Tag Archives: Lovecraft

“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs

MissPeregrine

So I decided to take a break from reading Joyce’s Ulysses and read something more fun. Also, I was taking a short beach trip and was afraid I’d look awfully pretentious lying on the beach reading James Joyce. So this book was on my shelf and it seemed like a good choice for a beach read. I have to say that it was the perfect book, a quick read and enjoyable.

The book is kind of a dark fantasy novel, dealing with time loops, Lovecraftian monsters, mystical powers, and psychological trauma. While it sounds pretty morbid, it’s not quite as dark as it sounds. But what makes this book so cool, in my opinion, are the photographs included in the book. Riggs incorporates black-and-white pictures as part of the story, and there are quite a lot of them. It works really well. It is almost like a hybrid between a graphic novel and a “normal” book. It also sometimes feels like one of those old films that project a series of images to tell the story.

There is a lot of great symbolism in this book. So while it is a plot-driven story, there is much that you can think about if you choose. The first symbol worth considering is the island, where most of the story takes place. The island is a symbol for an isolated part of the psyche, a fixed point in the rippling sea of consciousness. And like our subconscious, the island is shrouded in mystery.

It was my grandfather’s island. Looming and bleak, folded in mist, guarded by a million screeching birds, it looked like some ancient fortress constructed by giants. As I gazed up at its sheer cliffs, tops disappearing in a reef of ghostly clouds, the idea that this was a magical place didn’t seem so ridiculous.

(p. 70)

The island has a bog, which is a point of transition between two dimensions. This represents a part of the psyche where it is possible to shift between states of consciousness. The bog is neither solid nor fluid, but a combination of the both, like a threshold. It symbolizes the psychic membrane which one must pass through when altering states of consciousness.

And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and not quite land—it’s an in-between place.

(p. 94)

There is one scene where sheep on the island were killed and mutilated. This is symbolic of the sacrificial lamb archetype. In this book, the sheep represent the Jews that were killed by the Nazis in World War II, and they also represent the peculiars, who are being hunted down.

The violence inside was almost cartoonish, like the work of some mad impressionist who painted only in red. The tramped grass was bathed in blood, as were the pen’s weathered posts and the stiff white bodies of the sheep themselves, flung about in attitudes of sheepish agony. One had tried to climb the fence and got its spindly legs caught between the slats. It hung before me at an odd angle, clam-shelled open from throat to crotch, as if it had been unzipped.

(p. 204)

The last symbol I want to mention is the homunculus. One of the peculiars is able to create homunculi out of clay. This draws on the golem mythology and the Frankenstein parable, of one who plays god and creates man from the earth. In the book, Enoch, the peculiar who makes the clay beings, takes on the characteristics of the cruel god, torturing and punishing his creations for not doing his will.

The clay soldier I’d returned began wandering again. With his foot, Enoch nudged it back toward the group. They seemed to be going haywire, colliding with one another like excited atoms. “Fight, you nancies!” he commanded, which is when I realized they weren’t simply bumping into one another, but hitting and kicking. The errant clay man wasn’t interested in fighting, however, and when he began to totter away once more, Enoch snatched him up and snapped off his legs.

“That’s what happens to deserters in my army!” he cried, and tossed the crippled figure into the grass, where it writhed grotesquely as the others fell upon it.

(p. 217)

As I said, I really liked this book. The only complaint I have about it is that it is the first book in a series, so it has an open ending that anticipates the next book, which is Hollow City. I will certainly read the next book, but I am just getting a little tired of serialized books. It seems to have become the norm in publishing, kind of a way to ensure future book sales. Other than that, great book and I totally recommend reading it. Cheers!!

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“The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft

ColourOutOfSpace

There is so much that could be said about this story, I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I could start by saying it’s one of the best works of psychological/sci-fi/horror fiction I have ever read. And honestly, the story transcends all these genres. It’s… amazing.

The story was written in 1927 and is set in Arkham, a fictional New England city featured in other Lovecraft tales. In this tale, a meteor crashes and some strange organism or force infects the surrounding land, causing a slow decay. There is a light of indescribable color associated with the other-worldly thing and this light is what affects the surrounding plants, animals, and humans.

The most obvious interpretation of this story is that it predicts the negative effects of radiation or toxic chemicals poisoning the environment. This is certainly a valid interpretation and easily supported by the text.

It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid into the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.

The next thing about this story that really struck me was the description of the infected plants and their strangeness. As I read it, I had the impression that I was reading an account of someone who had taken hallucinogens. Although this piece predates Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, there were other hallucinogenic substances that Lovecraft could have acquired. Anyway, this next passage could certainly be the description of one who is under the influence of psychotropic substances.

All the orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours, and through the stony soil of the yard and the adjacent pasturage there sprang up a bizarre growth which only a botanist could connect with the proper flora of the region. No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman’s breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion. Ammi and the Gardeners thought that most of the colours had a sort of haunting familiarity, and decided that they reminded one of the brittle globule in the meteor.

I have read that the effects of hallucinogenic drugs are similar to the visions some schizophrenics experience. When one of the character in the story who had been exposed to the to the luminosity slips into insanity, I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It happened in June, about the anniversary of the meteor’s fall, and the poor woman screamed about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away—she was being drained of something—something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be—someone must make it keep off—nothing was ever still in the night—the walls and windows shifted. Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others.

There is a very powerful symbol that appears in this tale: the well. I interpret the well as a symbol for the passage to the deeper, primordial areas of the psyche. This region of the unconscious mind is often associated with mystical visions, creativity, and so forth. In this story, there is something lurking in the well, something that is the cause of the strange luminosity. I see this as representative of a dark aspect of our primordial minds, which lurks below the surface of our waking consciousness, always threatening to surge upward and overwhelm our fragile state of awareness.

At one point, someone goes down into the well to search for the remains of missing people. He uses a stick to poke around the bottom. This is symbolic of stirring up the primordial ooze of our subconscious, trying to plumb the depths but unable to fathom how deep our psyches go.

No one replied, but the man who had been in the well gave a hint that his long pole must have stirred up something intangible. “It was awful,” he added. “There was no bottom at all. Just ooze and bubbles and the feeling of something lurking under there.”

In the end, no one is able to identify the “colour out of space,” because it exists beyond the realm of our comprehension. Whether you want to interpret this as coming from our subconscious or from a different dimension of existence, it is ultimately the same. We can only understand that which exists within our realm of ordinary perception. When we glimpse the other realms, whether through drugs, meditation, or mental illness, we are faced with something that is beyond our ability to express and which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms where mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

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“The Outsider” by H. P. Lovecraft

HPLovecraftMy close friend Byron recently posted that this is her favorite story by Lovecraft. Since she is someone whose literary opinions I highly respect, I decided to read it. Surprisingly, it was not in my hardcover collection of Lovecraft’s works, but I was able to find it online (click here to access the online version). If you are not familiar with this story, you should read it first, because there are spoilers in this post. It would be impossible to write about this story without giving away the ending.

This story sucked me in from the very first paragraph, which expressed a feeling of alienation which often plagued me when I was younger.

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me – to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.

Like my younger self, the protagonist spent his days living vicariously through books, seeking to escape the lonely crypt of isolation.

I would often lie and dream for hours about what I read in the books; and would longingly picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests.

TarotTowerThe outsider then decides to ascend the tower of the castle where he dwells. The description of the climb up the tower caused my heart to race, sensing that some terrible secret lay at the top, or that some dire event would occur upon reaching the summit. I kept getting images of The Tower card from the tarot deck and the impending doom associated with the card.

Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock; black, ruined, and deserted, and sinister with startled bats whose wings made no noise. But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness of my progress; for climb as I might, the darkness overhead grew no thinner, and a new chill as of haunted and venerable mould assailed me.

Upon reaching the top of the tower, the outsider is thrilled by the light of a full moon. I got the sense that the person was experiencing a symbolic birth, emerging from the birth canal symbolized by the tower, to come forth into a new realm of light and mystery.

As I did so there came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that ascended from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.

The person discovers that the tower actually led up from an underground vault. He then wanders forth until he comes upon a group of people, who flee from him in horror. The outsider does not understand why until he comes upon a mirror and sees his reflection, discovering that he is but the decayed remains of a long-dead person.

I did not shriek, but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.

The tale concludes with references to ancient Egypt, leading one to conclude that the outsider is a mummified being who after countless centuries has finally been resurrected. Unfortunately, though, the world has changed, and there is no longer a place where he belongs. He is left to haunt this realm, riding the winds of night along with the other ghouls and creatures of darkness.

All of us emerge from our dark wombs bringing with us vague fragments of memories. We are then cast into a world in which we are alone, outsiders, until we connect with creatures like ourselves. Then, after we die, we again traverse the dark corridor as we move toward the light of the next realm of our existence. This cycle of birth-death-rebirth is what Lovecraft captures in a frightening and fascinating way with this story, a story I suspect I will read again.

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“The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft

CallCthulhuMy favorite type of horror story is one that is symbolic of the darker aspects of the subconscious mind and The Call of Cthulhu definitely falls into that category. But the story is more than just a symbolic representation of the subconscious, it is also a study on parallel dimensions and realities which draws on occult philosophies and incorporates modern artistic ideas. The tale is nothing short of a masterpiece.

In the opening lines, Lovecraft asserts that there is more to reality than we can perceive and that we exist in a state of ignorance, unaware of what lies beyond our limited scope of perception.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

References are then made to several theosophical and occult texts, particularly W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuris, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Although it is not specifically referenced in the story, I would also add that Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine is implied, since references are made to parallel planes and cycles of aeons that figure prominently in Blavatsky’s book.

In this story, the mythical beings and the realms they inhabit represent our subconscious minds. This is the part of our collective psyche that often finds its “subconscious expression in dreams” and visions. Because this area of our consciousness is so alien to us, it can only be expressed artistically, and even then, it is only a symbolic approximation of that realm.

They and their subconscious residuum had influenced his art profoundly, and he shewed me a morbid statue whose contours almost made me shake with the potency of its black suggestion.

In describing the city of R’lyeh where Cthulhu dwells, Lovecraft draws upon cubist and surrealist art to represent the realm, which is appropriate since those artistic schools sought to represent the subconscious and the dream state through visual representation.

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention this talk of angles because it is something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.

The realm of Cthulhu is thrust up out of the ocean as the result of an earthquake. The earthquake is symbolic of a mental shift or upheaval, and the island which surfaces is our subconscious mind rising out of the dark sea of the collective unconscious.  In addition to the surreal architecture, there is an abundance of ooze representative of primordial consciousness. This is a motif that Lovecraft used in an earlier story, Dagon (click here to read my review of that story).

… a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in the measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.

We all exist in what we assume to be reality, but there is an infinity around us which we do not perceive. One would like to take comfort in the thought that the unseen universes that surround us are beautiful and benevolent, but that would be quite naive. We must at least accept the following possibility: “Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come—but I must not and cannot think!”

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“Dagon” by H.P. Lovecraft: The Surfacing of the Subconscious Mind

DagonA while back I picked up an anthology of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Last night, I decided to read one before going to sleep. I opted for Dagon, only because it was short and I was already a little tired. Unfortunately, it took me a little while to fall asleep after I finished reading the tale.

The story is about a man who is addicted to morphine and considering suicide because he is no longer able to deal with the memories of something he experienced as a sailor years back. He was adrift and came to a place where the ocean floor had risen to the surface and exposed dark and hideous things, among them a giant creature from the depths. These images haunted him since.

I immediately interpreted this story as an allegory for the dark recesses of the subconscious mind surfacing and driving a person into the realm of insanity. The boat on which he was adrift represents his mind in a state of isolation as he drifts through reality, until he reaches the point where the dark depths of his subconscious mind are forced to the surface, exposing the horrors that lay hidden below.

Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality that chilled me to the core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.

As the protagonist recounts his tale, he recalls wandering the desolation until he comes to an obelisk engraved with carvings of strange fish-like creatures. He makes the connection that these creatures are symbolic of early man, possibly from the stage where life emerged from the ocean. These symbols, then, represent the earliest stages of our subconscious minds that are linked to our prehistoric selves which crawled from the ocean’s slime.

I think these things were supposed to depict men–at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage to some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I date not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint.

He then questions whether everything he experienced was just fantasy, but concludes that it was real. He recognizes that within each human lies a dark subconscious, which at any moment may surface. Although he tries to bury this part of him through the use of drugs, he is unable to keep the dark side of himself from surfacing again, which drives him to the point where he sees suicide as the only escape.

Often I ask myself if it could not all have been a pure phantasm–a mere freak of fever as I lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat after my escape from the German man-of-war. This I ask myself, but ever does there come before me a hideously vivid vision in reply. I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind–of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

It’s a pretty dark vision of the future of humanity and one that has haunted my thoughts on occasion. It is not difficult to envision a world where our baser instincts gain control over our reason, resulting in the collapse of humanity. I think the key, though, is to acknowledge that part of ourselves and be aware of it. It’s only through awareness and acceptance that we keep the mire below the surface and continue to progress as a society.

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