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.

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Life’s Morning Hour by E H Visiak

Visiak’s Life’s Morning Hour. As the original of the cover is listed among his papers, I wonder if the art isn’t by Visiak himself.

I first read E H Visiak’s Life’s Morning Hour (1968) about 15 years ago, when all I really knew of him was his essays on David Lindsay. I’d been hoping for more on Lindsay but, despite the book mentioning other literary friends Visiak had (among whom John Masefield is the only name I knew), there’s no mention of Lindsay. (Unless, that is, I take Visiak’s comment at one point, “I could no more describe it than I could describe an unknown colour had I seen one”, to be an indirect reference to the invented colours in A Voyage to Arcturus. The “it” Visiak is talking about, by the way, is a vision of God. But I’ll come to that later.) The thing is, Life’s Morning Hour is about the first half of Visiak’s life, and comes to an end as his literary career is getting started. (There’s no mention, for instance, of other writers he later knew, including Walter de la Mare and Colin Wilson.) But, having recently read Visiak’s weird novels Medusa and The Haunted Island, and having done some research on his life to flesh out my (previously very skimpy) biography of him on my Violet Apple site, I came back to his memoir, this time to learn about him, rather than Lindsay.

But first, is it a memoir? In a post at his Shiver in the Archives blog, Douglas A Anderson calls it “Visiak’s so-called autobiography”, saying it’s “actually a novel (originally titled David Treffry) Visiak tried to market in the very early 1930s”… But if that’s so, it’s frankly a very bad novel. My impression on re-reading it is that its earlier chapters didn’t so much belong to a narrative meant to be read by others, as a man’s private mulling over his earliest impressions and fragments of memory. (Towards the end of the book, Visiak claims he wrote Life’s Morning Hour “to record my childhood, of blissful memory”.) These early chapters are more about intense sensory experiences the very young Edward Harold Physick (as he was born) had of colours, smells, glints of light, textures. They don’t even work as anecdotes, just fragments. And this is the main argument against Life’s Morning Hour being a novel — it has no story, nor even an attempt at one. Even in its later sections, when Visiak covers his miserable time at the Manchester offices of the Indo-European Telegraph Company (for which he worked before the First World War), he doesn’t cast it as a narrative. He mentions his misery but doesn’t fully explain it, then goes away and remembers a few random incidents at the office, comes back to it again, then goes away from it once more. This really is a memoir — a collection of reminiscences — more than it is even an attempt at an autobiography. And, of course, Visiak had written novels by the 1930s, so he knew how to do that, so the idea he wrote this as a novel isn’t very convincing, unless he was attempting something very new and modernistic, and, ultimately, unsuccessful. (What seems more possible is that, having written this memoir for his own amusement, he wondered what to do with it, and tried to place it with publishers as a novel. But I don’t know.)

Crimes, Creeps and Thrills (1936), edited by John Gawsworth, included Visiak’s “The Shadow”

There are a few frustratingly fictional-feeling aspects to the book, though. Some people’s names are omitted or invented. Visiak is very evasive about the names of family members. He refers to “my literary uncle” a number of times without giving his name, and only late in the book provides a telling footnote to indicate he’s quoting from the Memoirs of W H Helm (which Visiak himself edited, in 1937). Helm was the literary editor of The Morning Post, wrote several books (Jane Austen and Her Country-House Comedy, Homes of the Past: A Sketch of Domestic Buildings and Life in England from the Norman to the Georgian Age), and was married to Visiak’s paternal aunt. Visiak also provides very little information about his father or his father’s family, even though both were successful sculptors, a fact he doesn’t even allude to. (And Visiak spent a lot of time with his grandparents as a boy, it seems.)

Even more fictionalising comes about with Visiak’s changing some names. He mentions, for instance, going to “the Grammar School at Hallingford”, during which time he stayed at the house of a “Mr Blackwaters”. As far as I can tell, there is no such place as “Hallingford”, and the name “Blackwaters” doesn’t appear at all in Ancestry.co.uk. Short biographies about Visiak, though, mention his going to Hitchin Grammar School (a history of which is among his papers at Reading University), but the only definite proof of a school I can find is his and his brothers’ names in the enrolment lists of St Augustine’s School, Westminster, at the age of 10. And this school isn’t mentioned at all in Visiak’s memoir. Certainly, Life’s Morning Hour can’t be entirely relied on as a factual autobiography. But it is interesting, I think, as a means of learning a little bit more about the man — certainly the inner man.

(His brothers get only a few mentions, despite his having six of them. One who does, Noel Gilbert, died of meningitis at the age of 17, and Visiak describes him as having, at the end, ribs like a skeleton, which can’t help recalling, for me, the “Skeleton Antic Lad” of The Haunted Island.)

Visiak poem from The Graphic, 12th April 1924

Visiak edited the Nonsuch Edition of Milton (1952)

Visiak took a strong pacifist stance during World War I, registering as a conscientious objector and refusing to take even non-military war work as an alternative, as he didn’t want to have anything to do with war. (There’s a quite comprehensive stack of documents at the National Archives detailing the process he went through.) Life’s Morning Hour traces the origins of his pacifism to a story he wrote, as a Rider Haggard-obsessed boy, in which a Zulu king lays down his weapon on a battlefield rather than continue the carnage — an action which seems to have taken Visiak by surprise. (He went on to read about the treatments of the Zulus under the British, and later wrote a poem about them. When it was published, he was surprised to come home one day to find a Zulu man waiting for him, who was in turn surprised to find the writer of the poem wasn’t a Zulu, as he’d thought the rhythms of the poem could only have come from a fellow countryman.) But Visiak wasn’t a lifelong pacifist, certainly not in the personal sense, as at each of the schools he mentions going to he confronts bullies head on, fighting them as soon as they start to pick on him. But his pacifism in relation to the war was perhaps intensified by two other factors. One was his social conscience, which extended not just to his fellow human beings (and he was always writing not just to newspapers but government bodies, suggesting ways in which people’s suffering might be alleviated, or complaining when bad things were done to them — he wrote to a US newspaper after it reported the lynching and burning of an African American, and received, because of it, several nasty replies). He also became a passionate anti-vivisectionist, at one point contemplating studying physiology (despite having no aptitude in the sciences), just so he could infiltrate animal-testing laboratories and expose their atrocities. It was as a result of this, which became an obsessive idea, that the other factor in his pacifism came about. Worrying how he could achieve this aim of infiltrating vivisection laboratories, yet knowing how ill-suited he was to the task, and so being caught in a situation he couldn’t resolve, he had what he interprets as a sudden vision of God, whom he saw as:

“…an orifice of golden motes… of ethereal fire. It was irregular in shape, curved, extending about half way across the office. At either side, within it, a form was visible… They suggested lions with wings. But it was the form I knew to be, but did not see, in the centre that drew and concentrated my attention…

“It was not a human form, nor was it that of any conceivable creature. Had it been that of an angel with wings in the conventional notion of such a being, I might well doubt the authenticity of the vision, suspecting it to have been of subjective derivation; but it was, as I have said, unimaginable

“The Appearance was ineffable; it surpassed the human form as the human form surpasses the most elementary form of life. I should say, indeed, that it transcended form. It was awful, adorable, transcendental. It was also, and identically, a sound; a sound alike ineffable, incomparable in soul-enthralling harmony with any musical chord…”

The effect of his vision, oddly, was to make Visiak feel that his grand anti-vivisectionist plan mattered less in the broad scheme of things than simply continuing his day-to-day life, and this released him from his obsessive thoughts on the matter. But it also no doubt strengthened his Christianity, which was, ultimately, the reason he gave for not wanting to participate in the Great War.

Visiak’s birth name, in his own handwriting (from the 1911 census)

Life’s Morning Hour isn’t a wholly satisfying book. It only works as any kind of autobiography if you have a more factual record of his life to hand; most of its content as a memoir is impressive in terms of how he retained intense early childhood sensory experiences, but generally fails to be interesting even at the level of an anecdote, more as a series of poetic impressions. It certainly doesn’t work as a novel, it has no focus of story or conscious development of character. What it reveals about Visiak as a person is its strongest point: the things that were important to him, his formative moments, the people he met and how he interacted with them. (He petitioned on behalf of a sacked alcoholic colleague three times, each time succeeding in getting him reinstated. The third time, the Indo-European Telegraph Company actually decided to take an active hand in the poor man’s care and rehabilitation.)

Certainly not an essential read, then, even for those who’ve enjoyed Medusa and The Haunted Island (which was mostly written, he reveals, on the train to and from work, just as his early Buccaneer Ballads were written at work), but a valuable addition if you want to know more about the sort of man Visiak was.

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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.

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