Showing posts with label Seamus Cooper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Seamus Cooper. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing," 12 Days of Lovecraft, and Why Seamus Cooper is Wrong

While I was reading the notes regarding the collaboration between C L Moore and Forrest Ackerman on her story "Nymph of Darkness," (I posted about the collaboration here) I was intrigued by Moore's reference to Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing" as an inspiration for the way Nyusa's invisibility worked. I knew that Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" featured a creature made of a color no one had ever seen before, and that Ambrose Bierce was one of Lovecraft's influences. I had just never taken the time to read Bierce's tale "That Damned Thing" ...until last night.

"That Damned Thing" is a short and enjoyable tale, that isn't at all what I expected based on my earlier assumptions. Having read Moore's correspondence with Ackerman, and Lovecraft's description in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I expected something Gothic and atmospheric. I expected a tale filled with madness and despair. Lovecraft's description of "That Damned Thing" points to it as an exception in Bierce's narrative style, a style which Lovecraft describes as "a jaunty and commonplacedly artificial style derived from journalistic models." Gothic and atmospheric are not words that I would use to describe "That Damned Thing." It certainly has its disturbing elements, and it is a wonderful commentary on willful disbelief, but it is a shockingly straight-forward tale.

"That Damned Thing" is a perfect example of the modern procedural tale. The story opens with men, Mountain Men to be specific, gathered around a table upon which lies the body of Hugh Morgan. The use of Mountain Men is likely very intentional with regard to what Bierce is aiming at with the story. Frederick Jackson Turner's presentation on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" had been made earlier in the year that "That Damned Thing" was published, and the stages of Turner's hypothesis are witnessed in the tale.

First, we have the Mountain Men those rugged adventurers who explore the vast unknown wilderness. Then we have the "coroner," a figure who is one of the Mountain Men in dress and composure, but who has a job associated with greater civilization. In fact, the reason the men are gathered around the table is to perform a kind of coroner's inquest and decide upon the cause of Hugh Morgan's death. Finally, we have William Harker, the young journalist and fiction writer who had come to the Frontier to write a story about Hugh Morgan. William completely represents the final stage of development in Jackson's work. We have explorer's, law bringers, and the civilized, and they are all gathered around a table to guide us through the narrative.

The narrative is broken into four clear acts.

There is the establishing act where we find out that the men have gathered as a jury and that William Harker will testify regarding how Hugh Morgan died. We also learn that there is an additional piece of evidence, a book, that will play a role in the story even after it fails to play a role in the jury.

The next act consists of Harker's testimony about his hunting trip with Morgan and the beast that they encountered, a beast responsible for Hugh's death. A couple of things stand out here. We are finally given hints as to the location of the story. Bierce consistently uses the term chaparral when describing the environment, a flora commonly associated with the West. The use of chaparral lends further evidence to the Turner-esque nature of the story. When the beast is introduced, it is described as "the wind" moving vegetation. It is only after Morgan shoots at the beast, and it charges Morgan, that Harker realizes that they have encountered some invisible creature. The description of the invisibility is intriguing and somewhat puzzling.

"At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand -- at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible."

We know from Harker's description that the creature is invisible, and transparent. We can see through it as it moves through the bushes in the earlier description. We also learn that things within its grasp are similarly obscured from our vision in the places where the creature holds its victim. There is obviously some cause, other than mere transparency, for the beast's invisibility.

In the third act, the Jury deliberates and determines that the death was caused by a mountain lion. The coroner assures the jurors that there is no other evidence available to help them in their determination of cause of death. The jury rejects a purely supernatural cause for the death, but acknowledges that Harker bears no fault. We also learn that the coroner was lying when he said that there was no other useful evidence. The book the coroner had been reading at the beginning of the tale happens to be Hugh Morgan's diary.

The final act is where all is made clear, in non-supernatural terms. Morgan's diary reveals to the audience that Morgan had indeed been encountering an invisible creature for some time, but Morgan had a scientific explanation. This was no mythic beast, rather the creature only reflects light that the human eye cannot see. Somehow light bends around the creature. This is where the description of the invisibility of the creature is at its strongest and weakest. The reason for the invisibility is ingenious, the execution is lacking. Bierce refers to Morgan noticing the creature because its form blocked his ability to see a couple of stars, yet he can "see through" the creature to the world behind it. In essence, the creature may not actually be invisible in the sense we tend to think of invisibility. Rather we may just be unable to see the thing, no black absence of light and no true transparency. A little awkward, but still cool.

What is even more interesting is what Bierce is doing here. One can readily understand why authors might write tales about the inability of those who follow a material metaphysic to acknowledge or engage with the supernatural. THE EXORCIST is a wonderful horror tale of this sort. The science being applied to the victim of possession is as horrifying as, if not more than, the effects of the actual possession. What happens in Bierce's tale is a material metaphysician, or rational realist if you will, in the form of the coroner unable to cope with a plausible scientific description of an unimaginable thing. Some scientists might want to explore the chaparral to find the beast, but the coroner essentially asserts that it is "better not to know." One wonders if Bierce was critiquing particular rigid dogmatists in the scientific community with this tale.

One can see why Lovecraft and Moore were inspired by the piece. Lovecraft liberally borrows names from "That Damned Thing" in his story "The Colour Out of Space." The only person who will share the tale of the invisible beast stalking the lands around Arkham is named Ammi Pierce -- clearly Ambrose Bierce -- and the name Nahum Gardner is close enough to Hugh Morgan for government work. The reluctance of the townsfolk to talk with our narrator in "Colour" fits with the jury's reluctance to deal with the unknown. Which brings me to today's 12 Days of Lovecraft Tor website post by Seamus Cooper.

Cooper asserts that "The Colour Out of Space" is quite bad. A strong opinion regarding a story that Lovecraft thought his best, and about a tale that is largely praised among Lovecraft fandom. Cooper believes that "Colour" is "ill-conceived and poorly executed." This belief seems to largely stem from the fact that Cooper believes that the stakes of the tale have already taken place and that there is nothing left to chill the spines of the reader.

He is wrong on both counts. Kenneth Hite discusses some of the merits of the tale in his Tour de Lovecraft, so I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll make a couple of my own observations.

With regard to the tale being poorly executed, one finds this a particularly baffling claim. The story begins with what may be the best written first sentence and introductory paragraphs in all of Lovecraftian fiction, "West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut." The words are poetry without purple prose. Lovecraft sets the tone of the wild and unexplored marvelously, and he sets the tone for the foulness of the place itself in exquisite fashion. This story is rife with beautifully constructed wordsmithing, something I wouldn't often credit Lovecraft's fiction.

It is also remarkable how Lovecraft has transformed a hunting encounter with an unknown beast into a horrifying encounter with an alien presence. An encounter, I might add, that extends the interaction between the alien and the scientific beyond the mere coroner. In the end the beast does vanish, leaving a small piece behind trapped in a well, putting a seeming end to the stakes. But given the fact that there is soon to be a reservoir on top of the location of the small (trapped) piece, and the nature altering and mind altering affect this piece has on the land and the people surrounding it, one wonders what will happen when the reservoir comes and possibly frees the beast.

The end of this tale is as creepy as the end of the first FRIDAY 13th, when we discover that it might be possible for Jason to rise from the bottom of the lake, or John Carpenter's THE THING. The creature is destroyed at the end of Carpenter's movie...or is it. The same is true here. Just how has the beast altered those around it? What effect will it have?

The stakes are subtle, rather than grotesque. They are social, rather than personal. But the stakes are horrifying none the less.

This beast represents something more than a colorless thing. No wonder the story inspired the source story for THE THING and the narrative of THE BLOB.

"Can't git away...draws know summ'at's comin', but 'tain't no use..."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lovecraft for Christmas, Kenneth Hite, Seamus Cooper, and "From Beyond" on Hulu Recommendation Friday

All this month, Tor is hosting a "December Belongs to Cthulhu" event on their website. I mentioned earlier the historic connection horror and the winter season have with each other, as perfectly described by Manly Wade Wellman.

The Tor site has even begun a series of posts entitled "The Twelve Days of Lovecraft" as a part of the celebration. The "Twelve Days" posts feature a discussion of twelve of Seamus Cooper's favorite Lovecraft tales, with a discussion of why they are so effective and what their greatest problems are. Cooper wrote the entertaining Mall of Cthulhu, which I reviewed earlier this year, and is a natural selection for a series of articles about Lovecraft's fiction.

I think it would be interesting to compare the entries to the indispensable "Tour de Lovecraft" web entries provided by polymath extraordinaire, and author of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game (the BEST Lovecraftian RPG ever written, though the author would quibble with that praise), Kenneth Hite. Hite's "Tour de Lovecraft" is the yardstick by which I measure all story discussion blog posts.

Let's just say that in presenting this story, Hite's entry is useful to the neophyte and the veteran where Cooper's entry is useful primarily to the neophyte -- though Cooper does sprinkle in some good humor. As I noted in my review of Cooper's Mall of Cthulhu, Cooper makes a point of discussing Lovecraft's racism and the obscurity of Lovecraft's prose. Two things that are interesting to point out to the neophyte, but which without new insights into root causes (as William Jones has done in his discussions of Lovecraft and Eugenics) it's really beating a dead horse. Hite references the racism as well, because it really is blatant and must be mentioned, but focuses his post on comparing Lovecraft's storytelling with Edmund Burke's aesthetics. Now that is a connection that I might not have made, and I've read Burke's Enquiry.

Both authors note that "Dunwich Horror" is a Gospel-esque tale, but only Hite notices that there are two Gospels being presented. There is the supernatural Gospel of the creature and the secular Gospel of Armitage. Hite also discusses the work as pastiche. Something fans of Lovecraft often overlook is the influence prior authors had on Lovecraft's own writing, and Hite is right to remind us here that Lovecraft's story is not purely Lovecraft. It should be noted that while Hite's article is the "deeper" of the two, in this case, it is also the more confusing one to the uninitiated. If you haven't read the story before diving into Hite's conversation, you could quickly become lost. This is not the case with Cooper.

The sharpest distinction between the Cooper and Hite posts is their reactions to Lovecraft's description of the town. Cooper is bored by the length and clumsiness of the description of the town and Hite draws maps of Innsmouth based on the description. One can imagine that for most readers a description long and accurate enough to base a map upon might be a trite dull. Cooper and Hite also disagree with regard to Lovecraft's use of the "native" in the story. For Cooper, it is further evidence of Lovecraft's obsession with racial purity -- and it is. For Hite, it is something more. He sees Lovecraft's use of primitive mythology as a subversive one, where he inverts which mythology (Western or "other") is more important. In this tale, the mythical worldview of the other is more accurate. Though the eugenics narrative is still overpowering.

But this isn't "analyze Cooper and Hite Friday," this is Hulu Recommendation Friday. Given the Lovecraftian bent of the post so far, I feel that I must give a Lovecraftian offering. Without further ado, I give you the awful (as in not very good) , From Beyond.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cinerati Book Review: The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper

In the movie My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), in quoting another actor, claims that "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." While the origins of the quote are relatively unknown -- being attributed to several sources -- the spirit of the quote is none the less true. It is very difficult to write an engaging work of comedy of any length. Nowhere is this more evident than in comedic Science Fiction and Fantasy writers.

While there are those like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Ernest Bramah who have written what many consider to be consistently high quality SF/F books of a humorous nature, the majority of genre humor writers fall into a trap that Jo Walton succinctly describes in a blog post on her love hate relationship with humor fiction. Walton argues that the majority of humor writing tries to hard to be funny and doesn't let the humor rise organically from the material, and she finds this very frustrating as a reader. As she puts it, "I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath." I agree with her sentiment, and I agree that this is a pratfall that too many writers fall into too easily.

It is a pratfall that Seamus Cooper risked falling into in his recent novel The Mall of Cthulhu. The novel, published by Night Shade Books this past June, attempts to use comedy to synthesize the mystery procedural with weird fiction.

The book's plot is relatively simple. Ten years ago, a college student named Laura Harker was saved from being turned into a vampire when a geeky folklore student named Ted charged into the vampire's den -- the Omega Alpha sorority -- and slew all of the undead occupants therein. This act of heroism shattered Ted's sanity, and led Laura to pursue a career in the FBI. Ted now works at a chain coffeehouse named Queequeg's hoping that the mind numbing routine of a service job will help him remain sane, and allow him to lead a normal life. Alas, Ted's fate -- and Laura's -- is not destined to be one of day to day doldrums. Ted has accidentally stumbled upon a group of modern day Cthulhu cultists who wish to use a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island as a nexus of power to summon the Old Ones to wreak havoc on the world.

As the back of the book describes it, "[Ted] and Laura must spring into action, traveling from Boston to the seemingly-peaceful suburbs of Providence and beyond, all the way to the sanity-shattering non-Euclideian alleyways and towers of dread R'lyeh itself, in order to prevent an innocent shopping center from turning into...The Mall of Cthulhu.

The book is an entertaining read that hits all of the right plot points for a first novel in a series of comedic weird tale procedurals. The two main characters, Laura and Ted, are extremely likable and Cooper's writing has us empathizing with them as real people in relatively quick order. Especially engaging, for me, was Cooper's ability to convey just how mentally damaging slaying an entire pack of vampires might be -- particularly when the person doing the slaying is an everyday kind of guy. Laura is also affected by the night of mayhem. Nearly being turned into a vampire by someone she was attracted to has had lingering affects on her ability to form long term romantic relationships -- she has a hard time trusting the women she meets.

As a procedural, the story works its way through the mystery at a nice pace and we get to see how Ted's impulsiveness -- and laziness -- interacts with Laura's trained professionalism and adherence to routine. It makes for some nice narrative tension when Ted gets into trouble and Laura comes running to help. Is she too late? The only real problem with the underlying mystery is that it opens feeling like a grand conspiracy and ends as what feels like a few guys with a chip on their shoulder acting out. I understand that mass conspiracies are implausible and unsatisfying, but so is a small group who don't seem capable of some of the tricks they pull early in the plot. I didn't need a huge conspiracy, but one that was a little bigger would have been beneficial. With that small complaint, the book's procedural elements were interesting enough to keep the reader engaged.

The book has a good pace, likable characters, and is an entertaining procedural. it funny or does it fall into the trap of trying to hard to be funny? The short answer is both. At times Cooper has me laughing inside my head at one joke or another. It's pretty amusing to read about a character so disturbed by the mind numbing timelessness of R'lyeh that he begins kicking Cthulhu in the head in the hopes that the Old One will awaken. It's also funny reading about someone sitting in a dumpster, using a milk filled garbage bag as a pillow, while reading a version of the Necronomicon through the eyes of a character in a Sims-like video game. The book also avoids an over-abundance of puns. There are "easter eggs," to be sure, but Cooper refrains from making every other line of the book a pun.

The comedy does break down a little bit in three distinct ways.

First, there are both too many, and not enough, internet porn references in the book. Had Cooper used only a couple such references, they would have remained funny. Had Cooper tossed one out every couple of pages, they would have become funny again. Sadly, Cooper used them to the point where they lose comic value, without using them enough to where they become funny again -- though the foot fetish porn comment was in itself amusing.

Second, the commentary about Lovecraft's racism, and his "ambiguity," became tiresome. No one who has read any Lovecraft can walk away from his fiction without the strong feeling that Lovecraft had some peculiar ideas about race -- and likely eugenics -- but readers don't need to be reminded every chapter. Cooper attempted to use this conversation, as well as a couple of rough asides about role playing games, as witty banter -- banter that also served as an important connection between Lovecraft and the cultists -- but it gets a little over played. It might have seemed less overplayed if Cooper had included more specific examples of Lovecraft's racism by including quotes from stories where Lovecraft's racism really shines through. This is a place where it would have been nice to have been shown rather than told. Give the reader a couple of passages from Dunwich Horror and have your characters talk about how disturbing they were. The same can be said for the mocking of Lovecraft's use of "indescribable." Though it should be noted that Cooper does have a good comedic moment in R'yleh which is only made possible due to previous complaints regarding Lovecraft's prose. Once again, it would have been nice to get some more actual Lovecraftian passages. The purple prose might have been comedy enough all by itself.

Third, Seamus Cooper's attempts at political humor largely fall flat. The best political comedians skewer both those they agree with and those with whom they disagree fervently. Cooper's political jabs can be summed up as simply as Republicans underfund paranormal defense and Democrats fund it appropriately. Their was one gem of a joke where the post-94 Congress wanted to restrict a certain agency to using only "Biblical Based Defenses." Anyone who has read a Chick tract should get a good chuckle from that conversation, but by and large Cooper misses a couple of real opportunities for humor. For example, why wasn't Nancy Reagan's use of an Astrologer included? One can easily imagine a dozen jokes stemming from that concept alone.

What if Ronald Reagan, after he fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers, had the replacement military controllers have planes fly paths prescribed by the Astrologer? And what if those paths corresponded to a particularly dangerous summoning ritual? One could have a field day with that, as one could also have had a field day with Clinton needed a special anti-Succubus Secret Service Agent, or how Tipper Gore's anti-D&D statements in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society led to some D&D obsessed "occultists" using a ritual they thought was fake against her? There is no limit to where these jokes could go.

Were I Cooper's editor, I would have had him unpack a lot of the political comments and have him transform them into more specific jokes. There's a lot of humor, on both sides of the aisle, to toss around and the book would have been better for it.

These complaints aside, The Mall of Cthulhu was exactly the book I needed when I read it. The book is an enjoyable and light-hearted yarn where underfunded, and under-powered, good guys have to fight against larger than life enemies -- including a hundred plus year-old sorority member vampire priestess named Bitsy.