Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dark Muses I: The undercurrent of "Art" in Weird literature

Note this is Part 1 of 2, the second being: Dark Muses II: Creative Forces Driving Science and Art

Muses lead us to produce art that conveys beauty; but what is 'beautiful' in weird art?   Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft wrote many letters to each other discussing their weird works and their place in literature.  Like Poe, they also published topical essays on the role of the weird in literature.  Composing alone and exploring the dark still allows for the need to commune and share.  These artists had a passionate desire to uphold and employ literary styles; short stories and poems were their primary medium; not the novel or trilogy productions that predominate today.

Over the decades, many of these letters were published in periodicals and books, and they are generally still accessible today via reprints and used booksellers.  By seeking guidance on composing this weird work, I found solace (and challenges posed) by investigating how these 'weird' fantasy writers mused about Death (Soul) , Beauty (Muses), and Alchemy (Science).  I include a section on Edgar Allen Poe, who inspired and preceded the others.  As with Howard, their personal philosophies are visibly demonstrated in their fictional work.  Their quotes reveal the goals, credibility, and character of weird writing.

Harry Clarke - Masque of Red Death
In his 1846 essay Philosophy of Composition (available on-line), Poe reminds us, that as artists, we must do more than imitate.  We must uniquely evoke emotion in our souls:
Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.' i
The notion that the soul is best tapped via the senses is rampant in alchemical history, as Leonardo Da Vinci's notes on becoming a painter are often quoted, "The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature."   But is this path via our senses one that the soul can reversibly traverse?  Poe addressed this notion his 1842 short story Oval Portrait, as a soul is literally drawn out of a subject and transported into a portrait, killing the former:
Turning to the number in which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow: "She was the maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee.  And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter.  He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the palette and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. ii
Weird literature appears obsessed with this goal of transmuting intangible spirits into objects of art.  In a letter to pulp fiction writer E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft succinctly defined the nature and purpose of the weird artist/writer in terms all too similar to that of alchemist vocabulary:
The genuine artist in the weird is trying to crystallize in at least semi-tangible form one of several typical and indefinite moods unquestionably natural to human beings, and in some individuals very profound, permanent, and intense...moods involving the habitual lure and terror and imagination-stirring qualities of the unknown or half-known, the burning curiosity of the active mind concerning the fathomless abysses of inaccessible space which press in on us from every side, and the instinctive revolt of the restless ego against the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law.  When a writer succeeds in translating these nebulous urges into symbols which in some way satisfy the imagination-symbols which adroitly suggest actual glimpses into forbidden dimensions, actual happenings following the myth-patterns of human fancy, actual voyages of thought or body into the nameless deeps of tantalizing space, and actual evasions, frustrations, or violations of the commonly accepted laws of the cosmos-then he is a true artist in every sense of the word.  He has produced genuine literature by accomplishing a sincere emotional catharsis.iii
In other words, the goal of the weird writer is to transmute the ineffable into a digestible symbol for the curious to consume, even if it scares them!  Lovecraft wrote an essay on how to write weird fiction called simply Notes On Writing Weird Fiction (available on-line), in which he also reveals his motivations (this was published post humorously and is now readily available on the internet):
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best-one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear.iv
 
Goya's Saturn Devouring Son
In line with making fantasy real, he posits his real beliefs within his fiction! Hence he holds his fictional artists to outlandish criteria and immerses them in absolute terrible circumstances. Below, the narrator from Pickman's Model (1927) reflects Lovecraft's literary opinions:
 "You know it takes profound art and profound insight to turn out stuff like Pickman's.  Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witch's Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true.  That's because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear - the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness" v

"You know, in ordinary art, there's all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule.  Well, I should say the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in." vi
Likewise, Howard funneled his views of weird art though his characters.  For instance, in The House in the Oaks (a story posthumously finished by August Derleth). Howard uses the artist Humphrey Skyler to speak on his behalf (this section was written by Howard):
The effect of horror is best gained when the sensation is most intangible.  To put the horror in visible shape, no matter how gibbous or mistily, is to lessen the effect.  I paint an ordinary tumble-down farmhouse with the hint of a ghastly face at a window; but this house-this house-needs no such mummery or charlatanry; it exudes an aura of abnormality-that is, to a man sensitive to such impression.vii
 In fact his contemporary Clark Ashton Smith (1893- 1961) agreed.  Of these authors, Smith was the most eclectic in craft, being also an illustrator, sculptor and poet.  In an October 24th 1930 letter to Lovecraft he described his strategy of using aesthetics to heighten the reading experience of his weird works: 
My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation. You attain a black magic, perhaps unconsciously, in your pursuit of corroborative detail and verisimilitude. But I fear that I don't always attain verisimilitude in my pursuit of magic! However, I sometimes suspect that the wholly unconscious elements in writing (or other art) are by far the most important viii

Smith's Genuis Loci
In his 1948 story Genius Loci, an artist, Amberville, turns mad when he paints a landscape that happens to embody the effigy of the land's deceased owner, Chapman.  Here Amberville's art is described by the narrator to have captured the evil soul of the landscape:
I examined the drawings attentively.  Both, though of hurried execution, were highly meritorious, and showed the characteristic grace and vigour of Amberville's style.  And yet, even at first glance, I found a quality that was more alien to the spirit of his work.  The elements of the scene were those he had described. In one picture, the pool was half hidden by a fringe of mace-weeds, and the dead willow was leaning across it at a prone, despondent angle, as if mysteriously arrested in its fall towards the stagnant waters.  Beyond, the alders seemed to strain away from the pool, exposing their knotted roots as if in eternal effort.  In the other drawing, the pool formed the main portion of the foreground, with the skeleton tree looming drearily at one side.  At the water's farther end, the cat-tails seemed to wave and whisper among themselves in a dying wind; and the steeply barring slope of pine at the meadow's terminus was indicated as a wall of gloomy green that closed in the picture, leaving only a pale of autumnal sky at the top. ix
From Clark Ashton Smith's awesomely dark Zothique yarns, he overtly expressed his personal views as poetically.  In his 1934 short story The Weaver in the Vault, his character Grotara is last surviving of a three member party commissioned to explore distant ruins to retrieve the remains of a mummy; below, Grotora dies by the evil, but beautiful, force of the aesthetic Weaver:
He could not tell the duration of the weaving, the term of his enthrallment.  Dimly, at last, he beheld the thinning of the luminous threads, the retraction of the trembling arabesques.  The globe, a thing of evil beauty, alive and aware in some holocryptic fashion, had risen now from the empty armor of Yanur.  Diminishing to its former size, and putting off its colors of blood and opal, it hung for a little while above the chasm...After that, there were ages of fever, thirst and madness, of torment and slumber, and recurrent struggling against the massive block that held him prisoner.  He babbled insanely, he howled like a wolf; or, lying supine and silent, he heard the multitudinous, muttering voices of ghouls that conspired against him.  Gangrening swiftly, his crushed extremities seemed to throb like those of a Titan.  He drew his sword with the strength of delirium, and endeavored to saw himself free at the shins, only to swoon from loss of blood. x
Edgar Allen Poe (1809 - 1849) subscribed to evoking melancholy to stimulate 'Beauty'; this instead of fear.  In his 1846 Philosophy of Composition, Poe revealed his views on experiential beauty by detailing the deliberate construction of his poem The Raven:
Regarding then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation-and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness.  Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.  Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones... xi
However, any excited emotion in the reader might also signify a successful piece of beauty; even if fear is secondary to melancholy.   Poe indicates this in his "The Masque of the Red Death" in which he describes the architecture plan of a seven roomed palace, hermetically sealed from a plagued town, each room decorated like a splotch of oil paint upon an artist's palette.  This story affected me greatly as I designed the Red Shade.  Poe's gothic writing is so fluid as to be more poem than prose, more painting than poem, and he confidently marks the point when he succeeds in making the guests tremble.  As the strangely masked, unknown visitor interrupted the party:
...there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise-then, finally, of terror, of horror, and disgust.  In an assembly of the phantasms such I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation... xii
i Poe, E. A. (1956). The Philosophy of Composition, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge.  p452-464
ii Poe, E. A. (1956). The Oval Portrait, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge. p171
iii Schultz, D. E. (1991). An Epicure in the Terrible : A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft (Hardcover). Madison, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (July 1991) p 216
iv Lovecraft, H. P. (1937). Notes On Writing Weird Fiction. Amateur Correspondent
v Lovecraft, H. P. (1927). Pickman's Model. Weird Tales.
vi Lovecraft, H. P. (1927). Pickman's Model. Weird Tales.
vii Howard, R. E. (2001). The House In The Oaks, Nameless Cults. Oakland, CA, Chaosim Publications. P168. 
viii Behrends, S. E. (1987). Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft West Warwick, RI, Necronomicon Press.
ix Smith, C. A. (1948). Genius Loci and Other Tales, Arkham House.
x Smith, C. A. (1995). Weaver in the Vault, Tales of Zothique. West Warrick, RI, Necronomicon Press. p86.
xi Poe, E. A. (1956). The Philosophy of Composition, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge, p452-464
xii  Poe, E. A. (1956). The Masque of the Red Death, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge.  p174
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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Creepy Microscopy: Animated Myelins and Tentacle Stick Figures

Always on the lookout for spooky textures detected with a microscope or revealed in my kids' drawings, I have been enthralled and terrified to watch soap dissolve.  To be scared like me, you'll need to read lots of Lovecraftian horror stories...then use a microscope to monitor soap hydration.  Obviously, there are limited folks who'll fit that call to order, so below may suffice:

Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) is really cool method that reveals ordered structures within microstructures like nylon fibers, mineral grains, and wet soap. [For gearheads wanting to learn more, check out the interactive (Flash and Java) Tutorials at Florida State's Microscopy University and the separate primer on using PLM to study cystals: Birefringent Crystals].

  

Ref-1 Hydrating Soap

Fran Rosevear (1912-2010) was a Procter & Gamble phase chemist and microscopist who authored seminal papers of PLM for characterizing surfactants (soap) as they hydrate (get wet).  The tentacle like structures in the "Neat" phase are bilayer tubes (see images).  If you watch water enter dry soap, you can witness these structures form; Rosevear called the analogous, equilibrated structure "oily streaks".


Myelins are flexible crystals, laminated tubes of the same oily streak structure described by Rosevear.  Watching them be born is a real hoot.  They emerge like wiggling snakes as water works it's way into concetrated surfactant.
Ref-2 Oily Streaks

Here are some myelins I witnessed form using Differential Interferrence Contrast  microscopy (a form of PLM).  Do these not scream "Lovecraft dreamed me into existence"?  The myelins look like swelling brain matter.  If I did not know better, I might claim they were sentient worms instead. 

 
 
Mike Cates of the University of Edinburgh and collaborators have been studying myelin formation and have some more compelling images.  This image was shared by Louisa Reissig's presentation: Myelin Formation during the Dissolution of Lamellar Phase @ the 81st ACS Colloid & Surface Science Symposium (June 24-27, 2007), Newark, DE.

Here is another image from literature, this one from nonionic systems (BH Chen, C. M., JM Walsh, PB Warren (2000 ). "Dissolution rates of pure nonionic surfactants." Langmuir.)


Okay, so I worked visions of evil tentacles into the Lords of Dyscrasia Book trailer (another post). This is the second video featured in the trailer:

These structures (and the horrors they evoke) are also affecting my creature design for my sequel to Lords of Dyscrasia.  Below, I share imagery my son drew up for me:
  
Connor's tentacled monsters - (created ~2010)  


Yes, I have been known to ask my kids to contribute to the creative process.  For completeness sake, I share some my daughter dreamed up a few years ago: 

Erin's "Blood Skeletons" (created ~2003)