Patrick Harpur’s 1994 classic Daimonic Reality stands as one of the most interesting attempts to grapple with liminal ‘Fortean’ phenomena such as UFO sightings and abductions, crop circles, and the like. Taking them seriously without taking them literally, Harpur manages to tease out of the attested facts a richly challenging contention that they represent the ongoing life of the soul in the modern world. ‘Soul’ here owes little to the narrow conceptions of orthodox Christianity, and more to the wilder depths of shamanism, alchemy, and Neoplatonism, with its more-than-human vision of the anima mundi, the ‘soul of the world’. Flying saucers and their little grey occupants, in all their confounding elusiveness and implacability, are seen to represent incursions from the reality of the imagination, wearing masks that both pander to and mock the technological rationalism which has increasingly banished this reality.
The Good People, a novel, is essentially a dramatised trip through the realms explored in Daimonic Reality. It opens with a few ordinary people, in Acton in west London, witnessing a strange metallic cube appear in the sky. Maeve, the wife of the local vicar, doesn’t notice at first that nearly an hour of her time in the garden witnessing the thing has utterly vanished from her memory. The missing time creeps back through the narrative, in the process slowly dragging her back to her childhood in rural Ireland, laced with fairy lore. Heather, a failed dancer, is launched by the cube into a state of mystical ecstasy. Her humdrum world now transfigured with evolving meanings, she discovers a local cult which channels extraterrestrial warnings of apocalypse, and slowly unravels in a terrifying descent into apparent insanity. Alistair, the vicar, acts as a ‘non-witness’ foil to these stories, nevertheless caught up in the effects of the cube’s appearance, and forced to confront unfinished business from his youthful dabblings with the occult.
The milieu of this urban tale of uncanny happenings is genteel, respectability setting the bizarre phenomena into relief. Flashbacks to Ireland, an incident in an Irish pub lock-in in Acton, and a few scattered encounters with London’s seedier side, also suggest the way in which the ‘aliens’ get aligned with all manner of less exotic ‘others’. They challenge ‘civilisation’, in its specific sense of ordered decency, and for all the trappings of star-faring sophistication, they are wild in a sense that is much harder to categorise and dismiss than simple images of chaotic abandon.
This aspect governs the most effective passages, dealing with peculiar blends of schizophrenic paranoia, revelations of hidden order, and sheer terror. Potent enough to evoke any hidden fears of insanity in the reader, these passages also take you on mythic journeys, never letting go of the sense that necessary movements of the soul are taking place, even though the harsh realities and chemical mercies of modern psychiatry are also faced.
Occasionally a bit of conceptual exposition, hinting at the models for these experiences from Daimonic Reality, jars a little. But in all The Good People expertly blends endearing human ordinariness with profound ways of thinking about extraordinary experience. Indeed, when the alchemy between narrative and ideas really gets cooking, there is a palpable, believable sense that the liminal modes of apprehension apparently derived from obscure currents of esotericism owe as much, if not more, to the way ordinary people actually process hair-raising bizarreness, in private moments of casual honesty, away from the pressures of respectable conformity. Neither believing nor dismissing, a playful accommodation is reached, and folk wisdom aligns with the intelligence of exalted adepts.