Monday, July 16, 2018

The Chain of Ob - St Clair Harnett

In the opening of The Chain of Ob (Andrew Melrose, 1913) by St Clair Harnett, two Chelsea bohemians travel to a remote Cornish ruin one of them has inherited, a cobweb-hung hall with creaking doors, mildewed furnishings and vast shadows. The farmer who takes them there through narrow lanes as dusk approaches admits that “they do say as how” it is haunted, and is anxious to be away. This is the sort of beginning to a supernatural yarn that I really relish, and things continue to be splendidly rustling and creepy.

They are told by a nearby cottage goodwife that “There’s a very wicked woman in that ‘ouse!”, and it emerges the place is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a witch. The pair discover a portrait which one of them, a connoisseur, recognises as by the 17th century court painter Peter Lely. It depicts “a female form in shimmering satins stood before a sylvan scene of rocks and greenery.” The face is haunting. “Was there,” asks our hero, “some link between those painted eyes, those canvas lips, and that strange sympathy that floated round me in the darkness of this house?”

Reader, there was, and before you know it the narrator has slipped into the 17th century and encounters this beautiful witch. Here he learns that “there are divers souls that are ever subjected to unseen powers. When they are born they bear a badge upon their persons, the Chain of Ob.” He too bears the symbol. He continues to cross over between his contemporary time and the era of his spectral lover, as they both try to avoid the baleful influence of the mark upon them.

There was in the interwar period a cluster of enjoyable novels about timeslips, and I’ve already written here about Fanfaronade (1934) by Ivo Pakenham: another fine example is Lovers’ Meeting (1940) by Eleanor Smith. But The Chain of Ob seems to be a quite early example, and is very satisfyingly full-blooded. You have the sense the author was enjoying it to the full and this engages the reader.

Air Commodore Edward St Clair Harnett (b. 1881) served in the RAF in Iraq in WW1 where he knew Gertrude Bell. In civilian life he was a barrister who wrote A Handbook on the Law of Mortgages (1909): we are reminded that Bram Stoker was also the author of a legal textbook. Harnett's wife, Dorothy Grace Harnett (b. Co. Cavan, ca. 1891) wrote as “D. G. Waring” a series of eight novels in the 1930s, giving rise to the suspicion (I forget where I read this) that she may have written her husband’s books too. She served in the Red Cross during the First World War and they married on 15 April 1916.

But in fact both this and an earlier book, Rusted Hinges, A Novel On a New Plan (Andrew Melrose, 1912) were published a few years before they were married, and presumably written even earlier, when she was 21 or younger: so while still possible, this does not seem likely. They might, of course, have collaborated.

The couple had one son, Denis Henry Waring (1917–1964), but the marriage ended some years later, and in 1927 St Clair Harnett remarried. There are traces of an article, "Gertrude Bell and the Iraq Museum" by St. Clair Harnett, Views and Reviews, Vol.22 No.3, 1927-1928, which may link with the third novel under his name, The House of a Thousand Lamps (Selwyn & Blount, 1927), set in Baghdad. He donated to Birmingham City Museum forty two Near Eastern seals collected in Baghdad and died in 1964 or 1965 at the age of 83.

Harnett filed a patent application on 21 July 1910 for a board game based on horse-racing, which he described as follows:

“A race game, which may be used for advertising, is played with model horses which are moved over a board (a), divided into a number of spaces (d) representing the course, two or more spaces (y), (h), and other spaces (i) marked with the odds against the pieces in use. The names of the pieces are shown in spaces (m), and other spaces (n) may be provided for the reception of the cards to be dealt to each piece.

The number of spaces (d) over which each piece has to travel to reach the winning post varies with the odds against the piece. In playing the game, a player stakes counters on a piece, and each piece has a card dealt to it by the banker. The piece that receives the highest card is moved forward one space, and another hand of cards is dealt. The banker pays out counters to those players who have selected the winning pieces and colour according to the odds marked on the board. Portions of the front and back of the board may be utilized for advertising purposes.”

Although a variety of horse racing games involving cards or dice have been marketed, there does not seem to be one exactly like Harnett’s game. Clearly it is time for some enthusiastic amateurs to do a mock-up of the board and play the game for the first time, no doubt, in over a hundred years. Who knows whether as the cards fall and the toy horses move, there might be a queer flicker and the players will find themselves in evening dress, smoking Sullivans over a green baize table in that last Edwardian summer?

Mark Valentine

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Outgoing Tides - Mary Tyrwhitt Drake

Mary Tyrwhitt Drake’s Outgoing Tides (John Long, 1924) is sensationalist fiction pitched strong. An ex soldier, a VC, is now a starving artist, languishing in attic digs with an exiled Russian prince who makes a sort of living as a parlour pianist. The artist has been forced to sell his Scottish ancestral home — he is, of course, descended from French courtiers of Mary, Queen of Scots.

He bumps into the man he saved in Flanders, who feeds him and funds him for a bit. This chum has a sultry lover, who agrees to pose for the artist’s Gothic portrait of Persephone, ‘The Queen of Hell’. Complications ensue. Meanwhile, the woman in the neighbouring garret dies, leaving him the solemn charge of her 18 year old daughter, a working-glass girl of faultless morals. Complications ensue. Anthony, the artist, decides to abandon the high calling of his art in favour of pictures that will sell, and to marry his ward. The pianist prince is unconvinced. At this point, the new owner of the old Scottish chateau, a pleasant young woman of faultless, etc., devoted to good causes, appears upon the scene. Complications ensue.

This, note, is only the first third of the book and there is a lot more to come. An uncanny element is implied from the dark influence of the painting of Persephone and its effect on those who posses it, or are possessed by it. What I like about this book is its thoroughgoing melodrama. We have met such characters before – the down-and-out Great War veteran encountering a pal in the murk of London, the impoverished aristocratic White Russian, the sinuous femme fatale, the orphaned ward, but seldom all flung together at once and at such pace. There’s a sort of extravagant gusto about the whole shebang which fills the reader with bemused awe.

Sometimes we need such a bracing change from more cautious and considered literature: if only she could have met Henry James. We are in M P Shiel terrain, though without his rhodomontade, or perhaps perilously close to the extravagant plots of William Le Queux, but in prose more vivid and vivacious. Under the pen-name ‘M.A. Sylvestre’, the author had earlier published Valencia Varelst (S.C. Brown, Lanham & Co, 1903) and The Light-Bearers (John Long, 1912).

In an obscurely pleasing sort of way, the pale green boards of my copy (illustrated) have a series of salt-crust surges across them, as if indeed marked by outgoing tides.

Mark Valentine

Friday, July 13, 2018

Faunus 37

The latest issue, number 37, of Faunus, the hardback journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen, has just been published. Edited by James Machin and Timothy J Jarvis, it offers a cornucopia of fascinating material by and about the great Welsh master.

From Arthur Machen himself there is a rare and significant essay, ‘Folklore and Legends of the North’, surveying several books in the field and discussing his own views on lycanthropy, witchcraft, metamorphosis and the fairy world. This is an important and interesting account of these traditions which will illuminate his own fiction.

Also from Machen is ‘The Way of the World’, one of his typical companionable rambles through a loosely-linked set of anecdotes, which here covers The Panacea Society, The Foundling Hospital, Bulrushes in Baker Street, Nursery Names and much else. There’s also Machen’s report on an exhibition of dolls, ‘The Angel of the Toys’: he characteristically describes them as “puppets that will enact for [the child] mystery plays and miracles.”

This issue also includes a review by Aleister Crowley of Machen’s The Terror, and an introduction to this by James Machin reflecting on the mage’s admiration (usually) for Machen’s work, and the circumstances of this particular notice.

The editors also include a fine tribute to Machen by the Irish novelist Norah Hoult, in her 1951 review of The Autobiography of Arthur Machen.

John Llewellyn Probert continues his series on ‘Machenesque Moments in Cinema’, Nicolas Granger-Taylor reviews a recent modern opera inspired by Machen, by Ross Crean, and Nick Louras discusses the recipe for Machen’s lethal Dog & Duck punch.

Members of the Friends should receive their copy in the next few weeks, complete with Machenalia, the newsletter edited by Jon Preece. To join, and receive these splendid publications, consult the link above.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

'Time's hiding-places': a note on a new Walter de la Mare story

The latest issue of the Walter de la Mare Society magazine, no 19, includes a previously unpublished de la Mare story, given by its editor the title ‘Richard’. In his introductory note, Giles de la Mare explains that this was written in longhand in 1901 and a typescript from it was prepared in the late 1940s or early 1950s, presumably with a view to publication, but this did not transpire.

There are small gaps in the text, such as incomplete sentences, which he has used his editorial judgement to complete. He describes the piece as having “the same semi-poetic style” as de la Mare’s well-known story ‘The Almond Tree’ and, in a preceding article, he and the magazine’s editor, Emma Close-Brooks, explore some apparent connections with that story and the figure of the Count, who also appears in other de la Mare pieces. However, the newly published work stands perfectly well on its own.

At the outset of the tale, Richard is an orphan boy nearly nine who is the heir presumptive to a manor house, The Grange, occupied by his Uncle Henry, an artist and a man possessed of an elusive mystical philosophy. It is the house where Richard’s father lived, and died young, “of want of heart”, we are told, a studiedly ambiguous phrase. One Winter’s eve, with snow covering the land, the boy is taken there to live, from an Aunt’s house, Thorns, where he has grown up.

Richard’s cousin Jane, a few years older than he, also lives there, and is a memorable character. When they meet, she remarks in a light but pointed way that she would be the heir if she had not been a girl. She is restless about the choice she can see looming before her of finding a moneyed husband or lingering on alone, to be given, as she remarks bitterly, some attic corner in her old age from the charity of Richard. He is strongly attracted to her, but also a little fearful of her trenchant character.

The story is rich with many of de la Mare’s characteristic enigmatic phrases that each seem to convey hidden depths of meaning. Told the boy’s age, his Uncle says, “’Just three times nine of him to futility’.” The Uncle’s hands “were eloquent in their stillness”, a finely observed phrase. At a children’s party, late in the evening, “The candles were low, one or two lanterns without flame. There seemed to be festive witnesses at the door and windows, flocked together out of Time’s hiding-places, attracted to the stir and lustre of our festival.” (I wonder if they were originally “restive” witnesses, and have become “festive” in trying to decipher the handwriting?).

The uncle and aunts in this story, though eccentric, are not in the least sinister, as they sometimes are in other stories, yet I think I see a faint harbinger of a key scene in the much-admired and discussed later story ‘Seaton’s Aunt’. Taking Seaton’s guest to his room, the Aunt in that story proclaims: “This is the room, Withers, my brother William died in when a boy. Admire the view!” Similarly, in ‘Richard’, the young heir, introduced to his room, is told, “In this same bed, you remember, your dear father used to sleep, and there he is, looking out, who knows how far, across the snowy garden.” It is a portrait that looks out, but even so we feel the suggestion of a continued presence. And “dear” is of course only one letter away from a colder word.

In one sense, the story is about the emerging relationships between the various occupants of the house. There is very little overt incident and such as there is, is in a minor key. Yet they all have an intricate inner life, revealed in passages of elliptical dialogue, and they are haunted by a certain brittle apprehension of fate. In commenting on ‘The Almond Tree’, several times rejected by publishers, de la Mare noted, “it’s the flavour of the thing I swear by, atmosphere—what you will. If a story has that . . .” That is clearly the quality he was seeking for here too, and he certainly succeeds.

As often with de la Mare, there is no definite resolution at the end of the tale, and indeed the editors speculate that it might have been intended, with other pieces, to be part of a novel. Nevertheless, the story as we have it is beautifully subtle and strange and presages many of its author’s preoccupations in later stories, with childhood, solitude, time, transience and age. It is a story we must be very glad has been retrieved.

Mark Valentine

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations by Rosemary Pardoe

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations, essays on supernatural fiction by Rosemary Pardoe is a much-anticipated collection of her non-fiction by a leading authority on the Jamesian ghost story.

The author is often much too diffident about her contribution to the supernatural fiction field and to the small press world, but, as David Sutton notes in his introduction, which gives a useful summary of the author’s writing and publishing work, Rosemary has been active in fanzines for nearly fifty years, and has edited Ghosts & Scholars, the highly respected M R James periodical, in various forms, for nearly forty years.

This volume is therefore the fruit of a lifetime’s devotion to the traditional ghost story (and allied themes), and offers a very generous contents list, with twenty-nine essays on aspects of James, eight essays on his followers, including E G Swain, Arthur Gray, A P Baker and Fritz Leiber, and nine shorter pieces on various subjects which originally appeared in contributions to the postal discussion group The Everlasting Club.

This promises to be an erudite, lively, lucidly written and fascinating book, with unexpected and illuminating insights into aspects of M R James’ stories, and a great deal of other out-of-the-way information.

Who could possibly resist such titles as “Scrying and the Horse-Demon”, “The Magic of Maps”, “’Fluttering Draperies’: The Fabric of M R James” and “The Night Raven”? Here the reader will find pagans and magicians, demons and hobby horses, arcane grimoires, sequestered places, and many other strange byways, all explored in a robust and refreshingly direct way by an author who has quite rightly ignored all the warnings and is perfectly willing to be curious about almost anything, particularly if it is shadowy or peculiar.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Following the Old Ways: Flush As May by P M Hubbard

The tone of P M Hubbard’s first novel, Flush As May (1963), is not dissimilar to the donnish detection novels of Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes: it has the same wit and intelligence and breezily extravagant plot. There are also some conventional figures of the crime novel – a retired Chief Constable, a shrewd older woman, a vague vicar, and several cranky rustics. The plot, involving a missing body, is also fairly familiar. The young woman and her suitor who stumble upon the mystery, and are undaunted by the dark undercurrents when they begin to look into it, are bright, well-developed characters, rigorous in their thinking.

But although the two main protagonists of his book are Oxford undergraduates, town and gown scarcely feature. The setting is mostly in an obscure country village, which seems to be in the Wiltshire Downs, and there are hints from quite early on that this place still observes some clandestine pagan practices. This is again not all that unusual in the field: Gladys Mitchell often features witchcraft, folk customs and ancient sites in her books, and others have done so too.

However, P M Hubbard’s depiction of the village secrets is subtle. Flush As May shows, especially for its time, a surprisingly deep understanding and a certain sympathy for the older religion, and this was to become a hallmark in several of his subsequent novels. There are several ways in which this shows in this book. The first is that it describes very closely a traditional, hereditary witch coven, with its Maid (the matriarchal head), and observance of seasonal customs – Beltane, Lammas and Hallowe’en are specifically mentioned.

I think it is likely that the author drew upon Gerald Gardner’s books on witchcraft, such as Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), which were published not long before, although not all that well-known. It is now not generally accepted among historians that any witchcraft coven survived in Britain from pre-Christian times, though there is evidence that particular pagan practices may have done so: it is therefore unlikely Hubbard had personal knowledge of any such group. However, he was clearly well-informed, and this is evidence of a more than passing interest.

The second is that Hubbard describes a network of ancient pathways radiating from a high prehistoric earthwork, The Beacon, and his heroine follows step by step one of the alignments converging on this, starting at a church on a mound, and walking the line through other significant landmarks, such as an ancient wood, a ford, and the north door of another church, up to the hilltop. It is perfectly clear that he is describing a ley line and indeed a character refers, without naming him, to Alfred Watkins and his book The Old Straight Track: its mounds, beacons, moats, sites, and mark stones (1925), the work that began the ley theory.

This again reveals a marked esoteric knowledge on the part of the author: ley hunting did not become better-known until the mid-Sixties, when books and journals began to appear about it; the first issue of The Ley Hunter journal was in April 1965. The author evidently knew about leys before then, and sufficiently well to describe them compellingly, six years before John Michell’s milestone book The View Over Atlantis (1969) made them better-known. Further, he even anticipated the mystical dimension to leys that the sixties brought. This is not to the fore in the Watkins book at all; he thought of them as traders’ tracks. It is possible, therefore, that P M Hubbard is a previously unacknowledged pioneer of the idea that leys had a sacred dimension.

Taken together, these themes from Gardner and Watkins suggest that P M Hubbard had at least looked into these matters quite keenly, and thought them through for himself. There are also some minor clues about the extent of his interest. He alludes to an incident in the history of the Avebury stone circle that later forms the fulcrum of another, also highly pagan, novel, The Dancing Man (1971): this shows that he was thinking about this some time before he wrote that book. In Flush As May, he describes the ancient mound on which the village church stands as “the green round” – a phrase used by Machen for the title of one of his books, involving fairy lore: and we are also told one of Hubbard’s characters has “fairy blood” in her. He may have got these ideas from somewhere else, but since The Dancing Man shows an even stronger likely Machen influence, we may have here a clue that he was already reading him at this stage.

There is therefore not much doubt at all that the author had a strong respect for the pagan old religion he describes. Indeed, he even upends the usual expectations of the detection novel, so that the secret faith of the village may continue undisturbed. He is not an overt apologist for this faith, but clearly understands its allure. P M Hubbard’s book is, for its time, a remarkably sophisticated and shrewd portrayal of modern paganism, and it was to be followed by others equally rich in their use of archetypal images.

Mark Valentine

This note originally appeared in a contribution to a mailing of The Everlasting Club, a postal discussion group for supernatural fiction.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Finding books in out of the way places

It has sometimes chanced that I have found myself in some out-of-the-way place without a book. This is a disconcerting experience for the keen reader, and recently, in a hotel on an industrial estate, not within obvious reach of any purveyor of literature, I was obliged to read the only thing to hand in the somewhat functional room, namely the breakfast menu. This, though not without interest in its way, did not stretch very far (in terms of reading, I mean: the breakfast itself promised to be, and was, extensive, if unsubtle).

However, on other occasions a chance find in a lonely place has proved to be a solace enhanced by its unexpectedness. Once on a rainswept holiday in Cornwall, and desperate to find something diverting to read, I considered without too much enthusiasm the single creaking plastic carousel of paperbacks in the leaking beach shack which was the only shop for miles around. But what was this? The Adventures of Solar Pons by August Derleth. Some splendid Sherlock Holmes-like detective yarns, just the thing to enjoy while the grey gusts swept against the cottage windows.

Since then, I have to confess to a sort of idle delight in the game of finding something interesting to read somehow, wherever I chance to be. And it is one of the incidental delights of even the smallest, obscurest places in England that it is surprising how often, one way or another, suitable reading matter may be found. Arriving early to meet friends in a minor Shropshire village, for instance, I looked in at the church and found not only one or two paperbacks I could quite enjoy, but also a guide to local ghosts. Later I was able to stroll around in the dusk regarding the apparent haunts it described with an enhanced appreciation, not to say apprehension.

Very few churches are without a printed guide of some sort, and these often make for diverting reading, with unusual anecdotes, snatches of local history or genealogy, diversions upon heraldry, and snippets of little-known folklore. Whether they are simply one sheet folded, or more compendious booklets, it is rare to find one without some points of singular interest, often several.

However, another practice which has begun to become more widespread is that of offering an assortment of second hand books, usually towards the back of the church, to raise funds. One church half an hour from here makes quite a point of it and has several hundred, along with recordings. (Its other attraction is a former Viceroy’s silk dressing-gown, now used as an altar cloth.) Sometimes, admittedly, this may lead to incongruity: one sacred edifice harboured several Dennis Wheatley novels of racy satanism, while in another a biography of Rasputin was prominently displayed.

On another occasion, visiting friends in a little Suffolk village and arriving ahead of time, we went first to look at the church. Here we found in the porch a large cardboard box full of jumbled books for sale, which afforded a most agreeable rummage. Indeed, we were still rummaging when the verger (or was it the churchwarden? A redoubtable lady, anyway) arrived to lock up. Observing the small pile we had accumulated, she invoked the Almighty and declared she had only put them out a few hours before, just to see if anyone would be interested. When we turned up at our friends’ house carrying the spoils, they exclaimed that only we could find a place to buy books in such an obscure nook of the country.

Nor is it only churches that can sometimes oblige the bookless. Another occasional source of reading matter may be found in repurposed telephone kiosks. These elegant scarlet pavilions, no longer required due to the spread of personal phones, have been ingeniously reused by some villages variously as miniature museums, art galleries, greenhouses – or book exchanges, where there might be a few dozen titles available. You may borrow or take one and leave another later.

Some shops now have a selection of books for sale for worthy causes. On one occasion I had walked along the canal to a village from which I proposed to get the train back. There are only half a dozen trains on its almost-forgotten branch line, and, as I had slightly miscalculated, I had an hour and a half to while away before the next one. I recalled, however, that the village florist usually has several trays of books on sale for charity and hoped I might turn up something worthwhile there. I was in luck: it yielded Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of An Infantry Officer, certainly absorbing enough to take back and enjoy on the wooden bench at the little wayside halt, while reflecting that the quiet scene, full of birdsong, might have appealed in its rural tranquillity to the author of the book.

It’s also possible to get second-hand books at some railway stations. When I similarly allowed too much time to catch my train at Oxford station, I was gratified to find that in one of the waiting rooms there were a dozen shelves of books on sale for charity, including no less than five volumes of Jacobean tragedy. These (I admit) I passed over in favour of a history of English glass, a subject that had caught my interest after reading P M Hubbard’s splendid grotesque novel, A Hive of Glass, about the quest for a very rare goblet. Thus it is that, when a suitable occasion arises, I shall be able diffidently to mention, “Ah, yes, Early English Glass. Studied it at Oxford.” “Balliol?” “No, Great Western.”

Mark Valentine