The Fantastic Journey

Roddy McDowall, and a glowing fork! That’s the only thing I remembered about this brief-lived slice of US telefantasy, but it’s a memory that lingered, and every so often I’ve checked to see if I might be able to watch the series again. And a couple of years ago it was issued as a DVD in the UK, all of its short 10-episode run. It was first shown over here by the BBC between 5th March and 15th May 1977. (The pilot went out on a Saturday at 5:25pm — the Doctor Who slot — while the other episodes were shown at 7pm on Fridays.) Amazingly, this overlapped with the actual US run, which started on 3rd February and continued for nine weeks before the show was cancelled, with one last episode being broadcast in June. After that, in the UK anyway, it was only ever repeated once, around Christmas 1978, which seems odd for a science fiction series once Star Wars mania had gripped the world.

The premise, as the show’s title sequence had it:

“Lost in the Devil’s Triangle, trapped in a dimension with beings from the future and from other worlds, a party of adventurers journeys through zones of time, back to their own time.”

The “party of adventurers” (a very D&D phrase, that), was initially a scientist, Dr Jordan, from the show’s present, along with his young son, some colleagues, and the crew of the small boat they’d hired. Entering the region of the Bermuda Triangle, they get swallowed by a glowing green cloud and wake the next day on the beach of an island that is, of course, on no known charts. Journeying inland they encounter wildlife from all over the world, and, soon, a bunch of 16th century pirates. Dr Jordan muses:

“I’ve been asking the wrong question. I’ve been wondering where we are instead of when. We’re in some kind of time-lock. A space-time continuum. Past, present and future exist together. Each on its own terms.”

Things are fully explained (as in, not explained at all) by Varian, a man from the 23rd century who at first poses — for reasons also never adequately explained — as a dumb savage in a dark wig:

“You see, as earth men, we’re each locked in our own time. We’ve had to live by the calendar. But here on this island, you begin to understand that even as the first man walked upright in his Neanderthal cave, man was also taking his first step on the moon, and there’s only a thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from the other.”

(I love this sort of hand-waving nonsense in a 1970s TV show. It recalls Professor Victor Bergman from the first series of Space: 1999, with his bon mots of the “The line between science and mysticism is just a line” sort.)

The show, then, consists of the “adventurers” journeying across this larger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside island, buzzing into a new time zone at the start of each episode then out again by the end. The party changed after the pilot episode, with the studio wanting more variety among the characters. (They also said there should be no historical time-zone episodes: only futuristic stuff.) The two characters from 1977 who remained were the kid, Scott (played by Ike Eisenmann, of Escape to Witch Mountain fame), and a young medical doctor with both cool and muscle, Dr Fred Walters. Joining them was Varian, the man from 2230 and the owner of the aforementioned glowing fork (a device used for both healing and, in extremis, destruction, which “focuses my thought and my energy. It’s kind of a sonic manipulation of matter”); Liana, daughter of an Atlantean father and an extraterrestrial mother, who has the ability to communicate with animals (mostly her cat, Sil-L); and finally, a couple of episodes in, Jonathan Willaway, played by Roddy McDowall — a “rebel scientist” from the 1960s, who is initially met as the villain of one story, but repents and joins the group. (I can’t help wondering why they had him come from the 1960s — only the previous decade — especially as he’s the main technical expert of the group. Was there some subtle cultural difference he was supposed to embody?)

The party are journeying in search of rumoured Evoland, where they hope to find a device that will send each of them back to their own time. Generally, in each episode, they encounter a civilisation in need of correction, fix it, then move on. Atlanteum, for instance, though apparently a futuristic paradise, is ruled by a giant pulsing brain, and that’s never a good idea. A couple of episodes seem to be addressing (with very broad strokes) issues of the day, as with youth culture in “Children of the Gods”, where the party stray into lands controlled by a community of children who execute all “Elders” — presumably anyone over thirty — until of course the party ask the same question the hippies themselves were no doubt pondering now the 60s had turned into the mid-70s: what happens when you grow up? Then there was “Turnabout”, whose main city is ruled entirely by men. The men keep the women as slaves, until the women take control and the men are all banished to prison, then the women realise they’ve just taken things to an equally bad opposite extreme. (I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t a joke — perhaps the series’ one and only hint of satire in its ten-episode run — in the fact that the city was ruled by yet another super-powerful computer, this time called “the Complex”. So, these domineering men and women are in the grip of “the Complex” — Freud would no doubt have agreed.)

If I’m honest, it’s easy to see why the show might have been cancelled. Roddy McDowall and the glowing fork — perhaps with the addition of Liana communicating with her cat by widening and narrowing her eyes — are its only truly memorable aspects. Although it was sprinkled with 70s weirdness, including psychic powers, the “Devil’s Triangle”, crystals, auras and energies, they didn’t result in the show having its own characteristic style of fantasy. Worse, perhaps, was that the main cast were all relentlessly heroic and moral, but otherwise quite bland, with the one exception of Roddy McDowall, who at least had a puckish sense of self-interest, and indulged in the sort of cartoonish over-acting that might have made the series work, if only anyone else had done the same. Even the guest stars — John Saxon, Joan Collins — weren’t given any opportunity to really indulge. There was certainly nothing like the banter and tension between Star Trek’s leading trio. (Though the show had a couple of links with Star Trek: its story-editor was D C Fontana, the story-editor of the first series of Trek; also, it re-used some very recognisable Star Trek sound effects in its last episode.)

Perhaps the best instalment was the tenth — the one that got broadcast after the whole thing had been cancelled, and which was only shown in the UK as part of its 1978 repeat. Certainly, it seems the most post-hippie-ish, with its community of extraterrestrial pacifists who have never encountered lying, theft, or murder before. And, it turns out you can live without those things: if you have psychic powers and your own super-powered Orb.

Not even a glowing fork can make up for your lack of an Orb.

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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.

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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.

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