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Wednesday
Jan222014

Ancient Sorceries

I went upstairs to bed, my mind teeming with thoughts that were unusual to me, and of rather a haunting description.  By way of relief I kept thinking of that nice, prosaic noisy train and all those wholesome, blustering passengers.  I almost wished I were with them again.  But my dreams took me elsewhere.  I dreamed of cats, and soft-moving creatures, and the silence of life in a dim muffled world beyond the senses.

                                                                                                               Arthur Vezin

Surely you have heard in various and sundry situations that old adage, "less is more."  I encountered it many times as a child and adolescent, in the oddest of contexts: clothing, furniture, calories, exercise, sleep, color on a canvas, words to say to that one girl to whom you barely can say anything.  Once upon a time, this adage fell on the hardly deaf ears of perhaps the greatest musical genius the world has ever known, and he spurned it with the foreknowledge of his glory.  And in literature, it is strange how close two stories by the same author can be in motifs and how distant in effect, with the more effective story almost invariably being the one that reveals less.  A pithy introduction to one of the masterpieces of horror fiction.

At the onset of our tale we are reminded of one the world's many inequities: namely, that while it can understand the wild narratives of "the adventurous type" of person, because "such people carry about with them an adequate explanation of their exciting lives," little is to be thought of "dull, ordinary folk."  Nothing, we are informed, is to happen to these plain souls.  That is to say, nothing out of the way in what we may presume are boilerplate bourgeois scripts, the same roles and routines that drove so many European intellectuals to laud the grimy charm of the proletariat.  To what category then belongs our protagonist Arthur Vezin?  His initial account to Dr. John Silence disperses more than a few hints:

He was on the way home when it happened, crossing northern France from some mountain trip or other where he buried himself solitary-wise every summer.  He had nothing but an unregistered bag in the rack, and the train was jammed to suffocation, most of the passengers being unredeemed holiday English.  He disliked them, not because they were his fellow countrymen, but because they were noisy and obtrusive, obliterating with their big limbs and tweed clothing all the quieter tints of the day that brought him satisfaction and enabled him to melt into insignificance and forget that he was anybody.  These English clashed around him like a brass band, making him feel vaguely that he ought to be more self-assertive and obstreperous, and that he did not claim insistently enough all kinds of things that he didn't want and that were really valueless, such as corner seats, windows up or down, and so forth.

This most remarkable passage contains all the seeds of explanation for the events to come (in particular the three Latinate words beginning with "ob," which etymologically all involve some kind of force outwards), with Vezin's surname and curious bout of anti-patriotic fervor suggesting that we are not dealing with someone of Anglo-Saxon stock.  The imperfection of Vezin's French is underscored throughout the text – an integral feature, one supposes, of his 'ordinariness' – a ploy that allows the reader to comprehend his befuddlement at the series of events in the little town into which he wanders one evening.

Vezin's final view of the town will summarize symbolically his thoughts and fears, but his inchoate impression is positive.  Indeed, what struck him then was "the delightful contrast of the silence and peace after the dust and noisy rattle of the train."  So delightful, as it were, that he "felt soothed and stroked like a cat."  Dr. Silence proceeds on the basis of a contextual clue to ask more questions about why Vezin uses this peculiar analogy, and we do not need to belabor the matter.  Suffice it to say that Vezin enters the town and finds a hotel, but despite the alleged peace of mind achieved, never quite feels at ease.  After a string of encounters with the local townsfolk, Vezin decides that something untoward may be afoot:

'For the whole town, I suddenly realized, was something other than I so far saw it.  The real activities and interests of the people were elsewhere and otherwise than appeared.  Their true lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes.  Their busy-ness was but the outward semblance that masked their actual purposes.  They bought and sold, and ate and drank, and walked about the streets; yet all the while the main stream of their existence lay somewhere beyond my ken, underground, in secret places.  In the shops and at the stalls they did not care whether I purchased their articles or not; at the inn, they were indifferent to my staying or going; their life lay remote from my own, springing from hidden, mysterious sources, coursing out of sight, unknown.  It was all a great elaborate pretence, assumed possibly for my benefit, or possibly for purposes of their own.  But the main current of their energies ran elsewhere.  I almost felt as an unwelcome foreign substance might be expected to feel when it has found its way into the human system and the whole body organizes itself to eject or absorb it.  The town was doing this very thing to me.'

Such an observation would seem to be a product of the solipsistic nonsense common to "adventurous types"; but we also know that many ostensibly 'plain and ordinary' people suffer from delusions of grandeur (one of the most frequent manifestations is a professed link to a well-known catastrophe).  Yet here this is not the case.  For all his weird musings, Vezin truly senses that something personal is at stake ("something exceedingly vital to himself, to his soul, hung in the balance") that does not make him a more important being on this earth, but simply one who may belong to a different order of things.  That the town's cathedral "was ever empty, the old church of St. Martin, at the other end of the town, deserted," suggests what form of religious experience the locals may prefer.  It is the appearance of the hotel owner's beautiful daughter, however, that finally embodies our traveler's fears in a guise he can hardly misinterpret – and we should say no more.

Ancient Sorceries is understood by some as the inspiration for this famous film, and it gives nothing away to reveal that a quite similar theme is broached in another of Blackwood's tales, which shall remain nameless on these pages.  The difference between our story and the less successful effort is very much a study in omission: while occasionally, ahem, flashing its claws, Ancient Sorceries only implies that certain things may have occurred, and the forms perceived by the protagonist may necessarily be of his own composition.  The later story degenerates into one of the most flawed spectacles of otherwise first-rate fiction, irrevocably compromising the fine, if overly topical setting established in its opening pages.  Vezin's fate seems to be his doing alone, and not the work of continental strife or some other such nonsense, rendering the dénouement to our tale all the more plausible.  Plausible, that is, for a journey endangered by sleep.  And by cats.  

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