Color Out of Space: Horror Comes Home

This essay contains spoilers for Color Out of Space.

It’s been hard to be an H. P. Lovecraft fan the last few years. I don’t mean because of his often-lugubrious prose style, his penchant for unpronounceable names, or his tendency to describe his horrors as “indescribable” (how convenient!): those traits tend to be the source of affectionate ribbing between fans rather than cause for cancellation, or at least come down to matters of taste. But Lovecraft has come under greater scrutiny in recent years for his racist views; whether you believe, as I do, that he underwent some revision of those views in the last years of his life, broadening his perspective, the fact remains that in his private letters and early writings he gave vent to opinions on race that put him in extreme company, even in the 1920s. Nor is this a case where one can easily separate the art and the artist, for his fiction, even some of the greatest of his stories, clearly come from a personal place in which Lovecraft’s xenophobia and fear of miscegenation form the basis of the fantastic horrors he describes (not to mention the more explicit references to the race and ethnicity of his human characters when they do appear).

These criticisms have been a long time coming, and they hardly blew up overnight: indeed, recognition that the “old man” wrote a few impolitic things has been present at least since his stories began to be collected and reprinted for an audience beyond the pulp magazines in which they first appeared. The world of fantasy and science fiction was, like many fandoms, an insular one, and the most influential voices within it tended to be white and, like me, insulated by privilege from feeling truly hurt by Lovecraft’s words. Robert Bloch, in his 1982 essay “Heritage of Horror” (the introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, the paperback collection that was an introduction to Lovecraft for many readers, including me), devotes two whole paragraphs to the charge of racism against Lovecraft, ultimately dismissing it as just one more spurious charge laid against the master by uncomprehending outsiders.

Both fiction and scholarship have, to their credit, attempted to grapple with this legacy rather than ignore it in recent years. On the new fiction front, the subversion or reimagining of Lovecraft’s themes, often written by people of color and tackling Lovecraft’s personal biases directly, has breathed life into a subgenre of horror that frequently consisted of stale imitations. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, for example, is set in the 1950s and centers on a black science fiction fan, captivated by the imagination in pulp stories but acutely aware of the subhuman depictions of black people in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others. What, he asks, do you do when you love a genre that doesn’t love you back? The hero’s nephew, for one, creates a comic book space opera with a black heroine, based on his mother, and that’s one strategy (witness the success Jordan Peele has had creating horror centered on specifically black experiences: expanding representation means new and better stories for everyone).

There’s also the 2015 decision to change the World Fantasy Award trophy from a bust of Lovecraft to something more abstract. For the record, even as a fan I think that’s the right call: as much as it was meant as an affectionate tribute when it started in 1975, in this day and age it’s a little odd to have a trophy representing “World Fantasy” look like any single person, as if it were all their idea, and I can’t blame the minority and POC writers who felt that they were being asked to place their work under the symbolic authority of a man who when alive would likely not have recognized or welcomed them. Finally, it’s a decision that makes it easier to keep the man himself in perspective, as one of many authors and with human flaws, rather than an Easter Island totem, unanswerable and above criticism.

I can’t say that I was directly thinking about these issues while I watched Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s new adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” What most struck me was that the film, in which a strange meteorite contaminates and destroys a small New England farm and the family that lives there, feels up to the minute, urgent even, in ways that are present in the original story and feel completely true to it, even as Stanley prunes and updates the text. But as I let the film sink in over the next few days, it occurred to me that it is next to impossible to talk about Lovecraft now without being aware of the discussion around him, and that for many people Lovecraft’s racism has become the sum total of what they know and think about him, particularly if they haven’t encountered him firsthand (and how many will now avoid him, if they think that every story is but a thinly-veiled racist screed?).

Yet here we are with a largely faithful feature film, and one that not only feels relevant but which features a multiracial cast and does so without a major rearrangement of the text. Lovecraft may be a “problematic fave,” but he continues to hang on in public consciousness because of something at the core of his writing, some essential observation of modern life. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Yes, Lovecraft was a pessimist, but there are times when pessimism and realism are one and the same, and reading a bracingly dark vision can be strangely life-affirming. Lovecraft–pedantic, verbose, racist–hangs on because of the clarity of that vision.

In “The Colour Out of Space” (which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1927, one of only a handful of Lovecraft’s stories to appear in a science fiction magazine rather than his usual Weird Tales), an unnamed surveyor visits the ancient wooded valleys around Arkham, Massachusetts (one of Lovecraft’s fictional towns) in advance for a new reservoir that will flood the land. Finding a desolate area called the “blasted heath” by the country folk, the surveyor tracks down a local farmer named Ammi Pierce, who tells him about the “strange days” forty years prior, when the “blasted heath” was the farm of Nahum Gardner and his family. Pierce relates the story of the meteorite that landed on the farm and the glass-like globule or “bubble” at its center: “the colour . . . was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” Over the course of the following year, in Pierce’s telling, the vegetation and animals around the farm go through strange metamorphoses, displaying a vague sense of “wrongness” familiar to readers of Lovecraft, but eventually turning the same unidentifiable “colour” and even visibly glowing at night. The people of the farm, Gardner’s family, become watchful and unhealthy, convinced that something is wrong but unable to leave. The farm’s well, in particular, seems to be at the center of their misgivings. Their transformations become more and more horrible, until the night Ammi Pierce and a delegation of lawmen from Arkham witness the transformation that leaves behind the “blasted heath.” The resolution is as uneasy as the ending of a 1950s monster movie: the danger is passed, but only for now, and it leaves behind the uncomfortable awareness of how dangerous the world really is.

“The Colour Out of Space” has been regarded as a cautionary tale about nuclear radiation and fallout: it was written well before the atomic bomb became a reality, but radiation was already a known phenomenon on a smaller scale, and world-destroying bombs and plagues were familiar in the pages of the pulp magazines long before they hit the front pages of newspapers. The intimations that the meteorite and the unearthly “colour” come from somewhere alien, where the forces of nature are different, place this story within the “cosmic horror” subgenre Lovecraft is known for, but it is essentially a story of contamination: the horror is one of environmental pollution, of body and mind being betrayed and corrupted by the elements around one.

In transferring this story to the screen (and for the record, this is not the first movie adaptation–I’ve even written about another loose adaptation, Die, Monster, Die!), Stanley (with co-writer Scarlett Amaris) wisely eliminates the frame story. The surveyor (now a hydrologist, played by Elliot Knight) is the protagonist, directly visiting the Gardner farm and getting involved in the action, and rather than being set years in the past everything has been updated to the present. Instead of being a yeoman farmer, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) is a businessman who’s made his pile in the city and moved his family back to his father’s farm, living off the land and living the dream. I recognized this person immediately, right down to the alpacas he has added to the farm (“the animal of the future,” a phrase that will come to seem downright ominous). Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson), a breast cancer survivor, continues to work as a stockbroker, the laptop and headset mic she uses to connect with her clients incongruous with the tiny garret that serves as her office. The family, with its three children–Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard)–may have its issues, but it’s basically functional: they can work things out.

Until, that is, the night of the meteorite. It’s not really possible to depict a never-before-seen color, but Stanley does make it look spectacular, ladling on the neon pink and purple, lens flares and other prismatic effects, and accompanying the visual flashes with eerie sounds (comparisons to the palette of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy are apt). Even the arrival of the meteorite is a big event, causing computers to glitch and affecting each member of the family differently; the staging implies that the stone’s arrival is as much a psychic event as a physical one, and did it really fall from space, or from an opening to another dimension? Once everyone comes outside to look at it, it looks like a pink, pulsating brain. Later on, as the alien color seeps into everything around it and pink-hued flowers sprout around the farm, it’s as if the landscape is being turned into the surface of another planet (and indeed there are suggestions that that’s exactly what is happening). As the meteorite begins to show its malign influence, the transformations the animal life and eventually the family experience recall John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the ooky body horror of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna.

Unlike some adaptations, Color Out of Space is explicitly set in Lovecraft’s imaginary “witch-haunted” New England: in addition to nearby Arkham, there are references to Innsmouth and Kingsport; the hydrologist, Ward Phillips (one of Lovecraft’s pen names), wears a Miskatonic University tee shirt. Although Lovecraft’s original story predates Cthulhu and his other famous creations, the Necronomicon makes an appearance in the film, but it’s the “Simon” Necronomicon, a mass-produced paperback published in 1977, and it doesn’t provide any answers. The film begins and ends with some of Lovecraft’s own words as voice over delivered by the hydrologist.

By coincidence, less than a week before seeing Color Out of Space I had watched The Last Mimzy for my review of Henry Kuttner’s short fiction: in both films, Joely Richardson plays the mom of a family experiencing an incursion from otherworldly forces. The Last Mimzy is an optimistic film, injecting Kuttner’s story with about 1000% more woo in the form of Deepak Chopra-style speculation about connections between quantum mechanics and meditative states, Tibetan mandalas, and dream visions along with Kuttner’s fourth-dimensional speculations, and it grafts a “children are our future” sense of purpose onto the story. It’s a far cry from the nihilistic horror of Color, and I was tempted to say that the coincidence of Richardson’s casting says something about our national mood then and now. I couldn’t honestly make the comparison, though: The Last Mimzy was released in 2007, post-9/11, in the midst of the Iraq War, and with the culture wars already in full swing. Rainn Wilson’s character in Mimzy, a science teacher, makes the point early on that pollutants, including cultural pollutants (?), can actually change a population’s DNA, corrupting them from the inside. It has a hopeful point of view, to be sure, but the anxiety that the rot is already present is clear.

The same thing is going on in Color Out of Space; the rot is just further along. The color affects each member of the family differently, but the suggestion is that the color is bringing out and corrupting something already inherent in their character. As the mom, Richardson is alternately spacey and shrewish, finally undergoing a sort of inverted pregnancy, drawing her youngest son back into her body. Witchy eldest daughter Lavinia becomes a cosmic priestess of the color, cutting occult sigils into her own flesh. Ezra (Tommy Chong), the squatter who lives off the grid in a shack on the Gardners’ property, becomes a literal burnout; he comes to understand the color and even provides the hydrologist with a vision of the color’s alien home, but that knowledge doesn’t help him escape it.

Nathan Gardner becomes a parody of middle-aged dadhood, berating his family and making tough decisions one moment and settling into his easy chair in the next, watching the static on his TV and surrounding himself with the ghosts of his departed family. (Since this is a Nicolas Cage vehicle, he gets a few good freak-outs, but the build-up is more gradual than in some: unlike in Mom and Dad, he doesn’t seem unhinged from the beginning.) In one scene, Nathan rants about how he followed the rules but everything still went to shit: in context, he’s talking about his crop of tomatoes, tinged with the unpleasant taste of the color, but it’s not hard to hear in it the frustration we’ve all felt, that the game is rigged and that we’re at the mercy of a system we can’t control.

Ultimately, this is environmental horror: the cosmic stuff just gets us in the door, but at its core the fear is real enough. The fact that the mother is a cancer survivor is significant, I think, symbolic of the cancerous growth of the color throughout the Gardners’ farm, but also a reminder that the healthy exterior at the beginning of the film was only an illusion. News clips on television show dead fish and reports about climate change; the hydrologist’s presence on the farm is due to the planned reservoir, a source of manmade devastation. Whatever is in the well at the farm will soon be part of the municipal water supply for a much greater area. Color Out of Space is a vision of an ordinary family destroyed by forces that mankind as a whole has set in motion, and which are as unstoppable as storms, earthquakes, and meteors. “It’s in the water,” the characters tell each other, but there is nothing they can do but drink.

Rediscovering Henry Kuttner

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so I’m diving into the short stories of the prolific author Ray Bradbury dubbed “a neglected master.”

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” was adapted into the 2007 film The Last Mimzy.

Henry Kuttner is, for me, one of those authors I saw frequently represented in anthologies of the golden age of science fiction, but whom I rarely had a strong picture of as an individual, someone with a singular set of preoccupations or stylistic tics. One story would be horror, the next social science fiction, and still another might be light fantasy. If Kuttner is today not a household name*, perhaps it is his ability to work in several different veins, and his ability to channel a variety of authorial voices, that keeps the man himself out of focus. (For this article, I read the 1975 collection The Best of Henry Kuttner, but several other stories I consulted were found in scattered multi-author anthologies.)

As an example, I first encountered Kuttner as a younger member of the Weird Tales circle embroidering on H. P. Lovecraft’s growing Cthulhu cycle. “The Salem Horror” (1937) was included in August Derleth’s seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Kuttner’s Weird Tales output also included pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery stories.

As Kuttner discovered his own voice, a strain of light fantasy emerged, with concepts from folklore or mythology existing in the modern world, often using the incongruity as a source of gentle (or not-so gentle) comedy. In “Masquerade,” from 1942, a honeymooning couple stumbles on a family of degenerates (who may or may not be vampires) living in a former lunatic asylum, wryly commenting on how cliché it all is (“Look, if I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back,” the narrating husband tells his wife.)

“Masquerade” was adapted in a 1961 episode of Thriller.

Some of these stories are reminiscent of his contemporaries Robert Bloch (with whom Kuttner sometimes collaborated) and L. Sprague de Camp, or even the earlier Thorne Smith (“The Misguided Halo” is one of these), and had a clear influence on the younger Ray Bradbury. Still other stories fit the description of science fiction as “the fiction of ideas,” with theories of social or technological development, and the question of man’s future, front and center, although the dialogue and characterization are often better than that description would suggest: if, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Kuttner sometimes wrote stories whose sole purpose seems to be making use of a social theory or scientific factoid, Kuttner’s strength was to humanize that impulse, showing the effects of progress and change from an individual’s perspective. In that sense, there is a continuity between Kuttner’s stories and the early fiction of Philip K. Dick. If Kuttner had lived longer (he died in 1958 at the age of 43), it’s possible that he would have made the leap to the more introspective, experimental science fiction of the 1960s. Instead, he foreshadowed it.

When discussing themes in Kuttner’s work, one must also acknowledge the author’s long collaboration with wife and writing partner C. L. (Catherine) Moore, whom he married in 1940. I’m a big fan of Moore’s writing, especially her “Northwest Smith” and “Jirel of Joiry” series, both of which appeared in Weird Tales. Untangling who contributed what to stories published under Kuttner’s and Moore’s individual names can be tricky, and many of the stories now attributed to one or the other of them originally appeared under the joint pseudonym “Lewis Padgett” or numerous other pen names. The couple shared a single typewriter and bragged that either of them could pick up the thread of a story where the other had left off without a break. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction holds that all of the stories in The Best of Henry Kuttner were in fact collaborations, so perhaps it would be best to think of “Kuttner and Moore” as a team like “Lennon and McCartney,” with some projects being independent work but always in the context of the ongoing partnership.

Two themes emerge strongly in Kuttner’s mature stories: in one strand, the Lovecraftian concepts Kuttner cut his teeth on are adapted to notions of technological and social evolution. In stories like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “The Twonky,” the intrusions from other worlds are not the work of sinister alien gods and their cults, but are carelessly scattered artifacts from civilizations at a different level of development, either a future state of evolution or from a parallel reality in which “normal” has a very different definition than ours. “Mimsy” centers on a box of unearthly educational toys that gradually condition their users to life in four or more dimensions; in “The Twonky,” a combination radio-phonograph turns out to be an artificial intelligence in disguise, an in-home butler, watchdog . . . and jailer.

In Arch Oboler’s 1953 adaptation of “The Twonky,” the story’s radio-phonograph was replaced by a television.

These unnerving (and prescient) stories broach the idea that futuristic technologies could rewire human brains, turning their users into geniuses, madmen, or passive slaves. As in “Call Him Demon” (one of Kuttner’s finest tales, a story of cosmic horror told through the lens of recollected childhood), it is only children, their minds not yet set into routine patterns, who can truly pick up on these messages from outside. To adults, the signs are either undetectable or incomprehensible. Ray Bradbury, noting the impact these stories had on himself and others, wrote “I very much doubt that ‘Zero Hour,’ or for that matter ‘The Veldt,’ would ever have leaped out of my typewriter if Kuttner’s imagination had not led the way.” (In retrospect, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time builds on the foundation “Mimsy” established; I would also include C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” as another tale indebted to Kuttner’s concepts, with that author’s own bitterly ironic twist, of course.)

The other prominent thread relates to mankind’s future evolution and the possibility of beneficial mutation. In the humorous Hogben stories, a family of backwoods mutants with incredible mental powers do their best to live beneath the notice of snooping big-city scientists and other busybodies. These are tall tales for the nuclear age, providing fantastical solutions to common problems, as when Junior Hogben jury-rigs a time machine to make cream sour faster in “Cold War.”

In other stories, the implications of human evolution are much darker, and the prospect of a struggle between homo sapiens and homo superior looms. Some of the new breed wish only to live in peace like the Hogbens, but others seek to dominate their merely human inferiors or bide their time until there are enough others like them, realizing that unmutated humans would hate and fear them if they knew that supermen lived among them. Combining nuclear anxiety, metaphors of societal prejudice, and drawing clear comparisons with early humans’ elimination of Neanderthal competition, these stories are instantly recognizable as an inspiration for Marvel Comics’ X-Men.

In stories like “Absalom,” there is a specifically Oedipal dimension to this struggle, and we’re back around full circle to the notion that children are essentially psychopathic, their minds still malleable, buffeted between conflicting influences. Parenting is tough enough, but in a family of telepaths, where does one draw the line? “The Piper’s Son” (part of the “Baldy” series expanded into the novel Mutant) sensitively asks that question, comparing the balance of power within a family to the uneasy search for a growing Baldy minority’s place in a rebuilding postwar society.

Beyond these major themes, there are plenty of surprises. Judging science fiction by the accuracy of its predictions is a rookie mistake, but in addition to Kuttner’s farsighted critiques of technology as an agent of conditioning, one finds, for example, the suggestion of a viral meme (in the form of a catchy song) used to disrupt an enemy’s organization in the wartime tale “Nothing But Gingerbread Left.” In “The Proud Robot,” one sees subscription-based television services more like Netflix than the radio-license model Kuttner seems to have had in mind. Of course, the predictions that ring true are more likely to jump out at the reader–I’m still waiting for the robotic judge, jury, and executioner described in “Two-Handed Engine,” and I’ll probably continue to wait–and whether a prediction comes true doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story. It’s a truism that every story is really about the time it was written, no matter what year it’s supposed to be set in. Don’t we read old science fiction in part for those glimpses of a world that could have turned out differently? In the case of Henry Kuttner, there is still entertainment–and thoughtful observation of humanity–to be had, if we but look.

* Don’t take my word for it: Robert M. Price wrote in his 1995 introduction to The Book of Iod, a collection of Kuttner’s youthful Lovecraft pastiches, “Henry Kuttner’s star shines neither so brightly nor so high up in the firmament as it once did. . . . Today it is sad but safe to say that just about all of Kuttner’s exceedingly clever fiction is the property of literary nostalgia-lovers and antiquarians.”

Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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Paris, 1913: The Princess Sonia Danidoff checks into the Royal Palace Hotel late at night. After she picks up an envelope containing 120,000 Francs in cash from the front desk, the elevator operator takes her to her room on the fourth floor (we see the elevator ascend all the way to make its importance clear). She puts the envelope and a string of pearls in a drawer and leaves the room to change into a nightgown.

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While she has stepped out, a mysterious bearded man appears from behind a curtain in the room and heads straight for the drawer. But he is interrupted by her return, and once the maid is gone he reveals himself to the Princess. Since this is a silent film, we don’t know his exact words, but when the Princess expresses her shock and demands to know his identity, he hands her a calling card: blank! He warns her not to make any noise as he takes the cash and jewelry, and then makes one last threat before gallantly kissing her hand and making his escape. The front desk is called, and the manager sends the elevator operator up to assist. The stranger lies in wait on the fourth floor, and when the operator opens the door, he pounces! The elevator begins its descent, showing each floor again on the way down. At the ground floor, the elevator operator emerges and says, “I’ll go for the police!” He leaves–but his face looks familiar. Alone, waiting for help, the Princess examines the blank card the stranger gave her, and to her astonishment, a name appears: FANTÔMAS!

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Of course, when the police arrive and the elevator is opened, the operator is discovered, unconscious, his uniform gone. A fake beard and mustache, worn by the thief, are discovered. This is a job for Inspector Juve of the Department of Security! Juve has his work cut out for him, as Fantômas always seems to be one step ahead: through his network of informants and contacts in all levels of society he always knows where the ripest pickings are to be had; he has no scruples against, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, or any other crime; and because of his penchant for disguises, no one even knows what he looks like! Why, anybody could be Fantômas–even you! Thus begins the first chapter of the 1913 film Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the first of five Fantômas features directed by Louis Feuillade.

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Feuillade’s crime serials neither begin with Fantômas nor end with Judex (the first was preceded by a series of shorts in which Fantômas star René Navarre played a detective, and Judex was followed by a sequel, The New Mission of Judex), but the trilogy of Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are widely available today in restored editions, and taken together they convey the sense of his influence (I had intended to cover Les Vampires in this entry, but instead I will get to it and Judex at a later time). Fantômas is not strictly a serial in the same format as the other “chapter plays” I have explored in Fates Worse Than Death (it is made up of five films, all but one around an hour in length and released in theaters at intervals of two or three months, although they are divided into chapters), but it is highly serialized nevertheless and is so influential in its imagery and plotting, particularly its characterization of the master criminal, that it feels like splitting hairs to exclude it from discussion.

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The Fantômas series was based on a popular series of pulp novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which followed the endless (almost literally) struggle between the villainous Fantômas and the team of Inspector Juve and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor. Earlier this summer I said that Fu Manchu was “perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind.” Well, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and Fantômas has Sax Rohmer’s “devil doctor” beaten by at least a year, first appearing in print in 1911 and solidifying an archetype, the modern criminal genius, that had been coming together in a nebulous way in the previous century.

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To digress: when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I found it a little anticlimactic that Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in only one story, introduced and eliminated as part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to rid himself of his most famous creation. Aside from later writers’ use of Moriarty as a recurring nemesis in their own Holmes pastiches, many of the long-running villains of the early twentieth century like Fantômas, Fu Manchu, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse struck me as attempts to justify and expand upon Doyle’s description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime.” However, learning that there were in the nineteenth century several criminals who engineered clever international schemes, committed infamous crimes that captured the public imagination, and who inspired grudging admiration even among those professionals who failed to catch them, and one of whom was literally described as a “Napoleon of Crime,” did serve to put Moriarty in context. Doyle’s audience didn’t need a long history of enmity to be established in the pages of Holmes’ adventures, for they already knew the type of figure Holmes described when speaking of Moriarty, and the detective’s movement from solving smaller crimes to tackling the kind of worldbeater they read about in newspapers and magazines next to the Holmes stories probably seemed like a natural progression. As in Chester Gould’s creation of Dick Tracy to battle forces of criminality that the real police couldn’t get a handle on, Doyle directed his pen toward the real crime bosses of his day, at least within the pages of his fiction.

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Such was Fantômas, but in Souvestre’s and Allain’s books, and in Feuillade’s films, the crimes he committed became surreal and grotesque, and his powers seemingly unlimited. A dead man’s fingerprints are stolen to divert blame for Fantômas’ crimes; a “silent executioner,” sent to destroy Fantômas’ enemies, turns out to be a deadly snake. As his “ghostly” name implies, Fantômas can appear or disappear almost at will, and as a master of disguise he maintains multiple identities, both respectable and criminal: posing as a landlord, he hides a corpse in a freshly-plastered wall, only to take credit for “discovering” the body in one of his other roles, an American detective. Through such strategems he is even able to convince the public and the authorities that Juve, the man hunting him, is actually Fantômas!

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Fantômas and his pursuers are closer to archetypes than fully realized characters, at least in the films (I’ll admit I haven’t read the books): there’s not much evidence that Juve or Fandor have any existence aside from their jobs, and as for Fantômas, there’s even less to him, a hollow man of a thousand faces, an embodiment of pure sociopathy. While I’ve seen the Fantômas series classified as “espionage” (a label that makes sense for its embrace of secret, international conspiracies, multiple disguises, double-crosses, and singularly heroic agents acting alone), there is little to no reference to politics in the external sense–If there is a war being waged, it is between the secret underworld of crime and an orderly society that reacts to it: in short, a “return of the repressed.” The series’ sense of morbid fantasy puts it closer to The Man Who Was Thursday than The Secret Agent.

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However, perhaps we should not be surprised that Fantômas, like Fu Manchu, or the icons of later horror films, gradually came to be treated as the hero of the series, with audiences rooting for him to get away so he can return some other time to continue entertaining us and titillating us with displays of power. As we have seen with Brazil’s Coffin Joe, conservative societies frequently find outlets for antisocial instincts in conscienceless, charismatic antiheroes. Fantômas is, as far as we know, purely in it for profit and personal power, and in a repressive society, such a figure is the ultimate individualist, and thus a potent symbol. The Surrealists who embraced Fantômas as an icon or mascot surely responded to his embrace of freedom at all costs (and generally at the expense of others) just as much as they loved the weird imagery and non sequitur plotting Souvestre and Allain cooked up in their rapid, free-associating writing partnership.

Fantomas.Navarre

In his commentary on the Kino Inernational DVD, film historian David Kalat comments on the series’ implicit belief in the possibility of “total disguise,” observing that when Fantômas impersonates a physician, he takes on a practice and even sees patients; when he poses as a real person, copying his appearance and mannerisms, he fools even close friends of the original. I am reminded of the later sound serials’ frequent habit of casting two different actors to play characters in disguise, so that their transformation appears to be truly complete, and their revelation is suitably surprising to the audience. Here, star René Navarre does it all himself with body language and various wigs and mustaches: in fact, most of Feuillade’s Fantômas films begin with close-ups of Navarre showing off the various disguises Fantômas will be wearing in the upcoming episode (in some, Edmund Bréon, who plays Juve, shows off his own disguises in a similar manner). Thus, even though a character is introduced as “Gurn” or “Nanteuil” or “Father Moche,” we the audience already know that it is Fantômas. Sometimes Juve or Fandor recognize their quarry right away, but other times the disguise is completely foolproof. In such cases, the suspense comes from the audience’s knowledge of what is going on, and wondering how long it will take the film’s heroes to catch on and unravel the scheme.

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In other cases, however, the audience is as mystified as Juve and Fandor, and what we get are only fragments of a plot seen from the outside, with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place only at the climax, a conception of the suspense film that has come to be the norm: it feels more “traditional” to save revelations for the most dramatic moment, but it is actually the opposite, a modern approach that withholds information until the tension is at its breaking point.

Fantomas.caught

Aside from the fluidity of his identity, the other constant is Fantômas’ slipperiness: several times he is cornered, even taken into custody by the police, but each time he wriggles free by some last-minute escape hatch (one of the hallmarks of the mastermind type as seen in later serials and pulp fiction). When apprehended by Juve and Fandor outside a nightclub, Fantômas slips out of his coat, leaving the two men holding a pair of false arms; held at gunpoint in his office, he leaps backward through a false panel behind him and escapes yet again. In fact, one major difference between the Fantômas saga and most of the other serials I have covered is its open-endedness: at the end of each feature, including the last one, Fantômas manages to get away and “Once again, Fantômas, the uncanny, the master of crime, was free.” (The original novels by Souvestre and Allain ran to 32 installments, with 11 more by Allain alone; Feuillade had no more reason to close off his series permanently than the producers of the James Bond movies would.)

Fantomas.disarmed

While episodic, there are a few cliffhangers in the modern sense: at the end of the second feature, Juve vs. Fantômas, Fantômas blows up the house in which Juve, Fandor, and the police are searching for him, exulting at his victory. “Were Juve and Fandor killed by the explosion at Lady Beltham’s villa?” the title card asks. Answers would not be forthcoming until deep into the next feature, The Murderous Corpse, which begins with Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), recovered from his injuries and investigating in the footsteps of his presumed-dead friend. (Again, the audience knows from the beginning that Juve, alive, has infiltrated the Fantômas gang in disguise, but it takes a while for Fandor to learn the truth.)Fantomas.triumphant

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of Fantômas’ most iconic disguises: in a few episodes, when Fantômas himself deigns to get his hands dirty, he dons an all-black costume complete with a long hood like that of an inquisitor or executioner. I have frequently commented on the ubiquity of hooded villains in the later serials, and this seems to be one of the primal founts for that particular costume.

Fantomas.hood

Fantômas was an international hit: in addition to European success, the films were imported to the Americas and proved very popular (at the time, at least). William Fox handled the series in the United States and produced his own Americanized Fantomas serial (now lost) in 1920. Prior to the explosion of costumed superheroes in the 1940s, the serials and pulp magazines were full of villains (and sometimes heroes) who looked like they all shopped out of the same catalog for members of secret tribunals: it was a standard-issue costume.

SpicyMysteryMay1941

(Interestingly, Fantômas is seen only once in the film series in his other iconic costume, the eveningwear and domino mask seen on the cover of the first book and made famous as a popular poster, and that is as a daydream in which he appears to Inspector Juve, taunting him and daring him to arrest him.)

Fantomas.daydream

The worldview cultivated by the Fantômas features is ultimately a paranoid one: just as the queasy ethnic stereotyping of the Fu Manchu series means that any Asian character is a target of suspicion, for they could be one of Fu Manchu’s agents, so in these films anyone you meet could turn out to be Fantômas or someone in his pocket! Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), one of the few recurring characters aside from the trio of Fantômas, Juve, and Fandor, is compromised, having been the mistress of one of Fantômas’ alter egos and subject to blackmail ever after: even the convent is no escape for her.

Fantomas.LadyBeltham

The sense of persecution extends to the inexorable workings of justice, in case you were tempted to take comfort in Inspector Juve’s opposition to Fantômas. In Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, an actor who specializes in making himself up as the master criminal finds himself in prison and scheduled to be executed in Fantômas’ place! (In the film, Juve discovers the imposture just in time, but apparently in the book the miscarriage of justice is permanent; again, I haven’t read it.)

Fantomas.Juve1

As mentioned previously, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas (the fourth feature), the public turns against Juve, believing him to be the criminal himself (with more than a little help from Fantômas in his various identities), and he is arrested and imprisoned; incredibly, Fantômas goes so far as to bribe a guard to drug Juve and cut him so that he will have an injury matching one Fantômas had recently incurred in public, so that it will seem as if Juve had escaped to commit the crime. Yes, it is a little convoluted: no scheme is too baroque for Fantômas, and few ordinary people would have the resources and stamina of Juve and Fandor to stand up to them. In the fifth and final feature, The False Magistrate, Juve willingly takes Fantômas’ place in a Belgian prison in order to lure Fantômas back to France, where he can be subject to the death penalty, as clear an example of the policeman adopting the criminal’s way of thinking as you’ll find.

Fantomas.wound1

Fantomas.wound2

In the Fantômas series, the ubiquity of masks, assumed identities, and deadly secrets is thrilling to watch, but becomes oppressive after a while. The setting also contributes to this feeling: beneath the modern Paris of neat row houses and elegant society are the catacombs and secret passages through cellars and abandoned warehouses, and above are the moonlit rooftops over which black-clad cat burglars and assassins nimbly make their way. The secret world of cutpurses, fences, and killers is separated from ordinary life by only the thinnest of membranes, and the naïve forget it at their peril. Although largely filmed on location in and around the city, the persistence of shadows and crumbling, empty places anticipates the stark, agonistic productions of German expressionism that would arise in the next decade. Paris á la Fantômas is a place full of wonders, but dangerous in which to linger.

Fantomas1.title

What I Watched: The Fantômas series (Gaumont, 1913-14)
Where I Watched It: A 3-DVD set from Kino International (This is a restored version undertaken in 1998; it also includes the commentary by film historian David Kalat I have alluded to above.)
No. of Chapters: As mentioned, this isn’t quite in the format of a serial as it would be understood later, but the five features that make up the Fantômas saga are themselves divided into chapters, so taken altogether there are 22 including prologues.
Best Chapter Title: I like the title of the second chapter of Fantômas vs. Fantômas, “The Bleeding Wall,” which is not a metaphor.

Fantomas.bleedingwall
Best Peril: As noted, there are only a few genuine cliffhangers (I don’t really count Fantômas’ inevitable escapes, which are more like hooks for future adventures), but chapters within each feature are (unsurprisingly) more like chapters in a book than the sequence of perilous episodes found in a serial proper, each chapter developing one of several mysteries which, when taken all together, explain Fantômas’ overall scheme. Although not a peril faced by Juve or Fandor, it’s hard to top the sequence in The False Magistrate in which Fantômas sends one of his underlings to fetch some jewelry hidden inside a church bell and then leaves him stranded in the bell tower; the next time the bell is rung, a shower of hidden jewels and blood from his mutilated body falls on the funeralgoers below. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it demonstrates the degree to which the world of Fantômas is one of free-associating dreams and nightmares. In a series full of Grand Guignol horrors, this is one of the grandest.

Fantomas.belltower1

Sample Dialogue: “If you are Fantômas, we want our cut, tout de suite. If you are Juve, then it’s bad news for you.” –a member of Fantômas’ gang, still under the impression that Inspector Juve is secretly their leader, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas Chapter Four, “Settling Accounts”

Fantomas.Juve.caught
What’s Next: Next week, I’ll continue the Feuillade theme with his follow-up serial, Les Vampires (and this time I really mean it!).

My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

Purple Prose, Purple Death

Cap.purpledeath

In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

FG3.purpledeath

The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

Cap.headline

In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

Cap.headline2

Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

joker

However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

iowa_flu2

So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.

My 2015 in Books

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As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

ValleyofCreation

January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?

The Short Horrors of Robert E. Howard

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Although in the popular imagination, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) continues to be identified as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a pillar of the sword and sorcery tradition, readers who have explored beyond Conan (or approached Howard from a different avenue, as I did) know that the prolific pulp writer also frequently indulged in horror in a variety of styles. Indeed, horror is a critical ingredient even of Howard’s heroic fantasy, and almost all of his work is streaked with terror.

Consider the foes, both monstrous and supernatural, that Conan and Howard’s other he-man heroes faced in their adventures (the gray ape that silently stalks Conan in a night-black dungeon in The Hour of the Dragon is typical, and it goes without saying that magic in Howard’s stories is rarely benevolent), and it becomes clear why it can be difficult to sort Howard’s “horror” tales from his other output, and why there is so little overlap between different collections.

This article focuses on four different paperback collections of Howard’s horror stories, comparing their contents and taking note of different editorial priorities. They are far from the only collections of Howard’s work, and no slight is meant against (for example) the pioneering paperback collections edited by Glenn Lord. The editions under discussion are, however, either in my possession or readily available, and each is different enough to warrant investigation. (Complete contents of each book are listed at the end of the article.)

My first encounter with Howard’s fiction was through Baen Books’ Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, edited by David Drake. As I have written elsewhere, I actually had a hard time tracking down H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction when I first heard about it as a budding middle school fantasy enthusiast. His “Cthulhu Mythos” had for me at the time the same enchanted, mysterious quality that the Necronomicon had for his characters: something about which obscure references were dropped but which remained tantalizingly out of reach. The Mythos and Kindred Horrors was thus a welcome discovery, and the short story “The Black Stone” which leads off the book was the first proper Mythos story I was able to get my hands on.

Although short, The Mythos and Kindred Horrors remains a fine introduction to Howard’s macabre imagination: as promised, it contains a number of significant Mythos stories, including “The Black Stone,” “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” and “The Thing on the Roof,” but also examples of his dark, violent fantasy (“The Valley of the Worm,” “People of the Dark,” and “Worms of the Earth”) and even a weird Western (“Old Garfield’s Heart”).

The final story, “Pigeons From Hell,” is a truly terrifying slice of Southern gothic, and like the greatest horror stories earns its scares as much from the depths of moral depravity it displays as from atmosphere or shocks (Stephen King named it “one of the finest horror stories of our century” in Danse Macabre). “Pigeons From Hell” was adapted into a 1961 episode of the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology show Thriller, an adaptation that, while effective, shows a clear debt to Psycho, released the previous year. Resetting it in the modern South made the horror more immediate, as if the two guys from Route 66 had stumbled onto the Bates Motel, but the abbreviated runtime strips out the racial element that gives the original story so much of its charge, even removing the final twist.

Pigeons.title

Another volume, and one that specifically includes only Howard’s Cthulhoid fiction (so no “Pigeons From Hell”), is Nameless Cults, edited by Robert M. Price. Presented by Chaosium, publisher of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, Nameless Cults is part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series: Chaosium publishes numerous volumes of fiction to supplement its game and to present the works of Lovecraft, other members of his circle, and contemporary authors in accessible editions; some are organized around a single subject or a specific deity or aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos, others by author, as in the case of Nameless Cults.

The title refers to one of Howard’s own contributions to the Mythos, the “Black Book” Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich Von Junzt, the author’s answer to Lovecraft’s forbidden tome the Necronomicon. Embroidering on his friend’s growing set of references, Howard added Von Junzt and his book, along with such characters as the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey and the Great Old One Gol-Goroth, to the Mythos. (Howard’s many pre-historic speculations on Atlantis, Valusia, and other aspects of Conan’s “Hyborian Age” would also be swept into the Mythos by Lovecraft and others in a pattern of mutual borrowing, so one could as easily refer to a “Weird Tales Mythos” as use the more familiar term “Cthulhu Mythos,” which of course was a label added only later by Lovecraft’s literary executor August Derleth.)

Price’s editorial remarks lend extra value to Nameless Cults; in addition to providing detailed information about the provenance of the stories included (some of which are fragments that have been finished by others), Price puts them into context as both a scholar of both Lovecraft and a theologian (Price has edited many of Chaosium’s books, as well as publishing books and articles on Christianity and editing Lovecraftian journals such as Crypt of Cthulhu). The most important insight Price brings is his consideration of the Mythos as a loose collection of themes and references rather than a continuity that must be reconciled and kept free of contradictions (as with fellow scholar S. T. Joshi, much of Price’s work has involved debunking Derleth’s spurious claims on behalf of Lovecraft and his creations, but in general Price’s perspective is more sympathetic to a multi-faceted rather than a purist approach). It’s this freedom that allows writers of different temperaments to make use of the Mythos and gives it the feeling of an actual mythology, scattered and secret but nonetheless organic.

It’s hard to think of a writer more different in temperament from H. P. Lovecraft than Robert E. Howard, at least as revealed in their stories. Lovecraft’s protagonists, to the extent that they are developed as characters at all, tend to be inward-looking scholars or antiquarians, drawn inexorably toward doom by curiosity or forces they do not understand. (An exception is Professor Henry Armitage, the hero of “The Dunwich Horror,” who is able to take charge and push back the demonic entities seeking entrance to our world.) Howard, however, puts the same kind of fearless, action-oriented warriors who populate his other stories into his horror tales (whether in a historical or fantasy setting or the contemporary world, the defining characteristics of Howard’s heroes are hyper-competence and a willingness to take action for what they believe is right, regardless of the cost–still the formula for an action hero today).

The contrast is amusingly illustrated in “The Challenge From Beyond,” a curious multi-author collaboration included in the Chaosium volume. At the end of Lovecraft’s chapter, the protagonist finds that he has been–horror of horrors!–transformed into “the loathsome, pale-grey bulk” of an alien centipede, and faints dead away: a typical Lovecraftian ending. As Howard picks up the thread in the next chapter, however, the hero’s perspective has changed and he begins to revel in the power of his new form, as “fear and revulsion were drowned in the excitement of titanic adventure”:

What was his former body but a cloak, eventually to be cast off at death anyway? He had no sentimental illusions about the life from which he had been exiled. What had it ever given him save toil, poverty, continual frustration and repression? If this life before him offered no more, at least it offered no less. Intuition told him it offered more–much more.

In Howardian fashion, “The Challenge From Beyond” changes from a story of horror to one of triumph, as the protagonist uses the strength of his new form to conquer the aliens and make himself their king, “a Conan among centipedes” in L. Sprague de Camp’s memorable phrase.

The physical bravery and strength that Howard considered so essential to being a hero (or a man, at that) actually tends to prop up the horror effects in his Cthulhu stories, however. The darkness is all the more terrifying when even such specimens cannot hope to defeat it; at best, victory means simply surviving. (It is unsurprising that Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” was a favorite of Howard’s, and its formula of investigation and action would prove a useful model for his occult detective fiction. It’s also, not coincidentally, the Lovecraft story that most resembles a Call of Cthulhu game scenario.)

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The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, edited by M. J. Elliott as part of Wordsworth Editions’ “Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural” series, includes the best-known of Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories but also casts a wide net, including other horror and dark fantasy stories that cover a variety of subject matters and styles. Several of these stories, such as “In the Forest of Villefore” and “Wolfshead” (part of a werewolf cycle), are among the author’s earliest published works and show a still-raw talent. The volume also shows the range of genres that Howard explored in search of outlets for publication and introduces some of the author’s recurring characters: occult investigator John Kirowan and detective Steve Harrison, for example.

It also provides examples of Howard borrowing from his literary forebears and contemporaries: one of my favorites, the short novel “Skull-Face” (included in both the Chaosium and Wordsworth editions), is an entertaining pastiche of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels with the fantasy elements dialed up. Instead of the Chinese doctor, the titular villain is a survivor from the ancient past with scientific knowledge so advanced that it might as well be magic. (The hero of “Skull-Face,” Stephen Costigan, is not to be confused with another Howard series hero, Sailor Steve Costigan, but is an example of what Elliott describes as Howard’s “inexplicable fondness for certain character names.”)

If “Skull-Face” is Howard’s version of Rohmer, reading a number of Howard’s stories in close succession makes clearer the influence of other authors, even as in the best of his stories Howard’s own personality shines through. Even beyond its Mythos trappings, with its antiquarian protagonist and dreamy atmosphere “The Black Stone” is clearly modeled after Lovecraft, as Howard acknowledged in his own letters. Similarly, “The Dream Snake” and “The Fearsome Touch of Death” are indebted to Ambrose Bierce, with the implication that it is internal fears, not external threats, that are most destructive.

As Price points out in his introduction to Nameless Cults, the author who influenced Howard’s horror output most strongly besides Lovecraft was the Welsh Arthur Machen. In a number of Howard’s stories touching on reincarnation or racial memory and characterizing the “Little People” of myth as monstrous survivors of a pre-human race, “he has gone back to one of Lovecraft’s own sources, Arthur Machen, and remixed the Mythos, turning up the volume on the Machen track.”

Indeed, the recurring theme that unites both the stories of Conan, Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, and flashes of racial memory with his stories of the Cthulhu Mythos is the long shadow cast by the distant, prehistoric past, “Lurking memories of the ages when dawns were young and men struggled with forces which were not of men” (in the words of “The Little People”). Just as it was for Edgar Rice Burroughs, another important influence on Howard, that struggle against wild nature and subhuman savagery was a defining one for both character and narrative, and as with Burroughs it sometimes manifested in Howard’s work as a racial scheme in which tall, white-skinned, “clean-limbed” Aryans (a term borrowed from the anthropology of the time, but which is particularly regrettable with modern hindsight) swept Westward throughout Europe (and later America), routing the short, swarthy tribes that became the basis for legends of goblins and the hidden races of Machen, Lovecraft, and others. (But as Price points out, Howard was able to have it both ways by making the underdog Picts into heroes pitted against an even older, more secretive and less human race, as in “Worms of the Earth.”)

In these stories and others, the modern reader runs headlong into Howard’s sometimes objectionable racial characterizations: stories set in the deep South and Southwest include epithets for black and Mexican characters, sometimes in dialogue, but sometimes as part of the narration or from the viewpoints of characters who are supposed to be sympathetic. As in my discussion of representation in the serials from the same time period, it is pointless to pretend that such attitudes and words weren’t part of the world of at least some in Howard’s time, and pointing out parts of Howard’s work that haven’t aged well need not imply a disavowal of the strong parts of his fiction.

And perhaps it is simply my modern perspective, but I think it is telling that in general Howard’s strongest stories take a more nuanced point of view, with characters of all races showing both good and bad qualities. As Rusty Burke points out in his introduction to Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, the interaction of common racial prejudices in Howard’s native Texas with the author’s natural sympathy for the underdog and belief that ultimately a man is what he makes of himself led to some complex characterizations. The flip side of his often-stated distrust of civilization and its stultifying effects, Howard showed great admiration for native peoples who (in his admittedly romanticized view) lived close to nature; one of his wisest characters was the African “medicine man” N’Longa, friend and advisor to Solomon Kane.

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The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the longest (over 520 pages) and most comprehensive collection at my disposal, and yet even it omits stories that may be found in the others (“Skull-Face” is the most notable absence, possibly left out because of its length). It does, however, cover the broadest range of Howard’s output, including Cthulhoid horror, sword and sorcery, regional horror (Western and Southern, including “Pigeons From Hell”), and contemporary adventure stories, as well as samples of Howard’s seafaring, boxing, and detective fiction.

The Del Rey volume also includes four unfinished stories, grouped as “Miscellanea,” and there is more bibliographic detail than in either the Baen or Wordsworth volumes, listing first publication (or manuscript source in the case of posthumously discovered stories) and detailed notes on changes in spelling or punctuation made by the editor.

It is also the only volume to include more than a few of Howard’s numerous poems. Like his fellow Weird Tales contributors H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard was a prolific versifier, and like them he remained largely conservative in the face of modernism, sticking to rhyming, metric poems. Most of his poetry has a rough-hewn, deliberately “barbaric” quality, often cast in multi-stanza ballad forms with rhyming couplets: appropriate for his subjects, usually as dark and gruesome as those he favored in his stories. Although it is unlikely that Howard’s poems will ever be popular outside of weird fiction (and heavy metal) fandom, they contain some vivid and concise images, such as the following lines in “Dead Man’s Hate”:

There was no sound on Adam Brand but his brow was cold and damp,
For the fear of death had blown out his life as a witch blows out a lamp.

It is often treacherous to psychoanalyze a writer based on their fiction, but to an extent horror writers invite it: the best are not simply calculating what they think will scare their audience, but are delving into and externalizing their own fears. That’s not to say that horror writers necessarily believe in what they’re writing (crackpot theories that Lovecraft possessed secret knowledge of real-life Cthulhu cults notwithstanding), but their choices can be revealing.

Robert E. Howard’s own tragic story (he committed suicide at age 30 after his mother slipped into her final coma) is at odds with the implacable supermen he created, but even in his stories he often hinted that death was preferable to a life of pain or defeat. Elliott singles out a passage in “Skull-Face” in which recovering opium addict Stephen Costigan ponders drowning himself, “that I should soon attain that Ultimate Ocean which lies beyond all dreams.”

The stoicism with which Costigan considers ending his life is of a piece with the pragmatism and toughness of most of Howard’s characters, but there is another side to Howard that tends to be overlooked, the dreamy, “feminine” side that gave us the “mad poet” Justin Geoffrey. Geoffrey is often seen as a portrait of Howard’s friend and correspondent H. P. Lovecraft, and he does resemble Lovecraft’s typical protagonists, often so removed from this world that their weird art or poetry are perfect channels for the “outside” influences of the Cthulhu Mythos to find their way in. Nevertheless, if, as Lovecraft himself argued, “the real secret [of Howard’s characters] is that he himself is in every one of them,” then Geoffrey is certainly a facet of Howard’s personality. Robert M. Price goes further, saying of Geoffrey,

Here is Howard with a vengeance, the real Howard in a far deeper sense than either Balthus [“a realistic depiction of Howard compared with Conan, the idealized version”] or Steve Costigan. Justin Geoffrey is the archetypal Byronic artist too sensitive for this mortal coil, a frail human funnel for the whirlwinds sweeping down from between the stars.

Justin Geoffrey would die “screaming in a madhouse,” a fate that Howard possibly predicted for himself, and to which he found suicide preferable.

An even more revealing self-portrait can be found in the unfinished story “Spectres in the Dark,” included in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. In this fragment, unseen forces hiding in the shadows drive otherwise normal individuals to commit murder. One such unwitting killer is Clement Van Dorn, an artist who finds himself accused of killing his mentor. Visiting him in jail, Van Dorn’s friends find him in a pathetic state:

Clement nodded but there was no spark of hope in his eyes, only a bleak and baffled despair. He was not suited to cope with the rough phases of life, which until now he had never encountered. A weakling, morally and physically, he was learning in a hard school that savage fact of biology–that only the strong survive.

Suddenly Joan held out her arms to him, her mothering instinct which all women have touched to the quick by his helplessness. Like a lost child he threw himself on his knees before her, laid his head in her lap, his frail body racked with great sobs as she stroked his hair, whispering gently to him–like a mother to her child. His hands sought hers and held them as if they were his hope of salvation. The poor devil; he had no place in this rough world; he was made to be mothered and cared for by women–like so many others of his kind.

That Robert E. Howard’s career was cut short by suicide, just as the author was developing his voice and was about to see his work published outside of the pulps, is a loss for readers. That he felt so compelled to end his own life was a tragedy for him. Perhaps the most fitting conclusion is in the words of David Drake, editor of The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, among the first words about Howard that I encountered:

Robert E. Howard had the personal misfortune to spend most of his life in a place where black hatreds ruled everyone; where currents of violence so closely underlay the surface of ordinary existence that a snub, a woman, or the ethnic background of a chance acquaintance was apt to bring a lethal outburst; where a man’s only path to respect was through strength and his willingness to use that strength.

Drake is referring, of course, not to West Texas, where Howard lived, nor even the fictional Hyboria that Howard set down on paper, but the interior of Howard’s mind, “a grim, dark place,” from which writing tales of adventure, fantasy, and even horror allowed Howard to escape . . . for a time.

Appendix: Contents of editions under discussion (titles in italic text indicate poems)

Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors
Edited and with an introduction by David Drake (Baen Books, 1987)

Arkham
The Black Stone
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Thing on the Roof
Dig Me No Grave
Silence Falls On Mecca’s Walls
The Valley of the Worm
The Shadow of the Beast
Old Garfield’s Heart
People of the Dark
Worms of the Earth
Pigeons From Hell
An Open Window

Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard
Edited and Introduced by Robert M. Price (Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction, 2001)

The Black Stone
Worms of the Earth
The Little People
People of the Dark
The Children of the Night
The Thing on the Roof
The Abbey (w/ C. J. Henderson)
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
The Door to the World (w/ Joseph S. Pulver)
The Hoofed Thing
Dig Me No Grave
The House in the Oaks (w/ August Derleth)
The Black Bear Bites
The Shadow Kingdom
The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
Skull-Face
Black Eons (w/ Robert M. Price)
The Challenge from Beyond (w/ C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, and Frank Belknap Long)

The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales
Compiled and Introduced by M. J. Elliott (Wordsworth Editions, Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefore
Wolfshead
The Dream Snake
The Hyena
Sea Curse
Skull-Face
The Fearsome Touch of Death
The Children of the Night
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Horror from the Mound
People of the Dark
The Cairn on the Headland
Black Talons
Fangs of Gold
Names in the Black Book
The Haunter of the Ring
Graveyard Rats
Black Wind Blowing
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Pigeons from Hell

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Introduction by Rusty Burke; Illustrated by Greg Staples (Del Rey, 2008)

In the Forest of Villefère
A Song of the Werewolf Folk
Wolfshead
Up, John Kane!
Remembrance
The Dream Snake
Sea Curse
The Moor Ghost
Moon Mockery
The Little People
Dead Man’s Hate
The Tavern
Rattle of Bones
The Fear That Follows
The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux
Casonetto’s Last Song
The Touch of Death
Out of the Deep
A Legend of Faring Town
Restless Waters
The Shadow of the Beast
The Dead Slaver’s Tale
Dermod’s Bane
The Hills of the Dead
Dig Me No Grave
The Song of a Mad Minstrel
The Children of the Night
Musings
The Black Stone
The Thing on the Roof
The Dweller in Dark Valley
The Horror from the Mound
A Dull Sound as of Knocking
People of the Dark
Delenda Est
The Cairn on the Headland
Worms of the Earth
The Symbol
The Valley of the Lost
The Hoofed Thing
The Noseless Horror
The Dwellers Under the Tomb
An Open Window
The House of Arabu
The Man on the Ground
Old Garfield’s Heart
Kelly the Conjure-Man
Black Canaan
To a Woman
One Who Comes at Eventide
The Haunter of the Ring
Pigeons from Hell
The Dead Remember
The Fire of Asshurbanipal
Fragment
Which Will Scarcely Be Understood

Miscellanea:
Golnor the Ape
Spectres in the Dark
The House
Untitled Fragment