What follows are a few fairly scattered observations from my recent trip down to New England with friends Derek Newman-Stille and Bob D. to attend NecronomiCon 2017 in Providence, after a brief foray in Salem.
I want to start by thanking and congratulating Niels Hobbs, s.j. bagley, Farah R. Smith and the many other folks involved in organizing and evolving NecronomiCon. They had (and continue to have) daunting, precarious, practically endless, and hugely significant work to do in putting this epic event together, in enabling it to grow, and in making it appealing, and more importantly, accessible, to those whose interest in the weird involves more than a fetishistic and apologetic adoration for HPL, a figure in many ways as influential, difficult and divisive as his at-one-time-more-famous contemporary, Ezra Pound.
Organizing any convention on this scale is a cyclopean achievement, but NecronomiCon presents particular difficulties, given the controversial nature of Lovecraft’s xenophobic views and their connection to his widespread popular influence,. This is further complicated by the ardent desire of some fans and disciples to write only hagiographically about Lovecraft, or to make him an icon of alt-right white nationalism.
I’ve attended NecronomiCon at each of its bi-annual iterations since it was revamped in 2013, and this year’s Con has been, to my mind, the best so far. I never dreamed I’d find writer Nnedi Okorafor and film-maker Richard Stanley as guests of honour at the same convention, and their shared presence here speaks volumes about the multiple directions the Con has taken in recent years. Also improving with each iteration is the scope and quality of the Henry Armitage academic panel sessions. NecronomiCon has become a rare site of fusion between popular convention and academic conference.
(You can read my thoughts on the 2015 NecronomiCon, the difficulties posed by reconciling Lovecraft with weird fiction understood inclusively and internationally, and the appeal of cutesy and tweird collectibles here. For a fictionalized, pointedly satirical, and unsettlingly comical roman-a-clef account of the 2015 ‘Con thinly veiled as a metafuzzical-murder-mystery, read Nick Mamatas’s novel, I Am Providence, and for a gorgeously written, compelling fictive glimpse into the erotics, obsessions, and proprietary politics that characterize some strains of Lovecraft fandom and scholarship alike, I highly recommend Paul LaFarge’s novel The Night Ocean,.
We drove down to Salem on Wednesday, spending some time amongst the wonderful waxworks and props at Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery and devoting a squeeful, gawping couple of hours to exploring It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection at the Peabody-Essex Museum. Hammett may well be the most deep-pocketed and ambitious collector of horror and sci-fi paraphernalia in the world, and the tip-of-the-iceberg selection of items included in this beautifully curated exhibition are truly impressive.
The exhibition aims to center attention on the artists and designers who created these seminal images; despite the influence they’ve had on 20th century popular culture, the names of these creators are often all-but-forgotten. It pays close attention to lighting and placement, augmenting the impression created by these artefacts, and inviting visitors to see themselves in and through the installation.
As curator Daniel Finamore writes, the exhibit takes a “tripartite perspective,” framing these artefacts “as the creations of artists engaged in the promotion of an industry, as the catalysts for the physiological activity and heightened mental state that occurs in response to the monsters they offer up, and as a wellspring of creative inspiration for Kirk Hammett, a contemporary musician whose own artistic contributions explore the relevancy of the horror genre in modern culture” (It’s Alive, 16-17.)
While the exhibit puts understandable emphasis on Hammett’s musical career and his personal and inspirational investment in these artefacts, you don’t have to be a Metallica fan to appreciate the power of the collection and curation.
MY TIME AT NECRONOMICON
Friday morning saw me on a panel, conceived and orchestrated by Farah R. Smith, called “Mesmerism and Machinations” along with Anya Martin, Steven Mariconda, Leslie Klinger, Jon Padgett, and Michael Cisco. It was a huge topic, meant to highlight some of the under-recognized central European influences on horror and weird fiction from the Romantic to the Modern period, and a wide-ranging discussion; we were only able to briefly touch on some of the more pertinent examples, from Hoffmann and von Hofmansthal through Huysmans and Lautreamont to Kafka, Schulz and Ewers, with a constellation of figures between. I left feeling under-read, excited, and with a long list of writers whose work I’d like to get to know better.
This panel exemplified the direction I hope the Con continues to take – a spiralling-outward from Lovecraft and the Anglo-American pulp tradition he sprang from to include numerous literary and artistic movements from throughout history and across the world.
GETTING DUSTY IN THE HAY
Friday afternoon, I fled to spend a few hours in the John Hay Library, where I explored the Library’s two new exhibitions. The first, Greetings & Salutations : Lovecraft on the Road, focuses on Lovecraft’s bus trip from Providence, Rhode Island to DeLand, Florida between April and August, 1934, where he travelled primarily to visit his young friend and correspondent, R.H. Barlow. Their relationship is the subject of a fascinating New Yorker essay by Paul LaFarge, and gets a queer (meta)fictional re-imagining in his novel The Night Ocean. The connection Barlow forms between Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs, at the heart of the novel, has been factually and critically explored by Michael Cisco’s essay “Re-Animator and Exterminator,” All of these connections sprang vividly to mind as I browsed the exhibit.
The other, The Caitlín R. Kiernan Papers @ Brown University Library, is presented as “a mid-career review highlighting Kiernan’s recent gift of her personal and professional archives.”
It includes a wide array of documents and objects, from first draft copies of some of Kiernan’s earliest writings (both fictional and non-, going right back to her primary school days), panel sketches from her work in comics, including Alabaster and The Dreaming, and one of Michael Zulli’s original paintings (as Philip Saltonstall) for The Drowning Girl. The Kiernan papers, I was told, should be archived and available to the public within six months, and I’m hoping I can make it down to Providence next summer to spent some time with them, as well as finally dipping in to the Lovecraft archives. My article on Poe and Lovecraft in The Drowning Girl is finally out there, but it feels to me like the beginning of a larger study of Kiernan’s fiction, and access to Kiernan’s notes is especially important to the article on her comics-script work for The Dreaming I plan to write once I meet a few other essaying and editing commitments.
While at the Hay, I went all Wilbur Whateley and spent some time reading the 1813 translation of De Rerum Natura by composer and musicologist Thomas Busby (an edition that has proven very difficult to find; while Queens University’s Jordan Collection has one, they are missing the second volume of the book.) I was startled to discover the book’s pages remain largely uncut, and it hasn’t been consulted at all since 1960.
Where my article on Poe and Lucretius focuses on the John Mason Good translation and commentaries, Busby’s rhymed translation was also influential on both the English Romantics (Byron in particular) and writers of the American Renaissance (T. W. White praised it ardently in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1842, making it likely Poe also knew it.)
This translation is proving important to my research on Romantic and Modern reception and adaptations of Lucretius (you can read my essay on Lovecraft’s uses and abuses of Lucretius as part of the volume Lovecraftian Proceedings Volume 2) and to my interest in how Epicurean materialism shaped the development of the Gothic and modern horror.
I returned in time to catch the readings in support of Michael Kelly’s much-anticipated Shadows and Tall Trees Volume Seven.
While the entire run of S&TT is excellent, and a must-read for those who enjoy quiet, creeping and artfully insidious horror and weirdness, this volume covers a wider range of voice and tone than its predecessors. Robert Levy, Simon Strantzas and Steve Rasnic Tem read excerpts from their contributions. It was Tem’s story, “The Erased,” that haunted me the most; it is a powerful study of the loss of self and world, a dispersion of identity and memory closely akin to dementia.
RICHARD STANLEY MAKES HORROR PINK AGAIN
Saturday saw me, even more out of my depth, on a panel called “Lovecraft in Context,” alongside novelists Peter Rawlik and Paul LaFarge, renowned professional annotator Leslie Klinger, and Lovecraft scholar Steven Mariconda, discussing the importance of various specific references, allusions, and intimations in Lovecraft’s work. The session ended with both panelists and audience members sharing detailed speculations about the origins of particular details in some of Lovecraft’s writings. Like that of Joyce, Nabokov, and Poe, Lovecraft’s work attracts a particular kind of obsessive blend of fandom and scholarship, study and identification; the solid attendance and preponderance of highly detailed speculations presented by both panelists and audience here really drove that home. I was glad Paul LaFarge was among the panelists, as I think his novel The Night Ocean represents both the erotics and the power dynamics of this brilliantly. See also the social power dynamics of performing knowledge in fandom analyzed by Matt Hill in The Pleasures of Horror (2005). Hell, somebody should do a doctoral dissertation using Hills’ analysis to break down the social power dynamics on display at any given Lovecraft-themed panel at any convention, ever.
The same afternoon brought what for me was one of the highlights of the weekend – Richard Stanley’s presentation on his film adaptation of The Colour Out of Space. The presentation was apparently a last minute addition to the schedule, as Stanley had just gotten further funding and casting confirmations a few days before the Con started (he said he couldn’t reveal any of the casting decisions yet.) Elijah Wood’s company SpectreVision is producing the film, which Stanley’s been working on getting made for the last five years or so.
I’ve admired Stanley’s films immensely since having my fifteen-year-old brain electrified by the fusion of slasher-horror, cyberpunk music video, and dystopian art fugue that is Hardware (1990), which served as my introduction not only to Stanley’s films but to Ministry’s music and Survival Research Labs’ performance art, not to mention 2000AD magazine. I gained a new appreciation for him after watching the documentaries L’Autre Monde (2012), Lost Soul (2014), and Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014), not to mention his supremely creepy short film adaptation of Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads.” To learn he’s finally filming Lovecraft’s most effective tale of cosmic terror, and to get a sneak peek of some of the promotional art and plot and character outlines for the film was a real treat.
Stanley talked about the departures the script took from the original story, including the addition of a teenaged daughter to the Gardner clan (and the momentary comedic reprieve that will be provided by her ill-fated attempts to stop the spread of the Colour using spells from Simon’s faux Necronomicon), his intention to rely primarily on practical effects, his desire to break from the tendency many contemporary horror films have to work with a stark or muted palette, his admiration for the lurid, saturated colours used, however differently, by Roger Corman and Dario Argento and his desire to create a psychedelic experience with the film, which will, he declared, change the world’s perception of bright pink forever. You can get a sense of this already from an early pre-production teaser trailer from 2013, prior to SpectreVision picking it up. Mike Davis of Lovecraft eZine expressed understandable reservations about the direction the film was taking back when Stanley first pitched, but my enthusiasm was fired hearing Stanley talk about the project. It’s going to be idiosyncratic and bizarre, I’m sure, but perhaps the better for it.
I asked about his initial preference for adapting The Dunwich Horror rather than Colour (more monsters, less abstraction; it has shoggoths, and the 70s version is so bad somebody needs to do a better one) and he spoke at length about the dearth of cosmic horror in the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s works thus far, including in Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2000; a film he otherwise much admires and played a small role in) and in contemporary horror films generally, repeating his oft-stated admiration for both the original Alien film (which, he pointed out, was due more to Dan O’Bannon’s vision than Ridley Scott’s) and Carpenter’s The Thing as rare exceptions.
BEHIND LOVECRAFT’S BACK
Another major highlight for me was getting to hear Nnedi Okorafor read from her work once more (the first time being her GoH stint at ICFA a couple of years back.)
In this case, she read short excerpts from both her novels Binti and Lagoon. Okorafor is a singularly charismatic and versatile reader – never pass up a chance to hear her.
In both her statements during the Con and even moreso via social media, with her characteristic incisiveness, frankness, and humour, Okorafor raised pointed questions about Lovecraft’s place in modern weird fiction, highlighting the perverse (but perhaps necessary, given that Providence’s primary tie to weird fiction is via Lovecraft?) paradox faced by NecronomiCon, as it tries to, on the one hand, transcend Lovecraft’s xenophobia and showcase a multiplicity of diverse voices of the weird, while on the other hand risking a kind of re-colonization of these voices, by linking them to Lovecraft and his work, suggesting Lovecraft has some kind of influence over them. In Okorafor’s memorable words, while what she writes is “probably considered Weird Fiction,” (and Gary Wolfe makes a strong case for this in his essay “The Queen of Future Weird”) it has an “ancestral bloodline *separate* from Lovecraft. My tentacles are African.”
Sunday morning brought my third and final speaking engagement, as I gave a brief talk as part of the Armitage academic-track panel “Emanations of Abominations.” My focus was on some of the ways horror mangaka Junji Ito’s work responds to Lovecraft’s theories of weird and cosmic fiction. In particular, Ito has credited his use of the spiral motif throughout his magnum opus Uzumaki to Lovecraft’s nefarious influence, and I sought to elucidate some of the ways this Ito adapted Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic horror via his relentless transfigurations and transvaluations of spirality.
Following that, we headed over to RISD’s Woods-Gerry Gallery to glom about in the exhibit Wonders of the Visible Weird, which “features paintings, prints, sculptures, and illustrations by more than seventy contemporary artists who explore the themes of weird fiction and cosmic horror, inspired by the works of Providence-born writer H. P. Lovecraft and other authors and artists of Weird. The exhibit showcases new and upcoming artists as well as new or rarely seen works by many of the established artists who have put form to the unnameable and indescribable for decades.”
There were a lot of beautiful, strange, hideous, and ineffably-effed-up creations on display; the array of fantastic visual art and crafts are another of the things that make NecronomiCon unique. For example, this modest little specimen that numbers among my favourites, “Mother, Mother Ocean” by Karen Main:
It seemed strikingly apropos when, during our drive back to Canada Monday morning, the brief eclipse temporarily translated the world into a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, and when, Tuesday morning, I awoke to a tornado watch for the Southeastern Ontario region. I knew those impetuous invocations to Yog-Sothoth during Sunday night’s performance of the Dunwich Horror Picture Show were a terrible bloody idea.