The Necromancer (Karl-Friedrich Kahlert)

41-wXQVve2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Onward with the Northanger 7. The cover credit for “Peter Teuthold” conceals not one but two pseudonymous individuals, those being its translator Peter Will and its original author, “Lawrence Flammenburg”, who was known to his parents as Karl-Friedrich Kahlert. To complicate things, “Teuthold” also wrote an entirely new concluding section for the book (the art of translation in 1794 was not quite what it is today, clearly) which Kahlert liked so much he appropriated it himself for a revised new edition a few years later… Anyway, The Necromancer is evidently the only one of the Northanger 7 to have had much of a life on its own after its original publication (the others being essentially forgotten for over a century afterwards); at the time there was a kind of vogue in England for German literature, which fed into the burgeoning Gothic publishing boom. Castle of Wolfenbach had kind of posed as a “German” story, but this was the real thing; in it, two old friends meet after decades away from each other and relate their adventures, which share the common element of the titular necromancer, Volkert; the rest of the book is taken up with a manuscript one gives the other that expands upon the mystery of this individual. The Necromancer apparently has a reputation for being difficult to follow, but I think that’s overstated; if the plot is undeniably loose and not always exactly linear, I never had any difficulty keeping track of where I was in it, and Kahlert is perhaps overly pedantic in making sure loose ends are tied up. Quite enjoyed this, even if it didn’t have the courage to actually go for the proper supernatural (I thought your Schauerroman was supposed to be less afraid of that sort of thing than Mrs Radcliffe and her followers)…

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Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (Arthur Machen)

TLSFHRRRND1997Now, I did say way back when I started this bloody thing that I’d be looking at some of the titles on Jones & Newman’s Horror: The 100 Best Books list (and its sequel), so, I thought, maybe I should actually DO that at last. So here’s Arthur Machen, one of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Big Four” (Messrs Dunsany, Blackwood & James being the other three, of course), with what I gather is kind of the standard “best of”; first published posthumously in 1948, a year after Machen’s death, here’s Tartarus Press still reissuing it as is half a century later. (Even Joshi’s more recent Penguin Machen volume doesn’t stray too far from this selection.) This covers pretty much the whole span of Machen’s somewhat curious career, from early works from the 1890s like The Great God Pan up to some of his last stories in the mid-30s, with a selection of his wartime stuff in-between, including the infamous “The Bowmen”… this latter actually proves to be pretty negligible as a story, but of enduring interest as the source of the “Angels of Mons” legend (which horrified Machen, who hadn’t wanted to whip up this rather hysterical inadvertent hoax). Found it a bit hard to see what so appalled Machen’s contemporaries about GGP in the ’90s, though I still like it; was actually less enamoured of “The White People”, which I just found overly nebulous and perplexing. (Not unlike Lovecraft, Machen could evidently be a bit too heavy on mere suggestiveness.) Probably most impressed by the last item in this volume, the novel-length The Terror from 1917, a wartime tale in which an isolated region of Wales is beset by the inexplicable “terror” of the title; the expository ending is a bit flat, but otherwise the book’s determination to almost unrelentingly up the body count is something to behold. On the whole, worthy of being on that 100 Best list.

Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction (Colin Ward)

untitledAnarchism is one of these things I’ve never really bothered reading about—indeed politics generally has not loomed large in my lifelong reading history—but for some reason I’ve been feeling lately like I should do so, and as such, why not start with something light. Author Colin Ward lived a long life (he was already 80 when this was published in 2004) devoted to the cause, which also made this look like a good option quite apart from its brevity. And I suppose, yeah, it was, but at the same time there was something ultimately unsatisfying about the book, although I’ll be damned if I can nail what it was… Anyway, Ward presents an interesting perspective that’s obviously pro-anarchist while acknowledging that, frankly, anarchism hasn’t exactly been a glowing success story, and that when the revolution has come in various places (from 17th century England on down), it’s never exactly resulted in the abolition of the state as such, just replaced the old one with a new one. Instead, he observes how the evolution of educational practices and the rise of the environmental movement could be taken as signs of anarchist influence; while we’re still waiting for that general strike, maybe anarchism can still have an effect on at least some aspects of the modern. Plus Ward is quietly scathing of American Libertarians (“The 19th-century American individualists… were busy social inventors exploring the potential of autonomy, including women’s liberation and black equality. … The American ‘libertarians’ of the 20th century are academics rather than social activists, and their inventiveness seems to be limited to providing an ideology for untrammelled market capitalism”), and I’ll give him points for that.

The Circus of Dr Lao (Charles G. Finney)

27073383Mildly ironic that I should’ve read this after The Money Cult, in which the revivalist preacher Charles G. Finney plays a role; lo and behold, I now find THIS Finney was actually the other one’s great-grandson…

Anyway, this first novel by Finney the younger won the “Most Original Book 1935” at the first National Book Awards, apparently, and that’s an honour I’ve no doubt it deserved; in 1935 they would’ve been hard put to find anything quite as odd as this. Haven’t read the book until now, but a couple of years ago I did watch George Pal’s film version… which I enjoyed but I did gather it wasn’t exactly faithful to the book. Now I can see just how unfaithful it actually was, although in the end I suppose it all comes down to the different needs of the two things… you know, Pal had to make a family-friendly Hollywood film which, in 1964, probably wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the faintly disturbing sexual undercurrent of the book. Nor, indeed, its basic plotlessness; Pal added an entirely new subplot just to give the thing structure, where Finney is content with enigma. Lao simply rocks up and brings high strangeness with him to this dusty Arizona town, and whether the book as it stands would work as a film even now is probably debatable (how exactly would you render the bear, or is it a Russian, on screen?). It’s pretty short (I obviously managed to read it in a single evening) and probably rightly so, cos I suspect making the book any longer could’ve stretched it thin; also, it’s fantastically well-written, some really great turns of phrase with an overall deadpan tone that still finds room for somewhat oblique horror and humour. Plus, if you stripped out some of the unfortunate racist stuff and a reference to the Depression, you’d actually be hard-pressed to pick it as a 1930s book (though if it were a modern book, that undercurrent of sex would likely be far more explicit). Weird and fascinating.

The Money Cult (Chris Lehmann)

51EF8HeRcJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A brief history of American Christianity and money. Lehmann starts with a consideration of the contemporary religious phenomenon of the “prosperity gospel”, or the notion that “God wants you to be rich” (despite that thing Jesus says about the camel and the eye of the needle), and then claims that it’s too easy to just dismiss it as a cynical exercise in money-making, and that modern American Christianity’s fascination with money isn’t actually new by any means and is a phenomenon worth exploring. Which he then sets out to do, to trace how America’s got where it is now, from the early Puritans’ concern for communal welfare to the increasingly individual and kind of anti-social behaviour of the new evangelicals… it’s an interesting angle from which to explore the history of religion, though I’ll confess that I was frequently unable to actually envisage how the various theological positions evolved throughout the book necessarily translated into economic terms (with the notable exceptions of the Mormons’ attempt to create their own currency). That’s probably my fault, though, since economics is admittedly not a strong point of mine and also I’m not that well acquainted with the finer details of America’s religious history which Lehmann goes into; maybe 18th/19th century divines just weren’t as blatant as the modern prosperity mob. Either way, it’s a good read, and although Lehmann insists we don’t just dismiss the phenomenon unthinkingly, that doesn’t mean he’s not critical of the situation, both towards mainstream Protestantism for retreating from conflict and letting the evangelicals take the lead, and towards the evangelicals for their own fear of deep theological thinking and the harshness underlying the logic of success (i.e. if your success is because God loves you, presumably that means he hates the less fortunate). And really, his extended excoriation of the Left Behind series—which he clearly and categorically despises for its shitty theology as well as its shitty style—in the last chapter is, in all its hilarious brutality, worth the price of admission by itself.

The Castle of Wolfenbach (Eliza Parsons)

151898Now that Valancourt Books have finally finished their “Northanger Horrid Novels” reprints, I’m embarking at last on another mini-project I’ve had in mind for a while, i.e. actually read the damn books in question. Accordingly, we start with the first to be published, cos I like doing things chronologically, Eliza Parsons’ Castle of Wolfenbach from 1793… not much of the action of which takes place at said castle (which gets burnt down fairly early in proceedings too), which might make it seem like an odd title, but the castle does serve as a sort of point around which the novel’s business revolves. Cos this is a Gothic novel with not one but two heroines; we meet the first of whom, Matilda, fleeing the romantic depredations of her uncle and guardian, and we meet the second, the Countess of Wolfenbach, when Matilda chances upon the castle in the course of her flight and encounters the Countess, who’s been kept in seclusion there for 18 years by her husband. When the latter makes one of his periodic visits to find the Countess has been discovered, complications ensue. This is a fairly short book, but it’s one of those I found myself struggling with in spite of that; I suspect a good part of that is down to the sheer number of secondary characters, who are really kind of too numerous for a book this, and I will confess to losing track of some of them by the end of the book. I imagine it would be pretty much entirely lost to history were it not for Jane Austen namechecking it. Still, I’ll give it this much; the bit late in the book where we discover Mr Weimar actually is Matilda’s real blood relative uncle after we’ve been led to believe he was merely her adoptive guardian, and where we consequently realise he really has spent the book trying to fuck his own niece? Yeah, that bit is still as icky and nauseating as hell even after 223 years, and that’s kind of impressive…

High-Rise (J.G. Ballard)

149136“A triumph of artistry and feeling”, says the unidentified Times reviewer quoted on the cover of this older edition, who clearly got to read a different version of this book than I did… the film version is due out soon, so I thought I should give the book a go first in case I do somehow wind up going to see it. And, well, yeah, I really didn’t like it. Conceptually nothing wrong, the high-rise apartment building as (perhaps over-literally designed) microcosm of society and the sort of thing that happens when society goes pear-shaped. Problem was, for me at least it felt like once things started breaking down, they did so perhaps too quickly and too soon, so that the book kind of shot its load early and left itself without anywhere to really go… I got through the first half of the book fairly quickly, but the second half was a major slog as it became increasingly clear the book was going nowhere, to be honest I’m not sure how I actually finished it (I came close to quitting not long before the end). None of the characters are terribly interesting either, so it’s not like you really have much else to go on. Disappointing.