Devil’s Tor by David Lindsay

Devil's Tor by David Lindsay, Putnam'sWriting to his latest publisher (Putnams) shortly before they issued this, his fifth novel, David Lindsay said: “Between the philosophies of Arcturus and Devil’s Tor there seems to be a chasm of contradiction. As both books were sincerely and independently written, and were long matured, no doubt the contradiction is more apparent than real…” He goes on to say his next (never-to-be-finished) project, after the release of his 1932 “monster”, Devil’s Tor, will be “a larger synthesis… a new and higher truth”, but it seems to me that the worldviews of A Voyage to Arcturus and Devil’s Tor are really not that different. Both reject our “terrible temporary world of mud, blood and bubbles” for another we can only have hints of (“sublimity should not represent a natural state of the soul, but be, as it were, its homesickness”). What Devil’s Tor did do was add a key element all but absent from Lindsay’s first book, which, it could be said, he’d spent his post-Arcturus novels (The Haunted Woman, Sphinx, the then-unpublished Violet Apple, and even his ‘pot-boiler’ The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly) trying to fit into place. For, despite a handful of strong, or at least interesting, female characters (Joiwind, Oceaxe, Tydomin, Sullenbode), the world of A Voyage to Arcturus is ultimately male: the heroes, their guiding deities and would-be deities are all male, from Maskull to Nightspore, Krag to Crystalman. Devil’s Tor’s presiding figure, though, is the Great Mother, and it’s through her that Lindsay works towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of what, in A Voyage to Arcturus, he’d rejected wholesale: existence itself. The Goddess in Devil’s Tor (who shouldn’t be taken as female in the human sense, but as the yin to Arcturus’s yang) represents “the source of the universe”:

“The Virgin-Mother is explanatory of the world, as the others are not — for nothing is explained by the dogmatic assertion that God made the world…”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

All of Lindsay’s novels can be thought of as battles for the soul of their central character. This is most obvious in A Voyage to Arcturus, whose protagonist Maskull is presented with a series of forthright philosophies, worldviews and ideals, each of which he gives himself to wholeheartedly, only to reject (often violently) when they prove false. In the end, the ultimate falseness of Tormance — the demiurge Crystalman in one of his many guises — tries every last temptation to win Maskull to his side, but Krag, the only real truth in Lindsay’s first novel, wins him in the end with pain — which is the closest, Lindsay says, we can get to truth in a world “rotten with illusion from top to bottom”.

In Devil’s Tor the soul to be battled for is Ingrid Fleming’s (whose name — names mean a lot in Lindsay — I take to contain a hint of ‘flaming’, fire being one of Lindsay’s signs of sublimity). She is, effectively, presented with three would-be husbands or potential soul-mates: the artist Peter Copping, the scholar Stephen Arsinal, and the adventurer Henry Saltfleet. But her soul already belongs to the Goddess, and what’s being battled for is not hers so much as the world’s soul: she is to be the mother of a coming saviour, a redeemer, and only one of those would-be husbands is fated to be the father. And he wins her not as Krag does, with pain, but with the two virtues Lindsay praises most of all in Devil’s Tor: disinterestedness and magnanimity. (David Lindsay is, I suspect, not the one to go to for dating advice, unless perhaps you do your dating at WagnerianHeroines.com.)

The Violet Apple by David LindsayThe novel of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor most resembles in plot — it could almost be a heightened, intensified version of it — is his then-unpublished The Violet Apple. That book begins when an antique glass ornament, shaped like a serpent, is accidentally shattered, releasing an ancient pip said to derive from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In Devil’s Tor, a forbidding “Devil’s Head” monument atop the titular Tor is shattered in a storm, revealing a tomb that contains, like the pip of The Violet Apple, one half of an egg-shaped meteoric stone. In both cases, a symbol of new life or rebirth (a pip and an egg-shaped stone) is released when its devil-shaped guardian is accidentally/fatedly broken. And in both cases, this breaking-open releases supernatural powers intent on bringing together, against the wishes of their families, friends and existing fiancés, a man and a woman who are unrecognised soul-mates. (Lindsay likes to throw every worldly difficulty he can in the way of his hero and heroine. He even seems to prefer that they don’t feel any attraction for each other, but are drawn together under pain, duress, and in situations of the utmost tragedy. What a romantic.)

There isn’t a lot of action in Devil’s Tor. Whole chapters are given over to detailed dissections of characters’ reactions to mere moments: someone enters a room and everyone retreats into themselves to review their thoughts on fate. It’s a difficult read; it was probably a difficult write for Lindsay, who’s constantly descending into Yoda-speak (“Reserved of heart she was, proud of temper beneath her domestic obedience; femininely romantic of the imagination she had never been…”) for pages at a time. When it came out, though, it fared better than Arcturus, finding a few sympathetic reviewers. Hugh I’Anson Fausset in The Guardian called it “a vast, formidable, and over-powering book” that “at once engrosses and exhausts us”. To read it is, he says, “to suffer an unforgettable experience, to be excited, appalled, and finally purged.”

How Lindsay must have loved that review: “to read it is to suffer”.

It’s hard to recommend Devil’s Tor. Like the fatedness of its own characters, you’re either compelled to read it (through a fascination with Lindsay’s work) or you pass by, appalled at the tragedy. But it repays the effort put into it, even if the final repayment, so full of renunciation and fate, is a very bleak sort of catharsis.

Sky

SkySky (first broadcast in 1975) manages to tick just about every box in the 70s kids’ TV checklist: standing stones, the next step in human evolution, psychic powers, Merlin, magic, advanced technology masquerading as magic, warnings about mankind’s over-reliance on technology, environmentalist predictions of coming disaster, even a hint of class tension.

It starts with the blue-eyed, golden-haired alien Sky (and if he looks a bit like an Axon, perhaps that’s because the show’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wrote The Claws of Axos for Doctor Who) appearing in the middle of an English forest, only to be immediately attacked by the surrounding greenery. Found by young Arby Venner, the leaf-smothered Sky pleads: “Take me away from living things.”

An alien and far-future time-traveller, Sky has missed his intended era, and now finds himself rejected by the very life-force of a world he does not belong to. Begging to be taken to “the Juganet” (“The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection. That is where I must be.”), which he can use to jump to the correct time, he claims (when asked by Arby’s sister, Jane) that despite his seemingly helpless state, “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.”

Sky_03

Meanwhile, the “animus of the organism” — the riled life-force of our world — manifests itself as the black-cloaked Ambrose Goodchild, whose purpose is to track down and do away with this unwanted alien by any means, be it by summoning more smothering greenery, or posing as a surgeon so he can operate on him. Arby, Jane, and the slightly posher boy next door, Roy Briggs, do their best to help the importunate Sky, despite having no idea what he’s on about most of the time.

Luckily, there’s a mad Welshman to hand. (And that’s another 70s kids’ TV box checked: mad Welshman who knows.) Old Tom may be touched in the head (“He’s supposed to be simple.” “No. It is you who are complicated.”), but he can hear Sky’s thoughts and see Sky’s telepathic pictures, and he once visited a place that looks like this Juganet thing, though he can’t recall where, or what, it was. So Arby and Jane borrow their dad’s Land Rover (they’re late teens: Arby drives a Land Rover and Roy’s got a motorbike), kidnap mad Tom and the hospitalised Sky, and take them on a jaunt to Glastonbury Tor. Which, it turns out, isn’t the Juganet, but is getting close.

Sky_02

Sky is a bit like E.T. Only, whereas E.T. isn’t above a little emotional bonding while he tries to phone home, Sky is only interested in his human helpers when he wants rescuing. Once he’s recovered, he wants to be left alone so he can find the Juganet and leave this age that he knows only — and ominously — as “the Decline”. His task is to help humankind after “the Chaos”, not before it. As far as he’s concerned, before it, we’re beyond help.

Sky is, it seems, intended as a chastening reminder that our modern age is but one tiny step — and, most likely, a mis-step — on its way to some future evolution we can’t even begin to appreciate. He believes “It is the destiny of all intelligent beings to stand outside space and time,” and that modern man’s mistake is to “believe in machines”:

“You do not reach the stars with rockets, any more than you invent radios by shouting at the sky.”

Goodchild, on the other hand, seems even more reactionary:

“…the way to intelligence is the way to destruction… You have made man an alien. An alien force throttling life on this planet.”

Sky_06

Sky could almost be a prelude to The Changes, shown at the start of the same year (Sky was ITV, The Changes BBC). The coming “Chaos” could be the “Changes”, in which a Merlin-like force (Goodchild’s first name, Ambrose, links him with Merlin) initiates a UK-wide revolt against machines. Both shows seem to be both rejecting hippie back-to-nature idealism (Sky is taken in, briefly, by a hippie couple awaiting a mystic traveller foretold in the prophecies of Merlin; he repays their kindness by disillusioning them, then attracting enough creeping greenery to destroy their caravan), while also wagging the finger at our love of technology.

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s, when the whole idea of technology as a step too far seems to have been quietly dropped? (As were standing stones, and mad Welshmen.) There’s a real feeling that these 70s kids’ TV shows — Sky, The Changes, to a lesser extent The Moon Stallion — were grappling with issues that aren’t to be found in their 80s equivalents (The Moon Dial, Elidor, The Box of Delights), which were just as, if not more, magical in content (no more technology masquerading as magic, though — it was pure magic all the way), but don’t seem to be addressing social issues beyond the coming-of-age adventures of their protagonists. And so, while perhaps those 80s shows are that much more timeless, they don’t necessarily have the unity, depth, and cultural relevance of the best of the 70s ones. Or is that just my own nostalgia?

H P Lovecraft’s dark city muse

HPL_1931What happens when a fantasy writer encounters one of their own creations? In a sense, this is what happened to H P Lovecraft when, in 1924, he set out for a two-year stay in New York. As related in his 1925 story “He”, his first view of the city was close to a poetic, fantastic vision, more fitting to one of his Dunsanian fantasies:

“Coming for the first time upon the town, I had seen it in the sunset from a bridge, majestic above its waters, its incredible peaks and pyramids rising flower-like and delicate from pools of violet mist to play with the flaming golden clouds and the first stars of evening. Then it had lighted up window by window above the shimmering tides where lanterns nodded and glided and deep horns bayed weird harmonies, and itself become a starry firmament of dream, redolent of faery music, and one with the marvels of Carcassonne and Samarcand and El Dorado and all glorious and half-fabulous cities.”

Lovecraft felt he was not only seeing, at last, the dream-city of so many of his own early fantasy tales, but the very muse from which they were born:

“Shortly afterward I was taken through those antique ways so dear to my fancy—narrow, curving alleys and passages where rows of red Georgian brick blinked with small-paned dormers above pillared doorways that had looked on gilded sedans and panelled coaches—and in the first flush of realisation of these long-wished things I thought I had indeed achieved such treasures as would make me in time a poet.”

He should have known what would happen next. He’d written the tale himself. In “The Quest of Iranon” (written 1921), a seemingly ageless poet quests for Aira, a never-to-be-found dream-city of endless beauty, luxury and poetry (which, like the above description of New-York-from-afar, seems made up of light and sound more than bricks and mortar):

“I remember the twilight, the moon, and soft songs, and the window where I was rocked to sleep. And through the window was the street where the golden lights came, and where the shadows danced on houses of marble. I remember the square of moonlight on the floor, that was not like any other light, and the visions that danced in the moonbeams when my mother sang to me.”

from Virgil Finlay's illustration to "Iranon"

from Virgil Finlay’s illustration to “The Quest of Iranon”

But Iranon is recalling a poetic, idealised memory of his earliest life. And, just as Iranon finds a city almost but not quite matching his ideal (Oonai, whose “lights were not like those of Aira; for they were harsh and glaring”, which honours poets, though only for a time, and which also has to deal with such post-poetic realities as drunkenness, hangovers, and death), and rejects it to continue his impossible quest, Lovecraft’s narrator in “He” finds New York at first wanting, then increasingly a thing of horror — a reaction that can only be fully understood when one realises Lovecraft was not just rejecting his new home, but was being betrayed by what he’d thought of as his poetic muse. Lovecraft, perhaps, had not, deep-down, expected to interact with a physical city inhabited by fellow human beings (“I found the poets and artists to be loud-voiced pretenders whose quaintness is tinsel and whose lives are a denial of all that pure beauty which is poetry and art”), but directly with the historical and architectural beauty of the city itself, as a living, single entity, an embodiment of all his cultural ideals, not a plurality of peoples and cultures. In the end, he declares New York to be not living but dead:

“…the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.”

And in a twisted nightmare vision of New York’s future, Lovecraft sees a thing of (to him) utter horror that is not only dead, but gone beyond death:

“For full three seconds I could glimpse that pandaemoniac sight, and in those seconds I saw a vista which will ever afterward torment me in dreams. I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.

“I saw this vista, I say, and heard as with the mind’s ear the blasphemous domdaniel of cacophony which companioned it. It was the shrieking fulfilment of all the horror which that corpse-city had ever stirred in my soul, and forgetting every injunction to silence I screamed and screamed and screamed as my nerves gave way and the walls quivered about me.”

(Though, if you take the adjectives out of that future vision of New York, you find an impressive-looking city of people clearly having a good time.)

HPL_cities_Brown01

from Howard V Brown’s illustrations to At the Mountains of Madness

The symbol of the city first appears in Lovecraft’s writing around 1918, after a dream, related in a letter to Maurice W Moe, in which he saw:

“…a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills. There was not a soul in this vast region of stone-paved streets and marble walls and columns, and the numerous statues in the public places were of strange bearded men in robes…”

This becomes the city of Olathoë in the story “Polaris”, whose narrator enters a dream trance and travels back to a former life, 26,000 years past, where a lapse into sleep while on guard duty allows hordes of barbarians to overrun this far-north city. The main human impulse behind the story is the guilt the narrator still feels at this lapse, even though Olathoë has been lying under polar ice for millennia, and has long become like the nameless ruined city of Lovecraft’s prose-poem “Memory” (from 1919), whose name and inhabitants are all but forgotten (“These beings of yesterday were called Man.”). In a 1919 poem called simply “The City”, Lovecraft spells out exactly what the dream-symbol of the city meant to him:

It was golden and splendid,
That City of light;
A vision suspended
In deeps of the night;
A region of wonder and glory, whose temples were marble and white.

The city, then, is an island of light (culture, civilisation, and rational enlightenment) amidst cosmic darkness. Crucially, this poetic city appears to its poet in — and as a balm to — a “mad time of unreason”.

But there’s another city, an ab-city or anti-city, that appears in Lovecraft’s fiction alongside this ideal. And if the dream-city is a sunlit, living thing, a bastion of civilisation, the anti-city is a moonlit, undead thing, home to aliens, inhumans or subhumans: it’s “The Nameless City” (“I was travelling in a parched and terrible valley under the moon, and afar I saw it protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave…”), the ruined city populated by white apes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, the undersea city of “The Temple”, and the ghost-city of “The Moon-Bog”.

Henry Brown, At the Mountains of Madness

Henry Brown, At the Mountains of Madness

Perhaps the most explicit clash between these two types of city is in the 1919 story “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, where Sarnath (the “wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind”) is contrasted with Ib (populated by inhuman creatures from the moon, and “terrible with great antiquity”). The people of Sarnath destroy Ib simply through disgust at its inhuman inhabitants. The one thing they save is a stone idol of Bokrug, the water-lizard, “as a symbol of conquest over the old gods and beings of Ib” — a symbol of the triumph of the human over the inhuman, the rational over the irrational. The people of Sarnath practice a “very ancient and secret rite in detestation of Bokrug”, as though part of their very identity is this conquest of the inhuman creatures and their ancient culture. But that ancient culture is not dead; it rises again to destroy what once destroyed it, leaving desolation in its wake. So the two cities’ roles are defined: the ideal dream-city represents civilisation and the conquest of the anti-city, with its inhuman or barbarous inhabitants; but the dream-city can’t help but wonder at the weirdness of the anti-city’s idols and artwork (studying the artwork of an anti-city is a key part of Lovecraft’s stories, from “The Nameless City” to At the Mountains of Madness), and defines itself thereafter by its difference from, and conquest of, the inhuman, all the time failing to realise that without that repressed, supposedly inhuman shadow side, it is doomed. (Even, “DOOMED”.)

In the real world, though, cities aren’t embodied ideals, but meeting places, characterised by the clash and coexistence of cultures, not Lovecraft’s ideal of cultural purity. Upon leaving New York, his poetic reaction became even more polarised. On the one hand, he exaggerated his vision of the “corpse-city” of future New York into the “nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, a slimy, sea-risen, non-Euclidean muse of horror, its populace reduced from “swarming loathsomely… yellow, squint-eyed people” to a single, ultra-terrestrial, tentacled entity with a deliberately unpronounceable name. And on the other hand, there’s the long retreat into the self-comforting Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a narrative whose very length seems driven by a desire to linger in the regions of the unreal, to heal the poetic soul in quest of a type of city Lovecraft (like Iranon) desperately needed to believe in once more. And he finds it, with an emotional reaction more fitting to the welcome of a long-lost love:

“…as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.”

Lovecraft has, at last, found a safe haven to lodge his dream-city. Not in far, ancient climes where barbarous forces can get at it, nor in the present day, where reality’s grubby, verminous hands will sully it, but in the near-but-untouchable past of his own childhood memory, accessible only to him, by going inwards to regions the real world can’t touch:

“…your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily.”

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Henry Brown, At the Mountains of Madness

Lovecraft set his next major piece of fiction, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in his own equivalent of Randolph Carter’s Boston, Providence, liberally peppering the narrative with the actual history of this real city, to make the fantastic that much more convincing, and also perhaps to dwell in the healing balms of a home deep-rooted in familiar architecture and real history. After this, Lovecraft left cities for a while, his next few stories being set in wild, rural regions (“The Colour Out of Space”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”). But in At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time”, Lovecraft’s dream-cities and anti-cities make an interesting return. Now Lovecraft’s vision has matured, and he’s ready (bolstered, perhaps, by not having to face the harsh truths of New York anymore) to reassess that moment of vertiginous, dark-poetic horror that was the vision of a real human city. Now, he has his narrators visit ancient, inhuman, but nevertheless highly rational cities, as though he were trying to reconcile his polarised poetic symbol into a new, single entity. The length of the stories means his narrators have time to overcome their initial horror at the alienness of the inhabitants, to look at the wall-decorations and learn something of the history of these inhuman creatures till they can find value in their culture and ideals (“Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!”).

But there’s still horror. Beyond the “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn” are the protoplasmic Shoggoths, and, in “The Shadow Out of Time”, “a horrible elder race of half-polypous, utterly alien entities”. These horrors-beyond-the-horrors dwell beneath their respective cities, in the darkness of abyssal un-cities, full of eerie sounds, screaming winds and gelatinous mutability. This has always been Lovecraft’s ultimate vision of horror — not things which can be identified, but things which have no identity, things which change identity, things which don’t belong to the universe of “identity” at all, but which obey other, non-materialistic laws. Crucially, they are also things which can infect and degrade one’s own identity, threatening not just Lovecraft’s heroes’ physical existence, but their psychology and humanity:

“Sense of distance gone—far is near and near is far. No light—no glass—see that steeple—that tower—window—can hear—Roderick Usher—am mad or going mad—the thing is stirring and fumbling in the tower—I am it and it is I—I want to get out . . . must get out and unify the forces. . . . It knows where I am. . .” (from “The Haunter of the Dark”)

Lovecraft’s career as a writer is marked by two factors: a harshly polarising filter that split his world into regions of what is acceptable and what is horrific; and an endless, needling quest to dive into the borderland between those two vastly separated regions, to better define exactly what it is he’s so afraid of. Lovecraft’s fiction is all about the combined need to know, and the horror of what will be known. If he’d lived longer, and continued to write, I think he’d have continued to progress in this direction, refining his dark poetry, and breaking down the barriers between what he feared and what he, in the real world, was forced to experience. But we can’t know. One thing for sure, though, is that New York did live up to its promise: it made H P Lovecraft a poet, just not the sort he expected to be.