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Is this book dire or dazzling? Read my review and get the inside dope

Hell and The Infernal Comedy

Per a Spirit-Message Therefrom (Alleged)
John Armstrong Chaloner
The Palmetto Press
Edition / Year
New Enlarged Edition, 1924
In the section labelled

The author, John Armstrong Chaloner (born Chanler), known as Archie to his friends, made frequent appearances in the American press of the early 20th century.  A member of the wealthy Astor family, he was married to another favourite of the gossip columns, the writer Amélie Rives. Chaloner was noted for his eccentricity and was for a while imprisoned as a lunatic; some recent commentators have suggested that he suffered from bipolar disorder.

If you were seeking evidence of Chaloner's sanity, "Hell and The Infernal Comedy" would not be the place to look. Rambling, obsessive, incomprehensible, repetitious and far too long, it certainly seems to this inexpert observer to be the product of a disordered mind.

The body of the book concerns a "spirit-message" transmitted via planchette from Chaloner's deceased friend Thomas Jefferson Miller ("Uncle Tom", as Chaloner refers to him), describing in detail the nature of the afterlife and Hell in particular. Unusually, Chaloner while presenting Miller's message in full states several times that he "does not believe a word of it". Rather, he reckons that Miller's supposed words were invented by him, Chaloner, unconsciously through a mysterious means he calls the "X-Faculty".

Whether the message really came from Chaloner's dead friend or not, it seems to have worked on his imagination, as he repeats the substance of it several times in different guises, including the text of newspaper reports of his press conferences, such as this one:


John Armstrong Chaloner, the former husband of Amelie Rives, claims to have a sixteen-page typewritten interview in which a disembodied spirit describes Hades and the devil. His Satanic Majesty is described as of medium height and stocky build, with the face of Napoleon Bonaparte and habiliments like those of Michel Angelo's statue, "The Thinker" [sic - it is of course by Rodin]. According to Chaloner's report, Satan has no horns. The beef trust will not hail this news with joy. It will now be necessary to change all the labels on devilled ham.

- Albany, N.Y., Press, August 7, 1912.

(Devilled ham! Oh, my aching sides!)

The actual transcript of the communication is of course reproduced. As well as a novel portrait of Hell and its principal inhabitant, it has other delights to offer, such as this piece of metaphysics:

The great Pythagoras was right in his doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls from man to man, woman to woman, and animals to men; vice versa, etc., etc. (You do surprise me) I thought I would. Thus a man called Brown may not be Brown man not at all, but only a negligible fraction of him: the real Brown being split up into fractions, and parcelled out into as many as a dozen men. Eventually all Brown will be gathered together into the soul of Brown - but it may take a thousand years. (There you surprise me again, Uncle alleged). I fancied I might, Archie. When St Paul spoke about ther dead being risen, he was correct; but not until their final incarnation has been accomplished - which may require a series of incarnations running through as many as ten centuries. I am Marshall Ney in his full perfection and completion of soul, which includes intellect, heart and physique.

 The interjections in parentheses are Chaloner talking to Miller (or himself). The reference to Marshall Ney may be understood if I explain that Miller claims that after death, through the process of reincarnation he describes, he has turned into Ney: having had in life merely "one-quarter of his personality".

As Ney, Miller undergoes a series of literally hellish ordeals before being shown to his "home for years", a sort of monk's cell where he is destined to spend eternity in prayer. As he says, "life below decks has a very serious side to it. A side that bores all wordly [sic, for "worldly"] people to stupefaction".

Imagine the joy of the reader when having read thus far he turns the page to find that Chaloner thought it would be a good idea to continue his theme in verse. This is "The Infernal Comedy", a sequence of sonnets a very long way after Dante, about the supposed fate in the afterlife of one of his clubland acquaintances. (In his introduction he proudly boasts that various reviews have acknowleged his verses to be in sonnet form , as though their structure were in itself an important achievement). Here's a passage where the unfortunate soul encounters a "mighty throng" of the damned, including some he'd known in earthly form:

The leaders by this time were near at hand,
The faces of each he 'gan with vim to scan.
He caught a chair -- or he had failed to stand --
When he encountered that of the first man.
It was a Judge of high and wide renown
Learned and upright as a ramrod he
Who seldom wore the dark Judicial frown
For he was known for geniality
Above the sod he'd known his Honour well
And with him at the Club had oft played pool
His horror hence at finding him in Hell
And so cut up was something far from cool.
The Judge gazed on him with an awful eye
That seemed to say: 'Ask me not how or why'!

Our friend -- whose tact was vast -- said not a word
But bowed and smiled as he had been on earth.
This in the Judge struck sympathetic chord --
Of friendly manner had he ne'er shown dearth.
Our friend then glanced beyond -- and wild amaze
Did hold him rigid as a statue cold
Whose fearful shock his nerve did nearly 'faze' --
It was a Bishop -- if truth must be told!
A Bishop in his Church -- Episcopal --
Of fame so lily-white and sacrosanct
That for an Angel he seemed formed as 'pal'
And all who failed to worship were thought 'cranked.'
'What's coming next!' Our friend in horror thought
'Who'd ever thought his Rev'rence could be caught'!

Note Chaloner's careless admixture of archaisms with slang, and his equally slapdash approach to rhythm and metre: it's rather like an amateur player of the crumhorn having a go at Dixieland jazz.

Any determined reader who survives the tortures of these truly Satanic verses will still have only got halfway through the book; unbelievably, it gets even worse. Here's part of Chaloner's introduction to his "Second Spirit Message (Alleged) From Hell":

The romance of "Marmaduke Grantham" and "Lucile Sternold" -- placed between quotation marks because fictitious names, to conceal the alleged actual romance of actual Washingtonians recently deceased -- the romance of these charming personalities in the Land Beyond the Grave, fills the long-felt want --- allows the male or female novel-reader to luxuriate in surely the most resplendent dreams of satisfied love and satisfied ambition ever put to paper, and the writer is fully aware of the largeness of that preceding phrase. There is no shadow of conceit in the same, since the writer did not write the said romance -- it is strictly the production of his Subconsciousness -- named by him his X-Faculty, or Unknown Faculty. Being a Medium, according to so distinguished and honored an authority as the late William James, M. D., Professor of Psychology at Harvard University -- but at the same time, admitted by Professor James to be an utter disbeliever in Spiritualism -- and instead, charging up all his spiritualistic phenomena such as Automatic Writing, Automatic Speech, Trances and Trance-Like States, to the at-present utterly unknown, utterly Science-baffling force which produces what the Father of the X-Ray -- for without his invention there could be no X-Ray -- what the inventor of Crookes' Tubes -- what Sir William Crookes, in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911, terms most scientifically and succinctly: "percussion without impact" -- vulgarly known as "spirit rappings".

Unfortunately Chaloner's X-Faculty is no less long-winded and fond of dashes than he is, and I fear that his "male and female novel-reader" ready to "luxuriate" in the "most resplendent dreams ... ever put to paper" may be rare creatures indeed. I shan't test your patience with the tedious details of the story of Marmaduke and Luclle and their afterlife love affair in the enclave of Valhalla, but here's a brief extract from its very welcome conclusion:

At that moment, Lucile saw appear before her -- on the usual spot -- a object which -- in spite of her heroic self-command -- forced a piercing scream from her. It was nothing less than a boa-constrictor, at least thirty feet long, which crawled determinedly -- and slowly -- towards her lover. Marmaduke this time began -- when the snake was within ten feet -- leaping -- six or more feet at a bound -- from side to side -- crouching low, shield held low, and sword raised as though to deliver -- for the first time -- instead of a thrust -- a blow. The snake slowly approached. When within three feet, it opened its cavernous jaws, emitting at the same time, a hiss like a steam whistle -- or rather like the escape of steam from the sides of a steam locomotive, just getting into motion. At the same time, it raised its head and the first yard or so of its length. Marmaduke at once delivered a swinging blow which -- to Lucile's unspeakable relief -- completely severed the reptile's head from its body. Marmaduke, his sword still in his hand, dashed down the line of the snake, cutting it into sections, six feet long -- each blow severing portions of the serpent asunder. When he had cut the snake up, it disappeared -- writhing hideously before it did so -- as had all his former adversaries. Once more he dried his trusty sword on the sand. Once more he turned to salute his lady-love. As he did so, a hidden chorus of female voices sang as follows:

"Hero! Now thy foes are gone.
Bravely hast thou fought the fight.
Gaze upon the prize thou'st won.
Rest thy soul in her delight."

Marmaduke, had previously vanquished a rhinocerous and gorilla in much the same way and on the same ground. I suppose this sort of next world, in which the hero swings a big sword to get the girl, might appeal to fans of Conan the Barbarian, though I don't think Robert E. Howard would ever have named a warrior "Marmaduke" nor written such a domesticated exchange as the one that concludes Chaloner's tale:

"Marmaduke, did you ever conceive of anything to compare with the Arabian Night's magic of Valhalla?"

"Never, my darling", replied Marmaduke.

Yes, bloody combat with monstrous beasts is just peachy, my darling.

Chaloner finishes off his exhausting tome with a couple of lectures he gave on the subject of his mediumistic experiences, the second of which includes the following curious little story in support of his views on the subconscious:

[After a visit to the cinema] The street was fairly well-lighted and I sauntered along fearing no evil. Just as I reached a certain spot opposite an exceedingly high stoop -- at least ten or fifteen feet in the air -- I felt my head turn involuntarily, sharply, to the right. I was about to turn my head voluntarily back again, when I found my gaze riveted upon one of the fattest women I have ever seen outside of a show. Now fat fascinates me -- I admit frankly that that falls under the head of a peculiarity -- but I cannot help it. I am so to speak -- "built that way". I love to look at a fat man, or a fat woman -- they say: "Nobody loves a fat man." I love a fat man -- to look at --and how much more a fat woman! Therefore, finding such a monstrously fine specimen with which to delight my eye -- I happened not to have seen a fat person for weeks -- my gaze -- as aforesaid became riveted -- became fixed. Now much as I like fat people, I do not allow my said idiosyncrasy to destroy my manners -- I do not stand still -- for instance -- and stare at the first fat man, or woman, I meet -- I walk on. Therefore I had no idea of stopping when I saw this lady of the embonpoint but -- on the contrary -- saw to it that my gait was -- if anything -- more brisk, and lively while looking at her, than before.

Now here comes the tragic sequence to this comedy. The Subconscious, which had been lying in wait for me, for weeks and weeks, had chosen the spot well. Just a step or two beyond where it -- my Subconscious -- had shown me the fat lady -- of course the Subconscious knows the inside of our minds as familiarly as it does the interior of our bodies, and therefore it was well aware of my penchant for fat people, and chose the bait for for the hook with which it proposed to to bring me to land -- being me to the ground -- to be more exact -- just a step or two beyond where my Subconscious turned my head to the right -- as aforesaid -- the old-fashioned pavement -- of huge stone flags -- rose just one little inch and a half -- above the surrounding sidewalk. Therefore my brisker gait was my destruction: for my foor struck the inch, or inch and a half rise, and hurled me flat on my face -- I just had time to throw out my hands and save myself from a broken tooth, or a broken nose. But I cut my knee open and suffered great pain at the time.

Clearly Chaloner was at the mercy of powerful forces beyond his control. Strangely he does not blame his Subconscious for making him write this exceedingly irksome book, even though it's a far greater error than stumbling in the street. Anyone who has read it will certainly know what "great pain" is.

(Chaloner and Rives are the subject of a recent book, should you want to learn more about this intriguing figure.)


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Submitted by Francois Tremblay on 07 May 2008 - 10:36 Permalink

It's all the subconscious' fault, isn't it? Poor subconscious just gets no credit for the stuff it does, like regulating our temperature or breathing. It just gets blamed for us liking fat women and falling flat on the pavement because of it.