Frankenstein v the Wolfman.
I learned a lot about reality by running from it.
Here’s the thing about reality. The nature of reality is actually changing, which is why, these days it is so hard to tell what is true and what it isn’t. It isn’t complicated. The border is shifting between what is real and what isn’t, what is verifiable and what is lies, what can be imagined, and what can be materialized, what is magic and what is science. But the reason reality is changing stems from ancient, immutable principles that continually change and reshuffle the way things are. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Or the more they repeat the same variations of the insane. Our world is rigged to create uncertainty. And so is this essay. It is supposed to serve as an introduction to my fiction and art. It covers too much territory in too short a space. It meanders. It is sloppy, uncongenial, unconventional, trite, full of many recycled old ideas, pompous, bombastic, vain, and deceitful. I’m willing to be completely candid with you, and truthful, if not entirely honest.
I found the solution to all of our problems. By immersing myself in fantasies, I found the true answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. That’s the truth. Sort of.
What is false is part of what is real– the two are inextricably linked and part of unified whole, which is why I would rather you go straight to my fiction instead of reading this. My fabrications are the best way to explore what I’m trying to say about the nature of truth. But for those of you who prefer substance, or simply want to cut to the chase, here’s the non-fiction introduction to the some of the same ideas.
My flight from reality began with comic books. They were far more interesting than the day to day demands of school, homework, and chores. I was a dreamer.
In comic books, I experienced a direct connection to what was slowly becoming a vital part of America’s folklore. I was caught up in the early stages of the Silver Age of comics, absorbing its lessons and its dreams.
In elementary school, I started writing illustrated fantasy and superhero stories based upon my dreams. In the process of giving form to visions that would otherwise rapidly fade from memory, I found I could reenter those realms that existed outside of physical reality. I could reshape them in ways that were more interesting than the waking material world, weighted as it was with tedium and torments. My interest in the arts began as an escape.
I was reading Marvel comics even before they featured superheroes. I bought the first issue of Fantastic Four off the racks for a dime. I was eight years old, and the book filled me with a sense of auspiciousness, a sense that the world had changed forever.
That same year, I caught my first glimpse of an even older magic, a layer of folklore that formed the very foundation of the comic books I so loved, and it also affected me strongly, but in an entirely different way.
In 1961, the Miami Herald had tracked down a retired author named Robert J. Hogan, and ran an article about an old pulp magazine he had written during the Great Depression, called G-8 and his Battle Aces. The article contained a number of color cover reproductions, and some of the pen and ink interior art. There were a few plot summaries. My father, it turned out, had been a fan of the series. The article thrilled him with a rush of nostalgia. I longed to get my hands on those books, but in 1961, back issues of G-8 seemed to have vanished from the physical world. They could not be found in the barbershops that warehoused old comic books full of hair, or in used bookstores with their dusty backlog of paperbacks. They could not even be found in antique stores. I understood the pulp heroes were the precursors of the comic book characters I knew and loved, and that they were gone, passed into the stuff of legend.
Slowly, old pulp heroes began to dig themselves out of the dustbins. Doc Savage enjoyed a paperback revival in the 60’s, thanks in large part to a brilliant re-imagining by cover artist James Bama. Robert E. Howard’s Conan also returned, owing a similar debt to cover art by Frank Frazetta. The Shadow tried to launch a similar comeback in the 60’s, but was not as successful. The character had earned a high degree of name recognition from the popular old radio show, but the original pulp version of the character might have faded forever back into the darkness were it not for the vivid, iconic renderings of Michael W. Kaluta that first appeared in the 1970’s..
As I saw more and more of the old pulps, I sensed a kind of magic at work, some kind of potent, forgotten and half forbidden aesthetic. It was darker, and even more subversive than comic books, and certainly not diluted by the prudish and prissy Authority of the Comics Code. There is a telling passage that approximates what I felt. It comes from the pulps themselves, from a Robert E. Howard tale titled The Footfalls Within, originally published in Weird Tales– about a Puritan swordsman named Solomon Kane, who carried with him a cat-headed staff of ancient make.
The exquisite workmanship of the head, of a pre-pyramidal age, and the hieroglyphics, symbols of a language that was forgotten when Rome was young–these, Kane sensed, were additions as modern to the antiquity of the staff itself as would be English words carved on the stone monoliths of Stonehenge.
As for the cat-head–looking at it sometimes Kane had a peculiar feeling of alteration; a faint sensing that once the pommel of the staff was carved with a different design. The dust-ancient Egyptian who had carved the head of Bast had merely altered the original figure, and what that figure had been, Kane had never tried to guess. A close scrutiny of the staff always aroused a disquieting and almost dizzy suggestion of abysses of eons, unprovocative to further speculation.
Some of the old pulp magazines contain eerily prophetic sequences. I’ve written about them before, in my articles about the Spider and Operator #5, available on this site. These strange prophesies heighten the underlying effect of mystical and folkloric engagement. What was going on, exactly? Many of the authors were churning out over a million words a year—the level of productivity that it took for them to earn a decent living during the Great Depression. Did that process produce something akin to the phenomena known as psychograpy, or automatic writing? Automatic writing was favored as a mediumistic experience by occultists, where they released conscious control of the pen or typewriter, and let it become a vehicle for accessing deep and mysterious unused levels of the human mind.
Or perhaps this sense of the mystic was created by the demands of the pulp market itself, hopelessly crowded and fiercely competitive, where the boundaries of propriety were being constantly tested, and all manner of excess was the principal allure, including all manner of excessive imagination. The authors were constantly being strained to the breaking point in order to produce material that would grab attention. The visions created by stressed and over-exerted imaginations create a filter opposite to that of science— it allows perceptions disconnected from the realm of the senses, inexpressible through language. This is the mythic experience, which provides a mediation zone between waking consciousness and dreams, a shortcut from ego to id.
Perhaps that sense of the mystic came from the basically ephemeral nature of the pulp medium– the paper that was made to crumble and self-destruct after the first reading, the packaging that proudly announced itself as trash. That somehow in its animistic aesthetic, in its veneration of the transitory, it paradoxically touched the eternal.
In his book, Spider, pulp historian Robert Sampson expressed it eloquently:
“The strange red flickering of 1930’s fiction seems distant now. You hold in your hand the product of a time too remote to recall, and feel a slow stir of wonder. The smell of pulp pages, an illustration, an advertisement, these fragile things mark the slow hammering of time and display what it has done. About you are today’s machines, today’s shadows. Outside the window, leaves hang against the sky, as did leaves during the 1930’s. The sound of voices are no different then than now. You hold the magazine and feel something quite delicate slipping past. These solid forms surrounding you are all insubstantial. Time’s hammer will also pass across them, leaving little enough behind.”
In truth, I don’t have the solution to all of our problems. But I have a unique perspective which provides an important contribution to solving all of our problems. Everyone does! Everything is true. And that proposition itself is the solution to all of our problems. But the notion that our problems can be simply and easily solved is a myth.
My epic, The Twilight Patrol, uses the uniquely American mythology of Depression era pulp magazines in much the same way J.R.R. Tolkien used Nordic mythology in Lord of the Rings.
“Truth is stranger than fiction because the truth doesn’t have to make sense.” Attributed to Mark Twain, though the truth is, that’s not exactly what Twain said. Still, the attribution makes sense, whether entirely true or not, in the sense that Mark Twain has become a trademark for a species of quote, a labeling that confers prestige upon the quote, intended to make its substance more credible.
When I was in college, I spent an afternoon talking to a charismatic stranger who offered to teach me the secrets of sorcery. Somehow, he knew I had recently read Carlos Castenada’s Teachings of Don Juan, and that I was struggling to decide what to make of it. He claimed the book merely scratched the surface of mystic arts he had already mastered. Speaking with a bizarre accent that might have been an affectation, he offered to take me into his tutelage. He presented himself with supreme confidence, as if he were a self-contained measure of all things. I had a flash insight that he was not lying. Not that what he was revealing the truth, but that he absolutely believed he was. It was as if the walls had fallen between our separate identities—there was no distinction between his thoughts and mine. It might have been the effect of drugs that were part of his spiel, but part of the revelation was these drugs had the effect of removing rather than creating illusions. I had an intuition that magic was real, but in order to pursue it, I would have to remain psychically intertwined with this stranger, and the ultimate result would be a confusion of our two identities, a loss of self to gain sovereignty over self, and a complete dissociation from the material world. It was a really difficult choice for me at that moment, for the material world mostly terrified me and disappointed me, or it bored me when I wasn’t being terrified and disappointed. I had to make a choice, a truly profound choice, that would dictate the course of the rest of my life.
So what did I do? I was intrigued. I was scared. Was it in truth a cult, or the true occult? I was tempted. I really couldn’t make up my mind. I ended up making the decision by not making it. The opportunity passed. I never saw the stranger again.
But still the choice haunted me, and nagged with its surreal temptations. Was magic real?
And if you’ve believed everything I’ve said so far, I’ve worked a kind of magic, because I haven’t offered much in the way of evidence or authority, apart from my unsubstantiated representations.
What I have in the way of academic credentials is a degree in English, which is the craft of finding truths contained in obvious lies, with a concentration in Creative writing, which is the art of lying convincingly, a degree in the practice of Law, which is the mechanics of dealing with facts without regard to whether they are actually true.
When Carlos Castenada presented his Don Juan works to the University of California, there was considerable internal debate as to whether or not they were fact or fiction, or so I was told by someone I considered a reliable source. The University, according to this source, decided that whether they were true or not, the works were brilliant, meriting the award to Castenada of both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Anthropology. My recollection of this account has been dimmed by decades, and I haven’t been able to independently verify it. It might have been a repeated rumor. It might have begun as a joke. Today, it might provoke a debate as to whether it was fact or fiction. It doesn’t really matter if the story about the University is true. It doesn’t matter if I actually got the information from a credible source. It was a lesson in how true magic actually works.
The science of Anthropology had its origins, in part, in a classic work by Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, which was a study of ancient ritual and religion, a kind of an encyclopedia of magic.
Frazer wrote, “Hence the strong attraction which magic and science alike have exercised over the human mind; hence the powerful stimulus that both have given to the pursuit of knowledge. They lure the weary enquirer, the footsore seeker, on through the wilderness of disappointment in the present by their endless promises of the future: they take him up to the top of an exceeding high mountain and show him, beyond the dark clouds and rolling mists at his feet, a vision of the celestial city, far off, it may be, but radiant with unearthly splendor, bathed in the light of dreams.”
I wrote and attempted to sell a comic book script that involved a character who had deduced the secret formula—part equation and part spell—for reconciling magic and science. I envisioned a cross between Doc Savage and Dr. Strange, a series that would be both science fiction and fantasy. Understanding the formula made this character immensely powerful.
The editor who rejected this story asked me point-blank, what are you trying to accomplish?
And I responded, glibly, “I’m exploring the nature of reality. And I want to change the way my reader sees the world.”
He laughed. “That approach isn’t going to sell many comic books. Most people view the world as if their view is correct, whether that view makes them happy or not. People don’t want their world view changed. I mean, you don’t want your world view changed, do you?”
“I don’t know. Some of my favorite books have done exactly that.”
“Yeah? Best sellers?”
“Not exactly. ”
“Most people want to be reassured about their world view. They’ll be quick to drop books that challenge it. They want adventures where their world view defeats all the other world views. They want a writer who can find words to superbly say what they want to, but can’t. And you know, we don’t even make most of our money selling comic books. Most of the money comes from action figures, and lunch boxes and toys. If you want to make it in this business, you should stop trying to be F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
It wasn’t that I wanted to be Fitzgerald. But I identified with him because I wanted to drop out of Princeton, and someone had once told me that I was the first person since Fitzgerald to serve as an editor of both Tiger Humor Magazine and Nassau Literary Review. I have no idea if this is true. It didn’t matter. I was willing to latch onto a myth if it would enable me to latch onto Fitzgerald’s mythic status.
For a freshman course on Introduction to Philosophy, I was assigned to write a paper on the old materialism vs. idealism question—i.e., whether ideas were rooted in the matter of the human brain or whether the human brain was an ephemeral construct that was adrift in a conceptual dream; whether the universe was based on a tangible reality, or only ideas and internal perceptions. Grappling with the problem, I was confounded by all of its associated paradoxes and contradictions which had led to endless debates over the course of centuries. I dismissed the question as simply being unanswerable. Rather than utilizing the analytical tools the course was intended to teach, I cut the question like the Gordian Knot. The thrust of my argument was a glib, wise-ass dismissal of the exercise. I compared the eternal question to a debate over who would win a fight between Frankenstein and the Wolf-man. The winner would be whoever the writer wanted it to be because it was fight between unreal characters. The question was not answerable, I argued, therefor irrelevant. At the time, the answer was entirely satisfying to me, because my goal in life was to become writer of science fiction and/or fantasy novels. Art was much more interesting because it wasn’t supposed to be real. Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi seemed far more material and ideal than Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. For many years afterward, I regretted the lack of seriousness I had brought to that particular question, and to much of my formal schooling, though my regrets were not enough to keep me from continuing to indulge my lack of seriousness, even now. The question had been dismissed—but it kept bothering me. The question bothered me the way I was bothered by my chance encounter with the stranger who supposedly could teach me the ways of magic.
Later in life, I would actually discover the formula I had hypothesized, the formula for understanding science and magic. It happened while I was working obsessing on a project that began when I was 16. Over the course of 42 years of writing and rewriting one of my earliest works of fiction, now titled Cannibals (partially because it is comprised of cannibalized failures), I found a way to fully understand how to reconcile science and magic. Or at least, I arrived at a conclusion that satisfied me. I believed I understood it, and the mere believing would achieve a level of understanding commensurate with an actual understanding, a manifestation of what was real magic, as opposed to fantasy magic, which operates like science unfettered by materiality. But the understanding failed to imbue me with any real powers, of the fantasy variety or otherwise. It did serve to make me fully understand that a kind of magic had actually been at work in my life.
I ended up with a long career that forcibly demonstrated the relevance of the old philosophical problem I had so glibly dismissed. Working as an attorney for a hospital, I was placed directly on the interface of two competing and contradictory disciplines— law and medicine.
Medicine is science driven, very bound by the material realm, manifesting its effects in tangible results upon too too solid flesh. The law is bound to realm of ideas, and its effects are as malleable as language. Medicine is science. The law is magic.
I found a satisfying solution to what I had thought was an unanswerable and irrelevant problem, though the solution might be as much a fiction as the battle between Frankenstein and the Wolfman. The answer lies in the notion that ideas and the tangible world are made of the same constituent self-contradicting components, which means the answer actually does lie in its unanswerability. That old philosophy paper drew upon a cultural artifact I have since recognized as part of an American mythos, an embedded folklore consisting of, among other things, genre fiction, old horror films, pulp magazines, and comic books. The battle between Frankenstein and the Wolf-man is itself an iconic representation of the conflicting methods of reasoning that make the question unanswerable—the conflict between science and magic.
All of human perception is based on a combination of Magic and Science, or idea and matter. An idea and opposite. The two work in tandem, in paradoxical and complementary fashion.
Everything is true. You just have to find the context in which it is true. This really isn’t a novel proposition. To a certain extent, it is part of old, very powerful intellectual tools that lie at the heart of the way attorneys are trained. That’s why “it depends” is the universal answer to every direct question posed to a lawyer. But legal training in America mostly involves taking those tools and weaponizing them. I’m trying to beat those swords into plowshares.
Most readers of science fiction and fantasy already know the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
It is 42. And it isn’t.
The ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is, in fact, 42. And that answer is irrefutable. But only within the limited context of another deeply embedded contemporary cultural artifact that has become part of our modern folklore– Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Everything I’ve said might give rise to rebuttal and endless debate—except maybe the part about there being too much information to make sense of any given topic, but if that were true, then nothing would make ever make sense, which doesn’t make any sense. That’s the heart of the old dismissal I made as a freshman in college. That’s also the quality of truth these days.
What are we supposed to do when there is too much information, and we can’t tell what is true, and it doesn’t matter anyway because everything is true? That means there is no answer, which also means there is an answer. Everything is true. You only need to find the context in which a given proposition is true. Though you might disagree, recognizing the contradiction and paradox is a good way to confront a problem, and to arrive at a solution, and come to terms with those who disagree with your solution.
So, who won the battle between Frankenstein and the Wolfman? In the context of the 1943 Universal film, there was no winner. The locals stopped trying to storm Castle Frankenstein as a torch wielding mob. Instead, someone blew up the dam, and both monsters were swept away in the ensuring flood. Curt Siodmak, who wrote the screenplay (and also Donovan’s Brain, the high point of Nancy Reagan’s career in cinema) dismissed the problem in much the same way I did when I was a college freshman.
To escape the boredom and harassment of 4th grade, Stuart Hopen wrote and illustrated a science fiction and fantasy short story collection that began with a work titled “Me, Temporary Teenager.” He’s been escaping into his writing and art ever since. A graduate of Princeton University, he has written comic books published by D.C. Comics, Marvel, Fantagraphics, Eclipse, and Amazing Comics. His critical writing has been published by Rain Taxi Review of Books and the Comics Journal. He married a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the cover painting on the first edition of his novel, Warp Angel, and they have three children. Though he has traveled extensively across galaxies and dimensions, he spent most of his life in a small town mantled with its unfulfilled dreams of becoming the east coast motion picture capital of America– Hollywood, Florida.
My artistic heroes, heroines, and influences (in no particular order):
Thomas Pynchon, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kirby, Tanith Lee, Phillip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, James Ensor, Jules Bissier, Gunter Grass, James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Hand, Jeff Jones, Alan Moore, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Davies, A.S. Byatt, Anais Nin, Ingmar Bergman, Barrington J. Bayley, Stanislaw Lem, Angela Carter, Michael Kaluta, William T. Vollman, China Mieville, Herman Melville, Eudora Welty, Robert E. Howard, Mike Carey, Will and Ariel Durant, G.I. Gurdjieff, Winsor McKay, Neal Stephenson, Toni Morrison, Arnold Drake, Kin Platt, Thomas McGuane, Patti Smith, William Faulkner, Michael Moorcock, Herman Hesse, Lester Dent, Marisha Pessl, Steve Ditko, Maurice Ravel, Ken Russell, P. Craig Russell, Cormack McCarthy, Samuel R. Delaney, Vladimir Nabokov, Colin Wilson, Dashiell Hammett, Donovan, Raymond Chandler, Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Norman Spinrad, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Flannery O’Connor, John LeCarre, Don Delillo, Neil Gaiman, Ian Fleming, Bert Jansch,Gardner Fox, Robert Stone, Norvell Page, Bob Dylan, and…
Site Contents: Writing, Paintings, and Drawings ©Stuart Hopen 2018 (or earlier as noted on individual works), excluding quoted material, Whisper, Delta-Wave, and Daemon Mask Art by Russ Martin, Delta Wave Art by Albert Val and Kenneth MacFarlane, and Cyril Knight Art by Mike Hoffman.