Saturday, November 8, 2014

R. A. Lafferty Centenary

I have some almost-finished horror book reviews that have been waiting in the wings for some months now.  In the meantime, I've been very busy over at my Lafferty blog.  Lafferty wasn't a horror writer per se, but he has strong strains of horror in his fiction and a good number of his stories were first published in horror anthologies in the 1960s and 70s, so he's of relevance to this blog too.  I wrote a tribute for his centenary yesterday called 'The Door Into A Dozen Or A Hundred Planet-Falls A Day' and I wanted to share that here too.

R. A. Lafferty
November 7, 1914 - March 18, 2002

Saturday, September 6, 2014

'this less material life is our truer life' - again, Lovecraft and spirituality

Regarding what I wrote about Lovecraft and spirituality and transcendence yesterday, observe the opening passage to his story 'Beyond the Wall of Sleep' (1919) below.  Sometimes these opening philosophical gambits are worth the price of admission alone, regardless of what Lovecraft may be able to subsequently achieve with the narration itself.  Here I think he rather clearly exhibits the sort of Dark Sehnsucht and anti-reductionism I alluded to:

I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier. From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know; and of which only the slightest and most indistinct memories linger after waking. From those blurred and fragmentary memories we may infer much, yet prove little. We may guess that in dreams life, matter, and vitality, as the earth knows such things, are not necessarily constant; and that time and space do not exist as our waking selves comprehend them. Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.

Sometimes I side with those who find Lovecraft's verbose 'purple prose' somewhat ponderous and amusingly porcine.  At other times I think his hefty phrases lean slightly more in the direction of Milton or Faulkner than Edward Bulwer-Lytton and achieve a certain degree of thoughtful opulence (if you're willing to also chuckle a little as you appreciate it).  This whole passage is a pretty good example of his wordiness working well, I think.  His 'immundane' is a very aptly chosen word for his subject matter and one I plan to use in the future.  His 'terraqueous globe' is just delicious - in the way monsters like Godzilla and Gamera are epic and outrageous at once.  The constant recurrence of globulous phrases like 'titanic significance' and 'uncorporeal life', couched as they are in syntactical rhythms that mirror their manatee-like eloquence, induce in the reader a flavour of the very dream state that is under review.  Matching form to theme is one crucial mark of great writing.  Today, here, Lovecraft is a great writer in my opinion.

At any rate, the content is substantial.  This is not merely a dreamy prose-poem.  Lovecraft is hungrily excavating his lifelong philosophical pursuit:  a depth-dive into ontology, a refusal to accept commonsense,  commonplace reality and a determination to dig beneath its surface.  Or, to move the metaphor from 'under' to 'over', a determination to escape the orbital pull of everyday appearances.  This supra-mundane impulse and the careful explication it engenders in Lovecraft's works are, I submit, rather clear signs of his bent toward something not at all unlike a spiritual worldview.  I know many spiritualities seek a totally 'immanent' picture of the world, without immaterial remainder, but 'a certain remainder' is exactly what Lovecraft feels in his gut here and he thinks it unwise to ignore that intuition.  And equally unwise to throw an 'ordinary interpretation' at it (such as that it was just the spicy burritos we ate, or a Freudian/Feuerbachian projectionist sort of explain-it-away theory).

To be fair, the point I cited S. T. Joshi making - that Lovecraft consciously sought a 'non-supernatural cosmic art' (in Lovecraft's own words) - was put forth by Joshi as being an arc of intellectual growth that Lovecraft underwent during his short career.  I agree that just such a development of ideas and ideology occurred in Lovecraft.  But his 'spiritual' roots are prominent in this early story and I'm not yet convinced he ever 'outgrew' them in his heart, even though he sought intentionally to do so by means of the theoretical rhetoric he adopted.  I do think his intellectual convictions had sincerely moved in the direction of materialism, but I also think that position was in tension with his heart's impulse for the 'beyond' and that even his own artistic fleshing out of materialism (the Cthulhu Mythos) was decidedly non-reductionistic.

It's fascinating really.  I think so many atheists and secularists and 'neo-pagans' are drawn to Lovecraft because he is really one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century, a mystic for materialists I suppose.  (And I would welcome your thoughts on this if you self-identify as such.)  Lovecraft's keen sense of 'cosmic horror' seems to be in tension with his equally keen sense of Sensucht, of spiritual yearning.  And I think this is why so many 'religious believers' have enjoyed and imitated Lovecraft too, despite not sharing his atheism (in popular genre fiction one thinks of the likes of Catholics such as Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers).

Of course, Christian theology's emphasis on physical creation and bodily resurrection would, ironically, give far more substance and meaning to material, earthly life than Lovecraft intimates here (our 'vain presence' in the physical ecosphere is 'secondary' at best, he surmises).  But Lovecraft's deep-seated hunch that we are more than merely meat-machines remains hugely significant to me and I think we do him an injustice if we reduce him to merely an apostle of a grim cosmic realism comprised of particles-all-the-way-down.  His view was sincerely bleak and devoutly 'scientific' (as he understood it), but the beat of his heart's longing for Something More never stops pulsating throughout his work.  If we ignore that, at times faint, palpitation, it will, Poe-esque, grow louder and louder in our ears until we scream out our confession that we buried it beneath the floorboards.

Friday, September 5, 2014

'non-supernatural cosmic art' vs. Sensucht: H. P. Lovecraft's God-Shaped Hole

‘The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & measurable universe.  And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity?’

-H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Selected Letters 295-6, cited in Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew, Editor, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (2014), Ashgate Publishing, Surrey, p. 391 in the article ‘Lovecraft, Monsters In’ by S. T. Joshi, who comments:

‘This view makes it evident that Lovecraft was seeking to go beyond traditional supernatural horror and more in the direction of the new genre of science fiction.’ (ibid.)

But such a move would still be a potently hybridised science fiction literature, one that pulls in different directions, since it is still rooted in ‘revolt’, which could be understood as the bent in humans toward anti-reductionism.  At most, this would mean Lovecraft was yearning toward a philosophically non-reductionist form of materialism in which to express his obvious mysticism.  The likes of Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012) help elucidate this.  But this hybridisation could also signal a fundamental tension in Lovecraft between a sort of Lewisian sense of Sensucht, a longing for the transcendent, and a principled and intuitive drive toward sheer, closed, non-divine immanentism.  Either way, though Lovecraft may have professed a desire to head in a ‘scientific’ (not to mention ‘scientistic’) and explicitly atheistic materialist direction, he was no Dawkins-esque cavalier reducer.  It seems obvious to me that mysticism ran deep in Lovecraft, a ‘spiritual’ sort of impulse that he embraced, guarded, and cultivated, even if he also sought to be as thoroughly non-supernaturalist as he could be.  And it also seems to me that this ‘spirituality’, though it follows in the footsteps of many spiritualities that seek naturalistic closure without divine remainder, couldn’t resist expressing itself through pantheons of deities, through a genuine sense of worship and outward and ‘upward’ supra-spatiotemporal projectionism of deity-manufacture.  In short, Lovecraft seems to have exhibited as well as anyone the ‘god-shaped hole’ so prevalent and prominent in human psychology and activity.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Rats (1974) by James Herbert

I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of this book on a whim last year.  Swarms of rats attacking cities is a trope I’m familiar with from 70s and 80s films shown on TV in my childhood, so I think it was partly nostalgia that made me pick it up.  I had very low expectations as to the quality of writing and wondered if I’d even be able to finish it.  It sat on my shelf until I noticed a brand new copy of it sitting in the bestseller rack of my local supermarket, which alone said much about its longevity as a work of fiction.  But what grabbed my attention even more was that none other than Neil Gaiman had written a new introduction to the novel.  Intrigued, I slotted The Rats up to my next book to read.

          I have never read a novel so quickly.  I’m a slow reader at the best of times, so even this slim page-turner took me a handful of sittings over a couple of days.  But it’s the kind of thing my wife could read in one afternoon.  This is superbly economic and engrossing storytelling.  It’s the way Stephen King usually is for a hundred pages or so, off and on, in his novels.  But Herbert’s debut didn’t really let up, and it’s a short novel anyway.  

          Also like King, Herbert’s backstory characterisations are what make the pace so relentless and make the brutal nasty crescendos so chilling.  The book tells terse but enthralling little tales about a number of quite different sorts of characters only to (SPOILER – but you would only expect this) have them devoured by rats.  What King says about his own fiction applies here:  he makes you care about the characters and then unleashes the monsters on them.  These hordes of vermin are headed up by a swelling population of huge black mutations, which, in addition to being vicious flesheaters, are uncannily intelligent.  Having gotten a taste for human blood early in the story, they now seek out only that delicacy all over London.  

          It’s a shocker.  The killing set pieces are gruesome and unforgiving.  Yet it doesn’t really linger on gory detail.  This balance of shock and restraint makes the sheer animal brutality all the more sinister and effective.  Well played, Mr. Herbert.  

(I should probably note that this little book is very rated R for graphic sexual content as much as violence, done in a similar succinct but evocative manner.  It has the same breezy attitude to sex you find in King and others from the 70s, though perhaps a little less of the 'heart' that King at least tries to put into that subject matter.)

          I suppose you could call Herbert's debut novel a specimen of eco-horror, but I’m not sure how strong that resonance really is.  It’s actually far more sociological than ecological.  It’s frankly kind of disturbing in its seeming classism and racism (even from the narrational point of view) and, making those prejudices redundant, its misanthropy.  That the human population itself is seen by the main protagonist as not unlike a swarm of vermin is pretty obvious.  This is in tension, however, with the book’s clear decrial of urban poverty, both in terms of living conditions and education.  The tension between a humanitarian impulse and unanalysed prejudice really makes the book more successful on the thematic level.  The terror of the rats is the terror of our own inhumanity to each other en masse.  

          But I think this book is first and foremost entertainment and at that it succeeds very well.  Whereas James Herbert wasn’t really on my radar before, popular though he is, I’m now actually looking forward to reading more from him.  I don’t think this will be a one-off.  (Recommendations are welcome, but I’ll probably go for The Fog next.) 

It’s good to be getting a sense of the emerging popular horror writing scene of the 70s.  Born in ’73 myself, I feel some kind of connection to this era in a lot of ways, not least to what was happening in one of my favourite and formative genres.  Up next in that vein:  the 1976 debut novel by Ramsey Campbell, outrageously titled The Doll Who Ate His Mother.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Chiliad: A Meditation - by Clive Barker

Subterranean Press 2014 Deluxe Edition, illustrations by Jon Foster; originally published 1997

I’ve been circling in on really reading Clive Barker for years now.  I’ve up to this point still only managed to read a few novellas (‘In the Hills, the Cities’, collected in The New Weird edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, and ‘Rawhead Rex’, collected in the The Mammoth Book of Monsters edited by Stephen Jones).  I saw Chiliad, a very slim volume and with illustrations to boot, at my local library and thought I’d give it a go as well.  I’m glad I did.  

I’ve been picking up a notion here and there that Barker, like his co-master of modern horror Stephen King, is a surprisingly spiritual writer, one not afraid to tackle faith as much as monsters and who seemingly goes so far as to profess to be some kind idiosyncratic religious believer.  Yes, I’m talking about the guy who gave us the Hellraiser franchise of movies and associated publications, the guy whose fiction has graphic content that can make even the aforementioned Stephen King blush.  If you doubt me about Barker’s spirituality, Chiliad would be a good place to start testing that doubt.  In addition to containing brief moments in the story that are violently and sexually explicit, the tale is also explicitly spiritual, a search for and from faith it seems.    

            And it is a tale about doubt too and the bout between life-giving meaning and despair-dealing pointlessness, not just for individuals but for the world.  Chiliad relates gruesome and harrowing cycles of violence and vengeance that reach back to mankind’s beginning.  In so doing it faces head-on the question of whether we are utterly alone in an indifferent universe or whether the universe, even filled with gratuitous and awful evil and suffering, might yet contain some kind of credible hope in genuine metaphysical goodness. Its narrative touches on theodicy too in showing individual human responsibility for choices made to pursue paths of evil and all the collateral damage that spins out from those individual choices to do evil.  (Indeed, part one of the book is entitled ‘Men and Sin’.)

The metaphysics here is of both varieties:  the pop misnomer that has connotations of psychics and paranormal phenomena (which feature as central plot aspects in the tale) as well as the technically proper use of the term, which denotes the area of analytic philosophy that studies things like time, existence, identity and troublesome pairs of concepts like universals and particulars, substances and properties, freewill and determinism.  Barker’s little book is a genuine meditation on the nature of time as well as the nature of persons and meaning.  In fact, he adopts and adapts the well-worn trope of figuring time as a river and part two of the book is significantly titled ‘A Moment at the River’s Heart’.

            But for all this philosophical weightiness, the book is far from ‘heavy going’.  It is very much a need-to-know-what-happens-next page-turner with some good twists and turns.  And that is a feat.  To write something so overtly abstract and meditative that yet spins several engrossing yarns is some pretty kick-ass artistry and hats off to Mr. Barker for that alone.  Indeed, the book is also an overt meditation on storytellers and their craft as much as it is on finding meaning in the middle of life.  The author several times breaks the spell of the story to address the reader directly and talk about their cooperative relationship in the narration of the story.  But it all flows very smoothly and you still somehow feel like you’re in the fictional dream throughout.  The meta-fictional asides do not cloy or bore.  Barker is good.  

            Each of the two main narratives that make up the book (each about a man living by a river in England, their respective lives separated by a thousand years) is introduced by a gorgeously weird and mysterious apocalyptic vision.  The first is ingenious in creating a yearning that existence would somehow climax in true meaning and joy, but it does so obliquely and really only opens the question and incites the longing.  The vision has to do with digging old people out of graves and watching them grow backwards into infanthood.  The second vision is ingenious in setting up a scenario that shows the absurdity of a world that contains zero doubt and thus zero faith.  It describes a sort of ‘second-coming’, not of Jesus, but of every god that was ever worshipped as well as myriads that weren’t, a world where someone would actually desire to hide themselves away from all this open and crystal clear divinity so that they might experience some divine obscurity and the opportunity for spiritual longing and a wilfully given belief.  These visions are enthralling for their depth and resonance.  As I say, though, the main tales of the book are actual plots about developed characters and these are riveting.  (I finished the book in no time.)  The net effect is thus both meditative as well as entertaining.

Mr. Barker now has my full attention and I look forward to really digging into his body of work (and would welcome suggestions for which books to prioritise reading).  I’ll leave you with his own closing words to the book, which give some indication of the tone and tension in which it’s written.  The narrator has decided to commit himself at last to the ‘river’ he has been only observing:

            …I wade in.

            I cannot tell you if John of the Desert, dressed in his coat of goatskins, awaits me there, his hands spilling baptismal water; or if Christopher the Giant will come to set me on his shoulders, calling me Chylde; or if Christ may come, trout leaping at His heavy hem, eager to strew their rainbows before His pierced feet.

            Or if I will be only carried away, looking through the plain glass of my eyes, hoping to see before I drown sun, moon, and stars hanging in the same firmament.
(Inner illustration by Jon Foster)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

1970s Stephen King

I only really started reading King’s fiction in earnest about three or four years ago (I had read 1987’s The Eyes of the Dragon as a fantasy-reading teenager and a few short stories in my 20s).  After sampling a few novels, novellas, and short stories from his early, mid, and ‘late’ career (the dude churns out so many books that his ‘late’ phase is ever becoming his ‘mid’), I decided I wanted to try to read his output chronologically.  I’m not super strict about it, but it’s fun and somewhat enlightening.  I’ve now finished his 1970s publications (not every one of the Bachmans, but all the Kings).  
King is a fascinating phenomenon to writers and publishers who don’t quite know what to make of his practically unparalleled success as a bestselling author.  Is it a fluke?  Sheer luck?  Some sociological phenomenon?  I suspect it’s real talent mixed with a certain uniqueness and, yeah, probably some sociologically driven moment-in-history ‘luck’ too.  And also due to the fact that the guy is maybe the hardest working writer ever – or the most prolific hard working writer anyway.  And, still further, that he felt personally challenged and driven, despite his success, always desiring to be better as an artist, and actually getting better through endless practice and growth.  
Anyway, at the very least I think I’ve discovered that King did come out of the gate really, really strong in the 1970s, his debut decade.  Most of those novels became almost instantly iconic and have probably only become more so – not just due to cinematic adaptations of varying success and quality, but due to King’s own original narrative and imagination behind whatever form of cultural production the stories take (not at all unlike Mary Shelley’s first novel and the endless mutations of Frankenstein monsters it yielded – her genius is ultimately behind them all).  Here’s my brief report on each one.  (I don’t think there’s anything massively spoiler-ish in what follows, but this discussion is mostly for those who have also read the books already.)

Carrie (1974)
In a weird, twisted way this somewhat threadbare little first novel seems like an ‘All-American’ classic.  Or the kind of twisted classic America really needs in its canon.  It’s the Prom Gone Wrong teen novel full of sincerely believed-in telekinetic powers, graphic language, and claustrophobic social and sexual mania. It luridly describes a horrifically repressive, isolationist, and mentally ill version of religious fundamentalism brutally crashing into a cynical secular high-school hedonism and hate – the resultant copiously bloody mess of fire and broken steel is very much the car wreck you can’t tear your eyes away from.  In a world now tragically and terrifyingly overfull of school shootings and bullying (and it’s sadly easy to play that scenario out to the international level), this somewhat pulpy (but always promising more than that, as King ever does in his fiction) little book is one of the central narratives for our times.  In terms of the writing, it’s definitely King still finding his feet, but it’s pretty smartly done for all that and an uncharacteristically short number anyway.

‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
I wish I could have read all of these novels as they came out in the 70s.  I think the impact must have been like a fetid roar and a raking of claws to the face.  I suspect it was all so fresh and ferocious back when it first appeared, especially to the general audience it so immediately reached.  I wish I could’ve read King’s vampire novel when it came out more than any of these other early works.  It must have been exquisitely thrilling to encounter vampires in a contemporary, small town setting for (one of) the first time(s).  King really hits his stride here in terms of his trademark gregarious tone, his plentiful ‘porch-swing’ sort of storytelling.  The autumnal New England setting is gorgeous in its Bradbury-esque bitter-sweetness.  The prose is occasionally marred by a slightly lazy Lovecraftian floridity when describing Gothic elements of the story, moments which made me cringe and laugh simultaneously.  But overall I think King has more or less matured as a writer at this point.  The characterisation takes solid hold and the monsters are lean and mean and nasty, either killing off or taking over some already nasty characters as well as more tragically offing or enslaving characters you root for.  But I have to admit that reading the novel in the midst of our oversaturated day and age of Mod Vamps, King’s stab at the genre didn’t feel especially vivacious.  It was, of course, refreshing that the vampires were simply inhuman blood-drinking overlords from some darkness in the Old World come to roost in the New World – instead of (poorly written) tormented teens or detectives or whatever. And King’s vampire book can still be very profitably mined for themes in my pet area of ‘theology of monsters’ since a priest’s earnest soul-searching about ‘traditional’ vs. ‘progressive’ Christian faith are a central conceit and concern of the novel.  It’s quite powerful in that regard actually.  At any rate, it’s good classical monster fodder if not as remarkable and original as the rest from this era.

The Shining (1977)
Uh oh.  Now it really hits.  By his second novel, King had more or less matured into a young prose craftsman.  In his third novel he intentionally ups the ante for himself.  He wrote in a 2001 introduction to The Shining that it was a crossing-the-line sort of novel for him and he felt that was the case as he wrote it.  He decided to go deeper and darker with his central character, creating a hybrid protagonist-antagonist.  I think I’d say this is one of King’s best books that I’ve read so far.  It is one of his most internal.  If Kubrick’s visually brilliant film version is an exercise in atmospheric and rather inexplicable horror, King’s novel is nearly the opposite.  It’s one of the most inwardly labyrinthine tales I’ve read.  The characters are trapped inside the endless interlocking and haunted rooms of the infamous hotel and we are trapped inside the endless interlocking and haunted rooms of the characters themselves.  It feels almost like the entire novel is a series of counterpoised internal monologues.  It also features King’s ability to nest story within story, reaching back and back into characters’ lives to round them out and make you care about the horrific tragedy they endure in the chilling preternatural circumstances at hand.  Of course, it’s not really just the craftsman’s ‘rounding out’ to make his characters effective – you feel like King wants to know why they are the way they are as much as you do and he’s just digging up the dirt on them and publishing his finds.  Indeed, King tends to have a very ‘juicy’ or ‘gossipy’ tone that makes you turn the pages to know why So-and-So has become so warped.  He even ends up getting you just as invested in the antecedent warping of the mothers and fathers or whoever that have warped the character all this backstory began with.  It’s a feat to make fellow writers feel very, very jealous.  (Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is the main other example I’ve run into of this endlessly stacked and breathlessly related backstory characterisation.)  I’m often surprised we don’t all just wish King ill in our jealousy and insecurity in the face of his obvious God-given talent.  He’s nothing if he’s not a hard worker.  He has clearly sweated, bled, and cried to achieve what he has achieved.  But he started with the Gift, there’s no doubt.  And some of us can’t help being a rather sick shade of green with envy.  But he wins you over.  Ultimately, you just go:  ‘You lucky dog.  Good for you.  And thanks.’  (It helps a lot that he’s so disarmingly humble, honest, and charming when he comes out from behind the authorial curtain and talks frankly to his Constant Readers in introductions and notes.)  There are enough differences with Kubrick’s film to keep you going even though you essentially know the novel’s story already if you’ve seen that film.  It’s good.

Night Shift (1978)
Ah, now this is just a delightful collection of short stories.  I admit it has a bit of personal history with me that adds to its glow.  I was very ill with the flu and trying to meet an essay deadline and take care of five children (also ill) while my wife was out of town when I read most of the stories in here.  They enthralled and appalled me deliciously and soothed my overwrought brain through a tough time.  They’re all early stories, most of them first published in ‘gentleman’s magazines’ (what the hell is so gentlemanly about viewing pornographic photos of women will always be a mystery to me).  The earliness of the material shows.  This is not always King at his best in terms of skill, but it is often King at his best in terms of sheer imagination and verve.  And sometimes in terms of skill too, to be honest.  A few of these stories are some of the most gripping suspense stories I’ve ever read – even when they were about themes or scenarios I wouldn’t normally be the least interested in.  Most of the stories stick pretty firmly to more or less familiar horror genre territory.  But there’s an originality and flare here!  I nearly tossed my cookies once or twice at just a few descriptive words of gore.  I’m still haunted by one or two of the monstrous images.  I even cried at the end of one of them it was so tragic and poignant!  This is pulp fiction in the best sense:  sensational and thrilling and chilling and pleasantly garish.  There are also a few in here that push beyond that.  ‘Night Surf’ and ‘I Am the Doorway’ are two of my very favourite atmospheric horror pieces.  The former gives a tantalising slice of dystopian post-apocalypse (it’s apparently a first-run at the material that will make up The Stand) and the latter is, for my money, one of the best contemporary translations of Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ I’ve come across – simple and impossible and inexplicable and cree-eepy.  The collection contains one of King’s New England small-town elderly ‘voice’ pieces too (it’s one of the things King does best and I think it might still largely be a secret to the majority of his readership and the critics).  The yarn is called ‘Gray Matter’ and it too is an exemplary contemporary take on Lovecraft, but this time his more terrestrial horror.  Many of the stories have King’s infectious emphasis on the potential malice of inanimate objects, which could be analysed fruitfully by those interested in ‘object-oriented ontology’ and the like.  The story ‘Trucks’ (upon which was based the hilarious and awesomely bad Maximum Overdrive movie) was a great little piece in this vein.  Many like it in the collection are fanciful exercises in grim imaginative play and some are delightfully absurd, such as ‘Battleground’.   ‘The Lawnmower Man’ (utterly unrelated to its later film ‘version’) and ‘The Children of the Corn’ are other standouts of the weird.  Lots of good stuff in here.  A great addition to the 70s output.

The Stand (1978)
I actually lucked upon a first-edition paperback of this book, so I’ve only read the 70s cut version and not the later 90s expanded version.  But even this earlier shorter version is the longest thing King wrote in the 70s, coming in at around a thousand pages.  It’s a beast.  Once again King tops his previous game.  Now he shows he can do thrilling, page-turning characterisation for a whole sprawling cast of characters, not just a few.  This is high-octane King in the form of plague-decimated and supernaturally haunted post-apocalypse.  The scope is nationwide and the tone is brutal, warm, chilling, and visionary by pretty quick turns.  I don’t think I really took much of a breath until about halfway through.  This is one of a number of King’s tales that turns the USA’s highways and geography into an epic painstakingly journeyed quest-scape of darkness and light.  King has mentioned a number of times his desire to emulate Tolkien in various ways, but specifically in a North American instead of British setting.  Though King and Tolkien couldn’t be more different in so many respects, King does manage to capture that feel of a very long and costly journey on foot through terrible dangers and against towering odds that is central to much of The Lord of the Rings.  He succeeds in reminding me how incredibly large and diverse and scary and beautiful the sheer landscape and roadways of modern North America are, an ample testing ground for the souls that travel through it.  I think the middle of the book lags a bit, but it picks up again and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss anything.  I do think most of the real power and magic are in the first half.  I’m actually looking forward to reading the later revised and expanded version someday.  It’s definitely a long, strange and dark adventure I want to revisit.  On a different note:  I have to say, it seems to me like it’s some kind of well-guarded secret that this is a flat-out Christian novel.   No, no, not ‘Christian bookstore’ fiction or the like.  It’s got all the copious profanity and graphic content so characteristic of King, which alone would disqualify it (thank God) from getting anywhere near the sanitised industry of ‘Christian fiction’.  (Whether King goes overboard with graphic content is whole other issue.)  Think more along the lines of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.  Regardless, The Stand is decidedly not merely a generic Good-vs-Evil or Triumph-of-the-Human-Spirit saga.  Crucial to its whole plot and theme is the ‘intervention’ of the Christian God himself – yeah, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that deity.  I’ve probably never read so much actual prayer in a modern novel (indeed, this spiritual activity recurs throughout King’s works, even those that are otherwise in no way blatant about matters of faith).  God-given visions and faithful obedience to God’s call are key characteristics of the story.  The Christian characters are downright attractive too, real people with real flaws and struggles who nevertheless shine in their integrity and leadership – as do characters who are not explicitly ‘of the faith’; it’s not that King portrays the Christian characters better than the rest, but simply as good as some of the other admirable players in the drama, something many (most?) modern writers seem unwilling to do, if they acknowledge the existence of people of faith at all.  King wisely weaves in doubt and agnosticism and so on also.  He’s not beating anyone over the head.  You can take the side of rationalist reductionism or conscientious epistemic doubt if you want.  But real supernatural faith is right there on the table too.  And this is the early King we’re talking about here.  Not some later ‘converted’ King.  And he’s only going to go on developing and circling back to this blatant Christian spirituality in the face of horror again and again in various later novels and stories (1996’s Desperation is a shining instance).  And The Stand itself remains one of King’s single most celebrated novels.  Why does no one really talk about the central Christian aspect of it?  At any rate, it’s a book for everyone, regardless of worldview, a classic of contemporary urban fantasy writing and the kind of rich and engrossing tale you can really live with for a while.

The Dead Zone (1979)
This seems like it’s probably the least known of the 70s books, but to me it’s probably the very best – indeed, one of the very best of King’s whole canon out of what I’ve read so far (and I think I heard somewhere that King himself felt that way about it).  Except for ‘Salem’s Lot, the rest of the novels from this era I would only call ‘horror’ fiction in a hybrid sense:  they are woven as much of ‘realistic’ thriller or suspense fiction and paranormal fantasy and adventure fiction and just plain ‘homespun’ social drama as they are of actual horror tropes.   There’s certainly enough of a centring emphasis on supernatural fear and grotesque violence to warrant his label as a horror writer, but anyone who’s read more than a few books by him will surely have discovered that there’s just so much more to him than that label implies.  If I’d never heard of King before and the first thing I read by him was The Dead Zone, I seriously doubt I would have labelled it a horror novel.  It is very dark, very magical and mysterious, at times incredibly menacing or nerve-racking, and there’s a serial killer subplot in there that is indeed out and out horrifying.  These are all elements that could be found in, for example, a Neil Gaiman novel and we don’t call Gaiman a horror writer.  We call his work ‘dark fantasy’ maybe and there’s a significant distinction there.  I think a lot of what King writes could be better described under this rubric than bald ‘horror’.  Anyway, The Dead Zone is primarily a highly poignant character-driven tale of deep loss and coping with that loss.  It describes a man finding purpose in choosing to do good with what gifts tragedy has left in his hands whether he wanted those costly gifts or not.  It is social and political too, as all of King is, but whereas The Stand was his most blatant book in this era on spirituality, The Dead Zone is his most blatant on politics.  Indeed, the political baddie in this book is as terrifying as any supernatural baddie in King’s others.  And the novel makes contemporary socially-torn America seem every bit as dangerous and scary as post-apocalyptic America.  Yet this is such a personal novel too.  It’s rather beautiful, the paranormal powers and the people both.  (It’s worth noting that King gives a much more gentle and sympathetic portrait of a religious fundamentalist mother here, almost in counterpoise to the one in Carrie that opened this decade’s publications – and he also provides an alternative example of a more admirable faith in the father in this novel.)  He really crowned his first decade with this book I think.  It’s slightly less furious than the rest but no less urgent and searching.  It’s like he’s taking a deep and calming breath before plunging on into the 80s (which turned out to be a troubled drug- and alcohol-fuelled, if still wildly successful, decade for him). Good show, Mr. King, good show.

Addendum:  The Long Walk (1979)
This is the only of the 70s Bachman books that I’ve read so far.  By the end of it I was really won over.  This is quality disturbing dystopian fiction, ultimately very effective in its mesmerising and inexorable brutality.  I do quite a few miles of walking in getting to where I need to every day.  Doing so during the days in which I was reading this book invested those long-ish walks with a heightened sense of perception and urgency (and maybe, to be honest, a hint of terror!).  If the […vague SPOILER…] ‘dark figure’ at the end of the book is akin to the ‘ragged figure’ that Flannery O’Connor spoke of in the introduction to her novel Wise Blood, then King’s The Long Walk may be the darkest and most brutal version of the (otherwise rather saccharine) ‘Footprints’ poem ever created.  Indeed, the whole of King’s output strikes me, theologically, as something of a long and variegated Dark Theodicy.  Don’t get me wrong, King is no C. S. Lewis.  He’s not a Christian apologist.  His method is very different (though complementary I would maintain).  Theodicy is odyssey for King.  He throws every amount and kind of monstrous evil and suffering at his journeying characters and then shows faith, hope, and love somehow, in at least some of them, miraculously surviving the onslaught (again echoing Tolkien’s own sort of Dark Theodicy).  King does not at all deny the plausibility of Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ or Nietzschean nihilism, that we are utterly alone in an utterly indifferent universe.  These worldviews are given a full and fair and even rather seductive hearing in all of King’s works, indeed a particularly compelling one in The Long Walk.  And yet, in King’s fiction, ‘these three remain’ (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Just look at the self-sacrificially communal actions of the protagonist Garraty and the friends he has made out of his competitors by the end of the horrific Walk, even in the face of inexorable death and tyranny.  That’s just one in a long line of such examples throughout King’s fiction.  We are all of us on the terrifying and self-revealing Long Walk and it remains to be seen whether at the end of the line we are awaited by the sinister Major and his Prize or some other figure harder to see in all this obscuring inhumanity.  What will we become during the journey?  That’s what King’s fiction seems to ask.  ‘This inhuman place makes human monsters’ is a refrain in The Shining.  But not all the characters were turned into monsters by the hotel’s malevolent influence.  Some made it through, wounded but wiser – and even, miraculously, more humane, more fully human.  This redemptive motif is often left out of King’s public persona (usually crafted by others, not himself).  For example, his words toward the end of his 2001 introduction to The Shining are often quoted and memed:  ‘Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.’  I’ve even passed this one on myself on social media.  It’s a cool little sound bite.  But, inexplicably, what King wrote right after that cool little sound bite, the conclusion to his introduction, is never included:  ‘That our better angels sometimes – often! – win instead, in spite of all odds, is another truth of The Shining.  And thank God it is.’

So as I say, King comes out of the gates very strong in his first decade of writing.  He’s made his mark and in some ways has no need to say anything further.  Yet I am so very glad he did.  I think some of his very best stuff is yet to come in each of the subsequent decades, probably including the one we are currently in.  The quality of the writing in the 70s, as throughout the rest of his career, is mixed – mostly quite good I think, and doing some things better than anyone else.  The good for me far outweighs the ‘bad’ and the bad is often trying to get at something good.  I don’t, like others, fault King for being ‘homespun’ or ‘sentimental’.  I mean, come on, surely part of his genius is being something like Lake Wobegon in Hell, or Mark Twain meets H. P. Lovecraft, or Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch.  I only fault him for his at times faltering or out and out unsuccessful execution of that sentimentality or rocking chair storytelling.  But no writer is perfect and King has hooked me for good.  Maybe in another five years I’ll be able to do a report on the 1980s Stephen King.  (In the meantime, I’ll definitely review some individual novels from time to time, including some more recent stuff like Doctor Sleep.)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

'So get out there and scare some kids today!' - On Horror Stories and Children

(Photo by Flannery O'Kafka)

Good food for thought from this article by Greg Ruth on children and the horror genre:  'Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids)'.

It's an area near and dear to me as I've slowly and hopefully wisely introduced my love of horror and monsters to each of our five children.  The only thing I think the article leaves out is love for the monster as Beautiful-Ugly Terrifying-Fascinating Other. The monster is not only something to survive or defeat.  It can also be a lover, friend, guide, companion, and ally.  This oversight is perhaps also why the article's viewpoint seems silent on spirituality or faith of any kind and perhaps slightly over-reliant on Darwinian survivalist rhetoric.

Here are some excerpts:

The time has become ripe again and with the collapse of the DC and Marvel models, it was time to do what they wouldn’t: scare the hell out of kids and teach them to love it.

From Reason # 1, Childhood is Scary:
Look, the kids are already scared, so let’s give them some tools to cope with it beyond telling them not to worry about it all... when they really have every right to be scared poopless. Scary stories tell kids there’s always something worse, and in effect come across as more honest because they exist in a realm already familiar to them. Scary tales don’t warp kids; they give them a place to blow off steam while they are being warped by everything else.

From Reason # 3, Power to the Powerless:
Plainly put, horror provides a playground in which kids can dance with their fears in a safe way that can teach them how to survive monsters and be powerful, too. Horror for kids lets them not only read or see these terrible beasts, but also see themselves in the stories’ protagonists. The hero’s victory is their victory. The beast is whomever they find beastly in their own lives. A kid finishing a scary book, or movie can walk away having met the monster and survived, ready and better armed against the next villain that will be coming...

From Reason # 4, Horror is Ancient and Real and Can Teach Us Much:
The thrill is an ancient one, and when we feel it, we’re connecting with something old and powerful within us.

Reason # 4, 'Horror Confirms Secret Truths', is worth quoting in full:
“You know when grown-ups tell you everything’s going to be fine and there’s nothing to be worried about, but you know they’re lying? ” says the Doctor of a young, mortified Amy Pond. “Uh-huh ,” she replies, rolling her ten-year-old eyes dramatically. The Doctor leans in, a wink in his eye and intimates... “Everything’s going to be fine.” And then they turn to face the monster living in her wall with a screwdriver in one hand and a half eaten apple in the other.

In doing this, Moffat touches brilliantly upon another essential truth of horror—that it shows us guardians and guides that will be more honest with us than even our own parents. Within the darkness and shadows is our guide, who can lead us out and back into the light, but you can only find him there in the darkness, when you need him most. Kids are aware of so much more that’s happening in their house than we as parents even want to imagine. But because we don’t share all the details of our anxious whispers, stressful phone calls, or hushed arguments, (and rightfully so), they are left to fill in the facts themselves, and what one imagines tends to be far more terrible than what is real. They know you’re fighting about something, but not what. They can tell what hastened whispers in the hall mean outside their door... or they think they do. And what they don’t know for a fact, they fill in with fictions. Storytellers dabbling in horror provide them with an honest broker who doesn’t shy away from the fact of werewolves or face-eating aliens that want to put their insect babies in our stomachs. They look you straight into their eyes and whisper delightfully “Everything’s going to be fine.” The mere fact of telling these tales proves a willingness to join in with kids in their nightmares, bring them to life, and then subvert and vanquish them. Children love you for this, because you are sharing a secret with them they don’t yet realize everyone else also knows: this is fun.

The end result, for me, at least was a great sense of trust in scary movies I never got from my parents, who tried to comfort me by telling me ghosts weren’t real. Horror told me they were, but it also taught me how to face them. We deny to our kids the full measure of what we experience and suffer as adults, but they aren’t idiots and know something’s going on, and what we’re really doing by accident is robbing them of the trust that they can survive, and that we understand this and can help them to do so. Where we as adults cannot tell them a half-truth, horror can tell them the whole, and there is a great mercy in that.

From Reason # 5, Sharing Scary Stories Brings People Together:
Like vets having shared a battle, they are brought together in something far more essential and primordial than a mere soccer game or a surprise math test. And looking back myself, I cannot recall having more fun in a movie theater or at home with illicit late night cable tv, than when I was watching a scary movie with my friends. The shared experience, the screams and adrenaline-induced laughter that always follow are some of the best and least fraught times in childhood. And going through it together means we aren’t alone anymore. Not really.

From Reason # 6, Hidden Inside Horror Are the Facts of Life:
Fear is not the best thing in the world, of course, but it’s not going anywhere and we are likely forced to meet it in some capacity, great or small, each and every day. There’s no way around it. Denying this fact only provides more fertile ground for fear to take root. Worse yet, denying it robs us of our agency to meet and overcome it. The more we ignore scary things, the bigger and scarier those things become.
Don’t be afraid to scare your kids, or your kids’ friends, with scary books you love. Obviously you have to tailor things to your kids’ individual levels. For example, films and books I let my 11-year-old digest, I won’t let my younger boy get into until he’s 14. They’re just different people and can handle different levels of material. They both love spooky stuff, but within their individual limits. Showing The Shining to an 8-year-old is generally a poor idea, so my advice is when there’s doubt, leave it out. You can’t make anyone un-see what you show them, and you should be responsible as to what they are exposed to. I’m a bit nostalgic about sneaking into to see The Exorcist at the dollar cinema way too young, but I also remember what it felt like to wake up with twisty-headed nightmares for a month afterward, too. Being scared and being terrorized are not the same thing. Know the difference and don’t cross the streams or it will totally backfire on you. But if you navigate it right, it can be a completely positive and powerful experience.

So get out there and scare some kids today! Do it right and they’ll thank you when they’re older. There will be a lot of adults who find this whole post offensive and terrible, even as their kids cry for the material... I remind them that children are often smarter than the adults they wind up becoming. The parents that find this so inappropriate are under the illusion that if they don’t ever let their kids know any of this stuff, they won’t have bad dreams or be afraid—not knowing that, tragically, they are just making them more vulnerable to fear. Let the kids follow their interests, but be a good guardian rather than an oppressive guard. Only adults are under the delusion that childhood is a fairy rainbow fantasy land: just let your kids lead on what they love, and you’ll be fine. 
('Midnight Gallery' by Bill Rogers, aka Giveawayboy)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

This is maybe the most beautiful giant monster film I have ever seen.  Maybe the most beautiful any-kind-of-monster movie I’ve ever seen.  If you don’t read anything else in this review, I want you to at least have seen that much.  That’s the take-home message here.  I can’t get over the awe I feel from experiencing this film, even as I sit down to finally write this after taking in quite a number of other reviews both for and against.
            But before we get to discussion of the new film, a few contextualising words of introduction are in order as to my own lifelong relationship with the King of Monsters.  When I compulsively and devotedly watched Godzilla movies as a little kid in the late 70s and early 80s, my mom would eventually walk through the living room, pause and watch with me a moment, and then, not without kindness and good humour, pronounce the whole production ‘so fakey!’  She smilingly wondered how I could love it so much.  
This was in an era when a household still usually had just one main TV in one main room for viewing it, and when you had to view whatever programming your TV stations provided – home videos were not yet common and online streaming was, of course, still nothing more than a gleam in some technophile’s eye, if that much.  Lucky for me, some executive guardian angel of my imaginative development saw to it that there were plenty of Godzilla movies aired.  And I mean the whole crew too:  Ghidorah, Rodan, Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Gamera, the lot.  But especially Gamera, beloved Gamera, The Friend of All Children.

The thing is, I had never consciously noticed the ‘fakiness’ of these movies until my mother first pointed it out to me.  But even when I did clock that fact, I positively liked that men were in monster suits playing, knocking down toy cities, wrestling with each other.  Plus, I either forgot about the fakey factor altogether while absorbed in watching the film at hand or I believed both the artistic lie and the artistic truth at the same time without any diminishment of imaginative surrender, no dream-breaking—like those rare moments in sleep where you suddenly realise you’re dreaming but you go on embracing the dream-logic of the scenario anyway.  
            Now, to capture my full experience of these films you have to also add to this ludic (playful, make-believe) quality an element of true fear.  I was mostly never the least bit frightened when watching a Godzilla film when I was little.  But occasionally that playfully imagined sense of scale did creep me out a bit as I watched:  when, for example, that somehow goofy-yet-menacing Godzilla head loomed up from behind the hills while a crowd of people ran screaming away in the foreground; or when the entire gargantuan figure was seen off in the distance at the far end of the city from the perspective of someone looking through a high-rise window miles away; and so on.  In those moments I could enter so far into the make-believe of it that I experienced a tiny tinge of the real feeling that would accompany the sight of a two- or three-hundred foot monster towering above your city.  A sense of awesome fear would bend down and give me a gentle bone-shivering tap.  Little boy me received a tiny dose of mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a spine-tingling sense of mystery that simultaneously repels and fascinates) even from a guy in a hokey rubber suit and a toy model city.  
Those little tinges of fear obviously rooted deep in me and here’s how I know:  I have had recurring Godzilla nightmares all my life.  The latest, I think, was some time last year.  In those dreams the gigantic eye of the kaiju monster somehow almost impossibly sees me – me, little old me – from across the miles of cityscape and air.  And yep, when I try to run away from that gargantuan gaze I might as well be slogging through invisible molasses.  ‘Fakey’?  Sure.  Still, somehow for me Godzilla brings home something of T. S. Eliot’s ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ – and that handful of dust is little old me.  It’s crucial to note thought that this nightmare-inducing capacity Godzilla has for me in no way diminishes my uncomplicated sense of affection for the greatest of monsters.  I did and do love Godzilla and Co. as much as any kid-become-adult did and does love the more innocuous monsters of Sesame Street or what have you.  
Some readers of this blog will know that I even went on to sing here and there about Godzilla monsters in a 90s punk rock band I was in.  But one more important thing to note in connection with my response to this latest film is that I haven’t massively ‘kept up’ with Godzilla over the years.  I’ve only casually and incidentally re-watched some of the old films in my adult years and haven’t more than sampled 90s or 2000s productions and up till now have engaged in almost zero intellectual analysis of the phenomenon.  That gap between childhood enthrallment and now seeing this new movie, linked only by simple love for Godzilla that has never waned even though I’ve not intentionally fanned its flame, may be a central reason the film can really tap into my sense of wonder.

So here comes Godzilla (2014).  I tried so hard to keep my expectations low, low, low.  I did that with films like Pacific Rim and Man of Steel and had a decent time at both despite their obvious flaws.  But I’d forgotten how invested I was in Godzilla.  I sat there in the dark cinema with my older children before the film and had to physically quell my excitement.  I was buzzing!  And alas, I just knew this unjustifiably optimistic attitude was going to ruin it for me, that I’d end up overall underwhelmed.  
But no.
            No, no, no.
            (Spoilers from here on out – this ‘review’ is really a discussion for those who’ve already seen the movie.)  
One of the major categories of this film is majesty.  In the film’s story, the project that has followed the Godzilla monster since the 1950s is called the Monarch project.  We see this in the opening sequence of faux vintage footage.  For my money, the notion that overt word-drop is clearly meant to signal was fulfilled in spades.  The slow-burn pacing of the film only aids the sense of majesty it eventually achieves at the reveal of the wondrous monsters.  The film’s score and cinematography serve almost exclusively this purpose as well:  to make you feel in the presence of immense, terrible, and magnificent royalty.
            Indeed, after processing my feelings of awe in response to the film for a few days, I came to the conclusion that Godzilla (2014) is mainly an aesthetic exercise.  And I have zero problem with that.  I love a good story and brilliant characterisation and drama as much as anyone.  But I also love a successful foray into sheer emotion and atmosphere and visual-visceral punch.  The director himself said they wanted to linger on moments of ‘not story, but cinematic-ness’.  It’s no wonder then that at times the film felt to me, in both score and cinematography, almost echoic of the likes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This film may have more of what Timothy Beal calls the ‘monstrous sublime’ than any other I’ve seen.  Beal uses this terminology to distinguish an almost worshipful feeling in the presence of monsters from the perhaps more familiar notion of the ‘monstrous diabolical’:  i.e. the merely, if awfully, evil monster.  The monstrous sublime need not be evil at all and in fact may be awesomely, bowel-tremblingly good.  It is, in my opinion, akin to ‘holiness’.
            As one reviewer pointed out, the solid if not especially remarkable human drama of the film mainly serves to give a profound sense of scale to the monsters.  The movie is spectacularly MONSTER-CENTRIC – somehow more so than Cloverfield or Pacific Rim or other recent entries in the giant-monster genre.  But not in a way that bludgeons.  The views of the monsters that we are given are exquisitely judicious, uncompromising in their service of the film’s tone:  lordly as a ten ton lion.  (And really, in the end I felt very satisfied with the amount of giant monster action I saw.  Wishing I could see more of the monsters only makes me want to see the film again as soon as possible, which is a delightful prospect.)  
The scene where the two MUTOs are mating in the rubble of a city they have rampaged to ruins put me very much in mind of Lovecraftian visions from the Cthulhu Mythos, where a future is imagined when primordial Old Ones rule the Earth again.  (Dave Henry over at Zekefilm noticed the Cthulhu connection too in his excellent review, noting that these kaiju seem more like mystical Old Ones than naturalistic atomic abominations or what have you.)  This film’s convergence with the Cthulhu Mythos seems significant, but a crucial difference it has with Lovecraft’s celebrated ‘cosmic horror’ is that this monstrous mating scene, for example, is not all pure horror, like some return to madness-inducing chaos and carnage.  It is ecologically beautiful, if also no good for the safety of humans.  
            But speaking of Cthulhu & the Gang, that sort of giant monster mythology is already rooted in ancient Mesopotamian Chaos Monsters.  Coming out of that culture, the writers and compilers of the Hebrew Bible were ruminating on the ecological and existential majesty and monstrosity of a very Godzilla-like creature millennia before the Godzilla franchise was conceived.  The  Bible calls its own mega-monster iteration Leviathan.  (Dave Henry beat me to this punch also with his excellent Echoes of Eden article on the new Godzilla film:  Leviathan Redeemed.)  Just look at the description of Leviathan in chapter 41 of the Book of Job and keep one eye at the same time on all you’ve seen Godzilla be and do.  You’ll be tempted to skim past this part, but don’t.  Take the extra minute to actually read through this and let the poem’s imagery heave up before your mind’s eye.  I can’t promise it won’t bite, but I can promise it’s worth it.  And remember, keep one eye on Godzilla:
“I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs,
    its strength and its graceful form.
 Who can strip off its outer coat?
    Who can penetrate its double coat of armor?
 Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
    ringed about with fearsome teeth?
 Its back has rows of shields
    tightly sealed together;
 each is so close to the next
    that no air can pass between.
 They are joined fast to one another;
    they cling together and cannot be parted.
 Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
    its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
 Flames stream from its mouth;
    sparks of fire shoot out.
 Smoke pours from its nostrils
    as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
    and flames dart from its mouth.
 Strength resides in its neck;
    dismay goes before it.
 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined;
    they are firm and immovable.
 Its chest is hard as rock,
    hard as a lower millstone.
 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified;
    they retreat before its thrashing.
 The sword that reaches it has no effect,
    nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
 Iron it treats like straw
    and bronze like rotten wood.
 Arrows do not make it flee;
    slingstones are like chaff to it.
 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
    it laughs at the rattling of the lance.
 Its undersides are jagged potsherds,
    leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.
 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
    and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
 It leaves a glistening wake behind it;
    one would think the deep had white hair.
 Nothing on earth is its equal—
    a creature without fear.
 It looks down on all that are haughty;
    it is king over all that are proud.”
Some of the resemblances between ancient Leviathan and the very contemporary creation Godzilla are to me rather uncanny.  
I will say that I do think you have to see the new film to appreciate the incredible effects that create the ‘graceful form’ of this latest Godzilla (complete with the ‘glistening wake’ when it swims gigantically through the ocean).  The posters and movie stills don’t look all that impressive to me personally.  And I have qualms about some of the design choices.  The snorting nostrils certainly add an air of believable animality to Godzilla, for example, but I just don’t like the feel they give all that much.  But no such qualms could quell the overall effect of majestic monstrosity this director and his team have achieved.  I wanted to jump up and cheer at moments in the film, but I had to settle for covering my mouth and moaning a little since I didn’t want to be the lone loud American cheering in a British cinema.  (I’ve heard reports of spontaneous applause in American cinemas.)
The wonderful monsters in this movie are what eco-critics call ‘charismatic megafauna’ (e.g. elephants, tigers, whales) turned up to maximum.  The problem eco-critics have often had with, say, a wildlife television program emphasising, often through slow-motion camera work and epic orchestral scores, such beasts is that ‘the camera sometimes seems to stand in for the colonial figure of the white game hunter’, which can distance us from real encounter with the animal Other (Ecocriticism: 2012: Routledge: p. 175).
But in Godzilla (2014) all the drama and cinematography seem to work to make us feel like ‘strangers in a strange land’ rather than entertain us with a sense of our control over a wild ecology portrayed before our masterly gaze.  (Hey now, don’t get worked up:  I’m not over-intellectualising a Godzilla film.  It’s just an awesome movie about giant monsters wreaking havoc that taps into our childlike sense of play.  Nevertheless, the director clearly upped that ante into an intentionally crafted space of awe and humility and I’m just trying to go with that flow in this little chat here.)
In distinction, I think, from wildlife documentaries a lot of the sense of sublime in this film comes from the way the camera portrays the monsters:  like ‘hyperobjects’ that you can’t usually see all at once and never for very long, some vast portion the kaiju swimming up into view, its aural centres sounding forth in gorgeous alien noises, terrifying and tantalising at one and the same time (mysterium tremendum et fascinans, people, I’m telling you).   Furthermore, these strutting mega-monsters give a slight ‘pingback’ to their tiny cousins too in various scenes of the film:  for example, we see in different moments a beautiful millipede and a small horned lizard. On the opposite end of the scale, towering even over the MOTUs, the film also evokes monstrous landscapes, the topography on top of which we live our lives (and far underneath which, the MUTOs had up to this point dwelt), especially the incredible aerial view of the mountain range in the Philippines that looks like the back of a super-kaiju rising out of the earth itself. 
The Japanese lead scientist in the film’s story warns the military and his fellow scientists that our mistake is in thinking we are in control of nature when it’s the other way round.  It’s actually rather amazing that this is one brief line in the movie (with maybe another similar line or two – I can’t recall exactly).  The old Toho Godzilla franchise was fond of much longer soliloquies on this theme.  But this new film, like the passage from the Book of Job above, shows you this truth rather than lecturing.  The result is that you walk away feeling it in your breast rather than cognitively assenting to it or debating it in your intellect.  

(image from

This all ties in somehow to what some eco-critics have called the ‘swamp dragon’ in our ecological visions and what Timothy Morton calls ‘dark ecology’:  i.e. ecosystemic harmony and thriving is not all about pretty flowers and bunnies, nor even simply inclusive of beautiful predators savagely but impressively devouring their prey – a full ecology has to include all the ‘ugly’ and ‘gross’ and poisonous stuff too (toxins and sludges and parasites and so on).  But I don’t want to rush into making such connections too easily.  In fact, I heartily approve of the subtlety and ambiguity of the film as regards politics and other ‘messages’.  I agree to some degree with monster historian Scott Poole that monsters are ‘meaning machines’, but not first and foremost (as Poole himself notes when he admits that the term ‘monster’ tends to resist definition).  A monstrum, as many monster theorists have pointed out, is a ‘warning’ or ‘sign’ or ‘portent’.  Monsters do seem to point us onward as harbingers of Something Else.  But they have an integrity all their own as well.  To parody the title of an older little work on theology of art, Monsters Need No Justification.
Primarily and primordially monsters are MONSTERS.  They are there to be MONSTROUS.  I’m reminded of how one reviewer recently said that horror-master Stephen King sells himself a bit short in emphasising the humans over the monsters in his own comments on his fiction:  rather, said that reviewer, 'one of the central ideas in King's fiction' is 'that the universe is more mysterious, freaky, and bad-ass than we know'.  
That’s the first ‘message’ of Godzilla (2014) and I don’t think we should take much else from it until we’ve sat and soaked in the roaring stomping truth of that for a good while.  We should be floored, awed, speechless.  Start there.  And do not proceed unless you find it hard to articulate what you’re feeling.  That’s the way the world feels (or ought to feel, contra all-too-quick headlines and taglines and recriminations and justifications) when tsunamis hit and tornadoes touch down or a loved one dies (or when a eucatastrophe strikes as well – the birth of a baby, for example).  
When the giant monsters show up, the tiny people shut up.  (After the initial screaming and crashing have died down at least.)
So Godzilla is not just about ecology any more than the original film was just about atomic bombs.  Godzilla, inasmuch as it evokes majesty and awe, is about ontology.  They are about questioning the boundaries of what is real.  
Plus, if you want to talk about over-mining resources unto ruin, ponder the inevitable quickly-churned-out ‘franchise’ the success of this film will likely spawn.  Maybe this is a prime example of ‘eco’ irresponsibility based on greed and disrespect and wilful ignorance, but this time in the ‘ecosystems’ of the arts and culture.  (Thankfully, the director himself said they first and foremost wanted to focus on making an excellent standalone film and wouldn't consider anything else until that was accomplished.  It shows.  I wish others in the film industry could learn from this.)  And these kinds of (cultural) waste and mismanagement have their monstrous consequences too.  Aesthetic mass-destruction in order to restore aesthetic balance can happen too, I suspect.  I’m not sure how or what this would look like, but don’t count it out.  
Don’t get me wrong.  I desperately want to see this particular cinematic vision give us new iterations of Mothra, Gamera, Ghidorah, and Rodan – heck, maybe even Mecha-Godzilla!  But not necessarily too soon or too (aesthetically) cheaply, and maybe not at all if it can’t be done ‘righteously’ as regards cultural production.  I respect the monsters too much to grub for sequels at any cost.

(image from

I did not think I was going to see a Messiah-themed film when I went to see this movie.  I didn’t even noticed how much I was seeing such a film until right toward the end when the television news in the film was flashing the headline ‘King of the Monsters - Savior of Our City?’ about Godzilla.  This was after Godzilla had quite clearly sacrificed himself to rid the world of its monstrous attackers, lay buried in dust and rubble, and then ‘rose again’ the next morning.  King and Saviour are explicitly biblical messianic terms – they are what the title Christ, the Anointed One, means in the Bible.  The film goes out of its way to give the feeling that Godzilla was sent in to save us from our horrifying excesses.  You could, of course, read this in some pantheistic or maybe even, at a stretch, some ‘mystical’ naturalistic way.  Maybe the filmmakers would even prefer you to do so.  But I’m not so sure.  
            Probably the most talked about scene of the film is the ‘HALO jump’ the soldiers perform in order to drop into the city that’s being raized by the battling monsters.  The long, score-enfolded depiction of the sky-diving soldiers descending like angels into hell (those are the director’s own words to describe the nature of the scene) will surely go down in cinematic history as one of the most achingly beautiful artistic achievements of early 21st century film.  It is an awe-inspiring image of the heavenly penetrating into the hellish.
Just before this jump is made we see a chaplain soldier with his open Bible praying for his fellow soldiers.  It is not a ‘name it and claim it’ prayer demanding that God deliver the world from the evil it has at least in part brought upon itself, nor even a prayer of protection or victory.  It is a very simple prayer of thanksgiving that these soldiers have had the chance to serve together.  The sense of surrender to divine will, and willingness to die in service of others, comes across so simple and, to me, profound.  One could, of course, see this scene as nothing more than little humans praying to their pathetic man-made gods as a sort of denial of the shift to eco-centrism that the film enacts.  But I think it resists that all-too-easy categorisation.  The sense seems to me to be that humans must play their part and do everything they can, even when that is very little, and they must trust to something higher than themselves for the rest.
            In this connection it’s also fascinating to note that the main husband and wife couple of the film are comprised, career-wise, of a nurse and a bomb-disposal expert.  These people are professional helpers, healers, redeemers – bit players in the ecologically monstrous drama unfolding about them to be sure, but intriguing in their aiding and redemptive capacities nonetheless.  In their tiny way, they actually reflect what Godzilla is doing at the much larger level.
In closing, I leave you with another passage from Job 41.  This was the section from the speech of Yahweh that came just before the passage cited above:

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
    or tie down its tongue with a rope?
 Can you put a cord through its nose
    or pierce its jaw with a hook?
 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
    Will it speak to you with gentle words?
 Will it make an agreement with you
    for you to take it as your slave for life?
 Can you make a pet of it like a bird
    or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
 Will traders barter for it?
    Will they divide it up among the merchants?
 Can you fill its hide with harpoons
    or its head with fishing spears?
 If you lay a hand on it,
    you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
 Any hope of subduing it is false;
    the mere sight of it is overpowering.
 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
    Who then is able to stand against me?
 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me.”