Saturday, 9 November 2013

Full Spectrum Offence: Savoy's Neo-Weird

The Weird: Fugitive Fictions/Hybrid Genres’,

Institute of English Studies, Senate House, University of London (8 November 2013)

The ‘Old Weird’ could be seen to be characterized by a notably dubious, not to say toxic, politics. H.P. Lovecraft’s racism is an obvious case – ‘the polyglot abyss’ of The Horror at Red Hook (1925) demonstrating the synthesis of racial panic and cosmic horror. We could also mention that Arthur Machen, when asked by the editors of Authors Take Sides for his views on the Spanish Civil War in 1937, was one of five authors who supported Franco, writing: ‘Arthur Machen begs to inform you that he is, and always has been, entirely for Franco.’ Algernon Blackwood, in his short story ‘Adventures of a Private Secretary’ (1906), has the character of an ‘old Jew’ with ‘an air of obsequious insolence’ (this is one of the milder slurs), called Marx (!).[1] Penguin’s decision to reprint the story in a volume of Blackwood’s Selected Tales in 1943 defies reasoned comment. Beyond personal politics I think we can also hazard a literary politics of the Old Weird that often rests on a sense of racial or political anxiety or threat.

            The ‘New Weird’, in obvious contrast, has a politics that is often much more to the Left. Beyond the obvious example of China Miéville, I would like to note a more general tendency to a cultural politics of loving the alien. The Weird is not seen as simply some terrible threat, but only a threat when perceived as such from within social constraints. The monstrous or Weird is to be celebrated for its expansion of consciousness and erosion of the bourgeois ego – the latter exemplified, often, by Lovecraft’s uptight ‘heroes’.[2]

            Grant Morrison’s short story ‘Lovecraft in Heaven’ exemplifies this turn by rewriting the ‘Old Weird’ into the ‘New Weird’.[3] Lovecraft is dying of cancer and Morrison considers the self-replicating monstrosity of cancer as the physical embodiment of both Lovecraft’s creatures and his fear of the feminine (the ‘cuntworld’ as Morrison puts it[4]). Lovecraft’s positivist rationalism makes him unable to embrace the chaotic and fractal. In conversation with his fictional creation Professor George Angell Lovecraft states: ‘I have come here to confirm my belief that the World of Reason still holds dominion over the primeval depths of the human imagination.’ Angell replies that Lovecraft is ‘quite naïve’ and that, in fact, ‘Reason is the flimsy mask on the face of Chaos’. Lovecraft’s rejoinder is ‘Then our whole world is a nightmare.’ ‘Only if you fear it’, is Angell’s reply. Angell starts to breakdown verbally and physically, saying ‘we must embrace them … integrate them’.[5] The story ends with Lovecraft being opened like a door, not into Hell, as Lovecraft supposes, but into Heaven.[6] This is the DeleuzoGuattarian Weird – in their preference for Lovecraft’s Dunsanian trips to his cosmic horror,[7] or the Levinasian weird of alterity and its integration.

World of Horror

What I want to consider here is a form of the ‘New Weird’ that embraces or integrates the toxic politics of certain strains of the Old Weird; this is the work of Manchester-based publishers Savoy and, most notably, their creation Lord Horror. Horror is a fictionalised reworking of wartime broadcaster for the Nazi’s William Joyce, nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw and executed for treason in 1946. The works deliberately, rather than unconsciously, toy with anti-Semitism, racism, and, in the figure of La Squab, paedophilic desire for the ‘fille fatale’. To be clear from the start I am not celebrating or endorsing this turn or self-conscious return to the politically toxic. These works disturb me profoundly, which is why I want to consider them as an outlier of contemporary Weird fiction.

            The world of Savoy and the world of Lord Horror is a multi-media platform. Lord Horror has appeared in novels (Lord Horror (1989), Motherfuckers: The Auschwitz of Oz (1996), Baptised in the Blood of Millions (2001), Invictus Horror (2013)), graphic novels or comics (Lord Horror series (1-7) (1989-1990) Reverbstorm 8-14 (1994-2000) (2012)), music, film, and criticism (Horror Panegyric (2008)). He also has sidekicks, in the form of Meng & Ecker (The Adventures of Meng & Ecker (1997)), and spin-off characters, such as La Squab (daughter of Meng) (La Squab (2012)).[8] The result is a ‘universe’ or mythos, somewhere between Lovecraft and the comic-book worlds of publishers like DC or Marvel. This dispersion gives a paradoxical consistency to Lord Horror as – like one of his models, Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius – he moves between times and formats. For reasons of brevity and economy today I want to focus on his appearance within the graphic novel Reverbstorm.

            Reverbstorm was a continuation of the first 7 Lord Horror comics and it appeared in 8 issues from 1994-2000. In 2012 these issues were collected together in one graphic novel, with an added final issue. David Britton is the writer, with the main artist being John Coulthart and additional art provided by Kris Guidio, while Michael Butterworth is the editor. The earlier Lord Horror comics, written by Michael Butterworth and drawn by Kris Guidio had initially been more ‘postmodern’ in their playing with comic conventions and comic characters the tone shifts dramatically in Reverbstorm. Now drawn primarily by John Coulthart the density of the art, the decline in the words, and the movement to a thoroughgoing engagement with modernist aesthetics, produces something slightly less immediately confrontational but certainly more strange.

            The shift began with John Coulthart’s work for Lord Horror 5 – a series of full page images of an imaginary Auschwitz with empty white text squares. Coulthart describes this as a ‘unique conjunction of Holocaust architecture and Weird Fiction.’[9] In fact Coulthart drew on and reworked an earlier image from his The Call of Cthulhu adaptation of R’lyeh to figure this imaginary camp. Obviously this is a shocking violation of the refusal of representation of the Holocaust and, even more provocatively, this violation melds the camps with the pulp world of Weird Fiction. It also opens to an architectural or spatial vision of the weird, which I now want to explore.


Spatial Dialectics

Just as the distinction between the latent and manifest contents of the dream had ceased to be valid, so had any division between the real and the super-real in the external world. Phantoms slid imperceptibly from nightmare to reality and back again, the terrestrial and psychic landscapes were now indistinguishable, as they had been at Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Golgotha and Gomorrah.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)[10]


The world of horror is now disconnected directly from the world of William Joyce – that of the 1920s, 30s and the war – displaced into a ‘future’ setting of Torenbürgen (the ‘unreal city’), or what Coulthart calls ‘Lord Horror’s vicious dreamscape of fascist atrocity’.[11] Lord Horror is living with Jessie Matthews (modelled on the English dancer, singer and actress of the 1920s and 30s). Matthews is a rock star, credited with reintroducing reverb into popular music, while Lord Horror defends her against anti-Semitic slurs and joins her on stage to sing. Horror is joined by his ‘brother’ James Joyce.

            Horror still broadcasts a mixture of rock and roll with cut-ups of William Joyce on his radio show ‘Amerikkka’s war in the ether’ on Radio Reich Rund Funk. As Michael Paraskos notes in his review for The Spectator (!), ‘it is difficult to outline a clear narrative thread’.[12] His suggestion that the images represent Benjamin’s wreckage of history, quoted at the beginning of Reverbstorm, is astute. For Coulthart ‘Reverbstorm throws these numerous influences out like a dark prism, flashing broken images of refracted black light’.[13] I want to suggest this image practice inhabits something like what Fredric Jameson calls a ‘spatial dialectics’.[14] In Reverbstorm temporality has collapsed, or been collapsed, and instead we have the spatial play of fragments which are, pace Eliot, not ‘shored against my ruins’.[15]

            These fragments are the ruin; organised within the frame they are brought into contact to generate the weird effect. For Lovecraft modernism was conceived of under the sign of horror. When we encounter R’lyeh, in The Call of Cthulhu:

Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs.[16]

Torenbürgen is horrific, but also a space of modernism – a butchered modernism. This is Eliotic modernism with the anti-Semitism amplified and embodied. To ‘read’ or ‘view’ this non-narrative space is to engage with a difficult act of extracting meaning and reference while also attending to the clash and emptying of meaning.


Integrate That

I have drawn a contrast between the dubious politics of the old weird and the politics of acceptance and integration of the monstrous of the new weird. While I have suggested Savoy’s Lord Horror is an outlier to the new weird paradigm I’d also like to end by noting that it does produce a work of integration. In this case, as I’ve previously argued, what we are called to integrate is ‘fascinating (British) fascism’: the politics of William Joyce, the pre- and post-war politics of Oswald Mosley, and the anti-Semitism and racism that runs through certain strands of modernism.[17] This is integration in the mode of disintegration, in which fascism, Nazism and racism are coded through and as the Weird – also activating the dubious politics of the Weird as well.

            Obviously we can note at least two problems with this strategy. The first is the problem Perry Anderson identified with post-structuralism: the randomization of history. Rather than generating the tension or contradiction of a dialectic this spatial arrangement of images and signifiers merely serves to mix-up and even neutralise the ‘charge’ of the toxic materials it plays with. The result is not so much a force-field, but rather a slackening of tension. The second, inverse, problem is that this integration and neutralization servers a jouissance – a pained ‘enjoyment’ – that reactivates the toxic core as aesthetic option. Far from challenging the fascination of fascism this ‘weird fascism’ integrates the toxic core as ‘attractive’ possibility.

            In some ways the point is that we can’t simply immunise ourselves against these problems or possibilities. The final issue of the graphic novel concerns, in its text, the disintegration of Lord Horror as his insides push out through his skin. This terminal collapse involves reprising the key image elements, under the pressure that refuses to integrate. The tension of this (dis)integrative moment remains and, I should say, never fails to disturb me. So, I’m not simply recommending a return to the malignant politics of some of the Old Weird writers. Instead, I’m interested in how this malignant politics feeds the horror element of the Weird and how Savoy’s return to this malignant politics puts the contemporary Weird under pressure. This, I think, is the tension of our moment.

[1] Algernon Blackwood, Selected Tales of Algernon Blackwood (West Drayton: Penguin, 1943), pp.22-50.
[2] This model is, in fact, figured in Lovecraft’s own fiction. In his story ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ (1931) one character, who has had his brain transferred into a metal cylinder by the Fungi from Yuggoth (!), claims ‘‘What I had thought morbid and shameful and ignominious is in reality awesome and mind-expanding and even glorious – my previous estimate being merely a phase of man’s eternal tendency to hate and fear and shrink from the utterly different.’ (193)
[3] Grant Morrison, ‘Lovecraft in Heaven’, in The Starry Wisdom, ed. D.M. Mitchell (London: Creation Books, 1994), pp.13-18.
[4] Ibid., p.16.
[5] Ibid., p.18.
[6] Ibid., p.18.
[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone, 1988), p.240.
[8] For a complete listing of Lord Horror’s appearances see the ‘Lord Horror Timeline’ in Keith Seward, Horror Panegyric (Manchester: Savoy, 2008), pp.119-125.
[9] John Coulthart, ‘Drawing the Dark’, in The Haunter of the Dark and other Grotesque Visions, intro. Alan Moore (London: Oneiros Books, 2006).
[10] J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World [1962] (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p.72.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Michael Paraskos, Review of Reverbstorm, The Spectator 9 March 2013:
[13] Coulthart, ‘Drawing the Dark’.
[14] Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London and New York: Verso, 2009), pp.66-70.
[15] On the collapse of time, and other coordinates of plot/structure in Lord Horror, see Keith Seward, Horror Panegyric (Manchester: Savoy, 2008), pp.23-29.
[16] H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, ed. and intro. S. T. Joshi (London: Penguin, 1999), pp.165-6.
[17] Benjamin Noys, ‘Fascinating (British) Fascism: David Britton’s Lord Horror’, Rethinking History 6.3 (Winter 2002): 305–318, and ‘Fascinating (British) Fascism: Lord Horror to Meng & Ecker’ Afterword in David Britton, Fuck Off and Die, illustrated by K. Guidio (Manchester: Savoy Books, 2005).


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