Wednesday, June 16, 2010

John Cowper Powys: Three Fantasies

John Cowper Powys
Three Fantasies

I came across John Cowper Powys' Three Fantasies in a used bookstore. I had heard about him in grad school but had never read anything by him. The name was familiar, that's all. So, I pulled the book from the shelf and on the title page I saw "Stories by the Grandfather of magical realism."

Magical Realism? Grandfather?

There was an "Afterword" by Glen Cavaliero. It began--

"The preceding stories were written towards the end of John Cowper Powys' long life (1872-1963). They are the last in a series of nine short fantasies that could well be described as the juvenilia of his old age. Nothing even in his own fiction quite prepares us for their bizarre character. But it does Powys an injustice to dismiss the stories as the playthings of a literary senescence: he welcomed second childhood, delighting in his rapport with the very young, and in these final tales he wrote simply to please himself, liberated from the world of 'adult' journalism, reviewers and literary critics . . ."

That's tempting, especially when I noticed that the price was only $2.00. How could I turn down a book by the grandfather of magical realism? And, Cavaliero called the stories "bizarre." I have to agree. The first story was enough to convince me that I should go looking for the other six of his "nine short fantasies." To be precise, the first page is what really convinced me.

"Topsy-Turvy" is the first story in the book. It begins--

The Gray Armchair gazed across the little room at the Brown Armchair. They were in opposite corners; the grey one in the south corner and the brown one in the north corner of the room.

'Whirlwind and Whirlpool have left us quiet today,' said Mr Gray Armchair.

'I don't think it'll last long,' replied Mrs Brown Armchair. ' I seem to feel a certain motion of air coming in through the sides of the wind.'

'I hope,' said Mr Grey Armchair, 'that they won't carry Topsy away again. I don't at all like seeing her whirled down our little square and carried over the wall into the green field. And it must be awful for Turvy. I saw him make a queer jerk when it happened last time just as he was going to shut the door.'

Yes, the two armchairs are talking. And Topsy just happens to be a "picture of a Little Girls' Party" while Turvy is a "door-handle." Other characters who appear in the first part of the story are a hostile Rocking-Chair, the Book-Case, several books, the Carpet, the Bottom-Step, and two dolls who engage in a discussion as to why Big-Doll or Man-Doll refuses to ravish Little-Doll or Girl-Doll. He fears that the children, "their tiny dolls would become a great responsibility . . . [while] Little-Doll gave vent to several deep sighs."

The Rocking Chair plots with the Whirlpool and the Whirlwind to kidnap Topsy when Topsy and Turvy go out walking. They, however, escape to Another Dimension, which is a cloud-land where the clouds are sturdy enough to walk on. It seems to be Powys' conception of the Elysian Fields for there they meet a wide variety of historical figures, all of whom are engaged in discussing various topics. Dido and Aeneas discuss the relationship of humans to inanimate objects. Later they meet Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and various others. They return home at the same time that Girl-Doll gets her wish--she is going to have a baby.

"Abertackle" is the second story. It begin relatively realistically but around one-third of the way into the tale, it also gets bizarre.

The Abertackle folk were, it must be confessed, a queer lot. But then it must be remembered that Abertackle was itself a queer place; and queer places tend to breed queer people.
. . .

Visitors to the Go Peninsula [where Abertackle is located], whether tourists or business men, will always tell you that they like the people there very much and find them hospitable and friendly, but what they never tell you for some mysterious reason is why they leave the place so quickly and rarely ever return to it.

The first part of the tale consists of meeting various inhabitants who engage in small town gossip about each other and each other's foibles. Their names could easily belong in a Dicken's novel: Mr and Mrs Po, Mr Thrapplewait, Mr Willmop, Squire Neverbang and his friend Ooly-Fooly, and Titty Tinkle, to name a few. We then learn that the Po's son Gor has run off to London, and it is in London that life gets a bit strange.

Gor in his wanderings about London meets David Cox, the famous painter, who "was being carried through the air by a space-horse." He invites them to join him aboard the space-horse and they "went off round the world." What they don't know is that the horse is possessed by the Devil himself (the horns on the horse's head weren't noticed by either Cox or Gor). Sporadically throughout the novel the Devil would engage in various theological soliloquies, once about the death of God and whether he could resurrect God by himself. Others soon join Cox and Gor, and they eventually decide to explore the universe.

After various adventures, they decide to rule the universe and set up the members of their little party as King of the New State of Mankind ( Gor) while others become various functionaries.

The third tale is "Cataclysm." It opens--

In the little town of Riddle in the county of Squat in the west of Bumbledom there was a young man called Yok. He had just reached his seventeenth birthday . . . and told his sister, sitting across from him "I have now decided that I'll do it . . . I have decided,' he said quietly, 'to destroy the whole human race."

He has found a bag of dust that will instantly kill anyone who breathes it and Yok is now off to London to carry out his plan. While there, he hears about a group of vivisectionists who have discovered life on Venus and who plan to go there to capture subjects for their experiments. He borrows an airplane from his uncle and chases after them. He catches up with them on their journey to Venus and manages to destroy them with his dust. He also has picked up a few companions and they decide to travel about the universe. They have various bizarre adventures, as one might expect.

I've gone on long enough, I think, and I hope that I've given some idea of the strange and bizarre tales in the book. I may go looking for his more mundane fiction as well. From what I've read, Wolf Solent is considered to be his best work.

Overall Rating: As promised, they are bizarre tales, and I think they would make excellent animated films.


  1. I totally agree I read these stories whilst at college in Swansea on the Gower Prninsula - the inspiration for the Go Peninsula ...

    Excellent book.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I didn't know that the Go Peninsula was based on a real place.

    This is the only work by Powys that I've read. What other works by him would you suggest?

  3. Hi - if you're interested in an intro to JCP - have a look here: