Saturday, February 24, 2024

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Algernon Blackwood


Algernon Blackwood: The Wendigo and Other Stories (2023)


'The Wendigo' (1910) remains my favourite story by Algernon Blackwood, and - indeed - one of my favourite horror stories of all time.

I know that H. P. Lovecraft preferred the earlier 'The Willows' (1907), and I certainly acknowledge the wonderfully atmospheric effects achieved by Blackwood in that story, but it just can't compare with the sense of cosmic terror, as well as the intensity of his descriptions of the Northern woods, in 'The Wendigo'.


M. Grant Kellermeyer: Classic Horror Blog (2019)

"Oh, oh! This fiery height! Oh, oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!"
If you haven't read the story (you can find an online text of it here), those words will sound very strange to you. If you have, they'll be only too meaningful.

But what exactly is a wendigo (or windigo, as it's also called)?
The wendigo is often said to be a malevolent spirit, sometimes depicted as a creature with human-like characteristics, which possesses human beings. It is said to cause its victims a feeling of insatiable hunger, the desire to eat other humans, and the propensity to commit murder. In some representations, the wendigo is described as a giant humanoid with a heart of ice, whose approach is signaled by a foul stench or sudden unseasonable chill.
- Wikipedia: Wendigo
This is far from Blackwood's description of it as a "moss-eater", with huge misshapen feet from its bounds up into the fiery upper air. In general he is careful to avoid its associations with cannibalism, a perennial problem for many of the Northern First Nations tribes, who often ran short of food in winter if the harvest had been bad the year before, and who therefore tended to be accused of acts of cannibalism by missionaries and colonisers (as historian Francis Parkman records in his 1865 account The Pioneers of France in the New World).

Here's a typical Windigo folktale, collected from a Chippewa informant by Lottie Chicogquaw Marsden:
One time long ago a big Windigo stole an Indian boy, but the boy was too thin, so the Windigo didn't eat him up right away, but he travelled with the Indian boy waiting for him till he'd get fat. The Windigo had a knife and he'd cut the boy on the hand to see if he was fat enough to eat, but the boy didn't get fat. They travelled too much. One day they came to an Indian village and the Windigo sent the boy to the Indian village to get some things for him to eat. He just gave the boy so much time to go there and back. The boy told the Indians that the Windigo was near them, and showed them his hand where the Windigo cut him to see if he was fat enough to eat. They heard the Windigo calling the boy. He said to the boy "Hurry up. Don't tell lies to those Indians." All of these Indians went to where the Windigo was and cut off his legs. They went back again to see if he was dead. He wasn't dead. He was eating the juice (marrow) from the inside of the bones of his legs that were cut off. The Indians asked the Windigo if there was any fat on them. He said, "You bet there is, I have eaten lots of Indians, no wonder they are fat." The Indians then killed him and cut him to pieces. This was the end of this Giant Windigo.

Sophia Cathryn: Wendigo (2022)


As you can see from the illustration above, Wendigos are generally depicted as being cadaverously thin, ravenously hungry, and prone to eating their own faces and limbs if no other food is available - hence their blood-stained teeth. They can also pass on this curse to others, which may account for the return of the French Canadian guide Défago in altered form at a crucial point in Blackwood's story. They don't always have horns, so it's not necessarily easy to identify them at first.

It's just one of many stories Blackwood set in the wilds of Canada. One of the best of the others is "A Haunted Island" (1899), though "Skeleton Lake" (1906) runs it a close second.


Algernon Blackwood: John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1908)


Probably the most impressive of his many collections of mostly fantastic and supernatural stories is John Silence, Physician Extraordinary. John Silence is clearly an heir to Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr. Martin Hesselius, the psychic physician, as well as Bram Stoker's Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, bane of vampires everywhere.

John Silence is, however, more of a spectator than an active participant in the events he witnesses. He's probably at his best in "Secret Worship," set at a haunted boys' school in the Black Forest of Germany, but all of the six stories he figures in (five in the original book; another, "A Victim of Higher Space," collected later) are well worth reading.



It's true that many of Algernon Blackwood's fictions offend against one or other of the three rules for effective ghost stories laid out by his close contemporary M. R. James in the preface to his own collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911):
I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of ‘occultism’, if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.

Algernon Blackwood: Ancient Sorceries (2022)


  1. the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day ...
  2. Blackwood, by contrast, is fond of setting his stories in Canada, or on the lower reaches of the Danube, or on an island in the Baltic, or in a mysterious small town in France. That is, in fact, part of their attraction. One feels, in almost every case, that he's writing about a place familiar to him, and describing the kinds of characters encountered by him in his adventurous early life.

  3. the ghost should be malevolent or odious ...
  4. This is probably true of the Wendigo itself (though that's debatable), but as a general rule, Blackwood's ghosts and occult manifestations of various kinds tend to be largely indifferent to mankind: they operate according to their own rules, for reasons that remain largely obscure to us. The danger comes from the intersection of these otherwordly entities with our own quotidian concerns.

  5. the technical terms of ‘occultism’ tend to put the mere ghost story upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.
  6. It seems probable that James had Blackwood specifically in mind when he wrote this sentence. There's a lot of 'quasi' (or pseudo-) scientific discourse in a good many of his stories, particularly the ones which star John Silence, though in this he was following the example of such classic supernatural novellas as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859).



Algernon Blackwood: The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906)


There's an expansiveness and range to the best of Blackwood's early stories which far surpasses his later work in the genre, influenced (as it was) by the need to provide stories short enough to broadcast or to fit into the increasingly restrictive demands of magazines.

Despite this, over time he built quite a reputation as a reader of his own stories on radio, and (eventually) on the burgeoning medium of television. But he should really be seen - along with Wilkie Collins, M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu - as one of the principal ornaments of the golden age of ghost stories, roughly from the mid-nineteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War.

It's a shame that there's no really comprehensive collection of his work in this genre, uneven in quality though it undoubtedly is. Perhaps the best introduction to his work remains E. F. Bleiler's careful selection, published by Dover in 1973.


E. F. Bleiler, ed.: Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (1973)


Mind you, the wendigo itself has gone on to become one of the standard 'cryptids' - along with Bigfoot, the chupacabra, the Loch Ness monster, and the Jersey Devil - investigated by proponents of the pseudoscience known as Cryptozoology. It also bears an obvious resemblance to the Slender Man figure in contemporary pop culture.

It's even inspired a couple of feature films, as well as numerous stories, comics, novels and even role-playing games.


Larry Fessenden, dir. & writ.: Wendigo (2001)





Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Henry Blackwood
(1869-1951)


    Novels:

  1. Jimbo: A Fantasy (1909)
  2. The Education of Uncle Paul (1909)
  3. The Human Chord (1910)
  4. The Centaur (1911)
  5. A Prisoner in Fairyland [sequel to The Education of Uncle Paul] (1913)
  6. The Extra Day (1915)
  7. Julius LeVallon (1916)
    • Julius LeVallon: An Episode. London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1916.
  8. The Wave (1916)
  9. The Promise of Air (1918)
  10. The Garden of Survival (1918)
  11. The Bright Messenger [sequel to Julius LeVallon] (1921)
  12. Dudley & Gilderoy: A Nonsense (1929)

  13. Children's Books:

  14. Sambo and Snitch (1927)
  15. The Fruit Stoners: Being the Adventures of Maria Among the Fruit Stoners (1934)

  16. Plays:

  17. [with Violet Pearn] The Starlight Express. Music by Edward Elgar (1915)
  18. [with Violet Pearn] Karma: A Reincarnation Play (1918)
  19. [with Bertram Forsyth] The Crossing (1920)
  20. [with Violet Pearn] Through the Crack (1920)
  21. [with Bertram Forsyth] White Magic (1921)
  22. [with Elaine Ainley] The Halfway House (1921)
  23. [with Frederick Kinsey Peile] Max Hensig (1929)

  24. Short story collections:

  25. The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906)
  26. The Listener and Other Stories (1907)
  27. John Silence (1908)
    • John Silence, Physician Extraordinary. 1908. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1912.
  28. The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910)
  29. Pan's Garden: A Volume of Nature Stories (1912)
  30. Ten Minute Stories (1914)
  31. Incredible Adventures (1914)
  32. Day and Night Stories (1917)
  33. Wolves of God, and Other Fey Stories (1921)
  34. Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches (1924)
    • Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches. 1924. London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, n.d.
  35. Shocks (1935)
  36. The Doll and One Other (1946)

  37. Short Story Selections:

  38. Ancient Sorceries and Other Tales (1927)
  39. The Dance of Death and Other Tales (1927)
    • The Dance of Death and Other Stories. 1927. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973.
  40. Strange Stories (1929)
  41. Short Stories of To-Day & Yesterday (1930)
  42. The Willows and Other Queer Tales. Ed. G. F. Maine (1932)
  43. The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1938)
  44. Selected Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1942)
    • Selected Tales: Stories of the Supernatural and Uncanny. 1943. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.
  45. Selected Short Stories of Algernon Blackwood (1945)
  46. Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (1949)
    • Included in: Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  47. In the Realm of Terror (1957)
  48. Selected Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1964)
  49. Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre (1967)
    • Included in: Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  50. Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories (1968)
    • Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories. 1906-1908. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  51. Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. Ed. Everett F. Bleiler (1973)
    • Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. Preface by the Author. 1938. Ed. E. F. Beiler. New York: Dover Books, Inc., 1973.
  52. The Best Supernatural Tales of Algernon Blackwood. Ed. Felix Morrow (1973)
    • The Best Supernatural Tales of Algernon Blackwood. 1929. Introduction by Felix Morrow. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.
  53. Tales of Terror and Darkness (1977)
    • Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  54. Tales of the Supernatural. Ed. Mike Ashley (1983)
  55. The Magic Mirror. Ed. Mike Ashley (1989)
  56. The Complete John Silence Stories. [with "A Victim of Higher Space"]. Ed. S. T. Joshi (1997)
  57. Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi (2002)
  58. Algernon Blackwood's Canadian Tales of Terror. Ed. John Robert Colombo (2004)
  59. Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories (2022)
  60. The Wendigo and Other Stories. Ed. Aaron Worth. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.






Saturday, February 17, 2024

Troy Town


Leo Deuel, ed.: Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann (1978)


Troy Town is the traditional name for many of the mazes and earthworks of England. This may refer to the tricky way in which the walls of Troy were constructed, full of dead-ends and blind corners to baffle an enemy. Or, alternatively, it may be just because the razing of the city of Troy, leaving only a few mounds of earth behind, has been seen ever since as emblematic of such scenes of utter devastation.


Heinrich Schliemann (1821-1890)


Recently I've been reading a compilation of autobiographical pieces by Heinrich Schliemann, the (so-called) discoverer of Troy. Schliemann was a bit of a con-man, an inveterate exaggerator, and a self-promoter on a Barnum-like scale, but there was also a touch of genius in him. His instincts often led him to the right place at the right time when others' well-reasoned arguments led them astray.

His initial excavations at Hisarlik, the Anatolian hillock which he believed to be the site of Homer's Troy, were catastrophic. He dug a huge trench through the centre of the mound, in the process destroying many of the remains which might later have helped him and others reconstruct crucial layers of the ancient city. To some extent he made up for this in subsequent years as he found collaborators with a firmer knowledge of archaeological method, but the fact is that he probably did more harm than good as an actual excavator.

He was, however, largely responsible for the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected civilisation. Whether you call it Minoan or Mycenaean, the existence of an advanced, sophisticated culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, long before the Classical Age, was unsuspected before he began his explorations in the 1870s. In the process, Schliemann whipped up a frenzy of enthusiasm not just for treasure hunting but for scientific archaeology in the Europe of his time.

He remains an ambiguous figure, but his contribution to the debate over the historicity of Homer's Troy is undeniable.


Michael Wood: In Search of the Trojan War (1985)


But why should there even be such a debate? Is there anything intrinsically implausible in the story of Troy? Whether the war was fought because of the abduction of Helen of Sparta by the Trojan Prince Paris, as Homer claimed, or over trade-routes through the Bosphorus, as the Greek historian Herodotus preferred to describe it, the basic plotline of a destructive conflict between west and east hasn't changed that much over the past three millennia.

Nor have the ruinous results.


Al Jazeera: Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza Strip (31/10/23)


As I write, Netanyahu's soldiers are invading hospitals and exulting as they blow up mosques. They film themselves doing it, in fact. Shades of Ajax and Achilles looting and desecrating their enemies' bodies!



Has anything changed in the intervening period? The weapons have got more powerful, and the propaganda easier to slipstream around the world. Otherwise, it's business as usual for humanity: hatred, lies, contempt for anyone you can define as 'Other', on whatever flimsy pretext you can find.

Perhaps in another few hundred years archaeologists will be speculating on the various layers of pulverised debris they find in their excavations in ancient Canaan / Judea, modern Israel / Palestine. Maybe they'll conclude that the whole idea of an Israel-Gaza war was just a myth: after all, the subsequent layers of radioactive fallout will have wiped out any sense of whatever civilisation (if any) proceeded the bombardment.

For the moment, though, women and children are dying in their thousands. It seems impossible to exaggerate the terror and privations being suffered by the people of Gaza: 27,708 is this morning's total of dead. Just stop. How can that be so impossible to achieve? Have we learned nothing at all from those previous massacres and cataclysms?




Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
- Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)


Rear Window


A friend of mine
set up a camera
in the back of her car

and drove down the hill
to the beach and back
art film

scoffed her boyfriend
and yet
there was something

so strange in the way
it bucked and leapt
as it recorded 

the unchanging mountains
behind
with no hint of the wild sea in front

Benjamin’s angel of history
does that
sweeps on

looking back
unable to help
as the rubble and graves pile up

they used to project it at rock concerts



Demonstration in London (14/10/23)

CEASEFIRE NOW!


Friday, January 19, 2024

Who the heck is Solar Pons?


August Derleth: The Solar Pons Omnibus (1982)
August Derleth. The Solar Pons Omnibus. 2 vols. Ed. Basil Copper. Drawings by Frank Utpatel. Foreword by Robert Bloch. A Mycroft & Moran Book. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1982.

The other day I ran across this strange pair of volumes in a local secondhand bookshop. Solar Pons? Who on earth could that be? I was, of course, familiar with the name of the author, August Derleth, from my extensive reading of the late H. P. Lovecraft, whose literary executor he was ... or claimed to be.

"Solar Pons", though ... "pons" is the Latin word for bridge, and "solar" for all things pertaining to the sun. Was the intention, perhaps, to suggest some kind of Bifrost-like bridge leading to enlightenment?


Richard Lancelyn Green, ed.: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985)

"God said: Let Sherlock be! and all was light ..."
- John Masefield


But enough of this trifling. "Solar Pons" is an avatar of "Sherlock Holmes", as I knew already from a scatter of references here and there. He isn't included in Richard Lancelyn Green's classic anthology The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as that collection is confined solely to stories using the original names.

But then that was Derleth's original intention, too:
On hearing that Doyle did not plan to write more Sherlock Holmes stories, the young Derleth wrote to him, asking permission to take over the series. Doyle graciously declined, but Derleth, despite having never been to London, set about finding a name that was syllabically similar to "Sherlock Holmes," and wrote his first set of pastiches in 1928, which were published in The Dragnet Magazine in 1929.
- Wikipedia: Solar Pons



Elementary (7 series: 2012-2019)


We've certainly become rather accustomed to updated film and television versions of Sherlock Holmes over the past couple of decades.


Sherlock (4 series: 2010-2017)



Sherlock Holmes (2 films: 2009 & 2011)



House, M.D. (8 series: 2004-2012)


And if you're tempted to query the presence of Dr. House in this grouping, what can one say of a man whose best friend is called "Wilson" (= Watson), and who's segued from a consulting detective to a consulting diagnostician? In any case, I've canvassed that subject extensively here.

Of the other three pictured above: Robert Downey Jr's steampunk version of Holmes; Benedict Cumberbatch's excessively cerebral, almost Alan Turing-like incarnation of the great man; and Jonny Lee Miller's New York-based junkie impersonation of the detective, I'm rather surprised to put on record here that at present it's Jonny Lee Miller who scoops the prize for me.

No doubt that has something to do with a serendipitous pairing with the dazzling Lucy Liu, definitely the most impressive Watson to date - so much better than Martin Freeman's petulant misery-guts, or even Jude Law's no-nonsense action man. In any case, for those of you who haven't seen it, Elementary is a very satisfying exercise in suspension of disbelief.


Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. (4 series: 1984-1994)


So what's next? Sherlock Holmes on ice? With an eventual total of 154 episodes, Jonny Lee Miller is now (according to Wikipedia) "the actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes the most times in television and/or film, overtaking Jeremy Brett (with 41 television episodes) and Eille Norwood (with 47 silent films)."

It may, however, interest you to know that Derleth wrote "more stories about Pons than Conan Doyle did about Holmes." Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes, whereas Derleth wrote more than seventy stories (plus a couple of novels) about Pons.


August Derleth (1909-1971)


There are obvious similarities between the two. Pons lives at 7B Praed Street; Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Pons' companion in crime is called Dr. Parker; Holmes's Dr. Watson. Pons' landlady is Mrs. Johnson; Holmes's Mrs. Hudson. Pons' Inspector Jamison stands in for Holmes' Inspector Lestrade - et al. Each has a group of "Irregulars" who assists him in scouring the labyrinthine warrens of Old London Town ...

There are, however, significant differences as well. The Pons stories are set in the 1920s and 30s, starting just after the First World War. The Holmes stories are set some forty years earlier, in the twilight years of the Victorian era (with one significant flash-forward, in "His Last Bow," to a piece of espionage during the Great War). Pons frequently mentions his "great predecessor," and even comments on the resemblance of some investigation or another to once conducted by Holmes himself.

Nor are the other characters precisely interchangeable. Dr. Parker is a far more peevish and irritable companion than Watson, and there is far less sniping at the official police in the Pons adventures. Nor is Mrs. Johnson's sang-froid at the goings-on of her unusual tenant nearly as tenuous as Mrs. Hudson's.

Pons lives in a rather more cushioned fantasy world than his progenitor Holmes. He also encounters other heroes of the time, such as Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu, Agatha Christie's Poirot, Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, and even Leslie Carteris's Saint on various occasions, which might have the deleterious effect of breaking the fourth wall, but which nevertheless provides innocent amusement to fans such as myself.


August Derleth: The Casebook of Solar Pons (1965)


But are the stories themselves any good? Well, that's debatable. They're surprisingly readable. Pons is seldom at a loss when it comes to solving the neat little puzzles that present themselves to him (more often than not by an attractive young lady who "instinctively" addresses herself to him despite the presence in the room of the gloomy Dr. Parker). He often repeats classical Holmesian adages such as "the game's afoot", and is seldom seen without a deerstalker - an item of clothing invented by Doyle's illustrators rather than by the author.

Here's a list of Derleth's original collections:
  1. "In Re: Sherlock Holmes": The Adventures of Solar Pons (1945)
  2. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1951)
  3. The Return of Solar Pons (1958)
  4. The Reminiscences of Solar Pons (1961)
  5. The Casebook of Solar Pons (1965)
  6. A Praed Street Dossier (1968)
  7. Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (1968)
  8. The Chronicles of Solar Pons (1973)
All of the stories in these books, including the novel Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey, are included in The Solar Pons Omnibus (1982), pictured above.


Basil Copper (1924-2013)


The story doesn't finish there, though - not by a long chalk. After Derleth's death in 1971, the character was revived by British horror and detective writer Basil Copper (author of Necropolis, among many other titles). He went on to write a further eight volumes of Solar Pons adventures, initially with the cooperation of Derleth's estate, but later on his own:
  1. The Dossier of Solar Pons (1979)
  2. The Further Adventures of Solar Pons (1979)
  3. The Secret Files of Solar Pons (1979)
  4. The Uncollected Cases of Solar Pons (1979)
  5. The Exploits of Solar Pons (1993)
  6. The Recollections of Solar Pons (1995)
  7. Solar Pons Versus The Devil’s Claw (2004)
  8. Solar Pons: The Final Cases (2005)
Most challenging of all to true believers, however, was his editing of The Solar Pons Omnibus. As well as breaking the continuity of Derleth's original volumes into approximate chronological order (as in William Baring-Gould's similarly controversial Annotated Sherlock Holmes), Copper, an Englishman, also "corrected" faults of orthography and idiom in the stories themselves! Not very assiduously, it must be said, given the number of solecisms they still include.



As a result, The Original Text Solar Pons Omnibus Edition was published in 2000 by Mycroft & Moran. It restores the original text as it was before Basil Copper's edits, and includes - as well as the six collections and one novel in order, the full text of A Praed Street Dossier (1968), as well as The Final Adventures of Solar Pons (1998).

To the 71 canonical stories by Derleth included in the 1982 Solar Pons Omnibus, then, one should add the following supplementary publications:
  1. The Unpublished Solar Pons (1994)
  2. The Final Adventures of Solar Pons (1998)
  3. The Dragnet Solar Pons et al.: Original Pulp Magazine and Manuscript Versions (2011)
  4. The Novels of Solar Pons: Terror Over London and Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey (2018)
  5. The Apocrypha of Solar Pons (2018)
  6. The Arrival of Solar Pons: Early Manuscripts and Pulp Magazine Appearances of the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street (2023)
The last in the list (it should be stressed) is simply a revised and expanded version of The Dragnet Solar Pons.

So what is one to conclude from all this? That some people have far too much time on their hands? That the idea of fan fiction goes back far further in time than one might have supposed (as far back as Cervantes in the 17th century, at least ...) That the Transatlantic battles between American Sherlockians and English Holmesians now have their echo in the battle between these two warring omnibuses? (Or is the correct term omnibi? Basil Copper would know ...)

If you're curious to know more about Solar Pons and his adventures, I strongly recommend the website, http://solarpons.com/, devoted to him and his adventures. Its creator, Bob Byrne, who is clearly a pop culture fanatic after my own heart, has also written a good introductory article, "The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Meet Solar Pons" (17/11/2014), on his blog Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature.

I certainly don't regret purchasing Basil Copper's handsomely bound and curated collection of the Solar Pons mysteries - not to mention the many happy hours I've spent poring over its contents. There are only 60 actual Holmes stories to read and re-read, after all, and even a somewhat watered-down version of his mythos such as this can be very entertaining.

I'm also trying very hard to tell myself that I don't need the (even rarer) Original Text Solar Pons Omnibus Edition, but if anyone has a copy for sale at a reasonable price, you could do worse than drop me a line in the comments section below ... There's no fool like a bibliophile, as the saying has it, and I have to plead guilty to the imputation.






Monday, January 01, 2024

The World of Hercule Poirot


The World of Hercule Poirot
[photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd (2023)]


We didn't really intend to make a tradition out of it, but at the beginning of 2022 I posted a piece about finishing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle called The World of Charles Dickens; then, in 2023, another about completing a new puzzle called The World of Dracula to usher in the New Year:


Barry Falls: The World of Charles Dickens (2021)



Adam Simpson: The World of Dracula (2021)


This year, as you'll have gathered from the picture at the head of my post, we have the world of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot - and here I am starting on the task on (or about) Christmas day:




So why Poirot? I can remember a time when some people adopted a rather sneering attitude towards Agatha Christie. Not a real author, they said (whatever that means) - a mere hack, a penny-a-line writer with no real sense of style of atmosphere.



She was contrasted adversely with more self-consciously literary crime writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton - wordsmiths for whom detective fiction was simply a day-job, a way to finance their more artistic endeavours. How absurd - and patronising - all that sounds now!


Ilya Milstein: The World of Hercule Poirot (2023)


I guess what did it for me - and, no doubt, for many others - was David Suchet's superlative interpretation of the character in the wonderfully entertaining British TV show Poirot, which ran for a quarter of a century, from 1989 to 2013.


Poirot: 70 episodes (UK, 1989-2013)


I'd read a number of the books as a teenager (my father had a huge collection of them upstairs jammed onto an old wire display frame he'd liberated from a local stationery shop which was going out of business; it made a horrible graunching sound when you swung it around, so we always referred to it as 'the squeaker' ...)

I, however, I tended to prefer such stand-alone mysteries as Crooked House (1949) and The Hound of Death (1933) to what seemed to me then the more predictable puzzles of Poirot and Miss Marple (let alone the egregious Tommy and Tuppence).



Sidney Lumet, dir.: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


I did enjoy Albert Finney's interpretation of Poirot in the original 1974 movie, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) that of Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile (1978) and its successors. David Suchet took the character in an entirely new direction, though: away from slapstick to the intensely serious world Poirot himself inhabits.

It's not that the Suchet Poirot isn't funny - it's just that he himself is completely unaware of the fact. Ustinov, in particular, tended to play to the audience on the other side of the camera. Suchet never does that.


Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Which leads us to the vexed question of Kenneth Branagh's Poirot trilogy (if it actually is a trilogy, that is - there seems little reason for him to stop at three if they're still pulling in audiences). There's no question that they're all sumptuous-looking films, with dazzling casts of A-listers.

They are awfully gloomy, though. Branagh's Poirot is constantly castigating himself for various crimes of omission (and commission), and large slabs of invented biography - his First World War service, for instance - have been rather awkwardly shoehorned into the original plots.


Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Death on the Nile (2022)


It's hard not to admire the durability of stories which continue to invite this kind of reappraisal and reinvention so many years after they were written, though. The ingenuity and originality of Agatha Christie's plots continues to astonish after all this time. She was, it seems, constantly being castigated for offending against the spirit (if not the letter) of the oath sworn solemnly by members of the Detection Club:
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition , Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God?
It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who codified these rules into a set of Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) for detective writers:
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
It was claimed - at least by some - that the central conceit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), where the narrator is himself the murderer [sorry for the plot spoiler for those of you who haven't read it - but it has been in the public eye for the past century, so I do feel that it's roughly equivalent with revealing that Hamlet dies at the end of the play] was not really an acceptable innovation, but with the passage of time it's Christie's brilliance as a fabulist is what shines out from these early novels, in particular.


Kenneth Branagh, dir.: A Haunting in Venice (2023)


In any case, as the proverb has it, "the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.' Whatever your opinion of Branagh's own innovations, the result is certainly very watchable, if a little too self-consciously Orson-Wellesian at times. In any case, it's very much in the spirit of other modern adaptations of Christie. Such films as Crooked House (2017) and And Then There Were None (2015) showed that there was still lots of room for manoeuvre in these old tales.

For me, The ABC Murders (2018) went a step too far. John Malkovich's portrayal of Poirot as an aging loser suffering from depression at his failing powers was certainly original, but not precisely enchanting - if that's the right word. The joy and zest of Christie's story was lost in a morass of self-pity (together with a truly awful performance by Rupert Grint as an grim and humourless young police detective). But no doubt the book will survive it, and go on into further incarnations in the future ...

That is, if the Agatha Christie Estate can be dissuaded from rewriting all her old books in line with modern sensibilities. It's not that it's not shocking to come across the "n-" word in the original title of And Then There Were None, and the offensively racist and misogynist attitudes of many of Christie's characters might well be a stumbling block to some readers (as they are in that throwaway remark about "Chinamen" in Knox's Decalogue, quoted above).

But Bowdlerising Shakespeare doesn't seem to have done much good in the long run: except to illustrate the absurdity of rewriting an author to fit a completely different cultural context. One of the many reasons we read is to learn about the past: how people lived, how they thought. If we try to recast them in our own (surely equally flawed?) image, then all we're really doing is adding another wing to our own hall of mirrors.






A Happy New Year to All in
2024!