Thursday, 6 August 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

"People struggled, then burst into flames where they stood. The fiery air was blown down toward the ground and it was often the refugees' feet that began burning first: the men's puttees and the women's trousers caught fire and ignited the rest of their clothing." 

"Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense, incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire. Wherever there was a canal, people hurled themselves into the water... hundreds of them were later found dead; not drowned, but asphyxiated by the burning air and smoke. In other places, the water got so hot that the luckless bathers were simply boiled alive."

Today, August 6th 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Around 60,000 people were killed almost instantaneously. Tens of thousands more suffered radiation-related illnesses in the weeks and years that followed. But the picture above, and the quotes from a journalist eyewitness who survived it, were not from that terrible bombing. They were from five months earlier, when over 100,000 civilians (the nature of the tragedy is such that exact numbers are impossible to determine) were incinerated in Tokyo by the largest fire bombing raid of the war. The sad truth is that - as terrible as the morning of August 6th was - it was not the most terrible thing that happened to Japan that year. From March to August 1945 the US made several fire bombing raids a week against Japan, the larger ones, like on Kobe, dramatised in the painful and moving film Grave of the Fireflies, killing tens of thousands of people at a time. As Dan Carlin put it in his excellent Hardcore History podcast 'Logical Insanity', perhaps the more interesting question about the atomic bomb is not 'did we need to use it?', but 'whoever thought that deliberately massacreing cities full of civilians was a valid tactical choice anyway?' Because by 1945, make no mistake, that was where the Allies had got to. There was a fiction about military targets, an incremental slip from 'area bombing' to 'morale bombing', but by 1945 the firebombing raids were quite simply and deliberately designed to create firestorms that erased enemy civilian populations. Britain may have sold the fire raid on Dresden to the public as "revenge for Coventry", but that is to blur the distinction in scale and intent from the admittedly terrible attack by the Luftwaffe, which killed 570 people, and the deliberate incineration of 25,000 German civilians by the RAF. USAF General Curtis LeMay freely admitted after the war that, had it taken a different course, it would be people like him and Arthur 'Bomber' Harris in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with Crimes Against Humanity. This was a deliberate policy of massacre, little distinguishable in its effect, possibly even in its intent, from the mass shooting of Polish and Russian civilians by SS Einsatzgruppen, and the fact that "they started it", "they did bad things first" and "this was a  just war against a terrible enemy" do not detract from that.

What lessons do we draw from history? The lesson that the world seems to want to draw from the atomic bombs is that they were unique in their terribleness, and that as a consequence they must never be used again. Well, to be sure that is a good, possibly even world-saving result, it may have helped us survive the Cold War, and the Japanese have certainly capitalised on their sense of national nuclear victimhood to become loud and enthusiastic proponents of nuclear disarmament (by the by, though, they continue to muddy the water by not accepting any responsibility for the terrible crimes Japan inflicted, especially in China). I visited the Peace Museum at Hiroshima 25 years ago and it is a powerful, overwhelming place, and the stories of the bomb's effects and aftereffects chilling and depressing. Afterwards I talked to someone whose mother had survived the bombing. She still carried shards of window glass driven into her skull by the force of the blast, buried too deep to be surgically removed. But... it's not the whole story. You don't need to use nuclear weapons to commit terrible atrocities. As the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero and the Rwandan massacres have shown us, if the will is there, all you need are farm implements or machetes. A Museum of the Firebombing could tell equally terrible stories, like those I quote above, were it to actually exist. But it doesn't. There is no International Firebombing Day every March 9th. And in some ways the US has collaborated in this by trying to portray the atomic bombings as one-off, terrible events, designed to end a war. And do you know what - they probably did. They may not have shocked Japan into surrender, but they were at least a convenient excuse for the Japanse goverment to decide to capitulate - an honourable way out - against such weapons, who could be expected to fight? They probably saved Japan more pain, more firebombings, and hence perhaps the deaths of millions more. But, and it's a big But - that was only because the US was quite happy to go on incinerating Japanese people at the time, and as far as Curtis LeMay was concerned, the more the better. In some ways the atomic bomb debate is a distraction, because it focuses on the means, and not the ends and intentions.

So as we commemorate the atomic bombings, amidst all of the pious declarations about their terribleness and "never again", let us pause to spare a thought for the wider context, the step-by-step loss of our collective humanity that led us into a place where dropping the atomic bombs was actually preferable to what we were already doing on a daily basis. That slow slide into inhumanity to me is the real lesson from Hiroshima, and not an arbitrary dividing line drawn across some types of weapon that make some "acceptable" and others not.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Selling England by the pound

In yesterday's post I mentioned the story about King John's alleged diplomatic mission to the Emir of Morocco. But did King John once try to subordinate England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco? Did he even agree to convert? To place England under Sharia Law?

This is one of those 'hardy perennials' that continually comes up when King John is discussed. Those who hate John use it as another stick to beat him with, an example of how far he was prepared to go. Muslims like to cite it as an example of John's open and tolerant nature (yeah, right) - his brother Richard, after all, nearly married off his sister to Saladin's brother - while swivel-eyed EDL types view it as a terrible portent of what could happen today. But is there any truth to it at all?

There is a single source for the story, which is worth examining in some detail. It is allocated to the year 1213 in Matthew Paris' continuation of the great chronicle (Chronica Majora) of St Albans Abbey. One of the monks at the abbey, Paris took over as custodian of the chronicle from his predecessor Roger of Wendover in 1236, and so most of the chronicle up to that point was Roger's work (in which the story does not appear), but Matthew did interpolate some events, like the one we are discussing, into his own copy. He tells us why in his own account. But he begins with explaining that John - pressed militarily by the French and diplomatically by the Pope, excommunicated, and with his domestic support draining away, looked further afield for allies;

"He [King John] therefore immediately sent secret messengers, namely, the knights Thomas Hardington and Ralph fitzNicholas, and Robert of London, a clerk, to the emir Murmelius the great king of Africa, Morocco and Spain, who was commonly called Miramumelimis, to tell him that he would voluntarily give up himself and his kingdom, and if he pleased he would hold it as tributary from him, and that he would also abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of Mahomet."

The story is quite a long one, but briefly, the leader of the emissaries, Thomas, gives a glowing portrait of England, which "abounds with all kind of wealth, in agriculture, pastures and woods, and from it also every kind of metal may be obtained," etc etc. The Emir wonders why anyone would give up such a land, sends the knights away, and then talks to the priest, Robert "who was a small, dark man, with one arm longer than the other, and having fingers all misshapen, namely two sticking together, and with a face like a Jew." He commands Robert to tell him on his word as a Christian what kind of man King John is. Robert reluctantly admits that John is "a tyrant rather than a king, a destroyer rather than a governor, an oppressor of his own people and a friend to strangers, a lion to his own subjects, a lamb to foreigners and those who fought against him," and so on. The messengers are sent away, but the Emir rewards Robert's truthfulness with gifts of gold and silver.

Paris then explains that Robert had been given charge of the abbey of St Albans during the Papal interdict, and then, "without consulting, yea even against the will of the temporary abbott John de Cell, a most religious and learned man, seized on everything which was then in the church and the convent at pleasure, and appropriated it to his own use," and that he "cheated the abbey of more than a thousand marks." He did get on with some of the monks, however, including "Laurence, a clerk, and Master Walter, a monk and painter, and them he kept as his familiars, to whom he showed his jewels and other secret presents fromt he Emir, and related what had passed between them, in the hearing of Matthew, who has written and related these events."
[All quotations from Matthew Paris - Chronica Majora]

So basically the story comes directly from Paris himself, who says he heard it directly from one of the emissaries, Robert of London. This apparently cast iron attribution has meant that the story - however strange it may sound on first hearing - has nevertheless persisted. And there are other details which are a kind of corroboration, too, including the identity of the emissaries. 'Thomas Hardington' is actually Sir Thomas of Erdington, a knight from Staffordshire whose talent for diplomacy and administration had seen him rise first to the post of Sherrif of Staffordshire and Shropshire, and then from about 1206 as a part of John's court and household, and ultimately a travelling royal diplomat. Thomas was given charge of being John's emissary to the Papal court in Rome, to where he travelled on at least half a dozen occasions. He negotiated the details of John's re-submission to Papal authority, and in 1215 pleaded John's case at the Lateran Council. He is also known to have conducted diplomatic missions to Prince Llewellyn of Powys, and to have been responsible for seizing the Shropshire castles and lands of William de Braose after the latter's fall from grace. He is a key John henchman, and is also cited more than once as being especially eloquent - let's face it, being Royal envoy to the snakepit of the Papal court was not a job for an amateur. He is exactly the kind of person who one would expect to find leading an English diplomatic mission to a foreign potentate.

These diplomatic missions also often consisted of trios, as Paris described - two knights, or a knight and a commoner (usually one with special knowledge or connections, or perhaps facility with languages, like 'Peter the Saracen'), and the third would always be a priest. The same pattern is repeated in Paris' story. Ralph fitzNicholas was another royal household knight (and years later Sheriff of Nottingham, oddly enough), while Robert of London, the cleric described as being on this mission, was another John henchman and very much the kind of man that John got to do his dirty work. He was given the job, after the death of Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1205, of going to Canterbury and seizing the Archbishop's jewelled clothes and regalia for the King. And just as Paris describes, when Pope Innocent placed England under interdict and John decided to seize the wealth of the churches and monasteries for himself, Robert of London got the job of taking over St Albans Abbey and - crucially - its revenues for the King - one of the richest and most powerful abbeys in the country. He took over in March 1208, but made himself such a nuisance with his exactions that within a few months the Abbot had paid the vast sum of 1,100 marks to be rid of him.

So the story seems to be checking out. The key participants all existed, including 'Miramurmelinus', who seems to have been the Almohad Emir Mohammed al-Nasir al-Muminin (the latter is actually a title meaning "Commander of the Faithful', and equivalent to 'Caliph' - the present King of Morocco still claims this honour). But when did it take place? Paris says it was in 1213, but in the Chronica he later contradicts himself by saying that it occurred before al-Nasir's climactic battle with the Spanish kingdoms at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. This seems reasonable - an alliance with al-Nasir before the battle would be with a strong ruler, not the beaten force he was in 1213. It's possible that Paris just made an error of recollection and put the story in the wrong year. Nevill Barbour examined the story in 1960 and proposed that a reference in the 14th century Arab history Rawd al Qirtas to an emissary from the "King of Bayonne" to al-Nasir in early 1212 could well be the same event, as Bayonne was the capital of the English lands in southern France, and John might have been seeking allies against the King of Castille, who was threatening English possessions in France.

But here we start to run into trouble. Ralph fitzNicholas is mainly attested under Henry III, and lived until 1266, but his date of birth is not known. He was seemingly old enough to be made Sheriff of Nottingham in 1217 when Philip Mark was removed, but must have been quite young then. Thomas of Erdington was dead by 1217, King John in 1216 and Mohammed al-Nasir in 1215. Abbot John de Cell died in 1214. Robert of London is not heard of again after about 1210 (although he may have gone into retirement). But if we accept 1214 as the latest date for the story, we then have to ask: when did Matthew Paris hear it from Robert of London? We know that Robert of London was in charge of St Albans Abbey briefly in 1208, and according to Paris this was when he overheard the story, but also by his own account Matthew Paris did not take holy orders until 1217. It is believed he was born in about 1200, and entirely possible that he could be a few years older than that, and it's quite likely he may have been brought up at the monastery before he became a monk, so he could well have been a young boy, perhaps serving Robert of London and his cronies with food or wine and overhearing their conversation. But if so, that would place the supposed trip prior to 1208, when the interdict was still in its early days, and rule out Barbour's carefully reasoned cross-correlation - the only independent verification we possibly might have of the story.

It's difficult to reconcile these various dates, and this leaves us with several possibilities; firstly, that Paris is misremembering - he was writing later than 1236, so he may have misremembered names, dates and places of events that happened at least 25 years earlier - we know he already contradicts himself once over the date in the Chronica itself. Secondly, Robert of London might just have been making stuff up - spinning a tall tale by the fireside to overawe a bunch of monks who didn't get out much, and showing off a few silver baubles he had picked up from who knows where as 'evidence'. Thirdly, Paris might have invented the whole tale as a satire on John's relationship with the Pope. Paris did after all hate King John, remembering perhaps the disruption of the interdict and Robert of London's tenure of St Albans. It was Paris who also wrote, lest we forget; "Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." Confronted with the basic implausibility of some elements of the tale - John's willingness to convert to Islam, for example - plenty of historians have decided that it's just another of Paris' malicious digs and dismissed it as fiction.

So where does that leave us? Unfortunately none the wiser. The story cannot be true in its entirety because some elements of it contradict other elements, and this means we have to look askance at its inherent implausibility. I offered three possibilities above, but I actually like to believe that it's a combination of all three; Robert of London was - at the very least - exaggerating, Paris was misremembering, and then probably added a few jibes of his own out of his and his fellow monks' abiding dislike of John's memory. In answer to the question at the start of this post - did King John once try to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco - the answer is: "almost certainly not", but the idea of a diplomatic mission to the Emir of Andalus is not at all implausible, and Erdington, fitzNicholas and Robert of London are certainly the kind of people that the King would have chosen to undertake it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Bad Kings! Bad Composition!

"Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!"
Shakespeare, King John

For my birthday last week I took a bit of a detour into history. Firstly I visited the excellent Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library, which not only gathers together the four existing copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, but a lot of original documents from the period. For an occasional medievalist like myself it was a great privilege to see the original copies of Matthew Paris, Ralph of Coggeshall etc laid out in front of me. Matthew Paris particularly, since he has done more to trash King John's posthumous reputation than almost anyone else.

And then later on that day it was on to the Globe theatre on the South Bank, to see a performance of King John by William Shakespeare. This is a rare performance - the first time that it has ever been staged at the Globe, and the only play of Shakespeare's not to have been peformed there yet - a testament to how unpopular it is these days. It is only the second time I  have ever see the play, and this time around it had a very different impact on me from the first time that I saw it. What had struck me the first time were the strong female characters - Eleanor of Aquitaine and Constance of Brittany, who drive much of the action, each trying to secure the throne of England for their own son - John in Eleanor's case, Arthur in Constance's. But what struck me more the second time is how hard Shakespeare works to present John as a - relatively - sympathetic character. He is mercurial, for sure, but that was played up the first time as weak and vacillating, while this performance showed that he is every bit the equal of Philip of France, and the true villain of the piece is the Pope, manipulating events via the pompous and machiavellian figure of Pandulf, the Papal legate. This is a message to gladden any Tudor heart of course - especially when John declares:

"that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy;
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold."

This idea of John as proto-Henry VIII, standing up for England against the Pope as supreme head of the church is utterly unhistorical of course, but it made a good story and coloured John's reputation among Tudors, Georgians and Victorians alike. As did of course John's murder of Arthur, and here Shakespeare works hard to exculpate him. Although John gives the order - for what are understood as pragmatic reasons, and only with a nod and a wink - he later repents, and blames the jailer for having murdered Arthur. But it turns out that the jailer couldn't bear to do it anyway, and so Arthur was left alive. Hurrah! But - alas! - he dies anyway, from a fall, while trying to escape (reminiscent of the old Nazi canard about executed prisoners who were "shot trying to escape"). So poor old John gets the blame anyway, and people desert him. Shakespeare - in a weirdly anticlimactic ending - then has John sign Magna Carta and get poisoned by a monk of Swineshead Abbey - something I discussed last year - off-stage, before he staggers back on to die. It's only one of the strangely undramatic things about the play, whose ending feels quite rushed, as if by a man desperately scratching at the parchment by candlelight prior to the first performance the next day. 

Shakespeare of course was a playwright not a historian, and for his histories more or less relied on Holinshead's 1587 Chronicle of England. Holinshead had pieced together history from other sources, including Mathew Paris, but also including Geoffrey of Monmouth's largely fictional History of the Kings of Britain, which even his contamporaries like Gerald of Wales knew was made up. It's from Geoffrey via Holinshead that Shakespeare got imaginary figures like King Lear and Cymbeline. But Holinshead can't explain why Shakespeare takes some other liberties with history, like making the Earl of Salisbury (actually John's bastard half brother) and William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, as rebels against John's authority when in fact they were among his staunchest loyalists. Perhaps there was confusion over William Marshall jr being one of the rebellious barons, or possibly Shakespeare didn't want to create more characters (such as the rebellious barons' leader Robert fitzWalter) to avoid confusing the narrative further, or because he didn't have enough actors available. Presumably also for dramatic effect Shakespeare also inserts a Falstaffian everyman figure in the bastard 'Peter Falconbridge', allegedly a sire of Richard I, and in the play allowed to be a vehicle for his 'lion-like' virtues, finally taking revenge for Richard's death on the Duke of Austria who had imprisoned him. Richard did have a bastard son, called Peter, who is believed to have avenged his father's death, but against Aimery of Limoges (whose castle Richard had died besieging), and not Leopold of Austria, who had actually pre-deceased Richard by five years!

Bad history then, and actually not a great play either - it's easy to see why it's not often performed. But talking of bad history, on the way out from the Magna Carta exhibition I'd spotted a copy of the old Ladybird history of King John, which I remembered reading as a child;

Just look at that cover. Is that an evil scowl or what? King John was blond-haired, by the way, but hey, artistic license and all that. I loved Ladybird books and so couldn't resist buying it and re-reading it, but I must admit I was quite taken aback by what I read. Here's the first page, just as a sample;

The writer seems to be channelling '1066 And All That' rather than any genuine work of history. As a historical work, even one intended for children, the book is, frankly, a travesty. On every page John is - without evidence - portrayed as utterly evil and worthless, which then explains and informs every single action he takes. Everyone hates him, with no exceptions. Of course John did some unpleasant things, but it's hard to recognise any kind of human being in the charicature being presented. I was reminded of Father Dougal's line in Father Ted - "Who would he be like anyway? Hitler or one of them mad fellers."

The book was written by Lawrence Du Garde Peach, who wrote a lot of the Ladybird 'Adventures from History' series. Like Shakespeare, he was a dramatist rather than a historian, and it certainly shows. In his Ladybird book on Pirates, for example, he repeats the story of Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsay, allegedly particularly bloodthirsty pirates in 18th century Canada, but in fact almost certainly completely fictional and made up some time around 1900. With King John he just lets himself go, unleashing all of the stereotypical prejudices he presumably learned at school in the early 20th century; exactly the kind of view which 1066 And All That satirises. He uncritically repeats Matthew Paris' bizarre story about trying to sell England to the Almohad Caliph of Andalucia and Morocco, something which is - at best - a garbled version of events, and most likely either a miusunderstanding or an anti-John joke on Paris' part.

To paraphrase Shakespeare himself - 'Bad history! bad kings! bad composition!' Shakespeare's bad history at least has the excuse that he was writing 400 years ago, to an audience that had probably barely heard of John, but there's no real excuse for Peach's rather boo-hiss pantomime version of history. He was writing in 1969, eight years after W.L. Warren's pioneering re-evaluation of John had been published, which has coloured much of the far more nuanced historiography of John since then. But for some reason, even today as we near the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it seems to be that old fashioned Bad King John view that we want to remember. Mad composition indeed.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Postcards from Airstrip One

"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four 

It's a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks are striking thirteen. This started as a Twitter conversation, but my meanderings this morning have felt more like a blog post, so here it is.

It began with a review of the 1954 cartoon version of Animal Farm by History Scientist, in which he laments the liberties taken with the text, in particular turning the ending from Orwell's satirical observation that the animals can no longer tell pig from human, to one where the enraged animals overthrow their new oppressors. I remarked that - talking of Orwell travesties - I had heard of a version of 1984 with a happy ending. However, it proved to be very hard to find it. But then it turned out, rather spookily, that both of these things had a common cause. More on that later.

So - Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written in 1948, published in 1949. Orwell himself died in 1950, and the rights to his works passed to his widow, Sonia. Film adaptations there have been three; a 1954 TV movie by the BBC, adapted by Nigel 'Quatermass' Kneale and starring Peter Cushing - I haven't seen that, but I can imagine how bleak it was! Then there was a 1956 Hollywood version, with Edmond O'Brien and Michael Redgrave, and finally the celebrated 1984 version with John Hurt and Ri-chardd Bur-tonnnn. I remembered the 1984 version - it defnitely doesn't have a happy ending, so it seemed clear which one must have done, and indeed I remembered reading just that in a book on cinema some time during the late 1980s. Indeed, the 1956 film had reportedly been suppressed at the request of Sonia Orwell, and had become almost impossible to find until very recently. So imagine my surprise to find it on YouTube. You can watch the ending, like I did, and like me can be puzzled that it appears to be entirely conventional - Winston meets Julia at the Chestnut Tree cafe and then declares his love for Big Brother. The end - followed by a totally unnecessary moralising voiceover just in case you were too stupid to grasp the point.
So what about this fabled happy ending then? Was it just a rumour? Chinese whispers about a rejected early draft? The absence of the film from circulation generating urban legends? And besides, what could a happy ending of 1984 possibly even look like? I started digging on the web to see what I could find. 
The first thing I found was a page from New Scientist in, appropriately, 1984, talking about the upcoming movie version and the travesty of the 1956 happy ending. So I wasn't imagining it then. Someone on a forum had a similar memory - they had actually even seen it, but were beginning to feel like they'd made it up. I began to feel a bit like Winston Smith as he burned the old newspaper clipping, having changed the electronic record. Had the happy ending been 'disappeared', airbrushed from history as a momentary embarrassment? Finally I found a New York Times review of a book on the Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders, and that not only confirmed the story, but also - amazingly - laid the blame at the feet of the CIA, who had also been responsible for tweaking the version of Animal Farm that we started with. 
If this seems a bit far-fetched, it's wise to remember that the 1950s were a time of full-scale Red Panic - Reds Under the Bed, Duck And Cover and the Missile Gap - of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Commission. Of a time when, in order to try and protect the American way of life, elements of the establishment had almost ended up destroying it. Morally ambiguous fables by a disillusioned British socialist were unlikely to find a warm reception in 50s Hollywood. So the CIA had bought the rights and tried to twist them into Cold War propaganda pieces, where the baddies are overthrown at the end by the indomitable spirit of Liberty. In addition to the different ending to Animal Farm, it appears that there must have been two endings shot for the 1956 movie version of 1984; a conventional one - the one that appears on YouTube today - but also a CIA approved one, where Winston overthrows his brainwashing, shouts "Down With Big Brother!", and although he is gunned down, the voices of thousands more begin to take up the chant. Possibly one version was for US release, the other for global distribution - a common enough tactic both then and now.

But all of this still begs the question as to where the version of the 1956 movie with that ending is. Presumably it is out there somewhere. While the version true to the book is clearly the better one dramatically, my own feeling is that it's actually even more important that the "happy ending" version is found and put out there too, if only to demonstrate the supreme irony of trying to take a work about the editing of history to serve the state, and editing it to serve the state. I would dearly love to think that we can ultimately reclaim the past from the swivel-eyed Red-baiters, and perhaps remind those today who want to trample on our freedoms in the name of 'security' that it didn't work the previous time either.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Have you seen the Yellow Sign?

I'm a devotee of early 20th century Weird Fiction. I got there via H.P. Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu, but that was just the beginning, and over the years I've expanded my horizons to the rest of the 'Lovecraft circle' - August Derleth, Robert E Howard, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Bellknap Long, and from there into their antecedents and successors. There are threads that twist in and out of this genre, including a particularly downbeat and British form of paganism, ghost stories and spooky happenings, via Welsh journalist and mystic Arthur Machen (a big influence on Lovecraft) and Liverpudlian horror writer Ramsey Campbell (who in turn started his career writing Lovecraft pastisches), as well as the kind of American Gothic that began with Edgar Allan Poe and ran through Lovecraft to Stephen King, and even the fantastic faerie imaginings of Lord Dunsany, a prototype for everyone from Fritz Lieber to J. R.R. Tolkien. But one of the currents is a peculiar thread of so-called 'yellow' literature from the 'Naughty Nineties' (i.e. 1890s), a queasy blend of fin de siecle decadence; absinthe, ladies of the night, madness, aesthetes, ennui and the limits of human experience. The ur-novel of yellow literature is A Rebours ('Against the Grain') by Joris Karl Huysman, a kind of manual for decadent aristos of the end of the 19th century, while its most famous product is The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde - Gray goes off the rails after having read a 'yellow book' which Wilde later admitted was, as everyone had suspected, A Rebours. But its apotheosis came in a handful of short stories written by Robert W Chambers, an unsuccessful American artist living in Paris and himself a devotee of another 'yellow' author, Ambrose Bierce. In 1895 he took Oscar Wilde's notion of a forbidden book that causes madness to its logical conclusion, via the invented play The King In Yellow, a forerunner of Lovecraft's Necronomicon. The play is only ever sketchily described, and seems to take place in a weird, possibly extraterrestrial city called Carcosa, lit by 'black stars', where bickering nobility attend a Venetian-style masked ball (it's been suggested that Wilde's play Salome provided a lot of the decadent 'window dressing'), and The Stranger in White pronounces a terrible Revelation of some kind, possibly to do with the mysterious King in Yellow, and reveals the Yellow Sign.

If any of these terms sound familiar to you, it may be because the strange unearthly mythology of Chambers has recently found its way into HBO's offbeat police procedural series True Detective. Detectives Hart and Cohle are on the face of it trying to atone for shooting a suspect 20 years earlier who took with him to the grave the identity of a serial killer with a line in bizarre Blair Witch meets voodoo/santeria-style window dressing. But as the series progresses, little hints and mentions of the Yellow King, Carcosa, the Black Stars and so on reveal that there's something bigger and darker out there, via a secretive church that has gone off the rails and descended not into common or garden Satanism but something altogether stranger.

I watched the final episode last night, and there was a resolution of sorts, although as in Chambers' stories, Carcosa and the Yellow King remained tantalisingly just out of reach. The closest we got was the confrontation in the overgrown remains of what looked like an 18th century fort filled with strange wooden constructions and mummified bodies which hillbilly serial killer Errol Childress (himself very much in the tradition of Lovecraft's twisted New England backwoods sorcerors like Joseph Curwen) said was 'Carcosa', or perhaps at least its reflection on Earth. And Cohle, closer to the dark heart of the mystery than his partner, began hearing voices and finally looked up to see a giant spiralling vortex of nothingness. As with Chambers' stories, we are left to ourselves to decide whether these things have an objective existence, or whether they exist only in the mind of the beholder. Nevertheless, I believe that this was the Yellow King, and the spiral tattoos and brands on the backs of the various cultists and victims were the programme's version of the (never described in the books) Yellow Sign, in effect a crude depiction of their extradimensional deity. Winningly, as Childress stabbed Cohle, he shouted at him to "take off your mask!", a line from the climactic scene in the play The King In Yellow (the Stranger subsequently reveals that, in fact, he is not wearing a mask).

Many commentators on the series have mentioned the series' nihilism. That might be a philosophical step too far for godfearing middle America, but it's very much in keeping with the whole Lovecraft circle and its writings. However, such ideas have lost their power to shock us as much as they perhaps did in the 1920s; a time when the carnage of the First World War had led people to question everything; religion, politics, society itself. Out of it came new philosophies, new ways of looking. Indeed, one Lovecraft scholar whom I once heard lecture said that, in a way, post-modernism has been the 'cure' for Lovecraft's idea of 'cosmic horror'. We are no longer shocked as people were in the 1920s by some of the concepts. Tell people today that the universe is a bleak and indifferent place, that that there is no God, no meaning, no objective reality, only shifting perceptions, and they will shrug and say "yes, but so what?" I wonder if this is why Lovecraft, and more particularly his arch-daemon Cthulhu, has become almost a default secular religion of the internet. Cthulhu has become ubiquitous - you can buy t-shirts and cuddly toys. We knowingly wink and say to ourselves; "yes, we know it's all just make believe, but then, isn't everything?"

Lovecraft, and perhaps Chambers before him, fretted that if we looked too hard at reality and saw it for what it was, we would; "either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age". That was what Chambers and Lovecraft imagined that the true meaning of those terrible books, the King In Yellow and the Necronomicon, were - that they brushed aside our complacent veil of cosy asusmptions and laid The Truth bare for us, truth which they thought could drive us to the very brink of madness; that we are cast adrift in a godless, purposeless universe. But it didn't. The truth is, we have all seen the Yellow Sign, and - for the most part - survived the experience. 

Happy New Year.