Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Joy of Listing

Everybody loves a good list (don’t they?) and it is particularly interesting when it comes from an artist who you particularly like. You are led to reflect on the influences which their choices may have had on their own work. You delight in noting shared tastes, and perhaps most gratifyingly, are introduced to things you’ve never come across before, suggesting whole new avenues to explore. Obviously, lists are primarily springboards for further suggestions and debates; what’s left off is as important as what’s there. As soon as the list is complete, its compiler will groan at his or her glaring omissions. It can never be complete, and will always be contingent upon new items discovered or old ones recollected. Anyway, here is a snapshot of what M.John Harrison, a favourite writer of mine, came up with in a particular moment, no doubt in a particular mood, perhaps influenced by a particular cast of light through an afternoon window. It already trails a wake of comments, which you can read at his blog-site, a link to which you’ll find to the right.

Some Good Fantasy:
The House on the Borderland, 1908, William Hope Hodgson
The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Kenneth Grahame
The Great Return, 1915, Arthur Machen
From Ritual to Romance, 1920, Jessie L Weston
Nosferatu, 1922, dir FW Murnau
Mr Weston’s Good Wine, 1927, TF Powys
War in Heaven, 1930, Charles Williams
The Green Child, 1935, Herbert Read
At the Mountains of Madness, 1936, HP Lovecraft
At Swim-Two-Birds, 1939, Flann O’Brien
Fantasia, 1940, dir Walt Disney
The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941, Kenneth Patchen
That Hideous Strength, 1945, CS Lewis
The Martian Chronicles, 1950, Ray Bradbury
Mazirian the Magician, 1950, Jack Vance
E Pluribus Unicorn, 1953, Theodore Sturgeon
V, 1956, Thomas Pynchon
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957, dir Jack Arnold
The Vodi, 1959, John Braine
The Alexandria Quartet, 1957-1960, Lawrence Durrell
A Fine & Private Place, 1960, Peter Beagle
The Stealer of Souls, 1963, Michael Moorcock
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, 1963, Joan Aiken
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, 1964, Joanne Greenberg
The Magus, 1966, John Fowles
All Along the Watchtower, 1967, Bob Dylan
Mooncranker’s Gift, 1973, Barry Unsworth
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974, dir Werner Herzog
Diamond Dogs, 1974, David Bowie
Ritual Animal Disguise, 1977, EC Cawte
Stalker, 1979, dir Andrei Tarkovsky
The Bloody Chamber, 1979, Angela Carter
The Fall of the House of Usher, 1981, dir Jan Svankmajer
Mythago Wood, 1984, Robert Holdstock
Halo Jones, 1984, Alan Moore & Ian Gibson
Rain Dogs, 1985, Tom Waits
Blue Velvet, 1986, dir David Lynch
The Mortmere Stories, 1994, Edward Upward & Christopher Isherwood
Jumping Joan, 1994, dir Petra Freeman
Institute Benjamenta, 1995, dir The Brothers Quay
The Voice of the Fire, 1996, Alan Moore
Lost Highway, 1997, dir David Lynch
Simon Magus, 1999, dir Ben Hopkins
The Dream Archipelago, 1999, Christopher Priest
Under the Skin, 2000, Michel Faber
Ratchet & Clank, 2002, Insomniac Games
The Carpet Makers, 2006, Andreas Eschbach
Peter & the Wolf, 2006, dir Suzie Templeton
The Night Buffalo, 2007, Guillermo Arriaga
Night Work, 2008, Thomas Glavinic

It’s a good mix, which doesn’t restrict itself to any one medium, as the noncommittal heading suggests. And after all, why should it? The fantastic is a mode which has manifested itself across the artistic spectrum. Indeed, if songs are in the list, why not paintings? They are as capable of suggesting narratives which expand beyond the frame. Arnold Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead, Goya’s Colossus, the labyrinthine dungeons of Piranesi, Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, the moonlit plazas of Paul Delvaux or the surrealist collage comics of Max Ernst are all classic images of the fantastic and invite the viewer into the hermetic worlds they portray, there to unfold their own dream succession of images.

As for the music, Diamond Dogs and Rain Dogs make for a nice pair, and are both examples of albums with a certain thematic continuity. Obviously the spectre of prog hangs heavy over any equation of rock with fantasy, although this is the same reductive logic which would package centuries of myth, story and fable as Tolkien and nothing more. The Liars' album 'They Were Wrong So We Drowned', for example, is a recent album based around the Germanic myths of Walpurgisnacht, but it is a far cry from the Roger Dean gatefold-sleeved offerings of be-caped mellotron-abusers. The songs are seen from the alternating and implacably opposed perspectives of a coven of witches and the villagers who burn with religious conviction. They delight in titles such as 'If Your a Wizard Then Why Do You Wear Glasses', 'We Fenced Other Gardens With the Bones of Our Own', and 'They Don't Want Your Corn - They Want Your Kids'.

Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower suggests much with evocatively allusive language redolent of the Old Testament. Its imagery was used by Neil Gaiman in part of his Sandman series of comics (if memory serves) and it was also quoted in Alan Moore's Watchmen. Opera is one area in which the fantastic has thrived, from the light-hearted ‘topsy-turvy’ scenarios of Gilbert and Sullivan to the Teutonic sturm und drang of Wagner. I have to confess that this is a form of music which simply passes my by, although Wagner’s music for the Ring Cycle is frequently stunning (and is used to great effect in Herzog’s Nosferatu). Groups which use fantasy to evoke the uncanny and strange rather than attempt pale rehashes of Tolkien include Pram, Broadcast (both covered in previous posts) Mordant Music, and the Ghost Box artists (Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group, Eric Zann and Mount Vernon Arts Lab) who draw explicitly on the English supernatural tradition. Musique concrete is an ideal form for the fantastic, dealing as it does in effecting transformations on the matter of the real world. Much of the radiophonic workshop’s best-remembered works of painstaking tape-splice collage were made to soundscape genre programmes. Trevor Wishart’s 1977 piece Red Bird (A Political Prisoner’s Dream) also creates sounds which morph into each other and suggests transformations and metamorphoses. It is powerful music, in turns viscerally disturbing and strangely beautiful, detailing the escape of a tortured prisoner into a world of the imagination. The sounds of the two worlds bleed into each other, both given equal weight.

The House on the Borderland is an interesting collision of the ghost story with the scientific romance, the British form of science fiction which tended to open up vast gulfs of space and time against which its protagonists appeared tiny and insignificant. A literary form which betokened post-Darwinian and twilight of Empire anxieties, it tended to be swamped by the ascendancy of the American strain of sf, with its more upbeat, can-do bent. But hints can be found in At the Mountains of Madness, one of HP Lovecraft’s more science-fictional horror stories, and in The Incredible Shrinking Man. The latter, whose protagonists ends up dwindling into the infinite, marks the point at which American anxieties began to manifest themselves in the subconcious spaces which the fantastic can so readily provide.

M.John chooses Murnau’s version of Nosferatu, a genuine evocation of the uncanny, and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Casper Hauser, a film which shares the Romanticism of his version of the former, which Neil has explored in his posts (and may yet continue to). Herzog’s other films with Bruno S. could also be featured, particularly the remarkable Heart of Glass. Stroszeck is a fantasy of sorts, with its dream of an impossible America. Charles Williams’ War in Heaven sounds very interesting, a contemporary grail-quest tale with occult overtones. Williams was one of the group known as the Inklings and has been rather eclipsed by the renown of his co-members, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Perhaps his novels were a bit too esoteric and strange to gain a wide readership, but he’s definitely a writer whose work I’d like to investigate. CS Lewis is represented in the list by the last in his ‘Ransom’ trilogy, which brings things down to earth with a similar tale of occult goings-on in the Nigel Kneale-ish setting of an English village named Belbury. This is where Ghost Box artist Belbury Poly got his nom-de-plume from, developing his own imaginary locale which acts as a nexus for the uncanny.

A Fine and Private Place is a fantasy by Peter Beagle. It’s set in an urban graveyard into which a living man has retreated, spending his days conversing with the dead spirits who remain. In this backdrop, if not in its tone, it strongly resembles Neil Gaiman’s recent novel The Graveyard Book. The Bloody Chamber is Angela Carter’s influential collection which excavated the (often barely) hidden subtexts of fairy tales, and which led to the excellent British fantasy film The Company of Wolves. Mythago Wood is the first, and probably still the best, in Robert Holdstock’s cycle of novels which delve into the lineage of the mythic matter of Britain. The device of a small wood which is bigger on the inside and opens up into the endless spaces of the collective unconscious is one of those brilliant poetic ideas which effectively creates a template into which the author can insert an almost infinite variety of stories. The Dream Archipelago is a collection (of which I was unaware) of Christopher Priest’s stories from the 1970s, set in the surrealistic locations of the title. I imagine these to bear some resemblance to the landscapes of Paul Delvaux, a painter whose work was directly drawn upon by Nicholas Royle in his novel Saxophone Dreams. The Dream Archipelago becomes a more oblique location in the protagonist’s imagination in Priest’s novel The Affirmation.

M.John also chooses several animations in his list. Animation has always seemed a particularly apposite form for fantasy, with its feeling of the inanimate being given life. This takes place in Fantasia’s most famous sequence, of course. Institute Benjamenta involves animated interludes which also bring objects to life. I wasn’t particulary taken by this – it’s atmosphere failed to take hold. Perhaps it might upon a second viewing. The Fall of the House of Usher is not a Svankmajer film I’ve seen, but his animations in general are wonderful – disturbing, sometimes funny and unfailingly odd. There are sequences in his Faust which genuinely capture the off-kilter rhythms and disconcerting images of dreams. Peter and the Wolf was premiered at the Animation Festival down here in Exeter a few years ago, but I’ve yet to see it.

There are a couple of Alan Moore books here. The comic Halo Jones, first serialised in 2000AD, is his science fiction soap and bildungsroman about a young woman growing up in an unforgiving futuristic environment. The Voice of the Fire is his only novel to date and traces episodes from the dark history of Northampton in a mythopoetic fashion. Both are excellent. I’d have been inclined to include his amazing Promethea series, which amounted to a personal artistic manifesto as well as an exegesis on the nature of the universe, without at any time becoming didactic or portentous .

Echoes of Halo Jones may be found in parts of Harrison’s Light and Nova Swing. The latter certainly bears the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, one of my favourite films. The polluted lakes and marshes outside its mysterious and ill-defined zone also find their echo in the bleak landscapes on the outskirts (and in the story The Dancer from the Dance, on the inside) of his imaginary city of Viriconium. The ghost of Arthur Machen can be felt in such stories as The Incalling and The Quarry.

Of the recent works which I’ve not come across, The Carpet Makers by German writer Andreas Eschbach sounds good; poetic space opera. And Under the Skin by Michel Faber, a Dutch-born writer living in Scotland, sounds like a blast of savagely satirical dystopian science fiction. Night Work by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic is a story whose protagonist wakes up in a depopulated world. From what I’ve read (a review in the Guardian) there’s never any real chance of an explication of this state, leaving the novel increasingly taking this central conceit as a given. It sounds intriguing. Mention is also made in the comments of China Mieville’s new novel, The City and the City, which Harrison says he would have included had he read it in time. It’s certainly one I look forward to.

The question raised by any list is, of course, what would you include? Well, for my part, I’d have to have something by two of my favourite writers who are interlinked in that they both know each other and have collaborated on a number of occasions; Tim Powers and James Blaylock. Of Powers’ novels, I’d maybe go for Last Call, his fisher king novel set in Las Vegas; and from Blaylock’s series of novels set in Northern California featuring casts of amiable oddballs and revolving around the Mcguffin of a search for some grail-like object, I’d maybe go for The Last Coin. Going back a bit, George Macdonald’s Phantastes and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus are both fine and richly imagined. I’d definitely also include John Gardner’s Grendel, some Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Michael Ende’s Momo, John Crowley’s recently completed Aegypt series, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon, Samuel Delany’s Neveryon books, Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, M.John Harrison’s own Viriconium stories (of course) and probably many more which don’t immediately spring to mind.

As for films, that’s a whole other mansion which I won’t explore for fear of becoming thoroughly lost. Off the top of my head, A Matter of Life and Death,Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Kwaidan, The Haunting, La Belle et La Bete, Lost Horizon, Frankenstein Created Woman, Martin, Company of Wolves, Excalibur and Spirited Away would all keep me very happy. But the spell of the list, once cast, can become dangerously addictive. Once set in motion, it can never end....

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