Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Impossibility of Communicating Ideas

A few months ago, I fortuitously stumbled across the Weird Studies podcast. It is a brilliant podcast, definitely one of my favorites and the exploration of themes by the hosts (and they really are exploring as they go, by and large) makes for a sort of intellectual jazz with human heart. I’ve been catching up on some earlier episodes and I was absolutely thrilled to listen to their reading of M.R. Jame’s “The Mezzotint,” along with their follow up episode, entitled “Art is a Haunting Spirit”. They do some hard-digging, sometimes clumsy coming-to-grips with what the story has to say about modernity and art. There are too many ideas for me to elaborate on here, so go listen to the reading and the follow-up on your own. You won’t regret it.

But you might end up scratching your head a bit. There are times when Martel and Ford are searching about in the muck for meaning and moments when they outright contradict themselves (c.f. Ford’s direct contradiction of himself when early on he posits that the spectre in “The Mezzotint” is symbolic of the modernity of art, then later posits that the spectre is a refutation of the replicability of modernity – or maybe I just didn’t hear things correctly. This is entirely possible). This is one of the features I enjoy most about this podcast, the real, grinding exploration of some of the most difficult questions.

As an undergrad, I majored in Humanities with a history emphasis and an anthropology minor. Humanities is a broad set of subjects ranging from visual arts to music to dance to architecture to theater to cinema to history to philosophy and in a number of other directions that I am forgetting. I loved studying in that major. One thing I liked about it was the sheer lack of “track” structure. There was little progression or prerequisite qualifications for classes (except for the senior level seminars, which were amazing), so I could take many classes in whatever order I wanted. Because of my desire to take certain classes that were only offered intermittently, I ended up taking Introduction to Philosophy as a senior.

 By this time, I had been accepted into graduate school, and I knew that if I ever got bored in class, I could say something controversial to ensure that I was being entertained and getting my money’s worth (hate to tell you this, kids, but universities are businesses, and you are paying for a product, so you have to do what you can to get what you want). So, I was dead bored in Philosophy 101, having examined most of the material already for several years through different lenses. I was feeling salty and decided I’d spice things up by stating that “The so-called Socratic Method is a farce”. Oh, boy, did that set the freshmen in that class to giggling. “Socrates claims that he and his audience are learning together, exploring thought and meaning, but that’s not true. He’s asking leading questions because he wants to channel his students answers to where he wants them. It’s a trap.”

This just about sent my poor professor into paroxysms. He was not a happy camper. Later, on my midterm, I continued pressing the issue and received a poor grade on that test. On the final and all later papers, I just puked back what the professor fed us and pulled an “A” out of the class. I suppose I didn’t want to jeopardize my grade for the sake of my record, so I played along and pretty much ignored the class. Thankfully, all of my other professors invited such challenges and challenged me back, but based on logic and sound argument, not the authority of tenure or some desire for respect. I mention all of this just to say that I am quite happy to hear Ford contradict himself here, as it means that he has a malleable mind that really is seeking for the “truth” of the matter.

One of the points that Ford and Martel bounce back and forth is the idea presented by music theorist Ferruccio Busoni in his essay “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music” that no one, not even the composer himself, can fully communicate the “idea” of a piece of music. Because he has to work through notation and representation and because the composer’s music has to be played through instruments, which he has to choose, and because the composer has to choose a certain key to write in, he can never communicate, directly, the music that is in his brain/heart/soul. In fact, the composer can’t even fully know what it is he’s trying to communicate. There simply aren’t tools to capture the feelings of the experience of creativity happening inside the composer at the moment that composition takes place. Therefore, after the moment, well, the moment is gone.

In thinking about my experience writing, it is much the same. When I write, whether writing fiction or writing roleplaying game materials, I honestly cannot communicate what it is I’m feeling when I’m writing. I can give signifiers and indicators and hope that readers have had similar experiences that will allow them to approximate the experience that happens in my brain: the flashes of insight, the subtle connections of ideas, the emotion, the purity of the imaginative experience of creation. But in the end, it’s all an approximation. Not everyone will feel approximately what I feel and absolutely no one will ever feel exactly what I feel when I write. It’s a personal, almost sacred thing. I want to share it, but the sharing of that feeling is so dependent on circumstances far beyond my control, that the best I can do is provide some outside boundaries, no, not even that, some random signposts of what I was thinking and feeling while creating. This is a blight and a blessing. I want, so badly, to communicate with exactitude the things I think, but I’m fooling myself if I don’t acknowledge that my thoughts are far more complex than words can ever relate. The subconscious background bubblings, the leaps of logic, the distant horizons of thoughts that are forming but have not taken shape yet – all these things I am absolutely incapable of relating with language. If I could draw, illustrations might help. If I could compose, music might help set the mood, as well. Then again, with each layer of media that I add comes a layer of complexity and, soon, I am like an acrobat trying to spin plates on sticks.

Yet, I persist. I can’t seem to help myself. Writing is a drug, the creative process is my heroin, it unlocks the pleasure centers of my brain in a way that other acts and substances simply cannot. I’ve been accused of being self-indulgent in my writing and, I suppose that’s true. I firmly believe that a writer needs to write what pleases them, not what is pleasing to the masses (unless that is what also pleases the writer – which is highly unlikely – c.f. everything I’ve written so far in this post). But I want to find other like-minded people who take pleasure in something similar to what I feel and what I see in my thoughts, as difficult as it is to actually communicate this with any sort of specificity.

In the meantime, I’ll hold a place for you at my side. No, you won’t see things exactly as I see them. You’ll see something different. And it’s likely that my life will be richer because of what you see in my work that I cannot. And if you utterly despise what I create or if I fumble in my attempts at communicating, so be it. I could just write what I write only for myself. In fact, I have notebooks full of things you will likely never see. But give it a chance and let’s see if we can’t cross aesthetic paths, if only for a little while, like hikers on a sparsely-travelled path. I’m tipping my hat to you and wishing you a good hike. If you're looking for a place to stay for the night, there's some space in my head. Though, if you lay down to rest therein, I might never find you. Enjoy your stay.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Hiero's Journey

Hiero's Journey (Hiero, #1)Hiero's Journey by Sterling E. Lanier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre for many, many years. I'm such a fan that I actually co-host a podcast about post-apocalyptic roleplaying games (if you're curious to hear what I sound like on a microphone, if not in person, follow the link). So Marc, one of my co-hosts, had started reading Hiero's Journey and was so excited about it that he bought me and James, the other co-host, a copy of the book. So, grateful for the fine gift, I read the book. I'm finished. Marc isn't even done, which shows that he has more of a life than I do, I suppose. That's okay. I enjoy my reading addiction.

Hiero's Journey is one of those books hallowed by nerds as part of the "Appendix N" canon. This refers to an appendix in the original Dungeon Master's Guide for Dungeons and Dragons, which lists several books that influenced the creation of D&D. So as I read, I had my brain wide open, hoping to find some snippets of pre-D&D lore.

And I did.

It's clear that Hiero's Journey influenced Gary Gygax's optional psionics rules. That said, like may other "gygaxisms," Lanier's system wasn't lifted wholesale. For example, I do like that there are consequences to Hiero's psionic scrying. It's a two way window if you try to scry through the wrong eyes (rhyming unintentional). That isn't the case, so far as I can see, in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe someone else can point out where I'm wrong.

One thing that surprised me is that it is clear as day that this book is where Gygax (or maybe it was Dave Arneson) got the idea that certain slime and mold creatures might have a latent psionic ability. I thought they just made that up for giggles, but, no, it's right there in Lanier's book!

Unfortunately, the slimy, moldy chapters don't happen until one is very close to the end of the book. And they are, by far, the best chapters. There's a whole lot of infodumping that comes before this, with a few necessary obstacles in the way along the way. This book suffers from being written in the time it was written. Precursors were the old pulp novels and, unfortunately, the New Wave of '60s avant-scifi/fantasy (read: Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, et al) didn't quite affect the mainstream speculative fiction writing market in the US and Canada, at least not by that point. So there wasn't a whole to build on. Sorry, but when your baseline is E.E. Doc Smith and John Norman's [fill in the blank] of Gor, your starting at a low point. Add to the incessant infodumping some very clumsy auctorial decisions, and you've got a poorly-written work with some interesting ideas and a bang up good ending. One way around this would have been to allow the infodumps to be spread out and introduced via narrative and revelation-through-action. Another way would be to throw all the infodump into an introductory piece, a "chronicle," maybe, then cut the first nine chapters down to about six chapters. Yes, there's that much chaff in it.

But I didn't hate it. No, there was a lot to like here. As a historical artifact, it's interesting and provides some insight into the creation of one of the greatest games ever created. As a post-apocalyptic science fantasy, it is quite good, with a surprisingly progressive bent to it, especially as regards the characters. As a piece of literature it's . . . quaint. But still recommended to those hungry for a decent piece of post-apocalyptic fiction.

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and GrimscribeSongs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a penchant for doing things in reverse order, especially when it comes to books. At least in my own mind. Like a literary Benjamin Button, when I wasn’t reading comics as a kid, I was usually reading “grown up” books (The Hardy Boys adventures being the big exception). And I didn’t read Moby Dick until I was 45, though I had many, many opportunities (and even assignments) to read it many, many years before that.

So, of course, I read and loved Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco before having read all of Ligotti’s earlier stuff. Yes, I had read Noctuary and several of his then-uncollected short pieces in various anthologies, but I had not read his seminal collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer nor Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I’m all out of order in my reading of this dark master’s works. I had been meaning to read these for some time, but until Penguin came out with their affordable (and even more attainable) collection in 2015, finances didn’t really permit this.

What did I learn reading “backwards”?

Thomas Ligotti is a brilliant writer.

Thomas Ligotti is not a perfect writer.

Thomas Ligotti went through growing pains as a writer.

The distinctive “voice” in his work took a leap at some point, but did not leap all the way to the finish line.

Like Pablo Picasso, Ligotti’s early work shows a breadth of talent and demonstrates that his work could have taken any number of successful directions.

On to the stories . . .

"The Frolic," while very creepy, still feels like a freshman effort for a writer such as Ligotti. I would be thrilled to have written such a story myself, but I expect more from Ligotti. Three stars.

I can't tell if I think the narrator of "Les Fleurs" tips his hand too much or too little. While there is a weird "spin" to the story, I found it decidedly average. Three stars.

I am rather fond of stories that riff off of Alice in Wonderland, having written one myself. "Alice's Last Adventure," hit all the right creepy chords for me. Growing old is difficult enough, but what happens when not only your age betrays you, but you are entrapped by your own creations? Five stars.

"Dream of a Manikin" is more disturbed than disturbing, more academic than terrifying, but the dream sequences are pure sugar for the gothic brain. I could revel in the reading of those dreams all day long and never feel flat, whereas the (possibly not) non-dreaming sequences felt like they needed more texture. A three-star story with five-star dreams lands this one squarely on four stars.

The first portion of "The Nyctalops Trilogy: I: The Chymist" is brilliantly written, with most of the action happening off-stage while the narrator responds to that action. This must have been a chore to write, but I'm glad for Ligotti's work here. It's a dangerous road, but Ligotti is successful in pulling it off. More than successful, really. Ligotti's drawn me in with 2nd person POV, which is not an easy catch. I had thought that Rose's fate would be simple, but I was dead wrong.

The condescending, nihilistic second-person voice carries on through "The Nyctalops Trilogy: III. Drink to me Only With Labyrinthine Eyes". We learn, only at the end, the fate of the subject of the first section. Ligotti walks a literary tightrope, which makes for some good readerly tension.

Sublimation into another's dreams and, eventually, into another's physical form, like a rabbit being absorbed from the thoughts out, makes the conclusion of Nyctalops Trilogy intriguing, but a little jarring. Yes, it's squicky cosmic horror that you like to read, but a little clumsy. Still, the mood, characterization, and beautiful writing overpower the jilting change in POV. Four stars.

"Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" is as playful and erudite and absolutely psychotic a tale as I can imagine. What appears, at first, as an admittance that the narrator has failed to write a story, with a number of different analyses on how the story could have been written, turns into a psychotic roller-coaster ride, I have no other way of putting it. Five stars to this weird, delightfully unexpected story.

"The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise" is the best holiday horror ghost story I've ever read. Someone should absolutely turn this into a haunted Christmas special. But it's not cutesy. Not in the least bit. This is some heady, weird horror. Shades of Hodgson, Aickman, James, and Machen. Five stars of Bethlehem for this amazing story.

For the first time ever, I have read a vampire story that I genuinely, thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve given plenty of chances to the vampire subgenre and, frankly, I hate it. At least I hate what I’ve read. There’s Dracula, then there’s everything else. "The Lost Art of Twilight" both subverts the hackneyed stereotypes and plays in the gothic murkiness of tradition. And to think that it was Thomas Ligotti, of all writers, who pulled it off . . . I'm almost speechless. I wonder, honestly, what Ligotti thinks of it, in hindsight, since finding his own voice. Five stars. I never thought I’d give five stars to a vampire . . . anything.

Dear Brothers Quay, please immediately drop whatever project you are working on, use it as a Blu-ray extra, and begin design work for the filming of "The Troubles of Doctor Thoss". Your urgency in the matter is appreciated. You will not regret having made the effort. Four stars.

Ligotti bucks my expectations again with "Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie". Here he waxes medieval (or at least early modern) in language, vocabulary, and tone. It is clear he is exploring voice (and is very good at it) while the seeds of his later work can be seen in the nihilistic tragedy that plays out. He reminds me of Picasso - known for cubism, but he had so much more to offer. Five stars to this tale.

"Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech" is like a dark, creepy Three Stooges (yes, three, but no spoilers) doped up on a massive dose of nihilism. This is Ligotti coming into his own, at least how the tale is chronologically presented in this volume. The soliloquy of Dr. Voke on a laughing wooden dummy seems emblematic of later Ligotti, a manifesto, of sorts:

”Did you ever wonder, Mr. Veech,” Voke begins, parading slowly toward his guest while holding one side of his coat like the train of a gown. “I say, did you ever wonder what it is that makes the animation of a wooden dummy so terrible to see, not to mention to hear? Listen to it, I mean really listen. Ya-ha-ha-ha-ha: a series of sounds that becomes excruciatingly eloquent when uttered by the Ticket Man. They are a species of poetry that sings what should not be sung, that speaks what should not be spoken. But what in the world is it laughing about? Nothing, it would seem. No clear motives or impulses make the dummy laugh, and yet it does!

‘But what is this laughter for’ you might well ponder. It seems to be for your ears alone, doesn’t it? It seems to be directed at every part of your being. It seems . . . knowing. And it is knowing, but in another way from what you suppose, in another direction entirely. It is not you the dummy knows – it is only itself. The question is not: ‘What is the laughter for,’ not at all. The question is: ‘Where does it come from?’ This in fact is what inspires your apprehension. While the dummy does terrorize you, his terror is actually greater than yours.

Think of it:
wood waking up . I can’t put it any clearer than that. And let’s not forget about the painted hair and lips, the glassy eyes. These, too, are aroused from a sleep that should never have been broken; these, too, are now part of a tingling network of dummy-nerves, alive and aware in a way we cannot begin to imagine. This is something too painful for tears and so the dummy laughs in your face, trying ti give vent to a horror that was no part of his old home of wood and paint and glass. But this horror is the very essence of its new home – our world, Mr. Veech. This is what is so terrible about the laughing Ticket Man. Go to sleep now, dummy. There, he has gone back to his lifeless slumber. Be glad I didn’t make one that screams, Mr. Veech . . .

This is the Ligotti I stumbled on when I picked up a beat-up copy of Noctuary at the University Book Store years ago. This is the stuff I love. Five stars.

I spoke too soon. "Professor Nobody's Little Lectures" is actually the Ligotti manifesto:

Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumberable souls - while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page.

There is some fantastic insight in this essay, especially in "Pessimism and Supernatural Horror - Lecture One". Five stars.

"Dr. Locrian's Asylum" drips with the esoteric - hermetic knowledge only brought to light in the darkness of insanity and death. A ghost story, but so much more, a ghost story of cosmic horror, but a horror that is tempting in its promise of revelation concerning the mysteries of existence and what lies beyond our conception of "reality," what lies beyond the veil. I might be tempted by such knowledge. Five stars.

"The Sect of the Idiot" is a Lovecraft story that Lovecraft never wrote, more "Lovecraftian" than H.P. himself. Many people's (false) notions of what L wrote are realized here, but it is Ligotti manifesting the cults, cosmic horror, and strange philosophies in a somewhat less florid, but more effective language than the Mythos originator ever wrote. Four stars - perfectly executed, but somewhat derivative work.

Egon Scheile, Franz Kafka, and Bruno Schulz have a baby. It's name is "The Greater Festival of Masks". It is beautiful. It is hideous. It is not quite the same at the end as it is at the beginning. It changes in . . . ways. Five stars.

If you've ever been unable to sleep at night and gone out for a walk, and if you've ever attended a performance of some entertainment alone, now knowing anyone in the audience or the performers, if you find the nether reaches of a dark city titillating, then "The Music of the Moon" is for you. And I don't just mean the story . . . I mean the music itself. Five stars.

"The Journal of J.P. Drapeau" is an homage to the decadents and symbolizes, even so far as to be set in and written about Bruges, a focal point of both movements. Ligotti's oeuvre underlies this piece, but does not permeate it; stifled, it seems, by a bit too much slavishness to 19th-Century tropes and traditions. Four stars.

I can see why Jon Padgett has named his Ligotti-centric journal Vastarian after this story of the same name. A book, keyed to a certain reader, that is itself a key to unlocking the secret cosmos behind the veil of sanity. The theme is amazing, but the execution seems jumpy, the ending pegged on. Four stars.

"The Last Feast of Harlequin" has as its ending tagline: TO THE MEMORY OF H.P. LOVECRAFT. And while I can see this, in spirit, in practice there is little that points directly to Lovecraft outside of the discovery that you are not who you thought you were. Favorite lines:

"What buries itself before it is dead?"

. . . I felt myself a novitiate of a more rarefied order of harlequinry.

and much more. Five stars for out-Lovecrafting Lovecraft without pastiche and without obsequious mimesis.

"The Spectacles in the Drawer" is a hypercube of a story, layers of mirrors where the horror is squeezed in the interstices. The plot is less a twist than it is a klein bottle - fabulously surprising and shocking in its revelations. Five stars to this one (which I didn't even know existed until I picked up this volume - unlike others of Ligotti's that I have heard of by reputation, at least). This is genius.

"Flowers of the Abyss" is . . . adequate? The mood is right, the language a touch overblown, the philosophy intriguing, the point-of-view rare, the story thin and weak. So, it's "adequate" fiction, but not a peak-Ligotti story. Three stars.

"Nethescurial" seems like it should be the kind of cosmic horror that just seems cool. But, I admit, it gave me the jitters. The floors started creaking and I grabbed the nearest knife! This tale will make you afeared of EVERYTHING! Even yourself. It should come with a warning about creating existential paranoia in the reader. Five (still shuddering) stars!

"The Dreaming in Nortown" was . . . good, but a touch slow. I wasn't convinced by the ending/epilogue. It tried too hard to exhibit a power that the rest of the narrative was lacking. I think the author under-played his hand throughout the main body of the story and tried to shock at the end, when the tale might have been better if it was a little bolder throughout. Still weird and well-written overall. Three stars.

I found "The Mystics of Muelenburg" lacking; a bit flat. The atmosphere was right, but the greyness of it all was monochromatic and dull. So dull that it flattened Ligotti's normally compelling language. I know every author will have stories I don't like, but I didn't expect such a feeling of "I don't care" coming from a Ligotti story. Still, three stars, though. It was . . . alright.

Take 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, replace the ocean with the cosmic ocean, and ramp up the insanity by a few orders of magnitude, and you get the idea of the baseline for "In the Shadow of Another World". Add in a haunted house and a character named after Austin Osman Spare. Here, the pacing is perfect and enough is revealed to cause awe, while enough is hidden to cause terror! Five stars.

"The Cocoons" is a tight story with dark emotional undercurrents - a story "under" the story, three actually: The narrator's relationship with the doctor, Mr. Catch's relationship with the doctor, and the degenerate insectoid whatsits tying everyone together . . . almost. I could read stories like this all night long: multilayered, dark, with a hint of dark philosophy and a clever narrator duping his doctor. Five stars.

In "The Night School" we see Ligotti's nihilism in full swing and the great swelling of absurdity, which so typifies his later work: the universe is not inimical, it just doesn't care, so why should you care? Existence is an empty joke eliciting hollow laughter. What are the lessons of the night school? Does. Not. Matter. Four stars.

I can see, in "The Glamour," Ligotti's methods coming into full fruition, as manifest later in Teatro Grottesco. Here, it is the repetition of the phrase "a part of town I had never visited before". Ligotti repeats this seemingly banal phrase in sinister contexts, turning the ordinary into the horrifying.

Yet the places now revealed on the movie screen . . . were the fundament of the sinister and seamy regions which cast their spectral ambience on the reality of the theater but which were themselves merely the shadows, the superficial counterparts, of a deeper, more obscure realm

This is yet more of the Ligotti I love.

In "The Glamour," we discover Ligotti discovering his voice . . . almost. Repetitive banalities, the meaninglessness of existence, a hideous world behind a world where we are only germs in the belly of the beast - it's all there. Except the ending. That lingering ending that haunts you for days after you've read the book. This story didn't have it. It is the penultimate voice of Ligotti we hear, not the final product. Four stars.

Every author has to have a library story, right? Ligotti's "Library of Byzantium" is an institution where defacing the property has lethal consequences. A less visceral, more "spectral" story for Ligotti, this one has a hopeful ending that I don't think I've seen in his work before. It has more in common with an M.R. James piece than the typical Ligotti fare. A beautiful, dark story. Five stars.

"Miss Plarr" would make an amazing black and white movie with strong noir sensibilities. Tom Waite would narrate, though the protagonist is a child. Nick Cave would provide the soundtrack, along with Pye Corner Audio. But who would play Miss Parr? Helena Bonham Carter? Gwyneth Paltrow? Dunno. Five stars.

"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" teeters on the edge of what could have been greatness, could have been one of the best pieces of folk-horror ever written . . . but it turns away from its potentialities and loses its virulence at the end. I admit I was disappointed. Not a bad story (can Ligotti write a bad story?), but it could have been much, much more with the right ending. Four sighing stars of disappointment.

This is not Ligotti’s masterpiece. But Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a gallery’s-worth of studies that show the breadth of his work and the slow development of what will become his distinctive, authoritative, singular voice. In hindsight, it is a happy accident that I read this collection and Teatro Grottesco in reverse order. I highly recommend this anachronistic dive into darkness.

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