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.

View all my reviews

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.

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

Basically I think you're right, but Barbara's appalling sufferings in War in Heaven, thanks to Persimmons's salve, complicates the point a bit.

Dale Nelson


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