The Haunted Brontë

January 12, 2012

A painting by Branwell Brontë that originally depicted he and his sisters. He later painted himself out.

Most people are familiar with the Brontës, if only through osmosis. Their novels—which include “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”—have left an indelible mark on English literature. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were extraordinary women, writing at a time (the Victorian era) in which proper women did not indulge in such intellectual pursuits.

Lurking in the background of the sisters’ lives was their black sheep brother, Branwell. A painter and poet of some promise who never truly developed his skills, Branwell was a hedonist who paid dearly for his pleasures. He achieved some small measure of success when a number of his sonnets were published in prestigious papers of the day, but his literary ambitions were thwarted by his own fecklessness and failure to follow through. His business pursuits were marked by rash and reckless decisions, and he left a trail of debt that would never be repaid.

Branwell’s final shame occurred when he was dismissed from a tutoring position due to the discovery of an affair he was having with the married mother of one of his pupils. He returned to the Brontë home in disgrace. Here he lapsed into inconsolable despair and surrendered his tormented soul to alcohol and laudanum. His verse, when he attempted it, was invariably self-pitying. No one wanted to read poems called “When all our cheerful hours seem gone for ever”, especially in the rural Yorkshire village of Haworth, the Brontë family home. 

Haworth: Home of the Bronte family

Branwell Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31. We now know as much about the anguish that drove him to an early grave as we are ever likely to know. In history, as in life, Branwell was a minor character in a much larger drama. Branwell Bronte exists today as a result of his sisters’ success. Whether or not he consciously compared himself to them is not known, and is really not important. Having developed over a period of time a fascination with human folly, my own hypothesis is that Branwell was a victim of his own mediocrity in every endeavour that he pursued. And it was his awareness of that mediocrity that led to his demise. He could not live up to his own ideal.

Back in the early ’90s, a friend and I visited Haworth as part of a larger literary tour of England. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Branwell’s old haunts, the Black Bull pub, was (and remains) a thriving business. There was nothing in the place to suggest that Branwell had ever stepped foot in it. My friend and I raised several glasses in his honour. We drank until closing time.

I do not recall leaving the Black Bull, and that missing time remains my tribute to the memory of Branwell Brontë.

Thanks for reading.

Calvin

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Old English was closer to German and Icelandic than to modern English.

The book from which I’ve taken the following poem (“Poems from the Middle English”) states that this verse is “probably a love message in the form of a riddle”. I hope so. I like my love messages ambiguous. If it’s not a love message, it’s still a powerful bit of poetry. “The Reed” was clearly written by a masculine hand, and as a love message it possesses a clumsy but endearing quality, devoid of feminine delicacy.

Although “The Reed” was written sometime between the seventh century and the eleventh century—probably around the same time as the most famous Old English poem, “Beowulf”—it sounds very modern. In the last hundred years or so—thanks to poets like T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins—our ears have become accustomed to irregular meter, the lack of a rhyming scheme, and the use of concrete, Anglo Saxon words to express complex sentiments. This poem would have been deemed barbaric (if recognized as a poem at all) had it been written in the more mannered and genteel ages that mark English poetry of the last five hundred years. Power metal bands take note.

Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you enjoy the poem!

Calvin

Riddle #60: The Reed

I grew where life had come to me, along

The sandy shore, where the sea foamed in

Below a cliff. Men came

To my empty land only by accident.

But every dawn a brown wave swept

Around me with watery arms. How

Could I ever imagine a time when, mouthless,

I’d sing across the benches where mead

Was poured, and carried secret speech?

What a strange and wonderful thing to someone

Who puzzles , but neither sees nor knows,

That the point of a knife and a strong right hand

Should press and carve me, a keen blade

And the mind of a man joined together

To make me a message-bearer to your ears

Alone, boldly bringing you what no one

Else could carry and no one hears!

How Not to Get Published

April 10, 2011

Lovecraft in his twenties

H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an influential writer of horror and science-fiction stories during the heyday of the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. One of the more curious things about Lovecraft (and there are many, many curious things about Lovecraft) was his inability to champion his own writing. So often was he the author of his own misfortune that any sympathy one might have for him quickly gives way to incredulity. As the following letter demonstrates, Lovecraft was his own worst advocate, and it comes as no surprise that he only achieved the respect he had due after he had died and gotten out of his own damn way.

Lovecraft sent the following as a cover letter for a submission of five of his manuscripts (MSS.) to Edwin F. Baird, editor of “Weird Tales”, in April, 1923.

My dear Sir:

Having a habit of writing weird, macabre, and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical.

Of these the first two are probably the best. If they be unsatisfactory, the rest need not be read.

I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing. My object is such pleasure as I can obtain from the creation of certain bizarre pictures, situations, or atmospheric effects; and the only reader I hold in mind is myself.

My models are invariably the older writers, especially Poe, who has been my favorite literary figure since early childhood. Should any miracle impel you to consider the publication of my tales, I have but one condition to offer; and that is that no excisions be made. If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style. But I am probably safe, for my MSS. are not likely to win your consideration. “Dagon” has been rejected by Black Mask, to which I sent it under external compulsion—much as I am sending you the enclosed.

A grim Punch and Judy scene

If you read my previous entry about M.R. James, you’ll know that his fascination with the ghost story began as a result of seeing a particularly disturbing Punch and Judy puppet set as a child.

Punch and Judy give me the creeps, too. More so even than clowns. The characters are nasty, even grotesque, and the narratives are frequently violent. Here is a brief description from Wikipedia: “In the British Punch and Judy show, he is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice… “ A typical show is usually described as “anarchic”. “The tale of Punch and Judy… typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.”

With that in mind, here is James’s quote, from his later short story, “A Disappearance and an Appearance”. I’ll return to these unnerving caricatures when I discuss the documentary film that I’m currently working on.

It [the dream] began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light…

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch… But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.”

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

(this is a slightly altered version of an article that didn’t quite see print)

I really must tell you about Montague Rhodes (M.R.) James. James—born 1862; died 1936—remains unchallenged as the “Father of the Modern Ghost Story.” Not only did he single-handedly revive the moribund ghost story genre, he also laid the groundwork for what we recognize today as the modern horror story.

James wrote his tales during a period in which ghost stories had devolved into thinly veiled Victorian morality tales packaged in a supernatural wrapper. The ghosts of these stories are generally benign, and the stories themselves are crafted to generate sentimental wonder and yearning rather than fear. In his very first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1904), James banished this sanitized spirit, placing in its ethereal stead a ghost of immediate and palpable danger. Boldly dismissing the conventions of his day, James restored the well-worn genre tale to its visceral roots. “The ghost should be malevolent or odious,” he said. “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.”

In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, the first story in James’s landmark collection, a lone English tourist visiting a crumbling French cathedral purchases a strange book comprised of odd accounts and images plundered from numerous volumes in the cathedral’s library. For James, whose life was one long love affair with mediaeval manuscripts, this alone must have constituted an outrage. Dennistoun, a fairly typical Jamesian protagonist, pores lustily over his unique find, curiosity blinding him to the nightmare into which he is haplessly falling. The exact nature of the horror is withheld until Dennistoun encounters the vengeful form of Canon Alberic himself. The spectre’s appearance is sudden, unannounced, and very real. As H.P. Lovecraft correctly noted, “The average James ghost is usually touched before it is seen.”

Pacing was another of the keys to James’s success, and his narrative trajectory has been well-travelled—whether consciously or not—by nearly every horror writer since. “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are,” he wrote, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

Most of the eight stories that comprise “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” were originally presented by James as a series of annual readings for his Cambridge friends and colleagues. But what he called his “Christmas amusements” so enthralled the members of the Chitchat Club (as they called themselves) that his small but loyal following was soon pressing him to publish his ghost stories in book form. He reluctantly acceded, unaware that his diversions would prove to secure his immortality, outliving even his great contributions to myriad antiquarian disciplines. The first small print run of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” sold out quickly, and the book has never since been out of print. It is widely considered to be the most-read collection of twentieth-century ghost stories.

Many have wondered how the gentle Cambridge don—a staunch Anglican who was by all accounts affable and highly extroverted—could exhume such nastiness from his own kind heart. James was, after all, a decidedly stable and good-natured man. He feared spiders and loved cats; he was a man who liked jigsaw puzzles, detective novels, and playing solitaire. He helped friends in need.

Although numerous theories have been set forth (some of the more obscure ones take a psychoanalytic approach), James himself provided the most likely answer in a 1931 interview: “What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”

Let James permeate your dreams. Order the book or read an e-text of the collection at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8486.

(As a sort of appendix, I found a chilling description of just such a dream as James likely experienced. The passage is from his story, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, which appeared in his collection, “A Thin Ghost and Others”. I may include it in my next entry, as I think I’ve said enough for now…)

Thanks for reading.

Calvin