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To the Stars & Beyond with Ann Sterzinger!

[1]3,139 words

Ann Sterzinger
LYFE: Elektra’s Revenge, Book One [2]
Laughing Gallows Books, 2018

She never felt as good as when she got settled inside this little private world. Which wasn’t saying much.[1] [3]

Here’s a new book by Ann Sterzinger, and it’s not what you’d expect.

After all, she does have a hard-won reputation as the Princess of Pessimism, the Duchess of Depression, the Marschallin of Misanthropy and Misery. And here she is, embarking on a contribution to the multi-part science-fantasy series genre: Elektra’s Revenge, of which this is but Book One. Get your copy now, before all the other kids!

As usual, Tolkien’s to blame, at least in part.

Tolkien originally wrote Lord of the Rings as a single volume; in post-war Britain, paper was expensive, and publishing as a single volume would have been expensive, and it would have had to be highly priced, limiting the potential readership. The publisher, against Tolkien’s wishes, decided to split the book into the three volumes known to readers.[2] [4]

Ever since, it seems no one can put eldritch plume to crumbling palimpsest without embarking on at least a trilogy, if not a quartet, or quintet, or even more – and with luck, more money-generating – volumes.

But why fantasy from a professional misanthrope? Well, the term might bring to mind unicorns and such, but the Grand Masters were often quite a dour lot; Lovecraft, of course, but even the two-fisted Robert E. Howard was a depressive who lived with his sickly mother until she died, whereupon he went out to his car and shot himself, aetat 30.

The connection between fantasy and romantic pessimism was identified by Colin Wilson, who “proposed that writers who attempt to create systems and build separate worlds are essentially romantics who reject ‘reality’ whereas optimistic writers, who accept the world they live in, never feel the need to create a separate world.”[3] [5]

But before going any further, let’s take a look at Elektra’s “little private world.” A Prologue that takes place in Elektra’s girlhood, some 19 years ago — in 4083, that is[4] [6] — lays things out.

The tales explaining why they were all on a sphere orbiting Alpha Centauri instead of Sol had been well preserved: their forebears had stupidly triggered a nuclear holocaust on Earth One. (Legend held that the chain of events began with an unpaid restaurant bill and a lost earring during a state visit in Belgium.) The four thousand worldwide survivors took a deep breath and launched an untested Chinese prototype of an interstellar cruiser. They barely limped to the nearest star, around which circled Earth Two and its lovely moon. Then the power struggles began, and they ended in a caste system—which was nowadays completely justifiable, if you looked at the two castes’ absurdly different physical reactions to Lyfe. [5] [7]

The Lyfe powder they mixed with fluid and injected into their veins was refined from a silky soft, reddish ore that had been discovered in the otherwise very nasty soil of Earth Two, many centuries ago. The city of Heaven was not on a planet, but rather seated on the nice, temperate moon of Earth Two; the planet below was barely inhabitable, with crushing gravity and carcinogenic air. Only mortals lived and minded in its fetid bowels; in fact, till a couple of generations ago, when Elektra’s’ grandpa changed everything, the mortals had all been miners down on the slave planet.

[It is “the popular euphoric Lyfe” that has set up this caste system:]

Lyfe preserved Immortals like flies in amber—if flies in amber could live, breathe, and sing out of tune in high-budget theater productions. The drug brought them eternal youth and health, which afforded lots of time in which to accrue wealth and power. Veterans of a couple of centuries of life became—behind the youthful mask of flesh—dark and strange animals.

For mortals, the long-term consequence was the very opposite. No one could tell you why. They got all of the drug’s spectacular euphoria, but instead of living forever, addicts of the mortal class were crippled and maimed. They died an early death, usually well before the age of sixty—but not before losing their faculties in a humiliating and painful free-fall.

When the mortals were all miners on Earth Two, this had been a small price to pay for short-lived joy; their deaths were already accelerated. The raw Lyfe ore they handled every day caused cancer, and it was rare for a miner to live past the age of 30 in any case. [6] [8]

[But something happened:]

Then came Lemon Burgundy, Elektra’s grandfather. His singing down in the mines was so beautiful that he was brought to the City of Heaven as the first mortal immigrant; after thousands of years of using these human resources exclusively for mining, the Gods found they were quite useful as cheap servants and theater extras. And the more extras that were available to do the chorus work, the greater was the number of Gods who could become top-billing stars in the most glamorous field in Heaven. It was a near-perfect labor setup… except that seeing junkies die in the streets was a bit of a buzzkill for the Immortals. So the fact that Lyfe addiction tended to whittle the underclass down to useless stumps by their thirties came to be considered a public health crisis.

Indeed, the endless supply of cheap, expendable drama fodder has led to the theatre industry becoming absolutely dominant: a “celebrity factory that obliterated all other pursuits in Heaven.” This is the scene in which mortal actress Elektra will pursue her vengeance against Hipparchus, the God who has stolen away and married her longtime companion Miranda — who could resist the offer of immortality through proximity?[7] [9]

With the stage set, let’s get back to Sterzinger’s own miserablist heritage. She most closely resembles the third of the Weird Tales amigos, Clark Ashton Smith, who assembled quite a number of little planetary worlds of his own,[8] [10] and clearly saw himself as carrying on the Decadent tradition.[9] [11] The cloaked figure lurking around Hipparchus’ house at the start of the first chapter is clearly clarkashtonian, as Lovecraft would say.

Alluding to the Decadents reminds us that in her real life Sterzinger is a noted translator of French Decadent literature;[10] [12] she’s even lectured the French on it, in France – in French!

The Decadent Mme. Sterzinger most resembles is Huysmans. While her misanthropic world-building relates to the nutty project of creating an aesthetically pleasing world within the confines of Des Essientes’ house in À Rebours, the more profound debt is to Huysmans’ technique – learned from his first master, the Naturalist Zola – of minute description of the sordid details of everyday life; the Huysmans of of En Rade or if you insist on at least some Satanism, then Là-Bas. This is a technique that I have identified in Lovecraft as well, but here it is used to create disgust, physical or even aesthetic, rather than fear.

For an example of the latter, take our first look at Hipparchus’ nouveau riche manor:

An egg-shaped hexagon of high walls was afflicted at random intervals with egg-shaped turrets and pointy baldachins. It was meant to have a jaunty feel, but the sight of it made most people feel like they were coming down with influenza instead. The roof was covered in purplestone leaf, and brightly painted statues of the Muses perched wherever they seemed to have gotten tired. Tin and iron foliage sprouted from the silver planters hanging at every window, and the front of the house was draped with hard, cascading waves made of gilt aluminum tulle. The tiger’s-eye doors alone lent it an incongruous touch of dignitas, although they hardly matched all the silver and purple.

“Afflicted” is pure Huysmans, as is the influenza.

For the former, both Huysmans and Sterzinger know that sex is always a good subject for disgust. Here the notion of the “turbo-brothel” provides the anchor for a kind of space-age Huysmans passage:

A male whore with one shoe on, the other foot bleeding, high and snickering over the stumps of his teeth. In front of every turbo-brothel there crawled a slight variation on the same track-marked buffoon, holding out a useless hand and harassing a God as he waited for a hippotaxi.[11] [13] It was like a repeating nightmare: all the Gods wore the same stupid fashions; all the bums were the same shade of sunburn, with the same grating, whining voice.[12] [14]

And the turbo-brothels scared Elektra. She had never been inside one, but they were supposed to be set up like a factory line, with a chain of workers, each performing one link in the sex act on a never-ending chain of clients as they went down the line. It was the cheap way of whoring, and it had to be as boring as it was sleazy, from the workers’ point of view. The only good point of such as sordid task that it was normally somewhat exciting. This was degradation on an assembly line.

It is this combination of fantastical world-building with Decadent verbal precision that makes LYFE a unique and highly recommended reading experience.

One criticism might be offered, that too little is made of the undoubted mutations that have occurred over two millennia in a language that has itself become known as Chinglish. An occasional half-hearted make-do like “moon gin” uncomfortably suggests the constant use of the “space [blank]” locution in B movie sci-fi.[13] [15] Given the timeframe, something between this and the luxuriant verbiage of Dune would seem appropriate.

Alt Right readers will also appreciate the occurrence of a number of favorite themes; immigration, of course, as well as the equally negative effects of the Equal Arts Amendment. At first it might seem arbitrary, but the idea of theatre as the leading artform of a civilization leads to many felicitous social parallels: “casting by caste,” praying to the literally immortal stage idols, etc.

Indeed, just as Wagner had imagined the music drama as a Gesamtkunstwerk, the meme of musical theatre fits perfectly as the Gods and Goddesses enjoy their lives of immortal pleasure above the slave planet, as in the climax of Rheingold.

Loge
(calling down toward the valley)

Ye in the water! why wail ye to us?
Hear what Wotan doth grant!
Gleams no more on you maidens the gold,
in the newborn godly splendor bask ye henceforth in bliss!

(The gods laugh and cross the bridge during the
following.)[14] [16]

I’ve said that the fantasist must invent a world; also, that Sterzinger is miserablist, and a Decadent writer of the painful detail sort. All these themes come together in her most delightful invention, the guinea horse.

A platform slowly rose up from below ground, bearing a light phaeton hitched to a patient guinea horse who looked only mildly surprised. He was still chewing some straw.[15] [17]

They are introduced, appropriately enough, in the preliminary section, where we are told they are “rodentlike native creatures, the size of ponies [with] sweet, appealing faces and a gentle, patient nature.”

I’m sure that future Lyfe or Elektra cultists (Lyfers? Electricians?) will demand plush guinea horses. They recur throughout, as they seem to form what passes for mass transit in the City,[16] [18] but most importantly in this climatic passage of characteristic misery:

The hippobus out to Caneston that evening was drawn by a single pair of thin guinea horses. They had been hit by so many sharp metal objects that their fur had a rusty red mange. They didn’t make a sound. Their watering eyes were almost constantly closed with pain; they held what was left of themselves close to themselves, as though they knew they were dying, and wanted just one last moment or two of life that didn’t feel like death.

An intoxicated God dropped his trousers and pissed out the window at the woebegone steeds. One of them stopped to nuzzle the other, so a drunk Goddess who’d forgotten where she parked her private carriage pelted them with the contents of a large handbag: six pairs of nosebleed spike heels, pitched one by one like a track and field event. The spikes hit fur each time, but the animals barely had the energy to flinch.

A bleary-eyed schmuck in work overalls chucked a heavy wrench at the more miserable-looking of the pair. The creature faintly wheezed, fell to one furry front knee, wheezed again, got up, and hobbled on in silence. Elektra cursed her own species, both halves, and jumped off to walk. One less corpse for the corpses to drag.

One cannot help but recall Raskolnikov’s childhood dream of the angry drunken peasant whipping the old horse,[17] [19] as well as Nietzsche’s similar encounter on the eve of his madness.

Or is that also a fiction? Chris Townsend, writing recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, argues for its mythical status,[18] [20] but also offers some relevant meditations on it.

For Raskolnikov,

He understands the significance of the dream, and understands that he himself was at once the child, the flogged horse, and the man with the whip. Nevertheless, he rises, dresses, and prepares to commit murder.

But there is more to “the symbolic potency of the horse”:

For Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, as well as in some of his own life experiences, the horses represented the shallows of human cruelty, but also the depths of empathy. (I am reminded of lines from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “A Horse misused upon the Road / Calls to Heaven for Human blood”.) If you are capable of loving, and of feeling and sharing the pain of a creature as pitiful as a horse, then surely only love for mankind can follow. It might be tempting to over-emphasize the role of Nietzsche’s horse in his life precisely because we feel forced to read it as a focal point of compassion. Nietzsche, who directed his philosophy against Schopenhauer’s conceptions of pity and empathy, would appear to be bearing witness to the cracks in his own reasoning if he himself, in a moment of radical pathos, is brought trembling and weeping to his knees by a beaten nag. (It is hard to say whether it helps or hinders the thesis of compassion that Nietzsche, in his final years of madness, was supposed to have unendingly repeated a few terse phrases, including “I do not like horses.”) It is tantalizing for his readers to imagine that, by embracing a horse, he was ending his career as a philosopher and writer as a spectacular failure — he was confessing, not in words but in action, that we cannot slip so easily out of the confines of compassion. “Human,” he might say; “All too human.”

And so we must ask: will Elektra, in her pursuit of Revenge, follow the path of Raskolnikov, or that of Dostoyevsky (and mythically, Nietzsche)? Will she realize, as Elektra already does as a small girl, that “the drug of art could crystalize misery into something exalted”? Will she even re-think her antinatalism?[19] [21] Read the next exciting installment to find out – same rat-time, same rat-station!

Notes

[1] [22] Lyfe. Not to be confused with Our Little Corner of the World: Music from The Gilmore Girls (Rhino, 2002).

[2] [23] Many editions contain this Note on the Text written by Douglas A. Anderson, October 1986: “The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy, when it is in fact a single novel, consisting of six books plus appendices, published for convenience in three volumes. [Footnote:] Tolkien’s titles for the six books were not used. A contents listing with the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings at Marquette University gives them as follows: Volume I, “The First Journey” and “The Journey of the Nine Companions”; Volume II, “The Treason of Isengard” and “The Journey of the Ringbearers”; Volume III, “The War of the Ring” and “The End of the Third Age.” A variant set of titles can be found in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 167.” For more, if you must, see this excellent article from The Tolkien Society: “The Lord of the Rings: The Tale of a Text [24].”

[3] [25] Colin Stanley, Colin Wilson’s Outsider Cycle: a guide for students (Colin Wilson Studies #15), Nottingham, UK: Paupers’ Press, 2009; Kindle edition, 2015.

[4] [26] “After the death of some Ancient Earth God whom no one knew much about anymore.”

[5] [27] “At least this one seemed to be upheld by biology. No one could argue with life and death.”

[6] [28] “Since they had so much slave labor—the mortals never tired of intoxicated procreation, no matter their misery—the Gods never needed to find ways to automate mining.” Note the anti-natalist touch; see, among dozens of examples, her “Dead David Bowie, French Nationalists, Antinatalism, and the Meaning of Life,” on Tuesday, January 12, 2016 [29].

[7] [30] Immortality as a kind of communicable disease, a reverse-AIDS, seems a typically Sterzingerian notion.

[8] [31] “Smith’s weird stories form several cycles, called after the lands in which they are set: Averoigne [32], Hyperborea [33], Mars [34], Poseidonis [35], Zothique [36]. To some extent Smith was influenced in his vision of such lost worlds by the teachings of Theosophy [37] and the writings of Helena Blavatsky [38]. Stories set in Zothique belong to the Dying Earth subgenre [39]. Amongst Smith’s science fiction tales are stories set on Mars [40] and the invented planet of Xiccarph [41].” — Wikipedia. See “The Fantasy Cycles of Clark Ashton Smith” by Ryan Harvey at blackgate.com [42]. .

[9] [43] Despite his love of adjectives and obscure words, Lovecraft did not share such enthusiasms; “The Hound” is his parody of the decadent style, which many readers and critics don’t get.

[10] [44] See Octave Mirbeau: In the Sky; trans. Ann Sterzinger, intro. by Claire Nettleton (Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2015); reviewed here [45].

[11] [46] Patience, gentle reader, the meaning of this term will soon be clarified.

[12] [47] The useless hand is an effect of Lyfe addiction; it recalls Burroughs: “yellow smells of skid row sherry and occluding liver drifted out of his clothes when he made the junky gesture throwing the hand out palm up to cop [score]…” (“Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch) as does the grating voice.

[13] [48] See MST3k, Episode 413, “Manhunt in Space;” in segment three, Joel and the ’bots discuss the overuse of the modifier “space” that appears in the movie. The crew advocates a moderated use of modifiers.

[14] [49] Libretto by Richard Wagner; translated by Frederick Jameson.

[15] [50] I find this passage indescribably funny, although as usual your mileage may vary.

[16] [51] The small habitable part of the moon makes long journey’s unlikely, and remaining fossil fuel technologies are primitive; “motorized vehicles were owned only by the Government and a few wealthy Gods.”

[17] [52] Crime and Punishment, chapter V.

[18] [53] “The story of the Turin horse was thus told 11 years after the event it purports to describe, by an unnamed reporter, who recounts a version of events spoken to Nietzsche’s landlord by an equally nameless police officer. The narrative is thirdhand hearsay in its sole original form.” See “Nietzsche’s Horse” by Chris Townsend; BLARB, 04/25/2017, here [54].

[19] [55] Elektra muses on the end of the Burgundies.