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Many Worlds: David Lindsay and alternative realities

Although his two greatest works, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) and The Haunted Woman (1922) were re-issued as Canongate Classics in the 1980s, the work of David Lindsay has never achieved either the critical or popular acclaim he deserves. Born in 1876 in Lewisham, his parents came from Jedburgh and he spent much of his childhood there. His life was poor and frustrated, and he found it increasingly difficult to get published—when he died in 1945 (from septicaemia caused by a tooth abcess; not because a bomb fell on his house while he was in the bath, as urban myth has it—though one did) he had not appeared in print since 1932. He and his wife had a peripatetic existence, moving from Cornwall to Sussex, where they ran a guest house. Lindsay became increasingly melancholic and in all probability suffered a nervous breakdown as he obsessively attempted to finish his last novel, The Witch—his sister wrote to a friend saying that he had locked himself in an upper room and refused to eat for ten days.

Yet, in retrospect, Lindsay's unique and disturbing vision was incredibly influential. His idiosyncratic mixture of science fiction, fantasy, theological speculation and impressionistic fable inspired C S Lewis's pre-Narnia Space trilogy, especially Out of the Silent Planet. I am more concerned here with his position within an occult tradition in Scottish writing concerning the use of parallel realities and how the idea of the self is radically altered within that tradition. The current strength of Scottish weird fiction has its roots in Lindsayís surreal and stricken work, rather than the fey and sentimental books of his more famous contemporary, George MacDonald. Colin Wilson overstated the case when he called A Voyage to Arcturus "the greatest novel of the twentieth century"; but its cult status is undeniable. Lindsay ought to be considered alongside writers like Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson and H P Lovecraft as one of the great proponents of cosmic horror.

The Haunted Woman is more radical than A Voyage to Arcturus: baroquely imagined though Lindsay's outer space is, the change is one of scale rather than ontology. Arcturus may have five primary colours—"Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful and jale to be dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous" (did this influence Lovecraft's "The Color Out Of Space"?)—but the phase-shifting interior of Runhill Court in the Sussex Downs is an infinitely more unsettling prospect. In the novel, Isabel Loment, a girl listlessly engaged to a dull man, arrives at the rambling manor house, owned by the mysterious Henry Judge. The topography of the house keeps changing—a staircase comes and goes, sometimes allowing access to a door into another time&mdashs;and in that parallel space, Judge and Isabel become lovers, but with no memory of their attachment when they return to the "real" world. It builds to a gruesome and life-changing conclusion, and, like the best ghost stories, it manages to inject a sense of awfulness into very everyday occasions. The Haunted Woman seems to imply that in modern life, individuals are intrinsically and irredeemably divided, between propriety and desire, between common sense and fantasy, between past and present. This, apparently, was Lindsay's attempt to write a more commercial book. Both A Voyage to Arcturus and The Haunted Woman use a transformation of the nature of space to reassess the idea of the self. In each case we are presented with a character who both is and is not what they were before the torque-like twisting of external space.

Lindsay didnít invent the idea of a parallel world—he does, however, pip H G Wells, whose own parallel universe book, Men Like Gods came out in 1923—nor is the first Scot to envisage them. Indeed, it could be argued that Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet is an "alt-history", imagining a parallel history where Charles Edward Stuart attempts a final Jacobite rebellion in the 1780s. Lindsay's place within a distinctively Scottish tradition is upheld by his appearance—albeit mis-spelled as Lyndsay—in Alasdair Grayís short story, "The Magic Terminus"; and the far more obvious, though unacknowledged (even in the Index of Plagiarisms) influence on Lanark. The doubled structure of Lanark (1981), with Thaw/Lanark in Glasgow/Unthank, went on to influence Iain Banks, in The Bridge (1986), where the "realist" story of Alex is refracted twice, in both Orr's account of life on the Bridge and in the parables of The Barbarian. [...]

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