Guest Post: “A Few Words on Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger” by Oliver Langmead

twainm-mysteriousstrangermanuscriptsIn an 1895 notebook, Samuel Clemens (who you might better know by his pen name: Mark Twain) wrote,

“It is the strangest thing, that the world is not full of books that scoff at the pitiful world, and the useless universe and the vile and contemptible human race – books that laugh at the whole paltry scheme and deride it…. Why don’t I write such a book?”

During the last years of his life, Twain tried to write that book. He never finished it. Instead, he left us with three quite different incomplete attempted manuscripts, now carefully put together in one volume by the University of California Press as part of their Mark Twain series.

That being said… there is a book out there for you to buy called The Mysterious Stranger. There has been since 1916, when Albert Paine, Twain’s editor and literary executor, triumphantly brought to publication what he called Twain’s final novel. It would take until 1963 for his fraud to be uncovered. The truth is that there was no finished novel, and that The Mysterious Stranger as it remains in publication was the work of Albert Paine piecing together bits from Twain’s unfinished manuscripts.

I’ve been looking into the controversy surrounding The Mysterious Stranger for a while now, and I’ve read through the criticism and condemnation of Paine’s fraud, and each of the unfinished manuscripts as well. To me, the controversy remains tricky. The problem is that while Paine undoubtedly deceived a great many people, up until the discovery that his claims were untrue, he did actually end up putting together a story that works very well. I would even go so far as to say that The Mysterious Stranger as Paine put it together is my favourite of Twain’s books, and that Paine did it absolute justice.

It’s an angry book. It does exactly what Twain set out to do with it. Through the brilliant character of Satan, we get to laugh at the silliness of humanity. Twain’s signature irony is in full swing, and coupled with what feels like a boundless imagination, he brings Satan to life. I could write about the brilliance of The Mysterious Stranger for pages and pages (and in truth, I already have elsewhere), but I think it might even be an important book. I don’t think it will ever find as much wide recognition as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (another posthumously published critique of society starring Satan); it’s a little too far removed from its own time, despite Satan’s powers of premonition. But, at least to me personally, it was revelatory.

I first stumbled across it through a YouTube clip you might have seen, and I was hooked immediately. There was something about the uncanny angelic figure, its games, and the claymation that grabbed me. I quickly found myself a copy of the book and read it through. You might think, from the video, that The Mysterious Stranger was written for children, but it certainly wasn’t (though the second of Twain’s unfinished manuscripts was an attempt to do so). It was an exploration of human morality through the deceptively playful figure of Satan, and though Satan remains poised and witty, you can feel Twain’s anger in book – anger at mob justice, the absurdity of institutions (religious and governmental), and even anger at cosmic injustice. It seems like an attempt by Twain at trying to understand a world that he felt he understood less and less near the end of his life.

This year, my second book, Metronome, is being published, and it owes a tremendous amount to Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger. I wanted one of my most important characters to draw close to the unsympathetic, idly powerful, yet playful figure of Twain’s Satan. And I took a lot from the ending of The Mysterious Stranger, which I won’t spoil – only to say that while it’s abrupt (a result of Paine’s influence), and only two or three pages long, it remains one of the most powerful and evocative book endings I’ve ever read.

In the end, then, despite the controversy surrounding The Mysterious Stranger, I can’t recommend reading it enough. Pick up a copy and see how it makes you feel. And should Twain’s Satan inspire you in the same way that it inspired me, then perhaps you might like my own Twain-influenced work. I can, at the very least, promise some great surprises.


langmeado-metronomeOliver Langmead‘s Metronome is out now, published by Unsung Stories. Here’s the synopsis:

“You and I, we wear our wounds. I wear my scars, you wear your tattoos, and we don’t forget who we are.”

It is for the entities known as Sleepwalkers to cross the doors between dreams, and hunt the nightmares that haunt sleeping minds. Theirs is a world of impossible vistas, where reason is banished and only the imagination holds sway: the connected worlds that all sleeping minds inhabit, and the doors that lead between.

But tonight, one Sleepwalker has gone rogue. Abandoning her sworn oath to protect the dreamscapes, she has devoted herself to another cause, threatening to unleash a nightmare older than man. The only chance of stopping her lies with a man named Manderlay. Once a feted musician, William Manderlay is living his twilight years in an Edinburgh care home, riddled with arthritis and filled with a longing for his youth, for the open seas, and for the lost use of his hands and the violin he has always treasured.

For too long now, Manderlay’s nights have been coloured by dark, corrupted dreams: dreams of leprous men in landscapes plucked from his memory, of dark figures seeking him on city streets. His comrades in the retirement home believe Manderlay is giving in to age and senility — but the truth is much worse. For in dreams, maps are made from music — and it just might be that one of William Manderlay’s forgotten compositions holds the key to unleashing the nightmare that holds the world of dreams in balance. The Sleepwalkers are zoning in on him. He might be their saviour, or his music might be their damnation…

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