The Terrible Occult Detectives of the Victorian Era
November 30, 2018 12:34 PM   Subscribe

 
Carnacki is great , you scoundrel.
posted by Artw at 12:40 PM on November 30 [9 favorites]


Carnacki’s cases revolve around men dressed in horse costumes just as often as they wind up being about disembodied demon hands chasing him around the room. Using a totally made-up system of vowel-heavy magic (The Incantation of Raaaee, The Saaamaaa Ritual), Carnacki spends most of his adventures crouched in the middle of his electric pentacle, taking flash photos of weird monsters like a nightmare pig (“The Hog”), a floor that becomes a puckered pair of whistling lips (“The Whistling Room”), and an indoor blood storm (“The House Among the Laurels”). His trademark is kicking his guests out of his house at the end of his stories, shouting, “Out you go! Out you go!”
Yep. Carnacki is amazing.
posted by Iridic at 12:41 PM on November 30 [22 favorites]


> in which a humorist overdoses on marijuana and loses his sense of humor

The true story of Joe Rogan
posted by idiopath at 12:52 PM on November 30 [46 favorites]


Bullshit, Carnacki is terrific, some of those stories rank up there amongst the best Victorian ghost stories and in my opinion - and I've read all of his work - the best of Hodgson's stuff, too.
posted by smoke at 12:57 PM on November 30 [14 favorites]


Oh this is fantastic. I'm currently running a Monster of the Week game using a Victorian/Gothic horror setting, and this will be a great resource. Thanks for the link!
posted by Navelgazer at 12:59 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


This article has all the hallmarks of current review;

Take things personally, even if it was written 100 years ago.
Writing about bad or flawed people is bad.
Exaggerate for clicks.
posted by bongo_x at 1:01 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


Yes, Carnacki is the best. I tried the John Silence ones and didn't get on with them.

The best thing about the Carnacki ones is that about 70% of the mysteries are not occult at all...but 30% are!!! And you can't tell which are which by the tone or approach - you have to wait for the big reveal. Carnacki totally will fool you. Also, they're genuinely creepy - the blood dripping from the ceiling, the jester's terrible fate and the chapel with the haunted dagger gave me chills.

The only thing with the Carnacki ones, as with several of the John Silence ones, is that there's some unexpected animal deaths.

IIRC, Conan Doyle wrote some not-quite-mystery occult stories too - there's a mystery that is cleared up, but no real detective.

You have to wonder to what degree the detective story form grew from the ghost story - a lot of early modern ghost stories are basically mysteries anyway, like The Old Nurse's Story, which is terrific and very sad.
posted by Frowner at 1:01 PM on November 30 [12 favorites]


... and, for some strange reason, mummies. Lots and lots of mummies.

If anyone wants to dig into the fascinating reasons for this, Roger Luckhurst's The Mummy's Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy is a well-researched, highly readable introduction to 200 years of English Egyptomania.

I've read a decent amount of 19th and early 20th c. detective and detective-like stories, supernatural and otherwise, and this article, while accurate in some respects, shouldn't deter anyone from the genre. As Iridic notes, there is plenty of the entertaining Victorian bonkers - and also some genuine chills - to be had
posted by ryanshepard at 1:04 PM on November 30 [8 favorites]


This article has all the hallmarks of current review;

One does get a little tired of the style of internet writing that is basically "it is shocking and incomprehensible that life before about 1985 could be remarkably different from today".

Also, the lack of patience with the material is fatiguing. This essay does actually point out that the Carnacki stories are pretty good, but the other ones do have a quiet interest if you take the time to get used to the prose and the approach. No one has to like the popular prose of the 19th century, but it's not really any worse or more risible than the popular prose of any era, and when you read popular writing you often get weird little insights about the period.

On another note: I'm sure there are tons of dissertations on the topic, but an awful lot of early to mid modern detective stories are structurally little more than "foreigners did it for irrational foreign reasons".
posted by Frowner at 1:06 PM on November 30 [23 favorites]


I got the sense that the writer actually kinda loves all of these stories (otherwise why read them all?) and is having fun playing up their more extreme aspects for entertainment purposes, but I can understand if that doesn't come across, or if I am actually wrong about their attitude.
posted by dfan at 1:07 PM on November 30 [15 favorites]


I love the John Silence stories although I am a fan of Algernon Blackwood in general.

The 'Ancient Sorceries' story by the way, is directly lifted by Murakami in 1Q84 as the basis for Cat Town which was also printed in the new yorker.
posted by vacapinta at 1:14 PM on November 30 [6 favorites]


You only hire Flaxman Low if you are truly hardcore, because his cure is usually worse than the disease. Haunted by a dead leper from Trinidad? Pull the house down (“The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith”). Bedeviled by a ghost cult of Greeks? Punch them in the face and move out (“The Story of Saddler’s Croft”). Plagued by a haunted bladder, a phantom taste, or family suicide? Flaxman Low is there to instantly pin the blame on a bunch of Dianists, dead relatives who meddled with Eastern mysticism, or an African man hiding inside a cabinet and using glowing poisonous mushrooms to kill off the family. Then he explodes your house

I think I've played Call Of Cthulhu with this guy.
posted by zamboni at 1:14 PM on November 30 [36 favorites]


Yeah, the whole thing feels different if you imagine it was written out of fondness for the material. I mean, I absolutely love Victorian ghost stories, but part of the reason I love them is because of how hilariously dated they can be.

I especially love the stories stories that end with a "rational" explanation. You'll have all this scary stuff, and then the narrator is like "ah yes, you see, it appears as though the monster was actually a variety of dog that had evolved over time in isolation, and its grotesque appearance is due most likely to the abundance of mineral salts in the region which blanched its fur, its aggressiveness no more than the quite natural instinct to defend itself from all manner of unfamiliar visitors. Further study will no doubt reveal a fascinating bloodline, and a number of specimens have already been tamed by Lord Quimberly and have proven to be, in fact, quite maternal in instinct with His Lordship's young nephews."
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:17 PM on November 30 [22 favorites]


Pish. The Carnacki stories are Edwardian, not Victorian.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:23 PM on November 30 [6 favorites]


Tough crowd! I was interested in this. I like Grady Hendrix. But I did think, when I clicked it, that it would be about actual occult detectives, who would of necessity be terrible at detecting. This may sound stupid, but in the era that gave us Spiritualism, Helena Blavatsky, and wizard slapfights, it would not be implausible.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:28 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


Okay, but dibs on "Electric Pentacle" for the name of my stoner metal band.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:33 PM on November 30 [9 favorites]


I, too, think that people are taking this criticism too literally, rather than as tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the often bizarre source material. Sentences such as:
Silence battled lots of foreigners, including Canadian werewolves, German Satanists, French cat witches, and math.
[emphasis mine] are difficult to read any other way.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:37 PM on November 30 [19 favorites]


Also, I've never read Carnacki stories, and I've been missing out! But I think I have some books with Hodgson stories in them, so I will check them out and report back (because people love hearing strangers' reactions to Victorian Edwardian ghost stories, right?).

While we're at it, feel free to drop any recommendations in the thread! I'll try to think of anything I might have read that wasn't already covered by this article.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:38 PM on November 30


On another note: I'm sure there are tons of dissertations on the topic, but an awful lot of early to mid modern detective stories are structurally little more than "foreigners did it for irrational foreign reasons".

I loved Alfred Hitchcock's "Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do On TV" as a kid and decided to re-read the collection as an adult [confusingly there were a couple of different versions of the collection, one with 12 stories and one with 25 (!) but the point I'm going to make still stands] - anyhow, turns out that a lot of horror stories used to hinge upon "foreign people are inherently frightening because they are foreign".

And I'm a fan of Paul Bowles and his effortless ability to make the mundane menacing, but his stories often rely on this trope too (cf "A Distant Episode"). The only time that this type of story has really worked for me, because I enjoyed the protagonist getting his comeuppance, was "Lindsay And The Red City Blues" by Joe Haldeman. Yet even that is problematic as hell.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:38 PM on November 30 [3 favorites]


Also, the lack of patience with the material is fatiguing.

...the author has apparently read scores of stories in this obscure genre, and knows them well enough to speak about the finer stylistic differences between the various characters and authors. He's clearly an enthusiast of the form.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:41 PM on November 30 [8 favorites]


actual occult detectives

I don't really know much about them, but you may be interested in Elliott O'Donnell (e.g. Twenty Years' Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916)) or E. Katharine Bates (e.g. Seen and Unseen (1908) and, based on a comparison of the title page of her novel, A Year in the Great Republic, v.1 and v.2) ...

Or the amazing Georgiana Houghton: "Flower of Catherine Emily Stringer" (1866), "Spiritual Crown of Mrs. A.A. Watts" (1867), other drawings, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance (1882), and Chronicles Of The Photographs Of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Naked Eye (1882).
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:54 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


I created a psychic detective for my series, but he IS a bit of a mess.
Actually, a lot of a mess.
My favorite has always been Jules de Grandin.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 2:04 PM on November 30 [4 favorites]


Name of the Little Blue Pig!

Jules de Grandin is always hillariously bad.

I’m sort of fond of Dolald Wandrei’s I. V. Frost mysteries, which are sort of “science detective fights occult that isn’t really occult and there is some punching.” In the interests of full disclosure, I know one of the publishers, and the Jean Moray character gets treated pretty dismissively; she’s strong and capable, but always undermined by the story. Also, they are definitely American Pulp, not Edwardian anything.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:44 PM on November 30 [3 favorites]


While I have never read much of the Victorian material covered by the article I have read some later works that obviously owe it a large debt (and are referenced by the article in the "later came.." bit in the closing paragraph.) Hendrix specifically mentions John Thunstone there, who is a creation of American writer Manly Wade Wellman, but for my money Wellman's superior supernatural problem solver is Silver John, aka John the Balladeer. Fans of the Victorian era works might enjoy Wellman's stories once they have exhausted the material from the original period.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:09 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


They're kids books, and not from the Victorian era at all, but John Bellairs' books are suitably gothic (Edward Gorey illustrations if you're at all doubtful) and even as a kid, I appreciated that the occult shit that happens in them is actually real (in-universe). So there's always the denouement chapter at the end of the book where whatever kid is the protagonist of that particular story and his older professor/priest buddy talk about what actually happened, and it's like, "yeah, that warlock totally cursed and miniaturized his skull and put in this diorama to torture you, dude."
posted by LionIndex at 3:17 PM on November 30 [4 favorites]


Dr. Silence, Mr. Perseus, Moris Klaw, Simon Iff, Xavier Wycherly

Four new names for use in my RPGs.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:29 PM on November 30 [2 favorites]


Five, Sir!

Now read from the Book of Armaments.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:29 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Okay, but dibs on "Electric Pentacle" for the name of my stoner metal band.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:33 PM on November 30 [2 favorites +] [!]


Electrical Pentacle, surely? Say it four times fast. Or five maybe.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:31 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Hellboy is the best occult detective who mainly punches things.
posted by Artw at 4:08 PM on November 30 [8 favorites]


I think it would be really interesting to live in a time when the scientific method was starting to develop and mature, but when it was not yet widely acknowledged that magic didn't work. There were people out there trying to investigate the occult via scientific means, often believing themselves to be making genuine discoveries. There were plenty of charlatans, but also plenty of true believers. It was an interesting mix of ideas, and I think it would have been a very exciting intellectual space to explore. It's kind of a shame really that all that occult, paranormal stuff didn't pan out. For a time there though, it was plausible that it might.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:23 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


This gives more context for Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.
posted by idiopath at 4:29 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


For example the"messages from beyond" showing up as text in the middle of a satellite data feed is exactly that intersection of science and the occult.
posted by idiopath at 4:31 PM on November 30 [3 favorites]


Carnacki’s cases revolve around men dressed in horse costumes just as often as they wind up being about disembodied demon hands chasing him around the room.

BoJack Horseman Season 6.
posted by rhizome at 5:33 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


i will fight anyone who smack talks william hope hodgson, i had no idea that he wrote fucking detective stories i am so pumped to read tales of his ELECTRIC PENTACLE and HOG NIGHTMARE which seems somehow related to the Swine-thing of house on the borderland

yyeesss
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 5:33 PM on November 30 [7 favorites]


I'm pretty sure my bladder is haunted, but I can't afford to explode my house so I guess I'll see what Encyclopedia Brown can do.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:16 PM on November 30 [6 favorites]


I think I've played Call Of Cthulhu with this guy

Or possibly me, in one of the three times I played. Only the paranoid escape with their sanity, so set fire to everything first, and then blow up whatever might be left.
posted by aramaic at 7:03 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


In this epoch, one sells words by being breathless, cynical, and a little glib, just as Victorians/Edwardians were a bit prolix and couldn't do without port-sodden frame narratives. I hope the critics of the future will be kind and see the poignance of our common condition.
posted by Iridic at 7:13 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: breathless, cynical, and a little glib
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:37 PM on November 30 [4 favorites]


Grady Hendrix loves horror fiction of dubious quality to such an extent that he wrote this gorgeously-illustrated and exhaustive guide to it . This piece reeks of affection with wide-open eyes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:06 PM on November 30 [4 favorites]


They're kids books, and not from the Victorian era at all, but John Bellairs' books are suitably gothic (Edward Gorey illustrations if you're at all doubtful) and even as a kid, I appreciated that the occult shit that happens in them is actually real (in-universe).

They may not be Victorian in time, but Bellairs is strongly Victorian in his affections, for sure (if 1970s Victorian revival). I was appalled by Eli Roth's recent run at "The House with a Clock in Its Walls", which seems to have died a suitably quick death - those books were, after I found them in a suburban DC public library in the early 80s, game-changers for me. The first books that got me really excited about reading on my own that I can remember.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:46 PM on November 30


(Dr. Silence, Mr. Perseus, Moris Klaw, Simon Iff, Xavier Wycherly)

Those sound suspiciously similar to some of the so-called real life superheroes.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:53 PM on November 30


for my money Wellman's superior supernatural problem solver is Silver John, aka John the Balladeer. Fans of the Victorian era works might enjoy Wellman's stories once they have exhausted the material from the original period.

I was going to bring up Silver John here. Second the recommendation. I like the short stories better than the novels, though.
posted by praemunire at 8:56 PM on November 30 [3 favorites]


Nthing Hodgson's Carnacki and Wellman's Silver John. Those stories are a lot of fun.

This gives more context for Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

Mark Frost has mentioned being a fan of Dion Fortune and he definitely incorporated a fair bit of material dredged up from the pulpier end of Theosophy.

posted by Ashwagandha at 10:28 PM on November 30 [1 favorite]


...the author has apparently read scores of stories in this obscure genre, and knows them well enough to speak about the finer stylistic differences between the various characters and authors. He's clearly an enthusiast of the form.

That's true, and I wasn't able to formulate exactly what I meant in my earlier comment.

What I find fatiguing about this style of internet writing isn't so much the writer's impatience with the material as the assumption that you have to make excuses for it, that the audience will be impatient, that the audience will of course think "wow this is stupid and cheesy, what a loser" unless you make sure to say "this is stupid and cheesy! let me run it down in detail for you". This is a recurring internet format for writing about the past - our grandparents' bizarre food, our parent's stupid stereos, etc.

I mean, what if this article had been written from the standpoint of "these are interesting. They're not all masterpieces of prose, but consider these creepy passages and interesting insights into the period."

I find the "let me tell you about why this subgenre that I like enough to read is dumb and cheesy" unnecessarily defensive. Those among your audience who only think of the past as a source for dumb, cheesy things to criticize and mock are either extremely naive or stupid and thoughtless, and you shouldn't consider them.

Most of the time I find myself in situations where people think my interests are dumb or bizarre, so I'm pretty used to the elevator speech about, eg, Russian science fiction and social reform, or servants' memoirs of the early 20th century written after WWII, or images of the Soviet Union in American pop songs, etc etc. For a long time I used to use the "here's one weird fact!" approach, but I've learned that when you treat something that you think is significant like the source of a listicle, people basically assume that even someone who cares about it finds it kind of dumb.

I also feel like this style is connected to standard anti-intellectualism - caring about something and studying are stupid, weird things to do, so best to emphasize how you're only in it for the lulz, which I find insulting to both writer and audience.
posted by Frowner at 5:16 AM on December 1 [11 favorites]


I find the "let me tell you about why this subgenre that I like enough to read is dumb and cheesy" unnecessarily defensive.

I'm not sure that this is the intention of the piece, but I think you're right that, especially in the context of so much intersnark. It seems, like the original intent was to poke fun at how bad the characters themselves are at their jobs, rather than how bad the stories are themselves, which doesn't seem like a totally dismissive take in itself. For example, I think it's both fair and funny (although, I will admit, not original) to note how terrible a job Dr Hesselius does in Green Tea (I mean he literally does just carelessly let the main character, who has come to him for help, die). It just feels to me like the sheer ease, fun and popularity of writing dismissive rather than supportive criticism was too tempting for the author to resist, and it ended up feeling a lot more sneery and less interested than it should have. But I guess clickbaity approaches do bait clicks, and I can see why the temptation to go down that path is so strong, when it's easier and usually gets more attention than a more diligent and insightful approach.
posted by howfar at 6:28 AM on December 1 [1 favorite]


Occult Dectives often seem to be precursors of Dr. House — uninterested in their clients except as problems, and very cavalier about safety with the trope “they’re probably dead anyway; might as well try this crazy idea” heavily in play.

“Professor Obscure, I am tormented by demon cats!”
“I see. I am going to send you to this cottage full of demon cats; they will scare away your demon cats.”
“But what about those demon cats?”
“Who is the occult detective here, you or me?”
“Will you come with me?”
“Heavens, no, that cottage is terrible.”
“...”
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:08 AM on December 1 [9 favorites]


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Drake's "Old Nathan".

/* The arc of five stories take place in 1830 in what’s now Lewis County, Tennessee. The lead character, Old Nathan, is a cunning man–a hedge wizard. I consciously modeled him on John the Balladeer, to my mind the most evocative of the many characters created by my friend Manly Wade Wellman.

I wrote the first two stories in the series in May, 1986, the month after Manly died… and that’s why the book was important to me*/
posted by aleph at 7:39 AM on December 1 [1 favorite]


... an awful lot of early to mid modern detective stories are structurally little more than "foreigners did it for irrational foreign reasons". That is also the basic premise of The War of the Worlds. In any case, I agree with others above who have pointed out that the article reflects significant study and engagement with these texts, but strangely projects a mocking, derisive attitude toward them.
posted by Seaweed Shark at 10:11 AM on December 1


War of the Worlds, Dracula, The Battle of Dorking... yes, the British imagination did run wild on the evil foreigner trop in the late 1800s.

(And I always wanted an electric pentacle)
posted by doctornemo at 10:16 AM on December 1


"Old Nathan" seems to be available in Baen's free library.
posted by aleph at 10:21 AM on December 1


Occult Dectives often seem to be precursors of Dr. House

That's an interesting point. Hesselius in particular is really more of an occult doctor than an occult detective. And being a doctor in the late nineteenth century often meant there was little you could do for an Interesting Case beyond making the patient comfortable, trying out one or dubious cures mentioned by an old correspondent, and taking meticulous notes for the medical journal.
posted by Iridic at 10:51 AM on December 1 [1 favorite]


The War of the Worlds is basucally an early Black Mirror... “what if the British Empire... but to us?”
posted by Artw at 10:54 AM on December 1 [4 favorites]


(I mean, there is something uncanny about the fact that we're constantly surrounded by imperceptible entities that will kill us unless warded off by ablutions and sunlight and hollow needles filled with the ghosts of old diseases. 150 years after Pasteur, that's still too much for some people to handle. In the very early days of germ theory, a pathologist might have appeared as much of an exorcist as a detective to a lively imagination; Le Fanu, who evidently had hypochondriac tendencies, saw a lot of doctors.)
posted by Iridic at 11:21 AM on December 1 [2 favorites]


I don't know. I'm sympathetic with impatience with the results of the Internet take-generating algorithm. But I've read my share of unnecessarily solemn, consciously "recuperating" takes on old genre texts, and sometimes it feels like they're just denying the obvious: that there's a lot of bonkers packed in between the paragraphs. If you're an aficionado of "damaged" texts, that's part of the charm; the weirdness and the technical incompetence opens up space for bizarre, magical things to happen that just can't occur in more disciplined texts.
posted by praemunire at 1:12 PM on December 1 [2 favorites]


I'm sympathetic with impatience with the results of the Internet take-generating algorithm. But I've read my share of unnecessarily solemn, consciously "recuperating" takes on old genre texts, and sometimes it feels like they're just denying the obvious: that there's a lot of bonkers packed in between the paragraphs

But there's an option different than "this text is stupid" and "this text is profound" - it's to historicize the text. Like, was this something that would have been understood as bonkers in 1900 or was this something that would have seemed Totes Serious but that seems bonkers because science has moved on? (Consider, eg, The Night Land, which reads as entirely 100% bonkers now but was partially bonkers and partially science when it was written.)

I'd be way more interested in an article which broke down the whole "a lot of these were written at a time when serious people thought it possible that telepathy and telekinesis were just waiting to be discovered, so there's a lot of permeability between discourses" than "this is bonkers". The interplay between science, the new age beliefs of the period and sensawonda bonkers things changes so much from era to era.

To illustrate what I mean by pointing to a much more serious subject: the way the discourse has changed about spomeniks. The first time I ever saw a picture of one was years ago, and the commentary on it was pretty much "Communist ideas of art - crazy, amirite? Only foreigners being foreign would ever build such things, you should totes take an Extreme Eastern European Vacay and photograph them!"

In an instance of things on the internet for once not being terrible, people actually talk about these now in historical context (memorials to the victims of the Nazis and to those who resisted; pieces of art intensely important to the communities in which they were situated) and in artistic context (the non-realist goals of the artists, brutalism, Tito's artistic projects). They're still amazing, haunting and bizarre, but they're not "weird art by weird commie foreigners from the dead past" anymore. (I wish people would situate them more in terms of sort of anti-capitalist modernism and the communist avant-garde, but maybe after the revolution.)

Obviously there isn't anything like the same kind of there there with, eg, Carnacki the Ghost Hunter, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that we need to treat all the electric pentacles and so on with high moral seriousness. But I do think that focusing on whether we find a thing sheerly bonkers or not elides a lot of stuff that is actually interesting. And there's a way in which "foreigners doing weird things because they're foreign" is paralleled by "the past being weird because it's the past".
posted by Frowner at 3:47 PM on December 1 [7 favorites]


This article is amazing.

Like Batman, Silence vanished for five years of international training, only to return well-versed in being obnoxious and making things up

And with a slight edit...

Defensive, condescending, full of made-up knowledge, and absolutely lethal to patients — these are the hallmarks of the Climate change denier, MRA supporter, and possibly homeopathic doctors.
posted by sio42 at 4:20 PM on December 1 [1 favorite]


But I've read my share of unnecessarily solemn, consciously "recuperating" takes on old genre texts, and sometimes it feels like they're just denying the obvious: that there's a lot of bonkers packed in between the paragraphs

But there's an option different than "this text is stupid" and "this text is profound" - it's to historicize the text.


I gotta agree with both these takes myself. There's an undeniable gulf between our understanding of the world and that of previous eras. Old texts of any sort often show this and that becomes part of the signal interest in the text; the change between then and now and what's been lost. That's part of the fascination with even more mundane things like that which might be found in an antique store. We collect the past because it is, mostly, gone and different than the now. That gives those items which may have been seen as unexceptional or even silly at the time and added aura of meaning akin to that of things of greater aesthetic meaning made in our time and place. The "strangeness" that is achieved by effort or imagination in showing alternative perspectives now can be felt in something from another era just by its existence out of time.

At the same, um, time, I'm also a bit tired of all the internet posts based on laughing at the past, intent on framing things from some other time and place through our "better" perspective as mostly just worthy of mockery. It isn't that some of it isn't amusing or that there isn't at least an implicit deeper point that could be summoned from some of the laughter, such as, for example, in the somewhat recent post over how Judith had been portrayed in paintings throughout history. But the articles rarely examine the historical context in any detail, if they mention it at all, leaving it at a "those wacky ancient folk/foreigner" level.

That, to me, becomes tiresome even at its best and is often borderline offensive at its worst. It exposes an unhealthy satisfaction with our own understanding of the world that is hardly deserved in so many ways, as one can witness in our current political situations among many other places. We will be subject to the same accounting of history as those who came before and our own limitations exposed in like fashion. Rather than just laugh at times and places elsewhere, I'd prefer at least some minimal attempt to better understand them as that does help in better seeing our own failings through context.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:55 PM on December 1 [3 favorites]


Hit the point in the article where I was starting to skim ahead for links and it suddenly ended. With a list of more links, but even so I feel cheated despite attempting to cheat myself. Nothing more to add, stories to read!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:27 PM on December 1


But there's an option different than "this text is stupid" and "this text is profound" - it's to historicize the text.

I mean, I trained as a historian, with a dissertation on a particular form of ephemeral literature, I know this? I could list a dozen serious academic approaches one could take to these books. But even considered in their own context, a lot of texts are still...pretty silly. It's okay to recognize that.
posted by praemunire at 9:43 PM on December 1 [2 favorites]


For the record, I didn't intend "praemunire clearly doesn't understand what 'historicize' means", and I should probably have written that comment in a way that read "I would prefer to do this" rather than "obviously you have never heard of this Incredibly Profound Approach".
posted by Frowner at 5:26 AM on December 2 [2 favorites]


wait can we talk more about the parts of the night-land that were less bonkers at the time? i am exceptionally here for that. how do you find out more about that.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 11:05 AM on December 3


I can't seem to find the essay I read which talks about this in more detail, but there's a little bit at Tor - Hodgson was drawing from Lord Kelvin's work estimating the lifespan of the sun and the idea of tidal lock/the earth's rotation stopping, plus newish ideas about volcanic heat being long-lasting and powerful. There's also a certain attempt at scientific plausibility in certain aspects of the landscape - petrified trees, all the descriptions of sulfur pools, etc.

You could argue that the "dehydrated water" and the many, many descriptions of air flow and crop growth within the giant metal pyramid are sort of haunted by the science of the day, and by earlier adventure fiction - he doesn't just say "in the far future, when there are magical-spooky creatures, there is a magical-spooky pyramid!" even though he's obviously not interested in any real explanation for the magical spooky creatures - are they really spirits? Are they aliens? what role does, like, God play in all of this? why do they care about humans so much? And the dehydrated water idea...well, it doesn't work, but there actually are deliquescent chemicals, so there's sort of a "in the future, SCIENCE will make this actually-existing technology better such that we can carry a powder which absorbs water out of the air until you have actual water!" And similarly, the absurdly high-powered telescopes through which the people of the Redoubt watch the narrator are completely in line with both surveillance technologies of the period and their subsequent development.

In a way you could compare The Night Land with CS Lewis's Space Trilogy because both are cosmic/spiritual romances. The Hodgson seems a bit more bonkers now, in part because it makes more of an attempt at plausibility. CS Lewis seems less bonkers even though he really didn't even make any serious attempt to integrate contemporary science and because it's more christian than cosmic. And partly because the forties are a lot nearer to us culturally than the 1900s. But the CS Lewis is actually way more bonkers, IYAM.

~~

I was just thinking of The Night Land this morning because I was reading Vera Figner's Memoirs of a Revolutionist - there's a section where those few prisoners whose sentences have been reduced leave the isolated fortress, and at the gates they turn to wave farewell to those still inside, people they never expect to see again. It made me think of how like a prison the Redoubt really is, and to wonder whether Hodgson was inspired by 19th century developments in hospital, military and prison technologies.
posted by Frowner at 11:49 AM on December 3 [4 favorites]


Omg thank you. The focus on electricity and "Earth-Current" seemed very like, science-fictional and contemporary to its time period, but I had not considered Lord Kelvin and volcanoes.

Do you mean that Lewis is more bonkers like in general or that Lewis's cosmic settings of his space trilogy are more bonkers than The Night-Land ? I agree on both counts but I am curious to hear more about this as well. Also I think Hodgson's writing-style works againt him wrt bonkersness because just wading through the "I saw, and in seeing I..." etc etc makes his settings seem even more weird and remote, and of course CS Lewis isn't doing that. But what do you think!

There is something I really like about golden age kind of Romantic-inflected sci-fi, there is a real feeling of possibility and experimentation and a relationship to allegorical and mystical elements of the European literary/religious/magical traditions that seem less present in later stuff. But I could be wrong.
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 3:54 PM on December 3


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