Brian Murphy on The Black Company by Glen Cook

The_Black_CompanyThe Black Company greatly amplified the latent cynicism and pessimism in the works of Howard and Wagner. Surveying an ocean after leaving a city swamped by corruption and violence, Croaker observes its serenity, but with a jaundiced eye. “We looked at a world never defiled by Man. Sometimes I suspect it would be better for our absence” (Cook 40).

The Black Company is an important transitional work in the development of fantasy fiction. A handful of authors borrowed its bleakness, gray morality, and grit, and blended it with elements of sword-and-sorcery and high fantasy to create a new subgenre. Popularly known today as grimdark, this subgenre often takes the form of lengthy novels or multi-book series featuring large casts of characters in high-stakes adventures, but grounds these high fantasy hallmarks in harsh, gritty environments, peopled with morally compromised protagonists. In many ways, grimdark is sword-and-sorcery wildly amplified—mercenary heroes become disillusioned, amoral beings, and the frequent but often stylized combat of sword-and-sorcery transformed into shocking scenes of graphically depicted carnage and suffering. Grimdark amplifies the pessimism that underlie Howard’s cataclysmic Hyborian Age tales and often presents a nihilistic view of the world, in which heroes rarely make a difference and often don’t live to fight another day.

—Brian Murphy,  Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery

Reading Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery

CaptureIf as I did when growing up you read works by Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melniboné), Fritz Lieber (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), C.L. Moore (Black God’s Kiss) and a myriad of other great sword and sorcery series then Brian Murphey’s Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery is a must. It provides much-needed definitions and critical rigor to this misunderstood fantasy subgenre. It traces its origins in the likes of historical fiction, to its birth in the pages of Weird Tales, to its flowering in the Frank Frazetta-illustrated Lancer Conan Saga series in the 1960s. It covers its “barbarian bust” beneath a heap of second-rate pastiche, a pack of colorful and wildly entertaining and awful sword-and-sorcery films, and popular culture second life in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and the harsh gritty rhythms of heavy metal music.

It covers Robert E. Howard’s life and work, his relations with horror master H.P. Lovecraft, and his social, political, and historical views of modern and ancient worlds. I’ve been reading it for a couple days (about half-way through it!), and find it to be personal and non-academic in a good way (i.e., it’s free of all the literary bric-a-bac terminology and current focus of gender and race – which is not a good or bad thing! – which is off-putting if you’re just a basic fan wanting a avid and thorough grasp of the territory and it’s major players.

Get it on amazon: here.

The Shadow Warrior

“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”
—Sayings of Zamirii – Book of the Seven Swords

Skulgrim lay among the corpses like a shadow. Thousands of dead and dying surrounded him in this black land. “The insanity of war,” he thought dimly. “A man might as well be a stone in the river, letting the currents of time pass over him day and night without thought or reason.”

Laying there in the mud and blood he looked more like a corpse himself, his thick black hair muddied and plastered with the dung and offal of his comrades. He tried to raise his head up, but could barely open his eyes much less navigate the sea of bodies above him. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so weak, his body numb and almost as lifeless as the dead laying across his massive chest. “How many hours have I been unconscious?” he wondered. 

The squawks of corpse-birds and buzzing flies stirred above his half-buried body. He tried to lift his arm and hand to brush them away, but felt the energy drain from him into the dark loam of the blood-soaked earth. He knew he’d been there for a while trying to wriggle his fingers caked in human gore. Little did he know he’d sustained deep wounds in his upper thigh. Continue reading

Robert E. Howard: King of Sword and Sorcery

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
― Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard branched out from his cousins in horror to widen the fantastic realism of the human condition in war, violence, and suffering of humans at the hands of its own power mongering kind. He opened the door on an aspect of our history that even now as we look around has yet to subside. As Heraclitus remarked a couple thousand years ago:

‘War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.’

Sadly like other aspects of the darker and more pessimistic conclusions to existence and the human predicament both horror and “sword and sorcery” were pushed by mainstream liberal optimists into the gutter world of pulps. And, yet, unlike many of those same optimists novelists and short story writers of the mainstream, these old pulp artists are still with us being printed over and over generation by generation. They have staying power. Why? Because they speak a harsh truth that both young and old alike know instinctively is true, that they render a vision of life that speaks to us about the world as it is in it’s essential nature of horror and violence, despair and decay. And, yet, provide a way of dealing with it that is both empowering and adequate to the common fate of us all. As Howard would ask a friend in a letter:

“Ask yourself the question and answer it honestly: how much of your life stands clear and distinct, unclouded by the haze of illusion and uncertainty? Can you truly say of yourself, “This is thus, and this is thus; this much is truth and this is false; here lies concrete fact and here the fabric of illusion; this is hazy and this is clear.”?”

—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, August 1925

– David C. Smith, Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography

The Cursed One

“My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye…”
– Robert Browning

We’d been riding all day, lost among these ancient trees; this forest where sun and moon no longer cast their light, and a gloom-born mist settled on the company like an unbidden curse.
We came to a fork in the leaf-strewn path where a choice had to be made.

Orrin Ironfist spoke first: “A wretched thing this is…”

“Aye,” Grimner Longknife moaned.

I’d been eyeing some movement in that thick fog just ahead of us, a figure seemed to be standing there like the knotted gnarl of a tree; else it was an illusion, a momentary madness of my mind. It moved again, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from that blanketed cloudy haze. He held a walking staff of ash, and moved cautiously toward us. Continue reading

Gnostic (Sufi?) influence on Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl”?

In the Blind Owl Sadegh Hedayat speaks of a disease that has cut him off from others in agony and suffering as if he’d been branded and marked by this secret and obscure ailment:

“Will anyone ever penetrate the secret of this disease which transcends ordinary experience, this reverberation of the shadow of the mind, which manifests itself in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake?

I propose to deal with only one case of this disease. It concerned me personally and it so shattered my entire being that I shall never be able to drive the thought of it out of my mind. The evil impression which it left has, to a degree that surpasses human understanding, poisoned my life for all time to come. I said ‘poisoned’; I should have said that I have ever since borne, and will bear for ever, the brand-mark of that cautery.”1

Then Hedayat speaks of fears, along with his course of action (a decision to “remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself” etc.). Then reveals that the only one he will open himself up to is his “shadow”: “It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt. Who knows? We may perhaps come to know each other better.”* Continue reading

Poem of the Lost Despair

The broken years that fester in my now’s,
The lost reasons that silent pave my lives;
The calendars of melancholy nights, distilling
All the sorrows that hang upon my brow
Like hemlock dreams; insomniac wafting’s.
Lost, lost among the darkened worlds, gone
Among the listless memories that uncreated
Weave the measure of my heart’s despair;
City of ten thousand days and nights,
Glory of the undying kingdoms of Intarii Prime,
Where is she now my city of lost despair?
Lost, lost among the darkened worlds…

—Princess Sejik’s Book of Black Remembrances

—S.C. Hickman ©2019 (Part of an ongoing Darkgrim Fantasy Epic)

Queen of Thieves

My tale continues…

Queen of Thieves

Coming home, the locks broken
And the doors wide open
It’s all gone, it’s all gone now-

—Ballad of the Thief

Talia was leaning against a pole in the fruit stall, munching on a crouder – so sweet and bitter, smacking her lips, and licking the juices dripping on her fingers; the syrup like amber, thick and tasty. She’d been there for a while studying the crowd, looking for the mark. Bulgy the dwarf was over by the winch-stand playing his lute. The young girls all fawning over his jokes and antics. But his mind was seeking too: his bushy brows and flashing eyes, shifting and turning, swaying and bulging with laughter; the bellows of a beard puffing up from his belly in red rivulets, shining in the sun like a festering fire needing to be put out. She almost laughed, but caught herself as she saw the mark she’d been looking for wander past toward the slave pits.

Jesper Tul bought slaves for the Patricians. His body-guard was a few paces back of him; a tall Varángōn, steeped in the old ways: a killer at heart, wary and eyes that unceasingly scoped the market for thieves and pickpockets. But Talia was used to his kind. The one weakness they had was the young boys. And that was Bulgy’s card to play. She pulled here cowl down, the soft feathery weight of the hood falling gently over here inky bangs, her mousy eyes sparkling full of intensity. She set the plan in motion, whistled an old lay Bulgy was fond of, and his ears perked up. He remained where he was playing the lute; and, yet, his stubby hands and feet were beginning to dance a little more expectantly. Continue reading


Særima. Place of beginnings and ruins. The city where I emerged like an orphan from long exile. Sitting between the vast ocean of Tam’ir and the Great Emptiness – the desert with no end; my home, my city. Caught in the nightmare grip of those who do not belong. Those who came from elsewhere; from the watery abyss, in their black ships. Took what was ours; and drove my people across this void, this silence – to this ruinous wasteland of leprous decay, this rotting jungle of filth and corruption we now call home.

Maybe we are all orphans; all exiles, in one way or another. The last remnant of a Lost Kingdom by the sea; our lives and memories lost among broken spires and fallen walls. Yes, even now, as I sit here in this iron black prison, lost among the stone tombs of Ala’mbra, I remember my ancient home: the Palace of Ta’rif; the golden spires of the Mu’da Fir; the glowing cobbles of the Forbidden Temples, where the Drakomir worshiped the Old Gods. Like a fine diamond set on the crown of the Ausländian Empire it was the refuge for all the oppressed and forgotten peoples who’d escaped the floods of the Long Sun. All gone; all in ruins… I will not forget her; my city, ever.

The debris of past worlds, conflicts and wars, the temptation to conquer and dominate… forever we fall before such ruins of mind and intellect, our desires riven of their power to sustain us give way to the lusts of fame and glory, corruption and decay. We darken the past with the stench of our broken promises, the covenants we hold against the day of judgment. Like children we break the toys of foreign climes, cities and habitations of beauty and splendor, till nothing remains but the obscurity of things. Emptied of her people and her pride, ashes and flames; bitter conquest and blacker nights she enters the tenebrous shores of oblivion. Unable to defy time, mere playthings for the gods of chaos and destruction, we seek to keep at bay those that would deign to kill us; never vanquished, yet always at war…

Death’s Mask

Finally began my latest tale… a Grimdark Fantasy to allow me to work through many of the pessimistic themes I’ve been studying for so long this year. Just a snippet from the opening…

Death’s Mask

My first thought was, he lied in every word…
—Sayings of the Outcasts

Watching over the world like an indifferent god, the sun treats the impermanence and fragility of human lives with utter indifference and contempt.
– Book of the Nine

I studied his malicious eyes, seeking in that hoary darkness some sign of deceit, death prone maggot of the lower streets; this cripple, beggar, thief was known to me from womb-days past. We were both of the corruption, born of shadows and broken stones, creatures of the towers long hiding. Even now as I stretched my neck upward to the harsh steel sky where the bone moon shed her skin like a defrocked maiden I listened to the old man as he croaked his tale.

“We know these things. We do! We seen these things, and more; oh yes, we seen too much. We did. They came you know. The ones who do not speak. They came…”

He rambled on in that curved tongue like a swarthy rat chirping from its hole in the wall. I let him go on; it mattered not, I’d heard it before. I knew the tale. I knew where it was going. We both did. And, yet, I let him go on as he must; it was all he had left. These old tales; old illusions. How many deceptions we all live by. We all tell ourselves it’s truth we seek, when what we truly seek is a great lie against the world. We don’t want to know the truth. The truth kills, maims, tears us from our self-deceiving lies; our past. Most of all we don’t want to know that past… the pain is too real. Continue reading

Shadow on the Wall

If I ever had one great mentor it would’ve been Henry Miller, a writer I internalized so well, who became a part of my mental makeup, that I hardly even reference him anymore. Strange how various authors who have influenced one so mightily just vanish into the very substance of what one is as a human.
‘It is not enough to overthrow governments or masters, total revolution of thought is needed. ” – Henry Miller
If there has been one slogan I’d love on a plaque that would be it. My whole life as a… (I could say almost anything…) human is summed up in that statement. I still believe it. Until we change our minds, till we revolt against the mind-set of our current world and its self-deceptions, we will never… never create a future worth living in. For that a true “revolution in thought” is needed. Even now as I ponder our current trends in speculative thought one gets a feeling that we’re on the edge of that revolution; and, yet, not one single thinker among my contemporaries is ready to step out and light the fire, think the new.
Being a creature of contradiction, and multiple; knowing that behind the fleshly smile is this multitude rather than some singular individual. I realized I’ve never been singular or individual; always a daemonic legion… demonically driven in the most contradictory of ways.
As that wise man of the New England strangeness once said:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Surfing the Liminal Horizon

Those thinkers in the Consciousness business have been at least ever since David Chalmers asked the simple (or difficult) question: “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” His point is that we can describe many of the things consciousness does, but we cannot answer what he terms the “hard problem” why the brain ever needed and created this evolutionary process to begin with. As I’m still reading High Weirdness by Erik Davis who takes up Chalmers notion not because he has an answer but,

“I mention both the hard problem and its panpsychist solution here as a wedge against the familiar, and ultimately authoritarian, attempts to close our accounts with extraordinary experiences by papering over the significant philosophical and scientific issues that inform the question of consciousness itself.” (High Weirdness)

Let’s face it most of the time when we come up against the unknown, the liminal horizon of the Outside or Beyond etc. we begin a process of trying to translate or reduce these experiences into the known categories of either mathematical notation or linguistic knowledge, but in the process of doing that we lose the the very kernel of the unknown as unknown (i.e., as that which is and will always be in excess of our various apparatuses, reductions, translations, etc.). There are other thinkers who have found a partial reason why we continue to function this way, as Andy Clark tells it:

“The clue can be summed up in a single word: prediction. To deal rapidly and fluently with an uncertain and noisy world, brains like ours have become masters of prediction—surfing the waves of noisy and ambiguous sensory stimulation by, in effect, trying to stay just ahead of them. A skilled surfer stays ‘in the pocket’: close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the wave breaks, it does not catch her. The brain’s task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able … to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action. Successful, world-engaging prediction is not easy. It depends crucially upon simultaneously estimating the state of the world and our own sensory uncertainty. But get that right, and active agents can both know and behaviourally engage their worlds, safely riding wave upon wave of sensory stimulation.”

So here we discover that long before our conscious mind begins to know or understand what is taking place, the brain is already processing this world of experience through techniques of guessing and predictive analysis in all those subsystems behind the curtain of conscious awareness. Yet, this little bit of knowledge is just one facet that is now going into answering that question David Chalmers asked a couple decades ago.

Even as I’m reading Erik Davis in this High Weirdness I realize as individuals we pick and choose various frameworks to as Heidegger would call it “enframe” our world. We can’t do otherwise. In our own Western civilization we’ve divided this territory into scientific and secular/religious socio-cultural frames of reference, both sides competing to reduce reality to one or the other worldview. Philosophers in their own pursuits have locked heads in a battle between analytical modes and hermeneutic modes or combinations of the two. The Real is always in excess of our systems of thinking no matter what we do. We can impose a top-down model, or a bottom-up model; either way we are always negotiating with an intractable reality that will not remain still, a moving target that always presents us with a liminal mask of the trickster. We’re always bound by the known even as we begin to step out into those liminal zones of the Great Unknown or Outside. The trick is like constructing a hologram, to waver between the particle and the wave, oscillating between the light and darkness of known and unknown without ascribing too much of it to our construction sets of math or language. To surf the liminal zones in-between horizons of possible/impossible without losing ourselves in either one… that’s the trick.

  1. Andy Clark. Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind

On Carlo Michelstaedter’s “Persuasion and Rhetoric”

Along the usual ways men travel in a circle with no beginning or end; they come, go, compete, throng like busy ants, change places, certainly, since no matter how much they walk, they are always where they were before, because one place is as good as another in the valley without exit.

—Carlo Michelstaedter, Persuasion and Rhetoric

In this book he develops Hegel’s master/slave thesis not as a political thought, but as an existential thesis in which the master is she who living fully in the present has no need of past and future, and therefore has no need to fear death; for death is swallowed up in the present of living. While those who are slaves fear both past and future, because they lack the presence of the present, and therefore are but shadows being sucked forward and backward in time like forgotten ghouls of a lost thought… having no life, they fear death – having no death, they fear life: caught in the trap between past and future they cannot enter the present because they are its shadows.

Read his book… here!

The Weird Canon

S.T. Joshi in a statement about the difference between old mode weird (i.e., Poe and Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, etc.) and our modern weird is the centrality of character development in the latter:

“What has been happening in weird fiction since Lovecraft is a vast reorientation of focus: ordinary people are somehow regarded as intrinsically important, and the weird phenomena are, very broadly, seen as threats to their middle-class stability. Stefan Dziemianowicz has labelled this tendency the “banalisation” of horror, although he did not intend the term pejoratively but merely descriptively. What he meant was the increasing concern by weird writers to depict the minute details of the mundane lives of mundane people, both in an attempt to win the reader’s sympathy (we all like to read about ourselves) and so as to lay the groundwork for the intrusion of the weird into a familiar realm.”1

I can’t say that is true of contemporary authors in toto (and to be honest this essay was circa 1992+), but there is something to it. There does seem to be a great divide between horror novelists and short story/tale writers. Tales have always spun off from two traditions: 1) on the one hand is the realist tradition best typified by Anton Chekov’s tales; on the other is the tradition of phantasmagoria of Kafka/Borges and the fantastic. (One could take this back further, but I’m just illustrating a point!) Most of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century dwelt on atmosphere; theme; character/uncharacter (or the lack thereof, as in pov of a typical no one and anonymous, etc. – inconsistent or unreliable; or puppet style uncharacter…); supernaturalism; and, either ontological or epistemic stances onto various shades of cosmic pessimism. While novelists of horror seem more prone to spend a great deal of time on the mundane and character ridden development of common men and women in their daily lives while slowly allowing the weird to seep in from elsewhere over the course of the novel. (This is a little parodic because to go into it in depth and analytically it would take a book!)

Stephen King and others in the larger more expansive horror novels began centering on the average Joe on the street. Stephen King has stated that “my idea of what a horror story should be [is that] the monster shouldn’t be in a graveyard in decadent old Europe, but in the house down the street.” It’s this normalization of horror, or what one might term the re-humanization of horror from its roots in the Outside – or, Cosmic Horrorism which typifies much of the novelistic and some tale writers. It’s gentler and cozy, and even the monstrous other is somehow made more human in the sense of brought into the fold of everyday life rather than away from it. None of this is iron-clad, I’ve seen some contemporary tales that do both.

Here’s the clincher for Joshi: “I do not think that weird fiction should be about ordinary people. Even if one does not adopt the cosmic attitude of Lovecraft, even if one wishes to depict the insidious incursion of the weird into the ordinary, the emphasis should be on the weird and not the ordinary.”

Another of those got you’s in canon formation (Joshi):

“Some principle of selectivity must be had; and I can state unequivocally that my principle—hence my canon—is based upon the actual literary merits, as best I can assess them, of the works and authors I have read. … I am not, for example, interested in what weird fiction can tell us about our society because I am not interested in society. This may or may not be a deficiency on my part.

The overriding question is whether literary merit coincides with popular appeal.”

Anyone whose ever read Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon will realize his preference for the whole Romantic Tradition in thought and life, and his favorites in the canon pretty much fit into his tastes in this view of existence (Idealist in most ways… with a Gnostic reading… elitist and aesthetic). Joshi’s tends toward the pessimistic and fatalist, materialist (old school materialism!) and phantasmagoric. Yet, both agree on this: that the critical task of evaluation and judgement is the critic’s main job. In this sense a critic does not usually cater to the popular or mass readership of the day, but seeks to define a more careful and reasoned appeal to certain forms of style and aesthetics that seem to last and influence other writers rather than readers. What may be popular to a reader, may not be what influences other writers so that in the next generation what seemed to be a top seller just falls by the wayside because it no longer influences writers. The key here is “influence” in poets, novelists, short story, essayists, philosophers, etc. The one’s that keep getting printed over and over are usually shaping the living style and language of the current generation of writers in any one period. Some writers like Shakespeare or Proust will probably be read a few hundred years down the pipe, just as the pedagogical use of the tragedians of Greece from Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and even the arch comic Aristophanes; and their main philosophical progenitors Plato and Aristotle. To understand why influence matters is something it would take a lifetime to ponder and write about. Bloom himself spent most of his career pondering just that and in the end has barely scratched the surface of what makes a writer become a part of the living active canon, a writer who has staying power.

Aesthetic or Political?

I tend to agree here, too, with Joshi, Bloom, and other old fashioned aesthetic critics. As Joshi says:

“Those readers and critics who object to criticism that is “subjective” miss the boat entirely: in searching for “objective” standards of valuation, they are attempting to turn criticism into an exact science (which it is not and never can be) and to bypass this whole issue of critical judgment—probably because they possess so little of it themselves.”

Too often now I see what I term political literary criticism that bases everything on some “objective” ideological set of criteria , that forces an author into either a Progressive or Reactionary cage of isolation/exclusion or community/inclusion. I recently saw a critical article on one of my favorite authors Flannery O’Conner that pointedly spent the whole essay seeking to attack her as a racist. I had to think about this. Hell, I’m an atheist, and O’Conner was a strict Catholic; and, yet, I didn’t bat an eye realizing that aesthetically and subjectively there is genius in her work, a teller of tales like no other before or sense; a unique style and aesthetic. And yet just because I don’t share her religious message doesn’t mean I can’t share in her stories as a reader.

As for her racism… one thing I’ve learned ages ago is to perceive the writing not the writer in the works. Most of us humans are complete disasters as “humans”… we’ve all been born happenstance into the cultural cages we were born into, and struggling to get out of these ideological hell holes is a life-long process. If we fail time and again we should agree with Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” In other words should I not read a writer’s works because they did not live up to some political agenda I hold dear? Should I exclude them from my reading experience because they failed to align themselves with my political, religious, or socio-cultural ideology? If we did that with every writer in Western Civ we’d probably read only a handful of authors to the exclusion of all others.

Does that mean that if I read an author whose work – let’s say H.P. Lovecraft who was a known bigot, reactionary, racist, etc., is anathema to my ideological stance I’ll be corrupted or ruined etc. Of course not, and the very idea that a person will somehow be a bad person for reading a writer who in their fleshly life harbored unsavory behaviors would be to continuously live under the shadow of censors… a thing Orwell wrote about over and over again. We live in an age of Censors now, in a society that is suddenly demonizing the arts for their stance in politics. It’s as if a new Inquisition were emerging in our midst. Everyone lives in fear of saying the wrong thing in social media, because there are Inquisitorial moralists and political extremists continuously seeking to vilify those who do not tow some normative and political stance and acceptable ideology. Being on the Left I hate reactionaries as much as anyone, but am I going to stop reading literature based on this stance? No. I’ll hate the person not the literature. If I began hating both I’d probably exclude 9/10ths’ of the world’s literature… because almost all of it fails this supposed objective criteria of our political moment.

In the end most of us make up our own minds (i.e., most of our critical appeals are after all subjective and aesthetic; that is, unless you’re a full blown moralist and political inquisitor!).

  1. Joshi, S. T.. The Advance of the Weird Tale . Sarnath Press.

The Horror Story

The horror story, by obeying the terms of the nightmare, is a way that, deviously, some people use to think about the unthinkable, to face what we otherwise would not choose to look upon, and, more importantly, to control and give meaning to that which can neither be controlled nor harbors any meaning. It is a perverted mode of defending ourselves from what would demean and destroy us, from what cannot be helped and should never have been—life itself in all its inane grotesquerie.

– Thomas Ligotti, The Shadow at the Bottom of the World

László Krasznahorkai: Waiting for this to be over…

James Wood once said of the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai that his “prose has a kind of self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer.” One might also say his prose is the answer to a question no one has ever asked, a solution to a puzzle no one ever puzzled over. It’s the kind of labyrinthine prose that seems to move of its own accord, leading one into an endless series of blind passages whose only reason for being is to allow you to enjoy the endless details of an insane world in its own act of vanishing…

As Baron Wenckheim tells us in Krasznahaorkai’s latest lost world of words:

“…I am the one— not creating anything— but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.”

—László Krasznahorkai, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming

It’s as if the apocalypse were a road show to nowhere and nowhen, a conversation between to voids collecting only the sounds of emptiness and fullness. Maybe like the two clown tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot there is only the endless chatter of two minds seeking comfort against the silence which seems forever about to stop all conversation forever… it’s this need to keep the words going, this rush of energy, this mad endlessness of script surging from void to void without any rhyme or reason that keeps the universe from shutting down for good. Maybe in the end the mad Baron lies, and that he knows the truth: that if he ever does stop, his voice going dark and silent, that not only will the show end, but nothing will have ever been…

The Uncanny Guest

The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and existence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real.

—Thomas Ligotti

Susan Lepselter speaking of the American Weird says: “The content of these stories varies, but their themes keep circling back to a sense that life in America is shaped by some ineffable, enormous power, a power that can be seen only in the patterns of its effects.”

If there were a central theme running through the gamut of the modern weird it would be this sense of a disturbing force, an uncanny intelligence just outside our awareness which has designs upon us and our lives. A force not of some older religious notions of gods or Gods, but of something felt but not seen, a malevolence at the heart of things, a vibrant and uncanny life just below the threshold of consciousness that seems to filter in from elsewhere not like some older theological creature so codified by the order of various traditional religions, but rather of some darker and unknown – or, even, yet to be known forces, a power that cannot be named so much as felt in the shadows of our haunted dreams and lives.

Freud would plunder the work of Schopenhauer and other Nineteenth Century thinkers, poets, philosophers and construct a theory around this uncanny guest: the death drive, a dark and ever apparent force shaping our lives through subtle transactions of repetitive and uncanny motions leading us through various decisions, indecisions, anxieties, love, hate, dread, fear, and many other affective relations toward that as Shakespeare would call it in a beautiful metaphor – the “unknown country” of death.

I’ve always been fascinated by the term Supernatural Horror ever since I read H.P. Lovecraft’s book of that name, and its history of authors who were for the most part non-believers and atheists who used the supernatural not as a belief system but rather as a unconcept or negative hole in aesthetics to define the Unknown beyond which we cannot think much less reason. And, yet, we’re driven to know what it is that affects us from this uncanny region of the Unknown. Why? Most atheists try to tell us that death is it, that once you die you just fall back into the rotting entropy of universal decay that is our Universe. And, yet, even those who proclaim being atheists at times turn skeptic and wonder about it, try to escape it, try to reason it out and shed light on it to assuage the rest of the vast majority who seem caught up in the irrational superstitions of our moment.

I think of all those strange television programs and books from popular culture dealing with Ghosts, UFO’s, Ancient Aliens, Conspiracy, etc. as if these people who hunt such things down using the latest technological toys were actually uncovering the dark Unknown in our midst. Obviously these programs are money makers and draw vast crowds to watch them, go to conventions, etc.. Why are people in an age that was supposed to have alleviated the anxieties of the old religions given over to so much irrationalism? For two hundred years philosophers, poets, thinkers, and literary types of every stripe have offered various thoughts, stories, etc. upon this very thing. And, yet, it seems to continue unabated, migrating into new and stranger territory. Why?

Of late been collecting works on just that and realizing no matter how we try to define this liminal zone of the uncanny, marvelous, fantastic, Supernatural, etc. it is still with us and not going away anytime soon. Book after book deal with it from various aesthetic to scientific angles. Amazing academic works that seem to churn out theory after theory which only complicate the problem rather than solving it. Even stranger is that in a time such as ours as the political and social and economic systems seem to be decaying into ruins around us this other realm of the uncanny seems to have shifted into high gear, producing in the vast majority of non-readers a sense of cultural anxiety and fear of the Unknown which is gathering every sort of irrational notion into the mix. What does it all mean?

I’ve always been fascinated by this strange world and its attraction on us. More from someone who long ago overcame my own religious heritage and its irrational baggage which seemed more about social control and fear than about its purported offerings of salvation and redemption. As the thinkers of the Nineteenth Century knew we seem to be in love with our chains, and freedom from those illusions and delusions, deceptions and cultural lies are the last thing that most humans are seeking. Freedom entails a lonely world leading only toward the Unknown without anything to anchor one’s beliefs or thoughts. Few will ever be free..

The Thing That Cannot Be Named: A Postphilosophical Digression

More and more as I study the philosophical bric-a-brac of our moment with its completed nihilism one realizes the apocalypse is past us, the end that all thought might arrive from some destitute future is behind us and all that is left is this passive sea of nothingness in which nothing happens but this circulation in the pond of destitution and bankruptcy. Politics is dead, only its echo in the nihilist factories of media continue to broadcast its demise; its finality. As Baudrillard suggests,

“The dialectic stage, the critical stage is empty. There is no more stage … The masses themselves are caught up in a gigantic process of inertia through speed. They are this excrescent, devouring, process that annihilates all growth and all surplus meaning. They are this circuit short-circuited by a monstrous finality.” (Baudrillard 1994, 161)

But what has happened? What is it that has left the stage? Maybe the “human” itself? This thing that had a history that could end, absolved into the non-being of its inessential inexistence? Are we not already beyond that thing, that past? Have we not already become something else, other? What is this thing we are, now? We speak of the transitory, the process, the transition which becomes; no before, no after – only this process of unmaking and making, or as Deleuze-Guattari once had it, this deterritorialization and vacating of the ruins which are taking place, have already taken place? A movement or happening in the midst of catastrophe; a catastrophe that no one was prepared for but all are experiencing. Isn’t this it? This unnamable thing of monstrous intent that is liquifying the old world of power like a deck of cards ignited by the fires of the new which cannot be named? All the names we’ve appended to it seem of little use: inhuman, unhuman, non-human, posthuman, transhuman… as if we could not throw off that thing: the human. As if we could only modify it, append some prefix to hold us in abeyance of the strange ending and finality of this ancient dis-ease, distance ourselves from the humus of its incessant after-life. So why is it so hard to unname it, conclude that which would leave it blankly on the deserts of this unmaking? And most of all: what is it that it is which has already arrived? The unnamed thing we are?

The Demiurge in Ancient and Modern Mythos

In my studies of Cormac McCarthy and others like Philip K. Dick, Lawrence Durrell, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Nabokov, Borges, and even H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones, or Thomas Ligotti as parodic metaphor for nihilism and the Unknown menace at the core of our cosmic despair etc., all of who have used aspects of the ancient Platonic-Orphic or Gnostic-Archon mythologies. It’s the central character of the Demiurge as bungling artificer or mad blind god of Cosmos and Chaos and his minions who pervade the various underpinnings of these fictions. It’s strange how and why this ancient dualist mythology as old as Zoroaster pervades much of modern thought in both its religious transcendent variety and in the secular nihilist works of closure and anti-realist/irrealist.

I’ve always inclined to a Anti Anti-Gnosticism of the secular atheistic variety as a metaphor of weird-horror fiction with its notion of a cosmic pessimism and horror of consciousness. Even an antinatalist vision such as the one Christopher Slatsky uses in his titled story The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature traces the Idealist or Nature based aspects of this mythos (even if Slatsky himself is not overt in its dealings, but indirectly by way of this whole complex of proto-Gnostic ideas resurfacing in Blake, Holderlin, Shelley, Keats, and others: Novalis, Baudelaire, etc.). Underlying late Romantic, Decadent, Symbolist, Surrealist, and Post-Modern secular visions is this anti-Orthodox mythos which even in Bataille would arise as base materialist thought; or, later in Cioran, Nick Land (i.e., Land’s use of Capitalism = AI – a sort of retrovirus from the future: none other than the old blind Will-God-Archon) and others. The whole libidinal stream of affective and Will based philosophies of the Pessimism, Absurd, Existential, onward harbored it as well. A good background work for writers who use such things is The Demiurge in Ancient Thought: Secondary Gods and Divine Mediators by Carl Séan O’Brien.


Each death is unique and personal; only the process and mutation is universal. Decay wanders through us like a forest fire; its random patterns chewing up the dark interior leaving strange signs and miracles of sublime enervation in its wake. Each of us is an artist of his/her own private disappearance, holding in silence only those experiences that if given form would do nothing but reveal the destitution of life as a project of despair. If we each refuse to shed tears at the approaching hour of our erasure it is only that in that moment of final parting we can shine like quasars at the bottom of a black hole.



Most humans die into that absence of memory which leaves no traces, a namelessness that harbors little more than the epithets of a despair without end. Half believing in the myth of nothingness this thing I am (a series of memories, words, absences?) seeks nothing more than to leave just that: nothing. Let my grave go unmarked, the earth above my cremated body be covered over in acorns like a smile lost within tears. Why should we seek to escape oblivion? Why muster physical or mental attributes to contest the Void? In the end we (whatever “we” is or is not!), will all die the death of stars, nothing will remain but the darkness and the abyss. Should we accept that or dream of an Outside where everything remains in amber, like a string of butterflies dancing in the last sun’s dying embers?

What about George Floyd?


What about George Floyd? Black Lives Matter? What about real Justice? What about actual Change? Are we losing sight of the goal as the ideological crowd spin it into mere second hand commentary?

What’s sad is that George Floyd who triggered this strange uprising seems to have gotten lost in the cosmos, while all the ideological rifts of the past sixty years have resurfaced with a vengeance. The bottled up emotions of the recent plague have tapped into a world pain and suffering that have up to now been brewing like an open wound. And, yet, as we watch our leaders it begins to be apparent that they neither care about the actual and real situation of Black People, nor are they willing to step down out of their ideological boxes and enact legislation that will effect true change. Instead they send mixed signals, sling mud at each other, and generally continue the game of politics and despair which have led our country into a slow decline and decay. On the one side we have an autocrat and authoritarian President whose only goal is to incite violence and civil war across our nation. On the other hand you have Democrats whose weak response offers neither solution nor promise of real change.

In the middle you have both the personal family of George Floyd whose atrocious death at the hands of thugs in blue seems to be hijacked by all sides involved to what end? Once again words and more words rather than actions seem to be the order of the day. Talk and more talk… leading to what? The media plays the game while they can make money keeping things stirred up day by day, unleashing a series of disconnected and fragmentary commentaries from political and academic pundits as if this has ever changed anything. While the Black Community itself seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of words, and the power of the State regains its composure and standard violence toward the voice and bodies of the people.

Once again things never change, only the appearance of change rather than its actuality.

Michael Wehunt: The Teeth of America

Just finished reading Michael Wehunt‘s latest horror tale “The Teeth of America”, and it’s about the dark corruption that pervades every aspect of our society at the moment. Racism and Hate. There is a deep sickness in our society, one that has been festering for decades if not centuries. A corruption that has spread from east to west and back again… a malevolent poison that has been brewing in the depths of men’s hearts and minds. The Civil War became the greatest marking point in its history, one that opened a wound that has yet to heal our nation. Under the soil of our land is a haunting sense that something is not right with us, that things are not what they seem. For decades this cosmic cesspool of hate and bigotry has sunken its teeth into the American psyche leading young and old alike to enter some ungodly cult-like pact of delirium.

Michael’s tale turns this corruption seeping in from the outside in of our deadly heritage of hate and bigotry, our dark hinterlands of fascism and white supremacist ideologies and KKK nightmares, where Aryan and Skinhead brotherhoods roam in feral packs across our nation like mad dogs of some unholy faith… It’s a tale of bitter men whose sullied hearts of stone and cold intelligence have bitten the fruit of some ancient darkness and given birth to a strange god… and now that malevolent and tortured god is calling them home to a festival of massacres. 

Read it and weep for our world… The Teeth of America!

While your at it pick up one of Michael’s latest collections: on Amazon!


Rereading Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

This is sixth reading of Ligotti’s Conspiracy book, and every time something new pops out or a new perspective on various angles of vision suddenly rise up while others fall back into the background. With this reading I honed in on his stance of pessimism and anti-natalism. His vision pushes Schopenhauer’s vision of extreme menace and hooks it with the early rather than late Lovecraftian horror reality. To say the least it is an explosive and somber view of life and cosmos, a view that leaves us in no doubt as to what underpins his corpus of tales. His vision is definitely not for everyone, it’s probably the darkest vision of existence I’ve seen in my sixty-eight years. But that’s only to say that his is a vision very few will ever accept, for the central core of his vision is that 99% of humanity is in denial of this horror reality within which we are all situated.

As he surmise from Zapffe and others it’s not actually our fault either, we have since the origins of consciousness been the victims of our own success. Consciousness gave rise to certain repressive and defensive measures against our natural existence, a “denial of reality” syndrome if you will. As T.S. Eliot once suggested: “Human cannot bare too much reality!” That’s an understatement. As Ajit Varki and Danny Brower in their book Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind suggests somewhere along the way humans were became aware of their own mortality, and the anxiety, terror, and dread of physical death shaped their psyches to the point of madness. To counter this “humans needed to evolve a mechanism for overcoming this hurdle: the denial of reality.” As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change.

Optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of these harsh truths are the markers of our denial, defensive and self-deluded deliriums of our escape and evasive tactics to leave our natural world of mortality and degradation behind. We are the mad creatures who have invented artificial worlds to hide ourselves from the truth of our cosmic predicament. As Ligotti says:

“As a species with consciousness, we do have our inconveniences. Yet these are of negligible importance compared to what it would be like to feel in our depths that we are nothing but human puppets—things of mistaken identity who must live with the terrible knowledge that they are not making a go of it on their own and are not what they once thought they were. At this time, barely anyone can conceive of this happening—of hitting bottom and finding to our despair that we can never again resurrect our repressions and denials. Not until that day of lost illusions comes, if it ever comes, will we all be competent to conceive of such a thing. But a great many more generations will pass through life before that happens, if it happens.” (TCHR, pp. 79-89)

What I believe?

I’m more of an Anti-Gnostic Gnostic – or a pessimist who no longer ontologizes the universe as pure evil per se as in the Gnostics, but rather as a part of our epistemic inheritance: a mood and temperament, not a realism. The only horror being consciousness itself. I’m not a religious creature and like Ligotti I believe there are no objective values (moral anti-realism), only the indifference and impersonalism of a dynamic universe without gods or God. We are part of the insanity of processes that have no rhyme or reason as attested by the various evolutionary histories in our planetary history, all bound to various cataclysmic events which have cycled through time producing a myriad of different species. All of which (or some estimate 90%) have for the most part seen their day and gone extinct just as we will in some future time to be determined. Even now the notion of our replacement or substitution is in the offing with all the various philosophies and sciences of the post-human divide. Who knows what will come? Certainly not I. I’m no prophet or even doomsayer. Just someone who has by temperament and situation been drawn to the pessimistic worldview rather than optimists.

The Great Filter, in the context of the Fermi paradox, is whatever prevents non-living matter from undergoing abiogenesis, in time, to expanding lasting life as measured by the Kardashev scale. The concept originates in Robin Hanson’s argument that the failure to find any extraterrestrial civilizations in the observable universe implies the possibility something is wrong with one or more of the arguments from various scientific disciplines that the appearance of advanced intelligent life is probable; this observation is conceptualized in terms of a “Great Filter” which acts to reduce the great number of sites where intelligent life might arise to the tiny number of intelligent species with advanced civilizations actually observed (currently just one: human). This probability threshold, which could lie behind us (in our past) or in front of us (in our future), might work as a barrier to the evolution of intelligent life, or as a high probability of self-destruction. The main counter-intuitive conclusion of this observation is that the easier it was for life to evolve to our stage, the bleaker our future chances probably are. (wiki)

As Ligotti suggests:

Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees—a blunder of blind nature, according to Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are—contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating.” The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (p. 49).

Do I believe that will ever happen? No. Humanity will continue as it always has in denial and self-deception, full of optimistic hope and dreams of either some heavenly paradise or earthly one just beyond our present degradation. All religions are based on the notion of transcendence for the most part, the notion of a beyonding… hoping for some form of soteriological or redemptive clause in the sad state of affairs that will allow them to overcome human organic depletion and death. Sadly they are wrong. But, hey, I’m in the minority here. So I’ll just let it sit or stand at that.

Summing up the pessimistic imagination Thomas Ligotti in his The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror states:

Here, then, is the signature motif of the pessimistic imagination that Schopenhauer made discernible: Behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. For Zapffe, the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy. For Michelstaedter, individuals can exist only as unrealities that are made as they are made and that cannot make themselves otherwise because their hands are forced by the “god” of philopsychia (self-love) to accept positive illusions about themselves or not accept themselves at all. For Mainländer, a Will-to-die, not Schopenhauer’s Will-to-live, plays the occult master pulling our strings, making us dance in fitful motions like marionettes caught in a turbulent wake left by the passing of a self-murdered god. For Bahnsen, a purposeless force breathes a black life into everything and feasts upon it part by part, regurgitating itself into itself, ever-renewing the throbbing forms of its repast. For all others who suspect that something is amiss in the lifeblood of being, something they cannot verbalize, there are the malformed shades of suffering and death that chase them into the false light of contenting lies.

That says everything that needs to be said on the subject.


A Great Horror Philosophy: “The Will-to-Die” in Philip Mainländer’s Philosophy of Redemption

“But at the bottom, the immanent philosopher sees in the entire universe only the deepest longing for absolute annihilation, and it is as if he clearly hears the call that permeates all spheres of heaven: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our life! and the comforting answer: you will all find annihilation and be redeemed!”

― Philipp Mainländer, Die Philosophie Der Erlosung

Thomas Ligotti mentions Philipp Mainländer one of Schopenhauer’s followers whose Philosophy of Redemption exposed an inverted Gnosticism, one in which the supposed alien god of the Universe decides long ago to vacate his Outside Exile and die through his creation in a great festival of annihilation. The myth that Mainländer envisions is one in which this God rather than seeking to save humanity decides on another plan of redemption, one in which his secret wish to end himself becomes the path to redemption. This God sacrifices himself and his sparks are spread throughout the known universe, secret energeia or egregores that inhabit every living thing in the universe with this God’s corruption and horror reality of the “Will-to-Die”. So that unlike Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live, this universal method of self-suicide or Deicide is instilled in every aspect of natural existence.

As Ligotti puts it: “Mainländer was confident that the Will-to-die he believed would well up in humanity had been spiritually grafted into us by a God who, in the beginning, masterminded His own quietus. It seems that existence was a horror to God. Unfortunately, God was impervious to the depredations of time. This being so, His only means to get free of Himself was by a divine form of suicide.” (TCHR, p. 35)

Mainländer was so sure his ideas would be adhered too that on the day of publication of his magisterial edifice he committed suicide. Ligotti concludes:

“In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that He could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out.” (ibid. p. 35)

  1. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 2, 2018)

Thomas Ligotti: Pessimism and Horror

Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumerable souls—while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page. Fiction, unable to compete with the world for vividness of pain and lasting effects of fear, compensates in its own way. How? By inventing more bizarre means to outrageous ends. Among these means, of course, is the supernatural. In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny their horror simultaneously, to savor and suffer them at the same time.

So it is that supernatural horror is the product of a profoundly divided species of being. It is not the pastime of even our closest relations in the wholly natural world: we gained it, as part of our gloomy inheritance, when we became what we are. Once awareness of the human predicament was achieved, we immediately took off in two directions, splitting ourselves down the middle. One half became dedicated to apologetics, even celebration, of our new toy of consciousness. The other half condemned and occasionally launched direct assaults on this “gift.”

Supernatural horror was one of the ways we found that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species. We can also do this trick without trespassing onto the property of supernatural horror, but then we risk running into miseries that are too close to home. While horror may make us squirm or quake, it will not make us cry at the pity of things. The vampire may symbolize our horror of both life and death, but none of us has ever been uprooted by a symbol. The zombie may conceptualize our sickness of the flesh and its appetites, but no one has ever been sickened to death by a concept. By means of supernatural horror we may pull our own strings of fate without collapsing—natural-born puppets whose lips are painted with our own blood.

—Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

The Art of Extinction

“On rare occasions he even spoke to me,’ the doctor said, ‘about the uncreation of his whole life.'”

“Idiots, they mourn the extinction of their beauties and their loves— their pitiful vices— as if these were anything but futile illusions. And such illusions only breed other, more horrible, fantasies: pain, isolation, and ultimate annihilation.”

– Thomas Ligotti

If as Braidotti in an essay on the Deleuzian Century puts it that philosophy should celebrate “the forces of creation (making things happen), practice an activism through art, through an art of living”, then what would a philosophy that celebrated the forces of decreation or uncreation, that practices a deactivation of all affirmation and positivity by way of an absolute negation, through an art of extinction look like? As a character in one of Thomas Ligotti’s tales puts it:

“I cannot help remaining wide awake with visions of that deformed specter of Ascrobius and pondering upon what unimaginable planes of contemplation it dreams of another act of uncreation, a new and far-reaching effort of great power and more certain permanence.”

What if rather than some less than adequate mass suicide or futurial event of mass extinction (natural or otherwise), we instead activate the decreation of history itself, disturb the black waters of human origins and unmake the very substance of our own beginnings? Isn’t this the core of all inhuman, posthuman, and transhuman philosophies: to become otherings? Why not instead just unmake this transient mobility, distill from the traces of its stain a final thread that like all horror realities unbinds it to the Outside – the Unknown. A great unravelling of the human into something non-human, an uncreation into elsewhere?

May that which is low in us go downwards so that what is high can go upwards. For we are wrong side upward. We are born thus. To re-establish order is to undo the creature in us.

– Simon Weil, Gravity and Grace

Unmaking, decreating, is the only task man may take upon himself, if he aspires, as everything suggests, to distinguish himself from the Creator.

– E. M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born

The World Does Not Exist

“And why do we smell only stale incense and rarely have the odours of paradise about us? Because we have fallen into language. Words. What if words were not after all a great blessing but an obstacle? An interference with direct experience? If we had not developed language, would we have developed instead a finely tuned apprehension of each other’s moods and feelings, quite close to telepathy? Might we also see, hear, smell and feel everything around us more intently, more intensely? Could we have become closer to the immediate, the immanent world, ‘things as they are’? Instead of living in the moment, it’s as if we have to convert that moment into a scrambled code of itself, its signifier in words. Like looking at the shapes ‘s e a’ instead of at the sea itself.”1

As I was reading this it reminded me of all the lessons of Kant. The notion that we never truly see things as they are, that we are always already seeing the past even as we open our eyes seeing the smile of our lover. Everything we assume is right there in front of us, everything we assume is directly accessible to our senses is always already pre-processed by our brain and given back to us as if this is the real world. It’s not. We have never had direct access to the world. The world in fact does not truly exist except as a packaged filter handed to our consciousness by those deep processes of the brain that we are absolutely blind to. This is old hat to philosophers, but for us who suddenly become aware of the simplicity of this it’s both strange and eerie. That our whole conscious lives are lived in the past, even if only by milliseconds, is both astounding and frightening. Isn’t this the stage magician’s power over us, this ability to manipulate those filters of the brain, to trick us into believing we see what we do not see? Aren’t we always behind the eight ball, both victims and dupes of our brain’s evolutionary muck; all of us stuck in some niche of ancient survivalist praxis that our brain through millennia of habit like some old LP record has followed the grooves so many times that the moment the groove is cut, or a gap is formed it gets stuck in a loop unable to move forward or backwards. Maybe our lives are just broken vinyl records, repeating the time vectors of some ancient evolutionary song we’ve all forgotten…

  1. Justin Isis. Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuels Snuggly Books.

Maurice Levy on Lovecraft’s Fantastic

To our mind, the fantastic is born from the divorce produced between the perfect lucidity of the characters and the dream images that they encounter. Lacking any more precise criteria, one could almost measure the fantastic by the degree of consciousness of the heroes on one side, and on the other the intensity of the dream images that surround them. (p. 13)

—Maurice Levy, Lovecraft: A Study of the Fantastic

What Could Be Said Wasn’t Worth Saying

Even now as he sat at this desk, doing this work, pondering the strange and unfathomable events that had brought him here to begin with he was tempted to believe it was like everything else an illusion. More than that – a delusion of old age, a demented dream of an ailing body. But he knew it wasn’t, knew this is where he was meant to be, doing what he had to do. It had always been this way, and it would always be this way.

Even when he felt the first palpitations, the slow draw in his chest, moving toward the big window where in the distance he saw his wife Martha kneeling down, her delicate hands kneading the newly turned earth where she was planting flowers for the Spring. Even then he didn’t want to believe what was happening was happening. But it was. And he knew it, and knew nothing he could do or say would change the fact that this was it. He wanted to say something to his wife, but he knew that what could be said wasn’t worth saying. He’d said everything and nothing. In the moments before he fell he tried to remember what it was he’d wanted out of life, knowing as he knew that it didn’t matter anyway. Nothing did then, nothing would now. He’d be gone, and memory and desire would fall back into the great emptiness of things.

But they didn’t, nothing is ever lost in this emptiness. Everything goes on and on till it doesn’t then it changes.

Even now as he sat at the desk waiting for the first client of the day he wondered if they too felt such strange disquieting thoughts. Most of them like he was when he came here the first time were dazed and in shock not believing what was happening to them, each like he had been living in denial of what was very much the truth of their situation. To be here in this place, to know what he knew now was almost too much. As he’d sunk down into the thick carpet on that day he’d thought it would just end, that the enveloping darkness would obliterate all thought and there would be nothing left, nothing remaining. He was wrong.

And yet everything here was just as confusing, or more so, than it had been there. But where is here, and where is there? He was still confused. Everything he’d been taught “there” was meaningless “here”. All the preachers, all the philosophers, all the cynics; they’d all gotten it wrong. Nothing was as it seemed.

That was his job, to help those who were confused to realize it wouldn’t get any better. That no one here knew any more than those back there. Things were just what they were; no meaning, no reason, just a sort of inarticulate confusion. All those that came here were like he had been at one time, seekers of the final solution to why… they’d discover soon enough that it was the wrong question. We’d all been asking the wrong questions for far too long.

Sometimes he really wished there had been someone here to answer the deepest questions, the deepest yearnings of his inarticulate heart. But after a while, when no one came forward, when he realized there was no one here, there had never been anyone here with the answers; he wanted to die, but couldn’t because this was both and wasn’t… death. Death had been a lie, too; just one more deception among so many. What it was no one could answer, everyone he’d met here was just as confused as he was living as all do who live here did without meaning or purpose. Everything was pointless, and yet everything went on, pointless or not. Nothing would end, not even our belief in the end.

The first client of the day, confused as he was, stepped through the door. His eyes full of that inarticulate madness of those who believed things would be different than this – whatever this is. Each, like he, had believed the end was just a complete cessation into nothingness. As if death were a blissful sea of forgetfulness and nullity from which nothing but nothing would emerge ever again.

It wasn’t. Everything returns in the end, but changed. Changed forever. And nothingness was not what people assumed. It was something else, something other.

He stood up and greeted the new client:

“Welcome to the Void!”

The client blinked his eyes, thought about saying something but realized that what could be said wasn’t worth saying.

– Steven Craig Hickman ©2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

Michael Griffin: Armageddon House

“A complete series of cultural memories came to mind: the Egyptian masrabas, the Etruscan tombs, the Aztec structures . . . as if this piece of artillery fortification could be identified as a funeral ceremony…”

—Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology

“Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know.”

—Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

CaptureIn The Folly of Fools Robert Trivers reminds us that for our species “deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin”. Lying and the art of lying are as old as human kind, and our ability to deceive others as well as ourselves is a part of some deep rooted aspect of our survival mechanisms that in our late stage and civilizational decay have become neither healthy nor part of that age old propagation of survival tools that can keep us safe from the perversities and horrors of our own dark minds.

The bunker marks off a military space – that of the last war game, a game that all nations elaborated and perfected together in the course of the last century.

—Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology

Armageddon House. Already the name beckons us toward doomsday, toward some strange apocalyptic world of deadly consequence. Four adults, two men, two women: buried alive in what all assume is a Test. A test for what? As one of the members of this motley crew, Polly, in Michael Griffin’s new horror novel tells us

 “We’re like a simulation of the big test they’ll do later, somewhere farther away. Isn’t that right? Like, a test for a test. I mean, humanity is just a trial run anyway. Preliminary, that’s the word. Preliminary test. Each test is practice for another test, and that’s practice for the next one. Only, how many? Like, which one is this?”1

af190d929775ce05b478fecccf0333beOne is reminded of those elite bunkers for the rich, doomsday escape holes in the middle of nowhere, underground caves like those reviewed on Forbes: Billionaire Bunkers. Except in the novel the personnell seem more like unwilling participants in a private hell for beleagured denizens of some forgotten nightmare. In this grotesquirie each of the four must willingly or not submit to clean up, a biological disposal project of clearing this enclosed world of its human detritus. One of the members:

“…uses tweezers to gather organic detritus from each work stand into the larger stainless-steel tray atop the roll cart. Tiny snips of detached skin, unwanted eyelids, lobes and appendages, discarded trimmed nails, hairs and eyelashes pulled out by roots, all the flesh scattered amidst blood smears and spatters. Every day, the shedding of these parts leaves behind more waste than all the days before. This avalanche of decay, a kind of incremental death, is necessary for the renewal it brings.”

The morbidity of this sequence adds to an already strange and paradoxical stage set. As if we were watching some old Outer Limits or Twilight Zone parable of our late modernity, of the collapse of civilization into a purified world of decadent enclosure where the minutiae of physical being becomes the last parade of sensual delight under duress. Using an incinerator to sterilize the environment one member lifts the days remains into a wall-mounted oven: ” Inside is yesterday’s tray, now cool, bearing only a trace of sterile ash, easily rinsed away. He removes the clean pan and replaces it with today’s, which bears the last, unwanted remnants of who they were until this morning, and never will be again.” It’s as if each day the groups identity is erased and renewed through this act of ritualized incineration. As he closes the air-tight mechanism and turns on the fire the day’s participant Mark ” is certain he smells life burning away.” One wonders what is being released, what is being renewed. Are the participants slowly shedding not only their skins but their humanity as well.

Each day the four are set with certain routines that have up to now kept them adjusted to the insanity of their situation. But on the occasion of our entry into the novel the routine is disrupted by one of the member’s Polly who has for a while been in search of certain meds she believes lie hidden in one of the out of bounds chambers in this labyrinthine bunker world. As if one had entered one of those Ballardian speculative scenarios in which personalities begin to clash in some psycho ward style dysfunctionalism we begin to see the characters perversities rising to the surface. A hidden tension of subdued violence pervades the various innuendos of conversation until the most physical of the group Greyson as if on que suddenly burst the civil decorum of their secure world and manhandles Mark to the ground over some ape like territorial infraction between himself and his partner Polly. The tone of the work begins to go south from there…

Polly vanishes into the darkness of the immense bunker world. The others follow. They discover a great crack in the walls, a tree root that must reach down from some enormous tree far above the complex, a door in the furthest reaches of some forgotten region with a plaque which states in simple letters “Utgard”. It’s as if we’ve suddenly entered some mythical time and world where the ancient Norse World-Tree and the doorway to the giants – the out world of Jotunheim is situated. Closed off, locked, bound in darkness and unreachable. Even as the shock of this takes hold, they all feel a change in the atmosphere, something has changed, a new sense of things to come; and, Jenna – the most sensible one up till now, seems to awaken from some dream throwing her head back and spouting like an ancient Völuspá:  “The wolf won’t cry forever,” Jenna says, voice high and keening. “Someday he’ll climb out, he’ll ride, he’ll rear up and devour god. Then who’ll be crying?”

Ultimately this is a novel of memory, of lost time, of fragments of lives lost amid disasters and ruins, of picking up the pieces here and there in bits of conversation, remembering what one was and is: the quick and the dead. Most of all the novel is seen through Mark’s eyes and mind, and he seems to have lost something long ago, a part of his mind, life, memories in an alternate past or future – one that each of the others understands and keeps repeating in strange and disquieting ways like the trickle of water against darkness and hopelessness. A knowing, a world refreshing and dying to itself each day, a gun in hand, a darkness turning to light in a glow of blue nihil… a shock.

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  1. Griffin, Michael. Armageddon House. Undertow Publications (May 12, 2020)