Saturday, July 30, 2016

Conan’s Early Career Moves

Robert E. Howard’s “The Pool of the Black One” was published in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which also included H.P. Lovecraft’s memorable and atmospheric tale “The Festival”.  Both stories have as their central event a strange and terrifying religious ritual which is observed by the protagonist.  Conventional sacramental imagery—baptism in Howard’s story and a Yuletide procession in Lovecraft’s is transmogrified into a much less wholesome but still recognizable ceremony.  In both rituals an obscure melody is played on a flute, the sequence of notes precipitating a horrifying transformation. 

In Lovecraft’s story, the flute player summons a horde of “something I cannot and must not recall”, winged travesties whose purpose is to convey the narrator down, into darker and deeper caverns, “…pits and galleries of panic, where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.”

In the “The Pool of the Black One” the change is less psycho-geographic than in Lovecraft’s story.  It involves the physical and spiritual violation of a single human body, which undergoes a torment that Howard describes as “…like watching a soul stripped naked, and all its dark and unmentionable secrets laid bare.”  Furthermore, the gruesome process involves a grotesque shrinkage and miniaturization, brought about by immersion in a magical pool, a blasphemous baptismal font.  Later in the same scene Conan examines shelves where the remnants of numerous previous victims are on display:

These figures, not much longer than a man’s hand, represented men, and so cleverly were they made that Conan recognized various racial characteristics in the different idols, features typical of Zingarans, Argoseans, Ophireans, and Kushite corsairs…Conan was aware of a vague uneasiness as he stared at the dumb sightless figures.

The intent of the passage may be to show the universality of the threat.  Despite somewhat different liturgical practices, both “The Pool of the Black One” and “The Festival” deal with the perseverance and evocation of an atavistic evil.  However, the variations between the two stories are interesting, and are suggestive of each authors’ particular treatment of enduring evil. Typical of Lovecraft, the horror is one of rediscovery, a revival of ancestral memories to which the narrator is inescapably linked.  Horror is in the family, as near as the closest relative.

But who exactly is this “Black One” Howard’s story?  He does not actually appear in the story, though his presence is strongly implied in the appearance and actions of his minions.  Typical of Howard, horror is a survival and a recrudescence of a primordial Satan, signaled by the prevalence of serpentine or reptilian characteristics among his representatives on earth, as if “evil” and “reptilian” were synonymous.

Conan glared, frozen with repulsion and shaken with nausea.  Himself as cleanly elemental as a timber wolf, he was yet not ignorant of the perverse secrets of rotting civilizations…But he sensed here a cosmic vileness transcending mere human degeneracy—a perverse branch on the tree of Life, developed along lines outside human comprehension.  

“The Pool of the Black One” precedes more elaborate Conan adventures like “Red Nails” (1936)—probably one of the best—as well as “The People of the Black Circle” (1934) and “Queen of the Black Coast” (1934).  But only by a few years at most.  In “The Pool of the Black One”, Conan is much less philosophical, much more likely to engage in impulsive, pre-emptive attacks than in several of his other adventures. 

For example, he murders his pirate boss at one point in the story, mainly to accelerate his rise through the ranks of his shipmates, and without any obvious provocation.  In other tales he is more of a defender and a rescuer, even an agent of justice.  In this story readers find a younger, more violent Conan, a restive member of a pirate crew, for the most part unencumbered by any moral or ethical concerns.  He behaves instinctively, without much reflection, forethought, or even afterthought.  He is drawn to adventure, fighting, theft, and rapine.  This is “Conan the Barachan,” an outlaw.

In both earlier work—for example, 1932’s “The Phoenix on the Sword”—and later stories like “Red Nails” Conan isn’t as much like this, though he retains his barbarian habits and world view.  The different versions of the barbarian hero are one of the interesting aspects of Howard’s most famous creation.  Across the Conan cycle of stories, in no particular chronological order, the character matures and deepens, and his relationship with other characters, especially women, becomes more nuanced and complex. 

Compare Conan’s relationship with Valeria in “Red Nails” to his interaction with Sancha in “The Pool of the Black One”.  Valeria is depicted as more or less an equal to Conan, essentially a colleague, powerful, cunning, and independent.  Sancha on the other hand spends most of the latter story sulking, whimpering and crumpling in the face of oncoming threats.

As a new member of a pirate crew on board the appropriately named Wastrel, Conan arrives on a mysterious island.  Zaporavo, his monomaniacal captain, believes that he has located a treasure island described in the Book of Skelos, a sort of nautical Necronomicon, “…whereon, nameless sages aver, strange monsters guard crypts filled with hieroglyph-carven gold.”  It seems likely that the island is indeed mentioned in this unhallowed book, but not in the chapter about treasure islands.

While exploring the island along with the crew, Conan makes a deft career move and skewers Zaporavo, one of the more interesting characters, a “celebrity” pirate.  Meanwhile, Sancha, the beautiful kidnapped daughter of the Duke of Kordava, finds the boredom back on the ship unbearable, and so sets off to join the men on the island—sans clothing of course.  (Readers have seen this scene hundreds of times by now:  the most vulnerable female character, clothed or unclothed, complicates the plot by venturing off unescorted, later either getting in the way or having to be rescued.)  Conan and Sancha later team up at a weird temple where they fight with giant reptilian Africans in order to save the surviving crewmembers.

Howard’s description of the giants’ temple recalls that of Cthulhu’s briefly ascendant abode:  “There was a symmetry about their architecture, and system, but it was a mad symmetry, a system alien to human sanity.”  There is also an echo of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” (1927) near the end, as the dwindling crew escape a manifestation of the “Black One”.  It is a sinister green snake-like entity that emerges from the pool and pursues them over land and water: “…what they feared they knew not, but they did know that in that abominable smooth green ribbon was a menace to the body and to soul.”  But the rest of “The Pool of the Black One” is pure Robert E. Howard, with lots of video-game like action and lovingly depicted, graphic violence.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Reefer Madness

Horror writers looking for a unique concept around which to spin their next yarn need look no further than a recent headline from the Keystone State, “Pennsylvania Burglary Suspect Admits Using Stolen Brain to Get High”.  By now readers have likely encountered the story of 26 year old Joshua Long, initially arrested for a series of burglaries, who was subsequently charged with misdemeanor abuse of a corpse—specifically, use of a human brain and its preservative fluid to enhance the potency of the marijuana he was smoking.

It was Mr. Long’s aunt who discovered the brain.  She was cleaning out an abandoned trailer where her nephew and sister had lived with a friend, all of them connected in some way to the burglaries. The brain was stuffed in a WalMart shopping bag and hidden under the porch of the trailer.  The aunt promptly called the local police department.  The discovery of the stolen brain terrified the next door neighbors. "It just scares me to death," the neighbor remarked. "I didn't think they were that kind of people, but nowadays, you never know."

When his aunt asked Mr. Long about the brain—“Why are you keeping somebody’s brain under the porch?”—he explained that he was using the embalming fluid it was soaking in to create “wet marijuana”, a more intensely hallucinogenic but potentially hazardous version of ordinary weed.  Wet marijuana is cannabis that has been adulterated, typically with formaldehyde or phencyclidine, (PCP), though other substances are sometimes introduced as well.  It is unclear whether a tincture of brain soaked in embalming fluid would magnify the effects of the other ingredients. 

The practice of “enhancing” marijuana with other substances, some of them toxic, goes back to the 1970s.  Your humble blogger remembers—barely—encountering this type of modified pot on a few occasions in his misspent youth.  Originally, PCP was the primary adulterant, and this substance was once given the slang name of “embalming fluid”. 

A little later on, and owing to their low level of education and technical expertise, manufacturers of wet marijuana mistakenly began using real embalming fluid in the process, an ingredient a bit easier to obtain.  Adulterating marijuana with a combination of formaldehyde and PCP is a tradition that has continued to the present day.  Currently, it appears that wet marijuana is emerging again as an adolescent thrill. 

Production standards are somewhat lax, so effects can be unpredictable.  Besides experiencing intense hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, violent impulses and disorientation, users of wet marijuana may incur lung injuries, organ failure, severe respiratory arrest and death—though the embalming fluid may afford some degree of physical preservation to the victims.

The young Pennsylvanian and his friend had affectionately named the stolen brain “Freddy”.  (Older readers may be reminded of another stolen brain, the misnamed “Abbie Normal” seen early on in Mel Brooks’ hysterical 1974 film Young Frankenstein.)   Mr. Long was apprehended by police and is currently in prison; his friend and a female relative are still at large, on the run for about a month now.  Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State Police are still trying to locate the rightful owner of the cerebral material, asking members of the community if anyone is missing a human specimen brain.  It is probably not easy to replace these, and most insurance policies unfortunately do not cover this loss.

Many see marijuana in any of its forms as a “gateway drug”, one that leads to more intensive substance abuse and experimentation with other, more strongly addictive recreational substances.  This seems to be the case with some individuals who are already predisposed to addictive behaviors, but does not occur across the board.  Yet the use of adulterated cannabis to achieve a more intense and dangerous high suggests that recreational substance use has become more problematic—if not addictive, at least much more hazardous.   

However, when joints are dipped into the embalming fluid surrounding a disembodied brain and then smoked, some sort of gateway has clearly been opened wide, leading to a bizarre archetypal atavism, a throwback to primordial beliefs and superstitions about death, the supernatural, and powers beyond comprehension.  

Cannibalism comes to mind—is it lunchtime already?—though the two young men accused of “abuse of a corpse” only engaged in what was essentially a symbolic ritual:  here, smoking replaced eating.  Nevertheless, both were consuming a minuscule amount of the substance of the brain when they smoked their wet marijuana.  With or without the presence of the brain, the involvement of the embalming fluid itself, given its use in human burial practice, is highly suggestive. 

Insofar as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, (i.e. individual development reiterates the evolution of the species), were these two young men inadvertently cycling through an ancient habit of  humankind?  Aeons ago cannibalism was practiced almost universally by the human species, and it still occurs sporadically in isolated parts of the world.  Cannibalism.  Cannabis.  Hmmm.  Cannabisism?  Gateway drug indeed.

Is this the sort of decadent, devolved behavior that H.P. Lovecraft was writing about in his early classic “The Picture in the House” (1919)?

…and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage.  By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins.  Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed…

As the neighbor in the next trailer over said, "I didn't think they were that kind of people, but nowadays, you never know."

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Writers as Dissociated Personalities

Thomas Ligotti’s short story “Alice’s Last Adventure” is one of a number of his works that display the author’s fascination with the doppelgänger, the ghostlike duplicate that plagues a deeply troubled soul, leading him or her to some shattering revelation and unavoidable doom.  Many horror entertainments turn on the question of whether the protagonist’s double is a product of a tormented imagination or has a separate and malevolent existence, not unlike that of an egregore, (see also Nethescurial as an Egregore and “Egregorology” in Weird Fiction). 

Classic treatments of this phenomena include Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Sand-man” (1816), and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908).  Also worth reading is Sigmund Freud’s important essay “The Uncanny” (1919).  Freud places the doppelgänger in the context of psychoanalytical perspectives on the activities of the unconscious mind—one of the scariest places on earth.  (Freud’s essay is discussed in a series of earlier posts; see also Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Par....) 

Is the doppelgänger simply the repressed part of some loosely organized personality, restive and defiant, which escapes the awareness and supervision of an ego only nominally in charge?  Is it a traumatic memory that becomes personified and embodied?  Because it questions the nature of human identity and the integrity of the soul, the doppelgänger is one of the most terrifying of horror concepts.  Who are we?  Are we who we think we are?

Strictly speaking, the apparitions and related phenomena that torment the aged protagonist in Ligotti’s “Alice’s Last Adventure” do not constitute a duplicate of the narrator so much as an intrusion into her waking reality of memories, fictional characters, and odd transmutations of the people she knew earlier in her career.  In her last year of life, and culminating on one lonely and anxious Halloween night, a writer of children’s books is forced to reflect on her life and her creations, in particular, an adventurous and macabre character named Preston Penn. 

Preston is the young hero of a series of off-kilter adventures with titles like Preston and the Upside-Down Face, and Preston and the Ghost of the Gourd.  Ligotti cleverly uses the progression of titles, which grow darker and more disturbing as the protagonist loses her grip on reality as a kind of subliminal cue to the reader that worse is coming—Preston and the Talking Grave appears a bit later in the list. 

Who or what is this Preston?  Ligotti suggests that it might be a representation of the author’s beloved and rascally playmate, whom she describes at one point as the “prima materia” for her fictional character.  Or perhaps he is a version of her father, who shared similar personality traits with the boy.  Or maybe he is the narrator herself, that is, her animus.  In Jungian parlance, this is the unconscious, repressed “shadow”, the feminine aspect of personality in men, the masculine aspect of personality in women. 

Or is Preston a kind of egregore, an entity given form and independent existence by the author’s imagination and focus?  Whatever Preston is, Ligotti leaves the matter open for the reader to determine.  He avoids the triteness of merely having Preston act like an escaped fictional character.  Instead, Ligotti combines the unresolved elements of a life nearing its end into something much deeper and more disturbing. 

It is no accident that the story begins on the anniversary of the death of the woman’s childhood friend, which death seems to have set into motion a series of disturbing phenomena that are chronicled in the story.  Life begins to imitate art as the narrator compares incidents to those in books she’s written in the past.
In “Alice’s Last Adventure” the titular Alice is looking back on her authorial career, which ended some two decades previously.  In some respects she is now a shell or automaton version of her earlier self.  It was ‘the other Alice’, the younger, more child-like version of herself that wrote the Preston Penn books.  Re-unification through memory with this discarded part of her being involves a nightmarish blending of memories and fictional images as she approaches her own death. 

What may be suggested here is that Alice is undergoing a universal experience of dying: the psychic collapse of boundaries and compartmentalization, the dissolution of sequential time, the breeching of the wall between reality and the imagined.  The jarring transitions between her recollections and her current observations—for which the narrator frequently apologizes—are a credible rendering of a mind becoming “unstuck in time”, to use Vonnegut’s phrase.

What also may be suggested here is that Alice is undergoing a universal experience of writing.  “Alice’s Last Adventure” is similar in some respects to a later story of Ligotti’s, “Sideshow, and Other Stories” (2006).  Both are self-conscious character studies of authors and involve doppelgänger-like manifestations.  In these two works Ligotti seems to be saying that creativity in a writer is a dissociative process:  the person who writes the book in not necessarily the person identified as the writer. 

Or at least that the process of writing is a psychically collective process among disparate parts of the author’s personality and imagination.  In this dissociative state, aspects of the writer’s personality become compartmentalized or sequestered, so that events, settings and especially characters can take on an imagined separate life of their own.  Hence the writer’s oft-cited experience of fictional characters seeming to take on a life of their own, directing their own pathway through the plot of a story. 

In this regard, the creation of fictional characters is analogous to the formation of an egregore, though it involves an individual mind and not those of a group or society.  This may be especially case with the problematic psychology of horror writers.
In “Alice’s Last Adventure”, the subtle blurring of real, remembered and imagined events resembles the composite imagery of dreams, in which places, activities and people that share meaningfulness are condensed into a single image or setting.  That intense introspection is in view here is emphasized in the frequent use of mirror imagery, superficially a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), but a device that enhances the uncanniness of the story. 

In one of the most provocative lines in the story, Ligotti has Alice say, echoing her father’s praise of Carroll’s work:  “To Father, the creator of Alice, as I later came to see it, was a symbol of psychic supremacy, the sterling ideal of an unstructured mind manipulating reality to its whim and gaining a kind of objective force through the minds of others.”  This seems an attempt to explain the underlying nature of what is happening to Alice.  

“Alice’s Last Adventure”, is one of Ligotti’s best stories because with its strong characterization, artful structure, and subtle allusions.  He has put a lot into this story.  There is the homage to Lewis Carroll, and a deft exploration of the dynamic between anima and animus.  Most disturbing of all is its bleak reconnaissance along the border that separates the real, the imagined, and the unimagined—a border that will eventually fall for all of us.