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.


Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

SF Masterworks cover, art by Eamon O’Donogue

Swastika Night is described by the Encyclopedia of SF as “the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance”, and the interesting thing about this (and the thing that made me want to read it) is that it was published in 1937 — i.e., before World War II. At least one contemporary review notes that “Murray Constantine” is a pseudonym, but it was not generally known that the author was in fact Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963) until the 1980s.

The novel is set in the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720 — presumably measured since the end of the “Twenty Years War”, or what we would call World War II. The globe is, at this time, divided between two empires, the German and the Japanese, which have been in a static truce for centuries. There are no uprisings (the Germans “ruling with such realistic and sensible severity that rebellion became as hopeful as a fight between a child of three and an armed man”), and Nazi rule is ensured via a religion in which Hitler is a god, not born of woman but exploded into existence, who took the form of a seven foot tall, blond, bearded giant. The catechism of this religion enforces a rigid hierarchy, beginning “As a woman is above a worm // So is man above woman”, and goes on to place Nazis above all foreign men, and the elite Knights (hereditary descendants of the Teutonic Knights created by Hitler) above everyone else. (As well as worms, women do get to be above one other thing: Christians.)

Women are kept separate from men, in huts in caged compounds, and are allowed only once each month into the swastika-shaped temples to worship Hitler. Their hair is kept shorn. They have no right to refuse any man, and if they give birth to a male child, it is taken from them after eighteen months.

Gollancz HB, 1937

Not unsurprisingly, their numbers are declining, though this is not something anyone but a few Knights have noticed, at this point. In fact, the German Empire as a whole is in a state of deep stagnation, and the only thing that prevents it being attacked and defeated by the Japanese is that their empire, equally hierarchical and militaristic in nature, is in a similar state.

The story follows a middle-aged English mechanic, Alfred, on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land (i.e., Germany). He seeks out a German friend, Hermann, who spent some time in England, and who is clearly in love with Alfred. A rather happy-go-lucky man unafraid to speak his mind, Alfred tells Hermann that he knows how to defeat the German Empire: not through violence, but ideas. It only rules, after all, thanks to the ideals and values it forces on its subjects. Key among these is the notion of “the Blood”, the hereditary nature of the Nazi that makes him essentially superior to all others. Alfred has decided that such a belief is in fact a weakness, and that “acceptance on my part of fundamental inferiority is a sin not only against my manhood but against life itself.” The Nazi ideals of “pride, courage, violence, brutality, ruthlessness” are, he points out, “characteristics of a male animal in heat”, and “A man must be something more, surely?”

Feminist Press PB from 1985, cover by Odilon Redon

Hermann, loving Alfred too much to do the patriotic thing and turn him into the authorities, merely groans helplessly. Later, the two meet a German Knight, Friedrich von Hess who, sensing something in Alfred, takes him into his confidence and shows him (and, at Alfred’s insistence, Hermann), two things that will give a new focus to his airy talk of bringing down the German Empire. The first is a book containing an account of the true history of the world before the founding of the German Empire (which has taught its subjects they were savages before it civilised them); the second is a photograph of the real Hitler, proving him to be not a blond giant but a shortish, dark-haired man with a silly moustache. But Hitler’s true physical nature isn’t the real revelation of that photograph. Perhaps the best moment in the book is when it’s revealed to Hermann and Alfred that the youthful, vigorous and attractive long-haired blond creature standing next to Hitler is not a boy, as they immediately assume, but a girl…

The bulk of the book is devoted to conversations between von Hess and Alfred, about how the German Empire set about consolidating its power — by destroying all knowledge of the before-times, and eradicating all culture except music. The result is that the Empire has come to a dead end:

“We can create nothing, we can invent nothing—we have no use for creation, we do not need to invent. We are Germans. We are holy. We are perfect, and we are dead.”

The moment when the “boy” in the photograph with Hitler is revealed to be a girl is an illustration of what this book does so well: capturing how deeply people justify their irrational beliefs, all the better to cling to them. As someone in this book says of women with their shorn heads:

“Why, if they were meant to have hair on their heads they would have it on their faces. Have you ever seen a woman with a beard like mine?”

2017 French edition, art by Jean Bastide

As with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which this novel is often compared to (there’s no evidence, apparently, Orwell read Constantine’s book), Swastika Night has encapsulated some essential ideas about how power warps reality in order to entrench its rule, and how difficult it can be to make one’s way out of the dead end this creates, once all alternatives, and even the possibility they once existed, have been eradicated.

Contemporary reviewers seem generally united in finding the book “as entertaining as it is frightening” (from The News Chronicle, 23 June 1937), but some reveal surprising caveats about the focus of the book’s attack — surprising, anyway, from the position of looking back with a knowledge of subsequent events.

Phyllis Bentley, for instance, in The Yorkshire Post, felt it was unfair of the author to project such a horrible future and blame it on a real people:

“That it is fair, right, and civilised, even in a work of fiction, to throw the onus of creating such a nightmare of a future on any specific nation, whether German or Japanese or other, I have strong doubts; but if we will take the satire ourselves, and regard it as the results of those human tendencies towards fear, greed, and stupidity which must be conquered if they are not to prove fatal, the lesson is striking enough.”

H S Woodham, in The Daily Independent (in Sheffield), makes a statement I still can’t quite fathom, unless it’s a comment on how so many intellectuals between the wars sought to condemn nationalism of any type — both the war-like and the prideful — as a means of preventing future conflicts:

“Murray Constantine is the nom-de-plume of a very able individual who seems to dislike the Nazi system without also disliking his own country—which borders on the unusual.”

He goes on to conclude:

“I do not imagine that the author believes this fantastic picture for one moment; he has exaggerated and caricatured with deliberate intent. Even so the story is fascinating, whether we agree with its trend or not.”

That “with deliberate intent” sounds oddly like the accusation of a crime, and is surely nonsensical, as the alternative is that Constantine wrote the book without intent, i.e., by accident.

Katharine Burdekin

Perhaps the fact that Swastika Night is about Nazis specifically (rather than, as with Orwell, an invented and therefore multiply-applicable ideology) might obscure its insights into the workings of power generally, seeming to relegate its problems to history (though it was certainly prescient in its time) and not the ongoing need to prevent the rise of any such form of totalitarianism. But its core lesson, that you must look to the most ill-treated members of society to understand how the forces in power achieve their ends, remains valuable. (As Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addition puts it: “How you treat the weak is your true nature calling.”) I have to admit I found the conversations in the book a little too long, particularly when they weren’t dealing with the book’s themes but its plot (which is slight), but Swastika Night remains a classic for its key ideas, as well as its boldness in stating them before a world that was, at the time, perhaps not quite ready to listen.


Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

1935 HB from Methuen

Stapledon’s third novel, Odd John, began life as an appendix to his second, Last Men in London (1932), a short piece that was called “John’s Story”, which was never published. (In a neat chain effect, Stapledon’s next novel, Star Maker, which he began working on before Odd John was finished, can be linked to this one, as one thing the titular John leaves behind at the end is “an amazing document… purporting to give an account of the whole story of the Cosmos” — a pretty accurate description of Star Maker.)

Odd John (published in 1935) tells the story of the (short) life of John Wainwright. Born to a British GP and his Scandinavian wife after an eleven month gestation (Stapledon makes no mention of how difficult the birth must have been, particularly considering the baby’s outsized head), John proves to be mentally quick but physically slow to develop, in part because his increased brain-power means he has much greater control over his bodily processes. So, we’re told, he “actually had to learn to breathe”, while his walking, when it finally begins, “was probably seriously delayed by [his discovery of] mathematics”. Nicknamed Odd John, he’s obviously physically different, with particularly large eyes and a large head (the cover for the first edition is closely based on Stapledon’s own painting of his protagonist, so, however cartoony it seems, it gives a good idea of how odd Odd John is supposed to look). He is, in fact, an example of Homo Superior, the next stage in human evolution.

1965 Berkley PB, art by Richard Powers

The novel recounts, first of all, John’s self-education and his attempts to understand those peculiar things called human beings he finds himself living among; then, when he realises the differences are too great — when he announces “I’m through with your bloody awful species” — his contacting the few other examples of his own kind, and their attempt to set up a colony on a remote island where they can study, develop, and seek to fulfil their potential away from the judgements, incomprehension, and inevitable conflict with the “sapients” — the rest of humanity.

It’s a very Wyndhamesque novel, though with a colder, more satirical tone. With its tale of strange (bleach-blond, in both cases) children whose evolutionary advancement (or, with Wyndham, alien origin) puts them at odds with the rest of humanity, leading to isolation and eventual conflict, there’s an obvious parallel with The Midwich Cuckoos. But there’s also a touch of The Chrysalids in John’s telepathic reaching out to others of his kind, and with Chocky, too, in the way John’s parents, like Matthew’s in the latter novel, decide not to bring their prodigy of a child to the attention of the authorities, for fear he’ll be taken away and experimented on (and there was me thinking suspicion of governments was a Cold War thing).

E P Dutton HB, 1936

But Odd John is very much a between-the-wars novel. For one thing, there’s its attitude, prevalent among the intellectual circles of the 1930s, that it was nationalism that was to blame for the coming conflict (here, John says: “A nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners…”). Its protagonist is also a distinctly pre-Nazi superman, in that Stapledon presents him quite coolly making ethical choices that, a decade later, it would be unthinkable to present without explicit condemnation. In fact, it’s John’s ethics that, to me, stand out as the most evident point Stapledon is making about his “next step” in human evolution. Stapledon’s narrator — in his own words “a rather half-hearted free-lance journalist” and “a very incompetent biographer” — has a tendency to downplay, if not entirely excuse, what are in fact acts of cold-blooded murder, incest, the rape and vivisection of women, and even genocide by either John or his small community of “supernormals”, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way.

Ed Emshwiller cover to Galaxy Publishing edition, 1951

So, what’s going on here, in a book Stapledon subtitled “A Story between Jest and Earnest”? Are we supposed to take John’s occasional and self-justified acts of inhumanity — or, as he sees it, of his true humanity applied to a race (us) that cannot be called fully human — as part of a rollicking adventure, a light jest about a big-brained superman who in earlier chapters dismisses all our science, religion, psychiatry and poetry as the products of a race that’s “not really grown up”? I think, if anything, Stapledon’s calling his novel a “Jest” is defensive — a brush-off in case we really are offended. But what he wants to do is shock us. Stapledon wants us to realise how alien, how inhuman (in our terms), the next stage in evolution might be, and the best way to do that is to present it treating us as though we’re so much less than it, less than its own definition of human.

(Another take is that the narrator — whom Odd John nicknames “Fido” as though to underline how we’re all below his degree of human — may in fact be under some sort of psychic-hypnotic influence. We learn, later in the novel, that John and his fellow supernormals can bamboozle normal humans with the power of their minds, and John wants “Fido” to write his biography — not so we norms can better understand him, but so the next wave of supernormals knows a little more what to expect — so it’s in his interest to downplay the more negative aspects of John’s career. At the same time, John is presented as engaged, curious, open, personable, and even kind, so it’s sometimes hard to equate the persona with the occasional atrocities.)

1978 NEL PB, art by Joe Petagno

What is this next stage of human evolution anyway? Right from the start, John has an ambivalence about not only the life and sufferings of we human beings, but his own, too. He laughs at his own pains and misfortunes, seeing them from a cosmic perspective, even while in the throes of suffering them. This is an attitude found in the more advanced beings in the other two Stapledon novels I’ve covered, Last and First Men and Star Maker, in both of which our more evolved descendants learn to see their tragedies, even their own coming extinction, as necessary events that “deepened and quickened the universe” itself.

Living among the community of supernormals, the narrator is given a glimpse of what Homo Superior (and, presumably, Stapledon) regards as the true measure of an evolved outlook:

“The true purpose of the awakened spirit… is twofold, namely to help in the practical task of world-building, and to employ itself to the best of its capacity in intelligent worship.”

(“Intelligent worship” meaning something like a combination of scientific understanding, philosophical enquiry, and aesthetic wonder.)

Some scenes depicted are not necessarily in the novel… art by Robert Stanley

Meanwhile we humans, who think ourselves so advanced, are seen, by these supermen, as “about as clever along [our] own line as the earliest birds were at flight. [We’re] a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.”

(Elsewhere, Odd John announces that “Homo sapiens is at the end of its tether”, which resonates with H G Wells’s final, despairing end-of-life outburst against a world that had just been through a second World War, Mind at the End of its Tether (1945).)

Odd John received a fair amount of mainstream attention when it was published. (Stapledon seems to have found a position as a sort of public intellectual, perhaps after the model of Wells.) Not all of the reviews were positive, but nevertheless, Odd John was a book everyone felt the need to remark on, even if only to say how odd it was. The Evening Standard made it their book of the month in October 1935, declaring Stapledon “a writer who has one of the deepest and strangest imaginations of our times: perhaps the deepest, perhaps the strangest.”

It perhaps seems less strange today, now we have supermen of all kinds flooding our culture, but the ethical shocks Stapledon delivers through his seemingly so personable and child-like version of the Übermensch are perhaps the thing that gives this novel a lasting place, not just in science fiction, but the culture as a whole.