Friday, August 1, 2014

The Secrets of Dr Taverner

Violet Mary Firth (1890-1946) was a British occultist who wrote under the name Dion Fortune. She wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Her fiction includes a collection of short stories, The Secrets of Dr Taverner, about an occult detective and healer. It was published in 1926.

Fortune’s work blends the occult with psychoanalysis and this is the approach favoured by her fictional counterpart Dr Taverner. While these stories are fiction the author claimed that they were all based on fact, and as outlandish as it might seem there is little doubt that she believed this to be true. Whatever one may think of Fortune’s beliefs they did inspire her to write some interesting fiction and The Secrets of Dr Taverner will be of interest to fans of the occult detective genre.

The over-arching theme of these stories is that there is another realm of existence, the Unseen. It is in some ways analogous to the world of faerie, or to an earlier pagan phase of human existence that still lurks under the surface of 20th century life. There is another aspect of the Unseen world - Dr Taverner serves forces that are beyond ordinary human understanding. The concept of secret supernatural entities or “hidden chiefs” to whom occult societies were bound was common in many of the esoteric magical societies that flourished in late Victorian and Edwardian times. Dion Fortune belonged to several of these magical societies and not surprisingly this fact was a major influence on her fiction. 

The first story, Blood-Lust, takes a very original approach indeed to the vampire legend. It’s a variation on the theme of the vampire that feeds on life energies but the way the vampire is created is the really original part. Of all the stories collected here this is the one that is closest to being a true, and very effective, horror story.

The Return of the Ritual deals with the theft of a centuries-old manuscript containing instructions for carrying out an occult ritual.

The Man Who Sought tells of a young man, an aviator and motoring enthusiast, a man obsessed with speed. He always seems to be in a hurry, as if he is searching for something. That’s exactly what he is doing. He is searching for his ideal woman, hence his obsession with speed - she could be anywhere and he has to find her.

The Soul That Would Not Be Born sees the author indulging in her obsession with reincarnation. Reincarnation is a remarkably silly concept but it has to be admitted that it has its literary uses and has formed the basis for some interesting fiction. In this case a reluctant soul must pay the price for sins committed in a past life.

In The Scented Poppies a series of suicides has taken place among the prospective heirs to a large fortune. But were they really suicides? Or murders committed by very unusual occult means? This is one of the most successful stories in the collection.

In The Death Hound a man with a weak heart is tormented by visions of a savage dog attacking him. He is the victim of an occult attack, by means of thought transference, by a man who is his rival for a woman. Thought transference figures in many of these stories, and it’s central in this one. This is also one of a number of stories in which we encounter the shadowy menace of the Black Lodges, mysterious occult societies practising black magic. Dion Fortune took this sort of thing very seriously, claiming to be herself a victim of magical attacks. This is another rather effective story.

A Daughter of Pan is one of the weaker stories, concerning itself fairly predictably with mystical silliness. The Subletting of the Mansion is much more interesting. It’s a very unconventional romantic triangle story with one party attempting to succeed in the romantic rivalry by means of stealing his rival’s body.

Recalled is the weakest tale in the collection, a tedious tale of colonial guilt and the reconciling of east and west. 

The Sea Lure is a mystical love story dealing with elementals. The content is rather silly but it includes some interesting speculations about hysterical stigmata. It’s one of the stories in the collection in which dreams play a large part.

The Power House is another tale of the misuse of magical powers, a theme that recurs in several of these stories. A Son of the Night tells of an earl whose family wishes to have him certified as insane, although Dr Taverner can see that he is simply not quite human. This idea of people who are slightly non-human, who might in earlier times have been considered of elven stock or perhaps denizens of the realm of faerie, recurs in several of these tales.

A very mixed bag overall, and some readers are likely to be put off by a certain irritating preachiness. Fortune takes the occult very very seriously. This is not necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to writing occult fiction but many of these stories are too obviously attempts to persuade us of the author’s mystical beliefs. At the same time several of the stories do work quite well as unconventional supernatural and/or paranormal tales. I’m not sure I’d recommend this collection as a purchase but if you can find a library copy it might perhaps be worth a look. 

I should emphasise that I am judging this collection as occult fiction, while the author undoubtedly intended it to be more in the nature of propaganda for her mystical beliefs.

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