The Inklings and Arthur wins the Mythopoeic Award!

mythoI am utterly astonished and delighted to announce that The Inklings and King Arthur has won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies! This is a prestigious award that “is given to books on Tolkien, Lewis, and/or Williams that make significant contributions to Inklings scholarship.” Congratulations to all of my chapter-writers for their amazing work. I am happy to see how this book seems to be opening paths in Inklings scholarship, and I hope that continues.

I would like to acknowledge the other nominees for this year. They were:

  • Chance, Jane, Tolkien, Self and other: This Queer Creature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Coutras, Lisa, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Flieger, Verlyn, There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent State University Press, 2017)
  • Tolkien, Christopher, ed., Beren and Luthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

And previous winners are a Who’s Who in Inklings Studies; they have included Philip and Carol Zaleski, Grevel Lindop, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Ward, Dimitra Fimi, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Janet Brennan Croft, John Garth, Michael D. C. Drout, Tom Shippey, Walter Hooper, David C. Downing, Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, Douglas A. Anderson, Christopher Tolkien, Glen Cavaliero, Peter J. Schakel, Paul Ford, Humphrey Carpenter, Roger Lancelyn Green, Kathryn Lindskoog, and Clyde Kilby. You can read a complete list of previous winners here. Mighty company indeed!

Here are my acceptance remarks, which were read for me at Mythcon 49:

The word “mythopoeia,” after which this illustrious society was named, evokes a flash of longing in me. It inspires sehnsucht: a yearning for the long-ago and far-away, for the Classical pantheon or Norse heroism, for Romantic landscapes or glimpses of the divine. At the heart of the vast Arthurian legendarium are tales of longing: questing for the Holy Grail, for love, and for true kingship. And there is a kind of sehnsucht or endless deferral in the making of any book: before it, come the hundreds and thousands of books that raised the questions it seeks to answer, but its very answers raise other questions that must be answered in other books, and so on forever. This is especially true of works of literary scholarship, and most definitely is the case with The Inklings and King Arthur. The contributors and I make but one small fellowship in the great company of writers on Arthuriana and on the Inklings, and we are honored to join this prestigious list of so many mentors, role models, sources, colleagues, and friends.

I would like to thank first of all the nominating committee of the Mythopoeic Society for granting this important award to our book. I would also, of course, like to call attention to all of the writers in this book; I believe this is only the fourth time that an edited collection has been the recipient, and all twenty-one authors deserve the credit! Of course, many others were involved in the creation of such a sizable project, and thanks belong to the staff of libraries and archives where we researched, readers who contributed comments and corrections, contributors to the GoFundMe campaign, and friends and colleagues most numerous. As I say in the book: May all these wise and kind people receive passage from the Grey Havens to the port of their heart’s desire.

~ Sørina Higgins

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‘The Chapel of the Thorn’ by Charles Williams {BookTalk}

Here is a vivid, enthusiastic review of “The Chapel of the Thorn.” Enjoy!

A Tolkienist's Perspective

BookTalk is a new series of blog posts, where I discuss non-Tolkien books in concise and honest reviews. Read on dear reader …

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The Chapel of the Thorn (cover).png

Having focused my reading habits on the works of Tolkien and Lewis for years now, not to mention acquiring a book or two about the Inklings, I thought it was the right time to dip into some of the works by other members of that literary group.

And what better way to do this than by exploring the somewhat obscure figure of Charles Williams himself?

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Inklings & Arthur photo contest at Mythcon 49!

mythoSo you’re attending Mythcon 49? You’re giving a paper, enjoying talks by the special guests, sporting a fabulous costume at the masquerade, sharing readings and music at the Bardic Circle, playing a late-night game of Golfimbul, watching a performance by the Not-Ready-For-Mythcon Players, soaking up the unforgettable conversations — and of course, admiring copies of The Inklings and King Arthur with its beautiful cover by Emily Austin. There may be swords. There will probably be knights in some kind of cosplay armor. There may even be a Holy Grail. While you’re there, you have a chance to win a signed copy of The Inklings and King Arthur! I am giving away one signed copy of I & A to whomever takes the most clever, creative photo of the book. Here’s the deal: 

  • Get a hold of a copy (legally and kindly!); there will be copies floating around. You can probably borrow one.
  • Take a photo of the book in some cool setting, maybe with a clever visual pun, with or without people, whatever your imagination can dream up.
  • Get permission of any people who appear in the photo for you to use it for this purpose.
  • Post the photo on social media with the hashtag #InklingsAndArthur. If you want, you can tag me, too (@SorinaHiggins). By doing so, you’re giving me permission to re-use it on all my social media channels, websites, and anywhere else I may want to use it for promotion.
  • Please submit only high-quality photos with good lighting and reasonable resolution. Needless to say, keep it decent, appropriate, in good taste, etc.
  • The photo must be taken at Mythcon 49 between July 20th and July 23rd.
  • I will pick out the best photograph based on which I think is the most clever, creative, unusual, cool, etc. I reserve the right to open voting to the public if I think that’s a good idea.
  • 30463274482_90aff8a230_bNote that the prize will go to the photographer of the best picture, not to any subject(s) who may appear in the picture.
  • The winner agrees to provide a domestic U.S. mailing address where I can ship the prize copy (the price of overseas shipping is prohibitive for me).

So have fun! Learn a lot, share a lot, and snap a lot of pictures. I look forward to seeing what beauties you can dream up that involve this lovely book.

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Mythmoot Photo Contest Winners

Congratulations to Tom Hillman, @alas_not_me, for winning first prize for cleverest photo of The Inklings and King Arthur at Mythmoot V! This photo took about four days to set up, because he had to wait until it stopped raining and take the photo with his sword outside the National Conference Center, since bladed weapons are not allowed indoors (Masquerade Ball pics notwithstanding, ahem, ahem). Here is the glorious photo for your enjoyment: 

Tom h

“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this tome and volume is rightwise king born of all Mythmoot.”

And a proud second place goes to Joe Hoffman, aka Calvus Virginicus, @virginicus, for sheer volume of scintillating wit. Enjoy this series of puns, homophones, and general fun!

formal

Proving I studied Formalism with @SorinaHiggins

harrow

The Inklings and Arthur …. Arthur Harrow. 

dent

The Inklings and Arthur, Dent

mina

The Inklings and King Arthur and Mina Harker

harkers

The Inklings and King Arthur and the Harkers

twinklings

The Twinklings and King Arthur

drinklings

The Drinklings and King Arthur

Now, don’t you wish you had been at Mythmoot? Don’t you need to rush out and get a copy of The Inklings and King Arthur? 😉

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The Inklings and King Arthur: Selfies and News

What could be better than a smart scholar’s #InklingsAndArthur selfies? A smart scholar’s #InklingsAndArthur selfies at the Marion W. Wade Center, aka, Narnia Near Chicago! Check this out.

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Since the first call for chapters for The Inklings and King Arthur, this not-so-little book has been on its own adventure. Conference panels, keynote talks, digital round-table discussions, and crowd-sourced funding were all part of a long editorial and publication journey, shepherded all the way by editor Sørina Higgins. The result is a rigorous examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications of the Arthurian writings of all the major Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. I was pleased to provide one of the chapters, where I used the opportunity to test out some theory stuff I am working on. Specifically, I wrote about how Lewis brings various fictional worlds together in That Hideous Strength (Lewis’ only overt Arthurian novel, and one of the few Inklings pieces of Arthurian fiction to be published when it was written).

While it is not a great…

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Inklings & Arthur photo contest at Mythmoot V!

mythmoot-v-argonathSo you’re attending Mythmoot V: Fantastic Frontiers? You’re giving a paper, enjoying talks by the special guests, sporting your fabulous costume, dancing the night away at the masquerade ball, graduating or cheering the graduates, soaking up the unforgettable conversations — and of course, admiring copies of The Inklings and King Arthur with its beautiful cover by Emily Austin. There will be swords. There will probably be knights in some kind of cosplay armor. There may even be a Holy Grail. While you’re there, you have a chance to win a signed copy of The Inklings and King Arthur! I am giving away one signed copy of I & A to whomever takes the most clever, creative photo of the book. Here’s the deal: 

  • Get a hold of a copy (legally and kindly!); there will be copies for sale at the conference, and several people will be bringing theirs. You can probably borrow one.
  • Take a photo of the book in some cool setting, maybe with a clever visual pun, with or without people, whatever your imagination can dream up.
  • Get permission of any people who appear in the photo for you to use it for this purpose.
  • Post the photo on social media with the hashtag #InklingsAndArthur. If you want, you can tag me, too (@SorinaHiggins). By doing so, you’re giving me permission to re-use it on all my social media channels, websites, and anywhere else I may want to use it for promotion.
  • Please submit only high-quality photos with good lighting and reasonable resolution. Needless to say, keep it decent, appropriate, in good taste, etc.
  • The photo must be taken at Mythmoot V between June 21st and June 24th.
  • I will pick out the best photograph based on which I think is the most clever, creative, unusual, cool, etc. I reserve the right to open voting to the public if I think that’s a good idea.
  • 30463274482_90aff8a230_bNote that the prize will go to the photographer of the best picture, not to any subject(s) who may appear in the picture.
  • The winner agrees to provide a domestic U.S. mailing address where I can ship the prize copy (the price of overseas shipping is prohibitive for me).

So have fun! Learn a lot, share a lot, and snap a lot of pictures. I look forward to seeing what beauties you can dream up that involve this lovely book.

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Inklings & Arthur Shortlisted for Mythopoeic Award

I am honored and delighted to announce that The Inklings and King Arthur has been shortlisted for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies! This prize is given to books on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and/or Charles Williams that makes significant contributions to Inklings scholarship. I am pleased that all the hard, forward-thinking work of my chapter-writers in this book has been acknowledged and appreciated. We are also in illustrious company; the other nominees are:

  • mythoChance, Jane, Tolkien, Self and other: This Queer Creature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Coutras, Lisa, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Flieger, Verlyn, There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent State University Press, 2017)
  • Tolkien, Christopher, ed., Beren and Luthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

You might also like to look over the list of previous nominees and winners, as it provides a kind of Who’s Who of Inklings studies and a handy picture of the evolution of the field.

The winners of this year’s awards will be announced during Mythcon 49, to be held July 20-23, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia. Are you going to Mythcon this year?

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“Rather a Pleasant Notion”: Humor in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven

Over here on TOI, it’s all guest posts, all the time — at least until I get through the end of this semester of grad school. It’s a tough life, folks. But I’m enjoying the work I get to do on medieval writers, modernist playwrights, ritual, magic, metatheatre…. It’s all fun. But back to Charles Williams for a moment. Here I’m happy to offer you a fun, light-hearted, insightful guest post by John Stanifer. Enjoy! 

“Rather a Pleasant Notion”: Humor in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven
by John Stanifer 

WiHUntil last week, I only knew the work of Charles Williams secondhand. I had a sense that he was indeed “the oddest Inkling,” an intriguing (and occasionally disturbing) figure in the biographies I’d read of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings as a group.

I knew he had worked at Oxford University Press for much of his life. I knew he had passed just months before the end of World War II. I knew Lewis had considered him a great friend, even a spiritual mentor.csl cw

I also had read bits and pieces about his interest in the occult, and thanks to Sørina Higgins’s presentation at the 2016 Ewbank Colloquium, I knew he had some bizarre (to put it politely) ideas involving women’s bodies and spiritual enlightenment.

To put it bluntly, my impression of Williams as a writer was that he was weird, and at least to an average twenty-first century reader (i.e. a non-specialist), difficult, even inaccessible.

But after reading The Inklings & King Arthur, I finally felt the urge to experience C.W. firsthand. Maybe, just maybe, what I’d learned about his work in those essays would be enough to push me through at least one book by this “difficult” writer.

So I started with War in Heaven, and there were two things about it that shocked me right away:

funny– C.W. is surprisingly readable
War in Heaven is hilarious*

(*At the beginning, anyway—more on that in a minute)

“Hilarious” probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind when most people think of Charles Williams, but I was laughing within the first two pages.

Take this early sentence, for instance:

“That dead bodies did not usually lie round in one of the rooms of a publisher’s offices in London about half-past two in the afternoon was a certainty that formed now an enormous and cynical background to the fantastic possibility” (8).

I mean, everyone knows that dead bodies only show up at half-past six, right? And then there’s that qualifier “usually,” as if this has happened just often enough in the past to justify that bit of uncertainty.

oupAnd then there’s C.W. setting all of this in a publisher’s offices. Maybe it’s just me, but knowing that C.W. spent so many hours of his working life in just such a setting made it funnier.

I guess I have a dark sense of humor.

A few paragraphs after the body is first discovered, the reader is witness to an argument between multiple characters over whether the body is actually dead.

At first, our protagonist Lionel thinks it’s merely a workman who has entered his office without prior notice to fiddle with the telephone. Lionel is offended that the man refuses to answer him after several attempts to get his attention.

Once the reality of the death finally starts to dawn on everyone, Lionel’s colleague, Mornington, quips:

“How fortunate . . . if he were alive and had got under your table and wouldn’t take any notice I should be afraid you’d annoyed him somehow. I think that’s rather a pleasant notion . . . a sort of modern King’s Threshold—get under the table of the man who’s insulted you and simply sulk there” (8-9, emphasis mine).

I might try this the next time I’m annoyed by a coworker or a student (or not).

lionIt’s worth noting that all of this banter is going on while the characters are still in close proximity to the body of a person who has just been murdered by strangling. Do we chalk this conversation up to callousness in the presence of death, or is it an attempt to diffuse the feelings of horror and despair that might otherwise overwhelm them if they didn’t try to lighten the mood somehow? I don’t know, but this whole scene struck me as more than a little humorous.

Yes, the plot gets much more serious later on, but I’d argue that only demonstrates Williams’s admirable ability to switch in and out of different tones without losing the power of the story.

We still see flashes of his gift for humor every so often, like this gem of an exchange in Chapter 5:

“If he left at half-past two, that’s all I want to know,” the inspector said. “Did you happen to mention to anyone that he was coming?”

“Yes,” said Sir Giles, “I told the Prime Minister, the Professor of Comparative Etymology at King’s College, and the cook downstairs” (58).

How very specific.

I know I shouldn’t let it surprise me that much. After all, this isn’t the first time in my life as a reader that I’ve built up assumptions about a particular author or body of literary work, and the assumptions were finally exploded (or at least put into perspective) by firsthand experience.

Just ask me about my firsthand experience of Harry Potter, two years after the final book came out. How differently I see that series now from when I first heard of how “dangerous” it was to unwary youngsters.

Do I still think Charles Williams is a weird writer? There were certainly passages I read in War in Heaven that seemed to confirm at least some of my impressions (I could have done without the image of Persimmons lying naked on his bed all night after rubbing the magic ointment on pretty much every crevice of his body).

And yet, it’s amazing how much one’s attitude can change after that first direct exposure to an author’s work.

So count me the newest fan of C.W.’s work . . .

. . . even if I still find myself with raised eyebrows at some of the juicier details one finds in his biography.

Who knew the presence of a dead body in a publisher’s offices could be so entertaining?john s

Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Eerdmans, 1974.

 

John Stanifer has an M.A. in English from Morehead State University. He is a tutor and library assistant at Ivy Tech Community College and is also the author of Virtuous Worlds: The Video Gamer’s Guide to Spiritual Truth (Norwalk: Winged Lion Press, 2011).

 

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C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me

Check out this post by a *different* Steve Hayes in response to the guest post by Stephen Hayes that I’ve just recently put up! And revel in the dance of responsive, relational internet-writing.

Khanya

I’ve just been reading a blog post by a namesake of mine, which set me thinking about how the order in which one reads things could affect the way in which one interprets them.

This other Stephen Hayes discovered me on Twitter a few years ago when someone made a comment to him on something I wrote that didn’t seem to fit, and we’ve followed each other there, and I’ve linked to his blog about apples. But this time he was writing as a guest blogger on The Oddest Inkling, and I felt more able to comment on it than on apples. H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and Me. | The Oddest Inkling:

I became addicted instantly [to H.P. Lovecraft]. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) Lovecraft had created an imaginary world which was strange and different. Unlike Tolkien…

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H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and Me.

Here is a guest post by Stephen Hayes, a regular reader of this blog. It is a highly personal, spiritually-autobiographical story about his individual experience. If any of you readers would like to offer a post on Lovecraft and Williams, I’d be interested to hear a pitch.  

tree huggerCONTRIBUTOR BIO: Stephen Hayes was born in London’s East End in 1955 and studied medicine at Southampton 1974-1979. He worked for some 20 years as a Primary Care Physician and is now an Associate Dermatologist and skin cancer diagnostics educator. He blogs about skin cancer and less often about C S Lewis. He is a long-term fan of C S Lewis, and his first (Amazon kindle) novel Darwin’s Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan England 2089‘ was written after the thought came to him one July 2009 morning: ‘What if, in That Hideous Strength, the bad guys had won, and 150 years later, an angel came to the mentally handicapped great, great, great grandson of Mark and Jane Studdock and pronounced him The Pendragon?’ He is intermittently working on 3 other novels: Hecate’s Daughters (a sequel to Darwin’s Adders), Fire on the Dordogne a romance set in the French wars of religion, and another novel about an old man telling fishing stories to his grandson as he is dying from melanoma. Stephen and his wife Julia live in Botley and have 2 adult daughters: Emily is a food scientist with a love for travel, Sarah is autistic and epileptic and deeply loves Jesus. They manage a heritage apple orchard in Old Hampshire, Old England. Stephen’s kindle e-book Tales From an English Orchard tells that orchard’s story. Amongst his many ambitions, the greatest is to hear the words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ spoken to him by The Friend of Sinners.

Image result for lovecraft and lewisThis personal reflection mainly concerns the effect on me of deep and prolonged exposure to two influential 20th century writers, Howard Price Lovecraft and Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis. They had much in common: each man created a unique and compelling mythos, but their philosophies of life and therefore the moral and intellectual natures of the universes they created were diametrically opposed.

I am not the best-read 62-year-old in England, my choice of a medical career saw to that, (my favourite subjects at school were English and French, before the desire to become a doctor took hold) but at major turning points in my life I was heavily engaged with the visions of each of these two men. These are some personal thoughts on their very different speculative fiction outputs. NB: I tend to bundle Lewis and Tolkien together to some extent, I hope that will be excused.

Who reads H P Lovecraft? Well, I did for one. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, I liked anything weird. I thought my parents were boring and I was trying to find out who I was, and, in the words of the Steppenwolf song ‘Looking for adventure, whatever comes my way.’ There was the usual incalculable interplay between genetics, environment and what some call chance and others Providence. How much of how I turned out was down to my free will, if any, I can’t say.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I was into Zen and ‘free thinking’ although never an atheist. I got into Jimi Hendrix from the age of 11, receiving taunts from Monkees fans in the school playground. I didn’t fit in, but was brainy, so I read and read, living in a world of my imagination which I fed with every fantasy, adventure, sci-fi and horror book I could find. Image result for nada the lilyHenry Rider Haggard was a favourite, especially his Zululand romances with their exotic differentness and an element of the supernatural. Nada the Lily remains a favourite, showcasing the Rider Haggard hero Umslopogaas who appears in several other tales. He was a misunderstood outcast with an enchanted axe, very like my other hero Jimi. I couldn’t get enough.

Then came Tolkien.

Having discovered and devoured The Hobbit, I remember the day I first found a copy of The Fellowship of The Ring in the library. I speed read it in an afternoon and literally ran a mile to get back to the library before closing time to order The Two Towers and The Return of The King.  The fact that most of my friends thought LOTR ‘tedious and absurd’ to quote JRRT’s foreword, just encouraged me about how cool I was, being into stuff that most folks weren’t into.

By 16 I was content to be an outsider, especially as I now had a few friends who were also bored by football and mainstream pop music. Exotic, avant-garde, rebellious, even morbid and dangerous tastes were something to seek out and celebrate. And then one day a friend, let’s call him Roy, introduced me to H P Lovecraft. Roy was a long-haired outsider who was into eastern religions and later came out as homosexual. I hadn’t known that when we shared a tent while walking Hadrian’s Wall. Another friend was also heavily into Lovecraft. He was an outspoken atheist and communist.

Image result for arkham lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham by Michele Botticelli

I became addicted instantly. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) Lovecraft had created an imaginary world which was strange and different. Unlike Tolkien, whose ‘sword and sorcerer’ adventures were in far off Lothlorien, The Misty Mountains, Rohan and Atlantis, Lovecraft’s world was rooted in our own time and space–Antarctica, New Zealand, the fictional New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, the swamps of Louisiana. But just round the corner from those sleepy towns and ordinary offices and universities, lay dark, hidden manuscripts and nameless horrors. Furthermore, these were horrors against which there was no defence, no God or hero to deliver you from the attentions of the mad gods of space, Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos, the evil rat Brown Jenkin, the noxious Yog-Sothoth who froths in primal slime, or countless other malign entities. A grim universe indeed, of which I will offer a handful of examples.

The-Dream-Quest-of-Unknown-Kadath.jpgIn ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ (3), a man with a dull job and longings for something more wonderful, went on a quest for a beautiful city, travelling through enchanted dreams rather as the Pevensie children went through a wardrobe to Narnia and John sought ‘The Island’ in The Pilgrim’s Regress. Yes, there was an evil witch in Narnia, but the place was inherently good, and if there was a witch there was also Aslan. The bizarre journey to Kadath was haunted by ogres, nameless shadows, insanity, illusion, the indifferent ‘old gods’ of earth, and the cruel, potent gods of space, but no comfort, meaning, security or hope.

Image result for the call of cthulhu‘The Call of Cthulhu’ concerns a giant entity of great power and malice who evolved in far-off regions of unknown space, travelled to Earth, and with his terrible minions waits in a suspended state under the sea until it is time to arise and destroy or enslave humanity. Cthulhu’s call is perceived by some, men go mad, creating models of a being which is a cross between a man, a squid and a dragon. Cthulhu cultists sacrifice human victims, whose bodies are described as being ‘curiously subtracted from’. Eventually, volcanic activity and underwater earthquake off the coast of New Zealand reveals the monstrous, ‘Dead Cthulhu who lies dreaming in his house at R’lyeh’.

The Wikipedia entry details ‘The nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh…built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults. ‘

In many of Lovecraft’s horrific visions, such as ‘The Shadow out of Time’, there is nothing that humans can do but await their fate at the hands (claws, tentacles…) of various extra-terrestrial horrors, and it may be better to do so in blissful ignorance since there is nothing they can do to save themselves.

Dunwich Horror.jpgI remember seeing a poster at Leytonstone underground station advertising the film of Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror’. The blurb read ‘A few years ago in Dunwich, a half-witted girl gave birth to illegitimate twins. One of them was almost human.’ I never got to see the film, but read the book when I could. There was talk of ‘that upstairs’ and ‘clearing off the Earth’, oh and tentacles.

One of Lovecraft’s most powerful works, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is a horror story set on the fictional Plateau of Leng in Antarctica. An expedition wakes up things they shouldn’t have woken up and an ‘Alien’ like scenario ensues. Only 2 survivors escape, one of whom goes mad after (like Lot’s wife) looking behind and seeing something that ‘ought not to be’.  A brief quote from the story reads

Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.’ (my emphasis)

Image result for the necronomicon

The arcane book The Necronomicon is an overarching ‘Elder Scrolls’ style background document referenced in many Lovecraft stories. I was wryly amused by this quote in which Lovecraft’s narrator expresses regret that he had ever looked into ‘that monstrous book’. I can identify with that.

The overall context of HPL’s imagined universe is that there is no god, demon, angel or spirit-but some beings have evolved over ‘strange aeons’ in the far reaches of deep space, where perhaps the laws of physics are different to those we know, to such a degree that their properties appear supernatural. This is a common theme in science fiction from The War of the Worlds to Star Wars, but Lovecraft took it further than most. Read this from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which illustrates the bleak despair of his godless imagination:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft’s stark materialism is significant. His monsters might seem supernatural, but aren’t. They were ‘natural’ beings who happened to have evolved immortality and powers such as the ability to change shape and possess human minds. This is really awful when you let it sink in. If there is a ‘traditional’ devil, well that’s bad, but then by the same token there is a God who can save you from him. But what if beings that acted like devils and could drag you down to some kind of hell, whether you deserved it or not, existed in a materialistic an amoral universe, and had no benevolent and righteous divine counterpart?

I obtained as full a collection of Lovecraft books as possible, and read and re-read them. I welcomed the Gugs and Ghasts, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, the ghouls that haunted the Pyramids, the Colours out of Space, Mad Abdul Alhazred  and all the rest into my eager imagination, where they took up residence and did their thing.

One night, walking home around 2 am from my girlfriend’s house, I experienced a sensation that I have never had before or since, that some malevolent entity was looking down on me from behind. I felt terrified and started running.

When I got home, 3 anxious miles away, the house was empty, as my family had gone on a trip I hadn’t wanted to join them on (I told you I was a loner), and I did something I had almost never done before. I knelt by the side of my bed and prayed fervently to God asking for deliverance and safety. I have a clear memory of two things happening next. First, I felt there were several bat-like things flying around my head, and next I felt a voice saying ‘Go downstairs and into the garden and burn those books,  now.’ I really didn’t want to do that. Not only had I spent much money on them, but promised to loan them to a friend. If I burned the books, I would look very silly. It is an indication of how disturbed I felt that 10 minutes later there was a fire on an upturned dustbin lid, which I fed until the last page was consumed. I felt somewhat better, prayed some more, and was able to sleep.

Image result for perelandraA couple of days later at school I sheepishly told Roy an edited version of what had happened. He laughed, and said Nyarlathotep was a great idea but I shouldn’t take him so seriously. But soon after he lent me a copy of ‘Perelandra-A Voyage to Venus’ by C S Lewis which he said he thought might help. He was right; it did.

Reading Perelandra restored an equilibrium in the world of my imagination, rather like a detox or hangover cure. Lewis’s universe, like Lovecraft’s, contained terrible dangers and monsters, but there was a Remedy available on application, however wretched and weak you were. As Lewis put it, there was such a thing as the Normal or Straight, a Power that cared about me, a Goodness that would have the last word. Evil was real, but it would be defeated. Beauty and ugliness, good and evil, truth and lies, sanity and madness were not equally matched ‘yin and yang’ complementary opposites, but goodness, truth, beauty and sanity were RIGHT and they would triumph over the WRONG of ugliness, lies, evil and madness in the end. The universe was not meaningless. Life was not a sick joke. We might be victims, but not helpless as we had a Helper.

In simple terms, H P Lovecraft messed my head up, C S Lewis put it right again. The memory of that is very clear despite the intervening years. One can almost see Lewis as a literal (and literary) antidote to Lovecraft’s poisoned cosmos.

Am I saying Lovecraft’s books are evil, even demonic? Am I saying people, especially Christians, shouldn’t read them? No. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 10:23, ‘All things are lawful but not all things are helpful.’ Our minds are corruptible and we should choose our mental and spiritual diets carefully. These men’s alternative visions, informed by opposing world views, seem to me to express a true dichotomy. Is the universe in fact run by Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos or Maleldil the loving Father? The fact that we do, in the end, have to choose between mutually exclusive opposites is a major theme in Lewis, e.g. ‘The Great Divorce.’

Lovecraft’s cold and creepy mythos, like fellow atheist A E Housman’s suicide poems, deserves some respect for facing the real implications of materialism-a godless, pitiless universe that came from nothing via chaos minus purpose, and will end in nothing. And, therefore, so what?

Thank God there is a better vision available, and thank Jack for articulating it so well.

Botley, Hampshire, England
April 2018
An extended version of this essay appears on SH’s blog narniaonsea.wordpress.com

 

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