We’re the Shoggoths now

Aliens, Despair, Heaviosity, Horror, Humanism, Modernity

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.

No ideas but in THINGS

Abstraction, Aliens, Heaviosity, Horror

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…

‘Ghosts’ lives!

Ghosts, Horror, My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Supernatural

Well, much excitement here at Allumination Central as my short story, ‘Ghosts’ has hit the streets in the latest issue of ‘Midnight Street’ – and it’s the cover story! Which I didn’t know about at all until my copy popped through the postbox, so a lovely surprise.

Anyway… the story’s about the problems of exploring haunted, abandoned weapon satellites on your own, and the cover catches its atmosphere very nicely indeed. And of course there are many other great stories in there – particularly looking forward to sitting down with the Joel Lane, Stephen Gallagher and Andrew Humphrey ones – and an interview with Neil Gaiman. Anyway, enough rambling – check it out (and order a copy for yourself) here.

Oh, and if you came here having read the story, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoyed the story, and have fun rooting round here…

*plumps the virtual cushions, puts on welcoming music, opens a bottle or two of wine, sets out bowls of dry roast peanuts and Kettle Chips*

Vastation

Horror

On horror, and I’ve been pondering John Clute’s concept of Vastation. He defines it as the moment in horror when artifice is stripped away, and the world is revealed in its true, bleak, sanity blasting magnificence.

In Lovecraft, it would be the moment when you find out about Cthulhu; in Stephen King, the point at which you realise that your husband really has been lost to a hotel; in Ramsey Campbell, the dusk second when you understand that the dead tramp with a copper coin covering each eye really is haunting you personally.

A new truth about the world has been unveiled, and it has been shown to be a directly, inevitably threatening place. In Horror, innate rightness is a comforting illusion that can only be dispelled. The action of horror is the approach of truth, a truth that removes any real possibility of a full, completed consolation.

We’ve just come out of a century of Vastation – as Adorno had it, one that left lyric poetry an impossible thing to honestly write – and we’re heading into another one. As such, Horror isn’t a fantastic literature; it’s an honest and (sadly) very realist response to the ongoing brutality and insecurity that our action as humans reveals, again and again and again.

Serial killing

Genre, Horror

A note today that’s not so much about horror as about thriller. I’m halfway through ‘The Lonely Dead’, the second book in Michael Marshall’s (better known to genre fans as Michael Marshall Smith) Straw Men series. It’s compulsive reading. Having finished the first one, ‘The Straw Men’, I went straight out and bought two and three, and now I’m binging.

Over and above the plot driven unputdownability, what’s really fascinating about Marshall’s work is the subtext. The books so far have been obsessed with aging and decay, with coming to a maturity that has at its core a deep, disenchanted awareness of the transience of life and its pleasures.

Marshall doesn’t make Hannibalised anti-heroes of his serial killers. Rather, he keeps them at the margins of his story. They remain unglamourised, anonymous. He’s concerned with the effects of their actions, rather than the actions themselves.

That anonymity allows them to perform an important thematic function. In narrative terms, they’re barely privileged beyond other in-narrative killers – lung cancer, for example. As such, they form part of a complex rhetorical web, coming to symbolise the random, shattering, inevitable action of death itself.

I started by saying that these books are thrillers, but having written the above I’m now not sure about that. In some ways, they’re deepest horror, obsessing about the one inevitability that we all share; that that implacable serial killer death waits for every one of us, leaving only empty space and the effects of our passing as traces of our lives.

H and I go movie

Film, Horror

Well, a short entry today pondering ‘Carnival of Souls’ and last night’s piece of filmgoing, ‘Yella’. They are related, both being spooky and subtle tales of the possibly supernatural, but I can’t tell you why because I’d blow key plot twists

So instead of anything specific, a very quick thought. Writers who are primarily realists can see a step into the supernatural as being very liberating – and that sense of liberation can be very destructive, as it leads to the abandonment of anything like narrative logic and therefore any sense of satisfying resolution.

That abandonment is even more frustrating if the writing that surrounds it is superb. It shows a failure of imagination on behalf of the writer – or rather, a failure to realise that the weird isn’t an end in itself; it’s just one more tool to support the communication of truth through narrative.

Remembering Tim Page

Art, Horror, Photography, War

I’ve just been set thinking about Tim Page by an introduction to one of the stories in this year’s ‘Year’s Best Horror’. He was one of my teenage heroes, perhaps the best photographer to cover the Vietnam War. So, I’ve been rooting round on the web to take another look at his pictures.

What’s striking about them is their combination of formal precision and emotional immediacy. Page was always an artist as much as a journalist, creating images that both described the historical moment and spoke more broadly of the shock, disruption and terrible waste inherent in war.

Aestheticising responses to war, to tragedy in general, have been criticised, but I think they’re terribly important. They distance the shock from the moment, helping to move it from the particular to the universal. Page’s photographs were taken almost forty years ago; but they still function as a powerful and effective comment on events of today.

To use Pound’s formulation (given that he’s been such a strong presence this week), ‘art is news that stays news’. Making art from the moment is a process of distancing meaning from the temporary – making sure that the core is preserved, and that the work created will have all the immediacy of the moment 50, 100, 1,000 years from the moment of its creation.

Non-realist writing of any kind makes that distance as overt as possible. In the current critical climate, that openness lays it open (at least if you’re writing prose fiction) to much negative commentary. For me, the most constructive response to that kind of negativity is not to point to the quality of the work itself but rather to the aesthetics that underlie its relationship with reality.

But back to Tim Page. Arguments about aesthetics are really secondary to the quality and impact of the work itself. Here’s a link to his online gallery, well worth checking out.

I tend to over-intellectualise things; looking at his pictures after writing the above has reminded me that sometimes you’ve just got to step back from all of that, and just look at the work, and take it in, and let it go to work on you. His pictures do that; they’re just fantastic. Enjoy!

Crossing Lovecraft

Horror, Religion, Science Fiction

Today as it turns out is looking very hectic, and I’m out and about tonight, so instead of a long typed-in-the-evening post about Hal Duncan (I’m going to a talk on Norse Gods, etc), here’s a short rant about H. P. Lovecraft.

Not so much about Lovecraft, in fact; more about August Derleth’s misappropriation of the Lovecraftian mythos. I’m currently ripping through his pulpily enjoyable ‘The Trail of Cthulhu’ and was – unsurprisingly – enjoying it in a pulpy kind of way until I came across this:

‘ …the striking parallel which forced itself upon me, a divinity student, a parallel which could not be overlooked, was plain – the similarity between the tale of the revolt of the Great Old Ones against the Elder Gods, and that other, more universally known tale of the revolt of Satan against the forces of the Lord.’

Well, where do I start? At a stroke, Derleth breaks the fundamental nihilism of Lovecraft’s vision, replacing his driven obsession with the minute insignificance of humanity with a narrative that rescales human morality as a fundamental operating principle of the entire cosmos.

I’m not sure what puts me out more – the arrogance of the change in scale, or the casualness with which HPL’s entire worldview is discarded. Both are equally disconcerting – and both make me wonder if this is a book I particularly feel like finishing, now.

Flattering amnesia

Horror, Modernity

John Clute makes a fascinating point in the current Interzone – ‘[contemporary planetary] horror is what happens when amnesia fails’. He goes on to reference W. G. Sebald, who alas I haven’t read, so of course I fell to thinking about H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe – and, of course, amnesia itself.

What’s fascinating about the amnesia comment is its implicit definition of the human condition. As people, it makes us forgetters of a disturbing truth we once knew very well. Human-ness – with all its positive qualities – isn’t a fundamental feature of ourselves, of our moral universe. It’s an escapist construct, designed to comfort and protect.

Given this, truth becomes implicitly Lovecraftian. To seek it out is, by definition, a debasing experience. Where, historically, pursuit of truth has been seen as a transcendent activity, it has now become a descendent, devolutionary one. To uncover the truth is to find out that you are in fact much less than you thought you were.

Lovecraft had this down cold. His truth seekers either go mad, retreat into willed ignorance, or just discover that they aren’t in fact human after all. Read from a non-humanist standpoint, the only sane people in his universe are the cultists. If truth breaks any higher good, then you might as well just have fun (and make sure that you’re either the first or the last to be eaten by Elder Gods etc, according to preference and temperament).

By contrast, Poe still has a sense of morality to him. Dig into Lovecraft, and you end up in an existential void; dig into Poe, and you’re condemning murderers, being shocked by necromancers and feeling contempt for swingers. Poe’s world is horrific, but that horror is an aberration, not an innate quality. It’s a place where uncovering truth is cathartic, not caustic. For him it’s the crime, not the context, that’s an act of amnesia.

Poe’s a 19th Century writer, Lovecraft a 20th Century one. We’re in the 21st Century now, and I can’t help wondering what the 21st Century definition of horror will be. I suspect Clute will be able to help there; when I’ve got a minute, I think I’ll be picking up his recent book, ‘The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror’, an apparently fascinating contribution to horror criticism.

But for the moment, I’m not sure what I’d define it as. The real question to ask is, I suppose, where do we find our sense of cultural security at this point in time? Horror subverts security. But that question leads to despair. Poe subverted moral order. Lovecraft subverted flattering illusions of moral order. We remain a culture that finds security in illusion. Where do you go from there?

Swamp moralities

Fantasy, Horror, Psychology, Superheroes

Well, it’s been a wonderful period of battery refreshing and book rewriting. The book’s in good shape now – 20,000 words shorter, more emotionally coherent and much, much more focussed. So that will be going out to various people over the next few weeks. Very exciting!

And of course I’ve been doing much re-reading. In particular, inspired by the magnificent Byron Orpheus, I’ve been grooving to Marvel’s bonkers-but-wonderful master of magic Doctor Strange. Supported by his master, teacher and friend, The Ancient One, Strange battles various different kinds of cosmic evil while occasionally worrying about paying pharmacy bills, remodelling his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum to fit in with local property law, etc.

It’s highly recommended; the artwork is both profoundly psychedelic and utterly precise, and the writing gives the stories a propulsive, addictive momentum that makes Doctor Strange’s adventures a pleasure to read. What’s really interesting, however, is the way that the comic treats evil – and the way that that sets up Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on ‘Swamp Thing’ in the 80s.

In Doctor Strange, evil is very objectified. Just as Strange is aware that he both is and represents good, so his opponents very self consciously both are and represent evil. This is something they’re very proud of, monologuing from time to time to time about their glorious wickedness, etc.

For me, this is a very limiting moral stance. Evil is complex; it’s far more than just an external person-to-be-zapped. Having been deep in Jung also while away, I’d read it as much as a reflection of aspects of ourselves we’re uncomfortable with as an external destructive force. Over and above this, there’s the problem that most people read themselves as good. Baron Mordo’s and Dormammu’s (two key villains) ‘my glorious wickedness’ speeches don’t ring true to me, for this reason.

I haven’t read much of the rest of the Marvel corpus, so I’m not quite sure to what extent this kind of binary, artificial treatment of evil occurs elsewhere, but there are indications in Doctor Strange that even Ditko / Lee (the creative time behind the early strip) were uncomfortable with it. There’s a very interesting moment when Dormammu is pointed up as being a hero in his own culture; Strange realises that his conception of evil is particular, not universal. But that perception isn’t followed through in any real depth.

Or at least, it’s not followed through in early ‘Doctor Strange’. But it’s fundamental to Alan Moore’s legendary 80s run on DC’s ‘Swamp Thing’. So, once again, it’s time to stop and consider just why Alan Moore is god…

‘Swamp Thing’ is ostensibly about a shambling pile of mud, leaves and psychedelic mushrooms coming to terms with the fact that it’s not – as it had believed – a mutated human, but rather an almost entirely supernatural earth elemental.

It’s utterly magnificent, for a variety of different reasons. It combines horror with fantasy, satire with action, cosmic psychedelic adventures with down-home spookiness. It invents John Constantine, of Hellblazer fame. It has Superman scratching his head and admitting he’s powerless before ecology. And it’s a complex meditation on the nature and meaning of evil.

Guided by Constantine and the Parliament of Trees, the Swamp Thing goes through a series of adventures that both help it understand its true nature and powers and force it to confront the limitations of binary good / evil conceptions.

It fights a werewolf; but the werewolf has been triggered by one woman’s frustration at centuries of patriarchal oppression. It wipes out a nest of vampires; but the vampires are motivated by the need to raise and protect their young. It protects some lost aliens; but the aliens are being attacked by our own innately carnivorous ecology – and so on.

Every adventure is a step on the road to initiation, that is to a development of a sophisticated understanding of the limitations of moral judgement in the face of the depth and complexity of natural living. The quest is exemplified in a question that the Parliament of Trees puts to the Swamp Thing – ‘where is evil in all of the wood?’

The answer comes when the Swamp Thing reaches the narrative’s climax. He’s been trained to confront an existential threat, a dark *thing* that is rising from the depths of the cosmos to threaten all before it. Other heroes attack the thing and are swatted away with no effort at all. The Swamp Thing steps into it and engages with it.

I’m not going to describe the story’s climax – you should go and read it! Suffice to say that the Swamp Thing answers his question, stepping beyond good and evil and taking part in an almost alchemical marriage of opposites. The simplistic moralities that animate the Doctor Strange stories are simultaneously neutralised and transcended.

This cosmic narrative is echoed in the Swamp Thing’s own development, after the event. The warring sides of his personality – human and non-human – are reconciled, and he finds a new peace as a fully individuated post-human, settling down with his anima and (at least for a while) retiring. There’s a deep metaphor for character development going on there as well, built at least in part (I suspect) on Jung’s thinking on personality development and fulfilment. But more on that another time….

In the meantime, suffice to say that Alan Moore’s rethinking of Marvel morality in ‘Swamp Thing’ is a fascinating part of his broader 80s project – the further development of superhero comics as a complex set of metaphors for the way we live and feel and develop, now.