The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult
John Cowper Powys
Sphere, 1977

After the First World War there was an extraordinary upsurge of literary talent. Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Foster, Graham Greene, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Violet Sackville West, Ernest Hemmingway and the Sitwells were among that galaxy of stars that rose above the horizon to delight book lovers.

With them emerged the Powys brothers– Theodore, Llewellyn and John Cowper. Their first editions are now all collector’s pieces, and I am happy to think that I have no less than thirty-one of them, nearly all autographed, on my shelves.

John Cowper’s major works were three very long novels, all of which he took several years to write: Ducdame, first published in 1925; A Glastonbury Romance, 1933; and Morwyn in 1937.

Morwyn consists mainly of a description of Hell in a letter written by a middle-aged man to his son. Since his name is not given we must refer to him as ‘the writer’.

The story opens in mountainous Welsh countryside. The writer lives there and his neighbour is a well-known scientist, whose name is not given either. The scientist has a twenty-year-old, exceptionally beautiful, daughter called Morwyn. For her the writer has a most desperate passion in which idolatry is blended with lust. She responds, at least to the extent of welcoming his companionship, and they frequently go for walks together, accompanied by their dogs. Hers is named Bessie; his, a spaniel, Black Peter.

One evening he calls to take her for a walk up the mountain. They meet in the farmyard of the house where she lives. To his intense annoyance she tells him that her father will join them in a minute; but on this occasion she is not taking Bessie.

The writer, Morwyn, her father and Black Peter then set off together. In pursuing his studies the scientist frequently practises vivisection, particularly on dogs. Sensing this, Black Peter shrinks away.

Soon after they reach the top of the mountain, dark clouds gather, lightning flashes and a large meteorite descends with a terrific crash on the rocks nearby, splitting them open. Morwyn’s father is killed, but standing beside his corpse is his spiritual body, the face recognizable but transparent, wearing solid clothes.

A few minutes later the writer realises that he, Black Peter, Morwyn and her father’s spirit have all been engulfed by the upheaval and are in a deep cavern below the mountain top. This, it transpires, is a small part of a great area that constitutes Hell.

It is peopled by innumerable spirits who, like the dead scientist, have transparent flesh but are wearing solid garments. They are of many nations and although they cannot speak aloud they can convey thoughts to one another in a language common to them all.

After a while it transpires that the only sin for which people are sent to Hell is cruelty, either to fellow humans or animals; and the population there consists of two types – religious fanatics and vivisectionists. Both, in life, enjoyed inflicting pain and continue to do so by supernatural means. The spirit of Morwyn’s father therefore finds Hell to be, for him, Heaven. But his still living companions are naturally horrified.

During a long series of strange adventures they meet the spirits of Torquemada, infamous for the part he played in the Spanish Inquisition, the Marquis de Sade, the Emperor Nero, Calvin, Gilles de Rais and many other historically prominent personalities.

From another part of this vast underground world Socrates appears. His face suggests only faintly that he is a ghost and he discourses on numerous philosophies. In the course of a trial before the immortal judge, Rhadamanthus of Crete, the great Athenian opposes a vivisectionist who argues that inflicting pain on animals is justified in the search for knowledge.

Clearly the author is a fanatical anti-vivisectionist. But the book is, nevertheless, a great imaginative tour de force and his contention that cruelty, whether inflicted on religious grounds or by the scientist’s knife, is the greatest of all sins cannot be lightly put aside.