27 September 2022

The Dark Side of Chesterton: Gargoyles and Grotesques

Tho' I doubt he remembers, the author of the book reviewed here and I were friends fifty years ago as students at the University of Kansas.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By David Deavel, PhD

The Dark Side of Chesterton: Gargoyles and Grotesquesby John C. Tibbetts, with a foreword by Dale Ahlquist (221 pages, McFarland, 2021)

Though an apostle of joy and common sense, Chesterton’s work, especially his stories, has hideous and frightening images running through from beginning to end. What is the place of the grotesque, the nihilistic, and evil itself in his work? Was it something overcome by the beautiful, the true, and the good? “Did his gaiety surmount evil,” Garry Wills asked, “or simply ignore it?” This is the burden of John C. Tibbetts’s “inquiry” titled The Dark Side of Chesterton.

Tibbetts is no theologian or philosopher, but instead a literary scholar at the University of Kansas. Thus his enquiry is very tentative about offering theological and philosophical solutions to the conundrum at the heart of his book. (For an academic philosophical examination, one can look at Mark Knight’s Chesterton and Evil.) Tibbetts gestures toward what Chesterton called “the carnival of theology” quite often but is content to be a carnival barker, shouting out the great attractions as they appear in Chesterton’s work and declaiming their wonders. And when he does lay out the explanations of the mysteries given either within Chesterton’s stories or in his other writing or interviews, Tibbetts quite often asks whether the explanations actually explain; “Will Someone Please Explain the Explanation?” is the fourth chapter’s title. “Let the tale be told!” he exclaims several times throughout the course of this meaty but readable book. Indeed, “Let the Tale Be Told” is the title of his second chapter and the last line of the sixth.

Which tale? Well, Tibbetts gives a kind of grand tour of Chesterton’s fiction in six chapters, along with an “interlude” in which he looks at the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’s estimation of and influence by Chesterton. The first chapter is a meditation on Chesterton’s use of the grotesque, especially “deranged cathedrals” of a Gothic sort and gargoyles in particular, detailing the influence here of Browning and Dickens on Chesterton’s sensibilities. Tibbetts quite rightly, in my view, explains the function of Chesterton’s use of all this weirdness as a visual pointer to paradox and the mystery of good and evil as they appear in this life, what Chesterton himself called “the chaos of damnation and the aspiration of the faith.”

Starting with the second chapter, Tibbetts begins his trek through Chesterton’s work, starting with Chesterton’s “weird tales,” then the detective stories of Father Brown and all the rest of his detectives (Chapter Three), the specifically “locked room” and “miracle crime” stories (Four), the stories that may be counted as science fiction (Five), and The Man Who Was Thursday and The Surprise (Six). The reader who has not read the stories or novels in each chapter should be advised that Tibbetts’s book is filled with spoilers.

Tibbetts’s inquiry proceeds by evaluating Chesterton’s stories not just in terms of technique and rhetoric around the bad and the ugly, but also the plot devices in which they appear. And he is not afraid to judge when Chesterton’s devices—such as the occasional hidden staircase—are somewhat lame and even the great Gilbert nods. Such judgments come in particularly in the chapter on locked room and miracle crimes, in which Tibbetts, also a scholar of the prolific John Dickson Carr, outlines both Chesterton’s stated rules, laid out in his capacity as first president of the Detection Club, and Carr’s about how real detective fiction ought to work. Chesterton himself violated his own rules and best practices, sometimes adverting to the fact in stories through his characters. Even when they work, however, one of the big questions is precisely how the explanations truly explain at a deeper level, since that deeper explanation of life and the world is perhaps the biggest difference between Chestertonian solutions and those offered by Sherlock Holmes and other clue-mongering detectives.

That chapter includes some of the best of what are present throughout the book: illustrations. Tibbetts includes not only a number of his own (mostly very good) paintings and drawings of Chesterton but also some of Chesterton’s own illustrations for his weird tales and also classic covers of many of the works of Chesterton and other authors mentioned. One of the most delightful cover illustrations depicts Carr’s detective Gideon Fell, who was based on Chesterton—and drawn to look exactly like him.

Along with the covers and illustrations, Tibbetts’s work is valuable for citation of both contemporary reviews and later evaluations of Chesterton, especially those of later important writers such as Ray Bradbury. These are particularly interesting in the chapter on Chesterton’s works counted as science fiction. The reader will probably quibble: though the spaceships of The Ball and the Cross and the alternate history of The Flying Inn render them apt for the chapter, does Manalive really fit here? I suppose it fits with science fiction’s aim as Tibbetts sees it: to remind us, as Chesterton did, of the precious and fragile nature of our situation of living “on a star.”

The final chapter’s attention to Thursday is truly sensible as it is undoubtedly Chesterton’s most recognized and mysterious story. Despite denying his theological credentials, Tibbetts wisely discusses the book in connection with Chesterton’s essay on the book of Job. There the great mystery of evil ties in to a deeper mystery, one that, like Lewis’s Aslan, is good but definitely not tame. Chesterton’s “dark side” is inextricably linked to the conquering light so bright it appears darkness to us on Jordan’s nearer side.

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