Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 19: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Course is Finished

His mother called him "the Beast," and the name stuck.  He founded a religion and influenced L. Ron Hubbard to do the same.  He's on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  Ford Maddox Ford told Ernest Hemingway that he'd "cut" him.  He claimed that William Butler Yeats was jealous of him. He loved the works of Arthur Machen;  Arthur Machen did not feel the same about his.  He appears as a sinister child in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell.  W. Somerset Maugham modeled the villain in his horror novel The Magician after him.  His writing was used as evidence of a sort in a notorious American murder trial.  He was an "agent of influence," publishing in German magazines, but secretly on behalf of the English government, during World War I.  Ian Fleming recommended him for spy work during World War II.

Aleister Crowley had quite a life, in other words, and his post-death existence hasn't been too shabby either.  He is generally regarded now as something of a villain, but an amusing sort, and one that you can't take seriously as any kind of threat.  But his occult and hedonistic ways have linked him to "diabolism."  William Breeze's introduction to The Drug and Other Stories, one of two collections of rarely reprinted short fiction by Crowley put out by Wordsworth Editions, goes some way towards rehabilitating his reputation, morally-speaking, although I think the truth about the man I'd have to think falls somewhere between the two poles I've now been exposed to, which are respectively labeled "He's basically Satan" and "He was a great a perfect man."  But whether I choose to regard him as a good or vile person, I still would find it difficult to take him seriously as any kind of philosopher, yet I find him fascinating.  God knows he offers more to the imagination, even if you're only imagining him as a fictionalized villain, than Anton LaVey, who died at the age of 15, wait I mean 67.  As much as dumb kids gravitate towards the more inane aspects of his beliefs, Crowley at least seems to have been an adult in his real life.

None of this, of course, really concerns us today.  What does concern us is Crowley's fiction, of which there is a fair amount.  His two novels, Moonchild and The Diary of Drug Fiend, are his best-known works, but these two Wordsworth Editions collections -- and I don't believe these comprise his complete short fiction -- come to a combined 1,100 pages or so.  From what I've gathered, their variety is such that they're able to cover stories about divorce, horror stories, detective stories, stories about drugs, religion, and so on.  This made it more difficult than it might have been to choose an appropriate story for today, and in fact I only read one -- well, two, but I'm not sure what interesting things I can say about "Black and Silver."  The back of the book describes the story as a "knowing early noir," and so I read it out of curiosity.  And I suppose it is that, though I'd say it's horror in some of its imagery as much as it's noir, but the gist of the whole thing, it seems to me, is to say "Good luck trying to blackmail Aleister Crowley, guys."  I did think the beginning, which describes a man falling in love with a woman across a restaurant where a murder has just been committed in front of them, was kind of ingenious.  That's the most "knowing noir" thing about it.

The main story I read for today, "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," is a different matter.  Going to the back cover again, apparently a key source of my research, I'm told that Frank Harris called it "the most terrifying tale ever written."  Breeze's introduction identifies Harris as a novelist and editor of the London version of Vanity Fair, and I've subsequently learned that Harris had a Crowley-like life, in that he knew Oscar Wilde, was referenced in a song by Cole Porter, he's a character in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love, and so on.  So he's not just some mook, is what I'm saying.  Anyhow, "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" is about as relentlessly bleak a horror story as I've ever read.  Breeze calls Thelema, the religion Crowley founded, as "joyous," but I must imagine that Crowley was feeling a little bit in the dumps when he wrote this one.  And it's subject is not some social construct that Crowley hated, though in the story he does take his shots at Christianity.  His subject is death, and what the afterlife is, and means, and its endless, endless horror.

The story is told by a young telepathic woman named Magdalen, whose talents are noticed by Arthur Blair, one of her professors at Cambridge.  The first chunk of the story is about their relationship, which goes from professional, as they conduct experiments together to learn the limits, if there are any, and source of her abilities, to personal and intimate, as they fall in love and marry, though theirs is a distant sort of love -- Arthur proposes by telegram.  Eventually, the two of them seem to be growing apart, and Magdalen, who has always freely, and with permission (though perhaps she can't help it), read Arthur's mind, begins to pick up unnerving thoughts from her husband.  For instance, on a relaxing afternoon in a boat, she picks up a thought that evidently consists only of horrifying laughter.  Later she describes picking up some of Arthur's terrible dreams, or dream-like bits of his subconscious.  Once, when she knows for a fact he is giving a lecture, she picks up this:

I saw suddenly a picture of the lecture-room, enormously greater than in reality, so that it filled all space; and in the rostrum, bulging over it in all directions, was a vast, deadly pale devil with a face which was a blasphemy on Arthur's.  The evil joy of it was indescribable.  So wan and bloated, its lips so loose and bloodless, fold after fold of its belly flopping over the rostrum and pushing the students out of the hall, it leered unspeakably.  Then dribbled from its mouth these words:  'Ladies and gentlemen, the course is finished.  You may go home.' ...Then, raising its voice to a grating scream, it yelled: 'White of egg!  White of egg!  White of egg!' again and again for twenty minutes.

This quite striking passage opens the story up to what will eventually take it over, which is the death of Arthur.  It turns out he has Bright's disease, and before he dies it's decided that Magdalen will monitor his thoughts and this will reveal -- though curiously this is never stated as a motivation -- what happens when a person dies.  Needless to say, when a person dies, it's bad, and then it's worse.

Very quickly it occurred to me that "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" owes its existence to the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."  In my view, that's one of Poe's great masterpieces, and it's a somewhat less elaborate take on the same concept.  "M. Valdemar" is a terrifying story without being grotesque, while Crowley's story is filled with pustules and human waste and the tortures of Hell.  Which is not to say that Crowley's approach is invalid.  His Hell is Bosch's Hell, and Bosch's Hell is a hard one to shake.

One could complain that Crowley's problem here is that he didn't know when to move on, and in fact I will do that now.  A unique idea in this story is what Crowley means when he's talking about eternity.  Arthur's eternity in Hell is not literal, but rather comes from the cruel truth that pleasant things seem to speed time up while awful things make it stretch on forever.  You might argue that Arthur, who's dead anyway, should just grit it out, if that's all we're talking about, but Crowley makes it work chillingly well.  But he kind of won't shut up about it, even after he's made his concept clear, nor do the story's final pages cover much new ground, or even cover old ground in an interesting way.  Poe's story is about half as long, possibly less, than Crowley's, and this is because Poe doesn't waste time.  Crowley does need to convince the reader of his basic idea, because it's an important piece of information as it applies to Magdalen's plan to "save" humanity, but once we get it, we got it.  It's unnecessary to bog the reader down in stuff like:

There are always at least two of us!  The one who feels and the one who knows are not radically one person.  This double personality is enormously accentuated at death.

Well, let's hope not.

Still, though.  "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" is pretty harrowing stuff, and it's not like Crowley had no clear reason to hammer down his points.  The suffering of Arthur, and the terror of Magdalen, come through quite strongly, to the point that Magdalen's intention, stated early in the story, "to explode a dynamite cartridge in my mouth" seems like an entirely sound plan.  In this story, there is Hell, but there is only Hell.  The good don't go to Heaven, and they don't go into pure oblivion.  We all go to Hell.  This is a ghastly thing to contemplate, and it is, in fact, the engine that drives the horror genre.  Poe wrote several stories that defined what the genre is all about -- not just "M. Valdemar," but also, for example, "Premature Burial" -- but few other writers have looked at horror so squarely.  In "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," Crowley stares right at it.


Unknown said...

Oh, man. This story. I read it maybe 15 years ago, and while I wouldn't categorize it as anything like one of the best stories I've ever read, it's certainly among the most memorable. That "White of egg!" passage, in context with the rest of the story, haunts me to this day, to the point where if you'd used just that line as the title of the post, I would have known exactly what you were going to review. This story is the kind of thing that makes me remind myself to be careful what I wish for. I say I want horror to disturb and upset me and I get annoyed when it doesn't even come close. But when something like this comes along to make me feel vaguely nauseous and disconnected for days afterwards, I end up annoyed with myself instead and end up having to switch genres for awhile to reset. Regarding Crowley as an individual as well as a writer, I guess I'd have to sum him up by saying at least he had the courage of his convictions. However much I might want to hold him at arm's length, I've at least got to give him that.

Have you read any H. Russell Wakefield? I searched the blog for him but didn't find anything. He's well worth reading in general, but I mention him here because he has a story (not one of his best in my opinion, but still good) called "He Cometh and He Passeth By" with a character based on Crowley. It's pretty entertaining.

bill r. said...

I considered "White of Egg" as a title, but I kind of like the "message" of the one I chose. And yes, overall it's quite a story. You've read "M. Valdemar" though, yes?

I've never read Wakefield, but this is at least the second time he's been recommended to me. I'll have to check him out.