Tuesday, October 29, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 28: Intergalactic Bestiary and Subversive Eucharist (the opulent wonders of Gene Wolfe)

I want to look at one more Roman Catholic author of the dark fantastic today.  Gene Wolfe is the only other author besides R. A. Lafferty to whose works I dedicate an entire blog.  Like Lafferty and Tim Powers, Wolfe fuses modern speculative and weird fiction influences (including Lovecraftwith ancient world mythology and folklore to create some of the most innovative and groundbreaking fiction the genre has seen. (That's not hyperbole that's limited to me - for example, see the well-respected Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Encyclopedia of Fantasy.)

Also like Lafferty and Powers, Wolfe is not an author of horror fiction per se, but infuses strong elements of horror and monstrosity into most of what he writes.   The supernatural and paranormal sit uncannily alongside the scientific (both modern and futuristic) in most of Wolfe's major works (though there are also some set in ancient times or parallel worlds of a more Medieval variety).  You can usually count on running into a good number of gods and monsters and magic and violence.

In all his work Wolfe is playing literary games with pulp fiction, investing strange and bloody adventure stories with the weighted complexities of modern literature's fixation on psychology and sociology.  This tends to slow down and deepen the adventure quality, often to a bewildering degree. You will definitely get your sense of wonder evoked and your thirst for adventure quenched when reading Wolfe, but in a way that is totally disorienting and unsettling.
It's not boring or cynical postmodernism either.  Wolfe's cleverness seems to know no bounds, but he respects you.  He loves his readers and only challenges them so thoroughly because he feels he owes them at least that much as a craftsman.  The layers and labyrinths of his fiction are there because he means to supply you with a truly quality product - something you can go back to time and again to savour and ponder and puzzle over and, yes, even - eventually - grasp (to some degree).  And he writes it all in some of the most graceful well-styled prose you'll ever encounter, muscular and mellifluous at once.  Half the time I avidly turn the pages out of sheer greed to be drunk on his words, regardless of whether I really understand the story at that time or not.

But as I say, all this literary depth is peppered with the stuff of dreams and nightmares.  There is much otherworldly beauty and terror, both noble and ignoble monstrosity, the horror of the holy as well as of the hideous.  Wolfe's is a very intergalactic ecology in which you will encounter a fecundity of monstrous alien flora and fauna, by land and air and sea and stars, of a variety that can be very hard to describe.  Wing and fang and fur and claw and horn and tendril and talon - and brute strength and gigantic size and bizarre shape and strange powers - are all present and together produce a generous current of frisson throughout the works.  In the Gene Wolfe Bestiary there are Notules (shadow-bats would be totally misleading, but that at least begins to get in the ballpark), underground Man-Apes, the fiery Salamander, the Alzabo (huge hyena-like creature that speaks with a child's voice, very skin-crawling!), which is possibly the cousin of the ghoul-bear (carnivorous grave-robbing hyena-bear-ape-man), a giant undine rising from a river, shape-shifting vampiric Inhumi (and many other shape-shifting lifeforms), as well as shark-men and talking animals and giants and dragons and werewolves and on and on.
Barlowe's interpretation of the the Alzabo. More like the Ghoul-Bear to me. I pictured Alzy a little more like this.

In addition to these, Wolfe dialogues with Lovecraftian cosmic horror by means of giant deep sea and deep space entities that threaten, like Cthulhu, to one day rise up and reign over the earth to humanity's enslavement and demise.  (He even wrote an excellent and intentionally Lovecraftian short story that was included in the anthology Cthulhu 2000).
But Wolfe's work is richly invested with his Roman Catholic theology, often explicitly, and the deep-woven themes of Messiah, Incarnation, Eucharist, Triune Monotheism, and Eschatology tend to undermine, overtake, overrule, and ultimately redeem all the cosmic horror.  Bread and wine becomes a central image and actual healings and resurrections and theophanies occur.  The characters who yield to these divine undercurrents in the stories become agents of a conspiracy of liberation in their communities (he often especially focuses on social outcasts). The narration of these theological themes often achieves aesthetic and emotional epiphanies that are strongly poignant and numinous at once. But all this is done very intricately, often slyly, and is there for the reader to consciously engage with only if she really wants to do so.

All of Wolfe's horror and adventure usually takes place in very decadent, baroque, and ornate settings.  So a Wolfean Halloween would probably involve us in sashes and circlets and laurel wreaths and robes and rings and armour and cloaks and gauntlets and swords and halberds and braziers and pavilions and canopies... as well as innovative extraterrestrial monstrosities!  Not sure if that's really my scene but I wouldn't mind witnessing it.  To each his own variation on Halloween, so long as we all share in the night's numinosity.