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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.