All right-thinking folk are agreed that the Peckham-based author and visionary Michael Moorcock is a core colossus of the counter-culture. As the Guardian put it in 2007, he’s “the incendiary keystone of the visionary vortex that crystallized around New Worlds magazine in the 1960s, sparking a transgressive tornado that has sculpted paradigm-defying narratives of mutant sexuality, psychology and politics on an almost daily basis for over fifty years.”
But how often have keyly committed components of the Moorcock-fan community wished they had some objective mode of metricizing the coreness of the colossusness of his counter-culturality?
Well, the wait is over:
site:http://www.multiverse.org/ “in terms of”
About 4,910 results (0.56 seconds)
• in terms of sci-fi recommendations, I gotta go — Moorcock’s
• They’re really rebellious in terms of gender, in terms of sex, in terms of politics, the portrayal of society and race, and I really want that to be …
• In terms of games I am rediscovering Zelda: Majora’s Mask with updated graphics and sound.
• … and to describe such elements in terms of Good and Evil seems (as I hope I demonstrate) a rather useless way of looking at our problems.
• We’ve reached a point, in this new century, that can be identified as both technologically and sociologically, futuristic, even in terms of the very recent past and …
• I’m wondering about stillborn-siblings in terms of esoterica: are they the next sibling born after the stillbirth, making a short appearance (i.e. is …
• I can say I’ve had one good experience with a press release distribution service, in terms of acquiring reviews.
• In terms of chronology, however, it would have to fit in somewhere between the novels The Fortress of the Pearl and The Sailor on the Seas of [Fate]
An SJW with a PhD writes:
It’s probably about time to collect all the issues and discussion of the 2015 Hugo Awards into one big post that is, at least in terms of what I have to say, a definitive take on it…. Three days after unveiling his slate of nominees, Torgersen wrote an essay explaining the necessity of the slate in terms of the “unreliability” of contemporary science fiction… The easiest mistake to make when trying to understand fascists is to think that they are best described in terms of a philosophy…. As a PhD in English with no small amount of training in postmodernism[,] I feel some qualification to speak here… and he does explain his beliefs in part in terms of a religious experience… Let us view it this way, since, in terms of the Hugos, we now have no other choice…. That covers the actual response in terms of the Hugos…. Your beliefs are horrible. You’re horrible. You’re a nasty, cruel little bully, and I do not like you…. in terms of brilliant, Hugo-worthy stuff that spits in the face of everything Theodore Beale loves… Norman Spinrad’s 1972 novel The Iron Dream, which imagines an alternate history where Hitler became a hack sci-fi writer in America, is probably the most notable in terms of just how much it anticipates this mess… afrofuturism, an artistic movement that uses the imaginative possibilities of science fiction to try to conceive of the African Diaspora not in terms of its tragic past but in terms of the generative potential of the future…. As a song, “Electric Lady” is an anthem in praise of Cindi Mayweather, long on braggadocio, but framed in terms of Monáe’s carefully worked out vision of black female sexuality… — Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: An Analysis of Theodore Beale and his Supporters, Philip Sandifer, 21/iv/2015.
I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English.
<gag> The Evil White Male. <retch> When will Persons of Color, Persons of Wombyn-ness, Persons of LGBT-ity, Persons of All Alternative Ontologies finally succeed in cleansing the world of his tenebrose toxicity? When will the Rainbow Days of Equality, Justice and Harmony begin? When will his uncountable victims truly be able to say: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank the Lady Almighty, we are free at last!”?
Not soon enough. In the meantime, the E.W.M./Yoom continues to pollute the so-called white-male-invented so-called Internet with his foulness and fetidity. But most depraved, deplorable and despicable of all are those occasions when one Yoom “celebrates” the work of another Yoom.
A case in point:
• Cosmic Horror – Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937)
“Unspeakable” is not the word. (If it were, then it wouldn’t be “unspeakable”, would it?)
Previously pre-posted (please peruse):
─But what is that whisper?
─Ah. Then ye hear it?
─Aye. ’Tis thin and eerie, mingling with the waves, and seemeth to come from great distance. I know not the language thereof, but I hear great rage therein.
─As well ye might. We stand near the spot at which the wizard Zigan-Uvalen bested a demon sent against him by an enemy. ’Tis the demon’s whisper ye hear.
─Tell me the tale.
─It is after this wise…
Zigan-Uvalen woke to a stench of brimstone, a crackle of flame, and found himself staring up at a fearsome ebon face, lapped in blood-red fire, horned with curling jet, fanged in razor-sharp obsidian.
“Wake, Wizard!” the apparition boomed. “And make thy peace with thy gods, for I am come to devour thee!”
Zigan-Uvalen sat up and pinched himself thrice.
“Without introduction?” he asked, having verified that he was truly awake.
“Well, ’tis customary, in the better magickal circles.”
“Aye? Then know this: I am the Demon Ormaguz, summoned from the hottest corner of the deepest pit of Hell by your most puissant and malicious enemy, the wizard Muran-Egah. I have been dispatched by him over many leagues of plain and ocean to wreak his long-meditated, slow-readied, at-last-matured vengeance on thee.”
“Very well. And what are your qualifications?”
“Aye. Are ye worthy of him who sent you, O Demon Ormaguz?”
“Aye, that I am! And will now dev–”
“Nay, nay!” The wizard raised a supplicatory hand. “Take not offence, O Ormaguz. I ask merely out of form. ’Tis customary, in the better magickal circles.”
“Then know this… Well, of formal qualifications, diplomas, and the like, I have none, ’tis true. But I am a demon, thou puny mortal. I have supernatural powers of body and mind, far beyond thy ken.”
“I doubt them not. At least, I doubt not your powers of body, in that ye have travelled so very far and very fast this very night. Or so ye say. But powers of mind? Of what do they consist?”
“Of aught thou carest to name, O Wizard.”
“Then ye have, for instance, much mathematical skill?”
“Far beyond thy ken.”
“Infinitely far, wizard!”
“Infinitely? Then could ye, for instance, choose a number at hazard from the whole and endless series of the integers?”
“Aye, that I could!”
“Entirely at hazard, as though ye rolled a die of infinite sides?”
“Aye! In less than the blink of an eye!”
“Well, so ye say.”
“So I say? Aye, so I say, and say sooth!”
“Take not offence, O Demon, but appearances are against you.”
“Ye are a demon, after all, unbound by man’s pusillanimous morality.”
“I speak sooth, I tell thee! I could, in an instant, choose a number, entirely at hazard, from the whole and endless series of the integers.”
“And speak it to me?”
“Ha! So that is thy game, wizard! Thou seekest to occupy me with some prodigious number whilst thou makest thy escape.”
“Nay, nay, ye misjudge me, O Demon. Let me suggest this. If ye can, as ye say, choose such a number, then do so and recite its digits to me after the following wise: in the first second, name a single digit – nay, nay, O Demon, hear me out, I pray! Aye, in the first second, name a single digit thereof; in the second second, name four digits, which is to say, two raised to the second power; in the third second, name a number of digits I, as a mere mortal, cannot describe to you, for ’tis equal to three raised to the third power of three.”
“That would be 7,625,597,484,987 digits named in the third second, O Wizard.”
“Ah, most impressive! And your tongue would not falter to enunciate them?”
“Nay, not at all! Did I not tell thee my powers are supernatural?”
“That ye did, O Demon. And in the fourth second, of course, ye would name a number of digits equal to four raised to four to the fourth power of four. And so proceed till the number is exhausted. Does this seem well to you?”
“Aye, very well. Thou wilt have the satisfaction of knowing that ’tis an honest demon who devoureth thee.”
“That I will. Then, O Ormaguz, prove your honesty. Choose your number and recite it to me, after the wise I described to you. Then devour me at your leisure.”
─Then the Demon chose a number at hazard from the whole and endless series of the integers and began to recite it after the wise Zigan-Uvalen had described. That was eighteen centuries ago. The demon reciteth the number yet. That is the whisper ye hear from the sea, which rose long ago above the tomb of Zigan-Uvalen.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), the author of Brave New World (1932) and After Many A Summer (1939), is a bad but interesting writer. One of his bad but interesting books is The Doors of Perception (1954), in which he discusses mescalin and mysticism. I like this comment a lot:
In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important question: Who influenced whom to say what when? (Op. cit., pg. 61 of the 1985 Panther paperback)
It’s an insightful and entertaining point. There are analogous questions in biology: what genes influence what and where do they come from? But biologists can answer questions like that much more precisely, because genes are physical entities, susceptible to precise chemical analysis. They can be easily mathematized, turned into statistics, tested for correlations and other patterns. We can’t yet do that to “words and notions” and get the same precise answers. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to answer questions about human prehistory over hundreds of millennia than about human history over decades. For example, we now know that ancient human beings migrating from Africa picked up genes from Neanderthals and a lesser-known group called the Denisovans, while those human beings that stayed behind in Africa picked up genes from other archaic hominids.
But we don’t know whether the Californian author Clark Ashton Smith (1894-1961) influenced the British author Ian Fleming (1908-64). At least, I don’t know, because I think I am the first person to raise the possibility. After all, they aren’t obvious literary associates: Smith wrote highly ornate fantasy set on a quasi-mediaeval far future earth; Fleming wrote vice-and-violence spy-thrillers set in contemporary Europe, America and Japan. And in the Caribbean, which is why the question of CAS’s influence occurred to me. Fleming was the creator of James Bond and one of his Bond adventures, published in 1958, is called Dr. No. It is named after its anti-hero, a Chinese-German megalomaniac called Doctor Julius No who lives on the mountainous island of Crab Key near Jamaica. He is conducting research into the human capacity for suffering:
“Silence!” Doctor No’s voice was the crack of a whip. “Enough of this foolery. Of course it will hurt. I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure. From time to time I make experiments on those of my people who have to be punished. And on trespassers like yourselves. You have both put me to a great deal of trouble. In exchange I intend to put you to a great deal of pain. I shall record the length of your endurance. The facts will be noted. One day my findings will be given to the world. Your deaths will have served the purposes of science.” (Op. cit., ch. XVI, “Horizons of Agony”)
He is talking to James Bond and Bond’s companion, the beautiful blonde Honeychile Rider. Bond will have to run an “obstacle race, an assault course against death”, which is designed to be unbeatable. Meanwhile, Honeychile will be “pegged out” on the mountain-side as part of another experiment. With sadistic relish, Doctor No reveals what will happen to her:
“This island is called Crab Key. It is called by that name because it is infested with crabs, land crabs — what they call in Jamaica ‘black crabs’. You know them. They weigh about a pound each and they are as big as saucers. At this time of year they come up in thousands from their holes near the shore and climb up towards the mountain. … The crabs devour what they find in their path. … And tonight, in the middle of their path, they are going to find the naked body of a woman pegged out — a banquet spread for them — and they will feel the warm body with their feeding pincers, and one will make the first incision with his fighting claws and then… and then…”
And then Honeychile faints. But, like all the best super-villains, Doctor No mixes sensibility with his sadism. This is what Bond and Honeychile first see when they step from a lift into the heart of Doctor No’s underground lair:
It was a high-ceilinged room about sixty feet long, lined on three sides with books to the ceiling. At first glance, the fourth wall seemed to be made of solid blue-black glass. … Bond’s eye caught a swirl of movement in the dark glass. He walked across the room. A silvery spray of small fish with a bigger fish in pursuit fled across the dark blue. … What was this? An aquarium? Bond looked upwards. A yard below the ceiling, small waves were lapping at the glass. Above the waves was a strip of greyer blue-black, dotted with sparks of light. The outlines of Orion were the clue. This was not an aquarium. This was the sea itself and the night sky. The whole of one side of the room was made of armoured glass. They were under the sea, looking straight into its heart, twenty feet down.
Bond and the girl stood transfixed. As they watched, there was the glimpse of two great goggling orbs. A golden sheen of head and deep flank showed for an instant and was gone. A big grouper? A silver swarm of anchovies stopped and hovered and sped away. The twenty-foot tendrils of a Portuguese man-o’-war drifted slowly across the window, glinting violet as they caught the light. Up above there was the dark mass of its underbelly and the outline of its inflated bladder, steering with the breeze.
Bond walked along the wall, fascinated by the idea of living with this slow, endlessly changing moving picture. A big tulip shell was progressing slowly up the window from the floor level, a frisk of demoiselles and angel fish and a ruby-red moonlight snapper were nudging and rubbing themselves against a corner of the glass and a sea centipede quested along, nibbling at the minute algae that must grow every day on the outside of the window. (Op. cit., ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)
Yes, the sea-window is a fascinating idea, but where does the idea come from? Here is another literary character, King Fulbra, in the underground domain of another sadist:
After descending many stairs, they came to a ponderous door of bronze; and the door was unlocked by one of the guards, and Fulbra was compelled to enter; and the door clanged dolorously behind him. The chamber into which he had been thrust was walled on three sides with the dark stone of the island, and was walled on the fourth with heavy, unbreakable glass. Beyond the glass he saw the blue-green, glimmering waters of the undersea, lit by the hanging cressets of the chamber; and in the waters were great devil-fish whose tentacles writhed along the wall; and huge pythonomorphs with fabulous golden coils receding in the gloom; and the floating corpses of men that stared in upon him with eyeballs from which the lids had been excised.
That is from Clark Ashton Smith’s short story “The Isle of the Torturers” (1933), which was originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Like the evil King Ildrac of Smith’s story, Doctor No lives on an island, tortures people and has a glass wall set onto the undersea. But that is not all they have in common. Here is Fleming’s description of Doctor No:
He stood looking at them benignly, with a thin smile on his lips. … (Bond was to get used to that thin smile) … Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop — or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow.
It was impossible to tell Doctor No’s age: as far as Bond could see, there were no lines on the face. It was odd to see a forehead as smooth as the top of the polished skull. Even the cavernous indrawn cheeks below the prominent cheekbones looked as smooth as fine ivory. There was something Dali-esque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black, and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as makeup for a conjurer. Below them, slanting jet black eyes stared out of the skull. They were without eyelashes. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)
When King Fulbra is shipwrecked on Uccastrog, the Isle of the Torturers, this is his first sight of its inhabitants:
The people drew near, thronging about the barge and the galley. They wore fantastic turbans of blood-red, and were clad in closely fitting robes of vulturine black. Their faces and hands were yellow as saffron; their small and slaty eyes were set obliquely beneath lashless lids; and their thin lips, which smiled eternally, were crooked as the blades of scimitars. (“The Isle of the Torturers”)
Fulbra surrenders to them with misgivings and is taken to the throne-room of his fellow king, where his misgivings grow:
Soon he came into the presence of Ildrac, who sat on a lofty brazen chair in a vast hall of the palace. Ildrac was taller by half a head than any of his followers; and his features were like a mask of evil wrought from some pale, gilded metal; and he was clad in vestments of a strange hue, like sea-purple brightened with fresh-flowing blood. About him were many guardsmen, armed with terrible scythe-like weapons; and the sullen, slant-eyed girls of the palace, in skirts of vermilion and breast-cups of lazuli, went to and fro among huge basaltic columns. About the hall stood numerous engineries of wood and stone and metal such as Fulbra had never beheld, and having a formidable aspect with their heavy chains, their beds of iron teeth and their cords and pulleys of fish-skin. (Op. cit.)
The similarities between Doctor No and “The Isle of the Torturers” are obvious. But how likely is it that Fleming had read Smith’s story and then incorporated elements of it into his novel, consciously or unconsciously? Smith wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned king who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. Fleming wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned scientist who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. The scientist also used crabs as weapons, like the wizard Sarcand in Smith’s story “The Master of the Crabs” (1948):
So saying, he raised his hand and described a peculiar sign with the index finger, on which the ring flashed like a circling orb. The double column of crabs suspended their crawling for a moment. Then, moved as if by a single impulse, they began to scuttle toward us, while others appeared from the cavern’s entrance and from its inner recesses to swell their rapidly growing numbers. They surged upon us with a speed beyond belief, assailing our ankles and shins with their knife-sharp pincers as if animated by demons. I stooped over, striking and thrusting with my arthame; but the few that I crushed in this manner were replaced by scores; while others, catching the hem of my cloak, began to climb it from behind and weigh it down. Thus encumbered, I lost my footing on the slippery ground and fell backward amid the scuttling multitude. (“The Master of the Crabs”)
And that doesn’t exhaust the parallels between Smith’s stories and Fleming’s novel. Here is more of Doctor No’s appearance:
The bizarre, gliding figure looked like a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil, and Bond would not have been surprised to see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)
This is from Smith’s story “The Coming of the White Worm” (1941):
At sight of this entity, the pulses of Evagh were stilled for an instant by terror; and, following quickly upon the terror, his gorge rose within him through excess of loathing. In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. (“The Coming of the White Worm”)
I can’t claim that it’s probable that Fleming had read Smith or even a strong possibility that he did so, but the shared elements are suggestive. The fact that Doctor No and King Ildrac are both tall could easily, on its own, be a coincidence: size is an obvious and widely used marker of importance and dominance. But each additional similarity reduces the possibility that Fleming was inventing Doctor No ex nihilo. He was certainly familiar with American popular culture and the cheap publications in which Smith’s work appeared. Here are descriptions from two more Bond novels:
There were two or three all-night diners to choose from and they [Bond and a girl called Solitaire] pushed through the door that announced “Good Eats” in the brightest neon. It was the usual sleazy food-machine — two tired waitresses behind a zinc counter loaded with cigarettes and candy and paper-backs and comics. (Live and Let Die, 1954, Chapter XII, “The Everglades”)
At 12.30 they [Bond and his companion Felix Leiter] stopped for lunch at The Chicken in the Basket, a log-built Frontier-style road-house with standard equipment — a tall counter covered with the best-known proprietary brands of chocolates and candies, cigarettes, cigars, magazines and paperbacks, a juke box blazing with chromium and coloured lights that looked like something out of science fiction … (Diamonds Are For Ever, 1956, Chapter 10, “Studillac to Saratoga”)
Smith’s themes – death, pain and suffering – would certainly have appealed to Fleming, who practised sado-masochism with his wife Ann and returned again and again to those themes in his Bond books. This is from You Only Live Twice (1964):
“That is so. You are indeed a genius, lieber Ernst. You have already established this place as a shrine to death for evermore. People read about such fantasies in the works of Poe, Lautréamont, de Sade, but no one has ever created such a fantasy in real life. It is as if one of the great fairy tales has come to life. A sort of Disneyland of Death. But of course,” she hastened to add, “on an altogether grander, more poetic scale.” (Op. cit., Part 2, ch. 17, “Something Evil Comes This Way”)
So it seems that Fleming had read and appreciated Poe and Lautréamont. If he had come across Smith’s work during his trips to America, I suggest that he would not have dismissed it. And it may indeed have influenced his novel Dr. No. Perhaps literary forensics will be able to confirm or reject the hypothesis in future by analysing patterns in Smith’s and Fleming’s work.
At present, the influence of the obscure Californian Smith on the world-famous Briton Fleming remains just that: a hypothesis. But I think there is a stronger case for another influence, this time flowing in the opposite direction: from world-famous Briton to obscure Californian. I quoted above from “The Master of the Crabs”. Here is some more:
Even as we veered landward through the crystalline calm, there was a sudden seething and riffling about us, as if some monster had risen beneath. The boat began to shoot with plummet-like speed toward the cliffs, the sea foaming and streaming all around as though some kraken were dragging us to its caverned lair. Borne like a leaf on a cataract, we toiled vainly with straining oars against the ineluctable current.
Heaving higher momentarily, the cliffs seemed to shear the heavens above us, unscalable, without ledge or foothold. Then, in the sheer wall, appeared the low, broad arch of a cavern-mouth that we had not discerned heretofore, toward which the boat was drawn with dreadful swiftness.
“It is the entrance!” cried the Master. “But some wizard tide has flooded it.”
We shipped our useless oars and crouched down behind the thwarts as we neared the opening: for it seemed that the lowness of the arch would afford bare passage to our high-built prow. There was no time to unstep the mast, which broke instantly like a reed as we raced on without slackening into blind torrential darkness. (“The Master of the Crabs”)
Next comes the encounter with giant crabs quoted previously. So Smith’s short story describes a boat drawn by an irresistible current beneath a low entrance to an encounter with giant crabs. Now try H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887), a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Haggard’s adventurers are hunting wildfowl on a lake when they are caught in a strong current:
We realized our danger now and rowed, or rather paddled, furiously in our attempt to get out of the vortex. In vain; in another second we were flying straight for the arch like an arrow, and I thought that we were lost. Luckily I retained sufficient presence of mind to shout out, instantly setting the example by throwing myself into the bottom of the canoe, “Down on your faces — down!” and the others had the sense to take the hint. In another instant there was a grinding noise, and the boat was pushed down till the water began to trickle over the sides, and I thought that we were gone. But no, suddenly the grinding ceased, and we could again feel the canoe flying along [on an underground river]. … (Allan Quatermain, Chapter IX, “Into the Unknown”)
By the river’s edge was a little shore formed of round fragments of rock washed into this shape by the constant action of water, and giving the place the appearance of being strewn with thousands of fossil cannon balls. … And here … we determined to land, in order to rest ourselves a little after all that we had gone through … It was a dreadful place, but it would give an hour’s respite from the terrors of the river, and also allow of our repacking and arranging the canoe. Accordingly we selected what looked like a favourable spot, and with some little difficulty managed to beach the canoe and scramble out on to the round, inhospitable pebbles. … The gloom was so intense that we could scarcely see the way to cut our food and convey it to our mouths. Still we got on pretty well, till I happened to look behind me — my attention being attracted by a noise of something crawling over the stones, and perceived sitting upon a rock in my immediate rear a huge species of black freshwater crab, only it was five times the size of any crab I ever saw. This hideous and loathsome-looking animal had projecting eyes that seemed to glare at one, very long and flexible antennae or feelers, and gigantic claws. Nor was I especially favoured with its company. From every quarter dozens of these horrid brutes were creeping up, drawn, I suppose, by the smell of the food, from between the round stones and out of holes in the precipice. (Allan Quatermain, Chapter X, “The Rose of Fire”)
The similarities between Allan Quatermain and “The Master of the Crabs” seem stronger and clearer than those between “The Isle of the Torturers” and Dr. No. Haggard is widely read even today, in the twenty-first century, and was hugely popular in Smith’s lifetime. It is very difficult to believe that Smith was not familiar with most or all of his work. But if he borrowed ideas from Allan Quatermain, he transformed what he borrowed and produced a better and subtler story. He was, in fact, a much better writer than his probable influence H. Rider Haggard and his putative influencee Ian Fleming. That is part of why he achieved little of their success: he wrote too well, transcending his genre but not the ghetto of his genre.
That’s my opinion, at least, but I can’t prove it, any more than I prove that Smith influenced Fleming or Haggard influenced Smith. Nevertheless, I would argue that the quality of a literary work is a mathematical phenomenon, dependant for its power on the way it manipulates the implicit mathematics of the language faculty in a reader’s brain. Given this, I think that it will some day be possible to analyse two texts mathematically and give objective reasons for preferring one to another. If that happens, I think Smith will be shown to be a literary equivalent of Mozart or Bach, far above the entertaining but crude pop or rock’n’roll of Haggard and Fleming.
It’s already apparent that the patterns of literature are akin to the patterns of music: like poetry, prose has rhythms, melodies, motifs and so on. Words are equivalent to notes, or rather to chords. A word has both a sound and a meaning, or layers of meaning. On the page or screen it has a shape too, but how important word-shapes are in good writing is a difficult question. Shape may be most important in onomastics, or naming systems. Compare two names: Katherine-with-a-K and Catherine-with-a-C. The letter C is more attractive than the letter K and I think the second spelling of the name is more attractive too. So would Smith’s Isle of Torture “Uccastrog”, with a double-c, be more effective as “Ukkastrog”, with a double-k? Or does the guttural sound clash effectively with the elegant double-c?
I think the latter and I think “Uccastrog” is an example of Smith’s onomastic skill. But the name has echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which describes the “great prophet Lustrog” (pt. 1, ch. IV) and the islands Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib (pt. III). Smith certainly read Gulliver’s Travels and certainly shared Swift’s sardonic and satirical tastes. But how much did Swift shape those tastes, rather than merely chime with them? As we saw at the beginning, Aldous Huxley playfully reduced literary scholarship to a game of “Who influenced whom to say what when?” But it’s also a case of “What influenced whom to be influenced by whom?” Did Swift shape Smith, or merely chime with what was already there? If Clark Ashton Smith and his Isle of Torture did not influence Ian Fleming and Dr. No, how we do explain the shared elements? The shared personality of Smith and Fleming? Their shared genetics? Their shared reading of yet another text of which I am not aware? The questions can unwind for ever. But as we wait for science to answer them, the texts and their dark pleasures remain.
Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press, 2011)
This review is a useless waste of time. I can tell you very little about Gweel. It’s a book, if that helps. It’s made of paper. It has pages. Lots of little words on the pages.
What I can’t do is classify Gweel into a genre, not because none of them fit, but because the concept of a genre doesn’t seem to apply to Gweel. It stands alone, without classification. Calling Gweel “experimental” or “avant garde” would be like stamping a barcode on a moon rock.
It may have been written for an audience of one: author Simon Whitechapel. If we make the very reasonable assumption that he owns a copy of his own book, he may have attained 100% market saturation. However, there could be a valuable peripheral market: people who want to read a book that is very different from anything they’ve read before.
It is a collection of short pieces of writing, similar in tone but not in form, exploring “dread, death, and doom.” “Kopfwurmkundalini” and “Beating the Meat” resemble horror stories, and manage to be frightening yet strangely fantastic. The first one is about a man – paralysed in a motorbike accident, able to communicate only by eye-blinks – and his induction into a strange new reality. It contains a rather thrilling story-within-a-story called “MS Found in a Steel Bottle”, about two men journeying to the bottom of the ocean in a bathysphere. “Kopfwurmkundalini”’s final pages are written in a made-up language, but the author has encluded a glossary so that you can finish the story.
Those two/three stories make up about half of Gweel’s length. The remainder mostly consists of shorter work that seems to be more about creating an atmosphere or evoking an emotion. “Night Shift” is about a prison for planets (Venus, we learn, is serving a 10^3.2 year sentence for sex-trafficking), and a theme of prisons and planets runs through a fair few of the other stories here, although usually in a less surreal context. “Acariasis” is a vignette about a convict who sees a dust-mite crawling on his cell wall, and imagines it’s a grain of sand from Mars. The image is vivid and the piece has a powerful effect. “Primessence” is The Shawshank Redemption on peyote (and math). A prisoner believes that because his cell is a prime number, he will soon be snatched from it by some mathematical daemon (the story ends with the prisoner’s fate unknown). “The Whisper” is a ghost story of sorts, short and achingly sad.
No doubt my impression of Gweel differs from the one the author intended. But maybe his intention was that I have that different impression than him. Maybe Gweel reveals different secrets to each reader.
I can’t analyse it much, but Gweel struck me as an experience like Fellini’s Amarcord… lots of little story-threads, none of them terribly meaningful on their own. Experienced together, however, those threads will weave themselves into a tapestry in the hall of your mind, a tapestry that’s entirely unique… and your own.
Jesús say: I… S….. R… U… B… B… I… S…. H…. B… O… O… K…. | W… H… A…. N… K… C…. H… A… P… L…. E…. I… S…. H… I… J… O…. D… E…. P… U…. T… A…..
For example, despite the northern European climate and culture on Earthsea, a sea-faring world with lots of rain, mist, snow and mountains, most of the people are supposed to have dark skins. The ones that don’t – the white-skinned, blond-haired Kargs – are the bloodthirsty baddies of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), the first book in the series. Balls to biology, in other words: there’s propaganda to propagate. So it’s not surprising that Le Guin’s father was a famous and respected figure in the mostly disreputable discipline of anthropology. Earthsea is fantasy for Guardian-readers, in short.
But I still like the idea of an archipelago-world: sea and islands, islands and sea. As Le Guin herself says: “We all have archipelagos in our minds.” That’s one of the reasons I like the Ulam spiral: it reminds me of Earthsea. Unlike Earthsea, however, the sea and islands go on for ever. In the Ulam spiral, the islands are the prime numbers and the sea is the composite numbers. It’s based on a counter-clockwise spiral of integers, like this:
146 101←100←099←098←097←096←095←094←093←092←091 132
↓ ↓ ↑ ↑
147 102 065←064←063←062←061←060←059←058←057 090 131
↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑
148 103 066 037←036←035←034←033←032←031 056 089 130
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
149 104 067 038 017←016←015←014←013 030 055 088 129
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
150 105 068 039 018 005←004←003 012 029 054 087 128
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
151 106 069 040 019 006 001→002 011 028 053 086 127
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
152 107 070 041 020 007→008→009→010 027 052 085 126
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑ ↑
153 108 071 042 021→022→023→024→025→026 051 084 125
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↑
154 109 072 043→044→045→046→047→048→049→050 083 124
↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↑
155 110 073→074→075→076→077→078→079→080→081→082 123
↓ ↓ ↑
The spiral is named after Stanislaw Ulam (1909-84), a Polish mathematician who invented it while doodling during a boring meeting. When numbers are represented as pixels and 1 is green, the spiral looks like this – note the unique “knee” formed by 2, 3 (directly above 2) and 11 (to the right of 2):
(If the image above does not animate, please try opening it in a new window.)
Some prime-pixels are isolated, like eyots or aits (small islands) in the number-sea, but some touch corner-to-corner and form larger units, larger islands. There are also prime-diamonds, like islands with lakes on them. The largest island, with 19 primes, may come very near the centre of the spiral:
Island 1 = (5, 7, 17, 19, 23, 37, 41, 43, 47, 67, 71, 73, 79, 103, 107, 109, 113, 149, 151) (i=19) (x=-3, y=3, n=37) (n=1 at x=0, y=0)
Here are some more prime-islands – prIslands or priminsulas – in the Ulam-sea that I find interesting or attractive for one reason or other:
Island 2 = (281, 283, 353, 431, 433, 521, 523, 617, 619, 719, 827, 829, 947) (i=13) (x=6, y=-12, n=619)
Island 3 = (20347, 20921, 21499, 21503, 22091, 22093, 22691, 23293, 23297, 23909, 23911, 24533, 25163, 25801, 26449, 27103, 27767, 28439) (i=18) (x=-39, y=-81, n=26449)
Island 4 = (537347, 540283, 543227, 546179, 549139, 552107, 555083, 558067, 561059, 561061, 564059, 564061, 567067, 570083, 573107, 573109) (i=16) (x=375, y=-315, n=561061)
Island 5 = (1259047, 1263539, 1263541, 1268039, 1272547, 1277063, 1281587, 1286119, 1290659, 1295207, 1299763) (i=11) (x=-561, y=399, n=1259047)
Island 6 = (1341841, 1346479, 1351123, 1355777, 1360439, 1360441, 1365107, 1365109, 1369783, 1369787, 1369789, 1374473, 1379167) (i=13) (x=-585, y=-297, n=1369783)
Island 7 = (2419799, 2419801, 2426027, 2426033, 2432263, 2432267, 2438507, 2438509, 2444759, 2451017, 2457283, 2463557) (i=12) (x=558, y=780, n=2432263)
Island 8 = (3189833, 3196979, 3196981, 3204137, 3204139, 3211301, 3211303, 3218471, 3218473, 3218477, 3225653) (i=11) (x=-894, y=858, n=3196981)
Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith
Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.
They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:
On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.
A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.
And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.
So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;
And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.
*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.
That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:
’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.
Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may.
Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me.
That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:
“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.
Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.
Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.
“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).
Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:
After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)
Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:
The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.
But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:
Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]
(After a pause)
Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]
Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]
(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)
The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.
Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.
That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:
Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)
I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:
Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.
Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.
“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).
There is also putridity like this:
Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…
In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.
Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.