Stories from another time


                                                                                                                 by Guido Eekhaut


 Hopefully John Crowley will one day take his rightful place amongst the innovating storytellers of our time. This is a bold remark, certainly when made concerning a writer who is as good as unknown with the literary public, whose books are hard to find, whose reputation is one of a writer’s writer. Those, however, who have read Ægypt, who have read his shorter work, know him for the careful and eloquent literary craftsman he is. They know that if lists will be drawn up of writers surviving their times, Crowley’s name will be in those lists often enough.

            Crowley is not a easy writer. He demands much of his readers, not only in the way of patience – if he uses plots at all, they are never fast-paced – but as well in the way of background knowledge. He is not an easy writer because his tales are never concerned with dramatic events. “The adventures of the characters in my novels are existential, but I don’t believe they are exactly moral. I believe that they are aesthetic,” he explains in a 2001 interview. “I am not a moral writer. I am not concerned in my fiction with what you should do or not do in life, or what’s good or bad. I’m trying to explore the dilemma of characters who are creations in a book – which is, in effect, a Gnostic dilemma: souls who find themselves in a world that they suspect is not merely fallen or bad but entirely unreal, including their own histories and natures.”

            The grand scale on which the four-book cycle that started with Ægypt (1987) is based, will probably disorient a number of readers. But Crowley’s starting point is very simple – problematically simple even, since the premise touches the very foundations of our believe in reality. Occasionally, he states, the world as we know it, changes in its most crucial form. The last time this happened was in the late sixteenth century, the age of – amongst others – Giordano Bruno and John Dee (who are both in the book). The possibilities of magic that had been present before that time, simply ceased to exist.

Even more problematic is the fact that after this shift, most memories of how the previous world worked, disappeared. A few echoes remained, but they became the stuff of superstition, myth, and the last vestiges of occult sciences. “Once the passage time is past,” says Crowley in the same interview, “you can’t find evidence that there was a time the world was open to other possibilities. Those other possibilities are all a dream.”

            His books then are novels of ideas – if you want to know all, or nearly all, about Gnosis, you’re in good hands.

Crowley has been – like so many other valuable writers – cornered in a genre for which he does feel nostalgic, but which he would better have avoided. Or perhaps not. Fully in the mainstream, he would probably not have found a faithful audience as he did now. He has, however, never gone along too much with the genre’s themes, and if he did, like in Great Work of Time, he transformed them so that the became his own. In an older interview he tells of the sort of reader who will compare books with whatever literature is top of the class – and compare them not within a genre but with the Nabokovs and Pynchons of this world. And that sort of comparison is one we’re allowed to make as well concerning Crowley (one has only to read – carefully – is latest novel, The Translator). Crowley has been fortunate enough to be able to write his own sort of books, not having to churn out potboilers to make a living (remember Philip Dick, with whom Crowley shares an active interest in the Gnosis).



The stories in this collection are in one way different from the novels. Where the novels may read as straightforward mainstream fiction for dozens of pages on end, only to be occasionally interrupted by some esoteric twist or detail, the stories never hide their fantastic origin or intention. Where the novels – and I’m specifically thinking of the Ægypt-cycle – are greatly missing in plot (not that anyone suffers for that), the stories often have a concentrated plotline.

There’s a lot of melancholy in Crowley’s fiction. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being called a Romantic. No surprise even when many of his stories have a British historical background, going as far as recreating an undisputed British Empire that survived all through the twentieth century (in Great Work of Time). Crowley feels perfectly at home in Tudor or Victorian mansions, easily finds his way in “little seaside provincial libraries”, places devoid of postmodern intensions. He longs for steadiness, for the beckoning power of deep and meaningful historical context. He looks wearily about him, at our world, and writes (in The Reason for the Visit): “The whole physical world, the man-made part anyway, seems to alter utterly every few years.”

His world is one where things do not have to change, where “a wood fire in 1820 made a vicarage parlor smell as the same room smelled in 1720, or 1620 – those hands you touched touched hands that could touch hands that were held in the old, old changeless circle around the old, original fire.” In Great Work of Time Crowley imagines an alternate present (and past) in which the First World War ended after a year, without the carnage of Flanders’ fields. The British Empire did not lose it’s power to America, and Germany never had to go through it’s fascist period. All this slowed down scientific and technological progress (war usually is a great incentive for inventors) and the nineteen-fifties still see slow travel with transatlantic Zeppelins. A peaceful, slow and unchanging world, compared with which our world is one of violence and disaster.

There’s a lot of diversity in this collection, from sheer fable (The Nightingale Sings at Night) over classic semi-horror (Antiquities) to straight SF (Snow). Crowley however never feels the need to confront his writing with whatever literary or genre trend is accepted at a certain moment. That makes his stories timeless. And since they are timeless, they do tend to look fresh and new and all that, even if some of them are a quarter of a century old. Whatever technological gimmick Crowley would be temped to use, he is never going to get caught in scientific explanations. He doesn’t need to. Inventions simply work, and nobody should care too much how they work. His worlds – whether in the future or in the past or somewhere in between that isn’t really the present – have a lived-in, unbreakable quality. He is at home in them. And ready to welcome the reader.


John Crowley: Novelties & Souvenirs; collected short fiction. HarperCollins, New York, 2004. Paperback, 338 pp., ISBN 0380731061.



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