The Prisoner

The Prisoner is a sort of Cold War, spy-thriller, 1960s-for-1860s version of Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Number 6 (whose name, I suspect, was intended to give him seniority over 007) disappear into another world — Wonderland on one hand and the Village on the other, both of them parodies of a very familiar-seeming England — and there do their best to both defend and discover their identities via a series of eccentric, surreal, threatening and nonsensical encounters. After all, what better way to find out who you really are than to have to defend your individuality against every form of attack 1960s paranoia can come up with, from brainwashing to hallucinogenic drugs, mind-transference to social isolation, even involvement in politics?

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History has made Britain surreal. Its cultural self-image is littered with old, unmoving artefacts and practices — judges in periwigs, soldiers in Busbies, undertakers in top hats, penny-farthing bicycles, grown men in old school ties and old school blazers. Its upper echelons — the slowest to change, so the most surreal and divorced-from-reality — are drenched in weird rituals, silly costumes, nonsensical-but-pompous titles, rules that must be obeyed because they’ve always been obeyed, and ways of doing things that have just always been that way. The only reason Number 6 can’t tell which side it is that runs the Village is that its comically parodic, overly-British version of British life is both ridiculously over-the-top and spot-on accurate at the same time.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland have an uneasy sort of humour: the humour of nonsense, or absurdity, something that can so easily slip into cosmic or Kafkan horror. In a sense, The Prisoner is a sitcom, as sitcom characters are characters who, whatever happens to them in the course of an episode, always return to the same situation, the same personality, by the end. This is true of Number 6, who even manages to escape the Village in ‘Many Happy Returns’, only to insist on parachuting back into it, whereupon he finds himself, of course, in the same situation as when he started. The basic joke in The Prisoner-as-sitcom is that everyone and everything is a calculated deception meant to break Number 6’s sense of himself. Ha ha ha.

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The basic situation of The Prisoner is also similar to many horror stories, where the protagonist finds themself in an isolated village whose inhabitants seem to share a secret, and may be working at making them one of them — as in, for instance, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’.

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Both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland end with a trial — a nonsensical, mock-trial — which both Alice and Number 6 rise above and destroy. (The Prisoner also sees Number 6 made into the new Number 2 and put upon a throne, just as Through the Looking Glass sees Alice made into a queen.)

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Detectives, spies and secret agents were a peculiar sort of 20th century Everyman. I like to think of this collection of character-types as Existential Agents. 1908, the year that saw the publication of the archetypal Occult Detective (Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence) also saw the publication of G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the first Existential Agent I can think of. Whereas Occult Detectives embody the encounter between rationality and the irrational/supernatural, the Existential Agent embodies the quest for identity, against either social or psychological forces. One pops up in Dennis Potter’s superlative The Singing Detective — which, like the final episode of The Prisoner, also features a singalong of ‘Dem Bones’ — questing through his creator’s real and fictional pasts for the clue that will release him from his personal Hell. I suspect Twin Peaks’s Dale Cooper of being at least half an Existential Agent, which immediately throws Fox Mulder under a shadow of doubt, too. (Existential Agents aren’t necessarily secret agents. Secret agents hunt for secrets; Existential Agents have secrets, often from themselves.)

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What does it all mean? Perhaps it’s like Number 6’s explanation of his entry into the Village craft competition (a genuinely escapist piece of art) in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’:

‘It means what it is!’

Or, from ‘Hammer into Anvil’:

‘It means what it says!’

What both The Prisoner and Alice in Wonderland do is work towards creating a destabilised world, denying any obvious sense of narrative, as well as any obvious sense of rationality, to break up all certainties and create the sort of free-flowing, let-it-all-hang-out, deliquescent reality in which, free of external constraints, Number 6 and Alice can really find themselves. It’s a bit like that strange gloop a caterpillar turns into before forming itself into a butterfly.

But why am I asking what it all means? Remember, “Questions are a burden to others. Answers a prison for oneself.” Or, as they say in ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’:

‘It is possible that there is no clue to be found… Breaking a code or cipher is a finite problem. But, as I’ve said… we don’t know that there is a problem. And if there is, on what level of reasoning it is set.’

Which sounds, as it should, like the purest nonsense.

Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

I’d like all the writers I like to like each other. But writers, self-centred and individualistic as cats, are often the worst at being objective about other writers. There’s too much stepping on each other’s toes, too much “You don’t want to do it like that!” and “I was going to do that, and do it better!” As a result, I’ve learned to take a cruel joy in finding out that the writers I like in fact hate each other. There’s M R James on Lovecraft (“whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times”), Machen on Blackwood (“Tennyson said ‘the cedars sigh for Lebanon’, and that is exquisite poetry; but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that… is damned nonsense”). Both Tolkien and C S Lewis met and liked E R Eddison, but hated his outlook (Tolkien: “I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty”); while Fritz Leiber wrote of Tolkien, “He’s not interested in women and he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…”

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Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is subtitled “A Study of Epic Fantasy”, but it’s no academic exercise in objectivity. I’ve read it many times, but reading it used to depress me, and it’s taken a good few years (and re-reads) to understand why. It is, of course, that Moorcock is a practitioner of the form he’s examining, and his “study” is more a cry than a critique. One of the reasons I’ve so often come back to reading it is that I wanted it to be like Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: a critical history of a genre by one of its major practitioners. But Lovecraft’s essay is, really, a critical history only by way of being a writer’s manifesto, a definition of what Lovecraft himself was trying to do. Because Moorcock shies away from explicit definitions (though he does offer one: “I am referring specifically to that body of prose fiction distinguished from myth, legend and folktale by its definite authorship and not genuinely purporting to be a true account of historical or religious events”), it leaves a sort of gap, the black hole of a definition which can only be inferred from the penumbra of praise and damnation that makes up the bulk of Wizardry and Wild Romance. And one of the problems is that Moorcock is so much better at damnation:

“…a new school is emerging of would-be Romantics, desperately striving to discover fresh sensibilities in the way repressed products of the middle-classes tried to loosen up with drugs and sentimental egalitarianism in the sixties. These people learned the school rules too well, however, and the main impression given by their fabulations is of red elbows and other miscellaneous bits of anatomy poking out through holes they have, with much effort and personal discomfort, rubbed in the straitjacket.”

And:

“Often the prose is little more than a mindless imitation of the euphonious aspects of the verse which, lacking the substance of the original, takes on the aspect of a mute attempting desperately to sing a Mozart song by mouthing an approximation of the sounds he has heard.”

And, most famously:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class. The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic.”

Like many an internet commentator, he brings the Nazis into the debate early on (mentioning Rudolph Hess in the Foreword). And he has a particular downer on HP Lovecraft:

“An aggressive, neurotic personality, though not without his loyalties and virtues, Lovecraft came under the influence of Poe, Dunsany and the imaginative writers of the Munsey pulp magazines and produced some of the most powerful infantile pathological imagery and some of the most astonishingly awful prose ever to gain popularity, yet his early work, written primarily in homage to Dunsany, from where he borrowed the idea of an invented pantheon of gods, is lighter in touch and almost completely lacking in the morbid imagery of his more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated in prose which becomes increasingly confused as the author’s embattled psyche received wound after wound and he regressed into an attitude of permanent defensiveness.”

Whew.

That word, “aggressive”, occurs quite often in Moorcock’s little critiques, whether it’s of Lovecraft, John Norman, Tolkien or C S Lewis. But its use does itself come across as, well, quite aggressive:

“One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”

The thing I always failed to notice in my early readings and re-readings of Moorcock’s book (which usually left me feeling how much he must hate the genre, and wondering why he bothered to write a book about it) was his evident passion for it. He swipes so eloquently against the writers he hates precisely because he feels so strongly about what they’re doing — or, to his mind, mis-doing. He does praise writers, some not unequivocally — Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard — others highly — Fritz Leiber, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake — though never, sadly, as eloquently as his criticisms. But he also presents, if you can spot it amidst the fusillade, evidence of having not only read a great deal of it, but a good deal about it.

Rodney Matthews cover

Rodney Matthews cover

And, of course, he has written a lot of it himself. But here, Moorcock doesn’t discuss his own work, which may account for the key gap I find in Wizardry and Wild Romance (whose title I always assumed was a quote from a genuine poem, till I tried to track it down, and found that the “Wheldrake” it’s attributed to is a Swinburne pseudonym (used, appropriately, to write bad reviews of his own work) as well as, later, a Moorcock character).

Wizardry and Wild Romance was the first book about fantasy I read, and it certainly taught me a lot:

“An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape…. and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings…”

And:

“Melodrama and irony work very well together; the best fantasies contain both elements, which maintain tonal equilibrium…”

Moorcock may bash the “morally bankrupt” middle-classes, and he may sometimes present a rather defensive maturismo somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wullschläger’s in Inventing Wonderland, but you have to admit he does it with style. And if you can stand back far enough not to be splashed by the acid he spits, there’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the sheer wit of the book, even if you disagree with the points being made:

“If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.”

And, perhaps the most revealing statement about Moorcock’s own tastes in fiction:

“If we must be given stories about talking animals, let them at least be sceptical, sardonic and world-weary talking animals.”

While to me, it’s to find recourse from scepticism, cynicism and world-weariness that I turn to fantasy in the first place — that, to me, is what literary magic is all about, what Tolkien called “re-enchantment” — but that, of course, is my own bias.

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John Picacio cover

Although it was updated in 2004 for the Monkeybrain Books edition, Wizardry and Wild Romance is, really, a product of its time, and is best read that way. It came from a writer witnessing the commercialisation of what had been, to him and the writers he admired, a deeply individualistic, often revolutionary art form — but that’s a battle that has long been lost, the commercial element of heroic fantasy being here to stay. The updates to the book, to me, feel a bit tagged on and less part of the central, anguished cry that spawned the kernel essay, “Epic Pooh”, back in — when was it? According to the Foreword, parts of Wizardry and Wild Romance were published as early as 1963, and that’s over fifty years ago!

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a book I will come back to and re-read, as I have come back to it many times in the twenty seven years since I first read it. But it’s been a process of learning how to read it: not as objective criticism, more as the expression of a passion, and of an ideal, that Moorcock never clearly states, but certainly defends — in style.

The Insanity of Jones and other tales by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood, photo by Douglas

Algernon Blackwood, photo by Douglas

Of all those early-20th century weird writers (Arthur Machen, M R James, Lord Dunsany, H P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith), Algernon Blackwood seems the most difficult to really know. Reading Lovecraft — the very type of the weird writer — you can’t help being aware that HPL has a definite idea of what a weird tale should be, and that he’s doing his best to capture it in form, content, style and idea, honing his approach tale by tale, in theory and in practice. Blackwood doesn’t seem to have an aesthetic ideal; his fiction is an outpouring of all sorts of stories and styles, ghostly, adventurous, romantic, comedic. (Lovecraft himself calls Blackwood’s work “voluminous and uneven”, though says it contains “some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age”.) He does though, like Lovecraft, have a central belief that acts as the DNA that shapes and unites all his fiction — “an interest in the Extension of Human Faculty”, as he puts it — but it seems to me that, in contrast to Lovecraft’s fiction, where the best tales are usually those that most embody Lovecraft’s stated ideals, those where Blackwood most explicitly captures his views on “extended or expanded consciousness” are usually the least successful as fiction. Fortunately, Blackwood has another force driving the production of his stories, and it’s where this is most evident that he’s at his best.

In his introduction to The Insanity of Jones and other tales — a selection of his fiction written between 1906 and 1910 —  Blackwood says:

“I recall, anyhow, that these tales poured from me spontaneously, as though a tap were turned on, and I have often since leaned to the suggestion that many of them derived from buried, unresolved shocks… These ‘shocks’ had come to an exceptionally ignorant youth of twenty who had drifted into the life of a newspaper reporter in New York after a disastrous cattle-farm and a hotel in Canada, and the drifting had included the stress of extreme poverty and starvation… the New York experiences in a world of crime and vice had bruised and bludgeoned a sensitive nature that swallowed the horrors without being able to digest them, and… the seeds thus sown, dormant and unresolved in the subconscious, possibly emerged later — and, since the subconscious always dramatises, emerged in story form.”

The best of the tales in this book are those most obviously rooted in real experience and vividly-created, authentic-feeling settings. The weird desolation of the wilds of the Danube in “The Willows”, and the truly vast and primal wilderness of Canada in “The Wendigo” are two obvious ones, but Blackwood isn’t only a wilderness man. The Insanity of Jones and other tales by Algernon BlackwoodThe New York of “Max Hensig”, with its evocation of the alcohol-sodden, sleep-deprived world of city reporters is just as convincing — and gripping — an environment. Elsewhere, although Blackwood can be poetic (as in, say, “The Dance of Death”, or “The Old Man of Dreams”, which mostly work because they’re short), the difference begins to tell in those stories written purely as stories rather than outpourings of genuine experience (“Miss Slumbubble”, in which an overly-anxious woman finds herself trapped in a haunted train carriage, or “The Insanity of Jones”, where a young clerk is given the chance to enact a karma-free revenge on a man who tortured him to death in a previous life) are the least substantial, and least convincing.

The key (with all weird writers, I suspect, particularly those who have a philosophy to expound) is mystery. Whatever a writer’s beliefs, while they’re conjuring the mystery — the awe, the fear, the terror, the wonder — they include us all, but as soon as the explanation arrives, the portcullis clangs down. The perfect example is Blackwood’s “May Day Eye”, which starts as a vivid evocation of the borderline panic of being lost in a mile or two of English countryside as dark descends — then, suddenly it’s all technical talk of “elementals”, and it’s not convincing. The point at which this tale changes is where the narrator meets with an expert on folklore who has all the necessary explanations. Such a mouthpiece character doesn’t always appear in Blackwood’s fiction, but when he does, he usually spoils it, for me. The most obvious example is the “psychic detective” John Silence (if only he would be silent), one of whose tales, “The Camp of the Dog” is in this book. John Silence is absent for much of the tale, and before he comes we get — again — a great evocation of an environment, in this case a vast collection of tiny islands north of Stockholm, and a growing tension between the small group of campers holidaying there, a tension taking a dangerously lycanthropic turn. Then John Silence arrives and talks all about “vital forces”, “the Subtle Body” and all things “fluidic”, and puts a dampener on what was building up to be a rather hothouse tale of teenage lust at odds with civilised values.

But when Blackwood’s good, he can be very good, and he’s good when his tales are backed up by a solid grounding in real places and situations. In “Max Hensig”, the New York reporter, Williams, gets to interview a psychopathic doctor on trial for the poisoning of his second wife. defagoWilliams is convinced Hensig is dangerous, and writes so in the papers, but Hensig — who is clearly a psychopath, and is openly contemptuous of so unimaginative a way of killing someone as poison — is released, and then Williams knows Hensig is after him. The interviews, with Williams one side of the prison bars and Hensig the other, feel like Hannibal Lecter territory, and when we know Hensig is on the loose once more, hard-drinking Williams’ descent into near-nervous collapse is as thick and sticky as an alcoholic sweat.

But the best tale in the book, for me, is “The Wendigo”. (“The Willows” is here, too, but I think that, despite Lovecraft’s endorsement, it has to take third place after “The Wendigo” and “Max Hensig”.) For a start, the environment is wonderfully realised:

“In front… lay the stretch of Fifty Island Water, a crescent-shaped lake some fifteen miles across from tip to tip, and perhaps five miles across where they were camped. A sky of rose and saffron, more clear than any atmosphere Simpson had ever known, still dropped its pale streaming fires across the waves, where the islands — a hundred, surely, rather than fifty — floated like the fairy barques of some enchanted fleet. Fringed with pines, whose crests fingered most delicately the sky, they almost seemed to move upwards as the light faded — about to weigh anchor and navigate the pathways of the heavens instead of the currents of their native and desolate lake.”

Then there’s the supernatural element itself. Simpson’s hunter-guide Défago is snatched from the very mouth of his tent by the Wendigo — snatched and carried off to race through the woods, then up into the skies, where his cries about his “burning feet of fire” echo down to the terrified Simpson. wendigoBut this isn’t all. Out of sheer boldness, Blackwood has Défago return after several days’ absence for an hour or two — or is it Défago? The thing looks like him, but that likeness could be “a mask that was on the verge of dropping off, and… underneath they would discover something black and diabolical revealed in utter nakedness.” Défago’s comrade Hank shouts that this isn’t Défago, and the thing disappears as mysteriously as it came… Then, later, we find Défago again, only this time, we’re told, it’s the real man, one utterly frostbitten, exhausted, and empty-minded. And so, is the Wendigo an actual creature? Is it a supernatural entity? Or is it a metaphor for “that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man”? Blackwood — as caught up in the rush of his tale as Défago is in the Wendigo’s grip — doesn’t answer, but lets the mystery remain:

“Out there, in the heart of unreclaimed wilderness, they had surely witnessed something crudely and essentially primitive. Something that had survived somehow the advance of humanity had emerged terrifically, betraying a scale of life monstrous and immature. He envisaged it rather as a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and uncouth, still oppressed the hearts of men; when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn.”

A glimpse — this is what a great weird tale should be, not an explanation. And it’s when Blackwood keeps his tales to that glimpse that he most succeeds.