Thursday, March 20, 2014

Martin Secker, Child of The Yellow Book - Roger Dobson

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some publishers are almost as interesting as authors (we should emphasize the word almost). Great individuals are a vanishing breed as the suits and accountants are gradually taking over what used to be a gentleman’s profession. Nineties enthusiasts have reason to be grateful to Martin Secker (1882-1978), whose Unicorn Press revived much engrossing material.

For example, ‘A “Period” List’ printed on the jacket of Roger Lhombreaud’s Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography (1963) includes such treasures as Aubrey Beardsley’s His Best Fifty Drawings, Dowson’s Poems (7s. 6d.), George Egerton’s Correspondence and Diaries, Lionel Johnson’s The Complete Poems, Richard Le Gallienne’s From a Paris Garret, Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics and The Hill of Dreams, Vincent O’Sullivan’s Opinions, Arthur Symons’ Aubrey Beardsley: A Memoir and eight titles by Wilde.

Mervyn Horder, the chairman of Duckworth & Co. from 1950-78, published a tribute to Martin Secker in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1979, writing: ‘Adolescent during the 1890s, he always retained a temperamental affinity for the Yellow Book period and spoke of himself as a child of that age. His spiritual home was the Domino Room of the Café Royal . . .’ A copy of Lord Horder’s article was found among the papers of the late Colin Summerford, a member of Machen’s circle. Colin was friendly with Secker (Machen got on less well!) and helped Horder with the Blackwood's piece: he is listed in the acknowledgements. Horder cites the authors Secker published between 1911 and 1934:

"fiction by Compton Mackenzie, D.H. Lawrence, Hugh Walpole, Frank Swinnerton, Norman Douglas, Oliver Onions, Gilbert Cannan, Francis Brett Young, Arthur Machen, Rafael Sabatini; criticism by Lascelles Abercrombie, Edward Thomas, Arthur Ransome, Arthur Symons; the collected poems of James Elroy Flecker, Alfred Douglas, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Martin Armstrong, T.W.H. Crosland, Ford Madox Ford, Maurice Baring; the early plays of Noël Coward. Works in translation included those by Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Arnold Zweig, Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Kafka, François Mauriac — most of them well in advance of their general fame."

Secker was born at 24 Holland Road, Kensington. His father’s forebears were German and his mother Irish. As a young man wishing to make a start in publishing — after an abortive beginning working for the Bank of England, where he claimed to be the only employee sacked for incompetence — he approached a number of successful publishers, William Heinemann, John Lane and Grant Richards, before being taken on as an apprentice by Eveleigh Nash. Over the next eighteen months he learned the trade, and by 1910 was ready to branch out on his own. He established his company — always with a tiny staff — at 5 John Street, the Adelphi. A few years later he took on Rafael Sabatini, the author of The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, as a partner, but Sabatini proved less than ideal and he was replaced by the reliable P.P. Howe, the biographer of Hazlitt. (While hunting for the residences of Ernest Dowson’s family, an address for Sabatini accidentally caught our eye in the 1922 Kelly’s directory: he lived at 81 Albert Bridge Road, not far from Albert Mansions, where Dowson’s father took his life, perhaps, in 1894.)

Financial difficulties arose in the 1930s. ‘Secker’s friendliest friends would never have called him a businessman,’ writes Horder. ‘Secker had his share of that amiable vanity which animates, at the same time as it fatally weakens, most one-man band publishers — the simple idea that because he in his wisdom has chosen to publish a book, the world will automatically rush to buy it.’

After his firm went into receivership in 1934, Secker was obliged to enter into partnership with Frederic Warburg and Roger Senhouse, and in 1935 the firm of Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd was created. ‘By then Secker, aged fifty-two, was far too set in his ways, far too much of a lone wolf to accommodate the publishing habits of those of a pair of younger partners, and by 1937 he was on his own again.’ He acquired the publishing rights and assets of Grant Richards (called ‘the impeccable Granty’ by Secker) and carried on Richards’ business as The Unicorn Press Ltd, operating from the Unicorn Bookshop in King Charles Street (now gone) and then at 4 and 5 Royal Opera Arcade, which had formerly been Leonard Smithers’s office. Secker changed his imprint to The Richards Press, in honour of ‘Granty’ after Richards’ death. In 1948 John Gawsworth made him a Redondan peer in his first Birthday Honours List: Secker had published Prince Zaleski in the New Adelphi Library in 1928. After Secker retired, the publisher John Baker took over the shop and continued with the Nineties reprints. Horder comments:

"Both witty himself and a catalyst of original wit in others, he acted as a kind of laughter-vortex in any company; long after blindness overtook him, he still got carried away by his favourite funny stories, the suicide of John Davidson, the premature knighthood of Sir George Hutchinson, what Gilbert said on Sullivan’s death, and so on — and would tell them with the tears pouring from his eyes. He remembered from a news item that Davidson, who regarded himself as a failure and was a prey to violent depressions, hired a rowboat and jumped overboard some miles off the Cornish coast; nothing was found in the rowboat but a formal letter from Davidson to the directors of the Great Western Railway complaining that the charms of the Cornish Riviera had been grossly overstated in their advertising."

In 1972 deterioration of the retinas of both eyes left Secker completely blind. He was glad to receive friends and neighbours, who would read to him and gossip. Secker died after a series of strokes, on his ninety-sixth birthday on 6 April 1978. His ashes were scattered by his wife Sylvia and son Adrian in the garden of Bridgefoot House, Iver, in Buckinghamshire, where Secker had lived for more than seventy years.

(This is one of a series of writings Roger Dobson compiled for The Lost Club Journal issue 4, which alas never appeared).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Simmons Papers: Pleasing, Puzzling, Perplexing - Roger Dobson

If your preference in literature is to be pleased, puzzled, perplexed and presented with paradoxes, we recommend the novella The Simmons Papers (1995) by Philipp Blom, author of To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (2002). The Simmons Papers is, states Faber and Faber’s blue advertising wrapper-band, ‘The Only Novel about the Letter P’, and this hardly seems likely to be a matter of dispute. The book relates the tragi-comic story of P.E.H. Simmons (1901-89), appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University in 1935. Simmons holds this distinguished post for only three months before resigning because of anti-German feeling: his mother came from Leipzig. After his resignation Simmons remains in Oxford until his death, but never again holds a university post. He writes philosophical treatises that make him a revered figure in European and American universities, though he is such a crusty conservative figure that his status means little to him

The main body of The Simmons Papers is devoted to Simmons’ strange manuscript, an elusive work given several wildly different interpretations by various academics. In the manuscript Simmons describes his work on what he calls ‘the Definitive Dictionary’, which sounds very much like the Complete OED, in a building that resembles the Oxford University Press building in Walton Street. Dr Javis, the editor-in-chief of the Dictionary project, has allocated the letter P as Simmons’ domain, a letter Simmons is fascinated by and proud of. The letter, of course, is his own first initial. ‘P as a letter is a vast mystery,’ he muses. Attentive readers will note that each section of the manuscript begins with P: ‘Personally . . .’, ‘Probably . . . ’, ‘Practically . . . ’, etc. Simmons’ immediate predecessor in the P section had a great fondness for plants, and those that are cited begin with P: a pine, primroses, a palm, poppies.

As the editor (i.e. Philipp Blom) explains in one of the introductory biographical sections: ‘There has been fierce discussion as to whether this account of a piece of extraordinary scholarship is fictional, or is an autobiographical representation of Simmons’ work in the years 1976-9.’ One scholar, Huxley Mandelbrodt (his deconstructionalist statements, which are largely pretentious gibberish, are quoted in footnotes throughout the manuscript), claims it is ‘a subversive un-writing of the gender issues in European literature’. ‘Other positions, suggesting that the work is a coded account of masonic rituals, a translation from ancient Hetitian hymns, or the manuscript of the long-lost novel The Messiah by Bruno Schulz, which Simmons acquired on a trip to the Ukraine in August 1967, and intended to publish under his own name, have failed to find a wide echo within the community of literary scholars.’ It is left open by the editor whether the ‘manuscript published here is a work of art, the emanation of a surprisingly fruitful fantasy, a work of reminiscences, the document of a mental disarray and decay of a fine mind’.

It’s hinted that the work may indeed be fiction, for nowhere in the introductory matter, where Simmons’ life and university career are described, is it stated that he works as a lexicographer. ‘The remaining forty years of his life [after his resignation as Waynflete Professor] were spent in relative obscurity, unknown to any but a small and constant number of tutees and old friends.’ It is revealed that depression dogged the philosopher all his life. ‘At times the “black days”, as he referred to them in his diaries, became so overwhelming that Simmons had to be taken into institutional care for weeks on end. At such times he lived in complete isolation, but for medical visits he received and a caretaker who brought him the daily papers.’ In the manuscript Simmons describes how, in his office at the publishing house, the inter-office messenger, Malakh, brings him books, journals and his letters. Is Malakh the institution’s caretaker? Could it be that all Simmons’ life in the Dictionary office is an illusion? In one episode Simmons describes how in a fit of madness he attacks Malakh and has to be physically restrained. Lending credence to the idea that Simmons is confined to a madhouse is that his two predecessors in P section were likewise eccentric, if not insane. His immediate forebear writes a book entitled Insights into the Lucidity of the Occult and the Mysterium of the Divine Letter. The author, called only ‘the Doctor’ in the manuscript, explains in this book that it was his earthly mission to rebuild the temple of Solomon: ‘In an architectural drawing in his own hand, the temple appeared to have the shape of a gigantic P.’ Relieved of his duties by Dr Javis, the Doctor, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of the Boddhisatva, hangs himself.

Readers may find themselves delighted by Blom’s book, while they rack their brains to find the key to the text- if there is a key. It seems as though it might be an allegory, but an allegory of what precisely? Or is it merely a satire on intellectual pursuits, suggesting that too much knowledge can drive one mad? Or perhaps a giant legpull? Every element of the book can thus be subjected to analysis to determine whether it has deeper significance. For example, why has Simmons never met Dr Javis? ‘Javis is indeed so far removed from the sphere of ordinary office work and editing that I myself have not yet had the privilege of meeting him, or of being summoned to his office, although this is undoubtedly bound to happen at some point in the future.’ Dr Javis has a personal secretary, Mr Lloyd, but Simmons wonders if Lloyd is fictitious: ‘one of those myths which arise during such a complex undertaking as the editing of the Definitive Dictionary over a long time when communication is poor.’

The author has fun satirizing the long ‘Communications of the Great Academy’, which Javis sets up to regulate the editing of the Dictionary. These are issue in daily supplements and the ‘rulings encompass every possibility, provide for all contingencies. From the consumption of sandwiches during working hours to the format of the writing paper, the standardized way of using paper clips’, etc. Is this a satirical thrust at OUP communiqués sent to staff? Apparently Philipp Blom, who was born in Hamburg in 1970, studied in Vienna and Oxford and then worked in publishing for a time . . .

Simmons lunches at Braun’s Hof (he’s allowed out then?). Was this Brown’s Hotel which used to exist in St Giles (now an Oxfam Bookshop) or the nearby trendy Brown’s restaurant in the Woodstock Road? Your co-editor’s landlady inherited one of the stair carpets from Brown’s Hotel: a most depressingly worn item. Midway through the text Simmons falls in love, with a woman he can’t see properly since he is short-sighted. Looking from his window across the courtyard he sees a co-worker in a floral dress, ‘a lady of radiant beauty, the fairest among women and a lily among thorns’. She seems to be working in M section, which pleases the old scholar. ‘M is the nasal relative of P . . . They are connected through B, the sonor, or voiced stop.' Note the author’s name: Philipp Blom.

The book is full of in-jokes like this. Simmons solemnly cites a monograph by Pierre Menard. Menard had no earthly existence but sprang from the fertile mind of Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, The Simmons Papers can be viewed as an elaborate Borgesian jest. Simmons works on the third floor, Room B 304. The editor comments in a footnote: ‘This location has not been decoded by literary scholars. To his puzzlement, however, the editor of these pages has realized that it corresponds with his own room in his college.’ There are allusions to The Waste Land, Jacob’s ladder (‘ . . . “And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night”, in a classical but little-read text’), etc. All in all, a mind-boggling, very entertaining puzzle that people will enjoy racking their brains over. If anyone who reads it knows what it is about, please tell us.

(This is one of a series of previously unpublished pieces by the late Roger Dobson originally intended for The Lost Club Journal.)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

At the Sign of the Black Pterodactyl - George Hay and Books of 'Some Other Dimension'

The letters would arrive headed by a drawing of black pterodactyls in flight, and the typed legend FUTURES CONSULTANT, with an address in All Saints Street, Hastings. “I consider Hastings to be a metaphor for the more sinister (but also beautiful) aspects of the human condition,” their sender told me. I did not know what a futures consultant was or did, but I knew I enjoyed getting the letters. They were from George Hay, man of letters in the broader sense, to use a quaint term he might not have claimed.

We began corresponding when George sent for a copy of an Arthur Machen booklet I had co-edited with Roger Dobson. This led us on to discuss other neglected writers – Machen interest was then in one of its periodic doldrums – and how to get them appreciated anew and back in print. George, as I now realise, did indeed know something about futures, because he foresaw print-on-demand: “I believe new technology will fairly soon permit of ‘narrowcasting’ publishing based on the needs of individual readers,” he told me in May 1994, long before that came true.

Early on in our correspondence, George sent me a list of books “of the kind you mention”. What kind had I mentioned? I do not now exactly recall, but the thrust of it would have been books so good you want to tell other discerning souls about them. Undefinable books, the sort that have a curious, charged atmosphere to them, emphatically not of the purely realist school, but yet not necessarily definitely supernatural or strange. He said he had made out the list “years ago, for someone whose name, I’m afraid, now rings no bell at all”. The list is headed ‘Books for Robin Cooper’: and I think probably that it was a list for a small scale publisher: I have seen Robin Cooper paperbacks. Probably George was sending him suggestions for books he might reprint.

Any keen book collector will understand that I studied the list at once, and began sifting the titles in my mind. Some of the books I knew and appreciated already; Machen’s Hieroglyphics, E.H. Visiak’s Medusa, Walter de la Mare’s Henry Brocken. Others I knew about, but recognised as (then – before the technology George knew would come) fabulously rare: R Murray Gilchrist’s The Stone Dragon, Neighbours by Claude Houghton (now soon to be reprinted by Valancourt Books). Some I had tried, and liked well enough, but would not have placed quite so high as George perhaps did.

But then there were those I did not know at all. And these, of course, I then began to look for, in the days when the only way to get an out of print book was to go out and look for it. “You’ll be very lucky to find The Hours and the Centuries,” George told me, and explained he was “still trying to get someone to republish it” but the rights were complicated. In his next letter, he told me, “The plot is not important: the style is everything”.

The book was by Peter de Mendelssohn, and published in 1944, and I remember my delight when I at last found a copy in a Suffolk cottage bookshop. It was marked inside in pencil with the single word ‘France’ (evidently meant as an enticement) and the price was modest. It is indeed set in France, in a decaying clifftop city, to which inhabitants from many ages seem to return, for it is a sort of timeslip story. But what matters more is the unusual atmosphere of the book. I have found other copies since and given them to friends, and all are agreed about that peculiar tone to the book, which I can best describe by saying it is like the days when summer slowly gives way to autumn.

An easier book to find, but harder to “get” in another way at first was Gallions Reach (1927) by H.M. Tomlinson. Its hero, not quite the right word, Colet, is a dreaming, melancholy young man clerking in London’s docks, who commits what will look like a capital crime, and must flee. He takes ship for the Indies: the book is about his voyage and the development of his spirit, and the decision he in the end has to make. I was not sure what Tomlinson wanted us to understand at first: the violent incident seemed a forced device, and to strike a false note; but there was no doubt of the quality of the prose, and the haunting quality of the book once it is on the seas. And it is a book I have often come back to, as well as following up more work by Tomlinson.“His fiction and journalism,” said George, “was remarkable for vivid evocation of ‘some other dimension’, and I think deserves study by intending writers. His sentence and paragraph construction were quite unique”.

That phrase about ‘some other dimension’ was, I think, the code we had begun to use for books “of the kind” we both relished. Such books can perhaps only be conveyed by citing examples, as their common attributes are very hard to pin down, and indeed a stern critic might say there is no such group at all, other than “some books I like”: and there might be truth in that. But we were both clear that Claude Houghton also worked in the same form: we had each found our way to his work independently. George was hopeful that “a few interested souls” might be able to get together to encourage the reprinting of “lost jewels”, that “some valuable works might eventually appear”.

He had a theory too about why these authors still attracted keen readers, despite the difficulties in finding out about them, getting hold of their work, and making contact with anyone else who cared about them. Reading, he noted, is collaborative, but the more obvious sort of author takes complete charge, and directs the reader down one route only. These others, those who seemed to work in “some other dimension”, did not do this. He thought they “lay out their wares in a manner which permits the reader to expand outwards, creating [their own] response”. He went on: “Machen’s Gwent, for example, is not simply a recreation of the countryside concerned: it is Machen’s private Gwent, to which the reader responds by ‘playing back’ his own Gwent. This is a rare gift among authors…”. We needed it, too, he said, for “Magic must fight back against technology”.

Mark Valentine

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Original Tower of Moab?

The Original Tower of Moab?
Mark Valentine

L A Lewis’ ‘The Tower of Moab’ (from his Tales of the Grotesque, 1934) has in recent years received acclaim as one of the most original and striking supernatural tales of the 20th century. Championed by the eminent ghost story anthologist and scholar Richard Dalby, Lewis’ work has seen a revival which has included the hardback editions from The Ghost Story Press in 1994 and 2003, and now a paperback reprint (Shadow Publishing, 2014). Dalby, in his introductions, describes how he traced Lewis’ widow, and learnt from her of some of the author’s interest in the esoteric and occult, and also of the effect on him of certain hallucinations, and visions, which seem to have even led to spells in an asylum. The tower is also cited in the lyrics to ‘Lucifer Over London’ by Current 93, composed by David Tibet, who led the Ghost Story Press reprints.

The inspiration for his most praised story was, Dalby reports, “based on a real tower which was being built by an American religious sect, but never finished, at the time Lewis first saw it, supposedly somewhere in South London.” Though the location is not quite right, it is possible that the Tower Lewis had in mind was Jezreel’s Tower, founded in Gillingham, Kent, in the late 19th century, but still under construction well into the early 20th century. There are clues in the story that point to similarities with this Tower. The first is that the narrator compares it to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. And that was how contemporaries saw Jezreel’s Tower: a report in The Strand Magazine by E.J. Dark in 1903 was headed “A Modern Tower of Babel: The Jezreel Temple, Chatham”. The second is the shape of the edifice. Lewis describes it as “a gigantic hollow pillar…that was its simple form – four walls with a base perhaps fifty yards square and forming a plain, vertical shaft”. That was precisely what the Tower of Jezreel was meant to be: a huge cube. Even the dimensions Lewis describes are similar: the Tower was to have been 144 feet square, not far off the 150 feet in his story.

But perhaps the greatest evidence for Jezreel Tower as the original of The Tower of Moab is to be found in the beliefs informing the building of the real tower and the tower in the story. As John M. Court recounts in Approaching the Apocalypse (I B Tauris, 2008), the Jezreelians, who themselves preferred to be called members of the New and Latter House of Israel, were an offshoot from the Southcottians (more properly known as The Panaceans). The Jezreelians were founded circa 1875 by a soldier, originally James Rowland White, stationed at Chatham, who joined an existing small Southcottian breakaway group and soon took it over. He adopted the name James Jershom Jezreel.

Under his influence, they became an ardently millenarian group, who believed in the imminent end of all things, the Apocalypse prophesied in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation of St John the Divine. To hasten and welcome this, the group considered it was their duty to enact the signs of the end that the book described. Their Tower was the culmination of this duty, and was also to be the headquarters, refuge and sanctuary of true believers in preparation for the end.

The “obscure religious sect” in Lewis’ story had the idea of building until their tower “should reach heaven”. But the Tower of Moab is also inspired by Apocalypse: “The upper portion of each wall blossomed into a panel at least fifty feet high , representing some scene out of Biblical history or the Revelations…One looked like the Angel Gabriel sounding the Last Trump with an immense horn”. That image is of particular significance because James Jezreel was called by his followers ‘the Trumpeter’ and claimed that he was himself the sixth and last trumpeter of Revelation (9.13). Indeed, an excellent study of him, by P.G. Rogers, was entitled The Sixth Trumpeter: The Story of Jezreel and His Tower (Oxford University Press, 1963).

Jezreel’s teachings were gathered in a sturdy testament, The Flying Roll (roll meaning a scroll), dismissed by Church of England clergymen as a mere “Gnostic lucubration”. However, in this he proclaimed: “Blow the Trumpet in this land of England first, and say ‘England! The day of thy judgement is come: thou shalt be the first to be judged and the first to be redeemed. England!...All Israel shall be driven into this land.’” As this suggests, the Jezreelites also held an unusual form of British Israelite belief: not so much stressing that the Ten Lost Tribes had come to England (or Britain), as this belief generally involved, but that all the Saved would congregate in England at the End.

Though the foundation stone of the Tower was laid on 19 September 1885, the construction, and the funding of this, took many more years, and the actual elevation of the Tower could not begin until a vast subterranean vault was first made. This was intended to hold a printing press and depository for copies of the Flying Roll. Several upper levels were then added, but the group, never large in number, then began to falter. James Jezreel had died in March 1885, and his young wife Clarissa (“Queen Esther”), who succeeded him as head of the group, followed in 1888. Soon after, work on the Tower stopped.

In Lewis’ story too, “funds had become exhausted” and “the cult had also died out”: but the Tower remained, too expensive to demolish. His narrator learns this from a bus conductor when he asks about the unusually-named “Tower of Moab” bus stop. This is indeed interesting corroboration of the link to Jezreel’s Tower, because that too gave its name to a bus stop, even after the Tower was no more.

By 1913, the unfinished Tower was put up for auction in The Times. Over the years, the completed parts were adapted for use as factories or warehouses, and it is believed some members of the sect lived in rooms in other parts. Despite this descent from the original great plan, the Tower remained a major landmark for many years afterwards, and the final parts of it were only removed as late as 2008. Followers of the New and Latter House of Israel, not all of whom approved of the Tower, continued to be heard of long after work on it stopped, in various corners of England, but also, in several variant forms, in the USA, perhaps the origin of the recollection that it was an “American” sect that had built the tower that inspired the story. That aside, the numerous similarities between the real Jezreel’s Tower and fictional Tower of Moab do suggest that it must have been this vast apocalyptic edifice that L.A. Lewis had in mind.

The narrator in Lewis’s story notes that the scenes on the Tower of Moab are impressive because they show “a literal reading of what I had always vaguely regarded as allegorical”. A literal reading was precisely what the Jezreelites took from Revelation: even the design and dimensions of the Tower were inspired by images from the Book. The story ends powerfully with the narrator’s visions of the Tower as if it had been completed, and of the angels, demons and beasts that haunt it by day and night, echoing the trenchant eschatology of Jezreel’s teachings.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates: Xavier Kilgarvan’s casebook - Roger Dobson

There are some novels one does not wish would end. Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) by Joyce Carol Oates is such a one. This is a glorious, almost Dickensian feast of a novel. The principal mystery is why the book isn’t better known to crime fiction addicts in Britain, since it stands head and shoulders above most modern offerings in the genre. Mysteries is a tripartite novel laced with Gothicism, relating the cases of detective Xavier Kilgarvan. It’s written in parodic, genteel Victorian style, with authorial asides to the reader, pious interpolations in italics and forests of exclamation marks.

In the first adventure, ‘The Virgin in the Rose-Bower; or, The Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor’, we find Xavier (‘our hero’), a callow youth, investigating a locked-room murder in an opulent bedroom at the manor house of his estranged Kilgarvan relations. The tale is enriched with hints of the supernatural: dark angel figures, or ‘angel-demons’, are rumoured to haunt the neighbourhood of Glen Mawr. The ghost of the ‘Blue Nun’, who had poisoned several husbands at Winterthurn in the 1790s, has been seen. Xavier penetrates the cellar and attic of the manor, wins the heart of his young cousin Perdita and discovers the secret curse of the Kilgarvan family, though the truth is so loathsome that he eventually burns his notes, keeping the revelation from the world. The sensitive Xavier never really recovers from the horrors of the case. It’s a story one really has to read at least twice before one can grasp all its twists and subtleties.

The next time we encounter Xavier, just before the end of the 1890s, he is twenty-eight, a veteran of a number of celebrated investigations and acclaimed by the Hearst press as a ‘Detective of Genius’. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of disguise. In ‘Devil’s Half-Acre; or, The Mystery of the “Cruel Suitor”’ five girls are found ritually murdered over a period of months in a desolate rock-bound region south of Winterthurn. An innocent Jewish mill manager is hanged for the crimes but Xavier suspects the decadent dandy Valentine Westergaard. Advances in detection leads Xavier to look forward to the day when evildoing will cease — a forlorn hope, but one which illuminates his noble character.

The final story, ‘The Bloodstained Bridal Gown; or, Xavier Kilgarvan’s Last Case’, is the most intriguing mystery of all. A red-haired spectre, carrying an axe, is seen running away from a rectory where two people have been slaughtered and the rector’s wife, Perdita, Xavier’s great love, has been ravished. Curiously, even before the horror occurs, a telegram is sent to Xavier’s home at 38 Washington Square, New York City, pleading:


Quite a few clues as to the identity of the murderer are planted along the way, and Ms Oates plays fair with her readers. Being a revisionist (and feminist) detective novel, events do not unfold as in a conventional crime story, and the author delights in wrong-footing her readers and mischievously usurping the conventions of the genre. Victorian piety, respectability, hypocrisy and cant are mercilessly ridiculed in Ms Oates’s mock pompous style. The parody and satirical episodes, however, are kept firmly in place and do not injure the novel’s suspense. The jacket blurb refers to the book’s ‘romantic ending’ — and this is one way of putting it. It is enough to say that the book’s climax rivals that of Psycho. Apparently Xavier’s cases echo, in dreamlike fashion, authentic and infamous murders.

Bellefleur (1980) is another splendid Gothic family saga by Ms Oates. A mysterious curse lies on the Bellefleurs — they never die in bed, it is rumoured, or their menfolk perish in absurd ways. However the real ‘curse on the Bellefleurs, it was said, was very simple: they were fated to be Bellefleurs, from womb to grave and beyond’.

Joyce Carol Oates knows the field of supernatural fiction well: she described Lovecraft as ‘bizarre, brilliant, inspired, and original, yet frequently hackneyed, derivative, and repetitive’: a fair summing-up. And she once claimed that Muriel Spark’s ‘The Portobello Road’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’ are the most accomplished British ghost stories of the 20th century.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Dulcie Deamer, The Devil's Ball

Dulcie Deamer (1890-1972) is an undeservedly neglected Australian writer of supernatural and fantasy fiction.  The "Queen of Bohemia," a long-term resident of Sydney's cosmopolitan King's Cross district, sprang to literary attention as a teenager when she won a lucrative short story contest run by the literary journal, The Lone Hand for a story set in prehistoric times.  The following witch story, similar in style to her werewolf tale, "Hallowe-en," was lifted from her novel, The Devil's Saint (T. Fisher Unwin, 1924) and published in Vision: A Literary Quarterly in November 1923, with illustrations by the great Australian artist and writer, Norman Lindsay.

The Devil's Ball.

IT was midnight of Hallowe'en.
Sidonia, the witch's daughter, blew out the sickly flame of the lantern, and the loft was in darkness, save for the faint, pink phosphorescence of the hearth and a greenish rumour of moonlight struggling through the thick glass lozenges of one small leaded window.
Quickly the girl stripped herself to the skin. Wan as a ghost she stood before the hearth between the embers and the moon. She shuddered, and the quailing sensation of gooseflesh came over her. But she was determined to fly, and equally convinced that she was about to do so.
With her forefinger she began, gingerly, to rub upon her body a little of a foetid-smelling salve. Over and over she repeated the names of the four aerial demons, adding, "Help me to fly! Help me to fly!" Her whispering voice was insistent, though her teeth chattered. Her faith was absolute.
The dim figure of the naked girl, that had stood for a number of seconds rigid as a figure of wood or a person hypnotised, gave at the knees and fell suddenly to the floor, lying crumpled before the chilling hearth. The yellow cat disturbed by the thump of the fall, started awake, stood up, stretched, and settled down again. The black cat slept on. The strengthless, diffused ray of livid moonlight was the only thing that moved in the loft.
“UP! Up! ‑ Look, little sister!”
Sidonia opened her eyes which she seemed only to have closed for a minute.
Moonlight, wide, feathered pinions, height, hurtling speed ‑ and company. The shock was as though a pail of cold water had been flung over her. She nearly lost her balance on the back of the winged sable horse whose sides her thighs gripped, and she caught at the mane to steady herself.”
"Don't fall, little sister! If you fall, and are afraid, you will instantly return.
"Where‑where?"‑‑Sidonia did not know who it was that had spoken to her, nor why she questioned. Her mind whirled: it was like a swarm of gyrating silver sparks.
A wonderful wild laugh answered her. It was inhuman, beautiful, terrible. There was the whoop of the wind in it, the chime of water, the scarlet of fire, the sonorousness of earth. Her body, borne dizzily upward, seemed itself light as a wing ‑ she could race on the air, she could run with the winds! Her hair streamed about her like a mermaid's in the swirl of the tide.
Moonlight, beating pinions, faces and swift shapes. Faces that had in them, something of the eagle‑wide golden eyes that were soulless; arched brows and noses. Hair like tongues of fire, limbs flaked with golden scales or feathers. There were four ‑ two upon either hand. Straight‑standing in the air, they bore her steadfast company as the black horse rose. Oh, but the others! They darted like swallows, they circled, they poised, they drifted ‑ they were uncountable. Black imp-things, wickedly grinning, that whizzed and somersaulted; translucent maiden-shapes, linked hand to hand and dancing wreath-wise in the void; bird-like creatures, sapphire-blue, white, rosy or sable ‑ men's thoughts, plumaged in accordance with the emotion that had shaped and speeded them; the naked selves of men, women and children, sleep-released, drifting like vapour, dreaming, half-conscious; wandering flames, bat-thoughts ghosts. Overhead the full moon, an inexhaustible, round lake of blinding silver, drenched everything in light.
Sidonia looked down. The town was a patch of darkness from which the needle points of a couple of moon-touched spires rose. She had no giddiness, just as she had no sensation of cold. But she wanted to descend ‑ to sweep above the roofs that had witnessed her sad, trudging fatigues. Like a bolt from a cross-bow aimed at the zenith the black horse with his mighty raven-feathered wings still hurtled upward.
“You shall fly down, little sister. Speak to the horse which your desire has shaped for you."
It was one of the four beautiful demons who spoke.
"Down, down!" breathed Sidonia, leaning forward and again twisting her bands in the lavish blue-black mane. The mad upward rush instantaneously ceased. The horse hung for a second on pulseless wings, and then plunged earthward down the dizzy lapis lazuli precipice of the night.
It was heart-stopping ‑ a swoop of utter horror if a grain of fear remained. But Sidonia shrieked with the pure joy of it.
Oh, the wind of the cloven air!
Now the shingled roofs rushed up to meet them, and the church spires were like cross-tipped javelins thrown at them from the earth. Now swept with a train of attendant sylphs, spectres and globular, will-o-the-wisplike flames over the gables and the winding clefts of the streets. Weathercocks crowed shrilly at them. Gargoyles yelped like dogs. A stone griffen clasping a stone coat of arms between its claws hissed out fire and lashed its forked tail, unable to join the flight. Cats clinging to thatch or shingles glowered with flattened ears. But one ‑ a black wer-cat ‑ leapt into the air with a of joy and followed the fleeing rout. The figures of saints enshrined in niches along the front of the Cathedral glowed with a soft, bluish light. The wer-cat sheered widely away from them, its fur bristling, its swollen tail as stiff as a ramrod. But Sidonia felt only the innocent interest of a kitten in church.  She was elemental, and therefore in perfect accord with the aerial demons, who might harry the soul that feared them in sheer sport, but were the strong playmates of their own kind, and would fawn like gentle and puzzled hounds at the passage of an angel or a discarnate saint.
A nude, red-haired young woman astride of a bearded he-goat, whose horns she gripped, came hurtling over the roofs. She waved to Sidonia, and in a moment was flying with her. Her green eyes were elfish and had an irresistible sidelong shine. Her mouth, wide and laughing, was of a ripe, animal fullness.
"You're new!" said she. "I often fly, but I haven't seen you before. Do you live in this town?"
"Yes," said Sidonia, "near the Street of the Martyrs."
"How funny! My father is the head of the Goldsmiths' Guild, and we have a house that faces the Church of St. Saviour. Yet you and I are really good friends because we do the same thing."
They smiled unreservedly at each other.
“How did you learn to fly?" asked Sidonia.
“Oh, I heard a wandering friar preach a sermon in the market place against witchcraft. He described the devils, the broomstick rides, and the wild times they had at the witches' Sabbath. It all sounded so exciting, and I was feeling so dull, that I thought I'd try to do what they did ‑ just for fun! So I stripped naked at midnight and called on all the devils I could think of ... and now it's easy."
There was something infectious in the sidelong twinkle of her. She was bubbling with life-joy, and utterly candid. But several of the creatures that followed her were unpalatable. There was a hog, a leering faun with furry cars, and a thick-lipped, hermaphrodite thing with woman's breasts and the hindquarters of a dog.
“Up! Up! Let's see the world, and then dance with the others at the Devil's Ball!" cried the red-haired daughter of the godly master goldsmith.
“Let's see the world!" echoed Sidonia. She was wild with the excitement of speed and freedom.
The winged horse and the he-goat, with their clinging riders, shot upward, The unhindered moon drenched them with its arctic silver. Forests unrolled below them like the undulations of a sable cloak, rivers resembled shimmering girdles, mountains lifted their snowfields, like peaked canopies of blue-white satin, and the blue shadows of the fliers flitted across the printless snow. Continually they were joined by others ‑ solitary beldames with thinly streaming white hair, whizzing on broomsticks, young girls riding sows or goats, and a sprinnkling of renegade monks, and of students of the forbidden sciences, mounted on hay forks, staves, or black dogs. One man ‑ an aged wizard ‑ rode a dragon with peacock-coloured scales.
The company was mixed, indeed! ‑ and Sidonia was so interested that she wanted to look two ways at once. The red-haired girl cried shrilly to this or that one, with whom it seemed that she was acquainted.
Now the moonlit sea glittered beneath them. Huge sable shapes towered and weltered, spasmodically shutting out the moon – cloud-giants. A hurricane wind arose; thunder bellowed, lighting glared, and to the right and left of them the thunderous torches of volcanoes painted the rolling vapours with auburn light.
"The Earth wakes, little sister! The Earth is alive as we are!" cried the demons of the air, and they darted hither and thither like summer swallows through the chaos of storm and speed.
"Yes!" shrieked Sidonia.
Everything lived, everything was in motion. How could one be afraid of that of which one was a part?
Higher and higher rose the blast of the hurricane. The moon was gone, Sidonia, clinging to her horse's mane, was whirled like a grain of dust, through a roaring blackness that had swallowed witches, wizards, neophytes, wer-cats, and all the strung-out train of following devils created by gross, lascivious malicious or hateful thoughts. . . . Then sudden silence. Stillness that was dizzying. . . . A gradual greenish light, grateful and limpid. Sidonia saw that she was astride of a smooth tree trunk, sunk in grass, and that as she lay forward upon it, it was two tufts of grass that her hands clutched.
She sat up straight. Great trees surrounded her. Water fell in crystal sheets from cool cavern mouths. Everywhere there was movement – goat-legged fauns peeped; a young female centaur trotted close, her mare's body cream. white. Here were play‑fellows! But the light was dimming, the tree shapes became obscure. An intense red flame shot up and pulsated, nearly blinding her. Red! She had always loved it. It was, after all, a better colour than green. It was excitement.
Oh! what a blare of sound! ‑ mewing, yelping, howling, screaming, laughing, grunting neighing, whooping. Sheets of fierce fire beat upward‑a breathless conflagration, and against the scarlet, dark shapes pranced, mingled, or were swept pell‑mell by veering currents of the maddest confusion.
Someone caught her arm. By the fiery light Sidonia saw that it was the daughter of the master goldsmith.
"The Devil's Ball! Dance with us at the Devil's Ball!" she screamed, her voice barely audible above the babel.
Hogs capered upon their hind legs. There were horned and beaked things, sealed things, bloated things smooth as slugs, obscene things with the shrivelled breasts of a hog, things with the heads of skulls, cocks, baboons or dogs. Stripped girls danced with man-shaped devils. Shaven-headed monks ‑ glimpsed for a moment between the red-lit eddies of the dance-parodied the sacred rites of Christendom with the assistance of grotesque acolytes, long-tailed and cloven-hoofed. Flutes made of dead men's bones were being played upon, with bag-pipes and drums. Soft mouths were nuzzled by the loathly snouts they hid desired. White arms embraced the metallically glistening bodies of tall demon-husbands. The whistling flames that streamed up like broad banners illumined a cauldron of chaos.
Sidonia was amazed. The noise deafened her, the glare dazzled her. She was horrified yet attracted. Something urged her to plunge into the fantastic debauch and mix herself with it ‑ her starving hunger for excitement, perhaps. . . . Shrinkingly, like a bather stepping into water, she made a slight forward movement. . . . Oh! they were all round her ‑ they surged, and jostled. Feelers touched her, whiskers tickled, sleek fur rubbed. She had no feeling of kinship with these monstrosities‑these obscenities. She shuddered, with arms crossed over her bosom.
"Dance! Take a partner!" came the high-pitched, laughing voice of the red-haired girl. She herself had been grappled by a shaggy satyr, and they reeled together, breast to breast.
"You shall dance with me, Sidonia."
Whose voice was that?
The tangle of creatures parted and a tall man was before her. He was masked. He was all in black. Red‑lit, the height and the proportions of him seemed of a strange splendour.
"Are you afraid, Sidonia?”
"No!" she said.
He caught her to him. Together they moved through the seethe of Hell. Premonitions of abandonment thrilled through the girl's body. They seemed be descending. The furnace-glare was above them. Below was a sullen flame the colour of dragon's blood. Thick tentacles reached, and appeared to
beckon. But Sidonia, with closed eyes embraced the Master.
His.. .,Yes.. . .But she was suffocating! Strangling smoke enveloped them. Her flesh encountered the touch of tentacles, slimy as snails. The quick grunt of hogs came from every side ‑ surely a herd surrounded them! An unhuman leathery hand was laid on her.
"Give me air! Let me go!"
“Never, Sidonia." And he laughed.

In the loft where the livid moonlight moved imperceptibly the yellow tom cat, disturbed a minute or two before by the collapse of a girl's stripped body, had just begun to doze comfortably with his front paws tucked in beneath his chest. The girl, lying upon her back, twitched, shuddered, moaned. Then there was the sound of a long relaxing sigh, and her breathing became gentle and regular. The mother of the girl, patch-work-shrouded, drowsed upon the three-legged stool. A pallid pumpkin hung from the rafters. The pot containing the noisome unguent had rolled into a corner. It was about ten minutes past the hour of midnight.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Mystery-Haunted Landscape: The Novels of Mary Webb - Roger Dobson

Even polymorphous littérateurs have their prejudices and blind spots. Anthony Burgess ungallantly sneers at Mary Webb in Little Wilson and Big God (1986), claiming that his first wife, Llewela Isherwood Jones (‘Of Christopher Isherwood . . . neither the Jones father nor daughter had heard’), was ‘unliterary, a fact confirmed by her liking for Mary Webb’. While at Manchester University in the late 1930s, around the time Burgess, then plain John Wilson, had discovered Finnegans Wake, Llewela gave him The House in Dormer Forest (1920) as a birthday present, though ‘she had overcome her devotion to that writer in a way that Stanley Baldwin never did’. Presumably Burgess never attempted to read the Shropshire author (perhaps he grew tired of listening to Llewela sing her praises), for he would have discovered that here was a visionary much concerned with harnessing language for artistic and symbolic ends:

"Well, it is all gone over now, the trouble and the struggling. It be quiet weather now, like a still evening with the snow all down, and a green sky and lambs calling. I sit here by the fire with my Bible to hand, a very old woman and a tired woman, with a task to do before she says good night to this world. When I look out of my window and see the plain and the big sky with clouds standing up on the mountains, I call to mind the thick, blotting woods of Sarn . . . There was but little sky to see there, saving that which was reflected in the mere; but the sky that is in the mere is not the proper heavens. You see it in a glass darkly, and the long shadows of rushes go thin and sharp across the sliding stars, and even the sun and moon might be put out down there, for, times, the moon would get lost in lily leaves, and, times, a heron might stand before the sun."

Precious Bane, from which the above is taken, is a triumphant brew, mingling folk wisdom, eroticism, mysticism, superstition, romance, the macabre, poignancy, tragedy, death and humour — quite an achievement for a ‘sub-literary’ author. Ghosts even materialize near the end, though they are of the psychological rather than genuine variety. Mary Webb’s poetic language elevates her books from rural melodrama into a higher sphere, ensuring they will always have readers — perhaps when A Clockwork Orange is forgotten. As Robert Lynd observed:

"If it is necessary to classify novelists — and we all attempt to do it — Mary Webb must be put in a class that contains writers so different as Emily Bronte and Thomas Hardy, for whom the earth is predominantly a mystery-haunted landscape inhabited by mortals who suffer. To class her with these writers is not to claim that she is their equal: all that we need claim is that her work is alive with the fiery genius of mystery, pity and awe. It is not too much, indeed, to say that in her writings fiction becomes a branch of poetry . . ."

Mary Webb was born Mary Gladys Meredith at Leighton, near Shrewsbury, below The Wrekin, in 1881. She came of Celtic stock: her father, George Meredith, was a teacher and gentleman farmer. A tender portrait of him appears in Mary’s first novel The Golden Arrow (1916), where he is the kindly, mystical sheep farmer John Arden, father of the heroine Deborah. Mary’s mother, Alice Meredith (née Scott), was related to Sir Walter Scott. Like Arthur Machen, bidding farewell to Gwent eighty miles to the south in the year she was born, Mary had a living spiritual relationship with landscape. In her novels and poetry this is expressed in metaphysical terms:

"For indeed every tree and bush and little flower and sprig of moss, every least herb, sweet or bitter, bird that furrows the air and worm that furrows the soil, every beast going heavily about its task of living be to us a riddle with no answer. We know not what they do. And all this great universe that seems so still is but like a sleeping top, that looks still from very stillness. But why it turns, and what we and all creatures do in the giddy steadfastness of it, we know not." (Precious Bane)

In 1912, two years after the death of her father, which affected her severely, she married Henry Bertram Law Webb (1885-1939), a Cambridge graduate, writer and philosopher, who taught at Meole Brace, the village where the Merediths lived. He was Mary’s soulmate, and much of his strength and integrity are reflected in Kester Woodseaves, the hero of Precious Bane. Henry’s teaching career took them to Weston-super-Mare, where Mary began writing The Golden Arrow, set against the primeval, brooding backcloth of the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones (called Wilderhope and Diafol in the novel). Returning to Mary’s ‘hills of heaven’ in 1914, they lived idyllically at Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury, and later built Spring Cottage on Lyth Hill, one of Mary’s beloved viewpoints. The couple subsequently moved to London, living from 1923 at 5 The Grove, Hampstead (now 12 Hampstead Grove). ‘Transplanting to London did not suit her,’ Henry later confessed, and Mary escaped to Lyth Hill at every possible opportunity; but it at Hampstead, in three months in 1923, that Mary wrote Precious Bane: an amazing tour de force.

That ‘book in a thousand’, as one US reviewer referred to it, is Mary’s best-loved novel. Set in south-west Shropshire around the time of the Battle of Waterloo – thought he book has a timeless quality as it deals with eternal verities – it tells the story of Prudence Sarn’s struggles against rural superstition and the fear of witchcraft. Prue’s wisdom, tenderness and courage make her one of the most memorable heroines in romantic literature. She is cursed with a ‘hare-shotten lip’, a witch-mark supposedly caused when a hare crossed her mother’s path, and this has condemned her to a lonely spinsterhood. ‘Being as how things are, you’ll never marry, Prue’, her brother tells her. In Prue’s girlhood she is innocent of her ‘bane’; only the insensitivity of those around her finally brings it home to her. Prue is granted a deserved fairy tale ending in the arms of Kester, who sees through her disfigurement to the soul within. He rescues her from villagers at Sarn who accuse her of witchcraft, and rides off with her into a blissful life together.

For Prue’s creator there was no happy ending. By 1926 Henry had drifted out of love with her, transferring his affections to a girl he was coaching for university entrance. Henry was the centre of Mary’s world, and this betrayal devastated her. Her health, never robust after a childhood thyroid complaint, broke down under a starvation diet of tea, ‘bread and scrape’ and self-neglect. She died, of pernicious anaemia, at Quarry Hill Nursing Home at St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, on 8 October 1927, and was buried at Shrewsbury.

Fate conspired against her in death as if life. Her five completed novels had been well received — Rebecca West, no mean critic, stated after the publication of Gone to Earth (1917) ‘Mary Webb is a genius’— but sales were disappointing. After her death the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin praised her novels at a dinner of the Royal Literary Society Fund; she was, he said, ‘one of about the three best writers of English today, but nobody buys her books’. The resulting press coverage aroused public interest, her neglected books were revived, with Introductions by G. K. Chesterton and John Buchan among others, she was widely translated and her works sold in their hundreds of thousands. Then, in 1932, came Stella Gibbons’ parody of the rural novel, Cold Comfort Farm. The book also satirized the works of D. H. Lawrence and T. F. and John Cowper Powys, but Mary Webb was viewed as the principal target. Critics were already hostile to the concept of Mary as a writer of importance. How could a woman from a rural backwater have any artistic merit when the common herd adored her books? Who could trust the opinion of a Tory politician on literature? Thus for many years Mary Webb was facilely dismissed as old fashioned, a mere ‘woman’s writer’. But her books are surely too rewarding to languish long in the shadows.