This house is haunted

C S Lewis, as first-person narrator of the opening chapters of his book Perelandra, is on his way to meet the protagonist, his colleague Elwin Ransom, whose voyage to Mars has disrupted politics at quite literally a cosmic level. Forces are at work to disrupt this planned meeting, and Lewis is walking along through the 40s blackout, assailed by doubts about the whole project, even his own sanity:

 “They call it a breakdown at first,” said my mind, “and send you to a nursing home; later on they move you to an asylum.”

I was past the dead factory now, down in the fog, where it was very cold. Then came a moment–the first one–of absolute terror and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from screaming. It was only a cat that had run across the road, but I found myself completely unnerved. “Soon you will really be screaming,” said my inner tormentor, “running round and round, screaming, and you won’t be able to stop it.”

There was a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. Please understand that at ordinary times the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less. At that moment it was nothing so definite as the thought of a ghost that came to me. It was just the word “haunted.” “Haunted” . . . “haunting” . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?

C S Lewis Perelandra (“Voyage to Venus”) Ch 1

While the forces for good are depicted in some detail (an interesting essay here on the power of Lewis’ vision in the book) – and form part of the chorale that concludes this Voyage to Venus, the forces for evil remain only ever seen indirectly in this trilogy. Hinted at in the first volume of his Science Fiction trilogy, in the violent meanness and grubby colonialism of Out of the Silent Planet, they are felt in the Satanic possession of the scientist Weston* later in the Perelandra narrative, and then in complex ways in the pervasive and destructive work of the NICE in That Hideous Strength. At the start of Perelandra, we see the psychological impact of their power in how they try to terrify Lewis into turning back.

Lewis has a lot to say about landscape, both extraterrestrial (see his depiction of Venus (“Perelandra”) and Mars (“Malacandra” in the first book of the trilogy) and more clearly fantastic in Narnia. This passage (along with some in That Hideous Strength, but that’s for another time) shows his ability in describing an English landscape. Here it is an inimical outdoors that Lewis is writing about, a place of peril, a chapel of mischance. They are worth looking at: here is Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak, in my mind as we come to the anniversary of my first visit to Thursbitch and Ludchurch; more here as I present the Wild Wood and the woods in Warrior Scarlet and others. The outdoors, as I have said before (maybe too often) are where the unwary get into trouble.

And Lewis is in trouble.

At last I came to the cross-roads by the little Wesleyan chapel where I had to turn to the left under the beech trees. I ought to be seeing the lights from Ransom’s windows by now–or was it past black-out time? My watch had stopped, and I didn’t know. It was dark enough but that might be due to the fog and the trees. It wasn’t the dark I was afraid of, you understand. We have all known times when inanimate objects seemed to have almost a facial expression, and it was the expression of this bit of road which I did not like. “It’s not true,” said my mind, “that people who are really going mad never think they’re going mad.” Suppose that real insanity had chosen this place in which to begin? In that case, of course, the black enmity of those dripping trees–their horrible expectancy–would be a hallucination. But that did not make it any better. To think that the spectre you see is an illusion does not rob him of his terrors…

Perelandra Ch1

And what terrors he puts into his landscape!

The basic terror confronting him is the animated nature of what he sees: the enmity of the trees, the one window staring. This is why, when the cat runs across the road he is terrified: for an instant this fear of the inanimate having will and purpose and movement takes over. It is not dissimilar from the fear of the boy Shasta in the fog in The Horse and His Boy, where the divine Aslan pads invisible beside him.

You’re not — not something dead, are you? Oh please — please do go away.

The Horse and His Boy, Ch11

and is in marked contrast to the area of England which starts Lewis’ SF trilogy, where the protagonist, Ransom, is on a walking holiday, and even dark bands of trees and a near-deserted house may hold misgivings but no terrors.

To return to his magnificent assertion

Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?

New Buildings, Magdalen College. Photo by College President, Dinah Rose. Used with kind permission.

C S Lewis’ (and my) college, Magdalen, has had a number of ghost stories attached to it: the boy with the lantern seen in the small hours across the cloisters; a room in the old Grammar Hall where steps can be heard on the stairs, more recently the sighting of a group of shadowy figures and people hearing singing. I don’t know how ancient any of these stories are, although the boy and the steps on the stairs were current in the 70s. I wish I knew if Lewis had heard them – meaning either the stories or the singing and the footsteps – but certainly night time in an old Oxford college is a place to excite the imagination.

I am not sure Lewis in fiction or as the writer really believes there is an abstract power in the word “haunted,” although we should recognise, I think, that we have a number of cultural memes that are employed to notify us that something wicked this way comes. These emerge most powerfully in all sorts of ways in Perelandra, but get some reference in Ransom’s apprehension of some of the Martians in his first novel, appealing to an earlier, almost an infantile, complex of fears. Giants — ogres — ghosts — skeletons: those were its key words. In haunted, we have a socialised expectation: the sound of the word is associated with the fear the meaning excites, Whispers of living, echoes of warning, Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning, as the trope in Bernstein’s Mass goes. It seems to me that using this tradition of the malevolent uncanny helps Lewis along very well, both in Out of the Silent Planet and in Perelandra. Bogeys, as Marina Warner suggests in her book No Go the Bogeyman, make present what we dread. This is currently being explored in Uncanny, a don’t-listen-with-the-lights-off series by Danny Robins for the BBC. Background sounds and music are brilliantly employed here, down to the slow, throaty theme song with the words “I know what I saw,” and its minor chords. The power of music to set a mood: here it is chillingly atmospheric.

The first seven notes of the Dies Irae (here is the chant) when part of a film score (a neat post here) suggest there are grim times coming (see the procession from The Devils where the link is explicit, or note the phrase adding another layer of menace to The Lion King), and Lewis suggests that haunted does the same. What he has done is to take us into a place where the connotations of haunted are given more work to do, and reflect the feverish imagination of Lewis-as-a-character. We don’t have to believe him, or associate the real Lewis with a belief in ghosts, but we can appreciate his ability to draw us in..

What we find ourselves exploring on this dreary path from a local train station is the fictionalised Lewis’ anxiety, and the landscape is his best aid. The dead factory is a great image, but even the down helps in down in the fog, and the cold, the dark, the little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish…. We seek the security of a building, whether we are Going on a Bear Hunt or resting in the Castle of Hautdesert on our way to the Green Chapel – cf Bachelard on “dreaming of security:” we might join Gawain in a sense of relief when he is welcomed and told

Ȝe ar welcum to welde as yow lykez

Gawain and the Green Knight;view=fulltext

“Make yourself at home:” and it is a deep fear that Lewis plays on: buildings with plots and pitfalls we have not seen, or intrinsic menace, shift any hope of security away from us, and we may discover a home that turns out not to be home at all, a friend that turns out to be no friend, but something other:

Full moon from my garden

Perhaps he would jump on me from behind. Perhaps I should see a figure that looked like Ransom standing with its back to me and when I spoke to it, it would turn round and show a face that was not human at all…

Perelandra, ch 1.

As Danny Robins explores What is it really like to live in… a haunted house? the comfortable family home that protects and nurtures us is violated by this fear, the fear that Michelle Paver exploits so well when, in Dark Matter, the narrator realises that the prowling, revenant fury outside his lonely hut can get in; it is the same as the moving sheets in the bedroom of M R James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad. The hotel room where M R James’ professor should be safe… the friend’s house where someone will make it all right… the arctic hut,,, the welcome at the castle… Yet the intrusion of the uncanny breaks one of the most serious barriers we have. As Solnit proposes:

the formal enclosed garden and the castle are corollaries to a dangerous world from which one needs to be protected literally and aesthetically

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust, ch 6 “The Path Out of the Garden.”

and as Warner suggests, Fears trace a map of society’s values. Perhaps not belonging is one of the deepest of them.


*and yes, I think of Professor Weston every time I visit the Weston library in the Bodleian. I do not, however, see it as a place inhabited by physicists possessed by Miltonian demons.

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