War and the Weird

War and the Weird

Above is the cover for the $1,100 version. I just have the free public domain version downloaded from Amazon.

I had never even heard of this book until I saw it mentioned, with a lot of books I had heard of, at the end of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s “World War One” entry.

I haven’t found out much about the authors on the Web of a Million Lies.

Forbes Phillips seems to have been an Anglican vicar who wrote other books on Christian matters. R. Thurston Hopkins wrote several biographies of authors including ones on Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, both humorously alluded to in passing in the stories.

Review: War and the Weird by Forbes Phillips and R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916. 

On its own merits as philosophy or entertainment, this combination of weird fiction and theological theorizing doesn’t have much to offer a modern audience.

Taken as a look at the British mind in 1916, in the midst of World War One and as a time capsule, it’s worth a look.

The first twenty percent of the book is a non-fiction piece on miracles sighted on the battlefield, Phillips’ view that the Divine Reality of our lives will be exposed in combat. It’s a taking up of the image and idea accidentally created by Arthur Machen’s story “The Bowman”. Phillips also attacks pacifistic Christian sects as shirking their duty, by selling a doctrine of “Vicarious Suffering” and ignoring the necessity that suffering on the battlefield, by flesh and blood mortals, is what is necessary. For Phillips too many English chaplains, infected by “dull German Protestanism”, deny the reality of angels or, at the very least, don’t take it seriously.

The rest of the book is taken up by five mostly weird stories written by Hopkins. Most take up the images and miracles mentioned in Phillips’ introduction: supernatural figures rallying the British in combat, crosses surviving in shelled buildings, and wondrous figures offering succor to dying men.

In that category of the Divine visiting the battlefield are “The De Gamelyn Tradition” and “Through the Furnace”. A miracle worked through artillery fire is part of “The Mills of God”. Yet, in those stories, is an attempt by Hopkins to come to grips with the war his country is in. “The De Gamelyn Traditions” is about a boy learning what is good and true – and what is obsolete — in the stories of military valor he has consumed. “Through the Furnace” is a look at battle fatigue in the trenches.

“Ombos” uses the war mostly as a convenient backdrop to a standard occult story involving a statute and the transmigration of souls.

As far as I can tell, the humorous “The Story of a Spy” has no weird element, but it does touch on the massive fear of German espionage that gripped Britain before and during the war.

I read the public domain version of this book. An edition has been put out by Last Post Press, and it claims to have new material specific to that edition. I have not been able to verify that.

Additional Thoughts

I’ll be talking about the four weird stories individually as part of my “World War One in Fantastic Fiction” series.

For those with even a passing acquaintance about occult movements in the late Victorian era and first two decades of the 20th century, Phillips introduction comes as no surprise in its ideas. He even rattles off a list of occultist names who have discovered new truths and confirmed “death is merely transition”: Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Myers, Gurney, Rochas, Gabriel Delanne, and Lombroso. I recommend the movie FairyTale: A True Story as a painless brief on that time, particularly Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Theosophist Edward Gardner.

The spirit, in every sense of the word, of Machen’s “The Bowman” looms overs the book. The wiki entry on “Angel of Mons” has a pretty good summation of how Machen’s fiction became “fact” and, eventually, even evidence of an allegedly real phenomena. That’s the tact Phillips takes. When mentioning “the book The Bowmen” (presumably he means the 1915 work entitled The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War), Phillips says:

That splendid story of failure and triumph, the Retreat from Mons, prompted him to write a story on an Angelic Host coming to the aid of the British force. He wrote it after the manner of the journalist who is an eye-witness of the event. Many people still believe what they read in the newspapers; and many people believed his story. But he is altogether wrong when he imagines that he is the author of the belief in Angelic visions. I was in France hearing stories of angelic intervention long before Mr. Machen wrote his delightful yarn.

The “long before” is exaggerated. Machen published his story on September 29, 1914. Phillips says he was in France in September 1914.

What I haven’t been able to find out is if Phillips wrote the introduction to a batch of stories Hopkins had already written or if it was a collaborative project from the start or whether Hopkins took his cues from Phillips paranormal claims.

It’s hard to tell if Phillips was always suspicious of German culture corrupting Christianity or if it’s a product of the war. There was a general respect and admiration for Germany among many Britons prior to the war. For many of the years between the Crimean War and World War One, France or Russia were thought to be the natural enemies of Britons. As detailed in I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War (which I’ll be reviewing soon), it was not until the Tangier Incident of 1905 that German-British relationships started to worsen. That change was inaugurated in the popular “future war” genre, the subject of Clarke’s book, by William Le Queux The Invasion of 1910.

“The Story of a Spy” may take place in France, but it also was written against a British panic about German spies that went on for years before the war. German waiters, particularly, were thought to be a fifth column. (Another subject touched on in Clarke’s book.)

German wartime espionage in Britain was, in reality, a pretty amateurish affair with the few existing rings rolled up quickly. The case of Carl Lody is typical of the poor tradecraft of the Germans.

I have Machen’s The Bowman and Other Legends of the War but haven’t read it yet. His continual effort to remind the world that a “real miracle” started out as his fiction reminds me of composer Sydney Carter. He had to constantly tell the world that “Lord of the Dance” is not an old Celtic hymn or from the Middle Ages. Carter wrote the words in 1963. I wonder if he ever muttered “Damnit.” after repeating this for the zillionth time.


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