It wasn’t a dark and stormy night… this book that lies open on my desk begins with a rather less evocative phrase. More mundane and far less atmospheric…though the writer who had penned them both was the same. I’ve never really seen what was wrong with that opening, though it has passed into the realms of ridicule as ‘purple prose’ and the Right Honorable Lord Lytton now has an anti-literary prize named after him, awarded for the worst opening phrase of a story. A tad unfair, I feel. His style was the product of a bygone era and a society that held different tastes close to its tightly corseted bosom.
This particular book, I haven’t read in a good many years, but as it is fairly obscure yet has been mentioned by three people in as many weeks, I thought I should rummage through the shelves and find my battered and dog-eared copy. I’ve always liked the work of Bulwer-Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright. His style, I grant you, is heavy and sometimes ponderous… like many writers of his epoch, he will seldom use one word when five will do. His storytelling, however, is a different thing and he manages to evoke times long past and populate them with unexpected characters. Little known today, his ‘dark and stormy night’ is not the only phrase he has added to the language. His novels were hugely influential when they were first published. ‘Pelham‘ changed fashionable dress. Verdi, Wagner and others wrote operas based on his historical works. His friend, Charles Dickens, changed the ending of ‘Great Expectations‘ on his suggestion and Bram Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula‘ after reading Lytton’s ‘A Strange Story’, which was the first of his works that I read. The Hollow Earth theory was also popularised by Lytton in ‘The Coming Race’, published in 1861 and was credited with helping to launch the science fiction genre.
I was barely fifteen when my grandfather gave me two of Lytton’s works. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘A Strange Story’. The books could not have been more different. One, a vividly portrayed piece of quasi-historical drama, the other a dark and unsettling tale, set in what seemed to be my own backyard. The locations were referred to only by their initials, but the town sounded remarkably like my own and the Abbey and the old house sounded like those at Kirkstall, Simply because of that, I ploughed through the heavy prose when most of my contemporaries were turning to Barbara Cartland for ‘historical’ fiction.
The tale tells of youth and ego that seeks to perpetuate itself through the fear of not-being, drawing on the life of others in true vampiric style, though without the blood. It is one of those stories where nothing happens… yet lives are changed as the characters act out their fate. The reader may be changed too, as questions begin to form in the nether regions of the mind and parallels are drawn with less lurid occurrences in daily life. I went on to read his ‘Zanoni’, where a choice between immortality and humanity lifts the veil on many arcane themes; that book also brought questions and my grandfather’s library was a gold-mine.
Dion Fortune, Robert Graves, Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers were probably not average teen reading. Many of the books my grandfather gave me raised questions. Some gave me answers too, or better still, were signposts that showed me where to look to find my own. In that I was lucky; far luckier than I would realise for many years. At the time, I just assumed that when such questions arose, everyone would have someone with whom to discuss them. It was not until much later that I found that my situation was the exception rather than the norm. In those days, books on alternative approaches to spirituality were still rare and hard to find and many will have no-one with whom they can explore the deepest thoughts that arise within the hidden regions of the soul.
We all have questions. Many people still turn to books to explore their ideas and seek inspiration, but with the advent of the internet it has become even simpler to tap in a query and see what comes up. The problem is that there is just so much information out there…and most of it conflicting. From the strangest concepts to the harshest diatribes against them, the genuine seeker will find every possible shade of opinion, every argument for and against and every wild and wacky theory there is… and where do you start to sift through them?
Common sense is usually a good place to begin and filters out the worst offenders. Anything that promises the earth will probably not deliver. Especially if it says all you have to do is sit back and pay your hard earned cash for them to wave a magic wand that makes the world right. The wonderful and inspirational sites that tell you that all is right and beautiful have a point; I would agree with them in principle… but when you are stuck in confusion or a dark place in your life, that isn’t really all that helpful. Abstract ideas are all very well, but sometimes what you need is a stout rope… an idea of what you can do to climb out of the hole and there are many excellent schools, groups and systems out there who will throw that rope to you. But how do you know which one?
The best advice I ever read on how to find the school, organisation or system that would work for you came from Dion Fortune when she wrote that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. She advised that the seeker look at those who are part of those systems … not those who have gone a little way and left for one reason or another, but those who have walked the path and stuck with it. Look and see whether those people have something that speaks to you, something you can trust.
The best advice I have ever heard, was simply to ‘ask the question’. Turn your attention to the quiet place within and listen to the prompting of the heart. The spiritual seeker has already knocked on the door and the wordless inner voice, that expression of the higher self, is waiting to answer.