Friday, 19 June 2015

Mist and Other Ghost Stories by Richmal Crompton, (Sundial Supernatural series), Sundial Press

It is extraordinary to consider that the author of forty-two 'William' collections, over an equivalent number of years, also had time to pen forty adult novels and miscellaneous short stories.
  At the time of writing 'Mist,' Crompton had an opportunity to explore other genre having been forced to give up teaching, incapacitated by polio in her right leg in 1923, consigning her – in her mid-thirties - to a wheelchair. Of the nine latter collections, only 'Mist and Other Ghost Stories' (1928) dealt solely with the supernatural. Surprising, considering Crompton's long-held interest in the subject, since attending St Elphin's Boarding School in Lancashire, which boasted its resident ghostly nun.
  Possession, and its encroaching effect upon loved ones, is the predominant theme in most of the thirteen tales. Pan sensually implicates himself in the object of the first tale, ('The Bronze Statuette') before appearing in person – barely disguised – in the second. ('Strange'). Inherited jealousy rears its ugly head in 'The Spanish Comb,' although a modern feminist perspective wouldn't be without credence.
  Crompton's strongest tales feature women wronged in the more authentic domestic situations. In 'Rosalind,' an artist's model – caught in a love triangle – becomes the victim of one of her suitors' shallow self-interest. In 'The Little Girl' an elderly woman recalls a ghostly friend of her youth and the connected guilt harboured by a late aunt.
  In 'Hands,' a bride, having made the decision not to discuss the late first wife of her new husband, finds herself an unexpected victim of her apparently honourable choice. 'The Sisters' finds a suitor unwittingly coming between two inseparable sisters, as gradual tragedy seals their fate. 'Mist' is the atmospheric portent to the first silent witness of a past crime, seen to be committed with a motive unlike that assumed by the locals. These five are the best, but the remaining eight don't hold a dud.
  If the content appears over-familiar in 2015, derivative they are not. Most admirable in these tales, from a world of middle-class cosiness, is the emotional honesty and lack of faux sentiment in the best. Their perspective, from a stoic, independent woman, adds a modernity in the narrative voices strengthening what might otherwise have solely survived as period charm alone. There may be a sameness in each, but subjective imagination can easily compensate for what is left out. The simple exposition and crisp matter-of-factness of Crompton's prose-style – oddly reminiscent of the 'Williams' - is another of those less-is-more object lessons to the rest of us on how to write today. (At least for the first draft). Those presuming her out-of-date should take a second look.
 It is good to see Sundial back after a year's enforced break. There is a 'forthcoming' list of mouthwatering titles, like this, in dire need of re-release.

* * * *

Pan and the Peak Experience
(Part 2)

The influence of 'The Golden Bough' cannot be overstated. With its perspective cultural rather than theological, between 1890-1915 it comprised eighteen separate print-runs making it, for a whole post-Victorian generation, as ubiquitous as 'Origin of Species' or The Bible itself. From here, the new generation bridged the crucial link between the pre-Christian natural and post-Gothic supernatural, to manifest a sensibility definably modern.

Initially, this was by no means obvious since the book's influence soon ignited several well known groups and sub-groups, some decidedly eccentric, almost all educationally privileged. e.g. Rupert Brooke with the Bloomsbury Set, Cecil Sharp, Ernest Seton, Ernest Westlake and Gerald Gardner. Today, we may perceive with cynicism such actions of the time as from a bunch of mainly male, upper middle-class sexual inadequates with too much spare cash and time on their hands. While this may largely be true of the excesses of Crowley and his followers, previous decades had laid more mindful, socially conscious, and long-lasting foundations.

The misguided impression that these authors were merely hopelessly fey and faux nostalgists, repudiating modernity, could not have been more wrong. Away from the Wiccan eccentrics and Crowley's sado-masochistic disciples was a desire for a more humanely progressive future, one more spiritually liberating, companion to nature, and non-materialist. A broader influence beyond their bounds was undoubtedly being wrought by more committed writers. In truth, they shared a view of nature parallel to that of the modernists, albeit without the intellectual, urban perspectives.

The new women authors found their own form of empowerment; one less Pan-ish and often more Sapphic. For the literary woman, desireless for the confines of her 'expected place,' the groundwork had also been laid; by Amelia Edwards, Margaret Oliphant and other physical – and metaphysical – explorers of their generation. The next saw Vernon Lee, Mary Butts and May Sinclair follow suit, progressing the feminist cause still further, yet from equivalent circumstances.

Consummate supernaturalist Amelia Edwards' curriculum vitae reads as having little bearing or relevance to her gender and is itself one of the great undersold tales of late-19th century industry and endeavour. Her books on Egypt, its landscape and antiquities, her transatlantic sales of wide-ranging literary interests and unrelenting networking, single-handedly wove a web connecting international scholars and curators that stretched across half the world. Margaret Olipant, her contemporary, bore a toughness through contrasting familial circumstances that manifested a prodigious (rather than merely prolific) number of novels and essays. Even her late clutch of supernatural tales, though rather less in number, leave a legacy all their own. A regular contributor to Blackwood's pages, she virtually coined the term, 'social science,' after one of her pieces in 1860.

Later, Vernon Lee's theory of 'psychological aesthetics' again moved the narrative voice further away from the old Christian certainties. Mary Butts, perhaps closer to neo-paganism from her writings on pre-Christianity and Crowley association, was rare in articulating such mystical topics from a woman's perspective. May Sinclair, known almost exclusively for one of three supernatural collections, shared Lee's interest in the new Freudian psychoanalysis, coining the term 'stream-of-consciousness' in an essay reviewing the narrative voice of the first book in the Pilgrimage novel series of Dorothy Richardson.

By the Twenties, the priestly narrator hadn't so much been sidelined as virtually banished in England's uncanny, with only the traditionally conservative crime thriller filling in the gaping void left by his absence. The new generation of authors may have advanced into modernism, but there remained something of a middle-brow audience; one still hungry for depictions of Establishment tropes being dismantled. (Such tropes having to be present at the outset).

Awareness of the uncanny in literature was seemingly triggered to a higher level than ever before in the Romantic Age; specifically after Blake and his followers. The problem then, as up to the time under discussion, was the growing self-awareness running well ahead of the language needed to recognise, define and describe it. As the philosopher Colin Wilson once pointed out; 'The problem with the Romantics is that they didn't know how to canalize these volcanic energies from the depths of the psyche. Faced with the awesome spectacle of a mountain by moonlight, Wordsworth confessed that he was filled with a sense of “unknown modes of being.” (p. 29, 'Superconsciousness – The Quest for the Peak Experience,' 2009). A perception that might best be described as mere passive acknowledgement. Most recently, Wilson explored how an individual's awakening of the right-brain, triggered by one's own heightened perception of any positive event, stimulates it to experience joy, actualisation and self-belief. A phase of modern history founded upon what he termed – after Abraham Maslow – 'the discovery of inner freedom.' (p.13). Is it not therefore likely that this would have empowered that individual into first challenging, then overcoming, the accepted, assumed reliance upon a Biblical external force?

Wilson himself was ambiguous on the subject of God, where one might have expected silent atheism. (In the same book, he later refers to atheists as 'stupid'). More than one of his prior generation had no such qualms. Forrest Reid also had experiences that had already played-out the Maslow / Wilson discovery. If not easy to define, of one thing he was certain. They had 'nothing whatever to do with religion...(but)...created by some power outside myself,' ('Private Road', p. 125), 'climbing the mountain road to Glenagivney in Donegal,' until 'I abruptly emerged – a glory of sunset glittering on the sea below me and flaming across the sky.'

Perhaps his most powerful peak experience came one steaming June while a student. He was cramming for intermediate exams in a field in Northern Ireland. Suddenly, anticipating the arrival of Hermes, Dionysos, and 'hairy-shanked Pan-of-the-Goats,' he had the compelling urge of a reaching out to some spiritual liberation also reaching out for him. 'For though there was no wind, a little green leafy branch was snapped off from the branch above me, and fell to the ground at my hand. I drew my breath quickly; there was a drumming in my ears; I knew that the green woodland before me was going to split asunder, to swing back on either side like two great painted doors...'
  Reid says he then hesitated, drew back, but the vision lingered on; 'the tree was growing in my room, and I could feel the hot sunshine on my hands and body.' Hardly surprising that Reid felt the need to repeat this evocative recollection in both the first and second parts of his memoirs. ('Apostate', p.158-9, (1926) and 'Private Road' , p.196-7, (1940)).

(Part 3 next month)


  1. Expertly written review, and thought-provoking essay. Looking forward for the next part! Crompton is now on my reading list. Thank you!
    Mia Avramut

    1. Thank YOU so much, Mia. It's such enthusiasm that keeps 'Pan' going.