Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthony Powell and the occult

In an otherwise very appreciative and insightful short essay on A Dance to the Music of Time in his new book, Latest Readings, Clive James writes:
New readers should be warned, however, that there is the occasional dull stretch. At the opening of volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is far too much about servants, ghosts, and the occult. Defending himself against charges that he was too interested in Burke's Peerage, Powell said that he would have been equally interested in a book called Burke's Workers* But the truth was that the toffs, or would-be toffs, were what he was best at. And no writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult. The real reason why Scorpio Murtlock, the sinister, hippie-ish cult leader in the last volume, is such an unlikely figure is that Powell gives him a measure of the telepathic power that he claims, whereas in fact the typical counterculture hero was fake. Evelyn Waugh would not have been fooled for a minute. Nor, probably, would Olivia Manning.
Though I think James is wrong, I'll start by saying that a man who is openly, publicly facing his own impending death is allowed to be a bit dogmatic about whichever side of the spiritual divide he comes down on. How one harrows or hallows one's own soul--or determined lack thereof--in the face of oblivion is a personal decision, and I could see how a determination in one direction or the other could easily inflect other areas of analysis. (All of which, of course, is the rankest speculation. It's entirely possible, even likely, that James has always found Powell's occult subjects objectionable.)

But I think James is wrong here, not just about Powell, but in general, when he says there is any specific way that a writer "dedicated to showing life as it is" must handle the occult. For the reality is that occult interests, feelings, ideas, and tendencies are all around us--and were far more so in Powell's youth and young adulthood, as the post-WWI spiritualist craze rippled through society. By presenting people engaging in fortune telling, playing planchette, or hinting at telepathic powers, Powell is very much presenting "life as it is."

What seems to rankle James isn't so much that Powell includes these elements--though one senses that he'd prefer Powell hadn't--but that he seems to lend them credence. Mrs. Erdleigh is most likely a fraud, but she does say one or two things that stick, and, interpreted broadly, seem to come true. Billson, the parlourmaid, has a breakdown after seeing a ghost. And, yes, Murtlock does appear to have, if not telepathy, some sort of psychic magnetism.

In none of those situations, however, is Powell (or his narrative stand-in, Nick Jenkins) definitive. All these are interpretations that could be put on events--but their opposites remain entirely in play. The ambiguity is deliberate, and is of a piece with the ambiguity that Powell allows to shroud so many of the important moments in Dance: while we see some crucial events directly, through Jenkins's eyes, we more often are the recipients of stories retailed at second or third hand, with the lacunae and hazy interpretations of motive and outcome that such distance engenders. Powell is using the occult in the same way he uses coincidence, or patterning, or repetition: it's a fact of our world that events present themselves in these ways, and while we tell ourselves we can plumb them, we rarely achieve anything like certainty. We live in a fog that we interpret as best we can. You can view these instances as James does, with disapproval of Powell's seeming approval of an occult interpretation, or you can see them as simply more furniture in the mostly realistic fictional mansion that Powell is kitting out.

Or, to put it another way, by bringing it back to coincidence, that kin of the occult that is one of Powell's favorite tools, and one that also has earned him complaints about unlikeliness or the tax it levies on our credulity, we can take what James himself writes in that same essay:
He is sometimes accused of overdoing the device of coincidence, but life does, too.
You can interpret the string of coincidences (or the occult moments) in the books as having meaning, as Powell himself certainly seems to do at times--making it, as Marvel Comics hero Doctor Strange once put it, a sign that "the universe is tugging at our subconscious." Or you can see them as yet another attempt by our pattern-making brains to impose order on the universe, in which case, we can let E. F. Benson have the last word: "The nature of coincidence is to be odd. . . . Unless coincidences are startling they escape observation altogether."

Monday, October 26, 2015

The ghosts? Oh, they all moved out long ago.

In my October wanderings, I've drawn before from A. Roger Ekirch's history of nighttime, At Day's Close, because of course when there is darkness there are ghosts. But their number, it seems, varies with time.

Though 1762 was the year of the celebrated Cock Lane Ghost, Ekirch notes that the same year, nonetheless, also brought a bit of rationalist cheerleading from the Public Advertiser:
We experience every day, that as science and learning increases, the vulgar notions of spirits, apparitions, witches and demons decrease and die of themselves.
By 1788, the Daily Universal Register was ready to take it a step further, making the bold claim that
Not a single building in all London is perhaps now to be heard of, which bears the repute of being a haunted house.
Methinks the editors of the Daily Universal Register, even granting that they were accurate at that moment, may have been extrapolating too much into the future. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his introduction to The English Ghost, the best, ghost-wise, was yet to come:
Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghosts. There as much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century [Which, let's not forget, swept up Dickens!--ed.], provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society of Psychical Research, founding in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of seventeen thousand people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless.
Beyond that--and setting science, rationalism, and facts aside--the Daily Universal Register's assertion seems questionable. Has there ever been a human settlement of more than about 100 souls where someone wasn't claiming to be haunted? It seems a basic condition of a species that lives with the awareness of mortality. I can't think of any haunted houses in my small hometown, but I know second-hand of such a claim in London (to say nothing of the many post-1788 accounts found in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts), and third-and-beyond-hand of countless claims in Chicago. And, on this autumn evening, blessed with the full moon: what about you and your hometown?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Add The Library at Mount Char to your October library

I've committed what must be one of the cardinal sins for a blogger: I lent away a great book before I got a chance to write about it. In most circumstances, I would deal with the problem by putting off posting about it, but this book is so well suited for October reading that I can't bring myself to wait. So, with apologies, a post built around memory and Google Book Search. There'll be less quoting and more vagueness than is ideal, but I hope I'll at least be able to give you enough of a sense of the book to convince you to give it a try.

The book is The Library at Mount Char, a debut novel that reads nothing like one. When I reached the acknowledgments and learned that its author, Scott Hawkins, had written and thrown out multiple books before this one, I wasn't surprised; it has the feel of something thought through extensively, its convincing account of a distinct imagined world earned through time and labor. I picked it up after reading a staff pick shelf talker at 57th Street Books, my much-loved local, in which the bookseller called The Library at Mount Char "the great book that you wanted American Gods to be." That's a big claim, as the bookseller acknowledged. American Gods, like all of Neil Gaiman's books, has a staggering number of passionate fans. But I was sold: I've always felt that Gaiman's book was more exciting in its conception than its execution, a book of great ideas that doesn't quite fulfill its promise.

The Library at Mount Char does. Like American Gods, it presents a world of ancient knowledge and power hidden behind the ordinary American life we know, and from its very first pages, it plunges the reader into a surprising, almost wholly convincing story of the latter days of that power. Here's the first paragraph:
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.

She was smiling.
Compelling, no? Hawkins plants so many little seeds in a few short sentences. The combination of quotidian detail and ordinary, almost slangy language--the guacamole, the Path of Tacos, "Mexican joint"--balances the elements that signal something strange, starting with the blood; then "the Americans, phrased so oddly that it makes us pause, if not stumble; then the "obsidian knife," and the murder.This is our world, he's saying, but with a twist. It's intriguing without being off-putting, effective and propulsive while still being just a tiny bit showy.

All that's set up in that paragraph, and much, much more afterwards, ends up paid off in the book. As Hawkins unveils his invention, we meet the librarians, and we slowly figure out that they're students of a nearly omnipotent tyrant whom they call Father, a force who acts with all the violence, if a bit less of the capriciousness, of the Old Testament god. His disappearance, and presumed murder, has set off a chain of events that, it quickly becomes clear, could destroy the librarians, and possibly even the world.

If this all sounds a bit airy, blame my failure to have the book to hand rather than Hawkins's writing. His scene-setting and revelations of the history and backstories of his characters are incredibly skillful, enabling him to maintain suspense and surprise the reader without ever having us feel that we're being manipulated. The combat, overt and covert, among the various forces (including the American military) vying for power is dramatic and exciting, its outcome feeling genuinely in doubt for long stretches. And the whole book is full of creative ideas and unforgettable details, from the casualness with which the librarians dismantle the grave of one of their fellows and, without explanation, begin to dig up her corpse to the plethora of lore and spells, which feel convincingly ancient in their names and effects. Here's my favorite example of the latter, from late in the book. Carolyn is remembering a time in the past when Father cast a spell, alshaq shabboleth, which changes the relationship of people to time, enabling them, essentially, to move with super speed, which in this case would allow Carolyn to escape disaster:
She looked at [name redacted to avoid spoiler]. He was saying something, or his lips were moving, but she could hear nothing. We were too fast, she realized now. The alshaq shabboleth made us too fast for sound.
A few paragraphs later, Hawkins develops the idea still further:
When she moved, the parts of her skin that were exposed to the air felt hot, like the time she had held her fingers over the outflow nozzle on a hair dryer and had burned her fingers.

Now, today, she understood what was happening. Friction with the air. Under the influence of the alshaq, her speed was such that even the air burned.
It's a small detail, but an effective one, instantly making the impossible spell seem grounded in actual reality. Then Hawkins gives the alshaq another twist:
Later, when she learned to make the alshaq shabboleth for herself she understood why it worked on her but not him. The effects of the alshaq are felt first by the dead, then by the young, and last by the old.
Why? No reason is given, but we don't really want one: it just feels right that such a disordering of the known universe would have its own logic, and it makes the spell, and the world it comes from, feel just that tiny bit more real.

Even in its last pages, The Library at Mount Char continues to surprise, offering a couple of moments so inventive and well-conceived that they achieve the rare goal of feeling simultaneously wholly surprising and, once we read of them, inevitable. The result is an often creepy, action-oriented dark fantasy novel that ends by being genuinely moving.

The Library at Mount Char is a book I'll be telling people about--and lending to friends--for a long time to come. Your October will be the better, and the shiverier, for giving it a try.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Entering October

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm a bit late this year welcoming October, but rest assured: that eerie silence you've heard is the sound of me reading weird tales in honor of the month.

To break the silence, then, how about two different approaches to bringing the reader into the realm of the strange--into the month of October, in a sense? Here's the first, which serves as a sort of preface to Ray Bradbury's October Country:
October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .
A list, incomplete but suggestive, of the touchstones of Bradbury's fiction. At his best, he generated mystery, chills, and wonder from the edges of the stuff of everyday life--and particularly those bits of it that were already showing their age, withering into disuse, in his own childhood, those interwar years where the modern world was tantalizingly imaginable, but the Depression kept pushing it ever further out of sight. It's a world where small towns were still isolated, their streets still dark; where leaves were burned at the edge of the yard, their smoke marking summer's pyre; where the idea that there might still be secret, unknown places down the cracked, root-tilted sidewalks of a little-used street didn't, in the darkness of a crisp October night, seem all that far-fetched.

At the other end is this, the opening to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," which was published in Weird Tales in November of 1931, when Bradbury was eleven:
I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I have no longer any other, the tale of everything that befell Tirouv Ompallios and myself in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua, which lies neglected by the worship of man in the jungle-taken suburbs of Commoriom, that long-deserted capital of the Hyperborean rulers. I shall write it with the violet juice of the suvana-palm, which turns to a blood-red rubric with the passage of years, on a strong vellum that is made from the skin of the mastodon, as a warning to all good thieves and adventurers who may hear some lying legend of the lost treasures of Commoriom and be tempted thereby.
You probably don't need me to point this out, but Smith was an acolyte of Lovecraft, and this story was praised by Lovecraft as "close to being your high spot in prose fiction to date." Interestingly, what Lovecraft identifies is not his own influence, but that of Lord Dunsany: "You have achieved in its fullest glamour the exact Dunsanian touch which I find almost impossible to duplicate."

It hasn't, however, held up as well as Bradbury's formulation. Oh, there are nice touches: the passing note about the lost hand, the mammoth vellum, the "lying legend."But it's hard to read the cascade of portentiousness and not start to wonder whether Smith isn't perhaps writing with tongue in cheek. When you realize that he's wholly serious, you have to thoroughly recalibrate as a reader. Fortunately, once you've done that, the brief story is fun and satisfying.

No big point to make about this pairing beyond that, aside from the reminder it gives that a fan of weird and ghostly tales has a panoply of styles and approaches to choose from. It's part of what makes October such a pleasure. If I read about gods like Tsathoggua all the time, I'd go insane (and not for the reasons Lovecraft and Smith might adduce), but here and there, interspersed with Robert Aickman and Arthur Machen and Edith Wharton and Kelly Link, it's great fun.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Mann and Trollope disagree on plot

On my recent trip to England (about which more soon), I packed the second volume of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, Barchester Towers, because if there's one rule I've established about overseas travel, it's to take a Victorian novel, and if there's a second, it's that it's best if that novel is one of Trollope's. At risk of sounding too much like the marketing person I am in my day job: there are few more reliable brands than that of Mr. Trollope. A novel of his in one's carry-on guarantees house of pleasantly diverting in-flight entertainment.

Right before and right after the trip, however, I was making an ascent of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, urged on and accompanied by my Twitter friends Caille Millner and Stephen Sparks. While you could make a case that Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) is, in a sense, the last great nineteenth-century novel, The Magic Mountain could hardly be less Victorian. Oh, it mostly retains the realism and narrative omniscience of the Victorians, and it even carries a whiff of humorous irony not wholly foreign to Trollope's narrative voice. But in terms of its aims, structure, and plot--or lack thereof--it could hardly be more of a statement of something new, of a new idea of what novels might aim at and be. It is a novel less of people and social situations--though it presents plenty of both, frequently in amusing fashion--than of ideas and deep oppositions: between action and contemplation, vigor and lassitude, life and death.

All of which made me particularly interested, and entertained, when I hit upon a passage that linked Mann's book and Trollope's--and set the pair of authors on different sides than one would expect on a particular issue. To wit: plot, withholding, and readerly patience.

The passage from Barchester Towers is reasonably well known, to some extent a marker of Trollope's breakthrough as a writer: the confidence established by not just the choice to have his narrative voice offer the following statement, but also by the very tone, serious, yet loving and playful, of the voice itself, is what readers would come to think of as vintage Trollope. This, we think as we read it, is a voice we trust; it will neither mislead nor disappoint us. This passage comes fairly early in the novel, when pieces are by all means still in motion, fate's plans still obscure:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realised? . . .

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian. Otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
Trollope here is not merely reassuring us: he's expanding the role of the narrator--no longer does the narrator, because of his willingness to share his omniscience, give us more information about any given moment than the characters in the novel have, but he also gives us his knowledge of the future. We are allies, says Trollope's voice here, and we agree that the point is the people, not the plot. It's a daring move, and one that works brilliantly. (It's also sly: it's not as if Trollope won't be withholding plenty from us--he's shown us one card, and by doing so distracted us from the rest of his hand.)

Mann, meanwhile, very late in his nearly plotless novel, makes the opposite case. Time has been one of his themes: how we understand it, experience it, relate it to others, and how dependent the sense of its passing is on our activity and attention. Here, at a well-judged moment of readerly impatience, he turns that theme explicitly to the art of storytelling:
But why this impatience? Not everything can be known right off. That must still be taken as one of the conditions of life and of storytelling, and surely no one is about to rebel against God-given forms of human understanding. Let us honor time at least to the extent that the nature of our story allows. There is not that much time left in any case, it's rushing by slapdash as it is, or if that's too noisy a way of putting it, it's whisking past hurry-scurry. A little hand measures our time, minces along as if measuring seconds; and yet, whenever it cold-bloodedly moves past a high-point without bothering to stop, that still means something, though God only knows what.
It's not that Mann is actually arguing for plot here, of course, but the effect is similar: let events happen as they will, without fast-forwarding or asking for oracles. Time reveals all, including not merely the day when the outcome of this novel is known, but the day when our reading itself ceases. Why rush ahead?

As a reader, much as I love Doctor Faustus, appreciate Buddenbrooks, and frustratedly admire The Magic Mountain, my affinities and my heart are with Trollope. As a person, watching autumn quietly settle in upon the land? I'm siding with Mann.