George MacDonald, Fantasy Writer

George MacDonald (1824-1905) opened one of the main roads to Fantasy. His visionary novels are alluring, strange and disquieting. Their strangeness is more so because it was brewed in a time different from ours, from a mentality shaped in a world long gone and a mind nurtured by religious, social and philosophical ideas that have evolved or faded. Ideas which, of course, have not vanished completely: they are our past, the roots of today. They have left behind their traces, continuations, counterparts and reactions. But we readers of the 21st century find that sometimes they add strangeness to the strangeness of Macdonald’s books. Some of his conceptions are utterly alien to the majority of us. In other words: they lend an extra dimension to the general atmosphere of otherworldliness that pervades Phantastes, Lilith and also At the back of the North Wind, the story intended for children which belongs to that group of children stories that appeal strongly to adults.

In these narrations, we are led along very unusual paths. Not only we are entering something very different from the typical fantasy novel of our time with its overused schemes and its well-known components that change name just to get slightly rearranged under new titles. MacDonald is a predecessor of the genre, but his works are not a product of the market; they are sons and daughters of his mind, and so genuine that as he shares his visions with us, we feel utterly aware that we are walking through his dreams, even if in each case we are exploring a piece of literature. He gathered the ingredients of what constitutes the commercial category well known to us and produced them in quite recognizable forms. A few gifted authors have created original and meaningful worlds following his steps.

Insofar as Lilith is contemporary with Morris’s romances, MacDonald’s status as a precursor rests primarily on Phantastes. On a quite literal level, Phantastes does in fact embody all the key elements that form what I have called the BAFS (Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series) template. The book’s Fairyland is an imaginary world, in which Anodos the protagonist encounters magical beings and spells. With its castles, rustic homesteads, dark forests, and knights; its journey structure; and its rather pre-Raphaelite medieval atmosphere, the vocabulary of romance and fairy tale is marshalled unambiguously.

Williamson, Jamie. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (p. 115). Palgrave Macmillan US. Kindle Edition

Nevertheless, the strange quality of his imagination is somewhat disturbing, and the prejudices and principles of a man of his epoch gave birth to stories based on presuppositions that are no longer so. At least in his fantasy novels, his representations of women are archetypal and acutely Romantic (he was very familiar with Romantic authors, both English and German). Female figures are commonly bad o good with nothing in between. Woman is the demon or the angel, the mother or the prostitute, Eve or Lilith. But we cannot deny that MacDonald, in any case, loved the Myth, the representation of womanhood and the side of Humankind he never fails to see. He gives her her part in the drama of Redemption, the Christian cycle of Fall and Salvation, and he chose Lilith, detestable and lovely, as the protagonist of his novel against the doctrine of predestination, which he loathed as much as evil itself.

In this sense, Lilith, the very spirit of rebellion against God, incarnates the idea that even the worse of sinners will go back to their Celestial Home through the long, most painful and winding roads they have chosen to follow. We can never forget while reading him that MacDonald was a Christian minister. His worldview is decidedly religious. He built Lilith on theological principles and worries.

Even the most innovative creations draw part of their energy and materials from the past while trying to project into the future. Those longer, complex works MacDonald wrote for grown-ups under the subtitle of “Romances” are rich in constituents brought alive both through inspiration and knowledge. Their fantastic pulse gives the experience of reading an oneiric quality. But doesn’t our culture shape even our dreams? I said before that, despite being literature, these stories are dreams, maybe dreamed at daylight, but dreams anyway. Now I wish to turn around the edges of this view to ascertain that they are pieces of written art no matter how dreamlike they look. Sometimes we can hear the echo of allegory, parody or even comedy, folklore and Romantic authors, fables or motifs from heterogenous antiquities and traditions. Phantastes is defined by his author as “A Faery Romance for Men and Women” and Lilith. A Romance grows to the epic dimensions of a world inspired not only by Medieval genres but also by the Bible. Characters from the Scriptures appear under the most unusual shapes and lights. Their roles and actions do not lose a bit of religious symbolism. Both books take us to magical worlds where the deeds and decisions of the protagonist have a transcendent meaning.

The transition from the apparently real to the secret, weird land is quite peculiar in Lilith, not suggesting at all the possibility of a dream save at the end, where it appears as a turn of the screw of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life is but a Dream (a piece of XVIIth Century Spanish drama very much appreciated by the members of the Romantic Movement). There is a surrealistic quality in those elements that work the transition. A second progression transmutes the recognizable enchanted house tale into something so different that it can only be accounted for under the light of a religious explanation, which is always the background of Macdonald’s fictional worlds. That is also why he shows a decidedly shocking attitude resolved into aesthetic features: love of Death. Our century has seen the triumph of life as the supreme value. McDonald, inspired by the Romantic heritage and Christian faith, teaches that Death is a friend, for it is the passage to the real and true life that awaits the human soul when it has completed its pilgrimage. Death and Dream are sisters in the worldview inscribed into the book. But as the roles of Life and Death are changed, being the last only a passage to real life, so an ambiguous meaning is cast over the sister of Death, Dream, suggestive of possibilities that put the weight of reality away from the side of terrestrial life.

Religion has been a source of literature, unrivalled in the Middle Ages. Christianity went on to supply the worldview of the inhabitants of Europe for several centuries and is still here, if not as absolute King and Master in the sphere of ideas and art. How could it not exert a powerful influence in the Victorian Era and even after? No surprise that it may lay behind the nascence of the fantasy novel with its heroes risking not their bodies but their souls in their mystic quests and symbolic adventures or, at least, running great perils and choosing right or wrong to make their way short or to drive their destinies through Hell. Anyway, however familiar this background was to his contemporaries, MacDonald supplied them with a fair amount of weirdness they were not used to. The years and changes of mentality that lie between the author’s existences and ours do not ruin our taste for his strange gardens of imagination. Readers and critics often did not know what to make of them while the author was alive. David Melvile puts it nicely. Let us end with his own words:

In the 1871 children’s fantasy At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald’s boy hero Diamond is asked what he thinks of a story. He replies, without hesitation, that “any story always tells me itself what I’m to think about it.” (The story, or what little we hear of it, is The Princess and the Goblin—which MacDonald would publish the following year.) Prophetically, and perhaps unwittingly, the author here foresees the root cause of his own critical neglect. Remote from the mainstream of 19th-century fiction, the works of George MacDonald are explicable in their own terms or not at all. Literary critics, who cut up and distort a text to fit the theory du jour, tend to shy away from MacDonald. His work defies such treatment and, ultimately, defeats it. For all his perceived naiveté, he is a more difficult author than Henry James.

Beautiful Terrors — George MacDonald And ‘Lilith’
By David Melville
Issue 8: Scottish Science Fiction

Gormenghast, a Masterpiece

Just a year ago, I thought it was highly improbable I would discover a new literary masterpiece within my cultural environment. Not that there aren’t any masterpieces I haven’t read ( I’ve spent many years struggling with depression, so I’ve missed many books that would have added to my experience as a reader if my mood had allowed me to pick up one without dropping it instantly). And it’s not, either, that I know everything about literature; just that I do know what people who are more clever and more learned than I have said. So, what could be left outside bibliographies and textbooks, the must-reads in university courses, the works considered part of the western canon, and the titles published now and then in selections of the best novels ever, the best poetry works or the best whatever you can imagine. 

And then I found the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake.

Hidden in the corner of genre literature, often under the doubtful label of fantasy, the three volumes Peake was able to write before he was seized by illness were waiting for people like me who live outside the UK where the author has become more and more known and renowned after his lifetime. A most amazing wonder, literature of the finest kind, unravelling, picture after picture, a world and its workings. My wanderings around the Internet lead me to the fabulous word, Gormenghast, then to the news, then to the revelation, and then to Gormenghast itself. That is, to the landscape, the fictional world, the castle. 

But Gormenghast is more than a castle.  It’s a castle that is a town and a town that is a castle. It’s an overgrown building full of darkness and touched by light, made up of lots of minor buildings, houses, rooms, apartments, halls and corridors, squares, courtyards, cellars and attics, towers, gardens, alleys, classrooms, abandoned wings, derelict areas, crumbling walls, broken staircases and subterranean paths where madness ambushes the explorer who dares to trespass on its forsaken mazes. 

Gormenghast by Alan Lee. Apart from Mervyn Peake’s own illustrations, there are may by different authors who have felt the alluring spell of Gormenghast.

Accordingly, Gormenghast is the maximum achievement of the gothic dream, spawned from the primitive seed of Otranto and grown with time in many different ways and directions: the image of the most huge inner world closed behind the boundaries of its external walls and battlements; the castle as a world, apparently self-contained, whose features reflect both Time and Eternity. This is Gormenghast, the castle of castles. In its huge, convoluted inside life goes on, generation after generation, fixed, wrapped, and frozen by Law and Ritual. The narrator tells us that the Ritual probably had meaning in an unbelievably distant past; now all meaning is lost and Tradition is a trap for the Lord and his vassals. The purpose of the Ritual seems to be to stop time in repetition. Or maybe it has no purpose, but that’s what it does. There’s no time but the time of the Castle, an everlasting game where individuals are the pieces that wear off their lives following instructions. Outside the Castle there’s only the village of the Bright Carvers and the lands of the Earldom with its well-defined areas of woods and mountains, coasts and marshes. What lies behind is ignored, stubbornly disregarded. Gormenghast lives in the Ritual and denies any possibility out of it and out of itself. 

The Ritual, the characters, the secret life of passions that swell in darkness and burst undercover, the mix of costumes, habits, tools, objects, knowledge of different ages, the weight of the past over a single building and its inhabitants, all the contorted, overdone parts and plays have often earned the adjective “surreal”. But though certainly the Gormenghast books are connected with absurdism, there’s more “nonsense” than surrealism in their peculiar mixture of the grotesque and the unlikely, the tragic and the comical; of farce, horror, disproportion, lack of meaning and hidden sense. An important branch of the nonsensical British streak runs through these pages, and we even find some brilliant, beautiful examples of nonsense Rhymes in Lady Fuchsia’s books.

Certainly, Gormenghast is not fantasy in the sense of the modern genre of swords and magic, but it’s been classified there mainly because it takes place in a world which doesn’t have its correlate to our own. And one of the main tasks of the text is the creation of this very strange world, where there’s no magic, but things move to the brink of the fantastic by the magic of words, the qualities of the point of view, and the power of exaggeration. Everything is huge, terrible, grand in Gormenghast like its walls and towers, except the Ritual and its petty ceremonies, which are mean, suffocating, and consume the soul and energy of the people. The very small comes to a close-up and looks big under the lens. The castle is enormous and incredibly ancient. The weather brings fantastic deluges and deadly snowfalls. The characters are enslaved by strong passions: hate, fear, melancholy, thirst for power, rebelliousness, envy, pride, love… There are collective moods like spells or diseases, and each character has its dominant emotional note, and everything is so strong that even loneliness or loyalty swell to the size of a Gormenghastian passion. Only the doctor, who is dominantly guided by intellect, but not devoid of feelings, seems warm, devoted, and loyal with measure, in a positive, non destructive way. But he, too, is ridiculous in his demeanour. Probably there’s a general rule for the characters (I would like you to help me find out if it always applies): those who are not a bit monstrous (including Titus himself) or highly monstrous (like Steerpike and Swelter) are ridiculous, though often lovable like dr. Prunesquallor or professor Bellgrove.

BUT (and this is one of the marks of Peake’s genius) there is humanity in these characters. Maybe they have something of caricatures, of buffoons, of dwarfs and giants. And yes, the burlesque and the parodical are present. Anyway, those creatures are endowed with a human soul; those crooked villains and imperfect heroes have interesting and dismal psychologies. They display before our reading eyes the human hopes and desires, the longings, moods and obsessions that are familiar to us. They establish the connections where individuals dance the dance of attraction, repulsion, war and cooperation, giving life to that collective soul called Gormenghast.

And then, in that body and soul that has survived since time immemorial, the unimaginable takes place: Lord Titus, the young heir, doesn’t want to be Lord Titus. He doesn’t want to be the Earl of Gormenghast. Such catastrophe looms for the first time over the apparently indestructible order of the castle. This is rebellion. It’s treason. Nothing of the sort has happened before. And this “before” is unfathomable.

Previously, I’ve used the word “vassals”. It more or less describes the relationship between the Lord and his people. The Medieval root is alive, but the castle is not exactly medieval. Those cherubs on the ceiling of the dining room are not. That amazing jumble of things kept in the hidden attic speaks of different ages and different parts of the world, which are never mentioned within the walls of the huge manor. There’s always a mystery, a question hanging over the first two books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950), which is not resolved until Titus travels to the outer world in the third, Titus Alone (1959): what epoch, what period of time does this strange world belong to? This mystery makes even more appealing our exploration of Gormenghast, the progress we make through halls, wings and towers, roofs, courts and basements, trying to understand the rules that shape life in this world so unlike our own.

The use of language is one of the main points that define a literary work. Peake’s use of language is highly personal, artistic and pictorial. This pictorial quality has been noted very often. Critics have traced its origin to Peake’s visual imagination and highly specialized view as an illustrator and painter. It’s the eye that writes, building a whole scene from details so small that they seem unearthly. He uses bright colours, impressive shades and all kind of magic lenses to show the hidden and highlight the qualities of beauty. He uncovers strange settings like the Tower of Flints, the Library, the room of the Countess. But he is not painting a huge still life. Movement comes in sooner or later. It comes slowly, it comes quick, it comes like joy or like terror. His pictures are in movement, assembling parts into a whole. He paints movement: the drop that falls containing the whole image of the castle, a carpet of white cats that flows over walls and meadows, scenes that evolve minutely where a representation takes place or life has the accent of a representation. The technique, especially in the first two novels, starts from details, subtleties, signs, minutiae. Then, stroke after stroke, it grows unto the big picture: the place, the dwellings, the woods, the castle, the figure falling in the vast distance, the ceremony, people hiding, exposing themselves, skulking, fighting, talking, rehearsing, acting the ridiculous parts of the Ritual, their souls laid bare before us like caged tempests.

So, is by any means this great work of Mervyn Peake a fantasy book? No, because it bursts at the seams of genre and definition. Furthermore, the third volume, or the third novel, Titus Alone, introduces a new element: Science Fiction. And then we find out: Gormenghast is not about a remote past, it’s the future. And I dare say it has a taste of The Prisoner, that TV series filmed eight years later. Both are deeply British, absurd in one way or another, a mixture of genres, in both of them the Gothic setting is a City.

We find in the castle a weird, anachronistic,  distorted version of British culture. But the fact that Peake was born in China also lends Gormenghast some of its peculiar features (the lands of Gormenghast look like China according to C. Peter Winninton and the closed world of Gormenghast reminds of the British community that lived by its own rules in a vast and differing world). 

The materials for Peake’s art, the triggers of his personal genius, were (like is the case with any artist) pieces, layers and reflections of the complex web of knowledge and experience that made up his inner world. His sensitivity was working from those early years in China, gathering information and patterns. It continued to do so at Eltham College or at the Island of Sark;  in London at various periods of his life, and in Europe during the Second World War. All those pieces and pains, layers and visions are here, in the magic of Gormenghast which acts the miracles of beauty, discovery and creation.

Instead of Notes I give you Quotes

On the surface Titus Groan is a brilliant, highly unusual gothic romance set in the sprawling castle of Gormenghast whose endless, ridiculous rituals echo a Kafkaesque nightmare and whose absurd and melancholic characters seem to have strayed from Dickens

–Carl Darnell: Mervyn Peake–

The Titus books constantly tease the reader as to where the action actually takes place, with the result that Peake ranks high among creators of secondary worlds.

–C. Peter Winninton: Burning the Globe. Another attempt to situate Gormenghast–

Wonderland and Gormenghast are not mere settings for the action to unravel; as places, their importance is assessed in the very titles of the works, and they are just as prominent and distinctive as the characters who inhabit them. What sets these locations apart is their own particular set of rules; upon entering them, the reader has to put aside her knowledge of the real world and accept that these places function differently. Here we find the trace of the “suspension of disbelief” which Tolkien (borrowing, of course, from Coleridge), considers as the root of fantasy.

Unlike the Gothic centre, which is identifiable in both worlds, those of Gormenghast and the City, there are no elements of science fiction in the former. This, however, is in a sense compensated with the presence of anachronic elements that seep into and multiply throughout the story all the way to the “break” that occurs when Titus leaves Gormenghast. Owing to an ancient feudal family and equally ancient castle, and a notable lack of electricity, sewage, television, radio and other advantages of modern life, Gormenghast initially appears to be a medieval world. However, “Gormenghast is not solely ‘medieval’ either: there are too many anomalies” (Hindle, 1996, p. 7). Medievalism in Gormenghast quickly, although never entirely, dissolves with the proliferation of the recognizable aspects of modern living such as coffee, sunshades, microbes, a Women’s column, tinted glasses, or knowledge of the anatomy of the human body, to name a few. And yet, in absence of its clear position in any known geographical place or period in human history, Gormenghast manages to preserve its medieval aura in the first two volumes. This medieval aura is largely shaded with typically Gothic tropes.

Like Gothic authors who typically gave “full reign to intuition, exuberance, variety, improbability, rough behaviors, and morbid fantasies” (Snodgrass, 2005, p. 153), so did Peake in Gormenghast

Malden M. Jakovleviç: Titus Groan’s Journey. From Gormenghast to the City

As for Peake’s work, Alice Mills is quite comprehensive in her statement that “Much critical ingenuity has been devoted to classifying Titus Groan (along with its sequel, Gormenghast) within one genre or several: the postmodern, the Bildungsroman, tragedy, romance, fantasy, the Romantic, allegory, the Gothic, the postcolonial, and more” (Mills 4). Conversely, the generic hybridity of the Alice books has been analysed by Henkle: “Critics in nineteenth-century England had a special term for fiction like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books that did not fit into the customary formal definitions of the novel. They were ‘sports’–that is, oddities, or hybrids of accepted generic formulas” (Henkle 89). Both books therefore, share a sense of generic confusion which accentuates their kinship.

–Isabelle Guillaume in Making sense of isolation. From Wonderland to Gormenghast–

Verano en Gormenghast

El verano es una buena época para irse de vacaciones a Gormenghast. Es cierto que Gormenghast también tiene sus veranos sofocantes, con el asedio de la húmeda calima, el aire inmóvil, oprimente en los jardines y las orillas del lago. Pero también es cierto que un castillo como una urbe o una urbe en forma de castillo inevitablemente ha de tener lugares permanentemente sombríos, salas y pasadizos donde la luz del sol irrumpe como un milagro, toca un objeto, lo transforma durante unos minutos, tal vez unas horas, y luego se va.

Cuando Sourdust, Maestro del Ritual (del Ritual que rige la vida en el castillo, ordena y domina cada uno de los días de sus habitantes y especialmente del Señor) bautiza al pequeño Titus le nombra “hijo-heredero de los ríos, de la Torre de Pedernal y de los oscuros huecos bajo frías escaleras y de las soleadas praderas del verano. Hijo-heredero de las brisas primaverales que soplan desde los bosques de jarl, y de la miseria del otoño en pétalo, escama y ala. Del blanco brillo del invierno sobre un millar de torres y del sopor del verano sobre muros que se desmoronan”.

Las estaciones son muy importantes en Gormenghast. ¿No son una parte principal de la herencia de Titus Groan, esa herencia, ese cáliz que el heredero se empeña en apartar de sí? Borges consideraba que era un error empezar un relato con una descripción del tiempo atmosférico. Toda regla que se alza contra el tópico exangüe tiene sus excepciones. En Gormenghast, el Ritual que ordena y condiciona la vida perdió su sentido hace mucho dejando solo la rigidez metódica y el absurdo. En cambio, las descripciones del tiempo atmosférico rebosan de sentido y de vida. Ya que el espacio mismo es uno de los principales protagonistas, y que los cambios climatológicos son sus estados de ánimo, tales descripciones son de la mayor importancia. ¿Quien domina, cual está arriba en la jerarquía? ¿Gormenghast como espacio o como actor colectivo? El alma violenta de Gormenghast, exagerada también en sus tedios, está en esa atmósfera donde lo invisible y lo impalpable se ven y se palpan en el aire, en los cielos, en los meteoros y en la vegetación que sufre sus consecuencias. Las cuatro estaciones que están desapareciendo de nuestro mundo ejercen su tiranía, como el Ritual, sobre el mundo cerrado de Gormenghast, pero a veces no estamos seguros de si es la Naturaleza la que envía sus nieves, sus lluvias, sus sequías o es el corazón eterno de Gormenghast el que las produce.

Gormenghast es, en efecto, un mundo cerrado. Es El Castillo. Es la suma de todos los castillos y la apoteosis de lo gótico en literatura, que no de la literatura gótica, porque las tres novelas que cuentan la historia de Lord Titus hasta donde su autor pudo contarla son mucho más que eso (son, ante todo, literatura). Las tres novelas pueden adscribirse al género fantástico en sentido amplio (ficción no realista), pero desde luego no puede incluirse en el género de Fantasía (no hay magos ni magia, no hay dragones ni razas inteligentes aparte de la humana). El estilo, el lenguaje, la técnica narrativa, hacen que la obra de Mervyn Peake sea exigente, pero no incomprensible como sucede a menudo con la obra de Joyce. La magia del libro, en realidad, está ahí: en la mirada que ve y hace visible el mundo de Gormenghast escena a escena. Cada escena se compone desde los detalles, las luces, los movimientos, los colores, los plumajes, las telas, los rostros y la forma en que todo ello se conecta y se mueve y aparece ante el ojo mental del lector, arrastrándolo a un banquete de sensaciones y posibilidades donde la intensidad fabulosa de Gormenghast, que a menudo toma la forma de lo grotesco, lo desproporcionado e incluso lo surreal, se manifiesta en la exaltación de lo parcial y lo minúsculo. Gormenghast, el mundo, la obra de arte, es un espectáculo minucioso donde la realidad creada y compartida por la visión del autor se diría que tiene una desacostumbrada intensidad y un ángulo verdaderamente lisérgico:

Pequeñas rachas de aire fresco, blanco soplaban caprichosamente a través de los altos árboles que rodeaban el lago. En el denso calor de la estación parecía que no jugaban papel alguno; tan diferentes eran con respecto al cuerpo estéril del aire. ¿Quién podía pensar que aire tan denso pudiera abrirse a estos haces ajenos y acuosos? La estación húmeda se abría de par en par a cada uno de sus soplos. Se cerraba según morían como una manta caliente, solo para ser rasgada de nuevo por una pluma azul, solo para cerrarse de nuevo; solo para abrirse.

El malestar era aliviado, el malestar y el estancamiento del día veraniego. Las hojas secas golpeteaban rozándose unas con otras, las cizañas apretadas chirriaban, sus cabezas empenachadas cabeceando, y sobre el lago la conmoción punteada de un millón de alfilerazos y el deslizamiento de las sombras cuya piel de gallina momentáneamente liberaba o cubría la danza de los diamantes.

A través de los árboles de la pendiente sur que descendía abruptamente hasta el agua se podía ver, entre una horquilla abierta de ramas altas, una porción del Castillo de Gormenghast, abrasado por el sol y pálido en su oscuro marco de hojas; una fachada distante.

Un ave barrió el aire hasta alcanzar el agua, rozándola con las plumas de su pecho y dejando una estela como de luciérnagas a través del lago inmóvil. Mientras se elevaba en el aire caliente para salvar los árboles de la orilla, el ave dejó caer un rebosamiento de agua y una gota quedó prendida durante un momento en la hoja de un acebo. Y durante ese instante su cuerpo fue titánico. En ella proliferó el verano. Hojas, lago y cielo en un reflejo. La pendiente estaba extendida en su interior y el calor se balanceaba en el colgante. Cada copa, cada hoja —y al tiempo que corrían las plumas azules, el movimiento de minucias temblaba suspendido. Pesadamente se deslizó y se recogió y, al tiempo que se estiraba, el reflejo distorsionado de los altos acres de sillería en descomposición, atravesados por ventanas anónimas, y de la hiedra que caía sobre la fachada del ala sur como una mano negra, tembló en la perla alargada según esta comenzaba a perder su sujeción en el borde de la hoja de acebo.

Y aún mientras caía, las hojas de la hiedra distante aleteando en el vientre de la lágrima, microscópica, desde una ventana del tamaño de un agujero causado por una espina, una cara contempló el verano.”

A Geography of Dreams V

Flats, strange towers of flats, schools where you have to run in and out and a university that looks like a castle.

To read in Spanish and English go here and click on number V. El número V del índice es el artículo que corresponde a Pisos, escuelas, universidades y otros parajes fantasma.

La biografía de Lovecraft, por J.S. Joshi – J.S. Joshi’s Biography of H.P. Lovecraft

Pasa el tiempo y aquí estoy, leyendo la biografía de Lovecraft, pues se trata de la obra de J.S. Joshi, enorme y minuciosa. ¿Cuántos días han transcurrido desde que empecé? No lo recuerdo. Sólo sé que hay una estación marcada por el clima del libro, y en ella estoy, en el descubrimiento y la apropiación de un mapa de viajes y un cuaderno de sombras. Quisiera tener más tiempo para la lectura; no lo tengo. H. P. Lovecraft fue un hombre que fracasó a conciencia, un tipo demasiado original e inadaptado como para obtener el éxito en las cuestiones prácticas de la vida, y un escritor demasiado raro como para obtener en vida el éxito de ventas o el reconocimiento de la comunidad literaria. Por su absorbente interés en la literatura de lo extraño y lo fantástico, tuvo que enviar sus narraciones a revistas pulp con la esperanza de obtener unos magros ingresos que le ayudaran a mantenerse. Las publicaciones generalistas, ya fuesen de minorías o ya estuviesen enfocadas a un público lector amplio, no aceptaban este tipo de creaciones. Pero Lovecraft hubiera querido no verse obligado a vender sus relatos para así poder abordarlos con libertad completa, pues su verdadera ambición era producir una obra que respondiera a la más rigurosa exigencia literaria. El cuento extraño, el relato de terror sobrenatural, eran y debían ser, en su opinión, un género literario por derecho propio. Y a medida que fue transigiendo cada vez menos con las concesiones necesarias para publicar en Weird Tales, su obra fue ganando en calidad y sus posibilidades de obtener ingresos con ella fueron desvaneciéndose. Todo lo explica su biógrafo y lo documenta con citas, testimonios y datos. También nos invita a visualizar una existencia ajena mediante anécdotas y descripciones en las que podemos percibir las tonalidades emocionales y las formas históricas del mundo lovecraftiano. En ellas se engarzan los datos, aunque a veces J.S. Joshi, como buen académico, nos abruma con ellos. Su tremenda biografía lo abarca todo y parece querer acumular todo cuanto puede saberse y comprobarse sobre la vida del escritor de Providence. Se diría que está formada por muchos ensayos en los que se tratan diferentes periodos y temas: el mundo de los escritores aficionado, organizado en las asociaciones de prensa amateur, donde Lovecraft desarrolló una intensa actividad; los años de Nueva York, que fueron los de su matrimonio; sus ideas filosóficas, sus viajes, sus amigos, las influencias y etapas de su obra, son algunos de los temas que se tratan por extenso. El académico puede buscar el libro de Joshi referencias y comprobaciones; otros lectores pasarán rápidamente por esos capítulos que son archivadores detallados de nombres, fechas y conexiones. De cualquier manera, se trata de un trabajo fundamental y que sirve a varios propósitos y a diferentes tipos de lectores. De esta obra, considerada por Joyce Carol Oates “la biografía definitiva de H.P. Lovecraft”, muchos autores de blogs han sacado artículos sobre las más diversas cuestiones, a menudo sin citarla. Para compensar semejante expolio quiero dejar aquí mi más agradecido homenaje y mi humilde reconocimiento.

Time goes by and here I am, reading the biography of Lovecraft, reading and reading because it’s J.S. Joshi’s huge and meticulous work and I can’t dedicate to it many hours a day. When did I begin this task? I can’t remember. The only thing I know is there’s a season marked by the atmosphere of the book, and that’s where I stay, discovering and incorporating a travel map and a journal of shadows. H.P. Lovecraft was a man who failed conscientiously, a guy too special and maladjusted to be able to succeed in the practical field of life and too weird indeed a writer as to obtain sales success or literary recognition during the span of his life. His absorbing interest in the weird and the fantastic constrained him to send his stories to pulp magazines in the hope of obtaining a meagre income to help support himself. Generalist publishers targeting either literary minorities or a vast public of readers would not accept such creations. As a matter of fact, Lovecraft would have desired not to sell his work and thus be free to approach it only under the pressure of his real ambition, which was a literary one. He was convinced that the weird tale, the supernatural horror story should be a literary genre in its own right and as he compromised less and less on his theoretical and quality standards, his opportunities of publishing in Weird Tales dwindled away. All this is explained, documented and supported by J.S. Joshi with all kinds of data and testimonies. He also invites us to share in a kind of visualization of a human existence so different from our own through anecdotes and descriptions that convey the emotional overtones and the historical shapes of the lovecraftian world. Dates, names and facts contribute to the picture, firmly set in it, though Joshi, as a perfect scholar, will sometimes overwhelm us with a load of them. His tremendous biography —not in vain entitled “I am Providence: the Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft”— stretches over all possible topics and seems to encompass everything that can be known and verified in relation to the subject. It looks as if it were made up by many essays concerning different periods and questions, extensively dealt with. Some of them are the boundary of amateurdom where Lovecraft was so active, the New York years (the few he lived as a married man), his philosophy, his travels, his friends, his favourite authors, his progress as a writer… The scholar can find all kind of references, quotations and proofs. Other readers will move quickly over these chapters which are folders full of names, dates and connections. Any way, the book is a fundamental one and it will serve different purposes and different readers. Joyce Carol Oates considers it to be “the definitive biography” of H.P.L. and many blog authors have extracted from it articles of the most diverse nature, often without citing their source. As a small amendment I would like to put on record my most grateful tribute and my humble recognition.

The oldest house in Providence. From a photograph by Keneth C.Zirkel

Calima / Haze

Desde ayer toda la península ibérica está cubierta por una calima roja. Yo vivo en una ciudad junto al mar Cantábrico. Aquí el cielo está hecho (al menos ahora) de niebla y arena. Ayer por la noche llovió barro. Las aceras de la ciudad tienen un tono naranja, como de óxido. A veces se secan y se vuelven polvorientas. Es un polvo áspero, como una costra. El cielo también ha tenido (discontinuamente) un color anaranjado. Otras veces es de un gris verdoso y semeja la panza de un animal muy grande y muy tenue que flotara ahí arriba. Esto no es el cielo. El cielo está cubierto. Anochece prematuramente y ha empezado a llover. No importa que esa manta, esa panza, esa cúpula tenga color de humo; la lluvia dejará otra vez un sedimento rojo en las calles. Entonces siento que no es polvo del Sáhara, sino sangre seca que el viento trae de Ucrania. Sangre en polvo de un pueblo torturado. De los muertos, los dañados, los heridos, los sacrificados.

All the Iberian peninsula is covered by a reddish haze since yesterday. I live in a city by the Cantabrian sea and right now the sky is made of sand and mist. Last night it rained mud. Paths and roads exhibit an orange hue, like rust. When they dry up they become dusty. It’s a coarse, crusty dust. Also, the sky has been tainted now and then by that alien orange substance. Other times it looks like the belly of a huge, tenuous animal floating up there. This is not the sky. The sky is cloaked. Dusk comes too early and it’s started raining again. No matter if that cover, that belly, that dome has the colour of smoke; the rain will leave behind the same red sediment on the streets. Then I feel this isn’t dust from the Sahara, but dried blood the wind carries all the way from Ukraine. Blood powder from a tortured people. From the dead, the hurt, the wounded, the sacrificed.

I’m slow

I like it slow, sang Leonard Cohen. The world of today wants everything fast: love, life, work and pleasure. The world of today wants everything faster. That’s why the slow ones don’t fit in. I don’t fit in. I look from the border and try to talk from a distant longing. I try to reach out to you and yet I hide. The bell rings from the belfry of the past. Surely I am not alone in this mist of words, looking down on the valley where slow life awakes. Surely someone else can feel at home in this mist of words.
Lovecraft was a slow writer. From the first idea scribbled down on his commonplace book to the final, polished version of a story there could be a stretch of several years. If you have to write for money you cannot afford such a luxury. That’s why Lovecraft hated writing for money. Stephen King, on the other hand, has written an enormous quantity of books. A book per year is his usual rate.
I want it all and I want it now, sang Freddie Mercury backed by the rising sound of Queen. Maniac songs lift your soul to a heaven of vertigo. We live in a maniac world that thinks of short term results and short term rewards and races through a dizzy road where goals must be furiously attained one after another. We call this productivity. We call this success. It’s madness. That’s why such a huge portion of the world population struggles with mental illness.
Some years ago, there was a story in the local newspapers about a young executive who had been born near the city where I live and was holding a post in London. He had a beautiful wife (also a successful professional) and a child, a small girl. This man broke under the pressure of his prosperous, demanding life. He went through a psychotic episode and killed his daughter because he believed she was possessed by an evil entity. At the trial, the wife declared that he was the most loving husband and father and he would have never done such a thing had he not been completely out of his wits. The court pronounced him innocent.
Sometimes I remember this story, the story of a man who recovers from a spell of maniac paranoia to find out he has killed his only child. This is true horror, not a toy to play with, but the wreckage of several lives through a nightmare that takes place in the real world.
Now and then, bankers jump to their death from the high buildings of the great cities. It’s the only way to stop the whirling of the trap of success, to avoid the most unpardonable sin: not being able to go on.
Come back in a week to see if there is something new here. And if there’s nothing, come back again in another week. I surely will not overload you with reading. You have so many other things to read that I believe it would be a bad idea to do so. And anyway, I am slow and that’s how I like it.

I’m back

I’m back, after one of my journeys into the Underworld. This time it was the round chamber. The way out is there, but you can’t see it. You go round and round, checking and counting, arranging and rearranging, pondering and going over the whole thing once again and once again… The atmosphere was rather gloomy. I couldn’t fix my mind on anything else and lived in a constellation of doubts. I even thought of giving up this place in the virtual world. In the meantime, someone registered the domain marywolfhouse.com. What for? You can bet it wasn’t for charity. Anyway, I don’t make any profit from my work here, so I don’t need that dot com. I’ve found something better, a great suggestion from wordpress.com: marywolf.house for my Mary Woodhouse site.
I,m back is also the title of my latest addition to Geography of Dreams. You can check it here. (Click on number III)

A Jail, by Piranesi

From Dreamland to Nightmare. The role of dreams in H.P Lovecraft’s narrative.

Portrait of the author on Delphi Classics Complete Works cover.

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.

—H.P Lovecraft: The Silver Key—

There is a place called Nightmare, where the Lord of Dreams keeps his monsters. All the people in this world add to it, but some writers and artists have created their own countries and strongholds beyond its boundaries. Being able to disclose part of their nocturnal terrors and weird daydreams by mixing them up with the ingredients of art, they invite us all to a sightseeing tour across landscapes minutely arranged to look alive. Of course the artist’s imagination deals very often with a realistic copy of a contemporary or historic reality. But the builder of strange worlds also tries to give his reader an impression of reality. As a matter of fact, there’s a live breath disquieting his creation: the breath of dreamscapes and nightmares.
This is more so with Lovecraft, whose narrative work I’ve been reading lately. From the tentative incursions into alien spaces to the perfect architectures of doom, dreams are woven in the fabric of his literature as a dramatic device, an obsessive theme and an important part of the reality described by (almost?) all the narrators. Dreams are seen as a fundamental part of human life, a parallel universe, a way of escaping the suffocating meanness of everyday existence.
Important as they are in universal literature, Lovecraft’s work is unique for their constant presence and their fundamental weight. We can say that, without doubt, almost every plot crosses the paths of Dreamland in one way or another. Dreamland he calls that territory where so many of his main characters seek the happiness they cannot find on Earth. Of Nightmare he speaks constantly without giving it any name. Dreamland is full of beauty and pleasure. A door, a step, an entrance, a cave, a desolate plain… And we find ourselves in Nightmare. The word itself appears many times in Lovecraft’s writings. Nightmares flow from hidden passages, from remote regions, from unexpected corners. The beauty of Dreamland suddenly slips into a nightmarish experience, such an adjective being profusely employed by the the author along with many other famous “lovecraftian” epithets.

In conclusion, dreams are always a road that leads to other realities, a path to Dreamland, a door to hidden worlds (the world of dreams, strange dimensions, the depths of outer space or the exterior void). And, accordingly, it would be possible to sketch a classification of Lovecraft’s stories based on the role dreams play in his plots. I will define several groups according to the role of dreams in the argument. This doesn’t mean that every story must belong to only one of them. As you can see, many titles are listed under two or more divisions.

1. First group: Tales in which the argument is a quest for Dreamland itself or a journey through it in search of a land or city of exceptional beauty, an ideal world which the protagonist chooses over the world of real things. So here Dream is the main subject, the landscape and the driving force behind the action.
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Quest of Iranon
Ex Oblivione

2. Tales in which the relationship between dreams and waking life turns the other way round, in a progressive or sudden capsize, so dreams are the real thing while human life as we know it is but an illusion of much lesser value. This is also more or less true for the previous group, but there it’s a feeling that nourishes the quest, while here it’s the hinge of the plot itself.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep

3. Tales in which Dreamland is a door to further realities, other dimensions or states of consciousness which grant access to those dimensions, external spaces o planes of existence.
The Dreams in the Witch House
The Call of Cthullu
The Colour Out of Space
Through the Gates of the Silver Key.

4. Tales in which part of the action takes place in dreams or in a dream, with a continuity between the two realms resulting in an outcome conditioned by what should have been unreal because it happened in in the virtual realm of the mind.
The Transition of Juan Romero
The Electric Executioner
The Dreams in the Witch House

5. Tales is which the border between dream and waking life is unclear or progressively weaker until it vanishes.

These include the ones in which the protagonist gets lost in his dreams and remains there, because he is unable to come back (for example, he dies but goes on living in Dreamland) or he doesn’t want to.
The Silver Key
Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The ones in which the protagonist is locked outside the dream world.
The White Ship

The ones in which he barely escapes destruction in Nightmare… Or he doesn’t.
The Tree on the Hill
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Thing in the Moonlight

6. And then, almost every narration written by Lovecraft which doesn’t fall into the categories placed above can be included in a most general type: those which picture worlds that are presented as real under the convention of fantasy but have a strong taste of dream (nightmare in this case), from where they seem to have sprung.
At the Mountains of Madness
The Nameless City
The Festival
Under the Pyramids
The Dunwich Horror
The Whisperer in Darkness
The Shadow out of Time

Dream and death are closely connected. Sometimes they seem to be the same thing. Sometimes, a character chooses death to go on dreaming forever, or to escape the ugly reality of the world that surrounds him.
The Thing in the Moonlight

Dream and madness are another fruitful couple engaged in a constant replay of the same ambiguous set of possibilities. Many of Lovecraft’s characters are driven mad by the terrifying experiences they undergo. Even more often the narrator places us before the following dilemma: these dreams that exert an action over the material world, that open the door to the vast spaces and hidden dimensions ¿are they the manifestation of a previously unknown reality, wider than that human beings are familiar with? ¿Or are they just delirium, a subjective experience, their apparent power and reality the result of an impossibility to distinguish between dream and waking life? This commonplace of fantastic literature cannot be absent from the discourse of Lovecraft’s heroes, who find the crack that leads to the unbelievable or the passage to Dreamland so swift and unaccountable. The equivocal atmosphere may be stronger, the doubts of the hero greater or lesser than his ignorance. He may even be totally blind to the truth, but at the same time capable of giving us data and facts which resolve the question towards the reality of the uncanny, the impossible. What kind of fantastic literature would we have if all those things did not occur in the world created by the author? Those things that cannot happen in our own lives, where we stay among the walls of the reality rendered by our senses and inexorable physical laws.

There is also a point of view that reveals the source from which the opposition of joyous, exulting dreams vs evil, despairing nightmares draws its primordial energy. Everywhere in Lovecraft’s work we discover the presence of two emotional poles working to render a highly strung atmosphere. Looking over the whole panorama, Nightmare is the dominant region in the earthly and unearthly lands we travel after the voice of Lovecraft’s narrators and heroes. But their dreams and tales fall inside one of two great opposite classes just as there are two extremes of emotion pulsing at their cores. There seems to be no intermediate territory.
Sometimes, in their pursuit of beauty or spiritual pleasure the characters end up finding the most horrid revelations. As a matter of fact (of fictional fact), a small line divides exultation from despair, light from darkness. There is a very special story, with a great deal of poetic suggestiveness in it, whose thread is made with the matter of this Lovecraftian truth. Here we see both poles in action, sustaining all the vagaries of weather and soul. Nature and emotion are tied to each other, the latter being at the mercy of the first, struck by joy and the power of the sun, abated by gloom and the hints of cosmic horror that emerge from the depths of the sea. It’s title, The Night Ocean. A text that is more a poem than a tale, though it tale-tells of certain horrid things that show up briefly in the light where they don’t belong.

As for the texts where the experience of the heroes is treated as real, though it belongs to hidden depths of reality that emerge from the chasms of time, they are, in essence (to put it in Michel Houellebecq’s words), “the absolute heart of HPL’s myth, which contains what most rabid Lovecraftians continue to call, almost in spite of themselves, the “great texts.”

These are the “great texts”, as cited by the French writer:

“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)

“The Colour Out of Space” (1927)

“The Dunwich Horror” (1928)

“The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)

“At the Mountains of Madness” (1931)

“The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932)

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1932)

“The Shadow Out of Time” (1934)

In “The Dreams in the Witch House” the reader knows better than the protagonist (not an exception, really, in Lovecraft’s tales). He knows that those dreams are not such, that through the gates of sleep the consciousness of the hero is transported to other planes and other worlds as real as the very city of Arkham in which he lives and dreams. In all these cases (a very fine example is “At the Mountains of Madness”) alien worlds and fantastic architectures, unsettling experiences of strangeness and horror are described in an objective, scientific language. “The style of scientific reporting adopted by HPL in his later stories” says Houllebecq “operates according to the following principle: the more monstrous and inconceivable the events and entities described, the more precise and clinical the description. A scalpel is needed to dissect the unnameable”.
Especially if we are used to trod the paths of HPL’s Dreamland, we feel the breath of dream in those impossible journeys that are real in the fiction world of the characters. The more objective the language, like a transparent glass showing the inconceivable, the more clear the sensation that they are made from materials collected in the secret gardens of the mind, like those vivid, acutely limpid images that we are granted while diving in the inner pools of sleep. Just as we were invited to the land of Dream in Celephaïs or The White Ship, or even in tales where the narrator doesn’t explain that we are travelling there (like The Other Gods, for example), here we are invited to take part in scientific explorations of worlds that have the taste of the oneiric. The colossal walls and ramparts of the cities left behind by The Old Ones, the home of The Great Race, the underworlds, the planets of monstrous beings sometimes evil and sometimes indifferent towards the human race, they all lay before us the territory of concrete dreams through which we are carried detailed accounts interspersed with bursts of extraordinary impressions. So the material of nocturnal visions sustains the possibility of a very special daydreaming which us, readers, share with the author, allured by a voice that turns it into an objective reality communicated by measures and empirical descriptions. Just as if we were looking at someone else’s dream.

This feeling I had while reading that all Lovecraft’s literature, and not only those texts than openly are dreams or deal with the matter, is the spawn of Dream (even the narrations where the most objective language is used) gets a confirmation in the following words of Houllebecq, whose essay I have read after finishing the last of HPL’s narrations:

Dreams were what Lovecraft knew well—they were, in a sense, his preserve. Few writers have used their dreams as systematically as he did; he classified the furnished material, he treated it. At times he was enthusiastic and wrote down a story in the immediate aftermath of a dream without even completely waking (this was true of “Nyarlathotep”). Other times he retained certain elements to insert into a new framework, but in any event, he took dreams very seriously.

All the quotes are from

Houellebecq, Michel; King, Stephen. H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Cernunnos. Kindle Edition. Translation from the French by Dorna Khazeni.