setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

This morning I read about two women discussing mysterious sea creatures, which means I read the new Sirenia Digest. Included is a really lovely new Caitlin R. Kiernan story called "THEORETICALLY FORBIDDEN MORPHOLOGIES".

It's more than just a cool, intriguing title. We meet two women, one an unnamed narrator, apparently a writer, and another calling herself Perse, one among many names she evidently goes by. The story moves over different points in a chain of events, not in chronological order and yet in another way they seem to be. Much of the dialogue concerns the nature of storytelling and what readers or audiences expect from stories, but it's also about shapes unseen, undescribed, but certainly terrible, not meant for view. In other words, theoretically forbidden morphologies. I couldn't ask for a better story from that great title.

Beginning with Perse, naked, leading the narrator to a mysterious location, the story is also wonderfully sensual, something that is teased out further in subtle ways through dialogue. In discussing storytelling, potential vulnerabilities and sensitivities come to the surface as possibilities of meaning, and of dreamlike stimulus, eliciting emotion that makes connexions between the imagination and the physical realms. That's another way of saying it's sexy.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

Wikipedia quotes H.P. Lovecraft, about his Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, as worrying that "Randolph Carter's adventures may have reached the point of palling on the reader; or that the very plethora of weird imagery may have destroyed the power of any one image to produce the desired impression of strangeness." Though virtually all of Lovecraft's fiction implies a strange, hostile universe of his conception, usually they feature something roughly resembling familiar, contemporary reality into which the introduction of the strange and horrifying is the more striking. Short tales set in places alien to our world can still maintain that power of strangeness by virtue of being short but The Dream-Quest is novella length. It is a wonderful piece of fiction but for these reasons its strengths are distinct from the rest of Lovecraft's works.

Following the journeys of Randalph Carter through the Dream Lands, the novella is set in fantasy locations peopled with fantasy beings like the small, forest dwelling zoogs, the vicious gugs, and Carter's allies, the ghouls. The story, particularly in its second half, reminds me strongly of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars in its focus on strange armies coordinated by the human protagonist on missions of assault, rescue, or reconnaissance. One of the most significant ways Dream-Quest differs from Princess of Mars is in its constant reminders of how the appearance or odour of the strange beings frighten or disgust the protagonist. We're even reminded of this in the case of some of Carter's allies, like the ghouls:

And Carter shook the paws of those repulsive beasts, thanking them for their help and sending his gratitude to the beast which once was Pickman; but could not help sighing with pleasure when they left. For a ghoul is a ghoul, and at best an unpleasant companion for man.

It might have been difficult for Lovecraft to imagine modern horror and fantasy fans who have often seen what was obviously repulsive before as something that's now attractive and could even be applied to heroes. Yet the strangeness in Dream-Quest functions in this way, whether Lovecraft meant it to or not--the Dream Lands are beautiful and its denizens are fascinating. It's not easy to understand why the former human, Pickman, had chosen to become a ghoul but the fact that he did in itself makes the beings more intriguing. Making the weird regular does not, as Lovecraft feared, dilute the "desired impression of strangeness" but transforms it into something different. It becomes less of a shock and something like a remapping of basic reality where all the landmarks take on a lustre for their inherent unpredictability and danger. The difference from Burroughs' Mars or Tolkien's Middle Earth is that nothing ever truly feels safe even if it feels familiar and friendly. Even the cats, the animals Lovecraft displays a lovely affection for in this story, have something sinister and secret about them, especially after their treatment of the zoogs early on.

So when the protagonists face extraordinary danger, as in the story's climax which takes Lovecraft's skill at conveying a fundamental wrongness in physics and geometry to new heights, the stakes feel higher. The normal human means of negotiating the world through forging friendships and building a reputation seem inevitably fractured and uncertain. Everything is compelled to hide--the zoogs hide in the forest, the ghouls hide underground, the cats are always sneaking. Everyone and everything's existence is not built on strength but in evasion which makes the potency of the final threat all the more effective because it's a revelation of just how meaningless the apparent rules of reality always were, it's the ultimate rug pulled out from under the reader.

But the ending is a consummation of the feelings that had been built up all along by forcing the reader to identify with protagonists described as repulsive. One becomes more afraid for the ghouls when they're captured because they've been described as repulsive. I even felt bad for what happens to the zoogs despite knowing what they planned for the cats. So the cosmology invoked in the end, of gods who are selfish or indifferent, isn't an abstract concept but something concretely felt. You don't have to ask why the gods aren't in love with these people.

So hug your nearest ghoul or nightgaunt. If for some reason they don't tear your face off or disembowel you.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

This is the famous Wall Drug Dinosaur in Wall, South Dakota, and it features in "THE DINOSAUR TOURIST", a lovely new Caitlin R. Kiernan story in the Sirenia Digest. It may be the story in the Digest to feature the least amount of weirdness, being a simple tale of a man who picks up a guileless young hitch-hiker who's on his way to meet his internet boyfriend. A subtle chemistry develops between the driver and the hitch-hiker with interesting exchanges based on differences in breadth and kind of experience. It showcases Caitlin's fine ability to create the sensory elements of an experience and has the slow, nice pace of all good road stories, which this one is.

I've been reading a lot lately, maybe because I'm in a Japanese class now I suddenly have a contrary urge to read a lot of English. I'm still re-reading The Lord of the Rings and on Saturday or Sunday I reached chapter 4 from Book Four, or the second book in The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit". And speaking of a slow and easy atmosphere, this is a wonderful chapter which Peter Jackson's film version really doesn't attempt to capture. Most of the basic elements of the chapter are present in the extended version of the film--Gollum fetches some rabbits and Sam decides to cook them, much to Gollum's indignation, who prefers raw meat. Gollum's "What's taters. precious?" line is even reproduced in the film. But there are many differences that completely change the tone and purpose of the scene.

Because Jackson was so focused on creating a film with constant momentum, it's easy to see why he reinterpreted it. But in the book, it's one of the moments that most clearly reminded me that Tolkien was a World War I veteran. After the Dead Marshes and grey, featureless lands of Mordor, the Hobbits and Gollum come to a place that's strangely beautiful.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams.

It's easy to imagine soldiers, accustomed to the hellish landscape surrounding trenches, suddenly coming across areas not yet spoiled by the war.

Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tanmarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green . . .

It's after Frodo has fallen asleep that Sam slowly starts to remember the cookware and formulates his plan to make a decent meal for his master. The wonderful thing about the scene, and the reason Sam quickly takes over the narrative, is that we see him, much more than simply cooking a meal, single-handedly creating a familiar domestic atmosphere, motived both for himself and for the love he feels for Frodo watching him sleep.

Frodo's face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the sharping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face had not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: 'I love him. He's like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.'

After all the time Tolkien spends describing their slow, grim, and hopeless journey, it's wonderful that Sam instinctively wants to spend a lot of time and energy cooking and in the process he even turns Gollum into a familiar domestic figure, the lazy and surly servant lad.

'Smeagol'll get into real true hot water, when this water boils, if he don't do as he's asked,' growled Sam. 'Sam'll put his head in it, yes precious. And I'd make him look for turnips and carrots, and taters too, if it was the time o' the year. I'll bet there's all sorts of good things running wild in this country. I'd give a lot for half a dozen taters.'

The beauty in this scene is an interesting contrast to the impatience Frodo expresses regarding Hobbit culture at the beginning. It's easy to think again of men itching for glorious and worthy battle and then finding something horribly different in the first World War and suddenly foolish homebodies don't seem so foolish after all.
setsuled: (Skull Tree)

Coming to the end of the semester, I find myself indulging in reading more things that haven't been assigned for a class lately. I started reading The Fellowship of the Ring again, getting quickly and very happily drawn in. I've probably watched the Peter Jackson movies about twenty times since the last time I read the books but I'm surprised to find I generally don't picture the characters as the actors who played them in the movies. It's not to say I don't like Elijah Wood or Sean Astin, but Frodo and Sam are so different in the book. Frodo's older, of course, and he comes off that way in the way he deals with people. The man I picture is something like Ray Milland. I understand the reasons for the changes Jackson made to pick up the story's pace and give an audience hungrier for young faces someone to be attracted to. But the feeling of a man with years of life experience having contemplative, intellectual conversations with Gandalf by the fire is a nice vibe. I suppose I could say I wish the movie were more like that, but then I do have the book, after all.

The Hobbits as a people are a bit more three dimensional in the book, too. I was surprised by this level of contempt Frodo expresses for his people:

"I should like to save the Shire if I could--though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them."

Earlier, Tolkien mentions how the Hobbits have grown complacent due to the Shire's isolation from war. Like so many things these days, I look at this through the prism of Trump. Here's the virtue of Tolkien's dislike for allegory--one can see how Tolkien was likely inspired by the state of England before World War I, but because he doesn't explicitly tie it to that, it invites the reader to look for commonalities in human nature to-day or in any other time. If I think of the people who didn't vote in the last election or were mentally complacent enough to think they could vote for Trump in the name of trolling reality, I can apply Frodo's frustration, which leads me to attempt finding also his love for his people. That's a lot harder.

Considering what happens with "The Scouring of the Shire" in the end, and, from what I remember, the Hobbits' complicity in that, it works as an inversion of the connexion dependence on assembly line, steel working, and coal mining blue collar industry Trump's campaign hearkened back to, and which also seemed to have been a big motivating factor for Brexit. Tolkien was writing about the waste and ugliness of it at the beginning, and here that ugly thing exerts its influence even as it grows undeniably obsolete.

I've always liked how the journey in The Lord of the Rings seems to be from a sort of Victorian world in the Shire into a more mediaeval world to the east. If one does apply Tolkien's experience in World War I, it's an interesting contrast to the progression of poetry from idealised odes to valour in war by Alfred Lord Tennyson to the grim reality of the trenches composed by Wilfred Owen. Tolkien seems to stand in direct opposition to that trend. It's oddly heartening that he could see the incredible horrors of the World War I battlefield and somehow digest it and produce years later a work about beauty and magic.


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