Vampires and Vampirism – Montague Summers

Image2
Dover – 2005 (Originally published as The Vampire: His Kith and Kin in 1929)
This is Montague Summers‘ first book on Vampires, and as much as I love the author, I have to admit that this was a rather dry read. I actually started this book to make sure that I would understand references that I might have encountered in another book I’ve been reading; Varney the Vampyre. As it turns out, that book is referenced in this book, but it contains very few references to vampire lore. (Varney is fucking DEADLY though. Expect to see it reviewed here in a few weeks.) Anyway, there’s 5 chapters in Summers’ book, and I’m going to go through each one.

1.The Origins of the Vampire
Here Summers explains several of the different elements that may have created and/or fed into the vampire legend. It includes copious stories of the reanimated dead, ghosts, premature burials and a huge section on incorruptible corpses. Apparently, there’s two ways that a corpse can remain incorrupt; the person has to have been either really good or really bad.

This chapter also includes a frustratingly multilingual section on necrophilia and necrosadism. Unfortunately the more lurid details are only given in French or Ancient Greek. I’m not joking; whenever Monty wants to give some really grisly details, he’ll switch languages. My French is poor, but it was good enough know that I was missing out on the best bits, particularly the story about the Garcon who said. “Que voulez-vous, chacun a ses passions. Moi le cadavre, c’est la mienne!”

(I have found an online version of the text, and I’ve just spent 10 minutes pasting those bits into google translate. It was worth it; my necrosadistic desires have now been satiated.)

2. Generation of the Vampire
This is all about how vampires become vampires. It mostly deals with excommunication from the church. Montague Summers knew a lot about the history of the church, and he wants to make sure that his readers are aware of this. Pretty boring stuff to be honest.

3. Traits and Practice of Vampirism
There’s a lot about suicide in this chapter, including some fascinating stuff on Russian suicide cults. Apparently one group of these fucking lunatics built a huge building with no doors or windows that was only accessible from a trap door in the roof. They’d jump in through the trap door and then they’d starve to death. Imagine the stench, the anxiety, the shame and the regret that these people had to endure until their dying moments.

4. The Vampire in Ancient Countries
I was expecting this section to be a bit boring, but it was actually quite interesting. It’s about the different types of vampiric ghouls that have cropped up around the world through history. I think that the sequel to this book, The Vampire in Lore and Legend (1929), takes up where this chapter leaves off.

5.The Vampire in Literature
This section was definitely the most disappointing, disappointing because I expected it to be the most interesting. This is just a bunch of summaries of different plays based on John Polidori’s story, The Vampyre. The summaries given are so detailed that I skipped through most of them; I didn’t want to ruin the stories in case I ever come across the original texts. Not only does this chapter contain the summaries of these plays; it also contains extensive lists of their cast members. This chapter is full of boring information, but it says very little.

Image1The pictures in this book are bizarre. I don’t remember why this mad woman is in there.

Overall, this is a decently interesting read even if it does get dry as fuck at times. There’s 5 chapters, and the way they’re structured seems a bit arbitrary, particularly the first 3. However, the worst thing about this book is that it’s full of quotes in different languages but contains no translations. If you really wanted to get the most out of this, you’d need to speak Ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. This is a bit different to the author’s books on witchcraft too. It serves more as an explanation as to how the Vampire legend developed than it does as proof of the Vampire’s existence. Monty never denies that vampires exist, but he doesn’t spend much time trying to convince you that they do.  As mentioned above, he wrote another book on vampires, but I reckon it’ll be a while before I get around to that one.

Image3Clearly a case of Lycanthropy rather than Vampirism, but a cool picture nonetheless. Could this be the instance spoken of by the great one?

Vathek – William Beckford

20160802_230226
Oxford University Press – 1983 (Originally published in 1786)

This Gothic classic is the story of the Caliph Vathek and his series of poor life choices. Vathek is led astray by an evil giaour’s promises of more wealth and power. (‘Giaour’ is old Turkish slang for a non-Muslim. The reader pretty soon realises that the Giaour in question is actually some kind of evil spirit.) This is basically an 18th century English writer’s attempt to write an Islamic version of the Faust legend. Ahhhh, remember the good old days when appropriating culture was still considered a bit of a laugh?

Beckford was only 21 when he wrote Vathek, and he claimed it only took 3 days to complete. The story itself is quite good, but the characters are rather flat, and I think that it would have benefited from some development. Beckford later wrote the Episodes of Vathek (not included in this edition), which are additions to this text, but as far as I understand, they are side stories about very minor characters and don’t add anything to the central plot.

20160802_230201
Vathek and the Giaour

You can pick up a copy of Vathek for dirt cheap, or download the audiobook for free.  As far as Gothic classics go, this closer in its scope to The Castle of Otranto than Melmoth the Wanderer; it’s worth a read, but don’t expect too much.

Word on the street is that William Beckford was a shrub rocketeer.

(Most of) The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

bierce
The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce
Citadel Press – 1994 (Originally Published in 1946)

I bought this book for 2-3 stories in 2012, and only got around to reading it cover to cover within the last 6 months. This ‘collected works’ is not a ‘complete works’ as I had hoped for when I bought it. (There was a 12 volume edition of his works printed about 100 years ago, but I don’t know how complete that is either.) I found the first collection of short stories in here to be the least enjoyable by far. I spent more time getting through that first 100 pages than all of the rest put together. I found that all of the short story collections, aside from Negligible Tales, are available on Librivox as audiobooks, and so I loaded these onto my phone and listened to them whilst cooking dinner every day.

Bierce was a rather interesting man. I first heard of him in the third From Dusk Till Dawn movie. (The third film was way better than the second one, but nowhere near as good as the first. I haven’t watched the TV series.) I’ve also had to teach his short stories to high-school students on a few different occasions. There’s an essay in the introduction to this book that makes him out as a very cranky man, but I didn’t really get that impression from his stories. He definitely had a dark sense of humour, and he could be very, very funny. His wife and children all died before him, and at age 72 he moved to Mexico by himself and disappeared. In one of his last letters to his family, he wrote “Goodbye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”
Ambrose Bierce was fucking cool.

I looked online for a comprehensive list of his short stories, but every list that I found omitted a bunch or contained the names of poems, essay and fables. In this post I have listed all of the stories in the editions of the texts that I read. (I will also list all of other known independent stories/collections at the bottom.)

Ambrose_Bierce

In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians)
(“A Horseman in the Sky”, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Chickamauga”, “A Son of the Gods”, “One of the Missing”, “Killed at Resaca”, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, “The Coup de Grâce”, “Parker Adderson, Philosopher”, “An Affair of Outposts”, “The Story of A Conscience”, “One Kind of Officer”, “One Officer, One Man”, “George Thurston”, “The Mocking-Bird”, “The Man Out of the Nose”, “An Adventure at Brownville”, “The Famous Gilson Bequest”, “The Applicant”, “A Watcher by the Dead”, “The Man and the Snake”, “A Holy Terror”, “The Suitable Surroundings”, “The Boarded Window”, “A Lady from Redhorse”, “The Eyes of the Panther”)

This collection is split into two sections. The first is Tales of Soldiers. Although this contains some of Bierce’s more popular stories (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge, Chickamauga…), it’s by far the hardest section to get through. Some of these stories are really dull, and almost every one of them features a twist ending. That said, this collection contains George Thurston, one of my all time favourite stories. (Imagine Hemingway crossed with Monty Python.)

The second section, Tales of Civilians, is where things get more interesting. I think it’s appropriate to refer to Bierce’s work as ‘weird fiction’, but it’s not quite weird in the same way that Lovecraft is weird. His stories often deal with the supernatural, but they’re rarely scary.

Different editions of this collection contain different stories.

Can Such Things Be?
(“The death of Halpin Frayser”, “The secret of Macarger’s Gulch”, “One summer night”, “The moonlit road”, “A diagnosis of death”, “Moxon’s master”, “A tough tussle”, “One of twins”, “The haunted valley”, “A jug of sirup”, “Staley Fleming’s hallucination”, “A resumed identity”, “A baby tramp”, “The night-doings at “Deadman’s””, “Beyond the wall”, “A psychological shipwreck”, “The middle toe of the right foot”, “John Mortonson’s funeral”, “The realm of the unreal”, “John Bartine’s watch”, “The damned thing”, “Haïta the shepherd”, “An inhabitant of Carcosa”, “The Stranger”)

These are best of Bierce’s darker, spookier tales. Again, none of these stories are terribly scary. It feels like they were written to make you think rather than to make you scream. I liked this collection though. This is the one you want if you’re a fan of Robert W. Chambers or the first season of True Detective. (See Haïta the Shepherd and An Inhabitant of Carcosa)

Different editions of this collection contain different stories.

Negligible Tales
(“A Bottomless Grave”, “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General”, “The Widower Turmore”, “The City of the Gone Away”, “The Major’s Tale”, “Curried Cow”, “, “A Revolt of the Gods”, “The Baptism of Dobsho”, “The Race at Left Bower”, “The Failure of Hope & Wandel”, “Perry Chumly’s Eclipse”, “A Providential Intimation”, “Mr. Swiddler’s Flip-Flap”, “The Little Story”)

Fairly negligible alright. There’s a few funny ones, a few very weird ones, and one (Jupiter Doke) that I don’t get at all. City of the Gone Away is definitely worth a read.

 

The Parenticide Club
(“My Favourite Murder”, “Oil of Dog”, “An Imperfect Conflagration”, “The Hypnotist”)

Without doubt, my favourite section/collection. These four tales are narrated by individuals who have killed their parents (and others). There’s a thoroughly enjoyable nastiness to these characters. The third story, An Imperfect Conflagration, contains what may be the single greatest opening line in the canon of English literature. Here is a text version, and here is an audiobook version. These stories are not scary in the least, but they are truly vile. Do yourself a favour and read them. Honestly. This is the good stuff.

 

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter
This is a novella. Apparently it’s Bierce’s retelling of a German Gothic novel. I didn’t know that when I read it back in early 2012. To tell the truth, it wasn’t shit or good enough to remember.

 

The following collections were not included in the book pictured above.

Present at a Hanging
(“Present at a Hanging”, “A Cold Greeting”, “A Wireless Message”, “An Arrest”, “A Man with Two Lives”, “Three and One are One”, “A Baffled Ambuscade”, “Two Military Executions”, “The Isle of Pines”, “A Fruitless Assignment”, “A Vine on a House”, “At Old Man Eckert’s”, “The Spook House”, “The Other Lodgers”, “The Thing at Nolan”, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, “An Unfinished Race”, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, “Science to the Front”)

This collection is pretty good. The stories are mostly standard ghosty Bierce. Not hugely memorable, but still fun. The Librivox version was perfect for my bus ride into school. Link to Audiobook version here.

 

Bodies of the Dead
(“That of Granny Magone”, “A Ligh Sleeper”, “The Mystery of John Farquharson”, “Dead and ‘Gone'”, “A Cold Night”, “A Creature of Habit” )

This is quite similar to Present at a Hanging. These stories are all very short and about corpses. The first tale, That of Granny Magone, is very obviously an earlier draft of The Boarded Window. I found this collection in an online edition of Can Such Things Be? that also includes most of Present at a Hanging.

 

The Ocean Wave
(“A Shipwreckollection”, “The Captain of “The Camel””, “The Man Overboard”, “A Cargo of Cat”)

This is a short collection of stories about lads on a ship. Not great. Link here.

 

The Fourth Estate
(“Mr. Masthead, Journalist”, “Why I Am Not Editing “The Stinger””, “Corrupting the Press”, “The Bubble Reputation”)

Another collection of stories on a particular topic. This time it’s journalism. I read these stories out of order because I didn’t know there was a sequence. They didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and they weren’t interesting enough to reread. Link here.

 

I’ve spent a lot of time reading Bierce recently, and while I really enjoyed some of it, a lot of it I could have done without. There are collections out there of just his ghost stories, so  if you’re interested in checking him out, I’d recommend picking one of those up and downloading the audiobook version of the Parenticide Club. If you are a fan, the book that I have is actually pretty good. All of his good stories are in there, and anything else you can find online if you really want it. I didn’t review his fables or the Devil’s Dictionary because I haven’t read them start to finish, but they are hilarious. They’re the kind of thing that you’ll flick through for a chuckle now and then.

I did not read or review The Land Beyond the Blow, The Fiend’s Delight, or Cobwebs from an Empty SkullAlso, I have seen several references to a story named “The Time the Moon Fought Back” from 1911, but I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know whether it really exists or not. Some lists of Bierce’s short stories contain one or more of the following: Hazen’s brigade, The Ingenious Patriot, Tale of the Sphinx, Revenge, and Visions of the Night. These are not short stories; they are fables, poems or essays. If you notice that I have missed any actual short stories, or know where I can read “The Time the Moon Fought Back“, please let me know.

 

Happy Birthday to the Marquis De Sade!

hand
I’ve been meaning to do a post on the Marquis De Sade since I started this blog, and what better day to do it than his 276th birthday! De Sade’s life was as interesting as his books, and it’s hard to know where to start with him. I have an awful lot to say about the lad, and I’m sure this won’t be my only post on his work.

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Murder, Blasphemy, Bestiality, Rape

(You said Rape twice…)

sodom
The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings – Marquis De Sade
Grove Press – 1987

My introduction to De Sade’s writing was 120 Days of Sodom. It is, without a doubt, the vilest book that I have ever read.  It’s a bit like the GG Allin of literature; it’s fucking horrendous, but it’s kind of cool that somebody did it. This book is so far ahead of its competition in terms of offensiveness, that any attempt to outdo it would seem petty.
It’s a fairly long book, and it’s very formulaic in some ways. I read it over a few days, and it really got to me. This is one of the very few books that has actually given me nightmares. (Imagine drifting off to the land of Nod only to find yourself being forced to attend a ‘blood-orgy’ in a subterranean vault. Yes, a ‘blood-orgy’; I distinctly remember that phrase from the dream.) As it so happens, this is also one of the very few books that has actually made laugh so hard that tears ran down my face. There is one part in which a man “fucks a goat from behind while being flogged; the goat conceives and gives birth to a monster. Monster though it be, he embuggers it.” Now THAT’S comedy! “Monster though it be” HAHAHAHAHA!!! The man is having sex with his own mutant offspring! LOL!!! 

When introducing one of the characters, a lady named Thérèse, De Sade notes;
“Her ass was peppered with wounds, and her buttocks were so prodigiously slack one could have furled the skin around a walking stick; the hole in this splendid ass resembled the crater of a volcano what for width and for aroma the pit of a privy; in all her life, Thérèse declared, she had never once wiped her ass, whence she had positive proof that the shit of her infancy yet clung there”
Some people view him as a philosopher, some ill-informed individuals imagine him as a sexual-revolutionary, but I think that De Sade has to be interpreted as a comedian with an extremely childish sense of humour. I can imagine him, sitting in his prison cell, chuckling away to his heart’s content as he wrote down the most vulgar, repulsive things he could imagine. The man had nothing to lose, and his writing gave him an opportunity to lash out at those who landed him in prison. His mother in law had had him jailed for abusing a prostitute, and if you read between the lines in books that he wrote in jail, all you’ll see is the phrase “You think that was bad? I’ll show you bad!”
Petulant, but truly hilarious.

justine
Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings – Marquis De Sade
Grove Weidenfeld – 1990

Next up is Philosophy in the Bedroom/Boudoir. I actually read the Penguin Classics version of this one, but I own the Grove Press edition. This takes the form of a dialogue between a young girl and a group of libertines who attempt to convince her to abandon her morality. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I remember this being very, very funny. The blasphemies in here are priceless; I recall some of the characters attempting to shout out phrases such as “Christ be triple-fucked” as they reach their orgasms. There is a long and boring section towards the end that discusses 18th century French politics, but it’s not essential to the plot, and you can just skip over it. This one isn’t quite as repulsive as 120 Days, but it does get pretty nasty.

I have also read the Oxford’s World’s Classics edition of The Misfortunes of Virtue. The Misfortunes of Virtue, written in 1787, is probably De Sade’s most palatable book. It’s still full of rape and misery, but it makes its point without getting too disgusting. It’s about a virtuous young woman who does her best to stay good. Every time she fails to take the opportunity to do something bad, something horrendous happens to her. It’s a fairly depressing text. Four years after publishing this one, De Sade decided it wasn’t horrible enough, so he rewrote it with extra rape and pooing, and renamed it Justine. 6 years after this, he rewrote it again, making it even more repulsive. Unfortunately, the final, 1797, version has never been published in English. The text in my Grove edition is the second version, but I haven’t got around to reading it yet.

juliette
Juliette – Marquis De Sade
Grove Press – Not sure of year of publication (This edition lists a website though)

Although I own a copy, I have not yet read Juliette. Juliette is the companion book to Justine. While Justine was a little Goody-Two-Shoes, her sister Juliette was a bad girl who reaped the rewards of evil. I’m sure Juliette is a hoot, but it’s 1200 pages long, and although I have enjoyed his other works, De Sade’s books aren’t easy reads. 1200 pages of horrendous rape and murder seems like quite a commitment at the moment.

I just got this in the post the other day. It’s a novel about the Marquis from the 1960s. I’m sure it’s trash, but what a great title!
satansaint

Everyone has heard of De Sade, but not many people have actually read his books. He was a funny chap, but he was also a pathetic loser in a lot of ways. His anti-moral philosophies seem to have been a major influence on several forms of modern Satanism, and while I understand his point of view and agree with much of what he as to say about religion, I think that most of what he has to say is very shitty. Shitty, but sadly realistic. Anyways, that’s enough for tonight. If you want to discuss De Sadean/Sadistic philosophy, please give me a shout.

Happy Birthday Donatien Alphonse François!

*Although this post appears to have been posted on the 3rd of June, it was actually written and posted on the 2nd. De Sade was born on June 2nd, 1740.

Weird Fiction from the Golden Dawn

2016-05-06 19.05.55The Three Imposters and other stories – Vol. 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The White People and other stories – Vol. 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The Terror and other stories – Vol. 3 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen
Chaosium Publishing

It’s very rare that I would read a book of short stories in the same way that I would read a novel. I usually have a book or two of short stories on the go that I’ll dip in and out of when I’m between other texts. It can take an awfully long time to get through a book in this manner, but it stops me from getting bored of the author’s style. (The Collected Stories of M.R. James, for example, took me about 7 months to finish, but I got through another 35 full texts in that same period.) In this particular case, the collection of short stories was broken up over three books, and I interspersed other collections between each of these volumes. It has hence taken me about 4 years to get through Chaosium’s collected weird tales of Arthur Machen, and I can’t honestly say that I remember much about the first ones that I read other than that I absolutely adored them.

Much like Penguin’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories, the first volume of this collection contains the best material. I took a copy of it out of the library after reading about Machen online, and I enjoyed it immensely. These creepy stories about freaks, weird experiments and dark forces are top notch stuff. I’ve already linked to my posts on James and Lovecraft, and I feel that Machen, at his best, occupies the middle-ground between these two authors. Every story in here was deadly. You should buy and read this book.

The second volume has some good stuff, but some of it is lame. This book contains the Angels of Mons stuff.  During the first World War, Machen wrote a story about some angels appearing on a battlefield at Mons. The story was published in a newspaper, and many people, including some of the soldiers who had been in that battle, took it to be a factual account. It’s kind of cool that this happened, but the story isn’t that great. The Red Hand and The White People are the highlights in this volume. Maybe take this one out of the library, or read those two stories online instead.

The third volume is plop. There were a few stories that seem promising at the beginning, but these either teeter off into incoherence or abruptly turn to shit. Changes was worth reading for the hideous, yellow-faced goblin-child, and Out of the Picture was entertaining if quite silly, but the rest of the stories in here are garbage. The title story is actually the uncut version of a story that appears in the second version, and it’s a drawn-out piece of trash. Speaking of what is contained in this volume, S.T. Joshi claims; “None of these works add anything to Machen’s overall reputation as a horror writer.” I agree. Joshi afterwards mentions other works of Machen’s which were too poor to be included here. Those stories must be the literary equivalent of sniffing a shit-stained pair of britches. Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist. It’s not an enjoyable read.

Machen also wrote a novel called Hill of Dreams. I haven’t read that yet, but it’s supposed to be good. I’ll get around to it someday.

2016-05-06 20.39.05
Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories – Algernon Blackwood
Penguin  – 2002

I took this book out of the library right after finishing the first volume in the above Machen collection. I read it straight through without breaks, and while I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, by the end I was getting burnt out on short stories. It has been a long time since I read this book, but I seem to remember the individual stories from this one better than those from the first Machen collection. There’s 9 stories in here, and they are all quite different. The weird in ‘Weird Fiction’ is a tricky thing to pin down, but I found that Blackwood’s stories are weirder (in the common sense of the word weird) than those of Machen or Lovecraft. That being said, this is the only collection of Blackwood’s that I have read, and maybe his other work is different. I would love to hear from anyone who has any recommendations on Blackwood’s other stuff. The layout of this book is nice; it has an almost identical format to the Penguin editions of Lovecraft (an introduction by Joshi and a small article and set of notes for each story). I would recommend picking this one up.

Both Machen and Blackwood were members of the magical order of the Golden Dawn along with W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Whatever though. I’m not going to get into that. If you’re interested, you can find out more about their involvement in this magical order online.

 

The Fiery Angel – Valery Bryusov

20160325_000821

Neville Spearman – 1975 (Valeri Briussov)
Dedalus – 2005 (Valery Bruisov)

I came across the title of this book when I was reading Colin Wilson’s The Occult two years ago, and from his description, I knew that I’d have to read it at some stage. I spent a while trying to track down a copy at a decent price, and when I found one, it spent a few months lying on the shelf before I got around to reading it. When I finally got around to it, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. Some of the pages were entirely blank. See the below video for details:


Like I said, I had ordered this a good while before picking it up to read, and so I didn’t feel it fair to demand a refund. I doubted that the bookseller had known about the defect, but I was having a slow day in work, and I decided to drop them an email to pass the time. Below is the message I sent.

my email

When I wrote that email, I did not expect a response. Fortunately, I was wrong; they replied promptly:
response
Many’s the stupid email I have sent, but I have never been so satisfied with a response. Normally you get a feebly polite apology. I take my hat off to the individual who sent the above response to me. It makes me happy to think that there are companies out there that deal with customers as they should be dealt with. If you’re talking to a jackass, talk to them like they’re a jackass. (Although, note that the seller did very courteously offer to send me a replacement.) I was extremely satisfied with my dealings with this seller, and I encourage all of my readers to buy books from them whenever the opportunity arises.

Anyways, I soon thereafter bought a different copy of the book (the more recent Dedalus edition), and that version lay on my shelf for another year before I got around to it. While the Spearman edition has a foreword by Colin Wilson, the Dedalus version has an afterword by Gary Lachman. Surprisingly, the Dedalus version also omits a two page foreword by Bryusov himself that really should be part of the text. In it, Bryusov claims to be the editor of the tale and not the author so-to-speak. Otherwise, the text of the two books are identical copies of the same original printing. (There are identical imperfections on the same pages in both versions, one of which looks like a squished fly.) If I had to choose, I would buy the Spearman version, but I would make sure that it has all of the pages before buying! (My copy is missing pages 76, 77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 92, 93, and a few more.)

Two things before I start my actual review. First of all, the name of the author is spelled differently on my two copies of this book. It’s spelled Valery Bryusov most places online, so I’m going to use that spelling. Next, this post contains a few spoilers. If you are sure you want to read this one and you’re like me and like knowing as little as possible about a book before reading it, maybe you should read the book before you read the rest of this. (But make sure you do come back to finish reading this when you’re done. I discovered some cool stuff about this book that you’ll want to know!) If you’re not sure about whether or not you want to read this one yet, read away. The spoilers here won’t ruin the suspense of the novel.

So what’s the big deal here? Why did I bother with this book? Well, it’s a novel about magic, the witch-craze, repressed sexuality and perversion. What more could I possibly ask for? Set in 16th century Germany, it tells the story of a hard man called Rupprecht who’s making his way home after gallivanting around Mexico for a few years. He becomes enchanted by a girl who is staying in the same hotel as him, but he quickly notices that she’s carrying some serious baggage; she is possessed by demons and she practices black magic. As so often happens, this woman’s personality flaws make her seem all the more attractive, and Rupprecht decides to wander around with her for a while. She tells him that she’s searching for a former lover, and Rupprecht agrees to help her find him. Oh, and it also turns out that her old lover is either an angel or devil. (We’re never made entirely sure which side this ‘Fiery Angel’ is on.) At this point, Rupes’s compliance makes you start to wonder whether it was by natural or infernal means that he was so enchanted; shouldn’t he be taking this as his cue to tell Renata to fuck off?

Well, they wander around a while looking for the Fiery Angel, but Renata gets disheartened and decides that the only way to find him will be to ask the devil for help. Renata doesn’t want that kind of guilt on her conscience though, so she convinces Rupprecht that he should sell his soul so that she can find out where her boyfriend is. Rupprecht is a hard man and everything, but he clearly gets off on kinky sado-masochistic power struggles. The more he can debase himself for the sake of his lady, the stronger his mental ‘gasm shall be! He offers his soul to Satan and actually kisses the Dark Lord’s ringpiece in order to cuckold himself; what a creep!

There are several other twists and turns in their complicated relationship, but eventually Renata runs away on Rupprecht. After a bit of moping around by himself, he bumps into Faust and Mephistopheles and wanders around with them for a while. When he finally stumbles across Renata again, she has joined a nunnery, changed her name to sister Maria, and she’s gotten herself accused of witchcraft. (Typical, right?) She is of course guilty of witchery, but one gets the impression that the reasons she is being charged have less to do with her actions and more to do with the fact that nunneries are mad places full of mad people. The whole thing very quickly turns into a Devils of Loudun situation, and Renata is sentenced to death. Rupprecht tries to rescue her, but things don’t really go according to his plans.

That’s the basic plot of it, but there’s a tonne of cool bits that I’ve left out. Rupprecht attends a witches’ Sabbath, he spends time with Cornelius Agrippa and Johann Weyer, he performs ceremonial black magic and summons demons, and Renata and he have a tonne of kinky sex. (Ok, so we don’t get the juicy details, but judging by the way they act with eachother and the fact that Rupprecht claims that Renata wanted to do more than just regular inny-outty, we can assume that no door was left unopened!) One interesting feature of the text is the fact that although this is a novel about witchcraft and magic, it is also very much a piece of historical fiction. At no point in the book does anything happen that might not actually be explained in real life. Perhaps the most curious thing that occurs is that Renata knows Rupprecht’s name before he introduces himself, but I’m sure you can imagine 100 different ways that a person might find out the name of another guest at the same hotel as them.

Despite the fact that it is mentioned in neither Colin Wilson’s foreword in the Spearman edition nor Lachman’s afterword, it turns out that this book, particularly the last few chapters, is actually largely based on a true story. In 1749, a nun named Renata Maria Saengen von Massau was one of the last women in Germany to be executed for the crime of witchcraft. (She died in 1749, but The Fiery Angel is set over 200 years earlier; I don’t think any dates are specifically mentioned, but Cornelius Agrippa, who dies at the end of the book, actually died in 1535.) I found two different accounts of the real Renata’s life in my library. One is from Robbin’s Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. This is a rather sympathetic account that suggests that poor Sister Renata was a victim of mass hysteria. The other account of her life that I read was in Montague Summers‘ book, The Geography of Witchcraft. Monty was fully convinced that this woman was indeed a vile Satanist, and his account is even more fanciful than Bryusov’s.

Despite their different standpoints, Summers and Robbins both present the same basic story. Sister Renata had entered a nunnery when she was about 19 years old. She spent the last 15 of her 50 years in the nunnery as the subprioress. Everything was going fine in her life until a girl named Cecilia Pistorini started throwing fits in order to gain entry into the convent. Cecilia believed her hallucinations and spasms were messages from God, and she thought that this should allow her to skip through the novitiate stage of becoming a nun. Renata wasn’t convinced, and she suggested that the girl might have been putting it all on. Cecilia remembered this, and when she eventually became a nun, she convinced herself and others that Sister Renata was a witch. As she was dying, another senile old hag of a nun claimed that Renata had bewitched her, and this forced to the prioress of the convent to look into the matter. Word got out, and the idea that Renata was a witch caught on with other idiot nuns in the convent. They started imagining that they had been bewitched or possessed and a bunch of them started screaming things out during mass. The more attention they got from the local priests, the more horny they became and the more they acted up. This did not look good for poor Renata. She denied all of the allegations at first, but after twenty lashes with a consecrated rawhide bullwhip, she started to remember her sins.

In Renata’s confession, she claims to have given herself to Satan when she was only 8 years old. She spent her teenage years having sex with demons and learning the craft of Satanism, and then when she was old enough, she decided to join the convent with the sole purpose of bringing it down from the inside. (It’s a bit hard to understand how the other nuns didn’t notice anything for the first 49 years that she had been there.) She claims to have ridden to the Sabbath several times a week, to have made love to the Devil on countless occasions, and to have stolen consecrated hosts with the purpose of throwing them into the toilet. The way she stole the hosts was pretty cool. Before she would go to receive communion, she would cut slits in her flesh, and when the priest would give her the communion wafer, she would sneakily stick it into the communion-shaped holes that she had carved into her own body. She did this just so she could throw the body of christ into the crapper. What a legend!

There’s an interesting part in the Verbatim Reports from Sister Renata’s trials that might have been Bryusov’s source of inspiration for the character of Rupprecht.

“Q. Was she a witch?
A. Yes.
Q. Where did she learn this and from whom?
A. A grenadier had taught her in Vienna, where she and the whole household had gone with her father during the Hungarian war.
Q. How did she meet this grenadier?
A. As happens in wartime. The grenadier had often given her bread when she was hungry, and finally he promised to teach her something.
Q. What then did this grenadier finally teach her?
A. He gave her a paper, on which all sorts of letters were written. On this paper she had to draw a circle and stand inside it. In addition, she had received a charm [Zetel] with various words on it; and if she could read these words, then she could make passers-by in the street lame and crippled.”

In The Fiery Angel, Rupprecht doesn’t meet Renata in Vienna, but he is a soldier that meets her in a time of need, and they do spend time together studying the black arts. I think it’s quite likely that Rupprecht originated as a re-imagining of the mysterious grenadier from the real Renata’s confessions.

In the book, Renata dies in Rupprecht’s arms, but the real Renata was not quite so lucky. Her judges decided to show her some leniency in her execution though, on account of the fact that she had been seduced by Satan at such a young age. She was shown the courtesy of having her head chopped off before being thrown into a barrel of burning tar. Apparently the executioner made such a clean cut that her head popped clean off her body with the first blow from his sword, and he was given a round of applause for his accuracy. Imagine a crowd of people cheering a man for decapitating a 69 year old woman.

All in all, this is a very interesting book. I found the first half dragged a little bit, but it really picks up later on. Bryusov knew his stuff when it came to witchcraft, and there are a few books mentioned in here that I am going to have to try to track down. In truth though, this book is more about the psychology of attraction than it is about black magic. Apparently the plot of the story is largely based on events from the author’s own life. He basically took the story of a love triangle that he had been involved in, chose characters from a famous witch trial to play the roles, and set the story 200 years before those people had actually lived. The result is actually deadly. I mean, as mad as it sounds, I think this book would be an enjoyable read for a person with no interest in witchcraft or demonology. For those of us who are interested in those topics, this is a must read. Five stars.

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe!

2015-12-29 23.14.10
(Card made by my wonderfully creative wife)

Were he still alive, Edgar Allan Poe would be 207 today. If you haven’t read all of his stories, stop wasting your time on my dumb blog and check them out. It would be rather difficult for me to overstate how much I love Poe. Teaching English, I’ve had to read the Tell-Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado, and Masque of the Red Death more times than I can count, and I still get excited every time I get the opportunity to go back to them. There’s so many other great tales though. The Black CatThe Imp of the Perverse, and Fall of the House of Usher are some of my other favourites, but he wrote plenty more that are equally as brilliant.

2015-12-29 23.13.18
The pictured books are just some cheap collections I’ve picked up in the last few years. There are countless editions of Poe’s works out there, and I can’t recommend any in particular. (I will say, as I have said before, that the Complete Poetry Collection is a handy one for taking into the bathroom on a slow Sunday morning.) When I get rich, I’m going to buy a hardback edition of his collected works for my fine mahogany bookshelves. I’d also love a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination with the illustrations by Harry Clarke, but I guess shitty thrift store collections and the internet will have to suffice until I hit the big time. Anyways, Happy Birthday Edgar!!!

And just so ye know; I’m right in the middle of the busiest part of my course at the moment, and this blog might get a little slow for the next month or so, but don’t fret; it won’t be long until I get to put down the textbooks and take up some quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore!

Here is just some of the utter garbage that I’ve picked up recently:2016-01-13 22.56.47