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Maugham’s occult novel The Magician opens in the Paris of La Belle Époque, a place of light and gaiety where, none the less, it would seem, shadows still lurked, with the shadow in this particular instance being cast by the increasingly corpulent bulk of Oliver Haddo. With speech as ponderous and weighty as his physical form, Haddo, the eponymous magician of this tale, with his tall stories and florid speech, comes across as a more sinister cousin of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty. It is, without doubt, the villain who gets the best lines in this book.
Maugham based Haddo upon the person of none other than the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, whom he met during a sojourn in Paris in 1904. The former did not take to the latter, and writing some years later he noted that Crowley had published a review of The Magician in Vanity Fair, signing off as ‘Oliver Haddo’. In a later foreword to the book, Maugham wrote, ‘I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.’ So much for the background, but what of the story itself?
The first two chapters of the novel are rather sluggish and unremarkable, for Haddo’s presence is as yet unseen. They introduce us to the other four main characters: Arthur Burdon, an eminent London surgeon who is in Paris to visit his young ward and fiancée Susie Boyd; the aforementioned Miss Boyd; Margaret Dauncey, Miss Boyd’s older and plainer companion, and Dr Porhoët, a Breton doctor with an interest in matters relating to antiquarianism and the occult that has led him to become something of a specialist in this esoteric field.
It is only once we encounter Haddo in the Chien Noir along with the four other major characters, that the novel picks up pace and begins to hook the reader. Despite his being a narcissistic, snobbish, socially and physically repulsive braggart, Haddo manages to exert a certain allure, and somehow insinuates his way into the lives of this quartet. That there is something preternatural about this soon becomes apparent, and the mutual antipathy of Burdon and Haddo is what propels this story to its destructive denouement via the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, to its climax in the fictitious Haddo familial seat of Skene in Staffordshire.
There is something, it would seem, to the powers claimed by this practitioner of the dark arts, and he has a goal in mind dear to the hearts of the adepts of Paracelsian alchemy: the creation of the homunculus. Quite why either Haddo, or Paracelsus, would wish to go to such great lengths in an attempt to create such a monstrous parody of the human form, rather than adopting the rather simpler expedient of a little, and rather more pleasurable, conjugal rutting, is quite beyond me. Still, this novel makes for an enjoyable read, even if it should be at times a little overwrought and melodramatic, as well as somewhat purple in its prose.
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Such could be the honorific title that deserves to be bestowed upon William Meikle in the penning of this short, restrained, and engaging story, in which the author takes upon Stoker’s persona in its writing. The conceit of this tale, and others in the collection from which it is taken, is that it is but a rediscovered piece by one of the leading lights of the late-Victorian literary firmament, all of whom gather to tell each other tales of the uncanny, and the supernatural, in a gentleman’s club: the Ghost Club. Who should preside over this fictitious entity, but none other than Henry James himself.
This was the era in which supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, flourished, and reached its apogee, and Meikle’s decision to produce a compendium of tales employing the voices of some of its foremost exponents, is an appealing one. With respect to In the House of the Dead itself, the author’s prose strikes the right tone for its period, and the story is related with a commendable restraint. Its central theme of loss and yearning is an eternal one, as is the understandable, and yet delusional, desire to bridge the divide that separates the living from the dead. It is, in a sense, a dilemma that is here resolved, but be warned: death dominates this tale; it stalks every page.
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Tim Severin is an explorer, historian, and author of historical fiction: a man of many accomplishments. His knowledge of seafaring is both extensive and first-hand, with him having undertaken a number of remarkable voyages in reconstructions of historical craft. These include replicating the alleged voyage of sixth-century Irish Saint Brendan across the Atlantic in a wood and leather currach; travelling from Oman to India and China in a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow, and undertaking two voyages in a replica Greek Bronze Age galley in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That he should thus turn his attention to matters maritime in his fiction should come as no surprise.
In Corsair, Severin focuses upon a different period again: the seventeenth century, with his theme being Barbary piracy. As you would expect, this proves to be a thoroughly well researched book, a fact that shines through in its wealth of historical detail and convincing descriptions of life aboard ship. If the reader should be inquisitive to learn about the conditions in the bagnios (the slave pens of contemporary Algiers), different gradations and uses of gunpowder, or the routines aboard one of Louis XIV’s war galleys, then their curiosity should be satisfied. If, on the other hand, the reader hopes to find engaging characters with whom they can in some way identify, or feel any sympathy for, then I am afraid that they are likely to be grievously disappointed, for it is in his characterisation and passages of stilted dialogue that Severin is at his weakest. Moreover, it does not help that his protagonist – Hector Lynch – an Irish teenager with limited life experience who is taken into slavery from an insignificant Irish village, seems to effortlessly insinuate his way into the charmed circle of each influential personage with whom he comes into contact.
There is a certain lack of emotional charge to the language employed by the characters which renders the dialogue flat. It also results in the characters themselves – with the exception of the tongueless, noseless, and earless Karp – being poorly differentiated. Hector Lynch speaks in a fashion not overly dissimilar to that of the Maybot, just ‘getting on with the job’ of moving the reader from one expository scene to the next, where you can learn how to row, blast rock with different grades of power, or slaughter and disembowel a camel before drying its flesh for consumption on your journey across the desert. What you will not learn about are the inner psychological workings of the individuals named on the page, for there does not appear to be a great deal going on inside their heads. Perhaps I am being a little harsh in saying this, but I get the feeling that this is so because it appears that the book is aimed at a young adult market, and thus does not require a great deal of psychological or emotional sophistication. That it is such a book is purely a guess on my part, but if it’s piratical derring-do on the high seas that the reader is looking for, I’d recommend Sabatini’s Captain Blood over this any day, for it is a work that possesses both wit and verve, both of which Corsair, sadly, lacks. Although I’ve not read any of Severin’s other works, I suspect that his history books are far more engaging than his works of fiction, because I did find the historical detail in this novel fascinating at times, it was just the story that let it down.
Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.
Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair.
Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.
It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved.
In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.
In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.
For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Epona is also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.
Although I have been working on a novel for almost three years, it has yet to see the light of day, for I keep getting distracted by ideas for shorter pieces. Thus it is that over the past eighteen months or so I have published nine tales – novelettes and novellas – on Kindle. None have been long enough to publish in paperback format individually, so I have waited until I have had a sufficient quantity available to issue anthologies. The first, Anthology: Wry Out West, came out last spring, and now the second – Uncanny Tales – has just been published as a paperback. It is also available in Kindle format.
So, what does this new anthology contain, you may wonder. Four tales in all, the covers of which you see pictured in the collage above. It is likely that you may not recognise them, as I’ve given them a revamp this week in an attempt to make them look a little more appealing. One of the stories – The Rude Woman of Cerne – was too long to include in the first collection, so is found here alongside the first three novelettes in the Tales of the Uncanny series: The Ghost of Scarside Beck, At Fall of Night, and Epona. The last two of these tales are set in Victorian Wiltshire, and whilst standing independent of each other, are linked by two characters, one of whom is central to both stories.
Within these pages the reader will encounter four spirits: a mediaeval animalistic heretic; a personification of Death that has journeyed far from its Breton homeland; a Celtic goddess thirsting for vengeance, and a mysterious sickle-wielding hedger. Some are guardians of their place and of their values, caring not for contemporary social mores, or those who cleave to them. Woe to those who care to transgress what they deem to be right! Others wreak a vengeance upon the living to make them atone for perceived injustices, unleashing chaos in the personal lives and relationships of their chosen victims. Beatrice Clemens, the eponymous Rude Woman of Cerne, is something of a living spirit too, and she’s equally rigid in what she believes to be right and just, and doesn’t she just like to let everyone know what those beliefs are! The tone of this particular novella, which is the final one to be encountered in this collection, is markedly different from the others, being primarily satirical, although it does also feature a pronounced supernatural element. It is hoped, therefore, that the reader will finish Uncanny Tales with a laugh, although perhaps a shudder too.
You can preview and purchase the paperback version of Uncanny Tales by clicking on the link here, or on either of the images in this post. The Kindle version may be accessed by clicking here. Kindle Unlimited subscribers may read the volume for free. As for my novel, I’m not writing anything else – in terms of fiction, that is – until it is finished.
Garner’s novel is a curious affair, and all the better for it. Compact, and spare in its prose, it manages to pack much into the generously-spaced text of its 158 pages. Interweaving two periods and two sets of characters united by a single space – the eponymous Pennine valley of the title – he creates a tale in which the landscape becomes a place of enchantment, possessed of an atmosphere dense enough to hold the imprint of memories of lives and events long since passed.
It opens with a packman and his train of horses amidst a snowstorm on an open hillside track in 1755, and it was thanks to a short and enigmatic inscription in memory of this John Turner, that Garner’s imagination set to work in crafting this piece of prose. Turner died in that storm, and but for that bare fact and mention of the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow by his side, nothing more concrete is known. Garner’s creative imagining provides the reader with a plausible character and tale behind the name, embedded within a local community linked by his wanderings to the outside world, but resolutely insular, and minded to observe its own customs and ways. Pagan echoes resound about the valley of Thursbitch, its eighteenth-century inhabitants thinking nothing of their mushroom-induced hallucinogenic rites, which with its sacrificial climax brings to mind the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. They speak in dialect, faithfully rendered and richly textured, that some readers may not find to their taste. To my mind, however, it lends the tale an authenticity that it would otherwise lack.
The lives of these characters somehow intersect with those of an academic with a penchant for geology, and her friend, a Catholic priest, who live on the cusp of the twenty-first century. They too are enamoured with Thursbitch, but they are transitory visitors, rather than residents, who tread its paths for leisure rather than trade. A vessel fashioned from Blue John, that tumbles from above and through time, brings their worlds into contact, and fleeting glimpses suggest that the span of the years has been bridged on more than one occasion.
It is a tale of love and death, and the nature of time, place, and enchantment. The lives of both ‘couples’ is ultimately marred by loss, but Thursbitch, and their attachment to it, remains, seemingly, outside of time itself. An enchanting read.
Today we find ourselves enter the last day of Christmastide, traditionally marked by Twelfth Night celebrations that have in recent years dwindled to near extinction. Whereas it once served as a highlight of the festive celebratory calendar, a night of feasting and revelry, it is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of the country. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland where it frequently takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January. If you should happen to be wondering why there is such a marked divergence in dates, this is all down to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Britain which took place in September 1752, which caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform.
The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of this practice illustrates, it is rather more likely that it is the participants who derive any enjoyment and benefit from its conduct (providing that they don’t overdo it on the cider of course). Perhaps it is because of this focus upon the future and the fruit of the year to come that Twelfth Night, unlike the immediate lead-up to Christmas, is not traditionally associated with ghost stories in Britain; it is focused not upon death, but rebirth. Moreover, the days are now beginning to perceptibly lengthen, and the inward focus of Christmas itself, which generally centres upon the family and stirs memories of those no longer with us with whom we celebrated Christmases past, is gone, as we turn once again to the wider world of work and society.
Such a focus would, therefore, seem to be uncongenial to the ghost story, although I do know of one that specifically focuses upon Twelfth Night. It opens with a disorientating scene amidst a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night shortly after the local menfolk have returned from the trenches, and despite the ritual’s traditional future focus, its reinstitution has been undertaken with a view to restoring a past order that has been permanently ruptured by the Great War. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale.
Returning to the present, the picture of the tree seen at the beginning of this post was taken recently in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!
It had been intended to spend the better part of this year in the 1670s and 1680s, before skipping a couple of centuries to find myself in the 1920s by November, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Whereas the year began amidst the magic, superstition and suspicion of the 1680s, in the company of Devon cunning man Robert Tooley (resulting in the publication of The Cleft Owl), and it did then proceed, as intended, to the Cornwall of the preceding decade, my imagination insisted that I turn my attention elsewhere. What led to this change of plan? The discovery of a sinister, bizarre, and unexplained crime that took place in 1530s Yorkshire, but if you should think that this prompted me to focus upon that decade, then you would be wrong, at least in the first instance, for it hurtled me forward to the 1940s, and then back to the Edwardian period. ‘But, where then is the resultant tale?’ I hear you protest. I have not finished it yet, but I will. Why not? Well, all was progressing well, until something happened.
This autumn I took a break in an out of the way part of the Lake District, and there experienced something the like of which I have never experienced before, and for which neither I, nor my wife (who shared this experience), can find any satisfactory rational explanation. Thus did The Ghost of Scarside Beck force itself upon me, finding its way to publication before October was out. Although the spirit may have stood without the confines of time, the characters of this tale were firmly located in the 1990s. Time to return to Edwardian Yorkshire, I thought to myself, but no, my imagination had resolved otherwise, having decided that it wished to spend some time amidst the world of ghostly Victorian gothic, sending me hurtling back to 1843, and then forward to 1899. Where? In Wiltshire. Involving whom? A talented, and superstitious, Breton artist, and his subject – the alluring Lady Helena Brocklington. December was thus ushered in with At Fall of Night, which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in the UK.
As to where I find myself with my writing at this moment, another supernatural tale set in 1840s England is being penned (yes, that verb is appropriate, as its initial draft is being written in longhand), with the hope being that it will see the light of day before winter is out. What comes next? Well, according to my plans – and you have seen how they have panned out this year – 2018 will see me returning to 1906, before heading back to 1676, and then ending the year in early 1920s Devon. All being well, the coming year will see the publication of my first novel, which by then will have been more than three years in the writing, owing to the odd interruption, or ten.