Mar 25

Concerning The Insanity of Jones and The Frolic

12 comments

First of all, thanks so much for an(other) excellent podcast! What a great opportunity to read some weird fiction (almost all of which has been new to me so far) and then listen to some really intriguing and thought-provoking discussion!

 

I had some thoughts on what I think is an interesting point of comparison between The Frolic and The Insanity of Jones. In both stories we are dealing with a character who appears, from our external perspective, to be 'insane', and in both cases this 'insanity' leads to murder. In both stories the character in question believes they have access to or come from a realm outside/beyond our own which either gives them a higher moral vantage point (ability to dispense justice/forgiveness in The Insanity of Jones) or a completely different set of morals entirely (humans as inferior 'playthings' in The Frolic). In both cases, the characters come across as pretty much entirely unsympathetic.

 

But there is one major difference between the stories, which affects both how they are told and how we perceive them: The Insanity of Jones is told from the perspective of the 'insane' (or 'enlightened'?), while The Frolic is told from the perspective of the 'sane' (or 'ignorant'). The effect of this is not what I would have expected going in though.

With The Frolic, we only ever see the 'other world' as what Dr Munck tells his wife of his conversations with John Doe, so we have no clue as to what's really going on in Doe's mind. Is he really a creature from beyond, or is he just crazy?

With The Insanity of Jones, we are allowed to perceive the world as Jones himself perceives it. Reality is a boring sham, while the world beyond is wondrous (reflecting more the dreamscapes of Lovecraft and Howard than the 'underworld' Doe claims to have come from). We can ask a similar question though: has Jones really been granted some kind of cosmic enlightenment, or is he delusional?

 

My own answer to these questions is surprising. I think Doe potentially is a creature from beyond, while Jones is probably delusional. There are enough clues scattered through The Frolic to just that there is something outre about Doe: he appears as if from nowhere and certainly seems to know things he shouldn't (although there are ways he could have learned these things if we read beyond just Dr Munck's account in the text). On the other hand, despite seeing things from Jones's perspective, his 'enlightenment' is more easily dismissed. We are the people noticing him talking to himself in the restaurant. We are the office workers terrified that our colleague has killed our manager. The way in which he himself dismisses those who believe in clairvoyance and other supernatural activities appears as supreme arrogance (even if we share his opinion about these things).

 

Personally, I think this is exactly what the authors intended (though I might be wrong about Jones here). We are supposed to believe there is something not quite right about Doe, whether or not we fully buy in to what he claims. We are also supposed to believe that Jones is insane, even if his insanity is founded on ideas that not all sane people would dismiss out of hand (reincarnation, cosmic justice).

 

But this is partly based on the way the authors write the stories. Ligotti is obviously inspired by earlier weird tales, and the informed reader can make the connection to Lovecraft's or Howard's dreamscapes. Because this kind of story has been told before (set mostly or entirely within the 'other world') and fleshed out by previous authors, Ligotti himself only needs to provide us with the barest details, and we don't need to see the 'other world' from the perspective of the 'dreamer' to believe it. I'm not accusing Ligotti of laziness here - I think it's a great metatextual storytelling technique that actually adds another dark layer to those earlier stories.

 

Blackwood, on the other hand, does not really flesh out Jones's enlightenment enough for it be believable in comparison to the 'real world' perspective - we as the reader can still too easily see Jones's ideas about reincarnation and cosmic justice as a result of the (petty) injustices he has suffered in the real world. He hates his boss, so his boss becomes a sixteenth-century torturer, with Jones as the sixteenth-century tortured; his dead colleague becomes a guide in his 'enlightenment' (did Jones really have a good relationship with him five years ago, or is he creating that post facto?). Maybe I'm being too generous to Blackwood here, because as I said, this is what I think he intended. If he meant for Jones's situation to be more ambiguous then he didn't do that great a job, at least for me.

 

Anyway, I don't really have any conclusions about all this, but I'd be interested to know what other people think.

Yes! Your comments are all spot-on. We really should have done more with the question of whether John Doe in "The Frolic" was just delusional or if he really did come from some other realm. I took it at face value that he came from some other realm, but of course it isn't at face-value at all. As you point out, it's the doctor's perspective that we really ought to agree with and it's only because Ligotti can draw on the long tradition of weird-fiction tropes that a reader familiar with those tropes can make that assumption.

 

And Blackwood doesn't have this luxury (or burden, perhaps), and so it's more of an open question. Though, we both, like you, think that Blackwood wants us to understand that Jones is delusional. The only thing that gives me pause there is the subtitle and a vague sense that I have that Blackwood (for a while at least) believed in reincarnation. I'm looking forward to revisiting this question as we read more of (the extremely prolific) Blackwood.

 

And I love that randomly selecting these stories can create some fruitful juxtapositions!

Mar 26

It would be interesting to get the opinion of someone reading these two stories without being familiar with weird fiction. They might have a very different take on John Doe in particular.

 

This also touches on the question you discussed in the episode: would a more external perspective change our opinion of whether Jones is delusional? I agree that it might if the story was told as an urban fantasy, but that detaches the reader from any notion of 'reality' from the outset, producing a very different kind of story than one purposefully grounded in a firm sense of reality that is broken down (whether suddenly or gradually) as the narrative progresses. I'm not sure Blackwood quite achieves this here. He certainly builds to a shocking climax but (for me at least), whatever Jones is experiencing is not developed fully enough for the reader to invest in it.

 

As you say, we could see Blackwood's lack of reliance, or inability to rely, on weird fiction tropes as a luxury or a burden. Would a more fully developed 'other world' add anything to the story? Personally, I find the strength lies more in the sinking realisation that Jones is going to opt for 'justice' rather than forgiveness. I don't think this was even in doubt, but the abruptness of the ending manages a horror all of its own, and this is why the story resonates so strongly with a 21st-century audience - maybe even more so than with Blackwood's contemporaries. If the reader had reason to believe that Jones was right, that he had accessed memories from one of many past lives, communed with the spirit of a friend from those past lives, and that the manager was the inquisitor of centuries ago, it lessens the moral shock of the ending.

 

Similarly, if we saw things from Doe's perspective in The Frolic it would lessen the creeping horror that builds up to the revelation of the story's ending. Here we can easily see the situation from the doctor's perspective. Even if we recognise the tropes, we can believe that Doe is insane (another metatextual aside: perhaps he is a delusional fan of weird fiction who has come to believe that what he reads in Lovecraft et al is real). But there are just enough hints to suggest that he might be what he claims to be. This lends to the horror of the ending because even after everything that has happened we still can't be sure exactly what to believe. Was Doe a madman or an extra-dimensional being with his own unknowable agenda? We ultimately don't know. Looking from the doctor's perspective, as we should do, we want to believe the former, and be safe in our sense of reality with its rules about these things, but we just can't shake the sense that it's the latter, with all the earth-shattering implications that has. Of course, as good fans of weird fiction, we 'know' it's the latter and we read the genre for exactly those sorts of revelations about the true nature of the universe. The strength of the story is that it leaves enough room for doubt on both sides.

 

To return to my first point, I actually think a non-fan of the genre would enjoy both these stories. They are grounded in reality, but they utilise that reality in very different ways, ultimately coming to similarly horrific conclusions (murder) where the horror has very different implications.

@Karanthir You make a great case for these stories (especially paired together) as a gateway to the genre.

 

You a raise a really interesting question about "The Insanity of Jones." Would his contemporary readers -- many of whom were likely involved in late Victorian and Edwardian religious "fads" -- have been more likely to expect Jones's delusion to be real than we are now? Was this perhaps something of a shocking twist ending for those contemporary readers?

Mar 26

Those would be really interesting questions to get answers to. Unfortunately I don't know enough about the period to offer any myself. I suppose on one level at least the ending would be more surprising: office shootings were less common then than they are now (actually I'm assuming, but I'd be shocked if that wasn't the case). So even if the Edwardian reader believed in reincarnation they might still be expecting Jones to opt for forgiveness in the end (which would also be the correct Christian option).

 

It's interesting that you suggest Blackwood may have flirted with a belief in reincarnation himself for a while. If that's the case I think it makes his denunciation of anyone who believes in the fads about those sorts of things without realising the truth behind them all the more informative (and arrogant). I think you could build a case from that to argue that we aren't supposed to think Jones is delusional, and that he has achieved some sort of enlightenment after all.

 

Now just to find some unwitting test subjects who don't know the genre to read these stories together!

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I've read this thread just now (overlooked it earlier, it seems). I agree with all the observations, and for now will not add something myself. Maybe only the idea that 'uncertainty' (at least in the readers mind), although it may be just a little bit, is one of the most important key characteristics of weird fiction. There HAS to be SOME doubt, because 'the weird' without uncertainty isn't weird anymore. We as readers aren't allowed to have the last word. And that's of course why we like it :-)

 

Something aside. Quote: 'perhaps he is a delusional fan of weird fiction who has come to believe that what he reads in Lovecraft et al is real' - haha, that's great! There ARE many of those people walking around. Especially when taking into consideration the alleged existence of the Necronomicon or the so called 'Simon edition' (or the fact that Something used Lovecraft as a vessel to enlighten those who are open to it - there is in fact a sect believing in it, although I don't know what they do exactly). It is still living today. See for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErLVyVFpabc . But the thought that Doe is one of them hadn't entered my mind till now. Ha!

Thanks! I was vaguely aware that there are people who really believe this stuff, but I didn't realise how deep the rabbit hole goes. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. I had also never come across the 'Simon' Necronomicon before. Not really sure what to make of it except that it sounds fun, if you don't take it seriously.

Yes, this is fantastic! Alan Moore's comic book Providence also deals with the idea that perhaps it is all real, as well, and I think it's a great deal of fun. We're shortly going to be recording a special bonus episode about weird fiction in comics, and I'm sure that will come up.

This is great! I love John DeLaughter, but I hadn't read this post before, so thanks for sharing it. We're very excited to be airing our first episode about HPL next week!

Not much to contribute here, but I love the idea that the PERSPECTIVE that we are forced to take as the audience can have a sort of paradoxical affect on how we judge the "in-story" reality. We experience a story from an "inside" perspective and get the flavor that the protagonist is insane. We experience one from the perspective of a mental health professional and we get the opposite effect. It makes me wonder if there are drafts of these stories told from different perspectives that were scrapped due to not giving off the right vibe or impression to the audience.

Jun 18

I have no idea if these interpretations were intended by the authors, but it would definitely be interesting to know whether they experimented with different ways of telling the stories.

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