Thursday, November 21, 2013

De Marigny's Clock: Lovecrafting the Art of Doctor Who (Part 1).

In anticipation of the looming 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, over the next few weeks I will be exploring Lovecraftian influences (both real and speculative) upon the Whoniverse.This isn't the first time something like this has been done, nor will - I'm sure - it be the last. Indeed, only last week a thread appeared on the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's Facebook page discussing the very same topic. But not one to be put off by casual accusations of plagiarism, I shall proceed nonetheless. As an aside, I will use this opportunity to shill the imminent launch of yet another blog, Peeking From Behind the Sofa, which will document my attempts at systematically watching the entirety of classic Who...again, nothing new here, as this has been done many times over: for an excellent podcast attempting the same (whilst drunk), check out Drunken Time Travel. Say hello from me to Dalek Steve whilst your over there.

Matters of originality aside, Doctor Who played a key role in traumatically effecting my obsession with the weird. At the age of about five, I went through that classic rite of passage common to many children of a certain age living amongst the dreary desolation that was 1970s Britain: of being scared witless and hiding behing the sofa (or settees as we called them then) whilst watching that classic horror tv series, Doctor Who. Yes, for me at the time Doctor Who was a horror series. Unsurprising given that my earliest memory of the programme was during Jon Pertwee's tenure, when the Doctor and Jo Grant  were rowing through a sludge of fucking green luminescent slime (which would kill you horribly if you touched it) in a mine cart whilst being threatened by giant fucking maggots!  Not only did this traumatise my five year old self, but laid a firm foundation upon which was built the gateway into a strange new world of the horrible and the fantastic. Happy days!

But I get ahead of myself. Going back to the origins of Who, there is not much to be said by way of Lovecraftian themes or influences in the First and Second Doctor eras (William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton). As a horribly mutated and tentacular species inimical to all life, the Daleks probably come closest to being Lovecraftian: 'Exterminate!!!' being possibly the defining epithet of a Lovecrafitian (or perhaps more properly Ligottian) universe. The Hartnell era also firmly established a conceptual link to Lovecraft with regard to what he considered to be a driving of the aesthetics of the weird - namely the 'adventurous expectancy' that arises from the imagined suspension of the natural law allowing one to participate in infinite voyagings across time and space. In this respect, I think we disregard Lovecraft'a emphasis on awe and wonder at our peril: the perception of him being first and foremost a writer of horror (rather than of the weird) has become far too overdetermined. In a twist on Peter Cannon's The Lovecraft Chronicles, one could almost imagine in an alternative timeline an older Lovecraft playing the First Doctor (quite possibly wearing his father's old suit):

The First Doctor?

As other's have noted, Brian Lumley's later Titus Crow stories seem to be a thinly-veiled Derlethian spin on Doctor Who, with Crow jetting about time and space in de Marigny's clock (hence the title of this series and, if I recall aright, also bigger on the inside). Indeed, I have a recollection of the Master's TARDIS during the Fifth Doctor's era taking the form of a grandfather clock...

With the second Doctor, what we have by way of Lovecraftian stylings has largely been retconned by later Who (particularly in the New Adventures novels of the 1990s - more on those later), such that the Great Intelligence has been identified in some Whovian sources Yog Sothoth. It remains unclear as to whether this is Whovian 'canon' or not, although intriguingly the most recent series featuring Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith has the Great Intelligence as, quite literally, an Eater of Souls. This is, of course, one of Yog-Sothoth's sobriquet's,  introduced in the Illuminatus Trilogy in the cosmic entity consumes and entraps the life-force of human beings like flies in amber for all eternity. This is also the version of Yog Sothoth that that Charles Stross works with in his chilling short story A Colder War. However, there is much speculation here - although there is one instance during the reboot of Who when 'the Great Old Ones' are actually mentioned...
As noted above, the entry of Pertwee's Third Doctor marked (at least for me) a tonal shift towards the horrific, which would later reach its apex in the classic Robert Holmes stories of the Fourth Doctor's era. Though ostensibly no explicit Lovecraftian references here, we do have the tentacular Axons from The Claws of Axos, and of course the Silurians and the Sea Devils, who come closest to an overt nod of the head to Lovecraftian themes: ancient, prehuman races - akin to the serpent men of Valusia and the Deep Ones - returning to wipe out humanity.
Even so, both of these stories were tempered by shifting societal attitudes during the late/post-hippy era as the Doctor sought to broker a peace between these ancient races and humanity - although in both cases ineffectively in the face of the blunt militarism of the British government and UNIT. As with the Great Intelligence, the Nestene intelligence of the classic Auton stories has also been retconned as the Great Old One Shub Niggurath in the New Adventure novels. In addition, at least one rpg iteration of Doctor Who has also tried to link the Sea Devils to Lovecraft's Dagon. Another story echoing notably Lovecraftian themes is, of course, The Daemons, where ancient supernatural evil turns out to be the intrusion of extraterrestrial forces. The Three Doctors also introduced the protoplasmic Gell Guards...
as well as Omega: a figure from Gallifrey's ancient history - a history which, in the Doctor's later incarnations, would be revealed as replete with intriguing Lovecraftian possibilities (the forbidden knowledge of the Black Scrolls of Rassilon...).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Recent Acquisition - The Eye of Azathoth

Just a quick update on a recent acquisition: The Eye of Azathoth - a Lovecraftian ouija board with Nightgaunt planchette, made by Jason McKittrick of Cryptocurium.

This was available in limited numbers for just one week - I've always wanted a mythos-themed Ouija board, so when I saw this I snapped it up. My planchette is numbered 10 of 13, so it looks like this was produced in very limited numbers.

And the planchette glows in the dark:


The board itself is printed on a vinyl sheet - apparently this is because it is less likely to get scratched when using the planchette. If I'm honest, I would have really liked it as a mounted board, but this is still a remarkably unusual piece.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bong - 'Idle Days on the Yann'

Readers of the previous post may recall my enthusiasm for a paper on Dunsanian drone metal given at the Weird conference earlier in the week. To give full credit, this was by Owen Coggins of the Open University, the full title of the piece being 'Awakening Mana-Yood-Sushai: Lord Dunsany's Weird Fiction (and other Sacred Scriptures) in Drone Metal Music'. In the interim, I've downloaded several of the musical works mentioned by Owen, notably the albums Bethmoora, Mana-Yood-Sushai and Idle Days on the Yann all by Bong. Rather than offer a detailed overview of these, I'll settle for a very brief and impressionistic capsule review of Idle Days on the Yann, purely because this is a concept album based on the eponymous tale by Dunsany, and which happens to be one of my favourite (and certainly most read) of the Dunsany canon.


In terms of musical style, Idle Days on the Yann certainly elicits a strong Middle-Eastern - one might even say orientalist -flavour (especially the first track), mixed with Tibetan-influenced dronings and inferences of raga rock, that sit very well with Dunsany's literary exoticism. Where I perhaps part company with Bong is with regard to mood. The two album tracks (each over 20 minutes in length) that make up Yann do seem very pendulous and somewhat doom-laden as far as atmospherics are concerned, which for me doesn't quite arouse the wistful, melancholic - and occasionally sardonic - mood of Dunsany's original tale. In brief, whilst Bong's take here is very effective at evoking the overall feel of Dunsanian weirdness, it didn't quite succeed in conjuring the ambience or disposition of the original tale. As an album, Idle Days on the Yann is a great piece of weird rock mysticism - something I will definitely be listening to when ensconced in my sanctum sanctorum...


...whilst pouring through some horror-filled tome of forbidden lore. But in the latter regard, it is a work better suited as background to, say, a pilgrimage to the awful, squat black monasteries of Leng than as soundscape to a drowsily dream-like excursion along the banks of the River Yann.

Idle Days on the Yann by Bong can be downloaded for the low price of four English pounds here.

Much of Dunsany's work - which I now understand to be out of copyright - can be downloaded freely in multiple formats here.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Weird: Fugitive Fictions/Hybrid Genres

Academia. Grrrr! I'll say no more than that, other than note that recent experiences had been such that I really was not looking forward to attending The Weird conference (hosted on by Birkbeck college's Institute of English Studies at Senate House in London). As the day of the conference approached, this turned into simple indifference - even though I was down to present a paper (on 'Weird Occultures and Lovecraftian Modernity') during the first session of panels. My initial intention - influenced by the likelihood that I would have to go into work later that afternoon to sort out some frustrating HR stuff (an eventuality which, thankfully, did not come to pass) -  was to get in, give the paper, and get out as soon as possible.

Fortunately, my rather skewed expectations that this was going to be yet another typically dry and self-congratulatory academic gathering were swiftly undermined. And, indeed, my supposition that it would be a lit crit dominated event were also misplaced. Whilst lit crit was understandably well represented, the organizers had made a real effort to reflect the 'hybrid genres' part of the conference title by inviting speakers to debate manifestations of 'the weird' in varied media contexts including music, film, gaming, as well as in occultism and with regard to its impact on the wider culture. Of note were some really interesting pieces on landscape and space in weird literature, the weirding of time in M.R. James and Nigel Kneale, the weird in computer gaming, and a very favourable piece on Dunsany-influenced drone-metal - a genre I was previously unaware of. In any case, the paper in question has now encouraged me to investigate the musical stylings of popular beat-combo Bong:


It was also a great opportunity to meet with friends old and new: Steve Dempsey (GB Steve over at who furnished me with a personally signed copy of the Shotguns v. Cthulhu anthology (cheers Steve); Gwilym Games of the Friends of Arthur Machen (who gave a cracking talk on Machen and witchcraft), noted fortean chap Mark Pilkington, and the inestimable Mr. Steve Wilson, veteran of the London pagan moot scene. Also great to finally meet Christopher Josiffe, who also presented a fascinating paper on reading Kenneth Grant as fiction (we were on the same panel), enthusing me to revisit Grant's work in the near future.

I was very happy with my talk (one of the best I've given for a while, I feel), although it did suffer from an overabundance of academese (something I tend to be very critical of in other people's work - see below!) amidst presentations which were for the most part clear, concise and more notable for their engaging theoretical perspectives than for political grandstanding or academic obscurantism. Even so, I think I did manage to explain my position fairly clearly and (for once) think I did a pretty fair job at fielding questions - notably an insightful one from Benjamin Noys (whose own presentation on Savoy Press' notorious Lord Horror I unfortunately missed).

Roger Luckhurst also gave a fascinating keynote on the significance of the corridor in weird fiction (much more interesting than it sounds, although tiredness due to insomnia the night before didn't quite permit me to take in all the details of his argument). As far as I could tell, S.T. Joshi was absent from Luckhurst's talk...Joshi's keynote opening keynote speech, whilst interesting, didn't really offer much new by way of what we've come to expect, and was largely a reiteration of chapters on Poe and Lovecraft from his Unutterable Horror. As a fellow attendee noted, Joshi's talk was very descriptive, and offered very little in the way of analysis. Indeed, this has been my issue with Joshi in recent years who, unlike Lovecraft scholars such as Burleson and Price, seems to ignore completely contemporary bodies of social, cultural and literary theory with regard to his subject matter, and instead remains hidebound to an almost 19th century (and rather puritanical) model of scholarship and literary criticism (as well as what makes for 'good' literature). In this respect, his now infamous criticisms of Luckhurst do seem rather trite and outdated. That said, Joshi's contribution to keeping Lovecraft's memory and fiction alive is immense, so I still retain the utmost respect for him (especially with regard to his editorial and biographical work). And I think I've said before, Joshi always seems much more personable in the flesh than does his rather irascible on-line presence.

Even though I was flagging for the better part of the day (due to the aforementioned insomnia), I ended up supping a reviving  pint or three with Christopher and Mark Pilkington (whose gave a great presentation earlier in the day on Sidney Sime, and author of one of my all-time favourite ufological books, Mirage Men) at the end of the day as we discussed Gef the talking mongoose (the topic of a book Christopher is currently writing), John Keel, the state of current ufology, Lovecraft and Kenneth Grant, and other matters no doubt of deep esoteric import. On the matter of Sime, the Dover edition of Dunsany's Gods, Men and Ghosts with illustrations by Sime has pride of place amongst my Dunsany collection.

The upside of all this is that the conference has re-enthused my interest in academia and research  -  this event seemed, very much, to be a 'my kind of people' thing - particularly in its inclusiveness. The downside being that this is leading me to further question my current positioning within the field of anthropology: a discipline which I don't think I really understand anymore; within which I feel rather marginalised; and one in which I feel increasingly constrained by the apparent institutionalised requirements of the discipline to frame any kind of writing or research in a profoundly politicised manner (and the content of my paper for this conference was certainly shaped by this). For some academics (especially social scientists), a statement of this kind will be anathema and no doubt seem like a betrayal of all that academia stands for. But sometimes I just want to listen to someone telling me about the religious dimensions of Dunsanian drone metal without this having to relate to some worthy poststructuralist critique of capitalism.

Be seeing you.

Friday, November 01, 2013

I Am Providence available on Kindle

Direct from David Haden's Tentaclii blog, news that S.T. Joshi's I Am Providence is now available for Kindle for a ridiculously low sum. Whilst I have the two volume hardback edition, I've not managed to finish it as I tend to do a fair amount of reading on the move, and have been fearful of damaging my hardcopies, so this is a most welcome development. Lovecraft's collected essays have been available in electronic format for some time, so here's hoping that Hippocampus Press also add the various volumes of Lovecraft's letters they've published to their electronic stable.