Sunday, June 26, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft as Foreign Policy Advisor

By now, many readers have encountered reams of analysis and bloviation, much of it apocalyptic, about the departure of Britain from the European Union.  The matter is serious, insofar as the Brexit foreshadows the further unravelling of the E.U.  There is talk of an impending Frexit and Nexit—and closer to home, even a Texit.  The rapid disintegration of the status quo in politics, economics and other venues is upsetting, the stuff of nightmares.  Yet this is what seems to be happening around the world right now—certainly in the U.S.A.   

Where can fans of old school horror, science fiction and fantasy turn for guidance and reassurance in these troubling times?  Does H.P. Lovecraft have any insights to offer about contemporary challenges in international politics?  Of course he does. 

But his observations are disquieting—and offer cold comfort. Lovecraft had much to say about the world politics of his time, and gave considerable thought to what he considered to be the ideal form of government.  To be fair, his views changed over time, away from “…my ideal of a government fitted to the machine age is a fascistic one…” to a more nuanced version of universal socialism.  (He outlines his proposal for a fascist industrial state in a letter to Robert E. Howard dated November 7, 1932.)   

The impact of immigration was also a concern of Lovecraft’s.  This had been an important issue throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a source of considerable social unrest, as it is now.  His notoriously reactionary and xenophobic views about race and ethnicity were expressed in both his fiction and his correspondence—and shared by his contemporaries.  His views in this area did not change much over the course of his lifetime.

Many of Lovecraft’s political and sociological ideas were expressed in correspondence to people like Elizabeth Toldridge, J. Vernon Shea, (especially) and Robert E. Howard, among others, in the early 1930s.  Lovecraft also outlined some of his ideas about future government in “The Mound”, a marvelous collaboration with Zealia Bishop that he co-wrote around this time.  In terms of historical context, 1932 and 1933 saw the ongoing invasion of Manchuria by Japan as well as the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany—the prelude to the Second World War.  Anxiety about world events and the possibility of war were aggravated further by the economic turmoil and devastation of the Great Depression.  Comparisons to our own time are unavoidable.

In a letter to Elizabeth Toldridge from January of 1932, Lovecraft offers a general theory of the fate of civilizations, which he based in part on his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history.  This was prompted by a number of disturbing world events occurring at the time.

As for current political & social change—I don’t believe the present tendencies indicate any more than closely analytical people, (which of course, excludes superficial business men & bombastic politicians) have always expected since the wide application of machinery to industry and transportation…Moreover, all cultures perish sooner or later through sheer collective senility—& the more dynamic they are, the quicker they go…What is happening today is simply a necessary readjustment to institutions to fit a radically different set of actual living & working conditions & a tremendously enlarged field of knowledge…

In another letter to Toldridge, sent the following month, Lovecraft speculates about the advantages of war with Japan, which at that time was busy developing its empire in the Pacific.  He lists the traditional benefits of war: “…the stimulus to munition & other industries & the disposal of surplus population—& also, because such a war will probably be necessary in any case sooner or later in order to ensure Anglo-Saxon security in the Pacific.”  But he makes a more provocative point later on in the same letter about race, culture and civilization, one that is worth pondering today as we collectively oscillate between an uneasy globalism on the one hand and a virulent tribalism on the other:

In my opinion the paramount things of existence are those mental & imaginative landmarks—language, culture, traditions, perspectives, instinctive responses to environmental stimuli, &c.—which give to mankind the illusion of significance & direction in the cosmic drift.  Race and civilisation are more important, according to this point of view, than concrete political or economic status; so that the weakening of any racial culture by political division is to be regarded as an unqualified evil—justifiable only by the most extreme provocation.

Lovecraft’s letters to J. Vernon Shea in early 1932 are fairly militaristic in tone.  He indicates that war with Japan may be inevitable and “highly necessary” to preserve Anglo-Saxon interests.  “Pacifistic talk is merely evasion & idealistic hot air—”, he says, but acknowledges the value of treaty agreements to control minor disputes.  His view is fatalistic:  “There will always be wars, & the victors in them will always be those with the greatest wealth, man-power, stamina, & intelligent preparation.”  In a later letter to Shea he opines:

I’m not denying the extreme ill effects of modern warfare, or even that a future world war may mean the end of civilisation; but in spite of all that I can’t blind myself to the plain & simple fact that war is no more avoidable than earthquakes or cyclones…War is no formal institution which legislation can abolish.  It is simply the inevitable result of basic human instincts under certain recurrent & unavoidable conditions…No diversity of groups can ever be depended upon to act permanently & reliably together—& despite all the pretence and hokum there is no indication of any real trend in this direction.  Radically different interests & heritages make such a collective policy virtually impossible for all time—& he who banks on such a thing gets woefully left...[Emphasis mine, vis-á-vis the apparent fragility of the European Union.]

In another letter to J. Vernon Shea, this one sent in March of 1932, Lovecraft advocates for universal military training, citing the disorganization and lack of preparation of the U.S. military at the beginning of the First World War.  It seems he is arguing for a stronger national defense as a hedge against likely hostility.  “Suppose that emergency had been a sudden Japanese-Mexican invasion, (as we may have some day), instead of a distant conflict with allies already holding the enemy at bay.”  Oh my.

Most ominous in this pre-World War II correspondence of Lovecraft’s are his infamous comments about Adolph Hitler, which he wrote in a letter to Shea, dated May 29, 1933:

As for the Nazis—of their crudeness there can be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help having a certain sympathy for some phases of their position.  They are fighting, in their naïve & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world—& one can’t help respecting that intention, however ugly & even dangerous some of their methods may appear to be.  Hitler is no Mussolini—but I’m damned if the poor chap isn’t profoundly sincere & patriotic.

That a thoughtful and insightful writer like Lovecraft could be attracted to fascism is appalling, if only because we of the twenty-first century are eager to distance ourselves from his world view.  It would be more comforting if his social and political opinions, which he shared with many of his contemporaries, could be stored as dead dry relics in some museum case, safe and inert.  But his words sound very familiar—in fact we’ve heard something like them spoken again in the past few weeks.  Whatever becomes of the European Union—or the American presidential election for that matter—current events are eerily similar to those Lovecraft wrote about less than a century ago.   

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Hazards of “Thog”, the Black Lotus…and Radium

With its secret passageways, trapdoors, gruesome sword fights, and amorphous, blood sucking monster, readers may wonder if Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk” (1933)—also known as “The Slithering Shadow”—would make an excellent video game.  The frenetic pacing of the story, which is its primary weakness, is similar to that of a contemporary C.G.I. game, or an action cartoon.

In one sequence, Natala, the blonde damsel in distress, is kidnapped by the evil, raven-haired Thalis by way of a hidden passage way. The poor girl is tied up and abused by Thalis, (who in a previous scene had failed to seduce the gentlemanly Conan), but is then saved when Thog, a blood sucking molluscan monster, sneaks up and attacks her tormentor.  Natala is then saved again from Thog—whose appetites are indiscriminate—by Conan, who drops into the room through a secret trapdoor.  All of this occurs in about thirty minutes at most.  By this time both heroine and hero have had an extremely busy day in the hazardous city of Xuthal, and are desperate to move on.  (They were only looking for food and water, after a tortuous sojourn in the desert.)

This is not one of Howard’s better Conan stories, diminished as it is by the breathless pace, stereotypical good guys and bad guys, an excessive number of helpful coincidences, and preposterous setting:  a city build entirely of jade, illuminated by radium, populated by a drugged out gentry, and haunted by an enormous, yet silent carnivore.  The creature’s habits recall those of the giant Calvinist mollusk in E.F. Benson’s classic horror tale, “Negotium Perambulans” (1922), though Thog seems much less impressed with the option of repentance.  (See also Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris.)  Xuthal is also reminiscent of one of the decadent urban settings in Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories.  
“Xuthal of the Dusk” is interesting insofar as it probably served as an incubator for ideas the author would elaborate on in later stories—“Red Nails” (1936) comes to mind, and there may be others.  The style is somewhat different compared to Howard’s more successful Conan adventures.  In fact, the story contains three distinctive elements that characterize it as shudder pulp fiction, namely Gothicism, sadism and weird menacism.  This subgenre is affectionately described by Robert Kenneth Jones in his excellent The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (1975).   

Robert E. Howard published numerous stories in the shudder pulps, among them “Fangs of Gold” (Strange Detective Stories, 1934), “Black Wind Blowing” and “Graveyard Rats” (both in Thrilling Mystery, 1936) and “The Girl on the Hell Ship” (a.k.a. “She Devil”, in Spicy Adventure Stories, 1936).  The influence of writing for this subgenre, which often verged on the pornographic, can be seen in “Xuthal of the Dusk”.  What this Conan adventure lacks in terms of shudder pulp criteria is a realistic explanation at the end for the supernatural phenomena in the story, or really, any explanation for the appearance of the entity called Thog.  It is just there, and had been, preying on the unconscious citizenry, for as long as any of the Xuthalites could remember.

The doomed city of Xuthal is illuminated by “radium gems”, radium being a little understood substance at the time the story was conceived.  Radium shows up in numerous science fiction stories from the time period, often depicted as somehow emblematic of the future, of applied science, of new wealth and power.  It may be the source of light in another of Howard’s doomed cities—Xuchotl, in “Red Nails” (1936), though radium is not specifically mentioned in that story.  (See also A Fearful Symmetry and compare the relative quality of the two stories.)  Thalis, the evil Stygian temptress, explains the use of the radium gems in Xuthal:

Have you wondered about these lights?  They are jewels, fused with radium.  You rub them with your thumb to make them glow, and rub them again, the opposite way, to extinguish them.  That is but a single example of their science.  [That is, the knowledge of the ancestral founders of the city.—Edit.]    

The evolution of ideas inspired by this mysterious, unfamiliar substance, as expressed in the weird fiction of the time, would be interesting to study.  How did these ideas change as the hazards of radium were discovered?

Readers may know some of the dark industrial history of this glowing substance.  Five years before Howard published this story, several employees of U.S. Radium Corporation—the “Radium Girls”—sued the company for gross negligence and misinformation which had led to severe radiation poisoning.  The young women painted the dials of clocks and watches with radium, using their lips to shape their brushes into fine points.  By the end of the 1920s, dozens of women had died at factories in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. 

The corporation, including the scientists and doctors in its employ, initially tried to minimize or conceal medical findings about the hazards of radium.  The women had been assured that the substance was harmless.  The Radium Girls even painted their nails, teeth and faces with it for amusement.  The inventor of the radium dial paint himself died of radiation poisoning in November of 1928.  To the very end he denied that his invention had caused the deaths of the women.

The horrible demise of the Radium Girls happened just under a century ago—not a long time.  In fact, Mae Keane, the last survivor among the afflicted women, passed away in 2013.  Readers may wonder:  Is there currently a substance in our homes and workplaces that “experts” are telling us is harmless?   
In nearly every Robert E. Howard story, there is a break from the action in which the author has his characters discuss some philosophical or sociological observation, and “Xuthal of the Dusk” is no different in that regard.  Here is Thalis, who is by far the most interesting character in the story—because evil—commenting on the ravages of substance abuse:

Much of the time these people lie in sleep.  Their dream-life is as important—and to them as real—as their waking life.  You have heard of the black lotus?  In certain pits of the city it grows.  “Through the ages they have cultivated it, until, instead of death, its juice induces dreams, gorgeous and fantastic.  In these dreams they spend most of their time.  Their lives are vague, erratic, and without plan.  They dream, they wake, drink, love, eat, and dream again. The seldom finish anything they begin, but leave it half completed and sink back again into the slumber of the black lotus.”

Later on, Thalis and Conan debate the merits of human sacrifice to appease a monstrous evil, and fatalism generally.  The hero responds:

“Such is not the custom of my people,” Conan growled, “nor of Natala’s people either.  The Hyborians do not sacrifice humans to their god, Mitra, and as for my people—by Crom, I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar!  There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”

And what exactly is Thog?  A metaphor for the consequences of drug addiction?  A nightmare vision of the insidious effects of radiation poisoning?  “The thing glowed all over now with a weird phosphorous radiance, and this glow was in Conan’s eyes…”  Conan fights him off in a climactic scene, but is unable to destroy him; the entity returns to an undifferentiated mass of darkness in the depths of the city, surely to rise again and resume his depredations on the citizenry.

“Xuthal of the Dusk” first appeared in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  In that same issue was Clark Ashton Smith’s “A Vintage from Atlantis”, Edmond Hamilton’s “The Horror on the Asteroid”, and Hugh B. Cave’s “The Watcher in the Green Room”, among others.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Metafictional Horrors

Creators of horror entertainments can be forgiven an occasional moment of self-reflection and self-indulgence.  They spend so much time delving into the darkest reservoirs of our collective dis-ease and fear, rarely coming up for air.  Swimming around down there all the time, it may be hard to keep track of the daylight, of the surface, of what normal is.  They need a friend, preferably one on dry land, with whom they can discuss their craft, compare notes on the nature of reality, and debate the deepest questions. 

In horror fiction it is not uncommon to find dialogue between a narrator and a confidant being used to introduce the theme and subject matter of the tale.  The opening scene is a familiar one: two individuals eating, drinking or smoking together in some quiet place conducive to discussion of macabre subject matter.  If the narrator’s friend disagrees or discounts the reality of the narrator’s claims, there are often dire consequences later on.  Subsequent events tend to demonstrate the implications of the narrator’s point of view.  

Here is H.P. Lovecraft, speaking through his avatar Randolph Carter, in “The Unnamable”:

…my friend chided me for such nonsense, and told me that since no interments had occurred there for over a century, nothing could possibly exist to nourish the tree in other than an ordinary manner.  Besides, he added, my constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author.  I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.

Readers familiar with Lovecraft’s short story know that Carter’s friend Manton suffers a painful comeuppance for his criticism and materialistic world view near the end of the story—as well he should.  “The Unnamable”, is a reasonably effective horror tale, but it also provides an interesting glimpse of how Lovecraft saw himself as a writer and amateur philosopher circa 1925.

And here is Clark Ashton Smith, speaking through his avatar Philip Hastane, in “The Hunters From Beyond” (1932):

Though I had been for years a professional writer of stories that often dealt with occult phenomena, with the weird and the spectral, I was not possessed of any clear and settled belief regarding such phenomena.  I had never before seen anything that I could identify as a phantom, nor even an hallucination…

Hastane betrays this weakness as a horror writer to an artistic friend, the diabolically doomed Cyprian:

“What makes you think I have had no experience with the occult?”  I asked.

“Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are all palpably made up.  When you’ve argued with a ghost, or watched the ghouls at mealtime [As Pickman often did—edit.], or fought with an incubus, or suckled a vampire, you may achieve some genius characterization and color along such lines.”

With friends like these, who needs entities?  Those who have read Smith’s “The Hunters From Beyond” know that Hastane’s friend will also suffer at the end of the story—it’s risky business being the acquaintance of a horror writer.

Two other friends, both struggling writers, meet in a coffee shop late at night to discuss their work and their ideas—this is the opening to Thomas Ligotti’s “Sideshow, and Other Stories” (2006), a cleverly structured short story in the collection Teatro Grottesco.  A series of five obscurely titled vignettes—plus the ominous suggestion of a sixth unfinished work—are bracketed by a “foreword” and an “afterword”.  The metafictional form of the story imitates a collection of works, creating a false sense of objectivity and psychological distance for the reader.  We are meant to be studying an artifact of some kind, at least initially.

The story begins with one of the authors using a homely metaphor to describe his life:  he is the “ringmaster” of “the wretched show business of my life”, a series of sideshows from which he wants to escape.  He elaborates on this notion, while the narrator half-heartedly challenges some of his assumptions.  This debate is a version of the kind that occurs in the stories by Lovecraft and Smith discussed above, but Ligotti, true to form, goes much deeper.  While the other two authors are playing with broad, abstract generalities, Ligotti is exploring a single soul.  The “ringmaster” disappears, but leaves behind a small selection of his work for the narrator and the rest of us to review.

The five vignettes as well as the foreword and afterword that bookend them all have the quality of being artfully reconstructed dreams.  Superficially, the sections appear unrelated to each other and haphazardly organized.  However, they are united by recurring visual and auditory imagery—the color of an eye, or a “coarse, raspy noise”—which are consolidated into an effective conclusion that reprises them. 

Each vignette is intriguing on its own; the first one, “The Malignant Matrix” recalls a classic Harlan Ellison story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967).  This is because of its molluscan imagery—helpless, inarticulate creatures trapped inside a building they will not escape from.  Across the five sections, the tone remains constant, the kind of anxious vigilance one has in a dream that is verging on nightmare.  Unlike other horror writers, Ligotti deftly leaves intact much of the original dream material, without imposing obvious structure, narrative or interpretation.  As a result, he maintains the spooky, otherworldly feel of the original source.

Interestingly, in the afterward, the narrator discovers among his friend’s notes some comments about his own conversational responses, as if he were being written into his friend’s next work of fiction, the unfinished sixth vignette.  Because the setting is entirely nocturnal, and the narrator must return home just before dawn, it seems possible the two authors may have been the same individual, one the doppelgänger of the other, both engaged in a lonely, anxious debate about the nature of their work and the reality of the “side-show” world around them.


I recently had the pleasure of spending a day in Providence, Rhode Island.  Here is a picture of the inside of the Providence Athenæum, a marvelous old library built in 1836, said to be a favorite haunt of both H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.  A commemorative bust of Lovecraft is in the lower left hand corner.