Friday, March 26, 2010

Robert Hugh Benson -- A Mirror of Shalott, The Necromancers, and beyond

The edition I'm reading is from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, with the greenish cover, below. The top reddish cover art makes no sense to me!

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, 1912



I haven't blogged in awhile, been too busy on Facebook and even Twitter. Gotta figure out how to seamlessly communicate via all three means. As one of Blessed Alberione's lay daughters, it behooves me to get up to speed with all this stuff. Especially since now that I am retired, in theory I have more time than ever to do my own communicating.

I just finished The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson, and recommend it as the most exciting of his books that I've read yet. Benson (1871-1914), was ordained a priest of the Church of England by his father, then Archbishop of Canterbury, then converted to Catholicism at the age of 33, becoming first a priest and later a monsignor. He enjoyed a life of priestly ministry that included a prolific writing career.

I read his book Come Rack, Come Rope about the Catholic martyrs in Elizabethan England years ago, as a teenager, before I had ever heard of the author. Then when I started getting interested in Catholic SF and fantasy, I heard of his apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World. But my introduction as an adult to his work was his two short story collections, The Light Invisible and A Mirror of Shalott. These are variously categorized as "science fiction", "fantasy", or "horror". I have lost my copy of The Light Invisible, so I don't remember much about it. A Mirror of Shalott is a series of short stories in a Canterbury Tales type of format -- a group of priests meet each night after dinner, and in turn tell the most uncanny experience of their priestly life. As with The Canterbury Tales, the stories are of uneven impact, but I am re-reading them at the moment and can testify that the opening story, "Monsignor Maxwell's Tale", is a doozy. It concerns a devout man of faith whose brother, a lukewarm Catholic, is contemplating apostacizing so as to make life more comfortable with his fiancee. What the brother does in response, and the ultimate effect of his action, makes for a chilling little tale about the nature of faith. The more significant faith is to the reader's own life, the more chilling the tale.

That last is true for all of Benson's writings. He is not much interested in external plot, but in the stirrings and workings of the soul as described by classic Catholic spiritual writers. St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, St. Francis de Sales and the other giants of Christian spirituality would be right at home with the interior lives of Benson's protagonists.

The Necromancers is the most exciting of the books I have read because it is more plot driven than even his Lord of the World, a book which attempts to describe the events of the Book of Revelation a whole century before the Left Behind books take their stab at it. The Necromancers is about a young man of the upper classes in 19th century Britain, Laurie Baxter, who falls in love with the grocer's daughter, Amy Nugent. Laurie is a recent Catholic convert, with the enthusiasm and inexperience that often characteristizes those who "swim the Tiber" as adults. His friend and near-sister (through adoption), Maggie Deronnais, a convent-bred cradle Catholic, suspects that his conversion was more a matter of aesthetics than spirituality.

The book opens as Maggie and Laurie's mother sit conversing about Laurie's state of mind as they wait for him to return from Amy Nugent's funeral. Although they had both been opposed to the match, both women recognize that Laurie was head over heels in love with Amy, and worry about his future. The very next day, a neighbor, Mrs. Stapleton, comes to tea, and tells the gathered party with enthusiasm about her recent foray into spiritualism through her meetings with and patronage of Mr. Vincent, a leading medium of the day.

That sets the stage for an exploration of grief, of the desire to re-establish connection with loved ones who have died, and of the philosophical possibilities, from skepticism to belief to obsession, raised by participation in the occult arts.

This is really a terrific piece of fiction, although those who are used to the splashier techniques of special-effects driven horror (whether in film or fiction) may be disappointed. The drama is that of the movements and feelings of the interior life.

The Catholic Church forbids its adherents to become involved in spiritualism and in attempts to contact the dead through any means other than prayer directed to God within the boundaries of the communion of saints. Benson provides a decent explanation of the rationale behind that prohibition. Is Mr. Vincent a fraud or is he for real? The book suggests that either way, Laurie is in for it.

2 comments:

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