Angels and Octopodes

Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG had a great post this summer with an imaginary Ghostbusters III treatment that was way cooler than any actual Ghostbusters sequel is likely to be.

Halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel–a fallen angel–and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan. Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first. …

Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology. … Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.

A friend of mine tagged the post as “MacDougall bait.” Indeed. Except apparently it wasn’t just MacDougall bait: I saw links to Geoff’s NYNEX angel on io9, kottke.org, and even Boing Boing. This provokes a reaction in me not unlike the great books of John Hodgman. I know exactly why I think an imaginary Ghostbusters movie about a sentient telephone system, or a po-faced pseudo-almanac about America’s secret hobo wars, is boss to the Nth degree. But I find it hard to believe my tastes are so widely shared. Where were you, Boing Boing, when I was wandering around a European capital cooking up my own architectural secret history action flick? Or my own sentient telephone system? Where were you?

Of course, BLDGBLOG is too great a site for me to be jealous. I just ordered the book, in fact. If I was going to be jealous, it might be of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, who got a $575,000 advance to write a new book called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Credit where it’s due: Grahame-Smith hit some kind of crazy fluke Snakes On A Plane style zeitgeist funny bone with his mashup of Jane Austen and George Romero. But half a million dollars for Abe Lincoln, vampire hunter? Ignore the fact that there happens to be a webcomic from 2007 with the same title. I have a dozen ideas that goofy before breakfast: St. George Washington versus the Dragon! Ben Franklinstein’s Monster! Teddy Roosevelt and the 36th Chamber of Shao Lin! Obamapunk! Nobody told me these things were monetizable.

But let’s get back to BLDGBLOG, and cross some of the wires connecting AT&T to H.P. Lovecraft and points south. Geoff’s imagined movie climaxes with an showdown inside the AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street, which he says is a haunt of the ghost of Aleister Crowley. I’m not positive what connection Crowley had with 33 Thomas Street, but surely we can find one. The Long Lines Building is, it must be said, one creepy skyscraper. Its windowless brutalism charmingly evokes the old Bell monopoly’s stately gravitas / contempt for puny mortals.

The Book of Enoch, one of those mysterious texts that got excised from the Hebrew bible, tells the story of a race of Watchers, or “egregores,” fallen angels that fathered the Nephilim. The 19th century occultist Eliphas Lévi described these egregores as “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.” Sounds like AT&T to me. Crowley, the Great Beast of 20th century occultism, claimed to be the reincarnation of Lévi, and he wrote about the egregores too. But Crowley altered the concept of the egregore, using the term to describe a magical “thought form” or collective “group mind” that transcends the individual identities of its members and can be said to have a will or existence of its own. That’s a pretty good model for a sentient telephone system: a collective intelligence that transcends its individual members. The fallen angel, Crowley implied, is made out of bits of us.

What other kinds of collective entities were coalescing in Crowley’s day? That occult bible of the 21st century known as Wikipedia has a good guess: “The symbiotic relationship between an egregore and its group has been compared to the more recent non-occult concepts of the corporation and the meme.” What is a corporation if not a collective organism that transcends the individual identities of its members? The “corporation as egregore” idea turns up more than once in the work of Crowley-esque comic book writer Grant Morrison, whose Doom Patrol featured a sentient telephone system lurking beneath another creepy office building, the Pentagon. Here’s an essay on the theme:

The modern corporation is far more than simply a building full of people that creates a product or manages resources. It exists in physical space, data space, and in aetheric space. It is a collective of intentional will committed to self-preservation, growth, and profit. … It is in many ways an individual composed of many cooperative cells. Like the human body, the corporation maintains its identity and function in spite of the continuous recycling of its cells. The structure persists by its own will and inertia. The corporation is not bound to any one location. It can move, disperse, and distribute through data networks. It behaves with a single will, informed by the will of the corporate collective, bent towards the same end: maintaining the existence & continued growth of the corporate entity.

In the muckraking journalism and political cartoons of the late nineteenth century, communication networks like the telephone and telegraph, and the corporations that owned and used them, were routinely depicted as gargantuan spiders, hydras, and octopuses. My old roleplaying game about the occult history of the United States featured the Nephilim / Egregore as monstrous manifestations (should I say “incorporations”?) of the great industrial trusts. And I’ve argued in my academic work that these monstrous images were metaphors of reach as well as size, that they described unease with sectional integration through commerce and the corporation’s new powers of action at a distance. Today our go-to metaphors for corporate power are a little less zoological, but they still tend towards the monstrous or uncanny: see Bryan Alexander’s Infocult for “Google as Vampire” and umpteen more examples.

Now check out this marvelous blog, Vulgar Army, devoted entirely to political images of the octopus. It even features a post about my American Quarterly article on Gilded Age nightmares of the network. From it I learned that the plural of octopus is not “octopi,” as I and the editors of AQ believed, but plain old “octopuses,” or the far cooler and more Lovecraftian sounding “octopodes.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

There were good reasons for Gilded Age Americans to fear big business in their day–but the ubiquity of the octopus / monster / egregore metaphor points to something deeper about how we think about groups and individuals, structure and agency. Tales of animate, sentient, tentacled corporations, like conspiracy theories, enact vernacular epistemologies. Lurid and paranoid as they can sometimes be, they express something many feel to be true about the way the world turns. There are times when the sum total of individual choices or actions seem alien and unwanted to the individuals involved. This is how stock markets crash and a Ouija board works. Thomas Haskell and Stephen Kern have both written about a “crisis of causation” in late nineteenth-century America. As railroad tracks and telegraph wires and big businesses shrank the nation, it became harder and harder to imagine ordinary individuals as the solitary masters of their fates. Local sources of meaning and order–the family, the sect, the small town–were “drained of causal potency,” in Haskell’s words, becoming “merely the final links in long chains of causation that stretched off into a murky distance.”

“Drained of causal potency”–that’s good Gothic language right there. It reminds me of this great, lurid passage in Frank Norris’ The Octopus, where the railroad sounds like a creature straight out of Lovecraft:

From Coles, in the topmost corner of the map, to Yuma in the lowest, from Reno on one side to San Francisco on the other, ran the plexus of red, a veritable system of blood circulation, complicated, dividing, and reuniting, branching, splitting, extending, throwing out feelers, off-shoots, tap roots, feeders–diminutive little blood suckers that shot out from the main jugular and went twisting up into some remote county, laying hold upon some forgotten village or town, involving it in one of a myriad branching coils, one of a hundred tentacles, drawing it, as it were, toward that centre from which all this system sprang. The map was white, and it seemed as if all the colour which should have gone to vivify the various counties, towns, and cities marked upon it had been absorbed by that huge, sprawling organism, with its ruddy arteries converging to a central point. It was as though the State had been sucked white and colourless, and against this pallid background the red arteries of the monster stood out, swollen with life-blood, reaching out to infinity, gorged to bursting; an excrescence, a gigantic parasite fattening upon the life-blood of an entire commonwealth.

But The Octopus, and the whole Gilded Age octopus thing, predate Lovecraft by a few decades. Maybe the influence went the other way. Could Lovecraft’s octopoid monstrosities be creatures straight out of Norris? Was Yog-Sothoth a corporation? Was Cthulhu a railroad? I’m not saying Lovecraft was populist in his sensibilities. Ha! His idea of a Populist was probably somebody like Wilbur Whateley, or the degenerate cannibal in “The Picture in the House.” But why are there so many tentacles in the Cthulhu Mythos? Why does Cthulhu have an octopus-like head? Aren’t Lovecraft and Norris playing a similar tune? The crisis of causation Kern and Haskell describe–the irrelevance of the individual in the face of vast, impersonal forces–that’s Lovecraft’s nightmare too.

Ken Hite, my go-to guy on all things Lovecraft, said of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

Lovecraft wrote from the Gothic tradition, but for the twentieth century; the threat to order isn’t villainous, swarthy Catholics (although …) but the actual circumstances of reality. Lovecraft has taken all the core Gothic tropes — the alien (but powerful) Outsider, the threat of miscegenation, the inevitably corrupt ancient wisdom, the symptomatic disorder of Nature, the “haunted castle” or ruin, even the insipid hero, and — often literally — enlarged upon them. Made them vaster. And brought them out of the “shudder tale” and into the world of science, and hence into science fiction. [more]

Which brings me, finally, to my own Ghostbusters pitch. Not a sequel but a prequel, a Lovecraft-Norris-Hite-Ramis mashup set ninety years before the 1984 original in a Gilded Age America where the squamous, tentacled nightmares of the Populists are all too real. The Standard Oil Octopus is an actual gargantuan octopus, with half the country in its crushing tentacles, and the Bell and Western Union Spiders are blanketing the plains with their copper webs. Thorstein “Pete” Veblen, Oswald “Egon” Spengler, and Ray Stannard “Stantz” Baker are the Trustbusters–a random and chronologically eclectic trio, I grant you, but I can’t resist an 80s movie reference. Who ya gonna call?

24 Comments

  1. It is the posts like this one that keep me reading, even though you’ve traded in your Canadian American enthusiasts for American American enthusiasts.

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  3. SEK: Absolutely works as a Planetary issue. Dan Aykroyd’s fascination with the paranormal aside, I think Geoff M. / I already put way too much thought into these to resemble a Ghostbusters sequel (c.f. Ghostbusters II).

  4. I always thought Lovecraft’s tentacled horrors descended from the tradition that gave Coleridge’s ancient mariner his “slimy things with legs [that crawled] upon the slimy sea”.

    Perhaps there were even earlier Geist-meisters operating in old Europe — “For whom wilt thou send?” and so on.

  5. This may be the appropriate forum to share my alternative “The Matrix” treatment. All as before until towards the end of “Matrix – Reloaded,” The Architect scene. The Architect reveals to Neo that the whole “humans are an energy source for the machines” is bullshit — there is a little thing in the real world (perhaps not in The Matrix?) that we like to call the Second Law of Thermodynamics (viz. “we’ll feed the cats to the rats and the rats to the cats and we’ll get the catskins for nothing!”) that means a system that sustains the plugged-in humans ain’t gonna get net energy out of them. In fact, The Architect tells Neo, The Matrix is a great big video game. Back in the 21st century, humans got more and more reliant on machines as tools and entertainment. The machines became such great entertainment that humans basically lived for their ever-increasing time plugged into various virtual realities, the most popular of which was (wait for it) “The Matrix.” Machines were built to care for more and more basic human functions so that humans could spend more and more of their time, and eventually all of their time, plugged into “The Matrix.” The rest is history. Various alternative endings:
    Neo wins The Matrix, retires to a VR beach with Trinity, a la Corona.
    The Architect is the final level, and he turns into a giant fire-breathing hydra-headed monster. Neo is toast.
    If you really need a third installment, Neo could lead an assault on The Matrix’s CPU, reboot program (which would suck, because he would lose the high score), and free the blinking human naked mole rats from their pods.
    If you notice, I’ve thought about this a little bit, mostly when I see The Matrix movies and am struck by the incredible lameness of the basic set-up.

  6. Picador, Ned, those are both excellent. Thank you! “For whom wilt thou send,” hee hee. And Ned, would it shock you to learn that I too have daydreamed my own improved Matrix sequels? I should really write them up and post them some day. Though to me, violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the least of the Matrix sequels’ problems…

  7. Nobody told me these things were monetizable.

    What about this? Perhaps Dan Brown is already here?

  8. Flash back to that moment in 2003 after the second Matrix movie and before the third:

    My fantasy for how the trilogy should conclude: After learning that absolutely every level of reality is just another matrix, The One shrugs his shoulders and walks off the film set. A digital camera follows him across the street to a lecture hall, where a professor is denouncing metafiction and declaring postmodernism a literary dead end. Keanu’s cell phone rings: It’s his agent. We hear them chatting about how much they’re making from all that Matrix tie-in merchandising. Then the wall collapses and the cast of Blazing Saddles falls into the lecture room, throwing pies.

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  10. Another subterranean aspect of the Chthulu trope during the same period is the surge in urban infectious disease and the rise of public health efforts in water sanitation just as the germ theory of disease was established. During the Industrial Revolution and through the Gilded Age there were major pandemics of pulmonary anthrax, bubonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, typhoid fever, typhus, and influenza. There were recurring outbreaks of rabies (hundreds of deaths in the UK and US alone), syphilis, scarlet and puerpural (childbed) fever, tetanus (all those horses) and most Gothic of all, Tuberculosis, the White Plague (Dubos, not Herbert), reaping Romantic composers, poets and musicians in their fevered primes.
    What better metaphor than the Old Ones for the lurking invisible menaces flowing through the water supply or carried by sailors and whores on ships and railroads, suddenly erupting in a horror show of fever, blood, pus, dead bodies and maddened animals? The ghostbusters of this scenario were Lister, Semmelweis, Snow, Pasteur, Koch, etc.

  11. @Lizzzi:

    That is an extremely excellent comment.

    What better metaphor than the Old Ones for the lurking invisible menaces flowing through the water supply or carried by sailors and whores on ships and railroads, suddenly erupting in a horror show of fever, blood, pus, dead bodies and maddened animals?

    Yes! Very, very cool. Thinking about Snow and the cholera epidemic (have you read Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map?), there might be some parallels between the way both these nightmares, the corporate trusts on the one hand and disease-causing microbes on the other, represent radical and therefore uncanny differences in scale.

    Thanks for reading – and especially for writing!

  12. Thanks!

    All networks resemble epidemiological ones because the underlying statistics are the same.
    Explosive growth outside of individual human control is unnerving, especially when human agency is involved (cities, transportation, communications are all drivers of epidemics–e.g. AIDS, the 1918 ‘flu.)

    I will seek out Ghost Map asap.

    You in turn should read Rene Dubos The White Plague (not the Herbert SF novel).

    The most unforgettable scene he evokes (1839) is the mute, dying Paganini (syphilis and TB) playing his violin in the Nice Opera House for an audience of “corpse-like consumptives…lavishly jeweled but so pale beneath their curls that their faces seemed to be powdered with ‘scrapings of bones’…as if cemeteries were not closed at night and allowed the dead to escape.”

    Now that’s a Romantic horrorshow, and the real irony of Pride and Prejudice with Zombies–the TB zombies WERE coming in the 1800s.

  13. Pingback: The octopodes among us « sans everything

  14. Thanks– fascinating essay.

    A couple of things you might like: Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness– the inimical magical forces built up by the combination of the weight of stuff and the geometrical patterns in cities and Powers’ Declare– the occult powers behind the Cold War.

  15. There’s the Moholy-Nagy designed London Underground poster as well – POWER – NERVE CENTRE OF THE UNDERGROUND!

    1) Nerves/tentacles/networks!
    2) Electricity!
    3) Subterranean!
    4) Futurism!

  16. Alex: Excellent.

    Teresa and Nancy: I’m hip to Tim Powers and Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, but will have to check out Smoke Ghosts and The Big Time. Thanks!

  17. Cosma: Absolutely, Tarbell deserves to be one of the Real Trustbusters, but for my conceit of trying to match the names of the movie ghostbusters to historical figures.

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