Friday, November 14, 2014
ROBERT HICHENS - 150th anniversary
Robert Hichens (1864-1950) achieved fame and a bestseller twice. The first occasions was with his satire on the Nineties decadents, The Green Carnation (1894), a spoof actually written from a great deal of sympathy with the personalities and artifices of the movement. He later, after Oscar Wilde’s downfall, refused to permit reprints on the book of the grounds that it was unfair, and in doubtful taste, to continue the comedy after the subject had suffered such tragedy. It only finally reappeared over fifty years later, in a 1949 edition from The Unicorn Press.
His second great success was with the desert romance The Garden of Allah (1904), soon much imitated, though usually without the delicate spirituality in Hichens’ book. But in ghost story circles he is known of course for his story ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’, one of the few successful pieces about a poignant spirit. This has been widely anthologised, for example by Dorothy L Sayers in her Detection, Mystery, Horror collection. Robert Aickman named it as one of a handful of ghost stories he really respected. Hichens wrote a number of other supernatural stories, scattered among several collections, such as Tongues of Conscience (1900), The Black Spaniel (1906) and Snake-Bite (1919), and some of these have their admirers, but on the whole it is the Guildea tale that has survived best. I wrote my own tribute to it in ‘The Late Post’, combining themes with W F Harvey’s ‘The Beast With Five Fingers’ in what may seem an unlikely pairing (the tale can be found in my Seventeen Stories).
However, Robert Smythe Hichens (who was born 150 years ago on 14 November) was also the author of several full length works of supernatural fiction that deserve fuller attention. And I say ‘full length’ advisedly, because Hichens was a very ‘long’ writer, whose novels require a certain stamina from the reader. In my view, this perseverance is well-rewarded in his best books, but it may have deterred some. Three in particular are worth attention, of which the best-known is perhaps The Dweller on the Threshold (1911), but here I’d like to look at the other two.
The first of these is Flames: A London Phantasy (1897), in which two young men about town begin experimenting with contacting discarnate spirits: one of them is taken over by a force they encounter, and begins acting out of character. There are signs of the influence of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hichens remorselessly follows a trail of spiritual degeneration. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the book is the close emotional affinity between the two youths, who, in experimenting with the unseen, hold hands in the dark and try to unite their consciousnesses. The homoerotic undercurrent is clear to a modern audience and may also be seen in other aspects of Hichens’ life.
In his autobiography Yesterday (1947), for example, he gives a touching account of a young Frenchman he befriended and who ended up in some sort of trouble and in prison: Hichens explains how he did his best to trace him and help him, but lost contact: the episode is full of wistful longing. E F Bleiler thought that Flames was literate, intelligent and worthwhile, but over-extended. A second novel in the same milieu, The Londoners (1898), is not fantastical, but features a sassy young woman who cross-dresses as a gentleman in order to enjoy the capital’s high society better, with inevitable romantic complications.
The second is The God Within Him (1926: USA title, The Unearthly), a book of a rather different kind to Flames. It tells of the arrival of a wandering preacher in a cathedral close, and his impact upon its inhabitants. He appears to perform miracles, and his personal mystical aura is deeply felt by those who encounter him, indeed we mostly see him only through his influence upon others. Hichens succeeds in suggesting the uncanny powers and character of his prophet without either the cloying piety or unconvincing extravagance of other books in this field. The scenes of the visionary’s advent among the solemn lamplit houses of the close are finely achieved. Later episodes, where he goes to Geneva as an advocate of world peace, are less compelling and somewhat worthy: I’m afraid that world-shattering villains such as Dr Nikola and Dr Fu Manchu make for much more thrilling reading than pacifiers. Even so, the book has an ethereal glamour which I found lingers in the imagination.