Sunday, December 26, 2010

First White Christmas

We took a decoration from our tree and posed it outside. The decoration is an original of a set given to us by my parents. My mom decorated her trees when I was a child with this Christmas ball.

The snow was steady and abundant, loud in the silence of the windless still day.

Back of our house facing west. Same angle as the snow from February this year.

Looking from our bedroom down our driveway.

Walking in my first White Christmas. We ended up with about two inches, wet and packed.

Yesterday was my first white Christmas. My daddy tells me that he and mom went to the back of my grandparent’s farm in 1957 and cut a small pine tree for Christmas. It snowed that day, but it was gone by Christmas here. In 1993 there was allegedly a dusting of snow at Christmas here but Jennifer and I didn’t live here then. We were in the metro Atlanta area and it didn’t snow that far south. According to what I can gather, this is otherwise the first White Christmas here since the 1880's.

So, yesterday was a special day for me, I will never forget it. The posture of the day was spiritual, like my day discovering the Beauty of St. Augustine or our first day of the trip to Boston last year or canoeing in the calm cove at Lake Seed this past summer. The karma flowed fluidly. The miracle of your first white Christmas isn’t a long memory. It is truly in the Now without any effort to find it there.

Snow turns southerners into child-like elves, giddy with excitement. It happens so infrequently in the deeper South, not a common occurrence at all. But, to snow on Christmas Day…OMG!

I was first up and made coffee, checked emails. Jennifer and I enjoyed a cup before my daughter arose. No Santa Claus this year, of course. That was for smaller children at other homes. The three of us opened gifts, each being pleasantly surprised at something. Then it was time for us to get on the phone or on Facebook and interact with family and friends. My daughter wanted to go visit her cousin so she could show off her latest duds. The cousin was at my parents’ house, where we had celebrated the season on Christmas Eve.

I had called earlier. My mom shocked me with a matter-of-fact announcement that it was snowing at their house. Even though they live only about four miles to our north there was no snow at our house at the time. I checked the internet weather. Snow was definitely coming and the seam of the front was literally right over us. My daughter and I made a quick jaunt over to my parents. Halfway there we ran into a sudden, fairly heavy snow. It wasn’t laying on the ground yet other than accumulating as slush. Still, the sight of it falling out of the sky put an uncontrollable smile on faces.

My daughter got to see her cousin (just six months younger) and they compared things they had opened first thing Christmas morning. I got to give my sister and parents a Christmas morning kiss and hug. They were having breakfast. We only stayed for a few minutes. My daughter drove over there but I drove back. By the time we returned Jennifer’s parents had just arrived from town. Now it was snowing big, steady flakes and starting to lay here and there. There was no wind.

It has been years since we’d seen the shrubs and bushes draped over from the weight of the wet whiteness. We had champagne, opened gifts and enjoyed a simple late breakfast. I showed Jennifer’s parents a nicely bound photo book of our 2008 Alaska trip (which started this blog) that was one of Jennifer’s gifts to me. It contained many photos as well as some thoughtful written impressions by her. I gave her a well-crafted set of martini glasses which delighted her.

The late breakfast featured (from my perspective anyway) a pound of Hormel Black Label center cut bacon (the only time I cook bacon all year is Christmas morning). There wasn’t a piece of it left, my daughter consuming much of it. Then we went outside to take pictures of the snowfall with Jennifer’s mom and dad. They didn’t stay that long since they wanted to get back to town before the roads started to get more than slushy. Then I took my daughter to her boyfriend’s house to have dinner over there. I went in and wish the boyfriend’s mom a Merry Christmas. It was my first time to meet her.

Jennifer and I enjoyed another bottle of champagne, discussed cooking and art and she looked out our remodeled den’s tall window-view. We toasted our first white Christmas together. She had known some in her youth in New York. Jennifer pondered, watching the snow fall abundantly. It was windless with big flakes falling without any sign of letting up. So quiet was our farm and so heavy was the snow that you could hear it falling and packing itself onto our land. Jennifer said: “People cannot look upon this and not be changed.”

Exactly. She and I shared a complete appreciation for the Now. In a time when the spirit of the season is ever more difficult to find, we enjoyed a completely spiritual day and it just happened to be Christmas Day, the mixture of pagan traditions with the Christ-birth story. Those traditions and that story formed a part of the narrative of the day for me.

I was raised in a small country church which I attended regularly until somewhere in my college years. It became more infrequent until I was 26, when I quite going to church regularly at all. The important things, in this case, are not the clearer but fading memories of college and high school. The genuine importance lies in the now mostly forgotten first 12 years of your Being in a church community. When I was a Child and felt life as a Child.

I cannot deny my church past affects me as many other experiences of childhood do, but this effect is different for I was a spiritual child as I am a spiritual adult today, as I was when I went on my quest to India, for example. I know the New Testament well though I need to restudy it someday.

The pagan traditions, for me, are religions of Nature. They chose to celebrate Being on the land and in the forest. I certainly relate to that. It was the primary reason I wanted to acquire some acreage of my own and to be surrounded by as much farmland as possible. For there, too, I am a Child. I fully respect the fundamental, cyclical love of nature in paganism.

Being within the inspiration of a first experience is where we can most easily touch childhood. Stepping into that lifeworld we are young again in many ways. The day is lite and easy and so full of satisfaction and we are energized by what’s happening in the moment. Walking and playing in the snow.

One of my nieces and my sister were playing some word game that I had never heard of before. My little niece catches on fast with her bright mind and very forceful opinion. The word for that part of the game was “depression.” My niece was wholly puzzled. “What is that?” My sister explained in general terms it was when someone just didn’t feel well a lot of the time and just wanted to mope around. My niece almost laughed. “No body gets that,” she giggled. She’s been bouncing around like crazy, happy for days. Childhood again. If that’s not the spirit of Christmas I can’t imagine what is.

This morning Jennifer and I listened to George Winston’s December very softly on the stereo before my daughter awoke from her long, late sleep. The first tune of that CD is representative of the gears in my frame of mind today, the day after the child in me played in its first white Christmas. The tune is called “Thanksgiving”, which is such a perfect word for the wonders of mystery and possibility in the Now.

It is windy today and much colder, only getting up into the twenties. 20 mile per hour gusts. We read and watch movies and play video games and wargames and listen to music and wash clothes and do other small cleaning chores. We make meals and take care of dog maintenance and go for short walks on the crunchy packed blanket of white and watch the internet for a chance of more snow - only it seems too cold for snow.

We reflect on what was for me and my daughter (my child) a true first white Christmas. So, for my family, a double first white Christmas. But, maybe more than that. It has been so long since Jennifer has had a snowy Christmas she only dimly remembered those of her New York days. So, in essence, she was experiencing it all anew, as my daughter and I.

Of other first Christmas' I can only imagine how my little niece must have been in the snow yesterday. She had all the energy to play in it but none of the experience to know it for a rarity. Yet because of her lack of experience her expression of child Being is an inspiration if you like. Beginner's Mind.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Red Moon at Solstice

Last night while I slept something happened that has not occurred in several hundred years. I have found different dates online for the last time Earth experienced such an event, depending upon where you live in the world I suppose. But, the most recent date is 1638. The next time it will occur in the US is 2094.

The event was a
total lunar eclipse on the Winter Solstice. This is a significant, rare astronomical occurrence. According to Jennifer, it means big things astrologically too. But, I usually let her fill me in on those details.

It has always fascinated me that the relative sizes of the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun allow for total eclipses. Think about it. The Sun is about 93 million miles away, the Moon is about 240,000 miles away. And yet
the Moon can near-perfectly blot out the Sun on certain occasions. The Sun happens to be about 400 times the size of the Moon and is almost 400 times the distance of the Moon from the Earth. If there is a case to be made for divine intervention in creation (which I don’t think there is personally), then it has this interesting coincidence to suggest support of such a perspective.

The same is true for the Earth. When it moves between the Sun and the Moon our planet’s shadow is cast across the Moon’s surface slowly turning it a dark reddish color. I have seen lunar eclipses before but early this morning I didn’t make the effort to go outside and see it for myself. I slept. It was just as well, we were under cloud cover at my house and
nothing of the night sky to could seen anyway.

Still, astronomical events like this not only reveal to me the wonders of Space but also the wonders of Time. The last time this happened
Galileo suffered from persecution by the Church for his scientific (i.e. blasphemous) observations about the actual workings of space. This was at the beginnings of our current science versus faith debate. Even though Galileo was a believing Christian, there is no tolerance for science where contradiction with orthodox religious doctrine is concerned. It was religion that fired the first shots in the debate as science had no ill-intent toward faith other than the will to more accurately interpret the workings of the universe.

It is noteworthy to point out that, by coincidence, Galileo went blind in 1638. So, the great astronomical pioneer never saw what was evident to so many in the wee hours of this morning.

Be that as it may,
a lunar eclipse is a wonder to behold. Witnessing the Moon in a seemingly unnatural reddish hue accentuates that things are not as fixed in the universe as they may seem to us. Everything is in flux and motion and we are by no means the center of anything within the vastness of space.

It is interesting to note that, prior to 1638, there has not been a lunar eclipse on the Winter Solstice in the last 2,000 years, yet the next one will occur just 84 years for now. Maybe, like humanity itself, the universe is speeding up. But, in truth, the universe is filled with really meaningless coincidences. The timing of the next Winter Solstice lunar eclipse has nothing to do with the apparent expansion of the universe. Our minds naturally have the persistent human habit of connecting similarities and infusing them with significance.

It doesn’t really matter to me, however, that the universe is not designed with humanity in mind. I am content to live within my human boundaries and allow my mind to extend beyond such limitations, through my hopes, aspirations, and rational understanding to touch the physical immensity with my limited means. And most of all to appreciate that there are wonders to be known and cherished in the heart of space…even as I slept on this Winter Solstice. Acknowledging the shortest day of the year and knowing that from this day until June’s Summer Solstice the Earth’s natural motion will bring the Sun higher in my view of the sky. As we have journeyed into the darkness these past months, now more light shall return.

Happy, peaceful, Solstice. Welcome Yule!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Lovecraft Fetish: Part Three

My other favorite H. P. Lovecraft short story is The Colour Out of Space which is about a meteorite that crashes into an out of the way ordinary family farm 20 miles or so outside the city of Arkham. Scientists from Miskatonic University take samples of the meteorite and notice in the globular nature of the specimen an indescribable but definitively strange and unique color.

Gradually, the unfortunate, common farm family suffers hardship after hardship though they are innocent and undeserving of their plight. Their animals get sick, the fruit trees bare foul tasting juices, other trees turn grey, grass dies, and eventually even the family’s dogs are all dead.

Meanwhile, the family members, one by one, go crazy. The mother first, gibbering mindless sounds. The farmer locks her in the attic and feeds her. She screams a lot. Then one of the farmer’s boys ends up the same way. He, speaking gibberish too, ends up in a separate room of the attic. Mother and son scream undecipherable utterances at each other in the attic. The youngest son thinks it is almost like a foreign language. Are they talking up there?

Over the course of about a year everything with a simple 5-acre span of where the meteor struck dies and decays into powder. Part of the meteor somehow fell into the family’s well. Out of that well one night the inimitable color of the original globule starts to glow. The trees start shaking though there is no wind, gradually the entire 5 acres glows in the night turning what life was left into grey powder.

“The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well – seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism.”

“The hideous thing” suddenly shoots straight into the sky and vanishes, leaving darkness behind. In a nutshell that is the story, though I only hit the highest highlights. Obviously, from just the small paragraph I quoted the reading of this piece of art is rewarding if you’re into the weird at all. As I am.

But, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story, the part that takes the horror far beyond the afflicted family farm, is that the story is narrated by a surveyor who is finalizing plans for a new reservoir that will flood the region, including the well with the contamination from space. It is mentioned in passing near the beginning of the tale: “The reservoir will soon be built now, and all those elder secrets will be safe under watery fathoms…and nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham.”

Lovecraft, at his best, tells us of horrific tragedy inflicted upon individual human beings, some completely innocent, some seeking things that should never be sought. But, in the end, he brings the terror of the intimate into the periphery of the ultimate and, thereby, is your private world and everyone else’s consumed by the pervasive and cosmic madness.

Actually, the barebones plot does not spoil the story. Reading Lovecraft’s prose, like reading Marcel Proust, is a special treat beyond what happens in the story. He paints exquisite impressions with phrases, evoking often contradictory feelings or sensations, exact without actually being concrete and builds complexity and tension as he moves to an ominous end.

The Outsider, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror, The Music of Erich Zann, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth are all first-rate short stories, regardless of the genre. They are literature well written, with many memorable passages that just beg to be reread. Full of shocks, surprises, relentless foreboding and building of tension, and at their best they affect the reader in a troubling yet entertaining way, atmospheric, giving you more of a feeling about what happens than a neatly tied up conclusion. There is little closure in Lovecraft. Whatever happens tends to linger. Often the implication is that the story isn’t really over at the end of the tale. There’s more waiting to happen.

My overview of Lovecraft would not be complete without mentioning his “dream cycle” stories. Lovecraft’s body of weird fiction can be roughly divided into three parts. There are the strictly classic horror stories, the Mythos stories, and then there are the stories which largely take place inside dreams. I don’t particularly care for this third set of stories. Some of the shorter ones like Celephais are interesting and rather lyrically written. But, his more ambitious efforts like the short novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath are cumbersome to get through. Unlike his other stories, the dream cycle stuff strikes me as too ridiculous to connect with, and tends to put me to sleep. Maybe that’s the point! Kidding. Dreams were important to Lovecraft. He had a vivid and rich dream life personally. But, his attempts to convey this within a plotted story usually turn up flat for me.

Lovecraft was a prodigious writer even though his fiction output is nothing spectacular in terms of quantity. He would sometimes go 5-6 years without writing any weird fiction but for hiring himself out as a ghost writer. During these times he wrote massive amounts of mediocre poetry, authoritative scientific treatises (usually on astronomy), literary criticisms, philosophical essays, extensive travelogues (particularly of Charleston, SC, New Orleans, and Quebec), and more than 100,000 personal letters. A prodigious number. The man wrote numerous correspondences virtually every day of his adult life. A lot of golden prose has been unearthed in his letters and selections of them have been available in print for years. Excerpts of all these fields of work, particularly for Lovecraft’s philosophic pieces, are a rewarding read for me.

Regardless of what he was writing, Lovecraft used words in a rather archaic way that I nevertheless find highly provocative. What drives the plot forward (or the subject in the case of essays) are these almost Proustian gestations of simultaneous beauty, emotion, strangeness, with an underlying tone of cosmic significance to what is happening.

Lovecraft frequently used the arts to describe the nature of the horrors he chose to summon. An example of this can be seen in the reference to Henry Fuseli in the passage above or to Sidney Sime and Anthony Angarola in the extended quotation of my previous post. The frequent mentions of works by Nicholas Roerich in At The Mountains of Madness are another fine example. Lovecraft was partial to referring to painters in his work, and enjoyed going to art museums in real life. Here again, he is like Marcel Proust, though Proust was considerably better versed in the arts than Lovecraft. With his often stunning prose, Lovecraft has much in common with Proust, in my opinion.

“As it is, the chief contemporary novelist of the day, for Lovecraft, was neither American nor British but French – Marcel Proust. Although he never read more than the first two volumes in English of Remembrance of Things Past, he nevertheless doubted that ‘the 20th century has so far produced anything to eclipse the Proustian cycle as a whole’. Proust occupied the ideal middle ground between stodgy Victorianism and freakish modernism.” (Joshi, page 578)

I have said Lovecraft was fundamentally a Late-Romantic. One way this is in evidence is how he felt about the mechanization of society, something we take for granted today but, nevertheless, is still a source of stress and brooding. Part of Lovecraft’s relevance today must reside in his initial protest of many aspects of early modernity. For example, Lovecraft felt that the effect of modern industrialization was to blemish his rather na├»ve and ideal impression of human aristocracy.

Lovecraft appreciated antiquarian aristocratic culture, especially in his travels during the 1930’s to the southern US and other places he relished. Here, as in his home town of Providence, he saw “tradition” still empowered beyond the threats of modernity. But he feared for the future of tradition.

Aristocratic custom was corrupted by the machine, transforming it into “‘one of wealth, splendor, power, speed, quality and responsibility alone; for having been erected on the basis of acquisition and industry.’ It would embody ‘the crude ideal of doing as opposed to the civilized ideal of being.’ The true gentleman – a vanishing breed – should simply exist and let the world come to him. The machine age, Lovecraft warned, would soon ruin the South as it had the Northeast. ‘Nothing good can become of that cancerous machine-culture…’ While he had enjoyed his airplane ride, ‘I’d hate to see aeroplanes come into common commercial use, since they merely add to the goddamn useless speeding up of an already over-speeded life; but as devices for the amusement of a gentleman, they’re ok.’” (de Camp, page 343)

H.P. Lovecraft was a fascinating person and an exceptionally talented writer with a bright, multi-faceted mind. His many personal idiosyncrasies, particularly his racism and his interest in writing weird fiction, tend to put-off many serious students of literature yet it cannot be denied that his influence is still largely felt in the genre of the horror. Moreover, several of his short stories compare favorably with any author of any genre in that art form. His troubled creations still reverberate today, seemingly more relevant than ever, when most literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s is largely forgotten. This is a testament to a special kind of talent, one I have recognized and appreciated for almost my entire adult life.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Lovecraft Fetish: Part Two

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” – The opening paragraph from The Call of Cthulhu (1926).

Just an extraordinary piece of prose, reflecting of
H.P. Lovecraft’s unmatched talent to disturb. The Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite short stories of all authors and times. Cthulhu (see here for pronunication) is the cornerstone of spiritual terror, it has no literary precedent and yet many imitators and mimickers. With Cthulhu Lovecraft declares a literary summit. Cthulhu, a “Great Old God” in the world of Lovecraft, is dreaming in R’lyeh and waits to rise on Earth again.

The story is a rather odd collection of discovered texts, newspaper clippings, and fantastic events. The structure of the story is to have a lot of levels, stories within stories. Discovery of discoveries. The reader is in jeopardy here. When you read this story you read things you were not meant to know. Don’t put the pieces together. Cthulhu is
dead but dreaming.

The narrator of the story opens an old safe he finds amongst the papers and legal business of his recently, mysteriously, deceased great uncle, a professor. Therein he finds a bas-relief of Cthulhu.
Lovecraft actually drew what was on it later. He describes Cthulhu in detail in the story. Within the safe there are notes regarding two separate, previous events. First, in 1925, a young artist who created the bas-relief came to the now dead professor, inspired by a bizarre dream that the young man had after an earthquake that happened the previous evening. (The earthquake actually occurred in New England in January 1925. It woke Lovecraft up at 3AM.)

Leaving out a significant amount of details for the sake of brevity, the weird thing is that the now dead professor had seen this bas-relief before. In 1908, the professor was attending an archeological meeting in St. Louis. A police investigator visited this meeting, coming all the way from New Orleans. The investigator brought with him a statuette that had been captured from a raid by the police upon a murderous "voodoo cult" there. Of course, it is the statuette of the bas-relief the professor saw inspired by the young man’s dream.

Another professor attending the meeting had seen this statuette back in the 1860’s while studying a strange Eskimo cult in Greenland. The story begins to take on this worldwide context. There are newspaper clippings of dreams, events, around the time of the earthquake. Lovecraft uses fragments of other documents to tell his story. It is a very masterful technique.

The raid on the voodoo cult resulted from a mass murder investigation. The victims were apparently sacrifices in a wild ritual around which this statuette was the center.

“Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises heard by Legrasse’s men as they ploughed on through the black morass toward the red glare and the muffled tom-toms. There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other. Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell.

“In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre’s extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a
Sims or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous with its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.

“It may have been only imagination and it may have been only echoes which induced one of the men, an excitable Spaniard, to fancy he heard antiphonal responses to the ritual from some far and unillumined spot deeper within the wood of ancient legendry and horror. This man, Joseph D. Galvez, I later met and questioned; and he proved distractingly imaginative. He indeed went so far as to hint of the faint beating of great wings, and of a glimpse of shining eyes and a mountainous white bulk beyond the remotest trees—but I suppose he had been hearing too much native superstition.”

At this point, our narrator, reading all this once locked-up stuff of his great uncle, remains skeptical, though obviously the whole conundrum is drawing him in, as he begins to actually interview some of these people on his own. According to accounts,
the voodoo cult is actually a global cult that worships a Great Old One Cthulhu who was from “dark space”, is older than humanity, and is dreaming deep under the sea until the god rises up to reign in the world again. The cult waits, passing its tradition down generation by generation until the stars are right again. At that time worldwide, independent, cultish tribes will perform the necessary ritual to reawaken Cthulhu. The cult will always be waiting, we are told.

The narrator begins to suspect that his great uncle, who died under strange circumstances, might have been murdered by members of this cult, even if the cult is neurotic and essentially fake. It is interesting that this information is revealed by the narrator telling his great uncle’s story who is telling the investigator’s story, who is telling the story of one of the voodoo cult members. Four stories deep here. A very innovative way to present the story elements.

The final part of the story is how the narrator, sometime later, having dismissed the information in his great uncle’s safe, came across a newspaper article accidentally. It is about a Norwegian sailor who was attacked by another ship near New Zealand. It turns out that, once again, a strange idol is involved in the attack and the narrator decides to make an attempt to contact the lone Norwegian sailor who survived the ordeal. Venturing to Norway he discovers the sailor has died under mysterious circumstances as well. But, he left behind a written account of what happened, which was in English because the sailor’s wife did not know that language. The sailor wanted to record his experience in a way his wife would not know, to keep her safe from the knowledge.

The narrator reads the account which turns out to be an action-packed encounter with Cthulhu itself. This encounter takes place near the date of the earthquake which was felt in New England and which, apparently, caused all these weird dreams globally and the young artist’s original rendering of the bas-relief which started all this. This earthquake did not cause the Norwegian’s ship to drift off course, however; that was due to a massive storm that struck on the day of the quake.

Leaving out many details for the sake of brevity, the Norwegian miraculously survives an actual encounter with Cthulhu (though many men are killed). In the end our narrator is fearful for his life because he feels, just as his great uncle knew too much, and as the Norwegian sailor knew too much, both dying mysteriously, so, too, now the narrator has this dread hanging over him. End of story.

Next to, perhaps, The Dunwich Horror, The Call of Cthulhu is Lovecraft’s most famous work, the true birth of the Mythos he himself opened to other authors. It is an epic story well told in a little over an hour’s read. In it he uses a lot of rather obscure (today) words like “
eldritch” and “gibbous”. Those occur often in his tales usually with several other words as just as archaic. Lovecraft's writing has a Late-Romantic quality that I thoroughly enjoy.

Structurally, the story consists of fragments pieced together and the existential fear of the narrator for his own life now that he understands the cosmic basis for reality which is ultimately under the sway of a dead God dreaming, whenever it returns. As fantastic as that is, it is just as much an expression of postmodern anxiety. That type of spiritual terror is so precisely relevant to these uncertain times right now, as of this post. With the economy uncertain, especially the impact of future budget cuts to public benefits. Relations with North Korea and Iran uncertain. Uncertainty about cyber war. Uncertainty about climate change as we were once uncertain about nuclear war. There is this pervasive, underlying, feeling of dread transcending mindful society and extending into cyberspace. Lovecraft understands the overwhelming sense of indifference by superior forces at work in our lives. This is outstanding literature.

In the next post I’ll cover another favorite story and try to wrap this Lovecraft obsession up (for now).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Lovecraft Fetish: Part One

There was a time long ago when my spiritual path took me through occult ways for about two years. It was a rather intense period, virtually all of which I now reject, but I learned a lot, chiefly about how human psychology is of greater power than most people realize. By now I have forgotten much of the occultism that I used to think I knew. One thing I still retain is an interest in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. I have several guides on that subject and still occasionally dabble with the cards, often surprised at them, always entertained from a strictly intellectual perspective – as I am with most any system that stakes a claim to insight.

It was around this time that I started reading the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I found most of his tales highly entertaining and still do. My original mass-market paperbacks from that earlier time are on my bookshelf, appropriately filled with notations made through the years. The paperbacks have become rather atmospheric in themselves, the yellowed pages and slightly torn backings aid in the semblance and spirit of ancient, forbidden texts.

Since those days hardly a winter has gone by that I haven’t enjoyed at least two or three Lovecraft stories. Most are quick reads, requiring a half hour or less though Lovecraft’s best yarns need a more extended effort. There is a brooding, melancholic, and anxious aspect to my Being that connects with these classic horror and quasi-science fiction tales from Lovecraft’s bizarre and luminous mind.

Lovecraft’s distinctive brilliance is definitely tinged with strangeness to anyone who knows anything about him as a human being. As a child he was raised by an overly protective mother. He was sickly and never graduated from high school, being self-taught and becoming quite accomplished on his own at reading, writing, astronomy, history, and science (biology and chemistry particularly). He harbored several phobias, including neophobia and xenophobia.

He was a cat adoring, atheistic scientific materialist; a snobbish, anti-modernist antiquarian who staunchly supported Prohibition; a racist who was asexual (though he married once, briefly). Even though he was born to a fairly well-to-do family, he lived an adult life of borderline poverty, never able (or willing) to find a job, while approaching life with the basic attitude of an eighteenth century “gentleman.” As I said, somewhat strange. But, this certainly was not a detriment to his stories, which won him considerable renown within the amateur press and pulp fiction communities of his day.

You don’t read Lovecraft to be inspired. Or, at least, the inspiration he affords is limited to a sheer appreciation for his often exquisite prose and twisted plots. Rather, you read him to breathe in weird and creepy things imbibed within a thick, moist, odor. That’s the essential experience of it. Actually, horrid smells are often featured in his fiction, along with vast depth, vast height, the feeling of the gigantic, and at times an overwhelming indifference by things beyond our comprehension that tragically and often shockingly affect human lives.

One of his longer stories is the roughly 50,000 word The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which I reread recently for the first time in probably a decade. I finished it over three reading sessions and had forgotten what a splendid story it is. On top of being a rewarding trip into a distinctive form of classic horror, this short novel is of interest because it is a first draft only. Incredibly, feeling that the work was inadequate, Lovecraft never polished it nor did he attempt to get it published. Kenneth Hite calls Ward “one of the best horror novels of all time.” How could Lovecraft be so mistaken about it?

Lovecraft was notoriously critical of his own work and often submitted stories for several friends to read and critique before he considered publication. These critiques never resulted in rewrites or reworking anything. Lovecraft just took any negative comments by his friends to be signs of failure, of his own inability to attain a lofty goal. He desired to create a kind of fiction (he called it “weird fiction”), largely atmospheric in nature, but relevant to our times and touching the disquieting aspects of modernity (and I would argue post-modernity even more so) while exposing horrors largely created out of moods and associations in the reader’s mind which took the form of pervasive existential jeopardy and suspicion.

Lovecraft touches your Being both poetically and horrifically. Here’s a short sample of his style, it will take you less than five minutes to read, being somewhat of a fragment though complete in itself.

The Lovecraft section of my library is rather modest. Only a fraction of the books I have on Tolkien, for example. I have the seven original mass market paperbacks containing 90% of his fiction. I purchased these along with L. Sprague de Camp’s biography on the writer. It is very characteristic of me to buy the man’s biography. I was in my early twenties then. For many years these were enough Lovecraft for me. After all, I didn’t read him all the time, just once or twice most years when the urge struck me for a few days usually in cold, grey winter.

As we move into the 21st Century, Lovecraft has a worldwide cult following not as large as Tolkien’s, but perhaps rivaling C.S. Lewis, for example. Lovecraft is a hot postmodern commodity. Well-known genre writers like Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Anne Rice and Peter Straub pay homage to Lovecraft more than even Edgar Allan Poe. King, for example, says “Lovecraft is yet to be surpassed” as the “greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” Straub said Lovecraft was so original “he created his own genre.”

Indeed, after his death something known as “The Cthulhu Mythos” (not Lovecraft’s term) was immediately extended to other writers beginning in the 1940’s and it grew. It continues with anthologies by 21st Century writers of horror published with regularity. I am not interested in any of their work, however, I am only interested in the original, essential Lovecraft.

In the course of the last decade I have added a bit to my Lovecraft collection. I bought Straub’s anthology of Lovecraft in 2005. It contains a few minor revisions to some stories based on recent research. Also in 2005, the “definitive” edition of At The Mountains of Madness came out and I bought that. I personally rank at Mountains above Ward, though both short novels are excellent reads. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has written the most authoritative biography on Lovecraft which he recently expanded. I added it to my collection sometime since 2004. Joshi also recently came out with an annotated Ward, which I plan to acquire soon.

But the greatest addition to this little fetish of mine has been my discovery of the vibrant world of Lovecraft on the internet. After I read Ward, one thing led to another as it often does with me, and I curiously googled the web for what Lovecraft resources might be out there. It seems the Lovecraft niche is alive and thriving online. Several sites are noteworthy but in particular I am enjoying two podcasts that I found.

One podcast is of a literary bent. Each podcast features an analysis of a story by Lovecraft as illuminated by two bright, young, and humorous well-versed fans. They are taking each Lovecraft story in chronological order by when it was written (as opposed to when it was published). This is a cool way to approach Lovecraft’s body of work, as in later tales several of the major characters and places of his invention are either mentioned or reappear. The familiarity with them lends itself to the “realism” and “cosmic” intent with which the writer approached much of his fiction. William Faulkner, another favorite author of mine, also worked in this fashion, for example.

The other podcast is out of the United Kingdom and features news events, other readings, and songs from the 1920’s. It immerses you a bit in the “zeitgeist” of Lovecraft’s time. Unlike the prior podcast, this one attempts no literary analysis. Rather, it offers straightforward readings of Lovecraft. It took 14 podcasts to make it all the way through Ward, for example. Currently, Mountains is being read. There have been 8 parts as of this post.

I appreciate both these podcasts, particularly the hppodcraft guys. Their site has forums online to connect with other Lovecraftians out there. Since I don’t know any in my own life, just as with my fascination with Marcel Proust, I use cyberspace to share the social bond of literature. The exchange of ideas and “did you knows?” is a lot of fun, the humor being delightfully twisted.

I have several films based on Lovecraft stories, or inspired by them. Almost all of them are really bad B-grade horror, hardly watchable, usually bastardizing the original story. Lovecraft is extremely difficult to translate into film. With some notable exceptions, there is very little action in his stories, rarely a women to speak of, no dialog usually, and the terrible things that happen are rarely described directly and certainly never explained. They are, instead, captured atmospherically. You’d have to just read Lovecraft to know what I’m talking about. He creates a visceral sensation.

Some good films have been produced that are rather Lovecraftian in spirit though not in actual story. The most successful two are John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Both films are worthy of any personal collection. But, there is hope we might see a first-rate rendering of actual Lovecraft yet. Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron have announced their intent to make At the Mountains of Madness into a film by 2013. Being something of a Lovecraft purist I am skeptical this can be pulled off while remaining sufficiently faithful to the spirit of the great horror story’s author. But if anyone can pull it off these two guys might.

Like I said, in the postmodern world, Lovecraft is a hip, current, hot literary property relatively speaking. What makes his stories so special? I’m running a bit long here so that analysis will have to wait for the next post.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Vote for Person of the Year

Seems that 2010 will be the Year of WikiLeaks. In the spirit of the times, I wish to nominate Julian Assange to be Time Magazine's Person of the Year. But it isn't for reasons that you might think.

WikiLeaks has by now established itself as a rather unique place in cyberspace. Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of freedom that the internet makes possible; the disclosure of worldly secrets to an unknowing and largely ill-informed public. 2010 has marked a banner year for the whistle-blower web site with classified information on the Iraq War and the Afghan War being disseminated worldwide.

This was followed by the dumping of more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic documents beginning on November 28. There were a few rather major revelations that are no doubt embarrassing to the Obama Administration. If nothing else, it adds fuel to the fire that the president is inept in the way he conducts the business of the nation. Mostly, the documents strike me as rather benign, however. The Saudi's want the US to attack Iran's nuclear program, for example. Yawn.

Nevertheless, in the way karma works, Mr. Assange will now reap what he is sowing. First off, he is apparently wanted for rape in Sweden. That is rather old news, but it that it is being pursued now with special gusto. Yesterday, announced that WikiLeaks could no longer use the giant retailer's servers. I'm not sure what impact that will have, as the vastness of cyberspace will almost assuredly find a home for someone that generates as much web traffic as Mr. Assange.

Wherever WikiLeaks finds servers, however, they will doubtlessly come under cyber attack. Every attempt will be made by the US and perhaps other governments to deny Mr. Assange his freedom to express this sensitive information. This necessarily includes legal action. But, covert activity is to be expected as well. Hopefully, no personal harm will come to Mr. Assange. That would only martyrize his adolescent behavior.

Yes, I think the whole WikiLeaks affair reeks of adolescence. "You're mean and I'm gonna tell!" Total crap. If anything Mr. Assange's efforts will result in greater secrecy than ever before.

While I do not question the freedom in which Mr. Assange is acting, even if the information he is exposing online is illegally obtained, the freedom itself doesn't make the effort praiseworthy. Does Mr. Assange really think governments should not have dirty little secrets? Does he, furthermore, believe that the chiefly ignorant herd of humanity, who largely cannot appreciate the context for anything WikiLeaks reveals because they have no basis for context, deserves to know the dirty secrets of governments? Does he feel he is doing the world a service with his expression of freedom?

That strikes me as rather naive. Mr. Assange is like a child watching mommy and daddy do nasty things in the bedroom, taking pictures and posting them on the web. WikiLeaks is in that caliber of "information".

But WikiLeaks is simply symptomatic of a larger force at work in the world media. The force of the ever-expanding public sphere. (More on that in my conclusion.) The affair is comparable to the revelation of off-hand remarks by former Afghan War General Stanley McChrystal in the second-rate article that brought about the general's demise.

The sensational, the secret, the scandalous have always fascinated the public. It is a big part of human nature to be attracted to that which it wasn't intended to know. You know this is true. It reveals as much about who we are as the quest for liberty or salvation or enlightenment. Human beings are homo gossipus. We are especially attracted to "dirty laundry." Our essential nature is not much more elevated than that. Sorry Aristotle.

I cannot think of anyone who represents this tabloid nature of humanity than Julian Assange. And for that reason he deserves to be Person of the Year. He reflects a basic human aspiration; to know the secret, to eat of the "forbidden Tree of Knowledge" and to proclaim this act of knowing to be in and of itself a kind of liberation, a basis for protest, perhaps, and certainly giving the finger to authority.

The whole notion of freedom seems to me to be predicated as much on resisting authority, testing limits, and accessing facts regardless of the larger consequences. Indeed, it is the infliction of authority, the establishment of limitations, and the barriers to a kind of knowledge completely free of all responsibility that defines where absolute freedom ends and begins.

So, here's to Julian Assange, adolescent rebel against the parentage of classified government and corporate intelligence. Stomping his cyber feet and pitching a cyber fit in his glorious cyber expression of cyber freedom. The ultimate example of feeding the herd what it wants most. The massive dumping and ejaculation of information without context in an effort to elevate us all to the point where nothing is secret.

As the infringement on human privacy accelerates unabated, so does the yawning abyss of the public sphere open ever-wider to devour anything that any entity, public or private, wishes to keep to themselves. And the boundary of what is a Self (personal, corporate, government) dissolves into the great waste of collective things we desire to know without being any better for it.

Late note: Five days after this post Mr. Assange was arrested for rape and his web site is experiencing extraordinary difficulties staying online due to hack-attacks, which has led to counter-hacker activity, a kind of cyber war. Credit card companies and Paypal are now refusing to facilitate donations to Wikileaks. Mr. Assange has been denied bail in his arrest. Oh well, he asked for it.