The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Slapstick (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955)

I didn’t realise until I began to read him, that science fiction accounts for less than half of Bradbury’s output of short stories and novels, though it makes perfect sense. Even in the supposedly science fiction stories you can feel the pull of the fairy tale, the fable, of horror and fantasy, and also, sometimes, of strikingly ‘normal’, non-sci-fi, naturalistic stories – the kind of sweet and sentimental sensibility which produced the idyllic stories of boyhood in rural Illinois which are captured in Dandelion Wine.

But this volume is all about the grotesque and the macabre. The October Country contains nineteen dark and twisted short stories. Fifteen of them are taken from the twenty-seven stories in Bradbury’s first collection, 1947’s Dark Carnival, with four more added which had been previously published elsewhere.

I read a reissue of the 1955 hardcover edition which features artwork by Joseph Mugnaini. I’m not sure I liked them, but Mugnaini’s illustrations certainly contribute to the dated feel of many of the stories, to the sense of 1950s American Gothick, and also to the feeling that they are, at bottom, children’s stories. Albeit for very twisted children.

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury's story The Halloween Tree

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury’s story The Halloween Tree

The stories

The Dwarf (1954)

Set in a carnival at the end of a pier. Ralph Banghart, the owner of a Hall of Mirrors, plays a cruel trick on a dwarf who is a regular customer. He spies on the dwarf and realises that he likes going to the room of mirrors which elongate your reflection i.e. make the dwarf look ‘normal’ height. So Ralph replaces the heightening mirror with a shortening one, and listens to the dwarf’s screams of horror. All this is observed by Aimee, the kind-hearted owner of the hoop stall, Aimee, who runs off to find the distraught dwarf.

The Next in Line (1947)

This is a long story made up of numerous powerful scenes. An American couple are on holiday in mexico. When they see a funeral procession passing below their hotel balcony carrying a small child’s coffin, something in the wife, Marie, snaps. Her unfeeling husband takes her to the local cemetery which features a macabre tourist attraction, a catacomb where the mummified bodies of the poor whose relatives can’t afford to keep up payments for their burial plots, are dug up and lined up against the wall. There is room for one more at the end of the line of horrific half-decayed corpses. Marie is insistent now that they leave town, but at first the husband, Joseph, refuses, and then their car breaks down and will take days to repair.

The ensuing scenes record Marie’s nervous breakdown, stumbling weeping in the street, locking herself in the bedroom with American magazines as a psychological wall against the outside world.

Outside, in the plaza, the street lights rocked like crazy flashlights on a wind. Papers ran through the gutters in sheep flocks. Shadows penciled and slashed under the bucketing lamps now this way, now that, here a shadow one instant, there a shadow next, now no shadows, all cold light, now no light, all cold blue-black shadow. The lamps creaked on their high metal hasps.
In the room her hands began to tremble.

The story reaches Edgar Allen Poe levels of macabre when she lies on the hotel bed trying to stop her breathing, to stop her pulse, screaming at her husband that, whatever happens, she doesn’t want to end up next in line to the mummies.

Then the scene cuts to the husband merrily driving his car back north to America, wearing a black armband, and alone! Did she die? Did he have her embalmed and placed in the row? Was the whole thing some kind of evil conspiracy by him?

I didn’t quite get the ending, but for most of the story, anyway, it wasn’t really about horror, it was an intense description of a marriage breaking down, marital arguments, and of a squeaky clean housewife having a nervous breakdown.

Here’s a review of the story which includes photos of the mummies which actually exist, and inspired the story after Bradbury visited them.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse (1954)

A comedy which satirises the ‘honey I’m home’ conformity of the American middle classes and the ‘hey daddio’ coolness of 1950s hepcats. George Garvey is the most boring man in the world. They have no social life because George almost instantly bores company to death. By chance the leader of a gang of jazz-loving hepcats, Alexander Pape, meets him in the hall of the apartment building and is so blown away with his stupefying dullness, that he invites his gang of swinging dudes to pay him a visit. The story recounts their jazz-slang conversations as they (afterwards) marvel at his world-stopping dullness. Eventually George becomes the epicentre of a new craze, with jiving cool dudes packing out his apartment.

But, alas, under the influence of all these precious things he himself starts to become interesting. He accidentally nips the tip of one finger in the door of his car but insists on having a gold fingertip replacement made. When his eyesight fails in one eye he posts a poker chip to Henri Matisse in France with fifty dollars and asks the master to pint it for him. Astonishingly, Matisse does and George receives the Matisse eyepiece back (along with the cheque – Matisse doesn’t need the vulgar money).

The hepcats get bored of George and abandon him, but he is now a man transformed. He insists on being called Giulio and sometimes, in the depth of the night, his wife wakes up, looks over at her snoring husband and could swear that… she sees the Matisse poker chip wink at her!

Skeleton (1945)

A really delirious story in which everyday Mr Harris develops the neurosis that his own skeleton has a life and personality of his own. Through a series of encounters, with his wife (Clarisse), his friends, a doctor, a bone specialist, the narrative becomes a kind of continuous hallucination as Harris loses weight and his skeleton becomes evermore apparent, in the street, in the mirror.

Finally, he calls back the creepy bone specialist, a Monsieur Munigant, who sits him down, bends over him with a peculiar device and…. extracts his skeleton from his body! Cut to M. Munigant strolling down the sidewalk, pulling out a long white thing which looks remarkably like a thigh bone, carving holes in it and… playing a tune on it… and then to Harris’s wife returning from the shops:

Many times as a little girl Clarisse had run on the beach sands, stepped on a jellyfish and screamed. It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name

The Jar (1944)

Charlie is a poor hick from the outback in Louisiana. At a carnival he’s entranced by one an object in a jar, something like one of those pickled foetuses. He buys it off the carny-owner for $12 and takes it in his horse and cart back to the shack by the swamp, and it becomes a talking point, a feature, a pretext for the real backwoods retards of the village to come up every evening and speculate on its contents.A poor farmer buys a jar with something floating in it for twelve dollars and it soon becomes the conversation piece of the town. However his wife begins to realize that she cannot stand the jar or him.

The Lake (1944)

Harry is twelve. It is the last day of summer. He is at the lake and his mother washes him down. He walks off a long the short remembering his childhood friend, Tally, who drowned her earlier in the summer. They used to build sandcastles together. He builds half of one leaving the rest for her to complete.

Ten years pass by. He moves to Los Angeles and grows up, goes to college, gets a job, and married Margaret. They come East for their honeymoon. When Harry takes her down to the beach where it all happened one summer long ago, he is startled that the lifeguard is carrying in a small bundle. To his fascination and horror the lifeguard unwraps the decayed face long enough for Harry to recognise the long blonde hair and (admittedly decayed) features. It is Tally. Staggering back along the beach he comes to a sandcastle, half a sandcastle… as if built by her spirit.

The Emissary (1947)

Martin is ten. Since he contracted an unnamed disease he is bed-ridden. His only contact with the outside world is the family dog who they’ve named Dog. Bradbury revels in giving acute descriptions of the smells and fragments Dog brings to Martin’s bed of woods and leafmould and fresh air and sunshine. He also often returns with the teacher Miss Haight, who sits and listens to Martin.

Autumn comes, then wet October. His mother haltingly tells him that Miss Haight has been killed in an auto accident. Martin cries. Then one day Dog doesn’t return. Martin is distraught, his two lifelines lost.

And then, one cold and rainy night three days after Halloween, there is a barking and commotion and Dog comes bounding up the stairs and leaping onto Martin’s bedcovers. And something else is with him. Something else has come into the empty house. And clumps crudely up the stairs. And swings open the door to Martin’s bedroom.

It is the living corpse of Miss Haight which Dog has dutifully dug up and brought to Martin, like a good dog.

Touched With Fire (1954)

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw used to work in insurance. They’re both now retired and chat about the old days. During this unusually hot summer it dawns on them that certain people are just destined to have accidents, certain people are made careless or negligent.

As a hobby, they have been studying people in their neighbourhood, studying the personalities and habits and trying to calculate the odds. One fat, argumentative woman in particular, Mrs Shrike, catches their attention, and they watch her storm out of her apartment building, slamming the door, nagging everyone she comes across, haranguing the shopkeepers, before storming home.

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw decide they have to help her. they come to warn her that she is just the sort of person accidents happen to. but she is outraged that they’ve been following and watching her. Moreover, there is a certain temperature, 92 F, Mr Foxes has informed us, at which the most murders are committed – the temperature at which people lose self-control and snap!

And as Mrs Shriek harangues them, Mr Shaw notices the thermometer in the room hitting 92 degrees and Mr Foxe does indeed snap, raising his cane and hitting her over the head. I thought that he would end up killing her and so it would be one of those spookily self-fulfilling prophecy stories.

But instead Foxe drops the cane and staggers out with his friend, they sit on the cool stoop and get their breath back. She was hurt but still shrieking when they left. And they are still recovering when the front door is brusquely pushed open and the enormous brute who is Mr Shrike pushes past them and clumps up the stairs. As he goes, they can’t help noticing that tucked in his back pocket is a big ugly sharp longshoreman’s hook. The strong implication is that, what with her nagging and the sweltering heat, Mr Shrike is about to murder his wife.

The Small Assassin (1946)

Alice and David Leiber are comfortably off, nice job, nice house. They consciously plan to have a baby but even before it’s born, Alice begins to have nightmares about it. the actual birth is excruciating and she screams convinced the baby is trying to kill her. The hospital psychiatrist Jeffers takes David aside to warn him that his wife may be suffering from post-partum psychosis.

In fact Alice is remarkably clear headed and lucid (I say this having known two women who had severe post-natal depression) and simply points out to her husband that their baby is trying to kill her. He goes off on a business trip. Jeffers rings him to say his wife is ill. he rushes home. She recovers from pneumonia. Things settle down. One midnight, David is sure he hears something at the bedroom door. Gets quietly out of bed, pads to the door and… stumbles over a soft toy placed in just the right place to make someone stumble. But this soft toy was in the baby’s room. How did it get here? He begins to have horrible suspicions. He takes the toy back to the baby’s room and looks down at the little creature.

David drives to work the next day full of misgivings. When he gets home he finds his wife dead at the foot of the stairs. She has tripped on the soft which he placed back in the baby’s room and fallen all the way down the stairs.

Dr Jeffers attends and David blurts it all out, convinced now that the baby is the killer. they had put off giving it a name. Now he wants to call it Lucifer. Jeffers tries to calm David down and prescribes sleeping pills. David takes them but as he’s passing out, swears he can hear something else moving in the empty house.

Next morning the doctor pops round to check up on him and finds David dead in  his bed. Someone had disconnected the gas pipe in his room and, being drugged asleep, David had asphyxiated. Convinced now that the baby is to blame, Dr Jeffers takes things into his own hands and the story ends with him leaning over the baby’s crib… holding a scalpel!

The Crowd (1943)

Mr Spallner is in a car crash and, as he passes out, hears the voices in the crowd around him. Later, in hospital, he becomes convinced something was wrong about it. It got there too fast, people were commenting on things they couldn’t have known about. He becomes obsessed and scours the archives for photos of other auto accidents – and discovers the same faces in the crowds that thronged round them as thronged round his one, even down to the colour of their dresses and coats.

He shares his theories with work colleague Morgan who thinks he’s bonkers, but as the evidence mounts, begins to be persuaded.

The story ends with Spallner in another car crash, this time nothing to do with him as a heavy truck rolls out of a side street and crushes his car. He sees the same faces bending over him, the same voices asking whether’s he’s dead. but whereas in the first accident, a voice had said, No, he’ll be alright,’ now he hears the very same voice suggesting that they move him – which he knows is that last thing you want to do to a crash victim. He tries to cry out to prevent them but a couple of guys move him onto the sidewalk and he fells his body break and erupt in pain.

As he fades Spallner realises the crowd decides who will live and die. And in the rather ambiguous final words, he manages to speak a little and seems to have realised that – the crowd are the spirits of the dead, themselves killed in car accidents and somehow condemned to eternally revisit and rewitness them.

He tried to speak. A little bit got out:
“It – looks like I’ll – be joining up with you. I – guess I’ll be a member of your – group – now.’

Jack-in-the-Box (1947)

This is one of the really weirdest stories in the collection, told from the point of view of a boy who lives with his mother in a vast secluded mansion, convinced that beyond the dense forest which surrounds them are monsters which will eat him, told that his father, the original God, was killed by beasts outside. Every day his mother prepares breakfast for him then packs him off to see the ‘teacher’, who wears a grey cloak and has her classroom up on the top floor.

A lot of effort goes into creating the detail of this 20-page story, before the rather inevitable climax, namely that the mother dies: when the boy goes to see ‘the teacher’ she is not there either and he pieces it together that the two women are one and the same.

At which point he sets off bravely through the gates of the mansion’s garden, on through the densely overgrown tunnel through the woods to emerge… into a perfectly normal American city, with cars honking and pedestrians hurrying by and two cops puzzled by the strange looking boy wandering round repeating ‘I am dead, I am dead’ to himself.

The Scythe (1943)

During the Depression a family of four are heading west to California but are pushed off the highway by their car failing then braking down, just near to an empty looking farm. Going in, the husband, Drew, discovers the owner, dressed in his Sunday best, dead on his bed, and next to him a will leaving the property to whoever finds him, on condition they use the scythe – which is there in the room – to mow the huge wheatfield out back.

Not looking a gift horse in the mouth Drew, his wife and two kids move in, quickly discovering reserves of delicious meat and milk in the barn. Next day Drew sets to mowing. He quickly discovers that the wheat he mows rots immediately. Also that it has all grown back next day. He tries to abandon the futile mowing but discovers that he can’t settle to anything, his hands and arms are twitchy. Only when the scythe is in his hand is he happy.

Worse, he slowly realises what the wheatfield is when he hears a crying out as he mows one outcrop. The wheat is human souls. He himself is the grim reaper, fated to carry out his duty whether he wants to or not.

The story comes to a climax when he realises a little clump of wheat stalks represents his wife and children. Revolted he throws down the scythe and walks away. But next day, when he is out mowing another part of the field, he sees smoke from the house and runs to find it burning to the ground. but his wife and children preserved intact inside. They should have died, but they didn’t died because he didn’t mow them.

So back out to the meadow he goes and consciously scythes the stalks representing his family and, embittered and enraged, goes on, madly, feverishly, unable to stop.

Sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night. . . .
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.

Uncle Einar (1947)

This is one of several stories about the ‘Elliott’ family which bears a close resemblance to the Addams family, being made up of monsters and ghouls.

It’s the story of Uncle Einar who has enormous wings on his shoulders, and becomes a kind of bat at night-time, but who one night flies into an electricity pylon, and wakes up on the ground, being tended by a kindly cowherd, Brunilla.

they fall in love and get married but Einar is devastated to discover that the accident with the power cable has destroyed  his sense of sonar i.e. he can’t safely fly at night. Since he cannot fly during the day because people will spot him and call the cops, he is stuck and becomes very depressed.

Then he discovers some of the Elliott children are going to fly kites and he has a brainwave: he attaches a string to his feet, goes along with them to the kite hill, then leaps into the air and swoops and soars in complete freedom, under the pretence of being their kite.

The Wind (1943)

A really atmospheric little thriller: the main character, Herb Thompson, is having friends round for drinks and his wife is hassling him to get ready. Trouble is he keeps getting rung up by his friend Allin, a former explorer who once penetrated to a mystic valley in the Himalayas which was the source of all the world’s winds.

Now the winds are coming to get him. Herb’s wife calls him away to come and be polite to the guests, but throughout their drinks and dinner are continually interrupted by calls from Allin, who lives in an isolated house thirty miles away, and describes, at each call, how a big wind is assembling on the horizon, then blowing round his house, then smashing in the windows, then blowing down the walls, so he retreats to the cellar, at which point, taking the umpteenth call, Herb hears a great shattering sound, the roar of wind and screaming.

Later that night a surprisingly strong wind comes and rattles Herb’s door and windows. He opens the door and calls Allin’s name and hears a cackling and feels a sudden gust in his face. then the winds are off, laughing, to their multiple destinations round the world.

The Man Upstairs (1947)

Young Douglas watches his grandma stuffing a chicken the old fashioned way, pulling out the innards herself, then stitching it back together and filling it with stuffing.

A new stranger, Mr Koberman, comes to rent the room at the top of the house. He is creepy and has strange demands, such as insisting on using only wooden cutlery.

Over the ensuing days Douglas follows and spies on the man, establishing that he only goes out at night and sleeps like a log through the day, despite Douglas’s attempts to wake him up by stomping up and down and banging things and singing right outside his door.

One day Doug happens to be on the landing where there’s a window with panes of coloured glass in it when he watches Mr Koberman walking down the street, experimentally watching him through each of the colours and sees… to his horror, that Mr Koberman has a completely different insides from us. He is filled with geometric shapes.

Next day, when his grandma has gone out, and Mr Koberman is asleep in  his darkened room, Doug creeps into the stranger’s room with shards of the coloured glass and… a sharp kitchen knife. To cut to the chase, Doug kills him and guts him, removing a whole series of weird-colour and strange-shaped organs.

The story ends with two hardened cop and the coroner standing over the body, examining the organs before sewing him back up and agreeing that the kid did the right thing.

There Was an Old Woman (1944)

Aunt Tildy is an ‘ornery, opinionated, down-home, no-nonsense old lady. When a smooth-talking young man comes a-calling, saying he wants to take her away, she thinks he’s an insurance salesman and kicks him out. The four men with him carry out a huge heavy casket which she doesn’t understand at first but when her young friend Emily comes to visit, the latter is terrified to discover her hand and the cup of tea she’s made go right through Aunt Tilda.

Because Aunt Tilda is a ghost! That nice young man was Death, and those other men carried her body when they carried out the casket.

Mad as hell the ghostly Aunt Tilda gets Emily to drive her down to the mortuary and makes a big scene, interrupting the service, insisting on seeing the manager, threatening to turn the whole place upside down until, at her insistence, the fetch the casket, open it and, with great effort, and much comic sound effects, she squeezes herself back into her corpse, ordering all the parts, one by one, to come back to warm life!

The Cistern (1947)

Two lonely, odd old ladies, Juliet and Anna, live in a house overlooking the street. During the long dark afternoon they tell stories about lost loves and also the urban legends about the rainwater drain outside the house, how it runs like a dark secret beneath the whole city to a magical land where lovers are reunited after death and – by sheer force of hallucinating intensity – persuades herself that that is where her long-lost lover, Frank, who never had the courage to marry her, is waiting for her.

Juliet drowses in the late afternoon, then hears the front door slam.Leaping up, by the time she gets there to open it the street is empty, but she thought she just had time to hear… the big manhole cover in the middle of street clang closed, as if someone had just climbed down into the dark wet underworld…

Homecoming (1946)

The second and longer story about the supernatural Elliott family who return from round the world for a family reunion at their spooky Gothic mansion, each demonstrating their special supernatural skills, as seen through the eyes of young boy Timothy who is one of the family but – being an orphan mortal boy left on their doorstep – has no immortal powers himself.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone (1954)

Fans track down a writer who chose to withdraw into seclusion and cease writing, and get his story from him.


Reflections on Bradbury’s approach and style

After a while I began to get a bit bored of one very prominent feature of the stories, which is that so many of the characters experience intensely altered, hallucinatory, delirious psychological states.

In story after story Bradbury describes people passing out, having delusions, fainting, besides themselves, alienated from their bodies, hysterical and so on. These may all sound like different and distinct states of mind but they’re all described in the same way, in sentences which:

  • tend to be long, with lots of consecutive ‘ands’ conveying
    • a nightmareish sense of unendingness and
    • mental collapse, the failure of the adult ability to distinguish between events, reversion to an infantile state where a thing happens and another thing happens and another thing happens
  • repeat the same phrases or words to convey the way the mind is numb and repeating like a machine
  • often include words indicating falling, swooning, fainting, passing out
  • sometimes invoke the grand concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ to give the impression that the entire universe is crashing around the characters

1. Long sentences Here’s an example of a long sentence with lots of naively consecutive ‘ands’. Marie, the wife in The Next in Line, is having a nervous breakdown:

She could not speak to him for she knew no words that he knew and he said nothing to her that she understood, and she walked to her bed and slipped into it and he lay with his back to her in his bed and he was like one of these brown-baked people of this far-away town upon the moon, and the real earth was off somewhere where it would take a star-flight to reach it. If only he could speak with her and she to him tonight, how good the night might be, and how easy to breathe and how lax the vessels of blood in her ankles and in her wrists and the under-arms, but there was no speaking and the night was ten thousand tickings and ten thousand twistings of the blankets, and the pillow was like a tiny white warm stove under-cheek, and the blackness of the room was a mosquito netting draped all about so that a turn entangled her in it.

‘and… and… and’, a headlong sequence of clauses which creates a sense of breathless, panting hysteria.

2. Clotted clauses Here is Bradbury doing hysteria – old man Foxe in Touched with Fire is being driven mad by the harridan Mrs Shrike taunting him on a blisteringly hot day until he reaches breaking point and snaps. Not the long flatness achieved by all the ‘and’s, here it’s something different, the piling up of multiple clotted clauses to create a sense of claustrophobia:

He was in a blazing yellow jungle. The room was drowned in fire, it clenched upon him, the furniture seemed to shift and whirl about, the sunlight shot through the rammed-shut windows, firing the dust, which leaped up from the rug in angry sparks when a fly buzzed a crazy spiral from nowhere; her mouth, a feral red thing, licked the air with all the obscenities collected just behind it in a lifetime, and beyond her on the baked brown wallpaper the thermometer said ninety-two, and he looked again and it said ninety-two, and still the woman screamed like the wheels of a train scraping around a vast iron curve of track; fingernails down a blackboard, and steel across marble.

Here is the dwarf driven mad by the sight of himself crushed and compressed in a distorting mirror. The first sentence is the usual concatenation of ‘ands’; the second sentence uses the piling up clauses technique to create a sense of crashing stumbling.

There was another scream, and another and still another, and a threshing and a pounding and a breaking, a rushing around and through the maze. There, there, wildly colliding and richocheting, from mirror to mirror, shrieking hysterically and sobbing, tears on his face, mouth gasped open, came Mr. Bigelow.

3. Out of body Numerous Bradbury characters suffer from a hyper-self-consciousness about their bodies, have out-of-body experiences, find themselves looking down and not recognising your own hands, feel their body disappear from under them. Here’s the husband, David, in The Small Assassin being told down the phone that his wife is very ill:

Leiber dropped the phone into its cradle. He got up, with no feet under him, and no hands and no body. The hotel room blurred and fell apart.

If this was a spy thriller, you’d think this character had just drunk a poisoned drink or been injected with a sleeping potion. In Bradbury it’s a fairly common occurrence. Here is the same husband, having flown home to be with his wife:

The propellers spun about, whirled, fluttered, stopped; time and space were put behind. Under his hand, David felt the doorknob turn; under his feet the floor assumed reality, around him flowed the walls of a bedroom…

Later, Alice ‘collapsed inward on herself and finally slept.’ Characters’ bodies bend, buckle, disappear, are suddenly empty or void or alien.

4. Repetition Another trick is the repetition of the exact same phrase, maybe for incantatory effect, sometimes to emphasise the sense that the mind being described is in such a state of shock, that it has become a stuck record. This is from The Crowd:

They were a ring of shifting, compressing, changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face…

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in

He heard their feet running and running and running

He could smell their breaths, the mingled odors of many people sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by…

Conclusion

Bradbury was young when he wrote these stories and the cumulative impression of reading a sequence of them is the impression that he was still dazzled with the tremendous impact these tricks can have.

It’s like a teenage girl discovering that if she wears high heels and a low-cut top she can have a dramatic effect on the boys. Us parents look on and think, ‘Yes, I lived through that age, I’ve had that experience, it doesn’t thrill me anymore, in fact I feel embarrassed for you.’

Thus when the story The Crowd opens with just such an out-of-body altered moment of experience, conveyed by one long sentence with lots of ‘ands’ simply and naively joining together a sequence of impressions as if the higher functions of the brain have been surgically removed – and when the story then invokes grand words like time and space – all these tricks are being used to convey the experience of being in the centre of a car crash.

There was the feeling of movement in space, the beautifully tortured scream, the impact and tumbling of the car with wall, through wall, over and down like a toy, and him hurled out of it. Then–silence.

The only problem is that by this stage in the book, we have seen same box of tricks nine times already, used variously to describe a woman having a nervous breakdown, a man learning his wife is seriously ill, an old man being goaded to snapping point, and a dwarf being goaded to madness. In other words, it is getting a bit over-familiar.

You even begin to suspect that Bradbury began the writing process with a strong personal familiarity with this kind of over-self-aware, hallucinatory, out of body, psychological state, discovered that he could reel off hundreds of pages of long incantatory sentences describing it – and then he found stories to fit the effects into.

You suspect that the sense of nervous collapse, and the giddy style which captures it, came first – and then he had to find the kind of tales and narratives which justified deploying it.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting happy stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood in small-town America in the 1920s
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)

The unnamed narrator is on a walking holiday in Wisconsin. Over the brow of a hill comes a stranger. The narrator invites him to share his simple dinner. Relaxing in the sun, the stranger takes off his shirt to reveal that his body is absolutely covered in wonderful tattoos, lurid El Greco designs painted in sulphurous colours, inked into him by a crazy old woman who, he claims, was a traveller from the future. The illustrated man has tried every way he can to remove them – scraping them, using acid – nothing works. Not only this, but after sundown the tattoos start moving, each one telling a wondrous story.

This is the rather wonderful framing device which loosely introduces this collection of eighteen science fiction short stories. There are two editions. The America edition has the following stories:

  1. The Veldt
  2. Kaleidoscope
  3. The Other Foot
  4. The Highway
  5. The Man
  6. The Long Rain
  7. The Rocket Man
  8. The Fire Balloons
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Exiles
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. The Concrete Mixer
  15. Marionettes, Inc.
  16. The City
  17. Zero Hour
  18. The Rocket

The British edition – which I own – omits ‘The Rocket Man’, ‘The Fire Balloons’, ‘The Exiles’ and ‘The Concrete Mixer’, and adds ‘Usher II’ from The Martian Chronicles and ‘The Playground’, to produce this running order:

  1. Prologue: The Illustrated Man
  2. The Veldt
  3. Kaleidoscope
  4. The Other Foot
  5. The Highway
  6. The Man
  7. The Long Rain
  8. Usher II
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Rocket
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. Marionettes, Inc.
  15. The City
  16. Zero Hour
  17. The Playground
  18. Epilogue: Leaving the Illustrated Man

The stories

1. The Veldt – setting: earth in the future

Mr and Mrs George Hadley live in a soundproofed Happylife Home, which is staffed with gadgets and machinery which does their living for them – baths which run on command, shoelace tiers, food which appears on the table when commanded, and a state-of-the-art nursery where their two children, Peter (10) and Wendy spend hours conjuring up three dimensional scenes from fairy tales and children’s stories.

Recently they’ve been recreating the same scene from the African veldt over and gain, complete with lions feasting on something in the distance. Slowly George realises how spoilt and addicted to the nursery the children have become, and announces he is going to turn off the electric house and take them all on holiday to a real home where they’ll have to cook and manage for themselves.

As he turns things off the children go mental with anger and horror and tears and beg for just a last few minutes in the nursery. George relents as he and his wife go upstairs to pack. Then they hear screams from the nursery, run down and into it only for… the children to slam and lock the door behind them. Only then do they look around and see the lions advancing towards them, jaws slavering, under the hot African sun.

2. Kaleidoscope – setting: space

A rocket explodes and the half dozen astronauts inside are scattered in all directions. For a while they keep in radio contact, bitching, crying, lamenting, recounting their lives, as one heads towards the moon, one gets snared in the Myrmidon meteor shower which circles earth endlessly and the main character, Hollis, is pulled towards earth, burning up on entry into the atmosphere, the cause of wonder as a little boy out for a walk with his mom points up at a shooting star streaking across the sky.

Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There were only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald
mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires. There was a kind of
wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years
and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million
centuries, Stone and the Myrmidone cluster eternal and unending, shifting and shaping like the
kaleidoscope colors when you were a child and held the long tube to the sun and gave it a twirl…

3. The Other Foot – Mars

A striking if simplistic story set in 1985. In 1965 black people were sent in spaceships to colonise Mars. This they have done and now live under blue skies, in townships identical to those they left in the American South. Twenty years later, rumour spreads that the first spaceship from earth is due to arrive. One black man, Willie, rouses a mob, making them remember all the humiliations, discrimination, violence and murder black people suffered on earth. He prepares a noose for whichever white men step off the spaceship, and gets fellow citizens to begin marking out reservations for ‘whites only’ in cinemas, public parks, on trams.

But when the spaceship finally lands in front of a mob of angry vengeful blacks, the knackered old white man who emerges in the door announces that earth has suffered a prolonged atomic war in which every country, city and town has been obliterated. The survivors patched together the spaceship he’s come in and now are begging the Martian settlers to use their old unused rockets, to come and rescue the survivors, to ferry them to Mars where mankind can start again.

The white man begs and slowly the noose falls from Willie Johnson’s hand, and he tells the crowd that this is an opportunity to restart the relationship between the races again, from a clean slate.

4. The Highway – earth in the future

Hernando is a poor peasant living next to a highway which runs through his country from America. Over the years scraps from rich cars have flown off into his property – a hub cap he and his wife use as a bowl, the wheel from a car which crashed into the river, but whose rubber he cut into shoes. He is dirt poor. One day there is a flood of cars heading north, which reduces to a trickle and then… the last car. Young pleasure seekers are in it, a man and five women, in a topless convertible. It is pouring with rain, but they are all crying.

They ask him for water for the radiator, which he fetches and pours in, asking what’s up, why the flood of cars north? It is the nuclear war, the young man cries. The nuclear war has come, it is the end of the world. And they offer him some money and drive off north… Hernando goes back to his wife in their hut.

It becomes ever clearer that Bradbury is not so interested in ‘plot’ or ‘character’ as in poetic description, playing with fanciful similes and metaphors.

He returned with a hub lid full of water. This, too, had been a gift from the highway. One afternoon it had sailed like a flung coin into his field, round and glittering. The car to which it belonged had slid on, oblivious to the fact that it had lost a silver eye

5. The Man – strange planet

The first earth rocket expedition to Planet Forty-three in Star System Three lands and tired Captain Hart is pissed off that the natives just continue going about their work without coming to see them. He sends Lieutenant Martin into town to find out why and Martin returns a few hours later with news that this civilisation has just had a massive experience: the Holy Man whose return they have been awaiting for thousands of years just appeared, walking among them, preaching pace and healing the sick.

Captain Hart is at first completely dismissive, accusing his rival space captains, Burton or Ashley, of having arrived earlier and spreading this ridiculous story in order to pre-empt commercial contracts. But then the two other spaceships turn up badly damaged with most of their crews killed by a solar storm. So… it must be true! It must be him!!

Captain Hart, now persuaded that it is him, returns to the city, but when the mayor can’t tell him where He is, Hart turns nasty, threatening, then shooting the Mayor in the arm. Convinced that ‘He’ has moved on, Hart vows to travel on across the universe to find Him. He blasts off, leaving Lieutenant Martin and some other crew members behind. The mayor turns to them and says: Now, I can take you to meet Him.

6. The Long Rain – Venus

A spaceship lands on Venus. The four survivors struggle through the incessant torrential rain to find a ‘sun dome’, where there’ll be warmth, shelter and food.

I get it now that Bradbury likes stories (cheesy, teenage, boom-boom stories) but what really gets him going is descriptions. The setups and stories may be laughable, but you can’t help reacting to the vividness of his imagining.

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

At one point a monstrous electrical storm passes overhead and burns one of the men to a crisp. The description of his burned corpse really leaped out at me.

The body was twisted steel, wrapped in burned leather. It looked like a wax dummy that had been
thrown into an incinerator and pulled out after the wax had sunk to the charcoal skeleton. Only the teeth were white, and they shone like a strange white bracelet dropped half through a clenched black fist.

Like John Donne. Or photos of Iraqis incinerated on the Highway of Death. The spacemen stagger on, mentally disintegrating, first going round in a big circle to find the spaceship again, then stumbling for miles in search of a Sun Dome only to find one that has been attacked and ransacked by Venusians (who come from the vast sea, apparently, kidnap all the men and elaborately drown them), one man goes mad and sits face up in the rain to drown, another refuses to go any further and shoots himself, the last survivor walks on, going slowly mad, until he does arrive at a Sun Dome and is saved.

7. Usher II – Mars

This is one of the two stories which look ahead to Fahrenheit 451 in that they describe a future earth (in the year 2005) in which a repressive culture is burning all books, wiping out all traces of imaginative literature (and even children’s books) in the name of Moral Purity.

Literary-minded William Stendahl has fled to Mars where, with the help of a sidekick Pike, he commissions an architect to build a replica of the grim Gothic house which features in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, using robots to recreate bats, vampires and so on, using radiation to blast the landscape around it, and machines to even block out the sunlight to create an environment of menacing gloom.

Within hours of building it an Inspector of Moral Climates named Garrett turns up to demand it be torn down. Pike and Stendhal murder Garrett and quickly build a robot to replace him. But it turns out the thing called Garrett was already a robot, so they’ve simply replaced one robot with another.

Stendhal requests to hold a party in the house before it is demolished and, with wild improbability, Garrett accepts. So that evening Garrett and half a dozen other Moral Cleansers (including a number of earnest young lady reformers) attend the part – at which Pike and Stendhal arrange for them one by one to be killed in re-enactments of grim murders from Poe’s most lurid tales.

Finally Stendhal reduces Garrett to begging for his life as – bound and chained to the wall – Stendhal bricks him up into a vault, to be buried alive. As the helicopter carrying Stendhal and Pike takes off, the house of Usher (II) cracks and collapses, just like the house in the Poe story.

Like a Hammer horror story – but on Mars!

8. The Last Night of the World – earth in the future

This is one of a handful of stories where Bradbury almost completely neglects plot in order to create a strangely empty, hollowed-out piece of dialogue. We overhear the disembodied voices of a married couple who have both woken from a dream in which they knew that the world was going to end. So did everyone else at their workplaces. The go about their day, eat a meal, lock up the house and go to bed to wait.

9. The Rocket – earth in the future

Reminiscent of the deceptively simple stories about Mr Palomar written by Italo Calvino in the 1970s. In the future space travel becomes more and more accessible. Fiorello Bodoni, a poor junkyard owner, has saved $3,000 to enable one member of his family to take a rocket trip into outer space. Trouble is the family can’t agree who should go – they draw straws but whoever wins immediately attracts the resentment of the rest of the family.

One day an industrialist offers him the shell of a superannuated rocket, to melt down for scrap. Instead Bodoni uses his money to rig up car motors to the bottom of the rocket, and cine projection screens across the portholes then invites his children on board, makes them sit in the chairs, fires up the car motors and then plays the films of moon and stars and planets passing by, thus tricking them into believing they really have had a trip in space.

10. No Particular Night or Morning

Like The Last Night of the World this one is about psychology with little real plot, and feels strangely empty and disturbing.

On a space ship heading out from earth, there’s a full crew which includes Clemens and a guy named Hitchcock. Over the next 36 hours or so Hitchcock slowly goes to pieces. He becomes convinced nobody exists if he is not looking at them. He becomes convinced there is no space, no stars, no earth. He confides all these paranoid delusions to Clemens who he also thinks ceases to exist when he, Hitchcock, isn’t looking at him.

Hitchcock explains that he was a wannabe author who finally got a short story published but when he saw his name on the cover – Joseph Hitchcock – he realised it wasn’t him. It was someone else. There was no him.

These delusions are exacerbated when a meteor crashes through the skin of the rocket, killing one spaceman and injuring Hitchcock before the ship’s autorepairs seal up the hole. Hitchcock is convinced the meteor was out to get him.

Twelve hours later the alarm bells ring and one of the crew tells Clemens that Hitchcock put on a spacesuit and exited the ship. Now he’s left a million miles behind. For a while they hear him coming through on the spacesuit radio.

‘No more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars.’ That’s what he said. And then he said something about his hands and feet and legs. ‘No hands,’ he said. ‘I haven’t any hands any more. Never had any. No feet. Never had any. Can’t prove it. No body. Never had any. No lips. No face. No head. Nothing. Only space. Only space. Only the gap.’

11. The Fox and the Forest – earth in the future and past

It is 2155 and the world is at war. New, hydrogen-plus bombs are being constructed, as well as germ warfare bombs involving leprosy. The future culture doing this is intensely militarised and repressive. At the same time, time travel machines and holidays are becoming common (don’t ask me about the logic of both happening at once).

Roger Kristen is deeply involved in building the nuclear bomb and his wife Ann, in building leprosy bombs. They sign up for one of the Time Travel holidays and select 1938 as a good year. But once they have been transported back to 1938 New York, they change their clothes, appearance and papers and high tail it to Mexico.

Only trouble is they have been followed. As the story opens one of the Searchers, Simms, confronts them in a bar. It is futile trying to run. He or a colleague will find them. Roger agrees to return on condition his wife can stay. Deal, says Simms. But next morning, instead of keeping his promise to Simms, Roger runs him down and kills him in the hire car.

Released pending further investigation, Roger and Ann fall in with a rambunctious American film crew who are down in Mexico on a recce to make a movie. The brash, fast-talking director Joe Melton invites them to join in with the crew, eat meals, maybe Ann can have a role in the movie, she’s pretty good-looking.

Right up to the moment when Melton reveals… that he and the entire crew are also Searchers. Roger’s work is simply too valuable to let him go. Roger pulls out a gun and shoots some of the crew before he’s overpowered. The hotel management come banging on the door at which point Melton reveals that the camera is a time travel device: one of the crew turns it on and all the people from the future vanish, leaving the hotel room completely bare.

This is the second story to reference the notion that in the future, the authorities will destroy culture and, in particular, burn books.

We don’t like this world of 2155. We want to run away from his work at the bomb factory, I from my position with disease-culture units. Perhaps there is a chance for us to escape, to run for centuries into a wild country of years where they will never find and bring us back to burn our books, censor our thoughts, scald our minds with fear, march us, scream at us with radios . . .

12. The Visitor – Mars

Saul Williams is suffering from the incurable disease of ‘blood rust’, and so like all its other victims he is shipped up to Mars in a space rocket, left with survival rations and abandoned. All along the shore of the barren Martian ocean he sees other people like him, coughing up blood, abandoned, solitary, anti-social.

Along the shores of the dead sea, like so many emptied bottles flung up by some long-gone wave, were the huddled bodies of sleeping men.

Then a rocket arrives (carrying the usual regular rations) and a new young man, Leonard Mark. Turns out Leonard is a telepath and can create a kind of cyber-reality for people. For Saul he creates the impressions that a) Saul is in the middle of hustling bustling New York City and then b) that he is swimming in a rural stream, as he did when a boy back in Illinois.

Trouble is some of the other men have been affected by the disturbances and seen images of New York, too. They all want a piece of Leonard. Saul fights them off and carries Leonard up to a cave. There follow various trick moments – like when Leonard makes himself invisible to Saul – moments out of an episode of the Twilight Zone or Star Trek.

While they’re arguing about fantasies, the other men find the cave and threaten Saul. They want to share Leonard and his amazing ability. Eventually they end up fighting over him, one of them pulls a gun and shoots a couple of the rivals before Saul jumps on him, they wrestle with the gun and – like in a thousand hokey TV episodes – the gun goes off, killing… yes, you’ve guessed it! – Leonard, the man they all wanted to save. Golly, Isn’t life ironic! Aren’t humans their own worst enemies!

13. Marionettes, Inc. – earth now

A surprising anticipation of The Stepford Wives (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere). It’s based on the conversation of two men who suffer from henpecking wives. Usually Braling’s wife keeps him where she can see him so his friend Smith is surprised when he is allowed out for an evening.

Braling tells Smith there is a secret new company named Marionettes, Inc.  which will make a robot duplicate of you. A month ago he had a duplicate made of himself, keeps it in a trunk in the cellar, but brings it out now and then, prepares it to play him for the evening, while he slips out. It’s such a perfect replica his wife suspects nothing. Braling excitedly tells his friend he’s planning to go to Rio de Janeiro for a month while the robot duplicate robot covers for him at home. The only way to detect the difference is that, if you get up really close, you can hear the tick-tick-tick of the internal machinery.

Smith also has problems with his wife who, for some reason, has become extremely affectionate over the past month, petting and pinching and sitting on his lap and tiring him out. Braling gives him Marionettes, Inc.’s card and Smith goes home determined to get a copy made of himself, so he also can slip away from his wife.

But when Smith gets home and looks at his bank statement he is shocked to find $10,000 is missing from their account. He has an awful thought, bends over the sleeping form of his voluptuous wife, Nettie and… hears the fateful ticking… His wife has beaten him to it, and had a duplicate made of herself! God knows where the real Nettie is off gallyvanting!

Meanwhile Braling gets home and takes over from the duplicate Braling only for a classic ‘horror’ scenario to play out, namely when Braling I gets Braling II down into the cellar, the robot refuses to get into the trunk. He’s taken a fancy to Braling’s wife. In fact he likes being out and about in the air and hates being locked up. In fact…. he grabs Braling and stuffs him into the trunk, locks it, climbs up out of the cellar and locks the cellar door. Goes upstairs to the bedroom, slips into bed next to sleeping Mrs. Braling and gives her an affectionate kiss. Who’s to say the robot won’t make a better husband 🙂

14. The City – another planet, the future

This is another sci-fi horror story, the SF equivalent of a shilling shocker. A spaceship lands on an unexplored planet, and comes upon an abandoned city.

What makes the story novel and impressive is that it is told from the point of view of the city, which in fact is more like a live organism, with hearing devices, smelling devices, a central brain and a big mouth.

It turns out that (somehow) the inhabitants were all wiped out thousands of years ago by humans using biological weapons (don’t think about the logic of this too much; all that matters is that the reader submits themselves to the vehemence of the city’s hatred for humans).

So now it entices in the spacemen, who are tentatively exploring it in their spacesuit. Then it captures them – explains just what it is going to do – tips them down a chute into an abattoir-cum-torture chamber where they are eviscerated, disembowelled, and bled dry, and then…

In the kind of cheapjack, catchpenny but very effective way of these kind of horror stories, the city rebuilds them as perfect robot replicas of their original selves. Sends them robotically back to their ship, carrying with them a clutch of germ warfare bombs. They will return to earth and drop them over the entire globe… thus wiping out mankind!!

15. Zero Hour – earth now

This is a genuinely creepy story, the only one in the collection which genuinely gave me the shivers.

It’s told from the point of view of stereotypical 1950s American suburban mum, Mrs Morris, whose little girl Mink is playing out in the yard with a bunch of kids who have developed a new game, which they are calling ‘the invasion’. Bradbury spookily conveys effective facts like the way that kids going through puberty are excluded from the game, and how the game involves placing metal household objects, knives and forks etc, in particular positions, while drawing geometrical shapes in the dust and incanting chants or spells.

In casual phone calls Mrs Morris discovers that all the other prepubescent kids are playing the same game, even in cities a long way away (a call from a friend who’s moved to the other side of America). Mink tells Mrs Morris it’s all being done at the behest of someone called ‘Drill’. All the children talk about ‘Zero Hour’ being five o’clock.

At which hour there is an eerie silence across the city. Mrs Morris’s husband comes home from work (‘Hi, honey, I’m home’) and, in a sudden panic, she forces him inside, and then pelts him up into the attic, slamming and locking the door.

All the little revelations and knowledges and sense that had bothered her all day and which she had logically and carefully and sensibly rejected and censored. Now it exploded in her and shook her to bits.

They hear voices downstairs in the house. Lots of voices. The clumping of heavy feet. Her husband shouts out ‘Who’s there?’ but his wife begs him to be quiet. Up the stairs come the clumping steps.

Heavy footsteps, heavy, heavy,very heavy footsteps, came up the stairs. Mink leading them.
‘Mom?’ A hesitation. ‘Dad?’ A waiting, a silence.
Humming. Footsteps toward the attic. Mink’s first.
They trembled together in silence in the attic, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. For some reason the electric  humming, the queer cold light suddenly visible under the door crack, the strange odor and the alien sound of eagerness in Mink’s voice finally got through to Henry Morris too. He stood, shivering, in the dark silence, his wife beside him.
‘Mom! Dad!’
Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall
blue shadows behind her.
‘Peekaboo,’ said Mink.

Wow. This story sent a genuine thrill of fear through me.

16. The Playground – earth now

A similar effect is created by The Playground. This is pretty much a pure horror story. A middle-aged man, Charles Underhill, used to be mercilessly bullied as a boy. Now he’s married with a son of his own. He and his son regularly walk past the neighbourhood playground.

Charles sees it as a place of incredible violence, with kids smacking, stamping and beating each other. It can’t be that bad can it?

There were creams, sharp visions, children dashing, children fighting, pummeling, bleeding, screaming!

I think this is a sort of hallucination he has, which a) reflects his own neuroses, his own extreme fears but also b) sets the tone of exaggeration and extremity which artfully prepares the reader for what comes next.

His wife, Carol, thinks little Jim should be encouraged to play there with the other kids. If it’s a bit violent, well, that’s all part of growing up.

One particular kid keeps mocking him and calling him whenever he walks past, as if he has a secret, as if he knows something.

Eventually it comes out that this kid has the body of a boy but it contains the mind of an adult neighbour, Marshall. When Charles goes with Jim and his wife next go to the playground, in a terrifying moment, Charles’s soul or whatever it is that lives and perceives inside our bodies, is exchanged with his son’s.

Suddenly he finds himself on top of the slide – where his son had climbed – terrified of the height and of the taunting children around him – and looking over at the playground fence he sees two adults, his wife and himself!! And then he sees them turning and walking away, leaving him, abandoning him to a world of taunts and bullying.

He screamed. He looked at his hands, in a panic of realisation. The small hands, the thin hands…
‘Hi,’ cried the Marshall boy, and bashed him in the mouth. ‘Only twelve years here!’
Twelve years! thought Mr Underhill, trapped. And time is different to children. A year is like ten years. No, not twelve years of childhood ahead of him, but a century, a century of this!

I don’t think it has any sci-fi element at all. It is an ‘astounding’ tale, an ‘astonishing’ tale, but surely a horror story more than science fiction.

Fairly obvious but these last two stories – which are possibly the creepiest – are so in part because they’re about children – those creatures we think we know but who are often so alien, with their own worlds and mindsets – so often the subject of horror stories, books, movies, from The Midwich Cuckoos to The Exorcist.


The American stories

The Rocket Man – earth in the future

14-year-old Doug narrates the three-monthly return visits of his father, a Rocket Man, and the troubled relationship of his parents, his father always vowing to give up flying to Mars or Venus but always, after a week or so at home, getting twitchy and looking at the stars, his mother for the past ten years imagining he is already dead, because the opposite – actually loving him in the here and now – is too risky, risks the terrible pain of losing him on his next mission.

This account of a troubled marriage through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenager is remarkably effective. And has moments of really vivid writing. Doug asks to see his dad in his uniform.

It was glossy black with silver buttons and silver rims to the heels of the black boots, and it looked as if someone had cut the arms and legs and body from a dark nebula, with little faint stars glowing through it. It fit as close as a glove fits to a slender long hand, and it smelled like cool air and metal and space. It smelled of fire and time.

Unlike Isaac Asimov, Bradbury can write.

The Fire Balloons – Mars in the future

Some priests are the first to make the flight to Mars. As usual an alien world turns out remarkably like America, everyone can breathe fine, the sky is blue and the mayor complains about all the Irish navvies who have turned up to do the heavy labour and turned the place into the Wild West with saloons and loose women.

But it is the native Martians who interest Father Peregrine. These are floating blue globes, with no bodies or limbs, who don’t speak or communicate. But the look of them transports him back to childhood memories of his grandfather letting of big red, white and blue balloons to celebrate 4th July.

Father Peregrine makes his colleagues climb up into the mountains in pursuit of the blue globe Martians, and are saved by them when there’s an avalanche. Convinced they are intelligent beings with free will, and therefore capable of right and wrong, and therefore in need of ‘saving’, he gets his grumbling colleagues to build a chapel for the blue globes up in the mountains.

But at the climax of the story the blue globs come to Father Peregrine and, using telepathy, explain very simply that they are peaceful and virtuous and have no need of saving.

Obviously there’s a SF component to the setting and story, but the imaginative force of the story really comes from Peregrine’s poignant memories of being a boy and watching his his grandfather letting beautiful coloured balloons fly into the sky over small town America.

The Exiles – Mars

This a weird story which starts strange and then gets weirder. It is 2120. A shiny spaceship is en route to Mars crewed by shiny white American jock spacemen. But they are all having florid hallucinations – bats in space, arms turning into snakes, imagining they are wolves – and dying, of shock, of heart failure.

‘Bats, needles, dreams, men dying for no reason. I’d call it witchcraft in another day. But this is the year 2120!’

Since the story opens with three witches on Mars reciting spells familiar to any literate person as being quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth the reader knows these affects are caused by witches. So far, so SF shocker. What’s interesting is it’s the third of the stories to refer to the idea that in the future, books are banned.

‘Our whole crew dreamed of witch-things and were-things, vampires and phantoms, things they couldn’t know anything about. Why? Because books on such ghastly subjects were destroyed a century ago. By law. Forbidden for anyone to own the grisly volumes. These books you see here are the last copies, kept for historical purposes in the locked museum vaults…  All burned in the same year that Halloween was outlawed and Christmas was banned!’

OK, this much I can accept. But the story then goes to an entirely new, delirious level, when it is revealed that the witches from Macbeth are there because Shakespeare is there! Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce and H.P. Lovecraft and all the other writers of horror and the supernatural whose books were burned back on earth – somehow, they are gods, they are immortal, and they fled earth when their creations were burned by a moralising puritanical civilisation, they fled to Mars to escape… and now the earthmen are coming to Mars.

So the core of the story is Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce trying to recruit Charles Dickens for their army to oppose the invaders (he refuses, being in the midst of the Christmas celebrations in A Christmas Carol) along with Machen and Blackwood and all the other authors of the mysterious.

So when the spaceship lands, they summon up a vast army of snakes and monsters and fire to attack it. But then we switch to the spacemen’s point of view and they see… nothing at all. A bare uninhabited plain. And to mark their arrival the squeaky-clean-cut all-American captain decides they will burn the last copies of all those nonsense books, the last copies which he had brought on the ship.

And as they make a funeral pyre of The Wind In the Willows and The Outsider and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wizard of Oz, and Pellucidar and The Land That Time Forgot and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they hear thin distant screams… which are the screams of the souls of the authors perishing one by one.

What comes over is Bradbury’s investment in reading, in the imagination, in the wildest reaches of fantasy and horror – and his instinctive opposition to all those forces in Puritanical American society which are constantly trying to stamp it out.

The Concrete Mixer – Mars

The Martian Ettil Vrye refuses to join the Martian army preparing to go and invade earth. His wife, Tylla, is ashamed, his father-in-law is furious. (You can see how this isn’t really science fiction, it is human beings being described.)

It’s a would-be comic story in which Ettil is arrested, and charged with possessing earth science fiction comics, which are what have persuaded him the invasion is a bad idea. When the army threaten to throw him into a ditch of flaming oil he gives up and joins the army and flies through space in the fleet to invade earth.

But as they approach they get a radio message welcoming them. Earth is a peaceful federation now, has abolished all its atom bombs and has no weapons. There is a comic scene as the mayor of a California town makes a big welcome speech to the Martians as they emerge from their shiny spaceships, Miss California 1965 promises to give them all a big kiss and  Mr. Biggest Grapefruit in San Fernando Valley 1956 gives them all baskets of fresh fruit.

The Martians fraternise. Most of them love it and pair off with earth women to visit the movies and sit in the back row smooching. Ettil doesn’t fit in. He delivers satire about women in beauty parlours apparently being tortured by their hairdo headsets. He sits on a park bench and is propositioned by a young woman. When he won’t go to the movies with her she accuses him of being a communist. Then an old lady rattles a tambourine at him and asks whether he has been saved by the Lord.

Then he meets a movie producer, van Plank, who whisks him off to a bar, buys him cocktails, promises him a percentage of the take and some ‘peaches’ on the side, if he’ll be an adviser to his new movie project, MARTIAN INVASION OF EARTH. The Martians will be tall and handsome. All their women will be blonde. In a terrific scene a strong woman will save the spaceship when it’s holed by a meteor. there’ll be merchandising, obviously, a special martian doll at thirty bucks a throw.

Not to mention the brand new markets opening up on Mars for perfume, ladies hats, Dick Tracey comics and so on. The producer leads him back out onto the pavement, shakes hands, gets him to promise to be at the studio at 9 prompt tomorrow morning and disappears.

Ettil is left to realise that the invasion will fail because all the Martians will get drunk, be fed cocktails and hot dogs till they’re sick or got cirrhosis, gone blind from watching movies or squashed flat by elephant-sized American women. He walks towards the spaceship field, fantasising about taking the next ship back home and living out his days in his quiet house by a dignified canal sipping fine wine and reading peaceful books when… he hears the tooting of a horn and turns to find a car driven by a bunch of Californian kids, none older than 16, has spotted him and is driving full pelt to run him over, now that’s entertainment.

(And reminiscent, of course, of the classic scene in Fahrenheit 451 when the joyriders try to kill the protagonist, Montag – having already, apparently, run over and killed the book’s female lead, Clarissa.)

Epilogue

The epilogue is short enough to quote in its entirety and gives you a good sense of the simple style and vocabulary of most of the tales

IT WAS almost midnight. The moon was high in the sky now. The Illustrated Man lay motionless. I had seen what there was to see. The stories were told; they were over and done. There remained only that empty space upon the Illustrated Man’s back, that area of jumbled colors and shapes.

Now, as I watched, the vague patch began to assemble itself, in slow dissolvings from one shape to another and still another. And at last a face formed itself there, a face that gazed out at me from the colored flesh, a face with a familiar nose and mouth, familiar eyes.

It was very hazy. I saw only enough of the Illustration to make me leap up. I stood therein the moonlight, afraid that the wind or the stars might move and wake the monstrous gallery at my
feet. But he slept on, quietly.

The picture on his back showed the Illustrated Man himself, with his fingers about my neck, choking me to death. I didn’t wait for it to become clear and sharp and a definite picture.

I ran down the road in the moonlight. I didn’t look back. A small town lay ahead, dark and asleep. I knew that, long before morning, I would reach the town. . . .


Thoughts

1. Many of his stories use science fiction tropes – most obviously the use of space ships to other worlds and  encounters with aliens. But Bradbury’s heart is really here on earth . And his stories’ deep roots are more in the horror and horror-fantasy tradition than in sci-fi, as such.

2. The stories are all told in amostly flat, spare prose – flat and plain like fairy stories.

The rocket men leaped out of their ship, guns ready. They stalked about, sniffing the air like hounds.
They saw nothing. They relaxed. The captain stepped forth last. He gave sharp commands. Wood was gathered, kindled, and a fire leapt up in an instant. The captain beckoned his men into a half circle about him.

… from whose white flatness occasionally burst vivid similes, or entire paragraphs of poetic prose.

And as if he had commanded a violent sea to change its course, to suck itself free from primeval beds,
the whirls and savage gouts of fire spread and ran like wind and rain and stark lightning over the sea
sands, down empty river deltas, shadowing and screaming, whistling and whining, sputtering and
coalescing toward the rocket which, extinguished, lay like a clean metal torch in the farthest hollow.

Sometimes he uses repetition of phrases and grammatical structures to intensify the moment or to create dream-like hallucinations. But for the most part it is a verbally, grammatically and lexically simplified style, well suited, in its simple-mindedness, to conveying the spooky, spine-chilling impact of his simple and sometimes terrifying horror stories.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, is eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 awakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The set-up

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When Margaret turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. It was during her studies in Paris that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and that Arthur had paid for her entire education and living expenses out of his own pocket.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And the upshot of these tearful confessions is that agree on the spot that they would like to get married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris to study, see life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret), located in Montparnasse, and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

It is at this point that the story proper begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding (all the preceding is told as exposition).

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life working as a doctor in Egypt and is now retired, thus conveniently available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the early-1900s, when Maugham was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble, particularly in the classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned way Maugham gives detailed, physical and psychological descriptions of his characters – unlike the modern style for fleeting, brief flashes, or having character revealed by dialogue. In Maugham every character is sat down, given a cup of tea, and thoroughly introduced to the reader.

I like the way they appear stiflingly conventional but often have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes to expect protagonists of dramas to beyoung, physically fit and good-looking protagonists that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who are far more diverse in age and quality. Who, en masse, bespeak an entirely different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical of the characters, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Whereas here is Maugham’s meticulous description of the older Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And, a passage to make feminists explode with outrage pithily sums up the (cramped patriarchal) expectations of the era:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable.

(In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both the novel Cakes and Ale and figuring as the protagonist of the spy short stories, Ashenden. Similarly, several of the novels are set in north Kent (where Maugham himself grew up), town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway, alongside these good character, there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big, fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively.

Having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is to the audience of poets and painters at Le Chien Noir, he is met with mockery and scorn.

But it isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (Contemporary critics of the novel drew attention to these factual passages, pointing out that they felt like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Maugham candidly admits in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching the background. I like medieval history and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance intellectual world, its domination by powers and thrones and hugely complex theological models, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. Helping to reinforce all this, Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. There then follow a sequence of spooky events. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they visit a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

The role of Dr Porhoët

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët. It becomes clear that his function in the book is to provide a plausible support for Haddo’s supernatural stories. If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable. But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can have him witness umpteen weird oriental scenes, have Porhoët backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims.

A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment, they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. While Porhoët isn’t himself a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books, he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are shown having learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts. This dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, is much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquisition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again.

For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street. The fat man promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body. Much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. He takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

All this has taken place on this one visit to her flat prompted when she saw him stumble and collapse in the street. Now Haddo finally leaves, and Margaret comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. Haddo had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement.

Susie returns from the studio. Arthur arrives and takes Margaret in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to have restrained Maugham from going down this route. One was the censorship of his day, which was smothering. A whole raft of publishers refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it merely depicts feelings of arousal and lust. Any hint of actual physical sex would have gotten it banned. (It was a real eye-opener to me to learn just how much Maugham, generally portrayed as a reactionary and second-rate writer, in fact played a progressive role in pushing at the limits of censorship. Nonetheless, there was a definite line he could not cross.)

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

Thus, all the time that ‘sensible’ Margaret is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, choosing the dress, the cake and so on – ‘possessed’ Margaret is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror and amazement, agreeing to marry him! She is overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur were due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London to get married, Margaret sends a note to Susie to say that she has married Haddo and left town.

Flabbergasted, Susie spends a day visiting Margaret’s dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment and the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story – before she tells Arthur, who is, as you might expect, absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had read on his face, on that fateful day when Haddo had kicked the dog, and Arthur knocked him to the ground. Revenge!

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. In both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, behaving scandalously. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but these tend to be ruined by Haddo’s caddish behaviour – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money – and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo, Susie witnesses Margaret gambling and then shudders with horror as she sees the once-innocent and pure Margaret smile acquaintance with a notorious courtesan. Into what depths of sin has Haddo dragged her!!

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover that two of the other dinner guests are Haddo and Margaret. Margaret behaves coldly and disdainfully to Arthur, while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation. And Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There then follows a chapter where Arthur tries, with Susie’s help, to detoxify Margaret. Maugham explains the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce, Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Arthur goes to Haddo’s country house

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. This is an opportunity for Maugham to give us more learned tales of how ancient magicians exerted power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later, Arthur turns up in Paris and tells Susie a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat. (Apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, named Skene.)

Arthur stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to Skene, to discover that it is a spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in an effectively chilling sequence – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while (in a spectacularly convenient coincidence) Margaret comes and sits at this very bench. When Arthur walks out in front of her, she initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house.

She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods.

Arthur searches through the grounds for her but fail, gives up, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling them this narrative.

As it happens, Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now Susie remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she had heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain it. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. The funeral had taken place the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow-minded provincial Dr Richardson, who blandly claims that Margaret died of heart disease. Infuriated at the man’s obtuseness, Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out. He tells Susie he has a plan. (For a moment I thought he might have been planning to dig up Margaret’s coffin – which would have made for a grim and compelling scene. But no…)

Instead, he plans to break into Haddo’s house. Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the front door, and loudly demands admission from the stroppy doorkeeper. While they’re bickering on the doorstep, Haddo himself appears, more physically repulsive than ever.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes off their concerns and accusations. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake.

And now there comes a genuinely unexpected plot development: Arthur – cool, phlegmatic, Anglo-Saxon, rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead!

Without his books, and relying on memory, given just a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this.

Out on the blasted heath which surrounds Skene House, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense and commences reciting magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – in the same shape as in life, and clearly commanding revenge. Instead, much more piteously, they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is. He tells them. He is going to kill Haddo.

As he utters these words, the wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

When so much of the dialogue and behaviour is polite, restrained and civilised – these scenes of sudden bestial violence are all the more striking.

Arthur insists that they must go, go now, go immediately to Skene. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn that the servants are sent away at night so, confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to unlock it and let the other two in.

Room by room they then search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit up from the outside. Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors! Three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel comes with the revelation of a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life. This goes far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs.

As a modern reader, who has read about (and seen in umpteen movies) inventive descriptions of disgusting things – I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself, to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body back here.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. Moments later he rejoins them at the front door. They run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur had set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you are able to understand all the characters and what is going on – where the stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – all so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock as well as here – all the characters take it for granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they feel like it. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallivanting off to Chartres, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire, at will. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, verging on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret goes off with Haddo, she simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, where she visits the opera, goes out for dinner, strolls round the galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring. Some oppression!

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to dip for a while into the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret – but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is wonderfully remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s entertaining (shocking) traits that he combines wicked heartlessness with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with the politest words and most refined diction.

Take the scene where our trio barge their way up to the front door of Skene House to find the truth about Margaret’s death. When Haddo appears he behaves with provocative good manners, the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

In the midst of all the horror, Maugham makes Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in his immensely lofty Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (1901)

This is the seventh of Wells’s classic science fiction novels. He had also, by 1901, written over 60 science fiction short stories. Single-handedly he had created a new genre for the English-speaking world, which was quickly taken up and copied.

It wasn’t just that he wrote a lot, it’s that the early books each tackled, described, thought through and realistically presented some of the founding tropes of science fiction – time travel and attack by aliens from another world, being the two outstanding ones – which have been recycled thousands of times since.

The First Men in the Moon is not quite in the same league because it didn’t invent the topic of travelling to the moon – Jules Vernes had written a novel on the same theme thirty years earlier (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and in fact a number of fantasies and romances on the subject had been written for centuries (including the version by the 17th century writer Cyrano de Bergerac whose illustrations by Quentin Blake I recently reviewed – Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, based on the Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657).

Also, the scientific basis of the story – the mechanism by which the protagonists get to the moon – using some kind of anti-gravity metal – the way it’s discovered and handled, isn’t as persuasive as some of the earlier fantasies. Nonetheless, the story is still compelling because of the thoroughness with which Wells thinks through the practical details – and then because of the avalanche of astounding discoveries which his heroes make once they’ve arrived on the moon, and which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Amateur hour

As usual in Wells, the whole thing is invented by an inspired amateur – the notion of government-sponsored scientific research being still decades away, pioneered by the Manhattan project of the 1940s.

Instead the story is narrated in the first person by a rather disreputable bankrupt, Mr Bedford, who retreats to a bungalow on the Kent coast where he hopes to scribble a best-selling play in order to make a quick buck, but gets into conversation with an eccentric neighbour, Cavor, and gets drawn into the latter’s scientific experiments.

The ‘scientific’ basis is simple, or simple-minded, enough. Cavor points out that we now know the universe is full of rays and waves that act at a distance – light rays, x-rays, electricity and gravity. And we know of materials which block some of these rays – light and electricity and x-rays. So why can’t we create something which blocks the effect of gravity?

Bedford immediately sees the vast amounts of money to be made from such a material in a hundred and one commercial applications:

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe. (p.27)

So Bedford persuades the rather other-worldly Cavor to take him on as a ‘partner’, and becomes a regular visitor to the latter’s house down the hill (incidentally observing the comic rivalry of the three working class labourers Cavor has working in his various workshops).

An enormous explosion and then a terrific hurricane announce to the narrator that Cavor has indeed succeeded in making the new material. it happened by fluke, when a substance they’d been working on was left to cool and crystallised into the material they now decide to christen ‘cavorite’. (It all takes place on 14 October 1899, as Bedford faithfully records.)

What caused the hurricane is that, as soon as it came into existence, the cavorite blocked the earth’s gravitational pull from working on the air above it. This meant that that air – which normally presses downwards at a pressure of 14 pounds per square inch – ceased doing so, and instead floated freely upwards. This created a column of ’empty air’ directly about the square of cavorite. Into this gravity-less tube rushed all the surrounding air which, on finding itself also liberated from the earth’s gravity, also lost its downward weight and was itself forced upwards by the rest of the surrounding air rushing in. And so on and so on. In a split second the pull of pressurised air into the column of unweighted air created a huge inrush of air from the surroundings, in which everything which was not tied down was immediately dragged towards it at tremendous force.

For the few moments that this happened all the air in the neighbourhood was sucked into the gravity-free tube – which explains the sudden hurricane Cavor and Bedford felt. But then they themselves saw the little sheet of cavorite itself get sucked up by the empty vortex and they both watched it soar up through the column, up, up and – presumably – right out of the earth’s atmosphere… at which point everything returned to normal. ‘By Jove, old chap.’

Bedford and Cavor look at each other. This thing could escape the earth’s atmosphere. It could fulfil man’s oldest dream of leaving earth. But how to steer or control it? Cavor goes off pondering and the next day has come up with a solution: encase the cavorite in steel plates which mask its anti-gravity effect, and only open the plates facing in a certain direction when you want the anti-gravity cavorite to work in that direction.

(You can see why Wells has his narrator, Bedford, continually lament that he didn’t keep notes, didn’t make a record of the process by which cavorite was made, didn’t follow all of Cavor’s abstruse thinking and so on. This is because Well’s idea doesn’t really make practical sense.)

So the pair construct a sphere, with an inner layer made of glass, then covered in warm cavorite paste, then steel divided into plates. (In fact it’s less a sphere than a polyhedron made of flat plates. And the plates are more, in fact, like ‘blinds’ which can be opened and closed. I’ve always found this quite hard to visualise.) Once everything is in place they heat the cavorite paste to securely bind it to the ‘sphere’ and then, as it cools, it assumes the magical properties and – whoosh!

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Hering (1901)

The idea is that to steer the sphere you open a plate in the direction you want gravity to cease working and are repelled away from any nearby object (the earth or moon or sun) which would ordinarily exert the attractive power of gravity. Once in space, close the plates and you’ll be pulled towards the nearest big object. Like the moon.

Bedford climbs into the sphere and Cavor shows him how he’s furnished it – the blankets, some frozen oxygen in cylinders, some food, an electric light and some carbolic acid device to get rid of the carbon dioxide they inhale. But while Bedford is still pondering whether he wants to go, Cavor opens the earthside shutters, the cavorite works and whoosh! they are flying towards the moon.

Wells’s story races at top speed to prevent you from realising what tosh it is, and to enchant you in his narrative spell. Wonder follows wonder. First of all there is weightlessness. Maybe earlier writers had realised that we would be weightless in space but Wells gives a very accurate prophecy of what it feels like, the tingling in the blood and the way everything inside the sphere floats around bumping into everything else.

It was the strangest sensation conceivable, floating thus loosely in space, at first indeed horribly strange, and when the horror passed, not disagreeable at all, exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt – as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream.

They open some of the plates to see where they’re headed and a) are dazzled by the brightness of the sun and b) looking the other direction, are stunned by the profusion of stars, millions more than you can see through earth’s atmosphere.

Cavor makes last-minute adjustments and they come to land in a vast crater on the moon. Here the reader is bombarded with vivid impressions. It is dark and the ground is covered in soft white stuff which they only slowly realise is not dust but frozen atmosphere. They have arrived just at sunrise over the crater and are astonished to watch the frozen white stuff all around them melt and then evaporate, to form an atmosphere, tingeing the sky blue.

Is it breathable? Cavor performs the ludicrously amateur experiment of opening the manhole which they use to get in and out of the capsule and discovers that – yes, it is thinner than earth’s but the moon’s atmosphere turns out to be perfectly breathable. (No ill effects from sunlight, radiation, burning, toxic gases, nothing! Convenient, eh?)

They climb outside and are astounded to watch small pebbles shiver, pop, put out roots, and then stalks. They are plants and shrubs and strange tree-sized flora, which grows even as they watch. Of course. The moon’s ‘year’ – the length of time it takes the sun to rise and set over the lunar surface – only lasts for 14 earth days. In that fortnight, life forms have to spring, grow, mature, produce their own seed, and decline.

But the thing they are most enraptured with is the low gravity. Only a sixth of the earth’s. Off they go springing and bounding in giant leaps amid the surreally growing and blossoming fruits of the moon. Until  – oops – they both realise they have forgotten where the sphere was and, looking back, see only an immense rustling growing forest of moon flora.

And it is then that they hear an ominous boom boom boom noise from beneath the surface and a grinding as of great gates opening. Not long afterwards they see the first of the Selenites herding a vast slug-like creature with tiny closed eyes and a horrid red mouth which is slurping and munching its way through the foliage, like a farmer herding a monstrous cow.

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Amazement

Wells’s aim is to amaze, stun, astonish and astound. The basic, foundational trope of a visit to a strange land is reminiscent of any number of late-Victorian yarns – Vernes’ Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Rider Haggard’s journeys to darkest Africa (She, 1886), or Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger trip to a Lost World (1912) in the remotest Amazon.

But science fiction has the advantage over mere adventure stories in that it can make things up purely to astound, astonish, shock, disgust and amaze the reader.

Because the text is available online, it is searchable, and so I searched and counted no fewer than 415 exclamation marks, as the characters, and the author, continually signal their amazement at their astounding discoveries!!!

Then, for fun, I searched all the instances of the word ‘amazing’.

It comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.

[Cavor’s workshop] looked like business from cellar to attic – an amazing little place to find in an out-of-the-way village

It was an amazing piece of reasoning. Much as it amazed and exercised me at the time.

And then, sudden, swift, and amazing, came the lunar day.

With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air.

Cavor panted something about ‘amazing sensations’.

What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing.

Amazing little corner in the universe – the landing place of men!

… returning after amazing adventures to this world of ours.

There were several amazing forms, with heads reduced to microscopic proportions and blobby bodies.

Amazing and incredible as it may seem, these two creatures, these fantastic men insects, these beings of other world, were presently communicating with Cavor by means of terrestrial speech.

The dictionary definition of to amaze is ‘to cause someone to be extremely surprised’. Synonyms for ‘amaze’ give a sense of the goal of Well’s fantasies (and of the thousands of pulp sci-fi writers who followed him). it is to:

astonish, astound, surprise, bewilder, stun, stagger, flabbergast, nonplus, shock, startle, shake, stop someone in their tracks, stupefy, leave open-mouthed, leave aghast, take someone’s breath away, dumbfound, daze, benumb, perplex, confound, dismay, disconcert, shatter, take aback, jolt, shake up

Taken prisoner

Back in the story our heroes sneak away from the ghastly apparition of the Selenite and realise they are hungry. Not having any provisions from the sphere they are driven by desperation to nibble one of the growing lunar ‘trees’ and Wells gives quite a humorous account of the way that the ‘food’ does them no harm but makes them both very drunk. Through their drunken bickering they are aware of Selenites surrounding them and of some kind of struggle, then it all goes dark.

They wake up with hangovers in a dark cell in handcuffs and shackles. One or two individual Selenites come to see them before they are raised to their feet and led by a posse of Selenites, some of whom are carrying the sharp spiked goads they’d seen one using on get the big fat mooncalf earlier. Our heroes are fascinated and disgusted at the Selenites’ appearance, a kind of giant ant. The shapes of their heads appear to vary, indicating different brain size and probably advanced specialisation of job or function in what they come to realise is the complex Selenite civilisation.

They are taken through caverns measureless to man, past enormous machinery which appears to be pumping out some kind of liquid which glows blue and provides illumination here. Cavor speculates wildly that there may be a whole civilisation here, under the surface of the moon. Maybe networks of caverns descending via tunnels down to some inner sea. Scooped out and developed over thousands of years.

When they come to a narrow plank going out over what appears to be a vast bottomless pit, Bedford rebels. One of the Selenites goads him with the spiky implement and he sees red. He punches the Selenite and is astonished to watch his fist go right through its head and out the other side. They are clearly far less sturdy and strongly made than humans. Before he knows it he is attacking all of them and then grabbing Cavor to make a getaway.

This is actually the turning point of the book, because the rest of the main narrative describes their panic-stricken escape back to the surface of the moon. It is a chase narrative. As you might imagine, it involves climbing up clefts and stumbling into vast caverns and a lot more fighting, with the unpleasant discovery that the Selenites have a sort of crossbow which fires spears.

Nonetheless, triumphing over all these perils our heroes finally blunder out into a huge circular shaft with spiral steps running up along the wall (the kind of thing we’ve all seen in sci-fi and fantasy movies) leading up to the surface. Up it they run, emerging into the lip of a ‘crater’ – and they now understand that the moon’s ‘craters’ are in fact an immense network of circular ‘lids’ which can be retracted to reveal the labyrinth of tunnels created by Selenite civilisation and which allow the Selenites to emerge onto the surface to farm their herds of moon cows.

The sun is visibly waning: some 14 days have passed underground though they haven’t noticed, and is now threatening to set with all that entails in terms of losing the breathable atmosphere. Where is the sphere?

Afflicted by despair as they survey the vast area of lunar foliage, now visibly browning and declining, they pin a handkerchief to a nearby bush and set off to explore in opposite directions, taking vast moon leaps as they go.

Nearing exhaustion and plagued by fear that search parties of very angry Selenites will be out after them, Bedford is on the brink of giving up when he is momentarily dazzled by a shaft of light and realises it is sunlight reflecting off a panel of the sphere. Weeping with relief he bounds over and confirms it’s true. But what of Cavor? He leaps to a nearby peak and shouts Cavor’s name but – as Wells had pointed out from the first (in the kind of scientifically accurate detail which are such a joy of these stories) moon air is a lot thinner than earth air and so sound doesn’t carry very well: even when they’re shouting at each other it sounds like they’re whispering.

He can see the hankie in a bush a few miles away and so leaps over towards it. Here he yells Cavor’s name again, then looks down and sees an archetypal adventure story sight: broken bushes, churned-up soil, all the signs of a struggle. Going down he finds a scrap of paper in which Cavor has hurriedly written that he’s hurt his knee in landing awkwardly in a ditch and can hear the Selenites closing in, any moment they’re going to come, oh my God –

And here his message breaks off and the paper is marked by… a red liquid. Blood!!!!

The Selenites have got him. The crater is closed. All entrance to the interior is blocked off. The sun has almost set. Bedford realises he must save himself. I found his flight back the sphere quite gripping. Wells convincingly describes the sudden drop in temperature as the sun declines, the air grows thin and cold and then the first snowflakes will fall. The temperature will ultimately drop to Absolute Zero and Bedford will freeze to death unless he can make it to the sphere in time. At last he is there. Crawling on hands and knees. Barely strength to reach up to the manhole, Twists. Can’t do it. Twists again. Pulls himself up and is… inside!

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

Food. Blanket. Warmth. Recovery. Sleep. Wakes rejuvenated. Grasps the grim reality of his situation. Opens the cavorite plates. Silently flies into space. More by luck than judgement he steers a course back to earth.

In an outcome so ludicrous it is like a pantomime, he not only lands back on earth, but he lands back on the south coast of England, barely a few miles from where they took off. On the sea, but conveniently close to a beach which he is then washed up on. Some jolly English chaps are coming down for their morning swim. ‘Crikey, old chap, you look a bit peaky let us take you up to the old hotel.’

Here he tucks into bacon and eggs and is drinking coffee when there’s an explosion and bewilderment outside the door. Some young lad had been hanging round as the chaps took dirty, dishevelled Bedford up to their hotel. He’d looked a bit shifty. The young wretch must have gone back to the sphere, climbed in and opened a plate, making it lift off. Damn and blast! There go Bedford’s dreams of setting up an interplanetary travel agency.

But he still has the gold. Did I mention the gold? Amid their adventures Bedford had realised that the shackles and manacles the Selenites had bound them with were made of gold. He had grabbed a couple of tyre lever-sized gold rods during their breakout. In fact he’d found them handy for fighting their way through the Selenites.

At least he still has them. He is rich.

A coda from Cavor

Wells could have stopped his tale there. Instead, there is a coda which takes up a surprising amount of space, pages 150 to 186 in the Everyman paperback edition.

To the outrage of all common sense, a Dutch electrician and early radio ham, picks up radio messages… from the moon! Yes, Cavor was captured, as Bedford had described: but his captors were kind to him, and, once he’d recovered, they took him on a Cook’s Tour of their vast civilisation. Part of this was learning that there was an apparently infinite variety of types of Selenites and soon Cavor was being introduced to the brainy ones: he could tell they were brainy, because they had very big heads! Big heads and thin skins so he could actually see the brain matter pulsating as they thought their deep thoughts.

Turns out that some of the Selenites are specialists in language and set about teaching Cavor who quickly catches on and starts to teach them English. Thus, within a few weeks, Cavor is communicating with the Selenites who explain how their society works, confirm that the moon is a swiss cheese of underground caverns and passages, that the phosphorescent liquid and much else is produced by immense machinery, that at the centre of the moon there is indeed a vast and tempestuous sea – and much more besides.

These visions of an alien civilisation, as so often, develop a strong flavour of being social criticism of the author’s own civilisation. Cavor discovers that the Selenites breed all the different types of workers in the equivalent of test tubes, distorting all aspects of their bodies and brains to suit them to the work they’re destined for. (Anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 30 years).

Harsh? Yes, he is a bit disgusted by it and especially by one particular sight of an embryonic Selenite having its forelimbs artificially lengthened to do manual work, but – and here is the Author’s Message –

of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.

On another occasion his guides – the preposterously named Phi-oo and Tsi-puff – bring him to a great field of mushrooms being grown for food, where they find all the workers drugged and fast asleep, until they are needed for the harvest when they’ll be woken. Again, the character Cavor becomes a mouthpiece for the Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells:

To drug the worker one does not want and toss him aside is surely far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets

Cavor’s tour climaxes with a presentation to the Grand Lunar, Master of the Moon – at which point the book definitely feels more like a lampoon or a parody than a ‘serious’ fantasy, a kind of ludicrous Wizard of Oz vibe.

Except that here it also reaches a kind of height of teenage socialism. Cavor radios back to earth a lengthy version of his interview with the Grand Lunar which begins with harmless stuff about the structure of the earth, why we live on the surface and not underneath like the Selenites, what weather is like in a place with 12 hour days, and so on. Little by little Cavor describes human civilisation, cities and factories and trains, how we do not breed different types of human to perform different tasks, not yet anyway.

But, when asked whether there is a Grand Earthly as there is a Grand Lunar, he finds himself having to explain the idea of ‘nations’ and ’empires’ and, before he realises it, is describing ‘war’. His brutal description of this absurd folly fills the Grand Lunar and the huge entourage of Selenites listening to Cavor’s account with horror.

Yes, wars in which men flock to the flag, train and arm and proudly wear uniforms, before clashing in huge armies designed solely to kill as many of the opponents as possible. As he proceeds, Cavor notes the moans of disappointment and disillusion rising from the crowd and the ‘expression’ on what passes for the Grand Lunar’s face.

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

A week later comes the final broadcast we are ever to hear from Cavor. It is a panic-stricken sentence, ‘I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know – ‘… and then a few words attempting to convey the secret of cavorite. Then silence.

Bedford imagines the dismay Cavor’s revelation about the true nature of human beings must have caused among the Selenites, and how the mood turned against Cavor, and how the moon people then realised that he was broadcasting messages to his violent brethren back on earth, with the risk that these psychopaths might return in one of these ‘armies’ and conquer the Selenites.

Gulliver

When I read this as a teenager I was awed by Wells’s profound insight into human nature. Now it reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, in which the hero also describes human behaviour to the peace-loving King of Brobdingnag, who replies, accurately enough:

‘I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

True or not, the point is that, bolted on to the science fantasy, this coda reads very much like a variation on the time-honoured satire on contemporary civilisation and, by extension, of human nature, which goes back before Swift to Thomas More’s Utopia and before that to any number of Roman and Greek authors.


Commentary

There are three obvious features about a Wells novel like this, what he called his ‘fantasy novels’:

1. Fast

It’s fast-moving. Bedford has bumped into Cavor, built the sphere, gone to the moon, watched the desert bloom, been captured and taken below, escaped and fought his way to the surface, found the sphere and escaped, crash-landed on earth and had a hearty breakfast, all in a mere 150 pages (in the Everyman paperback edition I read).

2. Fantastic

The speed prevents you noticing its preposterousness. It’s so fast-moving you don’t notice how quickly you leave the world of Edwardian England, with its pubs and evening strolls along the Downs, completely behind. It only requires ten or so pages from Bedford meeting Cavor, to him thoroughly involving him in his theoretical speculations, and then – whoosh! they’re off to the moon.

It is fast-moving because it is, in a sense, pulp.  Only by moving fast from one astounding moment to the next can it stop you pausing to reflect and thus breaking the spell.

3. Mundanity

But, contradicting a little what I’ve said above, just as important as the speed and fantasy, is its air of mundaneness and normality.

I think it was Tom Shippey in his book about Lord of the Rings who explained that what made the book such a success was the invention of the hobbits. Tolkien had been working on his private-world mythology for decades, inventing languages and complex histories for his elves and dwarves and so on, and had produced quite a few texts narrating whole eras in his legendary Middle Earth. But they were boring and flat.

It was the invention of the down-to-earth, small, beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, common-sensical hobbits which gave him a vehicle to take the reader into his world. We are introduced to the hobbits first and thoroughly identify with their idealised pastoral English life – before the first hints of other-worldly menace ever appear.

This explains why Lord of the Rings is regularly voted the greatest novel of the 20th century, while I’ve never met anyone who managed to complete The Silmarillion, another of Tolkien’s epics, describing a different era in Middle Earth’s history, but which lacks hobbits and, therefore, all charm and – crucially – representatives of the ordinary reader; imaginative vectors allowing us to enter into his imaginative world.

It’s an overlooked element of Wells that his best books also require this dichotomy – the interlocking of two opposites, the fantastic and the mundane.

We all know about the fantastical in his books, for example the idea that Martians launch an attack on earth or a man invents a time machine and travels to the distant future. Those are certainly the ideas at the core of the books. But when you actually read the texts what comes across almost as powerfully is the very mundane details of the places where this all happens – that the Martians land in Dorking and head towards London across the humdrum landscape of Surrey, blasting well known landmarks on their way (which is why there is a striking sculpture of a ‘Martian’ in Dorking town centre).

Wells himself was well aware of doing this:

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader play the game properly he must help him, in every possible unobtrusive way, to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. (Quoted in the critical afterword to the Everyman edition)

And one mark of this is the way the people who witness and generally write up the narratives are always very ordinary, everyday chaps, who are often a bit confused, puzzled, don’t quite follow what’s going on, miss important details, don’t quite follow the scientific whatchamacallit, and, in their bumbling innocence, stand in as a kind of stylised representative of the innocent reader.

They are all Dr Watsons to a succession of fierce, eccentric or visionary Holmeses, respectively:

  • 1895 The Time Machine – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – first person narrative by shipwrecked sailor Edward Prendick
  • 1897 The Invisible Man – (third person narrator)
  • 1898 The War of the Worlds – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1899 When the Sleeper Wakes – Graham, the eponymous sleeper
  • 1901 The First Men in the Moon – first person narrative by Mr Bedford
  • 1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – third person narrative
  • 1906 In The Days of the Comet – unnamed first person narrator
  • 1908 The War in the Air – featuring Bert and Tom Smallways
  • 1914 The World Set Free – third person narrator

Making this list shows that this isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, but that most of the most effective fantasies are told in the first person by someone undergoing the adventure themselves.

It goes some way to explaining why of the early stories The Invisible Man stands out as particularly unlikeable and negative: it is one of the few not told by a more or less reasonable chap, who we’re meant to identify with.

As a footnote, this helps explain the presence of the three working class men who Cavor employs in his lab, in the earlier pages of the book. They are each jealous of each other’s specialisms, argue and often down tools to go off to the pub and argue some more and so perform the function of the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare, offering comic interludes but also throwing into relief the more serious activities of their middle class superiors. Anchoring them to a humorous everyday reality.

This also explains why Bedford, at an early stage, after he’s had an argument with Cavor, goes off for an epic walk across Kent, enjoying the countryside, stopping for lunch in a pub, chatting with the local yokels while he puffs on his pipe. All designed to embed the wild fantasy in a comfortable, relaxing coat of verisimilitude.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Heath Robinson’s World of Advertising @ the Heath Robinson Museum

His subjects were human nature and particularly those individuals who had an inflated view of their own importance. (Geoffrey Beare, curator and author of the exhibition book)

By the late 1890s Heath Robinson had established his reputation as a cartoonist for magazines like Tatler and Punch and as an illustrator of luxury editions of Shakespeare. The 1890s and the Edwardian decade were the heyday of English book illustrations and Heath Robinson even wrote and illustrated some books of his own (for example, The adventures of Uncle Lubin, 1902).

Unsurprisingly, the Great War changed all that. For a while there was a greater appetite for humorous stories and cartoons to keep up the spirits of people both at the Front and back home, and HR provided a steady stream of morale-boosting cartoons, many now collected in Heath Robinson’s Great War.

But in 1915 his career took a new turn. He was approached by Johnny Walker’s distillery and asked to produce cartoons showing how their trademark Scotch whiskey was manufactured. HR visited the factory in Scotland, not to produce a documentary record, but to spot ideas for his fantastical contraptions. The result was a set of cartoons showing the manufacture of the holy elixir using a series of ever more complex and ramshackle devices.

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

After the Great War the market for the kind of luxury books Heath Robinson had illustrated dried up. Cartoon work continued in a new generation of magazines, and he continued to ply his trade there. But it was in the post-war 1920s that the modern advertising trade really took off, and HR was poised to take advantage of it.

This fabulous exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner (just five minutes from Pinner tube station on the Metropolitan line) brings together a choice selection of Heath Robinson’s extensive work in advertising illustration.

It’s estimated that between the 1915 Johnny Walker commission and his death in 1944, Heath Robinson worked for over 100 companies, making drawings and cartoons to promote goods as varied as asbestos roofs, bread, carbon paper, tarmac, antiseptics, bespoke tailoring and leather car seats.

In fact, just the list of products he promoted gives a kind of surreal insight into the realities of 1920s and 1930s social life.

The exhibition displays over 60 original artworks on the walls, as well as 20 or so examples of printed material from contemporary magazines. The Heath Robinson consists of one room given over to the permanent collection and one room given over to changing exhibitions. One room doesn’t sound much but it is a room jam-packed with gadgets, jokes and gags.

It is rare to hear laughter in an ‘art’ gallery, but when I visited, the room was full of people pointing out and laughing at the confabulated contraptions and heroic absurdities of his pictures.

‘Heath Robinson’s Golf Course’, design for a biscuit tin, Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson’s Golf Course, design for a biscuit tin for Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

The exhibition focuses on sets of work produced for particular clients, showing how he elaborated ideas around a central theme. As far as I could see, he took three strategies or approaches to the commissions:

  • a comic account of the production process itself, requiring as much tottering and patched up preposterous machinery as possible (as with Johnny Walker)
  • a humorous look at the product though history
  • the with/without approach i.e. showing the benefits of buying/using/eating product X

A good example of the historical approach is a set of cartoons showing the benefits which would have been brought to various historical figures if only they had had the opportunity to purchase luxury leather goods from Connolly Brothers of Wandsworth. Figures like Mr and Mrs Noah, Alfred the Great, and William the Conqueror are shown benefiting from Connolly Brothers luxury leather products.

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson developed a close working relationship with Connolly Brothers, who manufactured a wide array of leather goods including car seats, car hoods, furniture, bags, cases and so on. His first work for them was a 12-page booklet which they used to promote their products at that year’s Motor show and was so successful that they didn’t quite commission a new one annually, but by the end of his career he’d produced a total of 12 books and some 200 cartoons for them, and there are extensive selections here from three volumes, Light on Leather (1922), Leather breeding on the Wandle (1927) and The Connolly Chronicles (1933).

In the same vein are cartoons promoting macaroni, sugar, paper, a herd of thoroughbred pigs, pianos and the Great West Railway.

I particularly liked the set made for the toffee manufacturer John Mackintosh in 1921, which Heath Robinson titled ‘A half hour in Toffee Town’ – especially the illustration in the centre-right, of how they get the chocolate to completely cover each individual toffee, which involves a watering can, a pulley and an umbrella.

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In a set like this each individual incident is, apparently, called a vignette. Individual vignettes could be extracted from the larger context and recycled. Thus single vignettes Heath Robinson drew for the manufacturers of Izal, an antiseptic product, were issued as postcards, and even printed on toilet paper. Another client used Heath Robinson illustrations on blotting paper.

These are all examples of the proliferation of the image across all kinds of products and new media in the 1920s. Heath Robinson was one of the graphic artists who rewrote the rules on how we communicate commercially: replacing heavy, Victorian, copy-dominated ads with a focus on imagery which tells stories.

Take one of his most famous works, the Hovis ads, a classic example of the ‘with/without’ approach mentioned above, and of the new image-focused approach.

'Hovis, the bread of health' by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

‘Hovis, the bread of health’ by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

As well as lots of hilarious pictures, and fascinating social history about the products he was promoting, the exhibition also allows you to trace the development of Heath Robinson’s style.

Although his work was always too varied to defy sweeping generalisation, by and large what you see is a progression from a turn-of-the-century, Arthur Rackham-esque interest in the grotesque, the crabbed and the eccentric, often set inside cramped or spooky interiors – to a much sparser, cleaner, and possibly Art Deco-influenced line in the 1930s.

Thus the elaborate stone setting of the vaults in the Johnny Walker picture from 1915 (at the top of this review) could, at a stretch, be home to a troll or goblin. Although this reproduction is in black and white, the original was coloured in watercolour, adding to the sense of depth and density.

Compare and contrast with the clarity of line and the lack of shading in a picture like this, drawn some 20 years later to promote pianos manufactured by Firth Brothers. Even when the later pictures portray complex contraptions, the ones from the 1930s do so in a style which is somehow cleaner and crisper.

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Summary

So do your funny bones a favour: get along to the Heath Robinson Museum and spend a happy hour chortling at the works of this great promoter of happiness, as well as picking up titbits of English social history, and enjoying the evolution and changing style of a great English humorist.

Credit

All Heath Robinson images reproduced with kind permission of the William Heath Robinson Trust and © The William Heath Robinson Trust.


Related links

Related reviews

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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Metamorphoses by PJ Crook @ The Royal West of England Academy

PJ (no full stops) lives and works in the West Country, is a member of the Royal West of England Academy and, over a long career, has not only created works across a wide range of media, but also been active in supporting numerous art organisations and initiatives, resulting in the recent award of an MBE for services to art.

PJ Crook at work

PJ Crook at work

This exhibition of recent work, titled Metamorphoses, fills one downstairs room at the RWA’s Bristol gallery with 20 or so (generally quite small) paintings and six or so (quite large) assemblages.

Soundscape by Robert Fripp

The exhibition is accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ created by PJ’s long-standing friend, the guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. From hidden speakers Fripp’s ambient waves of sound wash slowly over the visitor. Since the entire show is housed in one, bare, white room, the overall affect is soothing and relaxing, slowing you down enough to soak up PJ’s dream-like fantasias.

Paintings and assemblages

There’s a big visual difference between the paintings and the assemblages. The paintings are small, the size of a large format book – whereas the assemblages consist of stools or mannekins or tables, thrusting out of the wall which they’re often attached to, intruding into the visitor space, festooned with stuffed birds, shoes and other objects.

The day I visited the artist was there herself and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions. PJ explained that an initial thought had been to display just the assemblages, but that by themselves they created a rather craggy, pointy, threatening experience. So the small and smooth paintings were put in between them to create rhythm, light and shade, a contrast between the assemblages, which you have to step back to really take in, and the paintings, which you have to lean into to enjoy the detail.

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

The paintings

The wall labels and catalogue quote from the opening of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, a wonderful collection of all the ancient Greek myths in which people turn into trees or animals or clouds, and so on, which has been translated and quoted by English poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme my spirit impels me now to recite.
Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread
from the world’s beginning down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

And PJ herself explained, some of the paintings were directly inspired by a recent visit to Greece, such as the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

But, to this visitor, what came over much more powerfully was the sequence of dark and mysterious images which seem to emanate from a northern imagination of forests and fairy tales.

Grandma by PJ Crook

Grandma by PJ Crook

Even the sequence obviously taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally set in Greece) and showing Bottom with his ass’s head, have more the feel of a dreamy northern night – it is a world of sensible shirt and ties (as below) or waistcoat, trousers and laced shoes (in A wood near Athens, above) rather than the bare rock and bare bodies of hot Greece. Part of the dreamlike state is that the animal has been tamed.

Enchanted by PJ Crook

Enchanted by PJ Crook

These could be illustrations to Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, a night-time world of dream women somehow in control of mannekin men, leading the dance, seeing the world in their own terms, all floating beneath the mysterious, female power of the moon (traditionally associated with the female principle, as opposed to the harsh male sun).

Style

As you can see from these examples, the paintings are in a sort of ‘naively’ realistic style, an impression of innocent artlessness which is emphasised by the way all of the paintings overflow to include the heavy wooden frames.

PJ told me she’s been called a surrealist artist, a naive artist and so on. Certainly there are juxtapositions of incongruous objects, as in the early Surrealist manifestos, and these odd visions are painted in a very finished, figurative style. But their powerful dreamlike vibe is entirely her own.

One consistent element I noticed is the blankness of the faces. Strange things are happening – a woman dances with a donkey-headed man or sees herself as a bear in a mirror – and make no comment. The girls’ or women’s faces remain placid and accepting. ‘Yes, of course, why not,’ they seem to be saying. Or thinking.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Then I realised that, although there are a few naked people, you don’t see any nipples or other private parts. They would make the pictures too… too real, give too much of an edge to pictures which are intended to be edgeless, to take us away from the harsh world of the sexualised body and into a desexualised world of dreamy imagination.

On the contrary, the lack of naked bodies or, to be precise, the way the bodies are often so chastely dressed – adds to the incongruity, to the surrealism, of the images. Bottom may well be an ancient Greek workman with a donkey’s head – but he is wearing the waistcoat, shirt, tie and bell-bottomed trousers that remind me of the roll-your-own folk singers of the 1970s; the girl turning into a stag is wearing a sensible summer dress buttoned to the throat and a carefully tied ribbon, as of a 1950s children’s book illustration.

Metamorphses by PJ Crook

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook

The decorum and the chasteness of the figures is part of their lack of affect, their lack of emotional response, to the strange things happening to them, which help to create the all-prevading dream-like mood.

(I recently came across the idea of sticking butterflies to the picture frame in a 1926 work by Francis Picabia, Machaon, where it is explained that the butterfly was a Christian symbol for rebirth i.e. a form of metamorphosis).

Solitary

Continuing along the same line of thought, PJ’s Wikipedia and RWA profiles emphasise that she often paints crowds. Once it was pointed out to me I realised that I’ve seen her artwork on the cover of a lot of the later album covers of King Crimson, the 1970s prog rock group founded by Robert Fripp, which still records and tours. In fact, PJ has provided artwork for no fewer than 13 KC albums:

List of King Crimson albums with cover art by PJ Crook

Most of these feature multiple figures, and some have large crowds, marching in the street or making up the audience at theatres or the circus. Whereas all of the works in this show do not show crowds: two is generally as many ‘people’ who feature, and a number only show one isolated figure. In other words, this appears to be a selection of works deliberately distinct from the crowd pictures.

This solitariness, the relative isolation and singleness of the figures in these Metamorphoses paintings is another element which adds to their sense of dreamy drifting. Instead of being packed into a crowd reading newspapers or cheering at the theatre, individuals are isolated, looking into mirrors, or dancing with donkeys under the moon, or calmly turning into a stag – unattached, unattended, profoundly untroubled.

The assemblages

The assemblages are wildly different in presence and impact from the paintings. Only on closer examination do you see how they bear the imprint of PJ’s style. Several things are notable about them, first of all, their sheer variety. There are:

  • enormous antique shelf units designed to hold curios and trinkets
  • a tailor’s dummy painted with a cloudy blue sky
  • an antique, 18th century-looking corner table
  • a stool with a guitar placed on it and a cockerel sitting on the guitar
  • a picture frame around a painting of shoes, with shoes stuck on the canvas and around the frame

 

Stepping Out (in my shows) by PJ Crook

Stepping Out (in my shoes) by PJ Crook

What unifies them is:

  • the stuffed birds
  • the colourful decoration of the objects
  • text painted onto the objects
  • the humorously factual titles

The stuffed birds

PJ told me she didn’t have the birds stuffed specially but rescued them from curio shops around the area. I counted 21 stuffed birds, perching not only on the assemblages but poking out from some of the paintings, as well as birds in the paintings.

The ubiquity of the birds is as much of a theme as classical metamorphoses. They it link together apparently disparate works across the exhibition and give the show a visual and avian uniformity.

Bird by PJ Crook

Bird by PJ Crook

The most avian work is Bird Table (below) which neatly illustrates some of the other characteristics, namely the humorous titles and the use of text. It is titled Bird table because it is a table with birds on. I really liked that. As to text, I could see that she’d painted the words ‘one x bird 4 sorrow, 2 x bird for joy’ etc onto the table, and this matched the fact that the two dominant stuffed birds are magpies. But PJ also explained the meaning of the images on the table legs which – being slow – I initially took for pop culture references. The Blue bird logo, Bird’s instant custard, the twitter bird logo, Daffy duck, Robin from Batman and Robin – all birds :).

Bird Table by PJ Crook

Bird Table by PJ Crook

So: an antique shop ready-made object, festooned with stuffed birds (and a bird book and a globe indicating the migratory flights of birds), with painted text relevant to the birds (the magpies) across the table drawers, and visual puns (‘4’ on the left hand leg, ‘& 20’ on the next leg, the image of a blackbird on the third leg).

Having learned to ‘read’ this example I was ready to enjoy deciphering Cock a doodle, but it needed PJ herself to tell me that this stool was sat on by Robert Fripp when he came and did a performance at a hall near her. This explains the guitar (and the mannekin hand – maybe it’s in the position of making a guitar chord?) but it was only when I looked closely that I saw that the titles of various King Crimson tracks are painted along the legs and frame of the stool.

The cockerel itself? The black gloved hands reaching up from the floor? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It’s fun, bright and confident, colourful and jokey.

Cock a doodle doo by PJ Crook

Cock a doodle by PJ Crook

Sea urchin is a great title for a shop mannekin of a child which has miraculously grown silver scales and has a big fish stuck on its head. And a bird on its hand, one of the many birds which thematically bind the exhibits together. Is it a curlew, I wonder, the solitary bird of seaside strands?

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Buy your own

The pieces are all for sale (though many have already been bought). The paintings cost from around £2,500 to £4,000, while the assemblages cost significantly more; for example Bird table costs £18,850.

I went to the exhibition with my son. His favourite work was this small painting of a sad-looking Minotaur at the centre of his maze, a snip at £1,125.

Minotaur by PJ Crook

Minotaur by PJ Crook

This is a very enjoyable, intriguing, other-worldly exhibition – with the Frippscape in the background, a spell of pure pleasure.

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Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct sections scattered in locations around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre, which has been transformed into a treasure trove of sci-fi-themed videos, posters, books and magazines, costumes and special affects models.

Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen.

Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004.

Beyond the bar is a darkened room showing another experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind.

And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in!

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction.

These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds here on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from or in space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand-alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you tiptoe into the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi amounts to variations on a limited number of themes: in Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Thing they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Matrix series the machines have enslaved humanity. In the Terminator series the machines have enslaved humanity. Not difficult to understand or enjoy, is it? On the up side, in Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day.

Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies tell the same story over and over again and are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – all classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. In my opinion Gerry and Sylvia could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the wonderful array of pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – you’ll be amazed, filled with wonder and thrilled. Often by nubile young women whose clothes are falling off (all wearing red because they are, presumably, all scarlet women).

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of science fiction

The exhibition includes some examples of an unexpected art form, the cover art for boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole has the feel of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown together in glorious profusion.

There is, if you look hard enough, a loose chronological order, starting with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series: voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way from Vernes’s day to the art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities.

On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting the literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films.

After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding and enjoyable experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci-fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing the faces of creepy aliens!

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – H.R. Giger’s alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!! Aaaah!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci-fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either.

I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek: The Movie (1979)

Oh my God, they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! And the robot from the Will Smith movie, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful and, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the [inevitable] War’ has devastated earth, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar trope, it is stunningly and beautifully shot.

Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run).

Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and sexy.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise blowing up aliens by the hundred.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays, barely a week goes by without a new sci-fi movie being released, and hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared since we all began to feel sympathy for the oppressed Indians or ‘native Americans’.

By contrast, what science fiction provides is the Pure Untrammeled Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s Darth Vadar’s Empire or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or in this year’s scary Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of spotlessly heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with ear-splitting special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact.

When I watched Chris Pratt of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more in thrall to the most neanderthal gender stereotyping.

But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter, nothing matters – we are all reduced to popcorn-munching melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, a real sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

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