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.

Sphinx by Oscar Wilde

First edition. Cover by Charles Ricketts.

Oscar Wilde’s decadent-fantastic poem The Sphinx (which you can read online here) was first published in 1894 by The Bodley Head in a limited edition of 200 (plus an extra 50 copies for sale in the US), illustrated by Wilde’s friend Charles Ricketts, and printed in red, green, and black ink. (You can see a facsimile of this edition here.) Wilde’s biographers disagree on exactly when and where the poem was written. Some say 1883 in Paris, where Wilde lived for a few months on the income from his first successful play, The Duchess of Padua. Others say 1874, again in Paris, at the Hôtel Voltaire; still others say it was begun at Oxford in the same year, where Wilde, then twenty, was in his last year as a student. There’s an extant draft from 1883, which has some differences to the published version (the final poem’s stanzas of two long lines are broken into four shorter ones, for instance), but the poem itself, which mentions its narrator as having “hardly seen/Some twenty summers”, and the whole thing being set in a “student’s cell” at least implies its origins lie, imaginatively if not actually, in Oxford, and in 1874. Perhaps the best explanation is that of H Montgomery Hyde (Oscar Wilde: A Biography), who says Wilde began the poem in Oxford, wrote the bulk of it in Paris, and continued to polish it until its publication.

It was widely, if mixedly, reviewed, no doubt depending on how each reviewer felt about the rising decadent movement in literature. The Pall Mall Budget, for instance, said:

“The monsters of the Egyptian room at the British Museum live again in his weird, sometimes repulsive, but all the same stately and impressive lines…”

While the best the Pall Mall Gazette can find to say is:

“It is fair to add that the poet’s grammar is above the average…”

The Globe, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum:

“…that amazing poem, The Sphinx, which we take leave to think is among the most remarkable works ever penned by human hand…”

Punch caricature of Charles Rickett’s illustration

Punch carried a parody, “The Minx — A Poem in Prose”, which prosifies Wilde’s poetry, being a dialogue in which a poet interviews a sphinx. Thus, for Wilde’s line:

And you have talked with Basilisks, and you have looked on Hippogriffs…

We get:

Poet. No doubt you have talked with hippogriffs and basilisks?
Sphinx (modestly). I certainly was in rather a smart set at one time. As they say, I have “known better days.”

Unsigned, “The Minx” (which you can read as part of the magazine here) is by Ada Leverson, who was a great friend of Wilde’s, being one of his first visitors after his release from prison three years later. Wilde called her “the Sphinx” and “the Sphinx of Modern Life”, though I haven’t been able to find out if that’s because of this piece or not.

Sphinxes were very much in currency at this time, having been taken up by Symbolist artists as something of a dark, decadent muse. Gustave Moreau painted “Oedipus and the Sphinx” in 1864, a picture which almost makes me feel the creature’s claws digging into Oedipus’s skin, in that careless way of cats the world over. Later, more decadent incarnations include the darkly romantic “Kiss of the Sphinx” from Franz von Stuck (1895), and Fernand Khnopf’s “The Caresses, or The Sphinx” (1896), whose sphinx’s leopard spots and tactility seem, to me, to owe something to Wilde’s very physical creature (“let me stroke your throat and see your body spotted like the Lynx”). (Khnopf used his sister as a model for virtually every figure he painted, hence their uniformity of features.)

Khnopf’s “The Caresses, or The Sphinx”

Wilde’s poem begins with its narrator addressing a “beautiful and silent Sphinx” lurking in the corner of his “student’s cell”. At first he muses on what mythological wonders and scenes from history she must have seen, until those musings lock into a certain trend:

Who were your lovers? who were they who wrestled for you in the dust?
Which was the vessel of your Lust? What Leman had you, every day?

At first, the student speculates on monstrous beasts — giant lizards, gryphons, hippopotami, “gilt-scaled dragons” — then on more human, but still exotic lovers — nereids, Ethiopians, the risen dead in their Pyramids. Finally, to gods — Beelzebub and Bast, Adonis and Ashtaroth — before settling on the Egyptian sun-god Ammon, and dwelling for a while on the luxuries this divine being would have been surrounded by. And the poem drips with luxury and sensuality, with all its names of rare jewels and exotic perfumes, recherché flowers and far-off lands.

The poem then takes a dark turn. Ammon is now a ruined statue, shattered and scattered through the desert. But the Sphinx can, the narrator says, piece her former lover together once more, because:

…Only one God has ever died,
Only one God has let His side be wounded by a soldier’s spear.

Gustav Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx”

It’s a curious use of Christian doctrine, to take the idea that there is only one God, who died for our sins, as proof that other, pagan gods cannot, therefore, have died at all, so must be still around. But it’s from this point, when Christianity is brought into the poem, that the whole thing becomes troubled. The narrator’s earlier musing tone becomes hectoring — he wants the Sphinx to find her former lovers, or any lovers (“take a tiger for your mate”), so long as she leaves him alone. Her formerly luxuriant gaze (“eyes of satin rimmed with gold”, “which are like cushions where one sinks”) are now “like fantastic moons that shiver in some stagnant lake”. The Sphinx has become repulsive to him, because, with all this imaginative indulgence in luxuriance and lust, the narrator has become repulsive to himself. Recalling that one God wakes a sense of shame and sin within him, and for this he blames the Sphinx:

You make my creed a barren sham, you wake foul dreams of sensual life…

But his “creed” is anyway unconvincing. He asks the Sphinx to “leave me to my crucifix” because of thoughts of death, but he pictures death in non-Christian terms (“old Charon, leaning on his oar,/Waits for my coin”). Christ on his crucifix, meanwhile:

…sick with pain, watches the world with wearied eyes,
And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in vain.

Which, after such a welter of images of mythological gods and goddesses dripping in luxury, pomp and ceremony, makes Christianity seem, to the poem’s narrator, strangely powerless — Christ “weeps for every soul”, but “in vain”. Why “in vain”? Because sin — poetically and physically — is the greater force among living souls.

The narrator of The Sphinx seems, not so much like Blake’s view of Milton (that he was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”), but pagan and not admitting it, even to himself. And if it needs more argument than the luxury of the poetry itself, there’s the idea of the pagan Sphinx as a poetic muse (“Sing to me”, the narrator says to her several times, just as Homer did to his muse), while sin, the Christian concept, is “songless tongueless”, un-poetic, even anti-poetic. And what use has a poet for a religion that is anti-poetic?

The Sphinx seems to trump Christianity in another way. She has been around much longer, and shows no sign of going away:

Red follows grey across the air, the waves of moonlight ebb and flow
But with the Dawn she does not go and in the night-time she is there.

The Sphinx is a constant for beasts and gods, men and myths; she was there in the ancient past, and is here, now, in this student’s cell, with just as much persuasive force as in ancient times. Because she, to this poet at least, represents a thing more primal than the finer ideas behind Christianity, with its idea of sin — she represents lust. Lust with bejewelled, richly-scented sun gods, yes, but also lust with mere beasts, lust in the dust. The Sphinx doesn’t care; lust doesn’t care.

And poetry doesn’t care. In poetic terms, it’s the Sphinx that wins out, not thoughts of sin. The argument that closes the poem may be an attempt to banish this troublesome mythological beast using a crucifix, but The Sphinx is, in the end, about sun gods, not sin gods.

Oscar Wilde in 1882

Wilde’s The Sphinx has been compared to Poe’s The Raven. In both, a lone poet addresses an animal, or semi-animal, that either doesn’t speak or speaks only one word, and by this one-sided interrogation tortures themselves with, in Poe’s poem, “Mournful and never ending Remembrance”, and in Wilde’s, “foul dreams of sensual life”. It also, in a way, reminds me of Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater (The Sphinx was one of Smith’s favourite poems), in that it starts with the poet indulging in a range of imaginative sights and sensations, and ends with them being locked in a nightmare of self-revelation, and self-confrontation.

How much Wilde was wrestling with his homosexuality in this poem, or with lust in general, or with his need to take poetry beyond the bounds of what was acceptable to such a prudish society as Victorian England, is impossible to tell. It’s no doubt going to be a mix of all three. But the result is one of the finer long fantasy poems of the Victorian era, and one which certainly stands alongside other such classics I’ve looked at in past Mewsings, including Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

Tartarus Press edition, art by R.B. Russell

Delirious from lack of rest, food and water, Alan Querdillon, escaping from a WWII POW camp through endless German pine forests, sights a small lake and rushes towards it. Crossing a strange beam of pale light, he’s shocked into unconsciousness. He wakes in a private hospital, and when its German doctor invites him to his study for a chat, Querdillon notices an electric calendar-clock displaying the year 102 — “the hundred and second year of the First German Millenium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler”, as the doctor says, somewhat amused by his patient’s needing to have this explained. Querdillon has slipped into a future where Nazi Germany has won the “War of German Rights”, and reshaped the world to its wildest desires.

He’s being held in the castle of the Reich Master Forester, Count Johann von Hackelnberg, whose grounds are a sort of retreat where the Nazi elite can enjoy a bit of hunting. He soon gets to witness a fat and rather fed-up sportsman indolently shooting at (and missing) a deer or two, then perking up when he’s handed a peculiarly wide-bored gun and a new form of game is driven past the hunting hideout:

A figure had come into sight, running hard over the shock grass: a human figure, but fantastically decked. It came on, running for dear life and the unseen hounds clamoured close behind; there was no mistaking their intention to rend and kill now. The figure held my gaze; it was a tall, long-limbed girl, her head and features concealed by a brilliantly coloured beaked mask, which yet allowed her dark hair to stream out behind. To see her racing up the glade was as astounding as if you had seen one of the bird-headed goddesses of Old Egypt suddenly break from carven stillness into panic flight.

The wide-bore gun fires a weighted net. The hunter misses the first woman, but another follows, and she’s caught, trussed up, and taken away to be presented as the hunter’s prime catch at an end-of-day banquet.

Sphere paperback

Querdillon has already learned this is a harsh future. Slave men from the “Under-Races”, artificially matured, muted and neutered, do the work, while his nurses are all “Pure German maidens”, educated to such a level of discipline they’ll report their own misdemeanours, and suggest their own punishments (“They know better than to propose too little, too!”) rather than have their fellows beat them to it.

But the worst of it waits for the Count’s after-dinner entertainment. The monstrous Count von Hackelnberg takes his guests outside to a pit containing a couple of deer. Querdillon watches as twenty alluring but horrifying creatures file into the pit, a troop of “women transformed by a demonic skill in breeding and training into great, supple, swift and dangerous cats”. At a signal, they tear the deer apart and eat them raw. Then the Count spots Querdillon, and it’s time for some firsthand experience of what it means to be human prey.

Art by Richard Powers

The Sound of His Horn (1952) is the most well-known work by “Sarban” — real name John William Wall — who spent his working life (including during the Second World War) in the British Diplomatic Service, stationed in Beirut, Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Cairo. During his lifetime he published three books (the other two being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales in 1951, and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny in 1953). In a few ways he reminds me of Daphne du Maurier (who I wrote about a little while back), in that his stories didn’t first appear in magazines or anthologies, but only in his own original collections. And, again like du Maurier, he tends to write quite a long short story, starting at an even pace and continuing that way through an often extensive build-up before we get to the meat of the story. His writing’s never dull. It keeps a measured, steady focus, as though every aspect of the build-up is relevant. But, to me, it does feel that at certain moments his writing bursts free and becomes a bit more intense and poetic. Sometimes, as in his long story “The King of the Lake”, this is when describing the underground wonders of the caves where a mysterious people live by a large, hidden, mid-desert lake. But generally Sarban’s poetic flourishes occur when he’s describing something that forms the ultimate core of several of his stories (including the title story of Ringstones, as well as “The King the Lake” and The Sound of His Horn): women being strapped into leather harnesses and being made to act like animals, usually as part of some sporting activity. In The Sound of His Horn, this is the “Jagdstück” or “game-girls” who are the hunting prey; in Ringstones it’s to act as human horses in a chariot race. At the same time, Sarban’s stories are usually focused on his female characters, who are intelligent, practical and capable people, which makes their frustration and humiliation all the more poignant.

Ringstones, cover by Bob Blanchard

It’s impossible to say there isn’t an element of misogyny here, but at the same time, Sarban’s sympathies seem to lie entirely with his female characters. Is he revelling in their humiliation, or identifying with their frustration? I think, as is probably true with most of the best horror fiction, the answer is an anxious mix of both. Sarban’s attitude towards his female characters is a conflicted mix of sympathy, fascination, and identification, rather than mere aggression. All this sports-and-leather-straps stuff at times comes across as a superheated version of John Betjeman’s love of confident, strong young women (“Pam, I adore you, you great big mountainous sportsgirl”), but the darkness at the heart of the stories is unavoidable. Was John William Wall (who, it seems, was somewhat dominated by his stronger wife, in an unhappy marriage), depicting his own sense of humiliation, vulnerability, and frustration — something he perhaps couldn’t express as a stiff-upper-lipped man of the 1950s — or was he inflicting it on others, in a sort of revenge fantasy? Bit of both, no doubt.

The frame story of The Sound of His Horn makes it clear that Querdillon was deeply affected by his experience of a Nazified future (which he escapes from, back to his own time, though of course everyone dismisses it as a hallucination caused by hunger and thirst), leading to his mother wondering why he isn’t marrying his long-standing fiancé:

Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl’s animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her.

John William Wall, a.k.a. Sarban

His experience seems to have affected his identity as a man. And it’s not his witnessing of the (entirely male) Nazi elite’s inhumanity that has affected him, because man’s inhumanity to man is a long established fact — it’s his glimpse of the “utterly unhuman” cat-women’s bestial viciousness, which seems to have awoken a horror of his fiancé’s love of fox-hunting, as though he suspects that vision of women-as-cats has suggested they might all be cats, somewhere under the skin.

Sarban ceased publishing after 1953, blaming mixed reviews, but he continued writing, as Tartarus Press now include previously-unpublished works in their collections of his fiction. (They also run Sarban.co.uk, which has an interesting biography of the man.)

The Sound of His Horn is a real weird fiction classic, written in the urbane, well-controlled style of a well-read British man of letters, but with moments of genuinely dark strangeness of a sort that you just don’t expect to find coming from that well-read British man of letters.