spiritual-pilgrim-discovering-another-world

Sunhill Asylum, November 14, 1963

Her dreams are full of signs and omens; half remembered faces and ruined churches; fantastic vistas of faraway places; winding tracks across luminous hills; gaping green gorges and forest pools teeming with silver fish. She floats on the edge of consciousness, drifting in a velvety void that holds her rapt in wonder, suspended like a feather on the breath of God. A blackbird starts chirping in the gloom. What year was it? She struggles to remember her name, her parents, her position in life. Try as she might, she has no recollection at all. What was that mystical land shimmering like a vision? A parting void. Before her is a golden cup that gleams in rays of heavenly Light; the bowl is chased with a Serpent whose emerald eyes twinkle with spears of green fire. He whispers:

‘Drink!’

She reaches for the cup but it slips through her hands, ephemeral as a dream. Then she plummets like stone and lands with a jolt on the pillow.

Maria wakes with a start and opens her eyes. A pale light seeps through the drapes and an oppressive gloom hangs about the bed. The room is unfamiliar and stinks of stale cigars. She panics momentarily. Had she slept with Jones? She turns over and checks the pillow beside her. Empty. Thank god! Of course, she remembered now: this was Hardy’s flat, and Jones had been the perfect gentleman. She shivers at the cold and yanks the counterpane over her head. The weave is coarse upon her skin and whiffs of male body odour.

Repulsed, she throws back the covers and creeps to the window in her slip. Gingerly, she peeks through the curtains and gazes at the precinct. A silver streak shines in the Eastern sky where the sun looms behind the moors. The grounds are veiled in a solemn grey expanse; the ramparts lie dark and brooding, and the tower is lost in mist.

‘Bewitched,’ she mutters.

She recalls the previous night and all the dire implications for her career. How long can she keep Jack hidden before Pontius finds out? A few days at the most. Long enough to prove the prophecy? But then what? Pontius will just deny the tape ever existed. If she could only smuggle Jack out…

She goes to the fire and lights the gas, warming her hands as it hisses into life. A milk float drones up the drive; the clink of bottles; a ringing bell; then footsteps crunching on gravel. A crow squawks from the gate. A brief silence, then the distant wail of a lunatic, crying:

‘Jesus! Jesus!’

She shudders. The words are shrill and drawn out – like the shriek of a wild beast. A dark undertow tugs at her heart; she feels herself swept away, lost in a fathomless sea. Yet there is nothing to do but drift with the current. The omens of night still linger at the periphery of consciousness – like pearls glinting in the mud. There are so many things she cannot understand.

The asylum clock strikes seven, its dull chimes muffled in the mist. She begins to question the wisdom of joining the residential staff. Look what happened to Hardy: he was a prisoner here, on call twenty four hours a day. What of her own mental sphere? Within these walls there was no division between private and public life; no escape from the never ending hubbub of the mad. Perhaps she was better off in Preston. But this flat was six times bigger than her bedsit, with a separate kitchen, bathroom and an endless supply of hot water. Besides, it was rent-free, with space for all her books, yet to arrive from London. Perks of the job, she told herself; but the idea of dwelling here disturbs her. Hardy still haunts the place and an incumbent male despair hangs in the air. Her eyes skirt round the Victorian bed, the dark mahogany wardrobe and opulent desk. She longs to see more, but remains reluctant to turn on the light. Her residence isn’t official yet, and she doesn’t want to attract attention, especially from Matron who lives just across the corridor – a light beneath the threshold would surely invite a knock at the door. So she waits for an hour, curled in a musty armchair, until the sun pours through the windows.

The flat has warmed up nicely. Maria strolls about, imagining how she will fix up the place. The walls haven’t been touched in decades, and the threadbare furnishings are in desperate need of a woman’s touch. Then she hears Mother Superior cursing:

‘Stupid child. You’re getting ahead of herself; you’ll be fired before long, and already you’re choosing wallpaper. What a mess!’

Jones was right: Hardy had left in a hurry. The flat is littered with his belongings – jumble he deemed too worthless to keep. Three photographs in Bakelite frames sit upon the mantelpiece. The first is of the Christmas dance, with Hardy dressed as Santa Claus, handing out presents in a grotto of tinsel and paper chains; standing beside him are two nurses wearing antler hats; Maria recognises one as Sister Birkin – the gossip on the bus. The second picture shows Hardy and Pontius smiling proudly beside a patient’s bed; the face is unmistakable as Jack Vallis, looking at least ten years younger, but with a perplexed expression and dark shadows under his eyes. The third picture shows a grinning priest with crooked teeth who stands beside the chapel font. An inscription in blue Biro runs across the bottom:

To Robert,
True atheism prompts true rebellion.
Kind regards, Father Doughty.

In front of the hearth is a coffee table with peeling veneer, stained with cup rings. A bowl of Tate & Lyle sugar cubes. An old spectacles case. A filthy mug with a broken handle. Beside it, a Leica Fotografie Magazine, edition 6, 1961 – with a full-colour cover showing a stained glass window of The Christ.

Maria wanders across the Persian rug, her toes curling at the dirt and biscuit crumbs. Odd socks litter the floor. Beyond the bed is a large bookcase, crammed with old case-notes and the tattered files of yesteryear. She spends twenty minutes sniffing around, checking for anything on Jack Vallis. But she finds nothing of interest except a book by Carl Gustav Jung: ‘Flying Saucers – A Modern Myth of Things Seen in The Skies.’ [i] She takes it down and puts it aside for later.

On the desk is a large Underwood typewriter with a piece of paper coiled around the cylinder. The page is blank but for a single line of type:

The soul is in an evil condition when mingled with the body.

Was that Hardy’s conclusion after forty years of practice in clinical psychology? She looks round at the remnants of his life. His desk is smothered with old prescriptions, paper-clips and toffee wrappers. There was something very odd about this. When she first met Hardy, his office was pristine and tidy, with not a pen out of place. But his lodgings are a shambles, and judging by the many prescriptions, he had a long-term tranquillizer addiction. Was Jack Vallis the cause of his demise? Hardy was certainly troubled by him, that much was self evident. But what happened between them?

She opens the top drawer and gropes inside, her palm swiping the dusty bottom. Nothing. She searches the drawers on each side, but all she finds is a half-eaten tube of Polo mints. She sits there for a moment, trying to take it all in, staring at the unmade counterpane. Then her eyes fix on the bedside cabinet with its large brass lamp. Hardy likes to read in bed, she thought. The cabinet beckons…

She walks over, stoops down and rummages inside. The shelves are stuffed with paraphernalia: worn out toothbrushes; bottles of aspirin; crumbling Colgate shaving sticks; a mouldy bar of Cadbury’s chocolate; two postcards from Blackpool. But nothing pertaining to Jack Vallis. Beneath the bed she finds an old hot water bottle with perished seams. Then her eye catches something pressed under the mattress: she delves between the springs and removes a diary with dog-eared corners. What a strange place to keep it. Had Hardy mislaid it? Or hidden it and forgotten? Intrigued, she turns on the lamp and opens the cover.

The first several pages are neatly laid out, and the handwriting is fine and correct. But as the months go by, the letters become larger and more irregular; the words begin to run into one another, with scribbled side notes and thoughts underlined with bold flourishes. By August, the entries start to overlap, crossing and running through in all directions. A confused array of words in various styles of calligraphy run pell-mell, hither and thither, up the spine, across the headers and footers, with endless enumerations, rhymes and manic repetitions. It looks more like the writing of a lunatic than a respected doctor of clinical psychology.

Maria examines the diary carefully and finds an entry relating to Jack’s first months at the asylum:

Reasons for committal
The patient jumped from a moving train whilst trying to evade his fare. After having limped for about a mile, he was captured in Preston and found to be wearing women’s undergarments beneath his coat.

January 6, 1956
On admission, he complained of great pain in both knees. His legs were bruised and there were scratch marks all over his body. He entered the ward calmly and answered questions rationally. Said that aside from his knees, his left arm pained him a great deal. After being examined by Doctor Pontius, he was asked the following questions:

Q. “What is your full name?”

A. “Jacqueline de Belloc.”

Q. “How old are you?”

A. “Older than the hills.”

Q. “What is your occupation?”

A. “Alchemist.”

Q. “And how much money are you worth?”

A. “About twelve million sous.”

Q. “Where were you born?”

A. “Southern France.”

Q. “What year is it?”

A. “Can’t remember.”

Q. “What day is this?”

A. “Don’t know.”

Q. “What time is it?”

A. “Late morning?”

Q. “Where did you come from?”

A. “The Old World.”

Q. “Who brought you here?”

A. “Two goblins. Sons of bitches stole my astrolabe.”

Q. “How long were you in coming?”

A. “Impossible to say.”

Q. “What is the name of this place?”

A. “Sunhill.”

Q. “Where is it?”

A. “Somewhere in the country.”

Q. “What sort of a place is this?”

A. “Mad-house.”

Q. “Who are these people about you?”

A. “Old acquaintances.”

Q. “Is there anything wrong with them?”

A. “Yes. They are still in the body.”

Q. “Are you in the body, or out of the body?”

A. “Only God knows.”

Q. “Who am I? Do you know who I am?”

A. “Yes.”

Q. “Why do you suppose I am asking you all these questions?”

A. “Because you’re a notary.”

Q. “Notary? Notary for whom?”

A. “The Inquisition.”

Q. “Are you a tidy person?”

A. “What sort of a question is that?”

Q. “Why were you sent here?”

A. “To be killed, I guess.”

Q. “And who is going to kill you?”

A. “The state.”

Q. “How do you feel?”

A. “Sick. My head hurts.”

Q. “Are you sad or happy?”

A. “What do you think?”

Q. “Are you worried about something?”

A. “Many things.”

Q. “Did anything strange happen to you for which you can’t give an account?”

A. “Yes. I awoke in the wrong body.”

Q. “Do you hear voices talking to you?”

A. “Yes.”

Q. “Do you see any strange things?”

A. “All the time.”

Q. “And what about now? What do you see at the moment?”

A. “My death.”

Q. “Did you ever try to commit suicide?”

A. “Yes.”

Q. “How?”

A. “I tried to drown myself.”

Q. “How did you get those scratches?”

A. “I fell in a bramble bush.”

Q. “Is there anybody trying to harm you in any way?”

A. “Yes, the atheists.”

Q. “What atheists?”

A. “All atheists. They work for the Devil.”

Further questions failed to elicit any response. The patient fell into cataleptic shock and the interview was discontinued.

January 12, 1956
The patient was moved to the West wing. He arrived in a state of demonomania and spoke confusedly about the devil, God, thieves and supernatural enemies. When I asked why he wore women’s undergarments he began ranting about the apocalypse.

He appears malnourished and acutely ill. His skin is flushed and greasy and an acneform eruption covers the face. The eyelids and lips are swollen. But no definite physical disorder can be detected. Laboratory studies are negative. His facial expression is one of complete dejection and hopelessness. He talks slowly in a subdued, monotonous voice, expressing ideas of great unworthiness and sin. He maintains that he is “no good”, and that his birth was a mistake. He insists that he was born in the wrong body, and wants to destroy himself. Yet he remains acutely afraid of death and what will follow. He claims his sin has made the whole world suffer, especially his mother. The patient states that his mind is flooded with feelings of despair, and he can think of nothing except the enormity of his crimes.

February 13, 1956
The patient is apprehensive and demands the return of his corset and chemise. His consciousness is profoundly disturbed and he remains stuporous for hours at a time. He stares before him fixedly and ignores any external stimulus.

August 31, 1956
The patient came to himself momentarily but only remembered his mother. He told me that he had seen multiple flashes of fire, and heard a messages from Heaven. His seizures occur every three days, partly classic, partly tonic spasms with loss of consciousness. They occur without warning, last several minutes, and leave behind a state of confusion lasting many hours.

November 30, 1956
For the past three months the patient has relapsed into a peculiar state of torpor; he lies in bed staring at the ceiling with eyes wide open. His pupils are lazy and dilated; he remains mute and grimaces, pulling contorted faces. His skin and mucous membranes are remarkably pale and his blood vessels greatly contracted. Like a cataleptic, he retains attitudes given to him passively, but he does not sleep and has to be spoon fed. Stimulation of the skin and sensory organs produce no reaction.

(The words FIRE and DEATH are scribbled repeatedly over this entry).

December 3, 1956
The patient finally came to himself but knows nothing of what happened. In the afternoon he had a prolonged vertiginous attack and demanded the return of his corset and chemise. His altered perceptions caused him to rave about invisible beings. He spoke of a religious miracle and asked for Maria. When asked who Maria was, he replied: “My salvation”. I presume he refers to the Virgin Mary.

(The words CATHAR DEVIL are scrawled over this entry at 45 degrees; and between each line, the phrase INFINITE MIND is written multiple times).

December 26, 1956
For the past three weeks the patient suffered another attack of catalepsy; when he awoke there was psychomotor excitement lasting several days, in which he quite unconsciously, danced and waltzed like a swirling Dervish. For three days he trembled throughout his body and sermonized in the tone of a preacher. He spoke in a strange incomprehensible tongue consisting of broken Latin words.

February 13, 1957
Patient was submitted to Doctor Pontius for E.C.T. repatterning. I am not privileged to the details of this trial but have made my concerns known to the board.

(This entry is almost obliterated by the words: INCORPOREAL, IMPARTIBLE ESSENCES. Then in the margin is the Latin phrase: Pro bono publico. [For the public good]).

February 20, 1957
Became very excited during the afternoon and evening, declaring that Hulme had stolen his wig. Used profane and explicit language when speaking of Pontius. Raved in Latin for a good three hours, then demanded the host from the priest.

February 22, 1957
Cursed the attendants in the canteen and claimed they were the Devil’s minions.

February 23, 1957
Shouting and cursing through his window during the evening. Got out of bed at 3 A.M., and began to fight an imaginary devil, keeping it up for two hours.

February 24, 1957
Continues to use the most profane language towards matron, the attendants or anyone whom he chances to meet. Rambles to himself in Latin and wails for lost gold.

February 25, 1957
Was very excitable and irritable during the day and evening. Threw a chamber pot at Dobbs and accused him of killing an imaginary cat. Insists the cat’s ghost mews outside his cell all night long.

February 26, 1957
Cursed the warden because he would not let him out of his cell. Sang like Marilyn Monroe during the evening, reciting songs from ‘Some Like it Hot.’

February 26, 1957
Very profane and vindictive in his accusations towards Dobbs whom he threatened to kill. Later that evening he bit off Dobbs’ ear.

February 27, 1957
Actions and language continue in the same vein. Claims the King has stolen all his property. Refuses to eat, and curses the attendants in French. Claims he is a Parisian Lady who can work miracles. Talks constantly to imaginary friends.

February 28, 1957
The Patient has tamed a crow called ‘Ailes de Suie’ [Soot Wings]. He is obviously very talented with animals. He summons the crow by name, and at once it flies to his window, appearing as if from nowhere. Sang to his crow all evening as it perched upon the sill.

March 1, 1957
Became very violent today and attacked Hulme with a toilet brush. Was put in the straight jacket. Kept singing and cursing at intervals all day, and far into the night.

March 2, 1957
Hallucinates that he is being haunted by a Cyclops whom he sees sitting on his bed at night. He repeatedly strips off naked and refuses to wear anything but female attire. Claims that if Hulme does not return his corset, the faeries will raze the entire asylum to the ground.

March 3, 1957
Insists that Doctor Pontius has brainwashed him. Complains of pains in his head, and that his eyes hurt and that the Apocalypse is nigh. Asks repeatedly for “Mummy Selena” but will not reveal who she is. He was allowed in the canteen for lunch, but caused a great stir reading palms and telling fortunes. Whereupon Dobbs took him back to his cell. During the evening he became very destructive, smashing his stool, stripping his bed, and urinating under his door. Was given two injections of paraldehyde to help him sleep.

March 4, 1957
Says that during the night, he flew out the window and followed Soot Wings all over the country. He requires constant surveillance to prevent him from entering the female wards. Had a mild seizure in the evening but was subdued with paraldehyde.

March 5, 1957
On taking exercise in the yard he escaped and stole a polka dot dress from the laundry. He hid in the bell tower all day and was eventually recaptured late in the evening. Claims that he can escape at any time, if he so chooses.

March 6, 1957
Claimed the King was bribing Hulme to keep him in isolation. Denounced Pontius as an inquisitor working for the Devil.

After this entry, the diary descends into a maelstrom of madness, with runic glyphs and Latin quotations, most of which are indecipherable. But towards the end of March the text becomes legible once more:

March 23, 1957
The soul, by descending to the material realm, kindles a light in the dark tenement the body; but she herself becomes clouded in obscurity.

(The words LIGHT STREAM are scrawled in red ink over this entry several times. And in the footer, in bold letters: THE POWER OF GOD IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE).

March 25, 1957
Everything that exists upon the Earth has its ethereal counterpart above the Earth, and there is nothing, however insignificant it may appear in the world, which is not depending on something higher; so that if the lower part acts, its presiding higher part reacts upon it.[ii]

(The phrase GOD IS DEAD is scored into the page in a frenzied codex of vertical rows).

The final entry is most disturbing of all. Framed in by a grotesque necklace of doodled devils, it reads:

May 14, 1957
They have destroyed Jack Vallis – both his soul and intellect – in as much as these are capable of being destroyed. There is darkness here…

The bell rings for breakfast. Maria puts the diary in her bag, takes a shower and dresses for work.

i. First published as Ein moderner Mythus: Von Dingen, dei am Himmel gesehen werden (Zurich and Stuttgart, 1958). English edition, translated by R.F.C. Hull, published in 1959 (London and New York).

ii. Sohar Wajecae, Fol. 156, 6. (This is obviously a reworking of the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus: ‘Quod superius est sicut quod inferius et quod inferius est sicut quod superius…’).

Image: ‘The Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World’ Woodcut, 19th (?) century.

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 2017