Saturday, April 25, 2015

Worlds Invisible

A long time ago, British historian, author, and television personality James Burke hosted a show called Connections in which he wandered through history making connections among seemingly disparate and unconnected events. It was a good show and he was a great host. It's always fascinating to me to see a great mind at work and to read history with a thesis rather than as just a chronicle of events. One of the points of Connections is that historical events have not taken place in isolation, rather, they should be seen and can best be understood in a historical and cultural context.

Fans of science fiction and fantasy prefer to escape from the facts of history, biography, and personality. It's why we read and why it's called escapist literature. The problem is that science fiction and fantasy do not and cannot exist in isolation, separate from their historical and cultural context. Likewise, escapist literature cannot be separated from the biographies of its individual authors. Those facts are among the reasons I write this blog, to place science fiction and fantasy in historical context and to tell something of the biography of the creators of these genres. As writers, readers, and fans, we would prefer not to be bound by history or fact. Instead, we would like to escape. But we should all realize as every person must realize in his or her life that there can be no escape from living.

The last time I wrote, I looked at the story "Unseen-Unfeared" by Francis Stevens (1919). It's a story about invisible monsters that are incarnated through human hatred and violence. The theme in Stevens' work of the monster created by humanity goes back to her novel, The Citadel of Fear (1918). Both stories are in the end positive and life-affirming. They may be fantasy, but they are not dark. 

The supposition is that Francis Stevens was the creator of the sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of dark fantasy. I haven't found any really good evidence of that yet, but then the term itself, dark fantasy, is ill-defined and seems to be whatever one person or another wants it to be. Dark seems to be the operative word, as dark fantasy is apparently dark, negative, pessimistic, and nihilistic. It involves malevolent forces from the outside that seek to corrupt and destroy humanity. In our materialistic age, that means creatures from other times, other places, or other dimensions. In other words, they are not supernatural in origin, as we in this age won't allow such a thing. In a time of believers, fantasy, it seems to me, would have been the age-old story of good versus evil, of God versus the devil. It would have been clear to all just who was the Good Guy and who was the bad guy. That, at least, was true until science put God into his grave in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. With dark fantasy, writers, readers, and fans seem to have switched sides and to identify with the powers of darkness rather than Light.

With all that in mind, I realized that there was a concept of invisible monsters or invisible evil in American literature before Francis Stevens and H.P. Lovecraft, before Ambrose Bierce and Fitz-James O'Brien. I remembered my high school days and reading Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather (1693). This is where the connections begin.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728), like John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609) and Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680), whom I quoted recently (by way of Edgar Allan Poe), was a practitioner of pneumatology. That's a new word for me, and I had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, "pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena." All three men found their way into the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. It's worth mentioning that Mather was also a scientist who advocated for inoculation against smallpox. The germ theory of disease was still far in the future, but it seems that Mather was interested in the invisible world of the spirit and of organisms invisible to the naked eye.

There isn't any evidence that Francis Stevens sought to connect a seventeenth-century dissertation on witchcraft in New England to events contemporaneous to her own life. But I wonder if in one way or another she updated the concept of an invisible evil to the twentieth century and introduced a very old idea into a newly forming genre, science fiction. There is reason to believe that Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--was a Catholic. If that was the case, I wonder, too, how receptive she would have been to the very Protestant and very Puritan ideas of Cotton Mather. Finally, I wonder if dark fantasy is simply a genre that is essentially theological in nature but with God and devil (ideas that are considered naive and unsophisticated today) removed, only to be replaced by material forces. If that's true, then Francis Stevens--if she was indeed an author of dark fantasy--would have come before the break from the theological past into a materialistic present. If that's the case, then it hardly makes any sense to say that she created the genre attributed to her.

It also occurred to me that the invisible creature spawned by human hatred, jealousy, and destructiveness reappeared, so to speak, in the movie Forbidden Planet from 1956. By then the creature was explained in purely materialistic terms as a monster of the Id manifested with the aid of vast and powerful machinery. Many of Freud's ideas are now considered politically incorrect or simply invalid, but in the 1950s, Freudian psychology was wildly popular and I think carried a kind of scientific cachet. It's no wonder that it found its way into science fiction. Heck, even Dianetics, the root of a science-fiction religion, is made up in part of Freudianism. The irony is that Marx, who was an out-and-out crackpot, has adherents today, while Freud has fallen out of favor, despite the usefulness of some of his ideas. The double irony is that the political correctness that has gone against Freud grew, I believe, out of a marriage of his ideas to those of Marx in the forms of critical theory and the schemes of the New Left.

The race that created the machines in Forbidden Planet were called the Krell. The source of their great power is subterranean. The name evokes, if ever so slightly, the subject of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's romance of 1871, Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. The Vril is the power, also subterranean. The people who wield that power are the Vril-Ya, which word seems to have been the source of H.P. Lovecraft's name for his submarine city, R'lyeh, in "The Call of Cthulhu." Bulwer-Lytton's book also influenced the Theosophists (who were mentioned in "The Call of Cthulhu"). They in turn seem to have influenced Raymond A. Palmer in his peddling of the so-called Shaver Mystery and perhaps even L. Ron Hubbard, an even greater huckster than Palmer, who invented a quasi-Freudian Dianetics and a quasi-religious Scientology. Forbidden Planet is said to have influenced the making of the television series Star Trek (1966). In one episode, "The Ultimate Computer," human "engrams" are encoded in the eponymous machine. Engram is of course a term from Dianetics and Scientology. The Krell's machinery, like the Vril-Ya's technology before it, might easily be called "the ultimate computer" as well. The Mathison E-meter is a pretty meager gadget by comparison. (1)

So, Karl Marx, Theosophy, Raymond A. Palmer, L. Ron Hubbard, and to a lesser extent Sigmund Freud attempted to uncover or explain earth's secret history, each in more or less materialistic terms. Cotton Mather had his own non-material explanation for historical forces. Poor Francis Stevens, whom hardly anyone remembers, relied on a very old and very simple explanation. She laid the blame instead at the feet of a corrupt humanity and its influencing "Powers of Evil."

The connections continue: There are those who explain witches and even zombies by material means. This is, after all, the era of Scientism in which all things are or can be explained by science. One of those means is by ingestion of jimsonweed, a highly toxic plant that grows in old barn lots, hog lots, and other waste places here in the Midwest. If jimsonweed is only one of many material sources of altered states of consciousness, morality, or being, then Cotton Mather's ideas are rendered obsolete. After all, in an era of Scientism, there can't be any supernatural or non-material explanations for human conduct.

Another name for jimsonweed is thornapple. You and I ran across that word recently in our reading. You will remember that Lee Brown Coye passed through an area overgrown with pines and thornapple trees on his way to a house of horrors in central New York State. I take that name, thornapple, to mean hawthorn, a small tree with apple-like fruits and thorny twigs. Hawthorn is common on old-field sites, as Coye's woods seem to have been. But there is a suggestion of the name of that far less innocuous plant that I have called jimsonweed. That suggestion gives a whole new meaning to Coye's tale, and to the story "Sticks," adapted by Karl Edward Wagner, who was a psychiatrist, a drug user, a nihilist, possibly an atheist, and the one who may very well have coined the term dark fantasy.

(1) Speaking of the E-meter, I think people undergoing auditing grip cylindrical electrodes in their hands. If I remember right, I read a story that early auditors might even have used tomato cans as the electrodes. That makes me think of Mr. Haney, from Green Acres, who very famously said, "Don't look in the termator can!" It also makes me think of the "time machine" from Napoleon Dynamite, the title character of which was, like L. Ron Hubbard, Lee Brown Coye, and Karl Edward Wagner, a redhead. Here's another quote from Wikipedia: "Montague Summers, in his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, notes that red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of a witch, a werewolf or a vampire during the Middle Ages." Readers of H.P. Lovecraft have of course heard of the Malleus Maleficarum. In some of the images of Cotton Mather on the Internet, his hair is suspiciously ruddy in hue. Anyway, if a witch is a drug user, and werewolves and vampires are either psychopaths or victims of bloodborne illness, then evil and corruption have satisfactorily been explained by science, and the individual is excused from responsibility for his own actions.

Copyright Terence E. Hanley

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