Book review: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I admire Flannery O’Connor because she’s one of only a few writers who use violence in a totally selfless, morally necessary way. Where a nihilist or a satirist might grandstand, the horror in O’Connor’s work is a needed illustration of Christian humanist principles, like love, faith and empathy.

Even the savage murder of a young girl, from a short story I shan’t name, reveals no cruelty or nihilism in the author, but is a means of bringing us to revelation: evil is real, and it destroys the soul. (Whether you think the soul is immortal or not.)

Oddly enough, most of her stories, including those where everyone dies (someone often dies in an O’Connor story), are uplifting and hopeful. They all take place in a universe which recognises good and evil and treats them as objective truths, the road to good being much longer than the path to evil.

Wise Blood, one of two novels she wrote, could be easily dismissed as a painful and bleak book, but for those willing to read it with eyes wide open, it’s about the force of good trying to envelop the lonely and misguided. Or, as O’Connor would have put it, “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it”.

That unwilling character is Hazel Motes, an ex-soldier returned from World War II, his home town abandoned. The grandson of a travelling preacher, his years away have rendered him a bitter atheist, and he shacks up with a prostitute in a new city, determined to blaspheme. Once an almost pedantically pious man, he’s now a committed heretic.

Motes is a cold and joyless soul. Despite his antireligious beliefs, he chooses a suit and hat which make him look like a preacher. He’s even mistaken for one by a taxi driver, infuriating this new heathen. Furious at his once beloved faith, he becomes a preacher for his own church, a Church Without Christ, proudly proclaiming, sometimes on street corners like a sandwich-board prophet, that Jesus was a liar.

His bleak mission leads him to Asa and Sabbath, a couple of Christian pamphleteers, Asa a hardened conman and Sabbath his unloved teenage daughter. Though their motives are secretly selfish and just as heretical as Motes’, he confuses them for genuine Christians and harrasses them.

Another bone of contention in his life is Enoch Emery, a lonely eighteen-year old zookeeper. Like Motes, he’s driven by blasphemy, though in an innocent and unknowing way.

Ignorant of doctrine and spiritual teachings, Emery believes he has “wise blood,” which pushes him towards revelation without intellectual guidance. His “blood” leads him to a mummified dwarf in a museum on the zoo’s grounds, and tells him that this ancient corpse is the “new jesus.”

O’Connor doesn’t capitalise “Jesus” when describing Emery’s dwarf, perhaps because this saviour isn’t real, and thus doesn’t deserve to share the prophet’s name. What Emery becomes is the true revelation: that his “wise blood” has led him to a false idol. His idolatory, far from fulfilling his spiritual needs, has brought him only madness and loneliness.

Wise Blood‘s second half is its most disturbing, because Motes’ and Emery’s respective obsessions finally consume them. Motes descends further than Emery, and turns into a gross, twisted monster. His pursuit of blasphemy and a godless universe brings him torture. He turns into a martyr almost against his will, which reminds me of a line from one of O’Connor’s short stories: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Wise Blood is beautiful and thought-provoking. Like the scriptures that inspired it, the novel requires close attention. O’Connor’s prose is elegantly crafted, and she never stoops to the level of mean-spiritedness even in her darkest scenes, which provoke empathy, not hopelessness, as a lazy reading of this complex book might.

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Book review: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

Another old Amazon review of mine, of a book by possibly my favourite author.

This is one of my favourite novels, up there with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, another Catholic masterpiece about love, evil, destiny and redemption. The Violent Bear It Away is about the battle for a child’s soul. The child is Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year old boy raised by his great uncle Mason, who kidnapped him from his uncle so he could raise him as a Christian prophet.

Francis’ uncle is Rayber, a schoolteacher and staunch atheist. When Mason dies Francis burns down their house, neglects to give him the Christian burial he demanded, and arrives at Rayber’s door. And so the battle begins, as Rayber fights to “save” Francis from religion and remould him in his own image.

This novel’s title is taken from Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The characters here certainly suffer violence, and whether they’ll bear the kingdom of heaven away, at least in their own lives, provides this story’s suspense.

Rayber has a retarded son, ironically named Bishop, whom Mason tried to baptise when he was born. He failed, and since passed the duty on to Francis, who struggles against Mason’s programming.

Though Mason is unstable, controlling and a bit stupid, there’s no doubt that O’Connor prefers his way of life to Rayber’s. Rayber is uptight and repressed. To him everything is or should be a matter of logic. He can’t allow himself to truly love Bishop because that love would be mysterious, based on a connection between parent and child which transcends logic.

Bishop is a retard, and so can’t be trained to share his father’s coldly logical view of life. Why should Rayber love him? In a way he views Francis as another shot at parenthood. But Francis, bitter about both Mason’s raising and Rayber’s perceived abandonment of him, reacts to his uncle with disdain.

What eventually happens to Bishop (and later Francis) is shocking and upsetting. The path to Francis’ destiny is paved with horror and death. One could question how the ending works on a literal level, considering what Francis has done. Would people be willing to hear this boy’s message, given what’s on his conscience?

But the literal level isn’t really the point. Like all of O’Connor’s stories this is a morality play, where action and symbolism are tied together. Her works were based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, so you could argue that they’re almost fables.

Even if, like me, you’re not religious, this book is worth reading. It’s a beautifully crafted evocation of religious and philosophical themes. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy in later scenes where Francis wanders harsh country roads. There’s also a hypnotic passage in which a small girl leads a sermon.

The first chapter of this novel was originally published as a short story, “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”. That chapter’s ending echoes the novel’s, with Francis moving toward something.

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Film review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I plan to write a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, an (I think) unfairly maligned black comedy, but in the meantime, here’s a (slightly edited and expanded on) review of the original, which I first published on Amazon.co.uk a couple of years ago.

The title of Tobe Hooper’s classic might make it seem like torture porn to some modern viewers, and it was certainly part of a 70s horror renaissance which, in the 80s, decayed into sleazy, low-budget, morally dubious slasher films. (Or “Dead Teenager Movies”, as Roger Ebert called them.) It is, however, utterly anemic when compared to torture porn, like Eli Roth’s Hostel or even its own remakes and prequels. It depends, instead, ruthlessly and almost entirely, on atmosphere.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the raw and immediate impact of a great short story. Below its simple linear narrative is a wealth of implications. For instance, early in the film the heroes discuss slaughterhouses and methods for killing cattle. Their eventual fate will echo this conversation.

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) goes on a road trip with her friends and crippled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) to see if their grandfather’s grave is among those recently robbed in Texas. After completing this task they visit a gas station, eat some barbecue then explore an abandoned house which once belonged to Sally and Franklin’s family. They also, one by one, discover a nearby farm, which houses psychotic man child Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic clan.

Burns’ role as heroine (or “final girl”) only really requires a good scream and convincing run, both of which she has. Some actresses could mess up even such a simple character, but Burns manages authenticity. Her face is very expressive, and I loved a close-up of her when she leaps through a window and scans her surroundings. She looks completely manic, which under the circumstances she should.

Leatherface and his family are gleefully grotesque. I liked their lack of back story. Often a horror film of this nature (teenagers, imposing weapons etc.) will kill any suspense with misunderstood Freudian babble about abusive childhoods and transvestitism (take a bow, Cherry Falls). But TCM wisely lets us view these people just through the heroine’s immediate experience of them. What she sees and hears while being chased or held captive is all we do as well. This means that, unlike some final girls, she connects with us on a primal level. We find ourselves in her shoes. She’s not a character so much as an audience surrogate.

There’s some beautiful shots inside the farmhouse, when one character literally stumbles across a living room with furniture made of bones, some animal, some maybe human, and a live chicken in a cage suspended from the roof.

Though this film does have hardly any blood it is, naturally, terrifying and gruesome. A scene with a meat hook is appalling to the eye even without gore. There’s also a harrowing sequence which involves a decrepit old man, a hammer and a bucket. And so on. TCM is not for those who don’t like any kind of horror story.

P.S: Early posters for and the intro of this film claim it really happened, or is at least based on true events. It isn’t, and nothing here has much correspondence with reality, though the story was inspired by a real-life killer and graverobber, Ed Gein, who killed two women and used their bodies, as well as the bodies he stole from graveyards, to upholster furniture. He also inspired Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was made into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film.

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A small thought on political correctness in art

I don’t know about you, but I like a little political incorrectness in art. I like the undertones of misogyny in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; the misandry of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trying to talk with a man”; the homophobia of some of Charles Bukowski’s work; the description of all straight people as gay-haters in Queer as Folk‘s American offshoot; the implicit racism disguised as cosmic terror in several H. P. Lovecraft stories; not because those prejudices are acceptable, but because they colour and inform the work and reveal truths about people. Sometimes, even, they’re just fun, like the casual sexism of Roald Dahl, whose most famous villains are often mannish or predatory women. If we give political correctness too much control of our art, we’ll crush its individuality.

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    Art galleries: in no darker places do hate, resentment and bitterness hide.

Opinion piece: Conan the Lovecraftian

I recently downloaded Complete Conan, a work containing every Conan the Barbarian story by Robert E. Howard, to my Kindle for 77p (plus VAT). Though I’m still an annoying romantic about biodegrading paper-and-glue books, I’ll admit Kindles are a great thing. A lot of history’s greatest writers and thinkers, I’d wager, would have been positively awed by the notion of carrying an entire library around with you. (Fun fact: the name “Kindle”, meaning to light a fire, was chosen as a metaphor for reading and intelligence.)

But back to Conan. Since downloading I’ve read a couple of stories: “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel”. Both are fast-paced fantasy thrillers packed with gore, and overtones of the cosmic horror pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft. Cosmic horror, or cosmicism, is a type of story where people are confronted by their helplessness before an enormous, powerful and indifferent universe, where humans lack significance.

What defines this genre isn’t pessimism, but indifference. The cosmic visions and races whose aspects drive men mad aren’t malign so much as indifferent to humanity, just as humanity is indifferent to termites. This idea informs Conan’s universe somewhat, and it clearly lacks a benevolent patriarchal god, relying instead on a more, well, barbaric approach to the spiritual. That said, magic is evil’s domain, and Howard’s magicians in both stories mentioned above are physically inferior men who dominate through sorcery alone.

Due to cosmicism’s influence on the Conan stories, Howard’s been accused by some writers, like Stephen King, of lazily pastiching Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were friends and referenced each other in their work to such an extent that Conan can be seen as a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, the cosmic mythology created by Lovecraft’s stories. However, I don’t think Howard pastiched Lovecraft as much as King suggests, if only because their styles are remarkably different.

Though “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel” have somewhat crudely assembled narratives, which when analysed seem like a series of set pieces, they have a stronger emphasis on character and action than Lovecraft’s work. Many of Lovecraft’s heroes are distinguishable only by their names; one white, male scholar is much the same as another. This fits into his cosmic philosophy, which is more concerned with atmosphere, imagery and setting than human dramas.

Howard, on the other hand, creates personalities which, if not complex, are sharp and well-defined. The evil wizards talk and behave in their own way, which can be distinguished from how Conan talks and behaves. Conan is a slight paradox: he’s a barbarian who faces his enemies with violence, but he’s a kind and benevolent king whose lowliest subjects, as explained in “The Scarlet Citadel”, are treated well. He stole the kingdom of Aquilonia’s crown, but did so from a despot, and rules fairly.

Also, where Lovecraft’s stories are slow-paced and tense, Howard’s brim with exciting action. There’s a truly fantastic image in “The Scarlet Citadel” of Conan atop a turret, soaked in blood, watching as an evil prince he’s just thrown from its height is torn apart by peasants. That image symbolises these stories’ appeal. For all their cosmic elements, what they are at their core is gritty, ultraviolent medieval thrillers.

Lovecraft’s stories are thematically richer, and I prefer them for their deep, abiding horror, but Howard offers a different, equally valid kind of entertainment. Just as Lovecraft pioneered cosmic horror, Howard pioneered sword-and-sorcery, or heroic fantasy. The stories are pure escapism, letting readers imagine themselves as honourable barbarians, fierce in battle and always triumphing over scrawny, pathetic wizards.

A brief summary of the stories mentioned above:

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales, 1932) follows an evil count, a commander, a fat king and a mad poet as they plan to assassinate Conan, whose kingdom lives in unrest as the people mourn his late, despotic predecessor, forgetting his atrocities against them. The count has as his slave a wizard, Thoth-Amon, who’ll bring to Aquilonia a nameless cosmic horror. The climax of this story is a riot of bloody, claustrophobic action, taking place in a small chamber where Conan must face off with several assassins.

“The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, 1933) uses similar archetypes: evil wizards and incompetent rulers, though this time the wizard, Tsotha-lanti, has kings as his servants. These rulers, Amalrus and Stradabonus, have their armies ambush Conan, killing thousands of his knights and imprisoning him in lanti’s titular home. The scenes below lanti’s citadel, where Conan must fight a giant snake and various cosmic horrors, some of which seem influenced more by myth than Lovecraft, are beautifully written.

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Short story review: “The Whisperer in Darkness” by H. P. Lovecraft

“The Whisperer in Darkness” is a 1930 story by H. P. Lovecraft, about a correspondence between two scholars: Albert Wilmarth, who narrates, and Henry Akeley, a recluse in an area of Vermont supposedly haunted by strange bodies found in rivers, and inhuman voices in the woods. The story’s place in the so-called Cthulhu mythos, a mythology containing all of Lovecraft’s fictional alien races, is with the Mi-go. The Mi-go are a crab-like species whose wings propel them through space, and whose various antennae, protruding in place of a head, serve them with senses subtler than human sight, sound or hearing.

This is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, because it’s one of the creepiest and weirdest, which says a lot in a body of work defined as weird fiction. (“Weird fiction” was a name given to stories of horror and fantasy before those genres developed their separate niches.) In the story, Wilmarth is a literary scholar whose hobby is folklore, and Akeley is a noted folklorist. The aforementioned bodies in the rivers arouse much discussion, and Wilmarth initially takes the sceptics’ side. Local peasantry, popular side characters in Lovecraft, claim that the bodies are crab-like and unnatural, while Wilmarth attributes those claims to rustic imagination.

Ever-present in Lovecraft stories is a deep fear of knowledge, despite their scientific interest and pioneering move away from spirituality. Though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein merged science and the Gothic, Lovecraft could be credited with creating the sci-fi horror genre as we understand it today. Earth-centric mythologies are often cited in his work, but they’re treated as naïve explanations for supernatural phenomena, the true horror being what non-human races exist beyond not just our celestial niche, but also our darkest imaginations. Almost every Lovecraft story posits that knowledge of outer space and things outside the scope of our everyday lives can only bring soul-shattering terror.

Ironically, Lovecraft decried the boredom and misery of real life outside his stories, once saying this about his work: “There is no field other than the weird in which I have any aptitude or inclination for fictional composition. Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life.” If this was true, “The Whisperer in Darkness” may be one of his most effective attempts at escapism. Akeley’s descent into paranoia and fear is utterly compelling, revealed in a series of letters to Wilmarth which convey his approaching doom. The Mi-go are a mysterious, malevolent race, their motives more shadowy than some of Lovecraft’s aliens’. In an especially chilling scene, Wilmarth receives a recording where a Mi-go and a human accomplice exchange weird ritualistic dialogue.

As I suggested earlier, ritualism creates the background of Lovecraft’s stories, but never the backbone. The dialogue references goats, but not in connection with the Christian devil, and the rites of superstitious humans form only atmosphere. Lovecraft recalls the elements of traditional Gothic horror while forging a new, cosmic path. The last act of this particular story is profoundly chilling, at least in my opinion. It is there that the true whisperer in darkness reveals himself, and many dark universal truths are revealed to Wilmarth, once a sceptic, now a reluctant believer. Though Lovecraft’s prose is notorious for its Victorian heaviness, slow pace and lack of conversation, these final scenes are grimly compelling. “The Whisperer in Darkness” made me shudder once I’d finished, which is as good a recommendation as any.

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Opinion piece: The Flaws of Perfection

I recently read some articles about H. P. Lovecraft, and whether he was a good writer. “Good”, of course, is subjective in the context of art (to an extent; I think we can all agree that a poo-stain ain’t Botticelli, and Fifty Shades ain’t Macbeth), but nonetheless there are many people who don’t “get” Lovecraft, the New England horror pioneer. Who can blame them? I’ve read a lot of his stories and been thoroughly compelled by the majority, but I have to admit he’s not the most natural or pacy writer.

For one thing, he uses very little dialogue, no doubt because he couldn’t write it well. His novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, has one conversation, right at the end, though letters and a few quotations are sprinkled throughout. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, a short story, contains a several page monologue, delivered ostensibly as advice from one character to another, but used as a giant exposition dump. Lovecraft is infamous for his exposition dumps, more so than for his monsters in some quarters.

But the best bit of clunky, cliché-ridden dialogue I recall is in “The Dunwich Horror”, a story whose first half is as good as or better than anything he wrote, but whose latter takes a somewhat pedestrian good-versus-evil route. Good (and naiveté) is represented, as it often is in Lovecraft, by white male scholars. In this case, it’s a Dr Armitage of Miskatonic University (a recurring Lovecraftian establishment), who muses thusly about Dunwich’s rural townsfolk:

“‘Inbreeding?’ Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. ‘Great God, what simpletons! Show 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 about the queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham – what walked on the mountains that May night? What Roodmas horror fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?’“

I ask you, has anyone ever mused or muttered to himself in such a way? If you overheard an elderly scholar muttering this, would you assume he was idly thinking, or reciting some lunatic ramble? Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, cites the dialect-heavy sayings of Lovecraft’s rural characters – his decadent peasants, farmers and magicians – as a prime example of his failings in this area. But the unnaturally verbose and leaden monologues of his heroes is more memorable to me.

When compared to a lot of contemporary horror and fantasy, Lovecraft’s stories were also a bit lame-footed in the structure department. Novellas like At the Mountains of Madness have great imagery and gruesome scenes, but they’re stuffed with long, dry, expositional passages, devoid of action. Modern pulp writers tend to use the “every sentence must advance character or plot” rule in their shorter fiction, but Lovecraft could ramble for ages about the layout of some alien city, stopping action in its tracks.

So why, if this is true, is Lovecraft worth reading? Well, because despite his density, pacing issues and cardboard characters, he’s a master of existential fear. The atmosphere in his stories can almost be tasted. I’m still struck by images in Dexter Ward, such as a strange light through a barnhouse roof, a resurrected man running dumb and naked through the streets, weird abominations of nature writhing in underground cells…

The aforementioned first half of “The Dunwich Horror” is a stunningly beautiful evocation of a small, decrepit, decadent town, populated by a barely literate peasantry. Then there’s Lovecraft’s mythology, sometimes referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos. The mythology amounts to a complex timeline of alien species, so superior in their faculties to us that they’re worshipped as gods by ancient cults. These species lived, died and sometimes interacted with each other, all before mankind even dreamt of a civilisation.

Maybe, however, part of Lovecraft’s charm is his flaws. His technical faults as an artist are idiosyncrasies which, it could be argued, give his work character. Some horror stories are polished to such a fine point they become mere funhouse excursions: “look! A ghoul! There! A vampire!” This brings us to a larger point about writing, and art in general: is perfection an achievable or even admirable goal? True perfection is an oven which never breaks down, or a car that never stalls. It applies to practical objects. But art?

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