Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.

Comments (21)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Cosmic horror, eh? I never heard the term before, but it makes perfect sense. Also how it’s not that common.* Realising how insignificant our world is – and what a vast, cold place the rest of the universe is – takes conscious effort, I guess. Being afraid of the dark, the dead and spiders? Not so much.

    King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument.

    I remember us talking about this before and how I cited two examples from my reading of King – Apt Pupil, which never addresses how Nazism represents a very specific type of evil (one predicated on idealogy, I guess) and It, which had a lot of interesting stuff to say about childhood demons, none of which cohered into an actual thesis. Maybe King doesn’t feel he needs to make an argument (his primary goal is to scare us) or maybe he just gets lost somewhere along the way.

    * given how most horror capitalises on familiar fears.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I suppose the thing about the “full convincing argument” is that King (as would most people, and quite rightly) simply accepts the basic human values of decency, the meaningfulness of life, etc. So, of course Nazism is just plain wrong (to use your Apt Pupil example), and of course life’s not cosmically meaningless. It’s more the extreme writers like Lovecraft who question these things, because they’ve been jolted out of that basic-human-values mindset. (It doesn’t make them better writers, but does add to their uniqueness. And potentially gives them unpleasant side-effects, like Lovecraft’s racism.) So I’d think King just doesn’t feel the need to make the argument. I wonder what this says about me, that I want him to make it?!

    (I should just say, I’d like the “meaningfulness” argument laid out, not because I don’t believe it, but because I like to be reassured every so often that it’s true.)

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely, the Cthulu mythos was very much a reflection of Lovecraft’s mental state – his various neuroses – rather than a writer going for an unusual angle. You could say the same (in a very different way) about Lewis and his Narnian books. These were writers trying to process their issues, often not very successfully, and this is what gives their work its emotional heft, even if the reader might violently disagree with the arguments being put forward. But I think any author trying to write Cosmic Horror should be able to temporarily identify with that mind-set if he wants to produce work in the genre, and I get the impression from your review that King was kind of averse to the idea. Maybe he reckoned a typical King reader wasn’t interested in Cosmic Horror. Or maybe – as you suggest – he wasn’t interested in it himself (just its effects).

    One could see a similar problem in IT. King really only cares about how his creation terrorises the characters. The why – what ‘It’ actually is, where it came from, its motives – don’t seem to interest him much at all.

  4. Dale Nelson says:

    “Cosmic horror” is often built in part, at least, on an elementary philosophical error. It relishes occasions to brood on the vast immensity of the universe over against the infinitesimal speck that is this planet. Wells got this started, I suppose, in the sonorous opening pages of The War of the Worlds.

    Thing is, that’s bunk. It confuses quantity and quality. How big the universe is, is a matter of quantity. We’ll all agree that it sure is big. But the significance of human beings never was how –big– they are. No one has ever claimed that their size was what made them significant. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need a universe to attack human so-called “significance,” since we are so much smaller than even redwoods, or mountains, or (for that matter) the planet Earth. The corollary of the notion that vast size=significance, small size=insignificance would be that a tall human is objectively more significant than a short one. Do you buy that?

    The whole “insignificant (because tiny) earth” thing really is a crock that needs to be thrown on the dustheap.

    “Cosmic horror” may have other bases than the big universe-wee people cliche. What are they?

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    I agree entirely about the “big/small doesn’t mean significant/insignificant”. Still, I think cosmic horror does have a genuine basis. It’s a feeling some people have, sometimes. And, in the moment of having it, that can be basis enough.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      “Cosmic horror” having a basis in the feelings some people have, though, raises a couple of questions.

      1.Would they have the feeling if not for their imaginations having been conditioned by certain writers? If that’s the case, then the “cosmic horror” feeling is not exactly proceeding from the cosmos but from another person basically the same as ourselves.

      2.If “cosmic horror” is based on the feeling some people get sometimes, how is it more valid (as its acolytes tend to say) than the feelings of other people who feel, say, feelings of adoration of a divine being? Why should the cosmos be taken to be populated by formidable creatures that, while not understood as being evil, are harmful to humans? One could at least as validly suppose the cosmos to be populated as in C. S. Lewis’s cosmic trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels). Is it not the case that, so far as any actual evidence is concerned, Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” is “just so” — because he will have it so? I think some Lovecraft fans, such as S. T. Joshi, have taken him rather too seriously.

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    My thoughts on (1), are that a certain intensity of feeling would quite naturally (maybe only in certain natures) project itself out onto the cosmos at large. It’s a version of that classic idea that infants assume they’re the centre of everything. So, if things don’t go right, it’s because there’s some vast evil force out there, perhaps. Or that the cosmos is indifferent but basically dangerous. So, for instance, Lovecraft’s father dies insane and his mother is verbally abusive, telling him he’s ugly and so on, and Lovecraft finds himself thinking that this is just how the cosmos is — it’s full of a sort of nasty indifference. That’s just a theory, anyway. And the grown-up Lovecraft, believing himself (as we all like to do) to be a rational man turns it from a basic feeling into a philosophy. “Cosmic indifferentism”, or however he put it. And because he’s got a keen imagination, he turns it into something aesthetically powerful, and all the more convincing. And, yes, I’m sure you’re right about many people being swayed into that feeling through his and others’ writings. Because it encapsulates what they, too, feel, and maybe adds a little sharp edge to it at the same time. That, for me, is why he has, as a writer, survived to become something of a classic — he’s tapped a genuine vein of human experience, and some of us respond to it, in its pure form. Maybe not to subscribe to as a lifelong worldview, but perhaps to dip into, a sort of ice-cold aesthetic bath.

    2. I’m not the one to defend cosmic horror as philosophically valid. I don’t think it is. (I agree that Joshi goes too far in trying to make Lovecraft out to be a philosopher. I think Lovecraft just backed up his highly repressed, and undoubtedly wounded, emotional outlook by making it out to be a reasoned philosophy, when really it was only a justification, a way of dealing with his own unhappiness. And that’s not an attack on Lovecraft. It describes most of the writers I like!) I guess I’m really only interested in cosmic horror as an aesthetic outlook, though I like the fact it tends towards the philosophical end of aesthetics. So I’d say, with regard to Lovecraft’s or C S Lewis’s worldviews being taken as valid, that for me they’re valid to the extent they work as art — which also means to the extent that they encapsulate aspects of human experience. Lovecraft for me, is more satisfying than Lewis, but that’s because I’ve got a cynical streak and just don’t buy the idea of a wholly benevolent Aslan-type being. I find it slightly easier to believe in a wholly un-benevolent Azathoth-like being, but I really wouldn’t want that to be true. Sometimes, though, it feels like it might be. Not too often, thankfully.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      Lovecraft was one of my favorite authors for much of my life, from when I first read him in 1969 or thereabouts. I thought a lot about his work. Eventually I wrote a long essay, “Lovecraft’s Comfortable World,” which was published five years ago in Fadeaway #53.

      I sincerely do think the unspoken secret element in the affection many of us have felt for him and his work is the comfortableness of his world. If you read the essay and think it worth posting on, that would be great.

      An aspect of this comfortableness is his philosophy. Supposedly it is all about facing the bleak facts regarding human insignificance, as we have already agreed. In fact, if there are no powers interested in us, then no God or gods have any requirements of us, and we need not fear their interference. C. S. Lewis wrote about how, when, as an atheist of some years’ standing, he began to suspect there might be a God after all, he just hated the thought of some Being interfering with his life. For Lovecraft, there was no God, no necessary higher end in life to make demands upon him. If he wanted to be generous to his friends, he could; if he wanted to live up to his self-chosen code of being an old-fashioned gentleman, he could; but that anyone or anything really had a right to require anything of him against his will was ruled out. That is a comfortable thought! If there is an appeal in the idea of religious belief (that a good, wise God cares for me), there is also, what for many people is more appealing, in atheism the idea that my life is utterly my own. Goodness, love, duty may make no demands upon my time or attention beyond what I allow them to.

  7. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s a good article. I particularly like you pointing out how, ironically, Lovecraft’s fictional world is devoid of love. It does make the fiction more comfortable, in that it leaves out that messy complexity of human entanglements. But I also wonder if it isn’t the thing that’s behind the cosmic horror. I suspect Lovecraft’s upbringing was pretty much loveless, which led to his refuge in an outlook of cosmic indifference. Then the real horror is other people, but you don’t have to deal with it if you’re worried about a Cthulhu-sized being on the rampage. (I agree that “The Colour Out of Space” is his most genuinely horrifying, and quietly moving, tale, but I hadn’t realised before it was the only one where the main characters are actually doing ordinary work.)

    I’ve often wondered what draws me towards the likes of Lovecraft. There’s a certain bleakness I respond to in things like the film Alien, and which I also felt in the recent film of Stapledon’s Last and First Men — where it’s not horror, really, but a sense of humankind doing its best against a difficult (but not actively hostile) universe, facing an overwhelming difficulty with a quiet dignity. It’s a complex response, I suspect, but there’s has to be some pleasure and comfort in there somehow.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      I’ve never read any of the books by the philosopher Charles Taylor, but I read somewhere something attributed to his thinking that makes a lot of sense to me.

      Taylor distinguishes between porous selves and buffered selves. The difference works something like this;

      The porous self, which is characteristic of pre-modern cultures, experiences itself as open to living influences, in a reciprocal relationship. For example, “blood” is a reality to it as it is not to us: the relationship between oneself and one’s family, not just one’s nuclear family either, but one’s “relatives” and ancestors. Likewise one has a relationship with one’s “people” and with one’s community. Moreover one has living relationships with visible creatures, since one is a part of a creation, and with invisible creatures too, also parts of creation; and one is related to the Creator. Thus life may be hard but people don’t have crises of meaning. They don’t commit suicide except under exceptional circumstances (including matters of shame, such as being caught in a sexual crime). Suicide is rare.

      The buffered self is highly conscious of itself over against everything else. It is liable to be preoccupied with shades of feeling and susceptible to crises of meaning. I have often thought, as a (now retired) teacher, that if I were asked: “What would you name as the characteristic object of our time?” I would not choose the personal computer but the adolescent suicide note. People obsess over the “performance” of their self-crafted selves, online and elsewhere. Lovecraft himself is a good example of this, with his endless letters expounding his views of himself and the world, his playful assumption of roles such as “Grandpa Theobald,” and so on. The self is buffered over against everything else, and, correspondingly, liable to severe loneliness and various forms of mental illness. I have no doubt that the current transgender fad is largely a development of the buffered self. The world of education, government, the arts, etc. is largely vocal in support of this sort of thing, where youngsters are to be provided with drastic hormonal treatments and surgeries, rather than regarding this as a public health crisis. For this reason I think Stalking Cat (look him up on Wikipedia) should be on the American one-dollar bill.

      Horror fiction is a characteristic modern form, as, say, the epic poem was of traditional culture. There could be horrible creatures (Gorgon and chimaeras dire), but the imaginative work didn’t seek to evoke horror as its telos. Now horror is almost the dominant form in popular literature and visual entertainments.

    2. Dale Nelson says:

      So — to try to tie some things together — in Lovecraft’s stories, horror repeatedly involves the incursion into the self of some unwanted presence or truth. The buffered self is “violated.”

      Conversely, in Lovecraft’s characteristic fiction at least there’s never any -good- that comes to someone who has become more porous. The ideal state, for Lovecraft, is one of no obligations, but just freedom to please oneself. There’s no idea that life might become richer if the self becomes more open. As I recall (it’s many years since I read it), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath ends happily (for a wonder!), but the big reveal is that the dreamer now has more securely what he already had, his private world of affection and imagination centered on Providence. He can go on enjoying his personal pleasure as regards sunsets, etc. He has all he needs, and he needs no one. He is a perfectly buffered self.

      I think this was Lovecraft’s personal philosophy, too. Existence is meaningless -except- insofar as I indulge my personal feelings of affection for cats or city spires in the sunset glow, or the enjoyment of my books and talk about things that interest me with my correspondents (none of whom is close enough to be an actual presence pressing against the buffered self).

      This is a blog comment and not a treatise or testimony under oath, but I think probably it’s on the right track.

      Thus Lovecraft’s ideal state of being is one free of risk to the buffered self. Horror is violation thereof.

  8. Dale Nelson says:

    Here’s a particularly intense literary rendering of the experience of a porous self. This is from Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha is a young man who has just experienced a big disappointment after a time of bereavement. But he steps out into the night air:

    He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul,
    overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The
    vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and
    fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the
    zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the
    earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out
    against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds
    round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth
    seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth
    was one with the mystery of the stars….

    Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He
    did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed
    so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping,
    sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love
    it, to love it for ever and ever. “Water the earth with the tears of
    your joy and love those tears,” echoed in his soul.

    What was he weeping over?

    Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were
    shining to him from the abyss of space, and “he was not ashamed of that
    ecstasy.” There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds
    of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over “in
    contact with other worlds.” He longed to forgive every one and for
    everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all
    men, for all and for everything. “And others are praying for me too,”
    echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and,
    as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault
    of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had
    seized the sovereignty of his mind—and it was for all his life and for
    ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a
    resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment
    of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha
    forget that minute.

    “Some one visited my soul in that hour,” he used to say afterwards,
    with implicit faith in his words.

  9. Murray Ewing says:

    I hadn’t heard of the buffered/porous selves idea, but I have read other writers mentioning something similar. I can’t remember who, but someone said that human beings were, in the past, much more participatory in the world, not just in terms of action (taking part) but of being part.

    The buffered self idea certainly applies to Lovecraft. And in his fiction, as soon as the buffer is punctured in any way, the self collapses. The buffer is a wall, and any incursion is automatically an invasion. There are no other options.

    Interestingly, I’ve read about the sort of “vastation” experience Alyosha has in your quote being called “cosmic consciousness”. Sort of the opposite of cosmic horror, a sense of very much belonging to things.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      “The buffered self idea certainly applies to Lovecraft. And in his fiction, as soon as the buffer is punctured in any way, the self collapses.”

      That’s what’s supposed to happen! And I suppose it does, at the end of “The Outsider,” say. But it’s part of “Lovecraft’s comfortable world” that the fact seems to be that, in general, it doesn’t happen.

      So at the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu” there’s the famous sonorous statement about a new dark age if mankind discovers the real facts. The narrator discovers the real facts. Life (evidently) goes on.

      And so on. I’m not trying to be snarky. Lovecraft is one of the authors upon whom, over the years, I’ve depended for enjoyment. But I think that, if we’re honest, we see that he kind of likes to have his cake and eat it too. There are these great warnings about how mind-shattering it’ll be, If the Facts Become Known. Well, I go into that in “Lovecraft’s Comfortable World.”

      As for the participatory experience of the world that you mention — could you be thinking of Owen Barfield? He goes into that in a rather fascinating book called Saving the Appearances.

  10. Murray Ewing says:

    Ah, I probably got it from Gary Lachman, who often quotes Barfield.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      Lachman’s Caretakers of the Cosmos (pp. 182-196), maybe?

      Barfield’s writings coupled with C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image mean a lot to me.

      Relevant to this topic too is Lanza and Berman’s book Biocentrism: How Life Creates the Universe, etc.

      Then there’s John Wheeler:

      I don’t think there’s much of Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism left after you absorb such more recent insights — though he’s still fun to read.

      But I think of C. S. Lewis’s experience as a key to understanding Lovecraft’s mind. Both of them had held to atheism and the notion of a meaningless universe grinding away. At the same time as they clung to this intensely buffering notion of the “facts,” with the advantages noted earlier in our discussion, their minds were captivated by the endless richness of poetry in the broad sense (encompassing not just rhyming poems, epics, mythology, etc. but “fantasy” in general, etc., and aesthetic experience — the intense pleasure of sunsets over the old buildings of Providence, etc., for Lovecraft; like in the song, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West, and my spirit is crying for leaving”). Lewis said — and Lovecraft absolutely could have said the same thing: “Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless” (Surprised by Joy, Chapter 11).

      It was possible for both men to maintain their commitment to a buffered self. The price was this split. Lovecraft kept paying it, to the end, so far as I know. Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s story of the resolution of the split by a new unity that encompassed both imagination and reason. The price, paid very grudgingly, was the surrender of the buffeted self for a porous self. I really do think this is basically the key to understanding both writers, and explains much of why their writings can be so compelling for so many readers — anyway it’s a key to understanding something essential about both.

  11. Murray Ewing says:

    I think the Lachman book may have been A Secret History of Consciousness (but my copy doesn’t have an index so I can’t be sure he mentions Barfield in it!). I’m sure he mentions him quite often, though perhaps it was in interviews. (I haven’t read Caretakers of the Cosmos.)

    I have to admit being mostly cold towards Lewis’s worldview, or perhaps just his manner of presenting it. But I’m still drawn to him for his imaginative strengths. I have his Till We Have Faces on my to-read shelf. I’d like to read Surprised By Joy some day.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      Lewis’s love of reading is all over his output, but Surprised by Joy is one of two books that especially bring that aspect of his personality across. He recreates the experience of being an adolescent in love with books. An Experiment in Criticism has a possibly off-putting title, but is the other book I have in mind regarding his love of reading. It was one of Lewis’s last books and he may have sensed that his time was running out; this small book celebrates and defends the giving of so much of one’s life to reading, even reading about things that never happened and people who never lived. It is akin to Arthur Machen’s too little-read book Hieroglyphics. A good essay by Lewis has the bland title “On Stories.” But there he puts his finger on something many of us have felt in an inchoate way. I have the same faith as Lewis, but even if I didn’t, the only way I couldn’t love these books and this essay would be if I had a very different personality.

      Also his published letters… The one to get might be They Stand Together, his letters to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, most of them written by the way before his conversion, but just crammed with book talk.

      By the way I did a comparison once of the 1969-1974 Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback series and the contents of Lewis’s library as catalogued a few years after his death. The amount of overlap was amazing. The most noticeable difference was, not surprisingly, that Lewis’s library didn’t contain the stories by the Weird Tales authors whom Lin Carter included in the BAF. However, since Lewis certainly did read American science fiction pulps, I believe it’s likely he read two of Lovecraft’s best stories, published in Astounding, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time.

  12. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s fascinating about the overlap between books Lewis owned and the Adult Fantasy series. Particularly intriguing that he might have read some Lovecraft. I know Lewis was prepared to praise a book for its imaginative strengths even if he didn’t agree with the outlook of the writer, e.g., David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus.

    1. Dale Nelson says:

      Quite a few years ago now, one of my “Jack and the Bookshelf” columns for the New York C. S. Lewis Society was on Pratt and de Camp’s Land of Unreason. Here’s a paragraph from that column:

      Land of Unreason is one of a bunch of books Lewis owned that were to be reprinted in 1969-1974, when Tolkien’s American paperback publisher, Ballantine, cast about for additional material for the fantasy market. Lewis’s library and the approximately 60 titles of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, both include William Beckford’s Vathek, five James Branch Cabell books, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, F. Marion Crawford’s Khaled, Roger Lancelyn Green’s From the World’s End (the Ballantine edition was called Double Phoenix and included a work by another author), Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang’s The World’s Desire, Haggard’s The People of the Mist, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (two volumes as printed in the Ballantine series), George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith (also some shorter MacDonald fantasies, gathered by Lin Carter for a book called Evenor), George Meredith’s The Shaving of Shagpat, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, and William Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles and The Wood Beyond the World. (Interestingly, Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, praised by Lewis, was not in the 1969 catalogue of his library. Perhaps he owned a copy that was later acquired by someone as a keepsake. The Well was reprinted by Ballantine in two volumes.) Also, the Lewis library included eleven titles by Lord Dunsany, an author mined for six Adult Fantasy releases. Richard Hodgens, a member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, translated a portion of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (“Vol. 1: The Ring of Angelica”), the whole of which Lewis read in the original Italian. The Lewis book collection also included fantasy by Mervyn Peake, E. R. Eddison, and David Lindsay that Ballantine reprinted just before the launching of the Adult Fantasy series proper. Lin Carter would have been impressed by Lewis’s collection. Most of the material reprinted in Carter’s series that Lewis did not own belonged to the American Weird Tales magazine tradition (e.g. four volumes of stories by Clark Ashton Smith) or had never been published before (e.g. Sanders Anne Laubenthal’s somewhat Charles Williams-y Excalibur or Joy Chant’s somewhat Lewisian-Tolkienian Red Moon and Black Mountain).

  13. Murray Ewing says:

    “Jack and the Bookshelf” — I like that! And thanks for that extract from your column.

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