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)
Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more.(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)
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, o...moreIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable.(less)
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fe...moreThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through ma...moreFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction.(less)
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of...moreThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp.(less)
Hector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists...moreHector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists and authors, with his soldier's tales of life amongst the Muslims of North Africa. Eventually, they convinced him to try his hand at writing them down, and he turned out to have an author's talent.
This, then, is the collection of the strange and wild stories of his life as a soldier--some are his own adventures, others those of his friends and acquaintances, and littered throughout are details of the country, the people, and the politics of his time and place. Too many details, it turned out, for his Victorian audiences, as the book only received a small, private publishing, and is little-known today. I was only able to read it because it's available for free online.
France was not shy about representing prostitutes, child-brides, murderers, hashish use, and the incompetence of his colonial overseers. As his title poetically informs us, we are to expect stories of sex, drugs, and death. The collection runs the gamut from the humorous to the touching to the disturbing, as a soldier's recollections tend to do, each one a curious slice of life.
While France is not entirely free of a certain cultural bias, he is much more the Humanist than the Nationalist, often remarking on the violent stupidity of the colonials, who will start a war over nothing and whose inability to comprehend that they are dealing with another culture invariably makes fools of them.
For France's part, he is of the opinion that there is no one way to live, and that whatever lessons the Arabs might learn from the Europeans, the Europeans have just as much they should be learning from the Arabs. It is not the view of the distant Orientalist or governor who tries to deal with the whole mass of a culture without ever bothering to deal with the individual man and woman within that culture.
France is also not quite the wild egotist his fellow adventurers, like Burton, tend to be, which means he is less likely to try to rewrite the foreign culture to match his idea of 'exoticism'. He does indulge in a bit of 'scientific racism', which was quite popular at the time, but overall his view is more nuanced than one generally expects from the soldier's memoir.
France also has a rather surprising subtle and effective use of prose--superior in fact to many similar fictional tales written up by successful authors. He has a sense of poetry, a flair for drama, and a strength of characterization that I wish more fiction authors had.
Of course, he also had the benefit of taking a lifetime of adventure, of strange people and experiences, and of reducing it down to the most unusual, touching, and intriguing examples. The amount of imagination it takes to equal the life of a middlingly interesting fellow is surprisingly great.
However, many men who lead even more remarkable lives were unable to deliver such charming and affecting stories to the page--whether it was their own bias that got in the way, or a matter-of-fact disposition, or a habit of including too much, without enough thought to what is liable to interest the reader. It is pleasant to find a more earnest and open sort of fellow--or at least a man capable of affecting such candor when it suits him.(less)
This collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There ar...moreThis collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There are humorous clever bits and heartbreaking bits, and it all has the ring of truth about it. I kept getting hints of this in The Home and The World, but Tagore couldn't seem to sustain it.
Unfortunately, that proves to be true here, as well, as several of the stories don't quite come together, and get hung-up on clumsy construction. My previous complaint with Tagore was about his habit of just telling us (or having the characters tell us) the subtext, instead of actually letting it play out in dialogue and action.
The plot and actions of a character are not what give them personality--it's how they do things that makes them unique. After all, there are endless books that share roughly the same plot, for example the Hero's Journey story of a young, inexperienced man who goes out into the world and, with the help of his wise mentor, defeats a great threat and returns older and wiser. Some of these stories are dull and vapid, others are engrossing and fascinating--so it's not the mere litany of facts, but the way in which they are shown to us.
Most stories have subtext: a meaning that's never quite stated outright, but which becomes obvious through the relationships as they are depicted. So, in one of Tagore's stories, we have a girl who can't speak, and the story is about the difficulty of her life. There's a great concept for a bit of subtext in the story, but the way Tagore delivered it was very disappointing.
In the opening paragraphs, we are told:
"her mother looked upon her as a deformity in herself."
That would be a very poignant way of looking at the relationship--except that when the author just blandly states it instead of actually showing it in action, it loses a great deal of its strength. Then, Tagore ends the paragraph:
"Her mother regarded her with aversion as a stain upon her own body."
So, not only is the story's subtext just blandly laid out for the reader, it's done so twice in the same paragraph. This is the kind of sloppy execution that makes a lot of Tagore's writing disappointing, especially when other sections are crafted with so much more skill and care.
It's certainly well worth reading for the number of excellent stories that it contains, but as a whole, it's uneven.(less)
Many books have delighted me, but none have done it so accidentally and inexplicably as this one, so it is with great pleasure that I bring to you 'Yo...moreMany books have delighted me, but none have done it so accidentally and inexplicably as this one, so it is with great pleasure that I bring to you 'You Are to Decide.. But Death And Rising Are Through Human Flesh' (Fantastic Thriller). It's clear right from the title that this is going to be a winner, from the erratic capitalization and an ellipses that is both improperly used and the wrong length, to the complete incoherence of its message, it is one of those rare titles that tells you everything you need to know about this book in one fell swoop.
Sadly, none of you received a request in your inbox to review the work from one of the authors (because clearly, a work of such staggering scope could not have been made alone), so it falls to me to inform you that The prose is strengthened by poetry that completes the content, as evidenced by the following example of the work's profound prosody:
"At the crossroads of pathways, Where morning fogs are blue and cold, Your eyes enchafed those of my days, When silver frost suffused my soul. The text is written on originally formed pages."
I think my eyes are chafing right now.
The rest of the prose is an equally confused mish-mash of pseudospiritual nonsense fed through a Google translator and then set loose upon an unwilling world. Of course, the book experience is not complete without a visit to their website, which contains excerpts from the book, a hilariously serious video featuring partially animated fan art of Jesus killing naked ladies and flashing phrases like 'Outwit Destiny or the Right to Truth', as well as the misleadingly labeled 'fan site', which turns out to be a comment page full of equally garbled and confusing messages from people like 'Reader', and 'Sam', who clearly have high opinions of the book:
"Bow to authors. Brave, genius and talented people. Interesting, how do they live?"
My first thought was 'through the ingestion of nutrients'--but suddenly I'm beginning to doubt . . .
"Read with interest. But how can you dare to predict this? Practically claim this."
The audacity of claiming.
Then there is 'Carole', who I suspect may be a study nook that has somehow gained sentience, who says in a single, fragmentary, ungrammatical sentence the truest thing that can be said about this book:
"it will take many times reading it to really get the full value of he is trying to convey"
However, I'd be careful of how many times you read it, as I've come to suspect it may be an experiment by the Chinese in brain reprogramming.(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)
Once again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, bu...moreOnce again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, but overall he becomes easily enthused by the great names of certain English heroes--not to say that they weren't remarkable men who shaped history, but there's a little to much hero-worship for my tastes. Likewise, there are a few remarks about the 'violent, mysterious, spiritual East' and other such silly prejudices that Said built a career on critiquing, but overall it's not a book that dwells on such assumptions, and even reverses them, now and again.
Most interesting is the fact that the premise of the book is the uniqueness of the East India Company, a shipping interest owned by shareholders that incidentally ended up one of the most powerful empires in history, an empire owned and run by businessmen, and for profit--though they were often used as a screen for government interests, and ran on a debt most years of their existence, paying lie to the old notion that 'if business were run like governments, they'd fail'--for indeed, most business do run on debt and loans, and it hardly cuts into the profits--indeed, in allowing for larger risks, it often makes them bigger.
However, I was unconvinced by the premise that this system of governance is unique--firstly, it seems that the majority of governments have been run for the profit of their little elect group, and whether you call them 'nobility' or 'the board of directors' is really only a matter of tradition. More than that, there are of course more modern examples of the 'Barons of Industry' running governments both at home and abroad, from Banana Republics and Drug Cartels to the Fiji Water Tyranny, and of course the fact that Bills in America tend to be passed or blocked on the basis of lobbyists and high-payed consultancy positions.
In the end, more than anything, it reminded me of the post-cyberpunk world in Snow Crash, where the map has been literally divided up into the protectorates of various business concerns. But then, since the business schools of The East India Company produced John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism, I begin to ask whether open rule by a corporation might not be better than half-secret rule by them--at least then, we'd have a better idea of what we were getting.
The most fascinating part was the role of Rani Lakshmibai in the terrible Sepoy Revolution (a rather important bit of history that we don't get here in the States). She was a modern day warrior queen who lead her people in an uprising against the Company, as it was trying to suppress their religion and dearest cultural traditions, one of the most foolish things an invading force can do to a far remote culture over which it has power.(less)
The history of the world is a history of jerks. Starting with Gilgamesh, our earliest epic hero, who makes everyone wrestle him until they are exhaust...moreThe history of the world is a history of jerks. Starting with Gilgamesh, our earliest epic hero, who makes everyone wrestle him until they are exhausted then goes off to sleep with their wives while they pray to the gods to deliver them, to Achilles sulking in his tent, the Athenians sentencing Socrates to die because he talks too much, or Tacitus writing of how Caligula, Claudius, and Nero ruled through assassination and manipulation.
Sure, there are always a few level-headed, intelligent fellows, like Caesar, Odysseus, the Sire de Coucy--and in the Shahnameh, Rostam--but even they can't escape the machinations of the headstrong, foolish jerks that surround them. As far as Epics go, the Shahnameh is one of the darkest I've read, with a jerk quotient that's off the charts. The whole thing progresses as a series of blood feuds, deadly (and tragic) misunderstandings, endless duels over minor points of honor, fathers against sons, sons against mothers, uncles against everyone, mistrust and malicious rumor, and greed-driven betrayals.
Sure, there are a few genuinely reasonable guys throughout, but you can always bet that, in the end, some unstable noble with a chip on his shoulder is going to mess everything up. However, that isn't to say that the jerks are nonsensical or comically evil--pretty much every one has a good side, a sense of honor, a family--it's just that most of them seem to have the emotional self-control of a toddler.
It reminded me of the nobles in A Distant Mirror who would spend all of their crusading gold on matching green silk doublets and then show up to the battle without armor or supplies. Certainly, I never found the characters' actions unlikely, though I would have appreciated a bit more explanation from Ferdowsi on precisely why certain individuals kept making the same stupid errors. Much of the depth and sympathy in the Iliad stems from the fact that Homer uses the power of rhetoric to make it easy to understand the motivations behind all the pointless conflicts.
Ferdowsi is a masterful writer, however, and his prose is full of a vital energy, a poetry of odd and evocative metaphors that made the scenes something more than simply real--made them mythical. The image of an elephant's legs being so stained with man's blood that they seem to be 'pillars of coral', or Rustam's statement that, though he serve the Shah, he is still king of the world, his horse a throne, his sword a seal, his helm a crown, or this description of the coming of a Great Prophet (though I am unsure which one) to Persia:
He reared throughout the realm a tree of godly foliage, and men rested beneath its branches. And whosoever ate of the leaves thereof was learned in all that regardeth the life to come, but whosoever who ate of the branches was perfect in wisdom and faith.
Unfortunately, this translation is incomplete, ending before the coming of Eskandar (Alexander the Great), the full poem being longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined, so it seems the rest shall have to wait.
Also delightful, particularly for the devoted fantasist, is the depiction of remarkable and wondrous magics of many sorts, from guardian spirits and races of magical beings, both fair and wicked, to great wizard-kings who transform into poison-spitting serpents and watch the world through crystal globes. It is always inspiring to witness depictions of magic that truly surprise and mystify the reader, capable of suggesting a marvelous world somewhere beyond our own.
Of course, to any student of the tradition of the cultural epic, the great work which captures the spirit of a people and an age, and sets the precedent for all works to follow, few works are equal in scope, artistry, and influence--perhaps only that of Homer and Virgil, the Ramayana and Mahabharata of India, the Four Great Novels of China, and the Bible.(less)
The problem with most Utopianists, as game designer Ken Levine points out, is that they don’t take into account the nature of humanity. Instead, they...moreThe problem with most Utopianists, as game designer Ken Levine points out, is that they don’t take into account the nature of humanity. Instead, they lay an ideal on top of humanity, and because it is a nice idea, just assume that it will just automatically smooth everything out. But, of course, the world has always been full of nice ideas, and despite that fact, greed, ignorance, brutality, and lust always end up getting in the way.
But then, the Utopianists were some of the first fantasists, authors who created and explored strange, false world of representational ideas, the world of Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and Morris’ News From Nowhere--but alongside these were the satirists, those who created fantastical realms because of how effective such creations are when we want to mock the arbitrary traditions of our own world: Lucian’s Storia Vera, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In the end, De Mille’s fantastical world has too little to do with reality to make it really interesting.
The book starts off rather promisingly, giving us some amusing characters and then rushing full-bore into life-or-death adventure in a strange, new land--anyoine who has read Burrough's John Carter of Mars books or Haggard's Quatermain stuff will recognize it immediately: our hero must learn to survive amongst the unpredictable, alien culture. Of course, De Mille was the one who did it first, and there is something to be said for that.
Unfortunately, he can't keep up the pace, and by the midway point, we’re completely stagnated in goofy worldbuilding: the hero speaking at length to the natives about their world, then turning and speaking directly to the audience for a further chapter where he repeats everything. Then we break off to the frame story--a set of sailors reading this mysterious manuscript out loud--as they sit around theorizing what type of extinct creatures the narrator was describing, and whether the Antarctic race he encountered were the tenth tribe of the Jews or a race of Red Sea troglodytes, complete with a discussion of Hebrew phonemes.
Yet this culture isn’t particularly interesting, even though it sometimes gets close--the idea of a culture that idealizes the poor and downtrodden, that thinks fondly of death and sees wealth as an evil is not really all that odd. Eventually, De Mille has his narrators mention that it sounds like Buddhism or the Ascetic Christian tradition that sprung up from that Indian mystical influence. Unfortunately, De Mille doesn’t take cues form these cultures and add in details that make his little world unusual enough to be interesting, nor does the culture make much sense: the system which he describes seems to have no way of supporting itself as it is explained. Instead, like the Utopianists, he merely sets up a world that is the opposite of ours and never bothers to question how it might come about or why human beings would follow it, once it were established.
Of course, if it were just a bit of background info, lightly touched upon, the setting for an otherwise rip-snorting adventure, I might not mind so much, but since he spends chapter upon chapter trying to explain its nonsensical intricacies to us, its silliness and flaws cannot really be overlooked. Once again, I am reminded of my own person writing rule that it is better to imply than to explain, to show the world as it is through the action rather than sitting down and trying to explain it. The only thing that achieves is revealing to your audience all the holes in your ideas.
Then we head back to the frame story where the characters all talk about dumb and poorly-written the book is, and how it doesn't really make sense, though one gets the impression that De Mille is doing it in an attempt to be funny and clever. Then they start talking about the thematic meaning of the book, that even though the people in this culture have all the things we want, that we think will make us happy, they still aren't happy, and in fact they want all the stuff that we despise.
I suppose that would be a somewhat clever premise, but it isn't actually how the action or characters are set up. Since the culture is arbitrarily set up and (despite a lot of discussion on the subject) there's never any clear psychological reason for the characters to behave the way that they do, the satire falls rather flat. De Mille evokes Swift by name, talking about representational satires that reveal something about our world to us, but he simply isn't funny or clever enough to pull it off, and so it just becomes the same allegory over and over, occasionally interrupted by some very welcome action scenes. Indeed, the book described by the characters in the frame story sounds vastly more interesting than the one we actually get.
The lesson of Lucian, Swift, and Carroll is that the reader is less concerned with complex explanations about the author’s intentions than with story, character, action, wit, and insight. But then, their worlds were attempts to explore ideas through extended metaphors, whole nations and peoples that represented complex and unusual ideas--the truest definition of magic in literature being a metaphor, physically realized.
De Mille’s is just an example of contrarianism: he has taken the world as it is and turned it upon its head without much rhyme or reason to account for it, and as Quentin Crisp points out in his introduction to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, being original is not the result of looking at what everyone else is doing and performing the opposite, but of finding a purpose that drives you, a philosophy that gives meaning and direction to what you write. De Mille possesses neither that purpose nor an exciting tale to tell in lieu of it, so I suppose that really does make this book the prototype of the modern fantasy tale.(less)
Howard Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magn...moreHoward Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magnates and warmongers--and so he did something about it: he created an equally flawed and opposed bias, just as carefully constructed to prop up his own one-sided conclusion, in an act which always calls to my mind Bob Dylan's line:
"In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand. At the mongrel dogs who teach. Fearing not that I'd become my enemy. In the instant that I preach."
A staunch idealist, Zinn's standard method is to throw out the baby with the bathwater: he finds an imperfection in a plan or event, and declares that, since it it not perfect, it should be rejected, outright. There is no pragmatism, no sense of compromise, no utilitarian notion of 'the greater good' for Zinn--if there is a flaw in an action, then that action must be condemned.
He has come out as saying that war is never a solution, that since people died, the conflict of World War II is not excusable, that the cessation of the Fascist war machine was not worth the cost. Of course, this beggars the question: what else? Is there some better solution to the problem, is there anything else that could have been done to prevent it?
Likewise, he has rejected US intervention in Korea, despite the fact that when we look at the split Koreas today--the North a wasteland of violence, malnutrition, and ignorance, the South a modern nation with a thriving economy--it is difficult to argue that, despite the deaths in that war, the intervention was not, overall, a positive.
Certainly, I am not of the camp who believes the US to be some sort of 'World Hero', that we are justified in policing the world, or in enforcing our ideals upon other nations, but neither do I buy the image Zinn paints of the US as a hand-wringing Disney villain that ruins everything it touches--the real truth of the matter is somewhere in between.
Some things which the US has done, such as our interference in Afghanistan--well on its way to becoming a modernized, self-sustaining nation in the mid-20th Century--tearing down its government, arming its warlords, and making it the staging ground for our Cold War battles with Russia--are awful examples of selfishness forced upon the world. The actions of our government and intelligence community there were not for the greater good, they were at the expense of the Afghans to our own benefit, and there are many such damning examples, but to focus solely on them is just as bad as ignoring them entirely.
Zinn has received much credit for revealing truth, for reinvigorating our education system and our view of history, but honestly, his work was a bit late for that--already, such diverse perspectives were emerging, and while it took some time for them to trickle down to Middle Schools and the public consciousness, nothing in his book was a revelation to devoted students of history.
Even those historians who were sympathetic to minority experiences and opposed to the white-washing of history tended to condemn Zinn for cobbling together a poorly-researched work which took only those parts that were convenient to his thesis and left out all else--and beyond that, twisting and misrepresenting his sources to his own ends.
But his work is sensationalistic, and work of that sort has a way of finding its way into popular discussion, whether it is accurate or not. His opponents can cite him of an example of 'all that is wrong with that point of view', while his supporters are attracted by the fact that his work tends to cast as the true heroes of history the uninvolved thinker, the academic who talks a great deal, attends protests, but does not get his own hands dirty, since in Zinn's approach, to interact directly with the imperfect world is to sully one's self.
It's hardly surprising that, in the modern age of 'Entertainment News', as represented by the vehement spewing of incoherent bias, figures like Zinn and Chomsky should become elevated. Zinn's book is like the 'documentaries' Zeitgeist, or What the Bleep Do We Know?, like Daniel Quinn's Ishmael or Hesse's Siddhartha, or the writing of Bell Hooks--all works that are fundamentally more concerned with the author's prejudice than with anything resembling fact.
In college, it's not uncommon to find folks who are devoted to all of the above--and if there's a better way than that to say "I have relatively little capacity for critical thought, but need constant confirmation of my own specialness', I don't know it. But then, such works are liable to spark off movements--not because they are accurate or well-written, but because they flatter certain preconceptions in the person who reads or watches them--meaning that the movements they inspire are not far removed from cults, centered as they are on philosophies which do not correspond to reality.
It is truly sad that, in the end, the common state of politics can be boiled down to a question like 'Do you follow rush Limbaugh, or Kieth Olbermann?', when in fact both of them are equally sensationalistic purveyors of half-truths delivered by way of ideology-filled rants. One sometimes wonders what we might achieve if we were able to think of the world in terms other than false dichotomies--but since I, unlike Zinn, am not an idealist, I shall have to accept the fact that it's simply how the human mind works, and do my best to work within that system.(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)
I wonder how many Herman Hesse readers realize how closely his stories of spiritual enlightenment parallel a tale of Lovecraftian horror:
...moreI wonder how many Herman Hesse readers realize how closely his stories of spiritual enlightenment parallel a tale of Lovecraftian horror:
"A sensitive man of spiritual temperament is wandering the world, unsure of his place in it. Eventually he encounters some strange experience that forever changes his perspective on the world, so that no matter how he tries, he cannot return to his old life. Instead, he becomes obsessed with this 'other world' of which he's caught a glimpse, abandoning his other life and alienating those around him. At last he finally reaches his goal, and passes from the world as his former friends remark what a pity it was that he wasted his potential in favor of his odd interests."
I've mentioned before in my reviews of Hesse's work that his picture of 'enlightenment' often seems to have symptoms identical to a progressing mental disorder, whether it's the paranoid schizophrenia of a homeless transient in A Journey to the East or the 'secular saint' who wanders about mumbling, smiling vacantly, and making incoherent remarks like any dementia patient in The Glass Bead Game.
These are precisely the same themes, and the same structure that Blackwood uses in his lengthy and ponderous exploration of 'spiritualism'. To anyone familiar with the European movement, where Eastern religions were taken up and retranslated in quite strange ways to make them fit Western philosophical structures, it will be fairly clear what Blackwood is getting at. Indeed, there is a philosophical German-ness to the whole affair that can become positively maddening.
Blackwood keeps returning to the same concepts over and over, trying to lay them out in far-flung, poetic language, reaching out to the reader's heart instead of the mind--which is why it took me months to finish this book. But Blackwood is well-known as a prominent author of tales of psychological terror, which gives his approach to the spiritual a lot more punch than that of Hesse, Jung, or Blavatsky.
Indeed, this tale has roughly the same structure as Blackwood's most famous work: The Willows, where the characters are trapped alongside a world they cannot comprehend, which threatens to take over their lives, and their very souls. Yet somehow, we are meant to believe that the same incomprehensible cosmic influence that we feared in The Willows, we are meant to admire in The Centaur.
Of course, there is a certain realism there: a great enlightenment, be it light or dark, should be frightening and unsettling. If it isn't, then it wasn't really enlightenment. Part of Hesse's problem is that his view of enlightenment is always so milquetoast that it can hardly seem profound or powerful. Of course such a total change in perspective would be alienating and disturbing, and Blackwood gets that aspect down to a T.
Likewise, the most fascinating aspect of the tale--and the part which kept me reading even when the prose was dragging on interminably--was his representation of a friendship between two sorts of man: the skeptic and the dreamer, which I have rarely seen framed with more sympathy and realism. What struck me most was the way both characters often seemed to be searching for precisely the same thing, but expressing it in such different words, and from such different points of view that they didn't realize that they were actually in perfect agreement, much of the time.
Unfortunately, this balanced portrayal broke down as we came to the conclusion, when it became clearer and clearer that we were supposed to side with the 'enlightened dreamer'--of course, I never did. Just as with Hesse's character, Tegularius, I found the curious skeptic much more interesting than the wild-eyed prophet.
Again, it came down to the fact that, in supernatural horror, the outside force is always dominating us--we cannot explain it, we cannot really understand it, but the merest glimpse of it makes us obsessed, makes us go mad. Often, it is a madness of misery and depression--in this case, it is a madness of self-assurance and hubris--but is that really better?
How do we separate the man who has glimpsed the beyond and gone insane from the man who has glimpsed the beyond and come away with Truth? It is a central question in this story, and the character's attempt to deliver his experience to others is doomed from the start, because a revelation cannot be transferred.
It is the question of every faith, of every self-serving philosophy: what makes it any better than what every other person is doing? What makes it fundamentally different from a delusion, or a disorder? If no difference can be shown, then no difference exists.
Though Blackwood delves deep into convoluted, grandiose phrases, he still isn't able to deliver to us the wonder his character feels. One does sometimes get that sense of the sublime produced by good art: where experiencing it is truly transformative, but Blackwood's repetitive labor never quite captures a fresh view of the world--it is mainly the same old spiritualism: nature is good, civilization is harmful, we must simplify and leave our bodies behind, embracing only the intangible. I tend to find that any 'answer' that seeks mainly to deny our humanity falls rather flat.
It just becomes another breed of nihilism: a statement that what we are is insignificant, that our wants and desires, our joys and pains, are to be ignored and fought against, and we should instead live for oblivion, or the dream of oblivion--or even stranger, a dream of this life, but set in oblivion.
Blackwood gives us another supernatural horror tale of the man who sees too much, and whose humanity is consumed by it. Yet this man wants to be consumed: he wants to be alienated, to be mad, to die, and wants others to join him. There is something much more terrifying in this portrayal than in all the sorry fellows who fight to the last before succumbing. Here is a fresh perspective, rarely explored: the cultist who throws himself into Cthulhu's jaws in a fit of ecstasy, his mind blasted beyond all reason, beyond anything but the overwhelming cosmic force that has seized him and made him inhuman--where the question of 'more than human, or less than?' seems to be little more than a quibble over semantics.(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)
Dunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as h...moreDunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as he displayed to peerless effect in The King of Elfland's Daughter, one of the few fantasy books I've read where the magic actually felt magical, instead of just being a contrivance or allegory. And yet, so many times, when I discover these great authors, it takes me a long time before I read another of their books.
I'm not sure why I possess this habit--perhaps its that, once I've found something really good, I know it's there, waiting, and so I can get on the search for the next revelation and return to my cadre of Great Authors when I'm too tired of disappointment. Then of course, there are also those authors, like Leiber, who start out brilliantly and become rather disappointing, themselves, as time goes on.
So there is always a certain hesitancy when approaching a new work by a well-loved author, because few things are more unpleasant than to watch someone do something poorly when you know it is perfectly within their power to do well. Gladly, when I cracked this collection of tales fictionalizing Dunsany's experience in The Great War, I discovered that Dunsany's skill was to be felt in all its force.
Within, you will find his knack for creating odd little characters who feel real by virtue of their unrealness--that same gift that lent Peake and Gogol their brilliance. Likewise he demonstrates his fine sense of mood and rhythm, and of curious turns in his language, which never fails to remind me that he wrote all his stories longhand, with a quill pen. There is also a great variety of mood and theme, from stories of small life to unsettling, eerie tales to his meditations on the ancient, fey spirit of the land, and the crass stupidity of war.
Unfortunately, coming to the middle of the book, this variety of approaches begins to wane, and he gives us a number of stories which harp on the same themes over and over--namely, the foolishness of the Kaiser and the destruction of the ancient beauty of France. Some of these are quite powerful and affecting, but others rehash the same ideas over again, and it becomes rather dull. Its not that any individual story is weak, but it feels like we're looking at many drafts of the same idea, some stronger than others.
This was really the only reason that I dropped the rating down from five stars. Indeed, its one of the few examples I can think of where the removal of some stories would have improved the book. In any case, it did nothing to reduce my opinion of Dunsany, and I'll have to make a note to myself to visit his lovely works more often than has erstwhile been my habit.(less)
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the character...moreOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did.(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)
And so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and...moreAnd so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and disturbing. The themes and characters we explore are similar to the first volume, featuring at the center yet another Nemo-esque warlord whose methods give our narrator uneasy pause. By the end, we find ourselves liable to agree with Mr. Bastable's suspicion that time is having a laugh at his expense, forcing him to experience history as 'variations on a theme', and not a theme he appreciates reliving.
Usually, describing a book like this as 'alternate history' is a malapropism, since 'alternate' means to shift back and forth between things while 'alternative' means 'of a different sort'. So, if we described wind power as an 'alternate energy' to coal, that would mean we would be constantly switching between wind and coal, not replacing one with the other. But in Moorcock's case, both terms are actually applicable, which must be a boon to sci fi fans that have trouble keeping words straight.
So, if our theme is 'world-shaking war', the variation here is 'global politics of racism'. There is a certain tension throughout the book because Moorcock presents a lot of genuinely racist characters of different stripes and degrees, and even lets prejudice slip into his narrator's mouth. It's clear that the violence and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era tickled Moorcock's unyielding imagination, so we get quite a few powerful (and somewhat unsettling) scenes charged with the complexities race dynamics.
Moorcock also seemed to take a bit more time with his narrative as compared to the last book, and didn't rely quite as much on bare exposition to carry the story along, which was nice--but as usual with Moorcock, it was a fairly straightforward adventure with some interesting concepts driving it along throughout, but lacking polish and care.
Reminds me of this charming episode of Neal Degrasse Tyson's StarTalk where sex researcher Mary Roach talks about the fact that long-term couples experience better sex because they tend to take their time and get lost in the moment, whereas newer couples are often 'going through the motions' of what they think should work. It's the same with writing books, people: don't just go through the motions when you should be in the moment, taking the time to give your narrative the attention it deserves.(less)
There's a curious double-standard between what we expect from White guy authors compared to authors of any other background. When an author is a Nativ...moreThere's a curious double-standard between what we expect from White guy authors compared to authors of any other background. When an author is a Native American, for example, we tend to expect their books to deliver to us the 'Native American experience'. If the author is a woman, we tend to expect that her book will show us the 'female perspective'--to the degree that female authors who write stories about men often take on a masculine or nondescript name, like J.K. Rowling.
So we get Western-educated authors like Achebe, Hosseini, and Momaday who write thoroughly traditional novels in the Western style and then place a thin veneer of their own ethnic background onto those stories, and are praised for it in academia, because their work meets expectation: delivering to The West a simplified and pre-colonized version of foreignness.
As a White male author, on the other hand, the expectation is that you won't stick to your own cultural identity, but will instead attempt to explore the breadth and depth of human experience through characters of many backgrounds--and why not? White guys have been doing it for years, and many of them were quite good at it.
In fact, the problem here is not that White guys are encouraged to take on other roles, its that non-White folks are discouraged from doing so. As Said points out: it is not only Black people who are capable of writing about Black people, or only Arabs about Arabs, or only Whites about Whites; we all need to explore similarities and differences in our fellow humans.
So here I am: White guy, trying to explore humanity, writing a bit of fiction about Colonialism, about the English rule in Egypt and India, featuring characters of different backgrounds--but it's daunting. I don't want to do it thoughtlessly, and though I take a great deal of inspiration from Haggard, Kipling, Conrad, and Burton, I don't want to incidentally adopt their shortcomings along with the interesting bits.
So I thought I might combat their prejudices by taking in the most notable and talked-about book on interactions and stereotypes between The West and The East. However, Orientalism was not what I expected; but then again, it wasn't what Said expected, either. He didn't intend to write The Book on East/West interaction, his work is much narrower in scope.
The whole of the book is Said looking at a dozen authors, mostly French and English, some academics, some fiction writers, and gives examples of a number of quotes for each where they talk about 'The East' in ways that demonstrate a certain bias. That's pretty much the book, all four-hundred pages of it. Why spend that long on such a specific topic? Because this book was meant for a small academic publication, and that's what specialized academics do.
Now, if you've read any of the other reviews of this book on GR, you'd get the impression that Said is an enraged polemicist who spends the whole book denigrating 'The West' and praising 'The East'. It’s inexplicable to me that any person with basic reading comprehension could come away from Said with this view. Indeed, once I realized the scope of this work (and that it wasn't likely to help with my specific writing concern), I almost abandoned it, but I wanted to get to the 'angry Said' part where he defames Western civilization, just to see how bad it got.
It never came. Said's tone throughout the book is exceedingly dry and cautious--too much so, for my taste, I've been known to enjoy a good diatribe--so any prejudicial anger a reader might find in this book is only what they brought in with them. The notion that Said is anti-Western or Pro-Islam is such a bizarrely inexplicably misreading that the only reason a reader could come away from the book with that belief is if they brought in a huge set of prejudices and then ignored everything Said actually wrote.
First, they must assume that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are terms that have well-defined geographical and social meanings, and then ignore the fact that Said repeatedly states that, to him, 'East' and 'West' are just convenient ideas, not real, solid entities--that it is ridiculous to talk about India, China, and the Middle East as if they were one culture, or even to lump in the various Arab states with one another, when they each have very different histories and values. There is no more unity between all Islamic nations than there are between all Christian nations.
Trying to place a line between Greece and Turkey and claiming these are separate cultures is artificial. Lest we forget: Troy was in Turkey, when the Roman Empire died in Italy it continued in Istanbul (as Edith Hamilton points out: Roman rule was always more Persian than Greek), Southern Europe was long ruled by Moors, and as Ockley’s 1798 History of the Saracens contentiously point out, nearly everything Europe knows of Greek philosophy and mathematics came from Islam.
Then, the ignorant reader would have to assume that when Said points out a specific trend in some authors of the ‘West’, that this constitutes an attack on ‘The West’ as an entity (which Said denies exists). this despite the fact that Said explicitly holds many of these Western authors in high regard and specifically states that there’s nothing wrong with cultures having interdependent relationships:
“The Arab world today is an intellectual, political, and cultural satellite of the United States. This is not in and of itself something to be lamented; the specific form of the satellite relationship, however, is.”
The reader would then have to assume that this perceived attack on a fictional ‘Western Culture’ was the same thing as an uplifting of ‘the East’, even though Said often speaks about how many Eastern states are damaged and without a modern intellectual tradition to train its members to do the work of improving them, and that all the great centers of study and economic control for Islam are in England or America.
But then, the fact that there are prejudiced readers is hardly surprising: the world is full of people trying to divide everything up between 'us' and 'them'. I get comments from people who don't realize that Islam is an Abrahamic religion--that it shares the same holy books, prophets, and god as Christianity and Judaism--people who aren't aware that a 'fatwa' just means any public statement by a scholar. You read about American military consultants in the Middle East who don't know the difference between Shia and Sunni. Very few these days would connect this quote:
"The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr"
How easily we forget that Athens is closer to Marrakesh, Tunis, Cairo, and Baghdad than it is to Paris, Berlin, or London.
I remember seeing a picture of a map where the Middle East was replaced by an impact crater, with the words 'Problem Solved' beneath it, completely ignoring the fact that the reason there is constant conflict there is because powerful First World countries have gone in, supplied both sides with cheap guns, made Opium the only profitable crop for farmers to grow, and set up regimes whose only purpose is to funnel money and natural resources out of those countries and into multinational banks--of course the area is going to be politically unstable under those conditions.
Indeed, Said openly admits that there is much wrong in the Arab world, that it is full of turmoil and violence and lack of education, and that it is all too easy to paint it as a ‘fallen culture’ when compared to the heights of culture and science it once achieved, and which sparked off the Renaissance in Europe. Of course, to typify them that way is to ignore the fact that we do the same thing within our own cultures, that the cliches of American rednecks and hippy-dippy liberals are the same as the cliche arab: ignorant, sectarian, ever-feuding, following charismatic leaders into reactionary movements. We can point to Religious Fundamentalists, Tea Party Yokels, Ron Paul Libertarians, Militant Feminists, and Black Muslim Brotherhood members and find the same clannish human system at play.
I was constantly struck by the fact that the separation Said depicts between the ideas of East and West were just the generic type of power separation laid out by Marx that mark the separation of a dominating power structure versus the population whom they control and profit from. They make the same generalizations: that the population is childlike and irrational, easily manipulated, and in need of their governance. Very little of Said’s analysis was specific to the conflict between the East and West, which may have been deliberate on his part, but I think it would have made his neutral stance clearer if he had expressed this outright. As an avowed Humanist, I think that extending the narrow facet of his argument and showing us that this is how power works everywhere, at all times, would have made his work stronger, overall.
As I read, it seemed that what Said was saying was clearly true, but not in a revelatory way. I found myself comparing it to Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman, my high-water mark for social criticism, where her statements are inescapably true, but in a way you never realized until you saw it written out. I kept waiting for Said to take it to the next level, to elevate these basic, naked conclusions to some profound and insightful conclusion.
Of course European, christian powers would mythologize and simplify Islam, of course they would make of it a phantom enemy of it, while at the same time trading, allying, and trading inspiration with it--that is no more than differing cultures always do, as Said points out. What great insight into this system is meant to shock me? Am I simply too much the postmodern, atheistic American to see what he says as anything but basic and inescapable?
I came to this book looking to find something insidious, some system by which these cultures interact uniquely, but all I got was ‘most people are dumb, dominating forces produce propaganda, Europe vs. Islam edition’. Of course we are all Quixote and Pangloss, making ourselves heroes of a fantastical narrative and creating enemies to blame because we are too weak to do anything else but maintain that fiction. But, even if we are all human, and Said is a Humanist, and all power structures operate in the same ways, there should still be some specifics which set this incidence apart.
I was waiting for Said to do some serious unpacking. It’s not enough to show a passage of Renan’s and demonstrate that his Semites are ‘sterile’--I want to know how that construction is achieved, why it is important, how it operates culturally, why it is an important and vital part of this interaction. And yet, just as he seems to be reaching a kind of specificity, he breaks off:
“Why the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat) . . . is something on which one could speculate: it is not the province of my analysis here, alas, despite its frequently noted appearance.”
So then, if not that, what is the province of his analysis? It isn’t until his conclusion that he lays out his purpose and helps us to understand why he didn’t extend to these sorts of specific conclusions, which made me wish that he had made his conclusion his introduction, so I wouldn’t have spent four-hundred pages wondering why he keeps stopping just at the point when it was starting to get interesting.
This is an academic work with a very narrow scope. It is meant to give a view of a very specific trend in Orientalist criticism amongst a group of authors, and not to force on the reader any specific conclusion about what this trend means, or how it operates on a minute level, except to point out that it exists and that it represents standard power dynamics. That is the purpose and the effect of this book, and it invites the reader to use it to extend these examples into specific arguments and observations of their own, to use the general roadmap provided as a guide for their own work. The fact that it has become the central text on the subject is an accident of time and place, for that was not the author’s purpose, nor is this a transformative, revelatory work that sets out a specific theory of analysis for looking at Orientalist works, as I wish it had been.
In the end, Said’s Orientalism is not a primer, but an exploration and an experiment which is incomplete without further scholarship on the part of the reader. Since Said is not specific, we cannot know just how accurate his readings are unless we can compare them to our own readings of the same works, so it can only be a companion to our studies and not a work which, on its own, develops a unique view which we can use, as scholars, going forward.(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)
While researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit...moreWhile researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit of collecting paraphernalia led him to become both the leading expert on them and an addict. The interview led me to the work of Dr. H.H. Kane, and Kane's analysis led me back to de Quincey, with whom I had some prior familiarity due to my literary studies.
De Quincey's writing style is precise and exacting, but he does not have that flair for storytelling which marks a fascinating diarist. Indeed, many of the most intriguing parts of his tale are those he declined to go into in great detail, and throughout one can see his struggles not so much in what he has written on the page, but in what he cannot bring himself to say. He comes to the cusp of his own suffering again and again, but to cross that threshold is to relive his greatest shame and disappointment, so he often skirts it.
No doubt this is why Dr. Kane accuses de Quincey of presenting all the beneficial sides of the drug's use, and ignoring the dangers. Yet I found myself constantly thankful that I was not in de Quincey's position, for his constant and unabated suffering seemed clear enough to me.
Indeed, when he spoke of being unable to complete his work (the promised third part of his Confessions never arrived), of the weeks or months passing by without his being perceptibly closer to completing all of the great tasks and projects he had set before himself--one does not have to be a taker of laudanum to sympathize, as being an artist of any stripe is quite enough to understand that eternal struggle.
But though some of his narrative is less than vivid, most interesting are his descriptions of opioid dreams, which visions were so influential to fantastical authors like Gogol and Lovecraft. Indeed, his vision of the 'impossible castles of the clouds' are recognizable in the writings of numerous mythos authors, who were so obsessed with the realm of dreams, especially when it bled into quotidian life.(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)