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.

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray

Like Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) is an academic book in part inspired by Frazer’s Golden Bough, and more notable today for its cultural influence than its now-dismissed scholarship. Weston’s book is largely remembered for being mentioned by T S Eliot in connection with The Waste Land, but Murray’s has had a more pervasive and widespread influence (among other things, feeding into the formation of Wicca, but also, I think, providing a key ingredient for a lot of 1960s and 1970s folk horror). I first came across it thanks to H P Lovecraft, who refers to it in “The Horror of Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu”, and whose key idea — that the witches persecuted in the 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century trials in Europe and New England weren’t Satan-worshippers, madwomen, or victims of a mass delusion, but members of an ancient, if decadent, fertility cult, misinterpreted and demonised by their Christian persecutors — is referred to in “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, and his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, where he associates it with Machen’s “The White People”. (Murray subscribed to the idea, which informs a lot of Machen’s weird fiction, that a “dwarf race” once inhabited Europe and “has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves”.)

Margaret Murray

Born in 1863 (and dying 100 years later), Margaret Murray made her initial academic reputation as an Egyptologist, working alongside Flinders Petrie. When the First World War made archeological fieldwork in Egypt impossible, Murray branched out. She at first strayed into Jessie Weston territory, writing a paper on “Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance” (which Weston criticised), before settling on witchcraft in 1917. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was her definitive statement, and because of it she was asked to write the entry on the subject for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (which was still there in the 1968 edition). As Jacqueline Simpson, in an essay entitled “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?” (published in Folklore in 1994, and readable online here), says, in the encyclopedia entry Murray “set out her own interpretation of the topic as if it were the universally accepted one”. Her book had been read by academics, and some accepted it, but others — largely those whose specialities she touched on, it seems — dismissed it; but the encyclopedia article lent authority to her theories and reached a much wider, non-specialist public. Murray wrote a more populist take on the book, The God of the Witches (1931), playing down some elements (the sexual and baby-eating ones) and introducing others, such as the phrases “the Old Religion” and “the Horned God”, which would go on to become folk horror staples. By the 1950s and 1960s, her books had become bestsellers.

Much to the horror, it has to be said, of some of those working in the same field. Jacqueline Simpson says that:

“Precisely because [Murray’s] material is so diverse, the links so tenuous and the tone so dogmatic, untrained readers are naturally mystified, and assume that their own limited knowledge is at fault; overawed, they feel themselves to be in the presence of great scholarship…”

Compounding this, most academics in the same field:

“…deliberately ignored her… Normally this is an effective technique for ensuring the oblivion of bad books, but in this case it backfired, since it left her theory free to spread, seemingly unchallenged, among an eager public.”

Part of this is down to Murray’s approach, which is obvious from a statement she makes early in her book:

“The evidence which I now bring forward is taken entirely from contemporary sources, i.e. the legal records of the trials, pamphlets giving accounts of individual witches, and the works of Inquisitors and other writers. I have omitted the opinions of the authors, and have examined only the recorded facts, without however including the stories of ghosts and other ‘occult’ phenomena with which all the commentators confuse the subject. I have also, for the reason given below, omitted all reference to charms and spells when performed by one witch alone, and have confined myself to those statements only which show the beliefs, organization, and ritual of a hitherto unrecognized cult.”

Which even to me, an untrained reader, sounded like she was ignoring what didn’t support her theory (“the opinions of the authors”), and quoting only what did (“the recorded facts”). (Apparently what she left out, even by the use of a brief “…”, could, at times, turn out to completely undermine what she was using a quote to prove.)

But what’s interesting is the effect her book had. People — particularly novelists, film-makers, poets and 20th century witches — took to it not because it was academically convincing, but because there was a need for the idea it was putting across. There was, as Jacqueline Simpson says above, an “eager public”.

Part of this is down to the ideas held about witches at the start of the 20th century. Murray wasn’t the first to suggest witches were part of a single pre-Christian cult — that idea had been around in Germany and France a hundred years before — but coming at the time it did, her book seemed to provide a third way into a subject otherwise split between two increasingly unrealistic alternatives. As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, on the one hand there was the likes of Montague Summers, “maintaining that [witches] really had worshipped Satan, and that by his help they really had been able to fly, change shape, do magic and so forth.” On the other, there was a more widespread but frankly less interesting idea held by “sceptics who said that all so-called witches were totally innocent victims of hysterical panics whipped up by the Churches for devious political or financial reasons”.

Murray asserted that the witch-cult was a real thing, but explained away the supernatural elements. The Devil, she said, was present before the witches because he was a man (or sometimes a woman) in a mask and costume. This also explained why so many witches claimed the Devil was cold to the touch. (And, Murray says, “when the woman admitted having had sexual intercourse with the Devil, in a large proportion of cases she added, ‘The Devil was cold and his seed likewise’”, which Murray explains in part through use of an “artificial phallus”, a necessary requirement, she adds, because a mortal man playing the part of the Devil couldn’t be expected to perform without one for a whole coven of witches.)

(…And a note on covens: Margaret Murray is, apparently, the sole source of the idea that a coven of witches must have thirteen members, something she admitted getting from a single quotation from one Scottish witch trial.)

Another aspect of the witch-cult were witches’ marks which, she says, were of two types, either an artificial mark given to the witch when she or he was initiated (and which Murray suggests was most likely a tattoo, as it was caused by pricking of the skin and was often coloured), the other type being a “little teat”, which Murray says was probably a pre-existing supernumerary nipple, something she takes pains to prove occurs more commonly than is generally thought.

Meanwhile, of a witch’s ability to transform herself into an animal, she says:

“In many cases it is very certain that the transformation was ritual and not actual; that is to say the witches did not attempt to change their actual forms but called themselves cats, hares, or other animals.”

What struck me, on reading the book, and considering the way it aggravated some academics (the Wikipedia article on “the Witch-cult hypothesis” is full of quotes from reviewers pouring scorn on just about every aspect of Murray’s scholarship) yet was accepted by artists and writers, was that Murray’s ideas may not have been historically true, but they certainly met an imaginative need. The way witches were presented, through Murray’s extracts from the trials, seems to me to be painting a picture that’s very much the shadow image of the more intolerant side of Christianity that would have prevailed at the time. All the key characteristics of the “witch-cult” as Murray presents it — a mostly female priesthood, folk-style magic and fertility rituals, close ties with natural cycles and the natural world, plus lots of dancing, eating, and general carnality — were things repressed by Christianity but a vital part of humanity.

(This isn’t to say it was all about fun. In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe — though not in The God of the Witches — Murray does go into the witches’ practice of baby-eating which, she says, being only ever of un-baptised babies, was at least probably only practised on the cult’s own children.)

Whatever Murray’s academic reputation, the idea that witches are part of a single belief, rather than being a scattering of lone-wolf wise-women lumped together simply because they didn’t fit anywhere else, is certainly the one you’ll meet with in horror films to this day, so much so it’s become part of the accepted lore of fictional witches. In a way, Murray’s Witch-Cult is as important to witches in their fictional incarnations as, say, Dracula is to vampires — an essential cultural foundation, but not to be taken as factually accurate. In this way, then, it fits perfectly with the other (mostly fictional) books H P Lovecraft grouped it with when he mentions it in his stories — a book that straddles the shady boundary between weird fact and dark fantasy, and so becomes a perfect gateway to that realm of the real-seeming weird he was trying to conjure.

You can read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe at Project Gutenberg.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.