Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille

James de Mille’s tale, serialized in Harper’s Weekly before its publication in book form in 1888 is a late Victorian contribution to the lost world/hollow earth genre that had its modern genesis in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but with roots stretching back to Lucian’s True Story and some of the more fantastic medieval traveler’s tales. Whatever merits it held as an adventure story at the time of its first publication seem to have been quickly forgotten in the wake of Rider Haggard’s tales of mystery and thrills in darkest Africa as exemplified in She and Ayesha (the book business must have been quite different in those days, for in our present time one successful novel, or series, in a specific genre – let’s say, warlocks or vampires – opens the floodgates for a plethora of imitators ready to be gobbled up by the undiscerning reader at alarming rates). De Mille also seems to have been aiming for some sort of social satire in the Swiftian mode, but to dreary effect.

The story relates the contents of a copper cylinder found at sea by a group of upper class idlers yachting out amongst the Azores. They have hit the doldrums, and are glad for the amusement of the narrative, although they have divergent perspectives on the veracity of the adventures detailed on the papyrus pages. The token skeptic is convinced that the story is a hoax, cleverly planted in the mid-Atlantic to bob in the waves, collecting barnacles and seaweed until such time as some lucky sailor fishes it up and publishes it to his own financial advantage. Others take a more scholarly interest, interrupting the narrative to give speculative lectures on the linguistic correspondences between that of the antipodean cannibals described therein and the ancient Hebrews (one of the idlers notes that this connection between the polar death worshippers and the Thirteenth Tribe makes no sense, because the barbarians abhor wealth, and well, how Jewish is that?).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The narrative details the adventures of one Adam (get it?) More who, deciding to go penguin hunting on a remote Antarctic island with a companion, ends up being lost in a fog as his ride home sails blissfully away. He and his buddy paddle around for a few days in their dinghy, but loose all sense of direction in the eerie bleakness. They finally make landfall on a godforsaken volcanic shore inhabited by a degenerate race of subhumans who treat them royally until dinner time, at which point they figure More’s companion might taste good jerked and slow-roasted. The cries of More’s companion, warning him to get away before he becomes the second course is genuinely creepy. More gets back into the boat and is swept safely away from the cannibals, which is a good thing, into a dark and deepening chasm inhabited by prehistoric sea monsters, which is a bad thing.

He eventually passes, by means of a subterranean river, into a true Antarctic world, comprising a warm ocean encircled by mountains which are terraced with strange temples and caves, and inhabited by more friendly cannibals. This is where the social commentary comes in, for these lost folk live in a topsy-turvey society which, as previously mentioned, abhors wealth and views death as the biggest trip of all, man! These people practically fall over themselves giving away every pittance they earn, and clamor for the honor of having a nice big shiny dagger plunged into their hearts at certain times of the year. They also pursue giant prehistoric beasts for the express purpose of being torn limb from limb by said beasts. More’s response to these revelations, not surprisingly, is “include me out!” Did I mention that the really really BIGGEST thrill is to know that you will be the guest of honor, so to speak, at the next cannibal feast? This certainly doesn’t appeal to our sailor, especially since he’s fallen hard for the only girl on the polar continent who can pass for “normal”, a hostage from a distant land, and the fact of their love necessitates that, in this place where every day is opposite day, they must part until such time as they get to have the honor of having their hearts ripped out and their bodies eaten. (The worst thing about it, of course, is that the natives are just so damn cheery,as they relate these quaint customs to More. Despite his innate Victorian indignation at these plans, he can’t really bring himself to dislike these chaps, although he doesn’t mind plugging a few of them with his “thunder stick” before all’s said and done).

So, anyhoo, there are lots of dinosaurs, a cavern of mummies that sweetie must tend to, bloody rituals, and desperate attempts at escape. There are also droll and droning lectures aplenty (this is a Victorian narrative, so you don’t really have to worry about too many belly laughs creeping in) on prehistoric fauna, and obsolete linguistic speculations interspersed just to pad out, - er, I mean - give a sense of verisimilitude to the narrative. All in all, not a bad adventure yarn in a genre that has been revisited so many times that one might be excused for seeing this story as derivative, rather than a somewhat original adventure narrative, predating Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and all the other spinners of lost world yarns.

Link to text at Internet Archive:

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

The Hill of Dreams (serialized in 1904 as "The Garden of Avallaunius") is a supernatural/decadent novel by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen. Machen was a native of the Welsh town of Caerleon-on-Usk (now Gwent), which has strong Arthurian associations and a history going back to the Roman occupation. Machen, a prolific author who died at a ripe old age in 1947, retains a reputation as a master of supernatural fiction, although he wrote in several different genres. In circumstances of poverty such as described in the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams, he translated Casanova and prepared an extended essay on The Anatomy of Tobacco. He also subsequently authored several volumes of autobiography. His pagan and occultic preoccupations make him a fascinating writer to encounter, as does the richness of his prose in describing (as Huysmans does so well in Against the Grain and, for me, Walter Pater does less successfully in Marius the Epicurean) the world of sensation.

This strange novel is one of the handful of things by Machen that I've read. It involves a sensitive youth, Lucian Taylor, who has a strange mystico-sexual experience in the ruins of a Roman fort, and who has a brief affair with a local girl. When Lucian later moves to London to pursue, as did Machen himself, a writing career, he falls into a life of poverty, squalor, and opium addiction. His mystical fantasies (if they are indeed fantasies) of the Celtic-Roman past occupy his mind during his opium dreams. In his increasingly rare lucid moments, he rails against the barbarous, dehumanizing metropolis (In his A Baedeker of Decadence, George Schoolfield notes the resemblances between Machen's London and that portrayed in Thomson's influential long poem The City of Dreadful Night). Poor Lucian spirals further and further into a madness driven by deprivation, opium, and his search for "new and exquisite experiences". He is as much a decadent touchstone as Huysman's Des Essientes and Wilde's Dorian Grey.

Machen continues to have a following among aficionados of supernatural fiction. The Hill of Dreams is a rather different work than, for instance, The Great God Pan, a creepy tale of sexual and demonic atavism induced by modern science, but certainly bears testimony to Machen's interest in the occult (he was, like Crowley, Yeats, and Algernon Blackwood, an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). l would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the history of decadent literature in Britain.

The Hill of Dreams is available in a variety of edition and formats, including some shoddy modern reprints. The Dover edition is worth seeking out. My edition is the yellow-covered Machen series published by Knopf in 1922.