I’m late posting about last week’s subject of discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing. On the other hand, I won’t be posting about this week’s story since I’ve already covered that.
It was a welcome return to Mark Samuels’ work.
Review: “The White Hands”, Mark Samuels, 2003.
This story is narrated by a scholar of weird fiction. His particular interests are Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. He relates his experiences with one Alfred Musswell, a disgraced and odd and former Oxford professor.
The story starts out with a quote from a former student of Musswell. Musswell “attempted single-handedly to alter the academic criteria of excellence in literature”, and wanted to eradicate the “tyranny of materialism and realism” from literature. He urged students to read Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, M. R. James, and Lilith Blake.
As I said, he’s rather odd. He prowls the Oxford streets at night. He always has gloved hands and often a “somewhat disturbing” look.
Muswell first popularized his views in the small press American fantasy magazine The Necrophile. Like H. P. Lovecraft, he argued against “anthropocentric concerns of realism”. Literature should contemplate the infinite.
After being expelled from Oxford, Muswell retreated to Highgate, the same London village where Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived. Photos of Musswell in The Necrophile showed him with a book by Lilith Blake, the writer he most admired. She was a (fictious) Victorian writer best known for the collection The Reunion and Others. Musswell is the authority on Blake and possesses her correspondence, diaries, and other effects. Blake died at age 22 and was buried in the old West Cemetery.
The narrator first contacts Musswell about Blake because he’s working on an article about supernatural writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Blake is just a minor part of his studies.
He visits Musswell in his quiet apartment off Swains Lane (the old West Cemetery is also on Swains Lane), though first he meets him elsewhere.
Even in his apartment, Musswell’s hands are gloved, apparently emaciated and with long fingers.
The narrator says he’s mainly writing about Blackwood and Machen. Blake, to him, seems to lack balance. “Her world is one of unremitting gloom and decay.” Musswell snorts that Blake made desolation glorious and quotes De Quincey expressing a similar aesthetic. Machen, to Musswewll, was just a
red-faced old coot with his deluded Anglo-Catholic rubbish? The man was a drunken clown obsessed by sin.
(Samuels is having a bit of fun here. He’s a Machen admirer and scholar.) Blackwood, to Musswell, is “Pantheistic rot that belongs to the Stone Age.”
He does let the narrator look at a photographic of Blake from 1890. She was beautiful and has “the most delicate and lovely white hands I had ever seen”. He stares at it for a while before Musswell snatches it back. Musswell lets the narrator read Blake’s diaries and correspondence.
The narrator begins to think all this Blake material will make his academic career. He resents Musswell having it and doing nothing with it. (Though the question of whether a fired Oxford professor could get published in an academic journal isn’t raised.)
He also finds himself thinking about Blake’s face a lot in the next few days.
He visits Musswell several more times. Making notes on Blake’s work, he thinks he is closer to understanding its essence.
mental isolation is the essence of weird fiction. Isolation when confronted with disease, with madness, and with horror and with death. These are the reverberations of the infinity that torments us. It is Blake who delineates these echoes of doom for us. She alone exposes our inescapable, blind stumbling towards eternal annihilation. She alone shows our souls screaming in the darkness with none to heed our cries.
When in Musswell’s room, the narrator keeps staring at Blake’s picture. He now wants to write a whole book about her. He thinks Musswell has no clue as to the importance of Blake’s records. He just seems to have some mystic interpretation of the “work behind the works” of Blake.
During one visit, frustrated, the narrator tells Musswell that he thinks Blake deserves the acclaim denied her in her lifetime. Musswell tells the narrator that he thought it would be obvious that the silence around Blake was “suggestive”. She was “deliberately not mentioned”, her work excluded from consideration. Musswell asks the narrator how much money he thinks was paid to make sure Blake had a “fitting tomb” in Highgate?
The narrator becomes less patient with Musswell who just says that
If you knew what I know, my friend, perhaps you soon will, then you would find this literary criticism as amusing as I do.
One evening in February, Musswell shows up looking very tired. He tells the narrator the “game is up” for him. He’s dying, and his “moment of assignation with Blake” draws near. He tells the narrator he has not been honest with him. Musswell has learned that “there are those who, though dead, lie in their coffins beyond the grip of decay.” Blake is one of them.
The narrator will be Musswell’s and Blake’s guardian and ensure their bodies will not be disturbed. That is why Musswell befriended the narrator.
He hands the narrator a copy, written in what seems to be Blake’s hand, of The White Hands and Other Tales.
The narrator must publish it. “It will prove horror fiction is the superior form of literature.” When the narrator reads it, he will know of Blake’s work. Furthermore, Blake was already dead when these stories were conceived. She transmitted the stories telepathically to Musswell. Blake knows how to stop the dissolution of the body.
The narrator is understandably skeptical. The handwriting in the book looks like Blake’s.
Musswell takes off his gloves. His hands appear like Blake’s.
Musswell dies four weeks later. It is here the narrator becomes a lot less sympathetic, evil in fact. He hints he sped the death of Musswell up. He ignores Musswell’s request to be buried and has him cremated. He smugly says “Musswell was gone forever and had found the oblivion he seemed so anxious to avoid.”
The narrator then pays his first visit to Blake’s tomb. It’s off in a little traveled section of the cemetery, and the narrator has to bribe a caretaker to be shown it. The caretaker notes that, curiously, wildlife avoids the area, even birds. It’s near sundown, and the narrator feels mounting anticipation. He descends some stairs to Blake’s vault and senses something there in the darkness trying to communicate.
The narrator finally reads the Blake collection. The title story is “too hideous for anyone but a lunatic to read in its entirety”. As it progresses, the book gets
more incomprehensible and sinister the words became. They were sometimes reversed and increasingly obscene.
He becomes obsessed with the vision of Blake in her coffin. He has strange dreams of walking in a necropolis following Blake. He begins to take Musswell’s claims about Blake seriously. He needs to see if her body does “harbor some form of unnatural sentience”.
He arranges for Blake’s body to be stolen and delivered to him. Her body seems undecayed – and still has its distinctive hands.
Yet the narrator feels the same presence he felt near her vault. He has a vision of “hellish ecstasy”, of millions of unrotted corpses. Then Blake wakes up, her hands clutch the narrator’s throat. He escapes her grasp, nails the coffin shut and burns it and Blake in the back yard. He seems to hear shrieking from the flames.
But, days later, he notices the marks of Blake’s hands have not left his throat.
The narrator leaves the country. But he keeps thinking about Blake’s book and wonders if he could “achieve control over it, . . . read it in its entirety and use it to attain my goal.” He begins to transcribe the book and attempt to interpret its “occult language”. He hopes he can use it to “dwell forever, in Paradise”.
Then we get sort of a postscript that implies this has all been related to us by one John Harrington who has been locked up in Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital.
A letter of his, to Blake, is quoted. He asks why she hasn’t written and that his face must be horrible since he is not allowed to view mirrors. His keepers have taken Blake’s book away thinking it just gibberish. But he knows better. Then he says he likes “the white hands that crawl around my bed at night like two spiders” and again asks Lilith to come.
Is this all the delusions of a man unbalanced by contact with Musswell and Blake’s writings? Was Harrington’s observation that only a lunatic could finish “The White Hands” correct? What’s happened to his face? If something really happened to it, that would seem to indicate Harrington’s account of Lilith in her coffin is correct. But how can Lilith’s be still “alive” if he burned her body? That seems more like a delusion.
Samuels does pull off a surprise of not having Musswell’s hands actually be Blake’s. She seems to have somehow altered them as she did Harrington’s face. And that implies that Musswell approached her more in the matter of an acolyte or lover whereas Harrington just wanted to exploit her knowledge for some occult plan seemingly only formed after he is exposed to Blake’s writing. In a sense, Harrington does become a lover of Blake too – perhaps in his madness unless those hands he sees at night exist. However, we don’t actually know if Musswell ever saw Blake’s body, so his hands could be some sort of psychically initiated transformaton.
The story is certainly Decadent (there is an allusion to De Quincey, after all) in Musswell’s finding “hideous ecstasy” in the grave. If you would expect to find ennui anywhere, it would seem to be when confined to a coffin, but not evidently not.
Samuels leaves us wondering what was said about Blake during her life that was suppressed.
We expect Blake, especially with that bit about no wildlife around her grave, to be a vampire. But she is not, at least not a traditional one.
I didn’t quite like the plot as much as I hoped given this is Samuels, but I liked the feel of the story and the twists he does give us.