Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Weird #12: “The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt (1918)

A Merritt

Having come this far in this Archaeology of Weird Fiction project, I have noticed that certain patterns of representing the attraction and danger of the weird have begun to repeat as patterns. In addition, I keep finding parallels, in one way or another, to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. In this, my experience of “People of the Pit” by A. Merritt was no different. It is, however, the first story in the collection to explicitly feature archaeology and past civilizations as a source of the weird (except perhaps in “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore).

Two men exploring the far northern reaches of Alaska come across a hazy mountain with five peaks outstretched like a hand where a strange light is glowing. A frightened man near death crawls up to their campfire and tells them he has just returned from those very mountains. He narrates the story of his encounter with the People of the Pit. Having reached the mountains from the other side, the horrified speaker recounts how he journeyed down the bottleneck of the seemingly infinite pit that lies between the mountains, to finally reach the massive, primeval city at the bottom.

Made a captive of the invisible, glowing creatures who live at the bottom of the pit, the man participates in their chanting rituals and eventually comes to see the inner sluglike forms. Horrified, he breaks his chains and escapes. The man finishes his tale and soon dies. The explorers cremate the man according to his wishes and scatter his ashes to prevent the People of the Pit from claiming his body after death.

According to the editors, Merritt was heavily influenced by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female American science fiction and fantasy writer and inventor of dark fantasy, who published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens and wrote weird tales about lost civilizations. Merrit, in turn, influenced H.P. Lovecraft, who himself was an admirer of Stevens/Bennett. All three authors are included in The Weird.

“The People of the Pit” follows the formula of an explorer/scientist who journeys to the frontiers of the (to Europeans) known world to investigate a curious phenomenon, only to encounter horror and terror and supernatural dread. Some of Merrit’s other scientists, like Throckmartin in The Moon Pool and Goodwin in The Metal Monster, use the scientific process to get themselves out of seeming supernatural quandaries, and do so successfully. These novels are better spoken of as science fantasy. However, “The People of the Pit” destabilizes the efficacy of science, calling into question its ability to categorize extraordinary phenomena, in the way that much weird fiction does.

The explorers note the whispering coming from a strange light on the mountain, which “can’t be the aurora” (101). Indeed, it is not a “crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith” either; rather, it holds “a demand. It was eager” (101). It evades the categories of Judeo-Christian mythology and science and attracts their curiosity with “inexorable insistence” (102) in a way that recalls the Sirens from the Odyssey. This phenomena that evades their categories and classifications produces a curiosity that can lures and seduce men to their doom. In a way, this whispering is the equivalent to Tagore’s marble palace and Ewers’s Clarimonde. It demonstrates the sensual’s domination over the rational, a modernist dichotomy.

Drawn by the mystery of the mountain, which is a kind of El Dorado given the “Athabasean” legend of gold streaming out from the peaks (102), the survivor recalls his first sign of the unusual: a road. Since he is far from civilization, the existence of an ancient road in the wilderness is unexpected in how it suggests the ancient presence of a technologically advanced human civilization. “Lost” civilization tropes often carry the problematic assumption that non-Western, non-white people could not have possibly built monumental structures, urban centres, or possessed advanced technology.  Perhaps, then, the Athabaseans’ ancestors, or those of another Indigenous nation, had built this city once, long ago. However, “The People of the Pit” does not specify who used to live here; that fact has been lost to time and history and is one of the many unsolved mysteries that confront the survivor as he ventures past the city, over the mountains, and into the pit.

Currently, I am teaching a 12-week course called “Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology” in which I am leading discussion on fictional texts about archaeology and history. In this course, we’ve been talking a lot about what motivates archaeologists–for some it is a quest, a curiosity about the world, or a need to fill out the answers to a burning question rather than face the blankness of the unknown. Merritt’s story features and explorer and honourary archaeologist whose curiosity about the world leads him to his doom.

While celebrating this curiosity in a certain way, Merritt also exposes just how little of the world is actually known. In 1918, places like northern Alaska may still have contained regions remote enough that most Americans could believe a Pit of this size and scale could exist. However, what seems to have driven Merritt to write this story is not enthusiasm for mapping uncharted frontiers, but rather an awe at that very unchartedness. He revels in exposing precisely what is unknown, and those who investigate it too closely pay a price.

Perhaps he was a romantic, reacting against modernity’s exhortation to map the last pockets of difference on the earth’s surface. Rationalism and irrationalism, sensuality and reason are at war in Merritt’s work.

Cover of The Metal Monster by A. Merritt from Fantastic Mysteries Magazine
A. Merritt’s novel The Metal Monster featured in a Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels joint issue

The survivor is drawn to his doom by the pit. Curiously, this image anticipates the Tower in VanderMeer’s Annihilation: a spiral staircase leading down, down, down to a seemingly infinite depth. “It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll!” writes Merritt (104). The pit has a hoard of possible meanings: a journey to the unconscious or to the underworld, a quest for the base of reality itself, the end of all questions and inquiry–a base that does not really exist.

In a further parallel with Annihilation, the walls are inscribed with an inscrutable text. In “People of the Pit,” that text is visual. The inscriptions along the wall of the spiral staircase in Merritt, left behind by unknown peoples, contain figures that hold back a vaguer, underlying image: an “impression of enormous upright slugs” (104). Later, when the survivor reaches the city at the bottom of the pit, he sees inscriptions on an altar of “formless things that gave no conscious image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals–ideas of hate–of combats between unthinkable monstrous things” (106), suggesting the abstracted forms of primitivist paintings.

The mention of a upright slugs connects the People of the Pit to the Crawler in Annihilation. Both are described as grotesque sluglike creatures who glow and whose form seems too much for the human eye to take in at once. Both are sublime monsters because they surpass our senses’ ability to see and our brains’ ability to make understand them.

To better illustrate, VanderMeer describes The Crawler as follows:

[I]t was no longer golden but blue-green, and the blue-green light was like nothing I had experienced before. […] As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. […] It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough. (176)

Compare this with Merritt’s description of the People of the Pit:

Great transparent snail-like bodies–dozens of waving tentacles stretching from them–round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! […] They did not crawl or walk–they floated! They floated and were–gone! (108)

While VanderMeer’s prose is less exclamatory, the similarities are clear. The monstrous bodies of the People of the Pit and the Crawler are abject and grotesque due to their being in excess of the very categories used to define them. They throw in question humanity’s ability to classify phenomena and understand the universe. They throw in question the very capacity of language–the very language the authors use–to describe them. They are a splinter irritating the universe with their own incomprehensibility, exposing the world for its illusions.

In short, “The People of the Pit” is a quintessential weird tale, destabilizing Enlightenment assumptions about reality and the knowability of the universe, suggesting there are whole worlds and civilizations that lie beyond our senses and our understanding–a position that would go on to influence Lovecraft.

Next week, I’ll be writing about the ‘father of the Japanese short story’, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and his weird tale, “The Hell Screen.”

Liana

Weird #11: “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini (1917)

a green man waterspout“The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini is a simple enough story of a man whose skin has turned completely green.

He explains how he became infected with this unique illness. Seduced by the mysteries of science’s unexplored frontier, Olivares goes on an expedition to the Brazilian interior in search of new forms of plant life. There he discovers a plant that “seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science,” a plant that cannot wholly be categorized as vegetable, but which has the appearance of “human limbs without skin” (98). Pricked by a thorn, he soon experiences the first subtle symptoms of what becomes a wasting disease that turns his skin green and leads to other mutations besides.

Soon, Doctor Benito Olivares literally becomes a green man: half-vegetable, half-man.

Appearing in the Italian journal The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea in 1917, “The Vegetable Man” reads like a traveler’s tale from a distant corner of the earth. Like Indiana Jones, Doctor Olivares is an adventure scientist like you might find in a pulp story who is dedicated to “[penetrating] the virgin forests” and pushing the frontier of knowledge (97). However, with that sense of guarded mystery comes a sense of intruding into what nature never intended humanity to see. Twice, the Guaraní Indians try to warn him about the samples he took of the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants.

Perhaps most uncanny are the leaves of this plant. Resembling a prickly pear, they have “two oval scuttulem” on them, resembling “two very human eyes that seemed to stare out at me in an unpleasant and sinister way” (98). When the green man pulls off his gloves, his hands are revealed to have been turned into these same, shapeless leaves, with uncannily human eyes.

Doctor Olivares claims to have been born in Santos, Brazil, and he donates his samples of the Olivara vigilans to the Museum of Natural History in Buenos Aires. This puts Ugolini’s story in the vicinity of another great weird fiction writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Buenos Aires is Borges’s storied home city; in his famous story, “The Aleph,” Santos happens to be the Brazilian town where Pedro Henriquez Ureña supposedly found Sir Richard Francis Burton’s manuscript on the Aleph.

Details like these have me imagining a weird fiction “shared universe.” What would Borges (who suffered from blindness) have thought of Olivara vigilans, a plant he would have been unable to see with his own eyes, even though the plant itself could “see” him?

I was astonished to find tangential links to Jeff VanderMeer and H.P. Lovecraft in Ugolini as well. For one, Olivara vigilans is described in a similar way to how Lovecraft describes the shoggoth fossils in At the Mountains of Madness. Both straddle the uncanny line between the vegetable and the animal. For instance, Lovecraft describes the shoggoth as a “barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature,” defying categorization, such that Lake cannot decide whether they are “vegetable or animal.”

In comparison, Ugolini’s scientist describes Olivara vigilans as “a living contradiction” in terms of classification, a plant that is “in itself an order, family, species, variety …  with palmate leaves that were thick and fleshy” (98). The discovery upends the categories scientists use to classify and order the physical world, throwing such artificial boundaries into doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, the liana, “the octopus of the forest” (98) which strangles trees in the grove where Olivares finds the Olivara vigilans, is almost an echo of the strangling vines that move around in the fungal lettering left behind by the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even more of  a strong echo are the all-too human eyes growing out of the plant’s leaves, which call to mind the all-too human eyes of the dolphin the Biologist glimpses in Area X. The implication in Annihilation is that those who visit Area X somehow get transformed into animals, yet retain uncanny traces of their humanity. In a similar way, this is Olivares’s fate; he becomes “reclaimed” by the natural world after being infected with the Olivara vigilans‘s poison.

As I continue to notice parallels between VanderMeer’s work and the stories he and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, included in this anthology, I am strongly reminded again of what Borges wrote in “Kafka and His Precursors”: every author creates their own precursor. The weird fiction authors included in this anthology may have seen each other as influences, or they may not have done so. But VanderMeer acts as both author and critic, creating the predecessors of the New Weird as a literary movement through his role as editor of this anthology, even as he drops teasing hints as to who his own, personal precursors may have been. Even if “The Vegetable Man” did not inspire Annihilation directly, they are both holding a conversation with the same literary zeitgeist.

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

Next week, I’ll be getting into pulp adventure with Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” I have discussed one of Indiana Jones’s predecessors, Merritt’s The Moon Pool, elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll be in familiar territory when I write about it next week.

Announcing the October Archaeology of Weird Fiction Project

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I was introduced to the world of weird fiction.

My roommate for the weekend, Usman T. Malik, introduced me to the  Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series (Undertow Publications), where a short story of his, “Resurrection Points,” had been published recently. His enthusiasm for his genre of choice, the weird tale, was contagious.

Soon I had discovered ChiZine Press’s lineup of dark fiction novels and short story collections and I had picked up Jeffrey Ford’s collection A Natural History of Hell. These stories, particularly those in the Ford collection, astounded me with their imaginative situations, their mythologies, and their bold use of language. Although I had not been exposed much to H.P. Lovecraft, I began to read his classic weird tales as well. I had caught the bug.

Before I knew it, weird tales had infected my brain. It was just as China Miéville described in his “Afterweird” to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories: weird texts “will eat the books you read from today on … That is how the weird recruits. … These stories are worms” (1116).

These textual tapeworms led me to write an essay on the Weird and Usman T. Malik’s fiction in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, an academic journal based at McGill University. The ways this genre twists language and representation became an object of fascination for me.

It was not long before I discovered the vast range of texts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had compiled together in their anthology. Texts from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first are gathered here within the same sprawling volume, encompassing authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Rabindranath Tagore, James Triptree, Jr., George R.R. Martin, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and Jamaica Kincaid. The anthology also includes contemporary authors of the New Weird, such as China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti. In all, 110 texts appear in this collection, each originally published between 1909 and 2010.

The Weird creates the predecessors of the New Weird movement, an act of canonization. However, Miéville emphasizes that this compendium “does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion–of crawling and wringing time–there is no Weird. All canons are tombs, yes, but this collection is a post-elegy, wearing / an eaten shroud / –a long-dead rag for the dead” (1116). Weird fiction frustrates our categories and subverts our reassurances of permanency and order.

This project is an excavation of that canonical tomb. It is an archaeology of the weird.

My goal will be to post weekly reflections on the earliest stories in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s compendium throughout the month of October. I hope to learn something about how the genre developed the way it did. I also hope to figure how the weird produces some of the stylistic effects it is famous for making. And lastly, like a pulp archaeologist in the adventure serials, I may find my cold, rational logic challenged by the sudden manifestation of the realities human beings were never meant to understand…

It promises to be fun.

My first post will be on an excerpt of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908), the first story included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology. The posts will appear weekly on Saturday mornings.

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

Last week I wrote about my interview with Charles de Lint at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. Today, I wrap up my discussion of the conference with some comments on the fantasy canon and the awards ceremony, which have of late been the subject of some controversy.

My MA thesis is on fantasy as a globalized form, with a focus on the works of Charles de Lint. However, I will be gesturing towards a larger project of studying contemporary fantasy as a product of the age of globalization. One panel at World Fantasy whose subject spoke to my project was “Epic Fantasy is All About the European Middle Ages–Except When It Isn’t.” Joshua Palmatier moderated and the panelists included Bradley Beaulieu, Anatoly Belilovsky, Kevin Maroney, and Gregory A. Wilson. Think of your typical or canonical fantasy novels: chances are they are set in a version of the European Middle Ages. We might draw exception at Guy Gavriel Kay’s Chinese historical fantasies Under Heaven and River of Stars, which stand as fine examples of non-Western fantasies, but there was also some good discussion about Russian fantasies and Russian steampunk.

Wilson said there is a lot of speculative fiction not being done in English, such as in China and Laos. This represents, from the American point of view, an large untapped market. The only way for the English world to read such works is through translation. At this insight, I was reminded of Goethe’s claim that translation is a fundamental requirement for the development of world literature. This rule of world literature applies to the field of contemporary fantasy just as much as it applies to global modernisms.

There are many non-Western fantasy authors writing in different languages and even some Western authors writing in languages other than English. On this latter list, we might include the authors published by Acheron Press, a small press that publishes English translations of Italian fantasy authors. My review of Demon Hunter Severian by Giovanni Anastasi can be found through the above link. We need translators like Acheron, but also translators specializing in different languages, such as French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Sinhalese… any language where there is significant work being done today. Perhaps my living in bilingual Quebec is why I might be more conscious of the need for translation. I might add that the French publisher Alire translates some fantasy from English, such as the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. This is another non-anglophone example of an institution that roles up its sleeves while working on this grand project of world literature.

Belilovsky discussed Russian literature, mentioning that Russian, like English, is an imperial language. Many other languages exist in Russia, but translation gives authors who might be writing in such languages an audience outside their country. Literature must recognize that Russia is not a monolithic culture; for example, Belilovsky mentioned the Koreans who settled in Siberia but were deported to Kazakhstan because it was claimed to be too difficult to tell them apart from Japanese spies during the Second World War. Literature has a capacity to un-erase such identities.

Another interesting thought that I had during this panel was that there are material, economic conditions requiring authors of epic fantasy to employ the myths of diverse cultures in their work: it is a way to make a novel stand out in the market. There is a great danger in getting the sense of a culture wrong even if one gets the facts right, Beaulieu explained. This made me speculate that what might problematize the ‘exploitation’ of such cultures, even if done by well-meaning authors, is that epic fantasy can become a kind of cultural tourism, much in the same way ‘ethnic memoirs’ present themselves in the literary marketplace. Despite all this controversy, there was a consensus at the panel that writing about various cultures that have been marginalized does broaden the conversation, encouraging the building of bridges across cultures.

The final panel I attended during the convention was “Creating the Fantasy Canon” with Jonathan Strahan as moderator and John Clute, Michael Dirda, Yanni Kuznia, Gary Wolfe, and Ron Yaniv as panelists. Since I was contemplating fantasy as a globalized form, the discussion during this panel at the ‘World’ Fantasy Convention promised to be significant. However, I confess to being disappointed in the ‘worldness’ of the convention. All of the works the panelists could agree on for canonization were anglophone works. This was predictable, but it goes to show that fantasy novels from other language traditions are still subversive to the ‘secular scripture’ of the fantasy canon.

What is a canon? This was the opening question of the panel and each panelist gave a separate answer. Kuznia said a canon was whatever books continue to influence today’s writers. Dirda said the canon was whatever books are taught in English classes or books that we continue to find useful when thinking about the genre. Clute claimed that we create the canon constantly, but the books that constitute it must meet the condition of still being read. Wolfe said that a canon is formed of those books that continue to be read, even if no one tells you that you should read them. I thought this was a clever answer.

From my perspective, being a student of canon theorist Robert Lecker, I would have to agree mostly with Michael Dirda on this account: a canon is a ‘secular scripture,’ a body of assembled, and often anthologized, texts that we consider fundamental to fantasy and the values it holds dear. They are the works representing the values we wish to pass on to the next generation of students–it has nothing essentially to do with what is popular at the moment. Harry Potter may or may not ever enter the canon, but the works of William Morris and Tolkien will always be in the canon. In the larger canon of English literature, the works of Aphra Behn may not be frequently read outside of universities and colleges, but her work has entered canonical status nonetheless. A canon is, to my understanding, an essentially conservative institution, in the sense that it protects a certain set of values, rather than trying to subvert them. We cannot really talk about multiple canons without dissolving the significance of what ‘canon’ means. But that is not to say that the values upheld by canons cannot be challenged or that new works from previously marginalized authors may not be added to the canon: this expansion of the canon is still an important task.

John Clute adopted a more historically-lensed approach to what a canon is. “Any canon is a form of argument. It is not an establishment,” he said. A canon that begins with the pulps, for example, argues for a different source of origin for modern fantasy than another that begins its narrative with the works George MacDonald. This view has its merits, but it is a definition of canon removed from the original sense of ‘canon’ as an assembly of sacred texts, such as the books that constitute the Bible. The Bible’s exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, may be seen as an argument in favour of a particular interpretation of Christianity, but the accepted canon as it comes to exist is more significantly a set of texts which held a highly exalted position in society–an establishment. That said, an argument in Clute’s favour is that the fantasy canon may still be in the midst of being decided, it being a lot less stable than the Biblical canon or the canon of English literature as anthologized by Norton.

The moderator asked each panelist to provide one work of twentieth-century fantasy that they would nominate for canonization. Gary Wolfe nominated Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Ron Yaniv, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Michael Dirda, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Yanni Kuznia, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

On a second pass, the following titles came up in the same order of panelists: Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The moderator Jonathan Strahan felt obliged to throw in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for good measure. Further discussion turned up the names Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Arthur Machen‘s horror stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

When asked which recent books were likely to become canonical in the future, the panelists provided another list of titles. Yanni Kuznia: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. Michael Dirda: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. John Clute: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Greg Wolfe: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (although there was some discord about whether to list Tigana instead; read both). Ron Yaniv: Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying.

Consider this a reading list.

Any serious academic of fantasy should think about reading this canon; the works have great value. Yet we must not think uncritically about this value. It was disappointing to me, for instance, that the panel did not discuss any challenges to the canon. Perhaps the fantasy canon is still at the stage of becoming solidified into something stable and therefore teachable. Yet, whether the canon(s) described by the panelists were ‘writer’s’ canons or more professorial in nature, one thing remained consistent: each work was originally written in English.

In face of this anglophone fact, what happens to all this rhetoric about fantasy being a universal drive shared in common by all cultures, all languages? Fantasy should be bigger than any one language. The canon listed above represents not a ‘fantasy’ canon but a ‘fantasy literature in English’ canon, which is a very different thing. It is worth noting that even the concept of ‘fantasy’ as a term that can be applied to a modern genre is an English term with a specific English meaning (although derived from a word in Greek meaning ‘to make visible’). Therefore, I would propose that ‘fantasy’ connotes an originally anglophone literary form. It is unclear what terms other language traditions apply to describe their ‘fantastic’ literature, although the cultural hegemony of the English-speaking world has probably spread the influence of Tolkien and other fantasy authors into those non-English speaking traditions as well, altering them by the influence of translations.

English fantasy writers seem glad enough to declare the universality of fantasy in all cultures around the globe. It grants a validity to the idea of borrowing from the myths and folklore of increasingly diverse cultural traditions. If a myth is fantasy, it is in a sense dead and therefore exploitable; it has no more central authority in the society that formed it and in turn was formed by it. The loss of these central organizing myths is a feature of modernity; read The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade. However, in the case of budding Maori, Aborigine, or Native American authors who derive inspiration from the narrative traditions of their respective cultures, it is unclear whether such authors would even consider their works ‘fantasy,’ especially as such cultures undergo renaissance and revitalization. As such cultures attempt to re-establish the real authority of their cultural narratives, the term ‘fantasy’ would seem to undercut the privileged position these narratives ought to have in their society, relativizing the importance of cultural narratives.

Although such rhetoric of the ‘universality’ of fantasy exists–that all cultures have myths equally valid for raw literary material–the actual literary landscape is heavily Eurocentric and with the hegemony of American culture, weighted in definite favour of the English language. Fantasy is more heterogenous and unequal than works such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which proclaims the universality of the heroic journey in all mythic traditions, would have us believe.

The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.
The World Fantasy Convention awarded the H.P. Lovecraft trophy this year for the last time. A new trophy is currently being designed.

This World Fantasy Convention was the last year the trophies for the World Fantasy Awards will bear the shape of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft’s face. From what I understand of the controversy surrounding this decision, it was at least partly related to the reputation that Lovecraft has today of being a racist. Like Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, whose works each retain their canonicity and literary value despite their authors’ imperialist politics, Lovecraft’s works will continue to be valued despite his racist ideas, however problematic they may be. However, the change of trophy design is a message that the ‘face’ of fantasy is changing, that the established canon is being challenged by new, upcoming writers. This is a sign of a healthy, living literary tradition that refuses to become ossified. One can only applaud the renewal of the genre and the renewal of world literature in general.

(To take a less explicitly political perspective on the trophy controversy: Lovecraft was a brutally excessive stylist, like Edgar Allan Poe on steroids, so if this change of trophy dissociates the fantasy/science fiction field from H.P.’s standard of foggy, dense, unclear writing, then I my opinion there’s a lot less of a down side to the change than you might think.)

 

The World Fantasy Awards were handed out to the following winners. There was considerable Canadian representation in the list of winners (ChiZine, Tachyon). As a matter of fact, I was seated at the ChiZine table and so I got to sample the excitement of my companions winning not once but twice.

The Life Achievement awards went to Ramsey Campbell and Sheri S. Tepper.

Best Novel: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House/Sceptre UK)

Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Publications)

Short Story: Do You Like to Look at Monsters? by Scott Nicolay (Ferdogan & Bremer, chapbook)

Anthology: Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Candlewick Press)

Collection: Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications) tied with The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

Artist: Samuel Araya

Special Award–Professional: Sandra Kasturi and Brett Alexander Savory, for ChiZine Publications

Special Award–Non-Professional: Ray B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press

Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!
Congratulations WFC 2015 award winners!

 

The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention
The new books I hauled home somehow after the convention