Wednesday, April 26, 2017

H.G. Wells's Boneheaded Review of Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors

The Saturday Review (London), 11 January 1896, pp. 48-49

“The Three Impostors.”  By Arthur Machen. London: John Lane. 1895.

Mr. Machen is an unfortunate man. He has determined to be weird, horrible, and as outspoken as his courage permits in an age which is noisily resolved to be “ ’ealthy” to the pitch of blatancy. His particular obsession is a kind of infernal matrimonial agency, and the begetting of human-diabolical mules. He has already skirted the matter in his previous book, the “Great God Pan,” and here we find it well to the fore again. This time, however, it simply supplies one of a group of incoherent stories held together in a frame of wooden narrative about a young man with spectacles. This young man falls into a circle of Black Magicians, who are practising indecorums and crimes at which Mr. Machen dare only hint in horror-struck whispers. Aghast—all Mr. Machen’s characters are aghast sooner or later—the young man takes to flight, and, instead of informing the police, runs to and fro about London, trying to hide. The chase assumes this form: Again and again a Mr. Dyson sees the young man, and again and again this Mr. Dyson is accosted by people who tell him stories, remotely apropos of the unhappy fugitive. They are members of the secret society, and bent apparently upon inciting Mr. Dyson to murder him. Mr. Dyson proving sluggish, the young man in spectacles is caught by other hands, tied down to the floor of a deserted house in the west of London, and live coals are, very properly, piled upon his chest, He smells of cooking, and perishes, and the ubiquitous Mr. Dyson comes in and sees his remains. Tableau. “They clung hard to one another, shuddering at the sight they saw,” did Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillips, his friend. That is the climax of Mr. Machen’s invention; he ends there. Other effects are the murder of a respectable citizen, whose remains are, for no earthly reason, outraged by being incontinently mummified; a man who, also for no earthly reason, vanishes; a witches’ meeting in California; the inventor of an instrument of torture caught in his own trap, and the mongrel creature already alluded to. Mr. Machen has one simple expedient whereby he seeks to develop his effects. He piles them up very high, and makes his characters horror-struck at them.  This kind of thing:

“He seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed like words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest. For a moment the thought passed through my mind, as my ears were still revolted by that infernal clamour, ‘Surely this is the very speech of hell’; and then I cried out again and again, and ran away shuddering to my inmost soul.”

But it fails altogether to affect the reader as it is meant to do. It fails mainly because Mr. Machen has not mastered the necessary trick of commonplace detail which renders horrors convincing, and because he lacks even the most rudimentary conception of how to individualize characters. The framework of the book is evidently imitated from Mr. Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights,” a humourous form quite unsuited, of course, to realistic horrors. Mr. Machen writes with care and a certain whimsical choice of words, so that his style is at least distinctive.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Library Book

The Library Book is a smallish anthology published in the UK in 2012 to support and celebrate public libraries, which are threatened all over the world by various governmental bean counters who (obviously) have never used libraries or ever cared for them.  The twenty four contributions range from essays to fiction and memoirs.  Of the fiction, there is an except from Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and a short story by Kate Mosse. The best contributions in the book were, for me, the historical essay "The Library of Babylon" by Tom Holland, and a bookish memoir "A Corner of St. James" by Susan Hill. Many of the essays contain nuggets of wisdom.  I'll copy a handful below.

"Being a reader turned me into a writer. It fed my imagination and revealed worlds far beyond my own experience."  Val McDermid "Going to the Dogs"

"When you've bought a book, you feel obligated to finish it, just to get your money's worth. But when I borrow the adult equivalent of that Curious George trove, I'm free to start a disappointing novel and discard it. Paying nothing for the book itself, I can place a higher premium on my time."  Lionel Shriver "I Libraries"

" 'If someone suggested the idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane,' says Peter Collins, Library Services Manager in Worksop.'Because libraries are based on trust. I mean, if you said you were going to take a little bit of money from every taxpayer, but a whole lot of books and music and games, stick them on a shelf and tell everyone, "These are yours to borrow and all you've got to do is bring them back," they'd be laughed out of government.' "  Bella Bathurst "The Secret Life of Libraries"

" 'Reading is a much more alien concept for a lot of kids,' says Collins, 'The pace of life is different now, and people expect art to happen to them. Music and film do that, a CD will do that, but you have to make a book happen to you."  Bella Bathurst "The Secret Life of Libraries"

"Reading is not just an escape. It is access ot a better way of life." Karin Slaughter "Fight for Libraries as You Do Freedom"

Monday, August 29, 2016

More on "Shon ap Shenkin" / "Sion ap Siencyn"

I recently happened upon not one but two unrelated references to the traditional Welsh fairy story of "Shon ap Shenkin" (or "Sion ap Siencyn") that Kenneth Morris retold (see here).  The first is an illustration for the tale, by Ifor Owen (1915-2007), a Welsh artist and educator who published Hwyl (1949), the first children's comic in the Welsh language.  In The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (1991), edited by Peter Narváez, there is an an essay on "Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition" by Robin Gwyndaf, who mentions the "Sion ap Siencyn" tale, but more interestingly reproduces Ifor Owen's illustration for the tale.  It doesn't say when Owen made the illustration, or whether he had encountered Kenneth Morris's version of the tale, but it is of such quality that it is worth sharing here. 

The second reference is in an old book, British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions (1880) by Wirt Sikes, in a discussion of the legend of the Birds of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion (“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr”). This represents the only pre-Kenneth Morris appearance in print of the Sion story that I have so far found. I copy the passage (and its one illustration, depicting the rather macabre ending that Morris did not use) below.  Note that Wirt Sikes sets the locale of the story as Carmarthenshire, which is where Kenneth Morris was born in 1879, and where he lived as a young boy, until the age of six or seven. 

This enchanting fancy reappears in the local story of Shon ap Shenkin, which was related to me by a farmer’s wife near the reputed scene of the legend. Pant Shon Shenkin has already been mentioned as a famous centre for Carmarthenshire fairies. The story of Taffy ap Sion and this of Shon ap Shenkin were probably one and the same at some period in their career, although they are now distinct. Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farmhouse which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. “What do I want here?” ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; “that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?” “In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?” “Under the tree!—music! what’s your name?” “Shon ap Shenkin.”  “Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!” cried the old man. “I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.”  With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.   (pp. 92-94)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Alan Garner on Writing

I recently watched the DVDs of the 1969-70 Granada series The Owl Service, scripted by Alan Garner himself.  I can't say that I enjoyed it any more than the book, which I found rather a muddle of interesting ingredients and annoying characters. One of the points for me to watch the series was that most of it was filmed at Poulton Hall, the home of Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987), the friend and biographer of C.S. Lewis, and the author of many books for children and about children's writers. Still, in the end, I think I would have preferred a documentary about Poulton Hall to the rather incoherent and (it must be admitted) silly story-line of The Owl Service.

Included in the DVDs with the series is another 25 minute program, Celebration: Alan GarnerThe Edge of the Ceiling (1980), which is a documentary about, and starring, Garner himself.  This was far more interesting than The Owl Service.  It makes you realize just how personally absorbed Garner is, and why his newer books have progressively retreated from accessibility for the last forty-odd years. Garner had some quite interesting observations, a few of which I jotted down and share here:

"I use mythology and folklorewhen I use itnot to deflect the attention away from reality but to focus the attention of the reader on the reality behind apparent reality, the reality behind the three dimensional world. Because it was that reality that was real for me in childhood."

"And so I don't make any excuses whatsoever for drawing on fantastic materials to make comments seriously about modern life."

"For me, a writer is somebody who lives in their own life, their own investigation of what it's all about. They are their own scientist in their own laboratory, and that laboratory is themself. The writer is his own laboratory." 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Perspectives of Creators

I recently discovered a recording of George Gershwin (1898-1937) playing a version for piano of his own composition Rhapsody in Blue, which was originally written in 1924 for piano and orchestra.  What a delight to hear the composer himself render some passages in very different ways than they are usually conducted--showing some humor here, and uptempo transitions there.  Of course it does not make for a definitive rendering of the piece, but it's always good to hear the creator's perspective, be it in music, or literature, or art. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Matters of Perspective: Dunsany and Yeats

In 1934 Lord Dunsany was presented the Harmsworth Prize from the Irish Academy of Letters for his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933).  Dunsany (left), at 6 foot 4 inches tall, towers over F.R. Higgins (seated), who was on the board of the Abbey Theatre, and poet William Butler Yeats (right), looking small and parrot-like.  (Was Yeats really as short as he looks here?)

In his third volume of autobiography, The Sirens Wake (1945), Dunsany wrote:
Yeats had invented the Irish Academy of Letters [in 1932] and had omitted me, which was no surprise; though his reason for doing so was surprising, which was that I did not write about Ireland. I told one or two Irish writers that I too was going to start an Academy, an academy to honour the names of writers of the fourteenth century in Italy; for I said that, since writers work for posterity, it was not a bit too late to honour fourteenth-century writers now. Who, I asked, would they suggest?  Dante of course was suggested; but I was shocked. "Most certainly not," I said, stroking my hair as Yeats used to stroke his. "Dante did not write about Italy, but of a very different place. Most unsuitable!" 
Dunsany then admits that this "may have been the trifling sting that stimulated my energies" and he started writing his Irish novel, The Curse of the Wise Woman, on February 12th, 1933, and finished it three and a half months later, on May 27th.

When Dunsany was finally admitted to the Irish Academy, Oliver St. John Gogarty joked at the dinner:

Since this Academy was founded to keep Dunsany out we ought to dissolve it, now that he's admitted.

The details underneath this story are a bit more complicated.  Yeats initially proposed Dunsany to be an associate (but not regular) member, clearly a secondary status, and he apparently never sent Dunsany any invitation at all.  Dunsany only heard about it through press accounts, so naturally he was miffed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Intensive Research

A quote for the day:

“Intensive research, even by the most competent researcher, is wasted, unless the results are put together and printed. It would have been better to have written two or three solid monographs on one of the many scores of topics on which the accumulator had been pondering, than to have collected in one’s brain countless lights on all manner of historical subjects, whose correlation perishes when the brain is gone. Perhaps some later researcher may have to put it all together again.”         
Charles Oman, On the Writing of History (1939)