Tuesday, August 23, 2011

String Theory - The Beautiful Non-Euclidean Horror of Chiharu Shiota

Any regular reader of The Cosmicomicon knows my love of the Japanese.  The people, the land, the food, Bushido, the cultural emphasis on precision, and the almost genetic embrace of the Weird.  The Japanese have and always seen the world differently than western eyes, and that's a wonderful thing. 

So it surprises me not a whit when Ives introduced me to the gorgeous and sanity threatening art of Chiharu Shiota
The canvas is half empty space surrounding commonplace objects of a life commonly lived, where both memories and the best laid plains got derailed by the emergence of something sinister and... growing. 

The medium is simple black string, made into something monstrous, like a billion groping tentacles reaching into our reality from someplace vast and dark.  Or an alien plague spreading with the force and tactics of a monstrous, primordial mold.

Ghostly, ghastly, spectral and oddly aggressive, Chiharu Shiota is tapping into something deep and profound, creating a colossal version of the end of things via innumerable and unnameable strands. 

Much like art, horror is the sum of its parts, be they small or impossibly large...  The few or the infinite...
The Genius at work

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Nativity That Reshaped The Universe - Happy Birthday, Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Artwork courtesy of Marc Simonetti*

"I never ask a man what his business is, as it never interests me.  What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams."  - H.P. Lovecraft

August 20th is the birthday of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who is, for my pasty pound of flesh, the greatest horror writer who ever breathed.

His writing and themes weren't without precedent, but his distillation and expansion on the Weird works of those who came before him is staggering.  Call him the Quentin Tarantino of horror fiction - sponging up his myriad, groundbreaking influences, binding them at a subatomic level, and wringing out a totally new solution onto the parched, thirsty land, creating a new level of extraordinary, innovative creativity that dwarfs those who proceeded him. 

I wouldn't be writing prose at this very second if it wasn't for H.P. Lovecraft.  While that backstory has been told before, trust that it's the fierce, fearless imagination combined with the generous gesturing of sharing his boundless universe and Mythos that took me by the hand and led me down the Path I Was Supposed To Travel.  For that, I'll always be grateful and indebted to the odd, complicated Gentleman of Providence.

I and my Weird writing peers are all Children of Lovecraft, but we will never outdo our Father.  And that's fine, as sometimes the children shouldn't outshine the parent, especially when that Family Fountainhead changed the very fiber of thought, curving reality into a new, terrible, vastly interesting shape (of a decidedly non-Euclidean origin).

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lovecraft.  You truly changed the world, the known (and unknown) universe, and all of us scuttling insects crawling and dreaming across the great, strange plains of reality.  These last 121 years would have been been far more hollow and uninteresting without you.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind if fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
* (Find Marc Simonetti's AMAZING work here)

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Creation of Horror in Real Time, Straight From the Dark Heart of ol' Strange France

We here at The Cosmicomion are always striving to bring you the best of the shadowed Weird, which, naturally, includes beautiful images of terrifying things.

Well, I think we hit the jackpot with "Transfiguration," a spooky as hell performance piece by French artist Olivier de Sagazan, brought to my attention by my friend Cedric Monget. Give it a look and ask yourself why the French are always so good and being so wonderfully odd.

(cue up Babel Fish and enjoy Olivier's amazing site)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Horror of Talking Wood Made Flesh - or - Confessions of a Partial Pediophobic

Much like unintentional humor is often funnier than an overly crafted joke, unintentional horror can often be the most terrifying.  Trees, people on stilts, clowns, puppets, marionettes, mannequins, dolls, dummies, aging chimpanzees...  Things not created for terror, but which strike fear faster and deeper than any masked serial killer or costumed haunted house employee.

Aside from clowns, who are obviously out to chew on my entrails, I've often been unsettled by inanimate things made to look like humans, large or small, kooky or straight.  Hence, I think I suffer from a varying case of pediophobia, described by the all-knowing floating brain named Wikipedia as:
Pediophobia is a fear of dolls, or, more generally, of "false representation of sentient beings" such as mannequins or robots. The word is derived from the Greek word paidion, meaning "little child".
I don't find Chucky scary.  Too obvious, and too easy to punt.  I don't find robots scary.  Even the "evil" ones.  Too unrealistic.  But unpuntable mannequins?  Check.  Add marionettes to that list.  The strings make a good drop kick nearly impossible.  And dolls.  Not all dolls, mind you, but the super realistic ones that look like tiny pageant queens, with the sparkling, dead eyes.  Yes, they, too, could easily be sent skyward at the end of my foot, but for some reason, those fragile looking damsels don't seem to be the type to bum rush a victim.  They're creepers, these.  They sneak up soundless when you're not looking, when your punt foot is safely wrapped under the covers.  "Paidion," indeed.  

Topping the list of this dainty horror show has always been ventriloquist dummies.  Puppets are often scary, but ventriloquist dummies are the king shit of horrortown.  There's something about the way they're constructed, the largeness of the eyes, the unruly shock of brillo hair, the gaping mouth silently pantomiming the speech of the slightly odd human underneath it.  The human pulls the strings, gets the smattering of laughter, but I know that the wooden dummy isn't one.  It's plotting a show of his own.  It has lots of time to scheme inside a dark, airless box.

I'm too young to have enjoyed the black and white freak show Howdy Doody, but I'm not too young for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where I first encountered the raspy voiced demon witch Lady Elaine Fairchilde, with her harshly cropped, boyish hairdo, reddened nose and cheeks, and wide-set, cast eyes.  And the fact that her mouth never moves, nor even opens, just adds to the terror.
But, Lady Elaine's yapper is frozen in a smug sneer of knowing malevolence, she doesn't qualify as a true ventriloquist dummy, many of which best her in the spooky department.

Witness this motley crew of smallish wooden monsters featured below, taken from this link:
Much like Babe Ruth pointing to the fence where he'd swat his homer on the next pitch, this dummy turned to the left and called his shot.
Ironically, the dummy has his wooden paw up this man's spine.  Coincidentally, the dummy's costume-specific nickname is "Lil' Butcher"
I know what you did, The Great Lester.  I know EXACTLY what you did.  And it wasn't Great at all.
This family portrait brought to you by rictus, freakishness, and the most evil use of wood since the invention of the siege engine

Horror.  Creeps.  Awkward, thudding crawlies.  Waiting barbarism in every carved notch, tiny shoe, and odd smelling swatch of fabric.

Sleep tight!  Don't let the dolls bite!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

William Hope Hodgson - The Forgotten Grandfather of Cosmic Horror?

Reading within a long standing and proud genre like weird/speculative fiction is much like exploring rootsy musical genres like old country Blues, as one often works their way backwards and outwards like a spiderweb once they regain their feet after being leveled by that first, unexpected collision.

And so it has been with me and the Weird, moving out in the familiar pattern that so many fellow insects have traveled before me.  Bullseye Lovecraft in the center, then work out to the next layer of web, populated by Pulp masters Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, then move wider through the auxiliary spiral, dancing past the members of the Arkham House Crew (as I'll greet them on the way back), and out into the anchoring strands built by the likes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, M.R. James, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and William Hope Hodgson. 

Much ink has been spilled, both on those flickering pages and reams of others, about the majesty and sweep of Smith's fertile imagination, as well as the brawny, sinew-popping grit of Howard.  These two sit at either hand of HPL for a reason, and I learned - and am still learning - much from their seemingly endless tales of weirdness and wonder, fantasy and horror.  As I rapidly became familiar with those resting on the top rungs, I also wanted to see those who climbed the ladder first, offering a hand and shoulder and private whisper about the best way to reach the top.  To find the better view of the Infinite.  I wanted to discover for myself the somewhat buried Foundation for all vistas now laid bare.

And so, giving a respectful bow to the Dark Triumvirate, I packed light and journeyed out further into the web on hinterland strands of sticky, viscous silk, marveling at the new sights around me that all echoed back a familiar melody, still shiny and limber after all these years.  I waded into Machen's murky moors with "The Great God Pan," and was amazed by the prose, and the simplicity of the powerful horror.  Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow" threatened to be one of the greatest works of weird fiction I'd ever read for the first third of the work, until it devolved, in my cretinous opinion, into boring, late 19th century Parisian art scene Romanticism.

And then I alighted on the thin, somewhat dusty strand populated by William Hope Hodgson, the little discussed English writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, who - through his often clumsy and ponderous prose - created one of the earliest, true cosmic horror stories I've run across in all of my reading in his novel "The House on the Borderlands."

Hodgson was born in Blackmore End, Essex, in 1877, and died in World War I at the tragically young age of 40.  But, before he waltzed off this wet, silly rock, he left behind a collection of poetry and short stories deeply influenced by his interest in science fiction, horror, and his time spent at sea.  Being of short stature, he was devoted bodybuilder (to defend himself from bullies, who soon found out that he was, pound for pound, one of the toughest men in Britain), and began his career writing articles about fitness in 1903.  These didn't pan out, so - being influenced by his love of the writings of Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle - Hodgson shifted his writing focus to fantastical fiction, writing and publishing his first short story, titled "The Goddess of Death", in 1904.  He found his place, and was hooked. Dozens of short stories and poems followed, and he gained notoriety more for the former than the latter (although his poetry was later published by his widow).  In 1907, he published his first novel The Boats of "Glen-Carrig", which was received with no small amount of critical renown.  Also that same year, he published "The Voice in the Night", which I have also read, and is a tasty bit of dark, nihilistic fiction featuring two of WHH's favorite tropes - aggressive fungi and  the sea. 
But, it was until two years later, in 1909, that - for my money, which is a bit light on silver - William Hope Hodgson truly broke down boundaries and ground a boot print into the virginal beach of cosmic horror, when he released his ambitious and slightly uneven second novel, The House on the Borderlands.

Though his prose is often clumsy and ponderous, and his plotting sometimes mystifying, Hodgson still proves to be a master dreamer in The House of the Borderland, creating situations and horrific threats that are truly chilling, especially for the time. The strange house perched perilously over the yawning pit, the detestable Swing Things, the besieged house - all good, solid horror.  Even his river to nowhere to begin the story (which I thought was a original idea several months ago, as I was plotting out a short story of my own) is interesting and creepy.

But it's not until he takes a sudden, unexplained jag into stark, raving cosmicism later in the work that Hodgson suddenly rises above his fleshly height and cast an enormous literary shadow on all writers of cosmic horror who have come after him, including one H.P. Lovecraft, who - it is claimed - did not read Hodgson until 1934 - three years before his death, and hence, long after he had invented his vast cosmic rules and mythos - as WHH's books were out of print.  Unless "out of print" means "every last copy was burned," I think it's still quite feasible, and wholly probable, that Lovecraft could have run across Hodgson's work, including The House on the Borderland.
Hodgson's seems to become bored with the terrestrial conventions of his own story about 3/4 of the way through, and then takes to the stars, and beyond, writing about abstract places, concepts, and creatures I don't think had ever been conceived in print before:  "The Plain of Silence," surrounded by mountains with representations of mythological beast-gods, demons and other "bestial horror"; the Sea of Sleep; interstellar, phosphorescent fungus; malevolent string of globes with shifting faces; the Green Sun, devouring our dying universe...  I don't want to give away too much for those who haven't read The House on the Borderlands, but what the Recluse experiences both in and outside of his corporeal shell is straight up, hard core cosmic horror, written at the first blush of the 20th century.
Lovecraft is always cited as the Father of Cosmic Horror.  So, would that make William Hope Hodgson the Grandfather of the same?

Am I looking for an influence that isn't, and couldn't, exist?  I'm not so sure about that...

The House on the Borderlands was released in 1908, when Lovecraft was a spry 17 years old.  The same year HPL penned "The Alchemist," which is more a classical fantasy piece, leaning more on castles and sorcery than cosmic horror.  As noted above, I've read accounts and been personally told that Hodgson's books were out of print by the time Lovecraft matured into the voracious reader and writer that we all know and love.  But, when a book is out of print, it doesn't mean that it disappears into the ether forever.  WHH's books remained, in private collections, and possibly in libraries.  I've also read that HPL doesn't mentions WHH until a written in 1934.  I've also read the HPL counts WHH as one of his influences.

So, doesn't it stand to reason that Hodgson could have had a profound influence on the mind bending cosmicism not necessarily first birthed by Lovecraft, but inherited, expanded and honed in equal measure into the so-called Lovecraft Mythos that we all consume by the truckload today?

If this was a "handsome-off"...
.... the debate would be over quickly.

I'm not positing some grand theory, and those far more deeply read and researched than I am will probably easily poke a hole in this contention, but I can't help but see and hear the echoes of Hodgson's The House on the Borderland in the later stories of H.P. Lovecraft, even before he supposedly first stumbled across Hogdson's work. 


Just to give a few examples, the amphitheater in the Plain of Silence reminds me very much of the Plateau of Leng in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and the gods who gathered and perched amongst the mountains above the amphitheater recall the Elder Gods who carved their images into the rock of Ngranek:
"All lesser thoughts were lost in the wish to see that carven face which might set him on the track of the gods atop unknown Kadath"
Even the ending of the story has a curious Lovecraftian ring, as The House on the Borderland ends with the Recluse hearing something approach as he writes, documenting his end on the page:
"Hush! I hear something, down--down in the cellars. It is a creaking sound. My God, it is the opening of the great, oak trap. What can be doing that? The scratching of my pen deafens me....... I must listen....... There are steps on the stairs; strange padding steps, that come up and nearer.... Jesus, be merciful to me, an old man. There is something fumbling at the door-handle. O God, help me now! Jesus--The door is opening--slowly. Somethi----"
This is a device used by Lovecraft as well, such as in Dagon (July, 1917), in which HPL writes:
"The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!"
I don't profess to be a Lovecraft or Weird Fiction scholar, but I was instantly struck by the seeds of cosmic horror in The House on the Borderland, which were made so famously flush a decade or two later by Lovecraft throughout his exceptional writing career.

So, bottom line, while it could be argued that the roots of cosmic horror go deeper than William Hope Hodgson, and were made thick and strong under the expert tending by H.P. Lovecraft, WHH certainly needs to be included in the discussion more often, and perhaps a bit more seriously.

Perhaps the weighty title "Grandfather of Cosmic Horror" is too generous, but certainly Grand Uncle isn't too far off the mark. This inspired and talented innovator deserves a prominent spot, and his share of the cake, at the grown ups' table.