Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

(most probably) Emily Brontë by her brother, Branwell

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the subject of my favourite book review ever, in a letter from Pre-Raphaelite artist & poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Irish poet William Allingham, in September 1854:

“…it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from [poet] Mrs Browning to [murderer] Mrs Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.”

My first attempt at scaling Wuthering Heights was when I was trying to work through all the books in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I was perhaps feeling a little jaded by that book’s eccentricities by that point, as I’d read Moby Dick thanks to their recommendation, and couldn’t quite see the relevance to fantasy. (I can perhaps see their point a bit better now, and mean to reread Moby Dick at some point, free of false preconceptions — which is the best way to enjoy a classic novel.) A little way into Wuthering Heights, I began to feel it was going to be another of Cawthorn & Moorcock’s more eccentric inclusions, and gave up on it. (I really wonder if I’d have been able to appreciate it properly anyway, back then.) On recently learning that David Lindsay thought highly of it, though, I decided to give it another go, and am glad I did.

Wuthering Heights has had a long association with the more subtler and supernaturally-tinged fantastic. As Julia Briggs says in her study of the English ghost story, Night Visitors (1977):

“…the whole tenor of the book… implies a coherent universe wherein man, nature and spirit interact closely, and where the cruel and uncompromising power of love is more ruthless and compelling even than death.”

Most surprisingly of all, considering its reputation as perhaps the most darkly romantic of all love stories, H P Lovecraft liked the book — Lovecraft, who reacted so strongly to a “few touches of commonplace sentimentality” in William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he says:

“Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort… Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown.”

Both of these quotes make it clear it’s the atmosphere of the book that speaks of the supernatural and fantastic, rather than the details (though there is, of course, ghostly Cathy’s “ice-cold hand” through the window one night, which may be a dream, but nevertheless imparts some details the narrator couldn’t at that point know). In fact, a lot of the power of the book comes from its narration being so low-key and realistic, thanks to the down-to-earth servant’s-eye-view of Nelly Dean, whose general lack of judgement only makes all the violence and brutality centred around Heathcliff seem that much more violent and brutal, lacking as it does the narrative cushioning of explanations, justifications, and condemnations.

Faber and Faber cover

It’s around Heathcliff this dark air of the supernatural accumulates, from the moment he first appears in the story, a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” with an oddly old-looking face. Mr Earnshaw, who brings this child back the 60-miles walk from Liverpool, names it after a dead child of his own, adding to the feeling it may be a fairy changeling or a soul retrieved from hell. Like one of Le Fanu’s supernatural companions, it sucks the life out of those around it, as both Mrs (who most dislikes it) and then Mr Earnshaw (who most likes it) fade away and die after it’s brought into the home. (And the detail that, as well as presenting this unwanted child to his family, Mr Earnshaw discovers that the gifts he was asked to bring have either been lost or broken seems almost Aickmanesque. Did Earnshaw have to struggle to bring the child along with him? Or, did the child’s mere presence supernaturally spoil all attempts at affection, however minor, from that point on? The weird creeps in where the explanations are lacking.)

By name and nature, Heathcliff is more a landscape than a person — or, perhaps, a Gothic castle in human form, bleak, forbidding, oppressive, imperturbable, dark and haunted, monomaniacal. He feels like a character from a different mode of fiction altogether, a blood-soaked Webster tragedy, perhaps, or one of the wilder folk ballads. Placed in an otherwise respectable early-Victorian novel, he becomes a sort of black hole, pulling everyone in his orbit down into the dark pit of his loveless world.

Puffin cover

And that’s the thing that most struck me about this novel. By reputation, Wuthering Heights is a love story, but it seems to me the whole point about Heathcliff and his world is it (and he) cannot express, or even understand, love. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, for instance (who’s too infantilely self-absorbed to express love herself: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me…”). Their relationship seems more about possessiveness than love, but a possessiveness so deep that Cathy feels it as identification (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). So, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t marry Heathcliff, because she and he are already one. Heathcliff himself seems only able to express anger, resentment, and a dark joy in revenge. He teaches the young Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with him at Wuthering Heights, “to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak.” When Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, and lives with him at the Heights, she’s forced to ask, of the affable narrator Nelly Dean:

“How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.”

I still find it hard to express what I felt as I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. It was like a constant series of affronts, as Nelly Dean’s calm and seemingly level-headed narrative was peppered with acts of sudden anger and violence, some of which didn’t serve the plot, but just added to the air of devastation. The way five-year-old Hareton, for instance, reacts to the woman who, till six months before, had been all but mother to him: he throws a heavy flint at her head, and not out of anger at her, but more a sort of feral rejection of all human beings. There’s something about the way these brutal emotions swamp out the more human ones that recalls, to me, the way the children in The Turn of the Screw have been in some undefined way defiled by the depredations of Peter Quint, at the other end of the 19th century.

Wordsworth cover

And I think Wuthering Heights has more in common with The Turn of the Screw and those great horror stories of the end of the 19th century than that. Just as the ghost story at that time made the transition from pure fright-tale to a new and deeper exploration of human psychology, so Wuthering Heights’ power derives, in large part, from its presenting the sort of tumultuous passions brewed up in those earlier Gothic novels in a more realistic — and so, undeniably recognisable — way. It makes the novel’s characters and story that much more believable, and its horror all the more horrific — and so, I’d say, the psychology all the more insightful. This is, it feels, an authentic layer of human experience that no amount of civilised society can do away with.

It’s Heathcliff who’s haunted in Emily Brontë’s novel — “The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” — but the result is itself a haunting narrative, still shockingly powerful and weirdly irresolvable.

And you can’t talk about Wuthering Heights without mentioning Kate Bush. Her song, I think, stands alongside Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” as rare examples of songs inspired by other works of art that equal them in artistic power.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?

Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis

First edition. Cover by Harold Jones.

Some time in the mid-to-late 1930s, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien agreed to each write an “excursionary ‘thriller’”, as Tolkien put it, with Tolkien attempting a story of time-travel and Lewis one of space-travel. Tolkien never finished his (what exists was eventually included in The Lost Road and Other Writings), whereas C S Lewis went on to write a whole trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (published in 1938).

Lewis later called it his “Space Trilogy” (it’s also known as the Ransom Trilogy, and the Cosmic Trilogy). One of its main inspirations was David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis first read some time between 1935 and 1938. Lindsay “is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction”, Lewis writes in his essay “On Stories”. Elsewhere, in a 1947 letter to Ruth Pitter, he says that it was from Lindsay he “first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures” (though he found Lindsay’s own outlook “so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic”).

That said, Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t display a great deal of explicit Arcturan influence (for that, you have to look to the second book, Perelandra) beyond the idea that a science fiction adventure needn’t simply pay homage to what Lewis felt was the purely scientific worldview, and could instead be used to present his own spiritual outlook.

The novel begins with philologist Dr Elwin Ransom, on a walking holiday somewhere in Britain, being kidnapped and taken to a planet he at first only knows as Malacandra. He is, it seems, to be a sacrifice to the creatures of that world, whom his human kidnappers want to appease so they can establish a base there, for mining gold and perhaps, in the future, colonisation. His kidnappers aren’t merely ruthless criminals, but a “great physicist” Dr Weston (who has “Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast”), and a schoolboy bully of a businessman, Devine. Of the two, Devine’s main motivator is greed (he just wants Malacandra’s gold), whereas Weston is more idealistic, though not in any good way. Weston is a believer in the Life Force, in human expansion and survival as an end itself. To him:

“Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation.”

Once they touch down, Ransom escapes as soon as he can, and for a while is caught in a state of terror. Fed on a diet of the day’s science fiction, he’s come to expect the inhabitants of any non-Earth planet to be reptilian or insect-like, “alien, cold… superhuman in power, subhuman in cruelty”, combining “monstrosity of form” with “ruthlessness of will”. But what he finds is that Malacandra — or Mars, as he learns it to be — is in fact a harmonious place, home to three intelligent races, the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi, and that none of these ever wanted him as a sacrifice. That idea was all down to Weston and Devine’s inability to understand the inhabitants of Malacandra in any way but their own imperialist prejudices.

1951 edition

Away from Weston and Devine, Ransom starts to learn the Malacandran language, and to appreciate Malacandran ways of life. The hrossa have a tribal, hunter-gatherer-style existence, and revere poetry above all other accomplishments. “They are our great speakers and singers,” Ransom is told. “They have more words and better.” The sorns are tall, intelligent and wise, and revere knowledge. The pfifltriggi are “the busy people” who excel in technical skill and making things. There’s a clear parallel between these three races and the three humans, with Ransom (a philologist) being equivalent to the word-loving hrossa; Weston (a scientist) equivalent to the knowledgeable sorns; and Devine (a businessman) equivalent to the “busy people”, the pfifltriggi. (You could also make a looser parallel with Tolkien’s humans, elves, and dwarves.) The difference is, of course, that the three Malacandran races not only live in harmony with one another, but with the cosmos at large.

Even before he reaches Malacandra, Ransom becomes aware of space as something other than the cold vacuum he’d been led to expect: “the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance…” It is, in fact, closer to his idea of heaven. And it turns out that, on every planet in the solar system except Earth, there’s a deep connection with the divine cosmic order. Maleldil (God) made it all, and placed one of his chief representatives (the Oyarsa) on each planet, who in turn are served by the invisible-to-us eldila (angels). Only on Thulcandra — Earth, known to the rest of the solar system as the “Silent Planet” — have we lost touch with this divine order, and that’s because our Oyarsa (presumably Lucifer) rebelled against Maleldil, and has since been known as “the Bent One”.

Paperback version, art by Bernard Symancyk

It’s humankind’s exclusion from a directly experienced connection with this divine order that has led to our “human history — of war, slavery and prostitution”. In effect, Lewis has written a science fiction story in which mankind travels to the stars not to fight evil aliens (a generalisation presumably only true of some of the worst pulp SF of the time) but to learn of its own inherent evil.

(This also makes it the opposite of the sort of cosmic horror being written by Lovecraft. Lovecraft used science-fictional concepts to paint a picture of a universe so chaotic and indifferent to humankind as to be utterly malevolent; Lewis is saying that if only we could see beyond our blinkered view, we’d know the cosmos to be perfect, ordered, and benevolent. As long, that is, as we obey Maleldil. And why Lewis should call the God of his trilogy Maleldil — a name that, to me, screams “ancient evil” — and one of its villains Devine, I have no idea.)

The trouble — and I think this is often the thing with Lewis’s fantasy fiction, for me — is that, when making a philosophical or ethical point about our world, but setting it in a world he’s created, Lewis has already won the debate. Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he has Weston present the “Life Force” viewpoint directly to the Oyarsa of Mars, but Lewis makes what Weston says sound ridiculous because of Ransom having to translate it to Malacandran, whereupon it immediately sounds self-defeating and nonsensical. Not that I’d want to defend Weston at all, it’s just that Weston combines a belief in the survival of the human race with such an utter lack of feeling for his fellow human beings that you can’t say he truly represents the purely scientific worldview, only an extreme caricature of it. So, there’s no debate. If there is a benevolent Maleldil or God, there’s no need for Weston’s worldview, because there’s something better already available. But if you take out that certainty, and Weston’s psychopathic lack of empathy, you’d have a much more nuanced, and interesting, debate which Lewis avoids.

As science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was probably interesting in its day, as it tried to present its alien races from something of an anthropological (wrong word, I know) standpoint: as intelligent races to be understood as living beings, rather than mere invasion-fodder for a pulp adventure. But the years between then and now have seen the same thing done a lot better by other hands. There’s also not a great deal of story to this book (I prefer the second in the trilogy, Perelandra, which I’ll be writing about in the next Mewsings). Instead, Out of the Silent Planet stands out as a sort of curiosity, Lewis’s attempt at a corrective to the modern, purely scientific science fiction story, presenting the sort of cosmic order a medieval writer might have come up with, and owing more to Swift (Lewis’s pfifltriggi sound very Gulliver’s Travels to me) than to H G Wells (whom Lewis apologises to in his brief preface, for “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type”). Which makes it sound as though Lewis-the-enthusiastic-reader-of-stories was in conflict with Lewis-the-Christian-apologist from the start. And that perhaps most sums up my own reaction — I like the bits written by the “enthusiastic reader of stories”; less so the rest.