Category Archives: Columns
Last of the Titans: A Note on the Passing of Ray Harryhausen (and Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury)
EDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome award-winning writer, editor, filmmaker, composer, and artist Jason V. Brock to the Teem. Jason’s work has been published in Butcher Knives & Body Counts, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, Fungi, Fangoria, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings series, and elsewhere. He was Art Director/Managing Editor for Dark Discoveries magazine for more than four years, and he edits the biannual pro digest [NAMEL3SS], dedicated to “the macabre, esoteric and intellectual,” which can be found on Twitter at @NamelessMag and on the Interwebs at www.NamelessMag.com. He and his wife, Sunni, also run Cycatrix Press.
As a filmmaker Jason’s work includes the documentaries Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, The Ackermonster Chronicles!, and Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. He is the primary composer and instrumentalist/singer for his band, ChiaroscurO. Jason loves his wife, their family of reptiles/amphibians, travel, and vegan/vegetarianism. He is active on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter (@JaSunni_JasonVB) and at his and Sunni’s personal website/blog, www.JaSunni.com.
Jason will contribute an occasional column titled “Monstrous Singularities.” For this inaugural installment, he offers an elegiac reflection on the passing of three authentic titans of fantasy, horror, and science fiction whose work literally helped to define major aspects of popular culture and collective psychology during the twentieth century.
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They were present at the beginning… and we are witness to their end.
Endings, in many ways, are entrances into self-realization — whether a portal into some altered state of mind, a window into collective insight, or even a chance for some final and comforting acceptance. Endings signify not only change, but also, often, transcendence, either metaphorically or literally, and on occasion simultaneously. Be it a lonely struggle that reaches a sad (even tragic) conclusion, or perhaps the unexpected outcome of a traumatic situation, or the shared exhilaration of justice served, endings are always transitional, even transformational, in ways that beginnings cannot be. Endings are the true headstones by which we collectively measure and define history. They are markers of conclusiveness — more so than births or the start of a new venture, which can be shrouded in secrecy, obscured by the fog of antiquity, or both. Thus, they are uniquely able to serve as touchstones for what has been bequeathed to the past (what cannot be again) and what is yet to be accomplished (and is therefore allotted to the future).
In May of 2013, the 92-year-old stop-motion animation film pioneer and artistic genius Ray Harryhausen, perhaps best known for his creation of the special visual effects for Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, passed away. His ending completes, in a sense, a circle of loss for the world; with the transitioning of Harryhausen away from the realm of the living and into the annals of time, a triumvirate of giants has now vanished from the Earth, a troika destined to become even more powerful in voice, authority, and veneration over time. This amplification will undoubtedly be quite profound in the immediately foreseeable future, as people who are not yet aware of them, or who may have forgotten the seismic impact of their works and personalities, discover or rediscover their greatness and celebrate it even more, perchance, than those who instantly recognized it and mourned their loss to humanity and culture. Read the rest of this entry
The major theme that I have pursued in my books and other writings is the complementary nature of the divine and the demonic. Or rather, it’s the truth of the divine demonic or demonic divine, that searing fusion of the horrific with the beatific in a liminal zone where supernatural horror and religion are inextricably merged with each other, and where it’s not just the conventionally demonic that is the source of deepest dread and horror, but the very divine object itself: God, the One, the Ground of Being. If God is or can be the ultimate horror, then the experience of religious illumination or spiritual awakening is inherently dangerous, since it constitutes a true personal apocalypse, a removal of reality’s obscuring veil that can be experienced not just as a wonderful liberation but as an awe-ful nightmare. “It is a dreadful thing,” says the author of the biblical Book of Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” who is “a consuming fire” and should be worshiped “with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 10:31, 12:28-29). The experience of numinous horror thus reveals itself as a route to, and maybe a marker of, an authentic spiritual transformation, although of a sort whose unpleasant subjective aspects often call into question its fundamental desirability.
It has been one of my most passionate pleasures and obsessions in life to read and hear other people’s explorations of these things. This is why you’ve seen me refer so many times to, for instance, Rudolf Otto’s seminal formulation of the idea of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum and daemonic dread, and Lovecraft’s open recognition that the psychology of weird supernatural horror fiction and its basic emotional response is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it,” and William James’s assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an experience of cosmic horror and despair at the fundamental hideousness of life.
Right now I would like to call your attention to two items in this very vein that are distinctly separate in objective terms but intimately related in their articulation of the demonic divine conundrum. The first is a clip from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. The second is an excerpt from an interview with contemporary spiritual author and teacher Richard Moss. Both of them articulate a very important truth: that one’s individual perspective and inner state at the moment of a supernatural parting of the veil is what determines whether the experience will tilt toward the divine or demonic. Read the rest of this entry
The analysis of Horror is, like almost everything else related to the genre, paradoxical. Because the genre is so rife with archetypal imagery and taboo subjects, it seems that any attempt to rationalize or understand it in purely intellectual terms is ineffectual, or at the very least inadequate. Whereas most other forms of artistic expression benefit from the acumen of critics who educate the audience on what may otherwise be cryptic allusions, subtext, etc., Horror evidently functions somewhat differently. It is a wholly experiential genre and is therefore judged in large part by its effect, and more specifically by its affect, rather than by its structure.
Enduring works of non-genre (or “literary”) fiction have undergone countless autopsies by critics and would-be-critics, all of whom seem confident that they have pinpointed exactly what makes this or that story tick. Horror, by contrast, almost always manages to slither out from underneath our microscope. Oh, it may bear the explanations we impress upon it for a little while, but rest assured, Horror will always find a way to shed its old skin, which in this case consists of any number of after-the-fact explanations as to what we read and why. And like the serpent, Horror emerges from this molting as a creature even more vibrant and healthy than before.
Perhaps this trickster-like evasion of standard literary or cinematic criticism is to be expected, for any work of Horror worth its saltes draws its power from the deepest spring. Even works that demonstrate ineptitude in some technical areas that critics often highlight as the essence of “good art” can nevertheless frighten or unnerve an audience, and are therefore effective models of the field. Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves. Read the rest of this entry
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three
In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.
Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.
As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).
Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.” Read the rest of this entry
“Learning to become psychic involves a fundamental restructuring of the way we process information both inside and outside ourselves. This can dramatically alter one’s life, and not always in a conventionally positive manner.”
Is it possible to take normal, healthy, emotionally stable people who do not think they are psychic, and who don’t recall having any prior psychic experience, and train them to become functionally reliable psychics?
The answer is both yes and no. That is, it appears that everyone may have some latent psychic potential that can be developed and honed with the right type of positive feedback and reinforcement. However, it’s crucial for such feedback to occur very close in time to when the person makes a correct or incorrect statement during a parapsychological test, because otherwise it will have little, if any, effect. In order for this learning paradigm to function properly, a person must slowly come to recognize which internal feelings and sensations are associated with accessing accurate paranormal information (signal), as opposed to inaccurate information (noise) in the form of primary process distortion and fantasy.
I suspect that only a very small percentage of the population, somewhere between five and ten percent, possesses such inherent faculties that are consistently demonstrable. This is somewhat comparable to the world of sports and athletics, in that most people can occasionally participate in some kind of sport when young, but very few have the strength, stamina, endurance, reflexes, and coordination that are necessary to become a professional athlete. We can still, however, do some basic things to maintain and even enhance our physical health and capabilities.
A direct analog to this can be found in the area of motorsports (of which I happen to be a passionate fan). While almost everyone can drive a car, few could tolerate the extremely high g-loading forces on the neck and arms that occur in Formula 1 and American Le Mans road racing, where the drivers’ bodies feel like they weigh four to five times their normal weight. Even fewer would have the stamina, endurance, depth perception, reflexes, and hand-eye-foot coordination to be competitive in such a grueling physical sport. But this doesn’t mean that all of us cannot learn to improve our driving skills on the road. Read the rest of this entry
“True mysteries give more energy, more questions every time you find an answer. I truly think that searching after mysteries is the source of the immortalization of the human soul. If I ever write anything that makes someone consider that maybe they don’t know everything about everything, then I have succeeded.”
— Don Webb
Don Webb is many things: magician, philosopher, teacher, literary critic, writer in a dozen different genres, proud Texan. He is the author of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated tale “The Great White Bed” (2007), the mind-bending mystery novels The Double: An Investigation and Essential Saltes: An Experiment, and the double title The War with the Belatrin: Science Fiction Stories / A Velvet of Vampyres: Tales of Horror. His non-fiction books include Uncle Setnakt’s Guide to the Left Hand Path and The Seven Faces of Darkness.
Don has also been a friend and collaborator for many years. For Echoes from Hades, he graciously agreed to settle in with me for a fireside chat in which he waxed eloquent on art, magic, love, and all things in-between. Read the rest of this entry
I was struck by Richard Gavin’s recent commentary in which he observed that most horror fiction is rarely horrifying, but rather tends to focus on peripheral unpleasantness, such as nausea, gore, or bloodlust. As I read this, spontaneous images immediately welled up in my mind from some of the most horrifying moments of my life that were not only chilling but also erotically charged: sleep paralysis night-mares. This tangential response from the body/mind — unbidden but undeniably seductive — is the focus of this essay.
During sleep paralysis, terror and the erotic often come together in a dizzying array of ambiguity. It is precisely this ambiguity — am I safe? Is it okay to feel this way? — that can escalate a merely creepy scenario into one of apocalyptic dread and sexy terror.
While all fiction doesn’t necessarily have its genesis in real life, there is undoubtedly a close connection between sleep paralysis and literary horror. Some of the most famous examples of direct influence would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  (Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin has also written about the creative horror connection here and speaks eloquently about it here).
This makes me wonder about the direct influence of erotic sleep paralysis nightmares on culture and literature. I’m not a literary expert, especially concerning erotic horror, but I do know quite a bit about sexy devilish imps because, well, they have stolen into my own bedroom at night. By outlining the experiential roots of the real life succubus, as well as some of the science behind it, I hope to start a discussion about this potential correlation as well as the significance of this neuro-mythological pattern in the human psyche. Read the rest of this entry
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Two
NOTE: This article is the second in a series. It follows directly on from Part One, which sets the stage.
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Having established that Lovecraft’s stories can be at least vaguely cheerful and optimistic, and that they can also feature feats of heroism — not always at the same time, mind you — let’s take a look at some other writers who have played by this particular set of Lovecraftian rules. As we do so, please bear in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive study, but is instead just a quick rundown of the stories I’ve read in this area. There’s whole reams of stuff I haven’t got round to looking at yet.
And to repeat my warning from the last installment, you should STOP READING if you spot any titles you’re planning to peruse at some point in the future: here be SPOILERS.
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard is best known for writing heroic fiction. But it is not always of an optimistic nature, and this links up with the fact that some of his stories show a distinct Lovecraftian influence and occasionally even take place within the Cthulhu Mythos.
Take, for example, his short story “The Worms of the Earth,” in which the king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn, enlists the help of monstrous creatures that have long been banished beneath the earth to aid in his fight against Roman invaders. Bran finds his revenge against the Roman who sparked his vendetta is soured when the man is driven insane by the sight of the creatures, so that when Bran slays him, it’s not an act of vengeance but one of mercy. Bran ends up deciding the creatures are too foul to be used even against his hated enemies. This isn’t exactly heroic fiction at its most cheerful — but it is indeed still heroic fiction. Read the rest of this entry
The Horror genre can evoke a panorama of emotions in its audience. Dread, lust, anxiety, giddiness, and even joy often arise, sometimes in paradoxical combinations. Peculiarly enough, it seems that the one emotion the genre evokes most rarely is the one from which its name is derived. In plain speaking, the genre is rarely frightening. In fact, the bulk of contemporary Horror seems to have cast its nets toward other effects. Many contemporary artists in the field are apparently more interested in disturbing rather than frightening.
Now, I’m all for disturbing art, for works that make one ill-at-ease. This is certainly preferable to the current trend of hip, postmodern detachment, a creative mode which suggests the motifs of terror are best employed as mere playthings that can be slyly re-jigged in order to illustrate how fear is so last millennium. Here, cleverness is deemed more virtuous than any attempts to freeze the audience’s blood.
One could argue that these self-referential and detached works are symptoms of humanity’s ongoing process of sophistication. After all, armored with our iPhones, satellite-controlled home security systems, and voice-activated SUVs, the chances of us trembling from the idea of a bogey scratching at the window are somewhat slim, yes?
Slim…but not impossible. Read the rest of this entry
(Given all of the conversations that have arisen here recently on the connections between theological speculation and fantastic fiction, it seems an appropriate time to revisit, and revise, and expand, a piece that I originally wrote for The Eyeless Owl.)
Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned. But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.
— From the introduction to Etchings in Ivory by Robert E. Howard
While reading Joscelyn Godwin’s Atlantis and the Cycles of Time — regarding which, see this excerpt — I was struck by how familiar I already was with the invoked imagery of Hyperborean civilizations. I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that its concepts would be so recognizable, almost palpable, to my mind’s eye. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative and imagery had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard. As one of the founding writers of the “swords and sorcery” genre, Howard portrayed his Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all traveling through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.
The author of a more muscular strain of weird tale than what was written by some of his fellow pulp titans, Howard seems an unlikely host to some of the fae notions of Theosophical cosmology. However, after doing a bit of research I found that his interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equal interest in the occult. His initial letters to H.P. Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos and imply a seeking curiosity similar to what might be found in a letter sent to the outer representative of a secret occult order.
This really should not come as a shock, since we find Howard writing marginalized fantasy fiction at one of the high points of America’s occult revival. The pulp magazines were one of the prime markets for organizations like the AMORC and the mail order mysticism popularized by publishers such as de Laurence, Scott and Company. And naturally, writing in the genres that he did, Howard found the imagery of Theosophy and the occult provided the raw framework from which to work. Although Conan, Kull and Co. are among the most earthy examples of the swords and sorcery genre, Howard’s cosmic vision sneaks through in stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a transcendent vision of the cosmos where lines between the celestial, the earthly, and the extra-dimensional blur into a frictious mix.
Jeff Shanks’ article “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot” (in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2) provides a historical analysis of some specific Theosophical influences that went into framing the landscape of Howard’s work. But it seems to me that one of the more important aspects of this subject, and one that is a bit more ephemeral and subtle to trace than the mere origins of his influences, is the question of how Howard’s writing interacts with the esoteric tradition itself. These interactions are so prevalent in his work that in many instances he seems to utilize some of the same processes used by Theosophists such as C.W. Leadbetter in hopes of gaining an authentic vision of antediluvian worlds. Howard gives us a surprising opportunity to examine the strange chemistry that occurs when a certain psychology, no matter how seemingly mundane, acts as a catalyst to a potent stream of occult influence. His example also leads out to the realm of other authors who experienced something similar, and eventually to a general insight about the relationship of channeling, mediumship, anomalies, and visionary trance states to the creative imagination. Read the rest of this entry