The Shadow by E H Visiak

After The Haunted Island (1910) and Medusa (1929), E H Visiak’s only other substantial work of weird fiction was the novella The Shadow, which was published in 1936 as part of a fat, budget volume (560 pages for 2 shillings and 6 pence) called Crimes, Creeps and Thrills (“Forty-Five New Stories of Detection, Horror and Adventure by Eminent Modern Authors”), with no listed editor, but online sources have John Gawsworth in that role. (And he is the co-author of two tales in the book under his own name, and one under his real name Fytton Armstrong, which feels like confirmation.)

The Shadow is a departure from Visiak’s previous two novels, in that it’s contemporary, and not a sea adventure. It’s told in two parts. In the first, the main character Edmund Shear is fourteen years old, and is spending his school holiday at the house of a fellow pupil, Anthony Layton. The two aren’t exactly friends, as Anthony’s main means of relating to people seems to be mockery and contempt, with the occasional retreat into self-pity when things go wrong. Edmund’s father is a painter of seascapes, and Edmund himself is obsessed with the sea (“His mind ran much upon nautical imaginations”), making him possibly a stand-in for Visiak himself.

In the room where Edmund sleeps is a portrait of one of Anthony’s ancestors, Hamond Layton, who was “a sort of pirate—a smuggler, anyway”, and was hanged for it. The portrait affects Edmund profoundly, as though the long-dead Hamond has perhaps, at moments, started to possess him.

One of eight uncredited illustrations to Visiak’s story.

An initially confusing array of other characters is introduced, including an old sailor known as “Jerusalem John” who actually knew Hamond Layton, a ship-owner called Archie Anderson, a Mr Jervons who spends a lot of his time at Anthony’s home (Anthony’s mother is a widow) and is the main male influence — though “an embittering, belittling, restraining influence” — on the young Anthony’s life, a “prophetess” of the New Idealism called Mrs Evans, her granddaughter Margaret Conyers who writes poetry, and finally a painter, Reginald Rudderford Thurston, who is described by one of the other characters as “a monster in human habit, a psychological octopus”, a vivacious but violent, sly and domineering and perhaps supernaturally-possessed man, “thrilling with ravening spite”.

So many of the relationships between these characters are about various forms of domination. Anthony tries to bully those he perceives as within his range (Edmund and Margaret, neither of whom gives in). Anthony in turn is domineered by the sarcastic Mr Jervons, who has clearly installed himself in the Laytons’ home and is living off it. Mrs Evans so believes in the truths of her New Idealism (whose main tenet is that there is no such thing as evil, only ignorance) that she bosses everyone around (“a look of complacent domination in her eyes”), assuming they’ll come round to her way of thinking and thank her for it. But worst of all is the almost Devil-like Thurston, who seems to have a supernatural insight into others’ secrets, and revels in manipulation, bullying, and generally being extremely unpleasant, and whose one redeeming virtue is that he does it so excessively he is clearly the villain of the piece, even if it’s never clear what he’s up to and why.

The second half of The Shadow leaps forward to Edmund as a young man, having just inherited Mr Anderson’s shipping firm. He returns to the scene of the first half of the book (near Lowestoft) and experiences some sort of breakdown. Ever since encountering the portrait of Hamond Layton (which he now owns), he has moments when the old pirate/smuggler seems to take him over, turning him angry and domineering. In the midst of his breakdown, he’s taken in by his old headmaster, Mr Atwell, who speculates on what might be going on with the young man, and so provides the story’s only lucid explanation. It seems that the smuggler Hamond Layton was, at one point, presented with a choice, either to continue his life of crime, or marry a woman who loved him. He made the wrong choice and was hanged for it, but perhaps his lingering essence is seeking redemption through the young Edmund. But to do this, Edmund has to learn to tame the angry, domineering aspect of Hamond-the-pirate, before he can find love (with poetess Margaret). This makes a sort of sense of most of what’s going on in the novella.

But it raises the question of what the villainous Thurston’s role is. At one point, Thurston is said to be “a representation, in some way, of Hamond Layton”, but if so it’s only of his darker nature. However, Edmund is already battling that darker nature within himself, so why have another character represent the same aspect? It seems more that Thurston is a (or even the) Devil, taking it on himself to try and drive Edmund to the same fate as Hamond — a life of crime, followed by hanging. And certainly Thurston takes a Devil-like joy in sowing discord and misery all around him. Anthony Layton has fallen particularly under his spell, and Thurston urges him to seduce Margaret, to take her potentially redeeming influence away from Edmund.

If one of the story’s main themes is the dominance of some people over others — as well as all those domineering types such as Mr Jervons, Thurston and Mrs Evans, there’s the “shadow” of Hamond Layton’s supernatural dominance over Edmund — a secondary theme is how this domineering impulse, in the male characters at least, is tied to sex.

We’re told early on that the boy “Edmund’s absorbing interest in nautical things had kept his thoughts away from sexual aspects.” At one point, after having met Margaret for the first time, he has a particularly troubling dream, which implies that “nautical imaginations” are, for him, a sublimation of his adolescent sexuality:

“…a woman had changed into a ship; and the ship — which was such a fine one! — had to be sunk for it to become a woman again…”

(Which is perhaps also linked to Hamond Layton, who named his ship Barbara, after the woman who loved him.)

Mr Jervons and the adult Anthony Layton are both casually predatory on women. It all seems to tie in with Visiak’s belief that the Eden-like state of childhood comes to an end with adolescence purely because of the introduction of sexuality — though, here, it seems to be redeemable by love. (Mr Anderson, the main adult male character who isn’t domineering, was in love with a woman who died before they could marry. Edmund and Margaret’s love, when it’s admitted, seems to be the redemption both for Edmund and the shadow of Hamond Layton.)

Mrs Evans’ New Idealism, though probably satirising many beliefs both then and now, is perhaps most notable for its idea that there is no such thing as evil. But Visiak is clearly presenting us with evil in the form of the barely-human Thurston. Visiak, I’d say, believes in real evil.

The Shadow is quite a confusing novel. The opening introduces a lot of characters, all of whom seem to be basically unpleasant and domineering in various ways, painting a very dour picture of the world of human relations. Even by the end, things aren’t very clear, and if it wasn’t for that one chapter where Mr Atwell speculates to himself on what might be going on, I’d probably have no clue as to what Visiak had intended. Take out the supernatural influence of the “shadow” of Hamond Layton, and you’d have the story of a young man with troubled moments of dark, almost hallucinatory depression and bouts of anger, perhaps rooted in a sexuality that can no longer safely be sublimated into boyish thoughts about boats. Perhaps another read might make it all clear… But perhaps not.

However, further clues might be gleaned from Edmund’s speculations at one point, which strays into the territory of cosmic horror. Is it being put forward as a valid interpretation of Visiak’s supernatural world, or is it just a throwaway — if frightening — thought?:

“Perhaps superhuman beings used us as we used animals, for food and work — a different sort of food and work.”

Visiak had another tale in the same anthology, a collaboration with John Gawsworth called “The Uncharted Islands”, that is, again, a sea-adventure, but with no supernatural element.

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The Claw by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

The Claw (first published simply as Claw in 1983, as by Jay Ramsey, for Richard Bachman-like reasons) could be said to form the middle of a thematic trilogy of early novels from Campbell, about parenthood: The Nameless (1981) is about the sheer anxiety of what, out there in the world, might prey on a child (mad cults, kidnappers and killers); The Influence (1988) is about the generational influences within a family that might prey on a child (mental illness and passed-on cycles of psychological abuse); The Claw, meanwhile, is about the physical abuse a child might suffer from their own parents. Like The Nameless, The Claw employs a zero-subtlety approach in using the supernatural to enact its theme. In the former novel, an evil cult kidnaps the main character’s child and inducts her into a life of ritualised, nihilistic murder; in The Claw, meanwhile, there’s an evil artefact (which belongs to an evil cult) that causes parents to have murderous impulses towards their child. The Claw of the title, then, is like a supernatural version of Hitchcock’s maguffin. For Hitchcock, the maguffin was the thing — the secret formula, the microfilm, whatever — that both the baddies and the goodies want and the protagonist has, which causes a lot of chasing around. Here, the Claw is the thing that unleashes in its main characters what, in some real people, doesn’t need any supernatural cause at all. The advantage of a supernatural maguffin, though, is it doesn’t require any deeper motivation for that behaviour — and, when it gets destroyed, the behaviour goes away. Not so in real life.

1983 Futura PB

The story opens in rare territory for Campbell: overseas. In Nigeria to research his latest spy thriller, Alan Knight meets a British anthropologist, David Marlowe, who offers to drive him to the airport when he returns home. Once there, he asks a favour. The post from Lagos being what it was, he wants Alan to take a parcel back to England, and deliver it to the Foundation for African Studies. Alan agrees, and (he’s a bit of an idiot, considering he writes spy novels) only finds out when he’s passing through UK customs that it contains a potential weapon: a four-taloned metal claw. Fortunately, he’s let through, and that weekend, the Claw remains at the coastal Norfolk home he shares with his wife Liz and six-year-old daughter Anna. But he soon makes the trip to the Foundation in London — only to find he’s unaccountably left the thing at home. There’s worse to come, though. The Foundation’s Dr Hetherington tells him that David Marlowe has brutally, and for no apparent reason, murdered his wife and daughter — and that the Claw is an artefact belonging to a cult known as the Leopard Men, whose initiation rite requires its members to murder a young girl of their own blood. Incensed he was duped into letting such a repugnant thing into his home, Alan goes back, only to find it has been stolen. But its influence has started to take hold: suddenly unable to write, he starts getting tetchy with Anna…

The Claw’s effect isn’t only limited to the Knight family. A local man with a childlike mentality is found having killed, with his bare hands, one of the goats that graze the cliff near the Knights’ house. (Which inevitably sets up the idea of victims as scapegoats, but this doesn’t seem to have been developed.) Meanwhile in the Knight household itself, Alan’s growing hostility towards his daughter gets worse until he receives a phone call from Nigeria. Isaac Banjo, a translator at the University of Lagos who helped Marlowe in his researches into the Leopard Men, knows what’s going on, feels guilty about his part in it, and wants to help. Alan, though, has to come to Nigeria to put an end to things. This he does, but that leaves Liz alone with Anna, and Liz is also beginning to fall under the influence of the still-missing Claw.

St Martin’s Press US HB, 1983

I have to say that, though Ramsey Campbell is one of my favourite writers, this is not a book of his I’d recommend, unless (like me) you’re intent on reading all of his novels. And usually, with a writer whose work I know, I can still get something out of a lesser novel by considering it in terms of the development of their themes, or of their craft, and so on. And perhaps part of the problem is that I couldn’t do that for most of The Claw. The characters just don’t have the sort of depth Campbell usually endows them with. And this is particularly notable in a novel which deals with such a difficult central theme. Parents with violent impulses towards their children are repugnant as characters, and a lot has to be done to make it worth spending time with them. When Alan and Liz begin looking on their very young and vulnerable daughter with irritation and worse — “Liz watched her, loathing her babyishness. How could she once have loved and been proud of this child?” — they become very thin as characters, with no self-examination or awareness (necessarily so, I suppose, because of the demands of the plot). And there are too many chapters, it seems, in the middle of The Claw where we’re in the presence of Liz and Anna, and Liz is on the verge of violence towards Anna, and Anna is terrified, and nothing much else is going on. There’s one moment where I thought the novel was going to start engaging with its own themes in a more explicit way, when the hippie-ish barman, Jimmy, at one points says: “The absolute authority of parents is fascism in the home.” But this line isn’t examined any further, and that’s the last we hear of Jimmy as a character.

The strand of the story where Alan is out there in Nigeria investigating the cult — and investigations like that would normally make a novel, for me — are sketchy and unconvincing. (Campbell’s chapters set in Lagos are excellent evocations, I think — though I’ve never been there, and, it turns out, neither had Campbell. But when Alan and Isaac head into the jungle, it all starts to feel like low-budget scenery.) To top it all, the Leopard Men aren’t that interesting as a cult (certainly not as nihilistically evocative as the previous book’s Nameless). They feel a bit under-thought out, even generic, a bit obvious. Africa — Leopard Men. Marlowe — Heart of Darkness. Evil, cursed artefact from foreign shores. Even worse: “There is a legend told throughout Africa that the last Leopard Man will come from a far land and destroy the power of the claw.”

1992 Tor cover, art by Tim O’Brien

There may be a reason for this. (There are probably many — such as how difficult the subject must have been to write about.) Campbell says in his afterword (appended in 1992, when the novel was reissued under his own name) that after it was initially submitted, the manuscript went through some revisions. One of these was to add chapters from young Anna’s point of view, something he says he didn’t include in the first version. And these are the chapters where the book really comes alive. Faced with suddenly hostile, even alienating parents, Anna is the character in this novel who is allowed depth, and of course it’s a depth that’s all about sheer terror:

“She couldn’t tell anyone about mummy, it was too horrible a thing to say, so much so that it paralysed her mouth. The more she tried to say it, the less able she was… She was trapped inside herself.”

Or, my favourite line:

“The stranger who pretended to be mummy was made up of teeth and nails.”

When it came out in the US as Night of the Claw, Kirkus Reviews said it was “an overlong but steady, creepy, discomforting chiller—thanks to a subdued style, shifting viewpoints (including that of confused, terrified Anna), and richly detailed backgrounds.” Perhaps my own reaction is down to knowing Campbell could do so much better, as he does in Incarnate (where parental abuse isn’t a major theme, but is part of at least one of the characters’ stories), The Influence, and his later novel The House on Nazareth Hill. I can’t help wondering if his adding chapters from Anna’s point of view aren’t something of a breakthrough moment in his craft (even though he’d written short stories from a child’s point of view before, in Dark Companions — though that collection only came out the previous year.) Certainly, the final chapters, where Anna escapes from her increasingly hostile mother and flees across a confusing coastal landscape at night to take refuge in a house that proves to have been the scene of an even worse Claw-inspired act of parental violence, is pure Campbell: the nightmare journey, and in particular the nightmare exploration of an empty-but-not-empty house.

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The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

Sphere 2007 PB

After the first three Books of Blood came out, both Barker and his publishers knew he needed to present the world with a novel. His initial idea was for something Sphere thought too fantasy-ish for a man they were intent on marketing as a horror writer, so he put that idea to one side (it would eventually become Weaveworld), and set about writing something more traditionally in the horror mould. Initially titled Mamoulian’s Game, it came out in 1985 as The Damnation Game.

The novel opens in war-ravaged Warsaw, in which “the thief” hears about a legendary man who never loses at cards. Seeking him out among the rubble and destruction proves tricky, but it seems this man has been waiting for him… The story then leaps forward to the present day, where Marty Strauss is serving time for robbery in Wandsworth Prison. He’s offered the chance of an early release, if he goes to work for Joseph Whitehead, the super-rich head of a worldwide pharmaceutical empire. Whitehead, it seems, is expecting trouble, and needs a bodyguard he can trust — and a man with gambling debts (which is what drove Marty to crime), is just the sort of person he needs. But when the trouble comes, it’s in the form of Mamoulian, a man possessed of supernatural power, including the ability to raise and control the dead. This is the card-player that Whitehead (“the thief”) met and played in Warsaw, in a moment that started him on the path to being the head of a massive corporate empire. But Mamoulian considers there’s a debt to be repaid, and has come to claim it.

Berkley Books, 2021 edition

The first thing to say about Barker’s first novel, I think, is how naturally he seems to have taken to novel-writing after the (admittedly long) short stories of the Books of Blood. Barker is focused in every scene, taking time to bring out of every character and situation some special detail, as though he’s relishing each moment like a fine wine. That said, this is a long novel, with surprisingly few characters. Perhaps an ingrained habit from short stories and plays with a limited troupe of players kept him from sprawling into the sort of large cast you’d expect in a longer book?

Whenever he’s spoken or written about The Damnation Game, Barker has made it clear what its core inspiration was: “At the heart of the novel is the story of Faust.” In particular, it seems what fascinated him was how a modern version of the Faust story, shorn of its religious underpinnings (he characterised the original Faust as being a Renaissance man punished by a Medieval world) would play out.

Sphere 1988 PB, art by Steve Crisp

I have to admit, though, I’m not so sure the Faust aspect really stands out for me. There are two things you really need for a Faust story: a Devil, and a Pact. As the novel goes on, instead of, for instance, Mamoulian developing into a truly Mephistophelean figure, he gets watered down. Initially threatening and mysterious, the more we learn about him, the more merely human he’s revealed to be. He’s no Devil, just a man who has some magician’s tricks, and what’s more is a very old man, with “depleted energies”. He’s not some all-powerful archetypal Evil come to claim a soul, he’s tired and he doesn’t make it clear for a long time exactly what he wants. Because, it turns out, there’s also no real pact, either. Whatever Mamoulian has turned up to claim, it wasn’t agreed by him and Whitehead. (It certainly wasn’t signed in blood.) It turns out, in fact, more to be something Mamoulian assumed he’d be getting but didn’t, so he starts to come across as more petulant and resentful than full of the sort of Judgement of Hell you’d get in a Faust story. Barker has said his modern version of Faust is about a world in which “Every man is his own Mephistopheles”, but I don’t really see how that works with this narrative. Perhaps it’s simply because Barker would go on to create a far more effective and powerful Faustian story in The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser.

The strongest theme in The Damnation Game, for me, was something quite different. It popped up in the first paragraph, with a sentence describing war-torn Warsaw:

“Mountains of rubble — still nurturing the dead like bulbs ready to sprout as the spring weather warmed…”

This struck me as evoking the first section of T S Eliot’s The Waste-Land, which is shot through with the contrast between plant-life reviving in the Spring, and the un-reviving dead of the Great War, most explicitly in the lines:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

The novel focuses on Marty, brought out of prison (a kind of death) into the new life of the outside world once more. He even thinks, at one point: “I’ve been dead, and I’m coming back to life.” But The Damnation Game is dealing not in the dead coming back to life, but a sort of false resurrection of various kinds. Marty is not fully alive again, because his job for Whitehead keeps him for the most part in Whitehead’s (luxurious, but fenced-in) estate. (Whose most telling feature, perhaps, is an abandoned dovecote: an empty space abandoned by love.) It’s made clear Marty isn’t his own man, merely a living body there for Whitehead’s use:

“You’re my property, Strauss. You concern yourself with me, or you get the Hell out of here tomorrow morning. Me! … Not yourself. Forget yourself.”

1985 HB, art by Geoff Shields

The novel is full of characters existing in states of living death. Sometimes literally, as in the case of Breer, whom Mamoulian claims from a death by suicide so as to use him as his agent in the world. Others more figuratively, as in Whitehead’s daughter Carys, with her addiction to heroin, or Whitehead himself, retreating from the world out of fear of Mamoulian, and Mamoulian as well, fastidious and nihilistic, a walking emptiness, yet too afraid of death to leave this life he seems to despise. Marty at one point finds himself infused with “unwelcome thoughts of lying face up in the ground, dead perhaps, but anticipating resurrection.” But this isn’t a resurrection type of world, not with Mamoulian and Whitehead in charge. It’s a living-death world, always holding off the first step towards a true resurrection.

Although it’s unfailing readable, I felt The Damnation Game began to lose its initial focus from the mid-point on, and I place the blame firmly with the character of Mamoulian. It’s at the halfway point the much-anticipated meeting between Whitehead and Mamoulian occurs — the moment Whitehead has been dreading, because he knows it will lead to his death. Only, it doesn’t. Mamoulian turns up, says he will come again, and leaves. Later, he comes again, kills a few secondary characters, and leaves again. The second half of the novel is a series of confrontations with Mamoulian where nothing gets resolved, and for no clear reason. And perhaps nothing gets resolved because it’s not clear for a long time just what Mamoulian wants.

1990 Penguin edition

Mamoulian lacks the sort of clearly-defined meaning Barker is usually so good at giving his antagonists. He’s wonderful at creating larger-than-life, loquacious monsters who expound their philosophies of excess — of experience, pain, power. (Or, as in the case of, say, Rawhead Rex, are so blatantly symbolic they don’t have to explain themselves.) Mamoulian never does this. It’s only after a while we get a glimpse of what his inner world is like, and it turns out to be a foggy world of nihilism, asceticism, and absence. It’s not even a fierce nihilism, it’s all rather tired. Mamoulian is clearly at the end of his life, fed up with it all, and doesn’t make for a very powerful figure — he just keeps lingering. Even his title — he calls himself “the Last European” — comes across more as writerly bravura on Barker’s part than having any real meaning. This makes confrontations with Mamoulian difficult — just what is it you’re confronting? What’s the ideological battle that needs to be fought while the supernatural shenanigans are going on?

I think you can find an opposite to Mamoulian in the novel, but it’s not spelled out. There’s an intensity of living, a relishing of experience, as with Marty when he’s finally let out on his own for a night from Whitehead’s estate:

“He felt real. God in Heaven, that was it. At last he was able to operate in the world again, affect it, shape it.”

The “game” of the novel’s title, perhaps, isn’t so much about the rules of what’s going on, as the feeling of being a player in the world, being part of it all, taking your chances, getting your hands dirty. (Something the fastidious Mamoulian doesn’t want to do. This, perhaps, is at the root of his ability to always win at cards — that chance-phobic ultra-control of his smacks more of anxiety than a Devil’s power.)

1988 Charter Books PB

And the one power Marty and Carys can wield against Mamoulian, it turns out, is the connection they feel. Both Whitehead and Mamoulian are powerful figures, locked by their very power into their own solipsistic worlds, able to hold off what they fear, and so become all the more imprisoned by that fear. It’s the more human characters, with their vulnerability and need to connect, that overcome the powerful, in their own small way.

As I say, The Damnation Game remains readable, but I don’t think it has the sort of lasting meaning it might have had if Mamoulian had been a figure who really stood for something — as, say, “the Hell Priest” (whom we all know as Pinhead) does in Barker’s next piece of long-form fiction.

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