I hesitate to call anything Lovecraftian anymore. The descriptor has been so thoroughly co-opted by the lowest form of critic, who in turn have applied it to such a wide range of media that it is just as likely to connote the most degenerate forms of Japanese pornography as anything to do with the man’s most favorite themes and motifs. Nonetheless, if any work truly deserves the Lovecraftian tag, it is Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker.
This is not to imply that Flicker deals with the “mythos” in any concrete way. (In fact, the only direct reference to H. P. Lovecraft is something of a joke: “‘There was this zonked-out Arab–Al Hazen… something or other. H. P. Lovecraft has the lowdown on him’” (57)). But rather that Roszak is playing in a decidedly Lovecraftian register.
But I digress. Flicker follows film historian Jonathan “Jonny” Gates as he stumbles dickfirst into a centuries long conspiracy that implicates Simon Magus, an extant Cathar sect, Nazis, the Hollywood elite, and the (fictional?) director Max Castle. Gates is guided in his quest by a memorable cast of characters including Clarissa “Clare” Swann, the alluring proprietor of an underground movie theater; Zip Lipsky, one of Castle’s only surviving crew members; Faustus Carstad, a francophobic history professor with a not-so figurative hard-on for medieval warfare; and Simon Dunkle, a promising young director with ties to both the midnight movie scene and Castle’s mysterious upbringing; among others.
To summarize more of the plot would be to do the novel a grave disservice. Suffice it to say that Roszak doesn’t fuck around. Within twenty pages, Gates is performing cunnilingus on Clare while she holds forth on the various filmic projects of Soviet director/screenwriter/actor Vsevolod Pudovkin. And a few chapters later, a stoned projectionist regales Gates with the real story behind his trade.
Imagine, if you will, that you have checked out a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s opus Sculpting in Time from your local library. You take it home with you. You settle in to read. But as you do, you find that whoever checked it out before you has pasted select images from various skin mags into the book at twenty page intervals. This is, roughly, the experience of reading Flicker. Depending on your temperament, this is either an endorsement or an indictment. Though given that you’re reading APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, I believe it’s probably safe to assume the former.
For those familiar with Roszak’s more academic work (1969’s The Making of a Counter Culture and/or 1986’s The Cult of Information, for instance), Flicker may seem discordantly horny. But, of course, this is an oversimplification, a misapprehension. By aligning the act of scholarship with sex, Roszak has–correctly–identified academic obsession as something deeply libidinal. When confronted by the clean, clinical (read: sterile, sexless) world of Neurosemiology somewhere around the midpoint of the novel, Gates is more than put off.
Three paragraphs into any piece of Neurosemiological literature and you were out of sight of anything that sounded remotely like a discussion of the movies. The stars were gone, the stories were gone. But there might be a lot of stuff on frogs. Or pigeons. Or monkeys. And how they saw things. Sometimes human beings were mentioned. (252)
And herein lies the central tension of the piece: of what use is art? Later, this conflict is recast in terms of light/dark, life/death, Cathar/Catholic, and so on, but the central tension remains the same.
It seems as though many scholars, both those imagined by Roszak and those actually employed in universities the world over, have taken Adorno’s pronouncement that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” to heart, feeling, in their shame, that it is necessary to obscure that which is beautiful beneath page after page of dry, turgid prose. Indeed, this process continues to the present, when film and literature are treated more as adjuncts to sociology than as aesthetic fields unto themselves. Insidious.
Critics put off by the fact that precious little is actually revealed regarding the conspiracy that propels the novel have utterly missed the point. That the reader is continuously given glimpses of, to borrow from MGM, the man behind the curtain, without ever seeing him in full is essential to understanding Roszak’s thesis; art, religion, and, yes, even conspiracy theories, all exist on the same metaphysical plane. They are how we, as a species, make sense of the mystery of our existence. In short, Roszak could not have fully explicated his goals without also undermining them. And it is thus that Flicker qualifies as a work of truly Lovecraftian fiction. It is a work dealing with the ineffable, with the truly indescribable. And it does so without ever once resorting to Howard’s now tired lexicon of “squamous tentacles” and “eldritch abominations.”