Monday, December 24, 2018

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael SheaDemiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea by Michael Shea
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember the exact moment when I first encountered H.P. Lovecraft’s work. It was eighth grade, and I had just walked out of the lunch room onto the Mission Junior High School courtyard when I heard someone behind me yell my name. I turned, bracing for a fight (which happened frequently at that school – think bully jocks and all that rot), but found one of my good friends, John Hayes (who has since passed away from a heart attack, just a few years ago) running up to me with a book in his hand. “Do you want this?” he asked. The cover was that of a skull with brains exploding out of holes in the top of its head entitled Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was intrigued. If I recall correctly, John said something like “My mom says I can’t keep this book. Do you want it?”. My response was something like “hellz, yeah”! Thanks, Mrs. Hayes!

And so, my journey into Lovecraft and those who shared his mythos began. I can honestly say that this book changed my life and sent me in directions I otherwise would never have explored. It was a rich stepping off point for many of my interests in life (existentialism, philosophy in general, avant classical music, surreal cinema, etc). It has made my life richer. Since then, I have read much and written a few pieces that would be considered “Lovecraftian,” along with a piece or two (read and written) that riff directly off of Lovecraft’s creations.

I still hold a great deal of fondness of weird fiction. Not “Weird” with a capital “W”, necessarily. This has become a marketing category that I’m becoming unenchanted with. Well, not “becoming,” now that I’ve finished this book. I am, I think, fully ready to leave “Weird” fiction for “weird” fiction. I still love the strange, the metaphysical, love cosmic horror and the “Lovecraftian,” but more as a concept than as a marketing category/genre.

I have heard a great deal about Michael Shea’s work and how amazing it is. Forgive my bluntness, but, while Shea’s writing style is excellent, his ideas, characters, and plots are mostly hackneyed. Yes, I know, that’s no way to talk about a dead man who can’t defend himself, but really: as a thirteen-year old, I would probably have loved this work. But I’ve grown up a little and my reading tastes have matured, as a result. I see the potential for greatness here – Shea’s writing, as I have said, is quite good, borderline exquisite, at times. But the matrix in which the beautiful syntax is set happens to be broken or, at best, boring. It’s like setting a single diamond in the middle of a bracelet that is composed of glass baubles. The diamond is cheapened by its setting, and the baubles look even worse in comparison.

With that, here are my story notes:

Groveling at the altar of Lovecraft, no matter how eloquently, is still groveling at the altar of Lovecraft. Clever turns of phrase cannot save a weak, thin, and most of all, unsubtle story. My disenchantment with the "mythos" grows. This is fanfic. Well-written fanfic, but fanfic nonetheless. Two stars to "Fat Face," and I think that's being overly generous. I hope this collection improves or . . . lem!

"Nemo Me Impune Lacessit" sings prettily, but the lyrics are shallow and hackneyed. Three stars and I am quickly losing all patience with this collection. (note that I did read to the end, surprisingly).

In "The Presentation," street art meets comix meets the 1% meets . . . something . . . beyond. While I didn't enjoy the metaphysical aspect of it, this was a pretty good story. The writing, the syntax, the vocabulary were all impressive, but the metafictional aspect of it was quite jarring. Not great, but worth the read. Three stars floating in space around a cosmic blob in the void.

“The Pool”: Again with the metafiction and the outright references to Lovecraft and the extreme strain to my willing suspension of disbelief? Is there no subtlety? Bleh. One step closer to lemming this. (note again that I showed great restraint in not tossing this book). Two stars. If there's another two star, I'm quitting. (I didn’t – shame on me). Life's too short, even with well-written sentences. A waste of talent. But hey, I'm not Shea. Still, bleh.

"The Recruiter" is the kind of story I was hoping for from this collection. A modern dirge of timeless dread. An existential survey of the landscape of death and being. And not one mention of Cthulhu or any of his cronies, at least not directly. Four stars. Pushing on . . .

"The Battery" is a pulp fiction story in the vein of Lovecraft. Maybe too much in the vein of Lovecraft. Frankly, I couldn't get excited about the characters, the premise, or all the Lovecraftian doo-dads. Two stars.

"Copping Squid" is a great story. Far and away better than all the other stories in this collection. Sacrifice and complicity create a tangled web, with some deep characterization, as a result. The horror is just as much in the inner contemplation of decisions as it is in the outward cosmic forces that feed on the universe. This story is a darkly wonderful exploration of agency and respectful awe vis-a-vis stark terror. Five stars. Does this long story make it worth it to buy the whole collection? No. Not by a long shot. But it’s a great story that deserves your attention. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else you might find it. Remember my earlier analogy about a diamond among baubles? Yeah . . .

Dear "Dagoniad", I'm sorry, but we just can't go on like this. Your blunt granting of "mythos" knowledge (and your characters even call it "mythos" knowledge) to common hookers is, well, just obscene. Not because of the hookers, mind you, but because of the unashamed way in which you spit in the face of willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not a wink and a nudge, it’s like you’re opening your trench coat and exposing yourself to strangers on the street. You're the kind of story that would take it for granted that everyone reads Lovecraft and knows everything about the mythos because they read it. Yuck! Uh-uh. No more. We can't go on. One star. Next story up, please.

I'm torn. Some of the writing in "Tsathoggua" is exquisite, Especially the segments about Maureen's transformation. But, again, "deus ex machina" comes in the form of someone, introduced halfway through the story with no preamble, who just happens to have all this mythos knowledge. Honestly, it's getting really, really tiresome. Three stars.

Nothing really happened "Beneath the Beardmore". The protagonists didn't do much protagonizing, and there was a lot of explaining about Shoggoths and tentacles and stuff. But the characters were flat and unimpressive. Meh. All the trimmings and none of the substance of cosmic horror. The poetic voice of the "guide" was at least intriguing. But only intriguing enough to earn three stars.

When I read the words Great Old Ones Ale near the beginning of the story, I thought that "Momma Durtt" might end up a puerile, trivial, mimetic, unoriginal,, silly, bleached-out shell of worn-out Lovecraftian elements that tried in vain to be funny and horrific and the more it tried the worse it became, until it nose-dived into a downward spiral of inane dreck.

And I was right. One star.

Why, yes, of course every Antarctic submarine researcher carries a Tommy gun with them, just in case. And riding a submarine down an icy slope like a bobsled is perfectly believable. Isn't it? "Under the Shelf" comes in under three stars. Two, to be exact.

"Demiurge" is an interesting take on what it's like to be an alien intelligence possessing others' bodies that ends as the most ridiculous thing in the entire collection. It was pretty good until the last page, then, UGH! Three stars.

In essence, my problem is with the bare-faced mansplaining that goes on in the guise of some expert on “the mythos” suddenly showing up out of nowhere and exposing all the mysteries of said “mythos” to protagonists who either just accept what is given them or become so awestruck that you expect them to suddenly yell out “dude, that’s totally rad!” whenever a Shoggoth appears (and Shea had an unhealthy obsession with Shoggoths). It got old. It’s still old. Maybe I’m just getting old. But I can’t do this anymore. Going forward, I am very likely to avoid anything that directly takes Lovecraft’s creatures as inspiration, at least those, like this, that are borderline fanfic (if not outright fanfic). I’m all about the cosmic horror, all about strange stories, but I think I’ve done with tentacles in my fiction. I’ve got plenty of boardgames and roleplaying games if I want tentacles. I am banishing them from my plane of existence. Ia, Ia!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice

Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action (Manifesto)Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action by J.F. Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I sometimes hear critics decry artists as being “indulgent” when they do something they love that isn’t popular with said critics. I recall the one season of American Idol that I watched (the one where Adam Lambert should have won) wherein one of the early contestants was called “Indulgent” for singing what I thought was a not terrible rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”. I’ve been similarly accused and, in fact, used said accusation in my writer’s bio from time to time. You see, I don’t care if I’m viewed as indulgent. I write because I like to write. Some publishers happen to have liked what I’ve written and have published some of my work. Pardon my flippancy (or don’t), but . . . get over it.

Those who have spent any time with me in person know that I’m not so bold in person. I’m a pretty nice guy, sometimes a bit too deferential. But when it comes to my writing and my reading tastes, I am my own man. Writing is my drug. MY drug. Your drug may be different, and your experience with writing may be (and should be) different. It should be your own. All art should be your own because it is your interface with art that matters, not the art itself. The object that elicits the feelings within you, the emotional and intellectual connection, the reaction, will never be the same for another person. Nor should it be.

Here we have one of the central points of J.F. Martel’s “treatise, critique, and call to action”: Art is different for every person, while artifice is intended to engender the same reaction from each person who encounters it. Art is about expression, with the viewer taking an active role in interpreting the meaning of the object/picture/performance, while artifice is about communication, with the viewer taking the passive role of receiving the message which the deliverer wishes to inject into his or her heart or mind. One is a complex symbol open to many different interpretations, while the other is a sign pointing to an ideology to which the creator wants to assign one true meaning:

The moment we reduce a work of art to its references to other things, as with statements such as “Kafka’s Trial is a story ‘about’ modern bureaucracy” or “Fargo" is a film ‘about’ the corrupting influence of money,” we risk losing sight of what art alone can do, because we are effectively turning it into something that can be deciphered . . . a work of art is not ‘about’ any one definitive thing. Captain Ahab isn’t “just” a man obsessed with a whale any more than Moby Dick is “just” a story about whaling and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ahab and his obsession are inseparable from one another. He is formed by his drive to kill the white whale – and cannot exist apart from it. Nor is Ahab’s preoccupation with hunting down Moby Dick a generic characteristic that, in his particular case, happens to be directed at a large sea mammal. Rather, his obsession is itself inseparable from Moby Dick; it is an aspect of the whale as well as an aspect of Ahab. The madness at the heart of Melville’s story becomes an abstract “character trait” only once we have extracted it from its specific context, stripping it of its singularity and generalizing it into a psychological opinion . . . the hunter, the hunt, and the hunted constitute an indissoluble system, each part of which exists by virtue of the force exerted by the others.”

The need to dissect and dissemble art into its constituent parts, while laudable in academic circles, does, to some degree, rob one of the mystery of discovery that one feels when encountering a moving piece of art for the first time. As an undergraduate, I studied Humanities with a history emphasis. I learned how to examine art, music, dance, theater, drama, architecture, and cinema in historical context, but always with a bias toward one school of philosophy or another. The intent was that we students would become exposed to and possibly even facile in criticism of various forms. I spent several good years of my life doing this and, while I am grateful for the intellectual exercise (and actually enjoyed it, to some extent), I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when, one summer, I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (followed by The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series) after a particularly grueling semester of Marxist and Objectivist analysis of several works of art and literature. It took a week or so to deprogram from the academic rigor of that semester, but when I did, and when I read the books without any preconceived analysis, I felt . . . free! And, strangely, when I did have the analytical devil whisper over my shoulder, my thoughts “uncoiled” quite naturally. Maybe I had just been indoctrinated, I don’t know. But I was able to enjoy the fruits of my studies when I let myself relax and enjoy the art itself, first and foremost. My sense of mystery returned to me as I let these works unfold on their own terms, without the need for analysis.

As Martel notes:

Astonishment has an intellectual as well as an emotional component - in it, the brain and the heart come together. Far from distracting us from the strange and the uncanny in life, the astonishment evoked by great artistic works puts them square in our sights . . . the world is not what we thought it was: something hidden, impossible to communicate . . . [is] clearly expressed in the work.

That aesthetic astonishment (which, I will note, is also often felt by the artist while in the act of creation) is the “drug” I seek in either bringing art to life or engaging with the art of another. While I appreciate the careful analysis and dissection of a work (watch me at a museum – I’m the guy the guards keep an eye on because I want to get nose-close to the painting to see the individual strokes), I also realize that the appreciation of art is not a scientific endeavor. Scientific thinking can never explain the magic I felt, for example, when I first heard Kronos Quartet play live, or when I saw my first Redon painting in-person or when I first read A Clockwork Orange. It cannot tell me why I loved these things and why they moved me inside, why they created such a strong emotional and intellectual response.

”Why?” is a problem science can’t lick; in fact, the very nature of science prevents it from even framing the problem. What science does – and does beautifully – is to enrich the mystery by revealing ever deeper layers of the physical universe, which becomes more puzzling with each new discovery. Any adequate response to the mystery of existence must be poetic, for only the poetic can take on the “why.” If poetic answers are always figurative, never literal, it is because no sooner has the question of being been raised than we leave the world of determinate things to travel in a far stranger country.

This strange country is where the artist lives and thrives. It is of little use to ask me why I love the aforementioned pieces. And, in fact, it’s more than a little distracting from my enjoyment of the piece. What matters is that startling moment of revelation, that twist of the brain and heart that sends a thrill of excitement or dread or any other unanticipated feeling response that the art invokes in me.

Not to wax overly meta-, I present the following quote from Martel’s own work as an example of something that struck me on a deep level. Now, keep in mind that Poe’s poem, “The Raven” is an old favorite. It is also the first poem that my daughter memorized (the entire thing – as a nine year old, no less!) and that she recites, even as an adult, around Halloween. Now, with that in mind, read this seemingly innocuous quote:

At the literal level, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845) features a bleak November night, a black bird, and a dead woman – only this and nothing more.

SWOON! Do you see what he did there? If not, go back and read the poem. Then read that quote again. It’s an esoteric twist that I had not at all expected. I almost shed a tear at this. Why? That’s my secret, my experience, involving my relationship to reading, writing, and my daughter. I can’t explain it. Either you feel it or you don’t.

And if you don’t feel it, that’s fine. But I do. So, indulge me and call me indulgent. This sentence was written for me. At least I choose to take it that way. Martel encourages the profound idea that one should engage a work of art as if it was created and meant specifically for you. Or, in the case of those who create art:

. . . this means taking the job seriously enough to pursue the visions that come from within rather than those that are foisted upon us by social pressures, popular taste, and the whims of the market. It means making it our principal task to let the symbol speak through the work rather than trying to speak through the symbol. We need to revive the ancient idea of art as a holy madness in which one is guided by external forces. Only thus can we bring forth what we have never seen, yet desperately need to see.

This is what I seek when I write. Call it indulgent. I call it art. No apologies.

For those interested in more of J.F. Martel’s musings, I cannot recommend his podcast (along with Phil Ford) Weird Studies strongly enough. It has quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorite podcasts and never fails to satisfy, no matter what the specific subject matter. Please give it a listen!

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