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.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, around 1849

Poe wrote his most famous poem in 1844, around the time he moved from Philadelphia to New York. He seems to have first offered it to his friend and former employer, George Rex Graham, editor of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art. Graham turned it down, but felt so bad about rejecting it, he paid Poe $15 as an apology. It’s easy to feel Poe might have started to have doubts about the poem when his friend basically paid him not to publish it, which may be why, when he then placed it with The American Review (for which he was paid somewhere between five and ten dollars — less than for its non-appearance in Graham’s), he used the pseudonym “Quarles”, a reference to Francis Quarles (1592–1644), whose most famous work, Emblems, is a series of poetic meditations on scripture. (Poe later wrote that he wanted the raven in his poem to be “emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance”.) The tale of The Raven’s first publication took a further twist when Poe then placed it with a different paper, The Evening Mirror, this time under his own name, which came out before The American Review, at the end of January 1845.

The Raven was an immediate success, being reprinted in countless journals and newspapers for decades after (for which Poe mostly wasn’t paid). And not only reprinted, but parodied. Because of its characteristic rhythm and rhyming scheme, and the comic potential of its central situation (a maudlin poet addressing an obdurate, monosyllabic interlocutor), Poe’s Raven was repurposed for a variety of ends, from straightforward comedy to political satire (Britain’s Lord Dunraven must have rued the day it was written), as well as more serious pastiches, including tributes to Poe himself, sequels, “channelled” poems dictated by Poe from the afterlife, fake precursors, and poems that used the style of The Raven as a framework for imparting a moral (“The Owl”, for instance, is a pro-temperance version). The best of these imitations, though, are pure comedy, such as “The Parrot”, “The Pole Cat” (praised by Abraham Lincoln), and “Chateaux D’Espagne” (whose narrator becomes infatuated with an actress in the titular play). (I became so sidetracked looking into parodies and pastiches of The Raven whilst doing this research, that I ended up adding a whole new section to my website dedicated to them.) In effect, The Raven was a nineteenth century meme, taken up and played with because it was so instantly recognisable and adaptable.

Detail of an illustration by Manet for The Raven

Poe did receive some benefit from the poem’s success. In June 1845, his first book in five years, Tales, was published by Wiley and Putnam, followed by The Raven and Other Poems in November. And, in April the following year, he had an essay published (by a no doubt still contrite George Rex Graham), “The Philosophy of Composition”, about how he wrote the poem.

The Philosophy of Composition” is a peculiar piece of puffery, in which Poe attempts to convince his reader that pretty much everything about The Raven was derived by logic, not poetic inspiration. If we’re to believe him, the first thing Poe decided upon was the length of the poem, before he even knew what it was going to be about. That length — about a hundred lines, he decided — was the best length for a poem, as it could be read in a single sitting, while being long enough to make a strong impression. Next, he chose the effect he wanted to make on his reader, selecting “beauty”, whose highest manifestation, he says, is melancholy. And the death of a beautiful woman, of course, is the purest expression of such melancholy. Working from there, he step-by-step outlined the scheme of his poem. Realising he wanted a refrain, for instance, he chose the word “Nevermore” because of its containing “the most sonorous vowel” (a long “o”), and “the most producible consonant” (the letter “r”, apparently). And who would speak this refrain? Not a human, as it is so repetitive. A speaking beast, then. Which beast? Poe would have us believe he briefly considered a parrot before settling on a raven. The rest followed with — or so he seems to imply — nothing but logic, until he arrived at his finished paean to “Mournful and never ending Remembrance”.

It’s tempting to take “The Philosophy of Composition” as a sort of humble bragging (“Oh, it all seemed perfectly logical to me”), or perhaps even a hoax (after all, some of his tales began as hoaxes), but I can’t help feeling Poe himself was the main person he was trying to convince. His young wife Virginia showed the first signs of consumption in 1842; she died in 1847. The death of a beautiful woman can’t help but have been on his mind. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit what he knew was going to happen, and had to make his poem a thing of the intellect, not of the emotions, so he could deal with it. He was clearly a man of both strong intellect and troubled emotions, and the two can’t have avoided being in conflict within him to some degree. But, by attempting to convince his readership that The Raven was the result not of intense feeling but cold ratiocination, he was surely undermining its most poetic qualities, making it sound like it had been created by some versifying algorithm, something its tight rhythm and rhyming scheme already suggested to some. Emerson called Poe “the jingle man” for this very reason, and Yeats later dismissed The Raven as “insincere and vulgar… a rhythmical trick”.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A poet who took a different critical tack was Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Browning), to whom Poe dedicated his 1845 collection. Poe had reviewed Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’s Poems in 1844, making a point of criticising it in detail — as a compliment, oddly enough, because he started the review saying how women poets tended to be praised in sugary terms and not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, who were assumed to be able to take harder knocks. One poem he singled out for praise was “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, whose line:

“With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain…”

many critics found echoed in The Raven’s:

“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…”

In her letters, Elizabeth Barrett said The Raven had “produced a sensation—a ‘fit horror’ here in England”, but to her future husband Robert Browning she wrote, after reading Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”:

“…you shall… decide whether the outrageous compliment to me [i.e., the dedication of The Raven and Other Poems] or the experiment on M. Vandeleur [sic] goes furthest to prove him mad.”

In another letter, to a different correspondent, she wrote:

“As to The Raven… There is certainly a power but it does not appear to me the natural expression of a sane intellect in whatever mood…”

It is, then, a poem that seems at once overly clever and in the grip of unstable emotion.

The reason Poe’s poem attracts the “jingle man” type of criticism is that we expect poetry to be about emotion, sensation, nuance, and so on, but The Raven feels so tightly controlled, so narrowly confined by its rhythm and its rhyming scheme — by its cleverness — we’re left feeling emotion has been sacrificed for showy-off technique. In “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe seems to take pains to point out how not in the grip of any personal emotion he was. But, I’d say this reliance on cleverness isn’t a limitation of the poem. Rather, it’s what the poem is about. The poetry of The Raven is what escapes this strict matrix of rhythm and rhyme — what comes through despite the control and cleverness, and in contrast to it.

The Raven is about the trap of being stuck in intellect, unable to grieve. It’s about a poet suffering from cleverness when he ought to be feeling feelings. The raven, emerging from the storm (i.e., the roil of emotions the narrator thinks he has shut out by holing himself up in his study), represents the thing that cannot be confronted with mere cleverness: the dark emotion, eyeing him beadily from the corner of the room, relentless in its insistence. It speaks one word, because it is emotion, not thought, and that one word has all the meaning it needs to convey. It’s a word that speaks of deep and unfaceable loss. And still the narrator can’t accept it, but has to interrogate the one-worded beast, and arrive at the emotion through a long and avoidant path, turning the expression of personal grief into a ritual of self-torture. After which, the raven remains (still is sitting), unassuaged and unbanished, like that other bird of Romantic poetry, the albatross around the neck of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

The Raven is easily parodied and can seem overblown, melodramatic, nothing but a “jingle” or a “rhythmical trick”, but at the same time it’s about a pitiable and very human situation: a lone man hiding from the storm of his own overpowering emotions, obsessively talking himself into a confrontation with the one ineluctable fact that he cannot face: the death of his beloved.

It’s a favourite with the more grandiloquent kind of actor, the sort who make it big in a certain type of old horror film: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Walken. (James Earl Jones does a good version, too.) It doesn’t quite fit in with the other long fantasy poems I’ve covered in this blog — The Hashish Eater, Goblin Market, Childe Roland and so on — as it isn’t strictly fantasy, but at the same time, it doesn’t quite not fit in. (It certainly echoes Wilde’s The Sphinx, for instance.) Perhaps its divisiveness — the way it seems to be so unpoetic whilst clinging so tightly to poetic form — underlines its archetypal power as a poem about the limits of intellect, the confrontation with difficult emotion, and so, ultimately, the need for poetry.