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.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Defining Weird Part II: Returning to Starry Wisdom


Illustration by John Coulthart
The Starry Wisdom is a distinctly odd collection of stories, and one that marks a significant place in my own history as a devotee of Lovecraftian Weird. I first picked up a copy in 2005. I was seventeen at the time, and had recently finished my initial reading of what is generally regarded as the 'core' Lovecraftian canon – the Cthulhu Mythos. I had yet to form a clear picture of what counted as Weird, or what it was that made the canon of his works stand out so monolithically within the wider sphere of horror fiction. Yet whatever expectations I had held when reading D.M Mitchell's anthology in tribute to the author, they could not have differed more from what I eventually encountered.

Ultimately, I found myself disappointed by the collection. Looking back, I think the first thing that attracted me to the works of Lovecraft was, of all things, the Lovecraftian sensibility. Lovecraft veered away from the graphic, the explicitly sexual, or self-consciously dark, in favour of a more analytical sort of horror. At the time, I had been turned off much of the modern horror genre, in both film and literature, not because I found them distasteful, but rather because the fears they tried to frighten their audience with all too human horrors. In the absence of such fears, the stage was left open for infinitely subtler and more profound terrors, from which sex and gore were mere distractions. In The Starry Wisdom, however, I found almost the exact opposite: terrible people, graphic body horror, and heavily explicit sex.

Ten years and two literature degrees later, and with a far greater understanding of Lovecraft in terms of both the content of his stories and his place in the wider spheres of 20th century literature, I decided to make a return to the collection. This was partly because I wanted to use it as a counterpoint against which I would form my own definition of Post-Lovecraftian Weird, and partly because its contents listed an impressive collection of names, including Alan Moore, J.G. Ballard, Ramsey Campbell, and William S. Burroughs. This second reading was a distinctly different experience from the first, and an unexpectedly enjoyable one.

The Starry Wisdom is unwavering in its ambition to present a definitive summary of the Lovecraftian Weird in horror literature of the time (the collection was first published in 1996). In his foreword, Mitchell is also quite frank in his condemnation of 'unmindful critics', and 'talentless imitators' that have approached the genre after Lovecraft's death in 1937. But it is only now, on my second reading, that I finally found myself 'getting' what Mitchell was trying to do, and was unbegrudgingly impressed.

From what I can gather, the best summary I can present is that Mitchell was essentially trying to present Lovecraft from within. By which I mean that it eschews the Lovecraftian sensibility, and the moral perspective of the day (and the many of the stylistic traits that came with it), in order to present a visceral portrait of what Lovecraft's mental landscape may have resembled if he'd had the inclination to reveal it for what it truly was. However close they come to doing so is debatable, but it's certainly a refreshingly bold way to take on the Lovecraftian canon, and gives the authors within free range to apply their own literary stamp in the pursuit of true Lovecraftian Weird.

The edition I have also features a surprising number of unnecessary-hypenations. Given that many of these stories are reprinted, from sometimes decades earlier, these could only have been a retro-active choice on the part of the editor, for which they don't attempt to venture any explanation.

One of the most striking things about the anthology, and something emphasised in the editor's foreword, is the sheer quantity of sex it contains. Lovecraft's stories contain almost no explicitly sexual content, and allusions to sexual activities are rare. But when allusions do occur, they are done with staggeringly chilling effect, that will often occur only in hindsight, such as the sexual bargaining at Innsmouth, or the impregnation of Lavinia Whateley (which is disturbing as much for the daemonic component in that conception, as it is for the human; why else would the thing in the hills possess 'the face of old Wizard Whateley'?). Lovecraft himself was known to have had an uncomfortable relationship with sex, possessing a distinct aversion to 'deviant' activities. Yet for all that, was himself an 'adequately excellent lover', according to his wife Sonia Davis's account.

Sex, in the book, is treated as one of many avenues through which man can descend into the inhuman realms of the cultist or renegade, rendering their souls vulnerable to the diabolical forces that lie beyond the realms of human comprehension. Its counterparts in Lovecraft's own canon comprise the baser instincts of man such as hunger for power (as seen in Innsmouth and Dunwich), or intellectual vanity (of the sort that was the undoing of Howard West or Crawford Tillinghast). Indeed, just as insanity (temporary or permanent) is so often the result of encounters with the eldritch beyond in Lovecraft's work, spontaneous ejaculation is its apparent counterpart. I counted nearly a dozen over the course of the book.

The sexuality in The Starry Wisdom is as nuanced as it is frequent, and the attitude it expresses is far from moralising. The 80s had been and gone when the anthology was first published, and BDSM, though taboo, was far from alien to popular culture. A clear distinction is drawn between unconventional sexuality, and sexual aberrations. None more so in fact than in Robert M. Price's A Thousand Young, which follows the experiences of a young initiate as they complete the rites of entry for a deviant sex cult, starting with a homosexual encounter with a stranger, and culminating in a rape (not a story for the faint-hearted). Curiously, despite being one of the most un-Lovecraftian stories in terms of content, out of the collection it is the one that most closely resembles his work in terms of style. Of Lovecraft's own canon, its closest comparison is The Hound. It begins almost like an essay on the protagonist/narrator's own attitude to sex in context of their ideas of philosophical aesthetics and encounters with the sublime, in the same way as the narrator of The Hound explores grave robbing. Yet, as in The Hound, the story is written in regret-filled hindsight after the hideous culmination of their endeavours is realised, and bitter lessons have been learned.

***

I had intended to conclude this review in one entry, but having hit the 1000 word mark, have resolved to continue it in a further instalment some time later this month. I've resolved instead to finish this entry by summarising a few of my favourite stories from the anthology, giving the other themes appropriate weight in subsequent segments.


Alan Moore: The Courtyard
Alan Moore is the the only author with whom I was really familiar when I first picked up the book. He makes three separate contributions to the anthology. His second, The Courtyard, adheres far more closely to the traditional Lovecraftian format. It is, in essence, a sequel to Lovecraft's Horror at Red Hook, but brought up to date, and exploring the eldritch side of existence through the heady counter-cultural milieu of the New York club scene of the 1980s. Gritty, visceral, and excellently paced, it is an unsettling read, with a thoroughly Lovecraftian twist at its conclusion. The story also exists as a graphic novel of the same name.

Grant Morrison: Lovecraft in Heaven
The second story in the anthology after Moore's Recognition, and second first of three that deal with the life of Lovecraft himself. The story details the existential horror of Lovecraft's final hours, intermixed with strange recollections and unsettling fantasies that defined the life now ending. Laced with lurid imagery, and potent invocations of the very real daemon that would eventually claim Lovecraft – the crab Cancer. This, and Recognition could not have been better chosen to represent the tone of the anthology to come, and to demonstrate the scope of its ambition.

Of note, too, is Hypothetical Materfamilias by Adele Olivia Gladwell, the third quasi-biographic story of the anthology. A strange, claustrophobic prose poem, it describes 'IT': a mysterious, malign entity that whose nature is ultimately the matter of the story itself. In the process, Gladwell explores death, memory, and creation in a thoroughly Weird fashion. I hope to explore this story further in the next part of this blog.

Simon Whitechapel: Walpurgisnachtmusik
N.B. I've ended up spending far too much time describing this last one, perhaps because of all the stories in the anthology, this was the one that most put me off the book when I first read it. Yet I now regard it as a near perfect Lovecraftian story for all the reasons I wrote it off as distinctly un-Lovecraftian when I first read it. I find myself now determined to give it the credit it deserves.

Walpurgisnachtmusik is an unpleasant story, magnificently unpleasant, in fact. Looking back it's easy to see how I might have been put off by such a story. It follows the first person account of arrogant and nihilistic holocaust enthusiast with a penchant for obscure drone rock, and an erotic fascination with genocide (and a vegetarian, no less), culminating in sexual assault. As bracing a read as it is, I was determined to remain analytical. The effect is surprising – impressive, and disquieting for reasons beyond the obvious. Much like A Thousand Young, the story follows a quest on the part of the narrator to find the ultimate fulfilment to their unwholesome erotic tastes. This quest is initiated by a chance meeting with a kindred spirit, an individual of similarly perverse tastes and philosophies who takes the form of antique book dealer (a rather common theme in this anthology). Through a series of furtive suggestions, he inspires the protagonist to follow up a rumour of horrific experiments being carried out by former Nazi doctors in the former Yugoslavia.

The narrator doesn't go to Yugoslavia, as it dawns on them that a part of the events taking place in the east may actually be closer to home (an unlikely surmise based on a radio news broadcast). What follows is a sequence of equally improbable jumps of logic, driven either by queer intuition, or guided by some malign psychic intervention. The whole narrative, from trigger to hideous culmination, is presented in the manner of a lucid dream. The narrator is guided by a combination of drunkenness, lust, and whimsy, at one point literally using their erect penis like a dowsing rod in their pursuit of their objective, completely abandoned to their unholesome cravings. It is easy to imagine this same mindset is that of the countless degenerate cultists so often encountered by Lovecraft's protagonists, and even easier to imagine why said protagonists should cling ever more tenaciously to the refined, academic sensibilities that distinguish them from such creatures.

David Conway: Black Static
Arguably the most science fiction oriented of the stories to feature in this book, this story deals with themes of virtual reality, alien intelligences, and the real and very physical implications of mental and spiritual transcendence. It details the account of a rescue team sent to an island to investigate the disappearance of a team of scientists working on a mysterious project at the Copernicus radio telescope station. Expecting to find a community decimated by a viral infection that had forced them into a state of self-imposed quarantine, they instead find the scientists demise to have been apparently voluntary, their bodies found as withered husks, having died and been left to decay whilst their minds tuned into virtual reality systems. The investigations into the nature of their perverse researches form the remainder of the narrative.

An engaging, exciting read, it emulates Lovecraft's own preoccupation with the real scientific advances taking place in his own time. Inclusion of these elements often did more than simply colour the prose, having a significant impact on the narrative, as is seen in stories like Dreams in the Witch House, and At the Mountains of Madness. This story has echoes of From Beyond, as well as mysteries that date back to the very ancient times of earth and beyond in a manner reminiscent of The Shadow Out of Time.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Defining Weird Part I: The Need to Define


I recently took the unlikely move of making a search through the archives of The Guardian for articles on H.P. Lovecraft and the history of Weird Fiction. While not a publication that is especially hostile to the more outré forms of literature, nonetheless the divide between what they would term 'literary fiction, and 'genre fiction' is quietly but consistently upheld. Nonetheless, this can often provide an interesting source for outsider perspectives when undertaking research. One of the articles I turned up was a list of the ten best examples of Weird Fiction, compiled by China Miéville. While I admire Miéville as an author, and even more so as a critic, I found his definition of Weird fiction rather troubling:

"I don't think you can distinguish science fiction, fantasy and horror with any rigour, as the writers around the magazine Weird Tales early in the last century (Lovecraft in particular) illustrated most sharply. So I use the term 'weird fiction' for all fantastic literature - fantasy, SF, horror and all the stuff that won't fit neatly into slots."

I certainly wouldn't dispute the integral relationship that sci-fi, fantasy and horror share. As someone who would define themselves as, first and foremost, a writer of Weird fiction, however, I find it altogether too vague to say Weird fiction is basically anything that falls within the scope of these three genres. Yet despite spending a great deal of time thinking about, talking about, and occasionally writing Weird fiction, I nonetheless found myself hard-pressed to present a comprehensive definition of my own. It is this which has prompted me to set a few of my thoughts on the Weird down in writing.

In defining a term, the best place to start is with the history of the term itself (as tedious as that can sometimes be). Lovecraft's own relationship to the term is a peculiar one. He did not coin the term (openly ascribing its origins to the Irish gothic writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu), yet the term is now synonymous with his work in a way that it never was during his lifetime. Indeed, at the time of his writing, he could easily have been taken for a comparatively minor figure – a truth exemplified by the fact that he never made the cover story of Weird Tales (the magazine that defied the genre), and only once was one of his stories ever listed on its cover. That story was The Call of Cthulhu, and it was only after much argument that he managed to persuade them to publish the story at all. It is for this reason that I distrust any modern definition of Weird that sets Weird Tales as its benchmark.

Following his death, Lovecraft would not only define the term for subsequent Weird authors, but through his own writing on the subject, would also retro-actively establish the canon of Weird Fiction amongst his predecessors: Arthur Machen, Edgar Allen Poe, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, to name just a few.

The main problem I have found in trying to define Loveraft's work, and Weird fiction as a whole, is one that is fundamental to modern literary criticism: that a written text is never an immutable concept, that a book is never the same book between two readers, and that the death of the author is only really the beginning. Thus, what would have served as a comprehensive definition to describe Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and what they did during his lifetime, it fails to adequately describe what it would eventually become. By this, I don't mean simply the cult following his works were achieve, and the trend in Lovecraftian fiction that would follow in his wake. I refer instead to where the works of those first-generation Weird authors stand in relation to other trends in so called 'genre fiction'.

When I was first introduced to Lovecraft, I was reliably informed that Lovecraft was distinguished from his contemporaries in that he was the first to create his own terrors (the infamous Cthulhu Mythos), rather than rely on existing gothic horror tropes such as witches, vampires, and ghosts. While incorrect in regard to Lovecraft's work alone (Lovecraft would have argued this himself), this is nonetheless a fair assessment of the Weird Fiction movement as a whole, and amongst ovecraft's contemporaries, may perhaps have served as a comprehensive definition of the term. But in terms of what weird fiction would become, this definition seems to break down, begging the question: how much can Weird fiction be defined by its subject matter?

When Lovecraft was writing, science-fiction and fantasy were in their infancy, and horror had yet to expand into the multi-faceted entity it is today. During this time, weird fiction comprised elements of what all three would eventually become. Yet even when they became firmly established as genres, Weird fiction remained something distinct, in both style and content. Therefore, what defines Weird (for me at least) cannot be defined by subject matter alone. I would argue instrad, that the traits which define it from other genres have as much to do with style, form and philosophical outlook, as they do with the subject. What these comprise, however, are somewhat harder to define. Yet it is these, I believe, that must be taken into account when it comes to defining the canon of Post-Lovecraftian Weird, and which I hope to explore in subsequent parts of this series.