Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "The Novel of the Black Seal"

Our penultimate meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group involved Arthur Machen’s 1895 work, The Novel of the Black Seal.

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Sir JJ Drinkwater

The story is actually part of a larger book, The Three Impostors, a work that
incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".
Another reviewer describes The Three Impostors as:
Far more of a challenge than your typical novel, this is the story of three men too absorbed by their own literary interests to realise the truth, or otherwise, of the events unfolding around them. These are Dyson, in thrall to his own imagination, Phillipps, an adherent to science, and Russell, who simply considers himself a realist.
Structurally based upon R. L. Stevenson’s ‘New Arabian Nights,’ thirteen chapters here act as anecdotal short stories, delivered to Dyson and Phillipps by supporting characters inveigling upon them their recent plights, and on whom we – and they – must trail to decide upon the truth of their motive and intent.

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Dame Kghia Gherardi

The prologue to Black Seal has a woman, later identified as Miss Lally, discussing the likelihood of the fantastic with Phillipps. She tells him that she was once a rationalist, as Phillipps is, but that her experiences with a Professor Gregg changed her mind. Phillipps implores her to tell the story, which she does.

Miss Lally is a poor but educated woman who moved to London with the intention of finding a job. Unsuccessful at this, she encounters the professor, a widower, who offers her a job tending his children. The professor is a respected man of science, but he has a secret obsession involving a mysterious black stone with unknown characters on it, which he suspects is the key to finding an ancient race of terrible beings - beings that we know through folklore as kinder versions of the truth. He and Miss Lally travel to the countryside where Professor Gregg makes some final deductions before setting off to find these creatures. He disappears, leaving Miss Lally a letter that tells her everything that he has discovered; this letter comprises the last section of the story.

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Your humble scribe

I was unfamiliar with Machen or his work before reading this book, but his style of writing and subject matter reminded me a great deal of H.P. Lovecraft and his “Cthulu” mythos. The ancient creatures, the sense of foreboding, the scientist daring to venture where he shouldn’t - all these elements are fundamental to Lovecraft’s tales. Sir JJ mentioned that Machen knew both Yeats and Lovecraft, and the latter acknowledged Machen as an influence on his writing.

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Miss Ellie Mink

We had a small number of discussants, possibly because of the relative unfamiliar nature of the material. However, as so often seems to happen, the small group was very involved, leading to a good back-and-forth discussion.

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Miss Janet Rhiadra

Several of us were interested enough to declare an intention to sample more of Machen’s work. And enough of the discussion made reference to Lovecraft’s work that Miss Mink declared an intention to read some Lovecraft, so the group clearly enjoys turn-of-the-century horror!

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Miss Herndon Bluebird

Next month, in what I believe is the last meeting for this particular syllabus, we return to William Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles, which was scheduled for some months back but postponed when the group was unable to meet. It’s a lengthy tome, so I hope I can remember enough of it by the time we meet!

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Miss Jessie Darwin

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Miss Amezura, Mr. Gwordn Tripsa, and Miss Finn Nesterennko

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