Monday, June 12, 2017

E.H. Visiak: "THE TIMES ridiculed my novel MEDUSA"

Almost anything to do with E.H. Visiak (1878-1972) has complications. Take, for instance, Visiak’s so-called autobiography, Life’s Morning Hour (1968).  The book is actually a novel (originally titled David Treffry) Visiak tried to market in the very early 1930s, with eight-pages added at the very end in a section entitled “Résumé.” Thus the narrative is brought up-to-date from Visiak’s childhood, where the book had originally ended. In the “Résumé” Visiak notes succinctly that “The Times ridiculed my novel Medusa, and caused the return by booksellers of hundreds of copies” (p. 219). 

The Times Literary Supplement did indeed review Medusa on 19 December 1929, but it says good things about the novel as well as bad things. 

Mr. E.H. Visiak’s “Story of Mystery, and Ecstacy, and Strange Horror” called Medusa (Gollancz, 7s 6d net) is indeed a curious production; but the publisher’s flamboyant praises on the dust-cover are quite beyond any critical echoing. To begin with, the book is only a pastiche, though quite a good one, of a typical sea-traveller’s diary in the days of sailing ships. Secondly, a great deal of it recounts occurrences which have no particular interest.  The narrator, Will Harvell, writing in his old age, purports to describe the extraordinary voyage upon which, as a boy, he accompanied a certain Mr. Huxtable. The general details of the ship and her oddly assorted company and of visits to Santa Cruz and Pernambuco take up too much space with desultory detail, which could only have interest if the record were real. Thirdly, the element of mystery and horror, regarded in the cold light of the twentieth century, is spoiled by the element of incredibility which is unwisely mixed with it.

To create an atmosphere of suspense and uneasiness from the beginning is legitimate; and Mr. Visiak would have succeeded very well had he confined himself to suggestion, for he has a pretty fancy in the Gothic. But it is difficult to refrain from smiling when the queer conduct of the seaman Obadiah and the horrible face which the boy Harvell had seen before embarking is explained by the appearance on board of a semi-human sea-monster, whom Obadiah was stowing away as a pet. Thereafter we are taken into the realm of the purely fabulous. The pirate ship is found deserted, except for Mr. Vertembrex, the naturalist, who is seated in the cabin happy and dumb. The mystery of her desertion is soon solved; for a strange light shines, sea-monsters with high-peaked heads and glistening globular eyes board the ship and carry off the crew in their finny arms to a rocky pillar, into a hole in which they drop them, like letters. They fall on to a ledge round a circular abyss, at the bottom of which is a gigantic octopus. Strange ecstasies and dreams of Helen keep all but the boy spellbound when they might escape by the rope let down by the now vocal Mr. Vertembrex. We need not continue. The allegory seemed to be partly one of sexual temptation and self-control, but its beauty escaped us. One page of “Moby Dick” placed beside it will display its artificiality, and Victor Hugo, after all, squeezed all the horrors out of a giant octopus, leaving no further possibilities to posterity.
The review was anonymous, though the Times Historical Database now tells us that the review was written by Orlo Williams (1883-1967), a literary critic and biographer—not an especially sympathetic choice as reviewer for the book. But Williams’s praise of the style of the book was echoed forty-three years later in the Times obituary of Visiak, which calls Medusa “a tour-de-force in the prose style of the seventeenth century” (1 September 1972). 

The reference to Victor Hugo refers to his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866, translated as Workers of the Sea or Toilers of the Sea), which contains a fight between a fisherman and a giant octopus.  The publisher’s “flamboyant praises on the dust-cover" can be seen in the following scan:

Medusa is a difficult book to describe, and it’s hard to recommend it without several qualifications. Karl Edward Wagner once described it as “the probably outcome of Herman Melville having written Treasure Island while tripping on LSD,” adding that “John Milton may have popped round on his way home from a week in an opium den to help him revise the final draft.”  This is of course an exaggeration in multiple ways. 

Less sensationally, the novelist David Lindsay read Medusa soon after publication, and he found it difficult to comment upon it to its author, writing on 7 October 1929: 

“Now about ‘Medusa’! I have read the book through once, and am going over it again before venturing a judgment. Only, this I can say at once—it is one of the most beautiful and surprising works it has ever been my pleasure to read—and it will live ! ! Two features of it I must single out for admiration—the high excellence of the dialogue between the Captain and Mr. Huxtable. The antique fineness of outward courtesy is faultless, and I think very seldom to be found in modern books treating the period. I fancy your poetic tact must be almost your strongest quality! It is of the nature of instinct, is it not? Extraordinarily weird and lovely description of the sea and sky in Chap. 18, which transcends poetry and seems to enter the realm of metaphysics, as all surpassing poetry does. I mean the mystic day, which preserved its brightness while taking on the character of night. Here you have indeed struck the authentic note of genius.

I won’t say more about the book till I have read it again, as I confess the abrupt end, with its dozen cut threads, left me gasping, and I must try and gather something of your meaning by a new study of the whole. Don’t tell me yet, as that would be to spoil my satisfaction.”

Perhaps the most compelling brief description I have ever encountered of Medusa is Arthur Machen’s comment:  Medusa is a nightmare; almost recollected.”

Let me conclude with a more straightforward description by J.B. Pick, from a review in the TLS in 1963:

Medusa is a slow-treading adventure tale written in a firm, deliberate, archaic style, and depends for its effect upon the creation of disquieting atmosphere during a long sea voyage. Its climax is a vision of the descent of men’s souls through fleshly enchantment to the loathsome embrace of monsters in a black, rocky Atlantis, and of the saving by light of those who can be saved.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

H.G. Wells's Boneheaded Review of Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors

The Saturday Review (London), 11 January 1896, pp. 48-49

“The Three Impostors.”  By Arthur Machen. London: John Lane. 1895.

Mr. Machen is an unfortunate man. He has determined to be weird, horrible, and as outspoken as his courage permits in an age which is noisily resolved to be “ ’ealthy” to the pitch of blatancy. His particular obsession is a kind of infernal matrimonial agency, and the begetting of human-diabolical mules. He has already skirted the matter in his previous book, the “Great God Pan,” and here we find it well to the fore again. This time, however, it simply supplies one of a group of incoherent stories held together in a frame of wooden narrative about a young man with spectacles. This young man falls into a circle of Black Magicians, who are practising indecorums and crimes at which Mr. Machen dare only hint in horror-struck whispers. Aghast—all Mr. Machen’s characters are aghast sooner or later—the young man takes to flight, and, instead of informing the police, runs to and fro about London, trying to hide. The chase assumes this form: Again and again a Mr. Dyson sees the young man, and again and again this Mr. Dyson is accosted by people who tell him stories, remotely apropos of the unhappy fugitive. They are members of the secret society, and bent apparently upon inciting Mr. Dyson to murder him. Mr. Dyson proving sluggish, the young man in spectacles is caught by other hands, tied down to the floor of a deserted house in the west of London, and live coals are, very properly, piled upon his chest, He smells of cooking, and perishes, and the ubiquitous Mr. Dyson comes in and sees his remains. Tableau. “They clung hard to one another, shuddering at the sight they saw,” did Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillips, his friend. That is the climax of Mr. Machen’s invention; he ends there. Other effects are the murder of a respectable citizen, whose remains are, for no earthly reason, outraged by being incontinently mummified; a man who, also for no earthly reason, vanishes; a witches’ meeting in California; the inventor of an instrument of torture caught in his own trap, and the mongrel creature already alluded to. Mr. Machen has one simple expedient whereby he seeks to develop his effects. He piles them up very high, and makes his characters horror-struck at them.  This kind of thing:

“He seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed like words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest. For a moment the thought passed through my mind, as my ears were still revolted by that infernal clamour, ‘Surely this is the very speech of hell’; and then I cried out again and again, and ran away shuddering to my inmost soul.”

But it fails altogether to affect the reader as it is meant to do. It fails mainly because Mr. Machen has not mastered the necessary trick of commonplace detail which renders horrors convincing, and because he lacks even the most rudimentary conception of how to individualize characters. The framework of the book is evidently imitated from Mr. Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights,” a humourous form quite unsuited, of course, to realistic horrors. Mr. Machen writes with care and a certain whimsical choice of words, so that his style is at least distinctive.