Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Wormwood 23 is now available:
Reggie Oliver devotes his Under Review column to S.T. Joshi’s Unutterable Horror, A History of Supernatural Fiction, and considers the tale of terror as “a liberation of the mind”
John Howard discusses Charles Williams’s final two novels, Descent Into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve and his vision of “the ideal City” of the dead and the living
James Doig offers an overview of the life and writing of Dulcie Deamer, who found the ‘beauty and raw force of nature produced a spiritual awakening’
Doug Anderson reveals a possible unexpected dimension in the career of Phyllis Paul, investigates the mysterious Nineties fantasist Chas L’Epine, and looks at a previously unknown work, under a pen-name, by Leslie Barringer
Mike Barrett provides an overview of the novels and stories of Thomas Tessier, quietly producing impressive horror fiction for over thirty years
Henry Wessells shows why Pierre Benoit’s mystical adventure story of a lost world in the sands, Atlantida, should still call to us
Michael Dirda explores New York bookshops (in between such trivial activities as sleeping and eating) during what he aptly describes as a ‘bookman’s holiday’
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Today marks the occasion of the centenary of the death of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (18 November 1871 – 19 October 1914), the author of several volumes of fantasies and ghost stories, notable for their perfervid vigour and swashbuckling invention. For a while a friend of Baron Corvo, his writing has some of the Corvine style and personal ardour, while for wild imagination and world-shattering vision, he is in the same range as M.P. Shiel.
An excellent tribute from earlier in the year, The Father of Dystopia: R H Benson and The Lord of the World, by Alfred Searls may be found at Northern Soul.
A taste of his piquant personality may be seen in his characteristic preamble to his most remarkable novel:
Preface to LORD OF THE WORLD
I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.
Robert Hugh Benson
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
In Arthur Machen's story "The Inmost Light" (from The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light, 1894), his literary amateur and occult detective Mr Dyson insists to his friend Salisbury that the strange and wonderful are often to be found concealed beneath the dreary and everyday. He exemplifies this idea by commenting on how even in mean and laborious streets there may lurk those whose occupations belie their surroundings: "You may point out a street, correctly enough, as the abode of washerwomen; but, in that second floor, a man may be studying Chaldee roots, and in the garret over the way a forgotten artists is dying by inches."
That phrase "Chaldee roots" is well-chosen. It is impressively arcane and specialised. We receive an impression, a glimpse, of some matter deep and intricate, antiquarian and mysterious. And, tantalisingly, no more is said. Salisbury is sceptical, and suggests Dyson is “misled by a too fervid imagination”, but he does not confess doubt or perplexity about the Chaldee roots Dyson has invoked. Yet it so happens that in those two words Machen was evoking and implying a great deal.
“Chaldee” is an archaicism for “Chaldæan”. It refers to a people who lived in the estuary and marsh lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates but is a term also often used more widely for the whole region of Mesopotamia and the empire of Babylon. Chaldee was the original language of parts of some of the books of the Bible (eg Daniel and Ezra) and is regarded as one of the root languages of the Talmud.
Chaldæan beliefs are inferred from a set of cuneiform tablets dated c. 670 BC which reported astrological information in the court of King Ashurbanipal. The Chaldæan /Babylonian system recognizes seven moving lights or forces (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) set among twenty-eight asterisms or "mansions" (manázil, in the later Arabic), different to the constellations now commonly used. They regarded the world as eternal, with no beginning or end, and the Sun, Moon, and the five planets they knew were seen either as intelligent beings, or as forces guided by some divine intelligence.
The Chaldees exercised a considerable fascination over the Ancient Greek and Latin civilisations, and the term “Chaldæan” came to be synonymous with “astrologer”, “magician” or “seer”. Their ideas found their way into the Mystery religions of the ancient world, such as those that Machen evoked in his youthful poem Eleusinia. The Chaldæan Oracles played a role in Hellenistic mystery religions of the first centuries BC and AD.
We know that Machen himself had lived in humble quarters, surviving on only dry bread, green tea and dark tobacco, and his studies were frequently esoteric. If he was not quite a “forgotten artist, dying by inches”, he was not altogether distant from that fate, living on very little. He worked for the occult publisher and bookseller George Redway, and he was in effect an unacknowledged editor of Walford’s Antiquarian, a journal devoted to obscure notes and queries about the byways of history. Is this, then, a wry reference to himself ? Or did he know another obscure scholar who was studying Chaldee roots? Or was there no such specific counterpart, even though the point might be poetically true?
Well, Machen's Mr Dyson was not the only investigator to be interested in matters Chaldee. One of Machen’s fellow members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was Florence Farr, esotericist, actor, player upon the psaltery, and author of the Nineties novel The Dancing Faun. She also wrote a 16pp monograph, as by F. Farr Emery, entitled The Way of Wisdom. An Investigation of the Meanings of the Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, considered as a Remnant of Chaldæan Wisdom (J.M. Watkins., London, 1900). But, though she was at times no doubt as impecunious as any other artist or idealist, she was an habitué of Chelsea and does not seem to have lived in the obscurer quarters Machen pictured.
The aesthetical Irish poet Herbert Trench (1863-1923), a contemporary of Machen, in his ‘To A Dead Poet’ a paean to Edgar Allan Poe, evoked him as a “seer Chaldæan belated”, “Hymning Terror and Chaos”, but this may have been purely a literary flourish. He was a Fellow of All Souls’, Oxford, and later a public official, and, though his work was often ethereal, he does not fit Machen’s idea of the starving scholar.
However, some years after Machen’s story, Sherlock Holmes conceived the idea that the Cornish language is akin to the Chaldæan, and had been largely derived from Phoenician traders in tin visiting these shores in ancient times. His interest is noted in the story "The Devil's Foot" (Strand Magazine, December 1910):
"In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as it sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor. The ancient Cornish language had also arrested his attention, and he had, I remember, conceived the idea that it was akin to the Chaldæan, and had been largely derived from the Phoenician traders in tin. He had received a consignment of books upon philology and was settling down to develop this thesis when suddenly, to my sorrow and to his unfeigned delight, we found ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London."
At the conclusion of this case, Dr Watson is reassured to see Holmes resume his earlier interest. He notes: “we may. . .go back with a clear conscience to the study of those Chaldæan roots which are surely to be traced in the Cornish branch of the great Celtic speech”. Holmes’ interest in Cornish miracle plays, also evinced in the story, may also have been in quest of survivals of Chaldee lore. A (possibly apocryphal) monograph on Chaldæan Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language has since been attributed to Holmes.
There cannot have been many researchers into Chaldee roots in London in the early 1890s when Machen wrote his story, and Watson does not say that Holmes had newly discovered this interest, only (by implication) the Cornish connection. What is more likely then that Machen, an inveterate wanderer in the byways of London, and a connoisseur of eccentrics, had encountered Holmes and drawn him out on matters Chaldee? Perhaps in 1890 when Holmes had only a few cases at hand and may have taken himself off to pursue his studies incognito? Or just possibly, after the detective's Great Disappearance in 1891, some part of his time was spent not only in Tibet but also under another guise, as a poor scholar in washerwomen's rooms?
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Anyone who prowls around second hand bookshops for very long soon becomes a connoisseur of the way that the bookshelves are dedicated and organised: the occult art of the Naming of the Rows. Libraries have for long had their own clear categories for grouping books together, but those who run second hand bookshops are naturally unpersuaded by such orthodoxy and rarely follow any such system.
It is true that some categories are common to most of them: Fiction; Topography (though that is sometimes Travel); History (though rarely Geography – see under Topography, or Travel); Science (usually all together, without distinction between its different branches, no doubt because most bookshop owners have more enthusiasm for the arts and humanities); Children’s; Nature (sometimes also Countryside); Theology and so on.
Theology is often the section banished to the dustiest or least accessible corner. But it is worth more than a glance, because sometimes unexpected books turn up there. I admit I am in any case always looking for tracts upon Apocalypse, divagations upon the Tribulations, and predictions upon the coming End of All Things, so these shelves would draw me anyway. And there is always a chance that some such book as Arthur Machen’s War and the Christian Faith, or his Grail romance The Great Return, from the religious publisher The Faith Press, might find its way there, or the arcane studies of Eastern liturgies issued by that curious imprint Cope & Fenwick, about whom I shall have more to say in another place.
Yet I have also found here Paul Jordan-Smith’s amiable and elegant volume of bookish enthusiasms, On Strange Altars, that last sacred word of its title evidently misleading the bookseller. Perhaps he supposed it was the memoir of a missionary who had celebrated Mass in strange lands, in Ophir, say, or Samarkand. Come to think of it, that might indeed make for an interesting memoir: but this wasn’t it. Here too was Arthur Symons’ Studies in Strange Souls, and it would have amused that venerable decadent to find himself in the company of so many Improving Works, I am sure. Once I also disinterred from Theology a choice volume of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall, which it is true had an aspect of the prayer-book about it, and whose prose also has the arcane solemnity of a missal.
However broad its church, at least we usually know where and what Theology will be. But there are two areas of my own interest where the nomenclature of booksellers is at its most idiosyncratic. The first of these is in that part of Literature that is not Fiction, Poetry or Plays (or Drama). This is a not inconsiderable domain. Possibly that particular vein of writing is less encountered now than it once was: but most writers of consequence issued at least a volume, sometimes many, of discursive prose, and these are sometimes amongst their most joyous work. Most often such literature is grouped as Essays, sometimes under General Literature, and even (here we may detect a certain weariness in the bookseller’s labours), Miscellaneous. The best label I have seen is Belles-Lettres, a phrase I wish was encountered more often.
Yet even this is a fairly easily recognisable category, whatever it happens to be called, that is neat and comprehensible compared to the other area I have in mind, which I have seen designated by some at least of the following terms in my forays among second hand bookshops: Paranormal, The Unexplained, New Age, Alternative, Esoteric, Occult and Folklore.
Arthur Machen himself, in his days as a young man living in a garret in London, subsisting on dry bread, green tea and strong tobacco, once thought he was fortunate indeed to be given a job sorting and describing just such a jumble of books of arcane literature, and became the author of a very diverting list, the Catalogue of the Literature of Occultism and Archaeology, issued by George Redway, and itself now a very rare and elusive object.
“It was as odd a library as any man could desire to see,” he wrote in the first chapter of Things Near and Far, the second volume of his autobiography: “Occultism in one sense or another was the subject of most of the books. There were the principal and the more obscure treatises on Alchemy, on Astrology, on Magic; old Latin volumes most of them. Here were books about Witchcraft, Diabolical Possession, “Fascination”, or the Evil Eye; here comments on the Kabbala. Ghosts and Apparitions were a large family, Secret Societies of all sorts hung on the skirts of the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and so found a place in the collection. Then the semi-religious, semi-philosophical sects and schools were represented; we dealt in Gnostics and Mithraists, we harboured the Neoplatonists, we conversed with the Quietists and the Swedenborgians. These were the ancients; and beside them were the modern throng of Diviners and Stargazers and Psychometrists and Animal Magnetists and Mesmerists and Spiritualists and Psychic Researchers. In a word, the collection in the Catherine Street garret represented thoroughly enough that inclination of the human mind which may be a survival from the rites of the black swamp and the cave – or an anticipation of a wisdom and a knowledge that are to come, transcending all the science of our day.”
As well as those Machen lists, we may today find Flying Saucers, Yetis, Atlantis, Shangri La, Pyramids, Obelisks (if one is very fortunate, though books on obelisks are elusive), Giants, Ley Lines, Terrestrial Zodiacs, Tarot, Palmistry, Phrenology (though that is still sometimes admitted by the more antediluvian bookseller under Science), Conspiracies, Healing, Herbalism, Albigensians, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Yoga, the Wisdom of the East, that misty region known as Celtic, and books of Myths and Legends, where King Arthur and Robin Hood, and Scheherazade and Bladud keep strange but eternal company.
The seeker after supernatural fiction may sometimes find it has strayed in here, shelved with avowedly veridical accounts of hauntings; and the savant of the obscurest works of the fantastic in literature must also look in this region, which is always an outpost of all that is the most outré.
In the days before faiths became jealous of one another, it was not uncommon to find in the houses of the civilised oratories and shrines devoted impartially to many gods: Orpheus, Serapis, Buddha, Hermes and the Good Shepherd might be found together, each in their own niche garlanded with rosemary, each blessed from the same aspergillum, all illuminated by oil lamps, and spiralled by violet fumes from censers, lit by the same impartial hands. And so, in bookshops, the Temple of Many Names is also a place worthy of our devotions.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
At artist John Coulthart's blog feuilleton, always a cornucopia of the strange and wonderful, he mentions his design for the cover of a new work of modern experimental music by Watch Repair. "The perfect accompaniment to an Autumnal afternoon reading a good book", according to Matt at Piccadilly Records, Manchester, where the release may be found.
I've been able to listen to these recordings as they developed and have certainly been impressed by their stark and austere beauty. This is fragile music that requires close listening, drawing on barely-touched guitar strings and echoes and shimmers from treated clock chimes augmented by the subtlest possible electronic treatments. There's a sense of a chiselled work, whittled to its purest form so that it exists close to the margins of silence. In my experience, the compositions bring a brittle sense of otherness for the listener, which lingers long after the work has come to an end.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Some of the finest electronic music I've heard in recent years has come from Brian Lavelle, the Edinburgh composer and musician whose work is influenced by some of the themes in the classic writers of supernatural fiction such as Machen and Blackwood, as well as having a distinctive aura of its own.
Brian also runs the Dust, Unsettled label (named from a Robert Aickman story), and has just announced the release of an album of modern Machenesque music, Caermaen by Ian Watson:
"The Cardiff based artist's latest album revels in a deliberately quiet sense of brooding menace; Ian's use of textural layers gets right to the heart of the otherness in Arthur Machen's best writing. Composed of cymbals and feedback and cymbals feeding back and who-knows-what-electrickery, the album's four pieces create a fog of otherworldliness, augmented by some truly stunning/unnerving artwork by Ian for the front cover and colour disc print."
I was looking at Jean Lang’s Book of Myths, a school prize book with Art Nouveau-ish pictures of the gods and heroes in pastel colours (the one of Diana and Endymion is particularly fine, she glimmering in moon-white with her hounds, he supine in mauve robes). Lang uses quotes from the poets in her stories, and I was struck by the resonance of those from Sir Lewis Morris, the whiskered High Victorian bard from Carmarthen.
I knew him as the author of The Epic of Hades (1877) and a candidate for the poet laureateship after Tennyson. He, Sir Edwin Arnold and the eventual victor Alfred Austin were thought to be the three most in the running. They were popular, sonorous and sound. The more obvious contenders (to our time) could not be appointed: Swinburne because he was considered unsuitable owing to his lush and rather pagan verse, and William Morris because he would refuse.
It is not certain why Austin, probably the lesser poet, was preferred over Lewis Morris. It has been suggested the latter's friendship with Wilde told against him, or whispers about his domestic arrangements: he lived with a common law wife. His work is probably now largely unread, deterring readers by its length and a certain even-ness (less charitably, ponderousness) in its narration. But, as the phrases selected by Jean Lang had shown me, there are moments of vision and inspiration perhaps worth seeking.
Literary dictionaries now dismiss him as an imitator of Tennyson. He seems to have attracted derision even in his own day: George Saintsbury called him a Tennyson for children; George Meredith, “the Harlequin Clown of the Muses”; and Katherine Bradley “the grocer of Parnassus”: Edith Cooper said “one is patient” with him “out of pity” because “he is dimly conscious he belongs to darkness” (source: Amy Cruse, After the Victorians, 1938). We might suspect a writer arousing such vituperation probably did have something worth scorning: and indeed there is much excellent reading in Morris.
His Hades poem, almost 300pp long, is divided into three Books: Tartarus, Hades and Olympus, and is a vast supernatural narrative, peopled with pale ghosts and portentous gods. It has an epigraph quotation from the Welsh Triads: "The three excellences of Poetry: simplicity of language, simplicity of subject, and simplicity of invention", presumably intended to be Morris's own ambition for his work. There is a certain honest plain-ness in the book. The language is consciously elevated and archaic, but sometimes achieves a stately grace; the story is measured, yet has a cumulative force.
I like this battered copy of The Epic of Hades, which was his great classic, because of the way the dark boards have faded. They now seem to suggest both the green-black depths of the underworld and, on the verso, the veil of light that glimmers at the end of its passages to the earth.