Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015).

"From my admittedly prejudiced viewpoint, successful novelists - even modestly successful novelists - have got the best gig in the creative arts.  It's true that people buy more CDs than books, got to more movies, and watch a lot more TV.  But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories.  David Soul of Starksy and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth (36)"

Those were the words Stephen King wrote way back in 1998, in his novel Bag of Bones.  These days I can't help wondering if he's changed his tune on that score.  At the time, the prospects for writers and publishers was a lot more rose colored than it is now.  CDs, TV, and the movies haven't fair much better, for that matter.  We've lost both Herman Wouk and Harlan Ellison, and I'm not sure most folk even know they're gone.  It's an open question in my mind whether or not things will reach a point when people cease to realize that they ever existed.  As time goes on, it seems like W.H. Auden was more on point when he observed: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

That's a harsh truth that's getting more noticeable as the 21st century continues it's implacable march.  If anyone mentions The Haunting of Hill House, most will immediately think about that HBO series that just finished it's run.  Very few will consider the possibility that it's also the title of a novel.  The truth is reading always seems to have been something of a minority practice, rather than the normative order of things.  That's not too much of a wild statement when you consider that about half of one percent of the population of medieval Europe could ever learn to read and write their own names.  The numbers have climbed since then, yet, anything like a true and full sense of literacy has always been evaded through the passage of time.  It's an unfortunate truth for a lot of great names.  For instance, does anyone know of Ramsey Campbell?  How about Alexander Dumas, Greta Garbo, Richard Matheson, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Manly Wade Wellmann or Charles Beaumont?  Who wrote The Haunting of Hill House?  Who's David Soul?  Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up? 

The trick to being a giant is learning how to keep your longevity going well past your time.  It's something of an inevitable shame to see the names and works of great artists fade into obscurity.  The biggest irony I can imagine is that moment when a text that was considered groundbreaking on it's release becomes something that's barely remembered years later.  That's the sad fate of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a series of published interviews between French director Francois Truffaut, and an English-American filmmaker who used to be known as the Master of Suspense.  At the time the book was released it was considered a shot across the bows of the old establishment of Hollywood.  Today it seems like barely a ripple in the ocean.

That's why it' gratifying to know that director Kent Jones not only remembers the book, he seems to be one of it's biggest fans.  In 2015 Jones made a concerted effort to interview as many of the current and former biggest names in showbiz while they can still remember and remain to tell their stories of how this one simple book, made and released by a pair of eager cinema enthusiasts, left an impact on them.