Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.
Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:
MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice“
Directed, animated, scored, and edited by filmmaker Keith Ronindelli, this amazing short film evokes the dark mystery and sacred terror of Arthur Machen’s classic tale “The White People” in just six minutes. I’m personally struck by the depth and richness of both the vision and the execution, and by the sheer awesomeness of the hallucinatory imagery arising from the young protagonist’s discovery of a pagan shrine in a forest, whose general character is indicated by a line from Machen’s story that appears as an epigraph at the start of the film: “It was so strange and solemn and lonely, like a hollow temple of dead heathen gods.”
Ronindelli explained his intentions and inspirations to Cartoon Brew back in 2011 when the film was released:
The Forbidden Forest is inspired by the work of Arthur Machen, who was a Welsh writer of supernatural fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically his classic tale “The White People.” I’m also a big fan of 1960s and 1970s animation and cinema, so the impetus for the piece was an attempt to marry the feel of Arthur Machen with movies such as René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the films of Stanley Kubrick, namely 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.
Outsider art is another longtime love of mine, and I wanted the piece to somehow fuse a 60s/70s widescreen cinematic language with the strange, obsessive imperfectness of outsider artists such as Henry Darger and Adolf Wolfli.
Here’s the high-res version of The Forbidden Forest from Vimeo. Headphones are definitely recommended for catching all the nuances of the soundtrack. If you have a problem with playback, try the lower-res version at YouTube.
RELATED POST: “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror,” a Teeming Brain podcast featuring a roundtable discussion of the comparisons and contrasts between the respective weird fictional visions and philosophies of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft.
Fans and admirers of Arthur Machen and his literary universe of mystical terror take note: one week ago BBC Radio 4 broadcast a delicious half-hour exploration of Machen’s life, work, and literary legacy, presented in the form of a tour of various sites in Wales that are relevant to his biography and major themes. It’s an amazingly atmospheric and stylish bit of documentary audio journalism, aided especially by evocatively creepy music and a number of effective dramatic readings from several of Machen’s tales, not to mention the typically excellent BBC production values. It’s written and narrated by Machen’s fellow author and Welshman, Horatio Clare.
Description: Arthur Machen’s stories twitched the veil between our world and a disturbing underworld. On his 150th anniversary, Horatio Clare explores the writer’s real and imagined landscapes.
Excerpt: “Arthur Machen’s themes are visions of madness, sex, and death. Every scribbler of horror and thrilling tales has attempted them, but Machen draws them from beyond a veil between our own world and an underworld populated by gods, demons, and malevolent fairies. His visions might well make your heart beat faster even now, should you find yourself in the landscape which gave Machen his first glimpses behind that veil: in the riddle of wooded hills and valleys running down to the sea between the rivers Usk and Wye in the southeast corner of Wales.
“What intrigues me, Mr. Machen, is the nature of your encounters in those secretive hills of your Welsh childhood. What happened to you? What so struck you that you should have spent your writing life returning here in your stories, peeling off the turf and fossil layers of history and folklore? What dark and turbulent underworld did you glimpse?”
Thank you to Teeming Brain columnist Stuart Young for alerting me to this.
For more on Machen, see the Teeming Brain podcast “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror.”
Listen now (92 min.):
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Do nihilism and cosmic meaningfulness stand in fundamental tension with each other at the heart of the horror genre? Were Lovecraft and Machen getting at fundamentally different moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical points with their respective horror stories? Does the (possible) tension between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Machenian sacred terror constitute a fault line running right through the center of the horror genre and impacting its literature and cinema today?
These are the questions driving this first-ever Teeming Brain podcast, which has been, if you count back to the blog’s original launch, six years in the making. More immediately, it was recorded between November 20 and 28, 2012. Its origin can be found in three items: first, an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” — about Lovecraft, Machen, and the moral and philosophical ideas playing out in the current horror movie scene — written by Christian horror novelist Jonathan Ryan and published in Christianity Today; second, a response to and rebuttal of Ryan’s argument by Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin in “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness“; and third, the vigorous conversation that grew up around that response both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online. There is also, fourth, John Morehead’s suggestion that this could all be turned into a stimulating podcast.
This debut episode presents a roundtable featuring eight authors and thinkers in the areas of horror, philosophy, and religion, all of whom engage the questions described above plus a whole lot more.
- Peter Bebergal, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the widely praised memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood.
- Matt Cardin (host), founder and editor of The Teeming Brain and author of Dark Awakenings, Divinations of the Deep, and the forthcoming To Rouse Leviathan.
- Nicole Cushing, author of the forthcoming horror novella Children of No One and the trippy bizarro fiction collection How to Eat Fried Furries.
- Richard Gavin, author of the numinous horror collections At Fear’s Altar and The Darkly Splendid Realm and the Teeming Brain column Echoes from Hades.
- T. E. Grau, fiction editor at Strange Aeons, author of the Teeming Brain column The Extinction Papers, and co-author (with his wife, author/editor/screenwriter Ives Hovenessian) of the forthcoming horror fiction collection I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
- John W. Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, creator of the blog Theofantastique (“A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture”), and co-editor of The Undead and Theology.
- W. Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.
- Jonathan Ryan, author of “Meaning to the Madness,” the highly praised supernatural/spiritual horror novel The Faithful (as Jonathan Weyer), and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel 3 Gates of the Dead.
Image via Tartarus Press, from “Arthur Machen vs. H.P. Lovecraft“
What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.
One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.
… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”
I was pleasantly surprised to see this story come cross the Internet transom today:
Machen is the forgotten father of weird fiction
Damien G. Walter, The Guardian online, September 29, 2009
The slug line accurately indicates the article’s content: “Arthur Machen might be little read today, but his ideas lie at the heart of modern horror writers Stephen King and Clive Barker.”
The whole piece is really worthwhile; for me personally, these paragraphs are the most striking:
The qualities which made Machen’s work important are the same that have driven the tradition of weird fiction. From his early story “The Great God Pan,” through his acclaimed masterpiece The Hill of Dreams to his later work on The Secret Glory, Machen remained determined to take readers into worlds of mysticism and the supernatural. In a society gripped by Christian zeal, he drew on pagan and occult ideology to energise his writing. At a time when scientific rationalism was coming fully to the fore, Machen and other writers of weird fiction continued to argue for the mystical experience as an important tool for understanding the modern world. It is an argument which is still being made today.
Machen’s writing may now be little read, but his influence lives on in other writers of weird fiction. HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos was heavily influenced by Machen, and through it Machen’s ideas are at the heart of the modern horror genre and the work of writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King. British comic book writers of the 80s and 90s including Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were also influenced by Machen in their own explorations of the supernatural and occult.
And novelist Graham Joyce, five-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, places his writing in the tradition of Machen and weird fiction. Joyce’s stories illustrate the power of weird fiction to delve into the most primal aspects of life and find meaning there. That is why weird fiction in all its guises continues to fascinate us as readers today.
The article has already received a lively round of reader comments, some of them lamenting the perceived fact that Machen’s influence is so muted in or absent from current horror fiction, and expressing the desire to see a rebirth of the genre.
Such thoughts may as well have been deliberately designed to capture my attention, because the renaissance in question is something to which I have devoted a great deal of thought, and is in fact a phenomenon that’s already well underway.
Roughly coinciding with the turn of the millennium, horror began to reemerge from its 80s-90s burnout in a greatly matured form. The new generation of authors — some of us mainly and specifically working in the horror genre, others using horror as a distinct mode to be periodically employed — possesses a much more highly developed literary sensibility, generationally speaking, than the previous one, along with a much more extensive, effective, and self-aware grounding in the genre’s venerable history. Last year Peter Straub edited an anthology centered around this very subject (Poe’s Children: The New Horror) and used the introduction to offer up some cogent thoughts about the trend. From 2007-8 I edited a private electronic journal titled Erebos that was devoted to the same subject.
The upshot is that the present cultural moment is a fairly exciting and rewarding one for both horror readers and horror writers. And in this evolving milieu, Machen’s contribution, as correctly indicated by Walter in his Guardian article, is foundational. But contra the lament expressed by some of the commenters, it’s an influence that’s palpable. Thomas Ligotti, for instance, had his introduction to weird horror fiction via Machen. Mark Samuels is the Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen. Laird Barron regularly names Machen as one of his major influences. And all three of these authors are receiving ever-increasing attention.