Perelandra by C S Lewis

In the second book of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the protagonist from the first, Dr Elwin Ransom, is taken to a different planet in our solar system, the one we know as Venus — Perelandra to the rest of the solar system. This time, he’s not taken for evil ends, but sent for good, his mission having been given him by the eldila (the angels of Lewis’s cosmos). Perelandra, it turns out, is a young world, just about to enter its Adam-and-Eve stage. An ocean planet, where all but one of the lands are ever-moving carpets of matted reeds that flex over the waves, it has two humanoid inhabitants, the Green Lady and her King, who are to found a new race. Shortly after Ransom arrives, another visitor from Earth turns up, Ransom’s old enemy Professor Weston, only he may not be Weston, except in body. He seems possessed by some sort of demonic entity, who has come here to persuade the Green Lady to do the one thing Maleldil (God) has forbidden: to sleep on the single, unmoving Fixed Land of this world. (She’s allowed to visit it, just not spend the night there. And if that sounds like an arbitrary rule, that’s the point.) Ransom, then, finds himself witness to what may be a replay of the Biblical Fall, with a young and innocent Green Lady being persuaded by the wiles of the Tempter, Weston (or the Un-Man, as Ransom comes to call him, once his evil and inhuman nature becomes undeniable), into a disobedience that will have catastrophic consequences for generations to come.

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

Two things struck me when I first read this book more than twenty years ago. The first was how similar it was to a book I had recently discovered and become obsessed with, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Lewis first read Lindsay’s novel somewhere between December 1935 and the end of 1938. (Perelandra was published in 1943.) The thing that leapt out at me was that at the end of both books the main character is given a vision of the cosmic order, a vision described in abstract terms (in Arcturus, we get “tiny green corpuscles” vying with “whirls of white light”; in Perelandra, there’s “minute corpuscles of momentary brightness” and “ribbons or serpents of light”) all accompanied by a sort of explanatory music (a clash of conflicting rhythms in Arcturus, the music of the Great Dance in Perelandra). After spotting this it became obvious to me that, for most of the book, Perelandra wasn’t just replaying the story of the Biblical Fall, but the “Barey” chapter of Arcturus, in which two characters (effectively the Devil and God of Lindsay’s world) argue for the soul of the protagonist — just as, in Perelandra, Ransom and Weston, as mouthpieces for Lewis’s God and Devil, argue for control of the Green Lady’s conscience. Eventually, in Lindsay’s novel, the trio of characters, finding themselves passing through an increasingly watery landscape, get onto a floating island and drift out to sea — which could be the origins of Lewis’s entire Perelandran environment. There are a lot of other minor similarities between the two books, but those are the most striking.

The other thing I thought on my first read was how disappointing it was that, rather than out-arguing the Un-Man, Ransom eventually decides the only way he’s going to win this battle is with a fist-fight. I felt, at the time, that this was a failure on Lewis’s part — any writer’s part, and particularly a Christian apologist’s part — to give up on words and say it can only be solved by violence. I still felt the same on this recent re-read, but to a lesser extent, once I remembered this book was published in 1943, and is lightly sprinkled with references to the Second World War and the sacrifices so many young men were making at that moment in the name of defending their countries. Perhaps Lewis was making a point that sometimes only aggression will work with an enemy so wily and evil.

Paperback. Cover art by Bernard Symancyk

And one of the best things about the novel, from a purely imaginative standpoint, is how evil the Un-Man is. He rips the spines out of frogs for pleasure. When Ransom is trying to sleep, the Un-Man says, “Ransom… Ransom…”, and when Ransom says, “What?”, the Un-Man says, “Nothing.” Then goes on saying, “Ransom… Ransom…” It’s petty schoolboy stuff, but combined with a death-like grin and a sense that, behind those dead eyes, there’s something fundamentally inhuman, or perhaps just unfeeling, it really feels evil — in the same way Stephen King does evil, in characters like Randall Flagg in The Stand. (I did wonder why Ransom didn’t show the Green Lady all those frogs the Un-Man had been ripping up, as that would surely have convinced her of his inherent evil.)

But Lewis goes one better than King in representing the human roots of evil. In my review of Mr Mercedes, I said that King’s villain Brady Hartsfield was given a bunch of second-hand nihilisms as a justification for his evil. Here, Lewis presents us with a much more convincing glimpse of the sort of despair that perhaps led to Weston’s becoming the Un-Man. I think Lewis is saying that Weston has actually died and descended into Hell for a brief time before being plucked out and brought to Perelandra. As a result, his soul was admixed with something else — the Un-Man — and it’s that which mostly does the talking. Weston, however, has retained enough of his humanity to feel despair at the thought of returning to a state of Godless damnation. What makes Weston’s despair so convincing is that it’s not a bunch of statements like Brady Hartsfield’s “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage,” and so on, but something confusing, unresolved, and nonsensical, something without any sort of centre or ultimate meaning. It sounds badly thought-out, and this makes its despair all the more convincing as a thing that Weston is feeling, not merely justifying:

“Picture the universe as an infinite glove with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it… When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken. He doesn’t follow us in… He may be there in what you call “Life”, or He may not. What difference does it make? We’re not going to be there for long!”

Set against this is Ransom’s realisation that he is the only person who can act against the Un-Man. The scene where Ransom realises he’s been waiting for a counter-miracle to defeat the Un-Man and isn’t going to get one, so it’s up to him, made me wonder if this wasn’t a glimpse of Lewis’s own inner moment that led him to become a Christian apologist. (I’m sure Lewis will have written about this, but I haven’t read any of his autobiographical non-fiction.)

Cover by Kinuko Y Craft

I’m left with mixed feelings about Perelandra. As an imaginative writer, Lewis can be superb — he creates a very interesting fantastic world, and makes it convincing as a fresh, vivid new creation. And his depiction of the Un-Man’s evil is perhaps the best thing in the book. But the one thing that always leaves me feeling Lewis is cheating me as a reader is that his good characters seem to have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. They may struggle to do what’s right, but they have a sense, even in unfamiliar situations, of what is right — and it always turns out to be right. (For instance, when Ransom first finds Perelandran fruit and eats one and is tempted to eat another, but somehow knows he shouldn’t.)

A Voyage to Arcturus, on the other hand, is about how hard it is to really know what’s right and wrong, and how hard-won such knowledge often is — and that, on the way, you find yourself doing things that are very wrong, even shameful, things you regret, as learning experiences. And as this is a fundamental part of human experience, it needs to be a fundamental part of fiction — particularly if that fiction is, as Lewis’s books are, about doing right in the face of wrong. And yes, the fact that it was written during the Second World War complicates things, but that complication, I think, should be the point. There often is no simple right or wrong in a war: it’s one massive wrong, brought about to counter a worse wrong. That eternal compromise — that inherent Fall — is perhaps an essential part of the human experience, and I can’t help feeling that the strengths in Lewis’s writing makes his failure in this regard come across as a sort of dishonesty, a fudging of the rules. I can’t help feeling, reading a book like this, that Lewis, as a thinker, is better than this, and could be capable of producing something of greater complexity, if only he weren’t so intent on conveying a particular conclusion. It’s the struggle that ought to be the subject of a book like this, not the particular prize at the end of it.

Carrie by Stephen King

First edition cover

In books I’ve covered on Mewsings before (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Chocky, H M Hoover’s Morrow books), telepathy is associated with childhood, and with reaching out to make a deeper emotional connection than is possible in these books’ often repressive environments. Telekinesis, on the other hand, seems more associated with adolescence (along with poltergeist phenomenon) and the release of long-withheld inner rage, the prime example being Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974).

The book has a sort of Cinderella-gone-wrong plot. Carrie White is bullied at school by a whole class-full of (morally) ugly sisters, then bullied at home by her wicked un-stepmother of a mother, a woman whose highly judgemental “peculiar religious views” have effectively turned Carrie’s home life into an endless series of sermons on sin:

“Momma was the minister, Carrie the congregation. Services lasted from two to three hours.”

Mrs White refers to her God’s “kind, vengeful hand”, though you have to wonder what God she’s really worshipping when, at one point, she says:

“We know thou bring’st the Eye That Watcheth, the hideous three-lobbed eye…”

If “lobbed” (from a recent paperback edition) is a misprint for “lobed”, then she may actually be invoking the entity that comes for Robert Blake at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”, whose last words are “the three-lobed burning eye…”

Carrie showed signs of telekinesis in childhood — when she was a baby, her mother found her levitating a toy over her crib, and there was a (perhaps Haunting of Hill House-inspired) rain of stones on the White house after the child dared to speak to an older girl sunbathing in a neighbouring garden — but things really kick off when Carrie has her first menstrual period in the showers after a school sports lesson and the other girls mock her mercilessly while she, never having been prepared for this by her mother, thinks she’s dying.

One of the girls, Sue Snell, quickly regrets tormenting Carrie, and tries to make up for it by acting as Carrie’s unelected fairy godmother. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (they’re both “Popular” with a capital P), to take Carrie to the school prom. Meanwhile, the ugliest of the ugly sisters, Christine Hargensen, is banned from attending the prom after she walks out of a week’s worth of detentions given to her for what was done to Carrie. In revenge, Christine decides she’s going to humiliate Carrie even more, and sees her going to the ball as the perfect opportunity.

Carrie started out as a short story (which King abandoned, until his wife rescued the typescript from the bin and got him to continue), and feels quite light in plot. The text is peppered with newspaper reports, extracts from articles and books, and snippets from the “White Commission Report” held in the aftermath of Carrie’s unleashed rage, which adds a sort of commentary to the events of the plot, and also serves to bulk up the narrative. And the unleashing of Carrie’s rage is a lot lengthier and more destructive than I was expecting, having only seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 film before this read of the book. In the film, Carrie rains destruction on the prom dance hall; in the book, she pretty much destroys the town, spreading fires, bursting fire hydrants, and exploding at least one gas station (which reminded me of a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film which also seems to me to be about the bursting out of repressed emotion).

Blood runs throughout the novel. “Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it,” Mrs White muses at one point, and she links blood with sexual passion, and so with the “sins” of adolescence, and of being a woman. But “blood” can also mean family, and anger, and the blood that rises to your cheeks when you’re humiliated.

It’s part of the novel’s tragedy that, after a lifetime of constant disparagement and bullying, Carrie doesn’t snap till she’s first been shown a little kindness. It’s not just the fact she’s drenched in pig’s blood in front of the whole school, but the contrast it underlines with the glimpse she gets beforehand of how it might feel to be normal, accepted, even loved.

After Carrie herself, the novel’s most interesting character is Sue Snell, who finds herself taking part in tormenting Carrie even though she knows she shouldn’t, and who is the only “ugly sister” to really try to make up for it. The best and most unexpected part of the novel, for me, occurs near the end, when Sue finds the now terminally-wounded Carrie lying amidst the ruins of a formerly quiet American town. Carrie has, till now, shown a modicum of telepathic ability, but here she finally gets to use it in the same way as Wyndham’s Chrysalids kids and Hoover’s Children of Morrow. Sue allows the dying Carrie into the deepest parts of her mind, in an attempt to convince her she really was trying to be kind, not cruel, in getting Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue feels Carrie uncovering her basest emotions — more than she herself was aware of — but also, most poignantly, remains mentally linked to her as Carrie’s mind fades into a dying babble, and then into death itself, in a far more affecting end than De Palma’s hand-from-the-grave jump:

“The mixture of image and emotion was staggering, indescribable. Blood. Sadness. Fear.”

King gets his equivalent of the “it’s not over yet” ending, too, with hints of another girl, elsewhere in America, growing up with the same ability. Will she be made into a monster like Carrie, by the cruelty of those who are supposed to love her?

It’s quite a good, if light, read, unrelenting in its portrayal of just how destructive (in the emotional as much as the telekinetic sense) and inescapable are the effects of a lifetime of judgement, and psychological and physical abuse, on a child. Although, by the end of it, Carrie has done monstrous things, she’s not the novel’s real monster. That role is played by almost everyone else in the book who doesn’t give her the kindness and understanding she needs, or if they do, do it too late.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.