Friday, 13 August 2010

On the respective world views of M.R. James and S.T. Joshi

The reputation of S.T. Joshi as the preeminent scholar in the study of weird fiction has always puzzled me. Although the man’s work ethic cannot be disputed, his tendency to view every weird author through the prism of H.P. Lovecraft taints his writing with a frustrating bias, whilst his doctrinaire atheism and positivism renders him incapable of fully engaging with some of the most important authors in the field. One might argue that his philosophical stance is scarcely worse than Arthur Machen’s militant anti-materialism, but their two projects are entirely different. Machen was a mystic and Neo-Romantic polemicist whilst Joshi aspires to sober academic criticism, hence it is rather hypocritical for him to condemn somebody like Machen for an obdurate ideology when Joshi is guilty of similar intransigence.

Nowhere are Joshi’s faults more manifest than in his interpretation of the work of M.R. James. His failure to fully appreciate James’s achievement has been extensively rebutted in the collection of essays, Warnings to the Curious (which Joshi himself graciously edited), but despite the instructive title of that volume, none deal with what I perceive as a dominant theme in James’s stories, one that is problematic for Joshi’s analysis on two fronts.

Joshi’s criteria for what makes successful weird fiction proceeds from the contention that “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions… All the authors… evolved distinctive world views, and it was those world views that led them to write the sort of literature they did…each writer’s entire output is a philosophical unity.” I think this assertion at least is uncontroversial. The force of the work of masters such as Blackwood, Machen, Aickman, Lovecraft and Ligotti undoubtedly derives from the fact that their fiction is not merely an exercise in form or a collection of signifiers, but the expression of irreducible philosophical convictions. It is essentially propaganda, a vehicle by which to communicate their own unique metaphysical systems.

However, Joshi pointedly excludes M.R. James from this select group on the grounds that “It is simply not possible to derive a general philosophy out of James’s stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view. The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposely avoids drawing broader implications.” Nor is Joshi alone in this assessment. In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan writes “James’s fiction is self-enclosed in that it rarely refers to any system of ideas or values outside the confines of the plot… If there is any theological ‘premise’ in James, it is never developed and it is certainly not clear”; whilst Julia Briggs, in her unsurpassed study Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, opines “James maintained an attitude of critical detachment which seems to have been the exception rather than the rule… It is as if the implications of what he wrote never disturbed him, and he enjoyed writing them purely as a literary exercise”.

However, in these judgements I believe that Joshi and the others are mistaken, for whilst James might be less didactic than some of the other names mentioned here, even a cursory study of his canon reveals a distinct philosophy which profoundly influences the thrust of his narratives. Of course, my argument is not helped by James himself, whose own rare pronouncements on the significance of his ghost stories are distinctly deflationary. In the preface to Ghosts and Marvels, he writes “Often I have been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories… Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated”, a stance later reiterated in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories where he remarks, “Questioners ask if I have any theories as to the writing of ghost stories. None that are worthy of the name or need be repeated here”.

Yet given James’s acclaimed restraint in his fiction, it is hardly surprising that he should exhibit similar reticence in his public statements. Such coyness suggests an admirable desire to conceal the mechanics of his creative process from his audience lest the impact be diminished (if only more artists were familiar with such discretion today). Moreover, it is not the case that James even needed to be consciously aware of the philosophical underpinnings of his work. It is impossible to imagine that the world view of an artist will not always reveal itself in their output. Having said this, I do believe that James was fully cognisant of the attitudes which informed his tales and his refusal to engage with any questions regarding their foundation primarily represents an ongoing effort to avoid didacticism and allow the stories to speak for themselves.

It is therefore my contention that James’s fiction, much like that of Machen and Blackwood, embodies an assault against materialist and positivist philosophies and especially their insidious creep into the realm of academic scholarship. In this regard the title of his story “A Warning to the Curious” might be regarded as an epigram for his entire corpus. This is not to say that James was opposed to the spirit of academic inquiry – quite the opposite, he was after all a devoted antiquarian himself – but that such study must maintain a healthy respect for the sanctity of its objects. He seeks to portray the sort of doctrinaire scepticism characteristic of positivism as an irrational impulse, which in ignoring any fact that does not agree with its aggressively reductive outlook is in serious danger of ignoring, maybe even destroying, the things that make a symbol significant in the first place.

Time and time again in James’s stories we see intellectually arrogant protagonists, over-confident in their own superior rationality, blunder into an act of desecration which brings dire consequences down upon them. This is often despite receiving warnings as to the potential consequences of their actions which they proceed to blithely ignore. Professor Parkins in Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad is the archetypal character in this respect, declaring “I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position… cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects… I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all the I hold most sacred.” This is not scientific scepticism, the suspension of judgement awaiting further evidence, exemplified by James’s own attitude towards the possibility of the supernatural (“I am prepared to consider the evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”). Rather, Parkins exhibits that rigid certainty in the tenets of materialism which is ultimately as much a matter of faith as any theological conviction.

The motif of protagonists punished for their intellectual vanity recurs in several of James’s most characteristic stories including Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester and of course, A Warning to the Curious. As Simon MacCulloch recognises in his essay The Toad In the Study, “James’s protagonists tend to be cultivated, intelligent representatives of an ordered, fatally limited world view, a brittle civilisation based on rationalism and distinctive human value.” The source of terror in James’s stories comes not only from the implacable malignance of the revenants, but often the impact they have on the belief systems of the characters and it is implied that the irruption of these embodiments of chaos is the inevitable consequence of an inflexible, mechanistic understanding of the universe which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the unknown. It is very telling that S.T. Joshi prefers to believe that “these hints are vague and, in the end, harmlessly jocular”, for reasons we will come to later.

It is clear that James was especially troubled by the implications of unyielding rationalism for concepts of sanctity and faith, the very kernel of which is a healthy appreciation of Mystery. The idea that faith is synonymous with certainty is a fallacy, erected as a straw man by the New Atheists and sustained by debased models of religious thought such as fundamentalism and evangelism. Rather, uncertainty and an apprehension of the unknown are fundamental conditions of faith and the areas it designates as “sacred” or “holy” are symbols of this acceptance of all that is beyond our comprehension and provide us with an ongoing connection to this awareness. To deny the significance of such symbols, or to undermine them by regarding them purely in terms of their material components, is to deny an essential aspect of the human condition. When the blinkered rationalism of James’s protagonists causes them to violate some sacred object or place, it represents a transgression against the human community which invested them with meaning in the first place. As a result they must be chastised by a confrontation with the full weight of the unknown forces which they so glibly refused to acknowledge and which other, wiser men recognised the irreducibility of.

In his essay A Warning to the Curious: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M.R. James’s Ghosts Stories, Brian Cowlishaw argues, “James indicates that digging into the past/unconscious is a mistake… To dig into the past is to transport oneself back in time to a more superstitious, savage state of humanity and to uncover terrible things better left buried. If James’s antiquarians would only let sleeping ruins lie, they would remain safe.” However, I think this is rather disingenuous and would be a strange attitude for James to exhibit. He was after all an antiquarian himself and certainly had no intention of “letting sleeping ruins lie”. His concern was more to show that the past was not merely a dead thing, the remains of which could be trampled over in a rush to loot its secrets. It’s wisdom and remembrances should be treated with appropriate respect or else we will be suddenly and forcefully reacquainted with knowledge the modern world cannot integrate.

You also have to wonder if James might have been taking aim at his own impulses, the ghost stories serving as a necessary counterweight to his own scholarly activities, maybe even an exorcism so to speak. His protagonists invariably echo his own passions as a medievalist, and James was no doubt conscious of the dangers of such pursuits if followed to extremes. As Julia Briggs observes, “Curiosity has its academic and obsessive aspects; perhaps James’s experience of the former gave him some insight into the latter.” Such obsession threatens to turn innocent scholarship into an endeavour to assimilate all knowledge of a subject so thoroughly that the integrity of the object of study itself is forgotten or ignored.

In his quest to document the religious sentiment of the medievals, James must often have found himself, like his characters, disturbing papers, artefacts and sites which were once treated with reverence. It has often been said that it is impossible to reconstruct fully the cosmology of the pre-modern mind and perhaps as he picked through their relics with that critical detachment integral to the academic project, James wondered just to what extent they might have perceived his actions as sacrilege or blasphemy. His stories certainly suggest that he was troubled by the question of whether an antiquarian is really all that much better than a grave-robber. After all, the notion that intellectual enrichment is somehow a nobler motive than financial reward is largely an arbitrary judgement.

From his published writings, it’s hard to imagine that S.T. Joshi would have any such qualms and this is primarily why he cannot perceive any worldview in James’s work. That worldview is so entirely beyond anything Joshi can empathise with that he simply cannot hope to grasp it, and as James does not spell it out like Machen and Blackwood are wont to do means that it eludes him entirely (which is a damning indictment of his skill as a literary critic as much as a philosopher). As can be observed in his critique of Arthur Machen, whilst Joshi may insist that the work of the most successful writers of weird fiction forms “a philosophical unity”, wherever that philosophy diverges substantially for his own, he displays egregious blind spots.

Anybody unsure of the exact composition of Joshi’s own belief system need only read the first lines of his book God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, where he boldly states “Either there is one god, multiple gods or none. Either there is such a thing called the human soul or there isn’t… That the essential doctrines of many of the world’s major religions are matters of truth or falsity is itself a fact around which no amount of sophistry or special pleading can get away from.”

It is clear from this expression of simplistic binary thinking that Joshi is not somebody comfortable with concepts such as ambiguity and uncertainty. To such a mentality, everything in the world can, and indeed must, be broken down into its atomistic components, dissected and catalogued, forced into artificial taxonomies of our own creation until it makes sense to whatever ontology is currently in fashion. The notion that some things should be regarded as sacred and inviolable because they might, just might, embody all that transcends human understanding, must be entirely alien to him.

Nor would it be much use to appeal to Joshi’s respect for the sentiments of the community who originally invested these symbols with meaning, because it is sadly obvious that he has no such respect. His work is shot through with an uncomfortable misanthropy, doubtless informed by his heroes such as H.P. Lovecraft and H.L. Mencken. Just witness a further extract from the introduction to God’s Defenders, in which he asserts “People are stupid. The fundamental fact of human history is that people in the mass are irredeemably ignorant.”

Perhaps if this attitude was confined to his contributions to the self-congratulatory constituency of the New Atheism we could overlook it as a regrettable but trifling self-indulgence. However, when it starts infecting works of criticism that are frequently regarded as definitive – largely because there is little room in the publishing industry for contenders – then it must be exposed as the root of a systematic bias.

In Supernatural Horror In Literature, H.P. Lovecraft states as a self-evident truth that “occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.” However, this is nothing more than dogma on Lovecraft’s part, for there is no evidence to support such a claim. In the classic period of weird fiction, Lovecraft’s materialism was the exception rather than the rule. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Nesbit, Walter de la Mare, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson, May Sinclair, Gustav Meyrink and others were all to some extent believers in what might loosely be termed the supernatural.

If Joshi is correct in saying “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions”, it follows that any constructive critical study of the fiction of such writers must make an effort to engage with those philosophical predispositions, on an imaginative level at least. From the dubious conclusions of his criticism in volumes such as The Weird Tale (with the exception of his chapter on Algernon Blackwood) and the evidence of screeds like God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, I submit that Joshi’s attempts in this direction are negligible.

As his biographer Michael Cox comments, M.R. James “tended to distrust intellectual inquiry that was not rooted in a sensitive respect for tradition and orthodoxy.” This was, of course, partly an expression of James’s instinctive conservatism. However, the evidence of his literary output suggests that it was also the product of a profound awareness of the limitations of human knowledge in the face of higher mysteries, and the sacraments by which past societies assimilated this understanding. The intellectual vanity epitomised by doctrinaire rationalism is accordingly a trespass against both the unknown and the human community. It is an act of hubris which, as every Classicist knows, will surely be followed by nemesis.

This philosophy recurs throughout James’s weird tales and gives lie to S.T. Joshi’s assertion that “they never add up to a world view”. That he fails to recognise James’s philosophical manifesto is scarcely surprising when you consider that the man is a fine example of precisely the attitude James was warning against. You cannot help but think that if Joshi were a character in one of James’s stories he would be Parkins blowing the whistle, Paxton digging up the crown, Wraxall perversely repeating that dread phrase for the third time. And we all know what happened to them.

Anyway, just for fun, here's a run down of my favourite M.R. James stories, in a rough sort of order...

Lauded by H.P. Lovecraft as a "veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion," this is also one of James's bleakest tales in which his favourite trope of the supernatural pursuit is explored to a chilling extent. Whilst the protagonist Mr. Wraxall is guilty of "over-inquisitiveness", the relentless persecution he is subsequently subjected to far outweighs his initial calumny. He becomes the most abject victim in the canon.

Embodying another favourite Jamesian narrative, in which terrible historical events are re-enacted before a powerless and horrified protagonist, The Mezzotint portrays the supernatural on two levels; firstly in the titular print, whose mysterious and unique animation is without explanation or logic; and secondly in the vile, crawling revenant who plays a starring role in the tragedy that unfolds.

A masterful subversion of the traditional image of the ghost as an incorporeal, shrouded thing bestowed with even greater effect by its manifestation in that place of refuge, the bedroom, ensuring it's never possible to hide beneath the sheets again. Meanwhile, James is clearly in his antiquarian element and ready with lessons on the consequences of doctrinaire scepticism and overweening curiosity.

Witches are a familiar motif in British folklore and whilst James piles on the authentic detail, he imbues his own creation, Mrs. Mothersole, with a quite unique and maleficent quality which is sure to send a shudder of revulsion through the reader. It's also once of his most carefully constructed pieces, elliptical without being too obscure, expertly building towards the "nicely managed climax" which he so valued.

A late but archetypal example of the M.R. James ghost story, in which an amateur archaeologist must pay for his blinkered rationalism, scholarly arrogance and personal greed when he disturbs ancient relics better left alone. The antiquarian Saxon milieu and coastal East Anglican landscape are richly evoked, whilst James draws on certain folkloric motifs and traditions which resonate throughout the British Isles.

This is the story that disturbed me most when I was young and led to several sleepless nights. It features a perfect exemplar of H.P. Lovecraft's observation that "The average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy - a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man - and usually touched before it is seen". There is something about the dead man's hair motif which is particularly grisly indeed.

The sole example of an M.R. James story in which the victim of supernatural persecution decides to fight back and is actually successful. Meanwhile, the character of Karswell is a formidable antagonist. Like Count Magnus, he is the embodiment of scholarship perverted by desire for a hidden knowledge (an impulse James maybe felt himself and feared) but unlike Magnus, ultimately hoisted by his own petard.

A much underrated story which has sometimes been criticised for being too oblique for its own good. However, this opacity makes it a story which actually improves with successive readings, forever revealing more of its horrible implications. You also suspect this was a very personal story for James, invoking the sinister image of the Punch and Judy show which he confessed so terrified him as a young child.

The first published of his stories and still in many ways the template for all that would follow. It establishes many of James's characteristic themes. There's a medieval and ecclesiastic backdrop, the greed and intellectual vanity of the protagonist and of course, the monstrous revenant. The demon here is one of the most colourfully described and whilst it lacks the subtlety of his later work, it is still one of the most effective.

Unlike Machen or Blackwood, James was not primarily a landscape writer and whilst he never lacked skill in its description, A View From a Hill is the only instance where he explores what might now be dubbed the "psychogeographical" aspect. In a nice synchronicity, he uses the landscape of Herefordshire, which similarly inspired Alfred Watkins to write The Old Straight Track.

Briggs, Julia (1977) "Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Ghost Story"
Cox, Michael (1986) "M.R. James: An Informal Portrait"
James, M.R. (Ed.) (1927) "Ghosts & Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales"
James, M.R. (1931) "The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James"
Joshi, S.T. (2003) "The Weird Tale"
Joshi, S.T. (2003) "God's Defenders: What They Believe & Why They Are Wrong"
Joshi, S.T. (Ed.) (2007) "Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R. James"
Sullivan, Jack (1981) "Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood"

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Holy Face of Halifax

Whether it represents a case of unconscious cultural transmission or merely a pleasing synchronicity, there can be no doubt that the image of the disembodied human head has exerted a curious influence over the municipal psyche of Halifax through the ages. Its most infamous and familiar expression can be seen in the once widely-feared Gibbet Law, whereby the town would behead criminals by the guillotine for the infraction of stealing goods worth more than the relatively trivial sum of 13½d, a custom which persisted until 1650, long after the rest of country had forsaken such a grisly mode of execution.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and folklorists have commented on the prevalence of uniquely stylised stone carvings of the human head in the vernacular architecture of the region. Often located at liminal positions such as gateways, gables, boundary walls and bridges, these images seem to have performed a tutelary or apotropaic function for the pre-modern mind, guarding against incursion by otherworldly forces and acting as the “luck” of the building.

Some scholars have suggested they may represent a folk memory of the Celtic “head cult,” a hypothesis supported by Halifax’s situation at the heart of Elmet, the last Celtic kingdom in England (enduring until the 7th Century AD), and the town’s subsequent isolation from outside influences until the Industrial Revolution. However, this identification has increasingly been questioned and currently the preferred term is “archaic stone head,” for even if the iconography does signify the continuity of a Celtic tradition, the majority of individual examples seem to date from around the 17th Century.

A further instance of the disembodied head motif can be discerned in the town’s “foundation myth”, of which there are two variants. In early works studying topography and local history of the region, these legends were understood literally and often cited as the historical origin of the town. As such, the stories are well-known to local antiquarians and seem to persist healthily in the popular consciousness of the town today. Yet whilst they are now easily recognisable as examples of myth (and their significance often dismissed on that account), little effort seems to have been expended examining the origin of these beliefs.

The first tradition is recorded by the scholar William Camden in his seminal and monumental chorographical work, “Britannia”, first published in 1586. He tells how the town had not long enjoyed the name of Halifax and was formerly known as Horton, wherein dwelled a certain clergyman who found himself consumed by lust for a local maid. The girl spurned his advances and as affection turned to anger, he cut her head from her body and cast it away. However, it was caught in the fork of a nearby yew tree and there, its hair grew so entangled in the branches, it was stuck fast and could not be removed.

As both the head and tree decayed, local superstition transformed the fibres which characterise the yew’s bark into surviving strands of the virgin’s hair, miraculously become one with the tree and preserved. Camden goes on to relate that the tree became an object of veneration for the local populace, who would make pilgrimages to the place and reverently carry away sprigs for good fortune. Such was the influx of pilgrims to see this hallowed relic Horton grew from a village into a substantial town and was renamed Halig-fax, a corruption of the Old English for “holy hair”.

It should be noted that the tale only appears in Camden’s earliest editions of Britannia, which suggests that even the antiquarian himself grew suspicious of its provenance. Many subsequent commentaries have expressed the opinion that the story had no genuine local tradition and was an invention of the 16th Century, possibly on the part of the Savile family, with whom Camden is thought to have stayed in 1580. Nonetheless, the story remained in currency throughout the 1600s, appearing in John Drayton’s poetic work of 1616, Poly-Olbion, and Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662.

Almost a century after the publication of Camden’s chronicle, in his diary entry for 26th April 1679 historian Ralph Thoresby mentions being taken to see the yew tree, a visit which must have made an impression upon him as he mentions the incident again in an autobiographical “review” of his life. This suggests a venerated tree must have actually existed in Halifax, although it does not eliminate the possibility that it was only designated as such after Camden’s description. Doubtless the town burghers would’ve been eager to identify the locus of such a picturesque tale and yew trees are not an unfamiliar sight in the vicinity of churchyards in Britain.

Despite Thoresby’s credulity, the idea of “holy hair” story as a reliable historical account seems to have very quickly fallen out of fashion. Fuller expressed his doubts, writing that “the judicious behold the whole contrivance devoid of historical truth.” Its survival as a romantic fable was assured, however, and a most picturesque retelling appeared in Frederick Ross’s 1892 collection, Legendary Yorkshire, featuring numerous embellishments seemingly of the author’s own invention.

The first dedicated histories of Halifax were compiled at the end of 17th Century, although they did not appear immediately in print. Halifax and It's Gibbet Law and The History of the Town and Parish of Halifax were written during a period of incarceration for debt by Luddenden physician, Dr. Samuel Midgley, probably around 1685. However, they were not published until 1708, thirteen years after Midgley's death, by printer William Bentley who passed the work off as his own. As Bentley added his own notes it is difficult to ascertain just what should be attributed to whom but as the bulk undoubtedly belongs to Midgley, he shall be credited.

It is with these volumes that the second, marginally more sober version of the foundation myth enters the public consciousness, for Midgley conclusively rejects Camden’s story. He cites evidence that a church at Halifax is explicitly mentioned in documentary evidence dating from almost five hundred years prior to Camden’s visit, disproving his assertion that the name of Halifax was of no great antiquity and was originally called Horton. However, he acknowledges the strength of the tradition in the town itself.

Midgley wonders if the story of the holy hair may not have derived from a grove a yew trees surrounding the Well of St. John the Baptist, a hallowed spring which once stood some two hundred yards to the north of the parish church. Even by Midgley’s time this well had long since disappeared and its exact traditions been forgotten, but a remembrance of it existed in the name of the street beside which it stood, called Cripplegate in reference to the influx of infirm pilgrims who would visit it. In the 19th Century, the well trough was rediscovered in the grounds of Mulcture Hall, but was lost again with the building's demolition and the spot is now thought to lie beneath the end of Mulcture Hall Road, adjacent to the Wool Merchant Hotel.

The alternative version of the foundation myth Midgley goes on to provide has proved a more prevalent and enduring formulation, for reasons which will become clear. On this account, Halifax was originally the site of a secluded hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist (a figure known as the Prince of Hermits by the church fathers) which became a place of pilgrimage owing to a popular belief that the head of the Baptist itself was kept there. The beneficence of the pilgrims funded the construction of the parish church, which is still dedicated to St. John today.

Christian theology regards John the Baptist as the “Forerunner” who both proclaimed by the Messiah’s coming and baptised the infant Christ, whilst he is mentioned as a Prophet of Islam in the Qur’an. The Synoptic Gospels recount how the Baptist was decapitated by King Herod and his head presented to the monarch’s step-daughter Salome, whose mother John had slighted by calling Herod’s remarriage impious. As a result of his significance for both faiths, his head is a relic claimed by many places, Christian and Muslim, across Europe and the Middle East. However, Halifax is easily the most incongruous suggestion and undoubtedly wholly apocryphal, as no Roman Catholic source mentions the town in such a context.

Not only does Midgley prefers the suggestion that popular rumour may once have held that the relics of St. John the Baptist were kept at an early hermitage in Halifax, he seeks to strength the argument with an equally tenuous revision of Camden’s original etymological speculation. Where Camden believed the name to derive from a corruption of an Old English dialect for “holy hair”, Midgley suggest that it may rather have stemmed from “holy face,” citing the use of “fax” for “face” in certain Scottish dialects which he imagines best preserve the Anglo Saxon language.

A few more published histories of the town appear as the 18th Century progresses. The Antiquities of the Town of Halifax was published in 1737 by Thomas Wright, which only discusses the story of the “holy hair”, with a note that he does not have much faith in its authenticity. He is joined in this opinion by Dr. John Watson, a curate of Halifax and Ripponden, whose History and Antiquities of the Parish of Halifax appeared in 1775. However, Watson's more comprehensive tome follows Midgley in proposing the head of St. John the Baptist hypothesis.

Today, the supposition that Halifax may once have possessed the head of St. John the Baptist seems no more credible than the legend of the holy hair. However, to Midgley and Watson's credit they do not say that the hermitage on which the church was founded actually did possess the head, only that people believed it to be so. This is not quite so absurd, as religious houses in the Middle Ages often exhibited relics of very dubious authenticity in expectation of the economic benefits such a superstition would bring.

Nonetheless, there is no contemporary documentary evidence to suggest even a popular belief of this nature and it seems to be little more than speculation on the part of Midgley and Watson. If Halifax had been such a famous centre of pilgrimage it seems unlikely that this would have escaped mention in medieval sources. However, no such record is to be found, even amongst local wills where you would expect to find remembrances referring to any relics or shrine of St. John the Baptist. After all, it was customary for local worthies to bequeath money to such institutions to guarantee the priests would pray for their immortal souls.

A more sober proposal, first mooted by John Stansfield writing in Volume 2 of the Thoresby Society Miscellanea, is that the church at Halifax once possessed not the head of John the Baptist but a portrait of the saint. T.W. Hanson would later revise this hypothesis and suggested that the visage might have been sculpted from alabaster, as several such representations of the Baptist have been recorded in Yorkshire in the Middle Ages. An elaborate icon of this type would have impressed pilgrims during the medieval period but could certainly have been lost during the Reformation, when in 1547, Edward IV issued an injunction against images in churches and a vast majority were defaced or destroyed.

Midgley and Watson's original conjecture very quickly fell out of fashion, however. In his 1816 History of Leeds and Elmet, Doctor Thomas Whittaker tacitly dismisses the idea of any relic, but seems to take it for granted that there was once a hermitage on the site of the parish church and that this was a great centre of pilgrimage. Furthermore, observing that four highways had long converged at that place, he muddies the etymological waters further by arguing that the name of the town was in fact an Anglo-Saxon/Norman French compound meaning “holy ways”, as “fax” was a Norman French plural meaning highways.

In 1836’s A Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax In the Country of York, John Crabtree follows Whittaker in rejecting both formulations of the foundation myth. Nonetheless, the legends were evidently still pervasive through the 19th Century. When the borough was incorporated in 1848, local antiquary Francis Alexander Leyland was commissioned to design a coat-of-arms for the town. He chose to embellish the shield of the Earls de Warenne, Norman lords-of-the manor, with a representation of the severed head of St. John the Baptist, on the grounds not only of the parish church’s dedication, but also the myth of the town’s origin.

The College of Arms, however, refused to register the design, indicating that the head of St. John the Baptist was too holy an icon to adorn the seal of an industrial town. This decision, compounded by the expense incurred, led the Halifax Corporation to abandon the idea of enrolment altogether. Initially, they used the seal without official armorial bearings, but by 1859 these had crept back in and the Corporation continued to use the coat-of-arms illegally until the centenary of its design in 1948, when the Herald’s College was finally persuaded to accept a modified version, albeit one that retained the Baptist motif.

Whilst it should now be clear that Halifax never pretended to possess the head of St. John the Baptist, it is interesting to speculate on how the town’s association with that personage and his legend arose. One possible source is the etymological root suggested by Midgley. However, this appears to be little more than post-hoc justification for Watson’s conjecture. The current favoured origin for the name of Halifax is the Middle English “halh-gefeaxe”, meaning “an area of coarse grass in a nook of land amongst rocks”. Extensive reasoning for this is set out by A.H. Smith in Volume 3 of his definitive study, The Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

It is scarcely surprising that Watson et al should have posited such a dramatic origin, for there can be no doubt that the rise of Halifax is both shrouded in mystery and somewhat meteoric. Despite apparently being of insufficient stature to warrant a mention in the Domesday Book, by the late Middle Ages the town had grown to become the most substantial in the valley, supplanting older, better situated rivals such as Elland, and was the site of a major parish church. Inevitably, early antiquarians would’ve sought an explanation befitting such a scenario.

It is certain that Halifax Parish Church was founded at some during the lifetime of the Second Earl de Warenne, which would date it to the late 11th or early 12th Century. The Earl owned much land in the region and a charter drawn up around the time of his death in 1138 is the first record of the church, mentioning it as a gift to the Priory of Lewes. However, this is only a confirmation of an earlier bequest, suggesting that the Earl had donated land for the purposes of a religious house and the church had been established by Cluniac Benedictine monks from Lewes Priory some years prior to the Earl’s death.

The dedication of the church to St. John the Baptist has led some commentators to surmise a connection with that infamous Crusading order, the Knights Templar. In the furore which followed their dissolution in 1307, a number of charges of apostasy were levelled against the Templars, including that they worshipped the image of a disembodied head. Even though it has been shown that the accusations were fabricated and the order was actually suppressed because the Vatican was jealous of its wealth and influence, this has not stopped speculation that they were adherents of the Johannite Heresy and were in possession of the Baptist’s head.

Amongst the evidence brought against the Templars during their trials for heresy in 1311 was the testimony of a Minorite friar by the name of Brother John de Donyngton, the sixty-seventh witness deposed. Donyngton swore that some years previously in London a Templar veteran, whose name he conveniently could not recall, had assured him that "the order had four principal idols"; one at London in the Sacristy of the Temple; another at Bristelham; a third at Bruern in Lincolnshire; and a fourth "beyond the Humber", the exact location of which he could not remember. However, "beyond the Humber" clearly indicates somewhere in the north of England and could conceivably be imagined as Halifax.

The Knights Templar certainly owned a great deal of land in Yorkshire, more than in any other county in England, including some in the vicinity of Halifax. A whimsical narrative could doubtless be constructed whereby the order brought the head of St. John the Baptist to the town to keep it safe from the wiles of Rome and a church founded to commemorate its presence. However, quite aside from the sheer fancifulness of such a story, the chronology cannot be made to fit. The order was not founded until 1128 and did not arrive in Yorkshire until 1142, by which time the church at Halifax had already been established.

A more sensible suggestion in a similar vein is that the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist to reflect the connections of the de Warennes with another Crusading order, the Knights Hospitaller, whose patron saint was the Baptist and who had similarly been granted land in the Halifax region, including at Coley. Yet whilst the de Warennes undoubtedly did have sympathies with the Hospitallers, this relationship seems not have arisen until the time of the third Earl, who fought in the Second Crusade between 1146 and 1148. Again, the church had already been founded and bequeathed to the Priory of Lewes some time prior to this date.

The most likely cause of Halifax’s associated with St. John the Baptist is also probably the most prosaic. He is, amongst other things, the patron saint of lambs and in that capacity was adopted by the Wool Weavers’ Guilds across Europe in the Middle Ages. Whilst Halifax had no such guild itself , even long before its reputation in the Industrial Revolution, the town was closely associated with the wool trade. A gravestone at the parish church dating from 1150, featuring a carved representation of a pair of cropping shears, attests to this fact. It is not improbable that a town at the centre of a district so dependent on hill-farming should find the patron saint of lambs a resonant figure.

However, it is the legend and not mundane reality which has endured in the folk-memory of the town, doubtless much to the chagrin of the joyless positivists who too often dominate the study of local history. In one of the few learned discussions of the foundation myth, the venerable early 20th Century Halifax scholar H.P. Kendall opines, “We, as antiquarians, freely acknowledge the necessity of preserving the traditions of the past, if those traditions have a root in the dim mists of antiquity. But here the case is different, there is no remote antiquity about it as it appears to have been an invention of the latter end of the 16th Century with not even the halo of romance to give it support and hallow it.”

Yet it is by no means clear that simply because the legend has its roots in modernity rather than antiquity, it is therefore beneath our attention. Many Halifax residents are familiar with the rumours concerning the head of St. John the Baptist and even if the various incarnations of the foundation myth arose purely from the speculation of historians between the 16th and 18th Century, this does not alter the fact that their musings have grown into a genuine local tradition which persists today. Indeed, it gives folklorists and social historians a rare opportunity to study exactly how such beliefs arise and establish themselves in the public consciousness.

Moreover, when considered in the wider context of the town’s historical fascination with the motif of the disembodied human head, the foundation myths acquire a whole new relevance. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain whether such correspondences are evidence of any sustained cultural transmission. The history of thought can only be reconstructed through its artefacts; we cannot excavate the underlying processes. As such we can only observe the existence of a correlation and speculate on what it might tell us.

It is vaguely possible that when the parish church was founded in the 11th Century, having observed the belief invested in images of the disembodied human head by the local populace, the Benedictine monks cannily chose to dedicate it to a saint whose narrative might have some resonance far greater than the perceived patronage he offered to hill farmers. It would not be the first time the Christian church had co-opted pre-existent local folk beliefs in the interest of securing a relatively harmonious transition. However, it is by no means certain that any importance was attached to the head image as early as the 11th Century, the Celtic attribution remaining controversial.

The original dedication may have been as commonplace as suggested and it was Midgley and Watson who imbued it with significance by projecting the prevalence of the image of the head in their own time backwards through history. The period between the 16th and the 18th Century when these two venerable antiquaries were writing appears to have been a fertile time for head carving in the region. Customs such as placing human skulls in the walls during the construction of a building to provide protection against witchcraft were still rife in that era and even if they did not believe in such superstitions himself, the symbolism would not be unfamiliar.

Alternatively, the chance does exist that there is no connection at all between these various traditions, and that we are looking at a cultural and historical simulacrum. Like all simulacra, it is aesthetically satisfying but its objective existence is a matter of perspective, nothing more than the sum of its unrelated parts. Nonetheless, it seems instructive that both versions of the foundation myth involve a decapitated human head. Even as inventions of incautious antiquarians, you have to wonder why they might have chosen that particularly image. Ultimately, the correspondences are too numerous to be ignored.

Billingsley, John "A Stoney Gaze" (1998)
Billingsley, John "West Yorkshire Folk Tales" (2010)
Camden, William "Britannia" (1586)
Crabtree, John "A Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax" (1836)
Bretton, R. "The Halifax Borough Coat of Arms" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1948)
Fuller, Thomas "History of the Worthies of England" (1662)
Hanson, T.H. "The Story of Old Halifax" (1920)
Hanson, T.H. "Halifax Parish Church: Norman Era" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1953)
Holloway, Diane "The Knights Templar in Yorkshire" (2008)
Hunter, Joseph (Ed.) "The Diary of Ralph Thoresby 1677-1724" (1830)
Kendall, H.P. "Domesday Book and After" in Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1935)
Midgley, Samuel "History of the Town and Parish of Halifax" (1780)
Ross, Frederick "Legendary Yorkshire" (1892)
Smith, A.H. "The Place Names of the West Riding: Volume 3" (1961)
Stansfield, John "Seals of the Corporate Bodies of Halifax" in the Thoresby Society Miscellanea Volume 2 (1890)
Watson, John "The History and Antiquities of the Town of Halifax" (1775)
Whittaker, Thomas "The History of Leeds and Elmet" (1816)
Wright, Thomas "The Antiquities of the Town of Halifax" (1737)
Wright, Thomas "Narratives of Sorcery and Magic" (1851)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Victorian Occult Revival in West Yorkshire

Forming a sad, decaying conurbation on the eastern fringe of the South Pennines, today Bradford and the neighbouring town of Keighley scarcely seem the most obvious setting for occult drama. Yet in the 19th Century they were engines of the Industrial Revolution, prosperous municipalities brimming with an emergent middle class. As such, the region became arguably the most important locus of the Victorian occult revival outside London and whilst the city’s esoteric tradition is often overlooked, it represents a significant thread in both the social history of West Yorkshire and the development of occultism in Britain generally.

We will begin this tale of conflict and transformation with the foundation of a society, variously referred to as The Dew and the Light, the Ros. Crux Fraters or the Rosicrucian Fathers of Keighley, in 1870 by local man, David Lund. Lund was a typical product of the Victorian middle-class. A self-taught mechanic who co-owned a small engineering business with his brother Thomas at Albert Foundry, he held a degree in Political Economy thanks to the Oxford University Extension Scheme and was politically active as a member of the Keighley Foreign Affairs Committee.

Lund also had a long-standing interest in astrology and earned a supplemental income casting horoscopes, including some for the Liberal MP for Oakworth and Keighley at the time, Sir Isaac Holden. Doubtless such pursuits led him towards Rosicrucianism, an esoteric doctrine developed in early 17th Century Germany and regarded as widely influential, not only in European history of ideas, but as the basis of Freemasonry in Britain and most subsequent orders in the Western Hermetic Tradition.

Despite many of the philosophies which developed from it eventually mutating into neo-paganism in the Twentieth Century, Rosicrucianism itself was a firmly Christian theology, rooted in the Protestant Reformation and German Lutheranism. However, Rosicrucian orders were initiatory and hierarchical, seeking higher knowledge and a “universal reformation of mankind”. Influenced by Gnosticism and the symbolic, transformative aspects of alchemy, their rituals tended towards theurgy, aiming to achieve self-perfection and ultimately, union with the divine.

In the 1880s, the Dew and the Light produced a handwritten folio newsletter entitled Lamp of Thoth promising to reveal “mysteries of the great unknown” (Thoth was an Egyptian god of knowledge), the editorship of which was attributed only to a mysterious figure known as “Zanoni”. Surviving copies suggest the beliefs of the order were entirely consistent with Rosicrucian doctrine and the editor highly knowledgeable in this field. Such content belies the later charges of plagiarism and black magic which were levelled at the society by its rivals.

One local historian, Marie Campbell, speculates that the group may also have had what might now be described as a psychogeographical bent. She suggests that Daniel Murgatroyd, scion of the local landowning family who constructed East Riddlesden Hall, was once a member of the organisation. He was known to possess a “spell book” attributed to Sir Henry Clifford, the Second Earl of Cumberland, who occupied Skipton Castle and Barden Tower in the 16th Century and is remembered for practicing alchemy with the assistance of the monks at nearby Bolton Abbey.

Campbell refers to a title page, whether of Lamp of Thoth or otherwise is not made clear, headed “The Lands of the Dragon”, which depicts the symbol of a triangle inside a circle (a common alchemical motif) forming a map with Skipton, Keighley, Ilkley, Bingley, Baildon and Bolton Abbey as cardinal points in the circle, which would place the prehistoric sacred landscape of Rombalds Moor within the triangle. Campbell associates this chart with both Sir Henry Clifford and the Rosicrucian Fathers, but aside from the unproven Murgatroyd connection, there is little justification to suggest Clifford's acquaintance with it.

The Society of the Dew and the Light must presumably have operated in Keighley without drawing any undue attention for the best part of two decades, from bases at 14 Parkwood Street prior to its demolition in 1881 and subsequently Lund’s home addresses, 190 Spring Gardens Lane and Fern Cottage on Highfield Lane. However, in the late 1880s, Lund and his organisation found themselves under attack on two fronts, attracting opposition from both the pious local authorities and rival camps in the Western Hermetic Tradition itself.

Lund’s troubles began in June 1887 with the first of several prosecutions related to his astrological services. It is uncertain why his activities provoked quite such ire from the authorities, especially as other astrologers advertised in the local press and practiced without hindrance in neighbouring towns. However, they were clearly willing to go to great lengths to indict Lund, as their first move against him would now be regarded as entrapment, with the police superintendent commissioning a horoscope under the false name, John Feather. Bizarrely, Lund was charged under the Vagrancy Act and fined £3 plus costs.

Lund and his society found themselves under further scrutiny, this time from fellow travellers, when a letter appeared in an 1889 edition of Lucifer, the journal of the Theosophical Society. Signed “One who has been duped” it protested, “They profess to be in the possession of much knowledge which they cannot give to the student, until he has attained to their state, and this knowledge is copied from books, which they either possess, or borrow or steal, and when they descend to originality it is simply one mass of error and nonsense.” The anonymous “dupe” also accused Lund and his followers of sacrificing goats and consorting with elementals.

It was followed by a letter from Dr. Wynn Westcott, distancing the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn from the Rosicrucian Fathers of Keighley. Whilst Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia was a well-known name at the time, having been founded in 1865, this was the first time the title of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had appeared in the public domain. It had only been founded that year by Westcott and Samuel MacGregor Mathers, originally as an offshoot of the SRIA, which unlike its parent organisation would permit non-Christians, non-Freemasons and women to be members.

Lund replied to defend his organisation, but the correspondence rapidly degenerated into a slanging match between Lund, Westcott, Mathers and the “One who has been duped”. The London adepts were given succour by an editorial in Lucifer by the founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky herself in which she refers to Yorkshire as “overrun by fraudulent astrologers and fortune tellers who pretend to be Theosophists… (and) swindle a higher class of credulous patrons”. This was surely aimed at Lund, who had once been a member of the Theosophical Society and who had been so recently prosecuted.

Surviving issues of Lamp of Thoth have impressed modern occultists with their learning and so it must be concluded that the accusations brought against the Rosicrucian Fathers of Keighley were a naked attempt to discredit the society and promote the newly established Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in its stead. It was a successful ruse, for whilst the slanders may have been unfounded, they clearly took their toll on either Lund’s enthusiasm or the society’s membership, as Lamp of Thoth ceased publication around the same time.

Needless to say, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with its compelling synthesis of Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah, Enochian magic, alchemy and mysticism, went on to become one of the most significant forces in the Victorian occult revival, wielding an influence on culture and alternative spirituality which persisted through the Twentieth Century. Its membership at one time or another included such illustrious figures as W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Algernon Blackwood, A.E. Waite, Arthur Machen, Maud Gonne, Florence Farr, Evelyn Underhill, William Sharp and Allan Bennett.

On 10th June 1888, the Order appointed Baildon watchmaker T.H. Pattinson, under his occult name of the Very Honoured Frater Vota Vita Mea, as Provincial Hierophant of Yorkshire Members and charged him to seek out potential members in the region. Pattinson was similarly a Freemason and member of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, having joined that order in Halifax on 16th November 1887. His demonstrable esoteric interests suggest that he may also have been a member of the Society of the Dew and Light and there has even been speculation that Pattinson was the true identity of the mysterious “One who has been duped” in the Lucifer correspondence.

Pattinson had greatly impressed many of the London adepts. Some years earlier, Reverend William Ayton, a noted authority on alchemy who was to become one of the first initiates of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had commented following a meeting with the watchmaker "From what I then saw of the strong proclivities of Yorkshiremen for Occultism, I had the greatest desire to organise a Lodge somewhere in this neighbourhood for the carrying on the study of it." He would later describe Pattinson and other members of the Yorkshire SRIA lodge as "men who really know something."

Meanwhile, A.E. Waite felt that Pattinson was not "one who made up spectacles" and evidence of this cautious, sober approach can be seen in a letter Pattinson wrote to Westcott on 20th June 1888, entreating him not to accept candidates for the Order too readily, citing an astral vision from the "Crowned One" in support. This advice was readily accepted and Mathers transcribed Pattinson's purported vision, adding embellishments of his own. It was subsequently the Order's policy to refuse all initial requests for membership and advise an applicant to try again in six months time, in an attempt to deter dabblers and dilettantes.

The Bradford Horus Temple was subsequently established on 10th October 1888 in rooms at the now-demolished Alexandra Hotel in Great Horton Road (the manager of which, Carlos Faro was a member) and consecrated by Mathers himself on 19th October. Pattinson was appointed as Imperator, with F.D. Harrison and J. Leech Atherson as Praemonstrator and Sub-Praemonstrator, a tripartite division of responsibility which obtained for each Golden Dawn temple, borrowed from the structure of Masonic lodges.

However, whilst his erstwhile competitors flourished, further trouble was in store for David Lund. In May 1890 he was once again convicted for the practice of astrology, this time on charges of purporting to be a fortune teller and deceiving Her Majesty’s subjects. It is said that the police were forced to consult a local antiquarian society to ascertain legislation under which he could be prosecuted. Two of Lund’s clients, Lily Wrigley and Annie Stott testified against him and despite receiving support from the Keighley Herald, he was sentenced to spend a month in the notorious Armley Jail near Leeds.

Lund was apparently the first Theosophist to be incarcerated at Armley, which attracted a great deal of interest from the prison chaplain. However, the astrologer would later remark that as a tee-total vegetarian, he did not find his tenure there especially arduous. Following his release, he returned to his single-storey residence at Fern Cottage and lived a solitary, hermitic existence whilst continuing to practice astrology until his death in January 1903 at the age of 63.

Meanwhile in Bradford, as the occult revival progressed through the 1890s, the adepts of the Horus Temple were not immune from factionalism and infighting of their own. This situation was not uncommon in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at large, which despite aiming at higher modes of being apparently could not escape the petty politics of the human sphere and was frequently riven by internecine squabbles, a tendency that would ultimately prove its undoing.

In 1892, a quarrel broke out between Pattinson and other members of the Horus Temple, including one the three chiefs, Francis Harrison, who were seeking to introduce a Theosophical element into the rituals. Annie Horniman, a renowned London theatre manager and Sub-Praemonstratrix of the capital’s Iris Urania Temple (not to mention Mathers’ primary financier in this period), was sent to Bradford on Septmber 25th of that year to rebuke them. Her intervention led to the suspension of Harrison, along with the resignation of two members by the names of Oliver and Florence Firth.

The report Horniman submitted to Mathers giving an account of the meeting suggests that it had rapidly descended into farce. Whilst Oliver Firth may have been described by Colonel Henry Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, as "that joyous-hearted, keen-brained friend", he was clearly not the most diplomatic of individuals. Horniman complained that "Instead of expressing penitence (Firth) gloried in doing as he felt inclined in the Temple, and said he would laugh there if he chose, even if turned out for so doing... Such a speech is bad enough in itself, but being made before Neophytes and other low grade Fratres and Sorores is destructive to their discipline."

Specific transgressions by Firth mentioned by Horniman included referring to astrology as "mere divination", showing "a rebellious wish to pick and choose his subjects of study", refusing to wear "the sash of his grade in the Temple because of its similarity to Freemasonry" and "speaking disrespectfully of our ceremonies". Moreover, "when requested by the Hierophant to act as auditor he refused rudely and disrespectfully and sitting down suddenly he exclaimed 'I shan't!'" A recently admitted neophyte had also complained of a "want of reverence on the part of some of the spectators at his Initiation" and "said how it lost in solemnity".

Meanwhile, F.D. Harrison, despite being one of the founding members of the Horus Temple, was similarly insubordinate. He "sat in a lower place than his 3=8 grade allows and was source of or a party to an unquietness during the 0=0 ceremony," "referred in a most disrespectful way to both communications read that day in open Temple" and spoke "as if the Ceremonies were only foolish mummeries in his eyes". Perhaps most revealing in terms of the light it throws on the attitudes of the "Yorkshire Chelas" is Harrison's reference to the expulsion of Theresa Jane O'Connell following a dispute with Mina Mathers as "a mere squabble between two women".

The Horus Temple members were far from happy with Horniman's intervention, particularly resenting interference from a female. Although women were permitted in the Golden Dawn, due to Mathers’ belief in their mediumistic abilities, the Bradford members' background in the male-only environment of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry seems to have left them uncomfortable with women performing any substantive role. Pattinson's own wife may have been the first female member of the Horus Temple but she never rose beyond the lowly grade of Zelator, suggesting that her participation was merely the result of taking an interest in her husbands activities and that neither party was unduly committed to the arrangement.

Their distinctly unenlightened attitude in matters of gender politics has led one commentator to dismiss the Horus Temple as "good old boys" and it is a far cry from the progressive outlook of the London temple. Yet despite the attitude demonstrated by Harrison above, he went on to be influential in the determinedly unisex Order of Universal Co-Freemasonry in Great Britain, founded by Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky's successor as President of the Theosophical Society, in 1902. By contrast, Pattinson would only retreat further back into male-chauvinism, as his subsequent career attests.

The expulsion of Harrison left a gap in the Horus Temple’s ruling triumvirate, and his authority undermined, Pattinson decided to temporarily stand down from his principle role. This forced Dr. Wynn Westcott to adopt the position of Imperator and on November 2nd he circulated a letter to Bradford members informing them of his decision to “take charge of the Temple until it has once more its Three Chiefs”. Members were summoned to attend a meeting on November 13th at which he further explained the reasons for what the Bradford adepts clearly regarded as interference and apparently delivered a "stirring address".

However, the strife continued, with some members reported as still being in contact with Harrison and Firth, causing Mathers himself to travel to Bradford from his new home in Paris in March 1893 in an attempt to mediate. He threatened the Temple with suspension if members did not cease communicating details of their activities to the expelled individuals. However, he also tried to emphasise that members of the Golden Dawn and Theosophical Society should not regard themselves as being in conflict and went on to reaffirm the "solemnity to be observed in the Ceremonies" and "the humility and self-denial necessary in every true occultist."

The doctrinal differences which instigated this controversy seem remarkably involved. After all, whilst Pattinson may have been opposed to Theosophical ideas infiltrating the Rosicrucian ethos of the Golden Dawn, he was clearly not entirely averse to that philosophy in general as he is recorded as one of the first members of the Bradford Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1891 and attended the funeral of Madame Blavatsky in May of the same year. Nor does he appear to have had any issue with Eastern doctrine influencing the Western Hermetic tradition, as illustrated by his later interests.

In Spring 1897, Dr. Wynn Westcott was forced to resign from his role as Chief Adept in Anglia under pressure from within the English political establishment which regarded such high-profile association with occultism as inappropriate for a Crown Coroner. His successor was the formidable Florence Farr, an actress and close ally of W.B. Yeats, who had already held the position of Praemonstratrix of the Isis-Urania Temple for some while. With Mathers still firmly ensconced in Paris, she was now essentially responsible the day-to-day running of the Golden Dawn.

However, her ascension was not universally accepted. Farr was rather severe in her authority and uncompromising when it came to the minutiae of ceremony and in 1897 she harshly reprimanded a member by the name of Frederick Leigh Gardner for his inappropriate attitude towards the Order’s hierarchy and ritual. Gardner wrote to Mathers to complain, but despite Gardner’s financial influence he refused to undermine Farr’s position and instead, suggested that Gardner transfer from the Isis-Urania Temple to the Horus Temple as a corresponding member.

Gardner evidently found a sympathetic reception from the Horus Temple and in a letter to him dated 16th February 1898, Pattinson states “All the Horus fellows agree that they could not conform in any way to such treatment or pander to its dogmatic control… No petticoat government will do for us…” Pattinson subsequently wrote to Mathers in Paris petitioning him to assume direct control of the Horus Temple and so release them from Farr’s control, insisting that “common sense and good fellowship” were held in higher esteem by Bradford members than ceremonial hierarchies. Pattinson records that Mathers "seems to regard it as a compliment".

Yet although Pattinson clearly believed him to be a better option than Florence Farr, he does not seem to have been especially enamoured of Mathers either and wrote to Gardner "You have no need to fear Mathers getting the top end of the Horus Temple chaps". This attitude may be partly explained as loyalty to Dr. Wynn Westcott, whose friendship with Pattinson preceded the Golden Dawn. When, in February 1900, an increasingly paranoid Mathers accused Wescott of having forged the Anna Sprengel letters upon which the Golden Dawn was founded, Pattinson sympathies clearly lay with Westcott.

Following Mathers' accusations, Westcott sought affidavits affirming his good character and Pattinson complied, writing "I consider Mr. Mathers' mental state to be a peculiar one because he now claims the name of MacGregor to which he was not born and also considers himself to be... Jacobite nobility to which he never hinted any claim during the years when I saw most of him... On the other hand, Dr. Westcott always was and still is, a clear headed man of business and an earnest literary student, of whose character no suspicion has ever been raised in the presence of myself or of my associates, except by this Mr. Mathers aforesaid."

However, by the end of 1900, there were clearly rumblings of discontent in the Horus ranks, the temple acting as a microcosm of the wider disquiet in the Order. In a letter dated October 6th of that year, the three chiefs of the Horus Temple circulated a letter to members explaining how efforts to "take a room in Bradford to be used as a head centre for the development of such occult projects... especially for the promotion of advanced study" were thwarted by an "undercurrent... not in accordance with that harmonious and confident zeal which has been so characteristic of the Horus brotherhood in the past."

Whilst the Horus Temple endured until at least 1902, briefly surviving the 1900 schism which marked the end of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as a movement of any consequence, the uncertainty during this period clearly left Pattinson further disillusioned. In its stead, he began to transfer his enthusiasm to a Higher Degree of Freemasonry which styled itself the August Order of Light, Otherwise Called the Mysteries of Perfection of Sikha (Apex) and of the Ekata (Unity).

The Order had been founded in 1881 by Dr. Maurice Vidal Portman, one-time governor of the Anderman Islands. It was rooted in Hindu mysticism and the Royal Oriental Order of Sat B’hai, the only other Eastern influenced philosophy in Freemasonry, and which slightly predated Portman’s teaching. Such “Orders Beyond the Craft” were only open to master masons and thus inevitably, women were excluded from membership. Pattinson’s interest represents a retrenchment into his Masonic roots and given the Eastern character of the order, it seems to corroborate the notion that Orientalism was not the aspect of Theosophy to which he had objected in 1892.

Dr. Portman retired from Freemasonry in 1900 through dissatisfaction with many of its strictures and passed control of the August Order of Light to Pattinson. Pattinson and Dr. B.E.J. Edwards, Praemostrator of the Horus Temple, revised the rituals and with themselves as Arch-Presidents of the Order or “Guardians of the Light”, established the Garuda Temple in Bradford in the cellar rooms of a pub at 81 Kings Parade in 1902. Sixteen members of the former Horus Temple were in attendance at the inaugural meeting.

As an offshoot of the more stable Freemasons, the August Order of Light persisted for a much longer period than the Golden Dawn and indeed, it still exists today. However, its most active phase appears to have been during the early part of the Twentieth Century when its membership stood at around fifty. One of the Guardians of Light during this period was Sir John Arthur Godwin, who between 1906 and 1907 was the first Mayor of the newly incorporated City of Bradford, whilst a Memorial Book published in 1924 upon the death of Dr. B.E.J. Edwards counted Rudyard Kipling amongst its subscribers.

In 1939, the Order leased the two upper floors of a building at 52 Godwin Street, as they required a location in which they could install electric lighting. The lower storey was employed as a “clubhouse”, whilst the windowless attic room was decorated as a temple, by millworkers supplied by the Shipley industrialist Henry Williamson. Recollections from long-term member Andrew Stephenson and sign-writer Harry Fryer, who was employed to retouch the temple murals in the 1950s, indicate the room possessed a throne and ornate pillars, whilst representations of Egyptian deities and occult symbols adorned the walls and carpet.

During the late 1960s, Bradford City Council discussed plans for the complete redevelopment of the city centre and began to issue compulsory purchase orders to many buildings in the district. Faced with eviction and a dwindling, aging membership, the August Order of Light decided to abandon their Godwin Street premises and in 1971 established two new temples in London and York (the latter of which would subsequently move to Halifax), finally bringing to a close the continuity of occult tradition in Bradford.

In a curious postscript, the Godwin Street temple was uncovered in October 1983 by new owners Cindy and Salvo Illardi, who had converted the building into Gobbles restaurant. Whilst renovating the attic room, they revealed old wall-paintings depicting Horus and the sun setting over the sea, along with a ceremonial oath inscribed above the doorway. The discovery caused a certain sensation in the local press, and despite it only being twelve years since the temple had been abandoned, the work was heralded as belonging to the original Golden Dawn Horus Temple. There was even talk of preserving it as an occult museum.

However, the truth finally emerged when Harry Fryer and his colleague Malcolm Brook contacted the newspapers to reveal that they had worked on the temple during the 1950s. The initial identification of the site as the Horus Temple appears to have come from Chris Bray, proprietor of the Leeds-based occult supply shop Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Bray was also responsible for publishing an occult journal at the time which borrowed its name from David Lund’s Lamp of Thoth and reprinted some of the original articles, alongside more modern treatises on ritual and chaos magick, bringing West Yorkshire’s esoteric history full circle.

Blavatsky, H.P. (Ed.) "
Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine Vol. IV (March to August 1889)"
Bradford Star, 3rd November 1983, "Temple of mystery"
Bradford Star, 10th November 1983, "Temple find just magic"
Bradford Star, 17th November 1983, "Temple is no mystery"
Bradford Star, 24th November 1983, "Signwriter's brush with Horus horror"
Campbell, Marie "Curious Tales of Old West Yorkshire" (1999)
Campbell, Marie "Strange World of the Brontes" (2001)
Gilbert, R.A. "Revelations of the Golden Dawn" (1997)
Greer, Mary "Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses" (1996)
Greer, Mary & Kuntz, Darcy "The Chronology of the Golden Dawn" (1999)
Haigh, Mike "Esoteric Keighley" (19??)
Hanson, Malcolm "Keighley's Darkest Secrets" (2009)
Howe, Ellic (Ed.) "Magicians of the Golden Dawn: Documentary History of a Magical Order" (1978)
Howe, Ellic (Ed.) "The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: Letters of the Rev. William Ayton" (1985)
Lofthouse, Jessica "North Country Folklore" (1976)
Owen, Alex "The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism & the Culture of the Modern" (2004)
Stephenson, Andrew B. "The History and Work of the August Order of Light" (1992)
Telegraph & Argus, 12th November 1983, "That occult tale is bunkum"

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Musings on "The Black Walker of the Ford"

"Rather more than a century ago, there lived at Amhulaich, in Rannoch, a miller, much addicted to the use of tobacco, and when unable to get it, was like most smokers, very short and quick in the temper. On one occasion, he ran out of tobacco, and sent for a supply by some Lochaber men, who were passing through Rannoch on their way to Perth. The mill-stream ran close to his house, and he had to cross it on stepping-stones in going to and from the mill. As he was returning home one evening in the dusk, and was about to enter the house, he heard the sound of footsteps coming to the ford.

He called out, who is there? But received no answer. Being crusty for want of tobacco, and thinking it might be the Lochaber men returning, he called out a second time, very peremptorily and impatiently. He still received no answer. He called out a third time, turning down to the ford, and saying aloud, that, whether it was man or devil, he would make it answer. The thing then spoke, and said it (or he) was the Black Walker of the Ford.

What further passed between the two never transpired, but every evening after that, for a year or more, the miller left home at dusk, crossed the stream, and went to a small clump of trees about half a mile away, whence loud cries and yells were heard during the night. Before daybreak he came home, with his knife or dirk covered with blood. When examined by the light, the blood proved to be merely earth.

An attempt was made on one occasion by some young men to follow him to the rendezvous, but he became aware in some mysterious way of the attempt, and turning back warned them not to follow. It was enough, he said, for himself to go, without their periling their souls.

On the last night of his going to meet the Black Walker, such terrific outcries were heard from the clump of trees that the people of the neighbouring villages, Amhulaich and Cragganour, came to the doors to listen. It was a winter night, and next morning marks of a foot or knee were found in the snow, along with the miller’s own footsteps, as if something had been engaged in a struggle with him.

Some years after this, a man who had been away in America, entered Amhulaich Mill. The miller at the time was dressing the mill-stone, and whenever he observed the American, threw at him the pick he had in his hand, and nearly killed another, who was standing near. He told him never to appear in his presence again, that he had had enough of him. Many surmised it was this man who had troubled him before, but whether it was or not he never appeared."

The above story appears in John Gregorson Campbell’s peerless collection of Scottish folklore Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands, published posthumously in 1902 from material gathered in the 1850s and 1860s. I would argue that it’s one of the most unusual and unnerving tales I’ve encountered in a folkloric context and for many years now, it has exercised a powerful hold on my imagination. Yet despite its unique character, not to mention its concrete location in the typically Scottish moorland landscape of Rannoch, I have not seen it referenced in any other study of Highland folklore.

Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to know quite what to make of it. Later in the article I hope to demonstrate that this ambiguity is precisely the story’s strength. However, it certainly makes it hard to categorise for writers trying to produce neat anthologies for popular consumption. Although I believe it exhibits many typically folkloric tropes, the narrative does not fit comfortably into the familiar taxonomies of bodachs, fachans, urisks or the each-uisge.

Campbell himself includes the story in a chapter titled "Hobgoblins", which he seems to use as a catch-all term for a variety of unclassifiable otherworldly manifestations, admitting in his introduction to the section: "The term bòcan is a general name for terrifying objects seen at night and taken to be supernatural". The designation seems to have much in common with that favourite term from Yorkshire and Lancashire – boggart – which was once applied by local folk to myriad strange phenomena, from what we might now describe as poltergeist activity to degraded faerie lore.

One particularly curious facet of the narrative is the degree of verisimilitude it strives for with its introduction and coda. I’m undecided as to whether these digressions strengthen the basic narrative or are irrelevant to it. However, by offering such context, it certainly grounds the story in a familiar and concrete milieu which seems to elevate the reader’s response to more than just the "friend-of-a-friend story" impression these hoary old tales so often leave. It doesn’t come across as a story unanchored in time or place. Rather it suggests the story could be the folk memory of an actual historical occurrence.

This particularity produces a narrative tension with the details of the strange and unexplained occurrences themselves, undercutting their perceived reality whilst simultaneously reinforcing its credibility. It is a device often employed by literary ghost story writers, who so often impress upon the reader the veracity of their tale by placing it in the mouth of a hardened sceptic and introducing certain qualifiers. As M.R. James once remarked, "It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable".

The technique is so classically employed here that I would not rule out its addition being poetic license on Campbell’s part. Firstly, it presents the miller as a man addicted to nicotine and suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal, which suggests the whole episode may be some fevered hallucinatory experience. Admittedly the vicissitudes of nicotine withdrawal are rarely so dramatic but nonetheless, it insinuates the idea of the miller as an unreliable perceiver. Yet at the same time it fails to convince, for although it may account for the first meeting, that still leaves the subsequent nocturnal activity unexplained.

Secondly there is the coda in which many years later the miller assaults a man lately returned from America. Again, this prosaic explanation for such peculiar events fails to satisfy the reader but this otherwise unnecessary appendage to the story reinforces the authenticity of the tale by providing a veneer of historical realism. A good storyteller would not conclude a yarn with such a deflationary explanation, yet it is precisely the sort of speculation which would arise in the local gossip pertaining to an actual event.

Such realism is unusual as otherwise the story seems to have all the hallmarks of what we might refer to as a "folkloric haunting", by which I mean those instances in which an apparition is well-established in the folk-memory of a community but which rarely have specific sightings ascribed to them. Examples in this category include headless horsemen, white ladies and phantom black dogs. Often in these cases everybody knows that a particular locale is supposed to be thus haunted but firsthand witness reports of an encounter with the wraith are conspicuously lacking.

Folkloric hauntings tend to be symbolic rather than literal and often they are corrupted remembrances of older traditions, some of which may be pre-Christian in origin. For example, in an article for Folklore entitled The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland, Jane C. Beck opines that this figure has "been degraded from a form of mother goddess to a kind of fairy and finally to a ghost". White ladies are often associated with pools or rivers and it does not stretch credulity to suggest that they may represent the vestiges of an earlier belief in the tutelary spirit of sacred waters.

This is relevant because the basic narrative of the Black Walker of the Ford displays traits which we may recognise as typically folkloric. In particular, it invokes the concept of liminality which is so often an attribute of ancient folk traditions. The liminal zone exists at thresholds and boundaries, a “betwixt and between” state detached from the demarcations of our everyday reality. To the pre-modern modes of thinking such regions were the point at which the “other world” intersected most tightly with our own and where its was possible to cross from to the other, hence why so many folkloric hauntings are found at liminal sites.

The story of the Black Walker at the Ford embodies liminality in at least three distinct senses. To start with the least obvious or integral example, at the first encounter the miller himself is arguably in a liminal state of consciousness. His experience of nicotine withdrawal places him in a intermediary state, neither one of intoxication nor one of sobriety. Again the altered state of consciousness produced by nicotine or its withdrawal is far from pronounced, but such attention is drawn to the miller’s predicament that the reader cannot help but draw some implication from it.

Secondly, all the principle events in the drama occur at twilight – the miller first meets the Black Walker at dusk (technically defined as the later stages of twilight) whilst subsequently it is the hour at which he embarks on his nocturnal peregrinations – and that transition period between sunset and night has long been recognised as an important liminal phase in time. Whilst darkness is symbolically considered the proper time for devilish powers, the association between the supernatural and the twilight in particular is firmly established and phrases such as the “twilight zone” remain familiar idioms.

However, the most apparent and important manifestation of liminality is geographical. Water-crossings such as fords are the classic liminal region; an explicit representation of the "no-mans land" of the threshold. Indeed, the water-crossing motif signifies a kind of double liminality for not only does it connect two discrete areas of land but it traverses a space which is part of neither and which is always impermanent, always uncertain. Running water is the very embodiment of the ambiguity and flux at the heart of concept of liminality.

Water also held an especial fascination for the pre-modern mind beyond its perceived liminality. There is no doubt that animistic cultures regard water as profoundly sacred, an unpredictable force which can both nurture and destroy life on a whim. British folklore abounds with water spirits, especially as the personification of treacherous stretches. Across northern Britain, the kelpie or dobbie was always ready to drag the unwary riverside traveller to a watery grave, whilst more localised examples include Crooker, the malevolent genius loci of the River Derwent in the Peak District, or Peg O’ Nell who claimed a sacrifice every seven years for the River Ribble in Lancashire.

There can be no doubt that water crossings in particular have been a focus for supernatural belief over the ages and in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts Owen Davies opines, "The bridge acted not only as a practical, physical crossing point but also as a spirit access point". This idea of the bridge or ford as a common gateway is supported by a survey of hauntings connected to water by Janet and Colin Bord in their seminal study of British water lore “Sacred Waters”, over a quarter of which occurred near bridges.

That our ancestors regarded water-crossings as places where one required protection from supernatural forces is evident in the discovery of the archaic stone carved head motif on many bridges. The image of the head possessed an apotropaic function in many pre-modern cultures, especially Celtic and descendant traditions. The symbol persisted in the South Pennines for many centuries and notable 18th Century examples can be found at Agden Bridge in South Yorkshire or on the aqueduct over the River Calder at Hebden Bridge.

The ubiquity of such belief suggests that not only were water crossings perceived as liminal zones – threshold locations which pressed close against the Otherworld and could be used as a portal to it – but also that the potency of water itself was frequently anthropomorphised into elemental figures. The bridge or ford was not just a boundary in space in the same manner as gateways or crossroads; water itself was fundamentally supernatural. The traveller on the crossing would be beset by the Otherworld on all sides and hence such places presented profound spiritual as well as physical danger.

With these themes in mind, it is not difficult to recognise the Black Walker as a manifestation of the tutelary spirit of the ford, both a guardian at the threshold and the personification of the constant threat represented by the river itself, demanding obeisance from those bold enough to cross. What the Black Walker demands of the miller is never revealed but in the image of his return from nightly visits to that copse with a knife covered in something that appears to be blood but is revealed as earth, there is a hint of strange rites and transubstantiations to appease Otherworldly powers.

Yet whilst it is possible to make sense of the narrative by identifying such folkloric tropes, much of the story’s hold over the imagination derives from precisely its enigma and ambiguity. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet Sacheverell Sitwell and used by the writer Robert Aickman to preface a collection of his own frequently impenetrable weird tales, "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation".

By failing to reveal what passes between the Black Walker and the miller at their first meeting, or exactly what transpired during those nocturnal visits to the wood, the story allows our imagination to rove freely over the possibilities. It demands of us a cognitive state which John Keats described as "negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason".

But ultimately by refusing to provide any explanation the story forces us to confront the terrible insinuation of things that cannot be imagined, a final irresolvable uncertainty which is more unnerving than anything we can conceive. As Aickman himself comments "The ghost story draws on the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; it need offer neither logic nor moral… (it) does not close a door and leave inside it another definition, a still further solution. On the contrary, it must open a door… and at the end leave it open, or possibly ajar".

Tales which achieve this are not just disposable bedtime stories to scare the credulous. By confronting us with the prospect that final explanations might always elude us, they undermine the comfortable categories and structures of our cosmology and emerge as a fundamentally existential form; an invocation of the angst we feel when comprehension forsakes us and we’re forced to grapple with the infinite, clamouring possibilities exposed in its absence, a time when Keats’ negative capability is most essential to our psychic survival.

In preserving its essential mystery, a narrative such as the Black Walker of the Ford forces us to cross the boundaries of understanding and reveals the liminal spaces of our own being, beyond truth and fiction, cause and effect, right and wrong, beyond all the codes and systems of thought that confine us. And once there we begin to recognise that our existence is full of liminal zones, territories where ambiguity and uncertainty forever reign, which we cannot help but traverse and traffic with whatever strange entities might also have found access there.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Some thoughts on the weird fiction of L.T.C. Rolt

As we approach the centenary of his birth, the name L.T.C. Rolt is unlikely to ring many bells amongst the reading public. Yet for two small but distinct groups it surely ought to provoke an affectionate response; scholars of British industrial or transport history and more curiously, aficionados of weird fiction. It is a strange combination perhaps but one Rolt himself managed to unite in his single but highly acclaimed collection, Sleep No More, subtitled Railway, Canal & Other Stories of the Supernatural. This volume has remained out of print for some time although a reprint has been timed to coincide with the forthcoming anniversary, to be published not by specialist presses such as Tartarus or Ash Tree, nor the invaluable and more reasonably priced Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural range, but rather appropriately by the History Press, whose usual stock-in-trade is topographical non-fiction, including a great deal of industrial and transport history.

Rolt was a trained engineer and an enthusiast of all modes of transport. He was one of the first to own a narrow boat for pleasure, which took him the length and breadth of Britain’s canal network and we have him to thank for the preservation and ongoing recreational use of this system through his foundation of the Inland Waterways Association with the equally celebrated writer of weird fiction, Robert Aickman. Similarly, he restored and raced old cars, founding both the Vintage Sports Car Club and the Prescott Hill Climb, a famed motor racing course in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, during the 1950s he managed the Talyllyn Railway in Wales and went on to write Red for Danger, a classic history of British railways, not to mention a still highly regarded biography of legendary civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. All passions which are reflected in his literature.

But unlike his friend Aickman, many of whose stories are really quite radical and unique, Rolt’s supernatural fiction is often placed within the Jamesian tradition. At first, this might seem somewhat incongruous as Rolt’s industrial background could not be more at odds with the fusty antiquarianism and anti-materialism of M.R. James. However, Rolt was a noted admirer of James’s work nonetheless and in some places, the comparison is very obvious indeed. There are a couple of stories in Sleep No More which deliberately emulate the style and milieu of the Jamesian ghost story, principally A Visitor at Ashcombe which tells the story of an uncanny mirror in a Tudor mansion house, and Music Hath Charms, which also resembles J. Meade Falkner’s The Last Stradivarius in miniature. Yet whilst both are finely crafted works in their own right, they are amongst the least interesting pieces in the book.

There is a far more instructive respect in which Rolt can be called an acolyte of James and that is in the way he employs Monty’s philosophy for the ghost story in a distinct yet equally authentically realised context, thereby being both true to the spirit of the tradition and revitalising it at the same time. As Mike Ashley argues in an article entitled Shadows of the Master for Ghost and Scholars, “Of the handful of imitators, Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives… Because of his ability to utitlise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing.” James was always determined that for greatest effect, the supernatural eruption should take place in familiar surroundings but what too many of his disciples forget is that for James and his original audience, the antiquarian environment was familiar and it was precisely that familiarity which lent his writing its force, whereas in the hands of others it’s employed more as a self-conscious affectation. Rolt succeeds because the industrial setting he evokes is one about which he is passionate and knowledgeable.

To anybody who lives amidst relics of the Industrial Revolution, the surroundings depicted in a number of Rolt’s tales should be very recognisable indeed and little evokes a sense of desolation and existential dread quite as effectively as decaying industrial architecture. It is something Susan Hill recognises when she writes, “No one has as well succeeded in capturing the air of dankness and dreariness of lonely canals on gloomy, misty late afternoons in winter.” Indeed, one of the finest stories in Sleep No More, Bosworth Summit Pound, concerns a canal tunnel and one wonders if it was partly inspired by Rolt’s own experiences the previous year navigating the derelict Standedge Tunnel, both the longest and deepest example in Britain, with Aickman and Aickman’s then paramour Elizabeth Jane Howard (who would also write a classic weird tale involving a canal, Three Miles Up).

We are also treated to ghostly incursions against the backdrop of old lead workings in The Mine, an iron plant in Hawley Bank Foundry, a remote railway tunnel in The Garside Fell Disaster and a motor racing course in New Corner, all locations which Rolt would understand intimately. He uses his insight to conjure an atmosphere every bit as rich and detailed as that of James’s dusty libraries and ecclesiastic monuments. However, one interesting concession Rolt does make to James’s more antiquarian concerns comes in the denouements to the latter two stories mentioned, in which the manifestations are the consequence of disturbing ancient holy sites, recalling the triggers for events in A Warning to the Curious or The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. For all his affection for the industrial landscape, Rolt understands that it is impotent in the face of encroaching nature and it is often our trespasses against older, incomprehensible forces which bring disaster down upon us.

A further respect in which Rolt follows the template laid down by James is the sheer, uncompromising malignancy of the supernatural agency. In his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James insisted, “The ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” The apparitions in Sleep No More certainly fulfil these criteria, such as the subterranean demon disturbed in The Mine, “a human shape… terrible tall and thin, and it seemed to be a kind of dirty white all over, like summat that’s grown up in the dark and never had no light” and most who encounter these revenants come to a sticky end. Rolt shares James’s economy of language in these moments of climax, knowing just what to describe and what merely to insinuate. The conclusion of Bosworth Summit Pound is especially masterful in this respect.

However, I think it is somewhat disingenuous to regard Rolt purely as a follower of James or purely as a writer of industrial ghost stories. Certainly some of his best works falls into both categories but his range even within the limited confines of a single volume is really quite impressive. Rolt was not immune to the pantheistic mysticism which characterised the works of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, and a number of his stories reflect this. His particular fondness for the Black Mountains in Wales and particularly the Vale of Ewyas, site of the famed Llanthony Priory, informs The House of Vengeance and Cwm Garon. The latter is surely one of the best tales in the collection, ably communicating the mountain solitude throughout and culminating in a powerful intimation of atavistic dread as old gods waken and the protagonist comes to understand “There stalked through the valley something intangible, unearthly, monstrous and very terrible.”

The Shouting is another tale of which Machen in particular would be proud, combining an authentically folkloric feel with a disconcerting ambiguity, whilst Agony of Flame invokes a mysterious supernatural awe at a ruined castle on a lake in Ireland. Although Rolt’s more Jamesian stories tended to hint at origins for the hauntings, neither did he forget the value of ambiguity in the weird tale, perhaps mindful of a quote Robert Aickman once borrowed from Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” Yet despite all these influences, Rolt retains his own voice. Certainly the most defining characteristic of his work remains the industrial environment into which he introduces his spectres, something which was still uncommon when Sleep No More was published in 1948, but he is no less convincing when exploring more natural landscapes and the reason you suspect his stories are so successful is because like all the best creators of weird fiction, he possessed an authentic vision. For him the weird tale was not just a literary exercise, but fundamentally an extension and communication of his world view and passions.