Art, Horror & the Socio-political Order?

I have been following an interesting discussion over on Facebook about art and society. The origin of the debate is that the Danish government has decided to make a deep cut in the grants that authors can receive from the Danish society.

This brought back some old, dusty thoughts and musings from my past… It is technically not stream-of-consciousness, but it has been written down very much in that fashion. So bear with me, will you?

I have often encountered the opinion that “real art” (or, similarly, “good art”) is supposed to influence society. That this is somehow a prerequisite for it being art at all.

I stand in absolute opposition to this. Yet I am very curious, and really want to know what, exactly, the underlying arguments for this position is. Most of the time all I’ve heard is some belief or opinion that it “simply is so” (and if I can’t see this “common sense” point of view, I am apparently a lost case to the Believer, and they see no point in delving more detailed into it… But I wonder if it’s because they won’t or because they can’t?). So if anyone reading this can help enlighten me, please feel free–I urge you–to contact me. On this blog or via e-mail, it’s all fine. I honestly want to know. (I may not change my mind, but that’s not the point anyway.)

For now, I’ll narrow “art” to literature–and with horror literature in mind, although some of my thoughts here will be presented in more broad terms. Can–and should–horror literature have as a goal to influence society? Obviously, yes, it can have such a goal. When such a tale becomes too didactic (I think this happens about 99.9% of the time when the author sets out to write a story with this firmly set in his mind) I think the horror element really disappears–perhaps to end more in the vicinity of science fiction or some other genre. Nothing wrong with that… Except if the story also happens to be boring. (I think that happens 99.9% of the time too.)

So, yeah okay, it can have such a goal. But ought it to? No, I don’t think so. And it is not less literature for not having this goal. (I won’t even call it a noble goal, which some people think it is; I do not think it is particularly noble at all. It is just another goal among other goals.) In fact, many a time a horror story is probably better off without it.

A story written with the current socio-political situation in mind almost inevitably ends up being old-fashioned–since it is too focused on particular cases, situations, local politics etc.–be that the early 2000s, the 1950s or the 1930s.

I don’t mind old-fashioned. My favorite author is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, so if I did I’d better think of someone else to admire, and fast. And one of my all-time HPL stories is The Shadow Out of Time, a story he completed in 1935.

In The Shadow Out of Time HPL shows the reader what kind of society he envisions would be the best kind of society. An elitist society with a socialist-like foundation. And HPL was well aware of this when he wrote the story. Because in his later years his outlooked had changed quite some, spurred both by his encounters (whether physical encounters or via correspondence) with intelligent people of other temperaments and viewpoints and the Great Depression in the US. He took an active interest in politics, and solutions to real-life problems.

So here is a tale that I shouldn’t like very much, if at all, right?


I don’t read The Shadow Out of Time as a story about the current Socio-political order. I read it as a horror-&-partly-science-fiction tale where the main focus is on atmosphere of dread, the single important keyword in any of HPL’s stories.

Of course, it is also a story where ideas about what “ought to be” (in the best of all worlds, to refer to a standard philosophical notion) plays a part, but only insofar as it underscores the protagonist’s horror when he realizes that the dreadful aliens living on Earth so many, many years ago were intelligent, civilized creatures with a hunger for knowledge, not unlike us human beings (“They were men!“). And it is used as a background for the even more underlying theme of HPL: The insignificance of man (and all creatures), and the doom of even the best of all societies. In other words: The cosmicism brings a healthy dose of balance to a tale that could have ended on the wrong side of the fence.

But it doesn’t. And that’s the point. The political ideas do not interfere with the the more grand, all-embracing theme of cosmicism, with all the horror & awe that brings along with it.

HPL was well aware of the politics of his times, and aware of what kind of society he considered the best. And he inserted some of this in  his story, yes. But he does not try to lecture the reader. And even more, it is interesting how few references he makes to actual the political situation at the time. It is really no more than a footnote. Deliberately so, of course, since that is a point he kept stressing again and again–with or without including politics.

We are talking about an honest-to-god (or whoever/nothing) piece of literature that can rightly be called art. Real and good art. Not because of the political elements, but because petty politics shrink in the shadow of Nyarlathotep & Azathoth;-) *

No, horror literature ought not have as a goal to influence society.

*) Yeah, yeah, I know they do not play an active part in The Shadow Out of Time, but permit me some poetic liberty here, okay?

The Horror… THE HORROR!!!

Nothing beats a subject title like that, right?:-P

It is not just a corny eye-catcher, though. There is a reason I decided to use that title. You see–we are moving. My wife, our daughter and cat are moving… The details are a little too complicated to write about here, but the essence is that for a little while it will have an influence on everything I do, incl. publishing.

Let me cut to the chase: It has the effect that for the next month or two I will not have time to work on any new projects. There is a lot of work to be done with the new, expanded home demanding my attention when I am not at work. (Please remember that my publishing venue is done in what “free time” I have.) Add to that that in all likelihood there will be problems with the Internet connection for a while, since there are changes in that vital area as well, and you have a fair picture of why I cry “The horror… THE HORROR!!!”

Projects to be directly influenced are:

  • John D. Haefele: A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos (hc, non-fiction)
  • John Mayer: Hex Code and Others (hc, fiction)
  • Paul Mackintosh: Musical Box of Wonders (tpb, poetry)

I do not yet have a publishing date for these fine books, but they will all be published early 2011 (hopefully the first one will see print in January, but it may turn out to be February). I am very sorry about this setback, and apologize to readers as well as the authors–but some times Life gets in the way of how one would prefer things to be done. And the opportunity of getting a larger place for my family was an unexpected turn of events that was too good not to accept.

When the dust from all the upheaval and change has settled there will be some light, though. Quite some, in fact. You see–I will finally have an office (an office, only for me) at home wherefrom dreadful horrors can be created on stormy nights and sent out into the void commonly referred to as “the World”!

In the end, I am sure, it will all turn out for the better… Okay, perhaps not for the World at large (feel free to insert fake evil laughter), but for the publications from H. Harksen Productions.

Fantastiske forfatteres interview med Thomas Strømsholt

This one’s in Danish;-)

Denne gang blot en ganske kort update:

Hjemmesiden har i forbindelse med udgivelsen af De underjordiske et interview med Thomas Strømsholt:

Han har nogle meget interessante betragtninger om horror-genren og det at skrive i det hele taget. Samt noget spændende at sige om De underjordiske, naturligvis.

Der vil også inden alt for længe komme et interview med Strømsholt op her på denne blog.

Writing in the Dark Under A Poet’s Moon

Well, well, well… Time sure flies, and here I am again, typing away on the keyboard, this time improvising what to write. Already about a week ago since last I wrote a post here, eh? Really?

Time flies, and time waits for nobody. Isn’t that what they say? A great idea for a story–and a good horror writer could extricate a fine tale of dread from that idea… As it has been done through the years. And I suppose that it is a theme that underlies a majority of horror tales, explicitly or implicitly. Because it is an idea that is intimately linked with the notion of death. Whether we’re talking about dead as the Ultimate Ending to Life, existential emptiness, as a metaphor for loss of innocence etc., etc.

I am impressed by writers who can weave a truly captivating tale of horror around such “heavy”, philosophical (and, at times, religious) themes. Like many a reader, though, I also enjoy stories that are “merely” great fun to read (as fun as a story tagged “horror” can be). And it seems that I have been offered the opportunity to participate in the creation of a round robin story that, in all likelihood, will be a story that leans toward the entertaining rather than the bleak, philosophical kind.

Oh boy, am I thrilled to be part of that!

Since I do not yet know how “official” this collaboration is I will not at this point mention author names, but only tell you that we’re talking about a tale we will be composing in the spirit of the round robin tradition in which Grandpa & his weird tales gang thrived. For fun. And this will be fun too. We are nine people who have responded to a Dark Call over on Facebook, and the first chapter has been written, by the first author. It was a fun, riveting first chapter to read–and now the pen has been handed over to me, and I must start the fascinating–and no doubt it will turn out to be frustrating too–process of weaving a chapter that not only brings something new, fresh & (hopefully) captivating, but also in some way links logically to what happened in the first chapter as well as including that elusive “something” that can point toward chapter three, for the next author to pick up and magically transform with his imagination…

Yes, it is a Lovecraftian tale, in some way (perhaps it will turn out to be more a Cthulhu Mythos tale? Who knows?), and yes, it does take place, at least initially, at a quite well-known location invented by Grandpa. But that’s about it, really. Nothing else is decided, and I really like that.

Of course, this kind of tales more often than not are no more than entertaining reads. (Why, you ask? Well, because it is written by several authors, with different voices/writing styles, and often there is no clear, overall objective in terms of plot, characters etc., the story more or less improvised as the writers type away on their keyboard; so this kind of story often ends up somewhat uneven in nature.) And so what? Who said that all stories need to aim at becoming Great Literature (whatever that is, anyway)?

What’s important, I think, is that an author is true to himself, and writes what he wants to write, what he feels like writing. Some times that is deeply disturbing, serious tales; some times it is tales inspired by something read in the day’s newspaper (or gleaned online); and some times it is a story written simply for the heck of it… For fun.

Admittedly, I may not be able to stay 100% clear of Death, or other philosophical matter… But how, since I am also in the mood for something more light? Hm… I feel like writing… hm… Yeah, I can sense the dark creativity flowing in my veins now… I think I may have the loonie quoting Great Poets in an seemingly random manner (perhaps the chapter should be called “Under A Poet’s Moon”?), while rambling away about weird things happening if we are not careful and stay silent, and he is babbling on about philosophy (Death?), religion(s?), literature (pulp?), poetry, art–and oh no, we must not (must not!) play that foul musick… And then Someone approaches, a mysterious, dreadful Someone who knows who the loonie is…. And the excited, curious Reader will then realize who we have in front of us… Perhaps time did wait, this time, with horrible implications?… And… and…

On to the next chapter;-)