The Haunted Island by E H Visiak

1946 reprint of The Haunted Island from publisher Peter Lunn. Illustratred by Jack Matthews.

Like his 1929 novel of “Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror” Medusa, E H Visiak’s first novel, The Haunted Island (published in 1910), is a sea adventure that turns into weird fiction in its second half. But, although the Encyclopedia of Fantasy says it is “clearly fantasy” (“and engagingly deploys ghosts and magic in a tale of pirates set on a mysterious island”), most, perhaps all, of the fantasy elements are eventually explained in non-supernatural terms. Even then, the atmosphere of weirdness and menace remains, so you feel that you have been in the presence of something that at least hints at extra-human forces.

The narrator is young Francis Clayton, whose older brother Dick heads a mutiny among the crew of one of the King’s ships (this is 1668) so they can head off in search of a rumoured treasure of incredible wealth on a distant (but haunted) island. Finding himself caught up in the action, Francis insists on staying with his brother as the ship evades its pursuers and they set out on their quest.

On the way, among other mostly episodic adventures, they pick up two sailors adrift in a boat, an Englishman and a “Mosquito Indian”. The Englishman tells of a remote island presided over by the mad alchemist Doctor Copicus, and Francis realises this is the same island as his brother is trying to find.

When they eventually arrive at the island, they are greeted by a spectre of gigantic size. The petrified crew want to flee, but by this point the ship is in the grip of inescapable water currents, and they’re drawn in to the island to become captives of the mad alchemist.

Illustration from the first edition, by N W Physick (presumably Visiak’s cousin, Nino William Physick)

Doctor Copicus, it turns out, is totally focused on revenging himself on his homeland (England) for exiling him. To this end, he is seeking to create a “combustible”, “an explosive searching as lightning, [so] mighty that blasting gunpowder would be, compared to it, but a puny breath”. He seems able to command others through sheer force of will, and rules the seamen and pirates who work for him with no tolerance at all for the slightest mistake — when his loyal secretary Ambrose forgets to bring him the sulphur he asked for, Copicus orders his execution in twenty days (during which time Ambrose continues to work for him as faithfully as ever).

The island has its own volcano (or “volcan” as Visiak has it, in mock-17th century prose), and this is, in a way, an image of the burning desire for revenge within Copicus’s Satanic breast:

“I grow liker and liker to thee!” said he [Copicus, addressing the volcano], with passion in his shrill voice, “Liker to thy hollow heart! thy hollow, fiery heart! . . . I, too, am a volcan! On fire! On fire! Waiting!“

Because he can read and write Latin, Francis is given the task of copying the Doctor’s manuscripts, but has time enough to explore the island and learn some of its mysteries (including the mechanism behind that giant ghost). The strangest thing he finds there is the “skeleton antic lad”, a bone-thin boy who gibbers alchemical nonsense, and to whose speech Copicus pays great attention. Ambrose hints at what may be the book’s only truly supernatural element:

“The lad is a daemon, or familiar, of the Doctor,” answered Ambrose. “He is, as I may say, super-rational. He hath strange powers. He can see spirits.”

This was the element David Lindsay picked out from his reading of the book, as he says in a letter to Visiak early on in their correspondence, in 1921:

“At first I took you at your word and started reading the ‘Haunted Island’ as an adventure story, but then ends began refusing to fit in, and I saw it must be more than that. Does not the clue lie in that weirdly marvellous ‘skeleton antic lad’?”

To me, the “skeleton antic lad” feels like an image of Copicus’s tortured soul. However much he likes to think himself like the volcano, with its raging fires, destructive power, and “hollow heart”, he is nevertheless a human being, and the human part of him must have all the vulnerability of a child (and a malnourished child at that, as Copicus has not exactly been nurturing his human soul), and may well have been driven babblingly insane by his singleminded need for revenge.

There are a few points of similarity between The Haunted Island and Medusa. Both, for instance, have a character whose hobby is sculpture — Mr Falconer in Medusa, who carves weird figureheads on his model ships, and Copicus’s secretary Ambrose here — which recalls the fact that Visiak himself was the son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson, of a line of sculptors. Both books feature a dangerous, piratical character among the crew of the ship the narrator sails on — Moon in Medusa, Ouvery here. (Both recalling Long John Silver.) One strange echo, shared not just with Medusa but the later short story “Medusan Madness”, is a weird-tinged vision the narrator has of a numinous sea landscape, fraught with awe and dread. Here is The Haunted Island’s version:

“I saw a vision of a boundless expanse: the heavens loaden with masses of cloud ebon black, the firmament illumined with a spectral light, and, beneath it all, the deep! That was black as the clouds above, and surging in billows (though without foam) so stupendous, that the tops of them might not be descried, and sweeping together with a shock and tumult such as no man could imagine. But that which held my gaze — yea, and nigh unseated my reason! — was the Thing, whether brute or demon, that seemed to be the sole denizen of the waters, swimming and wallowing there. Merciful God! may I never look upon the like of it again.”

This seems to be an encapsulation of Visiak’s entire cosmic vision, with the “spectral light” of the heavens blocked to us poor mortals by the black, shadow-like clouds of our fallen existence; and then the “surging billows” of the (emotionally and spiritually) turbulent material world, haunted by some unseen but menacing “Thing”— a “Thing” that more recalls the climax of Medusa than the present novel. As Francis reads in Doctor Copicus’s manuscripts:

“For the material universe… is the shadow cast by the spiritual universe… the light whereof proceedeth from the Deity, wherein all live and move and have their being. Wherein, rather, all sleep, or sleeping, dream; or dreaming, fitfully awake.”

The Haunted Island and Medusa are certainly both made from a similar mould. Medusa is the work of a better, and more experienced writer, but The Haunted Island is, in its second half at least, perhaps more conventionally satisfying than Medusa’s sudden descent into really mad weirdness. It certainly deserves to be read alongside Visiak’s later, more well-regarded novel — or on its own, by anyone who loves a 17th century Gothic-piratic sea-adventure.

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

1975 Picador PB, art by Mark Harrison

In some ways, John Cowper Powys’s massive 1933 novel A Glastonbury Romance bears comparison with David Lindsay’s massive 1932 novel Devil’s Tor. Both are set in rural South West England, where mystical visions seem to presage a worldwide spiritual or religious revival; both spend a lot of time examining, in intense detail, the inner lives of their characters; and both are, as already said, massive (A Glastonbury Romance being more than twice the length of David Lindsay’s 200,000-word “monster”). And this massiveness is part of their point — they want to come across as major statements, their physical heft a corollary to the weight of what they’re trying to say. But Lindsay’s and Powys’s intents are poles apart. Lindsay’s fundamental urge was world-rejection; his need was for a radical re-understanding of the universe’s troubling core mystery. Powys, on the other hand, was all about acceptance of life. To him:

“There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second.”

But Powys isn’t the sunny-minded optimist you’d imagine as Lindsay’s opposite. He doesn’t turn away from (Lindsay’s touchstone) pain. He believed in accepting all of life, from the sublime and mystical to the crude and rude, and not merely with a stoic shrug, but by seizing it with an almost pagan ferocity. As one of the central characters of A Glastonbury Romance, the unconventional preacher, faith-healer, and (for most of the novel) Mayor of Glastonbury, “Bloody Johnny” Geard, says of his (very personal and idiosyncratic) beliefs:

“It matters not at all from what cups, from what goblets, we drink, so long as without being cruel, we drink up Life. The sole meaning, purpose, intention, and secret of Christ, my dears, is not to understand Life, or mould it, or change it, or even to love it, but to drink of its undying essence!”

The novel starts with the reading of a will. Canon Crow has died, and his family, with members ranging from the trampish rogue John Crow to the opportunistic industrialist Philip Crow, gather to learn that none of them has inherited anything. The whole £40,000 has been left to “Bloody Johnny” Geard of Glastonbury. Geard, though, does not see this as a personal bequest. He believes it’s his mission to turn his home town of Glastonbury — resting place of the Holy Grail and the Blood of Christ — into a world-class site of spiritual pilgrimage, “a mystical rival to Rome and Jerusalem”, and sets about doing just that. His first act is to announce a Passion Play, with mixed-in Arthurian elements, and he hires John Crow to organise it and advertise it to the world.

But really, Powys is almost wilfully uninterested in plot. His intent, as stated in a 1953 preface to a later edition, was to examine:

“Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.”

Which reminds me of Alan Moore’s intent with From Hell, to take the Jack the Ripper murders and examine them as a “human event” that touches the lives of many different people in many different ways. Powys is doing the same with the myth of the Holy Grail. But even this is to imply A Glastonbury Romance has more focus than it has, and I’d say a better guide to the sort of thing this novel is doing is a quote from the critic George Santayana, who said of Dickens (in a 1921 essay called “Dickens”):

“…what he had was a vast sympathetic participation in the daily life of mankind.”

And that seems more like what Powys is doing. With the excuse of following the events (very loosely, and often only as background or rumours) surrounding the putting-on of Geard’s Passion Play (in the first half of the novel) and, in the second half, the conversion of Glastonbury to a Socialistic commune, and Geard’s use of the healing powers of its “Grail Fountain” to turn the town into a British Lourdes, Powys dips into the inner lives of his many and varied characters, some of whom have nothing to do with the Play or those later events, or who only touch them lightly. Even major-seeming plot events are brushed aside offhand. In one chapter, Geard takes Tittie Petherton, who has been suffering awful pains from cancer, to the Grail Fountain, to cure her and provide his Glastonbury with its first miracle. We leave them there, mid-cure, and hear nothing for several chapters, then all-too-briefly glimpse Tittie Petherton, apparently fully cured, enjoying scones at a tea. It’s never stated that she’s cured, though she’s obviously better, and we don’t get the sort of disbelieving or believing reactions you want to hear. It’s almost as if the actual relation of plot is an embarrassment to Powys, and best brushed under the carpet. (Though it has to be said that in four of the book’s longest chapters — that dealing with the Pageant itself, and the final three which round off the book — Powys resolves his major plot strands with the same sort of dramatic brio as Peake displays in his Gormenghast novels’ major set-pieces.)

Powys is interested, most of all, in inhabiting the lives of his multitude of characters, in sampling their peculiar ways of experiencing the world, of thinking about it, of feeling about it, of relating to it. And he isn’t only interested in human characters. His is “a universe so thrilling and so aching with teeming consciousness” that, in wandering from one character to another, he occasionally brings in a non-human consciousness, including at one point a tree, or the sun (which takes a particular dislike to the Vicar of Glastonbury, though this only results in his feeling the heat a little more than others if he goes outside without a hat), the dead Canon Crow freshly laid in his grave (who has an ethereal though down-to-earth conversation with his wife, who’s buried in another country), and the “First Cause” — the God of Powys’s universe, a being whose nature generates all the good and all the evil in our world. (For Powys, it’s only human beings who can actually “produce good out of evil” as “this they do of their absolute free-will”; the First Cause just pours both good and evil out, constantly.)

In this way, Powys seems to stand in an odd relation to the modernist writers of his time. On the one hand, he employs the stream-of-consciousness technique of dipping into his characters’ minds, to relate both their consequential and their inconsequential thoughts, just as Virginia Woolf does in Mrs Dalloway. (Also her technique of shifting from one character to another as they pass in the street, or glance one another across a field.) On the other hand, he has no interest in the concept of the unreliable narrator, or of giving up any of the authorial authority the likes of Dickens took for granted. Which isn’t to say he comes across as dictatorial. Rather, he’s convincing through the sheer novelty and strangeness of the inner worlds he presents us with. In a way, Powys, as narrator, is like one of the “invisible anthropologists” he sometimes mentions as witnessing the events of his novel — the disembodied inhuman entities he tells us are lingering around his many characters, watching what they do with mild, dispassionate interest. Powys actually gets a mention in Colin Wilson’s monumental study The Occult for his having “deliberately set out to cultivate ‘multi-mindedness’, to pass out of his own identity into that of people or even objects”, and not just in his novels, but in his daily life.

There’s a quote from Wilson on the back of my 1975 paperback edition of the novel, calling it “Possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and one of the great mystical masterpieces of all time”. Powys’s mysticism, though, isn’t anything like Lindsay’s. With Lindsay, visions give his characters a glimpse of another reality, and when they return to this world it’s with a feeling they’re sinking back into a second-rate or false reality. With Powys, visionary experiences are just one part of the vastness of the one, single reality — a rare part, yes, but still a part of this world, not a glimpse of another. And his characters’ visionary experiences don’t, in the end, turn out to be that important. Three of his main characters, the roguish John Crow, the would-be-saint Sam Dekker, and the would-be-sinner Owen Evans, have visions. Evans, who thinks playing the part of Christ on the Cross in the Pageant will cure him of his obsessive sadistic fantasies, does have a vision of Christ, but the effect of that vision wears off, and what actually saves him, in the end, is the love of his wife. Sam sees the Holy Grail, and feels the need to rush around telling everyone, but where he expects to have to overcome disbelief, he’s instead faced with indifference. John Crow has a vision of Excalibur, but this has even less effect; chapters later he’s disgusted with Geard’s peddling the reality of the Arthurian myths as “lies”. Geard, the most mystically-minded character in the book, is more childlike than saint-like, and in place of Lindsay’s need, in Devil’s Tor, for his characters to give themselves up to serve that book’s demanding, tragic Goddess, Geard sees Christ more as “a Power to be exploited”:

“He [Christ] was the Mayor’s great magician, his super-Merlin… Never once had it crossed the threshold of Mr Geard’s consciousness that it was his duty to live a life of self-sacrifice.”

(I like that fact that, ultimately, the source of Geard’s force of personality is “the man’s complete freedom from self-consciousness”.)

Powys’s mysticism is not about glimpses of other worlds, but more an awed appreciation of this one. Every moment, for him, however quotidian, is imbrued with a sort of mystical light, and he loves to let us into the mind of a minor character and reveal that, in some quiet way, they have the secret of life’s true meaning, and have had it, quite naturally, since they were born:

“When not in acute physical pain, or in the presence of acute physical pain, Nancy Stickles enjoyed every moment of life. She liked to touch life, hear life, smell life, taste life, see life…”

US 1st edition

It’s an odd thing, though, that for a book published in 1933, and ostensibly set in “the present” — and which features an aeroplane, and cars, and I think at one point someone suggests using a telephone, though nobody has a radio, but evidently it is the 1930s — it makes absolutely no mention of the First World War. None of the characters thinks of it, or recalls having served in it, or has lost anyone to it, or been wounded in it. If Powys is a modernistic writer in the techniques he employs, he seems utterly indifferent to the driving force behind such works as The Waste Land or Mrs Dalloway (with its shell-shocked Septimus Smith). Powys doesn’t even present his life-acceptance as an answer to the worldwide trauma of the Great War, and the widespread loss of belief of the 20th century; it’s as though it just doesn’t affect him, so he doesn’t mention it. (Which is doubly odd, because Powys obviously has a real hatred of cruelty. He apparently had a belief that, early in life, his thinking ill of others caused them actual ill, so he practised a sort of generalised benevolence, so as not to magically cause anyone harm.)

It could be that, as I said with Peake’s Gormenghast, the war makes itself felt in the way both that book and this one ends with a flood. In A Glastonbury Romance, the army even turns out to help, but there’s just not the same feeling, as with Peake, of this being a terrible disaster thrust upon all its characters in the same way the war was thrust upon the real world. With Powys, it feels more as though he just needed to find a way to end his massive book, so came up with a flood, as a sort of watery full-stop.

Reading A Glastonbury Romance is like taking a holiday, not just in another place, but in a timeless time. It’s a glimpse into Powys’s own worldview, one obviously nurtured in a rural upbringing, free of the modern world’s onslaught of communication and networking, a world in which one could really develop an eccentric inner life, an individualistic and even mystic way of experiencing one’s own existence and the quiet, slow-paced, characterful worlds of nature, and other people. That, more than anything, is what lingers, having read this book. It’s less about getting from page 1 to page 1,120, than it is about switching to a different mode of existence whilst being nestled between its capacious pages — a subtler, stranger, and perhaps now-lost mode of existence, but certainly one I’m glad to find preserved in Powys’s novel.

Perelandra by C S Lewis

In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.

The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)

But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:

“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”

Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)

A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.