Monday, June 29, 2009

Karl Hanns Strobl, a dark prince of German horror

Due to all kinds of causes, the German language supernatural tradition is somewhat underrepresented. In the case of Austrian writer Karl Hanns Strobl (1877 - 1946) it is not difficult to see why.

In 1917, Strobl's anthology of horror tales with the remarkable title Lemuria was published in Germany. The horrible blackness and almost pathological nature of its interior illustrations closely connected to the fate of the German nation, embroidled in the onslaught of the First World War. Lemuria struck a chord in the German psyche and was reprinted well till after the Great War. German horror writer Hanns Heinz Ewers (wo later wrote the National-Socialist anthem Horst Wessel Lied), published Lemuria in a series titled Gallerie der Phantasten (Gallery of the Fantasts) published by Georg Muller Verlag in Munich.

Strobl was also the editor of Der Orchideengarten (Garden of Orchids), the world's first magazine devoted solely to the supernatural that debuted in 1919, four years before Weird Tales saw the light of day.

During the First World War Strobl was a messenger. After the war, he developed a strong sympathy for the Nationalsocialist cause. In 1938 Strobl worked in an important position in the Ostgau, leading a department of Goebbel's Reichsschrifttumskammer. This lead to his arrest by the Soviet troops in 1945. Strobl was forced to work at road construction for a while. He was released due to age and poor health. He died a year later in a home for the elderly near Vienna. At the time of his death, the Allied forces had prohibited his works to be published. Where once his books commanded multiple reprints and Strobl formed with Gustav Meyrink and Hanns Heinz Ewers the three dark princes of the German horror and supernatural tale, he died totally impoverished.

Poe's Rival

Writes the Encylopedia Brittanica on Algernon Blackwood: "...operating a hotel, mining in the Alaskan goldfields, and working as a newspaper reporter in New York City, experiences that he recalled in Episodes Before Thirty (1923), Blackwood returned to England in 1899. Seven years later he published his first book of short stories..."

A contemporary review of Blackwood's Episodes Before Thirty that was published the next year, gives a much better insight in the trials and tribulations that Blackwood encountered during his early career as a writer. 'Poe's Rival in Mystery Tales Starved on New York Papers' was the headline of the review in the Auburn, New York newspaper The Auburn Citizen of Episodes Before Thirty in its April, 11, 1924 edition.

Book Collectors

Book collectors are all too often forgotten, aren't they. A few have made a name for themselves through their bibliographic work - Michael Sadleir, of course, and in our particular field of interest, George Locke, Lloyd Currey, Everett Bleiler, and in Australia, Don Tuck and Graham Stone. A.E.R.M. Stevens has acquired a certain cache via the 1996 Sotheby's catalogue of his substantial collection, another useful source of titles and bibliography. But all too often they sink without trace and their collections go with them, confined to some murky purgatory.

One such was the Australian collector, David Cohen, who died in 2003. Cohen is mentioned by the Melbourne book-dealer, J.P. Quaine in letters to fellow Bloods-collector, Stanley Larnach. Quaine writes in a letter of 6 February 1951, "I must tell you glad I was to welcome Comrade Cohen into the circle of sweetness and light. It is not often that I meet in such rapid succession two men with whom I can discourse about uncommon books. His taste for the terrific resembled mine, for next to gory bloods I like anything of a ghostly nature. We had a good yabber, and I managed to sell him a few books, mainly out of my own lot."

And around the same time in a letter to the great Australian bibliophile, Walter Stone, Quaine wrote, "I also got a kick out of Comrade Cohen’s visit. Once again I was in my element, for he is fond of the type of book which appealed to me in my younger days, and still intrigues me a lot. Best is the real gory uns. I wallow in spooks, phantoms, chain-rattling spectres, hobgoblins and poltergeists! Used to have quite a collection of them till the pinch of impecuniality prevailed and I had to part with them! However, I managed to sell him a few. We had a very interesting discussion, and I learned a lot from him."

So what happened to Cohen's collection? In an article in Biblionews, the journal of the Australian Book Collectors' Society, in 2004, Graham Stone tells how he was called in by an RSL friend to examine the remnants of Cohen's collection after his death. Some science fiction books and magazines had been piled on trestle tables - some nice stuff there including a run of Amazing from 1926 to 1933, including the first legendary issue, most of the issues of Unknown from 1939-1943, Weird Tales, Strange Tales, and much else.

But what of the Arkham House, Gnome Press and other specialty presses? And more particularly, what of the rare Penny Bloods and other early volumes of supernatural fiction that Cohen prized above all else? Not a trace. In the basement garage were scores of water damaged boxes full of ruined stock, the stuff at the bottom reduced to sludge. But surely Cohen wouldn't have confined his treasured items to his basement. Evidently Cohen had been losing his faculties in his last years - perhaps they were sold off to dealers, or pilfered, or given away. What happened to them, and where they are now, is anybody's guess.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

John Silence

I was looking up something else in a magazine from January 1909, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a snippet about Algernon Blackwood, along with a choice illustration. The text reads:

His John Silence, published some months ago in England, was described as having for the hero the most mysterious character in fiction, and the poster which we reproduce herewith caused considerable talk as a successful rendering of this motif.

The picture is fairly small, and the scan is the best I can do. But I wish I could find an original poster, though I doubt many have survived the century since it was issued.

The Golden Snake - a Dr Fu Man-Chu pastiche

In my anthology of occult detective stories for Wordsworth, The Black Veil, I included a story, ‘The Necromancer’, by Donald Campbell, which some readers have thought might be a spoof. I describe its hero, Leslie Vane, perhaps a bit exaggeratedly, as “the James Bond of the Jazz Age”. In fact, the tale is authentic vintage hokum, included in a volume entitled The Golden Snake, a sub-Sax Rohmer thriller, featuring Kse Chao Ting, leader of a Tong brotherhood, whose order venerates and takes it name from the aforesaid gilded serpent. From the opening: “ ‘Leave me in peace, fool’ said the Chinaman in perfect English…’And so I shall have the plucking of an English flower,’ he said aloud…’: and somehow you just know he doesn’t mean he’s going to purloin one of Mrs Arbuthnot’s prized nasturtiums.

Fifteen breathless episodes take our hero, Vane, from England to the USA to the Far East to France, and back to Blighty in the wink of an eye, via ‘The Temple of Evil’, ‘The Feast of Love’, ‘In the Grip of the Apaches’ (that’s the Parisian underworld, not the native Americans - still a nasty business, though) and so to the conclusion, ‘England, Home And Beauty’ - yes, truly . As if that were not excitement enough, tacked on the end is ‘The Necromancer’, a three chapter filler, in which a lineal descendant of Genghiz Khan incites the hordes to contemplate the down fall of the British Empire in the East, aided and abetted by dark magician Tristram Parr, who, clad in strange-symboled dressing gown (the cad!), proclaims: “And this is the Law. Do thine own will!”, an intriguing nod in the direction of Aleister Crowley ? Parr ends as an imbecile in hospital, safe from the law but possibly poised for a sequel: if so, I haven’t seen it.

There does not seem to be a copy of this pulp volume in the British Library - no great loss to the nation’s literary heritage, perhaps - but there are 40-odd titles by the same publisher, Federation Press Ltd of 61-62 Chancery Lane, WC2. These, to judge by their titles, include mostly popular fiction of the romance, horse racing and crime variety, all from the period 1925-8: The Devil’s Plaything and Ghost Hall being the most tempting-sounding titles. And though there are various Donald Campbells in the catalogue, the only likely titles by him are The Mask of Murder (1934) and The Murder Trap (1942), assuming that he is not the Donald Campbell who edited C. Plini Secundi Naturalis Historiae liber secundus [A critical appreciation and commentary.] (Aberdeen, 1936) or A Short Course of Differential Equations (New York, 1906).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Phantom Clutch Pt 2

George Foster, writing of Barry Ono's famed collection of Bloods in Collector's Digest, #16, says, "I remember seeing copies of some of these of the period, which were Mr Ono's proudest possessions. There was "Varney, the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood", which he told me was the book which gave the idea of his plot to the author of "Dracula". There was another publication entitled, and sub-titled (for they were all sub-titled then) - "The Skeleton Clutch; or, the Goblet of Gore". These were by another author called Thomas Prest Lloyd."

Could Barry Ono, born Frederick Valentine Harrison in 1876, and a well-known comic singer and comedian, be having a laugh at Foster's expense? Hmm. Ono certainly took his collection seriously and it eventually ended up in the British Library. However, the catalogue of the collection, published in 1998, makes no mention of The Skeleton Clutch. On the other hand, other Bloods that we know he owned, including Varney, didn't make it to the BL either - sold to other collectors before his death in 1941.

By the way, a brilliant video of Barry showing off his choicest items (but no Skeleton Clutch) is on the web - well worth a look. Might be the only chance you get to see the original Varney, Sweeney Todd and Spring-heeled Jack.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spurious Titles

There is a tradition of spurious bibliography that includes many imaginary books mentioned in works of fiction, like Lovecraft and his Necronomicon; but also, less frequently, some truly imaginative titles appear in nonfictionin articles and reference books that seem on the surface to be entirely reliable and authoritative. How many of these references slip by even the most knowledgeable readers?

Ramsey Campbell apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to invent a new rarity when writing a column (“Ramsey Campbell, Probably” in Necrofile #27, Winter 1998) about a two-part 1983 article in Twilight Zone magazine in which R.S. Hadji, Thomas M. Disch, and Karl Edward Wagner recommended a bunch of obscure horror and weird fiction titles. (All of the titles they recommended were real, though some certainly seemed imaginary by their scarcity.) Campbell wrote that “the article deserves reprinting, guaranteed as it is to send all but the most arduous collector in search of treats as obscure as Francis Xavier Faversham’s The Rising of the Gorge.” Yes, Campbell’s tongue was clearly in his cheek in coming up with that title. For a title as as obscure as The Rising of the Gorge, arduous collectors will indeed search in vain.

Another that I know of appears as a ghost entry in Roger C. Schlobin’s The Literature of Fantasy: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Modern Fantasy Fiction (1979). Here’s the entry:

Regor Clarkk

220. The Last of the Sorcerer-Dragon. Trans. [from the Welsh] Philip D. Baugher. West Hempstead, NY: Grail Press, 1944.

In this poignant and bittersweet love story, a young professor, on leave in the Gobi Desert, discovers the last of a race of sorcerous dragons. The dragons have guarded mankind since its beginning. The beautiful and compassionate reptile tells the young man the story of man’s beginning—a tale stripped of its Christian overtones that is influenced by the medieval love story, Tristan and Iseult, and which retells the Eden myth in a totally new and delightful way. Throughout, the tragedy of the slowly dying race of benevolent dragons is intertwined, and their powers gradually explained and transferred to the young professor. As she ends her tale, the dragon dies and the man suddenly realizes that he is now the one with the power to aid mankind. One of the least read and least noticed of all fantasy works.

The first clue to me that this was a spurious work, beyond the fact that I found no other reference to it anywhere, was in noticing that “Regor” is Roger spelled backwards—as in the first name of the bibliographer. And sure enough, Schlobin’s middle initial “C.” turned out to be short for Clark. I checked with Schlobin back in 2001, and he admitted that it was a ghost entry, and that I was the first to notice it, adding, “Of course, I did go on to write and publish the novel although [it is] between e-publishers at the moment.”

My all-time favorite bogus entries are to be found in the two editions of John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations as edited by Christopher Morley. These are the Eleventh Edition, published in 1940, and the Twelfth Edition, published in 1951. Among Morley’s imaginative additions is one quotation attributed to Sir Eustace Peachtree (floruit 1640) who (supposedly) wrote in The Dangers of This Mortall Life:

Among the notionable dictes of antique Rome was the fancy that when men heard thunder on the left the gods had somewhat of special advertisement to impart. Then did the prudent pause and lay down their affaire to study what omen Jove intended.

(page 184 of both the 1940 and 1951 editions)

This quotation appears on the title page of Morley’s novel Thunder on the Left (1925), which Morley admitted that he made up for the purpose of his novel.

The best of all spurious references is the quote which ends the section headed “Of Unknown Authorship”:

Nunc scripsi totum: pro Christo da mihi potum.

Monkish inscription at the end of medieval manuscripts

(page 957 of the 1940 edition; page 1219 of the 1951 edition, where it is moved to the end of the section of “Miscellaneous Translations”)

It translates, in essence, “I’ve finished the job, for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

Does anyone know of further examples of spurious academic bibliography?

The Skeleton Clutch; or, The Goblet of Gore

The story goes that Melbourne bookseller, John P. Quaine, issued a sale catalogue in 1931 that included two phantom titles, The Skeleton Clutch; or, The Goblet of Gore (E. Lloyd, 1841), and Sawney Beane, The Man-Eater of Midlothian (E. Lloyd, 1851). Montague Summers was taken in by the beautiful gory titles and unwittingly added them to his Gothic Bibliography. The Australian collector of Bloods, and long-time correspondent of Quaine, Stanley Larnach, revealed the prank in a review of Summers' bibliography in Biblionews in 1952, and again in The Story Paper Collector in 1955.

But was his information accurate? Larnach's scrapbook of Bloods survives in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. Pasted into it is a letter from English bibliographer W.O.G. Lofts, dated December 1955:

"I must contradict your statement that the following “Bloods” did not exist; “Sawney Bean the Man-eater of Midlothian” and “The Skeleton Clutch, or the Goblet of Gore” as I have been in contact with a collector who bought this “Blood” in 38 nos., and then disposed it to a collector at Castle Comer Eire.

The second was seen by an author in his own right a Mr George E. Foster in the collection of the late Barry Ono. A detailed account of it was reported in the “Collectors Digest” No. 16. Mr Foster has written over 100 bound books (which are recorded in the British Museum Files) and his and the former collector’s word are 100% trustworthy. I can only suggest that Mr J.P. Quaine must have leaned over backwards in suggesting that these Bloods were invented as a joke."

The mystery of the Phantom Clutch continues...

R. Murray Gilchrist

I am hoping that we may, in a future Wormwood, have a feature on R. Murray Gilchrist (1867-1917), author of the long sought-for volume of decadent weird tales, The Stone Dragon (1894), now available in various reprint forms under different titles. In the meantime, here's a picture of his family home, Cartledge Hall, and gravestone, in the village churchyard at Holmesfield (Derbyshire), a short distance away.

"Late Reviews"

"Late Reviews" is the title of my column in Wormwood where I review obscure titles. I've written more of these reviews than have ever made it into the magazine, so I thought I'd occasionally post some of the otherwise unseen ones here.

Robbins, Tod [Clarence Aaron Robbins, 1888-1949]. The Scales of Justice and Other Poems (New York: J. S. Ogilvie, 1915).

Robbins’s third book and only collection of poems. This is a collection of twenty-three poems. Most are routine, and more than a bit sing-song in an old-fashioned way. Compared to Robbins’s fiction, these poems are almost entirely without interest. One example should suffice:

Come Dine

The night is cold, and dark, and drear;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.
A wanton whiff of Life’s good cheer,
A foaming glass, the larder near,
A taste of flesh, a sip of wine;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.

Dark shadows speed across the sea;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.
Soon other guests, than you and me,
Will enter in Life’s hostelry
To taste the flesh and sip the wine;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.

Your face is white, like winter snow;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.
The wind, you hear, is sighing low;
Close you eyes, and you’ll never know
Your sister’s flesh now steeped in wine;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.

The Silver Skull is in the sky;
Come dine, my brother, come dine—
It drives the charnel coach close by.
For all who sup at last must die
To pay for flesh and tasted wine;
Come dine, my brother, come dine.

Sloane, William M., III. Runner in the Snow: A Play of the Supernatural in One Act (Boston: Walter H. Baker Company, 1931).

This short play is labeled on the title page as “adapted from the story by W.B. Seabrook entitled ‘I Saw a Woman Turn into a Wolf’.” And Seabrook’s title basically says it all. It is the story of the bookish John Bannister, who has a small, ugly black idol, Yi King, the Chinese demon or god of the past. Bannister has asked his old friend Richard Seton to visit and monitor an experiment that their friend Mara Orloff will perform. Mara is a nervous Russian woman with an accent, and she has experimented with the idol. When under a trance and while holding Yi King in her left hand, she relives an ancestral memory, human or prehuman. In this instance, she relives for some short while of the life of a wolf. As a play, it is hard to imagine this coming off well.

Sloane (1906-1974) is better-remembered for his two novels, To Walk the Night (1937), and The Edge of Running Water (1939; filmed in 1941 as The Devil Commands, starring Boris Karloff). Seabrook’s story appeared in the July 1931 issue of Hearst’s International, with a reprint in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine in May 1932. It was reworked as chapter VII of Part Two of Seabrook’s book Witchcraft (1940).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Genius of J.C. Snaith

One thing I think we share with many Wormwood readers is an interest in neglected writers, those who have unaccountably, and often undeservedly, fallen from view. Last year, Doug wrote to me about one of these, John Collis Snaith (1876-1936): “In looking up some things in the [London] Times, I found...a column by Oliver Edwards, who was praising the nine titles published in the 1963-4 Gollancz [Rare Works of imaginative Fiction] series. And Edwards puts forth as a candidate for the series J. C. Snaith's William Jordan Junior, one of Snaith's very early novels. Edwards also comments that ‘those who have read some of his books ... may wonder that any claim of quality could be made for him at all', adding, however, that 'when it first came out in 1908 it did not go altogether unrecognized. George Russell (AE) was moved by it. Massingham knew it was something rare. In The English Review the young James Elroy Flecker roundly declared that the work 'is unique, and it is a masterpiece, and it is all but unknown.’”

I promptly ordered a copy. The New York Times Review is equally enticing, quoting its “peculiar charm and rare quality…psychological loveliness, half mystic, half human…”. It says it is a story of “strange visionaries…father and son”, “high priests of the most wonderful dream in the world”, the elder a scholar and bookseller, the younger delicate, high-strung, a poet and dreamer, neither of them equipped for the world. There is “a thread of asceticism and exaltation”.

It is certainly peculiar. The father and son are extremely unworldly persons, absorbed in the work of “the ancient authors” to the extent that they do not understand contemporary life at all: money, commerce, society, the ways of the “street people” as they call all others: all are a bewilderment to them. The effects of their encounters with everyday hurly-burly are humorous but also poignant. They are just a shade too good to be true as characters, and may at times rather irk the reader. But the central conceit is sustained with the utmost purity, and the subsidiary characters – a pompous old publisher, a conniving but warm-hearted young worldling – are done with Dickensian gusto and glee. It is a book that prompts astonishment it should ever have been essayed.

Several critics agreed, I later found, that J.C. Snaith was the author of a masterpiece. Unfortunately for him, none of them could agree which book of his that was, while all of them did agree that the others were not worth much attention. That must be a uniquely frustrating position. Essayist S.P.B. Mais acclaimed his novel The Sailor (1916): others lauded his humorous and Pickwickian cricketing novel Willow, the King (1899). There are champions for others of his books too.

Snaith’s reputation has suffered, I think, from his work being too various. Comedy, sport, historical romance, criminous thrillers, psychological meditations, visionary works, it was all too much for the reader and reviewer to get a grasp upon. Nevertheless, with the advantage of retrospect, we can winnow out those that stand distinctive. Whichever work one chooses, though, it is sure that Snaith was an original, as eccentric in his outlook and his style as, say, M.P. Shiel or Baron Corvo.

RIP: Dr. Anthony Harrison-Barbet 1939-2009

I note with sadness the recent passing, on May 29th, of noted philosopher and teacher Dr. Anthony Harrison-Barbet, due to prostate cancer. Anthony was a friend of writer E. H. Visiak (1878-1972) for the last thirteen years of Visiak's life, and had promised to write a study of his friend's life and works. The resultant volume, E.H. Visiak: Writer and Mystic, was published by Paupers' Press in 2007, and it stands as the most significant study to date of Visiak's world-view and literary achievement. Anthony also contributed an essay on his friendship with Visiak to the final issue of Abraxas Unbound, published in January 2009.