The Original Tower of Moab?
L A Lewis’ ‘The Tower of Moab’ (from his Tales of the Grotesque, 1934) has in recent years received acclaim as one of the most original and striking supernatural tales of the 20th century. Championed by the eminent ghost story anthologist and scholar Richard Dalby, Lewis’ work has seen a revival which has included the hardback editions from The Ghost Story Press in 1994 and 2003, and now a paperback reprint (Shadow Publishing, 2014). Dalby, in his introductions, describes how he traced Lewis’ widow, and learnt from her of some of the author’s interest in the esoteric and occult, and also of the effect on him of certain hallucinations, and visions, which seem to have even led to spells in an asylum. The tower is also cited in the lyrics to ‘Lucifer Over London’ by Current 93, composed by David Tibet, who led the Ghost Story Press reprints.
The inspiration for his most praised story was, Dalby reports, “based on a real tower which was being built by an American religious sect, but never finished, at the time Lewis first saw it, supposedly somewhere in South London.” Though the location is not quite right, it is possible that the Tower Lewis had in mind was Jezreel’s Tower, founded in Gillingham, Kent, in the late 19th century, but still under construction well into the early 20th century. There are clues in the story that point to similarities with this Tower. The first is that the narrator compares it to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. And that was how contemporaries saw Jezreel’s Tower: a report in The Strand Magazine by E.J. Dark in 1903 was headed “A Modern Tower of Babel: The Jezreel Temple, Chatham”. The second is the shape of the edifice. Lewis describes it as “a gigantic hollow pillar…that was its simple form – four walls with a base perhaps fifty yards square and forming a plain, vertical shaft”. That was precisely what the Tower of Jezreel was meant to be: a huge cube. Even the dimensions Lewis describes are similar: the Tower was to have been 144 feet square, not far off the 150 feet in his story.
But perhaps the greatest evidence for Jezreel Tower as the original of The Tower of Moab is to be found in the beliefs informing the building of the real tower and the tower in the story. As John M. Court recounts in Approaching the Apocalypse (I B Tauris, 2008), the Jezreelians, who themselves preferred to be called members of the New and Latter House of Israel, were an offshoot from the Southcottians (more properly known as The Panaceans). The Jezreelians were founded circa 1875 by a soldier, originally James Rowland White, stationed at Chatham, who joined an existing small Southcottian breakaway group and soon took it over. He adopted the name James Jershom Jezreel.
Under his influence, they became an ardently millenarian group, who believed in the imminent end of all things, the Apocalypse prophesied in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation of St John the Divine. To hasten and welcome this, the group considered it was their duty to enact the signs of the end that the book described. Their Tower was the culmination of this duty, and was also to be the headquarters, refuge and sanctuary of true believers in preparation for the end.
The “obscure religious sect” in Lewis’ story had the idea of building until their tower “should reach heaven”. But the Tower of Moab is also inspired by Apocalypse: “The upper portion of each wall blossomed into a panel at least fifty feet high , representing some scene out of Biblical history or the Revelations…One looked like the Angel Gabriel sounding the Last Trump with an immense horn”. That image is of particular significance because James Jezreel was called by his followers ‘the Trumpeter’ and claimed that he was himself the sixth and last trumpeter of Revelation (9.13). Indeed, an excellent study of him, by P.G. Rogers, was entitled The Sixth Trumpeter: The Story of Jezreel and His Tower (Oxford University Press, 1963).
Jezreel’s teachings were gathered in a sturdy testament, The Flying Roll (roll meaning a scroll), dismissed by Church of England clergymen as a mere “Gnostic lucubration”. However, in this he proclaimed: “Blow the Trumpet in this land of England first, and say ‘England! The day of thy judgement is come: thou shalt be the first to be judged and the first to be redeemed. England!...All Israel shall be driven into this land.’” As this suggests, the Jezreelites also held an unusual form of British Israelite belief: not so much stressing that the Ten Lost Tribes had come to England (or Britain), as this belief generally involved, but that all the Saved would congregate in England at the End.
Though the foundation stone of the Tower was laid on 19 September 1885, the construction, and the funding of this, took many more years, and the actual elevation of the Tower could not begin until a vast subterranean vault was first made. This was intended to hold a printing press and depository for copies of the Flying Roll. Several upper levels were then added, but the group, never large in number, then began to falter. James Jezreel had died in March 1885, and his young wife Clarissa (“Queen Esther”), who succeeded him as head of the group, followed in 1888. Soon after, work on the Tower stopped.
In Lewis’ story too, “funds had become exhausted” and “the cult had also died out”: but the Tower remained, too expensive to demolish. His narrator learns this from a bus conductor when he asks about the unusually-named “Tower of Moab” bus stop. This is indeed interesting corroboration of the link to Jezreel’s Tower, because that too gave its name to a bus stop, even after the Tower was no more.
By 1913, the unfinished Tower was put up for auction in The Times. Over the years, the completed parts were adapted for use as factories or warehouses, and it is believed some members of the sect lived in rooms in other parts. Despite this descent from the original great plan, the Tower remained a major landmark for many years afterwards, and the final parts of it were only removed as late as 2008. Followers of the New and Latter House of Israel, not all of whom approved of the Tower, continued to be heard of long after work on it stopped, in various corners of England, but also, in several variant forms, in the USA, perhaps the origin of the recollection that it was an “American” sect that had built the tower that inspired the story. That aside, the numerous similarities between the real Jezreel’s Tower and fictional Tower of Moab do suggest that it must have been this vast apocalyptic edifice that L.A. Lewis had in mind.
The narrator in Lewis’s story notes that the scenes on the Tower of Moab are impressive because they show “a literal reading of what I had always vaguely regarded as allegorical”. A literal reading was precisely what the Jezreelites took from Revelation: even the design and dimensions of the Tower were inspired by images from the Book. The story ends powerfully with the narrator’s visions of the Tower as if it had been completed, and of the angels, demons and beasts that haunt it by day and night, echoing the trenchant eschatology of Jezreel’s teachings.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
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