Lovecraft, Cyclonopedia and Materialist Horror

II. Eye of the Cyclone

A comparable fate seems to befall Hamid Parsani, the fictional Iranian archaeologist in Cyclonopedia. After coming into possession of a mediaeval relic associated with an obscure pre-Islamic Persian cult, he begins to suffer from a leprous skin condition and a concurrent worsening of his already somewhat febrile mental state. Shortly before his final disappearance, one of his friends evocatively describes him as “a bulging syphilitic brain with a pink leech dangling at the root of it”.

           Disease also plays a prominent role in Lovecraft’s evocations of horror, as does the trope of the hereditary curse; his biographers have often connected this to his father’s early death following a protracted mental illness which was almost certainly due to syphilis (compare Parsani’s mental and physical deterioration). Lovecraft’s mother also died mad, and the shadowy presences she claimed to see out of the corner of her eye may have directly inspired the hideous, pathogenic ‘Colour’. Pathogens both organic and otherwise thoroughly infest Cyclonopedia: notes in the text hint darkly at “inorganic demons” and the “price” they inevitably extract from humans who use them. Negarestani’s demons are resolutely non-spiritual in nature; they drift through space in the form of dust, buffeted by solar winds and guided by the geomagnetic field until they are absorbed into the atmosphere; they lurk in the soil in the form of bacterial spores and, most potently of all, beneath the soil and bedrock as the valuable, treacherous black ooze which seeps through the Middle East’s pores, spreading corruption, fanaticism and jihad wherever it goes.

         Themes of objectivity and materialism, and a general sense of anti-anthropocentrism, are maintained throughout Cyclonopedia by the (ab)use of concepts from a variety of scientific and mathematical disciplines. A lengthy chapter describes the complex interaction of the solar and Tellurian magnetic fields, developing these into a twisted sadomasochistic vision of the relationship between the two bodies. An earlier section clearly fetishises the language of topology and cackles gleefully about the effects of burrowing creatures such as rats and worms in “radically ungrounding” the solid earth by turning it into a Swiss cheese of tunnels and fissures. The transition from whole to hole results from the efforts of burrowing agents to degrade the Earth, maximising its entropy and thereby bringing about the return of the Old Ones, representing heat death, or thermodynamic Apocalypse. Divine creation is subverted by diabolical “leper creativity”, as Parsani discovers, which again evokes the image of entropy: “fertility in terms of mess can only ‘get messier’”, Negarestani tells us in a chapter on dust and “Dustism”: the middle-eastern doctrine which “inspires a radical and concrete approach to the Outside”. What, after all, is concrete made of but dust?

         A motif found in both Lovecraft and Negarestani that even further removes humanity from the central narrative frame is the idea that a land or location can be inherently cursed or diabolical entirely independently of the people who live or lived there. In Lovecraft this is embodied in the nameless and desolate spots where the Old Ones “broke through of old and where They shall break through again[1] as the fabled Necronomicon puts it; for Negarestani, it is the oil-drenched and war-torn Middle East as a whole. Incidentally, William Burroughs thought much the same thing about the Americas:

“Illinois and Missouri, miasma of mound-building peoples, groveling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals, dead-end horror of the Centipede God reaches from Moundville to the lunar deserts of coastal Peru. America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”[2]

         Apart from Parsani, observations on the modern-day Middle East are also made by a reflective, deserting American colonel named Jackson West (geddit?), whose role in the drama is undeniably reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In fact if any land is as blasted and inherently hostile to human sanity as Negarestani’s Middle East, it is surely Coppola’s Vietnam or Konrad’s Congo. The eye of this cyclone is a heart of oily darkness.

         For Negarestani, violence and treachery are inextricably linked to alchemical, or even straightforwardly chemical, properties. Just as oil, the “resident Outsider” – an alien and unfathomable essence that by rights does not belong here at all – spreads corruption and decay through the Earth’s crust and secretly infects capitalist societies with jihad via pipeline and tanker, so the Old Ones have imbued the very physical stuff of our world with their blasphemous presence: “the wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness”, the Necronomicon reassuringly tells us. Again, it is important not to mistake this sentiment for anything as wishy-washy as spiritualism, even of the most diabolical kind; the Old Ones, like Cyclo‘s ancient Semetic war gods and demons of pestilence, are disincarnate in the same sense that a magnetic or gravitational field is disincarnate. We usually cannot see or hear them, but they are present nonetheless, and their nefarious influence is manifested again and again in unpredictable but unmistakable incursions into our precarious human world, our “guarded threshold”.

         In Cyclonopedia, a whole array of seemingly ‘natural’ phenomena are revealed as the avatars or eldritch weapons of War itself. Dust, fog and mist pervade the battlefield, reducing visibility and spreading confusion; sand particles blown by high winds erode human structures, burying cities in the ever-encroaching desert and effecting daemonic communication just as they disrupt and scramble human communications. Negarestani reveals the author of the fabled Necronomicon, the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul al-Hazred, to have been a rammal, or ‘sand-sorcerer’: an adept in the art of Rammalie, or “communication with other worlds and aeons through the patterns on pebbles and desert sand”[3]. The image of dust-laden storms and vortices of swirling winds, carrying alien (“xenobacterial”) information and influences into the human sphere, is an evocative and disquieting one from which the modern-day grimoire’s title derives. Its subtitle, “Complicity with Anonymous Materials”, refers to the infernal black ooze that permeates the book as it permeates the Middle East; it is the interaction of dust with oil – a heretical take on Aristotle’s elemental Earth and Water – that creates the primordial entropic mess of disease and disorder, “till out of corruption horrid Life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it[4]. Here Negarestani directly quotes Lovecraft in one of several explicit links between these two cacklingly pathological cosmologies.

         The idea of anonymity or namelessness is reinforced in Cyclo‘s fascinating prologue, written by the American artist Kristen Alvanson who also illustrates the book. In it she flies from New York to Istanbul to meet a pseudonymous online acquaintance who never shows up, but books herself into the hotel he has recommended all the same. It is here that she finds a manuscript for a bizarre book – the main text of Cyclonopedia itself – along with several other clues, and discovers online that the manuscript’s author is an Iranian academic who has recently disappeared[5]. The whole sequence is written from the point of view of someone not knowing really where or when is; obscure peregrinations about the nature of the flow of time in hotel rooms provide a postmodern counterpart to Lovecraft’s modernist musings on Einsteinian relativity. In a haze of heat, ennui and prescription tranquillizers, Alvanson has an autoerotic episode in which, perhaps half-dreaming, she has “repeated visions of being XXXed” and claims that it’s “not like making out with spirits” so much as a union with something that has “stripped itself of body in order to be a better subject of penetration, to be obscenely deeper” – again, the merely spiritual interpretation is denied in favour of something that is physical, albeit in a subtle and indescribable way. The section is cryptically titled ‘Incognitum Hactenus’, which is ‘explained’ later by Negarestani in the main text: 

“Incognitum Hactenus – not known yet or nameless and without origin until now – is a mode of time in which the innermost monstrosities of the earth or ungraspable time scales can emerge according to chronological time…In Incognitum Hactenus, you never know the pattern of emergence. Anything can happen for some weird reason; yet also, without any reason, nothing at all can happen. Things leak into each other according to a logic that does not belong to us and cannot be correlated to our chronological time”

      The particular horrific potential of Time itself is used extensively by Negarestani. In the chapter on “Dustism” he declares “It is dust that harbours the ancient without tradition, or ultra-modern ancientness” (emphasis mine) – anything that hails from abysmal depths of Time but has no human tradition attached to it is by nature horrifying. Lovecraft uses similar themes extensively, although here it is the simple magnitude of great age that is evoked for horrific effect – see, for example, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, in which the sheer ancientness of Egypt becomes, for the author, a source of transcendental terror. In Cyclonopedia, one chapter centres on the ‘Lamassu’, the war demon invoked by the Assyrians in what Negarestani calls the “Axis of Evil-against-Evil”. This five-legged bull-sphinx or centaur is described as an “occult-drone” in language seemingly more suited to the specification of some cutting-edge autonomous mechanised weapon. Unmanned drones of the sort used against the Taliban are described elsewhere in the book as “mechanical dread”; the language linking these devices to the Lamassu evokes exactly this “ultra-modern ancientness”. Elsewhere, dust and spores are described as “weapons-grade relics”, again combining the terminology of modern warfare (“weapons-grade” usually refers to the uranium or plutonium used in nuclear bombs) with the language of ancient magic, superstition and diabolical guardians.

      Yet again, there is that fanatical anti-humanism; time scales are “ungraspable” because of their sheer geological or cosmological magnitude, and we encounter the “innermost monstrosities of the earth” that lurk down there, below the deepest mine shafts and boreholes. One is reminded of perhaps the only 20th century author to have created a fantasy universe with more widespread lasting appeal than Lovecraft, his brother in anti-modernism (if not in faith), J. R. R. Tolkien:

“Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the World is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he…”[6] 

     The idea of “nameless things” gnawing or scratching at the very roots of the world is found throughout Indo-European mythology, and could well have been a major inspiration for Lovecraft as well as Tolkien. Negarestani has fastened onto much the same concept, except in his case we are dealing with something that is not merely nameless but actually formless: an inchoate substance upon which the entire global economy depends and whose supposedly organic, terrestrial origins Negarestani calls disturbingly into question. This is expounded in an early chapter which lists eleven possible “avatars of Oil”; perhaps the most striking is named “The Nether Blob” and is based on Thomas Gold’s hypothesis of the ‘Deep Hot Biosphere’. In this conception of oil’s Hadean origins, microbes – specifically, “primordial interstellar bacteria – live in vast colonies deep within the Earth, excreting oil as a by-product of their obscure metabolic processes in a renewable and perhaps inexhaustible fashion. Here we have a biosphere entirely independent of the Sun and all so-called “Solar Capitalism” or “Solar Empire”; this motif of a black or rotting Sun deep within the Earth forms an important theme in later chapters. These bacterial colonies, assuming they really do predate the formation of the Earth itself, are unavoidably connected to the “Outside” – Negarestani’s catch-all term for that overwhelmingly vast sector of existence and process “delineated not by distance or region but by its exterior functionality of activity”. (This is effectively identical to Lovecraft’s conception of “ultimate reality”, to steal even the smallest glimpse of which is to risk madness and death.) Oil, in this case, plays the role of the “resident Outsider”; a “xenochemical” intruder that has become an “Insider” by virtue of its insinuation into the Earth’s inner regions. Taking a slightly more standard stance on the origins of fossil fuels, another avatar is described as “Hydrocarbon Corpse Juice: A post-apocalyptic entity composed of organic corpses flattened, piled up and liquidated in sedimentary basins (mega-graveyards)” – which, while not incompatible with the standard natural history of petrochemicals, is certainly a new way of putting it.

      The flammable nature of oil and its byproducts is explored extensively in a linguistic analysis of the Avestan (old Persian) word “tafnu”, “fever”, and especially “tafnu tefno tema” or “the fever of fevers”, “an irrepressible malady [that] can blight both man and the earth” described in the Vendidad (book of “anti-demon laws”). Negarestani links tafnu with naft or naphta, the Farsi and Arabic word for oil itself. The connection is made via a third word, “taft”, which means “to burn slowly” and is linked also to the idea of incomplete burning, of combustion that doesn’t reduce the burnt object entirely to ashes but leaves a twisted, blackened residue. Negarestani even considers the similarity of taft to haft, the old Persian word for the number seven, and (perhaps a little spuriously) connects this to the Sun via Sunday, the seventh day of the week. As an aside, this convoluted chain of inferences and hints gives some idea of the labyrinthine structure of Cyclonopedia, the verbal and conceptual chaos out of which the author carefully allows threads of disturbing order to be drawn. “For every inconsistency on the surface, there is a subterranean consistency” – Negarestani’s maxim from the chapter on burrowing and topology could equally well apply to the book as a whole.

      Dust, Oil’s elemental partner in Negarestani’s heretical cosmology, also plays the role of the “resident Outsider”. “As an inter-dimensional carrier, dust scavenges xenochemical particles (outsiders) as its cores or constituents, introduces and implants them into compositions, creations and establishments.” Solid objects created from dust, such as brick- or stone-built structures and even the human body in the standard Torahnic/Biblical/Qur’anic[7] account of Creation, therefore include these “xenochemical particles” as an integral part of their makeup. This allows “the arrival of the alien not from without but from within” – fans of sci-fi horror should need no further clues to conjure up a satisfyingly gruesome cinematic image from this sentence. Parsani is attributed with the marvellous quotation: “Turning into dust is a sweeping tellurian event, an event operating in favour of the dormant, the Insider, the slumbering” – Great Cthulhu may be wet and slimy rather than dry and dusty, but he too is slumbering, dormant yet potent (“dead but dreaming”), the Outsider that became an Insider for the purpose of infiltrating the unlucky Earth.

      It is not just on the microscopic (bacterial, viral, molecular) and megascopic (geological, astrophysical) scales that Negarestani weaves his themes of horror. Some of the most affecting passages in Cyclo describe occult practices that revolve primarily around the human body and a variety of unnatural processes that can be imposed on it; mutilation, cannibalism, autophagy and (auto-)sodomy are all used to subvert God’s[8] “pro-creationist agenda” through the creation of perverted new forms of being – “till out of corruption horrid Life springs” – with scabs and scar tissue that have resulted from self-inflicted wounds on Ahriman’s[9] body giving rise to legions of pestilential followers. This theme is continued in a discussion of pseudo-Jungian archetypes based on E. Elias Merhige’s film Begotten in which a ‘dead’ god is born of a woman (the Earth?) impregnated by the seed of a self-butchered God – identified by Negarestani with the Sun and ‘solar capitalism’ – mutated and horribly deformed, the progeny is an obscene parody of the true solar Logos that shines in space; this mutant-dead-god is identified with the ‘black Sun’ within the Earth itself, blasphemously concealed and making its presence felt through the influence of the hot black ichor that runs through the planet’s veins. The very human and visceral horror of stillbirth, miscarriage and teratology – the mooncalf, the changeling – is used here to evoke cosmic terrors that tug relentlessly at the subconscious and pre-conscious mind; the primal fear of the thing that should not be, an organic residue that would seem to have been cheated of any chance of life but is moving nonetheless[10].

      Lovecraft, too, is a masterful evoker of extreme physiological wrongness even when no invasive parasite or pathogen is apparent. Consider the following lines from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:

“Respiration and heart action had a baffling lack of symmetry; the voice was lost, so that no sounds above a whisper were possible; digestion was incredibly prolonged and minimised, and neural reactions to standard stimuli bore no relation at all to anything heretofore recorded, either normal or pathological. The skin had a morbid chill and dryness, and the cellular structure of the tissue seemed exaggeratedly coarse and loosely knit.”

Both writers are expert at making the reader feel uncomfortable in their own skin; in Cyclonopedia, the ancient Persian cult leader Akht’s degenerative leprosy from which he draws his sorcerous powers could just as easily have come from one of Lovecraft’s tales of progressive affliction visited on those who’ve had some contact with the Outside, such as the protagonist in The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again and again, it is the brute physicality and objectivity of horror that shines – or violently bursts – through.

1 The Dunwich Horror, 1928/29.

2 Naked Lunch, 1959.

3 The physical reality of the desert is central both to Negarestani’s conception of the Middle East and to Lovecraft’s fictional occultist. The Necronomicon’s original Arabic title is al-Azif, signifying the nocturnal humming sounds sometimes heard in the desert and said in Arabian folklore to be the chattering of demons (djinn). Ryan Parker, in The Al Azif of the Mad-Poet Abdul Alhazred, explains that the standard explanation for this phenomenon – the calls of desert insects – is a Western invention and that true cause is “the vibration of silica sand in certain atmospheric conditions[,] usually triggered by the wind (although walking near the crest of certain sand dunes can also trigger it)”; this image resonates rather well with Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga Dune, which itself is a masterful exposition of desert-philosophy.

4 H. P. Lovecraft, The Festival, 1923/25.

5 The nested Russian doll of narratives based on a found text presented in Cyclonopedia more or less exactly mirrors the plot structure of The Call of Cthulhu.

6 The Lord of the Rings, book III chapter 5.

7 In the Islamic version of the Abrahamic Creation myth, the first humans are created from clay, just as Adam is made from dust in the Judeo-Christian account. Clay can of course be regarded simply as wet dust, or dust as dried clay. Humanity’s dusty origins are of vital importance in the Qur’an, for it is on this basis that Iblis (Satan) refuses Allah’s instruction to bow down to Adam and Hawwa (Eve), since he is himself a Djinn, or spirit of fire, and therefore considers himself superior to creatures made of clay. In the Sufi account, Iblis is ironically the most reverent of the djinn, and disobeys Allah only because he cannot countenance making obeisance to any being other than Allah Himself.

8 The god in question being Ahura Mazda, the cosmic Logos or principle of Light, Order and Good in Zoroastrianism. Negarestani considers Zoroastrianism prototypical of monotheistic religions (despite the duality of Ahura Mazda and his ‘evil twin’ Ahriman) in general and of Islam in particular.

9 Known in earlier Avestan texts as Angra Mainyu, ‘Destructive Spirit’ (cognate with ‘angry mind’).

10 See David Lynch’s masterpiece of horrific surrealism, Eraserhead (1977).

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