The nine stories in this small book are strange and unusual. They deal with ghosts, angels, shape-shifting, and weird, dream-like states in which unexpected and sometimes terrifying events occur. The people in them move between the normal world of ordered everyday experience and the imaginative, chaotic world of the subconscious.
Hughes is especially good at drawing us into the mind of his characters so that we experience everything through their thoughts and feelings. So, in one story, we share the Beckett-like world of a man isolated in snow, with no memory of how he got there and with only an old, wooden chair to confirm the existence of some other, human, world. To wall out nature’s chaos, this man tries to deal only with ‘truth’ and ‘facts’, but the seductive attraction of chaos lures him into an irrational and deadly game.
In other stories, wild, animal energies disturb the equanimity of the human mind and create an hallucinatory half-world in which reality and identity become uncertain. Sunstruck in the heat of a harvest meadow, a man changes places with a hare that is trapped in the dwindling square of corn. In a rain-sodden landscape another man experiences the menacing power of a strange horse which threatens and follows him.
All the stories, three of which are previously unpublished, are intense, imaginative explorations of our place in the world of nature. They describe human negotiations with energies (caged or unrestrained) which are part of us, just as we are part of them, so that we ignore them at our peril.
That this is the theme of the stories is not immediately apparent, because each has its own compact and self-contained fascination. But, in his Foreword, Hughes says that they hang together in his own mind “as an accompaniment” to his poetry, and he refers us to the alchemical origins of his title as explanation.
This will confuse those who know nothing about alchemy, even if they have read Hughes’ poetry. But the arduous procedures of alchemy have the same pattern as the shamanic journey, and have a similar spiritual purpose. The alchemist, like the shaman, must ‘die’ to the material world and enter the dangerous, often hellish, underworld in order to bring back some healing energies to our world. Hughes, as alchemist/shaman, uses our imaginative powers to take us with him on this journey.
In his introductory note to this book , Hughes says that he first came across the phrase, ‘difficulties of a bridegroom’, in about 1962 and that this became the working title of everything he wrote “for the next few years”. What he does not say (and perhaps these stories and much of his other work would be more widely understood if he did) is that at this time he was working on a verse-drama based on the seventeenth-century hermetic text, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae.
Hughes calls Andreae’s work a “crucial seminal work… a tribal dream”, and its influence on him was profound. Several poems grew from the verse-drama he was writing, but it remained unfinished. From it, however, came the Crow voice and, eventually, Crow himself. More importantly, the alchemical quest, the spiritual journey in search of enlightenment and wholeness, became the focus and guide for his creative work from then on.
These stories, then, which span some forty years of Hughes’ creative life and contain many of his personal experiences, can be seen as part of the journey which Hughes makes as an alchemist/poet/bridegroom whose subject (and prospective bride) is Nature.
‘The Deadfall’, which Hughes chose as “the natural overture to the sequence”, describes in vivid detail ‘the call’ which traditionally begins the journey to the spirit world. It tells of events on a hunting expedition Hughes made with his older brother, and, although it is not necessary to read the poems, there are clear links with ‘Two’, ‘Hardcastle Crags’, and ‘The Ancient Briton Lay Under His Rock’ (Remains of Elmet, 1979), and with a more recent poem, ‘Anniversary’ (New Selected Poems, 1995). Most intriguing, in this story, is the resemblance between the carved, bone fox found by the boy and the Japanese netsuke pictured on Hughes’ book Wolfwatching (1989). How much of this story is fact, how much fiction, is impossible to tell.
‘The Wound’, takes us into a demon-filled underworld. So, too, does ‘The Head’. But it is in this final story that the hunter/journeyer/shaman achieves a reconciliation, a marriage of sorts, with nature.
Certainly, without some knowledge of Hughes’ purpose and of the great range of world mythologies from which he draws his images, there is blood and violence enough to confirm Hughes’ critics in their negative views. But the beauty is there too. And the poetic power of Hughes’ story-telling voice carries you through strange and magical events, so that most readers will find the stories absorbing and their imaginations will have been stirred even if, finally, some of the tales leave them puzzled
For Hughes, as for Blake, imagination is the key to regeneration and re-integration of the energies. It is, as he once wrote, one way “to unlock the doors of all those mansions inside the head” and to “really possess our own experience”. In this way, he believes, we can learn to live in harmony with nature.