Sunday, August 28, 2016

Marionette Metaphysics

The notion that life, whether individual or collective, might ultimately be pointless, nonsensical and pathetic is familiar to the more philosophical purveyors and consumers of horror entertainment.  In a Lovecraftian context, this perspective goes by the name of cosmicism, expressed here in the opening lines of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928):

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.  The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Closer to our own time and sensibility, this bleak point of view can be identified as a subset of nihilism, an intensely skeptical questioning of the purpose, meaningfulness and value of human life and human beliefs, even of reality itself. 

A contemporary champion of this gloomy world view is Thomas Ligotti, who brings Lovecraft’s broad cosmic sweep, encompassing centuries and lightyears, to the local and personal, that is, psychological level.  For Ligotti, the horror is not approaching us from distant “black seas of infinity” but is already at arms’ reach, in what might be considered “dark ponds of ridiculousness”.  Both authors emphasize human powerlessness and inescapable doom in the midst of a hostile and incomprehensible universe.  Ligotti however adds the elements of the surreal and nonsensical, typically by way of dream-like imagery and story structure.     

Thomas Ligotti’s “The Clown Puppet” (2006) one of the offerings in his masterful collection, Teatro Grottesco.  The story is rich in metaphor and levels of meaning, and ranges from metaphysical considerations to creepy, grotesque imagery.  A dimly lit setting, perseverative thoughts and a circular story arc create the impression of being in a nightmare that cannot be escaped, much less awakened from. 

The narrator works a succession of night jobs in various locations—“medicine shop situations” as he terms them—night watchman, cemetery groundskeeper, library clerk, night deliveryman, and lately a 24-hour pharmacy.  In these dark, lonely places he experiences visitations by a strange apparition, a “clown puppet” that has angelic, if not god-like powers.  Superficially, the notion of an isolated and anxious worker on the midnight shift who repeatedly interacts with such an entity would seem preposterous.  But in the context of this finely wrought and word-smithed nightmare, it makes perfect visceral sense. 

Or nonsense, a word the author uses repeatedly throughout the text.  The story begins with a philosophical premise: “It has always seemed to me that my existence consisted purely and exclusively of nothing but the most outrageous nonsense.”  Ligotti then goes on to use the events of this story to illuminate—since there is not much light—this dreary perception.

Curiously, the narrator describes his mind as the “Scribbles of a mentally deranged epileptic”.  As the story progresses, there is an implied comparison between the narrator’s existence and the movements of the clown puppet—neither of which is subject to internal control.  The puppet’s appearance is announced by an aura-like glow, a symptom that many people with epilepsy report as a prelude to a seizure.  The subtext seems to be the loss or lack of control over one’s actions and fate, or at least the realization of this fact.  Is the narrator merely another puppet?  If so, what is the point of this play?   

The narrator’s self-deprecating remarks serve to create distance between his story and the horror he is trying to describe in dream imagery, as if to say, “Don’t take me seriously, but…”  Like the images in a dream, those in Ligotti’s fiction serve as a kind of psychological hypertext, linking the reader to ever deeper and more elaborate levels of meaning, to other “pages”, as lines in a poem can do.  The author is after a much bigger idea than the absurdity of visitations by a nocturnal clown puppet.

Elsewhere Ligotti has written:

"We are somebodies who move freely about and think what we choose. Puppets are not like that. They have nothing in their heads. They are unreal. When they are in motion, we know they are moved by an outside force. When they speak, their voices come from elsewhere. Their orders come from somewhere behind and beyond them. And were they ever to become aware of that fact, they would collapse at the horror of it all, as would we."    

There are interesting symmetries in Ligotti’s stories.  For example, in “Purity”, an earlier story in Teatro Grottesco, the narrator, reminiscing about his childhood experiences, crosses back and forth between two troubled households, each a distorted mirror image of the other, each standing on a darkening horizontal plane.  In “The Clown Puppet”, the symmetry is vertical.  The owner of the pharmacy where the narrator works lives upstairs, and may have some special relationship with the clown puppet that visits and torments him:

Later events more or less proved that Mr. Vizniak indeed possessed a special knowledge and that there existed, in fact, a peculiar sympathy between the old man and myself.  

Why do the strings which control the puppet’s movements vanish upward in a nebulous, impenetrable cloud?  Who is pulling the strings?  Is the puppet some kind of messenger angel?  Is the “man upstairs” a representation of Ligotti’s perception of God?  In a literal sense, probably not; later in the story Mr. Vizniak suffers an obscure fate, as the story returns to an earlier setting much obsessed about: a curtained backroom where potentially fatal medicines are stored.  The climactic scene is oddly reminiscent of the one in The Wizard of Oz (1939), when Dorothy and Toto discover the supposedly god-like Oz cowering behind another curtain, no longer perceived as all powerful or in control—a mere human haplessly trying to control his own machinery of illusion.   

The narrator’s epiphany, precipitated by the clown’s periodic visits and his employer’s mysterious demise, is the insight that his outrageously nonsensical experience is also a universal one.  He also realizes that just like his boss he will eventually come to know who or what is pulling the strings—a revelation more to be dreaded than hoped for.  “The Clown Puppet” is one of Ligotti’s more metaphysical, even religious pieces, as close to a theological statement as he gets.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hell on Venus

Though not his forte, Clark Ashton Smith made several forays into science fiction, in stories like “Marooned in Andromeda” (1930), “A Captivity in Serpens” (1931) and the posthumously published “The Red World of Polaris” (2003).  These three featured the intrepid yet gloomy character of Captain Volmar, a sort of Solomon Kane in space.  (See also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda.) 

One of Smith’s best science fiction stories was the nightmarish “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (1932), the narrative of a doomed Martian landing crew that encounters a monstrous threat in the shadowy depths of an ancient ruin.  The latter showcased Smith’s finesse with incorporating elements of horror and dark fantasy into an interstellar adventure.

Not all of Smith’s science fiction stories were set in outer space.  An eccentric occultist invents a device to amplify the “dark vibration” emanating from the source of absolute evil in “The Devotee of Evil” (1933).  In “The Face by the River”, one of his most realistic stories, a murderer is driven to madness and death by an eidetic image of his victim seared into his visual cortex, a sort of physiologically mediated haunting.  (This story was published posthumously in 2004.) 

Despite his preference for horror and fantasy, Smith certainly demonstrated the potential to write memorable science fiction stories.  Readers may know of additional examples.  One wonders what he might have produced in this genre had he continued to write with the intensity that he had between 1930 and 1935.

Whether on earth or in outer space, nearly all of Smith’s science fiction stories involved disastrous outcomes for his characters.  A recent post discussed Smith’s tale of a Venusian invasion of Earth, “The Metamorphosis of the World” written around 1930 but published in 1951.  Although humanity rallies against the Venusians—who attempt to transform our planet’s geology, climate and ecology to something more to their liking—the story ends with a stalemate rather than a victorious and secure earth.  (See also Venusians and Global Climate Change.)  Smith seems not to have liked the planet Venus very much, judging by another story of his, “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931).  Then again, he was not very keen about Mars, or our own planet for that matter.

Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky, and has been of interest to astronomers and philosophers for millennia.  By around 2000 B.C. its path across the sky had been determined, and in modern times it became an object of intense scientific interest because of its nearness and similarity—in size and composition—to Earth.  However, the impenetrably thick atmosphere prevented astronomers from seeing its surface, but allowed pulp science fiction writers to speculate wildly about what life might be like on Venus.  At least this was so until the late twentieth century, when Mariner 2, the two Venera missions, and the Magellan orbiter provided a more detailed picture of the planet’s geology and climate.  Which picture argued against the likelihood of any life on the planet.

It is now known that Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, hotter even than Mercury, despite the latter being the closest to the sun.  Its surface is rocky, volcanic and desert-like, with an average temperature of 863˚Fahrenheit.  The dense atmosphere is about 95% carbon dioxide, which creates the most intense greenhouse effect in the entire Solar System.  There is no water on the surface of Venus, and little seasonal variation.  However, there is a kind of rain and snow on the tops of high mountains —composed of sulfuric acid and possibly lead sulfide—as well as lightning and thunder.  Of all the planets that have been studied so far, Venus is the one most closely resembling the biblical Hell.
However, at the time that Clark Ashton Smith wrote “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931), it was assumed by many speculative fiction writers that Venus was a hot, steamy planet, covered by jungle vegetation, perpetually wet beneath tropical rain clouds.  It resembled prehistoric Earth, often supporting saurian life forms and treacherous carnivorous plants.  This notion persisted well into the 1950s and 1960s, for example in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, which is in his classic collection The Illustrated Man (1951).  In that story, hapless explorers endure endless rain and a predaceous environment to reach a “Sun Dome” before they go mad or fall prey to various hazards.  As in Smith’s “The Immeasurable Horror”, the message of Bradbury’s story seems to be that humans don’t belong on Venus.

“The Immeasurable Horror” chronicles the demise of the second Venusian expedition, in particular an exploration party led by the narrator, which leaves the relative safety of the mission base to investigate the equatorial plains of Venus.  The doomed crew encounter various hazards along the way.  The unearthly vegetation has predatory or parasitic traits, a common image in the outer space science fiction of the time.  Smith makes frequent use of this trope in his Captain Volmar stories.  It was also used to good effect in the imaginative work of Stanley G. Weinbaum, in stories like “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), “The Lotus Eaters” (1935)—which also takes place on Venus—and “The Mad Moon” (1935).   

Besides the hazardous jungle flora, there is a horrendous specimen of Venusian fauna, immense, nightmarish and relentless, that the men must contend with.  It is interesting to compare the organism in “The Immeasurable Horror” to the primordial entity called “Ubbo-Sathla” in Smith’s 1933 story of the same name.  (See also The Hazards of Curiosity Shops.)  In the former, the monster is an enormous omnivorous amoeba, enveloping and digesting its prey like “The Blob”.  This being science fiction, the Venusian monster is exaggerated micro-biology, essentially a mobile and apparently intelligent stomach.    

In the latter story, published a couple years later, Ubbo-Sathla is biologically very similar—an immense protoplasmic slime that encircles prehistoric earth.  But it is also the horrible and loathsome chaos from which all sentient life evolves, the “unbegotten source” according to The Book of Eibon. “And all earthly life, it is told, shall go back at last through the great circle of time to Ubbo-Sathla.”  (Per Clark Ashton Smith, there is also reference to Ubbo-Sathla in the Necronomicon—so it is helpful to have both resources on hand.) 

Unlike “The Immeasurable Horror”, “Ubbo-Sathla” is a Lovecraftian fantasy involving past-life regression via an ancient palaeogean crystal—the device recalls the “Shining Trapezohedron” in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936).  The entity is amorphous and vaguely marine, as repellent and shocking as anything invoked in one of Lovecraft’s Mythos tales.  Whereas Lovecraft has his entities scheming to restore their rule over earth from the outside, Smith puts godawful slime at the heart and origin of all life on earth, a sort of icky original sin woven into our genetics and race memories.  This is probably where it belongs.

“The Immeasurable Horror” appeared in the September 1931 issue of Weird Tales, alongside of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane adventure, “The Footfalls Within” and August Derleth’s “The Bridge of Sighs”. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Horror and Hope of Miscegenation

In stories like “The Lurking Fear” (1923), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921), and late in his career, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), H.P. Lovecraft used the concept of miscegenation—the marriage and cohabitation of Caucasians with members of other races, and more broadly, the intermingling of different races, social classes and cultures—as an engine of horror.  He may have done so intentionally or perhaps unintentionally, channeling his unconscious fear of being overwhelmed by “the other” into his moody, dark fiction.  Here is a passage near the end of “Arthur Jermyn”:

The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so…but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess…the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shriveled face applied with vivid, ghastly and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife.   

Similar content can be found in the climactic scene of Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”, when the narrator observes “the horror in the eyes”, a genetic link between a species of ghoul—which also happens to be “a filthy whitish gorilla thing”—and generations of the Martense family:

They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family:  the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.

Lovecraft’s racism has been well documented by numerous reviewers, the virulence of which cannot be entirely explained away by the prevailing attitudes of his time.  (L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1975 biography of the author, suggests that Lovecraft’s extreme views about race and ethnicity were connected to fluctuating mental health, at least at certain points in his life.)

In a similar vein—this one open and bleeding—Robert E. Howard uses a kind of miscegenation as a precursor to the unfolding terrors in “Pigeons From Hell” (1938).  This is a powerful and grotesque tale of revenge in which the cruel matron of a well-to-do southern family is turned into a zuvembie by an aggrieved mulatto woman.  This is a classic horror story about racial disharmony and well worth studying.  (See Justice via Zuvembie.) 

Lovecraft’s anxieties about race and ethnicity pertain to his personal fear of being supplanted by people who aren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  However, with Howard, in stories like “Pigeons From Hell”, “Black Canaan” (1936), and “The Dead Remember” (1936) the emphasis is on the possibilities of racial vengeance—also known as justice, depending on which side of the racial divide one is on—given the weight of an ugly history of oppression and exploitation.

Somewhat more nuanced are the West Indian stories of Henry S. Whitehead, for example “The Passing of a God” (1931) and especially “Sweet Grass” (1929).  In Whitehead’s stories the supernatural complications of applied voodoo are a metaphor for the chaos that ensues when Caucasians intermingle with people of African descent.  Though conventionally racist in tone, Whitehead is interesting because of his ambivalence about the superiority of white colonial power and his affection for and interest in the transplanted cultures of western Africa.

Around the time that H.P. Lovecraft published “The Lurking Fear” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921), an author in New York City wrote a short story with a completely different perspective on the possibilities of literal and figurative intercourse between whites and African-Americans.  W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” (1920) is a remarkable work, easily four or five decades ahead of its time.  It originally appeared in a collection of essays, poetry, autobiographical material and speculative fiction called Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil.  Du Bois hoped to “venture to write again on themes on which great souls have already said greater words, in the hope that I may strike here and there a half-tone, newer if slighter, up from the heart of my problem and the problems of my people.”  

It is difficult to imagine a story like “The Comet” being published anywhere during the heyday of Lovecraft and Howard, at least not in a popular fiction magazine.  Du Bois, a founding member of the N.A.A.C.P., wrote fiction that was often informed by his concerns with race relations, spirituality, and religion.  It is a shame that his work is only now becoming better known, given the important perspectives on American society that he offers.

In “The Comet”, the population of New York City has been almost completely annihilated by the toxic plume of a passing comet.  It seems for a moment that only two have survived: Jim an African-American man identified initially as “the messenger”, who works in the nether regions of a corporate office building, and a wealthy young white socialite named Julia.  All around them is the nightmarish imagery of a silent metropolis, strewn with dead citizens. 

Significantly, the two have no names until the very end of the story, when they become ordinary New Yorkers again, returning to what is left of normality.  But until then, as they travel in her car between Harlem and the “Metropolitan Tower” on Fifth Avenue, Julia and Jim experience each other’s worlds and become symbols of an expanded humanity.  Julia is the “primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life”; Jim is her “Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.”  The proximity and hope of a spiritually consummated relationship is rendered in these lyrical lines:

It was not lust; it was not love—it was some vaster mightier thing that needed neither touch of body nor thrill of soul.  It was a thought divine, splendid.  

Both Julia and Jim experience this momentary change in perspective, a kind of cosmic social consciousness, in the midst of a catastrophe. But it is only fleeting.  Du Bois never descends to the triteness of simply making his two characters avatars of Adam and Eve, bent on repopulating a destroyed world.  Something more mythological or archetypal is intended.  Nor is race the only boundary that separates Julia and Jim; Du Bois is also commenting on walls built by social class.  And he is not sentimental or overly idealistic.  In the end, the grim reality of American race and class relations noisily returns when Julia and then Jim are reunited with their families.

Until the last paragraphs of “The Comet”, Du Bois’ depiction of racial prejudice is subtle.  His suggestion, never overt, that a form of miscegenation might be a hope for a more egalitarian and just future, was much more prescient than the conventional bigotry of many other speculative fiction writers of his time.  On a technical level, his use of realistic dialogue and ellipsis to suggest what does not need to be said—allowing readers an opportunity to fill in the blanks—makes him a much more sophisticated writer in some respects than Lovecraft or Howard.  If there is anything still shocking about “The Comet”, it is that the questions it poses about human identity and justice are still incompletely answered today.


W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” can be found in the wonderful and aptly named anthology, The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016), edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

Race relations as depicted in early twentieth century pulp fiction has been a topic of numerous earlier posts.  See also:

A Racist Nightmare (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow of the Beast”)
Justice via Zuvembie (Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons From Hell”)
Lovecraftian Family Secrets (H.P. Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”)
4. Case Study: Homunculi Redux (Henry S. Whitehead’s “The Passing of a God”)
Stand By Your Man (Henry S. Whitehead’s “Sweet Grass”)