:: Article

Hour of the Wolf

By Richard Marshall.

Hour of the Wolf, M Kitchell, Inside the Castle, 2017

The novel evokes the dread of what the Waynflete Professor of metaphysics at Oxford, John Hawthorne, might benignly call ‘semantic plasticity’, or else its alternative, a semantic patchwork or quilt of blocks of semantic sameness abruptly shifting after some time to a different semantic assignment. The horror that slides across the book is a terminal dread, ‘a white sea, a white death’. The dread is clenched in clean icy prose that, as the blurb has it, results in an incantationary text which includes all the usual suspects from occult literature: ‘robed figures and furry men, ice caves and deserts, god and serpent, shapelessness and sacred geometry, mysterious artefacts and unfolding perceptions…in a pentangle of overlaid story bodies, each sinking deeper into its own true consciousness, while at the same time constructing an indexical sequence of translation from raw sense to mediated artifice, a primer of the dissolution of life into text.’ What else it raises is the spectre of Miltonic and Shakespearean whiteness, and the failed theodicies of Leibniz, Malebranche and Arnauld.

The familiar tropes are those of terrestrial Gods, animated by knowing occult properties, sympathetic magic, invocations of astral magic and unwary religious cult practices of the holy Hermes. These are perhaps just reverberations, and as such require amplification rather than interpretation. The mythological way of thinking , its particular affinity with archaic thought and dream mechanism, is an essential element of the text which stealthily insinuates itself between madness, horror and paranoia. The entire book describes not so much a struggle for power as rather the inevitable falling away into dissolute incarnation of the loser of such a struggle, done in slow motion and with nothing less than the protagonist imagining himself as the very last human in the world, one amongst the dead, with the devil or god as his only hidden antagonist. If this does anything, it draws us into a centre of riddling mysteries, one where we might find signaled a relationship, no matter how analogously worked out, between language and the structure of the cosmos.

The book takes as a central existential fact that we are doomed and combines this with the other existential fact about us, that we have a plenum of life in our doomed hearts. Here is a central puzzle that goes back at least as far as the old North gods and their culture, and as a puzzle the riddle serves to represent reality better than any declarative can. What we are given in this book, then, if this is along the right lines, is a small example of something unseen presenting itself to us as being seen, of something that connects us to a larger awareness of human consciousness, a trauma requiring decoding just as a child’s question needs answering when she asks: ‘Why is the sky blue?’ It is about reaching away from the enclosed mundane world, recognizing how resistant reality is to disclosing ordinary modes of living. What the text does is go beyond the tropes of fantasy, to riddle itself away from literature and art, knowing that we will grasp the chain of overlapping resemblances, the complex interplay between nature and culture, ties of blood, ceremonies of diachronic filiation, without changing meanings or forgetting about the embeddeness of language in time and worldly circumstances.

We get a sequence of ordinary causal events ordered as a series of increasing generality and fundamentality that generate a willingness to respond to the enigmatic authority of the strange shapes and anchoring phrases that come from the occult language and riddle phrases employed as a sort of subversive lens. Of course what we need to beware of is committing ourselves to the signature concepts: to do so would be to impose preconditions on a reality putatively being described, and in so doing risks preventing us from seeing what is really in front of our eyes. Can we really mean what we say without excluding the preconditions needed to say it? The way out is via the way in. It’s a conundrum and one that the use of the occult makes vivid.

What also interested me was that notion of indexing life into text, and how over the temporal sequence recorded in the book the meanings latch onto or supervene onto the underlying particles of the neo-platonist-reality. That’s what this indexicality is about and it’s where the dread emerges whilst reading the text. What we do is wonder how the life gets into the text, and look at two competing models showing how this might happen. One is the ‘semantic plasticity’ model. This is a model that pictures that occult reality varying smoothly over time with the semantic facts varying smoothly along with it. In this way the facts and values of the semantics – the meanings – keep track of and in step with the occult life that grounds whatever is being meant by the language and thought. Another model pictures the semantical facts changing not smoothly but in a jerky way. The semantic facts are divided into cells of stasis where for the time that the meanings are coming from that cell the meanings are stable. But the cells have sharp edges so once we cross the outer edge of the cell the meaning changes. And not only do these two models capture semantic change in time but they also capture semantic change in modal terms too – meaning that necessity and possibility are also seen as changing semantic values either in smooth or in jerky ways. And there is no logical ‘forced march’ between the manner of change in the temporal and the modal: the modal shifts could be jerky whilst the temporal ones are smooth, or vice versa.

There are reasons for thinking that maybe M Kitchell, the author, sees the issue in terms of the second, jerky, patchwork model as he has divided the book into a distinct pointy architectonic, like a pentangle. But it isn’t clear that these alone mark anything like distinct modal or temporal stages as within them there are other divisions and cycles. The insomniac tells his story and as the nights accumulate the strangeness and horror raise the question as to whether the early meanings are those of the later ones. Has what is meant by death changed by the end, and what follows? And how are the occult facts of the insomniacal nightmares themselves shifting gradually throughout? Are the words rolling with them like consciousness remembering to unfurl in honest toil, or are there these abrupt shifts causing anxiety and disorientation? The book is a plenum of both derangements.

Neither model would avoid this. The insomniacal mania for recording and then understanding the strange hallucinatory events chop away any ease of mind. If the semantic changes are happening smoothly then nothing said about earlier passages, nor later ones, can be true. If the meaning of every word is subtly, smoothly changing throughout then as in a Heraclitean semantic river, nothing can be meant twice over. And if the changes are jerky, but the boundaries between meaning one and meaning two are invisible, unknown, then again the terrifying ignorance presses down and makes each effort at indexing meaning to life a staggeringly difficult and strangely impossible though familiar task. The dread eminates from this. The elision between dream and wakefulness that the book trades on is also familiar, as are the tropes of occult symbol. Yet the transmuting meanings shake their familiarity into a position that is unreachable and unknowable. This is language itself turned Freudian uncanny.

From this angle, ‘Hooded men’ used to mean one thing, familiarly, at a certain time, but as time moves on the meaning is changed to capture something subtly different, either as the slight variations are always happening as time passes, or after homogeneous status followed by abrupt jumps of meaning. The use of the term ‘hooded men’ here is one of the reasons the meaning of the term changes, because it is being used in a subtly different and unique way and in so doing is changing the semantic value of the term. So the problem is one inevitably caused by using language understood in this way. The mobilisation of any term in thought and language will alter the semantic meaning because no matter the sum of the values of meaning up to the point of use, any new token of that use will add to the semantic values and facts and in so doing change it. So the problem – and the particular dread that is conjured out of realizing this – is caused by the very setting down of the semantic markers and attempting to index them against ‘life.’ It is an automatic product of thought and language, so it seems.

Plasticity appears to make much of our semantical reporting false. Time shifts mean that everything asserted crossing different time zones can only mean something false. What the insomniac says about previous nights, previous days, all his statements are false if plasticity is true. Facts , and what he wants to do, which is to stabilise the facts across time, slip away. The impossibility of fixing the facts is where the horror of the book comes from. Is there a way out of this?

Perhaps if the book was set up as a counterfactual then perhaps a resource could have been discovered. The counterfactual previous sentence is well known as being able to fix all the historical facts up to the moment it is asserted, and so can seemingly overcome to a point the uncanny problem of semantic plasticity. So, using this counterfactual idea as a model to overcome the uncanny, we might hold fixed the semantical facts just like we hold fixed the historical metaphysical facts in the counterfactual case. We don’t look at those possible worlds where the semantic facts are not fixed; we just look at those where they are fixed. But the novel isn’t like a counterfactual sentence and is immersed in the temporal.

The ‘hour of the wolf’ is 3:AM – (as we all know here at the magazine – ‘hour of the wolf’ was Andy Gallix’s first strap line for the mag) – and so this ‘loading’ device that fixes the meaning doesn’t seem to have anywhere to be fixed. And even if the ‘loading’ device is applied somehow, it leaves strange and probably unforeseen commitments in its wake. Just fixing a semantic value and then seeing where the chips fall may well bring about situations that were both unforeseen and neither intended or desired. When thinking about Leibinizean theodicy this is pertinent. Stipulation has the unfortunate effect of ignoring the occult world that the changing semantic facts was trying to track. Stipulating tall as 6 foot and above may well have the unfortunate effect of blindsiding us about runt giraffes or 5 feet eleven inch three year olds. If God, we may end up with monsters of insane evil, both natural, unnatural, inhuman and human. So we may end up with very surprising counterfactual dependencies. Of course we can think of ways of countering these difficulties but each adjustment itself brings further difficulties. So although the challenge may not be fatal they bring insecurities and flush away any sense of easy useable semantic common sense gadgetry.

Another response to semantic plasticity is the idea of parasitism. This is the idea that we anchor the meaning of the word to the speaker/user. ‘The insomniac is going to a local desert of blood’ could mean that he is going to a desert of blood local to where I am or it could mean he is going to one local to where he is. The semantical value is parasitical on context dependence and maybe this helps overcome the sinister uncanniness of the plasticity. The meaning now is parastical on what it was then. And so on. Sensitivity to context removes most, if not all, of the unsettling and familiar horror of not being able to fix our semantic values. But even if a parasite reading of any sentence that makes it true is available there is still a non-parasite reading that doesn’t. And unless we hear all the relevant ambiguities then we’re still facing possibilities where everything being said is false. And that seems enough to bring back the anxieties and the night terrors. Which explains the mood and tone of the book.

Multiplicity responds to semantic plasticity by denying that a declarative sentence asserts a single proposition. Multiplicity says that every declarative sentence asserts a whole host of propositions, so that the relation is one to many rather than one to one. Out of this it’s possible to detect the Demoniality of the seventeenth century’s Ludovico Maria Sinistrari alongside the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage where powers of clairvoyance, diving metals, warding off evil magic, healing illness, levitation, transportation, rendering oneself invisible, reading minds , placing compulsions, sex orgies and working black magic are revealed. And we can detect the rum magisterial of Kitchell’s style, an impish Machen-like formalism e.g. ‘how, we perhaps know not’ as in; – ‘… but after this static we find N back in his room with his beautiful plants and rocks – he has clearly found his way home – how, we perhaps know not, but that is unimportant at this point -…’ – that is a dense meta-dialogue with the reader. He creates an all-encompassing geography of cult geography, a labyrinth that encloses everything with increasing strength, detail and therefore luminous obscurity and claustrophobic intensity. Like Machen, like HP Lovecraft, like Poe, like Blackwood, Kitchell extends the tiny infinity between two points, and in so doing the terrifying world becomes transmogrified into a mystic, ineffable force and energy veiled by mysterious sacrament and forbidden penetration.

Forbidden penetration takes its forms from the cues we have artfully constructed by Kitchell. This is suddenly made obvious at the end of the third circle, section 04, a single sentence of white ghosts where everything builds towards a final moment of whiteness… ‘…the earth begins to violently vibrate the earth quakes and for a moment the man is afraid of the euphorbia falling and crushing him with its collapse but as the candles all knock to the ground the euphorbia stays glowing strong from a blue to a white light and this white light begins to overtake everything the earth never stops shaking and the man can only see white.’

You can’t write about whiteness and not confront the great American novel, the whiteness of the whale, which is the intensifying agent of the things most terrifying to mankind. It is the organizing trope of blankness haunting all American literature from Melville and Hawthorne to Poe, desperate Whitman in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ and back and forth Edgar from Lear – ‘the best I had done seemed to me blank and vicious’, Emerson, ‘… the blank when we look at nature is in our own eye, the axis of vision is no longer coincident with the axis of things so we behold everything as transparent but as opaque.’ Following Harold Bloom, we note that Emerson here is following two different sources, two different whitenesses, two different blanknesses, and we must discern which of the two, or both, is in play: Shakespeare’s, Milton’s. Book 3 of ‘Paradise Lost’ sees Milton lamenting his own blindness – ‘And nature to me a universal blank’ – a source of wisdom and light absent and cut away. Kent, after banishment, asks to remain with Lear to be ‘the true blank of thine eye’ – here the blank is the white centre of the target, the truth, the true aim, the right direction. In the High Romantic tradition they mingle, as in Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ when he meets a lack of intensity and sublimity and a terrible blankness upon him, and Coleridge in his ‘Dejection Ode’ – ‘And still I gaze and with a blank eye’ through Melville to Wallace Stevens’ ‘Auroras of Autumn’: ‘The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand,’ the old man who feels impotent before the glare of the aurora, and of course his own impotence in the inevitable coming of coming death and his imaginative diminishment too. This American whiteness, the intransigent blankness of, again, another, Emily Dickinson, appeals to the immensities of the universe and the soul, the visible absence of colour or of all colours, a fierce thing, a blankness full of meaning, ‘a colorless orb of atheism from which we shrink’. Elias Hicks the Quakerman sees white as a benign colour or lack of, as in Hawthorne, where white is almost a sanctification, and sure thing a divine occult horror.

So this white ghost passage carries the tremendous heft of this line of writing, a tradition of both Miltonic and Shakespearean blankness, and boot-straps the whole text. The objects in the text are hasped to this, at all scales. The metaphysics of the book seems to encompass a sort of Occasionalism, with a strange view about objects. Here the objects are possible at all scales, both huge, medium sized and small, and none of them essentially dependent on their relationship with minds but rather altogether deeper, more profoundly related to each other and themselves. The minds here are shown to be able to grasp only partial elements of the objects, the outer skins, so most of the objects, and thus most of the world, remain mysterious and unknown, unfathomable depths. Husserl supposes that we first encounter an object as a unit and although we can take different perspectives the object remains fundamentally the same even if perspectives change how it appears. Heidegger points out that actually most things are not present to us in consciousness, rather they are unconsciously taken for granted. For him no practical encounter exhausts the way objects may be encountered, and so always the essence of objects remain opaque. Indeed no one way of encountering an object, practical or otherwise, will exhaust the features of any object. So for Heidegger objects are deeper than any way we encounter them. And its not just that consciousness has limits to what it can know about an object, but that even when objects encounter each other no encounter is exhaustive either. The Islamic example is that when fire burns cotton the fire doesn’t come into contact with everything about the cotton. It doesn’t encounter the smell and the colour, for example. Objects then are withdrawn, in a deep way, from any kind of relationship they can have with anything else. And this raises the question of how, if they are withdrawn from each other, objects can make contact with each other at all. Or how our minds can.

This is where the doctrine of Occasionalism comes in. It was Descartes who raised this in Western philosophy as a question of causality, setting up the problem in terms of the mind/body problem although originally it was an Islamic movement of the followers of al-Ashari in the tenth and eleventh century, including al-Ghazali (1058-1114). Descartes formula asked: if mind is radically withdrawn from bodies then how can the mind act on bodies, and vice versa. This is also an issue shimmering around in the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ raised by contemporary (maybe) dualist David Chalmers where the radical withdrawn nature of consciousness from a physical universe upsets a scientific viewpoint that can’t figure out how we get dualism to work or go away.

Back in the seventeenth century Malebranche came to see this as a problem not just about how bodies and minds interact but also about how different objects interact too. So the problem of causality within a purely physical reality also confronts the radical withdrawal of objects from each other, and alongside the hard problem of consciousness there’s also this flourishing domain of philosophy asking about the hard problem of causal powers in objects. Occasionalism requires occult causation to overcome this issue. Kitchel draws on the hints of this to build what the blurb calls , ‘… a hypnagogic incantation… a pentangle of overlaid story bodies, each sinking deeper into its own true consciousness, while at the same time constructing an indexical sequence of translation from raw sense to mediated artiface, a primer of the dissolution of life into text.’ Taking the metaphysical problem of Occasionalism seriously, the issue is that of the nature of the required mediation, that ‘artiface’. To Malbranche and the Islamists who proposed the problem, God was that mediator, and no artiface. Whitehead in modern times did so too, drawing on the tradition of Spinoza and Leibniz. Here the heretical trope is that of the whiteness of Melville’s whale, the terrifying whiteness of nihilism and death.

The strangeness of this book is that it draws on pulses from an occult, pre-modern world. It’s seriousness is that it rekindles disputes about the problem of which theodicy works, famously disputed by Leibniz , Malebranche and Arnauld– the problem of justifying God’s ways in the face of apparent evil. The chilling conclusion is ‘a white sea, a white death’, where again the white blankness is both Miltonic and Shakespearean. Malebranche’s Theodore says:

‘The Universe then is the most perfect that God can make? But really! So many monsters, so many disorders, the great number of impious men – does all this contribute to the perfection of the universe?’

In their proposed solutions, both Malebranche and Leibniz failed to safeguard God’s omnipotence, and had Arnauld noted the fine-tunings in Leibniz he would have dismissed Leibniz’s answer as fiercely as he demolished Malebranche’s. The ‘white sea, white death’ that is the dread culmination of ‘Hour of the Wolf’ is an update of Arnauld’s occult nihilist response, as well as the incarnadine threat of semantic plasticity, its trembling fearful and horrible blankness. There is a great fear communicated in this book.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 3rd, 2017.