Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 


Reviews by Gina Wisker

British Library Tales of the Weird: The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan (2022), ed. Michael Wheatley. London: British Library (319 pages); The Night Wire and other Tales of Weird Media (2022), ed. Mike Ashley. London: British Library. (348 pages); The Flaw in the Crystal and Other Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair (2023), ed Aaron Worth. London: British Library (319 pages). (2023).

It is always a delight to receive the neatly packaged books from the British Library ‘Tales of the Weird’ series, which offers a range of titles, some focused on collecting together nineteenth and twentieth-century work under a common theme, and some on the work of a single author. I am going to concentrate here on just one of the collections to engage more fully with a couple of the stories.

One of these published in 2022 is The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan, which brings together work by Oscar Wilde, George Edgerton, Algernon Blackwood, Dorothy Quick, Marjorie Lawrence, and includes Arthur Machen’s tale ‘The Great God Pan’, and E. M. Forster's ‘The Story of a Panic’. Cast out at the birth of Christianity, Pan is an old god, a goat-god who continues to have many revivals: during the Renaissance, the Romantic period, the fin-de-siècle and with the contemporary fascination with folk horror, all of which testify to his continuing countercultural importance. Machen, whose works focus on mythology, landscape and an occult form of science, is known also for ‘The White People’ (1904) and ‘The Hill of Dreams’ (1907), and his work presents ’visions of rural epiphany, where an understanding of this suppressed past can both enrich and destroy those who find it’ (p.19). Published in 1894, ‘The Great God Pan’ is a foundation text, bringing pagan history, sexual liberation, end of the world and animism into view. H.P. Lovecraft praised it and it fed into work by, among many others, Stephen King and Guillermo de Toro. Revisiting it I see that unsurprisingly the tale is pretty misogynistic, with weak, culpable women at its heart, and also seethes with a terror and distaste for the foreign other, for sexuality and (though barely named) homosexuality.

Surgical practices are claimed to lift the dull mortal veil leading to a transcendent state. ‘The Great God Pan’ first explores the experimental brain surgery of Dr. Raymond and a young woman called Mary, so that she can see Pan and obtain some transcendent state of mind, looking beyond reality. Although called a quack, Raymond asserts there's no danger in this operation, points out that there is a veil beyond the real world which they'll see lifted through the operation a, ‘slight lesion in the grey matter’, ‘A trifling rearrangement of certain cells’ (p.22), all of which post Frankenstein and in our world of various surgeries spells a promise which will no doubt lead to some kind of threat and pain. Doctor Raymond believes that ‘with a touch…I can set free the current,…. I can complete the communication in this world of the sense’ (p.24).This is a real mad scientist's lab, a mad doctor’s lab filled with phials and smells. One sleepy patient/victim, Clark goes into a semi-conscious state and, once revived, remembers a wood of beech trees, clear water, a place from his own history with a path from his father's house leading him into an undiscovered country. Filled with strangeness, the wood becomes hushed, he is face to face with ‘a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living or the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form’ (p.28), which calls to him. After Clark’s Romantic, pagan vision, a woman, Mary (clearly a weaker vessel) becomes the patient/victim and her response and recovery are not as straightforward as Clark's. Her colour drains, her eyes have ‘an awful light, looking far away’. Wonder is followed by the muscles of her face hideously convulsing, she shook ‘from head to foot: the soul seemed struggling and shattering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight’ (p.29). Mary becomes a hopeless idiot and Raymond puts this down to the side effects of surgical experimentation, deemed ‘Definitely worth it for the experience…it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the great god Pan’ (p. 30). This is not the end. Clark, fascinated with compiling his memoirs to prove the existence of the devil, reads through a story of Helen V., adopted into a village although of ‘a somewhat foreign character’. She's seen outside one day playing with ‘a strange naked man’ (p 34). A young boy who sees this then suffers from hysteria.

Experiments involving surgery don't seem to be very good for women, and the introduction of young girls into this rural, deeply wooded area is not good for them either. A second girl, Rachel, stays out in the woods until dusk, and then starts to behave in a ‘dreamy’ (p.37) fashion, weeping at night, half undressed. Another tale from Charles Herbert mentions a strangely beautiful girl whom he married, and in a year he was ruined in body and soul, selling everything and losing his money to this strange girl, who disappeared. He feels should he see her again, it would kill him. Clearly she does return or something else strange occurs as Herbert later is found dead.

The women in the story are wild, vulnerable, likely to embrace a sexual deviance close to the dissolution of and seen at odds with civilization, the world of knowledge and social solidity of gentleman's clubs, with their expensive bottles of wine and the seeming external order of 19th century England. When Clark's friend Villiers visits him, he produces a parcel containing a carefully drawn image of the woman whom Herbert married, a face with ‘the most vivid presentment of evil I've ever seen’ (p.53). Villiers starts wildly from his chair, Clark falls back, everybody feels ill. Foreign women are even more dangerous than strange beautiful girls. A wealthy South American woman, Mrs. Beaumont, is introduced into the story. With her foreign background and hospitality, she is bound to be suspicious, and a collection of drawings by Meyrick offers a key to the undercurrents of evil and danger. In these drawings, foreign, pagan creatures cavort together, figures of fawns, satyrs and Egyptians dance before the men’s eyes, on mountain tops, in vineyards, by lonely shores, by rocks and desert places in ‘a world before which the human soul seemed to shrink back and shudder’ (p.60). Soho encounters, hidden manuscripts, apoplectic seizures follow with ‘an experience of corruption, horror, nausea, paralysis and a form which moves between genders’. There are abysses, and threats of foul otherness. This is certainly an influential tale, with its wild deviant energies, its sexist, seedy tensions and hysterical promises and threats of all forms of ‘Other’. In E.M. Forster’s tale ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1911), the other tale I shall briefly deal with here, the mixture of fascination and disgust and the terror at anything undermining the firmly upheld sense of a (very limited and limiting) civilization (English again, of course) all belong to the fallible narrator, who seems to assume these values coincide with those of the reader. The alternative , disruptive, forces of Pan pose no threat, only a new freedom to the sidelined, silenced, artistic young Eustace, who has had to repress both his latent artistic vision and his latent homosexuality, until Pan enters the dull little English picnic on a hillside in Ravello.

Most of E.M. Forster’s short stories were written before the First World War, and wild natural forces appear in other of his tales well before the novel Maurice was written, in which an escape to the countryside and a more pagan-inspired freedom accompany an acknowledgement of a homosexual relationship across social class, a relationship initially resembling that nascent attraction between Eustace and the young waiter, Gennaro, in ‘The Story of a Panic’.

This story is favourite of mine for its exposure of pomposity and cultural arrogance, and its celebration of the deviant energies of the god Pan amongst a stuffy hypocritical group of idle English upper class tourists. The entrance of disruptive Pan releases the creativity and individuality of Eustace, an artistic boy, misunderstood and silenced by the pompous adults around him, particularly the fallible narrator, who hates everything disruptive and other, and logs to silence Eustace completely. Forster’s work offers criticism more generally to cultural complacency, in the UK and internationally – he exposes colonial and imperial arrogance and the blinkered celebration or abhorrence of ‘foreigners’, particularly when wealthy British travellers, holidaymakers or imperial governors are in the lands of those ‘foreigners’.

In ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1911) the everyday normal is a picnic with friends and family up in a wooded glade outside Ravello. The story begins with the establishment of a fallible arrogant narrator who introduces the main character, 14-year-old Eustace, rather disparagingly, although his disparagement quickly escalates to spiteful loathing then dips back into politely coated everyday comments. To appreciate the history we need to know that Eustace later became a notable artist. This is not something the narrator would openly admit to in a positive sense. He notes: ‘Eustace’s career – if career it can be called – certainly dates from that afternoon in the chestnut woods above Ravello’ (p. 161), while he introduces himself as ‘a plain, simple man, with no pretentions to literary style’, who ‘does flatter himself’ in giving ‘an unbiased account’ (p.161) of extraordinary events. A hint of his bias lies in his description of another man, Leyland (an artist), as just plain ‘odious’.

Eustace, he declares, as ‘indescribably repellant’ (p.162), which is a bit strong as a judgement of a normal, relatively stubborn and disagreeable 14-year =-old.

‘The Story of a Panic’ (1911) has many Gothic characteristics, including the invasion of the unseen into an ostensibly calm but actually quite unpleasant picnic between family and friends in Ravello in the countryside. Lounging at the picnic, their conversations elevate the Northern at the expense of the Southern foreign ways and regret the loss of what is termed ‘the authentic.’ Leyland notes, ‘we are all hopelessly steeped in vulgarity. I do not except myself. It is through us, and to our shame, that the Nereids have left the waters and the Oreads the mountains, that the woods no longer give shelter to Pan’ (p.165) in the ‘great green church’ of the woods. Sandbach heartily agrees, ‘Pan is dead. That is why the woods do not shelter him.’ (p.165). Of course he is not. Pan is lurking in his own surroundings, waiting his chance to be recognized by Eustace.

There is already so much barely maintained facade of goodwill as embodied by a countryside picnic, and so much unpleasant directly undermining unpleasant comments about others, constant misreadings of others’ intentions and their value and their social worth that something perhaps was bound to act as a catalyst and bring all this to the surface, and this is what the intrusion of the god Pan does. However it, he, does much more than disrupt because we recognize he also represents an embodiment of nature in all its diversity and richness, its hidden as well as its poetically celebrated sides, and for Eustace, Pan’s visit releases both his desire for nature and the freedom of the life of the outdoors, of the woods, his artistic nature and his repressed homosexual desire. This all breaks into or out of the conformity of this upper middle class group with its conversations on public schools. In response to the comments about Pan, one of the women randomly declares she wished she knew ancient history. A momentary, self-satisfied, pompous calm ensues until the narrator’s cigar suddenly goes out and Eustace’s very shrill (home-made) whistle breaks the silence. Instantly, chaos enters this ostensible calm and ‘a fanciful fear of foreboding’ (p.167) overcomes the narrator, developing into a ‘blank expressionless fear’ (p.167) on the faces of the others then, driven first by a spiritual fear, next a ‘brutal overmastering physical fear’(p.167) they run and scatter, leaving Eustace behind.

This disruption, this powerful intrusion of the forces of nature in the form of the sudden wind, causes everyone, except young Eustace, to lose their composure, split up, scatter, lose their way, and when they all finally return to the picnic site all is in disarray. Something else has entered this space in their absence. Goat or satyr prints appear around the picnic site, evidence of a visitation from the god Pan, spirit and owner of the countryside and forests, and of course, this particular site. This is evidence of natural disruption, as it happens, creative disorder.

One thing that troubles the narrator is that Eustace is clearly changed. Along with the narrator, we wonder what the source is of the self-contented smirk on Eustace’s face, and next, back at the hotel, his newfound active behaviour in seeking out and embracing Gennaro, the rougher of the Italian waiters, for his special attention, having shown him none previously.

The energies of the great God Pan that break into this picnic represent other disruptive energies of alternative ways of being and thinking, of behaviour considered antisocial because being linked here with Pan, and simultaneously damaging and dark and filled with folkloric, mythic, powerful energies. We don't see Pan. All the picnickers see are his footprints, goat, satyr footprints, while his invasion disrupting the norms and the barely maintained socially acceptable interactions represents a celebration of the energetic alternatives expressed in nature in the lure of his dark alternative disruptive energies. Eustace does not tell us about the decisions which underline his sense of newly found freedom and right to behave as he wishes to, seems driven to. Eustace’s sudden outpourings of song, his glimpses of the natural, the celestial, the eternal and the numinous, are one with his joyful free embrace of Gennaro. As his own restrained homosexuality becomes freed, so do his artistic insights and abilities, much to the dismay and disgust of the narrator who senses he must suppress all of these alternative energies , lock them and so Eustace back up, for the sake perhaps of his own need for silence and order and that of the rather prim little party.

Part III starts ‘but the day was to the night’ (p.177). Something truly Gothic patters about outside:

and in the uncertain light of the stars the thing took all manner of curious shapes. Now it was a great nothing dog, now an enormous white bat, now a mass of quickly travelling cloud. It would bounce like a ball, or take short flights like a bird, or glide slowly like a wraith. It gave no sound – save the pattering sound of what after all must be human feet. (p 177)    

This recalls the shape-shifting of Dracula round his castle walls, and troubles the certainties of the worldview and any residual sense of the trustworthiness of interpretations from this rigidly, repressively prosaic narrator.

This shapeshifting creature is Eustace. He must have his freedom from a bedroom with bars and the view of a wall, and from the constraints of others’ expectations on him. Those others might see this as strange and worrying; he is, however, full of joy. He ‘began singing and chattering to himself in a most alarming way’ (p.177). Eustace is ecstatic, and after his undescribed, indescribable encounter with Pan or some natural/naturally dark, alternative spirit energy of the woods, he suddenly exhibits new talents. There is a startling revelation that he is able to sing (untunefully we are told), everything from five finger exercises to opera, and to utterly appreciate the wonders and beauties of nature of which the romantic poets write:

here was a boy with no sense of beauty and a puerile command of words, attempting to tackle themes which the greatest poets have found almost beyond their power. Eustace Robinson, aged fourteen was standing in his nightshirt saluting, cursing and blessing the great force and manifestations, of Nature. He spoke first of night and the stars and planets above his head, of the swarms of fireflies below him, of the invisible sea below the fireflies. (p.180)

He sees, senses, feels everything natural. He must be in the wild and not contained . Gennaro is bribed into bringing him back inside , the two then escape the confines of the grand house, although Gennaro dies falling on a concrete floor.

This natural disturbance, which awakes Eustace and helps him claim his artist’s identity, is frowned on by the fallible narrator, but Eustace’s future in the arts began right there, so, disapproved of or not, he has been released from pretence and hypocrisy and enabled to find his creative wider self through his unexplained encounter with the god Pan, in the woodland above Ravello.

In both tales the figure of the god Pan is one that releases energies and difference. It depends on author and narrator whether these energies of difference are seen as only dangerously disruptive or whether exactly that disruption is something which can engage creative otherness in a celebratory fashion.


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Fantasy: How It Works (2022), Brian Attebery. Oxford: Oxford University Press (208 pages)

For very many years, with scholarly precision, care and good humour , Brian Attebery edited the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, journal of the IAFA, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and this shows again in Fantasy: How It Works. This immensely readable and useful book is academically sound, well researched, wide ranging and wears its fine scholarship lightly, making the complex philosophical and critical elements involved in producing, reading and working with fantasy somehow accessible to the widest readership. One of its important characteristics is its reach.

The blurb online notes the book includes a focus on Michael Cunningham, Hans Christian Anderson, Helene Wecker, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, George MacDonald, Aliette deBodard, and Patricia Wrightson, but it also has a broader cultural, historical and generic reach with Aboriginal Australian Nike Sulway, Neil Gaiman, Ovid, Margaret Atwood, China Mieville, and work by a number of poets.

The contents begin to indicate the issues with which fantasy deals, its extensive range, its imaginative and practical engagement with ideas, problems, issues, possibilities, the important work it does .

Contents
Introduction: Speaking of Fantasy
1: How Fantasy Means: The Shape of Truth
2: Realism and the Structures of Fantasy: The Family Story
3: Neighbors, Myths, and Fantasy
4: If Not Conflict, Then What? Metaphors for Narrative Interest
5: A Mitochondrial Theory of Literature: Fantasy and Intertextuality
6: Young Adult Dystopias and Yin Adult Utopias
7: Gender and Fantasy: Employing Fairy Tales
8: The Politics of Fantasy
9: Timor mortis conturbat me: Fear and Fantasy
Conclusion: How Fantasy Means and What It Does: Some Propositions

A leader in the study of fantasy and science fiction and a university teacher and editor, Brian Attebury excels in making his work on this long-lived, wide-ranging genre both underpinned by impeccable scholarship and highly entertaining and readable. This is fair treatment for a genre which we enjoy as fans and which also leads us into thinking seriously about what is threatened and troubling, what is of value in the world, and in our lives, i.e. what matters. Fantasy, we find, works in form through everything from philosophy and magic, worldbuilding to serious sense making, encouraging action. It works and it matters.

The Introduction emphasises how fantasy engages with questions and challenges in different times and places ‘Fantasy in any era presents some of the same challenges: to go outside conventional notions of the real, to trace connections that evade commonsense thought, and to tell lies that ring true’ (p.1). It poses the essential question about fantasy and its relation to out lives, ‘How does fantasy mean?’. which I interpret as how a genre which relies on worldbuilding and storytelling, grounded in realities but stretching into the realms of the fantastic. fundamentally, imaginatively and ultimately then practically engages with the most serious issues in life (and death) in the world – socially, culturally, personally. The genre is as broad as work in fairytale, myth, the occult, science fiction, utopias , and dystopian fictions such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Adolescence in particular is a time imbued with the strains of fantasy since, ‘Adolescence is all about what isn’t now but might yet be’ (p.98) (wisdom attributed apparently to Hannah Arendt). However, there is nothing merely childish about fantasy, it deals with the most serious concerns and issues, in a variety of ways. Attebery reminds us that fantasy appeals to and in its different forms gives a voice to historically different, culturally diverse people with different worldviews and issues from the start of the first myths and fables onwards, while revealing, emphasising the very adult seriousness of the issues. One example he deals with is the focus on gender, power, misuse of power in gender relations, the position of women and so ways in which stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the tale of Philomela in particular) reveal ‘the link between silencing and sexual violence’, taking this through to Ursula K. Le Guin’s overt embracing of feminist principles in her work Tehanu (1990) and beyond.

Internationally, fans, students, established and new, and academics will all find a great deal of accessibly written and thoroughly researched , useful, entertaining work in this lovely book, Fantasy: How It Works by Brian Attebery.

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Monstrous Things: Essays on Ghosts, Vampires, and Things That Go Bump in the Night (2023), Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (243 pages)

Jeffrey Weinstock is no stranger to monsters, in fact his wonderful, impeccably researched books preceding Monstrous Things, e.g. The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary Monsters (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014) have introduced us to a range of monsters, some of which we might never have heard of before, including one of my favourites, Donestre, a monster who inhabits places of travel and crossings, preying on unwary travellers.

A love of horror, the Gothic, monsters, often starts when young, and both colours and helps manage one’s varied life experiences (not merely entertainment and escapism, at least not that alone, rather, imaginative entries into understanding, reflecting on, making sense of, coping with self, others, the world, including the darker sides of all of these). In this short review, I partly want to recognise the importance of what Jeffrey Weinstock does himself in the introduction, and throughout this collection of pre-published, and/or revisited and some newer work, and that is to relate his lifetime enjoyment and engagement with many forms of horror. This starts for Jeffrey Weinstock particularly with the ghost story, but also with some Disney rides, with the Ghostbusters films, among many others, and with the writers (e.g. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), film-makers, critics (Brian Attebery) and editors who have influenced his own fascination, scholarship and teaching .

Following the Introduction: ‘Monstrous Musings’, the book is organised into three ‘Acts’, conceived in this collection as ‘a kind of anthology horror film—not as campy as one might wish for perhaps, but nevertheless telling tales of ghosts, vampires, and monsters in three segments linked by some thin connective tissue’ (p.1). Garnering examples and information from readily available sources such as the It franchise, he also sources from out of print books and journals and from expensive works, which most readers and lovers of the monstrous are unlikely to know of or be able to access. The first Act is on ghosts, where Jeffrey Weinstock’s established scholarship on American ghost stories in particular (Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Paperback reissue spring 2016; Spectral America: Phantoms and the American Imagination. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) is further developed and shared. The next on vampires and the third on a range of monsters with or without name and generic form (a familiar even required element of many monsters – their indeterminate, semi-recognisable form being part of the horror), with particular focus on Stephen King’s repeatedly revisited It.

Act I: Ghosts: The American Ghost Story; Introduction: The Spectral Turn; Doing Justice to Bartleby; Ten Minutes for Seven Letters: Reading Beloved’s Epitaph.

Act II: Vampires: American Vampires; The Vampire Cinema; Circumcising Dracula; Vampire Suicide;

Act III: Monsters: American Monsters ; Introduction: A Genealogy of Monster Theory; Invisible Monsters: Vision, Horror, and Contemporary Culture; What Is IT? Ambient Dread and Modern Paranoia in It (2017), It Follows (2014), and It Comes at Night (2017).

In introducing the work on ghost stories and ‘elaborating the relationship of the ghost to questions of ethics’), Jeffrey Weinstock emphasises the social engagement of the genre, its relationship to desire, death, loss and justice. He notes that ‘Ghosts are also extremely helpful when it comes to illustrating the premise that our monsters reflect human anxieties and desires ... The immediate encounter with the ghost is frightening because ghosts violate rationalist understandings of the world and, neither fully alive nor dead, are exemplary of what Cohen calls “category crisis” (see Cohen, 6–7). Ghosts, however, also are very much figures of desire, reflecting deep-seated longings to believe that consciousness doesn’t wink out of existence at the moment of death, that justice will not be thwarted, that lost things can be recovered’ (pp.7-8).

In this ‘Act’ his work introduces us to historical literary ghosts and to ghosts in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. The early piece on Toni Morrison’s Beloved necessarily engages with the darker sides of American history of transatlantic, plantation slavery, and points out that: ‘The immense question Beloved as ghost of slavery poses is how to grapple with profound historical trauma—trauma that continues to be felt but that can never be known fully—while retaining hope for a future’ (p.17). The essay itself emphasises mourning, loss, and coming to terms with these without forgetting, so that one might live (p.67).

One of the works mentioned in Act II is the ‘Circumcising Dracula’ essay, which is very early as a recognition of the anti-semitic strain (beyond a terror of all strange foreigners) in Bram Stoker’s novel of 1897.

Act III offers an eclectic exploration of many significant strands in horror. In one part it brings together fear of scientific and technological engineering with human and other life forms, and a fear of monstrous creatures being unleashed on their makers (and the rest of us). As my own lifetime love of horror began with the film of Jules Verne’s 19th century 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and then The Fly (the film), I note in particular the comments on ‘genetic engineering. The classic version …. the 1957 short story “The Fly,” by George Langelaan, about a scientist whose DNA mixes together with that of a fly resulting in a monstrous hybrid. This anxiety concerning monsters created as a consequence of unethical or ill-advised scientific experimentation is also at the center of the Jurassic Park franchise’ (p.151).

A section that can bring together Beowulf and the figure of Grendel, with It as a version of ‘contemporary paranoia’ (p.218), a range of sci-fi monsters and mad scientists, manages what few other pieces of inspired critical writing can. It indicates the wide ranging versions of what is monstrous and what is socially, culturally, personally illuminating about our monsters and our need for them. It expresses the long lasting cultural and personal influences of such monsters, and emphasises the creative ability to bring them into shape, often in order to face, cope with and move carefully beyond (or live with) them.

This is a well researched, well written and important book. It is also really enjoyable (if, like many of us, you like monsters…).


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