La-Bas (Down Below)

Review: Là-Bas (Down Below), J. K. Huysmans, trans. Keene Wallace, 1891, 1928.

While I’m told Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature) is considered a jewel of Decadent literature, it’s not clear if this novel is a work of Decadent fiction.

If I’m understanding its definition, Decadent literature, in its English and French varieties, portrays the present as decaying and advocates for enjoying the long fall of civilization with sex and drugs and outré experiences.

This novel votes yes on the decaying society part and no on the pursuit of strange aesthetic pleasures. Rather, it postulates that decay brings mysticism to the fore, and here that mysticism takes on two strains: Catholicism and Satanism.  

“It is just at the moment when positivism is at its zenith that mysticism rises again and the follies of the occult begin.”

According to Wikipedia (I doubt Huysmans is sufficiently controversial these days for an editing war to be centered around his entry), a friend of Huysmans said, after À rebours was published, that Huysmans was going to have to eventually chose between “the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the Cross”. Huysmans would eventually choose the latter, ending up as a Benedictine monk. This considered one of the great novels of “literary Satanism”, but Catholics of a conservative bent (it was one who recommended this book to me) also admire the Durtal trilogy.

Durtal’s progression from Decadent to monk is paralleled by three Huysmann novels featuring the writer Durtal, generally considered to be Huysman’s alter ego. Là-Bas is the first of that trilogy.

Durtal’s newest project is a biography of the infamous Gilles de Rais, French noblemen, defender and champion of Joan of Arc, Marshal of France – and raper, torturer, and killer of hundreds of children. The puzzle Durtal seeks to answer is why Rais, “a brave captain and a good Christian, all of a sudden became a sacrilegious sadist and a coward”. The novel will present the story of Rais throughout and conclude with Durtal’s ideas on the Marshal’s motivations.

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“Where the Summer Ends”

The menace is something unique in this week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Where the Summer Ends”, Karl Edward Wagner, 1980.

The setting is Wagner’s hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee. Wagner gives us the South in its hot, humid summer days. In particular, he vividly and verdantly recreates the portion of town around the local univerisity with its rundown buildings, student apartment made out of converted Victorian and Edwardian, and, particularly the many vacant, kudzu-covered vacant lots around Grand Avenue which have not even been rebuilt after the buildings have disappeared from them.

Protagonist Mercer, part-time art student and part-time construction worker, wants a mahogeny mantle from junk and antiques dealer Gradie. Gradie lives on Grand Avenue, an old time resident after all the other buildings were abandoned. 

In fact, Gradie made money on the decline of the neighborhood. He would make a deal with the city for salvage rights for anything in the abandoned buildings and his partner Morny would do the actual demolition. Often, a fire would mysteriously burn down the structure before its demolition was complete. The city seemed to tacitly go along with this arson by Gradie and Morny. 

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“The Happy Children”

No, I haven’t yet returned to my coverage of Arthur Machen. But I did nominate this story for discussion as a pairing with Alfred Noyes’ “The Lusitania Waits”.

Cover by Mathew Jaffe

Review: “The Happy Children”, Arthur Machen, 1920.

This story starts out similarly to Machen’s The Terror

The narrator is a journalist, as Machen was during World War One, who has been sent up to the northeastern part of England to investigate rumors of a German dugout there — which, of course, he doesn’t find. 

The first page of the story is taken up with noting how vague the rumors are in regard to its location. Machen discusses assorted rumors and myths of the war: Russian soldiers in England and, of course, the legend he inadvertently created, the Angel of Mons

Returning from his investigations, he decides to visit the scenic port of Banwick which Machen evocatively describes. 

Walking around at night, he is delighted to hear the sounds of children playing, perhaps hundreds, outside. Remarking on this to an innkeeper, he is told that the children run wild and their mothers can’t make them obey and their fathers are at the front. 

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“The Lusitania Waits”

Well, this week’s discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing, was a story I nominated.

I almost feel like I should apologize, but the group seemed to like it better than I did it. I nominated it, of course, because it is a piece of fantastical fiction set during World War One.

Review: “The Lusitania Waits”, Alfred Noyes, 1918. 

Alfred Noyes is not a name generally associated with weird fiction, but he did write some ghost stories. However, he was a popular poet, his most famous work being “The Highwayman”.

Our story starts out with three old skippers, all in their seventies and retired for five years, meeting, as usual, at the White Horse Inn. Sure, the war has given them something to talk about, but Captain Kendrick, now a parish councilor, likes to talk about the newest edition of the Gazette, a weekly newspaper run by Macpherson.

Commenting on Macpherson, Kendrick remarks,

‘There’s a rumor that he’s a freethinker. He says that Christianity has been proved a failure by the war.’

This was the story’s high point for me: a contemporary example that World War One weakened European Christianity.

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The Secret Glory

The Machen series continues with a book I unexpectedly liked perhaps because, in our tumultuous times, I found it comforting though I am in no way a mystic or religious. One can definitely sympathize with its protagonist’s indifference to the world.

It also, I suspect, served as a partial model for Mark Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger.

Review: The Secret Glory, Arthur Machen, 1922, 1998.

Partially written during his years of grief following the death of his first wife and before he remarried, Machen finally finished this novel in 1907. Parts were serialized, but the novel didn’t see publication until 1922 and even then its last two chapters were excised, summed up by, as editor S. T. Joshi notes, a not very good epilogue by Machen. The full novel, which I read, was finally published in 1998.

In a preface, Machen lays out what this novel is, a combination of two things: a satire on English public schools and the Holy Grail.

Machen was not impressed by the fatuous accounts of English headmasters, particularly their enthusiasm for sport over academics. Football, he thought, was not a preparation for life. However, in an essay “About My Books (reprinted in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said he found parodying these kinds of memoirs useless: “These Eton masters on their late Head read like an extravagant parody of my parodies.”

As to the Holy Grail, that was a subject that fascinated Machen. He wrote several essays on the Holy Grail with his friend, occultist A. E. Waite. They were collected in The Secret of the Sangraal and Other Writings.

This book is also, incidentally, considered the first work of literature to bring the Holy Grail into a contemporary setting.

While some claim this book is overly long and dull, it’s only 222 pages at full length, and I did not find it boring. 

Our hero is Ambrose Meyrick, sent off to Lupton. In Machen’s view, British public schools served as factories to produce a predictable type of men to fill in slots in the Empire’s administration. There is a very funny scene where we learn that the sorts of men Lupton produces are those who will not retract their opinions and judgements no matter what facts they are confronted with.

Ambrose comes to hate the school but conforms to it marvelously, even in sports, after a thrashing by his uncle, a schoolmaster there. Part of the novel follows the uncle’s career disappointments.

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Dr. Stiggins

It’s time for another piece of non-fiction from Arthur Machen.

Review: Dr. Stiggins: His Views and Principles, Arthur Machen, 1906.

While Machen’s Hieroglyphics is still read and appreciated, this book is not.

In fact, Machen fan and scholar Mark Samuels says, in “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Reflections on ‘Dr. Stiggins’ and Arthur Machen”:

It is no exaggeration to say that Arthur Machen’s 1906 polemic Dr. Stiggins is the book that is the most likely to make devotees of the author force a pained smile and rapidly change the subject. Not even the infamous The Canning Wonder (1925) – with its interminable musings upon a vanishing act and a court case so dull that the reader gasps at its tedium – comes close to it. Dr. Stiggins receives a reaction more akin to that of distaste; like the expression of a person who recalls having been locked in a room with a hectoring stand-up comedian whose act depends upon sharing his prejudices.

In his “About My Books” (in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of it:

There are good things in it for those who like controversy, and also many weary pages. It was written in a hurry – 30,000 words in a fortnight – was badly printed on bad paper, was barely noticed by the Press (two reviews, I think), and fell stone dead on publication.

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Review: Hieroglyphics, Arthur Machen, 1902.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts Machen’s aesthetic theory of what “fine literature” should be, and this is the book where he presents it. In his “About My Books” (included in The Secret Ceremonies), he says he was a book reviewer needing to “find reasons for my liking and depreciation” of certain works. He seems to have finished it in 1899 and says, as of the 1920s, he had received not a farthing for it despite being assured “it influenced the whole standpoint of English literary criticism”.

I’m not sure how many read it today apart from Machen fans and scholars.

The six chapters of the book are presented as discussions, over time, between the invented persona of the Hermit and Machen with the Hermit, of course, presenting Machen’s actual views.

What defines fine literature to the Hermit? Ecstasy. Machen says, in a famous passage,

Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.

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“A Fragment of Life”

Essay: “A Fragment of Life”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

This is a wonderful story with many elements.

It’s a slice of middle-class life circa 1904, a superb example of Machen’s theme of finding the numinous, mysterious, and wonderful in everyday life (here, as usual, in the streets of London); an attack on the commercial and scientific materialism of his day as well as apocalyptic Protestantism; and a sort of a bridge with his earlier “The White People” and his later The Secret Glory. It is a dark comedy, domestic drama, and a religious quest.

Machen wrote this short novel between 1899 to 1904. It was originally serialized in four installments, but Machen was dissatisfied with the final installment and rewrote it when the story was republished in House of Souls.

The style of the story is closer to the Machen style of The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations and the early sections of The Hill of Dreams than the later sections of that novel. We follow our hero as the mundane mask of the world is removed and the mystery and glory behind it revealed.

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“The White People”

Review: “The White People”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

Written in 1899, this story is regarded as one of Machen’s best. After Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, it was H. P. Lovecraft’s favorite weird story. He liked it for its indefinite and dreamy plot, qualities it certainly has in its section titled “The Green Book”.

In 1899, Machen was a man in “dreadful misery and desolation and dereliction of the soul”. His first wife had died that year from breast cancer. They had been married 11 years. Then one morning, while walking with his friend, Machen was transformed.  He realized the “great sorrows of life” were passing trifles.

A new productive period started that included the writing of this story.

The Green Book is the journal of a dead girl, written when she was at least thirteen or fourteen, maybe older. It talks of how she talked to white people she saw when she was in the crib.

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Ornaments in Jade

Review: Ornaments in Jade, Arthur Machen, 1924.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about this book. It is a collection of ten of what S. T. Joshi calls “prose poems” though they many have enough plot that we might call them flash fiction today.

In either case, I don’t see much point in reviewing them whatever they are called. They are brief enough where summary seems superfluous and criticism would require minute examinations of the sort I’m not interested in.

And, frankly, I didn’t find them interesting as poetry or at all memorable though I read them less than three months ago. I do not agree with Joshi saying, in “Arthur Machen: The Evils of Materialism” (in The Secret Ceremonies) saying they are comparable only to Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry in quality. Many remind me of some of the more forgettable pieces in The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins).

Ian Smith’s “Sanctity Plus Sorcery: The Curious Christianity of Arthur Machen” (also in The Secret Ceremonies) does have some interesting things to say about how they show Machen’s “religious influences”. “Midsummer” is blatantly pagan in theme. “The Rose Garden” and “The Moth and the Flame” have Sufi influences.

All ten pieces were written in 1897. Some were first published in magazines first before appearing in the 1924 collection.