Monday, 23 October 2017

Everywhere the glow of something waiting to end: on Gary J Shipley’s Warewolff!

"Even in the face of things that seem impossibly alien in both subject and sentiment, the narratorial voice still surveys it all with total detachment. And nor should it be any other way. Shipley has bored a hole into the inner life of a multitude of subconscious minds, and whatever pours out is judged on its own terms, without dissemblance or apology."

My review of the latest release from Hexus Press, published over at 3:AM Magazine earlier this month:

Monday, 17 July 2017

It's In The Computer: technology and the unknowable in John Carpenter's 'The Thing' and 'Prince of Darkness'

This weekend I attended a 35th anniversary screening of John Carpenter's The Thing. It was every bit as mad and visionary as I remember, but I also felt I was now far more able to appreciate the impressive degree of humour which carries the suspense of the script. There's the absurdities of Childs and MacReady's punchy, hyper-masculine dialogue, and the occasional drifts into slapstick, but the scene that raised the biggest laugh was the sequence in which Blair, the station's doctor, turns to his computer in search of answers.

Aside from representing a now conspicuously convenient exposition device, one of the biggest sources of amusement here was the idea that it was possible for a computer to plot so accurately the behaviour of this entity in so short a time, and in such a specific fashion based on a scattering of initial data. It's easy to put this down to the technological ignorance of an audience for whom computers were something still largely beyond their grasp. This was after all a time in cinema where a film in which Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into the US's nuclear defence network via a computer game could still make a viable plot. This trope was even lampooned in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004), with Dr Liz Asher's famous line: I'll cross-fertilise the data.

But this scene is perhaps not as absurd as it seems. Advances in epidemiology had been taking place for much of the later part of the 20th century, with computers assisting in the creation of sophisticated modelling software to support large scale research projects. As Luke at the Pencil Neck Record Geek blog points out, this was also the year in which AIDS finally gained national recognition, and the behaviour of viruses suddenly became a matter major popular concern amid a climate of growing paranoia. But while the film actually now seems weirdly prescient in light of the recent story of the 'coming back to life' of the largest virus ever discovered, preserved for 30,000 years in the Siberian Permafrost, this application of computing would have been high on the agenda in the scientific community even then.

This wasn't impossible technology. But even so, such an analysis would only be possible if they had the software with them at the base that had been designed with a similar purpose in mind. This then begs the question of what exactly they were researching at Outpost #31 that they would have access to such a resources (plus flamethrowers)? Given the costs of maintaining and staffing an Antarctic research station, it's likely that multiple projects would be running simultaneously across the base, and this does seem to be the case. The cast lists Blair and Fuchs as biologists, Norris as a geologist and Bennings as a meteorologist, together comprising pretty much all the fields of study you would really cover in an Antarctic research station. MacReady is also identified as a meteorologist in the book but is re-introduced as the company pilot, most likely so as to be more in-keeping with  Kurt Russel's characterisation as the hardbitten, whiskey-fuelled badass we see in the film.

Yet there is another dimension to the presence of this technology in Carpenter's film. One of the first segments of dialogue is between MacReady and and the dedicated chess computer: Chess Wizard. And while her role in the film itself is short lived, her precocious intelligence being written off after beating MacReady (MacReady's 'cheating bitch!' line made all the more pointed given that hers is the only female voice in an otherwise all male film), she marks an important thematic aspect of the film - the idea of Computers against the unknown.

The unknown and the unknowable is a persistent trope in horror. Much of how we conceive of it today is shaped by its role in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction is filled with unnameable terrors, made frightening not by the absence of their description but the impossibility of their description. Eugene Thacker explores it in his book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1, and points to a trend of persistent and conspicuous vagueness in the descriptions used in film titles like Them, and They Live. The Thing, and its amorphous, implacable alien nemesis is no exception from this trend. Yet it is important to note the quality of unknowability is a figment of human subjectivity. Not so, perhaps, for the objective mind of a computer. And the fact that this is even fleetingly identified as a feminine presence, while all around men are turning on one another, is certainly worth bearing in mind when approaching the film from a critical perspective.

The Thing is not the only one of John Carpenter's films of that decade to feature a computer as an interface with the unknown. 1987 saw the release of his less celebrated but equally visionary Prince of Darkness. Like its predecessor, Prince of Darkness also features a research team holed up in a building against an invading entity. But in the later film they are transposed from the icy wastes of Antarctica to the dilapidated cityscape of downtown L.A. where they establish a research post in an abandoned church with a murky occult history. Here the horrors that await them are more overtly supernatural, and the team set to analyse them represent a significantly more diverse bunch consisting of theologians, mathematicians, ancient language scholars and philosophy professors alongside the scientists.

Even more so than in The Thing, computers provide an insight into the unknown. They are able to present hidden meaning in the words of ancient texts, and reveal the presence of impossibly sophisticated differential equations recorded therein, before eventually becoming the mouthpiece of the entity that is the eponymous Prince of Darkness.

But there is a second technological presence in the film, one that is far more speculative. It appears in the recurrent dream sequence, where the team begin experiencing the same vision of the church in the not so distant future, accompanied by the chilling message:

We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine...

The introduction of broadcasting technology as a means of transcending time into an already conceptually dense film was a daring decision on Carpenter's part. But as well as heightening the occult technological undertones present in the drama, it also represents a call back to an earlier film: The Stone Tape. Created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC in 1971 as part of its 'Ghost stories at Christmas' series, it is cited as being among the principle inspirations of Carpenter's later film. 

The Stone Tape was witness to another point of transgression of science into the realms of the paranormal. It sees a team of scientists attempt to turn their knowledge and their impressive array of audio-tech to examine an apparition of a screaming woman materialising in an ancient stone vault. Like Carpenter's L.A. church, this chamber is located in the lower levels of a semi-ruined manor house. But their experiments  soon turn up something more far less prosaic than an mere haunting.

Again, there is a heavily gendered dimension to the interplay of science and the supernatural in Kneale's work. It features Jane Asher as the brilliant, dedicated and much underappreciated protagonist Jill who, as the data analyst for the team, providing a central role in the work of the team. Yet this goes ignored even when her discoveries prove the only insight into what is really going on. She is also notably the only one able to empathise with the humanity of the dead woman beyond a simple piece of data, all the more poignant given her ultimate fate.

The historic association of programming and femininity is a lost chapter in the history computers that has only recently come back into the public consciousness through films like Hidden Figures (2016) and the growing cult following around Ada Lovelace. This trend carries over profoundly into Carpenter's later film. Even though by this point the field of computing and its image in the popular imagination had been almost entirely claimed by men women are continually depicted as the guardians to the computers. Through them, they stare boldly into the unknown, holding council with CPUs like the participants of some elaborate digital seance.

Prince of Darkness has sadly achieved nothing like the kind of critical acclaim of Carpenter's other works like The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. But despite all the schlock dialogue, the cod philosophy and gross-out special effects, I believe it is and remains one of his most important and visionary films of the 1980s.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Thinking in Drones: Encounters at the weird frontier of experimental electronic music

One can hear many things in a drone. Resonances and patterns emerge in a fleeting semiotics of uncertain design. I appealed to the internet for a name to give to this phenomenon and found instead wellspring of strange ideas: forums and journals filled with the dispatches of individuals to whom these signals spoke directly. Many veered towards conspiracies, or the realms of the paranormal by way of explanation. Whatever its manifestation, this form of sonic pareidolia is a function in the programming of our much assuming brains without which there could be no sense in the material world. It is in us all, yet finding a means to accurately describe even one such experience of this phenomenon can be tortuous.

Such was the problem I encountered when trying to form a coherent response to my time spent at the fringes of London’s electronic music scene. When I began to explore the milieu of noise and drone, and their oblique history in music, I found a similar diversity of voices and ideas. Visionaries such as John Cale and Karlheinz Stockhausen saw their creations as representing one aspect of the same cohesive sonic universe that popular and traditional music inhabited, distinguished perhaps only by tempo. Those amongst the more extreme, noise-oriented fringes have drawn a much harder line, seeing their work as a fundamentally different kind of beast, or even a challenge to the concept of music itself. Their dispute echoes the arguments of Surrealism and the Dadaists a century before, striving either to destroy the canon utterly or else subvert its precepts towards stranger ends, but united in a collective drive toward the unknown: new territories and new ideas.

But for the creators of experimental electronic music, what shape do these ideas take, that they now seek to understand? To many, the prism of electronic sound is a glass peered through darkly indeed. To these artists, the realms of drone held a sense of disassociation - of things brutal, alien and unfamiliar. Some have even seen cataclysm; the death of the universe. This has formed the crux of a creative process a creative process that can be at turns expressive, morbid, and coldly abstract. The artist Argumentix, Speaking in the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, explained his composition process, drawing inspiration from apocalyptic ruminations on the near future:

A lot of what I think about and write about artistically is the idea of being fifteen years in the future and looking back at the time that I’m living in right now and observing what was going on and what led to this apocalypse or big world change, because I feel pretty strongly that the world is going to completely change as we know it and to express that emotion and that impending doom, I mean, like, pop music doesn’t work anymore, and so people need something that is directly tackling that issue.

The documentary goes on to feature artists incorporating dream visions, altered states, periods of illness, and the ever greater subversions of technology in the pursuit of a desired sound. As a writer of cosmic horror, I felt like I’d come home. In the few months I’ve spent amongst the devotees of London’s own electronic musical fringes, I’ve often wondered that the two worlds haven’t converged more often or profoundly. For H.P. Lovecraft - the patron saint of weird - his legacy to music has been a curiously underexplored thing. In popular music, it has been celebrated almost exclusively in goth and heavy metal, drawing more of the kitsch, pulp horror elements of his work. But there is evidently room for other sounds in the Lovecraftian canon.

Lovecraft himself spoke of music in the real world very little, almost never of contemporary music, and despised most channels of popular culture in which he might have encountered it. Yet from his frequent allusions to music in his stories, one can imagine where his tastes might have lain. His stories contain a profound sonic dimension composed of a myriad horrors: cracked flutes and whistles herald the blind, ‘idiot god’ Azathoth sprawling on his throne at the centre of the universe. Cries of demon hounds are carried on the night winds while ingenious instruments concealed in the mouths of gargoyles breathe eerie monotonies through the subterranean abodes of grave robbers. Tillinghast’s electronic drone engine draws down monsters from the aether, while the mad virtuoso Erich Zann fiddles into the abyss.

Later writers of the Lovecraftian canon have followed this lead. Simon Whitechapel’s Walpurgisnachtmusick, sees its protagonist begin a psycho-erotomaniac journey towards fleshly apotheosis in an specialist record shop, making the work of the fictional minimalist band MiddlePain his primer for debauchery. Likewise in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard the narrative centers around an experimental noise-rock band: The Ulthar Cats, channeling the unwholesome beyond through their psychedelic performances in an abandoned church in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

On a deeper level, Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism and alienation chimes well with the darker side of the electronic scene. In later years, his depiction of the hostile and unknowable universe - the world without us (to borrow a term from Eugene Thacker) - would inspire such thinkers as Michel Houellebecq, and the anarcho-futurist cum radical Neo-Reactionary philosopher Nick Land. Land and his fellow exponents of the Accelerationist movement, his colleagues at Warwick’s ominous sound Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), were themselves advocates of experimental techno as the collective anthem for their vision of a new world. The circle was so nearly complete.

Likewise, it is not just the tone or aesthetic that makes it such a potent territory for exploring these strange ideas. Perhaps the thing which most distinguishes noise and drone as a subcategory of electronic music is its inexorable connection to the technology used in its creation. Not only do its sounds and rhythms not exist in other forms of music, but the interrelationship between the artist and the complicated nexus of synthetic and recorded sound, loops and oblique mathematics that make up its composition is one wholly unique to the genre. Its composition is as much an act of exploration and discovery as it is an act of creation. For here, music is not the work of human agents, but a collaboration with the alien and implacable will of the machine.

Some artists, such as Daryl Groetsch (performing under the name Pulse Emitter) have taken this notion to its more extreme conclusions. Seeking to remove the human element from music altogether, he described one of his experiments thus:

I want to start taking data from nature and patching it into my synthesiser. I’ve done that a little bit with photo cells. You know? I can stick it out the window and the sun setting will go from a higher voltage to a lower voltage, and that can control the synthesiser. But I want to be able to take, like, a topographical map of Mars, and turn that into a voltage that will control my synthesiser, and then have pieces of music that are entirely based on data.

This dichotomy between human creativity and the appropriation of the syntactical currents of the natural world reflect a tension which has existed in music and art that has existed for centuries. Nietzsche identified the dichotomy as Dionysian and the Apolline, exploring the elaborate interplay of the two creative impulses - to learn the nature of the gods through reason or join them in revels on the celestial plains through transcendent intoxication.

To a reader of the Romantic poets, Groetsch’s experiments in environmental data hold a particular resonance. They recall a passage in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp:

 And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Two hundred years before the advent of our post-digital age, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge first penned the immortal lines of his poem The Aeolian Harp, he was not simply musing on the beauty of nature or the legacy of classical Greece from which the instrument arises. Writing at the time of the enlightenment, he and many of his fellow artists and writers were wrestling with fundamental questions of the soul and the ultimate intelligibility of the world and divinity during a period of such immense and frenetic change that one felt one's basic consciousness ill equipped to cope, suffering a paralysing disconnect between the soul and the material world. One has only to think about the internet, mass data, Twitter, datapocalypse, augmented reality, globalisation and the many other strata that comprise our borderless world and those beyond it, and such concepts become shockingly relatable.

His response, and that of many of his peers (Wordsworth, De Quincey, Verlaine and Rimbaud et al.) was to seek altered states. Opium and its various preparations are considered the most typical of the movement, but there were others, too. Hashish was de rigeur in France following Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt, and even chemical refinements such as amyl nitrate was coming into use in the medical profession. Yet this rush towards intoxication was never intended as an escape from the modern world. Through this exploration of consciousness and the soul, the thinkers of the age were seeking to attune themselves to this new world, and create a philosophy and a language that could fully comprehend its nature - both the material and the divine.

Unlike the denizens of the EVP forums, the drone never spoke to me in isolation. My first taste of experimental electronic music came while I was in university, but at the time it left me cold. It was only when I came to London and had a chance to enter into the scene and encounter it directly that it really began to make some form of weird sense.

While the ultimate pursuit of the Romantics was in the pursuit of an enlightenment ideal - to bring the light of science to the unknowable realms of consciousness. The electronic mythopoetics of the experimental electronic scene strike at something at once more abstracted, more fanciful and more obscure. A night of drone is an experience somewhere between a Dadaist happening and a ritual invocation. Like devotees of the cult of Mithras, we converge in cellars and dark spaces in furtive numbers. The music is an offering, an appeal to the machine god, like a medieval sorcerer forming furtive pacts with the denizens of the unwholesome beyond. This relic of ancient times takes place against a backdrop of harsh science fiction soundscapes, bathed in the scintillating glow of a myriad LEDs. But the drone scene isn’t new, nor does it exist outside of time. Drone is the perpetual present, the screaming edge of now, the primal chaos that has always been with us beneath the sheen of ordered sobriety. Like a creeping decay, it awaits all that lingers to long in the dark, changing only as we develop ever more sophisticated apparatus through which to observe it.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Folk Horror at the British Museum, and the interminable problem of sub-genre

Yesterday, I attended the first ever Folk Horror Revival Conference, held at the British Museum. It was a one day event consisting of talks and film screenings, and boasted an impressive line-up, with such luminaries of Ian Sinclair, Adam Scovell, and Reece Shearsmith, and culminating with guest of honour and weird-folk luminary: Shirley Collins.

The programme was a diverse mix, which gave a comprehensive introduction to the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre and its accompanying art and music, providing some terrific insights into the roots of folk culture and its metamorphosis into film in the late 60s. It also touched on wider subjects which, though not directly linked to folk horror per se, nevertheless had common themes, looking at ideas of psychogeography, occultism, independent film production, gothic horror, and the history of England’s canals.

On the whole, it was a thoroughly illuminating day, and inspired me with a renewed energy towards exploring these themes for myself. Yet towards the end I found myself faintly troubled by the definition of folk horror in operation throughout the proceedings. As the number of films covered mounted, including many I’d known and would not have immediately associated with the sub genre, I began to suspect the passion for categorisation shared by these advocates of the ‘Folk Horror Revival’ had perhaps overtaken the analysis of the genre itself. It seemed that to be classed as ‘folk horror’ a film need only feature some element originating from a folk tradition. Thus, any number of supernatural horror films, from British Hammer films to Twin Peaks or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could suddenly, and retro-actively, fit into this genre.

This led me to question how I would define folk horror, myself. It was beginning to feel similar to how I had experience weird fiction (as I’ve blogged about before), which later acquired a measure of currency and a capitalisation. While it later became very much a sub-genre in its own right, when it was written about by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, they knew it simply as that particular quality of ‘the weird’, arising from a collection of subjects and formal elements. Was ‘folkiness’, similarly, a strain of supernatural in horror and other genres, rather than a genre in and of itself?

The day concluded with a panel discussion between the hosts: Andy Paciorek and Darren Charles, and a number of the guest speakers, followed by a Q&A session. During this, the question of Folk Horror and the contributing factors behind its emergence in the late 60s and early 70s was raised. Perhaps the best answer came from Paciorek, who cited the end of the hippie dream as the moment that really precipitated the movement to come. Over the proceeding decade, he argued, the post war generation had abandoned the modern precepts of their industrial, urban lives, and embraced the idea of nature as a means of enlightenment and self discovery. What they found was disillusionment, addiction, and ideological failure. In the wake of this, nature - which had once seemed this great idyllic thing filled with potential - now seemed cold, alien, remote and hostile. This sudden unease can be found at the very core of films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, where isolation and the nature of the countryside itself form the bedrock of the horrors that take place.

One final questioner pitched a rather unexpected question: why, in a genre tied in so closely with legend and the supernatural, were there so few folk horror films dealing with the middle ages and earlier? Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw (representing two thirds of the ‘unholy trinity’ of the folk horror movement, the third being The Wicker Man) are both set around the 17th century, at the height of the English witch panics. There were, after all, just as many witches and folk-devils in preceding generations. This was left largely unanswered, and I found myself later trying to think of examples, with Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev as perhaps the closest examples, though neither being especially identifiable with how we would class the genre.

For my part, I eventually settled on the fact that the 17th century was the first time when what we could commonly think of as the ‘modern’ really began to emerge. There was still as much poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy as there had been centuries before, but at the same time, thanks to innovations like the printing press, language began to shift towards standardisation, political systems become more formalised, and people began to think in a recognisably modern way. This was even true of ideas we would now consider backward, such as attitudes to witchcraft and the supernatural. Perhaps the best example can be found in king James’s Daemonologie and Newes from Scotland. Though long derided as folly and paranoia, was still making an effort to approach these ideas with the light of renaissance learning. His interest was not ultimately to foster panic and suspicion (even if this was its principle result), but to codify it, so that evidence of truly demonic activity could be distinguished from superstition or charlatanry.

Superstition or charlatanry, it would seem, lie at the heart of folk horror. If we look at the ‘unholy trinity’ (the three films which together are thought to represent the formation of the genre), one thing we see recurrently is a tension between modern, sceptical thinking and folk beliefs. In both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, we see two arch villains exploiting popular superstitions for their own selfish ends. In the case of the former, this is enacted against the unfortunate sceptic in the form of Sgt. Howie. Unlike the other two, the third of the trinity, Blood on Satan’s Claw, does in fact incorporate a literal element of the supernatural into the reality of the film. But here, too, we have the figure of ‘The Judge’, coming to the country folk determined to stamp out the old ways, to his own, terrible undoing.

It would seem that at the core of folk horror, the stress is really on the folk element more than anything else. This is a trend that has continued into the new wave of folk horror, in films like The Witch and A Field in England. The latter is more ambiguous in this respect – although the influence of hallucinatory mushrooms is introduced early, the idea of crossing the border into the realm or the faeries (or wherever it is they really go) seems to be taking place in a more or less literal fashion, but the presence of the ‘shrooms is always present to sow some doubt as to the reality of what is happening.

[The following section contains some spoilers]

The Witch, however, is rooted firmly in the idea of hysteria and isolation as the principle factor in the family’s undoing. Although the supernatural element is visible and explicit throughout, it is made clear that what we are watching is not a depiction of reality, but the perceived reality of people living through in the days of the New England witch panic. The script itself, written in authentic early modern English, is based entirely on real accounts described by contemporaries of the people depicted in the film. The film’s creators also seeds a handful of subtle suggestions that all is not as it seems, such as the sub-plot of Black Phillip the much-harassed goat, and glimpses of blighted corn hinting at a possible ergot poisoning incident.

But the true horror resides not in the purely supernatural terrors the family face in The Witch. Much else aside, what made the film so compelling for me is the intensity of the suffering which the family face: the isolation, the wretched self-inflicted hardships, and their profound inability to cope with the realities of unknown New England demonstrate, in stark detail, the horror of the unforgiving countryside.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Adventures in GIMP

In the last year and a half, a sequence of developments has taken place which have convinced me that, when next the stars are right, I need to buy a half-way decent camera. Upgrading to a new smart phone has shown me the joys of photography but also the limitations of field and focus a phone camera is able to provide. I have also moved to London, where curiosities of art and artifice abound. But most of all, I have discovered the scope of potential photographic modification through Photoshop's clunky yet reliable, open-source cousin: GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).

Churches outside of time
A chance discovery of a 1950s church guide book in my then local branch of Oxfam inspired me to try my hand at digital collage art. My original intention had been to digitally extract the church, and then find a suitably oblique, psychedelic texture image to serve as the background. With a reasonable grounding in MS Paint hacks (the legacy of several summers spent living as a hermit), I set about reducing the image to its most basic monochrome state. However, my experiments with detergent and cooking oil proved less than satisfactory, until I discovered the Curve function, located under the Colours tab, and applied them to the image. This allows the user to not only manipulate the colour palette, but to do so in a methodical fashion corresponding to the existing light and hue data present in the image.

The resulting image eventually became the place of dubious worship I dubbed Ghastwych Abbey, the abode of the cursed Saint Maldora in a later story for Project Praeterlimina (later made into a zine with much more impressive original art by Chris Richford).

Viscous emanations from the un-created realm

Since this issue was completed, I've produced a number of small pieces to accompany different stories for the zine, using the similarly rudimentary digital collage techniques. These have included the transcript of a tale of inter-dimensional travel by a novice magician, set down in a tape recording, and the work of an artist working in the 1980s, which included a speculative coat of arms displaying the four crowns of Emperor Rudolf II: The Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, Hungary-Croatia, and Philosophy, and my own take on the Temptation of St Anthony tradition.

For the fourth issue, I also decided to break away from the more abstract collage style for a more oblique form of digital weirdness. This includes the church at Kernspire, and the vision of Dietrich Belkenhurst, for my story Preservation. For this, I used two pictures from a recent trip to the South Downs with my co-author on Praeterlimina: Sean. For the first, I overlaid a heavily shadowed picture of the Church of St Lawrence in Telscombe with a screen grab of static, in an attempt to create the menacing suggestion of Stone Tape inspired techno-occultism. I then also employed the much mutilated image of some pond scum to achieve the feel of an hallucinatory episode in the Scottish border country, the unsettling vastness of the Downs providing some terrific expanses of sky to work with.

The Pastoral Noir

Around the time I was making preparations for the fourth issue, my partner and I took a trip to the Parasol Unit Foundation, where they were holding an exhibition entitled Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography. Although far beyond the scope of my own limited photographic skills, I was impressed by the use of subtler forms of manipulation to accentuate the uncanny potential for a range of settings and subjects. In time, this inspired my most recent foray into the field.

The original picture (below) was taken on a recent trip to visit family in Leicestershire. Like my trip to Telscombe a few months earlier, this was taken during the onset of dusk. The low evening light, combined with the similarly flat topography, caused the ground to be lighter than the sky, picking out the colours and shapes in vivid detail. The long shadows cast on the ground also lent an ominous quality to the scene, reminiscent of the brooding stillness of a David Inshaw painting.

Once I'd selected my picture, the process was a relatively simple one - I greyscaled the image, then strategically ramped up the brightness on the distant hillside, giving the impression of a depth of field not present in the original image. At the same time, I lowered the brightness of the sky above, giving the cloud formations overhead an impressive weight, forming dreamlike evocations of old Hollywood, appealing no end to my existing love of the pastoral noir. I felt sufficiently pleased with this piece to give it a name, which I borrowed from a tale by M.R. James. I call it, A View from a Hill.

The Many Temptations of St Anthony

This is the first part of a series of videos I'm planning to do where I look into particularly unusual stories throughout medieval and classical history, and explore how later artists and writers have interpreted their themes. This one deals with the life of St Anthony the Great.

Caxton's life of Anthony can be found here

Friday, 25 September 2015

Defining Weird Part III: Weird and the Rise of Science Fiction

For my next article in this series, I had intended to conclude my analysis of DM Mitchell's Starry Wisdom Anthology, looking at the question of literary form in the pursuit of the fundamentally 'Lovecraftian' weird. However, it turned out that in order to discuss this with any degree of conciseness, I would first need to consider a few matters of genre. Distinguishing weird from the canon of horror fiction as a whole is something I'll be glad to comprehensively achieve by the end of this series, but in this article I'm hoping to go some way towards differentiating between weird, and its counterparts in Science-fiction and Fantasy (two labels often used interchangeably).

I'm also planning to put together an entry some time in the next few week to pen an entry on the role of female authors in the canon of weird fiction. This is prompted not only by my ongoing considerations of genre and form, but also by the fact that Autumn 2015 is a momentous time in the history of weird fiction, as it will see published (in quick succession) the first and second ever Lovecraftian anthologies to be written by exclusively female authors – prompting an array of interesting questions concerning weird fiction and gender, and the place of weird fiction in feminist literary theory.

While there are certainly significant crossovers between the world of weird fiction and fantasy, weird and science-fiction have a much closer generic kinship in terms of their philosophical outlook. Weird fiction is, after all, frequently defined as cosmic horror. That is, horror on a cosmic scale, and the smallness of man's place in the universe. Such a setting must necessarily involve some exploration of how this universe works, and very often in weird fiction, this is done on largely secular grounds. As such, much weird fiction, including numerous examples from the Lovecraftian canon, more or less also constitute science fiction.

However, the two genres nonetheless possess a number of categorical differences in content, style, and aesthetic, as well as a very different history.

When defining what constitutes science fiction, I prefer to use Ray Bradbury's definition of the term: That a science fiction story must feature some element of science or technology as the central focus of its narrative, and for which there can be no feasible analogue within any other genre. Any sci-fi that falls outside of this definition is then not so much science fiction as it is fiction wearing the futuristic trappings of science-fiction.

Lovecraft's fiction bears few attributes of futuristic science fiction, presenting an aesthetic and form that often places emphasis folk elements and antiquity. Even so, if one defines Science-fiction along Ray Bradbury's lines, then as narratives, Lovgecraft's works do frequently cross over into science fiction territory. Science is often integral to numerous narrative points in Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft is also quite explicit about these scientific elements of his work – he openly cites Einstein and Rhinemann, and demonstrates at least an in-depth awareness of the (then) cutting edge ideas about trans-dimensional physics when detailing Gilman's trans-locations in Dreams in the Witch House, or Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee The Shadow Out of Time, and optical physics in his description of Yuggothian Mi-Go physiology in The Whisperer in Darkness. Likewise, he ventures contemporary notions of astral-geology in At The Mountains of Mandess. Even the emerging science of genetics gets a reasoned (if improbable treatment) in such stories as Shadow Over Innsmouth or The Dunwich Horror.

Likewise, while later science fiction would come to be associated with a predominantly futurist aesthetic, some of the earliest works identified as science-fiction, nonetheless possess a distinctive, weird flavour. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) immediately comes to mind. Aesthetically, it has a good deal in common with the gothic tale, beginning with a demonstration of a miraculous device by a gentleman alchemist, an image popularised by Dennis Wheatley and MR James. Indeed, much of the emphasis falls not on the actual science of time travel, but the aesthetically marvellous nature of the device. The remainder of the story is taken up with the predominantly biological horrors familiar to Lovecraftian readers – culminating in a scene of terrifying biological degradation and horror, complete with monstrous crabs, and a half-glimpsed, amorphous fleshy entity wallowing in the surf, that fills the narrator with a nameless terror that strikes at the very heart of their being.

It's closest literary counterpart can probably be found in the work of William Hope Hodgson, whom Lovecraft himself cites as an pre-eminent writer of weird fiction. The two main works that come to mind here are The Night Land (1912) and The House on the Borderland (1908). Aside from its remorselessly verbose prose and almost disconcerting absence of characterisation, Hodgson's Night Land is noted for its similarities to Well's story seventeen years earlier. While the means of time travel in this story is dramatically different (in this case a kind of trans-location to the far future through a dream) it nonetheless mirrors the Time Machine in its depiction of the human race at the point of near extinction. All humanity now exists in a single great pyramid structure known as 'the Great Redoubt'. Beyond its protective walls, the earth is now a terrifying wilderness peopled by great ogres and wolves, deadly and drifting incorporeal spirits, and a small number of mysterious barely mobile titan monsters with obliquely sinister names like 'The Thing that Nods'. But as well as these monstrous entities, there are also human terrors in the benighted wilderness. Dubbed 'the Ab-Humans', they mirror Well's fears of genetic degradation, and are perhaps distant cousins of his dread 'Morlocks'.

Hodgson's earlier story, The House on the Borderland is far more explicitly supernatural in its imagery and themes, yet what it shares with The Night Land is a common fear of infinity. Both stories depict vast periods of time, which holds a kind of monstrousness all of its own, a sort of Chrono-Terror, if you will. These themes loom great and terrible over the events of both stories, to which the only things more terrifying are those beings to which time is of no significance. This, again, will be familiar to Wells (and indeed, Lovecraft himself, frequently giving time measurements in the vigintillians) and underlines the terror associated with the sheer minuteness of man's role in this unfriendly cosmos.


To modern reader of the weird, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) can't help but evoke an uncanny familiarity. After all, it features a number of key elements common to any reader of Lovecraft's fiction: A framing narrative between a sea captain and the doctor (with all its implications of unreliable narration, and emotional detachment), grave-robbing, intellectual vanity leading to inevitable hubris, uncontrollable forces of nature, bracing body horror, and exploration into the most remote and inhospitable parts of the globe (in this case, the northern polar region).

There are also deeper thematic comparisons to be made. Dr Frankenstein's monster is abhorrent to his creator not because he is inhuman, but because he is too human, that instinctive disgust we would recognise as the Uncanny Valley principle. In this all too human entity, Dr Frankenstein sees his own humanity corrupted, and flees just as Robert Olmstead balked the sight of the fish-frog denizens of Innsmouth, and Arthur Jermyn at the discovery of his own abhorrent ancestry. Indeed, so too does Wells's time traveller at the sight of man's own distant descendants.

Yet the key difference here is that in spite of their human similarities, Lovecraft's monsters are fundamentally inhuman, as Dr Frankenstein no doubt thought his own creation. Yet as we see throughout the novel, despite his physical attributes, the creation is extremely human, finding kinship with a family he observes in secret, and seeking after a mate of his own nature. Even his crimes are those of a human raging at the injustices of his fellow men, and seeking vengeance on his creator (over whose death he later weeps, before seeking his own destruction).

In the absence of a more exhaustive comparison, it seems reasonable to conclude that the two genres of weird and science-fiction cannot be distinguished by content alone. It is therefore necessary to ask the more fundamental questions of how both genres came to exist.

With regard for why, I would propose that the two genres are distinguished by their authorial intent. Science-fiction can be both optimistic and pessimistic – it can show the potential wonders for discovery and advancement that humanity may achieve (in science as much as in philosophy), but it can also show the potential terrors that lie in store for them. Weird fiction can only ever be negative. That is not to say that it lacks the scientific or philosophical scope of sci-fi (indeed, as a medium for exploring psychology, philosophy and aesthetics, it is almost boundless), yet the ultimate intention is can only ever be to inspire wonder and terror. These emotions are particular to weird, as they represent the point at which human comprehension breaks down, and beyond which inhumanity begins. One need only consult the immortal opening lines to The Call of Cthulhu to get a sense of this:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

When it comes to looking at how they came about, it is easy to see how both as indebted to the wave of Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. But to understand the nature of this relationship, it is necessary to explore what the 'Gothic' really represented, for its history is a convoluted one. For a long time it was a term of abuse. This originates from around the time of the Renaissance, where Gothic was a short hand for Medieval, which the intellectuals of the time dismissed in favour of a revival of a superior Classical milieu. By the era which has come to been known as the Romantic era, artists and philosophers were questioning the wisdom of Renaissance philosophy, considering new departures in thought. This led [indirectly and in an arguably limited sense] to a the adoption of an idealised mediaevalism as the artistic counterpart to this philosophical movement, imbuing the Gothic with a new-found dignity. Therefore, while the Gothic in fiction was still generally used in a pejorative sense, this was now being done in a rather more tongue-in-cheek, almost complimentary fashion with connotations of inventiveness and rebellion, and the potential for more than just horror.

It should also be noted the enlightenment itself saw the unleashing of countless new scientific ideas, with advances in technology and industry. These, too, were challenging countless old ideas of man's place in the universe. Mary herself was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, among whose radical attributes was a confirmed atheism that impacted much on his writing and personal philosophy. Mary herself would witness a demonstration of these advancements not long before composing Frankenstein. This came in the form of an experiment performed before a crowd, that involved applying an electric current to the head of an executed criminal, causing its facial muscles to twitch, and even its eyes to open. It is easy to see how this may have left an understandable impression on the young writer.

Yet while fear of the unknown is the understandable outcome of these rapid ideological shifts, it would be wrong to say Shelley was concerned only with its negative potential. After all, the full title of the 1818 edition is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the god who stole fire from the Olympians, and gave it to aid suffering humanity. This became an allegory for the Enlightenment itself, and Prometheus, though in legend condemned to suffer for his crime, was dignified in art, and celebrated as a hero of the modern age, and was even the subject of Percy Shelley's epic poem Prometheus Unbound. Thus, while Frankenstein suffers for his efforts, he, too is a hero. His tale is thus a cautiously optimistic one, and ultimately constitutes science-fiction more than weird fiction.

In any case, it is important to remember that what the Gothic provided was a medium of transgression, reflecting the dual advances art and science of the age, and providing a potent spawning ground for ideas. Concepts which fell within the scope of Gothic fiction could be used to provoke horror for its own sake, to explore the potential of human comprehension, or to explore the potential of human comprehension in order to provoke horror for its own sake. Thus, it is easy to see how weird fiction is ostensibly Science-fiction's evil twin, separated in their infancy, to which the Gothic was their irresponsible mother.