an alchemist, apparently…

October 18, 2016


‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.

‘Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that’s about all–except that I don’t want to meet him for the next week or two.

Now, if you’re ready to leave this place, I am.’

‘What have you been doing to make him angry?’ asked Mrs Secretary.

‘The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a paper he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward Dunning – almost the only man in England who knows about these things – and he said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has been pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the name of the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that.

But don’t you say anything about it, for goodness’ sake.’

‘I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope, though, he won’t get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.’

‘Poor Mr Dunning? I don’t know why you call him that; he’s a very happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time to himself.’

‘I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his name, and came and bothered him.’

Montague Rhodes James
Casting the Runes


The Occult Story

This is a difficult chapter to write and a difficult type of story to discuss. I think the simplest thing to say is that you either have leanings to write it or you haven’t. It’s a very hard thing to handle either in long or short form, because as soon as you start looking at the “fourth dimension”, “inner planes” or whatever you like to call them, you have got to have, first, at least some knowledge of the phraseology and of the possibilities and, secondly, the power to know when to stop giving out what you do not know.

Editors as a rule don’t like “ghost” stories, but there is the definite public which takes to what might be called “occult novels” and stories of this type in book form with avidity. And if you want to write this kind of thing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.

After a good deal of experience in writing it and reading it, I feel that there are two distinct classes of occult writing: the class of material written by those who don’t know very much, have a certain knowledge of what might be called the “jargon” and a vivid imagination: and there are the really first-class stories built up on years of research, reading and appreciation which carry conviction not by bludgeoning the reader with horror but by sheer mastery of technique.

Among the writers of the latter class, of course, some leap to the mind – Dr. Montague Rhodes James, E. F. Benson and Algernon Blackwood. They are masters of the craft of making the flesh creep without the piling up of common horrors.

Before attempting to write stories of this kind, I would advise you to read all three of these – their short stories can be found individually in volumes and some of them are included in all anthologies dealing with this subject.

For full-length books, try the novels of Dion Fortune – The Winged Bull, The Goatfoot God and The Sea Priestess and if you are lucky enough to get a hold of it, The Secrets of Doctor Taverner; try also The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerruish and, among the short stories, Margret Irwin’s Madame Fears the Dark, with its companions in the volume.

To-day there is so much interest in the mystic and so much, comparatively speaking, is spoken and written about the mysterious unseen dimensions and the possibilities of their occupation that the would-be writer had again got to know quite a bit about his subject if he is going to get away with it more than the least critical selection of the public.

If you write occult novels – and I have used the term to denote practically everything dealing with the Other World – you may not find them easy of acceptance, but the public is definitely growing.

Your trouble will probably be that you will find yourself lost in the morass of terms, with an idea of what you want to say and not much knowledge on how to cross from the first opening to the final closing. It is rather like trying to write in the language of a distinct science.

On the other hand, if you want to write more than the obvious ghost story – and clanking chains and headless ladies are now quite out of fashion – I think it may be taken for granted that you have read something of the subject and know a little bit about the ground on which you are treading.

The occult novels can be divided into those dealing with curses, witchcraft and so forth and those dealing with the Old Gods, such as Blackwood’s The Centaur and Julius Levallon.

I think perhaps the best advice I can give you on this type of work is not to write until you know something about it and can create a good story, and, secondly, to remember that the mere fact that you are dealing with the Unseen in some form or another gives you no right to turn out slovenly work on this plane. Your construction, your language and your plot must be as carefully worked out as for any other type of story: to lose your reader in a haze of muzzy mysticism is no good to either you or him.

So many stories of this kind fail to get anywhere because the author so obviously fails to get anywhere himself in his denouement. So frequently he gives the impression that the whole thing is beyond his own understanding and so he leaves the story in mid-air for the unfortunate reader. That is why I said earlier on in this chapter that the occult novel is a very hard type of thing to handle. It has a scientific aspect: it does or should conform to certain definite rules and regulations, and the author who does not abide by these and carry them out to their accepted conclusion is admitting to anyone with any pretence to knowledge of the subject that he does not really understand what he is talking about.

Probably in few forms of fiction is it easier to get half-way through a good story or good situation and find oneself utterly stuck for the final wind-up.

Don’t begin to write a story like this without being quite sure that you know how to finish it.

Christine Campbell Thomson
The Right Way to Write Successful Fiction


‘We – McLeod and I – slept in a dormitory at right angles to the main building. Sampson slept in the main building on the first floor. There was a very bright full moon. At an hour which I can’t tell exactly, but sometime between one and two, I was woken up by somebody shaking me. It was McLeod; and a nice state of mind he seemed to be in. “Come,” he said, “come! there’s a burglar getting in through Sampson’s window.” As soon as I could speak, I said, “Well, why not call out and wake everybody up?” “No, no,” he said, “I’m not sure who it is: don’t make a row: come and look.” Naturally I came and looked, and naturally there was no one there. I was cross enough, and should have called McLeod plenty of names: only – I couldn’t tell why – it seemed to me that there was something wrong – something that made me very glad I wasn’t alone to face it. We were still at the window looking out, and as soon as I could, I asked him what he had heard or seen. “I didn’t hear anything at all,” he said, “but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson’s window-sill, and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning.” “What sort of man?” McLeod wriggled. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I can tell you one thing – he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,” he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, “I’m not at all sure that he was alive.”

Montague Rhodes James