Crafting Love

“In the first days of his bondage he had turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naïve trust of his fathers, for thence stretched mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors; or feel to the full the awkwardness with which it sought to keep alive as literal fact the outgrown fears and guesses of a primal race confronting the unknown. It wearied Carter to see how solemnly people tried to make earthly reality out of old myths which every step of their boasted science confuted, and this misplaced seriousness killed the attachment he might have kept for the ancient creeds had they been content to offer sonorous rites and emotional outlets in their true guise of eternal fantasy.

But when he came to study those who had thrown off the old myths, he found them even more ugly than those who had not. They did not know that beauty lies in harmony, and that loveliness of life has no standard amidst an aimless cosmos save only its harmony with the dreams and the feelings which have gone before and blindly moulded our little spheres out of the rest of chaos. They did not see that good and evil and beauty and ugliness are only ornamental fruits of perspective, whose sole value lies their linkage to what chance made our fathers think and feel, and whose finer details are different for every race and culture. Instead, they are either denied these things altogether or transferred them to the crude, vague instincts which they shared with the beasts and peasants; so that their lives were dragged malodourously out in pain, ugliness and disproportion, yet filled with a ludicrous pride at having escaped from something more unsound than that which still held them. They had traded the false gods of fear and blind piety for those of license and anarchy.

Carter did not taste deeply of these modern freedoms; for their cheapness and squalor sickened a spirit loving beauty alone, while his reason rebelled at the flimsy logic with which their champions tried to gild brute impulse with a sacredness stripped from the idols they had discarded. He saw that most of them, in common with their cast-off preistcraft, could not escape from the delusion that life has a meaning apart from that which men dream into it; and could not lay aside the crude notion of ethics and obligations beyond those of beauty, even when all Nature shrieked of its unconsciousness and impersonal unmorality in the light of their scientific discoveries. Warped and bigoted with preconceived illusions of justice, freedom, and consistency, they cast off the old lore and the old ways with the old beliefs; nor ever stopped to think that that lore and those ways were the sole makers of their present thoughts and judgments, and the sole guides and standards in a meaningless universe without fixed aims or stable points of reference. Having lost these artificial settings, their lives grow void of direction and dramatic interest; till at length they strove to drown their ennui in bustle and pretended usefulness, noise and excitement, barbaric display and animal sensation. When these things palled, disappointed, or grew nauseous through revulsion, they cultivated irony and bitterness, and found fault with the social order. Never could they realize that their brute foundations were as shifting and contradictory as the gods of their elders, and the satisfaction of one moment is the bane of the next. Calm, lasting beauty comes only in dreams, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

From ‘The Silver Key’, by Howard Philips Lovecraft. 1926

Please note the date of composition.

1926.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately. I’m not totally sure why. I did read Stephen King’s latest, Revival, recently, and the novel certainly evoked some Lovecraftian reflections, so that might have something to do with it. I was also fighting a brutal virus of some kind- and when I’m feeling ill and generally down-in-the-dumps, my literary tastes tend toward the gothic for some reason.

I purchased Lovecraft’s collected works for my Kobo for something like $3.00. Canadian dollars. That’s a whole lot o’ lit for not a lot of money. As I’ve been working my way through the collection, a bunch of things have been jumping out at me- like rats from the walls of an antediluvian castle.

First off, the guy LOVED to use and reuse particular turns of phrase and descriptive terminology that is hard to find outside of his work. While I’ve read him before, I have never in-taken so much back-to-back-to-back, as it were, so the repetition is heightened more than it would be if I was taking the stuff in pieces- or according to a logical ordering- which this collection (at least how it appears on my e-Reader) is lacking. If all the Cthulhu stuff and all the Dream Cycle stuff were together as their cohesive-ish wholes, then the recurrence of themes and wordplay may be less jarring. Hard to know. He was a writer of his time- so the somewhat formal and pointedly archaic language is to be expected (as is the racism and classism- although I’d avoided a great deal of the worst of that in past readings).

Nonetheless, I’ve always been interested in the guy- as much for what he influenced as for his creations themselves. The Cthulhu Mythos is pretty damn brilliant when it comes down to it, with its incorporation of mythological themes and responses to the tensions between the realities of scientific and technological advances, and ‘tradition’ and religion.

From the Wikipedia:

Lovecraft himself adopted the stance of atheism early in his life. In 1932 he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist”.

He got it. I’ll say it again, atheism ain’t some new, dangerous social phenomenon. Old as the hills, it is. Or at least as old as the gods.

Lovecraft was a weird little dude, in many ways. But his influence is undisputed in certain literary circles. Neil Gaimon loves him (and I love Neil Gaimon). As does the aforementioned Mr. King. I have to admit that revisiting his stories has been eye-opening.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had recurring dreams that feature the odd angles and geometry that Lovecraft uses to describe the architecture of the mysterious and forbidden cities of the ancients. So many of these dreams take place in parts of Toronto (the town closest to my heart) but with subtle differences that lend a sinister aura to the dreamscapes.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out for a ramble and come across a building that seems somehow off in real life- since I’m used to seeing it in dreams with its structure somehow altered.

Arguably, the guy has crept into my psyche through the myriad stories his writings influenced and which I read/heard without knowing that they were Lovecraftian in origin. He’s created archetypes that we don’t even acknowledge as being as archetypal as they are.

I have something of a similar relationship with some of Ray Bradbury’s tales. His October Country and Dark Carnival resonate heavily with my childhood memories and, well, things I like. Oddly, perhaps, since I haven’t spent much (any) time in the Midwest of the US.  I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was in Grade 6. It was fall (it might have been October), and the atmosphere of the novel suited the melancholy of the season and set the standard for my love of macabre carnivals (like the ones found in Carnivale and, recently, the Freak Show of the most recent iteration of American Horror Story).

Through Bradbury’s autumnal settings and investigations of the mélange of good and evil found in each of us- and the awareness that self-centered desires are the basis for human malice and unhappiness- his stories teach us that supernatural forces (evil coming from outside- from something that is other than human) are most easily defeated by the most human of tools. Things like sincerity of heart. Things like love. Because those non-human influences are easily dissipated when faced with human strength of character and conviction.

Reminds me of a song…

When I was a young boy,
My father took me into the city,
To see a marching band,
He said, Son, when you grow up,
Would you be the savior of the broken,
The beaten and the damned,

Sometimes I get the feeling,
She’s watching over me,
And other times I feel like I should go,
And through it all, the rise and fall,
The bodies in the streets,
And when you’re gone we want you all to know,

We’ll carry on, we’ll carry on,
And though you’re dead and gone, believe me,
Your memory will carry on, we’ll carry on,
And in my heart, I can’t contain it,
The anthem won’t explain it,

And while that sends you reeling,
From decimated dreams,
Your misery and hate will kill us all,
So paint it black and take it back,
Let’s shout out loud and clear,
Defiant to the end we hear the call

Many of Bradbury’s tales were published by Arkham House- founded to preserve, in hardcover, Lovecraft’s voluminous fiction.

Like Lovecraft, Bradbury’s imagination influenced those same later writers. Neil’s latest short story collection contains a poetic homage to Ray that highlights his importance to the weird  genre of literature. Something Wicked also greatly impacted the story behind my favourite of his novels -one I used more than once in courses I taught over the years- American Gods.

Ordinary people fighting the influence of supernatural beings- frequently, the gods themselves. Recurrence of theme…

I used Gaimon’s wonderful novel as an illustration of the ways in which we, as humans, make up gods as originators and jurists- and how these creations need us. Without our worship and acknowledgement they fade, or die, or are forced to take jobs as taxi drivers and prostitutes (or, as did my very faves, run a funeral parlour in Cairo, Illinois- not all that far from Bradbury’s native Waukegan, Illinois).

The first time I used American Gods in a classroom setting was for a course called Religion, Illusion and Reality- a survey course describing how we create and study religions. The novel offers a vivid illustration of the fundamental need the gods have for us, their creators, and how they fade as newer gods- those of media, technology and, even, celebrity take focus and worship away from them and cause them to disappear into obscure uselessness.

I love this theme. And it runs through all this weird fiction. Those things to which we stop paying attention draw back into the abyss of imagination where they were created- but remain dormant yet dangerous, waiting for the opportunity to influence the credulous among us and regain their power over those seeking to gratify the self above all. It is there that the weird gods find their acolytes.

This worldview hearkens back to that whole order vs. chaos dichotomy I’ve talked about before. Back to the beginnings- to our creative origins as we developed written language and began to institutionalize our attempts at explaining the unexplainable.

Rather than looking to the knowledge we’ve gained, we’re allowing the long-buried Cthulu-types to reassert their hold over our intelligence and call to us from the sunken depths or distant stars to which they had been banished by the light of humanity.

Prompted by a recent post by my friend Audrey, I’ve picked up some of Algernon Blackwood’s short fictions as well. Lord Dunsany is next. Perhaps by delving into these writers who recognize the dangers posed by those gods (and religions) we create, I’ll gain some perspective on why we are letting ourselves be drawn irretrievably back into the dark ages of credulity and superstition.

Creepy stories about weird gods are fantastic for fireside tale-telling, or while curled up in a blanket with a dram of something warming while the unseasonably cold winds from the Great Lake seep through the glass of a modern condominium building (that will be the remainder of my evening, I think).

They don’t belong in our schools or our places of work. Or in our governments and the policies they institute- on behalf of all of us.

If we’re going to insist upon such a return to darkness in our daily lives and overarching culture, why not go all the way?

Or 2015- for those of us here in Canada…

‘Looking for Satellite(s) of Love’

Getting back to writing after a hiatus- brief though it may have been- should be easy.  Ideas and things to write about just keep popping into my head (sometimes they pop out again pretty quickly- a function of sleep deprivation, but these things happen) so there is SO much to draw from.  I have even more just-started drafts in the dashboard than I did a few weeks ago, and I’m feeling a little bit like I’ve come down with a case of the distractions.

Which isn’t good.

Not on the eve of NaNoWriMo (I’m going to attempt to divide my focus and get some work done on the fiction, in addition to keeping up with my peeps here at the WordPress.  Might be overly-ambitious, but never know ’til you try and all that) and not when I have a newly-minted-and-purchased novel by one of my fave mystery authors (Elizabeth George, if you’re curious) which is just perfectly timed for curling up away from the Autumn chill with a cup of tea and just getting lost with Lynley and Barbara for a bit.

So.  Where to start?

Amid all the chaos of the move, it was a FABULOUS period of music/reminiscing, this week just past.  There was the reunion with Simple Minds last Tuesday, and then on Saturday one of my best buds took me to see David Bowie Is at the AGO.  Phenomenal.

In the way that everything seems to be connected (that synchronicity thing again), after wandering through the wonder-and-constant-innovation-that-is-Bowie all afternoon Saturday, I caught Iggy Pop on the radio (I rarely listen to the radio these days- too much commercial crap IMHO) not once, but twice.

While taking a breather from the packing/unpacking I started a post lauding all that Mr. Jones has contributed to the world- ripples (and sometimes tsunamis) of influence that have shaped our (popular) culture as we know it.  The characters, the costumes, the bending and breaking of rules of identity/gender/art… the beautifully curated exhibit really brought home just how important the Thin White Duke remains.

And man, can the guy write songs.

Once upon a time a veryveryvery long time ago, I wrote a stream of consciousness piece called ‘Talking to Ziggy’, about a protagonist who is in constant contact with the spirit of Ziggy Stardust.  It was about what happens to a fictional character who becomes fully realized and then left to fade as newer characters take priority.  Might have to try to find that…  In any case, Bowie has been an everywhere influence in my life.  It was wonderful to reconnect with him in my hometown art gallery.

But my loving chat about Bowie- and the characters that have become parts of our contemporary mythology- will have to wait for another time, because Sunday night another one of those connections showed up, and this one broke my heart a little…

Lou Reed.

Two days later, I’m still kind of at a loss for words.  He’s always been part of the fabric of the background soundtrack of my life.  Not necessarily the song that opens the film or plays as the credits are rolling on a particular period of my life, but a voice that is continually popping up here and there when the action is about angst, or disillusionment, or visiting NYC… and his underlying influence reaches even further into the music that constantly surrounds me.

Simple Minds did a cover version of Street Hassle (Waltzing Matilda/Slipaway) on Sparkle in the Rain.

Emily Haines, from our local wonder of a band, Metric, had some incredible things to say about the man and his influence on her own music.

He contributed his distinctive voice to Little Stevie’s movement against apartheid in South Africa.

He was a poet/novelist all his life- his writing was set to music rather than bound up as ink and paper.  His words remain at once timeless in way that is seldom seen any longer and pictures of specific periods in history that inform about experiences and mores and the evolving technologies that changed the way we perceive and appreciate art and music.

Lou Reed and David Bowie overlap so often it’s almost ridiculous.  Andy Warhol.  All the co-productions/cross-productions/collaborations over the years.  Bowie was London to Lou’s NYC.  They were all about experimentation and pushing the boundaries of discourse.

The three dudes in the pic up there ^^^ have always been interconnected in my brain (admittedly, in part, because of Velvet Goldmine, but I digress…)

Iggy’s Lust for Life (written and produced by Bowie) is like Lou’s Walk on the Wild Side.  Story songs about people- living on the edge and doing the best they can while dealing with demons and changes and societal conflicts.

Bowie’s Looking for Satellites (from Earthling– his first self-produced album since Diamond Dogs in 1974) is like Satellite of Lovefrom Lou’s Transformer album.  Bowie produced and provided the background vocals.

Neil Gaiman, with his wonderful way with words sums things up in a way that completely resonates with my own feelings (as is so often the case):

“His songs were the soundtrack to my life: a quavering New York voice with little range singing songs of alienation and despair, with flashes of impossible hope and of those tiny, perfect days and nights we want to last for ever, important because they are so finite and so few; songs filled with people, some named, some anonymous, who strut and stagger and flit and shimmy and hitch-hike into the limelight and out again.

It was all about stories. The songs implied more than they told: they made me want to know more, to imagine, to tell those stories myself. Some of the stories were impossible to unpack, others, like The Gift, were classically constructed short stories. Each of the albums had a personality. Each of the stories had a narrative voice: often detached, numb, without judgment.”

If there were ever two exemplars of the point that I am constantly trying to make here at colemining about the importance of story and the many ways it impacts all aspects of our lives, as human beings with card-carrying memberships in communities, David Bowie and Lou Reed are the winners and still champions.

In the fog/fugue state of packing, I squirrelled away all my CD sets into storage- including Bowie’s Sound + Vision, and my boxed set retrospective of pretty much everything Lou Reed has ever done.  Right now I’m wishing I’d labelled the boxes better so I’d have some kind of idea where they might have ended up.  Will have to settle for the YouTube and those songs in the iTunes library/on the Shuffle Daemon to take me through this newest period of reflection and remembrance.

Travel safe, Mr. Reed.  Somehow I thought you’d always be here.

I’m out of words right now, and ‘thank you’ seems overwhelmingly inadequate, but I’ll say it anyway.

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on.

Cottage Reading

Off to the cottage this weekend.  CanNOT wait.

I always take a special read with me when I have the opportunity to spend a few days beside one of the beautiful lakes up near Haliburton.  It’s a place of calm and quiet- and comfortable familiarity- totally deserving of a great book.

Last year I decided to reread Foucault’s Pendulum, for the nth time- but the first in ages.  The previous read through was for a course I taught many moons ago.  I had assigned it as one of the possibilities for review in an introductory class on religious studies methodologies.

Since it was a first-year course I wasn’t terribly confident that anyone would choose to tackle the weighty tome- the beauty of Umberto Eco’s writing notwithstanding.  I was wrong.  One intrepid and engaged student (out of 130) accepted the challenge- and wrote an excellent reflection on the way we construct beliefs and belief systems.

One of the other choices for that particular assignment was American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I was first exposed to Neil’s work in the form of Good Omens– an entertaining look at angels, demons and the apocalypse, co-authored by Terry Pratchett (he of the Discworld novels).  It was a lighthearted introduction to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman (an entrée that I followed up by fairly rapidly devouring everything else he had written).

American Gods effectively plays with mythological themes and characters- explaining what happens to the supernatural beings that are brought to the U.S. by its immigrant population.

Once the gods lose the constant worship, adoration, sacrifices and other trappings that deities tend to consider their lot, as newer gods- of things like technology and television- take their place, they are forced resort to other means of getting by and existing in the world.

The underlying premise is that we create our gods, and are therefore responsible for their inevitable fade into dereliction, insanity, day-jobs or complete non-existence when they are no longer sustained by our belief.

It is an eye-opening book, with a unique premise and engaging characters- most of whom are immediately familiar- just trying to keep their existence together.  Love the Egyptian deities running a funeral home in the South.  And the cab-driving djinn.

Pure awesomesauce.

The novel puts the gods in their appropriate place in the cultural scheme of things, and demonstrates not only that they need us more than we need them, but that their continued interference long past the point of relevance causes sometimes-irreparable damage to those of us in the line of their fire.

American Gods is a great example of Gaiman’s imaginative invention of often-overlapping worlds.

So how excited was I to find out that

this

was released yesterday? (Answer: VERY)

PERFECT cottage reading.

Since I have avoided reading reviews or synopses in case they might contain terrible spoilers, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that it is a pretty short book.  Like, a read-in-one-sitting book.

Not a problem in itself- shorter novels are not necessarily sub-par or anything- but the thought of running out of reading material while there is still warmth, sunlight and a dock with softly lapping lake water providing the backdrop des jours is worrisome in the extreme.

So I began to browse the bookstore.  Always a slippery slope for me.  I love good stories (in case you haven’t been keeping up) and discovering new writers- or rediscovering old favourites- is one of the joys of life.

A couple of hours later, and after a cool chat with the cashier about Kobo/Kindle/Tablet/iPad vs. actual, tangible books and the cottage aesthetic, I finally hit the exit with my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and

this

I have heard positive murmurings on various literary grapevines about it, and the subject matter is pretty damn irresistible.
A golem and a djinn(i) in 19th century New York?
More awesomesauce.
Now the only hurdle will be managing to avoid cracking one or the other before I hit that dock.
Temptation is hard.
Bring on the weekend!
(Did I mention I canNOT wait?)