Tag Archives: allusions

H P Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews H. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia: The Satire, Symbology and Contradiction by Gavin Callaghan, from McFarland.

Gavin Callaghan H P Lovecraft's Dark Arcadia from McFarland

Gavin Callaghan’s Dark Arcadia is a capable and engaging critical treatment of the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. He brings an interesting combination of methods to this material. Recognizing Lovecraft’s professed interest in classical literature, he examines the allusions to antiquity and the possibility of satirical method in HPL’s stories. As a complementary tactic, he invokes psychoanalytic appraisals of Lovecraft’s authorial motives (strongly indulging Jungian approaches) to account for significant tropes in his output.

Although the publisher’s jacket copy praises Callaghan for “ignoring secondary accounts and various received truths,” he is clearly well-read in the existing body of Lovecraft criticism. While he brings some new ideas to the field, his most significant contradiction of “common knowledge” about HPL and his work is to consider the “cosmicism” of Lovecraft’s horror to be ornamental rather than essential. Callaghan asserts that the various instances of cosmic scenarios and phenomena in Lovecraft’s stories (actually rather outnumbered by more conventional gothic horror tropes and contexts) are simply grandiose exaggerations of the author’s familial mise-en-scène, and vehicles for his ambivalent antagonism toward the cultural decadents of his parents’ generation and his own. The “Old” and the “Elder” to which HPL attribute a veneer of deep time were, according to Callaghan, in living memory in the fact of their inspiration. The extra-dimensional hugeness of Lovecraft’s monsters simply reflects the subjective enormity of parental figures.

Callaghan also opposes the notion that there was in any sense a “mellowing” or relaxation of Lovecraft’s social and cultural conservativism in his later fiction. In the interpretive context Callaghan provides, he makes a persuasive case in this regard. Callaghan’s own value-position relative to Lovecraft’s ideological stances is not made especially clear. While he does indict HPL for his racism and misogyny, he also repeatedly implies sympathy for Lovecraft’s right-wing “acuity” (8). Callaghan notes with evident distaste, for example, the fact of “some branches of the modern Wicca movement finding allies and common cause with environmentalist, feminist, luddite, leftist, gay liberation, and other radical organizations” (207), and he refers to “the insanity of the sexual revolution” (8, 58).

The volume is divided into six loosely-interlinked essays, three longer and more general, and three shorter and of narrower scope. It opens with the long “Dark Arcadia,” in which the focus is on Lovecraft’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity, and his satirical intent directed at the decadent culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapters three and six are the other long pieces, and they address the principal psychological materials that Callaghan discerns in the HPL oeuvre: “Behind the Locked Door” is about the paternal image with classical allusion to the myth of Theseus, and “HPL and the Magna Mater” provides an analysis of the Lovecraftian feminine. The smaller essays address Lovecraft’s use of apiary imagery, his trope of the “moon-ladder,” and an interpretation of the “coda” that concludes “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

Callaghan dedicates a section of his bibliography to an odd assortment of six works on occultism. His insightful remarks on Lovecraft’s antagonism for the Theosophical Society show that this reading was not wasted, but he generally hews to popular derision for modern occultists such as Aleister Crowley. (In this contempt, he probably tracks with Lovecraft, who appraised Crowley as a “queer duck.”) Callaghan’s gloss on the monumental Etidorhpa of John Uri Lloyd is quite superficial, but he deserves a point for mentioning it at all.

Callaghan gives a great deal of attention to a number of Lovecraft’s “lesser” stories and collaborations, such as “The Green Meadow,” “The Moon-Bog,” and “Medusa’s Coil,” suggesting that in those instances where the writer’s technique is less polished, his methods and motives may be more exposed. His insistence on the abiding Puritan character of Lovecraft’s orientation, as well as the polemical intent of stories that seem so focused on evocative mood, is tied together quite convincingly with a study of the psychological conditions that could inspire such polemics. The book is, on the whole, a fascinating read for anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work. [via]

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

The Ipcress File

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ipcress File (Secret File #1) by Len Deighton.

Len Deighton's The Ipcress File

My cue to read this volume came from Charles Stross, who characterized his opening Laundry novel (The Atrocity Archive) as something of an homage to Deighton. By all accounts, Deighton’s first novel The Ipcress File was the place to start with this author. I’m not sure what similarities I expected to encounter, but I found a lot of what made Stross’s book enjoyable to me: the syncopated plot, sardonic attitude, and partial disclosure in first-person reportage to convey the tension felt by the speaker in the events described. As a newcomer to the genre, Deighton signals his willingness to chuck its conventions in the opening pages:

“Find him?” I said. “How would we start?”

“How would you start?” asked Dalby.

“Haven’t the faintest,” I said. “Go to laboratory, wife doesn’t know what’s got into him lately, discover dark almond-eyed woman. Bank manager wonders where he’s been getting all that money. Fist fight through darkened lab. Glass tubes that would blow the world to shreds. Mad scientist back to freedom holding phial—flying tackle by me. Up grams Rule Brittania.”

Dalby gave me a look calculated to have me feeling like an employee. (15)

Another similarity to Stross was the morass of au courant cultural and technological allusions—like the verb “grams” in the preceding quote. Some of these, set in the UK a little before I was born, were pretty opaque to me, though I didn’t bother to use the 21st-century Internet overmind to puzzle through them. In other cases, Deighton would provide explanation for things that were then cutting edge or semi-secret, but are now just common knowledge. It is certainly a book that has aged strangely. (Fault the world, not the text!)

The denouement and epilogue cleverly alternate silver linings with touches of gun-metal gray. I had thought to rush afterward to a viewing of the 1965 cinematic version of the story, but the fact that it’s not streaming on Netflix at the moment stayed my spectacles. I’d probably rather read one or two of the sequels without being constrained by the precedent of a screen interpretation anyhow. [via]

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Descent into Hell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent into Hell: A Novel by Charles Williams:

Charles Williams' Descent into Hell

 

Of Charles Williams’ six novels, Descent Into Hell has a special place, according to a number of reviewers. It is purportedly his best or most important. I will quickly agree that it is somehow different from the other three I have read. It is far more interior in its focus, and thus it reminds me more of Lilith by George MacDonald. (Interestingly, Lilith herself features by name in Descent, though the name is only in the title of MacDonald’s book.) Stylistically, this interiority sometimes leads to real stream-of-consciousness passages, and the prose feels far more “modern” than that in War in Heaven, for example.

The notion that Descent Into Hell is a cornerstone work exposing the author’s worldview is supported by the arrangement of characters. The playwright Peter Stanhope is clearly a Mary Sue or idealized authorial proxy for Williams, flagged by explicit allusions to that hoary Mary Sue, Shakespeare’s Prospero! In addition, Williams supplies an “Eram Eus” — an inverted Mary Sue to embody the culpable perversion of his own dearest virtues — in the form of the historian Lawrence Wentworth. Stanhope and Wentworth are alike defined by their relationships with female disciples, in keeping with a notable feature of Williams’ biography.

In addition to these and other polarities of character, the novel advances a dualist scheme under a metaphor borrowed from Augustine of Hippo. Where Augustine’s City of God used Rome as the contrast for the New Jerusalem, Williams uses Gomorrah as the pole opposite Zion. He explains his choice of the city by way of the vulgarly misconstrued “sin of Sodom” as homosexuality, with the “sin of Gomorrah” being the ultimate love of self to the exclusion of others (174). At another point, Williams offers and subsequently applies the idea that there are only four possible human responses to any circumstance: revolt, obedience, compromise, and deception (185). These options are presented with moral valences, and for all his evident psychological subtlety in this book, Williams seems unequipped to appreciate the wisdom offered by his elder cousin in esoteric initiation who wrote, “The Key of Joy is disobedience.”

In any case, there is but one character in this novel who descends to hell through “Gomorrah,” and while the terminus of that descent is the close of the book, that storyline is mixed with other, more hopeful passages. The universalization of certain Christian doctrines is carried out deftly; on the religious front, Williams may have been pious, but he was no bigot. As in all of Williams’ books, the focus is on characters who are immured in “bourgeois propriety.” But the author, who was himself of comparatively humble stock, offers some unusual (for him) glimpses of “The poor, who had created [the estate in which the story is set],” although they “had been as far as possible excluded, nor (except as hired servants) were they permitted to experience the bitterness of others’ stairs” (9).

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and I would rank it within the author’s oeuvre next to Many Dimensions for insight, and probably a bit higher for its language. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.