Friday, July 7, 2017

Arthur Conan Doyle’s witch Helen Penclosa: Part V

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short novel The Parasite has inspired a series of articles, of which this is the last.

It is being published today to mark the 87th anniversary of Conan Doyle’s death: he died on this day, July 7th, in 1930. 

Although I had never even heard of The Parasite until a few weeks ago, many elements of the story seem very familiar. They have activated memories of things I have read in other books or experienced for myself; I have featured some of them in previous articles. Here are some connections that I have noticed:

The Parasite and John Buchan
The Parasite reminds me a little of John Buchan’s story The Gap in the Curtain, in which people are trained to use the latent powers of their minds.

The volunteers are selected for their sensitive nervous systems and inability to cope well with the normal, physical world. This partly matches what Austin Gilroy says about himself: he calls himself a highly psychic, sensitive man.

The volunteers in The Gap in the Curtain are very different from Agatha Marden, whom Helen Penclosa successfully hypnotises as a demonstration of her power to control healthy, well-balanced people.

This makes me think of something that the eastern mystic and guru Kharáma says to the villain Dominic Medina in Buchan’s novel The Three Hostages

"The key is there, but to find it is not easy.  All control tends to grow weak and may be broken by an accident, except in the case of young children, and some women, and those of feeble mind."

"That I know," said Medina almost pettishly.  "But I do not want to make disciples only of babes, idiots, and women."

"Only some women, I said.  Among our women perhaps all, but among Western women, who are hard as men, only the softer and feebler."

Agatha Marden is hardly soft and feeble, but she is not hard enough to be able to resist being hypnotised. In any case, she was eager to try it out. Even so, it was quite an achievement for Helen Penclosa to be able to control someone that even the great Kharáma might have had trouble with.

There is a gap of 30 years and an intervening World War between the publication dates of The Parasite and The Three Hostages. There were probably many more ‘soft women’ around in 1894 than there were in 1924.

One trope that still worked is the use of mysterious, remote and exotic locations to account for someone’s powers: Helen Penclosa is West Indian; Kharáma is Indian.

The Parasite and Terry Pratchett
Helen Penclosa’s ability to project herself into someone else’s body, the lethargy this generates and the accompanying danger of getting permanently lost reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s witch Granny Weatherwax and the way she uses animals, birds and even bees to gather information. 

Granny Weatherwax is highly adept at 'Borrowing' – the art of overlaying her mind on the mind of another creature so that she can see through its eyes and steer its actions without its being aware of her presence.

She lies down on her bed to do it. While her mind is out borrowing, her body falls into a catatonic, almost death-like trance. Her fellow witches are often afraid that she will never return.

Unlike Helen Penclosa, Granny Weatherwax uses her powers just for travel and surveillance purposes. Unlike the victims of Helen Penclosa, Granny’s hosts are never harmed. She leaves out sugar for the bees in payment for her use of their swarm.

Pratchett’s sadistic, vampiric Elves go in for mind control too.

The Parasite and Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort
Reading about the way Helen Penclosa controls people has activated vague memories of a horror novel by Dan Simmons that I read many years ago. I remember very little about it apart from the mind vampires and how they made people act and speak out of character:

Carrion Comfort portrays a tiny fraction of humanity that has immense psychic powers, which they refer to as 'The Ability.' These powers can be used to completely control people from a distance and force them to commit any physical action, including murder. This ability is innate and atavistic.

I plan to find a copy and see if there are any more relevant connections, familiar elements and useful ideas. I hope to get the edition that includes an introduction by the author to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the novel’s publication, as in it Simmons discusses his inspiration for Carrion Comfort.

I first read this book before I had started investigating unseen influences; re-reading it in the light of what I have learned since then should be interesting.

The Parasite and revenge
Reading about Helen Penclosa causing Austin Gilroy to lose his professorship in revenge for his rejection of her reminded me of a real-life incident in which someone lost his job because he behaved out of character and made some very serious mistakes. I believe that this happened because he was not interested in an unattractive colleague who wanted attention from him.

There is also the case of Dianne Wynne Jones’s vindictive witch Biddy Iremonger, who openly and consciously tried to destroy a family because the father had chosen to marry someone else.

The Parasite and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle wrote The Parasite after he had left Southsea and killed off Sherlock Holmes – or so he thought at the time!

In his autobiographical work Memories and Adventures, his only reference to The Parasite is to call it a little book that is on a very inferior plane to The Great Shadow -  an action and adventure story set in the Napoleonic era whose merit he considers to be very high.

Unlike Dan Simmons, Conan Doyle said nothing about how The Parasite came to be written. We will probably never know how much of it is based on his experiences of the world of psychic phenomena.

Conan Doyle had been interested in spiritualism since 1886. He attended séances and demonstrations of mesmerism, so I am guessing that he based Helen Penclosa on someone he met at a sitting. He constructed the story around her, perhaps using innate knowledge of how witch-like women feel, think and behave. There are certainly some very familiar scenarios and relevant points in the story.

I wonder why he chose the exact time of 3:30 pm for the death of Helen Penclosa. This makes me think of the number 33, which has great significance and which is the number of the house in Southsea where I once lived - just up the road from where Conan Doyle once lived.

I wonder what he would think of all the material that his little story has generated.