I discovered Mark Samuels about a year-and-a half ago on his blog in his role as social and genre critic. I went on to read and review a couple of his works.
This one came to me courtesy of subscribing to Samuels’ Pateron account.
Review: Prophecies and Dooms, Mark Samuels, 2018.
This is Samuels in critic mode, cogent in presentation and never failing to say something interesting about his subjects no matter how familiar I was with them. Between the lines, something of Samuels’ own criteria for good weird fiction peeps through.
There were plenty of material new to me about writers I have a very peripheral knowledge of.
Samuels’ “The Root of Evil: Hanns Heinz Ewers and Alraune” certainly did not have to work hard to educate me. I only knew Ewers through his much reprinted “The Spider” and about his espionage work on behalf of Germany in World War 1-era America. Samuels looks at Ewers’ persona as a drug addict and a bisexual predator (allegedly aided by hypnotism) on men and women and his greatest work, Alraune. Ewers, in that novel, becomes the “Master-Artist Braun” who alone can control the destructive force he has created, the “mandrake-woman” Alraune.
It’s the opening essay, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it ends with a metaphor of an artist in control of his material.
Oscar Wilde is a writer I know only through dramatic adaptations of his work, not the actual texts, and, while I certainly knew of his famous trial for “gross indecency” related to homosexuality, I knew nothing of his lover, Alfred Douglas. “A Great Life Spoilt: Wilde, Douglas And Machen” looks at Arthur Machen’s relationship with those other two men, especially the turbulent one with Douglas. Machen inspired Douglas to take a step Machen never did — convert to Roman Catholicism, but Douglas also cost Machen his journalism career when Machen wrote a premature and unflattering obituary of him. (We even get reproductions of the obituary and Douglas’ response.)
I thought another Machen piece, “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Reflections on ‘Dr. Stiggins” and Arthur Machen, the least successful one in the book. However, it certainly gave me a better sense of Machen’s problems with contemporary Christianity and modernity and a
’pure ethics-based’, doggedly anti-sacramental interpretation of Christianity as mere ‘rationalism’.
The eponymous Dr. Stiggins of Machen’s novel was a stand-in for one such proponent of those ideas: Dr. Robert Forman Horton, a pastor in the Hampstead Congregationalist church. In the wake of the controversy over the “reality” of Machen’s “The Bowmen”, the two men swapped sides in the miraculous vs. rationality debate.
Algernon Blackwood is another writer of weird fiction I’ve read but am not that familiar with. “In Search of Pan: Algernon Blackwood” illustrates not only how he sought the mystical in nature but was that oddity in weird fiction writers: an optimist.
But Samuels also surprised me with two looks at writers I am familiar with from extensive reading of their work and biographies.
“The Immortal Renown of Edgar A. Poe” is a fine summation of the man, his work, and influence. I’ve read of all of Poe’s fiction and poetry, many of his articles and essays and bios of him. I’ve even read Eureka. Yet, Samuels introduced me to new things like Poe’s contemporary Thomas Dunn English’s (whom I had heard of) vicious treatment of Poe via his character Marmaduke Hammerhead or the idea that Poe’s corpus of work could be gathered in a book titled “My Heart Laid Bare”. That was Poe’s notion of a book that no one would ever write, could not even bear to write, despite it being the “road to renown”. A minor quibble is that Samuels, when talking about Poe’s family, doesn’t mention the sister who outlived him.
S. T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life probably mentioned the influence of Lovecraft’s aunts and grandfather on his intellectual development (namely an interest in astronomy and chemistry), but it got buried in the mass of detail, and Samuels’ brings it to the center with “Little Sunshine: The Origins of H.P. Lovecraft”. He also corrects the bogus genealogy that Lovecraft got from his family.
The sole piece of film criticism here is “Night of the Living Dead (1968)”. It briefly reminds us that zombies don’t have to be weighted down with political or social metaphors. Accept them for what they appear to be: “apolitical avatars of madness and of physical decay”.
Samuels believes that Thomas Ligotti will one day join Poe and Lovecraft in the pantheon of American writers of the weird. Poe strayed off into abstruse metaphysics with his beloved (to him at least) Eureka. Ligotti has given us The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, the subject of Samuels’ “’It’s the Conspiracy, Stupid’: Thomas Ligotti’s Anti-Gospel”.
It’s the sole original piece in the collection, and Samuels reminds us that weird fiction does not equal nihilism or pure dread. The visions of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen certainly do not solely rest on those.
“Most authors, thankfully, are generally not trained philosophers,” remarks Samuels, but he manages to do a fair job philosophizing him in this piece. By pointing out that Lovecraft was opposed to didactic literature because the desire to educate undercut the aesthetic of the weird tale, Samuels shows that the intent to instruct – specifically to instruct on the pointlessness and agony of human existence – that Ligotti embraces is not a core aesthetic of the weird. You can write successful and bleak weird tales – but bleakness by itself should not be confused with what the weird is all about: “dislocated terror and awe”. (Though, to me, this seems an incomplete definition of the genre.)
Samuels’ points out the teleologic rhetoric infusing Ligotti’s work. Evolution does not make mistakes because it has no ultimate purpose that a “mistake” would confound.
If the anti-natal aspect of Ligotti’s philosophy (reminiscent of a group many decades ago calling itself the “voluntary human extinction movement”) is good, why isn’t just getting rid of a particular group right now bad? Isn’t a partial solution better than no solution? By Ligotti’s rights, we are simply “programmed” to not realize our own extinction is for the best.
“Programmed”, of course, implies “programmer” instituting a purposeful agenda.
Samuels almost thinks Ligotti has written a black satire. But his personal conversations with Ligotti lead him to think that author is convinced pouring his great talents into weird fiction is now
a side-show from the main purpose of advising us all that people should not exist in the first place, although it is, even at best, still an imperfect vehicle for the delivery of Ligotti’s inherently contradictory
message: the great truth being that there is no great truth.
Thus the final essay concludes with an artist, Ligotti, no longer in control of his material.
In thinking about it, most of these essays are about the difficulties of a great artist in channeling his personal concerns into art without swamping it with didacticism or succumbing to the temptation of prophecy.
More reviews of Lovecraft related material are indexed on the Lovecraft page.
More reviews of Poe related material are indexed on the Poe page.