The Womb of Time

The years 2010 and 2011 were very fruitful for Stableford as far as writing interesting takes on the Cthulhu Mythos. This is another one I read on vacation about six months ago.

Review: The Womb of Time, Brian Stableford, 2011. 

Time and tide wait for no man and that’s true of the historic low tide that comes once every 114 years at Dunwich, England.

A peculiar company of scholars gathers to see it.

There is Halsted, a literature professor from Miskatonic University. Yes, he’s handled the Necronomicon and talked to librarian Henry Armitage about it, but his interest is in Thomas De Quincey, author of the famous Confessions of an Opium Eater.

One is Rylands from Cambridge, another De Quincey scholar.

Another is James Wychelow. Halsted knows his name. He found and had published a letter by his ancestor, Thomas Wychelow. It recounts how he, De Quincey, and the apothecarist and antiquarian Paston walked the exposed beaches of Dunwich in 1821, the time of the last low tide. But Wychelow is more interested in the Holy Grail and a local variant of the Arthurian legend where Mordred and not Arthur is the hero.

And there is another scholar on holiday, Ridpath, a biologist in the civil service who seems to have an interest in the occult too.

Finally, there are two other civil servants, Vamplew and Conrad, living permanently at the Hidden Crown inn where the scholars have taken rooms. They will move from being mere background characters to significant players in the story to come.

Halsted hopes, by walking the Dunwich beach at low tide, it will help him gain insight into De Quincey’s book, part of which was written after the author’s visit to Dunwich.

And the Hidden Crown with its deliberately primitive accommodations and guest register bearing the names of Arthur Machen, Algernon Swinburne, and W. B. Yeats, is a character of sorts and Crome, its owner, has his own agenda.

When the ultra-low tide comes, Halsted will find himself increasingly surrounded by strangeness and secrets, perhaps of the cosmic, political, and occult sort. There’s more to be found on the bared beach of Dunwich than the treasures that fell into the sea when the town was partially destroyed by great storms in 1287.

To say more would kill, by literary vivisection, the book’s spell and elaborate, enchanting metaphors.

I’ll just say the story mixes in many other things too: how modern technology makes contemplation harder, the legacy of the Great War, poison gas, psychotropic substances, vast cycles of time, Cthulhu, marine biology, dreams, and the Old World vs the New World.

And there are still more depths to Stableford’s novel I haven’t mentioned.

At one point, Halsted says

It is, after all, our duty as intellectuals to try harder than common men to wring sanity from confusion, just as it is the responsibility of artists to transmute the base metal of our nightmares into golden dreams, and the responsibility of apothecaries to discover instruments to soothe our pains and heal our wounds. Cthulhu can never be entirely erased, but he can be compelled to lie dormant, for centuries, millennia and eons, if not forever.

There is confusion aplenty here but also some golden dreams.

Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)

Stableford has said that he tends to write somewhat obscure books, and this is one of the more obscure stories of his I’ve read, even more than The Mad Trist which it shares themes about dreams and the power of literature.

Here, as with that novel, literature may be seen as a primer for our perceptions.

This is partially the idea behind a mention of De Quincey’s “The Palimpsest of the Human Brain”

 which likened the human mind to a piece of vellum that had been scraped clean of writing in order to be re-used, but retained sufficient imprint of all its previous texts to reveal them once again, if treated with ingenious chemistry.

The novel’s climax is on the beach at the low tide, and many of the characters have strange experiences. Halsted and Ridpath see Cthulhu, perhaps primed by Cthulhu’s tissue, a super-natural colloidal mass which reproduces on the same cycle as the tide. (This sounds a bit like the urslime of Stableford’s The Darkling Wood.) In effect, their experience with the Necronomicon and the incantory, mind-altering effects of its unintelligible spells has primed their brain to respond to the chemical.

Hidpath knows about the Cthulhu tissue because he’s a researcher into deadly nerve gases, binary agents that need two elements combined to be effective. He’s a rather J.B.S. Haldane figure – a favorite of Stableford – who besides being a writer and biologist was a proponent of gas warfare.

Perhaps Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”, on the shelves of the inn’s rooms, has also primed their minds for the panic they feel on the beach.

But if chemicals in the sea or literature prime Hidpath’s and Halsted’s brains one way, Wychelow’s brain has been primed another way. He actually sees the Holy Grail. Perhaps he has been primed by the Arthurian legend he studies. Or maybe he has contact with a local secret cabal that has the Grail.

Most of the confusion is sorted out at novel’s end, but I’m honestly not sure it all is, and that this story completely works. For instance, why does Cthulhu get his hooks into some people’s mind, why do some see him, and others don’t? But it sure is a fascinating story.

Finally, I suspect Ryland speaks for Stableford when he says,

“The whole point of studying literature . . . is to gain the benefit of the key experiences of fine minds without having to pay the full cost of their accumulation.”

Definitely a prudent policy when it comes to minds like De Quincey’s and other literary decadents.

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