Big Mister by William Rayner

UK HB. Cover by William Blake.

At the start of William Rayner’s 1974 YA novel Big Mister, its protagonist Simon has just returned to his mother’s Lancashire hometown after living with his parents in Africa. His father, an anthropologist who sees the African people not as people but merely something to study, has decided his son needs to be educated in England (partly because Simon has been having fainting fits), so sends him back to live with his cousin Anne. While in Africa, Simon had dreams of a man standing on a tall rock, stretching out his arms towards him. The family’s African cook, Jonas, took him to a local nganga, or diviner, who interpreted this to mean a “Big Mister” or ancestral spirit was calling to Simon. He gave him a shell ndoro necklace to wear as a token of acceptance of this call, and to protect him from muroi (witches). Afterwards, the fainting fits stopped.

Being shown around the Lancashire town by his cousin Anne, Simon sees the rock from his dreams. It’s known locally as the Owdstane, and is scrawled with graffiti from both modern and olden times. He senses the Big Mister reaching out of the past for him, but is brought back to the real world by Anne. A few moments later, though, both he and Anne suddenly find themselves snatched into the past — to 1823, to be precise — but not by Simon’s Big Mister. They’ve been conjured into this former age by a man called Earl Sylvester, part stage magician, part sorcerer, with “a voice of almost stealthy charm, gliding along the branches of the language like a serpent.” He wants Simon and Anne to take part in a scheme he’s been hired for by a local cotton manufacturer, Mr Hoylake: the murder of Samuel Barraclough, an “agitator” (though when we meet him it’s obvious he’s just a compassionate soul with a belief in the rights of workers in this Hellish world of the early Industrial Revolution).

The magic comes thick and fast. Sylvester hypnotises the two teens so as to use them to get at Barraclough. Anne is taken on a strange journey into a world inside a tapestry by Sylvester’s witch-friend Lady Rose, while Simon gets transformed for a short while into a pig. He also witnesses the first stirrings-to-life of Grimalkin, a magical automaton Sylvester is going to use to deliver the final blow to Barraclough.

Stag Boy, cover art by Michael Heslop

This is a far different book from Rayner’s previous YA novel, Stag Boy, which mixed dreamlike, shamanistic magic with everyday realities, and addressed some tricky issues of masculinity and teenage sexuality head-on. With Big Mister, I felt the author might well have been having more fun, indulging himself with a cast of eloquent, colourful characters and some outright magical adventures, but it doesn’t feel as raw and desperate as Stag Boy, nor is the story quite as compelling. For a long time, Simon and Anne are passive observers, getting to see too large a number of characters and situations before we understand what’s going on, and the action only kicks in at about the two-thirds point. Having Simon and Anne hypnotised (or pretending to be) for so much of the novel, and stuck in the past, makes it all seem so much less immediate. One (quite major) point I don’t remember being answered is why Earl Sylvester felt the need to snatch two kids from the future at all. As they were only there to be hypnotised automatons, surely kids from Sylvester’s time would have done just as well?

Whereas the themes of Stag Boy are strong from the start, and are inseparable from the fantastic elements, Rayner’s theme in Big Mister has to be more explicitly spelled out (which it is, in one particular chapter, where Simon gets a lecture from Sylvester’s rat-familiar), and so ends up feeling a little more theoretical than the previous book’s visceral adolescent angst. Dr Flack, an “economist and philosopher” who spends his days justifying manufacturer Hoylake’s inhuman treatment of his workforce (“I am able to prove conclusively that it is impossible for an employer to injure his workman…”, and “…it is cruel, yes, cruel to the workman to try to alleviate his lot”), is obviously no better, in Rayner’s eyes, than the “infernal conjuror” Earl Sylvester. Simon and Anne’s enslavement through hypnotism is a fantasy parallel to the work-enslavement of the poor of 1823, but it doesn’t feel as powerful an enactment of theme as Jim Hooper’s union with the stag in Stag Boy. Towards the end of the book, Simon is treated to a brief sample of what life was like for poor working children, and it’s a nightmare of narrow chimneys, claustrophobic pit-work, and flagrant abuse. It’s obvious Rayner could have written a far more hard-hitting time-travel novel if he’d wanted. (And he’s keen to point out that, though we might think things have improved in the present, that’s only because we’ve pushed the poverty overseas and out of sight.)

Barraclough, meanwhile, preaches an almost Blakeian message to the town’s workers:

I see you with the eye of the imagination, and I say that each of you is a precious gem. When I look at you, I do not see ‘labour’. I do not see ‘hands’. I see the myriads of eternity, but I see them in chains.”

When I reviewed Stag Boy, I hadn’t been able to find much about William Rayner, but I’ve since located him in a couple of reference books (and created a Wikipedia page for him). He was born in Barnsley in 1929, and became a teacher and lecturer, working in what was then called Rhodesia for the second half of the 1950s. He had a couple of adult novels published at the start of the 1960s, as well as a nonfiction book about the African people (The Tribe and Its Successors: An Account of African Traditional Life and European Settlement in Southern Rhodesia, 1962), which included a chapter on the nganga. More adult novels followed at the end of the 60s, then he tried his hand at YA with Stag Boy and Big Mister. After that, he returned to adult novels, most of which were historical, and quite often set in the American West. (The Trail to Bear Paw Mountain, for instance, follows the Victorian explorer Richard Burton on a trip to the western United States in search of gold.) 1979 and 1980 saw the first two novels of a proposed trilogy set in the same period that Big Mister’s Simon and Anne visit, the early Industrial Revolution, but no third novel seems to have been published. And, as far as I can tell, Rayner hasn’t had anything published since, though he lived till 2006.

It would be interesting to know why Rayner left off writing for young adults. Stag Boy feels like it fits in with other YA books of its time, including those by Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, William Mayne, and the Penelopes Lively and Farmer. Big Mister fits too, with its mix of kitchen sink concerns — mostly class and racism, here — with folkish-feeling magic, though it’s less successful as a novel, particularly one for younger readers who might feel the first half kept introducing more and more colourful characters without establishing a solid plot. It seems to have had no paperback edition, so perhaps it didn’t sell well enough to encourage its author (or his publishers), though he obviously had a flair for pushing the boundaries of teen fiction. And why did he later stop publishing altogether, halfway through a trilogy? That, surely, can’t have been lack of success, as the 1970s saw him publishing ten books, many of them in both the UK and US. Hard to know how I might find out, but it would be interesting to learn more about this author.

The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911) begins in “the year of Halley’s comet” — 1910 — with Terence O’Malley aboard a coastal steamer heading for the Levant and the Black Sea. O’Malley is an outsider, out of joint with his age:

“Not my century! … why, it’s not even my world! And I loathe, loathe the spirit of today with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship—”

But his outsiderism is not of the dark, existential Colin Wilson kind. O’Malley is an outsider because, as the ship’s medic Dr Stahl tells him, he has “retained an almost unbelievable simplicity of heart—an innocence singularly undefiled—a sort of primal, spontaneous innocence that has kept you clean and open”. O’Malley finds refuge in Nature, and has managed to make a living writing travel articles about his wanderings, but still feels the need for a greater sense of belonging to Nature, both more personal and more spiritual:

“He had always ‘dreamed’ the Earth alive, a mothering organism to humanity; and himself, via his love of Nature, in some sweet close relation to her that other men had forgotten or ignored.”

And on board the ship he finds it, or at least the first hint it’s possible. Two of his fellow passengers, a big, quiet man he thinks of as “the Russian”, and a young boy in the Russian’s charge, attract his attention in an odd way: “They appeared so much bigger than they actually were”, yet when he focuses on them, he can’t see what creates this impression. He realises it’s a mental image of their inner natures, somehow communicating to his eyes (the other passengers mostly ignore them). They seem to feel a kinship with O’Malley, too, and he comes to realise, as he spends time with them, that they are no ordinary people, but “cosmic beings”, “strayed down among men in a form outwardly human”. Not aliens, but:

“…a direct expression of cosmic life. A little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival—a survival of her youth.”

Dr Stahl has also noticed something about these two, and notes O’Malley’s interest in them. They are, he tells the Irishman, beings whose nature is similar to O’Malley’s own, “only developed, enormously developed… whose influence acting upon you at close quarters could not fail to arouse the latent mind-storms… always brewing in you just below the horizon.”

Stahl at first encourages O’Malley to interact with them, but almost immediately steps in with warnings about getting too close. O’Malley himself feels the tug of entering these two mysterious beings’ world, and thus losing his worldly self, though he soon realises that the “loss of personality” he instinctively fears would be “merely an extinction of some phantasmal illusion of self into the only true life”. Stahl urges him not to submit to the temptation of letting go of this world entirely, urging O’Malley to remember the watchwords of “Humanity and Civilisation”, not realising how little those words mean to him.

Blackwood wanted his friend Walford Graham Robertson to illustrate the novel. In the end, only this endpaper illustration appeared.

Stahl and the Russian are, in effect, the angel and devil on O’Malley’s shoulders, each urging him in an opposite direction. O’Malley already feels the attraction to the Russian’s world of greater unity with the Soul of the Earth; it’s Stahl who has to use persuasion to make him stay in our world. Stahl wants to study O’Malley, sure he’ll understand something about the man’s strangely innocent power. Stahl serves a second function, too, as one of Blackwood’s theorisers, using the quasi-scientific language of early 20th century spiritualism — “fluid” or “etheric” selves, and so on — as well as his own theories of an “Urmensch” to explain in technical detail the ideas behind this novel:

“Beings,” the doctor corrected him, “not men. The prefix Ur-, moreover, I use in a deeper sense than is usually attached to it as in Urwald, Urwelt, and the like. An Urmensch in the world today must suggest a survival of an almost incredible kind—a kind, too, utterly inadmissible and inexplicable to the materialist perhaps—”

Stahl brings in the philosophy of Gustav Fechner — William James’s lecture on him, later published in A Pluralistic Universe (1909), is explicitly cited — who believed that the Earth had a collective consciousness, a sum total of all her inhabitants’, plus something extra of her own. For eyes, she has our eyes; for ears, she has our ears. And from her come not only life forms such as ourselves, but “the gods and fairies of olden time”, as “emanations of her mighty central soul”. (And Earth in turn is a “Mood in the Consciousness of the Universe, [and] that Universe again was mothered by another vaster one … and the total that included them all was not the gods—but God.”)

The rest of the novel chronicles O’Malley’s journey deeper into union with the collective consciousness of the Earth, and then his return to civilisation, to teach what he has learned, in “a crusade that should preach peace and happiness to every living creature” — though one that is, of course, doomed to failure, as are all such dreamers’ crusades.

Bocklin’s “Centaurs” (1873) is mentioned in the novel

The Centaur was, according to Mike Ashley’s biography Starlight Man, one of Blackwood’s favourite among his own novels, and “closest to his own personal outlook”. It was difficult for Blackwood to finish (he broke off halfway to write another novel, Julius LaVallon), as he wrote to a friend:

“The theme, of course, is far beyond my powers, but it flames in me with such pain that I MUST get it out as best I can.”

Blackwood’s sympathies in The Centaur are clearly with O’Malley and the Russian. While he uses Dr Stahl as a mouthpiece to explain the theory he’s propounding, he also uses him as an externalisation of that part of O’Malley that can’t quite let go of “Humanity and Civilisation”, and so is held back from complete union with that massive-souled collective consciousness, Nature.

The novel reads, in a way, like an expanded version of one of my favourite Blackwood stories, “The Touch of Pan” (1917), whose narrator is led into the woods by the simple-souled nature-loving daughter of rich parents, there to find themselves transformed before Pan. The girl in that story is called an “idiot” by her parents for her refusal to be interested in their social world. In The Centaur, Blackwood at one point mentions “Sally Beauchamp No. 4” among other examples of the mysteries of human consciousness, this being the fourth personality of a multiple-personality patient studied by Morton Prince and detailed in his The Dissociation of Personality (1906). This fourth personality of “Sally Beauchamp” was also termed “the idiot” for her unawareness of details of Sally’s everyday life. Blackwood seems to take this idea of multiple personalities, and other aspects of what would be now thought of as mental illness, as hints of the sort of “Extensions of Human Faculty” that so fascinated him.

In some ways the novel shares something with Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, both being about the inner life of an imaginative and unworldly young man that touches on the supernatural, and who ultimately comes to a sad end — unworldliness crushed by the unrelenting worldliness of the world. Mythical creatures being emanations of a collective consciousness also make me think of the mythagos as emanations of humanity’s collective unconscious in Robert Holdstock’s work. And Blackwood’s novel even has an odd sort of connection with C S Lewis’s Interplanetary Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, etc.), in that both use the idea that (as Blackwood puts it) “if the heavens really are the home of angels, the heavenly bodies must be those very angels…”

The Centaur strays some way either side of the line between the sort of too-explicit occult technicalities that can spoil Blackwood’s stories for me, and the more successful poetic dreaminess of his shorter tales, like “The Dance of Death” or “The Old Man of Visions” (both from The Dance of Death, which also contains “The Touch of Pan”). His novels are not, really, standard weird fiction fare in the way some of his stories are. In his novels, the qualities that set him apart as a writer of the supernatural are much more evident: his belief in “the Extension of Human Faculty”, and the many strange directions it might take you.

The Haunted Island by E H Visiak

1946 reprint of The Haunted Island from publisher Peter Lunn. Illustratred by Jack Matthews.

Like his 1929 novel of “Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror” Medusa, E H Visiak’s first novel, The Haunted Island (published in 1910), is a sea adventure that turns into weird fiction in its second half. But, although the Encyclopedia of Fantasy says it is “clearly fantasy” (“and engagingly deploys ghosts and magic in a tale of pirates set on a mysterious island”), most, perhaps all, of the fantasy elements are eventually explained in non-supernatural terms. Even then, the atmosphere of weirdness and menace remains, so you feel that you have been in the presence of something that at least hints at extra-human forces.

The narrator is young Francis Clayton, whose older brother Dick heads a mutiny among the crew of one of the King’s ships (this is 1668) so they can head off in search of a rumoured treasure of incredible wealth on a distant (but haunted) island. Finding himself caught up in the action, Francis insists on staying with his brother as the ship evades its pursuers and they set out on their quest.

On the way, among other mostly episodic adventures, they pick up two sailors adrift in a boat, an Englishman and a “Mosquito Indian”. The Englishman tells of a remote island presided over by the mad alchemist Doctor Copicus, and Francis realises this is the same island as his brother is trying to find.

When they eventually arrive at the island, they are greeted by a spectre of gigantic size. The petrified crew want to flee, but by this point the ship is in the grip of inescapable water currents, and they’re drawn in to the island to become captives of the mad alchemist.

Illustration from the first edition, by N W Physick (presumably Visiak’s cousin, Nino William Physick)

Doctor Copicus, it turns out, is totally focused on revenging himself on his homeland (England) for exiling him. To this end, he is seeking to create a “combustible”, “an explosive searching as lightning, [so] mighty that blasting gunpowder would be, compared to it, but a puny breath”. He seems able to command others through sheer force of will, and rules the seamen and pirates who work for him with no tolerance at all for the slightest mistake — when his loyal secretary Ambrose forgets to bring him the sulphur he asked for, Copicus orders his execution in twenty days (during which time Ambrose continues to work for him as faithfully as ever).

The island has its own volcano (or “volcan” as Visiak has it, in mock-17th century prose), and this is, in a way, an image of the burning desire for revenge within Copicus’s Satanic breast:

“I grow liker and liker to thee!” said he [Copicus, addressing the volcano], with passion in his shrill voice, “Liker to thy hollow heart! thy hollow, fiery heart! . . . I, too, am a volcan! On fire! On fire! Waiting!“

Because he can read and write Latin, Francis is given the task of copying the Doctor’s manuscripts, but has time enough to explore the island and learn some of its mysteries (including the mechanism behind that giant ghost). The strangest thing he finds there is the “skeleton antic lad”, a bone-thin boy who gibbers alchemical nonsense, and to whose speech Copicus pays great attention. Ambrose hints at what may be the book’s only truly supernatural element:

“The lad is a daemon, or familiar, of the Doctor,” answered Ambrose. “He is, as I may say, super-rational. He hath strange powers. He can see spirits.”

This was the element David Lindsay picked out from his reading of the book, as he says in a letter to Visiak early on in their correspondence, in 1921:

“At first I took you at your word and started reading the ‘Haunted Island’ as an adventure story, but then ends began refusing to fit in, and I saw it must be more than that. Does not the clue lie in that weirdly marvellous ‘skeleton antic lad’?”

To me, the “skeleton antic lad” feels like an image of Copicus’s tortured soul. However much he likes to think himself like the volcano, with its raging fires, destructive power, and “hollow heart”, he is nevertheless a human being, and the human part of him must have all the vulnerability of a child (and a malnourished child at that, as Copicus has not exactly been nurturing his human soul), and may well have been driven babblingly insane by his singleminded need for revenge.

There are a few points of similarity between The Haunted Island and Medusa. Both, for instance, have a character whose hobby is sculpture — Mr Falconer in Medusa, who carves weird figureheads on his model ships, and Copicus’s secretary Ambrose here — which recalls the fact that Visiak himself was the son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson, of a line of sculptors. Both books feature a dangerous, piratical character among the crew of the ship the narrator sails on — Moon in Medusa, Ouvery here. (Both recalling Long John Silver.) One strange echo, shared not just with Medusa but the later short story “Medusan Madness”, is a weird-tinged vision the narrator has of a numinous sea landscape, fraught with awe and dread. Here is The Haunted Island’s version:

“I saw a vision of a boundless expanse: the heavens loaden with masses of cloud ebon black, the firmament illumined with a spectral light, and, beneath it all, the deep! That was black as the clouds above, and surging in billows (though without foam) so stupendous, that the tops of them might not be descried, and sweeping together with a shock and tumult such as no man could imagine. But that which held my gaze — yea, and nigh unseated my reason! — was the Thing, whether brute or demon, that seemed to be the sole denizen of the waters, swimming and wallowing there. Merciful God! may I never look upon the like of it again.”

This seems to be an encapsulation of Visiak’s entire cosmic vision, with the “spectral light” of the heavens blocked to us poor mortals by the black, shadow-like clouds of our fallen existence; and then the “surging billows” of the (emotionally and spiritually) turbulent material world, haunted by some unseen but menacing “Thing”— a “Thing” that more recalls the climax of Medusa than the present novel. As Francis reads in Doctor Copicus’s manuscripts:

“For the material universe… is the shadow cast by the spiritual universe… the light whereof proceedeth from the Deity, wherein all live and move and have their being. Wherein, rather, all sleep, or sleeping, dream; or dreaming, fitfully awake.”

The Haunted Island and Medusa are certainly both made from a similar mould. Medusa is the work of a better, and more experienced writer, but The Haunted Island is, in its second half at least, perhaps more conventionally satisfying than Medusa’s sudden descent into really mad weirdness. It certainly deserves to be read alongside Visiak’s later, more well-regarded novel — or on its own, by anyone who loves a 17th century Gothic-piratic sea-adventure.