‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’
This opening sentence from H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature almost sounds like a decree, echoing through everything else that he said. It encapsulates his relentless style, relishing human vulnerability, overwhelming emotional nuance with a scrutinising gaze while invoking the primordial to deny any hope of contradiction. It is perhaps telling that fear and not desire, for instance, is identified as mankind’s seminal emotion. Or if not desire, then why not ecstasy as Arthur Machen might have suggested?
Alan Moore’s Providence is an exploration of the modern mythologies of fear, tracing its many apparitions in the lineaments of Lovecraft’s vision. It is a subterranean voice reverberating through endless tunnels. It is Lovecraft’s imagined Looking Glass. Behind the distorting mirror the cosmos yawns, populated by Science’s nightmares, promising infinite fascination. It’s the fascination of the child who braves the cold to wonder at the stars. For the fear that permeates Lovecraft’s writing is not simply dread but is compelled by this fascination. Providence captures the perversity at the heart of Lovecraft; the fact that there is a suggestion of seduction and pleasure in unearthing the forbidden, of being led inexorably into unreason, descending the revelatory spiral to finally commune with and be unhinged by alien intelligences deep below.
A subterranean body stirs. After his lover’s suicide a reluctant hero sets out on a journey, however is he a detective or a somnambulist, a self-hypnotist perpetually returning to or searching for the scene of a crime? Yet what kind of crime could have been committed? A book threatens to be written. Secret societies linger like dormant contagions. Corrupted lineages hint at impossible couplings and births. Boundaries are unwittingly trespassed upon. Taboo and Transgression, the thresholds of both gods and demons haunt the margins of the protagonist’s initiation.
Is it a dream of finding love that lures our protagonist into his own Underworld again and again, descending the cellar stairs as in a recurring nightmare to speak with the custodians of the outer thresholds? Is it love that he hopes to salvage from fear, and through fascination transform fear into love, and death into life, in an act of forbidden alchemy, a homosexual twinning and doubling? We find a double of the waking world in dream’s mirror. The Other distorted within the glass. And what if we find that the mirror turns and keeps turning back and forth? Providence itself is a dreamt double of Lovecraft’s vision, refracting through geometries of alien memory, opening up ironic parallels and cosmic ironies. Space is folded by analogy, the chapel on the horizon suddenly encroaches and the dimensions of memory are warped. A star has fallen and contaminated the land.
Providence is also the memory of a land imagined and dreamed. Providence is the mapping of a myth … the geology of accursed and hidden strata. A land imagined as nightmare. This nightmare, this unease is traced in the land’s history, the lacunae and concealed ancestries of a space, of trees branching into mutations, hybrid embryos stirring in the fruit of the boughs, roots writhing beneath our feet. Here Lovecraft’s women are bestial creatures stalking caverns. Here witches cradle infant familiars and inhuman intelligences are accidentally awakened. Yet the bestial in that land is a sign of something returning; an atavistic remembering where fear can become a form of knowledge … of gnosis … of finding in fear’s heart a secret fascination; a mirror that turns from dream into waking if we dare touch it, for in dream the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is love, and the oldest and most secret kind of love is love of the Other.
This text copyright 2017 Stephen J. Clark
A book’s creation is a story in itself. Perhaps when The Satyr was first published in 2010 there was something in the air at the time, as coincidentally “Austin Osman Spare: Fallen Visionary”, an exhibition at the Cuming Museum in London, opened later that year. A prominent retrospective, it brought about a welcome re-examination of the artist’s work. At the time commentators such as the publisher Robert Ansell (of Fulgur Limited) and the author Alan Moore emphasised the importance of thinking of Spare’s work in relation to his beliefs, ideas and methods, as one might of William Blake or Arthur Machen. It was indicative of a resurgent interest in tracing the links between art and magic, and a re-evaluation too of a tradition within British cultural history, neglected in contemporary criticism, of the supernatural and the imaginary.
Since its release by Ex Occidente Press I’ve felt that The Satyr deserved further development than the original publishing schedule allowed, having agreed to write and illustrate the book within a month. So when the suggestion of this omnibus arose it offered the opportunity to refine the novella, not only in a stylistic sense but in a way that resonated to a greater depth with Austin Spare’s life and ethos. Rather than applying Spare’s ideas with any didactic intent I wanted to discover and explore them in the process of imagining the story, giving its poetry the chance to ferment.
As a result I’ve finally been able to provide a solid conclusion rather than what, in the first edition, I felt amounted to a rushed sketch. I’ve developed other aspects to the story too that I always thought were there all along, that were latent, waiting to be explored, so there are additions that resonate with Austin Spare’s mythology further, making for a richer reading experience. These changes, as a consequence, alter certain emphases and help to integrate and consolidate the themes that run throughout the sinews of The Satyr.
Rather than perpetuating the idea of the artist as a supernaturally-gifted genius I preferred in this homage to remember the human being behind the legend by implying his flaws and thereby celebrating his uniqueness and humbleness. While intersecting with recorded events in Spare’s life the story also engages with the mythology of a time and place, tracing its own secret poetic life through that ruined history.
A new edition required fresh illustrations and I executed the drawings in bolder lines to lend emphasis within the tighter frame of this book, superseding the landscape format of the earlier version. In some ways, as the style of drawing differs from the approach I would instinctively take it seems fitting that it is supposed to be the work of another, the sorceress Marlene.
The Bestiary of Communion followed in 2011, having again agreed to complete it to a demanding schedule. The closing story “My Mistress, the Multitude” was published in a rough form as a consequence, so I welcome its replacement here with the definitive version entitled “The Feast of the Sphinx”. While “The Horned Tongue” and “The Lost Reaches” have had minor stylistic improvements here, ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’, has not only been renamed but largely rewritten too, substantially developing a character that originally appeared only as an impression on the margins of the drama. As a result the focus of the story has shifted considerably, delivering the conclusion I always felt the story deserved.
“The River Dreams of Ruins” (Art by Stephen J. Clark)
While working on “The River Dreams of Ruins”, the art for the book’s boards I’d intended to focus solely on the motifs of The Satyr, yet as the painting progressed I realised it had begun to echo the entire collection. The partly-concealed female form that adorns the book’s spine could just as easily be the Countess from “The Feast of the Sphinx” as well as Marlene. And the host of faces that emerge from the flames on the rear panel may be any of the migrant spirits that pass through the tales in these pages. The river depicted could be the Thames of Hughes’ apocalyptic visions, the Danube of Marlene’s dreams or the Vltava that runs through Nemec’s nightmares. There are ruins and dreams and rivers running through all of these stories.
While The Satyr and Other Tales partly serves to salvage these stories, I feel bringing them together in one volume has proved rewarding in another sense, inspired as they all are by shared themes and settings rooted in a mythology of both World Wars.
On The Satyr and Other Tales:
“Stephen J Clark is not only an original visionary artist, he is a writer of strange romances in the decadent macabre tradition of the Yellow Nineties: elegant, bizarre, full of curious occult learning and louche bohemian characters. He is a modest gentleman, otherwise his work would be blazing more brightly in the literary firmament. This book will adorn your shelves, where it will be at ease in shadowy converse with your copies of A Rebours, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great God Pan.”
– Mark Valentine, author of The Collected Connoisseur and The Nightfarers.
The Satyr and Other Tales is available to buy from: Swan River Press
All artwork and text copyright 2017 Stephen J. Clark