Holy Howie, What a Furore!

I’ve eaten so much popcorn recently my stomach hurts. Actually, that’s a bit of a fib. I’ve actually been reading the internet a lot and doing this:

jackson popcorn

The reason for this is that at the weekend’s World Fantasy Awards it was announced that the award in its present form, a bust of the great author H.P. Lovecraft, will be being changed. The reason for this change is that Lovecraft held some odious views that were rather extreme -even for the early 20th Century- and it was felt that an award which seeks to honour the best in the fantastical writing of the “world” shouldn’t be an image of someone who detested quite so many of the world’s inhabitants. I’ve written about this a wee bit in the past, see here and here and here and here, and so in this post I am probably going to tread over some things that I have already discussed.

The decision to change the form of the award has, tiresomely and inevitably, led to some in the weird fiction/spec lit community losing their proverbial shit. Something that I have found deeply amusing -hence the popcorn.

The complaints about the change in form of the award have a number of common elements that I’ll discuss briefly here.

  • Censorship: You’re trying to stop people reading Lovecraft!
  • Political Correctness: It’s gone mad I tell ye!
  • Chronobigotry: You can’t judge people of the past by our standards.
  • Pseudotradtionalism: The award has always been the old racist from Providence!
  • Generalised Historical Douchery: What about other problematic authors who have awards?

Once I’ve had a wee chat about the shit losing then I’ll talk about why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter that it’s changed, and the form I feel that it should take in the future.

Censorship

This argument, and here I use the term extremely loosely, goes something along the lines of: “By having the form of this award changed you are trying to erase Lovecraft from the canon of literature and stop people reading him.”  Now; I am sure that there are some people who would like to see Lovecraft erased from the canon and for people not to read him because of his virulent racism. These people are, however, extremely marginal voices: many of whom have probably read little, or any, Lovecraft and are simply reacting in classic internet style to things. The majority of people don’t want to stop people from reading Lovecraft -perish the thought- nor want to erase him from the canon. Even the most ardent of critics much surely agree that he has had a tremendous effect upon the writing of fantastic literature throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.

To censor something is to physically prevent someone from experiencing something: to prevent them from reading, watching, or hearing something. To have Lovecraft censored would mean to have his books pulled off the shelves, removed from libraries, not discussed in schools or universities. Something that is patently not happening, that is not going to happen, and that nobody wants to happen. Lovecraft’s books will continue to fill the shelves of bookstores, they will continue to be studied and taught, there will still be conventions inspired by and in honour of him. Even if censorship were truly possible at this moment in the 21st Century it is so palpably clear that there is no censorship going on with regards Lovecraft that this argument seems almost demented. Perhaps the works of old HPL were a little too effective on these particular fans?

Political Correctness

Political correctness has long been a phantasm for the right wing to rail against and it is an accusation that is often closely tied to that of censorship. To the right ‘political correctness’ is a weapon used by liberals and the left to silence those who hold opposing views. So strident have the right been in their domination of the cultural discourse around political correctness that the term itself is now rendered almost meaningless.

In the case of the World Fantasy Award and the Lovecraft fanboys this term is often wheeled out in conjunction with the term “Social Justice Warrior”. Social Justice Warriorism being a very vocal trend within, mostly, American, mostly, liberalism that has seized upon radical and semi-radical ideas but attempts to apply them to situations in a manner that is completely bereft of any wider, or deeper, class analysis. They are more concerned with the appearance of a problem than with addressing the structural issues through actual workplace or community organising.

With the brouhaha over the World Fantasy Award I daresay that there has been a large element of this. However the drive to change the form of the award was mostly fuelled by people who think that an award such as the WFA should be inclusive rather than divisive. Not to exclude those who are fans of Lovecraft nor those who write in the fantastically horrible universe he shared with the world.

I think that the English comedian Stewart Lee has it covered when it comes to political correctness so I’ll leave it up to him to explain why it isn’t a bad thing.

Chronobigotry

I think that I just coined a word. Chronobigotry is what I’m going to call it when people make bigoted judgements of people and cultures of the past. An example of this could be those who refuse to accept that ancient peoples were capable of great feats of engineering and so it must have been aliens that built the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and so on. Chronobigotry is also what those who are upset over the change in the form of the WFA are accusing those who sought the change of. That they/we are guilty of not taking into account the time and culture that HP Lovecraft lived in and so are overreacting to his views on race, class, and so on.

I would actually like to turn this accusation on its head and point out that it is those who are making this claim who are misunderstanding the times in which Lovecraft lived. It is the blanket assumption of the chronobigots that everyone was a massive racist dick in the early 20th Century and before and that Lovecraft was merely expressing the commonly held views of the majority of the populace. This doesn’t take into account however that many of Lovecraft’s close personal friends were astounded by his beliefs and some even pulled him up on them as being beyond the pale. His views were so extreme that they even managed to make the racist, and good friend of HPL, Robert E. Howard soften his own views on the matter.

There’s also the fact that the early 20th Century was a time of great social flux and there were many people who were trying to use race, as they ever do, as a means to weaken working class struggles. Something vigorously resisted by unions such as The Industrial Workers of the World who sought to organise all workers regardless of race.

Lovecraft may very well have been a “man of his time” but so were all the people fighting against racism. Their existence, and their successes, put to lie the excuses made by those in the 21st Century about the acceptability of Lovecraft’s bigotry.

Pseudotraditionalism

There are also those who have, as part of their complaint, the argument that the bust is “The Howie” and was always meant to be so. That it is an award in Lovecraft’s honour. This is simply not the case. The first meeting of the World Fantasy Convention was in Providence and so it was decided that the World Fantasy Award should, for that year, represent Providence’s most well known author of the fantastic: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It was never the intention that the award should remain in that form and the form was chosen because of the place of the conference rather than because of Lovecraft’s massive contribution to the field.

I don’t know why it didn’t change the next year -I’m assuming that organising a conference is quite a stressful and time consuming endeavour. This being the case I can quite imaging a stressed out and overworked committee having a meeting and deciding: “Fuck it, let’s just use the same one as last year.” Which is a fantastic tribute to the legacy of the man: “Fuck it…”

There’s also the fact that traditions can, and do, change and that some, for better or worse, disappear. In Holland there’s a tradition of people wearing blackface and dressing up as Schwarz Pete -Santa Claus’ assistant. This is, obviously, unacceptable and is a tradition that is best relegated to museums and textbooks. So the argument from tradition is one that misunderstands the origin of the award, does a disservice to Lovecraft, and in general hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

Generalised Historical Douchery

This argument is similar to the chronobigotry argument but it is specific to the various authors who have awards named after them who also held vile views or partook in vile activities. It generally goes along the lines of: “But X author was a racist and they have an award named after them!” A prime example could be The Edgar Allen Poe award given out by the Mystery Writers of America. Poe was a nonce. He married his 13 year old cousin. Which is extremely icky, to say the least. However Poe did not write stories littered with references to pubescent girls.

This is the issue with Lovecraft. That he was so extreme in his prejudice, so strident in his racism, that it does seep into his work, overtly and covertly, time and time again. His racism reaches down the decades long after his death and smacks us about the face.

There’s also the matter that the awards named for other ‘problematic’* figures are, in general, in other fields. We are talking about the field of the fantastical which is, broadly speaking, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror and all the bits in between these categories. So why people not involved in these other fields should be wanting to clean up other people’s houses, as it were, is beyond me. We focus on the things that we care about and those people who have been pushing for the bust to be changed clearly care about the field of the fantastic.

There’s also the rather awkward matter that the World Fantasy Award isn’t *actually* named after Lovecraft… Just sayin’.

Why the bust should have been changed, why it doesn’t matter, and what form the award should take

This one should be a no brainer to be honest, even leaving aside Lovecraft’s vile beliefs. The award is supposed to be the World Fantasy Awards, the emphasis here being on the word “World”. If the award is to be signifying the achievements of authors from all across the world then why should it take the form of a long dead white Protestant American man? Why should it take the form of any individual person from any country or culture when it is supposed to signify a global field of literature? The Poe award, at least, is only focussed on work published in America. The award should never have remained as Lovecraft after that first convention in Providence and that it has taken decades to address this is a failing of the World Fantasy Convention.

The reason that the changing of the bust doesn’t really matter is that, at present, the World Fantasy Convention is an almost solely anglophone affair. It issues awards to books published in English in English speaking parts of the world. To call itself the World Fantasy Convention is a joke. In its 40 year history the convention has only taken place outside the USA five times -in England and in Canada. Until the convention takes into account the rest of the world then it doesn’t really matter what form the award takes as it has little to do with the majority of the world.

Should the convention spread out from the anglophone world however, something that I would love to see, then it would be rather important what form the award takes and the form of a dead, racist, white American would not be suitable in the slightest. The award would have to represent the deep history and global scope of fantastical storytelling. Because of this, and as I have said since the brouhaha kicked off last year, I feel that the award should take the form of a cuneiform tablet bearing the opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The world’s oldest recorded fantastical story. A story from the cradle of civilisation. Which just so happens to be the Middle East which will, no doubt, piss off all the racists and douchebags no end.

So; yay, the award is changing and meh, who cares really? Well, I possibly do as I’ve just written a bucketload of words about it…

*God, I hate how the word ‘problematic’ has been ruined by internet douchebags.

Doug Talks Weird about Ligotti

Last week Doug Bolden posted the third of his video blogs discussing Weird Fiction and in this instalment he talked about the Thomas Ligotti short story ‘The Frolic’ and the meaning of the term ‘Lovecraftian’.

‘The Frolic’ is one of Ligotti’s earliest published stories and, as good as it is, it is one of my least favourite Ligotti tales. The story centres around a psychiatrist who is dealing with a patient who is a notorious child murderer -he refers to his abuse and murder of children as ‘frolicking’- and who has become increasingly cynical and bitter about his career. To me the story seemed rather simplistic and, dare I say it, trite though that could well be to do with the stories age –Songs of a Dead Dreamer which features the story was Ligotti’s first collection released in 1986- or perhaps due to Ligotti trying to curtail his literary ambitions in order to appeal to the horror publications of the time.

Where I didn’t enjoy the story Doug manages to tease the Ligottian elements from within what is otherwise a by the numbers psycho-killer story.

There was a short, 24 minute, film made of ‘The Frolic’ a few years ago which is now available on Vimeo. I’ve not seen it and so can’t comment as to the quality but you can watch it below.

Joseph S Pulver Sr: The King in Yellow Tales, Volume One

This review should have been published yesterday on the day that this awesome collection of King in Yellow inspired stories was published. Unfortunately a poorly Little Ms. X was more important than the timely publishing of reviews. So sorry I didn’t get this out yesterday which, fittingly ,was also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Robert W. Chambers.

tl;dr: This is amazing, buy this book.

Joseph S. Pulver is the King in Yellow –sorry True Detective fans; the Yellow King does not reside in Louisiana where he drives a power mower. No; this particular bEast resides in Berlin where he writes a form of Weird Fiction that seamlessly blends Noir, Beat, and Decadence with a cosmic kind of horror which can in turns wash over you with deliciously off kilter poetics before filling you with a dread that works its way into the darker, most hidden, reaches of your psyche.

The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories in the French Decadent tradition written by an American, Robert W. Chambers, in the 1890s. Pulver has been producing work which riffs off of the King in Yellow the_king_in_yellow_t_cover_for_kindlestories for decades and he is the person most responsible for keeping the yellow flame alive as a field of literary exploration in its own right for all that time. During the 20th Century Chambers’ work was brought into the mythology created by H.P. Lovecraft and the strange denizens that wreak havoc in Chambers’ work were turned into ancient and terrible alien gods by the acolytes of Lovecraft, even though he only made passing reference to them in his own work. Pulver has all but severed these ties to Lovecraft and instead seeks to explore the maddening influence of the more mysterious aspects of Chambers’ work: the titular play which drives mad any who witness or read the second act, and the Yellow Sign which casts a baleful influence over all who are unfortunate enough to encounter it.

That’s not to say that Pulver has abandoned all Lovecraftian elements; the first story proper in this collection, ‘Choosing’, is a post apocalyptic nightmare merging both mythologies into a bewildering scream of frustration and pain. Frustration at one’s powerlessness to resist horrors heaped down upon us by those protected by power and tradition; pain at the suffering inflicted upon those about whom we care by those stronger than us. To me this story seemed to speak of the way in which women, as a body of people, are abused and maltreated by society and the powerlessness of individuals to confront and challenge this maltreatment. Of course the story is also a brilliant horror tale and it’s testament to Pulver’s skill as a writer that his works can be read in different ways and to varying depths.

“To no particular where, just went. Stepped right into August like it was a voyage or a baptism. Stopped in his cheap room, grabbed his stuff and left. Somewhere down the road he’d find her. The wind would take him to her”

-‘Carl Lee & Cassilda’

Pulver’s hard-boiled, noir infected, prose in the ‘Carl Lee & Cassilda’ triptych of stories takes Chambers’ creations and places them firmly into America’s bourbon soaked underbelly of hustlers, hookers, lunacy and bloody murder. This dark sensibility and affinity for the broken refugees and cast-offs of society permeates much of Pulver’s work and his characters reflect this darkness. You will not like some, or many, of the characters in this book but then: you’re not supposed to. These are the stories, after all, that lurk in rain drenched alleyways waiting to seize an unsuspecting passerby and to turn their world upside down.

Joe Pulver is no a fearful writer and his prose in this collection illustrates this eagerly as he experiments with the form and function of the English language. Happily jumping from beat infused noir to decadent stage plays and poetic verse. His playing with form suggests to me that the printed page is going to give the reader the greatest appreciation for his work –though a regular e-reader may render the prose as it was initially meant to be read, I read this on my smartphone and the reflowing of some of his more poetic tales has guaranteed that I am also going to seek this collection out in paperback.

In ‘Saint Nicholas Hall’, dedicated to America’s Kafka –Michael Cisco, Pulver takes his creative muse and uses is as a scalpel to hone a beautifully realised modernist(?) prose poem that again plays with the form of the written word to fashion a phantasmagoric Carcosan cityscape through which the protagonist travels towards his confrontation with loss.

These are just a handful of the stories that make up this first volume of Jospeh Pulver Sr.’s collected King in Yellow tales. I highlighted these few as I feel they illustrate quite how deep a literary well Pulver is drawing from. This collection is an absolute must for anyone with an interest in the renaissance of weird fiction which has been underway these last few years. Pulver is a master of his art and you deserve to read him.

Info on where to buy the book in print or as an ebook can be found here(LINK).

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Rick Lai
  • A Line of Questions
  • Choosing
  • Carl Lee & Cassilda
  • An American Tango Ending in Madness
  • Hello is a Yellow Kiss
  • The Last Few Nights in a Life of Frost
  • Chasing Shadows
  • Last Year in Carcosa
  • An Engagement of Hearts
  • Cordelia’s Song
  • Saint Nicholas Hall
  • A Spider in the Distance
  • Under the Mask Another Mask
  • Epilogue for Two Voices
  • Yvrain’s “Black Dancers”
  • The Songs Cassilda Shall Sing, Where Flap the Tatters of the King
  • The Sky Will Not Fall
  • Tark Left Santiago
  • Marks and Scars and Flags
  • Long-Stemmed Ghost Words
  • In This Desert Even the Air Burns
  • Perfect Grace
  • My Mirage
  • Mother Stands for Comfort
  • A Cold Yellow Moon (with Edward R. Morris Jr.)
  • Afterword by Pete Rawlik

She Walks in Shadows: ToC and Cover Reveal

Well this is a perfectly timed announcement isn’t it? The table of contents and absolutely stunning cover art, by Sara K. Diesel, for Innsmouth Free Press’ She Walks in Beauty anthology have been revealed. The book will be released in autumn -in time for Halloween. 🙂 Hopefully we’ll also see two other all women anthologies released by then: Cassilda’s Song, a collection of King in Yellow stories curated by Joe Pulver, and Dreams from the Witch House: Women of Lovecraft (which is still $500 short of reaching funding and $5000 short of having all interior illustrations in colour, so go fund it).

“Bitter Perfume” Laura Blackwell
“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” Nadia Bulkin
“Body to Body to Body” S. J. Chambers
De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae” Jilly Dreadful
“Hairwork” Gemma Files
“The Head of T’la-yub” Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (translated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia)
“Bring the Moon to Me” Amelia Gorman
“Chosen” Lyndsey Holder
“Eight Seconds” Pandora Hope
“Cthulhu of the Dead Sea” Inkeri Kontro
“Turn out the Lights” Penelope Love
“The Adventurer’s Wife” Premee Mohamed
“Notes Found in a Decommissioned Asylum, December 1961″ Sharon Mock
“The Eye of Jupiter” Eugenie Mora
“Ammutseba Rising” Ann K. Schwader
“Cypress God” Rodopi Sisamis
“Lavinia’s Wood” Angela Slatter
“The Opera Singer” Priya Sridhar
“Provenance” Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Thing in The Cheerleading Squad” Molly Tanzer
“Lockbox” Elise Tobler
“When She Quickens” Mary Turzillo
“Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” Valerie Valdes
“Queen of a New America” Wendy Wagner

 

Strange Fiction?

This is a really interesting article over at Nightmare Magazine by Simon Strantzas. I don’t particularly agree with it in his definition of what constitutes a weird tale (I prefer Mieville’s notion of the uncanny vs. the abcanny) and he seems to take cosmic horror as the defining feature of the weird tale rather than it being a facet of the weird.

“Weird fiction of this[the pulp adventure] sort seems to have had its birth in America, bursting onto the scene from Lovecraft’s pen. The exploration of the cosmic indifference (at best; malignance at worst) melded with the adventure story suits the mindset of the new world, whose mythology gravitates to philosopher-explorers.”

I don’t even think HPL would agree with this as he seemed to place himself into the wider cannon of the weird along with Machen, Blackwood, et al.

In the article Strantzas tries to delineate the ‘strange’ tale from the ‘weird’ tale. A distinction that I’m not sure is possible with the definitions that he gives.

“These are tales where the otherworld isn’t as much known as it is hinted at, and rather than explore the philosophies of our shared existence, the strange is more interested in the psychology of our individual lives. If the weird is cosmic, the strange is micro-cosmic, investigating the universe within our psychological existence.

[…]

It’s these feelings of disconnection that form the primary power of the strange tale, and from where it draws the bulk of its emotional power. Real life moments of loss, despair, and depression wreak a certain kind of havoc on us and can quite literally distort our comprehension of the world as we experience it. In many ways, this distortion and that of the strange’s dream-logic overlap, allowing the strange to become a proxy and providing readers the opportunity to directly confront their turmoils. That being said, it would be irresponsible to suggest the readers are then able to prevail against these forces, for with the strange no one really comes out ahead. Those that survive are ultimately scarred by the experience—which may be the most realistic and lifelike of all horror’s punishments. Existential wounds follow both the protagonists and the reader long afterward, which plays in stark relief to the weird and its sudden onset of temporary madness in the face of the impossible.”

Now to me this seems as though it would fit squarely within the realm of the weird tale as written by Schulz, Kafka, Cisco, and others. It sounds, to me, like Strantzas is describing weird fiction as influenced by the surrealist movement.

I don’t know, perhaps we do put too much emphasis on the cosmic horror aspect of the weird (which is no surprise being as HPL looms so large in the field) which may, or may not, be to the detriment of the wider weird. Personally I find the diversity of the weird to be extremely appealing. I love being able to slip from one tale of epic cosmic terror to a more subtle tale that teases at the frayed edges of what it is to be human.

Either that or I should, perhaps, not think about these sorts of thing before I’ve had my morning coffee…

Lovecraft’s Bust Mk 2.0

Daniel José Older yesterday published an article on The Guardian’s website where he again calls for the Word Fantasy Award to be changed from its current incarnation of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft. As I have written before I completely agree with him. I don’t think it should be a bust of Octavia Butler, as I have also said before, but it should definitely not be an image of a white American man. After all it is supposed to be the World Fantasy Award is it not?

However I do tire of Older’s insistence that Lovecraft was a bad writer.

Lovecraft was an uneven craftsman at best – his stories clunk along, overburdened with adjectives and stale characters. It’s his world-building and imagination that helped solidify his legacy, but even that is tainted by a failure of craft and humanity.

No, sorry Daniel but no. Lovecraft was a spectacular writer. He knew that characterisation wasn’t his strong point and so he played to his skills. His imagination and his ability to build a sense of dread. Also, I’m not really willing to give that much credence to the artistic sensibilities of a person who claims to be an author yet is seemingly unable to use a dictionary.

[Older on the use of the word “cyclopean”] (And why… why why why does this word recur in damn near every Lovecraft story? What image are we to take from this? Buildings with a single window at the top? Buildings built by one-eyed giants? It means nothing to me visually, yet it’s clearly one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives.)

Cyclopean

So, given the context in which the word is used, it should be fairly simple for a reader to discover quite what the author means. Hell, even before I looked the word up as a teenager I got the impression that it meant huge. When I also learned of the form of masonry, common to the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age as you ask, it added more to the story. Does Mr Older instantly discount an author who uses any words with which he is unfamiliar? In which case let’s hope that he never tries to read Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, Will Self.

He detailed his rabid, paranoid racism in many letters, and it permeates his mythos. Lovecraft peopled his fiction with hordes of swarthy, child-killing and abjectly stupid black and brown people, while women are almost non-existent.

Again, this is simply either not the case or not, completely, relevant. Lovecraft’s private correspondence does show his utterly wrong headed and vile opinions on race and class. However they do not permeate his work. They are there in some of his works (The Horror at Red Hook, Call of Cthulhu and Herbert West: Reanimator for example) but in his entire corpus they mostly feature not at all. I get the feeling that Older has not read much Lovecraft or has not done so since he was a teenager. Which would explain why only certain aspects of his work stand out in memory.

What I would argue is that Lovecraft’s bigotry (he wasn’t simply a racist) is apparent in his work in his fear that an old way of life is being wiped away by the new and emerging world. A fairly standard reactionary/right wing fear that we see reflected in the pages of The Express and the Daily Mail. The way that this fear manifests in Lovecraft’s work however is not in the explicit bigotry of works like The Horror at Red Hook but in the sense of the inevitable doom that comes with the return of the Old Ones. The fear of forces ‘outside’ civilisation that would wipe it away in a heartbeat. I would also tie this fear to the psychic rupture that was caused by the mechanised slaughter of the First World War. The war of 1914-1918 acted as a break between the old world and the new. A lot of Lovecraft’s writing, in particular his Mythos fiction, was a reaction to this break, this rupture, as was the work of many of the Modernist writers and artists.

Regardless of Older’s lack of familiarity with the work of Lovecraft, or his ability to use either a dictionary or Google, the bust is entirely inappropriate and could very easily be replaced. I just wish that folk would stop stating that Lovecraft was a bad writer and making false claims about his work. The reality of his bigotry is bad enough and needs no exaggeration.