Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Night-Cap on Chanctonbury

The Mysteries of Arthur J Rees 

Arthur J Rees was the author of 22 books, all in the period 1913-40. Most of them are thrillers, often with a macabre or supernatural dimension. But usually the apparently unearthly turns out to be a false lead, or is not focal to the plot: though in some a certain amount of doubt is left, and in others the uncanny is more fully in play.

The books make good use of local folklore and singular history. Some are set in Sussex, where Rees lived in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, beneath the crests of legend-haunted Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings: but there are also atmospheric settings in Norfolk, Cornwall and Wales. A few titles will give a flavour of his work: The Shrieking Pit; The Hand in the Dark; The Threshold of Fear; Cup of Silence.

Not all of his books are thrillers. His first, The Merry Marauders (1913) is a light-hearted tale about a theatre company touring New Zealand. He also wrote romances, and compiled a book of passages from Sussex diaries. Two of his early books were written in collaboration with a John Reay Watson, about whom even less is known than about him.

Rees has somehow mostly evaded recognition and revival, possibly because his books can be a bit over-long, or because they do not always involve pure crime and detection, as some aficionados prefer. For a while his books were not too difficult to find second-hand, but recently there has been a moderate increase in interest in them.

A few years ago, a local historian recorded some memories of Rees from a resident who had known him when she was young. He lived with his wife in the hamlet of Nepcote, near the village of Findon, four miles north of Worthing, West Sussex. His bungalow, Nettledown, was on the lane leading to the ancient hill-fort of Cissbury Ring. It was in fact not much more than a shanty, with wooden walls and a corrugated iron roof that used to resound heavily whenever rain fell, matched only by the clatter of his typewriter as he worked assiduously at his books. After a hard day’s work, Rees would take a ‘constitutional’, over the downs. His home has long since been demolished and the property incorporated into the garden of another house, Thistledown.

Rees clearly had a genuine interest in the landscape and lore of the Sussex downland, and further afield. He describes sinister terrain with real gusto and can invoke foul weather with dark allure. In Cup of Silence: A Romance of the South Downs (1924) we are told that when clouds settle on the top of the ring of trees on its summit, the shepherds say it is “Chanctonbury putting on its night-cap,” an omen of bad weather: and the storm that follows in the book is vigorously evoked. In a short preface, Rees notes that “the hand of man has already wrought its changes upon a part of the downs” in the story, adding that modernity may yet “finally invade and destroy the inviolateness of the downs around Cissbury and Chanctonbury, which as yet remain the “cup of silence” of the story and the dream country of the book.”

Researcher Sean Williams compiled as much information as he could about Rees from various sources  in a 2009 post. As this shows, even in the age of the internet it can be hard to trace definite details about a figure whose work has been long out of the limelight: sometimes even basic facts are contradictory and there remain gaps.

Arthur John Rees was probably born on 23 September 1872 in St Kilda, Victoria, Australia, but other years have been given. He seems to have worked as a journalist on Australian and New Zealand newspapers, then emigrated to England and continued in the trade in London. As an Australian, he would not have been subject to conscription in WW1, and he probably carried on as a working writer. At some point he moved to Findon and his later years were spent at nearby Worthing, where he died on 22 November, 1942. His age was then given as 67. 

Rees wrote on average one book a year, mostly for John Lane, but occasionally for other well-established houses such as Heinemann and Hutchinson. Some were translated for French, Italian and German editions, evidence of their wider attraction. His books have the melodramatic and improbable staples enjoyed by readers of the day. In Cup of Silence, for example, we have two orphans, two sets of dying words, a sea voyage, a lost inheritance, a mysterious heirloom, the glimpse of a possible spectre, a light seen at night in a ruined house, and a thundering great storm, all in the first forty pages.

He evidently understood the appeal of the strange and supernatural to readers. The Threshold of Fear (1925), sub-titled A Sober Fantasy starts with a demobbed officer from the Great War out of work and out of funds, who answers an enigmatic advertisement in The Times for a chauffeur. This type of situation is quite common in Buchanesque thrillers and adventures of the post-WWI period: it reflected the acute reality of widespread unemployment.

The client is an invalid young man, a recluse in the far west, at St Bree, “the loneliest and highest place in Cornwall, where four parishes meet by a holed stone, and all slope down to the moors and the sea”. The protagonist knows Cornwall, and reflects on “the last stronghold of Ancient Britain”, with its “cromlechs, logan stones, black cairns and giants’ caves.” Rees evokes the lonely, brooding country well, and builds up the mystery about the sensitive patient, who only emerge in darkness and will not allow himself to be seen. He is driven across the moors at night to walk on the shore.

The book takes a surprising turn when the chaffeur wins the confidence of his passenger, a war veteran  like himself, and learns that his condition was caused by experiences in an expedition to “one of the last unexplored areas of the world”, deep in Peru. It seems likely that this theme was inspired by the contemporary expeditions of Colonel Percy Fawcett in search of a pre-Inca civilisation.

Arthur J Rees’ yarns have the positive qualities to be expected from a busy professional writer: they are pacy, colourful, full of twists and turns, with satisfying heroes and villains. Since the supernatural events are mostly rationalised, his books do not exactly fit the “metaphysical thriller” form, and in any case the thriller element is much more to the fore than any metaphysics.

However, his inscription in my copy of Cup of Silence may suggest another dimension to his character. This is dated ‘Findon, Sussex, 1925’: “To The Very Reverend Dom Wilfred Upson OSB/Prior of Caldey/With the Author’s affectionate/remembrances and regards.” Caldey was a Benedictine community on an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

The copy also has the bookplate of the library at Prinknash, Gloucestershire, where the community moved in 1928. Upson (1880-1963) was from 1938 the first Abbot of Prinknash. We do not know how Rees made his acquaintance but this and occasional clues in his books perhaps suggest that he had a deeper interest in the mystical than simply as a vivid backcloth for his books. 

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Ghostly Company Newsletter

A Ghostly Company, a literary society founded in 2004, has just issued its Newsletter No 71, edited by Helen Kemp. The group is ‘devoted to the ghost story in all its forms' and  takes its name from H R Wakefield's second Cape compendium of ghost stories from 1932.

In this issue, Loretta Nikolic discusses the supernatural fiction of Robert Westall, noting ‘some claim he is the finest British author of ghost stories since M R James’, and surveying his career and notable books. 

Katherine Haynes, meanwhile, looks at ‘Possible Influences on the Ghost Stories of M R James’, with particular reference to a mid-Victorian crime and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. António Monteiro writes about a play, made into film, by Portuguese dramatist Bernardo Santareno, based on a true life case of a modern witchcraft superstition with tragic consequences. 

There are also a range of book reviews in the field by Peter Bell and Katherine Haynes, and a new ghost story by Victoria Day. As well as the Newsletter, the society also publishes a journal of contemporary ghost stories, The Silent Companion, and organises (when circumstances permit) informal conferences at suitable venues. Future plans include gatherings in Chester, Norwich and even Saint-Bertrand-de Comminges.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Old Sarum

There is a good deal of interest to be found in old guide-books to ancient monuments, and in particular those issued for the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and its successors by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, in roughly the period 1950 to 1980. 
 
(One of my stories in Powers and Presences (Sarob Press) features a clerk who works in this Ministry: it’s non-stop glamour in my tales.)
 
These monographs, usually sold from ticket offices by stalwart custodians, were written in a brisk and breezy, uncompromising style by authors who were often redoubtable local antiquaries. Their task was public education, and they tackled it with zest. 

I acquired some of these during my assiduous visits to ancient monuments from the mid Seventies onwards, in the days when they usually were still staffed, often by ex-servicemen with a sort of on-parade air about them. I thought then that this must be quite an enjoyable job, especially at one of the less popular or more remote sites. Though it would hardly be well-paid, there would no doubt be plenty of time for rumination and reading. However, these modern castellans also often doubled as groundsmen, mowing the lawns, weeding, litter-picking, carrying out minor repairs. 

I remember once walking one hot shadeless day in the far west of Cornwall to the remains of a prehistoric village far from any main road and only found by many winding byways. I expected there might be informative sign-boards and not much else. But even here there was a lonely wooden cabin with a custodian, who seemed a bit like a signalman in his box among the birdsong on a quiet branch line. I hadn’t thought much about where to eat or drink and there had been no pub or café on the way. The sympathetic keeper in his kiosk made me a cup of tea and sold me a slab of souvenir chocolate. 

A good example to hand is the 1965 guide (4th impression, 1971) to Old Sarum, the original site of the city of Salisbury. This seems to have been part of an experiment to have more colourful covers: they were usually a regulation plain blue, with a touch of the RAF hue. On this one, however, a flourish of cirrus clouds hovering above the silhouetted citadel almost seems to suggest aery sigils. 

The impressive-sounding name of the author is augmented by a reassuring string of scholarly initials: H. de S. Shortt M.A., F.S.A., F.R.N.S. Hugh de Sausmarez Shortt also wrote The Giant and Hob-Nob, under the perhaps understandably abbreviated name Hugh Shortt, issued by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum in 1972, and in a revised edition by other hands ten years later. I should imagine it is a child’s guide to local antiquities. Another publication the same year was Salisbury: A New Approach to the City and Its Neighbourhood, ‘with photographs by Sir Cecil Beaton’, which might make it a bit collectible. 

I only had to turn to the verso of the front cover of the HMSO guide before I came upon an alluring phrase: ‘The key to the lapidarium, which contains the stones mentioned on pages 5, 22 and 40 may be obtained from the custodian on duty in the ticket office.’ In the first place, The Key to the Lapidarium undoubtedly sounds like it ought to be the title of a late Victorian thriller. And secondly, you at once want to know about those stones. They turn out to include gargoyles with bulging eyes, cat-eared humans, and various grotesques with impressive rows of teeth. 

Because of its long history, Old Sarum gets quite a staunch guide, of some 50 pages. The chronology and archaeology of the site is carefully explained, with just sufficient glinting detail to ensure the account is not too dry: coins of Cunobelin (though suspicious); the gold ring of Ethelwulf of Wessex; the effigy of Bishop Jocelin; the stained glass window of the angel appearing to Zacharias; the porphyry paving imported from Italy; the old leper hospital. You feel as though you are wandering among notes made by M R James for stories still to write. 

The map at the back of the book showing Old Sarum in its neighbourhood has a range of place names all of which sound like the titles of songs from a semi-forgotten folk-rock album: Figsbury Ring, Grovely Wood, River Nadder, Ackling Dyke. I can almost hear the tunes and imagine the lyrics, full of allusions to pagan rites, shape-shifting and fairy ceremonies: ‘As I walked out on Figsbury Ring/I thought I heard the Good Folk sing’ and so forth. 

Moreover, earlier in the text, after explaining the various ancient routes to the old city, Mr de S. Shortt tells us: ‘A fourth road reaches Grovely Wood to the west from the Severn via the lead mines, so important to the Romans, in the Mendips. But it is lost in the wood and no one has ever traced its course over the last four miles to Old Sarum’. Lost in the wood! Never discovered! Who could resist such a thrilling mystery? It reminds me of a very beguiling book I found in Ross-on-Wye, A Lost Roman Road, A Reconnaissance in the West Country, by Bernard Berry (1963), the quest for a missing route between Bath and the Dorset coast. 

A slight disappointment is that there is only a paragraph or so about Old Sarum’s role as a Rotten Borough. The site began to diminish in the 13th century when a new cathedral was built in the plain, and by Tudor times there was said to be not one dwelling there. Despite this, it continued to send representatives to Parliament until the Great Reform Act of 1832: William Pitt the Elder was one of its MPs. The elections were held under a venerable Parliament Tree, alas ‘cut down in 1905’ says the guide. I’d like to think souvenirs were made from its ancient wood. Perhaps when polished in the right way on a quarter day they might emit the spirit of a Wise Statesman with sage advice.

The Old Sarum monograph seems to me to possess much of arcane interest and fortified me in my notion that such guides are well worth perusing.

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Ghosts & Scholars 39

The latest issue of the long-running and much-respected journal Ghosts & Scholars, founded by Rosemary Pardoe, has just been published. Devoted to M R James and his followers, number 39 has been guest-edited by António Monteiro. Copies are on their way to subscribers.

This issue includes Jim Bryant’s continuing series following M R James and friends on one of his cycling tours to France. There’s also a feature by Benjamin Harris on John Gordon’s excellent 1970 Jamesian young adult novel, The House on the Brink. Meanwhile, Peter Bell reveals his discovery of the enjoyable ghost stories of a Norfolk parson, and Martin Voracek discusses the influence of German Romanticism on James. 

Three new Jamesian stories are provided by Robbie Porter, Carole Tyrell and Victoria Day, while Rosemary herself contributes her regular column, ‘Lady Wardrop’s Notes’, Rick Kennett rounds up Jamesian podcasts, and there are reviews of recent Jamesian fiction, film and film history. Jim Pitts provides suitably sinister artwork. 

Copies of this issue are available for £6 (UK) or $15 (overseas).

Subscriptions for 2021 (two issues) are £10 (UK), $25 (overseas). 

Enquiries to Mark Valentine at: lostclub[at]btopenworld[dot]com

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Centenary of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS

One hundred years ago today, on 16 September 1920, the most remarkable novel of the twentieth-century was published by Methuen of London:  A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay.  The recognition of this novel's special qualities was slow to come. It was not reprinted until 1946, the year after its author's death.  

In the August 1946 reprint, publisher Victor Gollancz noted that "of the small [first] edition that was printed, 596 copies were sold and 834 'remaindered'."   The statement is nearly correct, but it has often been misinterpreted to imply that the first edition sold only 596 copies, and no more.  Methuen initially printed 2500 sheets, but only ordered 1000 to be bound.  The book sold so minimally that by February of 1921 Methuen wasted 1000 copies of the sheets, and the other copies were bound up and sold over the next five years.  In all, 1,500 copies of the first edition were sold before the book went out of print. 

Victor Gollancz reprinted another new edition in June 1963, and finally the first American edition was published by Macmillan in October 1963, but for this edition the entire novel was line-edited, resulting in thousands of changes to Lindsay's text, ranging from re-punctuation on to alterations of more significant words and phrases. Unfortunately this corrupted text became the base text used by many publishers, in England as well as in America.  The corrupt text also turned up on the internet, and as a result most of the reprints done over the last few decades replicate the flawed text.

The first paperback edition came from Ballantine Books. It had five printings in the US through 1977 (two with the Unicorn masthead of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series), and two printings in the UK from Pan/Ballantine in 1972 and 1974.  A further UK printing from Sphere appeared in 1980.  

The novel began to receive real recognition in the 1960s, following a radio dramatization that had been done on the BBC in 1956. Since then, it was made into a student film by Bill Holloway in the early 1970s (watch it here, where it is misdated to 1979); appeared as an opera in Los Angeles in 1985; and last year was made into a strange heavy metal musical in Australia (see the website here). [For more on Bill Holloway, see this old Worwoodiana post here.]

Here follows a cover gallery of some of the editions of A Voyage to Arcturus

The first edition. Image from L.W. Currey's listing here.

 The 1946 Gollancz edition.

The 1963 Gollancz edition.

The 1963 Macmillan edition.
The 1968 Ballantine edition. Art by Bob Pepper.

 


The 1980 Sphere edition. Art by Peter Jones.


Added (9/17/20):  The Texts in Various Editions of A Voyage to Arcturus

The Best text:

UK Methuen, 1920.  The only edition proofed by Lindsay himself.  I have noted six typos in the text. The US Gregg Press, 1977 edition is reproduced photographically from the 1920 original edition, and thus contains the exact same text.

Good text:
 
The text was reset for the UK Gollancz, 1946 edition. Inevitably, there were some minor alterations (e.g., in chapter one “She [Mrs. Jameson] received him gravely” is mistakenly altered to “She received him bravely”), but the text remains fairly sound. The UK Gollancz, 1963 edition is reproduced photographically from the 1946 edition, as are its reprints (1968, 1971 and 1978).  The US Citadel Press, 1985 edition is also photographed from a Gollancz text.

Other editions reset from the Gollancz edition include: the UK Canongate, 1992 (and a 1998 reprint); and the US University of Nebraska, 2002 edition.

Corrupted text.

The US Macmillan, 1963, edition was line-edited introducing many hundreds of changes throughout the novel.  Some are merely punctuational, but many are stylistic, altering words, phrases and word order.

This corrupted text has proliferated in many editions, including all five printings (1968-1977) of the (reset) US Ballantine Books edition; both printings (1972 and 1974) of the UK Pan/Ballantine edition; the UK Sphere, 1980 edition and the UK Allison & Busby, 1986 edition (which is in fact photographed from the Sphere resetting); the UK Savoy Books 2002 edition; the UK Fantasy Masterworks, 2003 edition; and the US Dover 2005 edition. Most POD editions use the corrupt text from the Gutenberg file.






Monday, September 14, 2020

Edwardian Esoterics

There has not, so far as I know, been any full study of the Metaphysical Thriller form. However, I was heartened to find, after I had formed my own sense of the field, one essay that had earlier noticed that these books belonged together. In the late Nineteen Forties the poet Peter Russell edited a quarterly magazine called Nine. It seems to have been a last flourish of the aesthetes and mystics against the kitchen sink realism which took over in the Fifties. Number Nine of Nine (Summer/Autumn 1952) included a long, thoughtful and well-informed essay on the novels of Charles Williams, by Antony Borrow. 

This begins by noting that, ‘In the last few decades a number of novelists have used a magical or supernatural background for purposes of spiritual allegory, as distinct from grotesquerie or deliberate arabesque, although that is often an ingredient.’ He then lists Mary Butts, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, David Lindsay, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. This was not far from the list I had at first come up with, though I have since added others. Borrow, an interesting figure of the Neo-Romantic movement of the Forties and after, did not, however, go on to study any of these authors other than Williams. 

Most of the authors of metaphysical thrillers all belonged to the same generation. They were typically born in a fifteen-year time-span from the mid-1880s to the early Edwardian period, most of them indeed within four or five years of each other. Some of them knew each other, or of each other, but I am not in the least suggesting they make up a movement, with organised aims: they are more illustrative of a tendency. Their childhood years were spent in the Victorian twilight, the fin-de-siecle, and their formative youth and early adulthood in the Edwardian first decade of the twentieth century, both periods now understood as having marked characteristics. Though their books mostly appeared in the interwar period, their outlook was formed in the new mood of the Edwardian era.

They include Charles Williams, born in 1886; Ronald Fraser, 1888; Claude Houghton, 1889; Michael Maurice, 1889; Dion Fortune, 1890; Mary Butts, 1890; John Metcalfe, 1891; Geoffrey Dennis, 1892; Muriel Jaeger, 1893; Gerald Bullett, 1893; J M A Mills, 1894; Edwin Greenwood, 1895; C S Lewis, 1898; Alfred Gordon Bennett, 1901; Lewis Grassic Gibbon 1901. They were also contemporaries with some of the more reflective crime fiction writers, who also grappled with problems of good and evil and sometimes used a mystical dimension, such as Dorothy L Sayers, 1893; Josephine Tey, 1896; and Margery Allingham, 1904. 

There were, of course, authors working in a field similar to this, born in a somewhat earlier period, the 1860s and 1870s, such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, May Sinclair, G K Chesterton, Evelyn Underhill. Although these were important precursors, they were not part of the same generation, and therefore culture, as the interwar group. However, David Lindsay and Walter de la Mare, though they belong chronologically to this earlier generation, did not publish their major work until later in life, and were therefore working in the same milieu as the later group. Borrow’s timescale, of books ‘in the last few decades’ before 1952, seems to be broadly right, but it also raises the question whether the form continued into the Forties and Fifties. I can’t yet think of many obvious examples but this seems worth a look. 

The background to the metaphysical thriller form was the growth of interest in beliefs other than those offered by the mainstream churches in Britain, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Non-conformist. This took many forms: an exploration of Eastern Religions, eg from India and China; new movements such as Spiritualism and Theosophy; artistic trends with mystical aspects such as Symbolism, Decadence or the Celtic Twilight. Some of these influences will be seen either subtly or overtly influencing the ideas explored in metaphysical thrillers. 

Others draw on the congeries of beliefs now known as the Western Mystery Tradition, a perspective or movement in ritual magic that draws on systems of symbols such as the Kabbalah, the Tarot, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, the Grail, Astrology and others. Williams, for example, used many of these in his books, as did Fortune. Some of these authors it is true, while rejecting the tepid conventionality of the churches, were attracted to the more ritualistic aspects of their ceremonies. They often came to this after first exploring the esoteric. 

Charles Williams, for example, was to become a High Church Anglican, but he developed some unusual ideas of his own and was earlier a member of orders practising ritual magic, the successors to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His latest biographer, Grevel Lindop, finds some evidence that Williams continued in esoteric orders alongside his theological work. This element in his life and work is sometimes considerably underplayed, even denied, by his more devout champions, but his thrillers are absolutely rich with occult ideas, and these are not always those of his villains. Some of the protagonists with whom he most sympathises, even identifies, are attracted to them too. 

Similarly, Mary Butts navigated to a High Church Anglican position under the influence of Hugh Ross Williamson and Father Bernard Walke, a priest in Cornwall, but she was earlier associated with Aleister Crowley’s occult orders, and indeed Crowley recognised that she taught him much: and she never abandoned her deep interest in esoteric ideas. Her journals frequently invoke the unorthodox (and indeed semi-pagan) symbol of the Grail. 

Not all of the ideas explored in these books can be precisely defined. Sometimes there is a form of nature-worship or pantheism, at others a kind of secular mysticism (the development of secular mysticism is another area that could do with further study). Perhaps there may be a sense sometimes, too, of the possibilities of the arts as a passageway to the unseen, especially music. Others are about the spiritual absence at the heart of our lives, and a consequent longing for, reaching out to, some experience or dimension other than the world we know. Sometimes other dimensions are elusive, just beyond reach: there is the sense of a brink, which we approach, but from which either we draw back, or which draws back from us. 

But what these books have in common, even if they use different symbols and argue for contrasting beliefs or ideas, is a keen questing imagination. These writers were not content to describe the outer reality of the world presented to them, but wanted to go beyond that. They were still, usually, interested in the lives of their fellow creatures, but they did not suppose those lives consisted only of their families, their jobs, their leisure (if they had any), their vices and their virtues. The authors of metaphysical thrillers thought that we move in a world which may reflect or refract a greater reality, and it was this and its profound effect on us that they wished to explore. 

Part 1 of this note was The Rise of the Metaphysical Thriller.

(Mark Valentine)

 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Rise of the Metaphysical Thriller

In the interwar years in Britain a new type of novel appeared that has not been much discussed as a form: the metaphysical thriller. Like most literary terms, this is not entirely satisfactory, but it conveys what is involved reasonably well. I originally thought of using the term ‘occult’ thriller, but I saw that the novelist and short story writer M John Harrison alluded to them as ‘metaphysical thrillers’, and this seemed a sound authority to follow. 

Other adjectives might also do: perhaps we might call them supernatural, mystical, magical, or spiritual thrillers. But the major characteristic of these books is that their authors wanted to discuss what to them were urgent questions about the nature of reality: and they wanted to use a popular form to do this. 

The combination of a metaphysical theme and a thriller format is unusual and may appear incongruous: but in fact it often works surprisingly well. Both parts of the term are important. These authors chose to use the thriller format mostly because it would appeal to larger numbers of readers than a theoretical work, but also sometimes because they needed the money. That was because they were not part of the mainstream, an important distinction; they were not in the church, did not have academic posts, were not journalistic or general men- or women-of-letters. 

Most of these authors were independent and original in their beliefs or else, where they were associated with an organised faith, they were unconventional. Some were for a while involved in occult or esoteric orders, and several went on to found their own, but mostly they were individual seekers and thinkers. Their spiritual work was largely unsponsored and to explore it and to express it they needed some form of income, which the writing of thrillers might help to provide. 

These books are not, in style, like the often rather turgid or earnest ‘non-fiction’ tomes on esoteric matters which also appeared in numbers in this period, though they may have some passages of exposition which are perilously similar. Sometimes they draw on the tradition of realism in the novel, as seen in the work of John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, to depict in faithful detail the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, including their difficult emotional lives and personal circumstances. But where they depart from this dominant form is in permitting their characters also to have a spiritual or mystical dimension. This is indeed, properly regarded, an enhanced form of ‘realism’ which takes a broader account of the human experience, not limited to material and outward appearances. 

At their best these novels offer the same reading qualities as the really good crime or detective yarn or ghost story, but with that extra dimension of ideas and images concerned with the nature of things, often excitingly explored. The prime exemplar of them is probably the seven supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams: other prominent titles include Armed With Madness and Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts (who admired and corresponded with Williams); Dion Fortune’s six occult thrillers (she and Williams were both involved in various esoteric orders); several of Claude Houghton's novels; Aleister Crowley's Moonchild; Sax Rohmer's The Orchard of Tears and others; David Lindsay's The Haunted Woman, Sphinx and Devil's Tor; and Walter de la Mare's The Return

Lesser-known ones include Ronald Fraser’s The Flying Draper (though that also has a Wellsian dimension); Geoffrey Dennis’s Harvest in Poland; Louis Marlow's The Devil in Crystal; and Muriel Jaeger’s sceptical Hermes Speaks. A friend of Dorothy L Sayers and the dedicatee of the first Lord Peter Wimsey book, which she had encouraged, Jaeger is often overlooked, though some of her novels  have recently been revived. In some other instances the thriller element might be thought rather more dominant than any metaphysical dimension, as perhaps in the work of Dennis Wheatley.

There are sure to be others that readers know about. But a few distinctions must be drawn. The first is that in this form of thriller things do not get ‘rationalised’. There was quite a fashion for embellishing crime thrillers with occult, supernatural or folkloric motifs, for extra frisson—Gladys Mitchell particularly relished this—but the golden rules of detective stories demand that all such apparent incidents must be explained away at the end, often (it must be said) somewhat unconvincingly, as in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though they may have quite a lot of incidental interest in their occult themes, and some genuine learning, these novels are not in the same category.

The second difference to draw is with fantasy. By its nature the metaphysical thriller belongs in the wider definition of ‘fantastic literature’. But it does not take place in a fantasy world, such as those, for example, of William Morris, E R Eddison, Hope Mirrlees and, later, J R R Tolkien. Those authors also often had spiritual ideas to convey, and there may well be thrilling episodes in their books, but they wrote about elaborate, invented worlds inspired by ancient epics or fairy tales. The essence of the metaphysical thriller is that it takes place in the contemporary, more-or-less everyday world. It involves the effect of spiritual forces, images and incidents in that world.

For that reason, I also think, thirdly, that historical novels with metaphysical elements are in a different category. There was, in this same period, a linked but distinctive development. Mary Butts, in reviewing Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and The Spring Queen, drew attention to a new form in fiction, which was attempting to recreate the culture and imagination of ancient civilisations, influenced by recent archaeology, James Frazer's The Golden Bough and the Greek studies of Jane Harrison. 

This was a shrewd insight: Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote in this form too, as did Robert Graves; and a later example is Mary Renault. Mary Butts herself wrote novels of Cleopatra and Alexander. A lesser-known example is Perilous Grain by Una Broadbent, who wrote to Butts noting their affinity. Even some romances of ancient Atlantis may belong here, since the society described in them often has Greek elements. And as for lost race tales of Greeks, the heirs of Alexander, in Central Asia - but we digress. Suffice to say all these seem a different, but parallel, development.

At least two of the authors in the occult thriller field have been quite widely studied by readers interested in their ideas and in some cases identifying as their followers: Charles Williams and Dion Fortune. However, often the focus of these commentaries has understandably been on the authors’ ideas, but not on the wider context: their contemporaries, or the form they chose, that rather strange beast, the metaphysical thriller.

(Part 2, to follow, will explore this theme further)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: L W Currey