Sunday, May 17, 2020

Lovecraft's Chinese Disciple

If these fragments were as ancient as Zhang claimed, then the piece was an equal—perhaps a usurper—of the masterpiece at Altamira. The pottery was curved slightly, making it trickier than a flat surface to grasp, and far trickier to paint upon. Yet the artisan had ingeniously exploited the natural contours of the material—the pottery, the snake thereon, twisted as one. However, during my study of the fragment, I was compelled to an emotion I could not name. Distraught, anxious thoughts bubbled to the surface of my mind. I eventually noticed that the pottery shard leached a noisome ichthyoid scent, which I instinctively loathed. –Oobmab, “The Flock of Ba-Hui”

Review of:
The Flock of Ba-Hui
Camphor Press Ltd., 2020, 254 pp.

When I heard late 2019 that this book would soon be out, I imagined I’d eventually review it under the title “The Horror Out of China”. But history scooped me on that one. With the subsequent chaos caused by the COVID pandemic, the review copy sent me never arrived. Then an Amazon order I placed (on another book) never arrived. Finally, not trusting the mails, I downloaded The Flock of Ba-Hui on Kindle.

The book is an exercise in developing the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), the reclusive and politically obscurantist New Englander whose work launched what we now call “weird fiction”. It’s an impressive collection, showing a real mastery of the Lovecraftian gamut: the style, the pacing, the protagonists, the weird metaphysics. Though I know nothing about the Chinese author Oobmab, who initially posted these stories online, I can say one thing for sure: he’s earned inclusion with distinction in that fevered clutch of horror writers who continue to mine Lovecraft’s vision. 

I. Lovecraft’s Perversities

I've not read all of Lovecraft, but know the “great texts” quite well. Though I wouldn't say I'm dismissive of Lovecraft, I find there are things incompletely thought out in his project. There's an intellectual sham of sorts at work. Already at my first reading many years ago, I was struck by a fascinating paradox in his idiom. Though an avowed materialist, Lovecraft’s vocabulary of horror leans heavily on what can only be called religious terminology: the words “blasphemy”, “blasphemous”, and “abomination”, among others, appear repeatedly to describe the cosmic horrors that menace his protagonists. And so, reading along, one is led to ask: Blasphemy against what? Or: If indeed there is no God, nothing beyond the material, who or what is there to “blaspheme”? Or again: In relation to what moral system can anything be an “abomination”? 

For Lovecraft, it’s clear the “blasphemy” in question is usually a matter of the appearance of phenomena that shouldn’t be possible according to our normal understanding of 1) human history, 2) the laws of nature, 3) the universe. What Lovecraft depicts as “abominable”, then, are not offenses against God, but rather offenses against what his characters previously assumed the universe to be. Things appear that shouldn’t, or mustn’t—but appear they do. This suggests we’ve been living in a naively coddled state, an everyday blindness that refuses to see the horror that lies behind the veil we’ve put up.

Is that it then? I believe that’s the gist. Lovecraft sees any Western humanist or merely “banal materialist” understanding of our condition as naïve. He would insist—or at least he would dream—that there is more to the picture; that there huddles around us a Horrible Truth that some must finally glimpse.

What would prod Lovecraft, or anyone, to keep insisting on this, to keep dreaming it? I don’t intend to take up the question. It’s clear by the very popularity of Lovecraft’s work that there are many such dreamers. Nightmare enthusiasts. But is this supposed insight into a fundamental Horror that lurks any more “scientific” than, say, the Catholic and Thomistic insight into a fundamental Good that lurks? I would say No, it isn’t—in fact it's arguably less scientific. But that's another topic altogether. (Any who want to see what I’m getting at might start cutting their teeth here. Not the familiar fluff you might expect, reader.)

As literary phenomenon, Lovecraft’s work is a belated and oddly science-infused iteration of the Romantic sublime. It’s just that the mind-bending cascades here are not in the Swiss Alps, and the ruins are not those of the painter Hubert Robert. Rather, the cascades boast tentacles, make eerie whistling sounds, and the ruins are underground and “cyclopean”. Ultimately Lovecraft is one development of what European writers were up to already in the late 18th century. His stories would not be possible without European Romanticism.

In a way this is to say that Lovecraft, like nearly all noteworthy writers, is not so much forging an entirely new kind of literature as putting a strong new twist on what he has inherited. But is Lovecraft in fact a “strong writer”? One might say this: he’s been too denigrated by some (Edmund Wilson back in the day) and is now too worshiped by others.

One of this worshipful handful is the celebrated French cynic Michel Houellebecq. Everybody reads Houellebecq’s novels now, which are in many ways rightly dubbed prophetic, but few read the Parisian bad boy’s early book on Lovecraft. The book offers a fine introduction (perhaps telling us as much about Houellebecq as Lovecraft, but still). The Guardian posted a good selection of extracts back in 2005, which I’ll link below.

Another, more recent admirer is the philosopher Graham Harman, whose book on Lovecraft comes to the conclusion that the writer “writes stories about the essence of philosophy”. Perhaps that is a workable claim in relation to Harman’s own philosophy, speculative realism, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense otherwise. Still, I’m in no place to criticize, as I haven’t read this book, and by all accounts of it I know, Harman does offer a painstaking literary analysis of passages from the tales, showing what Lovecraftian language does. I’m confident Harman can pull this off. I have great respect for him in any case, as writer of the best introduction to Heidegger’s philosophy in English.

II. Oobmab’s Tales

The Flock of Ba-Hui offers four Lovecraftian tales translated from Chinese by the expat Arthur Meursault (author of the must-read black comedy on Chinese Communist bureaucracy Party Members) and Akira, who initially discovered the tales.

As I’ve said, Oobmab has the ethos down pat. One is thrown immediately into the Lovecraftian dilemma: researcher encounters an artefact that can’t be classified, begins to pursue answers, tantalizing clues prod him toward obsession, the site of origin is finally discovered, and the Horror slowly manifests itself. Oobmab also learns from Lovecraft the writerly insight that horror is not merely a matter of the visual. Like the master, the disciple here plays on all the senses, most notably and effectively smell, in narrating what his protagonists experience. His use of the gamut of senses is in fact part of what makes him so successful at recreating the Lovecraft ethos.

The striking difference from Lovecraft here is the milieu. Rather than New England, Oobmab’s main tales unfold in Chinese locales (Sichuan, Qingdao) or Tibet. The long history of China and the Tibetan plateau provide a thick archeological texture to the characters’ quests—and no, one doesn’t have to be well read in Asian history to enter these plots; the writer sketches in his researchers’ hypotheses with a deft hand, allowing any sharp reader to follow. I’m guessing Oobmab himself is a long-time student or professor of religious or cultural history.

The title tale is the strongest of the four, with its subtle integration of folklore especially impressive. I found the third tale “Black Taisui” a close second. In all the tales but one, a similar topographical progression unfolds. So as not to be a spoiler, I won’t elaborate. Still, interestingly, the one outlier of the four tales manages to exactly reverse the topography. (This outlier also happens to be the shortest and clumsiest of the tales, giving a dashed off feel in comparison to the others. Though set in an alternate fictional geography, mention is made of the Greek philosopher Ptolemy, the painter-protagonist sports a biblical-historical name, and at one point he and his friends get high off the smoke of burning "peyote wood". But peyote is in face a squat, rubbery cactus. It has no wood. Luckily, this piece is an exception.)

What is the vision of the universe revealed in these four tales? Of course it is in large measure classically Lovecraftian. To the extent the tales represent his thought, Oobmab’s notion of the metaphysical limits we may touch is mainly a matter of swirling chaos and vast stretches of time, which render our human historical framework almost null. This again is a version of the sublime, of course, and although these tales work well as tales, I don’t myself find it exactly profound as metaphysics. One wonders what this writer may go on to, if he continues to write. I think more interesting philosophical tales might be forged under the tutelage of another Lovecraft disciple, Philip K. Dick.

I don’t mean to presume. Still, it would be fascinating to see what a writer with Oobmab’s talents might do by attempting philosophical tales under the tutelage of the best Chinese philosophy. There is, oddly, an almost unavoidable Western-metaphysical bent to both science fiction and Lovecraftian horror. Is it because Western thought, starting with the Greeks, has gotten at certain things the ancient Chinese didn’t? Or is there something else at play here, a mere matter of intellectual colonization? Certainly literary genre is a massively important vehicle of cultural influence. One may even wonder whether strictly delineated literary genres can ever move between cultures without powerfully imparting the original culture’s metaphysical presuppositions.

Tough questions.

Though the editing shows slips here and there, the translators have done a great job turning Chinese Lovecraftian prose into suitably purple English. The book’s retro pulp cover (which I will be able to see in the flesh when I buy a print copy) warns you of the milieu you are entering. And Meursault and Akira do deliver. At first the frame tale, which the two translators provide for Oobmab’s stories, irked me with the overly arch tone of its narrator (imagine Dan Brown narrating a meeting of the Illuminati) but given where the frame tale led, I ended up convinced. Which is to say: it gave me a good laugh. Congrats on a fine conceit.

The translators also provide notes, for any who want to further pursue Chinese arcana.

All in all, The Flock of Ba-Hui is a deeply entertaining collection of eldritch mishaps and mayhem. 

Eric Mader 


Check The Flock of Ba-Hui on Amazon.

Excerpts from Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.

Check my novel A Taipei Mutt, now in second edition. The Asian capital unmuzzled. More bark, nastier bite.



lovecraftzone said...

All in all sounds rather excellent. Will have to pick up a copy when I've worked my way through my existing backlog of reading material (no small task).

Eric Mader said...

Do pick one up. Any serious Lovecraft reader should have this on his shelf.

Me too, I've a backlog of books, but I do make headway. I buy no more books than I read, and I only rarely let titles skip the line!