Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan (1894) is a novella by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). There are several sources for the text: and, to name but two. There is also a movie available, presumably because the movie is in the public domain.

I think I found this novella when searching for famous older horror stories or weird fiction a few months back. This was one of the novellas mentioned. The reception for this novella is a bit inexplicable for me. I found the text to be dull. Yet, Stephen King is on record for saying, "Maybe the best [horror story] in the English language." I would love to inquire from him why he thinks so. What have I missed?

The article on states, "On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror." I didn't find it degenerate, but nor did I find it particularly decadent in style or particularly sexual. I feel like everyone has read a different story than I have. John Lane wrote, "Why should he be allowed, for the sake of a few miserable pounds, to cast into our midst these monstrous creations of his diseased brain?" Yet, how monstrous can these evil characters be? H. P. Lovecraft writes, "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds." Perhaps I'm not sensitive?

It all begins with a ruthless scientist who cuts a portion of the brain that blinds people to the horrors of some underworld, so that they might see Pan. The girl upon whom this surgery is conducted becomes essentially brain dead. To take care of her, she's sent to a farmer. Though it isn't explicitly pointed out that the farmer raped her, at the end of the story it becomes evident that the accused for instigating suicides is her daughter, and there was no one else to have gotten her pregnant I imagine. Pan himself is hinted to be the impregnator, however. Both Pan and the farmer were in her life at roughly a close enough interval that either could have been the father. Further, if she had been pregnant, why was this not discovered at an earlier point? Surely it must have been intentionally hidden.

The style is clumsy, as is noted by Stephen King who wrote, "surmounts its rather clumsy prose and works its way relentlessly into the reader's terror-zone. How many sleepless nights has it caused? God knows, but a few of them were mine. I think 'Pan' is as close as the horror genre comes to a great white whale." I promise I shall not lose a night's sleep over it. I will just shake my head in wonderment over the sensation that it caused in its day and the reception it continues to receive from a writer of King's caliber.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Monsieur Lecoq, Émile Gaboriau

Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) was an early writer of detective fiction. My personal discovery of this character and the author comes from a passage from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet where Dr. Watson is asking about famous detectives. Sherlock Holmes dismisses Monsieur Lecoq as a buffoon. It's said that Doyle's Holmes overtook Lecoq in popularity and dwindled Lecoq's fame and popularity. Monsieur Lecoq is a two volume work of genius. Doyle is a good writer, to be sure, but his Holmes is not the equal of Gaboriau's Lecoq. Volumes 1 and 2 of this masterful literature can be found online at  

Someone might ask themselves why I prefer Lecoq to Holmes. Holmes, without doubt, is probably capable of solving the murder mystery more quickly than Lecoq. Holmes has the ability to solve crimes instantly, almost subconsciously. Dr. Watson, with good reason, stumbles after him trying to understand the method to his madness. On the other hand, this is Lecoq's first detective mystery. He is not even a master of himself quite yet. 

Lecoq distinguishes himself from the other policemen when he captures May, the suspected murderer, by going to the rear of the wine house and preventing May's escape. While his superior is quick to dismiss the murder as a simple affair between thugs, Lecoq heard May exclaim, "Ah, it's the Prussians who are coming; I'm lost!", he realized that May was not a common thug.

Gevrol, his chief, is ready to walk away from the crime with little more interest, but Lecoq contradicts Gevrol's theory. The police are described as a backstabbing lot who bother each other in a competition for the top. Gevrol is near the top and Lecoq is just beginning. Repeatedly, Lecoq examines evidence, concocts a theory, and teases it out. He uncovers a brilliant means of communication between May and the outside world as he sits in prison, but is foiled by Gevrol betraying him. Gevrol is protective of his position, and mocks Lecoq. As a consequence, he sabotages him as much as he can.

Lecoq shows great imagination and wit. He has a kind of sidekick as well, "Father Absinthe" (named after his favorite drink). And, while Dr. Watson is an intelligent man made seemingly unintelligent next to Holmes, Father Absinthe is not terribly intelligent, more interested in pursuing a drink than in anything else. Despite Father Absinthe's inferior intellect, sometimes he is able to help ground Lecoq in the more obvious observations. When Lecoq is deeply discouraged, Father Absinthe's attitude helps restore Lecoq's confidence and he rejoins his efforts.

At the end of volume 1, he has essentially given up. In a stunt to discover the identity of May, he releases him in the hopes of following him to his lair. He succeeds. However, when he does find him, he does not recognize him. He is in fact the duke, Martial de Sairmeuse and when he comes upon the duke in his own house, he is cleaned up and unrecognizable.

Lecoq is about to give up towards the end of volume one when he seeks out the advice of  Père Tireauclair, (lit. Father Bringer of Light, or "Old man Brings-to-light"). Père Tireauclair is able to decipher the meaning of certain mysteries which have befuddled Lecoq on the basis of Lecoq's narrations. I find this to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's too easy a means to assist Lecoq penetrate the mystery. On the other, Lecoq is seen as a young man who has made mistakes. That goes to the essence of why I prefer him to Holmes. He is a young man whom I can follow, I can read his errors, and ultimately he is more of a human being while Holmes is ultimately a kind of superhero with super abilities. Where with Holmes or Agatha' Christie's Poirot, I am often left scratching my head wondering how these detectives are able to deduce the mysteries. With Lecoq, the deductions are much more lucid and comprehensible. He is a good detective, stubborn, intelligent, dedicated, honest, yet fallible, at times naive but correcting himself.

Volume 2 is mostly, save the epilogue, filling out the story, taking place 20 years earlier, behind the murder. Marie-Anne is the object of three men's desire, all of whom are ready to sacrifice everything to have her as their wife. The Martial de Sairmeuse, Chanlouineau the successful farmer who sacrifices everything to help her in her happiness, and Maurice D’Escorval who is the one who marries her.

Blanche is in love with Martial, and though once Marie-Anne's friend, she ultimately murders her in order to win over the object of her affection. The murder is attributed to Father Chupin who is himself a despicable fellow who is murdered but not for this particular crime. He takes the blame, but not before informing his eldest son about who the real murderer is.

Blanche is blackmailed by several characters and suffers a very unhappy life, despite, after having moved to Paris, being most envied at the highest social echelon. She cannot escape her guilt, though she feels justified as it happens to bring Martial back to her as her husband.

At the end, in the short epilogue, Leqoc is able to deceive Martial to a confession, but does not prosecute him. He is able to rescue his reputation and secure for himself a good future as an inspector.

The story is brilliant. In truth, the two volumes I read in two days, unable to put them down until I was finished with them. I am lucky to have discovered and followed the reference from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hellhounds of the Cosmos, Clifford Donald Simak

This is the third story of Clifford Donald Simak's (1904-1988) I've read. "Hellhounds of the Cosmos" (1932) wasn't nearly as good as the other two I have already read of his. There is not much to say about it. It's available freely at It was a bit painful to read. I don't know why I read until the end. I guess I was hoping for something interesting at the end, and it really didn't take long to finish it.

Essentially, the fourth dimension is attacking the third dimension. A scientist figures out how to send people to the fourth dimension to attack the attacker. All the people who are sent fill the creature that champions for them against the other. Eventually, it wins, but the scientist is unable to bring them back. I could dig around for the names to make a better blog entry, but the story sucks. I feel like I've already wasted my time. And, I think I've read enough science fiction for a little while at least.

There's the end of the world motif; us vs. them. Maybe there's a relationship between hell and the fourth dimension. But there's little to go by to verify the statement.

The other stories were quite good. So, I will definitely have to read a few more of his stories.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The World That Couldn't Be, Clifford Donald Simak

This is the second piece, though this time a solo, of Clifford Donald Simak's (1904-1988) that I have read. I am growing impressed with his stories. "The World That Couldn't Be" (© 1958) is available freely on

This is an action-science fiction tale, well told and an easy read. It is worth reading.

Here is the motif of the colonizer on another planet. Like many other science-fiction tales I have read, the protagonist, Gavin Duncan, is trying to grow a valuable plant called vua, which is also a medicine. A kind of animal called the Cytha has eaten it, and it's his intention to hunt it down so it doesn't eat the crop again.

The native population begs him not to hunt the animal, but he ignores their advice. They are an inferior people whom he has basically enslaved to make him rich. The natives also have a unique attribute: they are sexless. There are neither males nor females. They do not have sex to procreate.

While with Andre Norton, I got a sense of how the non-white characters are inherently inferior, with Simak that sense is that the protagonist may think this, but Simak does not. Thus, "the good and faithful hound" (ch. 3) seems the character's thoughts, and not the author's. Eventually the native tracker that he enlists to hunt the Cytha kills himself by slashing his own throat, probably in an effort to strand him at the mercy of the Cytha he tracks.

The Cytha that Gavin sets out to hunt is not like most creatures, or even monsters in fiction. It's not until the finale that Gavin understands that the creature known as Cytha is not really a single organism, but rather an assembly of lesser organisms: young Native children, predators, etc. Thus, when he shoots it in the neck, it is not dead as a whole, but rather just some parts. The composition of the creature comes out when he has gotten his ankle stuck in a tree after a storm has blown through, while Cytha has fallen into a pit. Gavin helps the Cytha out of the pit, and the Cytha helps save him from predators and rescues him from the tree which trapped him. The Cytha is described as it tries to escape its own trap--a pit dug into the ground,
It was coming all apart... the Cytha broke down into a thousand lumps of motion that scurried in the pit and tried to scramble up its side, only to fall back in tiny showers of sand... There were tiny screamers (a predator reminding me of hyena) and some donovans (an elephant sized bear/tiger) and sawmill birds and a bevy of wild-devils and something else as well. (chapter 5)
Later it is indicated that the native population that he had enlisted to help with the work on the farm are also born of this creature. Thus, the tracker killing himself rather than helping to kill the Cytha would be like a human refusing to kill a baby (albeit a baby of superhuman abilities).

After helping the Cytha out of the pit, Cytha brings Gavin back to his home. They agree to not infringe on each other: Cytha not to eat of the vua, and Gavin not to hunt Cytha. Does this Cytha speak for all the other Cytha I wonder. If this is a small one, what would the hunter do when going after a big one? This question is neither asked nor answered.

The great thing about stories like this is that they are still relevant today.

The Street that wasn't There, Clifford Donald Simak and Carl Richard Jacobi

I'm not very familiar with Clifford Donald Simak (1908-1988) or Carl Richard Jacobi (1908-1997). A little research on Simak reveals a prolific and successful writer. Jacobi was a writer of short fiction for Weird Fiction among other pulp magazines. "The Street That Wasn't There" is a short story available at

Jonathon Chambers is a recluse. He wrote a book long ago that disgraced him and basically ruined his career as a professor. His theory was that perception created reality and the world.

There have been many wars and plagues decimating the population of earth. There are few people left to perceive reality. As a result, reality is slipping away. "There were not sufficient minds in existence to retain the material world in its mundane form. Some other power from another dimension was fighting to supersede man's control and take his universe into its own plane!"

In some ways, this is an extension of religion that suggests that the universe was created for the benefit of men by a deity for whatever reason. If men are therefore mostly wiped away, what is there left to perceive, and if there is no perception, how does it continue to really exist? This is a very good question--one that I have asked myself, but on a more personal level. That is to say, if I cease to exist, then so too does the universe from my perception. It's my perception of reality that gives reality an existence. We cohabitate with one another. I'm sure anyone can say the same thing: once they are dead or cease to perceive, what exists at all? If a tree falls in the forest, but no one can hear it, does it make a sound? Take it another step forward: if a tree falls in the forest, but I cannot hear it, does it make a sound? The obvious answer is, yes, of course.

Simak-Jacobi mention another city of futuristic and fantastic proportion trying to supplant the old. But it is never truly explained: are people disappearing and populating the new city, or are they simply ceasing to exist and a new people taking over? Is it alien? Is it some deity replacing a species too violent to exist?

This short story, like most superior literature, begs great metaphysical questions, it does not give answers.

Voodoo Planet, Andre Norton

Andre Norton (1912-2005) is a legendary science fiction writer from the Golden Age of science fiction. She wrote many short stories and novels. This novella is the best of hers that I have read thus far. It can be found freely at

There are two major problems that I have with this novella. I will get into the worst first. I have seen a few accusations (after having read this book) about some of her works being suggestive of racism. I read this book first, and got that impression, before I checked online to see if others felt the same way I do. I did find some. James Nicoll Reviews wrote, "I really think Norton meant well when she decided to write this story (bless her heart!). You can see that she is trying to push back against the racist conventions of the era. Khatka is an advanced world!"

However, there's one key sentence that makes her racism beyond reasonable doubt:

...the white technicians they had kidnapped to run the ships didn't (thrive).  (ch. 1)
In other words, black people are too dumb to run the technical parts of a spaceship to make it to another planet. They have to kidnap others.

On the other hand, she does seem to see it as an injustice, the way Africans are treated, "... herded most of the natives into a giant concentration camp and practiced genocide on a grand scale." (ch. 1)

Most science fiction is a retelling of stories we tell about earth. That's what this is, but with blasters instead of revolvers, spaceships instead of oceanships, and drugs instead of herbs. Basically this is a battle between poachers and a sanctioned/licensed hunting group. In the mix, there are hallucinations that look like real lions, apes, and elephant-like creatures.

This story is a fast paced action story, and it has a lot of merit for it.

The other demerit I find in her writing thus far is the absence of women. There are no women at all in this story. Why didn't she write women or girls into her stories in a way that wasn't just a carrot to the ass (the protagonist)?

The motif of earth's basic destruction through war is reiterated in this book as has been done with the other two stories of hers that I have thus far read.

I recommend reading it, but keep the above in mind (or try to forget about it... up to you).

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Gifts of Asti, Andre Norton

This is the third story of Andre Norton's that I have read. Andre Norton (1912-2005) is a legendary writer from the Golden Age of sci-fi. "The Gifts of Asti" is available at,,, and many more locations.

The story is a fairly simple one. It's either set in the very distant future or the very distant past. One culture is being destroyed by a barbarian one. As the last of the 'virgin Maidens of Asti' of that culture flees with the aid of a reptilian servant, she discovers a well preserved man. The lake in which she finds him preserves everything for as long as they are in the lake. They do not age or die.

They discover a mostly destroyed ship in the lake, with the parts sticking out of the lake rusted to dust, while that sticking in the lake is still in good shape and without signs of damage aside from what happened with the crash. The lake is described as alive, so they do not drink of it (and why not if it preserves life?)

They rescue the man who is a hardened warrior, not like her dying people who had had everything done for them and gone soft. That seems to be a frequent motif with both "The People of the Crater" and "The Gifts of Asti." I suspect that this is a motif born from the competing ideologies of communism and capitalism, or, perhaps a consequence of a long lasting peace. Just like "The People of the Crater," the woman is a religious figure while the man is a human warrior come to give an almost extinct species hope. However, of course, biologically speaking it would be nearly impossible to accomplish this with just two people. But, that is the story from Genesis, isn't it?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

All Cats are Gray, Andre Norton

This is the second piece of Andre Norton (1912-2005) fiction I have read. Andre Norton is a famed and richly decorated author of science fiction and fantasy. It can be found for free at The story's author is listed as Andrew North.

I'm not sure if the note is Norton's or the editor's. However, it seems to attempt to bring some kind of advantage to someone who is disabled. The disability is fairly minor: Steena, the protagonist of this story, is color blind.

I think she's the captain of a salvaging vessel looking to loot The Empress of Mars, a famous ship for having a glorious loot that no one seems to be able to win. Norton calls it "a Flying Dutchman of space." It's haunted by a ghost, or perhaps more accurately, an invisible alien. Because she and the cat called Bat are colorblind, they are able to see the invisible alien who lives only to kill those seeking to plunder The Empress of Mars. Why exactly an alien would want to be stuck all by itself on a ship like that is beyond me. However, Steena is able to barely see the creature, and Bat can see it easily enough. She guns it down and the crew become rich for it.

I wasn't too impressed with this story, either. I have several more of hers to go through in the next few days.

The People of the Crater, Andre Norton

Andre Norton (1912-2005) is one of the most celebrated science fiction writers of the 20th century. She is one of the great science fiction and fantasy writers. "The People of the Crater" is available for free at a number of locations:,, and

She wrote most of her stories under the pseudonym, Andre Norton, but also under Andrew North and Allen Weston. She was the first woman to be Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, first to be SFWA Grand Master, and first inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. I don't think it was on the basis of this book. This is the first book of hers that I have read.

"The People of the Crater" is a novella set in a fantasy world. This is more of a fantasy novella than it is science fiction. Captain Garin Featherstone is an out of work pilot who loses his job as a war ends. He is approached to pilot a plane. However, this is essentially a trap.

Some aspects have science fiction aspects: the plane crashes. He is almost dead. He is restored to life due to some very advanced healing device. There is a stick that is a powerful killing and wrecking device. 

The culture is that of a kind of goblin. However, they are not cruel or anything. They are involved in a war. The black goblins, referred to as the Black Ones, are very sick and serve an evil master, Kepta. I do find this to be a bit of a racist setup. I'm not a fan of making black characters evil or associating the color black with evil or bad, considering all the problems with racism.  

He goes to an alien world where he is used to rescue a young woman referred to as 'the Daughter.' They determine him to be a good mate for her, he just has to rescue her first. He succeeds, but is nearly executed over a misunderstanding. Had he failed to love 'the Daughter,' they would have killed him. He had thought Dandtand had loved her, but he was in fact her brother. 

Another interesting element of this story is the idea of reincarnation. As Garin kills Kepta, Kepta says,
"No, I am not dead, Outlander—nor shall you kill me, as you think to do. I go now, but I shall return. We have met and hated, fought and died before—you and I. You were a certain Garan, Marshall of the air fleet of Yu-Lac on a vanished world, and I was Lord of Koom. That was in the days before the Ancient Ones pioneered space. You and I and Thrala, we are bound together and even fate can not break those bonds. Farewell, Garin. And do you, Thrala, remember the ending of that other Garan. It was not an easy one."
This story is OK. I have a number of her other books and novellas. I hope that they are better.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) wrote this story at the end of his short but vigorous life. A Voyage to the Moon is a very early work of fiction. It predates Jules Verne and most other science fiction stories about extra terrestrial voyages. It's unfortunate that there is so little information about the story online. Wikipedia does not have any essay about it. It is available freely at

Bergerac belongs on the short list of people as an early innovator of science fiction. Apparently, much of the story was lost due to the influence of his friend who released it. It is surmised that perhaps this was an effort to lessen the wrath of religious leaders of his era. There are many machines, including the ones that get him to the moon, and a kind of phonograph, which are described to some length in the story.

The story is about a man who travels to the moon. On the moon he discovers that those who live there look at the earth as a moon. In many ways it is an opposite of earth.

Initially, the traveler finds himself in the Garden of Eden. He is told to be careful of the Tree of Knowledge, as the fruit's skin causes ignorance, while the inner flesh gives knowledge. He momentarily forgets this information when he is hungry, and eats of the skin with some drips of juice from the inside. Thus, he is dumbed down (because of the rind), but not completely ignorant (because of the juice of the apple).

The people who live on the moon are like centaurs. They have no money. If they wish to purchase something, they must compose poems. He is taken out for a meal. How the meal is paid for is explained:
...the money of the country, and the charge we have been at here, hath been computed to amount to three couplets or six verses... (chapter 8)
The narrator goes through many of the common beliefs in science on earth, as it is based on Aristotle. The audience to these theories find it funny, yet are threatened by it.
The quaintness of my Sayings was already the entertainment of all Societies, and my Wit was so much esteemed that the Coucil was obliged to Publish an Edict, forbidding all people to believe I was endowed with reason. (chapter 10)
But, because of the foreignness of his beliefs, he is shut up in a cage like a bird (in fact, they believe him to be a bird). The society of ladies to which the cage belong find him quite amusing until they discover that he is a male.

There is an interesting kind of invention in Bergerac's imagination: a kind of speaker of books.
...he winds up that Machine with a great many Strings; then he turns the hand to the chapter which he desires to hear, and straight as from the mouth of a Man or a Musical Instrument, proceed all the distinct and different Sounds... (chapter 15)
It is a shame that most of this book is lost to censorship. Also, it's too bad that Bergerac had so short of a life. At the age of 36, he passed on a trip meant to improve his failing health.

I don't know of very many who point to Bergerac as a kind of founder or father of science fiction. But I suspect this novel did much for the genre to kindle other fantastic ideas. The annotator and translator of the book, Archibald Lovell, draws more than a few comparisons to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. For instance, the evolved horse-like creatures referred to as Houyhnhnms, are very much like the beings ruling on the moon. However, there are no humans aside from our narrator.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The King of the City, Keith Laumer

I have a recollection of being a fan of Keith Laumer when I was in my teens. Like most books and/or authors that I read from this period of time, what I recollect in terms of the skill of the author or the quality of the story, has mostly changed. Further, my memory of any details of said books is mostly lost (with some notable exceptions). In Laumer's case, I can only, and very dimly, recall Retief as a character from a few of his books. "The King of the City," by Keith Laumer, is available freely at

This story is rooted in action. Most of it involves taking a man into the big city in a car. Except, this is in the future, several centuries from now, when major governments have broken down. All that is left is fractious city states in the hands of cut throats.

The car itself that he uses to drive is fast, going in excess of 150mph (240km/h). It has weapons. It has no intelligence at all (something to be expected in the near future), and so the driver drives and shoots at the same time with his passenger in the rear.

There are several checkpoints in which he has to mix fighting and bribery to get through.

But, overall, the story is rather dull. I don't recommend it. There are several others of Laumer's on Gutenberg. I will read a few more. On the bright side, there's no sense of sexism or racism here. Everyone is male. Everyone, I assume, is white.

New Lamps, Robert Moore Williams

New Lamps is a short science fiction story previously published in Other Worlds. I am unfamiliar with Robert Moore Williams and have not read any of his work before. It's available for free on It's not really a great read. However, it sure points out the lousy way Williams saw women.

One of the first things that I first noticed were the breasts of his female characters. 
She was tall, lithe, and full breasted... He had spent most of his life in the laboratories of Earth... the women who had been there (in the labs on Earth) had been flat breasted, pale creatures in low-heeled shoes...
The main character, Ronson, has gone to Mars to meet someone who has managed to cure Martians of incurable cancer.

He meets two other earthlings, Jennie and her helper, Sam Crick. Jennie is the 'full breasted' one already described above. Cancer was going to kill Ronson, and he hoped this Les Ro would be able to help.

Two murderers and a leper, who had gone on to get treated with them are all cured. The two murderers are cured of their desire to kill, and the leper is healed of the disease.

Jennie is tired of being a weak woman ('her' words, not mine):
"...there's always been a fight within me. Instead of being a woman, I have only succeeded in being a bitch, all jangle of nerves, always trying to do what the men did, but knowing I really couldn't because I was a woman."
I guess Les Ro is able to cure Jennie of not quite being a woman:
She was becoming something else--a woman. The fact showed in the gentleness of her smile.
It reminds me of the complaint that I hear from time-to-time, about women being told that they need to smile.

I can't imagine how it must have felt in those days long ago. Girls seem to be treated so badly in fiction. They rarely have important roles, and their femininity is weak and powerless. When they are strong, they're 'bitches.' She couldn't be as strong as a man because she's a woman. But she's too strong to be a woman. The Martian doctor cures her of her strength and character in order for her to become the weak woman she wanted to be. Instead of the strong writer traveling around the solar system, writing stories, being famous, isn't as important as being a man's sidekick and object of physical attraction.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Monk; a Romance, Matthew Gregory Lewis

The Monk; a Romance, written by Matthew Gregory Lewis, is available freely on and The Amazon version is slightly better, as the pages are numbered making it easier to reference.

My notes following are taken as I read. I find doing so sometimes helps me get the story straight. This story takes place in an unfamiliar setting, both time and space. It's taking a bit of an effort to clarify some events and twists as they evolve.

The setting is that of Spain. Spain had been for awhile a Muslim nation. The temporal setting is after Christianity had begun to retake the country. Thus, Antonia, one of the principal characters in this temptation of a monk, wears a veil that covers her face. She seeks to remain veiled, but is nearly stripped of it by a man only just introduced:

"... as yet (you) are unacquainted with our customs, that you continue to wear your veil..." 
At the same time He advanced his hand towards the Gauze: The Lady raised hers to prevent him. (p. 11)

She would have resisted his aggressive behavior, if not for her aunt who seemed to quite dislike her niece.

He is successful in petitioning Antonia's aunt to allow him to disrobe her of her veil. The description of her face begins her role as a seductress. "(her face) was rather bewitching than beautiful." (p. 12) She is disconnected from the Catholic religion, as she counts the rosary beads, but that she doesn't really know what to do with them.

When her aunt, Leonella, starts to describe the other principal character, the Monk, Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins, she says of him that he treats men and women as if they are the same gender, and that he is chaste. When Antonia asks, since she has these same qualities, if she is then a saint, she is lectured upon and told that men and women are not the same. This is a double standard. I don't know if the author is either making fun of or chastising Antonia, or consciously revealing the double standard and criticizing it.

Now I am just about at the half way point of the novel. The events leading up to Agnes' being in a convent she had no taste for are detailed. The unhappy couple who love each other are ill fated at every turn: her aunt falls in love with Lorenzo, who then tries to clear up the confusion (for the aunt thought him in love with her), but instead invites the wrath of a woman scorned. Lorenzo and Agnes plot together to make an escape at night, using a costume in the likeness of a cursed spirit called the Bleeding Nun. However, it is not the nun's likeness that enters the coach, but rather the nun herself. Thinking he is speaking to Agnes, he swears himself to her. But the swearing forces him to take on the burden of breaking the Bleeding Nun's curse. He is fortunate that another famous phantom, the Wandering Jew, cursed for his part in the crucifixion of Jesus to wander forever, looking to help people. Agnes, thinking Lorenzo has forsaken her, agrees to become a nun.

When Lorenzo is finally able to discover Agnes, he essentially rapes her, forcing her to try to flee the convent. However, the Prioress, Mother St. Agatha, refuses to part with Agnes, even after receiving a letter from the pope demanding her release.

The relationship between Matilda and Ambrosio is the most interesting. She is, in essence, the destroyer of Ambrosio as the 'perfect monk.' She seduces him perfectly. After their first consummation of lust, Matthew Lewis first writes,
"... Unnatural were your vows of Celibacy; Man was not created for such a state; And were Love a crime, God never would have made it so sweet, so irresistible!" (p. 191)
And then,
...the fair Wanton put every invention of lust in practice, every refinement in the art of pleasure which might heighten the bliss of her possession... (p. 192)
But whether Matilda is there merely to seduce the Monk or is in fact smitten with him, it is not yet 100% clear. This passage suggests that she believes in the moment without a care about the moments after death:
"I will think my sacrifice scarcely worthy to purchase your possession, and remember that a moment past (passed) in your arms in this world o'er-pays an age of punishment in the next." (p. 192)
So, did she seduce him simply for the purpose of torment? Is she some kind of temptress who lives to destroy? Or is she simply a fool in love? However, at last she reveals that her seduction of the monk is merely a ploy to gain entrance into "...the burying-ground at midnight." (p. 192)

Some of the phrases that Matthew Lewis uses are brilliant, and as true today as they were when he wrote them more than three centuries ago. He, alongside Matilda, in their secret entrance to the 'burying-ground,' hide when the prioress makes her conversation with an elder nun about the situation with Agnes. She intends on punishing Agnes to the full extent she can for embarassing her in front of Ambrosio. But now, because of his own transgression,
"...thunder out menaces against the errors of others, the better to conceal your own." (p. 197)
Ambrosio's character, as a child, was quite good. Lewis writes that it was the
education of the monks which perverted him. He is described as being 'pure,' but in the darker, puritanical way which is merciless. He is 30, and already severe. So, it is hard to really know how much Matilda's seduction affected his personality. However, it certainly has changed in its perversity.

He attempts to seduce Antonia, who is painted as a pure character. She is very young, and is unable to see Ambrosio as a threat. However, when alone with her, he attempts to rape her. Elvira, the mother, had caught on to his attempts at seduction, and was able to interrupt his attempt on Antonia's virginity before he had done much damage. She would expose his attempt to the public, but is too pragmatic to think that it would do anything but cause her and her daughter much pain and offer little threat to Ambrosio as a monk of great repute.

Ambrosio stops at nothing to rape Antonia. He kills Elvira as she witnesses his attempt on Antonia's rape. He then poisons Antonia, to rape later at his leisure in the sepulcher under the convent. He ultimately succeeds in raping her. The perspective on Antonia here is interesting. Lewis writes about how she is ruined in several ways:
Her peace of mind was lost, her honour irreparably ruined. She was cut off for ever from society, nor dared He give her back to it... She could never hope to be creditably established; She would be marked with infamy, and condemned to sorrow and solitude for the remainder of her existence... (Permanently imprisoning her) is the only means to prevent Antonia from publishing his guilt and her own infamy. (my Italics added for emphasis.) (p. 327)
She nearly effects an escape, but is murdered by Ambrosio even on the point of her rescue. The next lines are equally shocking.
She told him that had She still been undefiled She might have lamented the loss of life; But that deprived of honour and branded with shame, Death was to her a blessing: She could not have been his Wife, and that hope being denied her, She resigned herself to the Grave without one sigh of regret.
What a terrible double punishment. Not only is the raped a victim of the rapist, but she is also vilified by her culture.

This vilification of the victims of rape are also brought up through the story of Agnes. She suffers horrifically for trying to escape the convent. She's thrown into a dungeon, and then rescued by her brother. But when it comes to her rape, she is the one who must suffer:
He (Raymond) once conquered my virtue... I have been frail and full of error... my conduct has been highly blameable.
The ending of the book is quite a horror. At the last moment of the evil Monk's release from the inquisitors, Satan manages to convince Ambrosio to sign his soul over. Satan frees him from the prison, then drops him onto the mountains to die a long and lingering death (7 days) followed by an eternity of hell. The end for him is horrific.

This book is fantastic. It's probably the best book I've read this year and maybe better than anything in the past few years. If you're looking for a good Gothic horror, then this is the right book for you.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Path to Atheism, Annie Besant

This is the second nonfiction book I have read on atheism. I am an atheist, for numerous reasons. So, the topic is of interest to me. The book was published in 1885. I cannot help but wonder at how a woman, so far back in time, could have had the courage to question a patriarchal society that was often violent against such questioning and doubt. Therefore, I knew immediately that I was reading the work of an early feminist. My Path to Atheism is available for free on

My guess hit the mark. According to Wikipedia, Annie Besant devoted her life to many worthy causes: the emancipation of women and India, not to mention the freedom to disbelieve in the popular Christian cults. However, it is also noted that she believed her son "was the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha." However, her son refuted these claims. Perhaps the declaration was a fiction meant to discredit Besant, which makes perfectly good sense considering it came about as she toured the US, lecturing.

"On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth"

"A thorough knowledge of the Bible is the groundwork of heresy."
Annie Besant offers some solid arguments through literary analysis of the Bible, both old and new. She argues that Jesus could not fulfill the predicted messiah as a god, since it was not a god that was predicted as a messiah. Another interesting feature is her argument that his miracles were not nearly as profound as those of the ones before him. Raising the dead was done by Elijah and Elisha; Moses healed lepers, among others.

In Besant's essay, "A Comparison Between the Fourth Gospel and the Three Synoptics," Jesus is often referenced in a very favorable light (though not as a deity or half god). By example, she describes Jesus as, "...the tenderest, gentlest, widest-hearted man  who has yet graced humanity." She seems not to be saying that there is no god to worship. Merely she states that Jesus is not that god, not a half god, and never claimed to be anything other than a teacher about god. There is some excellent analyses of the Bible in relation to the question. She also refers to god reverentially, as a being of love. She leaves off the essay, mentioning 'the sacred memory of Jesus of Nazareth... an insult to Almighty God. Thus far, I do not feel connected to Besant's claim to atheism.

"On the Mediation and Salvation of Ecclesiastical Christianity"

Again, I cannot see how Besant relates her interpretation of the Bible to that of atheism. She repeatedly shows her belief in an all loving god rather than an absence of god. She points out some flaws in the basic tenants of a god who holds salvation behind a belief in Jesus as a savior. She argues that salvation comes directly from god rather than Jesus.

"On Eternal Torture"

This essay is interesting enough, but again, Besant takes a standpoint that's reflective of someone who is a theist, not an atheist.

That said, she brings out the conflict of a so called loving god who commits unbelievers to eternal damnation and torture. She quotes a Catholic priest who is teaching children about Hell:
"How will your body be when the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million years without stopping?" A girl of eighteen is described as dressed in fire; "she wears a bonnet of fire. It is pressed down all over her head; it burns down her head; it burns into the skull; it scorches the bone of the skull and makes it smoke." A boy is boiled: "Listen! there is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling.... The blood is boiling in the scalded veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones." Nay, even the poor little babies are not exempt from torture: one is in a red hot oven, "hear how it screams to come out; see how it turns and twists about in the fire.... You can see on the face of this little child"--the fair pure innocent baby-face--"what you see on the faces of all in hell--despair, desperate and horrible."
That's some horror show to terrify little children into obedience. She quotes some Protestants on hell, though it is far less eloquent or imaginative. An Anglican preacher teaches young men and girls about the consequences of indulging in 'sins of the flesh.' She merely alludes to what he said (what a shame! I love the poetry of horror!).

She waxes poetic about the contradiction of a kind and loving Jesus/God and the expectant return to earth, whereupon,
 (The angels) are to spend eternity, hymning the Lamb who saved them to the music of golden harps, harps whose melody is echoed by the curses and the wailings of the lost; for below is a far different scene, for there the sinners are "Tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever...
More poetical imagery of contrasting Utopia and Dystopia. What is most amusing is the thought that those up in Heaven would not be disturbed by the suffering of others. What kinds of people are saved? Not the kind of people I would find kindred to my soul. However, the people who preach that they are the only ones to be saved since their gospel and faith is the only true one are often the first to want to bomb everyone else, stone, punish, and do whatever evil to those who choose not to believe, or cannot believe such myths.

It is an interesting paradox that she mentions: the Christian who believes in the act of forgiveness, the requirement thereof, but also believes that those who sin against them will never be forgiven by their god. Perhaps that sort of believer does not so much as forgive as expect to see and enjoy the spectacle and screams of the offender suffering eternal torture.

But again, in the end, she is not arguing for or against theism or atheism. Her closing shows that she's clearly a theist:

I believe that God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all; I believe that all mankind is safe, cradled in the everlasting arms.
Truly that is a nice sentiment, but it is also optimistic that some all powerful and all knowing god would be so in love with us. A tyrant, which is what such a being would be, either good or evil, would relish good cheer or lamentation: if nature is anything to go by, it's something in between. All life ends in death. Death itself does not end. It seeks immortality through its ability to reproduce.

Religion, for me, is the delusion used to help people sleep better at night: either in good cheer because those whom you hate shall suffer eternal damnation while ye sit on high in the music that praises your savior, or in the screams of pain from the torture of eternal torture.

"On the Religious Education of Children"

Besant certainly has some odd ideas about education. She writes, "Religious education should come, so to speak, by chance." As an atheist, I would never entertain the idea of sending my children to a Sunday school to become brainwashed by the dogma. However, I find it hard to imagine teaching math in the same way, or any other subject. If there was a god, certainly that seems to be his means of educating mankind. We seem to have to discover everything ourselves.

The next opinion she brings up seems poorly thought out. "A child's natural instinct is towards good." Most children have little empathy and are entirely selfish. They need to learn empathy. She supports her argument with this:
A tale of heroism, of self sacrifice, of generosity, will bring the eager blood flushing up to a child's face and wake a quick response and a desire of emulation.
However, this emulation of the hero is due to the treatment of the hero. Most stories have 'happy endings' where the hero wins, is rewarded and praised, and has a good conscience (doesn't feel guilt). Usually he (especially in Besant's century, heroes were male) wins the maiden or the fantastically beautiful maiden whom he just saved from the villain. Thus, all the rewards belong to the hero, while the villain typically loses everything and is miserable. Therefore, I would conclude that it's not the goodness of the character that the child emulates for the sake of goodness, but rather for the rewards that the character receives.

While Besant won my respect earlier in her book, this particular essay seriously damaged my first impression.

"Natural Religion Versus Revealed Religion"

This essay points out that many associate "God's truth" with the works found in the Bible. Besant points out that some of these truths were written of before the Bible itself was written.

That said, I still see no argument suggesting that there may not be any god.

"On the Nature and the Existence of God"

God is a projection of man into space.
At last, perhaps, I have discovered Besant's claim to how she is an atheist. "...'atheist' is often flung unjustly at any thinker who ventures to criticise the popular and traditional idea of God..." Thus, it is not that she is any kind of atheist in the sense that she does not believe in god, but that she does not believe that the so-called experts of theism know much about god. She is not an atheist. She believes in god. Her beliefs are centered around the things that are good in life: love, good works, as belonging to god while the evil in the scriptures and in works are not of god, even when they are in the Bible.

My Conclusion

At this point, I am undecided on whether or not I have wasted much time reading this book. I feel deceived. This is not a book written by someone who had doubts and later became an atheist. Perhaps I should have seen this coming based on Besant's Wikipedia article as being someone who converted to an Eastern religion. I thought, perhaps, that her becoming an atheist was a mental or philosophical space she was in before she took on another religion. Now, unless I am pleasantly surprised, I feel duped. However, having wasted this much time digesting the first half, I might as well continue my meal until it is complete. That said, I read somewhere that once you've discovered the book you are reading is not worthy of your time, you ought to throw it against the wall. Well, I won't be doing that with my Kindle. But I do think I will be deleting it, which works even better: no hole in the wall, and it 'disappears' from my house, having never been the cause for harvesting a tree for its pulp.