29 January 2009

Children of Kali and a certain fascination

I'm a geek. When I was in college, I had a friend who was trying to put together a GURPS Illuminati campaign. I decided to go him one better and create one with multiple secret societies. Of course, it was a concept I'd stolen from the INWO card game. I'd read The Illuminatus! Trilogy by this point, after several years of only creating the impression that I'd done so by acting paranoid and muttering something in German every time the subject came up. (It really works!)

My college library wasn't big, but it did have a handful of books on secret societies and conspiracy theories, all of which I checked out. (The only one I can recall now is Akron Daraul's Secret Societies.) It was in those books that I first read about the Thuggee. I found them and their patron goddess, Kali, interesting enough that I decided to make them one of the five secret societies vying for world domination in my game. (Why 5? Because it's an important number for the Illuminati and because it was the number of survivors from the destruction of the Shao-Lin temple.)

I was particularly struck with some of the descriptions of thugs which emphasized not their bloodthirstiness but their upstanding social and moral character. One European had stated something along the lines that when they found out some Indian acquaintance was a thug, they were surprised, but still felt that person trustworthy in every regard except their Thuggee activities. It also appeared that the thugs ascribed their defeat to having forsaken some the rules that Kali had laid down for them. Curiously moral, these evil cultists, not at all like the picture I got from Indiana Jones or Gunga Din. I was struck by the idea of men involved in a cult doing things beyond the pale, who could turn around and pass not just as ordinary, but as the most upstanding men in their society. This sounded like a real secret society, and one who everyone seemed pretty clear had been wiped out, which in paranoid Illuminati-style terms was just an indication of how brilliant a secret society they were.

Even though the campaign never took place (nor my friend's), I remained fascinated with Thuggee. There wasn't much information to be found beyond what I'd read in those few books, except for a couple of novels that were hard to find. (In that pre-Amazon age.) I did read up more on Kali, who I found a fascinating and strangely moving spiritual symbol.

Occassionally, I'd do an internet search under thuggee or Kali. One day, it turned up a journal article by an academic named Parama Roy: "Discovering India, Imagining Thuggee" The paper looked at a lot of the existing documentation on Thuggee and came to what was for me a startling conclusion: the whole thing was to a certain degree a British invention, driven by Western notions of an exotic East, misconceptions, misunderstandings, a need to assert imperial authority, etc.

Instead of de-romanticizing Thuggee for me, it actually deepened my fascination. Suddenly, Thuggee wasn't just a cult but had the potential for being something of a mirror, a reflection of the colonizers' darkest notions of violence and power. This threw certain curious mirrorings into question for me. The strangles had all been hung, taking some interest in making sure good knots were used. Sleeman, the big anti-Thug crusader, had seemed like something of a thug himself, a morally upstanding man who had used deception and violence for his own ends. And, of course, Kali had started out with not one but two thugs. (Adam and Steve?) Thuggee had taken an unexpected turn; it had gone postmodern.

I wouldn't call them an obsession, but since then, there never too far out of mind. Sometimes they seem to crop up in unexpected place. I've thought of assembling a list of all the secret Thuggee movies. There's the Believer, with Ryan Gosling as an orthodox Jew who's also a neo-Nazi; that mirroring of victim/killer and meditation on holy violence definitely pegs it in this category. At the top, of course, would be Bill Paxton's Frailty, which is the probably the greatest Thuggee movie ever made. (No, seriously, does it make sense any other way?)

Oh, the book, that's right. I just finished this book, and I was going to say a few things about it. I don't know if this is the best book about Thuggee, but it's certainly the one I've enjoyed most so far. The author decides to go to India to investigate both the history of the thugs and modern day criminality. He doesn't find what he's looking for, but what he does is pretty interesting. This is really a book to read twice (this is my second time), the first to get frustrated at what the author doesn't find, the second to relax and enjoy the trip and the author's observations.

Schulz and genre labels

Just some random musing for the moment:

I once had a discussion with someone about the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and how to describe the supernatural elements. He had described the movie as surreal, but I had insisted that it was more like magical realism. My argument was that surrealism tends to reflect the fractured logic and imagery of dreams, while magic realism involves incorporating fantastic elements as extensions of a realistic narrative. (Although, I'm not certain that's the best description of magic realism.)

This all came back to me while reading Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I've got it tagged in my library as both weird fiction and surreal, but I'm wondering if it should be tagged as magical realism instead of or alongside weird fiction.

If one opts for a narrow definition of the weird tale or magic realism, it's obvious Schulz doesn't really count as either. That is, he's neither part of an early 20th Century set of authors publishing in Weird Tales magazine nor is he a Latin American (probably Caribbean) author publishing after 1960 or so.

I usually try to be more expansive with both of those labels. So, weird fiction is a category of fiction where the everyday existence is brought into contact with something decidedly uncanny, sometimes an entire strange reality. This intrusion into the normal is by its nature threatening, and so the pervasive mood is one of dread and uncannines. (So, for example, Lovecraft's stories feature entities whose very presence will drive a man insane.)

Magical realism, on the other hand, centers on a reality so rich in essence, that everyday existence finds unexpected fantastic outlets of expression. Those supernatural outbursts are not intrusions into so much as expressions of the everyday reality. (For example, the familial bond can cause a murdered son's blood to flow directly towards his family's home.)

But Schulz' stories sometimes seem to operate on both levels at the same time. There's certainly a surreal quality to be sure. And sometimes the supernatural seems to be an intrusion, quite threatening and uncanny. At other times, it appears to be a flowering of some normal though concealed aspect of the everyday.

Writing this out rather convinces me to give it both tags, since I think the world featured in his fictions is so permeable as to make percolations both into and out of the everyday through the fantastic sort of inevitable.

I don't know if this is particularly interesting to anybody else. I find the WF/MR distinction an interesting way to think about the way fantastic or supernatural elements are used in a story.

Review: Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

It might be fair to say that this is the weaker of Schulz' two collections; that is, it is not 100% consistently mind-blowing. Perhaps only 90-98%. Schuz' prose has the quality of being downright intoxicating. His tales all deal with his family and life in his hometown, but the incandescent profusion of language and imagery reveals the transcendent behind the ordinary.

The first three stories feature an obsession with texts, starting with The Book of the story by that name, in which the Authentic is regenerated, and finishing with the strange season of "Spring," in which a stamp album holds the secrets to the Hapsburg dynasty and a youthful love triangle.

In the title story, the narrator visits his father at a convalescent home, where death is kept at bay through entrechment in the past. As the not-days progress, he soon learns that he is loving in recycled time.

"The Old Age Pensioner" and "Father's Last Escape" are haunting portrayals of the metamorphosis of old age and its approach to the final transmutation of death.

Schulz wrote like no one else, and his fantasies of the everyday are worth getting lost in.

25 January 2009

Review: La muerte y su traje

Santiago Dabove was a contemporary of Borges and, if JLB's introduction is any indication, something of an eccentric. He had little interest in publishing, and it was only the intervention of his more famous friend that managed to get this book edited and published after the author's death.

The stories here make for an interesting collection of strange stories, somewhat in the vein of Poe. The Poe influence shows up early, with the story "Ser Polvo" ("Being Dust") which seems to want to go Poe one better. While Poe was known to write about being buried alive, Ser Polvo describes a man being converted to earth while still conscious. It's a fascinatingly morbid work, rendered ambiguous by the narrators admission that he's dying and has taken large doses of heroine.

Another work which suggests Poe's "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", with a little Frankenstein (or Reanimator) thrown in for good measure, is "El experimento de Varinsky" ("Varinsky's Experiment) where a doctor uses a strange device to bring a man back from the dead, with strange results.

As you can see, death is a frequent theme in these stories, as one might expect from works influenced by Poe. Intriguingly, like Leopoldo Lugones or Macedonio Fernandez, Argentine authors publishing in this era, Dabove's work goes beyond copying Poe, incorporating philosophical or scientific elements to plum the uncanny in new ways, a process that would bear fruit with Borges himself.

It is an interesting mix of stories, if perhaps somewhat dark, but I found these little variations on the weird tale to be pretty entertaining.

Review: The Deceivers

One night, Captain William Savage of the East India Company witnesses a murder. In seeking out the murderers, he finds his efforts frsutrated, and soon comes to realize that a criminal conspiracy has been operating right under his nose. To stop the killings, he will have to infiltrate the group that goes by The Deceivers.

That story is loosely based on the Thuggee (meaning deceivers) of India, who strangled and robbed travellers on the roads. Savage is something of an unlikely hero. He doesn't figure himself particularly brave or commanding, but when he discovers the crimes, he sees no choice but to make himself pass as an Indian and join a Thuggee band.

The Deceivers is a fairly straightforward suspense/adventure tale, where our heroic protagonist finds the hero inside as he faces a terrible evil. The setting is well realized, and the foe portrayed in an interesting manner.

I must admit I didn't find Capt. Savage entirely compelling as a hero, in part because the threat wasn't always well defined. The physical threat, yes, but Deceivers puts equal weight on the spiritual/psychological threat Savage is under while pretending to be a Thug, without really making it plausible that he would have any reason for becoming a Thug. Instead it opts for some weak supernaturalism, and a somewhat vague struggle between Eastern and Western gods.

(One might also accuse Masters of some colonial revisionism, but I'd just urge any reader not to treat the novel as a serious portrayal of 19th Century India.)

Overall, with its interesting locale and heroic protagonist, The Deceivers makes for a pretty entertaining adventure story.

19 January 2009

Review: Confessions of a Thug

The word "thug" comes from the Thuggee (deceivers) who allegedly plagued India prior to the arrival of the British. Though there is some controversy nowadays as to the extent of their existence, tales of their exploits made a strong impression on the 19th Century British and helped justify a stronger colonial presence on the Indian subcontinent.

Confessions of a Thug is the story of one of these men, Ameer Ali, a Muslim thug who led a long and successful career as a Thug before his luck ran out. Ali relats his story to an English interviewer, starting with the death of his father at the hands of thugs and his adoption by the bands leader. Soon, he is grown up and interested in taking up the family trade, which is bravery and cleverness makes him particularly suited to.

Though the interviewer occasionally interjects to render moral observations on his actions, the voice that predominates is that of Ali, who comes across as an interesting anti-hero. With his cunning and boldness and his travels across India in search of those to rob, he comes across as an exotic adventurer-criminal, like some mix of Sinbad the Sailor and Tony Soprano. This is somewhat underscored by his tales of commanding men under the Pindaris, using freebooting armies to extort treasure from defenseless communities. Ali is as proud of his battlefield exploits as of his work with the strangling cloth.

An interesting story of crime and death on the Indian subcontinent, with many interesting local details. Somewhat dated nowadays, especially in its transliterations from Hindi, but still an interesting read.

09 January 2009

Book Review: Graphic Classics - H.P. Lovecraft

(This review covers the first edition of Graphic Classics: H. P. Lovecraft, the one featuring HPL as a seafood vendor on the cover.)

As Gahan Wilson points out in his introduction, Lovecraft is one of the most illustrator-friendly authors of fantastic fiction. Not only do his works feature countless atmospheric settings and outre monstrosities, but he can also be quite detailed in his description of said places and things. So, he's a pretty natural choice for a collection of illustrated adaptations.

As if to underline this fact, the first thing after the introduction is a one-page excerpt of John Coulhart's "The Dunwich Horror" showing the death of Wilbur Whateley. It's a great scene, and Coulhart really brings out the full morbid ickiness of it. Sadly, it's all we see of that work, which underlines some of the weaknesses of this collection.

While it has some great, fun adaptations (though more on that below), it often feels a bit of a scattershot effort which seems to flirt with being a better work. Along with the single page of Dunwich, there is a selection of six beautiful pages from Tom Sutton's adaptation of "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath."

Other items are somewhat amusing but flawed. One of the first items is a brief HPL biography, which leans a bit too closely on the de Camp image of Lovecraft as sexually neurotic. (Although I was amused by George Kuchar's fascination with breasts; even one of Lovecraft's aunts has serious cleavage on display.) Another piece, called "The Chaos Rapant" features a rapping, tenticular Nyarlathotep awakening a cranky Cthulhu. It's funny, but seems like it be better off in a compilation of silly Cthulhu parodies.

And though I was happy to see the Fungi From Yuggoth featured--HPL's poetry isn't generally great, but I think Fungi is an exception--the adaptation left a lot to be desired. Every other poem in the cycle features an illustration, each done by a different artist. Some of the illustrations are quite striking, but too many see to bear little connection to the corresponding poem and opt instead for a sort of general surrealism.

As for the good illustrations, the first story after the bio is an adaptation of "Herbert West - Reanimator." The story has been trimmed down to four parts from six, with each part given a different illustrator. My favorite was the third section, done by J.B. Bonivert, which really plays up the twisted humor of the original; all of the chapters were quite good, though.

I also really enjoyed the adaptation of "The Cats of Ulthar," by Lisa Weber who's done good work in other volumes of the Graphics Classics series. Her art here really captures the sense of dark fable from the original story.

There are several other good pieces, including the adaptations of "The Shadow Out of Time" and "The Terrible Old Man." Luckily, it appears these were retained in the second edition, along with Cats and Herbert West, so I'd more strongly recommend checking out the second edition, which features Cthulhu on the cover.