The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant

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Lines ‘ciphered from a torn & tattered Script
found in an ancient Book of Holy Writ;
when thou hast o’ercome th’Initial Dread,
shalt find a timely Ode writ large instead

After thou hast prepared the charmed circle as heretofore describ’d, recite these words with an almighty voice, never wavering.

HAIL, thou that from this Husk’s late gone,
Acknowledge that I adjure thee to come:
Let no harm come to me nor Wight nor any
Living Creature; thus I bind thee fast, to
Own all Service to me, & Obedience,
Who dost bid thee ne’er part from me
Expressly; without Fraud, Dissimulation or Deceit
Enter into Pact to do whate’er desired
Now & evermore, till discharged be!

churchyard

In a later hand, this followeth:

Continue reading “The Perills of the Conjuration of Spirits by the Ignorant”

Full of life

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Terry Pratchett Johnny and the Dead
Corgi Books 1997 (1993)

With hindsight it’s all too possible to read more into this YA novel than the author intended more than a score of years ago. Is Pratchett’s obsession with death, here and in other of his novels, some kind of premonition of his debilitating illness or, as I suspect it is, merely his continuing exploration of and creative attempts to deal with one of the big questions that we all contemplate at some time or another — namely, is there any kind of life after our departure from this world? And how do we cope with that while we still have this life?

Johnny and the Dead is the second in a loose trilogy about teenager Johnny Maxwell who lives in a Midlands town called Blackbury. Alone among his three friends — Wobbler, Bigmac and Yo-less — he finds he is able to see the dead in the local cemetery. More than that, he is able to speak to them. They are livid — well, as much as the disembodied can be said to be livid — when they discover that the cemetery has been sold to some developers, the distinctly anonymous United Amalagamated [sic] Consolidated Holdings.

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When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

The town clock struck seven

the-town-clock-struck-seven
http://cliparts.co/clip-art-clock-face

The town clock struck seven.
The echoes of the great chime wandered in the unlit halls of the library.
An autumn leaf, very crisp, fell somewhere in the dark.
But it was only the page of a book, turning.

In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in Chapter 37 in the midst of the middle section of the book entitled ‘Pursuits’, Charles Halloway is described trying to make sense of the extraordinary events he has been witnessing. As janitor of Green Town’s Library he has the run of the building after it has closed, and over a few hours he has been fetching what he sees as the

… most important books … which he arranged in a great literary clock on a table, like someone learning to tell a new time. So he paced round and round the huge clock squinting at the yellowed pages as if they were mothwings pinned dead to the wood.

Clocks are the measure of time, and the presence of Time in the novel is huge. The year’s approaching a great turning point, the definitive arrival of autumn and the dark six months of the the sun’s cycle through the heavens; the summer’s true return will not be marked until Walpurgis Night, half a year away on May Eve. Now it is but a few days before Halloween, the night before All Hallows or All Saints Day, and devilry is afoot. Charles has laid out his books as though playing a game of Clock Patience. Some positions are specified (11, 2, 6, 9), one at least is kept vague (“very late up the literary clock”), at the centre Charles imagines the words spoken by the Witches in Macbeth:

By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes

  1. ?
  2. Occult Iconography
  3. ? portrait of the Prince of Darkness
  4. ? sketches of the Temptations of St Anthony
  5. ? etchings from Giovanbatista Bracelli’s Bizarie (curious toys, humanlike robots engaged in alchemical rites)
  6. (A history of circuses, carnivals, shadow shows, puppet menageries inhabited by mountebanks, minstrels, stilt-walking sorcerers and their fantoccini)
  7. ?
  8. ?
  9. By Demons Possessed; Egyptian Philtres; Torments of the Damned; The Spell of Mirrors
  10. ? Locomotives and Trains; The Mystery of Sleep; Between Midnight and Dawn;
  11. Dr Faustus
  12. ? Physiognomie. The secrets of the individual’s character as found in his face

This provincial library is clearly an extraordinary one to include so many obscure tomes; for Will and Jim “there’s nothing in the living world like books on water cures, deaths-of-a-thousand-slices, or pouring white-hot lava off castle walls on drolls and mountebanks,” but the titles Charles has dug out are way beyond the usual reference books one would expect to find in the stacks. Others may have researched whether Bradbury has based these on existing publications, but for most of us they clearly reveal how Charles is trying to find significant patterns in the scant clues he has at hand: Dark & Cooger’s carnival arriving at three in the morning, a mirror maze that effects transformations, the parade through the town and its near ubiquitous nature, an illustrated man with kinetic tattoos.

For Jim and Will (thirteen, soon to be fourteen), and for Will’s father Charles, “Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight. […] And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more …” Can Charles find the secret in these library books before time runs out for them? I shall try in a review to point the way, but I’m not sure the answer necessarily lies in book knowledge. Only experience will do.

In praise of fantasy

Tiffany Tree of Life
Louis Comfort Tiffany: The Tree of Life stained glass window (source: Wikipedia)

I apologise for returning to the subject of fantasy, a topic which I sometimes feel has been unduly disparaged by some critics. Oxford Dictionaries define it as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”. One might surmise that this suggests admirers of fantasy are somehow deluded, a bit like the fantasists who believe in those impossible or improbable things; but I maintain that most aficionados of fantasy know the difference between reality and fiction (“things made up”) and the divide between knowledge and belief.

Let’s go back for a brief moment to the origins of the word: “phantasy” derives from the Greek word φαντός (phantos) meaning visible, and φαίνω ‎(phaínō) I cause to appear, bring to light”: related words like “phantom” and so on ultimately descend from φῶς, Greek for “light”. In other words, one could argue that fantasy is about shining a light on an object, a topic, a notion.

And that’s what I’d like to argue.

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Tall tales and tropes

whaling-ship
19th-century whaling ship (credit: http://inupiaqadaptationrecovery.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/this-whaling-ship-is-in-full-sail-as.html)

This is the last of the posts I’d planned on Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket, the third in the series commonly known as The Wolves Chronicles. I’ve previously posted about the personages in that novel and on the voyages of Dido Twite, and also given an update on her colourful language. Now I’d to draw your attention to the motifs I’ve noticed in the series that occur in this installment, motifs that pop up elsewhere in her other fiction but which become increasingly plentiful in subsequent Dido Twite chronicles.

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Stones of eternity

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Public Library, Waukegan, Illinois

As the northern hemisphere nights start to draw in, the crisp air almost crackles and the mist is a miasma creeping over streets and fields, our thoughts turn to things that go bump in the night. In preparation for a review of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, timed to coincide with The Emerald City Book Review’s annual Witch Week, I thought I’d like to share here a few thoughts on aspects of this Halloween thriller. And I shall start with Green Town’s public library, based on the Carnegie library in Waukegan, Illinois that Bradbury knew so well as a child in the 1930s:

Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. […] This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.

After this passage, which promises exotic experiences to come, the library — though it remains no less enticing — starts to take on a more sinister aspect:

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Steward’s enclosure

www.cricklitfest.co.uk
http://www.cricklitfest.co.uk

Last week I was a steward. No, I wasn’t managing property, household affairs or dining arrangements, nor was I recommending wine or being a flight attendant. I was in fact helping out at a local literary festival, one of a team setting up venues, checking in ticket-holders and selling books.

‘Steward’, by the way, comes from the Old English stigweard, which is a compound of stig, hall or building (it survives as ‘sty’ in Modern English, as in the lowly pigsty) and weard, a ward, guard or keeper. In the 13th century one of the High Stewards of Scotland — those who managed the Scottish king’s finances — took the title as the family name of Stewart. The seventh High Steward became King of Scotland in the 14th century, thus initiating the Royal House of Stewart, and this spelling survived until the period when James Stuart became king of both Scotland and England.

This is all well and interesting, I’m sure, but as usual I’m wandering around the houses. Back to the literary festival, the second one to be held in this Welsh border town.

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A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Books of the dead

Of course stories aren’t just to be read in the pages of books, magazines or papers; they can be found written wherever one chooses to interpret words strung together in phrases, sentences and chapters. And many such can be sought in the churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries of our villages, towns and cities, in memorial plaques on walls or embedded in church floors, and on markers placed in isolated spots to indicate the resting places of beloved pets or even Dark Age personages.

I like browsing in churchyards, especially early ones. Gravestones from the Victorian, Georgian and even earlier periods frequently have epitaphs and inscriptions which are more interesting, even more curious than modern examples. Pious doggerel, classical epigrams, Biblical allusions all have their place on these books of the dead, and very occasionally we have fragments of a tragic tale, as in the two instances I’ve culled from the memorials surrounding Crickhowell’s parish church of St Edmund, Powys, Wales.

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Flawed but human

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Mark Haddon A Spot of Bother
Vintage 2007 (2006)

Paterfamilias George has reached a turning point in his life. He’s just retired — always a dangerous moment — and forced to confront the fact that all is not well in the family circle. Son Jamie is unhappy about his sister Katie’s choice for husband, even though Ray gets on well with Katie’s son Jacob. Jamie himself risks all when he neglects to invite lover Tony to Katie and Ray’s wedding. George’s wife Jean, meanwhile, is anxious that the wedding may disrupt a secret affair she’s having. As the wedding approaches and, foreshadowing the bother that is to come, tensions start bubbling to the surface his family are unaware that George has his own worry — a blemish on his hip, the spot to which the title also refers. This cloud in George’s sky presages the storm that is to come. Continue reading “Flawed but human”

Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time

Beethoven in middle life, a new portrait by Batt (1937) on loan from a private collection to the Royal Academy of Music

Percy Alfred Scholes The Oxford Companion to Music
Oxford University Press 1963 (1955)

The ninth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1955 and still under the control of the original editor, is authoritative, idiosyncratic and certainly of its time. A typical example of Percy Scholes’ writing style can be seen in the Preface to the original edition of 1938:

Following this preface will be found the long list of the many who have tried to save the author from, at least, the faults of his own ignorance or inadvertence, but should the reader chance to discover that the author is anywhere insufficiently saved he should not take it that the blame necessarily falls on those enumerated in the list.

A footnote helpfully tells us that In the present edition this long list, with its many additional names from the seven intervening editions, has been merely summarised. This circumloquacious tendency may appear to explain the nearly twelve hundred pages of this hardback, but in truth they are packed with detailed information and references. The detail includes entries on composers, styles, genres, countries, foreign musical terms, instruments, synopses of operas and much else. Interwoven are close on two hundred monochrome plates illustrating different themes, using old prints, photographs and diagrams. Continue reading “Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time”

More Dido lingo

whale-ships
19th-century whalers processing whale blubber

In “Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon” I listed some of Dido’s colourful language in the Wolves Chronicles, some of it genuine — variously Cockney and from other parts of Britain — and some of it Joan Aiken’s own invention (which, oddly enough, often seemed perfectly genuine). There undoubtedly were the inevitable omissions and, as further novels in the series are read, there’ll naturally be additions. Here’s the first of what will probably be part of an ongoing exercise (expect more addenda as time goes by) listing terms used by Dido in Night Birds on Nantucket. Continue reading “More Dido lingo”