664, 665, hew, where did No. 666 go? – Ah well – 667, 668…

As long as I’ve worked on the apocalyptic in fiction, I’ve always considered it not so much as a set of plot items chronicling various stages of destruction and salvation, but rather a distinct way of giving structure to the plot’s timeline, a part of the story, but not necessarily of the plot. It’s a distinct interpretation of the timeline, uniting stories as widely different as, say, Melville’s The Confidence Man, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, and Lovecraft’s stories, of course. He seldom goes ahead to unroll his apocalypse to a full extent, the destruction of the planet and all included, although every now and then total destruction is a possibility – in The Doom that came to Sarnath, for example, or in small gemstones in prose like Nyarlathotep, where the speaker seems to be the last survivor after Nyarlathotep (a veritable AntiChrist figure anticipating the configurations that modern evangelist preachers on the last things give their main antagonist) gave the planet a not so very favorable makeover into chaos.

More often than not, however, Lovecraft’s apocalypse doesn’t entail destruction – but it always features decay to indicate that something is dangerously wrong with the timeline. Decay’s everywhere, percolated into society and carried away with its dynamics – and Dunwich, see the previous post, is so deeply invested in it that salvation is so far off that it cannot even be satirized. It’s not just the Whateleys that don’t quite conform with any conventional timeline – young Wilbur’s growth into preternatural adulthood takes only about 12 years (and at that age, he’s able to dig into the library archives of Harvard to unearth a complete copy of the Necronomicon).

The rest of the place joins the spiral. The most recent update to the town’s (infra-) structure seems to be a building from 1806. Most of the buildings are far older, musty colonial shacks that, for some reason, refuse to crumble as they should. The residents, that much is sure, don’t get very much done (and refurbishing that place would be a task for a legion of heavily tooled DIY kings), except the elementary basics required to keep the place going at least at some pace and integrated into New England economy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, the only mercantile enterprise of the place is hosted in what was once the town church.

There seems to be an unlimited supply of cattle around to sell and feed to the only resident of the heavy petting zoo that the Whateley clan-of-three installs in their mansion, the even more freakish brother of already freakish Wilbur that will one day not too far off help to usher a selected draft of Old Ones into the New England site, once the time is right.

Lovecraft was not the first to paint decay into the New England site like a busted pest sore, of course – but, Jeez, how far more radical in his will to decay he is than, say, Hawthorne, who situates the locus of decay into the individuum, from where it eventually transpires into the surroundings. The Dunwich Horror bears obvious debts, or: parallels, deliberate or not, to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – the more often I re-read the story, the more poignantly it seems to me like a festering, morbid version of the Hawthorne novel.

It’s all there – the secluded township, the uncomely offspring with uncanny abilities (Wilbur and his brother are naturally not nearly as endearing as little Pearl), the desire to circumscribe the other as closely as possible (a scarlet letter and a remote abode here, another remote abode there – and in both cases, the inhabitants are under constant scrutiny for every step they make) – with the only difference that Hester Prynne faces a community that may be corrupt and mendacious, but still operating on a scale of functional social contexts: there’s a communal tribunal that hands the scarlet letter to her, there’s a community that listens when Dimmsdale enters the scaffold to confess their unruly liaison, there’s a community to answer to and be answered by.

Not so in Lovecraft’s story – it’s not just simple inertia that keeps the townsfolk relatively still during the Whateleys’ exchanges with the Old Ones and their spawn – rather, it is the lack of social quantifiers to regulate responses to these forces. Dunwich, after all, is a god-less outcast village…of individuals. If these endure the decay they’re living in, they also endure the apocalypse at its tail end, and it is an absolutely private and subjective apocalypse.

Armitage, having read the hideous diary, knew painfully well what kind of a manifestation to expect; but he did not add to the fright of the Dunwich people by giving any hints or clues.

Armitage, the scientist-protagonist tasked with reading Wilbur’s unwholesome diaries detailing on the invocation rites necessary to call up the visitors from beyond, little later leads on a small troop of villagers in a concerted last effort to hunt down and destroy the thing [that] is a thing of wizardry. The Dunwich stormtroopers of death are not a little challenged with their new situation (emphasis mine) –

Then the germ of panic seemed to spread among the seekers. It was one thing to chase the nameless entity, but quite another to find it. Spells might be all right – but suppose they weren’t? Voices began questioning Armitage about what he knew of the thing, and no reply seemed quite to satisfy. Everyone seemed to feel himself in close proximity to phases of Nature and of being utterly forbidden and wholly outside the sane experience of mankind.

The only feasible way of solving the dilemma is to send those who are wholly outside the sane experience of mankind by definition, anyway, the scientists –

In the end the three men from Arkham – old, white-bearded Dr Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr Morgan, ascended the mountain alone.

The situation is absurd, in a slapstick-ish way – I mean, this bunch of stocky villagers is standing and waiting (and doing nothing in any way useful to find and fight what has escaped from the Whateley domain), and rather than getting out the guns (it’s 1928, they’re comfortable using telephones, as the story tells us, and sure it must be possible to procure some artillery to shell the monster back into his abyss), they’re sending a group of three scientists, two of them quite aged and the third a rookie, to ramble up the hill to do their job – how godawfully sluggish can you be?

[to be continued]

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Now that you’ve gathered your flock: why don’t you count them?

Decay it is.

I made the point in my last post that decay in Lovecraft is, via Lovecraft scholarship, a purely physical thing, and I couldn’t possibly argue that it is not. There are obvious points to be made on breaking physiognomies whenever human characters approach too closely the forces from without. This term comprises more ordinary occult forces – that is, you want to miscegenate a little, you don’t go deeply into copulations with whatever alien overlord may be near – it’s not that these old ones are datable just like that. In fact, you’ll have to use the right tools to summon him or her (hail Shub-Niggurath, and hail her 1.000 children, collectively, if you will, not individually). This is a selective and precise process, manageable to some extent: you have make an effort to go weird. The Whateley clan, via The Dunwich Horror, makes an example –

Lavinia Whateley had no known husband, but according to the custom of the region made no attempt to disavow the child; concerning the other side of whose ancestry the country folk might – and did – speculate as widely as they chose.

They speculate widely but they, the townsfolk, don’t actually intervene, most likely because they know that Lavinia is not humping around with just someone – and naturally she doesn’t make an effort to rid herself of the child by placing it in an orphanage or something like it. After all, young Whateley has a destiny to grow up on, a place well-defined in the world by his ancestry. In folk-tales of old you could see the devil inundating more or less susceptible females, in Lovecraft the inundators (?) are wearing tentacles in lieu of horns, but they are just as welcome or unwelcome. Up to that point Lovecraft’s miscenegation ride into decay is quite resemblant of folk tale superstition.

Lavinia, prior to her giving birth to, oh well, Wilbur, is not acting as any unsuspecting maiden in that context would – that is, unsuspecting and naive: there is no assumption of innocence for anyone, as decay is inevitably hereditary in Lovecraft’s stories, a fact variously noted before. Naturally, the following paragraph encodes parts of Lovecraft’s (in bold print) biography, though I don’t see that has any influence on the story or readings of it.

Lavinia was one who would be apt to mutter such things, for she was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys, and which were fast falling to pieces with age and wormholes. She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her.

While decay is hereditary, it is also selective – it is obviously possible to be a Whateley without cultivating peculiar mannerisms –

Some of the Whateleys and Bishops still send their eldest sons to Harvard and Miskatonic, though those sons seldom return to the mouldering gambrel roofs under which they and their ancestors were born.

It is just as well they don’t return into a self-forsaken, god-forsaken, and rotting township. Lovecraft sometimes, though not always, goes ahead to doom whole communities to quaint morbidity, and Dunwich is a sorry and pathetic example (Innsmouth is the obvious other great example).

For a decade the annals of the Whateleys sink indistinguishably into the general life of a morbid community used to their queer ways and hardened to their May Eve and All-Hallows orgies.

They may establish a chorus to the Old Ones, or at least tolerate it when a family in their community plays hard to win the favors of alien beings (alien to New England, anyway, and probably to the rest of the world) – but they won’t just stand and watch the Whateley clan sacrificing all their cattle at an ever increasing rate. No, indeed!

There was talk of a complaint to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but nothing ever came of it, since Dunwich folk are never anxious to call the outside world’s attention to themselves.

That must be one of the cutest passages in the whole of Lovecraft – imagine that seedy backwater community half-aware of the presence of the alien other and half-willing toward it – but when their cattle are at danger, noone will stand between them and justice… but themselves.

[to be continued]

Wordherders, gather your flock

Speaking of Reich-Ranicki, I happened to see him on a talkshow. The motto for the evening was “Deutsch for Sale – Verraten wir unsere Sprache?” (“German for sale – do we give away [=betray] our language?”), and that was to put heaps of tragedy (the way that only Germans can turn even the pettiest thing into something that the UN General Assembly had better look into real, real quick) on a pretty trivial and boring evening. The thesis: there are too many English words in the German language, and even though that may be legitimate to some extent, because words like cool don’t have exact equivalents in German, it requires a serious effort to preserve the language as undefiled as possible. Reich-Ranicki made the case (coyly claiming that he was using a dictionary whenever writing, so as too avoid foreign words) and had unlikely back-ups in conservative secretary-general Markus Söder and poppsy-emo singer Reinhard Mey. The counterpart was manned and womaned with Christian Ströbele and entertainer Gayle Tufts – in short, the plenum belonged to a bunch of media regulars invited more for their connotations in the media than their positions on the topic.

The group had its constellation just right – pseudo-democratic, and therein reminiscent of the “Rechtschreibkommission” – the “Orthography Comittee”, that had been the governing body of that terribly botched spelling reform until its timely dissolution in 2004. Of course, the people re-claimed power over their language, and countless tomes have been composed, or will be composed, I’m sure (if not here, in some alternative dimension that is deeply into atrophied Sisyphean tasks), on the valiant struggle. I remember myself acting out my disapproval by massive waves of civil disobedience: I didn’t use it, IT, the new spelling in one of its myriad versions that the chaos reform produced. I even considered finally making that move to a forest cabin, if for nothing else, in compensation of the fact that I found (and still find) Thoreau heartrenderingly boring. Nothing happened. I finally succumbed…and here I am…writing in English, anyway.

The argument discussed by the five was laughably old, over-discussed – but as I saw Reich-Ranicki lecturing on the ideal of decent German – and who else could do that, if not him – I saw him morphed into, quite prosaically, Lovecraft. The comparison doesn’t stick easily – both men are so far apart in thought and writing, but they share one over-arching impulse: they are wordherders, nurturing the vestiges of languages that people will no longer go into, by simply writing them out into the open in an act against oblivion – Lovecraft’s “purple prose” is really not so purple, but rather grey with dust because it fishes for the unlikeliest words in the remotest corners.

Lovecraft and Reich-Ranicki were/are the Ents of their respective literary establishments. Ents, of course, belong to the stock of JRR Tolkien’s menagerie of creatures – they are the treeherders of old looking after the forests of Middle-Earth, phenomenally old, and so slow and well-reflected in each single one of their moves like a tightly packed computer hard disk on the verge of a sudden death – that’s just what they are.

Living, wandering memories of a world they are no longer part of, until they are re-summoned into the historical narrative to do their last and worst. They are extremely conservative figures, in a very literal sense: virtually immortal, sentient, highly intelligent, and blessed with archival memories that make it impossible for them to just say and name a thing in one concise phrase; rather, they describe things as they really are, as they came to be, and in what relation they are to all other things around: a perfect genealogy for every single logical relation available: that Lovecraft shtick taken to its utmost consequence. And they go down with a bang – in one last, goresome battle against the evil forces of modernity and industrialization (aka, orks). Their motives are never so very clear or outspoken – there’s a vague sense of allegiance with the human residents of Middle-Earth and a distinct aversion against these tree-slaughtering orks (the humans cut wood, too, of course). These most highly refined conservatives, preserving all and everything down to the last letter, can’t just stand back, let things rest, and fade into the past. Driven by a lofty sense of moral, their departure from the stage needs tragedy, grandeur – in short: a battle.

Tragedy – the desire for it is so close to the heart of Lovecraft’s narrators, conservatives to such an itching degree in all their academic self-assurance. Their world is tumbling, that is for everyone to see – Lovecraft’s use of decay (in countrysites as much as in physiognomies) has been variously noted as one of his most obvious topics. It has never been described in a context of apocalyptic interpretation, though – the notion of the end, so pervasively argued in all of his stories, has simply not adequately been acknowledged, and periodic pointers to “decay” in the sense of a Gothic motive won’t help here.

Decay, as read by Lovecraft scholars, cannot bear layers of meaning that surpass the physical (or sexual: won’t somebody enlighten me on, really!, the phallic nature of Cthulhu’s unwholesome tentacles?), because it is operating against the one master trope of Lovecraft interpretation: cosmicism. The planet is meaningless, its inhabitants are meaningless, and if they are haunted by super aliens, which to engage directly implicates physical decay (or outright death), this just proves their miserable meaningless – so goes the chorus that has been refined over the decades into the default argument for so many interpretations of Lovecraft’s works. I’m not disqualifying cosmicism – his prose benefits from the ontological status that the vast, menacing outside grants to his characters, no doubt. Still, it’s not the panacea it’s been made out to be. [to be continued]

10 Songs for your final seconds, or: can I take my iPod to hell?

WTMD features a list of “10 Songs for the Apocalypse” (via The Constructivist)…while it’s not altogether useless, it still reads like a mainstream radio jockey’s work template.

It needs more boom, I’d say. Here goes:

1) Kataklysm: 10 Seconds from the end

  • You can’t say that they aren’t warning you – cataclysm – and you sure know what hit you after any one of their songs. The bass drum in that song must be the fastest ever played by a non-mechanic entity – not to say that it sounds like coming from the drum computers that Dan Swanö is using on some of his records. Kataklysm’s pooled on apocalyptic resources before, of course – their 1998 album “Victims of this fallen World” took up that sober political narrative voice so characteristic of some Carcass and many Napalm Death records, all stripped of the usual Death Metal-mannerism, and employed it to some effect in songs like As my world burns and Imminent Downfall.

2) Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun

  • The video, aired fairly regular even now, goes not for an entropically cold world end, but rather for a heat death, and consequently you see people going…strange in the video, as they would on your regular summer day down South, just a little more intense…and death-like.

3) Misfits – Don’t open till Doomsday

  • Personally, I’ve never had an issue with the new Misfits – growing up with the old Misfits and postMother Danzig peacefully side by side, I hailed the return of Jerry Only & Band, when they re-debuted with American Psycho (from which the song is taken) back in 1997. Sure, they’re more commercial, more groomed to attract younger audiences…but I can’t see this is a bad thing. It meant/means young people listening to pretty cool music, in an age when music in general is no longer as susceptible to subvertive tendencies as it was in the ’70s and ’80s. The lyrics of Don’t open till Doomsday, then, read like a Lovecraft pastiche, cueing in “immortal secrets” that man shouldn’t know (but still digs up – the opening of the black box IS doomsday, of course, and it’s already there as the band is singing its death waltz), and there’s also a reference to a malevolent “transmitter”, ready to summon the outside forces once it’s activated, via HG Well’s War of the Worlds.

4) Nick Cave – City of Refuge

  • In the days of madness, my brothers, my sisters, when you’re dragged toward the hell mouth – you will beg for the end, but there ain’t gonna be one, friend, for the grave will spew you out… ” – the end (of all) is one of his more regular themes, usually, but not always, explored in a Christian context.

5) Farin Urlaub – Apokalypse wann anders

  • The man is ordinarily responsible for vocals and lead guitar on German band Die Ärzte. On his 2005 solo album, see above, he includes this song – which, irrespective of its quality, uses “apocalypse” as a mere synonym for “catastrophe”.

6) My dying Bride – The Cry of Mankind

  • The British band’s 1996 record The Angel and the Dark River opens with a 13 minute aria compressing all the ennui and world weariness they have come to be spokespersons for. Sitting on a blasted, ice-covered heath and waiting for the end, you should switch on your mp3-player for this song. Its slow, painful resonance – no longer hoping for an answer, no longer waiting for one, has always reminded me of WH Hodgson’s The Night Land and its cloyingly morbid sense of isolation and outsideness.

7) Dead Can Cance – Anywhere out of this World

  • Speaking of Hodgson’s Night Land, this song (the opener on Within the Realm of a Dying Sun) tries to come down on a very similar atmospheric note – bright, light, yellowish (sound) structures covering a morbid and deadly weary undergrowth. By coincidence, that record also always reminds me of the first installment of Unreal, the game, where the soundtrack bore obvious references to Dead can Dance.

8] Elizabeth Anka VajagicIceland

  • Her 2004 debut album, properly, was called Stand with the Stillness of the Day. I don’t know any other singer so absolutely not moving anywhere anymore. This is inertia refined to such an extent that it even sells her (alas – too few!) songs – kudos to the woman who can make me listen to a 7.5 minutes rant on how she would like to ambulate through Iceland. Reviews of My dying Bride albums usually come with the warning that the songs are not for the suicidal – this warning is a lot more appropriate here.

9) Ani DiFranco – Self-Evident

  • Her take on the apocalypse (not “catastrophe”) of 9/11. It moved me deeply when I first heard it. “America is not a real democracy”, from the song, is not quite the stupid catchphrase it sounds like even when she is making it. Political systems regulate and administrate time, and what is more important to the apocalyptic plot than time? Nothing indeed! Henry Adams used his fin de siècle apocalyptist’s stand to reflect on the rise and demise of the democratic state, and so, of course, did his brother Brooks Adams in The Law of Civilization and Decay.

10) Elvis Costello – Waiting for the end of the World

  • Right he is. Ain’t we all?

Pledge my allegiance off

At The Literary Salon they make a case for that most obvious and still disputed of points of advice for the literary critic, academic or otherwise – namely, that any consideration for the author should not be a concern to the critic, whose allegiance is, by definition, with the reader alone. I feel myself reminded of German super-critic Marcel Reich Ranicki who set the tone for much of subsequent German literary criticism (he’s still alive, and well, and writing, though), either by provoking endorsements or bitter refusals of his – how do you call it? – critical bravura (too positive), anger (too negative), energy (not precise enough), fighting stand (too war-like), criticism (yeah, that sounds like it)…and obviously it’s pretty easy to become a poster guy for the far right wingnut community just by opening your mouth against Reich-Ranicki. The Australian Adelaide Insitute, basically a far out platform for the Holocaust-denying scum of the earth, as far as it is gathered down under, makes an example when, on its website, it hails Martin Walser, one of Reich-Ranicki’s longterm sparring partners, for “fearlessly confronting”

“[….] Jewish Germans such as self-hating Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the most prominent German hater and self-serving literary critic.”

Walser sparked quite a lot of furor years ago when he complained about the role of the Holocaust in German post-war identity, claiming it was instrumentalized to move Germans into a cliché – which is, of course, a point wingnuts love to make, both here in Germany and abroad. Walser made it clear in addition, at the time and later on, that no human could possibly deny the holocaust had happened, hence his endorsement by the Adelaide Institute seems a little obscure – proof that fanatics, both political and religious, invent their own linguistic logic as they go along in a cloying and, well, “self-serving” way.

The quote above is rolling a bunch of stupid points into one phenomenally stupid tirade. Reich-Ranicki is certainly not a German hater, and the presence he’s built for himself in German/European literary discourse casts the “self-hating” epithet into a moronic twilight. But is he also self-serving? He has always stood in for the authors that were important to him, certainly in his time as head of the literary department of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The move is not a slight bit self-serving, of course – if you want exclusive in-depth reports on the hottest authors that your readers will dig, you need to groom them – thus, servicing the reader may also include servicing the author.

How about academic critics? We are operating under publishing pressures as much as journalists do, only that with us peer pressure is even more of a factor when it influences your selection of authors. Sure, a few authors make the perennialist short list and enter the hall of eternal fame – those few authors that create canons rather than “just” single layers of one. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, Beckett, Faulkner, James, and their illustrious likes – they obviously don’t need critics to advertise their works. The rest, the overwhelming rest does – Lovecraft does…need: ruthless, stringently informed criticism on sound theory, rather than the labors of love of countless dedicated followers that situate their criticism at the closest possible tangent to the biographical entity Howard Phillips Lovecraft of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the way it was standard procedure for 2 or 3 generations of Lovecraft scholars. Theory, Theory, Theory, and then some more theory, and substance: there’s a lot to catch up on, like 70 years of theoretical progress that Lovecraft scholarship has by and large flaunted sucessfully. This is the future of Lovecraft scholarship: theoretically informed, scholarly criticism, workable also in academic terms.

Those who have been in the Grave the longest

Howard Phillips Lovecraft [August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937]

I’ll take my obit for the day from Emily Dickinson, poem No. 691 –

Would you like summer? Taste of ours.
Spices? Buy here!
Ill! We have berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of down!
Perplexed! Estates of violet trouble ne’er looked on!
Captive! We bring reprieve of roses!
Fainting! Flasks of air!
Even for Death, a fairy medicine.
But, which is it, sir?

Which, indeed, could it be? I’m trying to think of myself as some kind of Joseph Curwen, concocting a “fairy medicine” that will prevent Lovecraft from dying…alas, I’m not so sure my landlady would even remotely approve of my setting up a secret lab, where files of

Curious porters and teamers

would trickle in to deliver their goods to restack the lines of

“fantastic flasks, crucibles, alembics, and furnaces”.

Well, I guess I could scare the bejesus out of the little sonic hellraisers next door (aka, my neighbors’ kids) with all the stench, the foul light, and the tortured noises that I see implied by a secret lab, alas: this won’t go down. Guess, I’ll have to stay glued to my desk to do it the old-fashioned scholarly way.

Meanwhile, I’m also doing some prep work for my upcoming seminar – I’ll teach a class on the American Apocalyptic, & am looking forward to it. Lovecraft will figure in it, too, in a supporting role that will help me get the discussion into science fiction, as far it is happening in genre terms; – that should make me the first person to teach him at my alma mater, ever. I find it a little tricky to teach the historical tail – all the way from Columbus’s apocalyptic call – without overemphasizing that apocalyptic call as a foundation to American culture, the way it’s been done well into even more recent discussions of the topic. I wouldn’t want to paint the Puritans as driven harbingers of the eschaton, even though they did make it (in its apocalyptic version) into a constant concern in their writings…

 

Unholy Mutations

Speaking of unholy mutations, here is the new Melvins video, the first one in over 10 years, a work of such grandeur that you’ll inevitably hoot for a timeout to stand back and wonder: Jeez! What humans can do! What the Melvins can do! I’m awed. Be awed…