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call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

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The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

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The Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)

He has arguably done more than any other living writer to prove to the world that comix are not just for adults. Now Northampton’s non-pareil neo-gnostic normativism-nihilating neuro-naut Alan Moore has a new project and a new passion: boredom. Yes, you read that right: boredom. The thing is, boredom is actually interesting, see? That is the paradox at the heart of Moore’s latest work, the first instalment of which has just been issued through his private publishing company, Polypogonic Press. But be warned: this is not going to be the most immediately accessible exemplar of his œuvre, because it’s based partly on a transcription of DNA from a follicle mite in Moore’s own beard. Nevertheless, my first of what doubtless will be many, many reads of Hymn to Hermaphrodite suggests to me that the completed serial will take its place among Moore’s best work. One day it may even be seen as better than Watchmen or 23-gNosis – yes, it really is that good.

How does it raise such high expectations? Well, thanks, inter alia, to that follicle-mite DNA, things aren’t as clear in the actual text as they might be, but Moore has written a comprehensive introduction in which he explains what he intends to do with the serial and where he intends to go. He begins by discussing a phrase commonly used to describe boring things: “as dull as ditch-water.” He points out that the simile doesn’t actually work:

Ditch-water is positively pullulating with wonder and weirdness, at a microscopic level: protozoa, algae, microbes, viruses, the works. I’m going to try – with no guarantee of success, I freely admit – to teach people to see boredom as they should see ditch-water: as something that is bloody interesting! When you look at it right, boredom is not boring at all. Among a lot else, it’s frightening. Hell as eternal torment is one thing, but what about hell as eternal boredom, boys and girls?

Moore then describes how, as a teenager, he first read about tiny sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, which are so small and so ghostly that they barely interact with ordinary matter. For example, they can breeze unaffected through light-years of lead. That image stayed with him – light-years of lead. He asks us to ignore the physics and imagine, per impossibile, being trapped in a small, cubical cell for all eternity in the middle of light-years of lead. You don’t suffer any pain or physical discomfort, but there’s nothing to do and no way to get out, either. “After a few hours of that,” he concludes, “you’d be begging for the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched!”

He then goes on to posit that an up-to-date Satan would be experimenting with sensory deprivation, because that seriously messes with your head. And he explains how his meditation on these themes led him to devise a new academic discipline: ennuology – the scientific study of boredom. Antonia Baccio, the protagonist of the serial that he has now begun, is a hermaphroditic physicist whose mother was the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and whose father was the Belgian ambassador to Canada. It’s a kind of seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son thing – s/he gains all the ennuo-potence of both parents and both nationalities. S/he’s also a self-proclaimed “Devotee of Ennui”, consciously dedicated to celebrating and exploring the world of boredom. Fans of Weird Fiction will recognize a tip-o’-the-hat to Clark Ashton Smith’s short-story “The Devotee of Evil” (1933) and Smith looks as though he’s going to play a central role in the serial. Anyway, in this first instalment, Antonia, who’s obviously as crazy as a box of frogs, is trying to create a critical mass of ennui with these particles (s/he thinks) s/he’s discovered called “ennuons”, which are responsible for creating boredom and for making people and things boring. Canada and Belgium have an unusually high b.e.c. (background ennuon count) and Antonia begins work on two machines to collect and concentrate these particles and their sinister psycho-activity, one machine based in Brussels, the other in Ottawa.

S/he’s calculated that, if s/he collects enough ennuons, s/he can achieve a critical mass and a giant ennuonic explosion will ensue, bathing the entire earth in hyper-powerful boredom radiation. Moore doesn’t say what effects this will have, but he hints that they’ll be pretty nasty! The full horror of what Antonia’s up to will no doubt be explored in later instalments. In a (possible) tip-o’-the-hat to himself, Moore also (maybe) hints at some kind of alien race lurking in the background, either overseeing Antonia as s/he conducts her experiments or assisting her with them. And he hints that Antonia may even be alien herself, or maybe a new species of human. Readers will be left lots of other conundra to contemplate and puzzles to ponder. One of those puzzles will be Kegsey Keegan, Moore’s new artistic collaborator. He – or she – is a new name both to me and to the internet, which makes me suspicious. Why? Quite simply, because the talent and maturity on display in the art are worthy of a veteran of the comix scene. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that the name may be a disguise for Moore himself, working with graphics software to distort and develop his own drawings.

Whatever turns out to be the truth, Keegan perfectly realizes Moore’s ennuological visions, working with a lot of gray and a lot of detail to capture both the dedication and the lunacy of Antonia Baccio, the Devotee of Ennui who isn’t ennuyeux/se at all. In fact, s/he is one of the most disturbing comix characters I’ve ever come across. I’ve already had nightmares – literally – about being trapped in her/his “Cell-o’-Hell”, where s/he focuses ennuonic rays on unsuspecting experimental subjects and bores them out of their skulls. As all members of his fan-community will recognize, Moore has always been sui generis. Other celebrities issue their own perfumes or aftershaves: he’s issued his own psychedelic drug (now banned in all E.U. countries and large parts of Asia). But I think he’s surpassed himself here. In my opinion, no other comix writer in the world, living or dead, could do what Moore is doing with the most (apparently) unpromising of subjects. And after episode one, I’m both dreading and drooling over what will appear in episode two. It’s about boredom, but it’s interesting, see? So be there AND be square, futility fans.

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