The Boke of the Divill by Reggie Oliver (2017, Dark Regions Press) is a spectacular supernatural thriller. It operates in several modes (Lovecraftian, Jamesian) yet the handling of the material, the wit and classical elegance of the prose, could only be the work of Reggie Oliver.
In the novel's 1938 section, young Dr. Charles Nightfall, lecturer in Medieval History at the new University of Wessex, investigates an ancient well on the grounds of Morchester cathedral. The well is believed to be the one in which St. Anselm spent a week battling and defeating an entity called Dagonus.
Before I began my descent, I was suddenly seized with apprehension. I checked everything was secure and told the Clerk of Works that at least two of his men should be on hand at the wellhead while I was conducting my investigations. A look was exchanged between the Clerk and his men that I did not understand, but he agreed.
The first part of the descent was made easily. I climbed down the rope ladder to the spiral steps, which were rather rough-hewn but not, as I had feared, very slippery. There the workmen let down some tools and the rope. I managed to drive a metal staple into the wall and secure a rope to it. Then, taking my electric torch, I began my descent.
I flashed my torch into the depths but could see no bottom, only the spiral staircase endlessly revolving into the depths. The masonry that clad the walls was smooth, and its composition was what is called "Cyclopean": that is, huge irregular slabs of stone had been dressed and fitted together, making the wall look like a gigantic piece of crazy paving on the vertical.
The whole, including the spiral steps, was an astonishing feat of construction and certainly not, in my view, Medieval. Anglo-Saxon, then? Even less likely. Roman? I had never seen Roman work that remotely resembled this.
Soon the top of the well had become a little white disc, no bigger than the moon. I trudged downwards, taking care not to touch the walls if I could avoid it. They were covered with a thin layer of something dark and glistening, sticky to the touch, that left a dark brown stain on the hands, like half-dried blood. My dear old tweed jacket was already ruined.
I had entered a world of silence, and if silence can be said to echo, then it did. I suppose what I am saying is that the slightest scrape of my feet on the stone steps came back to me in echoes a thousandfold. Once, I coughed, and it was like a fusillade of rifle shots. The scent of something decaying and fishlike was getting stronger.
Then I heard a faint pattering sound behind and above me. I look round and saw a light flickering and flashing, then further pattering, then what sounded like a stifled oath. I shone my torch upwards. Something was coming down the stairway towards me.
It was that infernal ass Bertie Winship! He was carrying a tiny little toy electric torch that was about as much use down there as a paper bag in a thunderstorm.
I gave the blighter a good piece of my mind and told him in no uncertain terms to go back up at once, but he was unrepentant.
"Sorry, old fellow," he said, "I simply couldn't resist it. Anyway, I thought you could do with the company."
I was barely able to admit it to myself, but he was right. The ancient solitude was beginning to oppress me. I told him sharply to put away his stupid little flashlight and take the other of my two torches. I also told him to remain silent as we made our way down.
I don't know how long we had been going, but the entrance to the well was only a pinpoint of light above us—no more than a distant star on a dark night—when we came across the carvings.
The first of them was a frieze carved into the stone, about a foot and a half in depth, that ran the whole of the way round the well, broken only by the run of the staircase. It was a continuous key pattern, or, if you like, a set of interlinked swastikas. Apart from anything else, it was astonishing to find workmanship like this at such a depth. What possible purpose could it serve?
I could only conjecture that its presence suggested that an early civilisation, probably of Aryan origin, had been at work here and created the descent for ritual purposes. I began to speculate that it might have been used to commune with spirits of the dead, or some chthonic deity of the underworld. This structure could be an early monument to a mystery religion, perhaps the earliest in these islands, predating Mithraism by hundreds, even thousands of years.
My thoughts were beginning to run away with me, when Bertie gave an odd little yelp. His torch had strayed onto a panel carved in low relief, just opposite him. The artist was skilled and the execution showed no signs of imprecision or crudity. The manner was vaguely reminiscent of those to be found on Babylonian and Assyrian monuments: precise, but stylised.
It showed a group of figures huddled together, one of which was wearing a kind of crown or diadem and seemed to be dominating the others. The figures were not human, nor recognisably animal. They looked like some strange miscegenation between a sea creature, of an octopoid kind, and a human or ape. One of them reminded me rather unpleasantly of the figure engraved on Felix Cutbirth's card.
"By Jove," said Bertie, "I wouldn't like to meet one of those on a dark night."
I told Bertie to stop making idiotic remarks, and we continued our descent. There were several more of these relief sculptures, each one stranger than the last. One depicted a group of human beings kneeling in homage, heads touching the ground like Moslems at prayer, before a strange lopsided creature with a head far too big for its body. In another further down, four man in profile were carrying a rigid human body horizontally. They appeared to be feeding it to one of the strange half-fish creatures; in fact most of the body's head had already entered the beast's vast open mouth.
Shortly after that my foot encountered not another stone step but soft, muddy soil. We were at the bottom of the well. I commanded Bertie to stop, and I tried the ground. I was afraid it was a quagmire into which we might sink, never to be recovered, but the soil, though moist and soft, appeared to be solidly founded.
I then noticed a strange thing. The aperture at the wellhead was almost exactly ten feet across, but the chamber at its base was wider. I measured it with the tape I had brought for the purpose and discovered that we were in a circular space slightly over twenty-three feet in diameter.
We must have been walking down a funnel that slowly tapered towards the top, but the widening (or narrowing, depending which way you look at it) had been done so gradually and with such cunning that we had never noticed.
The air at the bottom was not free of the odour of rotten fish, but it was not rank or stuffy, and it was almost as if a breeze was coming from somewhere. I noticed that at opposite ends of the circular wall were two black spaces with pointed arches, just wide and tall enough for a man of average height to walk through them. I shone my torch into one of them and it revealed a long, narrow tunnel leading into more blackness.
By this time Bertie had reached the bottom too, and was talking his usual nonsense. He had got it into his head that the whole thing was connected with King Arthur and Merlin, or some such twaddle. He said that he that the two apertures were bound to lead to "treasure chambers" and that we should explore them at once. I was resolved to do no such thing. We had had quite enough excitement for one day, but just then Bertie let out a cry.
"I say, look at this!" he said.
I prepared myself for yet another inanity, but Bertie had actually found something. He had been idly pushing his foot about in the mud and flashing his torch at it, when he had come across something shiny. He pulled it out of the mud, and we did our best to clean it up with our pocket handkerchiefs.
It shone still because it was made of some incorruptible metal or metals, pale yellow in colour. I suspected an alloy of gold and platinum, but this was highly improbable for such an obviously ancient artefact. The workmanship was very fine, but when I say fine, I do not exactly mean beautiful.
It was circular and in the shape of a coronet or diadem, but if it was a sort of crown, then the head it had enclosed was monstrous, at least twice the size of an ordinary adult human head. The pattern was one of intricately entwined whorls and concentric circles which, when you looked closely at them, resolved themselves into the coiling limbs of strange creatures whose bulging eyes were represented by some sort of milky white semiprecious stone. They were not pearls, but could have been white jade, though this seemed unlikely for England. The lowest band or border was composed of the interconnecting key pattern of swastikas that we had seen on the walls above us.
While Bertie was babbling on about how he had found King Arthur's crown, I took out the camera from my knapsack and put a flash bulb into the attachment. I only had a few bulbs so I had to choose my subjects carefully. I took one of the area we stood in as a whole to give an impression of the remarkable structure we had found. I took another, at Bertie's earnest request, of him holding the giant diadem. I then decided that I should point the camera down the two tunnels that projected from our central chamber.
I took one without any effect, but when my camera flashed down the other tunnel I thought I saw through my viewfinder something move at the end of the passageway I was photographing: a pale grey-green something that was smooth and glistening. The next moment I heard a noise, halfway between a groan and a retching cough, but cavernous and hugely magnified. I turned sharply round to see if it was Bertie playing some stupid joke, but he was staring back at me, white and horrified.
The next minute we were storming up those spiral stairs as fast as we could go. Bertie, who was ahead of me, stumbled several times. Each time I picked him up and on we went. By the time we had reached the end of the steps and the rope ladder we were both gasping for breath. It was at least five minutes before we made the final ascent.
As we came out of the well the sun was setting in a clear evening sky, but for a few seconds it seemed impossibly bright to us. I ordered the rope ladder to be drawn up.
* * *
In the novel's present-day timeline (and approaching the final chapter) TV presenter Huntley, production assistant Emma, and book dealer Basil Valentine locate the Boke in the library of Bartonstone Hall. Trying to elude police, they descend underground.
Valentine was now slumped on the bench in a stupor of exhaustion. Emma put the damaged leg up and did what she could to bind the wound with her handkerchief. She made a pillow for his head with her sweater so as to let the anaesthetic of sleep offer its temporary relief.
"Well, are we going to look at this famous book?" Huntley said.
"What! Do you really want to?"
"Of course! It'll be hours before Veronica gets back. We may as well pass the time somehow. You're not superstitious, are you? All that stuff that happened down there—" he indicated the arched entrance to the steps that gaped like a Hell Mouth "—that was just lack of oxygen. It wasn't real."
"The fact that it was due to lack of oxygen doesn't necessarily make it unreal."
Huntley shook his head and laughed condescendingly. "Come along, young Emma. Let's have a look."
She hesitated. It was strange. For all his affected superiority and scepticism, Huntley seemed to want her to give him permission to inspect it.
"Right you are, then," she said eventually. She handed him her torch and took the book to the cave mouth of the grotto, where she removed it from its temporary velvet sleeve and set it down on a convenient ledge of rock.
"Hmm," said Huntley examining the black leather binding. "Genuinely old. Perhaps even medieval. Wait a minute; there's something scratched on the front board." He shone his torch aslant the binding so as to pick up the lettering more distinctly. "Ubi enim thesaurus vester est ibi et cor vestrum erit. Latin: 'for where your—'"
"'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' It's from the Latin Vulgate translation of Luke's gospel."
"Harmless enough. Thank you, young Emma. You appear to have your uses after all, virgin though you be."
In other circumstances Emma might have taken offence; but she saw in his sneer the feeble bid to maintain dominance. She merely sighed. Huntley did not hear her; he had opened the book.
The first three pages were black. They were made of some thick paper that looked as if they had been dyed or painted that colour. Huntley stared at them, shining his torch at various angles to see if anything could be made of it. Slowly he began to realise that the darkness was not uniform but consisted of infinitely subtle gradations of black, some marginally lighter or darker, some parts matte, some glossy, one area looking as if it was composed of closely cropped black hair or fur. As he continued to stare, he began to see things in the blackness, in particular a pair of eyes which appeared to move and then fix themselves upon him. Suddenly a hand from behind Huntley stretched across and flicked the pages over so that the black ones were obscured. It was Valentine. He had woken from a brief and troubled sleep.
"For God's sake don't stare at that!" he said.
"What the hell is it?"
"It's what's called a Speculum Caliginis, a Mirror of Darkness. It's just a sort of conjuring trick really, but a pretty nasty and clever one. They're rare things because there were only about three or four artists in the medieval period who could make them; all of them monks, I believe. They used these different blends of black inks and pigments to create the illusion, if you looked at it for too long, that there were things moving about in the darkness. Nobody knows how to make them anymore, thank God."
"What were they used for?"
"Divination, I believe. Fortune telling. A variation on 'skrying in the stone.' But mostly they were just used to frighten unsuspecting people like you and me."
"Reminds me of those black pages in Tristram Shandy."
"That's not a coincidence. The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who wrote it, was no mean occultist."
"How come you know all about this and I don't?"
"That is a mystery."
"Shall I go on looking?"
"Of course. If you wish. But I will stand behind you just in case, if you have no objections."
Huntley had many, and violent ones, but for some reason he did not voice them. He turned the pages.
"Aha! Canon Alberic's scrapbook," he murmured, chiefly to impress Valentine, at the same time wondering why he should be so anxious to impress him.
It was indeed a kind of scrapbook. There was paper, parchment, vellum and a fragment or two of papyrus gummed onto the pages. The papyrus was inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, and a Greek inscription at the top of the page proclaimed them to be the work of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus.
"Highly unlikely, seeing as how he never existed," said Huntley who enjoyed being quietly dismissive in a scholarly way.
Many pages in the body of the book were written on vellum in Latin in a clear late-uncial script. Huntley was reluctantly impressed: this indicated that at least some of the text dated back to as early as the eighth century, and possibly even earlier. The writing was clear and hardly faded at all and Huntley was able to translate with ease. Most of the pages had titles like: "To Discover a Murderer by gazing into a Crystal" or "To Obtain the Love of a Woman or a young Boy," and the writing that followed contained detailed instructions accompanied by diagrams and, in some cases, drawings. These were exquisitely drawn and coloured, reminding Huntley of the Book of Kells, that high-water mark in pre-medieval manuscripts. The only difference was that the designs, far from being religious or Biblical in subject matter, depicted strange, sometimes obscene events. The illustration accompanying "To Obtain the Love of a Woman or a young Boy" showed a mature bearded man in a long red gown, but with wings for arms, hovering directly above the cowering naked body of a pubescent girl lying on a stone slab. Through the man's rich gown could just be seen the tip of an erect penis. In another, a group of demons were holding an elderly man down in a great cauldron, which was suspended over a riot of curling red and yellow flames. At the head of the page in large illuminated letters was the legend, which he translated as:
To obtain domination over one's enemies, and to extract the last scintilla of humiliation from one's persecutors
"Handy, I suppose," commented Huntley, glancing with a smirk at Valentine who was staring blankly at the pages and did not respond. Huntley was now definitely enjoying himself. He turned the page.
What he next saw froze him into a kind of paralysis of disbelief. The page contained no text, but was arranged very much like one of the illustrations in the Book of Kells. There was an elaborate frame of an intricate Celtic design painted in many subtle colours and enlivened with little flashes of gold leaf, but it was the picture within the frame that arrested him. It showed a man in a blue gown embroidered with silver stars seated at a high writing desk or scrinium of the kind used in monks' scriptoria. The picture resembled superficially those early representations of the Evangelists at work on their gospels that preface their texts in early manuscripts, but this was not quite the same. In the first place the background was dingy and seemed to represent the walls of a chamber hung with a variety of disagreeable objects: hacked-off arms and legs, a grinning skull with a grotesquely extended cranium, a baby in a bulbous glass vessel who appeared to be screaming in agony, and, suspended on a peg, what looked like the complete flayed skin of an old man. But this was not the worst, as far as Huntley was concerned. The fact was that the face of the scribe, though executed in a style consistent with eighth or ninth-century Saxon or Celtic work, was unmistakably his own. Huntley had to blink several times before he could acknowledge that what he saw was not an illusion.
He could say nothing, in case he gave away his alarm. He deliberately avoided looking at that page and stared at the page opposite which seemed to contain the usual rows of discreet Latin uncials: no more than a text, but as he continued to look the letters began to turn and dance before his eyes, then form themselves into phrases:
Quis es? Cujus es? Quid petis?
And then the letters danced again and formed themselves into their English equivalent:
Who are you? To whom do you belong? What do you seek?
And now his head was spinning, and he really could not tell what was in his brain and what was in the book, or even if he was in himself or the book.
He was in a lecture hall, explaining the book to an enraptured audience; he was in a bookshop on a book tour, signing innumerable copies of his book The Boke of the Divill, a book about the book. The admiring faces, the attentive audiences at dinners, lectures, seminars, television studios became a blur. The faces all seemed the same; then he found that he could change the faces at will, but that was no more satisfactory. Then a change. He was in his study at Oxford conducting a tutorial and opposite him on the sofa was an attractive undergraduate—male or female? Sometimes it looked like Emma, but he could not be sure, and that too was unsatisfactory, nevertheless the pressure was great. Blood thumped in his head. He rose and advanced on the young girl—yes, it was a girl—no! A young man. Definitely a man. But it did not matter. Then he was being thrown down face first on the sofa and he felt a weight on him and clawing hands. He struggled to be free, or at least to turn round to face his oppressor, but when he did, he saw whose face it was pressing close to his, filling his lungs with greasy breath, panting with unfulfilled longing. It was his own face, but horribly transformed: old now and grey and jowled, thin haired and bag-eyed, but still his own face. It was straining after something, but not a person, not even a body, just an idea, an illusion that he knew was empty, but that he still pursued, until all the blood vessels broke in his head.
* * *
But it is Reggie Oliver's wit that lifts The Boke of the Divill above the level of pastiche.
Geoffrey Tancock D.D. O, irradiated by the debauching power of the Boke, tries to exhaust himself walking so he can sleep:
He could not go home yet. That night he walked the streets of Morchester, trying to control the relentless turn of his thoughts, going over and over Eastwood's evangelical tirade and his own feebly magnanimous response. It was only when sheer exhaustion began to slow the carousel of his reflections that he turned his steps towards the Deanery at last.
In his perambulations about the old city he had barely noticed a thing. The projections of his own vivid mental cinema had blotted out all observations. Once, though, towards the end of his aimless trudge, he had spotted a car driving out of the city at speed. This was after midnight, when few other vehicles were about. In it the Dean was sure he had seen the Reverend Gary Eastwood, driving alone. What was he doing?
When the Dean finally returned to the Deanery the bell of the cathedral clock was chiming one. There was a note from his wife in the hall to say that there was some shepherd's pie in the microwave, and that she had gone to bed. The Dean had no love of shepherd's pie, especially not his wife's. He was neither hungry nor unhungry, but in one of those states of mind in which food seems like a vulgar irrelevance. He crept upstairs to his bedroom.
There was enough light from the street lamps in the cathedral close filtering through the thin net curtains for him to move without stumbling over furniture. He could see his wife's substantial bulk in the bed. She was turned away from him and snoring lightly. He undressed and, instead of putting on the pyjamas which, as usual, were neatly folded on his pillow, he got into his bed naked next to his wife's back.
Phyllis Tancock was wearing a white flannel nightgown decorated with tiny pink roses which looked exquisitely frivolous sprinkled over her substantial form. The Dean drew back the covers and lifted the nightgown gently off his wife's thighs so that he could see the whole of her backside from the waist down.
He had not hitherto taken much notice of his wife's bottom, and it was a revelation. Unlike her breasts, her buttocks had not withered with age. On the contrary, decades of biscuits and cakes at Women's Institute meetings had rounded them into two vast soft globes, delicately flattened where they met, tinged with the roseate blush of comfortable good health. They were an unexpected wonder to the Very Reverend Geoffrey Tancock D.D. O, my America, my Newfoundland, he thought, remembering the words of another Dean. He traced their silky contours with a sensitive finger.
"Geoffrey! What on earth are you doing?"
It was to be a night of the unexpected for Phyllis Tancock too.
* * *
Reggie Oliver's cathedral city of Morchester makes Salem and Arkham look like suburbs of Candyland.
The Divill's Boke itself, whether really Canon Alberic's scrapbook or not, is depicted concretely as a black hole sucking at and warping souls that, whether they know it or not, get too close.
In his short story "Between Four Yews" (2012) Oliver provided us with a rich and beautifully complex prequel to James's "A School Story." In the novella "Armies of the Night," a tremendous farrago of G-Men, J. Edgar Hoover, and HPL, he dared more and used more unmitigated artistic gall than any of the legions of earlier cack-handed Mythos pastichists.
But in The Boke of the Divill all the sublime miniaturist experiments and kidding around are left behind. This novel is aesthetic synthesis on a very high level indeed.
No one can touch him.
16 July 2021