The Shape of Water and Del Toro’s Cosmic Fairy Stories

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most well-known fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work, his influence on Del Toro is fairly obvious. I’ve even seen one internet commenter refer to Del Toro’s Hellboy as the closest we’re ever going to get to a big tent Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft is famous for a brand of fiction known as cosmic horror. The basic idea is that the universe is vast and uncaring. Humanity has no special place within it, and in its dark reaches there may be things so far beyond our understanding that we could only classify them as gods or monsters—and those monsters would be indifferent to us. Whatever threat they pose to humanity comes not from their desire to destroy us, not from some special, directed enmity towards mankind, but simply from the fact that we may get in the way of whatever their true goals are.

Like Lovrecraft, Del Toro’s stories do not tend to explain the overall cosmic structure of the universe, but rather to unsettle it, to disorient the viewer and make them realize how little they know about how the universe truly is. Like Lovecraft, he calls down to earth creatures that are profoundly Other, whose purposes we cannot understand, whose very forms and way of existing are strange to us. He explodes the notion that human life as we know it is all there is, or is even particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

But unlike Lovecraft’s readers, Del Toro’s viewers rarely come away with a sense of despair, disgust, or disturbance. Rather than take cosmic strangeness and use it to put an arrogant humanity back in its proper place, Del Toro takes it and does something else: he tells a fairy story.

The way many of Del Toro’s films feel like “fairy tales for adults” has been remarked on often enough, but it doesn’t usually get placed in the context of his Lovecraftian influences. Anyone familiar enough with the folklore can tell you, though, that traditional fairy tales have a lot in common with Lovecraft—the Fair Folk, the Good People, whatever you call them, are first and foremost strange. They are unutterably inhuman in their motives and their way of life. To encounter them is profoundly dangerous and unsettling, not because they hate mankind, but simply because they care little for us one way or the other. Simply by being who they are, they might upend our very existence.

Of course, one key difference between fairy tales and Lovecraft is that fairy tales may often have a happy ending. The fairy’s magic, rather than destroying you and all you love, not to mention everything that exists, may instead rescue you from some tragedy, or grant you a gift you never thought you could have. For Lovecraft, this was inconceivable, and stories like this were nothing more than lies delusion. For Del Toro, this is par for the course.

In this breakdown of The Shape of Water, I want to examine exactly how this works.

 

The Allure of the Other

 

If Del Toro is good at anything, it’s design. The guy is meticulous in how he crafts his sets, his props, and his costumes. He creates notebooks for his movies, with sketches for every element of the design, and background notes on characters. He chooses his color palettes carefully, distinguishing one realm from another, for example, by whether it is blue-green or orange-red in overall tone.

But it’s his creatures in particular that are most alluring. Many of them start from a human base, but are over-muscled, or have a strange bone structure to the face. They are taller than mankind, and sometimes lack eyes, or have intricate designs traced into their skin. They are rarely colored in any of the usual shades of brown, but are often red, pale white, green, gold, blue, or some other strange shade.

The more monstrous are often tentacled, but rarely slimy or fungous, and often bear features that are less squiddish or octopoid than the average Lovecraft knockoff. They are frightening, but not disgusting.

Whatever form they take, Del Toro’s creatures are rarely repulsive, and often attractive.

The Shape of Water is about the romance between a human being and a Del Toro creature. The creature in this case, referred to only as “the Asset,” is an aquatic humanoid from somewhere in the Amazon. He is built like a male model, but covered in scales and fins, and is oddly segmented, with large, strange eyes. Like every other Del Toro creation, it’s a work of art.

For Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who works in the government lab where the Asset is kept, it is even more than that. Over the course of the movie, she shares eggs with it, plays music for it, and teaches it sign language. She dances for it from the other side of the glass. The bond is clearly mutual, and she is devastated when she discovers how cruelly it is being treated, and the fate that is in store for it. She rescues him, lets him live in her apartment bathtub, and their friendship blossoms into a romance—one that is eventually consummated in what ought to be a few very off-putting scenes.

Setting aside for the moment the idea of having sex with an Amazonian fish-person, the fact that Del Toro really did manage to pull off this inhuman romance is significant. This was love between a human being and something that was incredibly other.

A number of Lovecraft commentators have, along with Lovecraft himself, said that the most primal fear mankind has is the fear of the unknown. That which we don’t know is somehow supposed to be frightening, to be unsettling, to be something we would destroy rather than face. Del Toro calls bull on this, and he’s right to do so.

Humanity frequently loves the strange, the other, the unknown. We are attracted to the exotic, the new, the different. We love travelers’ tales and fantasy stories, tales of the distant future or the distant past, or of some far-off kingdom in a land not quite like our own.

The moment capitalism gave us the opportunity, we ditched homestyle fare in favor of a dozen different foreign cuisines—and now pizza, tacos, General Tso’s, and all the rest are a central part of the American diet.

One complaint about the portrayal of certain ethnicities in film is the way they are made exotic and sexualized in that context—that is, we look for the ways they are different rather than the same, because difference attracts us. And of course, most of humanity is attracted to a particular kind of strange and exotic anyways—the opposite sex.

There is something to be said here about religion, too. While it is true that we have generally portrayed gods in anthropomorphic ways, this is always qualified by their unearthly attributes—whether that is merely size, strength, and beauty, or the unsettling powers they have over aspects of reality. As often as not, we portray the gods as animal or half-animal. The very notion of worship is based around the fundamental strangeness of the divine—here is a thing different from myself, strange and other, and far more powerful than I. I must adore it.

Lovecraft, a homebody, a racist, and a bachelor for most of his life, did not often get this love of the other, but certain fantasy writers do. One of the first real fantasy books I read, the one that got me into this lifelong obsession, was Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner. In it, the protagonist travels over a vast sea to a dangerous island in search of a legend—dragons. She wants to see something and befriend something that is sentient, but that is not human. The driving force of the story is that she has a powerful desire to see and know the Other.

The Shape of Water understands this, as do many other of Del Toro’s stories. Rather than recoil in fright or disgust when we encounter the other, Del Toro’s design asks us to marvel at it, to enjoy it. His characters will learn to love such creatures, to trust them, to befriend them. He takes the unsettling cosmic horror, and turns it into an appearance of the Fair Folk—strange, but also beautiful.

 

True Violence

 

There is, however, a dark side to Del Toro.

Del Toro movies aren’t shoot-‘em-ups. They’re not violent in that sense. The more free rein he’s given, the less a gun is fired. But when a gun is fired, it’s sickening.

Hollywood has given modern people the ability to see violence over and over, but not to feel it. We know it’s acting, and we know the “movie magic” will be undone when the scene is cut and the dead extras rise again and walk offstage to visit craft services. Often, we barely see what happens to bad guys that are killed onscreen—a motion is made in their direction, and they fall. It is less important to know what exactly happened to them than whether the good guy neutralized them. This is not violence, it’s playing a game where you can tag out members of the other team.

But Del Toro portrays movie violence as violence. The first violent scene in the movie comes when a man’s fingers are bit off. We see the stumps and the blood spurting from them, see his pale, shocked face, watch him collapse. This is our antagonist—he’s supposed to be intimidating. But the non-fatal and non-crippling wound is shown as profoundly painful, and his lifeblood spills out everywhere. Soon after, we find his fingers, and they are placed in a brown paper lunch bag for transportation. He later comments on this, as a condiment got on them. They are reattached, and we watch for the rest of the movie as the character waits for them either to get better or to rot and have to be removed.

Other scenes of violence are equally torturous. We get a disturbingly humorous introduction to a cattle prod, and then we see it pressed into the Asset’s flesh repeatedly a few scenes later. I say “pressed” because you can see his skin actually pushed in, not merely contacted, and you have to wonder if he is being cut by the prod as much as he is being electrocuted by it. Where another movie might show us a few zaps and leave it at that, having communicated the fact that the Asset is in pain, Del Toro lets it go on, again and again, driving home the cruelty and the degree of suffering. “You will not enjoy this or shrug this off,” he seems to say, “You will understand what it does to the creature.”

Guns in his universe are not point-and-click instruments that remove an inconvenient opposition. They leave entry and exit wounds. If these wounds are punched in a cheek, a finger can go through them, and you can drag the bleeding person along in excruciating pain. If placed elsewhere, there will be plenty of blood, and it will spread rather than merely streaming down a single channel. It will get everywhere and it will stain. And still the victim will not be dead. Guns are cruel, and Del Toro will make you aware of the fact.

Though violence is hardly supernatural, I do think this is one of the most Lovecraftian elements in Del Toro’s work. The way he uses it tells us that the universe is not a kind place. Cruel, bad things happen, and they happen suddenly and irrevocably. Once they happen, there will be time to contemplate them, to experience the pain. It will not be easy. The universe does not care for your feelings. Violence happens, and it is not good.

But violence does not get the last word in a Del Toro film, and that’s another thing that makes it a strikingly distinct than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.

 

The Misfits of the World

 

“All us freaks have is each other.”

The quote comes from Hellboy, but it’s applicable here, too. The protagonists are a who’s-who of marginalized groups—a “differently abled” Hispanic woman, a black woman, a gay man, and, depending on how sympathetically you read him, a communist. They stand in contrast to a white, heterosexual, American male antagonist with a wife and two kids who lives in the suburbs, wears a suit, and is trying desperately to be “upwardly mobile.” The most ridiculously stereotypical “normal” American against the most ridiculously stereotypical collection of “not normal” Americans.

A certain sector of Twitter has done a lot of eye-rolling at this, and with good reason. On the face of it, it’s ham-handed and clichéd, and is definitely trying to score political points. It also requires zero sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers, challenging absolutely nothing about the world they live in. Since when is Hollywood a bastion of middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, family-centered, anti-blaspheming, straight-laced, suburban, patriotic conservatism? The Oscars have been described as a series of lectures on sexual ethics from the people who protected Weinstein. The Shape of Water does nothing to undermine that image.

But set aside the politics for a moment. The idea of the marginalized winning instead of the mainstream is a classic trope of fairytales and folk stories, and even of the Biblical narrative. Whether it’s cobblers or seventh sons or scullery maids, fairy tales are full of the most unexpected people being the ones who save the kingdom, and often who end up ruling it, alongside whatever prince or princess that met along the way.

The kind of misfits Del Toro chooses for his heroines and heroes may often tell you exactly what decades of Hollywood the guy has been working in, but the particular kinds of misfits are less important than the fact that they are misfits. Del Toro portrays a world where horrible violence happens, where humanity’s place in the universe is not as central as we thought it was, and yet in the end the little guy is the one who wins. The underdog comes out on top. His world is the world of fairy tales.

 

God or Monster?

 

The Shape of Water revolves around the Asset.

The Asset is vulnerable. He can be captured, chained, and beaten. He bleeds. He needs food to survive, and if the chemical properties of the water he lives in are not properly maintained, he suffocates and begins to die.

The Asset is not all-wise or all-knowing. He does not know Elisa’s intentions to begin with, and he is slow in learning sign language. Music is a novelty to him, and cats are strange and frightening. At one point, Elisa tries to tell him how she feels, and he doesn’t even notice. He is busy eating his eggs, as indifferent as a housecat.

The Asset, it seems, is not a god.

But the Asset is a god. He was worshiped by the natives of the Amazon. Brought back to Elisa’s apartment, he his capable of healing wounds and restoring youth, in a limited form. He shines with a strange and otherworldly light, and it is uncertain whether this is an emotional reaction or a sign that power is flowing out of him. And finally, when killed, he is revived. When others are killed, he can revive them. He can even change the very nature of a being into something new.

Part of Lovecraft’s project is to destroy our notion of the distinction between gods and aliens, gods and monsters. Religion, science, magic—they are all the same in Lovecraft’s world. They are simply different names for our interaction with the unknown, and what we call that unknown, whether we think it is divine or demonic, is irrelevant. It is simply Other.

In the same way, Del Toro breaks down the distinction between god and monster with the Asset, and with many of his other creatures. He is not concerned with a simple binary of good-by-nature or evil-by-nature, nor is he concerned with the ultimate structure of the universe and anything that is truly, transcendently Divine. He is concerned only with the wide and wild variety of beings that may live in a universe as strange and vast as ours, each with its own limitations, but whose limitations are far different from our own.

 

A Fairy Tale Ending

 

Del Toro’s stories are, from start to finish, a fairy tale spin on Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. We encounter the Other, and learn that our place in this cold, uncaring, indifferent universe is far from secure. But instead of destroying us or driving us insane, the Other offers us a chance at redemption, at escape from tragedy or at achieving some dream we never thought was truly possible. The universe these two authors live in is metaphysically the same, but their outlook on it is not. For Del Toro, there is a chance of a happy ending.

I find this strange and interesting and human. Lovecraft insists that a world where we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things must be horrible. He yearned for order, and when he did not find it, he was disturbed. But Del Toro is an anarchist, and a liberal. He believes in individual freedom, in the ability of individuals to create their own meaning, their own dreams, and to pursue them to the end of the line.

A world that is cosmically indifferent is, by definition, not hostile to humanity. Lovecraft was so caught up in the horror, that his stories reflected a world where, in practice, the Other is hostile. Del Toro recognizes that while the Other may indeed be hostile, it is just as possible that it might find a reason to help us, or at least refrain from hurting us. And so Del Toro can have a fairy tale ending.

Ultimately I can’t agree with either perspective. I don’t believe the cosmos is essentially disordered and meaningless, or that we have no special place within it, although I would agree that we’re definitely not at the center of things. But if the cosmos really were indifferent, I think Del Toro’s take is probably the healthier and more accurate one. In a world that does not care one way or the other, why not take a chance and see if it will side with us? If anything, that desire is certainly more human.

Regardless, Del Toro’s cosmic fairy stories a great deal more fun to watch than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is to read.

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Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.

Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”