Sunday, 27 July 2014

Two Titles from Miskatonic River Press...

Having had a good time with “Shadows Over Innsmouth” I decided to look around for some other Mythos-fiction compendia and my searching led me first to Military Simulations (a fantastic local distributor of gaming and associated material whose existence I had completely forgotten about!) and the productions of Miskatonic River Press. From the available selections I chose two titles: “The Strange Dark One”, a collection of the writings of Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, and “Seasons in Carcosa”, a gathering of tales inspired by the works of Robert W. Chambers and his King In Yellow cycle. My reasons for taking on these two books were quite specific so, without further ado (as they say in the funny pages) let me start my dissection:

PUGMIRE, W.H., The Strange Dark One – Tales of Nyarlathotep, Miskatonic River Press, LLC, Lakeland, FL, USA, 2012.

Octavo; paperback, perfect bound in illustrated wrappers; 154pp., with 6pp. of adverts. Mild wear to the covers; else near fine.

I feel that I have to offer a caveat before jumping into this. I have always felt that a writer should let their works speak for themselves; if there has to be a level of pageantry or theatre surrounding the work then, to me, it’s a signal that someone somewhere feels that some extra marketing on the side needs to take over in order to make up for the shortcomings in the writing, or at least muddy the waters so that close inspection is rendered void. Neil Gaiman’s work – and again, this is a personal issue – suffers from being overshadowed by too much self-promotion, and even Terry Pratchett’s moody, be-hatted back flap photo portraits seem to me a little contrived. A brief look at the back cover of this volume really says it all: Pugmire’s photo makes him look like a cross between Boy George and a Formula 1 race car driver; all bad drag and Mythos branding.

Now, I have no qualms about people wanting to be themselves and expressing themselves as they see fit; but when the persona of the writer invades the writing to the extent that there are axes grinding in the background, then it becomes less entertainment and more proselytising. Call it catharsis; call it “freaking the mundanes”: it’s still self-indulgent. In terms of Lovecraftian fiction, Pugmire has sketched out a little corner of the universe and - along with Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite and Richard Watts – has populated it with vicious pretty-boys, indulging in sordid, bloody, rent-boy sex. Like the very worst in current vampire erotica, being from Sesqua Valley is a metaphor for being outside the mainstream, for being “Bohemian”, for being on drugs, bisexual, or gay. In this vein, with his personal baggage clearly in view, Pugmire then steers a very dangerous course towards becoming a Stephenie Meyers clone.

And this is a shame. In the first story of this collection – the titular “Strange Dark One” – Many good things happen: we are introduced to the quietly off-kilter inhabitants of Sesqua Valley and gain a sense of what’s amiss there through the eyes of an outsider, April Dorgan. She arrives from Wisconsin following up some unfinished business left by her late grandfather, whose bookshop she has inherited. Despite his written injunction to not offer the residents of Sesqua Valley the books locked away in his safe at any price, she blithely tosses the hoard – which contains copies of De Vermis Mysteriis and the Book of Eibon - into a cardboard box and drives there to make a deal. Why? Because there's no story otherwise, but mostly because, like all of Pugmire's protagonists, she's a selfish ingrate. Everyone she meets in town is strangely alluring, darkly mysterious and wrapped in enigma. She discovers an instant connexion to a local youth named Cyrus who rescues her from a near-fatal attraction to a piece of glass rescued from a New England church, an incident which focusses the attention of Nyarlathotep upon her. The locals are all very welcoming and ‘olde worlde’ and, this being a realm of the Mythos, we readers are left in no doubt that April’s books will become the property of the Sesquans as soon as the Big N. has finished with her. And for free!

There is a tinge of the ‘Bella and Edward’ stench hanging over this story and while it gets reined in somewhat, later stories aren’t so fortunate. “One Last Theft” shows no restraint whatsoever, as rent-boy Stefan (it would have to be ‘Stefan’) returns to Sesqua Valley to be pawed at, ravished and coddled by a selection of old queers before being taken by Nyarlathotep at an annual festival. It’s all very dreary and tawdry.

The enigmatic figure of Simon Gregory Williams hovers over these stories even when he doesn’t appear in person. We are often told that his features are strange – like a blending of frog and wolf – but in many instances, having dispensed with this nod to his hideous unearthly nature, many of the protagonists end up succumbing to his savage sexual allure. At which point I roll my eyes: either he’s grotesque and every inch the beast he’s often called, or he’s Edward from Twilight. Pick one: you can’t have it both ways.

It’s a crying shame: these stories are couched within an excellent understanding of the Mythos and carve out a solid branch of new possibilities. There’s a masterly quality to the writing: it’s definitely new but it has that touch of the ancient to it which works so well in Lovecraft’s own style; I was often impressed by the way that dialogue, replete with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, mostly didn’t jar or seem forced. Mostly. The descriptive passages are suitably unearthly and strange, and work well in a community where the Crawling Chaos is a person in the neighbourhood (a person that you meet each day!).

The rest is just editing, to which I’ll turn in a minute.

PULVER Snr., Joseph S., Ed., A Season in Carcosa, Miskatonic River Press, LLC, Lakeland, FL, USA, 2012.

Octavo; paperback, perfect bound in illustrated wrappers; 282pp., with 6pp. of adverts. Near fine.

The thing that really underlines the horror in Chambers’ writings is the fact that very little is explained. There are events – discovery; pursuit; revelation; madness – but often no rationale as to what’s going on to create the issues. Nevertheless, the reader gains enough glimpses of the madness beyond to grasp an inkling of the hideous premise. That’s all that’s required – just a glimpse. Horror is at its best when this happens: spelling out the mechanics obviates the fear, and – as a horror writer – that’s the last thing you need.

There are a lot of stories in this selection and they all represent gung-ho attempts to splash about in Chambers’ paddling pool and make some waves. Unfortunately, while most of the authors are down with the ‘don’t explain too much’ regulation, they get too hung up on the phantasmagoria. Pages of psychedelic description in ponderous prose don’t make for entertainment; whenever your readers have to brace themselves before diving in (“if I’m not back by page 24, come get me!”) then - surprise, surprise – you’re doing something wrong. There’re some very ‘splatterpunk-y’ efforts here, and it’s not difficult to see that the writers are out to shock, rather than to say anything of especial interest, and the whole production falls flat as a result.

Which brings me to editing.

When I jump into a collection like this, I usually read the introduction just to gain an insight as to what the editor is trying to accomplish. In this instance, the introduction is barely legible, peppered as it is with half-sentences, run-on sentences, bizarre and excessive uses of the exclamation point (“! !!”) and a wayward, fan-boy focus. I took this as a bad sign. Reading through the garble, it seems that Joseph S. Pulver Snr. could get no-one to helm this project so he fell back upon his own resources and then wrangled a bunch of close friends and associates to write for him (I admit, I could be reading this wrongly – it’s hard to tell). What Mr Pulver Snr. fails to recognise however, is that to be an ‘Editor’, one has to ‘Edit’.

The third story – Don Webb’s “Movie Night at Phil’s” is so bogged down with typos, errors of writing, and errors of sense that it’s just painful to read; not to mention that it also suffers from the splatterpunk need to shock mentioned above. “The principal sent him hose for three days”, “more evil fro the lack of a name”, “he was loosing his thinning hair” and “just else something to hide”: these are a selection of phrases from just two pages, which should have been cleared away on even the most sophomoric editing effort.

It’s interesting that this story is the worst affected, which indicates that maybe it was shoehorned in before a deadline, or that the writer insisted that it be left alone. Regardless, with this amount of poor attention to detail, it proves merely that authors are not best-served by the staff at Miskatonic River Press. I expect to find some errors when reading from a small press, but the amount of sloppiness in these two books is unprecedented. You’ll find fewer errors in your average DAW or ACE paperback.

In Pugmire’s effort there is also a slew of similar corruption: on pages 55, 62, 65, 70, 82, 91, 106 – the list goes on. This is too much for a book of only 154 pages. Too, there is no such place as the “Cote d’Ivorie” and you can’t summon the Haunter of the Dark from a shining “trapezium”, no matter how hard you try. And would it have been so difficult simply to justify the text on each page? Every now and then, Pugmire becomes so mired in description that his ability to indicate action, or produce dialogue, falls flat. Try this:

“...I pushed away the blankets and got out of bed, absent-mindedly knocking the book that I had been reading and was beside me on the mattress to the floor. I reached for the book and touched the floor in stocking feet and gingerly opened the door of my upper bedroom...”

...or this:

“‘Wait a minute,’ she told him. ‘The last time you offered me a drink I came to regret it. Damn, what was in that hooch you gave me in the club? I’ve never hallucinated like that before. I can’t tell what was memory and what was dream.’”

The first extract is awkward and repetitive; the second sounds like the sort of dialogue that regularly appears in Penthouse magazine’s Forum. These are not the only instances of this type of thing either.

Why weren’t these problems addressed? Certainly, every author should recognise that how they look in print is how they will be judged; the manner of presentation here is extraordinarily lacklustre. Perhaps, Pugmire is too much of a diva to accept criticism; nevertheless, a good editor should stick to their guns and make the alterations and cuts required. If the author doesn’t like it, they can always go elsewhere.

The introduction to A Season in Carcosa attempts (in broken, fan-boy English! !!) to define the material to be included in the volume; in particular, it asks of the writers that they do not simply draft a version of the play, “The King in Yellow”. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what many of the writers try to do: great slabs of purported text from the work appear, especially in Edward Morris’s “The Theatre and Its Double” (along with the residuum of a semester in theatre studies). Again, an editor in charge of such a project should draw a line in the sand and choose to exclude material which doesn’t fit the bill. At 21 pieces, the collection is not exactly slender, so some judicious excisions might have trimmed the unwanted fat.

Nevertheless, amidst the splatter, the writing as if one was texting to a friend, and the appalling editing, there are some gems: “Ms. Found in a Chicago Hotel Room” by Daniel Mills was a pleasant surprise; as was “it sees me when I’m not looking” by Gary McMahon (although someone should have just bitten the bullet here and presented the thing entirely in lower case).

The bottom line for a publishing outfit should be a reputation for presenting a particular range of material in a format that is pleasing and for which the punters are willing to pay. These two products are choppy and difficult to wade through; whilst stemming from the Mythos and associated weird fiction, they fail to adequately define their own parameters and butcher the presentation along the way. Each time that the reader is forced to stop and disentangle a mangled sentence is a moment when the journey has been lost; the adventure stops; the excitement is well and truly killed. Repeat sales are not being promoted here.

Due to its indulgence and laziness, I’m giving three tentacled horrors to “The Strange Dark One”, a book that really could’ve been so much better; due to its sheer incompetence in terms of editorial support, “A Season in Carcosa” gets only two.

PS: I have just read online that Pugmire has revised his book since this 2012 edition, so maybe he was just as appalled at the initial result as I was. Hopefully the re-write makes for a better book!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Poisoned Muse: Victorian & Edwardian Era 'Drug Literature' and Its Influence on the Lovecraft Circle

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves...By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable...From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
-Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception.

“Weird Fiction” is the term that H.P. Lovecraft used to cover his writing and that of his circle of acquaintance. Since his time, this genre term has altered into a slew of other sub-genres of fictional writing nowadays referred to – rather dismissively, it needs to be said – as “Genre Fiction”. This catch-all term covers Science Fiction, Fantasy writing, Horror, Detective Fiction and Thrillers, Westerns, Romance and Historical Fiction and all of the sub-genres depending from these. In the world of academia, these styles are all relegated to the status of ‘populist writing’ and dismissed as being somehow unworthy of academic treatment; quite apart from the fact that they represent the most sought-after and widely-read categories of fiction out there. What most learned literary critics ignore however, is that these kinds of writing more directly impact upon the culture of the times and, as decades pass, become lost to view and leave researchers suddenly unable to find a way back to the zeitgeist of past days. The writings of Sir Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, or John Galsworthy, are examples of widely-read authors that are fast fading from popular and academic sight. The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, as a specific instance, was an international bestseller and by-word for literary chic in the 1920s; it has all but passed from view and is largely impossible to locate these days.

These days, Fantasy and Science Fiction are the pigeon-holes under which one can occasionally find the tales of Lovecraft, Machen, Howard, Blackwood, Leiber, Bloch, Belknap-Long and others. In these days of high-power marketing, the Horror genre has largely been re-branded as “Paranormal Fiction” and encompasses such writers as Stephenie Meyers and Laurell K. Hamilton who, arguably, are more interested in sex than cathartic nightmares. Writers such as Stephen King seem able to plough onwards through this morass of lust and bloodthirstiness by sheer dint of past sales, unit-shifting which occurred when there was still a Horror section in every book shop selling works by Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Anne Rice. There are however, still annual Bram Stoker Awards and publishing houses which issue compilations of horror stories, so obviously the market still exists, despite what the large bookstore chains think.

What many people forget however is that early forms of writing in a genre are more loose and fluid, compared to the current works in that format, which are mostly dictated by established generic rule structures. Readers of Anne Rice’s The Mummy might not enjoy reading The Jewel of Seven Stars, or The Beetle, but they ignore the fact that these are the groundbreakers of the ‘mummy genre’ and that, without them, what they know of the genre - those elements which inform Rice’s book and their enjoyment of it - would not exist. While it’s just possible that they might come to the book without expectations and find its contents strange and disturbing, Rice almost certainly wrote the novel with a view to playing by the rules of her chosen genre, and she would expect her readers to understand them.

Genre awareness is practically hard-wired into us as part of our narrative culture: whether we know it or not, we are aware of the demands and expectations inherent in generic writing. We know werewolf lore; we understand how vampires work; we know we ought not to descend into the cellar alone to investigate strange sounds. It’s rare to find a work of writing that doesn’t follow the rules of its genre. Even literary fiction - much as they would like us to think otherwise - is its own genre and has its own rules by which it must play in order to pass muster.

We have become largely aware of various genres by means of the media industries. Books stores (in English-speaking countries at least) compartmentalise their stock according to their perceptions of what the market demands; movie production companies choose what film genres and how many works in each of these they will fund according to similar data. Through this process, we have become unable to connect to works which don’t easily slot into the various zones appointed for them. In this way, we are slowly losing sight of the early writers and their works, particularly those who professed to pen Weird Fiction.


Truman Capote once said that a short story was finished when it attained the sense of an orange, meaning that it would become whole and complete, in and of itself1. This idea has become a by-word to students of writing nowadays and is mentioned by any and all who devote themselves to the craft. Writers tend to work towards a consummation in their narratives, tying up loose ends, resolving story arcs. By this very definition, it means that most stories penned by writers – be they ‘literary’ or otherwise – are artificial constructs, since Real Life rarely wraps up all of its outstanding issues. The writing genre of True Crime is probably the only one which relates “real” narratives to its audience.

Not every idea becomes a completed short story. Writers of some standing often leave behind them unfinished concepts that, for one reason or another, never get fully fleshed out. These are sometimes published in retrospectives of their work as “fragments”. Readers of Lovecraft are aware of these unfinished odds and ends, as most printings of his complete works contain them along with his sketchy poems and juvenilia. Fragments are thus kept alive as pointers of what might have been, or as indicators of the mental workings of their authors.

Fragments have an immediacy which more polished works do not have. Because of their ‘just written’ quality, they feel fresh and new-formed. Whether penned quickly to capture the essence of a piece which might be completed later, or stalled due to pressing real world issues which tear the writer away, it is this haphazardness that implies insecurity – like a hastily-written note thrust through the bars of a prison cell. In an era when writing was intensively pored over, edited and perfected, this rude brashness lent an exciting frisson to the work; it’s not unreasonable therefore, to assume that some authors deliberately imposed this technique upon their writing for dramatic effect.

The most famous fragment of all must be “Kubla Khan; or a Vision in a Dream” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Contemporary commentators on this work reveal that Coleridge came up with this poem whilst asleep and desperately tried to write it down upon awakening; disturbed by a visitor, much of the content, direction and purpose of the poem melted away before he could grasp it entire: all that was left is the fragment which survives today. (Of course, as taught to high-school students, this version of the story leaves out the drug subtext behind these events.) Most people reading this poem for the first time wonder where it’s going, since it seems to set up a whole bunch of things without following through on any of them: this, of course, is the very nature of fragments.

Since the days of Coleridge and his ilk, there have been novels and other types of story published that have a similar feel to them as does “Kubla Khan”, namely, exotic and strange imagery, a sense of portentousness, and a rambling, ill-directed progress. These tales sometimes deviate into the picaresque, becoming a clumsy chain of set pieces connected by some narrative thread, which often resolve (or not) in some grand gesture which attempts to tie off the plot; more often, they emulate a stream of consciousness writing style, in which established events and characters disappear, or are forgotten, in favour of newer, more interesting diversions. It is these vague, half-formed dramas which have given rise to the Weird Fiction of the Victorian- and Edwardian eras, and which Lovecraft nurtured and refined as his particular genre of choice.


In my early days at University, during the hectic socialisation of that time, certain rules of etiquette were flagged to my attention, as is usual in these kinds of situations: what is acceptable behaviour and what is not are things that social animals learn by engaging with each other and human beings are just this type of animal. I remember a colleague informing me that it was the height of boorishness to relate one’s drug experience to another party; not that I am, or have ever been, into drug-taking, but it seemed pretty self-evident at the time that such a revelation would be less than edifying for one to whom it was presented. In the same manner, telling another person one’s dreams would seem to be a futile and time-wasting exercise since those types of visions are uniquely coded only to make sense to the one experiencing them. However these are mores of a late Twentieth Century society; things were decidedly different back in the eighteen-hundreds...

Drugs in the Nineteenth Century were not the purview of the scientist, the doctor, or the criminal, as they are nowadays. Rather, they were sources of inspiration and vision, the armaments in the realm of the poets and the philosophers, which, at that time, included men of science, or “natural philosophers”. Starting with the distillation of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, drugs were the focus of parties and other gatherings, the purpose of which was to imbibe and to share the experiences which followed. Some drugs lent themselves to social activity – nitrous; cocaine; cannabis – others prompted a more introspective and solitary experience, such as opium, ether, or mescal. Regardless of the agent, the effects were eagerly noted, compared and contrasted by those who undertook to try them.

And trying them was certainly not difficult. Many medical treatments - the majority of them sold over-the counter at pharmacies and grocery stores - contained these drugs. Heroin-infused pastilles for sore throats; laudanum prescribed as nerve tonics; tinctures of cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps; even cocaine lozenges to treat toothache; and all of these freely available. Across the Nineteenth Century, scientists tasked with the discovery, synthesis and distribution of drugs, went from being liberal dispensers from the pharmaceutical cornucopia to strict regulators of the flow of chemical stimulation. The age we live in now, is one built on these restrictions, which marginalise drug production, raise enormous incomes for the vested few, and which have created and promoted a worldwide black-market of criminal activity in opposition. Many have said it before me, but the world governments’ promotion of certain drugs in favour of others - whose production and distribution is severely restricted - is built on double-standards and sheer monetary greed. However, far be it for me to get into this argument; it just needs to be made clear that, once upon a time, drugs which today are considered dangerous and harmful, were a significant part of people’s daily lives and the recreational use of them was a shared activity.

That works of literature were created out of drug use is not limited to the mangled opium-induced imagery of “Kubla Khan”; many highly-considered works of writing arose from such indulgence. Witness Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, or M. Ageyev’s Novel With Cocaine. The frenzied cannabis experiences of Baudelaire are revealed in Le Fleurs du Mal. Even Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” owes its genesis to the perceived dangers attributed to the unleashing of a submerged consciousness through the use of drugs. There is a veritable library of explicit drugs literature dating from this period when drugs were freely available2; I’d like to posit that there were, as well, rather more works of literature out there which, if not written under chemical stimulation, owed something to a drug experience of one kind or another.


Having defined the Weird Fiction of the Edwardian era (that period which extends from the year 1899 to the Great War, which same rough period the French call the fin de siecle), revisiting that definition with the notion of drugged authorship in mind, things become somewhat revealing. Wandering narratives, obsessive attention to descriptive details, strange and fantastic subject matter, even terse and abrupt conclusions become pregnant with the notion of intoxication. It soon becomes apparent that, not only were the late Victorians and Edwardians experiencing chemically-induced visions, but they were sharing them by writing them down. And then publishing them.

Authors were not entirely free however, to sing the praises of their drug of choice from the mountaintops; while drugs were certainly unregulated in the Victorian Age, they were not looked favourably upon by all sectors of the community. Publishers, afraid of being censured for issuing tracts lauding drug use without adding cautionary injunctions, tended to insist that the author paint not too bright a picture of their flirtation with chemical abuse; it is for this reason that de Quincey’s work is not only entitled “Confessions” (implying guilt on the part of the writer), but that it also ends with warnings as to the dangers involved in the addiction. In 1953, Aldous Huxley was also inclined to curb his enthusiasm about his mescaline trip, by penning “Heaven and Hell” as a cautionary rider to his “Doors of Perception”. An author who downplays their enjoyment of recreational drug use in their work benefits from the perception by the general public as being on the side of those who deplore recreational drug use; the adoption of this faux moral stance against drugs became a hallmark of drug fiction, and many ‘drug tales’ thus become stories wherein the protagonists become object lessons to the readership.

The first fictional narrative that we’ll look at is The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. This torrid novel took its line from the giants of Gothic fiction that went before it, namely The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. Walpole declared that Otranto came about due to a dream that he had of a huge and terrifying steel gauntlet at the top of a grand staircase; there’s no evidence that his dream came about from anything other than a heavy dinner, so we can probably give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that there was no post-prandial opium pipe to instigate the story.

The general tenor of the Gothic literary tradition is that it involves itself with ruins, young lovers, intransigent older relatives and the contest of wills. Any sense of danger comes about due to the proximity of Nature in its wildest aspects – untamed animals, night-time forests and glowering thunderstorms. Any supernatural elements tend to be harbingers of guilt or of crimes unexposed to the light of day. In The Monk, Lewis took this moody spookiness and transformed it into a nightmare document of violent transgression. Blasphemy, rape and murder prevail: the good despair, the evil rise above them and Satan himself passes judgement on the incestuous villains.

In that the eponymous monk finds his come-uppance at the tale’s end, we see the requirement of imposing a stern artificial morality upon the novel’s events thereby allowing the writer to avoid any censure. While Ambrosio revels in his license and excess (believing himself free of having sold his soul to the Devil), there is a heavy price to pay for his indulgence: can this not be read as the crash following the dizzying high?

The narrative itself veers wildly amongst its long list of characters, following them as they roam across Europe, and continually being diverted by the stories of passing travellers and tangential concerns, such as a ghost known as the Bleeding Nun and an encounter with the Wandering Jew, both familiar proto-urban legends of the time. While these seemingly random plot elements are later brought more strongly into the storyline’s context, the vacillating narrative with its constantly brooding air, its indulgence and its dramatic, and emphatic, ending all beg the question that this is a beast possibly fuelled on more than imagination alone. Add to this the fact that the whole book was written in the ten weeks leading up to Lewis’s twentieth birthday, one gets the sense that this was a Hell of a bender.

In 1844, William Harrison Ainsworth published Auriol; or the Elixir of Life. This is a strange and paranoid work, little known today probably due to the fact that it is so hard to categorise. It involves a young man (Auriol) who is rescued in 1599 by his distant relative, a magician who has created the Philosopher’s Stone and wishes to drink an elixir made from it and live forever. Before he can do so however, Auriol murders him and drinks the potion himself. From then on he remains ever young and ageless, free of care but for the fact that a sinister character follows him throughout history requiring of him that he provide him with maidens to destroy. True love claims Auriol in the early 1800s and he begins a race to deter the sinister man from taking his beloved as his dark payment.

This story is portentous and weird, hazed over with shifting points of view and extended tangential diversions into the lives of various side characters. Along with Auriol and the sinister man, the dwarf familiar of the magician also slides through history without aging and the narrative never seems to satisfactorily clarify why this should be the case. Strange tableaux are staged with dangerous surroundings, or intricate and inexplicable devices (see the illustration above), much time is spent with a ring of petty thieves and their impenetrable accents and the whole narrative terminates with the grand revelation that it has all been a dream, or extended cautionary vision.

It’s possible that Ainsworth is writing a salutary fable about the demons associated with intoxicants. Auriol’s reckless desire to seize the gifts that the potion offers is rewarded with a stalking shadow (paranoia?) and a nagging dwarf (his conscience?) and the horrible knowledge that all the good in his life will be stripped away from him. It’s a turgid morality tale; however, it’s also one that loses itself in the miasma of its trappings.

1895 saw the publication of George MacDonald’s Lilith. In this darkly dreaming novel we see for the first time the creeping presence of the anima or the feminine aspect of the male protagonist; also, we see the very roots of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands story-cycle and the prototype of what, under his pen, would become the City of Ulthar. In Lilith, our protagonist discovers a point of access in his library which leads to another reality, one dominated by the sinister and enigmatic figure of the woman Lilith.

Gaining its inspiration from Christian mysticism, Lilith is a winding narrative setting the protagonist on a collision course with Adam’s first wife, as she tries to destroy an otherworld colony of eternal children led by the child she bore the First Man and whom she believes will be the instrument of her destruction. Lilith is proud, at once dangerously beautiful and horrid, cloaked by her beauty which hides her monstrous and bloodsucking nature. Our hero is schooled by Adam throughout the narrative as to the proper course of action; however, he eschews the passive-seeming methods of Eve’s husband in favour of ill-advised and disastrous episodes of he-man adventurousness.

Here we have again the visionary phantasmagoria of a mystic landscape; here again is the winding narrative, in this case punctuated by corrections and afterthoughts, as the writer randomly adjusts the plot elements to suit the needs of the moment. The turgid writing style does nothing to diminish the psychedelia of the story but there are gems amongst the haze: in the decadent city of Bulika, dominated by its cat population, we can see the germ of Ulthar, as re-imagined by Lovecraft in his own dreamscapes; as well, there is this passage which eerily foreshadows that of Huxley’s which opens this essay:

“I am indeed often driven to set down what I know to be but a clumsy and doubtful representation of the mere feeling aimed at, none of the communicating media of this world being fit to convey it, in its peculiar strangeness, with even an approach to clearness or certainty. Even to one who knew the region better than myself, I should have no assurance of transmitting the reality of my experience in it. While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.”

The House on the Borderland, written in 1908 by William Hope Hodgson, bears a passing resemblance to Lilith. It too, concerns itself with a mysterious dwelling wherein strange and unaccountable occurrences have left their mark, hinting at an uncomfortable point of access between what is real and what is patently not. Unlike Lilith however, it works with no consensual framework; rather, it wanders along in a disturbing melange of dark visionary and phantasmagoric spectacle.

The novel begins with the declaration by the Editor (Hodgson) that the contents are those found within an ancient manuscript found beneath a crumbling mansion in the west of Ireland. A covering narrative by one of the manuscript’s discoverers details its finding and then the journal’s author takes over, outlining his strange experiences. As expected these are all true to the ‘drugs literature’ formula we have discovered so far: out-of-body travels; confrontations with alien beings; psychedelic visions of cosmic events; the serendipitous discovery of a strange female presence, at once familiar and replete with menace. Despite its overlong and brooding descriptions of these various incidents, it hangs together somewhat better than its fellows by means of the air of palpable menace which it conjures. Lovecraft praised The House on the Borderland as “a classic of the first water”.

Oddly enough, Hodgson codifies the ‘drug literature’ formula himself in his opening framing device as the Editor, ending with this point:

“Of the simple, stiffly given account of weird and extraordinary matters, I will say little. It lies before you. The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as I now see, the shadowed picture and conception of that, to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell, yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

Again, Mr Huxley’s words have been penned decades before he thought to write them down.

A late entry in this list is a strange work penned by Ben Hecht, a writer more famous for his Hollywood screenplays which include “The Caine Mutiny” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. The Kingdom of Evil, (part two of Fantazius Mallare, a Mysterious Oath), appeared in 1924, and follows the experiences of Mallare who casts himself into the eponymous Kingdom and discovers its strange workings.

This tale is explicitly psychological with characters whom we suspect are sundered portions of the traveller’s own psyche, and a re-emergence of the brooding anima nemesis who alternately tortures and tempts the protagonist. The debts to Lilith and The House on the Borderland are clear; however, there is an overt and explicit psycho-sexuality that dominates the strange dreamscape, separating it deliberately from its Victorian and Edwardian ancestors. It too, however ends abruptly, with a stern warning against illicit drug-taking.

For what reason were these tales written? Unlike many other explicit drug writings, these are fictional, not confessional, and do not claim to depict reality within their scope. The Monk is sheer indulgence: taking its line from other Gothic romances, it allows the reader to wallow in potential danger, reporting actions and behaviour outside of the accepted norm. This is titillation of the highest order. The Gothic tradition of writing quickly devolved into the “bloods” of the Victorian period; cheap, quickly-produced “penny dreadfuls”, using familiar tropes over and over, each attempting to out-do the other in shock value. Whether penning tales of “Sweeney Todd”, “Deadwood Dick” or “Spring-Heeled Jack”, this is the calibre of writing that Lewis produced and these are the tales he would probably have written if he was born later in the period.

Such license however, is not the sole reason for writing these fantasies. Lilith is firmly based in Christian, largely apocryphal, mystical imagery. The character of Lilith is generally regarded by theologians to be Adam’s first wife and she is represented as such in this tale, rejecting a life subject to Adam’s will and cast out to become the mother of monsters. George MacDonald, better known for his children’s stories, is not alone in producing such Christian phantasmagoria: C.S. Lewis’s Perelendra and Narnia series are exemplars of this genre of fantasy writing, as are the works of Charles Williams, including the excellent War in Heaven. In this sense, Lilith might be seen as a didactic work, explaining theological issues in the form of a parable.

Perhaps though, escapism was the sole and simplest reason that these novels were published. People have always felt the need to be entertained, to be ‘drawn away’ from their everyday surroundings, to experience the strange and the unusual. Cloaking these fantastic tales in a format that makes them seem real or at least possible, makes suspension of disbelief that much easier. Dracula, by Bram Stoker, uses a format of revealing its events through the purported letters and journal entries of the main characters; this style of writing is referred to as ‘epistolary’, or ‘contained in letters’, and dates well back to the Dark Ages as a means of making the substance of a work seem grounded in fact3. Of our novels, this device is used by William Hope Hodgson in The House on the Borderlands and by Ben Hecht in The Kingdom of Evil: both books claim that their contents are the material discovered in lost or abandoned journals, along with their covering correspondence.

With the exception of The Kingdom of Evil, these novels were all produced at a time when psychology was a minor and poorly-understood field of academic endeavour. The major difference between Ben Hecht and our other authors, is that he was using a toolbox to which the others were denied access. Nevertheless, the psychological underpinnings of human beings are able to be demonstrated without a coherent knowledge of the works of Freud and Jung, since we are all privy to the human psyche. Hecht is able, with his explicit understanding of psychological theory, to create a psychedelic world that strongly symbolises the human mind. In this he foreshadows Alex Comfort’s psychological fantasy novel Tetrarch by several decades.

Whether drugs were actually at work in the writing of these stories will never be known; much is there to speculate upon but no hard facts are evident. It’s possible that the authors, rather than indulging in drugs themselves, simply adopted tropes and styles prevalent in the emerging genre of a ‘drugs literature’ in order to craft their own stories. I have deliberately avoided looking at the writings of Edgar Alan Poe or Lewis Carroll, firstly because their works are so well-known and secondly because their flirtations with drug use have been widely discussed elsewhere. Too, both of these authors have been tainted with the possibility of madness, which – along with the likes of Mervyn Peake – opens up worm-cans tangential to this discussion. With all of this in mind however, I’d like now to turn to H.P. Lovecraft and try to determine the degree of influence which tales of this kind had upon his own oeuvre.


To begin with, let’s deal with the debts to predecessors which Lovecraft explicitly claimed. The work of Poe, of Machen and Blackwood, he discusses at length in his correspondence and essays. So far, so obvious. Of particular interest however, is what elements of these authors’ works were the things which captured his attention? Taking them one by one we can draft a quick list of influences:

From Poe we get the horrors of the grave; the dubious benefits of self-experimentation; the retribution of the deceased upon the living. These are shown in (amongst others) “The Premature Burial”, “The Strange Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”. These tales and others like them reveal the DNA of such Lovecraftian confections as “The Tomb” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”.

Arthur Machen’s fiction concerns itself with atavistic reversions of the psyche, the dangerous legacies of lost aboriginal races and the snares which are unearthed in strange books; witness “The Great God Pan”, “The White People”, The Hill of Dreams and The Novel of the Black Seal. The fingerprints of these stories are all over Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Strange High House in the Mist”, to name but a few.

Algernon Blackwood’s fiction is intensely focussed upon the spiritual embodiments of outside forces, often revealing humans to be – individually or collectively – lesser representatives of the cosmos, and relatively unevolved at that. “The Wendigo” was a major influence on Lovecraft and its traces can be found on many of his works from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Stylistically also, these writers influenced the tenor of Lovecraft’s writing. They were all authors of the Victorian and Edwardian periods and heirs to the affected writing style of the times, something that Lovecraft adopted instinctively as worthy of emulation. Lovecraft often felt that he was a person displaced out of time and therefore fully embraced the writing styles of his forebears.

There’s a further obvious debt as well: both Blackwood and Machen have a particularly dense and hypnotic style, obsessive in descriptive flavour and almost psychedelic in quality. A lot of what transpires in their works is revealed only through implication or suggestion, something which definitely lends power to their stories. Lovecraft was right to praise these qualities in their writing and, arguably, although he aspires to bring these elements to his own work, he never quite pulls it off. How much of this style was influenced by drugs? Well, Blackwood and Machen were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and acquaintances of W.B. Yeats who is known to have indulged in mind-altering drugs like hashish and mescal; Machen was also part of Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics Movement and possibly influenced by the French Decadents whom Wilde championed, a circle which included Charles Baudelaire and Rimbaud both of whose hashish writings were considered notorious; but again, all of this is merely suggestive and not a ‘smoking gun.’

However, it’s not absolutely necessary to indulge in narcotics in order to emulate the writing styles of those who do. I would argue that Lovecraft did just that in penning some of his pieces, especially those of an explicitly fantastic nature, including all of his Dreamlands material. Works like “The Testament of Randolph Carter”, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” all have a distinct affiliation to ‘drugs literature’ as exemplified by the Victorian- and Edwardian era writers. The psychedelic imagery, the picaresque plot construction and stream of consciousness narratives - as we have already seen - are hallmarks of the Weird Fiction which Lovecraft enjoyed.

Is it possible that Lovecraft himself was using drugs to formulate his work? I’ve never read anything of him which would indicate that he was a drug fiend and, on balance, I would argue that he wasn’t. The community in which he lived and the social strata to which he aspired, argues against a general acceptance of drugs as a lifestyle choice. I would suggest that Lovecraft probably was intrigued by the possibilities of drugs – from having read about them and the writings they generated – but was too strait-laced and compelled by propriety to explore the subject. It seems that his only escape from the confines of his social position was his writing and, given that he turned his hand to ghost-writing and collaborative efforts, his natural skills of stylistic mimicry stood him in good stead.

The early circle of his acquaintance also seems unlikely to have been an avenue for the discussion or promulgation of drug use. Certainly, Lovecraft would have been the fountainhead for those who followed him, drawing their attention to earlier writers from whom they might benefit: there is a straight line to be drawn from Arthur Machen, through H.P. Lovecraft, to Robert E. Howard, for example4. Mention of drug use in the writings of Lovecraft’s circle seems to have arisen around 1931 with the publication of “The Hounds of Tindalos” by Frank Belknap Long, followed by Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” in 1933, which produced the “Plutonian Drug” and the “Black Lotus” respectively. Certainly, there are references to drug use throughout the stories that the Lovecraft Circle generated, but these are often prurient asides indicative of the ‘low habits of the less evolved’, or sometimes blissful escapes for those who have dabbled with the forces of darkness and who are now paying the price. There never seems to be an instance of the Lovecraft Circle sharing their own drug visions. If anything, mental illness would seem to be the shared psychedelia of the Circle. HPL’s mentally-tortured heroes speak of his own experiences as a reclusive shut-in, seeking avenues of escape; and it seems likely that Robert Bloch’s maternally-fixated anti-hero (Norman Bates in Psycho) owes more than a little something to the sad facts surrounding Robert E. Howard’s life and death.

It would seem most likely, therefore, that the early writers of the Cthulhu Mythos were experts in the production of drugs literature pastiche, stemming from the works of the previous generations. These days ‘drugs literature’ conjures thoughts of the cautionary Go Ask Alice, or the over-the-top indulgence of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; however, these works are the spawn of later thinking and of attitudes towards drug use around which government control has firmly crystallised, rather than the Victorian social milieu wherein drugs policy was a nascent and largely abstract concern.

As to the later writers of Cthulhoid fiction, up to and including today’s authors, the pendulum has swung quite strongly in tune with the times. From Henry Kuttner’s “Hydra” of 1939, with its specific discussions of hashish abuse, to Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) on through to the rather more splatterpunk offerings of Poppy Z. Brite and Willum Hopfrog Pugmire, the discussion of drugs has evolved as a phenomenon within Mythos writing, in line with the social narrative of drugs within the culture.



1 “Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can't generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”
-Hill, Pati, "Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17",
The Paris Review, no.16 (Spring/Summer, 1957).

2 Including (but not limited to): DAVY, Humphry, Researches Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration (1800); JAMES, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); COLERIDGE, Samuel Taylor, The Pains of Sleep (1803); de QUINCEY, Thomas, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821); DICKENS, Charles, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870); DOYLE, Arthur Conan, The Man with the Twisted Lip (1889); WILDE, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); BAUDELAIRE, Charles, The Artificial Paradises (1860); KANE, H.H., A Hashish-House in New York (1888); BLACKWOOD, Algernon, A Psychical Invasion (1910); YEATS, W.B., The Trembling of the Veil (1926); LORRAIN, Jean, Tales of an Ether-Drinker: An Undiscovered Crime (1895); WELLS, H.G., Under the Knife (1897); FREUD, Sigmund, Über Coca (“On Cocaine”) (1885); STEVENSON, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886); APULEIUS, The Golden Ass (c.200); LINNAEUS, Inebriantia (1762); LORD TENNYSON, Alfred, The Lotos-Eaters (1832); ELLIS, Havelock, Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise (1898).

3 Specifically, the tendency of writers to couch philosophical or scientific theories in a series of letters, usually between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, to add gravitas and legitimacy.

4 Compare Machen’s “The Shining Pyramid”, or “The Hill of Dreams”, with Howard’s Bran Mak Morn stories; specifically, the notion of ancient races and their (sometimes atavistic) resurgence.


Bibliography: Readings & References

AINSWORTH, W. Harrison, Auriol; or the Elixir of Life, George Routledge & Sons, London, 1844.

de CAMP, L. Sprague, Lovecraft: A Biography, Doubleday, New York, NY, USA, 1975.

HECHT, Ben, The Kingdom of Evil – A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare, Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY, USA, 1974 (first published by P. Covici, Chicago, IL, USA, 1924).

HODGSON, William Hope, The House on the Borderland, Panther Books, London, 1969 (first published by Chapman & Hall, London, 1908).

HUXLEY, Aldous, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell, Vintage/Random House, London, 2004 (first published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1954 & 1956).

JAY, Mike, Emperors of Dreams – Drugs in the Nineteenth Century, Dedalus Ltd., Sawtry, Cambridgeshire, UK, 2000.

LEWIS, Matthew, The Monk, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, USA, 2002 (first published by J. Saunders, Waterford, UK, 1796).

LOVECRAFT, H.P., H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction – “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Barnes & Noble Inc., New York, NY, USA, 2011 (first published in The Outsider and Others, Arkham House, Sauk City, WI, USA, 1939).

MACDONALD, George, Lilith – A Romance, Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, NY, USA, 2008 (first published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1895).

MORAES, Francis & Debra, Opium, Ronin Publishing Inc., Berkeley, CA, USA, 2003.

TURNER, E.S., Boys Will Be Boys: the story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, - New Edition, Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1957.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Review:"Pacific Rim"

del TORO, Guillermo (Dir.), “Pacific Rim”, Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures, 2013.

I never go to the cinema seeking to watch any particular film: with the vagaries of public transport and the distances required to get to the nearest picture theatres, I generally show up and then see what’s on. So, while I did see this flick at the cinema last year, I didn’t actually plan on seeing it – if you get my drift.

At that time, I came away with vague and unformed notions about what this film was trying to do. On one level, it felt like watching someone else play “Godzilla Unleashed” on the PlayStation®: lots of beasties going mano-a-mano in an oversized swimming pool. On that basis it felt like I’d been suckered into watching the movie version of Battleships®, voiding my decision to veto that particular film after seeing the trailers. On balance I felt as though I’d not wasted my cash, but I was left with a vague sense of being unfulfilled.

It’s pretty obvious that the movie is a love note to Japanese monster movies, and the kaiju in this movie all look like they might well be performed by guys in (heavy, un-ventilated) rubber suits. However, this being del Toro, they also look like they’d scare the scales off Gojira if ever they met. Some extravagant monster-making went into these bad boys and they terrify and surprise in equal measure, not only because they are HUGE, but because the action sequences never let you forget that you’re just a flyspeck compared to them. The jaegers – giant attack robots driven by paired teams of consciousness-sharing pilots – are also hallmarks of the Japanese monster films and their construction, maintenance and operation are where we get to see our heroes hard at work to prevent the apocalypse from happening.

The basic plot of the film is that there’s a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and the kaiju erupt through this and go marauding on the shores of this paddling pool, causing massive destruction. Humanity responds by creating the jaegers and taking the fight back to them. So far so good, except that the kaiju are getting bigger and more resourceful and the jaegers can’t be patched up and sent back out quickly enough. In the face of a world government decision to ditch the jaegers and just build a huge wall around the Pacific’s margins – something that doesn’t seem likely to succeed as the devastation of Sydney early on demonstrates – the jaeger forces rally in Hong Kong for one last-ditch effort to seal the breach and end the war.

It’s an easily digested premise. The jaeger pilots are presented as rock stars with idiosyncratic styles and attitudes, each with a named fighting machine that suits their style. We are introduced to our hero, Raleigh Becket, who’s one half of the team which pilots the “Gipsy Danger”: they affect the coats and attitudes of World War Two fighter pilots, complete with the sheepskin-lined bomber jackets. Early in the film, Raleigh and his brother Yancy get attacked by a kaiju code-named “Knife-head” and Yancy gets torn right out of the cockpit to die horribly. Raleigh, still psychically connected to his brother, is traumatised, but manages to walk his jaeger home. He quits soon after, to go and help build the Pacific Rim Wall in Alaska, but is soon recalled by the jaeger forces for the eleventh hour attack upon the breach.

At this point, the average viewer might expect that the rest of the film will be a train-ride to an expected ending and, in less capable hands, this would definitely be the case. But this is del Toro we’re talking about here, and he mixes things up to save the day.

This film is not so much about monsters attacking, a big battle ensuing, and the monsters getting their butts kicked; it’s a story about trust. Within the Shatterdome – the jaeger base in Hongkers – everyone is tense and no-one is sure what’s going to roll off the kaiju production line next. The jaeger crews are competitive and hot-headed; the military leaders are draconian and demanding; even the science geeks can’t see eye-to-eye: in this atmosphere of disarray and disunity, the monsters attack and things go badly for the good guys.

The Drift – the psychic connexion which the pilot teams must establish in order to run their fighting mecha – gives the director many shorthand ways of conveying information about the plot, the creatures and the uncertainties existing between the main characters: at one point, Raleigh becomes privy to the memories of his new co-pilot and gains insights into the motivations of his co-workers in a sequence that is far more entertaining than a bald verbal explanation would have been. The stakes are driven up sharply too, when the boffins in the lab start experimenting by Drifting with the kaiju and it becomes obvious that the monsters are profiting equally from the two-way info transfer that the Drift provides.

The ending, even with del Toro guiding things, is actually not all that hard to predict: the genre informs the outcome, in the final analysis. This is a film where you have to enjoy the ride, and not waste your time worrying about the destination. The raisons d’etre here are the big fights with the big robots and the big beasties. These have been invested with enough detail and backstory to make them credible: at no time does disbelief feel compelled to stagger out of its comfy hammock and raise an objection. Of course, after the pre-production work that del Toro put into “Pan’s Labyrinth”, we’ve come to expect this degree of quality world-building from him.

If I have quibbles, they fall mainly under the category of the weakness of the genre – the Japanese monster flick doesn’t lend itself to anything other than spectacle, and character development suffers as a result. In this instance, I would have preferred to see more development of the characters – the Russian and the Korean pilot teams are sketchy to say the least – and most of the rest of the cast are just broad-stroke stereotypes. Some of the cast – Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, and Charlie Day and "Torchwood's" Burn Gorman (the guys who play the boffins) – are capable enough to finesse these broad canvasses and make them work; other actors have obviously been cast for purely physical reasons and their acting skills are sufficient to allow them to skate through without being brilliant.

(And on a side note, would it have been so hard to find an actor who could provide a reasonable Australian accent? Max Martini seems to be the “go-to” guy for an Aussie twang in Hollywood, as evidenced by his work on “The Unit” and elsewhere, and, to give him credit, he almost pulls it off. Making it sound right is a real high-wire act though and, if it’s wrong, suddenly you have an entire continent of viewers wincing over their popcorn. The British guy playing Max’s son in this film is an exemplar of how it’s absolutely not done.)

If you’ve seen del Toro’s film “Mimic” (and if you haven’t, why not?), you’ll be reminded very strongly of that film while watching this one. Both films begin with a montage of ‘found’ footage to quickly paint a background that brings the viewer up to speed; both films are also obsessed with shoes. Don’t believe me? Check it for yourself. There’s also – for those who have done their homework – a cheeky nod to Mike Mignola’s “The Amazing Screw-On Head”, which had me smirking.

In the lead-up to this film, I was disappointed that del Toro had nixed work on his proposed version of “At The Mountains Of Madness” (although, with Tom Cruise tagged to headline and the production company insisting on something less than an R rating, I’m kind of glad it never happened) and that he walked (mostly) away from “The Hobbit”; after seeing this film it felt like a complete anticlimax, like he was just paying the rent. After all, this is a guy with an Oscar® under his belt for – let’s face it – a horror film, in a culture where horror equals ‘paranormal romance’ (ick!) more often than not. “Pacific Rim” feels like afternoon tea – something to tide you over until dinnertime; I just hope that dinner will be worth waiting for!

Three-and-a-half tentacled horrors.