Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Day by James Blish.
Although the two halves of this book were originally published as separate volumes, they do form one continuous novel between them, and it is good to have them under one cover. With this story, Blish inaugurated a form of naturalistic fantasy that James Morrow (with a more conspicuously satirical bent) was later to make his own: realistic modern characters are subjected to the consequences of supernatural events postulated in biblical religion, or variations thereon.
Among several central characters, the chief protagonist of The Devil’s Day is probably black magician Theron Ware. The magic in the book is well researched, and all in the genuine historical tradition, not the fictitious stuff of Harold Shea, Harry Potter, or even Gilbert Norrell. All the characters are a little too psychologically self-consistent to be convincing as people, but this ever-so-slight cartoonishness befits their semi-allegorical status, and helps to maintain the adventurous pacing of the story.
The initial scenario has arms tycoon Baines employing Ware to perform some sorcerous assassination. But the project rapidly snowballs in the synergy of the two men’s ambitions, until the entire world is in danger. Black Easter (the first half) is in many ways simply a setup for The Day after Judgment (the second). And although there were points in the middle of the latter that I thought it had gone off the rails, it turned out to have very effectively raised what seemed to be the impossibly high stakes of the former. I found the ending quite satisfying. [via]
Although first issued and mostly reprinted under science fiction imprints, Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis is a quite conscientiously historical piece of fiction set in the thirteenth century. Although it’s written in modern English, there are enough Middle Englishisms in it that it might seem like a chore to those who have no prior familiarity with the language of the period, and there are a few short passages of untranslated Latin. It was a fast, enjoyable read for me, but I can’t second-guess how it might read to someone who hadn’t formally studied medieval history. The book stands as part of an alleged “trilogy” (with one of the three parts most often published as two volumes) joined only by theme, rather than plot, character, or even style. This one is probably the strongest, though least-read, book of the set.
The chapters are episodic, and the plot has the nature of a biography, covering the whole of Roger Bacon’s adult life. Other characters are filled out credibly, particularly Adam Marsh, but it’s mostly just Roger’s story. Many 21st-century magicians might be satisfied to read only the chapter about Roger’s alchemical investigations in Paris, if they want to maximize entertainment for time spent.
Blish’s picture of his central character is decidedly that of a scientist–not an inventor/technologist, but a researcher trying to understand the world, and to empirically verify or disprove the ideas about it that have been supplied to him in the hard-to-obtain “commmon” knowledge of his medieval university world. Even without the mass of clinical notions developed since the writing of this book in the 1960s, Blish also effectively presents Roger as a very high-functioning inhabitant of the “autism spectrum.” He’s passionate about knowledge, good with words and numbers, and terrible with people. The upshot of this condition is something nobler than an idot-savant: a tragic hero.
My previous reading on Roger Bacon had never suggested any connection to the Spiritual Franciscans and Joachimism, but Blish is certainly within his rights to imagine one, inasmuch as the conflict within the Ordo Fratrum Minorum could not have been invisible to Roger. The attraction of apocalyptic thinking for pioneering English men of science is well attested in such other cases as John Dee and Isaac Newton, and Blish doesn’t go so far as to make Roger into a Fraticello, but simply one who staunchly credits the possible validity of Joachimist prophecy.
Another feature of Blish’s Roger Bacon is his lifelong dialog with his personal genius, or “demonic self.” This aspect, along with the attention to historical context and the emphasis on the spiritual value of knowledge about the world, makes the book an admirable piece of creative hagiography, especially for adherents of the Gnostic Catholic Church whose canon of saints includes the Doctor Mirabilis. [via]
This stage play text was written to fulfill a literary hoax, one that in fact helped to inspire the notorious Necronomicon of Lovecraft. In the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow was a play with a degenerative effect on the morals and sanity of its readers. Thom Ryng is not the first to flesh out the text of the play; in his introduction he suggests that he is perhaps the eighth, and he refers specifically to two earlier attempts: one by Lin Carter and one by James Blish. (I’ve read both.) In the first edition of the Ryng text, the conceit was that the text had been recovered from a 19th-century French edition. In this softbound reprint, editorial and authorial matter confesses its actual late-20th-century composition in the distant wake of Chambers’ fiction. It has been produced on stage at least once, if we are to believe the current edition.
Materially, the book is a sturdy softcover volume with a generous font size. I was a little disappointed that the cover had the false Yellow Sign originally designed by artist Kevin Ross and corrupted in the editorial process for the Chaosium role-playing game Call of Cthulhu. (Chambers’ original Yellow Sign was probably the “inverted torch” insignia that appeared on the binding of early editions of Chambers’ story collection The King in Yellow.)
There is a vein of socio-political commentary that is disturbingly prescient (the author implies that it could have been causative), considering that the book was written in the 1990s. Readers are also furnished with a Hasturian incantation to achieve magical invisibility.
When I read this book, the experience was attended with appropriate inter-textual synchronicities. The Oedipus eyes of Thales echoed my recent philosophical reading in Nietzsche criticism (to wit, The Shortest Shadow and Foucault’s Lectures on the Will to Know). Also relating to that reading, but opening onto a perpetual return to a secret place, is the play’s portrayal of Truth as a phantom who is martyred.
Overall, I was suitably impressed, instructed, and infected by Ryng’s deposition from the ether of this dread volume. [via]
You may be interested in “Thing in the Attic” by James Blish which was recently added to Project Gutenberg.
“The reputation that they had given him, too, had helped to bring him to the end of the snap-spine tether. They had given weight to his words among others—weight enough to make him, at last, the arch-doubter, the man who leads the young into blasphemy, the man who questions the Book of Laws.
And they had probably helped to win him his passage on the Elevator to Hell.”