The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In 1859, George Eliot — not yet known to the world at large as Mary Anne Evans — wrote her most uncharacteristic work, “The Lifted Veil”. She had recently had her first major success with Adam Bede, and took a break from her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, to write this supernaturally-tinged tale in March. It was a difficult time for Eliot, as she was torn between revealing her identity (which would mean having her two-year ménage with George Henry Lewes exposed to the Victorian public) and having other people take credit for her work (a man called Joseph Liggins had been suggested by some as the mysterious “George Eliot”, and Liggins was busy doing nothing to deny it). On top of these obvious reasons, there was, perhaps, a sensitive person’s natural need for privacy. In the light of this, “The Lifted Veil”, a story about a young man who, after an illness, finds himself burdened with a constant telepathic awareness of other people’s thoughts, as well as the occasional doom-laden prevision of his own future, feels like a nightmarish unloading of anxieties on Eliot’s part.

For a story about telepathy, “The Lifted Veil” is remarkably unconcerned with exploring the possibilities of being able to read other peoples’ minds. In fact, to Latimer, already a sensitive and slightly “morbid” young man, this gift feels like a curse, revealing to him as it does nothing but the petty selfishness of other minds, even those closest to him. Here’s a sampling of how he describes the sort of thing his gift reveals:

“…vagrant, frivolous ideas and emotions… the trivial experience of indifferent people… all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts… worldly ignorant trivialities… their narrow thoughts, their feeble regard, their half-wearied pity…”

And as he can’t shut it off, it becomes “like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect”, a constant background drone of dreary, wearying banality.

The one exception to this is Bertha Grant, his older brother’s fiancé. Latimer can’t hear her thoughts, and so is free to relate to (and idealise) her as any young man might a pretty woman. He falls in love with her, despite her evident cynicism:

“What! your wisdom thinks I must love the man I’m going to marry? The most unpleasant thing in the world. I should quarrel with him; I should be jealous of him; our ménage would be conducted in a very ill-bred manner. A little quiet contempt contributes greatly to the elegance of life.”

Although the “veil” of the title brings to mind images of the gauzy barrier Victorian Spiritualists saw as standing between the worlds of the living and the dead, in this story it refers to the block Latimer has against reading Bertha’s thoughts. Despite knowing she’s engaged to his “florid, broad-chested, and self-complacent” brother, Latimer has a bittersweet vision of his own future, in which he is married to his beloved Bertha — bittersweet because, in this future, she evidently hates him.

And, when this vision comes true and they do marry, the veil lifts:

“The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul…”

It’s a very dim vision of human relationships, though one that recurs in the only novel of Eliot’s I really know, Middlemarch, in its desolate mismatches of Dorothea Brooke with the emotionally dead scholar Casaubon, and of the ambitious Lydgate with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In both cases in that novel, marriage seems to clang down like a portcullis, preventing escape until all the illusions of pre-marital love have been stripped away.

To Latimer, the “sweet illusions” we live with are, in the end, essential to life, as is all mystery:

“So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between…”

There’s even a note of cosmic or religious horror, as Latimer, in the latter stages of his condition, experiences more generalised visions of the world at large:

“…of strange cities, of sandy plains, of gigantic ruins, of midnight skies with strange bright constellations, of mountain-passes, of grassy nooks flecked with the afternoon sunshine through the boughs: I was in the midst of such scenes, and in all of them one presence seemed to weigh on me in all these mighty shapes—the presence of something unknown and pitiless.”

That “presence” remains unexplained, though the next thing Latimer says, “For continual suffering had annihilated religious faith within me”, implies that the “something unknown and pitiless” is his feeling of what the God of this world must be like. (Eliot herself had long struggled against her own religious upbringing. At one stage, her father threatened to throw her out of the house because of her rejection of it.)

Read as horror fiction (and coming nearly thirty years before the boom in Victorian classics that saw the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw), “The Lifted Veil” is more about the horror of other people, and the weariness of the “incessant insight and foresight” of a sensitive soul. Nevertheless, it ramps up the Gothic at the end, for a post-deathbed confession scene, in which Bertha’s maid, freshly expired from peritonitis, is revived long enough by an experimental blood transfusion to issue a dreadful confession and accusation.

(Given that Latimer has visions and can read minds, this ending, with its Gothic appurtenances of blood, death, illness, fringe science, and a dramatic revelation, seems hardly needed, and, indeed, Eliot’s publisher Blackwood tried to persuade her to remove it.)

In the end, “The Lifted Veil” was printed anonymously in the July 1859 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (a periodical which had an established reputation for tales of Gothic horror, to the extent of having been satirised even by Poe, in his essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article”).

A muted horror tale, but one that fits very much into George Eliot’s work as a whole, full as it is of moments of extreme sensitivity to the subtleties of her characters’ emotional lives, “The Lifted Veil” is a significant piece of Victorian fantasy.

The text is freely available online, and I have a downloadable version on my free ebooks page.

Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

When his previous two collections, Demons by Daylight (1973) and The Height of the Scream (1976), came out, those books were the definitive statements of who Campbell was, as a writer, at that time. But with Dark Companions (published in 1982), things are slightly different. Campbell is now publishing novels, having four out under his own name (including The Doll Who Ate His Mother, and The Nameless, which I’ve reviewed here on Mewsings), and three novelisations of Universal horror films under the pen-name Carl Dreadstone. All but one of the stories in Dark Companions were written after Campbell became a full-time writer. Three won awards (two World Fantasy, one British Fantasy), and one (“The Companion”) was praised by Stephen King (“one of the three finest horror stories I have ever read”) in his 1981 book about horror, Danse Macabre. It feels Campbell has come a long way from the author of Demons by Daylight who was grateful for T E D Klein’s review that proved that one person out there, at least, got what he was trying to do.

Looking at his development as a writer, it’s obvious that by this point Campbell has found his voice and is comfortable enough with it to, for instance, branch out in directions he perhaps wouldn’t have tried in those earlier two collections. For example, he groups six of the tales collected in Dark Companions as “a kind of tribute to the old EC horror comics” — very short stories, often told in the second person, these are macabre twist tales, often using traditional horror elements such as vampires, witches and the creations of mad scientists, with part of the point of each tale being for the reader to work out exactly who the “you” being addressed in the narrative is. They’re not exactly jokes, but they certainly employ a sort of dark humour and a lightness of intent you don’t find in those earlier two collections.

Cover to Demons by Daylight (Arkham House)

Eddie Jones art to Arkham House edition of Demons by Daylight

The stories in Demons by Daylight and The Height of the Scream often felt like almost raw slices of the author’s own experience (in his introduction to Dark Companions, Campbell says his second collection was “sometimes so personal as to be wilfully incomprehensible”), redolent of the times they were written in — the years following the 1960s social revolutions — and the stage of life Campbell presumably was in at the time, with most of the protagonists being in the early stages of adulthood, often students, forming their first adult relationships, starting new jobs, discovering themselves (and often, this being Campbell, losing their sense of self in the process). With most of the stories in Dark Companions, the experience feels less raw. And while it means that something of that feeling of immediacy is lost, the stories gain, often, by feeling they are rooted a bit deeper in a more considered, or digested, experience.

One example of this is that a lot more of the stories in this collection are about childhood fears, or children’s encounters with horrors, as though Campbell could now take the time to trace the roots of fear to a deeper level. (Though my favourite story from Demons by Daylight, “The Guy”, from 1968, also fits this description, which goes to show how perilous it is to make sweeping generalisations about an artist’s development.) “The Companion”, for instance, is about a grown man, closer to retirement than childhood, who thinks himself well past the fears that kept him awake when he was young. Something of a tourist of childhood nostalgia, he spends his holidays visiting old fairgrounds. A trip on a ghost train he keeps trying to persuade himself is disappointing rather than redolent of his own, very personal, childhood fears, of course ends with him discovering that there’s no way of running from fears if they’re intent on coming after you. “In the Bag”, about a hypocrite headmaster, is another tale along similar lines. “The Chimney” — which Campbell calls, in the introduction to a “best of” collection, Dark Feasts, “disguised autobiography — disguised from me at the time of writing, that is” — is another tale about childhood fears and its protagonist’s attempts to overcome them. Like “The Guy”, it’s focused on a particular holiday (something that’s true of another tale of childhood horror, here, “The Trick”), and, like “In the Bag”, it’s a horror that’s only fully realised when the young boy narrator is grown up, though in a poignant, rather than simply horrific, way.

Mark Watts cover

As well as these tales of childhood horrors catching up with adults, there are stories that take place entirely during childhood/young adolescence. “Mackintosh Willy” is perhaps my favourite example of the latter, being centred around a shelter in a park where a particularly scary tramp was to be found, until he died there. But although the narrator of the tale is the one who finds the body and reports it to the police, someone else, in the meantime, has snuck in and put a pair of Coca-Cola bottle caps on his eyes — an act of mocking the dead that will have consequences. “The Man in the Underpass” (a story I always want to rename “The Man Without Underpants”) is narrated in a sort of what-we-did-in-our-holidays way by 11-year-old Lynn. When she and her friends see a pagan-looking figure scrawled on the wall in an underpass, they find it worthy of a snigger or two, but one girl, the religious-minded Tonia, is more deeply affected. The thing that doesn’t quite work for me, in this tale, is how Tonia identifies this figure with an Aztec deity, one she calls Popocatepetl, having found the name in a library book. It’s never explained what an Aztec figure should be doing in an underpass in England, or why Tonia should insist it have this particular name, even when she’s told it’s of a volcano rather than a god. Perhaps Tonia has just got it wrong, or perhaps there’s an aspect of Aztec mythology I can’t find out about, but it seems to me the figure is more like the home-grown Cerne Abbas Giant, who would at least have more of an excuse for being there.

Every so often (as with “Cold Print” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs”, which I spoke about in a review of Campbell’s Visions from Brichester), it feels that Campbell writes a story that is as much about horror as it is a tale of horror, and in Dark Companions there’s “The Depths” which, though not my favourite tale in the book, feels like it’s perhaps the most important, in terms of Campbell trying to say something about his particular field of endeavour. The protagonist, Miles, is a crime writer who has decided to spend some time in a house where a particularly horrific murder occurred, so as to better write about it. But when he finds his head being flooded by visions of other crimes, full of details even he finds horrific, he leaves. He soon discovers, though, that the crimes he imagined have subsequently occurred, and that only by writing these visions down can he stop more from occurring. Like The Nameless, this is a story about the most horrific crimes being inspired by some extra-human force outside their perpetrators. Or, perhaps, something deep inside:

“No wonder they were so terrible, or that they were growing worse. If material repressed into the unconscious was bound to erupt in some less manageable form, how much more powerful that must be when the unconscious was collective! Precisely because people were unable to come to terms with the crimes, repudiated them as utterly inhuman or simply unimaginable, the horrors would reappear in a worse form and possess whoever they pleased…”

Miles sees images of horror all around him, and notices the way people are simultaneously fascinated and disgusted, prurient one minute, disowning them the next. He even feels disgust at some of his own stories, published in one of the more lurid magazines under a pseudonym. Finally, though, he comes to understand something of his role as a writer about horror: freighted with so many violent images, he starts to realise he’s something of a scapegoat, loaded with humanity’s darker impulses. And you know what happens to scapegoats…

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Sphere PB, art by Terry Oakes

The title alone is enough to earn Hodgson’s 1908 novel a place at the heart of any weird fiction canon. And the book’s first quarter, with its nameless narrator (known as “the Recluse” to this found-manuscript’s editor) holing himself up in a remote country house and fending off nightly attacks from noxious swine-things like a classic Doctor Who base-under-siege story, feels like the perfect set up for a weird adventure story. But then things take a ninety-degree swerve into the cosmic, visionary, and psychedelic, with a long trip through accelerated time. We see the death of our Earth and the Sun, then follow a slow, abstract path to the heart of the universe, to glimpse the truth behind “the scheme of material creation”: a pair of massive central suns, one a giant, weird green (“the abode of some vast Intelligence?”), the other utterly dark. Then back to the present and the house under siege, though not, now, by a host of fleshy-white swine-things, but one giant green glowing one, whose touch leaves a fungous infection that recalls, to my mind, the bleak and inexplicable creeping death in Lovecraft’s most coldly cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Ian Miller art for Panther PB

To be wrenched out of what seems like such a brilliant set up for a weird adventure novel into that rather abstract, visionary journey to the heart of the cosmos always leaves me wondering if The House on the Borderland has a single, unifying idea behind its various, brilliantly weird episodes, or is just a collection of Hodgson’s wilder imaginings. As well as the swine-things and the time journey, there’s a curtailed afterlife love story, as the Recluse has a perhaps visionary, perhaps extra-dimensional, meeting with his lost, dead love — and this is another jarring moment, because at this point it’s revealed that most of this section of the manuscript is missing. It’s almost modernistic in effect, as we experience the Recluse’s feelings of loss through having the relevant portion of the story itself missing, apart from hints and echoes.

Lovecraft loved the book (though he couldn’t help squirming at its “few touches of commonplace sentimentality”), but came to it too late for it to really be an influence. And I feel that Hodgson is far more of a gut writer than one like Lovecraft, who had a definite outlook and philosophy. (I almost wonder if the book didn’t kick off after a fevered reading of Wells’s The Time Machine, which has the same mix of beast-men (the Morlocks) and a trip to the end of time. Only, Hodgson takes things to far weirder extremes.) Still, it seems, from his author’s note at the start, that The House on the Borderland has some unifying meaning:

“The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

The start of the novel, with its nightly assaults by semi-human swine-things, is chock full of classic Gothic imagery of the dark subconscious: a bottomless Pit, an unexplored cellar, a trapdoor opening onto unimaginable depths, an overpowering rush of water, the swine-things themselves, and the fact that they don’t seem to be seen by the Recluse’s sister, the one person with whom he lives. Plus there’s the lure of the shadow-self, and that need to stare into one’s personal Nietzschean Abyss:

“Sometimes, I have an inexplicable desire to go down to the great cellar, open the trap, and gaze into the impenetrable, spray-damp darkness. At times, the desire becomes almost overpowering, in its intensity.”

The novel feels like a wholesale reaction to all the nineteenth century’s upendings of religious certainties: Darwin’s linking of man to the animals (the swine-things), the realisation that the sun must one day die, even the germ theory of disease (in the way the dog’s eerily glowing wound infects a cut on the Recluse’s arm), plus the gradual replacement of a Christian Heaven by an astronomical cosmos of suns, planets, and nebulae.

Ace Books (1962) edition, art by Ed Emshwiller

But I think the thing that unifies Hodgson’s novel is clear in its title. This house stands on a borderland, and so it is the house, by being where it is, that unites the various weird realities it touches. Living in it, the Recluse is living between the bestial (attacks by the swine-things) and the spiritual (his visions of his dead love in her seashore afterlife); also between life and death (the gods that surround the house’s visionary twin in the Arena seem to represent “a state of life-in-death”); and between Heaven and Hell (the house has “Little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames”), or hope and despair, in the way the narrator’s connection with his lost love at the Sea of Sleep, and his apprehension of the Green Sun as some sort of ultimate intelligence, are set against the swine-things, the beast-headed gods of the Plain of Silence, the Dark Sun that twins the Green Sun, and the Dark Nebula (“a very hell-fog”), which seems to contain souls trapped in agony (“A face, human in its outline; but so tortured with woe, that I stared, aghast. I had not thought there was such sorrow, as I saw there.”)

These extremes of Heaven and Hell, hope and despair, are part of a package. You can’t have one without at least risking the other. Or so the Recluse’s dead love tells him, at one point:

“Strangely, she warned me; warned me passionately against this house; begged me to leave it; but admitted, when I questioned her, that she could not have come to me, had I been elsewhere.”

William Hope Hodgson

And if it’s the house that unifies the various elements in Hodgson’s weird novel, then it’s not much of a leap to taking that house as a metaphor for the human condition. Its cellars are the outermost regions of the unconscious, whose key the narrator keeps with him at all times (though he only, at first, goes down there to store and retrieve wine, inebriation being one way into the realms of the unconscious). Below these are far vaster, perhaps limitless depths. The Recluse spends most of his time, though, in his study, a room which symbolises the intellect. It’s this room that has the weakest external door, and where the swine-things get closest to breaking in. As a final indicator that the house and the man who lives in it are one, it’s only when the Recluse’s body is invaded by the giant green swine-beast’s infection that the swine-thing(s) manage to get inside the house.

It seems to me that, though The House on the Borderland’s depiction of humankind as standing on the edge of all sorts of weird realms is undoubtedly cosmic, it’s not as despairing as Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Hodgson isn’t saying, as Lovecraft did, that humankind is utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but he is saying that it’s possible, in such enormous and strange spaces, to be infinitely lonely:

“…I realised, despairingly, that the world might wander forever, through that enormous night. For a while, the unwholesome idea filled me, with a sensation of overbearing desolation; so that I could have cried like a child.”

But this could just be a depiction of the Recluse’s own particular type of Hell. He seems to have become locked in loss since the death of his loved one. He still, for instance, lives with a woman (his sister), but appears to have absolutely no emotional or intellectual connection with her (“I have made a rule never to speak to her about the strange things that happen in this great, old house”). Similarly, after his dog dies, he acquires another one, but can’t bring himself to take it into the house, even when it’s being attacked at night by the massive green swine-thing. His one physical contact with it results in his own infection.

The House on the Borderland is undoubtedly a classic of weird fiction. I still find the central time-travel section too slow-moving and abstract, and the Doctor Who fan in me would love to read a version that was only about the swine-things assailing the house at night, but perhaps it’s the unforgiving strangeness of the book’s jarring shifts in narrative direction that really encapsulate its meaning and power: we’re all of us living in houses on many strange and disquieting borderlands, and had better watch out.

The House on the Borderland is available at Project Gutenberg. The William Hope Hodgson blog contains a lot of information about the writer and his works.