The Shadow by E H Visiak

After The Haunted Island (1910) and Medusa (1929), E H Visiak’s only other substantial work of weird fiction was the novella The Shadow, which was published in 1936 as part of a fat, budget volume (560 pages for 2 shillings and 6 pence) called Crimes, Creeps and Thrills (“Forty-Five New Stories of Detection, Horror and Adventure by Eminent Modern Authors”), with no listed editor, but online sources have John Gawsworth in that role. (And he is the co-author of two tales in the book under his own name, and one under his real name Fytton Armstrong, which feels like confirmation.)

The Shadow is a departure from Visiak’s previous two novels, in that it’s contemporary, and not a sea adventure. It’s told in two parts. In the first, the main character Edmund Shear is fourteen years old, and is spending his school holiday at the house of a fellow pupil, Anthony Layton. The two aren’t exactly friends, as Anthony’s main means of relating to people seems to be mockery and contempt, with the occasional retreat into self-pity when things go wrong. Edmund’s father is a painter of seascapes, and Edmund himself is obsessed with the sea (“His mind ran much upon nautical imaginations”), making him possibly a stand-in for Visiak himself.

In the room where Edmund sleeps is a portrait of one of Anthony’s ancestors, Hamond Layton, who was “a sort of pirate—a smuggler, anyway”, and was hanged for it. The portrait affects Edmund profoundly, as though the long-dead Hamond has perhaps, at moments, started to possess him.

One of eight uncredited illustrations to Visiak’s story.

An initially confusing array of other characters is introduced, including an old sailor known as “Jerusalem John” who actually knew Hamond Layton, a ship-owner called Archie Anderson, a Mr Jervons who spends a lot of his time at Anthony’s home (Anthony’s mother is a widow) and is the main male influence — though “an embittering, belittling, restraining influence” — on the young Anthony’s life, a “prophetess” of the New Idealism called Mrs Evans, her granddaughter Margaret Conyers who writes poetry, and finally a painter, Reginald Rudderford Thurston, who is described by one of the other characters as “a monster in human habit, a psychological octopus”, a vivacious but violent, sly and domineering and perhaps supernaturally-possessed man, “thrilling with ravening spite”.

So many of the relationships between these characters are about various forms of domination. Anthony tries to bully those he perceives as within his range (Edmund and Margaret, neither of whom gives in). Anthony in turn is domineered by the sarcastic Mr Jervons, who has clearly installed himself in the Laytons’ home and is living off it. Mrs Evans so believes in the truths of her New Idealism (whose main tenet is that there is no such thing as evil, only ignorance) that she bosses everyone around (“a look of complacent domination in her eyes”), assuming they’ll come round to her way of thinking and thank her for it. But worst of all is the almost Devil-like Thurston, who seems to have a supernatural insight into others’ secrets, and revels in manipulation, bullying, and generally being extremely unpleasant, and whose one redeeming virtue is that he does it so excessively he is clearly the villain of the piece, even if it’s never clear what he’s up to and why.

The second half of The Shadow leaps forward to Edmund as a young man, having just inherited Mr Anderson’s shipping firm. He returns to the scene of the first half of the book (near Lowestoft) and experiences some sort of breakdown. Ever since encountering the portrait of Hamond Layton (which he now owns), he has moments when the old pirate/smuggler seems to take him over, turning him angry and domineering. In the midst of his breakdown, he’s taken in by his old headmaster, Mr Atwell, who speculates on what might be going on with the young man, and so provides the story’s only lucid explanation. It seems that the smuggler Hamond Layton was, at one point, presented with a choice, either to continue his life of crime, or marry a woman who loved him. He made the wrong choice and was hanged for it, but perhaps his lingering essence is seeking redemption through the young Edmund. But to do this, Edmund has to learn to tame the angry, domineering aspect of Hamond-the-pirate, before he can find love (with poetess Margaret). This makes a sort of sense of most of what’s going on in the novella.

But it raises the question of what the villainous Thurston’s role is. At one point, Thurston is said to be “a representation, in some way, of Hamond Layton”, but if so it’s only of his darker nature. However, Edmund is already battling that darker nature within himself, so why have another character represent the same aspect? It seems more that Thurston is a (or even the) Devil, taking it on himself to try and drive Edmund to the same fate as Hamond — a life of crime, followed by hanging. And certainly Thurston takes a Devil-like joy in sowing discord and misery all around him. Anthony Layton has fallen particularly under his spell, and Thurston urges him to seduce Margaret, to take her potentially redeeming influence away from Edmund.

If one of the story’s main themes is the dominance of some people over others — as well as all those domineering types such as Mr Jervons, Thurston and Mrs Evans, there’s the “shadow” of Hamond Layton’s supernatural dominance over Edmund — a secondary theme is how this domineering impulse, in the male characters at least, is tied to sex.

We’re told early on that the boy “Edmund’s absorbing interest in nautical things had kept his thoughts away from sexual aspects.” At one point, after having met Margaret for the first time, he has a particularly troubling dream, which implies that “nautical imaginations” are, for him, a sublimation of his adolescent sexuality:

“…a woman had changed into a ship; and the ship — which was such a fine one! — had to be sunk for it to become a woman again…”

(Which is perhaps also linked to Hamond Layton, who named his ship Barbara, after the woman who loved him.)

Mr Jervons and the adult Anthony Layton are both casually predatory on women. It all seems to tie in with Visiak’s belief that the Eden-like state of childhood comes to an end with adolescence purely because of the introduction of sexuality — though, here, it seems to be redeemable by love. (Mr Anderson, the main adult male character who isn’t domineering, was in love with a woman who died before they could marry. Edmund and Margaret’s love, when it’s admitted, seems to be the redemption both for Edmund and the shadow of Hamond Layton.)

Mrs Evans’ New Idealism, though probably satirising many beliefs both then and now, is perhaps most notable for its idea that there is no such thing as evil. But Visiak is clearly presenting us with evil in the form of the barely-human Thurston. Visiak, I’d say, believes in real evil.

The Shadow is quite a confusing novel. The opening introduces a lot of characters, all of whom seem to be basically unpleasant and domineering in various ways, painting a very dour picture of the world of human relations. Even by the end, things aren’t very clear, and if it wasn’t for that one chapter where Mr Atwell speculates to himself on what might be going on, I’d probably have no clue as to what Visiak had intended. Take out the supernatural influence of the “shadow” of Hamond Layton, and you’d have the story of a young man with troubled moments of dark, almost hallucinatory depression and bouts of anger, perhaps rooted in a sexuality that can no longer safely be sublimated into boyish thoughts about boats. Perhaps another read might make it all clear… But perhaps not.

However, further clues might be gleaned from Edmund’s speculations at one point, which strays into the territory of cosmic horror. Is it being put forward as a valid interpretation of Visiak’s supernatural world, or is it just a throwaway — if frightening — thought?:

“Perhaps superhuman beings used us as we used animals, for food and work — a different sort of food and work.”

Visiak had another tale in the same anthology, a collaboration with John Gawsworth called “The Uncharted Islands”, that is, again, a sea-adventure, but with no supernatural element.


The Claw by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

The Claw (first published simply as Claw in 1983, as by Jay Ramsey, for Richard Bachman-like reasons) could be said to form the middle of a thematic trilogy of early novels from Campbell, about parenthood: The Nameless (1981) is about the sheer anxiety of what, out there in the world, might prey on a child (mad cults, kidnappers and killers); The Influence (1988) is about the generational influences within a family that might prey on a child (mental illness and passed-on cycles of psychological abuse); The Claw, meanwhile, is about the physical abuse a child might suffer from their own parents. Like The Nameless, The Claw employs a zero-subtlety approach in using the supernatural to enact its theme. In the former novel, an evil cult kidnaps the main character’s child and inducts her into a life of ritualised, nihilistic murder; in The Claw, meanwhile, there’s an evil artefact (which belongs to an evil cult) that causes parents to have murderous impulses towards their child. The Claw of the title, then, is like a supernatural version of Hitchcock’s maguffin. For Hitchcock, the maguffin was the thing — the secret formula, the microfilm, whatever — that both the baddies and the goodies want and the protagonist has, which causes a lot of chasing around. Here, the Claw is the thing that unleashes in its main characters what, in some real people, doesn’t need any supernatural cause at all. The advantage of a supernatural maguffin, though, is it doesn’t require any deeper motivation for that behaviour — and, when it gets destroyed, the behaviour goes away. Not so in real life.

1983 Futura PB

The story opens in rare territory for Campbell: overseas. In Nigeria to research his latest spy thriller, Alan Knight meets a British anthropologist, David Marlowe, who offers to drive him to the airport when he returns home. Once there, he asks a favour. The post from Lagos being what it was, he wants Alan to take a parcel back to England, and deliver it to the Foundation for African Studies. Alan agrees, and (he’s a bit of an idiot, considering he writes spy novels) only finds out when he’s passing through UK customs that it contains a potential weapon: a four-taloned metal claw. Fortunately, he’s let through, and that weekend, the Claw remains at the coastal Norfolk home he shares with his wife Liz and six-year-old daughter Anna. But he soon makes the trip to the Foundation in London — only to find he’s unaccountably left the thing at home. There’s worse to come, though. The Foundation’s Dr Hetherington tells him that David Marlowe has brutally, and for no apparent reason, murdered his wife and daughter — and that the Claw is an artefact belonging to a cult known as the Leopard Men, whose initiation rite requires its members to murder a young girl of their own blood. Incensed he was duped into letting such a repugnant thing into his home, Alan goes back, only to find it has been stolen. But its influence has started to take hold: suddenly unable to write, he starts getting tetchy with Anna…

The Claw’s effect isn’t only limited to the Knight family. A local man with a childlike mentality is found having killed, with his bare hands, one of the goats that graze the cliff near the Knights’ house. (Which inevitably sets up the idea of victims as scapegoats, but this doesn’t seem to have been developed.) Meanwhile in the Knight household itself, Alan’s growing hostility towards his daughter gets worse until he receives a phone call from Nigeria. Isaac Banjo, a translator at the University of Lagos who helped Marlowe in his researches into the Leopard Men, knows what’s going on, feels guilty about his part in it, and wants to help. Alan, though, has to come to Nigeria to put an end to things. This he does, but that leaves Liz alone with Anna, and Liz is also beginning to fall under the influence of the still-missing Claw.

St Martin’s Press US HB, 1983

I have to say that, though Ramsey Campbell is one of my favourite writers, this is not a book of his I’d recommend, unless (like me) you’re intent on reading all of his novels. And usually, with a writer whose work I know, I can still get something out of a lesser novel by considering it in terms of the development of their themes, or of their craft, and so on. And perhaps part of the problem is that I couldn’t do that for most of The Claw. The characters just don’t have the sort of depth Campbell usually endows them with. And this is particularly notable in a novel which deals with such a difficult central theme. Parents with violent impulses towards their children are repugnant as characters, and a lot has to be done to make it worth spending time with them. When Alan and Liz begin looking on their very young and vulnerable daughter with irritation and worse — “Liz watched her, loathing her babyishness. How could she once have loved and been proud of this child?” — they become very thin as characters, with no self-examination or awareness (necessarily so, I suppose, because of the demands of the plot). And there are too many chapters, it seems, in the middle of The Claw where we’re in the presence of Liz and Anna, and Liz is on the verge of violence towards Anna, and Anna is terrified, and nothing much else is going on. There’s one moment where I thought the novel was going to start engaging with its own themes in a more explicit way, when the hippie-ish barman, Jimmy, at one points says: “The absolute authority of parents is fascism in the home.” But this line isn’t examined any further, and that’s the last we hear of Jimmy as a character.

The strand of the story where Alan is out there in Nigeria investigating the cult — and investigations like that would normally make a novel, for me — are sketchy and unconvincing. (Campbell’s chapters set in Lagos are excellent evocations, I think — though I’ve never been there, and, it turns out, neither had Campbell. But when Alan and Isaac head into the jungle, it all starts to feel like low-budget scenery.) To top it all, the Leopard Men aren’t that interesting as a cult (certainly not as nihilistically evocative as the previous book’s Nameless). They feel a bit under-thought out, even generic, a bit obvious. Africa — Leopard Men. Marlowe — Heart of Darkness. Evil, cursed artefact from foreign shores. Even worse: “There is a legend told throughout Africa that the last Leopard Man will come from a far land and destroy the power of the claw.”

1992 Tor cover, art by Tim O’Brien

There may be a reason for this. (There are probably many — such as how difficult the subject must have been to write about.) Campbell says in his afterword (appended in 1992, when the novel was reissued under his own name) that after it was initially submitted, the manuscript went through some revisions. One of these was to add chapters from young Anna’s point of view, something he says he didn’t include in the first version. And these are the chapters where the book really comes alive. Faced with suddenly hostile, even alienating parents, Anna is the character in this novel who is allowed depth, and of course it’s a depth that’s all about sheer terror:

“She couldn’t tell anyone about mummy, it was too horrible a thing to say, so much so that it paralysed her mouth. The more she tried to say it, the less able she was… She was trapped inside herself.”

Or, my favourite line:

“The stranger who pretended to be mummy was made up of teeth and nails.”

When it came out in the US as Night of the Claw, Kirkus Reviews said it was “an overlong but steady, creepy, discomforting chiller—thanks to a subdued style, shifting viewpoints (including that of confused, terrified Anna), and richly detailed backgrounds.” Perhaps my own reaction is down to knowing Campbell could do so much better, as he does in Incarnate (where parental abuse isn’t a major theme, but is part of at least one of the characters’ stories), The Influence, and his later novel The House on Nazareth Hill. I can’t help wondering if his adding chapters from Anna’s point of view aren’t something of a breakthrough moment in his craft (even though he’d written short stories from a child’s point of view before, in Dark Companions — though that collection only came out the previous year.) Certainly, the final chapters, where Anna escapes from her increasingly hostile mother and flees across a confusing coastal landscape at night to take refuge in a house that proves to have been the scene of an even worse Claw-inspired act of parental violence, is pure Campbell: the nightmare journey, and in particular the nightmare exploration of an empty-but-not-empty house.


Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

1972 Penguin PB, art by David Pelham

First published in 1944, Sirius shares a lot, in its themes, with the previous decade’s Odd John — Stapledon even referred to it as “my ‘Odd Dog’ novel’” — but with the crucial difference that, whereas John is a human who far exceeds normal human levels of intelligence, Sirius is a dog raised to (high, but normal) human-level intelligence. So, he isn’t going to be creating any super-scientific technologies or casually getting rich through ultra-shrewd investments. And the limitations placed upon him by his body (his lack of hands), and the equally debilitating limits that come from living in a society where he, as an animal, has no rights, and where he’s even more likely than Odd John to be regarded as freakish and unnatural, are brought that much more to the fore.

(At a number of points, the tone of the book reminded me of William Horwood’s novel Skallagrigg, whose two main characters have cerebral palsy, and have to deal with both their own less-able bodies and being treated as inferior to other human beings. Stapledon’s novel could easily be read, metaphorically, as being about physical disability.)

1979 Penguin PB, art by Adrian Chesterman

Before he’s born, the puppy Sirius is injected with hormones to promote the growth of his brain. He’s not the only dog to be treated, but the others either only develop remarkable-for-dogs but less-than-human intelligence (they can’t talk, for instance), or die young. A crucial part of Sirius’s story, though, is that his creator, the physiologist Thomas Trelone, decides to raise this dog within his own family, as much like one more human child as possible. Trelone’s wife, Elizabeth, has just given birth to a daughter, Plaxy, so the two are raised as, in effect, siblings, and develop an almost twin-like intimacy, with little wordless calls they use as their own private language, and so on.

It’s not long, though, before Sirius becomes aware of his limitations. Having no hands, he’s stymied in what he can do — and, thus, is also limited in how he can use his intelligence to explore the world as his foster-sister does. His eyesight is poor, too (he’s also completely colourblind), though his far superior sense of smell gives him access to an entirely new perspective on the world than his human family possess.

1944 HB from Secker and Warburg

Trelone has plans for his canine prodigy. After as much of a human-level education as he can get (Sirius can’t go to school, and Plaxy soon tires of passing on the lessons she’s learned every time she gets home), he’ll be sent to a nearby farm to gain some experience as a sheepdog. After this, he’s to come to Cambridge and be more thoroughly tested in the lab, while working to devote himself to the field Trelone thinks will be most suited to him, animal psychology.

Sirius suffers the first two stages as much as he can — working on the farm, he has to pretend to be just one more smarter-than-average dog who can’t speak — but after a while at Cambridge he begins to develop his own ideas. One such impulse comes from moments in which he has felt a wider, and bleaker, sense of his place in a vast, indifferent universe:

“Sometimes when Sirius was out on the hills alone in the winter dawn, examining the condition of the snow and looking for sheep in distress, the desolation of the scene would strike him with a shivering dread of existence. The universal carpet of snow, the mist of drifting flakes, the miserable dark sheep, pawing for food, the frozen breath on his own jaws, combined to make him feel that after all this was what the world was really like; that the warm fireside and friendly talk at Garth were just a rare accident…”

Stapledon cites McCulloch’s book as a source for Sirius

This prompts him to want more than Trelone’s purely scientific education, and he starts to ask about religion. He’s sent to spend some time with a cousin of Trelone’s wife, a priest who works among the poor around London’s docks. Sirius soon realises he needs to find his own mix of these two approaches to life, the religious and the scientific, and settles on that very Stapledonian word “spirit”, which crops up in the future histories Last and First Men and Star Maker, meaning that sense of a thing that transcends the merely physical circumstances of life, yet, unlike religious ideas of a soul, comes with no guarantees or guidelines. Whatever it is, it’s still evolving, and needs work. Like those future races Stapledon wrote about in his first novel, Sirius finds “in fate’s very indifference… a certain exhilaration” — a challenge to create his own meaning, rather than the despair of meaninglessness. By the end of the novel, the dog has come to embody Stapledon’s ideal of how to live as an intelligent being in the modern world:

[Plaxy] saw that Sirius, in spite of his uniqueness, epitomized in his whole life and in his death something universal, something that is common to all awakening spirits on earth, and in the farthest galaxies. For the music’s darkness was lit up by a brilliance which Sirius had called ‘colour,’ the glory that he himself, he said, had never seen. But this, surely, was the glory that no spirits, canine or human, had ever clearly seen, the light that never was on land or sea, and yet is glimpsed by the quickened mind everywhere.”

As the novel enters its final quarter, it returns to a theme from Sirius’s early life, the close relationship with his human foster-sister Plaxy. The two have grown apart, tortured by the differences between them, yet always drawn back to the unity they call “Sirius-Plaxy”. It’s here the novel presents its most challenging aspect, as Stapledon takes their relationship into a physical intimacy which, although strongly implied in the published text, was apparently more forthright still in the draft he first submitted.

2011 Orion PB, art by Cliff Nielsen

I have to admit it’s this part that comes close to breaking the book’s spell, for me. Stapledon heads into this sexual territory as though it were the natural, even only, next stage in the couple’s relationship, when it should surely be possible that the two would feel absolutely no sexual pull towards one another, being of different species. And if that weren’t enough, there would surely be the incest taboo of their having been raised as siblings. It feels, though, that this is an area Stapledon is intent on exploring — not for its salacious aspects, which aren’t dwelled upon, but as it allows him to philosophise on love, and how it can thrive on difference:

[Plaxy:] “We are bound to hurt one another so much, again and again. We are so terribly different.”

[Sirius:] “Yes… But the more different, the more lovely the loving.”

For Stapledon, the key point is “the fundamental identity-in-diversity of all spirits”. And this is needed to combat Sirius’s alienation:

“There is no place for me in man’s world, and there is no other world for me. There is no place for me anywhere in the universe.”

To which Plaxy counters:

“I’m your home, your footing in the world.”

(There is, apparently, another thing that could have driven Stapledon to have this novel contain a forbidden love-relationship. In his biography of Stapledon, Robert Crossley says that parts of the book were inspired by an affair Stapledon had around this time.)

Cartoon of Stapledon from The Daily Herald

The book received a good amount of attention on its release. The Times Literary Supplement named it their “Novel of the Week”. The Western Mail’s H M Dowling brought in comparisons with Swift, Shelley (Percy Bysshe, though those with Mary are there, too), and Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Lynd of The Daily News was less impressed:

“The book, repellant as the exhibitions of freak sideshows in old fair grounds, is written in the semi-scientific language of a work of popular psychology and in this, perhaps, Mr. Stapledon sins against more than the dignity of science.”

While L P Hartley, in The Sketch, was mixed. For him, “As an allegory of the spirit, tormented in the search for a fulfilment it cannot find, and of the individual persecuted by the mob, there is much to be said for this book.” Yet, “The physical aspects and embarrassments of Sirius’s peculiar make-up are ruthlessly insisted upon, with a complete—indeed, with a positive and challenging—lack of humour.” Ultimately, for him, Stapledon “fails because he cannot effect a unity between fantasy and realism.”

I think Sirius is the most accessible of Stalpedon’s novels yet. It contains the same themes — of the spirit in a constant struggle against an indifferent fate, and exalting in the challenge of life even though it knows it must fail — as his earlier novels, but couched in, oddly enough, far more humanly-relatable characters. Stapledon’s long-distance view and challenging moral stance is still here, to some extent, but so are thoughts about love, loyalty, family, and the business of making a living, which didn’t feature in the future histories. Its ultimate message — “the most valuable social relationships were those between minds as different from one another as possible yet capable of mutual sympathy” — might have been brought out by the war that was raging as the book was written, but it remains a valid idea to this day, just as Sirius remains a readable book.