Tag Archives: Mystery & Detective – General

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.

Exquisite Corpse

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Exquisite Corpse [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Robert Irwin.

Irwin Exquisite Corpse

In Exquisite Corpse, Irwin’s novel takes the form of an “anti-memoir,” during the context of a London Surrealist cabal in the interwar period and the later dispersion of its members. The painter Caspar gives an account of his love for Caroline, his loss of her, and his subsequent efforts to find her, including the writing of the story itself. “What you hold in your hands is not literature, but a magical trap. Its sole purpose is to seek out Caroline” (10).

The result is a sort of Hypnerotomachia–not one in which the dreamer sleeps, but one where he adventures in “hypnogogia,” the Surrealist term of art for what a ceremonial magician would call the spirit-vision or “astral.” Nor is the dream one of nostalgia for classical knowledge and beauty. “At the dark heart of Surrealism is ugliness and terror” (49). Irwin captures the inchoate compulsiveness of left-esotericism in the first half of the 20th century.

The tale is littered with famous figures as bit players: Salvador Dali, Aleister Crowley, George Orwell, and others. They, along with the events of the war, help to anchor and orient the “marvellous” derangements of Caspar-Poliphilo, which finally arrive at the ambiguous consummation of his quest.

The Hippopotamus Pool

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hippopotamus Pool [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters, book 8 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters The Hippopotamus Pool

This eighth novel of the series is set on the cusp of the twentieth century. It is an almost paradigmatic Amelia Peabody tale, with the highest stakes in conventional Egyptology of any of them so far: the tomb of a queen with a sarcophagus unopened since antiquity. The whole multigenerational Emerson-Peabody clan is involved, and the children Ramses and Nefret (along with newcomer David) are now teenagers.

Peters disappointed me by showing some sloppy research: she called a copy of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled a “slim volume”! (It’s hardly such a scarce commodity that she couldn’t have found out firsthand the beefiness of its two volumes.) 

Again, as in the previous book, a couple of useful maps are included–but at arbitrary points in the text which are not noted in any apparatus. A new feature is a dramatis personae list with descriptions prefaced to the novel. For those who resent spoilers (most mystery readers, I would presume), I recommend not reading this list at the outset, although I suppose it might be useful to those coming to the book without having read earlier volumes of the series. Did the author doubt her own efficiency of exposition with respect to the recurring characters? Still, it’s hard for me to see the value of “Characters Appearing or Referred to in The Hippopotamus Pool,” and I will certainly skip any similar offerings in later books. 

The chapter titles are all quoted from the text, and they give a good sense of the witty tone, from “The Trouble with Unknown Enemies Is that They Are So Difficult to Identify” to “No Mystery Is Insoluble–It Is Simply a Matter of How Much Time and Energy One Is Willing to Expend.”

War in Heaven

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams War in Heaven

I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater TrumpsDescent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read. 

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)

I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey. 

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)