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The Gothic World of Simon Raven
by Howard Watson

"Last night," said Adam Ogilivie, "I dreamt I had two pricks."

The World of Simon RavenSo begins Simon Raven's sole novella to date, The Islands of Sorrow, where the anonymous narrator recounts a bizarre series of events told to him by his friend over two bottles of Montrachet 1947 and a great deal of excellent port. Ogilvie recalls a period when he was stationed in Venice, shortly after the end of the Second World War, where he learns of what appears to be a mere colony of lepers, but as with many of the Captain's tales, turns into something far more sinister and disturbing, according to a learned leech, by the name of Jacobo Messalino:

From the rather scant evidence, Messer Messalino deduces that the disease was contracted from the contaminated waters of a Well in the Naxian Acropolis, which tradition maintains has its supply from a Spring where the Lady Ariadne had dalliance with the Divine Bacchus. The Spring was choked and diverted during the erection of an earlier fort, thus insulting Bacchus and his mistress (later his bride). The waters of the Well and those that drink them were therefore plagued thenceforth with the Curse of the God. The Well is intermittently sullied by some deposit, being consumed with the liquid, eats away human flesh.

Meanwhile, Ogilvie's medical officer, Lieutenant Richard Fotheringay, becomes enamoured with a beautiful nurse, Formosa, who works on the isle of the lepers, which serves to draw the foreigners into deeper waters:

"Ten corpses," said Adam to me in the Grill Room, "ten white cadavers hanging on a wall ... which (or who), as Francesco now made plain, would wake up. Quite soon. And we'd all better be gone when they do so because in the chagrin of waking from their rest they were capable of being very disagreeable to intruders ... "

The Islands of Sorrow is but one of several of Simon Raven's books to weave a magical tale from the supernatural and the gothic. Hardly surprising for one who has been a long-time admirer of The World of Simon RavenMR James and E Nesbit, but it is the Captain's ability to bring forth the body as well as the mystery of the dark side that can truly enthral and disturb. His taste for the gothic was well known amongst his fellow authors, the late Angela Carter once started a rumour that the Captain had once tasted human flesh!

This fascination with the occult is evident from as early as his third novel, Doctors Wear Scarlet, which revolves around Dr Goodrich, a don at a Cambridge college, who has plans for one of his more promising students, Dickie Fountain. Goodrich intends to marry his daughter, Penelope, to the young man. Unfortunately, Fountain is cold and unresponsive to his future spouse, preferring to indulge the less pleasant aspects of his, otherwise, winning personality. Apart from displaying a penchant for sado-masochistic behaviour, he is also impotent--flaws exploited, when he falls into the clutches of a woman he meets on his travels in Greece. His friend, Anthony Seymour, decides to rescue him, but the journey is fraught with difficulty:

How long we walked I shall never know. I was conscious only of the vicious lashing sleet, of the agony of the wind, and of the brave figure of Roddy, moving very slowly, but always moving in front of me. But after a time, minutes or hours, we came to some steps, broad and graceful, which led to a door in a stone wall. Roddy fumbled with a large ring-handle, then flung the door open with a crash; and beyond the door, in the white light of a storm lantern, we saw a woman crouched against a wall and a figure lying on the floor wrapped in blankets. The figure was very still, and its white face stared straight up at the ceiling, sightless and immobile, like a mask of death.

Eventually, Fountain is rescued and resumes his career in academe. Yet the damage has been done and Penelope knows it:

"What is there to forgive?" I find no cause for blame, Anthony. Only for sorrow ... "

After this novel, the Captain concentrated on the series of novels, which would constitute Alms for Oblivion, which some The World of Simon Ravenconsider to be superior to Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. They would have languished out of print, if Vintage, the literary imprint of Random House UK, had not reprinted them in omnibus form, after the success of Michael Barber's excellent biography.

Having completed the series with The Survivors, he returned to the supernatural or 'Gothic romance' with The Roses of Picardie. Displaying his regard for Balzac, he creates 'an entire world of his own' to emulate that of his literary hero.

The 'Roses of Picardie' are a set of beautiful rubies, looted during the first crusade, by a hereditament of the Comtes de la Tour d'Abbeville and brought to France. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the jewels are believed cursed. The possessor of the gems may become a person of great wealth and repute, but they will be tormented, if not destroyed, by tragedy or disease. Through the indiscretions of a Countess in the seventeenth century, they fall into the hands of a Huguenot family and are seemingly lost forever, until an article in a French newspaper catches the eye of one Jacquiz Helmut.

Early this very afternoon, a patrol of police engaged in enforcement of the summer regulations of urban hygiene was scandalised to encounter the battered body of a middle-aged man lying concealed among the plastic containers of refuse in the Impasse Diane, a mews just off the Rue Cardinale in Aix-en-Provence.

Helmut is a don at Lancaster College, Cambridge. Roses of PicardieHe dislikes his job and is in a loveless marriage. He believes he can find the necklace, which would be a fulfilment of a lifetime's thwarted ambition, as well as saving his reputation, sullied after years of failure. His ace in the hole is Marigold, his wife, who is a descendant of the self-same Huguenot family who inherited the treasure so long ago.

In Crete, Balbo Blakeney, a retired scientist, also with aristocratic antecedents, teaches English. Through a pupil he spots a clue which also sets him on the trail of the rubies, starting in an abandoned city, where he meets a hermit, who craves, ostensibly, human companionship.

Balbo looked at the morose and degraded piebald dog, which had apparently returned to the sanctuary unnoticed while he was talking with Stavros and was now emerging from it once more through the hole in the screen. "It keeps its bones there," Stavros had said. And now it was carrying one of them out. Not without difficulty; for the bone, a shinbone by the look of it, kept getting stuck. Where, thought Balbo vaguely, would the dog have found a shinbone? Too long for a goat and too short for a cow. Balbo, though a bio-chemist, had once done a short course on the anatomy of mammals in preparation for his wartime duties, which had at first comprised other matters than plague rats; and so he could with confidence pronounce that the shinbone, which the dog was now at last carrying down the nave, was too long for a goat or a sheep, too short for a horse or a cow. The right length for a calf then? Perhaps ... except that one slight bulge, just below where the shin would have fitted the knee-joint, stirred Balbo's distant memories of his wartime course and produced a flickering vision in his mind of an old man in a white-coat who was pointing with a long white wand at the knee-joint of a human skeleton.

Cannibals in literature did not start with Thomas A Harris! Apart from an array of characters including vampires, revenants, dons and spies, there is also a species of rats, bred as part of Britain's secret projects to destroy Germany, who have a taste for dead human flesh. Amongst his many works, this particular novel displays, to full effect, Raven's 'outrageously fertile imagination' and elegant way with words.

With September Castle, this vein of 'Gothic romance' September Castlecontinues. Sub-titled A Tale of Love, the plot concerns the circumstances leading to the death of the Lady Xanthippe, a Greek princess of the thirteenth century, held hostage by a Villehardouin overlord to ensure her father's good behaviour. The spirit of Xanthippe at the Castle of Arques in Northern France haunts the present day: a spirit in torment, hiding an unsavoury reputation in which reside clues to untold riches.

A telegram arrives one day at Ivan Barraclough's home in the Mani in Greece, sent by an old friend Ptolemaeos Tunne, from his equally remote residence in the Cambridge fens. It bears three words: TIME TO GO. Tunne is the catalyst and instigator to the events that follow, but not necessarily the controller. Barraclough will follow Tunne's instructions and trace Lady Xanthippe's route across time and geography, endeavouring to discover enough clues that will lead them to the final resting place of the princess. As he begins his journey, restoration work is already scheduled for Arques. Restrictions and disturbances shall prevent them from gaining easy access to the site first. Tunne's agents in Europe have formed a rival syndicate and will do everything in their power to thwart his plans, so time is of essence. As Barraclough and others head for Arques, Tunne reveals to his mistress, Jo-Jo, the extensive preparations for this once in a lifetime opportunity:

"The great point to remember," said Ptolemaeos Tunne, "is that Ivan will follow Xanthippe's route exactly -- provided that everything goes to plan. In every single place Ivan stops he will be able to confirm that an unbroken trail leads from Ilyssos to the end of the journey -- the castle then known as Arques, later, much later, as Arques-la-Bataille, on the Norman coast. September Castle, as the poet called it in his lay. This confirmation, this reminder of the firm and continuous thread that runs from place to place all the way from Ilyssos to Dieppe, will fill him with renewed confidence for the final task."

Despite being Simon Raven's first significant commercial 'flop', it is still an exquisitely crafted novel, which failed to dampen the author's fascination with medievalism and the supernatural.

In The First Born of Egypt, the sequence of novels that The Troubadouracted as a sequel to Alms for Oblivion, with the seventh, and last, volume, The Troubadour, demonstrating how the extraordinary and absurd had become a regular feature of the author's oeuvre:

Captain the Most Honourable Marquess Canteloupe of the Aestuary of the Severn stood on Green before six horsed knights, who wore light silver body armour but whose heads were bare. Each knight was flanked, on the left, by a dismounted page, who supported a shield with escutcheon and carried a helm with crest. By each page was planted in the ground to his knight a lance with pennant.

With Raven's death in 2001, the time has come to reassess his debt to English letters in the late twentieth century. Never part of the literati, he was always an outsider and his work demonstrates that most aptly. Before his sad demise in Sutton's Hospital, the retirement home for former pupils of Charterhouse public school, virtually all of his books were out of print. Thanks to House of Stratus, the First Born of Egypt and his other 'gothic' novels are once again available to old and new fans alike.


House of Stratus has brought many of Simon Raven's novels back into print.

Search for books by Simon Raven at (US) and the Internet Bookshop or (UK). If you shop using these links infinity plus benefits too.

Howard Watson's The World of Simon Raven was published by Prion Books in July 2002 (ISBN: 1853754935)

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© Howard Watson 2001, 2003
This piece was first published, in slightly different form, in Dark Horizons (2001)

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