Tuesday, July 27, 2010

By the Mystic Housatonic: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIV

What's good in Lovecraft?  What good can their be in the writings of a thin-skinned, morbid, racist, hack whose every page screams with overly-articulate horror at the meaninglessness of the Neo-Darwinian universe? 

H.P. Lovecraft intentionally situated himself as the continuator of Edgar Allan Poe; of whose writings we might ask similar questions.  However, in his deep love of Southern New England, he has just as much in common with Nathanael Hawthorne.  Like Lovecraft, the quality of Hawthorne's writing is inconsistent and has the peculiar flavor of the literary autodidact.  The power of Hawthorne's writing doesn't come from high literary style, or flawless creative art, but from his ability to give us a vision of New England and its inhabitants that rises above the mundane to resound with spiritual power.  The same can be said, on a lesser level, for H.P. Lovecraft.

No matter where the far-flung action of the Lovecraftian imagination may take us, to the snowy depths of the Antarctic or the heart of the cosmos where the idiot god Azathoth devours the universe to the tune of insane pipes, the anchor of the work will always be firmly grounded in the wooded hills and quiet townships of New England.  This strong sense of place gives the doomed characters of Lovecraft's drama something on which to take a stand, however weak and fleeting, against the cosmic horrors that they confront.  They are not Robert Howard's barbarians, creatures of instinct, but civilized men, standing up for all that is good and noble in the world against the inevitable onslaught of meaninglessness and decay.  They are Puritans who have long ago lost their faith, but not the steel that toppled tyrants and empires.  At rock bottom, Lovecraft is, with all his flaws, Chesterton's patriot.  He loves his homeland, and with whatever tools he has, rough and awkward as they are, he seeks to fashion New England into a place that can hold weight in the great cosmic scale and, if only for a moment, stand against the tyrannies of a vast, cold, and meaningless universe.  The giant must be slain because it is gigantic.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

She-Who-Must-Be-Read: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIII

Following my established routine, I've endeavored to expand my knowledge of Pulp this summer with a some selections from H.P. Lovecraft and Ridder Haggard.  Lovecraft will have to wait for his own post.  In the meantime, I'd like to take a look a truly seminal novel in the history of Pulp: Ridder Haggard's "She."

This one thin volume seems to have exercised a greater influence on subsequent works in a way only surpassed by "The Lord of the Rings."  A quick surface read will reveal familiar elements and scenes from "The Magician's Nephew," "The Lord of the Rings," Robert Howard's Conan stories, "Congo (though that's more Haggard's other great work, "King Solomon's Mines")," "Dune," and the Indiana Jones trilogy.  This is a powerful and diverse influence for a novel that spans only a little more than a hundred pages.

*very minimal spoiler ahead*

One of the great pleasures of reading "She" is Haggard's use of layers of carefully researched detail to build a believable secondary world.  For instance, many pulp writers today, the late Michael Chriton excepted, would be content to give a simple English "translation" of the legend of She and Kallikrates that serves as the protagonists' "call to adventure."  Haggard, however, provides not only an English translation, but the "original" Attic Greek, the revised Byzantine cursive Greek, abbreviated Ecclesiastical Latin, un-abbreviated Ecclesiastical Latin, abbreviated Early Modern English, and un-abbreviated Early Modern English together with a whole history of the transmission of the tale down to the present day.  I'm currently (trying) teaching myself Attic Greek and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed puzzling it and the other translations out.  This is just one salient example of the extra effort Haggard puts into his work to make it believable.  If you're not seeing shades of Middle Earth yet, you should be.

There's much more that could be said about this remarkable and seminal work, but if you haven't read it yet, I don't want to spoil the fun.  If you have read it, I invite you to consider again the links between it and subsequent works of adventure fiction.  Can you find Jadis, Charn, Galadriel's mirror, the Cracks of Doom, Sam Gamgee, the Fremen, the Temple of the Grail?  Can you add to this list? 


Monday, July 12, 2010

Originality is Overrated: The Platypus Reads Part LXXII

As promised, I'm continuing my review of Hellboy Vol. 10 with a discussion of "In The Chapel of Moloch." "In The Chapel of Moloch" is the first Hellboy comic that Mignola has both written and illustrated in some time. As such, it seems to represent Mignola's personal musings in a less guarded fashion.

*Spoilers Ahead*

"In The Chapel of Moloch" presents us with three characters: Hellboy, the Jerry's agent, and Jerry the Artist. Given the cast of characters, Mignola's general theme is quite obvious: this is a meditation on art. The story begins with Jerry's agent calling Hellboy out to Portugal to investigate his client's increasingly weird behavior. Jerry's career has apparently hit a dead end, with the artist only capable of producing copies of Goya. In an effort to save his reputation, Jerry rents a villa in an isolated part of Portugal and holes up in the adjoining chapel to reconnect with his muse. Jerry stops taking calls, begins working exclusively at night, and eventually loses the power of speech except for mumbling the word "Moloch." Upon investigating the chapel, Hellboy discovers that it had once been a sight of Moloch worship and that it had previously been cleansed by the Knights of Saint Hagan. Hellboy and Jerry's agent agree to hide in the chapel and wait until Jerry appears to see what happens. When night falls, Jerry enters the chapel with his new muse, a strange creature that clings to his back and whispers to him. At it's prompting, Jerry continues work on a huge clay statue of Moloch. Hellboy leaps into action in spite of Jerry's vehement protests and destroys both the creature and the statue (which, of course, comes to life and starts pounding Hellboy). The comic ends with Jerry complaining that his career is ruined and that he'll never be "original" and Hellboy assuring him that it could never have ended well any other way.

Taking a look at this short piece as a meditation on art, it becomes clear that Mignola is attacking two things: the emphasis on "originality" in art and the idea that as long as it's "art" anything is justified. According to Jerry's agent, Jerry's Goya inspired paintings are actually quite good and were working towards the goal of reviving interest in Goya and making his work relevant again. Instead of being content to revive interest in an old artist, Jerry insists on being original and his willingness to do anything, even sell himself to the dark powers, just to be original nearly destroys him. It is also interesting that Jerry's patron muse is Moloch. Moloch was traditionally worshiped by child sacrifice. In essence, Jerry has offered up his artistic progeny, the Goya paintings, in hopes of achieving wealth and fame from Moloch. Using Hellboy as his mouthpiece, Mignola bluntly states that "it's not worth it." The message is clear: the obsessive pursuit of originality is a dangerous artistic red herring, and idea that anything is ok so long as it's art is evil. Given the subject matter of the Hellboy series, this doesn't seem like an abstract warning.