Forbidden Ecstasy

Hill of DreamsYou know that feeling of discovering an author you’ve never read before who really hits your buttons, so you want to seek out everything they wrote? It doesn’t happen to me as much as it used to, my taste having got fastidious with age, but it did in 2014. The author was Arthur Machen. It was Lovecraft’s essay on ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ that put me on to him. I read the selection of stories in Penguin’s The White People first, then the unforgettable The Hill of Dreams, then everything else I could find, culminating in asking my town library to seek the Holy Grail of Machen novels: the unexpurgated The Secret Glory including the legendary Chapters 5 and 6 which Machen suppressed. The library succeeded, bless them, and it was worth the wait.

Among the writers of ‘weird tales’, why does Machen strike such a deep nerve? Lovecraft is so gloriously over the top that you read him partly for laughs, and other leading practitioners – Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Beirce – are so leaden that I can’t read them. I think it’s Machen’s coupling of a conscious mastery of style with a tremendous daring in drawing upon his deepest, half-understood fears and desires. Lovecraft tries to do the same but cannot match Machen’s craftsmanship in prose and has a less robust, less developed psyche that in the end can offer only madness, slime, and unfulfilled longing.

Machen’s style develops during his career, from a jaunty storytelling manner modelled on Stevenson, to painstaking pursuit of literary perfection in The Hill of Dreams, and then a plainer journalistic style in later work. The Hill of Dreams perfectly clothes its theme of a man’s desire for a forbidden state of ecstasy with prose whose rhythm builds up and up throughout the novel till you’re carried away in a literary equivalent of the ecstatic state of being more commonly associated with spiritual or sexual experience.

The Hill of Dreams is so good that Machen could never match its brilliance again, but pervasive throughout his oeuvre is this fascination with a kind of secret desire that is not explicitly explained and partakes of both the spiritual and the sexual. When he writes about the supernatural, Machen is in earnest, for he believes in it; so his writing has a force that can’t be matched by fantasy that is merely contrived. Both the positive and the negative aspects of secret ecstasy he evokes have an exhilarating intensity. That he dwells so much on the dark side may perhaps be linked to the collective psychosis of European civilisation that led to the First World War, as becomes explicit in ‘The Terror’, in which the animals turn against humankind in judgement of the way people are behaving in the war. In ‘A Fragment of Life’ Machen quickens our hearts with the memory of an ecstasy sacred and good in the rustic intimacy of husband and wife. But in The Secret Glory he satisfies our deepest, most forbidden dreams, only to take it all away.

This piece was first published in Vector, No. 279, 2015

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When Dinosaurs Ruled Again

when-dinosaurs-ruledResearching Deep Time was an excuse to rewatch the dinosaur films that had captivated me as boy. Through this painstaking scholarly process I discovered that in my memory two of these films had merged into one. That’s not entirely surprising because When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is largely a remake of One Million Years B.C. Both centre on a romance that transcends the enmity between the barbaric ‘Rock People’ and more hippy ‘Shell People’.

Of the two, One Million Years B.C. has the better reputation, largely because of the mesmerising presence of Raquel Welch, though John Richardson is a good actor too, and Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs are superb. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth has dinosaurs animated by Jim Danforth which are just as good. It also boasts a more complex plot. The hero saves the heroine after her people have tried to sacrifice her (for being blonde), so the Rock People are after them; but he already has a woman back among the Shell People, so she’s not best pleased and the Shell People end up equally hostile to the happy couple. The film’s problem is that the actors are upstaged by the dinosaurs. Victoria Vetri is manifestly a glamour model who can’t really act. Robin Hawdon is so unresponsive to all the dramas he’s engulfed in that either he can’t act either or he’s pursuing a commitment to deadpan irony. Both of them are so skinny in physique – which their prehistoric outfits do little to conceal – that’s it hard to believe either of them would last long amidst the rigours of the Palaeolithic.

Hammer must have been playing the film for laughs, though. The drama of the sacrifice scene is wonderfully undermined by the guys at the back playing a tonk-tonk-tonk percussion number with drumsticks on skulls. And then there’s the astonishing ‘prehistoric dance’, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, performed by the jealous other woman – the much more charismatic Imogen Hassall. And the protracted battle with a gigantic plesiosaur that’s managed to lurch far enough up the beach on its flippers to devastate the Shell People’s camp. And the cuteness of the mother dinosaur who, upon finding Vetri asleep in a broken egg, is convinced she’s her offspring – and in consequence the woman can control the reptile when need arises.

The problem with that particular dinosaur is that, unlike the others, it looks nothing like any real kind of dinosaur. It reminds me of the reconstructions Richard Owen designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, when no complete dinosaur skeletons had yet been found and so no one knew what they really looked like – except maybe the Native Americans, whose notions of a ‘Thunderbird’, inspired by dinosaur trackways, were closer to the truth. That’s nothing, you may say – of both this film and its predecessor – compared with the asynchronous juxtaposition of cavemen and dinosaurs, but these films are only reprising a trope established by Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, albeit without any rationale about an unusual compression of evolutionary processes.

The film prominently credits J.G. Ballard, who wrote a treatment for it at some stage. Ballard, poor man, thought When Dinosaurs Rule the Earth was terrible and tried to disown any connection with it, but of course Hammer wanted to make the most of his name. As for me, I retain great affection for this film. That four-note tune – da duh duh duh – that plays over and over again, the elemental dramas of storm, sea, and earthquake, the dinosaurs, the sweaty cavemen – and cavewomen – the bit where a pterosaur carries the hero off to its nest – the film had everything to electrify a prepubescent boy. I can remember how I felt watching it on TV sometime in the seventies, completely transported. And of course the child that you were lives on somewhere within you.

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Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest

into-the-forestI first heard about Jean Hegland’s novel Into the Forest in an Interzone review by David Pringle in 1998, two years after the book was published. Hegland is a West Coast author and Pringle positioned her novel in a subgenre of science fiction he calls ‘California SF’ – work by Californians like Ursula Le Guin, George R. Stewart, Ray Bradbury, and Kim Stanley Robinson which yearns for some kind of a pastoral utopia either in California or in California transposed to Mars. (I would tentatively add to this list Frank Herbert and Philip Dick.)

On the strength of Pringle’s review, I always meant to read Into the Forest, but never got hold of a copy till nearly twenty years later. That’s a shame, because it’s both superbly written and a provocative response to the uber-problem of sustainability. The scenario is a dystopian collapse of American society (for reasons not explained but readily imagined), amidst which a pair of sisters make a go of surviving in their isolated forest homestead through gathering and growing their own food. The novel speaks, I think, to those back-to-nature idealists who would welcome the collapse of society as we know it, as an opportunity to apply their skills in horticulture and foraging in order to construct a new, more sustainable way of life. The sisters have the advantage of living some distance from any population centre, in a situation blessed with natural resources, yet their efforts to keep going become more and more desperate as their supplies of manufactured products, which it’s no longer possible to buy, are exhausted. And their isolation can only last so long before other, more desperate people (men) begin to arrive on the scene.

In genre terms, Into the Forest is a dystopian novel in which the tropes of dystopia and utopia are subtly interwoven. It’s also a work of nature writing, being written as a first-person memoir whose form, style, and content somewhat resemble those of the non-fiction nature memoirs currently in vogue. And it also has the feel of ‘women’s fiction’, as per Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, since much of the narrative is taken up with the practicalities of everyday life and the nuances of emotional dynamics between the two sisters. What it does not do is comply with the expectation that a work of dystopian fiction should be a thriller. I guess it’s the inevitable outcome of the financial calculus of film-making that – to judge by its trailer – the 2015 film adaptation of Into the Forest appears to have made the story into a thriller. It looks like a good film, though; I’ll report back when I’ve had chance to see it.

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The Rogue One Terrorists

star-wars-rogue-one-castI used to think of Star Wars as a fairy tale in space. In filling a tempting gap in the storyline, Rogue One offers less in the way of mythological resonance and more of gritty realism. It’s telling that some key plot points in its complex and tech-driven story revolve around IT problems. But what slapped me in the face – and kept slapping all the way through – was its celebration of the terrorist as hero.

It’s nothing new in space opera to reverse the roles of the real world – from an American perspective – so the superpower becomes the evil empire and the rebels the heroes. That’s always been the premise of Star Wars, as of Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, even Blake’s Seven. But the makers of Rogue One seem to have packed in as many references as they could think of to the contemporary terrorism exported from the Middle East. Most striking is a good-guy body count exceptional among films of this kind; these are suicide bombers motivated by a transcendent ideal, labelled ‘hope’, and to some extent by an overt fundamentalist faith – ‘I am with the Force; the Force is with me.’ Then there’s all the bad stuff that has to be done along the way – like murdering your own mates – because the end justifies the means. And the inventive techniques of violence that irregular rebel forces have to apply when they take on the overwhelming military force of the imperium; in particular, the scenes in Syria-like Jedha offer a wealth of inspiration that may repay careful scrutiny by the likes of IS. Let’s not forget also that the city of Jeddah in our own world is the gateway to Islam’s holiest sites. Not to mention the varied ethnic make-up – and get-up – of the rebels compared with the smart-uniformed Anglo-Saxonness of the Empire, and the aesthetic of sublime destruction of vast imperial structures, which put me in mind of slow-motion replays of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

You could say that such role reversal represents the real-world imperial power’s unconscious wish to project its own ethical shortcomings on to the real-world rebels we call terrorists, and thereby to imagine itself as struggling for the good against overwhelming forces of evil. But Rogue One’s deployment of this trope seems so thoroughly knowing. So what’s going on? Is it a deliberate attempt to engage the witless public in such a collective exercise of projection? Or does it intend to raise provocative questions that challenge a thinking audience to scrutinise the ways in which imperialist conduct stimulates extremist resistance? I would like to think the latter, but the effect of the film will depend on the political sensitivity with which the audience receives it. On this score, recent electoral choices in Anglo-Saxon nations do not inspire hope.

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Deep Sea Life

Gathering.jpg‘Hopeless is a strange, gothic island off the coast of Maine, cut off from the rest of reality for the greater part.’ So write Tom and Nimue Brown, the authors of Hopeless, Maine, a unique series of graphic novels. The world of Hopeless takes inspiration from the tentacled monstrosities of H.P. Lovecraft, transformed into a lighter, ironic vein in which the horrific becomes wistful and cute. The writing is understated and elliptical. The artwork is quite simply superb; its obsessive attention to detail transcends the norms of expectation in comics and puts me in mind of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Originally published by Archaia, the first two volumes of Hopeless, Maine have just been republished as a glorious omnibus edition by Sloth Comics. The authors, being very right on, are keen to encourage readers to order the book from local shops, but it can also be sourced directly from the distributor:

Deep Sea Life.jpgHere’s what the authors have to say about this particular monstrosity from Hopeless, Maine:

‘The tides around the coast of Hopeless, Maine are infamously dangerous, tending to break anything caught up in them. However, there are pockets of still depths, where the wave song cannot be heard. Deep, dark waters where little moves, and nothing changes over unthinkable stretches of time. This is not to say that the depths are lifeless. Only that those humans who enter the hidden kingdom do not return to tell any tales.

‘Every now and then, some ancient horror of the deep succumbs to time. It rises, and the waves dutifully dash it against the rocks. Only broken fragments wash ashore, to alarm and bewilder those who find them.

‘Cooking instructions: Pry open the hard outer shell if you can. If this isn’t possible, just give up, there’s no point continuing. Soak and rinse whatever you find, repeatedly over several days. Cook over a low heat for more than a day. Proceed with caution. Unsuitable for invalids.’

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Considering Speculative Fiction – by Alastair McNaught

In his review (for Vector) of the The Water Knife by Paul Bacigalupi, Anthony Nanson expressed the concern that speculative fiction dealing with the threats pose…

Source: Considering speculative fiction

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Deep Time, Exotic Excursions

dsc07701This year’s visit to New Caledonia got me musing whether I should change the name of my blog – to signal a broadening of scope that would justify my writing here about my travels. ‘Deep Time, Exotic Excursions’ is what I came up with.

My preoccupations as a writer do seem to revolve around those two themes. The novel Deep Time could be considered the ultimate in exotic excursions; three of the stories in my collection Exotic Excursions involve prehistoric creatures; while my work in progress is certainly – from the perspective of two major characters – an experience of the exotic but also involves prehistoric life, albeit on a more modest scale than in Deep Time.

I’m well aware that the word ‘exotic’ is like a red rag to a bull when it comes into the sights of postcolonialist critics. It’s a concept symbolic of obsolete colonialist attitudes that it’s routine to judge harshly. In the introduction to Exotic Excursions I defended the continuing appeal of the exotic when handled in a mindful way that exposes the vulnerabilities of the Western observer and is cognizant that perceptions of the other as exotic work both ways. Underneath this ethical mindfulness, for me, sits a fascination with difference – not only in people and culture, but in landscape and natural history as well. A fascination that is not motivated, à la Edward Said, by the wish to dominate and exploit, but is intrinsic to itself and can motivate a love of the other, a wish for their well-being, a desire for connection – so that, for example, one votes to stay in the European Union rather than abandon it, or one treats immigrants kindly rather than framing them as a threat.

They say that the past is another country, and the past of one’s own culture can seem as exotically other as distant countries. If you happen to be English, like me, listen to some medieval English music and you’ll see what I mean. The same applies to the future as imagined by science fiction.

As the term ‘deep time’ becomes ever more in vogue, it’s sometimes being used to refer to the antiquity of human civilisation. I think this is a misuse of the term – unless you’re talking about Homo habilis. ‘Deep time’ refers to the past not thousands but millions of years ago. But here again the appeal of imagining such distant epochs bespeaks the exotic. I remember well my first book about prehistoric mammals: how fascinating it was to learn about animals that had some relation with those you could see in the zoo but yet were different in sometimes subtle and sometimes startling ways.

For now, I think I’ll keep the name of my blog as it is. For one thing, changing it would probably bugger up the metadata in horrifying ways beyond my comprehension. For another, if I named my blog after my two existing books of contemporary fiction, what would I do when the next one comes out?

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