A quick note to my subscribers

I have completed my final semester and am preparing for graduation! In the mean time, I’ve started my job search. Since my life’s currently in a state of flux, my postings will be intermittent, but rest assured, I haven’t abandoned the blog.

Until Next Time 😉

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Items of Interest

Just a quick human interest note; It seems Arthur Machen’s in the news:

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-30582153

http://www.itv.com/news/wales/2015-01-09/comedian-stewart-lee-backs-campaign-to-save-welsh-writer-arthur-machens-books-and-papers/


Silent Night: Considering a Motif (Part 2)

In part 1, we looked at how Hodgson uses silence to represent soul destruction. Now I’d like to consider some instances where Hodgson seems to do the opposite.

In The Night Land, the menace of the House of Silence is conveyed—naturally enough—by its perpetual quietness, yet in the same novel, Hodgson also uses stillness to relay a sense of peace. As he describes the “Country of Silence” where the last remnant of humanity buries its dead, Hodgson’s narrator remarks that “Love had shaped it and hallowed it; so that of all the wonders of the world, there has been none that shall ever come anigh to that Country of Silence—an hundred miles every way of Silence to the Dead.”

In his youth, the narrator even sought out the quiet solitude of the Country of Silence:

And in my boyhood, I have wandered oft a week of days in that Country of Silence, and had my food with me, and slept quietly amid the memories; and gone on again, wrapped about with the quiet of the EverlastingAnd, odd whiles, would I come upon some Mother, sitting there lonely, or mayhaps companied by others. And by this little telling shall you know somewhat of the quietness and the wonder and the holiness of that great Country hallowed to all Memory and to Eternity and to our Dead.

Note the contrast with the descriptions of the House of Silence discussed in part 1. While the “Silence of which the heart cannot think” is a source of horror, the “Silence to the Dead” is presented as a comfort.

This comforting depiction of silence also appears in The House on the Borderland. In a sequence in which that novel’s narrator is spirited away to an extra-dimensional realm dubbed the “Sea of Sleep,”  Hodgson’s descriptions emphasize the quietness of the place:

I became aware that I was standing upon the shore of an immense and silent sea. . . Beyond the gentle murmur of the sea, an intense stillness prevailed.

In contrast to the “Plain of Silence” discussed last time, the Sea’s stillness is not described as “abominable,” and the narrator is not confronted by monstrous deities. Instead, he meets the spirit of a woman with whom he was deeply in love (and to whom he may have been married, although Hodgson’s purposely vague on this point).

So we see that Hodgson uses silence to convey both danger and comfort, sometimes within the same story. As a narrative technique, Hodgson’s use of silence to perform seemingly contradictory roles might appear confusing, but I believe Hodgson had a coherent strategy for presenting silence the way he did.

In both the “negative” depictions of silence examined last time and  “positive” ones discussed above, the silence is linked to death. The House of Silence destroys all who enter; the paranormal entities in “The Whistling Room” and “The Hog” threaten the protagonist’s life and soul, and the “Plain of Silence” houses both the “goddess of death” and the “destroyer of souls.” While the Country of Silence is a massive burial ground and the Sea of Sleep is the abode of a departed spirit.

The distinction is that, as noted in part 1, the malevolent silence is linked to soul destruction. By contrast, those buried in the Country of Silence have not been so “destroyed.” Likewise, the woman who inhabits the Sea of Sleep has quite obviously survived physical death.

Thus, I would suggest that in both his peaceful and threatening depictions of silence, Hodgson uses the absence of sound to represent death, sometimes with an afterlife (in the case of the peaceful depictions), sometimes without (in the case of the threatening ones).

Until Next Time. . . .


Silent Night: Considering a Motif (Part 1)

Today, I’d like to examine a recurring symbol in the work of my favorite weird author.

In his “Dying Earth” epic The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson depicts a bleak future in which the sun has died and the earth exists in a state of perpetual darkness. The last remnants of humanity have taken refuge inside a superstructure dubbed the “Great Redoubt,” which provides protection not only against the harsh physical conditions outside, but also from “Evil Forces” that prey upon the human soul.

While many of these “Forces” are distinguished by the sounds they make, the most threatening is characterized by its silence:

. . .there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill. And in that House were many lights, and no sound. And so had it been through an uncountable Eternity of Years. Always those steady lights, and no whisper of sound—not even such as our distance-microphones could have discovered. And the danger of this House was accounted the greatest danger of all those Lands.

The silence is not merely physical, but spiritual as well. After a group of youths are drawn in to the House of Silence, the telepathic narrator fears he will be overwhelmed by their feelings of “agony,” but instead, “there came no sound, to the hearing of the soul; neither then nor in all the years that were to come; for, in verity, had those Youths passed into a Silence of which the heart cannot think. ”

In Hodgson’s short story “The Whistling Room,” the paranormal antagonist is characterized by the sound it produces (the eponymous whistling), yet as in The Night Land, Hodgson uses silence to convey the danger it poses:

I realised [sic] that the room was full of an abominable silence; can you understand that? A sort of purposeful silence, just as sickening as any of the filthy noises the Things have power to make. . .the beastly quietness of a thing that is looking at you and not seeable itself, and thinks that it has got you.

As with the House of Silence, the presence in the room is explicitly stated to pose a threat to the human soul.

This motif of silence as representing danger to the soul also appears in Hodgson’s short story, “The Hog.” As the soul destroying antagonist of that story manifests its presence, the narrator becomes aware of the room’s silence having a tangible quality:

The way in which my brain insisted that the silence was trickling round the room, interests me enormously; for I was either in a state approximating a phase of madness, or else I was, psychically, tuned to some abnormal pitch of awaredness and sensitiveness in which silence had ceased to be an abstract quality, and had become to me a definite concrete element, much as. . .the invisible moisture of the atmosphere becomes a visible and concrete element when it becomes deposited as water.

A final example to consider comes from Hodgson’s novel The House on the Borderland. In one particularly memorable sequence, the narrator’s soul is drawn out of his body and pulled across the universe to an unimaginably distant world. There, the narrator sees a vast “amphitheater of mountains” characterized (naturally) by its silence:

From a rapid survey, my glance passed quickly upwards, along the slopes of the circling mountains. How silent they were. I think that this same abominable stillness was more trying to me, than anything that I had, so far, seen or imagined.

Note that Hodgson’s phrasing here (“abominable stillness”) is nearly identical to his description of silence in “The Whistling Room,” suggesting he wanted to use silence to convey the same effect in both instances.

As the narrator looks up at the mountains, he discovers that he is surrounded by gargantuan figures who he recognizes as pagan deities. The two he names explicitly are “Kali, the Hindu goddess of death,” and “the ancient Egyptian god Set, or Seth, the Destroyer of Souls.”

I’ll admit here that I don’t know enough about Egyptian mythology to say whether or not Hodgson’s description of Set is accurate; however, for the purposes of this analysis, it doesn’t really matter. Within the world of the novel at least, Set is the destroyer of souls. Thus, we see that this place is linked to both death and soul destruction.

From the above examples, one could infer that Hodgson frequently uses silence to represent the annihilation of the soul. While this is not an inaccurate interpretation, it fails to consider the full complexity of Hodgson’s use of silence. We’ll see this in my next post in which we’ll consider instances where Hodgson uses silence to the opposite effect of the examples we’ve seen so far.

Until Next Time. . . .


What we’ve looked at so far

L'Ange_du_Foyeur

I’d like to close this week by revisiting a question I posed five weeks ago—namely, “What, exactly, is ‘weird fiction?‘ At the time I said I wouldn’t  “try to conclusively answer the question,” but now. . . I’m still not going to attempt a definitive answer. 😉

However, in light of the material we’ve looked at these last few weeks, I think we can identify some defining characteristics beyond what I talked about in my initial post.

One of the recurring themes in the stories we’ve discussed has been the disruption of normal, mundane reality. Often, this disruption takes the form of a paranormal encounter  (e.g. the malevolent fae in “The White People,” the otherworldly beings in “The Willows”), but not always.

For example, while “The Repairer of Reputations” has an implicitly paranormal element in its insanity-inducing play, the main reality-disruption in that story comes not from its allusion to the paranormal, but from its deliberately surreal and absurdist portrayal of a dystopian future America. I would argue, therefore, that while reality-disruption is a key characteristic of the genre, a paranormal or supernatural focus is not.

This reality-disrupting aspect makes weird fiction an appealing genre for writers wishing to challenge conventional ideas about the nature of the world. As we’ve seen, this challenge can be either metaphysical (as with Lovecraft’s emphasis on human insignificance, or Machen’s ruminations on the “Evil”), political (as with Chambers’ social satire), or both.

In the weeks ahead, I look forward to further exploring this aspect of weird writing.

For now, I’d like to pose a question to my readers. Aside from reality disruption, what do YOU think are some common denominators in either the stories we’ve looked at so far, or the genre as a whole?

Until next time. . . .


“In the Court of the Dragon”: Divine Justice and Unholy Vengeance

My last two posts looked at Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations.” Since I seem to be on a Chambers tangent, I thought I’d continue the trend by looking at another of the stories in his King in Yellow collection.

In the Court of the Dragon” opens innocuously with a weekday vespers service at a small Parisian Catholic church. Things quickly take a turn for the creepy, however, as the unnamed narrator notices something “wrong” with the organ music:

I had felt a change for the worse, a sinister change. During vespers it had been chiefly the chancel organ which supported the beautiful choir, but now and again, quite wantonly as it seemed, from the west gallery where the great organ stands, a heavy hand had struck across the church, at the serene peace of those clear voices. It was something more than harsh and dissonant, and it betrayed no lack of skill.

The narrator is so unnerved by this perceived change that he half-seriously wonders “whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church, might have entered undetected, and taken possession of the west gallery” (foreshadowing alert!).

A glance at his fellow parishioners shows the narrator that he alone notices the unholy quality in the music.

The music ends, and the narrator reveals his reason for coming to this particular weekday Mass:

I was worn out by three nights of physical suffering and mental trouble: the last had been the worst, and it was an exhausted body, and a mind benumbed and yet acutely sensitive, which I had brought to my favorite church for healing. For I had been reading “The King in Yellow” [i.e. the accursed play that drove Hildred Castaigne insane in “The Repairer of Reputations”].

However, the narrator’s healing is cut short by a hateful glance from the organist. Unable to regain his reverent attitude following this, the narrator leaves in the middle of the service.

Soon the narrator finds himself pursued through the streets of Paris by the mysterious and malevolent organist. As he flees his pursuer, the narrator feels a strange sense of vague recollection:

It began to seem as if I deserved that which he threatened: it reached a long way back — a long, long way back. It had lain dormant all these years: it was there though, and presently it would rise and confront me.

The pursuit finally ends with the organist cornering the narrator in the latter’s own neighborhood—the titular “Court of the Dragon.” Just as all seems lost, the narrator awakens to find himself back in his pew at the church, having apparently slept through much of the service.

Yet, the narrator is convinced that his experience was not merely a nightmare. Rather, he is convinced that while his body was asleep in the church, his disembodied spirit was being “hunted” through the Paris streets.

The narrator also finds that he can now recall the offense that earned the hatred of the organist:

I knew him now. Death and the awful abode of lost souls, whither my weakness long ago had sent him — they had changed him for every other eye, but not for mine. . . .

So death had changed the organist (i.e. the organist was a returnee from the grave), and the narrator’s weakness sent the organist to “the. . .abode of lost souls” (The ambiguous wording could either mean that the narrator caused the organist’s physical death, or that he is in some way responsible for the organist’s posthumous damnation).

As the narrator attempts to leave the church, he hears a final “blare” from the organ. Suddenly, he finds himself facing the city of Carcosa [a location from the play] and hears the eponymous “King. . .whispering to [his] soul: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!'”

What’s interesting about this conclusion is the way it conflates the idea of divine justice with the story’s “vengeance from beyond the grave” theme. The concluding line is a quotation of a biblical passage describing punishment  for sin (Hebrews 10:26-31); its usage here seems to be ironic.

The most straightforward of this (admittedly less than straightforward) narrative is that by reading the cursed play, the narrator has opened himself to attack by malicious supernatural forces—forces which mock him with the words of his own Scripture. Perhaps part of the mockery is due to the narrator’s seeking “healing” in a church while still carrying a grievous transgression from his past.

We’re not told how exactly the narrator “sent” the organist “to the abode of lost souls,” but the sense given is that it’s an offense the narrator has tried to avoid answering for. Maybe, then, Chambers is offering an indictment of those who try to use religion to escape the consequences of their actions? As is often the case with weird fiction, the final interpretation is up to the reader to decide.

Until next time. . . .


The Country was Apparently Tranquil”: Robert Chambers’ Social Satire (Part 2)

This post continues a discussion of Robert W. Chambers’ short story “The Repairer of Reputations.”  If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you may wish to read the summary presented in part 1.

Last time, I described the hypothetical American society Chambers’ presents in “The Repairer” — a society in which immigration has been tightly restricted, Jews have been expelled, black people have been cordoned off to “the new independent negro state of Suanee,” self-service euthanasia stations are being erected in every population center in the country, and power has been “centraliz[ed]. . .in the executive” [i.e. the U.S. President wields autocratic control].

While Chambers’ dystopian vision may seem fantastical, it reflects the goals of certain real-world ideological movements of the time. As I noted in part one, “The Repairer” was first published in 1895. According to the Eugenics Archive history site, this would have been half-a-decade before Mendel’s laws were applied to humans, resulting in the formation of the Eugenics movement (which advocated selective breeding to produce “superior humans”). It should be noted, however, that the idea of eugenics had already been proposed in 1883 by Francis Galton ( Eugenics Archive).

Although the term “eugenics” doesn’t appear in “The Repairer,” and the idea of selective breeding of humans isn’t explicitly presented in the story, one can still see how Chambers takes satirical aim at the eugenics movement’s ideological forerunners.

As the Eugenics Archive notes, eugenicists provided a “scientific rationale” for many pre-existing prejudices, among them, racist and xenophobic sentiments. For example, the 1882 Act to Regulate Immigration was specifically intended to “exclude immigrants whose undesirable conditions might prove costly to society” (Eugenics Archive). Also passed in 1882, “the Chinese exclusion Act was the first measure to specifically target immigrants by race or ethnicity” (Eugenics Archive). Later anti-immigrant legislation would take eugenicists’ arguments as its basis (Eugenics Archive). It is in this context that Chambers wrote “The Repairer,” coming on the heels of over a decade’s worth of racist and anti-immigrant legislation and on the cusp of eugenics’ emergence as a mainstream ideology.

While some readers take Chambers’ paradisiacal descriptions of proto-eugenicist society at face value, I believe he presents an exaggerated version of the proto-eugenicist’s ideal for the purpose of critiquing it. I say this for the follow reasons:

First, there’s the fact that the glowing descriptions of the society come from a character who is depicted as being literally insane. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the character’s perspective.

Second, are the hints that the “ideal” society is far from ideal for a significant number of its residents. As I said in part one, the fact that the U.S. Government sees a demand for suicide chambers inevery city, town, and village in the country” suggests that the quality of life may not be as grand as the unreliable narrator seems to believe.

Thirdly, there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to the “centralization of power in the executive,” meaning that the U.S. President is now a dictator. The story’s insane narrator sees this as a positive development, yet somehow I doubt Chambers actually supported establishing a dictatorial regime in the U.S., or that he expected his readers to do so. I would suggest that Chambers purpose is to subtly suggest that in order for the proto-eugenicist’s dreams to be realized, American society would have to become more authoritarian and significantly less free.

Finally, there’s the tongue in cheek quality to many of the descriptions of society’s supposed “improvements” (e.g. ” Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts either his cabinet position or his portfolio. . . .” You cannot tell me Chambers wrote that line with a straight face).

To conclude, “The Repairer of Reputations” demonstrates how historical context can illuminate a story’s meaning. It also illustrates how authors can use genre fiction to deliver social commentary.

Until next time. . . .

Reference and for further reading: http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/list2.pl