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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