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Monday, 25 July 2011

Simulacra in fiction

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the mystery writer John Dickson Carr (1906–1977) frequently used Fortean sub-themes in his novels. For the most part, these involved things like witchcraft, spiritualism or Egyptology, which were popular subjects at the time he was writing in the mid-twentieth century. However, I've just come across a much more obscure piece of Forteana in one of his books -- an example of what Fortean Times calls a simulacrum, or a natural object in the shape of something else (in this case, a human figure).

The book, dating from 1950, is called Night at the Mocking Widow, and was written (as about half of Carr's novels were) under the pseudonym of Carter Dickson. The illustration on the left is from the first edition of the book -- my own copy is a later paperback reprint which has a much less dramatic cover! The story is set in the fictional village of Stoke Druid, which is supposed to lie just off the main road between Glastonbury and Wells in Somerset. The most prominent feature of the village is a rocky outcrop called "The Mocking Widow", which is the simulacrum in question. The following description is taken from the caption of a fictional postcard in the novel:
The Mocking Widow, Stoke Druid. This stone figure, forty feet high, thirty-eight feet round the base and eight feet round the head, stands in an open meadow below the High Street. Its name is perhaps early Christian in origin, derived from the Biblical story of the Cities of the Plain: tradition stating that there once lived here a woman so wicked she was turned to stone. The eyes are each large enough to contain a human head. A visitor in the lower High Street, looking north-eastwards, can easily discern that look of mockery and cruelty which has given the figure its name.
As usual with the Fortean elements in Carr's work, the simulacrum isn't critical to the central mystery, but just there to add a touch of drama to the story. It's also fair to say that Night at the Mocking Widow isn't one of Carr's best books -- at the latest count, I've read 23 of his novels (either written under his own name or as Carter Dickson) and at least 20 of them are better than this one! On the other hand, none of the others features a simulacrum. Enigmatic stone figures of this type occasionally crop up in science fiction, where they inevitably turn out to be the product of lost civilizations or ancient astronauts, but this is the first time I've ever come across one as background scenery in an ordinary mystery novel.

8 comments:

Forteana said...

Looking him up on Wikipedia I'm surprised to discover he's American. I figured he was English based on the excerpt. Could you could come up with a top five list of books involving Satanists?

Andrew said...

Carr's nationality is confusing! He was of Scottish descent but born and raised in America, then went to university in Paris where he met his future wife who was English. I think he spent the rest of his life in England, and most of his novels are set here. His writing style is what they call "mid-Atlantic"!

I would only recommend Carr if you like old-fashioned puzzle-style mysteries, and don't mind reading stuff that was written in the 1930s and 40s for an audience of that time. If you don't like early Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie, you won't like Carr! Also, as I said in the two posts, the "Fortean" elements, where they're present, are very much window-dressing and not the main focus of the stories.

Not sure why you mention Satanism -- the only story that comes to mind is The Crooked Hinge, mentioned in the earlier post. Of the other stories mentioned in that post, He Who Whispers, The Reader is Warned and Till Death Do Us Part are all absolutely first rate. Other excellent but non-Fortean stories are The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death in Five Boxes, The Ten Teacups (aka The Peacock Feather Murders) and The Judas Window (aka The Crossbow Murder).

Forteana said...

Thanks Andrew. According to Wikipedia: "In early spring 1963, while living in Mamaroneck, New York, Carr suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He continued to write using one hand, and for several years contributed a regular column of mystery and detective book reviews, "The Jury Box", to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Carr eventually moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and he died there of lung cancer in 1977." I suspect he must have had family in Greenville- doesn't strike me as the place he would choose to retire to. I also found this interesting: "With Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Carr wrote Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the 1954 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes. He was also honored by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by being asked to write the biography for the legendary author. The book, The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, appeared in 1949 and received generally favorable reviews for its vigor and entertaining style."
I guess I mentioned Satanists because I remember you mentioning them and I was talking with someone the other day about how much I enjoyed those type movies growing up; The Omen, Race with the Devil, To the Devil a Daughter, etc. I figured you might be a bit of an expert on occult fiction and could point me to some good ones. HaHa! But if the books are like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle no thanks- don't think I could make it through 'em. I'm interested in what Conan Doyle had to say about Spiritualism and the Cottingley Fairies- not Sherlock Holmes.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the info. I had heard about the collaboration between Adrian Conan Doyle and JDC -- I think I read somewhere that they really didn't get on well together and had a lot of arguments! On the Satanism side, there was (and still is) a blog called "The Groovy Age of Horror" -- it's linked in my right-hand column under "Other blogs I like". The blog has drifted onto other topics in recent years, but if you go back to the early posts, there were a lot of reviews of over-the-top horror novels from the 1960s and 70s that make interesting reading!

Andrew said...

Having just looked at the The Groovy Age of Horror, it's trickier to navigate than the last time I had a browse through it. You have to click on where it says "[+/-] LABELS", then scroll down to the items prefixed with SUBJ. There's lots of highbrow stuff like "Cults and covens", "Voodoo and zombies" etc...

Forteana said...

Awesome! Thanks for the heads up. Looks to be a very cool site.

Peni R. Griffin said...

Carr is considered one of the Golden Age Grand Masters of Mystery; a little behind Christie and Sayers, ahead of just about everybody else, and the absolute king of the Locked Room mystery. He is more likely to evoke a Fortean atmosphere then the two Grandes Dames, which makes him excellent reading when confined to bed with a low-grade fever.

As a genre, the mystery has to eschew supernatural and speculative solutions in favor of natural, materialistic ones as a matter of fair play. The satisfaction of a Fortean, supernatural, or low fantasy story is the sense of contact with the unknown and unknowable, while the satisfaction of a puzzle mystery lies in matching wits with the author and attempting to solve the mystery alongside the detective. The mystery can invoke a Fortean atmosphere in the set-up and trappings, but whereas in the Fortean worldview Chaos reigns, at the end of a mystery Order is restored.

Personally, I find that it is in the nature of Fortean fiction to be less satisfactory than Fortean fact. One of the uses of narrative is to impose order onto the chaos of human life, allowing us to see its elements more clearly. It's very, very hard to write fiction that provides story resolution alongside the thrilling sense of bungee-jumping through the Universe that is gained when reading about weird things that become more elusive the more one tries to investigate them; that defy and confuse categorization - and that is what Forteana are all about.

Andrew said...

Thanks Peni -- I think I agree with you, but I hadn't thought about it that way before. In real life, I love reading about mysteries that don't have logical explanations (i;e. forteana), whereas in fiction I want my mysteries to have logical solutions! Forteana in the background, as in the various Carr novels I mentioned, is fine as long as the solution to the crime turns out to be completely rational (even if you couldn't see it until the very end). Mysteries that have supernatural solutions are an absolute cop-out and should be banned -- I touched on that in an earlier post called Voodoo recycling.