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.

Medusa by E H Visiak

E H Visiak’s Medusa, A Story of Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror (1929) is the narrative of Will Harvell, written in old age but looking back on an adventure from his early years. As a boy he twice found himself responsible for someone’s death — the first his abusive, apoplectic grandfather, the second a school bully — and as a result runs away and finds himself embroiled in a sea-going adventure. He becomes the companion of Mr Huxtable, a gentleman whose only son has been kidnapped by pirates, and who has returned to England to sell enough property to pay the ransom. Now he’s got the money, he’s setting out, with Will, on the ship of Captain Blythe, a blustering, short-tempered man always harping on about his few tenuous connections to even minor gentry. When Blythe’s not kowtowing to the gentlemanly authoritative Huxtable, he’s insulting his curiously passive ship’s mate, Mr Falconer, whose one interest is, as Will puts it, “the making and rigging of little ships, but having such strange and outlandish figureheads as (I know not how otherwise to express it) affrighted my soul”. Also on board are the old, Bible-reading sailor Giles Kedgley, and his opposite, the lazy, work-shy drunk Obadiah Moon, whose only aim in life seems to be to obtain as much fresh fish as he can lay his hands on — and far more than one man, surely, can eat.

It’s worth noting these characters as, for the first half of the book, there’s not much of the mystery, ecstasy, or strange horror of Medusa’s subtitle, and the narrative is sustained by Will’s delineation of this little cast, as well as the day-to-day thrills, difficulties, and novelties of a sea voyage. (I don’t know if Visiak himself ever went to sea, but his descriptions of life on board a 17th/18th century vessel are convincing.) Medusa is written in the style of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but I think Visiak draws the more lifelike characters. For me, only Long John Silver emerged as a genuinely living presence from Treasure Island, but here Blythe and Moon both make the grade — Moon in particular, who’s something of a would-be Long John Silver, if only he weren’t so lazy and cowardly. He’s the least likeable of Visiak’s little troupe, but the most lifelike.

Cover to German edition

It’s at the halfway point the mysteries begin. They come to the pirate ship Huxtable has voyaged all this way to meet with, only to find it deserted, Mary Celeste-style — except for Mr Vertembrex, a naturalist who’d been tagging along with the pirates, but is now reduced to a mentally childlike state, doing nothing but smile and thread glass beads onto a string. There have already been rumours among Blythe’s crew of a ghost or strange creature seen aboard the ship at night, but now Will, Huxtable and Blythe see it, suddenly standing in a doorway:

’Twas squat and shaggy dark, having prodigious great limbs and hands and feet, that were webbed as a fish’s fins, or a manatee’s flappers; but his face, with its dwindled high peaked forehead, and great globular black glistening eyes…

Visiak’s mysteries and horrors begin to accumulate, but not before we’ve had that third element in his subtitle, the ecstasy — which is, perhaps, the strangest part of it all. There are a couple of moments when Will finds himself being overtaken by a sort of ecstatic trance. At one point, looking at a picture of Mr Huxtable’s late wife, for instance:

My soul was translated with a rapture such as cannot be uttered; enchanted as by the dazzling bright radiance of a celestial sun.

At another time, shortly before the full horrors begin, the sky takes on a “strange complexion of dark violet”, as if it were both day and night at the same time. The feeling is not so much that weird horrors are looming, as that things are entering a zone of strangeness, where normal laws no longer apply. Mr Huxtable tells Will an old legend he’s heard, of a race of once-enlightened beings who perceived not just with their senses, but directly into the essential nature of things, yet who fell from that height and, seeking refuge from both their own decadence and their homeland’s sinking into the sea, used certain “invisible rays of more than chymical efficacy” to split their very souls into their constituent elements, and so transformed themselves into creatures of the water.

Then a whole shoal of “squat and shaggy” fish-men arrive and kidnap Will, along with most of the rest of the crew, taking them to an all-but-submerged island, where they’re cast into a cavern, there to await the tentacles of a giant squid-monster. The strange thing is, the crew don’t see the fish-men as repulsive, but as “feminine and ravishing forms, all softness and delight, lifting up their alluring arms”, like the mermaids of sailors’ legends.

Will, of course, escapes, and is even told (by the suddenly-recovered Mr Vertembrex) “There will be a time for explanation”, but that time never arrives. What remains of the crew escape, and Will, in old age, writes his narrative.

August 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine (image from isfdb)

Medusa gained something of a reputation as a lost classic of the weird when Karl Edward Wagner listed it as one of his “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels” in the June 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine. In the August issue, R S Hadji listed it as one of his “13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre”, concluding with the remark that “Visiak achieved the terror and wonder, the sense of awe, that Lovecraft could only grasp at.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the book became sought-after. And it’s no wonder some readers were underwhelmed. Medusa works best not if you come to it thinking it’s going to out-Lovecraft Lovecraft (it won’t), but if you take it how it at first appears, as a Robert Louis Stevenson pastiche that, in its second half, takes an increasingly strange dive into the weird.

(There are similarities with Lovecraft, though. Not just the sea-going narrative that ends in a submerged island where we meet a tentacled, mind-affecting monster. Another moment, when Huxtable is relating his old legend, sounds like it could be describing a different Lovecraft story, “From Beyond”: “…certain of these rays discovered many creatures that were ordinarily invisible (being transparent to the eye), of which some were of an incredible oddity and strangeness to amuse and enlarge the mind.”)

The weirdness, though, isn’t there in the service of cosmic horror, as it is with Lovecraft. Nor is it, as Colin Wilson implies (writing about the novel in 1998’s The Books in My Life), wholly psychological:

“I suspect that any Freudian psychiatrist, reading Medusa, would have declared unhesitatingly that it was a kind of dream-novel symbolising Visiak’s own fear of sex. And I suspect he would be right.”

(This is perhaps most convincing when you consider that the submerged island at the end of the novel is seen only as a phallic pillar of rock rising from the sea. But this makes me think of another thing — Visiak was the son of four generations of sculptors, and the pillar of rock could just as well symbolise a sort of dark father figure, or the unformed self, yet to be shaped out of the formless rock.)

But the weirdness in Visiak’s novel is more there, I think, to point to another order of reality, not only more horrific than the world we know, but also more ecstatic, both holy and unholy. Visiak isn’t insisting on any particular interpretation, he just wants to open our eyes to the fact there’s more to reality than our day-to-day selves might accept.

Another, earlier, Wilson quote (from 1965’s Eagle and Earwig) is better:

“Visiak seems to be haunted by a vision of the unsayable. Primarily he is a poet, not a conscious literary artist…”

New Tales of Horror, 1934, edited by John Gawsworth, where “Medusan Madness” appeared

Wilson writes this in relation to a short story of Visiak’s, “Medusan Madness” (published in 1934), which feels like an ultra-compressed version of Medusa. A visitor to a psychiatric rest-home hears the story of an intense and otherworldly experience one of the inmates had at sea. We never hear the story ourselves, but the narrator, on hearing it, has a vision of a weird sky over the sea and comes down with whatever “madness” caused the other to become an inmate of the home. Both of them, from then on, take refuge in talking to a woman they call Diomedia, who seems the equivalent, in this short story, to Will Harvell’s visions of Huxtable’s dead wife in Medusa: a mother-figure who acts as a refuge from the world’s darkest extremes. It’s perhaps easy to fit this into that same Freudian view, with the mother-figure representing a retreat into the certainties of childhood. But Visiak doesn’t see childhood as a place of retreat, rather as our one moment of clear perception, after which adulthood is nothing but confusion and exile. As Huxtable says:

“This topic of childhood and the enchantment it casts, has powerfully worked in my thoughts, and was the ferment of my philosophy when first I became sensible of its loss and what a brave glittering robe was fallen from me into the past. It’s my first chapter of Genesis, which, in that story of lost Paradise, is a grand fable of the beginning of our life in this world; when we are innocently happy, or, as I may express this harmonious state, happily whole. There is as yet no rift to set body and spirit out of tune in their jangling spheres, and the elements are so mingled in us as that we may truly be called, in those eloquent words, living souls…”

In both “Medusan Madness” and Medusa, this transcendental mother represents humanity itself in the face of the very inhuman weirdness that’s out there in the world, compared to which we’re all innocent and bewildered children. The proper attitude to take to the world, the proper way to look at it, is with the open-eyed innocence of Will Huxtable, to whom no explanations are offered, and who is only left with the experience of mystery, and ecstasy, and strange horror.