J. A. Nicholl
Venus & Her Thugs: Fifteen Weird Tales
San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017
What is a weird tale? To keep the question manageable, it makes sense to think only about modern, literary tales. In that respect, then, the weird tale is a scion of the ghost story family. The modern, literary ghost story is widely acknowledged to have been created by M. R. James. James’ stories followed a formula of a cerebral, monastic academic discovering some sort of occult object, and subsequently being assaulted by a supernatural emanation connected to that object. This formula has been as widely deviated from as it has been copied but it remains the fundamental template for ghost stories nonetheless. The characteristic assumptions of a James story are that the world is a stable and ordered place for the most part, but that the façade of normalcy can be assaulted when forces of chaos and subversion are accidentally evoked. James had no belief in the supernatural and he saw his stories as harmless entertainment.
Moving on from M. R. James, we come to H. P. Lovecraft and the other writers associated with Weird Tales pulp magazine. Lovecraft wrote supernatural fiction that was excessive and lurid but he nonetheless managed to create a world that was expressive of a certain tendency of philosophical pessimism. In particular, he emphasized the unimportance of the human when viewed from the perspective of unimaginably deep space or unimaginably ancient time. He threw his characters into situations that would force them to realize the ultimate insignificance of the human race. The terror in Lovecraft was not caused by a temporary disjunction in an otherwise ordered and meaningful space-time, but by the realization that a truer perspective of space-time rendered man meaningless. Lovecraft himself had no belief in the supernatural and he drew his imagery from the vivid nightmares with which he was assaulted. His stories were attempts to imaginatively comprehend scientism.
Anyway, if the place of humanity in the greater cosmos is not a settled question in weird literature, then neither is the development of the weird tale itself. Nonetheless, this rapid introduction to the genre at least makes it clear that there are radically different approaches to the weird. In one case, the weird event is an anomalous phenomenon that must be suppressed in order that a stable worldview can be re-established; in the other, the weird event represents the intrusion of reality as it actually is into the purview of mankind. The former case provides the comforting realization that everything is really as it seems, despite appearances; the latter case provokes the unthinkable realization that nothing is as it seems, despite appearances.
The “fifteen weird tales” presented in J. A. Nicholl’s first book, Venus & Her Thugs, offer an unusual, brilliant and genuinely disturbing new take on the genre. Each of the protaganists in these stories, rather like Lovecraft’s characters, is thrown into a world where it transpires that something has gone very, very wrong. But unlike Lovecraft’s, Nicholl’s characters do not come face to face with an ancient and eldritch cosmic horror manifested as uncouth, dark gods. Instead, they experience bodily transformations in domestic settings; quiet and private horrors that are made all the more terrifying due to the intimacy of their telling.
Nicholl writes about people who are drifters; neither the victims nor the successes of global capitalism but those, like most of us, who are immersed in a chaotic and fractured world that we cannot fully comprehend but whose logic sweeps us along anyway. They are people who have no living tradition to sustain them, and who feel its absence as a fuzzy “question mark” shape inside their souls. People like the boy who drifts through Buddhism and then Islam, hoping to find some sort of spiritual fulfilment; or the woman, dragged along to her friend’s anti-male violence workshop, who, “was interested in rather little of anything, though she lived in the expectation of finding something, perhaps via the true love she would meet one day, in which she would fully believe, and that would give an ultimate meaning to her life” (p. 152).
The rather mundane settings and the, shall we say, lack of vigor of the characters creates a wholly plausible backdrop in which the weird event can occur, and renders it all the more grotesque by contrast with the earlier normality. The subtlety of the writing is reminiscent of Robert Aickman and, in fact, the stories have a similar quality to Aickman’s of pulling you along with their own internal consistency so that on reaching the end it isn’t at all clear what exactly has happened. Every step along the path of each story is clear and logical, but the gestalt impression left at the end is one of uncomfortable angst. Several times when reading this book, I had to go back and reread a story to find out what had really happened. But, of course, reality is precisely what is being questioned.
Nicholl is interested in bodily transformation and parasitism, undiagnosable tumors and immobility, even seeming to regard pregnancy as an uncanny metaphor for cancerous malignancy. These tropes of body horror seem to function beyond their immediate effect as grotesque emanations of an other lifeform. They go much further and act as a vile personification of philosophical doubt, of the impossibility of ever knowing the thing in itself. If we allow ourselves to be persuaded by Kant’s claim that the noumenon cannot be accessed but we refuse to follow his subsequent argumentation that claims to prove the existence of God, then we are left with the prospect of unending meaninglessness. We feel assaulted from all sides by plausible doubts about the nature of reality but we lack any foothold of metaphysical certainty that might help us to gain a clear, indeed, healthy perspective on our lives. In Nicholl’s tales, the nature of bodily transformation is a sort of metaphysical illness. Repulsive things happen but we are not entirely sure how to read them. This is much more than the well-worn procedure of horror fiction (particularly film) where the “supernatural” is revealed to be nothing more than the psychological projection of a disordered mind. In Nicholl’s fiction, we are forced to empathize with the characters’ own lack of objective perspective. He denies us the comfort of an omniscient narrator. What just happened? we ask ourselves, and we realize that we don’t really know any more than the character.
And how this question becomes paranoically magnified in Nicholl’s imagination! After the pregnant woman in “Miss Polly” gives birth and finds her baby suckling at her breast, it is a very unpleasant, monstrous child. But what makes it really horrific is this description: “The only thing human about this creature was its eyes: those brown, apparently soulful eyes that contrived even now to seek out and exploit her motherly instinct. But she knew there was no soul behind them, not really. They were like the defensive eyes painted on the wings of a moth” (p. 98). What is evoked here is a deeper horror than the mere appearance of a monster. It is the realization that behind life itself is a blind struggle for evolutionary survival, a struggle from which we would like to believe we have extricated ourselves. The resemblance to defensive markings on a moth’s wings reminds us that we too are subject to evolutionarily developed delusions. The brown eyes that ward off predators on a moth’s wing provoke loving care when they reappear in a baby’s face. But who is reading them correctly? When the animalistic drives that we share with spiders, dogs, caterpillars, and cancers come to the surface of our psyche it is impossible to fully grasp the deep revulsion this causes and which resonates in us beneath the level of conceptualization. And one senses that Nicholl’s menagerie of unpleasant creatures provides the most apt metaphorical expression of this horror.
It is as if there is an inescapable and disgusting legacy of non-human, of profoundly other life forms that continues to live on within the human and which we cannot but try to unconsciously repress. And, of course, this is literally true. But when set against the backdrop of Nicholl’s characters’ sense of drifting ennui, of their vainly wishing for something, something meaningful to intrude into their lives, it becomes clear that this desperate repression is a necessary tactic required to compensate for the loss of religious understanding in contemporary Western societies. The social disorder that is carefully described in these stories has allowed metaphysical speculation to become untethered and unbalanced so that we are left with a great absence in our lives. Into this void rushes the darkest cosmic horror, a horror that not only tells you that you must doubt reality as it is presented to you, but that “you” don’t really exist at all. We have been invaded at every level, and Nicholl’s writing is perfect for capturing both the horrific implications of this and also the extent to which it is socially repressed. To see the truth no longer means to catch a glimpse of heaven but to become lost in the murk of evolutionary aeons.
Venus & Her Thugs is very strong meat, and it should probably be avoided by the feeble of mind, cancer sufferers, pregnant women, and innocent children. Or perhaps they would be the most willing readers of this strange book, having a primal connection to an awful sense of otherness. I don’t know. But I am in awe of the gravitational pull that these fifteen weird stories exert over me, and I will be returning to them again and again in the years to come, like a dead moon orbiting a cold and lonely planet.