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Archive for the ‘H.P. Lovecraft’ Category

Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe 2The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

A patchy book that will be best appreciated by those who know the north-west of England and the seaside town of Morecambe (pronounced MOR-kum). It will be best un-appreciated by that group too. As you might expect, some people will find The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe funny and some will find it insulting. Any Lovecraft fan who has visited the town since the 1960s, when cheap air travel ended its popularity as a resort, will have been strongly reminded of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In Lovecraft’s story, an outsider discovers that the crumbling town of Innsmouth is full of strange, fish-faced folk and swirling with undercurrents of madness and menace. That’s a lot like Morecambe, believe me. One of those Lovecraft fans has now based a novel on the parallels. These are the opening lines:

For past eighteen months, the old man had wandered the streets of the increasingly derelict Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe – contender for the unenviable title of “The most depressing town in Britain”. None of the Morecambrians knew where he had come from, for none had ever stopped to speak with him, his mysterious background becoming the stuff of local lore. The few who were aware of him speculated that he was a re-housed murderer or paedophile living out his miserable existence in a nondescript squat somewhere along the West End – the great haven for dole-dossers, junkies and other down-and-outs.

It’s not surprising that The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper, hasn’t reviewed this book, because it doesn’t paint an attractive picture of the town and its southern neighbour, the village of Heysham. The old man is Professor Mandrake Smith, once Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, now an alcoholic tramp squatting in an abandoned hotel in the “largely gerontocratic dump” of Morecambe, whose “lifeblood” is “anti-depressants and cheap booze” (pg. 25) and whose “xenophobic” inhabitants are “morose and unwilling to embrace change”, “content almost to wallow in their pervasive, impoverished despair” (pg. 83).

Edmund Glasby, who grew up in Morecambe according to this web-page, has fun letting Nyarlathotep and other Lovecraftian monsters loose on the gerontocratic dump and its xenophobes. “Pervy” Stan, as Professor Mandrake is now known, is ready to top himself at the beginning of the story, but finds new purpose in life by joining the battle against the eldritch horror of “darkness and insanity that awaits Morecambe – and the entire world…” Other characters fare less well, like “Heysham’s ugliest and fattest man, ‘Big’ Barry Crowley” (pg. 25), who is eviscerated and turned into a zombie; “The Troll”, an otherwise nameless “benefit-scrounging misfit” and single mother of eleven, whose mind is destroyed by a “gigantic octopoid head” peering over the hills to the north of Morecambe’s famous bay as the tide pours in; and Bill Draper, a “cantankerous old sod” who owns a newsagent’s in Morecambe’s misleadingly named West End, enjoys reading the “large obituaries section” in The Visitor, and makes the mistake of opening the door to his storeroom, despite the “overpowering fishy stink” that is leaking through it.

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe by Edmund Glasby

The Weird Shadow… (large print edition)

The characters are tongue-in-cheek but true-to-life. Even Jacob Wyzchyck could really exist somewhere in the town. He’s a voyeur who spends most of his time sitting in “dirty underpants” in his “squalid third-story bedsit” overlooking “Westminster Road”, equipped with a pair of “binoculars, bag of popcorn and large bottle of vodka” (pg. 242). He sees the first outbreak of homicidal violence that will soon erupt into “full-blown chaos”, as “lunatics and anarchists” rampage “largely unchecked through the streets”. This part of the book reminded me of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991), in which King has fun destroying his invented town of Castle Rock: “Much of Morecambe was now ablaze, with fires burning uncontrollably from Bare to Heysham, from Torrisholme to the outskirts of Lancaster” (pg. 318).

But in the end the “Crawling Chaos” is beaten off and Morecambe is saved. In the epilogue, there’s even a “day of glamour and hope”, as the old Midland Hotel in which Professor Mandrake once squatted is re-opened after restoration: “psychic waves of goodwill and hope were transforming Morecambe, for one day at least” (pg. 353). If you get that far, you’ll find the book entertaining but unsatisfying. Too much Lovecraft is borrowed direct and the horrors are too crude and explicit. Morecambe will also remind some of a giant Alan Bennett play, and a subtler writer like Ramsey Campbell could have made more of the strange contrast between the urban decay of the town and the beauty of the bay on which it is set.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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