Monday, August 17, 2015

William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land


One of the many pleasures of book hunting is that it's still possible to flush out a decent title in a charity shop.  So at lunch time I was at the Salvation Army store and found the above book hidden away on a lower shelf - a colonial edition of William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land.  Price: $2.  There are two sets of advertisements at the back, dated November 1911.  The publisher is Bell & Co and it has the standard Bell's decorated covers.  My understanding, which could well be wrong, is that colonial editions were made from the 1st edition sheets, cheaply bound by the publisher (not necessarily the 1st edition publisher, as not all publishers had colonial libraries), and sent off to the colonies. Some colonial editions are rarer than others and it would be interesting to know how many copies were printed - was there a set print run for each book in a colonial library, or did it vary for each book, for example a proportion of the first edition run?

Here is a contemporary Australian review of the Bell's edition, published in the Western Mail, a West Australian newspaper, in June 1912:


A NEW PILGRIM'S PROGRESS 
"The Night Land," by William Hope Hodgson. (G. Bell and Sons Ltd., London.) "The Night Land," a love romance by William Hope Hodgson, contains close on 600 pages of mysticism pure and unadulterated. If the patient reader can manage to survive the first 150 pages, with their frequent and irritating references to such obscure and occult things as Monstruwacans (not a tribe of North American Indians, be it said), Mighty Pyramids, Lesser Redoubts, Earth Currents, Home-calls, Diskos, Brain Elements, Master Words, Hour Slips, Thrilling Aether, and the rest of the remarkable quasi-transcendental jargon the author indulges in, and if the semi-archaic phraseology of the whole lengthy narrative does not hopelessly pall, the patient reader aforesaid may find some entertainment in the surprising Baron Munchausen-cum-Gulliver adventures which befall the hero of the book in his perilous quest after Naani, his lost love, who wanders forlorn and solitary in the mysterious Night Land. Finally, if the reader perseveres to the bitter end, he will doubtless be gratified to learn that the nameless hero does verily and indeed bring Naani back to the security of the Mighty Pyramid, and the paternal guardianship of the Master Monstruwacan, despite desperate and sanguinary encounters with ghostly silent ones, horrible yellow things, ferocious night hounds, huge and hairy humpt men, enormous and malodorous slugs, as big as small hills, and other dreadful nightmare monsters, all of which loathly beasts he successfully combats in his journey through the difficult and direful country of Plains of Blue Fire, of a House of Everlasting Silence, of Fire Holes and Hills, and mighty slopes and gores, and a great many more unpleasantly dangerous obstacles to safe travel, which in these glad days of Cook's universal tourist tickets would very properly be looked upon as Exceedingly Bad Management. However, all this happened in the early morning of the world, although, by the by, an obsolete airship is mentioned. There may be some subtle and occult meaning in Mr. Hodgson's ingenious chronicle, but if this is the case it is so carefully hidden away as to be beyond the capacity of the average intellect. Possibly, if one may hazard a guess, it seeks to extol the triumphs of True Love over all opposition, even including a descent into the shadowy Night Land of Death, and we offer this tentative suggestion for the problematic benefit of those as unskilled in such arcana as ourself. Despite its grotesque setting, the story of the name less hero's tender love passages with the winsome Naani in the wilderness is very attractively told, indeed it is quite the best part of a singularly prolix and perplexing book. The hero’s lament when he supposes Naani to be dead after winning safe through so many perils is one of those felicitous little touches which go far towards making the whole wide world kin.

"And lo! in that moment when I neav to be in mine armour, I to mind sudden again that I never to have waked to discover mine own maid kissing me in my sleep. And the pain gat me in the breast, so that I had surely ended then, but that the Master Doctor set somewhat to my breath, that eased me, and gave something of dullness unto my senses for a while."


Our copy is from the London publishers. 






Wednesday, August 12, 2015

REX RYAN, THE BLACK TRIANGLE




I mentioned in a previous post that we can’t really understand the R.R. Ryan novels without understanding the milieu in which they were written: the popular provincial theatre of the day.  One would reasonably expect traces of Rex Ryan’s plays to be found in the series of excessive thrillers he wrote for Herbert Jenkins in the 1930s.  One of his plays, written in 1927 and licensed at the Hippodrome in Mexborough, was The Black Triangle.  We know it was written by Rex Ryan because he advertised it for sale along with other plays of his in the Stage Directory in 1929.  I acquired a copy of the play from the Lord Chamberlain’s archive at the British Library, and it makes entertaining if typically crude reading.

It is a crime thriller reminiscent of his later books with bizarre goings on and a plot that stretches the imagination.  The play is mostly set in a country house belonging to James Sullivan.  There is a crowded household consisting of Sullivan, his son, Colin, Sullivan’s sister, Mrs Temperley, and her two daughters, Estelle and Nadine, and a cousin, Carlyle.  On top of this, Sullivan and Nadine like to take in unfortunate types in the neighbourhood, including a blind and deaf cripple named Paul who acts more like an animal than a man (but who responds to Morse code being tapped on his arm!), and most recently, an escaped freak from a passing circus called the Lion-Faced Man who horrifies all who see him. 

There are various love interests happening, with Nadine at the centre of it all – she is courted by both Colin and Carlyle, whom she despises.  Paul and the Lion-Faced man don’t like each other and after a fierce fight the Lion-Faced man says that they knew each other in the circus.  James Sullivan then reveals that today is the 20th anniversary of his escape from the clutches of a Chinese secret organisation called the Brotherhood of Black Triangle, controlled by arch-criminal Soo Ki.  Evidently, when Sullivan was in China 20 years earlier he fell in love with a beautiful Chines woman who was betrothed to Soo Ki – when Soo Ki found out about the affair Sullivan was only able to escape death by joining the Black Triangle.  He obtained government protection and managed to escape, but Sullivan has been expecting retribution ever since.

It quickly arrives with the appearance of a black triangle painted on a canvas that Colin, a budding artist, was about to use.  And shortly afterwards THE TERROR (in upper case, as is THE INEXPLICABLE in Echo of a Curse) appears at the window during a violent storm: “THE TERROR appears at the window, clad in black, with a black veil falling over his face on which is a death’s head.  On his breast and on a background of white is a black triangle.  His hands are the hands of a skeleton, and the fingers end in terrible claws.  The veil rises, apparently by no agency of his own, and a ghastly Chinese face is seen.  He fixes his huge eyes on Sullivan and they never waver in their gaze.”



Sullivan is murdered and Colin makes the awful discovery of his father’s head in a trunk with a black triangle painted on his forehead.  The police are called in and a bumbling investigation ensues until Kit Temple, a Melbourne detective investigating the Brotherhood of the Black Triangle, arrives.

Nadine is kidnapped and there’s a nice scene where she apparently wakes up in an underground laboratory in Marsh Retreat strapped to a slab with a huge vat of acid nearby: “Above her is a dull green light, which just reveals her.  At the back hang huge black curtains.  Otherwise the place is rough stone, with a door L.C. at back.  After the curtain has been up a little, the light above Nadine goes out. An illuminated scull (sic), and the upper structure of a skeleton is seen, with arms extended.  It is about 6 feet above the floor, but slowly descends and moves back, then forward to Nadine.  She screams.  The face fades. Scream after scream is heard…”


Sadly, the skeleton turns out to be dream, though the underground laboratory and vat of acid are real – no doubt an excuse to use a prized prop.  A black, hooded figure appears and orders Nadine to yield her body to him: “When I have done with that the devil can have your soul.  Strip off those clothes.  Surrender to me, and then you shall go in peace.”

Feisty Nadine declares, “I choose the vat rather than you.”  However, The Figure won’t take no for an answer: “The figure springs upon her and tears off a large portion of her dress.  A tremendous fight ensues, in which her clothes are torn to rags.  She fights the figure like a man.  They wrestle, roll over and over. But he gets her.  Raises her in his arms.”

THE TERROR arrives in the nick of time and forces the Figure into the vat of acid.  He then picks up Nadine and races off with her just as Colin and the others arrive.  Colin sees that there’s something in the vat: “Besides the vat are two huge pincers.  Silently Temple takes them up and hands one to Colin indicating their use.  Together from the vat they raise a complete skeleton.”  So the prized skeleton prop gets a reprise.  Needless to say the Figure turns out to be Carlyle.

After more shenanigans, Nadine is rescued and THE TERROR is revealed to be Paul, the deaf and blind cripple, who is in fact Soo Ki, the dreaded leader of the Black Triangle, and The Lion-Faced Man turns out to be Kit Temple in disguise!  What’s more, when THE TERROR’s identity is revealed he throws himself into the vat of acid rather than face justice.

The play was cleared by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, though with some provisos: according to Nicholson’s Censorship of British Drama: “In 1927 [the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of] Cromer reluctantly licensed a touring melodrama on condition that “the lion-faced man must not be made too monstrous or like an animal,” that his fight with the blind mute “must not be too realistic”, and that “the appearance of the ‘terror’ as described on page 11 must be modified.”  Typically he also attempted to absolve himself from possible criticism by making the manager responsible for ensuring that it must not be staged in such a way as to cause offence to the audience.”  You can still see the pencil marks on the passages in the typescript that the Lord Chamberlain's Office had problems with.




There are several parallels with the R.R. Ryan novels - freaks (though in this case they are disguised men) with animal characteristics and named accordingly,  vats of acid, nefarious laboratories, Morse code, are all in Freak Museum, while using capitals to emphasize the name of a creature was used in Echo of a Curse.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Last of Aickman?


Possibly the last writing Robert Aickman did for publication was a foreword to a book of canal poems, Echoes of a Canal Travelling Man by J.H. Burman (1981). His contribution is dated December 1980 and a note from J.H.B. follows: “On February 26th, when this booklet was still only in proof form, Robert Aickman died. Tributes to his inspiration and zeal for the waterways have been most adequately expressed elsewhere. He never saw this booklet complete, but I hope he would have approved. I add it, as my personal tribute, to those, from the thousands of waterway enthusiasts who will remember him.”

I came across this when I picked up a book of poems called Excalibur Immersed at the excellent bookshop at Gatehouse of Fleet, Galloway, thinking it was on some Arthurian theme. It was in fact a book of canal poems by J.H. Burman, and the writer of the foreword remarked that he was following an illustrious predecessor, since the previous volume by this poet was foreworded by Robert Aickman. There proved to be two other titles by J.H. Burman: one was Scantlings – Yet More Soundings from a Canal Travelling Man, but the first, which I soon sought out, was ‘Echoes…’. Mr Burman seems also to have written books of local Warwickshire history.

Aickman’s foreword begins in his characteristically opinionated and somewhat lofty style: “Strong links with general and universal culture have always seemed to me of the first importance to the waterways campaign, which has regularly tended to drift into the parochialism of minutiae.” Here he briefly makes it clear that he is not of the hobbyist or special interest approach to the canals: he wants them to be recognised as part of the very fabric of the country, and its arts and traditions.

He goes on to note that “Beyond doubt, the turning point in the entire escapade was the Market Harborough Festival of 1950”, since this brought together drama, art exhibitions, films, “a grand ball and a fireworks display” and “persons, often of eminence and influence, were attracted from far and wide”. This commentary illuminates Aickman’s approach to the campaign: to get the attention and support of those who could make a difference, by putting the canals in a wider context, and, incidentally, ensuring these movers and shakers had a good time. “No one who attended, prominent among them the present President of the Royal Academy, will ever forget the raree show,” he avers, in another characteristic Aickman assertion.

Perhaps recalling at this point the particular occasion for his foreword, Aickman next speaks of Mr Burman’s poems. These, he says, combine the knack of the “technicalities and the quasi-gypsy (but not gypsy) lingo of the cut” with that wider culture he has praised, for the poet has written parodies, for example of Masefield and de la Mare, of which “Max Beerbohm would not have been ashamed”. Like this leading figure in the field of the spoof, Mr Burman “enters into the original author’s inner life, going far beyond surface mannerism”.

This is perhaps a surprising observation to make of what may seem at first sight simply light-hearted imitations of the masters, substituting canal themes for theirs. But in fact Aickman’s observation is acute. The parodies get not only the particular lilt and rhythm of the originals but something of their innate quality. ‘Spring Fever’, for instance, after Masefield’s famous poem ‘Cargoes’ (“I must go down to the sea again”) doesn’t miss the shortened end-line of each stanza, deflating the more sonorous swing of the lines before.

And ‘The Old Mill’ (“with apologies to Walter de la Mare”) understands exactly how this dreaming poet’s work proceeds from impressions of loneliness and decay. “If ghosts exist,” Mr Burman says, in a brief note accompanying this piece, “they ought to be found in canal tunnels, or in long, dripping, overgrown, narrow cuttings. There can hardly be a lone steerer, who has not experienced the feeling that he is not alone.”

Aickman concludes his tribute to the poet and his book, apart from a conventional commendation, by commenting that they “capture to precision the waterways amalgam of physical effort, often a consequence of mere neglect on the part of authority; bliss in natural things; the curious joy of almost all boating in itself; nostalgia; and, impregnating the whole, crusade, all too much of it, when viewed down the years”. In this he was no doubt summing up, too, his reflections on his own long involvement with the waterways.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, August 2, 2015

LEAVES OF ASH - John Howard


“I’ve discovered something they don’t know. Or they do know and are hiding it.”

John Howard’s Leaves of Ash returns to Steaua de Munte, a timeless place in Central Europe, where a janitor at the university has pieced together the secrets of the city. Under the shadow of the authorities, he devises an unusual way of alerting the townsfolk to the results of his researches. The author’s previous titles with this setting include The Silver Voices, The Defeat of Grief, Numbered as Sand or the Stars, and The Lustre of Time.

Jo Valentine’s design responds to the story’s theme with a Coptic-stitched concertina book cased in boards with ash grey buckram. The miniature book is concealed in a ‘matchbox’. The endpapers and ‘matchbox’ label depict mascarons from a Romanian castle, photographed by Jo Valentine.

This is the latest handmade publication from the Valentine & Valentine imprint. It is in a limited, numbered edition of 25 copies only (+ iii not for sale).

Update 2 August - all copies have now been taken. Thanks for the very keen interest in this book.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Library of Babel

At the Paris Review, author and programmer Jonathan Basile describes his fascination with Jorge Luis Borges' story 'La Biblioteca de Babel' ('The Library of Babel'), which contains every possible combination of letters ("some call it the universe"). Fascinated by this, he had the idea one night "of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site."

"For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios," he continues,"I’ve made libraryofbabel.info, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now."

Basile's machine is perhaps a potentiality rather than an accomplished project. But it is surely an extrapolation of the world we are in now, where gradually all already existing texts, all books ever written, are being made available online or (for those who still prefer the book as an object) as print-on-demand.

Already, the rarest and most precious books are those that have not yet been captured, that no library holds, that no corporation has scanned or digitised: typically, the work of amateurs whose books slipped (and are still now slipping) through the net.

And it cannot be long before this industry understands the opportunity of creating texts that have not yet been written.

I think I know, therefore, how the idea behind Borges' library, and Basile's machine, ends. No longer a story, this work of the imagination ends by ending the expression of imagination. It ends like this:

"It was no longer possible to tell stories or make poems. They had all been written already. And the Babel Corporation held the rights to them all. Whatever combination of the world’s letters, numerals, signs you could imagine, in any language, already existed. Babel had also extended its mission to all possible combinations of musical notes and all possible combinations of colours and shapes. No conceivable work of art, literature or music could be created that was not already possessed by Babel. That included ourselves. We were all characters in Babel’s brain."

"But there was one exception to its vast capacity. Any suggestion that books, art and music were once made by individuals, not generated by Babel, was carefully filtered out. There must be nothing not made by Babel. Nothing ever had been made but by Babel."

Which is why, the human spirit being what it is, there already exists, offline and offgrid, the secret characters. The Secret Characters are individuals creating the secret characters. These characters, these new signs in an unknown alphabet, do not exist in print and never will, if the code of the Secret Characters is honoured. They are sometimes made in sand for the waves to erase, sometimes made with leaves for the wind to seize, and sometimes formed with stones and pebbles that look like they lie there by chance. They may sometimes be seen briefly, daringly, in chalk or charcoal daubed during a rainstorm, gone in a few moments.

They express, in their subtle and strange shapes, all the dreams and desires we have in common, and those visions we know alone. If you look for them, you will see them. It would be as well to begin to learn the secret characters. When Babel comes, we will need them. They will be all that we have left.

(c) Babel

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Sesquicentennial of M.P. Shiel

A rare photo of Shiel in 1908
A quick post to let us all reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the birth of Matthew Phipps Shiel, who was born in Montserrat on 21 July 1865.  Author of such classic works as Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes in the Fire (1896), The Purple Cloud (1901), and many others, Shiel settled in England in the mid 1880s, and died in Chichester, Sussex, on 17 February 1947.

Harold Billings is the author of M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years (2005), and M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years 1897-1923 (2010).  We look forward to the third and final volume of this definitive biography











Tuesday, July 14, 2015

ASTERCOTE - The Heartwood Institute


A recently released recording on the Reverb Worship label is Astercote by The Heartwood Institute. I was entranced by the subtle way the music conveys a haunting narrative involving a holy cup kept in an English country house. It's a story told in brief musical segments, like the soundtrack to a half-forgotten Seventies tv mystery episode, each piece illustrating a key scene. There's the same adventurous use of early electronic or radiophonic textures, together with wistful, pastoral pieces using woodwind and other acoustic instruments. Individual tracks aptly conjure the image suggested by the titles and the plot-line, such as the shimmering surrounding "The Chalice" and the sense of hovering and swooping accompanying the hawk.

I hadn't realised until after I had listened to this resonant, delicately-crafted gem that it is an "imagined soundtrack" based on a 1970 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, entitled Astercote, which I didn't know before and would now like to read. The label says: "The music on this cd is influenced by some favourite 1970s soundtracks : The Wickerman, Get Carter...that kind of thing, but also the more out-there TV soundtracks like The Changes, Children Of The Stones and the original Tomorrow People." I think it achieves the atmosphere of that time and those programmes perfectly, while also having a fine, yearning fragility all its own. This edition of Astercote is limited to 40 copies.

Mark Valentine