Thursday, February 25, 2021

Consciousness shuddering in the void - more 1935 fantasy: Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England and C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith

Two more fantasy books that are exact contemporaries with The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Real period specialists read a lot of third and fourth and fifth tier books, and even some real garbage.  It is educational; both of these third-tier books are instructive.  I just mean that they are not as good as The Circus of Dr. Lao, although I enjoyed them plenty.

In Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) the Romans manning Hadrian’s Wall at some point escape into a network of underground caves, where they establish a new civilization.  The narrator discovers this lost world while searching for his father, who disappeared searching for the Romans.

Does this not sound like fun?  Modern technology and ideas knocked up against the Romans?  A Scotsman in Emperor Hadrian’s Court?  That is not this novel at all.  The underground Romans have adapted into a telepathy and mine control-based slave society.  Almost no aspect of Roman culture has survived.  The father has been “absorbed” into the collective; the narrator struggle to avoid the same fate.  The climax is a chase scene, the father pursuing the son:

I should have to make my choice soon between killing him or allowing him to seize me.  The man was mad, but he was my father.  The person who was following me had always been there, inside my father’s skin.  He had always been there, making him different from himself at times, even in the old days – a double personality, not like my mother.  (p. 266 of the Tusk edition).

A descent into the dark depths, dream-like landscapes, psychic struggle, a struggle with the father – it took me a while, but finally I saw it.  Land Under England is a genuine, no joke Freudian novel, the Oedipal conflict made literal.  I often think of fantasy as fiction that literalizes metaphors.  This is that.

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith (1933-6) is a collection of pulpy stories, all published in Weird Tales alongside H. P. Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, about the Han Solo-like title character, an interplanetary smuggler who keeps running into weirdness, usually in female form, like Medusa or the Sirens, but as aliens, and then defeats them with his willpower and a shot or two from his ray gun.  The “Greek monster as space creature” idea only lasts for the first two stories, after which the inventions become more original.  “Black Thirst” features a vampire who feeds on the “beauty-force,” and creates women so beautiful that a glimpse of one nearly drives Northwest Smith mad.  The vampire feeds on these women, but lures in our hero because:

“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of a man.  It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but forgotten it had existed.” (65, the 1981 Ace Books edition)

He plans to “nourish the roots of male beauty” before feeding.  This is pretty wild stuff for 1934 America, but the pulp magazines had different rules.  It is perhaps worth noting, what with the energy-sucking medusa and beauty-draining bisexual vampire and so on, that the “C.” in the author’s name stands for Catherine.

If I set Northwest Smith beside Land Under England, the constant scenes of mental struggle take on a different character.  The stories attempt to portray extreme states of consciousness, whether caused by sex, dreams, maybe drugs, maybe trauma.  The psychology – not of the character, but more abstractly -  becomes meaningful:

Smith’s consciousness shuddered in the void where it drifted, raged against its own helplessness, watched in horror-struck fascination the surges of billowing gray that rolled slowly into the room…  The prospect of the world’s destruction had made him sick with a hopeless dread, but the thought of his own body offered up as a sacrifice to the floating gray, leaving him to drift for eternity through voids, cracked like a whiplash against his consciousness in one flash of hot rebellion that jerked him all out of focus to the scene he watched.  (“The Cold Gray God,” 256)

I mean, if you can stand the prose, which is on the heavy side.  I found that reading one story immediately after another was a mistake.  They were published months or even years apart; that’s more like it.

Next week will be devoted 19th century French fantasy fiction.

"The world is my idea; as such I present it to you." - Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao

To the left, we see the back cover of the 1964 Bantam edition of Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), which I purchased for $1.50 at the Chicago Powell’s in, let’s say, 1993, and read immediately.  Messing around in the literature of the 1930s, I re-read it recently.  Fittingly, the book is something of a freak, its own creature, a hodgepodge fantasy in a lightly satirical mode.  Babbitt goes to the circus, but a circus full of mythological beasts.  Everything on the back cover is in the novel.  Strange things come to Abalone, Arizona, for just one day.  A couple dozen characters read an ad, watch a parade, and experience peculiar events.

What does this book sound like?  For a hundred page novel with dozens of characters and weird critters, it’s kind of leisurely.  This is how the circus magician resurrects a dead man, a laborer in overalls, a cowboy hat, and “old worn army shoes”:

The corpse looked as if it was sleeping in a very uncomfortable position.

Apollonius began to pray a low, thick prayer.  His eyeballs turned dead green; thin, hazy stuff floated out of his ears. He prayed and prayed and prayed.  To the subtle spirit of life he sent his terrible invocation.

Then all of a sudden, when everyone was most[!] expecting it, the dead man came to life, sat up, coughed, and rubbed his eyes.

“Where the devil am I?” he wanted to know.

“You’re at the circus,” said the doctor.

“Well, lemme outa here,” said the man.  “I got business to attend to.”

He got to his feet and started off with a slight limp.

Luther caught his arm as he made for the door.  “Listen, mister,” he asked, “was you really dead.”

“Deader than hell, brother,” said the man and hurried on out of the tent.  (39)

And that’s almost the last we see of him.  Finney was an Arizona newspaper editor, and if the characters are more or less types and caricatures, the vernacular touches, the talk, is from life.

It is curious to see the ideas of the times wander through the novel.  Miss Agnes Birdsong, high-school English teacher, has a memorable encounter with a satyr (“’I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street,’” 23); it is not even twenty years since Max Beerbohm mocked encounters with Pan on Main Street.  The climax of the novel is a spectacle with a cast of eleven thousand (“’Why, that’s a goddam lie!’ said Plumber Rogers. ‘There ain’t hardly that many people in Abalone,’” 6) depicting the sacrifice of a virgin to a pagan god.  It has some interesting resemblances to Francis Stevens’s The Citadel of Fear (1918) and D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925).  Perhaps it is a parody.

The novel as such ends on page 100 with the end of the spectacle and the collapse of the circus tent.  Then follows the most surprising thing in the novel, “The Catalogue,” nineteen pages of annotated lists.  Sometimes greatly annotated (from “The Male Characters”):

The Dead Man Apollonius Brought Back To Life: Arnold R. Todhunter.  A homesteader.  Later on, when a Tribune reporter interviewed him about the hours he spent in the arms of death, he testified that he was just on the point of being issued a harp and a gown when Apollonius reclaimed his clay.  He said Heaven reminded him more than anything else of an advertisement he had once read of Southern California.  (103)

Lists of animals, statues, and “The Foodstuffs.”  The next to last list is a series of plot holes and confusing points.

The Circus of Dr. Lao won the 1935 National Book Award for Most Dang Peculiar Book, a category they no longer award. It is a unique little monster.

There is no way Steven Millhauser does not know the novel.  Ray Bradbury loved it, but I have not read the obviously relevant Bradbury book.

Despite a reference to The Temptation of Saint Anthony on page 113 (“Chimera: Described by Rabelais, Flaubert, and Finney”) I think I will next poke at a couple more 1930s fantasies.

My title can be found on p. 94.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters - Steven Millhauser piles things up

Steven Millhauser won a Pulitzer for his novel Martin Dressler (1996) and somewhere around that time I read a review that must have impressed me, since I bought the novel and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998), $5.95 at the Chicago Powell’s, regular price $22.00.  What a bargain!  I read neither, and moved them both at least three times.  Never again!  Or, really, one last time.

Now I’ve read The Knife Thrower.  It’s a collection of fantasy stories.  Some are in the American vein of Bernard Malamud and John Cheever, like “Flying Carpets,” where, bored with their bicycles, the suburban youth spend the summer flying around on the new craze.  Others are more like Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, but transported into an American setting (usually) and idiom (always).  Where Borges describes, in “The Library of Babel,” his fantasy (or nightmare) of an infinite library, Millhauser, in “The Dream of the Consortium,” writes about an endless, perpetually changing department store:

We passed among dinner plates with pictures of blue windmills on them, footed glass dessert dishes filled with wax apricots, brightly colored ten-cup coffeemakers with built-in digital clocks.  We wandered past glittering arrays of laser printers and laptops, past brightly painted circus wagons, rolls of brown canvas, and bales of hay… a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters…  precise wooden and plaster models of Victorian London, Nuremberg in the age of Dürer, and Manhattan in 1925… imperfect mannequins… full-sized replicas of entire ancient cities.  (156-7, those ellipses of mine cover a lot more stuff)

For a reader who read I don’t know how many times the chapter of Robinson Crusoe where Crusoe unloads the wrecked ship, and the chapter of Huckleberry Finn where Huck loots his father’s cabin before faking his death, is this ever my kind of thing.

Can a story have no characters?  Millhauser, like Borges, comes as close as possible.  The narrator, that general “we,” whether it explores the department store,  watches the performance of a famous knife thrower, or lives in a town built over a series of mysterious tunnels, is the guiding sensibility, a character, maybe the only character, by default.

I know some people say that settings can become characters, but I do not know what they mean.  Millhauser’s settings are settings, lovingly invented and described.

Millhauser loves theatrical excess, American and European, things that are too big or too small, whatever surprises.  Thus, in the department store, the circus wagons, roller coasters, and miniature cities, and also the “gloomy department of caves and tunnels” (153).  The Knife Thrower has, effectively, a climax, the forty-page “Paradise Park,” where a classic Coney Island amusement park pulls together the major themes from all the other stories.  Rides, games, spectacles, but also hidden levels, anti-rides, abstraction, alienation as amusement.

These stories can be a little bit like the kind of computer game where you explore a landscape, often obsessively, not caring exactly what is around the corner as long as it is something.  Any invention will do.

But they are also often – maybe too often? – arguments or allegories about imagination and creativity.  “The New Automaton Theater” is especially bald.  The great maker of miniature automatons is the ultimate realist (“Every perfectly rendered gesture seems designed only to draw us more deeply inward; we feel an uncanny intimacy with this restless creature, whose mysterious life we seem to know more deeply than our own,” 117) but has a crisis and becomes an Expressionist, maybe?  Some kind of Modernist:

But Graum’s new automatons suffer and struggle; no less than the old automatons do they appear to have souls.  But they do not have the souls of human beings; they have the souls of clockwork creatures, grown conscious of themselves.  (124)

This is obviously about fiction, right?  Everything changing in 1910, as Virginia Woolf says.

Expect Martin Dressler to appear here at some point.  Going backwards, the next book I should write up is Gustave Flaubert’s folly The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but I think I will follow the theme and look at another circus book: The Circus of Dr. Lao

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” - some jolly bits of Richard II

I fear I need a system, a structure, to get writing again.  What if I work backwards?  Let’s see, what is the last book I finished.  Oh no, it’s Richard II (1595, let’s say).  Oh no, or good, I don’t know. 

Richard II is the first Shakespeare play I took seriously, and really worked through, as a college student. The professor insisted, again and again, that our papers had to have lots of evidence form the text, so I “wrote” a paper that was half quotations.  I must have included most of every monologue of the title character.  “Too much,” she said, correctly, usefully.  But those passages are so rich, so good.

It is a strange play, in that King Richard begins as some kind of villain, a hypocritical schemer, a “Machiavelli,” to use the term the Elizabethan playwrights loved, under the influence of a pack of parasites.  In short, one of the crowd of Shakespeare’s bad, weak kings, capricious, corrupt, and incompetent.  Threatened, then overthrown, he becomes sentimental and self-pitying.  He becomes a lot like Hamlet, or one side of Hamlet, obsessed with death and puns, for example “ay / I” in the abdication scene:


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be.

Therefore no “no,” for I resign to thee.  (Act IV, Scene 1)

“Ay, no; no, ay” is one of those poetic lines of Shakespeare's that verges on abstraction or anti-poetry, like King Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Somehow Richard becomes a sympathetic and tragic figure, a great Weak Male Character.  And it is all done through language.  His self-serving, self-pitying, ironic monologues are magnificent.  “King” is a role he played all his life, but he should have been a poet.  Richard, for example, imagines Death as the court fool, accompanying the him “within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king, “scoffing” and “grinning,”


Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!  (Act III, Scene 2)

Richard has a Gothic imagination.  “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs” he says a bit earlier in the scene.  Or look at the beginning of his final speech, just before his murder:


I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it.  (Act V, Scene 5)

And then he does it anyways, because he loves to spin out conceits.

Di, at The little white attic, has been reading a lot of Shakespeare, most recently Richard II.  The excerpts she picks have all sorts of correspondences with the ones I used.  She also acknowledges that the play has other characters and context and ideas and so forth.  Those are interesting, too.

The idea of Richard not being king but playing the role of king I got from Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (1951).  On the surface, the motivating idea of Richard II is a critique of the divine right of kings, and, honestly, who cares about that anymore; Goddard effectively modernizes the play.

All quotations are from the Folger Shakespeare Library text.

What’s next, looking back?  A collection of Steven Millhauser stories.