Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lefferts and Lownsberry Corners

In H.P. Lovecraft’s beloved ghoul cycle tale, “The Lurking Fear” (1923), the inhabitants of Lefferts Corners are victimized by an agitation of “a loathsome night-spawned flood of organic corruption more devastatingly hideous than the blackest conjurations of mortal madness and morbidity.”  Disturbed by thunder and a bolt of lightning that breaks open their underground lair, a horde of voracious ghouls descends on a community of squatters, leaving 75 of them gruesomely disassembled and incomplete. 

But the narrator is not so disturbed by the awful carnage or subsequent attacks. These unfortunates were, after all “a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes.”  Consistent with Lovecraft’s horror of miscegenation, the antiquarian narrator’s most shattering moment comes when he discovers that a once great family has genetically devolved over the centuries due to a history of intermingling with a subterranean race.  The discovery suspiciously parallels events in the history of Lovecraft’s own family, which steadily declined in stature and financial security following the death of his father, who contracted syphilis in his travels, and his grandfather, who may have succumbed to the stress of a business failure.

Meanwhile, to the west of the Catskills Mountains, over in Pennsylvania, the citizens of Lownsberry Corners are menaced by “a she-devil from Hell” in David H. Keller’s “The Bridle” (1942).  Though published nearly two decades later, the fictional settings of the two stories are nearly cotemporaneous.  Lownsberryites are described by the narrator early on:

As I became better acquainted with my neighbors I found that only two families were comfortably situated.  The others, including the parson, stayed because there was no way of getting out.  They were cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and hungry all the time.  The storekeeper was king of finance at the Corners.  The pastor received four fifths of his meager stipend form the Home Missionary Society of his denomination.  The rest of us seldom saw a dollar.

As in Lefferts Corners, the people of Lownsberry Corners are poor; they reside in an economically depressed region.  Keller’s backstory about the founding of the community is a textbook description of the demise of small agricultural towns that spring up, exhaust their natural resources, and then fade, trapping their least fortunate citizens in perpetual poverty.  In Lovecraft’s remote Catskills region, the impoverished residents “sometimes leave their valleys to trade handwoven baskets for such primitive necessities as they cannot shoot, raise or make.”

The two stories are different from each other in several ways, but share an assumption common to the horror fiction of the time:  that the appearance of supernatural and primordial evil is often likely to occur among the poor and uneducated.  Its detection and perhaps its vanquishing depends on an intervention from enlightened members of the upper classes.  Only recently in horror entertainment—perhaps since the 1970s—have authors of speculative fiction acknowledged that monstrous evil can come from the aristocracy as well, from malevolent corporations or wealthy megalomaniacs.  (As always, it is the middle-class that suffers.)

Though problematic when implemented as a political or economic system, Marxist theory has been a useful analytical framework to apply to the cultural products of a given society, especially one undergoing economic destabilization or oppression.  In José B. Monleon’s 1990 essay, A Specter is Haunting Europe:  A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic, the point is made that bourgeois society’s opposition to the increasing political power of the poor and disenfranchised is often reflected in the content of fantasy and horror literature.  Insofar as the economically marginalized are perceived as a source of crime, disease, ignorance and violence, they become a ready source of nightmarish inspiration.  Their separation from polite society contributes to the poor being perceived as other, as an object of fear.

This seems to be what is going on some of Lovecraft’s more xenophobic and racist passages.  Readers may have come across examples of this perspective in stories like “He” (1926), “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), and “The Call of Cthulhu”—that the poor and ethnically or racially diverse are either the source of, or are complicit with an emerging horror.  It is interesting to note that in Lovecraft’s ghoul cycle of stories, a monstrous underground race—which may symbolize Lovecraft’s fear of diversity, “mongrel hordes” and loss of social prestige—actually evolves across stories.  In “The Lurking Fear”, the creatures are

Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…

Could Lovecraft be talking about the proletariat? Immigrants?  And yet, a couple decades later, in “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1943), one of these creatures, a ghoul convert named Richard Upton Pickman, becomes an important ally of Randolph Carter in his quest to find his “gold and marble city of wonder.”  Part of this evolution involves a shift from the abstract and general—“God knows how many there were…there must have been thousands…”—to the individual and personal, to Pickman. 

Is it too much of a stretch to think that Lovecraft’s fear of the other was eventually replaced with a willingness to embrace it?  Doesn’t this show, on a personal level at least, the therapeutic benefits of horror literature, of horror treatment?  Does horror offer hope for the world?  (It has been suggested by some that Lovecraft modulated his extreme racist and xenophobic views later in life.)

Speaking of treatment, David H. Keller—a practicing psychiatrist until he turned to horror writing later in life—also addressed embracing the other, in this case the feminine other, in his disturbing “The Bridle”.  But here the prognosis is not as good as was the case with his younger contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft.  “The Bridle” was discussed briefly in the previous post.  The short story is essentially a misogynistic metaphor in which the narrator, who is suspiciously a doctor like the author, presumes to control a powerful and willful sorceress, literally “breaking her in” like a new horse.  Could this story be autobiographical in any way?  Keller often visited rural communities in his practice. 

The story is effective and horrifying, but probably not for the reasons intended by its author.  Contemporary readers will find the narrator’s motivations and methods uncomfortably dark and violent, in spite of the author’s demonization of the sorceress and use of conventional religious trappings to restrain her.  He succeeds, at least temporarily.  In the context of the story “bridle” and “bridal” are synonymous.  But Keller leaves the matter open-ended, the conflict unresolved:

But I’m determined to conquer her.  When I do I’ll again remove the bridle; she will be willing to be baptized and marry me, becoming a gentle, loving wife, and faithful…Of course, I realize she may kill me first, in an unguarded moment, kissing my body to death with blows from her hardened hooves.  But come what may, I must have her with me, woman or mare, because I love her.

‘Physician heal thyself’ one wants to say, but of course he cannot do so, and this is the crux of the horror.  Neither will escape this arrangement without violence, an especially dark depiction of relationships between men and women.  Keller was quite reactionary, even for his time, but the concept of “bridling” a wayward bride is still not unfamiliar in many areas of the world, including our own.

But don't these sorts of things—ghouls, shape-shifting witches, the oppression of the poor, violence toward women—only happen in out of the way places like Lefferts and Lownsberry Corners?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

To My Readers: Future Directions

Initially I had planned to use this post to discuss the startling—because graphic—degree of misogyny in David Keller’s 1942 story “The Bridle”.  Briefly, Keller uses the metaphor of taming a wild mare, the equine form of a local shapeshifting witch, to describe the taming of an ungovernable wife.  In the context of the story, “bridle” is both homonymous and synonymous with “bridal”.  The author, a psychiatrist by training, intends a “Freudian slip”, a seemingly random choice of words that reveals the protagonist’s true feelings.  Keller was quite reactionary, even for his time, but the concept of “bridling” a wayward bride is still dismayingly active in the minds of many.  But I’ll save this for another post.

This does however bring up a topic I would like to discuss today:  the overall direction of The R’lyeh Tribune, now entering its fourth year.  Elsewhere I have discussed my critical method, if it can be so glorified, (see Personal Note: On My “Critical Method” and Horror Theory: Preliminary Thoughts on a Blasphem... ).  The gist of it is that horror entertainment in all ages is the documentation of private and collective nightmares, the psychological regurgitation of anger and anxiety regarding contemporary challenges and changes in society.  The work of H.P. Lovecraft, and more recently, Thomas Ligotti seems to exemplify this notion, though there are many other examples of comparable quality and power.

With respect to David Keller, his uneasiness with the growing financial and political independence of women in early twentieth century American society is reflected in many of his stories, for example “The Psychophonic Nurse” (1928) and “A Biological Experiment” (1928)—both science fiction—and the afore mentioned “The Bridle”, which is a horror story.  In Lovecraft’s stories, women are conspicuous because of their almost complete absence; given his problematic relationships with his mother and with Sonia Greene, his wife of just two years, this absence is suspicious. 

On the other hand, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories feature an evolving “damsel in distress” motif, so that by the time of “Red Nails” (1936), the female character nearly equals the hero in strength, cunning and effectiveness.  These variations and developmental changes across authors and time periods are intriguing and suggestive.  (For a more modern comparison take a look at Ross Smeltzer’s 2016 collection of novellas, The Mark of the Shadow Grove; see also For the Life is in the Blood.)  These stories comprise just one continuum of “therapeutic” treatment for a particular and perennial source of horror and dismay, the relationships between men and women.     

That dark speculative fiction can serve a cathartic or psychoanalytic function for the society in which it originates is not a new insight.  And this is only one of a number of frameworks with which to study the contents of a given horror story.  The R’lyeh Tribune has explored at least perfunctorily a number of schools of literary criticism that have been applied to horror: Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Queer and Calvinist, among others over the years. 

All are fruitful approaches to extracting further meaning and significance from this fascinating literature.  Missing so far from this survey of literary theory are feminist and ethnic perspectives on the genre—these are future directions I intend to take as I continue my studies.  As always I welcome suggestions and comments from readers.

If dark speculative fiction is essentially transmogrified dream and nightmare, then it may be possible to systematically apply some of the approaches of dream analysis and dream research to cultural products that feature elements of horror and the supernatural.  Beyond obvious categories like “werewolf story”, “ghost story” and the like, are there others that delineate stories in terms of the intensity or origin of the dream content forming the germ of a tale?  Can a story be evaluated in terms of the effectiveness with which it mimics the experience of a nightmare or a lucid dream?  What would an oneirological approach to horror criticism look like? 

(Interested readers may want to check out The Lucidity Institute, which features Stephen LaBerge’s work on the practical and theoretical applications of lucid dreaming.  See

It occurs to me that The R’lyeh Tribune is nearly a book now, at least in sheer verbiage, if not in organization or focus.  Repeat visitors have probably observed recurring themes interspersed throughout what now amount to several hundred articles.  What are the connections between horror, religion and nightmare?  What does the changing content of horror entertainment, and our enduring interest in the genre, say about us and our society? 

If we attend to our nightmares, write them into fiction, dramatize them, bring them into consciousness and the light of day, will it preserve us from a personal or collective catastrophe?  In church this morning we heard that ominous quote from the book of Jeremiah, so timely:  “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.”    

Whether these themes coalesce into some more unified form like a book remains to be seen.  For now, I am nowhere near reaching the bottom of this well, and will continue diving.  Horror, nightmare, and religion contain an inexhaustible abundance of what W.B. Yeats, paraphrasing the neo-Platonist philosopher Proclus, called “a fabulous and formless darkness, mastering the loveliness of the world…”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Godric and Genghis (Kahn)

Robert E. Howard’s “Red Blades of Black Cathay” (1931) was the first of six historical adventures he published in Oriental Stories, a pulp magazine later renamed as The Magic Carpet Magazine.  The magazine, an offshoot of Weird Tales, was also edited by Farnsworth Wright and featured several of the same authors, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, and E. Hoffmann Price.   Readers may recall that Price collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft on the oddball 1934 story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”, which depicts the eventual fate of Randolph Carter—a story that is similar in some respects to much of the content of Oriental Stories.  Edmond Hamilton, Hugh B. Cave, and Seabury Quinn also appeared in the magazine from time to time.

“Red Blades of Black Cathay” was published in the February-March 1931 issue, along with Frank Belknap Long’s “The Rajah’s Grandmother”, “The Dragoman’s Revenge” by Otis Adelbert Kline, and E. Hoffman Price’s “The Slave of Justice”, among others.  Oriental Stories, despite its later name change, struggled financially for several years.  It appeared on newsstands only a year after the start of the Great Depression, which likely was a factor in its demise.  Oriental Stories only remained in publication from 1930 to 1934.   

Regarding historical adventure stories, Robert E. Howard once wrote:

There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as writing history in the guise of fiction.  I wish I was able to devote the rest of my life to that kind of work.  I could write a hundred years and still there would be stories clamoring to be written, by the scores…I could never make a living writing such things, though; the markets are too scanty, with requirements too narrow, and it takes so long to complete one.

“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is actually a collaboration with Tevis Clyde Smith, who did the historical research while Robert E. Howard conceptualized and wrote the story.  Smith was a fellow Texan and had gone to high school with Howard.  A couple years younger, he was friends with Howard and worked together on stories until the latter committed suicide in 1936.  Smith passed away in 1984.

The hero of “Red Blades of Black Cathay” is Godric de Villehard, an ambitious Crusader in search of the fabled land of Prester John, far to the east of Christendom.  The legend of Prester John arose during the time of the Crusades, in the late eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.  He was reputed to be a priest and king of an independent Christian nation thriving in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia.  At the time, the Europeans were eager to regain the Holy Land from Muslim control, and hoped that an alliance with Prester John—if he in fact existed—would expedite this.  This is the historical backdrop to “Red Blades of Black Cathay”, and a source of Godric’s early motivation in the story.  

However, Godric is not as committed to “Christ and the Cross” as he is to war and plunder.  In terms of physical strength and military prowess, Godric superficially resembles Howard’s other larger-than-life characters like Kull, Conan, and Solomon Kane.  But it is interesting to see how Howard parcels out slightly different attributes and motivations to his various heroes.  While Kull and Conan tend to act instinctually towards looming threats, (Kull being the more philosophical precursor to the barbarian), Kane is driven by a powerful religious calling to vanquish evil and administer rough justice.  Steve Costigan, the protagonist in several of Howard’s “fight stories”, seems to be a contemporary version of Conan. 

Though an earlier creation of Howard, Godric seems to combine elements from the personalities of the others, embodying a love of battle and carnage with consummate skill and cynical world-weariness.  He is also smarter and more cunning, more tactically minded than the others.  Granted, his more theologically inclined cousin Solomon Kane can actually read—it’s just one book, though.  It seems that in Godric the author managed to combine and consolidate disparate character traits from his other heroes into a more complex and nuanced protagonist.  The story shows early evidence of increasing sophistication with characterization and narrative structure.  

“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is markedly different from Howard’s other heroic tales.  There is an absence of supernaturalism as well as his familiar serpentine imagery—the author’s code for the presence of primordial evil.  There is especial attention to details about armor, weapons, and period battle techniques, probably the contribution of Howard’s collaborator, Tevis Clyde Smith.  Here is an example of the level of description:

The heavy mail was reinforced with solid plates of steel on breast, back and shoulders and the sword belt was of joined steel plates a hand’s breadth wide.  The helmet, instead of being a merely a steel cap with a long nasal, worn over a mail hood, as was the case of most Crusaders, was made with a vizor and fitted firmly into the steel shoulder-pieces.  The whole armor showed the trend of the times—chain and scale mail giving way gradually to plate armor.

The battle scenes receive a similar level of attention with respect to preparations, fighting technique, deployment of troops and use of period weaponry.  There is ample battlefield carnage, lovingly depicted, as well as stirring vignettes written in an epic style reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad or the Odyssey.  Godric and Genghis Kahn have an amusing interaction near the end of the story.  Remarkably for a Howard adventure, there is a happy ending—of sorts—when fierce combatants put down their weapons after a gruesome battle and consider the possibility of an alliance.

The Princess Yulita is the nominal damsel in distress.  “Nominal” because she is the voice of reason, practicality and stability amid the tumultuous geopolitics of the time.  She nurses Godric back to health after a disastrous fight with Hian bandits, just in time for him to help her tiny kingdom fend off the Mongol hordes led by the infamous Genghis Kahn.  After she demolishes Godric’s fantasy of finding wealth and aid from the legendary Prester John, she admonishes him at the close of the scene:

Godric fell back and his eyes went dull.
“My dream is vanished,” he muttered.  “You should have let me die.”
“Dream again, man,” she answered; “only dream something more attainable.”

“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is an entertaining novella that offers a broader perspective on how Howard developed his skill and sophistication as an author.  Among his colleagues, Robert E. Howard was a versatile and prolific author, and had he lived a full life, he undoubtedly would have left behind even more accomplished works in a variety of genres.