Horror, the muse, and inspired madmen: My full introduction to Joe Pulver’s ‘Portraits of Ruin’

"The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun" by William Blake, 1803-5 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” by William Blake, 1803-05 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was involved in an intensive study of Beat literature, and for various reasons this turned my thoughts toward the prose of Joe Pulver. Joe’s style has often been compared in various ways to the famous “spontaneous prose” method pioneered by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and some of the other legendary Beat writers. Anybody who glances at a single page of one of his books can immediately understand why.

Last year I provided an introduction to Joe’s surreal horror fiction collection Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and as I explained here when I shared an excerpt from that introduction , the writing of it actually represented a record of my struggle in learning how to understand the book, which I presented in hopes of helping the reader learn to do the same.

Thomas Ligotti provided a blurb for the book, and when he read my contribution he commented that it could actually serve as an effective introduction to any type of poetic work. So here, as provoked by my recent engagement with Kerouac and Co., and bearing the official blessing of Hippocampus Press and Joe himself, is the full text of that intro. Maybe it will convince you to buy Portraits of Ruin and help you unlock its dark delights. Maybe it will provide you with some useful advice for approaching other works written in an unconventional style whose goal is to speak both to and from the non-rational side of consciousness.

In any case, I hope you find that it somehow speaks to the inspired madman lurking within the depths of your conventionally sane self.



Portraits of Ruin

Introduction by Matt Cardin

Plato once wrote, “But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.” This is a sentence rich with, and in fact threaded and structured along, a succession of deeply striking and evocative phrases and images: “the door of poetry . . . the madness of the Muses . . . sane companions . . . utterly eclipsed . . . the inspired madman.” They’re like a collage of implied spiritual-artistic meaning, a chant whose very intonation is at least as important as, and probably more than, its conceptual content. In other words, they gesture toward something, some transcendent reality they can’t quite articulate. Or at least that’s the way I like to take them, regardless of dear old Plato’s intentions.

And this, I think — both my fixation on this quote, which is talismanic for me, and my preferred way of reading it — is one of the main reasons why I find Joe Pulver’s Portraits of Ruin to be so deeply disquieting. Reading it, I begin to wonder, inadvertently, inexorably, about the name and nature of the particular door that he may have passed through in the pursuit of his art. I wonder about the identity of the particular Muse — dark, wild, daimonic — that may have maddened him. And wondering these things, I’m driven to doubt whether we, his sane companions, can ever really comprehend him, and I suspect that we must instead resign ourselves to having our understanding utterly eclipsed by the performances of this inspired madman.

* * *

I’ve always found “experimental” literature very difficult, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve produced a couple of pieces of it myself. Apparently as a fundamental fact of my literary taste and predilection, I’m drawn mostly to conventionally worded writings and traditionally structured narratives. Give me Lovecraft over Burroughs, Poe over Pynchon, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man over Ulysses (and especially over, God help us, Finnegan’s Wake). As with fiction, so with poetry: I’ll take Robert Frost over T.S. Eliot any day, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti just makes my head hurt.

Or actually, this has changed somewhat over the years. It was Robert Anton Wilson, of all people, who cracked open my cosmic-literary egg and initiated me into some of the pleasures and rewards of conventionally unreadable and/or incomprehensible writing. He loved to mix things up in his novels: plain old prose on one page, then stream of consciousness gibberish on the next, followed by a scene or two in screenplay format and then a metafictional flourish for good measure. And since I was drawn to him helplessly at age 19 when I recognized him as one of my natural philosophical mentors, I just rolled with it. I absorbed the lessons he overtly taught and subliminally imparted. All these years later, I find I’m grateful for this education when I approach the Pulver corpus and try to wrap my mind around it, or perhaps let it wrap its mind around me.

Literature, it turns out, can do a lot more than one might think, especially when it tries not to be literature, or to forget that there’s such a thing as restraint by medium, or to burst the bounds of what can actually be communicated via the written word, not just in terms of the concepts being broached but the very form in which they’re presented.

Sometimes it’s the attempt to say what can’t be said, or what can’t be said in any form that “makes sense,” that says the most.

* * *

William Stafford, the United States Poet Laureate from 1970 to 1971, penned what may be the single most brilliant essay on the art of writing that I’ve ever been privileged to read. The title is “A Way of Writing,” and Stafford uses it to present his philosophy — not abstract but applied, embodied — of the relationship between the authorial act and the writer’s very identity, and of the liberatory value writers can find in foregoing a sense of foresight and control by relying on their own innate coherence. “A writer,” he tells us, “is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them . . . If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected . . . I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.”

“Sometimes it’s the attempt to say what can’t be said, or what can’t be said in any form that ‘makes sense,’ that says the most.”

I don’t know if Joe Pulver has read this essay, but I kind of hope he hasn’t. It’s neater to think of him practicing something exactly like what Stafford describes without ever having heard of the man, some sort of inner artistic-literary-alchemical act of receptivity or (as we might think of it) “self-theurgy,” but perhaps in a more overtly surrealist vein of the André Breton sort than Stafford was wont to embrace. It’s neater to think of him sitting down somewhere and loosing his pen or typewriter or word processor in innocence of Stafford’s advice, and finding a flood of words and images issuing forth on the page or screen, seeing all of it assume a shape that won’t make sense to the conscious mind, but that will speak of a deep self, his self, with perfect precision.

Or perhaps it’s speaking not of him but of that dark-daimonic Muse of his. Then again, perhaps they’re the very same thing.

* * *

For years I’ve played a kind of literary game with myself. Before reading any work of fiction, I always turn to the start and read the opening lines. Then I skip to the end and read the closing lines. Finally, I pause and mull them over for a moment before diving into the full reading itself. How is the author going to get from point A to point Z? How will those opening words, phrases, sentences, thoughts, images, insights, necessarily have to unfurl and complexify and flow and develop in order to reach the conclusion toward which I know they’re headed? Far from ruining the reading experience, I find this practice palpably enhances it.

But alas, it simply doesn’t work with Joe Pulver’s stuff, or at least not in the way I’ve come to regard as normal and desirable. Consider, for example, the opening story in Portraits of Ruin. Its title is “No Healing Prayers,” and it bears the dedication “for Gary Myers & Robert Bloch.” The publication data page informs me that it was previously published in the anthology Dead But Dreaming 2 from Miskatonic River Press in 2011. Okay, that’s sufficient to establish a surrounding context, and a very compelling one at that, for somebody like me (and, I assume, somebody like you) who is deeply interested and invested in horror fiction, and in particular the dark philosophical concerns of the branch we call weird or cosmic.

So, having made my mental oblations for the reading act, I turn to the opening lines and find the following:




The howling sun, far from this place with no hope for tomorrow, running with things that fear what the cold moon brings.

Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.

Coffee gone cold.


Okay. Nice language and darksleek imagery. Very impressionistic, though. I’m aware, yes, that language, especially when artistically deployed, can achieve amazing things when it tries to subvert or explode its own inherent limits. But that’s often more of a philosophical conviction than a living reality for me. I still doubt my chops as a reader of experimental stuff. So this one may be difficult to get a grasp on. With this in mind, I turn to the closing lines to complete the ritual:

Coming for bones. Coming for flesh.

Coming to drink tears and tenderness affirmed and every contour between.

The corpse-coffin sound of Hell shouting in the trees. Something black in the road.

“Whatever will be . . . Will be.”

The Piper Man laughs.

Shotgun leveled . . .

(Grand Funk Railroad “The Railroad”)

To borrow that unfortunate and ubiquitous initialism from the culture of social media and digital interconnectedness: WTF? What the hell do those lines tell me? In one of my day-job incarnations, I teach remedial reading to community college students, and my practice of thoroughly prereading books and stories to gain a sense of their overall contextual contour is something all of the textbooks preach: “Get your bearings. Don’t just dive into page one, line one. That approach is a surefire route to disaster via incomprehension. Instead, map your mental way to the end before starting, so that what you encounter along the way will make sense because you’re fitting it into a bird’s-eye map of the total landscape, just like you look at a road map before trying to drive to Dallas.” Personally, this is something that I’ve always done intuitively anyway. Nobody had to teach it to me. Now I teach it to others.

And lo! it breaks down and craps out entirely when applied to Joe’s work.

But what if we try another item? Maybe one from the middle of the book. Our eyes skim to the midpoint of the table of contents and find “Marks and Scars and Flags.” The information at the start of the book lets us know this one is previously unpublished. Okay, here goes. Opening lines:

Is it real?

Is it?

These last 6 hours . . .

This pack.

Did she, looking down at her feet and gently smiling — in that crocodile way, really say, “Go. Ask, Alice.”?

Did she?

Flip the pages. Closing lines:

Her smile blurs, releasing cobwebs and corridors.

“Turn.” Soft as the saxophone that afternoon, cold, a trumpet that bends the facets of the breast.


And someone — someone — has, has opened the gates . . .

A century in seclusion with the green birds . . . the humors of the lantern as a sedative . . .

I’ve lost my shoes . . .

(Deathprod – Reference Frequencies)

Ah, hell.

One more try. I’ll skip to the book’s end. The final story, a novella-length piece, is nicely titled: “And this is where I go down into the darkness.” It was previously published in Phantasmagorium #1, and it bears the dedication “for beelzeBOB & Tom Ligotti, titans BOTH!!!” This is a very promising pedigree indeed. I let the opening lines feed themselves to me:

I sat in the Days Between the Years, Darkness whispered to the corpses in the palm of my hand . . . and I planned my escape.

I am not a learned man. I am an escape artist.

Was when I started.

Poor. Hungry. Inner-city caught, small — walled in, all men are. Here in the grey rain they are. Mired with learning disabilities I took the route I could afford and held the most appeal, or coulda been no option is the only option. The poor care not, an open door is an open door.

Interesting. Still stream-of-consciousness in flavor, but a bit more structured, as if balanced between the poetic-type fragmentary impressionism of the previous stories and something more conventional, more fleshed  out along standard lines of narrative development and characterization. I skip to the closing lines:

Watching the river run . . . looks like little hills rolling along . . . the hills flow . . .

The nightmare of being — head full of false imaginings, the cravings the blundering puppet paints, being handed the scandalous heirloom . . . The surface of the river is graced by soft lights, a trance

and this is where I go down into the darkness

Whoa. This is flat-out  breathtaking. And it’s followed by some bracketed nods, darkly evocative in their own right, to Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race plus a “bunch of songs by Bruce Springsteen and some by Scott Walker and David Tibet/Current 93,” along with acknowledgments and thanks for permission to quote from Ligotti’s Conspiracy and Robert M. Price’s “The Sword of the Stillborn.”

Almost in spite of myself, in spite of my pedestrian tendencies as a reader, it’s all starting to make sense. Sort of. And the sense it’s making is, frankly, dark, dazzling, disturbing, and delicious.

“I know that back of my activity,” says William Stafford, “there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.”

“But,” says Plato, “if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses,” he will be “utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”

“When a writer simply lets loose the flood of his psyche, and what emerges is so darkly compelling and fascinating that it conveys the sense of an imminent and immanent otherworld whose shape and nature is terrifying and wondrous to behold, you stop caring whether it makes conventional sense, and simply bask in the glow of something special.”

Yes, I think I’m catching on, especially when I can also hear the voice of Ray Bradbury chiming in, passing along something that he said Federico Fellini once told him: “Don’t tell me what I’m doing. I don’t want to know.” Bradbury tells us the great filmmaker meant he didn’t want to think ahead of time about what he was trying to accomplish, but instead wanted to work in an inspired and ecstatic way, proceeding and producing in the ecstasy of the creative moment, and only afterward try to discover and contemplate the meanings that wanted to emerge from it.

Yes, when it comes to Portraits of Ruin, I may indeed be catching on. So the question now becomes: Are you? Because after all, you’re about to read the book, and this weird excuse for an introduction by me is supposed to prepare you, or whet your appetite, or do whatever it is that introductions are supposed to do. And my sharing of the process of revelation that I’ve gone through in grappling with Joe’s new literary offspring is the best approach I could think of to prepare you for what awaits you.

* * *

But I’ve probably said too much already, so I’ll sum up with this: When a writer simply lets loose the flood of his self, his interiority, his psyche, his soul, and what emerges is so darkly compelling and fascinating that it conveys, even if obliquely, the sense of an imminent and immanent truth, reality, otherworld, something-or-other, whose shape and nature is terrifying and wondrous to behold — when this happens, you stop caring whether it makes conventional sense, and simply bask in the glow of something special. Alan Watts once said the formal concert music scene came to a “final crash” the moment John Cage sat down at a Steinway in full evening dress, opened his musical score, and proceeded to perform a recital composed entirely of rests. And while I certainly don’t think literature in general or horror fiction in specific has now crashed to a halt because of Portraits of Ruin, I do think something of Watts’s meaning attends the publication of this book. Cage was a brilliantly talented and exquisitely trained classical pianist. He could play the traditional classical music game and hold his own with the best of them. But his Muse led him down another path, or rather led him to blaze a trail all his own, and those who understood were deeply enriched. “He was trying to clean our ears of melodic and harmonic prejudices,” Watts said.

Those who have ears — which Joe is about to clean — let them hear.

* * *

The final word can go to Joe himself. Back when he and I were communicating about the possibility of my writing this introduction, he told me, “I never know what to make of my stuff.”

This, above all, is what you might want to bear in mind as you turn the page and proceed to immerse yourself in what follows. The author himself does not know what to make of these writings. Neither do I. Nor, I daresay, will you. But the very attempt to do so, to “make something” of them — an interpretive activity that the work itself incites because of its native grippingness and stylistic brilliance (that surrealist’s flood of unconscious inspiration is channeled, mind you, through a finely honed and tuned set of conscious literary skills, just like  Cage’s pianistic training) — this very attempt at finding some sort of meaning is, in the end, the point. Because the meaning is really and truly there. You can sense it in every line and phrase, grinning darkly at you through the interstices of the words and images. It just happens to be a meaning that you can only “understand” by allowing it to speak to your own deep self, to your — dare I say it? — daimonic Muse.

So don’t ask what Joe is doing; that approach only closes it off. Instead, rely on the coherence of your deep self to understand the coherence of his. In learning to do this, to resonate with this book of impossible imaginings presented in improbable forms, you may well find that you’re being altered and enlightened in ways that are truly transformative.

After all, only an inspired madman can understand an inspired madman.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 22, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Psychology & Consciousness, Writing & Creativity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Do your study of Beat literature take you to Burroughs? I remember you saying you hadn’t read him but you wanted to because he was a big influence on Ligotti

    • Burroughs wasn’t on the formal curriculum, but reading Kerouac’s On the Road of course brought me into contact with him, especially since the text we used was the original scroll version that contains everybody’s real names — Jack Kerouac instead of Sal Paradise, Neil Cassady instead of Dean Moriarty, Bill Burroughs instead of Bull Lee, etc. I also took the opportunity to read some generous chunks of Burroughs on my own time, not novels and such but various interviews and extracts. This was in the context of a grad class (the first one I’ve taken since getting my religious studies M.A. a decade ago), and for the research assignment I wrote about the respective and connected experiences of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs with creative inspiration in its dark and traumatic monstrous-muse aspect. I may share some of that here at some point.

  2. Interesting you talk about the monster-muse/ intense suffering. Susan Sontag makes the case that Antonin Artaud is the greatest sufferer in the history of literature. Maybe Rimbaud is a close second. Perhaps Rimbaud and Artaud occupy the top tier of suffering while Burroughs, Genet, and Guyotat occupy the second. Then it’s a matter of where you’d rank Kafka, Sade, Poe, Celine, and the like. It’s extremely difficult to rank.

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