0. Prologue: the Tentacular Novum
Taking for granted, as we do, its ubiquitous cultural debris, it is easy to forget just how radical the Weird was at the time of its convulsive birth. Its break with previous fantastics is vividly clear in its teratology, which renounces all folkloric or traditional antecedents. The monsters of high Weird are indescribable and formless as well as being and/or although they are and/or in so far as they are described with an excess of specificity, an accursed share of impossible somatic precision; and their constituent body parts are disproportionately insectile/cephalopodic, without mythic resonance. The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.
The ‘Lovecraft Event’, as Ben Noys invaluably understands it, is unquestionably the centre of gravity of this revolutionary moment; its defining text, Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, published in 1928 in Weird Tales. However, Lovecraft’s is certainly not the only haute Weird. A good case can be made, for example, that William Hope Hodgson, though considerably less influential than Lovecraft, is as, or even more, remarkable a Weird visionary; and that 1928 can be considered the Weird tentacle’s coming of age, Cthulhu (‘monster […] with an octopus-like head’) a twenty-first birthday iteration of the giant ‘devil-fish’ – octopus – first born to our sight squatting malevolently on a wreck in Hodgson’s The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’, in 1907.
There are, of course, honoured precursors: French writers were early and acute sufferers from Montfort’s Syndrome, an obsessive fascination with the cephalopodic. In short order, the two key figures in the French pre-Weird tentacular, Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, produced works – Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) and Hugo in The Toilers of the Sea (1866) – which include extraordinary descriptions of monster cephalopods. These texts, while indispensable to the development of the Weird, remain in important respects pre–Weird not only temporally but thematically, representing contrasting oppositions to the still-unborn tradition, to varying degrees prefigurations of the Weird and attempts pre-emptively to de-Weird it.
Verne reveals his giant squid at the end of a character’s careful itemisation of its qualities, qualities which he can see, but which we for several paragraphs suppose him to be remembering from descriptions (‘Did it not measure about six metres? […] was its head not crowned with eight tentacles…? […] were its eyes not extremely prominent […] ?’). The animal thus appears pre-mediated by human understanding, at the end of a long section detailing the history of architeuthology, so that its monstrousness, though certainly not denied, is already defined by human categorisation. Frisson notwithstanding, the Weird, usually implacably Real in Lacanian terms, is preincorporated into the symbolic system.
When he sees it, the narrator Arronax relays the sight with a laborious itemised description interrupted by pedantic asides (‘Its eight arms, or rather legs, were […] implanted on its head, thus giving these animals the name of cephalopods’) and questionable exactitude that can only undermine the ‘cosmic awe’ which typifies the Weird (‘We could distinctly see the 250 suckers in the form of hemispherical capsules […]’). Arronax carefully uses ‘bras’ then ‘pieds’ to describe the limbs, rather than his assistant’s ‘tentacules’: scientism rejects the tentacle. ‘I did not want to waste the opportunity of closely studying such a specimen of cephalopod’, Arronax tells us. ‘overcame the horror its appearance caused me, picked up a pencil, and began to draw it.’ Verne mounts a pre-emptive rearguard defence of a bourgeois ‘scientific rationality’, depicting it as stronger than this new bad-numinous.
Arronax describes his own description as ‘too pallid’, and says that only ‘the author of The Toilers of the Sea’ could do it justice. The reference is to the extraordinary passage in which Hugo’s Gilliat is attacked by a ‘pieuvre’ (Guernésiais for octopus), the greatest and strangest of the pre-Weird reveries on the tentacular, and favourite for the title tout court. The chapter is a visionary rumination on the horror of octopus-ness. The creature is described in a vomit of aghast and contradictory metaphors and similes: ‘a rag of cloth’, ‘a rolled-up umbrella’, ‘disease shaped into a monstrosity’, ‘a wheel’, ‘a sleeve containing a closed fist’, ‘birdlime imbued with hate’, ‘a pneumatic machine’ – and on and on.
Though Hugo is far less cited than Verne as an influence on the fantastic genre-cluster with which Lovecraft is also associated, his passage is much closer to haute Weird. Hugo counterposes the octopus to the chimera, to underline the former’s afolkloric monstrousness. He repeatedly stresses the octopus’s taxonomic transgression: it has no claws, but deploys vacuum as a weapon; it eats and shits with the same orifice (supposedly); it swims and walks and crawls; it is – as he stresses with ecstatic Kristevan disgust at the octopus-as-abject – flaccid, gangrene-like, and, ‘horrifyingly […] soft and yielding’. The octopus is problematised ontology.
Hugo is nowhere more Weird than in his admirably clear insistence that octopuses, ‘killjoys of the contemplator’, demand a rethinking of philosophy. There are, nonetheless, what one might archly call ‘countervailing tendencies’ pulling the passage away from haute Weird (it should go without saying that this is genealogy not criticism).
Though distinguished from the chimera, the octopus is identified with the Medusa, demon, and, repeatedly, with the vampire, reacquainting it, if unstably, with ‘traditional’ teratology. The octopus is obsessively depicted as evil – indeed, such a ‘perfection of evil’ that its existence is a vector of heresies of a double god, a cosmic parity of good and evil. Although, in a more subterreanean moment of French cephalopodia, Lautréamont deploys the octopoid to mock moralism, as when ‘legions of winged squid […] scud swiftly toward the cities of the humans, their mission to warn men to change their ways’, a similar problematic is evident in Maldoror (1869). Lautréamont’s God is confronted by Maldoror ‘changed into an octopus, clamp[ing] eight monstrous tentacles about his body’, the two now knowing they ‘cannot vanquish each other’.
This Manichean tentacular is in sharp contrast with the monstrosities of haute Weird, which are impossible to translate into such terms – predatory and cosmically amoral, but not ‘evil’. If they serve any morally heuristic purpose it is precisely to undermine any religiose good/evil binary.
Counterintuitively, it is also precisely Hugo’s heady itemisation of the octopus’s dreadfulness that pulls against its Weirdness. Hugo decries the devilfish as unthinkable with what is almost a sermon, that unfolds aghast, yes, but without surprise. Hugo’s octopus lurks like a bad conscience, a horror that we already know we are inadequate to thinking. By contrast, whether one deems it successful, risible, both, or something else, Lovecraft’s hysterical insistences that nothing like this had ever been seen before, that nothing could possibly prepare anyone for such a sight, when his Great Old Ones appear, is the narrative actualisation of the Weird-as-novum, unprecedented, Event.
In 1896, the other great early adopter of the tentacular, H.G. Wells, published the first and neglected haute Weird text (despite its author not generally being located in the sub-genre, perhaps because of the never-convincing Fabian camouflage draped over his bleak numinous). ‘The Sea Raiders’ tells of Haploteuthis ferox, a hitherto-unknown and aggressively predatory cephalopod which besieges the English coast, rising from deep waters to feed on boaters, and disappearing again.
There is no Vernian rejection of ‘tentacle’: the word and its derivations appearing twenty times in the short piece. There is no moralism – though horrifying, the monsters are predators, not devils. Above all, ‘this extraordinary raid from the deeper sea’ is unprecedented, unexpected, unexplained, unexplainable – it simply is. All that we who suffer this tentacular Event can hope is that they have returned ‘to the sunless depths of the middle seas, out of which they have so strangely and so mysteriously arisen.’
The three decades between the Verne/Hugo/Lautréamont moment and Wells’s saw the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the so-called ‘Long Depression’ of 1873 – 1896, the rise of ‘new unionism’, and the ‘new imperialism’ and murderous ‘scramble for Africa’. Increasingly visible, especially in the last, the crisis tendencies of capitalism would ultimately lead to World War I (to the representation of which traditional bogeys were quite inadequate). It is the growing proximity of this total crisis – kata-culmination of modernity, ultimate rebuke to nostrums of bourgeois progress – that is expressed in the shift to the morally opaque tentacular and proto-Lovecraftian radical Weird of ‘The Sea Raiders’.
Like Wells and unlike Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson was barometric enough to the incipient apocalypse to en-monster it before it exploded into the war that killed him. In a stunning letter describing the front, he refers to what he considered his masterpiece, The Night Land: ‘My God, what a Desolation! […] the Infernal Storm that seeps for ever, night and day, day and night, across that most atrocious Plain of Destruction. My God! Talk about a lost World – talk about the END of the World; talk about the “NightLand” – it is all here, not more than two hundred odd miles from where you sit infinitely remote.’ The Weird is here explicitly, in John Clute’s magnificent formulation, ‘pre-aftermath fiction’.
The Weird’s unprecedented forms, and its insistence on a chaotic, amoral, anthropoperipheral universe, stresses the implacable alterity of its aesthetic and concerns. The Weird is irreducible. A Weird tentacle does not ‘mean’ the Phallus; inevitably we will mean with it, of course, but fundamentally it does not ‘mean’ at all (perhaps Weird Pulp Modernism is the most Blanchotian of literature).