Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Selections of the Month: Cabell, Mirrlees, and Williams Book Selections of the Month (December 2009):

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Cabell

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

If proudly amoral people, lesbians in academia, and Christians with a theatrical bent are your idea of a good time — and aren’t they everyone’s? — you’ve come to the right Christmas Eve blog entry, since the three books listed above (in order of their publication) appear to have been produced by just such authors.

This entry also marks the glorious fulfillment of my year-long plan to make 2009 one last fun-filled wallow in fantasy books, sci-fi books, comics, and TV before leaving consumption of all of those things behind (and even this seemingly frivolous plan naturally expanded into some digressions such as utopian texts throughout October and other arguably highbrow fare because that’s how I roll). Saving some of the best for last, though, I here recommend three strange early-twentieth-century fantasy novels clearly aimed at mature readers — these are no mere war between elf tribes. At least the first two turn out to have been praised by Neil Gaiman, but I swear that’s not how I discovered them.

Jurgen (1919) was written by an American, James Cabell (rhymes with “rabble”), who had been suspected of murder at one time eighteen years before this book — not hard to believe given the strange fact that his main character here, Jurgen, commits a murder and soon resolves, in a fatalistic fashion, that what’s done is done and that he won’t even bother reflecting back on the crime during later episodes of soul-searching and (slight) moral growth, brought on by slipping ghost-like between different fantastical and mythological worlds in search of his wife and numerous extramarital affairs (in a picaresque fashion bordering on sloppy and superficial at times). Very weird. Somewhat Satanic, by design.

But then, a lot of Satanism is really just playful philosophical mischief, you’ll find — even when allied to other, truly execrable causes. Take for example the dedication to the book Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, an influence on Obama associate Bill Ayers, which apparently reads in part: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.”

One amusing aspect of Cabell’s amoral, faux-medieval novel: Jurgen eventually visits Hell and learns that it is actually filled with self-absorbed moralists who have intense and guilt-wracked consciences, who spend eternity demanding punishment for sins that no one else — including God or Satan — actually cares about.

People without consciences (arguably including the philandering and lying Jurgen himself) go directly to Heaven, whereas the occupants of Hell, the ultimate “controlling bottoms,” narcissistically demand elaborate punishments from the wearied demons of Hell. The demons are the only ones who are truly suffering in all this, since they have to keep poking penitents with pitchforks and relighting bonfires and so forth, causing the demons to start complaining about the fact that Hell hasn’t had a democratic change of administration in a very long time and could perhaps do with some alterations.

Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) was written by Hope Mirrlees, a British woman who fell in love with one of her female professors and lived with her until the latter’s death. This hyper-quaint, rural tale — almost like a ghost story set in a combination of New England and Hobbiton — revolves around the question of just how much weirdness a community can repress before having to embrace the strange. The closest analogy from our world is not forbidden sexuality, though. Rather, Mirrlees’ tale suggests she had at least some passing familiarity with drug culture. In the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, the drug in question is not heroin or cocaine, though — it’s fairy fruit, a reminder that the entire town once had frequent interaction with beings about whom it is now taboo to speak at all.

As a corrupt teacher, a semi-human doctor, and other local menaces begin luring children into ancient, repressed rituals, a pair of aging fathers attempt to unravel the mystery, leading to a hallucinatory trip to fairy land itself and encounters with the walking dead. In the end, though, the only solution to the artificial dichotomy between the rational, commercial world of Lud-in-the-Mist and the irrational but spiritually-invigorating world of the fairies may be to let in the forbidden armies of the supernatural.

Descent into Hell (1937), arguably the best — and most conventionally moralistic — of the three books, was written by Charles Williams, part of the circle of British, Christian fantasy writers called the Inklings, which also included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The plot revolves around a group of mostly-young twentieth-century British intellectuals and theatre people unwittingly living in a neighborhood where the veil between our world and the afterlife has grown very thin, affording each of several characters the opportunity to perceive the divine or, through easy but vicious psychological decisions, sink into Hell, both metaphorically (by succumbing to hate and aggression in this world) and literally (by consorting with demons). Central to the plot — and aesthetically vindicating the book as a whole — is a harrowing portrait of an older man obsessed with a theatrical young woman — and, ultimately, with a demonic version of her.

We haven’t quite heard the last from British fantasists on this blog, by the way, since G.K. Chesterton will make an amazing second appearance in my Book Selections in January (though not for a fantasy novel), as will Aristotle and an In Character issue about Wisdom — plus, perhaps less obviously, books from economist David Friedman and eroticist Rachel Kramer Bussel (and speaking of sex-obsessed writers, I see anthropologist Helen Fisher is speaking at the New York Academy of Sciences on Jan. 5, so maybe I should check her out).


Also coming next year, lest I appear to be giving up on fantasy in all forms: a decent batch of likely-good nerd movies (to note on your new 2010 calendar):

•Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (3/19)
•a remake of Clash of the Titans from the director of the second Hulk movie (3/26)
Iron Man 2 (5/7)
Jonah Hex, based on the disfigured DC Comics cowboy character who wears a Confederate uniform — with Megan Fox portraying a scantily-clad whore (6/18)
Inception, the Matrix-like thriller from Chris Nolan (7/16)
The Expendables, featuring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and virtually every other action star ever, fighting a Latin American dictator (8/20)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (11/19)
Tron Legacy (12/17)
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (roughly one year from today)

The two-part final Potter film (don’t tell me what happens!) will reportedly feature a brief glimpse of main-character ass, by the way. Alas, it will be a Harry ass, not a Her.-ass. (Aslan will also be nude in any and all remaining Narnia films, if you swing that way.)

But I’m de-emphasizing the fantasy next year in favor of some real-world history (which is, of course, often even weirder), while admitting I’m sort of doing it for fantasy-enhancing purposes, having another comic book idea percolating in my brain.

Tomorrow, though, I’m off to my own little slice of ancestral forestland, Norwich, CT — and thus will be offline until Sunday morning. Enjoy the holiday and be good — your small corner of the universe depends on it, after all.

1 comment:

Todd Seavey said...

[...] To avoid crapola, I will aim to see only ten new movies per year henceforth, I think — and will let you know annually which ones make it onto that list.  My Book Selections entry last week ended with a list of nine that may be nerd-mandatory in 2010, but that leaves room for at least one surprise.  We’ll see. [...]