Armed With Madness by Mary Butts

Man Ray cover to the Penguin Classics edition

Mary Butts’s second novel (published in 1928, and so before her first novel had its UK first edition), went under a number of working titles, including “In the Wood”, “People Among Trees”, “The Egg and the Cup”, “Landscape with Birds”, “Bees Under the Roof”, and even “The Waste Land”, before settling on Armed With Madness — which comes from a quote, “Armed with madness, I go on a long voyage”, though the quote seems to be from Butts herself. Of these titles, “The Waste Land” is the most intriguing, because like Eliot’s poem (already out by the time Butts began her novel, so she probably wasn’t serious about using it), Armed With Madness combines Modernistic concerns about the spiritual wasteland of the post-First World War 20th century with a powerful symbol of redemption and healing, the Holy Grail.

The story begins in the country house (“in which they could not afford to live”) of the Taverner siblings in Cornwall. Drusilla, known to everyone as Scylla, “ash-fair and tree-tall”, “sometimes a witch, and sometimes a bitch”, is the older, and Felix (to whom, we’re told, “love and death were one”, though entirely unconvincingly) is the younger. With them is a painter called Ross (who is mostly ignored throughout the rest of the narrative), and, soon, an American, Dudley Carston, who comes for the weekend. As he arrives, Felix is out visiting a local pair of similarly artistic souls living, like the Taverners, “in a chaos of elegant poverty”, the painter and sculptor Clarence Lake, and his companion Picus Tracy. (Whose name, meaning “woodpecker”, apparently has all sorts of mythological connections, tying him to “Zeus the Woodpecker”, though they are lost on me.) While there, Picus gets Felix to help him clear out the well at his cottage property, as it has run dry and hedgehogs have a tendency to fall into it in their search for water. Hauling the dead creatures out with a fishing spear, Felix finds a jade cup with “Keltic twiddles… round the rim”. He, Picus, and Clarence come to the Taverners and everyone gathers round the dining table to look at the cup.

Their modern defences are up. This “Keltic” cup, fished out of a well with a spear — “Good old Freud”, someone says — of course can’t be the Holy Grail. They talk about Tennyson, Wagner, and the “Keltic Twilight”, of which these proto-Modernists are all highly disapproving (“those awful pre-Raphaelite pictures”, “I hate the Keltic Twilight… Responsible for the world’s worst art”). But they can’t help feeling something — or perhaps trying not to long for something.

The next day, the cup is gone. After a long search, Carston finds it in his room, where he knows it wasn’t, and accuses everyone of playing a trick on him. He leaves in a huff, and in a nearby village bumps into Picus’s father, a disapproving patriarch who’s come in search of his son for stealing an item from his collection of antiquities, a jade cup he claims to have been a “poison-cup” from India (jade having the power to reveal poison), and after that a “spitting-cup” for a tubercular lady. (Both, notably, images of unhealthiness.) Carston begins to feel that the cup turning up in his room wasn’t the only trick played on him.

But there’s no doubt this is a world desperately in need of the Holy Grail:

“There was something wrong with all of them, or with their world. A moment missed, a moment to come. Or not coming. Or either or both. Shove it off on the war; but that did not help.”

Scylla, Felix, and friends, are distinctly jaded: “We know between us pretty well all there is to know.” And Scylla at one point lays out the age’s malaise:

“If the materialists’ universe is true… we are a set of blind factors in a machine. And no passion has any validity… They are just little tricks of the machine… If you stick to the facts as we have them, life is a horror and an insult.”

They have the feeling, these no-longer-bright young things, of having run through the gamut:

“…we tried the bad to see if it might be good. But the new lot aren’t interested. Don’t give a button for the good any more.”

And Carston, tricked though he has been, feels this, at least, to be genuine:

“They strike me as people who have loved and suffered a great deal. That purifies.”

But whereas King Arthur’s knights split up to search for the Grail, it’s when this “Grail” appears that these “knights” split up. After Carston’s exit, Felix goes to Paris — and this is an interesting sequence, as we move from the tatty poverty of a run-down country house in Cornwall (dead hedgehogs and all) to the vibrancy of roaring 20s Paris, where, overwhelmed by his return to glitz and glamour, parties and young folk, Felix at first struggles to connect. Scylla goes to visit an old girlfriend in London, only to find her married and exceptionally conventional. (Butts gets playful here, presenting part of their conversation as an opera libretto.) Picus goes to weep on his mother’s grave. She, we learn, killed herself after discovering her husband, Picus’s father, was having an affair, with the “tubercular lady” to whom Picus’s father gave the jade cup, giving that “Holy Grail” even more of a Freudian significance for this young man. Clarence, meanwhile, goes back to the dry-welled cottage to try to forget about his longing for Picus, but soon descends into dangerous madness.

Mary Butts by Jean Cocteau, who illustrated a limited edition of Armed With Madness

And this, I think, is the key to the book’s title. The actual Grail knights — those who succeeded, anyway — were armed with righteousness and purity, but Butts’s “knights”, Scylla & co., have madness as their only resort. They have a self-conscious inability to relate to the Grail (real or not) as a symbol of transcendence and healing, but only as a symbol of reductive Freudian unconscious processes. They just don’t exist in a world where they can handle the Holy Grail’s holiness. So, it doesn’t matter if the cup (which is later revealed to actually be a “Keltic cup”, not the poison-cup and spitting-cup Picus’s father pretends it is) is the real Grail or not, or whether even if not real it still might offer some symbolic connection to a transcendent reality. To these jaded young things, there’s no possibility of transcendence except (perhaps) through art, (temporarily) through the disorientation of drink and drugs, or through fruitless and dangerous madness.

And so, they go through the pangs of loneliness, jealousy, longing, and so on, which ought to be the start of their healing journeys, only they have no way to go on from there, no transcendent state to aspire to.

The Grail myth becomes less important in the second half of the novel. Instead, the presiding image is of arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian, which is something Ted Hughes identified as a key figure throughout T S Eliot’s work, too (in his essay, “The Poetic Self”, in Winter Pollen).

Butts’ style, which I found driven by a sort of impatience with language in her first novel, is now clipped, dismissive, languid, broken — again, jaded — meaning the whole thing is quite laconic, exactly the sort of language her decadent, over-experienced, no-longer-bright young things use with one another. The result is that Armed With Madness really feels like it’s presenting something of the reality of its times. The heady, overwhelming glamour of Paris, and the too-sudden descents into sordid poverty and petty jealousy that run alongside it, all feel authentic. At the same time, Butts is aware of the malaise of her age:

“But notice what is happening now people have become used to the idea. Any little boy in a Paris bar, who never heard of physics knows. Everyone gets the age’s temper.”

To me, the characters are, as with her first novel, unequal to their self-dramatising pronouncements, but the novel itself feels like a far more on-the-ground and authentic document of its age than, say, Eliot’s highly intellectualised Waste Land, even though both draw from the same sources (Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, to which Butts adds A E Waite, Arthur Machen, and Jane Harrison). But both books share a theme of how the modern age doesn’t know how to deal with sacredness, and so loses out on awe, transcendence, and the deeper sort of healing it so desperately needs.

Butts’s next novel was a sequel of sorts to this one — or it features some of the same characters, anyway — though it doesn’t seem to have continued with the Grail theme. The Death of Felicity Taverner (1932) seems to be about land-developers seeking to despoil the Cornish countryside, and doesn’t tempt me quite as much as this novel did.

It’s also harder to get hold of. Armed With Madness seems to have been the only one of Butts’s novels to have had a paperback edition (in 2001 from Penguin Classics). I would like to try some of her short stories, if I can find them in a cheap enough edition. But Armed With Madness seems to be generally considered her best novel, and I suspect it might be more rewarding on a second go.

Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.