Trip Report: Silent Partners

Yesterday, we went to the Fitzwilliam Musem to see their “Silent Partners” exhibition, which is about artists’ mannequins, and is, as you might expect, pure high-octane nightmare fuel.

Just to give you an idea, the exhibit — which is more or less chronological in its structure — opens with a print of this goddamn thing:

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That is “Smugglerius,” and that is a cast of the body of a person — a smuggler, probably — who was hanged, then flayed, posed to look like this:

That's "The Dying Gaul," and it's completely fucked in its own right.
That’s “The Dying Gaul,” and it’s completely fucked in its own right.

— and then used to teach art students anatomy. Which is among the nicer things people could think of to do with the bodies of their fellow sinners back in those days.

So we’re into weird territory right from the start, and we’re going to firmly stay there. Of course, it’s not hard to make mannequins creepy. Anything that resembles a human but clearly isn’t is unnerving, but there are limits. This is “Child Number 98,” a mannequin that we know was rented from a London “colourman” by John Everett Millais (they have the shop’s book on display showing the dates of the rentals):

'Child No 98'.

Now, that’s fucking creepy, but with the head off, so that you can see the big column/tentacle of faux-flesh that supports it, it looks like a more perverted Pyramid Head from Silent Hill.

What’s interesting is that the exhibition really acknowledges this. In the later stages, it gets into dolls and fashion mannequins as well as artists’ mannequins. One of the dolls is an Edison Talking Doll, and the plaque explains that the doll’s “disembodied, sepulchral voice” made it unpopular with children. There’s even a little recording, although for some reason it wasn’t working when we were there. See if you agree with the analysis.

When you’ve got sections of your exhibition called “Silenced Partners” or “Finding the Bodies,” that’s called leaning in.

I thought that some of the exploration of the social history of the mannequin was really interesting. Consider this image, The Black Brunswicker by the aforementioned John Everett Millais.

wgl100299So, the deal here is that it would have been totally inappropriate for the models (Charles Dickens’s daughter and some guardsman) to stand so close together, even, oh God, touching, for the hours it would take the painter. So Millais painted each of them posing against a mannequin and put them together.

I figure that gives it the necessary historical context to make it a blogworthy thing, right? But there’s much more that we didn’t have time to see, or that I don’t know enough to talk about. It’s definitely worth seeing, though — it’s informative, it’s creepy as anything. It’s on until 16 January, so if you get some time over the holiday I recommend you check it out.

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Also this goddamn thing is in there what the fuck museum.

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Trip Report: Silent Partners

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

All right. It’s Friday night, I’ve got a glass of fancy gin I bought in a fit of prosperity, and I’ve got nine, count ’em, nine papers to get through tonight. Can I do it? Let’s find out!

Jasmine Day was also talking about mummies “as travelling companions,” but as she could not be present the paper was read by Tina Paphitis in a Jasmine Day costume. I am completely serious. She talked about the idea that the mummy represents some aspect of colonial guilt in horror fiction. A lot of this tied effectively into Ellie Dobson’s paper from the previous day. I enjoyed her montage of similarly-attired high priest characters from mummy films. Apparently it sometimes happened that mummies travelling on ships were blamed for storms or other bad happenings. I kind of liked the analogy she made between the high priest bringing the mummy to Britain or America and the image of people smuggling in a dirty bomb. Interestingly, vampires and Frankenstein could play the same monster-as-WMD role, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon could not.

Next up was George Richards, who was talking about Ancient Egypt in comics and cartoons: specifically, the Tintin adventure Cigars of the Pharaoh, Silver Age appearances of the Sphinx, and, my hand to god, Thundercats.

I got really wound during this talk because I was internally asking myself why Mumm-Ra was blue, and the only answer I could come up with was “Skeletor is blue,” and that’s a Fred Hoyle question, because it only punts the question back one: why was Skeletor blue? I asked Allison and she said “because he’s undead,” like that should somehow be obvious. Oh well.

And now, comics in which the Sphinx has death rays:

wwandru113 Kane

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If you have not read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics, by the way, you don’t know what you are missing. They are, how you say, hopping mentile.

The thing that occurred to me during this talk was that Metamorpho had an Egyptian-style origin, maybe the only Silver Age hero to do so. I like Metamorpho.

One comment I really appreciated here was that comic artists seem to really like Egypt, visually. The art is instantly recognisable, the style is distinctive and can be imitated, and Egyptian art is even comic-book-like in a way that, say, Roman art isn’t.

OK, next up: author James Goss talked about the theory and practice of eternal curses. Now, through no fault of his, a lot of this paper — or what I got out of it at least — was a little similar to Dobson and Day. At least the first half. The second half took off a bit more, although I have my doubts about one aspect of his analysis. He was reading out some curses found on actual tombs on Wikipedia and then comparing them to the complete text in order to show how they had been “sexed up” to bolster the case for curses — he called actual Egyptian curses “disappointingly tame.” I wasn’t convinced — one line of a curse he quoted is “further, I shall seize his neck like a bird.” That sounds bad. I do not want to have my neck seized like a bird. I mentioned this after the conference to one of the Egyptology types there and he said “oh yeah, the Egyptians loved seizing necks” or words to that effect.

I wondered if the dungeon trap didn’t come from the literary trope of mechanical traps in Egyptian tombs.

Then there was a break.

Right, next up was Joanna Paul, with “The city disinterred: confronting the uncanny at Pompeii”. I am not a classicist, but I did go recently to see the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibit and furthermore I chose an image from Pompeii as the cover for the volume of ARC I co-edited with Ali Klevnas. 

22-2disturb

So there was a lot of good stuff here, and I was particularly struck by the way the casts are displayed at Pompeii — right in the middle of houses or other rooms, sometimes apparently at random. At the British Museum they way they did it was to leave the casts right until the end, so that you walked through the “rooms” of the Roman house before coming face-to-face with the dead. It was interesting. In one way, it was much more shocking, because you experienced the bodies as people rather than curiosities, but in another way you could argue that it was sanitised, since the bodies are kept separated from the house.

There were a lot of interesting points in this talk. I was particularly fascinated by the point that there are very few Pompeii ghost stories. The dead there are very material — but the living can be kind of ethereal, as in the display that reproduces Julius Polybius and his family as holograms. Interesting. Veeeeeeery interesting. Obviously, as a burials guy, I was particularly interested in this point, but also just … you’re looking at a frozen image of the moment of someone’s agonising early death. As Michael Shaara might have put it, “a fellow needs some privacy at a time like that.”

Next up, Gabe Moshenska talked about M.R. James and his excavations at Bury Abbey. Gabe delivered this in costume also, in this case dressed as a spook or possibly phantasm. This he tied in to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” a story that gave me the whimwhams one late and lonely night in Cambridge about 11 years ago.

For all that James was basically an “antiquarian fusser,” he did do some field work — on a dig in Cyprus in 1887-8, and at the chapter house Bury in 1902-3. There wasn’t much of this excavation published, sadly, but Gabe pointed out some ways that it could have served as an influence on two of his stories, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and the aforementioned “Oh Whistle.” Gabe pointed out the way in which the latter story is also an attempt to take the sheet-ghost and make it scary. That actually never occurred to me at the time, which I think indicates that it succeeded. One other interesting thing he pointed out was that although James himself was a medievalist, his monsters are usually more modern than his field would suggest. “You need familiarity for horror.”

Closing out the session was Caterina Minnitti, talking about the presentation of ancient Egypt in video games. Now, when you do something like this, you sometimes wind up just cataloguing the obvious absurdities, and there was a certain amount of that. Take a look at this guy, for instance:

petsuchos

Crocodile with a laser on his head! That’s both magnificent and idiotic at the same time.

Now, that’s obviously in a game that has strong magical elements (Age of Mythology). But one that that she pointed out that I thought was very interesting was that even in games that are ostensibly mainly historical, Egypt is where the weird shit is located. “Orientalism is alive and well in video games,” she said, but also pointed out that in many ways this was an idea with roots that stretch right back into the period being discussed. For example, she quoted Herodotus as saying that Egypt had “the most wonders.” Greece and Rome are, you know, political, military, economic, and Egypt always winds up being somehow mystical. There are certain nations that we tend to have a habit of thinking of as particularly spiritual — I’m thinking Tibet here, or even India in general — and I guess this was the case for Egypt.

But seriously, video games! At this point I was seeing Aegypt everywhere. I think there’s going to be a post on the Skyrim thing next week.

So then it was lunch. Am I gonna go for it? Yes I am.

Coming back, we led off with Katy Soar on “There’s something about Nodens: statues and survivals in the works of Arthur Machen.” This was mainly about The Great God Pan and “The White People,” and it was interesting. Apparently the identification of Nodens as “Lord of the Abyss” is so much bullshit, but of course that’s what Machen was working with. And it’s interesting that Machen’s notion of survival seems to be that the civilised veneer of the present is just a skin on a past that’s horrible, whereas the Lovecraftian vision is that the past outwardly seems noble and empowering but is a lie.

And of course survivals as a concept were a thing in the anthropology of the time. Spiritualism is also into the idea of collapsing time in the same way — they’re both concepts that involve confronting the past in the present.

Also, there is squishiness. Helen Vaughn’s body should be firm and permanent, but it’s weird and fluid. There’s a similar tentacley image in “The Novel of the Black Seal.”

Nearly there! Right, next up, Nigel Tallis talked about folk horror, which it turns out is completely a thing. Now, not being British, I missed a lot of the shows to which he was referring, but I believe that Children of the Stones is up there in the trinity of things that scared the piss out of Britons d’un certain age, together with Threads and Ghostwatch. He also referred to his talk as “Nigel Kneale appreciation,” which is fair enough. I also have respect for anyone who says “most folk songs are Georgian pop music.” He also talked about the idea that people really don’t like hearing that their archaeology is uncertain, to which I can only say “nailed it.” But archaeologists have to be unafraid to say “I don’t know.” This is another difference between archaeology and fringe stuff, I guess?

Folk horror in a lot of ways is kind of a village-green version of Machen, in that it’s the idea that you have these folk customs that link you to the past, but that at heart they turn out to be completely vile and evil. The bucolic turns out to be horrific. Interestingly, though, two of the big examples, The Wicker Man and the Doctor Who story The Daemons, both involve folk customs that are actually fake, with some other person manipulating the yokels to their own ends.

And with a rush of breath we come to the last one. That’s Tina Paphitis again, this time in her own words. She was talking about “Horrors of the past: barrows and barrow-lore in fantastic fiction,” and of course if we’re talking about barrows in fantastic fiction we’re talking about Tolkien. Who knew a thing or two about literary barrows himself, of course. Barrows have a long folkloric history, and they’re actually one of the few areas where we know a little bit about how early medieval people encountered earlier barrows, naming them after heroes and considering them to be both very important and maybe a leetle threatening. In fact, there’s a good barrow bit in one of Cornwell’s Arthur books, harking back to Saturday morning.

She also talked about a Grant Allen story from 1892, in which a dude encounters some ghosts of prehistoric people, and it includes a section so baller I must quote it:

They were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed at once combined in them.

OK, no, I’m not letting that one go without further elaboration. The two greatest enemies of civilisation are barbarism and ghosts? Really? The guys with the epaulettes are sitting around their maps going “but gentlemen — what if we face an enemy that is both barbarian and ghost?” And they say nothing but swallow hard and reach with trembling fingers for the brandy.

Apparently, the Stonehenge audio guide leads you around the circle widdershins. There you go, Changeling scenario writers. Gave you that one for free.

OK, that’s it for the papers. Tomorrow, time permitting, some kind of retrospective on the whole thing. Then I’m at a wedding on Sunday, and Monday is, of course, Movie Monday. lway

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

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:

bol

waaaaaaaaait for it ….

locks

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!

Poeticon_astronomicon_casand

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.

Oh lordy.

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.

Oh, don't look at me like that.
Oh, don’t look at me like that.

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.

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

So, as I mentioned, I was away from the computer this past weekend because I was attending the Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL. It was the business. Over the next few days I’ll be posting about the talks that happened there. You can see the Storified version of the tweets that people (including me) put out during the conference here.

So the first night, Friday, saw two papers: the first was on  Druids, Deities and Daemons: Archaeological Horrors in Doctor Who, and it was by conference organiser John J.  Johnston.

There’s quite a lot of archaeology in Doctor Who, from Tomb of the Cybermen to The Daemons and so on. I think my personal favourite is the archaeologist from the Daemons, who plays the skeptic part with such obvious contempt that you can’t help but like him. There’s a great part where the news presenter asks him “professor, can you explain (such-and-such)” and he just goes “no.”

That's not tea.
That’s not tea.

As an aside, since occultism was going to be coming up all weekend, I think it’s interesting to note that the Master’s chant in The Daemons sounds to me like a variant on an honest-to-goodness Wiccan chant: Eko Eko Azarak.

As a pretty die-hard Doctor Who guy, I was familiar with most of the stories and themes covered in the talk, which was more of an overview of the subject. It introduced a couple of key things that were going to come up. For starters, it hit the whole alien-astronauts thing, which was a huge thing in Doctor Who from the 70s on. Secondly, I think it anticipated a key question that would come up on Saturday: why are archaeologists usually portrayed in an unfavourable light in Doctor Who? If they’re not just releasing evil on the world and getting killed, they’re actual bad guys. This, Johnston suggests, is probably because Doctor Who messes with the usual structure of heroes in an archaeological horror story. You usually have the dumb and/or bad archaeologist who releases the horror, and then a good one who saves the day. But of course, in a Doctor Who story, it’s the Doctor and his companions who fill the role of the heroic archaeologist, leaving only the bad one. We’re going to see this come up again.

You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.
You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.

Fringe archaeology and popular culture go hand in hand — Von Daniken is a big influence on Doctor Who. I guess it makes sense for a show which combines history and sci-fi.

Next up was a talk by Jean-Marcel Humbert: it was about the portrayal of mummies in childrens’ books, and it was very, very comprehensive. I don’t actually feel like I have that much to say about this one — it was very visual, with examples from dozens or probably even hundreds of books about mummies. On a purely professional level, I think what I admire most was that he wasn’t either extemporising from his slides nor clicking through them to go with his paper. He just had his presentation timed so exactly that the slide show and the reading went together.

After that, hey for the reception at the Petrie Museum. Wine cups were crushed as though they were the skulls of our enemies. I had been feeling a little unsure of myself, socially, since I’m not very good at meeting people, but with a buzz on and some presentations to talk about it was all good.

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On a personal note, I was off to the leaving party of a friend, but I decided to stop in on the way at, you guessed it, Treadwell’s Books. A little more wine, some good chats, books, maybe a little occultism. Then finally to Chiswick for the remaining party.

By the end of Friday I knew I was in for an exceptional weekend: my brain was humming and my feet hurt like hell. Saturday would be more of the same.

Monstrous Antiquities: 1