Category Archives: Literature

H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu

H.P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu

Every October I read something from the horror genre. This year, I chose Lovecraft’s most famous story. A common theme in his work is that humans go about their lives oblivious that they are at the mercy of ancient, terrible gods hibernating in the deep. In this story, the narrator, a young man, retraces the steps of his late uncle, a professor of ancient languages. The people he meet become progressively stranger, including a murderous cult in New Orleans, and he travels progressively further, finding exotic ruins in Greenland with ancient texts describing a city called R’lyeh and something called Cthulu. He eventually ends up in the South Pacific, and meets the sole survivor of a ship that landed at R’lyeh, awakened the sleeping Cthulu, and barely survived the encounter. The man was driven mad by the experience, and his story is filled with nightmare-like imagery of shifting forms, non-Euclidean geometry, running, falling, and the immortal, tentacle-faced ancient Cthulu’s relentless pursuit, and instant recovery from its wounds.

Lovecraft’s tale also inspired at least two Metallica songs; guitarist Kirk Hammett is a noted horror fan. “The Thing That Should Not Be” from 1986’s Master of Puppets features lyrics referring to the story. “The Call of Ktulu,” likely spelled that way to avoid copyright issues, is the closing instrumental track from 1984’s Ride the Lightning.

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

This Pulitzer-winning 1951 novel is starkly relevant today. When a commander is clearly unfit for the job, at what point is it ok to depose them, and on what grounds? John Locke wrestled with this question. So did the American revolutionaries he influenced—as did their opponents. This book, set in World War II, explores the same question onboard the Caine, a fictional World War II U.S. navy minesweeping ship. The main character, who is something of a privileged twit though with redeeming qualities, enlists in the Navy and finds himself aboard an old bucket of a ship near the end of its lifecycle. The Caine‘s captain is as mediocre as his ship, and is eventually transferred elsewhere.

His replacement, with the Melville-esque name Captain Queeg, quickly establishes his popularity with the crew with his attention to details the previous captain had neglected, and boosts morale. But after the initial wave of good feeling, the mood quickly shifts. He is indecisive and wavering during several critical points of action, and nearly loses the ship and its crew more than once. He isolates himself in his cabin, avoiding both crew and duty. When they enter his cabin to bring him news, he is nearly always asleep, undressed, or unshaven. Captain Queeg resorts to harsh, arbitrary discipline, such as cutting the crew off from all non-subsistence water rations for 48 hours while the non-air-conditioned ship is sailing near the equator. The crew had earlier exceeded their water usage quotas by ten percent. This and other nonsensical measures, along with another panic attack during action induce the grumbling, frightened crew to relieve him of command.

The book is interesting because the case is not so cut-and-dry. During the court-martial trial that follows the mutiny, Queeg never exceeded his bounds of authority under regulations, and gives decent justifications. Despite showing some signs of mental illness, doctors refuse to formally diagnose him with anything that would render him unfit for command. Queeg is also able to give plausible justifications for his command decisions. Meanwhile, the crew clearly had an animus against him. There is clear evidence they conspired against Queeg in a premeditated mutiny, which the crew members admit to. After the trial, both of the mutinying crew members find themselves captaining the Caine at various points before its decommissioning. They find their performance in that difficult job to be not much better than Queeg’s.

The Caine Mutiny presents more questions than answers, on purpose. That is what makes it both an excellent novel and a good lesson for today’s predicament with President Trump. There are clear signs that his temperament is not suitable for the presidency, yet it’s not so cut-and-dry in a legal case. He has little respect for the rule of law, has an arbitrary, uncertain approach to policy, is an alienating diplomatic presence, and deliberately polarizes the electorate. His age and mental state are also tempting to question. But at the same time, does he meet the threshold for 25th Amendment action, or for impeachment? It’s not black-and-white, and both sides have good arguments. Moreover, Trump’s potential replacements from either party don’t necessarily guarantee improvement.

The weighty matter of mutiny is both leavened and paralleled in the main character’s romantic subplot. He comes from an upper-middle class WASP-ish upbringing. In his first post-Princeton job, as a nightclub pianist, he meets a young singer of poorer Italian-Catholic background. They genuinely love each other, but the main character’s reticence to marry outside of his class and religion, along with some mommy issues, complicate things. They are a cute couple together and the reader naturally wants to root for them, but both external circumstances and mutual idiocy keep them apart—though far more his than hers. At the end of the book, as with the question of mutiny, their relationship is unresolved, but it seems hopeful that things will work out.

James Dickey – Deliverance

James Dickey – Deliverance

As a long term project, I am slowly winding my way through the Modern Library’s highly subjective list of the 100 best novels. This entry was on sale for five dollars on Audible, so I took the plunge. I had previously seen the movie, but didn’t much care for it. Many years ago I also once went rafting on the same river where the movie was filmed, and didn’t much care for that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book wasn’t really to my taste, either.

The reason is likely that Deliverance is essentially sturm und drang that doesn’t let up. Angst and guilt are constant presences, but there isn’t a reason given for why that should be. They’re simply background conditions woven into the fabric of the book’s world. A good story contains both tension and release; this story has too much of one and too little of the other. Whereas I tend to prefer literature, music, and art that contain both light and shade, Deliverance is essentially monochrome.

As for the story, a rafting trip in rural Georgia among four city-dwelling friends goes about as wrong as it possibly can. The characters variously endure being brutally raped by a hillbilly, a broken leg, an arrow wound, and a drowning. The protagonists also kill two people, perhaps justifiably and perhaps not–the ambiguity is easily the most interesting part of the book.

Afterwards the three survivors create a cover story, wrestle with guilt, and arouse some suspicion among wary locals, but aren’t caught. The river basin they went through is dammed and flooded as part of a federal infrastructure project, destroying any evidence, as well as their friend’s body. Back in Atlanta, they go on with their lives as best they can, but never quite return to normal. Two of them ending up buying rural cabins near the area where it all happened. This unsatisfying ending, with no release for the built-up tension, is in direct, and probably intentional, contradiction to Deliverance‘s title.

Robert Harris – Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Robert Harris – Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome

The second volume of Harris’ trilogy of historical novels about Cicero. I read the first book, Imperium, many years ago at my former colleague Gene Healy’s recommendation, and greatly enjoyed it. Harris writes from the point of view of Tiro, a real-life figure who was Cicero’s slave. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary and despite his slave status, a trusted friend. One of his jobs was taking down Cicero’s many speeches and dictations, and he invented a form of shorthand still in use today so he could keep up with his master. Tiro invented the ampersand (“&”), the abbreviations “etc.” for et cetera and “e.g.” for exemplis grata (“for example” in English), and other common shortcuts. Harris’ choice of narrator is a good one.

Conspirata consists of two parts. The first covers the year of Cicero’s consulship, 63 B.C., and the Catiline conspiracy, which was a narrowly-foiled assassination plot by the Senator Catiline against Cicero. The second part covers the next several years, which involved the rise of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus, the first Triumvirate. Roman politics divided into populist and aristocratic factions, called populares and optimates. Cicero was philosophically closer to the optimates, but as a self-made homo novo (“new man”) without a lengthy noble heritage, he was not fully accepted into their orbit. The book ends on a low note, with Cicero’s exile from Rome, thus setting things up for the third volume of the trilogy.

As with the previous book, the events are dramatized and not to be taken as literal history. But Harris has clearly done his research, and the personalities, settings, and events are authentic, and as far as I can tell he gets most things correct. The value in this book is two-fold—seeing events through Tiro’s eyes, who was both a participant and an observer, is quite a bit different perspective than the usual narrative history. Harris is also a fine novelist, and the book is intrinsically enjoyable, and gives a vivid picture of the times.

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Hesiod – Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Heracles

Homer and Hesiod are generally ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the annals of pre-Periclean Greek poetry. The competition is not a close one, and it does not favor Hesiod. His works still had significant historical influence, and have plenty of merit. The Works and Days takes the guise of a letter in verse to Hesiod’s brother Perses. They jointly inherited a farm, and Perses was something of a wastrel. Hesiod tries to convince his brother of the virtues of temperance, hard work, and thrift, while invoking a love of the land, open air, and the agricultural lifestyle. Hesiod’s poem probably felt almost as homiletic and old-fashioned in its own day as it does in ours.

The Theogony is probably as close as Greece ever came to a definitive family tree for its gods. Greek religion was more malleable than most modern religions, and pantheons varied from place to place, integrating with local gods in hodge-podge fashion as Greek colonists moved around the Mediterranean. This process of mixing religions together, called syncretism (think of it as a portmanteau of “synthesizing creeds”) is an early example of spontaneous order in history. I drew on the Theogony in an unpublished working paper I wrote back in grad school that one day, time allowing, I would like to revise and publish somewhere. Revisiting the poem more than a decade later was a genuine treat.

The other important concept in Hesiod’s Theogony is its deterministic view of history. In this case, the trajectory is ever downward, moving from divine to human. A Golden Age degrades to silver, then bronze, all the way down to a Heroic Age (think Perseus, Icarus, et al.) and today’s Age of Iron, where human beings live. Whereas gold shines forever, iron rusts and breaks over time.

This view of history as a series of stages that progress inevitable and in a certain order was the dominant view all over the world before modern times—though it varied in its particulars from civilization to civilization. Such a teleological view—moving inexorably to a certain end—is also familiar to Marxist thought. The common theme of post-Hesiod history was a rejection of progress. There was stability, the rhythm of seasons or dynasties, and often a gradual decline. But there was no sense of progress. This idea would not enter public consciousness in a meaningful way until the Renaissance, and would play a starring role in the modern prosperity we enjoy today. We should be thankful that Hesiod’s historiography is a relic, rather than current thinking.

The Shield of Heracles is Hesiod’s best literary accomplishment. His descriptions of the illustrations etched onto Heracles’ shield are described in beautiful detail, and allow Hesiod to tell the most famous stories of Heracles’ life and labors. Unlike Hesiod’s other works, instruction takes a back seat to beauty.

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

Though a novel, this is a popular recommendation among classical historians. Graves based his account in historical sources, in this case leaning heavily on Suetonius, who was something of the National Enquirer of his day. Graves’ efforts to be historically accurate made this novel a milestone event in historical fiction, and its embrace by the profession speaks well both to its accuracy and Graves’ literary skill.

As one might glean from the title, I, Claudius is told in the first person by Claudius, who was at the center of palace intrigue for most of his life. He was a young man when his uncle Augustus became the first Roman princeps, and the book follows all the palace intrigue through Claudius’ eyes from all of Augustus’ long reign through Tiberius’ severity, Caligula’s horrors, on up to Claudius’ own unlikely accession to the purple after Caligula’s assassination. Claudius had a stutter and a limp, as well as a shy, bookish personality. His managing a long life while remaining so close to center of power was due in significant part to people consistently underestimating him as a threat, despite his obvious intelligence.