“The more I've thought about this, it occurs to me that as long as there's been a world we have been creating an imaginary counterpart to that world with different places, different people, different history, and to some degree that phantom world of the imagination has co-existed with our own."
So I watched The League of Gentlemen on video at the weekend. It’s a passable enough romp, if no masterpiece. More intriguing than either the film or the graphic novel upon which it is based (O.K.: I’ll level with you, I’ve only read the second volume of the g-novel) is its premise. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with Alan Moore’s conceit: the wheeze being to combine characters from a number of late-Victorian fictions – Mina Murray from Stoker’s Dracula, Jeckyll and Hyde from Stephenson’s novella, Captain Nem from Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the eponymous hero of Wells’ The Invisible Man, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermaine, Conan-Doyle’s Moriarty and (in the film alone) Wilde’s Dorian Gray.
Idle googling after watching the film turned up this fascinating article by Peter Sanderson. Sanderson shows that Moore’s aim was an exploration of the origins of the 20C superhero concept in certain archetypes of Victorian fantastic fiction. Moore makes parallels between the iconography and concepts of the superhero comic and those of his simulated nineteenth century world. The name, ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, for instance, was conceived of as a kind of pre-echo of DC’s Justice League of America and of Marvel’s X-Men. (Hence the marketing of the movie as a ‘Victorian X-Men’.) In addition, Moore’s re-imagining of the Edward Hyde character as an enormously-proportioned brute with superhuman strength – in other words as a kind of 19C Hulk – was an allusion to Stan Lee’s well-known claim that the Hulk = Jeckyll and Hyde + Frankenstein’s Monster.
Moore’s ambition extended beyond a genealogy of the superhero, though, and embraced broader questions about the relationship between fiction and ‘reality’. Moore’s contention is that the construction of mythical systems is as old as the species itself, and, in the second volume of the g-novel, he includes an absurdly compendious ‘Traveler’s Almanac’ which incorporates and interweaves Moore’s own retellings and appropriations of fictional characters into a grand cartographic survey of the world’s mythologies.
Sanderson demonstrates that Moore’s methodology is nothing new, finding parallels for this appropriative implexing (or enfolding) in such august sources as Dante and Virgil (remembering of course that Dante famously implexed Virgil into his own mythscape). A more recent analogue is Philip Jose Farmer, whose Wold Newton’s fictions retold the stories of Doc Savage, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, amongst many others. Farmer’s idea was that a meteor hit a small English village in 1795, causing mutations in the gene-line which ultimately result in these heroes. (cf also Marvel’s Conspiracy mini-series, which cheekily suggested that the whole pantheon of Silver Age Marvel heroes were the results of US government experiments with radiation.)
Sanderson identifies that what was unique about 60s Marvel was that it projected a consistent universe. In the years prior to Marvel’s arrival, DC – which trumpets itself as the ‘original universe’ – had in fact failed to cotton on to the possibilities of creating a plane of consistency connecting all their books. Marvel’s titles, on the other hand, were from the start envisaged as an interconnected rhizome, presided over by the omniscient creator-writer-editor Stan Lee (with footnotes - which, as per my last Marvel piece, added to the frustration of the Brit reader: i.e. ‘see Defenders 14’ – which you knew very well that you would never see. But that’s another story.)
We’re approaching the mechanics of Pulp Theology. Pulp is above all about the production of universes . Not parallel universes, but universes which establish a plane of consistency between their fictional world, ‘our’ world and previous fictional worlds/ mythologies. Compare for instance Marvel’s use of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Norse mythology (Thor). Consistency is a crucial dimension of what fascinates about Pulp. Whereas the artist-author insists on repeated acts of new creation, building worlds anew with each fiction, the pulp author supplements and elaborates upon the same mythscape,. With each additional fiction, the mythwolrd becomes more and more independent, attains an autonomy from its supposed ‘creator.’ It is as if at a certain point the unconscious refuses to accept the unreality of the characters and the world to which they belong. (No negation in the unconscious according to Freud, remember). As these worlds become more autonomous, have more reality invested in them by their readers, they cease to be the exclusive product of their supposed creators. It is for this reason that authors are often uneasy about the production of such world; Stephen King’s The Dark Half and Misery and Peter Straub’s Mr X give an insight into the disquiet – and distaste – mass market authors can have for readers who take their fictions too seriously.
King can be contrasted with Lovecraft who, like Marvel, constructed a consistent universe across his fictions. It is not so much the power of Lovecraft’s lurid descriptions which give rise to the sense of reality his fictional world acquires; it is the sheer fact of his universe’s consistency. Erik Davis points to this in a brilliant piece on Lovecraft, :
'Though Lovecraft broke with classic fantasy, he gave his Mythos density and depth by building a shared world to house his disparate tales. The Mythos stories all share a liminal map that weaves fictional placeslike Arkham, Dunwich, and Miskatonic University into the New England landscape; they also refer to a common body of entities and forbidden books. A relatively common feature in fantasy fiction, these metafictional techniques create the sense that Lovecraft's Mythos lies beyond each individual tales, hovering in a dimension halfway between fantasy and the real.
Lovecraft did not just tell tales—he built a world.'
Davis calls Lovecraft’s approach ‘magick realism’, although – with due deference to Angus’ objections to this genre– I should point out that he distinguishes Lovecraft’s fiction from that of authors like Allende and Marquez. Whereas Marquez and Allende dust conventional realism with a patina of the Fantastic, Lovecraft’s tales had a more literal magical dimension. Davis: ‘Many magicians and occultists have taken up his Mythos as source material for their practice. Drawn from the darker regions of the esoteric counterculture—Thelema and Satanism and Chaos magic—these Lovecraftian mages actively seek to generate the terrifying and atavistic encounters that Lovecraft's protagonists stumble into compulsively, blindly or against their will.’
Naturally, Lovecraft’s world depends for its unliving vitality upon being taken for real by fans. ‘The word "fan",’ Davis identifies, ‘comes from fanaticus, an ancient term for a temple devotee, and Lovecraft fans exhibit the unflagging devotion, fetishism and sectarian debates that have characterized popular religious cults throughout the ages.’
It is this fanaticism that so troubles some authors. Straub’s Mr X, by the way, is about a reader who – Straub implies – idiotically refuses to accept the supposed unreality of Lovecraft’s fictional cosmos. Compare this with John Carpenter’s masterpiece, In the Mouth of Madness. The film is itself a hyper-commentary on Pulp, in which writer Sutter Cane (a thinly-veiled King-Lovecraft composite) acts as the conduit for an invasion and contamination of our world. The invasion is not supernatural, but ontological. In a textual analogue to the Videodrome signal in Cronenberg’s film (one of countless Horror references in ITMMM), Cane’s novels weaken their readers hold on this reality, preparing the way for the return of the Old Ones. Cane ultimately comes to the realization that his fictions were retro-engineered by the Old Ones as a means off ensuring their return. ‘I thought I was making it up, but they were telling me what to write.’ Cane explicitly compares his fictions to religion, but concludes that no-one ever believed religion enough to make it work. The relation between Pulp and religion is, after all, more a matter of cultural policing mechanisms than it is a reflection of their substantive content. PKD demonstrated time and again that the distinction between pulp fiction and Gnostic revelation was an optical illusion, and what could be a better demonstration of the interchangability of cheap SF and religion than the career of L Ron Hubbard and scientology?
This interestingly connects up with the mp3 debate currently raging in the comments below because in many ways the cost of producing a universe is that your characters become public property. (Marvel’s own fierce protection of its own copyrights perhaps belies this somewhat; I never really understood how Wu Tang got away with their outrageous but brilliant appropriation of Marvel memes). Moore’s very ability to incorporate a range of characters from different authors into his League presupposes that these characters have entered the public domain. Such fictions gain reality by being dissociated from a single author, by being collectivized. Again, both Lovecraft and Marvel are models here – Lovecraft famously encouraged other writers like August Derleth and Clark Ashton-Smith to contribute to his cosmos, and this process continued posthumously when the likes of Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell starting producing their own additions to the Cthullhu mythos.
Enough, for now.
Posted by mark at March 18, 2004 11:56 PM