The Rift by Nina Allan

On Saturday 16th July, 1994, 17-year-old Julie Rouane goes out for the evening and doesn’t return. Although no body is found in the ensuing search, it’s eventually assumed a local plumber, Steven Jimson, who is found guilty of several other murders of young women in the Warrington area, killed her. Julie’s three-years-younger sister Selena gets on with her life, but fails to fully engage with it:

“College had seemed pointless – or rather she hadn’t seemed good enough. The idea of selecting a future, rather than simply accepting the future that was offered, seemed – what? Selfish, inconsiderate, immoral even.”

But then, twenty years later, Selena gets a call from Julie. She has, it seems, been living and working in nearby Manchester for some time and wants to explain what happened to her. But when she does, finally, explain, her story isn’t about local serial killer Steven Jimson, but involves her being mysteriously transported to the distant planet of Tristane.

(The section of the novel where Julie tells her story is called A Voyage to Arcturus, and I admit it was to see if there was any influence from David Lindsay’s novel that I read Nina Allan’s The Rift. But that section opens with a school essay by Julie on Peter Weir’s film of Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, and it’s Joan, not David, that’s the influence on Allan’s novel. If David Lindsay’s interplanetary journey is to be evoked at all, it’s by way of ironic contrast: his Maskull journeys to distant Tormance to return transformed; Julie travels only to further lose an already lost part of herself.)

One of the problems with Julie’s story is that Tristane, the alien planet she finds herself on, is almost wilfully unexotic. For a start, she doesn’t get there by spaceship or some sort of technological transportation beam, she just wanders round a lake near Warrington till she finds she’s not on Earth anymore, but at an identical lake on Tristane. She’s found by a woman from that planet who instantly recognises her. It turns out, to this Tristane woman, Julie isn’t from Earth at all, but was born on Tristane and got lost from there, and now she’s back. The Tristane woman is called Cally, and her husband is Noah — very Earth-like names. One of them is described as wearing a parka, a specific type of coat which of course evokes a specific, non-alien image. This air of mundanity could, of course, be down to the fact that all this is being translated, for our benefit, into English. But the place-names on Tristane sound to me as though we’re being invited to believe they were deliberately, randomly, and somewhat carelessly made up: Tristane is in “the Suur System, in the Aww Galaxy” (the Aww Galaxy?), whose cities and regions include Fiby, Galena, the Wrssin Forest, Marillienseet (which comes short after Julie mentions having listened to Marillion on the day of her disappearance), Clarimond, Davis (Davis?), and “the vast underground metropolis of Staerbrucke”, which immediately made me think of Starbucks, and wonder if Julie hadn’t found herself staring at a discarded coffee cup by the lake near Warrington instead of journeying to a distant planet.

There are, though, two decidedly different things about Tristane. One is that siblings there are allowed to marry (though it’s socially frowned upon, and any offspring are expected to be genetically modified to prevent harmful mutations). The other is that Tristane has recently cut off all contact with its sister-planet Dea, and though there is no official reason for this, a bestselling book tells the story of a creature found on Dea called the creef, which plants its eggs in human victims, who proceed to walk around for several months becoming slowly depersonalised before being devoured from within.

Both of these elements can be read as being in some way symbolic of sibling relationships, either of being too close (sibling marriage) or too distant (separated sister-planets Tristane and Dea), with the added threat of loss of self in the second. Is, then, Julie’s story actually an attempt to communicate something about her relationship with her sister?

coverI’ve covered a number of lost-woman-returns-from-Faerie novels on this blog, including Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012), J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920), and Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless (1981), as well as some in which the lost person doesn’t return, as with Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) (where’s it’s a man who disappears) and Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012). The point in all of these novels is that, although the characters in them want to know what happened, and try to prove or disprove the returnee’s story either way (which never works), the novels themselves don’t care about the facts, but are about the experience of loss. With Joyce, for instance, it’s how all the promise of a young life can be derailed by the loss of someone upon whom that promise was built, while with Barrie it’s about how loss spreads out to affect, and infect, everyone involved.

Loss permeates The Rift, too, and not just around Julie. The book opens with an episode from Selena’s past, in which she befriends an older man, a maths teacher who keeps koi carp in a pond in his garden, as a memory of a woman he once loved in Japan. When it becomes known, locally, that this man left his previous job under suspicion of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil, local youths break into his garden and pour disinfectant into the pond. There’s a sense, from this point on, of all of us — humans as well as fish — being just as vulnerable to destructive and incomprehensible cosmic forces that will take away all we care about in an instant:

“…the koi carp, how lovely they had been, how vulnerable to harm. The way we all are, here in our fish bowl. The whole stupid lot of us.”

Later, it’s revealed Julie also had a relationship with an older person, a woman this time, but also a teacher. This, and other parallels, infect all the narratives in this novel, and it’s a novel made up of many narratives, fragments of narratives, and documents: school essays by Julie, an excerpt from a crime novel based on her case, the story of a young woman who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs, encyclopedia entries about fish (which I confess I skipped after a while), the diary entry of a xenometallurgist. It starts to feel like one of those “terminal documents” from Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition that are used to both represent and attempt to resolve trauma, and which find echoes in other crisis narratives such as Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or Eliot’s The Waste Land. The Rift doesn’t quite have the same intensity as those, and I could never quite convince myself the switching from one narrative to another wasn’t seeking to represent the trauma at the heart of Julie’s situation, so much as avoid revealing the truth about her story. Though, having written that, I realise that being unable to face the truth is another aspect of trauma, too.

But it’s certainly the relationship between the sisters that’s at the heart of this novel. As children they used to play a game in which they pretended odd people were “aliens”, and the grown-up Julie at one point says “Remember when we were small, Selena, the worlds we made?” Is Tristane, then, an invitation to make another world, only not for play, this time, but to find common ground in the face of so much that is incomprehensible? Even before her disappearance, Julie and her sister were drifting apart. (And Julie also says, at one point, “I was never close to my sister Selena… I used to think I was, but I wasn’t, not even when we were kids”, which perhaps undermines my argument.)

But what this aspect of the novel most reminds me of is my take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, if you’re caught in a world that has no solidity, the only thing to do is find someone to cling to, even if they’re half made up of lies themselves. Shared experiences bind people together, just as traumatic, isolated experiences draw them apart. And the world, to Julie, is exactly of this type:

“Nothing is like you think it is, Selena. Nothing at all.”

She doesn’t even know herself anymore:

“Once the truth of what had happened to me began to seep through, a rift seemed to open in my mind, a rift between the universe I appeared to be living in and the one I understood.”

She doesn’t return from Tristane (as Maskull/Nightspore does from Tormance) invested with hidden knowledge, but instead with a black hole inside her of loss and confusion. Sifting through the evidence makes no sense, and it’s only when Selena decides to believe in her — even despite some confusing for-and-against evidence — that Julie can perhaps start to be real to herself once more.

I’m not sure I completely got this book, and I have to say I found its mixing of many narratives to be somewhat draining rather than (as with Garner and Ballard) intensifying. But it’s one of those books that, having read it and looking back on it, it turns out to be more satisfying than it was while I was reading it, which often happens with me with difficult novels.

I still don’t get the thing about the fish, though.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

My cover to the Bookship hardback

David Lindsay’s first novel, which he called Nightspore in Tormance but his publishers renamed to the slightly more comprehensible (if bland) A Voyage to Arcturus, came out one hundred years ago this month. I first heard of it thanks to Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, which I’d bought because I’d grown dissatisfied with the sort of genre fare I was finding in my local bookshops, and was wondering if I shouldn’t give up reading fantasy altogether. I decided if I couldn’t find something in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s list to re-enthuse me, I’d look for a different genre to read.

Their summary of A Voyage to Arcturus left me somewhat mystified as to what the book was actually about, and certainly didn’t sell it to me:

Arcturus itself is not an ingratiating work; the shelf it occupies is a short one, reserved for titles more often to be found in lists than in reader’s pockets. The message it spells out is no comforting one.”

I’d probably never have read it had I not found it in a secondhand bookshop with that lovely Bob Pepper cover and thought “Might as well.” Even then, it sat on my shelf for a while before I actually picked it up and gave it a go.

Bob Pepper’s artwork for the Ballantine paperback of A Voyage to Arcturus

At first, I continued to be nonplussed. It seemed a little old-fashioned in style, and along with the freedom of imagination you often find in novels written before their genre conventions gel, it had that quaint lack of scientific or logical consistency that comes from somebody building a world before the idea of world-building set in. It was a strange book, yet not with the poetic strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith, or the uncanny strangeness of Lovecraft. If anything it seemed, stylistically, to be doing its best not to seem strange, but rather to present all its odd characters, sights, and events in as matter-of-fact a manner as any mundane travelogue:

Before many minutes he was able to distinguish the shapes and colours of the flying monsters. They were not birds, but creatures with long, snake-like bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were of bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow. They were flying, without haste, but in a somewhat ominous fashion, straight towards them. He could make out a long, thin spike projecting from each of the heads.

“They are shrowks,” explained Oceaxe at last. “If you want to know their intention, I’ll tell you. To make a meal of us. First of all their spikes will pierce us, and then their mouths, which are really suckers, will drain us dry of blood. . . . pretty thoroughly too; there are no half-measures with shrowks. They are toothless beasts, so don’t eat flesh.”

But then something happened. Pushing on through the book (more for the sake of finishing it than anything else), I became aware that some inner part of me, some second, more discerning reader — my inner Nightspore to the outer Maskull — was really caught up in it. It seemed to be saying: Something is going on in this book, and I have no idea what! I finished it in a rush, because I’d suddenly realised I hadn’t been paying it the attention it deserved, and I needed to start reading it again, this time making notes.

Various covers, art by (clockwise from top left): Peter A Jones, Ron Miller, …, Florence Magnin, Karl Stephan, Kato Naoyuki, Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Jean Delville (design by John Coulthart)

In a sense, I’m still doing that. I’ve re-read Arcturus countless times, and each time I feel the need to read it again, paying still closer attention — or I feel the need to plough through the rest of Lindsay’s novels in succession, to try and grasp them all as one thing in my head and this time work it out. (I’ve even wondered if it’s not part of some “Lindsay effect”, a trick of that matter-of-fact literary style that leaves you constantly feeling you’ve almost-but-not-quite grasped something utterly intriguing.)

Soon after I first got on the internet, I started a website dedicated to Lindsay, mostly because I’d managed to acquire Colin Wilson, J B Pick, and E H Visiak’s book, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay — for £3! — and, feeling privileged to have got it, wanted to share the information inside it, feeling there had to be other people out there as hungry for information on Lindsay as I was. At first I added my own commentaries about the books, but soon removed those sections, feeling that the more I read Lindsay’s work, the less I knew about it. I kept The Violet Apple site (named after a posthumously published Lindsay novel which was the first book I bought online — thanks to Blackwell’s rare book search service, in fact) strictly factual for a while, apart from one article (“Four Approaches to A Voyage to Arcturus”), which was more about how the book defied any single interpretation than an attempt at offering an understanding of it.

(Another thing that has shifted in my view of the book, and Lindsay’s work as a whole, is its darkness. Initially encountering Lindsay and Arcturus, you can get caught up in that darkness — after all, it’s a novel about world-rejection, where only Pain can redeem you from all the terrible pleasures of life; and meanwhile Lindsay himself, after a lack of success as an author, died quite unpleasantly from self-neglect. But the more I’ve read it, the more I’ve seen that actually it’s a book shot through with a vitality that defies the darkness, and seeks something better. With Arcturus, the darkness is not the end point, but the beginning, and the impulse behind it is one of uncompromisingly seeking something better.)

Ad from The Times, September 1920

I like how open to interpretation A Voyage to Arcturus is, even while it has an evident meaning. Yes, it’s a gnostic text, but also it’s an exploration of a certain sort of psychological state that (in my view) is more fundamental than any religious or philosophical outlook: if you are not your authentic self (if you are Maskull, as opposed to Nightspore), then the world will seem like Crystalman’s prison, and it will be hard, dangerous work trying to untangle yourself from it. (Lindsay’s friend, E H Visiak, read the book in completely Christian terms; Colin Wilson read it as an allegory of consciousness; J B Pick saw it as vision.)

Most recently, I’ve come to see A Voyage to Arcturus as an incredibly rich archetype of the quest for truth. (And I think it’s in the book’s archetypal, or mythical, structure that its power lies — it certainly wasn’t its ideas that grabbed me on that first read, but something far more instinctual, mythical, musical even.)

Romanian edition

The protagonist Maskull begins the book not really invested in any search for truth as such, but once he gets caught up in it, he goes through all the possible stages of being deceived, wrong-footed, sidetracked, aggrandised, defeated, converted, bamboozled, disillusioned and overwhelmed, before finally, worn out through a series of breakneck back-and-forths, he snaps, and finds the simplicity and truth he was seeking all along — a simplicity that transforms him from Maskull to Nightspore, and turns the world from benighted deception into one lit by a beacon of pure truth (Muspel-fire).

I still find Lindsay himself something of a mystery. The power of his first novel was never quite equalled — except in snatches — in his subsequent books, though I have found all of them more and more interesting the more I read them. But the question I’m still undecided on is how in command of his material Lindsay was. Did he know what he was doing? I don’t think any creative artist of any real power does entirely, but there’s still the question of how much they know what they’re doing. A Voyage to Arcturus’s utter strangeness could be down to a certain naivety on Lindsay’s part, a beginner’s luck approach of letting his wild imagination go utterly free before the self-consciousness of post-publication hit him with how he ought to write. But hints in his letters — a reference to the mystical German writer Jakob Böhme for instance — make it clear he wasn’t an entirely innocent wanderer in fairyland, either.

Lindsay from the cover of Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay

“Only a very few people will ever read Arcturus,” he reportedly once said to Victor Gollancz, “but as long as even two or three people will listen to Beethoven, two or three people will read it.” A Voyage to Arcturus now seems to have found an established place on many lists of classics of SF, fantasy, and imaginative literature, as well as Scottish novels, and even early 20th century fiction generally, and every few days I get a Google Alert telling me that someone, somewhere, on Twitter or some obscure internet forum, is recommending it as one of the strangest and most compelling books they’ve read. (Or, more rarely, saying it’s the most boring or incomprehensible book they’ve ever read.)

In a way, then, Lindsay has been proved right. Beethoven is certainly in no danger of not being listened to; now, I hope, A Voyage to Arcturus is in no danger of ever not being read, even if just by a few.

Aliens in the Mind

A 6-part radio drama first broadcast at the start of 1977, Aliens in the Mind just about fits into the category of “kids with mind powers” that has become a bit of a theme on Mewsings. The reason I say “just about fits” is that the actual kid with mind powers, Flora Keiry, is pretty much a secondary character, the focus of the narrative being on the lead duo of brain surgeon John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark of the New York Institute of Paranormal Phenomena (played by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), so this isn’t about the inner experience of a kid with mental powers in the same way as, say, The Chrysalids or Carrie.

The story starts with Cornelius and Lark arriving on the Hebridean island of Luig, to attend the funeral of their medical-school chum, Dr Hugh Dexter. There they find that not only were the circumstances of Dexter’s death somewhat suspicious, but he left them a hidden message, a record of his discovery that the island is the breeding ground for a new, mutant species of human. Most of these, having passed through an adolescent phase of mental disorientation known as “the Island Sickness”, become indistinguishable from other human beings, with no special powers. But a small number — perhaps only one at a time — become “controllers”, who can transmit telepathic orders which instantly turn the other, heretofore dormant mutants into mindless zombies bent on obeying the controller’s command.

Cornelius and Lark realise that Flora, an eighteen-year-old who never emerged from the mental disorientation stage of the Island Sickness, and so who has the mental and emotional maturity of a much younger child, is just such a controller, and manage to get her off the island and back to London to see if they can work out what’s going on. This, though, is only the start of a plot that soon moves into conspiracy thriller territory, bringing in Manchurian Candidate-like ideas of brainwashing as a means of achieving political ends.

Only a few months before, British TV had seen another take on The Manchurian Candidate, this time in the shape of Robert Holmes’s The Deadly Assassin serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who. The funny thing about this is that Aliens in the Mind, though not scripted by him, also came from Robert Holmes.

According to Richard Molesworth’s biography, Robert Holmes: A Life in Words, Holmes first came up with the idea behind Aliens in the Mind in 1967, when he submitted it as an idea for a TV series entitled Schizo. He then repurposed it as a possible Doctor Who script in 1968, around the time of writing his second adventure for the series (The Space Pirates), this time calling it Aliens in the Blood. Again, it failed to catch. He finally managed to get it commissioned in 1975 as a radio play, and intended to write it while on a Mediterranean holiday, only to have his wife fall ill, after which he had to spend all his spare time till his Doctor Who duties began again looking after her. As a result, Aliens in the Mind (as it was now titled) was scripted by Rene Basilico, with Holmes receiving a credit for the idea. (It’s a real pity he never got to write the scripts himself. Holmes loved a double act and created some of the most successful secondary characters in the classic era of Doctor Who, most notably Jago and Lightfoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It would have been wonderful to hear what he’d have done with Cushing and Price.)

Although she’s not the main character, Flora still lives through the experience of your average “kid with mental powers”. From Firestarter to Stranger Things and The Institute, it’s the eternal fate of such kids to fall into the hands of scientists who want to study them, and who usually end up treating them as less than human. If Cornelius and Lark weren’t our main characters — and weren’t played with such suave charm as Cushing and Price bring to them — it would be easier to see just what they put poor Flora through. When she gets distressed and has doubts about leaving the island with them, they drug her. They take her to a psychiatrist who tries to hypnotise her, without telling her this is what they’re doing. Most of all, the pair make all the decisions for her, in the confidence that they, of course, are doing everything for her own good, despite the distress and danger they put her in. It would have been a quite different story if Flora had been the focal character. As it is, her personal story comes to something of a disappointing end as the series shifts out of weird SF and into conspiracy thriller territory for the final two episodes. (And ending with a Midwich Cuckoos-like opening out onto the wider stage: if this is happening here, what about the rest of the world?)

It’s a fun serial, mostly thanks to Cushing and Price, who are given some (but not enough) friendly UK-vs-US badinage, as well as for its Doctor Who-ishness (a Brigadier is brought on near the end, and you just know he ought to be the Brigadier). Plus, its mix of political paranoia, distrust of corporations, interest in mind-powers — and, sadly, its unexamined sexism — place it very much in the 1970s culturally.

Flora is an interesting example of the “kid with mental powers” who’s both very powerful and emotionally immature, meaning she uses her abilities as a toddler might, with all a toddler’s impulses of childish enthusiasm and sudden fear, plus a complete lack of self-control, leading, without her intending it, to endanger herself and others. It’s a pity the story wasn’t more about her; but it’s also a pity we never got to see more adventures from Cornelius and Lark as played by Cushing and Price. And it would have been great to hear them scripted by Holmes himself.