Sunday, July 12, 2009

Claude Houghton

Some years ago I read some very ardent reviews of Claude Houghton novels in 1930s volumes of The Bookman, which claimed that spiritual archetypes stalk his books, bringing us substantial profundities and a clear, strong vision of the mystic destiny which is shaping for humanity. Not long after, I D Edrich books sent me a catalogue devoted only to Dunsany, Ernest Bramah and Houghton, and from this I bought a good stock of his work, which (with others I had picked up) numbered well over 20 titles.

However, I was at first disappointed in them. Firstly, his most noted, I Am Jonathan Scrivener has a trick ending that seemed unworthy of the high endeavour attributed to him. Secondly, for reasons I cannot understand, he had done a novel version of Jerome K Jerome’s cloying and religiose play The Passing of the Third Floor Back. Thirdly, there seemed to be a marked tailing-off in his late work, which enmeshed itself in themes of marital discord with no obvious mystical import. And finally even the promising books of the Thirties - Julian Grant Loses His Way, Chaos Is Come Again, This Was Ivor Trent - seemed, on dipping in, to have a rather painfully solemn tone, ponderous with portent and peopled with Big Characters. The books never seemed quite to deliver. In short, I disposed of the lot to a more patient friend.

I rediscovered him, when, desperate for something to read while on holiday in Galloway, the cottage we rented had only a shelf of leatherette condensed novels, all adventure thrillers: or a History of the Scottish Music Hall. The salvation, as soon as the Wigtown bookshops opened, was Claude Houghton’s This Was Ivor Trent (1936). Whether by force of contrast or not I cannot say, but I was soon utterly engrossed in this.

It has a very effective opening on the Embankment in a London fog, where the majestic author of the title, haunted by the potentiality that man might evolve into another form of spiritual being, suddenly comes face to face with a hooded figure which seems to be just such a being: the image precipitates a nervous collapse and we do not see Trent again until the last section of the novel. But we do see a swarm of characters, lonely and damaged by the world, who talk about their encounters with Trent and the inhuman power he possesses over others. There is one highly memorable character, a valetudinarian misanthrope with utter contempt for virtually all he meets, whose brittle conversation and mannerisms are brilliantly portrayed. Others include a vaguely Buchanesque main protagonist, a hollow-eyed artist’s model, a young woman in flight from her boorish family, a vain and self-pitying critic lamed in the war, a youth who thinks he is a reincarnation of Nietzsche. Their lives hold a morbid interest for the reader but we are waiting as we witness them for the re-emergence of Trent and a resolution of the hooded figure vision.
This we do not quite get, but Houghton just about manages to hold the novel back from anti-climax.

Though ultimately unsatisfactory, I thought This Was Ivor Trent had a bitter and brooding power which seemed to convey well the disillusion, the weariness of the Thirties, and the expectation that something massive was needed to shatter the dismal order of things. When the Common Sense Englishman characters puts in a half-hearted defence of the masses against the vituperative invalid’s contempt, the latter hisses, “Oh, so you’ve think they’ve advanced as far as the brink of 1914 do you ?”, prophetic words. Claude Houghton’s work requires perseverance and is not easily assimilable to familiar terrain in the sf, fantasy or supernatural fiction spheres, but a handful of his novels may well be worth trying.

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