Saturday, October 21, 2017

An American Bookman in England


R B Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press have produced An American Bookman in England, a short film of eminent author, book collector, and Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda talking about books on a recent visit to England, where he was introduced to second-hand bookshops in York and Carlisle.

With his characteristic lightly-held learning, gentle wit and deep interest in the byways of literature, Michael discusses why he might need more than one copy of certain books (“there’s something about English editions”), the byways of Sherlockiana, the delights of Ronald Firbank, the best humorous books in the language, and much else besides.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Avalon Brantley and The House of Silence (2017)



The writings of William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) have inspired a number of later writers, beginning with the first Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913) pastiches of “John Nicholson” (pseudonym of Norman Parcell), Costelloe—Psychic Investigator (1954), which have been followed by a growing number of other Carnacki pastiches, most notably those co-written by A.F. Kidd and Rick Kennett and collected in No. 472 Cheyne Walk (1992; expanded 2002).  Hodgson’s The Night Land has been “retold” by James Stoddard in 2011, and Andy W. Robertson edited two volumes of tribute stories, William Hope Hodgson’s Night Lands (Volume I: Eternal Love, 2003, and Volume II: Nightmares of the Fall, 2007). With more originality but still showing Hodgsonian influence, there are Iain Sinclair’s Radon Daughters (1994) and Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time (2008).

Now comes Avalon Brantley’s The House of Silence (Zagava, 2017). This edition is limited to only 170 copies, a frustratingly low number because this book deserves a larger readership.  One hopes that an affordable paperback may be forthcoming.  Yet in general terms The House of Silence is a difficult book to describe and a more difficult book to assess. Some aspects of it are brilliant, while others seem strained by self-indulgence on the part of the author. 

Ostensibly the book is an example of the found-manuscript trope, and the bulk of the story is purported to have taken place sometime in the late 1940s.  It is the first person narrative of Ashley Acheson, who is returning to his boyhood home near Ardrahan in the west of Ireland.  Ashley ran away to go to sea when he was thirteen, and this homecoming is brought about because of the death of his father, an Anglican priest. Here you begin to see the resonances with Hodgson’s own life—he ran away at thirteen to go to sea, and for a short while when he was young, he lived near Ardrahan where his father was an Anglican priest for a few years beginning in 1887. Names recur in the novel from Hodgson’s real family—his father was Samuel, mother Lizzie (plus a sister Lissie), and he had brothers Frank (Francis) and Chris.  In The House of Silence, Ashley has siblings named Samuel, Lizzie, and Francis, and a cousin Chris. Hodgson published in 1917 a silly poem he wrote called “Amanda Panda.”  In The House of Silence, Ashley has written a poem of the same title about a childhood girlfriend named Amanda whom he called Amanda Panda.  What the point of all these casual references are I do not know. 

More seriously, The House of Silence evokes the specifics of two of Hodgson’s novels, The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912).  The locale of Ardrahan and specifically one unique house comes right out of the former novel and finds its way into The House of Silence. There are other resonances taken right out of The Night Land. What is entirely non-Hodgsonian is the way that Brantley tries to bring what might be called the Hodgson mythos in line with early Irish prehistory, its gods and heroes. It’s an intriguing attempt to align the two together, but I don’t think it works. Indeed, what Hodgson set out to do with The House on the Borderland in terms of cosmic significance seems to work very much against the bringing of any of it together with Irish mythology. The attempt seems to me to diminish the power one finds in Hodgson.  Which is not to say that Brantley fails completely. It’s entirely to her credit that she brings it all together as much as she does.

Alas, this book is evidently Brantley’s only novel. Just after publication it was announced that she had passed away. Given the details of her life (1981-March 5, 2017) and residence in West Virginia, I could find no corroborating evidence that such a person really existed. For this and other reasons I assume “Avalon Brantley” was a pseudonym.  She published two other books, a play Aornos (Ex Occidente, 2013) and a collection of short stories, Descended Suns Resuscitate (Zagava, 2014).  I hope sometime we learn the real story behind this author and this book.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ronald Fraser's Flower Phantoms - A Podcast


At the Hold Fast Network, the first podcast in a series “unearthing neglected texts from outside the mainstream canon” is devoted to Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser, which is rightly evoked as “a curious and unique work that deserves a much wider readership”.

This hour long dialogue is probably the most substantial and thoughtful discussion of this overlooked novella in the 90 years since its publication in 1926, and it is good to see Fraser’s work receiving such recognition and close attention. This is supported by some well-chosen passages from Fraser's lyrical and fervent prose.

The commentary gives particular attention to the contrasting characters in the book, bringing out some perceptive insights, and also has a probing and sophisticated understanding of the novel’s subtle and strange eroticism. There is also a sympathetic but not uncritical consideration of how Fraser handles the theme of female social liberation and creativity, and humanity's relationship with nature. The mystical dimensions are also treated with respect and an attunement to what the author was trying to achieve. It will be fascinating to follow the further studies in this series.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, October 14, 2017

An Experiment in the Sensational - Gerald Cumberland's 'The Cypress Chest'


In my account of the author and adventurer Charles Welsh Mason, And I’d Be the King of China (reprinted in Haunted By Books, 2015), I explained that I had first encountered him, under his pen-name Julian Croskey, in a book by Gerald Cumberland. I had been idly scanning the index to his memoir Written in Friendship (1923), when the Croskey entry caught my attention: I had never heard the name before, and so turned to the relevant pages to find out more. That momentary flicker of curiosity was to lead me on a long and strange quest after this most singular figure of the Nineties.

At the same time, I also looked into Cumberland who was, as it turned out, Charles Francis Kenyon (1879-1926), a music critic and minor composer, with a few other books to his name. He had also written a lively and faintly sly earlier memoir, Set Down in Malice (1919), which had achieved a brief notoriety for its candid and mildly scathing portraits of weighty cultural figures of the time.

I also discovered that he had written a macabre thriller. The Cypress Chest (1927) was a posthumous work issued by Grant Richards in the year after Kenyon died, with a slightly odd note explaining that the author had written it for entertainment, presumably as distinct from his other books, which were to be regarded more seriously: “It is of lighter weight—an experiment in sensational fiction in which careful and detailed character drawing comes second to an absorbing plot. In fact, in writing “The Cypress Chest”, Gerald Cumberland had no more serious aim than to amuse.”

He certainly succeeds in that, and the book seems to have been rather more successful than his other work, going into reprints (the dustwrapper here, by Ellis Silas, is from a John Hamilton edition from the 1930s) and also a French translation by Richard de Clerval, Le coffre de cypress (Paris, Librairie des Champs- Elysées, 1930).

The Cypress Chest is a rather gauche but exotic and pacy detective story in which Percival Boris Maxim, just returned from exploring deepest Africa, goes to his Hertfordshire home and discovers, in an unopened antique chest he bought before he went away, the embalmed body of a beautiful golden-haired girl. He suspects his valet, Soulgrave (a name which has a slightly David Lindsay air about it), of complicity, and decides to investigate the mystery himself. His enquiries lead him to encounters with a sardonic aesthete, a young woman strangely like the one in the chest, and an Egyptologist with a secret. The influence of Stevenson, in his New Arabian Nights mode, seems likely, and Cumberland also knew Machen and may well have enjoyed and aspired to emulate some characteristics of The Three Impostors.

The yarn has some supernatural dimensions. Maxim has premonitions and promptings: firstly, to bid for the box at auction, well beyond its value; and again when he passes a country churchyard, to turn in through the lych-gate; so there are hints of the uncanny, as well as the Poe-esque theme. There is also a mystical dimension to the resolution of the plot. This is a briskly written piece of grotesquerie with bizarre characters, a Gothic atmosphere and a certain insouciance in the telling. It may well appeal to readers who enjoyed such tales as R Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911), Riccardo Stephens' The Mummy (1912) or the supernatural thrillers of Dion Fortune.

A Checklist Of Works By Gerald Cumberland


Books

Rosalys, and other poems (Grant Richards, 1919)
Set Down in Malice (Grant Richards, 1919)
Tales of a Cruel Country (Grant Richards, 1919)
The Poisoner (Grant Richards, 1921)
A Lover At Forty (Grant Richards, 1922)
Written in Friendship (Grant Richards, 1923)
Striving Fire (Grant Richards, 1924)
With the Great Composers (William Reeves, 1925)
The Cypress Chest (Grant Richards, 1927)

Music (A Selection: as Charles Francis Keynon)

Day and Night (1906), song for tenor and piano
If I Could Speak (1906), song for tenor and piano
When I Lie Ill (1906), song for tenor and piano
Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child (1906), song for soprano or tenor and piano
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907), cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra
Fairies' Song (1906), singing a cappella for two sopranos and two altos.
The Maiden and the Flower Garden (1914), operetta for children's voices and piano
The Moon (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
The River (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
Summer Has Come, Little Children (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society


The latest newsletter, number Thirty-Five, from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, explores her links to other writers and artists. Sylvia was greatly moved by Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Autumn’, reprinted, and she also notices in her diary that Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud shows the influence of de la Mare’s prose, a perceptive insight. Other de la Mare connections are noted.

The newsletter also quotes commentary from Conor Mark Jameson about T H White, whose biography STW wrote, which notes that though his “influence has been widely felt, yet he remains curiously marginalised in literary history”.

A further feature discusses the Norfolk “fisherman-turned-artist John Craske”, who was “discovered” by Sylvia's future partner Valentine Acland, and championed by both of them. He created “an embroidery honouring the bravery and skill of the fleet of ‘little boats’ which saved hundreds of thousands of troops at Dunkirk”, a work “like a one-man Bayeux Tapestry”.

As well as the newsletter, the Society also publishes a substantial paperback journal of rare STW work, and commentary and reviews.

(Photograph: Sylvia at Inverness Terrace in the 1920s, from the STW Society website).


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Ten Largest Secondhand Bookshops in Britain


What is the biggest secondhand bookshop in Britain? I don’t think anyone holds the undisputed claim and maybe it doesn’t matter. These ten are all very big, and all well worth a visit. I suspect only a trained librarian or archivist could estimate the number of books very cannily. So the following is simply a summary of some of the contenders, either overall or in one country or region. Other suggestions are welcome.

Astley Book Farm, Warwickshire
- “the largest second-hand bookshop in the Midlands” according to its website, and that sounds right. “We hold about 75,000 books” they note. One large former farm building, with two outhouses. Also has a café.

Baggins Books Bazaar, Rochester
– “England’s Largest Secondhand and Rare Bookshop”, it proclaims, though some visitors are not so sure. Note that this doesn’t therefore challenge the two big bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, which is (just) in Wales. “More than half a million…” books says a local press report from November 1996 quoted on the Bazaar’s website. Over two floors.

Barter Books, Alnwick
– cautiously describes itself as “one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain” In a former railway station, it has one entrance room and then a great hall stretching out quite a long way (and with a model train set traversing some of the shelves). However, it is only on one floor. Also has a buffet.

Book Barn International, Temple Cloud – an internet seller whose depot is also open to browsers, described as “one of the largest used bookshops in England” with “hundreds of thousands” of books, very cheap. Café. Could certainly claim to be the largest in the West.

Book Case, Carlisle – makes no claim of this kind – the owner was diffident when I said it must be in the running, but it certainly is. Occupies an entire large Georgian house, rambling over three floors, with a warren of rooms. Also has a café, and records in the basement.

The Bookshop, Wigtown – claims to be “the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland,” (though that is sometimes disputed) “with over a mile of shelving supporting 100,000 books”. An interesting old town house with about four large rooms, some passages and a landing.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye
– two long floors and a cellar, much brighter and better organised under new ownership and now with a café and cinema, but possibly with a certain loss of quantity.

The Carnforth Bookshop, Carnforth
– has never claimed to be the biggest but has a painted sign announcing 100,000 books. Two floors, though under recent ownership the stock has been winnowed down a bit, particularly the vintage hardback fiction.

Cinema Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye – probably the largest bookshop in Wales, over two very large floors in the town’s former cinema and with no space spared. Their website says the stock “runs to 200,000 volumes on all subjects.”

Leakey’s, Inverness – a characterful bookshop in a former church whose stock has been estimated at over 100,000 books, and which may compete with The Bookshop, Wigtown for the title of Scotland’s largest.

Mark Valentine

Monday, September 18, 2017

Rex Ryan/R.R. Ryan notices

I was in the UK last week to attend a couple of conferences in Oxford and Brighton.  While in Brighton I took the opportunity to spend an hour or so at The Keep, which houses the East Sussex Record Office and other local collections.  Looking through microfilmed newspapers of the Brighton and Hove Herald and the Evening Argus I found the following notices of R.R. Ryan's death:


Brighton and Hove Herald, 21 October 1950

"A retired theatrical manager who had suffered from rheumatism since 1939 and had not been out of the house for five years was stated at a Hove inquest last night (Friday) to have often threatened to take his own life.
"The East Sussex coroner, Dr A.C. Sommerville, recorded a verdict of "suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed on Evelyn Bradley, aged 66, known as Rex Ryan, of Lansdowne place, Hove, who was found gassed in the bathroom."



Evening Argus, 19 October 1950

"A former music hall artist, Evelyn Hart Bradley, aged 66, was found dead in a gas-filled room in Lansdowne-place, Hove last night."



Evening Argus, 21 October 1950

"Before he gassed himself in the bathroom of his Lansdowne-place, Hove, home, 66-year-old Evelyn Hart Bradley printed a large ink-written notice "gas in bathroom."
"Mr Bradley, who had for 30 years used the name "Rex Ryan" - he was a retired theatrical manager and wrote books under that name - had not been out of the house for years.
"Ann Ryan told the coroner (Dr A.C. Sommerville) at the inquest that he had been crippled for years with rheumatism.  There were financial troubles.  He had many times threatened to gas himself.
"Returning home on Wednesday afternoon, she found him dead in the bathroom.
"A notice warning her of gas was propped on a chair by the bathroom door.
"Verdict: Suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed."

A sad end to a fascinating life - clearly poor health and financial difficulties had taken their toll.  The last notice refers to his novels and shows that he was known as a writer.