Medusa by E H Visiak

E H Visiak’s Medusa, A Story of Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror (1929) is the narrative of Will Harvell, written in old age but looking back on an adventure from his early years. As a boy he twice found himself responsible for someone’s death — the first his abusive, apoplectic grandfather, the second a school bully — and as a result runs away and finds himself embroiled in a sea-going adventure. He becomes the companion of Mr Huxtable, a gentleman whose only son has been kidnapped by pirates, and who has returned to England to sell enough property to pay the ransom. Now he’s got the money, he’s setting out, with Will, on the ship of Captain Blythe, a blustering, short-tempered man always harping on about his few tenuous connections to even minor gentry. When Blythe’s not kowtowing to the gentlemanly authoritative Huxtable, he’s insulting his curiously passive ship’s mate, Mr Falconer, whose one interest is, as Will puts it, “the making and rigging of little ships, but having such strange and outlandish figureheads as (I know not how otherwise to express it) affrighted my soul”. Also on board are the old, Bible-reading sailor Giles Kedgley, and his opposite, the lazy, work-shy drunk Obadiah Moon, whose only aim in life seems to be to obtain as much fresh fish as he can lay his hands on — and far more than one man, surely, can eat.

It’s worth noting these characters as, for the first half of the book, there’s not much of the mystery, ecstasy, or strange horror of Medusa’s subtitle, and the narrative is sustained by Will’s delineation of this little cast, as well as the day-to-day thrills, difficulties, and novelties of a sea voyage. (I don’t know if Visiak himself ever went to sea, but his descriptions of life on board a 17th/18th century vessel are convincing.) Medusa is written in the style of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but I think Visiak draws the more lifelike characters. For me, only Long John Silver emerged as a genuinely living presence from Treasure Island, but here Blythe and Moon both make the grade — Moon in particular, who’s something of a would-be Long John Silver, if only he weren’t so lazy and cowardly. He’s the least likeable of Visiak’s little troupe, but the most lifelike.

Cover to German edition

It’s at the halfway point the mysteries begin. They come to the pirate ship Huxtable has voyaged all this way to meet with, only to find it deserted, Mary Celeste-style — except for Mr Vertembrex, a naturalist who’d been tagging along with the pirates, but is now reduced to a mentally childlike state, doing nothing but smile and thread glass beads onto a string. There have already been rumours among Blythe’s crew of a ghost or strange creature seen aboard the ship at night, but now Will, Huxtable and Blythe see it, suddenly standing in a doorway:

’Twas squat and shaggy dark, having prodigious great limbs and hands and feet, that were webbed as a fish’s fins, or a manatee’s flappers; but his face, with its dwindled high peaked forehead, and great globular black glistening eyes…

Visiak’s mysteries and horrors begin to accumulate, but not before we’ve had that third element in his subtitle, the ecstasy — which is, perhaps, the strangest part of it all. There are a couple of moments when Will finds himself being overtaken by a sort of ecstatic trance. At one point, looking at a picture of Mr Huxtable’s late wife, for instance:

My soul was translated with a rapture such as cannot be uttered; enchanted as by the dazzling bright radiance of a celestial sun.

At another time, shortly before the full horrors begin, the sky takes on a “strange complexion of dark violet”, as if it were both day and night at the same time. The feeling is not so much that weird horrors are looming, as that things are entering a zone of strangeness, where normal laws no longer apply. Mr Huxtable tells Will an old legend he’s heard, of a race of once-enlightened beings who perceived not just with their senses, but directly into the essential nature of things, yet who fell from that height and, seeking refuge from both their own decadence and their homeland’s sinking into the sea, used certain “invisible rays of more than chymical efficacy” to split their very souls into their constituent elements, and so transformed themselves into creatures of the water.

Then a whole shoal of “squat and shaggy” fish-men arrive and kidnap Will, along with most of the rest of the crew, taking them to an all-but-submerged island, where they’re cast into a cavern, there to await the tentacles of a giant squid-monster. The strange thing is, the crew don’t see the fish-men as repulsive, but as “feminine and ravishing forms, all softness and delight, lifting up their alluring arms”, like the mermaids of sailors’ legends.

Will, of course, escapes, and is even told (by the suddenly-recovered Mr Vertembrex) “There will be a time for explanation”, but that time never arrives. What remains of the crew escape, and Will, in old age, writes his narrative.

August 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine (image from isfdb)

Medusa gained something of a reputation as a lost classic of the weird when Karl Edward Wagner listed it as one of his “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels” in the June 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine. In the August issue, R S Hadji listed it as one of his “13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre”, concluding with the remark that “Visiak achieved the terror and wonder, the sense of awe, that Lovecraft could only grasp at.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the book became sought-after. And it’s no wonder some readers were underwhelmed. Medusa works best not if you come to it thinking it’s going to out-Lovecraft Lovecraft (it won’t), but if you take it how it at first appears, as a Robert Louis Stevenson pastiche that, in its second half, takes an increasingly strange dive into the weird.

(There are similarities with Lovecraft, though. Not just the sea-going narrative that ends in a submerged island where we meet a tentacled, mind-affecting monster. Another moment, when Huxtable is relating his old legend, sounds like it could be describing a different Lovecraft story, “From Beyond”: “…certain of these rays discovered many creatures that were ordinarily invisible (being transparent to the eye), of which some were of an incredible oddity and strangeness to amuse and enlarge the mind.”)

The weirdness, though, isn’t there in the service of cosmic horror, as it is with Lovecraft. Nor is it, as Colin Wilson implies (writing about the novel in 1998’s The Books in My Life), wholly psychological:

“I suspect that any Freudian psychiatrist, reading Medusa, would have declared unhesitatingly that it was a kind of dream-novel symbolising Visiak’s own fear of sex. And I suspect he would be right.”

(This is perhaps most convincing when you consider that the submerged island at the end of the novel is seen only as a phallic pillar of rock rising from the sea. But this makes me think of another thing — Visiak was the son of four generations of sculptors, and the pillar of rock could just as well symbolise a sort of dark father figure, or the unformed self, yet to be shaped out of the formless rock.)

But the weirdness in Visiak’s novel is more there, I think, to point to another order of reality, not only more horrific than the world we know, but also more ecstatic, both holy and unholy. Visiak isn’t insisting on any particular interpretation, he just wants to open our eyes to the fact there’s more to reality than our day-to-day selves might accept.

Another, earlier, Wilson quote (from 1965’s Eagle and Earwig) is better:

“Visiak seems to be haunted by a vision of the unsayable. Primarily he is a poet, not a conscious literary artist…”

New Tales of Horror, 1934, edited by John Gawsworth, where “Medusan Madness” appeared

Wilson writes this in relation to a short story of Visiak’s, “Medusan Madness” (published in 1934), which feels like an ultra-compressed version of Medusa. A visitor to a psychiatric rest-home hears the story of an intense and otherworldly experience one of the inmates had at sea. We never hear the story ourselves, but the narrator, on hearing it, has a vision of a weird sky over the sea and comes down with whatever “madness” caused the other to become an inmate of the home. Both of them, from then on, take refuge in talking to a woman they call Diomedia, who seems the equivalent, in this short story, to Will Harvell’s visions of Huxtable’s dead wife in Medusa: a mother-figure who acts as a refuge from the world’s darkest extremes. It’s perhaps easy to fit this into that same Freudian view, with the mother-figure representing a retreat into the certainties of childhood. But Visiak doesn’t see childhood as a place of retreat, rather as our one moment of clear perception, after which adulthood is nothing but confusion and exile. As Huxtable says:

“This topic of childhood and the enchantment it casts, has powerfully worked in my thoughts, and was the ferment of my philosophy when first I became sensible of its loss and what a brave glittering robe was fallen from me into the past. It’s my first chapter of Genesis, which, in that story of lost Paradise, is a grand fable of the beginning of our life in this world; when we are innocently happy, or, as I may express this harmonious state, happily whole. There is as yet no rift to set body and spirit out of tune in their jangling spheres, and the elements are so mingled in us as that we may truly be called, in those eloquent words, living souls…”

In both “Medusan Madness” and Medusa, this transcendental mother represents humanity itself in the face of the very inhuman weirdness that’s out there in the world, compared to which we’re all innocent and bewildered children. The proper attitude to take to the world, the proper way to look at it, is with the open-eyed innocence of Will Huxtable, to whom no explanations are offered, and who is only left with the experience of mystery, and ecstasy, and strange horror.

Happy birthday, Robert Louis Stevenson

Flashman, and other reprobates

I really enjoyed the recent two-week stint of My Life in Books that led up to World Book Day. Hearing Anne Robinson’s guests talk about their favourite books didn’t make me want to rush out and buy them, though, but tended to make me want to re-read my own favourites. The one exception was George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I’d heard a bit about it before, and its mention on the programme re-piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a go.

Flashman was published in 1969, but the character Harry Paget Flashman dates back to 1857, when he was the bully in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. In the Flashman Papers (as the series is called), George MacDonald Fraser has that same school bully narrate the events of his subsequent life — a life in which this self-confessed coward, cad and reprobate becomes embroiled in many of the major historical events of the Victorian Age. (The first book, for instance, sees him slap-bang in the midst of the first Anglo-Afghan War.) The Flashman books are so gleefully un-PC, they can’t be taken as anything but satire — satire on the Empire itself, and on the essential emptiness of the myth of the Gentleman Hero it used to whitewash all the mingled racism, sexism and classism that drove it. As such, Flashman is a paragon — a gentleman to the last, he womanises, he beats his servants, he treats the lower classes with utter contempt, but nevertheless manages to come out seeming, in the eyes of the all-too-ready-to-believe Victorian public, a hero, despite the facts. (Though not entirely without his private comeuppances. The one woman he loves turns out to have just as cavalier an attitude to men as he does towards women.)

I didn’t quite enjoy the book enough to want to read the rest of the series, though. The trouble was, Flashman, as an anti-hero, doesn’t really go far enough. Yes, he’s a reprobate, a coward and a cad, but he never came across as having sufficient relish for his misdeeds, and as a result just seems rather mean-spirited. (Exactly like a bully, I suppose, but that’s not enough to sustain a series.) He was too matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and seemed to have no real motivation apart from escaping with his hide intact. If he’d just been that much more of a connoisseur of his own wickedness, it would have given him that much more vivacity, that much more life, that much more character.

This becomes obvious if you compare him with similar roguish types. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for instance, who is such a larger-than-life reprobate his very cowardice becomes a sort of heroism. Falstaff is a poet of self-justification. He has such a way with words that, at the very moment he’s talking his way out of being caught lying, he turns it into something that is both wonderfully comic and humanly tragic at the same time. Accused of being a thief, he says: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal; ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Explaining his running away when the disguised Hal robs him so easily, he talks his very cowardice into a proof that he is in fact a “valiant lion”. His lies are so boldfaced, so brazen and bombastic, but he wins us over by being so very human, so full of life.

Or, to take another historical cad: Edmund Blackadder. Just as much a coward, a cad and a reprobate as Harry Flashman, Blackadder lives for the cunning plan, for the witty reversal of his ill-fortunes, so that while we can laugh at him for his downfalls, we can also feel for him when he comes out on top. What makes you want to feel for him is the joy he takes in his own rascallous actions.

A third example comes from another book I read for the first time recently, Treasure Island. Although it is narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, the character that lingers in the mind once the book is finished is Long John Silver. When Silver speaks, it’s like he’s snatching the pen from Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand. He commands the page. Silver is, of course, a pirate — the very source of all one-legged, grog-swilling, blue-tongued, be-parrotted pirates ever since — but he’s no pantomime villain. He is gloriously, impeccably self-interested. As soon as the pirates are losing, he’s ready to switch sides. He vows his life and loyalty to young Jim, but as soon as there’s a whiff of treasure to be had, he’s ready to switch back again. There’s a wonderful moment when a mere look from Silver reveals his true inner character in a flash of betrayal:

Silver hobbled, grunting, on his crutch; his nostrils stood out and quivered; he cursed like a madman when the flies settled on his hot and shiny countenance; he plucked furiously at the line that held me to him and from time to time turned his eyes upon me with a deadly look. Certainly he took no pains to hide his thoughts, and certainly I read them like print. In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten: his promise and the doctor’s warning were both things of the past, and I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the HISPANIOLA under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.

Alone of all the pirates, Silver escapes with his life at the end — and, in a sense, escapes the confines of the book, too, for he’s the one character with life enough to become so much more than the words he was made out of.

Compared to Falstaff, Blackadder and Long John Silver, Flashman seems a bit pallid. Perhaps this is just because, in the first book, he’s young, and the above examples are all of people with a bit more experience behind them. Does the series get better? Does Flashman get more caddish, more full of life? If I knew, I’d venture to read some of the rest.