Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Devil's Cauldron

Which Edwardian work was described by the Sunday Times as “a veritable tour de force, a devil’s cauldron of the imagination, a piece of writing which threatens to out-Poe Poe”?

It was not a book by Arthur Machen, M P Shiel or William Hope Hodgson, the most obvious heirs to Poe at the time. Nor was it one of the wilder fantasies of the period, such as Guy Thorne’s When It Was Dark or R H Benson’s Lord of the World.

In Wormwood 25, author and antiquarian bookseller Robert Eldridge reveals the book was considered alternatively as a clinical account of an episode of madness, an account of astral travel, or a weird novel of the occult:

“Most people yearn at times to be caught up in a grand passion. Whether its framework is a love affair, a political or religious cause, the creation of a family or a work of art, its force is something that will take us out of ourselves and make us feel part of something bigger. Whatever it is, that something has common traits: a compelling narrative, vivid atmosphere and characters, a sense of importance -- and a heroic role for ourselves. These are the qualities that make life seem romantic at times. For five weeks [the author] lived like a character in such a book -- a terribly exciting book whose author happened to be a maniac. When she emerged from that madhouse her literary skill enabled her to turn the nightmare inside out and change a twisted accident into a cornucopia of artistic thrills.”

But, he argues, the book also has a wider significance. It should really be seen as a product of Romanticism, in the tradition of Coleridge and De Quincey:

“ it does seem that one can hear in the book the echoes of a larger agony -- an ocean in a seashell perhaps, but a convincing one nonetheless. In the author’s voice we can hear one of the central themes of Romanticism, namely the dangerous power of the human mind when it is disconnected from any restraining forces. It takes this theme to one of its logical extremes: the elimination of all competing realities other than one’s own perception.

You can read the full story of the book and its author, and its literary context, for the first time, in Wormwood 25. To enquire about Robert Eldridge's excellent catalogues of antiquarian books in the field of the fantastic, write to: rfx51[at]charter[dot]net.

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