer or believers continue to exist.  (Readers may know of different words for the same entity.)

The concept of the egregore is of growing academic fascination, at least to me.  The notion has been discussed in several previous posts.  (It may become the subject of a future book, if I can ever get around to writing it.)  Egregoric phenomena seem to link conventional religion, the occult, and some types of weird fiction with nightmare and the unconscious—which is our primary mode of consciousness.  There are numerous passages in “The Night Ocean” which document the formation of an egregore—the story could be considered a case study of egregore development in one troubled individual.  To give just one example:

…there was an alien presence about the place:  a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange.  At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature.  These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.

Compare this description to the entity in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci” (1933), which depicts a similar kind of phenomenon, though Smith’s is more concretely personified.  However, the egregore in “Genius Loci” shows a similar kind of development in the minds of the characters.  Typical of Smith is the seductive and addictive nature of his creation, which draws power from the imaginations of its victims long before they succumb physically.  (See also When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus.)

Not much actually happens in “The Night Ocean” because, as Lovecraft suggests above, the emphasis is on setting.  But then, not much needs to happen, because the story is about the interaction of a mind with a particular place.  The tormented narrator, a vacationing artist, gets spooked in an isolated cottage by the ocean.  But the extreme subtlety which Barlow uses in documenting the increasingly disturbed mind of his narrator is very effective.  The author keeps the details—odd jewelry washed up on shore, an old fairy tale he remembers from childhood, a bit of disturbing material that might be human remains—nightmarishly indistinct. 

Barlow’s narrator, sensitive to the mood and evocativeness of his environment, gradually gives imaginative shape and presence to an indeterminate spirit or malign presence.  The process seems analogous to the way that conventional religions shape their adherent’s imaginations through contemplation, worship and prayer, a type of hypnotic suggestion.  The narrator’s suspicions may amount to something or perhaps nothing at all, but readers will conclude there is definitely something going on.

The influence of Lovecraft’s cosmicism can be felt in powerful passages like this one:

I felt, in brief agonies or disillusionment, the gigantic blackness of this overwhelming universe, in which my days and the days of my race were as nothing to the shattered stars; a universe in which each action is vain and even the emotion of grief a wasted thing.
A similar passage occurs near the end of Barlow’s  “Till A’ the Seas”, which describes this sentiment quite literally.  It is the most conspicuous impact of Lovecraft on the younger author.

But there is more going on here.  Barlow prefigures the artist’s unfolding horror on the beach during some introductory comments about the narrator’s desperate need for a vacation: he had succeeded in creating a mural that “managed to retain in line and colour some fragments snatched from the endless world of imagining.”  The implication is that the isolated cottage was a necessary but not a sufficient condition to manifest the entity that later terrifies him.  The egregore requires at least a single human mind to empower it and bring about its appearance in this world, something that can happen nearly anywhere.

As of tomorrow, The R’lyeh Tribune is three years old! IƤ!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Horror Fiction from a Kindergartener

Today’s post will feature some material a little different from the usual, though not unconnected. The development of narrative skills in young children is fascinating to observe, and in the context of this blog, the emerging ability to tell a “scary” story is especially so.  About a year ago, I elicited a short horror narrative from my granddaughter, using the following inspirational props:  a couple of tiny toy automobiles, several small wooden figurines of animals, (owl, bear, zebra), and a large plastic, steampunk-inspired mechanical spider.  The result is described in an earlier post.  (See also Horror Fiction from a Pre-Schooler.)

I am a speech language pathologist by profession, and my university training included the study of early childhood language acquisition and cognitive development.  Oddly, I was not able to conduct similar studies of childhood horror story production during my clinical internships.  Here is the story my granddaughter created last year, when she was four years old:


The car was driving and then it crashed and then it kept going again.  And then there was a giant spider!  And then the car ran away.  And then the car looked down [from the top of a chair] and they saw a monster!  And the monster was very scary.  And they scared off the huge monster.

And then there was an owl.  And the cars went down to see the owl.  [A second car has joined the first.]   The cars drive around the owl and the giant spider looked all around for the cars and then he found them!

Then he poked them with his leg.  And then the cars crashed.  And then the cars fighted the giant spider and he died and they got a trophy and medals.

[The End]

There is a simple chronology of events, and a series of propositions linked by the conjunction “and”.  For the purpose of comparison I was able to repeat this activity very recently, using more or less equivalent props: a couple of tiny metal cars, little plastic figures of a ladybug, bumble bee, frog, and dragon, and an enormous metal flying monster with big sharp teeth. 

It was unnecessary to provide any prompting or leading questions; my grandchild readily formulated an organized story from the materials at hand.  I merely transcribed the result.  Admittedly this is only an “N of 1 study”, its subject a close relative of whom I am quite impressed.  Here is a more recent story: 

I’ll Never Get in the Way Again
by “C” and Pichu

We were driving our cars.  When the dragon went in the ladybug’s way.  “Excuse me dragon, I really need to go somewhere.”
     “Roarrrr! No—I’ll never let you go”, said the dragon.
     And the frog said, “Ladybug, please let me go.” [In traffic, right behind the ladybug’s car—Editor.]
     “I’m sorry, the dragon is in the way.”
     “Why is he in the way?”
     “He’s angry and wants to rest on the road”, said the ladybug.
     So they asked him to get out of the way.  And then he flew off.  But the monster came and ate everyone except the bee and the bee stung him.  And it made everyone come out of the monster.  And then the dragon breathed fire on the monster and then killed him to death for real.

[The End]

Interestingly, both stories are almost the same length—the more recent one is actually a little shorter.  But the second story goes beyond the mere listing of events and incorporates details about setting, the concerns of the characters, social niceties, (“I’m sorry, the dragon is in the way.”), the imputation of motive, and the intensification of scenes, as in “…breathed fire on the monster and then killed him to death for real.”  C’s use of language is more efficient and sophisticated, in that additional ideas and assumptions are condensed into the later narrative without reliance on the less developed strategy of linking them with conjunctions.

Unlike C’s earlier story, this one has a title, characters, motive, conflict, and dialogue—the latter something that H.P. Lovecraft and several of his colleagues never quite mastered, even late in their careers.  Like Lovecraft on occasion, she has a collaborator, albeit an imaginary one, whom she gives credit to for some of her creative inspiration.

The ability to create fictional stories—that is, to lie about real or imagined events—is a skill that adults take for granted.  (And critical for survival: it allows us to live much more peacefully among our own kind than would be the case with unadorned honesty.)  But in early childhood, this emerging capacity reveals the presence of remarkable cognitive and linguistic growth.  How does a child learn that language can be used to talk about objects and activities that do not exist?  Why is this such an important developmental milestone for humans?  

Of course, communication is more than just content, more than just expressing information and emotion.  It contains intent or purpose, and perhaps this forms the basis for communication.  In this context, how is it that children at relatively young ages can create stories with the intent not only to entertain but perhaps frighten another? 

This would be a fascinating area of research for scientists who study childhood language acquisition and cognitive development.  The event in the story when the bee’s sting causes the monster to regurgitate the rest of the characters seems to echo some mythological archetypes. It may be that these early childhood narratives simply mimic the structure and content of those the parents tell at bedtime.  But where do children obtain horror concepts like monstrosity, gruesome fate, and resurrection?  Where do we?