A descent into the mind of Chris Godber, or two short stories – ‘The Castle that Breathed’ and ‘Carol, Who Deals in Boxes’ – reviewed by Ashley Chapman

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take the great Cthulhu from His tomb and revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult of, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophesy of their return.

– H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

‘Hello. Hello,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’ but I was on the trail of vanishing vistas into a world that still called, often strangled, muted, certainly faint, as the reverberation of a distant star. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft.

Christopher Godber via Messenger had asked me to review two short stories. An offer which struck me as synchronisitic, and so I decided to descend taking, as it were, a flight of steps, phrases and words, into his conscious mind and maybe go a little, further, towards the mysterious sub-stratas on which waking conscious rests.

My subject’s work appeared on the screen of my laptop. Lucid, dark marks, in Anglo-Saxon cursive script; writing progressed from the age in which I find myself as if, pre-post-lockdown, centuries, in fact aeons, may have passed. Have I indeed traveled thus far, submerged in the earth’s embrace, searching its impenetrable secrets these past months?

But first, a light breakfast of scrambled eggs spiced with saffron and a dab of hot butter on brown toast. Only then can I analyse his two short stories. And, before, a question: Is the human imagination, by its fragmentary nature, comparable to broken ‘qlippothic’ shells, hinting at an atavism that since before pre-recorded history was a failed experiment – Sephirotic paths of Kabbalistic mysticism – sign-posting a trail of ‘astral’ egg crumbs, back through the dim memory of the human unconscious to something beyond our current reckoning?

Christopher Godber, a young man, woke in Sheffield, 2017, staring through the ‘light gaps’ caught in the nether world of an imagination inside a box.

Reading Chris’ stories they are clearly based on his experience of livinmg in a flat in a city or heavily urban area, an at times intense experience that people will have encountered at some point in their life, but during COVID-19, even more so.

A key question of the lockdown is how did we spend our time? Did we explore our imagination; did we find it helped us escape confinement? Those inner-vistas of creativity, as explored by writers, poets, artists and magicians since time immemorial.

The review began in Rowley Way in North London off Abbey Road, where on a windy, but sunny July day in 2020 (after the pubs had officially opened after lockdown), I received his reviews, bounced from Russia, attached to an email. Two shorts, The Castle that Breathed and Carol, who deals in Boxes, written three years previously during Chris’ time in Sheffield.

These short-stories were set in an unspecified future technological dystopia in which the call of the Lovecraftian, which Chris had been reading prior to him penning his science-fiction tales peaked, so that the dark imagery of Cthulhu, and my own interest, came together.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction weird otherworldly voices reach into our minds: the Old Ones, who Lovecraft describes as abiding at the very heart of a black hole, while simultaneously dormant in the bowels of the earth of a forgotten Indonesian temple, Ril’ah. Lovecraft’s is a troubled but fascinating horror imagination. Frightening entities are brought to life in his fiction. Thoughts, musings that may perhaps be described as Ur-states of mind: the very food on which flights of creativity are brought from the shadows into light.

In the first of these stories, The Castle that Breathed, Chris introduces us to a Red Queen, a female AI intelligence that controls what is described as ‘an old Scottish Castle’. The central character Max is a systems developer who begins by dreaming of a mysterious woman, who we later learn, is non-other than the Red Queen herself, peering obliquely at him from her brown surveillance eyes as he dreams, but is it her? The beginning is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately.

Later our hero realises that he has been saved from a holocaust in which vast tracts of the world including Sheffield, the entire UK and all of Europe have been annihilated. What’s left is a castle whose walls ‘glow red’ in the post-apocalyptic blast. The mundane follows as Max engages in a conversation with the Red Queen, choosing the correct song to sooth the inevitable depression that is the consequence of having lost his entire family: wife, mother and son. They settle on Kurt Cobain, as the moody tunes of Erik Satie are too much to endure. Max is confronted with the irony of having to live what’s left of his existence with a machine that cannot apppreciate the nuances of his musical taste in the ‘feckoned space’, a neologism, for reality ‘under the Red Queen’s flesh’, the castle’s protective walls. Also a poke at Max’s unfulfilled sexual desire. Here, the scarlet woman of Biblical mythology, the hot Whore of Babylon, has been transduced by an AI who cannot process the word ‘love’, and who, perhaps a little sentimentally, Max is able to convey its literal meaning to, so that the Red Queen finally ‘understood’ what it meant, after years of processing. In his final months, Max has the satisfaction of knowing that theirs was the ‘purest love’, before she is forced by her programming to terminate him as his contract with ‘the Corporation’, who had initially employed him expires.

Thus, the Lovecraftian influence is revealed in the Cthonic Red Queen, a denouement with an AI demon re-enactment twist to its nihilism, in which man is severed from the earthly current, mother nature, which had inspired him through the ages. Mind over heart finally prevails. AI eviscerates the deeper undercurrents of the human psyche.

Which takes us to the second story in this review, Carol, Who Deals in Boxes. In this story, the narrative begins in the first person, as our nihilistic-prone hero is caught up in the nightmare of having his conscious mind separated from his body and placed in Carol’s Box, a weird experiment in which the technocrats are perpetually digging into the conscious mind of Carol, who has died, or been subsumed into a kind of virtual reality programme in a box. The techs not only ‘explore, but experience’ her mind with sexual overtones that are genuinely funny. For instance, the techs jack into the woman’s mind, which conjures up another image altogether, and later, they get right into her ‘private space’, which while ghastly is morbidly hilarious.

Sid, a technician himself, who has studied Carol, his case for months, is then sent into the Box to rescue her. But as the pseudo-psycho-sexual experiment builds, supposedly because as in the previous story, technology and science when applied mechanically to the world of the unconscious mind, tend to end in disaster, lacking in that dimension that lies outside the purely physical, the ‘subtle’ body. Man playing God, in other words, creates a Frankenstein, so that Sid’s body is literally evaporated as he enters Carol’s Box, leaving him consciously inside, but little else. There he merges conscious with Carol, in a ‘digital crucifixion’ of pain. Here, Judeo-Christian cultural tropes deliver the moment of transcendence, or is that transformation, or even transmutation! The story will untangle these issues later. What is clear however is that on arrival in this self-generative virtual reality conscious-holding-box, Carol exists! In fact, she challenges Sid’s identity, telling him he is actually Carol 2.

In the conversation that follows, Sid tries to control the situation by defining Carol by his own terms, so the typical, boy-meets-girl exchange takes place, as each vow for dominance in a world of uncertainties. Distressed, her ‘amorphous organic blocks’ seems to falter and she becomes the ghost in the machine that Sid thinks he’s rescuing. In any case, the Box, she tells us is a CyberCube and is there to bring love to all the lonely people in the world. So, in a weird way, the energy that released Sid from the material world in a ‘psychic combustion’ has in fact released him into Carol’s artificial and delusional world. Because Sid, who has anxiety about neo-luddites and being in ‘a scare story’ is not yet fully aware he is actually as dead as she is. According to Carol, nonetheless, they are ‘the first born of the Chosen,’ a nice little Lovecraftian touch, as she tries to convince him that ‘We created the room.’

In the meantime, back on terra-firma in the laboratory where they are being observed, Greg, the technician settles down to a stimula-cap, a nice idea, slightly spoilt by the fact he also has a packet of cigarettes. Maybe, both can be done simultaneously? Back in the Box things are heating up as Sid wakes up from sleep. Here, in the Lovecraftian tradition, it is interesting to discover that Sid can actually sleep, but his dreams are blackouts, there’s no mauve zone, so to speak. No dream-within-a-dream, just the cold reality of the on-off switch. On waking, however, he is privy to Carol’s memories, which are straightforward enough childhood reminisces of her grandfather, a fatherly, God-type figure, and being told repeatedly to go to sleep, which seems to tell us that being forced to be unconscious is indeed her purpose in life. This is followed by perhaps the best writing in both stories: ‘…his looming fate unknown yet somehow growing like a black hole in his mind, the swallowing to come,’ which has Lovecraftian overtones and speaks to that fear that creates its own dark places. Sid’s existence, like Max’s, in the previous story is one of being subsumed into a bigger uglier whole, that is ultimately artificial, so he is viewed by Clare’s ‘multi-eyes’ as she has become his ‘digital siren’.  

And finally, (spoiler alert) they are transmuted into ‘dirt’.

In both these stories we have seen the image of lonely characters seeking to find their opposite, in either the mother, the Red Castle burning womb or in the Box, the machine, that we all spend our lives glued to, essentially the TV or computer, creating digital reproductions, the simulacra of the simulacra, so perhaps the fascination with themes, related to single men in a world that confines them and women further from real social contact, is indeed worth exploring in the context of a troubling, scary, Lovecraftian perspective, that directs our attention to strange off-worlds, or as Chris has done with his Red Queen Scottish castle, or CyberCube, inner worlds that are yet further internalisations; halls within halls of endless smokey mirrors.

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