In 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about inte...moreIn 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about interdimensional terrorism. Almost no one has read it, and those who have do not seem to think much of it.
To critics, it is a mere curiosity, only of any possible interest to completists of Ford or Cobrad's works--so, to any of you who have been looking for reasons to dismiss my opinions and paint me as incoherent, here is the gift: I found this book perfectly fascinating. But then, I have come at it from a much different direction than any critic I have seen.
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a speech on Beowulf that completely changed the way scholarship on the poem was approached. Prior to this, it was studied for almost purely historical reasons, as a portrait of a time in history of which we have very little documentation. However, Tolkien argued that the critics were missing much of the meaning and subtext of the work by ignoring the symbolism of the fantastical elements: the monster Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
The same oversight seems to have taken place in the approach to this book: critics talk about common themes of Ford's and Conrad's, such as the obsolescence of nobility and the class system, or the foul cruelty of colonialism. They talk about how the book represents the politics of the times, how certain events mirror and comment on history. Yet they completely ignore the central symbolic thrust of the work, the extended conceit which ties the whole thing together.
Unlike most critics, I was primed to look for the meaning behind the fantastical elements, coming to this book not from the context of Conrad's and Ford's more famous works, but from the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Hodgson, and Blackwood--here, once more, is the tale of the sensitive man, the artist plagued by an otherworldliness that draws him on inexorably to the forfeiture of his very humanity--and of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Moorcock, and Griffith, of powerful revolutionaries set to topple the order of the world.
Since magic is the physical representation of an idea, a metaphor sprung to life, it behooves us to ask: what does the magic in this tale represent, and how does it operate within the work? Most intriguing for analyzing the tale is the fact that--unlike most critics claim-the supernatural element is not merely 'tacked-on', but is a vital part of both Conrad's and Ford's views.
To Ford, these alien beings infesting our world--Body Snatchers-like--are the very spirit of the changing Zeitgeist. It is their arrival, and their insidious effect on society that is to destroy a thousand years of hereditary rule, plunging the whole world into a war from which it will emerge reborn, a new land of new ideas which leaves the old powers amongst the ash.
To Conrad, it is the subtle treachery of colonial influence, the ability of the ruling power to seduce, to use and abuse its subjects, to make them doubt, to reshape their minds without their recognizing it, to cause them to betray and subjugate themselves through art, ideal, faith, and symbol.
And all of this meaning is wrapped up in a single character, a woman, who with the protagonist creates a rather odd romance: a romance of the colonized mind, a romance of personal obsolescence--but then, perhaps it really isn't so odd, after all.
The subtle turns of the way her alienness is explored would do credit to any of the classic authors of Supernatural Horror. Firstly there is the fact that as we're looking at it, we can't be quite certain if it's even real, or if perhaps the girl is simply mad, or playing a trick on our hero, as he believes.
Additionally, it is implied that somehow, we are descended from these beings, that they are our source, but that we have since forgotten, ceased to see the wonder of other realms, and grown petty and a bit unhinged--and that they periodically return to recolonize us. Of course, there is a sort of hint of Dunsany's Elfland in this: the mystical, untouchable realm which fades away, but which makes us dream, and which we remember without ever realizing it.
Then there is the impression that, not only are the thoughts of these outsiders infectious and transformational, but that they must be careful not to be changed, themselves, by their interactions with humanity--it is a more delicate way of playing with the notion that 'man himself is the monster'--that he is not so in a physical, violent sense, but in the cosmic, Lovecraftian one: that perhaps in this universe, man is the incomprehensible, insane force, not the merely the staid victim--the notion of idea as a disease, of the infection of the meme.
Of course, there is also a colonial commentary here: that even as the colonizer forces her will upon the other, she in turn is changed by their biases and values, no matter how carefully she guards herself against that influence, the natural tendency is for both sides, conqueror and conquered, to draw ever closer together, and even to bind.
In that sense, there is a deep parallel between this story and Kipling's famous representation of a love affair between overseer and vassal: Without Benefit of Clergy--and an even closer similarity to Tagore's less-romanticized reversal, The Postmaster--excepting that in this case, it is the woman who possesses the power.
It is also interesting to see Ford and Conrad, who were not yet successful authors when they collaborated, write about the life of the struggling author, the hopelessness of it, the sense that one is always 'selling one's self' to do work that is little more than propaganda for the state, contrasted with the intense desire to do something worthwhile.
There is also a great deal of clever drawing-room humor, which I expect if Ford's, as Conrad's humor tends to be less that of the wit and more the ironic and morbid cynic. From Conrad, we get those utterly characteristic digressions, a sentence here or there where some fundamental aspect of human life is encapsulated in a few profound phrases.
Of course, there are some problems, as well--both authors are young, trying to find their way, and the whole project was, to them, an attempt to make a bit of money--meaning there is some deprecating cleverness to the fact that it is about a writer who gives up his artistry in order to write things that will pay. The most prominent issue is Ford's constant use of the word 'infinite' in his metaphors. Of course, we understand that he is trying to touch on matters of the sublime 'Fourth Dimension', but it could have done with more variety instead of simple repetition.
The Fourth Dimension itself was coined by H.G. Wells, a friend of both writers, whose success with The Time Machine inspired them to write a fantastical political tale. Wells tried to publish an essay on the topic, exploring the concept that time, like heighth, width, and length, might be seen as traversable, or at least as a coordinate for describing matter, but it went over the head of his editor, who told him to put it in a story, which he did.
In that sense, The Inheritors can also be read as a time-travel story, and that is is not a more perfect place which colonizes us, but a more perfect time. To put it briefly: there are so many fantastical and speculative threads coming together in this story that it would be quite dizzying, if it weren't all performed by subtle implication. Really, we never know just what is going on--all we can do is take in clues and surmise as best we can.
But of course, that's the whole nature of the fantastical: that even when it touches us, we are unable to explain it, to make sense of it, to wrap our minds around it. We tell ourselves that it is impossible, we try to ignore it, to concentrate on art or love--on those mad human passions that always draw us away--and yet the fantastical has a way of getting inside of us, no matter how we try to fight it off, of changing us, in such a way that we can never quite go back to the way it was before.
We are left suffused with a feeling of strange nostalgia, and of a kind of bitterness--that now we are worldly, we have seen, and cannot be simple again. But then, the true searcher in the dark would never choose simplicity--for when the world has broken one's heart, at least it can be said you loved it--and in the end, that is the true message of Ford's and Conrad's strange little book, too long unknown, ignored, dismissed, but no longer lost to me, or to you.
Lovecraft once said:
"Conrad's reputation is deserved -- he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality -- that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual"
And it seems such a shame not to know what he might have made of this book.(less)
This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts se...moreThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament.(less)
Between the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling')...moreBetween the description of an 'infinitesimal glass of sherry', the litany of cutesy place names ('Crook Manor', 'Ceck's Bottom', 'Pock-on-the-Fling') and actually reminding the reader in as many words that the theme of the book is 'the grotesque', I now know what it's like to read a book with the iconoclastic spirit of Gormenghast as written by an author lacking the wit or idiom to carry it off. It's affected, trite, and tiring. Mostly tiring.(less)
Another paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with the...moreAnother paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with the idea, especially after reading his House on the Borderland and finding it to be refreshingly uncanny. Unfortunately, the Carnacki stories are so flat and formulaic that they add very little to the subgenre.
Every case follows the same pattern: a group of men gather at Carnacki's house and sit around for a bit before he suddenly launches into his story: he's called out to investigate some occurrence, he describes some incident as giving him the 'creep', he refers to a number of other cases 'which you fellows certainly remember' (but which are never, themselves, described), he piles on a lot of colloquialisms, follows this with some goofy made-up terms ('Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual'), mentions someone 'lacking pluck', describes a vague feeling and insists 'we must know what he means', eventually blinds himself with a camera flash, sets up his 'electric pentacle', then explains the whole matter (barring a few mysterious details), and sends his friends out into the night.
Sometimes, the cases are supernatural, while other times we get a full 'gothic explique' that tries to account for the apparently supernatural elements as mere tricks. So, there is some variation in the subject matter, but not very much, especially when compared to the John Silence tales.
Worse than that is the fact that Carnacki himself is a very flat character, somewhat unflappable and matter-of-fact, but otherwise entirely unremarkable and without much sense of interior personality, despite all his friendly colloquial expressions. In Silence, for example, we get a figure who actually seems affected by the cases in which he takes part, who has an investment in the people involved, and in what those cases suggest about the reality of the world. Silence has a perspective, a sort of bias which makes him feel like an actual person caught up in a lot of strangeness.
Carnacki, on the other hand, is so matter-of-fact about everything that there is very little unique about his approach. He's not a figure who must deal with the implications of the supernatural, of the long-term effects they have on a human mind, but an implacable force that solves whatever is before him. Certainly, sometimes he has a fright, but the horror in these tales is all of a very physical variety.
There is always some menacing thing, some murderous force which is acting upon him, which must be fought and overcome. The force is never dangerous to the mind, or the perception of the world, only to the physical body. As such, the Carnacki stories form a prototype of the jump-scare movies which are popular today: there are always half seen things in the shadow of the corner of the room, lurking around every corner, malicious and violent and only held off by Carnacki's magic circles.
I do have to say that I find the idea of his 'electric pentacle', a vacuum tube ring which protects him from supernatural forces to be terribly amusing. Again, it somewhat negates from the supernatural aspect, turning the thing into a physical scientific investigation, but its such a wacky, Ghostbusters idea--I only wish he'd been able to do more with it, that the stories had been odd enough and psychologically intriguing enough to make of the pentacle more than a mere plot object.
There's also an odd continuation of the pig-based horror that Hodgson explored in House on the Borderland, which illustrates just how lucky Lovecraft was to base supernatural monsters on his intense distaste for seafood, since kosher law seems not to translate as well into the disturbing and horrific.(less)
Read, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh,...moreRead, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh, this character's going to die soon because the author just resolved the ongoing tension they had with the hero" or "Ah, the mysterious stranger must actually be the orphan child of the Baron that people keep talking about". To people who don't know how to do it, it seems like a magic trick, but the only thing you need to do is pay attention to details and to ask yourself "where is this story going to go next?", and it becomes surprisingly obvious.
Anyone who has read one of those endless 'Cthulhu collections' which contain one story by Lovecraft, two by the editor, and the rest by nameless authors knows that horror stories are particularly prone to follow certain patterns. If the character finds a big, carven stone gate in a cave, you can bet he's going to go in there and discover some weird, ancient stuff. If the old farmer won't let him see the barn, you know there's something bad in there.
And at first, reading The House on the Borderland, one of the all-time classic works of supernatural horror, I thought I had things pinned down pretty well. We ease into a familiar old 'evil creatures' story for the first third, with our main character getting more and more weirded out by all the strange things happening around his old house. However, if you'd asked me to predict the rest of the book based on the beginning, I wouldn't have come anywhere close.
Suddenly we're wrapped up in time and dimensions, in a kind of grand metaphysical horror that seems to be completely removed from everything that happened before, and it's only at the end that it all finally comes back around and the reader is able to piece together just what has been going on.
Usually, early, influential works in a genre are fairly straightforward--often, they are fumbling, as the author tries to figure out what it is they are trying to say. Hodgson's story, on the other hand, is more wild, imaginative, and unfettered than any modern horror tale I've read. It really stretches the limits of the reader's comprehension, and leaves behind many intriguingly incomprehensible images.
It is sometimes a bit slow-going, and there is also the problem that some of the elements seem a bit silly. Of course, if you saw them in real life, in the flesh, they would be terrifying, but Hodgson isn't always able to bring home to the reader the pure weirdness of it, to shake us up enough that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. That's something every great horror author must be able to do in order to be effective, particularly in the early parts of the story, where seemingly normal but odd things are slowly building to a head. However, many of the ideas and images Hodgson gives us are perfectly unsettling on their own, without any need for an intermediary.
If I was ever concerned that the supernatural elements I put into my period horror stories are 'too strange for that era', I clearly need not worry. No one is going to out-weird Hodgson any time soon--nor, I think, do any other living writers provide much of a threat to his well-earned reputation.(less)
Sometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural hor...moreSometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural horror is a great resource for readers and writers alike, as it mostly consists of a list of his favorite authors and their most notable and unusual stories. Really, an editor should go through the text, collect all the stories and authors Lovecraft mentions, and then make them into a shot story collection, with this essay as an introduction--hard to think of a more effective primer to the genre than that.
Unfortunately, I wish that Lovecraft had gone into greater depth about the style and methods of horror writers, particularly when he was going through all the example authors. If he had taken certain stories and passages and used them as illustrations for how to achieve this or that effect, then this would be an indispensable analysis. As it is, you get a lot of plot outlines along with generalized bits of praise or condemnation from Lovecraft, himself.
He includes many of those longer Gothic works, talking about certain moments which manage to rise above the formulaic melodrama and tacked-on romance that tend to dominate such lengthy, ambling tales, but it's hard to feel that it's worthwhile to wade through all that just to get to the few superlative instances. His discussion of Hawthorne's longer works, in particular, made them sound much more appealing than my actual experience with them, years ago. Then again, Lovecraft, himself is known to indulge in verbose exposition, so he may find that style less off-putting than I do.
Likewise, Lovecraft's chapter on Poe is much more laudatory than what I would write, as I find most of his work to be uneven and repetitive to the point of narrowness in terms of images, ideas, themes, and tone. Lovecraft, himself, does acknowledge some of these problems, but as with the rest of the essay, it could have done with more specific examples and laying out of ideas. It looks like I'll have to return to the stories, themselves for instruction, and hope that proves to be enough.
Amusing that Lovecraft outright rejects the 'Gothic Explique'--when an author tacks on a bit at the end that tells the reader how all the apparently supernatural events actually have a reasonable explanation such as mass hypnotism, a dog covered in phosphorescent mushroom spores, or a full-sized human skeleton rigged up as a marionette--also known as the 'Scooby Doo Ending'. Then again, I'm not fond of it, myself, especially in a profoundly supernatural tale where the explanation must become absurd in order to account for everything that has happened.
But so far, I'm happy to report that my book seems to lie within the guidelines set down by Lovecraft, so that, at least, is a promising sign.(less)
December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteri...moreDecember 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysterious manner, one of the premiere American horror authors passed on into the undying realm of night. Bierce was the preeminent innovator of supernatural stories between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft, and to be quite honest, I prefer his approach to either of theirs.
While those authors tended toward dour, indulgent, overwrought prose, Bierce preferred a lighter touch, built upon precise, carefully-constructed prose and driven by a deeply morbid wit, somewhere between Nietzsche and Alexander Pope. What may be most interesting about his tales is that, despite their simplicity, they often require quite a bit of thought from the reader: when you reach the end, you know something terrible unnatural has occurred, but piecing together precisely what happened requires a moment of reflection, where the discrete details of the story come together to imply something much more grandly dark than the apparently simple story would seem to contain.
To me, the sheer mirthlessness of Poe and Lovecraft denies their stories a certain depth--they are not capturing the whole human experience, but concentrating obsessively on one particular part, as befits the natures of such odd, affected men--men who we imagine to be just as off-putting as the strange, damaged characters in their stories. Bierce's abberation if of a different sort, that of a deep cynic who turns to laugh at the world, at its every aspect, life and death, joy and horror. In missing this from their stories, other horror authors reject a large part of the palette with which horror and madness can be depicted.
Chambers dabbled effectively in this laughing tief, as well, but with more uneven results, as his horror career slowly transformed into a series of bland drawing-room romances. Dunsany, also, has a sense of wit, and of the humor of desperation, but none has so devotedly focused the breadth and depth of their talent on the subject as Bierce.
Some of the stories in this, the last of two such collections Bierce published, are similar, but there are also those inexplicable and masterful standouts which differ in their approach and the effect they achieve from any other horror author. In the end, there is no mistaking Bierce's handiwork, it is in every line: in every careful comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation.(less)
I came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium E...moreI came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium Eater' about some clever reprobate's adventures through the Victorian. If you know anything about this book, then you can imagine my shock and wonder at discovering the story it actually contains.
It begins simply enough, as a witty picaresque set in Scotland and making some mockery of self-righteousness and Calvinist pre-destination in particular. But then the thing breaks off, it becomes suddenly clear that it is impossible for it to continue as it began, and we are split off into a second telling of the same events from a new point of view, a la Rashōmon. This second version is much darker and the prose becomes experimental, until we seem to be dealing with a crazed serial killer attended and impelled by a strange figure who may be the devil himself--if indeed he exists, at all.
The narrator is what we'd call a 'flat character', as despite his doubts and concerns, he remains static throughout and does not go through a great revelation about his state. This can be somewhat frustrating, as often, the only thing we desire of the character is for him to show the slightest bit of self-awareness, but the story is also a kind of satire of allegory, and those of us who recall The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman, and Everyman will see that Hogg's work provides a sort of parallel to Candide, and that the wooden characters are a fuel for mockery, and for deeper thought.
Yet I found Hogg's work much more interesting than Voltaire's, for as much as Voltaire turned the allegory on its head, in the end that's just an inverted allegory, relying on the same stereotypes for its message, but mocking instead of lauding them. Hogg, on the other hand, manages to make the whole thing conflicted, self-consuming, deluded, and mad. His treatment of Calvinist doctrine might be said to play rather straight, but all the other notions his story is concerned with intermingle and subvert beyond any straightforward interpretation.
But in the end, and for all that, I'm not sure what to say about it. As a piece of art, it is powerful and unusual, prefiguring existentialist and experimental literature, but for what it all means, I feel somewhat less qualified to say.(less)
This most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bi...moreThis most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bierce, and Chambers as worthy of even a discerning reader. Like many such stories, it starts somewhat slowly, establishing first that picture of normal life from which we must soon, and by gradations, deviate beyond recall. however, I grew to feel it may have been a bit too slow, though it can be hard to judge such a balance. So much of the story was carried on the particular delivery of the concept, so I'm not convinced that quite so much preparation was really necessary.
But then, Blackwood does sometimes struggle with delivery, falling back on repetition to ensure that his points come across, which makes sense for an author writing in an experimental genre for a wide serial audience and who may be concerned about coming off as too obscure--but whether it was a bit of long-windedness on his part or an editorial decision I cannot say.
In any event, after the setup is complete and we start descending into the otherworldly, the story starts to pick up pace, and by the time the concept is laid before us, I was deeply impressed by the insight and imagination with which the thing is handled. The presentation of the uncanny is so complete, so infectious, and so grand in its implications that I am hard-pressed to compare it to any other contemporary author but Dunsany, who achieved a similar effect in fairy tale.
Indeed, it's difficult to name another author who so subtly depicted the cosmology of shifting worlds until Moorcock, who did it in a rather rough style, or the Strugatskys, who took on the same event and expanded it until it dwarfed the entire world of man. It is no wonder that this work is so influential, because it asks many difficult questions of the reader, and invites us to expand upon it, to sit and dwell and try to produce our own understanding of just what is actually going on, and what it means for the insignificant people caught in the middle.
It has certainly altered the way that I think about the writing of horror, and it goes to show that the particular treatment an author gives their idea can make or break a story.(less)
When reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were real...moreWhen reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were really that horrible, but that the protagonists thrown into them happen to be rather skittish, lily-livered, and needing only the slightest nudge to push them off the edge in the first place. Lovecraft's heroes, in particular, can be rather touchy fellows.
So there has been a desire to explore what it might be like to see a more strenuous and competent individual trapped in the same situation. After all, we get glimpses of these characters, such as the denizens of Innsmuth, the magic-working cultists, and Lovecraft's Tale of Charles Dexter Ward, where it is clear that it's possible for people to get a better grip on the paranormal world, and even to use it to their own advantage.
Of course, these days, the pendulum has swung rather to the other end, and you're likely to see shotgun-toting sorcerer heroes who shoot at Cthulhu with rocket launchers, until the term 'psychological horror' is no longer remotely applicable. It's not that characters should be defeating the elder menace, any more than they should 'defeat' a hurricane, but it is interesting to see a character with a greater penchant for survivability.
Paranormal investigation has quite a long history in literature, with sorcerers and priests capturing and exorcising ghosts and other spirits, but the modern notion of the non-denominational specialist has a much more recent origin: the Theosophical movement of the Victorian period.
During this time of high colonialism, Europe was bringing back myths, practices, and ancient texts from every corner of the Earth, and then trying to get them all to match up into some kind of metaspiritual tradition. Predictably, the whole thing was a nonsensical, poorly-researched mess, and thus, wildly popular. Clubs were started up, seances were held, and charlatans rooked old ladies out of their inheritance. Blackwood, himself, was a member of the most notorious of these societies: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
So, by the time he got around to creating his fictional investigator, the whole thing was all rather tired, which is quite clear in the stories, for Mr. Silence is constantly taking pains to separate himself from that 'other class' of psychics who make extravagant promises and talk about possessing a 'gift'.
So it's interesting that one of the first full-time paranormal investigators in fiction (that I'm aware of) is already somewhat subversive and on the edge--but then, as a calm, rational figure after the style of Dupin and Cuff, he's somewhat out of place with charismatics and wealthy eccentrics.
Blackwood here retains his unfortunate habit of sometimes over-explaining or giving us information more than once, but for that, the stories are well-devised and contain some quite interesting cosmological hints. Oddly enough, two of the three stories in this collection take the most profound interest in the ways of cats and their relationship to the spiritual realm which, while perfectly interesting, didn't seem to profit from re-examination, particularly not within the same brief collection.
However, I am curious to see what else Blackwood might do with the character, particularly if he manages to put him into more sticky situations. So far, we've seen him competent and self-controlled--often the real danger comes from whether he will be able to save the other characters from themselves before its too late--but I'm curious to see what Silence is capable of, when pushed.(less)
It was June of 1816, during The Summer that Never Was, when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused frost and snow through the summer, killing crops a...moreIt was June of 1816, during The Summer that Never Was, when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused frost and snow through the summer, killing crops and leaving uncounted numbers in a state of starvation. Meanwhile, in the rented Villa Diodati, a party consisting of Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin and her fiancee, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and stepsister Claire sat down and read aloud from a collection of French stories. It was perhaps the most momentous night in the history of the Horror story.
Soon, the guests declared that they would each have a hand at their own 'tale of terror', from which Mary was to write Frankenstein, Byron his 'fragment of a novel', and Polidori 'The Vampyre', the first story about such a creature published in English. Though the stories in Fantasmagoriana (published as 'Tales of the Dead' in English) are not the most remarkable or best-crafted, there is no lack of melodrama to be had.
Most of all, anyone who reads this collection will witness the marked difference between these simple tales and the complex, thoughtful treatment given to the subject by the attendees of that fateful reading. It just goes to show that a skilled and philosophically-minded author can tackle any theme or genre, and make of it something profound and immortal.(less)
After the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror i...moreAfter the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror is so forceful and deliberate (especially since I was disappointed by Stevenson's other big work, Treasure Island). But then, this is a short story, and it's somewhat easier to carry off the shock, horror, and mystery over fewer pages instead of drawing it out like Shelley and Stoker into a grander moralizing tale.
But Stevenson still manages to get in quite a bit of complexity, even in the short space. As I was reading it, I found myself wishing I didn't already know the story--that it hadn't been automatically transmitted to me by society--because I wondered how much better it would be to go in not knowing the answer to the grand, central mystery, but instead being able to watch it unfold before me. Much has been said about the 'dual nature of man', the good versus the evil sides, but what fascinated me about the book was that despite being drawn in such lines, it did not strike me as a tale of one side of man versus another. Indeed, it is the virtuous side who seeks out a way to become destructive, showing that his virtuosity is a mere sham.
Likewise, neither Jekyll nor Hyde seem to have any real motivation to be either 'good' or 'evil', it is more that they are victims of some disorder which compels them to be as they are--that causal Victorian psychology which, in the end, robs anyone involved of premeditation for what they do. Dracula kills to survive, Frankenstein does so because he is the product of the ultimate broken home and Hyde does it as a self-destructive compulsion despite the fact that he loves life above all else, yet is unable to protect himself well enough to retain it.
This is not the evil of Milton's Satan, or of Moriarty, who know precisely what they do and do it because of the way they see the world before them, but that of the phrenologist, who measures a man's head with calipers and declares him evil based upon the values so garnered, independent of any understanding, motivation, or reason.
And yet this is not an unbelievable evil--indeed, Stevenson uses it as an analysis of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, where the pure chemical rush of the thing becomes its own cause, despite the fact that the addict will tell you he wishes nothing more than to be rid of it, to be normal again, never to have tasted the stuff in the first place. It is a place a man might fall into through ignorance and carelessness, never realizing how hard it could be, in the end, to escape.
And that's something we can all relate to, far more than the sociopathy of Moriarty, which requires that you have complete understanding but just a completely different set of emotional reactions to the world around you. It is much easier for most people to say that there is some part inside them that they do not like, that makes them uncomfortable, some thoughts and desires which rise unbidden from their brain, and which they must fight off. And it is the fact that they are strong enough to need to be fought off that unsettles us and gives us pause, for we do not like to think that such incomprehensible forces might always be there, working, just beneath the surface, and which might come out not due to some dark desire or motivation, but due to simple, thoughtless error.(less)
It feels somewhat odd to finally arrive at something like an end to the grand saga of Hellboy--very like an end. Though there are certainly enough thr...moreIt feels somewhat odd to finally arrive at something like an end to the grand saga of Hellboy--very like an end. Though there are certainly enough threads open for Mignola to start up again with a new story where this one left off, for the first time, the main plot arc which began in the first issues of the series, so many years ago, has a conclusion. I'm not sitting here, idly wondering what happens in the next volume.
Of course, that may have a lot to do with me, who does not mind a dark, somewhat ambiguous ending. If there were never another story which continued Hellboy's main plotline, I would be happy with this ending. Others might feel differently, wanting all of their questions answered, desiring some convenient, 'happily ever after' prologue--ever looking for book XIII of the Aeneid.
But while I like the plot itself, I was not always happy with the treatment. Ever since Strange Places, the series has become increasingly complicated, and as a result Mignola has expressed more and more of the story in narrative explication and redundant summaries. I don't need an author to reveal everything to me, in fact I prefer that they don't, especially if it reduces the amount of time characters spend explaining the history of the world to each other.
I want a story primarily shown through actions: decisions the characters make, hardships to be overcome, solutions which take into account both the nature of the character and the situation they find themselves in. Mignola is capable of telling stories this way, and there is a lot of action and movement in this collection, but the pace gets gummed up by occasional spoon-feeding of plot points.
Mignola also does that thing where we get quotes of things people said in previous issues repeated over a different scene. This can be interesting if the new scene lends the quotes some different, subversive meaning we didn't really understand before, but I can't think of a comic writer outside of Alan Moore whose been able to do that--hell, even some of the ones inside Alan struggle with it, though how much of that is the result of the painful, aeons-long process of being digested, it's hard to quantify.
With all the complex backstories, references to old events and characters, melded mythologies, and stylistic allusions, there is a lot going on in this terminal volume. Really, plenty going on--enough so that the sudden introduction of a romance felt tacked-on. Not all stories need romances, nor do they all benefit from having one grafted on. There are stories that are busy enough, already--thank you very much. As Scriptshadow points out in his analysis of Aliens, sometimes all you need is the hint of a romance, because putting in a whole subplot would just break up the pacing of an otherwise perfect story.
I understand that Mignola wanted to give HB an emotional connection, someone for whom his choices have extra-personal repercussions, but he's been a loner for so long--a fundamentally introspective character--that I don't feel we really needed it. His personal struggles have always been there, and central to the story, and to his growth as a character, so I didn't feel adding in a romantic sub-plot made those internal conflicts any more important or dramatic.
He might also have wanted to stick one in because some people feel that a story can't be over unless the protagonist finds love by the end of it. I don't think it's useful for us to limit ourselves in this way. There are many experiences out there, and many stories to be made of them. Not all characters need storybook love to 'complete' them.
Once again, I was glad to see Fegredo's work on this title again--he's cemented himself as one of my favorite artists working today and I'm going to start picking up books just because he draws them, which is pretty rare for me, who usually selects by author. Perhaps the strength of his work is part of the reason I've found Corben's work on the series so disappointing, despite his great reputation.
At the beginning of the series, I found the main plot arc much less interesting and less inventive than the collections of unrelated stories. As things have gone on, I've reversed my position--partly because the plot has gotten stronger, partly because the collections have grown weaker and less idiomatic. Perhaps in working on this big, complex conclusion, Mignola was focusing less on the odd one-off story.
In any case, I was glad to see the series come to some kind of end. It is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent, unusual, and interesting series in comics today--at times it is as good as Sandman ever was, and it is certainly better than most current titles, especially fantasy titles, like the awful Fables. But unfortunately, I feel Mignola lost the thread somewhere in the middle of the series and never quite reached the potential I saw glimpses of throughout.
If he had been able to take the sparse, mysterious storytelling of the short pieces and meld it to the grand concept of the central story, it would have made for a true masterwork. He showed some signs of doing just this in Darkness Calls, which has excellent pacing and great tone, but in which Hellboy, himself, is a rather bland caricature of himself. While Hellboy returned to form in this volume, we lost the succinct, fey storytelling to long runs of exposition and convolution.
But for all that it did not coalesce into the dream I had of it, it is certainly a delightful book, full of twists and interesting characters, and it was well-worth the read.
One more, I'm having trouble getting into Corben's art. Some of it is great, and I love the EC vibe, but it's making me nostalgic in the wrong way: in...moreOne more, I'm having trouble getting into Corben's art. Some of it is great, and I love the EC vibe, but it's making me nostalgic in the wrong way: instead of thinking 'this is a great homage to the EC classics' I start feeling like I should just put Hellboy down and read the real thing. Some of Corben's character and backgrounds are great: expressive, detailed, idiomatic. But there are also a lot of little details that throw me off. Some of the exaggeration on the characters lacks a sense of shape and form, so there are a lot of oddly flat faces and problems with proportion, particularly when we're looking at the characters from a distance.
Then there's the fact that every woman who shows up has huge, pendulous breasts which are barely contained by a plunging neckline--and I mean all the women: old crones and young ingenues alike. The style is more Harry Crumb perversity than busty superheroine exploitation, but it still strikes me as an odd and tonally inappropriate choice. There are also various perspective issues, such as tables and the rooms they are in having vanishing points that simply don't match.
As for the stories themselves, they are less remarkable and less expansive than earlier volumes. There are some truly odd moments, but they tend to the goofy rather than the mythic. Otherwise the stories we're getting are rather straightforward examples of classic British and American horror. They're not badly written or stupid or anything, they just aren't particularly impressive.
Earlier collections constantly enlarged Hellboy's world and character, changing tone, culture, and time period frenetically, building by implication a much larger world in the vast space between all those disparate points. These stories, being more tonally and culturally similar lack that implication of depth.
Normally I like the odd Hellboy collections more than the main plot--they have greater variety in theme, tone, and homage--but this isn't one of my fa...moreNormally I like the odd Hellboy collections more than the main plot--they have greater variety in theme, tone, and homage--but this isn't one of my favorites. The title story was rather simplistic, compared to other Hellboy shorts. No real surprises, no inexplicable, vivid monsters, just a straightforward country witch story. I appreciated that Mignola was riffing on the classic EC titles, but I didn't feel the imitation came off that well.
I know Corben is one of those artists with a great reputation, but I was not moved by his art in this story. Some of the panels had some really grotesque, well-textured caricatures, but many of the other depictions felt a bit flat, particularly the faces. I can appreciate when a form is distorted well, with a sense of volume to it, but there was something soft about the edges and lines here that weakened the characters, especially when the EC homage was making me nostalgic for Wally Wood's implacable inking.
Both Wood's and Mignola's art tends to be defined by those dark, inky spaces, the chiaroscuro separation of light and shadow which throws the grotesqueries into sharp relief, so I felt the more vague forms Corben used were a poor choice for either Hellboy or an EC allusion.
Fegredo's work is splendid as always, and it was nice to see Mignola return and do a bit of art, himself, though his contribution struck me as particularly unadorned. Whether this is because Mignola has taken a hiatus from art and is not in his top game, or whether I'm comparing him to Fegredo's masterful draughtsmanship, it's hard to say. Dysart's work was fairly strong, with good coloring, but again, I missed the crisp lines that defined most of the series.
In The Chapel of Moloch is a fun exploration of the old Lovecraftian notion of the artist whose minute senses bring him into accidental contact with the Other World, but again, it was a bit bland and predictable, particularly in comparison to some of the more imaginative and wondrous stories of other collections like The Chained Coffin. This is one of those rare times that I'm more interested in the overarching plot than in the eccentric asides, so I won't mind returning to it in the next collection.
It's hard to overstate how impressed I continue to be with Fegredo's artwork as this series continues. He took in Mignola's style, refined it, and rec...moreIt's hard to overstate how impressed I continue to be with Fegredo's artwork as this series continues. He took in Mignola's style, refined it, and recreated something which perfectly captures that feel--which is somehow even more Mignola than the original. The fact that his work on other books explores completely different styles with equal effectiveness has left me with the strong impression that he is one of the most skilled artists working in the medium today.
I'm also glad that Mignola has been freed up to concentrate just on the writing, and all of the allusions, references, and loving homages to the great horror authors and tales of myth are delightful. There is here, in terms of depth, just as much in play as in Sandman.
Unfortunately, I am not always pleased by the pacing. Too much of what goes on is given to us as explanations, as exposition. I would really like to be able to see these stories and characters playing out before my eyes rather than be told the state of things. The moment we are introduced to the Arthurian mythos, the whole thing is explained to us in a few brief scenes. It would have been much more satisfying if it had been introduced, allowed to build, then turned on its ear as a climax. Subverting it at the same moment as its introduced doesn't give the reader much time to get into the story.
But then, much of it feels like it was thrown together from disparate parts instead of planned from the beginning. Previous characters are resurrected in new, odd roles, events are reinterpreted, and it sometimes felt a bit forced. I really liked the odd, scattered, brief tales we get of Hellboy exploring a grand, disconnected world, and so the idea that Mignola would try to simplify and streamline that into something small and digestible is not appealing. There's also a lot of redundancy of Hellboy recalling things people have said, rehashing of old scenes, and other such bits which made me feel like Mignola was striking me in the head with the plot.
It's not as bad as Strange Places, which is one long piece of overblown exposition sucking all the wind out of the series, but it's hardly ideal. I am glad that Mignola recovered from the dull storytelling of the Island, and from the doltish Hellboy of the movies, whose influence could be felt in the clanging dialogue of the previous volume.
It gives me hope for the future of the series. The complexity and drive of the plot is promising, and if Mignola can find a way to show more and tell less (which should be less of a chore with Fegredo as master-shower), the series could again reach the heights to which it sometimes magnificently rises.
It wasn't until halfway through the first chapter that I suddenly thought 'hey, I thought Mignola was giving up art duties to concentrate fully on wri...moreIt wasn't until halfway through the first chapter that I suddenly thought 'hey, I thought Mignola was giving up art duties to concentrate fully on writing'. Yet the choppy line quality, intimidating mood, and bulky chiaroscuro of Mignola's style were all in full effect, despite the fact that they were the work of artist Duncan Fegredo.
The art in this volume is lush, gorgeous, and full of detail, yet completely true to the classic Hellboy style. Somehow, Fegredo took in Mignola's characteristic art, refined it, and recreated it with the hand of a master draughtsman. Yet I have always been impressed with Fegredo's sense of form and gesture, which he demonstrated so effectively in Milligan's great conceptual work, Enigma, though I did not know he was such a studied mimic.
I'm glad that Mignola decided to devote himself full-time to writing, having found an artist capable of keeping up the other end, because it has freed him up to write more in-depth, thoughtful stories without sacrificing his publishing schedule, and it also allows the dedicated artist to produce highly-detailed work.
I am usually less fond of the main plotline stories in the Hellboy series, since I find the briefer, unconnected story collections to be more experimental and rich, concentrating on tone and character instead of steady plot movement. Yet in this volume, Mignola has managed to advance the plot at the same time as he explores subtler aspects of his world.
His deep delving into Russian myth was interesting, since it is such a rich vein of unique stories and magics, and one rarely tapped by other authors. I'm glad that, like Gaiman, Mignola is not content to sit on his laurels, but keeps expanding his world and surprising us.
My only complaint is the characterization of Hellboy himself, who has always been flippant and sardonic, but since the Strange Places TPB, has increasingly become a dullard and spewer of quips. As Mignola explained in the introduction to that collection, he had just come off of working on the Del Toro film, which influenced his concept of the character and the world.
I find it extremely disappointing that the goofy, watered-down film version of Hellboy has ended up replacing the complex, conflicted character of the earlier comics. I'm glad that Mignola has moved on from the narrative exposition of Strange Places, but I hope the character will also soon escape the dulling effect of Del Toro's flashy, unsubtle film and return to what made the comic great.(less)
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)