Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts

First UK edition

Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.

Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.

Badbury Rings

In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.

It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:

“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”

The Little Review, Jan-Mar 1921, where the first instalment of Ashe of Rings appeared

Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.

The Little Review, Sep 1921, with the second instalment of Ashe of Rings

Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).

On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:

“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”

But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:

“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”

I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:

“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”

Mary Butts in 1919

Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.

In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.

It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.

Green Mansions by W H Hudson

I can’t remember where I first heard about W H Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, but I kept finding it being mentioned as beloved of a number of early twentieth century writers that I like (though I’ve forgotten which ones, apart from Joseph Conrad and David Lindsay). Anyway, it eventually gained enough readerly pull that I just had to read it.

The book’s narrator (apart from a framing-device preface) is Abel Guevez de Argensola, a young Venezuelan forced to flee his home country when his parents’ political affinities clash with those of a new regime. Heading into the jungles of neighbouring Guyana, he at first follows rumours of gold until he settles with a tribe close to the Parahuari Mountains (buying his way into their affections with the gift of a silver tinderbox and his skill with a home-made guitar), and decides to spend some time far from the dangers and hassles of civilisation.

Close by his new home, he discovers a region of jungle completely unexploited by human beings, and begins to spend his days there, at first simply appreciating the strange and wonderful sights of nature, but soon becoming aware of another sentient presence that is not only aware of him, but seems to be leading him, with musical bursts of a bird-like but human-sounding language, to even more strange and beautiful sights.

The tribe he’s taken up with warn him to stay away from this area of jungle, as it’s the home of a “Daughter of the Didi”, who can catch darts fired at her, and throw them back with deadly accuracy. Abel ignores the warning, and soon meets the young woman who has been following his explorations of her region of jungle, the bird-like Rima:

“To induce her to walk soberly at my side or sit down and enter into conversation with me seemed about as impracticable as to tame the fiery-hearted little humming-bird that flashes into sight, remains suspended motionless for a few seconds before your face, then, quick as lightning, vanishes again.”

Rima lives in harmony with all the creatures of the jungle, and in fact seems to embody, for Abel, all the beauties and wonders he has come to find in the jungle itself:

“When I look at you I see them all—all and more, a thousand times, for I see Rima herself. And when I listen to Rima’s voice, talking in a language I cannot understand, I hear the wind whispering in the leaves, the gurgling running water, the bee among the flowers, the organ-bird singing far, far away in the shadows of the trees. I hear them all, and more, for I hear Rima.”

She almost comes to seem superhuman to him:

“She herself was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me; indefinable feelings, which had been latent in me, stirred into life, and following the direction of her divine, lustrous eyes, fixed on the blue sky above, I seemed to see there another being like herself, a Rima glorified, leaning her pale, spiritual face to catch the winged words uttered by her child on earth.”

In a way, Green Mansions has similarities to Wuthering Heights, as both are stories of intense love where human feelings seep out and charge the landscape with that air of the supernatural, until it seems haunted by the presence of the loved one. But Rima is a very different creature from Heathcliff — almost his opposite, in that she’s a flighty, scintillant human humming bird, and Heatchliff is a walking Gothic castle.

Rima, it turns out, isn’t entirely the jungle dryad she at first seems. She is actually a human girl, living in a small hut with her “grandfather” Nuflo (in fact, an old man who took on the orphaned Rima’s care, in part out of a need to change his life and make some amends for his criminal past). And, when she starts to feel a return of Abel’s love for her, her initial reaction is panic. She doesn’t understand what she’s feeling, and for the first time insists on being taken to the land where her mother came from, to find her own people, who, she hopes, can explain these new feelings to her in her own bird-like language.

William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841. He spent his early years studying the flora and fauna of South America, before settling in England in 1874, where he made his name as an ornithologist, naturalist, and writer. His Times obituary in 1922 called him “unsurpassed as an English writer on Nature”, and Ford Madox Ford called Green Mansions “Anglo-Saxondom’s only rendering of hopeless, of aching passion”.

Rima, in Green Mansions, seems to embody Hudson’s own initiation into a relationship with the natural world, a world full of unique and wondrous living things:

“To each of us, as to every kind of animal, even to small birds and insects, and to every kind of plant, there is given something peculiar—a fragrance, a melody, a special instinct, an art, a knowledge, which no other has.”

Through his relationship with her, and with the jungle world she inhabits:

“I was changed, and this change—so great, so complete—was proof that the old artificial life had not been and could not be the real one, in harmony with my deeper and truer nature.”

Rima went on to have a funny cultural afterlife. In 1924, she was depicted on a bas-relief designed by Eric Gill and carved by Jacob Epstein, placed in the Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary in Hyde Park. The figure’s nudity caused something of a scandal (after all, she’s not nude in the book, but wears a scintillant gown of carefully-gathered spider-silk), with Arthur Conan Doyle and E F Benson, among others, petitioning for its removal. (It’s still there today, though.) In 1959, Rima was played by Audrey Hepburn in a film of Green Mansions, opposite Anthony Perkins as Abel. The film changed the book’s ending, but was a financial disaster. And, in 1974, Rima starred in a 7-issue run of Rima the Jungle Girl from DC Comics, where she’s depicted as a sort of female Tarzan.

Hudson’s other books include the future-set pastoral utopia A Crystal Age (1887), and the memoir Idle Days in Patagonia (1893), that I like to think influenced the title of Lord Dunsany’s 1910 short story “Idle Days on the Yann”.

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.