In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship

It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.

Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.

As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.

That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”

It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.

Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.

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Filmmaking Out Of Balance

In 1982 Godfrey Reggio (with the backing of Francis Ford Coppola) unleashed Koyaanisqatsi on the world, the first of a triptych of non-narrative documentaries which convey their ideas largely through images without explanatory narration or dialogue. The rest of the trilogy was filled out by Powaqqatsi in 1988 and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi, the latter of which is rather widely disliked since it consists not of lovingly assembled, gorgeous imagery shot on location but a mashup of cheap stock footage and really badly dated CGI. Indeed, when Arrow Video put out a recent Blu-Ray edition, they left out Naqoyqatsi entirely – but how do the other films hold up?

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is a movie keen on showing us a bunch of stuff. A set of pictographs from the Great Gallery in Horseshow Canyon, the depicted figures limbs de-emphasised in a way which makes them look almost mummified. Rockets launching into space – or detonating in midair. Commuters shooting out of escalators like sausages issuing forth from a sausage machine. Mining activities, natural landscapes like Monument Valley giving way to industrial and urban landscapes. The Philip Glass soundtrack saws away at our ears as we are confronted with visual after visual and invited to string them together into some form of greater whole. But is there anything there?

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Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep

“Egypt is magic” is a cultural assumption that dates back millennia. In part, it was a narrative which the ancient Egyptians promoted about themselves; magicians were a part of their culture, and their civilisation was ancient enough that over time understanding of its earlier phases passed into legend and myth as much as official history. (More time passed between the Great Pyramid’s construction and the dawning of Christianity than have passed between now and the Crucifixion, after all.)

It was also a bit of PR which numerous other Mediterranean cultures bought into, and became a recurring assumption in European culture as a whole. The Greeks bought into it, the Romans bought into it, Jewish sources like Exodus and the Talmud bought into it, and so it’s no surprise that much of Christendom bought into it, Enlightenment-era Freemasons and other such esoteric societies bought into it – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt rekinded a general interest in Egyptology, the Golden Dawn bought into it to the extent that most of their rituals involved extensive riffs on Egyptian myth, and Crowley bought into it so hard that his Book of the Law was steeped in Egyptian imagery and received during a honeymoon in Cairo.

Many occult practitioners like to hype up the extent to which they are participating in a tradition which winds its way back through the ages to ancient Egypt. The extent to which is the case has always been doubtful. The myth that the tarot dates back to Egyptian times seems to have little to no basis in fact, and the Golden Dawn’s rituals reflect tentative Victorian reconstructions of Egyptian religion more than they do actual practices handed down through the years by a centuries-old tradition.

However, whilst there is little evidence for a tradition passed down on an institutional or personal level – no secret society or Sith-style chain of master and apprentice winding its way back through the years to connect modern occult groups to the practitioners of ancient Egypt, there is evidence for a literary or textual tradition being passed down – concepts in Egyptian writing on the subject of magic which ended up in some fashion influencing the medieval grimoires which Renaissance and Enlightenment-era magicians would then develop in their own directions and make their own additions to.

Perhaps the most extensive collection of material we have on Egyptian magical practices are what’s known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical texts – including what seem to be the handbooks used by actual practicing magicians – that had been accumulated in private collections in the post-Napoleon burst of Egyptological research.

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The Necronomicon Wars

Even in his own lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft got the occasional bit of fan mail from occultists either asking if his mythology of the Great Old Ones was real – or insisting that it was real. Over time, it seemed like the Necronomicon became the particular focus of this sort of inquiry – perhaps because of Lovecraft’s technique of listing it and other invented Mythos tomes alongside real books when using it in his stories.

Lovecraft gently let down all such inquirers. He’d also disappoint fans who knew it was fictional but thought it’d be wicked awesome if he’d write an actual Necronomicon, by pointing out that he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing was hundreds of pages long – and whilst he might be tempted to cook up some scraps, he really didn’t want to spend that long cranking out a tome of that length. Nonetheless, an appetite for the book remained.

After Lovecraft died, pranksters would slip references to it into library catalogues and the like, but the efforts of Arkham House to exert control over Lovecraft’s intellectual property (despite August Derleth’s rather weak claim to be Lovecraft’s literary executor, a role it’s now generally agreed that R.H. Barlow had a better claim to) may have dampened any efforts to turn the artifact into reality. Derleth’s death in 1971, however, made such fakery significantly more tempting.

The early 1970s also saw Kenneth Grant put out The Magical Revival, the first volume in his epic Typhonian Trilogies – a sprawling account of his further development of Aleister Crowley’s occult system of Thelema. This included an astonishing claim – that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, but was on some level communicating psychic truths that were not only compatible with Thelema but were actually important components of it in their own right.

This created the impetus for a bizarre new feature of the occult scene – a spate of purported Necronomicons, at least one of which would inspire readers to actually try out the magic described therein, and a raging conflict in the wider scene over whether these books a) were what they purported to be and b) had any legitimacy as grimoires. In short, the stage was set for a conflict in which shots are still fired to this day – the controversy I like to call the Necronomicon Wars.

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Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

Revisiting the X-Files, Part 4: Fourth Into the Unknown

After establishing itself, refining its approach, and hitting what may prove to be its creative peak as a showThe X-Files ruled the pop cultural universe by late 1996. Its fourth season would enjoy its highest overall ratings ever, and Chris Carter was busier than ever. Not only was the main show still going strong, but preparation for the first movie was gearing up – though set after season 5, most of the filming for the movie would take place in the filming gap after season 4 was in the can – but Carter had also been asked to produce a new TV series for Fox. This ended up being Millennium, which would involve a significant number of the X-Files creative team and ultimately end up being integrated into the X-Files universe as a result of character crossovers. (In fact, an episode of season 7 of The X-Files was set aside to give Millennium the series finale that cancellation otherwise denied it.)

Would all these creative directions end up diluting the attention of Chris Carter and his production team, or would they be able to keep up the high standards of season 3? Let’s crack open this case file and find out…

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The Early Herzog

From latter-day hits like Grizzly Man to the occasional surprise acting role in The Mandalorian or Rick & Morty, it seems like Werner Herzog has never been more widely known. This is pretty astonishing considering the bizarre arthouse material which he first made his name with, but on the other hand is a welcome outcome of a long career in cinema in which Herzog was pushing the bounds of the medium from an early stage. With significant blu-ray boxed sets released in both Region A and Region B (and a handy Region-Free blu-ray player), I’ve been able to sample a cross-section of his earliest work.

The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz

In this 1966 short film a group of young men undertake a bit of urban exploration, as a narrator muses on their adventures. We are told that the titular “fortress” has fallen into disrepair; before World War II it was a mental hospital, but after the Russians swept through and took everything valuable it was left deserted. The local authorities can find nothing useful to do with it, and are struggling to sell it.

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