January 30, 2009
The quiet valley may have as it’s source:
“The annals of a quiet valley”
A COUNTRY PARSON
Edited by JOHN WATSON, F.L.S. published 1894
Roper openly announces that they are in the “house of the dead”. Dante’s “deep place”, “basso loco” , where “‘l sol tace“, the sun is silent. In fact Dante’s “Commedia” allows us a glimpse of the first circle of hell in his “Inferno“, this circle containing similar characteristics to the Elysian Fields where the guiltless damned are punished – there fault being lack of faith and an inability to hope for better or greater good other than that which surrounds them (in a word: lack of imagination or vision).
Aickman could well be pointing a finger at us all and saying: “You’re in a purgatory of your own making!
Our two M’s, our heroines, are certainly guilty of this sin – in fact they’re civil servants, bureaucrats, unimaginative and non-creative individuals, simple numbers, thus they are Aickman’s hated, faceless, nonentities who help feed the miseries of modern life. As such they are not worthy of his, or our sympathy.
According to Dante these souls contained within the first circle are neither within hell nor without it. They’re in limbo. So when Margaret asks what they’re to do, Mimi answers, “Catch the first departure for hell, I should say.” Suggesting there’s only one way out of Limbo – not toward the light of paradise, but instead toward the inner circles of hell.
“without hope we live in desire” (Dante)
January 30, 2009
Hell! I’ve done it again! It was Lewis Carroll’s birthday on the 27th January and I forgot to mention him (or get him a present!). So a belated but happy 177th birthday, Mr. Dodgson with many happy returns. I shall down a bottle of Orpale Grand Cru Champagne 1998 in honour of the occasion (obviously following the government’s Drink Awareness Guidelines in the process, needless to say!).
Thoughts of Lewis Carroll bring to mind Edgar A Poe and his child bride – it’s his bicentennial year after all (another forgotten birthday). Obviously Poe was much in the mind of Nabokov when he wrote “Lolita”:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Lo-lee-ta with the middle syllable alluding to “Annabel Lee” by our Edgar Poe – in fact one finds references to Poe on a good fifteen or sixteen occasions in the novel’s opening.
“She was a child and I was a child,
In this kingdom of the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee –
(Annabel Lee by E A Poe)
Paul Bowles described “Lolita” as one of the best travel books he’d ever read on America.
Anyway happy birthday to Poe and Dodgson both, better late than never…or nevermore!
January 28, 2009
Wasn’t it Arthur Miller who once declared (with suitably “paralyzing pomp”) “We have had more than one extraordinary dramatist who was a cripple as a writer, and this is lamentable but not ruinous.”
Might this have been autobiographical do you suppose?
Ah, perhaps, he’d glimpsed the future, our present – and beyond? We live, after all, in the audio-visual age. The written word has been displaced by the image. The electronic impulse rules. This radical change leaves us unable to respond as the vast temples of literature are gradually abandoned, and we sit listening to the pitter patter of gently falling acid rain on the world around us.
I think of Malcolm Lowery (God alone knows why?) and his rapid descent into alcoholism. He was very young when he embarked on the Pyrrhus to see the world and there swallowed large amounts of gin to wash down his disappointment at what he’d seen. Still he played the ukulele, a much underrated instrument, and played it well, drunk or sober, so they say.
Apart from the continuous drinking, the psychiatric hospitals, the brief spells in prison, and frequent suicide attempts, some perhaps more genuine than others, he still found time to write, rewrite, and write again, “Under the Volcano”, a most impressive achievement for any writer let alone one with Lowery’s phobias and dipsomania.
Interestingly Carson McCullers liked to drink as did her husband Reeves. She tended to populate her fiction with grotesques, cripples, in fact Lowery could well have been a character out of one of her books when you think about it.
In 1941 Carson divorced Reeves after he’d forged her signature on some cheques; they’d both had affairs with same sex partners during the marriage.
Also in 41 she had her first stroke, in the February I believe. During this same period she lived in a menage a tois with Reeves and David Diamond – they all loved each other with a typically southern passion, all very Tennessee Williams. But in 45 she remarried Reeves.
In 47 she had two more strokes and in 1948 attempted suicide. The drinking became heavier, Reeves became abusive, carefully planning their double suicide – ultimately in Paris (in truly gothic southern style). Carson escaped back to the US. Reeves didn’t.
Walter Allen, the writer and critic, had nothing but good things to say about Carson. He called her one of the “most remarkable novelists the south has produced”. V S Pritchett, her British editor, called her “a genius…and the most remarkable novelist to come out of America for a generation.” She certainly won a lot of awards for her writing – not that that means very much in itself.
For my part “Reflection in a Golden Eye” is a fave, as they say: “Within its 183 pages a child is born (some of whose fingers are grown together), an Army captain suffers from bisexual impotence, a half-witted private rides nude in the woods, a stallion is tortured, a murder is done, a heartbroken wife cuts off her nipples with garden shears.” (Time. Feb. 17, 1941)
They don’t write ‘em like that anymore!
January 27, 2009
Aickman’s despair of his age (everything prior to the year of his birth in fact was golden, a golden past that mirrored the views of, amongst others, the Roman satirist, Juvenal) is resonant of Sartre’s. But where Sartre may declare: “Tu n’es rien d’autre que ta vie” (you are nothing else but your life), Aickman goes one step further, seeming to suggest the very fabric of “modern” life has become tainted: the situation is thus hopeless; “you are nothing else but your life, which is inherently flawed and beyond repair”. Hence you are damned.
I sense faint resonance (whether intended or not) between Aickman’s “The Trains” and Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit” (one might also suggest resonance of a kind with Algernon Blackwood’s “The Lost Valley”). The gothic elements in Sartre’s play are reflected in Aickman’s gothic pastiche. The two female characters in “No Exit”, Estelle, an infanticide, and Inez, a lesbian, are pale reflections of Aickman’s “heroines” in “The Trains” (or rather, vice versa). Sartre’s play contains four characters enclosing an abyss , Aickman’s story makes repeated use of groups of four, whether in groups of stones or people, but again enclosing vacuity. To Sartre hell is other people. To Aickman it is life itself.
However, Aickman’s use of four would also reflect his knowledge that the ancients believed there were four elements, four essential energy forces, fire, water, air and earth. The Sylph, for example, were spirits of the air in communion with the divine. These elements were seen as vital components of the human body – the maintenance of physical and psychological health depended on keeping a balance between them. A similar balance is required in the exterior world (Jungian psychology, of course, has continued this tradition by envisaging the psyche in terms of four aspects, thought, emotion, intuition and the senses).
Interestingly, while the ancients looked on rain as life-giving, a deluge could be caused by the wrath of the Gods purging the earth of corruption (in such circumstances the innocent would perish alongside the guilty). The valley, as symbol, was seen as protective, feminine, associated with fertility; however in Christian tradition it became linked with darkness and the unknown.
In his introduction to “The Fontana Book of Ghost Stories” in which “The Trains” appeared, Aickman wrote about his story: “sometimes you can’t tell whether or not it is a ghost story”.
He wrote “Strange Stories” rather than ghost stories.
But where’s the ghost, then? (you may ask)
Well, ummm, they’re all dead – so they’re all ghosts, right? (I might reply, hesitantly)
But surely “The Trains”, whatever else it may be, is an exploration of sexual identity? (you demand, tired of further prevarication)
Mmmm, well, yes – (I’m going to change the subject, of course) –
Aickman professed a love of railways and rail travel, thought it one of the more “civilized” forms of transportation. The power of those big steam locomotives was impressive. And being steam they were a product of a time prior to the terrible upheavals of 1914 – 18. But the abrupt appearance of new trains, of closed in trains, what does that signify?
In “The River runs Uphill” Aickman wrote:
“I believe that the key to the modern world lies in Samuel Butler’s suggestion that the machine is an evolutionary development, and that it is in the process of reducing man from homo sapiens to homo mechanicus; virtually to greenfly status. That machines have their own purposes and intelligences though entirely different from the purposes and intelligences of men, that they are rapidly taking over from men, seems to me plain.”
Could these new trains stand as a symbol of “modern” technology? Could they be the “closed” hospital trains returning from the front with the worst of the wounded? The windows of the carriages blacked out to hide the appalling mutilations of the poor wretches within. Could these “modern” trains be an “evolutionary development” reducing humankind to the status of greenfly? Could ghosts walk the corridor, coach to coach?
A tenuous argument, at best – but where’s that darn ghost, then? (you ask, patience finally, understandably, exhausted)
Ultimately, of course, there can be no answer to that question. If Aickman had thought an answer was required, he would have provided one – but that’s not what he was about, was it?
(I could at this point throw in a couple of paragraphs about the pseudo-couple: the early hiatus; these separate yet utterly dependant individuals; two sides of a single coin, but lacking psychic unity yet simultaneously fulfilling a socially symbolic role – but I won’t on this occasion)
Aickman claimed mankind “took a wrong turning” when it suggested “by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known…Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable”. So if his work ‘matters’ it must follow by definition that it is indefinable. Aickman believed in a world beyond, a “world elsewhere”, a place, perhaps, not too dissimilar to the location of Plato’s “forms”?
So no definitive explanation – and no ghost (or as many as you chose? It’s up to you!).
January 26, 2009
Firstly a happy (and prosperous) 2009 to all (belated I know), especially to Quentin S Crisp whose blog at:
provides entertainment and intelligent commentary on the world of letters, politics, and just about anything else that Quentin has a bee in his bonnet about. Visit it now. Give him a high five.
Quentin has a new book on the way later this year: “All God’s Angel’s, Beware!” published by Ex Occidente Press. Keep a look out for it. It’s also good to relate that Quentin’s new novella, Shrike should be available any day from PS Publishing.
In this “startling novella Quentin blends delicacy with darkness and pathos with terror”. See the PS website for further details of this and their other publications:
The cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Bristol are joining together in a collaborative reading campaign starting next month. The Lost World Read 2009 will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Thousands of free copies of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World will be distributed through libraries and schools together with a ‘quick read’ edition and a paperback comic biography on the Life of Charles Darwin. The three cities will be joined by the county of Hampshire, and the 15 Library authorities of South West England. Cover design of the free edition of the book is by Aardman Animations, featuring their most famous creations, Wallace and Gromit.
I’m none too certain of the link between Darwin and Doyle, however?
The Lost World is a classic adventure story in which a group of explorers set out on an expedition to South America to prove that deep in the jungle there is a forgotten world where dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals still survive. So perhaps it’s a refutation of Darwin’s “Origins”? Still if it gets kids reading, it’s for the good.
And while I think of it, on the subject of Doyle, the BBC have started filming Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock Holmes script. It’s a one off, but if well received (according to my sources) a series will follow. Holmes and Watson are played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, while Rupert Graves fills the role of Lestrade. It’s all being filmed in Wales (just like Dr Who) so don’t be surprised if you catch sight of the Tardis in some of those background shots or the odd Dalek rolling by (only kidding).
I’m currently reading Nowhere near Milkwood. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Taller Stories set in an “odd pub with a stranger set of patrons”. Indeed, yes, they’re certainly that. “Although the Tall Story on Raconteur Road is a pub that doesn’t exist, takings are always high”. Here we find Hywel the landlord who “accepts payment mostly in tales”. A humorous classic and work of genius, I can only agree with Jeff VanderMeer when he said in “some alternative universe with a better sense of justice, his work( Rhys Hughes’) triumphantly parades across all bestseller lists”. Rhys deserves far greater recognition for his achievements, so everyone should rush out and purchase his latest offering: “Engelbrecht Again!” Published by Dead Letter Press, http://departmentofdeadletters.blogspot.com/ . It has an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer and artwork by Keith Minnion.
Obviously Maurice Richardson created Engelbrecht in the 1940’s and this surreal, boxing dwarf was the most renown member of the Sportsman’s Club. Rhys has written Engelbrecht’s further adventures which sees him in space, in hell, surfing the solar wind, and so much more. Inventive, ingenious, hilarious – yes, all that and more. This book is a must have, so order a copy today. Better still, order two copies and give one to a friend as a New Year’s gift. Rhys has his own blog at:
This month: 7th January 1886 Richard Dadd died 7th January 1886. Some while ago they bunged-up a blue plaque on his old Suffolk Street, St. James’s address in London. So fame indeed. Dadd, of course, painted all those fairy paintings – you know the ones? (actually he painted an awful lot more than that, but it seems that’s what he’s best remembered for). The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is very well known.
Dadd was considered one of the most promising artists of his generation, universally loved “for his gentleness, intelligence and cheerful good nature”. Unfortunately he became delusional and murdered his father with a razor. Consequently he spent the rest of his life in the mad-house, firstly in ‘Bedlam’ subsequently in ‘Broadmoor’. No one is sure exactly what Dadd was suffering from: paranoia is one claim, Schizophrenia another, while bipolar disorder limps home as a weak third. At the time it was thought he might be suffering from sunstroke (he’d just returned from a visit to Egypt), but it could just have easily been his boring diet of boiled eggs and ale (three times daily). Angela Carter wrote Come unto these Yellow Sands: four radio plays about Dadd, while The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke provided inspiration to Freddie Mercury and Queen for the rock song of that name.
Just while I think of it, have any of you read Selma Lagerlof’s novel “The Lowenskold Ring?” Selma won the Nobel Prize for literature back in 1909, but this novel from 1925 is a “disturbing saga of jealousy and revenge from beyond the grave”. Worth reading. My edition’s translated by Linda Schenck and published by Norvik Press. Their website: http://www.norvikpress.com/ I’ll try and give a fuller review of this work later.