Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark from PS Publishing, cover by Les Edwards

The second book in Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy is set thirty years on from the first. Dominic Sheldrake, a child in The Searching Dead, is now a lecturer on film, and married, with a child of his own. Young Toby, though, suffers from “nocturnal absences” — a sort of nighttime paralysis —and when a paediatrician recommends a new treatment offered by the Safe to Sleep clinic, Dominic and his wife are at first delighted, as it seems to work. But Dominic becomes suspicious of the sort of dreams Toby has under the influence of this new treatment, which sound as though they could have come straight out of the journal of Christian Noble, the man who, in The Searching Dead, found a new way to raise the dead.

Set in the 1980s, Born to the Dark recalls aspects of Ramsey Campbell’s 80s novels, which were often concerned with the vulnerability of children, and in particular the anxiety about a parent’s care of, and potential misuse of power over, their child. This, of course, comes about because of Dominic’s stage of life, but part of me looked for, and found, other (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Campbell’s 1980s novels. For instance, there’s the idea of dreams/sleep being studied by an institute or research project and resulting in supernatural forces leaking into our world (as in 1983’s Incarnate). I think it was in that novel, too, that Campbell used the police as an expression of the protagonist’s helplessness and humiliation by a powerful authority, and in Born to the Dark we have the sinister double act of officers Farr and Black, whose darkly cosmic double-entendres are the closest this novel gets to the sort of absurdist horror-comedy of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian work, the 2013 novella, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki. Campbell even allows himself an in-joke reference to Rose Tierney (the protagonist of his 1980 novel, To Wake the Dead/The Parasite), who’s mentioned here as being a former lecturer at Dominic’s university’s film studies division.

Providence issue 1, cover by Jacen Burrows

More than The Searching Dead — which mostly concerned itself with dead things lingering too long in the land of the living — Born to the Dark opens itself up to cosmic horror, thanks to the visions Safe to Sleep induces as part of its treatment. And there are hints of a coming transformation or apocalypse, after which human life as we know it will be over forever, though not necessarily extinguished. In this, Born to the Dark reminded me of Alan Moore’s Providence, another 21st century take on Lovecraftian horror which ended in our world being fully exposed to cosmic realities that make a nonsense of life at the human level.

(Born to the Dark also recalls Providence in the way its occultists, like Moore’s, are more willing than Lovecraft’s to explain their beliefs to outsiders. 1980s Britain, with its openness to New Age ideas and alternative medicine, is just the sort of place where the likes of Christian Noble and his family can be open about their cosmic beliefs, and be allowed to practise their esoteric arts as a treatment — even within the bounds of the NHS!)

A slight disappointment, for me, was that the narrator, Dominic, has grown up into a somewhat blinkered adult, who has difficulty realising just how mad his accusations against Safe to Sleep sound to anyone but himself, and can’t understand it when people don’t immediately accept his wild claims as the truth. But it does lead to a heartbreaking admission partway through the novel:

“However misunderstood and solitary I’d sometimes felt as a child, I would never have expected growing up to bring that back.”

It’s impossible to properly review the second book of a trilogy — and an as-yet uncompleted trilogy, at that. Born the Dark takes events on from The Searching Dead and, far more than that first volume (which could, I think, be enjoyed on its own), leaves me feeling we’re heading for a properly Lovecraftian conclusion. Will the ending be quite as bleak as that of Moore’s Providence? The final volume, The Way of the Worm, will presumably reveal all — or, at least, all we mere humans can grasp.

There’s a good interview with Campbell about Born to the Dark at Gary Fry’s website.

Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman

Yesterday evening the British Library held an hour-and-a-half talk and discussion about Robert Aickman, in part to celebrate their acquisition of an archive of his papers (which you can read about at the Library’s English and Drama blog), and I thought I’d go along as I’ve recently started a second read-through of Aickman’s stories, thanks to Tartarus Press’s two volume Collected Strange Stories. At the time I bought it, back in 2001, Aickman was hard to find outside first editions and just-as-rare paperbacks, but now he’s completely back in print, in large part thanks to some of the people talking at this event. (The evening was compèred by Richard T Kelly, who curated Faber & Faber’s reissue of Aickman in the UK.)

The first speaker was Ramsey Campbell, who read a short chapter from one of Aickman’s autobiographies describing Aickman’s favourite film, The Blue Light by Leni Riefenstahl. At the end of it, Campbell pointed out that, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise Aickman’s summary of it is curiously inaccurate, as though he’d preferred to remember his own, Aickmanesque version of the plot. When, post-World War II, Riefenstahl came to the UK seeking funding for a later film and was vilified by the press, Aickman wrote to her to let her know that some people in Britain still appreciated her talents. She sent him some photos and an invitation to visit the next time he was in Berlin.

Aickman, Campbell pointed out, was a man capable of holding extreme opinions, quite often about subjects nobody else thought it worth having an opinion about. He was also, apparently, one of the best dinner guests you could wish for, not just because he could hold forth on many subjects, but because he had a way of bringing everyone into the discussion. A rare gift.

After Campbell was another speaker who knew Aickman personally, his literary agent Leslie Gardner. Aickman would read some of his stories to her, and apparently one time he stopped mid-read and said, “She’s here…” Aickman, who believed in the supernatural, had detected a presence in the room. The very character in the story he was reading aloud?

Next, Reece Shearsmith read from “The Hospice” — which seems to be the most-chosen story people turn to when trying to explain Aickman’s particular flavour of the uncanny — and I have to say that, hearing Aickman read by a good reader like this can certainly bring out his understated humour, particularly in the dialogue — a very English humour of frustration and social awkwardness, that remains present even in the face of the looming supernatural.

Editor and critic Victoria Nelson followed this with a talk justifying Aickman’s growing position as a 20th century master of the weird tale, of how he, more than, say, M R James, was content to end a tale with a lingering sense of numinous mystery, rather than tying the whole thing up with explanations.

Finally, Jeremy Dyson read from Aickman’s story “Wood”. In the discussion that followed, Dyson provided one of the best insights into why Aickman wasn’t better known. If he’d been, say, South American, and translated into English, he would have been immediately classed as a Magical Realist and would have been lauded, but as he wrote in English, the English literati were dismissive. Victoria Nelson added that Aickman’s cult status could also be down to how he doesn’t quite fit either the literary (because of his use of the supernatural) or horror (because he didn’t provide the expected payoff) camps. Though this, of course, is also probably why he’s still read: nobody else offers what he offers.

My one, blurred photo from the event. Offered as proof I was there, not because you have any chance of identifying the evening’s guests.

Aickman’s reputation certainly seems to be growing — in large part thanks to his stories being so readily available, now — and I’m sure it’s only going to get stronger. For myself, part of the problem I had reading him at first was that I came to him having heard him praised as a master of the horror story, and a first read-through of his stories mostly served to make me realise he wasn’t at all what I was expecting. On this second read-through, of which I’m not yet at the halfway point, I’m hopefully reading him without those preconceptions. Aickman’s are tales of dream logic irrupting into an often humdrum, slightly dowdy-feeling, but very recognisable realism. Some of his stories do work wonderfully as weird horror, and they are usually my favourites. (“My Poor Friend”, for instance, about an MP haunted by a sort of vengeful feminine force — which has, for me, the added bonus of a brief mention of East Grinstead, the town where I live. I’d also recommend “Bind Your Hair” and “The School Friend”.) Some of the others are closer to absurdist fantasy or surrealism and take a bit more adjustment. That Aickman was an original talent, though, is surely inarguable.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

The World Broke in Two (cover)Bill Goldstein’s book looks at a single year (1922) in the life of four writers — Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, T S Eliot, and D H Lawrence — all of whom were at some sort of creative impasse at the beginning of the year, and all of whom, by the end of it, had set out in a new direction:

“Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.”

None of these writers fought in the war, but all were deeply affected by it. Lawrence, for instance, had pretty much been hounded out of Britain; first being found unfit to fight, then being suspected (because he had a German wife) of being a spy. Woolf’s mental suffering during the war might have happened anyway, but it certainly can’t have helped to know that, while she was fighting her own inner battle, the world on the outside was tearing itself apart. Eliot’s breakdown — partly due to overwork, partly to his troubled marriage, partly to the effort of writing his poetry — expressed itself in The Waste Land, but chimed well enough with the post-war mood that, when it eventually came out, was taken to be expressive of the times. E M Forster, meanwhile, had been stuck on his “Indian fragment” for more than ten years. His previous novel, Howard’s End, had come out back in 1910, and some people were assuming he’d died.

The War shattered the world, and with it all the old certainties. To these writers, it was as if the very nature of human being had changed. How could anyone write in the same old way? But all four very much needed to write, and needed to find a new way of doing it, to say what they had to say:

“The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.”

What each of them needed — or had found, but needed the confidence to see through — was a way of exploring their inner worlds, of expressing dissonant, complex inner states, where there was no established technique for doing so. It was as if, as far as the novel was concerned, human beings had ceased to be defined entirely by their position in a society bound by shared values (as they were to the Victorians), and now had to be understood, each of them, as a world of their own. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps most purely about that sense of isolation and separation; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with its narrative centre skipping from character to character, combines that sense of each us being our own, separate, vibrant inner world of memories, sensations, regrets, judgements, and passing notions, with the sense of constantly brushing against the equally distinctive worlds of others, all the time apart from them, but at the same time connected, by shared memories and experiences.

Eliot finished The Waste Land near the beginning of the year — during his convalescence from a breakdown — but seems to have spent most of the rest of 1922 being difficult with his potential publishers, on the one hand asking for as much money as he could get, on the other failing to type up the poem and let his publishers see what they were actually paying for. Forster returned from an official position in India, stopping in Egypt to see a man he’d fallen in love with years previously, only to find him dying. Woolf began the year in bed, recovering from illness. Lawrence, the writer who, of the four, I know least about, is the most distant from the others. While Woolf, Eliot and Forster all met up quite often in England in 1922, Lawrence was in Italy, Australia, Ceylon, and then America. (Perhaps for the best. As Goldstein says: “There was very little about Lawrence that wasn’t irritating to someone… The only possible permanent reconciliation with Lawrence was a posthumous one.”)

E M Forster, painted by Dora Carrington

The thing that seems to have acted as a turning point for at least the three novelists covered here was reading two books. James Joyce’s Ulysses had been serialised between 1918 and 1920, but was published in hardback in 1922, and it was in this form that Woolf, Forster and Lawrence read it. This was also the year that translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu started coming out in English. And generally, among those three novelists, the basic reaction seems to have been the same: that Ulysses was technically impressive, though something of a drag to get through, but Proust was a revelation, offering proof that there was a way to explore the new inner life in a novel.

Eliot told Woolf that Ulysses was “a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th century”, but that wasn’t what a novelist desperate to find a way to start a new novel wanted to hear. Woolf felt Ulysses was important, but found it “a mis-fire” — “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” Lawrence and Forster made similar remarks. With Proust, though, the language is very different. “I plunged into Proust,” Forster wrote. Woolf longed to “sink myself in” Proust “all day”, and, Goldstein notes, although she realised she couldn’t write like Proust, soon enough, having read him, “she was writing like herself again.”

By the end of 1922, Woolf was working on Mrs Dalloway; Forster on A Passage to India; Eliot had published The Waste Land; Lawrence, in Kangaroo, had written directly of the experiences that had led him to leave wartime England.

The Worm Ouroboros, cover by Keith Henderson

Inevitably, I can’t help thinking about the fantastic and supernatural fiction of the time. I’ve covered some of it on this blog: 1922, for instance, saw the publication of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which certainly wasn’t seeking new models of what it meant to be human, but can still be seen to be addressing the aftermath of the war, though in a very different way. Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), and J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) are both post-World War I works, and Tolkien’s experiences in the war certainly shaped The Lord of the Rings. But it was the supernatural fiction of the 1890s that seemed to have already been writing about a new way of understanding what it meant to be human. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray both addressed the idea that the old model, of people being a single, distinct personality both within and without, no longer worked. Modernist works like Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land seemed to be trying to work out how to write about what it meant to be human when you threw away this idea of being a single person altogether. The Waste Land takes fragmentation as its central metaphor. Hesse looked at the same idea — of one person being multiple — in his 1927 book, Steppenwolf. His idea was that that inner multiplicity could only be fully accommodated by indulging every part of it to the full. (Which reminds me of what Krag says to Maskull as the reason for his having to make such a violent, disturbing, and personality-changing journey across Tormance in A Voyage to Arcturus: to “run through the gamut”.)

Mrs Dalloway, first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell

But it seems to be Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, who accepts and finds a way to work with the idea that we are not of “fixed and enduring form” (as Hesse puts it), by presenting her protagonists less as characters in the Dickens manner (with fixed external traits and not much else besides) than as constantly-changing centres of experience, whose personalities alter depending on whom they are with, and what memories or sensations come foremost to their mind. It feels like the most healing of the ideas made in response to this “world broke in two”.

But, of course, it has its dark side, in Septimus Smith, the most explicit victim of the World War presented in any of the four works Goldstein discusses. Smith is an example of what can go wrong with this new idea of human beings, when they lose their delicate centre and become trapped by violent memories and unfaceable emotions overpowering their present reality. Smith’s “writings” — his obsessive and often nonsensical ideas — are his way to try to fix some sort of centre in his wildly-decentred inner world, but they are unworkable (“there is no death”, “there is no crime”, “trees are alive”). Where Mrs Dalloway herself slips nostalgically into the past and drifts back to the present, all the time making new, minor adjustments to her understanding of herself, Smith flounders in a storm of experiences that no idea of what it means to be human can ever help him with. For him, the world is The Waste Land, but it’s debatable whether reading Eliot’s poem would have helped him. Perhaps reading Woolf’s novel might?