Monday, May 23, 2016
D K Broster is most known in the field of supernatural fiction for her excellent story of an ageing Decadent and an animated feather boa, ‘Couching At the Door’. But, as Mike Barrett shows in his survey of her short stories in Wormwood 26, she contributed other ghostly tales to periodicals and these are often quietly accomplished. A frequent theme is supernatural vengeance across the ages, but there are also stories of obsession and of uncanny qualities locked into ancient objects.
Though they may start venerably enough, for example in an old house with a suspiciously low rent, she develops her plots with a remorseless assurance, sometimes spiced with touches of black humour. As Mike writes, “her admittedly few genre contributions were consistently interesting, and some of them were excellent. They represent a very different, darker side of an author who attained renown for her fast-paced historical adventure novels, and such diversification in style stands as a testament to her capabilities.”
Mike Barrett's articles appear regularly in the New York Review of Science Fiction, The British Fantasy Society Journal and Wormwood. His first book, a collection of essays on fantastic literature entitled Doors to Elsewhere, was published by The Alchemy Press in 2013 and was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction title of the year.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Tolstoy somewhere recalled the opening of an unfinished novel by Pushkin: “The guests were arriving at the country house.” Tolstoy said: That’s just how a novel should begin.
Yes, a novel -- but let’s consider some other story openings, from memorable short stories and novellas of the late 19th and early 20th century. Like this one: “Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days” (M. R. James’s “A School Story”). In innumerable tales, two gentlemen have a chance encounter on a London pavement and slip into the club to which one of them belongs for a long evening’s talk, or there’s a party of men sitting around a big fireplace in a country house, or a man boards a train and seats himself opposite a stranger and they start talking after a while.
In one story – Kipling’s “On Greenhow Hill” – the men are soldiers, hunkered down quietly in ambush late one afternoon, passing the time by telling anecdotes till their sharpshooter can pick off an insurgent deserter.
Chekhov wrote a little trilogy of stories in which men tell one another accounts of their lives – “The Man in a Case,” “About Love,” and “Gooseberries.” Stories are told on two successive evenings and during a rainy afternoon in between. Wells’s Time Machine begins in a “luxurious after-dinner atmosphere” replete with fireplace and drinks.
Generally in the stories I have in mind, the location is snug and the evening ahead can give way imperceptibly to night as people talk. There’s no hurry and there are no serious distractions. The characters are almost always men -- bachelors, widowers, or husbands away from their wives.
Eventually one of the men tells a long story (or hands over a manuscript that another man takes with him for the night or till next week). In Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” Pozdnyshev makes his painful, protracted confession of sexual jealousy and murder on a train journey in a compartment shared with a stranger.
When we are reading “The Kreutzer Sonata,” we don’t object that Pozdnyshev holds forth at such length. Conrad’s Marlow possesses astonishing stamina as he relates the story of Heart of Darkness during a long night on a boat anchored in the Thames estuary, but we don’t demur. Nor are we troubled by these narrators’ ability to recall long-ago conversations verbatim. In fact, the situation is irresistible and we relish it.
The framing scene invites us to be receptive to the gradual development of a mood and to become well-prepared for the main story’s final catastrophe. During the Christmas holidays, the guests eagerly listen as Douglas reads them the governess’s eerie and ultimately tragic memoir of Bly (The Turn of the Screw). Or recall the delectable opening of Machen’s wonder-tale “N” (from as late as 1936!):
“They were talking about old days and old ways and all the changes that have come on London in the last weary years; a little party of three of them, gathered for a rare meeting in Perrott’s rooms.”
They talked, and all through their evening no one fetched out his phone from his pocket or checked his iPad.
Most of the stories I’ve just mentioned, be they fantastic or realistic, deal with love, in some way and in some sense or other of the word. Well-bred people believed those love-topics were meant for private occasions. When we read stories from 125 or even 80 years ago in which gentlemen talk about women and lust or love, we may feel a special interest as we listen in (something different from the voyeuristic interest of hearing people talking casually and explicitly and coarsely of sex).
In our time, such conversation as theirs must seem to be as rare as some Atlantean art.
© 2016 Dale Nelson
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Although it only ran for three issues (and a ghostly fourth issue, prepared and announced but not published), The Lost Club Journal, which I edited with Roger Dobson, soon attracted enthusiastic readers keen to learn about forgotten authors and to propose their own favourite neglected figures. We have certainly tried, in Wormwood, to carry on the work of celebrating the under-appreciated, alongside studies of the major figures in our field.
Roger also much enjoyed pilgrimages to the former homes and haunts (and gravesides) of lost authors, and was not averse to knocking on the doors of the usually oblivious current occupants to tell them about their house’s illustrious past, often with mixed results.
The home of H G Wells was one of the goals of a Lost Club Weekend organised by Roger Dobson, memorably evoked in Wormwood 26 by Mark Samuels, who was, as it turned out, the only other participant. The two soon found they had other literary tastes in common, such as the work of George Gissing (pictured), and some of the run-down rackety aspects of Grub Street were certainly in evidence in the town of Folkestone, where they were based. But a foray into lonely country by double decker bus – and the influence of strong Kentish ale – soon bestowed a wondrous, Machenesque glow upon the occasion.
Mark’s memoir of the weekend is a fine comic episode also full of a wistful delight at these impromptu adventures in the company of Roger Dobson, who was, as he suggests, a modern day version of Gissing's mellow literary scholar, Henry Ryecroft.
Mark Samuels is the author of several books of weird fiction and is now working on an “interminable” full-length novel that might be described as a cross between A Confederacy Of Dunces and Brideshead Revisited. He is a past Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and has always lived in London.
Friday, May 20, 2016
In an earlier post, in 2014, we suggested that R.H. Benson was “the author of several volumes of fantasies and ghost stories, notable for their perfervid vigour and swashbuckling invention. For a while a friend of Baron Corvo, his writing has some of the Corvine style and personal ardour, while for wild imagination and world-shattering vision, he is in the same range as M.P. Shiel.”
In Wormwood 26, author and essayist John Howard provides the first part of an extensive essay studying Benson’s apocalyptic science-fiction novels, starting with Lord of the World (1907). He demonstrates that alongside the faith that drove these works, the author also exhibited a vivid imagination and far-reaching vision of technology and modernity. Perhaps, this essay suggests, R H Benson’s books ought to be better appreciated in the field of science fiction, where he might be seen as an interesting counterpoint to the rationalist work of H G Wells.
John suggests: “As is the case with the ‘supernatural thrillers’ of Charles Williams, there is nothing else quite like them – and, as with Williams’ novels, no doubt they are not for everyone. But whether or not the content and viewpoints are exactly to taste, they are certainly worth reading, more than a century after their first appearance.”
In the next part, in our Autumn issue, John Howard considers The Dawn of All (1911).
John Howard is the author of Numbered as Sand or the Stars and The Lustre of Time, as well as the collections The Silver Voices, Written by Daylight, and Cities and Thrones and Powers. He has published essays on various aspects of the science fiction and horror fields, and especially on the work of classic authors such as Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, August Derleth, M.R. James, and writers of the pulp era. Many of these have been collected in Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Rudyard Kipling’s renown as the poet of Empire (in fact, often ambivalently), creator of The Jungle Book and Kim, and chronicler of the Raj, may have obscured his significant and lasting contribution to the supernatural short story. In Wormwood 26, admired writer of the fantastic Colin Insole draws attention to the range and power of Kipling’s stories of the strange and supernatural.
There are at least a handful that might stand among the most effective in the field. And as well as their strong traditional storytelling qualities, Colin notes that aspects of Kipling’s tales anticipate modern developments in the literature of the supernatural, later found in the work of Shirley Jackson or Robert Aickman. The stories explore states of dream or delirium and can also be psychologically acute.
Colin Insole’s first collection of stories, Elegies and Requiems, was published by Side Real Press (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2013. He has contributed to a number of anthologies, including tribute volumes to Bruno Schulz, Arthur Machen and Fernando Pessoa. His short novella, The Hill of Cinders was published in 2015, in the L'Homme Récent series.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
"Perhaps weird tales show us, more easily than most genres, the mystical heart of literature by leading us back to ourselves…revealing the inner unknown...".
In our opening essay in Wormwood 26, just published, acclaimed weird fiction writer Daniel Watt discusses a different dimension in fantastic literature than that most often seen, for example, in the work of H.P. Lovecraft or Thomas Ligotti. In their fiction we usually witness a cosmic threat from outside ourselves, in which humanity is insignificant, in an indifferent universe.
But, this essay argues, there is another, equally compelling approach to the weird, which explores our interior worlds. Daniel Watt examines in particular three stories from noted practitioners in the field that illustrate this: Robert Aickman’s ‘The Inner Room’ (1966), Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Doll’ (1937) and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ (1951).
And as this discussion shows, our inner worlds can be just as strange and troubling as anything that comes from without…
D.P. Watt’s An Emporium of Automata was reprinted by Eibonvale Press in 2013, and his The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications is available in paperback. A third collection, Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, is due from Undertow Publications soon. You can find him at The Interlude House.
Monday, May 16, 2016
I'm pleased to report that this handsome creature arrived in the post today, in a specially sealed box marked with various occult protections, and now ensconced between a collection of Victorian penny dreadfuls.