Christopher Slatsky: The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature

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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!

The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature

Matt Cardin: Master of the Fantastic

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

CaptureI 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.


You can find Matt Cardin on his blog Teeming Brain  and buy his new collection here!

Brian Evenson: Song for the Unraveling of the World

If reason is not a chimera, then it must resolve this problem: how to disengage, amid the factual beings given in experience, that which, adequate to beings as such, is not itself contingent?

—Quentin Meillassoux

CaptureWhat if our life was a mere shadow of a Greater Nightmare, and we but the enactment of its dark intentions? That we are a contradiction, a veritable alien thing amid the sleep walkers of this planetary realm of organic madness is apparent to almost anyone with a inkling of intelligence. Yet, there are those who wander through life as if it were perfectly normal, that it was all planned out ahead of time, each of us a mere particle or semblance of some indefinable blueprint long ago bargained for in the distant reaches of the pre-cosmic abyss. Others seeking only the safety net of security and certitude have fallen into cages of religion or philosophy that offer certain consolations and deliverances from the absolute contingency of the world, believing they can master and control their destinies with Reason and Knowledge. Like shadows in a timeless void we pretend we are real when in truth we are not even unreal, but mere allusions and echoes of some former realm that has all but been shattered by the cosmic catastrophe within which we find ourselves. A speculative thinker of our era, Quentin Meillassoux terms this absolute contingency – within which we move and have our being, a hyper-chaos; or, as he puts it “absolute time” itself. As he states it:

What do I mean by this term? To say that the absolute is time, or chaos, seems very trite, very banal. But the time we discover here is, as I said, a very special time: not a physical time, not an ordinary chaos. Hyper-chaos is very different from what we call usually “chaos”. By chaos we usually mean disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything. But these properties are not properties of Hyper-Chaos: its contingency is so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity. Things are so contingent in Hyper-chaos, that time is able to destroy even the becoming of things. (Time Without Becoming 25)

This notion of time being able to destroy the becoming of things reflects the strangeness I find in a series of tales in Brian Evenson’s new collection Song for the Unraveling of the World. 

In the title tale of the Evenson’s collection we discover a Father whose five year old daughter has gone missing. The details of the story are simple and bare: the father has kidnapped his own daughter from his (ex?) wife, brought her to a safety-house (or, so he thinks!), provided her with toys, dolls, and all the possible comforts he could. He falls asleep listening to a song he assumes she is singing herself to sleep by through the thin wall between their rooms. He awakens to find her gone, her room secured from the outside; her bed and room strangely unused and a circle of her new things distributed around the bed like some unusual ritual had been performed with her as the star attraction. He searches the home, then the neighborhood, bars, the town… he finds nothing, nothing at all. He calls his ex-wife and discovers she does not have the daughter. He sits down again in his home and stares at a tv broadcasting only pure static as if from some alternate reality. As he thinks to himself:

It had not been his fault, he told himself. Sometimes things just happen and you can’t do anything about them. Just as with the scar on Dani’s temple—that had not been, when you considered it logically, his fault. It had simply been bad luck. (SUW 32-33)

We discover that he’d taken the daughter without thought, it had been a mistake, but that now that he had he’d built a safe haven against the very real world of Law and Society, against the powers of reality. He’d lived in his home with his daughter as if in a pure zone of freedom. He’d bolted the doors, boarded up the windows, isolated himself and his daughter from the world. For a year he lived this way as if that might just be enough time to escape the real burden of his choices. But that was all over now, his hopes of return, of redemption, of his wife’s forgiveness, of living ever happily after with his daughter. All gone.

And then the song started up again, the song from his daughter’s room, a strange and disquieting song in a language not quite of this world. He carefully pries open the door hoping to find here there, but finds nothing, nothing at all. He asks himself the question: “What does it mean to me?” He’s broken the ritual circle, laid down on his daughter’s bed, listening, thinking, hoping against hope that she will return: “He lay there, trying to feel some sign of his daughter’s presence. All he could feel was his own ungainly self.” (SUW 35)

As he is laying there contemplating the past, present, and possibilities of a future he will again as: “What does it mean to me?” This repetition without an answer of a question of meaning in a meaningless universe brings us back to that notion of absolute contingency. As Drago thinks to himself:

What does it mean to be me? He had lived, it seemed to him, several lives, and when he strung them together they didn’t seem to make any kind of chain. Whatever continuity was supposed to be there seemed to have dissolved and he didn’t know how to get it back. Even in just the last two years, there had been a life where he and his wife had been together and had been happy, followed by a life where he had been alone and miserable, followed by a life with just him and his daughter, followed by this life now, the one that was now beginning. What did it all add up to? Nothing. Merely four separate existences. He wasn’t the same person in any of them. Or rather, in the first three he was three different people. For this life, the newest one, it was still too early to say what, if anything, he was. (SUW 35-36)

As if his life were itself a series of disjunctive episodes that did not connect or touch each other, as if each time-frame were part of some strange world of pure contingency without rhyme or reason; a world where time had suddenly become destructive, a power of ruin and erosion, entropy and decay, as if time were unraveling all around him. As if whatever we are as persons were not what we thought we were, but something else; and that nothing we’d been told about the continuity of self and world were true at all, as if the facticity of the world had suddenly vanished into thin air and been replaced by some strange form of hyper-chaos.

Late that night he awakens and sees his daughter just beyond the ritual circle, groggily he rises up and tries to reach her but is bound to the inside of the circle like a demon:

When he got out of bed and moved toward her, he found he could not cross the border of the circle. As if I’m a demon, he thought. He prowled along inside the circle, edging around the bed, looking for a way out. But there was no way out. (SUW 36)

In ritual magic such a space is a circle (or sphere, field) of space marked out by practitioners to contain energy and form a sacred space, or provide them a form of magical protection from demons or other alien entities.

Drago watches his daughter from within the circle, and she watches him in silence for a long while. Then she rises up and leaves him there without a word being exchanged. After she leaves the spell that kept him bound to the inside of the circle is broken, and he follows her down the stair. Suddenly everything changes, the front door shatters, two detectives and his wife enter and accuse him of atrocities unimaginable. His wife crying, clawing at him through the window, begging him to tell her what he’s done to their daughter. And just as he’s about to understand just what he doesn’t know and will never know…  he wakes up.

Most of us think the world is a safe place, a haven against the cosmic night of horror lurking just outside our green, green earth. We think we can master and control the forces of horror arrayed against us, dispel the darkness of the unknown with the wand of reason and science. Then something happens to disturb this illusion, something inexplicable happens to us or a loved one, something that we cannot explain with either rational thought or those so carefully tended notions of common sense and the pragmatic truth of what we’ve known as reality. We begin to question ourselves and the world, suspecting either something has gone wrong with our minds or that the world has shifted into a darker and more mysterious zone. We begin to look around us and question the very nature of our lives and of those we took to be our friends. Paranoia sets in and we begin to fear that something is wrong with the world in ways it never was before. It’s this sense of things being a little off that these tales of Brian reveal with such simple prose. A prosaic world that moves along as if everything is normal then suddenly veers off into strange zones of being we never knew existed before.

Brian’s tales lead us into those alcoves of nightmare that we’ve hidden from ourselves all these years. Dark recesses of being that open out onto that Greater Nightmare where anything is possible, and will at one time or another probably happen. It’s a realm where the very nature of our self-identity begins to unravel, a realm in which the world you’ve known suddenly dissolves and another more sinister one is revealed. For far too long we’ve allowed ourselves to live comfortable lives in our illusory realms of as if, telling ourselves that our shared world of work and play is the only world. It is not. There is another realm waiting in the wings, between the cracks and seams, just outside our normal awareness that at any moment may just pull the blinkers off your eyes and reveal itself for what it is. You cannot hide from it, you cannot run from it, it is this world we all share seen with other eyes than the one’s you’ve allowed to be shaped by normalcy. It is the real world, a world of horror and ecstasy situated no where more central than in your own sleeping mind. It is the nightmare land where your real life begins, a monstrous life that only now you begin to understand and realize is the only ever life you ever had and will be without end.

Brian’s tales open portals into and out of that nightmare land. Each tale giving a glimpse of its strange manifestations, hinting at more than revealing. Tales that shift from time-present to time-past, else into sidereal zones of being that seem to exist in some parallel time world just this side of hell. Vampyres in the western lands; skin-changers in some New York boutique; aliens from inter-dimensional chaos whose only telling mark is to leave us faceless; murderous psychopaths; secret sharers of darkness and change; the friendly next-door cannibal family;  paranoid filmmaker’s who discover unbidden truths; holes in deep space that harbor inhuman mysteries… the litany of horrors like a kaleidoscope revolve round and round in this collection leading the wary reader into realms where the mind begins to literally unravel and begin to dissolve in the darkness of inescapable abysses. This is Brian Evenson’s world of terror and beauty where anything can happen and most likely will…

There is more to tale I related, but I’m not going to reveal that to you just now. Not now, not ever; for that you must read it yourself. But I can assure you this that each of the tales in this collection is like a song in that unraveling world of time that is hyper-chaos, a realm in which all continuity is gone, a realm in which every facet of existence is unraveling in a song of horror and delight. These are tales of that Greater Nightmare that surrounds us on all sides, a realm that we block out through our security blankets of culture and civilization. We believe ourselves immune to it through the perfect illusions we’ve created for ourselves, our normal dreamtime of comforting day worlds of work and play. But it is not true, just the other side our normal lives is an infernal region of absolute contingency that sooner or later will begin playing its song for you, too. And when it does your world will begin unraveling in into that Greater Nightmare carnival of existence… a realm of absolute contingency in which anything can happen and most assuredly will happen to you.

Enjoy the ride!


You can find Brian Evenson on his blog: https://brianevenson.com/

And his new collection on Amazon: Song for the Unraveling of the World

 

 

My Essay on Thomas Ligotti coming in July in Vastarien: The Literary Journal

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My essay Thomas Ligotti: The Abyss of Radiance will appear in the award winning Vastarien: The Literary Journal in the Summer issue this July!

Visit their site to learn more: https://vastarien-journal.com/

“Vastarien: A Literary Journal was conceived five years ago by a handful of people who wanted to see more writing about and in response to the work of writer/thinker Thomas Ligotti. Since then, our publication has been bombarded with stellar, but unusual, work by authors and artists—many of whom are underrepresented and/or newer voices. Without them and the incredible support Vastarien continues to receive from its devoted readers, this singular journal never would have come to fruition. Thanks so much to all of you and the staff of This Is Horror for this wonderful award!”
—Jon Padgett, Editor-in-Chief of Vastarien: A Literary Journal
THIS IS HORROR FICTION MAGAZINE OF THE YEAR

 

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance

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Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance lives in that grotesque realm between the real and the fantastic, its humor is only offset by its profound despair and deeply unsettling disturbance of our place not only in society but in the universe itself. In the first section of the novel we meet Mrs Plauf, an older woman who has been visiting friends and loved ones but is now on a return train trip to her own home town. Most of the action is from her pov, and we listen to her as she lives through a particularly trying voyage. Her sense of reality takes a sharp turn into the sinister when she discovers a man who is staring at here perversely. A young man, but also one who is filthy and seems ludicrously interested in her as a sexual object. As the trip goes on we find out about her life back home, about her fears, her prejudices, the little seemingly bland make up of her boring bourgeois life in the small town she comes from. She is traveling among peasants, earthy people who pay her no mind, who almost seem oblivious of her. They all seem at home in the universe, unpacking meats, fruit, games of cards, laughing, talking, and generally having an enjoyable time of it as they journey on to their own destinations. Only Mrs Plauf seems off-put, distant, unsociable, and afraid of everything around her, especially of the man who want leave her alone. The unbroken, stream-of-consciousness method brings with it a sense of chaos and formlessness, a sense of tittering on the edge of the impossible. This is a mind in ruins, riddled with the clichés of her culture, a mere puppet figure on the strings of her own fears and appetites. There comes a point as she is sitting there that she leans down to fix her shoes and her brassier snaps loose. Already self-conscious of her appearance she is now filled with dread that the man has seen her and even more excited at her ill-luck. As with anything she has a deep need to relieve herself, as well as fix this issue with her bra, and decides to make the journey through the cars to the bathroom at the other end of the train. Once inside she feels safe for a moment enclosed in the little room, private and away from the others; and, especially away from the perverse man who has been eyeing her the entire trip. The situation is both comical and grotesque, she’s broken her bra strap, she’s feeling unkempt; traveling among people who carry chickens, dogs, children, produce, livestock, etc. She’s crawled through a carnival of humans to get to this spot of safety, or so she thinks. That is until she hears a knock on the door, an incessant knock… (here I quote the full passage, classic and worth quoting):

Her hands trembling with nervous haste, she brought her bra round and, seeing (‘Thank heaven!’) that the clip was not broken, sighed in relief; she had just begun clumsily to dress when she heard behind her the tentative but clearly audible sound of someone outside knocking at the door. There was about this knocking some peculiar quality of intimacy which, naturally enough in the light of all that had happened so far, succeeded in scaring her, but then, on reflecting that the fear was probably no more than a monstrous product of her own imagination, she grew indignant at being hurried like this; and so she continued her half-finished movement, taking a perfunctory glance in the mirror, and was just about to reach for the handle when there came another burst of impatient knocking, quickly succeeded by a voice announcing: ‘It’s me.’ She drew her hand back aghast, and by the time she had formed an idea of who it was, she was overtaken less by a sense of entrapment than by desperate incomprehension as to why this croaky strangled male voice should bear no trace of aggression or low threat but sound vaguely bored and anxious that she, Mrs Plauf, should at last open the door. For a few moments neither stirred a muscle, each waiting for some word of explanation from the other, and Mrs Plauf only grasped the monstrous misunderstanding of which she had become the victim when her pursuer lost patience and tugged furiously at the handle, bellowing at her, ‘Well! What is it to be?! All tease, no nookie?!’ She stared at the door, terrified. Not wanting to believe it, she bitterly shook her head and felt a constriction at her throat, startled, like all those attacked from an unexpected quarter, to find that she had ‘fallen into some infernal snare’. Reeling at the thought of the sheer unfairness, the naked obscenity of her situation, it took her some time to comprehend that—however incredible, since as a matter of fact she had always resisted the idea—the unshaven man had from the very start believed that it was she who was propositioning him, and it became clear to her how, step by step, the ‘degenerate monster’ had interpreted her every action—her taking off her fur … the unfortunate accident … and her enquiring after the washroom—as an invitation, as solid proof of her compliance, in a word as the cheap blush-worthy stages of a low transaction, to the extent that she now had to cope with not only a disgraceful attack on her virtue and respectability but the fact that this filthy repulsive man, stinking of brandy, should address her as if she were some ‘woman of the streets’. The wounded fury which seized her proved even more painful to her than her sense of defencelessness, and—since, apart from anything else, she could no longer bear the entrapment—driven by desperation, in a voice choking with tension, she shouted to him: ‘Go away! Or I shall cry for help!’ On hearing this, after a short silence, the man struck the door with his fist and, in a voice so cold with contempt that shivers ran down Mrs Plauf’s back, he hissed at her: ‘Go screw yourself, you old whore. You’re not worth breaking down the door for. I wouldn’t even bother to drown you in the slop-pail.’ The lights of the county town pulsed through the window of the cabin, the train was clattering over points, and she had to stop herself falling over by grasping at the handrail. She heard the departing footsteps, the sharp slamming of the door from corridor to compartment, and, because she understood by this that the man had finally released her with the same colossal impudence as he had accosted her, her whole body trembled with emotion and she collapsed in tears. And while it was really only a matter of moments, it seemed to last an eternity, that in her hysterical sobbing and sense of desolation she saw, in a brief blinding instant, from a height, in the enormous dense darkness of night, through the lit window of the stalled train, as if in a matchbox, a little face, her face, lost, distorted, out of luck, looking out. For though she was sure that she had nothing more to fear from those dirty, ugly, bitter words, that she would be subject to no new insults, the thought of her escape filled her with as much anxiety as the thought of assault, since she had absolutely no idea—the effect of each of her actions so far being precisely the reverse of that calculated—what it was she owed her unexpected freedom to. She couldn’t bring herself to believe it was her choking desperate cry that frightened him off, since having felt a miserable victim of the man’s merciless desires throughout, she, by the same token, considered herself an innocent and unsuspecting victim of the entire hostile universe, against whose absolute chill—the thought flashed across her mind—there is no valid defence. It was as if the unshaven man had actually raped her. She swayed in the airless, urine-smelling booth, broken, tortured by the suspicion that she knew all there was to know, and under the spell of the formless, inconceivable, ever-shifting terror of having to seek some protection against this universal threat, she was aware only of an emerging sense of agonizing bitterness: for while she felt it was deeply unfair that she should be cast as an innocent victim rather than an untroubled survivor, she who ‘all her life had longed for peace, and never harmed a soul’, she was forced to concede that this was of little consequence: there was no authority to which she could appeal, no one to whom she might protest, and she could hardly hope that the forces of anarchy having once been loosed could afterwards be restrained. After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that ‘it was all going down the drain’, for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in ‘a world where such things happen’ the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.1

It’s in the two main passages in this entry I am concerned with: the first comes just after the man has left her to her own devices,

And while it was really only a matter of moments, it seemed to last an eternity, that in her hysterical sobbing and sense of desolation she saw, in a brief blinding instant, from a height, in the enormous dense darkness of night, through the lit window of the stalled train, as if in a matchbox, a little face, her face, lost, distorted, out of luck, looking out.

That one word “distorted” – the sense of deformation, isolation, loss, estrangement at her own insignificance in a universe hostile and indifferent to her prayers and appeals as to her defiance and chagrin. This sudden “blinding instant” – a revelation or revealing, an apocalypse awakens her to the exact situation of the human condition. The second passage which puts her in the place of uncertainty, wavering between reality and the fantastic is the one in which her beliefs in the decency of life and its values comes unhinged and “she had absolutely no idea—the effect of each of her actions so far being precisely the reverse of that calculated—what it was she owed her unexpected freedom to”. She questions the rational and irrational elements that led to this moment and concludes that she herself is “an innocent and unsuspecting victim of the entire hostile universe, against whose absolute chill—the thought flashed across her mind—there is no valid defence”. This stripping of the delusions and illusions that bind us to others, our beliefs, our little lies we tell ourselves, our gods or God, our families, our work, our friends, all the things that tie us to life; all of these provide us nothing, no succor against the truth that there is ultimately no “defense” against the “absolute chill” of the “hostile universe”. A universe without reason or foundation, contingent and mindless, a churning appetitive cannibalistic system whose only truth is its slow entropic burn down and decline into absolute zero. Till then it will cannibalize every resource within its power till the last sun goes dark, and the dust of a trillion-trillion dead stars disperses into the cosmic wastelands and graveyard of eternal night.

On fully realizing this truth she thinks,

She swayed in the airless, urine-smelling booth, broken, tortured by the suspicion that she knew all there was to know, and under the spell of the formless, inconceivable, ever-shifting terror of having to seek some protection against this universal threat, she was aware only of an emerging sense of agonizing bitterness…

It’s this namelessness, the “formless,” and “inconceivable,” and “shifting terror” of this “universal threat” that brings with it a bitter and agonizing sense of the futility of life and existence, and of her powerlessness in the face of this unknown and absolute power of the universe. And, she is afraid… We’ve all heard it at one time or another, but still bares repeating, – a classic passage from H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”2 Julia Kristeva argues, that the macabre and grotesque brings horror into view in carnivalesque fashion, and reveals the repressed faces of humanity. Horror and fascination are entwined, and the rugged violent beauty of horrified, destructive laughter is fascinating and mysterious in that it is ‘liberating by means of laughter without complacency yet complicitous’ (Kristeva, 1982: 133). This is unpacked in her reading of the text, which in true grotesque fashion brings together horror, mockery, satire and laughter:

[The Grotesque author] believes that death and horror are what being is. But suddenly, and without warning, the open sore of a protagonist’s very suffering, through the contrivance of a word, becomes haloed, as she puts it, with ‘a ridiculous little infinite’ as tender and packed full of love and cheerful laughter as it is with bitterness, relentless mockery, and a sense of the morrow’s impossibility.3

We get that sense of black humor and the dark horror intermixed in this passage of Krasznahorkai’s masterpiece:

After so much gossip, so much terrifying rumour-mongering, she could now see for herself that ‘it was all going down the drain’, for she understood that while her own particular immediate danger was over, in ‘a world where such things happen’ the collapse into anarchy would inevitably follow.

The sense that in a world where reason no longer holds sway, where anything can happen because everything is contingent and without sufficient reason to ground it, then we are truly in a universe where Reason has become the last folly of mankind – a last bastion against the madness and insanity of the universe that has been stripped from our dysphoric deliriums. The sense that the whole progressive mythos – the notion of Science, Reason, and Knowledge progressing, mastering the universe and our place in it, giving us a foundation and a bastion against the monstrousness of an indifferent universe; that this, too is an illusion, and a delusion that is no longer valid. Mrs Plauf is left without inner or outer support, with nothing and no one to hold onto; no ethical stance, no religious appeal, no philosophical principle, no friends or group to turn too; in the end she is alone – as we all are, facing the implacable truth of a hostile universe totally indifferent to her prayers or her curses. She has become a Zero. Null. Invalid. This grotesque little lady on a train to nowhere has become a distorted mirror of our fears, our angers, our hatreds, our insanity – Mrs Plauf is “out of luck,” and so are we all.


  1. Laszlo Krasznahorkai, László. The Melancholy of Resistance (Kindle Locations 139-179). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Location 327). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Edwards, Justin; Graulund, Rune. Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom) (p. 35). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Clark Ashton Smith: Visionary of the Dark Fantastic

To throw light upon the mysterious essence of the writer who has been overpowered by his daemon, to elucidate the true nature of the daemonic, I have inconspicuously delineated the dark inheritance of his escapades into the unknown.  The writer who soars upon the pinions of an uncontrolled daemonism is not one who is himself undaemonic, there is no art worthy of the name without daemonism, no great art that does not voice the music of the infernal spheres.

-Stefan Zweig,  The Struggle with the Daemon

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-coloured sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

-Clark Ashton Smith, The Hashish-Eater 

It’s hard to imagine just how prolific Clark Ashton Smith was in the various areas of art, poetry, and prose within which he established himself as an exemplar of the dark fantastic. In poetry alone his work is without doubt the last of the last great Symbolist from an era that stretched from Baudelaire to W.B. Yeats, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Austin Osman Spare. I see that S.T. Joshi and other editors have brought out a three volume edition of his poetry and translations (before his mentor George Sterling died he’d already become well known for his translations of Baudelaire), along with five volumes of his collected weird tales and one of his miscellaneous writings in other genres and sub-genres. But it is his five volumes recently published of his fantastic tales, his essays, letters, etc. of which I’ve been interested in of late. Many in his own time failed to understand him or his work properly, but much did. Many of the avant garde regarded his work, and especially The Hashish Eater, as being a mere extension of Sterling’s; Witter Bynner’s half-joking references to “the Star Dust Twins” are typical. This did not prevent the publication of Smith’s work in venues such as the Yale Review, Poetry, Smart Set, and Laughing Horse, and it was no stranger to popular anthologies and even school and college textbooks.1

Le Sprague de Camp considered him one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Weird Tale, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Yet, unlike the other two he never seemed to register on the psyche of readers. Some say it’s because he never created a mythos like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Howard’s Conan series, and yet he was by many aficionado’s (me included) the better stylist and prose writer, as well as more imaginative in displaying a command of world building and sheer control over the details of his explorations into the noumenal or unknown. For him the fantastic was not escapism – not in the sense of the Inklings or their sub-worlds; no, his was an exploration by indirect means of that vast invisible area we would term the speculative regions of the cosmos around us. Because of a false view of reality that after Kant reduced the cosmos and environment to the phenomenal and visible its taken a couple hundred years to come to the end of that circle of symbolic closure. Now in our time we’ve once again opened the doors to the unknown and impossible realms that our brains usually filter out because of our disposition toward hunger and reproduction. Yet, do to this caveat that our brains filter out most of the signals that surround us we are essentially blind to all but a small fragment of the Real. It’s in the work of this that those voyagers of the fantastic excelled; rather than in escape from reality, they chose to open up the aspects of reality that our cultural dominators chose to close off as taboo.

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Allan Moore: Jerusalem

51whd70y4clAllan Moore’s new novel is out at last. Jerusalem. Of course if you’re at all familiar with comics, Allan is a mortal god among gods. With such series as Watchman, V for Vendetta, Saga of the Swamp Thing, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Promethea, Voice of the Fire, Lost Girls and so many others his collaborations have produced some of the most innovative works in the industry. Now he comes out with what possibly might be his last work, and what a work. I’ve only downloaded it and begun to read it. So I’ll only jot from the blurb if you haven’t seen the work:

In the epic novel Jerusalem, Alan Moore channels both the ecstatic visions of William Blake and the theoretical physics of Albert Einstein through the hardscrabble streets and alleys of his hometown of Northampton, UK. In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England’s Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap housing projects. Embedded in the grubby amber of the district’s narrative among its saints, kings, prostitutes, and derelicts, a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.

Employing, a kaleidoscope of literary forms and styles that ranges from brutal social realism to extravagant children’s fantasy, from the modern stage drama to the extremes of science fiction, Jerusalem’s dizzyingly rich cast of characters includes the living, the dead, the celestial, and the infernal in an intricately woven tapestry that presents a vision of an absolute and timeless human reality in all of its exquisite, comical, and heartbreaking splendor.

In these pages lurk demons from the second-century Book of Tobit and angels with golden blood who reduce fate to a snooker tournament. Vagrants, prostitutes, and ghosts rub shoulders with Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s tragic daughter Lucia, and Buffalo Bill, among many others. There is a conversation in the thunderstruck dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, childbirth on the cobblestones of Lambeth Walk, an estranged couple sitting all night on the cold steps of a Gothic church front, and an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters. An art exhibition is in preparation, and above the world a naked old man and a beautiful dead baby race along the Attics of the Breath toward the heat death of the universe.

An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jerusalem tread ghosts that sing of wealth, poverty, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as a visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illusion of mortality post-Einstein, and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake’s eternal holy city.

It should be a wild romp full of surprises… looking forward to it.

The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne

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I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anactoria

Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. This is the bare truth of a poet who would epitomize the dark sadomasochistic world of Late Romanticism, otherwise known as English Decadence.

Little read today except by aficionados of that dark realm of the fantastic one wonders at his strange craft, the elegant measure of his line and its  insouciance. Swinburne would fuse French Decadence to reinforce Coleridge against Wordsworth reviving the gothic sublime in all its horrific glory. An admirer of Sade, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne restored to English literature the sexual frankness it lost after the eighteenth century. After the Victorian defeat of Oscar Wilde the fate of Swinburne was assured. Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas De Profundis would lay bare the dark contours of his own prejudices and fears, presenting his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.” (here) Toward the end of his prison term in Reading he would sum up the art of Late Romanticism (Decadence), saying, “Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.” Sadly, the fate of Wilde’s outer life would haunt the poetry and writings of Swinburne, which would fall into disfavor as a Late Victorian world of morality and accusation would put a damper on any sense of sexuality in poetry of literature.

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Topology of the Unknown: A Fantastic Anthropology

I suggest that the imagination feeds on realia— transforming, transposing, and projecting them into the realm of myth, or maintaining them in the sphere of beliefs that are mistakenly labeled superstitions.

-Claude Lecouteux,  Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices

I’ve started reading a collection of works by Claude Lecouteux the author of several books on the study of popular beliefs regarding supernatural entities in the Middle Ages, arguing that many of them had their origins in pre-Christian pagan world views that were, of course, expunged, suppressed, and eventually moved underground in fairy tales, legends, popular lore and ballads, etc.. His domain of research includes magic, mythology and folk tales. As a historian of medieval history he began to discover a great many incongruous accounts of ancient pagan beliefs and customs still arising throughout the literature, folk tales, popular ballads and poetry, as well as in many of the various tracts of monks, nuns, and clergy of the period that have for the most part due to our scientific and rationalist cultural matrix been overlooked, dismissed, and left in a scholarly dead zone, hidden an almost invisible except in unread journals and thesis’s etc. As he stated in an interview: “from the 19th century, we find everything, but we have never tried to attend the historic and diachronic dimension, in other words over the course of a long evolution, beliefs, the believers and the impact on their daily lives. However, from texts and archaeological excavations carried out burial sites, I made a panorama specific and amazing stories of ghosts and ghosts in the middle ages. So, I thought it would interest students. Certainly my seminar deals with cultural anthropology, but as soon as I touch these topics here, I expanded my audience to students and teachers of other disciplines.”

He began seeing a pattern of notions, ideas, figures, tropes in the various traditions that had been suppressed and written out of most modern absorption of this sunken literature of the medieval world. Notions like reincarnation, ghosts: the return of the dead, vampires, were-wolves, strange and mythical land spirits, house spirits, etc. All of these the Catholic Church began to codify and in a Manichaean scheme to imprison in a discourse of hell, purgatory, paradise in which the various entities would forever be placed and the folk beliefs associated with the old notions forever silenced.

In the old Germanic imagery, Death is a temporary exile, from where you return you reincarnating in one of your descendants, provided that it is given your name! Otherwise, the child could succumb to a disease. That is to say the weight of beliefs! And the Church has tried to kill the ghosts! If you take the dialogues of Grégoire le Grand, in the middle ages, the ghosts are beside us, on Earth. We talk to them! Coming from a Pope, it’s amazing! Then, from the [?]emesiecle, the Church attempted to imprison them in his Manichaean scheme: the dead among the dead (hell, purgatory and Paradise), the living at home! Without bridge between the two worlds. Literature of Revelations speaks constantly of the manifestations of the dead from the living, even in the 13th century, but most of the time, in dreams. Otherwise, it’s purgatory, and they leave an indelible trace of their passage, like a burn for example. A tip: never shake hands with a ghost!

One advantage that he enjoined was knowing all the Germanic languages. He was able to introduce in his study everything which was narrated in the Scandinavian countries, in the middle ages. Thus, he found texts that have not yet been “Christianized”, reflecting faithfully the mental concerns of people from the 10th to the 12th centuries, out of religious considerations. The Church having not yet managed to banish ghosts in the hereafter, nor to make their purgatory that associates the ghosts to souls in need, he was able to work with the literature of the dead and discovered in it that there was nothing separating or distinguishing the dead from the living: no boundaries of separation between the realms, no purgatory until after the introduction of Christianity. As he’d say

Ghosts have three dimensions: they talk, eat, copulate, mother, fight and enjoy revenge on their human doubles! It’s the true revenant! Because even the semblance of a living, the Ghost is an immaterial being that in the middle ages, mainly manifests in dreams or dreams. Even if in the morning when you wake up, you have evidence that he came to visit you, either by filing an object near you, or injuring you in your sleep! It is impossible to catch him to tackle or to kill… again! However, the revenant is a living death that can kill a second time! And even permanently, with certain methods…

Reading the above I kept thinking of Clive Barker’s famed Cenobites, those erotic monks of hell who torture their victims in love… In the lore of Scandinavia there was a good and bad death. As he’d discover you can’t forget those who come back. Because they have a reason to come back: the need to be Avenged, for they avidly lecture their descendants or to ask for favors, etc.. On the other hand, an idea that is dear and underlying studies he conducted was the notion that as long as the memory of the dead remains, the dead lives. “And when the memory disappears, the death is “mythisé”: if it has been a very good death, the dead one turns into another creature like an Elf and, if not, a Dwarf! Scandinavian texts were very explicit on these metamorphoses.”

Asked about the transcendent realms, of the beyond whether it was singular in the ancient lore like the notions of the Church:

No. There is not a single beyond. You have a fantastic and magical characters. An afterlife of the dead, that is not the same. Etc. It also distinguishes between beyond and other world, to avoid confusion, as far as possible. In-between, there are bridges which is in the transformation of the dead in mythical characters, such as the dwarf, Elves or fairies. For example, the white ladies are fairies, kinds of warning ghosts of death, called banshees in Celtic folklore. The legendary death, so it is a scary tackle world because information go in all directions. Real “mental archaeology” as calls it my friend Régis Boyer, the real work is to find the internal consistency of all these scattered elements. Like a gigantic puzzle that would have thrown in the air and which should now pick up the pieces. Why did we think? This is what interests me! And I finally found an explanation: a design of the very special soul, which derived directly from shamanism. That is to say if it’s old! From here, we kiss the multiplicity of souls in the body. And, according to the texts and vocabulary, which survived and allowed the body to live is his double!

So already we see prefigured many of the themes and tropes of the modern fantastic from Hoffmann to our current masters of the Literature Fantastique: doubles, plurality of souls, shamanistic time travel, other worlds, etc. He tells us in his travel around Europe that the “country  that has the most ghosts, to the point that people are amazed to see an ethnologist studying the phenomenon and lore, it’s the Iceland!” After that, comes the Norway, the United Kingdom, and other countries. He sent a team of journalists who met a ghost hunter in Iceland, dressed for the ritual of expulsion of the ghost as if it were just a daily routine for the Icelander. Looking at American TV here in the States one finds the same thing with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, etc.. These 21Century ghost hunters pursue haunted houses, office buildings, court houses, prisons, asylums, etc. in search of the living revenant. They use advance imaging cameras, infra-red, sound equipment, specialized magnetic and ion capturing systems, a whole gamut of electronics to supposedly capture ghosts in these localize places. And, millions of viewers tune in every week to see the latest apparition chase some hunter around, or manifest bite or claw marks on their chests or arms, completely convinced that their in touch with either dead people or demons. What’s even stranger they make a living doing this…

When asked about these hunters in Iceland he laughed and said:

Except that this isn’t the fantastic! This is part of their daily lives. There are several decades, in the North of the Iceland, the Government had decided to build a hydro-electric plant. A public survey was conducted. And public opinion overwhelmingly objected to the project, arguing that it was going to bother the genius of the waterfall…

Asked if he is a believer in ghosts… he said: “I’m a Cartesian! We require proof, and so far there is only things that go bump in the night of ghost hunters and fools.” But he adds, “I still believe in literature, in the old ways that seem to live and live in our old tales… so who can say for sure, heh? And, both gods, demons, and ghosts vanish from the mind of man if we neglect them, allow them to disappear from our books, our texts… only then do they truly die the second death, banished from memory and time.”


Some of his books in cultural anthropology, folklore and the history the fantastic:

  • The Secret History of Vampires
  • Demons and Spirits of the Land
  • Phantom Armies of the Night
  • The Return of the Dead
  • The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses
  • The Tradition of Household Spirits
  • Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies
  • The Book of Grimoires
  • Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

Fantastic Authors: Achim von Arnim(1781 – 1831)

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A German novelist and poet, born in Berlin. He is best known for a collection of folk-songs made with Clemens Brentano. and published (1806-08) under the title of the initial song, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He studied the natural sciences at Göttingen and Halle, and received the degree of M.D., but never practiced medicine. His first work, Theorie der elektrischen Erscheinungen, showed a leaning to the supernatural, common among the German romanticists, still more strongly marked in his Hollins Liebeleben (1802), and Ariels Offenbarungen (1804). Der Wintergarten (1809), a collection of romantic tales, was followed in 1810 by a striking novel, Die Gräfin Dolores. Halle und Jerusalem (1811) is a humorous romance, and Isabelle von Ägypten (1811) a mediocre novel. Two years later he collected his dramas. In 1817 he produced his last and best romance, Die Kronenwächter, a story of the days of Emperor Maximilian. His works are careless in form, incoherent in structure, and romantically whimsical, but they show a remarkable originality of invention. They were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839-48). There is a brilliant eulogy of Arnim in Heine’s Deutschland.

Théophile Gautier would say of him:

The genius Achim d’ Arnim, so deeply German and romantic in all the meanings which one can give to this note. A purist of that fire – a Fantastic Écrivain (Writer), whose voice does not have the clearness of a Callot or Hoffmann, but which draws from a life centre based in the extravagant and bizzare world of shadows, a spectral fantastic with the precise contours of a  Tartaglia, Sconronconcolo, Brighella, Scaramouches, the Trousers, Truffaldins and other characters of the grotesque; he proceeds rather in the manner of Goya, the author of Caprichos; he covers a board of black, and, by some skillfully distributed keys of light, he outlines in the medium these garish clusters of darkness in which the spectral inhabitants are hardly indicated, and these figures from which the enlightened side is barely perceptible and detached, and in which the other is lost confusedly in the shadow of sombernous; serious strange aspects in keeping with an intense morbidity, heads of an intimate and insipid charm and decadent grace, masks of sniggerers with worrying cheerfulness, look at you, smile at you and scoff at you at the bottom of this night of nights in a shadow world where vague gleams fray and disperse under a blank sky.

Sadly I have not found any good translations of his works in English. Arnim is considered one of the most important representatives of German Romanticism. His works were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839–48). Heinrich Heine wrote a eulogy of Arnim in his Deutschland. His works include:

  • Hollin’s Liebeleben (1802)
  • Ariel’s Offenbarungen (1804)
  • Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Folktale Collection, 3 vol., with Clemens Brentano, 1806 and 1808)
  • Tröst Einsamkeit (Book collection of Arnim’s published Zeitung für Einsiedler, 1808)
  • Der Wintergarten (1809)
  • Mistris Lee (1809)
  • Armut, Reichthum, Schuld und Buße der Gräfin Dolores (1810)
  • Halle und Jerusalem (play, 1811)
  • Isabella von Ägypten. Kaiser Karl des Fünften erste Jugendliebe (novella, 1812)
  • Schaubühne (play, 1813)
  • “Frau von Saverne” (story, 1817)
  • Die Kronenwächter. Bd. 1: Bertholds erstes und zweites Leben (unfinished novel, 1817)
  • Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau (novella, 1818)
  • “Fürst Ganzgott und Sänger Halbgott” (story, 1818)
  • Die Gleichen (play, 1819)
  • “Die Majoratsherren” (story, 1820)
  • “Owen Tudor” (story, 1820)
  • “Landhausleben” (story, 1826)
  • Die Päpstin Johanna (published posthumously by Bettina von Arnim, 1846)

Fantastic Philosophy: The Politics of the Impossible

10-Jarosław-Jaśnikowsk

Even as a child I was drawn to the dark underbelly of the fantastic flowing out of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Morris, Jules Verne, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft and his followers…

Yet, with the advent of Lord Dunsany, and the Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their followers the fantastic seemed to be hijacked into pure fantasy, into a Platonic amalgam of sub-worlds, and sub-creations after some theological speculations and overlays that regressively sought to reduce the world of the impossible and uncertain into the nostalgic returns of mythical medievalism and neo-Christian redemption – a world of nostalgia rather than a forward looking and probing of the political and social world of the present and future.

So there has been this great ongoing divide between the dark fantastic, weird tales, strange and speculative fiction communities and those others. The dark fantastic – at least to me, is the more viable path, the realm that allows for a more open and philosophical, even scientific and speculative opening onto all that is most disquieting in our present civilization and its cultural milieu. It’s as if the authors of the dark fantastic were already secret sharers of that age old spirit of rebellion and skepticism, those dark nihilistic and daemonic beings who down the ages have questioned what is most atrocious and tyrannical in our world, questioned power, knowledge, and the values that bind and keep us from exploring beyond the known, the veil of reason’s limits: outside the limits of finitude in the Great Outdoors of Being.

Sometimes I think of Hermann Hesse’s hermetic fantasy Journey to the East and want to say that instead of this insipid journey toward the transcendent and the sublime we join an opposing tribe, a secret brotherhood and sisterhood of the dark fantastic who have through the ages shared similar passions, and darker paths into the abyss of the erotic, decadent, and impossible; beings who were willing to enter the unknown of our earth, to wander the labyrinths of madness and chaos just the other side of Reason’s limits and finitude; join with these creatures of the autochthonous and chthonic realms, become members of their immanence, wanderers not of some transcendent realm, but rather of the Impossible and Unknown that lies submerged all around us in the earthly abyss like a hellish paradise awaiting its reemergence.

Fantastic Gnosis: Political Exit, Political Fantasy?

For a while now I’ve studied the great fantasies of the ancient Gnostics not as literal myths and theologies of acosmic religious gnosis or soterological mythologies of salvation, but rather as pragmatic portrayals of a philosophical and political program of action that uses the dark fantastic of inversion and subversion of ancient religious systems to both escape and exit the tyrannical dominion of a form of political, cultural, and social control; a way of deprogramming people from the literal death machines of society that have them trapped in erroneous ideological constructs and symbolic orders that feed on their energy and thrive on their physical and emotional life as part of an ongoing parasitism.

Call political gnosis a dark fantasy that helps guide us out of the sub-creations and dungeons of a Reality System that has locked humans in a cave of symbols and beliefs – a Symbolic Order(s) – that continues to manipulate and use humans to drive its own alien and transcendent enterprise and agendas. Think of the various philosophical wars between thinkers of transcendence and immanence that seem locked in some Manichean battle across the millennium. Now one side, now the other takes the upper hand, but in the end we’ve seen the slow reduction of Reality to a singular and monocultural systems of command and control that in our time seem to be unraveling at the edges. The question is: How can we help this along? How to begin pulling apart the woven fabric of this Reality System that has entrapped humans in a system of tyranny and enslavement for millennia? How did we fall into the sub-world, the sub-creation to begin with? And, no, there is no Gnostic Demiurge behind the curtain pulling the strings, no Wizard of Oz hiding behind the illusionary structures and myths of this world. Instead we’ve done it to ourselves, allowed our own incessant urge for perfection and immortality, our need to transcend the human condition, our need to believe in some more perfect utopian world of purity and fulfillment to goad us into this false system we’ve built against an age old enemy – Time. That’s right, we’ve build culture and civilization as a Time Machine, a temporal system of historical continuity and duration to defend us against the impersonal and indifferent monstrosity of the natural universe of death, chaos, and annihilation.

I know, I know… you say: “This is ludicrous, have you gone mad, man? What kind of gibberish are you asking us to believe? This sounds like one of your fantastic stories, some dipping in the jar of phantasmagoria?” Maybe. A possibility? Or, maybe not. What if it is just a handy extrapolation into an extravagant linguistic system to awaken and disturb people, to arouse their interest, to pique their taste for the exotic and extreme? What if it is a foray into the impossible? What of that? One can take or leave such thoughts as I portray (if they be thoughts?). One can walk away and say: “Hickman has gone mad, taken to heart the strange and ridiculous worlds he’s been steeped in for far too long.” Yes, yes… maybe you’re own to something there. But maybe a little madness and excess is what we need. A little disturbance of our sleep, perhaps? A wake up call? A sort of fantastic bomb that suddenly brings one nightmares from within, immanently?

Yet, strangely there are those sub-creators, those of the other party, the reactionary front who seem to think of radical thought as something that needs to be squelched in the nib. I think of such thinkers starting with Eric Voegelin, who in his Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays castigate what he termed political Gnosticism of modernity, lumping Positivism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and the “God is Dead” movement as variants of the Gnostic tradition of antiquity.1

Ioan P. Couliano in an interesting work on the Renaissance would liken magic and the magician as political actors enabling a new science of phantasms, one in which magic is primarily directed at the human imagination, in which it attempts to create lasting impressions upon the psyche of the masses. The magician of the Renaissance is both psychoanalyst and prophet as well as the precursor of modern professions such as director of public relations, propagandist, spy, politician, censor, director of mass communication media, and publicity agent.2 As he’d suggest

Nowadays the magician busies himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, sociological surveys, publicity, information, counter information and misinformation, censorship, espionage, and even cryptography—a science which in the sixteenth century was a branch of magic. This key figure of our society is simply an extension of Bruno’s manipulator, continuing to follow his principles and taking care to give them a technical and impersonal turn of phrase. Historians have been wrong in concluding that magic disappeared with the advent of ״quantitative science.” The latter has simply substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dreams and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane, and the computer have merely carried into effect the promises first formulated by magic, resulting from the supernatural processes of the magician: to produce light, to move instantaneously from one point in space to another, to communicate with faraway regions of space, to fly through the air, and to have an infallible memory at one’s disposal. Technology, it can be said, is a democratic magic that allows everyone to enjoy the extraordinary capabilities of which the magician used to boast. (104)

So in this sense we already live in a magical reality, a world constructed out of symbols and belief systems that have become demythologized of their ancient roots in lore and religious ritual and practices. Of course, nothing new here, Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment would show this demythologization process as a progression from magic to religion to secular enlightenment, etc. As they’d suggest in the earliest popular epics this theoretical element of magic ritual became autonomous. The myths which the tragic dramatists of Greece drew on were already marked by the discipline and power which Bacon celebrated as the goal. The local spirits and demons had been replaced by heaven and its hierarchy. the incantatory practices of the magician by the carefully graduated sacrifice and the labor of enslaved men mediated by command.3

Yet, one asks: What is being commanded? The simple truth of it is – desire. We’ve created in magic, religion, and now secular systems machines to capture desire. But to understand how we’ve been manipulated by our own propensity to desire things, objects, and – yes, transcendence, is to understand first what desire is and does. Alexandre Kojève once taught that human desire is ultimately a desire for nothing tangible but a battle for pure prestige, a struggle to enslave the other’s desire to one’s own.4 In other words desire is intransitive. Objectless, desire seeks only the gratification of it’s own desire for desiring, and seeks to subordinate and enslave other’s desires to its own command and control systems. Let us call this the Prospero Syndrome and follow John Fowles postmodern fantasia The Magus down the rabbit hole.

The plot can be only inadequately summarized. Nicholas Urfe, a youngish, charming, intelligent and rather callous Oxford graduate “handsomely equipped to fail,” takes up with Alison, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. Their affair becomes serious (“In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love”). This is more than Nicholas’s effete cynicism can stand, so he leaves Alison to accept a job as an English instructor at the Lord Byron School, a sort of Eton-Harrow enclave on the Greek island of Phraxos, “only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon.”

Bored, immeasurably depressed by the self-revelation that he is not, as he had thought, a talented poet (“I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind”), out of phase with the throb of the sultry, white-sunned Mediterranean island.

Nicholas contemplates suicide, then takes to long solitary walks. On one of these walks he meets a wealthy English-born Greek named Maurice Conchis who may or may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the war and now lives as a recluse on his palatial, art- encrusted island estate. Conchis is the magus.

The estate is known as Salle d’Attente (the Waiting Room), and it is here that Nicholas is ushered into the mysteries–Conchis’s paradoxical views on life and his eccentric masques which, Nicholas later learns, are called “the godgame.”

The Godgame: Political Enclosures and Sub-Creation

John Fowles was fascinated by the ancient Aesopian fables and their Aramaic roots in didactic political and mystical medievalism.  The notion of a “Domaine Mysterieux” became a central motif of his early works, The Ebony Tower and The Magus in which most of the godgame takes place is constituted by – in a literal sense – the cellar, and also in a wider, literary and semi-mythological way, by the very tale of Charles Perreault’s fairy-tale Bluebeard, first published in 1697 in Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye. John Fowles said later that he had been inspired by the symbolism of a man imprisoning women underground seeing Bela Bartok’s opera version of Bluebeard’s Castle.5

Yet, there may be another reading, far more sinister in which it is not only women, the excluded element within androcratic regimes that is being imprisoned underground, but desire itself and more than that, reality itself that is being submerged below the horizon in favor of a world of simulacrums where desire can be trapped in an eternal present without outlet in a Timeless realm where profit is the only thing that can circulate and nothing can be exchanged but Death – the ultimate currency and sacrifice.

It’s in this sense that the characters in these novels and stories much like ourselves have entered into the godgame, a sub-creation of our real world, where they and we have become bit players in a “meta-theatrical” production that we are blind too, unaware of participating in, and locked in an hellish realm of economic, social, and political enslavement in which desire is the ultimate commodity and tool of corruption. In other words these fables are in many ways enactments of the very political enslavement we are currently experiencing within the Neoliberal world theatre, a cruel realm in which the real world is excluded and only the grand effects of the Industrial Mediatainment complex of World-Wide Communications and Information Systems replace the truth with its simulacrum.

The Trouble with Pleasure

Aaron Schuster in his new book The Trouble with Pleasure tells us that at the heart of Freud’s theory of mental life he describes three levels of desiring: —that of desire and its dissatisfaction, the struggle for recognition that constitutes the ego, and the crafty enjoyment of the drives. (KL 202) He goes on to describe Freud’s theory of drives, etc. saying that among all the ailments and afflictions recounted there, there is one kind of complaint that enjoys a particular privilege: the neurotic complaint. Inexplicable tics and bodily ailments, irrational fears, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, sexual malaise, entrenched guilt, and generally self-defeating behavior: in examining these various ills, Freud discovered that the neurotic complaint has a peculiar structure. In spite of their grumbling and dissatisfaction, his patients proved stubbornly attached to the conditions from which they suffered, and Freud claimed that they were, in ways unbeknownst to themselves, deeply complicit in their own discontent. This is one of the most revolutionary aspects of psychoanalysis, whose full implications still remain to be discovered today: to consider those afflicted with psychopathologies not merely as passive victims of an illness, but as the unwitting architects of their own unhappiness. As Freud writes, while the ego “says to itself: ‘This is an illness, a foreign invasion’” and is thus unable to understand why “it feels so strangely paralyzed,” analysis reveals that the malady is actually “a derivative of [the neurotic’s] own rejected instincts.”  What appears to be externally imposed is nothing other than the mutilated product of one’s most intimate desires and fantasies. In other words, at a certain (unconscious) level, symptoms are very much wanted and “enjoyed.” (KL 202-216)

In other words you get what you deserve, you are the architect and prime mover of your own misery and discontent, that no one is imposing any chains on your freedom and that the world you have chosen to live is as Leibniz once defined it “the best of all possible worlds,” the world you yourself chose to live in and have your being, the world of your most intimate desires and fantasies.

Sub-Worlds, Sub-Creation

From the time of W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy literature was seen as fulfilling a desire for a ‘better’, more complete, unified reality and as an art form providing vicarious gratification. This transcendentalist approach was part of a nostalgic, humanistic vision, of the same kind as those romance fictions of George McDonald and others of the Nineteenth Century. The moral and religious allegories, parables and fables informing the stories of Tolkien and Lewis move away from the unsettling implications which are found at the center of the purely ‘fantastic’. Their original impulse may be similar, but they move from it, expelling their desire and frequently displacing it into religious longing and nostalgia. Thus they defuse potentially disturbing, anti-social drives and retreat from any profound confrontation with existential dis-ease.6

Movement into a marvellous realm transports the reader or viewer into an absolutely different, alternative world, a ‘secondary’ universe, as Auden and Tolkien term it. This secondary, duplicated cosmos, is relatively autonomous, relating to the ‘real’ only through metaphorical reflection and never, or rarely, intruding into or interrogating it. This is the place of William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Tolkien’s Middlearth in The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, the realms of fairy story and of much science fiction. (Jackson, 42-43)

These forms associated with the neo-Christian vision of the Inklings is to build up another universe out of elements of this one, according to dystopian fears and utopian desires, rather like Swift’s satirical methods in Gulliver’s Travels. Their other world, however new or strange, is linked to the real through an allegorical association, as an exemplification of a possibility to be avoided or embraced. The basic relation is a conceptual one, a linking through ideas and ideals. This is the basic notion of a Symbolic Order.

Much of what is termed post-Marxist thought of such thinkers after Lacan, such as Deleuze, Laclau, Mouffe, Žižek and so many others offer us a  version of the symbolic turn inherited from the structuralist era that was as much an obstacle as a vehicle for the various political projects to be discussed in this essay. The structuralist understanding of the symbolic is incapable of conceiving forms of critical thought and action that could disrupt hegemonic ideological forms, as structuralism takes these to be constitutive of our subjectivity itself.7

According to Breckman post-Marxism involves a confrontation between the relatively rigid semiotic concept of the symbolic order and looser, less formulaic and less deterministic ideas of the symbolic. (Breckman, pp. 12-13) These more open concepts tap the complicated legacy of the symbolic turn, a history with roots deeper than the twentieth century. The polyvalence of the concept of the symbolic opens up the terrain of post-Marxism: on one hand, the view of the symbolic as a “gargantuan” matrix, a ubiquitous ideological grid. As Breckman states it:

…the symbolic draws on roots in aesthetic and religious thought to indicate a special kind of representation, a representational form that oscillates between creating a certain kind of presence and remaining permanently flawed, shot through with that which it is not and cannot be. Viewed in this way, the symbolic opens the possibility for reorienting critical theory toward radical democracy, conceptualizing the power of symbols to body forth ideas, while at the same time viewing the social space as open and unmasterable. (pp. 13-15)

Many have portrayed postmodernity as intrinsically allegorical (which would be to say antisymbolic) because it has forever foreclosed on the fantasy of immediacy, presence, identity, and transcendence.8 All through the nineteenth century we discover in the Romantics, Decadents, and Symbolists a tension between symbol and allegory, which of course was a feature of the Romantic era itself, frequently hardening into an opposition. And, by extension, the notion that the postmodern age is allegorical rests inherently on a contrast to a modern age that was symbolic. It should be clear from the present discussion that it is a mistake to elevate one dimension of Romantic symbol theory above the polyvalence that lies at its core: the symbol is simultaneously a figure that concentrates and disperses meaning; it is a powerful figure, not just one sign among all others, but one that has the paradoxical power both to present or body forth and to accentuate the gap between the sign and the signified.

It would be this gap between the sign and the signified that would haunt the twentieth century. This sense that our thoughts about and reality itself had forever been severed, and we were now for better or worse living in constructed worlds – worlds where the social and cultural systems we seem to take for granted are machines of capture, machines that capture desire. We are living in an artificial world that feeds off our desires and manipulates our physical and mental life as part of a system of knowledge and power (Foucault) of which we are no longer the masters (if we ever were?).

Jean-Paul Sartre, in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination would tell us that acts of creation are in fact negations of the existent, acts of positing a “thesis of irreality.”9 This view ultimately opens directly onto basic themes of Sartrean existentialism, for even though the imaginary suffers an “essential poverty” compared to the fullness of perception, the imagination is nonetheless the basis of our existential freedom because it is the source of man’s transcendence of the real; though the imaginary may be the source of enslavement to our own fantasies, it is also the source of the spontaneous freedom of consciousness in the Sartrean universe.

The notion of irrealism has generally been used to describe something which, while unreal, is so in a very specific or unusual fashion, usually one emphasizing not just the “not real,” but some form of estrangement from our generally accepted sense of reality. Some argue that irrealism should not be confused with anti-realism, that it is defined as being a type of existentialist thought and literature in which the means are continually and absurdly rebelling against the ends that we have determined for them. An example of this would be Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, in which the salesman Gregor Samsa’s plans for supporting his family and rising up in rank by hard work and determination are suddenly thrown topsy-turvy by his sudden and inexplicable transformation into a man-sized insect. Such fiction is said to emphasize the fact that human consciousness, being finite in nature, can never make complete sense of, or successfully order, a universe that is infinite in its aspects and possibilities. Which is to say: as much as we might try to order our world with a certain set of norms and goals (which we consider our real world), the paradox of a finite consciousness in an infinite universe creates a zone of irreality (“that which is beyond the real”) that offsets, opposes, or threatens the real world of the human subject. Irrealist writing often highlights this irreality, and our strange fascination with it, by combining the unease we feel because the real world doesn’t conform to our desires with the narrative quality of the dream state (where reality is constantly and inexplicably being undermined); it is thus said to communicate directly, “by feeling rather than articulation, the uncertainties inherent in human existence or, to put it another way… the irreconcilability between human aspiration and human reality.” 10

One last point is the notion that we are living in a sub-creation, an artificial sphere of information, images, representations, fabrications constructed out of fragmentary aspects of the real world. Luciano Floridi coined a term Infosphere that denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including information agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, cyberspace, which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were, since it also includes offline and analogue spaces of information. Maximally, it is a concept that, given an informational ontology, can also be used as synonymous with reality, or Being.11

The Godgame: The Matrix and the Pale King

Who will ever forget the moment that Neo awakens into reality. Neo is initially so distressed my Morpheus’s explanation of Zion as the real world and the Matrix as illusion he becomes disoriented and confused. Once disengaged from the neural interactive program of the Construct, Neo staggers and falls on the floor of the Nebuchadnezzar crying out, “Don’t touch me. Stay away from me. I don’t want it. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it”. So intense is Neo’s feeling of confusion that he vomits – a literal expression of his sense of abjection.12

Neo’s reaction is not just disorientation due to the misrecognition of Zion as reality and the Matrix as fantasy, it is also due to the distress and anxiety caused by the loss of physical boundaries upon which his subjectivity is based. Rather than an individual with a discrete organic body, Neo finds that he is a composite entity, part human and part machine. The electro/ mechanical umbilici that connected Neo to the vast network of the Matrix destabilise his sense of self by blurring the boundaries between his body and the malevolent machine. Awareness of this situation is a moment of horror for Neo, not just because the machine he was attached to is monstrous, but also because he realizes that his body is part of the monster. (Williams, p. 68)

This sense that Neo is now disconnected from the Matrix of which he was a mere battery, a system of biopower that the machinic civilization – that had replaced and enslaved the human population after the great wars – is thrust into Neo’s consciousness with all the abject horror that such a revelation entails.

Andrew Culp in his Dark Deleuze reminds us that philosophically, connectivity is about world-building. The goal of connectivity is to make everyone and everything part of a single world.13 As he states it:

When connectivity is taken as a mantra, you can see its effects everywhere. Jobseekers are told to hop on to the web (“ While your resume can help you get the interview for a new job, a fully optimized LinkedIn profile can bring you more business, more connections, and can increase your professional reputation!”). Flat hierarchies are touted as good for business management (“ Power is vertical; potential is horizontal!”). And the deluge of digital content is treated as the world’s greatest resource, held back only by unequal access (“ Information wants to be free!”). As perverse as it sounds, many Deleuzians still promote concepts that equally motivate these slogans: transversal lines, rhizomatic connections, compositionist networks, complex assemblages, affective experiences, and enchanted objects. No wonder Deleuze has been derided as the lava lamp saint of “California Buddhism”— so many have reduced his rigorous philosophy to the mutual appreciation of difference, openness to encounters in an entangled world, or increased capacity through synergy. (Culp, KL 142-149)

In a connected world there is not distance, to time, no sense of movement. What we are witnessing according to Floridi is an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs (i.e., informational organisms) among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. (Florid, pp. 16-17)

Floridi seems happy about this situation, a member of those scholars who form and shape the Neoliberal fantasy and seek to instill its illusionary force. Yet, even he admits that after the fall into this sub-world of the neoliberal fantasists, this global Matrix of machinic civilization that those who find themselves disconnected may like Neo suddenly find themselves “deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever they are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water”.

In Place of a Conclusion…

David Foster Wallace in his last and unfinished novel The Pale King offers us through one of his characters the nightmare of our present moment:

‘No, you’re missing the genius of it. It’ll all be played out in the world of images. There’ll be this incredible political consensus that we need to escape the confinement and rigidity of conforming, of the dead fluorescent world of the office and the balance sheet, of having to wear a tie and listen to Muzak, but the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out— use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of shoe because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion. This mass PR campaign extolling the individual will solidify enormous markets of people whose innate conviction that they are solitary, peerless, non-communal, will be massaged at every turn.’14

In this nightmare vision even the revolution is a commodity in the endless Reality TV series that has become our lives.

I’ll return to this theme in Part Two with further divagations on how we might get out of this mad house we created for ourselves. Stay tuned…


  1.  Voegelin, Eric. , Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays. Gateway Editions; Gateway Ed edition (March 27, 2012)
  2. Couliano, Ioan P.. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 1987)
  3. Dialectic of Enlightenment . Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2002)
  4. Schuster, Aaron. The Trouble with Pleasure (Short Circuits) (Kindle Locations 127-128). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Charlotte Nolsøe Høegh. Godgames Revisited – The Early Oeuvre of John Fowles. (University of Copenhagen, 2009)
  6. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 9). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition
  7. Breckman, Warren. Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Democratic Theory (p. 12). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
  8. Gail Day, “Allegory: Between Deconstruction and Dialectics,” Oxford Art Journal 22, no. 1 (1999): 103–118.
  9. 33. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber (New York: Routledge, 2004), 10–11.
  10. Evans, G.S. and Alice Whittenburg, “After Kafka: Kafka Criticism and Scholarship as a Resource in an Attempt to Promulgate a New Literary Genre,” Journal of the Kafka Society of America, 31/32(1+2):18-26.
  11. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  12. Williams, B Conrad. What is the Matrix? (Jean Baudrillard and Simulation in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix Series) (p. 68).  . Kindle Edition.
  13. Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 135-142). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
  14. Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King (p. 147). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Notes:

Death of a Scholar (An Aside)

Couliano across several works would seek out ways of understanding this magical science of mass deception, manipulation, and control. Some say he was even murdered because of his radical views and stance, having been outspoken in his own homeland of Romania. Much of Culianu’s political activity remains vague, such as why he phoned someone in Medellin, Colombia, the capital of the world cocaine cartel, shortly before he died. Also unclear is the nature of his relationship with Mircea Eliade, whom he knew to have been an active supporter of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement. Detailed biographical material on Culianu leaves us convinced that the most remarkable thing about his life was its grotesque ending in a university toilet stall. Odds are it was the work of the Romanian Securitate secret police, but to this day the investigation is a mystery without conclusion. (see: Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton)

Either way his work has been praised by such writers and thinkers as Umberto Eco, Harold Bloom, and others for its inventive and powerful scholarship and political and social acumen.

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1900 to 1949) Part Four

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Continued from Part Three…

  • 1900 Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, issuing a
    caution to all lovers of hallucinatory fantasy. F. Anstey’s The Brass Bottle
    toys with the idea of letting an intrusive fantasy get out of hand. L. Frank
    Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suggests that if you live in Kansas,
    the grass might be greener on the other side of the portal.
  • 1902 Kipling’s Just So Stories inject a healthy dose of nonsense into the
    business of fabulation. E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It adapts Ansteyan
    fantasy for young readers. Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics explores the ecstatic dimension of enchantment.
  • 1904 J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan explores the psychological politics of escapism. W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions and H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” bid farewell to lost races.
  • 1905 Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana goes in for secondary creation
    on a large scale in lapidary form. The launch of Winsor McCay’s comic
    strip Little Nemo in Slumberland adapts fantasy to a new and exceedingly
    hospitable medium.
  • 1907 George Sterling’s “A Wine of Wizardry” sets out a manifesto for
    fantasy in a suitably decadent style and demonstrates that the readers of
    Cosmopolitan are small-town folk at heart.
  • 1908 G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday demonstrates that the
    spy story is an unsuitable medium for religious allegory. Kenneth Grahame’s
    The Wind in the Willows demonstrates that animal fantasy is the last viable
    refuge of Arcadian fantasy. Dunsany’s “The Sword of Welleran” attempts to
    recast chivalric romance in the mold of heroic fantasy. William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland demonstrates the utility of leaky portals.
  • 1909 Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird demonstrates that fantasy is
    stageable, provided that one takes a sufficiently impressionistic approach.
  • 1910 Walter de la Mare’s The Return and Algernon Blackwood’s The
    Human Chord fuse occult and existentialist fantasy.
  • 1912 James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold revisits the Irish Arcadia and finds it slightly tarnished. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes provides a key model of the Noble Savage.
  • 1914 Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels provides literary satanism with its masterpiece, shortly before the outbreak of the Great War in August; shortly thereafter, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” illustrates the hazards of fantastic indulgence in a time of great social stress. The Vorticist periodical Blast is founded, taking esoteric allegory to new extremes.
  • 1915 Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
    illustrate the anxieties bred by war. Jack London’s The Star Rover celebrates escapism. Machen’s The Great Return suggests that Wales was never in greater need of a grail.
  • 1917 James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest employs portal fantasy to mock the follies of American mores.
  • 1918 A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” employs a definitive portal fantasy to issue a manifesto for escapist fantasy in pulp fiction. The Great War ends in November.
  • 1919 Stella Benson’s Living Alone indicates the need for postwar reenchantment. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen continues his symbolist satirization of American mores and is fortunate enough to excite stern opposition.
  • 1920 David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus modernizes metaphysical allegory. The Capek brothers’ Insect Play and Hugh Lofting’s The Story of
    Dr. Doolittle provide contrasting templates for modern animal fantasy.
    Jessie Weston’s scholarly fantasy From Ritual to Record makes an important contribution to the ideology of Celtic Arthurian fantasy.
  • 1921 Barry Pain’s Going Home takes sentimental fantasy to a new extreme.
  • 1922 Eric Rucker Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros demonstrates several
    new extremes to which transfiguration of epic materials might go. David
    Garnett’s Lady into Fox modernizes theriomorphic fantasy. Ben Hecht’s
    Fantazius Mallare celebrates the perversities of delusionary fantasy.
  • 1923 Weird Tales begins publication.
  • 1924 Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter gives Faerie a crucial
    symbolic role in the politics of re-enchantment.
  • 1925 Margaret Irwin’s These Mortals and Christopher Morley’s Thunder
    on the Left reverse the conventional direction of portal fantasy in order to
    highlight the moral effects of disenchantment.
  • 1926 Ronald Fraser’s Flower Phantoms considers the metaphysical implications of erotic fantasy. Hope Mirrlees’s  Lud-in-the-Mist revisits the symbolism of forbidden fruit. Thorne Smith’s Topper adapts Ansteyan fantasy to an American milieu. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes casts the Devil as a loving huntsman.
  • 1927 John Erskine’s Adam and Eve adapts Edenic fantasy to the purposes of modern satire. Herman Hesse’s  Steppenwolf suggests that the magical Theatre of the Imagination might hold the answer to problems of alienation. T. F. Powys’s Mr. Weston’s Good Wine offers a revised account of divine benevolence.
  • 1928 Wyndham Lewis’s The Childermass transfigures Dantean fantasy
    for the modernist era. Robert Nathan’s  The Bishop’s Wife imagines that
    even angels can fall in love. George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge’s My First Two Thousand Years explores the ways in which an accursed wanderer might profitably employ an extended sojourn in the world. Lewis Spence’s The Mysteries of Britain collates the scholarly fantasies underlying modern Celtic fantasy.
  • 1929 Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild provides a key example of occult fantasy informed by scholarly and lifestyle fantasies. Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” offers a tentative template for sword and sorcery fiction.
  • 1930 Charles Williams’s War in Heaven demonstrates that genre thrillers
    might benefit from a dash of religious fantasy.
  • 1931 T. F. Powys’s “The Only Penitent” suggests that the moral rearmament of the confessional might work both ways.
  • 1932 Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story establishes a more authoritative exemplar for sword-and-sorcery fiction. John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance explores the potential of reckless mythological syncresis.
  • 1933 C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” hybridizes planetary romance and mythical fantasy. James Hilton’s Lost Horizon establishes a new escapist myth.
  • 1934 C. L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” feminizes sword and sorcery
    fiction in graphic fashion.
  • 1935 Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao employs a circus as a
    mirror to various hidden aspects of the American Dream. Herbert Read’s
    The Green Child remodels the underworld of Faerie in surreal fashion.
  • 1936 Evangeline Walton’s The Virgin and the Swine demonstrates the
    utility of Celtic fantasy in the dramatization of post-Frazerian scholarly
    fantasy.
  • 1937 J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again sets a crucial precedent for modern immersive fantasy. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” sets up a crucial title fight between the Devil and an American lawyer.
  • 1938 T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone provides significant new models of education and wizardry. Mikhail Bulgakov writes The Master and Margarita, knowing that he will be unable to publish its satanic rebellion against Stalinism. J. R. R. Tolkien’s lecture “On Fairy Tales” offers an unprecedentedly robust apologia for fantasy literature.
  • 1939 Unknown provides a vital arena for the development of chimerical fantasy. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds takes metafiction to new extremes. James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” provides a classic description of everyday escapism. World War II begins in September.
  • 1940 Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo compile a showcase anthology of international fantasy literature. Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie provides a key example of sentimental fantasy.
  • 1941 The United States becomes embroiled in World War II in December.
  • 1942 C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters breaks new tactical ground in
    propagandistic Christian fantasy.
  • 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince provides a parable of
    enchantment destined to become the best-selling book of the 20th century.
  • 1944 Neil M. Gunn’s The Green Isle of the Great Deep wonders whether
    heaven itself might be endangered by the spirit of Fascism.
  • 1945 C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce redraws the map of Dantean fantasy in a calculatedly unmelodramatic style. George Orwell’s Animal Farm adapts animal fantasy to modern political allegory. Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve places the war-torn world in a melodramatic metaphysical context. In August, World War II is concluded with an unprecedented melodramatic flourish.
  • 1946 Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan sets a new standard in Gothic grotesquerie. Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey lends a new sophistication to humorous fantasy.
  • 1948 Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn begins the sophistication
    of American heroic fantasy.
  • 1949 Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces maps the essential features of the heroic quest. The Magazine of Fantasy is launched
    (becoming The Magazine of Fantasy Science Fiction after its second issue).

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1850 to 1899) Part Three

16-Jarosław-Jaśnikowski-Surreal-Paintings-of-Fantastic-Realism-www-designstack-co_jpeg

Continued from Part Two…

One | Two | Three | Four

  • 1851 John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River provides the cardinal English example of an art fairy tale.
  • 1853 Richard Wagner begins his operatic transfiguration of Nordic fantasy in The Rheingold.
  • 1854–56 Éliphas Lévi’s Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic provides a handbook for modern lifestyle fantasy.
  • 1855 Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” furnishes a key source of enigmatic imagery.
  • 1856 William Morris’s account of “The Hollow Land” lays down a template for the design and decoration of secondary worlds.
  • 1857 Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal pioneers decadent style.
  • 1858 George MacDonald’s Phantastes lays down a template for didactic
    portal fantasy.
  • 1859 Éliphas Lévi’s History of Magic completes his couplet of scholarly
    fantasies, adding theory to practice.
  • 1860 Paul Féval’s multilayered and chimerical  Knightshade demonstrates the elasticity of metafiction.
  • 1861 Bulwer-Lytton’s  A Strange Story reclaims, with interest, what
    Éliphas Lévi had borrowed from Zanoni.
  • 1862 Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” explores the symbolism of “forbidden fruit.” Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière demonstrates that real historians
    can fake history more skillfully and more extravagantly than mere pretenders.
  • 1863 Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies explores the utility of phantasmagoric imagery in Christian fantasy.
  • 1865 In response to George MacDonald’s suggestion that he too might
    produce something akin to The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll prepares Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for publication, achieving something quite
    different.
  • 1866 Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages provides
    easily accessible imaginative fuel for contemporary fantasists. Théophile
    Gautier’s  Spirite pioneers paranormal romance. William Gilbert’s  The
    Magic Mirror exemplifies the Victorian attitude to wish-fulfillment fantasies.
  • 1867 Henrik Ibsen’s  Peer Gynt demonstrates the difficulty of putting
    fantasy on stage.
  • 1869 Jean Ingelow’s  Mopsa the Fairy exemplifies the sentimental aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1870 Frank R. Stockton’s Ting-a-Ling founds an American tradition of
    children’s fantasy.
  • 1871 Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass takes “nonsense” to new extremes of logical effect.
  • 1872 George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin exemplifies the
    darker aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1874 Gustave Flaubert publishes the revised version of The Temptation
    of Saint Anthony, featuring a more comprehensively modernized image of
    the Devil.
  • 1876 Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark gives nonsense its verse epic.
  • 1877 Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled lays the foundation for a scholarly and lifestyle fantasy of unprecedented complexity. Mrs. Molesworth’s
    The Cuckoo Clock refines didactic portal fantasy for children.
  • 1878 Max Adeler’s “Mr Skinner’s Night in the Underworld” adds an
    American irreverence to humorous fantasy.
  • 1880 Vernon Lee’s “Faustus and Helena” sets out a new theory of the
    functions of the supernatural in literature.
  • 1882 F. Anstey’s Vice Versa employs humorous fantasy to expose the follies and impostures of Victorian attitudes. Gilbert and Sullivan’s light
    opera Iolanthe arranges a cultural exchange between the fairy court and the
    House of Lords. Wagner’s heavy opera “Parsifal” completes the set of his
    mythical dramatizations.
  • 1883 Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio explains the difficulties involved in becoming human.
  • 1884 Oscar Wilde’s “The Sphinx” takes a tour of the cosmos of the contemporary imagination.
  • 1886 Rider Haggard’s She takes the lost race story into new fantastic territory. Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds pretends to revitalize religious fantasy while luxuriating in wish fulfillment.
  • 1887 Oscar Wilde’s account of “The Canterville Ghost” sophisticates the
    humorous ghost story.
  • 1888 Richard Garnett’s The Twilight of the Gods displays the scope of
    contes philosophiques dressed with a sharp satirical wit and a blithely
    decadent style. Robert Louis Stevenson’s  Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and
    Mr. Hyde adds a new dimension to moralistic fantasy. A. E. Waite’s Elfin
    Music summarizes the tradition of English fairy poetry.
  • 1889 Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court breaks
    new ground in didactic timeslip fantasy.
  • 1890 James Frazer publishes the first version of The Golden Bough, supplying a mythical account of the evolution of magic and religion destined
    to inform countless historical fantasies. Anatole France’s Thaïs brings the
    ideals of Christianity and Epicureanism into sharp conflict. Andrew Lang’s
    Blue Fairy Book launches an encyclopedia of the sources of modern children’s fantasy. William Morris’s The Story of the Glittering Plain brings
    the Hollow Land up to date.
  • 1891 George du Maurier’s  Peter Ibbetson celebrates the power of
    dreams to activate wish fulfillment. Oscar Wilde exemplifies the thesis of
    “The Decay of Lying” by publishing The House of Pomegranates and The
    Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • 1892 “Amour Dure” and “Dionea,” in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings, set new
    standards in decadent erotic fantasy.
  • 1893 W. B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight celebrates the mystical survival,
    in spirit, of the Irish Arcadia.
  • 1894 Fiona MacLeod’s The Sin Eater and Other Tales and Episodes argues that Scotland was also part of Britain’s Arcadia, although William
    Morris removes it to The Wood beyond the World. Rudyard Kipling’s The
    Jungle Book brings animal fantasy to a new pitch of sophistication.
  • 1895 H. G. Wells’s The Wonderful Visit employs an angel as a critical observer of Victorian folkways. John Kendrick Bangs’s A Houseboat on the
    Styx credits Dante’s Inferno with New York’s urbanity. Marie Corelli’s The
    Sorrows of Satan sympathizes with the Devil’s aristocratic ennui.
  • 1896 M. P. Shiel’s  Shapes in the Fire and Laurence Housman’s  AllFellows deploy decadent style in very different ways. Gerhardt Hauptmann’s
    The Sunken Bell struggles heroically with the problems of staging fantasy.
  • 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula invents a monster of unparalleled seductiveness.
  • 1898 Aleister Crowley joins the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
    bringing a dash of Rabelais to the world of English lifestyle fantasy. H. G.
    Wells’s “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” offers a definitive analysis
    of the tragedy of wish fulfillment.
  • 1899 Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia mixes Michelet and Frazer into a
    heady new cocktail for scholarly and lifestyle fantasists.

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (8th Century to 1900) Part One

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First in a two part chronological listing of fantastic works situated on the one hand by the marvelous and mythical epics, tragedies, comedies, and tales; and, on the other the slow demythologization or secularization of the marvelous into psychological, nihilistic, and other modes of the modern fantastique. Part one deals with those works up to 1900. I am indebted to Brian Stableford’s excellent The A to Z of Fantasy Literature which details out this history and its main authors from antiquity to the present.

One | Two | Three | Four

Part One: 8th Century to 1900

  • 8th century BC The Homeric epics are recorded, establishing the notion
    of literary genius and launching the tradition of fantasy literature. The
    works of Hesiod, including the Theogony, record the wider substance of
    classical mythology.
  • 6th century BC The fables credited to Aesop are recorded.
  • 5th century BC Aeschylus founds the tradition of tragic drama; his notable works include a post–Trojan War trilogy featuring Orestes, whose
    tribulations are further described by Euripides. Sophocles contributes a
    trilogy about Oedipus. In 423 B.C., Aristophanes’ ground-breaking humorous fantasy The Clouds wins one of his several prizes for satirical comedy.
  • 19 BC Virgil’s Aeneid imports Roman ideals into a sequel to the Homeric epics.
  • c10  AD Ovid compiles  Metamorphoses, a theme anthology recycling
    mythical tales, including the story of Perseus and Andromeda.
  • c65 The wandering protagonist of Petronius’s Satyricon encounters various leftovers of classical mythology.
  • c150 Lucian satirizes traveler’s tales in the “True History” and writes
    “Lucius; or, The Ass,” a licentious tale.
  • c165 Apuleius’s transfiguration of Lucian’s “Lucius,” The Golden Ass,
    elaborates the story considerably, interpolating the original allegory of
    “Cupid and Psyche.”
  • c425 Longus writes the Arcadian fantasy Daphnis and Chloe.
  • c725 Beowulf, written in a language ancestral to English, provides a key
    example of a local hero-myth.
  • c850 The Voyage of St. Brendan offers an account of an Irish expedition
    to a series of marvelous islands, providing a popular exemplar of a traveler’s tale with quest elements.
  • c1090 The Elder Edda provides a poetic version of the foundations of
    Nordic fantasy.
  • c1130 The earliest surviving manuscript of The Song of Roland, transfigures the defeat of Charlemagne’s army by Basque forces in 778, describing a valiant but hopeless rearguard action by Roland and his comrades.
  • c1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pioneering exercise in scholarly fantasy,
    History of the Kings of Britain, supplies the primal seed of Arthurian fantasy. Geffrei Gaimar’s similarly imaginary History of the English includes
    the story of Havelok the Dane.
  • c1165 A letter is allegedly received by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, signed by Prester John, the ruler of a Christian kingdom in
    India. The fake letter—an instrument of propaganda intended to drum up
    support for the Crusades—is widely copied, its account of Prester John’s
    kingdom provoking a good deal of scholarly fantasy.
  • c1170 Marie de France produces her Breton lays, many of which employ
    the Arthurian court as a backcloth; Sir Orfeo hybridizes Arthurian romance
    with the classical materials that provide the other major inspiration of
    French verse romance. A clerk known as Thomas writes The Romance of
    Horn, an account of unjust dispossession followed by heroic exploits, culminating in eventual reinstatement. The earliest texts composing the Roman de Renart lay the foundations of modern animal fantasy in their elaboration of fabular accounts of Reynard the Fox.
  • c1185 Chrétien de Troyes dies, leaving The Story of the Grail (aka Perceval) tantalizingly unfinished and awkwardly entangled with the similarly
    unfinished Gawain, provoking the production of thousands of literary fantasies and hundreds of scholarly fantasies.
  • c1210 Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal imports Chrétien’s account of
    the grail into German, co-opting Prester John as the grail’s guardian and
    making him a cousin of Parzifal’s son Lohengrin. A French Cistercian
    monk expands Chrétien’s story vastly in The Quest of the Holy Grail, making the grail quest a major endeavor of Arthur’s court.
  • c1220 Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Prose Edda, together with the Germanic  Niebelunglied and Scandinavian  Volsunga Saga, completes the
    foundations of Nordic fantasy. The French romance of Huon of Bordeaux
    introduces a chivalrous hero to the fairy king Oberon.
  • c1225 Guillaume de Lorris begins composition of The Romance of the
    Rose, an allegorical visionary fantasy based in classical sources.
  • c1275 Jean De Meun completes a much-expanded version of  The Romance of the Rose, which is extensively copied.
  • c1298 The death of Jacobus de Voragine, the compiler of The Golden Legend and the inspiration of much subsequent Christian fantasy.
  • c1300 The White Book of Rhydderch provides the earliest written source
    for the substance of Celtic fantasy.
  • c1307 13th October: Knights Templar throughout France are arrested,
    charged with heresy, and tortured by crown inquisitors to force confessions, providing the seeds of countless secret histories and fantasies of diabolism.
  • c1320 Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a key model for afterlife fantasy.
  • c1355 The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundeville exemplifies
    the fantasized traveler’s tale.
  • c1370 The story of Gawain and the Green Knight provides a key exemplar of English Arthuriana and a significant exercise in obscure allegory.
  • c1375 The Red Book of Hergest adds the second foundation stone of
    Celtic fantasy; it includes “Peredur of Evrawc,” which recycles Chrétien’s
    Perceval.
  • c1387 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales introduces fantasy—as
    well as naturalism—into the nascent tradition of English literature; the
    tales display a clear understanding of the various functions of calculated
    fabulation.
  • Early 15th century The first version of the chivalric fantasy Amadis of
    Gaul is written, probably in Portugal; the original is lost but serially expanded versions in Spanish and French boost the novel-length version to
    international popularity.
  • 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, bylined Thomas Malory, refashions the massive
    body of Anglo-Norman Arthuriana into a continuous and more-or-less coherent prose narrative, deemphasizing its supernatural elements but providing modern fantasy with its most important taproot text and exemplar.
  • 1492 Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World demonstrates that not all traveler’s tales are ludicrous.
  • 1494 Matteo Boiardo dies, leaving his epic poem Orlando Innamorato
    unfinished.
  • 1515 The lifestyle fantasist styling himself “Nostradamus” publishes his
    first set of quatrains, laying down a rich vintage for future scholarly fantasists.
  • 1516 Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso picks up where Boiardo left
    off, taking chivalric romance to new extremes of elaboration and exoticism, spicing them with sophisticated wit.
  • 1532 François Rabelais’s  Pantagruel begins a series of parodic satires
    that provides a crucial exemplar for Swiftian satire and Voltairean contes
    philosophiques, and for lifestyle fantasists avid to adopt the guiding motto
    of the Abbey of Thelema (“Do As Thou Wilt”).
  • 1550 Gianfrancesco Straparola’s  Nights offers literary versions of 20
    folktales, including texts of Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast.
  • 1587 Johann Spies publishes a fantasized account of the career of an obscure German scholar, founding the genre of Faustian fantasy.
  • 1590 Edmund Spenser publishes the first part of The Faerie Queene, allegorizing contemporary culture in the form of a fairy romance. Sir Philip
    Sidney performs a similar allegorical service for the myth of Arcadia.
  • 1593 Christopher Marlowe is murdered, leaving behind  The Tragical
    History of Dr. Faustus, a transfiguration of Spies’s Faust Book.
  • 1595 William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a new
    blueprint for English fairy literature.
  • 1605 Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote pillories chivalric romance as
    a kind of folly, but concedes that if nostalgia is a mental disease there is a
    tragic dimension in its cure.
  • 1611 Shakespeare’s The Tempest produces a key model of the figure of
    the Enchanter—an important archetype of philosophically inclined wizards—and supplies him with an equally influential exemplary household.
  • 1634 Giambattista Basile’s  Pentamerone recycles many folktales
    recorded by Straparola and adds many others, including versions of Snow
    White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.
  • 1654 Justus van den Vondel’s epic drama of the rebellion in heaven, Lucifer, is couched as a complaint against Puritanism.
  • 1667 John Milton’s epic account of the rebellion in heaven,  Paradise
    Lost, turns the ideological tables on Vondel.
  • 1668 Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables recycles works by Aesop and Pilpay,
    supplementing them with many new examples in a more cynical and satirical vein.
  • 1678–79 The first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress revives and
    modernizes the tradition of medieval Christian allegory.
  • 1691 Robert Kirk writes his account of  The Secret Commonwealth of
    Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which languishes unpublished until 1893.
  • 1696–98 Madame d’Aulnoy’s sophisticated satirical fairy tales found a
    fanciful tradition in French literature.
  • 1697 Charles Perrault’s collection of moralistic tales adapts folklore to
    the function of “civilizing” children.
  • 1701 Antoine Galland’s translation of the adventures of Sinbad the
    Sailor adds a vital new element to Madame d’Aulnoy’s brand of fantasy.
  • 1704–16 Galland’s  Thousand and One Nights provides the foundation
    stone of Arabian fantasy.
  • 1707 Alain-René Lesage’s Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks displays considerable sympathy for the eponymous devil and provides an important model for supernaturally assisted tours.
  • 1726 Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver sets a crucial precedent for English satirical fantasy.
  • 1730 The posthumous publication of tales by the exiled Count Anthony
    Hamilton—who had died in 1720—provides significant exemplars for
    French writers of Gallandesque satires and entertainments.
  • 1746 Voltaire’s “The World as It Is” pioneers the tradition of fanciful
    contes philosophiques.
  • 1752 Sir Francis Dashwood establishes the Friars of St. Francis of
    Wycombe (nicknamed the Hell-Fire Club by its detractors) at Medmenham Abbey, setting an important precedent for modern lifestyle fantasists.
  • 1757 Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our
    Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful considers the venturesome exercise of
    the imagination as a psychological necessity.
  • 1764 James Ridley imports Gallandesque fantasy into English in Tales of
    the Genii, bylined Charles Morell. Horace Walpole represents the moralistic Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto as a translation of an Italian manuscript.
  • 1765 Thomas Percy’s  Reliques of Ancient English Poetry provides a
    classic compendium of English ballads.
  • 1768 Voltaire’s “The Princess of Babylon” leavens a  conte
    philosophique with fantasy for entertainment’s sake.
  • 1772 Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love provides a crucial example of
    sympathy for a seductive devil.
  • 1782 Johann Musäus issues the first volume of his collection of German
    Folktales, prompting the brothers Grimm to start their collection.
  • 1785 Rudolf Eric Raspe’s Baron Münchhausen provides the tall story
    with its literary paradigm.
  • 1786 William Beckford’s Vathek gives Arabian fantasy a decadent twist.
  • 1787 Charles Garnier’s collection of  Imaginary Voyages is launched,
    providing a library of philosophically informed traveler’s tales.
  • 1793 William Blake publishes the first of his “prophetic books.”
  • 1795 Johann von Goethe publishes his Märchen, providing a key model
    for the “art fairy tale.”
  • 1797 Ludwig Tieck’s “The Faithful Eckhart” transfigures material from
    Musäus to create a new German hero-myth.
  • 1798 Nathan Drake’s Literary Hours describes the “sportive” element of
    Gothic fiction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  The Rime of the Ancient
    Mariner appears in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, exemplifying the
    fantastic aspect of British Romanticism.
  • 1799 William Godwin’s  St. Leon introduces moralistic alchemical romance to the medium of the three-decker novel.

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

 

 

 

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Fantastic Stories of Russia

Thought I’d start a new series highlighting authors of the fantastic that may or may not be on your radar. If you’ve not heard of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky then read on…

SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY (1887–1950), the Ukrainian-born son of Polish emigrants, studied law and classical philology at Kiev University. After graduation and two summers spent exploring Europe, he was obliged to clerk for an attorney. A sinecure, the job allowed him to devote most of his time to literature and his own writing. In 1920, he began lecturing in Kiev on theater and music. The lectures continued in Moscow, where he moved in 1922, by then well known in literary circles. Lodged in a cell-like room on the Arbat, Krzhizhanovsky wrote steadily for close to two decades. His philosophical and phantasmagorical fictions ignored injunctions to portray the Soviet state in a positive light. Three separate efforts to print collections were quashed by the censors, a fourth by World War II. Not until 1989 could his work begin to be published. Like Poe, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the abyss and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”

The Letter Killers Club:

The Letter Killers Club is a secret society of self-described “conceivers” who, to preserve the purity of their conceptions, will commit nothing to paper. (What, after all, is your run-of-the-mill scribbler of stories if not an accomplished corruptor of conceptions?) The logic of the club is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday, members meet in a firelit room filled with empty black bookshelves where they strive to top one another by developing ever unlikelier, ever more perfect conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a merry medieval cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. But in this book set in an ominous Soviet Moscow of the 1920s, the members of the club are strangely mistrustful of one another, while all are under the spell of its despotic President, and there is no telling, in the end, just how lethal the purely conceptual—or, for that matter, letters—may be.

The Autobiography of a Corpse:

This  collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.

Memories of the Future:

Written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s—but considered too subversive even to show to a publisher—the seven tales included here attest to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s boundless imagination, black humor, and breathtaking irony: a man loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room; the Eiffel Tower runs amok; a kind soul dreams of selling “everything you need for suicide”; an absentminded passenger boards the wrong train, winding up in a place where night is day, nightmares are the reality, and the backs of all facts have been broken; a man out looking for work comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it as there’s no guarantee the logic will last; a sociable corpse misses his own funeral; an inventor gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant communist future.

The Return of Munchausen:

In Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s update, the Baron returns in the troubled twentieth century, where he will rediscover the place of imagination amid the tenuous peace, universal mourning, and political machinations of the aftermath of World War I. “To me,” he claims, “the debates of philosophers, grabbing the truth out of each other’s hands, [resemble] a fight among beggars over a single coin.” Transcending truth, the Baron instead revels in smoke and mist. He is a devotee of the impossible and a worshipper of “Saint Nobody.” But lost as he is in the twists of his imagination, can the Baron heal Europe through diplomacy—or at least hold a mirror up to its absurdities?


NY Times: Review of Autobiography of a Corpse and Books on Amazon