Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Perfume of Egypt and Other Weird Stories by Charles Webster Leadbeater (1911)

Source: L.W.Currey
The First item to properly review on the blog is a curious little book, issued in 1911 as a departure from a steady stream of pamphlets and studies on all manner of occult subjects, issued by an author taking a break from writing such books as "Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance" and "The Smaller Buddhist Catechism" to produce a volume of pure fiction.

Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934) was a former Church of England priest who was snared up by the Spiritist movement, became convinced of his own clairvoyant abilities and ended up being "fired" from the Theosophical society because he had advised growing boys that masturbation was good for you. Readmitted into the Society a year later, in 1907, he continued to be seen as an important figure of the movement, dying of a heart attack coupled with diabetes in March of 1934.

I do not wish to engage in any sort of psychoanalysis of the man, but will simply state that the summary of his life seems far more interesting then a volume of fiction, written by a man with supposed expert knowledge of the hereafter.

Indeed, this seems to be the only fiction title in Leadbeater's bibliography and as a consequence, the tales presented herein are not very well developed or refined.

The title story "The Perfume of Egypt", details how a man once ran across a most peculiar smell while traveling in Egypt, which is said to be connected to the supernatural. The descriptions of his discovery thereof and the protests of his Egyptian acquaitance when he wishes to acquire some of the stuff for his own use work well, but the bulk of the story is actually a dead simple "warning/help offered by a Ghost" story which, in even less refined form, has seen much contempt. Think of how many times one has seen a variety on "having a conversation with someone who is later revealed, shock of shocks and horror of horrors, to have been dead". Nothing else. No ghastly revelation, nothing whatsoever disturbing or incredible. Just the fact one has just conversed with someone and it has since turned out that someone was a ghost. The story, if it must be summarised further, deals with the narrator visiting his family friend and, with the aid of a piece of paper handed to him by a ghost, they manage to find his friend's ancestor's hidden treasure which will allow the narrator's friend to be able to marry. A refference is made to something which the ghost wishes to be done in complete secrecy to atone for his sins and, sadly, Leadbeater thinks that concealing the one possibly interesting thing in the second part of the tale will somehow equal excitement. Sadly, the intriguing sounding title of the story and the whole book seems like little more then a cheat, though I suppose "The hidden room with a skull and some gold in it in Fernleigh" wouldn't have nearly as much punch.

Following this story, as most of the others, there is a short, didactic discussion by Leadbeater on the thoughts and motiffs of the ghost/s in question, which help to further drive any suspense or feeling of unease the story might have evoked firmly into the ground.

The second story, "The Forsaken Temple", is the first time when one notices how underdeveloped certain of these stories are. In this case a teacher is in the habbit of using two choristers who happen to be twins as mediums for his seances. Then one night he and one of the boys have a shared hallucination of some large Egyptian temple and a voice says the boy must not be mesmerised. And that's it. The vivid imagery of the temple is built up just to be of no use whatsoever, and the only point of this all seems to be to persuade the story's narrator to forbid one of the boys to take part in a session with a hypnotist. No reason is ever given as to why the boys must "not be mesmerised", and the author, be it Leabdeater or the narrator, never chose to even speculate on one.

"The Major's Promise" is all the worse for it's nauseating mediocrity in that the author claims it is a reworking of a story from Catherine Crowe's "The Night Side of Nature" (1848). I have not read this book yet, but it seems astounding that Leadbeater would run across this story and then endeavour to retell it and yet leave it so utterly, horribly tedious and predictable, not to mention lacking in thrills of any kind. In short, while on a hunting trip, a Major promises his companions to catch up with them, but falls in a well and dies and as he does so, his companions hear church bells and see him coming on board their boat, but, contrary to all expectations, he is not there ! I have to wonder about the quality of the original work if this is an improved version, or indeed wonder how such a simple story needed or could be "retold".

"A Test of Courage" is once again, half a story if that. The narrator randomly hears himself called in sleep and, leaving his body, ascends into the air, lands on a nearby island, sees a ghost that looks like his mother (but isn't, according to Leadbeater(s speculation in the addendum) to then have a bunch of dinosaurs pass in front of him, doing nothing, until one spits red goop all over him and leaves. At the end he finds a feather. The imagery atthe begining is good, despite the narrator abandoning the desire to describe the passing monstrosities immediately, and rather annoyingly, though he at least describes the last one in more detail. Still there is little rhyme or reason as to why any of this happened.

Following yet another didactic mini lecture by Leabdeater, we get the supposed writer of the book (written as a collection of "true" experiences by a fictional overall-narrator, however this is so confusingly executed that refferencing just which narrator is speaking when would be far too confusing) to introduce his friend the bishop to us, so he can recount two horrifically tedious stories from the bishops life. In "A Triple Warning", the ghost of the Bishop's father appears to him as he is dying, you guessed it, three times. That is all. In "The Concealed Confession", the Bishop finds the totally beneficient ghost of a priest, who asks him to destroy a written confession he had left in the house before dying. The bishop does so and despite it being about 80 years since the confession was written, and thusly all the concerned persons would be long dead by then, we never actually get to hear what it was about. How mundane this seems when compared to Henry S. Whitehead, also a priest in a Christian Church, who , apart from his many tales of voodoo hauntings in the Virginian Islands, also wrote a very similar story called "The Fireplace", which involved a dead body, a burning building and some actual cleverness of writing.

"Jagannath: A Tale of Hidden India" is Leadbeater giving a terribly brief account of the worship of Jagganath, an Indian God fashioned into the shape of a tree stump. Despite getting some of the details right or at least getting very close to doing so, there is one major fault, besides the story being a handfull of pages long and not being an actual story, but a short "lesson", and that is the fact that Leadbeater claims the deity is a malignant, destructive, human sacrifices requiring earth elemental, which is not true at all, as even the most basic research will show. The image of the wooden image of the god hopping out of the temple by giant leaps is one that does not lend itself to much suspense either, aside from apparently also being false.

"The Baron's Room" is apparently not Leadbeater's story at all, but a story recounted by Madame Blavatsky at some point in the past. Seeing as it has a much more story-like structure I am inclined to believe it. Still, it is a typical "people venture into infamous haunted house for the night on purpose" territory, and very very mundane. The spirit itself takes the time to take on the physical appearance of one of the two adventurers, just so he could run about the room like someone who had way too much coffee, only to then slit his throat (again, as he commited suicide this way originally) in front of the narrator, to then leave him completely unharmed until morning when he leaves. Seems like a rather a waste of time if you ask me.

The final and longest story is "Saved by a Ghost". This is basically little else then an adventure story of a father, his son and their slave-turned freedman assistant running through the jungle, trying to avoid a dangerous rebel and his forces while he plans to sack a nearby town. The town doesn't even get sacked as they alert the authorities, and really the supernatural in this case seems tacked on. At one point, Martinez, the rebel general, demands the narrator and his father and brother renounce christianity by stepping on a cross and swear alleigance to him. Not thinking at all for the safety of a seven year old boy, the twelve year old narrator yells at his little brother not to give in and to remember a story of a martyr girl they heard not too long before and thus gets his brother killed. Instead of being guilt ridden for his stupidity, the boy ends up glad he did it and when he is being tortured by Martinez's men, his brother's ghost shows up, not to provide any sort of help, but to just show up ad leave. At the very end he stops his brother from killing Martinez,but at that point both brothers had short countless South American natives before they got kidnapped so there is not much of a "salvation" through supernatural means to be seen here.

The most "notable" part of the story is the horrible racism the narrator displays towards South American native peoples and people of mixed ancestry. He also writes how sometimes, people of mixed ancestry will exhibit the worst traits of both parent races, a line that Henry S. Whitehead also used in his works. However Whitehead , despite his tendency to reffer to native beliefs as "stupidness" and display their utter powerlesness before the might of the Christian Church, was not only able to weave an entertaining tale with actual suspense and a rightly weird atmosphere. He certainly never wrote of black people as Leadbeater wrote of South American "indians", "Next came the Red Indians — the earlier lords of the soil; of these many tribes had adopted a kind of squalid semi-civilisation, but many others were still savages untamed and untamable — men who regarded work of any kind as the deepest degradation" and then a line so horribly, jaw droppingly arrogant and patronising that when I read it first I had to stop and reread it again slowly just to make sure I was actually reading correctly, namely that "It will no doubt be incomprehensible to many of us that a half-naked savage can entertain any other feeling than envy for our superior civilisation, however much he may dislike us".

This flaw helps to make the only truly interesting story in the collection rather hard to stomach at first for anyone who doesn't consider forced seizure of land and forced unpaid labour in mines to be a source of hatred at all because our culture is just so gosh darned wonderful.

Overall, the book itself leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the stories are underdeveloped, the supernatural is presented in a rather low key, mundane way and there are few moments of actual chills or atmosphere to speak of. It seems Leadbeater never wrote another work of fiction after publishing this book, and I can't say I am all too distraught over it.

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