My friends call me Senex ('The Old Man') because of my taste in fantasy, or they would, if I had any. It's often been noted that I'll give at least fo...moreMy friends call me Senex ('The Old Man') because of my taste in fantasy, or they would, if I had any. It's often been noted that I'll give at least four stars to any fantasy from the Italian Renaissance, and yet rarely give more than two for anything written since the nineteen-sixties. Some have accused me of a staunch prejudice in period, but lo! it is not so.
I really love the fantasy genre, but the corollary of this is that I hate most fantasy books, because of how they mistreat that which I love. Whenever I am called to task for loving old books and despising new ones, I give a silent thanks to China Mieville for writing a book within the last decade that I can, with all honesty and aplomb, say is both eminently enjoyable and well-written.
There are so many rich veins that run through the history of fantastical literature, from the epics, the matter of France, and fairy tales to metaphysical poetry and the pulps; and yet today, the core of the genre is content to keep digging deeper into a spent shaft. Mieville's work shines because he divines more unusual sources of inspiration and then carefully prises, polishes, and sets them.
One thread Mieville draws on are the 'Weird' authors of early century pulp, who combined horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and didn't delineate where one ended and the other began. Science fiction cannot just sit on its laurels like fantasy, if only because it is constantly outstripped by new science and technology.
Lovecraft fantasized Verne, LeGuin fantasized Doc Smith, and Mieville has a whole new world of bursting technologies to draw from. The information and biotech boom led to an entirely new vision of the future, completely unavailable to writers of the Silver or Golden age, one which was snatched up by the young, hungry, dirty Cyberpunk writers.
If there were an easy way to sum up his work, you might say Mieville has written a 'cyberpunk fantasy', concentrating on the same flawed, sprawling cities, plucky heroes, and confirmation that knowledge is more valuable than martial puissance. Not since Snowcrash have I read a book that was as fun as it is intelligent. Both authors have worlds that are underpinned by ideas and philosophies.
For Stephenson, it was the social theory of Jaynes, but for Mieville, it's economics. As an economist, he can't help but enumerate the world; for him, events unerringly lead back to fundamental causes like need, supply, gain, and zero-sum games. This isn't overt in his books, it's merely the mechanism that underpins the drive of his plot.
Perhaps this explains why he was drawn to a setting reminiscent of the Victorian and not the Medieval, since economic historians suggest that, before this period, economics could hardly have existed as a science, since the fundamental questions which underpin it had no answer in a system based on guild and fealty. But once economics bloomed, it did so grandly, such that economics could be the basis for a fantasy or a farce.
Yet Mieville's particular economic views are not the theme of the story. He is not a moralist, but a cynic, capable of representing the failure of good ideas (even one he believes in) and the success of harmful ones. His 'gritty realism' is not merely a collage of pointless sex, violence, and cruelty (like some other fantasy authors I could name), but a representation of necessary evils, difficulties, and desires.
But he is not merely a Cyberpunk author dabbling in fantasy, any more than Lovecraft was a fantasist who wrote about space aliens. Indeed, Mieville takes notes from Lovecraft, remembering that the most interesting magic is that which is only vaguely explained, and which suggests a strange and interesting world beyond the characters' understanding. I still recall the throwaway line "some plankton from a huge brine dimension" in The Scar sparking my imagination more than entire books by other authors, and of course, evoking the colliding branes of String Theory.
The mindless 'grey goo' antagonists are equally Lovecraftian, but Mieville does more interesting things with The Weaver, an unfathomable huge spider who exists between space and time. So many authors after Lovecraft tried to bring the Mythos closer to human understanding, giving the unknowable beings dialogue and motivation, but nothing kills frighteningly alien creatures faster than poorly-written dialogue; indeed, I would have said giving the creatures any level of comprehensible consciousness ruins them, but I'm glad to be proven wrong.
The Weaver is neither ally nor antagonist, nor does his dialogue bring him down to our level. If anything, it makes him seem more uncanny, since it is easier to shrug off some silent terror than to discover something that almost seems to make sense, but the truths it dances around suggest a world we would not wish to understand, because it is inconceivable, overawing, and deeply ironic.
But then, that is the scientific lesson from which Mieville profits: on both the micro- and macro-levels: the universe seems to flaunt everything we take for granted. The spider could be telling men about Heisenbergian concepts of non-causality and total existence failure and be no less right nor any less unnerving.
And yet, for all Mieville's gravitas, there is something undeniably frivolous and delightful about his characters. They never get so bogged-down in their difficulties that they lose the fundamental vivacity with which he endows them.
It is rare to find an author who deals with such vibrant surrealism, and yet is capable of reigning it in before it overwhelms the story. Mervyn Peake might be the master of using carefully-rationed absurdism to create a world more realistic and believably than any stark vision of Post-Modern Realism. Like Peake, Mieville's characters and setting are always strange enough to seem unusually real.
Some have suggested that this frivolity undermines the very serious questions and ideas he presents elsewhere, but I, for one, am glad to find him capable of reveling in joy, for Nietzsche once observed that "excess is not the result of joy, but joylessness".
I compared Mieville favorably to Snowcrash, but Stephenson's other books simply cannot measure up to his first success, and it is because they are joyless. They delve passionately into ideas and minutia, but do not revel in the characters, the place, or the events. I would rather an author dance lightly across his treatise than for a moment begin to imagine that what he writes is portentous and grandiose.
Nor does Mieville err too far on the other side of the fantastical: for all the implausible absurdity of his setting and characters, he never gives in to the temptation to turn the book into a nonsensical fever dream. Unlike Calvino's Invisible Cities, Mieville does not lose himself in the false profundity of metaphysics, and never once suggests the meaningless New Age aphorism that "I am remarkable precisely because I know that I am ignorant". What is remarkable in the mind of man is the cusp of knowledge, not the unknown that lies beyond it.
His story is infused with the search for knowledge and understanding, which plays through all his economic causes, his scientific metaphysical exploration (no less far-fetched than M-theory, and considerably more accessible), and, of course, the pseudo-scientific interests of his characters. What prevents this from dragging down into the sort of detail-mashing explanations that can kill a good book (or a good idea), is that Mieville is more interested in the love of discovery than in stagnating over what is already known.
Every book should be as concerned (and excited) with discovery: as readers, we are always discovering, always mulling over, always seeking to turn the next page and renew ourselves with an unexpected turn or the final arrival of some foreshadowed conclusion.
By seeking out strange and varied inspirations for his work, Mieville has shown once again that an author is only as good as the works he draws from, and only as original as the ideas he adopts. He rejects Tolkien's empty wilderness and ancient stone palisades for Henry Mayhew's London and Gibson's Tokyo. He invests his magic with alchemy, quantum theory, and transhuman biotech. He replaces heroism and escapism with economic theory and passionate individualism.
He has more world, more character, and more plot than most fantasists, and yet it is not overwrought, it is all a romp, all a vivacious and unapologetic adventure. Most genre writers not only have higher literary pretensions, but fail to deliver on them, while at the same time having less fun doing it. Mieville puts them to shame. I can only hope fantasy authors of the future will be inspired by him, and save this genre from itself and its ponderous, long-winded Old Guard.
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature.(less)
Not many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. Dupin...moreNot many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. Dupin was the brilliant and insightful idle noble who occasionally aided the authorities in particularly difficult cases. However, unlike Holmes, Dupin took it up merely as a hobby, mimicking Holmes' brother Mycroft.
I'm not fond of Poe's poetry. Emerson's leveling of 'Jingle Man' is appropriate. Poe puts sounds together, but usually says very little with them. It is unusual that his prose was so varied while his poetry tended to obsessive repetition. Poe presents an example of the turning point when poetry ceased to represent the most complex and dense literary form (as in Milton and Eliot) and became the most frivolous and unrefined (the beat poets), while prose moved contrarily from the light-hearted to the serious.
When divorced from his single-minded prosody, Poe's mastery of the language elegantly serves the needs of mood, characterization, and action. This is not always the case: his Ligeia retains his poetic narrowness, but his detective stories have a gentleness and wit found nowhere else in his oeuvre.
The three Dupin stories helped to inspire detective fiction, using suspense and convoluted mystery to tantalize and challenge the reader. He may not have been as influential or innovative as Wilkie Collins, but his contribution still stands.
Any book of Poe's is worth purchasing simply for these three stories. They are studies in the careful use of language to develop mood, character, and drive--even in a sparse plot. They are not quite the equals of Ambrose Bierce's short fiction, but they are solid enough.(less)
A concept which I love, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, but an execution which, almost predictably, falls short. What GM could fail to see the u...moreA concept which I love, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, but an execution which, almost predictably, falls short. What GM could fail to see the utter hopelessness and control present in a setting where the overt is complete loss of control and humanity on a social and technological level, and the covert a loss of same on a cosmic and existential one?
In addition, the combination of a setting which seems to promise the transhuman ascension of humanity to near godhood and pits the players against literal gods seems to provide an inevitable and epic conflict never possible in Lovecraft's roaring twenties. Of course, this also begs the question: can one become a god without losing their humanity; and in such a case, can it really be called a victory?
Unfortunately, those questions are not tackled in this setting, which though it poses many curious possibilities, fails to make the requisite zeitgeist shift to create the truly new and intriguing setting that the cover promises.(less)
I'd have to agree with one of the responses in the letters page that Ennis is never as revolutionary as he seems to imagine himself. Cursing is really...moreI'd have to agree with one of the responses in the letters page that Ennis is never as revolutionary as he seems to imagine himself. Cursing is really an art, and while Ennis is a proficient user, he's really not masterful enough to make it beautiful. He's had to study it with some care and made an admirable transition from Irish to Southern U.S. (which may not seem a drastic change in volume, but is a world apart in vernacular).
After reading Morrison's Invisibles, it is a sweet blessing to find someone with a mind for coherent storytelling. Even his flashbacks and cuts seem reasonable and driven. Then again, there is a smidge more action in Preacher, and a lot fewer unrelated tangents.
I had a bizarre obsession with this book as a diminutive child. There is a vague remembrance of myself dancing menacingly in an airport while my fathe...moreI had a bizarre obsession with this book as a diminutive child. There is a vague remembrance of myself dancing menacingly in an airport while my father's friend improvised (at my behest) a song on the topic on his guitar. It is unfortunate that the book was not written by a darker and stranger writer, for my love of the concept didn't really translate to the simple silliness of the books themselves.
Of course, I didn't want something evil and frightening, but a bit of Carroll's disturbance would not have gone amiss.(less)
I know there is a lot going for this book, in terms of popular opinion, influence, and originality, so you'll have to forgive me for interposing my bo...moreI know there is a lot going for this book, in terms of popular opinion, influence, and originality, so you'll have to forgive me for interposing my body with the flywheel; we'll see what's left at the end.
In a discussion between Douglas Adams and Lewis Wolpert, the argument was made that the individual is unimportant in science, but is paramount in art. Walpert proposed that scientific discovery is inevitable, as the confluence of ideas will tend to produce parallel developments, such as with Newton and Leibniz, or Darwin and Wallace.
However, I would venture that this is equally applicable to the arts, which respond just as readily to shared influences and social pressures. The process of an artistic movement developing is often geographically precise, and more an indication of similar origins than of proselytism.
The vast cited influence of this book, then, is less remarkable when looking at the movements and ideas surrounding it. The themes of horror always follow scientific discovery, as the Industrial Revolution brought forth Frankenstein, or the Communist scare 'alien threats'. This book draws upon the same sources and brings in the idea of apocalypse--newly popularized by the nuclear age--to create something which is not altogether as insightful as it is inevitable.
Apocalyptic literature was hardly new, whether in a modern vision like Shelley's 'Last Man' or ancient religious eschatology. The nuclear age personalized the apocalypse, so that it was no longer the result of chance or divinity, bringing it to the forefront in a way more pervasive than the religious warnings of a 'nigh end' which go unfulfilled every other year.
Yet Matheson's vision is not this new, personalized apocalypse, but a continuation of plage fiction.
For his proto-zombies, Matheson took influence from the 'Communist scare aliens' and bodysnatchers of the pulps to create a force which is mindless, anti-individualistic, and inhuman, combining it with the vampires of film. One can look at this as an early recognition of the danger (and power) of viral memetics.
These same ideas will contine to be carried on after this work, not only though the oft-mentioned zombie stories, but also through speculative fiction as represented by the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits (which Matheson wrote for). Beyond this, you may see 'I Am Legend' as prototypical of the standard 'gotcha' ending on which these series came to rely more and more heavily.
All these movements and ideas are rife with opportunity for writers looking for a paradigm shift, but I would argue that 'I Am Legend' fails to take advantage of these plentiful ideas. One might point out that it is an early example, but this alone does not save it, as we may point out earlier writings which tackle similar issues with a greater depth and sense of conceptual exploration.
There is Shelley's 'The Last Man', Bierce's 'Can Such Things Be', or the works of Mann, Hesse, and Conrad, who explored similar themes of inhumanity, hopelessness, sex, death, loneliness, and plague; and who did so much more fully and with a sense of joy and artistry.
There are many cases where pulp authors are later found to have overcome the simplicity of their genre, whether by sense of psychology, or character, or vibrancy, or theme. Shakespeare was considered a populist, and in all his fart-jokes, cliches, and story borrowing, we might compare him to 'Family Guy' or 'The Simpsons'; the latter drawing allusions from 1980's culture as he drew his from Greek Myth.
But I digress; Matheson as an author does not bear these strengths, and misses many opportunities to take advantage of the themes he explores, which may be new in their particular combination, but not without literary precedent.
Matheson often lays open his characters' psychological motivations. His every statement of action (or interaction) is followed by an explanation of the thoughts and events which have just occurred. However, his explanations do not expand our understanding of the characters. Instead, the accompanying narration is so simple that one begins to feel that Matheson is simply telling you the same thing twice; or even three times.
If our protagonist asks a question, Matheson inevitably follows with 'he asked, incredulously'. It seems the fact that the character was both clearly incredulous and asking a question did not seem self-evident enough. Then again, nothing in the book is too self-evident to prevent Matheson from painstakingly explaining it several times.
He tells us what his characters are thinking almost constantly, despite the fact that it rarely offers any further insight. One might achieve a similar effect by taking a Hemmingway story and having a high-schooler add in how the character would be expected to feel after every piece of dialogue.
Matheson doesn't have a flair for psychology, and so his characters' reactions are often either unjustified or oversimplified. Instead of writing characters who fit the story, Matheson seems to constantly change the characters or the story to try to achieve his authorial goals. But then, how would one build an entertaining story around such shallow characters?
The protagonist is fond of lecturing the reader on behalf of the author, at which point Matheson seems to recognize his own transparency, deflecting by providing the character with sudden mood shifts before slowly creeping back. Comparisons to Stephen King are apt: another author whose storytelling is jumbled and rough despite the potential of the concepts driving it.
It is not difficult to understand why this book was so influential: in the process of reading it, I was constantly thinking of things I wished the author would do with the story. Every time he overstated a point or underexplored a theme, I began to imagine how I might do it differently. I pictured Romero closing the book having already built an entire movie in his head by simply extending where Matheson faltered.
Indeed, the book often reads like a screenplay, complete with plodding character descriptions to keep the actors from getting lost. At every turn, it breaks the rule of authorship that it is better to show the reader what is happening than to tell him. Matheson's combination of ideas and influences should have been interesting, but his repetitive overexplaning mars the form of the story while his borrowed themes go unexplored for the sake of a gimmick ending.
I will not deny that this work exists in a certain nexus along the development of some very important and interesting genres and works, but it is more rough draft than groundbreaking original.
It is less an inspiring work than the one which revealed that there was a lot of space for other authors to re-introduce old ideas by new means and methods. If only Matheson had been able to take up this challenge himself, instead of making the void conspicuous by inhabiting it, we might remember this book not from where it happened to be, but from what it managed to do there.(less)
Here Moore laid down a marker in the history of comics, ominous and unlikely as Archduke Ferdinand's tomb. Reading through the new wave of British aut...moreHere Moore laid down a marker in the history of comics, ominous and unlikely as Archduke Ferdinand's tomb. Reading through the new wave of British authors who helped to reconceptialize the genre for us poor Americans, one understands more and more why it had to be this man. There is a flair amongst them all for a certain madness and depth of psychology, but Moore was the only one who didn't think it made him special. Our curiosity is always piqued by the mysterious stranger, and Moore will always be that.
There is a quote of Emerson's which helps elucidate men of mystery: "to be great is to be misunderstood". Most Zeppelin fans don't see the band in terms of their roots in early blues, just as most Tolkien fans (and followers) don't have the education to recognize the Welsh and Norse folktales he was emulating. It seems the kernel of an author's inspiration is often so specific and poorly-understood by their audience that they it becomes an endless and entrancing mystery.
There was an undeniable and immediate difference in the comic authors of the early eighties, but many of them sinned by way of dadaism, indulging difference for its own sake. After recognizing this brazen and laughably naive rebellion, one begins to understand why most of these writers couldn't keep from breaking the fourth wall and injecting themselves into the text; Morrison has never stopped doing it.
The difference between them and Moore was one of reason; and like Milton's Lucifer, their reason was flawed; and like him still: it was pride. As a young and budding author, I saw in Morrison's 'Invisibles' and, to a lesser extent, in Ennis's 'Preacher', what a silly thing it is to believe your own stories.
Gaiman we may reprieve: unlike the others, he has never imagined himself mad. His penchant for myth and psychology stays rather trimly in the realm of the curious academic, though becomes quite laughable when he attempts to portray chaos. Gaiman's is the most predictable chaos you will ever meet this side of a fourteen-year-old girl who likes penguins.
Moore, however, has loomed over us in a state of questionable sanity for his entire career. Bearded, wild-eyed, long-winded, and obsessed with little things we don't even think about, and yet completely generous and unselfish with his pen. There is something we do not trust about the man who avoids the spotlight; who spurns money; who believes in the power of names enough to remove his from this or that film. The man who stands over and over a proven genius and who plods on into stranger and wider territory is almost an unknowable commodity.
That Alan Moore cares about things we cannot see, and cares nothing about that which we expect him to becomes his strength. In his unpredictability, we come to find new and inspiring sides of ourselves, and of comics, and of others.
If Morrison has lived his entire career as the incorrigible teenager of comics, inspiring in his gusto but disappointing in his ego, then Moore has always been the old man of comics, a crafty wizard who knows things we don't want to know, who leads us patiently through our wide-eyed bumbling and self-absorption, past the explosions and gun battles, and into our own back yard to show us something beautiful that was there the whole time.
We'll wonder why he doesn't want our thanks. Or our praise. We'll wonder why he seems tired and haggard. We'll try to catch his red-rimmed eyes, as if he'll betray by some gesture or expression just what it is he gets out of the deal.
At a dinner party, Wilde is supposed to have admired some other guest's bon mot, commenting "I wish I had said that" to which host and prominant paint...moreAt a dinner party, Wilde is supposed to have admired some other guest's bon mot, commenting "I wish I had said that" to which host and prominant painter James McNeil Whistler replied: "You will Oscar, you will." Though often quoted as a great wit, Wilde was more imitator than innovator, which explains his praise of critics over artists.
No book better represents Wilde's social and economic reasons for this position than 'Dorian Gray'. Though he is writing a novel, Wilde maintains a disconnect between himself and the Artist and Thinker, adopting their form only, and leaving the content to those unclean laboring masses.
His style is polished, practiced, and endlessly indulgent, which tends to obscure his lack of depth. Like Bouguereau, his touch is impressive, but as magnificently realized as the gauze and tits are, they do not aspire to be anything more than gauze and tits.
It is the cleverness of Carlyle: idiomatic, intriguing, but ultimately faltering in ideas. It is clever despite the content. But while Carlyle's is wild, bizarre, and flawed, Wilde is merely undecided. He is not simply a product of an elite class which epitomizes form over function, he is a rarefied parody of it.
His aphorisms, quoted endlessly, are rampant in his style, providing punchlines in comedies like 'Earnest' and here, sarcastic indictments. Yet unraveling them is rarely fruitful, since their meaning is less interesting than their construction. He plays with the form and structure of language--the tacit agreements and expectations of conversants--producing wry surprise, but not insight.
When he is inappropriate, is is not to build a case for impropriety, but to shock for its own sake. Statements which might be profound or intriguing if taken to their conclusion are instead twisted, altered, undermined, and ridiculed until all direction is lost. Instead of a discussion of ideas, Wilde recreates the quotidian society talk which is couched in the language of ideas that have already come and gone.
It is mere conversation, stylized to the point of incomprehensibility. Like business jargon or rap slang, it is all posturing: the conveyance of simple ideas by culturally specific vernacular. Anyone conversant in the form understands the underlying meaning, while anyone unfamiliar with the style is quickly outed as inadequate.
While 'paradigm' and 'synergy' are real terms with specific meanings, these are only used properly by academic experts in theory; by the time they trickle down to Project Managers and HR Heads, they have ceased to represent economic and social thought, and have merely become markers. Wilde's language is similarly derived from a small, specialized class--his are painters, philosophers, and authors--but by the time it reaches the idle, it has traded its function for pretense.
The idle consumers of the arts adopt the language of the arts and then refine it. Since they are not artists themselves, they do not have firsthand knowledge of the skills and qualities involved ('The Turpentine Effect'). Instead, they become critics. They become generalized 'aesthetes', and create their own meaning for art. Artists value art in their own way, based in experience, skill, meaning, and place in tradition. Consumers create meaning based upon novelty, quantity, connections, and money.
This pattern is still evident today in Modern Art, where blank canvasses may sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the most technically skilled artists work for a pittance in advertising, which has taken over for the church (in more ways than one). Likewise, literary prizes go to popular bestsellers while writers respected within the writing community rarely get enough to pay living expenses and remain unlauded.
This power dynamic is clear enough in the book--creators are constantly undermined and belittled by consumers. Since the consumers control the financial and social survival of the artists, they feel justified in the belief that they are the real soul of art.
Lord Henry is able to talk circles around painter Basil, in what appears to be Basil's own language, but in fact is not. Basil is a painter, and as such must spend the majority of his time and energy honing his skill. Henry is under no such duress, and so is free to spend all of his time mastering a complex linguistic system based not around art, but power structures.
Like high school, 'nerds' rarely have social power, but this is not just a social deficiency on their part, it's because they spend their time in fundamentally different ways. Keeping up with appearances is a full-time act for popular children, and so those who care more about reading books or doing homework will simply be unable to keep up.
The artists must spend their time honing their craft, and so even if they have a deep understanding of art itself, will have difficulty in overcoming the social and monetary barriers the wealthy have erected. Basil concedes to Henry's points because they seem tightly-constructed and are built from a framework of artistic and intellectual terms. However, this does not make them cogent or meaningful.
Henry often contradicts himself when addressing (and brow-beating) Basil, but even when Basil brings up these contradictions, he is unable to paint Henry into a corner, because Henry feels no need to stick to anything he says. He has no ideas, no philosophy, merely a customary way of life and a complex series of interlocking self-justifications.
Basil is actually hindered by the fact that he has concrete, informed ideas about art (and the world), because this makes him predictable and centered in a discussion which, while superficially about art, is actually a continued reinforcement of social inequality. It mirrors the endless discourse between atheists and believers, where neither side can come to any agreement because one is discussing differences in ideas, and the other differences in terms.
In such occasions, neither side can win, unless of course, one side has the social and economic power on which the other is reliant. Dorian himself is another curious case, as he is valued for being, in himself, a representation of artistic ideals. He is a beautiful man, and so he needs not labor in paint and clay to be pertinent to art, he is the aesthetic focus.
He has monetary means, so he need not pursue Basil's knowledge-based value, and since he is beautiful, he does not need to constantly reassert his superiority, like Lord Henry. While he could simply subsist on his own beauty, he eventually spends his time becoming an elite collector: learning the market and finding the most rare items, and tacitly maintain his superiority over other consumers. They must support the value of consumption, as it is their own sole value, and hence must respect someone who has mastered the art of consumption itself.
Wilde's own knowledge of consumerism is evident in a divergent chapter on the history of excess, which outshines the rest of the book. While it has no conclusion, it indicates what Oscar might have become as an academic: a man who, like Rabelais, would have been capable of studying, collecting, and conceptualizing a part of history left mostly unrecorded by more academia.
But Wilde chose to concentrate on criticism, championing its superiority to the art on which it is based. Like Lord Henry, we can see that Wilde's empty aphorisms are not meaningless, but their meaning is social power, not thought. If he had recognized the economic dynamic which tied his characters into their roles, he might have created an insightful satire on the society in which he lived, instead of merely serving as an example of it.
He makes light of dowagers and artists and the poor, but this is all what we might expect, if Lord Henry is as much Wilde as we imagine. To make fun of those who are below you is simply a justification of the status quo and the silver spoon. Lord Henry also makes light of himself, but not in the same biting, constructed way. While his debates with Basil are meant to demonstrate who is most important in art, and his discussions with Dorian to point out his social naivete, Henry's self deprecation has no such ulterior dynamic.
He feels his position is tenuous enough that he bolsters it with clever speech and condescension, but not enough to comment on it or grow beyond it. In the end, Wilde is as uncomprehending as Henry, praising the critic because if the critic is not superior to the artist, then Wilde must keep his quipping mouth shut. Like Carlyle, he creating a clever structure to justify the luck of his birth, and like Carlyle, his technique is as overwhelming as his philosophy is brittle.
There is always give and take in art, philosophy, or science. No man is an island and inspiration and influence are not anathema. The Modernists have worshiped originality for a long time, but this is like Wilde's hollow rebellion: an attempt to disparage what has come before in order to hide the deficiencies of the present. The past casts a great shadow, but closing your eyes to it will not let you escape it. It is only by the light you cast that you may be set apart from the darkness.
That Wilde repeated is not his crime. Whistler's comment is not biting simply because Oscar cannot help reusing every clever thing he hears. What might have drawn Whistler's umbrage (as a painter) was that Wilde placed the idle, wealthy critic above the artist. He placed repetition above innovation. Wilde stood on the shoulders of giants in muddy boots, he used their own words to declare them inferior, and represented the value of paintings by their purchase price and the jealousy they drew from other consumers.
But the critic can be as great as the artist, because the critic can be an artist. Every book is both a refutation and an acknowledgment of what came before. Virgil is a critic of Homer, Milton is a critic of Virgil, and Eliot a critic of Milton. They each took what came before, reiterating some, abandoning else, and subverting the rest.
It is often the problem with critics that their works do not synthesize a new vision. For Wilde and the idle rich, it was often enough to tear down. The only flaw is that you cannot tear something down unless you have some fundamental philosophy to speak from. Wilde has little to offer in return but refinement and wit, which will serve well enough at dinner parties or farces, but are not sufficient for much else.
Wilde himself has said that he intended artists Basil to be how he sees himself, Lord Henry as how he is perceived by others, and Dorian as who he wishes he could be. And here, he is the artist, writing as Basil painted, out of a need to create, to prove himself, a need that never quite overcomes the artist's self-loathing and perfectionism. All throughout, he is beleaguered and harangued by his own domineering critic, whose supercilious, biting wit is the timid artist's mask, and whom the artist cannot defeat, even in the fantasy of his own work. The artist would like to play the lover, but the critic is determined to prove a villain.
Then there is Dorian, who is not the unconfident creator, dependent on an audience, nor the bitter cynic who masters art by paying for it (or refusing to). Dorian aspires to be the keeper of art, the academic who records its history and for whom value is the result of knowledge and research, of the sort Wilde demonstrates in his one-off chapter on the history of aesthetics.
But Wilde, or little Basil, will not aspire so high. Yet we can hardly sympathize, for Wilde at once recognizes his shortcomings (he is, perhaps, too aware of them), yet cannot prevent them from manifesting into the overbearing form of Lord Henry, the part Wilde played in life. He cannot stand to create, unselfconsciously, nor manage to elevate his criticism to an objective record of art.
It's hard to be sympathetic for the man who is just insightful enough to be humorously bitter, but denies himself from a whit more.(less)
Inescapably one of the finest comics I've ever read, but unfortunately, only the beginning of the series is available, and it is the weakest part. It...moreInescapably one of the finest comics I've ever read, but unfortunately, only the beginning of the series is available, and it is the weakest part. It will be a crime if the lack of success of these early bits forestalls the entire series becoming available, because it stands up as the equal of any other Vertigo title. Milligan is still trying to find his voice in these early stories, which are more standard fare, but soon he catches his stride and reaches levels of thoughtfully absurd wit to rival Moore's 'Swamp Thing', Gaiman's 'Sandman' or the better arcs of 'Hellblazer'.
Good as they can be, it's a shame Morrison and Gaiman get the lion's share of the attention for the Britwave movement, because Milligan wrote a much more innovative book. The art is solid, if not always remarkable. Bachalo is a bit weak at the beginning but he does some of the best work of his career around the middle. The illustrators who replace him for the closing of the series are competent, but don't have the same strikingly idiomatic visions.
The real star here is the writing, and Milligan is a talent who deserves to be better known and widely respected. His 'Enigma' is as unusual and insightful as Watchmen, his Extremist and Skin are darker and more transgressive than anything else put out by a major publisher. Yet Shade is his most imaginative and wide-ranging book, an amazing feat of constant reinvention with a smart, literary sensibility unrivaled in comics.
When people ask what my favorite comic is, I still say 'Shade', and I'm always sad at the lack of recognition when I say it.
Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the...moreRoland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between deliberate works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.
While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really deal with them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.
As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus tending toward propaganda.
It may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.
This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.
This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with a solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts can create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.
Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.
The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the allegorical state of woman.
Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it does come from the imposition of another person's will, which is horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.
I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to the threads of literary history does not mean it is fine literature.(less)
After the movies, I didn't expect much from the comic. They were fun, but a bit cheesy. The film's director, Guillermo Del Toro tends to make films th...moreAfter the movies, I didn't expect much from the comic. They were fun, but a bit cheesy. The film's director, Guillermo Del Toro tends to make films that are all flash and no substance, like Blade II and Pan's Labyrinth. I assumed that the Hellboy movies were just executed better, but I now realize that the movies fell far short of the source material.
The comics are moody, charming, and uniquely stylized. The dramatic inking and chiaroscuro lighting combines with the simple, evocative lines to create a fiercely dynamic visual experience. It's interesting to note that even though the films concentrate on visuals, they still never reach the stark beauty of the comic.
As lovely as the art is, what's remarkable is the depth of the story. Few artist/authors combine the necessary skills so adroitly. Few names suggest themselves for comparison: Winsor McCay, Frank Miller, Bill Watterson, Will Eisner.
The strength of Mignola's stories is his knowledge of myths and legend. From Norse Sagas to English Fairytales, Christian Apocrypha to Russian Folk Stories, Cthulhu to Nazi conspiracies, the breadth and depth is impressive. What may be more impressive is Mignola's ability to combine these disparate threads into a cohesive whole, and to present these bits of cultural history alongside a giant, wisecracking red guy without the losing the comic's serious, even terrifying tone.
It's no wonder that the films ended up more goofy than scary, since maintaining this careful balance is difficult at best. Mignola keeps a strong undercurrent throughout his stories. Instead of simply combining esoterica into an unwieldy mass (like Grant Morrison), Mignola makes the fables themselves the undercurrent of the story and lets the characters coast atop the strangeness (not unlike Lovecraft).
Usually, cross-genre stories like this end up losing me when they sacrifice plot and character for the sake of oddity. Mignola, however, rarely forgets to center his stories around straightforward plots and character motivation. Mignola doesn't really hit his stride until later in the series, but the first entry is still strong and enjoyable.
In his introduction, C.J. Henderson expresses a disappointment that Lovecraft's heroes are never able to fight back, that they never just get a gun an...moreIn his introduction, C.J. Henderson expresses a disappointment that Lovecraft's heroes are never able to fight back, that they never just get a gun and start shooting at any otherworldly interdimensional beasts that show up. Perhaps he also feels a disappointment that more people don't fire their guns to fend off encroaching lightning bolts or tornadoes. Lovecraft's entire point is that there are some things larger than the human arsenal.
Beyond that, there are a multitude of stories featuring more stalwart heroes facing the horrors of the mythos. Firstly, there's Lovecraft's own 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' which features a remarkably complex protagonist surviving in the incomprehensible world of the elder gods. There are also Alan Moore's 'Yuggoth Cultures' and Neal Gaiman's 'Only The End of the World Again'. Lovecraft often corresponded with R.E. Howard, whose Conan the Barbarian provides an excellent example of a hero who faces the cyclopean horrors and comes away relatively unscathed.
Conan also provides many parallels with the classic hard boiled detective, the other genre from which Henderson draws inspiration. Conan's no-nonsense machismo and sense of self-preservation in the face of the unknown could have served as an excellent mold for a detective protagonist.
Hard boiled detective fiction meshes rather well with Lovecraft, as the protagonists must know not to get in too far. Private eyes know there is such a thing as knowing too much. That's why we have a witness protection program. Henderson could have created an interesting setting by pointing out the similarities of both genres, especially being 'drawn in too far' and 'losing one's humanity'.
However, despite wanting a strong hero, and drawing from a genre renowned for men who place survival above all else, Henderson instead creates the most cheery, incautious detective he can. While both Lovecraft and hard boiled fiction depend on mood to create a sense of depth and danger, Henderson's book has none.
Though claiming Detective fiction and the Mythos for inspiration, he instead writes a rompy adventure. While Douglas Adams was able to pull humor from detective fiction, and Joss Whedon managed it with otherworldly horror, Henderson is, unfortunately, neither funny or quirky, despite numerous attempts.
The book doesn't fit with either the horror or detective genre, it is almost pure monomyth adventure. The soft boiled protagonist is a literal 'chosen one' with magic powers, and the cast is filled out by a beautiful damsel-in-distress with zero personality, an 'average guy' and two 'magical minorities'.
The latter two are both apparently American-born, firstly a black voodoo weaponeer, and secondly a mystical Asian psychic with the requisite chilled emotions. Though she does not seem to be an actual foreigner, Henderson still describes her by the racist 19th-century epithet 'an oriental'.
The Mandingo is suitably oversized and laconic, and apparently able to get his hands on the most unlikely of weapons. They will certainly need them, if they want to shoot that hurricane before it has a chance to kill them. Besides land mines and rocket launchers, he gets the whole party a set of Pancor Jackhammers, which are fully automatic shotguns. Unfortunately, these weapons were never actually produced, except for two prototypes.
Only gun nuts and fans of certain classic VRPGs would know this fact, so it would only harm disbelief in a small percentage. But then, why add a small detail that will be meaningless to most of your readers, who won't get it, and faulty to the few who will?
The weapon also brings up both the question of how the guy got a hold of them in the first place and why he would give unique weapons to some guy for free. The answer to the latter point is that everyone in this book intuitively knows whether anyone else is telling the truth. It's never explained whether that's a characteristic of this particular magical world, or whether Henderson thinks that's actually how human beings interact, but it certainly saves him from having to write multi-syllabic dialogue or portray human conflicts.
Our weaponeer (who Henderson once describes as shushing the hero with 'a thick black finger') also bores out the middle of the shotgun slugs and puts nitroglycerin inside of them. Nitro is the most unstable explosive we have, meaning these slugs would explode if you dropped them on the floor. Let's all imagine what would happen if you suddenly set off a firing pin next to one. That's right, exploding gun. Now lets imagine you have a whole clip full of these things. Take that, you damned flash floods!
Our Celestial psychic serves the purpose of introducing us to the main mover of this books' plot: the intuitive message from beyond. Nearly every problem Henderson sets before his characters is solved within the next half page, and usually by some sudden epiphany from out of the blue. Whether it's simple mistrust or the secret location of the bad guys, nothing is too small or too large for the author to simply put directly into his characters' brains.
Ironically, this bypasses any thought or emotional strength that would make the characters 'strong in the face of overwhelming odds', as he originally envisioned them. By removing any purpose or will, he ensures that the characters can have no personality, growth, or ability to actually overcome challenges.
At one point, the protagonist begins to doubt, falling into an uncharacteristic moment of introspection, which is then rudely interrupted by a magical voice in his head saying 'believe' and removing all his doubts in one fell swoop. Apparently, Henderson has to personally enter his books and bully his characters back on track, because not even they can believe how poorly-written their world is.
This book also gives an opportunity for him to represent his lack of understanding in the areas of science and mathematics when he begins to explain all about the world of the elder gods. While explaining that the evil only comes at times of grand syzygy (no cliche left behind) he suggests that planets are kept in motion by their own gravitational wells, which is the opposite of true. Gravity saps away energy.
His original suggestion that the placement of planets allows the otherworldly creatures to enter our world is likewise fraught, since the effect of gravity quickly diminishes over distance For example: the gravitational pull of Jupiter on you at its greatest is about equal with the television set across the room. If you really want to stop the elder gods, just rearrange the furniture.
He then misquotes 'A Brief History of Time' concerning the expansion and contraction of the universe. Between that and the Pancor reference, I expected this book to have been written circa 1987, not 2006.
As a sort of final insult, Henderson indicates that Lovecraft's own works were the result of him psychically connecting to the coming horrors which occur in this book. This is like saying that the Bible was only written so it could eventually be a footnote in the Da Vinci Code (not that Dan Brown actually cited references).
The title of the book really says a lot more than it means to. It evokes the Lovecraft story "The Things That Should Not Be", except Lovecraft's title is frightening. We are naturally afraid of things that should not exist, but things which don't exist are understandably less threatening.
The title clearly doesn't refer to the monsters themselves, which show up early and often, and leave their very corporeal body parts all over. Rather, it refers to the fact that this book is without many things, including mood, tone, character, humor, suspense, fear, conflict, research, or editing. Henderson misuses numerous words and metaphors throughout. One example is using 'sweating bullets' to indicate lots of hard work, instead of anxiety over the fast approach of death.
Finally, the book bears as much resemblance to Lovecraft's work as a Michael Bay film. The hero even talks to 'Cthulhu' at length, showing that Henderson has never come close to comprehending Lovecraft's style or philosophy. The very thoughts of these creatures are too complex for the human mind to comprehend. Just as no single person could memorize all the books that have been written, so too we could not comprehend such complex, alien minds.
Instead of blasting the hero's brain with unbelievable thoughts, 'Cthulhu' prattles on about death, sounding like a child paraphrasing Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Then Henderson puts into effect the threat from the introduction of taking on incomprehensible forces of nature with blazing pistols.
It's much easier to shoot them once Henderson makes the naive mistake of creating a theological pseudoscientific explanation to make the creatures small, simple, and understandable. At which point, nothing remains at all which ties this book to Lovecraft's legacy.
In the end, Henderson is not creative enough or experienced enough to produce anything new or interesting, even when mixing two such promising and interesting genres. One comes away with the sense that his personal experiences with fear, human conflict, and the insurmountable are so limited that he couldn't imagine anything that would create more than a half-page's difficulty for his characters.
This book achieves about the same level of horror, plot, and character depth as your average made-for-TV sci fi channel movie. His monsters even feel rubber-suited, which is odd, since books don't have limited CGI budgets. I hope Henderson's Kolchak novelizations are better than this, because one man shouldn't make fodder out of two previously enjoyable worlds.(less)