When The Stars Are Right: Towards and Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality
Scott R. Jones, Martian Migraine Press, 2014.
Review by Luke Maynard
Back in 2002 (I know this for a fact because it was when Mark Knopfler’s excellent The Ragpicker’s Dream came out), I had a brief gig reviewing CDs for my undergrad student newspaper. It was a job I took seriously, and one I mean to get back into when I have a medium to support it (that is to say, when the medium supports me to do it).
How much more seriously, then, must I take the work of reviewing a book of prose that presents itself in a scriptural vein? Moreover, what becomes the work of such a review? Northrop Frye’s The Great Code swings open the door for literary scholarship of the Bible as literature, but can we really review it as consumer product? Can we really say that the overall theme of redemption through its main narrative is really well-executed, while at the same time rendering irrelevant all those niggling red-herring plot points hammered out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? Do we have license to judge that Christ comes across as a pretty great protagonist, but Elijah—who curses forty-two little children to be mauled to death by bears for insulting his baldness (2 Kings 2:23-24)—does not? How does one come to evaluate the entertainment value, or the informational value, or the prose style of the Tanakh or the Qur’an? Who are we to presume these things? If the Word was the beginning and the end, who are we to spell-check it?
This was my anxiety when approached to review Scott R. Jones’s When The Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. I came to the book expecting Lovecraftian scripture, which was not an unreasonable “zero impression” to glean from its title. It was even less unreasonable an expectation, I think, after reviewing Jones’s R’lyeh Sutra, published last year through Martian Migraine Press under his oddly-spelled alias “skawt chonzz.” There, we had a very short chapbook consisting of Lovecraftian vision-poetry, interspersed with weird symbolic illustrations: the volume’s marketing fluff described it as “recalling Spicer and Burroughs,” but the volume to me was far more evocative of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell—although the Hell revealed when the figurative bridal veil was lifted, however, was instead a dimension of unfathomable nightmare.
In his alter-ego as chonzz, it would not be unreasonable to call Jones “the William Blake of cosmic horror”—an epithet, I think, that will outlast the rest of my review as the sort of brief, favourable blurb that suits back covers and promo sheets. But the comparison is both well-deserved and deep, and so my experience with R’lyeh Sutra gave me all the appropriate expectations and anxieties in reviewing this new volume.
What I found, to my relief and perhaps to yours, was a sister work of an altogether different genre. If Lovecraftian vision-writing and fully immersive cult scripture is what you want, you are looking for R’lyeh Sutra, not this larger volume, which is entirely different in its function, and perhaps more shrewd and ambitious in its purpose.
To understand what Jones is after in When The Stars Are Right, we must first accept two key ideas. First, we must accept the argument (presented well, I think) that the “Cthulhu Mythos” of weird sci-fi writer H. P. Lovecraft is, in fact, as valid a mythos as the Æsir, the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the petty squabbling gods of Olympus. Jones confronts with refreshing frankness the obvious fictionality of his pulp-writing Prophet’s cosmology before moving on to engage with what, in his mind, is valuable about the mythos (which does not require, in his mind, factual truth to fulfil its function):
To enter into an examination of the Great Old Ones burdened with the all-too-human assumption that they are merely fictional creations of a single human mind is as faulty and blinkered as assuming that they are actual deities.
The separation of factual truth from the function of myth is an old idea straight out of Joseph Campbell; but it is an especially key idea for Jones, who must somehow “extricate” the essence of a serious R’lyehian spirituality from its campy origins in the early magazine-pages of pulp science fiction. The first fundamental message is that this is not camp; there is lasting spiritual value and mythic depth to be had from Lovecraft’s writing, and this depth should be conceived of as an entirely separate function of Lovecraft’s mythos—something to be kept separate in the mind, for example, from the embarrassing pop-culture success of Cthulhu as the ubiquitous Hipster Mickey, a formerly countercultural piece of consumer kitsch co-opted for every tie-in product from slippers to candy hearts.
Jones’s point, I think, is that these little bits of Cthulhu-fanboy trash are no more relevant to R’lyehian spirituality than, say, this creepy-looking Jesus Backpack or these Jesus Band-Aids have to do with Christianity. In the familiar terms of that marginally bigger religion, if you believe that the Divine Principle descended in the body of a 2000-year-old Aramaïc prophet who was tortured and martyred—you can bet that He died for something more important than all those dusty old flea-market art prints in your Nana’s guest room of a guy who looks more like a blue-eyed, blonder version of Christian Bale than like a Semitic man raised in Roman Palestine. And in a peripheral way, that is the point: no spirituality at all in any tradition, especially the one with which Jones concerns himself here, is entirely free of kitschy exploitation. The first task of Jones’s writing, then, is to clean house before he can make a new foundation: the most fundamental step toward providing a sort of defense or “apologie” for R’lyehian spirituality is to separate the pop-Lovecraftian consumer crap from the mythic richness. The “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn” chant that adorns T-shirts and lunchboxes is no more worshipful than the “Sweet Jesus Christ” I let out when I crack my head standing up under a bookshelf.
Speaking of chants that have come to mean nothing, the second key idea here is one which breaks more radically, perhaps, from the classic depictions we have of R’lyehian spiritualists—vis-à-vis, the hooded cult of monotonous chanters, a stock image that Lovecraft himself made occasional use of. When we think today of cults and cult worship (seriously, I mean, not as in “cult films”), we think of largely unthinking people—the brainwashed followers of Jim Jones (no relation) or Harold Camping, the brilliantly kitschy Space Brothers of day-glo angel Ruth Norman’s revisionist Unarians, or the tragically suicidal followers of Heaven’s Gate crackpot Marshall Applewhite. Cult worship, we can say, is synonymous with stupidity, closed-mindedness, and self-generated delusion—and perhaps the most important task of Jones’s work in this is to divorce the idea of such unthinking mummerism from the spirituality he seeks to cultivate (no pun intended). This, of course, is where the book really hits its stride. Jones is a thinking person’s spiritualist, and debunks the mindless-cultist stereotype once and for all by exploring R’lyehian spirituality here not through the mysteries and ambiguities of a vision-poet, but through the targeted and sensitive analysis of a theologian:
we’d be remiss to assume that the god [Yog-Sothoth] is merely an abstract formula or personification of a principle of obscure physics. For there is life there: Yog-Sothoth lives and seethes, bleeds across its own demarcation lines and breeds with what it finds on the other sides. It is many-sided, of that we have no doubt. Lovecraft and his co-writer E. Hoffman Price give us a clue in their story Through the Gates of the Silver Key.
Jones’s work here is, in essence, not to write the mysterious, inscrutable gospel of R’lyehian spirituality, but rather to write a functional theology. He has less in common with a St. Peter or a Muhammad (peace be upon them) than he does with, say, Augustine or Pope Gregory the Great. His job is not (as it was in R’lyeh Sutra, perhaps), to churn out new images from the beyond, but to engage with what has already been given, and to discern from it (as in Pope Gregory’s exegesis) what it really means to draw one’s spirituality out of somebody else’s writing, and how that ought to be done, and what we must understand about it in order to do so. This is serious work; that he has done it at all suggests that we ought to take R’lyehian spirituality a little more seriously. That he has done it well demands it.
By taking a visible interest in providing methodical education rather than a litany of disconnected koans, Jones is taking perhaps the first steps toward systematizing R’lyehian spirituality. In this regard the book is exceptionally well-titled: the “academic colon” in the title broadcasts both its genre and its intent, particularly to literary scholars who divide their time between novels (no colon) and books of theory (colon). It is clear that Jones has spent a long time immersed in Lovecraft’s potboiler prose: the flavour of his language is both faithful and authentic, and will keep the attention of the casual Lovecraft devotee while initiating them into a higher order of thinking. However, for those who understand at once what kind of analytical meditations they are reading—contemplation in the mainland Buddhist traditions of mindfulness rather than the Zen traditions of No-Mind, for example—and who approach the work with the intended mindset from the beginning, I’m not sure this is necessary or even helpful. Even in prose, Jones is a natural poet, and sometimes sacrifices a textbook’s precision for the numinous poetics of his personal style:
If there is a voice which accompanies the background radiation of the Universe, a howling between the worlds, then surely that voice belongs to the Crawling Chaos. If there is a keening of despair laced between the pandaemoniac warblings of Azathoth’s accompanying flautists, then certainly it must be emitted from the ever-black throat of the Mighty Messenger as he paces in the cosmic wings.
I think, in essence, these two sentences mean the same thing in parallel; the parallelism works as a poetic device, but creates an ambiguity between the two descriptions, neither of which can be exactly right if each variant requires the other for clarification. To the spiritual quester, the space of ambiguity between the variants is delicious ground for soul-seeking; to the theologian seeking to construct a system (one conceivable to the human mind) by which this soul-seeking might be indulged, the space instead provides a frustration, an inexactness.
Jones has an impossible task to contend with—like all spiritualists, his struggle is to tell the untellable, to make known the unknowable—but when confronted with this challenge, it may be better to double down on clarity, or at least to shift back and forth between writing that indulges precision and that writing that indulges resonance. The balance between scholarly precision and mythic resonance in Jones’s writing is a hard one to keep—and my personal preference would have been to let it topple on the side of precision, given that R’lyeh Sutra handles the side of resonance so very well. The tonal effect of such writing suggests an author more confident as a writer than as a philosopher, and that is a shame: When The Stars Are Right is more than capable of pulling its own weight as a work tasked with communicating a sophisticated worldview. It need not fall back on Jones’s natural gift for capturing Lovecraft’s mood, vocabulary, and voice—and indeed, such moments often feel like indulgent distractions for both author and audience. There is serious work to be done here, and the language sometimes dances gracefully where it should trudge with purpose.
It is important to remember in such a case, however, that Jones’s work represents a nascent kind of thinking about R’lyehian spirituality (indeed, a cursory search indicates these words have never before appeared together). Citations are light throughout only because there is nothing to cite: this is unexplored territory from spiritual, occult, and philosophical points of view. There are plenty of essay collections out there on The Matrix and Philosophy, on Tolkien and Religion; but neither academic nor popular presses have taken a shot at R’lyehianism as a spiritual form; this book is, in my understanding, the first to do so. By its very nature, this makes it not just revolutionary but “evolutionary” as well: given its explorations of Dagon and the Deep Ones, it feels appropriate to call the work “amphibious” in the same context.
By a combination of ingenuity and sincerity, it has pulled itself up from the swamp of unthinking Cthulhu-mythos derivatives, abandoned the company of sycophantic Lovecraft-fanboy fish who swim incessantly around the same pop-culture Cthulhu memes, and explores for the first time (with determination and skill, if not always perfectly clear direction) an unfamiliar new ground. Jones should not be critiqued for covering this deeper and more sophisticated ground eagerly while his eager flipper-feet are still being developed: he should be praised for emerging from the sea at all. When The Stars Are Right feels like an important beginning: one almost wants to read the telltale “Toward” in the book’s title as a candid self-knowledge of this. By whatever metaphor you like, this book draws first blood in a very particular duel: in works of R’lyehian spirituality (there could and should be more books on the subject), When The Stars Are Right claims the precedent of setting what ought to be a trend. Good writers to come in this admittedly narrow field will now be called “the next Scott R. Jones,” just as bad ones will be called “an awful hack, a second-rate Jones clone.”
Such is the power and the prestige of precedent-setting. It is the same prestige that never quite rubs off of the rather imperfect 1977 film Star Wars, in spite of some dated compositing effects, a simplistic premise, a classic yet surprisingly anemic lightsaber duel [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kpHK4YIwY4] , and more than a few cringeworthy moments of acting and direction. In the same vein, Jones’s groundbreaking book is never quite perfect, and that may sadly afford it a smaller audience than it deserves. But the standards of perfection can and should be relaxed for a work if it is entirely original: the next young-adult series about a boy wizard may indeed be better, but will never take the crown of originality from J. K. Rowling.
If there were a genre of books out there like this one, it would be a solid book, a good example of its kind, and one worth reading. But coming as it does into a vacuum of R’lyehian spirituality—seriously, more has been written on Jedi theology than on R’lyeh—it is instead the very first book of its kind, and for that reason, at least, the best of its kind and the one you should seek out. ▪