Sunday, March 19, 2017

Part Two: Horror and the Will to Power

In the previous post there was discussion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power, an idea he developed across several publications, perhaps most vividly in his classic Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Broadly speaking, Will to Power has been described as humanity’s instinctual desire to preserve and extend itself.  It is  a conscious or—for the most part—unconscious drive that underlies ambition, aggression, the exercise of authority, creative achievement and ultimately the desire to overcome oneself, to become the “overman”.  Will Durant paraphrases Nietzsche’s thoughts as follows:
The best thing in man is strength of will, power and permanence of passion…Greed, envy, even hatred are indispensable items in the process of struggle, selection and survival.  Evil is to good as variation to heredity, as innovation and experiment to custom; there is no development without an almost-criminal violation of precedents and “order”.

It was a form of Will to Power, combined with reliable refrigeration, that kept Dr. Muñoz relatively intact 18 years after his death in H.P. Lovecraft’s morbid short story, “Cool Air” (1928).  While the more ethically and morally inclined may cringe at the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas when applied to the living, when applied to the dead—or to those who should be—all sorts of opportunities for horror arise, literally from the grave.  It seems that Will to Power is operative in tales of vengeance, or more politely, justice from beyond the grave.  Zombies may be an uncouth expression of the same principle, of unrestrained, unmodulated animal impulses.

Although some horror writers may have taken these ideas directly from Nietzsche’s philosophical works—which seems unlikely in Lovecraft’s case—it may simply be that these notions were pervasive enough in the culture to influence the horror entertainments of the time.

A somewhat different example of Nietzsche’s concept appears in “The Lost Race” (1927) an early story by Robert E. Howard, first published in Weird Tales.  Howard’s tale shared the January issue with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, to place the work in a Lovecraftian context.  In “The Lost Race”, a Briton warrior named Cororuk dispatches some blood thirsty bandits led by Buruc the Cruel, but is soon captured by “true Picts”, a secretive race that has established itself in a cavernous, underground city.  They are the “lost race” of the title.

“The Lost Race” is an interesting forerunner of the adventure tales Howard would later write for better known characters like Conan, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.  The hapless Cororuc seems a prototype for these heroic figures, and the author uses the narrative to introduce racial theories he develops in later work.  Even the preliminary inventory of Cororuc's weapons echoes the sequence used later on in the Conan stories:  “He was armed with a long bow of yew wood…a long bronze broadsword…a long bronze dagger…”

What is striking about the denizens of subterranean Pictdom is that they do not yet show the serpentine stigmata—other than “beady eyes”—that characterize Howard’s later underground races as emblematic of primordial, even Biblical evil.  In fact, the Picts are honorable:  “A Pict never forgets a foe, ever remembers a friendly deed.”  This ethic is what saves Cororuc from death by immolation at the hands of an embittered and vengeful Pictish chieftain.

Cororuc does some historical math in his head and determines that the chieftain is at least half a millennium old.  Before his second career as tribal leader, the ancient had been a “witch-finder” who was cursed by one of his immolatees as she “writhed at the stake”—the curse was that he should live until “the last child of the Pictish race had passed.”  Thus a strong national defense keeps the chieftain’s options open in later life.  However, in addition to the power of the curse, the chieftain has acquired this proto-Nietzschean insight:

I was a young man when I entered this cavern.  I have never left it.  As you reckon time, I may have dwelt here a thousand years; or an hour.  When not banded by time, the soul, the mind, call it what you will, can conquer the body…When I feel that my body begins to weaken, I take the magic draft, that is known only to me, of all the world.  It does not give immortality; that is the work of the mind alone…     

A final example of an application of Nietzsche’s Will to Power is surely the aggrieved—because dismembered and scattered—Helman Carnby in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer”* (1931). 

The narrator of the story, Mr. Ogden, is a translator of ancient Arabic hired by Helman’s brother John to decipher key passages of the Necronomicon.  Both brothers had been enthusiastic practitioners of the black arts, though the deceased and now discombobulated Helman was the more adept of the two.  Unbeknownst to Ogden, John had murdered his more powerful twin and artfully distributed his remains.  He is desperately seeking technical expertise to prevent his vengeful brother from re-assembling himself, primarily through an act of will.  Ogden translates this helpful passage from the Necronomicon:

It is verily known by few, but is nevertheless an attestable fact, that the will of a dead sorcerer hath power upon his own body and can raise it up for the tomb and perform therewith whatever action was unfulfilled in life.  And such resurrections are invariably for the doing of malevolent deeds and for the detriment of others.  Most readily can the corpse be animated if all its members have remained intact; and yet there are cases in which the excelling will of the wizard hath reared up from death the sundered pieces of a body hewn in many fragments…

This is a direct quote from the Necronomicon, so it must be true.  It is rumored—mostly by me—that Friedrich Nietzsche himself may have had a copy of the Necronomicon in his library, most likely the erroneous and incomplete Latin translation by Olaus Wormius.

One final speculation:  it may be that Nietzsche’s Will to Power, when applied to the insufficiently dead, may be a complementary process to the Egregore.  Instead of an undifferentiated something that passively assembles itself and takes form from the attention and veneration of sensitive, pliable minds, it may be that the ghost or demon or animated corpse persists—as if it were a dwindling battery—waiting to have its will to power recharged and incarnated by the attention it actively draws to itself.  This would seem to be a much more focused supernatural effect, and one of relatively short duration.


*See also Occult Occupational Hazards.                                             


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Part One: Horror and the Will to Power

Granted, finally, that we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life as the development and ramification of one fundamental form of will—namely, the Will to Power…granted that all organic functions could be traced back to this Will to Power, and that the solution to the problem of generation and nutrition—it is one problem—could also be found therein:  one would thus have acquired the right to define all active force unequivocally as Will to Power.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

For, what does not exist cannot will; but what is in existence, how could that still want existence? Only where there is life is there also will: not will to life but—thus I teach you—will to power.  There is much that life esteems more highly than life itself; but out of the esteeming itself speaks the Will to Power.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

A version of this idea, that self-assertion and self-preservation, a “will to power”, is the primary engine of life—and perhaps also of the recently deceased—can be found in at least three well-known stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. 

“Cool Air” (1928), “The Lost Race” (1927), and the marvelously gruesome “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931) are all very different from each other in terms of narrative content, yet each one contains a statement of Nietzsche’s insight about the nature of life.  All three were published in various magazines at a time in history when Nietzsche’s ideas were being appropriated and misinterpreted by fascists for their own menschliches, allzumenschliches purposes. 

Various social and political theories loosely based on Nietzsche were in circulation from the end of the First World War to the beginnings of the Second—the Nazis were fond of selectively quoting him.  It may be that Nietzsche-like ideas will become popular again as we prepare for the Third.  Unsurprisingly, horror writers have been somewhat more accurate in their application of the great philosopher’s ideas than mere totalitarians.

S.T. Joshi, in his foundational two volume biography I Am Providence (2013) notes that Lovecraft may have encountered Nietzsche’s ideas as early as 1918, though it is unclear whether Lovecraft read any of the philosopher’s books directly.  The biographer reports that none of Nietzsche’s books were found in Lovecraft’s library, and his reference to the philosopher in some of his correspondence suggests only a partial understanding of Nietzsche’s insights.  It seems likely that he imbibed some of these notions through his association with Alfred Galpin, a young friend who shared Lovecraft’s perspectives and was an ardent Nietzschean. 

Lovecraft’s affection for fascism, his identification with aristocracy, (though his life-long poverty disqualified him from it), and his anti-democratic attitudes may have been drawn from his interpretation of Nietzschean notions.   Lovecraft traced his cynical world view to the philosopher, (among others), and drew from him some support for his cosmicist views: that humanity has no ultimate purpose or goal, but is “a superfluous speck in the unfathomable vortices of infinity and eternity.”  Lovecraft evidently overlooked the opening sections of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the philosopher offers his view of the reason for human existence:  I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome…What is great in man is that he is bridge and not an end…”

“Cool Air” chronicles the last days of Dr. Muñoz, a brilliant physician who has managed to keep himself animate, though not exactly alive, through a combination of willpower and early twentieth century refrigeration technology.  Both fail in the end, and the story is a poignant, if grotesque comment about the tragedy of mortality.  The story is unique among Lovecraft tales in that it contains a female, the doctor’s house keeper, Mrs. Herrero, (“Doctair Muñoz…he have speel hees chemicals.  He ees too seeck for doctair heemself…”).  S.T. Joshi describes the tale as one of the finest, non-supernatural horror stories that Lovecraft produced in New York, finishing it sometime in 1926.  Joshi believes that “Cool Air” is bereft of “transcendent philosophical issues”.  However, the passage below, in which Dr. Muñoz helps the narrator recover from a heart attack, suggests at least an echo of Nietzsche’s Will to Power:

He sought to distract my mind from my own seizure by speaking of his theories and experiments; and I remember his tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting that will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself, so that if a bodily frame be but originally healthy and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments, defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs.  He might, he half jestingly said, some day teach me to live—or at least to possess some kind of conscious existence—without any heart at all!

This element of willpower as a preservative force following physical death tends to be emphasized in film adaptations of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air”.  (See also The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning and In Articulo Mortis—Some Options )  The appearance of "Will to Power" in stories by Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith will be the focus of the next post.    

Saturday, March 11, 2017


In the previous post there was discussion snake imagery as it appears in the work of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  Reference was made to Clark Ashton Smith’s well-known “The Last Incantation” (1930) and a closely related tale, “The Death of Malygris” (1934).  Besides the wily sorcerer Malygris, both stories contain “the familiar demon…a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings.”  The snake is pivotal in both stories, insofar as a snake can be said to pivot.  Smith uses the serpent very effectively as a symbol not only of the persistence of evil—as Robert E. Howard inevitably does—but also of wisdom, memory, power, and the awesome tenacity of life.

Enthusiastic readers of Clark Ashton Smith know that the two stories about Malygris are part of small cycle of fictional and poetic works set in the imagined geological remnant of Atlantis, a doomed island continent called Poseidonis.  Susran is its capital, Lephara its principle port; in both cities the inhabitants are eventually resigned to their unavoidable demise.  By the time of Hotar and Evidon, the scientist-brothers in “A Voyage to Sfanomoë” 

It was well known that this isle, with its opulent sea-ports, its aeon-surviving monuments of art and architecture, its fertile inland valleys, and mountains lifting their spires of snow above semi-tropic jungles, was destined to go down ere the sons and daughters of the present generation had grown to maturity.

A later passage describes the philosophical perspective of the two brothers.  Their world view, like that of their creator, is imbued with a pervasive fatalism:

Knowing the nearness of the final cataclysm, they had never married, they had not even formed any close ties; but had given themselves to science with a monastic devotion.  They mourned the inevitable passing of their civilization, with all its epoch-garnered lore, its material and artistic wealth, its consummate refinement.  But they had learned the universality of the laws whose operation was plunging Atlantis beneath the wave—the laws of change, of increase and decay; and they had schooled themselves to philosophic resignation…

It is hazardous—though intriguing—to interpret fictional text as psycho-biographical material. It is not hard to imagine that Hotar and Evidon’s attitudes were parallel to those of Clark Ashton Smith and his “brothers” Lovecraft and Howard.  On a more macro level, one can also see the inundation of Poseidonis as a metaphor for the collapse of the world economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The theme of decadence and decline, so prevalent in Zothique—that other doomed world—is present in the Poseidonis cycle from the very beginning.  It is hinted at in the two Malygris stories as well as in “The Double-Shadow” (1933).  With the exception of the latter, the five short stories in the Poseidonis cycle were first published in Weird Tales between 1930 and 1934.  (A somewhat abridged form of “The Double-Shadow” appeared in Weird Tales in 1939, after its initial appearance in a pamphlet the author self-published.)  They appeared in no particular order relative to the fictional periods they depict, but if one were to arrange the five stories according to the cycle’s fictional history it might yield this sequence:
 “The Last Incantation” (1930)—Malygris, of advancing years, conjures his deceased beloved and experiences a painful insight.
“The Death of Malygris” (1934)—assassins and rivals manage to dispatch Malygris using a weird occult methodology, but suffer unanticipated consequences.

“The Double-Shadow” (1933)—Avyctes, a vainglorious student of Malygris brings doom on himself and his apprentice by incautious experimentation with an extraterrestrial spellbook.

“A Voyage to Sfanomoë” (1931)—two survivors of the cataclysm that destroys Poseidonis land their spaceship on Venus.

“A Vintage from Atlantis” (1933)—pirates encounter a cultural artifact that causes them to experience the last days of Susran.

Given the quality and vividness of the five stories, it is unfortunate that Smith did not have the time and energy to complete “gaps” in the historical record with additional works.  It would be surprising if contemporary fantasy and horror writers have not already attempted to do just that, in the same way that De Camp and others elaborated on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan adventures.

It is interesting to compare the timeframe of Smith’s Poseidonis cycle with the cotemporaneous publications of his two well-known colleagues at Weird Tales.  A fascinating project, at least to me, would be to map out the matrix of ideas in circulation among “the big three” and their fellow creators of horror entertainment in the early twentieth century.  (Or any other period for that matter, though we are probably too close to our own time to recognize emerging patterns in our cultural products.) 

The chart below attempts to put Smith’s Poseidonis cycle in the context of work done around the same time by Lovecraft and Howard.   

Clark Ashton Smith
H.P. Lovecraft
Robert E. Howard
“The Last Incantation”
“The Rats in the Walls”
“The Hills of the Dead”
“A Voyage to Sfanomoë”
“The Whisperer in Darkness”
“The Black Stone”
“The Double-Shadow”
“A Vintage from Atlantis”
“The Festival” (originally 1925)
“The Dreams in the Witch-House”
“The Other Gods”
“The Slithering Shadow”
“The Tower of the Elephant”
“The Death of Malygris”
“From Beyond”
“Shadows in the Moonlight”
“The People of the Black Circle”
“Queen of the Black Coast”
“Rogues in the House”

Besides simply enjoying Smith’s unique stories, readers will find interesting content in the Poseidonis cycle.  In “The Death of Malygris” there is description of a peculiar occult methodology that brings about an end, in theory at least, to the depredations of the evil sorcerer:

Employing an unlawful Atlantean science, Maranapion had created living plasm with all the attributes of human flesh, and had caused it to grow and flourish, fed with blood.  Then he and his assistants, uniting their wills and convoking the forces that were blasphemy to summon, had compelled the shapeless, palpitating mass to put forth the limbs and members of a new-born child; and had formed it ultimately…into an image of Malygris…they caused the simulacrum to die of extreme age... the sorcerers waited for the first signs of mortal decay in the image.  If the spells they had woven were successful, a simultaneous decay would occur in the body of Malygris…

Without the supernatural elements, the process in “The Death of Malygris” seems very akin to cloning an entire human being, which is currently an unlawful American science.  In the story, the procedure is effective in hastening the deterioration of the wizard’s mortal remains, but is useless against his capacity for vengeance.

A puritan adventurer reminiscent of Howard’s character Solomon Kane appears in “A Vintage from Atlantis”.  The story depicts an event many centuries after Poseidonis sinks beneath the waves.  Smith may have been playing with the insight suggested by the phrase “in vino veritas”.  The narrator, a member of a marauding pirate crew, barely survives a reenactment of the last days of Susran brought on by an encounter with an ancient artifact.

“A Voyage to Sfanomoë” is especially interesting as a transition or bridge between Smith’s dark fantasy and the emerging popularity of science fiction.  Two scientist-brothers escape their doomed continent in a spherical spaceship.  They are headed to Sfanomoë, which is Atlantean for the planet Venus.  Smith depicts Venus as many of his colleagues did at the time, as a lush, tropical world tangled in bizarre jungle vegetation, some of it mobile and hungry. 

The brothers experience an unusual hallucinogenic demise, which may be more a transformation than actual death.  Compare Sfanomoë to Smith’s depiction of Venus and the Venusians in such stories as “The Metamorphosis of the World”, and “The Immeasurable Horror”—as well as Venus herself and how she is depicted in stories like “The Venus of Azombeii” and “The Disinterment of Venus”.  Perhaps Smith’s relationship with both the planet and the eternal feminine was problematic?

There is also a hint of the growing influence of science fiction in “The Double-Shadow”.  The race of primordial serpent men, the original owners of the mysterious tablet “wrought of some nameless metal, like never-rusting iron” may have been interacting with extraterrestrial forces, although this is not stated directly.  The entity conjured by Avyctes and his apprentice appears and behaves somewhat like the amorphous, amoebic life-forms in “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931) and “Ubbo-Sathla” (1933), both written around the same time as “The Double-Shadow”.  (For additional discussion of the amoeba as inspiration for horror and science fiction see also The Amoeba in the Attic.)

The four poetic pieces—“Malediction”, “The Muse of Atlantis”, “Tolometh” and “Atlantis”—round out the Poseidonis cycle.  As the title suggests, the first poem is a curse, a fervent wish that…“the curse be lifted never/That shall find and leave you one/With forgotten things forever.”  The next is essentially a colorful travelogue.  The last two are the best in my view.  “Tolometh”, the Cthulhu-esque god of the abyss, has an Ozymandias-moment beneath the waves that now bury Poseidonis in the watery depths.  “Atlantis” is a vivid depiction of a sunken, forgotten city.

Readers will enjoy a fuller experience of the world of Poseidonis by reading the five short stories and the accompanying poetry as a unit. And perhaps mourn that little more was retrieved from that strange land before it fell into the sea.