You may purchase Muladona here.
My dear unknown friend,
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Eric Stener Carlson briefly this summer while attending The Dublin Ghost Story Festival. Prior to our introduction he stood out due to the fact his questions during panels were insightful, penetrating, and betrayed the presence of a mind well-informed by the milieu of weird literature. Upon learning he had been published by Tartarus Press I knew I had to read his work. For those unaware, Tartarus Press is the combined efforts of R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, both well-established authors in their own right, who publish top-shelf, handsomely-bound editions of weird literature both past and present. As The Sunday Telegraph wrote, “Tartarus was flying the Aickman flag long before Faber experienced its own revival of interest.” I feel confident purchasing a volume of work by any contemporary author Tartarus deems worthy of issuing under its imprint, even with no prior knowledge of said writer’s work.
Muladona carries forth the physical properties of the Tartarus line, being a hardcover volume with an elegantly simple, cream-colored dust jacket covering an embossed front cover. The book is printed on heavy-weight paper of a pleasant tooth, the text handsomely laid upon the page. As lagniappe every hardbound copy of a Tartarus book comes with a sewn-in bookmark, a convenience I have come to treasure more as the years pass on. To read a book published by Rosalie Parker and R.B. Russell is to be transported to a world that may have never been yet we all know, and to see more than three volumes by Tartarus lined side by side on one’s bookshelf evokes a state of peaceful calm within any bibliophile.
Muladona opens with Vergil Erasmus Strömberg informing the reader that he is writing of events that occurred during his childhood. During the time these events took place, Verge, as he is colloquially known, swore a sacred oath to never speak of what happened, yet for reasons he believes will come clear, he feels as if his hand is forced. Thus we are transported to the town of Incarnation, Texas, the year 1918, where Verge lives with his father, an authoritarian Protestant pastor named Calvin Justinius Strömberg who has, “the hollow look of a fasting aesthetic.” He rules the house, “more like a fortress than a home,” with absolute control. The gardens within the compound’s walls are tended by Carlos Sotomayor, who lives in a small home next door, outside the compound’s walls. Carlos’ daughter, Carolina, is the same age as Verge and the two are close friends from a young age.
A traveling minister who visits the family regularly in his efforts to convert the indigenous population, smuggles books such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines and Moonfleet to young Verge. It is necessary for Verge to obtain these books in a surreptitious manner, “because these books were contraband in my house. Father considered everything written after Dante’s Inferno to be pure debauchery.” Verge however is not the only member of the family to harbor interests in illicit literature,
“Because Father had forbidden it, Sebas took every opportunity to learn about creation myths and especially stories of magical transformations into animals. With most of the men gone, Sebas did all sorts of odd jobs – scare crows, set fence posts, strung barbed wire – to buy forbidden books. Soon the secret space under the floorboards of his room was filled with texts on mythology, anthropology and mysticism.”
You know I detest delving into detail when reviewing novels. I wish to preserve the sanctity of the surprise and mystery that awaits each and every reader within the depths of a book. There lies the beauty of reading, the singular bond which may never be recreated nor duplicated. Yet the preceding two paragraphs, which encapsulate the first fifteen pages of Muladona, foretell all the horror which lies within the two hundred and ninety page novel as a whole. On my second reading, when I realized this fact, I stopped in awe and uttered a few “words of power” my father taught to help when a bolt wouldn’t turn or a screw had rusted fast. Eric Sterner Carlson is a rarity within the contemporary weird fiction milieu, a writer who respects his audience and trusts their intelligence.
When I reach for the means with which to review Muladona without betraying the surprises which await a potential reader I instinctively leave the world of literature and turn to the land of visual art, specifically the work of the 18th century painter Wright of Derby. I believe Joseph Wright is an exemplary choice when it comes to Carlson’s work with Muladona because there are striking similarities at play. Consider the first of three “scientific paintings” that Wright produced, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.
The first thing one notices when approaching a painting by Wright of Derby is of course the dramatic lighting. With typical English subtlety his work was called “candlelight painting,” yet much like Carlson’s prose within Muladona the source of illumination is hidden. Wright was nearly the court painter of the English Enlightenment yet in his first two “scientific paintings” the source of light is hidden from view, we only see them indirectly, here in the reflection on the lower edge of the table. In a similar manner while the Muladona is on full, ferocious display within Carlson’s novel her true nature is occulted. If Verge can deduce from the tales she relates whose avatar the Muladona represents she will no longer pose a threat to him. On the other hand, guess wrong, or worse, not at all, and a truly terrifying fate awaits our hero.
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, was painted at a time when the term “scientist” had yet to pass into common usage, hence the philosopher of the title demonstrating the device to this middle-class family. The orrery was used to show the movements of the planets around the sun, and the brass sun would frequently be unscrewed from its central position and replaced with an oil lamp whose light would then demonstrate the passage of day into night, solar and lunar eclipses and other assorted astronomical phenomenon as the clockwork mechanism was advanced. Thus the light of science was demonstrated in a clear and reasoned manner. Yet if you look at the figure seated on the right, dressed in blue, you’ll observe a young man whose countenance look as if his worldview is in danger of being overwhelmed. What is meant to be an uplifting experience has the potential to turn upsetting. In this same vein the town of Incantation, Texas, where Carlson sets his novel, was settled by Verge’s Grandpa Strömberg when he deemed the encroaching railroads and telegraphs a threat to his congregation. Grandpa Strömberg gathered his followers and set off into the wilderness to start afresh. After months of travel they discovered a ghost town in the arid desert, one not on any map, but the local Mexicans called the town “La Encarnación de la Virgin María”. Even after long years of neglect and abandonment the town bears the stamp of bygone opulence, not uncommon for an era when gold mining was plentiful, yet once those veins end, so do the towns they support.
Grandpa Strömberg wished to start anew in a barren, blasted desert yet when he sees the multiple statues of the Virgin Mary scattered amidst the town’s moldering beauty, still covered in flickering candles, the indigenous population having syncretized these representations of The Virgin into their own belief systems, Grandpa Strömberg has a revelation;
“After much prayer and meditation, Grandpa realized that the task God had set him was not to start society from scratch. That would have been far too easy for him and his group of the Elect. Building upon the remnants of the town would give him the challenge of converting both papists and heathens. There he would erect a new temple, strengthened and purified, upon this pagan base. He would expose these people’s wicked beliefs for the chicanery of the Deceiver, and he would set them on the One True Path.”
Here we have the second of Wright’s “scientific paintings”, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. The painting shows a traveling philosopher – for at the time they were akin to performing lecturers and great social cachet was attached to the knowledge obtained by having one give an exhibition in one’s own home – demonstrating the capability of Robert Boyle’s hand pumps to create a vacuum by placing the family’s pet cockatiel within the glass chamber as the air was withdrawn. The very idea of a vacuum was deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church when first conceived by natural philosophers, and now there were performers roaming the countryside giving demonstrations not only of its existence but also the vacuum’s strength over the power of life.
As in A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery the light source is hidden from view, this time refracted through the glass vessel that holds an object submerged in liquid. As to the identity of this object multiple theories abound. The two most popular being either a skull thus tying the painting back to earlier works containing memento moris, or the lung of an animal, suspended in water and inflated by breath via a straw. This would hold with the rest of the painting and I must confess my partiality to this view.
Of course it’s the reactions of the people that hold our fascination, and the genius of Wright lies in the ambiguity with which he empowers those figures. Nothing is laid out in plain and simple terms. Is the figure on the far right studying his pocket watch to inform the philosopher as to when to allow the air back into the chamber to ensure the cockatiel’s survival or is he timing how long it takes for the creature to die from the lack of air? Is the young boy in the back lowering the cage for the bird’s return once the demonstration is over, raising the cage to place it out of the way knowing of the bird’s imminent demise or closing the curtain’s to block out the light of the full moon? Is the father at the back of the table comforting his distraught daughter or berating her for not watching an expensive lesson on “natural laws”? Then we have the two love-struck figures with eyes only for one another during this grim exhibition.
Eric Stener Carlson plays with this same sense of ambiguity within Muladona. As I’ve written previously Carlson respects his readers and does not feel the need to feed every last detail to ensure his message is delivered. Much ink has been spilled on allowing the “monster” to remain off-screen, that by virtue of being unseen the imagination of the audience is forced to take over and create terrors no special effects could ever hope to match. Carlson performs a clever bit of sleight of hand with this concept, allowing us to view the horror, in his case the Muladona, in Wright’s the cockatiel, yet we’re left to imagine who unleashed the horror of the Muladona upon Verge, and for what reason? Carlson’s skill as a prose artist matches Wright’s with pigments. He vividly evokes the terror of each encounter with this mythical beast and as the novel hurtles along I found myself turning pages at a feverish pace. Flannery O’Connor said that writing is a dirty business, that it’s a writer’s job to make the reader feel the dirt of the world and Eric Stener Carlson pulls this off with remarkable aplomb. Unless he came to your house and threw dry desert sand in your face while mainlining adrenaline into your veins I don’t see how he could have done a better job with this task.
The third and final of Wright’s “scientific paintings” was entitled, The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone. To end the three “scientific paintings” with a depiction of an alchemist may at first seem incongruous. This is reflected by noting the painting mysteriously disturbed 18th century viewers and went unsold for nearly twenty-five years, finally being purchased at an auction of the artist’s effects at Christie’s four years after Wright’s death in 1797.
However, like many of Joseph Wright’s works, there are multiple levels of interpretation at play within The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone. The painting depicts a historical event, when the 16th century Hamburg alchemist Henning Brandt discovered phosphorus in 1699. Wright probably heard this story from his friend, James Keir, who was translating the French scholar P-J. Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemistry into English at the time. Both Wright and Keir belonged to a group named the Lunar Society. The Lunar Society were a select group of men who met monthly to discuss how science and technology could best be used to elevate society at large. Members included James Watt -inventor of the steam engine, Erasmus Darwin – inventor, botanist, poet and grandfather of Charles Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood – the famous industrialist who dedicated his life to bringing affordable tableware to the masses and was Charles Darwin’s other grandfather, and Robert Boyle, inventor of the English hand pump which Wright used in his painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. The Lunar Society took its name from the fact they scheduled their meetings on the Monday evening closest to the full moon since the moon’s light was needed to navigate their way home. The full moon in the background of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is said to be an allusion to this society. Wright was known to include its members within his “scientific paintings”, for example it’s Erasmus Darwin timing the proceedings in An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump among others. Also note Wright has updated the setting of the alchemist’s laboratory in The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone to include contemporary chemical equipment and some point to the architecture as including Masonic references. It was well known that several members of the Lunar Society were high-ranking members of Masonic lodges within England. Further disturbing to 18th century viewers was that, unlike other contemporary, mainly Dutch, paintings of alchemists at toil, Wright portrayed his alchemist as a serious and conscientious individual within a well-ordered laboratory, not a befuddled buffoon surrounded by a haphazard mess of books, manuscripts and broken vessels. After Robert Boyle’s death it was discovered he had been a closet alchemist, keeping his notes and researches in the field secret lest he fall into the scorn and derision of public opinion. In this Boyle was not alone. Many of the founding names associated with the rise of science and the establishment of the Royal Society shared Boyle’s secret obsession, most famously Sir Isaac Newton who many feel Wright used as the model for the philosopher demonstrating the device in A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.
Given all these factors and more, many over the intervening centuries have read varied interpretations of Wright’s “scientific paintings”. One reading that is held by all is the arc these three paintings contain mirror their society’s relationship with science and technology. The audience of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery are physically and intellectually undergoing the process of illumination, being led from the shadows of superstition into the light of reason. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump demonstrated society at large beginning to question at what cost came the emancipation of reason? The painting’s mixture of science and the horrific echoed the doubt and fear that ran through society as the Enlightenment took hold. The Alchemist kneeling rapturously in front of his magical light within The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone denies the idea of a knowable universe with a single unified theory and may help to explain why it troubled Wright’s contemporaries.
It would be terribly redundant to say Wright of Derby’s “scientific paintings” share a striking resonance with our own times, though they are separated by hundreds of years. Eric Stener Carlson’s Muladona shares this same capability. Like all great literature Muladona utilizes themes and tropes that reflect equally upon the reader as they do upon the characters within. In a similar fashion, while Carlson paints his characters and their actions with stunning and skillful clarity he is a writer of accomplished degree that feels comfortable to introduce that same air of ambiguity into his work in a manner which pulls audiences back repeatedly.
In Huysmans’ infamous decadent novel Là-Bas the protagonist Durtal, tired of the Naturalist movement which holds the literary world in its grip, disgusted by the times in which he lives and inspired by the Middle-Ages conceives of a new mode of literature, “Spiritual Naturalism” or “Supernatural Realism”. Huysmans writes of at length in the first chapter of Là-Bas of his new genre:
“It was necessary to keep the accurate documentation, the precision of detail, the rich and vigorous style of the Realists; but it was also necessary to sink well-shafts into the soul, instead of trying to explain its every mystery by some malady of the senses. The novel, if that were possible, ought to be divided into two parts – that of the soul and that of the body – which would be welded together, or rather intermingled, as they are in life; and it should tell of their mutual reactions, their conflicts, their points of agreement. In a word, the novelist must follow the highway so strongly marked out by Zola; but he should also trace a parallel road in the air, a second highway reaching out to regions beyond and hereafter; he should, in fact, fashion a spiritual naturalism that would be far finer, more powerful, and more complete!”
Eric Stener Carlson has readily absorbed this lesson. Each story the Muladona relates to Verge is not only exquisitely formed and chilling in its own right yet forms a piece of the larger narrative as a whole. Yet this work does not fall into the currently fashionable genre of short tales held together by the frailest of premise in an attempt to lend them an air of undeserved gravitas. Carlson’s work grapples with larger themes of historical pressures without resorting to the easy relief of societal approved scapegoats and ready made bogeymen. Carlson’s use of separation, be it of time, subject matter, or genre expectations allows him to tread Huysmans’ second highway with ease while engrossing the reader in a compelling narrative.
It would be a fair question to ask if all the above was necessary and in all honesty the answer could easily be both “yes” and “no” at the same time. “Yes” because Muladona is a highly intelligent novel written in an accessible manner that stands so far above the usual “Cthulhu’s minions are trying to summon him back to this realm and it’s up to our unlikely protagonist and their ragtag band of plucky compatriots to defeat this menace” normally on offer that any and all efforts to convey the novel’s uniqueness will serve the novel in good stead. “No” in that Muladona reminds me of what I once read of Dostoevsky’s novels, that they cannot be spoiled because Dostoevsky wrote his novels with the idea of them being read over and over, each repetition granting further insight to the creator’s intentions as he set about his writing. I believe Eric Stener Carlson is a writer toiling within a similar vein and one’s appreciation for Muladona will only grow with each repeated reading. So while I am as always loathe to spoil the surprises that await you between this book’s luxurious covers, in a way these worries are inconsequential. Carlson has larger concerns in mind and these swim deep within the depths of Muladona.
If you would like to know more about the Lunar Society I would highly recommend Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men : A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion. This book is an absolutely fascinating look into a tumultuous period of time in which not just the physical, political and scientific landscape was thrown into turmoil but people’s own sense of identity was often sent into a state of crisis. This is now often glossed over as one long, smooth slide of progress yet to see the events behind these steps is a riveting peek behind the curtain. It is no wonder Wright of Derby spent the last years of his life painting pastoral landscapes and the wildlife they contained.
You may purchase Muladona here.
Soundtrack for this review:
Featured image by ToxicTeaBager. See more of their work here.