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.