Weird Journey to Hell via Meteor Blast in Wales is ‘Baroque Frenzy of a Book’

Morwyn by John Cowper Powys

Reviewed by JON GOWER

Described on the cover as “A classic novel of a terrifying journey into hell” this is classic Powys – visionary, compelling and in great part bonkers.  First published in 1937 it’s a tale told in the form of a father’s letter to a son in which he describes a journey into the underworld in the company of the eponymous and very beautiful Morwyn (which means “maid” in Welsh) and his faithful spaniel Black Peter. 

En route they meet a crazy cast of characters, including the Marquis de Sade, the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada and the Emperor Nero and so find that hell is populated with exponents of cruelty, including Morwyn’s father, a professional, Home Office approved vivisector. He’s the sort of man who will tell a crowd of phantoms exactly what he’d do to a dog to allow him to keep it: “I’ll cut out his organs and keep him alive; I’ll drive nails into his paws!  I’ll squirt virus into his brain!  I’ll drown him by inches!  I’ll plunge his head into plaster of Paris!  I’ll bake him…” And the list goes on.  Morwyn’s father is not an RSPCA supporter.

The band of misfit travellers have fallen into hell after a meteorite blasts open a great hole in the Welsh mountains and when they get there they find that weird transport is provided, as they travel on floating islands of black snow.  Men carve images of dinosaurs being cruel to each other. Morlochs stray in from the science fiction of H.G. Wells. Huge television screens delight the denizens of hell, showing scenes of laboratory experiments on animals, or “nothing less than a direct reproduction of all the worst Vivisection Laboratories in Europe and America.” 

Indeed vivisection is the great, overarching theme of the novel just as it features in many others of John Cowper Powys’s works and in Morwyn we’re told simply that sadists created hell.  Their own hell in this case.  As that British doyen of horror writing Dennis Wheatley says in the introduction to the version of the book included in The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult: “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.”

This may not be a great Powys novel to rival the quartet of novels made up of A Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle and Wolf Solent or the brilliant Autobiography but it’s a racy and absorbing read nevertheless.  A book that features the Welsh bard Taliesin, Socrates, the magician Merlin and the author Rabelais in its crazy cast of characters makes it a veritable curate’s egg to begin with.  But when the oddball plot hatches out, complete with a trial presided over by the immortal judge Rhadamanthus of Crete (yes, that Rhadamanthus) and some talking monkeys to boot you have all the vital ingredients for a baroque, imagination-frenzy of a novel.  For much of his life Powys harboured an ambition to be a magician.  Here, he conjures up nothing less than the gaping maw of hell itself.  It’s somehow hard to believe John Cowper Powys did so without ingesting a ton of magic mushrooms in the mountains around his north Wales home. 

Powys’s Morwyn rivals William Blake in terms of vision, though tempered with a touch of Monty Python surrealism.  He is a one-off, of that there is no single scrap of doubt.

(Morwyn by John Cowper Powys, Sphere Books, 1977, chosen as part of the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult.)



As well as contributing to Horla, reviewer Jon Gower is an award-winning Wales-based writer and broadcaster.

(Photo: Emyr Jenkins)