Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Strange Adventures of H. P. Lovecraft (2010), Image Comics

I think I mainly enjoyed this graphic novel because of the way it resonated with me as an aspiring writer of fiction.  That's a bit odd in that I'm not a huge fan of Lovecraft's actual writing.  I'm more into Lovecraft for his philosophical struggle and unique artistic vision - his actual prose inspires me very rarely.  But it is Lovecraft's vexed career as a writer that forms the central motif of this period comic set in the 1920s.  It's a very well-told and gripping tale if relatively simple.  The complexity comes not in the plot but in the meditation on art and life.  It's about 'high' literary aspirations in a world that can only take what you make as pulp fiction, lurid shockers to be read and trashed.  If what you make can be read at all, that is.  The opening portrays the editor of Weird Tales magazine complaining to Lovecraft's fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith that Lovecraft's stories are just too bizarre and not gripping enough.  The scene shows how even the pulps didn't have much time for Lovecraft's truly (not just surfacely) weird tales.  (Various characters throughout, such as policemen, remark that they've never been able to actually finish reading one of Lovecraft's stories.)

Lovecraft was too freakish and monstrous for the literary canon and too meditative and visionary for the pulps.  Add to that a childhood disfigured by parental mental illness and a failed attempt at romance (central plot features of the graphic novel) and you have the quintessential (and slightly clichéd) Unhappy Poet.  Such a man might be prone to make monsters in his art, but in this comic's story the monsters step outside Lovecraft's brain and murderously into his world. It's another fairly hackneyed trope, but fun enough nonetheless and, again, not really the point.

The point is that it's incredibly difficult to grope toward an original artistic vision in a world that needs to sell, sell, sell, and in a world where we're all nursed on lowest-common-denominator aesthetics and ontologies.  Probably about half of the graphic novel's text is comprised of actual quotes from Lovecraft's writings - I recognised a number of them from both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Some seemed obviously from letters or journals.  There's a lot of soul-searching and frustration and bleak determination, but in a way I found sincere and inviting, not goth-angsty.

The illustrations are fine.  They are skilful drawings that get the job done and tell the story well.  It's not really my style, but some of the monsters are interesting interpretations, quite gruesome and repugnant.  They flesh out effectively the sheer madness of what it would be like to see the brain-shattering otherworldliness of such beings disgustingly intersect with our own organic matter and psyche.  There was, however, perhaps not enough emphasis on the cosmos, the dreadful sense of deep space and lightyears so crucial to the ambient of the Lovecraft's monstrosities, his seminal 'cosmic horror'.

One thing I found interesting was that the editor of Weird Tales complained that Lovecraft didn't have busty blondes and the accompanying sexual under- or overtones in his tales, the misogynistic soft-smut that sold so well.  But this graphic novel's illustrator made sure to include a number of panels of fairly graphic sex and nudity (the comic would surely need to be rated R for a number of elements).  I thought most of these sex scenes fairly gratuitous.  Some of them were commenting on men's abuse of women (e.g. prostitution), but as is so often the case in our society, these depictions drag the male imagination through a suspiciously loving and lingering objectification of lust-embellished female bodies in order to 'subvert' that same male gaze. I find this element of the comic highly ironic in light of the complaint that Lovecraft couldn't sell well without such lubricious voyeurism.  There is a deeper and real issue in Lovecraft about phobia of sex and relationships, but that's not really touched on in this comic in favour of a more simple Hollywood tragic romance line.

Speaking of Hollywood, there have apparently been talks with Ron Howard about adapting this comic to film.  I found myself wishing that might happen as I read it, especially as a number of counter-cultural writers have had films made about them in the last decade (e.g. Hunter S. Thomson and Allen Ginsberg).  I just wish a more visionary director than Howard could get hold of it.

Fellow Lovecraft enthusiasts might at least enjoy seeing Lovecraft's own words on writing and life strung together into a tale as I did.  And those interested in a first glimpse of the thinking and worldview behind this tragic mad genius of outré literature might find this graphic novel an accessible intro (but please don't stop here as it is probably misleading in some ways).  The book cemented a growing feeling for me, that in spite of the fact that I don't care for Lovecraft's actual prose, he is becoming something of a writer's writer for me, a rather poignant champion of artistic integrity in a world that doesn't value that often enough.

For an outro, here are a few of the pretty cool cover illustrations from individual issues of the series, found at the back of the book:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth (2013) by Stephen Graham Jones

Look, I'm the type of person who, if you give your book this amazing title and adorn it with this amazing artwork, I'll buy it before I really knew what hit me.  It's a Pavlovian reflex for a dog like me. Plus I'd already read Jones's Zombie Bake-Off (2012) and was very eager for more.

I polished this sucker off pretty quick after receiving it in the post (I don't know if local bookstores even stock this kind of stuff).  It's a compulsively readable collection of short stories and yes, there's a titular one. But no (I think readers deserve to know), there are no zombie sharks with metal teeth, not really - I mean, yes, technically there are, right at the end of that story, but barely and only in a passing conjecture.  This surprised and disappointed me because Zombie Bake-Off had been about exactly that. And when the blurb said it had zombie soccer moms vs. zombie pro-wrestlers, it wasn't lying or exaggerating.  The whole novel's setting was a bake-off and the whole novel's action involved pro-wrestlers, soccer moms, and zombies - battling each other and a small band of the living.  So I don't think I was out of bounds in expecting from the titular story of this collection literal undead sharks that somehow had teeth made of metal.

But I wasn't disappointed with this volume, no no no.  When what it does give you is plenty of stories that do feature zombies, in fresh variations of scenario and depth of survivor characterisation, and a story about a hardboiled detective flying through outer space by means of being psychically implanted into a giant space-faring lobster, and enigmatic alien encounters aplenty, more apocalypses than one has a right to expect from a collection, the most elliptical meta-fictional slasher story you'll ever read, and a story starring Rod Serling, well, you don't complain, you give thanks.

But the reader will inevitably wonder:  what am I reading?  What is this stuff?  Horror?  Well, some of it, yeah.  Sort of.  Science fiction?  Some of those too.  Kind of.  Weird fiction or ‘the New Weird’? Mm, not really, not to me, not from what I've read of China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer - this is a different kettle of queer fish.  Is it ‘bizarro’ fiction?  I guess maybe that’s the main thing I expected from the title and cover art.  But that label too only partly captures it.  I want to say these stories feel like they're by someone who set out to be a pulp writer influenced by the cosmic horror of Lovecraft (or, probably closer to the mark, the nihilism of Romero's classic Dead Trilogy), but said pulp-ist got liberal arts educated and introspective and transmuted his impulse toward horror through the likes of, what... Wes Anderson?  David Foster Wallace?  I don’t know exactly.  (I don’t have the reference in my experience, but I’m sure someone does.)  There’s an unflinching attention to monstrosity, violence, freakishness, aliens, cosmology-that-dwarfs-the-cosmologist, and so on.  But it’s all delivered through a very sensitive, even tender, heart.  Indeed, even though there is bloodshed and body-horror aplenty in this book, my final impression is that it is gentle, contemplative.  And I think that's just Stephen Graham Jones.  No one genre or genre-mix can really hold him.  He does what he does.

Despite being clearly intellectual, it all comes across fairly working-class too.  The characters tend to be underlings in offices or warehouses or laboratories.  Or they're young or old married couples who remain devoted to each other despite (or because of?) discovering very disturbing darknesses about one another.  Or they're little kids being cruel and kind to one another as kids do.

Part of the gentle contemplativeness is also down to the way tales are told, for they are as much about the telling as the subject matter.  The diction is at first hard to parse until you get the hang of Jones's almost oral cadences and patterns, like how a normal guy from right here and now would talk to you, would unfold a narrative to you in person.  Yet, paradoxically, it's also poetic and writerly, made for the page it seems to me.  It's downright mesmerising when you get into its rhythms.

And (I had never noticed how much this also is how it sounds when someone is telling you a story they know off the cuff) though the narrator usually seems to know what’s coming and codes that story arc into the opening pages, these tales do not feel heavily plotted.  Stephen King says stories are pre-existing fossils that writers discover and unearth and that plotting is a jackhammer that breaks as much as it liberates.  Jones feels almost hyper-aware of this.  He works very delicately, mostly with small hand spade and brush, to exhume the tales he's found.  He leaves a lot of the story still buried. But he has taken depth-readings and he knows what’s down there, if murkily, and I tended to find myself halfway through a story going back over its first few pages with a better understanding of all that was being revealed to me right off.  In other words, Jones writes richly enough that (as with Gene Wolfe) re-reading is almost required, and a pleasure.  You get your money's worth.

Philosophically, the stories evince ruminations rife with material for my own interests in monster theory and horror theory ('Little Monsters' is a two-page piece packed tight with fodder for this and I hope to do a separate post about it).  The story 'How Billy Hanson Destroyed the Planet Earth, and Everyone On It' is my favourite contemporary mutation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror that I've encountered.  It is a mutation though, as is every other bleak demise of humanity or relativising of humanity in the face of infinity that Jones depicts.  There's definitely a warm beating heart underneath the cosmic coldness in Jones's take.  What I can't tell is whether he's simply saying let's hold onto our scrap of humanity even in the face of the nothingness that will eventually devour us all, or whether he might just might be saying that such 'scrap of humanity' might just might actually be a grubby little hint or clue that nothingness is not necessarily the final word about either us or the cosmos.  Even Cthulhu and his elder god ilk look very different in Jones's vision:  alien intelligences vastly above us may view us only as food, sure, but that doesn't mean they might not be 'humane' souls who cause us no more suffering than is necessary.  The story 'Catch and Release' is the best variation on an old s.f. twist-ending that I've come across and illustrates this almost anti-Lovecraftian theme poignantly.

Jones says in an interview (the interview is a masterclass in creative writing, by the way) that one of his favourite short stories is about a boy who can predict the future who has a TV show:

But then one day he looks ahead and sees this comet just hurtling to Earth, to wipe us all out, no chance of survival, no Bruce Willis, so, on his program that morning, he looks right into the camera and he says that this is going to be the best day ever. That people are going to hug each other, nobody's going to be unhappy, all of it. It's the best gift he could possibly have given the world, and it's a lie. This is at the bottom of everything I write.

What I wonder is whether Jones thinks that this 'lie' gives the lie to ultimate meaninglessness, whether he thinks that maybe such a 'lie' really serves a greater truth about us and the world.  I don't know. (His delightful story notes at the end of the book are, though disarmingly vulnerable, as elliptical as the stories themselves and only deepen the mystery and poignancy.)

I do know I can't wait to read more by him (I've got his first novel The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong coming in the post).