Disorders of Magnitude: A Survey of Dark Fantasy (Studies in Supernatural Literature)
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What Disorders of Magnitude is, essentially, is a snapshot timeline of speculative fiction, zooming in and out on specific creators and products, from Gothic novels to splatterpunk, from comic books to the Evil Dead. The style is clean, and the chapters are many and short - only a few pages long, like a collection of individual articles on specific subjects rather than larger chapters trying to forge a narrative on shared themes. It's a solid piece of work, and I would recommend it to anyone that wanted an overview of the field - but be aware what you're buying. It's an academic text, but not a particularly deep one: this is the beginning point for further research, not the end. It covers a wide range, but it has noticeable gaps and omissions where Brock obviously felt it necessary to leave out authors he considered less important - I might disagree with leaving out Moorcock, but that's a niggle. It is not, and should not be mistaken as, a work on dark fantasy in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Karl Edward Wagner, etc. - but that being slight misnomer aside, this is a very strong book.
As a longtime enthusiast of the work of Jason V Brock, I was psyched at the opportunity to read the newest edition to his considerable ouevre (and not just because it's got a cool title. I can see it now: DOM, the thinking man's metal band! They'd tour with Opeth, and have the coolest t-shirts imaginable).
A respectable title, but I digress.
My admiration for Brock's work has spanned some time, not in small part because of his versatility: he can write a killer horror story, a genre discourse, or a musical piece; he can direct a film, or adapt a comic book--and the list goes on. I would count him among the rarified ranks of polymath-sorts like Zappa and Zombie, as far as sheer creative diversity. Enter "Disorders," a departure from Brock's previous body of work into an intelligent and wholly interesting new medium.
"DOM" is, in summary, a sweeping essayist overview of dark fantasy/horror/science fiction culture from the mid-eighteen hundreds through today, examining some of the genre's greatest contributors and works through a global-cultural lens. It is also a goldmine for interviews for visionaries in the field, everyone from Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Roger Corman, H.R. Geiger, and Bruce Campbell--a mere fraction of the authors, screenwriters, artists, auteurs, and pioneers within.
Brock also accords well-deserved focus to a collection of legends known as The Group, a cadre of artists that included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Forrest J. Ackerman, and William F. Nolan, among others, who contributed a few works you might've heard of (The Twilight Zone and Logan's Run ring a bell?) Brock is to The Group what Kaufman was to Nietzsche, in a sense, curating and helping share the greatness of its members through books like "William F. Nolan: A Miscellany;" the documentaries "Charles Beaumont: The Life of Twilight Zone's Magic Man," and the Rhondo award-winning "The Ackermonster Chronicles;" publications "Nolan on Bradbury: Sixty Years of Writing about the Master of Science Fiction," and numerous collaborations with William F. Nolan, including the forthcoming "Strange Interlude: The Many Worlds of Charles Beaumont," which is currently in production.
Traveling down the timeline of icons, aliens, and the universe of the darkly fantastic from past to present that is "Disorders of Magnitude," the following are a few highlights from each section.
`Part One: The Smoldering Past' traces the beginnings of modern horror fiction back to an Indonesian volcano, which indirectly birthed Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," as well as major works by Lord Byron and John Polidori. These works, of course, went on to inspire and pave the way for future horror luminaries like Poe, and the rest is history. Who knew the Gothic literary movement had such volcanic beginnings?!!
Also compelling was `Cosmic Introspection: Lovecraft's Attainment of Personal Value by Way of Infinite Insignificance,' which examines H.P. Lovecraft's trajectory to the dark fantasy stratosphere largely by way of his almost nihilistic belief in human insignificance, i.e. "significance through insignificance." Here, Brock speculates upon Lovecraft's motivations and analyzes narrative devices, which ties neatly into a philosophical examination of consciousness.
It is deep. It is layered, and...oh, to hell with it! Lovecraft is groundbreaking and all, but even better (for me!) was Brock's metaphorical foray into endocannibalism, corpse medicine (you'll have to read it to believe it!), and "mellified man" (Mell-O Honey will never be the same!)
A damn riveting essay, on many levels.
Moving on down the timeline to `Part Two: Things Become,' `The Burden of Now: Welles's "Panic Broadcast," World War II, and Creeping Anomie' contemplates one of the most fascinating incidents in radio. It does make you wonder whether Welles indeed had some inkling about the consequences of that infamous broadcast...although I'm not quite sure what kind of creeping anomie he may have been rousing the nation from? I would've liked further elaboration.
`Individual Sexual Liberation Becomes Social Emancipation: Playboy Changes the World' was unexpectedly enjoyable. I never fully realized Playboy history had such depth and philosophy (although its first cover model should've been my first clue that it was something altogether different!) I always thought of Playboy as--insert Beavis and Butt-Head chortle here--but I like the idea of Playboy models serving as `virtual hostesses' in an intellectually- and politically-oriented publication dedicated to the good life. I can't imagine there will ever be a name that big, in that particular field, again.
`Part Three: The Rise of the Speculative Mind,' is an especially good section in which to better understand and appreciate The Group. Featured are interviews with Rod Serling (!!!), George Clayton Johnson, and Roger Corman, while also examining the impact of various group members on the wider pop culture.
I especially liked "A Howling at Owl Creek Bridge: Observations on Two Important Twilight Zone Episodes," an examination of two of the show's most lauded episodes. I enjoy and remember both well, and it was interesting to read another perspective.
Moving further down the timeline to the 1970's through the 1990's, 'Part Four: Slashers, Blockbusters, and Bestsellers' "Terrible Beauty" looks at slasher films in the context of the conservative social milieu in which they emerged, and considers whether these films may have been a release valve from an uptight Republican society. Brock speculates that the brutal slasher films that emerged in the 1980's may have been a reaction against, rather than a contributing cause of, the moral disintegration of society. Who would be surprised, considering the era's political thrones were being flatulated in by censorship-happy freedom-squashers like Ronald Reagan and Tipper Gore?
Next, "The Emperor's New Book" was among the most engrossing selections for me, being the Stephen King fan I am. Brock points out, rightly, how the titanic King has been both a blessing and a curse to the publishing industry. And how. However, explanation was needed as to how, exactly, did Clive Barker fail? In what way did he sell out that similarly successful novelists haven't? I am genuinely interested, and would appreciate a more detailed explanation.
'Part Five: A Century of Speculation:' Here, Brock's review of "Carnivora: Dark Art of Automobiles," was an eclectic, unexpected dash of cool.
"Seasons In Hell" was another great authorial profile, this one on Joseph S. Pulver's "Blood Will Have Its Season". I added ("Blood...") to my Goodreads list immediately after reading. In Brock's words, "(Pulver's) sentences are choppy, expressionistic, like existential bullets exploding color onto a white psychic canvas."
My favorite entry from 'Part Six: From (and Into) the Beyond,' was the short but deep "The Inner World of William F. Nolan," easily the most fascinating I've read on him to date. Much can be said about the outer world of Nolan--the books, the screenplays, The Big Novel and corresponding blockbuster movie--but the inner world--especially since he is, in his own words, is "a bit too guarded and afraid to open up emotionally"--is far more elusive, yet every bit as fascinating.
"Cthulhu, a Vampire, and a Zombie Walk into a Bar . . ." Read it, and tell me you don't agree. Point well made.
Thus concludes my review of "Disorders of Magnitude," an excellent exploration of genius and evolution in the realm of dark fantasy/horror/sci fi. DOM is personal yet intellectual, cerebral without being boring, and philosophical without being inaccessible, with an appreciation for the past and optimism for the future. In short, if you're into the dark fantasy kind of thing, this is one you should most definitely read.