Starry Wisdom, Vapid Songs

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, a while back it was suggested that I should cover Alan Moore’s various Cthulhu Mythos works, Moore having gotten deep into the Lovecraft tribute business right about the time I was doing my epic Lovecraft review and its various followups. To tell that story, though, I have to go back a little and tell the story of The Starry Wisdom, a curious little volume issued by Creation Books in 1994. Creation Books, back in the day, was a publisher that was vaguely associated with Creation Records and specialising in cult and underground books; edited by D.M. Mitchell, The Starry Wisdom has gained a reputation as perhaps the weirdest and most out-there Cthulhu Mythos anthology you can find, incorporating as it does texts from other authors (such as William Burroughs or J.G. Ballard) who, whilst not writing directly in the Lovecraft tradition, seem to conceptually butt up against it here and there, as well as contributions from the world of comics (both in terms of comics authors turning their hands to prose and some of the stories being presented in graphic novel format) and industrial music (Michael Gira of Swans has got a rant in here, for instance).

What it does, in short, is mash up extreme stories by traditional Mythos authors, Mythos-adjacent stories from extreme authors, and generally go broad as broad as you can in terms of what can constitute a Cthulhu Mythos story without losing sight of Lovecraftian cosmic horror altogether, and by and large it’s a great little ride. Heck, they’re even able to get a half-decent story out of Robert M. Price: his contribution, A Thousand Young, is an intensely sexualised story about a Shub-Niggurath cult posing as a society of modern-day Sadean libertines. The cod-Lovecraftian prose that Price seems to like to write in, when applied to this subject matter, actually seems weirdly apt for its confessional format. Here, supernatural horror is largely incidental to the horror of what narrator does in pursuit of his purported spiritual goals – Price once again scraping his way to a good story by engaging with his theological and philosophical interests in an imaginative manner.

By far the most conventional Mythos story in the collection is The Night Sea-Maid Went Down by Brian Lumley, which I previously covered. On balance, I suspect it was included primarily for the sake of a lewd reading of the title, and perhaps secondarily for the audacity of its final image. By far the best of the post-Lovecraft Mythos authors with work represented in here is Ramsey Campbell, whose Potential contains no overt Mythos references beyond namedropping Lovecraft himself, but at the same time manages to be Mythosy as fuck and its omission from Cold Print is kind of a shame.

HPL himself is represented with the inclusion of The Call of Cthulhu, adapted to graphic novel format by John Coulthart. The artwork is really superb, though the binding of the book means that the middle of the double-page spreads and the edges of some pages can get lost in the central crease, which is a bit of a shame. Another story in comic format is Pills For Miss Betsy by Rick Grimes, whose rudimentary art depicting the deliriously surreal day of a gross little man running about a biomechanical landscape in his underpants. It’s interesting, but doesn’t really feel Lovecraftian, or for that matter coherently like anything at all.

Illustration also plays an important role in Third Eye Butterfly, written by James Havoc (Creation Books owner James Williamson under a pseudonym) with art by Mike Philbin. This is an absolutely bizarre marriage of wildly tripped-out text with artwork that borders on pornography. There’s a conventional story to be perceived under there of a dude who rapes a witch and gets killed as a result, but it’s the weird delivery that makes it interesting.

We may as well move on from the actual comics to talk about the prose stories presented by graphic novelists. Lovecraft In Heaven by Grant Morrison is a delirious story told from Lovecraft’s point of view as he dies, allowing Morrison to grant him a chaos magic epiphany and, through him, the reader. In other words, it’s Morrison doing his occult evangelist bit again, but fun anyway.

Now, stop and pay attention, because we’ve come to the story we visited The Starry Wisdom to check out in the first place, and it’s also a strong contender for the best story in the collection. The Courtyard is set in a grim 2004, which was of course ten years in the future at the time of publication and so has interesting differences from either 1994 or the real 2004. In this timeline, President Clinton’s popularity tanked following a ruinous military intervention in Syria, there’s a Farrakhan Day national holiday, and fax booths are a common sight on the streets. In this setting Aldo Sax, an FBI agent derided by his superior as a flat-out Nazi (more or less accurately) but grudgingly valued for his investigative intuition, is looking into a series of murders with identical MOs and no apparent connection between the culprits. Sax is a bigoted shitbag, narrow-minded enough that his assumptions blind him to the truth until it is too late and he is infected.

The story is dripping with Mythos references – probably too many, to be honest – but avoids becoming a cheap spot-the-easter-egg exercise by its strong central plot and the clever recontextualisation it offers, the story hinging on the idea of the Aklo language first mentioned in the stories of Arthur Machen before being borrowed by Lovecraft. Moore presents the audacious concept that a) those mush-mouthed invocations to the Old Ones that Mythos writers so love are in Aklo and b) Aklo is a primeval language which, once it has infected you, opens your eyes to an entirely new way of seeing the universe – prompting you to take certain actions which make complete sense to you but are ruinous to those around you.

It’s basically the whole William Burroughs word virus thing, which makes it particularly appropriate that Burroughs himself has a contribution in here – Wind Die You Die We Die is not particularly coherent in terms of plot, but does adeptly present some interesting ideas, which is more or less the same thing you can say about any Burroughs work. It’s all the better for being set next to Red Mass by Dan Kellet, which takes a cliched gothic “woman hired as governess at cursed house story” and then injects it with intense Lovecraftian and pornographic imagery, presented very much in the style of Burroughs with all the experimentalism and weirdness that implies. Being able to compare the original Burroughs-brand heroin with the third party cut-with-bath-salts stuff really helps you appreciate how hard it is to imitate the original.

Other contributions from famous names includes Prisoner of the Coral Deep by J.G. Ballard, which is not actually a Mythos story but as a spooky coastal encounter with themes of deep time at least neighbours Lovecraftian notions. Swans main creative force Michael Gira offers Extracted From the Mouth of the Consumer, Rotting Pig, a farrago of grossout imagery with no particular purpose and no specifically Mythosy or Lovecraftian content.

Beyond these selections the most noteworthy story is probably Walpurgisnachtmusik by Simon Whitechapel, which is absolutely stunningly disturbing. It boasts an absolutely loathesome protagonist – a rapist and Holocaust enthusiast who is so repugnant that on the copyright page there’s a disclaimer noting that the author, editor and publisher do not share his views – and its closing segment is truly nightmarish, like a pornographic rape fantasy and a suicidal ideation merged for the sake of feeding an unnatural force. Were the ending not so vile, the build-up would be excessively edgy; were the build-up not disturbing in its own way, the ending would be overkill. As it stands, it cannot be other than it is without undermining it, and is consequently an artistic triumph, one which managed to truly horrify me in ways which I thought I was beyond experiencing.

Beyond this, we can sum up the rest of the stories fairly quickly. From This Swamp by Henry Wessells is a microstory about someone who’s withdrawn into a swamp. A bit “oooh, ethnic hallucinogens” and “oooh, technology unspiritual and bad”, but beyond that it doesn’t have much to say – it’s too brief to get to annoyed at, but didn’t exactly grip me. Conversely, Beyond Reflection by John Beal manages to be similarly brief, but actually manages to annoy me despite its short span; it shows us a man having a visionary episode inspired by a movie advertisement in a newspaper, but complicates all that needlessly with narration that’s excessively weird for weird’s sake. (“Weird for weird’s sake” is a common issue with the stories here; a similar problem knocks down Hypothetical Materfamilias by Adèle Olivia Gladwell, which is needlessly obtuse for what’s a fairly basic pregnant-with-a-monster story.)

Black Static by David Conway is yer typical stars-become-right story made interesting by its cyberpunk setting and bizarre presentation of the apocalypse. Meltdown by D.F. Lewis uses a similar eccentric interpretation of Great Old Ones to the one showcased in his Watch the Whiskers Sprout in the Chaosium-published anthology Cthulhu’s Heirs to tell a surreal story based around the stock markets. It’s odd and doesn’t feel entirely successful.

The Sound of a Door Opening by Don Webb is an excellent bite-sized Lovecraftian take on Foucault’s Pendulum, in which a Cthulhu-themed hoax is taken over by a bigger reality. The Dreamers In Darkness by Peter Smith feels almost out-of-place, since in terms of prose style Smith goes for the sort of overblown imitation of Lovecraftian prose that masses of pastiches rely on but which The Starry Wisdom otherwise makes a point of avoiding. Like the better breed of pastiche, it’s saved by the originality of its imagery. Sex-Invocation of the Great Old Ones (23 Nails) by Stephen Sennitt offers clumsy ritualistic free verse and nothing else.

Editor D.M. Mitchell offers two contributions to round out the fiction offered here. One of these is a collaboration with C.G. Brandick, This Exquisite Corpse; reading the results of a game of The Exquisite Corpse is never as fun as participating, and this is no exception. The story paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic future of utter depravity and glibly throws about rape-murder imagery for cheap shock. Mitchell’s solo story, Ward 23, closes out the stories and is a decent enough tale of the end of the world as observed by a mental hospital doctor, with little references to some of the other stories in the collection slipped in for a bit of extra fun – such after-the-fact tying-together of the stories being, I suppose, the editor’s prerogative.

The fun doesn’t end here, though – there’s also a brace of essays. Cthulhu Madness by Phil Hine, if it is sincere and not a story passed off as an essay, finds Hine seriously claiming to have had occult experiences with Cthulhu that has left him with a spiritual link to the Great Old Ones. Reluctant Prophet by Stephen Sennitt pushes that old Kenneth Grant idea that Lovecraft was unwittingly in touch with higher realities and put more truth into his fiction than he realised; I find arguments of this sort irritating because they play down the creative capability of human beings to imagine things that do not exist. Fractals, Stars and Nyarlathotep by John Beal is a clutch of musings on various Mythos authors’ use of the titular subject matter mixed in with Crowleyan gematria babble and dream workings.

In general, I tend to feel that Lovecraft was right that trying to incorporate real occult systems into horror stories is usually to the detriment of the story, especially if you’re trying to be properly rigorous about the occultism. It’s better to let the aesthetic needs of the story dictate its occult underpinnings than to let fidelity to some complex system of metaphysics hamstring the narrative. These essays do nothing to convince me otherwise.

As hit and miss as it was, though, The Starry Wisdom feels like it hits more often than it misses and is one of the most creatively diverse Mythos anthologies published in the 20th Century. (In terms of diversity of authors, though, it’s pretty poor – there’s 23 stories in here and only one by a woman – giving a Boy’s Club rating of 95.7%.) It’s certainly vastly more worth it than its sequel, Songs of the Black Wurm Gism, which came out in 2003 and feels like D.M. Mitchell dropped the ball badly – or perhaps had preliminary work done on a sequel misappropriated.

You see, it came out in 2003, and whilst in the 1990s Creation Books is generally held to have been an upstanding business, a diverse range of disgruntled authors have spoken out about it going downhill sharply since. It’s certainly mildly suspicious that many of the authors credited in the book don’t seem to have any work released elsewhere – as though D.M. Mitchell and/or James Williamson, Creation Books head honcho, just knocked out a bunch of crap on the cheap in order to fill out the page count. I wasn’t able to even finish the whole thing, and that’s not down to being offended or freaked out by the content (which includes pornographic photo studies of Asian women with seafood piled on them) so much as being outright bored by its tryhard nature.

Take the material I was able to read: Luvcraft vs. Kutulu by the returning Grant Morrison is an annoyingly weird-for-weird’s-sake story in which life after the rise of the Great Old Ones comes across like a stickier, more tentacular take on life in a transhumanist/cyberpunk post-Singularity world where posthuman approximations of humanity retain some hope. I guess. It’s entertainly odd in its better moments, and is arguably the best material this book has to offer.

Black Tide by Aishling Morgan is basically porn, consisting of two elaborately described sex scenes. First is a BDSM sequence with quasi-clerical trappings, in which a girl is punished for sexually forward behaviour by two naughty monks. The second scene concerns a girl that the girl in the first sequence is exhorted by the monks to imitate, due to her innocence; it turns out that innocence is (in the de Sade tradition) a massive fraud, because she’s been going down to the seashore and fucking octopi. Although the interspecies sex thing is, I suppose, a Lovecraftian theme via Shadow Over Innsmouth, I question what is accomplished by switching it from a racist hate trope into a pornographic niche, and overall this is very bog-standard “oooh, look, the guardians of morality are hypocrites and the innocent aren’t so innocent” stuff. The Marquis ploughed this particular furrow to the point of tedium in his own work, and Morgan doesn’t have much new to offer here beyond seafood.

Skull of She-Head by James Havoc (who, remember, is really Creation Books owner James Williamson) and D.M. Mitchell stands out as a story that they’re actually vaguely willing to put their own names (or well-known pseudonyms) to; it’s poorly reproduced art illustrating meaningless prose, adjectives and verbs and nouns slung together in a way which probably sounded cool at the time but is basically meaningless. It would work as metal lyrics, I guess, though the lack of poetic effect would even hamper it even in that context.

The Splattersplooch by David Britton and Mike Butterworth offers up fashion-conscious characters and masses of allusions which I think are meant to be in imitation of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius material – there’s even a terminally hip character called Jarry involved. Like so many riffs on the whole Cornelius deal (including some of Moorcock’s own), the story is too engaged with being weird and clever to actually bother with being interesting.

Domain of the Valve Cardinals by Jacques Dingue constitutes mostly empty jabbering. A passing mention of Maldoror makes me think it is supposed to be a stab at Ducasse’s style; it fails at that.

That’s where I gave up and stopped. So far as I can tell, the collection just keeps going on and on hitting on these same themes and getting nowhere with them. When I try to imagine what conversations Mitchell and Williamson might have been having in terms of what this anthology should be like, what it should contain, what themes it should hit and what ideas should develop across its course, the only thing I can think of is Dennis’ proposed plot structure for Mac and Charlie’s movie from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. OK, instead of the whole “crime, penetration” cycle it’s a “Mythos, penetration” cycle, but it’s still a vacuous indulgence in pointless pornographic shock value – and then it just sort of ends.

2 thoughts on “Starry Wisdom, Vapid Songs

  1. Pingback: Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Pastiches – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Plundering the Lovecraft Estate – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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