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Lovecraft in a Northern Town:
John Braine’s The Vodi

TheVodi [1]2,582 words

John Braine
The Vodi [2]
London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959
Kansas City, Mo.: Valancourt Books, 2013

“The Vodi were all alike, small and ferret-faced with no more identity than amoebae. There wasn’t really such a thing as a Vodi; there was only the Vodi.”

Constant Readers will recall that last year I sang the praises of Valancourt Books, a plucky little Midwestern outfit that reprints, with scholarly introductions and notes, “lost” books of various fringe genres, ranging from 18th-century Gothic horror to mid-20th-century Angry Young Men [3], with a smattering of “gay interest” fiction all along the way. I was not able to be just as enthusiastic about the actual book then under review,[1] but with the reprinting of John Braine’s The Vodi I can say unequivocally that they’d turned up yet another lost classic that deserves your attention – and with the kindle version on sale this month for $1.99, what have you got to lose?

The biggest surprise about The Vodi is that the author is John Braine. Like most of Valancourt’s authors, you probably don’t know the name; if you do, it’s for his first novel, Room at the Top,[2] and then more likely for the equally iconic 1959 film [4] with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret.

John Braine [5]

John Braine

The Vodi is his second novel, and as so frequently happens with “sophomore efforts” the critics took the opportunity to ignore it with faint praise. Braine took the hint; his next book was a sequel to the first, Life at the Top, and he continued with a mildly successful career as a kind of British John O’Hara until his death in 1986.[3] A “revised” version was published in 1978, and a paperback in 1979 with a rather salacious cover [6] no doubt intended to boost sales; this is the first-ever American reprint of the novel and includes a new, and as we’ll see, rather useful introduction by Janine Utell.

Here’s a plot summary [7], thanks to blessed Wikipedia:

Dick Corvey is suffering from advanced tuberculosis in a provincial sanitarium. While confined to bed 24 hours a day, he meditates on various events from his earlier life, his friendship with Tom, his relationships with women, especially his brief engagement with Lois who abandoned him when his virtually hopeless condition had become apparent. A recurring theme is that of the Vodi, a malevolent race of small creatures invented by Tom when at school. The chief concern of the Vodi is to persecute and destroy the unlucky: the good and harmless people who invite the wrath of the Vodi by these very qualities (while the undeserving minority can enjoy good fortune and all life’s comforts unhampered). Among others, Dick is tended by Nurse Evelyn Mallaton, whose sympathy and strong sexual attraction eventually give him the energy to rally against the disease and recover. However, while attracted to Dick, Evelyn understands his lack of prospects in the world and becomes engaged to a local businessman. Here emerges the main theme of the book: what Dick perceived as the distinction between the undeserved good and bad luck may in fact be the difference between a strong will and the lack of it. The novel ends with Dick bravely leaving the sanitarium where he has been offered a safe nursing job, to try to establish himself in the world on his own and perhaps get Evelyn back.

As usual with such books, one revels in a world where what goes without saying has nothing to do with political correctness, sinking as into a warm bath of Aryan normality. One element of this is the chief driver of the plot. In this pre-contraception, pre-liberation world, sex is conditional on love; and love, rather than today’s romantic twaddle, means having, or being willing to get, a good job to support a family. This rules out both the flash seducer (although the key element of his seduction is the illusion of being ready to “settle down” and work at the local radio factory) as well as the “nice” but ineffectual boys who, though presumptively heterosexual, write you poetry, treat you like a princess, but are content to drift along in a low paying job at the library.[4] In today’s terms, alpha gamers and betas.

Of course, the wife is not supposed to be sitting around eating bon bons either. Like gym class or drill instruction, it’s a tough but fair world in post-War Britain, with an emphasis on “tough.”

All sane people were governed by common sense, they have to survive, they can’t afford to be too weak. Marriage is a partnership, they’d often said.

That only compounds Dick’s problem;

So if he caught T. B. he couldn’t pull their full weight and most likely would never be able to. They couldn’t be a partnership, so Lois gracefully bowed out. One really couldn’t blame her, the cold-hearted fornicating bitch. . . .[5]

So, there’s some hard-nosed nostalgia here. But where is Lovecraft in all this? Well, The Vodi makes an interesting release for Valancourt, since it really combines their two main lines, horror and Angry Young Men. One of the few critics to appreciate the book was M. John Harrison, who named it one of his top ten books of all time in 2006, and captured its achievement thus: “Constructed round the fantasies of a recovering tuberculosis patient, this novel was the defining moment of an as-yet-unreported genre, kitchen sink gothic.”[6]

Indeed, what terminally confused the critics was that Braine was taking a new step forward, using the gritty, “kitchen sick” techniques of the AYM to convey not only anger but gothic horror. As Ms. Utell notes in her introduction,

The Vodi is something of a departure while still exploring many of the themes and motifs that preoccupied the author throughout his career: masculinity, sex, success and failure, the gritty geography of the working-class North. . . .

But even as Braine espoused a realism of both language and experience, it is used in the service of a kind of strangeness.

How does he do it? How is it possible to use precisely a gritty realism to produce, perhaps inadvertently, unreality?

The realistic representation of the familiar in all its detail allows for a sort of hyperreality, a de-familiarization, like looking at something totally quotidian too close up.

As Braine remarked in a 1984 interview, “Once you know about reality, revelation starts, intensity starts.”

Needless to say, I perked up reading that, since, as Constant Readers will recall, I said just the sort of thing right here, some years back, regarding Henry James’ technique of infinite detail, and how it created the same effect as Lovecraft!

Art was intended to take the place of religion, principally by replacing the lost “next world” by an increased concentration on the minutia of this one. . . . So the nouvelle length accumulation of detail and precision of judgment, in James, is intended to produce some kind of this-worldly ersatz transcendence. Was this perhaps the same intent in Lovecraft, the use of the nouvelle length tale to pile up detail until the mind breaks?[7]

Early on, as young Dick and Tom visit a local house, upper class but the scene of a classmate’s recent death at the hands of his mother, who then committed suicide, passages of kitchen sink dialogue – “You’re mardy. You’re dead mardy. I duff you. Go on. I duff you.” — alternate with passages where piled-up homely detail subtly shifts into unease:

Dick was beginning to feel frightened. The house seemed on the verge of some statement spoken in words of mouldering brick and worn linoleum and damp plaster, which wouldn’t when it came be pleasant to hear. He kept hearing faint rustling noises, sometimes rising to a sigh; it was as if a gag were working loose.[8]

Braine seems well aware that he’s pioneering a new approach, more suited to the post-War reality of the disillusioned, social climbing vets the AYM were writing for and about:

“If this had been the Saint, there’d have been a smashing bare tart and a million pounds in bullion there.” “That’s kid stuff,” Tom said.

It’s a technique that threw the first critics for a loop, not able to match up the banal phrases and eerie effect:

Mr. Braine’s pages are littered with stock-responsiveness—memories are cudgelled, bony fingers wag, and nurses bustle and pop in and out—but some of the early ones come very much alive with the boys’ funny bitter myth of the Vodi.[9]

So, that’s the style, what about the plot? There seems to be some confusion among the reviewers as to what motivates Dick’s resurrection. Some attribute it to “the love of a good woman” and justly decry such rank treacle:

It is his redemption through love for one of his nurses that is soft and unconvincing, spotlighting the sentimentality which was the weakness of the earlier book.[10]

But Braine is channeling Nietzsche here, not Parzival. Wikipedia actually has it right:

[W]hat Dick perceived as the distinction between the undeserved good and bad luck may in fact be the difference between a strong will and the lack of it.

We can see why such philosophers of the Will as Bill Hopkins, Jonathan Bowden, and Colin Wilson saw a similarity of interests in Braine.[11]

And finally, what about these Vodi?

The Vodi lives in the dark places of the world: you don’t see it but it is always there, a gang of little men ruled by one obscene old woman. The Vodi has a great power and only one aim: the good must always suffer, the vicious and brutal succeed. When you believe this it explains a lot of things and it has one other great advantage: you can be proud to fail.

Originating in childhood mythmaking (at the instigation of the future successful rival, Tom, by the way) the Vodi are the all-purpose explanation for “why bad things happen to good people,” in particular, to Dick. Both in appearance and function, the Vodi are clearly those known in other contexts as The Judaics (or perhaps Icke’s reptiles).[12]

Dick’s realization that the Vodi are just a half-assed, literally childish excuse for his failure to assert himself in the struggle for life might lead us to think that the author would hold a similar view of those finding comforting excuses in some world-spanning conspiracy. But those inclined to find some truth in the later can find inspiration here as well.

Fantasy or not, the Vodi are an excuse for inaction, for surrender. How many soi disant “White nationalists” are “proud to fail”? What is needed today, even more than in the crumbling Britain of the 1950s, is the Will to overcome and win.

Notes

[1] See “Sour Cream: Michael Nelson’s A Room in Chelsea Square here [8].

[2] 1957, also reprinted, with vintage jacket, by Valancourt in 2013.

[3] At least he was spared the vituperation visited upon semi-fellow AYM, Colin Wilson, for his second book after the wildly praised The Outsider. And the Left’s hearty philistines still hate him; see “Look back in wonder: Fifty years ago, critics turned The Outsider into an overnight sensation and hailed its author a genius — then they changed their minds. Harry Ritchie charts the rise and fall of Colin Wilson.” Harry Ritchie, The Guardian, Friday 11 August 2006, here [9]. Valancourt again is performing the inestimable service of putting his novels back in print as well.

[4] One wonders if Braine has in mind fellow AYM Philip Larkin.

[5] The note of casual misogyny, which Braine shares with the rest of the AYM, is seen by them as “more truthful” than the polite, la-di-da world of polite literature. Correct or not, it does catch the note of their being serious stakes at play, rather than our own “polite literature” of PC equality. It’s interesting, perhaps, that Dick shares his name with the real Don Draper, who, as Dick Whitman, grew up among coal mines and whore houses straight out of a British kitchen sink drama.

Speaking of which, Dick’s world is also one in which a more successful classmate, now a “business man,” is presumed not merely to be able to steal his girl, but to afford now to augment the usual all night drinking with lunchtime drinks as well. Yes, the era of the “businessman’s – or three martini – lunch,” during which America somehow stumbled through the greatest economic boom in world history. Both the expectation of early marriage – “have a career, baby!” – and drinking on the job were put an end to at the same time, in the days of the arch-Puritan Jimmy Carter, and as we know, the results were an epic decline in wages and living standards that continues to this day. As the older Roger Sterling observed to Don in an early episode:

[Don Draper pours a drink]

Roger Sterling: I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could dream of.

Don Draper: That’s why I got in.

Roger Sterling: So enjoy it.

Don Draper: [drinks] I’m doing my best here.

Roger Sterling: [scoffs] No, you’re not. You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do. — “Mad Men: New Amsterdam (#1.4)” [10] (2007).

[6] “M John Harrison’s top 10;” theguardian.com, Tuesday 16 November, 2004, here [11].

[7] See “The Lesson of the Monster, or The Great Good Thing on the Doorstep” here [12] and now reprinted in my Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (San Francisco: Counter Currents, 2014).

[8] The following line, “There were the marks of grubby hands on the plywood” unintentionally evokes the much more recent Blair Witch Project, itself a kind of kitchen sink approach to horror.

[9] 1959 review in The Spectator, online here [13].

[10] New Left Review I/2, March-April 1960 [14].

[11] See Bowden’s “Bill Hopkins and the Angry Young Men” here [15]; reprinted as “Bill Hopkins: An Anti-Humanist Life” in Western Civilization Bites Back (San Francisco: Counter Currents, 2014): “Another of them was John Braine, who although he wasn’t technically in the inner group that was known as both angry, young and male, there was also a degree to which he really was morally part of that group. Came down from the North, of course, wrote Room at the Top and all sorts of spin-offs, became a bit of a Surrealist in some ways afterwards, wrote slightly surreal, sort of aesthetically projected novels, The Vodi and other things. Nearly all of Braine’s work is about the morality and personal philosophy of sexual relations between men and women, in one form or another.”

Colin Wilson, though, seems rather to miss the point, at least in retrospect: “The story of John Braine also contains an element of tragedy. When I first met him soon after Room at the Top he was agonising about what to write next. And he decided on another slice of autobiography, a novel called The Vodi, about a man lying in hospital with tuberculosis when he hears that his girl has dumped him. Predictably, this was a failure. — “The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men,” here [16]. Remembering The Vodi as a “slice of autobiography” certainly obscures its clear relationship to Wilson’s later Lovecraftian novel, The Mind Parasites (not another Valancourt reprint, though its sequel, The Philosopher’s Stone, is).

[12] For another unconscious portrait of the nefarious Judiacs in post-War British fiction, see my review of Olaf Stapledon’s The Flames here [17] and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others.