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
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.
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four
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.
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.)
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
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
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 “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
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.