If there’s a dafter book in the Library of Wales series I’ll eat my hat and then scoff some gloves. This curate’s egg of a novel, first laid on the eve of the Second World War is based on a crazy, hard-to-credit premise. And yet, in that way that whimsy and eccentricity can eventually win one over, it does manages to keep the reader with it. That said it is eccentric and daft as a brush. I imagine Monty Python fans would enjoy it with relish. And a little bit of mustard.
So what is this premise? A chemist called Roper isolates a new drug which, if ingested, gives one telepathic control over everyone within a range of two hundred and fifteen yards. He, and various other users employ its mesmerizing powers in various ways, leading eventually to a showdown with the government of the day who send in the troops and have no qualms about using artillery to make sure the drug and its users are destroyed.
In essence the book is an examination of the ramifications of the existence of such a drug. In this speculation it belongs to a creditable stable of volumes such as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and, even more closely to his Brave New World, published seven years earlier than Davies’ novel. Indeed it shares with Huxley’s utopian tome a consideration of the effects of complete happiness.
In Huxley’s novel the discovery and production of a drug called soma, which can deliver human contentment and would probably lead to the end of great art, as a bit of artistic suffering seems de rigeur and somehow necessary.
In Davies’ version, using the drugs leads to murder, bank robbery and sexual seductions and misdemeanors. There’s even an early episode where some folk get turned into dogs, running around on all fours, and another where a milkman’s pony is mesmerized. Pythonesque? Indubitably. Indeed, some of the characters in the novel might well have been invented by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, such as Roper’s landlady:
It was a woman and she made me think at once of the Eiffel Tower. She was very tall, and very thin, a spectre with a shawl round its skeleton.The shoulder blades stuck up like an old horse’s.
‘Mr Roper please?’
She moved to one side spectrally and closed the door softly behind me.I felt as if I had been captured by an ogre. The hall was dark and I almost blundered into a hat stand so full of pegs that it looked like a harrowturned sideways up.
Howell Davies was quite a character himself, though not as grotesque as this spectral landlady. I’d ‘read’ some of his work in the past. For nigh on half a century he was the editor of the Latin America Handbook, that Bible sized guide to South America which always delighted the reader and proved invaluable for getting out of that scrape in Caracas, or finding lodgings in the back of a Nicaraguan beyond. But Davies had never been there, he hadn’t ever set foot on Latin American soil.
Born in 1896 on a farm in Felingwm near Carmarthen, Howell Davies served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War and was wounded twice. He was subsequently educated at the Sorbonne, Oxford and Aberystwyth and wrote a clutch of science-fiction/fantasy novels, some of which were widely serialized, although because he wrote under a non de plume of ‘Andrew Marvell’ they were not generally ascribed to him. He was gregarious and listed Dylan Thomas, John Wyndham and Dannie Abse among his friends and was a regular denizen of the drinking dens of Soho and Fitzrovia where he was renowned for being very good company.
Congratulate the Devil is one of the least well-known of his books, due in part to its appearance just before the outbreak of war in 1939. It’s a difficult book to read if you don’t accept its basic premise, and a drug that gives someone telepathic control needs, one feels, some scientific explanation beyond its being a mysterious extra component in a batch of mescaline which has just been smuggled in to the country. It’s a frothy and frivolous confection of a novel which you finish because it’s amiable enough, then put it down and promptly forget pretty much entirely. Or maybe that’s just that crazy drug at work. After all, there are always side effects…