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“Songs of the Metamythos” by C.F. Cooper

Metamythos

C.F. Cooper’s Songs of the Metamythos is described by the author as “the book of the gods you’ve never heard of but have always known.” When I first read this phrase, it struck me as a clever bit of marketing copy but it’s actually an accurate account of what makes this book so interesting. I’ve been saying for some time now that our cultural relationship to the mythic realm is changing and evolving, becoming personal and individualized. Instead of relying solely on the mythic lore from old books, a number of writers and artists have been going straight to the source, drawing down fresh visions from the places where myths come from in the first place.

I think of this process as “mythorealism,” the manifestation of myth’s sacred power in our time and our reality. Neil Gaiman’s work is one of the most obvious and successful examples of mythorealism, and when I first began reading Songs of the Metamythos it reminded me a lot of Gaiman’s work. However, the similarities fade upon closer examination. Gaiman’s Sandman series is a brilliant work of the mythic imagination, but until I read Songs of the Metamythos I didn’t realize that it isn’t really a mythology. Sandman’s story arc is about a specific character, the dreamlord Morpheus. He starts at point A, he goes through some struggles, he changes and learns as a character, and arrives at point B. It’s a traditional story structure for modern fiction, and in that respect it isn’t mythology at all – it’s literature.

Songs of the Metamythos doesn’t do this. There are characters in this book, and they do change, but the story arc of the book as a whole isn’t about their character development. It’s about the universe, our place in it, the nature of human life, and what we can do about it. It’s about why things are they way they are and how they could become something else if we choose to make it so. Cooper’s myths are grounded in modern science, which gives them a freshness they wouldn’t have if they had been limited by premodern understandings of physics or astronomy. However, there are hints that Cooper’s knowledge of traditional mythology is deep and broad – any reader of Iamblichus would recognize Cosmos and Sol as cousins of the Neoplatonic Aion, but there are not many readers of Iamblichus these days even in the neopagan community.

As I was reading this book, one thing kept happening over and over again. I would be reading a story about Cooper’s gods, and suddenly I would either realize or be told what the story was really about – why the moon goes through its phases, why people make war on each other – and in each of these cases I could really feel it. These are not my gods, yet I kept finding myself thinking “that’s exactly the way it is!”

Cooper’s myths are fantastic in the sense that they describe gods and heroes and magic, but they are realistic too because they are always about the way things really are. They provide believable and profound explanations for the way things really are. This is not a work of fiction, but of real mythology.

http://www.songsofthemetamythos.com/home.html

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)

Night_Watch_book_cover

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

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