We All Live in Lovecraft Country

This Sunday, Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country will debut on HBO, based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Here’s a review of the book I wrote back in 2016.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)

Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.

On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’

It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.

‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner.

Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media: on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion, while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters.

When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.

Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.

Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”

With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers.

There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.

The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up.

When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?’” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.’”

But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.

Short News, Post-Election Post Edition

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely.

— Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt

We can’t stop here, this is bat country. Are you experiencing anxiety, depression, and terror after last week’s election? Congratulations! Now you know how it feels to be a libertarian after every election! As a veteran of such emotional swings, might I suggest a period of self-reflection? During this time you could consider the libertarian idea of opposing government’s — and specifically, the executive’s — possession of far-reaching powers; as well as the possibility that blaming white people for all the world’s ills is unproductive, and that better ends might result from outreach toward America’s rural working classes. Following that, I propose sampling my daily medicine. Work out. Run. Read. Write. Help settlements. Don’t assume someone else will fix a problem. Keep a sense of humor. You’re not alone.

Let us not have such a machine any longer. Earlier this week LitHub published a list of 25 books for resisting the coming Trump junta. Notably absent was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s full-throated cry has been out of favor with some on the left ever since Ronald Reagan (who was raised a Democrat) co-opted the radicalist idea that government is the problem and not the solution, but maybe it’s due for a comeback. Open Culture has a nice backgrounder on Civil Disobedience, an essay I find supremely inspirational and evergreen.

Truth is weirder than any fiction. If instead of nonfiction you’re in need of a politically relevant novel, I really enjoyed Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.

By the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto. Doctor Strange was a fun but fairly mediocre experience with its main strength being the excellent interpretation of Steve Ditko’s vertiginous artwork from the character’s early days. While not a 1:1 translation, the visuals conveyed that same MC Escher sense of distortion and confusion that disconcerted this young reader. Over at Vulture, Abraham Riesman has a great piece about stalking Ditko (still alive — who knew?), and along the way details Ditko’s feud with Stan Lee and his gradual withdrawal from the world in anger and bitterness. It’s a fascinating and yet scary CT scan of an incredible talent consumed by mental illness.

Just say nyet. Probably because the Russians and Chinese are inside all of our servers these days, I’ve been flooded with spam through the phonetically rendered e-mail address that used to be on this site’s About page. I’ve removed the address until I can determine a better way to present it. In the meantime, if you want to contact me the best way is either @ing or DMing me through Twitter.

BioShock and Philosophy

A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.

BioShock and PhilosophyBioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)

My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.

On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.

It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).

For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip, only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.

BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.

CC BY Omarukai
CC BY Omarukai

The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.

The Borribles

The Borribles
Michael de Larrabeiti
Tor (214 pp, $6.99, July 2005)

While on patrol one night in London’s Battersea Park, Knocker and his buddy Lightfinger discover a Rumble trespassing on their home turf. The two Borribles quickly capture the Rumble and then —

Wait. What’s a Borrible? What’s a Rumble?

Borribles, in Michael de Larrabeiti’s razor-sharp novel, are “feral Peter Pans,” to cadge a phrase from the New York Times, pointy-eared children who never grow up:

Normal kids are turned into Borribles very slowly, almost without being aware of it; but one day they wake up and there it is. It doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they’ve had what is called a bad start. A child disappears and the word goes round that he was ‘unmanageable’; the chances are he’s off managing by himself. Sometimes it’s given out that a kid down the street has been put into care: the truth is that he’s been Borribled and is caring for himself someplace.

They are urchins gone elf, living in loose neighborhood tribes, squatting in abandoned buildings and shoplifting their food; they have no leaders or laws beyond a collection of proverbs (“Don’t get caught”), which they frequently cite in their arguments. Borribles are anarchist lawyers, “outcasts, but unlike most outcasts they enjoy themselves and wouldn’t be anything else.”

Their sworn enemies are the Rumbles, intelligent rodents resembling “a giant rat, a huge mole or a deformed rabbit” that walk on hind legs and even drive cars. The Rumbles dwell in a massive (and very posh) underground bunker in Rumbledom; a native Londoner might better recognize the area as Wimbledon Common. They’re also parodies of The Wombles, a series of children’s books, TV shows, and films which I’ve never read or seen.

The discovery of a Rumble rooting around in their territory incites suspicion of a Rumble invasion of Battersea and beyond. A Borrible council is quickly called, whereupon it’s decided each of the Borrible tribes of London will furnish a warrior to participate in the Great Rumble Hunt. The goal of this expedition: to infiltrate Rumbledom and assassinate the eight members of the Rumble High Command, thereby decapitating Rumble society. And, so that the Rumbles may have a sporting chance, the Borribles release the Rumble prisoner with a message for the High Command, explaining the entire plan.

Thus ends Chapter One.

Continue reading The Borribles

Last Year to Start Next Year

Variety reports that Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year has been optioned as a film, with production scheduled to begin Q3 2012.

With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Michel Gondry having already drafted a script for Ubik (was there ever a better match between director/screenwriter and source material?), this news means my two favorite PKD novels will be coming soon to a nearby cineplex. Undoubtedly in Imax HD 3D Smell-O-Vision.

Don’t know much about PKD or the plot to Now Wait for Last Year? Here’s a book review I wrote a while back:

Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s
Philip K. Dick
The Library of America (1128 pp, $40, July 2008)
Originally appeared in Black Gate #13, Spring 2009.

In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, television celebrity Jason Taverner awakens after being attacked by an alien parasite to discover no one knows him. Without identification, Taverner must stumble through the police state his status previously allowed him to ignore, a world wherein the student riots of the late 1960s led to a Second Civil War and a totalitarian United States.

Of course, the very minute he leaves his hotel room Taverner drops into a vipers’ nest of fake IDs, snitches, and Gestapo. “Don’t come to the attention of the authorities,” ruminates the eponymous Policeman. “Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you.” But Taverner can’t help it; his unique anonymity raises him to fame once more, only now in the sinister eyes of the police alone. And why not? “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely,” Taverner tells another character. “Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Not every one of Dick’s protagonists in Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, chosen and annotated by Jonathan Lethem, is so self-possessed. Yet all live in malignant futures, each a distorted reflection in a shattered funhouse mirror. In the bleak Now Wait for Last Year, Earth’s government has aligned itself with Lilistar in a losing war against the ant-like reegs, a conflict in which withdrawal or a separate peace with the reegs will surely lead to occupation by the Stalinesque ‘Starmen. ‘Starmen agents hook the wife of surgeon Eric Sweetscent on the new drug JJ-180; one dose addicts completely and there is no cure. She in turn addicts her husband. Which then is the more terrifying — the reegs? The ‘Starmen? Or his wife?

Dick’s novels have a rough-draftness about them that wouldn’t be accepted in today’s publishing; Taverner’s assault by the extraterrestrial, for example, fades from Flow’s memory, the cause for his survival never explained or even hinted at. Some scenes have a tacked-on quality as if Dick were simply trying to reach his word count, but in the end they only add to the surreal flow of the narrative in which the reader can never be certain if what the characters experience occurs outside their own skulls.

Two readable yet otherwise average sixties sci-fi offerings, Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, open the volume, paving a road toward the terminal inclusion, Dick’s masterpiece A Scanner Darkly. Much different in style and tone than his other works, more emotive with the cynicism cranked a hundredfold, Scanner, like the others, revolves around fear and drugs and the disabled, mentally or otherwise, and responsibility toward them. But the world of Scanner is the most dreadful, a modern, indistinguishable Los Angeles inhabited by freaks and heads, and narcs posing as freaks and heads, and freaks and heads posing as narcs. A rabbit hole beyond paranoia, a society superficially functional but made worthless with distrust. “What’s there really in this world, Bob?” asks one character. “It’s a stopping place to the next where they punish us here because we were born evil.” Drugs are solace from the policeman’s flagellation; and by book’s end an incarceration just the same. No parole from the penitentiary of existence.

Various political stripes — anarchists, liberals, libertarians — lay claim to Dick as one of their own but he belongs to no one. He was a Nixon-hating pill popper whose philosophy was anti-authoritarianism. His concerns were not about the structure of governments or the fairness of taxation but with the wheels and cogs of a person’s mind — of the reality specific to each individual, to paraphrase one of his talking taxicabs. Somewhere in the Erlenmeyer flask of Five Novels bubbles Dick’s antidote to our modern poison of conformity, to the dystopia he imagined in a thousand varieties. We live in a time where screaming SWAT teams kick in the doors of wrong addresses and everyone screams to vote for his guy and not the other and if you don’t do what the screamers say then there’s something wrong with you, something aberrant — you’re someone who needs his door kicked in most of all. It’s a future Philip K. Dick foresaw. It’s his world. We’re living in it.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It.

Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere.

Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his.

I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

The scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is very dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.