Tag Archives: American literature

“At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft: Exploring the Subconscious Mind

This novella is one of Lovecraft’s most famous works. It is the story of a group of explorers in the Antarctic who discover the existence of an alien race that forged the evolution of humanity. But the real power of this tale is in the symbolism. Lovecraft uses the story as a vehicle for probing into humanity’s collective subconscious.

The mountains themselves are symbolic of the border, or threshold, between the two states of consciousness.

Little by little, however, they rose grimly into the western sky; allowing us to distinguish various bare, bleak, blackish summits, and to catch the curious sense of phantasy which they inspired as seen in the reddish antarctic light against the provocative background of iridescent ice-dust clouds. In the whole spectacle there was a persistent, pervasive hint of stupendous secrecy and potential revelation; as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space, and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things—mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial; and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world.

Once an individual has crossed the boundary and entered to dark caverns of primordial consciousness, that person begins to lose his or her grasp on what we deem sanity in our state of normal awareness. Our mythology is full of tales warning about this. It is the metaphor of “looking back,” of shining a light on the dark past of human consciousness which should remain buried. Lovecraft alludes to these metaphors as the protagonists desperately attempt to escape the nether-regions and return to the world of sanity and normal consciousness.

So we glanced back—simultaneously, it would appear; though no doubt the incipient motion of one prompted the imitation of the other. As we did so we flashed both torches full strength at the momentarily thinned mist; either from sheer primitive anxiety to see all we could, or in a less primitive but equally unconscious effort to dazzle the entity before we dimmed our light and dodged among the penguins of the labyrinth-centre ahead. Unhappy act! Not Orpheus himself, or Lot’s wife, paid much more dearly for a backward glance. And again came that shocking, wide-ranged piping—“Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

Lovecraft concludes his tale with a stark warning: there are some things that should remain buried in the subconscious. That probing too far into the darkened and obscure recesses of the mind is dangerous, both for the individual and for humanity as a collective whole.

It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

If you have not read this story, I highly recommend it. It is well-written, thrilling, and deeply thought-provoking. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

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Thoughts on “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoffman

After the list of Academy Award nominees came out, I made it a point to watch as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible, which included “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Since I really liked this film, I decided I ought to read Abbie Hoffman’s most famous book, which I purchased instead of stole.

The book is essentially a handbook for the hippie revolutionary. Although much of the material is dated (I completely skipped the last section which was just a list of resources in various cities which are all likely defunct), there were still some entertaining tidbits, and it does give insight into the thinking of one of the 60’s most prominent activists.

Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika. It preaches jailbreak. It shows you where and exactly how to place the dynamite that will destroy the walls.

(p. XXI)

As I said, most of what is in this book is dated and is only of interest from a socio-historical perspective. For example, Hoffman’s information regarding Guerrilla TV, which is made moot by social media, where anyone can create a YouTube channel and broadcast their political views to the masses.

Guerrilla TV is the vanguard of the communications revolution, rather than the avant-garde cellophane light shows and the weekend conferences. One pirate picture on the sets in Amerika’s living rooms is worth a thousand wasted words.

(p. 144)

In light of all the demonstrations we have witnessed over the last couple years, Abbie does offer some sound advice to those who choose non-violent demonstrations as a means of social change.

Numbers of people are only one of the many factors in an effective demonstration. The timing, choice of target and tactics to be employed are equally important. There have been demonstrations of 400,000 that are hardly remembered and demonstrations of a few dozen that were remarkably effective. Often the critical element involved is the theater. Those who say a demonstration should be concerned with education rather than theater don’t understand either and will never organize a successful demonstration, or for that matter, a successful revolution.

(p. 147)

I will conclude by saying this book is definitely not for most people. Not only is it an anachronism, but Hoffman appears to advocate for violent behavior in parts of this book, going so far as to provide instructions for activities that I personally find abhorrent and have no place in a civilized society. But I will grant that Hoffman was writing at a time when individuals fighting for social change were subject to severe reprisal, as is evident in the film “Trial of the Chicago 7.” My recommendation, watch the movie and skip the book. Feels weird saying that.

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Thoughts on Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).

The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.

Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.

Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.

Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.

Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac

Recently, I was in Carmel and visited an indie bookstore. While browsing, I found this book on the shelf. Since I have been to Big Sur, and I liked On The Road, I figured I would pick it up and give it a read, even though Kerouac’s Dr. Sax was one of the worst books I have ever read.

Truman Capote hated Jack Kerouac’s work, saying: “That’s not writing, it’s typing” (Source: Wikipedia). And I have to say, Capote has a point. As I was reading the text, it was full of typos, Kerouac did not appear to spend any time editing, and usually he opted to skip superfluous stuff like punctuation. In fact, according to sources, Kerouac “typed up” this entire book in a mere 10 days (Source: Wikipedia). But that criticism aside, I kind of liked the book. The story was interesting and stylistically it was like a blend of impressionism and stream-of-consciousness.

The protagonist in the book, Jack Duluoz, who is clearly a representation of Kerouac himself, expresses that he is tired of the role of “king of the beatniks.”

Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all there lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do anymore—My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing—

(p. 109)

The issue that Duluoz soon discovers is that when you go someplace to escape your problems, you end up bringing your problems with you. And these problems edge the protagonist closer to a complete mental breakdown.

For me, the most powerful aspect of this book is Kerouac’s visceral description of the pain of addiction; in this case, addiction to alcohol. The sense of hopelessness and self-loathing permeates every word as he exposes his suffering to the reader.

—The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness—You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there’s on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud—In fact it’s actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes—

(p. 111)

While this is not the greatest work of literature, by any stretch, it is brutally honest, and that is what gives the book value. While this is probably not for everyone, if you like the beat writers, you will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Peaceful Shepherd” by Robert Frost

Painting by Gerard van Honthorst

If heaven were to do again,
And on the pasture bars,
I leaned to line the figures in
Between the dotted stars,

I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

Season’s Greetings, fellow readers.

2020 has been a challenging year, for sure, and I think this poem reminds us of something important.

We have experienced a lot of tension resulting from differences in religious beliefs, social ideology, political leadership, and feelings of fear and inequity. At this time of the year, Frost’s poem reminds us that the spiritual values which are supposed to guide us all too often become twisted and distorted into something destructive.

I have one sincere wish for 2021, and that is that we collectively lay down the Sword and begin to treat our fellow humans with… well… humanity. It really is high time we abandoned our habits of vilifying those who do not agree with us, of harboring fear and distrust of others simply because the news media tells us that they might do something that could possibly cause us some imagined inconvenience.

May you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for sharing my reading journey this past year. Keep reading interesting stuff, and help spread some much-needed kindness.

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Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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Thoughts on “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost

Source:Wikipedia

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.

The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.

We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.

To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.

We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.

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“Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring,
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still;
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This poem was written by Poe in his youth and expresses feelings of isolation and of not belonging, which are common among young people. I can speak from my own experience that growing up I never really felt like I fit in anywhere, even though I tried to fit in everywhere. And like Poe, I found my greatest happiness in times of solitude, when I could finally take off my mask and be myself. And this is the sentiment that Poe conveys when he says “And all I lov’d. I lov’d alone.”

While this poem conveys an almost universal feeling, Poe makes it his own at the end:

From the thunder, and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

Here we are provided with a glimpse into the creative mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s feelings of isolation are the source of his literary expression. He does not see the world as “normal” people do. When he looks into the sky, instead of seeing the blue, he sees the clouds, which reflect the demons lurking within his psyche. And just as a child when he projects those inner demons onto the clouds, as a mature writer, he projects those demons onto his pages.

Like so many tortured youth, Poe looked to artistic expression as a way to deal with his loneliness and face his inner demons. Pain, sadness, and loneliness are prime inspiration for painters, writers, and musicians burdened with the need to have the cathartic release which art provides.

I hope this poem inspired you. Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a great story to read for Halloween. It’s dark, creepy, and the topic is one that gives the chills. For as Poe states early in the tale: “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”

He goes on to describe the feeling of being buried alive, of awakening to find oneself trapped within a tomb. He even makes a nice allusion to his poem, “The Conqueror Worm.”

Fearful indeed the suspicion — but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs — the stifling fumes of the damp earth — the clinging to the death garments — the rigid embrace of the narrow house — the blackness of the absolute Night — the silence like a sea that overwhelms — the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm — these things, with thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed — that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead — these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth — we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated. What I have now to tell, is of my own actual knowledge — of my own positive and personal experience.

As with so many of Poe’s tales, there are often parables or symbolism woven into the macabre stories, and this one is no different. The following passage describes the protagonist’s vision of the sheer number of people who were buried prematurely.

I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the graves of all mankind; and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay; so that I could see into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with the worm. But, alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all; and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And, of those who seemed tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed.

I see this passage as an allegory for the general state of humanity. Many of us die having never fulfilled our life’s purpose, or never doing the things we long to do, or without expressing to another how we truly feel. In essence, we are buried prematurely, with unrealized life still within us. I see this as Poe’s way of telling us to live now, don’t put things off, because soon, you will be food for the Conqueror Worm.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed Samhain.

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Symbolism in “The Imp of the Perverse” by Edgar Allan Poe

I always like to read some Poe around Halloween. This is one that I had never read before, but on my first pass, I noticed some really interesting symbolism.

The protagonist of the story explains why he committed a murder, claiming to be “one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.” He describes the perverse as the desire within all humans to do what they know is wrong. We all have those random thoughts come into our heads, envisioning some heinous act which we would never actually act out. But the protagonist claims that the longer you dwell upon these thoughts of the perverse, the stronger they become and the higher the likelihood that you will act upon them.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness, and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

So this passage also holds the key to the primary symbol in this story—the imp. The definition of an imp is “a small, mischievous devil or sprite.”  (Oxford) So where is the imp? If we look again at the passage, right near the beginning, we come across the word “impulse,” the first three letters being “imp.” So the imp is that subtle impulse that grows into an uncontrollable urge. But keep looking at the paragraph, and you will find the imp appearing throughout: impulse, imperceptible, impetuously, impatient. These are all aspects of one’s psyche that could lead one into the abyss, all manifestations of the mischievous imp.

And the imp continues to show itself throughout the rest of the story, popping up like that dark thought that you just can’t make disappear. When providing details of the murder, the protagonist states:

But I need not vex you with “imp”ertinent details.

As he describes how his small thoughts of guilt begin to grow into gnawing mental anguish, he says:

I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some un”imp”ressive snatches from an opera.

And finally:

For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-“imp”risoned secret burst forth from my soul.

(Note: the quotation marks in the above quotations were put in by me for emphasis.)

Now that you have been made aware of the imp, it will be “imp”ossible for you to remain “imp”ervious to its antics. Hope you enjoyed the post, and keep reading cool stuff.

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