Tag Archives: Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself. In the valley which you have seen, and in which there are several thousand inhabitants living under the control of our order, we have found that the principle makes for a considerable degree of happiness. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.

James Hilton, Lost Horizon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

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The White People and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The White People and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, DriveThruRPG, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed and introduction by S T Joshi, volume 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen.

Machen Joshi The White People and Other Stories

This second book is far more uneven than The Impostors and Other Stories, editor Joshi’s first volume of collected weird Machen. It begins with “The Red Hand,” a story featuring Machen’s old duo Dyson and Phillips, and consistent with his earlier works. After that, it’s off to very different material. The imagistic “Ornaments in Jade” are described by Joshi as “prose-poems,” and whatever the merits of that description, they are wonderful stuff. None of them is more than a few pages long, and they are nearly plotless, but highly evocative.

The lauded story “The White People” caught me quite by surprise. I had been expecting something more along the lines of Machen’s earlier weird work; in fact I worried that it might be something of a re-tread of “The Shining Pyramid” or “The Novel of the Black Seal.” But it turned out to be more like “Ornaments in Jade”: light on plot, and thick with psychotropic sensory detail. One thing that impressed me was its extreme (yet subtle) nesting of narratives: the interlocutors Cotgrave and Ambrose form the outermost story, but the main tale is in the green MS book full of a girl’s personal reminiscences, which themselves include stories, sometimes containing further stories. E.g. the girl’s nurse recounts having been told certain things by her great-grandmother, which then become a story-within-within-within-within-within… This method of dropping through narrative frames is actually a reliable technique for hypnotic induction, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it literally entrances readers, and possibly has an effect on their dreams! Other trance induction methods prominent in “The White People” include chants and nonsense rhymes, physical spinning and dancing, and solitude. The narrative voice of the girl in the story is surprisingly convincing and effective, considering that Machen seems to have shed none of his earlier misogyny. I was struck by this remark from Ambrose early on:

“We should [feel horror in the presence of true evil] if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and obscured the natural reason.” (66)

If “The White People” surprised me, “A Fragment of Life” totally bowled me over. Reading this story on its own seemed to give me all the evidence I could want that Machen had actually attained to some sort of mystical adeptship, in order to be able to relate the experiences he attributes to his protagonist Darnell, who at the story’s outset “lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life.” (121)

The wartime fantasies of The Angels of Mons (including “The Bowmen”) had slight literary merit in their own right. But their inclusion was totally necessary because of the odd reflexive impact that the accidental hoax of the “angels” had on Machen’s work as a writer. (People who believed the “urban legend” generated by Machen’s story strongly resisted his attempts to deflate it.) In all of his subsequent fiction, the authorial voice of the fantasist is strangely knotted up with the conscientious journalist. This syndrome is especially apparent in “The Great Return,” but that 1915 story was most interesting to me for its precocious deployment of mescaline effects as a device to explain mystical states (223-224). The brief “Out of the Earth” is in many ways a recreation of Machen’s earlier “The Shining Pyramid,” but in the style of the new, war-era Machen, while “The Coming of the Terror” manages to foster quite an aura of mystery and terror, but lacks the sense of numinous wonder that brings me back to Machen’s work. “The Happy Children” contains elements of “The Great Return” packed into the brief fictional legend format of the stories from The Angels of Mons

So, while the war-era works were worth reading, they didn’t impress me deeply. But “The White People” and “A Fragment of Life” cemented for me Machen’s status as a literary exponent of true esoteric initiation.

The Blazing World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Blazing World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Margaret Cavendish, illo Rebekka Dunlap, introduction by Brooke Bolander.

Cavendish Dunlap Bolander The Blazing World

This peculiar story was written in the mid-seventeenth century by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It features an unnamed female protagonist who is abducted and then escapes and is transported from her own “Philosophical World” to the “Blazing World” of the title, where she is hospitably received and becomes Empress.

The Blazing World is populated something like the planet Mongo, with bear-men, fox-men, fish-men, bird-men, spider-men, lice-men, and others besides. The Empress consults all of these according to their specialties, regarding natural history, physics, logic, and other “philosophical” topics, and this section of the book gets rather slow–especially with the small type of the Dover Thrift Edition I read. One highlight of this section, on the other hand, is Cavendish’s detailed set of character identifications for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a drame à clef regarding John Dee and Edward Kelly (35). This passage is connected with the Empress’ further ambition “to make a Cabbala” (46).

Turning from her various animal-men subjects to the world of incorporeal spirits, the Empress is next introduced to … the Duchess of Newcastle–that is, her author, with whom she develops a “platonic love.” The Duchess pleads for intervention with Fortune on behalf of her maligned husband the Duke, and this motive accounts for much of the remainder of the first and longer of the story’s two parts.

The second part is livelier on the whole, and involves the Empress receiving news that her home country in the Philosophical World is under threat. So she confers with the Duchess, and they develop and execute an intervention, by which they effect the military and political supremacy of the “King of EFSI,” the Empress’ former sovereign.

An epilogue in Cavendish’s own voice touts her accomplishment in world-creation, and boasts herself superior in that respect to the mere conquerors of great empires such as Alexander and Caesar. She also sets herself above Homer, in giving her characters grounds to resolve their conflicts without fatal violence. She generously extends to her readers the option of becoming her subjects in the Philosophical World, but allows that if they prefer to create their own worlds, they can and should do so.

While the style of The Blazing World is dated, its freedom from later literary conventions often lends it a great deal of charm. Persevering through some of the denser bits is genuinely worthwhile, as the whole text is not that long. It was originally published as a “work of fancy” bound together with her “serious” Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (ix). Her philosophical biases are decidedly modern, and while The Blazing World has been instanced as a forerunner of science fiction, it does hold up as an unusual source of instruction in the magick of cosmopoeia.

but I see, at a great distance, a new world stirring in the ruins, stirring clumsily but in hopefulness, seeking its lost and legendary treasures. And they will all be here, my son, hidden behind the mountains in the valley of Blue Moon, preserved as by miracle for a new Renaissance

James Hilton, Lost Horizon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

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After the War people said he was different. I, myself, think he was. But I can’t help feeling that with all his gifts he ought to have been doing bigger work. All that Britannic Majesty stuff isn’t my idea of a great man’s career. And Conway was—or should have been—great.

James Hilton, Lost Horizon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

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