Monday 28 January 2019

The Green Round

The Green Round by Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen
Tartarus Press

Why is studious, bookish, quiet Lawrence Hillyer suddenly reviled and shunned by his fellow holiday-makers at a genteel Pembrokeshire coastal resort? Why is staunch and respectable Mrs Jolly, a landlady of many years seniority, all at once the source of police interest and knowing looks from her neighbours? What weird projectile smashed suburban Mr Horncastle's domed glasshouse from such an improbable distance? What is the inner secret of the Reverend Thomas Hampole's modest little book recounting his rambles in lesser-known London? What draws an eminent nerve specialist to study all this with such deep interest?
Arthur Machen includes within the pages of The Green Round all of the many interests and preoccupations of his writing career. His hero, Hillyer, takes a holiday in West Wales and visits the “Green Round”, a mysterious natural hollow. He soon finds that he has acquired an unwanted shadow, and the novel becomes a study in disclocated parallel realities. With a perceptive new introduction by Machen's most recent biographer, Mark Valentine.

In his introduction to this edition of one of Machen's later works - and one written specifically for hire - Mark Valentine points out that to many people - Machen included - this is one of the authors least loved and most poorly regarded works.  Ever the contrarian, I loved it.

'The 'green round' is a small clearing amidst the dunes outside a small West Wales coastal town.  In this dell - we assume - a malicious entity attaches itself to a quiet, bookish young man vacationing there for his health.  A few people are aware of this entity - mostly other guests at the resort and at least one other - before he himself becomes aware of it.

The narrative is vague and it is never clear as to exactly what is happening.  Is there really a mischievous and malicious creature from one of those sidereal worlds of Machen's imagination plaguing the hapless Lawrence Hillyer and those around him or are the events merely happenstance, coincidents or fictions.  Machen takes this ambiguity and uses it as a platform for ruminations on the nature of the supernatural and the normal and the potential costs and crises that an intersection of the two would entail.

The book is littered with blind alleys and nothing is concluded in any traditional sense and for me that was a delightful and unexpected surprise, although, to my reading that ambiguity of events is also present in Machen's most celebrated work 'The Hill of Dreams'.

At the close we are left none the wiser to any of the events  - hallucinations, mischief, delusion, intrusion, fiction or fact - and that made for a very interesting place to stop.

This edition is still avaliable as an eBook directly from the publisher at the link above.


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Wednesday 23 January 2019

Legends from the End of Time

legends from the end of time
Michael Moorcock

A few months ago I revisited a book I had first read in my teens that I'd enjoyed but not fully 'got'.  'The Dancers at the End of Time' was Moorcock's tribute to the decadents of the closing years of the 19th century such as Wilde, Beardsley and George Meredith.  It told the story of the inhabitants who lived lives of blissful, artistic anarchy in a world reshaped to their every whim at the very end of everything.

Whereas I'd enjoyed the novelty of it as a young man I adored the very heart of it as an older one.  It's a beautiful book and I didn't want it to end.  So, imagine my joy when a few months later I discovered that in some ways it hadn't.  Here, in this companion volume we have several extra little stories involving many of the supporting characters and vistas of the main story arc.  We have stories of time travellers and champions, of visitors and residents, of restraint and abundance, of foolishness, of grace and of beauty.

It's too disjointed to be entirely engrossing and the individual stories exist sideways to what we know which robs them of some of their power but Moorcock is a writer who makes words dance and from whom ideas pour and who can, I think, be summed up - at least a little - in this speech by Lord Jagged of Canaria...

'Explore all attitudes my dear.  Honour them, every one, but be slippery - never let them hold you, else you fail to enjoy the benefits and be saddled only with the liabilities.  It's true that canvas against the skin can be as sensual as silk, and milk a sweeter drink than wine, but feel everything, taste everything, for it's own sake, and for your own sake, then no one thing shall be judged better or worse than another , no person shall be so judged and nothing can ensnare you.'


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Sunday 20 January 2019

The Children of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe
Lucy Boston wrote six Green Knowe novels between 1954 and 1976.  They tell the stories of the titular manor house of the people both living and dead who reside there.

Young Tolly (Alec Christie) stranded alone for Christmas at his boarding school, with his father and stepmother in Burma, he receives an unexpected summons to spend the holidays with the great grandmother he didn't know about.  Once ensconced at the house he begins to discover that history is alive in the big old building and that there are others roaming it's hallways and gardens.

The Children of Green Knowe
Made in 1986 it's a lovely and gentle sort of show. It is, perhaps, a bit of an anachronistic throwback (and one of several made at the time - The Box of Delights, Moondial) but I think all the better for it as it has obviously been made with love and respect for the source material.  It's a story of childhood, of Christmas, of family, of heritage and of stories in front of the fire and it is quite lovely.

You can read more about the genesis of the series in this excellent article at the We Are Cult site.

Buy the series here - The Children of Green Knowe: Complete Series [DVD] - or watch it below


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Friday 18 January 2019

Short Story - 'The Ghosts of Craig-Aulnaic' (Scottish folktale)

Two celebrated ghosts existed, once on a time, in the wilds of Craig-Aulnaic, a romantic place in the district of Strathdown, Banffshire.  The one was a male and the other a female.  The male was called Fhuna Mhoir Ben Baynac, after one of the mountains of Glenavon, where at one time he resided; and the female was called Clashnichd Aulnaic, from her having had her abode in Craig-Aulnaic.  But although the great ghost of Ben Baynac was bound by the common ties of nature and of honour to protect and cherish his weaker companion, Clashnichd Aulnaic, yet he often treated her in the most cruel and unfeeling manner.  In the dead of night, when the surrounding hamlets were buried in deep repose, and when nothing else disturbed the solemn stillness of the midnight scene, oft would the shrill shrieks of poor Clashnichd burst upon the slumberer’s ears, and awake him to anything but pleasant reflections.

But of all those who were incommoded by the noisy and unseemly quarrels of these two ghosts, James Owre or Gray, the tenant of the farm of Balbig of Delnabo, was the greatest sufferer.  From the proximity of his abode to their haunts, it was the misfortune of himself and family to be the nightly audience of Clashnichd’s cries and lamentations, which they considered anything but agreeable entertainment.

One day as James Gray was on his rounds looking after his sheep, he happened to fall in with Clashnichd, the ghost of Aulnaic, with whom he entered into a long conversation.  In the course of it he took occasion to remonstrate with her on the very disagreeable disturbance she caused himself and family by her wild and unearthly cries—cries which, he said, few mortals could relish in the dreary hours of midnight.  Poor Clashnichd, by way of apology for her conduct, gave James Gray a sad account of her usage, detailing at full length the series of cruelties committed upon her by Ben Baynac.  From this account, it appeared that her living with the latter was by no means a matter of choice with Clashnichd; on the contrary, it seemed that she had, for a long time, lived apart with much comfort, residing in a snug dwelling, as already mentioned, in the wilds of Craig-Aulnaic; but Ben Baynac having unfortunately taken into his head to pay her a visit, took a fancy, not to herself, but her dwelling, of which, in his own name and authority, he took immediate possession, and soon after he expelled poor Clashnichd, with many stripes, from her natural inheritance.  Not satisfied with invading and depriving her of her just rights, he was in the habit of following her into her private haunts, not with the view of offering her any endearments, but for the purpose of inflicting on her person every torment which his brain could invent.

Such a moving relation could not fail to affect the generous heart of James Gray, who determined from that moment to risk life and limb in order to vindicate the rights and avenge the wrongs of poor Clashnichd, the ghost of Craig-Aulnaic.  He, therefore, took good care to interrogate his new protégée touching the nature of her oppressor’s constitution, whether he was of that killable species of ghost that could be shot with a silver sixpence, or if there was any other weapon that could possibly accomplish his annihilation.  Clashnichd informed him that she had occasion to know that Ben Baynac was wholly invulnerable to all the weapons of man, with the exception of a large mole on his left breast, which was no doubt penetrable by silver or steel; but that, from the specimens she had of his personal prowess and strength, it were vain for mere man to attempt to combat him.  Confiding, however, in his expertness as an archer—for he was allowed to be the best marksman of the age—James Gray told Clashnichd he did not fear him with all his might,—that he was a man; and desired her, moreover, next time the ghost chose to repeat his incivilities to her, to apply to him, James Gray, for redress.

It was not long ere he had an opportunity of fulfilling his promises.  Ben Baynac having one night, in the want of better amusement, entertained himself by inflicting an inhuman castigation on Clashnichd, she lost no time in waiting on James Gray, with a full and particular account of it.  She found him smoking his cutty, for it was night when she came to him; but, notwithstanding the inconvenience of the hour, James needed no great persuasion to induce him to proceed directly along with Clashnichd to hold a communing with their friend, Ben Baynac, the great ghost.  Clashnichd was stout and sturdy, and understood the knack of travelling much better than our women do.  She expressed a wish that, for the sake of expedition, James Gray would suffer her to bear him along, a motion to which the latter agreed; and a few minutes brought them close to the scene of Ben Baynac’s residence.  As they approached his haunt, he came forth to meet them, with looks and gestures which did not at all indicate a cordial welcome.  It was a fine moonlight night, and they could easily observe his actions.  Poor Clashnichd was now sorely afraid of the great ghost.  Apprehending instant destruction from his fury, she exclaimed to James Gray that they would be both dead people, and that immediately, unless James Gray hit with an arrow the mole which covered Ben p. 36Baynac’s heart.  This was not so difficult a task as James had hitherto apprehended it.  The mole was as large as a common bonnet, and yet nowise disproportioned to the natural size of the ghost’s body, for he certainly was a great and a mighty ghost.  Ben Baynac cried out to James Gray that he would soon make eagle’s meat of him; and certain it is, such was his intention, had not the shepherd so effectually stopped him from the execution of it. Raising his bow to his eye when within a few yards of Ben Baynac, he took deliberate aim; the arrow flew—it hit—a yell from Ben Baynac announced the result.  A hideous howl re-echoed from the surrounding mountains, responsive to the groans of a thousand ghosts; and Ben Baynac, like the smoke of a shot, vanished into air.

Clashnichd, the ghost of Aulnaic, now found herself emancipated from the most abject state of slavery, and restored to freedom and liberty, through the invincible courage of James Gray.  Overpowered with gratitude, she fell at his feet, and vowed to devote the whole of her time and talents towards his service and prosperity.

Meanwhile, being anxious to have her remaining goods and furniture removed to her former dwelling, whence she had been so iniquitously expelled by Ben Baynac, the great ghost, she requested of her new master the use of his horses to remove them.  James observing on the adjacent hill a flock of deer, and wishing to have a trial of his new servant’s sagacity or expertness, told her those were his horses—she was welcome to the use of them; desiring that when she had done with them, she would inclose them in his stable.  Clashnichd then proceeded to make use of the horses, and James Gray returned home to enjoy his night’s rest.

Scarce had he reached his arm-chair, and reclined his cheek on his hand, to ruminate over the bold adventure of the night, when Clashnichd entered, with her “breath in her throat,” and venting the bitterest complaints at the unruliness of his horses, which had broken one-half of her furniture, and caused her more trouble in the stabling of them than their services were worth.

“Oh! they are stabled, then?” inquired James Gray.  Clashnichd replied in the affirmative.  “Very well,” rejoined James, “they shall be tame enough to-morrow.”

From this specimen of Clashnichd, the ghost of Craig-Aulnaic’s expertness, it will be seen what a valuable acquisition her service proved to James Gray and his young family.  They were, however, speedily deprived of her assistance by a most unfortunate accident.  From the sequel of the story, from which the foregoing is an extract, it appears that poor Clashnichd was deeply addicted to propensities which at that time rendered her kin so obnoxious to their human neighbours.  She was constantly in the habit of visiting her friends much oftener than she was invited, and, in the course of such visits, was never very scrupulous in making free with any eatables which fell within the circle of her observation.

One day, while engaged on a foraging expedition of this description, she happened to enter the Mill of Delnabo, which was inhabited in those days by the miller’s family.  She found his wife engaged in roasting a large gridiron of fine savoury fish, the agreeable smell proceeding from which perhaps occasioned her visit.  With the usual inquiries after the health of the miller and his family, Clashnichd proceeded with the greatest familiarity and good-humour to make herself comfortable at their expense.  But the miller’s wife, enraged at the loss of her fish, and not relishing such unwelcome familiarity, punished the unfortunate Clashnichd rather too severely for her freedom.  It happened that there was at the time a large caldron of boiling water suspended over the fire, and this caldron the enraged wife overturned in Clashnichd’s bosom!

Scalded beyond recovery, she fled up the wilds of Craig-Aulnaic, uttering the most melancholy lamentations, nor has she been ever heard of since.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

The Dance of Death

Algernon Blackwood
Pan Books

These six strange tales are all pervaded by the chilling mystery of the unknown and the inexplicable. In ‘The Dance of Death’ we have a fleeting glimpse into another world, tantalisingly only half explained. Each disturbing tale is stamped with the unmistakable hallmark of Blackwood’s style.

A year or so ago I read a couple of mammoth collections of Blackwood stories which got me to thinking  that I'd read the majority of his output - I'm a fool.   The very next book of his I picked up I discovered that half of the book was new to me.

Of the 6 stories that make up this nifty little Pan paperback the 3 that I knew were three that I like very much. 'A Psychical Invasion' is one of the John Silence tales and introduces the good Doctor with an investigation of a 'haunted' house that is transforming the personality and work of a young writer.  'The Touch of Pan' and 'The Valley of the Beasts' are both aspects of Blackwood's bucolic soul as the power of nature and the soullessness of modern life are placed in direct opposition.  The first using Western mythology and the second Native American.

So, for me at least, it's the other 3 stories that are of the most immediate interest.  'The Dance of Death' is an unusual tale for Blackwood set as it is at a dance where a young man is determined to enjoy himself despite a worrying diagnosis.  The appearance of a mysterious, beautiful, ethereal stranger reminds us though that with Blackwood other worlds are always interconnecting with ours.

'The Old Man of Visions' is a lovely little tale of a man finding and losing a connection - at one remove - with the infinite. It's deliciously subtle, perhaps more parable than story, and a real treat.  The third tale, 'The South Wind' is a very brief little ditty regarding the journey of a gust of wind and the promise it brings and is another delight.

Truthfully I bought this book to sell but finding three new tales prompted a read and I'm very glad as both old and new proved to be prime Blackwood.


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