Saturday, December 12, 2015

Books of the Year - Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda, whose most recent book is the thoroughly engrossing Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, writes:

As a freelance journalist, I live by my pen, so nearly all my reading and writing this past year has been, in some way, work-related. Still, some of the past year’s journalism may be, loosely speaking, of Wormwoodian interest. For instance, I wrote a 3,500 word piece about Algernon Blackwood (pictured) — with considerable attention to his mystical novels, The Human Chord, The Centaur and Julius LeVallon —and it should soon appear, after a long delay, in the New York Review of Books.

Very early in 2015 the Times Literary Supplement brought out my longish—though still trimmed by a quarter of its original length—appreciation of the unduly maligned H.P. Lovecraft; it looks at his essays and correspondence as well as his fiction. This year, too, I introduced Mervyn Wall’s wonderfully amusing, if sometimes bitter-sweet novels, The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, for the Swan River Press, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for the Folio Society, an omnibus of the four Sherlock Holmes novels for Penguin, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for Gollancz’s Masterworks of Fantasy.

For all those introductions, I was able to enjoy what is for me a rare pleasure—rereading. While most of Blackwood’s short stories were already familiar (and held up nicely), the novels and some of the famous novellas, such as “A Descent into Egypt,” came as revelations — overwritten and overlong, but powerful and original, nonetheless. I was particularly amused, though, by the campiness of the early werewolf tale, “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York” and the Grand Guignol of that story—the title escapes me at the moment - in which Jesus Christ appears at a society dinner party.

I suspect that the Penguin introduction will be the last substantial thing I write about Sherlock Holmes for a long time. I’ve done essays for various magazines, blog pieces, a little book titled On Conan Doyle, and even a couple of pastiche short stories, so I’ve pretty much gleaned my teeming brain as far as the great detective is concerned. Besides, Holmes’s new teeny-bopper popularity - largely due to Benedict Cumberbatch, but not excluding Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr. - while very welcome has at the same time made the sleuth of Baker Street somewhat offputtingly trendy.

Lately, I’ve been reading (or rereading) a lot of adventure and detective fiction from the 19th and early 20th century and so this year produced appreciations, long and short, for different periodicals, of Guy Boothby, E. Nesbit, Baroness Orczy, and P.C. Wren. I spent part of my summer vacation, such as it was, immersing myself in Talbot Mundy — I’m in love with the witchy-revolutionary Yasmin — and Sax Rohmer, about whose work I hope to write a piece linked to Strange Attractor’s collection of essays, Lord of Strange Deaths.

The who-and-howdunits of the far more respectable R. Austin Freeman I found wittier than I’d been led to believe and I was bowled over with sheer pleasure by Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men — I didn’t realize how amoral a book it was. I’m going to read more Wallace, including The Crimson Circle and The Ringer and reread The Green Archer, a particular favourite of the polymath Martin Gardner. I also enjoyed Anna Katherine Green’s pioneering detective novel, The Leavenworth Case, which was far better than you might think—and also crueller: To protect himself a murderer tricks a woman with every reason to live to kill herself. I even enjoyed, albeit to a lesser extent, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. Rinehart was, for a period, the most popular writer in America.

Of the all-too-few decadent/horror titles I reviewed for The Washington Post the most memorable was certainly The Beetle, reissued by Valancourt Books. I wasn’t sure what to expect and found Richard Marsh’s novel, aside from a slight falling off in its finale, astonishing, disorienting and disturbing on multiple levels. I can now understand why it was as popular, or even more popular, than the contemporaneous Dracula, which contains many of the same themes.

Early in the year I also wrote about the anonymous collection, somewhat reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, known as Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. A number of friends have since recommended I read Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which I have obediently acquired in both the complete Penguin translation by John Minford and in the old, but stylistically much admired version by George Soulie, titled Strange Stories from the Lodge of Leisures.

As the year ends, I’ve just spent much of November poring over Edgar Allan Poe, and hoping to come up with something new or mildly interesting to say about his quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. Just before Christmas I’ll be exploring J.M. Barrie’s plays and fiction other than Peter Pan. I have vague memories of reading Shall We Join the Ladies? in a high school English textbook, and thinking it neatly spooky, but I’m also looking forward to the time displacement dramas, Mary Rose and Dear Brutus, as well as the short novel Farewell, Miss Julie Logan.


  1. I always appreciate Mr. Dirda's insightful reviews for fantastic and weird, and generally excellent, literature. I am glad to see attention to J.B. Barrie's work outside PETER PAN, and to Blackwood's incredibly visionary novels.

  2. A wonderful and diverse offering of writers and books, thank you. I stumbled upon Mr. Dirda's entertaining writing on books after a review he wrote of the books by Anglo/Australian writer, Guy Boothby. It was a delightful shock to discover other people who valued his Doctor Nikola books, especially. Like all the best tangents a reader takes when learning something compelling while reading, I sought out all of Dirda's writing and always enjoy his Christopher Morley-like enthusiasm, taste, and approachability. Reading may be solitary, but the bookish always benefit greatly from the advice and suggestions made by fellow travelers on the path of literature. I've learned to keep a pad and pencil near when reading so I never miss a signpost for a new path to explore.

  3. I vividly recall a BBC TV adaptation of Barrie's Mary Rose from, I think, the early 70s. Wonder if it's in the archives or if it has been wiped like so much classic TV.

  4. I now see that the BBC Mary Rose I saw was the 1987 one. Apparently Hitchcock had a lifelong desire to film it under the title The Island That Wants To Be Visited, having seen the first run of the play in London, but film studios refused to back it. Shame!

  5. What a pleasure to see these authors discussed with genuine insight and appreciation. As the saying goes, good criticism opens more books than it closes.