Cosmic Horror as shadow of the 20th Century Modernism
by C. Derick Varn
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogama, translated by Steven Synder, published by Picador (2013).
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky by John Langan, published by Hippocampus Press (2013).
North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, published by Small Beer Press (2013)
The overwhelming feeling of nearly cosmic dread is a major turning point in fiction at the end of the Romanticism as a movement. It is a cliche that end of industrial revolution brought romanticism back into the focus, but also romanticism too a darker turn and the slow development of modernism begins. In Europe, particularly France, one sees this in development of fin de siecle literature beginning with Baudelaire in France, the expressionists in Germany, and the high Gothic in British literature, as well as the anti-transcendentalism of Poe and the early modernism of Emily Dickinson. This is key to my argument, so please excuse the Cliff’s Notes version of the development of literature. Even in this context, few would date a high point of modernism with H.P. Lovecraft. Genre literature and cross-over between “high” and “low” art being generally taught as developing separately in the 1920s from the development of popular and even pulp writing or items of post-modern self-reference. Although, as Graham Harman and a Library of America addition have shown, scholarly interest is no longer merely in the history of pulp writing, the break between genre fiction and literary fiction, particularly in the very moment genre fiction separated from literary fiction in terms of scholarship and marketing takes a time to convince others to accept. Let us look at the case of Lovecraft a little more before we go on. Lovecraft inhabited the same troubled relationship with race, tradition, and an increasingly less human-centric world that haunted people like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. Unlike Eliot or Pound, Lovecraft’s sometimes lurid and even purple prose did not recoil from what seemed like an increasingly alien world. The point is almost cliché: scholars like S.T. Joshi have pointed this out for almost two decades now. The larger point, however, is that this arch father of the weird, with all his ideological boils and humps, personal failings, increasingly embraced the coldness of the modern world as inevitable and even lessened his misanthropy without edging to the comforts of more traditional religious belief. In this way, Lovecraft is almost the mirror image of Eliot, instead of running from the modern world and reveling in his problematic beliefs, one sees turns towards socialism in Lovecraft and even some decline in his fervid and rapid racism.
Yet this is not an essay about Lovecraft whose world is the early 20th century, instead what interests us is writers who are arguably in the “weird” tradition whose relationship to the dehumanization is more contemporary to our concerns: one Japanese women and two American men–one whose work has elements as meta-fictive as anything written by John Barth and another with exudes the social realism one might get from a Raymond Chandler piece or a Jim Jarmusch film. Gone is Lovecraft’s purpled prose, but the dark weirdness of modern life lingers on like a coppery taste on the tongue.
Sometimes the strangeness of modern life sneaks up on you. Picador has a given Revenge the packing one would expect of a slasher movie, and a title that is ominous, not so much of dread but of cliche. The first paragraphs one encounters in the book seem light. In Revenge, Ogawa begins us with a strange tale about a woman waiting at a bakery. The setting is modern, and yet it is impossible to place in any particular country or time beyond that. The narration begins:
“It was a beautiful Sunday. The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight. Out on the square, leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze along the pavement. Everything seemed to glimmer with a faint luminescence: the roof of the ice-cream stand, the faucet on the drinking fountain, the eyes of a stray cat, even the base of the clock tower covered with pigeon droppings.
“Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off in the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, entranced. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.
You could gaze at this perfect picture all day—an afternoon bathed in light and comfort—and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.” (1-2)
The description lyrical and light, as if whimsical sound with a discordant buzz humming in the back. As the first story unfolds, we find ourselves with a woman grim celebration of her dead son while waiting on a baker who seemingly does not arrive. There is little action animating the pieced. Insatead, the horror of the events as well as melancholia sneak in distorted like a memory. The next story, “Fruit Juice” is a seemingly unrelated tale which shifts the reader to focus on a woman dealing with her estranged father and asking a male friend to accompany her while some unknown grief develops around them. As the story unfolds, you realize that baker in the first story is the girl in the second and the fairy-tale like fugue of characters and images begins to spiral. The story ends on an image of kiwis in an office park and a woman stuffing her face to avoid sadness. The strangeness of the image forces you realize it will reappear.
This technique is other-worldly and leads to a narrative style where a sense of dread and unease develops slowly. It has a flaw though. Even as characters and their gender shift, the same fugue voice is moved through. This often makes it hard to tell if the narrator is male or female, old or young, or was a minor character encountered in a prior story. This flattening of the voice, which may be in the original or may be a function of the translation, emphasizes the fugue-state of consciousness and dread. It, however, de-emphasizes the specific feel of each character. Proxies for the writer enter into the story, but it is often hard to extract out the specific voice from the meta-fictive elements and as a result both blend into each other and can be lost in confusion. Still, Ogawa is aware of this flaw and even comments on it through a proxy narrator: “The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy undercurrent running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again” (148). Novels that are so highly aware of there artifice are generally take a lighter note.
Still this technique crescendos in the middle building to two profoundly dark stories: “Sewing for the Heart” and the “Museum of Torture.” both of which have major plot elements that cannot be spoiled, but function as both meta-fictive and thematic clue for Ogawa. In it is these stories where things Ogawa moves us into a fugue state that is like torture:
“For a torture to be effective, the pain has to be spread out; it has to come at regular intervals, with no end in sight. The water falls, drop after drop after drop, like the second hand of a watch, carving up time. The shock of each individual drop is insignificant, but the sensation is impossible to ignore. At first, one might manage to think about other things, but after five hours, after ten hours, it becomes unendurable. The repeated stimulation excites the nerves to a point where they literally explode, and every sensation in the body is absorbed into that one spot on the forehead—indeed, you come to feel that you are nothing but a forehead, into which a fine needle is being forced millimeter by millimeter. You can’t sleep or even speak, hypnotized by a suffering that is greater than any mere pain. In general, the victim goes mad before a day has passed.” (93-94)
All of these stories involve both tragedy and beauty in a way which makes the conflation of the two ultimately malignant and yet also unavoidable.
This is not without flaws, however, as the second half of the book is weaker than the first, and it becomes hard to tell the gender or age of the various voices because, at least in this translations, the voices are not as distinctly different. This can be a problem for a collection of stories so dependent on first person narratives. The fairy tale quality and even the meta-fictive overlapping, however, thematically justifies some of this departure and Ogawa’s herself seems aware of it: “The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again” (142). The final image, however, completes the circles of the novel and is earth shattering.
It is best to read these stories with the expectations of literary fiction embedded within the elements of the weird and the uncanny in order to more fully explore the themes. A dark mediation of the role of the artist and on human powerlessness against a seeming random and yet often very intertwined world. The horror is not one of shock or body horror or even something on cosmic scale.. Indeed many literary characters will feel frustrated with the sometimes obvious and blatant overlaying as not adding to a coherent picture, but that is part of the point of Ogawa’s work: revenge and tragedy, like creation, often does not have a point. It’s horror is in its arbitrary nature as much any cosmic moral statement. These stories still feel very fresh in translation despite their decade-and-a-half of aging in the original language.
John Langan’s collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, is a much broader abyss than Ogawa’s Revenge (as the title suggest). In contrast to the consistent voice and fugue state of Ogawa, Langan’s prose shifts and deliberately incorporates modernist twists and variations that do not allow one kind of voice to sink in. Langan does have a formula: take on a literary trope, be it some modernist style meta-fictive, overlaying of different genres, etc., and then add in a genre limitation such as the vampire story or the werewolf story or the Lovecraft mythos tale. At first this sounds like a trite approach or an attempt at pastiche, but a considerate reading of his work reveals that it is not. Like Ogawa, however, meta-fictive elements are used throughout the story although they are more in line with Langan’s set of limitations than with Ogawa’s eerily arbitrary order.
The first story, however, seems weak, and slightly knocked me back. It seems to be a more typical tonal horror piece involving at professor. Langan is a professor, and such a figure sits in more than one story. This, however, is a false lull. The next novella is “How the Day Runs Down” which is a zombie apocalypse story narrated as if it were Our Town. The existential dread of Thornton Wilder is often lost in the million trite performances, but it is encapsulated and expanded upon in a way that would be impulse in an episode of The Walking Dead. The core issue is even Our Town’s bleak afterlife is affected by the apocalypse so not even true death comes as an escape.
The next story “Technicolor” builds on the Masque of the Red Death, with a professor playing the role of main character. Indeed, the story starts as a lecture on the symbolism of Poe but takes a far grimmer turn. The intersection of real history, Poe’s biography, and fictive occultism is breath-taking. The laying of the history and myths of Prosper Vauglais, Poe’s Prince Prospero, the myth of Proserpina, and Poe’s wife alone is impressive. There are two stories inspired by Lovecraft, but one particularly sticks with me: “The Swallows.” This story pits the truly other-worldly with a narration of the end of a domestic disturbance. The linking between the completely human and the utterly alien leaving one with chills.
The meta-fictive, “The Revel,” and last novella, “Mother of Stone” both involve successful uses of the second person narration. “The Revel” being the more avant garde of the two, and depending on the formatting and ellipses created from screen writing conventions, but also being one of the only werewolf stories that ever chilled me: the overlaying of commentary on werewolf filmic genre as well as the psychology of the bestial. “Mother of Stone” picks up on the otherwise problematic theories of Marija Gimbutas, but develops through a female folklore professor’s exploration of something truly horrifying. There are also a few filmic cliches employed by Langan here, but they are used to undermine themselves and leave the reader lost.
The title story, found in the center of the book, is written in a style that reads a by like almost journalistic realism about war, and an vampire that inverts almost every stereotype or rule of the genre. It is the least meta-fictive of the story and is ridden in a more hardbitten style. Its straightforward narrative breaks the mold of the better stories in the collection, but the helplessness and humanness contrasted with the utterly outside and alien keeps the more developed theme of the book together.
Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters fits with the above two authors in a different way: a consist voice looking at the intersection of human tragedy with the arbitrarily alien. Ogawa’s consistency mixes with Langan’s love of style and literary, but lacks the meta-fictive impulses of both the other authors. The monsters in Ballingrud’s stories are always on the peripheral and even when they enter directly, they are not the main focus of the tale. The South lingers in this book as does the recession, and being from the blue collar South of the US, Ballingrud’s world seemed as real to me as the professorial world of Langan, which I also sometimes inhabit.
The depressing mood of the book also mirrors Ogawa, but likewise, these are as much stories of love and transformation as stories about monsters. All the love stories in the book are strained by things beyond any lake monster or vampire, but the occurrence of an outside force breaks the relationships up into their rawer elements. Also the looming monster of the novel is not only human, bestial, or supernatural, but also the economic circumstances that rendering things down to the bone.
Most of the stories have monsters, but not all of supernatural. “S.S.,” about a young man in poverty being recruited by a teenage call to a white power organization, has no supernatural element. The transformation is something you could find in Herbert Shelby, Jr. or Raymond Chandler as much as any genre fiction, and it was one of the most truly disturbing stories in the book. The masculinity of these stories is macho but broken and floundering about in some times tender and sometimes horrifying ways. This does create a weak spot in the book in terms of female characters, who do have lives of their own in most of the stories and who function within the limitations of their class, but with few exceptions cannot be fully realized because of the perspective of the narrator.
In stories like “The Way Station” and “The Crevasse” the natural world takes an equally horrifying role in the unsettling of individual lives. Indeed, Ballingrud’s one fault may be that he seems to portray the universe as almost a conspiracy against his already assaulted characters. Like Ogawa, Ballingrud suffers from understanding a pattern too well and the emotional impact of shattered lives can start to feel repetitive in the stories as a whole. It would help the reader to break up her reading of this collection so the pattern does not weaken the impact from over-exposure while keeping the stories fresh.
The two best stories in the collection in this reviewers opinion are “S.S.” and “Sunbleached.” The former I have already spoken about briefly. The later is another vampire story and one based on fairly conventional limitations to the genre, but the motivation and outcomes are entirely fresh. Casual misogyny, racism, and general unpleasantness invests many of the characters, even the jealous teen at the center of “Sunbleached,” but Ballingrud never denies the protagonists our sympathy nor does he make false excuses for them. Ballingrud is like a tragedian as much as weird fiction author: “the cosmos may be against you, but you are still responsible for your faults” is the droning reframe of his chorus.
The phenomenon or force which unifies these three authors of weird fiction together interests me. It would be an overstatement to say such concerns with tragedy where not the parlance of literary fiction: Denis Johnson and some of the wrier stories of Lorrie Moore attest to it. Yet unlike the sophistication of Moore and many contemporary writers, these writers of cosmic horror are allowed to look honestly at tragedy and artifice without the irony or flippancy often expected of post-modern meta-fiction. In that spirit, these three authors are heirs to the modernist legacy of the early weird fiction writers, who were also interested in melodrama and tragedy in the effects on the characters. Furthermore, the increased breaking down of writing distinctions between genre and literary fiction–something that begin in earnest in the 1970s–allows for genre concerns to be brought into focus without a total abandoning of concerns of craft and artifice. John Barth would be proud, yet the way meta-fiction is used here is not in the self-referential way one sees in so much literary fiction, but almost as a way to invade and subvert the self-referential notions of literature and exorcize the self: what is bracketed out being as important as what is allowed in.
All of these books are great, and should be read critically despite some minor flaws and blind spots in the authors’ aesthetic or thematic judgments. In the sense that weird tales allow us to return to classic themes of pre-modernist and modernist literature without as much pretense and without being anachronistic speaks to the vitality of the genre. If the pulp comic has become an epic in our post-modern society, the weird tale pushes both to the past and to the future in a different way, while calling the reader to recognize that there are things outside of humanity that are indifferent to us and yet our very humanity depends on our interactions with that alien world in which we already live.