So 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:
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:
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 MR 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:
Eventually, Fountain is rescued and resumes his career in academe. Yet the damage has been done and Penelope knows it:
After this novel, the Captain concentrated on the series of novels, which would constitute Alms for Oblivion, which some consider 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.
Helmut is a don at Lancaster College, Cambridge. He 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.
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' continues. 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:
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 acted 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:
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.