The Orissers by L H Myers

I’ve long been meaning to read something by Leopold Hamilton Myers (1881–1944), one of David Lindsay’s few literary friends. Unlike Lindsay, Myers seems to have achieved both popular and critical success in his own lifetime; again unlike Lindsay, he’s almost entirely forgotten today. The Orissers was his first novel (though he’d published a verse-play, Arvat, in 1908). He started working on it around 1909, and it was published in 1922, initially in a large-format limited edition, which was, ironically, easier for me to find and buy than its standard first edition. So, I’ve ended up with a signed copy, little smaller than a shoe-box, with a letter from Myers to the owner pasted in (see below).

The titular Orisser family have lived on the country estate of Eamor for generations. At the opening of the novel their latest patriarch, the archaeologist Sir Charles Orisser, has given in to impulse and taken a new, young wife, Lilian (a cousin, so also an Orisser). After this he feels the need to amass more money, makes bad investments, ends up broke and kills himself. Lilian, now penniless and living in an enormous house, receives an offer of marriage from a former admirer, another much older man, the business tycoon John Mayne. Mayne promises to pay off all her husband’s debts if she marries him, and to bequeath Eamor back to her when he dies, so it will remain in the hands of the Orissers. But the marriage doesn’t go well. Lilian continues to live in Eamor — away from her husband — and when Mayne becomes ill, the family start to doubt he really is going to will the house back to them, considering how Lilian failed to live up to his expectations as a wife.

It’s easy to see from this summary why the novel attracted comparisons with E M Forster, as both The Orissers and Howards End are about the ownership of a beloved house, fought over by two families, one worldly and business-wise, the other artistic or unworldly in some way. (Forster met Myers just once, and found him “chilly”.) It’s perhaps less easy to see why the novel was also compared by at least one reviewer to Wuthering Heights, but I suspect this comes about because of a rather odd character, Cosmo Orisser, who is surely the most interesting in the book — or would be, if he was allowed to actually appear on the page, rather than having his exploits mostly related secondhand, before finally turning up only to drop dead.

Cosmo seems like just the sort of character who’d have appeared in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (and Wilson did write about Myers in his essay collection Eagle & Earwig, saying “there are few novelists who make such an excellent impression”, but probably referring here to his later books). Here’s Cosmo — “the world abhorring and by the world abhorred”:

“Cosmo was a magnificent creature. His great physical vitality was matched by the fire of his spirit. One felt that his body with all its energies was subjugated to his imperious mind. What, then, was the reason of his failure in life?”

What indeed? Cosmo is a mystery Myers doesn’t provide us with enough clues to solve. (There’s one incident early in the novel — related secondhand, of course, and not once but twice — where Cosmo, on holiday in a foreign country, stabs his rich host, only to nurse him back to health and part on seemingly good terms. Lilian walks in on the scene, but refuses to say something key about it, which only makes me wonder what we’re meant to understand about what really happened. Was Cosmo involved in a homosexual affair with his host, for instance? It’s the only thing I can think, but despite having two separate characters relate the incident, Myers evades the slightest hint for both the stabbing and the parting on good terms.) Cosmo then spends the rest of the novel either fevered, mad, or just plain dangerous to know:

“Every hour spent in Cosmo’s company added to his wonder at the strange combination of wisdom and folly, insight and blindness, that his companion presented. Unreasonable as Cosmo was, there was yet much to admire in his extreme sensitiveness to all that was unlovely and mean in the spiritual as well as in the material life…”

Cosmo, though, feels like a character from another novel — perhaps one by Dostoevsky — who’s occasionally glimpsed from this far more sedate and Englishly-reserved one.

John Mayne is the other impressive character, though more of the George Bernard Shaw than the Colin Wilson Outsider type, justifying his money-making with no apologies about being so rich. Like Cosmo, though, he spends most of the novel off-page, even when he’s in the same house as the other characters. I can’t really remember if he makes an actual appearance before his death near the end, which finally precipitates the events the previous pages have been building towards.

I say “building”, but really, there’s an awful lot of novel before things start doing even that. This is a long book, and I have to say I found the first three quarters, if not more, often quite tedious. Myers brought on his characters — apart from those interesting two, who we only hear about — and just seemed to shift them about like a chess player trying to decide which move to make. The main characters are one Allen Allen — and any other novelist, surely, would have explained why his main character has the same name twice, or even make a joke about it, but not Myers — and the young Nicholas Orisser. Much time is spent on Nicholas’s existential pains, and his agonising over an affair he proceeds to have, then break off. None of which I cared about. Nicholas, I couldn’t help feeling, was something of a first-novel repository of his author’s pent-up feelings about his young self, but lacks the sort of distance that might hone such a mess of adolescent angst into something interesting. It all felt a little squalid and self-directed.

At other points, Myers seemed to be struggling with what to do with his characters. At one stage, young Nicholas even reads Allen Allen an essay he’s written on the meaning of the other characters in the novel, with no irony or postmodernism intended. (And this brings out another flaw in the book. Myers likes to tell us things about his characters, but doesn’t actually make those characters live up to what he tells us about them. It’s as though he’s desperately flinging depth at them, but it refuses to stick.)

I kept reading because I’d glimpsed a discussion near the end in which Nicholas and Allen talk about “the Great Mother”, and wondered if this might have been read by David Lindsay — who surely must have read his friend’s novel — and in some way influenced Devil’s Tor. But Myers’ characters have none of Lindsay’s mystical feelings. To Nicholas, the Great Mother is the force of nature that drives men to find a mate and reproduce, nothing more. Allen Allen has a slightly deeper view:

“Yes, in you it is Venus, not Isis—not Isis, the sacred mother of life, upon whose statue was engraved the words: ‘I am that which is, has been, and shall be.’”

But still it’s not Lindsay’s cosmic quest for a meaning behind it all.

The one thing I will say about The Orissers, though, is that it ended well. Suddenly, in the last quarter (or probably less), with John Mayne newly dead and the other characters manoeuvring around some wills and other documents, things build to a genuinely tense and dramatic confrontation. All taking place in one room, with a small cast of characters, it could have made a good short play, or a taut novella — though how much of the previous bagginess was required as a build-up, I don’t know.

The letter pasted into my copy of The Orissers, dated 5 Aug 1927: “Dear Sir, I am grateful to you for writing to me. Private letters of appreciation mean much more to me than reviews. I put a great deal of work & feeling into that book,—and letters such as yours make one feel that it was worth while. I am now engaged on another serious book like The Orissers; The Clio was an interlude, an experiment in another vein. Thanking you for writing, I am yours truly, L H Myers.”

L H Myers. As Virginia Woolf wrote of him: “like a du Maurier drawing; such a perfect white waistcoat and his grizzled distinguished head. But he still looks like a sleepy viper…”

Myers is an intriguing man. The one fact always brought up in every biographical summary of him, however short, is that his father was F W H Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. (It’s thanks to L H Myers that his father’s Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was compiled, abridged, and published, after its author’s death — and, it has to be said, that same author’s failure to turn up at his appointed return from said death.) Myers himself made some interesting friendships — with Olaf Stapledon, David Lindsay, and L P Hartley, to name but three who have appeared on this blog — but towards the end of his life rejected them all. (Apparently, he wrote to his wealthy friends, saying that, despite his affection for them, he never wished to set eyes on them again.) Born into wealth and taking full advantage of it, Myers nevertheless considered financial inequality to be one of the main sources of the world’s ills. (Frances Partridge, in her diary, writes of him: “Once when lunching at Claridges I couldn’t help commenting on the contrast between our surroundings (oozing money and privilege) with the theories he was propounding. ‘Yes, I know,’ he said, ‘but that has absolutely no bearing on their validity.’”)

Despite The Orissers being something of a stodgy read, that ending made me wonder if he hadn’t burned away all the first-novel dross most writers get done with in their unpublished works. (Myers, being rich and well-connected, was perhaps denied the sort of publisher’s rejection he needed to make him try again and do better. I’m pretty sure his first novel’s publication was at least partly paid for by Myers himself, and some of its good reviews came about through friendship rather than literary judgement.) So, I also read his next and much shorter novel, The Clio. And, it turned out, Myers had learned something after all…


The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay, Annotated Edition

What started as a late lockdown project to research some points that intrigued me about David Lindsay’s second novel, 1922’s The Haunted Woman (which I wrote about in Mewsings a little while back), has turned into an extensively annotated edition, which I’ve now published in hardback, paperback and ebook. (Full details here.)

The thing that kicked it off was a phrase one of the novel’s characters uses early on, when explaining the name of the house at the centre of the book’s mystery, Runhill Court:

“Historical—supposed to be derived from the old Saxon ‘rune-hill,’ so he says. The runes were engraved letters, intended to keep off the trolls and blendings…”

1968 cover for G A Hight’s translation of Grettir

On first reading, I assumed “blendings” were some specific kind of fairy or goblin, but I could never find the name listed in reference works. It was only when I decided to solve it once and for all, and started by learning more about trolls, that what perhaps ought to have been obvious struck me: Norse sagas often feature the offspring of trolls and humans, and though these are usually called half-trolls in English translations, I realised this could be what “blendings”meant. And — thanks to the Icelandic Saga Database with its multiple translations and original-language versions, I found out that the original Icelandic word used in the sagas is “blendingum”. The only translator I could find who rendered it in English not as “half-trolls” but “blendings” was one G A Hight, translator of the 1914 Everyman edition of The Saga of Grettir the Strong. This makes me feel Lindsay could well have read Hight’s translation. (Sadly, Lindsay’s personal library was sold off before anyone was interested enough to note what it contained.)

It was a hugely enjoyable project, allowing me to indulge myself in researching a wide variety of topics, including the speed of cars in the 1920s (and, how did you lock a car in those days to prevent theft?), what exactly a “cream ice” is if it’s not an ice cream (and sometimes it isn’t), when David Lindsay was likely to have witnessed a solar eclipse (shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, it turns out), whether there ever was a “Hotel Gondy” as there is in the novel (there doesn’t seem to have been) and where that name might have come from, what supernatural creatures were likely to “ride the roof” of a house to require it to be protected by runes (not goblins, as one character suggests), what the novel’s Mrs Richborough might mean by claiming to be a “Spiritist”, how long it would have taken to reach Worthing by train from Hove in 1920 (thanks,, plus many others. (There’s 172 footnotes in all.)

Postcard of Chanctonbury Ring, with Wiston House in the middleground. Wiston is an Elizabethan manor about three miles north-west of Steyning, which is where Lindsay places Runhill Court

In some cases, I couldn’t find definite answers, though hopefully I’ve provided enough in the annotations to add to the reading of the novel anyway. What, for instance, is the sound of “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection” that Isbel thinks she hears in Runhill Court’s upstairs corridor? She answers the question herself — it’s a “a kind of low, vibrating hum” — but I wanted to find corroborating evidence. How did other writers of the day describe that sound? Try as I might, I couldn’t find any other description of what a telephone line sounded like while you were waiting for a connection — though I did find intriguing passages from Proust and Kafka on the almost supernaturally expectant moment of listening to a phone line before the connection is made. So, enough to make for an annotation, anyway.

From a publishing perspective, this was the most technically challenging book I’ve produced yet, with endnotes, a host of page and endnote cross-references, a table, maps and other visual material, and so on. Up till now, I’ve produced the layouts for my Bookship publications using only a word-processor (Nisus Writer Pro), but this time I had to combine it with Affinity Publisher, plus some dragging and dropping via MacOS’s surprisingly useful Preview app. I almost skipped producing Kindle and ePub versions altogether, as it meant I had to do a lot of the endnote-linking and cross-references again from scratch (using Jutoh, the only ebook-creation app I’ve been able to find which gives me the flexibility I get from a word processor), but I hate to leave a project feeling half-finished, so the ebook versions are there.

And then there’s the cover. I actually started on the cover way before anything else, not with this edition in mind, but simply because I’d produced covers for all the other books Lindsay published in his lifetime (A Voyage to Arcturus, Sphinx, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly, and Devil’s Tor), and wanted to see what I could make of this one. That particular project sat around as a black rectangle with basic lettering on it for way over a year while I struggled to find anything to put on it. Wanting to stay true to the novel’s descriptions, I couldn’t find anything looking and feeling like Runhill Court, and didn’t even try (at first) to find faces that might stand in for the two main characters. Finally, though, I had to admit that the only thing to put on the cover of a book called The Haunted Woman was a woman looking at least a little haunted, so I started searching around for someone fitting Lindsay’s description of Isbel (“Her face was rather short and broad, with thick but sensitive features…”). First I went through pictures of women from the 1920s, but none were right. When I finally settled on a piece of stock photography (mostly used to advertise hair salons, it seems), I had the lingering feeling she looked too modern — until I added a dab of lipstick (Isbel, in the novel, is described as generally wearing too much makeup) and it somehow pushed her back into the 1920s. The male face was another challenge, one I resolved, a little cheekily, by using Margaret Cameron’s photograph of one of the Victorian’s era’s leading writers, Thomas Carlyle. David Lindsay’s friend E H Visiak wrote that Lindsay both “facially resembled” and admired Carlyle. (Visiak also called Carlyle Lindsay’s “kinsman”, which I at first took literally and tried in vain to find a genealogical link between the two, before realising he probably just meant they were both Scots.) I only realised once I’d added Carlyle’s face that Henry Judge, in the novel, is described as “clean-shaven”, whereas Carlyle has a beard and moustache. I faded out the beard, but the moustache remains. Sorry, Henry Judge, but I always imagined you with a moustache, despite what Lindsay says.

Postcard image of Hove’s Medina Esplanade, where one of the novel’s chapters takes place.

Among the background elements on the cover are floor-plans, with one slightly emphasised staircase to represent the novel’s mysterious stairs that only appear to certain people at certain times. I looked through a lot of floor-plans for mansions and manor houses thanks to and Wikimedia Commons, but in the end the ones that most suited the look I was going for were, appropriately enough, for Borley Rectory, reputedly the most haunted house in Britain. (I broke up the floor-plans into their constituent elements, so the layout isn’t Borley Rectory — meaning I’ve either confused any ghosts who may be lingering in the floor-plans, or enraged them. If it’s the latter, I’m sure I’ll soon find out.)

I don’t know if I’ll be producing a similar edition of any of Lindsay’s other novels — certainly not in time for the centenary of Sphinx next year — but it’s been a fun and varied project, and hopefully one that might be of interest to other Lindsay readers. Or, at least, it’s a way to mark the novel’s centenary.


The Rift by Nina Allan

On Saturday 16th July, 1994, 17-year-old Julie Rouane goes out for the evening and doesn’t return. Although no body is found in the ensuing search, it’s eventually assumed a local plumber, Steven Jimson, who is found guilty of several other murders of young women in the Warrington area, killed her. Julie’s three-years-younger sister Selena gets on with her life, but fails to fully engage with it:

“College had seemed pointless – or rather she hadn’t seemed good enough. The idea of selecting a future, rather than simply accepting the future that was offered, seemed – what? Selfish, inconsiderate, immoral even.”

But then, twenty years later, Selena gets a call from Julie. She has, it seems, been living and working in nearby Manchester for some time and wants to explain what happened to her. But when she does, finally, explain, her story isn’t about local serial killer Steven Jimson, but involves her being mysteriously transported to the distant planet of Tristane.

(The section of the novel where Julie tells her story is called A Voyage to Arcturus, and I admit it was to see if there was any influence from David Lindsay’s novel that I read Nina Allan’s The Rift. But that section opens with a school essay by Julie on Peter Weir’s film of Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, and it’s Joan, not David, that’s the influence on Allan’s novel. If David Lindsay’s interplanetary journey is to be evoked at all, it’s by way of ironic contrast: his Maskull journeys to distant Tormance to return transformed; Julie travels only to further lose an already lost part of herself.)

One of the problems with Julie’s story is that Tristane, the alien planet she finds herself on, is almost wilfully unexotic. For a start, she doesn’t get there by spaceship or some sort of technological transportation beam, she just wanders round a lake near Warrington till she finds she’s not on Earth anymore, but at an identical lake on Tristane. She’s found by a woman from that planet who instantly recognises her. It turns out, to this Tristane woman, Julie isn’t from Earth at all, but was born on Tristane and got lost from there, and now she’s back. The Tristane woman is called Cally, and her husband is Noah — very Earth-like names. One of them is described as wearing a parka, a specific type of coat which of course evokes a specific, non-alien image. This air of mundanity could, of course, be down to the fact that all this is being translated, for our benefit, into English. But the place-names on Tristane sound to me as though we’re being invited to believe they were deliberately, randomly, and somewhat carelessly made up: Tristane is in “the Suur System, in the Aww Galaxy” (the Aww Galaxy?), whose cities and regions include Fiby, Galena, the Wrssin Forest, Marillienseet (which comes short after Julie mentions having listened to Marillion on the day of her disappearance), Clarimond, Davis (Davis?), and “the vast underground metropolis of Staerbrucke”, which immediately made me think of Starbucks, and wonder if Julie hadn’t found herself staring at a discarded coffee cup by the lake near Warrington instead of journeying to a distant planet.

There are, though, two decidedly different things about Tristane. One is that siblings there are allowed to marry (though it’s socially frowned upon, and any offspring are expected to be genetically modified to prevent harmful mutations). The other is that Tristane has recently cut off all contact with its sister-planet Dea, and though there is no official reason for this, a bestselling book tells the story of a creature found on Dea called the creef, which plants its eggs in human victims, who proceed to walk around for several months becoming slowly depersonalised before being devoured from within.

Both of these elements can be read as being in some way symbolic of sibling relationships, either of being too close (sibling marriage) or too distant (separated sister-planets Tristane and Dea), with the added threat of loss of self in the second. Is, then, Julie’s story actually an attempt to communicate something about her relationship with her sister?

coverI’ve covered a number of lost-woman-returns-from-Faerie novels on this blog, including Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012), J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920), and Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless (1981), as well as some in which the lost person doesn’t return, as with Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) (where’s it’s a man who disappears) and Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012). The point in all of these novels is that, although the characters in them want to know what happened, and try to prove or disprove the returnee’s story either way (which never works), the novels themselves don’t care about the facts, but are about the experience of loss. With Joyce, for instance, it’s how all the promise of a young life can be derailed by the loss of someone upon whom that promise was built, while with Barrie it’s about how loss spreads out to affect, and infect, everyone involved.

Loss permeates The Rift, too, and not just around Julie. The book opens with an episode from Selena’s past, in which she befriends an older man, a maths teacher who keeps koi carp in a pond in his garden, as a memory of a woman he once loved in Japan. When it becomes known, locally, that this man left his previous job under suspicion of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil, local youths break into his garden and pour disinfectant into the pond. There’s a sense, from this point on, of all of us — humans as well as fish — being just as vulnerable to destructive and incomprehensible cosmic forces that will take away all we care about in an instant:

“…the koi carp, how lovely they had been, how vulnerable to harm. The way we all are, here in our fish bowl. The whole stupid lot of us.”

Later, it’s revealed Julie also had a relationship with an older person, a woman this time, but also a teacher. This, and other parallels, infect all the narratives in this novel, and it’s a novel made up of many narratives, fragments of narratives, and documents: school essays by Julie, an excerpt from a crime novel based on her case, the story of a young woman who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs, encyclopedia entries about fish (which I confess I skipped after a while), the diary entry of a xenometallurgist. It starts to feel like one of those “terminal documents” from Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition that are used to both represent and attempt to resolve trauma, and which find echoes in other crisis narratives such as Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or Eliot’s The Waste Land. The Rift doesn’t quite have the same intensity as those, and I could never quite convince myself the switching from one narrative to another wasn’t seeking to represent the trauma at the heart of Julie’s situation, so much as avoid revealing the truth about her story. Though, having written that, I realise that being unable to face the truth is another aspect of trauma, too.

But it’s certainly the relationship between the sisters that’s at the heart of this novel. As children they used to play a game in which they pretended odd people were “aliens”, and the grown-up Julie at one point says “Remember when we were small, Selena, the worlds we made?” Is Tristane, then, an invitation to make another world, only not for play, this time, but to find common ground in the face of so much that is incomprehensible? Even before her disappearance, Julie and her sister were drifting apart. (And Julie also says, at one point, “I was never close to my sister Selena… I used to think I was, but I wasn’t, not even when we were kids”, which perhaps undermines my argument.)

But what this aspect of the novel most reminds me of is my take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, if you’re caught in a world that has no solidity, the only thing to do is find someone to cling to, even if they’re half made up of lies themselves. Shared experiences bind people together, just as traumatic, isolated experiences draw them apart. And the world, to Julie, is exactly of this type:

“Nothing is like you think it is, Selena. Nothing at all.”

She doesn’t even know herself anymore:

“Once the truth of what had happened to me began to seep through, a rift seemed to open in my mind, a rift between the universe I appeared to be living in and the one I understood.”

She doesn’t return from Tristane (as Maskull/Nightspore does from Tormance) invested with hidden knowledge, but instead with a black hole inside her of loss and confusion. Sifting through the evidence makes no sense, and it’s only when Selena decides to believe in her — even despite some confusing for-and-against evidence — that Julie can perhaps start to be real to herself once more.

I’m not sure I completely got this book, and I have to say I found its mixing of many narratives to be somewhat draining rather than (as with Garner and Ballard) intensifying. But it’s one of those books that, having read it and looking back on it, it turns out to be more satisfying than it was while I was reading it, which often happens with me with difficult novels.

I still don’t get the thing about the fish, though.