Archive for October, 2021

Kirk: Old House of Fear

October 31, 2021

Old House of Fear
Russell Kirk
(Criterion, 2019) [1961]
230 p.

“When you play with things from the abyss, you run risks.”

The ghost stories of Russell Kirk are wonderful creations. As Halloween approached this year I got a hankering for something in that line, and I recalled that he had written this novel whose title promised something suitably spine-chilling. I took it up with keen anticipation.

I was slightly put out, therefore, when, in the early going, our main character, Hugh Logan, was told for the first time about the grand old titular house :

“But it’s a brave old house, Hugh. And the name is Gaelic, not English: ‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir,’ sometimes, and it means ‘man’ — Old House of Fear is Old House of Man.”

You don’t say? And, for a time, it seemed that this bait-and-switch might be the actual tack the novel was taking. But I am happy to report that as the story progressed the bottom gradually deepened, and strange shapes began to appear in the depths, fleeting at first, but growing bolder.

The Old House is situated on Carnglass, a (sadly fictional) island in the outer Hebrides. An old dying lady lives there, and a wealthy American banker who wants the house sends his lawyer — our hero, Hugh — to negotiate the purchase in person. But the island, he learns, has a bad reputation, and what is waiting for him when he eventually arrives is not at all what he expected. He is not the only party intent on acquiring the house, for one.

It’s a splendid setting, wild and isolated, a natural place for primordial powers to find a refuge from the sleek and brisk powers of the modern world. Kirk once spoke of the “fearful joy” of supernatural tales, and this story conveys that joy, even if not quite so thoroughly or successfully as his best ghostly stories.

Kirk, in his theorizing mode (and of course he is better known for his political and philosophical writing), contended that supernatural tales were better suited to allegorical or symbolic story-telling than more characteristically modern genres such as science fiction. And in passages such as this one:

“With growing speed, the brooding spectre of terror, almost palpable in Carnglass, was enveloping the world. This island was the microcosm of modern existence.”

he hints rather strongly that his story is open to that kind of interpretation. It’s not hard to make headway: on Hugh’s arrival the Old House is already besieged, and even occupied, by a troupe of half-wit criminals who espouse Marxism and have the violent instincts to back it up. Their leader, Dr Jackman, has even been trying to proselytize a young woman who occupies the Old House:

Dr. Jackman did not neglect Miss Mary MacAskival. Upon her he bestowed much valuable time endeavoring to instruct her in progressive social views and in a proper understanding of occult lore… He talked politics and necromancy to her, a queer mixture. The one, she thought, was as mad as the other, or perhaps the politics was a little the madder.

That’s pretty funny in its own right, but it opens up an allegorical reading if we’re so inclined: we see the Old House of Man, with its elusive, uncanny depths, surrounded and infiltrated by crude, thinly rational ideologues with guns. That’s not a bad allegory of modern existence, and it’s certainly a Kirkian one.

Naturally, ideologues with guns cannot, in this story, carry the day.

I enjoyed the book. I did find that the chases and shoot-outs got too much limelight, and the spooky bits too little, and on those grounds I prefer his short stories. But the sense of place is very effectively developed, and I grew quite fond of Mary MacAskival, who charmed me as much as she did our hero. A good book.


Two final notes. First, I stumbled in stupefaction when I read, after a quick shooting episode, that “there were two less snipers to worry about”. Surely that ought to be “two fewer snipers,” no? Kirk wouldn’t make that mistake, would he?

Second, I learned an interesting new word: hoyden. “She was a hoyden of sorts, but quite innocent.” It means “a high-spirited, boisterous, or saucy girl.” A useful word.

Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

Translated from the Latin by William Arrowsmith
(Univ Michigan, 1960) [c.60 AD]
225 p.

The Satyricon of Petronius has a singular place in the Roman literature that survives to our time; its nearest rival would be Apelluis’ The Golden Ass, written a few generations later, which still does not manage to out-Petronius Petronius. The Satyricon is an anti-epic — a huge, sprawling, shapeless, irreverent, disgusting mess of a book that nonetheless manages to cast a different, and therefore, in its own way, valuable kind of light on Roman life in the first century.

The story, such as it is, concerns the antics of Encolpius and a few companions who wander from misadventure to misadventure in search of food and sex — both in a profuse variety limited only by the imagination of the author. The joke on Encolpius — whose name means something like “crotch” — and the running joke through the entire work, is that he is impotent. No matter what shenanigans he gets into it, no matter how careful the plotting or how tantalizing the young boy, he’s left tending naught but a wilted lettuce. Ha ha. There you have the Satyricon in brief compass.

Many readers have found in the work an attractive free spiritedness, a liveliness of invention, a fascinating window into first-century Roman sexual mores and the lives of the lower classes, a refreshing buffoonery and light-heartedness, and a diverting satirical tone that clears away the formality of the Roman poets who otherwise dominate the literature. There is something to be said for the Satyricon on these grounds.

The work, as we have it, is fragmentary. In fact, it might be better to say that we have only fragments of the work. Though it runs to a couple of hundred pages in a modern edition, I am told that scholars speculate that we might have only about one-tenth of the original whole. Weeping is not warranted, however; we have enough. A little pederasty goes a long way, and my appetite, at least, for peppered dildos shoved where the sun don’t shine is easily satisfied by the merest morsel.

If asked to speculate, I’d have guessed that the author was a ne’r-do-well from the provinces who tried to make a name for himself by scandalizing the reading public. But in fact Petronius was a notable Roman, a governor and even a consul, who held an honoured place in Nero’s court. The Satyricon, it seems, was just what passed for keen entertainment in Nero’s company. The most intriguing reading of the Satyricon I’ve yet come across holds that its anti-hero, Encolpius, may have been a subtle satire on Nero himself; if true, it would do much to redeem the nearly unfathomable scurrility of the work.

The book has been a black sheep for most of the interval between its writing and today. It made a comeback in the late nineteenth century when the Decadent movement took up its standard: J.K. Huysmans in France championed it, especially in his novel À rebours, and in the English-speaking world it made its first big splash in a pseudonymous translation by Oscar Wilde. One can surmise what attracted these writers to the book. It is worth noting, I think, that both these authors later converted to Catholicism. If enthusiasm for the Satyricon is a stepping stone in that direction, it gives us another, perhaps surprising, opportunity to affirm that nothing in this vale of tears is wholly bad.

Josquin Graindelavoixed

October 8, 2021

This is a Josquin anniversary year, and there have been several high profile recordings made to mark the occasion. Among them, just this week, is Josquin the Undead, an unconventionally titled disc from the very unconventional ensemble Graindelavoix. This is hot stuff. Sure, it’s a catalogue of laments, drenched it tears, but hot stuff nonetheless. Graindelavoix have an incredibly rich sound, full of feeling, and they bring out the adventurous harmonies of the music brilliantly.

Here they are singing Nimphes, nappes. The video is beautifully done too.

Water nymphs, Nereids, Dryads,
come and mourn my desolation
for I suffer such affliction
that my spirits are more dead than alive.

The groans of death have encircled me:
the sorrows of hell have enclosed me.

Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

October 5, 2021

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Francis Beaumont
(Methuen, 2002) [c.1607]
224 p.

Chivalric romance is the genre of The Knight of the Burning Pestle — or, better, chivalric romance is the target, for this play is a good-natured satire on the genre. For modern readers it is bound to remind us of Don Quixote, and perhaps with very good reason: the first part of that great work was published in 1605, and (I am told) Beaumont was an adept in the Spanish tongue. Although I gather that some controversy swirls around the question, I think it plausible that the play was inspired by Cervantes.

But it is more than just a quixotic satire: it’s a fun meta-play too that experiments with the conventions of play-going. The Don Quixote character, Rafe, isn’t even part of the play that the other actors have come to perform — that play, called “The London Merchant”, is a romance about a young couple planning to elope. But early in the play a boorish grocer and his wife, in the audience, clamber on stage, interrupting the show and asking if their young apprentice, Rafe, can join the play. He, dubbing himself a ‘Grocer-Errant’, likes the idea and wrangles two friends into being his squire and dwarf — indispensable accoutrements for any chivalric knight:

My beloved Squire, and George my Dwarfe, I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name, but the Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle, and that you never call any Female by the name of a Woman or Wench, but fair Lady, if she have her desires; if not, distressed Damsel; that you call all Forrests and Heaths, Desarts, and all Horses Palfries. (1.1)

And so, for the remainder of the play, Rafe, as the valiant Knight, embarks on a variety of adventures to rescue ladies in peril, adventures which periodically bring him back to the playhouse, where he interrupts the action of the play the other actors are trying to perform. It’s a nice re-imagining of Don Quixote’s delusional tendencies for the play-house.

I will admit that the convention of having on-stage characters comment on the action of another play, as happens, on a lesser scale, in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one that I grudgingly accept rather than appreciate, and here too I found the stream of commentary from the grocer and his wife kind of annoying. But I didn’t feel the same about poor Rafe, whose commitment to his role, and success in assuming it, was sufficiently gallant and sincere as to exclude criticism:

Ralph. My trusty Dwarf and friend, reach me my shield,
And hold it while I swear, first by my Knighthood,
Then by the soul of Amadis de Gaule,
My famous Ancestor, then by my Sword,
The beauteous Brionella girt about me,
By this bright burning Pestle of mine honor,
The living Trophie, and by all respect
Due to distressed Damsels, here I vow
Never to end the quest of this fair Lady,
And that forsaken Squire, till by my valour
I gain their liberty. (2.1)


The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play unlike any other that I’ve encountered in this reading project, and I’m pleased to have read it. It would be fun to see staged (and it has been occasionally revived).