Old Nathan

It was near Halloween, and I usually like to read something suitable to the season, so inspired by the autumnal cover (which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything in the book), I pulled this one off the shelf.

Review: Old Nathan, David Drake, 1991.

Cover by Larry Elmore

This is a collection of five stories, presented in chronological order, with two being reprints.

Old Nathan is an old man. But he’s a feared old man with a reputation for working magic that his neighbors in the Appalachians sometimes seek out. Nathan’s not a man to turn down a challenge, whether issued by a mere man or something else.

He’s spent his whole life in those hills. He never got further than King’s Mountain where, in a battle in the Revolutionary War, he got his testicles shot off.

That seems to be where he picked up the ability to work magic. Unfortunately, Drake never really gives us his origin story or why he considers himself the Master of the Devil.

Besides a self-imposed celibacy, he can talk to animals – which proves useful in gathering intelligence, but it also means he only eats fish and plants. He also can, when needed, pull a jacknife from another dimension.

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“The Hill and the Hole”

Don’t worry. There will be more on Arthur Machen. I have read and will be reviewing more of his work.

However, a few months ago, two to be exact, I watched a rather mediocre movie on Amazon based on this story.

Being a Fritz Leiber fan – at least of his non-sword-and-sorcery, I looked it up.

Review. “The Hill and the Hole”, Fritz Leiber, 1941.

Unsurprisingly, this 1942 story was first published in Unknown since it partakes of that magazine’s mixture of science and rationality with horror and fantasy. 

Our protagonist, Tom Digby, is somewhere in the Midwest surveying for the US Geological Service. 

He encounters an anomaly. He can’t get an accurate reading on a hill’s height using a transit and altimeter. 

A girl who lives on the land the “hill” is on, warns him that it is, in fact, a hole as his instruments say. Furthermore, “They” live there, and They don’t like to be disturbed.  She even tells him another man went up the hill a couple of years ago and “They made him dead.” 

Digby meets his boss, Ben Shelley, for lunch, and Ben shows him the last topographic map for the area. It does, indeed, show a hole instead of a hill. 

Digby asks Shelley to help him take another reading. Ben mentions some oddities about the death of the last man who tried to survey it. He was suffocated. 

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Review: Hieroglyphics, Arthur Machen, 1902.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts Machen’s aesthetic theory of what “fine literature” should be, and this is the book where he presents it. In his “About My Books” (included in The Secret Ceremonies), he says he was a book reviewer needing to “find reasons for my liking and depreciation” of certain works. He seems to have finished it in 1899 and says, as of the 1920s, he had received not a farthing for it despite being assured “it influenced the whole standpoint of English literary criticism”.

I’m not sure how many read it today apart from Machen fans and scholars.

The six chapters of the book are presented as discussions, over time, between the invented persona of the Hermit and Machen with the Hermit, of course, presenting Machen’s actual views.

What defines fine literature to the Hermit? Ecstasy. Machen says, in a famous passage,

Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.

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“A Fragment of Life”

Essay: “A Fragment of Life”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

This is a wonderful story with many elements.

It’s a slice of middle-class life circa 1904, a superb example of Machen’s theme of finding the numinous, mysterious, and wonderful in everyday life (here, as usual, in the streets of London); an attack on the commercial and scientific materialism of his day as well as apocalyptic Protestantism; and a sort of a bridge with his earlier “The White People” and his later The Secret Glory. It is a dark comedy, domestic drama, and a religious quest.

Machen wrote this short novel between 1899 to 1904. It was originally serialized in four installments, but Machen was dissatisfied with the final installment and rewrote it when the story was republished in House of Souls.

The style of the story is closer to the Machen style of The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations and the early sections of The Hill of Dreams than the later sections of that novel. We follow our hero as the mundane mask of the world is removed and the mystery and glory behind it revealed.

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“The White People”

Review: “The White People”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

Written in 1899, this story is regarded as one of Machen’s best. After Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, it was H. P. Lovecraft’s favorite weird story. He liked it for its indefinite and dreamy plot, qualities it certainly has in its section titled “The Green Book”.

In 1899, Machen was a man in “dreadful misery and desolation and dereliction of the soul”. His first wife had died that year from breast cancer. They had been married 11 years. Then one morning, while walking with his friend, Machen was transformed.  He realized the “great sorrows of life” were passing trifles.

A new productive period started that included the writing of this story.

The Green Book is the journal of a dead girl, written when she was at least thirteen or fourteen, maybe older. It talks of how she talked to white people she saw when she was in the crib.

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Ornaments in Jade

Review: Ornaments in Jade, Arthur Machen, 1924.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about this book. It is a collection of ten of what S. T. Joshi calls “prose poems” though they many have enough plot that we might call them flash fiction today.

In either case, I don’t see much point in reviewing them whatever they are called. They are brief enough where summary seems superfluous and criticism would require minute examinations of the sort I’m not interested in.

And, frankly, I didn’t find them interesting as poetry or at all memorable though I read them less than three months ago. I do not agree with Joshi saying, in “Arthur Machen: The Evils of Materialism” (in The Secret Ceremonies) saying they are comparable only to Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry in quality. Many remind me of some of the more forgettable pieces in The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins).

Ian Smith’s “Sanctity Plus Sorcery: The Curious Christianity of Arthur Machen” (also in The Secret Ceremonies) does have some interesting things to say about how they show Machen’s “religious influences”. “Midsummer” is blatantly pagan in theme. “The Rose Garden” and “The Moth and the Flame” have Sufi influences.

All ten pieces were written in 1897. Some were first published in magazines first before appearing in the 1924 collection.

The Hill of Dreams

Essay: The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

In 1896, the year The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations was published, Machen said, in the introduction to a 1923 edition of this novel, he decided to stop being, in the words of critics, a “second-rate imitator” of Robert Louis Stevenson.

This was not quite all the truth, but there was a good deal of truth in it, and I am glad to say I took my correction in a proper spirit. I resolved to try to amend my ways.

There would be

No more white powders, no more of the calix principis inferorum, no more hanky-panky with the Great God Pan, or the Little People or any people of that dubious sort.

He planned this novel in in 1895, and it was not done until the spring of 1897. His plan was frequently revised, concluding chapters abandoned and restarted. He despaired, at times, of ever finding a way to completion.

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“The Adventure of the Death-Fetch”

It’s Wednesday, so that means it’s time for another weird fiction discussion to begin over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Adventure of the Death-Fetch”, Darrell Schweitzer, 1994.

You don’t have to try very hard, if you read fantastic fiction, to find Sherlock Holmes stories which go beyond Arthur Conan Doyle’s rational framework for the character. I’ve already done posts on three such works.

This one is, kind of, barely, also a kind of a Cthulhu Mythos story.

This is a twice-told Sherlock Holmes story.

Our narrator is a 19-year old college student visiting relatives in England over Christmas break. The relatives know Dr. John Watson, and he’s staying with them. 

One night, a few days before his death, Watson tells just the narrator a story. It’s a Sherlock Holmes case never documented. That’s because Holmes made Watson promise, on pain of their friendship, that he would never write it down. 

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“The Nameless Offspring”

It’s this week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing

Review: “The Nameless Offspring”, Clark Ashton Smith, 1932.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

Coincidentally, Arthur Machen, subject of several recent posts, has a connection to this story. Smith had read his “The Great God Pan” and decided he would like write a story with a woman impregnated by something inhuman.

It’s an effective story though it does rely on the great coincidence of the narrator, Henry Chaldane, accidentally ending up, while on a motorcycle trip through England, at the isolated house of Sir John Tremoth. He just happens to be a friend of Henry’s deceased father.

Henry vaguely remember the story of what happened to Lady Agatha Tremoth, Sir John’s wife. She went cataleptic and was mistakenly buried alive. 

The day after she was interred in the family vault, Sir John doubted that Agatha was dead. He went to the crypt and found Agatha sitting upright. Somehow, she got her nailed coffin lid off.  She was shattered in brain and body and remembered only a hideous, unhuman face looming over her. Its limbs were semi-human, and the figure seemed to go about sometimes like an animal. 

Nine months later, she gave birth to a monstrous child and died. The child was locked away from the world. 

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