Skip to content

C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me

22 April 2018


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, 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.

Of the authors he mentions, I encountered C.S. Lewis first. My mother had some theological works of Lewis, which as a teenager I thought rather dull. But she also had Perelandra, which piqued my interest, so I read Out of the silent planet and That hideous strength as well. On my first reading I regarded them more as science-fiction adventure stories than anything else. Then an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, lent my mother All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams and I read it as well, and worked my way through all the Charles Williams books.

A few years later a friend lent me The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and I worked my way through the Narnia books as well. But by then I had had more experience of studying theology, and had become involved in the strange battles between the Liberal Party and the Security Police. Evil in its political form was much more existentially real, and Maugrim the wolf, chief of the witch’s secret police, was existentially real. Narnia might be in an imaginary world in another dimension, but was in thrall to evil just as South Africa was to the ideology of apartheid. As one child remarked, when her sister had told that it wasn’t real, it was in a book, someone wrote it, “Yes, but what it means is real.”

In 1966 I went to study in England, and a friend who had encountered Tolkien told me about his books, and when I saw The Hobbit I bought it, and immediately went on to The Fellowship of the Ring. I finished The two towers one evening, and could not wait for the bookshops to open the next day, so borrowed The Return of the King from a fellow student, and never bought my own copy. The friend who had told me about Tolkien, John Henderson, also told me that Lewis, Williams and Tolkien knew each other, and were part of a group called the Inklings. I hadn’t known that, and for me Tolkien was the third Inkling.

In all this, I knew nothing of H.P. Lovecraft, though I did have a taste for horror stories. Most of the ones I knew were in a three-volume set of books called Detection, mystery, horror edited by Dorothy Saywers (who I later discovered was an “almost Inkling”) — see A Taste for Horror, and Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more.

In 1971, when I was living in Windhoek, Namibia, I bought a book of horror stories, The abominations of Yondo, by Clark Ashton Smith. It was a book of short stories, and I was expecting something like the stories I had read in the collection edited by Dorothy Sayers. I was sadly disappointed.

The few stories I did read were badly written. They tried to create an atmosphere of horror by piling up adjectives upon adjectives, so that they lost all meaning. That was where I first encountered the word “eldritch”, which has ever since then been for me the mark of bad horror writing.

I put the book back on the shelf and forgot about it.

Twenty years later I found Stephen King, who wrote somewhat better horror stories, and avoided words like “eldritch”. Some of his books seemed much better than others. But Stephen King’s stories seemed rather nihilistic. There were evil monsters that were just evil. More on that in another post on Monsters and Horror.

And then in an online discussion forum on New Religious Movements an old friend, Professor Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary, mentioned fictional religions that had become real. He mentioned the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and noted that a lot of them were dreck, but some had some flashes of brilliance. He said that some believed that the Necronomicon was a real book, that the Miskatonic University actually existed, and practised a religion of worshipping some of Lovecraft’s evil creatures, like Yog Sothoth.

I was sufficiently curious to go to the university library and take out books of stories by Lovecraft. The first one I read was At the mountains of madness which didn’t seem to be bad, and claimed to be the completion of an incomplete story by Edgar Allen Poe, which I also read. I read a few more, and also came across the dreck. Lovecraft was far, far more nihilistic than Stephen King. Reading Lovecraft actually helped me to appreciate Stephen King more, as in most of Kiung’s stories the focus was not on the evil monsters themselves, but on the response of people to them. His books said nothing about the nature of evil, but rather how the response of people could determine whether they were overwhelmed by it or overcame it. Evil could be resisted. Lovecraft was far more pessimistic than that. But even when King’s writing was pessimistic, as in his story The Mist, the writing was much better than Lovecraft’s.

I went back to the book by Clark Ashton Smith, and found that it was composed of stories in the Lovecraftian style. I was a bit more appreciative after having read Lovecraft. But I still found the piling up of adjectives irritating.

But when I compare my experience to that of my namesake, I see that Lovecraft influenced him far more deeply and ominously than me. I attribute this, at least in part, to the order in which we read the books. I approached Lovecraft having read Lewis, Williams and Tolkien from within a Christian worldview, and so regarded Lovecraft’s writing as nihilistic and of lesser value. We had different frames of reference from which to interpret what we read. I could understand why he burnt his Lovecraft books, because of the way they had influenced him. I would not burn mine (not that I actually have any), but might refer to them occasionally to understand the nature of the nihilism that I reject.

But I’ve just bought a copy of Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons, which is supposed to be the original nihilist work, so perhaps after reading that I’ll change my mind.

The art of serial killing

18 April 2018

Broken MonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So how does a South African author come to write a crime novel set in Detroit?

My initial response is that there are so many crime novels set in US cities that this seems a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. And surely we’ve got enough crime in our own country to write about. so there should be plenty of material. We have Michele Rowe, whose novel What hidden lies is set in the Cape Peninsula, but I can’t think of many others.

And then there’s Elizabeth George, and American whose crime novels are set in Britain, so why shouldn’t people write crime novels set in other countries than their own?

And, if we want to be postmodern about it, the author, and the author’s background and experience don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the text itself.

So what can I say about the text?

It starts off with a bunch of disparate people whose lives intersect when they encounter a serial killer. as the threads gradually draw together one gets drawn into the lives and concerns of the characters. The killer mutilates his victims, and sees them as a kind of art form, possessed by a dream that he cannot articulate, even through his gruesome art works.

To say more would be to introduce spoilers, but I found it was definitely worth a read.

View all my reviews

Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more

12 April 2018

There were only three of us at our literary coffee klatsch this morning, delayed because of Holy Weeks (Western and Eastern), and there hadn’t been much time for reading. But over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit about Horror as a literary genre | Khanya. Click on that link to see my review of Horror by Mark Jancovich, which was not very impressive.

Slightly better was

The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of HorrorThe Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror by David J. Skal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

but it was not better by much.

The main emphasis was on films and rather than books, and potted biographies of the actors in B-grade horror films, with the emphasis on a German film called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The film inspired xenophobic protests in America, as it was foreign, and people thought cinemas should support the native film industry, nevertheless it seems to have inspired a spate of horror films that followed.

And to make up a trilogy, I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre: the anatomy of horror, which I first read 20 years ago. King describes three levels of horror story, where the author aims at

  1. Terror (terrify the reader)
  2. Horror (horrify the reader)
  3. Revulsion (the gross out)

King sees them as a progression, as differences of degree, rather than of kind. As an example of the first, he gives the story of The Monkey’s Paw. I would say it is an example of horror rather than of terror. I encountered it at the age of 8, when our class at Fairmount School in Johannesburg attended a drama evening at the nearby Orange Grove Primary School. I have no recollection of the rest of the programme, but The Monkey’s Paw was vivid in my memory. It did not terrify me, but it did horrify me.

At home we had a collection of short stories edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, Mystery, Horror. I largely ignored the detection and mystery sections, but was hooked on the horror stories, the best of which, to my mind, was The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood.

I don’t count the “gross out” as “horror” at all — and that includes the “slasher” movies like Silence of the Lambs. They differ not merely in degree, but in kind, from true horror stories, like The Monkey’s Paw and The Wendigo.

The Monster Show seems to regard monsters as an important feature of the horror genre, but what is a monster? Reading these books, one would think that monsters are, in the first place, deformed, disfigured or mutilated human beings, the freaks from the circus side shows., the most alarming of which, according to King, and only shown to the select few rather the the general public, is the Geek.

By that definition Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings must be included in the horror genre, as it includes monsters like balrogs, orcs and Shelob. Orcs are deliberately deformed and disfigured elves, and even Gollum is a deformed and mutilated hobbit.

David Levey commented that most of the science fiction he enjoyed was published in the 1970s or earlier, and he had very little in the next 30 years. I had experienced something similar. I thought it was just me — I enjoyed SF most in my teens and early 20s, and perhaps that was the age it most appealed to, though I enjoyed rereading some of the better books I had enjoyed then, but even them, reading them again after several decades, they weren’t as good as I remembered them. Examples of these were Huxley’s Brave new world and George Stewart’s Earth abides (though A canticle for Leibowitz still seemed as good as when I first read it.

David said that this might be because books are now written to a formula. All the books on how to write told would-be writers how they must write their stories — grab your reader in the first paragraph, end your chapter with a cliff hanger and so on. And publisher’s readers probably used the same criteria, which means they sometimes rejected books that were very popular when they eventually were published, like the Harry Potter series.

I recalled challenging a group of Charles Williams fans to write a novel in the style of Charles Williams during NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). In the end I was the only one who took up my challenge, and one person who critiqued it said there was too much backstory in the first chapter — I didn’t start in media res, as all the how-to books prescribed. I don’t think she had read much Charles Williams.

Yes, his War in Heaven does begin with one of the most attention-grabbing opening lines in English novels: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” But his The place of the lion has a much more gradual beginning. Val recalled as another attention-grabbing first line A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood: “When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.”

On the other hand, I recently re-read one of the first Enid Blyton books I ever read (at the age of 9 or 10), The Mountain of Adventure. I loved it. It was 160 pages, and the actual adventure did not begin until halfway through, about page 80 (my review here).

I suspect that one reason for the success of the Harry Potter books is that, like science fiction, kidlit had been in the doldrums for a couple of decades. In the Sixties there were authors like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner and several others. But in the 1980s and 1990s I browsed the children’s books shelves in the book shops and all I could find was Goosebumps. Eventually I bought one, to see what the younger generation was reading and, as I suspected, it was dreck.

After that, Harry Potter was like an oasis in the desert.

And Val and I both recommended to David that he read some early books by Phil Rickman, the ones before Merrily Watkins, the diocesan deliverance consultant, turns into Mother Brown, the clerical supersleuth.

Ones we recommended were Candlenight, Crybbe, and The Chalice.

For more on Phil Rickman, see here.

Unbelief and Good Friday – Glory to God for All Things

6 April 2018

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

Source: Unbelief and Good Friday – Glory to God for All Things

Horror as a literary genre (review)

20 March 2018

HorrorHorror by Mark Jancovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very disorganised book.

It begins with a discussion of the 1984 Video Recordings Act in Britain, and the issue of censorship, and then eventually notes that the Bill was “the culmination of a popular campaign against the so-called ‘video-nasties’… No clear definition of the ‘video nasty’ existed but it was generally accepted that they were examples of pornography and horror.”

But Mark Jancovich gives no clear definition of pornography or horror, at least not at the beginning, so at first sight the book appears to be about censorship. I can’t help feeling that much of the material in the first chapter, titled “The horror genre and its critiscs”, could have been relegated to an appendix. There is a lot of information about the critics, but very little about the horror genre itself.

The author then goes on to trace the development of the genre in various historic periods, beginning with late 18th-century Gothic novels, in relation to the prevailing social conditions at the time and place that the particular works were written. He also usually begins with the social conditions, and then mentions the works of horror fiction that were produced in the period, or some of them.

Sometimes the description of social conditions appears quite accurate, at other times it seems rather flimsy, resting on nothing more t5han the assertions of the author. Also, the linking to the social and cultural conditions is patchy, and sometimes seems very unconvincing. Dracula, for example, is presented as a symbol of capitalism in a rather shallow analysis. A much better one appears in Vampires, mummies and Liberals. Of course a book dealing with an entire genre can’t go into the same amount of detail as a monograph dealing mainly with one work, but still it could have been more convincing.

Between the world wars of the 20th century Jancovich speaks of “Fordism”, which I assume derives from Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, though he doesn’t mention it. In a way that could also belong to the horror genre, as could Orwell’s 1984 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies — they certainly inspire horror in the sensitive reader. But they are not mentioned, and H.P. Lovecraft is only mentioned in passing. By the end of the book there is still no satisfactory definition of horror as a genre.

View all my reviews

Postfiction/Truth? Literary Coffee Klatsch

8 March 2018

At our literary coffee klatch today all the books we mentioned were non-fiction.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s the first time since we started two years ago that I can remember not a single fiction title being mentioned.

But that’s OK. “Truth,” as G.K. Chesterton said in one of his fiction works, “is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the the human mind and therefore congenial to it.”

Duncan Reyburn mentioned that he had been reading books by Jordan Peterson, but I didn’t manage to note the titles he mentioned, but perhaps the main one was Maps of Meaning.

Peterson was a psychologist, and had an interesting theory of memory — that the purpose of memory was to enable us to avoid our mistakes of the past and behave differently in future, instead of, as Freudians tended to encourage us to do, blaming our father or mother or childhood trauma.

That reminds me (which I didn’t mention at the meeting) that I’ve been reading quite a lot about psychoanalysis and literary criticism recently, and especially the role and influence of Jacques Lacan. David Levey wasn’t able to be with us today, but perhaps another time he can tell us about the Lacanian factor.

Duncan said he had also been reading Nietzsche and was interested in his idea of ethics as revenge. Nietzsche regarded Christianity as a religion of slaves because it took away from slaves the desire for revenge against their masters.

But psychologists like Jordan Peterson said memory was to enable us to compare our present with our past, to compare ourselves not with other people, but rather with our past selves. This reminded Val and me of the Prayer of St Ephraim, which we say frequently during Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

From there we drifted into discussing the judgmentalism one encounters on social media. Post a link to a news item about an outrage in Yemen or an atrocity in Syria, or a terrorist attack somewhere else and people rush to condemn or exonerate those who committed it. I thought of the election of Donald Trump as US president — after his election, but before his inauguration, people were calling for protest marches, not against anything he had done, but against things that they thought he was about to do. And even if he later did the things they feared, it was the man and not the deeds that they condemned. We have got judging our brother down to a fine art. The maxim Love the sinner, hate the sin is conveniently forgotten or even, by some, denounced as evil in itself.

And from there we went on to labels — we love “one size fits all” labels. Duncan mentioned a student of his who wanted to write a thesis on something or other “and religion”. Duncan asked “Which religion?” but the student hadn’t thought of that, but eventually said “Christianity”, and Duncan asked “Which Christianity?”

I noted how the label “Evangelical” is plastered on anything and everything, and the snide criticisms of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng when be was appointed because he was an “Evangelical”, but when, unlike Trump, he didn’t do all the things he was accused, like Trump, of being going to do, no more was heard of his Evangelicalism. His Evangelicalism was responsible for the bad things he was going to do, but didn’t, but not for the good things he actually did.

One aspect of labelling people is seen in IQ tests, and Janneke Weidema mentioned The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. Janneke said that IQ tests had originally been developed to find weaknesses in children’s problem-solving skills so that they could be remedied, but had eventually ossified into a kind of permanent classification system for children. Val mentioned having done an IQ test in Grade 6, and years later finding out that it was in her UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) file at the Department of Labour.

I mentioned having had IQ tests done by the Scientologists (for a fuller account of that see here) and how they conned people by promising that their Personal Efficiency Course would improve IQ. We returned a couple of weeks later and asked to do the tests again, but without doing the Personal Efficiency Course. Sure enough, our IQ scores had improved by about 5 points each, as we expected they would, because IQ tests measure one’s ability to do IQ tests, and practice improves performance.

We discussed other kinds of personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs and Enneagrams. Perhaps there is more that could be said about that, but it didn’t relate much to books and reading.

At this point Duncan had to leave and Tony McGregor arrived a bit late to join us.

We moved on to discussing a topical hot issue — land expropriation without compensation.

It had produced a lot of emotional rhetoric on all sides in South Africa, and, rather surprisingly, some very sensationalised and twisted reports in several overseas publications.

Janneke said one needed to appreciate the history, which was much more complex than many people thought, and for this she recommended Die Derde Oorlog Teen Mapoch by Hans Pienaar, where the “Boers” were not settled farmers at all, but nomadic marauding hunter-gatherers and cattle rustlers, making war on settled agricultural communities.

Going from the north to the south, Tony McGregor recommended Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noel Mostert.This describes the nine Frontier Wars in the Eastern Cape, and again gives the history of some of struggles over land in that part of the country.

Another book that I suggested was The rise and fall of the South African peasantry by Colin Bundy. That sparked off some reminiscing, because Tony McGregor had grown up with Colin Bundy at Blythedale, and they had played together as children. And I had been at university with him and we had attended History and Philosophy classes together, and he went on to become a professor of history.

Bundy’s book also belongs to the “truth is stranger than fiction” variety, because one of the fictions believed by many white South Africans (the result of careful indoctrination by the National Party’s “Christian National Education” system) is that black farmers were primitive and backward and that white farmers were progressive and efficient.

During the 19th century several attempts were made to settle white farmers on the land in South Africa. Immigrants were brought from Britain, given land to cultivate, and made a hash of it. Many were from towns and knew little or nothing about farming, and were unfamiliar with the conditions. As a result many migrated to the towns and got work there, or sought their fortunes in various diamond and gold rushes. And it was black peasant farmers who settled around the white towns and provided their inhabitants with fresh vegetables, eggs and dairy produce. And it was black farmers who were later forced off the land by the white farmers’ influence in political circles.

One other book mentioned, which ties up with the history, but is not so relevant to the land issue, is Sir Harry Smith, bungling hero by Anthony Harington. You can find my review here.




Land expropriation without compensation

6 March 2018

Last week Parliament resolved to review a clause in the Constitution dealing that prohibits arbitrary deprivation of property, and I wrote about my misgivings about such a step here.

I didn’t intend to say any more, because others have said quite a lot, and better than I could. One of the better articles on the issue is by Mondli Makhanya The Great Land Return Lie.

It seems to me that this was passed parliament mainly as a vote-catching tactic by the ANC, with an eye on the 2019 general election. The EFF was becoming a threat to their hold on power, and by stealing a plank from the EFF’s policy platform they seem to be hoping to neutralise the threat, or at least diminish it.

Well that is one of the things that politicians do, and that is the kind of thing one must expect if the country is run by politicians. It is rather sad, though, that the ANC, which gave us the constitution that inter alia protects us from arbitrary deprivation of property should be prepared to sacrifice it for a purely temporary advantage. Playing party political games with the constitution shows how far the ANC has fallen since the days of Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu.  It just goes to show that getting rid of Zuma did not solve all the problems in the ANC.

And as many have pointed out, the obstacle to dealing with the land issue is not the constitution, it is the failure of successive ANC governments to implement policies that are already in place.

That is bad enough, but some of the other things are worse.

For example this article appeared in Newsweek, a US publication that I did not previously think of as promoting the cause of the Alt-Right Thousands Sign Petition Asking Trump to Let White Farmers in South Africa Migrate to U.S. After Country Votes to Force Them Off Land.

That headline goes well beyond spin into the “fake news” category, as does this this one from the UK Independent South Africa votes through motion to seize land from white farmers without compensation | The Independent.

These deliberately misleading headlines seem calculated to stir up white racists everywhere, so one has to ask why these hitherto fairly respected publications seem to be promoting an Alt-Right white racist agenda? One expects spin from most of the media, but these go beyond spin into fake news territory.

And sensationalist and twisted reporting in overseas media has provoked all kinds of white supremacists overseas into seeking to recruit white people in South Africa to their cause.

By way of contrast, most of the South African reactions I have read has been more sober and thoughtful. For example this Steven Friedman: Land debate is about dignity, equality – not the constitution – I don’t agree with some of the things he says — for example, if it’s not about the Constitution, then leave the Constitution out of it. But at least he couches it in terms of a debate that we need to have, and not rabble-rousing among white racists, like Newsweek and the UK Independent.

If our Constitution needs amending, then I suggest that it needs to be amended to provide more protection from unscrupulous businessmen who seek to buy politicians and take over the state. And removing the constitutional protection against arbitrary deprivation of property would provide greatly expanded opportunities for such unscrupulous businessmen to do that very thing. But contrary to the impression created by the overseas media, that hasn’t happened yet. A committee has been set up to draw up proposals for parliament to debate, and until it produces the proposals, stories about forcing white farmers off the land are at best idle speculation, and at worst malicious rumour mongering and racist propaganda.