Soul-death or, to use its modern name, malignant anima psychosis (MAP), is a reaction to stress or stimuli where an individual’s soul or anima turns upon them, much as cancerous cells turn upon the healthy tissue surrounding them. Unless treated – formerly with charms and incantations, now more frequently by hypnosis and parapsychology – MAP is invariably fatal, sometimes through suicide but more frequently from complications resulting from victims failing to take care of their physical health and, in common parlance, losing the will to live.
MacGregor’s journals in the months following Madeleine Nicholson’s death reveal a man contemplating suicide and the concerned letters from his friends – all available in the MacGregor Archive box xix 1858-59 King James University, Edenborough – show that he was scarcely eating or sleeping at this time and appeared unshaven in his few public appearances. In a later letter to Charles Palliser, dated October 7th 1860 MacGregor credits his housekeeper, Edith Cave, and manservant Jock Strange for,
saving me from a monstrous creature that would have chilled the very blood beating in my heart and taken everything of life from the air I breathed for its own fell nourishment and yet was such a part of me, equal to my own limbs, that I think it must always have dwelt benignly within and only assumed its evil form when I was at my weakest.
That, according to the paraphycisist Professor Hans Frum of my alma mater, Israel College, Oxford, is as close a description of the symptoms of MAP as one will find in any medical text book.
MacGregor left no exact account of his battle with MAP and was inclined in conversation to ascribe his recovery wholly to the intervention of friends and his meeting Helena Northwood, but many of his journal entries during his illness make reference to a “journey”, albeit without leaving clues to the nature of the journey. Whether it remained in the realms of what Jung called the sub-conscious or whether it was literally a metaphysical journey into an otherworld, is another matter. Certainly, history is full of accounts of strange journeys to unearthly paradises or hellish netherworlds and while many are plainly allegorical warnings to the earthly reader not all can be dismissed as fiction or fantasy.
The same uncertainty describes Sarah’s Pinsker’s journey through the otherworld in chapter twelve of Acts of the Servant. The creatures and misadventures she encounters are alternately whimsical, amusing, menacing, even erotic, and have the curious unevenness and capriciousness of a dream and yet with repercussions in the real world. On the one hand, Sarah’s father remarks at the close of her adventure that she has been missing for three days during which time she has surely physically been somewhere. On the other hand, her entry into the otherworld through a rack of fur-coats, her initial encounter with the talking bear, fox and squirrel and her return to our world through the weave of a tapestry are so implausible the text begs us not to take it seriously. And yet something assuredly happens to her in during those three days for her eyes change from brown to blue.This curious detail occurs in both the printed edition of 1865 and in MacGregor’s first draft – as I state elsewhere, much of this chapter in the new edition reads very differently from the familiar text – and it was investigated by Dr Ranald Scott in his Wizard of the North (1937). Medical science has moved on a great deal in the past eighty years and I have confirmed with a visit to my optician that children are commonly born with blue eyes, that is, without pigmentation of the iris and the eyes will gradually change colour between the ages of one and three. Subsequently, the colour is fixed for the great majority of people though changes may occur during puberty and pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes in the body. Heterochromia is a rare condition that can cause changes in the eye-colour but as it was not documented in MacGregor’s time he is unlikely to have been aware of it. In any event there are no known circumstances where eyes change colour within the space of a few days.
At this point it is important to remember that this is not an event in the narrative present but is Sarah’s recollection of events some years before. Therefore, MacGregor is not asking us to believe that this is happening but presenting it as Sarah’s recollection of an event. The true question then becomes whether MacGregor intends us to trust Sarah’s recollection. I suggest not, though with the important proviso that something undoubtedly did happen to her in the magick quarter. The material evidence for a supernatural encounter is strong, namely the change to the colour of her eyes, yet its whimsical presentation undermines its believability. Ultimately MacGregor offers an emphatic ambiguity allowing the reader to interpret Sarah’s account as fact or allegory as they see fit.