Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Review: The Devil on Lammas Night by Susan Howatch

The Devil on Lammas Night, in a single volume with Susan Howatch's other novel The Waiting Sands, is a book I picked up at a library used book sale simply because it had the word "Lammas" in it. I've had it for years, but only recently decided to read the dual novels. The Devil on Lammas Night was the better of the two.

This is what the cover design of my edition looks like, but it also includes the novel 'The Waiting Sands.'  My copy, a book club edition, is undated. 
Susan Howatch, an English author who lived in the U.S. for a number of years, is a Gothic suspense and historical fiction author who enjoys using the far corners of the British Isles as settings. These two fall into the Gothic suspense category. Lammas Night is a contemporary novel, but it's a little bit older, so it has a bit of a "vintage" feel. The Waiting Sands is set in a Scottish castle so remote it doesn't have a telephone (these books were written in the 1970s); Lammas Night is set in a country home in Wales, near a ruined church.

The ruined church is a strategic location. Colwyn Court is the family home of young doctor Evan Colwyn, his  mentally fragile sister Gwyneth and their father. The father has rented out a wing of the enormous manner house to a natural foods society - or so he believes. The leader of this society is Tristan Poole, and he's the leader of a coven of twelve young female witches. The coven uses mind control to get their way and keep outsiders from finding out their true purpose.

"Outsiders" include Colwyn relatives who show up to occupy the guest house for the summer holiday. Mr. Colwyn's cousin Benedict Shaw, a middle-aged college professor, and his slightly younger wife Jane Shaw show up with their albino cat Marble. They're soon followed by Jane's sister, Lisa Morrison. Lisa was a young widow with twins who married her late husband's brother, Matt. Matt and the twins come with her.

The character with whom I most identify is Jane Shaw. Lisa is a rigorous dieter; Jane has a softer, more rounded figure, which Matt not-so-secretly admires. I'd be the softer, rounder sister. Jane is somewhat obsessed with her cat - again, that's me. Jane dotes on and spoils her niece and nephew, the twins. I - well, I don't so much spoil my nephews, because they're adults (and one is currently stationed in South Korea), but I do spoil my 7- and 9-year-old nieces.

Jane, the twins, and Evan are the main protagonists of the novel - all very likable - along with the woman Evan loves, Nicola. Evan and Nicola almost got engaged, but then he decided to go do charitable work in Africa first. When he came back, she was somewhat ambivalent about renewing the relationship.

Sidebar: Shaw is the name of the most prominent character (played by Noomi Rapace) in the 2012 movie Prometheus. I've seen a blogger or two speculating (er, maybe it's just VISUP) that there's some folkloric significance to the name "Shaw," but it all seems sketchy at best. On Person of Interest, we learned this season that an agent named Sam (Sameen) Shaw is the "Reese" of the Relevant list - a complete and total badass like her male counterpart. 

I mention that Tristan Poole and his twelve female adherents are a coven of witches. I like books about witches, and I do not insist that the witches necessarily be the protagonists of the story. In this novel, they are the clear villains. Tristan Poole is a creepy sociopath (he reminds me of the coldblooded Michael Garfield in the Agatha Christie novel Hallowe'en Party). In addition to being witches, Poole's coven are also Satanists who call up demons to do their dirty work.

Just so we're all clear: "witch" and "Satanist" are not equivalent and interchangeable terms. Some witches are Satanists, and some Satanists are witches, but not all witches are Satanists and not all Satanists are witches. Most - but not all - Satanists believe in a literal devil, similar to the one mentioned a few times in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, only Satanists seem him (usually him, sometimes she or it) as the hero of the story rather than the villain. Witches may believe in a literal Judeo-Christian devil, or they may believe in pantheistic/NeoPagan deities (Dianic witches, for example, worship an all-powerful supreme Goddess) instead - or they may be atheistic or agnostic. There's a wide range of belief and folkloric practice under the big umbrella of the Craft. But in Susan Howatch's book, the witches are Satanists.

Clear? Good. I also mentioned that Poole and his coven have a true purpose. That purpose is twofold: to get the material fortune of Matt Morrison, and to use the ruined church for a black mass on August 1st, which is the Neopagan holiday of Lammas. (Lammas, technically, is a contraction of "Loaf Mass," the Christianized version of the holiday at the beginning of harvest season, celebrating the ripening of many of the grain crops in the Northern Hemisphere. In Europe this would typically be the wheat harvest; in North America, wheat and also corn. The harvest season ends with the harvest of winter meat -i.e. slaughter of animals - on October 31, Halloween or Samhain. Lammas is sometimes given the Celtic name Lugnasadh.)

The novel correctly identifies four of the major Neopagan celebrations of the Wheel of the Year - Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain - but leaves out Winter Solstice/Yule, Spring Equinox/Ostara, Midsummer Night/Summer Solstice and the middle harvest festival that falls between Lammas and Samhain, which is called Mabon by modern practitioners (though that's not a historical name).

Tristan Poole is planning to marry Nicola as part of the ritual and then, at a later time, murder her. It's implied that he also plans to sacrifice Lucy, one of Lisa's twins. I believe the twins are about seven years old. Poole has a distinct aversion to the male twin, Timothy - and in the end, Timothy (in all innocence) proves to be his undoing. Like The Waiting Sands, it all ends happily (for the most part - a few characters die, including Matt, who does nothing to deserve this), with the villains punished, the innocent children unharmed and the young heroine marrying her true love. I'm not too familiar with the somewhat antiquated genre of Gothic suspense (which is why these books were a nice change of pace for me), but I gather that its readers expect it to end happily just as romance novel readers do.

A funny thing happens when Susan Howatch goes to describe the black mass itself. She wants us to follow along with her narrative, of course, and she wants us to know how evil and obscene these characters actually are - they are her villains, after all. The full extent of their obscenity is implied rather than stated explicitly. For example:

"Agnes was the first to pay homage. Phrases from the book on witchcraft tumbled through Jane's mind and she felt the color rush to her face as she recalled her own voice reading about the obscene kiss of a millenium of witches' sabbaths."

What Howatch is describing without describing is what medieval witch hunters called the osculum infame, or "infamous kiss." According to the Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, the kiss was:

"...Supposedly bestowed on the devil's anus by his worshipers as an act of homage. Pagan rituals, however, contained no such act; it seems to have been one of the inventions of the inquisitors. Scatological fantasies and excrement often figured in churchmen's visions of the activities of witches."

So, in other words, they all kissed Tristan's ass. (Sidebar: the oblique reference may be similar to what the writers of The Matrix Reloaded meant to imply when Persephone tells the Merovingian he still has traces of lipstick, but not on his face.)

Actually, Tristan Poole is himself the victim of demonic possession, not acting in his own right. For a time, Marble the albino cat is also possessed by a demon and causes the car accident that kills Matt. However, when all the evil spells are reversed, Marble goes back to being a normal, if slightly bad-tempered, house cat.

One of the prettiest passages occurs when Nicola is under Tristan's spell:

"He kissed her. At first it was just like any other kiss a man might have given her but then it changed and it was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Senses which she had not even known existed flared to life until she saw the world expanding into an unknown and mystical dimension which existed without beginning and without end in a wilderness of time.

"He stopped kissing her. The world tilted back to normality and the room spun around to meet her. The evening light was streaming through the window to slant across the panels of the closed door.

"'Take me back,' said Nicola. Where we were before. Take me back.' And she reached up and pulled his face down to hers so that she could touch his mouth again with her own.

"She felt his fingers sliding over her skin and realized for the first time that her bathrobe was on the floor and she was naked. But then his mouth closed hers and all the conventions of a petty decaying world were lost amid the velvet darkness of a hundred solar systems and the heat was blazing down upon her from a vast and invisible powerhouse.

"'Oh God,' said Nicola, 'I'm in heaven.'

"He laughed." 

The other day I shared a passage about magical sex. Here I think Susan Howatch had hit upon a truth most of us have probably experienced - that the first throes of falling in love are exactly what it must be like being under a magical spell.

Overall, I found this novel slightly quaint, very British, and highly entertaining. A few of Susan Howatch's novels have been reprinted as e-books, but I think this one hasn't yet. If you happen upon an old copy of it, you might want to pick it up. It's a worthwhile read.

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