Week in Review 2019: 004

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

I’ve been bedridden for the last three days. A fever, a nice wet cough, moments where I could have sworn I was going to die… The works.

Thankfully, the fever broke mid-way through Saturday and now I only sound awful. All this to say: I have watched an astounding number of movies and a fair bit of television over the last 72 hours:

Movies:

• Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
• Mandy (2018)
• Summer of 84 (2018)
• Mayhem (2017)
• Duck Butter (2018)
• Toc Toc (2017)
• A Most Wanted Man (2014) (partial)
• Snowden (2016) (partial)

TV:

  • Supergirl: Season 3, episodes 22 and 23
  • The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Season 1, episodes 1 through 5.
  • Red Oaks: Season 2, episodes 2 and 3.
  • Travelers: Season 3, episode 2.

Before it got to be as Bad As All That, I…

…watched:

  • Signature Move (2017)
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

…read:

  • The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone
  • finished the parts of The Nightmare Factory that I’d not read before.

I’ve been chatting with folks who come into the store about the decision to cast Nicholas Cage in “The Colour out of Space” movie adaptation. And, having now seen Mandy, I feel confident in my opinion that Nic Cage is a difficult choice. His sudden appearance in Snowden is actually why I stopped it and switched to something else. (Well, that and the aggressive levels of American Patriotism.)

I think the big danger with Nic Cage is encouraging him to act unhinged. That is usually when his performance goes off the rails in terms of believability. He seemed mostly sane and O.K. in the scene that introduced him in Snowden.

He’s also one of those actors you can’t help but see when they’re acting; Nic Cage, Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Oprah Winfrey… And it doesn’t have to do with recognizability, either. Sam Rockwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Tom Hardy, Zoe Saldaña always surprise me because, despite their familiarity, they don’t get in the way of the presence of the character they’re playing.

To come at it another way: Lovecraft’s stories aren’t really about people. They rely on a sense of atmosphere and the creeping realization of what lurks beyond the human experience. It seems strange to me, then, to cast some one with an undeniable presence, someone who cannot fade into the background, on whom the audience cannot project themselves.

Lovecraft is very much a writer of un-characters. None of the people he writes, protagonists or otherwise, do substantially more than progress the plot. Whatever friends they have are utilitarian pieces of the narrative to open doorways into other, horrific worlds. Even incidental characters (other tenants, housekeepers, etc) serve some function of necessity, if only as racialized foils for the characters with whom the narrator chooses to associate.

And none of this even begins to touch on the issue, “Nic Cage is a meme.” Because once you have been transformed into a hollow vector for self-replicating situational humor, you cease to be able to generate meaning for yourself.

(Which is exactly why Nicholas Cage hates memes about himself, presumably.)

Week in Review 2019: 003

Read:

Books:

  • When I Grow up I want to be a Futurist. Badminton, N.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing. Bolano, B.
  • “Prodigy of Dreams,” “Ms. Rinaldi’s Angel,” “The Tsalal,” and “Mad Night of Atonement” in The Nightmare Factory. Ligotti, T.
  • “Protestant and Catholics.” HPL to Frank Belknap Long, collected in Against Religion: the atheist writings of H. P. Lovecraft. 2010.

Articles:

  • “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” W. Scott Poole in The Age of Lovecraft. 2016.
  • “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” Brooks. E. Hefner in MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 60, Number 4. 2014.
  • Jason Colavito’s blog.

This week has been a little scattered. Whatever terrible thing I did to my wrist some time before Christmas continues apace and has vastly limited my manual dexterity and completely undermined my comfort. At least it has had the good grace to put my non-dominant hand out of commission so that I can continue to scribble. (Should I be typing? Probably not.)


Hefner’s article about Hammett and Lovecraft is really quite remarkable. It examines how Hammett’s novel, The Dain Curse, dismantles the racist ideological underpinnings of the classic ’20s detective story and/or Weird fiction tale, and how those ideas are metamorphosed into the narrative mechanics of nativist fiction.

He sees Hammett’s novel as “a broader critique of a cultural phenomenon in which bodies are seen as legible text where corporeal difference and criminal degeneracy go hand in hand.” (654)

Somewhat predictably, Hefner focuses on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hood” and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

His analysis of “Call” and Arthur Machen’s influence on Lovecraft’s views on cultural and racial “evolution” in Europe would have benefited from a greater familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence around Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Hefner mistakenly credits Lovecraft with developing Machen’s theories of a degenerate pre-Aryan European race into the atavistic cult in “Call”. W. Scott Poole’s article in The Age of Lovecraft clearly shows the link between Murray’s description of the persistent prehistoric witch-cult and Lovecraft’s “global atavistic conspiracy” (Poole, xx). I mentioned Bobby Derie’s article Conan and the Little People last week, which provides a detailed primary source examination of Murray’s influence on Lovecraft.

(Aaand I just realized last week’s link to Derie’s article was busted… It should all be fixed now.)

Personally, I am interested in how Lovecraft’s knowledge and study of history impacted his racial views. Without contesting the assertion that his views were aggressively racist and that they profoundly shaped his literary output, I nonetheless contend that he displays a nuanced (and at times inherently contradictory) view of the different “races.”

Moreover, his eugenic epistemology (to borrow Hefner’s term) engages a racist semiotics which goes beyond the simplistic “Brown people are scary” logic which is often used as a short-hand for his views on the Other. In stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” he uses a genetic determinist framework to define a degenerate or inferior class of people who, in contemporary terms, would be considered “white.” This classist dimension to his racism is particularly important, in a large part, because it continues to persist in contemporary fiction and ideology.

More on this to folllow…


Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (CATHR) continues to trouble me. Bridging the gap between my instinctive and wholehearted agreement with his fundamental premises (the universe is meaningless, the self is a construct of consciousness, we turn away from this fundamental truth, clinical depression provides a clear view of this inherent meaninglessness, etc) with my equally strong reaction to the tone of his argument.

I’ve described it variably as: “Yeah, the universe is meaningless. It’s not about you, so why are you taking it personally?”; “No shit.”; and, “Judith Butler says, ‘Everything you believe to be true is an imaginary construct, including the notion that you have an essential internal identity which can be expressed in such a way that it will be seen and recognized by others.’ Ligotti says, ‘EVerYthINg yOu tHoUGHt WAs tRUe is A cONstRUcT, IncLUDiNg YouR PerCEPtIoN Of A FUndAMEntAl sELf!!!'”

This has lead me to consider CATHR through feminist and post-colonial critical lenses – drawing on Butler and W.E.B. DuBois, primarily – particularly around the question of identity and the “Self.”

This week I took an unfortunate detour when I Googled “female pessimists,” and had the priviledge(?) to encounter a thread on the official Ligotti forum. It posited a number of reasons why women might be ill-suited to True Philosophical Pessimism. A few voices defended the possibility of feminine pessimism, but overall there was a marked failure to consider the female experience as one wherein even a purported Human subjectivity plays any role.

I hope to be able to contribute something organized and coherent on this subject in the future. For the moment, I offer instead this quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

(52) Harcourt Paperback.

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…

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)