Posts Tagged 'm.r. james'

Pictures of Apollyon.

In a story called “The Bone of Contention” from Dorothy Sayers’s 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, the amateur sleuth and bibliophile Lord Peter Wimsey, visiting a dilapidated country house, naturally accepts an invitation to tour the library. The host chatters away:

“It was always rather a depressing room,” went on Haviland. “I remember, when I was a kid, it used to overawe me rather. Martin and I used to browse about among the books, you know, but I think we were always afraid that something or someone would stalk out upon us from the dark corners. What’s that you’ve got there, Lord Peter? Oh, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Dear me! How those pictures did terrify me in the old days! And there was a Pilgrim’s Progress, with a most alarming picture of Apollyon straddling over the whole breadth of the way, which gave me many nightmares.”

For years I held onto my dad’s old copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress – a cheap paperback, un-illustrated – until, a few years ago, after one final glance at the daunting slabs of text, I conceded that it was beyond the threshold of my literary masochism, and traded it away unread.

So when I came across that reference to a nightmarish illustration of Apollyon, it wasn’t my own childish encounters with John Bunyan that came rushing back, but other people’s.

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, little Maggie Tulliver is interrogated by an older visitor about the unfeminine reading material she’s absorbed in:

“Well,” said Mr. Riley, in an admonitory patronising tone, as he patted Maggie on the head, “I advise you to put by the History of the Devil, and read some prettier book. Have you no prettier books?”

“O yes,” said Maggie, reviving a little in the desire to vindicate the variety of her reading. “I know the reading in this book isn’t pretty — but I like the pictures, and I make stories to the pictures out of my own head, you know. But I’ve got Aesop’s Fables and a book about kangaroos and things, and the Pilgrim’s Progress…”

“Ah, a beautiful book,” said Mr. Riley. “You can’t read a better.”

“Well, but there’s a great deal about the devil in that,” said Maggie, triumphantly, “and I’ll show you the picture of him in his true shape as he fought with Christian.”

Maggie ran in an instant to the corner of the room, jumped on a chair, and reached down from the small bookcase a shabby old copy of Bunyan, which opened at once, without the least trouble of search, at the picture she wanted.

But though Maggie is too tough-minded to admit to being frightened by the pictures in her books, a bit later, while wandering alone down an unfamiliar country lane, she is oppressed by “haunting images of Apollyon … and other miscellaneous dangers.”

Eleven-year-old Jude in Jude the Obscure is similarly oppressed after he absent-mindedly stays out past nightfall:

He anxiously descended the ladder, and started homewards at a run, trying not to think of giants, Herne the Hunter, Apollyon lying in wait for Christian, or of the captain with the bleeding hole in his forehead and the corpses round him that remutinied every night on board the bewitched ship.

In this case we can verify that the young hero has unluckily been burdened with one of his creator’s childhood fears. Thomas Hardy’s wife recalled how Hardy, in old age, shared his memory of one of the few times he’d been frightened walking alone in the country:

[A]s a small boy walking home from school, reading Pilgrim’s Progress, he was so alarmed by the description of Apollyon that he hastily closed his book and went on his way trembling, thinking that Apollyon was going to spring out of a tree whose dark branches overhung the road. He remembered his terror, he said, that evening, seventy-five years afterwards.

But elsewhere (in a letter whose text I can’t find online) Hardy seems to have been explicit that it was “the picture of Apollyon fighting Christian” that had so disturbed him.

In moments of isolation, the spectre of Apollyon could disturb even sober-minded adults. In one of M.R. James’s most famous ghost stories, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, from 1904, Professor Parkins has just excavated a strange relic from the ruins of a Templar church and, strolling homeward along a desolate seashore, notices a mysterious figure tailing him at a distance. Luckily, the professor is immune to primitive superstitions. However:

In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it.” [1]

Deliberately or not, James has the professor slightly misremember the passage which had had such an unsettling effect on so many generations of kids. Here’s how Bunyan describes Christian’s first glimpse of Apollyon:

But now, in this Valley of Humiliation, poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him: his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back, or to stand his ground. But he considered again, that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.

So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales, like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question with him.

In his memoir Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens recalls coming across this passage in Anthony Powell’s 1975 novel Hearing Secret Harmonies:

[H]e could never, even after he was grown-up, watch a lone figure draw nearer across a field, without thinking that this was Apollyon come to contend with him. From the moment of first hearing that passage read aloud — assisted by a lively portrayal of the fiend in an illustration, realistically depicting his goat’s horns, bat’s wings, lion’s claws, lizard’s legs — the terror of that image, bursting out from an otherwise at moments prosy narrative, had embedded itself for all time in the imagination.

The more vivid terrors of movies and comic books having displaced Apollyon from the nightmares of the young, Hitchens belonged to perhaps the last generation for whom a reference to that scene could summon a first-hand memory:

I put down [Powell’s] novel and was immediately back in the Crapstone of my Devonshire boyhood. … My younger brother Peter–aged perhaps eight–has so strongly imbibed John Bunyan’s Puritan classic as almost to have memorized it. (The “slough of despond,” “the giant Despair,” “Doubting Castle,” the fripperies of “Vanity Fair,” “Oh death, where is thy sting?” Can you remember when all these used to be part of the equipment of everybody literate in English? They are as real to my brother and to me as the shaggy, wild ponies on the nearby moors.) But, coming to the very decisive page that should show Apollyon in all his horrid magnificence, Peter finds that the publishers have bowdlerized the text, and withheld this famous illustration from the version made available to the under-tens. He is not to be allowed to look The Evil One in the face.

A very mid-20th-century child, Peter has no patience for those who would coddle him for his own supposed psychological safety. He pressures his father, who in turn contacts the publishers to send along the adults-only edition. At last:

[T]he day came when the unabridged version arrived, and we could both solemnly turn–with parental supervision, of course, but in our minds to protect our parents from any shock or trauma–to the color plate from hell. It was one of those pull-out pages that needs to be unfolded from the volume itself, in a three-stage concertina. And it was anticlimax defined. For one thing–Powell’s summary above may have prepared you for this–it was absurdly overdone. A lizard-man or snake-man might have been represented creepily enough, but this non-artist had hugely overdone the number of possible mutations of leg, wing, and pinion and also given Apollyon a blazing furnace for a belly. The demon’s wicked and gloating expression, looked at from one angle, was merely silly and bilious.

For the elder Hitchens brother, who would go on to become one of the world’s most famous evangelists of irreligion, the disappointment reinforces his conviction that hellfire is a laughing matter.

So what did it look like, this illustration that took up permanent residence in so many overactive juvenile imaginations?

Over at Pictures in Powell, “An exploration of the visual arts as they appear in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell”, the curator provides an assortment of possible culprits. But it’s unlikely that all the above authors would have been frightened by the same picture. The most common result in a Google Image search for “Apollyon and Christian” is this one by Henry Courtney Selous:

chrstian's combat with apollyon henry courtney selous

Pg. 81 of the Cassell, Petter, and Galpin 1875 (?) edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
From the University of Florida Digital Collections.

…Who is too recent for wee Maggie Tulliver (or wee George Eliot) to have seen his work as a child. In any case, whichever illustration she saw must have been uncoloured. Carrying on the scene from The Mill on the Floss begun above:

“Here he is,” [Maggie] said, running back to Mr. Riley. “And Tom coloured him for me with his paints when he was at home last holidays — the body all black, you know, and the eyes red, like fire, because he’s all fire inside, and it shines out at his eyes.”

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, Anne Dunan-Page refers to this episode and observes that part of Bunyan’s appeal, for his younger readers, may have been “the opportunity to colour the line-drawings”. [2]

I wonder how many rare and precious editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress have had their pages marred by the artistic additions of overenthusiastic children?


1. The BBC has twice adapted “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”: somewhat faithfully in 1968 and very loosely in 2010. Both versions strain to extend James’s economical tale to television length.

2. Confusingly, Henry Courtney Selous did two separate sets of illustrations for Bunyan’s work. Here’s his other version, from 1844, of Christian Combating with Apollyon. Maggie would have loved it: it looks like a page from a colouring book.


Finding myself in a book.

I lose myself in books all the time. So it’s a relief occasionally when I find myself; when I encounter a character who shares with me some quirk or fixation that it’s never occurred to me to put into words.


I’ve been known to kill time, among the back shelves at my favourite used bookstore, patiently separating the Kingsley Amises from the Martin Amises, the Henry Roths from the Philip Roths, the precious and solitary Henry Green from among the heaps of Graham Greenes, all for the benefit of my fellow browsers.

I believe I share this habit with the great English writer of ghost-stories, M.R. James. At any rate, he bestows it on the narrator of “A Neighbour’s Landmark”:

Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy.

Mind you, I don’t spend much time in the kind of houses that contain large private libraries, let alone the kind where careless housemaids are likely to invert the volumes. I can better identify with furtive Tommy Clay in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

Three days later, on a Monday, Tommy stopped in at Spiegelman’s Drugs to arrange the comic books. This was a service he provided at no charge and, so far as he knew, unbeknownst to Mr. Spiegelman. The week’s new comics arrived on Monday and by Thursday, particularly toward the end of the month, the long rows of wire racks along the wall at the back of the store were often a jumble of disordered and dog-eared titles. Every week, Tommy sorted and alphabetized, putting the Nationals with the Nationals, the E.C.s with the E.C.s, the Timelys with the Timelys, reuniting the estranged members of the Marvel family, isolating the romance titles which, though he tried to conceal this fact from his mother, he despised, in a bottom corner. … He did all his rearranging surreptitiously, under the guise of browsing. Whenever another kid came in, or Mr. Spiegelman walked by, Tommy quickly stuffed back whatever errant stack he was holding, any old way, and engaged in a transparent bit of innocent whistling.

In my twenties I worked for a while in an adult video store, and I took great pleasure in sorting the dirty magazines by genre and title. This brought me into conflict with the manager of the store, who had his own obscure standards of taxonomy that I was frequently in violation of. After a few months I was fired – not exactly fired, but the manager made it clear that we’d both be happier if I sought other employment. The event that precipitated this ultimatum had nothing to do with magazines, but I think his dislike for me originated with my attempt to “straighten out” the magazine rack. Perhaps two obsessive alphabetizers are doomed to quarrel.


In a short story called “Making Love In 2003”, from Miranda July’s collection No One Belongs Here More Than You:

It doesn’t really feel like driving when you don’t know where you’re going. There should be an option on the car for driving in place, like treading water. Or at least a light that shines between the brake lights that you can turn on to indicate that you have no destination. I felt like I was fooling the other drivers and I just wanted to come clean. But the more I drove, the more I felt like I had somewhere to go. I was making difficult left turns that no one would ever do unless they had to. Sometimes I would make left turns all the way around a block, and when I returned to the original intersection, I would feel disappointed to find all the drivers were new.

As someone who’s been blessed with long stretches of unemployment, I know all about aimless driving. I’ve often had that sense that I was “fooling the other drivers” – all these busy people rushing off to the supermarket or the airport, and here I am, taking up a lane of traffic to no purpose. When I’m driving aimlessly, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Unlike the heroine of July’s story, I avoid left-hand turns; I worry that the length of the green light was optimized by some computer program for a certain amount of traffic, and that my unnecessary left-hand turn is throwing off the timing; and that because of me, some poor hardworking mom is going to be late for her appointment with the chiropractor.


Vladimir Nabokov describes, in his memoir Speak, Memory, an early attempt at composing poetry:

An innocent beginner, I fell into all the traps laid by the singing epithet. Not that I did not struggle. In fact, I was working at my elegy very hard, taking endless trouble over every line, choosing and rejecting, rolling the words on my tongue with the glazed-eyed solemnity of a tea-taster, and still it would come, that atrocious betrayal. The fame impelled the picture, the husk shaped the pulp. The hackneyed order of words (short verb or pronoun – long adjective – short noun) engendered the hackneyed disorder of thought, and some such line as poeta gorestnïe gryozï, translatable and accented as “the poet’s melancholy daydreams”, led fatally to a rhyming line ending in rozï (roses) or beryozï (birches) or grozï (thunderstorms), so that certain emotions were connected with certain surroundings not by a free act of one’s will, but by the faded ribbon of tradition.

The particular challenge of escaping the conventions of Russian poetry is, of course, unfamiliar to me. But “the husk shaped the pulp” perfectly sums up a failure I’ve experienced too often; the weary sense that, rather than having written what I wanted to write, I wrote what I was able to write; rather than choosing the words and images that best communicated my thoughts, I have deformed my thoughts to make them fit these unsuitable vessels, the words and images that were ready to hand.

The husk shapes the pulp. Thank you, Mr. Nabokov.


PS. I don’t really write reviews any more because it turns out I’m pretty bad at it. For what it’s worth, all the above authors, as unlike each other as any four authors can be, are excellent.

“A Neighbour’s Landmark” can be found in The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, which every civilized reader of English should own.

The Great Railway Bazaar (Paul Theroux).

Sometimes I finish a book and, as much as I enjoyed it, I find I have nothing to say about it. Empty of useful insights, but wishing to draw attention to the book’s greatness (and also, maybe, to prove to the world that I’ve read it?), I resort to quoting from it at length.

So here are some highlights from The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux’s 1975 account of his 24-country grand tour of Europe and Asia.

paul theroux the great railway bazaar

After travelling by train from London to the eastern frontier of Iran, Theroux finds himself forced to cross rail-less Afghanistan. This is just after the end of the monarchy, but a few years before the communist takeover which inaugurated the current and ongoing round of civil wars:

Afghanistan is a nuisance. Formerly it was cheap and barbarous, and people went there to buy lumps of hashish – they would spend weeks in the filthy hotels of Herat and Kabul, staying high. But there was a military coup in 1973, and the king (who was sunning himself in Italy) was deposed. Now Afghanistan is expensive but just as barbarous as before. Even the hippies have begun to find it intolerable. The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle, and violent.

In Burma, Theroux watches savage stray dogs fighting for scraps of food thrown from the windows of the moving train:

“Why don’t they shoot those dogs?” I asked a man at Toungou.

“Burmese think it is wrong to kill animals.”

“Why not feed them then?”

He was silent. I was questioning one of the cardinal precepts of Buddhism, the principle of neglect. Because no animals are killed all animals look as if they are starving to death, and so the rats, which are numerous in Burma, co-exist with the dogs, which have eliminated cats from the country. The Burmese – removing their shoes and socks for sacred temple floors where they will spit and flick cigar ashes – see no contradiction. How could they? Burma is a socialist country with a notorious bureaucracy. But it is a bureaucracy that is Buddhist in nature, for not only is it necessary to be a Buddhist in order to tolerate it, but the Burmese bureaucratic delays are a consistent encouragement to a kind of traditional piety – the commissar and the monk meeting as equals on the common ground of indolent and smiling unhelpfulness. Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen.

Theroux arrives in Vietnam in late 1973, during a moderately sedate interval between the Paris Peace Accord (which ended direct U.S. involvement in the war) and the start of the North Vietnamese offensive which will capture Saigon a year and a half later. Reflecting on America’s pathetic entanglement in the conflict, he writes:

The conventional view was that the Americans had been imperialists; but that is an inaccurate jibe. The American mission was purely sententious and military; nowhere was there evidence of the usual municipal preoccupations of a colonizing power – road-mending, drainage, or permanent buildings… Planning and maintenance characterize even the briefest and most brutish empire; apart from the institution of a legal system there aren’t many more imperial virtues. But Americans weren’t pledged to maintain.

Some [soldiers] watched the train, with their rifles at their shoulders, in those oversize uniforms – a metaphor of mismatching that never failed to remind me that these men – these boys – had been dressed and armed by much larger Americans. With the Americans gone, the war looked too big, an uncalled-for size, really, like those shirts whose cuffs reached to the soldiers’ knuckles and the helmets that fell over their eyes.

[T]he Vietnamese had been damaged and then abandoned, almost as if, dressed in our clothes, they had been mistaken for us and shot at; as if, just when they had come to believe that we were identified with them, we had bolted. It was not that simple, but it was nearer to describing that sad history than the urgent opinions of anguished Americans who, stropping Occam’s Razor, classified the war as a string of atrocities, a series of purely political errors, or a piece of interrupted heroism. The tragedy was that we had come, and from the beginning, had not planned to stay.

(The parallels with more recent events in Iraq are too obvious to bother commenting on. I’ll mention that the people who use terms like “imperialism” when discussing American overseas adventurism are also apt to toss out words like “hubris” and “arrogance”. That’s wrong. Theroux reminds us that America’s empire-builders are actually rather diffident: they don’t put up statues or grand buildings to commemorate their victories; they have no desire to stick around and lord it over the natives; their fondest wish is to pacify whatever goddamn foreign muckhole they find themselves stuck in and get back home to Paducah. The besieged forces of liberalism – or of pro-Western despotism – should always keep in mind before calling Washington for reinforcements: you’ll get five, maybe six years, tops, to wrap up your little war, before the Americans get sick of it all and scoot.)

And finally, on riding the Super Express between Tokyo and Kyoto:

[T]he conductor came by, and when he had finished punching everyone’s ticket he walked backwards up the aisle, bowing and saying, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” until he reached the door. The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness.


On a Russian ship crossing the Sea of Japan, Theroux meets an American man and wife who claim to be “into the occult” and proceed to describe a number of supposed supernatural encounters. Theroux, in his turn, narrates M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint” – “the most frightening story I know.” I wasn’t familiar with the story, but it’s available online: a very creepy setup, I found, but the ending is a bit meh. Maybe I’m just jaded.


The last time I read one of Paul Theroux’s travel books, back in 2006, it inspired me to speculate about another of America’s botched nation-building attempts.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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