Thursday, November 26, 2020

'Castle Mandragora' - Mary Durham

An enticing title,  and it has wonderful Neo-Romantic cover art by Felix Kelly. He specialised in Gothick country houses and illustrated fantastical books such as Herbert Read’s The Green Child (1945),  an edition of  Le Fanu’s A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay : a tale from Chronicles of Golden Friars introduced by Herbert van Thal (1947), and To the Devil A Daughter by Dennis Wheatley (1954).  

The setting of this novel is also unusual, at a remote folly in the Brecklands area of Suffolk. This is a large expanse of sandy heath mostly given over to heather and bracken, but now also with dense serried fir tree forestry. It is notable for the ancient monument of Grime's Graves, prehistoric flint mines in a lunar sort of landscape that looks unreal: empty yet pockmarked. You can, upon payment of an admission charge, descend into one of the pits by a ladder and enter a gallery. I didn’t fancy it. Idols have been found there.

Castle Mandragora by Mary Durham (1950) is not predominantly a novel of the supernatural, it is more of a crime thriller, though it has eerie elements to it.

An educated young man loses his job as an advertising clerk during the Depression of the Thirties and in desperation agrees to take up a post as a footman. He gets the job through the influence of a friend, a solicitor, and in fact he has a secret role, to keep an eye on things at the castle and report back anything suspicious. His friend is uneasy about aspects of the set-up, though he cannot quite say why.   

His employers are two eccentric brothers. The other staff there are aged and mostly semi-senile: they include a querulous librarian. The castle is circular and the living quarters cover two floors: we are provided with a diagram showing the rooms and staircase.

The parts where the protagonist is learning his job and getting to know the layout and somewhat somnolent ways of the castle are rather painstaking, before the mystery element (a bit brisker) takes over. There is an incidental ghostly scene, rather sentimental, and not, as one might expect in a crime novel, fully rationalised.  

Although in many ways following conventional formulae, there was just enough about the book that was distinctly odd to give it an unusual flavour. The resolution is not entirely unexpected, but it is deftly handled. The austere scenery and the picturesque castle are well-evoked. The claustrophobic atmosphere and the unusual characters give the book a particular peculiarity.

Mary Durham wrote eleven thrillers, including others that have Gothic elements, in the Forties and early Fifties, and then seems to vanish. Nothing whatever seems to be known about her. Usually such an abrupt career might portend that this was an experienced author running a sideline under a pseudonym: or, conversely, that the author changed direction and adopted a different name for later work. 

But if so in neither case does any clue about this seem to have emerged. It’s also possible this author just couldn’t find publishers after that mid-century spate, even though her later work also seems to be among her strongest.  

Most of her books were issued by minor provincial publishers: John Crowther of Bognor Regis, Sussex, published Why Pick on Pickles? (1945), Cornish Mystery (1946), Keeps Death His Court (1946) and Crime Insoluble (1947);  Skeffington issued Murder Hath Charms (1948),  Murder by Multiplication (also 1948) and Corpse Errant (1949); while John Gifford offered Castle Mandragora, Hate is My Livery (1945), Forked Lightning (1951), and The Devil Was Sick (1952).

Forked Lightning was picked up by the Thriller Book Club in 1952 and is therefore much easier to find than the others. This too has a dramatic, Modern Gothick dustwrapper. But some of the other titles seem to have disappeared almost as thoroughly as their author. 

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Return of the Zahir

At Zenopress, Zahir – Desire and Eclipse, an anthology edited by Christian Patracchini. This is a book of responses to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘The Zahir’ from The Aleph and Other Stories (1949), about a talismanic coin that becomes a symbol for obsession. 

But the coin, it transpires, is only the latest manifestation of an idea that has previously taken other, different forms.

This new publication is a book of visions told in various forms – story, poem, essay, text, image, and it is limited to 200 numbered copies.

The introduction reports ‘this anthology explores how the Zahir – something both very serious and vaguely absurd – sticks on our minds and refuses to be shaken.’

City maps, a matchbox, an old boat, pomegranate juice, the shadow of the rose, a reclusive author in Paris, tea and biscuits, cheap brandy, a red neon sign, they’re all here, briefly. And any one of them may seem to provoke memories, echoes. 

Of course, some caution is required: after all, the anthology, or one of the pieces in it, could easily be the latest appearance of The Zahir. What better sly disguise than to reappear in an edition bearing its own name? Who would suspect that? 

Just as it passed to Borges casually enough in a bar in his change for a drink, so it might slip into our thoughts again in the most brazen way, in a book that is a hall of mirrors of itself.

Should you find you cannot stop reading the book, or turning its pages all the time, it would be wise to slip it into an overcoat pocket, wander by devious ways to an obscure bookshop in an unfrequented quarter of the city, and there see if you can smuggle it onto the shelves unseen. 

Perhaps between, let us say, Cyril Crossland's Desert and Water Gardens of the Red Sea, and the Imperial Army Handbook to Lamp Signalling and Ciphers.

 (Mark Valentine)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Rockall Books of Antony Swithin

The lonely Atlantic island of Rockall is over 300 miles from the coast of Scotland. The stormy rock was claimed by the UK in the Nineteen Fifties as an outpost of Inverness-shire. A few well-equipped adventurers have set up camp there for a short period, with logistical support, but it is otherwise completely uninhabitable

As part of my Strange Stamps series with artist Colin Langeveld, I issued in 2005 a  Rockall Post £1 sepia stamp depicting the gaunt outcrop in its ocean fastness. It was in support of the Rockall Ho! Expedition, raising funds for the charity Mental Health Media. The stamps were used on first day covers designed by Discworld Stamps, along with a sister stamp designed by them, with Terry Pratchett’s approval.

Stamps issued for offshore islands around Britain, with no Royal Mail service, have quite a long history, and the most noted include those for Lundy, Shuna, the Summer Isles, Herm in the Channel Islands and Steepholm in the Bristol Channel. The Rockall stamp was in the same tradition, if for a somewhat more far-flung outpost.

Rockall has several times featured in fiction, including in T H White’s young adult novel The Master (1957), about a super-villain who has his headquarters there.  This more-or-less depicts the actual Rockall, except that it is hollow and has a huge sinister complex inside it, in classic James Bond style.

However, there is also a vast, sweeping alternate-world version of the island in which it is a much more extensive territory, complete with its own history and customs. This was created by the eminent geologist William Sarjeant (1935-2002), under the pen-name Antony Swithin. It also brings in aspects of the lost continent of Atlantis, the drowned realm of Lyonesse, and the mythical land of Hy Brasil.

Four books of this epic fantasy were issued in paperback by Fontana from 1990-1993 under the series title The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse: Princes of Sandastre (1990); The Lords of the Stoney Mountain (1992); The Winds of the Wastelands (1992); and The Nine Gods of Safaddné (1993).

There was, however, much more in the author’s papers still to be published. He had worked on the details of this world for many years.

Doug Anderson describes the books as “an impressive feat of world-building and story-telling” and when I tried them I found them colourful, vigorous and thoroughly-imagined. I wouldn't say that mysticism and the visionary were to the fore, but the narrative is strong in pace and incident.

Now, Doug has drawn my attention to The Perilous Quest For Lyonesse, a new website about the series, which has been re-launched under the editorship of Mark Sebanc. The first two books are available now, and it is reported there will be twelve in total.  The website offers the background to the books, a video, a blog and other supporting material.

Enthusiasts of high fantasy, heroic epics, lost worlds, alternative planes of existence, legendary islands and swashbuckling dynastic history will certainly want to investigate. 

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

'Cups Wands and Swords' - Helen Simpson

The Greater Trumps (1932) by Charles Williams is a powerful metaphysical thriller inspired by the symbolism of the Tarot cards. According to his latest biographer, Grevel Lindop, Williams possessed a copy of the Marseilles pack, and probably also the Rider-Waite pack. He may have learned aspects of the Tarot from A E Waite, since he was an initiate in the latter’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.

However, his book was not the first novel to use the Tarot as a guiding motif. As a widely-read editor at the Oxford University Press, in touch with contemporary fiction, Williams may also at least have heard of an earlier novel involving the cards.

Helen Simpson’s Cups Wands and Swords (Heinemann, 1927) begins with a Tarot reading, and each chapter is named after a Tarot card. The novel follows a group of young bohemians in Chelsea and Oxford in the 1920s. Tony and Celia Riddle are orphaned twins, by turns tender and quarrelsome with each other. From an old and fairly well-off Australian family, they were separated when Tony was sent to public school in England at an early age, while Celia remained behind. He now has the Oxford accent while she still retains Australian intonations: but the differences seem to go deeper than that.

In the opening chapter, Dominick, an Irish friend of Tony, reads the cards for Celia and finds them difficult, puzzling. The book will, in oblique ways, follow the fall of the cards and illuminate what they may have meant. The ambience of the book is not unlike Mary Butts’ modernist Grail novel Armed With Madness (1928), also about tempestuous bohemians getting involved with the esoteric.

The mystical and supernatural in Helen Simpson’s novel, apart from the influence of the cards, is subtly drawn. The first hint is when Celia, looking at the sunlight glinting on a teaspoon, seems to hover close to another dimension and is briefly able to read her brother’s thoughts. Shared understandings are not uncommon in twins but here it is implied that this is more than that: she ‘receives’ a picture of what he was thinking. The possibility of telepathy between twins is strongly present throughout the novel. 

Supernatural incidents and impressions continue to pervade the book, not forcefully but allusively, interweaving with the lives of Celia, Tony and their friends. There is a glimpse of the majestic figures from a 17th century grimoire, and there is a seance in which a mysterious form links three of those present.

Aspects of the book are evidently autobiographical. Helen Simpson was born in Sydney but came to England as a young woman in her late teens and made her home there. Celia’s responses to the country and its contrasts with her homeland are fresh and observant and no doubt reflect her own experiences. She also evidently had an interest in the esoteric, and shared this with two close writer friends, Clemence Dane (with whom she collaborated on detective novels) and Gladys Mitchell.

She was thirty years old when Cups Wands and Swords, her second novel, was published. It shows a keen, sophisticated understanding of the Tarot symbolism. There are today hundreds of Tarot designs and Tarot-like oracle cards, but in her time it would have been a much more arcane matter. No doubt, however, it became better-known as part of the upsurge of interest in the esoteric that followed the Great War (see, for example, my catalogue for 1920 in an earlier post). Packs could be obtained from Rider, the noted occult publisher, and no doubt from certain avant-garde emporia.

T S Eliot’s allusion to the ‘wicked pack of cards’ consulted by Madame Sosostris in ‘The Waste Land’, first published in periodicals in late 1922, no doubt gives a sense of the Tarot’s reputation just a few years before Helen Simpson was writing her novel.

As well as the Tarot and the subtle supernatural elements in the book, another attraction is the cast of picturesque characters, particularly the minor characters. These include a female conjurer, who occupies the top floor of the lodging house where Tony and Celia live, and imbibes ‘port and splash’ (of soda) for her health; and a foppish Oxford aesthete who is a connoisseur of incense and rare liqueurs.  Another brief supernatural moment occurs when she burns one of the incense cones he gives her and the smoke begins to form a shape. Again, incense, now widely available in new age shops and elsewhere, was evidently still regarded then as exotic and faintly suspicious.

The emotional tension of the book derives from Tony’s dislike when his twin becomes attracted to one of his friends, Philip. He at first finds devious ways of preventing them meeting, but then acquiesces, thinking he will be able to retain his influence over her. Partly this could be due to his feeling of being ‘in loco parentis’ and responsible for his sister, who has not his experience of cosmopolitan life, but he is also presented as petulant and possessive. The plot follows Celia’s halting liberation from this. There is a powerful, eerie, well-devised ending involving an apparition that may be in part psychological in origin but yet also strongly implies a supernatural presence.

Helen Simpson went on to write ten more novels (including the collaborations), several of them historical. Boomerang (1932) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, then perhaps the leading prize for fiction, and Under Capricorn (1937) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. She also wrote two historical studies, some miscellaneous non-fiction and a handful of plays.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography notice by Alan Roberts evokes her thus: ‘Handsome, dark, with 'bright brown eyes' and a determined chin, Helen was a fine horsewoman and fencer, who collected antiques, Elizabethan cookery books and works on witchcraft. She had great charm and vitality and developed a forceful style, with a touch of showmanship in some mannerisms such as taking snuff.’

While the Williams novel is told with his customary gusto and clamour, Helen Simpson's Cups Wands and Swords offers a nuanced treatment of the Tarot and its possibilities, but is equally compelling. It is an excellent example of an intelligent metaphysical thriller with contemporary edge, and ought to be better-known among savants of the esoteric and the fantastic.  

(Mark Valentine)




Monday, November 16, 2020

M R James - A Christmas Reading


Robert Lloyd Parry of Nunkie Productions has gained enthusiastic appreciation for his marvellous recitations and readings of ghost stories by M R James and others, which are richly atmospheric and expressive. 

Now A Ghostly Company are offering  the opportunity to hear Robert read James' Christmas tale 'The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance'. 

The online event takes place on Thursday, 10 December 2020, at 8pm GMT, for an hour. Tickets are available for £5.80 each viewer - simply follow the link above.

Mr Parry will be employing a sophisticated transmission system which enables his performance to be ‘beamed’ into people’s homes. I understand it is known to trendsetters and with-it hep cats as ‘Zoom’. Whatever will they think of next?

Wormwoodiana readers are most welcome to sign up now and then 'tune in' on the day to listen spellbound to Robert's telling of the story. If, that is, you are quite sure you want to find out what disappears - and what appears. 

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, November 14, 2020

A Museum in Autumn


One day nearly thirty years ago I walked with two friends, an artist and a prose poet, underneath the Autumn trees in the grounds of a Roman museum. It was a weekday, and there was no-one else about. A breeze followed us, and the gold and bronze leaves cascaded down like the largesse of some celestial decadent emperor toying with his acolytes. On either side of the avenue were the broken plinths and columns of the Roman remains, pale as bones but streaked with green mildew.

We came up to one where either a chance windfall or the whimsical gesture of a modern votary had left a sprig of black berries on an altar-like stone. At once we thought that we too ought to offer something, and we each cast about for a suitable garnishing: a fir cone, a dog rose, a handful of beech-mast, a chaplet of the fallen leaves. These, with due solemnity and a certain diffidence, we placed on one or other of the monuments. But it seemed to us, then and after, that there was an elusive rare place-magic there and we had caught a glimpse, no more, of this, though we could not quite say what it was. The Romans, when they were not sure who the local god was, raised their altars to the genius loci, and that was who we too honoured.                            

The place was Aldborough in North Yorkshire, or Isurium Brigantum, a minor Roman settlement that never grew into anything much larger, so that its remains have not been so much covered over or demolished. The museum is hardly ever open now and wasn’t all that often then, but it had an interesting small display in a sort of wooden chalet, including some carved gems of carnelian and jet with curious mystical figures. At the end of the grove we had walked under, and through a wicket-gate, was a shelter and inside were two restored mosaics. Beyond were private grounds, a fallen tree covered with fungi, and the distant gables of a house.

This scene haunted me and I tried several times to put it in stories, never quite succeeding. But it influenced the Roman mosaic scene in ‘Except Seven’ (Romances of the White Day, Sarob Press, 2015) and the obscure museum in ‘The Forwarding Agent’ (Supernatural Tales 37, 2018), and some other tales too.

 


The HMSO guide to Aldborough, a slim booklet in blue covers, is by Dorothy Charlesworth, She also wrote a monograph (1999) on the remote and windswept Hard Knott Roman Fort high in the mountains of Cumbria, for the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society; and contributed a note on the contents of the museum to the HMSO booklet by Graham Webster on the Roman site at Wall, Staffordshire (1958); and a similar note to the booklet on Viroconium, the Roman city at Wroxeter, Shropshire (1973).

In her Aldborough booklet the grey photographs are still able to convey something of the lonely sorcery of the grove, and the gems are indeed considered mysterious. They included a jasper intaglio of a hare in a chariot pulled by a cock, whose meaning is obscure, and a blue agate intaglio of a nude figure. I think there were others on display when we visited, or I have added to them in my imagination.

From the monograph I learn that the museum and its grounds had once formed part of the gardens of the Manor House and had been gifted to the nation by the dowager chatelaine in 1952. This perhaps helps account for the tranquil quality of the little domain. The site preserves the south-western quarter of the Roman town, with a section of the town wall.

The booklet also explains that there are known to have been other mosaics uncovered in the town but these have now been lost, although one is reputed to lie under the floor of the Manor, a circumstance which rather suggests some potential for the plot of a supernatural story. Indeed, more mosaics have been noted here than anywhere else in the country, suggesting perhaps the presence of a workshop devoted to the craft.

Like Old Sarum (the subject of an earlier post), Aldborough was for many years a Rotten or Pocket Borough, still returning MPs to Parliament for centuries despite its very moderate number of inhabitants. There were, however, at least some houses here, a population perhaps of several hundred or so.

The very last sentence in the guide is one of those wonderful throwaway lines: ‘Another figure of Mercury can be seen in the church’. Of course. Where else? And I remember that when we went there three geese had flown overhead as we passed into the church, and on the table for the parish magazine and the church guide someone had placed for sale entwined sprigs of rosemary.

And there it was, the blurred statue of the herald deity, his face hardly to be discerned, never mind understood. But I put the few coins in the collecting box and picked up a sprig of rosemary and placed it at his feet. For it is always wise to pay homage to the god of words.

 Photograph: C P Langeveld

 (Mark Valentine)

Monday, November 9, 2020

Celebrating 'A Voyage to Arcturus'

There are two forthcoming online events celebrating David Lindsay and A Voyage to Arcturus in the centenary year of his remarkable visionary novel, and both are open to the public through prior booking.

Celebrating the Centenary of A Voyage to Arcturus is an online event from the newly-established Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow on 19 November 2020: this will feature author Nina Allen, leading Lindsay scholar Doug Anderson (of this blog), and Professor Robert Davis. The event runs on Zoom from 1800-1930 (UK time). For more information and tickets, follow the link.

A Voyage to Arcturus and Beyond: David Lindsay’s Visionary Imagination is an online symposium on 9 December 2020, via the website of the Scottish Storytelling Centre. This will run from 1300-1800, and will feature presentations on A Voyage to Arcturus, and most of Lindsay's other novels. Composer David Power will talk about writing Lindsay-inspired music, and Seán Martin will be showing a preview of a film about Lindsay's work. Again, please consult the link for more information and tickets.

(Mark Valentine)