Patrick Harpur’s ‘The Good People’ (2017) is out with the great Strange Attractor Press – we’re delighted to publish an extract here.
As Alistair was making his way down the High Street towards the first parish visit of the day, a curious and frightening thing happened to him. Sidestepping a group of boys jostling four-abreast on the pavement, he was forced into the foyer of a shoe shop where he came face to face with a disturbingly familiar old man. Alistair took in his appearance at a glance: he was tall, even spindly, with a self-effacing stoop; his face was finely wrinkled and ascetic-looking; the distinguished nose and faint smile might have suggested an absent-minded professor, were it not for the incongruity of his dress – a bomber jacket, jeans that flapped loosely round his thin calves, and a pair of grubby trainers. This uniform, already dated among the young, looked sinister on a man of his years. He made as if to pass Alistair by, but, seeing the expression of distaste on the vicar’s face, matched it with one of his own, and stopped. Alistair looked more closely at the alien yet familiar features. They composed themselves into a face known to him intimately. His own face, in fact.
Inadvertently reflected in a full-length looking-glass built into the shop front, Alistair had glimpsed himself as another might see him, before he had time to put on the face which greeted him every morning in the shaving mirror. It had been a disconcerting sight. He smiled at his stupidity and walked on. But he wasn’t able to dismiss so easily the fright his reflection had given him. It was not caused by his oddly disheartening appearance so much as by the recollection, evoked by his own image, of an occurrence in his earlier life.
It had taken place in 1949, during his second year at university. By and large this had been a happy period for Alistair. Freed from the harshness of public school and the loneliness of home, he had thrown himself into the life of an undergraduate. He made friends, discovered girls, got drunk, read voraciously. He understood the peculiar blessing of being at university. It was a time of grace, between adolescence and the duties of full manhood, in which nothing was expected of him except that he should study and explore all possibilities for their own sake, before necessity fixed him in a more or less rigid pattern of life. In this spirit he was drawn towards a small but enthusiastic circle of occultists.
Its members were more or less serious and, for the most part, benign. They eschewed the blacker arts and discussed natural magic, the Kabbalah, Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophy, angelology and so on, while engaging in sporadic psychical research. They gave dinners in honour of such visiting luminaries as Dr Falkenburg, the commentator on Cornelius Agrippa, and Professor Hayadi whose work on the numerology and magical proportions of the Temple of Jerusalem still languished in obscurity. They took tea with leading mediums who gave impromptu sittings, or with aged former initiates of the Golden Dawn who could be relied on for indiscreet anecdotes about Aleister Crowley and W. B. Yeats. Once, delightfully, they entertained to cocktails a Mrs. van der Houf, an incarnation of the Comte de St. Germain – one of Madame Blavatsky’s seven Masters of Wisdom – who sharply enjoined them never to eat members of the bean family.
All this was a heady and often amusing brew for a young man like Alistair, whose religious propensities led him naturally to an exploration of the supernatural. He wanted stronger meat than the dull Anglican liturgy; he desired personal experience – gnosis – of the transcendent. He practised yogic techniques and meditation, experimented with his diet (more than once smoked hashish), and learnt a little Hebrew in order to read the Sepher Yetsirah. Thus he needed no second invitation to participate in the raising of Manu-Cacu, the Merciful Daemon of the Eleventh Sphere. He didn’t exactly believe in the objective existence of such entities – any more, for instance, than he believed in an evil separate from the corrupt will of men. He was, after all, a Christian. But he vaguely thought that the ritual might produce some stimulating subjective effects. Mostly, like the others, he just wanted to scare himself a little.
The walls were crawling, alive, and, like the non-light, felt rather than seen to have a disgusting texture. If he had considered evil at all, he had thought of it as morally, even physically threatening; he had never reckoned on this disgust.
In the event, the ceremony was a damp squib. Everything was arranged according to the letter of Crowley’s instructions – the disposition of circles, pentagrams, symbols and daggers – and yet the mighty invocations produced nothing more than a sudden draught and a sinister flickering of candles which Alistair privately attributed to the opening of a nearby door. He went to bed that night full of port, stilton and firm resolutions not to waste his time with hocus-pocus.
At six minutes past three, according to his bedside clock, he awoke with a start. Thinking he had left a light on, he tried to get out of bed. He found that he couldn’t move. Nevertheless he could see that the illusion of having left a light on was created by a sickly viscous yellow, more substance than illumination, which pervaded the room from an invisible source. He felt at once that something was terribly wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He struggled in vain to move his paralysed limbs. His room, high up on the corner of his college, was charmingly angular. Slowly the source of his disquiet was borne in upon him: the angles of the room were wrong. They had become subtly deformed, a fraction more acute or obtuse, so that he had the impression of waking in a parallel universe where everything in the normal world was replicated, but distorted. The creeping horror he experienced was out of all proportion to the circumstances. It seemed to him that things were not merely out of kilter but positively evil. The walls were crawling, alive, and, like the non-light, felt rather than seen to have a disgusting texture. If he had considered evil at all, he had thought of it as morally, even physically threatening; he had never reckoned on this disgust.
The atmosphere in the room deteriorated further. In the corner of his eye he saw someone or something sitting at his desk, with its back to the bed. It was at once alien and familiar, very like the reflection in the looking-glass outside the shoe shop. Even as he caught sight of it, it in turn seemed to sense his presence. It began to revolve its head. Alistair had a premonition that the figure would also be a replica – of himself subtly, hideously altered. It occurred to him that if he looked into this Doppelgänger’s face, he would lose his mind.
The next thing he remembered was good clean sunlight breaking through the crack in the curtains. The room was restored to its old self. The chair at the desk was empty. The event had been nothing but a nightmare. Hadn’t it? On the other hand, it had been unlike any dream he had ever had before or since. He wondered if he was going a bit mad, toyed with the idea of seeing a trick cyclist. When nothing further occurred, he dropped the idea with relief. He was left with the possibility that the vision, as he thought of it, had been real – a notion supported by its clarity and solidity. It was surely more than coincidental, too, that it had happened on a night when he had been party to a magical conjuration. He remained perplexed and fearful. For weeks he had to steel himself to go to sleep.
Alistair abandoned occultism and began to reflect intensely on spiritual matters in general and Christianity in particular. The Anglican Communion now looked more like a sanctuary than a dull routine. The decision to take holy orders crept up on him unawares. Only now did he begin to consider how large a part fear had played in his ordination. The truths of science and reason had broken down in his room on that night, and he needed some other counterbalance to evil. He found it in the powerful apotropaic magic of Christ. He came to believe that, if anything, his nightmarish vision had been providential – that God had used it to bring about his repentance. At any rate, Alistair changed his degree course from philosophy to divinity and, within three years of leaving University, found himself a slightly bewildered curate in the heart of a Derbyshire parish. In the light of his unequivocal Christianity, coupled with marriage to an eminently sensible schoolteacher, he was able to banish that dark stain on his memory. In time, he even learnt to smile indulgently at his adolescent fear, as he might smile at a child’s fear of a bogey man.
* * *
All children have places which are sacred to them. But Maeve was conscious from her earliest years of a larger sacred landscape which was not personal – a network of hallowed spots which, belonging to the wilderness beyond, encroached on the walls of Eden, as her father’s demesne was named. To each of these places tradition ascribed a mystery or significance which Patsy Collins, who worked for her father, would relate. Although only in his late twenties, he seemed to have accumulated a store of knowledge beyond his years.
As he drove her to town in the trap or phaeton, he would point out a haunted crossroads, a copse you shouldn’t pass during a new moon, a blackthorn it was perilous to shelter under. Such landmarks were sometimes more obvious – a bush, for example, whose branches were alive with a flutter of rags and ribbons, attached by wayfarers who had said a rosary there; the Altar Rock where Masses had been said by priests outlawed by the British; or holy wells guarded by gaudy statues of Our Lady, around which were strewn votive objects. The spirits of tree and stone and water were older than the saints and revered long before a church militant had wisely commandeered them.
Sometimes Patsy would pull up at a particular place and, letting the reins drop, roll a cigarette and mention some tale of ghosts or miraculous healings. Through his eyes Maeve saw a landscape in which every natural object had glamour. Centuries’ worth of stories – the history of Ireland, in fact – overlaid the land in layers, like stones in a dry-stone wall. The very air was thick with possibilities so that it would be unexceptional to meet, without even knowing it, a saint in the boreen or the devil on Divil’s Hill.
Most thrilling, though, were the raths or ‘fairy forts’ – circular banks and ditches of impenetrable antiquity which farmers were tempted to dig up for the treasure they were said to hold. Few dared to do so for fear of incurring the wrath of the Sídhe. One exception, according to Patsy, was a man called O’Rahilly who had boasted one night in the pub that no superstition would prevent him from breaking into the rath on his land. And hadn’t a very old man whom nobody knew stood up then and, with a queer look, strongly advised against such a scheme, unless of course O’Rahilly wished to leave his children fatherless? O’Rahilly had gone ahead all the same. He found no treasure; but the really strange thing – here Patsy gave Maeve a meaning look – was that your man was alive and well to this day.
Sídhe was a word Patsy uttered but rarely, and then in a lowered voice. It was pronounced ‘shee’, like a whisper. The Sídhe were the ancient inhabitants of Ireland, driven underground by later invasions. Patsy was descended from them. He had seen these ancestors more than once, riding into the raths which were merely entrances to that otherworld where the Sídhe danced and hunted, feasted and fought; where it was summer when it was winter with us, and vice versa. They were terrible ones for shape-shifting, appearing now larger than life, now smaller. They could assume the appearance of whatever took their fancy. A pig in a field might not be what it seemed; even an insect or a cloud of dust might not be right. They could help a man with his work or deal him a stroke, leaving him dead or paralysed. They could steal young men to help them in their games or young mothers to suckle their new-born; and while these were away, a body in their likeness, or the likeness of a body, was left lying in their beds. Some said they took the dead, who had been seen dancing among them. Their music was too beautiful to be endured. Many people, including Patsy, often called them – more in hope than expectation – the Good People.
In the beginning, the taint of eerie ambiguity which attached to Patsy as an intermediary between her and the Sídhe, excited more than it disquieted Maeve. It was simply part of what it meant to be Irish. She accepted the interpenetration of natural and supernatural just as she took the fairy forts for granted, as untamed outposts among the broken fields. There was even a fairy place within the precincts of Eden: a large oval tumulus lying along the edge of a copse, overgrown with brambles. The locals called it Maeve’s Grave. Patsy explained that her namesake, the Queen of the Sídhe herself, was buried there – a contradiction, since the Good People were well-known to be immortal.
Maeve was fascinated by the uncanny mound. How glorious it would be to see the steep side of Maeve’s Grave swing open on silent hinges and pour forth a fairy troop in all their fantastic array! She pictured the tall riders caparisoned in green and gold; she could almost hear the clatter of their red-eared horses’ hooves and the terrible gaiety of inhuman laughter. At the same time, how she feared seeing them – dreaded meeting those famous eyes, preternaturally lustrous, silver-flashing, cold.
Once, at noon on a heavy August day, when the land lay suspended and breathless in the heat, Maeve steeled herself to clear a space in the brambles and, lying with her ear pressed to the mossy mound, fancied she could hear the beautiful intolerable bleat of uillean pipes, and the muffled thud of dancing feet. She ran then from that unearthly sound, pursued by the thud of her own heart, as if her life depended on it.
Patrick Harpur‘s non-fiction books have been published in the UK, the USA and the Hispanic world. They are Mercurius; or, The Marriage of Heaven and Earth, a study of alchemy; Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld which attempts to make sense of visions and apparitions by recourse to Platonic philosophy, Jungian psychology, and the Romantic notion of imagination; The Philosophers’ Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination, which outlines an esoteric Western way of seeing the world which has been largely forgotten; and the rather ambitiously titled A Complete Guide to the Soul. He has also published four novels: a ‘theological thriller’ called The Serpent’s Circle; The Rapture, a study of an autistic child; a highly autobiographical black comedy called The Savoy Truffle; and a modern fairytale, The Good People.