“A Touch of Pan”

This week’s work of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing has another appearance by Pan.

It’s not surprising, with his mystical interests and reverence for nature, that Blackwood’s Pan story is the closest of any I’ve looked at so far in returning to Pan’s pagan origins. It uses Pan as a metaphor for the joyless, hypocritical nature of the English upper class and contrasts it with pure love and sex and nature. One suspects it expresses something of Blackwood’s views on such matters. 

Review: “A Touch of Pan”, Algernon Blackwood, 1917.

The story starts with our protagonist, Herber, remembering the difference between an idiot and a lunatic. The idiot acts on instinct not reason. The lunatic is “out of relation with his environment”. He contemplates that he has fallen in love with an idiot, one possessed of “a kind of sheer natural joy”. Herber was born into “an artificial social clique”, but he loves nature and not fancy houses. 

His family probably wouldn’t say his love was an idiot, but they probably think “she is not all there”. Heber has only seen the woman in question twice and never spoken to her, but the air of joy she radiates evokes a “sense of awe” in him. The values of civilization are not hers. Her awareness of other people is like that a dog or bird – some people are kind, some aren’t. Heber’s values match hers. Her family, given her oddity, are ashamed of her, make excuses for her, and neglect her. She dresses like she’s 16, but she’s probably 19. Her sister has married well, but her family considers the girl’s marriage prospects doubtful. Mere chorus-girls have a better chance to get married than her given her demeanor and dress.

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“The Man Who Went Too Far”

It’s another Pan story.

Review: “The Man Who Went Too Far”, E. F. Benson, 1904.

Saki’s “The Music on the Hill” uses Pan in a more restricted way than Benson does here. Saki’s Pan is the center of an old religion and keeps his association with hunting, fertility, and music.  Benson’s story is closer to E. M. Forester’s “The Story of a Panic”. Pan is terrifying because he blurs distinctions, goes against the Ancient Greek tendency and talent for categorizing the world.

The story is set near the village of St. Faith in Hampshire, England. Its pleasant, rural nature is somewhat marred, the narrator notes, with a local legend about a monstrous goat skipping with “hellish glee” in the woods. It is a story linked to a very handsome, in fact beautiful, young artist who lived there.

The tale the narrator will tell was related to him by Darcy, a mutual friend of that artist and our narrator. Darcy, who hasn’t seen the artist Frank Halton in six years, is convalescing after a bout of typhoid fever and goes to visit Frank in June. 

Just before Darcy arrivs, Frank is doing what he often does these days, lounging in a hummock in a meadow by a stream. His house is on the outskirts of town. 

Darcy is amazed at how much younger Frank looks than the last time he saw him. Frank says he has a lot to tell Darcy, and Darcy won’t believe it.

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“The Story of a Panic”

The years 1894 through 1912 saw English writers writing many stories using the god Pan. I’ve already covered The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows.

We’re doing something unusual at the weird fiction discussion group, the Deep Ones, over at LibraryThing. We’re starting a look at a slew of other stories using Pan, and this is the first one.

Review: “The Story of a Panic”, E. M. Forester, 1912.

Our narrator, never given a name that I recall, starts out saying he is going to tell his story “with no pretensions to literary style”. He is going to give “an unbiased account” of something that happened eight years ago. The very first line mentions “Eustace’s career” and how it goes back to an incident one afternoon in Italy eight years ago.

At an Italian hotel are a party of Englanders. Besides the narrator and his wife and two daughters, there are the two Miss Robinson – two sisters, their nephew Eustace, the “would-be artist” Leyland, and the former curate Sandbach whose is there to prepare Eustace for public school. The narrator doesn’t like Leyland, and he especially does like the fourteen-year old Eustace. He thinks Eustace is “indescribably repellent”, a whiner, indolent, and incurious about anything. 

I suspect we are not to find the narrator very sympathetic, that he’s a satire of a certain type of Englishman Forester knew. The first indication of that are his constant remarks about how Eustace needs to be more sporting. 

One day, they all go on a picnic to a wooded and beautiful valley – the Vallone Fontana Caroso. It’s rather like an upside-down hand with finger-like ravines, wooded, radiating out from it. When they arrive, the narrator’s daughter Rose, an amateur photographer, notes the beauty of the valley and how it, its hills, and the sea in the background would make a beautiful picture. Sandbach agrees, but Leyland says it would make a very poor picture indeed. Rose asks why (with more charity than deserved notes the narrator). Because the top of the background hill is “intolerably straight”, the perspective is all wrong from their current position, and the colors dull and monotonous says Leyland. The narrator retorts he doesn’t know anything about art but the scene makes him content. One of the Miss Robinsons and Sandbach agree. Leyland replies that they “confuse the artistic view of nature with a photograph”. 

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Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Lovecraft series continues with a famous critical essay he wrote.

Raw Feed (2005): Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft, 1927.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

I’d heard for decades that this is a classic essay of criticism in the horror field, and I can see why.

Lovecraft cast a far net and in many languages for stories containing an element, a sensation (even if only a passing one in the rationalistic Gothics of Ann Radcliffe), of supernatural horror.

He read a lot of authors like Oliver Wendall Holmes, Henry James, and E. M. Forester not normally associated with the supernatural but who produced a few such works.

Most important, though, is what all this reading reveals about Lovecraft.

I don’t know when he read these various works — the essay’s publication goes back to 1927 — so it’s hard to state what works inspired his works, but a lot of images and motifs from Lovecraft’s work are mentioned, particularly in regards to Gothics: lurkers in the cellar (“The Alchemist“), evil portraits (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), and family curses. Continue reading

The Mind Master

And we’re back to more James Gunn while I work on more new stuff.

Remember, with Raw Feeds, you’re getting my thoughts on a work at a specific point in time. Since Raw Feeds are there for quick posts, I don’t often do corrections and updates. However, I will note that the idea of RNA memory transfer turned out to be based on bad lab work.

Raw Feed (2003): The Mind Master, James Gunn, 1981.Mind Master

This novel’s original title was The Dreamers.

Like most of Gunn’s novels, it is a fixup, here three stories. It also has, as it’s scientific point of takeoff, an idea popular in 1970s sf: chemically coded memories which can be transferred between people. (To be fair, I did a quick Internet search and RNA is still thought to be involved in memory though there is mixed opinion, most of it against, the notion that RNA-coded memories can be transferred between planarians much less rats. Still, at the time Gunn was writing, his speculations, with real scientists quoted on the matter, were certainly legitimate.)

The first story has little or no changes that I detected since I read it as “Among the Beautiful Bright Children” in the Gunn collection Human Voices though this time I didn’t think that its protagonist was writing under the influence of a capsule persona. The second story involves a doctor betrayed by a woman who leaves him. He bitterly enters a poppet world of dreaming vengeance against women in many historical forms. The third story involves one of those who creates the capsule entertainments much loved by the novel’s poppets. He becomes ensnared when he tries to dream the Trojan War, and the plot seems inevitable no matter what he does.

This novel’s theme of the corrosive powers of contentment and seeking that contentment in fantasies is closely related to Gunn’s The Joy Makers. This novel also features a society (rather like that of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” — which must have been some influence on sf critic and historian Gunn), like that story, where people have largely retreated into self-contained apartments of solitary pleasure. Indeed, it is only in the adolescent phase that people group together to build their identity. The world of large urban centers with robotically and cybernetically managed fields and manufacturing centers surrounding them, where people rarely leave their city and mostly live in dream worlds is simply not as far down the path as the end of The Joy Makers where humanity exists as “fetal gnomes” in cubicles of bliss provided by “hedonics” technology. Continue reading