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.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

(most probably) Emily Brontë by her brother, Branwell

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the subject of my favourite book review ever, in a letter from Pre-Raphaelite artist & poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Irish poet William Allingham, in September 1854:

“…it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from [poet] Mrs Browning to [murderer] Mrs Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.”

My first attempt at scaling Wuthering Heights was when I was trying to work through all the books in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I was perhaps feeling a little jaded by that book’s eccentricities by that point, as I’d read Moby Dick thanks to their recommendation, and couldn’t quite see the relevance to fantasy. (I can perhaps see their point a bit better now, and mean to reread Moby Dick at some point, free of false preconceptions — which is the best way to enjoy a classic novel.) A little way into Wuthering Heights, I began to feel it was going to be another of Cawthorn & Moorcock’s more eccentric inclusions, and gave up on it. (I really wonder if I’d have been able to appreciate it properly anyway, back then.) On recently learning that David Lindsay thought highly of it, though, I decided to give it another go, and am glad I did.

Wuthering Heights has had a long association with the more subtler and supernaturally-tinged fantastic. As Julia Briggs says in her study of the English ghost story, Night Visitors (1977):

“…the whole tenor of the book… implies a coherent universe wherein man, nature and spirit interact closely, and where the cruel and uncompromising power of love is more ruthless and compelling even than death.”

Most surprisingly of all, considering its reputation as perhaps the most darkly romantic of all love stories, H P Lovecraft liked the book — Lovecraft, who reacted so strongly to a “few touches of commonplace sentimentality” in William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he says:

“Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort… Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown.”

Both of these quotes make it clear it’s the atmosphere of the book that speaks of the supernatural and fantastic, rather than the details (though there is, of course, ghostly Cathy’s “ice-cold hand” through the window one night, which may be a dream, but nevertheless imparts some details the narrator couldn’t at that point know). In fact, a lot of the power of the book comes from its narration being so low-key and realistic, thanks to the down-to-earth servant’s-eye-view of Nelly Dean, whose general lack of judgement only makes all the violence and brutality centred around Heathcliff seem that much more violent and brutal, lacking as it does the narrative cushioning of explanations, justifications, and condemnations.

Faber and Faber cover

It’s around Heathcliff this dark air of the supernatural accumulates, from the moment he first appears in the story, a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” with an oddly old-looking face. Mr Earnshaw, who brings this child back the 60-miles walk from Liverpool, names it after a dead child of his own, adding to the feeling it may be a fairy changeling or a soul retrieved from hell. Like one of Le Fanu’s supernatural companions, it sucks the life out of those around it, as both Mrs (who most dislikes it) and then Mr Earnshaw (who most likes it) fade away and die after it’s brought into the home. (And the detail that, as well as presenting this unwanted child to his family, Mr Earnshaw discovers that the gifts he was asked to bring have either been lost or broken seems almost Aickmanesque. Did Earnshaw have to struggle to bring the child along with him? Or, did the child’s mere presence supernaturally spoil all attempts at affection, however minor, from that point on? The weird creeps in where the explanations are lacking.)

By name and nature, Heathcliff is more a landscape than a person — or, perhaps, a Gothic castle in human form, bleak, forbidding, oppressive, imperturbable, dark and haunted, monomaniacal. He feels like a character from a different mode of fiction altogether, a blood-soaked Webster tragedy, perhaps, or one of the wilder folk ballads. Placed in an otherwise respectable early-Victorian novel, he becomes a sort of black hole, pulling everyone in his orbit down into the dark pit of his loveless world.

Puffin cover

And that’s the thing that most struck me about this novel. By reputation, Wuthering Heights is a love story, but it seems to me the whole point about Heathcliff and his world is it (and he) cannot express, or even understand, love. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, for instance (who’s too infantilely self-absorbed to express love herself: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me…”). Their relationship seems more about possessiveness than love, but a possessiveness so deep that Cathy feels it as identification (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). So, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t marry Heathcliff, because she and he are already one. Heathcliff himself seems only able to express anger, resentment, and a dark joy in revenge. He teaches the young Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with him at Wuthering Heights, “to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak.” When Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, and lives with him at the Heights, she’s forced to ask, of the affable narrator Nelly Dean:

“How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.”

I still find it hard to express what I felt as I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. It was like a constant series of affronts, as Nelly Dean’s calm and seemingly level-headed narrative was peppered with acts of sudden anger and violence, some of which didn’t serve the plot, but just added to the air of devastation. The way five-year-old Hareton, for instance, reacts to the woman who, till six months before, had been all but mother to him: he throws a heavy flint at her head, and not out of anger at her, but more a sort of feral rejection of all human beings. There’s something about the way these brutal emotions swamp out the more human ones that recalls, to me, the way the children in The Turn of the Screw have been in some undefined way defiled by the depredations of Peter Quint, at the other end of the 19th century.

Wordsworth cover

And I think Wuthering Heights has more in common with The Turn of the Screw and those great horror stories of the end of the 19th century than that. Just as the ghost story at that time made the transition from pure fright-tale to a new and deeper exploration of human psychology, so Wuthering Heights’ power derives, in large part, from its presenting the sort of tumultuous passions brewed up in those earlier Gothic novels in a more realistic — and so, undeniably recognisable — way. It makes the novel’s characters and story that much more believable, and its horror all the more horrific — and so, I’d say, the psychology all the more insightful. This is, it feels, an authentic layer of human experience that no amount of civilised society can do away with.

It’s Heathcliff who’s haunted in Emily Brontë’s novel — “The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” — but the result is itself a haunting narrative, still shockingly powerful and weirdly irresolvable.

And you can’t talk about Wuthering Heights without mentioning Kate Bush. Her song, I think, stands alongside Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” as rare examples of songs inspired by other works of art that equal them in artistic power.

Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Feb 1942, Virgil Finlay cover

Citadel of Fear is one of the books listed in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, where it’s described as being the sort of thing you’d find playing as a late-night horror film, if only it had ever been filmed (it has “the authentic air of delirium fitted to midnight viewing”). It was first serialised in The Argosy in seven parts from September to October of 1918, and later revived in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, February 1942, with some gorgeous Virgil Finlay illustrations and cover art. It was only with its first paperback edition (in 1970) that its authorship was confirmed as not being (as the rumour had it) Abraham Merritt under a pseudonym, but Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884–1948), who had a brief flourishing of pulp output between 1917 and 1920. (She also has the distinction, thanks to her first short story, published in 1904, of being the first US female author of science fiction to do so under her own name. The pen-name “Francis Stevens” came later.)

Citadel of Fear begins as a lost-race novel and ends as a mad scientist tale, with a rather slow-moving weird mystery in between. At the start, our hero Colin O’Hara, “a stalwart young Irishman… who even at twenty excelled most men in strength and stamina” and his older, greedier, and somewhat more useless companion Archer Kennedy, stumble out of a South American desert into a secluded, lush region that proves to be the home of a lost people, “the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs”, still living as they did in the old days. There’s conflict within the city, as the sects of the various gods vie for power, barely kept in check by the powerful Guardians of the Hills. It’s also a region in which the old gods, including Quetzalcoatl and Nacoc-Yaotl (the “maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could”), take a very much more active interest than dead gods normally do. After being captured, escaping, falling into a lake of burning light and being rescued by a Tlapallan princess, then in turn rescuing her, Colin O’Hara is thrown back out into the desert. Just as the story seemed to be setting itself up for an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style “hero tips the balance in fantastic city’s internal power struggles” narrative, that part of the story is over.

Fifteen years later in America, Colin O’Hara is visiting his newly-married sister, Cliona. When she’s attacked one night by a mysterious creature, Colin begins an investigation that will lead him to the house of the reclusive Chester Reed, who claims to be raising unusual animals for “scientific stock”. It’s no surprise to the reader when Chester Reed turns out to be O’Hara’s old travelling companion, Archer Kennedy, whose greed for gold back in Tlapallan led to his encounter with something that may have been more than a mere statue of the dark god Nacoc-Yaotl. That god’s powers include the ability to reduce life to a sort of essential jelly, from which it can be reshaped into whatever horrors the reshaper requires. And this reshaper, it turns out, requires some pretty weird horrors.

Stevens’s writing can be quite poetic at moments, as with this early description of the desert where O’Hara and Kennedy are lost:

“As liquid iron cools, withdrawn from the fire, so the desert cooled with the setting of the sun, its furnace. Intolerable whiteness became purple mystery, overhung by a vault of soft and tender blue, that deepened, darkened, became set with a million flashing jewels.”

But she also has a relish for a darker sort of weirdness:

“Between the granite pillars, fungoids and some kind of whitish vegetation like pale rushes grew thickly, but though those fungoids and rushes had a strangeness of their own, it was not the vegetable growth alone which made Reed’s marsh peculiar. Its entire space was acrawl with living forms that for repulsiveness could only be compared to a resurgence from their graves of creatures dead and half-decayed.”

Despite being the action hero of this story, Colin O’Hara ends up in the position usually fulfilled, in this era, by the sort of helpless heroine you’d find on the cover of so many “weird menace” pulps: he’s the one who gets captured and tied up by the evil scientist/mad sorcerer and saved from a fate worse than death (though not that fate worse than death — he’s to be turned into “a homogeneous, jelly-like mass” fit for reshaping into something unpleasant and frightening) by the efforts of the two women in the story (one of them corralling her menfolk to do the necessary fighting). He redeems himself by following this up with some solid fisticuff-work, but all the same, there’s a feeling that Francis Stevens was doing some subtle undermining of the gender clichés of the time.

I felt that the fantastic lost-city beginning ended a bit too soon — I don’t remember there ever being a proper explanation for that weird lake of fiery water, or a proper resolution of those internal power battles. And when we skip forward fifteen years, the plot really slows down for the middle third of the novel, until we return to the “Citadel of Fear” (Chester Reed’s mansion, though he actually calls it his “Fortress of Fear”) to find out what’s really happening in the bowels of that dark mansion. Even then, the ending felt a bit strung out, making me wonder if Gertrude Barrows Bennett (who was, after all, writing to support herself and her daughter) wasn’t simply looking to increase her wordage, and hence her paycheque.

But Citadel of Fear, in its moments of fantasy, does get genuinely dark and weird, as wonderfully represented by Virgil Finlay’s illustrations to the Famous Fantastic Mysteries reprint. Pity it didn’t ever get a filmed version, though I can’t help feeling, if it had, that nothing short of modern digital effects could have equalled Stevens’s inventions of weird monsters and, in Tlapallan, beautiful sights:

“It was a huge, mothlike insect, fully ten inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and the glowing came from its luminous body, in color pale amethyst, coldly afire within. The broad wings, transparent as the globular walls of a bubble, refracted the creature’s own radiance in a network of shimmering color.”

I’ve added an ebook of Citadel of Fear to my free ebooks page.