Saturday, June 27, 2009

New Weird Class Warriors. Oh Really?

Though a long time advocate of M. John Harrison (though see my relatively recent post on Harrison on Lovecraft), I have found myself somewhat blindsided by a quote of Harrison's which, I believe quite rightly, this blogger has railed against

No doubt apologists will say that Harrison was being ironic or somesuch, but sadly, I feel his claim that 'it is undignified to read for the purposes of escape' is sadly all too indicative of broader attitudes emergent within the current 'New Weird' trend in speculative literature (of which, nonetheless, I still consider myself a fan). Especially so amongst a number of these genres' acedemic/philosophical exegetes, who would style themselves as revolutionaries without really - I mean really - having any experiential or conceptual understanding of what it means not to have come from anything other than a relatively privileged middle-class background.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Joshi's The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos

Beware that this post continues with the trend of curmudgeonly bitterness common to my earlier scribblings. Though hopefully what I have to say wont end up alienating what few readers this blog retains. In any case, I've finally started reading Joshi's The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos and, two chapters in, a couple of things jump out.

Most notable of which is the fact that Joshi doesn't offer up much so far in terms of a critical methodology. While he often points an accusatory finger at many mythos tales as having no literary merit, the manner in which this merit is to be measured (outside a set of rather conservative and unimaginative 'abstract aesthetic standards' that are 'widely accepted') lacks analytical depth. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh here, for in truth a lot of mythos fiction does tend to be a bit shit.

In any case Joshi doesn't really seek methodological support from contemporary (for which read 'faddish') literary theorists. In chapter 1, for example, he takes a snide dig at Robert M. Price's highly informed and theoretically rich insights into mythos fiction as the product of (a presumably suspect!) avante-gardism. Now, I'm not an expert in recent trends in literary criticism (though fortunately my sister is an academic who is) but it seems to me that Joshi is unfairly dismissive of some thirty odd years of developments in the field, many of which (far from being faddishly avante-garde) have come to inform the academic mainstream. In this respect it strikes me that Joshi, like Lovecraft, is a man out of his time.

Indications at this stage, then, are that anyone who doesn't tow a line that broadly recapitulates Joshi's own construction of Lovecraft are in for similar treatment - evident for example in Joshi's insistence that his is the absolute authoritative definition of the meaning of the word Necronomicon and one that brooks no argument - especially from Price. Joshi's literalism in this respect indicates a disappointing unwillingness to engage with wider developments in literary, critical and cultural theory.

That said, up to this point I'm finding the book insightful and enjoyable (when not infurating). More feedback as I delve deeper into the mouldering tome. By the way, if this does come across as rather elitist view of Joshi's work, fear not - look out for a forthcoming iconoclastic post which takes a pop at recent obscurantist co-options of Lovecraft from within academia. Nice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mark Samuels Sighted

A few weeks ago I believe I caught, from the corner of my eye, the spectral figure of Mark Samuels lurking around the Lovecraft section (where else?) of London's Forbidden Planet. Unfortunately I was in a rush to be somewhere else and (rather impolitely) didn't have the time to say hello. For those not familar with Mark, he is a writer of some outstanding weird fiction and 'mystical horror'. If you are a fan of Machen, Lovecraft and Ligotti chances are you will appreciate Mark Samuels' writing.

I can't claim to have known Mark very well, but became acquainted with him a few years ago via the London socials held by the Lovecraft Scholar's yahoo group, and once had the pleasure of being invited by Mark to a meeting of (what I believe was)the almost mythical Sodality of Shadows one Saturday evening in Highgate. As I recall, the last time I saw Mark was at a send-off do at London's Cittie of Yorke pub prior to his absconding to Mexico (from whence I understand he has recently returned).

In any case, this post is inspired by the fact that I've since discovered Mark has a new blog - while it's fair to say I'd probably disagree with some of the religious views expressed therein, it is definitely worth checking out for afficianados of the weird. Of particular note is Mark's April 7th post critiquing claims that it is the socio-political content of weird fiction which validates it as literature. Again, there's some points that Mark raises which I would probably take issue with, although I think he makes a valid argument that even the most materialist of weird fiction often ends up transcending its own materialism. Indeed, I believe I am taking a similar position vis-a-vis Lovecraft's 'non-supernatural cosmic art' in an article-in-progress (though on a personal note this doesn't constitute a revision of my own atheism; in fact I think it is eminently possible to maintain a fairly stalwart position of atheism without denigrating human religiousity or indeed the need to reject the 'naturalness' of religious ideas).

Go Mark!

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Greetings. Whilst the thick, gloopy strands of Azathothian entropy have entangled us further and drawn us deeper into the unreflective depths of cosmic ennui, we at Ghooric Zone are still making the occasional attempt - as the mood takes us - to pass on our reflections on Lovecraftian popular culture. In all probability no one is listening anymore, but being the good Lovecraftians that we are, we don’t care and will continue spouting our jibber-jabber into the audient void (often to the sound of atonal flutes and monotonous drumming).

On to business. If The Mist was purportedly a movie of existential horror with (as I have argued previously) an implicit moral message, then I’m about to suggest that Knowing is at its core a movie of existential, materialistic (and, dare I say it, Lovecraftian) horror masquerading as a ‘feel good’ movie (albeit one concerning the end of the world). Please be warned that the following contains major spoilers regarding the film's plot. In fact, I'm about to tell you how it ends.

Broadly speaking the film is a category (though not in the strictest sense) of what Brian Aldiss has elsewhere called a ‘shaggy god’ story , where religious or biblical themes and stories turn out to have science-fictional causes. It is also a film the where the ancient astronaut hypothesis is implicitly invoked; additionally, Knowing shares a certain kinship with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, where an apocalyptic science fiction premise is actually concealing a spiritual message about hope subverting meaninglessness and the existence of life –after-death. In brief, Knowing is about how space aliens (who turn out to look a bit like angels) save some children from the end of the world and spirit them off to an Eden-like planet (replete with Biblical Tree of Knowledge) along with some pairs of animals (rabbits, actually - quite useful being the fast breeders they are and hence providing a potentially indefinite supply of protein) a la Noah (the film-makers certainly seemed to enjoy mixing their Biblical metaphors). Oh, and somehow along the way the atheistic astrophysicist Nicholas Cage (whose mechanistic materialism is a consequence of his wife meaningless death in a fire - a bit like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs) finally comes to believe in life after death (a bit like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs), helpfully reconciling with his pastor father before Cage, his remaining family and the rest of the Earth’s population die horribly in a conflagration caused by a massive solar flare.

The mirroring of the intervention of the aliens with the story of Noah seems to be the locus of this spiritual message - that there is hope, that death isn’t really the end, that there are more things out there than are dreamt of it our philosophy and so on. But wait a minute...the film implies that nothing happens without a reason - death isn’t a matter of random unthinking chance. Does this mean that the end of the world was itself part of a bigger plan? Given that in the film the space aliens - following the ancient astronaut hypothesis - are the secular analogue of God (or at least His angelic instruments) might this imply that they themselves instigated the apocalypse? Interestingly, when taking human form the aliens do seem to conform to the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Aryan’ extraterrestrials beloved of most right-wing ufologist crack-heads. Perhaps after all, they really were space-Nazis conducting a eugenics programme on a massive scale? Hmm...maybe they should have got Mel Gibson to play the part instead. At least the aliens had the good sense not to take Nicholas Cage with them.

On a more serious point, if as I suspect the film makers were trying to putting a re-enchanted New Age spin on things akin to what Shyamalan attempts in Signs, I wonder if this aspect of the film might not again unwittingly point to some of the more problematic aspects of Theosophical-New Age-ufological apocalypticism? Especially those tinged with the suspect racialist undertones of Victorian social evolutionism (if not the outright discourse of ethnic ‘cleansing’), and wherein the perfect ‘Nordic’ or ‘Aryan’ extraterrestrials are coming to save the chosen from an ‘impure’ world. In this respect, the children in the film who are ‘the chosen’ seem to have remarkable knowledge and innate telepathic abilities - perhaps a reflection of real-world New Age beliefs surrounding ‘indigo children’ (as well as some of the ideas regarding human-ET hybridisation emergent from alien abductee narratives) who are seen to represent a more ‘spiritualised’ step in human evolution. The rest of us, being unnecessary and 'impure' throwbacks can be consigned to the dustbin of history as the ubermensch forge ahead to create a perfect and 'pure' world. (I use the terminology of purity and pollution here purposely, as I think it perhaps one of the most powerful sets of symbols/metaphors that humans have deployed for social and political ends - especially in the discourse and practice of racism, ethnic violence and genocide).

I’m prone to put my own sly spin on what this movie might be about: that in fact its use of dodgy alien astronaut tropes actually undermines the very point it (seems) to be trying to communicate: that even the most secular of atheists must eventually abandon their disbelief and accept the comfort that there is ‘more’ (in a spiritual sense) to this world than this world itself. Cage’s character’s reconciliation with his religious father and seeming acceptance that death is not the end is problematic because the saviours appear to be aliens and not angels. The film seems to pushing toward a recognition that perhaps the aliens look like angels because perhaps they really are angels. But the other subtextual possibility that the film seems to contain is one emergent from the very same demythologising alien astronaut hypothesis that Lovecraft prefigured in his work: that there are, in fact, no angels; angels and other representations of the supernatural are simply the symbolic cloth in which we clothe the nuts and bolts matter of extraterrestrials. This seems to be supported by the fact that the ET’s craft first manifests in a form akin to the vision of Ezekiel which is referenced earlier in the film: all wheels within wheels. In any case, this infers that the ETs certainly have interfered before in human history. In other words, the aliens don't look like angels; rather it is the case that we have constructed our image of angels based on extraterrestrial interventions in our past history.

This being the case, there doesn’t seem anything to contradict the notion that the end of the world as it happens in the film is anything other than meaningless random chance. Or as suggested above, perhaps an act engineered by the aliens themselves. Indeed, the more I think about this the more I consider it to be a distinct possibility according to the logic that underlies the film: if the aliens possess the godlike power of fortelling the future, why could they not have stopped the solar flare with their technology? Given that they knew this was going to happen so far in advance and (presumably) harbour such altruistic attitudes towards humans, why didn’t they take the time to save all of the world’s population? In fact, their altruism only seems to extend toward children with special powers, not us ‘less evolved’ primates. Or maybe they weren’t fortelling the future but using their technology to manufacture it and pass their well-laid plans as ‘prophesy’ (here I’m of course following the Clarkean adage that any sufficiently advanced technology will look like magic. Or in this case, religion). Cage, then, has simply (and understandably) fallen into the very human trap of manufacturing hope where there is none as a means of alleviating anxiety in the face of, well, a horrible death. Could I be right, then, that the belief that ‘this isn’t all there is’ turns out to be false consciousness (in this case, engendered by our alien overlords)?

I would like to think so. I’d also like to think that this was the subversive intention of the film-makers (especially in the context of the litigious New Age science-fictional clap-trap spiritualities that appear to be rampant amongst the Hollywood hoi-polloi - what happened to all the Satanists?), but I imagine that’s beyond the realms of possibility given that this is a movie starring Nicholas Cage, which is about unsubtle as you can get.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Harrison on Lovecraft via Houellebecq...Oh Dear.

A word of warning - this is something of a reactive post and as such probably not one that is not carefully considered to say the least. So something I'll likely return to as and when time permits.

Now down to business. To say I was rather disappointed with M. John Harrison’s recent review of the Lovecraft on the Guardian’s website is something of an understatement. It's not that I object to criticism of Lovecraft; rather it is Harrison’s (quite frankly lazy) reduction of Lovecraft’s considerable contribution to the literature of the weird to a piece of cod Freudianism : Lovecraft’s work represents in Harrison’s eyes ‘a last desperate clutch at the undependable maternal skirt’ and Lovecraft’s cosmicism consequently rendered as ‘ the terror and disappointment of not being the universe's favourite child’. This sweeping and ill-considered evaluation based, it seems, on a quote of Lovecraft’s (‘adulthood is hell’) taken from Houellebecq. Indeed, it is Houellebecq who (implicitly) seems to come in for most praise in the review as the ‘rehabilitator’ of Lovecraft.

Sadly, Harrison seems to have been bedazzled by a new (and in my mind often insubstantial) trend in Lovecraft scholarship which is emerging from within a relatively small group of contemporary academic philosophers. A trend which also seems to treat as unimportant or trivial many of the pre-Houellebecq academic engagements with the Lovecraftian milieu (especially those that are not informed by an impenetrably obscurantist category of poststructuralist Marxism). A point I shall return to when I get around to revising my ‘missing’ post.

In any case, Harrison ultimately deems Lovecraft’s work escapist. I’m somewhat ambivalent on this point; more worrying though is Harrison’s own views that escapism in the literature of the weird and the fantastic is politically irresponsible (bloody hell man - thats what hobbies are for!). Not only does this come off sounding very close to the preachiness of middle-class Guardian-reading liberals who are all too ready to lay the responsibility of any number of social ills at the feet of Grand Theft Auto, but by telling us that we should be spending our time more productively seems in its own way to reproduce some of the core values of capitalism.