Thursday, November 21, 2019

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" (1913)

Occultist, drug user, bisexual, and mountaineer Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947, is probably more famous at this point for being famous (if he's famous at all). Purveyor of the ethos "do what thou wilt," after his death he became a kooky countercultural figure, appearing in the mass of faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. David Bowie, Anton LaVey, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jimmy Page claimed familiarity with Crowley's work, which mostly trucked in cult religiosity with a satanic edge (L. Ron Hubbard was another student). But Crowley also formally wrote fiction. He even hoped to make a career of it at one point, after Joseph Conrad praised his story "The Stratagem." "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," so aggressively weird it can have the effect of a hammer pounding on an anvil, was the longest in a collection of three published as The Stratagem in the '20s. Unfortunately, Crowley's notoriety was already hampering his ability to sustain conventional careers. He didn't sell many more stories.

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" exists as a kind of follow-on to Edgar Allan Poe's "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," equally unpleasant, yet perhaps exploring what might have happened within M. Valdemar's being before he was removed from his trance. "Magdalen Blair" is fairly long and spends a lot of time mounting scientific credibility for the telepathy that all its events are dependent upon. These elements of setup and narrative do clang and bluster, laboring under tensions and forces not readily apparent but with the effect of rubbing everything the wrong ways. The first-person narrator is a woman, Magdalen Blair, who never quite feels like a woman—I want to blame that on Crowley's inexperience as a fiction writer, but a more generous interpretation might make him out to be more sophisticated than I know, defiantly undermining gender norms.

Magdalen is an assistant to Professor Blair, a scientist and academic pursuing research in the paranormal. In fact, she is psychic herself, able to read her mentor's mind in astonishing ways. They attempt to refine the extent of her powers with systematic experiments. "Few men, and, I believe, no other women, could approach me in one of the most priceless qualifications for scientific study, the faculty of apprehending minute differences," she writes. " ... It is not only that I could read emotions; I could also tell whether he was thinking 3465822 or 3456822."

Eventually they marry, and though the relationship shows respect and regard, it's notably short on sexual passion or even particularly felt emotional connection. Some of that may be due to the reticence of the age, of course, yet it remains irreducibly odd. When the professor proposes marriage Magdalen writes, "I had never realized myself as a woman, or him as a man, till that moment, and in that moment I knew that I loved him and had always loved him." Fair enough, but not much later she is writing, "I seem only to have been a woman in those first few months of marriage." Well, OK, sometimes that happens, but later still, standing over her dying husband, a doctor asks her, "Are you a woman?" And "No," she says, "I am my husband's colleague."

Who has conversations like that? Similarly, why is Crowley so insistent about noting that the assisting nurse is "male"? If the resulting unease from these small notes of gender ambiguity and/or unconventional relationship is intentional on Crowley's part, they are subtle and he is more often found using blunt instruments. He saws away too long on establishing the mind meld between the two—one-way, from him to her—before getting to the point where the professor is sick and dying. This is where the story really starts, as Magdalen locks in for the ride and Crowley proceeds to elaborate a long saxophone solo of afterlife fantasy. As diagrammatic as it tends to be, the story actually has a good deal of power to overwhelm at this point.

There's a demon on the sidelines with a chilling laugh, but that's more like frippery. The real horror is the bland gray nothingness of some sort of psychic endless grinding consumption and dissolution confronted by consciousness unmoored from physical reality and a dying body. Consciousness and identity itself are hurled down a digestive tract, literally, worked over by cosmic stomach juices to be rendered, digested, excreted, left behind to become part of—eternity? If we're lucky. Or perhaps merely disappearing into further gray nothingness. Magdalene is there for all of it. "He was but the excrement of the demon, and as that excrement he was flung filthily further into the abyss of blackness and of night whose name is death."

Amazingly, that's not the end. There are bleaker places to go yet, because there's still disposing of the body out here in reality, onset putrefaction, and ultimately cremation. It ain't easy! Final word from the other side: "Woe" (literally, "Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe! Woe!" and it's not a Tom Jones song). Which, of course, is not the least bit encouraging for anyone. Not surprisingly, Magdalen is profoundly depressed at the end of the story. "Even now, when I bring to mankind this message of a doom so appalling that at the age of twenty-four I am a shriveled, blasted, withered wreck, I am supremely weary, supremely indifferent." So are we all, except Crowley, who's likely cackling somewhere. He identifies with the demon in the outhouse, of course. It's no day brightener.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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