The last book by renowned author Ron Weighell had to be a major event. King Satyr is a novel - albeit a fairly short one - that includes major elements of autobiography, quite a few characters based on real people, and some excellent set-pieces. But we all know the unspoken (or sometimes spoken) question whenever a posthumous work by a much-loved writer appears. Does it disappoint?
So far, the answer is no. I'm up to page 71 and finding it challenging but far from dull. King Satyr is such a densely-woven tapestry of ideas that it deserves the epithet Borgesian. I am splitting this review into at least two parts as I thought it might be interesting to share the journey with anyone who reads this blog (there must be somebody, there are viewing figures). One expects KS to be Machenesque, of course, as Ron Weighell was a great admirer of Machen. It is also M.R. Jamesian in that it involves the protagonist, Cyrus, piecing together disparate fragments of information. But it is (so far) more of a work of mysticism than horror or 'weird fiction' though it contains much of both.
Yes, but what's it about? Well, it's an interesting take on what someone has dubbed the Silurian Hypothesis. This is the idea that another intelligent species existed on earth before humans evolved. Weighell adds a fascinating dimension to the idea as Cyrus uncovers evidence that this earlier race consisted of satyrs, long-lived beings with extraordinary intellects and powers. They went into a decline with the arrival of 'the Galilean' faith, perhaps a nod to Swinburne. But the satyrs, while driven out of their cities and temples, did not quite become extinct...
I should emphasise that this is not a spoiler - evidence of the satyrs' reality is there from the start, in a series of episodes that work as first-rate standalone stories. A British expedition in late Georgian times goes in search of antiquaries in the Agaean, only to find a mysterious island where grotesque creatures lurk. A truly foul Renaissance Duke, a cousin perhaps of the one in Browning's famous poem, keeps a tormented satyr in a cage. And in the early twentieth century a visionary artist called Gaunt seems to have a hotline to another reality where the cloven-footed beings thrive, and disappears in mysterious circumstances.
Alongside this obsession with a lost race of superior beings (shades of Erich von Daniken, too?), Cyrus pursues the life of a lonely visionary. His fixation with satyrs follows a startling, unexplained encounter that leaves him an outsider, drifting from job to job, until he becomes part of Sixties counterculture. He narrowly escapes joining a cult led by a Crowleyesque figure, and starts to investigate magic(k) in fact and fiction. This leads him via antiquarian dealers to an encounter with a writer called Campion, a wickedly believable portrait of Dennis Wheatley. Campion is rich, vain, and bigoted, but does provide some information on a particular summoning ritual.
So far, so intriguing. I've only given a taste of how much erudition is on offer here, how many homages paid to so many authors. Some sections might be influenced by the fantasists of the inter-war years, especially Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Abraham Merritt. The central idea of the lurking satyr, inspiring both wonder and panic terror, is so powerful that it starts to bewitch the reader as it does Cyrus. Having left Campion/Wheatley, what will his next move be? Pop back in a few days and find out. Suffice to say that, at around the halfway mark, I think this is a major work of imaginative fiction and a worthy epitaph to a much-loved and truly unique writer.