A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in JamaicaPublished in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica has that Gorey-esque quality of seeming like it might be a genuine old-time classic children’s book — in Humphrey Carpenter’s terms, it could be of the ‘Arcadian’ type of idealised childhood, its ‘secret garden’ a stint the Bas-Thorntons spend on a pirate ship — but beneath its light, storytelling air, it’s far darker than those old-time children’s classics ever were. Dickensian in tone, with Dickens’s love of the comic grotesque, both in over-the-top characterisation and the theatrical set-piece, there’s a subtle but powerful undercurrent building around the only rarely-explored inner life of its key character, ten-year-old Emily, and how she’s affected both by what happens to her and (perhaps more crucially) what she does, during her time with Captain Jonsen and his men.

The novel starts with the Bas-Thornton children living semi-wild on a rundown estate in Jamaica. It is the mid-1800s, after the emancipation of the slaves, and the sugar plantations are mostly abandoned and derelict. Then along comes a hurricane, taking the top off the Bas-Thorntons’ house. Their parents decide the children would be safer at school in England, and ship them off, only for them to be taken by pirates en route. The pirates at first don’t know what to do with the children. Captain Jonsen is hardly vicious enough to simply kill or maroon them, even when they take over his deck, and adopt some vital ship’s gear for use in various games (young Rachel keeps claiming things to be her baby-dolls); they may even be useful in his particular form of piracy, as a distraction to make a potential target ship think his is just a harmless passenger vessel, so he can get close enough to board. For a while, the children aren’t even aware they’re on a pirate ship. Totally lost in their own little worlds, they think this is simply another stage on their journey to England:

‘Margaret said,’ went on Rachel, ‘that time we were shut up on the other ship she heard one of the sailors calling out pirates had come on board.’

Emily had an inspiration. ‘No, you silly, he must have said pilots.’

‘What are pilots?’ asked Laura.

‘They Come On Board,’ explained Emily, lamely. ‘Don’t you remember that picture in the dining-room at home, called The Pilot Comes On Board?’

Hughes takes pains to present the children as anything but the clichéd little angels of most Victorian fiction: these are utterly self-involved, given to bursts of fondness or indifference, brushing against the adult world only briefly, like whales surfacing to breathe:

‘How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?’

Signet_HighWindThe children and the pirates co-exist mostly (at first) by ignoring one another. The pirates seem, at times, to look fondly on the children in their innocence and playfulness; the children try to ignore all clues that the pirates may be pirates — apart from thirteen year old Margaret, the eldest, who instantly knows what’s in store for her from these male criminals. The other, younger, children don’t understand her terror and think she’s being silly. But into this seemingly comic, meandering narrative, hints of a real darkness come through: accidents (one fatal, one near-fatal), then, one drunken night, the pirates come for Margaret — they may even be coming for ten-year-old Emily, too, but she bites Captain Jonsen’s thumb, and this seems to remind him she’s still a child, or perhaps makes him realise she’s too wild to risk, so she doesn’t suffer the more fatalistic Margaret’s (un-mentioned) fate. The journey continues, just as light in tone, just as twisted in implied detail.

It’s only at the end, with the children returned to civilisation, when the adults in London try to prise the truth from the children’s mix of outright fantasy and downright silence, that you get a sense of the trauma they may be suffering beneath their outward normalcy. As the lawyer Mathias says near the end:

‘It’s bad enough having a child in the [witness] box anyway… You can never count on them. They say what they think you want them to say. And then they say what they think the opposing counsel wants them to say too…’

At the end, we’re left with a sense that this adventure is a formative one for the children, but not in any clearly-defined way. The children have brushed against terrors and adventures, yes, but have also spent a lot of time just being themselves — undoubtedly in strange circumstances, but to a child, as Hughes points out, all circumstances are strange, it’s all new. Emily, stocking up on experiences, thinks, at first, it’s enough to have experienced a genuine earthquake right at the start of the novel; her time with Captain Jonsen, with whom she even begins to develop the sort of relationship she never had with her rather distant parents, is too much an undigestible and contradictory mass for her to call it any one thing (as Hughes says, ‘Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives’); and the one deed she does which nobody guesses (its one witness, Margaret, is too traumatised by her own experiences to talk about it, or anything else), all go towards the making of her as a person, in ways too complex to be simply stated: Hughes’s very silence on the matter speaks far more eloquently.

HighWind_filmcoverThroughout, A High Wind in Jamaica has been subtly undermining its own slightly distant tone, building this sense of an unspeakable tension, a hidden trauma, that is only to be dealt with by not speaking of it, except near the end, when the image of Emily, self-contained once more after a single, brief outburst of emotion in court (easily overlooked by all the adults present), is what lingers with me now the book’s read.

A High Wind in Jamaica was made into a surprisingly faithful film in 1965, with Anthony Quinn as the pirate captain (not Jonsen here, but Chavez, as no-one would believe Quinn was Danish). Somehow, the Hollywood sheen (though it’s a UK film) works just as well as Hughes’s light, Dickensian prose style to take the edge off the awful events, and the impassivity of Deborah Baxter as Emily perfectly captures her child-like impenetrability right up to that tell-tale break-down in court.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

Dracula wasn’t the first Victorian vampire novel. In Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), the court of Chancery, tangled nest of claims and counterclaims that it is, sucks the life out of all those who place their hopes in it (and isn’t Miss Flite’s collection of caged birds, to be released “on the day of judgement”, a little too much like Renfield’s menagerie?). In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), though, the vampire is literature itself, with the three-decker novel of the day being described as “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.”

Gissing isn’t talking about the likes of Dickens, but those jobbing writers trying to make a living in a conventionally-minded market where the power lies with the lending libraries first, the publishers second, and the writers last of all. Or, worse, he’s talking about those poor idealistic writers whose ideals don’t conform to the market, but persist with them all the same. Among the former is Edwin Reardon, whose one success as a novelist has led him into a too-hasty marriage with a woman a little too expectant of better things, after which the demand to write another, and another triple-decker, better or at least equal to his one good effort, destroys his finances, his marriage, his hopes and his health. Among the latter is Harold Biffen, whose devotion to a literary ideal (his long-worked-on novel, Mr Bailey, Grocer, takes as its subject “the ignobly decent” — i.e., the trade- and working-classes, unromanticised, and so made entirely unpalatable for the genteel-minded lending-library readership) leads him to live a life of constant borderline starvation, barely able to scrape together enough for a meal without pawning his coat. He nevertheless loves nothing more than to go round Edwin Reardon’s of a Sunday afternoon to spend an hour discussing a line or two of Euripides.

There’s a peculiar scene in Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker cuts the Count with a kukri knife, only to have pound notes and gold coins pour out. The effect is surreal, more like a political cartoon than a moment from a horror novel, but it may get to the heart of it. The vampire in Victorian fiction is, ultimately, money, or rather, the peculiar Victorian attitude to money: that it is far better to inherit a fortune (unearned) than to stoop to the horror of actually working for it. It’s the need to present a genteel front, to pretend to be of the moneyed classes rather than the working classes, which causes so much suffering in so many Victorian novels.

George GissingI first read New Grub Street in search of one of those immersive reading experiences only a Victorian blockbuster can give, and was in no way disappointed. Gissing based a lot of the plot on firsthand experience of his life as a jobbing writer (exaggerated a little, perhaps, to better express his own disappointments and frustrations). He somewhat bitterly lays down the rules of being a writer. Success, for all but the genuine genius (“Oh, if you can be a George Eliot, begin at the earliest opportunity”), is nothing to do with literary ability; it’s to do with money. For money wins you connections, connections get you not just work but reputation, and it’s reputation — social as much as literary — that assures you an income. Because of this, Gissing (who was expelled from university and imprisoned for stealing, which he did to keep a woman he later married — and who later died from drink — from prostituting herself) says a writer must endeavour to remain unmarried till his success is assured. For, as a bachelor, he can accept invites to important, connection-making dinners without being expected to repay the compliment with dinners of his own, something that requires not just a presentable wife, but a presentable home — which all comes down, once more, to needing money in order to make money. If he must marry before that, Gissing says, he should marry a good-natured working class girl, who will have no expectations of living in style while her writer husband hacks away to earn his paltry living. But by doing so, he will of course sacrifice his future success, for a working-class wife will never be presentable, should the writer progress to the stage of having to give dinners.

Cover to Gissing’s New Grub Street by Mervyn Peake

My favourite moral tangle from the novel — and moral tangles are a thing Victorian novels do so well — centres on Marian Yule, the daughter of a fading man of letters, Mr Yule. Mr Yule’s worsening eyesight and diminished reputation causes him to hit on a last-gasp plan to launch his own literary magazine, at the exact same time (amazingly enough) that his daughter stands to inherit a small sum of money — small, but large enough to fund a literary magazine. Or enough to allow Marian to marry the man she loves, Jasper Milvain, the Steerpike of Gissing’s novel, whose cool judgement of the literary market fits into a perfect five-year plan to see him ensconced at the top, by providing what it demands, flattering those who will further his career, and reminding himself, with a cold practicality, not to get carried away with awkward distractions like love. The trouble is, Jasper can’t help proposing to Marian, particularly when he hears of her small inheritance. To make things that little bit worse, Marian’s father thinks Jasper wrote a bad review of one of his works, and already hates him. It’s a perfect little moral dilemma, throwing love, family and money into the same pot, then adding a twist at the right moment to ensure it all gets that little bit worse, and then worse again.

Gissing is brilliant at depicting the Gormengastian gloom of literary London (“the valley of the shadow of books” is his term for the fog-swathed British Library, the centre of literary production), a world of bruised egos, thwarted ambitions, disappointed ideals, and subtle betrayals, all in the name of oh-so-Victorian practicality. He can spin an entire chapter out of one extended exchange full of muted sarcasm and wounded loyalty, subtly shifting power relationships (that between Marian and the father she does all the literary drudge work for being one of the best), and emotional manipulation, along with a little wallowing in pessimism in the name of realism.

It’s dark, despairing, and just that little bit stern — as a Victorian novel should be. But also, so very readable.

Should we bowdlerize Lovecraft?

I like the way there’s always one fact you know about an author, even if you know nothing else about them. If you know only one thing about Jane Austen, for instance, it’s that she, the great writer on marriage & marriageability, was herself unmarried. If you know only one thing about Charles Dickens, the great writer on (and righter of) social wrongs, it’s that his father was imprisoned for debt and young Charles had to work in a blacking factory, an experience he loathed & feared for the rest of his life. If you know only one thing about H P Lovecraft, it’s that he was a racist. The main difference with the Lovecraft fact is that, while you can read the entire works of Dickens or Austen and never guess their particular fact, if you read enough Lovecraft, you’re sure to stub your toe against his enough times to grow more than wary. And if you do enjoy his fiction for its unique take on the weird, it always does feel like stubbing your toe — both painful & angry-making.

For anyone who likes to read old fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, it’s a constant hazard. Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you find an author you like, you discover some objectionable opinion they held. (Why is this such a hazard for fantasy, horror & weird fiction enthusiasts? Perhaps because we’re more likely to read the not-so-great writers in our genre’s past.) I remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first read David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor (1932) and encountered its passages — from an author who had previously written that “nationalities, and the patriotism that attends nationalities, are inconsistent with true mental freedom and progress” — having one of his characters explain how “Christ was blue-eyed, belonging by descent to the North”. (I also remember the sense of relief I felt when I read Tolkien’s letter to his would-be publishers in pre-WWII Germany who had asked if he had any Jewish blood; he replied that he was sorry he hadn’t, but would be proud to admit it if he had.) There’s a watershed at World War II, before which racism, and (in Britain) Imperialism and classism, were strewn quite freely through the works of so many writers. (Casual racism, of the “it’s the word we always used, we never meant anything by it” type was still the norm amongst my grandparents’ generation.)

But should we bowdlerize Lovecraft? No. Lovecraft’s racism is part of the man we encounter whenever we read his fiction, and as it’s often the most noticeable of his objectionable characteristics, perhaps that’s one reason for keeping it — it alerts us to the fact that these stories are not the products of an entirely healthy mind. The very thing that draws me to reading Lovecraft — his portrayal of a very bleak and inhuman, even anti-human, universe — is centred on his own intently-held fears and beliefs. Lovecraft had a deep terror of life (which I’m not saying was groundless), and particularly of the body, and in a sense it was only because his racism was, at the time, the most socially acceptable part of his profound world-rejection, life-rejection, and body-rejection, that it comes out so explicitly in his fiction.

Lovecraft’s horror of otherness — most crassly expressed in his fear of the foreign faces and cultures he found himself surrounded by in New York — is ultimately the horror of his own body, and the shadow part of his mind. There is in his fiction a mixed loathing for and longing for union with that “other” — as there always must be, the psyche seeking to heal its self-division — and so we get that moment at the end of “The Outsider” where the protagonist sees his own horrific form in a mirror (which is not simply the end of a cheap twist tale, but a depiction of how far a man can go to deny what he knows is most horrific about himself), but also all those fantasies of having one’s mind transplanted into other, alien bodies, which Lovecraft strained to imbue with horror whilst quite plainly longing to experience.

Should we not read Lovecraft, then? My interest in Lovecraft’s fiction is as much with the man who wrote it as the stories he produces, but I don’t at all mean that I admire him through and through. Lovecraft is the picture of a man struggling at the edge of life, caught between the desire to live and the impulse to reject it all. An intelligent, sensitive, self-limited man, he strove all his life to try and solve the very alien equation at the core of his own psychology. He certainly didn’t achieve perfection at any point, but I believe it’s possible to find in his fiction evidence for the very difficult self-healing, or self-unifying (“I am it and it is I”), process we all undergo, and which is all the more explicit in the works of artists and writers who address the darker realms of the mind. Which is also the reason we go to those works, to try and illuminate our own self-healing, self-unification, and the struggle that goes with it. All authors are fallible human beings, and it’s in none of our interests to pretend they aren’t, to make a cult of them, to revere them unreservedly. Far better that they teach us to be always wary of what we read, and work out our own values for ourselves.

As for whether we should admire such authors, quite often it’s not a question of admiration — it’s fascination, that combination of repugnance and attraction, as much as anything, that brings us back to the work of the most powerful artists. It’s seeing ourselves, in however warped, exaggerated, and difficult-to-take a form, that brings us to their work — just like Lovecraft’s ghoul seeing itself in a mirror. Certainly, that’s what brings me back to Lovecraft.

The Terror & Drood by Dan Simmons

Two books I enjoyed recently, both by Dan Simmons, are The Terror and Drood. Both are set in the 19th century, both feature elements of supernatural horror against a strongly-researched historical background and some good, convincing characterisation. Both are pretty big books, too, but more than justify their length — they’re the sort of novels you want to dwell in, just to linger in their very real-feeling worlds.

The Terror is about the Franklin expedition to find a northwest passage through the arctic, which set out in 1845 and, after last being sighted on the 26th July in Lancaster Sound, was not heard from again. The expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — fitting names considering the grisly end they came to, as subsequent missions to at first rescue, then simply find out what happened to the expedition, uncovered hints of cannibalism after the two ships became icebound in a vicious Arctic winter. To this already taut mix of dwindling food supplies, freezing temperatures, treacherous weather, scurvy and other diseases, not to mention the very real threat of mutiny as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Simmons adds a supernatural element from Inuit mythology — a demonic creature out there in the frozen wastes, preying on the explorers more out of a need for vengeance than food. At times, this supernatural element can seem superfluous, considering the hell Simmons is already putting his characters through, but towards the end of the novel it becomes increasingly central.

I knew I’d like The Terror from the start. Like Alien, and (even more) like a 19th century version of Carpenter’s The Thing — both films I love for their tense, bleak, claustrophobic atmospheres — it’s about an isolated group of human beings in hostile surroundings facing a dreadful, demonic threat. Simmons conjures the harshness of the environment, the desperation of the situation, and the arrogance of the age brilliantly, thus making the supernatural element all the more believable.

Drood, on the other hand, is set in more civilised climes — the London of Charles Dickens, to be precise — though parts of it prove to be anything but civilised. Narrated by Dickens’s sometime friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins, it addresses the enigma of Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood (in Simmons’s Drood, not Dickens’s) is an almost supernatural figure, somewhat like the Phantom of the Opera in appearance, and, like the Phantom, he lives underground — in the catacombs, sewers and cellars beneath London, where an equally Dickensian sub-city exists. But the real focus of the book (though for the most part in a gently simmering subtext) is Wilkie Collins’s barely friendly rivalry with the effortlessly superior Dickens (it was Simmons’s description of Wilkie Collins as Salieri to Dickens’s Mozart that got me wanting to read the book).

Both novels are evidently highly researched, but whereas the wealth of solid detail in The Terror only ever made the setting and story more concrete and believable, sometimes the need to stick to the actual events of Dickens’s well-documented and necessarily complex life diffused the purity of Drood‘s central story for me (though this was perhaps because I didn’t know that much about Dickens’s life). Although, as narrator Wilkie Collins is an opium addict who has frequent encounters with perhaps hallucinated, perhaps real supernatural beings, it’s difficult to see how the book could have worked as well if it were tightly focused. Its edge-of-control messiness may well be an inseparable part of it.

I enjoyed both books a great deal — The Terror a shade more, perhaps, because its story was a little tighter, but the way Wilkie Collins’s narration surrounds you in his very real, sometimes feverish world pretty much made up for that, and, of the two, it’s Drood I feel I’m more likely to re-read, simply because of its appropriately Dickensian messiness.