Greetings from the cyber-silence, Teeming Brain readers. As you may have noticed, this site has been on a long pause — unplanned and unannounced — for about four months now. A number of factors piled up to bring this about, including the necessity for me to devote all of my spare time to fulfilling the main portion of my editor’s duties in bringing together Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies (a project that I’ll say more about in coming weeks). But now the mega-wave of busyness is starting to subside, and there is time once again for the brain to teem.
I have quite a few items lined up for publication here in coming weeks, including my long-in-coming conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, the final installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” article series, a new installment of Stuart Young’s column Sparking Neurones (this one about an interesting angle on Captain America), and a whole slew of links to worthwhile items of interest that have come across the transom during the hiatus.
For now, I’d like to direct your attention to the above just-published audio reading of Conrad Aiken’s classic and wonderful short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” about a boy who becomes progressively more lost in the blissful isolation of an inner world or otherworld of spectral snowfall, until his disappearance is complete. The reader is my good friend Jon Padgett, who has been acting and performing in various creative capacities for many years, and his performance here is simply exquisite. The opening and closing music is composed and performed by me, specifically for the purpose of accompanying this story. I hope you find the whole presentation as enjoyable and deeply emotionally affecting as I do. There’s a downloadable version of the audio file at Thomas Ligotti Online (which Jon founded nearly two decades ago).
The Starry Wisdom Library, to be released some time this year by PS Publishing, is a unique anthology project, and I’m happy to say that I will have a story — or rather, an essay or sorts — featured in it. The project is the brainchild of rare books expert Nate Pedersen, whose rather brilliant conceit is to publish an authentic-looking facsimile reproduction of the original 1877 “lost” auction catalogue for the library of occult books that Lovecraft once described as residing in the abandoned Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island:
In a rear vestry room beside the apse Blake found a rotting desk and ceiling-high shelves of mildewed, disintegrating books. Here for the first time he received a positive shock of objective horror, for the titles of those books told him much. They were the black, forbidden things which most sane people have never even heard of, or have heard of only in furtive, timorous whispers; the banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae which have trickled down the stream of time from the days of man’s youth, and the dim, fabulous days before man was.
– H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark”
Each “story” in The Starry Wisdom Library is written in the form of a (completely made-up) scholarly description of, and essay on, one of these fictitious texts. The full list of them was determined by Nate and gleaned from the entire bristling universe of Lovecraftian fiction. For my part, I wrote the entry on the Daemonolorum, a tome of “nightmare arcana” invented by Robert Bloch for one of his stories.
The book with its faux facsimile design will have quite a charming and handsome appearance, as evidenced by the title page:
Here’s the full list of contributors, along with the titles of their respective entries. As you’ll see, Nate has managed to assemble a pretty amazing roster of Lovecraftian and weird horror writers.
Introduction by S. T. Joshi
ANIOLOWSKI, Scott David — Massa di Requiem per Shuggay
BARRASS, Glynn — The Book of Azathoth
BERGLUND, Edward P. — Cultus Maleficarum
BIRD, Allyson — The Book of Karnak
BRENTS, Scott — Lewis Carroll / Charles Dodgson Letter
BULLINGTON, Jesse — Il Tomo della Biocca
CAMPBELL, Ramsey — The Revelations of Glaaki
CARDIN, Matt — The Daemonolorum
CHAMBERS, S. J. — Remnants of Lost Empires
CISCO, Michael — Liber Ivonis
CUINN, Carrie — Image du Monde
FILES, Gemma — The Testament of Carnamagos
GAVIN, Richard — De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis
HANSON, Christopher — The Pnakotic Manuscripts
HARMS, Daniel – The Book of Dzyan
JONES, Stephen Graham — The Ssathaat Scriptures
LANGAN, John — Les Mystères du Ver
LEMAN, Andrew – Practise of Chymicall and Hermetickall Physicke
LLEWELLYN, Livia — Las Reglas de Ruina
MAMATAS, Nick — The Black Book of the Skull
MORENO-GARCIA, Silvia — El Culto de los Muertos
MORRIS, Edward — The Book of Invaders
NICOLAY, Scott — The Ponape Scripture
PRICE, Robert M. — The Book of Iod
PUGMIRE, W. H. — The Sesqua Valley Grimoire
PULVER, Joe — The King in Yellow
RAWLIK, Pete — The Qanoon-e-Islam
SATYAMURTHY, Jayaprakash — The Chhaya Rituals
SCHWADER, Ann K — The Black Rites
SCHWEITZER, Darrell — The Nameless Tome
SPRIGGS, Robin — The Dhol Chants
STRANTZAS, Simon — The Black Tome of Alsophocus
TANZER, Molly — Hieron Aigypton
TAYLOR, Keith — The Book of Thoth
TIDBECK, Karin — The Cultes des Goules
TYSON, Donald — Liber Damnatus
VALENTINE, Genevieve — The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan
WALLACE, Kali – The Tablets of Nhing
WARREN, Kaaron — The Book of Climbing Lights
WEBB, Don — The Black Sutra
WELLS, Jeff — Observations on the Several Parts of Africa
WILSON, F. Paul — Unaussprechlichen Kulten
Rare book cataloging for the anthology conducted by Jonathan Kearns of Adrian Harrington Rare Books.
Featuring six original woodcuts by Liv Rainey-Smith
Dust jacket cover by Andrew Leman of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society
Item: a new Ligotti interview, this one published at Thomas Ligotti Online and conducted by the site’s founder (and my dear friend), Jon Padgett. The subject is the origin of Tom’s two new stories “Metaphysica Morum” and “The Small People,” which have just been published as the short book The Spectral Link. The details make for a real-life narrative that sounds like a Ligottian horror story, since they explain the specifics of the physical collapse from abdominal agony that Tom experienced in 2012, and that led to a “revitalization of creativity” akin to the one experienced by the character of Grossvogel after he suffers a similar episode in “The Shadow, The Darkness.”
Here’s a morsel to whet your appetite:
The basis for both stories, however, was an incredible sense of alienation I felt following my surgeries, the sense of a reality that could not be denied, a vivid reminder of my already pessimistic view of life, and even an expansion of that view due to my experience of literally unbearable physical pain. I had known long-term physical pain before, but this was different somehow. Essentially, though, that pain ultimately made me feel more myself than ever, both emotionally and cognitively. I couldn’t look away any longer from what I once named “the nightmare of the organism,” despite my elevated mood. It was like the phenomenon of always being aware of my heart beating that goes with having panic-anxiety disorder, which is the state I inhabited while writing almost all of my stories. All in all, it seemed I was even less a part of the world’s prevailing sense of the real than I was before. This was not an unfamiliar feeling for me, but it was massively revitalized after the traumatic events of the hospital episode. What kind of world was I living in that could avert its eyes from the most significant realities such as those I had recently confronted?
Okay, so I’m coming late to the party, since everybody with an Internet connection has now shared this video in the five days since it was released. But “Weird Al” Yankovic has been a musical companion to me since I was in junior high, and lately he’s blowing the roof off with some of his cleverest stuff ever.
Case in point: the video for his new song “Foil,” from his new album Mandatory Fun. It’s a parody of Lorde’s “Royals.” And for those who are either cognizant of or — Adam Weishaupt help us — actual believers in the mass of conspiracy theorizing that has overtaken American popular culture and public discourse in recent years — including the Illuminati craze in the hip hop world — it is a veritable revelation of satirical sanity.
Or maybe it’s actually disinformation put out by the hidden masters of the New World Order!? (For some piquant observations in this vein, scan the comments that accompany the video at YouTube — if the have the heart.)
Virginia Woolf at age 20
Inspired by a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Joshua Rothman, writing for The New Yorker, offers some rather enchanting reflections on a profoundly important meaning of privacy that cuts much deeper than the word’s contemporary framing in purely political terms:
These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.
That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways.
. . . Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance — and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.
. . .[T]he benefits of remaining “impenetrable” can be profound. Clarissa, famously, buys the flowers herself, and that allows her to enjoy the coolness, stillness, and beauty of the flower shop; the same, Woolf suggests, happens in Clarissa’s inner life, where her heightened feelings are allowed to stay pure, untouched. Even Peter, with time, comes to regard himself in this way: “The compensation of growing old,” he thinks, is that “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” By learning to leave your inner life alone, you learn to cultivate and appreciate it.
And you gain another, strangely spiritual power: the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones. You learn to treasure those aspects of life without communicating them, and without ruining them, for yourself, by analyzing them too much. Woolf suggests that those treasured feelings might be the source of charisma: when Peter, seeing Clarissa at her party, asks himself, “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? … What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?,” the answer might be that it’s Clarissa’s radiance, never seen directly, but burning through. Clarissa, meanwhile, lets her spiritual intuitions lift her a little above the moment. Wandering through her lamp-lit garden, she sees her party guests: “She didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best.” That’s the power of an artist’s privacy. It preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information.
MORE: “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy“
One is reminded of Lewis Thomas’s thesis in his classic essay “The Attic of the Brain” about the importance of preserving the mystery of one’s own mind:
It has been one of the great errors of our time that to think that by thinking about thinking, and then talking about it, we could possibly straighten out and tidy up our minds. There is no delusion more damaging than to get the idea in your head that you understand the functioning of your own brain. Once you acquire such a notion, you run the danger of moving in to take charge, guiding your thoughts, shepherding your mind from place to place, controlling it, making lists of regulations. The human mind is not meant to be governed, certainly not by any book of rules yet written; it is supposed to run itself, and we are obliged to follow it along, trying to keep up with it as best we can. It is all very well to be aware of your awareness, even proud of it, but never try to operate it. You are not up to the job. . . . Attempting to operate one’s own mind, powered by such a magical instrument as the human brain, strikes me as rather like using the world’s biggest computer to add columns of figures, or towing a Rolls-Royce with a nylon rope. . . . We might, by this way [i.e., by deliberately hiding a portion of our psyches from ourselves], regain the kind of spontaneity and zest for ideas, things popping into the mind, uncontrollable and ungovernable thoughts, the feeling that this notion is somehow connected unaccountably with that one.”
One is also reminded of Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s words in his Journal Intime about the need to protect the mystery of one’s inner self by avoiding a too-quick and too-keen attitude of psychological self-awareness:
Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God. Then if a bird sing among your branches, do not be too eager to tame it. If you are conscious of something new — thought or feeling — wakening in the depths of your being — do not be in a hurry to let in light upon it, to look at it; let the springing germ have the protection of being forgotten, hedge it round with quiet, and do not break in upon its darkness; let it take shape and grow, and not a word of your happiness to any one! Sacred work of nature as it is, all conception should be enwrapped by the triple veil of modesty, silence, and night.
Photo by George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you’ve heard about ongoing flap over actor Gary Oldman’s recent interview for Playboy, in which he slams political correctness and speaks in defense of Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin regarding their famous public takedowns for expressing anti-semitic sentiments (in Gibson’s case) and using anti-gay slurs (in Baldwin’s case). Or rather, he speaks against what he perceives as the hypocrisy of those who have condemned them. This has resulted in a public relations crisis for Oldman that is still unfolding, and that has involved a demand for an apology from the Anti-Defamation League, Oldman’s issuance of the requested apology in a form that some described as groveling and over-the-top, and the ADL’s rejection of the apology as insufficient. Oldman has also gone on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to apologize yet again.
The entire Playboy interview is available for free reading (at least currently), and without commenting on the controversy I wanted to highlight an aspect of it that I find to be quite fascinating: Oldman’s utterly dire diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the state and soul of American culture. Aspects of this are scattered throughout the interview, and they enfold the part that got him in trouble. But here is perhaps the central portion, which occurs when the interviewer, having just listened to Oldman’s description of the darkly post-apocalyptic future that’s depicted by his new movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, asks about his real-world thoughts on the future:
PLAYBOY: What’s your view of the future? Are you optimistic about where society is heading?
OLDMAN: [Pauses] You’re asking Gary?
OLDMAN: I think we’re up shit creek without a paddle or a compass.
PLAYBOY: How so?
OLDMAN: Culturally, politically, everywhere you look. I look at the world, I look at our leadership and I look at every aspect of our culture and wonder what will make it better. I have no idea. Any night of the week you only need to turn on one of these news channels and watch for half an hour. Read the newspaper. Go online. Our world has gone to hell. [Oldman refers briefly to the prevalence of things like frivolous lawsuits and “helicopter parents” who raise catastrophically narcissistic children.] These are just tiny examples, grains of sand in a vast desert of what’s fucked-up in our world right now.
He goes on to talk intermittently and in some detail about, among other topics, the ridiculous ineffectiveness of America’s political leadership and what he views as the cesspool of heavily hyped triviality and low quality that makes up current mass entertainment. Great lines include his observation that “Reality TV to me is the museum of social decay.”
Personally, I think the following analysis in a blog post at The Economist (titled, winningly, “What’s wrong with Gary Oldman?“) hits the nail on the head regarding the real significance of the whole matter:
What’s being lost in the outrage, however, is perhaps more significant. It is plain from the very outset of his interview that Mr Oldman’s ill-considered remarks are fuelled by a potent, all-encompassing frustration — a near-despair over America’s cultural and political institutions. He sees a world rotten with corruption, hypocrisy and vanity, one that celebrates its pathologies rather than face up to them. Political correctness, for Mr Oldman, is merely a symptom of the disease. So he drops an f-bomb on the Pope (“Oh, fuck the pope! [laughs and puts head in hands] So this interview has gone very badly”), he doubts that stable love and lasting marriage can survive modern life, and he cries out for “real leadership,” though “it’s nowhere in sight.”
Most important of all, Mr Oldman puts no faith in either of America’s prevailing ideological camps, whose comprehensive doctrines are the last refuge for many angry and fearful folk. “I’m probably a libertarian,” he guesses, “if I had to put myself in any category. But you don’t come out and talk about these things, for obvious reasons.”
There’s more to that caveat than a guilty conscience. What’s truly scandalous about Mr Oldman’s worldview is his unflinching claim that the American social order is built on an interconnected system of frauds. This idea is ultimately too big of a challenge for most people to process, much less accept. And Mr Oldman’s diatribe did not exactly suggest a way forward. But his views reflect the gut instinct of a growing number of independent voters, as well as the Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. Rather than a fox in the cultural henhouse, perhaps Mr Oldman can be seen as a canary in the coal mine.