Sunday, November 11, 2018

11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month

Perhaps all wars require a mythic dimension to put alongside their otherwise irredeemable horror and brutality. The abduction of Helen by Paris adds a romantic sheen to what may actually have been a protracted struggle between the Achaean and Hittite Great Kings over trade access to Asia Minor.

In Homer's version of the Trojan War, of course, the irony of the whole thing lies in the fact that Helen is back as reigning Queen of Sparta by the beginning of the Odyssey, and is clearly inclined to see the whole thing as a youthful bagatelle. There's a slight edge to it all still, though.

In her version, she was the only one to recognise Odysseus when he entered the besieged city disguised as a beggar, and aided him in his mission, having (by then) repented her past indiscretions:
... since my heart was already longing for home, and I sighed at the blindness Aphrodite had dealt me, drawing me there from my own dear country, abandoning daughter and bridal chamber, and a husband lacking neither in wisdom nor looks.
Her husband Menelaus's account is, to say the least, a little different. He sees her as, if not an active collaborator with the Trojans, at any rate somewhat ambivalent in her support of the Greeks:
You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives. Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, and I, and Odysseus were there among them, hearing you call, and Diomedes and I were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. [Odyssey 4, 220-89]
The Allied soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, just across the straits from Hissarlik, the probable site of ancient Troy, were by no means unaware of these parallels. Their classically trained young officers were, indeed, preoccupied by the subject - possibly to the exclusion of other, more vital, concerns.

Jean Giraudoux: La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu
[The Trojan War will not take place] (1935)

Take, for instance, Patrick Shaw-Stewart's famous poem "Achilles in the Trench":
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.
The poem is valorised not only by those remarkable last two lines, but also by its author's own death, on active service, in 1917. I suppose what it's always recalled to me, though, rather than all of Achilles' dazzling deeds in the Iliad, are the last words we hear in his own voice, when he encounters Odysseus on his own journey to the Underworld:
Odysseus, don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead. [Odyssey 11, 465-540]

Kurz & Allison: First Battle of Bull Run (1861)

The American Civil War famously began in Wilmer McLean's front yard and finished in his back parlour.

McLean, a wholesale grocer, was so appalled by the experience of having his farm fought over in the first major engagement between the Union and Confederate armies, that he relocated his family in 1863. Unfortunately, the place he chose, an obscure little hamlet called Appomattox Courthouse, turned out to be the location of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

That's what I mean by a mythic dimension. There's no real meaning in this strange coincidence, but it seems to betoken some kind of cosmic symmetry in things: a design behind all the relentless bloodshed human beings seem determined to mete out upon one another.

Wilfred Owen: Selected Poems (2018)

Another, of course, is the awful fatality of Wilfred Owen's life and death. He died, on the 4th of November 1918 - almost exactly one hundred years ago - in an assault on the Sambre–Oise Canal. However, as the Folio Society are at pains to remind us in the advertisement for their sumptuous new illustrated edition of his selected poems:
... his parents received the telegram announcing his death on 11 November itself, just as the church bells rang out in Shrewsbury to mark the end of the Great War.
There lies the apparent design. The poet who wrote in the draft preface to his as yet unpublished poems:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
dominion or power,
Except War.
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
could somehow not be permitted to survive the war. Like Abraham Lincoln, or Achilles himself, he had to fall victim to it in order to achieve his full status as a sacrificial victim.

"He died that we may live." That's the kind of unctuous platitude that tends to come out on these occasions. And yet, it's hard to avoid a sense of strangeness about the whole thing, about the idea that the author of "Anthem for Doomed Youth" could not himself be allowed to outlive the war that turned him into perhaps the greatest of all war poet since Homer.

Mary Renault: The King Must Die (1958)

Mary Renault perhaps puts it best, in her novel The King Must Die (about the myth of Theseus), where she tries to explain the Ancient Greek concept of moira as:
The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn round it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the share of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end. Moira is all these things.
"The king must go willingly, or he is no king." Whether it is Abraham Lincoln going to Ford's Theatre to show himself to the public one last time, Wilfred Owen refusing to accept non-active service away from the Front Line, or Achilles weeping with Priam over the body of Hector, there is something superhuman about all these noble, almost transcendent gestures.

The armistice itself is replete with legends: many of them clustering around the strange symmetry of "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

In the cult British TV Sci-fi classic Sapphire and Steel, for instance (pictured at the head of this post), the storyline called "The Railway Station" concerns an out-of-the-way deserted railway platform haunted by a First World War soldier.

The precise nature of his grievance, and the reason he's been able to gather so many other disgruntled souls around him, hinges on the armistice: specifically, on the equation he keeps on drawing on the windows of the building:
11 / 11 / 11 / 11 = 18
It turns out that he was killed eleven minutes into that eleventh hour, and was thus an altogether unnecessary sacrifice to the gods of war.

Thomas Keneally: Gossip from the Forest (1975)

An even more complex set of ironies is explored in Thomas Keneally's 1975 novel Gossip from the Forest (subsequently made into a powerful, atmospheric film), about the German deputation sent to negotiate the surrender, and the subsequent murder by a right-wing fanatic of their leader, politician Matthias Erzberger, whilst walking in the Black forest a few years later.

From the Forest of Compiègne to the Black Forest, in fact.

Lady Ottoline Morrell: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (1920)

I don't mind admitting, though, that my favourite of all of the poetic moments associated with the armistice is the one recorded in Siegfried Sassoon's great poem "Everyone Sang":
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Sassoon survived. He went on to write many (mostly disappointing) further volumes of poems, but also a wonderful series of war memoirs and autobiographies. He got married, had a son, lived a long life. So let's not get too beguiled by the beautiful symmetries and high-mindedness of these seductive legends:
It is well, as Robert E. Lee said, that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.

Or, as the somewhat more mordant A. E. Housman said in his "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries":
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Classic Ghost Story Writers (5): Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson (1957)

I used to feel a bit ashamed of reading books by Colin Wilson. They definitely fall into the 'guilty pleasures' category. As you can see from the list below, I collected his fiction fairly assiduously up until the end of the 1970s, but then let the habit lapse.

I do have most of them, though - with the exception of the late 'Spider World' series (1987-2002), and a few others such as The Janus Murder Case (1984), The Personality Surgeon (1985), and the posthumous Lulu: an unfinished novel (2017).

The first one I encountered - and it's still my favourite - was The Mind Parasites (along with, to a slightly lesser extent, its successors The Return of the Lloigor and The Philosopher's Stone).

I'm not quite sure why I liked it so much at the time. True, it was full of bookish information, and ended with one of those characteristic Campbell-era Sci-fi Man-plus resolutions, but there was an unmistakable zest about it.

Colin Wilson: The Mind Parasites (1967)


  1. Ritual in the Dark. 1960. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1976.

  2. Adrift in Soho. 1961. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1964.

  3. The World of Violence. 1963. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1965.

  4. Man Without a Shadow. 1963. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1966.

  5. Necessary Doubt. 1964. London: Panther Books Ltd., 1966.

  6. The Glass Cage: An Unconventional Detective Story. 1966. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.

  7. The Mind Parasites. 1967. Berkeley, California: Oneiric Press, 1983.

  8. 'The Return of the Lloigor.' In Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Ed. August Derleth. 1969. London: Grafton, 1988. 439-501.

  9. The Philosopher's Stone. 1969. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1974.

  10. The God of the Labyrinth. 1970. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.

  11. The Killer. 1970. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.

  12. The Black Room. 1971. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1977.

  13. The Schoolgirl Murder Case. 1974. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.

  14. The Space Vampires. Granada Publishing Limited. Frogmore, St Albans, Hertfordshire: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd., 1976.

  15. 'A Novelization of Events in the Life and Death of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin.' In Tales of the Uncanny. New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983. 487-606.

Colin Wilson: The Philosopher's Stone (1969)

Already, though, I could see some of the features of Wilsonian fiction in general: the weird lack of affect, of any attempt to convey an atmosphere of reality - an atmosphere of anything, really, except people reading books and meeting other people to plan meeting more people to talk about the books and the ideas in them.

One might charitably call it Shavian, after one of his greatest influences, George Bernard Shaw. He too, eschews stylistic and tonal effects in favour of raw ratiocination.

Colin Wilson: Bernard Shaw: A Reassessment (1969)

The thing about Shaw, though, is that he makes difficult ideas sound simple. He has a lot of sensible things to say about a great many features of the world around him. Colin Wilson really only has one idea, dished up again and again in slightly different forms.

That idea is (in its simplest form) that we don't use our brains to the uttermost - that if there were some way in which we could protract and/or artificially induce what psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences," then mankind could be transformed.

Now whether or not this is a good idea is beside the point. Maslow denied the possibility that the euphoria of peak experiences could be brought on in such a way, but Wilson was convinced that he was wrong. Most of his - very extensive - work on the occult was concerned with whether or not certain mystics and clairvoyants had succeeded in doing so.

His interest in H. P. Lovecraft was mainly to denounce him as an enemy of this "positive" vision of life. That is, until he started writing Lovecraftian fiction himself, after which he used the mechanics of the Cthulhu Mythos to promote the idea of - guess what? - peak experiences, only by now he'd started calling them "faculty x."

Wilson was an appallingly prolific writer. There were, no doubt, many reasons for this: the need to make a living on book advances must have constituted a considerable temptation to pitch an endless series of books to his publishers (many of them thinly disguised re-hashes of what had gone before).

Colin Wilson: The Outsider (1956)

In critical terms, however, this is what doomed him to the literary fringes. The reviewers who'd hailed his first work The Outsider (1956) as an amazing piece of cultural insight, written by a 24-year-old working-class genius, were somewhat disconcerted to see Religion and the Rebel come thumping down the book-chute the very next year. They began to suspect they'd been had.

In reality, of course, The Outsider was not nearly as original and ground-breaking as they'd thought. It's a sign of the shallowness of British book culture of the time that names such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun and Rilke, mentioned by a man who'd clearly actually read them, seemed unduly impressive to a great many of these half-educated bigmouths. But then, its successors weren't nearly as bad as they claimed either.

Wilson's first six books, known collectively as "The Outsider Cycle": Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1959), The Strength to Dream (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963), Beyond the Outsider (1965) and the summary volume Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) may sound a bit monotonous at times, but they did introduce readers to one of his most considerable virtues: the ability to summarize other people's books and ideas clearly and interestingly - albeit at great length.

You may see this as a journalistic rather than a strictly writerly skill - but it does explain why even Wilson's more reluctant fans (such as myself) are prepared to lend shelf room to so many of his tomes.

Speaking personally, I could give a shit about 'faculty x'. None of the stuff he says about it seems to me to make it sound more than an agreeable fairy tale. He always cranks round to it sooner or later, though - except, perhaps, in some of his later, more unabashedly commercial, compilations, such as the 1991 Mammoth Book of the Supernatural, 'edited' by his son Damon Wilson, who also co-wrote a number of these late works. That particular tome, despite its considerable size, didn't even make it to the (admittedly rather flawed) listings on Wikpedia's Colin Wilson Bibliography page).

Colin Wilson: The Occult: A History (1971)

His bestselling book The Occult (1971) and its sequels Mysteries (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1988), as well the host of others on telemetry, past lives, poltergeists, After-death experiences, etc. etc. consist mainly of retellings of classic ghost stories and other strange happenings. That's why they're so very entertaining to read.

If you've tried the experiment of going from Wilson's version to the actual published work it was based on (as I have in the case of T. C. Lethbridge), you find just how grossly he simplifies, and how blatantly he bends their insights to fit in with his vision of a 'faculty x' dominated universe. This is bad.

Catherine Crowe: The Night-Side of Nature (1848)

On the other hand, however, I would probably never have encountered T. C. Lethbridge, or Catherine Crowe, or Atlantis theorist Rand Flem-Ath, or a host of other fascinating people and writers without the nudge given me by Colin Wilson's many, many works of summary and synthesis. It may not make him a great mind, but it certainly makes him a benefactor of a sort.

Harry Ritchie: Success Stories (1988)

Of course, there will always be mockers and scoffers who see Colin Wilson as a bit of a fraud or even (what's worse) a joke. If you'd like to read the case for the prosecution, I do recommend the very amusing chapter on Wilson and his acolytes (principally novelist Bill Hopkins and pop philosopher Stuart Holroyd) in Harry Ritchie's 1988 book Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England, 1950-1959 (conveniently summarised in this 2006 article):
[When he] handed his journals over to the Daily Mail [in December 1956] ... Wilson's private thoughts made for juicy copy. "The day must come when I am hailed as a major prophet," was one quote. "I must live on, longer than anyone else has ever lived ... to be eventually Plato's ideal sage and king ..."
Harry Ritchie is okay in my book. I met him once in a pub, and he insisted on shaking me by the hand when he discovered that I was the only other human being he'd ever met who'd actually heard of, let along read Kingsley Amis's first book of poems Bright November (1947). I'm not sure if I dared to admit to him that I actually had a xeroxed copy of the book shelved with all my other Amis-iana at home in New Zealand ...

Is Ritchie right about Wilson? Objectively, I fear he may well be. But that doesn't really account for the fact that I've had so much pleasure reading about obscure supernatural events in the endless pages of Wilson's stream-of-consciousness reading-notebooks-in-the-form-of-individually-titled-volumes. As one of G. K. Chesterton's characters once remarked (in his first novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill):
Next to authentic goodness in a book ... we desire a rich badness.
Wilson may be, in many ways, a bad writer, but it is a rich badness - and, really, who, even (I was about to write 'especially') among geniuses, isn't a bad writer at times?

So here it is, then, in all its glory, my own private library of Colin Wilsoniana. You'll note that it even includes a few of his many books on murder and serial killers, but that aspect of his interests I don't share at all. It's the occult and paranormal investigation stuff that really fascinates me:

A Colin Wilson library

Colin Henry Wilson


  1. The Outsider. 1956. Pan Piper. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1963.

  2. Religion and the Rebel. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1957.

  3. [with Patricia Pitman]: Encyclopedia of Murder. 1961. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1964.

  4. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. 1962. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1982.

  5. Origins of the Sexual Impulse. 1963. London: Panther Books Ltd., 1966.

  6. Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs. 1964. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.

  7. Colin Wilson On Music (Brandy of the Damned). 1964. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1967.

  8. Beyond the Outsider. 1965. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1966.

  9. Voyage to a Beginning: A Preliminary Autobiography. Introduction by Brocard Sewell. London: Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1969.

  10. The Occult: A History. 1971. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

  11. Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder. 1972. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1975.

  12. Strange Powers. 1973. London: Abacus, 1975.

  13. Tree by Tolkien. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1974.

  14. Mysteries: An Investigation into the Occult, the Paranormal and the Supernatural. 1978. London: Granada Publishing, 1979.

  15. Starseekers. 1980. London: Granada Books, 1982

  16. Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting. London: New English Library, 1981.

  17. The Psychic Detectives: The Story of Psychometry and Paranormal Crime Detection. London & Sydney: Pan Books, 1984.

  18. Afterlife: An Investigation of the Evidence for Life after Death. London: Harrap, 1985.

  19. Beyond the Occult. London: Guild Publishing, 1988.

  20. The Mammoth Book of the Supernatural. Ed. Damon Wilson. London: Robinson Publishing, 1991.

  21. [with Damon Wilson]: World Famous Strange Tales & Weird Mysteries. London: Magpie Books Ltd., 1992.

  22. [with Damon Wilson & Rowan Wilson]: World Famous Scandals. London: Magpie Books Ltd., 1992.

  23. From Atlantis to the Sphinx. London: Virgin Books, 1996.

  24. Ghost Sightings. Strange But True. Sydney: The Book Company, 1997.

  25. [with Rand Flem-Ath]: The Atlantis Blueprint. 2000. London: Warner Books, 2001.

Colin Wilson (2006)

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Peripeteia of Frances Yates

Frances Yates: The Art of Memory (1966)

And what, pray tell, does 'peripeteia' mean when it's at home?
a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative
is the best definition the online dictionary can provide.

I guess, in the case of Frances Yates, it refers to her transformation from an immensely learned but fairly dry-as-dust scholar of the intellectual life of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe (with particular reference to the flourishing of hermetic and magical discourses in the allegedly proto-scientific late Renaissance) into a kind of pop culture guru: the High Priestess of the more respectable side of New Age Occultism.

Dame Frances Amelia Yates (1899-1981)

Southsea, Portsmouth

Her earlier books, on John Florio, the first translator of Montaigne into English (1934); Shakespeare (Love's Labour's Lost, 1936), and such apparently recondite subjects as The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (1947) and The Valois Tapestries (1959), gave few signs of what was to come.

Reviewers were cautious about some of her 'wilder' conjectures, but for the most part she appeared just another habitué of Aby Warburg's superb library, transferred to England to avoid Nazi repression in 1933, and (as the Warburg Institute), affiliated with the University of London in 1944.

  1. John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England. 1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

  2. A Study of Love's Labour's Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936.

  3. The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century. 1947. London: Routledge, 1989

  4. The Valois Tapestries. 1959. London: Routledge, 2010.

The sea-change came with her next two publications: the double-whammy of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Art of Memory (1966). Wow! Talk about time, place and opportunity all coming together.

It was the age of The Morning of the Magicians (UK, translated as 'The Dawn of Magic': 1963 / US: 1964), Louis Pauwels' and Jacques Bergier's 1960 bestseller about the wilder side of twentieth century occultism. It all sounds familiar enough nowadays, but at the time most people had never even heard of the 'Vril Society' or the 'Thule Spceity" - let alone their philosophical connections with Nazism.

Le Matin des magiciens mixed up information about "conspiracy theories, ancient prophecies, alchemical transmutation, a giant race that once ruled the Earth, and the Nazca Lines" into what (in retrospect) seems a kind of blueprint for New Age nuttiness generally. Some of it may actually have been true, mind you.

It's not, I hasten to say, that Frances Yates's serious study of the memory systems of Ramon Lull and Giordano Bruno, and of the Renaissance Hermetic tradition generally had anything in common intellectually with Pauwels and Bergier's rather formless compendium of mid-twentieth century bugaboos and conspiracy theories, but it's impossible to deny that the same readers were attracted to both.

The Art of Memory in particular, outmoded though it may be in some few particulars fifty years after its publication, remains one of the most exciting books of intellectual history I've ever read. Its devotees are many, and the number of memory system addicts it has spawned must be many (even TV mentalist Derren Brown has claimed to practise its precepts).

  1. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. 1964. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul / Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1982.

  2. The Art of Memory. 1966. A Peregrine Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

All of which brings me to the second meaning of peripeteia in my title above.

I wish I could date it precisely, but it must have been sometime in the mid-1980s that I was browsing through Anah Dunsheath's Rare Books on High Street, when I stumbled across a little pile of books shoved to one side of the entrance to her shop.

They were, in fact, four. As well as the two books mentioned directly above, there were also:

  1. Frances Yates. Lull and Bruno. Collected Essays 1 (of 3). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

  2. Scott, Walter, ed. & trans. Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Vol. 1: Introduction / Texts and Translation. 4 vols. 1924. Boulder: Hermes House, 1982.

Hermetica, vol. 1 (1982)

All in all, it looked as if some budding Occultist had bought a bunch of exciting looking books about all sorts of esoteric matters, and had either found them too boring and abstruse for their taste, or else found a more desperate need for ready cash. Reader, I bought them.

Bought them and took them home with me and immediately started in on The Art of Memory and, really, nothing has been the same for me ever since. It was just so strange and fascinating: it gave an entirely new angle on classical antiquity, on figures as well known as Simonides and Cicero, but then - in the later chapters - it completely overturned any notions I'd had that Giordano Bruno had been a martyr to science, or that any number of my Renaissance heroes had been devoted to "reason" in any modern sense of the term.

It was, I must confess, a long time before I read the first part of her diptych, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, which seemed to me then (it doesn't now) a bit anticlimactic after the highs of The Art of Memory. Nor did I get very far with the rather boring translation of the Hermetica. The book of essays, Lull and Bruno, was very good value indeed, though, and offered a whole series of new perspectives on this matter of the Hermetic tradition.

There is a certain amount about Ramon Lull in The Art of Memory, but the essays collected here gave a glimpse of her mind at work: her painstaking way of collecting evidence, venturing conjectures, and building on them to make immensely pleasing - if not always entirely convincing - wholes.

Anyone who's at all familiar with my own fiction (a somewhat select group, admittedly) will have observed the pervasive Yatesian influence. It's particularly strong in my first two novels, Nights with Giordano Bruno (the title is a bit of a giveaway), and The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (which lent its name to this blog), but also in the novella Trouble in Mind (2005).

After that the fever subsided a bit, but Frances Yates still is my go-to gal when it comes to any kind of abstruse or coded information. Her work has its ups and downs, definitely, but basically I consider her both completely intellectually honest and greatly gifted creatively - the models she came up so regularly with in her works of intellectual history have a huge mythopoetic force to them.

Her later work is more of a mixed bag. It was assured of a much wider sale than most historians of ideas enjoy, which led to jealousy from less fortunate colleagues. It also, at times, advanced some rather dubious conjectures on such subjects as the underlying design of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, and the precise influences at work in the court of King Frederick of Bohemia (whose ousting from the throne led directly to the Thirty Years War in Germany).

Here are her five late books, copies of all of which I've collected along the way:

  1. Theatre of the World. 1969. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

  2. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. 1972. A Paladin Book. Frogmore, St Albans: Granada Publishing Ltd., 1975.

  3. Astrea (1975)

  4. Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. 1975. Ark Paperbacks. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

  5. Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach. 1975. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

  6. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. 1979. Ark Paperbacks. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that she was having fun in these last books. They touch on all the themes dear to her heart, and they're all exhaustively researched, and yet they're not quite so convincing as the best of her mature work. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, in particular, is a dazzling read. Whether or not "Christian Rosenkreuz" and the various strange letters circulating around the continent in the early seventeenth century can really be explained by reference to the politics of the Holy Roman Empire may seem doubtful at times, but certainly nobody else has succeeded in making more sense of that strange tangle of esoteric philosophy and partisan religious politics.

Similarly, I'm not sure that she proves her point about the shape and structure of Shakespeare's various theatres, but she brings in Robert Fludd, John Dee, and an awe-inspiring range of learning which gives one some idea of just how complex and delightful such intellectual puzzles can be.

Nowadays, of course, these things have been vulgarised and made ridiculous by such absurd gallimaufries of half-digested platitude and pointless factoid as The Da Vinci Code and its progenitor The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. When Yates was writing, though, one could still theorise without the haunting shadow of Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, and Benjamin Gates (from National Treasure).

By contrast, it's never safe to assume that Yates has gone out too far on a limb, or that she doesn't really know what she's talking about. All of her books, in the final analysis, constitute tentative suggestions for future researchers in the field. She's no crank, but is always evidence-driven and willing to change her mind as and when new facts and theories emerge.

I've often dreamed of completing my Frances Yates collection: buying up all the older books I don't have, as well as the remaining volumes in her collected essays. They are quite expensive, for the most part, though, so I guess I'm still waiting for some blessed windfall like that day 35-odd years ago when I bent over to look at a stack of dusty-looking books on Anah Dunsheath's floor.

  1. Lull and Bruno. Collected Essays, vol. 1 of 3 (1982)

  2. Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. Collected Essays, vol. 2 of 3 (1983)

  3. Ideas and Ideals in the North European Renaissance. Collected Essays, vol. 3 of 3 (1984)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Classic Ghost Story Writers (4): H. P. Lovecraft

It's tempting to be facetious about the strange worlds of H. P. Lovecraft, "the twentieth century horror story's dark and baroque prince," as Stephen King famously described him.

I think a quick peek at the picture above will cure you of any notion that Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was gifted with much of a sense of humour. Life, for him, was a terrifying and frustrating business.

Here's a little photo-montage to enable you to visualise him more clearly:

What kind of a writer was he? An over-the-top, boots-and-all, pedal-to-the-metal user of every adjective and adverb under the sun to get the extreme effects he craved. His prose may not always be pretty, but it does have a certain brute effectiveness to it.

Here's an example of his early fantasy writing, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," a long novella deeply indebted to Lord Dunsany:
Well did the traveler know those garden lands that lie betwixt the wood of the Cerenerian Sea, and blithely did he follow the singing river Oukranos that marked his course. The sun rose higher over gentle slopes of grove and lawn, and heightened the colors of the thousand flowers that starred each knoll and dangle. A blessed haze lies upon all this region, wherein is held a little more of the sunlight than other places hold, and a little more of the summer's humming music of birds and bees; so that men walk through it as through a faery place, and feel greater joy and wonder than they ever afterward remember.

And here's a piece of his more mature writing:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I guess what those of us brought up on his stories relish most, though, are the fragments of unknown, hellish languages he liked to mix into his stories. Here's a wonderful example from 'The Shadow over Innsmouth', cunningly blended with New England dialect:
"Yield up enough sacrifices an' savage knick-knacks an' harbourage in the taown when they wanted it, an' they'd let well enough alone. Wudn't bother no strangers as might bear tales aoutside—that is, withaout they got pryin'. All in the band of the faithful—Order o' Dagon—an' the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an' Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—"

Steve Thomas: Innsmouth

He's best known for his creation of a thing called the 'Cthulhu Mythos': a more-or-less consistent, interconnected mythology which gradually came into being in such stories as 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'The Dunwich Horror,' and reached its full flowering in the late novel 'At the Mountains of Madness' and his final completed story 'The Shadow Out of Time'.

The artist Steve Thomas has created a series of mocked-up travel posters for particularly significant Lovecraftian destinations:

Steve Thomas: Arkham, Massachusetts

Chief among them, of course, is Arkham, Massachusetts, home of the Miskatonic University, whose library boasts a copy of that most recondite of volumes The Necronomicon, written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, and a source of considerable inconvenience to everyone who encounters it, whether in the original or in its variously expurgated translations into a myriad of tongues.

Abdul Alhazred: The Necronomicon

Arkham (allegedly a blend of Salem, Massachusetts, and the author's hometown Providence, Rhode Island), has more than its fair share of demons, hauntings, empty graves, corpses with their faces gnawed off, spectral beasts, and even radioactive meteorites from outer space.

Nor is there any sense in pretending that Lovecraft was just playing around with these things for poetic effect. His paranoias and neurotic fears were very real. Take, for instance, the following conversation about "H. P. Lovecraft's Phobias" on Yahoo Answers!:
Question: I've heard that Lovecraft had various phobias, what were they?

Best Answer:
  • Gelatinous seafood and the smell of fish (severe).
  • Unfamilar types of human faces that deviated from his ethnic norm (severe).
  • Doctors and hospitals (mild).
  • Large enclosed spaces (subway systems, large caves etc., mild).
  • He also seems to have had a mild phobia about tall buildings and the possibility of being trapped under one after a collapse.
  • Very cold weather (probably justifiable, since he tended to faint in it).
- Source: David Haden
If you'd like to know more about that or other recondite matters, you could do worse than consult the following tome, by the indefatigable Leslie S. Klinger, annotator of Sherlock Holmes, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Alan Moore's Watchmen and a host of others:

Leslie Klinger, ed. The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (2014)

  • Klinger, Leslie S., ed. The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. Introduction by Alan Moore. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2014.

The main thing to emphasise is that this strange mixture of aesthetic recidivism, obsessive compulsion, and perverse white supremacism somehow combined into a body of work almost as influential on the twentieth century as Poe's was on the nineteenth.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just try googling "H. P. Lovecraft in popular culture" sometime.

Nor is his fan base entirely confined to readers of comics and pulp paperbacks with their caps on backwards (a proud group of human beings I'm happy to belong to: with the exception of the cap, that is). He recently joined the very select company of the Library of America, the only twentieth century horror writer as yet to do so (with the exception of the comparatively high culture Shirley Jackson):

H. P. Lovecraft. Tales, ed. Peter Straub (2005)

  • Lovecraft, H. P. Tales. Ed. Peter Straub. The Library of America, 155. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2005.

One of the most pleasing of the recent tributes to his influence is Alan Moore's remarkable series of comics set in a slightly alternative America of the 1930s:

Jasen Burrows: Providence 3 Cover (2015)

  1. Neonomicon. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2011.
  2. Providence: Act 1. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #1-#4. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.
  3. Providence: Act 2. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #5-#8. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.
  4. Providence: Act 3. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #9-#12. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.

Jacen Burrows: Providence (2017)

Composed in his characteristic cross-genre mix of 'straight' comics and associated prose pieces and appendices, Moore's narrative described the odyssey of a hapless journalist over a thinly disguised version of Lovecraft's New England, resulting in the usual dire consequences for the entire human race.

Let's just say that these comics go some places that other fan fictions seldom do. They take a good look at Lovecraft's xenophobia and misognyny but pay full tribute to the power of his mythopoeic imagination, also. Not always to comforting effect, it should be said:

Jasen Burrows: Neonomicon 3 Cover (2010)

Beyond that, I have to say that I can't help but find amusing some of the Lovecraftian spoofs that seem to throng the web. This one, for instance, parodying those 'Sea-monkey' adverts so madly attractive to us as kids - when we were lucky enough to come across a stash of bona fide American comics, that is:

I guess that a lot of the 'shoggoth' references, and mentions of the "Great Old Ones' - not to mention 'Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos', or 'Shub-Niggurath, Goat with a Thousand Young', or even great Cthulhu him - it? - self, don't really make much sense to the uninitiate, but this one, at least, has a pleasing brevity to it:

And these are all very sound rules if you ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself caught in the midst of a Lovecraftian scenario:

On and on and on they go: Lovecraftian ice-cream flavours, carnival exhibitions, you name it, it's there:

But back to the serious world of bibliomania and book-collecting. I still remember the disquieting experience of asking in a Takapuna bookshop if they had any Lovecraft books, only to be solemnly informed by the shop assistant that not only did they not, but that she doubted the very existence of such books. I recall the slightly roguish expression on her face when I brought out the dread syllables 'Love-craft,' and the distinct impression she gave that I was on some kind of subterranean quest for porno. Fat chance in the New Zealand of the early 1970s!

To add insult to injury, I'd seen those very books in that same bookshop only a month or two before. So her denials were, to say the least, somewhat disingenuous. When I tell you that what I'd seen was something like this, though, you may understand better her reluctance to engage with such "literature." God bless pulp cover illustrators!

H. P. Lovecraft. The Lurking Fear and Other Stories (1973)

Never mind. In spite of the opposition of such petty minds, I eventually managed to assemble the six garish paperbacks which constituted the Master's collected horror fiction:
  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. 1951. London: Panther, 1970.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror. 1966. London: Panther, 1973.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. The Lurking Fear and Other Stories. 1964. London: Panther, 1973.

  4. Lovecraft, H. P. The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales. 1964. London: Panther, 1970.

  5. Lovecraft, H. P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. 1967. London: Panther, 1973.

  6. Lovecraft, H. P. The Tomb and Other Tales. 1967. London: Panther, 1974.

If you looked carefully enough (I did), you'd observe that these six paperbacks actually constituted trimmed-down, British versions of the following three American hardbacks, all edited by by Lovecraft's most faithful disciple August Derleth, and published by Arkham House, the firm Derleth started to perpetuate the Master's work after his untimely death at the age of 47.

H. P. Lovecraft. The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963)

  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Dunwich Horror and Others: The Best Supernatural Stories. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1963.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1964.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1965.

H. P. Lovecraft. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965)

The first two collections of Lovecraft's work issued by Arkham House are now fabulously rare and valuable. Here they both are (I'm sorry to say, if you're wondering, that I don't own copies of either of them):

H. P. Lovecraft. The Outsider and Others (1939)

H. P. Lovecraft. Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943)

Note the advertisement, above, for a book by Clark Ashton Smith, who, along with Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, constituted the 'Big Three' of the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales, which flourished - largely because of their work and that of other members of the Lovecraft group - throughout the early to mid-1930s.

There are innumerable modern editions of Lovecraft - many of them 'corrected' or at least re-edited by horror story polymath S. T. Joshi:

Leslie Boba: S. T. Joshi (1958- )

  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi. 2001. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.

Ludwig Prinn: De Vermis Mysteriis (1809)

There's also a weird, less easily classifiable penumbra of works 'edited by' Lovecraft (this was indeed the main way he made his meager living), or 'based on' his manuscripts, or 'inspired by' his themes (particularly those embodied in the Cthulhu mythos). I have a small collection of these, but the field is a vast one:

August Derleth (1909-1971)

  1. Lovecraft, H. P., & August Derleth. The Shadow out of Time and Other Tales of Horror. London: Victor Gollancz, 1968.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P., & August Derleth. The Lurker at the Threshold: A Novel of the Macabre. 1945. London: Victor Gollancz, 1968.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. & Others. Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Ed. August Derleth. 1975. London: Grafton, 1988.

Then there's the miscellaneous and secondary literature. There are collections of letters, of poetry (including his masterwork in this form, 'Fungi from Yuggoth'), of essays, of virtually anything you please. There are also numerous biographies and critical studies.

Of these I have only the first, somewhat dismissive one by L. Sprague de Camp, along with Colin Wilson's pioneering essay of 1962. Since then, however, the field has expanded vastly, due initially to the combined efforts of Derleth and Joshi, but now thanks largely to the incremental effect Academia tends to have on all such harmless pursuits:

L. Sprague de Camp: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975)

  1. De Camp, L. Sprague. Lovecraft: A Biography. 1975. London: New English Library, 1976.

  2. Wilson, Colin. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. 1962. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1982.

Colin Wilson: The Strength to Dream (1962)