Adam Nevill and Hari Kunzru meet the Process Church Uptown

Aliens, America, Fiction, Horror, Literary, Novelists

Noted 60s cultists the Process Church of the Final Judgement seem to be popping up all over the place just now.

I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.

First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:

Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…

And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.

Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.

‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.

Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.

Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.

But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.

That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.

In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.

And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.

And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.

Bruce Pennington exhibition at the Atlantis Bookshop

Art, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Visionary

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished –

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him –

Bruce Pennington, secret hero of 70s Brit SF (mp3)

Reviewing ‘The City and The City’

Fantasy, Fiction, Genre, Horror, Literary, Modernity, Poetry, Surrealism

Well, I’ve just finished China Miéville’s superb new book, ‘The City and The City’. It’s utterly gripping, a noir-ish police procedural with an Eastern European feel that both builds on, reacts against and moves beyond the concerns and achievements of his previous novels.

So you’ve probably worked out that I’d recommend it to anyone who shares the concerns of this blog. Whether you enjoy excellent, imaginative fiction, open-ended modern poetry (or even, I’m sure, experimental or improvised music), it’s well worth checking out.

And now I’m going to talk about it in more detail with MULTIPLE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t read it yet, and don’t want any surprises ruined, STOP READING NOW!

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Right, that was pretty unambiguous. Anyway, now that I’ve done that, I can start giving away plot points left, right and centre – and to talk about it properly, I really need to do that, because what it is and what it means are so carefully and effectively intertwined.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between two twinned cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are very literally, and very substantially, intertwined; ‘crosshatched’, to use Miéville’s coinage. Much of the detail and action of the book comes from that relationship, and the way that inhabitants of the two cities have adjusted to it.

For me, the book’s central achievement is the way that it uses that crosshatching to literalise a metaphor set, one that both forces detailed consideration of twinned / opposing otherness, and refuses to collapse into any final meaning or commentary on them.

At various points as I read the book, I went from understanding the two cities as Christianity and Islam, the West and the East, to wondering if the whole book was a kind of coded intellectual / literary autobiography, via seeing it as a way of talking about splits between genre and literary fiction, then reading it as talking about left / right wing oppositions, and so on.

The imagery supports all of these readings, and – I’m sure – many more, without insisting on any of them as full or final. That’s something I really loved, for many reasons. Most immediately, it builds very directly on one of my favourite moments in his previous novels – the climax of ‘The Iron Council’.

As you’ll no doubt remember, the book ends in an image that simultaneously represents two directly opposed emotions – hope and despair – in a way that’s very directly inspired by one of the great Western comments on the distance between legend and reality, the final frames of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.

For me, that image felt like the crystallization of an internal opposition, between China the Marxist (who believes in the possibility of radical, positive change in society) and China the Realist (who has a perhaps more nuanced and pessimistic view of human nature). I thought it was a wonderful presentation of two opposed stances; and I also wondered where he’d go from there, how he’d reconcile the tension between the two viewpoints.

My mistake was to see the choice as a binary one. Miéville’s built on the moment by finding a third way, and is now operating – far more effectively than at any previous point – as China the novelist, China the Image Maker. Rather than building narratives that endorse or discuss particular political viewpoints, he’s creating open image sets that resist simple, final conclusions, and instead encourage readers to think for themselves.

That creative maneuver is profoundly refreshing. It’s a reinvention of China’s root definition – he’s moved from being a novelist engaged in a very specific (albeit important) argument with genre, to one who uses the tools of genre to look out at the modern world – and it moves him into fascinating new literary company.

Previously I’ve pitched him to people as (in very glib shorthand) Britain’s leading Marxist Fantasist; now, his use of internally coherent but literally inexplicable image sets mean that it’s possible to read him in relationship with cutting edge modern poets like Jeremy Prynne, Lee Harwood and Ken Edwards, who work very hard indeed to balance that same clarity of image with opacity of final meaning, and even of language.

But how fully achieved is that transition? ‘The City and The City’ does hold true to relatively traditional narrative structures; it does have recognizable echoes of previous books, and of the habits of writing that have driven them. Two key examples for me are the collapse of the final Orciny myth, and the mass breach that leads to city-wide chaos as the novel draws to a close.

The former seems to me to be very close to the resolution of the Magus Fin narrative strand at the climax of ‘The Scar’. In both cases, we discover that a central, motivating myth – a Macguffin – is in fact a fiction, a fantasy generated out of neurotic personal need.

However, there is progression here too. The Magus Fin functions as a critique of reader expectations of genre, pointing up the gap between the cod-Fantasy motivations we’re often too comfortable with (Our talisman has been stolen! We must retrieve it, lest we face the anger of the gods!) and the more sophisticated, realistic drivers that make the political world happen (We’re economically exposed! We need to get our data back!).

Althought the Magus Fin narrative does throw a light on political myth making, it’s fundamentally an argument about genre, made from within genre. The Orciny event – although ostensibly similar – can be used to think about genre, but sits outside it. The meanings that can be derived from it centre more on the way that personal world fantasies are received, processed and responded to by the body politic.

So, I’m undercutting my own argument! Read in this way, the Orciny event becomes a conscious reflection on the Magus Fin, an attempt to include its concerns in a broader argument about the real world nature and reception of fantasy (rather than just Fantasy).

And then there’s the mass breach that ends the book. The Threat to the City is a repeated Miéville structural trope, one that is – for me – very directly derived from his genre roots.

Binary oppositions are fundamental to Fantasy; magical heroes need magical monsters, shadow selves that exist to help the hero shine. And, of course, the stronger the shadow, the more glory there is in overcoming it. So, the city gets threatened with destruction, to allow our heroes to save it – to define the terms of their achievement.

But, as I type, I’m realizing that there’s more to China’s repeated city destruction attempts than I’d previously thought. Not all destructions are equal; some, in fact, are to be encouraged – witness, again, ‘The Iron Council’. Breaking the status quo can be – or, at least, can aspire to be – A Very Good Thing.

Seen in that light, the mass breach becomes more interesting. It represents a moment of possible transcendence, an escape from an artificial set of limitations. That would destroy Beszel and Ul Qoma; but it could also liberate a new city, one that might provide its inhabitants with an easier and more fulfilled mode of living.

A shock, or a release? Such a change would be both, at once; and each has their costs, and their benefits. The mass breach forces consideration of such a transition as the novel climaxes, without committing to a final judgment as to whether it would be a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing. As such, it’s a very effective component of the novel’s broader strategy of constructive ambiguity.

There is one thing that the book is very unambiguous about, however. Unlike Miéville’s previous novels, there’s no magic in it at all, nothing of the supernatural. Beszel, Ul Qoma, Orciny, Breach; within ‘The City and The City’, all are entirely human constructs, very carefully sited in our world.

As such, the book has the same kind of relationship with the genre of Fantasy that slasher movies have with Horror. In (say) ‘Psycho’, or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Horror is achieved; but its achievement is an entirely human one, making these films meditations on our shared capacity for evil, rather than abstract exemplifications of an external darkness.

Likewise, ‘The City and The City’. It’s an entirely fantastical book that has no Fantasy in it whatsoever. Where there is mystery – for example, in the precursor machine / culture – it springs from a very human lack of knowledge, and consequent fantasising, rather than from any sort of supernatural intervention.

At heart, it’s a meditation on the ability of the human imagination to build unreal worlds, and then to make them real by agreeing on them. Beszel, Ul Qoma; each city is a convention set that only exists because enough people agree that they’re there, consensual hallucinations that become real through that very consensus.

By contrast, Orciny’s failure is not untruth; rather, it lies in its inability to gather enough followers to give it life. If enough people used it as a tool for imaginative interpretation of the world around them, it would become real, just as Ul Qoma and Beszel are – within the book – entirely real, entirely non-fictional.

So, a book that contains much; and a book that is hard to review, precisely because of its refusal to settle into a single set of meanings. That makes the above necessarily provisional; it’s one interpretation, where many are possible, and none can be fully or finally ‘right’. And, of course, there’s a lot in the book that I haven’t mentioned at all.

Which, in the end, makes the responsibility for finding ‘meaning’ in the book an entirely personal one. The above is part of my own take on ‘The City and The City’ – what’s yours?

The Spiders of Instruction

Film, Horror, Science Fiction

Watching first ‘The Fly’ and then ‘Island of Lost Souls’ – the first the original 50s shocker, the second the classic 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, starring Charles Laughton as the titular doctor – was a shocking experience, because both end in scenes of the blackest nightmare.

In ‘Lost Souls’, Moreau is forcibly – and amateurishly – dissected by the beast men that he has himself created; in ‘The Fly’, the minute man-fly – pale human head and arm emerging from black chitin, small buzzing voice wailing ‘Help me! Help me!’ – is trapped in a web and bitten at by a spider, before both are squashed with a rock by an utterly horrified policeman.

But in both cases these moments of horror precede a resetting of the balance, a return to the normal. With the death of Moreau and the burning of his island lab, his experiments are rendered un-reproducable and (it’s assumed) their man-beast results are all destroyed. With the destruction of the man-fly, the only remaining end-product of Delambre’s scientific work is smashed; he has himself earlier broken all his equipment, one of his last sane acts before he became a rapacious, inhuman fly-man.

Looked at from this point of view, each ending resolves as near perfect tragedy. The shocks that sprang from each scientist’s tragic flaw are resolved; the by-products of those flaws are erased from the world, if not from the mind. The remaining characters – and the audience, come to that – are left sadder, but wiser; silent in safer, but also very clear diminished, worlds. Implicit in each scientist’s fall is the force for good that their work could have represented; that possibility, too, has gone.

But that possibility had in fact been eradicated long before the end of the film. Moreau’s comment on the ultimate futility of his attempts to raise animals to the level of man – ‘the beast creeps back in and begins to assert itself again’ – could be read as the subtext for both movies; but that subtext expresses itself in very different ways in each film.

In ‘Lost Souls’, the beast is Moreau’s own overweening ego. Beginning with whimsical experiments with asparagus and various flowers, he ends by creating a race specifically designed to worship him. Science can give man a sense of god-like power over nature; Moreau falls headlong into the moral trap that that represents, lacking the strength of mind to see himself as only ever fallible, only ever human. But nature triumphs; at the end of the film, he’s brought face to face with his very human limits, in the most direct and painful way imaginable.

Oddly, ‘The Fly’ is a harsher film; odd because it’s protagonist, unlike Moreau, is brought low by no great moral failing. It’s pure chance that the fly ends up in the teleporter with him; and his struggle against his new, insect self is powerfully shown. He remains a good man, right to the end, always battling the insect inside himself. But there is no escaping the consequences of his actions, and he ends by dying twice – once as fly-man, and once – horrifyingly – as man-fly; in both cases, his death is suffused with a sense of regret and injustice.

That sense of injustice is what makes the film so bleak. ‘Lost Souls’ shows us a pitfall of scientific enquiry, but doesn’t imply that all scientists could fall; rather, it shows us what happens to an atypical researcher, a brilliant man lacking a certain moral compass. ‘The Fly’ implies that research itself will lead to horror; that – inevitably – chance will throw a spanner in the works, turning the potentially revolutionary into the always destructive.

Darker by far than its 30s brother, ‘The Fly’ despairs of the possibility of safe progress beyond a certain point. Dr Moreau is flawed, but adult; ‘The Fly’ implies that scientists are little more than children, playing with tools far more dangerous than they could ever know or take full precautions against.

At the end of all scientific enquiry – it’s implied – is a reduction in scale, a Lovecraftian understanding of our true, insignificant place in the universe, of the impossibility of our ever achieving effective, constructive agency within it. The helpless enquirer can only ever become a fly; tangled in the web of truth, all that can be done is to pray for oblivion before the spiders of instruction reach and painfully break you.

Aliens, invasions, and the act of reading

Fiction, Ghosts, Horror, Memory, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Television

Nigel Kneale’s masterpieces ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ and ‘The Stone Tape’ cast a fascinating light on the nature of fiction, because each one shows the future invading from the past. In ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the Martian invaders are five million year old fossils, in ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, Neolithic stone circles become nexi for a barely comprehensible alien harvesting of humanity, and in ‘The Stone Tape’ hi-tech recording technology empowers an ancient, pre-human evil.

That sense of narrative drivers emerging from the past is an interesting way of thinking about how fiction works. The only building blocks of story available to any of us are what we’ve already experienced, whether directly through active living or indirectly through reading, viewing, relayed narrative, etc. Every single story we have began as an edit of those memories; that edit then being filtered through the writer’s imagination, to shift it from having an entirely personal resonance to achieving a more universal impact.

But that’s not all. Kneale’s invasions are very specifically alien invasions, acting on humanity to – to a greater or lesser extent – recast its sense of itself. In each story, Kneale tracks more than a physical invasion. He shows us the intellectual paradigm shift that is forced on humankind when it’s forced to engage not just with the physically alien, but with the intellectually alien. His invasions happen in the head, as much as in the flesh.

That adds an interesting layer to the reading metaphor, because reading too is an encounter with the alien – with someone else’s memories, with their lived experience. As a rule, direct experience of other people’s internal lives is pretty difficult. We can’t know what it’s like to be the other. But reading downloads a version of that internality directly into our own heads. Engaging with a writer’s modified memories remains one of the most effective ways of experiencing another self, being in the world.

Kneale’s concern with the reconfiguring attack of the other helps show how to read is to be invaded by that other, and to be reconfigured by it. An other’s experience of the world is introduced into our self, and – whether forcibly or more subtly – remoulds it in some small way, creating new perspectives or understandings that would have never existed without that other.

The Quatermass movies, ‘The Stone Tapes’, and indeed much of his other work describes directly how experience of the other can be radically, even traumatically, transformative; at a deeper level, it helps point out that – to experience a paradigm shifting alien invasion for ourselves, all we really need to do is go and read a book.

A gig, a story, an interview and the apocalypse…

Aliens, Festivities, Film, Gigs, Horror, Landscape, Moi online

First of all, Happy New Year all! An enjoyable and productive 2009 to all.

Secondly, a gig, a story and an interview. Graan are ringing in the New Year at A Music Club this Thursday 8th January – as ever, I’ll be adding spoken word to the heavy sounds, jah? Sehr gut. Also, my short story ‘Sohoitis’ – a psychedelic tale of drunken Soho gods, inspired by the ever-magnificent Julian Maclaren Ross – is now available in the latest Postscripts. And finally, my interview with Nebula Award winner Ted Chiang has gone live at the Nebula site.

And on weird pondering – H and I have just sat down to John Carpenter’s utterly compelling ‘Prince of Darkness’. On rewatching it, I was very struck by how interestingly it riffs on (amongst others) Nigel Kneale’s 70s masterpiece ‘The Stone Tapes’. But I’ve also just downed a bottle of wine, and on this cold, late night my lovely hot bath calls, so more on this in the next post…

The return of the Entropy Circus

Aliens, Gigs, Horror, Music

Well, it’s been a busy few weeks at allumination central; I’m packing the flat up ready to move, establishing myself as a freelancer, and (for various reasons) whizzing up and down the country between Hebden Bridge, Glasgow and London. So, alas, little time for weird pondering.

However, there has been time for music – and so, as a prelude to the full return of allumination, here’s some music from the mighty Zali Krishna. The clip below is my favourite one of his on Youtube; the rest are available at his channel page, here. Enjoy!

A short post about hauntings

Film, Ghosts, Horror

Late night Bank Holiday Monday, and rather than enjoying the delights of the Notting Hill Carnival the hard working writer of Weird Fiction finds himself enjoying a glass of whisky and the Amicus portmanteau semi-classic ‘Vault of Horror’. Terry Thomas, Tom Baker (in possibly the maddest ginger false beard and wig combo in cinema), Anna Massey, various others in the same film; the opening music an enjoyable melodramatic rip-off of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’; the whole thing set in Millbank Tower, foreshadowing the horror that was to be New Labour; what’s not to like? Not much, but alas even with the best will in the world it’s well worth watching, but it’s not a classic.

For true portmanteau brilliance, I always go back to ‘Dead of Night’; authentically haunted black and white chills. It’s best known segment is the Michael Redgrave / ventriloquist’s dummy tale, but the story that always spooked me was the ‘Christmas Party’ section. An English country mansion; jolly chaps and chapesses playing hide and seek; a lovely young gel comes upon a mysterious child in a tucked away bedroom; talks to him, returns to the party, realises he’s in fact a ghost; and says, ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared’, and then sits down, rather too quickly.

Such a subtle moment; horror registered not through gore or mayhem, but rather through the silencing of an otherwise irrepressible county girl, the kind of woman that John Betjeman would have romanced shocked into inactivity through an encounter with something absolutely outside her frame of reference. In a way, it can be read as a brilliant shorthand summary of the whole English ghost story tradition; the safe, dreaming idyll of the country house, the golf course, the bachelor apartment, the coastal path, shattered instantly and absolutely by the intrusion of the other. ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared.’ – all the response that repression allows, but absolutely a lie in the face of a broken certain world.

THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ (or, why the new X-Files movie stinks)

Aliens, Film, Horror, Narrative, Science Fiction

A quick post today, as – what with one thing and another – I’m running around at high speed. So, a high speed rant about what a total dog the new X-Files movie is…. As it is an epic of badness, a truly colossal set of plot and ethics blunders, a movie that gives duncery a bad name, a Fuckwitiad of an epic of an idiotic abortion of a waste of celluloid that should have never been made. And, come the end of the post, it’s going to have me typing THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ. I can’t type it here, because reading it will bring about the apocalypse. Sorry, but the new X-Files movie is that bad. I have to type THE SENTENCE THAT ETC.

Oh, and this review is going to be full of spoilers, but this film is so awful I really don’t think anyone should see it (in fact dissing it feels like some kind of religious calling – perhaps I am the new SF fuelled religious guru de nos jours, and can found a religion based on doing the exact opposite of everything that happens in the X-Files movie? We shall see. If I am driving a gold plated Rolls Royce this time next year, you’ll know it’s worked, and perhaps some positive thing will have come out of seeing this eye gougingly painful acrapalypse of dismality. Anyway…)

So, why’s is it so bad? Well, at the most basic level, it feels like it’s several rewrites off a finished draft. For example, there’s a weird ambiguity about whether Mulder and Scully are living together or not. At the start of the film, Scully drives off into the middle of nowhere to find him living in bachelor-y isolation; suddenly they’re in bed together; suddenly they’re splitting up (!) and Scully’s saying she’s not coming home again, which upsets Mulder deeply. Have they been living together? When did that happen? WTF?

Then, there’s a truly nutty twenty four hour sequences where Scully stays up all night bustin’ crime in the freezing fields of Virginia, before going to work, arguing for the life of a dying orphan she’s treating (he’s not really an orphan, but the film works at that level of manipulative emotional pap, so that’s what I’m going to call him), discovering a previously unknown miracle cure for him, researching it on the internet, accidentally cracking the case that she’s on with Mulder (by this time it seems to be early afternoon), going into full surgery with several doctors, nurses, watching nuns (yes, really), and then wandering off to sort out more crime.

The NHS should hire her! She’d make everyone immediately healthy using previously unsuspected techniques she found on Google, save many other orphans at the last minute, sort out the London knife crime epidemic while her kettle’s boiling for elevenses, and then discover that by playing with the wiring on the kettle she could sign a peace treaty with those whacky dudes from Alpha Centauri. Result!

There’s the berserk ethical front loading of Scully’s rationality. As any fule kno (ta Molesworth), the Scully / Mulder conflict is built on the conflict between Scully’s rationality and Mulder’s sense of faith (I want to believe, as the movie clodhoppingly subtitles itself). The movie seeks to reaffirm faith, in a god-vomitingly programmatic and absurd way, so as it begins it sets up a seemingly unopposable argument for rationality over faith.

Scully gets to try and cure her orphan using THE POWER OF SCIENCE. Mulder gets to listen to prophecies and visions about a kidnapped FBI agent from a 36-choirboy buggering paedophile (the script is very precise about its numbers) priest who lives on some strange self-policing paedophile compound. I’m really not making this up. But you won’t believe me, because now I have to tell you that Father Joe – the aforementioned choirboy fiddler – is played by Billy Connolly.

Honestly, I’m really not making this up… Cosmically peculiar casting of a cosmically awful role. Anyway, of course by the end of the film Scully realises that she can only cure her orphan with THE POWER OF FAITH; and Father Joe has quite possibly been forgiven by God and received into Heaven, etc. Not that I have any problems with forgiveness per se; rather, I’ve got considerable disdain for such boneheaded moralising that seeks to be ‘challenging’ by dealing in such absurdly opposed moral opposites.

Anyway, as yet I’ve only scratched the surface of the awfulness of this nonsensical melodrama, this cinematic purgatory, this inferno of any form of the televisual arts, this film so pointless that – had the first caveman who first put chalk to wall to create the first cave paintings seen it, thus seeding the visual arts as we know them today – he would have fed both his hands to the nearest woolly mammoth and gone and sat in the sea to try and de-evolve into an amoeba for the good of creation as a whole – because I haven’t mentioned the villains.

And once I’ve mentioned the villains you’ll think, nope, it really can’t get any worse. And that’s when I’ll start talking about its sexual politics. And at that point you’ll be on your way to the sea to start de-evolving into an amoeba yourself. And only then will THE SENTENCE THAT ETC be unleashed, and the apocalypse won’t matter, because we’ll all be happy little amoebae and won’t even notice it.

So there is a silver lining after all.

Anyway, the villains. So these rather shitty looking Eastern European guys (probably Russians) have set up a severed head (and, it’s implied, other limbs) swapping facility in a kennels somewhere in Virginia, using various local women (who they meet at a swimming pool and select for their rare blood type, detected apparently by watching their swimming style and drawing according conclusions – there’s some nonsense early on in the film about how two of the victims have been treated at the same medical facility, but that’s just forgotten about as the film goes on and the narrative torture continues).

The limbs are discarded in a conveniently frozen river (how they mystically teleport into the feet of ice they’re found in, rather than just sit on top of it like severed limbs would if you or I tossed them in there, is beyond me – give Scully half an hour and a Kit-Kat and she’d no doubt develop an entirely new branch of theoretical physics to explain it, but anyway…).

No motive is given for this nutty limb swapping facility; no sense of what it’s up to, how it pays its multiple doctors and nurses, why they might want to swap limbs and heads in Virginia, is defined. No back story for any of it; no groovy alien or conspiratorial connections (surely a sine qua non of any X-Files movie?); nothing. They’re just a bunch of whacky Russians who decided to go and swap some limbs around in a kennel somewhere. As you do. And in fact, we only see one head and limb swapping patient – and he’s at the heart of this Dreckenbury Village’s spectacular fucked sexual politics, so I can’t hold back the rant gates any more…

So, the two antagonists of the film – a severed limb delivery bloke (really) and the guy who runs the firm he works for – are gay lovers. One of them was one of Father Joe’s choirboys. Implicit in their presentation is the sense that homosexuality is catching, that it’s spread by paedophilia, and that homosexual love can lead to the kind of mass murdering moral depravity we see in the film. And that’s not all; this sclerotic codpiece of awfulness doesn’t even have the courage of its comprehensively repugnant convictions. Because the action of the film takes place because limb delivery boy needs to find a new body for his lung-cancer dying lover; and so he’s kidnapping women to find a replacement body for him.

WTF??? I kid you not. Our loopy antagonists are busy trying to transplant the head of a gay man onto a woman so that – presumably – antagonist gayness can be neutralised in a bout of ‘actually I’d rather shag you as a woman’. So contemptuous of gay relationships that it goes as far as an entire body swap to avoid having to deal with them, having first presented them as some kind of ethical leprosy, this film is built on possibly the most fucked sexual politics I’ve ever encountered. It has no redeeming features, beyond the fact that it’s finite. And, one day, with the onset of senility or similar, I might actually forget that I’ve seen it.

Oh, and one of the plastic severed heads in the final scenes is actually pretty good. It needs a better agent, tho’, if this kind of cobblers is the only sort of thing it’s getting offered.

Anyway, so that’s the rant over and done with. And now it’s time for THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ:

Don’t go and see this film; go and see ‘Battlefield Earth’, it’s better.

Enjoy the apocalypse, amoeboid regressing friends! I’ll see you in the swamps…

Lovecraft, Olson and ‘The Mayan Letters’

Fantasy, Horror, Humanism, Landscape, Poetry, Poets, Seascapes

Well, it’s been a fascinating morning of pondering Lovecraft’s roots in Ovid. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to go into detail here – still working out exactly what I think – but in brief I think the link builds on Ovid’s status as the great poet of transformation in ‘Metamorphosis’, and the chronicler of the numinous’ daily interaction with man in ‘Fasti’.

Lovecraft, of course, has a horror of metamorphosis, although many of his characters don’t; and his work tracks the divine breaking into the quotidian in random, terrifying ways. But more on that another time.

Because today’s weird pondering continues my ongoing death of Humanism rant by thinking about how exactly and interestingly mid-20th Century poet and educator (and inventor of the term ‘postmodern’) Charles Olson tallies with your generic Lovecraftian academic villain.

In Lovecraft, the academic villain is a very identifiable type; someone deeply engaged with lost, historic lore, working either alone or in concert.

As a rule, they’re obsessed with secret lore, are very aware that what they’re up to goes against / is threatening to the cultural mainstream, and yet are driven on by both personal rewards and by a sense that what they’re uncovering is real truth, that will lead to a mass transformation in their particular cultural consciousness and affairs.

For example, the Joseph Curwen circle in ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ look forward to the moment when ‘it will be ripe… to have upp ye Legions from Underneath, and then there are no Boundes to what shall be oures…’, while in ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ Great Race society seems to have been profoundly effected by news of its impending doom.

And these researchers have an interesting relationship with time; it’s a very malleable thing to them, allowing them to bring the past directly into the present, and vice versa. The Joseph Curwen circle talk with the dead of all centuries, while the time traveling delvings of the Great Race of Yith are presented very directly indeed:

‘I learned… that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and sent exploring minds into every age… I talked with the mind of Yiang-Li, a philosopher from the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan, which is to come in 5,000 A.D.; with that of a general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in 50,000 BC; with that of a twelfth Century Florentine monk named Bartolomeo Corsi…’

Other examples abound; many Lovecraftian villains (and most of his heroes, come to that) can be seen as researchers of one kind or another. The Fungi from Yuggoth take humanity to the stars, and beyond; the crazed cultists of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ use forbidden knowledge to excavate Cthulhu; the protagonist of ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ is a kind of archaeologist of local horror; and so on.

So what? Well, the preponderance of researchers / historians / revivifiers in Lovecraft is a logical outcome of his central myth; that of a past that can be recast in ways that radically transform understandings of humanity and of modernity in general. And that’s what links him so interestingly with Olson.

I’d been kind of vaguely aware of this link, but it hadn’t really grabbed me until I sat down to read Olson’s ‘The Mayan Letters’. Edited by Olson’s friend and poetic ally Robert Creeley, aka the Figure of Outward, ‘The Mayan Letters’ record Olson’s researches into Mayan culture over a six month period in the early 50s, carried out from a small village on the Mexican coast.

‘The Mayan Letters’ are a key document in Olson’s ongoing struggle to get past the limitations of Western European thinking and perception, as rooted in (what Olson perceives to be) alienating ancient Greek philosophy. For him (and paraphrasing hugely!) the Greeks separated the object from the discourse, creating an artificial gap between thinking and existing that’s in turn alienated Western consciousness from the world that surrounds it.

As he put it in his essay ‘The Human Universe’, ‘the distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. One way – he thought – of reclaiming language as ‘the act of the instant’ is to pitch it in terms of hieroglyphs or ideograms, reclaiming the word as object rather than description. And that attitude in part led him to the Mayans, who built their language on ideograms.

Of course his interest was in Mayan culture was far broader than the purely linguistic – as a researcher, he hoped to uncover the frame of mind that an ideogrammatic language supported, find a way of describing and reintroducing it into contemporary culture, and thus bring about a constructive change in Western mass consciousness (‘the shift is SUBSTANTIVE’, as he notes of the past, and will be again).

And that’s what makes him – and ‘The Mayan Letters’, and his broader work, so resonantly Lovecraftian. Whether acting as archaeologist, linguist, historical researcher or just plain explorer, his language rings with the expository excitement of the classic Lovecraftian researcher (‘I tried, for a while, to scratch away at the walls of the graves…’), whether hero or villain:

‘Craziest damn thing ever, this place: nothing on it otherwise but two sets of double small ‘pyramids’ at either end of the island… a damned attractive place… was it the reason the Maya… did so come here, choose, this place [to bury their dead]?… Must find out more.’

Olson then resolves – in a classically Lovecraftian set up – to go and look up MSSs of previous expeditions to the island. Or there’s this:

‘Have been digging up the old Maya chronicles, the last couple of days, and ome up with interesting stuff on Quetz-Kukul – and the question of, sea origins.’

Or this:

‘God, give me a little more of [watching stars in the Mexican sky while talking about them] and I shall excuse what you say abt me, another time, my friend. For you have said something so beautifully tonight, in this business of force:… that force STAYS, IS & THEREFORE STAYS, whenever, whatever:

that is what
we are concerned with
it breaks all time and space’

Where Lovecraft found horror in the breakage of time and space, Olson found wonder. And all of this is in service of an explicitly (perhaps even physically as well as culturally) transformative project:

‘BUT the way the bulk of them still (“the unimproved”) wear their flesh… the flesh is worn as a daily thing, like the sun… carried like the other things are, for use… the individual peering out from that flesh is precisely himself, is, a curious wandering animal (it is so very beautiful, how animal the eyes are, when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out)’

And that wearing is for Olson a ‘real, live clue to the results of what I keep on gabbing on about, another humanism’. For Olson as for Lovecraft, the return to the animal is transformative, but for Olson it’s a positive, allowing a step out of Western humanism into something far more spontaneous and positive, something that (using Jung’s term) leads very directly to the profoundly positive end of individuation, of becoming a true and integrated self.

And that’s the source of both similarity and the difference between the two writers. Both either track or drive a step away from a Humanism that began with the ancient Greeks and that has defined Western culture for the last couple of thousand years. For Lovecraft, that’s a profoundly destructive step, but one that (visionary that he was, often despite himself) one he can’t deny; for Olson, it’s an entirely positive step, one that should be encouraged.

In the end, Olson can be read as a Lovecraftian villain; but being a villain in Lovecraft means breaking an old consensus and replacing it with something unimaginably, transcendentally new – and, in this decaying modern world, that can only be a good thing to do.