Tuesday, May 28, 2013
The Temple is one of Lovecraft's most underrated stories. The great Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi wrote of it; "It is marred by somewhat clumsy and obvious satire against the German protagonist of the tale, and also by a plethora of supernatural details that do not seem to fuse into any unity; but its portrayal of the narrator's gradual descent into madness is powerful." Joshi was right about the portrayal of the protagonists' growing madness as well as the over-the-top satire. He was wrong about the supernatural details not fusing together. As far as I can tell, this seems to be one of the very rare times that Joshi just doesn't get whats going on in a Lovecraft story.
Karl Heinrich Von Altberg-Ehrenstein is the lieutenant-commander in charge of the submarine U-29. After callously sinking the SS Victory, as well as its lifeboats, the U-29 surfaces with the dead body of one of the Victory's crew clinging to it. A small ivory head is found in the corpses pocket and is kept by one of the U-29's officers.
Later, members of the crew become ill and some start to have delusions. They report seeing the dead corpses from the Victory staring in at them from the portholes. Karl Heinrich, being kind of a hard-ass, takes "drastic steps." Then there is an explosion in the engine room that cripples the submarine, leaving it only able to surface and dive. On sighting a U. S. ship, many members of the crew beg to be allowed to surrender. Sadly, they asked the wrong iron-willed German. Karl Heinrich has these traitors executed.
Soon the ballast tanks bust and the submarine sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The remaining crewmen attempt mutiny. They damage some instruments but are killed by Heinrich. The only remaining crewman is Lieutenant Klenze, the officer with the small ivory head, and he is slowly going insane.
At this time the U-29 is drifting while surrounded by dolphins. These dolphins should not be able to survive at such depths. The dolphins continue to press closely about the submarine, never going to the surface to breathe as they should.
Soon Klenze is completely mad, claiming that "He is calling! He is calling!" Klenze desperately wants to leave the submarine, despite being at the bottom of the sea. Karl Heinrich agrees to operate the airlock for Klenze, sending him to his doom. Heinrich, alone now, drifts for a couple more days until the U-29 settles on the ocean floor. Through the porthole he is astounded to see the remains of an ancient city, perhaps Atlantis itself. Heinrich can see what seems to be an ornate building that he judges to be a temple. He even takes out a diving suit to examine the outside of the temple more closely.
During the next couple days, as the battery power of the submarine slowly drains, he finds that he is suffering his own hallucinations. He seems to see flickering light coming from the temple and hear a beautiful choral hymn. He slips into his diving suit, leaves a record of events in a bottle (later found off the coast of Yucatan) and goes willingly into the temple.
The supernatural events actually do make sense. The head found on the sailor probably was a likeness of the god of the temple, though that is just a guess. Perhaps the sailor was even a latter-day worshipper. Whatever force is in the temple seems to have the power to reanimate and control the dead. The crew of the U-29 actually did see those corpses peering in from the portholes, though I believe that the power in the temple also drove the crew insane. The dolphins were probably also dead and under the temple powers' control, that is why they never surfaced for air. They seem to have been guiding the U-29 to the sunken city, which is where the power of the temple wanted it to go. Finally, it lures Karl Heinrich inside, most assuredly to his well-deserved death.
The best thing about the story is its truly haunting atmosphere and creeping suspense. Far from being a minor story, it is really one of Lovecraft's best early efforts. It can be found in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories from Penguin and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales from Arkham House.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
H. Rider Haggard created one of the 19th century's most memorable characters with Ayesha, the horribly beautiful, tyrannical "She-who-must-be-obeyed" of this action classic. Ayesha was an immortal sorceress who ruled a degenerate lost civilization in Africa. With just a look at her face any man would be enslaved, and she had the ghastly power to kill with a glance. She had been waiting for hundreds of years for the reincarnation of her murdered lover to come back to her. This might seem a lot to ask, as She was the one who murdered him, but She knew he would come someday. That would be a dark day, for then She would leave with him for the outside world, and with her horrible power she could rule nations.
The story begins with Horace Holly, a Cambridge College student who has the misfortune of looking like a neanderthal, receiving a visit from a dying friend, Vincey. This man asks Holly to take charge of his son Leo after he dies, and also follow some peculiar instruction's in his will. Holly, despite fearing for his friend's sanity, agrees. Soon Vincey is dead and Leo is growing up with Holly.
When Leo is twenty-five, following the instructions of his dead friend, Holly gives Leo a mysterious casket to open. Leo unlocks it to discover ancient scrolls, a fragment of pottery called 'The Sherd of Amenartas' that is marked with many inscriptions and a letter from his dead father. It turns out that Leo is a descendant of Kallikrates, a greek priest of Isis who was murdered by a sorceress in a jealous rage. Kallikrates' wife escapes her wrath and lives to pass the story down to her son. The Sherd of Amentartus has been passed down from generation to generation of Leo's family, telling the story, and also revealing that the sorceress has the secret of eternal life. Leo decides to seek the truth of the story, and if possible, the secret of immortality. Holly thinks it is all nonsense but agrees to go along on the chance of shooting some animals in Africa. They are joined by Job, a rather typical example of the 19th century stock character of the loyal servant.
After many trials and tribulations, including a shipwreck, they manage to encounter the Amahagger; savage natives that are under the rule of Ayesha. After some rather dangerous episodes with the Amahagger, including a viscous battle in which Leo is seriously injured, they are brought to Kor; the ancient ruins of a city where Ayesha dwells.
Ayesha, appropriately enough considering her character, lives in a hollowed out mountain tomb filled with the corpses of a dead civilization. Here She has lived for hundreds of years, ruling the degenerate Amahagger. Swathed from head to foot in wrappings, her face covered with a veil, She is mysterious and terrible, her immortality and vast knowledge separating her from humanity. She uncovers her face for Holly, for whom She has grown fond, and he falls helplessly in love with her. Then she sees Leo, who has been recovering from his injuries, and is shocked to discover that he is the very man She has been waiting for. She plans on making him immortal too, and for them to leave for the outside world and eventually rule it. I will not mention the rest, as most people probably have not read it yet, and I have no wish to spoil it.
The novel is a solid lost-world story as well as one of the greatest of Haggard's works. It is the character of Ayesha though that marks it as an immortal classic. There has been much debate on what inspired the Victorian Haggard to create such a powerful female character. The true genius of Ayesha is her complexity. She is not a complete villain despite the terrible things She has done, and by the end (and the ending is one of the most brilliantly ghastly ever written) one can sympathize with her.
The novel is marred by some rather ugly anti-semitism on Holly's part, that sadly can be read as Haggard's own. It can be disconcerting how free the Victorians could express their bigotry. That said, it remains a great adventure novel that I highly recommend.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
The Shadow Kingdom is considered by many to be the first modern Sword and Sorcery tale. It was the first published story about King Kull, an Atlantean renegade who became king of the prehistoric kingdom of Valusia. The Kull tales were Howard's first attempts to create a fully-realised fantasy world and it was from Kull's Pre-Cataclysmic Age that Conan's Hyborian age was born.
Despite their similar occupations, Kull was a vastly different character than Conan. Kull was a brooder, constantly preoccupied by dark thoughts regarding the nature of reality. Having fought hard to win the kingship, he was rather uncomfortable and distrusting on the throne (with good reason as it turns out). In stark contrast to Conan, Kull did not have the least interest in women. Kull, perhaps mentally battered by a hard life, was a loner. His world was dark and shadowy, with a much murkier feel than the later Hyborian Age.
The Shadow Kingdom begins with a finely written parade of Kull's army. It brilliantly introduces Kull's kingdom and his place in it. Later, Kull receives a message from Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador, requesting that Kull meet him alone later that night. Kull, being a distrustful sort, taunts Brule, the bearer of the message. It seems that Atlanteans and Picts are tribal enemies, so the two share an immediate dislike. Despite that, Kull agrees to go.
Kull finds Ka-nu feasting, hanging out with Pictish ladies and having a fine time. He gets right down to business though and warns Kull that his life and his very kingdom are in great jeopardy. He does not reveal what the danger is, but he promises to send a warrior later that night who will reveal the danger to him and provide definite proof.
Of course the warrior is none other than Brule. Brule leads Kull into a secret passage that Kull was completely unaware of, and there shows Kull the unconscious bodies of guardsmen whom Kull had just seen moments before outside his door. Soon Kull learns the terrible truth, his palace has been infiltrated by evil Serpent Men; ghastly creatures that can magically take the form of anybody they wish. It seems that these Serpent Men have been hanging out in Valusia for years, often killing kings and taking their place. That is, of course, what they plan to do with Kull.
Together, Kull and Brule fight to wreck the plot of the evil Serpent Men and expose them. During the course of the adventure Kull and Brule learn to trust each other and by the end are true friends. Kull comes to feel a sense of kinship with Brule, finding in him a fellow tribesman in an alien culture. Like Brule, Kull is a barbarian. Kull took the crown of Valusia by force and so is forever set apart from the decadently civilized people he rules. In Brule, Kull has at last found somebody he can rely on.
The Serpent Men are a truly great creation. Ancient beings who can take the form of anybody they wish, they are the perfect villains to oppose the already paranoid Kull. Their existence validates all his fears. Indeed, they are such a great invention that the conspiracy-theory writer David Icke seems to have adopted them wholesale, renaming them Reptilians and claiming they are even now impersonating just about avery political figure he can think of.
With plenty of Howard's fast-paced action and dark atmosphere, The Shadow Kingdom is one of his finest stories. It can be found in Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: Crimson Shadows
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
William Hope Hodgson, an almost legendary figure in weird fiction, died all too soon during the final year of the first world war. He left behind a handful of books that, while unappreciated by the larger reading public, have consistently maintained a loyal following. He was no master prose stylist, and I think it is fair to say that his occasional attempts at archaic language did not turn out well. That being said, any defects in his writing style were more than made up for by the pure power of his far-reaching imagination. In his books anything could happen.
The House on the Borderland is Hodgson's finest work. It was greeted in 1908 with critical praise and poor sales. It remains one of the strangest novels ever written, one that shifts from tense, realistic scenes of horror to mind-bending cosmic explorations of time and space. The duality of the novel is surprising. It leaves the reader unsteady, never knowing what bizarre scene might come next. The most surprising thing about it is how well it works.
The novel begins with two young men who are on a fishing vacation in the west of Ireland. They follow a river and find it ends in a vast abyss. Over the abyss hangs a giant rock, upon which they find the ruins of some kind of structure. Among the ruins they find a musty old book that contains our story. The manuscript was written by a nameless recluse that lived with his creepy sister and loyal dog in a sinister old house. The house had an evil reputation and for that reason the recluse got it cheap. For a number of years they lived there peacefully.
Then one night the recluse experiences a kind of cosmic vision. He finds himself flying bodiless through the universe, eventually finding himself in a vast tableland surrounded by high mountains. Towering among the mountains are the shadowy figures of various gods that the recluse recognizes from mythology, and before him sits an exact replica of his sinister home. In the shadow of the house lurks a gigantic, swine-faced monster. Then, the vision ends and he finds himself back home.
Days later he is startled to find a ghastly face peering in at him from a window, a face similar to the monster from his vision. Unfortunately it is not alone. A week later the house is attacked by a small army of the creatures. The recluse boards up the house, grabs a shotgun, and goes into battle.
Here, in a story from 1908, we get an episode that could come, scene for scene, from a modern horror movie. It is a great departure from the cosmic opening of the novel, being a gritty, realistic siege narrative. The central portion of the novel is concerned with the recluse defending his home from the monsters and eventually trailing them into a dark chasm near the house.
Then, in the later portion of the book, our narrator experiences another vision, one that is vast in scope. He literally transcends time and space in a kind of cosmic odyssey. I could try and describe it, but doubtless I would fall far short of doing it justice. It is a brilliant example of Hodgson's boundless imagination and really has to be read to be appreciated.
For decades Hodgson's work has itself existed in a kind of borderland. In 1927, H. P. Lovecraft wrote, "Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be." In 2013 it is still known far less than it deserves to be. It is a rare bookstore that stocks Hodgson. Fortunately, we live in the age of ebooks. Being in the public domain, all Hodgson's books are readily available online. For a reader interested in the weird, his work is well worth seeking out.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
In 1965 Richard A. Lupoff made a bad prediction. In Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, Lupoff wrote that of the three great supermen of modern fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Superman and Tarzan), Tarzan perhaps had the best chance to live forever. As of 2013, Sherlock Holmes and Superman are as popular as they ever have been. Both are thriving on TV, in the movies, books and comics. Tarzan...not so much. His last successful movie was a Disney cartoon in 1999. The first Tarzan book is easy to find in most bookstores, but not so the over twenty sequels. The only monthly comic is the unauthorized Lord of the Jungle, and that not exactly a bestseller. Tarzan is certainly a name that people still immediately recognize, but I suspect his future as a "literary superman" is in doubt.
I'm not sure why his popularity has declined so much this century. He certainly is not "politically correct." The racism apparent in the depiction of African natives, in both the books and films, is a big part of it. Perhaps Tarzan slaughtering all those lions and alligators doesn't help. I suspect the biggest reason is that the only memory most people have of Tarzan is as a barely legible muscleman in very old movies.
That is a shame, because Tarzan is the most complex and intelligent character that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever created. In the novels, Tarzan is a brilliant literary creation, one that deserves to live forever. True, the series did decline in quality as time went on. Burroughs wrote novels about Tarzan long after he had said everything he had to say about him. The first dozen or so, however, were very good.
Tarzan of the Apes begins in 1888, with Lord and Lady Greystoke being abandoned on the coast of Africa. The crew had mutinied aboard the ship upon which they had been passengers. The Greystoke's situation is made worse because Lady Greystoke is pregnant. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, builds a small cabin and does his best to ensure the safety and survival of his wife and child. Sadly, a year after the birth of their child, Lady Greystoke dies in her sleep and John Clayton is killed by apes.
Kala, one of the apes, has recently lost her own baby. She takes the Greystoke's baby and raises it as her own. He is given the name Tarzan (it means "white skin" in ape language) and he must somehow survive and grow up in a savage African Jungle. Luckily, Tarzan is both brilliant and strong, so he thrives. He finds some old books in his father's cabin and after a number of years even teaches himself to read. He also finds his father's hunting knife, a weapon that helps him tremendously through several jungle battles.
His first exposure to human beings is when a native African murders Kala, his ape foster mother. Tarzan hunts him down, kills him, and discovers a village of Natives (cannibals as it turns out). Later a party of Europeans and Americans are dumped off on the coast near Tarzan's cabin. They are more victims of mutineers. Among them is, of course, Jane. The rest of the novel tells of Tarzan helping the castaways and falling in love with Jane. Eventually, he follows her back to America.
This bare outline can't capture the breakneck speed of the narrative or the brilliant development of Tarzan's character. This is, at heart, a novel about Tarzan's noble nature overcoming the circumstances of his childhood. The other characters are also finely drawn; from the brave young Jane, to the loyal friend, D'Arnot, to the good man, William Cecil Clayton, who is torn by petty jealousy.
Sadly, the dated racism in the book is pretty hard on modern readers. The noble Waziri do not show up until the second book, so the only native Africans in this one are all savage, brutish cannibals. The one American black woman in the book is presented even worse. Poor Esmeralda, Jane's maid, is played for comedy relief and sounds like she just walked out of an old copy of Uncle Remus.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, like almost all white men of his generation, did hold racist attitudes. Henry James did too, but then he didn't set his stories in Africa. It is a good thing the antiquated racism shocks us so. It reminds us that, even though racism is still all-to-prevalent in our society, we have come a long way.
Regardless, this novel is a classic of adventure that deserves to live on.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of those novels that, once read, stay with you all your life. This book will creep into your soul and haunt you years after you have read it. What Wells, in his later years, called "a youthful exorcise in blasphemy" is of course so much more than that. It is one of the most disturbing novels of the nineteenth century. The book is a dark meditation on the moral worth of human beings, one in which we do not come out well. While The Time Machine, dark as it was, at least showcased the wonders science might produce, The Island of Dr. Moreau focused solely on its potential for cruel misuse. With this book Wells wrote an early science fiction classic to be sure, but really, at heart this is a horror novel.
The story begins as a shipwreck survivor, Edward Prendick, is rescued and brought aboard a wretchedly dirty boat filled with caged wild animals. He is nursed to health by an odd man named Montgomery, an outcast with a shady past. While convalescing Pendick encounters Montgomery's creepy, hairy servant who fills Pendick with dread. Later Pendick offends the ship's drunken captain and is marooned on the boat's destination, a small island under the control of the mysterious Dr. Moreau. The island is peopled by frighteningly malformed people who all seem terrified of Moreau. Moreau is not thrilled by Pendick's presence but Mongomery, who works for Moreau, talks him into tolerating the castaway. Pendick is brought to their compound.
In a locked laboratory Moreau, who has identified himself as a biologist, begins to experiment upon a captive puma. The poor creature seems to be undergoing torture, and its horrific screams are too much for Pendick. He leaves and takes a walk through the woods, where he encounters one of the animal-like inhabitants. This creature stalks Pendick and he barely gets away with his life.
The mysteries of what these creatures are and Dr. Moreau's identity, are rapidly revealed. Dr. Moreau is a disgraced scientist who has isolated himself on the island to further his own ghastly research. He has used his uncanny skill of vivisection to transform various animals into the semblance of human beings. These sad creatures live in their own ramshackle settlement and are kept under control through "the law." Any creature who breaks the law is brought to "the house of pain," and tortured by Moreau. Eventually Moreau is killed by one of his own experimental monsters and everything goes to hell. After further disaster, Pendick is left alone to somehow survive on an island full of beast-men.
The Island of Dr. Moreau was written at a time when Britain's scientific community were grappling with the moral implications of animal vivisection. The loathsome Dr. Moreau cares nothing about the suffering he causes, all he cares about is furthering his own twisted research. Sadly, this problem of abusing animals for our own purposes is still with us over a hundred years later. We still look past the suffering we cause animals and perhaps that is part of why this novel is so disturbing even now, as it reminds us of something we would rather not think about. We go about our daily business while everyday animals are tortured and killed on an nightmarishly epic scale, all the time ignoring their suffering and emotionally distancing ourselves from their pain.
The last chapter of this novel is its most haunting. Pendick has been rescued and is back in Britain, but he can't stand to be around people. After his experience he can only see the beast in them;
"I see faces keen and bright, others dull or dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale."
Perhaps Pendick was not far wrong.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
The Great God Pan is easily Arthur Machen's most famous story. It shocked and fascinated the readers of his time and it has continued to horrify since. Small wonder that it is one of the most anthologized horror stories ever written. "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds..," wrote H. P. Lovecraft, and he should know. In it Machen created the mysterious Helen Vaughan, one of the most memorable characters in horror ( being a Vaughan of Welsh descent myself, I like to think she was a relation...it would explain a few things). Even though she is kept ever in the shadows of the story, Machen infuses her with the taint of cosmic evil.
The tale begins with a sociopath scientist who conducts a brain operation on a poor girl who has the misfortune to be in his charge. Through the operation he hopes that she might gain the ability to see a world beyond our own, one forever hidden from us, limited as we are by our five senses. As he puts it, she will see the god Pan. Sadly for her, she does. The experience drives her insane.
Years later an odd little girl named Helen Vaughan is placed to board with a family in the Welsh countryside. She spends every day wandering through the woods and being generally creepy. Soon a young boy is driven insane when he sees her frolicking in the grass with...something. Later, a young girl is also driven mad after going into the woods with Helen.
Many years after this a young woman of exotic beauty appears in society (guess who) and drives her poor husband mad. She has ruined him "body and soul." Not satisfied with destroying her husband, Helen takes on a new identity and causes an epidemic of suicide among the men of her acquaintance. Eventually she is confronted by one of the tale's protagonists and he attempts to get her to commit suicide herself. The story contains one of the most ghastly and grotesque endings in all of Machen's fiction.
Of course, the relationship between Helen Vaughan and the unfortunate victim of the experiment is not long in doubt. As far as how Helen corrupts all those men and drives them to suicide, Machen only hints. Illicit sex is certainly implied to be a big part of it and was one of the reasons his readers were so shocked.
What Machen would view to be unnatural sex is certainly a constant theme of the story. Interestingly, a horror of the power of nature is also a major part of the tale. Unlike Algernon Blackwood, who held nature in awe and reverence, the religious conservative Machen shows a great distrust of the natural world. He seems to have found it beautiful, fascinating and not to be trifled with. For him we are only protected from the dangers of nature by the strict, repressive rules of society.
A streak of misogyny is also ever present in the story. The girl who is experimented upon is nothing more than a tool for the doctor. He rescued her from poverty so he considers her his property. And of course Helen Vaughan is responsible for corrupting all those poor defenseless men. I sense a fear of strong, independent women in this story.
Regardless, this is a masterpiece of horror. Machen was an extremely talented writer and he builds the horror brilliantly in this story. It truly is one of the greatest horror tales ever written. If you have not read it, do yourself a favor and hunt it down. It is in many horror anthologies, including Modern Library's Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It is also available as a free ebook.