Wednesday, 8 April 2009

12. Christopher Priest - 'I, Haruspex' (1998)


[L. (h)aruspex, f. a root appearing in Skr. hirâ entrails + L. -spic- beholding, inspecting.]
One of a class of ancient Roman soothsayers, of Etruscan origin, who performed divination by inspection of the entrails of victims, and in other ways.
1584 R. SCOT Disc. Witchcr. IX. iii. (1886) 138 Another sort of witching priests called Aruspices, prophesied victorie to Alexander, bicause an eagle lighted on his head. c1605 ROWLEY Birth Merl. IV. i. 331 Not an Aruspex with his whistling spells. 1652 GAULE Magastrom. 313 Alexander..called his aruspicks to inspect the entrayls. 1741 MIDDLETON Cicero I. VI. 454 These terrors alarmed the City, and the Senate consulted the Haruspices. 1879 FROUDE Cæsar xxvi. 458 ‘Am I to be frightened’, he said, in answer to some report of the haruspices, ‘because a sheep is without a heart?’


[f. Gr. sacred, holy + -SCOPE.]
A small opening, cut through a chancel arch or wall, to enable worshippers in an aisle or side chapel to obtain a view of the elevation of the host; a squint; also, sometimes applied to a particular kind of window in the chancel of a church.
1839-40 Hints on Eccl. Antiq. (Cambr. Camden Soc.) (ed. 2) 18 Hagioscope. By this term is intended the aperture made through different parts of the interior walls of a order that the worshippers in the aisles might be able to see the Elevation of the Host. The technical term in use is ‘ Squint’..It is hoped..that the new term..may be thought useful. 1844 PALEY Church Restorers 35 A..chandelier hung from the roof..threw its faint light through a hagioscope upon the founder's tomb by the altar side. 1845 PARKER Gloss. Archit. (ed. 4) I. 350 (s.v. Squint) The name of Hagioscope has lately been applied..but it does not seem desirable to give Greek names to the parts of English buildings. 1848 B. WEBB Continental Eccles. 192 A late wayside church..with open grated hagioscopes.
(Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn., 1989)

'Only I, aberrant haruspex [...] could deal with the threat they presented, but equally it was only my family who had divined their presence.'

(Mike Ashley, ed., The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, Robinson, 2008)

This week of short-stories, courtesy of Sunderland library's clear-out, is tending towards the recent. One might perceive this, and the general anglophile nature of selections so far, as being somewhat limited in nature; my feeling is that it is quite appropriate for this blog to proceed first from a personal grounding - firstly friends' recommendations and then stories drawn from ex-public library stock at my local library. Ones which have been read by the ordinary reading public of my particular end of Tyne and Wear. There has been a commonwealth, UK and US bias so far, but that is only emblematic of what is what is mostavailable in libraries and most beloved to my fellows. I will in time cover a greater proportion of the world, and indeed delve back beyond the twentieth century, but this will happen when necessary not as forced obligation.
Like entry #8 this comes from an anthology; this time seemingly placing an emphasis on the Weird: on 'Extreme Fantasy'. Christopher Priest is a novelist I have been wanting to read for a little while now; k-Punk posted on A Dream of Wessex (1977), a science-fiction novel concerning a simulacrum version of Hardy's county. His Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), with its apparent vision of Powell's Blighty, sounds entirely fit for a future essay I may write on GB75 in fiction and cultue that might also encompass Peter Dickinson's The Changes (1968-70, BBC 1975) David Nobbs's Reginald Perrin (1976-8, BBC 1976-9), JG Ballard's 'Theatre of War' (1977) and Amis and Moorcock's alternative histories - The Alteration and Gloriana - which both won the John W. Campbell Award (in 1977 and 1979 respectively).

Of recent writers I have not yet read but read much about, Priest seems to share with M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock the sense of working within the left-field of the mainstream, within and without of popular genres; developing transgressive and weird fiction, whilst retaining tangible roots in the everyday and in modern Britain per se. CP seems to have had one of the most varied writings careers of the modern era, progressing from politicised science fiction such as the Fugue, a follow-up to HGW's The Time Machine and sexploitation novels (as Petra Christian!) to film novelisations and fantasy novels lauded to some extent to by the literary establishment - he is included in Malcolm Bradbury's survey of the Modern English Novel (1993).

In addition, he was approached to make two submissions for Dr Who stories in its Christopher H. Bidmead period of high seriousness which followed the Douglas Adams and Tom Baker Show of Season 17. It is a matter for some regret for any devotee of that show that there was never a run of stories from Priest, PJ Hammond, Tanith Lee and Stephen Gallagher, perhaps evoking more of the imaginative fantasy style of the Moore / Parkhouse / Dave Gibbons comic strips of the time.* His script for HTV's fairly routine anthology series, Into the Labyrinth, was actually filmed; 'Treason' was broadcast in 1981 and concerns the English Civil War. I say routine purely on the evidence of the first few episodes.

Priest is also, judging by this truly weird offering, a master of the short story - though this is admittedly the longest by far that I have written about so far (44 pages). Those pages utilise to the full a decidedly British atmosphere - in the sense of family seats and callings, antiqurianism, cranks being able to do precisely what they want in the English countryside. The atmosphere evoked is perhaps the most hermetic of any so far in ASSAD; the sheer oddity of James Owsley's station in life is gradually revealed to us, after some initial contact with the outside world. He is basically acting as a haruspical agent against perceived underworld forces, encountered when within a hagioscope - a wonderfully unexplained piece of Wellsian ingenuity - and ingesting various entrails. Rightfully, Priest does not judge or necessarily comment as to how grounded the visions are; the story takes on a logic of its own, and yet keeps some crucial feet in reality. Owsley's servant, Miss Wilkins, who prepares the 'dishes' and whom he services sexually provides the only exercise that this bookish, rather M.R. Jamesian type gets.

History and time are factors at play; the story is grounded in 1937, when war seemed unimaginable to many including Owsley - but there is an incursion in the woods within the grounds of his house and, seemingly, his haruspical domain by a German fighter plane from about five years later. This plane is suspended in time, the apparent pilot's face frozen into a scream. I shall not go on to detail the extraordinary turns of the plot, but suffice it to say that this very Sapphire and Steel** tableau and concept of time fracturing is taken somewhere I had simply never contemplated.

'I, Haruspex' is not science fiction in the sense usually accepted today. There are no spaceships, hi-tech hardware or space operas going on. Like the work of Wells, Lovecraft or Hammond, the emphasis is more on the strange and inexplicable, on unusual concepts and time itself. Priest roots things in a recognisably Weird England, of Abbeys and woods - the one here, for example, within the Owsley family's extensive grounds. They are an 'ancient family of mystics, scholars, clairvoyants, contemplatives', and Priest's writing perfectly captures an uncanny archaism in descriptions of the grounds and in the dialogue given to the characters. (p.408) There is also, as my epigraphy shows, a sense of mystical, almost religious fervour in how Owsley proceeds - as a fanatic, struggling with his load. Not necessarily fully in control, possibly akin to Kubrick's Jack Torrance, as is made clear: 'as if I had been merely caretaking the house [...]' (p.421)

Priest's use of language is admirably expansive; 'peristaltic' (evoking, for me, Vivian Stanshall's use of it), 'loathsome', 'monstrous skulkers', 'ineluctable', 'epitheliomata'. The last of these epithets indicates the only usage of science to support Owsley's occult dabblings - he is able to finance a supply from hospitals of the more cancerous entrails. The creatures, the 'Old Ones' that Owsley perceives in the pit have 'mandibles'; a link to the Donald Barthelme short-story? (p.423) The word means a jaw or jawbone, and in rarer, more archaic English it is an adjective: capable of being chewed or eaten. Priest's use of history is deft and amusing; WW2 becomes little more than an iconography to be used as a spanner in the works, misdirecting and confounding the reader: 'It is irrelevant to the greater struggle, the one in which you and I engage, but there is no avoiding it for practical matters.' (p.420)

Overall, it is difficult to encompass how good this story is in mere writing; it is up there with the Lovecraft and Mansfield as my favourite so far. Music to play as a suitably evocative background: Basil Kirchin - Quantum (1973) / Charcoal Sketches (1970) and State of Mind (1968).

* Admittedly, Priest's first Dr Who submission was to be replaced by Stephen Gallagher's sublime Warriors' Gate, one of the Weirest pieces of television ever nominally produced for children (based partially on Frederik Pohl's 1977 novel Gateway - more on him later).

** Highest praise from me; S&S (ATV, 1979-82) is one of the finest of all British television programmes. I have recently starting watching another series from ATV along somewhat similar lines: Timeslip.



  1. Extreme fantasy is awesome.

    And the language is 'made of win' as the children say.

    And I quite like this form of science fiction.

    Does a mandible apply to all food? It seems to be the sense this word applies in French or Latin.

  2. I am not sure, it may well do. In the English that usgae is pretty archaic, but may not be elsewhere.

    I was really taken aback at how good this was, despite being already expectant of liking Priest's work.

  3. Wasn't Owsley's cook's name Patricia Scragg?