This week I enjoyed reading Ramsey Campbell's 2009 novel The Creatures of the Pool. It's a thrilling story, enriched with a host of fascinating historical anecdotes. (At first I thought some of the more uncanny ones were made up. But they were all true.)
As I finished Creatures, I tried to recall the specifics of Machen's 1936 short story "The Children of the Pool," suspecting it might somehow relate to Campbell's story, given the similarity of titles.
Not that I could determine. However, "Children" is a great tale in and of itself, and repaid my re-read yesterday.
"Children of the Pool" is a weird summer vacation story. Meyrick flees London for a room in a Welsh farmhouse. In the first of several imagination-beggaring coincidences, Myrick meets a city acquaintance boarding at another farm in the district. James Roberts seems happy and contented, and the two men relish their visit, even a walk to a benighted pool in a nearby valley.
But within a week Roberts is beset and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He tells Meyrick all: an unseen local girl is harassing him during forest walks and in bed at night by calling out the details of a shameful incident from his youth. It's certainly a three-pipe problem, but Meyrick throws himself into the facts of the case.
"Children of the Pool" can perhaps best be read as a mystery; not quite as on-point as a Dyson/Phillipps story from the Yellow 90s, but still captivating in its use of coincidence, misdirection, and back-to-front plotting.
A good portion of the story's second half seems at first Quixotic digression on the absurdities of the science of psychology. As Meyrick tells it:
....Now, everybody, I suppose, is aware that in recent years the silly business of divination by dreams has ceased to be a joke and has become a very serious science. It is called "Psycho-analysis"; and is compounded, I would say, by mingling one grain of sense with a hundred of pure nonsense. From the simplest and most obvious dreams, the psycho-analyst deduces the most incongruous and extravagant results. A black savage tells him that he has dreamed of being chased by lions, or, maybe, by crocodiles: and the psycho man knows at once that the black is suffering from the Oedipus complex. That is, he is madly in love with his own mother, and is, therefore, afraid of the vengeance of his father. Everybody knows, of course, that "lion" and "crocodile" are symbols of "father." And I understand that there are educated people who believe this stuff.
It is all nonsense, to be sure; and so much the greater nonsense inasmuch as the true interpretation of many dreams — not by any means of all dreams — moves, it may be said, in the opposite direction to the method of psycho-analysis. The psycho-analyst infers the monstrous and abnormal from a trifle; it is often safe to reverse the process. If a man dreams that he has committed a sin before which the sun hid his face, it is often safe to conjecture that, in sheer forgetfulness, he wore a red tie, or brown boots with evening dress. A slight dispute with the vicar may deliver him in sleep into the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition, and the torment of a fiery death. Failure to catch the post with a rather important letter will sometimes bring a great realm to ruin in the world of dreams. And here, I have no doubt, we have the explanation of part of the explanation of the Roberts affair. Without question, he had been a bad boy; there was something more than a trifle at the heart of his trouble. But his original offence, grave as we may think it, had in his hidden consciousness, swollen and exaggerated itself into a monstrous mythology of evil. Some time ago, a learned and curious investigator demonstrated how Coleridge had taken a bald sentence from an old chronicler, and had made it the nucleus of The Ancient Mariner. With a vast gesture of the spirit, he had unconsciously gathered from all the four seas of his vast reading all manner of creatures into his net: till the bare hint of the old book glowed into one of the great masterpieces of the world's poetry. Roberts had nothing in him of the poetic faculty, nothing of the shaping power of the imagination, no trace of the gift of expression, by which the artist delivers his soul of its burden. In him, as in many men, there was a great gulf fixed between the hidden and the open consciousness; so that which could not come out into the light grew and swelled secretly, hugely, horribly in the darkness. If Roberts had been a poet or a painter or a musician; we might have had a masterpiece. As he was neither: we had a monster. And I do not at all believe that his years had consciously been vexed by a deep sense of guilt. I gathered in the course of my researches that not long after the flight from Brondesbury, Roberts was made aware of unfortunate incidents in the Watts saga — if we may use this honoured term — which convinced him that there were extenuating circumstances in his offence, and excuses for his wrongdoing. The actual fact had, no doubt, been forgotten or remembered very slightly, rarely, casually, without any sense of grave moment or culpability attached to it; while, all the while, a pageantry of horror was being secretly formed in the hidden places of the man's soul. And at last, after the years of growth and swelling in the darkness; the monster leapt into the light, and with such violence that to the victim it seemed an actual and objective entity.
[Emphasis mine - JR]
And, in a sense, it had risen from the black waters of the pool. I was reading a few days ago, in a review of a grave book on psychology, the following very striking sentences:
The things which we distinguish as qualities or values are inherent in the real environment to make the configuration that they do make with our sensory response to them. There is such a thing as a "sad" landscape, even when we who look at it are feeling jovial; and if we think it is "sad" only because we attribute to it something derived from our own past associations with sadness, Professor Koffka gives us good reason to regard the view as superficial. That is not imputing human attributes to what are described as "demand characters" in the environment, but giving proper recognition to the other end of a nexus, of which only one end is organised in our own mind.
Psychology is, I am sure, a difficult and subtle science, which, perhaps naturally, must be expressed in subtle and difficult language. But so far as I can gather the sense of the passage which I have quoted, it comes to, this: that a landscape, a certain configuration of wood, water, height and depth, light and dark, flower and rock, is, in fact, an objective reality, a thing; just as opium and wine are things, not clotted fancies, mere creatures of our make-believe, to which we give a kind of spurious reality and efficacy. The dreams of De Quincey were a synthesis of De Quincey, plus opium; the riotous gaiety of Charles Surface and his friends was the product and result of the wine they had drunk, plus their personalities. So, the profound Professor Koffka — his book is called Principles of Gestalt Psychology— insists that the "sadness" which we attribute to a particular landscape is really and efficiently in the landscape and not merely in ourselves; and consequently that the landscape can affect us and produce results in us, in precisely the same manner as drugs and meat and drink affect us in their several ways. Poe, who knew many secrets, knew this, and taught that landscape gardening was as truly a fine art as poetry or painting; since it availed to communicate the mysteries to the human spirit....
Upon rereading "The Children of the Pool," I smiled knowingly to myself. Here, I thought, Machen has built himself an easy scientistic target in the guise of this Professor Kofka.
It's all true. Here is Professor Kofka. And here is his book.
14 July 2019