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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

An aesthetic investigator: The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard.

The Collected Connoisseur by Mark Valentine and John Howard 

[Tartarus Press, 2010]              

The Collected Connoisseur is a series of stories in which the main character, the Connoisseur, explores mysteries involving strange events, places, books, and objects affecting people in uncanny ways. Not quite an occult detective, more an aesthetic problem solver?

Some tales are poignant in their simplicity and emotional eloquence (,The Paravine Cries"). Others brush against diabolism ("The Lost Moon," "The Serpent, Unfallen"). "The Hesperian Dragon" is a wonderful 'New Arabian Nights' comedy of manners. Several stories achieve a cosmic glamour ("Sea Citadel," "The Last Archipelago," and "The Descent of the Fire"). All are brief and mercifully free of the mugging and humbug of the occult detective subgenre.


....From my earliest reading, I remember two books that made a strong impression on me: a collection of wonder stories called Tales of Long Ago; and a stout, silver-grey volume of supposedly true hauntings, Elliott O'Donnell's Casebook of Ghosts. So when I started to form my own taste, I was naturally led towards similar books. I got the idea that there were five great writers in these fields: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare and William Hope Hodgson; and I searched out and read their books with zest and delight. They have been lifelong companions. Others have joined these household gods, of course: but  never quite ascend to the high pantheon of the original quintarchy.

....All these stories should be regarded as votive candles at the shrines of those literary gods I first revered so long ago. And whatever there is in them of curious light is a glimmer from these great idols: and whatever there is of restless darkness is cast by their long shadows.

The Effigies

....' "We would do wrong if we did not admit that some of our sacred wells seem to have acquired repute even before they became associated with the saints . . . it is idle to deny that some were the shrines of an older faith. Indeed, it is likely some never received sanctification. What, for example, are we to make of the Cursing Well at Oakyard, with its timeworn horned head spout: and how can we account for the insistence of parishioners at March Bagot that a woodland pool in the vicinity is the abode of elves? Such remembrances seem wholly unhallowed."

After the Darkness

'I suggested to Lucy that she dress again in the guise of Columbine, for it might be that only thus could she be recognised by the apparition. I offered to follow her as she wandered about the gardens, but she supposed this might deter the frail phantom. My notion that it must be her costume which inspired the Pierrot's appearance did indeed seem to provide the key, for they met again, so she later recounted, by the old boathouse of the little sedgy lake. He was perched upon the upturned hull of a narrow skiff, long decayed. The faintest of smiles passed over the samite mask of his face, as she approached. He placed a finger upon his lips, then reached for her hand. She said his nearness reminded her of the exhilarating sharp luminosity of fresh-fallen snow—and her fingers tingled with icy pleasure...."

The Paravine Cries

'And when Lawrence Paravine returned to Arram House, he at once set out to restore the wing which had once been occupied by his brother to its former glory—which was when, of course, the rescued treasures were given back. And then one day Lawrence came to see me, greeted me quietly as was his way, subsided into your chair, gazed at me beneath his tawny fringe and asked, diffidently enough, how deeply Flavian had delved into Celtic legends and whether he had perhaps tried some unwise experiments. "For," he said, "I think there is a banshee abroad in the grounds."

Pale Roses

    ....'From my knowledge of the period, I knew that in the 1880s and 1890s there toured the country a claimant to the Three Thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, who said he was the last scion of a line stemming from a concealed marriage contracted by Charles Edward Stuart (called by some The Young Pretender) in the days after the '45 when all seemed lost for the Stuart cause. This youth's origins were otherwise obscure, but he did bear a striking resemblance to the sons of that ill-starred dynasty: and there was something, too, about his demeanour which made others treat him with deference, so that he soon gathered about him a select band of adherents—romantics, Celtic revivalists, ritualists and even radicals; and at the height of all this, he was feted by many simply because it was the fashion.

    'What was now clear—and subsequently I confirmed it from some contemporary journals—was that Charles Rupert Stuart, or Charles IV as he was properly styled, had stayed in this house for a time during his wanderings. And it seems to me that it does not greatly matter what credence we give to his claims, though there were indeed some who were convinced by them. No: what is significant is that he was given homage and adoration, and that for a season this respectable place became the scene of conspiracy and ceremonial. Something of that ardour has surely been sustained within its walls and on 30th January, the anniversary of the death of Charles I, King and Martyr, it was at its most potent.

    'I think it was my lord Corvo who once wrote that to give a true Englishman a red rose is an insult: for the Baron was a staunch Jacobite, and revered the White Rose as the symbol of the Stuarts. There was even—may even still be—a League of the White Rose, which numbered amongst its chevaliers many poets and artists of the day. Now you see, I think, some of the meaning beneath the wonder which was worked upon the red roses in Rebecca's room: and I think if you consider again the day upon which it transpired, you will perceive perhaps some poignancy too.

    'Charles Rupert's reign as a society darling was not long, for fashion is ever fickle, and many followers soon turned to other fascinations. His court circle, as it were, soon dwindled to a devoted handful, scattered around the country. Poverty and poor health, and the desire to avoid becoming a figure of scorn, forced him to abandon his crusade: he crossed to Ireland and was never heard of again.

In Violet Veils

'As you may have begun to understand,' The Connoisseur continued, after briefly reflecting upon this well-remembered scene, 'Ivo's work was a masque of the Mysteries, a reconstruction of scenes from some of the surmised initiation rites of that most ancient and most secret of sacred transformations. He had chosen potent images believed to have been used in preparing the votaries for the final revelations of the cult: and he had succeeded in invoking the very state of spiritual adoration and contemplation of these images which was one key practice among several in the journey towards the last veils.'

The Lost Moon

....Now, after the failure of the Fifteen, the sense of despair and of a world put out of its proper order, was keenly felt by the Jacobites: and so I wondered whether the Earl might have had an orrery made in which the spheres do not follow their fated path, in which all is out of true with what it should be: thus the emblem most closely associated with him, the art to which he had given his name, could be used as a memento mori to the lost cause, a constant reminder of the ruin of all. 

Café Lucifer

....She tended to wear plain dark clothing, such as a simple black tunic and trousers, again unconventionally for the time: and she always occupied the corner seat in one of the café's obscurer angles, directly beneath Zaska's tall pillar with its "touchstone". He noticed that she always deftly avoided much contact with the others who frequented the café, and so for a time he maintained his respectful distance. He asked the counter assistant about her, who vaguely recalled the girl, but could only surmise that she must be foreign, perhaps a friend of Zaska's, because she spoke English very quietly and sparingly, with a strange inflection.

The Craft of Arioch

....'Arioch Woodley settled us down and stared at us for a few moments from eyes the colour of pebbles in a stream. He stroked a dark beard peppered with grey. He asked us, cautiously at first, what we thought of his work: and then how well the pieces had ridden, eyeing us more keenly. There was for a moment a constraint upon us, an uncertainty. But his gaze was so frank, and his interest so keen, that we soon found ourselves trying to explain, as I have done for you, what had passed as we "rode" his strange creations.

The Secret Stars

....'I have read somewhere that those secret stars have names, such as Mesomede, Aravoth, Chigir, Kolo and Sapphacelo: and sometimes I am moved to call them by these names as I stare at the spaces in the sky where they must be; but I do not know if these are merely man-made names, and whether they might have true names that we would not understand.

The Hesperian Dragon

....Either I misunderstood the directions entirely, or I had been comprehensively misled by the young man with the hat-box. For I never did find Corvel House. What I did find was that the route took me back to within a few hundred yards from the edge of the village, and that I had been sent in a wide circle. Yet there is one thing more. As I trudged wearily down the long slope of the firm road from the stone bridge, I glanced back at intervals just to see that I was not accompanied. As I did so, on the last long bend in the road before high hedges obscured my view, the half-moon emerged again and cast a wan radiance over a knoll of moorland that rose at the edge of the wood, which clustered around it like a ragged silvery mane. Upon this bare tor I could swear I saw, briefly delineated in the glimmering light, a high, dark, upright figure, which ended with a sharp-jawed beast's head. After staring, wonder-struck, for a few moments, you may be sure I did not stay much longer, but pounded on towards the friendly amber street-lamps that I could begin to make out before me.'

The Lighting of the Vial

....'The late afternoon warmth and the quiet of the garden stole over me and I felt a sense of luxuriant blessedness enter my bones. A lime tree flickered its limbs in the slight breeze and I saw on the paving before me the faint shadow of its leaves. The moss on the upturned urns had a dizzying density of green which absorbed my attention for many moments. The empty square pediment where Kerwyn would habitually lean, since it afforded a sort of focus for the garden, and would become rapt in attention to the passing images before him, was now riven by clinging vines. Resting back on the bench, my eyes half-closed, a drifting fragrance insidiously pervading my awareness, I at length sensed, perhaps from some slight stirring in the air, some momentary movement in the light, the presence of another.

The Nephoseum

....he had dedicated himself to what I suppose we should term nephosophy, knowledge of the clouds, though he gave it no such grand term: he always referred simply to his "studies". He shared with me, however, in half-mockingly naming his upper room as his "nephoseum" and indeed it was a library, observatory, gallery and temple of the clouds all in one for him.

Sea Citadel

     ....'I have been to quite a few of his "enactments", as he likes to call them, and there is no mistaking their originality. One of the most noted was, I suppose, his At The Crested Griffin. He For a moment I could not quite place the measure and the slightly stilted punctuation that he had adopted: then I realised it was a sonorous imitation of that diurnal wireless bulletin, with its comforting, authoritative crispness, the Shipping Forecast.

     'Yet instead of the familiar names and terms, Shepherd was reciting a completely different set of formulæ. Cromarty, Forties, Fastnet, Malin were gone: there was no mention of "Northwesterly Five to Seven, decreasing, becoming variable for a time", nor "Cyclonic, perhaps Gale Seven later".

The Prince of Barlocco

....'After a swift look at the rather tumbledown white bothy (or "Post Office" as he called it), where on a rough table I saw evidence of the artist's continued work on striking monochrome sea and island scenes, Edward took me on a roam around the whole island, which was, I should say, not more than a mile and a half in circumference. First we skirted the shoreline, shoving through gorse, heather and fern, and chatting all the while of our news. Then, as we came to a rocky gully, Edward halted and pointed upwards with his walking stick, saying that this was the best route to the crest of the hill, the top of the island.

The Black Eros

.....' "When I heard from my countrymen here," said Nuria, "Of the performance you would give, I thought it could do no harm to hear again the music of my past. I could not expect you would play the 'Clandestino'. And then, I told myself, ah but you will not play it as he played it. . . . But when I heard it rising and rising I had to cry out and put an end to it: for I knew that he would not stop."

Mad Lutanist

....' "This dial is an instrument with thirty-two points on it and each of those points is marked by a combination of only four different characters. I'd say it's a compass, marking every point from North through East-North-North-East to North-North-East or whatever: orienteering is not quite my thing. But why the characters are variations on a zig-zag rather than just N, E, S, W, and why they also have their own individual signifier, I do not know."

     ' "Hmph. Well, I can add to that. It's also an indoor weather vane."

The Mist on the Mere

....I may be wrong but I think you may have an unusual example of an English crannog, that is to say, a lake building made on an artificial islet, perhaps in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age. There are hundreds of them in Scotland and Ireland, though mostly poorly chronicled; but hardly any down here.

     Like many there, it is quite submerged, though there are some possible residues just below the water: at least I thought I could see some debris. It would be of great interest in the archaeological field. You will have to decide whether to let them come and look at it.'

     .....two other things set me thinking too. The first was the odd custom of paying a fare to go out to the middle of the mere. Why could this be? Well, surely, I reasoned, because once there was occasion only to go that far: there was a stopping-off point there. It might be some hundreds of years ago, for the ferry could be quite ancient, as crossings by water often are. What, then, could have been the particular point there to pause at? The second clue was in your description of the light hovering in zig-zags. For it was a trick of lake-dwellers to make a causeway from their islet to the shore, but slightly beneath the surface, so it would not be seen by any marauders. And in case attackers did discover it and set their foot upon it, they did not make it straight, as outsiders might suppose, but in darting angles, so that the attackers were likely to become confused and miss their footing and so plunge into the lake. Only those who knew could use it with sureness, just as those who know the way in marshland can outwit those who do not. Again, in my experiments this afternoon, which you must have thought so erratic, I think I have found signs of just such a causeway.'

The White Solander

....'He told me that this box and its contents had once belonged to a Panoramica, which had been opened as a novel diversion for the jaded bourgeoisie of Bucharest in the 1930s, using magic lantern tricks, dioramas and multiple vistas to provide sweeping views of great cities, or historic scenes, or bright mandalas: but the arrival of the cinema soon saw it off. He was now trying to find the original projector used in the Panoramica: I thought it rather a forlorn hope and, at the time, also somewhat futile....'

The Last Archipelago

....This notebook, left to that library by Hazleton himself, allows us to speculate as to why. It suggests that Conway's Spitsbergen survey was the first—though perhaps not the only—British expeditionary team where one of the members was deliberately chosen because of his sensitivity to the unseen. This journal tells us something of what resulted from that experiment.'

The Rite of Trebizond

....'Then the gorgeous colours of the banners of my vision briefly returned, and I must have cried out, as the floor fell away—then, silently, to either side, Dr Considine and the boy, kneeling to help me up, took hold of my arms, and guided me back to my room. I slept in dizzyingly clamorous dreams, all fury and chase and brilliant, bursting colours, and I awoke unrefreshed. For I knew what I had witnessed. It was the great lost mass from the inner heart of imperial Byzantium, from its last, diminished outpost: it was the Rite of Trebizond. For seekers after lost liturgies it was the true Grail, for only fragments had survived, and it was maimed and incomplete....

The Serpent, Unfallen

         ....The Connoisseur insisted upon hearing my research first.

     Ascherson was most informative about Saltway Abbey,' I began, 'It was a quiet day at the ruins, so I engaged him in conversation, and ended up at his little cottage on the edge of the grounds, because he wanted to chase up a reference. He said it was once one of the most visited pilgrim places in England, next only to Canterbury and Walsingham. It was founded by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was crowned King of the Romans with the silver crown of Germany at Aachen, but never (though he intrigued for it) made Holy Roman Emperor. He is buried, the exact site of his grave now unknown, at the abbey. His son Edmund endowed it with a phial of Christ's own blood, a gift from the Cathedral at Aachen. And this was then much reverenced through the centuries: and Edmund too is buried at the abbey. When the wrath of Henry VIII was visited upon the monasteries and they were closed down and plundered, the phial was seized and declared to be not blood, but just honey tinted with saffron and rhubarb. It was destroyed, it was said, along with all the abbey's other relics.'

The Temple of Time

....it's all very obscure, but the main point is that its rituals and ceremonies were concerned with influencing the distant future. They were convinced that, by employing the right ceremonial with the prescribed rite, and at a specific time, they could change the outcome of the future. It all seems rather modern in tone in some ways, now. In effect, they threw a stone into the stream of time, which sent its ripples outward and along it, thus changing the future. There were many reasons evinced for why their actions did not, or could not, also flow back down the time-stream, and thus also influence the past. For whatever reason, they believed that the ripples introduced into the time-stream could only travel in the direction of the future. Maybe Nature had a way of ensuring that paradoxes could not happen, ironing them out as it were, as speculated in the works of many writers of science-fiction.

The Descent of the Fire

....at their curious finial, I met with silence, resistance or evasion. Now, you see, that is far from my usual experience. Even in the grimmest, most suspicious of areas, I generally find admittance. But here, in the café, a young woman left in charge said such things as, oh, it was very dangerous up there, never used; they didn't have access, but only leased the lower floor; and she was just looking after the place and didn't feel she could give permission; and so on. Of course, I have met such responses before, and quite naturally too. But there was something rather determined about this reaction that made me feel odd about it.


12 November 2019

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