The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom we could blame this violation were it to happen to us. We had the potential within us all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and its has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave-sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.

 

 

The Power of Story: SF/F and the Beauty of Diversity

In the face of tragedy, our first impulse is always to find some meaningful way to respond. All too often, these responses end up being knee-jerk screams into the void that are useless at best and actively cause harm and hurt at worst. We allow our lack of understanding, our swirling emotions, our confusion and fear and anger, to take possession of our lips, our fingers, our keyboards, and pour themselves out.

I don’t have much that’s valuable to offer in the wake of the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, or the shooting in Dallas, or the attack on the Pulse club in Orlando, or any of the other tragedies that occur over and over again on American soil. I’m a white, cis, mostly straight, middle-class male, and no matter how much I read the words and listen to the stories of women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color, I will never understand what it’s like to live their lives for the span of even five minutes, let alone every day. Any advice I have to give is ultimately presumptuous, any insights on the situation hopelessly removed. So rather than comment on this madness directly, I want to write something about stories.

The guiding star in my literary tastes since the age of fourteen has been Jonathan Strahan’s annual anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I discovered it when I was first falling into SF/F fandom, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s been the single greatest influence on my writing in the last six years—most of the authors who are most influential to my style, including Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kij Johnson, and Catherynne M. Valente, are writers whose stories I first read within its pages. Just as important as its guidance on my writing, if not moreso, has been its guidance on my mindset.

Prior to my exposure to the series, my SF/F reading had been composed entirely of novels written by and for white males. The first tale from Strahan’s anthology to burn itself into my brain was Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”, the story of a black professor living in the midst of World War II. The story is a remarkable example of racist genre fiction of the past being reclaimed by progressivism—it takes the shoggoth, a creature invented by the obscenely racist H. P. Lovecraft, and turns it into a metaphor for the enslavement of black men and women by whites. At the time, I wasn’t at all aware of this subversion—Lovecraft was completely unknown to me—but the story was nevertheless singularly powerful. Not only was it written beautifully, its dual remove from my perspective—a female author and a black protagonist—rendered it a learning experience. Here was a character whose mindset I would never be able to assume, whose experiences were entirely removed from mine, but who I could grow to understand better, if not to understand on the deepest level, through the power of story and imagery.

This kind of story is far from unusual for The Best SF/F of the Year—Strahan goes out of his way each year to select stories by people of all races, background, and orientations, writing from places that come from their singular experiences. My first exposures to feminist and LGBTQ fiction, to stories that dealt with Islamic culture, that bent boundaries of race and sex and gender, all came within its pages. And there was a period in which I wanted to resist some of these exposures—I was a conservative evangelical at the time I first picked up the series, and remained so until the age of sixteen—but I couldn’t. The stories were too beautiful, too fascinating, too true to look away from. They were humanity reflected and refracted in all its glittering, shifting facets. My awareness of all the possibilities our species has to offer itself grew and grew.

I have grown so, so tired of a certain kind of creatively bankrupt fiction over the last few years. An exemplar of that sort of fiction is the tale of the middle-aged white academic who dwells obsessively upon his sexual prowess and the sexual attractiveness of his students, and once he is caught with one of them (or worse, betrayed by one of them) feels nothing but righteous indignation that anyone could question his right to sex. My objection to this sort of story is not first and foremost a moral one, although that certainly is a major part of it. It’s first and foremost that this sort of story is so damned boring.

Everyone knows the agonies of the white male. They’re unavoidable. All of his problems, his confusions, his prejudices, have been laid out on the page or on the screen over and over and over and over again ad nauseum. Not to say that talented people haven’t written about them in the last several decades—I dearly love a great deal of Philip Roth’s work, and early to mid-period Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors—but even they can’t relieve the tedium from a perspective that becomes more and more solipsistic and facile with each reiteration. It’s enough to make one lose their faith in literature.

But every time I feel this way, I can return to SF/F and find myself renewed. I can tear through the latest volume of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, drinking in story after story written from a unique perspective. I can immerse myself in the behemoth Dhalgren, written by a gay black man in the 1970s and containing within its pages an entire apocalyptic dream-world informed by his gayness and his blackness. I can examine the minute, perfect gems that are the short stories of Caitlin R. Kiernan and Catherynne M. Valente, stories that take traditional concepts of gender and love and twist them into Mobius strips. I can watch Ex Machina and ponder a riveting thriller that becomes superlative because of its insights into feminism and the male gaze; or lose myself in the roller-coaster ride of The Force Awakens, an adventure that is incredibly enriched by its eschewing of the white Chosen One in favor of a woman, a black man, and a Latino man; or be riveted by Mad Max and its transcendent madness of women’s liberation and intricate violence. I can return to genre fiction again and again and remain confident that I will be exposed to new perspectives, and learn from them, and be better for it. And the literature will be better for it too.

There have been attempts to hijack this celebration of diversity. Most recently, a neo-fascist group of fans, led by the odious Theodore Beale/Vox Day (who among other things believes that black people are subhuman and that feminists deserve to be burned by acid), attempted to burn down the Hugo Awards with cries that they had allowed politics to infest the nomination process and had robbed SF/F of what makes it so much fun. These attempts to regress genre fiction back to some Golden Age of pre-political white man’s paradise are so monumentally off the mark that they would be laughable were they not so potentially damaging. The best SF/F—the kind that has endured—has always been political. Bradbury’s presentation of Mars as second Eden destroyed by the stupidity of American jingoism. Delany and Le Guin and Tiptree’s refusal to play by the rules of gender. Butler’s withering critiques of racism. Gaiman’s constant push to expose his readers to LGBT culture. And had these authors not been political, their work would have been utterly neutered. Instead, they dared to show us perspectives we were not comfortable with, and decades later, they’re still vital presences.

This is the world that I desire to live in.

The future of humanity does not lie with insularity. It does not lie with colorblindness, or cover-ups, or willful insistence on the comfort of the familiar. It lies with the people who embrace the existence of our species not as a monolithic whole but a variegated, scintillating, ever-shifting sea of different lenses with which to view the beautiful, horrifying, awe-inspiring universe in which we all live. Who open themselves to all the differences their black and brown and Asian and bi and gay and trans and Muslim and pagan and etc. etc. etc. brothers and sisters have to offer, and embrace their own differences as integral to who they are, to what makes them beautiful people. Who enshrine these differences in stories, in books and music and film and video games and art.

Hate can’t extinguish this beauty. It will do its utter damnedest. It will break black bodies on the curb, it will gun down people in gay clubs, it will slander and bully and scream. But even as it does these things, it is slowly, slowly dying. It will never, ever entirely go away—”Our prefrontal lobe is too small, our adrenal glands too big,” in the words of a man not otherwise known overmuch for his celebration of diversity—but it will die and die and die, growing smaller and smaller. Those who espouse it will grow more and more shrill, more and more piteous.

And those of us who do our parts to kill it will live. We will spread love, and spread beauty, and make art, and share experiences, and eventually we will die. And we will have left a better world behind us.

Bigotry is many things—hateful, vicious, ignorant—but above all it is boring. And diversity is exhilarating. I thank the universe every day that I was able to discover this through the SF/F community. My deepest wish is that that exhilaration will be humanity’s defining legacy.

 

The Year in Books, January-June: Nonfiction

The best of the nonfiction that I read in the first half of this year. For a broader introduction and for the best and worst of the fiction I read, see here.

22478The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes

puts on sunglasses and dons his Laurence Fishburne voice…

What if I told you that, despite existing for 100,000-250,000 years, humans were not actually conscious until roughly 3,000 years ago?

What if I told you that, if you take a closer look at ancient literature such as the Iliad and the earliest books of the Old Testament, you’ll notice none of the characters are actually capable of introspection or making decisions?

What if I told you that, until incredibly recently on an evolutionary timescale, we heard the hallucinatory “voice of the gods” every time we had to choose between one option or another, rather than weighing within ourselves what the best course of action was—because our “selves” as such did not exist?

Jaynes is a bit of a crackpot, and his hypothesis has quite a few holes in it—in fact, I spent much of this semester writing a paper on certain inconsistencies in his analysis of the Iliad. That said, his hypothesis—that humans were basically preconscious schizophrenics hallucinating decisions as divine commands due to the inability of one hemisphere of their brains to perceive the other—is compelling, disturbing, and almost certainly at least partially true, though certainly not entirely. More than that, even if he were completely wrong his book would be a joy to read. It’s a marvel of interdisciplinary studies, mixing cognitive science with philosophy, literary analysis, and anthropology in a manner that’s consistently engaging despite the volume’s rather dry title.

Like the best creation myths, Origin has the virtue of seeming completely true in the moment even if it has its flaws. And again like those myths, there’s also in all probability more than a kernel of actual truth present.

28248046Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, Philip Sandifer

Thanks to the depredations of the Rabid Puppies, this book never stood a chance of being nominated for a Hugo for Best Related Work. It’s a pity, as no other work of nonfiction published in 2015-16 so artfully sums up the state of the SF/F community as a result of the chaos Theodore Beale/Vox Day and his cronies wreaked upon the Hugo Awards.

The titular essay is the chief reason to buy the book. Originally published on Sandifer’s blog in the immediate aftermath of the realization that the Hugos had been gamed by a group of neo-fascist dudebros, it provides a comprehensive overview of the various factions involved in the fray—Sad and Rabid Puppies, the neoreactionary movement, etc. etc.—before using their gaming of the system as a launching pad to discuss the broader problems of right-wing extremism in the SF/F community. It’s as fine a polemic as I’ve ever read, expertly researched and devastatingly styled. The good news is the rest of the collection is just as high in quality. Whether the topic is the feminist roots of Ex Machina, the shared ties of True Detective and Hannibal, the strange history of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, or the occult themes of Doctor Who, Sandifer wields a combination of erudition and enthusiasm that’s hard to resist. And lest you think the whole book is a one-sided affair, another centerpiece is a transcript of Sandifer’s sitting down with Beale/Day himself and debating literature. A fun time was most definitely not had by all.

2448580Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

When I was in high school, the extremely right-wing history curriculum barely mentioned the Black Panther Party. When it did, it was in the context of terrorism, equating the Party to the Ku Klux Klan. While I’ve become a far more progressive person in the years since I left this kind of “education” behind, I had never bothered to re-educate myself on the Panthers. And so, when I stumbled upon a memoir by the founder of the group himself, I decided I needed to read it.

Newton’s book, part autobiography and part manifesto, is completely engrossing. His political arguments are occasionally painted in broad strokes, but are never anything less than cool, articulate, and clearly thought-out, and while I differ with him on points—the Party’s reliance on guns chief among them—he never commands anything less than respect for the manner in which he makes them. The larger part of the book, the story of his wrongful accusation of the murder of a police officer and subsequent trial, is the stuff of Hollywood courtroom drama, but Newton has too much respect for himself and for his audience to exploit the situation for a cheap emotional payoff. His relation of events is as dispassionate as his philosophical musings, and the book is much better for it.

The titular revolutionary suicide—actively sacrificing oneself for a cause—is contrasted by Newton with reactionary suicide—allowing the system to grind one’s soul into oblivion. While I can’t agree with the Panthers’ reliance on firearms, neither can I disagree with Newton’s ardent desire to die fighting for something meaningful rather than letting himself be broken on the wheel of racism. Their current image among a vast number of white Americans as a hate group is nothing short of character assassination; would that more of us would bother to read the words of their leader himself.

567590Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

I did not know until after I had read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that Dillard was only 29 years old when it received the Pulitzer Prize. Her authorial voice is so assured and mature that one gets the impression of a much older woman.

Then again, her subject could inject maturity into anyone’s voice. Dillard paints the Nature (with an intentional capital-N) that surrounds her home near the titular creek as an avatar of the deity in whose image it’s created—capricious and loving, cruel and beautiful, in equal measure, with no explanations given for the contradiction if they even exist. The book is a sort of naturalist’s Book of Job, the majesty of Dillard’s surroundings forming its own theodicy. These philosophical musings are balanced by the concrete detail in which she paints her universe—the anatomy and behavior of the animals that live in congress with her, the subtle intricacies of the ecology that dominates the area. It’s these tiny bits of reality that stay embedded in the reader’s head. The problem of evil as told by parasitic wasps. The shine of Tinker creek even beneath a starless sky. The horrifying fertility of praying mantises, the male continuing to thrust even after he’s been decapitated.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book that I honestly don’t know how to classify. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part popular science book, part philosophical treatise, part prayer. Whatever section of the bookstore shelf it belongs on, its quality can’t be argued with. It’s probably, along with Malick’s The Tree of Life, my favorite work of religious poetry in the last hundred years.

127232On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Like Slavoj Zizek, Arendt doesn’t make arguments so much as free-associate. Thus this book is less an argument about revolution and more a series of observations on the subject, using the American and French revolutions as its anchors as it leaps from insight to insight.

There are, however, two central points that keep recurring: 1.) the American Revolution was the first revolution to deserve the name, as it was the first to involve a group of citizenry actively trying to change the system of government under which they were ruled rather than simply exchange a bad ruler for a good one; 2.) the American revolution succeeded because it was shaped by the guiding hand of elites and intellectuals rather than the popular masses. It’s the latter that I found the most interesting, especially when taken in tandem with Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites (below), which argues that this sort of meritocratic thinking is exactly what leads to the collapse of societies. In the wake of the financial crisis, Hayes’ position would certainly seem convincing; but with the rise of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist populism, so would Arendt’s. It remains to be seen which thinker will be more applicable to the future of America. Not that I particularly welcome either outcome.

27502War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Tied with The End of the Affair and The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the bleakest read of the year so far. Hedges, a foreign correspondent who has witnessed firsthand the devastation of war-torn countries, makes the case that war is ultimately the defining force behind our culture. It’s not just war, though, but the desperate need for tribalism to tell us who we can trust and who must be exterminated. In this age of neo-fascism, it’s sadly more relevant than ever.

2638701Violence, Slavoj Zizek

Like the other Zizek books I read this year, this one is hard to summarize, his characteristic enthusiasm and free-association taking him on tangents and sub-tangents with lightning velocity. What it lacks in coherence, though, it makes up for in wit and in flashes of brilliance as its author attempts to tackle his subject. How do we define violence, how does it affect us, and what aspects of it do we fail to notice even as they insidiously warp the fabric of society?

10199960Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine

Men and women are inherently different, you say? Science has demonstrated that there are biological discrepancies that can’t be reconciled?

plops book on your desk

Have fun, son.

649031A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, John Michael Greer

The first half of the book could have been happily written by any atheist—it dismantles argument after argument for a monotheistic deity, exposing inconsistencies both in thinking and morality. However, where Greer goes from there is far more interesting. Every single one of these arguments, he demonstrates, becomes remarkably tighter if we jettison the assumption of a single God and instead turn to the titular world full of gods: a polytheistic universe. As a defense of theism it’s more compelling than any monotheistic work on the subject I’ve read, and even if I still don’t believe it it’s a fascinating book.

12121640God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic

Zizek’s side, largely composed of essays that were compiled into The Puppet and the Dwarf, is utter genius, taking fundamental assumptions of Christianity and turning them on their heads with mingled wit and empathy—his insight that Dostoevsky’s “If there is no God everything is permitted” should instead be rendered “If there is a God everything is permitted” deserves an entire book of its own. Gunjevic’s contributions are less inspired but not without merit.

11623The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

As these are indeed unabridged journals, there’s quite a bit of tedious filler present—today Ted and I ate with such-and-such a person, she was wearing such-and-such a dress, etc. That said, the amounts of penetrating insight and assured prose composition on display here are not only extremely compelling but downright intimidating, especially when you consider that the stuff composed when Plath was seventeen is just as good as the stuff she wrote a few years prior to her death.

16030649Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes

As is the case with Hedges’ book, Elites is sadly more relevant than ever in the midst of the violent populism that currently engulfs America. Hayes methodically picks apart the underlying assumptions behind the belief that a meritocracy is the “fairest” system of government, demonstrates how America’s has failed, and then—most chillingly—shows how perhaps the worst consequence of our failed elites is that populist movements now show a distrust of any sort of expert knowledge. With climate change speeding up all around us, that’s a problem that could ultimately be fatal.

The Year in Books, January-June: Fiction

The first half of the year has nearly come and gone, and in that span I’ve finished ninety-four books, not counting re-reads. In the past two years of this sort of thing, I’ve reviewed the top five fiction and top five non-fiction books for each six-month period, devoting about 1,000 words to each fiction title and about two thirds of that to nonfiction. This year, however, I wanted to cover a broader swathe of territory. And so, for the fiction section of this half-a-year-in-review, I’ve devoted substantial reviews to nine titles and capsule reviews to twenty-three more. The remaining twenty-four fictional titles that I’ve read this year were either things I didn’t have a lot to say about in spite of their quality, or too mediocre to fall into either the “best” or “worst” pile.

Non-fiction review coming within a few days!

25512857Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, Caitlín R. Kiernan

The divine is always abominable.

I would list the standouts of this collection, but there really aren’t any—the possible exception being “The Steam Dancer”, which may be the only optimistic short story Kiernan has ever written. That’s not to say there aren’t stories I hold as favorites—”The Ammonite Violin” and “Tidal Forces”, both of which I had previously read in Jonathan Strahan’s annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, are probably the two I hold the most affection for. Rather it’s to say that there’s such a consistency here, both in quality and in tone, that the tales for the most part blur together into one long fever dream, a hallucinatory experience that leaves the reader unsettled and unsure.

The terror of the beautiful is the best theme I can think of to tie Kiernan’s body of work together. She is a master of juxtaposition, of taking acts that are degrading and perverse and brutal and rendering them in such artful language (she is without question the foremost prose stylist in her field) that the reader is compelled to linger over the prose even as she recoils from what it signifies. Many of the collection’s stories were first published in Sirenia Digest, Kiernan’s journal of erotic fiction, and that underlying concern with transgressive sexuality—its mingled attraction and repulsion, blessing and taboo—is ever-present. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Kiernan’s work is the way she manages to take nightmarish acts (whether that nightmarishness is due to violence or sheer alien-ness) and imbue them with a terrible attraction for the reader. The old adage about a car wreck is apt.

52258The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me… I will comb you like music caught in the heads of all the trees in the forest…

The fact that this book was published in the 1950s is staggering to me. It’s a beautifully subtle, nuanced take on the love that dare not speak its name—some readers complain that it leaves them cold, but the characters’ lack of fiery passion for much of the text is a very deliberate choice. For gay couples in this period, outward love was all but impossible to express. Everything became a code, signifiers carefully extended and received—a pair of gloves left on a counter, the briefest flash of hands clutched together, the most transient of shared gazes across a room.

And when passion does come, it is so magnificent a release that it feels transcendent. For a novel that was marketed as pulp romance at the time of its publication to carry such genuine, achingly beautiful feeling is among the rarest of gifts. I went into The Price of Salt expecting to respect it rather than enjoy it, as was the case with Annie on My Mind, another pillar of LGBT literature, last year. Instead, I found myself smiling and joyful for much of it, heartsick for other portions. Were The Price of Salt published today, it would still be an absolutely wonderful novel. Viewing it in its historical context, it’s something of a miracle.

5356476The Red Tree, Caitlín R. Kiernan

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me.

A fusion of Mulholland Drive and The Blair Witch Project, The Yellow Wall-Paper and House of Leaves. Alien geometries, the sheer grinding mundane terror of isolation. The prison of your house mirrors the prison of your head. “I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it.” How much of us dies when our love dies? Is part of our brain burnt out, a cigarette mark of pink-flecked charcoal meat never again to fire its neurons? Unreliable narrator? Reliable? What the fuck kind of distinction is that, anyway? The story tells itself, and the reader has no choice but to rely upon the teller just as the teller has no choice but to rely upon her own perceptions no matter how fucked they are. You desperately want companionship but you desperately need to be left the hell alone whenever she shows up, she’s like a buzzbuzzbuzzing in your head and won’t just let it be fucking quiet. Not the quiet of isolation, the intense humming of silence that drills into your head, just eyes closed ears closed peace. There’s peace in the basement, no noises there, but you mustn’t go down because it’s bigger on the inside and the damp is everywhere, and what if she were to follow you at any rate? Claustrophobia or agoraphobia, take your pick, the tight black decomposition or the wide carnivorous sky. Your head is stopped up, there’s a vice squeezing on it, and if only you could just get out the goddamn words, but the only worlds your words can shape are your own and its mirrors. You can’t get out. You can’t get out. Nothing is coming and you can’t get out.

(Please excuse the awful cover art. Penguin deserves to be shot.)

333706The Odyssey, Homer (translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles)

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …/driven time and again off course,once he had plundered/the hallowed heights of Troy . . .

It would be pointless and hopelessly hubris-full for me to even attempt a four-paragraph review of the Odyssey as if it were some recent bestseller, so I won’t bother.

Instead I just want to note the quality that most stood out to me upon my much-too-belated reading of the grand old thing: how cinematic it feels. The opening “We’re getting the band back together” thrill, the constant sense of momentum, the jumps in time, the changes of perspective, the grand imagery—they carry with them the lofty quality of the Iliad, but there’s a constant driving excitement present even in the bare words on the page that simply isn’t present in most of the former epic. The Iliad struggles under the weight of its historical background, so concerned with the Grim Historical Pillar that it depicts that, while there’s plenty of fun and emotion to be had, they’re buried in many places under a brick wall of solemnity.

The Odyssey, by contrast, is an adventure the whole way through without sacrificing emotional resonance or divine grandeur. It helps that (as Julian Jaynes would attribute to the breakdown of the bicameral mind’s divine hallucinations) people are people; in the Iliad it was the gods who had all the fun with things like deception and deliberation, but its sequel is chock-full of them on everyone’s behalf. It was almost inevitable that it would be made into a Coen Brothers film, really. If, as God help us is probably unavoidable, a big-screen Odyssey happens sometime in the next decade, they’d do well to remember that, as staggering an achievement as it is, it’s damn fun too.

(A postscript: between reading both this and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths this year, Athena has become my favorite character of the ancient world. If ever I become a neopagan of some kind she’s my go-to deity.)

857042Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

As with the book above, there isn’t much I can say about Catch-22 that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to say that few books have ever moved me so much or in so many different ways—moved me to laughter, to frustration, to horrified sadness, to absurd joy. Heller’s novel is simultaneously one of the most cynical and one of the most life-affirming texts I’ve ever read.

I can see why my first attempt at it, at the age of thirteen, didn’t succeed. It’s a novel that’s largely built around the impotent wrath it induces within the reader, and said wrath is dependent upon the grind of absurdity that goes on. And on. And on, constantly running the razor’s edge between effectiveness and tedium (see also: American Psycho). It’s too much for most pre-adolescent minds to handle, my own certainly included. The slog that is the first 400 pages makes the final few mean so much more, though. It’s the sort of release you feel as a physical sensation in your chest.

I’m never, ever reading the sequel. Even if it had gotten a mostly positive reception as opposed to the drubbing it inspired, there are some things you just don’t touch.

1013257

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.

I hate Charles Dickens, but I’m increasingly coming to love Dickensian fiction. My antipathy for the former is built upon three defects: his incessant moralizing, his violently purple prose, and worst of all his inability to construct a human character. Writing in nothing but caricatures is all well and good for a novella like A Christmas Carol, but stretch it out to the 900 pages of Bleak House and my patience runs tissue-thin. The genre itself, however, holds tremendous promise if executed properly. Take a cast full of eccentrics—the line between eccentrics and caricatures is thin, but it exists—give them a complex bit of business, and pile it with well-earned melodramatic twists and reversals, and it’s hard to picture a more entertaining one, in fact. Pulp Fiction is Dickensian fiction, in a sense. Harry Potter certainly is, when extrapolated to an entire series.

Throw into this mix a touch of lesbian romance? Well, that’s just irresistible.

And rest assured, it’s not nearly as smutty as the above line combined with the no-less-than-quadruple-entendre of a title suggests. This may be a Victorian pulp crime novel whose title is in part a masturbation pun, but it’s classy, by God. A Booker nominee, no less. Like Dickens, it is equal parts romp and tragedy; its central caper puts those of The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven to shame, but Waters’ display of the horrors of being a woman in the 19th century—vivid without falling into didacticism—is utterly skin-crawling. It’s one of the most successful examples of a fusion of highbrow social commentary and lowbrow adventure that I’ve read, as evidenced by its perennial popularity among both critics and the sort of people who contribute their books to Goodwill. Mr. Dickens would be proud.

51506Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

 Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.

In the beginning, sometimes I left reviews on the internet.

Well, what I mean by that is not that I placed reviews atop the internet, but that I uploaded representations of reviews onto a representation of a piece of paper.

My language is frequently imprecise like that, I have found.

The apocalypse is not the concern in Markson’s novel. Rather, it is mere window-dressing for an emotional and philosophical experience of uncanny power. I am, of course, speaking in metaphor.

When I was mad—for I do know, if I know anything, that I was once quite mad—I read this book from cover to cover, tearing out each page when I had finished its reverse side and depositing it in the fire.

Van Gogh painted a fire once. Or, I should say, he painted a representation of a pile of broken glass, which was in itself a representation of a fire.

That is, I think I remember that Van Gogh painted something like that.

I thought I saw someone move, just now, but it was merely a flicker of light against one of the images on my screen. There is, of course, no one left to move.

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

(This is not a novel to be read without at least some background with literature, especially classic literature. If you have the context, however, the unnamed last woman on earth’s rambling mantra is often funny, occasionally devastating, and always unsettling. The overwhelming sense of desolation Markson generates is achieved in tandem with, not in spite of, the narrator’s frequent pauses for analyses of Greek drama and philosophical investigations in the vein of the novel’s namesake—these tangents at once reveal the desperation of the narrator’s plight and attempt to smother it. A haunting experience, to be devoured all at once if possible.)

164154A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

It would be easy for A Canticle for Leibowitz to slide into a mere, if very good, polemic were it in the hands of a lesser author. The premise—an apocalyptically altered Catholic church attempts to preserve civilization throughout the centuries of rebuilding—is ripe for partisanship, with this hypothetical lesser novel coming down firmly either on the side of self-righteous secularism or pandering, patronizing religious smugness. What makes Canticle a masterpiece is the way Miller weaves a tapestry of ambiguities throughout its text, considering to the fullest extent the mixed benefits and hazards of turning over the keys to human society to a sacred institution.

The three sub-novels that form the book are largely unconnected in terms of plot and character, but tonally are of a piece—equal parts gently humorous and profoundly sad, an uneasy mixture to match the book’s conflicting attitudes toward religion. Ultimately, Canticle can be viewed either as a bleak cautionary tale or a triumphant assertion of the human spirit in face of disaster; neither option is incorrect, just as Christ’s death and resurrection is simultaneously the greatest tragedy and the profoundest comedy ever put to paper. Like the best religious fiction, and for that matter the best religious texts themselves, its lack of answers is unsettling but all the more compelling for it.

18490533Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente

A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.

This novel is a machine designed to push all of my buttons. A decopunk space opera centered around filmmaking, featuring a neo-noir detective as one of its protagonists and an enigmatic female auteur as its MacGuffin?

It’s science fiction, if decidedly soft on the science, but the crystalline, lilting magic of Valente’s fantasy writing remains on display. She, along with Caitlín R. Kiernan, is the best prose stylist working in the SF/F field today, her sentences rich and laden with metaphoric imagery without ever becoming overly abstract. A unique joy in Radiance, however, is how she mixes this authorial voice with a kaleidoscope of homage. The neo-noir narrative-within-a-narrative drips Chandler and Hammett without ever losing Valente’s gift for language; certain monologues joyfully ape Ray Bradbury’s mix of the comic and the ecstatic from his Death Is a Lonely Business trilogy, another fantastical romp through the land of the silver screen. References to ’30s and ’40s marketing abound, intertwining seamlessly with the language of the novel’s imagined melding of art deco and a future that includes space whales.

Had the Rabid Puppies and their wretched ilk not commandeered the Hugo Awards for the second year in a row, I’m confident that Radiance would have picked up a nomination for Best Novel. It most certainly deserved one. It’s a symbol of what’s best about speculative fiction—a simultaneous celebration of the past and yearning for the beautiful future, a confidence that we can make a better world without the smugness that says it will be easy. It’s a dazzling display by an author at the height of her powers.

3136287The Music of Chance, Paul Auster

A fusion of Kafka and Beckett—two men, entrapped by a game of cards gone sour, are forced to slave for a massive wall in the middle of a field—that should fall apart due to Auster’s sheer audacity in aping the same, but instead becomes a remarkable creation of its own. No author better captures the terrifying freedom of solitude and dire circumstances.

883217The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

The sheer disgust present here is dizzying. The unfortunate movie tie-in cover art that my copy bears (Little Free Library beggars can’t be choosers) inadvertently suggested weepy, Oscar-bait type fare, and even having read The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory I wasn’t prepared for the brutal cynicism that pervades the text. Not to be read in the midst of a divorce.

17802447Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts

The first story in this collection takes John Carpenter’s The Thing and somehow manages to make it even more horrifying than it already was. This is basically par for the course for the rest of what’s offered. And the truly scary thing is that, as Watts points out in his Afterword, most of these stories are comparatively optimistic versions of posthumanist science fiction.

25614935A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (previously published as Selected Stories), Alice Munro

Maybe it’s something in the water—between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Canadian authors seem to have a gift for crystalline, understated prose. None of the stories here is a firecracker of brilliance; rather, they sneak up on you before you’ve realized what’s going on. Quiet, melancholic, gorgeous.

8694389Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente

Oh, Cath. You had me at Stalinist house elves. (And she somehow manages to balance that tone with what is otherwise a fusion of Russian folktales with the aesthetic of Hannibal. This woman must be stopped.)

 

7717708The Ammonite Violin & Others, Caitlín R. Kiernan

Each tale within a perfect, glistening ebony jewel, a fossil dug from deep within the earth that has come alive again. And they’re all hungry.

 

23444482The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

“This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.”

Yep. Yep. The dark, fantastical alternative to Fingersmith is just as impressive and infinitely more likely to make you want to throw it at the wall. (And it’s only the first in a series. Hoo boy.)

17261183The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

The best children’s series of the decade continues to inspire dread (“Okay, this one can’t possibly be as good as the last two” and awe (“Holy shit, that was as good as the last two!”) in equal measure. I am now biting my nails and hoping that the dismount is not blown with The Boy Who Lost Fairyland and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, but even if it is we have in September one of the best female protagonists ever written (or just protagonists period, for that matter).

95558Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Were the rest of the novel to be a complete clunker, the image of a sentient wave covering a planet would be enough to label it a classic. (And, manky translation from Polish to French to English notwithstanding, the rest of the novel is in fact mostly excellent.)

 

12187Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov

As good as Lolita? Nothing is, you fool. But it’s most definitely the best overlong SF/F epic about incest ever penned—GRRM eat your heart out. More than anyone else, Nabokov manages to walk a tightrope between pretension and sheer fun—as you’re reading the novel you’re baffled that he’s getting away with it, and even more baffled that you’re enjoying yourself immensely.

58027Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

The tale of a 19th-century murderess who has perhaps been falsely accused would seem to be a perfect choice for Atwood. This could actually be a weakness rather than a strength, however—it feels at times like she’s resting on her laurels, especially when compared to the immediate followup The Blind Assassin. Nevertheless, she’s incapable of writing anything bad, her clean, clear prose never anything less than a pleasure.

202769The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

A 1,001 Nights for the modern age, tales within tales within tales in swirling patterns and currents. Occasionally this dizzying recursion can get out of Valente’s control, but the book is still nothing less than a marvel, especially for an author who was at the time only twenty-eight years old—assured, confident, and full of utterly gorgeous imagery and worldbuilding.

1024661In the Country of Lost Things, Paul Auster

A departure for Auster in terms of its female protagonist, this postmodern dystopia is too slight to be counted among his best work but taken on its own is a riveting little novel. It also forms an intriguing bridge between the cool, cerebral New York Trilogy and the ecstatic, personal Moon Palace, injecting the humanity of the latter into the urban hellscape of the former.

524004Elvissey, Jack Womack

What could have been an off-the-wall romp—time travelers from the future must abduct Elvis from the 1950s and bring him to an awaiting religious cult who worship him as a Messiah—is instead a bleak, terribly sad work with touches of the absurdly comic mixed in. The futurespeak exhibited here and in other Womack novels such as Random Acts of Senseless Violence is on a par with A Clockwork Orange‘s for its subtlety and thoughtfulness.

77773To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Willis desperately needs an editor—the book could easily be 200 pages shorter—but as opposed to the above time-travel experiment, this novel is a delightfully off-the-wall romp full of madcap energy. It’s also extraordinarily well-plotted, and manages to be endearing in spite of its preponderance of Victorian amateur spiritualists, who are the literal worst.

18310944The Sandman: Overture, Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III

Writing a prequel to a universe he’s mostly left the door shut on since its mid-90’s completion was probably a mistake on Gaiman’s part—the mystery of an untold story is almost always better than an explanation. That said, it gave J. H. Williams an excuse to create the most beautiful comics art I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Every single page is this good.

BONUS ROUND: WORST OF THE SEASON

25109947Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

This one breaks my heart because it’s one of the best horror ideas in recent memory—Lovecraft’s monsters haunt the racist hell of the Jim Crow South. How do you possibly screw that up?

By giving it to an author who a.) isn’t black, b.) has never written a horror novel before, and c.) isn’t a good enough stylist to support his own brilliant idea.

889284The Postman, David Brin

“The Postman” was one of the best pieces of short fiction I read last year. It’d be a shame to ruin it by taking what’s already a perfect story arc and adding on 300 pages of mediocre SF that takes a hard left turn into stupid and ends with one of the worse deus ex machinas I’ve had the misfortune of reading.

760961Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

One of the most impressive things about Wilson’s Spin, among the best SF novels of the last two decades, was the way it had an insanely good premise and then paid that premise off in a way that wasn’t anticlimactic. Which is why it’s baffling that here, the same author could write such a dismal second half to a first half I was genuinely digging.

1020039The Books of Blood, Clive Barker

There are snatches of brilliance amid the mediocrity—”In the Hills, in the Cities” is one of the more inventive horror concepts I can remember—but on the whole this collection represents the absolute worst of the 80’s horror boom. Namely: gore in place of fear, prose that never rises above serviceable, and the occasional sophomoric attempt at philosophizing that is utterly wince-inducing.

22453035Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Whoever in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to compare Finders Keepers to Misery deserves digestion by Sarlacc. This turgid, by-the-numbers, airplane-thriller-bad novel is just about as far away from the perfection of Misery as you can get. With Mr. Mercedes King was at least having fun, but here he seems as bored with his novel as the reader is.

7719640Absolute All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison

I just don’t like or understand superheroes. In fact, at this point it’s become an outright antipathy.

No, that word is too kind. I hate them.

Hate, hate, hate.

We’re talking “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” hatred here.

The Dark Knight is still a great movie, though.

6345193Invisible, Paul Auster

What a piece of junk.

It would be a piece of junk coming from anyone, but coming from Auster it’s just unforgivable. It’s like a newspaper caricature of him met a newspaper caricature of Philip Roth and they made a love child out of the worst parts of themselves.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)

Those crunching noises pervading the air (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

mrs-lovett-s-meat-pies-sweeney-todd-27715526-457-700Meat. There’s something off-putting about the word, even in isolation. Even for those of us whose diet consists largely of that fibrous, succulent substance, the monosyllable carries with it a faint connotation of revulsion. It bears a host of sensory associations: the dull thud of a freshly-cut hunk of flesh connecting with the butcher’s table. The smell of burning fat. The unyielding, spongy texture, the feeling of resistance to being ground apart by our teeth.

What’s even worse is when the word is juxtaposed with connotations of consciousness. Human meat. Meat-puppets. The meat of the brain. And so on and so forth. Shivers.

The realization that all we ultimately are is thinking meat, a mass of living tissue that just happened to stumble upon consciousness or the illusion of consciousness, is an intensely disquieting one. (Indeed, horror author Thomas Ligotti went so far as to base a book upon the subject; those of you who see the phrase “thinking meat” and feel the urge to read on, I encourage you to buy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror.) So disquieting, in fact, that only one of our resident killers really addresses it in his myth. Sweeney Todd uses the political as a way of shifting the horror of cannibalism up a level—in its universe, the horrific thing is that humans have made other humans into meat due to the nature of the society in which they find themselves trapped. American Psycho is more willing to address the fact that humanity is nothing but a bundle of reactions and routines rather than a unified self, but again passes this off on a societal cause. In the world of Hannibal, however, the horror is philosophical—we are all thinking meat, and we are all on the menu.

* * * * *

For what’s the sound of the world out there? Those crunching noises pervading the air? It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?

spring_gala_sweeney_invite-9-25x5-75-v51The cannibalistic orgy that forms the second act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins as a nihilst’s alternative to Marxism. Todd, in his initial attempt to murder Judge Turpin, is a one-man proletariat rising up against a microcosm of the bourgeoisie, wreaking just revenge for the indignities and injustices wrought upon him. Even once the mark has escaped and the barber’s “Epiphany” has begun, he phrases his outpourings in Marxist language:

They all deserve to die,

Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why?

Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,

There are two kinds of men and only two—

There’s the one staying put in his proper place

And the one with his foot in the other one’s face,

Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!

At this moment, the framing of Burton’s film adaptation is particularly interesting. Todd, as the final lines of this verse are sung, stares at himself in a shattered mirror, smiles, and then turns on his heel, catching Mrs. Lovett’s eye. He has seen something in his own image, and it’s sparked a change in his thinking:

No, we all deserve to die,

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief,

For the rest of us death will be a relief,

We all deserve to die!

The third-person “they” has become the first-person “we”, and in a rhetorical flourish not present in the 1979 cast recording—Sondheim, who originally simply repeated “Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why,” had altered the lyric by the time of the 2005 Broadway revival, and the change remains in the film—Todd numbers himself and his companion among the damned. In the film, he goes so far as to seize her throat, thrust her into his barber’s chair, and bring his razor to her neck.

Looking into his own reflection has given Todd his true epiphany, though it’s one that his Benjamin Barker person-suit tries to shove down throughout the rest of Act II: he is beyond repair, the jagged fragments of his glass-face reflecting the irredeemable pieces of his soul. In a world where so much damage has been inflicted upon the lower classes by the upper class, there is no such thing as a chance at redemption, a rising of the proletariat and an abolition of injustice. All he can hope to achieve is to drag his oppressors screaming into hell along with him, putting his fellow sufferers out of their misery on the way.

It’s immediately after this that the central metaphor of Sondheim’s incarnation of Todd makes its appearance: hide the evidence of Todd’s various revenges and mercy killings by grinding them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Notably, it’s not Todd who has the idea, but Lovett herself. She’s the businessperson of the two, the practical mind that brings Todd’s grand schemes down to earth; she’s also, despite her suffering condition, a cog in the vast mechanical beast that is Industry, a victim who is unable to escape turning to her oppressors’ methods in order to survive. Thus it’s an avatar of capitalism, lower class notwithstanding, who spawns the notion of a very literal symbol for society’s horror: humans ground from thinking beings into meat, providing sustenance for the humans who will themselves undergo the same process. Only this time, it will be the poor rather than the privileged who dictate who gets eaten when.

Magnanimously, Todd and Lovett conclude the jewel of black comedy that is “A Little Priest”, a grocery list of sorts that covers the various professions the pie shop will prepare, with these lines:

Todd: Have charity toward the world, my pet!

Lovett: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

Todd: We’ll take the customers that we can get!

Lovett: Highborn and low, my love!

Todd: We’ll not discriminate great from small,

No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,

And to anyone at all!

Equal-opportunity cannibalism. Rich and poor alike will be butchered, rich and poor alike will eat.

However, Mrs. Lovett isn’t on board with Todd’s nihilistic vision. In many ways, she’s the ultimate villain of the play. Rather than bringing down the upper class, she dreams of joining it, regaling the barber with her visions of the two of them living well-to-do in a cottage by the sea and having rich friends over for dinner. Chopping up the rich and poor alike is not a way for her to prove some ideological point; it’s a means of advancement, a way for her to rise from the ranks of the lower classes and replace the members of the upper class with whom she and Todd dispose. She’s representative of the self-perpetuating lie of what we would call the American Dream were the play to take place on Yankee soil; there are no poor, merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as the quote attributed to Steinbeck goes. Mrs. Lovett sees all the oppression and suffering wrought upon the poor by an unjust system, and rather than bringing the system down by any means necessary merely wishes to advance far enough up its ladder that she can’t be hurt by it anymore. Fittingly, she suffers perhaps the ultimate poetic death of the musical—burned to death, a shrieking pile of raw sinew and bone, by her own oven.

As horrific as Sondheim’s vision of industrial hell is, it doesn’t descend to the posthumanist depths that Hannibal takes us to. Nowhere does it attempt to grapple with the philosophical question of whether human beings are actually thinking meat, fit for the grinder even in our most idyllic state. Rather, it presents us with a universe in which the reduction of humanity to stuffing for a greasy crust is exactly what it seems like: conscious intelligences being ground into flesh and sinew by the injustices of an industrial, class-based society. The horror is that selves are becoming nothing but the flesh they inhabit, not that there never were any selves to begin with. American Psycho takes us one step further: we have become soulless bags of meat, but societal causes are still to blame.

(to be continued)

Person suits (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

5278ee98-a27a-4cd1-83a0-9118c7521324One of the more striking book covers of the last twenty-five years is the original Vintage paperback of American Psycho. It depicts a Patrick Bateman who’s a nightmarish fusion of man and object, his suit-clad body and pointed chin fused with a skull-socketed mask that brings to mind Jason and Leatherface and a thousand other bad dreams. One wonders, reading the novel, if Bateman in fact looks like this demon, but has his appearance ignored just as his frequent confessions of his depravity go unnoticed.

Bedelia du Maurier, in season two of Hannibal, tells the good doctor: “I’ve had to draw a conclusion based on what I glimpse through the stitching of the person-suit that you wear, and the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that you are dangerous.” Whether an intentional reference to the above cover art or not, the phrase encapsulates a concept in much the same way: like the Thing or the Body Snatchers, the serial killer may be able to perfectly imitate us, but he is alien.

In keeping with their different drives and social climates, each of our killers wears a very different kind of person suit. Sweeney Todd’s is woven largely for his own benefit rather than outsiders’, and is little concerned with appearances. Patrick Bateman’s is a poorly constructed patchwork of trends, all surface and possessed of only the barest hints of humanity. Hannibal Lecter’s is ultimately not so different from his true self, a tightly stitched melding of aesthetic, moral, and philosophical concerns that is an echo of the Platonic ideal of the good doctor.

sweeney-todd-broadway-poster-1979“Not Barker. That man is dead.”

The one great mistake of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was the prettification of its characters. In the musical’s original stage production, the only beautiful people in sight are the doomed lovers Anthony and Johanna, whose purity both outer and inner is brutally shown for the joke it is as events run their course. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, by contrast, are depicted on the play’s promotional art as shrieking messes of skull and gristle. In the show itself, Len Cariou and George Hearn’s Sweeney is rendered a death’s head by liberal application of white foundation to his cheeks and dark raccoon’s bruises around his eyes. Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett bears a similar, almost repulsive mottling of black and white, along with smeared red lipstick and a bizarre hairstyle. Lansbury can be said to appear pretty outside of this makeup, but Cariou and Hearn, if not ugly, are neither handsome. These incarnations of Todd and Lovett are faithful to the world that has twisted their souls and spurred their misdeeds; they’re the product of the filth and squalor that infested industrial London, and if Mrs. Lovett at least dreams of one day living beautifully, Todd has given up any similar wish.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,

And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit,

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

he sings on more than one occasion, and he does not separate himself from the vermin that populate this London. He does not hope to rise above them, only to become their avenging angel.

sweeney-todd-and-mrs-lovett-sweeney-todd-28458970-1916-1080Burton’s film, while otherwise highly successful in its depiction of the industrial hell that plays host to Sondheim’s melodrama, is hamstrung from the start by the fact that the film’s chief players, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, are extraordinarily beautiful people. With the right application of makeup, this beauty could be hidden—witness Depp’s transformation into the fishbelly-tinged Whitey Bulger in last year’s Black Mass—but instead, Burton chooses to simply dress them in the Gothic chic trappings that are the hallmark of his visual style. Thus, while his Todd and Lovett bear the same high-contrast light and dark makeup as their stage counterparts, accentuated by the desaturation applied to the film’s image via digital intermediate, it is not makeup designed to render faces squalid but to accentuate eyes and cheekbones. Their clothing, as opposed to the spartan, frayed dress of the stage Todd and Lovett, seems far too, well, cool to be attached to a pair of miserable citydwellers. Depp’s Todd bears a streak of white through his hair, presumably due to the hardship of his time in prison, but the streak is so sharp-edged, so pure white rather than yellowed and greasy, that it looks more like a fashion statement than an affliction.

Thus Burton’s Todd, like Bateman and Lecter, wears an aesthetic person suit in addition to a moral one, while the Todd of 1979 has no such outer concerns. It is this moral person suit that is the core of Todd, and it is the thing that does the most to render him separate from his counterparts. Bateman and Lecter have spun person suits out of whole cloth; there is never to our knowledge a time when they were not wholly other from the rest of humanity. Todd, in sharp contrast, was a person while he bore the name Benjamin Barker, and while he has already cast that name aside by the time the play begins, he has kept its motivations.

Todd does not, to start with, kill for its own sake, at least to his own mind; his Barker-self provides a rational justification for each of his initially planned murders. He plans to murder Judge Turpin to exact justice for Barker’s false imprisonment, his wife’s rape and suicide, and his child’s abduction. He slits the throat of Adolfo Pirelli because the barber knows of Barker’s identity. Mrs. Lovett urges him to kill Anthony in order that Barker may be reunited with his daughter Johanna after all these years, with no other men around to interfere. Thus we see that, again unlike Bateman and Lecter, Todd does not wear his person suit primarily to keep up appearances. He wears it in order to lie to himself, to convince himself that he is still a human being operating in a moral or at least pragmatic fashion.

Even after he snaps in the midst of “Epiphany”, beginning an indiscriminate crusade of slaughter against the wicked and the downtrodden alike, Todd continues to retreat to his person suit. “The lives of the wicked should be made brief/for the rest of us death will be a relief” he tells Mrs. Lovett, attempting to lend his increasing bloodlust a moral framework, but even as he insists on this his Barker-self unravels. As he slits the throats of customers and sings to Johanna, he realizes his burning desire to free her has slipped away:

And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die,

I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by, Johanna.

And you’d be beautiful and pale and look too much like her [. . .]

Wake up, Johanna, another bright red day!

We learn, Johanna, to say good-bye.

And when Mrs. Lovett asks him what his wife Lucy looked like, he can remember nothing more than her yellow hair.

By the time that Turpin arrives at the Tonsorial Parlour for the final time, Todd’s self-justifying person suit has been completely dropped. He shrieks the name of Benjamin Barker as he rips open the judge’s throat, but this comes after he has deliberately put Johanna in harm’s way in order to lure Turpin to his door. By the time the final sequence comes to its close, Todd has accidentally murdered Lucy and nearly done the same to Johanna, his words to the latter symbolic of the final destruction of Benjamin Barker: “Forget my face.”

One is tempted to place Todd in a separate category altogether from his counterparts due to the nature of his person suit. One of the defining characteristics that Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lecter have in common is their self-awareness; Bateman knows and despises exactly what he is, while Hannibal knows it and revels in it. Their person suits are purely for the benefit of the world, a means of convincing the lesser beings who surround them that they share a common humanity. Todd, on the other hand, bears a profound lack of self-awareness. Over and over throughout the musical, speaking to himself or to Mrs. Lovett, he puts on his Barker-self in order to convince himself that he is still human, though what that humanity entails besides revenge isn’t something that seems to have occurred to him. His person suit is stitched in order to hide himself from himself, not from the suspicious masses. In this, while he ultimately does lose his humanity to the “precious rubies” of blood upon his razor, he can nevertheless be labeled the most human of this triptych.

a-complete-guide-to-the-mens-fashion-in-american-psychoA noncontingent human being

Where Sweeney Todd, Burton’s beautification of the character notwithstanding, can be seen as wearing a purely moral person suit, Patrick Bateman’s is an almost purely aesthetic one. Aesthetic, in this case, is perhaps not the right word. Where Hannibal does nearly everything he does out of a commitment to beauty for beauty’s sake, Bateman follows trends, weaving into his person suit not what he considers beautiful but what he knows his colleagues will consider stylish. Indeed, it’s questionable if Bateman even has a sense of aesthetics—this is a topic that will be discussed in depth later on in this series, but it’s worth noting even now that the only points in American Psycho at which he ever gives his considered opinion about a work of art are the three post-murder interludes in which he reviews the careers of Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News. And even there, were Bateman’s opinions on each of these musical acts not so wildly wrongheaded I would wonder if Ellis simply stripped sections from music publications’ reviews and pasted them together into a collage to write these sections.

This slavish adherence to trends and brands as a substitute for aesthetic taste is most clearly seen in the endless deadening monologues that Bateman devotes to narrating the clothing choices of himself and his colleagues. The fashion-casual reader won’t be able to visualize in his or her head what, exactly, any of the numerous brands looks like, but informed readers tell us, and I will defer to their knowledge, that Ellis’ slavishly detailed ensembles are deliberately conceived to look as ridiculous as possible. There is no better representation of how Bateman forms his outer self—not through a coherent philosophy or taste, but simply by popular demand. Were he to have been born to a member of the lower classes, his person suit would probably have been forced to depend less on possessions, but the results of whatever he turned to instead would be largely the same fragmented jumble.

There appears to be no moral aspect to Bateman’s camouflage. His secretary, Jean, bewilders him toward the novel’s close by commenting on his kindness and gentleness, but she’s so infatuated with her boss that it’s very likely that she’s completely imagined any displays of these characteristics; we certainly never see Bateman demonstrate them toward her in the text. Indeed, it’s part of the horror of American Psycho that Bateman doesn’t need a moral person suit—in their own way, his colleagues and contemporaries are all just as empty and soulless as he is, his confessions to murders and executions misheard as “mergers and acquisitions” and his public misdeeds hailed as riotous jokes. Bateman’s own recognition of this utter lack of inner or outer moral coherence is worth quoting at length:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy, and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My consciousness, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever existed. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused, and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.

Much like his literal suits, Bateman’s person suit is a patchwork, incoherent and paper-thin. The true nightmare of his world is that he isn’t special in this regard—everyone is dressed in precisely the same fashion.

giphyIn his image

There is a unity of self to Hannibal Lecter that stands at complete odds with the fragmented, illusory nature of Patrick Bateman’s identity (though there’s room for both of them in the world of Hannibal—Lecter strongly considers himself to be a unified being, but then he also considers himself superhuman; were he aware of American Psycho he would say Bateman can’t grasp his self because, being merely human, he really doesn’t have one). This applies even to the false self he wears to fool the world. His person suit is not so much a secret identity as a lesser identity; Hannibal is his person suit, only moreso.

It is worth noting that Hannibal almost never passes moral judgment on anyone while in the guise of his person suit, even the killers whom he and Will help the FBI to catch. It would be easy to do so—a few comments here and there about the brutality and evil of the minds that could wreak such depravities on the world—but Hannibal is too honest about himself and his worldview, even in a time of hiding, to allow himself such an easy way into the FBI’s good graces. Rather, he actively risks exposing his lack of humanity almost constantly, commenting on his fellow killers and their victims in ways that are morally disinterested to the point of callousness. “I’m your friend, Will,” he says at one point. “I don’t care about the lives you save; I care about your life.”

This line brings up another way in which Hannibal’s person suit is a reflection of his true self: he does not lie when he says he cares. Hannibal is a psychiatrist. As Phil Sandifer has pointed out in the past, this detail is of no major import in Thomas Harris’ original novels—the author simply needed a convincing excuse to give Hannibal an uncanny sense for human behavior in order for him to assist Will and Clarice in their manhunts. In Hannibal, however, it’s one of the absolute defining traits of his character. There are those humans who are too beneath the good doctor to warrant attention; they are pigs, and they will end up at his table. But then there are those like Will, or Francis Dolarhyde, or Margot Verger, people whom Hannibal genuinely wants to see become their best selves. He cannot openly admit, whilst wearing his person suit, what he considers these best selves to be, but his compassion for certain friends and patients is not simply manufactured. It is part of who he is.

Aesthetics are the chief concern of both Hannibal the man and Hannibal the person suit. It could not be any other way. There is no way for him to hide this aspect of his personality; his taste for human flesh is simply part of his devotion to beauty, but his devotion to beauty makes up the whole of his life. However, this near-sameness between Hannibal’s outward self and the self of the Chesapeake Ripper does not mean that he becomes easier to identify. Indeed, if anything his being so blatantly obsessed with beauty in clothing, in art, in food, in decor, is a stroke of genius; it is the ultimate obfuscation. It does not occur to the majority of human minds that consuming human flesh, making sculptures and paintings out of the leftover meat, could be anything but ugly. Hannibal is so cultured within the “normal” portion of his aesthetic taste that, to most minds, it would be unimaginable to extend that taste to something that appears to be the antithesis of beauty. Of course, the closer one gets to Hannibal, the more likely one is to begin to appreciate the aesthetics of the perverse, but once one’s fallen under the good doctor’s influence it really won’t matter if his person suit is seen through, as evidenced so chillingly in the case of Bedelia du Maurier.

Hannibal does change once he’s forced to strip his person suit from his body. The captured Hannibal of the Great Red Dragon arc is more obviously contemptuous of those he considers beneath him, openly gleeful about other killers’ atrocities rather than bearing a guise of professional curiosity. But while these changes are noticeable, nothing about his essential being has been transformed by the revelation of his true self. Where Sweeney Todd finds his self slowly disintegrating, and Patrick Bateman has never truly had one behind his person suit, Hannibal has always been himself, merely to greater or lesser degrees.

(to be continued)

A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych (introduction)

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If there is an archetype wholly original to the 20th and now 21st centuries (if anything can ever claim to be wholly original), it’s that of the sympathetic serial killer. The serial killer himself (and occasionally herself) has existed in the popular imagination since time immemorial in the supernatural forms of bloodthirsty spirits or monsters or witches, and in human form for the last several hundred years at least. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that serial killer chic truly clawed its way into the public consciousness. It hasn’t shown any signs of leaving since.

Serial killers are attractive, even if we claim their deeds are not (and in the cases of particularly compelling killers, even that moral caveat tends to grow thinner and thinner). With some comes the allure of the sensual—they’re suave, they’re beautiful, they’re cultured, as if nature has decided it must compensate for these outer dwellers’ deficiency of manners in that one vital area by granting them impeccable taste elsewhere. With others comes the allure of understanding—we are attracted to them because we think we know their plight and their emotions, because we view these killers themselves as victims of larger forces, the great black hand of Social Injustice or Abusive Parents or Past Trauma forcing them to walk a presdestinate path of mayhem.

And there’s a subtler, ultimately more primal and powerful force at work behind each of these variants on a theme, the same force that’s at work in any piece of art but especially the art of the fantastic and the horrific. We’re attracted to these killers because we are, in a sense, the killers. Each serial murderer represents at some level the anxieties of his (or her) age, the demons and discontents and deadly flaws made manifest in a wash of crimson fluid. The artistic serial killer is society writ large, the avatar of what we wish to do but cannot find the strength to carry out or of what we do not wish to do but are too weak to avoid. The metaphors of mutilated bodies and the perverse consumption of flesh are, for their sheer visceral power, perhaps the best way we have of expressing the effects of society upon our art and upon ourselves. Just ask Christ.

*   *   *   *   *

It’s always a loser’s game to declare anything The Most or The Best and so on and so forth, but it’s undeniable that, of the multitude of murderers the past century’s art has given us, three of the most compelling and widely known are Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter  (and yes, I’m aware that the former has actually been around since the mid-19th century; I’m coming to that). The members of this triptych are fairly representative of the serial killer archetype’s numerous facets, each formed under wildly different sorts of pressures and operating for unique personal and societal reasons. And each of these facets is in turn made up of further facets, different portrayals and interpretations ranging, in at least one case, across the centuries.

  • Sweeney Todd has been the antagonist and dubious protagonist of penny dreadful novels, black-and-white horror films, comics, and stage plays since 1846; the most famous of his selves, the face I’ll be devoting the most attention to over the course of this series, is the one forged by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his 1979 magnum opus of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and its 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton.
  • Patrick Bateman has been the subject of a novel, a film, and a stage musical; these variants are closer together in spirit and theme than the veritable sea of demon barbers, but I’ll still be focusing largely on a single one of them, the original Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.
  • And the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter, himself a patron of the arts, has been featured in four novels, five films, a television series, and a fan parody musical. Of these, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs is the most immediately compelling and certainly the most famous, and has the distinction of having influenced most serial killers on the screen since its 1991 release date. However, it’s neither this famous depiction nor Thomas Harris’ literary creation that is the most fulfilling portrait of Lecter. Rather, it’s Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller-penned and Mads Mikkelsen-performed incarnation of the Doctor, in all his alien glory, that I’ll be examining throughout the course of this series.

Each of the killers is of a piece with his brothers in at least one notable way. Both Sweeney Todd and Patrick Bateman are themselves victims as much as their hapless targets. Bateman and Lecter are both responsible for increasingly intricate murder tableaux as a means of fulfillment. Both Lecter and Todd are obsessed at some level with the idea of a hungry deity. Lecter ultimately stands apart from his companions in depravity for a number of reasons which will be explored, but each of the three can be seen as a stage in a progression.

Todd represents the violence of justice run amok. Bateman represents violence as a means of escape. Lecter represents violence for its own sake, or for the sake of aesthetics—two alternatives which, as Oscar Wilde so memorably points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, are largely the same thing.

And each of the three can be seen as society’s diagnosing its own ills, whether the ill is classism, capitalism, or posthumanism.

If we can be so bold as to even slap such labels on the problem. It is perhaps the supreme horror of Hannibal Lecter that he maintains no such diagnosis will ever solve the ultimate problem.

Nothing happened to me.

I happened.

(to be continued)

Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual (“It” postmortem: cosmogony)

tripping-in-the-deadlights_440One of the poorer artistic decisions in the history of genre fiction was August Derleth’s retconning of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (a term which Derleth himself coined) from cosmic horror to cosmic religion, taking Lovecraft’s posthumanist universe of human insignificance and transforming it into the stage for a titanic battle between Good—the Elder Gods of Derleth’s invention—and Evil—the Great Old Ones such as Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep. The most resonant and influential aspect of Lovecraft’s stories is the fact that the Great Old Ones are not evil, but completely amoral—they commit horrible deeds against humanity not out of malice but out of a complete lack of recognition of human sentience. In fact, it’s rather tiresome of me to even type the former sentence, the philosophical core of Lovecraft’s tales is so widely known. It’s fortunate that Derleth’s attempt to trample on this posthumanism have been largely forgotten, but the fact that he made it remains an artistic blunder of baffling proportions.

The mythology of It takes a similar baffling swerve deep into its length. It’s not nearly as disastrous as Derleth’s meddlings—the point of King’s novel is not that the universe is a horrifyingly uncaring place—but it’s a bizarre choice, and in addition to weakening Pennywise it firmly shifts the novel’s genre out of the horrific and into the fantastic as discussed in the introduction to this series.

I have to wonder if the decision to introduce the influence of the Turtle came as the result of planning for the Dark Tower series, or if King conceived of it separately and only later decided to weld it onto the behemoth retcon that is that series’ continuity. The former explanation would make the sudden shift into cosmicism a lot more understandable, but I don’t necessarily think it’s feasible; The Waste Lands, the book that introduced the concept of the Turtle and Shardik and numerous other massive animals as guardians of the Beams, wasn’t published until 1991, five years after It. Couple this with King’s notorious antipathy for preplanning, especially within the Dark Tower series itself, and it seems more likely that he came up with the Turtle without some grander plan, only later deciding to make it a part of the Dark Tower universe. At any rate, getting into the cosmogony of It as part of the larger whole that is the Dark Tower could probably be a series on its own, and would also require me to sit down and re-read all seven of those novels, so henceforth I’ll be treating It as a self-contained novel, not part of King’s larger universe (macroverse, if you will).

There’s a sort of twisted Gnosticism at work in King’s conception of It and the Turtle. Throughout the book there’s a disgust and horror that pervades the physical, along with all the damage it can wreak and that can be wrought upon it. The primal fear of a monster eating its victims, which Pennywise plays heavily upon, is a deeply physical one, though there’s also the metaphysical horror of one’s essence being absorbed by another entity. The chief horror of the Derry sewers, besides their darkness, is the stifling mess of shit and waste that runs through them; the most horrific part of Beverly’s encounter with Pennywise in the form of an old woman is the fact that she unknowingly (at first) drinks liquid shit in the form of tea served to her by It. Patrick Hockstetter, a solipsist who believes himself to be the only real person in existence, has only one fear—that of leeches draining his blood, which of course happens to him in short order. And so on and so forth. The physical can be redeemed, as happens in the Losers’ final bonding in the sewers, but on the whole is depicted as vile and horrific throughout the novel.

If this flesh is a prison, Pennywise is the demiurge who rules over it. Its flesh is not like that of the children who It terrorizes; It is fluid, capable of becoming anything it wishes rather than remaining trapped in one form. And even this malleable physical container is not Its final form. The Deadlights, the metaphysical terror hovering in the outer macroverse, are the closest it has to a true self. All this, of course, smacks of a Gnostic conception of the universe—the true reality lies beyond the physical, our own universe only an illusion preventing us from seeing what truly is.

Things are complicated, however, by the fact that It is not the only demiurge; It exploits the physical, but It didn’t trap us there to begin with. That blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Turtle, who vomited up our reality in the midst of a bout of nausea. This event is, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, widely viewed as a bad move; the Turtle himself pleads with Bill for forgiveness, telling him

I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.

Thus there are two demiurges existent in It‘s cosmogony, one that is actively malevolent toward the physical creation and one who is responsible for the creation itself. The Turtle is not a binary opposite of Pennywise, however; it is not quite indifferent, but if it’s benevolent it’s a weak sort of benevolence, one that can stand by and throw away a platitude or two but can’t offer much in the way of actual assistance.

did you enjoy meeting my friend the Turtle? I thought that stupid old fuck died years ago, and for all the good he could do you, he might as well have, did you think he could help you?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInexplicably, the Turtle vanishes in the midst of the novel’s second climax—It crows to the remaining adult Losers that he died choking on a galaxy. One gets the sense that King realized he couldn’t have any sort of useful deity present to upset his horrific universe, but it feels sloppy; just as soon as the Turtle abruptly enters, he’s gone again.

And indeed, the horrific nature of the novel is lost regardless due to a passing remark the narrator makes shortly after the final demise of It, one that has radical implications for his novel’s cosmogony:

And clearly, [Bill] heard the Voice of the Other; the Turtle might be dead, but whatever invested it was not.

Son, you did real good.

If we were to bring in the heap of canon welding that is the Dark Tower continuity, this Other could be called Gan, that series’ vague equivalent to God. Considered alone, it comes to about the same thing; some mysterious uber-deity that lies beyond even the macroverse. It’s apparently the driving force at work behind the strange coincidences that bring the Losers together, as well as the force that ensures they (mostly) remain childless and prosperous before their final showdown with Pennywise. It is, it could be said, the God to the twin demiurges of the Turtle and Pennywise, trying to undo the physical and metaphysical damage wrought by them.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as neat as all that. To begin with, there’s the question of why this Other invests the Turtle with power if it is, in fact, the Turtle’s fault that the universe exists in the first place. There’s also, as ever, the problem of a benevolent deity existing in the world of a horror novel and yet failing to directly save its children. In the context of a Gnostic universe this is more acceptable, as the God of a Gnostic cosmogony is remote and doesn’t directly intervene; however, this is also muddled, as the Other doesn’t act through savior figures in It but apparently wields a direct influence on the Losers, never enough to actually substantially alter events but just enough to shift probability.

There’s also the question of knowledge as the source of salvation. Gnosticism is obviously deeply concerned with this issue, and believes that divine knowledge of the reality that lies beyond our fleshly, material prison is the only way to achieve salvation. In It, however, the reward the Other grants the Losers for performing their duty is to erase their knowledge that such things ever happened. They forget their friends, their loved ones, their childhoods; more importantly, in a theological sense, they forget the metaphysical realities that have been revealed to them in the course of their quest to defeat Pennywise. If the Other is indeed benevolent, blinding the Losers to reality can’t mean their damnation. It also results, however, in a total inability to directly map King’s cosmogony onto a Gnostic one. What we’re left with is a rather muddled conception of the universe.

I’m probably giving this issue more thought than it deserves in the context of the novel. If there’s one thing that It isn’t concerned with thematically, it’s a classically Gnostic view of salvation. There’s also the out-of-universe reality that King was mired deepest in his cocaine addiction and alcoholism at this point, and it’s probably overly charitable to assume that he was thinking deeply about a workable theological framework for his novel (though then again, Philip K. Dick’s addictions never stood in his way. . .). However, the enormity of the cosmic fantasy the novel’s final quarter indulges in means it can’t simply be brushed over, especially if one does indeed try to tie it to the larger cosmogony of the Dark Tower universe. It would be fascinating for King to write a metaphysical treatise of sorts on the nature of his fictional universe; perhaps he has answers that he simply hasn’t told us, or, more likely, perhaps he really was simply making it up as he went along.

The implications of all this theological rigmarole for It‘s genre have been touched on at length in the introduction to this series. The presence of the Turtle and the Other muddy the conceptual waters enough that I don’t think It can be labeled a horror novel in its entirety, but a fantasy with strong horrific overtones. The categorical purist in me is frustrated by this, especially because it completely overturns what is otherwise a rather perfect encapsulation of what horror means in a philosophical sense, courtesy of Stan Uris:

There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: “Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.” You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s  offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.

The power of this passage is blunted by the fact that Its existence is not, in fact, a hole in the order of the universe after all, but part of a fantastic framework. It’s still chilling, but how much more chilling it would be if Stan’s universe were indeed an otherwise completely rational one.

What matters more than abstract questions of genre are the implications for Pennywise’s character. Unfortunately, Pennywise completely collapses once Its backstory is explained in detail. The appeal of the monster lurking underneath the bridge or inside the closet is that it is inexplicable; its motives, its origins, its nature, are all unknowns, making it impossible to fight. Learning exactly what It is, and worse, seeing inside Its head and reading its thoughts, undermines nearly all of the horror built by Its mystique; It is reduced from a seemingly omniscient, dastardly cunning monster to a whinging, cringing tyrant bloated by its own pompous self-importance (using the phrase I demand, no, I command it! is cringe-inducing from just about anyone; from a malevolent clown it’s even worse).

One could make the case that this is precisely the point—knowledge is all that’s required to drive away monsters in the closet, and while growing up renders us more susceptible to horror at things that shouldn’t exist, it also renders us more able to explain them away. And so, it would seem, knowledge is indeed a sort of salvation within King’s cosmogony.

Except for when it isn’t.

(to be continued)