We’re moving on a bit in The Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult collection today. I was publishing these posts in strict numerical order but let us throw caution to the wind, let anarchy in through the back door and let do what thou wilt be the whole of the law. Yes, we’re skipping ahead to Volume 27 and paying a visit to Marie Corelli’s The Mighty Atom.
Before I go any further… it’s been four years since I last updated When Churchyards Yawn but, you know, time is an illusion so let’s agree that we’ve all just imagined that it’s been a long time and get on with things shall we?
Marie Corelli is one of those authors who I was aware of but hadn’t actually read; one of those vague names in the peripheries who you might or might not get around to reading one day. Perhaps this was because I was dimly aware of the critical reviews she garnered throughout her career; she was savagely treated by the press who generally considered her work to be sentimental melodramas full of overwrought and flowery prose. However, despite this treatment by the press and the literary establishment, the public adored her. You can’t really overstate just how big a celebrity Corelli was during the late Victorian/Edwardian period, her novels outsold some of the biggest names of the day, but today she is mostly forgotten.
I’m not going to go into a detailed biography about Corelli here, she’s such a complex and fascinating personality that volumes could be, and have been, written about her. There are far better places to read about her life and works, here’s a couple of good place to begin:
So, The Mighty Atom, let’s start at the beginning.
Corelli gives us quite an opening page. We’re on the North Devon coast at the tail end of a raging storm. We follow a bird, a Robin, as it flits from the shelter of a bush and flies across the battered landscape before landing on the windowsill of a large house. Inside, a small, pale boy is hard at work, studying at his desk; he notices the Robin singing but it doesn’t distract him enough to leave his work and he goes on studying. This sets the theme of the novel perfectly; outside is the world, wild nature and god; inside is books, study and intellect; the small boy is trapped in one and longs for the other.
This is the home of John Valliscourt, a Victorian gent; brash, domineering and an uncompromising atheist; a petty tyrant bringing up his son, Lionel, to be a mirror of his own beliefs. Through a series of tutors young Lionel is put through a rigid regime of education, concentrating on the scientific and the intellect at the expense of the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. Thus, the 10 year old boy is intelligent beyond his years but weak, sickly and craving spiritual nourishment; craving love. Lionel sees the existence of god as giving a point to life; if the universe, as he has been taught, began by chance from a mere atom then that universe can only ever be cold and uncaring. Lionel is a boy going through an existential crisis.
So, is this an existential novel? Of course, the heyday of the existential novel came a good 40 or 50 years after The Mighty Atom and whereas those later existential authors tended to write from an atheistic/agnostic viewpoint, Corelli seems to follow the earlier Kierkegaardian existentialism which comes from a Christian perspective. Whereas the later existentialists looked at an individual’s choices in a godless universe, Kierkegaard looked at the individual’s choices in relation to a deity and the matter of the soul.
Lionel wants a soul but he’s worried that he doesn’t have one as he has not been raised as a Christian. He desperately wants love to exist, something he does not receive from his strict father and rarely gets from his mother (look out for the harrowing ‘re-birth’ scene!). If, as Kierkegaard says, “God is love”, when God is removed from the universe then so is love. The 10 year old Lionel, with all his education, can see no point in living in a universe without god and without love.
So, we have a novel about a young boy going through an existential crisis. It doesn’t exactly sound like a contender for Wheatley to include in his Library of The Occult collection. He explains his decision in his introduction:
“The spirit, or soul, of a person is non-material, and so a factor ‘beyond the range of ordinary knowledge’; which quotation comes from the definition of the word ‘occult’ as given in the Oxford Dictionary. Upon these grounds I feel justified in including this book by Marie Corelli in our Library; for it is the story of a young boy grappling with the problem of whether he has, or has not, a soul.”
But I think there’s more to it than that. Not only was Corelli an important author in the genre, many of her novels contained mystical/occult themes, but if we take The Mighty Atom on its own merit then it gives us a fascinating take on the horror genre. I think we can agree that many (if not most) horror stories are based on a fear of the ‘other’, a fear of the supernatural; whereas Corelli’s The Mighty Atom is based on a fear of the non-existence of the supernatural!
The fear that this is all there is. The fear that we are completely alone in an absurd, accidental universe and we all have to confront the complete and utter pointlessness of our individual and collective existence.
What can be more terrifying than that?