A Voyage to Arcturus — the Séance

The first chapter of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus can seem a bit of an anomaly. It introduces eleven characters, all but three of whom (and they’re the last three to be introduced) are forgotten as soon as the chapter ends. What’s more, we get enticing hints about these soon-to-be-forgotten characters, making it seem Lindsay might have had some sort of a plan for them. Montague Faull, for instance, the South American merchant at whose Hampstead home, Prolands, the séance is to take place, obviously has the hots for another character, Mrs Trent. (Backhouse notices “the concealed barbarian in the complacent gleam of his eye” when Faull looks at her). There’s plot material there, but it never gets used.

As more people arrive for the séance, it almost seems as though Lindsay were bringing characters on stage for the purpose of auditioning them to be his novel’s protagonist. After Backhouse — who’d certainly make the subject of an interesting, if depressing, novel (Lindsay tells us something of his fate) — and the rascally Faull, we get Lang, “the stockjobber, well known in his own circle as an amateur prestidigitator” — surely set to be the hero of his own series of Raffles-like adventures, in which he beats cat burglars at their own game on the tiled roofs of interwar London. Then we get Professor Halbart:

“He was the eminent psychologist, the author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius, etc., considered in their mental aspects. His presence at such a gathering somewhat mystified the other guests, but all felt as if the object of their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity.”

Ballantine cover, art by Bob Pepper

Surely Halbart is to be our hero, the man who, perhaps by teaming up with Backhouse to gain a clue or two from the netherworld, will prove Montague Faull to be the murderer of Mrs Trent’s husband at the exact same moment Faull was hosting the séance! Or perhaps, working alone, he’ll discover Backhouse to be a criminal mastermind using his weirdly tangible apparitions to commit a series of daring robberies or anarchistic assassinations.

But no, it’s none of them. At what seems the last moment, Lindsay brings on the peculiar double act of Maskull and Nightspore, one the evident man of action, the other “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”. What sort of adventure would require such a pairing? This Voyage to Arcturus novel is growing stranger and stranger by the moment…

But still Lindsay isn’t done. As though daring himself to go one step further still, in leaps Krag, who’s another order of being altogether. His first act, after loudly greeting his astonished host, is to murder Backhouse’s apparition by twisting its neck in two precise movements.

Part of me loves the possibility that Lindsay sat down to write a novel set entirely in Hampstead, and got shanghaied by some wild strain of his own imagination. This quote from a letter to E H Visiak makes it almost seem possible:

“I do not know how it is with you, but my books up to the present have turned out quite other than I have originally intended, so that it is almost fascinating to watch them developing themselves on their own lines.” — Letter to Visiak, 21st October 1921, printed in Adam International Review Vol XXXV.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

But I can’t believe he simply busked the rest of the book, particularly as there’s the weird way that moments of Maskull’s journey tie in with incidents on Earth, as though the two were happening both subsequently and simultaneously — or perhaps, on some mythic plane, perpetually — most evident of which is Maskull’s at one point lying down on Tormance to die, only to find himself waking up, briefly, as the very apparition whose hand he shook, at the séance he attended several days previously!

So here are a few other ideas. I’m not presenting any of them as convincing arguments. I’ve come to enjoy re-reading A Voyage to Arcturus as a way of opening up its possibilities rather than trying to solve it as though it were a crossword puzzle, and I think the more I do that, the richer, as a novel, it becomes.

The most obvious interpretation sees the séance chapter as part of the general pattern of all of Maskull’s later adventures, in which a new region of Tormance is introduced, along with its inhabitants and their world-view or philosophy, only to have it all proved to be another of Crystalman’s ploys, by having the “vulgar, sordid, bestial” grin appear on yet another corpse, like the rubber stamp of Lindsay’s disapproval. In this context, the Hampstead séance is just one more rejection — the primal rejection, you could say, as it rejects the writer’s own world and culture wholesale. Exactly what the rejection is of is difficult to say, as it seems to be rejecting so much, though the ennui that leads these successful Hampstead residents to indulge in a little light séance-ing is perhaps best summed up by Joiwind’s later comment:

“That’s a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?”
“Something of the kind,” said Maskull.
“That must be a disease brought on by rich food.”

At this time, most works of imaginative fiction used a framing device — as in, for instance, The Turn of the Screw, where everyone stands around a fireplace, taking turns telling ghost stories — and it could be that Lindsay simply included the Hampstead chapter as a convention, as the accepted way to tell a fantastic tale. In this interpretation, the trip to Tormance doesn’t actually take place, but is played out before us as part of the séance. After all, the voyagers-to-be, Maskull and Nightspore, make their first appearance the moment after Backhouse has announced the séance has started — so is Maskull and Nightspore’s entrance its first manifestation? And is all that follows in fact a vision channelled through Backhouse for Montague Faull and his guests’ amusement and/or instruction? (But if so, we ought to get their reactions at the end. I can imagine Faull applauding politely while throwing a glance at Mrs Trent to see if he might get her alone later in the evening, while Professor Halbart jots a line or two in a pocket notebook.)

Turkish edition, from İthaki Yayınları, 2016

Another take on the séance chapter is that Lindsay is setting up a contrast. Maskull will set out on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, guided by the mysterious “Muspel Light”, whose name refers to the realm of fire, Muspelheim, in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Hampstead are, at the start of the book, “illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire”, a hearth-fire that in no way compares to the mystical and otherworldly blaze coming from Muspel. It could be that, in this way, this séance in a Hampstead drawing room sets up a very Lindsay-esque comparison, as though he were saying that Maskull’s trip to Tormance stands in the same relation to a drawing-room séance as a séance stands to an average evening social gathering in a Hampstead drawing room. Just as the séance is a breaking through of the wondrous and sublime into Hampstead normality, so the trip to Tormance outdoes the séance by multiplying its wonders and sublimity exponentially.

It could be, though, that Lindsay was doing something necessary to his own creative process in the séance chapter, because it has echoes with the set-ups in his later novels, as though he had certain alchemical preconditions necessary to begin working his literary magic. These preconditions involve the coming together of two opposing but complimentary elements, most often embodied, in Lindsay’s fiction, as a man and a woman. As he says, in another letter to E H Visiak:

“You remark — ‘Poetry is generated by the clash of the male and female elements in the personality.’ I go further and say that all the works of creative genius are the children of the union of the male and female elements, and that it is the female that produces them.” — Letter to E H Visiak, 9th Feb 1922; printed in Adam International Review 346-348

The first of these elements at the séance is Backhouse the medium. Backhouse is presented as an aloof, disciplined man, who, despite the fact he hires himself out as the entertainment at soirées such as this, takes his work very seriously. Of what he does, he says: “I dream with open eyes… and others see my dreams. That is all.” He makes no attempt to explain or understand what he does — which makes it so fitting when Krag calls him a “spirit-usher” — nor to embellish or mystify it in any way. In this, he’s a bit like Lindsay himself, whose prose style has wrong-footed some readers into thinking it no style at all, or a bad style, simply because it does none of the usual things that a fantasy prose style of the time (Dunsany’s, for instance) was expected to do. It works none of what Clark Ashton Smith calls “verbal black magic”, but instead seems intent on cutting all the magic out, so as to present its wonders in a plain, straightforward, take-it-or-leave-it style, with no rhetoric and no poetry. The facts are left to speak for themselves, thus making them seem all the more like facts. What Backhouse says of himself might count for Lindsay, too:

“I am a simple man, and always prefer to reduce things to elemental simplicity… Nature is one thing, and art is another.”

In this, he’s like another Lindsay protagonist, Nicholas Cabot in Sphinx. In that novel, Nicholas is working on a machine to record the deep-sleep dreams we can never remember upon waking. He, too, is seeking to “dream with open eyes” — conscious, rational, waking eyes — and his approach is as scientific and inartistic as Backhouse’s.

Which is why the medium is so discombobulated when he turns up at Prolands to find he’s to work on what is, effectively, a theatrical stage. It’s all down to our second alchemical element, Mrs. Trent — of whom Lindsay says, “It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present.” She represents the creative element Backhouse represses, denies or lacks. And though her contribution is, on the face of it, simply to have the séance room done up with theatrical scenery and a hidden orchestra, what she’s also doing is bringing the power of Mozart, and the Temple scene from The Magic Flute specifically, to magnify Backhouse’s powers as a medium. In a way, it could be this — mediumship plus Mozart — that takes Backhouse’s normally dry but impressive séances to the next level, turning this one into the start of a journey to another world. (Also, of course, Mrs Trent is the one who invites Maskull and Nightspore to the séance — her apparitions, ready to mix with Backhouse’s.)

Lindsay was obviously deeply affected by Mozart, particularly this one scene from The Magic Flute. And in his description of the séance room, it’s evident he’s thinking of one specific production of the opera:

“Having settled his guests in their seats, Faull stepped up to the curtain and flung it aside. A replica, or nearly so, of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the ‘Magic Flute’ was then exposed to view: the gloomy, massive architecture of the interior, the glowing sky above it in the background, and, silhouetted against the latter, the gigantic seated statue of the Pharaoh…”

In England, The Magic Flute received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in March 1838. Obviously, Lindsay didn’t see this one. It was revived, though, in 1914 by Sir Thomas Beecham, as part of the repertoire of his Beecham Opera Company, which was formed after the Covent Garden Opera Company shut down during the First World War. Beecham toured his company around England, but settled at Drury Lane in 1917, putting on performances between May and July, and September and November, of that year, which is when I guess Lindsay (still in his first year of married life, at the time) might have seen it. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage designs for an 1815 production are the images most associated with The Magic Flute:

But Beecham’s company employed Hugo Rumbold as designer, and in the 30th May 1914 issue of The Sphere, there are some drawings of Rumbold’s stage set-ups in an article about the opening of Beecham’s new opera season. They don’t seem as impressive as Schinkel’s designs, but perhaps this is what Lindsay was thinking of as the setting for his séance:

“A Fanfare of Trumpets in the Temple. Act II, Scene I”. Drawing by D. Macpherson, of Hugo Rumbold’s stage design for The Magic Flute. Source: the British Newspaper Archive; The British Library Board. © Illustrated London News Group

So, the séance chapter may have been all about setting up a sort of chemical reaction: Backhouse’s link to the netherworld combined with Mrs Trent’s link to “the beautiful and solemn strains of Mozart’s ‘temple’ music”. Result: Maskull on Tormance.

Perhaps, though, it’s easier simply to think about the effect the séance chapter has on the rest of A Voyage to Arcturus. If Lindsay had started with Maskull, Nightspore and Krag setting off for Tormance — or even if he’d started with the second chapter, where Krag, in the street outside, convinces Maskull to accompany him and Nightspore — it would be all too easy for the reader to see the rest of the book as a fable or a flight of fancy. By beginning it in a realistic setting, with realistic-seeming characters, Lindsay sets his reader up for something realistic. This makes the shift to the fantastic setting both more bizarre and shocking and, in a way, more meaningful. Also, that shift from the realistic to the fantastic is a deliberately destabilising move in a book that’s all about destabilising moves. (In an era when other modernistic works, such as The Waste Land, were taking the jarring displacement to a new level.)

I think the reaction the séance chapter often gets is down to that feeling of displacement. The effect is deliberate and meaningful, but it can leave readers who are used to having their science fiction and fantasy provide them with rigorously self-consistent worlds dismissing Lindsay’s effect as a mistake — or, considering the book was published in 1920, dismissing it as ingenuous, when it is, in my opinion, ingenious.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich book, one that repays many close re-reads and re-interpretations. I’ll hopefully write some more about other aspects of it, and Lindsay’s work in general, soon.

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.

The Invisibles

“Every paranoid fantasy, every conspiracy theory, every alleged coverup and government deception, every tabloid crank story you’ve ever heard… Imagine if it all were true?”

Cover to issue 1

This is how Grant Morrison’s Vertigo series The Invisibles explained itself in the first issue of its second volume reboot. (It eventually went through two reboots, three series, and 54 issues in total.) Running from September 1994 to June 2000 (the last issue was meant to coincide with the millennium, but was delayed), it tells the story of a countercultural cell of postmodern revolutionaries attempting to thwart the establishment’s plan to install the “Archon of the Aeon” as King of the World — after which we’ll have “cameras in the head, children with microchips, spin doctors rewriting reality as it happens”, “the infinite deathcamp of tomorrow” — by materialising the Archon into the body of the 200-year-old extradimensional offspring of the British Royal Line and Lovecraftian Things From Beyond, in a battle for “Timeless Freedom or Eternal Control”.

Series 2 first issue, cover by Brian Bolland

In The Invisibles’ world, not only is every conspiracy theory true, but every sort of magic — voodoo, shamanistic, ritual, chaos — works, and overlaps with the most advanced forms of technology. It’s a world of Gnostic engineers, four-dimensional liquid armour and remote-viewing time travel. It’s a world where an alien really was recovered from the Roswell crash, but as well as being a living entity it was also a form of liquid information. It’s a world that revels in all forms of 1990s counterculture — just look at the Day-Glo acid-orange cover to issue 1 — from multicoloured iMacs to Brit-Pop (“They’ve just cloned a sheep!” Morrison declares on one letters page), but also traditional mythology, with typical early stories consisting of interweaving strands, where one character may be relating an Egyptian or Aztec myth, another is undergoing a visionary experience in a separate dimension, while a third is having a bloody fist-fight/gun battle with soldiers, Ciphermen (human beings modified into hive-mind drones, engaging in psychic time-work from deep isolation tanks) or the Gigeresque King-of-All-Pain.

It’s difficult to tell how much its exuberant, sometimes self-referential storytelling style, with so many leaps in time, point of view, and style (some of the final issues are drawn by several different artists with widely different styles, from the cartoonish to the grimly realistic), is just buying into the whole postmodern style of post-80s comics, or is doing the same thing that, say, T S Eliot was doing in The Waste Land — mixing widely disparate fragments into a seemingly indigestible whole because that’s what the world feels like to its creator.

panel from The Invisibles #1, art by Steve Yeowell

I’d say there’s a lot about The Invisibles to link it to what I’ve called ‘crisis literature’ — as in The Waste Land, Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, or Garner’s Red Shift — but where I said that those works often present themselves as intellectual puzzles whilst attempting to present deep emotional trauma, The Invisibles feels like it’s already on the other side of the trauma. Its fractured style is not a case of a creator trying to piece together irreconcilable fragments, but to present a very weird vision in the only way it can be presented. It doesn’t feel like it’s fighting against its own conclusions or presenting them as evidence of despair or horror; The Invisibles is wholly, and joyfully, accepting of its weirdly destabilised world.

In the final issue, Morrison says he was using The Invisibles:

“…to recreate the complete and unabridged sensation of an ‘alien abduction,’ thrill-ride style. I’ve attempted to simulate an initiation into some of the secrets of time and ‘high-magic’ (where ‘simulation’ and ‘reality’ are synonymous, as in the formula Fake It Till You Make It) and create something which not only pays my rent but deprograms the nervous system and unravels the wallpaper.”

Series 2, issue 18, cover by Brian Bolland

That “alien abduction”, relates to an actual experience Morrison had, and which he has related in several places (such as this interview on YouTube (10 minutes)). He only jokingly refers to it as an alien abduction, because, he says, there wasn’t any other context to put it in. A religious mystic would have the vocabulary, but Morrison, raised on pop culture and comics, had to make his own version of the experience, with his own tools.

The last few issues of The Invisibles are so full of about-turns, reinterpretations and jumps in narrative, that it’s quite exhausting, like a deliberate attempt to break the reader’s sense of meaning and reality altogether, and there’s a feeling that what made the series fresh, fast-paced and full of ideas in its early issues has reached a point of exhaustion. Or perhaps that was just the result of my re-reading it all in so short a time.

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”.