Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Letters from the Earth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Letters from the Earth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mark Twain, ed Bernard DeVoto.

Twain Letters from the Earth

The cover of my paperback copy of Letters from the Earth boasts “new uncensored writings by Mark Twain” with a little more significance than such labels usually hold. The contents of this volume were the very first to be edited for posthumous publication by the Twain literary estate, but Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens’ misgivings denied publication to the book until 1962, after the editor’s own death! By then, several of the individual texts included had seen individual publication in periodicals and a book of Twain scholarship.

Although she gave as her motive the concern that the book’s contents would misrepresent Twain’s actual ideas as she understood them, a reader will readily infer that Clara’s fear was chiefly about offending against conventional piety. Nearly half of the book consists of satires grounded in biblical mythology: the title piece (largely in the voice of the angel Satan), the “Papers of the Adams Family” thus organized and titled by editor Bernard DeVoto, and the brief “Letter to the Earth.” The first of these, and apparently the most finished in Twain’s own manuscript, is clearly modeled on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which a traveler from a distant land reports back to his own people on the bewildering and exotic features of the culture shared by the reader and the actual author of the text.

“Letters from the Earth” at one point refers to sex as “the Supreme Art. They practiced it diligently and were filled with contentment. The Deity ordered them to practice it. They obeyed, this time. But it was just as well it was not forbidden, for they would have practiced it anyhow, if a thousand Deities had forbidden it” (25). Satan supplies a sober and accurate appraisal of the Christian revelation: “… as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament–oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was at the very worst in those old days!” (46)

The “Papers of the Adam Family” treat antediluvian society with attention to the premise that the long lifespans of characters in Genesis–even assuming that they waited a few extra decades before parenthood–made for a society many living generations deep, and thus strangely dense and hierarchical. Several of these “translations from the Adamic” are in the voice of Eve, “the Most Illustrious, Most Powerful, Most Gracious, Most Reverend, her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race” (91-2). There is also a focus on the early tenth century as clocked from Eden, consisting mostly of thinly-veiled satire on Twain’s own time, which certainly had catastrophe imminent.

A number of short pieces include a whimsical cat-focused story (where Twain in passing vaunts his own “conscience torpid through virtuous inaction,” 113), a merciless criticism of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper, a reasonably funny parody of etiquette instructions, some travelogue from England, and a few other essays.

The book concludes with its longest and strangest item. “The Great Dark” (title furnished by the editor) is a horror story that hinges on its protagonist’s efforts and failures to assign reality to his actual circumstances after being subjected to a dream-world of simulation. Latter-day readers might see this piece as a precocious Matrix sort of story. (Who needs wetware and full-body VR when you have a Victorian microscope?) But of course the central conundrum goes back to Chuang Tzu and probably to the dawn of reflective thought.

The Mysterious Stranger

The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain, reviewed by Magdalene Meretrix, in the archive of Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews.

Twain The Mysterious Stranger

Twain’s final story, published posthumously in 1916, is, despite its obscurity, arguably one of Twain’s greatest works. In this story, Twain distills all the sarcastic religious views he expressed in “Letters from Earth” into a gem of gnostic thought. Though many modern readers will have already come into contact with the notions of a trickster god in a nihilistic universe that Twain depicts, he was far ahead of his time when he wrote these ideas into The Mysterious Stranger.

The Mysterious Stranger takes place in a small Austrian village in the late 1500s. Three boys meet a mysterious stranger. Is he an angel or a demon? The boys, and the reader, are left uncertain – though what is a demon, after all, but a fallen angel?

The story follows the events that transpire when this angel touches their lives and the lives of everyone in the village. The main character, Theodor, undergoes a painful and sorrow-laden awakening to the reality of the nature of the universe, humans, angels and god that will leave the reader contemplating these philosophical constructs and religious ideas for quite some time.

Sympathy for the Devil

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sympathy for the Devil edited by Tim Pratt.

Tim Pratt Sympathy for the Devil

I found this book by chance at the public library, being interested in a few of the included authors. It’s one of those monster theme collections, gathering thirty-six stories in which “the Devil” features as a principal character, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. (Longfellow’s translation of the thirty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno is the oldest item, and concludes the book.) Six stories I had read prior to their appearance here. “Thank you, Satan!” quoth the editor, introducing his first effort at anthology. Despite the title, most of these stories don’t portray the Devil as sympathetic.

Charles Stross’s story “Snowball’s Chance” was a major attraction, and did not disappoint, other than its clumsy misquotation of the Law of Thelema. I suppose any 21st-century Big Book of Beelzebub is likely to include some content touching on the Great Beast who heralded the New Aeon. Nick Mamatas’s fictional protagonist in “Summon, Bind, Banish” may be a full (i.e. Ninth Degree) initiate of O.T.O., but Mamatas himself obviously isn’t. His pretended exposure of the Order’s sovereign secret is overshadowed by the way that he vilifies Crowley with an impressionistic biography of mostly-true episodes.

Elizabeth M. Glover’s “MetaPhysics” was cornball, but some of these pieces were genuinely funny. In particular I was delighted with the one-act comedy “Faustfeathers” by John Kessel, which casts Groucho Marx as the paradigmatic sorcerer. Jeffrey Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt” was a key inducement to my reading the book, and turned out to be hilarious.

Some of the creepiest stories were the most questionably related to the book’s espoused theme, and these were often among the ones I had already read, such as China Miéville’s “Details,” “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon. Probably the most horrific story in the book that was new to me on this reading was “The Goat Cutter” by Jay Lake. The most surreal story was either “Lull” by Kelly Link or “The Heidelberg Cylinder” by Jonathan Carroll, and both of these get high marks from me.

Older selections included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (still excellent), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bottle Imp” (how had I missed this one before?), and Mark Twain’s “Sold to the Devil” (justly neglected by a mass readership). “Big names” likely to appeal to genre fans include Stephen King (“The Man in the Black Suit”) and Neil Gaiman (“The Price” and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”).

The book is a fairly mixed bag on the whole, as one might expect with such a large number of stories and such a narrow criterion for inclusion. Still, it was definitely worth the bother. [via]