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.

Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

Cover by J K Potter

After Dark Companions, Campbell’s next all-original story collection was Scared Stiff, which came out in 1986 from the peculiarly-punctuated Scream/Press. All but one of the tales it contained in its original form (Scared Stiff was republished in 2002 with a few more stories), were from the mid seventies, and so could have been included in 1976’s The Height of the Scream. The Scared Stiff stories share a similar feel with those in Height of the Scream, in that the protagonists are mostly young adults seeking to find themselves, often creative people, often experimenting with drugs, often struggling with their first adult relationships. And it’s that “struggling with their first adult relationships” that’s a key part of the stories collected here, as Scared Stiff, subtitled Tales of Sex and Death, are all stories where Campbell veered into more sexually explicit territory.

The 1st Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, art by Les Edwards

It started when Michel Parry, editor of the Mayflower Book of Black Magic anthology series (which produced six volumes from 1974 to 1977), said to Campbell that he was surprised he wasn’t getting any stories about sex magic. And this was the seventies. Campbell decided to have a go, and produced “Dolls”, an unusual tale in his oeuvre for being set in the past (the late 17th or early 18th century). Its protagonist, Anne, belonged to a coven of witches when she was a teenager, but lapsed after marrying. When a new parson, Jenner, forbids her furniture-maker husband John from producing the carved figures he so enjoys making, John lends his creative power to the coven (which Anne has returned to after finding herself unable to enjoy the marriage bed), carving figures and using them to curse the coven’s enemies. John has an obvious power, both creative and magical, and after he joins the coven the Devil even starts making personal appearances at their night-time sabbaths, choosing a woman from their number to be his partner. Never Anne, though. Frustrated, she has a plan to make the Devil choose her, and to rid them all of Parson Jenner’s repressive disapproval for good. It’s a heady mix of frustration, power, creativity and desire, and proved to be a bit more explicit than Parry was expecting. He checked it with Mayflower’s lawyers, though, and it was published in The Fourth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories in 1976.

J K Potter illustration, for “The Seductress”

Two more of the stories included here were written for the Mayflower Black Magic series. “Lilith’s” is about a young man who gives up on his frustrating (because real) girlfriend and buys himself a sex doll (from, of course, a shop that also sells occult paraphernalia), only to find himself unable to have a relationship with that, either. This might sound comic, but, as with all the tales collected here, the tone is more kitchen sink drama than Carry On. (I can’t help imagining what the dark slapstick humour of later Campbell might make of the same situation, though.) The other story, this time published in The Sixth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories (in 1977), is “The Seductress”, whose female protagonist, Betty, rejects her boyfriend, Alastair, when she finds he’s been using black magic to keep their relationship going. As a result, Alastair kills himself, and Betty does her best to forget him, but Alastair learned his magic from his witchy mother, who’s not going to let death get between her precious son and what he wants.

In general, I found the stories in this collection which had male protagonists to be mostly about frustration, an inability to connect emotionally with wives or girlfriends, and an ultimate attempt to get past those frustrations through control (which veers into the supernatural and horrific). On the other hand, those with female protagonists were more about vulnerability — not the passivity of victimhood, though these are of course horror stories and never end well, but more the vulnerability of someone opening up to find themselves through the most intimate of human relationships.

cover by Oliver Hunter

There’s a lot about the blurring of lines between sexual and artistic energy, too. In “The Other Woman” (published in The Devil’s Kisses, an anthology edited by Michel Parry under the pseudonym Linda Lovecraft, in 1976), Phil, a book-cover artist, overcomes a patch of creative sterility when he finds himself painting a new type of woman as the stereotypical victim on his schlocky thriller covers. Not just a new type of woman but, seemingly, an actual woman, with one blue eye, one brown. She’s a hit with the publishers, but less so with Phil’s girlfriend, who ends up writing into a magazine for advice, as she’s sure the increasingly impotent-with-her Phil is having an affair. Phil, like the sex-doll-owning Palin from “Lilith’s”, finds himself better able to have a relationship with an unreal woman than a real one. In “Stages” (written in 1975, but not published till this book, as the anthology it was intended for never came out), the protagonist is a sculptor, who finds himself able to partake in both sides of other people’s sexual encounters when tripping on a new batch of a drug his friend cooked up. In these stories, sexual frustration is often tied to creative frustration, leading to a dangerous mix of the need to create and an inability to relate. As with the stories in The Height of the Scream, there’s a sense of the protagonists veering into territories of new, strange, destabilising and dangerous experience that allows the supernatural to enter into their lives and take over. Sex is just one more element in the mix of creativity, personal experimentation, and forbidden experience you find throughout that earlier collection.

Scared Stiff ends with a tale written especially for this collection, so from 1986 rather than the mid seventies. Like “Dolls”, the story that opens the book, “Merry May” is firmly in folk horror territory. Its protagonist is another frustrated creative, a middle-aged lecturer on music and would-be composer who’s feeling increasingly lonely after a break-up with one of his pupils. In desperation, he responds to an advert offering “Renewal of Life”, and finds himself spending the weekend at a country village, and partaking — of course, a little too closely — in their May Day rituals.

Campbell’s writing, since he broke from the Lovecraft pastiches of his first book, has always had a relentless psychological honesty about it, laying bare his characters’ human weaknesses, desperations, and desires. It’s those human vulnerabilities, in fact, that provide the openings for the supernatural, or the horrific, when it comes along, so the sexual element, so evident in Scared Stiff, doesn’t feel at all bolted on, or prurient. It fits naturally (supernaturally?) into Campbell’s style and approach. And certainly, once we’d been through the 1980s, there’s nothing as extreme here as, say, Clive Barker was writing. (And Barker, fittingly, writes the introduction to Scared Stiff.)

One thing that does remain to be noted is the illustrations for the Scream/Press edition, by J K Potter. Potter’s pre-Photoshop photo manipulations and collages blend an edge-of-reality sharpness of image with a nightmare surreality, and are a perfect match with Campbell’s fiction.

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.