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Tuesday
Dec272016

Count Magnus

Discussing any type of ghost story with the modern mind is usually a pointless endeavor since so many enlightened thinkers want nothing to do with the spiritual aspect of life or are convinced – at least until their ratiocination leads them into a rather dark corner – that we have evolved past such daydreaming. If the thought of an abstract benevolent force sounds like gobbledygook, think of the snickering directed at the possibility in our clear and simple world of not-so-benevolent forces. Our nightmares, products of a bad conscience or neurotic fears, have also progressed from describing some kind of indescribable evil to exposing a humiliating tidbit of personal history long denied. Now I am all for getting to the crux of an obsessive idea (art has much to do with this trope), and I accept with much head-nodding theories on eternal explicanda such as "practically every human culture has evinced an antipathy to snakes because, being tree animals, snakes and monkeys are natural enemies." Yet there remain questions about those creatures who do terrify us, usually those most biologically dissonant from humans, such as birds and reptiles (who are, as it were, closely related to one another), and these questions extend past the biological like the unsheathing of a long and wicked claw. There is something inherently unpleasant about their beady, soulless stare, their plumed or scaly sleekness, and, perhaps most of all, their laughter. Which brings us to one of the most sleep-sapping tales ever written.              
 
We follow, somewhat timidly, a certain Mr. Wraxall, a British traveler and scholar who journeys to Sweden "in the early summer of 1863." Research and a bit of luck steer him to an ancient manor house in Vestergothland, where he will be able to examine at length "an important collection of family papers," even if these papers will steer his fate more than that of its inheritors. The scholar declines an offer to be put up at the manor proper, and chooses instead, for reasons of both privacy and any good scholar’s preference for walking above all other forms of transportation, to stay at a nearby inn. The commute to and from his center of research is less than a mile and careers through a dark wood featuring a church of unorthodox design:
It was a curious building to English eyes. The nave and aisles were low, and filled with pews and galleries. In the western gallery stood the handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes. The ceiling was flat, and had been adorned by a seventeenth-century artist with a strange and hideous ‘Last Judgement,’ full of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and smiling demons.
A seventeenth-century artist, indeed. This odd bit of architecture also includes astride the north aisle another building, officially categorized as a mausoleum, with a black roof and white walls (the latter resembling those of the church). But there is no access to this mausoleum from the church, a fact that plagues our poor Mr. Wraxall for a while, although he will be plagued by far worse.

Soon thereafter it is announced that he would like to know more about the ways and reputation of the "almost phenomenally ugly man" and ancestor who built this manor house, Count Magnus. History has not looked kindly upon this overlord, who had unruly peasants flogged and particularly recalcitrant ones burned alive in the middle of the night by chance fires. Magnus is also known to have made a Black Pilgrimage, whose purpose is outlined in a text called Liber nigrae perigrinationis:
‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince ...’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr. Wraxhall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aëris ("of the air").’ 
A round trip to Hades would be bad enough if Magnus had returned in possession of preternatural  properties and an itch to try them out on the local folk. That was not, however, all he brought back. So when Wraxhall finally does ingress the mausoleum, he is only half-surprised to find an effigy on Magnus’s tomb, "round the edge [of which] were several bands of similar ornament representing various scenes." And in one of those scenes
Was a man running at full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a strange form; and it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for a man and was unable to give the same similitude, or whether it was intentionally made as monstrous as it looked.
More detail is given, which is not necessarily a good thing for your peace of mind, so I will leave matters as they are.  
 
The creator of these texts is this remarkable scholar, with whom I humbly admit to sharing a passion for languages and all things Scandinavian. His prose, very influential on the development of the modern horror of many bestselling writers (including this American whose greatest fame would come posthumously) exhibits his thorough academic learning without dipping into pedantry. In fact, his cold and articulate manner makes the odd subjects that more plausible, although plausibility is probably not the reason you’ll pick up his work. For both his learning and style, James is a favorite of horror connoisseurs but ought to be republished and read more often by the rest of us. Unless, of course, you value your sleep.      

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