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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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.

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