The House on the Brink by John Gordon

Cover to 1982 Penguin Plus edition, art by Neil Reed

Walking home after his literature evening class’s end-of-term party, sixteen-year-old Dick Dodds gives in to an impulse to nab a boat and let it drift him down the river. But the dare turns dangerous when he loses the row-boat’s only oar and finds himself being drawn helplessly out to sea. Saving himself, he has to plod through the fens back to dry land, and as he does, he passes a track in the mud that sends a chill up his spine:

‘I stepped into that trail and it seemed to put the moon out. Everything darkened. I went cold and stiff and then I fell. I must have done. I was on my hands and knees just a short distance away from the trail and I could feel the moon on my back.’

He discovers, the next day, that he can still feel the trail as it crosses dry land. Following it, he meets Helen Johnson, who on the night of Dick’s escapade saw something passing her father’s farmlands:

‘It was like a man all tied up, no legs and no arms. But it kept moving. Sort of gliding…’

The two begin an off-and-on investigation of the trail, driven by bursts of impulsive determination from Dick, but hampered by the ups and downs of the pair’s incipient romance. Visiting a local water-diviner, Mrs Shepherd, they learn that they share her ability to detect water running underground, and think at first this explains the chilling effect of the trail, until they follow it a bit more and encounter the thing — ‘A black, smooth, round, bald-headed old post’ — Helen saw that night, which is not a post, but may in fact be the mummified body of one of King John’s men, said to have been charged with guarding the treasure the king lost in the fens hundreds of years ago. And, dead though it clearly is, it moves.

The mystery begins to centre on a young widow, Mrs Knowles, whom Dick knows from his literature class. She believes:

‘My house… has a good side and a bad. The river is on the dark side. Everything it contains is contaminated… And out the back of my house… somewhere in the distance, there is something that when it appears always gives me hope… I call it the Silver Fields.’

Mrs Knowles tells Dick of how she was out walking by the river one day with a friend, local solicitor Mr Miller, when she saw ‘a piece of wood’ that ‘the river had made… evil’, and Dick realises it’s probably the same thing whose trail he and Helen have been investigating. Mr Miller, it turns out, is interested in the legend of King John’s treasure — he tried to talk Mrs Shepherd into using her water-divining powers to locate it — and now Dick begins to suspect Miller of having some sort of unpleasant plan for Mrs Knowles.

What’s notable about The House on the Brink is that it’s not a straightforward kids-investigate-the-supernatural type of story. It’s as much about the moment-by-moment feeling of being a teen on the verge of adulthood, experiencing the world in new ways, entering into a first relationship, getting glimpses of the dark world of adult secrets. Dick is impulsive, at times touchy, at times shy, given to the need to prove himself in sometimes dangerous ways. The book’s terse, poetic style emphasises this feeling of teenage life being a series of intense but fragmented moments of pure experience:

He dropped the bicycle on the verge and turned in the road with his arms outstretched. ‘I am the key in the lock of the world,’ he said. He let himself believe it for a moment. Then he picked up his bike. ‘And I’m also mad.’

As so often happens in YA books, the teens are central to the story because, being caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, they’re free to move between, and look into, other worlds, too.

There’s the worlds of social position, for instance, that the children move between, or are caught by. Mrs Shepherd, the water-diviner, is working class, while Mrs Knowles is obviously very well-off, but both accept the teens into their lives without the class prejudices they might apply to adults. When it’s revealed that Mrs Knowles’s man-friend, whom Dick has already started to suspect of being up to no good, is a solicitor, he feels that ‘He might have known it would be somebody like that’, and I certainly read ‘somebody like that’ to be a judgement in terms of social standing. (Miller is later described as having ‘a long face with a golf-course tan.’) Dick feels that his smaller house puts him in a lower class than Helen (‘Dick’s shame began at the backyard gate. With two bicycles in it the yard was crowded. At her house there was space…’), while Helen feels that, when she goes round to Dick’s for dinner, the Dodds being ‘Town, not country’ puts her subtly in a lower class (as Dick’s father wears a suit, ‘not a farmer’s shirt-sleeves.’). Later, she says Dick can’t ‘know anything about fen people. Real fen people’, because he lives in the town.

Far more explicit are the two worlds of belief in the supernatural and dismissal of it. Helen tells her mother about the thing she saw passing their farm that night, ‘But that sort of thing doesn’t sink in.’ Dick alone of his literature class understands what Mrs Knowles means when she talks of the river being ‘bad’ and the Silver Fields being ‘good’, to the extent that he cycles out one morning to find those ‘Silver Fields’.

Belief in the supernatural is tied to an ability to understand the less intellectual aspects of poetry (Mrs Knowles asserts ‘You have to feel a poem. You can’t analyse it.’), but also being open to emotional instability and madness. Mrs Knowles, standing daily on the balcony of her ‘House on the Brink’, is herself on the brink of insanity, of being lost in the instability of her unbalanced feelings, and Dick at one point puts his and Helen’s involvement in the trail and the spooky old ‘log’ down to:

‘How people’s feelings seem to cross and get tangled. That’s what’s been happening, isn’t it?’

Mr Miller, being a solicitor — a shrewd thinker used to dealing with down-to-earth issues — is Mrs Knowles’s opposite in terms of rationality and intuition, and it’s perhaps because of this that he ultimately can’t save her from her own mental instability, but the kids — who can understand both worlds — can.

In an interview published on the Ghosts & Scholars site, John Gordon says that, in The House on the Brink, he was:

‘…writing about the time in everyone’s life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales.’

Ultimately, it’s a book that shrugs off easy divisions. Its world is not one of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, nor is it one where it’s easy to tell the supernatural from madness, and the implication is that part of growing up is learning to realise this.

The Hashish Eater by Clark Ashton Smith

Discussing Lord Dunsany’s style in his rather vituperative survey of fantasy literature, Wizardry and Wild Romance, Michael Moorcock quotes this passage from Thomas de Quincey as one of its possible sources:

“I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was sacrificed… I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

The Hashish-Eater, from Necronomicon Press. Cover by Robert H Knox.

Reading that little fever of opiate orientalism, I immediately wanted more, but, surprisingly, it’s about the only passage of its kind in Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Far more in this feverish-visionary vein is to be found in Fitz Huw Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean (first published in 1857, and avowedly in the tradition of de Quincey). But that sort of febrile fantastia finds it apotheosis, for me, in Clark Ashton Smith’s similarly-named mini-epic of cosmic consciousness gone wrong, “The Hashish-Eater: or The Apocalypse of Evil”, perhaps the greatest of all fantasy poems:

If I will,
I am at once the vision and the seer,
And mingle with my ever-streaming pomps,
And still abide their suzerain: I am
The neophyte who serves a nameless god,
Within whose fane the fanes of Hecatompylos
Were arks the Titan worshippers might bear,
Or flags to pave the threshold; or I am
The god himself, who calls the fleeing clouds
Into the nave where suns might congregate
And veils the darkling mountain of his face
With fold on solemn fold; for whom the priests
Amass their monthly hecatomb of gems—
Opals that are a camel-cumbering load,
And monstrous alabraundines, won from war
With realms of hostile serpents…

Smith mentions a number of inspirations, influences, and works that fed into the writing of “The Hashish-Eater” in his letters at the time. De Quincey and Ludlow are named in a 1923 letter to Frank Belknap Long (whom he warns against trying the drug itself, because Smith — who hadn’t — knew people who had, and “The reaction is terrible, especially in those of a nervous temperament.”). Writing to his poetic mentor, George Sterling, on March 29th 1920, Smith mentions two short poems, one by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (“Hascheesh”, 1861), one by Arthur Symons (“Haschisch”, 1899). The Aldrich poem compresses Smith’s near 600 lines to a bare 24, with a beautiful, fantastic vision (“A Palace shaped itself against the skies:/Great sapphire-studded portals suddenly/Opened upon vast Gothic galleries”) being swiftly followed by a horrible one (“Fanged, warty monsters, with their lips and eyes/Hung with slim leeches sucking hungrily”), while the Symons poem ends with a verse that particularly pleased the cosmicist Smith:

Who said the world is but a mood
In the eternal thought of God?
I know it, real though it seem,
The phantom of a haschisch dream
In that insomnia which is God.

But if Smith’s poem has any progenitor beside his own unique imagination, it must be Sterling’s own “A Wine of Wizardry”. Like Smith’s, a long poem in blank verse, it strings together a series of red-hued fantastic visions, sparked into life by the glints and bubbles seen inside a glass of wine. It gained a certain notoriety when its publication (in the September 1907 issue of Cosmopolitan, of all places) was accompanied by an encomium by Ambrose Bierce, saying it ranked alongside the works of Keats, Coleridge and Rossetti. Indignation, rebuttal, and satires followed (as detailed in this article on the poem’s centenary).

In a letter to Sterling on the 10th July 1920 (the year “The Hashish-Eater” was written), Smith added the name of yet another influence:

“I’m sorry people think “The H. Eater” a mere extension of “A Wine of Wizardry”. That’s no mean compliment, however—The “Wine of Wizardry” has always seemed the ideal poem to me, as it did to Bierce. But the ground-plan of “The H.-E.” is really quite different. It owes nearly as much to The Temptation of Saint Anthony as to your poem.”

In Smith’s poem, the protagonist achieves his visions “By some explanation of cosmic consciousness, rather than a mere drug”. According to Gary Lachman’s A Secret History of Consciousness, “cosmic consciousness” was a term coined by R M Bucke for a paper he read in 1894 to the American Medico-Psychological Association, and later popularised in a book of the same name in 1901, based on an experience he himself had, in which:

“…the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise—is in very truth a living presence… that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all…”

Smith’s version of “cosmic consciousness” has none of this all-pervading benevolence. It is — at first, at least — simply a means by which the titular Hashish-Eater can pry into all the wonders and secrets the universe contains, voyeuristically channel-hopping an endless series of fantastic worlds, and arrogating to himself the loftiest of titles:

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite…

In this, he certainly resembles Ludlow:

“I began to be lifted into that tremendous pride which is so often a characteristic of the fantasia [of the drug]. My powers became superhuman; my knowledge covered the universe; my scope of sight was infinite. I was invested with a grand mission to humanity, and slowly it dawned upon me that I was the Christ, come in the power and radiance of his millennial descent…”

But Ludlow has a warning about over-indulgence in his chosen drug that applies equally to Smith’s protagonist:

“Hasheesh is indeed an accursed drug, and the soul at last pays a most bitter price for all its ecstasies; moreover, the use of it is not the proper means of gaining any insight, yet who shall say that at that season of exaltation I did not know things as they are more truly than ever in the ordinary state?”

cover by Bruce Pennington

So many of the wonders Smith’s Hasheesh-Eater glimpses involve kings, giants, even gods, being plotted against and overthrown, often by the smallest or least-powerful beings, from dwarves stabbing titans in the toes with pin-like poisoned blades, to a plague of lichens (somehow) bringing down an empire. The Hashish-Eater, though, refuses to take the warning, even when he hears a word “whispered in a tongue unknown,/In crypts of some impenetrable world”, a “dark, dethroning secrecy/I cannot share…” He runs away from the first of his visions to turn on him, but soon finds himself pursued by an entire “Sabaoth of retribution, drawn/From all dread spheres that knew my trespassing…”

Finally, chased to the edge of everything, Smith’s protagonist comes face to face with the ultimate secret, and the first genuine revelation of his heretofore entirely self-indulgent, hedonistic, and unenlightening use of the gift of “cosmic consciousness”. In his “Argument of ‘The Hashish-Eater’”, Smith explains that, at the end, his Hashish-Eater:

“…is driven at last to the verge of a gulf into which falls in cataracts the ruin and rubble of the universe; a gulf from which the face of infinity itself, in all its awful blankness, beyond stars and worlds, beyond created things, even fiends and monsters, rises up to confront him.”

This “face of infinity itself” is all the Hashish-Eater is not. Where he is crowned with “the million-colored sun/Of secret worlds incredible”, it is lit by a light “as of a million million moons”. Where he has eyes greedy to see and know everything, it is “a huge white eyeless Face”.

Its size, its whiteness, and its rising up from an abyss, all point to another possible influence on the poem, the ending of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket:

“And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow…”

cover by Bruce Pennington

Is this “face of infinity itself” what gives Smith’s poem its subtitle, “The Apocalypse of Evil”? Certainly it seems evil to the Hashish-Eater, who is so horrified to find it rising in front of him as he flees the horde of mythological beasts intent on his destruction. But if it seems evil to him, perhaps that’s because it represents the one thing he’s been escaping from all this time. Without eyes, this is the face of a thing that looks within, and its “lips of flame” could well be the lips of a poet enflamed by a genuine inner vision, not a mere list of eye-candy wonders and darkly thrilling but spiritually empty occult secrets. Although it wears the face of cosmic horror, this “face of infinity” could, in fact, be the genuine “emperor of dreams” that the Hashish-Eater sought, so arrogantly, to depose at the start of the poem: it could be his own unacknowledged unconscious, rising to confront him with his unregarded inner life, his inner evils and his more painful insights, everything he’s been trying so desperately not to face within himself, with all his ecstatic indulging in external wonders and gaudy secrets.

As Ludlow says of his own visions:

“In the jubilance of hasheesh, we have only arrived by an improper pathway at the secret of that infinity of beauty which shall be beheld in heaven and earth when the veil of the corporeal drops off, and we know as we are known. Then from the muddy waters of our life, defiled by the centuries of degeneracy through which they have flowed, we shall ascend to the old-time original fount, and grow rapturous with its apocalyptic draught.”

Smith’s “Hashish-Eater” is a Faustian parable, a warning about the improper uses of the wonders of imagination. And I think that, to echo Bierce on Sterling’s “Wine of Wizardry”, it genuinely stands alongside the great long fantasy poems, such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and Wilde’s “The Sphinx”.

The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)