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.

Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts

First UK edition

Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.

Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.

Badbury Rings

In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.

It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:

“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”

The Little Review, Jan-Mar 1921, where the first instalment of Ashe of Rings appeared

Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.

The Little Review, Sep 1921, with the second instalment of Ashe of Rings

Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).

On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:

“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”

But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:

“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”

I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:

“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”

Mary Butts in 1919

Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.

In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.

It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.

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.