Monday, August 19, 2019

Picture of Nobody - Philip Owens

In Picture of Nobody (1936) by Philip Owens, Shakespeare is recreated as an impoverished young poet in Nineteen Thirties London. It is not exactly a reincarnation or timeslip fantasy – the book simply takes the character, story and work of the 16th century playwright and reframes them in a setting over three hundred years later.

The novel imagines Shakespeare’s younger years as a struggling actor and writer in the capital but places him among the poetic coteries of the interwar years. Contemporaries such as Marlowe, Kyd and Greene are also depicted in various guises, as are some Shakespearean characters, including Falstaff and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

Meanwhile, in a neat reversal, the leading 20th century playwright, here rendered as Shawe, is instead depicted as existing several centuries ago and is the subject of an authorship controversy, like those claiming the Tudor Shakespeare’s works were written by Bacon or Oxford. In this spoof, some theorists suggest Shawe’s plays were written by a certain Lord Beaverbrook . . .

This first novel is a lively jeu d’esprit, blithely done, and the conceit is sustained with great gusto and imagination. We relish both the picture of Thirties literary and bohemian life and the clever and picturesque Shakespearean resonances. In his foreword, L A G Strong says it demonstrates that even a Shakespeare would not fare well in the Grub Street of the day. The book soon takes a more sombre direction, however, and has a further dimension, in that it also becomes a future fantasy of riots, explosions and civil war in Britain, with a tragic outcome.

Owens also wrote Hobohemians, a Study of Luxurious Poverty (Mandrake Press, 1929), a short opuscule of artistic life in Berlin, and translated books from the German by Hans Fallada and others. He also wrote for Jack Lindsay's literary journal, The London Aphrodite, and edited an anthology of passages about landladies, Bed and Sometimes Breakfast (Sylvan Press, 1944).

More notably, he was included, with a long avant-garde poem, in an anthology of modernist poetry edited by Samuel Putnam, European Caravan (1930). Here, he was alongside Auden, Beckett and others, and was described as one of Britain’s most promising poets. It was a promise that apparently was not to be fulfilled. I have not been able to find a trace of him after the Second World War.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guest Post: False Memory Syndrome in Arthur Machen’s “The Children of the Pool” by Dale Nelson

Published by Hutchinson in 1936, “The Children of the Pool” is the title story in Machen’s late six-tale collection.  Vacationing in Wales, the story’s narrator (hereafter “Machen”) unexpectedly finds himself the guest of an old friend, James Roberts, who is staying in a cottage somewhere “on the Welsh border.” 

Their first conversation is a cheerful one. However, when they meet again, “Machen” finds Roberts looking wretched and dismayed.  Roberts soon explains that he’d visited the “ugly” pool, and later had taken a walk in the woods, when he heard a nasty, accusing, though feminine voice call to him. 

It spoke to him of wickedness he’d committed many years before.  Roberts remembered his iniquitous conduct as something “‘done with very soon after it was begun.  It was no more than a bad dream.’”  But now “‘it all flashed back on me like deadly lightning,’” with plenty of circumstantial detail.  Moreover, that same night, after he went to bed, Roberts again heard the voice, which promised that Roberts would be compelled to confess his vile behavior to all his friends.  He heard the voice yet again the following night.  However, when “Machen” stays at the cottage with him, Roberts sleeps peacefully.  “Machen” convinces Roberts to continue his holiday in a resort at the other end of England, and Roberts is no longer troubled.

The narrator, in the story's penultimate paragraph, finds the key in something said by the psychologist Koffka (a real person, 1886-1941), as expressed by a reviewer of his Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).  Kurt Koffka, the reviewer observed, insisted "that the 'sadness' which we attribute to a particular landscape is really and efficiently in the landscape and not merely in ourselves; and consequently that the landscape can affect us and produce results in us.” 

“Machen” adds that “Poe, who knew many secrets, knew this.”  One recalls Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher."  In its long first paragraph, we read: "beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of...affecting us" -- although it's beyond us to analyze this power.

So it isn't that people project onto things some notions that they bring to the act of perception, but that the objects may project into us some influence that, combining with our memories and imaginations, produces emotional and imaginative effects.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Morgan, knows that other people have had some sort of bad experiences associated with the pool.  This underscores the reality of its malign influence.

“Machen” comes to believe that his old friend received from the unpleasant-looking pool and its immediate surroundings an "effect" that worked upon his memory of an entanglement that occurred many years ago, when Roberts was a naïve young man living in London for the first time.  He learns that Roberts was staying with a family named Watts, which included two sisters -- Justine, who was his own age (and evidently attracted to Roberts), and Helen, who was a few years older. 

Roberts was detected, by the younger sister, behaving with Helen in a way that got him into trouble with Helen's father when Justine told him about it.  I suppose Roberts was kissing and cuddling with Helen, or perhaps had proceeded to more intimate relations, and that he had been led on to this by Helen herself ("there were extenuating circumstances in his offence, and excuses for his wrongdoing").**   Whatever happened, Mr. Watts was enraged at first and expelled Roberts, but did not end up telling Roberts’s employer about it, apparently because his daughter was much at fault.

What Roberts suffered at the time was intense embarrassment, likely enough a sense that he had known better than to get involved with the older sister all along, and perhaps guilt, if he actually had had sexual relations with her – and expulsion from his lodgings. 

Many years later, then, after Roberts saw the unpleasant pool, its configuration of objects, of light and shadow, etc., evoked in him false memories -- i.e., real memories entangled with imagination – so that he felt a terrible sense of guilt over wicked acts that had, in fact, never occurred, but seemed to Roberts really to have happened – even “a sin before which the sun hid his face.”

The voice that seemed to speak to him was, presumably, that of Justine.  We are told that she had a voice like a peacock’s, and Roberts says that the accusing voice he heard was “‘shrill, piercing,’” a “‘scream,’” and certainly that of a girl.

The story’s narrator associates this bizarre experience with de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  In that book, a favorite of Machen's, there are reflections on dreams, distorted memories, etc.  For example, under the influence of the drug, the "Eater" has dreadful impressions of crowding faces, which were derived from the daily encounter with London's multitudes, but made dreadful by the agency of the drug. 

The pool acts on Roberts somewhat as opium acted upon the Eater.  Consider the Eater's suffering abysmal guilt: "I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at” (my italics).  In both cases, we have someone's guilty hallucinations.

“Machen” thinks of an unnamed author who described how Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came to be written, the poet “unconsciously” drawing on his “vast reading.”  This author is assuredly John Livingston Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu (1927).  Since Poe, de Quincey, Coleridge, Lowes, and Koffka worked together, with other elements, in Machen’s imagination, “The Children of the Pool” is akin to “The Rime” in Lowes’s account, as a literary work whose author is indebted to earlier writings, but who has made something new.
Unlike Coleridge, “Machen” says (or like the fantasist Machen himself), Roberts lacked poetic imagination and hadn’t made a poem or a story of his experience.  Instead, it had gone on living in his mind, getting uglier and uglier till it was brought suddenly into startling consciousness.  Like the “‘rank-looking [plant by the pool], covered with dull crimson blossoms, all bloated out and speckled like a toad,’” it grew and swelled “in the darkness” of his mind till it burst into light.

By the way, while I don't agree with all that Julia Shaw says in her recent book The Memory Illusion (indeed, I've read only parts of it), there are things in it pertinent for Machen's story of memory here.***  Julia Shaw argues that “there are hundreds of books, TV shows and movies that portray hypnosis as a key that can allow access to hidden memories.  Unfortunately, this is completely untrue” (The Memory Illusion, p. 128).  She finds that “if used during therapy, suggestive and probing questions combined with hypnosis have the potential to generate complex and vivid false memories of trauma” (p. 129).  As Machen's story suggests, "recovered memories" are likely to be false. 

Machen's story, I suppose, is not a story of the "supernatural" but of the preternatural -- and it can be, for us, a cautionary tale about the use of "memories" in legal contexts.  Machen's narrator acts basically as an attorney who gathers evidence to defend his client from the prosecution – only, in the story, it was Roberts's "memory," his response to the pool, and his conscience that together had become the prosecution!


*It seems that the name "Helen"  was still one that Machen's imagination associated with an attractive, dangerous woman -- cf. "The Great God Pan," written many years earlier.

**See the similar predicament of Johnny Eames, in Victorian author Anthony Trollope's popular novel The Small House at Allington.  Country-bred Eames gets entangled with Amelia Roper, who lives in the same London lodgings and leads him to compromise himself.

***Shaw is worth reading indeed given our culture's fascination over the past several decades with so-called "recovered memories."  If one remembers the "satanic ritual abuse" panic, or the fat book of "recovered memories" of UFO experiences by John Mack called Abduction, etc. – to say nothing of some more recent high-profile news stories -- one will find parts of her book intriguing. 

© Dale Nelson, 2019.  This article is based on a comment posted to the Eldritch Dark Forums on 12 August 2019.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Man in the Battered Silk Hat – A Prophet in Bronte Country

The mid-20th century novels of Howard Spring are I suppose not much read now, but they were once very popular. Perhaps his greatest success, Fame is the Spur (1940), will still be recognised, but few of his score or so other titles may jog memories. The present neglect seems to under-value his work, which has sound story-telling qualities and picturesque characters, and draws on his own varied experiences. He was born in unpromising circumstances, had little schooling, and made his way in writing the hard way through provincial journalism, book reviewing and slowly crafting his own fiction.

In the third volume of his memoirs, And Another Thing (1946), Spring recalls his days as a journalist in Bradford, Yorkshire, in his early twenties. One day, when he was in the neighbouring Pennine town of Keighley, he relates, he came upon ‘a knot of people surrounding a speaker in an open place. He was a cadaverous person, wearing a battered silk hat, calling himself Dr Nikola, and he made a habit of going from town to town belittling the Bible by reciting a garbled version of its folk-lore . . .’ (p.185). What the Pennine prophet preached was not just atheism but also republicanism and other firebrand beliefs, and after a while the authorities became so perturbed by the crowds he was gathering that they decided he must be made to desist. But on what charge could they arrest him?

Dowager duchesses who refused to pay National Insurance stamps for their servants, as required by new Liberal welfare legislation, did not face charges, Spring notes, yet a way was soon found to silence this eccentric character: “he was arrested soon after under the Blasphemy Acts and sent to prison”. Spring, himself a man of pious faith, adds that he pities “this trivial half-wit.” But if he was just that, simply deluded, why was it deemed so important to put a stop to his activities?

Now this episode struck me as somewhat singular. Dr Nikola was the hypnotic occult mastermind created by Guy Boothby in several late-Victorian thrillers, a sort of forerunner of Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu. The adventures started in A Bid for Fortune (1895), which is sometimes entitled Enter, Dr Nikola!, and continued just a year later in the next book in the series, Dr Nikola (1896), also known as Dr Nikola Returns. There were three further books in the series, all separate adventures: The Lust of Hate (1898), Dr Nikola’s Experiment (1899) and “Farewell, Nikola” (1901). His adventures were enormously popular, though by the time of the itinerant speaker that Spring recalls, circa 1911-12, they may have faded from view a little. What made Spring’s visionary choose this name?

Well, there are frequent hints throughout the books that Dr Nikola has subtle occult powers. He is a mesmerist, certainly, and can cause his victims to see visions. He pitches his heightened mind into unknown realms and undertakes astral journeys that allow him to see scenes distant in space and time. He has a strong sense of his own destiny, which forces him on in his remorseless quest for hidden knowledge. None of these powers are used to excess, however, for they evidently require great concentration and will.

There may be more to the visionary vagrant's chosen name than was obvious to his chronicler. Keighley is a valley town, but there rises from it on almost all sides the bare hills that are known to literary fame as ‘Wuthering Heights’: the Bronte village of Haworth is four miles away over these moors. Despite some fine Arts & Crafts public buildings, it is not a town that presently seems suggestive of the mystic. But this was not always so. As Kai Roberts recounts in an excellent essay on ‘The Victorian Occult Revival in West Yorkshire’, the West Riding settlement was once a thriving centre of esoteric thought.

Indeed, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was specifically founded in London in antipathy to rumours of a similar order in Keighley which was regarded with disfavour by the metropolitan mages. Further, the great Austrian occult writer Gustav Meyrink, author of The Golem, corresponded with an ancient sage who lived near Keighley, and his Vienna circle the Order of the Blue Star drew upon this savant’s teachings. The Yorkshire town was also among the first where Spiritualism took hold in Britain, and later Anthroposophy. So the itinerant Dr Nikola that Howard Spring encountered, as a young Edwardian journalist, must be seen in a much wider and unusual context.

But thereafter this ‘Dr Nikola’ seems to have vanished and I have found no other record of him, or what became of him after prison. And though he may not have fully grasped what The Man in the Battered Silk Hat was about, and nor can we quite grasp it all now either, we must be grateful at least that Howard Spring preserved some memory of him.


Saturday, August 3, 2019

Margaret Enid Griffiths - Early Vaticination in Welsh

I was pleased to pick this up the other day, a study of medieval Welsh prophecies.  It was a favourite book when I was studying years ago and draws from a huge amount of manuscript material from Peniarth Manuscripts and Llanstephan Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales.  There is also a lot on Welsh folklore and, as you would expect, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the four ancient books of Wales, which are replete with prophetic material.  My interest was the later medieval period, particularly prophecies relating to the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, which Shakespeare had Hotspur joke about in Henry IV Part 1:

I cannot choose: sometime he angers me
With telling me of the mouldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies,
And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clip-wing'd griffin and a moulten raven,
A couching lion and a ramping cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
As puts me from my faith.

This gets the flavour of Welsh prophecy quite right and must have been amusing to Shakespeare's audience.

The author of Early Vaticination in Welsh is Margaret Enid Griffiths about whom I knew nothing except the note in foreword that the book was based on her MA thesis and that she had died tragically aged 26.
Searching through digitised newspapers uncovers a few more facts about her life.  She was a gifted student at Aberystwyth (not surprising, then, the use of all that manuscript material at the National Library of Wales), who gained a double first and a MA.  A short notice in the Western Mail & South Wales News of 4 July 1930 provides more information:

"Miss M. Enid Griffiths, who died suddenly at the early age of 26 years at the residence of her parents, Mr John Griffiths, M.E., and Mrs Griffiths, Tremle, Treorchy, was a distinguished student at Aberystwyth University College, where she a achieved a "Double First" and later took her M.A. degree with distinction. A host of old college friends deplore her death.  For the last four years she was the English mistress at Porth County School and was exceedingly popular both with the staff and pupils.  Her dramatic ability was outstanding, and the Welsh drama movement has lost by her death one of its most promising devotees.

A representative gathering assembled for the funeral on Thursday, the burial being in Treorchy Cemetery.  The funeral was among the largest every seen in the district, and sympathisers lined the streets to pay a tribute of esteem."

One wonders what might have been.  

The book was edited by her thesis supervisor T. Gwynn Jones and published by the University of Wales Press in 1937.  It remains a landmark volume and is still cited today.

The book itself is a nice association copy as it is Gwynn Jones' own copy.

Thursday, August 1, 2019


First published in 1924, Dulcie Deamer's witchcraft novel, The Devil's Saint, has recently been reprinted by Ramble House with my 2014 Wormwood article about the author as the introduction.  Deamer was a writer, occultist and all-round Bohemian, a fixture in the Kings Cross literary scene in the 1920s, 30s and beyond.  Certainly her occult interests are highlighted in this book, which includes all sorts of magical lore from her wide reading on the subject.  It's also a racy love story that ends on an up-beat note.  A portion of it was reprinted as a short story in an Australian literary magazine illustrated by Norman Lindsay, and previously posted on Wormwoodiana.