The Riders of the Purple Sage and the End of History

There is something pulling me into the scenario: when I first traveled heads on toward the continental divide, some years back, the West became by definition my part of the US, and some portion of me stayed out there, waiting and advancing memories at regular intervals.


[taken on the way from Los Alamos down on the way to Espanola]

I regularly dream of these colors, of the weight they had on these days in late December.

The crumbling mesa-geography was, no doubt, the most wholesome and beautiful landscape I had seen to that point.


I’d honestly like to come up with more than these curt one-liners, but somehow the Western scape is beyond me, even now – this central European kid has no adequate vocabulary to translate its geographical awe into extended descriptive sentences.

To borrow a phrase from Captain Willard here –

The light and space of New Mexico really put a zap on my head.


This speechlessness certainly accounts for parts of my attraction to a) literatures of the West and b) the frontier. In fact, the last regular class I took before this dissertation thing really took off (over here, you’re not required to do course work while you’re processing your diss, nor would I really find the time with the teaching load I have stacked high up on my priority list) was a reading course on The American Western Novel, including Cooper’s The Prairie, Robert M. Bird’s The Jibbenainosay (right, I mentioned that at some length in my discussion of Melville’s Confidence Man, some while back), a host of other stories, and: Zane Grey’s The Riders of the Purple Sage (1912); and this particular perennial will be de rigeur on the program for the upcoming I-don’t-know-how-many-blogging-days. The connexion with

– ah! Lovecraft! –

is not exactly obvious, but still very viable, and workable, and related to my working hypothesis, here and dissertation-wise, that Lovecraft’s use of race as an issue can be explained best in connection with his use and re-establishment of the frontier as an apocalyptic place. To better understand the fusion of all three, race-frontier-apocalypse, I’m picking out literay/cultural texts to read his stories through.

I’ll pour another post out on how the Riders of the Purple Sage build the frontier, and then I’ll go and apocalyptize the place, as I find it.


Into the Whale

While I have the second part of my inquiry into the apocalyptic frontier – the program says Lovecraft! Lovecraft! Lovecraft!; and it thinks, Lovecraft! Lovecraft! Lovecraft!, but it slides another name in, of course, and blurs the I am Providence-man into the background, there to load all the depth of information on him that is accumulating in the foreground – while I have this half-thought-and-written-out lying here, I thought I’d have a look and see where theis place’s public agenda seems headed –

I dream, dizzily, that people use search terms like

– weird

– weird ways to raze your neighbors’ noise level

– weird ways to dominate the world with any one of your eight tentacles, single-tentacledly

– How do I raise Lovecraft?

– Necronomicon-beach-set

to find this blog.

And I err. Recurrent terms are rather ones like –

sperm bath [that is Moby Dick, and its sperm whales, lobbing this place into the pornographic]

hogzilla [I blogged only once about a giant sow, I am very sure of it.]

dick chopped off [some pornographic mobster with issues seems to post invisible – to me – posts in this place]

Political Maps of Indonesia [Excuse me? The last I read/reviewed on South East Asia was Marlon Brando’s (not really) Fan-Tan, a novel that hardly qualifies me for political expertise on the region.]

And, the one I like best –

1789 guillotine cartoon

Historical, political, colorful, this is more like a program.

117 and shining

All the best –

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

[first posted by StrangeInterlude, some rights reserved]

August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937

The greatest jerk writer whose birthday party I never had the opportunity to ditch.

I’ll sink you in a cavern

The Worcester Telegram has an article – here – on the stone heritage of Petersham, MA., – a reference to, well, the place’s stone buildings and sites: mainly to what appears to be an archaic system of stone walls.

[first posted by mortmer, some rights reserved]

Then, and I quote here (and the emphases are also mine) –

The oldest stone structure in town is believed to have been created 4,000 years ago. It is a stone-built cavern covered with earth. It is on Glasheen Road and serves as something of a seasonal calendar. On March 21 and September 21 the sun shines directly into its entrance. Mr. Buell said he believes it was built by Nipmuc Indians. He said there is some evidence that Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Quakers, once visited the site, and possibly science fiction and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft did too.

Lovecraft’s obsession with the deep has several times run into my writings over the last few days, and I’m thinking of him right now as, also, a cave explorer, stirring the deep until it (almost) literally vomits some repressed content to the surface.

[x] created 4,000 years ago – that’s something to begin with, but for Lovecraftian purposes, it’s still too small a breadth in time. His cave geography is closely related to a temporal move beyond the human.

Just think of –

At the Mountains of Madness

– with its polar exploration: the explorers are schlepping in their apparatuses to drill, dig, and cave into the Antarctic site.

As a geologist, my object in leading the Miskatonic University Expedition was wholly that of securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the antarctic continent, aided by the remarkable drill devised by Professor Frank H. Pabodie of our engineering department.

The real and exciting drill, however, is the one they are leading into the cavernous depths associated with the Old Ones. First, they unearth a surviving splinter party of the alien superbeings – and these come back into life with a revenge that annihilates the entire scientific crew, except of course the narrator, Dyer, and his assistant, Danforth. Both experience the cave as the place of obsessions – stark, raving obsessions, to be precise.

[first posted by Rita Willaert, some rights reserved]

They’re trying their hardest to enter the civilization that has just launched a full scale, bloody attack on theirs, trying to embrace the aggressor by walking straight into the heart of his sunken capital.

Our motivation after that is something I will leave to psychologists. We knew now that some terrible extension of the camp horrors must have crawled into this nighted burial place of the aeons, hence could not doubt any longer the existence of nameless conditions – present or at least recent just ahead. Yet in the end we did let sheer burning curiosity-or anxiety-or autohypnotism – or vague thoughts of responsibility toward Gedney – or what not – drive us on. Danforth whispered again of the print he thought he had seen at the alley turning in the ruins above; and of the faint musical piping – potentially of tremendous significance in the light of Lake’s dissection report, despite its close resemblance to the cave-mouth echoes of the windy peaks – which he thought he had shortly afterward half heard from unknown depths below. I, in my turn, whispered of how the camp was left – of what had disappeared, and of how the madness of a lone survivor might have conceived the inconceivable – a wild trip across the monstrous mountains and a descent into the unknown, primal masonry – But we could not convince each other, or even ourselves, of anything definite.

Anything definite – that is just the horrific point, their finding something – the notoriously incongrous Shoggoths, the formlessly horrific All-and-Nothing, which, as it goes, is just having a heck of a time with the remnants of the Old Ones’ civilization.

Another cave(rn), (among many: it’s a minor surprise to see a Lovecraft character who is not pulling himself underground with some determination), that has freely allotted itself into my work this past weekend, is…the Stygian, fetid, sprawling nightmare crypt of unspeakable horrors (trying to imitate Lovecraft here, of course) presented in The Rats in the Wall. The narrator buys and restores his family homestead in England – a priory – inevitably rails into its stone bowels, and there finds, quite literally, the horror of history for him to face –

God! those carrion black pits of sawed, picked bones and opened skulls! Those nightmare chasms choked with the pithecanthropoid, Celtic, Roman, and English bones of countless unhallowed centuries! Some of them were full, and none can say how deep they had once been. Others were still bottomless to our searchlights, and peopled by unnamable fancies. What, I thought, of the hapless rats that stumbled into such traps amidst the blackness of their quests in this grisly Tartarus?

– and to grow into the secrets it holds for members of his family, in particular: the bones of what appears to be a considerably numerous part of humankind have been picked and the skulls been opened by an ancient cannibal cult, of course (of course?), that the narrator comes to assume –

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ‘Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?… Magna Mater! Magna Mater!… Atys… Dia ad aghaidh’s ad aodaun… agus bas dunarch ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!… Ungl unl… rrlh … chchch… This is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.

The repressed – here, in the form of a cannibal psychosis – comes to the surface, spouting, ejaculated in a sterile, non-sexual climax into the holding cell of a sanatorium, where the narration finally heads from. More precisely, the repressed is the horror of history, and anytime a Lovecraftian narrator/character goes underground, a darkly ominous chapter of the planet’s history is about to be surfaced.

The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (V)

The title begs for details, it just does: why would the frontier pop up there in the first place?

The novel, The Confidence Man, is supposedly set in the 1850s, and it describes a voyage through territories – the Midwest and the Coastal Plains, or: the area wedged between the Appalachians and the Great Plains, or: Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana – that had well been integrated into the union.

[first posted by EricGjerde, some rights reserved]

To wit, in this context –

The Indian Removal Act had been ratified in 1830, under the auspices of President Andrew Jackson, signing into jurisdiction a forced westward movement –

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi, not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other. (my emphasis)

A sharper edge than mine is applied on the act – here – what the law implied was, of course, the forced removal of member of the Five Civilized Tribes from the South East into the West, here meaning: west of the Mississippi river.
Indian and frontier fighting, in the vein of Colonel John Moredock, was introduced into the White House with the presidency of William Henry Harrison (1840-1841, being the ninth president and the first to die in office, obviously. He was not impeached out of it.). The White House biographical info page introduces his vita thus –

“Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, ” a Democratic newspaper foolishly gibes, “he will sit…by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

– which seems like a very fair deal. Earlier in his life he had been governor of the Indiana Territory, moving in that position into the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, against the Indian forces under the command of Tecumseh, below in a British uniform, documenting the fact that he went into an alliance with the British after his forces had been defeated in 1811. The iconographic conventions baffle me somewhat – most of all the lady on the medallion. If anyone, it should show George III, king of Great Britain & Ireland from 1800-1820, which it clearly does not. Since the painting was done in 1848, decades after Tecumseh’s death (at the hands of said William Henry Harrison, as the uncorroborated story goes) in 1813, I would think the artist gave a damn for historical accuracy and planted Queen Victoria into the painting – though she, whoever she is, doesn’t seem to wear any regal apparel – crown, diadem, or something – or any other thing indicating her status.

Chief Tecumseh

So. At the time of the Fidèle scuttling down the Mississippi river, the frontier had been established as a place of presidential geo-politics – at the same time, Indians were hurried out of the Eastern seaboard colonies, West and in the direction of the frontier – which around 1850 had, of course, long reached the Western seaboard.

The Mexican-American war had brought California into the Union, ceded by Mexico in 1848 – with General William Tecumseh Sherman playing a major role in the events, of course.

The Bear State Flag, as hoisted by the Sonoma, Ca. crew who went to occupy the Mexican garrison in the city.

The Fidèle is an all-comprehensive stage for a self-contained narration. Using what must by needs and apocalyptic logic be the final hours of the world, a judgment day presided over not by a celestial panel, but, well – by the reader, to whom the con man is busy catering, – using these final hours productively entails a reconstruction.

Melville brings back the frontier into the middle of the country, – the sense of it radiates off board the Fidèle, that brave Mississippi steamer acting as a world stage, as a diorama of the world. On rolling down the river, she is creating a steadily updated sense of frontier, en passant, if you will – an inside (the ship= the world) and an outside (historical, secular reality outside the confines of the ship/world stage: such as the extended chapters on Indian hating, which present a geographical frontier themselves, THE frontier as worked into the site by real life explorer-heroes like Daniel Boone and fictional, ambiguous villain-heroes like Nick of the Woods).

This is not so much a geographical frontier, but more a figurative, spiritual one. And that new frontier experience is part of the apocalyptic one-day-one-stage-experience that the con man, aka Satan, aka What-was-his-name, brings to an end when he smothers the light of the candle at the very end of the novel. There is no one left to reach out after that, no narrator lucky enough to be spared just for the sake of the narration, the way Ishmael takes the narration away from the capsizing of the Pequod –

[The Crew of the Pequod; first posted by Dunechaser, some rights reserved]


I realize this is a way, way, way messed up argument that I would liberally cover in red if one of my students handed it in like that – I need to work out that frontier/apocalypse-interpretative-routine more, and my next chapter (and that’s where I’m escaping to now) on the Riders of the Purple Sage will give me the chance to.

That child is hardly a Bastard

Drawing mention to JJ Abrams‘ upcoming film project, trailerishly excerpted above,  damien at asks –

Anyway, here at Blather we’re curious to see what hardcore Lovecraft fans make of all this. Interesting and timely new slant on the Ancient Ones story? Or a cynical bastardisation of Lovecraft’s great opus?

Well, I’m not a fan, let alone hardcore, but a scholar – still, after seeing that trailer, I can’t help noticing that

a) the timbre fits. That’s what great and mighty Cthulhu sounds like: your tectonic movement in the night.

b) the other, whatever it is, surfaces in a tentacular mood (see all this spouting and the shape it takes at around 1:10 min.).

c) I look forward to January 18, 2008.

…and, more:

d) the movie may be cynical, but when it’s presenting us with the destruction of the planet, it cannot possibly be a bastardisation: that is what Lovecraft is all about, in the first place, of course.

The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (IV)

[ first posted by Farol, some rights reserved]

So, here I go to conclude that part of my investigation, the purpose of which is to evaluate how the concepts of race, frontier, and apocalypse go together in Lovecraft’s fiction. More precisely, the issue was race, and I tried to establish, and am still trying to, that it cannot be evaluated without also involving the other two.

That does not at all explain what Melville is doing in there. I should add that I am somewhat obsessed with literary genealogies, at least where Lovecraft is concerned: I’m always ever trying to formulate and re-formulate him pedigrees, outside the usual and well-established circle of suspects – may Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and: Poe, forgive me.

That makes Melville one of my usual suspects…he’s just as bitter in his morals as is Lovecraft, and just as grand in his cosmological ensemble, man vs. universe.

[first posted by Lance McCord, some rights reserved – the sign reads: Melville Candy Shop]

That said, here’s the job. I gave a general introduction to Melville’s The Confidence Man, asked whether or not it was actually staging Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence, then went on to give another introduction, to the actual corpus delicti, the chapters on Indian hating, took an important digression to Lovecraft’s “Indians”, or rather, his re-erection of the frontier, and now am stranded here, knotting up the strings.

Alright. The deal is this.

The Fidèle – a boat and a stage: and one that is not much smaller, if at all, than the Pequod, is going down the Mississippi river, headed for New Orleans. In steps the trickster, the con man, aka the great merchant of souls, boarding the boat in St. Louis.

At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the waterside in the city of St. Louis.


April 1, sometime in the 1850: as the boat is going downriver, the con man sits on deck and falls into a conversation on Indian hating with –

A man neither tall not short, neither stout nor gaunt; but with a body fitted, as by measure, to the service of his mind.

Since he doesn’t have any physical characteristics (neither-nor), does that also mean that he doesn’t think at all? After all, he doesn’t narrate any experience he himself would have made, but rather he refers, as in a quote, to James Hall, and paraphrases Hall’s account of the archetypal Indian slayer and hater, the Colonel John Moredock. Basically, he – the man without qualities – works in encyclopedic knowledge, into the narration, selected by Melville, of course, to give a biased, unbalanced account very unfavorable to the Indian.

It’s all an April Fool’s Joke, you douchebag!

It sure is. That doesn’t mean that the events on stage are not political: that extended part of the joke is placed a little too squarely into the overall layout of the novel to be whisked away, just like that.

To quote from Elizabeth S. Foster’s introduction to the novel, graciously excerpted in the Norton edition (472-475), –

This interpolated account of Indian-hating and Colonel Moredock, which occupies Chapters XXVI and XXVII, is the turning-point of the novel at its symbolical levels and the apex of the whole argument; it has been, furthermore, a stumbling-block to several critics. Therefore it will be pertinent here to examine closely Melville’s treatment of the material that he borrowed from Judge Hall.

Stumbling block, indeed. I flummoxes me out for now. I need to go a little deeper, it seems, into the relation symbolism-politics before I write a conclusion. Ah.