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.
“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.”
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.