Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.