Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

US HB, published by Jonathan Cape

How to approach Olaf Stapledon’s future history epic Last and First Men today? It was first published in 1930 (by Methuen, who clearly weren’t too burned by the poor sales of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus ten years before), and its first chapters — all the ones which use such terms as Europe, America, Britain and China — were instantly outdated by the outbreak of the Second World War. These early chapters, which perhaps might be read as satire if Stapledon were of a more satirical bent, are anyway the least interesting. (The most successfully satirical moment, perhaps, is a Gulliver’s Travels-like glimpse the Second Men get of our own primitive descendants, still recognisably human but fallen into serving as beasts of burden and objects of mockery for a race of semi-intelligent monkeys, about 10 million years from now.)

It’s after the rise of the Second Men that Stapledon’s novel really becomes what it’s meant to be — not political commentary or satire, but a

“…serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarise ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.”

Magnum 1978 PB, art by Peter Goodfellow

Last and First Men, he goes on to say in his Preface, “is not prophecy; it is myth”.

But what sort of myth? Stapledon is writing in the cosmic mode (which might be considered the religious aspect of atheism), but not cosmic horror a la Lovecraft. Take a passage such as this, a direct pronouncement of the book’s narrator (one of the Eighteenth, and final, race of humans, dictating this novel from billions of years in our future):

“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies.”

The first sentence could be Lovecraft, but by the third we’re in a different mindset altogether. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, in their history of science fiction Trillion Year Spree, point out both Stapledon’s link to, and difference with, cosmic horror by comparing him to another writer in that genre:

“We may suspect that Stapledon’s alienation was at least as severe as [William Hope] Hodgson’s; but Stapledon’s powerful intellect has shaped his mental condition into a metaphysic.”

So if it’s not horror, what’s a better term for Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism?

Dover Books omnibus with Star Maker

To him, humankind is not, as with Lovecraft, an insect-like nothing crushed by immense and indifferent alien powers, but a potentially noble race. This nobility, though, doesn’t come from being the favoured creation of a benevolent Deity. It’s self-generated, derived from an intelligent self-consciousness that allows it to appreciate both its huge potential and its immense vulnerability. Humankind, in each of the eighteen “races” Stapledon presents us with, is constantly beset with difficulties, both self-created (the “anti-social self-regard” of the First Men, for instance, which led to so many self-destructive wars), and visited upon it by the workings of a genuinely indifferent cosmos, whether this be disease, natural disaster, or shifts in the conditions of our solar system that threaten our delicate survival.

A growing awareness of this vulnerability only heightens the potential, as Stapledon sees it, for each of the races of humankind to achieve a fulfilment of its place in the cosmos — not because this is destined to happen, but because not to do so would be a waste of such a “fair spirit”. Stapledon doesn’t believe this fulfilment is guaranteed by any means, even given the many millions, if not billions, of years through which he pursues these eighteen races, each one “in spite of innumerable digressions, a single theme, a single mood of the human will”. In fact, he seems to take it as granted that such a fulfilment may never occur (unless that fulfilment is to be found in the attempt, rather than a final moment of achievement).

Penguin omnibus with Last Men in London, art by David Pelham

Perhaps, then, the best way of describing Stapledon’s brand of cosmicism isn’t cosmic horror but cosmic tragedy, though it’s a tragedy of genuine nobility faced with insurmountable odds, not the Shakespearian type of tragedy in which an overweening nature gets ideas above its station. (Perhaps cosmic elegy might be a better term, if an elegy can be written while its subject is still alive.)

There’s something of this tragic air in the moment when the Second Men find the knowledge-tablets of the First Men, which that initial race of human beings created so as not to lose all they felt most valuable when faced with a race-threatening disaster. Deciphering the tablets, the Second Men find little in this culmination of their predecessors’ civilisation to be of any interest:

“The view of the universe which the tablets recorded was both too naïve and too artificial; but the insight which they afforded into the mind of the earlier species was invaluable.”

The one thing the Second Men do value are the words of what the First Men called the Divine Boy, a prophet who preached an at-the-time unpopular way of understanding life:

“For I seemed to see a thousand worlds taking part with us in the great show. And I saw everything through the calm eyes, the exultant, almost derisive, yet not unkindly, eyes of the playwright.”

We should, Stapledon seems to be saying, learn to look at ourselves — our lives, our strivings, our failures — in purely aesthetic terms. Not as an excuse to escape into make-believe, but, in the words of the Second Men, so that “Seeing the depth, we shall see also the height, and praise both.” Or, as the Last Man-narrator puts it:

“But this we know: that we ourselves, when the spirit is most awake in us, admire the Real as it is revealed to us, and salute its dark-bright form with joy.”

Humankind, for Stapledon, “is dignified by his very weakness, and the cosmos by its very indifference to him”. It’s an outlook that has the same conditions as Lovecraftian horror, but which has plenty of room for things of genuine (though never lasting) human value.

The metaphor Stapledon reaches for is of “that great music of innumerable personal lives, which is the life of the race”. As the Last Men say:

“For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.”

Which reminds me of David Lindsay in Devil’s Tor — another novel of the 1930s — who uses the same metaphor, also in the same atmosphere of cosmic-level tragedy:

“It was like the ordered emotion of a far-distant orchestra numbering, not hundreds, and not thousands, but millions, it seemed, of instruments… … each instrument, with its voice of unique timbre, should be proclaiming its own peculiar message…”

C S Lewis found Stapledon (as he did Lindsay) both imaginatively inspiring and philosophically detestable. In fact it seems to be Stapledon, rather than Lindsay, who was the immediate spur to Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, through a need to take what he thought of as Stapledon’s “desperately immoral outlook” and critique it through the character of Weston. (And, just as Lewis found Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus “detestable, almost diabolist”, he thought Stapledon’s sequel to Last and First Men, Star Maker, “ends in sheer devil worship”.)

Whereas for Lewis the world was as God made it, and it was up to humankind to fit in with the cosmic harmony or suffer, for Stapledon suffering was the only thing that was guaranteed, making it all the more important that humankind should work towards its own kind of meaning and fulfilment. For Stapledon, there was no cosmic harmony, because everything is in constant flux, and we must instead learn to appreciate this difficult cosmic music, with all its dissonances. For him, humankind reaches its apex in the Fifth Men, but they’re not the end of the story — far from it — for no sooner have they embarked on their path of perfecting the expression of their potential, than they realise the Earth will soon become uninhabitable, and they’ll have to move to a new world, one where the need to adapt will send them back into primitive forms of life, and into a whole new series of cycles of striving and failure.

Last and First Men is not an easy read. As Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree:

“The atmosphere Stapledon generates is chill but intoxicating. Reading his books is like standing on the top of a high mountain. One can see a lot of planet and much of the sprawling uncertain works of man, but little actual human activity; from such an altitude, all sense of the individual is lost.”

But something of its bleak but uplifting, tragic yet elegiac, mournful yet meditative feel comes through in the recent (2020) film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. This combines Stapledon’s words (read by Tilda Swinton), Jóhannsson’s sombre music, and black and white footage of the strangely futurological/modernist “Spomenik” — war memorials in the former Yugoslavia that were intended, through their abstract forms, to be relatable by all the region’s diverse cultures and beliefs. The result is “a requiem for the Last Men and for the ideals of a failed socialist Utopia” (quoted from the statement at the film’s official website) — but I nevertheless found it uplifting, through its insistence that, even in the face of a race-annihilating threat, humankind can strive for a level of meaning, and fulfilment, on its own terms.

Stapledon, evidently, had a belief in humankind as a united thing, with values and aims in common. Their enemy, as well as their teacher, was the cosmos in which they were born, and in which they are to die, and his eighteen races of humanity, though often breaking out in war, just as often find unified civilisations through which to express a common character. It’s hard to connect this with our often very fragmented world today, but it’s nice to be reminded of it as a possibility every so often.

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Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.

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Incarnate by Ramsey Campbell

Warner Books edition (1992), art by Oliver Hunter

First published in 1983, and in a revised edition in 1990, Incarnate was Campbell’s fifth novel (sixth counting his pseudonymous The Claw, ninth counting the three Universal Horror movie adaptations as Carl Dreadstone). It’s also significantly his longest at this point.

It starts with several people who’ve claimed to have precognitive dreams participating in an experiment at the Applied Foundation for Psychological Research in Oxford. Dr Guilda Kent hopes that bringing these people together might enhance their abilities. But something goes wrong, and when the narrative leaps forward eleven years, we find the experiment’s subjects doing their best not to remember what happened — or to acknowledge their once-so-central dreams at all. Something from those dreams is nevertheless starting to make itself felt in each of their lives.

The main character is Molly Wolfe, a university student at the time of the experiment, now working as a production assistant at Metropolitan Television, at first with the lecherous Ben Eccles, but as soon as she can moving to work with someone she admires, an American documentarist, Martin Wallace. Wallace receives a film clip apparently showing the police murder of a black Londoner, but when he and Molly start to pursue the matter, Molly finds herself treading a difficult line between what is real and what isn’t.

Joyce, a middle-aged nurse at the time of the experiment, now runs a day-centre for old folk, though one that’s on the brink of closure thanks to the local authority’s redevelopment plans. Her story is told through the eyes of her stamp-dealer husband Geoffrey, who finds himself, when the day-centre is demolished, having to care for one of his wife’s elderly charges while Joyce looks for a new building. The old woman — almost too undefined in feature to seem properly human — takes up residence in the couple’s guest room, where her somnolent breathing begins to pervade the whole house.

Macmillan hardback (1983), art by Jon Weiman

The youngest participant in the experiment was trainee-librarian Helen, who now has a ten-year-old daughter, and has moved to London (from Liverpool) to start a new life after leaving her husband. She insists she doesn’t dream, and demands her daughter Susan shouldn’t either. Susan befriends a local girl, Eve, who seems to have a troubled home life, perhaps doesn’t go to school, and who’s a little too keen to insinuate herself into Susan and Helen’s tiny flat.

Screen projectionist Danny Swain, the only male experimentee, is still living at home, caught between a smothering mother and a disapproving father. None too bright, and bursting at the seams with a host of repressions, he bumps into Dr Kent after straying into Soho following a disastrous attempt at a job interview. Dr Kent, it appears, has moved on to a new project, helping men with their sexual repressions, and Danny is her perfect subject. He, though, starts to see this as an opportunity to revenge himself on the women who, he believes, ruined his life.

And Freda Beeching, a shop assistant in Blackpool, is drawn to London when her friend Doreen’s husband dies. Doreen, a spiritualist, hopes Freda’s dreaming abilities might lead to her receiving comforting messages from the other side. Freda is reluctant, but one night, getting lost on the way home, meets the enigmatic Sage, who convinces her to help her friend.

For me — no doubt in part from it being one of the first of his I read — this is the archetypal Campbell novel, for two key reasons. First, there’s Campbell’s trademark approach of having very real-seeming people caught between their day-to-day practical and psychological struggles, and an encroaching supernatural which overlaps and intertwines with those mundane problems, so that for a time it’s hard to be sure where one leaves off and the other takes over. (Campbell is particularly good at writing about anxiety, which might sound obvious in a horror context, but few writers I’ve read manage to capture that almost neurological distrust of reality in their characters’ viewpoints, which exists before any supernatural events occur.)

Panther PB (1985), art by Steve Crisp

Second, there’s what I might call Campbell’s “soft” horror — by which I certainly don’t mean his horror isn’t hard-hitting, but that, when the supernatural begins to manifest (or incarnate, I should say) it’s both fleshy and formless, tactile but slightly less than substantial, all-too-obviously only trying (and not very hard) to seem like reality: for instance, a face “that looked as if it were in the process of being shaped from putty”, “too pink” and “naked and fat and doughy white”, or footsteps that “sound less like footsteps than lumps of fat plopping on the carpet”. This sort of horror isn’t in every Campbell novel, but it’s one of his characteristic manifestations of the supernatural, and I think this is the first novel of his where it appears. (I’d like to think that, if Incarnate were ever filmed, it would be by a collaboration between Mike Leigh and David Cronenberg.)

As well as its semi-physical nature, the intent of the supernatural is another archetypical Campbell element. As Dr Kent says of the dreaming from which this supernatural threat emerges, “It isn’t a state of mind, it’s a state of being.” The horror, here, is about the human encounter with something utterly inhuman, though one we think we ought to be familiar with. It’s worth comparing it to Lovecraft’s form of cosmic horror (particularly as Campbell was so influenced by Lovecraft). In Lovecraft, the vast entities which are the focus of that horror — Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth — aren’t antagonistic to humanity, we just don’t register on their scale. We’re like insects to them, and they’ll crush us, our civilisations, and our entire history, without a blink of their three-lobed, multifaceted eyes (if eyes they have). With Campbell, it’s different. His supernatural forces are often interested in humans, but only as a means to enter our world. After that, they won’t destroy us, they’ll absorb us. And as part of that absorption, all that makes us human will be lost.

(Now I think about it, Lovecraft does have the absorption-fear, too, and plenty of it, as in possession-narratives like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”; absorption by one’s ancestral insanity in “The Rats in the Walls”; absorption into an inhuman biological destiny in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”; and absorption by the supernatural, as hinted at in a line like “I am it and it is I” in “The Haunter of the Dark”.)

Granada HB (1984)

The trouble Campbell’s characters face is that, on the surface, there’s an inviting element to that absorption: we lonely, struggling human beings can become part of something larger than us — and so lose our loneliness and our struggles — the catch is, we lose our humanity too. It’s like being rolled into one vast ball of plasticine.

But this sort of struggle — wanting to be part of something, and the threat of being absorbed by it — is already present in Campbell’s fiction in the non-supernatural realm. It’s part of human relationships. Take Helen’s ten-year-old daughter Susan, for instance. She loves to read, and is obviously imaginative, but she knows she’s not supposed to dream, because her mother is very insistent on that fact. Her burgeoning individuality (her imagination) is already being stifled, as her mother is effectively instilling her own neuroses into her daughter (“There are pills for children who can’t control their imagination, you know.”). And you only have to look at Danny Swain to see where Susan might end up. He’s caught between a mother who just wants things to stay as they always were (and uses a constant, unconscious emotional blackmail to ensure they do), and a father who simply crushes any remaining ambition he might have with a barrage of scathing judgements. His mother wants him to remain a boy; his father tells him he’s never going to be any sort of man. Danny’s only way to belong to his family is to disown a core part of himself, and give up on his individuation as an adult. The supernatural, when it enters into it, only makes things worse for both Susan and Danny.

(And it doesn’t have to be family relationships. The scene where Freda’s friend Dorothy keeps her trapped in a nightmare situation through kindness and sympathy, coddling her back into helplessness for her own good, is subtle but very hard hitting.)

Tor PB (1984), art by Jill Bauman

Oddly, in the face of all this talk of absorption into something larger than oneself, the threat in Incarnate comes about through one of the most personal and intimate elements of our human makeup: our dreams. (Another Lovecraftian obsession, too.) We use the word “dreams” to mean what gets to the essence of our individuality: our hopes, wishes, and deepest longings. But we know the actual things, those nightly, often random-seeming, unforgiving, surrealistic romps through the unconscious, are a far different thing. We might want to “live our dreams” — fulfil our wishes — but I doubt anyone would want to live in their actual dreams. They’re too weird. Campbell’s Dr Kent calls it “the dream thing”, a separate, alien order of being, trying to take over our waking reality, with us as the means to do so.

And the “dream thing” has gained its power over us through our refusal to face up to the true nature of dreams. As Dr Kent says:

“We’ve told people that not everyone dreams, we’ve given them the chance to believe that of themselves. We’ve let them ignore their night selves, even though we know that whatever is repressed grows stronger.”

The enigmatic Sage puts it more poetically:

“One may live in a single room of one’s house, but something else will live in the other rooms. Something else will grow there.”

How to fight such an insidious, if soft, invasion? Dr Kent, again:

“What do you think holds reality together if not our shared perception of it.”

Just as our refuge from controlling, repressive, or abusive relationships is our inner worlds, so our refuge from the darker excesses of those inner worlds — the destabilising anxieties, obsessions, fears, and nightmares — is other people. It’s all about balance.

Campbell’s is not a black-and-white world where good and evil are clearly separated. His is a dark, often anxious world, with very porous borders between the real and the unreal, anxiety and perception, the psychological and the supernatural, but it isn’t a wholly bleak one. People can be saved from his horrors — by people. Even if people are also, often, the source of those horrors.

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