Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Unreal Estate for Sale or Rent

Our local Science Fiction/Horror Reading Group is discussing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House this month.  This short novel was originally published in 1959, and still remains highly influential on the subgenre of haunted house stories.  Though owing some of its modern understanding of spectral phenomena to Henry James—see his “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) and “The Jolly Corner” (1908)—Jackson’s book is especially chilling as it intimately explores the psychic demise of her lead character Eleanor during her visit to Hill House.  There are some interesting parallels between The Haunting of Hill House and some earlier works of horror and the supernatural that appeared a few decades earlier.

For example, here is Professor Montague’s description of the architecture of Hill House:

“…Every angle”—and the doctor gestured toward the doorway—“every angle is slightly wrong.  Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind.  Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction of another…Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole.”

Wilcox, the psychic artist in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) might have commented that “…the geometry of the place is all wrong.”  Later on in Jackson’s book, both female characters will describe alterations of perspective that give them the sensation of walking up walls, a confusion similar to that experienced by the doomed landing party that clambers about the periphery of R’lyeh.  The architectural weirdness of Hill House also recalls another Lovecraftian real estate offering, Walter Gilman’s room in Keziah Mason’s old house, which was

…of good size but queerly irregular shape; the north wall slanting perceptibly inward form the outer to the inner end, while the low ceiling slanted gently downward in the same direction...As time wore along, his absorption in the irregular wall and ceiling of his room increased; for he began to read into the odd angles a mathematical significance, which seemed to offer vague clues regarding their purpose.

In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), as in Jackson’s Hill House, the structure of the dwelling itself is a manifestation of its evil power, almost independent of whatever malign entity resides there.  (See also Another Witch-House Tenant.) 

Jackson describes Hill House as a structure “which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles…”  That a house could be an evil place, and remain so across generations down through time, is an ancient idea.  Dr. Montague lectures Eleanor and her housemates:

“…I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden—perhaps sacred—is as old as the mind of man.  Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad.”

This is the assumption underlying Clark Ashton Smith’s 1933 story “The Devotee of Evil”.  (See also Unseen, Unfeared, and Unheard.)   The mad occult scientist Jean Averaud needs the old Larcom house in which to operate his peculiar device—a set of gongs so tuned as to “neutralize with their sound-pitch all other cosmic vibrations than those of evil.”  At one point, the megalomaniac Averaud explains his real estate decision to Philip Hastane.  (Hastane is Smith’s psychic investigator, a version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter or William Hope Hodgson’s John Cornacki.)  Averaud says:

“I will confess that I have purchased this old mansion and its grounds mainly on account of their baleful history.  The place is unusually liable to the influences of which I have spoken.  I am now at work on an apparatus by means of which, when it is perfected, I hope to manifest in their essential purity the radiations of malign force.”

This will not end well. 

Smith provides the “baleful” history of Larcom house at the beginning of “The Devotee of Evil”.  It includes one murder, several accidental deaths, and insanity.  Similarly, in Shirley Jackson’s book, at least five people have died on the premises of Hill House before Eleanor even arrives. 

The plot of The Haunting of Hill House will be very familiar to fans of haunted house entertainments, because it has been repeated so many times:  an occult expert and a collection of personalities is somehow driven by fate and circumstance to spend several nights—or perhaps just one night—in an evil old house.  Science and reason arrive in the form of an earnest researcher or two, but their rationality and hubris are no match for the malevolent forces that soon surround them.

Jackson’s characters, especially Eleanor, but to some extent the other guests as well, fall prey to the influence of the previous occupants, taking on their attitudes, confusing their own memories with those of others, reciting snatches of conversation and song lyrics, or reiterating lines of thought that were not originally their own, but for which they have some vulnerability or resonance.  This happens because there are elements in their personal lives that parallel those of the previous owners.

What sets Jackson’s novel apart from earlier ghost stories is her conceptualization of the nature of hauntings.  It is not a single entity attempting to communicate some trauma or injustice or warning to the unwary living, nor an evil, vengeful ghost still preoccupied with doing harm.  Instead, a haunted house is a field or venue in which certain patterns can recur, the strength of which patterns requires the assistance of naïve and malleable personalities.  Thus the haunter and haunted form a symbiotic relationship, each contributing energy and guidance to the others’ disturbance.

It may be that Hill House contains an egregore, or a phenomenon very akin to one.  An egregore can be defined as a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes form from the preconceived notions of humans sensitive enough to detect its presence, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it.  Eleanor, from whose point of view The Haunting of Hill House is told, does nearly all of these things at various times in the novel. An egregore can draw its power and shape from the imagination and the attention of those who believe in it, seeming to take on a life, will and agency of its own.  It helps greatly if one has a previous history with poltergeist phenomena, as Eleanor does.

Stephen King, in Danse Macabre (2010 edition) discusses Shirley Jackson’s book as an example of the haunted house as a kind of mirror to a troubled soul.  He notes that the popularity of haunted houses—insofar as the house is the soul or mind—is correlated with the rise of self-help literature and alternative, holistic therapies aimed at uniting the mind and body.  “Correlated”, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s insight that “The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  Which correlation is what Eleanor in Jackson’s novel experiences as a result of her stay at Hill House.

Jackson uses subtle references and recurring imagery to show how Eleanor’s experiences parallel those of the original tenants of the house.  She’s a “match” in a number of ways: she cared for her invalid mother until the woman died, in the same way a doomed caregiver earlier looked after the older female heir to the estate.  Eleanor disputed her sister for parts of their deceased mother’s estate, just as Hugh Crain’s daughters did after his demise.

There are other interesting dynamics. Eleanor’s isolation as the sole caregiver to her mother prevented her from having relationships with men, so it is interesting to see how Eleanor relates to the men of Hill House—Dr. Montague, a father figure, Luke, the foppish heir to the estate, Mr. Dudley, the brutish, low-class caretaker of the house, and the mysterious Hugh Crain, now deceased, who designed Hill House, and is responsible for its oddities.  Then there’s Theodora, a free spirit who may also be a lesbian—female dyads, most of them problematic, occur several times in the book. 

Readers may wonder if Eleanor’s house mates are merely aspects of her personality.  She actually asks this question in the book.  In some respects a house, either in a dream, or the haunted variety, is emblematic of the mind, with its hidden rooms, forgotten secrets, hidden treasures—and dark horrors.  That a house or dwelling is a metaphor representing the mind or soul of its inhabitant has been addressed in earlier posts.  (See also Your Head is a Haunted House: Thoughts on Horror,...) 
Hence the familiar depiction of the façade of a haunted house as a baleful human face—Jackson uses this familiar trope initially, but soon overturns a number of conventions about haunted houses.  Spectral phenomena occur during broad daylight and not just at night; they involve several people at once rather than a sole observer.  It’s also interesting how Jackson makes Hill House a part of the landscape—a cloistered dead space for sure, but one with a magnetic influence on people at some distance, and with effects that extend into the neighboring landscape of hills, woods, and brook.  Even Eleanor’s arrival at the house seems unavoidable. 

On a nuts and bolts level, Jackson’s artful, grammatically complex sentences recall those of Henry James, and cleverly simulate the twists and turns of Eleanor’s thoughts as she descends into psychic possession.  It is Eleanor’s mind that is haunted, not by a single entity like a ghost, but a pattern:  a sequence of events and troublesome relationships.  Eleanor and her fellow tenants are acting out an idea—more powerful and persuasive because not entirely known or conscious.  Their personalities and individual histories connect them to what went on before, and so doom them to a reenactment. 

This may be the creepiest aspect of the book—that we are not, strictly speaking, individuals with free will or independence.  We are rather components of a larger pattern, vulnerable to recycling through a previous traumatic event involving others who loosely resemble us.  A scary thought: that we are not really individuals at all but mere props or components of an idea that reiterates itself through time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

3. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World

In the previous two posts we reviewed Lovecraft’s use of conventional techniques to create verisimilitude in his stories.  In particular, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Call of Cthulhu were examined.  Lovecraft’s intent—his communicative intent—was to instill in his reader an ever increasing level of anxiety, paranoia and horror.  This is likely a very common purpose among creators of horror entertainment.  But perhaps Lovecraft was also attempting to persuade his readers to adopt or at least seriously consider his cosmicist world view.  But do we in fact “live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity”?  Is Lovecraft’s view of reality true?

The techniques used in fiction to establish believability are essentially the same as those used by journalists, politicians, corporate leaders, institutions, scientists, bureaucrats and pretty much anyone else vested with the power to disseminate official information.  Insofar as literature conveys the truth about the human condition—while media outlets are permeated with “fake news”—is it still necessary to distinguish between the two?  For example, can the reports of the mainstream media be considered a form of electronic pulp fiction, infotainment intended for quick and unreflective consumption, but also having an intent?

With all that, is it possible to feel comfortable with the growing realization that we are now in a “post-fact” world, that our new found realities can contain “alternative facts”*?  It is a sensibility that is congenial to your humble blogger’s religiosity and enthusiasm for horror—which is all of a piece, cognitively speaking.  In my view, which may be less and less in the minority, “the facts” and objectivity in general, are vastly over-rated.  Even if we could agree on what the facts are, we would only select from among them the ones that support our world view or ideology, and discard the ones that do not.  This is because reason serves belief, as Thomas Aquinas noted centuries ago, and not the other way around.  Some facts are better and more useful than others; some are no good at all.

A fact requires consensus—we all have to agree that it’s true—and a consent—we have to be willing to submit to some authority that ratifies the accuracy or truth of the fact. Thus using a fact is an appeal to authority or serves to establish an authority on some matter.  Whoever has all the facts, has the last word in some dispute.  This seems true of objectivity in general: that it is called upon by some presumed authority or expert to shore up what is essentially a political decision. 

Of course, no one has all the facts, not even the fact-checkers—and who checks them?  So it is relatively easy among humankind in more tumultuous times to withdraw consent, ruin the consensus, and so unravel objectivity and along with it, authority.  We have all the facts we need.  All that remains is to select from among them the ones that serve our beliefs about the world and the people in it.  Thus facts and objectivity, frail invalids at best, even during periods of “Enlightenment”, can fall sloppy dead when deprived of consensus and consent, and with them authority and reality itself.  Indeed, our reality is formed through the consent of the governed.  But the anxious insistence on facts and objectivity appears to be mostly preposterous monkey-business, to me at least.

It seems that the challenge in our society right now is how to interact with others whose frame of reference, version of reality, and preferred set of facts is completely different from one’s own.  Culturally speaking we may be moving away from an era of relative rationality and so-called Enlightenment thinking and back into the Romantic sensibility of the 18th and 19th centuries—a kind of cycling back to more emotional and subjective ways of experiencing the world.  Readers may suspect that this writer leans toward the latter mode.  It seems more genuine to me.  And it may be that approximately half of this nation also leans in this direction, or will soon. 

There are admittedly some hazards in this:  The Romantic period was a time of intensive cultural development, but also of horrendous violence.  It is hard not to see the potential for these upheavals, driven by passion and ideology, in contemporary events.  Calexit?

Even for the more objective among us there are problems with idolizing data while ignoring the need to re-evaluate the assumptions, emotions and beliefs that drive their collection.  Bret Stephens, in his now infamous editorial, (“Climate of Complete Certainty”, New York Times, 4/29/17) rightly pointed out how the presumed authority of facts can lead to certitude, and then a dangerous hubris.  This presumed authority of facts also contributes to the arrogance, inflexibility and lack of imagination displayed in the ideologies of both the right and left. 

Stephens was discussing attitudes about climate change research, but a similar dynamic can be seen at Berkeley—now the “graveyard of the first amendment”—and in the worldwide reaction to the evil encroachments of globalism.  It can also be seen in the earnest but totalitarian-creepy removal of Confederate flags and statuary from southern state capitols: as if the removal of words, emblems, idols —and hence memory—will magically prevent the re-emergence of the ideas that produced them.  There is certainly an element of magic and conjuration in how we handle the facts, how we hide or display evidence.

At this juncture it is impossible not to recall the opening words of H.P. Lovecraft’s apocalyptic prose poem, “Nyarlathotep” (1920):

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago.  [Possibly November 2016—edit.]  The general tension was horrible.  To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night.

Readers familiar with this short work know that the author goes on to depict the violent end of society and the world, at least as we have come to understand it.  A new set of facts, a new reality is imposed by the arrival of a conquering authority:  “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…I am the last…I will tell the audient void…”

Words to live by!

The violence we see on American campuses, and in political discourse around the world right now reflects this attempt by one side or another to control the debate, cull the facts, and so control a reality, or protect one, or create a new one.  What the debates about free speech on campus, and objectivity in the media are really about is who has authority to select preferred facts and create a preferred reality.  It is reality, or some group’s version of it, that is ultimately at stake.  Hence the violent reaction.

In my view, it would be more productive to dispense with concern for accuracy or factuality or objectivity and focus on intent.  Not whether some item is truthful, but rather what purpose is served by its mention.  Why is certain information, whether true, false, complete, incomplete—it does not matter—provided in a particular context?  What purpose does it serve?  Whose interest does it serve?  My inner Machiavelli does not want to know the truth—how quaint: as when Pontius Pilate cynically asks “What is Truth?”—but rather how effectively the intent was served.  Thus truth, whatever that is, is what is most useful to believe.

We have seen how H.P. Lovecraft and others have used verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement to substantiate and give form to the nightmares they create for their readers.  Despite the frenzied re-construction of national boundaries around the world, (among them “the Wall” on our southern border), the lines that divide objectivity from subjectivity, fact from fiction, and true from false are dissolving rapidly, inextricably mixing elements of each. 

Why shouldn’t all sources of “official” information use the same tools horror writers do when they persuade us to believe in outlandish terrors?  Aren’t we already using them to create social, economic and political horrors for each other?  H.P. Lovecraft offers this choice at the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu”:  “…either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”  Why not the second option?


*“Alterative Facts”—Kelly Ann Conway’s Orwellian but reasonable classification of data that do not support a preferred narrative.  It is fascinating that the term “narrative” is used so often in the news now to describe competing partisan versions of reality, as if rival fictions are being written for the public to consume along with books, feature stories and TV shows.

Thinking about H.P. Lovecraft’s attempts at verisimilitude brought to mind a number of philosophic questions—all generally epistemological—that have been dealt with in earlier posts.  For further bloviation about objectivity vs. subjectivity and the nature of “expertise” see also:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

2. Horror Theory: Towards a Post-Fact World

In the previous post, three factors that determine the believability and effectiveness of a narrative text were discussed.  These included its verisimilitude, the degree to which readers are willing to suspend disbelief about its contents, and whether there is sufficient novelty or “cognitive estrangement” to produce a change in the reader’s understanding of the world. 

Given the outlandish content of weird or speculative fiction, how do readers know what they know of the fictional reality depicted in the story?  How does the author persuade readers, at least for a time, that what he or she is narrating is the truth?  How does it come about that a terrifying idea can be experienced as a visceral reality by the reader?  The latter would seem to be a reliable gauge of the author’s effectiveness.

H.P. Lovecraft’s well-known proto-science fiction story, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931) was used in the last post as an example of the author’s skill in using a number of conventional techniques to produce an effect on the reader.  These techniques underpinned the elements of verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement, producing in the receptive reader a feeling of growing paranoia and alarm.  Lovecraft accomplished this by degrees, relying on the following traditional approaches in horror fiction:

•Using a narrator who is an expert on the subject.
•Appealing to the presumed authority and veracity of members of the upper class.
•Compiling written evidence.  The assumption here is that what is written or published has greater weight than the spoken word.  (Those of us in the health care field know “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.”)
•Using the Necronomicon and similar resources that have wide credibility or notoriety, and fearful respect.
•Making objective measurements of disturbing phenomena using some type of instrumentation.

These are all essentially appeals to authority.  In fiction, as in reality, not just anyone can say that some proposition or finding is true.  Mere eye witness is insufficient.  Either a matter of truth is decided consensually, or better, by some recognized authority, who gives his or her approval to what is already suspected by others.  Reality, like history, is written by the victors, the ones who won the war or the debate, by those who have assumed the authority to say what is true and useful to believe.  But I digress.

It was also noted in the previous post that these conventional props of believability—an expert narrator, written documentation, and so forth—are less effective now than they were in Lovecraft’s time.  These days, we are much more likely to question the authority and veracity of our social betters, our experts, our institutions and other sources of received truth.  This is having an effect on our perception of what can now be considered the truth—a development accelerated by our advancing communications technology.

Another of H.P. Lovecraft’s most important and influential stories is “The Call of Cthulhu”, which was published in 1928.  S.T. Joshi notes that the work demonstrates “the greatest structural complexity” of anything Lovecraft had written up to this time. Readers know that “The Call of Cthulhu” is the first substantive contribution of backstory to what some would later call the “Cthulhu Mythos”.  (“The Mound”, a Lovecraft-Bishop collaboration written in 1929 but published in abridged form in 1940, is also a key source of mythos material.)  

Elsewhere Joshi praises “the rich texture of this substantial work:  its implications of cosmic menace, its insidiously gradual climax, its complexity of structure and multitude of narrative voices, and the absolute perfection of its style—sober and clinical at the outset, but reaching end heights of prose-poetic horror that attain an almost epic grandeur.”  It is one of Lovecraft’s best stories, and displays his considerable strengths as a writer.  It should be considered mandatory reading.

Francis Wayland Thurston, the increasingly anxious narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” is already dead at the start of the story.  Ominously, it is his testimonial Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston that readers first encounter at the beginning. Thurston is “sober and clinical at the outset”, as he begins a systematic presentation of the facts gathered from a variety of sources.  His objective and disinterested approach to the material makes his cautious deliberations more persuasive. 

Like Wilmarth, the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), Thurston “connects the dots” by perusing a variety of written sources.  These include newspaper reports, his uncle’s detailed notes and manuscript—his uncle being the renowned Professor Angell, another “expert”—and the “postfacto diary” of a traumatized Norwegian sailor.  Thurston also conducts an interview with the troubled artist Wilcox, who he comes to see as a credible, though unusually psychic witness to the unfolding horror. 

But the most substantive evidence comes from a police report, the gruesome discovery by Inspector LeGrasse of an active Cthulhu cult operating in the swamps of Louisiana.  LeGrasse receives the imprimatur of the American Archaeological Society, whose expertise he consults regarding the origin of a frightful statuette and the translation of a barbarous chant, the infamous ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.’

It seems quaint now, but the reliance on law enforcement—often in combination with local academia and possibly the military—was a frequent motif in horror entertainments well into the 1960s.  Men in uniform or men with advanced degrees once had the unchallengeable authority to investigate, explain and eventually control terrifying phenomena on behalf of a frightened citizenry.  These days, not so much. 

What is noteworthy about Lovecraft, and consistent with his grim, cosmicist world view, is that Inspector Legrasse, Professor Angell, and the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu”, despite their brilliant insightfulness, are powerless to do much about the horror they have uncovered. (In the case of the two or three academics, they succumb fairly rapidly to it.)  Here Lovecraft was prescient about the true extent of our understanding of the world, and of our ability to control it.

There is one additional way in which Lovecraft establishes credibility in “The Call of Cthulhu” and in several other stories he wrote—“The Horror at Red Hook” (1927) comes to mind.  It is an ugly method also utilized by his colleague Robert E. Howard, though remarkably not so much, if at all, by Clark Ashton Smith.  That is, Lovecraft’s ample use of racial and ethnic stereotypes, a set of assumptions that was probably consistent with many of his readers’ attitudes toward people of other races. 

If indeed there was a conspiracy, a secret cult bent on resurrecting earth’s greatest evil circa the late 1920s, wouldn’t it have involved foreigners, people of other races, “a nautical-looking negro”, “half-castes and pariahs”, “mulattoes”, “West Indians”, “Brava Portuguese”, “an immensely aged mestizo named Castro”—in other words, the poor?*  One of the most powerful means of establishing credibility, both in fiction and in some provisional version of reality, is to confirm and support the prejudices and assumptions of the reader.  This technique is still as effective today as it was in Lovecraft’s time.  

Given our emerging romantic and post-fact world, it seems there is less and less desire to retain clear boundaries between traditional categories like objectivity and subjectivity, fact and opinion, science and religion, and other classifications once thought, or perhaps hoped, to be mutually exclusive.  The next and final post of this series will apply some of Lovecraft’s attempts at verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, and cognitive estrangement to larger philosophical questions about the nature of truth in a post fact world.


*In contradistinction to Legrasse’s report of the activities of Cthulhu worshippers in Louisiana, Richard Cavendish, in his book The Black Arts (1967), reports of an actual Caucasian cult, the “Adamites” of Oroville, California.  The priestess and her husband, believing themselves to be avatars of Eve and Adam, practiced nudity, bonfire dancing, orgies and animal sacrifice—not necessarily in that order.  In 1925 they reportedly burned a lamb alive, possibly as a deliberate act of blasphemy—nearly as horrifying as the events witnessed by Inspector Legrasse, and another instance, if one were needed, of life imitating art.