“Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani

H. P. Lovecraft has an alarming but over-neglected passage about this holey space or ()hole complex (with an evaporative W) as the zone through which the Outside gradually but persistently emerges, creeps in (or out?) from the Inside. A complex of hole agencies and obscure surfaces that unground the earth and turn it to the ultimate zone of emergence and urpising against its passive planetdom and onanistic self-indulgence of the Sun with its solar capitalism. “Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.” (H. P. Lovecraft, The Festival)
—Reza Negarestani, “Machines Are Digging: Lovecraft and Poromechanics of Horror” in Songs of the Black Würm Gism (2009) 167

“Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt-cum-recension of a section of Reza Negarestani’s experimental novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anomalous Materials (2008); the two texts are not identical, but represent different iterations of the same concept. The piece represents the crossroads between Negarestani’s philosophical horror and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, the aesthetic point of contact where they come together and, while approaching the material from different angles, arrive at about the same conclusion.

Negarestani’s approach to horror fiction is with the same care, and to a degree with the same attitude, as writing an essay on philosophy or physics. The format and language of his work echoes that of a very intelligent post-graduate student engaging with concepts at a high level, a straight-faced presentation which is ever so delicately off, so that the reader isn’t quite sure whether the author is a genius or genuinely deluded. Even the select choice of word and phrase underlines the academic tendency to define and re-define a technical language for itself.

There is an art amounting to poetry in the suggestive but probably meaningless phrase, and that is the kind of texture that high-level philosophical works tend to have. “Solar capitalism,” for example—what does that mean? On the surface, it does not connect with any familiar phrase or concept. If you pick it apart to try and find meaning—ah, now the reader is playing Negarestani’s game. They’ve bought into the piece enough to start thinking about it, and once you do that you’re getting into the slightly-warped logic, the madman thinking where the view of reality is skewed, like the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory.

Philosophical word-games aside, “Machines Are Digging” works in large part because there is something to the connection with Lovecraft that Negarestani talks about. When he writes:

According to Lovecraft, the realism of horror is built upon poromechanics. The poromechanical universe of Lovecraft or ()hole complex is a machine to facilitate the awakening and return of the Old Ones through convoluted compositions of solid and void. (ibid., 168)

He is, knowingly or not (always hard to tell with Negarestani; it’s tricky with any philosopher or madman is to know whether they actually have some secret knowledge or are making shit up as they go along) echoing some solid critical scholarship regarding Lovecraft’s themes. Because Lovecraft did like big holes dug in the Earth and could not lie; the idea of underground caverns and large enclosed spaces feature prominently in stories such as “The Festival,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “The Nameless City,” At the Mountains of Madness, etc. and even featured in essays such as “A Descent to Avernus.”

Critics have speculated on the whys and wherefores of Lovecraft’s fascination, from Jungian womb-symbols to shamanic thresholds between the waking and dreaming worlds; the latter a significant plot point in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s Lovecraftian graphic novel Providence. Scott R. Jones compiled an anthology of tales based around the concept, titled Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018)One of the collections of memories dedicated to Lovecraft is Caverns Measureless to Man (1996).

Which is a long way to say: Negarestani is on to something.

In pulp-horror fictions and cinema and in Lovecraft fiction, it is the abode of the Old Ones, worm-entities and the blob (petroleum) that surpasses the tentacled-heads in sentience adn foreignness. R’lyeh is the every dream, motion and calculation of Cthulhu on the solid part of the earth’s body. (ibid., 173)

Whether or not you buy into what Negarestani is selling is something different. Few people fall headlong into philosophy, because the empirical world is quite a bit messier than the general truths espoused, and conclusions arrived at after torturous paragraphs of twisted logic sometimes don’t seem quite so significant and valid in the harsh light of day when your tea has grown cold. But sometimes, you can pull out some wonderful idea or turn of phrase buried in there, a little treasure to wonder at and turn over in your head. “Machines Are Digging” is, regardless of its other merits, a source of inspiration.

In poromechancial cosmology of Lovecraft, exhumation is undertaken and exercised by units called Rats. In fact, ‘the dramatic epic of the rats’ (Lovecraft) can be found in their act of exhuming surfaces, solid bodies and structures resisiting perforation. Rats are exhuming machines, not only full-fledged epidemic vectors but also ferociously dynamic lines of ungrounding. (ibid., 175)

Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all indebted to Gabby Johnson for clearly stating what needed to be said. I’m particulary glad that these lovely children were here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
—Olson Johnson, Blazing Saddles (1974)

“Machines Are Digging” is experimental fiction, or at least is not concerned with a traditional narrative or format. It is perhaps as close as any writer has come to something like genuine Lovecraftian literature, in the sense of trying to write something that genuinely challenges the reader’s preconceptions and introduces a few new ones; a Necronomicon Lite, fiction and fact and big ideas woven together into something whose big ideas leave the mind spinning off into unfamiliar branches of thought. As bizarre and occasionally baffling as it may be, there are rewards to be gained from Negarestani’s challenging read.

As mentioned above, “Machines Are Digging” is an excerpt, or variant text, from Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. The major differences between the two are a slight truncation of the version in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, and the lack of the surrounding context provided by the novel.

In Cyclonopedia, “Machines Are Digging” is explicitly a pseudo-text among pseudo-texts, a found document that is part of a cache of data for the user to sift through; a part rather than a whole. Reading it in Songs of the Black Würm Gism, wedged between Wakamatsu Yukio’s black-and-white photographs of naked women covered in worms, frogs, octopi, and insects and “Frater Monstrum’s” Chaos Magick-inflected account of “H P Lovecraft and the Loch Ness Monster” the reader doesn’t necessarily get the full burn of Negarestani’s thesis—but it is certainly in good company.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ 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. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” (1927)

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is a sequel in every sense of the word. Not only does Kiernan unfold the next chapter in the narrative, peeling away more onion-layers to reveal deeper mysteries, but it is a continuation of the themes of the original story in a new direction. Without so many words, Kiernan asks and answers the unobvious question: What’s better than a photograph from life?

The story could have been labeled “Eliot’s Tale”—Eliot being the person to whom Thurber, the protagonist in Lovecraft’s story, had been addressing his narrative to. Now three years later, Thurber was dead and it was Eliot picking up the pieces of the man’s life, sorting through the letters and drawings, uncovering something that Thurber, in Lovecraft’s story, failed to mention: Pickman’s nudes.

It isn’t some lingering prudery that kept nudity out of Lovecraft’s story, nor is it any particular prurience of Kiernan’s that places it at the center of hers. Lovecraft’s focus was on one of Pickman’s models, the necrophagous critters that haunt Boston’s old tunnels; Kiernan’s focus is on his other model—a young woman whom any artist might sketch in the nude to hone their skills at anatomy, and who catches Eliot’s attention.

The development of the investigation is leisurely, with specific details that are highly suggestive but never so explicit as to reveal the central mystery. Hints along the way, artfully arranged, touching on some of Kiernan’s favorite themes…echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” old family shames and lesbian desires—and a particular anatomical feature—that echo Kiernan’s own stories like “Houndwife” (2010), “pas-en-arrière” (2007), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). Always keeping that toehold in reality, the story coded with all the care of a good hoax, as when Kiernan discusses what might well have been the inspiration for the story:

It might have only been a test reel, or perhaps 17,000 or so frames, some twelve minutes, give or take, excised from a far longer film. All in all, it was little but than a blatantly pornographic pastiche of the widely circulated 1918 publicity stills of Theda Bara lying in various risqué poses with a human skeleton (for J. Edward Gordon’s Salomé).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pickman’s Other Model” in Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart 276

thedaskeleton

I overheard, when the lights came back up, that the can contianing the reel bore two titles, The Necrophile and The Hound’s Daughter, and also bore two dates – 1923 and 1924. (ibid)

As much as Lovecraft and others liked to portray the artist as portraying some supernal truth, Kiernan knows that reality tends to be much baser. So much is the case when Eliot finally meets Pickman’s other model in the penultimate chapter: a tired young woman who has seen a little too much of the world, with bad habits and a filthy mouth. Living in the present but still haunted by the past.

A past which catches up to her in the final chapter, hinting as Lovecraft did of more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of, darker and uglier realities at play which even the best of art could only hint at as a shadow in the final flickering frames on a black-and-white reel.

The success of “Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” is less in revelation than in suggestion and presentation. This is a story not so much for readers who want another piece of the Mythos puzzle as much as those who enjoy the process of discovery…and how some stories and images stay with you, for a long while. That is the other question, and perhaps as close to a theme of Kiernan’s narrative and her utmost reflection on Lovecraft’s: How do you unsee such things? You can’t.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” was first published in Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest (March 2008), it has been reprinted Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart (2012), Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan Volume Two (2015), and Houses Under The Sea (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

 

“Boojum” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Boojum” in The Book of Cthulhu II 237

Sometimes, “Cthulhu Mythos” seems like an inadequate label for a story. “Boojum” is one of those. Bear & Monette’s tale is space opera for the 21st century, tightly written and gloriously imaginative. The Mythos elements themselves are both essential and yet subdued: the spice of the story, but not the meat of it. This isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft among the stars. It’s a pirate story, in some distant future. Space pirates in a living ship, cracking open freighters; dealing stolen cargo with the Mi-Go.

For literary ancestry, “Boojum” has two notable forebears: “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, which is essentially Lovecraft’s version of a 1930s interplanetary tale, and Richard Lupoff’s “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), which brought Lovecraft’s Mythos to the New Wave of science fiction. The better part of four decades between when those two stories were published—and in that time a space race was ran and won and lost. Another three decades between “Ghooric Zone” and “Boojum”—and what changed?

Attitude, certainly. Bear & Monette’s future is dirty, cramped, blue-collar, more Alien than Star Trek. A Lovecraftian future that feels lived in; realistic but not exactly bleak. There are stark choices and bad options when the only thing between you and hard vacuum is the skin of a giant extraterrestrial entity that you live inside like a space ship, when you live under constant threat that the captain might notice and make an example out of you. When you have to watch your oxygen levels, and it’s rational to choose between living as a brain in a canister or getting eaten by a diamond-toothed monster.

Why call the ship the Lavinia Whateley? In part, this is a signal to the readers of what this story is going to be. We never get a sense of why that name was applied within the context of the setting, except that the other ships like the Marie Curie and the Josephine Baker were also great women. The protagonist Black Alice Bradley swears by “Jesus and the cold fishy gods”; she lived in a world where Gillies from Providence Station are recognizable, where sunstones are mined on Venus, and the Fungi from Yuggoth move through space like the boojum themselves. This is a future which acknowledges Lovecraft, that riffs off his creations, but approaches the material from a contemporary point of view. Not too behooven to the man from Providence.

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientist, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. […] No stock romance is wanted.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” in Collected Essays 2.180

Lovecraft wrote his assertions against romance during the heyday of the scientific romance, when John Carter would travel to Mars and seduce the alien princess Dejah Thoris, decades before Captain Kirk would leave a trail of broken hearts across the galaxy. While certain elements of his advice have aged well, others are less applicable.

In “Boojum,” Black Alice Bradley loves the Lavinia Whateley. Not sexually, though there is a certain intimacy throughout the story: Black Alice and the rest of the crew lives within the Boojum. To Black Alice, the “ship” is Vinnie, and though Black Alice is one of the lowest members of the crew, a self-taught engineer far down in the hierarchy, her sense of wonder and awe at being in the stars is focused on a single individual, a single relationship—we get no sense that Black Alice has any other real friends or lovers among the crew. In a real sense, Vinnie is all Black Alice cares about—and the revelation of the story, which Lovecraft might have at least begrudgingly recognized as something other than a “stock romance,” is that as a living being Vinnie cares about Black Alice.

“Boojum” first appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), and was subsequently reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 22nd Annual Collection (all 2009), The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition (2010), Lightspeed (Sep 2012), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), Space Opera (2014), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2011. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborated on two follow-ups, “Mongoose” (2009) and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)