The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay, Annotated Edition

What started as a late lockdown project to research some points that intrigued me about David Lindsay’s second novel, 1922’s The Haunted Woman (which I wrote about in Mewsings a little while back), has turned into an extensively annotated edition, which I’ve now published in hardback, paperback and ebook. (Full details here.)

The thing that kicked it off was a phrase one of the novel’s characters uses early on, when explaining the name of the house at the centre of the book’s mystery, Runhill Court:

“Historical—supposed to be derived from the old Saxon ‘rune-hill,’ so he says. The runes were engraved letters, intended to keep off the trolls and blendings…”

1968 cover for G A Hight’s translation of Grettir

On first reading, I assumed “blendings” were some specific kind of fairy or goblin, but I could never find the name listed in reference works. It was only when I decided to solve it once and for all, and started by learning more about trolls, that what perhaps ought to have been obvious struck me: Norse sagas often feature the offspring of trolls and humans, and though these are usually called half-trolls in English translations, I realised this could be what “blendings”meant. And — thanks to the Icelandic Saga Database with its multiple translations and original-language versions, I found out that the original Icelandic word used in the sagas is “blendingum”. The only translator I could find who rendered it in English not as “half-trolls” but “blendings” was one G A Hight, translator of the 1914 Everyman edition of The Saga of Grettir the Strong. This makes me feel Lindsay could well have read Hight’s translation. (Sadly, Lindsay’s personal library was sold off before anyone was interested enough to note what it contained.)

It was a hugely enjoyable project, allowing me to indulge myself in researching a wide variety of topics, including the speed of cars in the 1920s (and, how did you lock a car in those days to prevent theft?), what exactly a “cream ice” is if it’s not an ice cream (and sometimes it isn’t), when David Lindsay was likely to have witnessed a solar eclipse (shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, it turns out), whether there ever was a “Hotel Gondy” as there is in the novel (there doesn’t seem to have been) and where that name might have come from, what supernatural creatures were likely to “ride the roof” of a house to require it to be protected by runes (not goblins, as one character suggests), what the novel’s Mrs Richborough might mean by claiming to be a “Spiritist”, how long it would have taken to reach Worthing by train from Hove in 1920 (thanks,, plus many others. (There’s 172 footnotes in all.)

Postcard of Chanctonbury Ring, with Wiston House in the middleground. Wiston is an Elizabethan manor about three miles north-west of Steyning, which is where Lindsay places Runhill Court

In some cases, I couldn’t find definite answers, though hopefully I’ve provided enough in the annotations to add to the reading of the novel anyway. What, for instance, is the sound of “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection” that Isbel thinks she hears in Runhill Court’s upstairs corridor? She answers the question herself — it’s a “a kind of low, vibrating hum” — but I wanted to find corroborating evidence. How did other writers of the day describe that sound? Try as I might, I couldn’t find any other description of what a telephone line sounded like while you were waiting for a connection — though I did find intriguing passages from Proust and Kafka on the almost supernaturally expectant moment of listening to a phone line before the connection is made. So, enough to make for an annotation, anyway.

From a publishing perspective, this was the most technically challenging book I’ve produced yet, with endnotes, a host of page and endnote cross-references, a table, maps and other visual material, and so on. Up till now, I’ve produced the layouts for my Bookship publications using only a word-processor (Nisus Writer Pro), but this time I had to combine it with Affinity Publisher, plus some dragging and dropping via MacOS’s surprisingly useful Preview app. I almost skipped producing Kindle and ePub versions altogether, as it meant I had to do a lot of the endnote-linking and cross-references again from scratch (using Jutoh, the only ebook-creation app I’ve been able to find which gives me the flexibility I get from a word processor), but I hate to leave a project feeling half-finished, so the ebook versions are there.

And then there’s the cover. I actually started on the cover way before anything else, not with this edition in mind, but simply because I’d produced covers for all the other books Lindsay published in his lifetime (A Voyage to Arcturus, Sphinx, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly, and Devil’s Tor), and wanted to see what I could make of this one. That particular project sat around as a black rectangle with basic lettering on it for way over a year while I struggled to find anything to put on it. Wanting to stay true to the novel’s descriptions, I couldn’t find anything looking and feeling like Runhill Court, and didn’t even try (at first) to find faces that might stand in for the two main characters. Finally, though, I had to admit that the only thing to put on the cover of a book called The Haunted Woman was a woman looking at least a little haunted, so I started searching around for someone fitting Lindsay’s description of Isbel (“Her face was rather short and broad, with thick but sensitive features…”). First I went through pictures of women from the 1920s, but none were right. When I finally settled on a piece of stock photography (mostly used to advertise hair salons, it seems), I had the lingering feeling she looked too modern — until I added a dab of lipstick (Isbel, in the novel, is described as generally wearing too much makeup) and it somehow pushed her back into the 1920s. The male face was another challenge, one I resolved, a little cheekily, by using Margaret Cameron’s photograph of one of the Victorian’s era’s leading writers, Thomas Carlyle. David Lindsay’s friend E H Visiak wrote that Lindsay both “facially resembled” and admired Carlyle. (Visiak also called Carlyle Lindsay’s “kinsman”, which I at first took literally and tried in vain to find a genealogical link between the two, before realising he probably just meant they were both Scots.) I only realised once I’d added Carlyle’s face that Henry Judge, in the novel, is described as “clean-shaven”, whereas Carlyle has a beard and moustache. I faded out the beard, but the moustache remains. Sorry, Henry Judge, but I always imagined you with a moustache, despite what Lindsay says.

Postcard image of Hove’s Medina Esplanade, where one of the novel’s chapters takes place.

Among the background elements on the cover are floor-plans, with one slightly emphasised staircase to represent the novel’s mysterious stairs that only appear to certain people at certain times. I looked through a lot of floor-plans for mansions and manor houses thanks to and Wikimedia Commons, but in the end the ones that most suited the look I was going for were, appropriately enough, for Borley Rectory, reputedly the most haunted house in Britain. (I broke up the floor-plans into their constituent elements, so the layout isn’t Borley Rectory — meaning I’ve either confused any ghosts who may be lingering in the floor-plans, or enraged them. If it’s the latter, I’m sure I’ll soon find out.)

I don’t know if I’ll be producing a similar edition of any of Lindsay’s other novels — certainly not in time for the centenary of Sphinx next year — but it’s been a fun and varied project, and hopefully one that might be of interest to other Lindsay readers. Or, at least, it’s a way to mark the novel’s centenary.


Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Harper Collins, 1995. Art by John Howe.

Assassin’s Apprentice, first book of the Farseer Trilogy, came out in 1995, a year before George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hobb’s world of the Six Duchies shares something of the feel of Martin’s, with its Machiavellian politics, bitter ruling-family dynamics, and the general grimness of its world, where a likeable character can be killed off suddenly. Both have an unreasoningly bleak background threat (the White Walkers in GoT, the Red Ship Raiders here). But Assassin’s Apprentice’s world is smaller than GoT’s, and a little bit more politically stable, so it doesn’t have quite the Renaissance-tragedy levels of revenge, counter-revenge, and general bloodshed, though the potential is certainly there.

The thing that most struck me at the time it first came out, though, was that it was written in the first person. I’m sure this must have been done in genre fantasy before then, but it seemed to me something of an innovation. I read I, Claudius around the same time time and felt Hobb was taking a similar approach. Like Robert Graves’s Claudius, Robin Hobbs’s FitzChivalry is writing the story of his life from a now wiser perspective, and like Claudius, FitzChivalry’s tale is of a ruling family told from the knowing perspective of its (initially, at least) most looked-down-upon member.

2019 Del Rey cover, art by Paul Lycett

FitzChivalry’s name means “bastard of Chivalry”, Prince Chivalry being the name of the (at the time) next in succession to the throne of the Six Duchies. In this world, nobles are given the names of admirable qualities, in the belief it will instil these qualities in them (“names that would shape their lives and beings”), but generally these names come across as ironic. King Shrewd, though often wily, is mightily indecisive over at least one key point affecting his realm; Chivalry quite unchivalrously fathers a bastard then ignores him; Regal is foppish and selfish; Lady Patience is flighty and impulsive. But FitzChivalry doesn’t even get that name until a long way into the first book. Initially, he’s just known as “fitz”, “boy”, or, at best, “Newboy” by a few child friends he picks up in the nearby town.

This concern over naming reminds me of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster Trilogy with its heavily-loaded, poetic use of the word “name”, to mean “identity” in the deepest sense. Like that book (and so many other fantasies) Assassin’s Apprentice is about the ways we pick up or form identities, and therefore our destinies (or, as here, just our life stories). At first, Fitz has no name because to name him is to acknowledge him and bring him into the royal family. But, as King Shrewd says in one of his shrewd moments:

“A bastard, Regal, is a unique thing… He may safely be sent where a prince of the blood may not be risked… So, what will you make of him? A tool? A weapon? A comrade? An enemy? Or will you leave him lying about, for someone else to take up and use against you?”

Shrewd apprentices Fitz to his own bastard-brother Chade, to learn the arts of the “hand that moves unseen, cloaked by the velvet glove of diplomacy”:

“It’s murder, more or less. Killing people. The fine art of diplomatic assassination. Or blinding, or deafening. Or a weakening of the limbs, or a paralysis or a debilitating cough or impotency. Or early senility, or insanity…”

This first book is mostly about FitzChivalry’s education, and not only in the arts of assassination. There’s also this world’s two magical arts which, it turns out, although they’re both rare, Fitz has some ability in.

Bantam 1995, art by Michael Whelan

First there’s the Wit, which enables someone to share the mind and senses of animals, usually specific ones (in Fitz’s case, it’s dogs). Then there’s the Skill, a mind power fostered by the ruling elite (it’s presumably how the Farseers got their family name), which enables long-distance communication between minds.

Both of these arts have their negative side. Over-indulgence in the Wit can drag a person down to the level of the beasts whose mind they share, or so popular prejudice has it. (Fitz’s main protector in his early years, Chivalry’s stableman Burrich, is so sure of this that he thinks any sign of the Wit needs to be stamped out immediately.) The Skill, on the other hand, seems to act more like a drug, where it can make its user so aesthetically sensitive he or she can get lost in endlessly staring at one thing for hours — or even the rest of their life — so rich does every sensory experience suddenly become. (Apparently it was wondering what if magic were addictive that sparked off the series in Hobb’s mind.)

2011 cover

So, both forms of magic can eat away at a user’s individuality, one working from the lower instincts, the other from the higher. There’s a third fantasy element in this book that also destroys individuality, and that’s what the Red Ship Raiders are doing to people on the Six Duchies’ coasts. Apparently part of some Outlander cult, the Raiders capture people and in some way destroy the part of them that makes them fully human. People who have been “Forged”, as it’s called (after the first town to suffer such an attack), aren’t physically hurt, but become “Heartless ghosts”, “sound of body, but bereft of any of the kinder emotions of humanity”:

“As predators, they were more devoid of decency and mercy than any wild animal could be. It was easy to forget they had ever been human, and to hate them with a venom like nothing else.”

This is the most intriguing part of the book, but for the first part of the trilogy it’s generally a background element, a threat that’s being set up to (presumably) be dealt with more fully in the next two books.

Folio Society edition, art by David Palumbo

Assassin’s Apprentice is primarily concerned with establishing its main character and his world. Fitz’s position is unique because he combines so many opposites. As a bastard, he’s the lowest of the low, but as he’s of the royal blood, he has the potential to be the highest of the high. He works in the stables, tending horses and dogs, but also learns the most arcane arts of political assassination, political influence, espionage, and mind-power. Identities such as his aren’t like Morgon of Hed’s in the Riddlemaster trilogy. With Morgon, it was all about a magical destiny emerging from within to be written onto the external world; with Fitz, it’s about who he is in relation to others, who his loyalties are to, and how he can be useful to them. Fitz’s inherent identity, his being a royal bastard, is merely a potential; his actual identity in the world is all about how that nature is developed and employed, and most of all about the relationships he forms, both to allies and to enemies.

I read Assassin’s Apprentice when it was first published, but didn’t feel sufficiently inspired to read the next two books in the sequence. But the Folio Society’s bringing out a luxurious edition of the trilogy in 2020 prompted me to give it another go. I’ll be working my way through the rest of the trilogy in future Mewsings.


Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis

Current PB, art by Kimberly Glyder

I’m a bit conflicted about reading C S Lewis. I want to re-read his Narnia books, for instance, but whenever it comes to sitting down and working my way through the first one (whichever it should be, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew), I remember my feelings of being let down by what seems, to me, the rather shoehorned-in moral stance he brings to his Space Trilogy. (As I put it in my review of That Hideous Strength: “he’s always subtly telling me what to think.”) All the same, I was intrigued to read his final novel Till We Have Faces, just from hints I’d heard about it over the years. I have to admit that when I started it — and for much of my reading of it — I did so with my defences up, keeping a mental list of objections to what I felt was going to be Lewis’s moral take on the tale. (That we should obey divine dictates, however unreasonable, simply because they’re from “the gods”.) Then, abruptly, in the final section, I found myself reading all those objections, all my complaints against what I’d thought was Lewis’s worldview, laid out by the novel’s own narrator in an extended, bitter diatribe. That sort of deep-down, excoriating honesty was exactly what I wasn’t expecting. And so, when it came to the novel’s ultimately redemptive ending, it felt as though Lewis had genuinely earned his conclusions, in what feels like a truly mature work I’m still unsure how to feel about.

First UK HB

Till We Have Faces was published in 1956, when Lewis was in his late fifties. That is, after his civil marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham (to allow her to remain in the UK), but before the later (and this time in earnest) re-marriage that followed her diagnosis with terminal cancer — in the midst, then, of the whole Shadowlands thing. How much those elements played into the writing of the novel, I don’t know, because an added complication is that Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, something Lewis had been attempting since the early 1920s. Back then, intriguingly, he’d started a verse version that included characters named Caspian (not a male prince of a land near Narnia, but Psyche’s sister) and Jardis (not the female White Witch Jadis, but Psyche’s brother). What’s even more intriguing about those gender reversals is that some commentators — and I certainly had the same feeling — say Till We Have Face’s female narrator could well be presenting us with “the real Jack Lewis—his loss of his mother, his disrespect for his father, his desire for closeness, his struggles with disbelief.” (This from Bareface: A Guide to C S Lewis’s Last Novel by Doris T Myers, “Bareface” being the novel’s working title.)

That narrator is Orual, eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a minor kingdom in the days between Athens’ fall from dominance and Rome’s rise. Orual has one younger sister and one even younger half-sister. The sister, Redival, is depicted as shallow and only interested in chasing after men and so, as with Susan from the Narnia books when she discovers “nylons and lipstick”, is relegated to being a silly non-person, freely despised by the narrator. (Orual, meanwhile, is unusually ugly, and her self-consciousness about this leads to a lifetime of loneliness. All the same, Lewis can’t seem to forgive Redival her quite natural desire to not be lonely.)

1966 edition, cover by Leo and Diane Dillon

The half-sister is Psyche. Her actual name is Istra, but she and Orual have Greek nicknames for one another (Orual’s is Maia, meaning “foster-mother”), Greek being the tongue of learning even in these barbaric lands. Istra, in contrast to Orual, is beautiful, so much so that the people think she must be divine, and make that fatal mythic mistake of comparing her to the local goddess, Ungit — who, it has to be said, lacks beauty both in appearance (in the temple dedicated to her, she’s a shapeless rock) and soul (she demands blood sacrifices and other barbaric rituals). When Istra is led by the people to mistakenly believe her touch can cure the plague, and so is treated as actually divine, Ungit’s retribution comes down. Glome has no male heir, is in the midst of plague, famine, and drought, and is now disrespecting its gods. Therefore, a sacrifice must be made, and that sacrifice must be Istra — Psyche — who is led up the mountain, chained, and left to be the bride of “the Brute”, a monstrous creature that pops up in the bad times, marriage with whom is generally taken to involve being devoured.

Days afterwards, Orual makes the difficult journey to the mountain, not wanting her beloved sister’s remains to lie strewn about. But when she gets there she finds Psyche not just whole but happy and free. Psyche claims to have been taken up by the God of the Mountain to be his bride, and she’s right now living in his magnificent palace. All Orual can see, though, is the mountainside wilderness. She questions Psyche about this “God of the Mountain”, but her half-sister says she’s been forbidden to look on him, and he only comes to her in the dark. Orual, sceptical about “the gods” anyway thanks to her Greek education, starts to think her half-sister is delusional from her horrific experiences, and perhaps is being preyed on by some bandit or madman. The only trouble is, in the fog that evening, Orual thinks she glimpses that palace… But convinces herself this, too, must be a delusion.

And so she does what any caring friend would do, she seeks to help Psyche out of this deception, or madness, or whatever it is. She brings her a lamp, and tells her to light it in the darkness when her supposedly divine husband is lying beside her. Then she’ll know if he’s a god or not. But when Psyche, under much duress, obeys, it turns out that not only was he genuinely divine, but she’s now banished from the palace and the presence of her husband for disobedience.

Orual, then, has her scepticism answered in the most brutal way. On the one hand, she now knows the gods definitely do exist; on the other, the price paid for that knowledge is that her half-sister must live in constant misery and exile, and she herself must live with the guilt of what she’s done to the only person she genuinely cared about.

1957 HB from Harcourt Brace

This much is almost straight from the myth of Cupid and Psyche — all except the detail that Lewis says he felt, right from his first encounter with the tale, had to be added: the idea that Orual would not be able to see Psyche’s paradisal palace, and so think it a delusion. This, then, takes us to about the halfway point of the novel. After that, for much of it, the book is about how Orual becomes Queen of Glome, and makes a pretty good go of it — but is always unhappy, alone, and guilty, because of what she’s done. She takes to wearing a veil, tired of her ugliness. When she learns, much later, a new goddess is being worshipped in far temples, a goddess whose myth is Psyche’s story, and in which her own role is played by a sister who acts entirely out of jealousy rather than love, Orual writes her own story as a rebuttal and a “charge against the gods”.

Then comes the second part — the final fifth of the book — and this is where things take such a devastating turn. Orual has a series of visions, or perhaps actual visitations from the gods. She’s given the chance to read them her story, to make her complaint against them, but finds herself, instead, venting all her bitterness, spite, and anger — as well as speaking with an honesty about her own pettiness and jealousy which she was not prepared for. What she speaks is not her story as she wrote it — that carefully-crafted self-justification — but something far more honest and self-revealing:

“When the time comes to you at which you are forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over…”

In a way, Orual hears herself — and sees herself — for the first time, and it’s not a pretty picture, though it is a deeply human one. But there is a further step. Now she must hear, and see, the gods against whom she has brought her “charge”, and again it will be for the first time, because, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” We can’t know their true, divine nature, till we know and accept our own human one.

1979 HB, art by Peter Goodfellow

Meeting the gods, in this novel, is the same as meeting one’s deepest self; making a complaint against them is the same as having oneself laid bare. The complaint itself becomes the answer to that complaint. For much of the novel, this is a bleak world, seen through the eyes of a profoundly lonely and unhappy soul, self-despising and disappointed, haunted by that one misdeed she can never put right. But once the lowest point is past — at the end of quite a slow-moving novel — there is, finally, redemption, as Orual comes to learn that she and Psyche were not as torn asunder as she thought.

Lewis himself called it “far and away the best [novel] I have written”, though Roger Lancelyn Green says Lewis liked Perelandra best, while considering Till We Have Faces his masterpiece. But then, it’s a difficult book to really like — so much of it, to me, felt rather plodding, though perhaps it was the very length and slowness of the book that helped make the ending so impactful. It is, though, certainly a work of real emotional power. And it definitely surprised me into giving Lewis more credit than I had (jadedly, or perhaps Jadis-like) been giving him. Maybe it’s time to re-read those Narnia books at last. (If only I didn’t have so many other books I want to read.)