There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Reggie Oliver and the Lovecraft Mythos

The Lovecraft Mythos, particularly works produced by the generations that knew not Lovecraft, is my least favorite genre ghetto to visit.


But for Reggie Oliver I'll make an exception.  


The Archbishop's Well (2013)


"The Archbishop's Well" takes the form of a diary of Dr. Charles Vilier. It recalls "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" at the outset, but its headlong climax is pure The Shadow over Innsmouth. In 1938 an ancient well at Morchester Cathedral is examined by an expert (Vilier) on Medieval history to see if it is worth preserving, or can be removed and replaced with a modern drinking fountain. 


....It is a roughly circular enclosure of irregular stones which have been frequently repaired over the years with ugly slatherings of mortar. The opening is capped with a heavy circular lid of oak, bound with elaborately arabesqued iron bands and attached to the stone surround by heavy iron rings and padlocks.....


Felix Cutbirth heads a local cult bent on defending the well from investigation:


"I warn you, Dean Grice—" he pronounced it grease "—the House of Dagon will suffer wrong no more! The Old Gods are awaking from their long sleep and you would do well not to despise their help in the gathering storm. Soon the rivers of Europe will run with blood. You will bleat for the Nazarene to help you, but he will not come, and the tide of blood will advance till it engulfs even Morchester. I warn you, Grice!"


Vilier begins his research in the cathedral library. 


....When Anselm came to the Benedictine Priory at Morchester he saw the monks in much distress on account of their well. For they had built their cloister around an ancient well which had been there for many centuries and where in time past many foul and blasphemous ceremonies had been enacted to worship the ancient Gods and Demons of the Pagans. For, it was said, in the depths of this ancient well were many caverns and paths beneath the earth which connected with sea caverns on the southern shores. [In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the sea was much closer to Morchester than it is now.] And it was said that these demons came out of the sea and through the caverns to the well where they had been worshipped as gods in former times.


Now certain of the monks, hoping to draw greater quantities of the sweet water to be found in the well, had descended into its depths to dig deeper and uncover new springs. But in so doing they had awakened the demons who had lain dormant in caverns beneath the well for many centuries. They had troubled their unholy sleep and awakened their anger. And these demons had arisen from the well to bring destruction on the monks and the people of Morchester. The monks were tormented by ill dreams and by odours as of fish putrefying. Women of the town began to give birth to all manner of abominations: infants with two heads, and mouths in their fundaments, horns upon their head, many arms but without hands; and one had the face of a great serpent. Such was their consternation that the whole people cried out to Anselm to deliver them from terrors by night and abominations by day….


This is what lead to the sealing of the well-head. 


Vilier has the well-head opened and he and his old school friend Bertie Winship, a canon at the cathedral, descend.


....The whole, including the spiral steps, was an astonishing feat of construction and certainly not, in my view, medieval. Anglo-Saxon, then? Even less likely. Roman? I had never seen Roman work that remotely resembled this.


Soon the top of the well had become a little white disc, no bigger than the moon. I trudged downwards, taking care not to touch the walls if I could avoid it. They were covered with a thin layer of something dark and glistening, sticky to the touch, that left a dark brown stain on the hands, like half-dried blood. My dear old tweed jacket was already ruined.


I had entered a world of silence, and if silence can be said to echo, then it did. I suppose what I am saying is that the slightest scrape of my feet on the stone steps came back to me in echoes a thousand fold. Once I coughed and it was like a fusillade of rifle shots. The scent of something decaying and fishlike was getting stronger....


....I don't know how long we had been going, but the entrance to the well was only a pinpoint of light above us—no more than a distant star on a dark night—when we came across the carvings.


The first of them was a frieze carved into the stone, about a foot and a half in depth that ran the whole of the way around the well, broken only by the run of the staircase. It was a continuous key pattern, or, if you like, a set of interlinked swastikas. Apart from anything else it was astonishing to find workmanship like this at such a depth. What possible purpose could it serve?


I could only conjecture that its presence suggested that an early civilisation, probably of Aryan origin, had been at work here and created the descent for ritual purposes. I began to speculate that it might have been used to commune with spirits of the dead, or some Chthonic deity of the underworld. This structure could be an early monument to a mystery religion, perhaps the earliest in these islands, predating Mithraism by hundreds, even thousands of years….


....It showed a group of figures huddled together, one of which was wearing a kind of crown or diadem and seemed to be dominating the others. The figures were not human, nor recognisably animal. They looked like some strange miscegenation between a sea creature, of an octapoid kind, and a human or ape. By one of them I was rather unpleasantly reminded of the figure engraved on Felix Cutbirth's card.


"By Jove," said Bertie, "I wouldn't like to meet one of those on a dark night.


At the bottom of the well they discover horizontal tunnels which connect the well to the sounding sea.  From there onward, the trevails of Viliers and Winship pick up speed.



***



"The Black Ship" (2018)


A found-manuscript story.  A professor of Ontography finds a box of previously unknown manuscripts by John Aubrey.  One is an interview with Doctor John Dee's last servant, who witnessed her master's final showdown with Thomas Moreby ("Lord of the Fleas").  The story then moves on to a Puritan's memoirs and a captain's sailing log for the Speedwell which apparently took a very curious route to the new world. And carried some even curiouser passengers.


.....That same evening as we were preparing to settle to our sleep, behind the curtain we had erected, of a sudden the curtains parted and we beheld a face grinning at us. It was only one of the boys—a strange lad of a familie called Curwen, as we discovered—but so filthy and malignant was his aspect that we were much affrighted. He drew the curtains round him so that we saw naught but his head, which continued to grin and leer until my Mercy took her besom and knocked him o'er the mazzard with it.


The Speedwell's log:


....October 5th. The mist clears a little, the sea staying calm and almost glassy, when shortly after two in the afternoon, Bates, one of my seamen, spies land from the crow's nest in the main mast. Master Moreby takes out a length of leather like a staff and puts it to his eye in the direction to which Bates pointed. I, greatly wondering, asked him what this signifyed, and he passed me the object and bade me look through it. At first I could make nothing of it, then I saw. This must be the new spying glass of which I heard tell in Holland last summer.


It was land of a sort that I saw, and, I guessed, an island, yet a very strange land indeed the like of which I had never yet beheld. It stood up out of the sea in great rocks and pillars of a green stone, yet with scarce any vegetation upon it, and all at angles as if shaped by a giant, or Cyclops. It mounted in steps and causeways up to a great summit, level at the top yet with one black stone upon it. It seemed to me—fanciful though it may sound—that I beheld not so much an island as the topmost excrescences of some great palace or monument, much of which must be sunk in the depths of the sea. The sight of it filled me with much amazement and terrour, but Moreby told me to steer towards it. There, he sayd, we would find sweet water and a safe haven in which to repair our battered vessell. I could scarce gainsay him for we were sorely in need of both, yet I had great misgivings….


The misgivings, it turns out, are fully justified. 


.....October 8th. As the sun rose over the Island, we left our anchorage. It was a bright day with a fair wind and, as we came out into the open sea, I heard again those sounds that the Island gave out, like unto a mournful hollowing from its depths.


Then a most strange and astounding event happened. We were about a league from the Island when I looked back upon it and it appeared to me to be smaller than was just. I kept my eye upon it and saw that the whole Island was sinking beneath the waves. The beach where we had feasted but one day previous was gone completely under the waves, but this was no mere tide, for the isle was sinking fast. The sea began to close over cliffs and crags whither but yesterday we had climbed with much labour. As the land sank a mist was borne upwards, like a steam from the clefts in the rocks, and it was coloured grey and green. Presently, we could see only the topmost spire of that mysterious congery of rocks; then with a final exhalation of green smoke and what sounded like a melancholy sigh, the whole sank beneath the waves, which bubbled a while and then were still. All that was left of it was a wreath of greenish fog which hung, like some foul garland, above the place where the Island had been, before it was dissolved by the winds.


So astonished was I at this spectacle that for a full hour I could not speak, and issued commands to my men by gesture only. Yet I dared not ask Master Moreby what manner of place it was we had visited. I read once in an old book that there be certain mouths of Hell on this Earth such as at Hecla in Iceland, where the ghosts of dead men are familiarly seen, and sometimes talk with the living, and where lamentable screeches and howlings are continually heard, which strike a terror to the auditors; moreover, fiery chariots are commonly seen to bring in the souls of men in the likeness of crows, and devills ordinarily go in and out. This I truly believe was such a place. Yet, more like, it was not a mouth of Hell, but Hell itself that we had visited….


Reggie Oliver brings a unique and audacious skill to the normally fustian and second-rate world of the mythos.



Jay

20 November 2019








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