OK, we’re back for the third in what will probably be a four-part series on my time at the Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL last weekend. As you have probably gathered by now, I had a grand old time. Today we’ll be covering the papers that closed out Saturday, the film night that evening and, if there’s time, the first couple of papers from Sunday. That said, onward!
The first paper after lunch was by Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory: “‘The Accursed Galaxy’: Astronomy, archaeology and the appeal of cosmic horror.” And it was the business. You know, here’s the public face of British astronomy talking about Jack Vance in a way that indicates that he actually knows what he’s talking about. He opened up with a Pascal quote: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me …”.
So, key points: astronomy is, in many respects, looking directly in the past. When you look up at stars, you are of course seeing light that took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach you. And the scale of astronomical antiquities is vast. Prehistorians can have ten-thousand-year margins for error in their work, longer than the entirety of history. Geologists think prehistorians are fooling themselves about their work being old. And astronomers think geologists are on some bullshit.*
(*If you are an angry geologist, that was me, not him. I mean, it was me, not him whether you are an angry geologist or not, but you know what I mean.)
“Alternative” theories came up again, and we were introduced to the technical term used in astronomy, which is the same as the one we use in archaeology:
waaaaaaaaait for it ….
And then it’s a bewildering tour of the history of ideas in proper Fortean style, best represented by a lunatic with some coloured string, but here represented for technical reasons by bullet points:
- The Curiosity rover is doing digs on Mars. Dont’ look in the hole!
- The eruption of Tambora in April 1815 coloured Turner’s sunsets, caused the Year Without a Summer, which in turned caused Mary Shelley et al. to be stuck inside in bad weather, which in turn caused Frankenstein, which in turn basically caused science fiction.
- Lovecraft was scared witless by the implications of astronomical deep time. (And interestingly, unlike most people, astronomy rather than geology was where HPL got his deep time fear — he loved astronomy. Even the name Necromonicon may be derived from a poem called the Astronomicon.)
- Plus also Jack Vance, whose deep-time-ness extends into the future rather than the past.
- And M. John Harrison, come to that.
- And a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t put in my notes, like the face on Mars, astronomical alignment of the Pyramids (which caused the above comment), archaeoastronomy in general, all that kind of thing. In twenty minutes!
Anyhow, this actually did me a big favour, since I was up next and my talk had been haphazardly cut down from its hour-long version. I rushed through a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraftian Mythos, especially focusing on the use of archaeology in “The Rats in the Walls,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Long story short: Lovecraft feared being cut off from his heritage, which he regarded as an actually meaningless but symbolically very important source of strength. (And if you want to say that this is how Pillars of Sanity work in Trail of Cthulhu, I think that makes sense.) But naturally, since it was something that Lovecraft relied on to keep himself happy and healthy, he spent his fiction smashing it to bits, and archaeology here serves as the wrecking ball. Post-Lovecraft Mythos authors have not pursued this theme, possibly because they don’t share HPL’s concern with heritage.
Last up was Egyptologist W. J. Tait, whose talk was about monsters — and specifically why Egyptian legend doesn’t seem to have a lot of the kinds of monsters that other types of folklore have, such as giants or ogres. Even in the story of Sinuhe, which has been described as the Egyptian David and Goliath story the antagonist isn’t a giant. This is another presentation where I wish I had been taking photographs, because I know less than nothing about Egypt, so my main concern is monsters, and ancient Egyptian monsters look either very cool or completely fucked up. (Interestingly, Lovecraft wrote a story that ends with this as the dramatic reveal.) They’re often a combination of (to paraphrase the talk) “dangerous beasts, fire and knives,” which not coincidentally is the new title of my forthcoming album.
I don’t think I caught the answer to why there are no giants, as I was frantically scribbling scary monster descriptions in my notebook, which shows you where my priorities are. So apologies for that.
So then it was movie time. Well, more accurately it was dinner time. I ran off and ate, taking the opportunity to finish This Book Is Full of Spiders. Then back to the Petrie Museum for Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.
Now, as it happens, I like a good bad movie, so I was well-served by the movie evening. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because if you are the kind of person who is reading my blog, then there is a better-than-average likelihood that you are the kind of person who wants to see this film. But let me make a brief digression.
When I was young (judging by the date of the film, about 10 or 11), there was a poster for this film in the Horror section of my local video store, Midtown Video. And this was in the glory days of the local video store, of course, before the big chains dominated but after VHS had been around long enough for places to have a good selection. I was in there pretty frequently, and I always looked at that poster with a mixture of weird chills and incipient adolescent perviness.
Now, here is a small spoiler: this poster represents an actual scene from the film, in which Hugh Grant puts speakers on the top of his house and plays snake-charmer music in order to lure evil snake-woman Amanda Donohoe out of her house so that Peter Capaldi and, erm, thingy, his love interest, can break into the place and rescue her sister. The love interest’s, that is, not Amanda Donohoe. And when the music plays, she rises up out of a basket and does a little sashay-y snake dance to the door and leaves.
I just want to see what was going on five minutes before that. What could she possibly have been doing in a basket? Like, it’s Thursday night, nothing on, so I’ll put on my vinyl villain outfit and four-inch heels and sit in a wicker basket. With the lid on! How did she even get it closed? And what did she do once she had closed it? Did she have her library book in there?
But what you’re asking yourself is “yes, James, the plots of horror movies don’t make much sense, but does this have the necessary level of anarchic goofiness and over-the-top shock?” And the answer is, well, yes, kind of. It is full of suspect acting, and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are just a carnival of absurdity that I wish I could tell you about but can’t without spoilers.
Anyway, see for yourself. Note: not even remotely safe for work and also probably copyright violation, so you should, you know, buy it if you can. It’s less than a tenner on DVD.
I have also just downloaded the book by Bram Stoker for the ol’ Kindle. I’ll be interested to see how much of the original survives into the film. I’m going to go ahead right now and say I bet the attempted dildo murder is not in the original. But I could be wrong.
I love this idea. I love the fact that the Petrie Museum has a film club. If the Whipple Museum of the History of Science had sci-fi film nights I’d die of dehydration in there. I love all that arts-engagement stuff, as who doesn’t, but naturally I’m particularly fond of it when it’s trashy, geeky and disreputable. I am sad I didn’t have any popcorn, but you can’t have everything.
OK, I know I said I would try to do Sunday morning next, but this is pretty long already and I need to be getting back to work. Stay tuned on Friday for Sunday, I guess.