2nd June 2012
Every so often you come across a passage in a book that jumps out like one of those pesky critters in the Alien films exiting someone’s stomach. These are the moments where you suspect even the writer doesn’t know where the hell that came from – not so much an imaginative leap as a sense of an author falling through a hidden bear-trap in the floor of their own abilities, taking them and you to somewhere altogether stranger. There’s a great moment like that in “The Magician”, an interesting but ultimately less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts early work by Somerset Maugham.
“The Magician” is one of Maugham’s first novels, and it shows in the thinness of the characterisation and some of the florid writing and melodrama. There was a time when Maugham was a significant literary figure but, probably since the 60s, his reputation has gradually declined. I’ve no real idea why. He’s possibly an interesting case-study in terms of how literary reputations grow and decline. His portrayals of a certain kind of pained English middle-class repression, in novels like “Of Human Bondage” and “The Moon And Sixpence”, may have had their moment. The writers I associate with him in my mind – like E M Forster and Terence Rattigan – have fared rather better, in part I suppose because their work has enjoyed another life within handsomely-made British films. Maugham doesn’t quite seem to have that purchase, though his “Ashenden” stories (a kind of Edwardian George Smiley) were adapted by the BBC some years back and are well worth a read because of how they influenced Le Carre and, perhaps more interestingly, the James Bond of Fleming’s novels.
In “The Magician”, first published in 1908, we have a story that sounds pretty inviting when summarised: a young English woman in Paris falls under the sway of a disreputable man with occult powers who is able to bend her to his will, drawing her away from her stolid fiancé and into a world of debauchery and unspeakable, hinted-at communion with dark and brutal forces. She wants to break away or summon help but is completely unable to resist a magnetic attraction to the eponymous magician, a man called Oliver Haddo.
The novel doesn’t quite live up to what’s promised because it doesn’t seem able to get as dark as it needs to be or could be, with the exception of an astonishing passage towards the end which I’ll come to later. Part of the problem is with the main characters who nearly get to be interesting but aren’t drawn in enough depth. Margaret, the spellbound young woman, is an ingénue whose naïve grasp of life means that she is willing to settle for marriage to dull but dependably rational surgeon Arthur Burdon – a man somewhat older than her and who has shouldered some responsibility for her upbringing when Margaret was orphaned at an early age. This seems set up so that we sense some kind of comment about a different kind of ‘enslavement’ Margaret could end up trapped by but the point isn’t developed. Arthur represents not only scientific rationalism in conflict with the magical powers and arcane knowledge of Oliver Haddo – he’s also Mr English Decency with no time not only for dubious foreigners and their necessarily dubious morality, but also no time for art of any form. Literature, painting and the like are all indulgences which he can just about tolerate in Margaret as a young woman – at the start of the novel she is having a kind of Edwardian Gap Year, living in Paris and flirting with the bohemian world of painters, to get that out of her system before she settles down with Arthur.
It’s through Margaret’s flirtation with the demi-monde of Paris (which Maugham doesn’t convey with anything that feels more than the usual Left Bank clichés) that she and Arthur encounter Oliver Haddo. Arthur and Oliver clash on so many levels – the scientist versus the mystic, the conventional versus the free-spirit, the puritan versus the aesthete – that a war between them becomes inevitable. Here, I did like the way Maugham brought the tension between the two alpha-males to the boil. During a social encounter, Haddo is both unbearably cocky and rather scary: he talks freely about his wish to replicate fabled occult ceremonies through which living homunculi could be created. His bwah-hah-hah villainous grandstanding is brought to an undignified end when Margaret’s pet dog has a go at him. He gives the dog a kick (underlining his villainy for the 1908 audience, no doubt) and this provides the excuse square-jawed Arthur has been looking for to hand out a resounding beating to the caddish Haddo, in front of the ladies.
It’s at this point that Haddo begins his slow semi-seduction of Margaret, as a form of revenge for his humiliation, and the fact that this arises from one self-important man having lost face to another makes this part of the novel feel scarily grounded. It’s not that he has any great interest in Margaret, sexually: she is just a pawn for getting back at Arthur and all he represents. He destroys her life quite casually. Haddo slowly gains control over Margaret’s will through a mixture of Derren Brown style mind-gaming and partly through some magical visions he pours into her head. These visions are of ‘The Mystic East’ and thus, in the time-honoured and tedious tradition of English Gothic writing from William Beckford in the late 1700s onwards, are a shorthand for all manner of Turkish-Delight-advert style libidinous lounging. Foreigners, you see. As every Englishman knew in 1908 (and maybe still does) – They’re All At It, Over There, You Know.
It’s at this point that the plotting of the novel stumbles a bit. Arthur, assisted by Margaret’s pal Susie (who has an unrequited longing for Arthur) and Dr Porhoet (an Egyptian doctor colleague of Arthur’s and all-round wise-man advisor who, handily, enjoys researching the occult in his spare time – he is from The Mystic East, after all) pursue Haddo and Margaret. The latter couple have become a scandal among wealthy English people in the pleasure-spots of Southern France. Considerable stress is laid on Haddo needing to keep Margaret a virgin as part of some diabolic scheme. Eventually, Arthur decides to take on Haddo directly, now that the latter has holed up in his ancestral seat of Skene, in Staffordshire – which is not the most obvious of Gothic Showdown Settings, though parts of Stoke are pretty scary. This part of the novel loses focus and there’s some unconvincingly presented hoo-ha involving contact with ghosts. Haddo – one of this book’s trump cards – disappears from view and the book loses a lot of sparkle as a result. You certainly don’t root for Haddo (he’s proper horrible) but Arthur is so dull and morose, it’s a charity for him to be beset with problems of such a definitively non run-of-the-mill kind. Lord, he’s dull, though.
And then, in the last few pages, you get the “WTF?” scene mentioned at the top. I don’t want to ruin it but, on infiltrating the creepy old house, Arthur and co come across something which – for all that it was flagged up earlier in the book – takes this novel to an altogether very different and visceral level of horror. Earlier, I mentioned the Alien films. Suffice to say, if you’ve lost a couple of hours of your life to the woeful “Alien Resurrection” you’ll know of a scene set in a spaceship laboratory which, for a moment, takes that film into a place both flesh-creepingly scary and miserably upsetting. Something similar is the case here. It was one of those real moments, as I said, of wondering if the writer himself even knew where this had come from. It didn’t feel like Maugham was “saving up” for a moment of intense horror – but that’s what you get. Disappointingly, it’s only a couple of pages – though you grip the book harder and feel your eyes widen for the length of them. There follows a ridiculously perfunctory ending – though the memory of how terrifying the bit-just-before-that was leans you towards not being able to take it entirely seriously. What you saw a few pages earlier bleeds through (like the acid blood of an Alien…) and eats into the apparently happy, right-restoring ending.
A further interest with this book comes from the character of Oliver Haddo being based on real-life occultist and public hate-figure of the time, Aleister Crowley – a man who was living like a demoniac heavy metal star long before such a thing was possible. Though Maugham’s introduction is at pains to suggest that any resemblance to Crowley is quite superficial, this still lends a frisson to the novel. It’s a reasonably interesting book that suffers from being, for the most part, too simple and straightforward and schematic and well-lit – as revealed in its one, late scene of directly disturbing, well-beyond-reason horror.