The wanderer: peregrinations in eldritch regions

Jarvis, Timothy J. (2009) The wanderer: peregrinations in eldritch regions. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This being a creative, not critical, project, there is no overall thesis to summarize here, and I am loath to offer a synopsis of the fiction, for to do so would pre-empt plot turns. However, I feel it would be useful for me to give a brief outline of the intentions and aspirations I had for the material before I began to write it. At the inception of this enterprise I had two main aims. First, I hoped to produce a creative writing thesis that, rather than consisting of separate critical and fictional components, was a ludic interweaving of theory and invention. To this end, I decided to structure the work as a kind of detournement of the annotated critical edition, situating a critical apparatus around my core work of fiction. Second, I wanted to examine the contestational potential of a literary mode often, sometimes correctly, maligned as a conservative genre – horror fiction. However, I did not want to follow the template of a number of transgressive horrors, which is simply to depict reason overthrown by a dark and terrible other, but wished to reappraise the overlooked possibilities of the form. I had no idea what these might be, but hoped to uncover them in the process of writing my thesis. In the event the project departed from the horror schema, but it remained a fundamental model, the tingling spine of the piece.

It was in the course of carrying out my second intention I came up against the central problem of the composition of this thesis. I became convinced horror is not just an amalgam of terror and revulsion, as dictionary definitions would have it, but must also include a component of the uncanny. While it is not easy to produce the first two emotional responses, it is at least obvious what means should be employed. The uncanny, however, is more elusive, and I had no clear idea how I might attempt to give rise to it. I decided instead to proceed by
intuition and the emulation of works that had produced an uncanny feeling in me. While writing it seemed to me I was producing a text capable of eliciting at least a faint thrill of strangeness, though I had no idea how I was doing so, and it was not until I was nearing the end of the project I realised what my unconscious method had been. Let me explain. On the 3rd March 2008, while in the midst of editing this thesis, I was reading, for respite from my own work, Iain Sinclair's novel Dining on Stones (2004), when I came upon the following passage:

My wild card is the little-known novel More Things in Heaven by Walter Owen. Owen […] lived for a time in Buenos Aires. He produced a sequence, linked narratives involving spontaneous combustion and a cursed manuscript, that seems in some ways to prefigure Borges (with a dash of M.R. James). Owen‘s book, difficult to find, has itself become a talisman, possession (unless it can be passed on to an unsuspecting recipient) conferring malfate, paranoid delusions, death. I rid myself of my original copy, but still have the second – which arrived, anonymously, as a barter against a bad debt. (Sinclair, 2005, p.407)

I was intrigued – both Borges and M.R. James had been reference points for me when composing my novel; furthermore, my book was also a sequence of linked narratives, and involved a cursed manuscript.
In Dining on Stones, the narrator, Andrew Norton, Sinclair‘s recurrent alter ego, goes on to quote some sections from ‘More Things in Heaven…’ (1947). Reading these, I noted a further similarity to my novel. Norton reproduces the following quotation from Owen‘s book, originally, in context, written by the narrator, 'gradually I found the conviction forming in my mind that the story they unfolded was not fiction but a narrative of factual events' – the crux of my tale comes at a point when one of its characters wonders whether a manuscript, which
comprises the bulk of the book, is a work of the imagination, or a faithful recording of incredible and dreadful events (Owen, 1947, p.12). Therefore, undeterred by Sinclair‘s claims of malign influence, on my next visit to the British Library, I ordered 'More Things in Heaven…'. On receiving it, a couple of days later – not being much in demand it was held in the library's off-site depository in Boston Spa, Yorkshire – I felt a frisson on opening the book and reading the first sentence: 'On the 14th July 1935 Mr Cornelius Letherbotham, an English gentleman resident in Buenos Aires, died under extraordinary and distressing circumstances,' (Owen, 1947, p.9). The reason I shuddered then will become clear on perusing the first paragraph of my novel:

On the 13th March 2005, the author Simon Peterkin, a hack horror writer, read only by obsessive fans of the genre, went missing. He had few friends and had become estranged from his only living relatives, a brother and sister. Therefore, it is doubtful his disappearance would have come to general notice, had it not been for the singular circumstances surrounding it.

Gripped by horrible fascination, I read on. 'More Things in Heaven...' is a strange, difficult, and at times abstruse work, filled with occult erudition and containing a number of virtuoso pastiches of historical documents. In many ways it is a novel that pre-empts the literary styles of later, postmodernist writers; with its linked tales, mysticism, and overarching narrative about a hermetic sect of 'Magi' under whose auspices human civilisation is directed, it is reminiscent of a work by Umberto Eco, or Thomas Pynchon. It is certainly a very enjoyable book. It is not surprising it did not find, and has never found, a general readership, however, for it contains a great number of esoteric terms and archaisms, its plot is incoherent to the extent that suspense is vitiated utterly, and it has a fustian quality reminiscent of the bombast of turn-of-the-twentieth-century mystics, and fustiness redolent of arcane impenetrable texts. And of course there are those tales of it 'conferring malfate, paranoid delusions, death…'

As I perused 'More Things in Heaven…', and researched Owen's life, more and more coincidences occurred to me. A character in my novel quotes the line from Shakespeare from which Owen took his title. Though Owen lived most of his life in Uruguay, he was born and educated in Glasgow; Glasgow University was the institute at which I chose to study for my doctorate. At one point in my novel the character producing the critical apparatus, James Anderson, writes in a footnote of his coming upon a book that has a strange resonance with the manuscript he is editing – an experience that mirrors mine in discovering 'More Things in Heaven…'. In the section of my thesis that purports to be an extract from the work Anderson discovers, reference is made to the US poet Robert W. Service, who attended the same school in Glasgow, Hillhead High, as Owen, a mere ten years before him. A further resonance is that Owen's protagonist, after an encounter with some eldritch thing, finds his right arm is afflicted:

A strange feature of my injuries was the condition of my right arm and hand. The sleeves of my shirt and jacket had completely disappeared, leaving my arm bare to the shoulder, and the arm itself was bloodless and shrivelled as if by prolonged immersion in water. (Owen, 1947, p.309)

In my novel, a character, after blundering into and touching with his outstretched hand some foul entities in a cavern beneath the Glasgow Necropolis, suffers a very similar affliction: 'Over the next few days his [right] arm grew more enfeebled, took on a necrotic hue, and began to stink of rottenness.' After reading 'More Things in Heaven… and noting all these correspondences, I returned to Dining on Stones to look again at Sinclair‘s evocation of Owen's novel, and read, with vague horror, another line Norton quotes from it: 'I was struck by the coincidence, if indeed it was a coincidence and not a clue to some hidden connection,' (Owen, 1947, p.12).

Of course, I knew the coincidences between my novel and Owen's were mere coincidences, but I still felt the frisson such correspondences can produce. Pondering this, I realised the sensation I was experiencing was one I had striven to engender with my novel's multiple frames, paratexts, and internal referentiality. This led me to muse on why I should have wished to do so, and to reconsider some of the notions that had been much in my mind as I was composing the thesis. I realised then it was through an attempt to produce in the reader a sense of fated and ominous connections that I had tried to engender the uncanny.

To conclude this abstract, I want to return to the question of the overlooked potential of the horror form. It is my belief works in the mode have the power to bring home to the reader the fact that, in a world in which the events of history are regurgitated by the media as palatable fictionalized morsels, the real has not lost any of its terror, or brutality. Readers thus made to feel anew a sense of peril will, it is to be hoped, adopt a more interrogative stance towards that which they are told. Horror therefore possesses a valuable ethical function.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: creative writing, horror, eldritch, found manuscript, genre fiction, Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin, Gothic, reflexive critical apparatus
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Maley, Professor Willy and Radford, Dr. Andrew
Date of Award: 2009
Embargo Date: 6 May 2012
Depositing User: Mr Timothy J Jarvis
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-740
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 May 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:25

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