John Howard’s new book Touchstones (Alchemy Press) offers twenty-two essays on aspects of the fantastic in literature, including some previously published in Wormwood. His subjects include Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, August Derleth and Arthur Machen. John is a long-time reader and student of the genre and has been a regular contributor to the journal since the beginning. He is a discerning but not uncritical enthusiast of the American weird fiction tradition and classic British supernatural fiction: and also, of course, a writer of fine short stories and novellas in the field.
John explains why he compiled the book: “I wrote these essays because their subjects interested me – or in some cases came close to obsessing me – and I wanted to get my thoughts on them into some order, and hopefully interest others too. Often I wished to communicate my enthusiasm. For example, although Fritz Leiber died over twenty years ago, I still consider him to be one of the finest and most distinctive writers of horror fiction. It seems unlikely that Arthur Machen will ever fall back into obscurity, but if he does I’ve had my say. My debt to these and other writers, whose work has remained with me and become a part of me in some cases, never goes away. Touchstones is a small way of saying ‘Thank you!’”
His essays on Carl Jacobi, William Sloane, Günter Eich and Francis Brett Young, amongst others, celebrate the literature of authors who do not always get their deserved attention. John comments: “These works simply should be better known.”
Of particular interest is his comparison of some rarely-considered fantasies of future societies, in ‘The Ninefold Kingdom and Others: Four Fictional Visions of the Political Future’, which examines novels by Frederick Rolfe, R.H. Benson, M.P. Shiel and Nevil Shute, finding illuminating parallels, and differences, in their work. Bridging his American and British interests, ‘Old England, New England: M.R. James, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett’ takes praise by James for the writers across the Atlantic and notices subtle shared interests and insights between them. In discussing Machen, John tackles his literary study Hieroglyphics, one of the Welsh author’s more abstruse but also essential works, helping the reader understand the secrets at the heart of the book.
John has always been keen to champion the original work of an author whose reputation has often lain under the long shadow of a friend from Providence. He told me: “August Derleth is best known for his promoting of H.P. Lovecraft and his own frequently merely competent horror stories, but he also wrote ‘serious’ regional fiction that drew the praise of the major literary figures of the time, and which would occasionally, and memorably, straddle the boundary between the two aspects of his work. I wanted this to be better known. Writing about a neglected author or work also appealed to me. Derleth’s Sac Prairie fiction is one example.”
Touchstones is essential reading for any reader of fantastic literature, uniting the zest of a genuine enthusiast, the clarity of a writer of subtle fiction in the field, and the sound judgement of a discerning scholar.