22 October 2020

Supernatural fiction

I recently finished reading The Supernatural Omnibus Vol 2, edited by Montague Summers, and wrote the review that follows for GoodReads, but there are also some observations and responses that go beyond a review, and it led me to compare the approach of Montague Summers and Charles Williams.

The Supernatural Omnibus Being A Collection Of Stories Of Apparitions, Witchcraft, Werewolves, Diabolism, Necromancy, Satanism, Divination, Sorcery, Goety, Voodoo, Possession, Occult, Doom And Destiny

The Supernatural Omnibus Being A Collection Of Stories Of Apparitions, Witchcraft, Werewolves, Diabolism, Necromancy, Satanism, Divination, Sorcery, Goety, Voodoo, Possession, Occult, Doom And Destiny by Montague Summers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thirteen stories of supernatural fiction edited by Montague Summers. It is the second volume of a two-volume set first published in 1931. Volume 2 is described as stories dealing with diabolism, witchcraft and evil lore.

The introduction is a long rambling catalogue of literature of the "ghost story" genre, which sometimes overlaps with horror and sometimes doesn't. Many parts of it are little more than lists of authors, titles or publications.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag. The one I liked best was the werewolf story, "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains" by Frederick Marryat, told in Joseph Conrad style, of a tale within a tale, though that format is often found in ghost stories by other authors too.

Another one I liked was the novella Carmilla by J. Sheridan le Fanu, one of the few vampire stories I've enjoyed after reading Dracula, perhaps because it was written before Dracula and therefore not influenced by it.

Most of these stories are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it seems to be almost a convention of the genre in that period to write in an obscure and complex style, rather as a lawyer would. This fooled me in one of the stories by Richard Harris Dalton Barham, from the Ingoldsby Legends. The convolutions of style caused me to lose track of the plot altogether. There was a second story by him, with a far simpler plot, and so I was able to appreciate his literary allusions.

If I ever find Volume 1, I'll buy it and read it, so perhaps that is my overall evaluation.

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So  much for the book itself, but the selection of stories seemed to say something about the selector, and his approach to what is commonly called "the occult". Many of the stories featured Roman Catholic priests as either the narrator or the protagonist, and a few featured clergy of other denominations.  I recalled that Montague Summers was a Roman Catholic writer who had written some books on the history of witchcraft and related phenomena. 

I also recalled that when I was writing a journal article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery I had listed several books and articles as possible sources of background information, including some by Montague Summers, but rejected them in favour of ones written by Charles Williams. In following this up someone reminded me of the preface to Williams's book Witchcraft:

There are two authors who have laid the most casual student of the subject under heavy debt--Dr. Montague Summers and the late Dr. Henry Charles Lea; the first chiefly by his various translations, especially of the Malleus Maleficarum, ... Both Dr. Summers and Dr. Lea express fixed views; those views, it is true, are in absolute opposition. I am not myself convinced either by Dr. Summers's belief or by Dr. Lea's contempt. But they express the views of two sincere and learned men, neither of whom would willingly alter a single fact in order to support his own view.

For me the important difference was that Montague Summers appeared to endorse the view of witchcraft and witch hunting taken by the Malleus Maleficarum (the "Hammer of Witches"), while Williams did not.

My article was written 25 years ago at a time when several people were being killed in witch hunts then current in South Africa. It was apparent then that the burning of suspected witches by lynch mobs was a pagan response to witchcraft, and not a Christian one, as my article points out. Yet in Early Modern Europe thousands of people were similarly treated in what was alleged to have been a Christian response, and one which Montague Summers apparently endorsed, while Charles Williams showed that it was an anomalous departure from Christian tradition, based on a conspiracy theory.

The idea of a satanic conspiracy to destroy the Christian Church was not entirely misplaced, however. It appears that there was such a conspiracy, and it was remarkably successful. It just didn't work in the way that the conspiracy theorists thought. They thought it was a conspiracy of witches who made a pact with the devil to destroy the church. In fact it was a conspiracy of conspiracy theorists to make accusations of witchcraft against people, and to encourage others to do so. It was this that was most truly satanic, because the satan is above all the Great Accuser, and making accusations, and especially false accusations, is the most characteristically satanic activity. Satan must have had a good laugh when he got Christians making accusations against each other left right and centre, and casting suspicion on people who failed to make accusations against their neighbours, or did so with less enthusiasm than was expected of them.

It was witch hunting, and the accusations that incited it, and not witchcraft, that was the truly satanic activity.

This doesn't mean that every story chosen by Montague Summers for his anthology made this ideological point, but rather that he would be unlikely to have chosen a story that contradicted it. 

Charles Williams pointed out that the attitude of earlier generations of Christians was very different. They should not fear the power of witches to harm, but should rather fear the malice that actuated the desire to harm, and should first of all combat such malice within themselves. 

And Charles Williams himself wrote supernatural fiction which conformed to this premiss: those who suffered spiritual destruction were conquered by their own servile fear or malice, rather than by that of other people.

18 October 2020

The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, GentlemanThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been on our shelves ever since I remember; I think it belonged to my mother, though I don't know if she ever read it. Sixty years ago a friend at university who was doing English II said he was reading it, and remarked on its peculiarities, especially its extreme discursiveness, and the diagrams that appeared at various points in the narrative to illustrate this.

I tried to read it but lost interest, and so it sat on our shelves unread through several moves from one house to another, until the Covid19 epidemic came along, and with all the public libraries closed I turned to the unread books on our shelves and this was one of them.

The title tells us that it concerns "the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman", but there is little of his opinions and even less of his life. There are nine Books, each with over 30 chapters, and he only gets born in Book 4. The preceding books recount the lives and labours of the midwife and the obstetrician who attended his birth, and how the latter's use of new-fangled obstetrical forceps flattened his nose.

We learn a great deal about his Uncle Toby, whose hobby is playing soldiers since he was wounded at the siege of Namur, and about how Uncle Toby fell in love with and wooed the widow Wadman, with plenty of digressions along the way. It is said that Laurence Sterne pioneered the "stream of consciousness" novel which was popular in the early 20th century, and that could be so, as he tells the story the way most people think, jumping from one topic to another for no particular reason.

Though it was first written and published in the 18th century, it seems surprisingly modern. Much of the usage is still current today, and at several points I was surprised that usages I thought were quite recent seem to have been current 250 years ago.

I also think of all the books and articles and courses on creative writing, and how to write a novel, and what is acceptable to publishers' editors and what is not. And I think if I had been a publsiher's editor I would have rejected this one for its very discursiveness, it's failure to get to the point. Dammit, the protagonist has no goals! And a protagonist without a goal, we are told, is the biggest no-no in novel writing. Yet 250 years later Tristram Shandy is still in print, and a lot of novels published 10 years ago are not.

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14 October 2020

Apartheid lunacy returns -- or did it never really go away?

You can't make this stuff up. More than a quarter of a century after the end of Apartheid, a teacher is being disciplined for not sticking with his "official" apartheid-era race classification: 'Coloured' teacher on fraud charge for saying he was 'African':
A Western Cape teacher has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday for claiming to be “African” in his CV, instead of sticking with his “official” coloured identity. Glen Snyman, a teacher at Grootkraal Primary School in Oudtshoorn, allegedly self-identified as African when applying for a principal's job at another school in October 2017. He ultimately didn't get the job.

Wasn't the Population Registration Act repealed long ago? Or has the Race Classification Board being re-established? are they going to stick a pencil in his hair to prove a point at the disciplinary hearing, as the old Race Classification Board was rumoured to do? 

It seems that racism is now growing all around the world, as "race" becomes more and more important in so many people's minds for evaluating people's place in society and one's relationship to them. The demons of apartheid have been around for too long, and it's high time we exorcised them. 


09 October 2020

Coraline: To hell and back

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think it was a child's vision of hell.

You could sub-title it, "To hell and back".

C.S. Lewis wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien on 7 December 1929, after reading Tolkien's poem on Beren and Luthien, "The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the
mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader."

And I think one could say that about this book too. I think it has no taint of allegory to Neil Gaiman, but it suggested several incipient allegories to me while I was reading it.

*** Spoilers may follow ***

Note that these are incipient allegories, not actual allegories. They could become allegories in the hands of a fan-fic writer who wanted to extend them in that direction, but if they became fully-fledged allegories they would cease to be true myth.
Coraline had moved with her parents into a new house, which is actually a large old house that has been divided into flats. The apartment next to theirs is still empty, and the interleading door has been bricked up. But one day Coraline, feeling bored, opens the interleading door and finds a passage beyond, which leads to a another flat just like hers, with another mother and father, like hers in some ways, but having buttons for eyes. Coraline's other mother cooks a much more interesting meal than her own mother, and begs her to stay, saying that she loves her more. All she needs to do is let the other mother sew button eyes on her.

Coraline declines the offer, and returns along the passage to her real house but finds her parents gone. Her mother went shopping but did not return. Her father went to see someone on business but did not return. After two days Coraline returns to the other flat with the other mother to find out what has happened to her real parents. She explores the other house, and finds different versions of the neighbours in the other flats; younger versions of two retired actresses, reliving their memories to an audience of dogs. A cat that lived in the real world is there, but has gained the ability to talk. But as Coraline explores the woods and fields away from the house, she finds that the further she gets the less real they are. The trees look like photographs, and then like drawings, and beyond there is just a mist.

And this is the first incipient allegory, when Coraline realises that the world beyond the door is the creation of the "other mother". She displeases the other mother, and is locked up in a dark closet, where she discovers the shades of children of long ago who had likewise been lured by the other mother, and have lost their souls. Coraline discovers she has a mission, to seek and save the lost, and makes a bargain with the other mother -- if she can find the souls of the lost children, and her lost real parents, she can take them unmolested to the real world. The other mother agrees, but has no intention of keeping her side of the bargain.

Coraline realises that the world behind the door is not even the creation of the other mother. It is simply an imitation. The other mother, like Satan in the Christian myth, cannot create anything, but can only twist and distort the things already created. And Coraline comes to realise that the task the must accomplish is the harrowing of hell. She doesn't use those words, of course, but that is another of the incipient allegories that it suggested to me.

The other mother isn't an allegory of Satan, and more than C.S. Lewis's white witch of Narnia is, but her evil works in the same way. And the book suggests incipient allegories to the reader, while containing no taint of allegory to the writer.

So, if you have read the book (and I hope you have already done so before reading this) I wonder what incipient allegories it suggested to you.

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08 October 2020

A plague of hedgehogs?

About three weeks ago our dog Pimen caught a hedgehog in our garden.We rescued it from him, and our son Simon took it across the road and released it into the veld alongside the railway line. Every few years a hedgehog does come into the garden, and has to be rescued from the dogs, but it was not frequent occurrence. We have had Pimen for five years now, and this was the first one he had ever encountered. 

Then a couple of weeks later Pimen caught another hedgehog. It was unusual to see two in the same year.  Then a week later there was a third one. And yet another two nights ago. By this time Pimen knew the routine. When Simon opened the door, Pimen brought the hedgehog to him and released it at his feet. He now knows that Simon collects hedgehogs and takes them over the road to where they belong. Simon put it in an empty plastic ice cream carton and took it across the road.

Then last night there was yet another one, or perhaps it was the same one. Simon decided to call it Salvador, after Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Time. It is a very persistent hedgehog.  

This time we took some photos before Simon took it across the road to release it, since it seems to be becoming a regular visitor. 

Then about an hour later there was another hedgehog. Two in one night. This one was slightly bigger, and rather darker in colour, so not the same one. Perhaps it had come looking for Salvador. 

Simon took it across the road to the same place where he had left Salvador. 

There were no more disturbances from hedgehogs last night, just the usual gunfire exchanged between cops and cable thieves who have just about stripped the Gauteng railway network bare. 

About 30 years ago, the hadedas came to town.

They are raucous birds of the ibis family, and before 1990 they were a relatively rare sight. One had to go on bird watching expeditions out into the country to see them. And suddenly they became urbanised. 

I suspected that it was because of the introduction of the pellet-style dog and cat food. Hadedas discovered that in suburban gardens, and thrived on it. There was an interesting ecological spin-off. People in  Johannesburg used to complain about a plague of large crickets called "Parktown prawns". After the hadedas came, one stopped hearing about Parktown prawns. And our lawn used to have lots of bare patches in the grass where ordinary crickets (about a third of the size of the Parktown prawns) were active. When the hadedas came, no more crickets. 

It was said that some rural folk believe that if a hadeda flew over a house or perched on it, it was a sign of bad luck, and the house would have to be demolished. If that had to be done today, entire cities would have to be demolished. 

Thirty years ago it was hadedas, now it seems to be hedgehogs.

If we are going to see swarms (herds? flocks?) of hedgehogs as we did with hadedas 30 years ago, I wonder what the ecological effects of that will be? And I wonder what is attracting them to our garden all of a sudden. 

Has anyone else been seeing a lot of hedgehogs lately?

One thing I do know: they are far more welcome than the cable thieves.

05 October 2020

Puck of Pook's Hill: Fantasy by Kipling

Puck of Pook's Hill

Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very strange book.

We've had a copy on our shelves for years, and I've sometimes tried to read it, but never got beyond the first chapter because it was a hardback copy in poor condition, with the binding coming apart, and I didn't want to damage it further. Then last week I found a cheap paperback copy in a second-hand bookshop and read that.

On one level it is a kind of Edwardian history lesson. Two children, Dan and Una, perform the play within a play from A Midsummer Nights Dream, and Puck himself appears to them and promises to show them things more real than any dream. They are then introduced to characters from various periods of English history who bring that history to life by giving a personal view of it. Perhaps school history in those days must have seemed to many children just a boring catalogue of dates and battles and kings. The stories show that they involved real people, with sometimes real conflicts of loyalties.

The stories seem to have a common theme too, and perhaps one that is worth noting in these days of the UK Independence Party and Brexit, and the preaching of a new version of British exceptionalism. Kipling seems concerned to show that the British are not a unique "pure" race. They are a mixture of Saxons and Normans, Romans and Picts, and many of the stories show people crossing these barriers of ethnicity and race.

Even religion is varied. The book begins with the story of a pagan god Weland, and ends with a Jew. And in between comes the story of the fairies fleeing as refugees to France because they didn't like the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the last straw was the iconoclasm of the Puritans.

But for all its good points, the story wasn't very well told. The children are made to forget each incident and story after they have heard it, by the invocation of "oak, ash and thorn", and so one wonders what the point was. A few years ago I read Kipling's Kim for the fifth time (my review here: Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism | Notes from underground), but I don't think I'll really want to read this one again. It's a fantasy story, but the fantasy doesn't seem to blend very well with the history, and the Puck of the title does little more than introduce the other characters, like a master of ceremonies at a wedding or a funeral. 

It does seem, though, that some of the devices and tropes of this book were taken up and used by later writers of children's fantasy. There are faint echoes of it in writers like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner. 

I can't remember whether Lewis actually cited Kipling as his inspiration, but he did cite George MacDonald, and I read MacDonald's books in the hope of finding more of the kind that I liked, but was disappointed. The fantasy writers of the mid-20th century may have been inspired by earlier writers, but they always seemed to improve on them. And most of the works that followed them seem dull and derivative.

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