Journadventures

Isherwood on Writing

Very important advice:

“…thinking about writing and getting excited about the wonderful writing that you are going to do is the most dangerous occupational vice of a writer. The thing to do is to get something down on the paper, and then you have something to work on.”

Isherwood on Writing. p. 135

“On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged. He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good. … He has to have a moral code. Every writer who really has any kind of vitality has some sort of moral code. … What matters is the intensity with which this struggle on the human level is realized. […]

“He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it. Because, of course, in the world of art if something is well done it is enjoyable. One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children. … This sense of joy, of contact with life, of the vitality of life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name. […]

“He has to have, I suppose one can say, compassion. He has to see the just and the unjust as being all his children.

What is the nerve of interest in the novel?, 66.

If the writer has managed to meld human passion and divine compassion, the result is, as he said of Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”:

… not in the least depressing. It is in fact full of this strange joy in the experience of all these people. (79)


The theater is a box, a place of imprisonment in which the audience is shut up with the actors. The effects are created by means of claustrophobia: you can’t get out. […]

Remembering that the whole point of the play is that the people are in the theater and cannot leave until they have been dismissed by the working out of the play itself, remembering this, think of Beckett’s extraordinary use of pauses.

A writer and the theater, 91 & 93.

The theater is for speech, and the theater is also for character. … What is the film for? The film is primarily for image and for movement. This thing about image, about the actual, visual effect of something on the screen, can sometimes be very disconcerting.

A writer and the films, 101.

The sound in the film should always be, as it were, balanced against the image and not go with it.

p. 106

In addition, Isherwood outlines the role of the writer as a consumate and socially engaged outsider.

He [the writer] must always hold them [shared beliefs] with the possibility of dissent. Without the freedom to dissent, he is just that much less valuable to the community.
…the truly cooperative and social outsider is one of the most valuable members of the community, and a writer should strive to be such an outsider, sometimes assenting, sometimes dissenting, but always, one hopes, in some way illuminating the problem under discussion.

p. 131 & p. 132

Which reminded me….

Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

But let us be realistic. These ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors.

Umberto Eco, “Inventing the Enemy.” 2008.

From Isherwood on Writing, 2007.

Week in Review 2019: 001 & 002

Read:

  • Dreams from the Witch House, female voices in Lovecraftian Horror. Lynne Jamneck, ed.
  • Buffalo Soldier. Maurice Broaddus.
  • Wasteland, the Great War and the origins of modern horror. W. Scott Poole.
  • People’s Republic of Everything. Nick Mamatas.
  • Isherwood on Writing. Christopher Isherwood.
  • Neonomicon. Alan Moore.
  • Walking Awake“. N. K. Jemisin.
  • “The Medusa” and “Conversations in a Dead Language”. Thomas Ligotti.
  • Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory. Bobby Derie.

Watched:

Movies

  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Hereditary (2018)
  • Empire Records (1995)
  • Dumplin’
  • The Fundamentals of Caring
  • [Partial] Lovesong
  • [Partial] You Might Be the Killer

TV Shows

  • The Orville
  • Bull
  • Brooklyn 99
  • The Good Place
  • Deadly Class
  • Black Books
  • Red Oaks
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2010)

The article by Bobby Derie left me with more questions than answers, mainly: what exactly did Victorian anthopologists think was happening in pre-historic Europe? I have yet to fully understand what Margaret Alice Murray means when she speaks of a “dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe” in her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921).

I wonder which aspects of our own scientific presumptions will seem equally as arcane to future generations.

While the article is an excellent survey of the ways in which scientific racism influenced Lovecraft in his view of the world, it was lacking a strong critical voice. Given the present moment, it continues to feel irresponsible to repeat the racist and/or unsubstantiated claims of any past or current thinker without any recognition of its defects. (This was something Poole does very effectively and correctly in Wasteland, which I especially appreciated about the book.)


I have a lot of thoughts about how Aquaman, despite its critique of Lovecraft’s racist attitudes nevertheless bought in to and propagated a number of racial themes which comprise the subtle aspects of Lovecraft’s racism.

But they need a little more time to percolate.


Without getting into all of it, The People’s Republic of Everything was absolutely amazing. The novella Under My Roof which finishes the collection is a hilarious and incisive look at the nature and meaning of borders, nationalism, and citizenship.

It seemed hilariously a propos that I should find the following quote from Isherwood after finishing Mamatas’ book:

…this psycho-nuclear revolution, the invention of the atomic devices, has rendered their nationalism obsolete.

Christopher Isherwood, Isherwood on Writing. 151.

On the topic of nationalisms, I particularly enjoyed the view of an alternate North America as presented in Buffalo Soldier. I struggled with some of the action scenes in the book – my inner eye seems to like action sequences as much as my outer eyes do… Which is to say, “Not much.” But the chance to visit a North America that could have been, one where Western expansion is halted, and where the First Nations have a chance for self-determination was beautiful and heartbreaking.


I don’t want to linger on the topic as most of what I needed to say about sexual assault and Neonomicon has already been said on Twitter. But I had one interesting revelation, nonetheless.

One of the reasons I find the narrative turn from a supernatural, existential horror to the comparatively mundane horror of sexual assault so disappointing is that it is a horror which does not require aliens or time travel or a complete paradigm shift. It is merely someone opening the box of Shroedinger’s ego-death (as effected by a denial of personhood) to reveal what femme individuals have always known: Our sujectivity and agency never mattered, at all. It is not an apotheosis, but an inevitability.


Pulled from the draft pages:

The impossible will always be able to recognize itself. All monsters are kin.

06 JAN 2019

HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

Cover and Illustrations by Danielle Serra

Dreams from the Witch House edited by Lynne Jamneck is a gorgeous book.

It’s a larger than usual format—25.5 cm by 17.8 cm—soft cover, with beautiful full bleed, color illustrations by Danielle Serra. With a smooth, matte cover and generous layout, it feels good in the hands and easy on the eyes.

“There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows much strike before reckoning the consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In her introduction to the collection, Lynne Jamneck muses on the fragility of male sanity, particularly in Lovecraft’s own work, and the willingness present in the feminine experience to encompass unknown and unimaginable possibilities.

She lightly admonishes the puritanical impulse in some corners of Lovecraftianism, a reminder that the genre is dedicated to exploring the far reaches of all possible universes. This is a task which demands the greatest possible plurality of voices, a mere fraction of which she has gathered here.

Jamneck opens the collection with a restrained and dreamy historical piece, “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates, which sees a young woman travel from her German-Hungarian neighborhood in upstate New York to the home of an aged aunt in Massachusetts. Its Lovecraftian elements come through in the setting and the manner in which the young, innocent protagonist is drawn in by some force far beyond her ability to understand, only in part because she has literally left her known world behind. The style is exquisitely crafted, harkening back to the language of a by-gone age, melding an early-20th century style with something older still.

Oates cleverly builds tension throughout the story by compressing time and allowing the future to project itself into the narrative of the past. The reader knows that the young woman will live to be quite old and that she will get married and have a family, which creates anticipation as the audience – aware they are reading a horror story – is rushing ahead of the story to figure out where and what will go wrong. The answer, of course, is almost impossible to describe.


The globe spins. In the next story, the reader finds themselves in an untamed wilderness during the early days of white settler incursion into New Zealand. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill” is an epistolary story in the form of one letter and a single footnote. It lingers on the terror of wandering out into the hills only to encounter something too old to even recognize. It draws on the primal fear of the wilderness, how it has always been able to close around people and make them disappear, while also asking, “What comes back?”

The story poses an implicit question about the dangers of curiosity and empathy as the land – far more ancient and dangerous than anything else the settlers have encountered – makes its victims into accomplices, consuming them, spirit and flesh, until even their attempts to save the people they care become acts of complicity.


Cat Hellisen’s story “The Face of Jarry” will…

Ridiculously Terrifying: Kevin Smith’s Tusk

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The trailer for the Kevin Smith’s 2014 film Tusk is as ambiguous as the film itself. For two and a half minutes, it is impossible to tell if you are watching a trailer for a comedy movie, a shlock horror flick, or something somewhere in between – a loving, though no less mocking, send up of the horror genre of the sort which were the rage in the first half of the 2010s.

The basic set-up has a young, hot-shot podcaster going to Canada to interview a well-traveled old man, only to be drugged and abducted by his prospective interviewee who plans to transform him into a walrus. (That’s right.)

Obviously, the events of the film defy all logic – be it scientific, medical, or rhetorical – but they are executed with such unflinching dedication and apparent sincerity so as to demand the audience suspend their disbelief and meet the movie on its terms.

Justin Long is deeply hateable as Wallace Bryton, host of a successful humiliation comedy podcast with the puerile, though provocative, name: “The Not-See Party.” At the risk of attributing meaning where none was intended, Long’s performance may succeed thanks to the implicit moral law: only a complete asshole could find himself in such a situation.

Genesis Rodriguez plays Ally Leon, Bryton’s longtime girlfriend. Rodriguez is the true star and emotional core of this film, without her tender and engaging performance the movie would have devolved beyond its barely manageable absurdity into pure farce.

Haley Joel Osment carefully navigates the divided loyalties familiar to anyone with a best friend completely outclassed by their better half. Osment’s Teddy Craft struggles to balance his involvement with Wallace’s podcasting fame fueled antics and his recognition of increasingly unattractive qualities his friend has developed as a result of success. Osment manages the convoluted emotions demanded of his character with grace and a persuasive friendliness.

Meanwhile, Michael Parks and Johnny Depp (almost entirely unrecognizable under a terrible wig, false nose, and exaggerated not-quite-Quebecois accent) compete for the distinction of most bizarre and unsettling performance.

Parks projects an unsettling menace without ever appearing physically threatening. The psychosis he reveals with every wild-eyed pronouncement is a performance wasted on his would-be interviewer. Long’s Wallace is dedicatedly vacuous and self-involved, ensuring that each scene he shares with Parks incites a piteous horror of the sort usually reserved for small, stupid animals. Parks unflinchingly executes a performance which demands everything from waxing poetic about an animal otherwise banished to satiric 19th century poetry (familiar from another Kevin Smith film, Dogma) to deranged vocalizations and low brow caricature.

Depp’s Guy Lapointe is a washed-up Inspector Clouseau, beaten down by the world and haunted by his past failures, keeping all of the exaggerated ridiculousness of a Peter Sellers’ character and adding an incongruous sense of grief and world-weariness.

Were Depp’s character the beaten down, veteran gumshoe in any other film, he would certainly drink too much. Instead, Smith writes in the fast food diner equivalent of the raw egg hangover cure routine, leaving the desperate protagonists to lay their plight in the dubious – and, in this case, greasy – hands of the only man willing to take them on.

When Parks and Depp share the screen, scenes that would have, at best, been satires of stereotype, become distressingly unsettling and perverse, suffused with a menace that originates as much in the distorted portrayals as it does in the narrative context.

The special effects have that rubbery quality particular to practical effect, yet are no less unsettling or horrific for it. Give the propensity for gory realism and smooth CGI in so much of contemporary cinema, the return to silicone and painted foam exacerbates the conflicting impulses present throughout the film. They are patently ridiculous and heighten the un-reality of the mechanics of the plot, simultaneously, however, they have the inescapable materiality of something that exists.

Smith’s filmmaking is impeccable. He wields the misdirection of the frame and the editing suite to maximum effect, especially in the scenes which delve into the unexpectedly complex relationship ensnaring Wallace, Ally, and Teddy. The film establishes a pattern of flashbacks early on, lulling the audience into a sense of security. The slow unfolding of a dreamy, already unreachable, sun-dappled status quo illustrates the depths of Wallace’s douchebaggery, while demonstrating the genuine affection – rooted in what little remains of the young man she fell in love with – which ties Ally to this undeserving cretin.

Imagine the serial killer logic of Criminal Minds, the inventive and perverse body horror of The Human Centipede, and the wacky, irreverent – yet nonetheless emotional – hijinks of 90s slacker cinema, each taken to their logical extremity simultaneously.
You might then, for the briefest of moments, catch a glimpse of the feverish nightmare that is Tusk.

The commitment to seeing the film through without giving in to the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of irony is quite possibly the thing which makes it surpass all other recent horror films in terms of absolute perversity. It has none of the ironic trope inversions which made Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods so delightful. Instead it operates with the white-knuckled sincerity of a horror film unselfconscious of genre.

Somehow, regardless of the way it should absolutely be a bad joke, Smith never breaks the tension, keeping the audience captive (quite possibly against their will and their better judgement) up until the very end. The audience is left dangling over the abyss, uncertain if the soft cushion of a punchline awaits them at the bottom. Without ever telegraphing whether the story will end on a laugh or a piteous cry, Kevin Smith has brought the metahorror of cognitive dissonance to its apotheosis. The film traps the audience in that moment where they are uncertain whether or not they should laugh.

After all, a joke without a punchline is a horror story.

 

Content Warnings: mutilation, suicide, kidnapping, infidelity, crass language, douchebaggery.