A very enjoyable Graan gig in Herne Hill on Friday the 27th, as we used a London A to Z and the power of metal to summon Herne, so that he could grant the assembled audience the Freedom of his City. The heavy ritual went off very well indeed; many thanks in particular to Heather Lindsley (aka @random_jane), who filmed the whole thing for us, providing visual proof of the Hernetic manifestation. Oh, and she took some pics too – available here. Enjoy!
A quick post, as there’s much news at Allumination Towers this week. First of all, even as we speak the new Black Static is hitting the streets, with my story ‘De Profundis’ in it, plus much other groovy stuff. You can order it from the TTA Press website, and it should also be available in Borders any day now.
Secondly, the recent discovery of a new, super heavy element is actually a cosmic sign that, once again, there’s a Graan gig coming up. We’re playing the Drones Club on Friday, June 19th, at the Others – 6-8 Manor Road, London N16 5SA.
As ever I shall be on vocals, performing over ambient metal mayhem with (after this week’s rehearsal) possibly a bit of Fall fuelled Renaissance blues heaviosity too. I think we’re on at about 9.00pm – alas, won’t be too big a post-gig night for me as I’ve got to be up at 6.30am the next day to help row Henry VIII from the Tower of London to Hampton Court Palace.
And finally, interesting conversations happening this morning about a possible multimedia event in August. No final detail as yet, but it looks like it could be very cool indeed. Watch this space… (and, as ever, KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!)
<EDIT> Black Static 11 is now in Borders Islington, which I assume means that it will also be in Borders across London and elsewhere, shelved with Interzone.
Well, continuing my tradition of only announcing gigs on here at the last minute, a quick one to let you know that I’m performing spoken word with Graan at the Klinker this Friday 15th. The night begins at 8.30pm, at Tottenham Chances, 399 High Road, London N17 6QN – nearest tubes Tottenham Hale / 7 Sisters. Listen to a couple of test runs for the night here (I’m on the A tracks, Stellas vocalist Tim is on the T track) – otherwise, see you there. You’ll know me, because I’ll probably be looking like this (ta Zali for pic):
It’s a little known fact that ‘Dark Magus’, Miles Davis’ 1977 live album recording a 1974 concert in New York, made it into Q Magazine’s 2001 list of the heaviest albums of all time. It’s a ferocious funk metal attack, with Miles soloing dementedly over the top, that more than holds its own against heaviosity from luminaries including The MC5, Swans, Black Sabbath and Metallica. And it’s only one of the highlights of his extraordinary ‘Electric Miles’ phase in the 70s, where – as Julian Cope put it – he worked his way to an ‘epitome of music shamanism’ by creating a series of astonishing double albums that rock harder than a flotilla of out of control battleships crewed by demented Zen masters on speed.
They’re also a great way of flushing out last night’s cobblers; but alas, I can’t put them up here. Rather – go explore! Here’s Cope’s full article on Electric Miles. And then, go buy! Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agartha, Pangaea, Live Evil, On the Corner – all deep, dark, heavy and magnificent. What I can post is this, from YouTube – a rather murkily mixed 16 minutes or so of the Dark Magus band at its peak. Enjoy!
Well, there hasn’t been much weird pondering for a bit – but now, I’m back, and thanks to China Mieville’s excellent introduction to the Modern Library edition of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, once again I’ve been a-pondering H. P. Lovecraft.
China sees him as a kind of crazed pulp modernist, breaking out of tradition despite himself, and deriving his sense of horror from his own fear of the shock of modernity – of the city, of other classes, of other races. He’s particularly interesting on Shoggoths, reading them as a Lovecraft’s image for the overwhelming hordes that surrounded and overwhelmed him in New York – ‘a hysterically hallucinated coagulum of the victorious insurgent masses’.
That difficult relationship with the masses is a very modernist thing; but I think there’s more that can be read into the Shoggoth. And that feeling comes from looking at Old One iconography, and understanding how Old Ones and Shoggoths interact within ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.
Let’s start with iconography. The key, repeated Old One motif is the five pointed star. Old Ones have five pointed ‘heads’, and they bury their dead within five pointed mounds. For them, the pentagram is both the physical and metaphorical seat of the self. And of course, the number five has a broader physical significance for them; five ridges run down their bodies, they manipulate the world with twenty five (five by five) tentacles, and they move through it on five separate five veined triangles.
Both humans and Shoggoths destroy five-ness. Humans dissect Old Ones, and (by implication) dig into their five pointed burial mounds; Shoggoths kill Old Ones by removing their five pointed heads. The human attack is – interestingly – far milder than the Shoggoth assault, taking place on a cultural rather than a physical level. I’d see it as emblematic of the initial human failure to comprehend what the Old Ones really are. By the end of the story, that misunderstanding has been rectified, as Dyer (the narrator) directly and enthusiastically claims kinship with the Old Ones, in his remarkable ‘they’re humans too’ speech – ‘radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’, as he puts it.
By claiming the Old Ones as fellow humans, Dyer both forgives the Old Ones’ dissection of one of his own colleagues (and their slaughter of several others), and implicitly apologises for human intrusion into Old One tombs. For him, commitment to scientific knowledge trumps murder and related mayhem as a signifier of intellectual and emotional equality.
That’s a problematic stance; but let’s pass over that for a moment, and ponder the Shoggoth. Their attacks are more brutal, and more direct. They kill the Old Ones that the Pabodie party has discovered, just as they once rose up and massacred the Old One race. And they do so in a very particular way – by a beheading.
Humans made a symbolic assault / penetration into a dead Old One culture, and found equals; Shoggoths find (one assumes) abomination, and – having completed the destruction of a culture – now complete the eradication of the race. They smash Old One rationality, both on a general cultural and a specific personal letter. They break the fiveness – the orderliness – of the Old Ones, and that smashing is made literal in beheading.
It seems odd to use that word – beheading – when talking about animate vegetables from beyond time, but in fact – within the symbol structure of the story – it’s very appropriate indeed. Humans think from the head; Dyer understands Old Ones to think from the five pointed star; removal of that five pointed star is a beheading, both literally and in the broader sense that a rational, ordering intelligence has been destroyed.
Intriguingly, it’s only in mourning that intelligence, that Dyer realizes his kinship with it. It’s a very particular mode of thought; a mandarin rationality; an elite, ordering mind that views the world from a privileged, separate location and as such is in a position to dissect it (as the Old Ones dissect various dead humans and dogs, as we dissect them), to classify it (as the Old Ones are classified, and as they must have classified us), and thus to set itself at the world’s centre, and control and contain it.
Shoggoths break such controlling, mono-cultural rationalisation, and China reads such breakage as an emblem of Lovecraft’s horror at the New York masses that surrounded him; a symbol of the revolutionary mob, that unseats reason and breaks the high culture that HPL held so dear.
In this context, the fact that Shoggoths behead is fascinating; after all, beheading is a key revolutionary signifier, rooted in the guillotines of the French Revolution, the death of Charles I, and a broader sense of revolution as the decapitation of a certain kind of corrupted state.
But I digress. For me, the Shoggoth is more than a symbol of the revolutionary mob; it is (to return to my ongoing rant about the weird death of Humanism) an utterly compelling and utterly fantastic (in every sense) symbol for the conditions of the 20th century that broke the Humanist worldview, and that continue to make it an impossible one to sustain.
To understand just how that works, we need to go back to the core symbol of Old One rationality and culture, the five pointed star. At heart, it’s a pentagram; but the five pointed pentagram has a meaning that stretches far beyond magic, combining the Christian and the Classical to potent effect.
Including the five vowels, the five lettered name of Christ, the five letters of the Latin ‘salus’ (safety), the five wounds of Christ, the five senses, the Classical five elements, the five planets of the Renaissance solar system, and much more, the five pointed star is far more than just a vegetable head.
It triggers a complex set of associations to both Christian and Pagan culture, a set of associations that – combined – underpin the Humanist worldview, and that help support its sense of a rationally ordered comprehensible cosmos, with a divinity that is mirrored in man at its heart, and from that locus a total viewpoint that encompasses and orders all.
So, when Shoggoths attack, they’re doing more than beheading vegetables; they’re breaking the Humanist world view, and replacing it with something far more chaotic, far more anarchic, far more accepting of a chaos of multiple viewpoints and multiple versions of truth. Something very close to the postmodern worldview, in fact, which accepts multiplicity and a consequent inchoacy as a fundamental, defining principle of life.
That multiplicity is very literally represented in the Shoggoth, with its ‘myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down on us’ – perpetually renewed constellations of viewpoints, looking down on poor, scientific, monocular Dyer – taken literally, Die-er, an emblematically Dying man – and breaking his sense of the real.
Shoggoths are a blizzard of eyes; a cosmos of seeings; an inability to settle into any single, static, perpetually correct and ordered viewpoint or opinion set. From that point of view, Shoggoths ARE modernity, a modernity that embraces incoherence as a core principle of being. Shoggoths kill Old Ones, and Old Ones are representatives of an outmoded civilisation; a civilisation rooted in an impossibly ordered, impossibly rational worldview, a civilisation that Dyer recognises as being fundamentally human, by recognising its proponents as being like him.
But that civilisation is dead now, and its proponents are anachronisms. That might horrify Lovecraft but – visionary that he was – he could only see truly, and he shows us the truth, in fact he prophesies the truth. Humanism died with the 20th century, and as post-Humanist people, living in a post-Humanist world, we all helped kill it. If HPL met us, he’d be terrified; because we killed the Old Ones – the elders – the ones who made us, who made European civilisation – by moving beyond them. In 1931, Lovecraft wrote us all; mob that we are, we’re the Shoggoths now.
Well, tonight allumination takes a break from the weird pondering to salute… My brother Edward! Who even now is getting an early night before getting up tomorrow morning to row from London to Paris.
He’s part of the Le FigaROW Team, racing the Langstone Cutters in one of a pair of matched Thames Watermen Cutters as part of the London2Paris rowing challenge. They leave London tomorrow, departing from the Houses of Parliament at about 11am, reach Dover in the evening and if all goes according to plan set off across the Channel tomorrow. Most of next week is taken up with rowing the Seine, with the two crews arriving in Paris on Thursday.
He’s got his first nine hour rowing session tomorrow on Saturday; the whole trip is going to be deeply physically demanding, as tough mentally as it is physically and – once done – no doubt utterly, utterly satisfying. I won’t be with him in the boat, but as much as possible I’m going to be with him in spirit, and I hope you will be too, sending positive vibes to him (and the whole crew) as he batters across the Channel and through the North of France.
If you want to find out more, or support with a litlte contribution, you can do so here, at the team’s official website. To be honest, I’m slightly in awe of him for doing it; and I can’t wait to cheer him – and the team – into the end of the trip next Thursday, and then hit Paris to celebrate the end of a lot of hard work, and hopefully a very satisfying and enjoyable row.
Go Edward! Go Team Le FigaROW! The Weird Ponderers of London (and beyond, in every sense of the word) are with you all the way…!
Well, for various reasons a slight hiatus here at Allumination; most recently because I am shattered, having been enjoying an epic cycle commute between Clapham Junction, Acton, Stoke Newington, Acton, Oxford Circus and at last Clapham Junction again over the last couple of days! Very satisfying. So this is going to be more of a roundup post than anything else.
That’s not to say that there’s not been – as ever – much Weird Pondering going on at Allumination Central; most recently about H P Lovecraft, and in fact even as I type I’m about to get into the bath and carry on re-reading a key HPL masterpiece, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (which rocks, as they say, like an out of control battleship).
As a true HPL geek, I’m typing this while listening to psychedelic 60s rock loons H.P. Lovecraft play their mind altering classic, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ – key lyric, ‘no, my friend, you’re not toooo hiiiiiiggghhhh… you beloooooong… aaaat the moooooouuuunnnntains ooooooooooooof maaaaaaddddneeeeesssss….’ (which is perhaps missing the point somewhat – but hey, it was the 60s – and in fact that album saw me safely through many a Glastonbury back in the 90s, so they must have been doing something right); and much other HPL related stuff has synchronously popped up over the last couple of days.
First of all, there’s this, recorded in Summer ’97 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration, somewhere in the Pacific – perhaps the sound of Cthulhu himself, RISING FROM UNKNOWN R’YLEH?!?!?!?!?!? I certainly hope it’s not him; the Bloop is actually a rather unimpressive sound, and in fact my sanity is scarcely blasted despite repeated listenings. A disappointment.
This is rather less disappointing. It’s Charles Stross’ most excellent novelette, ‘A Colder War’, which is both a superb alternate history, refracting the Cthulhu Mythos through cold war paranoia and beyond, and a ferociously pointed warning about where the innate destructiveness and paranoia of those we too often let lead us might take us all.
It’s also very interesting in the light of Farah Mendlesohn’s comment that Lovecraft was in fact writing ‘the epic poetry of the age of corruption’ in her (very enjoyable and just released) ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’. That’s something I’m going to ponder further and return to, so I’ll leave you with the thought unrambled on for now. And on RoF – I’m about halfway through it, so more on that too when I’ve finished it; for the moment, well worth picking up a copy.
And finally, much pondering of HPL’s relationship with modern art, and in fact Modernism in general. Many debates to be had there, for sure, but for now – Unknown R’yleh as Cubist as it gets? For sure – and is it not spooky just how well Ezra Pound’s Imagist diktat ‘no ideas but in things’ fits the thing-ridden New Englander? Ho yes… but for now, my plush Cthulhu and I wish you good night, as once again the bath has run, and it’s almost Kadath-o-clock…
Much excitement this Friday as all sat around their laptops to listen to DJ Tango-Mango’s very groovy take on the Stoke Newington music scene, midwife to the Stellas and countless other bands. It’s a great summary of all the different kinds of music that happen in N16, and a wonderful listen in its own right…
There is no Underground in N16 – the only way to get there on public transport is by overground train, or by bus – but Stoke Newington has a diverse musical history. In a one-off special, DJ Tango-Mango of the Kosmische Club and the Drones Club explores by way of an audio collage and soundscaped interviews an area rich in music and musicians.
Go hear to download the programme and see who plays on it!
A friend’s engaging with Nigel Kneale at the moment, which has left me thinking about him too. If you’ve seen any of his film or TV pieces – the Quatermass movies / TV series, ‘The Stone Tapes’, ‘Beasts’, and so on – he won’t need any introduction. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat; he’s one of the finest screen dramatists that Britain ever produced, using the fantastic to both comment directly on both contemporary social realities and consider the broader issues implicit in being human in a scientific age.
First of all, let’s take Kneale the social realist. That’s an odd thing to call a man who filled scripts with live broadcasts from prehistoric Martian hive wars, ghost dolphins haunting abandoned sea parks, Westminster Abbey invading alien / spaceman hybrids and ghost hunts derailed by washing machine obsessed scientists; but it’s entirely accurate. Kneale consistently used the unreal to talk about the real, reflecting the public obsessions of the world that surrounded him through the lens of the fantastic.
That sense of commentary is most obvious in his masterpiece, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. Ostensibly a tale of what happens when a spaceship full of long-dead Martians is discovered beneath a London tube station, it was in fact written out of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the social and cultural tensions that surrounded them.
Kneale sees racism as something alien to the values of tolerance and empathy that are fundamental to humanity at its best; he takes that perception and literalises it, defining racism as a Martian implanted value that has simultaneously infected us all and that – being alien to our original natures – can be overcome, if only inconsistently. That kind of incisive social commentary occurs again and again in his work.
Secondly, there’s Kneale the scientific writer. In the above, I’ve been very careful to position him as a fantasist; I don’t believe that he can be described as a writer of science fiction, because although his narratives contain science the literal accuracy of that science is not a key concern.
Rather, Kneale talks about human relationships with science, and by extension the limits of science. Quatermass himself is the humane scientist par excellence; but all his knowledge can only offer at best temporary solutions to the problems that his scientific skills uncover.
For example, at the end of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the ghosts of Mars are defeated; but the problem of mankind’s implicit Martian-ness is left unresolved, and is in fact insoluble. Science can help us to see more clearly; but all that it shows us is our own fallibility and contingency. The cosmos remains vast and inscrutable, entirely unconcerned with the trivial construct that is modern humanity.
Which sense of vastness is an implicit comment on the humane values that Kneale endorses. To be human is not to be automatically moral or right; in fact, human-ness is a construct, a set of choices about how to most constructively and sensitively engage with those around us made in the teeth of an insignificance that is planetary in scale. At their best, Kneale’s heroes achieve such humanity despite enormous suffering, and with enormous sacrifice.
Sometimes, they fail to even get that far; the protagonists of ‘The Stone Tapes’, putting their faith in the innate rightness and power of scientific inquiry, end by condemning one of their number to a bizarre and in the end entirely unexplained life-in-death. Their faith that the operating system of the universe is fundamentally benevolent is revealed as both absurd and destructive. Their failure to recognise their limits is shown up as a failure of humanity; implicit in being human is understanding how difficult that humanity is to maintain, and how unnatural a position it can be to adopt.
That’s not to say that the struggle isn’t worth it; watch the shattering end of ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ – a complex, despairing, but nonetheless absolute affirmation of the value of human relationships – and you’ll see what I mean, or rather what Kneale means. The very futility of being truly human in the face of the void is – for Kneale – what gives such moments their rare, deep, splendid value.
And that’s all for now. One worry, tho’ – I haven’t talked about just how entertaining Kneale is. A master of narrative, he tells stories that rock very hard indeed. All the above goes on in them, but it’s buried in gripping, unstoppable narratives that grab you hard and don’t let go.
And that’s why I’m always jealous of people who haven’t seen any of the Quatermass movies, or ‘Beasts’, or his ‘1984’, or ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, or ‘The Stone Tapes’, or anything else he wrote – because you’ve got some great nights in of watching and discovering ahead!
Well, it’s blog-o-clock again, and today’s pulp fiction pondering has been triggered by an exceptionally interesting essay about different modes of poetry by Reality Street supremo and exceptionally cool modern poet Ken Edwards. Here’s some of his poetry; and here’s the essay.
Edwards launches a sustained assault on systems of reading that privilege a (relatively conservative) mainstream over a (relatively experimental) ‘parallel tradition’, taking as his exemplars competing poems by Matthew Sweeney and Allen Fisher.
The essay’s well worth reading, not just to find out more about modern poetry but to be reminded that the most powerful system of discourse operating within a given field isn’t necessarily the most *right* system, and that such systems can achieve their dominant position for a variety of different reasons, many of them having nothing to with quality of debate or inherent worth.
But something pulpy leapt out at me as well. I was particularly taken by Edwards’ definition of Fisher’s poem as a ‘nonequilibrium structure’. That’s a scientific term; such a structure is one that requires ‘a continuing input of energy to sustain [its] ordered structure’. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one such structure; for Edwards, Fisher’s poem is another, because it requires the ‘continuous creative input of the reader to constellate its energy’.
That energy is needed because Fisher has, very deliberately, avoided writing a poem that resolves into a single fixed and coherent meaning or image set. Rather, it creates an open field of thought and feeling within which the reader is free to play, creating his or her own definition of what the poem is or could be. Deliberately incomplete, Fisher’s work demands the collaboration of the reader to attain one of many possible final forms.
That tends to be the kind of poetry that I prefer, and oddly enough it set me thinking about the visionary pulp writers who lie at the heart of so much of what’s interesting in the great tradition of SF and Fantasy.
There’s an incompleteness to much of their achievement too, but not necessarily such a conscious one; it springs from overwhelming indulgence of deep and exclusive personal obsessions, or an only partial attention to key aspects of the craft of writing, rather than from in-depth attention to literary theory, the deleterious effects of crumbily obvious poetry, and so on.
The Pulp Furies – ferociously obsessive, searingly primal, utterly unputdownable and at their best unforgettably resonant and evocative – created a literature that remains addictively engaging precisely because of its often lopsided incompleteness.
Hurling unhinged imagery, berserk plotting and often terrifying prose out into the void, for the most part not even noticing the classic procedures of fiction, still less paying any lip service to them, they created their own ongoing nonequilibrium structures.
Fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty years later, we’re still engaging with those structures, still finding them fresh precisely because of their failure to resolve into any final meaning. As readers, we collaborate with them, filling the gaps that obsession left with our own obsessions and thus finding life in them where other, more formally achieved works come across as decaying, if not dead.
Oh, and I was rooting around on his web page because of this excerpt from his new book, ‘Nostalgia for Unknown Cities’, available here – astonishing writing that I haven’t properly got to grips with, but that struck me on first reading as a kind of assembly code for an entirely personal fantastic.