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Womb of the Black Goddess: Horror as Dark Transcendence

The goddess Kali, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The goddess Kali, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the recent NecronomiCon 2013 — a conference of all-things Lovecraftian held in HPL’s beloved Providence — I participated in a panel on weird fiction. During the lively and interesting discussion, the opinion was expressed that much weird or horrific fiction seems to be written from a “bleak existentialist perspective.” While that may well be true, I was nonetheless struck by how this perspective is anathema to my own.

A survey of the genre may well support the notion that those who create or consume Horror art are a minority of grim realists who have come to accept, and even revel in, the myriad miseries of life on Earth. Their art could be seen as a cry against a society dominated by sun-blinded optimists who waltz blithely through life, convinced of its innate order and pleasantness.

But I suggest that the situation is far more layered than this.

I do not personally write from a bleak perspective, for this implies a state of powerless frustration over a set of natural and societal laws that hold the human species in their thrall. My fiction is a celebration of transgression of all laws, of transformation, and ultimately of transcendence. It is not a nihilistic lament. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – September 3, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading, here are passages from a hypnotic meditation on solitude, inner silence, reading, and the literary vocation by Rebecca Solnit, excerpted from her new book The Faraway Nearby:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

The_Faraway_Nearby_by_Rebecca_Solnit. . . To become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together.

. . . The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates and the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

. . . Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

— Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby,” Guernica, May 15, 2013

* * *

Broken Heartland (Harper’s)
The looming collapse of agriculture on America’s Great Plains. “In the dystopian future that Teske imagines, the cycle of farm dissolution and amalgamation will continue to its absurdist conclusion, with neighbors cannibalizing neighbors, until perhaps one day the whole of the American prairie will be nothing but a single bulldozed expanse of high-fructose corn patrolled by megacombines under the remote control of computer software 2,000 miles away. Yet even this may be optimistic.”

Martin Luther King? Not an enemy in the world (The Independent)
“Funny how the kind of people who would have been totally opposed to the civil rights leader 50 years ago now want to claim him as their hero. . . . But the adoration of banks and big business displayed by most Western governments may not fit exactly with the attitude of their hero.”

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. (The New Republic)
In defense of the wild child. “[We have] crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. ‘Self-regulation,’ ‘self-discipline,’ and ’emotional regulation’ are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing ‘appropriate’ behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy.”

Legislators of the world (Adrienne Rich for The Guardian)
The late Adrienne Rich, writing in 2006 shortly after receiving the U.S. National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, argues that dark times, far from devaluing poets and poetry as irrelevant, underscore the crucial need for them. “[T]hroughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together — and more.”

Are We Alone in the Universe? (Thought Economics)
“In this exclusive interview, we speak with Prof. Jill Tarter (Co-Founder and Bernard M. Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute). We discuss her lifelong work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and look at mankind’s quest to answer the fundamental question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The_Silence_of_Animals_by_John_GrayJohn Gray’s Godless Mysticism: On ‘The Silence of Animals’ (Simon Critchley for Los Angeles Review of Books)
“There is no way out of the dream and what has to be given up is the desperate metaphysical longing to find some anchor in a purported reality. . . . Paradoxically, for Gray, the highest value in existence is to know that there is nothing of substance in the world. Nothing is more real than nothing. It is the nothingness beyond us, the emptiness behind words, that Gray wants us to contemplate. His is a radical nominalism behind which stands the void.”

Monument to ‘god of chaos’ mysteriously appears in front of Oklahoma City restaurant (New York Daily News)
“A heavy concrete block appeared on the front lawn of The Paseo Grill in Oklahoma City on Friday. Restaurant owners aren’t quite sure what to make of the monument or its reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional deity, Azathoth. . . . After news about the monument spread on KFOR, [restaurant owner Leslie] Rawlinson said she’s been getting calls from people who were excited about the find and from people who warned her about its dangers.”

Parallel worlds (Aeon)
“Where did this idea of parallel universes come from? Science fiction is an obvious source. . . . Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. . . . Surprisingly, however, the idea of parallel universes is far older than any of these references, cropping up in philosophy and literature since ancient times. Even the word ‘multiverse’ has vintage. . . . If human history turns on the tilt of the multiverse, can we still trust our ideas of achievement, progress and morality?”

Siri: The Horror Movie

This certainly explains a lot.  “Appletopia” indeed.

H. P. Lovecraft’s literary reputation: Joshi’s keynote address at this weekend’s NecronomiCon (Video)

The NecronomiCon, long known as the greatest of all Lovecraft conventions, is going on in Providence even as I type these words. A huge number of my friends in the Lovecraftian realm are there, and I’m presently experiencing severe pangs of regret at being unable to attend.

Here’s some consolation, though. Steve Ahlquist has done us all a fine favor by uploading a video recording of S. T. Joshi’s keynote address, which was delivered yesterday at Providence’s historic First Baptist Church in America. It was a fitting location, since this church was famously one of Lovecraft’s favorite buildings.

S. T.’s topic was the long and convoluted history of Lovecraft’s literary reputation, extending all the way from his mainstream obscurity during his lifetime to his famous “pulp hack” reputation among the reigning literati during most of the twentieth century to his final canonization as a major American author at the turn of the millennium. S. T. also spoke briefly and movingly on Lovecraft’s deep personal connection to Providence and his status as “a uniquely American writer” in an era when his renown and popularity have grown to become a manifestly global phenomenon.

For those of us who couldn’t be there, this video is a gift indeed.

Teeming Links – August 23, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s invocation comes from author and cultural historian Mike Jay, author of last year’s The Influencing Machine, slated for U.S. publication in January 2014 as A Visionary Madness. The article’s tagline states the basic thesis, which articulates an uncanny experience, sensation, and intuition that we’ve all had with ever-increasing frequency and intensity in recent years: “Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras — and make a lot of sense.”

A_Visionary_Madness_by_Mike_JayPopular culture hums with stories about technology that secretly observes and controls our thoughts, or in which reality is simulated with virtual constructs or implanted memories, and where the truth can be glimpsed only in distorted dream sequences or chance moments when the mask slips. A couple of decades ago, such beliefs would mark out fictional characters as crazy, more often than not homicidal maniacs. Today, they are more likely to identify a protagonist who, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, genuinely has stumbled onto a carefully orchestrated secret of which those around him are blandly unaware. These stories obviously resonate with our technology-saturated modernity. What’s less clear is why they so readily adopt a perspective that was, until recently, a hallmark of radical estrangement from reality. Does this suggest that media technologies are making us all paranoid? Or that paranoid delusions suddenly make more sense than they used to?

. . . As the American screenwriter William Goldman observed in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), in the movie business, nobody knows anything. It might be that a similarly bold metafiction could have been successful years earlier, but it feels more likely that the cultural impact of The Matrix reflected the ubiquity that interactive and digital media had achieved by the end of the 20th century. This was the moment at which the networked society reached critical mass: the futuristic ideas that, a decade before, were the preserve of a vanguard who read William Gibson’s cyberspace novels or followed the bleeding-edge speculations of the cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000 now became part of the texture of daily life for a global and digital generation. The headspinning pretzel logic that had confined Philip K Dick’s appeal to the cult fringes a generation earlier was now accessible to a mass audience. Suddenly, there was a public appetite for convoluted allegories that dissolved the boundaries between the virtual and the real.

. . . In the 21st century, the influencing machine has escaped from the shuttered wards of the mental hospital to become a distinctive myth for our times. It is compelling not because we all have schizophrenia, but because reality has become a grey scale between the external world and our imaginations. The world is now mediated in part by technologies that fabricate it and partly by our own minds, whose pattern-recognition routines work ceaselessly to stitch digital illusions into the private cinema of our consciousness. The classical myths of metamorphosis explored the boundaries between humanity and nature and our relationship to the animals and the gods. Likewise, the fantastical technologies that were once the hallmarks of insanity enable us to articulate the possibilities, threats and limits of the tools that are extending our minds into unfamiliar dimensions, both seductive and terrifying.

— Mike Jay, “The Reality Show,” Aeon, August 23, 2013

If you find such ruminations interesting and evocative, note well that the entire final chapter of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2003) offers a lucid and fascinating discussion of the very same phenomenon, with references to the very same texts and authors. And it serves as the culmination of a book discussing the entire thing within the wider context of the Platonic mystical-esoteric philosophical and spiritual impulse that has been squeezing in through the back door of horror, science fiction, and fantasy entertainment during this ongoing age of Aristotelian scientific rationalism.

* * *

Hacker Exposes Big Facebook Security Flaw — By Posting On Mark Zuckerberg’s Private Wall (The Huffington Post)
“Khalil Shreateh, a computer programmer in the West Bank, discovered a flaw that allowed him to post on anyone’s wall on the site, even if that user had strict privacy settings. Shreateh initially submitted his find to Facebook’s ‘white-hat’ program, a system that lets benevolent computer hackers tell Facebook about security flaws. . . . But when the engineering team didn’t seem to think the problem was real, Shreateh decided to prove that the bug he found did indeed exist.”

Fukushima nuclear plant facing new disaster (CBC)
“Tokyo Electric Power Company workers have detected high levels of radiation in a ditch that flows into the ocean from a leaking tank at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Japan’s nuclear watchdog said Thursday the leak could be the beginning of a new disaster — a series of leaks of contaminated water from hundreds of steel tanks holdng massive amounts of radioactive water coming from three melted reactors, as well as underground water running into reactor and turbine basements.”

Ex-pope Benedict says God told him to resign during ‘mystical experience’ (The Guardian)
Pope Francis’s predecessor breaks silence to contradict explanation he gave to cardinals when he stepped down. “Benedict denied he had been visited by an apparition or had heard God’s voice, but said he had undergone a ‘mystical experience’ during which God had inspired in him an ‘absolute desire’ to dedicate his life to prayer rather than push on as pope.”

Dr. John Mack Talks about Transcending the Dualistic Mind (Hidden Experience)
“Harvard professor Dr. John Mack gave a two-hour long presentation at the International UFO Congress in 2003. The title of his talk was ‘Transcending the Dualistic Mind.’ This is the audio lifted from a 12-part YouTube video of this presentation.”

Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude (Harvard Magazine)
On crafting a liberal-arts education. “This is the image I want to leave you with: developing the ability to maintain ‘with perfect sweetness’ the independence of solitude — the integrity and wholeness of the self — in the midst of the crowd. Your education should give you the capacity to shape and sustain your selfhood.”

A Wilderness of Thought: Childhood and the Poetic Imagination (Orion Magazine)
“So much of this childhood ease with both the visible and invisible, what we know and don’t know — the pure sense of expectation and delight in the mystery of what is happening and about to happen — is not only a function of our mind’s ability to balance opposites through the equipoise that is our imagination, but also a way of experiencing the world poetically.”

The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia (Los Angeles Review of Books)
“Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.”

Why I love . . . Night of the Demon (BFI)
“Paving for the way for later occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man, Night of the Demon is a spooky tale of witchcraft in modern Britain. With Jacques Tourneur’s film opening the BFI’s Monster Weekend, curator Vic Pratt explains why it’s a masterpiece of fright.”

Fans to celebrate horror writer H.P. Lovecraft with NecronomiCon gathering (The Washington Post)
Article inspired by this weekend’s convention in Providence. Many of my good friends in the Lovecraft world are there. Alas for those of us who can’t attend! “The mythos that Lovecraft created in stories such as ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ has reached its tentacles deep into popular culture — so much that his creations and the works they influenced might be better known than the writer himself.”

Why Rod Serling Still Matters (Mitch Horowitz for The Huffington Post)
“The visuals of The Twilight Zone form a kind of collective generational nightmare. The remarkable thing about the man who created many of these episodes from 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling, is that the writer-presenter learned his craft not in the visual era but in the age of radio drama.”

Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King (The Millions)
Written by an only child who grew up in an American Foreign Service family. “I [am] struck by how much of my conception of America comes from those thick books — what they said to me during that quasi-rootless time, and what they say to me now that both the vague internationalism and the natural solipsism of my childhood have mostly dissipated. For better or worse, I cut my patriotic teeth on the oeuvre of Stephen King.”

Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head (TED)
“To all appearances, Eleanor Longden was just like every other student, heading to college full of promise and without a care in the world. That was until the voices in her head started talking. Initially innocuous, these internal narrators became increasingly antagonistic and dictatorial, turning her life into a living nightmare. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, hospitalized, drugged, Longden was discarded by a system that didn’t know how to help her. Longden tells the moving tale of her years-long journey back to mental health, and makes the case that it was through learning to listen to her voices that she was able to survive.”

Magick, Madness, and Outsider Art: The Lovecraftian Path to Happiness

A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four

Sparking-Neurones-2

NOTE: This is the final part of a four-part series in which Stu Young explores the works and influence of H. P. Lovecraft in an attempt to tease out themes of heroism and optimism among the more familiar themes of horror, gloom, and despair.

Although Robert Anton Wilson claims that Sir John Babcock, the hero of Masks of the Illuminati, is “the typical Lovecraft narrator” and has him muse that “Encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors,” Babcock does on occasion find himself getting a thrill from his exploits. Admittedly, he compares this to the novels of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard rather than anything by Lovecraft, but then, in the year in which the story is set (1914) Lovecraft hadn’t had any tales published yet. (Not that this stops Cthulhu popping up for a quick cameo.) But despite Babcock’s vacillating feelings towards his adventures, Masks of the Illuminati ends happily.

Masks_of_the_Illuminati_by_Robert_Anton_Wilson

Meanwhile, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, a visit to Miskatonic University turns up a John Dee translation of the Necronomicon, and shoggoths make several cameo appearances during the course of the story. Yog-Sothoth also turns up several times in Illuminatus! but is constantly trapped in various types of pentagons and eventually absorbs Hitler into itself, thus condemning old Adolf to eternal torment, which shifts Yog-Sothoth from villain to borderline hero, kind of like the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park.

(Does anyone else feel weird about Yog-Sothoth being a hero? Even viewing him as an anti-hero seems wrong; it’s so out of character. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis and wanted to try a new direction in life. He probably bought himself a shiny new sports car as well. Just so long as he doesn’t start shagging younger women again, because we know that never ends well.)

illuminatus

Wilson liked mixing historical figures into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Aleister Crowley, along with many other real people, all turn up at various points. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting cameo by a real-life figure come in Illuminatus! when one of the novel’s protagonists pays a visit to none other than Lovecraft himself, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters in his stories might be real. The protagonist then asks why, if Lovecraft doesn’t believe in monsters or magic, did he cut short a quote from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic in his short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft replies, “One doesn’t have to believe in Yog-Sothoth, the eater of Souls, to realize how people will act who do hold that belief. It is not my intent, in any of my writings, to provide information that will lead even one unbalanced reader to try experiments that will result in the loss of human life.”

Such a response raises the question of how people really do fare when they allow the influence of Lovecraftian fiction to infiltrate real life. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the British ritual magician Kenneth Grant, who blended the Cthulhu Mythos into Typhonian magic. Read the rest of this entry

Cannabis and Cthulhu: Dr. Sanjay Gupta wakes the Old Ones with his marijuana metanoia

    Cannabis photos by Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cannabis photos by Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, please pardon the ludicrously sensationalistic title. But seriously, is there anybody who hasn’t heard about this yet? On the slim chance that there is, here you go. This is Dr. Sanjay Gupta speaking, who, as we all surely recall, is not just a media personality but someone whose medical opinion carries political clout, as seen in the fact that he was offered (but he refused) the position of U.S. Surgeon General by President Obama.

Over the last year, I have been working on a new documentary called “Weed.” The title “Weed” may sound cavalier, but the content is not. I traveled around the world to interview medical leaders, experts, growers and patients. I spoke candidly to them, asking tough questions. What I found was stunning. Long before I began this project, I had steadily reviewed the scientific literature on medical marijuana from the United States and thought it was fairly unimpressive.

Well, I am here to apologize. I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis. Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”

They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.

[. . .] I have. . . come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana. We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.

— “Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I changed my mind on marijuana,” CNN, August 9, 2013

Also see Gupta’s appearance on a recent CNN program devoted to the question of medicine, marijuana, and the legal restrictions on certain substances:

Did you hear all of that? And did you really listen and consider its implications? Methinks this development could prove to represent an authentic sea change in the marijuana legalization wars. When a person of Gupta’s public status and visibility puts himself and his reputation on the line over something like this, the ramifications are immense.

Nor are they limited to the matter of medicine and marijuana as such. Notice that a statement like Gupta’s carries implications far exceeding its nominal topic. We in America have been “systematically” lied to by our government, he says. As in, deliberately and strategically. This naturally leads to further questions. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – August 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I invite you to peruse today’s installment of recommended and necessary reading in light of this recent reflection from Walter Kirn, who says his former personal and current authorial involvement with a certain high-profile murderer and impostor has combined synergistically with the rash of apocalyptic awfulness currently infesting global news headlines to generate the impression that we’re all living in a real-life story that’s one part Lovecraftian horror and one part dystopian science fiction:

All summer I’ve been manacled to my desk writing a book about a former friend of mine, the impostor and convicted killer known to the world and the media as Clark Rockefeller.

. . . I couldn’t have chosen a worse few months for such a paranoia-inducing task. Since the end of my old friend’s murder trial in April — a proceeding which taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons about manipulation and deception — the news from the world of government and politics has been unremitting in its spookiness, a serial ghost story from the Age of Terror. The Summer of Lovecraft, I’ve decided to call it. Snowden. PRISM. Secret courts. The death of Michael Hastings. That program, just outed, that allows the DEA to substitute spurious investigative trails for the ones it actually uses to track suspects. The only winners here? Literature professors. Orwell, Kafka, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick we hardly knew ye, it turns out. But now we’re getting to know ye much, much better.

. . . Tomorrow morning, per my daily ritual, I’ll spend a few minutes reading the headlines before I buckle down to work. I already know what’s in store for me, unfortunately: I’ll learn yet again that what I’m writing about on a small and personal scale is happening in some form on a grand scale.

That much I can trust.

— Walter Kirn, “This Is the Summer of Lovecraft,” The New Republic, August 9, 2013

* * *

4 in 5 in US face near-poverty, no work (Associated Press exclusive)
“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.”

The Real War on Reality (The New York Times)
On surveillance, secrecy, deception, and the accompanying philosophical danger of “epistemic attack.” “If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the next item below.]

You’re Being Lied To: The Culture of Conspiracy (Micah Hanks for Mysterious Universe)
“Whether it be the alleged plot to kill JFK, or the conspiracy behind granny’s secret rhubarb pie recipe, many people these days appear to be capable of finding a conspiracy tucked away with nearly every corner and cranny of our culture. In essence, we are living in a literal culture of conspiracy.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the previous item above.]

Nuke the Cat! Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting (Vulture and New York Magazine)
“That escalation can be felt across the entire film industry this summer, a season of unparalleled massiveness: more blockbusters released, more digital demolition per square foot, and more at stake than ever. But Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic — and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level.”

The Art of Attention (Sven Birkerts for Aeon magazine)
The peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew. “To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit. The things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”

Grotesque Horror Through a Kid-Sized Window (NPR)
Novelist Erin Morgenstern on the enduring personal impact of Stephen King’s It, which she read at age 12. “It was filled with things I didn’t understand juxtaposed with things I did — like a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse into the future. It showed me that the things hiding under your bed and lurking in the sewers don’t disappear just because you grow up.”

Wonders_and_the_Order_of_Nature_by_Lorraine_DastonMonsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science (Nautilus)
Interview with Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and author of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. She traces the central role played by the emotional-spiritual “Bermuda Triangle” of terror, horror, and wonder — the latter tinged with awe — in the birth of modern science, as early figures such as Francis Bacon tried to shake people out of the complacency of their established assumptions about the world by highlighting anomalies and monstrosities in nature.

Byron and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (The Byron Centre for the Study of Literature and Social Change, PDF)
Absorbing 2000 lecture delivered to inaugurate the University of Nottingham’s Byron Centre. “Victor’s dream of what he could accomplish became a monstrous reality that outlived him; and Mary Shelley’s waking dream, which became the novel Frankenstein, has outlived her — what she called her own ‘hideous progeny’ has given her a kind of immortality. Both Byron [in his poem “The Dream”] and Mary Shelley seem to be saying that sleep, which mimics death, yields dreams that yield art that can transcend death and mutability.”

Necronomicon_31st_Anniversary_EditionThe Necronomicon: 32 Years Later (New Dawn)
A 2009 essay by Simon, author of the most famous (notorious) putative Necronomicon, who offers an interpretation of current world conflicts, and especially the Iraq war and associated disruptions, as illustrations of occult principles at work. “It may be that the Middle East conflict is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual struggle — a jihad — taking place within our own hearts and minds as our modern sensitivities wrestle with our ancient instincts. However we characterise it, a Gate has been opened.”

Gods in Mind: The Science of Religion Cognition (The Templeton Foundation)
An utterly fascinating project. “At present, scientific descriptions of how people think about God and gods are fragmented across subdisciplines of the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences. . . [T]here is little sense of an integrated and global conception of how God or gods are represented in mind. This funding competition is designed to promote integration of existing lines of research and to generate and test new hypotheses emerging from such integration. ”

 

 

Supernatural Horror, Spiritual Awakening, and the Demonic Divine

Liminalities1The 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

Deadly pedantry: How (and how not) to murder art, literature, and H. P. Lovecraft

University_College,_Durham_Crypt

The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”

I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.

Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.

This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.

That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.

I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you. Read the rest of this entry

Lovecraft, Tolkien, and the nightmare as “a necessary drug for the mass consciousness”

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Here’s a description of the book Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project (Brill, 2013) by Russian-born literary and cultural scholar Dina Khapaeva, who is currently serving as chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech:

What is a nightmare as a psychological experience, a literary experiment and a cultural project? Why has experiencing a nightmare under the guise of reading a novel, watching a film or playing a video game become a persistent requirement of contemporary mass culture? By answering these questions, which have not been addressed by literary criticism and cultural studies, we can interpret anew the texts of classic authors. Charles Maturin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Howard Philips Lovecraft and Victor Pelevin carry out bold experiments on their heroes and readers as they seek to investigate the nature of nightmare in their works. This book examines their prose to reveal the unstudied features of the nightmare as a mental state and traces the mosaic of coincidences leading from literary experiments to today s culture of nightmare consumption.

And here several interesting passages from a section of the book titled “The Culture of Nightmare Consumption.” The latter term, note, refers to Khapaeva’s contention, or rather observation, that today we live in and with “a consumer culture for the nightmare,” where the nightmare is “a staple consumption concept upon which today’s culture is extremely dependent.”

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft, which directly influenced contemporary fiction and the visual arts, can hardly be overestimated, and represented a new landmark in the formation of the Gothic Aesthetic. Their works laid the foundations of the contemporary culture of nightmare consumption and facilitated the nightmare’s penetration into everyday life, allowing it to exert a huge influence over the minds of millions of readers, viewers, and video game users.

. . . Tolkien and Lovecraft most probably had no idea of each other’s existence, at least while they were writing their main works. However, being united in the space of contemporary culture, their quests have merged into the single project of the Gothic Aesthetic.

. . . The rise of the Gothic Aesthetic in the 1990s occurred through a coincidence of several trends and factors that had started to emerge in the late 1970s. The birth of Gothic rock coincided with the peak of Tolkien’s popularity due to the translation of The Lord of the Rings into most European languages. These events had clear social consequences: Gothic rock produced the Goth youth subculture, while The Lord of the Rings inspired the rise of role-playing games. The writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose prose was instrumental  in promoting a fascination with nightmares, were also used as a model for role-playing games in the early 1980s, but his works gained true popularity in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when contemporary computer games were developed. Works by Tolkien and Lovecraft made a unique contribution to the rise of the Gothic Aesthetic, influencing the minds of millions of readers, users and viewers.

In the 1980s the nightmare gradually began to transform into a necessary drug for the mass consciousness; the public was not aware of its addictive effect until it began to require equine doses of direct and vulgar nightmares in order to achieve the desired effect. Over the last 20 years the nightmare has become the most desirable psychological state, and indeed any product on the pleasure market that does not imitate it seems to the contemporary consumer to be insipid and unreal.