Black Wurm Gism
Well, after reading Songs of the Black Wurm Gism, I now see H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos in a whole new light. In this book, editor David Mitchell brings together a number of writers to explore the dark corners of Lovecraft’s world. These stories take this cosmic aspect of Lovecraft as a starting point before careening off into surreality. Let’s just say it’s a mix of sex, psychedelia, cephalopods, and a stark raving mad sense of humor. As with any anthology, there are some stories that work for me and some that do not. Fair enough. But overall, this is one wicked read. I had the chance to talk with David via chat about this book as well as about Oneiros Books.
Let's start with Creation Oneiros - could you tell me a bit about that venture?
David Mitchell: There's not an awful lot to tell really. James just wanted to relaunch Creation using slightly different imprints for different types of books. He's done that before really with 'Velvet Books' (for the porn), 'Annihiliation Books' (for films), etc. Creation Oneiros was created for a line of Fantasy/sf/horror titles. With me as assistant editor, which meant I'd do all the legwork – Hahhaha - and then sometimes James would actually put the book out. He has some titles forthcoming, but I think you've seen most of them advertised - Harry Clarke, Nevill Drury - plus a 'graphic novel' that James wrote with some artist whose name I can't remember. [Daniele Serra – ed.]
I've been sidetracked with Paraphilia so I haven’t been doing that much for him recently which is why there isn’t a lot of activity there. But I plan on putting together a collection of Lovecraft marginalia for him soon.
There certainly seems to be a Lovecraftian theme to quite a few of the titles – Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Songs of the Black Wurm Gism, Haunter of the Dark. What sort of marginalia from Lovecraft were you able to dig up?
DM: I initially intended to go through all the collections of his letters and dig out dreams that he had recorded. But it turns out there weren't that many of them that weren't made into stories. I was also surprised to find that in the case of the stories, the original dream transcriptions hadn’t been changed that much.
So … I've dug out other things - essays, rare tales, most of which have seen print before but are long out of print. Plus The Commonplace Book. I'm also adding a few surprises. But I think we've more or less exhausted HPL now. Strip mined it.
There is a lot of Lovecraft in print now.
DM: You're right.
It's interesting to see how contemporary some of his works still are - especially how there is a darkness and a dread, or foreboding I guess, always present. What do you think it is in him that still makes him relevant?
DM: Hmmm... let me address that first point first of all. When I was a teenager reading Lovecraft for the first time, I never ever picked up on that sense of dread. I never understood why his stuff was marketed as 'horror'. It all seemed very vibrant to me, expansive and cosmic. I'd been a huge fan as a kid of Jack Kirby's work in comic books and I suddenly felt that here was a writer working with similar 'cosmic' themes. And it was weird, which made it even better. Only later did I see the existentialist aspects of it all. Which I think some people recently have overstated - especially Michel Houellebecq.
That's interesting. I always felt a sense of dread or Other. The cosmic themes certainly added to this sense of being overwhelmed. Kirby would be a good fit with this as the early Marvel comics really explored this aspect of the super hero realms. I didn't realize that there was an existential movement in Lovecraft studies! But I guess it had to happen.
DM: I think that there is this syndrome amongst people who equate 'serious literature' with angst and dread. LOL! If it is going to be taken seriously then it has to be about death camps, or the meaninglessness of life. I'm sure Sartre is to blame for that. He was a miserable twat.
After Lovecraft, I discovered the surrealist writers and Lautreamont, Artaud and, of course, Burroughs - and I saw a definite link. The oneiric realm. Subversion and derangement of the senses, which there is aplenty in Lovecraft.
That's true. With Starry Wisdom and Black Wurm, did you want to explore this aspect further?
DM: Definitely that was my intention with Starry Wisdom. It still seemed to have an atmosphere of doom and apocalypse, but that was appropriate for the social climate at the time it was put together. With Black Wurm, I wanted to get away from that a bit, make it more psychedelic. I wanted something to balance against the first volume.
In particular I went back to the surrealists, I felt there were a lot of parallels between the imagery in Lovecraft and in Maldoror by Lautreamont. Aside from the oppressive atmosphere of menace and the ‘grotesque’ entities in both books, I thought that the imagery in both writers’ works seemed to unfold along similar symbolic paths. Also, there was a lot of ‘received’ or mediumistic qualities to both. Then of course, there was Artaud. Some of his stage scenarios, his film ‘scripts’ and a lot of his general mystical irrational writings are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s cosmic vision. In particular Artaud’s short play ‘There Is No More Firmament’ is incredibly reminiscent of Lovecraft’s prose poem ‘Nyarlathotep’. With their visions of a science-enhanced apocalypse. Other writers I thought were Lovecraftian were Jean Ray (Malpertuis) and Michel Leiris (Aurora). Max Ernst’s great cycles of painting/collage/frottage etc.. have a self-looping self-contained mythopoetic nature that I also find Lovecraftian. So I tried to divert the ‘current’ that flowed through HPL back into that particular stream – which I feel is a very valid one, although not obvious or overt. I doubt HPL actually read any of those books, but they were all tapping into the same lode, so to speak.
And then, of course, there is William Burroughs, which for me was the big link. I’d already had a link retrogressively, and in Burroughs I found a similar irrational yet very valid link into the future of literature that bypassed the repetitive derivative nature of ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ fiction.
I lifted this from your comment for Starry Wisdom on Amazon - "This book was an attempt to rescue Lovecraft from the ghetto of 'pulp' or 'genre' fiction and the Role-playing crowd who have, on the whole, trivialised his most important themes - cosmic horror and alienation, the collapse of civilisation, man's insignificance in the vast scheme of the universe."
DM: Yes. Did I write that? LOL!
Reading through the comments it was quite funny to read people’s reactions, especially to the violence and sex in that book. Almost as if there was a purity to the Cthulhu universe. Obviously Black Wurm pushed these boundaries even further. What has the reaction been?
DM: First of all, there is a polarity between the comments on Amazon.com and on Amazon.co.uk - it really is worth going and looking at that. But the first comments I saw appearing way back in 94/95 were all pretty positive. It's as though there has been a shift in consciousness in America in that period. Things seem more conservative.
As for the new volume... I haven’t seen any reactions yet. Dave and Mike at Savoy have given it the thumbs up, not heard from Alan Moore yet. I don’t really care about that many people's opinions. I'm not being dismissive or snobbish. It's just that my mind can't accommodate creating the book and then gauging the reactions to it as well. After putting out the first volume I pretty much walked away from it and forgot about it for ages. It was no longer important to me - not for a long time at least. I think Black Wurm is going to puzzle people, perhaps. A lot of people will probably see it as incredibly pretentious, but it really was a labour of love.
Interesting. It seems that it has taken the world of the Cthulhu mythos and pushed it into the foreground. That is, instead of a cosmic otherness lurking in the shadows, it is right there - the "dominant reality" so to speak. What sort of themes did you explore with the pieces in this book that you did not with the first one?
DM: Hmmm - not sure. I think the themes are much the same. I think the big difference is in the treatment. I've tried to avoid Gothic gloom AND post-apocalyptic angst. A lot of the stuff in Black Wurm is picaresque, often knockabout. I think 'Battleships' in particular is hysterical. And Grant Morrison's piece - that's pretty lighthearted, but in a warped way. I think that element of levity will piss some people off as well. Lovecraft fans generally see that approach as somehow disrespectful or facetious, of course ignoring Lovecraft's own sense of humour which was pretty dry and bizarre itself. I also think this volume is dirtier. I forgot about that.
That's true. There is a sense of humor that runs though the book, although a warped one at that. It's interesting how many of the pieces play with form as well - Kenji's piece, the "news" reports, among others. Almost like they play against expectation.
DM: I think it's a cheeky little book, myself. LOL
I also invented something called ‘insect porn’ – by that I don’t mean I created a literal niche in the pornography market. I mean I found a useful metaphor that I could use to link Lovecraft with Burroughs. The basic thinking behind it stems from a reading of Theweleit’s book Male Fantasies which is really about the symbols of ‘horror’ and ‘loathing’ prevalent in western society. They are almost universally based on a fear of the feminine, the chaotic. And suddenly a lot of things became clear. The ‘monsters’ in both HPL and Burroughs tend to be biomorphic representations of a deep insecurity, an almost pathological misogyny on a subconscious level. In both writers, the images of disgust tend to be fixated in insects, cephalopods, molluscs, etc., all of which are part of the ‘teaming substrata of the biosphere’.
I also have a strong dislike of pornography, not based on any ideological or moral outlook, but a sincere revulsion for most of it. I remember seeing Brian Sewell once being interviewed and when he was asked if he thought pornography degraded women, he replied; “It does if it’s any good.” LOL
So – ‘insect porn’ – (which I’m going to take further into my own writings as a recurring motif) – ‘the result of an invading intelligence, non-organic possibly, attacking human life at the sexual root, by diverting the sex instinct into non-biological channels. The fixation of sexual desire is diverted from the sexual organs and into the alimentary canal. Mouth. Anus. Perhaps there is a parasite that wishes to transmit itself from host to host and uses the sexual organs of one host to pass into the digestive tract of another host.’ Nasty stuff, but it also opens up possibilities for a lot of black and scatological humour.
How did you go about choosing the works for Black Wurm?
DM: Oh God! That's a long story. Where do I start?
Sorry. Big question. Just wondering if you pitched the idea to some of the writers to see what they would come up with, then brought together the work that way - as a collaboration so to speak.
DM: It was very messy. I think it started when Grant Morrison, John Coulthart and I did a reading together at Manchester Waterstones back around 1999. That's a story in itself.
That would have been one hell of a reading! I was just going to say that there seem to be some of the same writers in both volumes. Did they want a chance to have another go?
DM: Originally, I had a lot more material from the writers in the first book, but I decided as things progressed to ditch a lot of it. I wasn't getting what I wanted. It was more of the same, even though I'd asked for a different angle on things. In fact, there have been three very distinctly different versions of the book. Only the last one made print. Fuck knows what happened to the first two versions. Somebody might still have a disc with them on somewhere.
And I suppose I'd better 'fess up while we're here... A lot of the writers contributing to Black Wurm don't really exist. We were left with a distinct deficit you see and we had to make it up somehow. So James and I created 'authors'. And there is a posthumous collaboration I did with HPL in there.
That's funny 'cause when I was doing a search to find out more of about a few of them, I couldn't find anything!
At this point, we had wrap things up as I had to go to work. Believe me, it was harder than usual to get into the work routine after the chat. Thanks again to Dave for doing this. It was a blast.
| Songs of the Black Wurm Gism
by David Mitchell (ed.)
Creation Oneiros, 2009
Introduction by John Coulthart
Forward by DM Mitchell
Luvkraft vs Kutulu by Grant Morrison
Black Tide by Aishling Morgan
Skull of the She-Head by James Havoc
The Splattersplooch by David Britton and Mike Butterworth
Domain of the Valve Cardinals by Jacques Dengue
Battleships by Herzan Chimera and James Havoc
Fragment: The Broken Diary by Ian Miller
The Sons of the Mormurus by John Beal
In the Black Sun Hotel by DM Mitchell
Jelly by Hank Kirton
Sign of a Poisonous Insect by Jacques Bertrand Houpiniere
Erudite Host by DM Mitchell and HP Lovecraft
Dream Fragments from the Grey Lodge by Frater Erich Zann
The Interview by Alexandria D Douros
Manta Red by David Conway
Acidhuman Project by Kenji Siratori
804: An Erotic Encounter by The Reverend Paul Stevens
Devoured by Claudia Bellocq
God's Inferno by Joshua Hayes
Ripped Virgin by Wakamatsu Yukio
Machines are Digging by Reza Negarestani