The Palace of Morgana by John Sterling

cover art by Richard Dadd

I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:

“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”

“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.

Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)

cover by Murray Ewing

Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.

Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.

The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.

Portrait of John Sterling, by J Brown

Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.

If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.

The Palace of Morgana and Other Fantasy Tales is now available on Kindle, ePub and in paperback (and, of course, you can read most of the tales in Essays and Tales at archive.org).

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Henry JamesThe first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I hated it. I hated the over-stuffy prose, which seemed to be hiding a good ghost story behind thickets of Victorian verbiage so tangled the only emotion to get through was the most insistently hysterical. The characters seemed nothing more than embodiments of the era’s most conventional attitudes: the oh-so-angelic children, the distant, paternalistic gentleman-employer who of course knows best about everything, the loyal housekeeper with an unquestioning faith in her superiors, and the governess, a wide-eyed innocent country parson’s daughter on her first adventure out into the world…

And then, on a recent re-read, I realised this was, of course, the point. The story, told by the governess (that country parson’s daughter on her first adventure into the world) is infused with her hysterical insistence that things be as the Victorian world liked to pretend they should be, precisely when they’re revealing themselves to be the opposite. Those thickets of Victorian verbiage are her way of trying to keep a destabilised world in check, a world in which children aren’t little angels but human beings (and so can seem, at times, like devils); a world in which distant paternalistic gentleman-employers don’t know best, but simply don’t care; a world in which some servants aren’t so unquestioning and loyal.

turn-of-the-screw-01I suppose what wrongfooted me on that first read was I expected The Turn of the Screw to be a ‘straightforward’ ghost story (which was the only type I’d read, at the time). By this I mean a story in which a normal world is invaded by the supernatural. To make this sort of ‘straightforward’ ghost story work, you need characters who are straightforwardly normal, whose very normality acts as a baseline to which the abnormality of the supernatural can be compared. But The Turn of the Screw isn’t of this type. It is, I’d say, one of the first truly modern ghost stories, whose characteristic is that they tangle the supernatural with the psychological to such a degree it’s impossible to unravel the two.

The Turn of the Screw is the famous example of a ghost story that can be read entirely psychologically (the governess, coming apart at the seams, hallucinates ghosts as an expression of her own super-heated repressions) or supernaturally. As someone who doesn’t like their ghosts to be explained away, but who also likes the fantastic to feel psychologically significant, I prefer to read it as the perfect meeting of haunters and haunted — a pair of ghosts who, though real, fit exactly into the dark cracks of an unhinged, still-living mind. The governess, in The Turn of the Screw, is as much a monster as that ‘horror’, the dead manservant Peter Quint, only she’s a monster of the opposite extreme: Quint is ‘much too free’; the governess is as tight-laced and primly judgemental as any inexperienced, over-romantic Victorian pastor’s daughter can be. And whereas Quint is transgressive of all boundaries — between the classes, between the sexes, between adult and child, and, now, between life and death — the governess insists on everything being filed way into the absolute, binary opposites of her age: people are either ‘gentlemen’ or they are ‘horrors’, children are ‘angelic’ and innocent or ‘corrupt’. While eight-year-old Flora is at first ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, she is, at the end, ‘hideously hard… common and almost ugly’.

It’s the governess’s relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, that’s key to both her personality, and my own initial reaction against the novel. Once the governess realises she can, effectively, bully Mrs Grose into agreeing with her, she’s constantly finishing Mrs Grose’s sentences, forcing her own (often wild and illogical) interpretations on what Mrs Grose has seen, heard, or suspects, as though they were the only possibilities:

‘He was looking for someone else, you say – someone who was not you?’

‘He was looking for little Miles.’ A portentous clearness now possessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘I know, I know, I know!’ My exaltation grew. ‘And you know, my dear!’

Turn_of_the_screw_02This is what I found so repellent about the book that first time I read it — the governess isn’t merely hijacking Mrs Grose’s point of view, she’s hijacking the reader’s too. No room is left for any doubt that those infamous horrors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are seeking to corrupt the children, and that the children are willing accomplices. And, while the governess herself freely corrupts Mrs Grose with her own hysterical insistence, she knows she can’t put words into the children’s mouths. The Turn of the Screw becomes a battle with silence — with, in a way, a sort of tortured social propriety, in which the only way to find out if something awful has happened to the children is to suggest that awfulness, but to do that is to potentially ruin what is (to the governess’s mind) most valuable about them, their innocence. So they must be made to speak without prompting, and the more they refuse to do so, the more the governess, in her twisted way, takes the children’s silence as proof of their corruption. Silence, in The Turn of the Screw, becomes a palpable thing, identical both with the ghosts (‘the silence itself — which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength — became the element into which I saw the figure disappear’) and with horror, too:

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’

The governess herself is bound to silence: by the children’s uncle, who wants someone to look after his niece and nephew and not bother him, but also by her society, that expects women to have no voice, and children to be ‘seen and not heard’. Miles’s expulsion from school is because of his saying unspecified ‘things’ (and he later steals a letter, from the governess to the uncle, which was itself an attempt to break a silence). Words are how innocence is corrupted. But, at the same time, confession — breaking silence — is linked with salvation:

‘I’ll get it out of him. He’ll meet me. He’ll confess. If he confesses he’s saved.’

The governess exists in a weird duality with the ghosts. She first sees Quint standing in the tower where she was standing some time before; when she next sees him, through a window, she feels compelled to go outside and stand where he stood, looking in, like two chess pieces chasing one another round a board. She sees Miss Jessel at the foot of the stairs, crying, then later finds herself in the same place, in the same turmoil. When she sees Miss Jessel sitting at the teacher’s desk of the schoolroom where she herself usually sits, the words she comes out with — ‘You terrible, miserable woman!’ — could be her own judgement of herself. Quint is the shadow image of her over-romanticisation of the children’s uncle; Miss Jessel is an image of her own possible ruin. The governess’s utter inability to see herself for what she is (those windows she keeps seeing Peter Quint through could be acting as mirrors), her inability to break a silence she shares with herself, are what makes her monstrous.

OWC DraculaLike the other great horror stories that came out at the time — that embarrassment of graveyard blooms from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H G Wells’ science-fictional horrors, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor MoreauThe Turn of the Screw gets its power from a new awareness of how our inner lives can entangle us with dark powers, creating far more complex relationships with the horrific and supernatural than merely that of fear. The end of the Victorian era thus saw the creation of a set of stories that have proved fertile for more than a century of ongoing adaptations and reimaginings. Thanks to Freud and co., those Victorian times came to symbolise, in a way, repression itself. The governess of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is perhaps, then, the perfect Victorian monster, so deeply does she embody the strictures, mores, prejudices, idealisations and judgements of what we now tend to look on as an over-straitened age; but she also presents a rich portrait of human self-blindness that continues to be relevant well into the present.

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen“Literature,” declares Machen’s protagonist Lucian Taylor at one point in the novel, “is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words.” But it’s not “exquisite impressions” Machen himself is after in The Hill of Dreams. Here, he traces the alchemical inner life of Lucian Taylor, and while he does achieve what Lucian himself strives for in his writing — “that indefinite something which is scarcely so much style as manner, or atmosphere” — it’s the oscillation between the extremes of agony and ecstasy that gives Machen’s book its life.

Beautifully written, The Hill of Dreams is never merely beautiful (as that harking after the “exquisite” might imply), for Machen’s “manner, or atmosphere” is tussling with very active, very dangerous, psychological forces, and the lyrical flow of the prose is shot through with moments of fiery vivacity — a storm of image and feeling, full of flame, light, wonder and horror, rather than anything so passive as the simply “exquisite”:

“The wind blew wildly, and it came up through the woods with a noise like a scream, and a great oak by the roadside ground its boughs together with a dismal grating jar. As the red gained in the sky, the earth and all upon it glowed, even the grey winter fields and the bare hillsides crimsoned, the waterpools were cisterns of molten brass, and the very road glittered. He was wonder-struck, almost aghast, before the scarlet magic of the afterglow. The old Roman fort was invested with fire; flames from heaven were smitten about its walls, and above there was a dark floating cloud, like a fume of smoke, and every haggard writhing tree showed as black as midnight against the blast of the furnace.”

Arthur Machen in the 1890s, from the Friends of Arthur Machen site

Arthur Machen in the 1890s, from the Friends of Arthur Machen site

There’s a reverie-like quality to the flow of the narrative, as Machen slips from one image or experience to the next, always harking back, again and again, to certain primal moments. Lucian’s story could, in fact, be described as a series of brief but deeply-felt encounters with female figures — imaginary, real or, in Lucian’s superheated inner world, the imaginary written over the real — after which he rebounds so deeply into his own inner realms, to deal with his ambivalent feelings of horror and desire, that he loses touch with reality altogether. The first is when, as a youth, he lies down in an old Roman fort and either dreams, or daydreams, or actually experiences a visitation from what may be a supernatural creature, or may be “the symbol of the Beloved in hill and wood and stream, and every flower and every dark pool”, whose presence is only described as an after-impression of “the dark eyes that had shone over him, and the scarlet lips that had kissed him”. Lucian feels a “panic fear”, and runs away, but all his life, afterwards, he’s drawn back, a helpless moth to the alchemical flame of this archetypal female. (Just as the landscape, as described in the quote above, is so lit up with images of fire and molten metal, Lucian’s women are, too: one has a “red flame” in her cheek and “bronze” hair.)

The least dangerous of these women is the entirely un-supernatural local girl, Annie, who takes pity on Lucian as he wanders, distraught, one night. Lucian falls in love with her, but in typical fashion prefers it when she has to go away, so he can set about devising rituals for worshipping her as an ideal, rather than a real woman. He creates a book of poetry “written all in symbols, and in the same spirit of symbolism he decorated it, causing wonderful foliage to creep about the text, and showing the blossom of certain mystical flowers, with emblems of strange creatures, caught and bound in rose thickets” (like the “matted boughs” into which that initial female creature disappeared), reciting it while lacerating himself with thorns and briars. (“A practice that seemed to me unwholesome”, Lord Dunsany says, with a certain understatement, in his introduction.) Meantime, Lucian begins another practice, that of imagining himself into another realm, a fantasised Roman past, “the garden of Avallaunius”, which he endeavours to make more real to himself than the village he lives in, whose people are (to his eyes) cruel, scornful and gossipy, or simply unable to understand his sensitive, imaginative nature. When he learns Annie has married someone else, Lucian doesn’t seem to mind; it’s as if it takes away the necessity of having to compromise his very exacting ideals: “he had feared lest love itself should destroy love.”

New Grub Street (Penguin Classics) by George GissingComing into a small inheritance, he moves to London, finds himself a garrett, and engages in “the great adventure of letters”. Despite being set in the same city and the same era, Machen bypasses the world of Gissing’s New Grub Street, and on both sides — not for him the wearing-down drudgery of commercial realities, Lucian’s world is entirely composed of the extremes of agony and ecstasy, that even Gissing’s most idealistic and downtrodden writers, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, with their Sunday-afternoon discussions of “a line or two of Euripides”, miss by miles. Lucian is not trying to earn a living, but to achieve something far more occult:

“He had fallen into the habit of always using this phrase “the work” to denote the adventure of literature; it had grown in his mind to all the austere and grave significance of “the great work” on the lips of the alchemists…”

It’s amazing to see how Machen can pull off an entire chapter about the agonies, futilities, and desperations of the entirely internal battle of making art — “an infernal passion, a species of madness” — as Lucian strives to capture his literary ideal on paper and fails again and again and again, till “he had bought, by a long experience and by countless hours of misery, a knowledge of his limitations, of the vast gulf that yawned between the conception and the work…” Locked in his own inner struggles for too long, he realises too late that:

“…he could not gain the art of letters and he had lost the art of humanity.”

Yet Machen makes this relentlessly downward tale readable. The Hill of Dreams is, above all, a book that survives on its style, its “manner, or atmosphere”. Sometimes, reading it, I was unsure exactly what was happening — were we in a new experience, or revisiting an old memory? — but, in a sense, this is the point of the book, as Lucian’s preference for imagination over reality, and the way every encounter with any woman pulls him back to that primal, supernatural incident, casts echoes throughout all his subsequent experience. So, in a way, all his experiences are both new and the same, re-encounters with his primal, inner archetype — “the symbol of the Beloved” — never with anything real, but always with something unreal, though dangerous, and desirous, enough, to him.

Machen - Tales of Horror and the Supernatural vol 1The end, for Lucian, is inevitable — he has come to rely a little too much on the contents of a certain bottle of “dark blue glass”, and he’s found, at last, having taken “a drop too much”, by his landlady, a woman with “splendid bronze hair”, the final female he must retreat from. But The Hill of Dreams isn’t a tragedy. It’s the story of one highly sensitive, highly imaginative man’s internal transformation of a reality he can’t face, into something wild, dangerous, ecstatic and terrible, an alchemical working whose focus was only accidentally literature — it’s far more in Lucian’s head, in his entire sensory experience, that finds wonders and horrors alike in both country and city. Most of all, it is Machen’s prose that defies any tragic reading. Always alive, always seeking the bright and fiery, the energetic and, if necessary, the dangerous, it carries you along like an enchantment.

For an epilogue, Machen could well have used his own words from “The White People”:

“Yes… magic is justified of her children. There are many, I think, eat dry crusts and drink water, with a joy infinitely sharper than anything within the experience of the “practical” epicure.”

Replace “magic” with “literature”, or perhaps just “imagination”, and that statement applies to Lucian’s “taking of heaven by storm” (the “essence of sin”, according to Ambrose in “The White People”): “an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner.” Like Lovecraft’s, Machen’s strongest writing defies being read simply as horror. Rather, it’s a striving to capture the terrifying and ecstatic clash between a strongly-felt imagination and an unignorable reality. In such a clash, it’s always reality that wins out, but those aesthetic souls like Lucian can have their private victories at least — on the printed page, if nowhere else.