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.


  1. I have never been able to find a copy of "Medusa" in a bookshop or library.
    Indeed, I have never seen a copy on sale for less than £60 (that's about 76 US dollars). "Medusa" has always been a legendarily rare artifact to the average reader (unlike say, "A Voyage to Arcturus" or "Lud-In-The-Mist",
    which have several editions available that won't break a fantasy reader's bank).

    In view of the divided responses the novel has brought from reviewers, I wish some publisher would bring out a mass-market edition of "Medusa"-if only so we can read it for ourselves and form our own opinions on it!

  2. I understand your frustration, but Medusa is a hard book to champion--unless (as some do)one is judging it primarily on its rarity. Most people who read it find it disappointing, often majorly so. But they seem to be readers of surface, not of depth. Medusa has interest and attractions, but they are hard-won for the reader. Most prospective publishers will not be won over by the book, and will see its sales potential as very limited.

  3. " Medusa has interest and attractions, but they are hard-won for the reader. Most prospective publishers will not be won over by the book, and will see its sales potential as very limited."

    Hmm...a suggestion. How about putting "Medusa" in a hardback omnibus with two or three other
    fantasy /supernatural horror novels that are steady sellers? That way, even if readers of the omnibus don't like "Medusa", they will also have other novels there they might enjoy. The publisher will have a better chance of success by publishing "Medusa" with other titles than just publishing the novel on its own. I know Ramsey Campbell's anthology "Uncanny Banquet" contained the complete text of the novel "The Hole of the Pit" by Adrian Ross, so there is a precedent for this idea.

  4. I think Anonymous has a good idea in suggesting Medusa be included in one volume with a couple of other novels.