Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part II

Finlay 03 Demonic Universe

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Illustrator of the Demonic Universe

[NOTE: This post is the continuation of the article — or sequence of linked essays — that begins in the post immediately preceding it. I published “Monstrous Theologies” in the mid-1990s in the journal Anthropoetics, but for this re-posting I have extensively edited and re-written it.]

III. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Sacrificial Aesthetics. “Vintage Season” (1946) – attributed to Moore’s husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner but written in fact solely by Moore – deals with the creation of a work of art by an artist of the future who visits the earth in the immediate post-World War Two years, when the story was written.  But this act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, and the work of art that stems from the event has the character of an immolatory token. In fact, because “The Vintage Season” is a time-travel story involving the usual paradox, it resists any straightforward rehearsal. The basic elements of the narrative are, nevertheless, these: Oliver Wilson owns a house that three eccentric “vacationers” who call themselves the Sanciscos want to rent; to one of them, a woman named Kleph, Wilson feels considerable attraction, and he therefore lets the house despite the fact that he might garner a windfall from it if he sold it outright to a buyer. Wilson’s fiancée Sue pesters him to renege on the deal and to sell, but Oliver refuses.  The interest in this detail lies in Moore’s opposition of the market to the Bohemian group. The group represents culture and seems to promise something superior to the bourgeois world of exchange.  Moore’s Smith regrets leaving the comforts of marriage and participation in the nomos.  Moore’s Wilson, vulnerable to the temptations of art, cult, and difference, regrets his prior immersion in what strikes him now as the tediously normative.  He is an alienated bourgeois taking the usual route of opposition to the market for the mere sake of opposition.  If resentment is the sacred, as Girard so often intimates, then Wilson’s alienation renders him particularly vulnerable to the Bohemianism of the foreigners.

The Sanciscos behave like Wildean aesthetes: “There was an elegance about the way [their] garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual”; and “the feeling of luxury which his first glance at them has evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them”; Kleph’s coiffure strikes Wilson as perfectly sculpted, “as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.”  From such behavior, Wilson infers that their depth of culture radically exceeds his own, an inference sustainable, as it turns out, in aesthetic terms only and not in any ethical sense. As in the case of the magic shawl in the Northwest Smith story, phenomenal beauty guarantees nothing about ethical acceptability. A certain type of intense beauty indeed radiates from a certain type of archaic violence, which the beauty tactically conceals. Kleph shows some reciprocal although, ultimately, only a condescending interest in Wilson, who visits her in her room one afternoon while the others are away. The foreign accouterments of Kleph’s room include a peculiar “picture of blue water” hung above her bed the marvels of which entrance Wilson. Describing Wilson’s response to this, Moore employs the language of of fascination: “The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward the shore.”  The images compel Wilson’s attention; he cannot peel his eyes from them, and they in their turn temporarily absorb and obliterate his sense of self. Smith has the same problem when he gazes too intently at the weird shawl.

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The World is Waiting for the Sunrise

The World is Waiting for the Sunrise (1918) by Lockhart and Seitz has been covered on disc, according to the Wikipedia, more than one hundred times – by Mary Ford and Les Paul, The Chris Barber Band (in New Orleans style), and Bing Crosby (in his characterless “crooning” style), among many others.  The lyrics express the post-War-to-End-Wars hope that the Allies had established a permanent peace and that the League of Nations would usher in a golden age of prosperity and security. My favorite version of Waiting for the Sunrise is the one made by radio comedian Stan Freberg from the early 1950s.  I post it (above) because Freberg’s satiric take, in the aftermath that other war, and in the early phase of the Cold War, addresses itself to a manic world coming apart at the seams. It therefore, like many things from the past, whether remote or recent, speaks to the insanity of the present moment.  Enjoy.

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What Every Little Girl Dreams of These Days

On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?

Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!

Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II)

Jegga Amazing Cover

Amazing Stories November 1943

I continue my “Anthropology of the Martian Romance.”  The previous installment dealt with the seminal Martian Romance, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and its background in the studies of East Asian shamanic practices and later of the planet Mars undertaken in the early years of the Twentieth Century by Percival Lowell.  In this second part of “Outward is Upward” I discuss a little-known but impressive addition to the Martian Romance, David Reed’s Empire of Jegga, and a late addition, Leigh Brackett’s Queen of the Martian Catacombs, later republished as The Black Amazon of Mars.  While I confine myself to a sub-sub genre of science fiction, I believe that my interpretations are applicable to mid-Twentieth Century genre across the board. I take genre seriously. Genre offers, as I put it in Part I, “a colorful promise of redemption.”

II. Epistemological Displacement in Reed’s Empire of Jegga. Burroughs’ example, no less than his success, provoked many writers to imitate him. Knock-offs of A Princess quickly became legion. Burroughs even imitated himself, launching new series of books whose action takes place on the planet Venus, on the moon, in a vast cavern at the center of the Earth, or on an extra-solar planet away across the galaxy.  In his Venus series, Burroughs might have been imitating one of his imitators, Otis Adelbert Kline (1891 – 1946), whose “Planet of Peril” trilogy, set on the next planet inward from Earth, saw serial publication in Argosy All-Story Weekly between 1929 and 1931.  The first of Burroughs’ Venusian tales, Pirates of Venus, only appeared in 1932.  Kline wrote his own Martian novels in the early 1930s.  If Kline’s romances had come back into print after many decades, as they have, it would be a case of their riding on Burroughsian coat-tails.  Kline’s prose is certainly entertaining, but it lacks the symbolic richness of Burroughs’ prose.  Now imitation is not only flattery; it is also the index of a market.  In its turn, a market is the index of a desire or need.  The desire or need arises from the subject’s proprioception of alienation or maladjustment.  In the case of maladjustment, however, the subject senses the condition not so much as his own but rather as a deforming affliction in the external social world.  That deformation is modernity, which in rejecting Tradition drastically diminishes the opportunity of proper self-placement that the archaic rites of passage facilitate.  The world of getting and spending obviously exerts on John Carter no attraction whatsoever, but Carter nevertheless seems incapable of bitterness.  Stalwartness belongs to Carter’s Percival-like character.  Nick Brewster, the protagonist of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga (Amazing Stories November 1943), presents himself at first, in contrast to Carter, as a materialist, even a hedonist, and womanizer.  Not only in its protagonist, but in the fullness of its details, Reed (1924 – 1989) appears to have conceived Empire initially as an anti-Princess of Mars, but his story is nevertheless a version, or perhaps an inversion, of Burroughs’ saga about John Carter.

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Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars

Of possible interest to Orthosphereans, my essay concerning Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars  has appeared at Angel Millar’s invariably edifying People of Shambhala website.  The essay concerns independent Minnesota-based filmmaker Christopher Mihm, whose Saint Euphoria Studios has found a niche – and an audience – in the production of low-budget black-and-white retro-pastiches resembling the B-grade science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s.  I argue in Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars that Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008) is a cryptically non-politically correct film that employs a studied rhythm of low-comic japes and serious storytelling to argue for sexual dimorphism, with all its attendant and historically understood differences, as the basis of social life, expressing itself most essentially in the formation of the customary family, with its aim of bringing procreation under morality.

The essay also explores the question whether, in a politically correct environment, it might nowadays only be possible to articulate traditional insights, in public, by indirection. Mihm’s  film-festival audiences are undoubtedly liberal, and it appears that he has found a formula for making his dissentient points subliminally and covertly.

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Star Trek Beyond

Enterprise Newest

Richard Cocks and I joined our friend Dick Fader earlier today to see Star Trek Beyond in the local Oswego cinema.  Richard and I are longtime inveterate Star Trek fans and Fader, as we call him, if not quite a fan, is at least an interested party who knows the history of the franchise.  The management screened Star Trek Beyond in the big auditorium, nowadays equipped with roomy lounge chairs, but in tilting them into a reclining position the movie-goer risks taking a nap.  It is a temptation to which I never yield.

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Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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