Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The act of reading: so much more than looking at the page

This is a post for Stephanie, scholar and medievalist extraordinaire, who probably knows these pictures.

Last week I read a horror novel by one F.G. Cottam, called Dark Echo, about a boat with a curse on it. Horror is so hard to do; readerly disbelief is so much harder to suspend, and can collapse into giggling at any moment. But Cottam is a sufficiently good and knowing writer for this not to happen. He is interested in direct manifestations of traditional evil: in a word, the Devil, or at the very least his emissaries, has haunted these last two books. I smiled at this idea right up until I remembered Rosemary's Baby; if it's a good enough story about the Devil it will still frighten you senseless, even if you mentally re-label him Basement Cat as you watch or read.

At the beginning of Dark Echo there's a prologue set in 1917 in Rouen, where French soldiers are guarding the cathedral. When they see American uniforms coming towards them out of a very strange mist or fog, the last thing they are expecting is to be attacked by these allies, but they are hypervigilant nonetheless:
The men had been hand-picked for their piety as well as their prowess in combat. They believed the thing they protected was worth the fighting and, if necessary, the dying for.

But you cannot turn a cathedral into a fortress, as Destain kept repeating afterwards in his grief and shock, as the gangrene slowly devoured him in his hospital bed. ...

The Americans came grinning through the mist. The defenders of Rouen cathedral and the sacred relic it housed smelled before they saw the Americans ... At their centre was a man taller than the rest and bare-headed. His white-blond hair picked him out ... He was a glimpse, a phantom. ... Of course I knew what he had come there for, Destain said.
The Prologue over, we are catapulted into present-day England, where the hero Martin's self-made millionaire father has bought a wrecked schooner called Dark Echo. Martin is very unhappy; he's just been down to the boatyard -- inexplicably dark and deserted -- where Dark Echo is being expensively refurbished, and he believes he's had a run-in with the violently malevolent ghost or presence of the boat's original owner Harry Spalding, an unnaturally tall, white-blond American playboy with a shady reputation, who committed suicide in 1929 at the age of 33. This may be the moment to mention that the stolen sacred relic is nothing less than the spear of Longinus, the Roman centurion guarding the Cross who took pity on the dying Christ and speared him through the side, and afterwards became a Christian. Harry Spalding wants it for ... well, never mind what Harry Spalding wants it for.

So anyway, Martin's asking his father why it has to be this boat of all boats, and his father replies with a story about his own deprived childhood, about his mother's struggle to bring him up by herself, and her gift of a set of encyclopedias found in a barrow outside a second-hand shop in 1963:
'There was an educator in the 1930s. A man named Arthur Mee ... Mee compiled a children's encyclopedia. By the time I encountered it, it was thirty years out of date. But its volumes were packed nevertheless for the child I was with exotic and spellbinding vistas of a world for which I was not just eager, but greedy.' ... He led me to the library where he took a key from a bureau drawer and opened a locked display case. Behind its carved oak and scrolled-glass doors I saw Arthur Mee's encyclopedias on their shelf, his name on their worn, blue cloth spines...

He reached for a volume, thumbed out a spine. Volume six, it was. He held the spine of the heavy book in the palm of his hand and it fell open. I took a step back and looked at the open pages.

And I saw a picture of Harry Spalding's schooner rounding a buoy in brilliant sunshine on sun-dappled water ... 'Dark Echo,' my father said. There was an inset picture on the page of text facing the full plate of the racing boat. It was a grinning Harry Spalding ... with a trophy in his grip and his blond hair a halo of gold...

'When I saw these pictures, Martin, I swore that I would own and sail this boat. And I do and I will. And nothing will stop me.'
Now this alone is enough to induce a bit of a shudder. Hubris meets the supernatural and defies it: it's like a variation on Macbeth and every bit as creepy. But what was more creepy was my own living room, in which I sat reading this novel. For it was very late, and beyond the rim of the reading lamp's light I knew what was sitting in the bookcase: my own father's set of the very same Arthur Mee encyclopedias, battered and well-read by him as a child in the 1930s by the light of a kerosene lamp on the farm.

I nearly didn't look. The fancy of being wound into this story at a meta-level for my own amusement was pleasantly scary but not quite pleasantly enough. Harry Spalding may well have been a real person and Dark Echo a real boat, and they might have been there in the book, and I was alone in the house and it was, as I have said, very late. I held out for about thirty seconds and then went to the bookcase, carefully took out Volume Six, and braced myself.

If there is a picture of a racing schooner in it, or one of Harry Spalding, then I have yet to find them. But, as with Martin's father, the heavy book fell open in my hand. And here is what it fell open at.

'This little gallery of pictures,' says the accompanying text, 'is from one of the oldest picture-stories of the Life of Jesus. They were drawn probably by English monks early in the fourteenth century. They are part of a manuscript which Robert de Lyle gave to his daughter Audere on November 25, 1339; we like to think it was a birthday present. The manuscript then passed to the nuns of Chicksand Priory, in Bedford, and afterwards came into the hands of the Earls of Arundel, from whom it passed to the British Museum.'

Captioning the above pictures it says 'Jesus in the manger and in the temple: the shepherds and the Wise Men: and the flight into Egypt.'

'This page shows the massacre of the innocents: the wedding feast at Cana: the raising of Lazarus: the entry into Jerusalem: the Last Supper: and the betrayal.'

'This page shows Jesus brought before King Herod: the mocking of Jesus after the arrest: Jesus before the high priest Caiaphas: the scourging of Jesus: and the burden of the cross on the road to Calvary.'

'This page shows the Resurrection: the women at the empty tomb: the meeting of Jesus with Mary Magdalene: and the breaking of bread at Emmaus.'


M-H said...

When I was about eight or ten (around 1950) my mother went away for a couple of weeks and I was sent to a friend of hers for minding. Her children were gron up, but she had a set of Arthur Mee's. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Every day I would rush home from school and just wallow in them until tea-time and then again until bed-time. I'd never encountered books like them before. I particularly remember the sections on code breaking and on the food chain in the ocean. I have no memory of those beautiful pictures, though.

Unknown said...

Ah yes, you know: it all comes back to the medieval in the end. Lovely post, thank you! I'm not really much of a one for gothic horror, though I had to read that title (pictures of Jesus 600 years old) twice before I got it right!

When I was in California last year, I heard a terrific paper about medieval ruins in WWI by Carol Sykes, who's writing a book called A Modern War and the Medieval Past: The Middle Ages of World War I. 'Twill be wonderful...

Nice pictures: exactly the kind of thing one wants to find in a children's encyclopedia!

Anonymous said...

The best advice I ever had re writing horror was from an editor: it doesn't scare me. OK, I thought, what does scare ME, as the writer. You have to write about something that bothers you, otherwise you don't get the visceral reaction that is the essence of the genre. That, and identifying with the poor sod who is about to get his head bitten off.

Very cute (in both senses) to bring in Arthur Mee. Lucy Sussex

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

M-H, lovely that someone else knows them well. Stephanie -- my immediate thought when the book fell open in my hand was that the book, or Arthur, or somebody who thought it might work, was intervening to protect me from my own occult-investigating impulses, much as one would cross oneself. As I write this I have an overwhelming desire to Google Arthur so clearly it didn't work.

The Sykes paper sounds great -- what it immediately reminded me of was Robertson Davies' Dunstable Ramsay being shelled in WW1 and finding himself in a ruined church. (Have you read Robertson Davies? Rich pickings for someone investigating the uses of medievalism, even if he is a bit jumpy-making ideologically.)

Lucy -- Arthur Mee brought himself in, at least as far as I was concerned! That's really excellent advice about scariness, isn't it. I wonder if that's how Peter Temple proceeds. Cornwell and Lee Child and such can be as gory as they like but Peter Temple has frightened the bejesus out of me more than either of them twice now -- and both times it's been to do with buildings (old theatre in The Broken Shore, the dudes in the ceiling in one of the Jack Irish books); I wonder if that's me or him?

skepticlawyer said...

Thanks for contributing to my weekly creep-quotient, PC. [Shudder].