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“David Lindsay’s The Violet Apple” in Wormwood 21

Wormwood 21I have an essay in the latest issue of Wormwood, on David Lindsay’s posthumously-published novel, The Violet Apple. Of all Lindsay’s novels, it’s the one I most wanted to write about, perhaps because it’s one of his lesser-known and rarely-read works, but also because, although his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, is undoubtedly the most impressive in terms of sheer ambition, The Violet Apple is his most muted, and human — the novel of a writer with some experience and craft — as well as perhaps being his most artistically unified. I even named my website dedicated to David Lindsay after it. (I’ve always thought it the most filmable of his novels, too, and would love to see it as a sort of Merchant Ivory style period piece!)

I hope I managed to set down exactly what it is I like about the book, and why it should be approached on its own merits, not just as “another book by the author of A Voyage to Arcturus“. It’s a great pity there’s no affordable edition out at the moment; I always feel guilty recommending a book it’s expensive to buy.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Wormwood since its first issue, so it’s great to be a contributor, and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.

(My essay has gained a glitch in the first paragraph — the last sentence uses “He is described as…” to refer to a tower; I just had it starting “Described as…” — but hopefully it still makes sense!)

A letter between writers

Whether it’s Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, or David Lindsay to E H Visiak, reading letters between writers, you often find things getting a little formulaic. So, if you ever get caught in a writerly correspondence (highly unlikely, nowadays), here are all your epistolary requirements met:

Dear [fellow writer]

First of all, apologies for not having replied to your previous letter sooner. You know how life is!

[Then, either this paragraph:]

Thanks for the copy of your latest book. A work of genius, though few of course will see it. Critics are, in the main, dullards. As for me, it has left my head so full of thoughts that I cannot set them down just yet. A second read, and a bit more leisure, will allow me to do so. Now, of course, you must immediately set about writing something new! The world awaits your next masterpiece!

[or this paragraph:]

Commiserations on your continued efforts to find a publisher. Publishers are, in the main, dullards. It will, I am sure, one day soon find a home.

[Finally:]

As for my own writing, I have been rather lax of late. All this business with moving house, and so on. You know how life is! I will endeavour to do more!

Yours,

[your name, in a slightly less formal version than in the last letter, till you hit on a pair of silly nicknames for one another]

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.

Strange Evil by Elizabeth Gaskell

Strange Evil was written in 1955, by the fourteen year old Jane Gaskell, and published in 1957. It belongs to that small class of genuinely unique sports of imaginative fiction from the time before fantasy was a commercial genre. In a sense, it was published in another age. As the publisher’s preface states (after basically apologising for the fact that the book was written by a “prodigy”), the manuscript was submitted in “eight little blue exercise books”, something which wouldn’t even get a cursory glance nowadays. But they published it “not because it is remarkable to have written a novel at all at fourteen, but because we think Strange Evil is, in itself, a strange, arresting and beautiful book.”

The question is, is it still worth reading today? In the preface, the publishers go on to say: “That it has faults and immaturities we know; revision has deliberately been kept to a minimum and has been carried out by the author herself, for we felt that the youthful sparkle of her writing should at all costs be preserved.” One of the things that makes the book still worth reading is its style. And the point about Strange Evil‘s style isn’t its maturity, or lack of it (though I don’t see much of the lack of it myself), but its originality.

As an example:

“Flowers thanked the blue sky with perfume. Perfume was wafted down to her — not only from the great beds on the sunlit terraces, but from those bright assemblages of flowers far away on the mountainside. At the top of the slope trees were massed in shades of jewel-green. White blossoms peered and peeped among them, blurry pearls in the midst of the hard vividity of the rest of the colours of the day. A blue sky rose above them and arched its back as though it, too, were alive and vital. It was certainly sun-soaked. It was blue as though it depended on its living for it.”

“It was certainly sun-soaked” might be immature, but you’d have to have no poetry in your soul not to immediately forgive it for the sentence that follows it, which is just one of the many little sparks of surprise dotted throughout the book. Here’s another:

“A red butterfly perched on her shoulder, and, frightened by the texture of her blouse, darted off again. She followed it until she lost it in its gay philanderage among the flowers.”

Has a butterfly’s flight ever been better described than as a “gay philanderage”? (Taking both words in the 1950s sense, of course!) But the poetry of Gaskell’s style isn’t only reserved for the beauties of her world — though it is far more colourful than most writers’ worlds — as this example from a long and bloody battle at the end shows:

“Once, as she fled and slipped again, it was upon five separate fingers in the pool — they were like five little sticks which clutched at her feet.”

The thing about these examples is they’re so vivid and unique. I’ve read enough fantasy novels by full-fledged adults to know that you don’t find images as arresting as those “five separate fingers” often, however violent things get. One thing you can say about Gaskell’s writing that sets it apart from the “immature” is that it is unclichéd. Most fourteen-year-old writers would simply be rehashing what they’d read before, and in a similar style. It takes a certain maturity to break free of other writers, and Gaskell certainly has that.

The basic plot of the book isn’t so original, as fantasies go, but is so full of weird invention that you either won’t notice it, or won’t care. Judith, our heroine, receives a last minute note telling her that a cousin she has never met is coming to stay. It turns out this cousin, Dorinda, and her fiancé Zameis, aren’t human, but are what could best be called fairies, as Judith realises when their golden antenna become visible in a particularly sunny London restaurant. For some reason, knowing their true nature means Judith can’t be left in our world, but must go with them to theirs, though this is something she seems happy enough to do. They travel to Paris, to jump off the roof of Notre Dames, which happens to be one of the places where our world touches theirs. Judith and her two companions find themselves on a moving silver road, which takes them across the many disparate regions of fairyland.

They are making for a mountain, which Dorinda, Zameis, and other “Internals” live inside. But before they can reach it, they’re kidnapped by “Externals” — a mix of exiled Internals and conscripted satyrs, who grow food for the Internals in exchange for brief returns to the inside of the mountain (which the Externals need to do regularly in order to survive). But it turns out that the Internals have finally denied the Externals any entry to the life-giving interior of the mountain, and the Externals, driven to desperation, are ready for war.

Judith, neither an Internal nor an External, at first finds herself free to move about, but soon comes to the attention of one of the Internal nobles, who thinks she is an agent of Death come to kill him. War breaks out. Judith, finding the decadence and pleasure-loving perversity of the Internals not to her taste, sides with the Externals, and finally confronts the Baby — a monstrous giant god in the shape of a vastly overgrown human baby who represents the selfish, sybaritic nature of the Internals’ religion, “just sheer, puffed-up, spoilt, colossal selfishness”. (This, I suppose, is what China Mieville was referring to when he said Strange Evil had “the most extraordinary baddy in fiction”.)

The book is sprinkled with weird moments that go way beyond the imaginations of most generic fantasists. At one point, heading for the final battle, Judith witnesses the passing of a “colossal black woman”, so big that:

“She stepped over the mountain as though it were flat grass on a plain, and Judith knew her to be one who cared nothing for the little ways of men. Truly there were dreadful things in this world.”

It’s a brief pause that adds nothing to the plot, but does everything to open up the sense of being in another, totally alien world, where potentially vast forces might at any moment come into play. (It may have been inspired by Goya’s “The Colossus“. The back flap of Strange Evil says Gaskell “derives the inspiration for some of her descriptive passages from studying paintings”.)

So, I think Strange Evil is still worth reading, not for the fact it was written by a fourteen-year-old, but because it is the product of a unique imagination. I’d even say there’s an air of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in the home-grown, one-offness of its fantastic invention, and the authenticity of its intent. This is something that’s still rare today, when it’s so easy to fall into the wheel ruts of genre fiction and follow them through the usual standard plots, standard styles, and standard fantastic images, for the standard reasons.

Jane Gaskell went on to write the Atlan fantasy series, which I haven’t read, but I will certainly be on the look out for.

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