Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) employs the Faust myth in a similar way: the ‘demonic’ spirit is one which reveals everything as ‘its own parody’, and which sees through forms to the formlessness they conceal. Through Leverkühn, the artist, a demonic voice calls nature ‘illiterate’, mere vacancy, and the universe a space filled with signs deprived of meanings. Transformations of the Faust myth epitomize the semantic changes undergone by fantasy in literature within a progressively secularized culture. The demonic pact which Faust makes signifies a desire for absolute knowledge, for a realization of impossibility, transgressing temporal, spatial and personal limitations, becoming as God. But this desire is represented as increasingly tragic, futile and parodic. In a general shift from a supernatural to a natural economy of images, the demonic pact comes to be synonymous with an impossible desire to break human limits, it becomes a negative version of desire for the infinite. In the modern fantastic, this desire expresses itself as a violent transgression of all human limitations and social taboos prohibiting the realization of desire. In these versions of Faust, the naming of the demonic reveals a progressive pull towards a recognition of otherness as neither supernatural nor evil but as that which is behind, or between, separating forms and frames. ‘Otherness’ is all that threatens ‘this’ world, this ‘real’ world, with dissolution: and it is this opposition which lies behind the several myths which have developed in the modern fantastic.
—Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion
All books are exits from life. Books must be destroyed.
—Mark Samuels, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales
The Collective was putting tenets into action that few dared even to consider. It destroyed works because it believed none had meaning or significance, because words only mean other words and chase each other, in a linguistic game of tag, to a void. The Collective’s operatives were terrorists, empty visionaries, who, in a perverse fashion, could be said to have collaborated with an author, even if only through destruction. And in fact they found that the most effective operatives were authors who had been turned to their cause: poachers turned gamekeepers.
For the vast majority of people, books were simply ornaments to a room, advertising their owners’ intellectual vanity. One in a million books was ever re-read and the so-called classics were mostly dipped into and unadmittedly discarded or force-read. Not though by academics, who canonised these “classics” and lived like parasites on the obscurity they generated. The masses were as vile in their own way. They read drivel churned out by illiterates. These illiterate authors had allowed themselves to become “product”. And then there was the worst of all: books that instructed us on how to live, when to turn to such books was a symptom of the disease, not its cure.
The activities of these secret book-exterminators were not confined to the destruction of published works. They were invariably ready to obliterate manuscripts of all types that came into their possession willingly or unwillingly. The merits of a writer’s work were of no interest to them and they viewed the existence of literary work as a proliferation of vermin, being only too willing to act as pest controllers in this regard. All texts were without a centre of meaning. Their interpretation rested with the reader, not the author. There could be no agreed purpose to a text. All was chaos. The text was an autonomous entity. In short, without the reader the text did not even exist save as a cipher. …
So he asked how the Collective could justify the destruction of his very identity, as only this measure would rid him of his bibliophilia for good. And Yaanek told him frankly that any notion of individual identity was a lie. There is no “self” to destroy. Once Glickman had grasped the final truth that the “I” does not exist, that his past life was illusory, then he would be free. All perception is a series of mental states, unfixed, fluid; like text, devoid of central meaning. The destruction of books was simply the first stage of a greater purpose: the gradual elimination of human consciousness. “We are anti-publishers,” said Yaanek, “and ultimately, anti-thinkers.”
And information was drained out of everything.
from Mark Samuels, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales
To read Mark Samuels “Glickman the Bibliophile” is to be transported into realms fused with Thomas Ligotti and Franz Kafka, a world where both bureaucracy and the erasure of Self become the all-encompassing imperative. The insanity of such an imperative in which all knowledge and thought become anathema, and the ultimate goal is the extinction of information in all its forms: mental, physical, and… metaphysical. Such is the realm of hell, a place where mindless humans perform the essential task of the destruction of thought and thinking, books and authors. One could say the ultimate goal is the uncreation of all sentience: consciousness itself as the ultimate disease for which the cure is annihilation. Dark indeed is such a thought…
- Samuels, Mark. The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales. Chomu Press (March 16, 2011) (“Glickman the Bibliophile”)
Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy – A Literature of Subversion discusses the opposing aspects of two trends: the one pushing toward the unnameable ‘nameless thing’ of horror fiction; the other of the anti-realist ‘thingless names’ of the signifying process itself cut off in the prison house of language:
One of my favorite horror writer’s Christopher Slatsky has a new work coming out in a finely crafted small press edition from Grimscribe Press! As the synopsis informs us:
“From the author of Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales comes this devastating collection of fifteen stories and essays. A father’s desperate search for his missing child leads to a cosmic haunted realm. A woman returns to her childhood home to find a past preserved in a semblance of life. A young man and his canine companion are plunged into the heart of an occult government exercise deep within a Pacific Northwest forest. An elderly man is subject to mysterious experiments as he descends into dementia. And, in the title novella, a forensic anthropologist is called to the site of the mass suicide of an anti-natalist cult obsessed with contacting Nature.”
I wrote a review of his previous work in which I remarked that Slatsky’s tales inhabit that dark space, deliver the goods you relish, a ghoulish festival of aberrant delights that should let your night be broken and twisted till you crave reprieve from such demented realms and secret mindless miseries. Over the top? Hyperbolical? Am I shitting? No, its actually that good. If you crave atmosphere, if you like the visceral slime-pit of the grotesque and the macabre, a waltz into the scatological worlds of decay and organic demise this is your guy. He doesn’t pull any punches, and he weaves tales that are neither pastiche nor a silent send off to the great masters of the past, but rather let’s those influences – and, remember influence was once a term of astrological import of letting in the star power of dark light mingle with your own. I still stand by that statement and hope the new collection, along with the art by Käthe Kollwitz will entice the awards he so rightly deserves.
Feel free to buy the deluxe edition on pre-order from Grimscribe Press today!
Where I’m at is that having plunged for years and drunk from the well of nihilist and pessimist thought I realize that yes… we are that accident of things… the universe is as both nihilists and pessimists stipulate: is absolutely indifferent and unaware of our existence… but, that’s the point: we aren’t, we are very aware of our difference and consciousness… so do we passively sit back and accept that indifference or do we take our accidental difference as something unique and new in this universe of absolute indifference and nullity and thereby act on it: do we in other words invent the possibility of accepting the absolute indifference as the ground zero of thought, and work or think from that indifference and unknowing? Is there a path that absolutizes nihilism and pessimism, works through it and radicalizes it? And thereby opens up that circle of our difference to something new?
Most extreme nihilists argue we are an ‘error’ that the universe will sooner or later eradicate. But this is to impute a telos and god-like invention-creational powers to the universe as if it were aware and definitely concerned rather than indifferent to our plight. Too believe the universe has allowed an ‘error’ to take place in the invention of consciousness is to impute a power of knowledge and foresight to a supposed non-entity and non-agency. So to me the very bedrock of most extreme pessimists from Mainlander, Bahnsen, Zappfe, Cioran, and Ligotti have imputed a notion that has nothing to do with the indifferent universe which knows nothing of errors, and all too much human-all-too-human diagnosis of the pessimists themselves. So do we accept this notion of ‘error’ as if along with Fermi’s paradox and the Great Filter we will be eradicated because of some hidden form either in the universe or ourselves that is in-built leading toward total annihilation? Or, should we radicalize the extreme pessimists even further and strip even them of their all-too-human forms of thought, and thereby break the circle of their still too human negations into a more inhuman philosophy yet to be reckoned?
Science, says Thomas Kuhn, has periods of crisis, when there is no agreement about the dominant paradigm, when application of the paradigm which has previously governed scientific enquiry in a particular area discloses an unacceptable number of anomalous cases which cannot be convincingly assimilated to it; at such moments new paradigms may be proposed which are more successful in accounting for the evidence and which necessitate a radical re-evaluation of work governed by earlier paradigms.
But what if this were true of Society itself? Are we not proving this even now as we question the tenets of two hundred years under the socio-cultural paradigm of Secularism and Enlightenment? For two hundred years we’ve questioned the old sense of liberal subjectivist identity and have found it wanting; and, yet, isn’t the very political structure that supported such an identity become in itself obsolete? We still pretend with ourselves that democracy which underpins the whole gamut of our socio-cultural system is somehow static and sacrosanct as if it were the last bastion of social justice and freedom between us and … what? chaos, change, difference?
If one does away with the progressive enlightened Subject what remains of its society and culture? Obviously we’ve been critiquing to the death the notion of Self-Subject for sixty odd years to the point that the notion of a Self has vanished into the neuroscientific void and emptiness of a non-category of there is no one home… the Self as empty and non-essential, and the socio-cultural world that supported it – our humanistic heritage is but a dream of stupidity and error; and, yet, we continue to support the political structures of Representation of these empty Identities without ever questioning their validity. When will we topple the whole enterprise of Secular Democratic Society and Culture and formulate something new?
We bandy about all these new-fangled notions of inhuman, posthuman, transhuman, anti-human as if there were within those untidy knots of scholarship, philosophy, scientific and theoretical work something hinting at a sea-change in thought which might suddenly reveal a new socio-cultural framework to replace the failing edifice of Enlightened Secular worldview. When will it step out from the cave of its dark intuition and reveal itself? Are we to battle over new forms of rational and non-rational thought till doomsday arrives and does away with the whole human project; or, will we actually begin awakening to a new worldview that can shape us to the new?
Throughout that untidy thing we term loosely ‘history’ there were always small groups, advanced harbingers of change, secretive enclaves of intellect and imagination who broke through the barriers of resistance and gave birth to such paradigm shifts. Artists, philosophers, poets, essayists, critics, scientists, etc. who shared among themselves this strange new world with new cognitive and imaginative concepts and metaphors toward this transitional world. We saw this in the Enlightenment of the philosophes…. So who are our philosophes? Who among us are the Avant-garde leading the way to a new worldview that can replace this sick and dying, even decadent and broken world of ruins within which we too are suffocating and dying… ?
Sometimes I believe we are doomed to end in that false infinity of post-modern thought in which we’ve become subject to what deconstructionist criticism calls ‘infinite deferral’ or ‘postponement’. As if we will never arrive… lost on the sea of time looping in an endless world of critique without any sign of ending or beginning, only the destitution of non-thought and stasis: a living death amid the sea-change of a global catastrophe. As if we were all watching the future coming at us as doom and gloom when all along there were in our hands the very tools at hand that would have given us the ability to change. Will we change, or will we just continue circling in the darkness of this cave of doubt frozen to the screen of some shadow world film in which we are forever prisoners of some master puppeteer? Can we break away from that dark screen and walk out of the cave of this era’s inability to act and create something new to move the human project forward or see it finally play out its end-game in self-lacerating defeat at the hands of its own inability to act? It’s really up to all of us to do something now, to act on this subtle swerve of time and change and help it awaken in our midst, to build a future worth living in out of the dying embers of a decaying civilization which is already passing into oblivion.
Red Planets we have. We should not neglect the red dragons.
Realism gives me the impression of a mistake. Violence alone escapes the feeling of poverty of those realistic experiences. Only death and desire have the force that oppresses, that takes one’s breath away. Only the extremism of desire and death enable one to attain the truth.
― Georges Bataille, The Impossible: A Story of Rats
In one of his usual drifts Slavoj Zizek tells us the reproduction of the Real in our time is handled by the vast mediatainment system whose sole responsibility is to reproduce the capitalist fantasy: “the world in which the corporate Capital succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy-kernel of our being: none of our features is really “ours”; even our memories and fantasies are artificially planted. It is as if Fredric Jameson’s thesis on postmodernism as the epoch in which Capital colonizes the last resorts hitherto excluded from its circuit is here brought to its hyperbolic conclusion: the fusion of Capital and Knowledge brings about a new type of proletarian, as it were the absolute proletarian bereft of the last pockets of private resistance; everything, up to the most intimate memories, is planted, so that what remains is now literally the void of pure substanceless subjectivity (substanzlose Subjektivitaet—Marx’s definition of the proletarian).”1
In this sense the supposed sciences that were to produce truth and set us free of our ancient enslavement to religious consciousness and the empirical ego-self etc. through neurosciences, seem bent on migrating into new ideologies and scientific philo-fictions of non-human, posthuman, inhuman, anti-human, transhuman (all vying for the next enslavement or fantasy production of the Real). Just at the moment when capitalism in its old neoliberal form is deteriorating, decaying, and dying before our eyes the beast itself, Capital, is migrating into another fantasy, another world…
When I started writing this book, I vowed to keep my madness out of it.
—Nicole Cushing, A Sick Gray Laugh
Nicole Cushing is the Bram Stoker Award® winning author of Mr. Suicide and a two-time nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award.
Various reviewers have described her work as “brutal”, “cerebral”, “transgressive”, “taboo”, “groundbreaking” and “mind-bending”.
Rue Morgue magazine recently included Nicole in its list of 13 Wicked Women to Watch, praising her as an “an intense and uncompromising literary voice”. She has also garnered praise from Jack Ketchum, Thomas Ligotti, and Poppy Z. Brite (aka, Billy Martin).
I just started reading Nicole’s latest work and am delighted to say it is well worth the praise it’s garnering so far… I’ll update with a review later this week, but for now you should check out her blog Litggressive for more information about Nicole Cushing and her fabulous work.
Against the obsession with death, both the subterfuges of hope and the arguments of reason lay down their arms: their insignificance merely whets the appetite to die. In order to triumph over this appetite, there is but one “method”: to live it to the end, to submit to all its pleasures, all its pangs, to do nothing to elude it. An obsession experienced to the point of satiety is annihilated in its own excesses. By dwelling on the infinity of death, thought manages to use it up to inspire disgust for it in us, disgust, that negative superfluity which spares nothing and which, before compromising and diminishing the prestige of death, shows us the inanity of life.
—Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay
Or we are shown that the other world may lie close at hand, and we often hover on its brink.
—Mark Valentine, Haunted by Books
The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter.
The fabulists all inhabited a separate strangeness where the realms of Arcadia, Atlantis, Avalon, Shangri La, the Astral Plane, the worlds of Faery and the worlds of Dream seemed to describe something just the other side of our drab world… other authors spoke of other realms, darker places where the ruins of reality seemed to multiply into nightmare: Dis, Pandemonium, Agartha, Hel, Hell, Irkallah, Mag Mell, Kyöpelinvuori, Muspelheim, Tartarus and so many other places hidden in the Abyss. Whether of light or darkness all these zones were situated in that intermediate realm in-between the voids, where gods and demons dwelled like blood warriors in an endless war. Our boredom and ennui have driven both our hells and our paradises to the point of extinction. In this age when the human is no longer able to escape itself, no longer able to open those portals between the worlds, we are left with our own musings, our nightmares become all too real in a world where both paradise and hell commingle in a fluid world of non-human and post-human madness in which there is no where to go, no one to know, and no one to be. This pure and absolute world of immanence without escape. A world bereft of its dreams and nightmares alike. Left in a secular world on nihilism in which we have emptied ourselves of the other worlds, what is left for us? As Mark Valentine suggests:
But what of those who make it their work to seek entry into these stranger dimensions more definitely, who demand to go further from here? The authors of wonder are among such visionaries, and sometimes they try to bring back for us some flint-spark from the furthest dimensions, an evocation of what they have found. They may do this in hesitant sentences that can hardly carry the burden of what they must convey, or in sketches of unearthly scenes where the artist’s fingers have faltered at the last, or they may resort to geometric symbols or arcane formulae, which only have any sort of meaning for those who have already seen. Perhaps only one thing is clear: in order to walk in the other worlds, we ourselves must be changed.
The philosopher has been called the mother of the toads, for he is forever wandering the swamp in search of their unknown father, pursued by croaking little thoughts.
—Andre Solnikkar, The Wisdom of the Hanged / La saggezza dell’impiccato
Language is the foundation of reality. Without it we would, like the beasts, exist wholly in a world of sensation. We should not be articulate, but cast adrift from the essence of creation, and unable to fathom its infinite depths. And in considering this matter, I cannot refrain from expressing a philosophic speculation that has arisen from out of gazing into that abyss. In what language do the dead converse? Are they freed from the multitude of tongues to which the living are shackled? Do they speak a language (let us call it Txxyollqus) whose meaning contains all possible meanings since their mode of being is outside space and time?
—Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey (“Voices from the Graveyard”)
We do not live, we are lived. What would a philosophy have to be to begin from this, rather than to arrive at it? —Eugene Thacker
I guess by this point I’ve got to my feet and I’m trying to marshal my thoughts to tell him about extinction, about how we’re at the very end of the sixth great extinction to hit this planet, caused by us, by man, by progress, and how speciation will occur after we’re gone, an explosion of new forms springing up to fill all the vacated niches, a transformation like nothing we’ve known since the Cambrian explosion of five hundred seventy million years ago, but he’s not listening. —T. C. Boyle. A Friend of the Earth
Why do people continue to believe in the myth of politics? I assume most of these people still believe in “hope,” as if the world might one day change, that people like the fabled children of some primitive world of Rousseauistic fantasy are all essentially good and if given the opportunity to grow up in the right environment under the right conditions will become optimistic harbingers of the Good Society. Who still believes that?
With the doom and gloom of potential catastrophic climate change, with the slow burn of Amazonia, of the genocides around the world, of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and rumors of pandemics, of asteroids, of … well you get the picture… the future environment is turning and swerving toward a very hostile place indeed. Will the children of Rousseau growing up now in the chaos and catastrophe of our current age of political and social unrest, malfeasance, genocide, immigration blockage, rising fascism and authoritarianism, displaced and erroneous science perpetrated by the rich, powerful, and corporate/political nexus of a pro-right reactionary system …
Started reading Philip Fraccasi‘s Behold the Void last night, and have read the first three stories so far. Have to admit these are less than what I’d expected from the hype. I usually refrain from negative critiques so early, and usually not at all; but these three stories seemed both gratuitous and a form of absolute nihilism of the violent kind which left no sense of double-vision. What I mean by double-vision is the notion of a tale that has both a surface (literal) meaning-story, and a hidden or depth-ridden (figural) meaning-allegorical-didactic. Fraccasi’s seem all surface and pulped, leaving no aftermath other than wondering why all the gratuitous violence, and to what purpose. Obviously there is no purpose in a cosmos that is framed in absolute nihilism, where everything is inexplicable and anything can happen because there is no structure, no law, no reason behind anything; only an absolute contingency in which anything is possible, and anything can happen… and, will more than likely turn bad, real bad at any moment.
In the third tale we have a horse thief, Gambino, whose son Luis recently died, and is hired to steal a famed racing horse: the Widowmaker. The tale goes from incident to incident relating Gambino’s sordid existence along the way until he’s confronted by a boy demon in the desert who is the seventh son of a seventh son. Using this folkloric motif from out of nowhere – like some deus ex machina – we follow Gambino till he meets his boss where a Chinaman is waiting to perform some strange and bewildering suicide ritual requiring a fabled horse. Needless to say things go awry and the boss is killed, the Chinaman is killed by the horse, and Gambino is shot by the Chinaman in the gut… I want spoil the ending, but we’re left with a fake transcendence for a character who for all accounts deserves no redemption but gets it anyway. What bothered me in this story is just that: What was the point of this slip-shod redemption which came plotting in like some strange folkloric interpellation from out of nowhere and nowhen, without rhyme or reason? It just didn’t fit, and for me fell flat. Another tale not worth rereading because it had said all it was going to say.
Do I demand more? Am I being too hard on this tale teller? Maybe so, maybe not; either way it’s my aesthetic honesty that has to speak to it, not my personal vetting or feeling. I’ve always tried to be honest about such things with myself, if not always up front with my readers. There is a definite professionalism in Fracassi’s tales, which on the surface are polished and complete; and, yet, there is just something missing, a core geist-spirit, a certain inner sense to the stories that is lost on me. It could be these tales will talk to others, and I’m just not the person they are meant for; that could be. But with all things I tend to go with my gut feelings in all things concerning horror stories, and my affects tell me that these stories are hollow. Sadly this is my judgment, and one I have to accept as what it is for me…
As far as the tales go, Fracassi does have the knack of telling a tale, of hooking you into the ongoing movement of the various events and incidents; and, yet, as you finish the tales you feel this emptiness, a feeling in the gut that says: “Is that it? What was the point of all this carnage? These characters are absolute puppets in a puppet world, written by a puppet for puppets. But to what effect?” It’s as if there should be a punch line that leaves you guessing, but it’s been elided, and in its place is this sense of absolute meaninglessness. Maybe that is the point after all. Maybe Fracassi unlike many horror writers has no message to give us, has no need to entertain and instruct us in some dark hidden secret about life. Maybe he’s giving us everything up front: life has no meaning and is indifferent to our desires as to our intelligence. Behind the cosmos of Fraccassi’s tales is exactly what his collection’s title states: a Void. Pure emptiness without return, a bleak universe of absolute indifference where even human meaning and thought have no affordance, no traction; a realm where thinking is a mere accident in time, a broken promise that will like everything else slowly turn the lights out… forever.
I really wanted to give Fracassi a chance, had planned on finishing the collection – and, I may at some future time, but for the moment with three strikes down I just can’t force myself to continue pretending this is a writer for me. Fracassi may speak to others, but for my money it just has nothing to say at the moment. I’ll also take a peak at his earlier work as well. I wish it was different but at the moment it just doesn’t click and ring the right notes for me. So it goes onto my back burner… and, I’m off to other collections…
For a brief while, let us mull over some items of interest regarding puppets. They are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet master’s will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, though never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
With the advent of CGI based animated films we’ve seen a hyperrealism suddenly replace the older hand drawn cartoons of yesteryear. But as many critics suggest this may not be a good thing. In the recent Lion King remake by Disney the characters that were in the first film so emotionally cute and humanized that people were drawn to them as if magnetized by their warmth and cozy appeal, just the opposite has happened with the newer remake which provides a more distant and cold apprehension of these highly stylized and superrealistic figures. In the new film the characters have become too real and uncanny, as if they could walk off the screen into an African savannah and be right at home among the wildlife. As Lindsay Wright suggests:
Indeed, a viewer of the new version of “The Lion King” often admires the artistic sensibilities of the film in the same way that they might admire a new piece of technological wizardry. We may be struck by the emotional beauty of a painting by Leonardo DaVinci, to put it bluntly, but it is unlikely that we will derive the same kind of emotional warmth from a viewing of the latest offering from car manufacturer Tesla.1
As many critics have suggested this hyperreal CGI technology has lost something in translation from the older hand drawn animations.
As Ligotti suggests above: “We need to know that puppets are puppets.” If something is too real we begin to feel a sense of dread and horror, as if the thing we’re watching may be watching us in return. The duplicity between a dead inanimate object suddenly taking on a life of its own disturbs us. Even in animated features the older hand drawn cartoons could never become uncanny in that sense or realism. Yet its just this sense of something that we assume is not real becoming all too real that threatens our sense of a well-ordered cosmos. When things suddenly do things they shouldn’t we begin to think reality is no longer what we thought, that something has change; that the world is not right and has suddenly become topsy-turvy overthrowing all the known laws of physics.
For two hundred years the literature of the fantastic: the modes of Gothic, Grotesque, Macabre, Symbolist, Decadence, Surrealism, Fabulism, Magical Realism, etc. have replaced for a secular society what was once part of the domain of religious consciousness and expectation: the Supernatural. The notion of the marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny have all taken on new meanings in our secular society, allowing non-believers to experience the nostalgia of religious beliefs without adhering to there outmoded rituals and dogmas. As Victoria Nelson in The Secret Life of Puppets reminds us:
Shakespeare’s worldview of the Renaissance-the worldview that holds there is another, invisible world besides this one, that our world of the senses is ruled by this other world through signs and portents, that good and evil are physically embodied in our immediate environment-is alive and well today in science fiction and supernatural horror films that build on a three-hundred-year tradition of the secularized supernatural and behind that on the millennia-old beliefs Western culture shares with older societies around the world.
There’s something deep and pervasive in the human psyche that cannot be expunged, repressed, excised, nor erased: this need for an affective relation to the Unknown. As Lovecraft once suggested: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” He’d go on to elaborate,
Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.2
When children play with dolls, or adults watch a Ventriloquist performing there is this sense that we are fascinated by these inanimate objects suddenly awakening in our midst and taking on a life of their own. And, yet, if this were truly to happen as in some horror films with puppets that uncannily do just that and become killers like Chucky in Child’s Play movie in made in 1988. In this film the doll Chucky is a sneering red-haired doll that is possessed by the spirit of a deceased serial killer. Many of the films’ plots revolve around Chucky’s attempts to transfer his soul from the doll body into a living person. A sense of possession and murderous intent, of a doll that becomes all too real and moves without the strings of a puppet master intentionally and with a willful purpose. In our “secular society in which the cult of art has supplanted scripture and direct revelation, we turn to works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness”.
In our own age various trends in the sciences and engineering are converging to create new forms of advanced intelligence or AI and AGI, and along with that is initiatives to produce lifelike humanoid robots that will allow such advanced intelligence a physical platform within which to move and operate. Uncanny Valley has been working to build such uncanny systems that seem in appearance and manner to reduplicate human movements and feature sets as if they were not only our doubles but were in some future iteration becoming more us than we are. As one roboticist suggests: “Twenty years from now human-like robots will walk among us, they will help us, play with us, teach us, help us put groceries away,” says David Hanson, “I think AI will evolve to a point where they will truly be our friends.”
One philosopher, Reza Negarestani asks the question: “Should we limit the model of AGI—both from a methodological perspective and a conceptual perspective that is the hermeneutics of general intelligence—to mirroring capacities and abilities of the human subject?” His answer is an emphatic “No”:
In limiting the model of AGI to the replication of necessary conditions and capacities required for the realization of human cognitive and practical abilities, we risk to reproduce or preserve those features and characteristics of human experience that are purely local and contingent. We therefore risk falling back on a parochial picture of the human as a model of AGI that we set out to escape.4
Instead what he seeks is a new path forward, one that allows for the “realization of an intelligence that moves from a particular contingent perspectival consciousness to a genuine self-consciousness, an outside view of itself” (22).
For many this sudden awakening of machinic life with intelligence that can be self-motivated, and non-human or inhuman in the sense of not being modeled on our human cognitive and affective relations is both scary and fascinating. For thousands of years humans have been both fascinated and fearful of statues, dolls, puppets, and machines that could reduplicate human abilities and work, but the notion of an entity that can also begin to exist beyond our human modes of intelligence and emotion seems almost too much to think much less comprehend. This is where both aspects of the fantastic: Science Fiction and Horror come into play, each in its own way confronts such possibilities as both impossible and unknown; and, yet, brings to life the very real possibility that such strange and uncanny beings may one day live among us. Horror allows us to register our fears and fascinations in ways that allow us to understand these emotions at a distance and through fictional scenarios of imaginative apprehension rather in the very real and literal confrontation of an actual face to face meeting with this monstrous other/alterity. It’s this aesthetic horror that allows us to shape our fears into something we can as humans handle, and begin to accept the possibility of knowing and realizing what was and is Unreal taking shape before our very eyes. For as Ligotti says:
Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life.
- Wright, Lindsay. ‘The Lion King’ Remake Brings Iconic Characters to Life. Tech Geeked July 19, 2019 https://techgeeked.com/the-lion-king-remake-brings-iconic-characters-to-life/
- Lovecraft, H.P.. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Online: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx
- Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Harvard University Press (November 1, 2003)
- Negarestani, Reza. An Outside View of Ourselves as a Toy Model AGI. Intelligence and Spirit: https://www.urbanomic.com/book/intelligence-and-spirit/
The Fantastic is one of the most significant genres because it tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols. As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times.
—Italo Calvino, Fantastic Tales
I just finished Matt Cardin’s new collection To Rouse Leviathan, and I must say it was thoroughly enjoyable in a dreadful way; by that I mean it filled me with that weird and eerie anxiety that I find is the supreme mood of the fantastic. Reading Cardin is like moving toward a visionary moment of clarity and then realizing that one’s eyes are askew: twisted and deformed our eyes are crossed between the inner vision of some vast infernal nightmare land of the impossible, and outward toward the enfolded nightmare of our actual world of loss and pain. Many feel that yearning and longing for an end to the quest for an answer to life’s meaning; most end up like our current cultural malaise has in a valueless cesspool of non-meaning and nihilism. For Cardin what we’re missing is a spiritual vision, a vision that supports both imagination and the artistic impulse; such is the quest undertaken in every tale in these volumes, a movement toward some indefinable landscape of divine ecstasy or ecstatic horror; or the exposed fragments of some forgotten labyrinth of religious or spiritual dark enlightenment. An enlightenment into horror, where the daemonic splendor of existence which exists just outside the registers of our blinkered and rational visions leads us into a multidimensional realm of our darkest transports; a realm in which our joys and fears come alive and absorb us into that dream of the Outside where paradox, incongruity, and uncertainty unbound exist without end or justification.
If you love the mixture of the sublime and ridiculous that pushes the limits of both modes to their logical conclusions then you’ll love Matt Cardin’s omnibus of all his previous stories. He touches that dark space of our American psyche with its love/hate relations to the religious consciousness. Most of the stories are filled with various troubled misfits and rejects of a religious persuasion whose yearnings for some kind of mutant transformation or transfiguration lead them into the pit of hell or some strange and fantastic infernal paradise.
I was reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s macabre relishing of the grotesque sublime and yearning for ruins, sewers, corruption, and the dark pessimism of annihilation, cannibalism, and extreme surrealism in the mode of Bataille’s notions of the unreal and impossible. All I can say is that each story takes on new aspects of the old tropes of horror fiction and renews them with a refined sensibility and elegance that tempts one to realize Cardin knows the tradition inside/out, and yet is able to let it speak out without a heavy handed touch like so many of the last generations postmodern metafictionists did. This is a self-conscious horror that does not show its hand, but like a great street magician carefully directs your attention away from the center of the magic trick; a trick that allows the reader her own thrill in discovering sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph the elements of a metaphysics that does not hammer you into extinction, but like those old masters of the essay – think of Montaigne – weave both an intelligent story with an essayistic discretion to both entertain and instruct the reader in the dark truths being portrayed.
In the end Cardin’s tales do not so much answer those deepest yearnings of our disquieted souls as challenge us to enter into that strange compact that all authors and readers share: a compact that shifts us into our own creative and imaginative modes of being, awaken in us a psychic need and ontic poverty, leaving us with the dark aura of loss and light of nihil that encloses us in our own nightmare lands of fear and dread. Cardin’s tales lure and goad us onward toward our own transgressive visions and quests, force us to once again acquaint ourselves with the dark tremors just below the submerged threshold of our own fears. And, yet, like all great artists of the fantastic and weird Cardin’s tales leave us spent and vacuous: depleted, destitute and spiritually exhausted within the catastrophic aftermath of his visions forlornness.
His tales are never-ending portals to a sea of strangeness we all feel is submerged in the Real surrounding us on all sides. And if we just knew how to tap into it, gain access to it we would suddenly realize the thing we’ve been missing our whole lives; that impossible object we’ve been seeking to fill that empty place of imaginative need. These are tales we will repeatedly return to again and again, seeking in them a more in depth connection to that something hiding in plain site, but just barely visible to our skewed vision; for what we all seek in such tales is an ineffable mystery, a dark presage of all we are and could be if only we might open ourselves to the nightmare worlds we deserve.
Because it speaks to the messiness of actual humans living their lives in a world that seems bent on self-destruction in religion, politics, war, and any number of other unknown or known possibles from natural or man-made events. People are surrounded by fears of unknowns that could come right into their home towns, their homes, their minds… people are surrounded by a world on the brink of climate catastrophe, while their politicians play right-wing/left-wing grandiose mediatainment bullshit that does nothing to alleviate real suffering, misery, and pain in people’s actual lives. The migration of tens of thousands of people in the past few years will only become more real as climate change drives people toward cooler climes; or, from the degradation of war torn tyrants and dictators. All the racist, gender, and socio-cultural issues seem to be widening and turning us against each other as if some displaced world of sacrifice and blood sport were afoot in these late times. We are living in fear with fear every second of our lives… we are in a living horror novel that writes itself anew everyday. So that horror writers don’t need to come up with anything new to write about: it’s already too much with us… what the best horror writers do now for us is give us the tools to face and live with these fears, work through all the various affective relations that haunt us in our daily lives and fill us with real dread. Horror stories are like little models of this actual world in bite size chunks helping us to see what we are facing with the help of an intelligent friend to guide us through it like Virgil to Dante… this is what horror is doing now! It’s our survival boat… to daily living with fear!
“Thomas Ligotti is an absolute master of supernatural horror and weird fiction, and a true original. He pursues his unique vision with admirable honesty and rigorousness and conveys it in prose as powerfully evocative as any writer in the field. I’d say he might just be a genius.” ~ Ramsey Campbell
My latest story The Labyrinth of Night in #46 of The Sirens Call get your (free) copy today!
A little sample –
No one knows when they built the Labyrinth of Night. Some say it has always been here, but that no one knew of its existence because the time was not right; people were not ready to receive its mysteries, its secrets. Others say that the labyrinth is always and everywhere and only for the few – a small elite, those tormented souls who seek eternal solace in the dark and lonely nights of oblivion; that seek the secretive ways of the abyss that are neither a part of time nor a part of space, but rather of that unreal zone of integral obscurity and rotten sentience. These wanderers of a forlorn thought, miscreants of perversity, would rather follow the patterns of this ruinous desire than meet the physical needs of its tenants; knowers of the labyrinth, caterers of those delicate strains of the hidden art of pain: tempters, alluring an abject art: a lost art of despair, debauches of cruelty and insanity; transgressors, excessive militants and renegades of the lost infernal paradise beyond the margins of existence. Miserabilists – all, each and every one, – locked away, solitaire, bound to an infinite void of nullity and self-derision; willing accomplices to the unraveling of all things: the unweaving of stars and worlds and bleakness itself; creatures of absolute nihil unbound.
—S.C. Hickman, The Labyrinth of Night
What? Writer’s block? I don’t have time… sorry… Just do it… I get up every morning and put out gibberish, then crazy stuff, then poetry, then hack crap, then a good sentence… then I say: “Okay, let’s start with that!” Follow that good sentence to the moon; no finger pointing Zen allowed… just a shit load of work: never ending work… and tired fingers… well… and being a little insane helps too!!!
If only it were that easy.
The slow erasure, subtraction:
Layer by layer, the onion of the cosmos
Peeled back from skin to kernel,
Till all that is left is a knot of nothingness.
But would this truly get at that inhuman core?
What if we know too much,
The very horror of consciousness itself
Being the thing that we cannot subtract, only minimize;
Isolating those delicate illusions that keep us confined,
Anchoring us to those well used tropes, fictions;
Distracting us with their promise of entertainment;
Till we carefully peruse the latest seduction
As if it were a sublime necessity, a calculated effort.
Would we be able to subtract ourselves from such blind worlds?
If I could subtract this very sentence, this thought, this life…
What would that accomplish? Am I a tissue of light,
Words on the screen of night; syllables of some forgotten language of the Mind?
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.
Kristine Ong Muslim in her short story collection Age of Blight has a grouping of tales dealing with both academia and the sciences in which the blind and detached use of animals all in the name of discovery (i.e., seeking to understand various medical, psychological, and other aspects of the human through experimentation with animals, etc.) leads to forms of inhumane torture. Not only that but many of the experimenters in their supposed objective distancing and non-emotional interventions become de-sensitized to the point of sociopathic and psychopathic degradation. In one of her tales she describes a particular scientist Harry F. Harlow (who actually existed!), who (let me quote at length from WIKI):
Harlow’s experiments were controversial; they included creating inanimate surrogate mothers for the rhesus infants from wire and wool. Each infant became attached to its particular mother, recognizing its unique face and preferring it above others. Harlow next chose to investigate if the infants had a preference for bare-wire mothers or cloth-covered mothers. For this experiment, he presented the infants with a clothed “mother” and a wire “mother” under two conditions. In one situation, the wire mother held a bottle with food, and the cloth mother held no food. In the other situation, the cloth mother held the bottle, and the wire mother had nothing. Also later in his career, he cultivated infant monkeys in isolation chambers for up to 24 months, from which they emerged intensely disturbed. Some researchers cite the experiments as a factor in the rise of the animal liberation movement in the United States.
After describing some of the horrific experiments performed on rhesus monkeys the narrator says,
Sometimes, when I lay awake at night watching the motion-regulated light fixtures strewn across the ceiling, I imagine how it must have been for Harry’s monkeys. I am shaped into what is supposed to be a cold and unfeeling contraption, but I realized a long time ago that I have limits: I cannot stomach torture. Torture, for me, has always been the resort of the weak, the inept, the ill-equipped. What torturers do not understand, they simplify by disassembling, by destroying the very essence and mystery of what they are trying to comprehend. What they covet, they steal and tinker with until it bores them or they discover that the tampered thing cannot be put back together again. And what they cannot subjugate, they maim— for no other reason but because they can.1
To have that kind of power bestowed on a person by an institution, academic or governmental is to revert to those impersonal and sadistic chambers of horror wherein humans became both victims and experiments in the Nazi-Fascist concentration camps (i.e., Josef Mengele). The fine line between allowing animals to be abused by such men, and that of humans is not one of morality, but of the very truth of science and politics. There are those among us that have such tendencies, and use them to hide their perverted proclivities behind the mask of war, medicine, and politics. In an age of authoritarian control are we not ripe for such invasive creatures to move toward such ends in a time when posthuman, transhuman, and inhuman philosophies open the doors to such strange worlds?
- Kristine Ong Muslim. Age of Blight. The Unnamed Press (January 12, 2016).
Rereading Steven Shaviro’s excellent essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian again “The Very Life of the Darkness”: A Reading of Blood Meridian. In it he makes an acute observation:
“There is only war, there is only the dance. Exile is not deprivation or loss, but our primordial and positive condition. For there can be no alienation when there is no originary state for us to be alienated from.”
I agree. In a world such as ours based as it is now in a secular and nihilistic order, there is no such thing as alienation – a notion that goes against almost all of the critiques of the Left or Right, socialist atheist or reactionary religious. Once you have eliminated transcendence, eliminated the Torah, Bible, or Koran; or any of the pagan worlds from your world view there can be no alienation in the sense that there is no paradise, no garden of Eden, no original pristine realm or even fall from such a realm… there is nothing, absolutely nothing to which a nostalgic return could be offered. This is why so much horror that offers any form of redemptive vision to me is false, because in a world such as ours where there is no transcendence, only absolute immanence prevails; there is no escape, no recourse, no original innocence from which we have fallen, etc.; there is only an absolute accident. Yet, to admit that there is no return, no redemptive vision to which we can become disalienated through some original relation is not in itself a bad thing, instead it opens us up to the unknown possibility of our own absolute freedom which no longer grounded in some past event. Instead we are now alone, without recourse other than the imaginative and creative powers of our own making. That means it’s up to us to change, to formulate a future worth living in rather than seeking some redemptive power out of some mythical past of our origins.
We are the products not of God(s) or any other imagined or invented creative force, will, intellect, spirit, Geist, etc.. No. We are like everything else in this depleted cosmos of absolute indifference mere accidents of time, nothing more. So if one is not alienated from some mythic paradise of origins what recourse do we have? None. Absolutely none. All our ideological constructs based on such alienation are already misleading and false from get go. So that most of our politics is based on sheer theological fantasies, whether of secular or religious varieties. Same with fictions: those purporting to offer some salvational vision of redemption for our future are both erroneous and toxic in that they offer hope where there is none. Sadly we seem bent on defying this truth and continuing with our lust for transcendence and salvatory visions. Instead we should begin seeing ourselves as we are: bound within a cosmic indifference. From that one truth we can then begin to imagine ourselves differently as part of this cosmos rather than creatures whose existence must be elsewhere. If we are children of indifference then we are free to absorb that truth and move on, which means we do not ourselves need to be indifferent. We might be something that is totally unnatural to the very system of indifference around us; it’s knowing this that shocks us and causes us to invent solutions for the impossible thing we are in an indifferent cosmos. We are as far as we know the only thing that is not indifferent. We have developed the ability to care, that makes us different from the surrounding indifference within which we find ourselves. As Shaviro will remind us:
Blood Meridian is not a salvation narrative; we can be rescued neither by faith nor by works nor by grace. It is useless to look for ulterior, redemptive meanings, useless even to posit the irredeemable gratuitousness of our abandonment in the form of some existential category such as Heideggerian “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). We have not fallen here or been ”thrown” here, for we have always been here, and always will be. Only the judge seems descended from another world (125). (PM)
- Luce, Dianne C.. Perspectives on McCarthy. University Press of Mississippi; Revised edition (January 1, 1999) PM
Mainländer sees this process of cosmic death taking place all throughout nature, in both the organic and inorganic realms, and he goes into great detail about how it takes place everywhere in the universe.
—Frederick C. Beiser, Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900
The new genre of supernatural horror fiction had its roots in Gothic literature, but it evolved as a specific response to the pressures of modernity. Suddenly it was essential to ask new questions about human nature and our place in the world. Horror fiction was both a wake for Christianity and an attempt to generate new myths—or a new kind of imagination—that could deal with the new realities.
—Joel Lane, This Spectacular Darkness: Critical Essays
In many ways pessimism was a reaction to the influx of texts on Buddhism, Gnosticism, and Egyptian metaphysics during the early Nineteenth Century. This Western reception of these notions would spawn a typical misreading of these ancient peoples thoughts, but one that would invent a new secular negativity against all the Idealist and Socialist Utopianism that were part of the mainstream culture of the era.
For the past year I’ve plunged through most of the works on pessimism I could find, along with original source material (Philosophers and Literary forms, etc.), and secondary works during that era and through decadence, modernism, post-modernism, and our own era of speculative philosophies.
I feel like that skeptical American journalist, Jack Walser, backstage at the Alhambra Music Hall in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus as I begin contemplating just what is going on. Reading the works of Matthew M. Bartlett is like entering a bloody chamber full of Dr. Hoffman’s desiring machines wondering if I’ll survive the night. I haven’t fallen into such a grotesquerie of myth, legend, and horror in years. It’s as if Lucien, Petronius, and Rabelais had wandered into 21st Century and unloaded all their Menippean charms and sigils of laughter and horror into the cracked brain of a New England cat lover. As I read Gateways to Abomination and Creepy Waves all I could hear blaring out of my radio was the macabre ramblings of the Leech on steroids. It’s as if Matthew had unleashed a curse upon my poor music box as it screeched, hollered, fornicated, spouted strange fragments of some disjointed and incongruous tales of the back woods of those northern climes where Matthew’s agglomeration of misfits live in a world all their own. And, if that wasn’t enough I had to download his latest effort The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities into my poor innocent (or, not so innocent?) brain. Dang! Why’d I do that for? Well let me tell you…
Let’s begin our journey with the Carnomancer, or the meat manager’s prerogative…
Right off the bat I meet some lumpy old fart of a front store manager named LaFogg dreamin’ about young flesh and his dead wife, KaraLee. An ugly s.o.b. in “his fifties, a mere half-inch taller than very short, with a protruding belly and a bald spot that stayed resolutely pink no matter the season: not exactly the kind of man the cashier would ever look at with anything other than indifference…”.1 A typical over-the-hill loser if you ask me, but who’s asking? As this guy is day-dreaming about a young lass who wouldn’t ever give him the time of day, much less a smile, we’re thrown into a maelstrom of darkness when the meat manager goes berserk in the back of the store. What LaFogg finds when he arrives at the scene of commotion is one crazed creature (the meat manager):
With both hands he was lustily prying the cellophane from a huge hunk of bottom-round roast. Scattered across the tan and white tiled floor were torn shards of Styrofoam, sheets of pink-stained padding, and bunched remnants of cellophane, bubbled pink with blood. (SAOUE)
Needless to say the cops soon hall him out, but not before he let’s LaFogg and anyone who will listen, know, that he is looking for something: “It’s in here somewhere,” he said. “It has to be in here somewhere.” (SAOUE) We’re never told just what it is he’s missing, but we do know that it’s something that’s not going to portend anything good.
I’ll admit every story in this book is like that, you are suddenly thrown a curve, not knowing just what’s going to happen next, but you know if you stay around long enough it’s not going to turn out for the best. It never does.
SPETTRINI – This is my favorite tale, and from what I understand it was made into a chapbook before it showed up here in this line up of horror. The things Matthew does to language is a downright pleasure. His ability to bring a character to life, along with the atmospheric strangeness of the landscapes is just plain eerie. In this tale we discover an old Mesmerist and Magician losing his grip on the trade, a man who as a child saw a poster of the great Spettrini:
Greyson had become interested in magic not because of having seen a performance nor perused a book, but because of a poster. In a glass display adjacent to the door of the Civic Hall, dramatically lit from below, the illustration depicted a long-limbed Spettrini on a field of purple, a gothic iron fence with intertwined skulls and snakes in the foreground and tilting and split gravestones behind him. He was dressed like a vampire, in a tuxedo with a black and red cape, his fingers bent, frozen in mid-gesticulation, his nails black and long. Between his hands a bat hovered upside down in streams of psychic energy, drawn by the artist as one might sketch a range of hillocks. One thin eyebrow was arched and his hair, black as an oil slick on a moonless night, was combed back and plastered flat to his cranium. His mustache was waxed and stuck out from the sides of his face like pipe cleaners. The very words on the poster seized Greyson’s imagination. Enchantments. Levitation. Necromancy. Resurrection. Its purpose was to advertise Spettrini’s upcoming performance…
The young boy becomes a young man and enters into an apprenticeship of sorts with this famed magician, and the tale spins out the dark contours of his mentorship, and leads him to seek out the darkest secrets of his mentors world…
FOLLOWING YOU HOME – In this tale we meet a young man named Merrill, a loner and beleaguered conversationalist, invited to the yearly Halloween Office Party at a private home where he gets into a confrontation with a more intellectual co-worker and decides to escape the party as quickly as possible. On his way home he confronts something that should not be…
NO ABIDING PLACE ON EARTH – In this tale a Father and Daughter are confronted by entities unknown described as “some kind of strange owl, plucked bare. Pallid, knobby breast; flimsy, webbed wings dangling from twig-like arms, it flew only with a great deal of exertion. … Their heads resembled those of elderly men, wispy white hair, wizened, slack mouths curtained with pink, blistered dewlaps. One turned its hooded, sagging eye in his direction. Then the others did the same. They coughed and wheezed and began flapping their sad wings as if to launch. It sounded like the smacking of slackened cheeks when someone rapidly shakes his head back and forth.”
KUKLALAR – A tale of corporate malfeasance, when middle-management is replaced by wooden puppets of a very special type; and what tasks they assign, and the strange twists and turns of their short happy lives turned nightmare …
“The figure was made entirely of painted and lacquered wood, down to the brown business suit, white Arrow shirt, and red necktie. Its hair was painted brown with thin grooves carved in to simulate texture, parted on the right. Its chin was on its chest. It landed on its feet, knees bending slightly, and the spotlight swooped down to frame the scene. The Kuklala crouched like a ballerina, knees apart, head down, one wooden hand splayed on the carpet.”
THE STAY-AWAKE MEN – In this tale an old DJ is offered a position of a lifetime if he will only follow instructions, come to an interview in a shady part of town, watch a movie, and discover just what it means to give the performance of his disk jockey life…
THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD – A sad tale of endings and beginnings, of fathers and daughters, of mutation, change, and apocalypses…
What one senses throughout these tales is not the macabre and grotesque details, nor the linguistic prowess of Matthew’s subtle and picaresque metaphors, hyperboles; and contradictions, incongruities, and deformations; rather it’s this all-pervading melancholy and sadness just under the surface of all that gritty glitz. Each of the main characters in these tales suffers a dark apprehension of reality in ways that not only break them but awaken in them a sense of that fatal accord that warps and corrupts us all. Underlying this collection is a sense of the utter futility of things; and, yet, it’s more than that: there is a sense that even in a dilapidated and ruinous universe of decay and entropy a person can discover in the underworld’s of a dark grotesquerie an enchantment and alluring magic; a secret power within things that both fascinates and repulses: an amazing portal into the unknown that surrounds us and permeates every cell in our body. To be lured in by these tales is to fall victim not to the malevolent heart of horror, but to experience the ecstatic madness we all crave but are want to acknowledge.
- Bartlett, Matthew M.. The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 16, 2018) SAOUE
And why wander in these labyrinths? Once more, for aesthetic reasons; because this present infinity, these “vertiginous symmetries,” have their tragic beauty.
—Jorge Luis Borges
They were shining a light on my horns when I unscrewed one and handed it to the hostess. Now my head was tilting to the left, which seemed appropriate under the circumstances. The hostess smiled, believing my weaponized horn was now in safekeeping as she locked it up in the festival’s safe. She pointed to the banquet tables and beckoned me to enjoy myself. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
The unrest at the border to the labyrinth had been building for some time now. I’d tried everything to defuse the situation, but things had escalated out of control as certain bigoted and cowardly servants of the Leader had taken things into their own hands and murdered many of my innocent brethren, sisters, and their children. No one was safe anymore. The sociopathy of the Leader’s servants had forced us to retreat behind our great walls. Something had to be done, and that duty fell squarely on my shoulders. Sadly.
Ever since the migrations began the Leader had enforced stringent controls along the perimeter of the Labyrinth. No one in, no one out. His policy was inescapable. Those caught trying to cross the demarcation zone were locked up in steel pens like animals. This pained me immensely, but what was I to do? I called a counsel of the elders, and we discussed the issue but were unable to come to any sense of resolution concerning the matter. Broadcasts were sent out condemning the Leader for his strong man actions, we bellowed our complaints from the high walls across the dark hinterlands of the Leader’s country to no avail. We were alone; isolated. So we sent our Ambassador to convene with the Leader, giving him our terms. The Leader returned our Ambassador: dead. The counsel realized we had no recourse left, so they sent for the Leader to meet on neutral grounds in the midst of the Festival of Oryk.
As the Leader of this mad country moved silently through the throng toward the podium with his bodyguards I kept thinking of the bull run in Gazmplona. My one remaining horn seemed to realize the gravity of the situation as I loped slowly and methodically into the crowd gathering around the clown at the center of this controversy. Then I realized I was not alone as I saw my brothers, one-horned and primed, moving toward the laughing jackal on his podium; their horns rising against the bright halo of the mid-day sun like knives in a dream of revenge.
As I reached the inner circle of the festivities I let out a deep bellow; the resonance of its dark import echoing against the stone walls of the labyrinth. The laughter of my brothers followed suit, while the clattering of our hooves on the cobbled pathways, and the broken curvature of our splayed horns ringing out as we clashed with the Leader’s bodyguards, brought fear to the smirking clown and his entourage. Pacing round and round the podium like a herd of angered beasts we shouted out our complaints till the walls of the gray hollows began falling inward, and the crowd dispersed to the four corners of the maze. We stood there in the midst of the rubble and ruins like minions of some blasted daemon, our bellowing laughter following the Leader and his entourage into the cold gray night of the labyrinth.
We knew things would never be the same…
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019
Most horror, whether it’s real or fictitious, literary or cinematic, deals with the eruption of chaos into human existence…
—Clive Barker, Where Nightmares Come From
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border where identities do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
—Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror
But what is chaos? Have we even begun to discern this uncanny guest in our midst, tempted it to reveal its cruel art? “Above all else, chaotic textuality must affirm conflict as an indispensable component of its endeavor; it must not only accept and brave the emergence of conflict but also actively pursue a new definition of creative violence. Indeed, it must even go so far as to strive toward the actualization of a will to cruelty; it must violate and overturn, tear and disfigure the cosmos of the text without judgment, without mercy, vowed only to the unrelenting and all-consuming practice of the brutal.”1 Schopenhauer believed that at the heart of the cosmos was a “will to live”; Nietzsche, a “will to power”. Others have like the pessimist Philipp Mainländer – the pseudonym of Philip Batz, believed that the universe was a mere device for God’s own suicide, and that we were his chosen vehicles to carry out the dire process given within us a “will to death and suicide”.2 Antonin Artaud would develop an art of cruelty, whose aim was to extend consciousness into realms previously considered unknowable, such as death and our primal origins. Into the treacherous regions of drugs and magic. He believed liberation of the subconscious and full realization of the nature of cruelty would enable us to know ourselves. This self-knowledge was to produce a revolution in thought, because its liberating effect was not to be restricted to the arts but must embrace everything.3 As one essayist states it:
What Artaud primarily means by cruelty is “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.” Such determination is in service of a “blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything” in its aim to wake people up—jolt them out of complacency—and put them in touch with vital forces of creativity that cannot but upend settled patterns of thought and conduct.4
Decided to change up my site to match my current preoccupations with the Weird, Eerie, Uncanny, and Fantastic Horror and Decadent world of art, literature, and philosophy. Hope you like the new changes as it evolves….
There is much to learn, boy. There are places other than here, and limits far beyond what anyone has even considered, nor dreamed of exploring.
—Matthew Bartlett, The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities
In many ways modern horror fiction serves as an apotropaic charm to ward off the dark forces lurking both in the imagination and the world about us. Human imagination and the artistic impulse have from the beginning sought to control the deep fears and terrors of the unknown surrounding humans on all sides. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the most daemonic art of the 21st Century the ability to visualize and capture the powers of darkness in an image thereby dispersing and warding off their destructive powers has been central to both painting and literary horror.
My essay Thomas Ligotti: The Radiant Abyss is featured in the latest Vastarien – A Literary Journal Volume 2 Issue 2 Summer edition: here! Get your copy today!
It also has many other contemporary horror writers, essayists, and artists:
Clematis, White and Purple
D. P. Watt
not other’s tongues
types of knife blades:
The Stringer of Wiltsburg Farm
Lucy A. Snyder
Visions of the Gothic Body in Thomas Ligotti’s Short Stories
C. M. Crockford
The Sprite House
Sirens in the Night
Paul L. Bates
Thomas Ligotti: The Abyss of Radiance
S. C. Hickman
The Milk Man
Alana I. Capria
Trans Woman Gutted
What Found Nevaeh
art by Giuseppe Balestra, Tatiana Garmendia, and Danielle Hark (including cover art)
There is a place
that even dreams dare not go,
a vast labyrinth
where winds blow cold;
a time within time,
where thought still flows;
and the desperate mind unbinds
a broken world’s lost cause.
– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.
Anxiety is an affective state and as such can, of course, only be felt by the ego. The id cannot have anxiety as the ego can; for it is not an organization and cannot make a judgement about situations of danger. On the other hand it very often happens that processes take place or begin to take place in the id which cause the ego to produce anxiety. Indeed, it is probable that the earliest repressions as well as most of the later ones are motivated by an ego-anxiety of this sort in regard to particular processes in the id. (Freud- The Complete Works)
Freud’s mythology of the inner workings of the psyche still fascinates, even if they were his own fictions of the mind just like Kant’s fictions and categories. Humans love to invent the fictive elements of what they do not comprehend, and then impose those fictions as “truth”. Religion did it before analytical psychology, just like in our current age we are inventing the neurosciences as the new truth of the psyche. Fictions supersede fictions from age to age under the critical gaze, because scholars cannot be satisfied with the previous generations fictive truths.
If one reads Freud as literature rather than psychology one can still gain insights, since his own work was an outgrowth of late decadent romanticism. The psyche as horror story, full of anxieties and defenses against the all powerful id (Outside). Sometimes one has to be inventive in one’s reading to develop theories of the Sublime and Counter-Sublime. The sublime begins in a primal repression and defense against a threat to the ego-self, one that would if known obliterate and annihilate it beyond recall. We see that in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy where he traces this whole pessimistic history of the ego’s defensive measures against the truth into its cultural and religious determinations. Our need for mastery and self-divination and identity spawned the whole Romantic movement in poetry and literature that began during the Renaissance with the figure of the Magus and would culminate in the master-slave delusions of Hegel.
What I love about Bataille is that he would be one of the first to undermine this whole tradition with his dark surrealism and base materialism of decay, destruction, and annihilation of the ego-identity. Others would follow…
The cult of personality would culminate in the wit of Oscar Wilde who says, “The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.” This cultivation of the ego-identity as supreme would have its counter-sublime in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the very power of this ego-sublime would end in self-annihilation as the personality’s rejection of its own dark forces return with a vengeance as Dorian’s alter-self in the figure of the painting is destroyed, killing both self and its shadow in self-annihilation.
The whole decadent tradition of horror descends from the daemonic poetry of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel” as Paglia reminds us: “The Decadent Late Romantic line of Poe, Baudelaire, Moreau, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Beardsley, and Wilde descends directly from Coleridge’s mystery poems.”1 Edgar Allan Poe would up the ante in his poetry and macabre tales spinning out the threads of those decadent figures from Coleridge’s imaginative vampires and sailors into weird tales that would haunt not only the American, but French Psyche for a hundred years or more. As Paglia puts it succinctly,
The French accused America of slighting her greatest poet in Poe, who may sound better in Baudelaire’s translation than in English. Poe, like Coleridge, is a giant of imagination, and imagination has its own laws. In Poe’s tales and Coleridge’s mystery poems, the daemonic expresses itself nakedly. Dionysus always shakes off rules of Apollonian form. (SP 322)
This sense of the Dionysian formlessness would be central to Georges Bataille’s reception of that whole decadent tradition which began with Baudelaire’s Poe. As Stephen S. Bush in his essay “Sovereignty and Cruelty Self-Affirmation, Self-Dissolution, and the Bataillean Subject” describes it:
Georges Bataille populates his writings with the imagery of torture and murder. His fiction revels in sexual assault. He speaks of evil as having a sovereign value for humanity. He speaks of there being intimacy between the sacrificers and the victims in human sacrificial rituals. He compares sex to human sacrifice. He describes himself meditating on photos of a man being dismembered and recounts his ecstatic experiences of joy and anguish in doing so, going so far as to call the wounded victim beautiful. He holds forth violation and transgression as things that reveal our true nature.2
One would imagine Bataille as the modern Sade, but he’s in fact just the opposite; whereas Sade would promote the ego and identity as supreme, Bataille would demote it and seek to dissolve it in the non-human or inhuman continuity of Dionysian natural flux. Bataille sees cruelty and violence as permanent aspects of the human condition. For Bataille there is both a fascination and repugnance at such shocks of cruelty, the one leading to self-affirmation while the other ends in self-negation. The shock of cruelty is also the shock of beholding individuals who are subject to no constraints, who obey no norms, no conventions, and no authorities other than themselves. (NE 47) So there’s this polarity between the Sadean self-affirmation of cruelty as gratification, and the Bataillean version as self-negation without pleasure which ends in dissolution and rupture, ecstasy and horror.
Bataille would provide an antagonistic counter-sublime to Andre Breton’s surrealist sublime, one that would shift the focus from utilitarian and political-social relations of the profane world of work to the sacred realms of ecstatic horror and darkness just beyond the confines of acceptable norms and normalcy. His was an entry into the nightmare lands of thought and being, exposing the naked self to a world where self-negation and self-affirmation lived in pure contradiction without resolution or recognition. A non-dialectical world of mystery and cruelty that few understand or condone. This was the realm of sovereignty and communication, intimacy and continuity with the inhuman core of our humanity.
What I disagree with in Bush’s essay is that he seeks to tame Bataille’s anti-social and anti-utilitarian diagnosis. He never mentions Durkheim’s sacred/profane dualism which underpins Bataille’s theories of religion, sovereignty, and communication. Instead he tries to bring Bataille back into the ethical and utilitarian fold, limiting Bataille’s vision to some erroneous estimation as a “thinker whose ethical position includes self-affirmation, not just self-effacement” (NE 50). For me the whole point of Bataille’s base materialism is an absolute non-dialectical vision of negation beyond the utilitarian world of work, politics, and desire. He seeks to guide us out of the discontinuous world of the ego-sublime and back into the continuous world of the inhuman; both natural and monstrous. If this entails doing violence to our self-pretentious civilized affirmations and ethics then for Bataille that is a price we should be willing to pay. As Bataille would say in his passionate narrative Inner Experience, “To face the impossible – exorbitant, indubitable – when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine; it is analogous to torment” (p.1).
From its beginnings in the literature of terror up to our own era of dark tales of horror, from the novels of King and Barker to the weird tales of Lovecraft and Ligotti, there is a deep and abiding sense that in the end cruelty and violence will prevail. Such an non-utilitarian and unethical conclusion of our existence can only be construed as pessimistic and nihilist. Living as we do in a decaying civilization teetering on the edge of implosion even as its leaders live in denial of the natural forces of climate change that in the end will not care one iota about our human wants and needs, our spurious denialism nor our political or social world of utility. The universe is as Lovecraft suggested over a century ago: “Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist – that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the… cosmos… gives a damn one way or the other about the especial wants and ultimate welfare of mosquitoes, rats, lice, dogs, men, horses, pterodactyls, trees, fungi, dodos, or other forms of biological energy.” Lovecraft thus embraced a philosophy of cosmic indifferentism. He believed in a meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand. His viewpoint made no allowance for religious beliefs which could not be supported scientifically. The incomprehensible, cosmic forces of his tales have as little regard for humanity as humans have for insects.
That the mechanistic world view has given way to the world of quantum forces changes nothing in that sense, and yet it opens possibilities that Lovecraft would have incorporated into that existing system of cosmic indifferentism without blinking an eye. Others like Thomas Ligotti would append to the objective view of cosmic indifferentism a more epistemic pessimism, fusing a dark surrealism of psyche and the immaterial forces of a malevolent cosmos rather than one wholly mechanical. In such a realm a new counter-sublime would arise in which fascination, allurements, and the repulsive would open up the world to an aesthetic of disgust and horror where sewers and ruins would replace paradise with an infernal garden of the frolic.
One such advocate of the darker folds of this ruinous world of disgust is Matthew M. Bartlett whose works are based on a sense of the macabre and grotesque worlds where the strong sense of disgust fascinates even as it repulses. The first thing that comes to mind in reading many of his stories is the aesthetic sense of disgust, and yet because it is based on a sense of aesthetic horror it does not nauseate so much as make us think and reflect rather than feel nauseous and repulsed. Because of our distance from the very real threat of touch, smell, and taste we can experience the allurements and dark revolting images at one remove, allow ourselves to vicariously participate in certain dark insights into human or non-human behavior that would otherwise send us packing. “Disgust affords a powerful means by which difficult truths are conveyed with maximum aesthetic impact.”3
Carolyn Korsmeyer in her book Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics informs us that “aesthetic disgust” is a response that, no matter how unpleasant, can rivet attention to the point where one actually may be said to savor the feeling. There are forms of disgust that fascinate and repulse at the same time. Most theoreticians will divide disgust between “material” and “moral” categories. It is material disgust that interest us in its horrific forms. Although much of the macabre and grotesque if filled with forms of disgust that many moralists would find repugnant and off-limits, its just this exposure to twisted sexual and sadistic behavior of the sick and mad creatures of horror that awaken that visceral and nauseous recoil that is the signature of this strong emotion.
Much more pertinent is what disgust forces upon us rather than our moral reaction to it. It exposes to us the wounds within us both mentally and physically, the human frailty and finitude of our situation in the world. Aesthetic disgust opens us to all those material processes that for the most part people shun and turn away from, such as sour milk, sewage, and slime; slugs, maggots, and lice; infected sores, gangrened flesh, and decomposing corpses. These things prompt unqualified visceral disgust and may include unpleasant involuntary responses, including the gag reflex, nausea, and even vomiting. But even if we do not reach the latter stages of reaction, the physical recoil of disgust is palpable.
What’s unique in horror stories is a certain distancing from the actual physical sense of such disgust, a more discursive and imaginative embrace of disgust as an aesthetic phenomenon rather than a literal enactment of it through our senses. Both in literature and film the reader/viewer is at one remove from the actual physical horrors such that they can experience such revolting scenes through the mind rather than the flesh. A vicarious rather than visceral partaking of this strong sensation. From Plato to Kristeva aesthetic disgust has fascinated us through its allure and aversion. Such concepts have imposed a sense of distancing that has formalized the aesthetics of horror by way of separating the senses of sight and hearing from the more visceral senses of touch, smell, and taste. Both in literature and film we apprehend disgust through our eyes and ears rather than experiencing it in its obtrusive immediacy through these other strong senses. It’s this ability to observe and listen that allows us to aesthetically appreciate what otherwise would nauseate and repulse us to the point of physical sickness.
Are we fearful of the ugly truth? Is it too disgusting to approach? Why hide from this monstrous existence? Shouldn’t we follow those before us? Aurel Kolnai’s long essay “Disgust” from 1929, the first dedicated philosophical study of this emotion; William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust (1997); and Winfried Menninghaus’s compendious Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003). It bears affinity with certain theoretical applications such as Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004) and Julia Kristeva’s examination of the abject in The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), as well as the many analyses of the disgusting in art such as Robert Rawdon Wilson’s The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust (2002). Carole Talon-Hugon’s Gout et degoit: L’art peut-il tout montrer?
After I finish rereading Matthew’s works I’ll post a more lengthy review on my site. This was only a preamble to show the importance of this type of horror and why we need it more than ever. I’m working through Gateway to Abomination, Creeping Waves, and his latest – Stay Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities.
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 320). Yale University Press.
- Biles, Jeremy (Editor), Brintnall, Kent L. (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
- Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 17, 2011)