"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Colin Wilson does Machen [via Lovecraft]

Queer the places where a Machen reader finds Machen.

I've read Colin Wilson's kitsch-Lovecraft novella The Return of the Lloigor (1969) several times, and each time promptly forgotten the plot; Wilson's use of the  Voynich manuscript was the only point that stuck.

As I opened Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos today, who should emerge from the welter of tale-within-tale solipsisms?

....In Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, in the short section on Arthur Machen, I came across a reference to the "Chian language," connected in some way with a witchcraft cult. It also mentioned "Dôls," "voolas," and certain "Aklo letters." The latter caught my attention; there had been a reference in the Voynich manuscript to the "Aklo inscriptions." I had at first supposed Aklo to be some kind of corruption of the Kabbalastic "Agla," a word used in exorcism; now I revised my opinion. To appeal to coincidence beyond a certain point is a sign of feeble-mindedness. The hypothesis that now presented itself to my mind was this: that the Voynich manuscript was a fragment or a summary of a much longer work called the Necronomicon, perhaps of Kabbalistic origin. Complete copies of the book exist, or have existed, and word-of-mouth tradition may have been kept alive by secret societies such as Naundorff's infamous Church of Carmel, or the Brotherhood of Tlön described by Borges. Machen, who spent some
time in Paris in the 1880s, almost certainly came into contact with Naundorff's disciple, the Abbé Boullan, who is known to have practised black magic. (He appears in Huysman's Là-Bas.) This could explain the traces of the Necronomicon to be found in his work. As to Lovecraft—he may have come across it or the verbal traditions concerning it, on his own, or perhaps even through Machen.

Lang, our narrator, has managed to translate the Voynich manuscript, which turns out to be the Book of Dead Names. This gives Wilson a chance to nest one-within-another Lovecraft, Charles Fort, and Machen:

....In a bookshop in Maidstone I met Fr. Anthony Carter, a Carmelite monk and editor of a small literary magazine. He had met Machen in 1944—three years before the writer's death, and had later devoted an issue of his magazine to Machen's life and work. I accompanied Fr. Carter back to the Priory near Sevenoaks, and as he drove the baby Austin at a sedate thirty miles an hour, he talked to me at length about Machen. Finally, I asked him whether, to his knowledge, Machen had ever had contact with secret societies or black magic. "Oh, I doubt it," he said, and my heart sank. Another false trail …"I suspect he picked up various odd traditions near his birthplace, Melincourt. It used to be the Roman Isca Silurum."

"Traditions?" I tried to keep my voice casual. "What sort of traditions?"

"Oh, you know. The sort of thing he describes in The Hill of Dreams. Pagan cults and that sort of thing."

"I thought that was pure imagination."

"Oh, no. He once hinted to me that he'd seen a book that revealed all kinds of horrible things about the area of Wales."

"Where? What kind of a book?"

"I've no idea. I didn't pay too much attention. I believe he saw it in Paris—or it might have been Lyons. But I remember the name of the man who showed it to him. Staislav de Guaita."

"Guaita!" I couldn't keep my voice down, and he almost steered us off the road. He looked at me with mild reproach.

"That's right. He was involved in some absurd black-magic society. Machen pretended to take it all seriously, but I'm sure he was pulling my leg.…"

Guaita was involved in the black-magic circle of Boullan and Naundorff. It was one more brick in the edifice.

"Where is Melincourt?"

"In Monmouthshire, I believe. Somewhere near Southport. Are you thinking of going?"

My train of thought must have been obvious. I saw no point in denying it.

The priest said nothing until the car stopped in the tree-shaded yard behind the Priory. Then he glanced at me and said mildly: "I wouldn't get too involved if I were you."

*  * *

Lang heads for Machen country, or perhaps I should call it Lloigor country, in Wales.

....When I grew tired of looking at the scenery, I opened the book bag and took out a Guide to Wales, and two volumes of Arthur Machen; some selected stories, and the autobiographical Far Off Things. This latter led me to expect to find a land of enchantment in Machen's part of Wales. He writes: "I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in the heart of Gwent." His descriptions of the "mystic tumulus," the "giant rounded billow" of the Mountain of Stone, the deep woods and the winding river, made it sound like the landscape of a dream. And in fact, Melincourt is the legendary seat of King Arthur, and Tennyson sets his Idylls of the King there.

....In spite of modernisation and the October drizzle, the Usk valley remained extremely beautiful. The green of the fields was striking, even compared to Virginia. The woods were, as Machen said, mysterious and shadowy, and the scenery looked almost too picturesque to be genuine, like one of those grandiose romantic landscapes by Asher Durand. And to the north and northeast lay the mountains, hardly visible through the smokey clouds; the desolate landscape of "The White People" and "The Novel of the Black Seal"—both very fresh in my mind. Mr. Evans, my driver, had the tact not to speak, but to allow me to soak up the feeling of the landscape.

The lore really piles up from there:

....Lauerdale wrote: "I myself am inclined to believe, on the evidence of letters, that one of the most important experiences in Lovecraft's early life was a visit to Cohasset, a run-down fishing village between Quonochontaug and Weekapaug in Southern Rhode Island. Like Lovecraft's 'Innsmouth,' this village was later to vanish from the maps. I have been there, and its description corresponds in many ways to Lovecraft's description of Innsmouth—which Lovecraft placed in Massachusetts: 'more empty houses than people,' the air of decay, the stale fish smell. There was actually a character known as Captain Marsh living in Cohasset in 1915, when Lovecraft was there, who had spent some time in the South Seas. It may have been he who told the young Lovecraft the stories of evil Polynesian temples and undersea people. The chief of these legends—as mentioned also by Jung and Spence—is of gods from the stars (or demons) who were once lords of this earth, who lost their power through the practise of evil magic, but who will one day return and take over the earth again. In the version quoted by Jung, these gods are said to have created human beings from subhuman monsters.

"In my own opinion, Lovecraft derived the rest of the 'mythos' from Machen, perhaps from Poe, who occasionally hints at such things. 'MS. Found in a Bottle,' for example. I found no evidence that there were ever sinister rumours connected with the 'shunned house' in Benefit Street, or any other house in Providence. I shall be extremely interested to read what you have to say about Machen's sources. While I think it is just possible that Machen heard some story about some 'arcane' volume of the sort you mention, I can find no evidence that Lovecraft had firsthand acquaintance with such a book. I am sure that any connection between his Necronomicon and the Voynich MS. is, as you suggest, coincidence."

My hair stirred as I read the sentence about gods "who will one day return and take over the earth again," as also about the reference to Polynesian legends. For, as Churchward has written: "Easter Island, Tahiti, Samoas,… Hawaii, and the Marquesas are the pathetic fingers of that great land, standing today as sentinels of a silent grave." Polynesia is the remains of Mu....

In the end, we are left with no proof, just the summation of the Lloigor's human avatar Chickno: "This is their world anyway.… They want it back again."

*   * *

Colin Wilson gives the reader his solid attempt, presenting us with multiple points of view and various forms of narration: first person, letters of scholars, etc. He enjoys the game of interweaving Forteana with pastiche. Still, it's small beer.

20 January 2019

Friday, January 4, 2019

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

The suspense in Around the World in Eighty Days begins when Fogg tells his fellow  whist-players at the Reform Club that allowing 80 days to circle the globe covers the risk of any delays. I immediately thought about injuries, accidents, and illnesses. But the series of thwartings Verne gives Fogg are everyday. In fact, they can all be overcome by the judicious use of a thick wad of bank notes and human ingenuity.

Verne presents Fogg as a virtual automaton of fixed habits who has never been anywhere, yet knows everything. He walks like the minute hand of a watch.

Passepartout, his new valet, is just the opposite: a nimble and quick-witted man who wears his heart on his sleeve and is capable of explosive action when needed (such as uncoupling train cars from their engine during an Indian attack: he crawls the underside of the moving carriages).

The most memorable and "poetic" scene comes when our extraordinary voyagers hire a sled with sails to finish the interrupted train journey over the Great Plains:

….Phileas Fogg found himself twenty hours behind time. Passepartout, the involuntary cause of this delay, was desperate. He had ruined his master!

At this moment the detective approached Mr. Fogg, and, looking him intently in the face, said:

"Seriously, sir, are you in great haste?"

"Quite seriously."

"I have a purpose in asking," resumed Fix. "Is it absolutely necessary that you should be in New York on the 11th, before nine o'clock in the evening, the time that the steamer leaves for Liverpool?"

"It is absolutely necessary."

"And, if your journey had not been interrupted by these Indians, you would have reached New York on the morning of the 11th?"

"Yes; with eleven hours to spare before the steamer left."

"Good! you are therefore twenty hours behind. Twelve from twenty leaves eight. You must regain eight hours. Do you wish to try to do so?"

"On foot?" asked Mr. Fogg.

"No; on a sledge," replied Fix. "On a sledge with sails. A man has proposed such a method to me."

It was the man who had spoken to Fix during the night, and whose offer he had refused.

Phileas Fogg did not reply at once; but Fix, having pointed out the man, who was walking up and down in front of the station, Mr. Fogg went up to him. An instant after, Mr. Fogg and the American, whose name was Mudge, entered a hut built just below the fort.

There Mr. Fogg examined a curious vehicle, a kind of frame on two long beams, a little raised in front like the runners of a sledge, and upon which there was room for five or six persons. A high mast was fixed on the frame, held firmly by metallic lashings, to which was attached a large brigantine sail. This mast held an iron stay upon which to hoist a jib-sail. Behind, a sort of rudder served to guide the vehicle. It was, in short, a sledge rigged like a sloop. During the winter, when the trains are blocked up by the snow, these sledges make extremely rapid journeys across the frozen plains from one station to another. Provided with more sails than a cutter, and with the wind behind them, they slip over the surface of the prairies with a speed equal if not superior to that of the express trains.

Mr. Fogg readily made a bargain with the owner of this land-craft. The wind was favourable, being fresh, and blowing from the west. The snow had hardened, and Mudge was very confident of being able to transport Mr. Fogg in a few hours to Omaha. Thence the trains eastward run frequently to Chicago and New York. It was not impossible that the lost time might yet be recovered; and such an opportunity was not to be rejected.

Not wishing to expose Aouda to the discomforts of travelling in the open air, Mr. Fogg proposed to leave her with Passepartout at Fort Kearney, the servant taking upon himself to escort her to Europe by a better route and under more favourable conditions. But Aouda refused to separate from Mr. Fogg, and Passepartout was delighted with her decision; for nothing could induce him to leave his master while Fix was with him.

It would be difficult to guess the detective's thoughts. Was this conviction shaken by Phileas Fogg's return, or did he still regard him as an exceedingly shrewd rascal, who, his journey round the world completed, would think himself absolutely safe in England? Perhaps Fix's opinion of Phileas Fogg was somewhat modified; but he was nevertheless resolved to do his duty, and to hasten the return of the whole party to England as much as possible.

At eight o'clock the sledge was ready to start. The passengers took their places on it, and wrapped themselves up closely in their travelling-cloaks. The two great sails were hoisted, and under the pressure of the wind the sledge slid over the hardened snow with a velocity of forty miles an hour.

The distance between Fort Kearney and Omaha, as the birds fly, is at most two hundred miles. If the wind held good, the distance might be traversed in five hours; if no accident happened the sledge might reach Omaha by one o'clock.

What a journey! The travellers, huddled close together, could not speak for the cold, intensified by the rapidity at which they were going. The sledge sped on as lightly as a boat over the waves. When the breeze came skimming the earth the sledge seemed to be lifted off the ground by its sails. Mudge, who was at the rudder, kept in a straight line, and by a turn of his hand checked the lurches which the vehicle had a tendency to make. All the sails were up, and the jib was so arranged as not to screen the brigantine. A top-mast was hoisted, and another jib, held out to the wind, added its force to the other sails. Although the speed could not be exactly estimated, the sledge could not be going at less than forty miles an hour.

"If nothing breaks," said Mudge, "we shall get there!"

Mr. Fogg had made it for Mudge's interest to reach Omaha within the time agreed on, by the offer of a handsome reward.

The prairie, across which the sledge was moving in a straight line, was as flat as a sea. It seemed like a vast frozen lake. The railroad which ran through this section ascended from the south-west to the north-west by Great Island, Columbus, an important Nebraska town, Schuyler, and Fremont, to Omaha. It followed throughout the right bank of the Platte River. The sledge, shortening this route, took a chord of the arc described by the railway. Mudge was not afraid of being stopped by the Platte River, because it was frozen. The road, then, was quite clear of obstacles, and Phileas Fogg had but two things to fear—an accident to the sledge, and a change or calm in the wind.

But the breeze, far from lessening its force, blew as if to bend the mast, which, however, the metallic lashings held firmly. These lashings, like the chords of a stringed instrument, resounded as if vibrated by a violin bow. The sledge slid along in the midst of a plaintively intense melody.

"Those chords give the fifth and the octave," said Mr. Fogg.

These were the only words he uttered during the journey. Aouda, cosily packed in furs and cloaks, was sheltered as much as possible from the attacks of the freezing wind. As for Passepartout, his face was as red as the sun's disc when it sets in the mist, and he laboriously inhaled the biting air. With his natural buoyancy of spirits, he began to hope again. They would reach New York on the evening, if not on the morning, of the 11th, and there was still some chances that it would be before the steamer sailed for Liverpool.

Passepartout even felt a strong desire to grasp his ally, Fix, by the hand. He remembered that it was the detective who procured the sledge, the only means of reaching Omaha in time; but, checked by some presentiment, he kept his usual reserve. One thing, however, Passepartout would never forget, and that was the sacrifice which Mr. Fogg had made, without hesitation, to rescue him from the Sioux. Mr. Fogg had risked his fortune and his life. No! His servant would never forget that!

While each of the party was absorbed in reflections so different, the sledge flew past over the vast carpet of snow. The creeks it passed over were not perceived. Fields and streams disappeared under the uniform whiteness. The plain was absolutely deserted. Between the Union Pacific road and the branch which unites Kearney with Saint Joseph it formed a great uninhabited island. Neither village, station, nor fort appeared. From time to time they sped by some phantom-like tree, whose white skeleton twisted and rattled in the wind. Sometimes flocks of wild birds rose, or bands of gaunt, famished, ferocious prairie-wolves ran howling after the sledge. Passepartout, revolver in hand, held himself ready to fire on those which came too near. Had an accident then happened to the sledge, the travellers, attacked by these beasts, would have been in the most terrible danger; but it held on its even course, soon gained on the wolves, and ere long left the howling band at a safe distance behind.

About noon Mudge perceived by certain landmarks that he was crossing the Platte River. He said nothing, but he felt certain that he was now within twenty miles of Omaha. In less than an hour he left the rudder and furled his sails, whilst the sledge, carried forward by the great impetus the wind had given it, went on half a mile further with its sails unspread.

It stopped at last, and Mudge, pointing to a mass of roofs white with snow, said: "We have got there!"

Arrived! Arrived at the station which is in daily communication, by numerous trains, with the Atlantic seaboard!

Passepartout and Fix jumped off, stretched their stiffened limbs, and aided Mr. Fogg and the young woman to descend from the sledge. Phileas Fogg generously rewarded Mudge, whose hand Passepartout warmly grasped, and the party directed their steps to the Omaha railway station.

The Pacific Railroad proper finds its terminus at this important Nebraska town. Omaha is connected with Chicago by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, which runs directly east, and passes fifty stations.

A train was ready to start when Mr. Fogg and his party reached the station, and they only had time to get into the cars. They had seen nothing of Omaha; but Passepartout confessed to himself that this was not to be regretted, as they were not travelling to see the sights.

The train passed rapidly across the State of Iowa, by Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Iowa City. During the night it crossed the Mississippi at Davenport, and by Rock Island entered Illinois. The next day, which was the 10th, at four o'clock in the evening, it reached Chicago, already risen from its ruins, and more proudly seated than ever on the borders of its beautiful Lake Michigan.

Nine hundred miles separated Chicago from New York; but trains are not wanting at Chicago. Mr. Fogg passed at once from one to the other, and the locomotive of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway left at full speed, as if it fully comprehended that that gentleman had no time to lose. It traversed Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey like a flash, rushing through towns with antique names, some of which had streets and car-tracks, but as yet no houses. At last the Hudson came into view; and, at a quarter-past eleven in the evening of the 11th, the train stopped in the station on the right bank of the river, before the very pier of the Cunard line.

The China, for Liverpool, had started three-quarters of an hour before!


The rescue of Aouda is the boldest set-piece in the novel. Saving her from death on the funeral pyre of her late husband gives us the first hint that something human stirs in Fogg's breast.

(Still, at the end of the novel Aouda is the one who must propose marriage to Fogg, that caricature of English sobriety and self-effacement.)

Around the World in Eighty Days is a charming novel. As an adult reading it for the first time, I was relieved at the absence of melodrama. Until the final chapter, everything depends on those stars of the bourgeois age: steam, coal, and seamanship. Engineers and navigators arev true collaborators of Fogg and his party.

4 January 2019