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The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature

Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Life and Thought Emerging from the Tomb, 1893

My series of blog posts on The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature is now complete:

 

Part 1- Mythorealism

Part 2- Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman

Part 3- The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker

Part 4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

Part 5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

Part 6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

Part 7-  Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

Part 8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 8)

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Ekaterina Sedia’s novel The Secret History of Moscow is often seen as a Russian answer to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but its protagonist Galina is a more interesting and complex personality than Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew. Where Mayhew (like some of Gaiman’s other heroes) can be frustratingly passive, Galina is an active participant in every situation she finds herself in.

 

When Galina’s sister turns into a bird and flies out the window after giving birth in the bathroom, Galina and two acquaintances follow after her into a secret world beneath the city of Moscow. Down in the underworld they find a number of characters from Russian folklore, a few of the ancient Slavic deities, and an assortment of refugees from the world above who fled underground at various points in Russian history.

 

Although Russian mythology and folklore is a big part of this story, Sedia treats the mythological elements with the same tone of melancholy, ambiguity and skepticism that she applies to the modern world, the people in it and heroes of Russian history such as the Decembrists.

 

There are several different ways to approach mythology. You can think of it as a mess of lies about nonexistent gods and heroes, a collection of amusing or poetic stories, a set of revealed truths with factual validity, a memory of a lost golden age when the world was young and everything was magical- or as something as alive and relevant now as it ever was, though not literal.

 

There’s no point in questioning or probing a set of lies- you just dismiss them. There’s no need to do so with stories that are merely amusing or poetic- you just let yourself be entertained by them. Revealed truths are supposed to be immune to doubt. A memory of a lost golden age can’t really be questioned too closely either. King Arthur was the good guy, and that’s that- even though he ordered the murder of every baby boy in the kingdom to try to prevent Mordred from being born.

 

Anything alive and real and relevant to our lives can be questioned and probed. You can criticize it or adopt a skeptical attitude to it if you choose to, because it’s not separate from our world. Sedia’s tone in The Secret History of Moscow is complex and somewhat cynical, but it seems to me that this is because she takes the mythology too seriously to put it up on a pedestal.

 

If we look at all of the works we’ve examined in this essay, different facets of the mythorealist tendency become apparent with each one:

 

Gaiman- magic and myth in modern settings, the magic is all around us.

Barker- horror and wonder at the same time; horror and wonder are the same thing.

Lukyanenko- using mythology to tell morally serious stories.

Del Toro- seeing out of more than one set of eyes; magical polyvalence.

Bekinski- freedom of imagination combined with realism.

Bullthe magic of place.

Sediataking the myths seriously enough to adopt a critical stance toward them.

 

All of these aspects, in one way or another, are “what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world.”

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 7)

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Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was one of the first novels in the urban fantasy genre, and although it has many characteristics in common with later examples of the style it also stands out in several ways. The protagonist Eddi McCandry, for instance, is not a leather-clad sex symbol wielding a katana in the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. Instead she’s a struggling and basically down-to-earth rock musician playing in a cover band in late-Eighties Minneapolis who happens to get drawn into a war for control of the city between the two rival fairy courts.

 

Eddi McCandry’s presence on the battlefield is required in order to render the otherwise-immortal fairies mortal enough to fight and kill each other. Because she’s basically a normal person who was chosen more or less arbitrarily for the role of scapegoat, Eddi is vulnerable to assassination by the other side. A fairy named Phouka is assigned to protect her, and the relationship between Eddi and Phouka is the heart of the book. War for the Oaks also delves into the classism and elitism of the fairy social structure, with Eddi encouraging her low-ranked companion to question his place in the scheme of things.

 

The division of the fairies into a Seelie and an Unseelie Court is familiar and widespread, but it’s actually not well-supported in the Scottish folklore it’s supposed to be derived from. There are many references in Scottish lore to a fairy court ruled by a Queen of Elphame, and to “unseelie wights” (entirely malevolent spirits) and “seelie wights” (not-entirely-malevolent spirits) but no notion of two separate fairy courts waging a struggle of light versus darkness, good versus evil or any other moralistic dualism. Scottish fairies are all more or less perilous. Emma Bull’s story, like many others, filters the Scottish lore through the familiar light versus darkness trope, so there’s a Seelie Queen whose victory would be good for Minneapolis and an Unseelie Queen whose victory would result in the spiritual death of the city.

 

Just because it’s different than the lore it’s derived from doesn’t make it inauthentic, though. The light versus darkness myth is deeply ingrained in American popular culture, and combining it with the Scottish fairy lore helps to ground the story in its Midwestern setting. The sense of place is a big part of what makes this story effective from the perspective of mythorealism- Bull succeeds in turning a large American city into a believable battleground for a war between fairy queens. She takes the urban environment and creates a mythology for it, making Minneapolis into a place of magic and wonder- or revealing that it always was.

 

The ancient religions of the pagan past were highly localized, based on the spirits of specific groves, the goddesses of particular rivers and the ruling deities of cities or tribal territories. War for the Oaks is a pagan story in this most ancient sense- myth incarnated in one very specific place.      

 

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 6)

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A valley between high cliffs into which a distant light faintly shines, where the giant bodies of dead soldiers seem to have grown somehow into the solid rock. A cathedral as massive as Chartres, made entirely of blood and flesh, with a great dark hole leading into the center of the structure like an invitation. A horde of insect-like creatures crawling into the gaping mouth of a huge godlike face, in front of the bombed-out ruins of a dead city. Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish painter of fantastic realism, may be the greatest twentieth-century artist most people in America have never heard of.

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Beksiński never named his paintings and he never explained them, once saying “I cannot conceive of a sensible statement on painting.” He disdained any question about what his paintings meant, describing his work as simply “photographing dreams.”

 

It is the quality of Beksiński’s dreams that make his work so fascinating. Beksiński saw into another world and then incarnated it in this one, giving us windows onto the mythic realms in the form of his paintings. Where Gaiman, Lukyanenko or Barker portray an intersection of the waking world with a transcendent reality, Beksiński never shows us our own world, but only the other one. His works are nevertheless a definitive example of the mythorealist tendency, using realistic techniques to make the mythic into something you can almost touch with your own hands. It is Beksiński’s mastery of his technical repertoire that makes this possible, because there is nothing vague or notional about these images- they practically look like actual photographs, albeit of a landscape that is as alien as it is horrifying.

 

One of his paintings shows a world of monoliths, on each of which squats an identical circle of skeletally-thin figures grouped around a fire, seemingly performing some coordinated ceremony. In another painting a spider-like or crab-like monster, as big as a house, broods from atop a T-shaped crucifix that looks down on a lunar landscape of dark blue rocks. Many of these images involve massive architectural edifices, ruined cities, buildings made of organic matter, and cadaverous humanoid figures performing ritualistic acts.

 

Beksiński’s paintings were consistently grim, but he was apparently a pleasant and easygoing man in person, and he described his own work as being in some sense humorous. If so, then it was gallows humor. The last years of Beksiński’s life were marked by tragedy. His wife Zofia died in 1998, followed by the suicide of his son Tomasz a year later. In 2005, Beksiński was stabbed to death by the teenage son of his caretaker after he had refused the young man a loan.

 

Beksiński’s life may have had its tragedies, but he was not a melodramatic or self-indulgent figure. He claimed to be inspired primarily by classical music, and he was said to be shy and modest in temperament. In an era in which the artist’s outward-projected ego was everything and the work nothing, Beksiński was the exact opposite. He showed that the mythic realm could be painted with all the clarity and precision of a digital picture. Indeed, he worked almost exclusively on the computer for the last period of his artistic life, creating digital images of the same strange worlds he had so often rendered in paint.

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

 

The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 5)

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth operates on two levels at the same time. On the one hand it is the story of Ofelia, a lonely little girl in post-Civil War Spain, who has been carted off to a rural military outpost where the Spanish Maquis are waging guerilla warfare against her Falangist stepfather’s tiny garrison. On the other hand it is the story of the Princess Moanna- the very same girl- who must find her way back to her true home in the Underground Realm, the beautiful fairyland from which she is unknowingly exiled. A mysterious and more than a little sinister faun (the “Pan” of the title) guides young Ofelia through the tasks she must perform to prove that she really is the reincarnation of the lost Princess Moanna, and that her life in the human world has not rendered her unfit to return home.

 

Ofelia’s stepfather is a sadistic fascist, a war criminal and torturer who loves only the unborn son his ailing wife is carrying, and then only as a symbol of his own masculinity. Though unfailingly correct toward his wife in the old school sense, his coldness and distance toward her create an air of constant tension. His attitude toward Ofelia develops from disdainful to murderous as he discovers her sympathy for the Maquis, and her intentions of running away with his newborn son after the death of her mother.

 

The tasks set for Ofelia by the faun are classic fairy-tale tests, such as to obtain a key from the body of a giant toad, and a magical dagger from the lair of a child-eating ogre called the Pale Man. Ofelia fails this second test by violating a taboo, resulting in one of the most visually stunning sequences of the movie, as the Pale Man hunts Ofelia through the corridors of his lair, watching her through eyes in his hands. The task, the broken taboo and the child-eating ogre are all classic fairy-tale motifs, but what makes this scene so effective is its successful evocation of the feeling of a nightmare, of being chased through dark tunnels by a relentless monster. The effective use of modern special-effects technology is what makes this possible, creating the visual illusion that all these things are really happening, with no more suspension of disbelief required than the bare minimum.

 

Most directors telling such a story would have given us a fairyland of cloying sweetness and impossible innocence, but the perilous double nature of the traditional fairy realm is incarnated in the faun, a darkly powerful presence who evokes anything but trust. His final task for Ofelia is to steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth, where he reveals that the only thing that will open the portal to the Underground Realm is to shed innocent blood. Ofelia’s final test is one of good versus evil, and she doesn’t know which of the two the faun actually serves.

 

The ability to see out of more than one set of eyes, to accept multiple interpretations of reality at the same time, is the heart of magic. Is the Underground Realm “real” or “imaginary”? Is Ofelia a sad and possibly delusional little girl, or a fairy-tale princess? Does she really return to the Underground Realm, or is her final vision of that magical place a mere hallucination?

 

All of these things are actually true at the same time, depending solely on your perspective and your worldview. Ofelia’s stepfather is a man who can only see one world. Ofelia can see two. Any interpretation of the final scene depends on how many worlds the viewer can see.

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 4)

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Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series is an example of a sub-genre I call “gothic noir.” Gothic noir combines the imagery of film noir- its gritty realism, its down-on-their-luck characters, moral ambiguity, and sense of fatalism- with the supernatural themes and concepts of horror fiction. As the result naturally involves placing the mythic in a modern and streetwise context, pretty much any gothic noir would also be mythorealist by default:

 

The world of noir is already a horrifying place- people are accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but then again they can’t be sure they’re really innocent; the past is an inescapable force that makes choices irrelevant and true freedom impossible; no statement can be taken at face value and love leads almost inevitably to betrayal. In such a world there is no escape and little chance of survival… Some writers and filmmakers have taken this concept further, introducing elements of supernatural horror to noir’s grimly romantic world, or placing archetypal noir characters in a horror setting… This borderland dates back to the beginning of the noir style… Despite this history of overlap between the styles, this borderland has only just begun to be explored. Noir’s no-escape mindset would seem to be an ideal match for the darkness of horror fiction. There’s a lot more exploration to be done. (From the article “Gothic Noir” on the Noir Originals website)

 

At the time that I wrote these words for Noir Originals, I didn’t feel that most of the available work in this sub-genre had lived up to its potential. A great deal more gothic noir has been published since then under the label of “urban fantasy,” and most of it has been conspicuously unimaginative- “Sam Spade vs. Dracula” would about sum it up, with a number of equally dull variations such as a private eye who happens to be a werewolf or a witch or an escapee from Hell.

 

But then there is Night Watch. In the first volume of Sergei Lukyanenko’s tetralogy, Anton Gorodetsky is a low-level mage in the employment of the Night Watch, a kind of police force of the magical world. His job is to monitor Dark Others (vampires, witches and the like) to make sure they aren’t violating the ancient Treaty that governs the Cold War between Dark and Light. Naturally the Dark Others have a Day Watch to police the Light Others, and the machiavellian plotting and counter-plotting between the rival agencies provides the primary conflict in the series.

 

The eternal struggle between Dark and Light is nothing new- not only is it the oldest cliche in fantasy fiction, it was also the basis of the Zoroastrian and Manichean religions, as well of the Bogomil and Cathar heresies- but Lukyanenko has no intention of letting things remain that straightforward. Our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is not initially very good at his job, but he does have a strong moral center- something you might assume that all the Light Others would have, but then you would be wrong.

 

It turns out that the Light Others feed on the pleasant and happy emotions of ordinary humans, draining them for magical power and thus leaving them depressed and lonely. The Dark Others feed on the negative emotions, with the result that contact with a Dark Other makes you feel better. On the other hand, the joy that the Light Others steal from you will return even stronger, as will the sorrow the Dark Others steal. The Light Others help you in the end, but they make you feel bad in the short term, while the Dark Others are the reverse. Both classes of Others are essentially parasitic, depending on humans for magical energy.

 

The Dark Others are nihilists, believing in sociopathic selfishness as their only philosophy. The Light Others are idealists, believing that they can create the perfect world if only the Dark Others would stop interfering. Communism and Nazism? Creations of the Light Others, subsequently corrupted by the Dark Others to prevent their victory. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, was a Dark Other. The Dark Others include creatures such as vampires and werewolves that prey on the living by their very nature. Not all of them are malicious, however, and some are capable of love and kindness. The witch Alisa Donnikova in the second novel of the series, Day Watch, is doomed by her love for Zabulon, the Day Watch commander, and even more so by her love for a Night Watch agent whom she fails to recognize as her enemy.

 

Many of the Night Watch agents- particularly the commanding officers- have become so morally corrupted by centuries of warfare, manipulation and compromise, that it is impossible to describe them as “the good guys” and the Day Watch as “the bad guys.” Rather, there is a growing sense that the whole thing is a sham, an artificial structure in which the only real difference between the Watches is the difference between the wolf and the shepherd- which, to a sheep being fattened for slaughter, is an academic distinction. Night Watch operative Anton Gorodetsky must navigate this treacherous world to the best of his ability, seeking not only to do his job but to retain his soul. In tackling morally significant questions with a serious attitude, Lukyanenko’s work stands on a different level than virtually everything else in the gothic noir category.

 

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 3)

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Clive Barker is usually described as a horror writer, but that isn’t really accurate. This description has stuck with him because of the Books of Blood, the uneven but sometimes awe-inspiring collection of short horror fiction that made him famous. He also created the Cenobites of the popular Hellraiser series of movies, inspired by his novella The Hellbound Heart, and he wrote and directed the movie Lord of Illusions.

Still, even though Barker’s work is almost always horrific, he would be more accurately described as a fantasy writer, and his fantasy has everything to do with the realms of myth and their tendency to bleed over into our reality. Even in the Hellraiser series, which is overtly horrifying, the action turns around a mysterious puzzle box, which has the ability to open the gateway between the worlds, allowing the entities of the mythic realm to come through to our own. (An outcome which is very much to be avoided in this particular series!)

Clive Barker’s masterpiece is Imajica, a sprawling epic fantasy unencumbered by the pseudo-medieval trappings of so much of the genre. Barker has commented in the past that too little use is made by most fantasy writers of  their own Christian mythological background. Although Imajica is very far from being a Sunday school lesson, it is nevertheless strangely Christian, though mostly in the Gnostic sense. According to the author:

Imajica started with my thinking about the images which appear in the great paintings of Christian mythology. Whether or not they’re true, they seemed to me to be potent, powerful and important cyphers of image and meaning. So I considered writing a book which would be a fantasy, but which would also be about God, about belief, about a man who discovers that all his life he has been prepared for an act of massive consequence but didn’t realize it.

The central themes of this novel are distinctly mythorealist. The concept of personal gnosis, for example- finding out for yourself, going directly to the realm of magic and seeing its truths with your own eyes:

Jude surveyed the labyrinth that spread from the foot of the stairs with fresh respect. ‘Have you tried to find the book since?’ ‘I didn’t need to. When Papa died I went in search of the real thing. I traveled back and forth as though Christos had succeeded and the Fifth was reconciled. And there they were, the Unbeheld’s many mansions.’

The Unbeheld is Hapaxemendios, a deity rather similar to the Gnostic Demiurge or “False Creator.” This enigmatic and terrifying entity conquered the magical realms known as the Imajica by slaughtering all of the goddesses, then veiled himself behind a wall of nothingness in the First Dominion. In Barker’s own words:

Hapexamendios, the villain of Imajica, is the personification of that God. He is the personification of the joyless, loveless, corrupt thing, which has over eons created his own city of his own flesh. It happens to be, when you look at it, an extraordinary city, a glorious city. But when you look really closely at it, you see that it a completely empty city. There’s nobody there, there’s no love there, there’s no joy there, there’s no compassion there because there are no people there. It’s just a self serving system of self glorification.

The Five Dominions of the Imajica are five separate worlds, of which our own world is the Fifth. Travel between the first four Dominions is relatively easy, but the Fifth Dominion is “unreconciled,” cut off from the rest by the horrors of the void space known as the In Ovo. Few of the Fifth’s inhabitants know anything about the other Dominions, but the inhabitants of the Reconciled Dominions long to be reunited with the Fifth, as only such a Reconciliation can make the Imajica whole. This Reconciliation can be attempted only once every two hundred years, but all previous attempts have failed catastrophically. Two hundred years before the events of the novel, the Maestro Sartori attempted to perform the ritual, the results of which were so disastrous that they upset the balance of power in the Imajica itself, resulting in the conquest of three of the Dominions by the tyrannical Autarch. Now events are converging toward another attempt, but powerful forces are also at work to sabotage it.

The main players in this epic are a callow playboy and art forger known as Gentle, a sexually ambiguous assassin and prostitute named Pie’oh’Pah, and a woman named Judith whose personality veers between slavish devotion and stubborn rage depending on the circumstances. As Gentle and Pie’oh’Pah cross the reconciled Dominions, they come face to face with alien species and strange modes of life more reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting than any traditional fairyland. These manifestations of wonder are rendered all the more potent by their bizarre spontaneity- they don’t derive from any book on folklore, but from a direct and very personal vision of the magical world, one vivid enough to make you suspect that Barker has been there personally.

We need more of this in fantasy fiction- a lot more. Tolkien portrayed his elves as being one of the many peoples of Middle Earth, but he still gave them an otherworldly aloofness, a feeling of not quite belonging among mortals, an aura of magic. Legions of second-rate imitators have simply presented the elves as ordinary humans with pointy ears and Renn Faire names, with all the magic of an accountant playing dress-up. Writers with a greater sense of the numinous have turned to folklore, presenting us with modern versions of the ancient Sidhe-folk or the Norse Alfar, such as Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks or the works of Charles de Lint.

Barker and Gaiman stand out through their willingness to not simply rely on folklore but to take a fresh drink from the source itself, which is not lore but gnosis. The creatures in Barker’s fairyland drive in cars and ride on trains, and the power of the Autarch is upheld by tanks and machine guns, not swords and spears. But the sense of immediacy and vivid reality, the feeling of genuine magic in all of its power, is far more intense here than in mainstream fantasy, because it doesn’t have that feeling of second-hand magic. This is myth in the raw, myth pulled straight from the source.

The magic in Barker’s world doesn’t come for free, nor can it be called upon free of consequences. The burden of personal guilt weighs heavily on these characters, all of whom are connected to each other by a forgotten history, the great tragedy of the previous attempt at Reconciliation. The disaster of that attempt was due to ordinary human failings, arrogance and lust in particular but most significantly the urge to objectify, to treat the other person as a thing to be used. The revelations of past crimes shed a new light on several of the characters, changing the reader’s perception of them and their perceptions of themselves.

The Imajica is not a playground any more than the Earth is, and the aftereffects of a single bad decision can cross the centuries like a series of ripples, leaving destruction and suffering behind them. Yet the hope for personal redemption remains intact, as well as the hope for a Reconciliation that will reunite the Dominions, restoring magic to our world and our world to magic. The core of this Reconciliation is a change in our mythology, balancing gods with the returning goddesses- and overthrowing the bloody-minded and tyrannical god of the patriarchal religions. Whether or not one agrees with the viewpoint in this particular mythology, it is certainly a powerful expression of modern spiritual trends and needs.

Imajica achieves real heights of wonder and awe, but these heights are not always reached in Barker’s other works. The numinous is evoked with tremendous effect in some of his short stories, particularly “Dread” and “Rawhead Rex.” The last line of “Dread” is one of the most effective in all of modern horror:

There was pain without hope of healing. There was life that refused to end, long after the mind has begged the body to cease. And worst, there were dreams come true.

Some of the other stories in The Books of Blood can be inconsistent, often sacrificing pacing and craftsmanship for raw power. The Books of Blood are the punk rock of horror fiction, and like the best punk bands they often work for the very reasons they shouldn’t work.

The Great and Secret Show and its sequel Everville is another epic of alternate worlds, and of the secret lives and struggles of the few humans who know of their existence and seek to reach out to them. Barker’s genius is still apparent in these books, and they are well worth reading, but they never achieve the sheer sense of delight and wonder that Imajica evokes.

Cabal- the novel that inspired the movie Nightbreed- is about the secret city of Midian where the monsters dwell, the old-fashioned monsters of mythology and folklore, who find their hidden existence threatened by the 20th century’s archetypal monster, the serial killer. Midian is a kind of fairyland, an underground place of magic and mystery, where the hero Boone flees when he is cast out of our own world.

The realm of fairy as it is traditionally conceived has a lot in common with Clive Barker’s non-human characters, including the assassin Pie’oh’Pah from Imajica and the monsters of Midian. The fairies are said to have “no soul” or “no heart,” either because they are fallen angels or perhaps because they haven’t eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The creatures of fairy display a small child’s capacity for both empathy and sadism, as well as a small child’s lack of any culturally conditioned sense of right and wrong, and finally a childlike sense of wonder and amazement- which is, after all, an accurate assessment of reality, if only we could remember that. That’s why the fairies are so very beautiful and so very dangerous- they are exactly what we would be if we never grew up, but they have the powers of fallen angels or minor gods.

Barker manages to create this precise feeling with the creatures of Cabal, as well as with their counterparts in his epic Weaveworld, which I see as his most successful work other than Imajica. The Weaveworld is literally a magic carpet, a fairy-tale kingdom hidden within a carpet to protect it from the malevolence of the angel who guards the abandoned gates of Eden. The Seerkind are the fairy folk (of sorts) who have concealed themselves within the weave, and who are hunted by the vengeful demigoddess Immaculata and her terrible sisters. The heroes of the story are Calhoun Moody, grandson of a half-mad poet, and his platonic love Suzanna. The Seerkind don’t like or trust them for the most part, because they are human, and humans have never really been friends to the Seerkind. Nevertheless Calhoun and Suzanna persist in their devoted protection of the hidden fairyland, even when the angel awakens from his slumber and comes back to destroy them. According to Barker:

We live, it seems to me, in a society in which meaning is being drained away, in which metaphysical significance is under siege… We live in a world in which fear and anxiety are commonplace. On one curious level, one of the ways that people have responded to this high level anxiety is not to search. I don’t see a massive explosion of genuine metaphysical enquiry, I see Jonestown… Relating that to the fears that I have and the hope that I have, my fears are finally related to the death of meaning… One of the things that ‘Weaveworld’ is about is meaning being frail in the world, a frail thing subject to forgetfulness. The major theme of ‘Weaveworld’ above all is memory. It’s about how you hold on to something that you had when you were a child…

The thing we had when we were children is precisely the sense of magic, the sense that everything in this mundane world is a secret key to something vast and hidden and perilous and wonderful. Clive Barker hasn’t lost that magical sense, or his understanding of its dark side either. The realm of fairy is one of horror and wonder, and when Clive Barker is described as a “horror” writer, he should also be described as a “wonder” writer. As one of the Cenobites says in the Hellraiser movies, the entities of the mythic realm are “Demons to some. Angels to others.”

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 2)

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If any one work could define mythorealism it would be The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic in comic book form (which was originally marketed as a horror comic, with the slogan “I will show you terror in a handful of dust”).

The original Morpheus was an obscure Greek god, the son or brother of Somnus, the god of sleep, and brother of Phobetor (a giver of nightmares) and Phantasos (a giver of fantastic dreams). Despite being referenced in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Spenser’s Fairie Queene, not much is known about him. Gaiman’s Morpheus is now the real Morpheus- ask anyone who has read The Sandman, which has become the defining mythos of the modern world for so many of its fans. An atheist friend of mine once told me that if he could believe in anything, it would be in Gaiman’s Morpheus, which felt somehow more real to him than any established religion.

Not that Neil Gaiman has created a religion, or anything like one, but he has certainly created a mythology, and the thing that makes his mythology so special is that it feels so real. Mythopoesis- the deliberate creation of new myths, of true stories that never happened- is what mythorealism is all about. This particular mythopoesis achieves a unique magic, because it really feels as if Gaiman isn’t making up anything in these stories. That is not an easy effect for a writer to create, or maybe it only happens when it is easy.

The story opens with the Sandman imprisoned, drawn down into our reality by an arrogant occultist and held captive in a magic circle. Here, myth incarnates in the waking world, but against its will. The sorcerer seeks to control the magic rather than to evoke it or incarnate it- to reduce it to a mere technology. The Sandman will exact a horrifying vengeance for this violation, but for the next several decades all he can do is wait, sitting in stubborn silence while his captors study him. The intended target of their spell was Dream’s sister Death, but they accidentally captured Morpheus instead. The realm of Dream, meanwhile, descends into chaos, and the waking world suffers the ill effects- in the form of bizarre sleep disorders and nightmares unleashed, getting worse and worse as the years go by.

Morpheus, or Dream or the Sandman, is one of the Endless, a family of archetypes even older than the gods, and more powerful than most of the gods. Dream’s sister Death (a perky goth!) is the first of the siblings to appear, but we also meet Delirium (who was once Delight), Despair, the androgynous schemer Desire, the grim Destiny, and eventually the prodigal Destruction. Destruction has abandoned his duties, leaving mortals to destroy things without his help. These entities (or “anthropomorphic personifications”) exist in different aspects simultaneously throughout the universe, appearing in different forms to all sentient beings.

When Morpheus eventually escapes, he first must set his affairs in order, recapturing his magical tools, which have fallen into a variety of very wrong hands. This necessitates a journey to Hell, which is ruled by the fallen angel Lucifer, one of the only beings in the universe more powerful than he is. Here he is reunited with a long-lost love, whom he condemned to Hell many centuries ago for insulting his pride. The realization that he has done wrong is the first step in a series of changes that will result in his destruction, and his reincarnation as a new version of himself.

Morpheus is a proud character. He is aloof and distant, a brooding and sometimes arrogant aristocrat. He takes himself and his duties extremely seriously, and for thousands upon thousands of years he has changed not at all, with tragic results for those few who have loved him. Now events are converging toward drastic changes, to which he must somehow adapt himself. Lucifer empties Hell and closes the gates behind him, giving the key to Morpheus. All of the gods of every mortal mythology converge on his court, begging for the key and the control of Hell. The angels of God Himself are among them, revealing that Gaiman’s mythology is henotheistic- the God of the monotheistic religions is the ruler of the universe, but any number of lesser gods and divine entities are also in the picture, scheming and plotting and engaging in wars and conspiracies.

The Sandman simultaneously evokes and accepts all mythologies, which are portrayed as being alive and powerful in the modern world. Many of the Sandman’s adventures happen within our world, including his meeting with the occult detective John Constantine (hero of another mythorealist series from DC Comics), his encounter with the mass murderer who has acquired his gem of power, and his search for his missing brother Destruction in the company of his sister Delirium.

Still, even though these interactions of the mythic and the mundane are part of what I mean by “mythorealism,” it is the simultaneous acceptance of all mythologies that really makes the series into the modern mythos. It is no longer possible to have a single worldview to the exclusion of all others; not without becoming a fanatic. We live in a world now where our perspectives must overlap, where they must coexist side by side with neither cognitive dissonance nor loss of faith.

Of course, Gaiman’s decision to place the God of the monotheists at the center of his mythology would find no acceptance among contemporary pagans, but any mythology must have a structure of some kind and he has chosen this one. What I consider important about his mythology is the acceptance of every vision at once, the simultaneous embrace of all the different kinds of magic, from the transcendent glory and horror of the monotheist’s God to the multiform and fluid poetry of the pagan mythologies.

Everything Gaiman has written to date is worth reading, but not all of it is equally brilliant. His novel American Gods, while thoroughly mythorealist, doesn’t work as well as The Sandman does. The protagonist, a man named Shadow, is hired fresh out of prison as the bodyguard of a Mr. Wednesday, who is actually an American incarnation of the Norse god Odin. His powers are slowly weakening in this prosaic land, and Mr. Wednesday needs a way to regain his strength. An epic war between the ancient gods of mythology and the new gods of modern technology is what he has in mind, with the help of his old friend Loki.

The story is captivating from start to finish, and there are elements of it that haunt the reader- such as the all-too-idyllic little town of Lakeside. The trouble is that Shadow as a hero is far too passive, never really making strong decisions until late in the game. The other characters in the book- including the gods- treat Shadow as a serious player, someone almost to be feared. Yet it is unclear why. Shadow’s passivity is frustrating and it ultimately keeps the story from being very satisfying, despite its many appealing qualities.

Neverwhere, on the other hand, which was originally a BBC TV series, is nearly as evocative and mythopoetic as The Sandman. Many large cities have legends of people that live underground in bricked-over alleyways or abandoned subway tunnels, like New York City’s “Mole People” or the huge community of thieves and prostitutes that thrived in the vaults beneath Edinburgh from 1780 until 1830.

What Gaiman has done in Neverwhere is to imagine such a community as an urban fairyland, whose inhabitants are actually invisible to the people of London Above. London Below is a place of magic, the dark magic of the Night Bridge and the Floating Market. I’ve spent a number of hours exploring the empty rooms and dark corridors of abandoned factories, old bunkers from the Second World War and other such places, and in my experience they always have that otherworldly feeling, the numinous eeriness of a magical kingdom. Abandon a building for just a few years and it seems to become a gate to fairyland.

London Below not only feels that way, it is that way, inhabited as it is by a motley assortment of out-of-time Roman legionaries, medieval monks, and even a disgraced angel, as well as by a variety of bizarre underground tribes such as the Rat Speakers, who worship and wait on the rats of the tunnels. It’s as if Gaiman has given fictional life to the things you imagine when you’re exploring such places, the forgotten corners of the urban landscape.

The assassins Croup and Vandemar are two of the scariest villains in all of fantasy fiction. Advertising themselves as “Croup and Vandemar, the Old Firm. Nuisances eliminated, obstacles obliterated, bothersome limbs removed, and tutelary dentistry,” they have wandered the earth for countless centuries, never once failing a contract or losing their prey. Mr. Croup enjoys collecting- and then eating- T’ang Dynasty porcelain, while his associate Mr. Vandemar prefers dining on live animals. Their current task is to hunt down a young woman named Door, a member of a magical family that can unlock any lock. Pursued by the Old Firm, Door stumbles across Richard Mayhew, a young businessman of London Above, who agrees to help her. Naturally this draws him into the world of London Below, and into the sights of Croup and Vandemar.

The quest to find out who set this pair after Door- slaughtering her family in the process- takes the two on an adventure through the labyrinth of old subway tunnels beneath the city, in the company of the Marquis de Carabas and a legendary bodyguard named Hunter. What makes Neverwhere so special is not the fairly straightforward plot, but the vivid sense that this is a real world, albeit one you could never find just by crawling around a tunnel or two. Gaiman shows us a magic that lives right under our feet, a magic that walks beside us, and lurks behind us, and lives all around us.

 

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 1

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1- Mythorealism

The term “mythorealism” was coined by fantasy author Lani Thompson to describe a particular tendency in modern art and literature, the tendency to create stories in which “myth incarnates in the waking world”:

Mythorealism is what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world. Like its cousin, magical realism, mythorealism encompasses facets of reality which aren’t ordinarily perceived and brings them into the waking world. Reality is more than bones and blood. It is the spirit lurking behind stones and flesh… Myth stepping into Matter… The World being uttered… (Lani Thompson)

Magical realism usually incorporates fantastic elements without comment in a story that is otherwise set in the mundane world. The characters in a story of magical realism don’t generally react with wonder or horror when confronted with something magical; instead they take it for granted. Mythorealist fiction, by contrast, emphasizes the mystery and awe of the numinous and the wonder and horror of encountering the mythic in the “waking” world.

The art and literature I think of as “mythorealist” is not just entertainment or escapism, but a new kind of spiritual practice, free of all dogma and orthodoxy and capable of engaging with higher realities in a spontaneous and unmediated way. The humor, the poetry and the magic of this approach to spirituality represent a modern alternative to what I see as the dead ends of fundamentalist religion and skeptical materialism. This is a form of spirituality for the modern person, to whom “belief” no longer comes naturally- but wonder still does.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the mythorealist tendency in modern art and literature (which would require a book), I will focus on seven examples: the fiction of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Ekaterina Sedia, Emma Bull and Sergei Lukyanenko, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, and the art of Zdzislaw Beksinski. These seven incorporate different aspects of the mythorealist tendency, and I’ll be exploring the implications of that tendency through a discussion of these works.

Coming Soon:

2- Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman

3- The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker

4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

7- Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition