Becoming

Only the Lover Sings cover

For my birthday, my wife got me Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German philosopher who lived from 1907 to 1994, according to Wikipedia. This particular book contains meditations on art, work, and leisure. I love this book and I think I will revisit it often. I have found many passages that resonate with me, many that cause me to pause and contemplate my life.

In his essay, “Thoughts on Music”, Pieper states that

Man is never just “there.” Man “is” insofar as he “becomes”—not only in his physical reality, in growing, maturing, and eventually diminishing toward the end. In his spiritual reality, too, man is constantly moving on—he is existentially “becoming”; he is “on the way.” For man, to “be” means to “be on the way”—he cannot be in any other form; man is intrinsically a pilgrim, “not yet arrived,” regardless of whether he is aware of this or not, whether he accepts it or not.

This resonated with me because I have been feeling stuck for quite some time. But just as our physical bodies continue to progress or diminish with each action or inaction we take, so do our minds and spiritual existence progress or diminish. There are no empty actions; no free actions. All action is movement toward something. If I feel stuck, I am still moving toward something. And perhaps, in this state, the greatest act of autonomy I have is to choose what I move toward.

I don’t always know how to do this, though. I have many dreams, but often feel like I lack a clear path. Many times in the past, I have hesitated or lingered as I wait for a path to become clear. Recently, however, I have started thinking that I am at my worst in these moments. I think I often face more depression and angst when I am not working toward something, clear path or not. I sometimes think I need to constantly strive for something; to not strive is to despair. I can always choose to change, to re-align the path, but if I linger, I become rooted to a location. I can suffer through inaction or suffer through uncertain action. But only in one of these do I exert control over an outcome.

Put another way, it’s easier to steer a moving boat or car.

This realization is sometimes hard to hold. In my despair, I become frozen or paralyzed. I sometimes don’t see the point of moving. I forget that I am supposed to move or forget that I am trying to move. And so, I am grateful to Pieper for the reminder that even in paralysis, I am still becoming.

 

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The Long Walk as Allegory

Line of soldiers walking.
(Source: AP)

“It was nine o’clock. they had been on the road twelve hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.”

Frank Darabont has a fascinating interpretation of The Long Walk.

According to a 2007 interview with the writer/director whose best-known Stephen King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Long Walk is a war allegory:

“To me, it’s an existential metaphor for our mindless obsession with war — kids being sent off to die for no reason other than ‘just because.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King wrote it in the shadow of Vietnam, though we’ve never really discussed that part of it, that’s just my interpretation.”

I’m inclined to agree with his interpretation. The Long Walk involves young men being promised the glory of The Prize, essentially a better life and all their dreams come true, if they survive The Walk. Very few of the boys have any real indication of what they have agreed to do, and the horrors of The Walk become apparent as time drags on. The conversations the boys have are similar to what you would see in war movies as soldiers contemplate the meaning of war, life, and love. All the while, the Major urges them on and the spectators cheer for them, protected by their barrier of comfort. Many spectators wave flags or are dressed in patriotic colors. One farming couple is directly compared to the “American Gothic” painting. As he starts out, Garraty passionately kisses a female spectator (taking a warning for doing so), which conjured images of the V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse.

But in the midst of The Walk, strength isn’t found in The Prize; strength is found in life and memories and camaraderie. Unfortunately, since only one person can win The Prize, even camaraderie is suspect. You don’t want to get too close to your fellow Walkers if they are soon going to die.

My Favorite H.P. Lovecraft Stories: A Top Ten

A photo of H.P. Lovecraft
Source: WikiCommons.

For nearly two years I have been reading through a copy of H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. I completed it this month, and decided to share my ten favorite stories from the book. There were others that I enjoyed (“From Beyond,” “Herbert West—Reanimator,” “The Picture in the House,” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but they didn’t quite make the top ten cut. I tried to limit my list to stories that I would be likely to read again for fun.

  1. At the Mountains of Madness – Hailed as Lovecraft’s most successful novel, At the Mountains of Madness is gripping and chilling in some places, slow and dull in others. But the scope and ambition are admirable. This story lays out a history of some of Lovecraft’s mythology, all in the guise of arctic exploration gone wrong. I confess this is not my favorite of Lovecraft’s works, but the exploration of the Old Ones is interesting. The arctic horror is awesome!
  2. The Cats of Ulthar” – Lovecraft loved cats, and this story illustrates why you should always treat cats with respect. This story is perfect for a Halloween reading or recitation. It is simple, concise, and it reads like a fairy tale.
  3. The Colour Out of Space” – This story relates the horrific aftermath of a meteorite crash in the backwoods of Arkham, MA. This may well be Lovecraft’s best story. It is clear, concise, and incredibly creepy. I don’t scare easily (when reading, anyway), but this story did it. I remember sitting on the couch at one in the morning, desperately trying to reach the end because if I didn’t finish the story, the cosmic horror could transcend the story and emerge in my house.
  4. The Call of Cthulhu” – This is Lovecraft’s best-known story. Many of the themes and ideas that Lovecraft flirted with during his early career brilliantly come together here.
  5. The Festival” – There is something about the tone and atmosphere of this story that I find fascinating. The story takes place during the Christmas season, and I think that is what works for me. Christmas is frequently portrayed as a magical time; why wouldn’t it be magically horrible as well? What better time than Christmas to learn about the dark legacy of your family?
  6. The Music of Erich Zann” – After “The Colour Out of Space,” this is one of Lovecraft’s more accessible stories. I love the idea of forgotten streets taking someone to hidden parts of a town. I love that music can act as a conduit to the otherworldly. This story is a lot of fun.
  7. Pickman’s Model” – Like “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Pickman’s Model” is a story that is accessible to a general readership. It is creepy and plotted well. In fact, I would say Neil Gaiman’s A Short Film About John Bolton takes inspiration from this story.
  8. The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – Another genuinely creepy story, this novella follows Robert Olmstead, who is looking up genealogical data. He decides to visit Innsmouth, a town that many people in New England tell him to avoid. It is a dying town. If you’ve enjoyed the Silent Hill games, or Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” you will enjoy this story.
  9. The Temple” – One of Lovecraft’s best early stories. A World War I lieutenant-commander on a German sub slowly descends into madness as his crew encounters mysterious nightmares and visions.
  10. The Whisperer in Darkness” – This is my absolute favorite story by H.P. Lovecraft. I prefer it to “The Colour Out of Space.” It follows Albert Wilmarth as he corresponds with Henry Akeley, a man who believes extraterrestrial creatures live in the woods around his cabin. As Akeley begins to collect evidence, which he sends to Wilmarth, the aliens begin to harass him. The story is somewhat predictable, although it doesn’t quite work out the way you expect, but the atmosphere and tension is masterfully conveyed. After reading through this story, I coincidentally began listening to Role Playing Public Radio’s actual play of “Convergence,” a Delta Green scenario which features the aliens from “Whisperer.” I highly recommend both.

Now that I have finished Lovecraft’s fiction (well, the non-collaborative fiction), I’m trying to decide which weird fiction/supernatural horror writer to read next. I’ve already read The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers. Ideally, I would like to start on Clark Ashton Smith, but the collected works series I want is a bit pricey. I may read Poe since I already have a complete collection.

But I am always open to more suggestions. I’ve enjoyed Lovecraft. Who else should I check out in the weird tradition?

H.P. Lovecraft – My Favorites so Far

Photo of H. P. Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Source: WikiCommons. Public Domain.)

For about a year now I have been reading through a copy of H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. As you would imagine, this is an omnibus that collects most of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction; it excludes collaborative works. This is the first time I have read through the man’s work, and I am, for the most part, enjoying it a great deal. Lovecraft had a wonderful imagination, not to mention, at times, a gruesome one.

Being halfway through the stories, I thought I would look back over a few of my favorites. Lovecraft was prolific, but I wouldn’t classify everything he wrote as enjoyable. These are just a few of the stories I have enjoyed from the first half of his career.

 

  • The Statement of Randolph Carter – Randolph Carter gives testimony regarding his friend Harley Warren. Warren had some interesting theories regarding human decomposition, and he decided to engage in a bit of grave robbing to test these theories. As you can imagine, things go horribly wrong.
  • The Terrible Old Man – A group of young thugs decide to rob the home of a mysterious old man. Unfortunately for them, they were unaware of the rumors surrounding the old man, rumors which prompted the townsfolk to avoid him.
  • The Cats of Ulthar– When a “caravan of strange wanderers” comes to town, a horrid old couple take an interest in one of the strangers’ cats. Things don’t go well for the cat. Soon after, things really don’t go well for the old couple.
  • The Temple– A routine u-boat patrol grows mysterious as one-by-one the crew begin fear they are being watched by something in the ocean. The Lieutenant-Commander does his best to maintain order, but the u-boat soon loses power and begins to sink toward the ocean floor.
  • From Beyond– Metaphysical researcher Crawford Tillinghast has proven the theories that caused his peers and friends to laugh at him: the world is filled with creatures beyond our sight; they float around us and through us.
  • Celephais – In this incredible story which captured my imagination, a man returns in his dreams, night after night, to a wonderful, magical kingdom. Unfortunately, as he grows older, he finds his dreams return to this land less and less. He decides to return again, no matter what the cost.
  • The Picture in the House! – In this darkly hilarious story, a researcher looks for refuge for the night in a house whose owner has a dark secret which was inspired by a horrific book.
  • The Nameless City – An archaeologist finds ruins in a Middle Eastern desert. A mysterious wind leads him to an underground passage filled with ethereal horrors.
  • The Outsider – After what seems like countless ages of imprisonment, a man finds his way out of a deserted castle and tries to find signs of human life.
  • The Music of Erich Zann – This is possibly my favorite story of Lovecraft’s early work, and it is every bit as wonderful as The Temple. The narrator recounts a time when he lived on a street that he can now no longer find, and of the mysterious Erich Zann, whose strange music seems to have an otherworldly audience.
  • Herbert West: Reanimator – While not the best story of Lovecraft’s career (but certainly not the worst), I love this story because of its understated dark humor. This is Lovecraft’s take on Frankenstein.
  • The Rats in the Wall – One of Lovecraft’s more thematically disturbing works, this story has one of Lovecraft’s recurring tropes: the last of a line learning the dark secret of his family.
  • In the Vault – This is one of Lovecraft’s more conventional ghost stories. It deals with vengeance from beyond the grave, albeit with a darkly comic reveal at the end of the story.

 

There are many others that I enjoyed, but these are the standouts so far. This weekend I will be hitting a milestone: I will finally read Call of Cthulhu. My expectations for this story are fairly high.

2011 Book Review Part 3

It wasn’t my intention to group similar books together, but it seems to have worked out that way.  Thus, this will be the comic post because I read quite a few graphic novel collections this year.

Alan Moore is one of the most highly-respected writers in the comic medium.  He has also gained an infamous reputation for slagging off virtually everything in the comic industry that isn’t his.  And whether or not you agree with is criticism of the modern comic industry, there is no accusing the man of being a hack.  Alan Moore has done much to influence the comic industry and propel it beyond escapism into postmodernism and philosophical territory.  This year I read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the first time.  Of all his work that I have read (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, and that Green Lantern story that has fueled most of Geoff John’s run), League may well be the most fun.  I enjoy the concepts of British Victorian Adventurers forming a secret league to fight evil, specifically evil that threatens the British Empire.  Not only was the first collection a fun read, it has made me curious about the other characters that I have not read, from Fu Manchu to H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon.  I also can’t help but wonder if Moore was influenced by Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Family, or if he came up with this similar but distinct idea on his own.  Regardless, linking together these similar examples of adventurers is a fascinating exercise and the world Moore created is a fun conceptual playground.  His use of the Invisible Man is a bit disturbing, however.

Spurred on by the premiere of Once Upon a Time, I decided to revisit a series with a similar concept.  Bill Willingham’s Fables comics series by Vertigo likewise deals with fairy tale characters in our world, but that is where the similarity ends.  While the characters in Once Upon a Time have forgotten their pasts due to the curse enacted by The Evil Queen, Fables shows a group of exiles forced out of their homeland by a mysterious adversary who has been conquering the fable world.  The collections Legends in Exile and Animal Farm set up the two primary mundane world locations, the Fabletown ghetto in New York City and The Farm in rural upstate New York.  The city location houses the human fables, The Farm houses the non-humans.  These two collections lay the groundwork for the series.  It is quite imaginative and a lot of fun.  The first collection reads a bit like a television pilot.  It is the weaker of the two.  Animal Farm, however, finds its footing quickly as Snow White and her sister Rose Red must put down a rebellion led by the Three Little Pigs.  Animal Farm also introduces regular series artist Mark Buckingham, who is just brilliant.  If you don’t like the typical comic art cliches of men with six-pack abs and women with busts larger than their heads, Buckingham is your artist.  His characters look realistic and are realistically proportioned.  A warning, however: As Fables is a part of the Vertigo imprint, it is meant for mature readers.

The most-represented author on my reading list for 2011 was Grant Morrison.  I read six of his books this year.  You can probably tell I am a fan.  For Christmas I got the first volume of New X-Men: The Ultimate Collection.  In this title, Grant Morrison turns his deconstructionist eye to Marvel’s X-Men and attempts to re-imagine them for the new millennium.  Not all readers enjoyed what he did, but I feel he breathed new life into characters that were growing stale and uninteresting.  It seems that The X-Men were not developing beyond their 1980s archetype portrayal, and Morrison was not satisfied with this.  He changed their costumes.  He shook up Scott and Jean’s marriage.  He introduced a score of new mutants who couldn’t possibly pass as human.  And he introduced the idea that humanity was dying out, slowly being replaced by homo-superior and that a new race was evolving from homo-superior, one that would be more powerful than the mutants that humanity feared.  There is a wealth of interesting concepts here.  But with Grant Morrison, there always is.

The second Morrison book was volume two of his run on Animal Man.  It is a bit hard to review this work as I haven’t read volume one.  I found this one in a used book shop and bought it for fear of it not being there on the next visit.  Animal Man was one of the works that catapulted Morrison to stardom and it is well written.  The central concept seems to be about comic characters becoming self-aware as their Silver Age past is re-written for the darker modern era.  Suddenly faced with two sets of memories, sentience starts to dawn.  I’m eager to finish this series one day.

Finally, we have Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, all four volumes of which were a birthday gift.  Outside of his work on Batman, this may be my favorite Grant Morrison project.  He revives the long defunct Seven Soldiers team by bringing together seven very different, some forgotten, heroes to fight a race f ofuturistic insectoid scavengers known as the Sheeda.  The Sheeda ravage the earth every few millennia to supply their own society with technology and sustenance.  Then they allow humanity to rebuild for the next harrowing.  The four volumes were collections of seven miniseries with bookends and the pieces of the plot were scattered across the various books, often given out of order.  This is a series that rewards multiple readings.  Each hero encounters his or her own pieces of the puzzle and no more.  The reader must do the work of putting everything together in the end.  Each hero is even ignorant of his or her own place in the team as the Sheeda attack any gathering of seven for fear of the prophecy that would usher in their destruction.  Thus, the Seven Soldiers of the title are working as individuals with no knowledge of one another, their actions guided by a mysterious group of men that exist just outside of reality.  I’ve given away enough of the plot, but there is so much more that I haven’t even touched.  If you enjoy high-concept fiction and don’t mind putting effort into piecing together complicated plots, you will probably enjoy this series.

2011 Novels in Review, Part 1

A few years ago, while in a particularly sadistic mood, I resolved to read 52 books a year.  For the first two years, I succeeded in this.  Every year since then, however, has been marked by failure to meet this goal.  For 2011, however, I decided that it would be better to have a more realistic goal for my current place in life.  So, I counted up the books read in 2010 and added 20% to that total.  Twenty-percent seemed like a decent amount of growth to me.  Thus, my 2011 goal was to read 28 books.

For the final blog posts of the year, I want to look back over the year of books and see what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I learned (if anything).

Source: Wikipedia

We will start by going back to January.  Snow was on the ground and I was lamenting my lack of boots.  I had the day off work due to the snow so I was able to progress through The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.  This was a novel that couldn’t have had a setting that stood in greater contrast to Missouri.  The book took place in Los Angeles during the summer and had a brief interlude in Mexico.  The story concerned the investigation of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder over the course of the late-1940s. I was brought to this book because of a film-noir kick that I was (and still am) on.  I had watched the Brian De Palma adaptation and felt that the film had an interesting story at its core but was poorly told.  The novel was much better and the themes of obsession that hounded the main characters were much easier to see and believe in the book.  The book was compelling and well-written, but the content was quite disturbing.  Truth be told, given the details of the Elizabeth Short murder, there would be no way to tell this story without disturbing content.  Suffice it to say, this is not a light read.  But it is an excellent example of the neo-noir genre.

Source: Wikipedia

A second noir entry from this year was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had heard some of the old Philip Marlowe radio episodes with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr but this was the first of the Marlowe novels I had read.  The prose was quite enthralling.  Marlowe is a great narrator and his observations are witty and sarcastic.  This book was definitely genre-defining as I could see many of the influences in later films and novels traced back to here.  The mystery, one of blackmail and later murder, is compelling and it works.  There are very few leaps of logic for this story.  I was also amazed at how Chandler wrapped up some peripheral mysteries along the way.  The red herrings weren’t as unrelated as we had been led to believe.  Excellent stuff.  Also of note is the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that aired early this year.  It condensed the storyline into an hour and a half drama without skimping too much.

Source: Wikipedia

A third noir novel was The City and The City by China Mieville.  What made this novel unique, and one of my favorites of the year, was the ambiguity of whether or not this story was strictly realistic or a fantasy.  I reviewed the novel in more detail here, but for brevity’s sake, I thought it was a well-crafted murder mystery with some amazing philosophical depth that could be used to analyze just about any culture that has things it wants to ignore.  The two cities of the novel overlap, either topographically or dimensionally, and must “unsee” one another or risk invoking breach.  In truth, the potential sci-fi elements of the novel can be completely ignored and it can be enjoyed as a murder mystery involving a politically inconvenient investigation.  This was my first time to read Mieville and it will not be my last.

Source: Wikipedia

For quite some time the bookshop where I worked would store overstock books in the employee restroom.  The temptation to read on the toilet was quite strong.  It’s only fair, I feel, as many of my co-workers play on their cellphones or text in the bathroom, what is the problem with me reading, so long as I don’t take too much time.  Besides, sometimes the bowel movements are not very cooperative.  Anyway, over the course of 2011, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room two or three pages at a time.  While it was amusing in many places, I can’t say it was a book I would purchase.  I truly want to enjoy the series, especially given the dark humor, but having now read the first two books, I find the series somewhat underwhelming.  I contemplated reading the third book, but when I saw Count Olaf returned for the third time, I started fearing the series would grow formulaic.  I may return to it some day when my “to read” piles have seen more progress.

Source: Stephen Lawhead's website

Sadly, another underwhelming book was Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  It started from an interesting premise, basically that reading the ley lines could transport people to alternate realms of existence, other times and places.  Honestly, it seemed a bit Doctor Who to me, and that is a good thing.  But as I read, I didn’t find the main character very engaging and found the sub-plot about his girlfriend starting a coffee shop in medieval Prague the most interesting part of the novel.  With all the action, adventure, and mystery of the novel, and I gravitate toward the food service sub-plot.  The must be something wrong with me.  I truly want to like this series, but at the moment, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m putting it on the back burner.  I love many of Lawhead’s Celtic books.  His retelling of the Robin Hood mythology as Welsh history was particularly engaging.  But with The Skin Map, I almost felt as if his writing style had been simplified.  Perhaps he wanted to make the book more accessible to those reading him for the first time.  Perhaps the shift was unconscious.  Regardless, I felt that, while the concept was great, the execution lacked something.

I think this is enough for part one.  Look forward to part two soon.