Friday, May 27, 2016

Slightly Foxed 50

“We had walked the white sands of Luskentyre in a wild wind that left grains in our hair and salt on our lips. The shadows of clouds skimmed across the face of Taransay, indigo over the water. Somebody had scuffed the word ‘Scotland’ with their shoe on the shore. We added ‘Atlantis’, with an arrow pointing west.”

This is the beginning of ‘The Islands Beyond’, my essay on the books of Robert Atkinson, just published in the Summer 2016 issue, number 50, of Slightly Foxed, the ‘Real Reader’s Quarterly’.

I discovered his Island Going while on a visit to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides last year, and at once knew that here was a natural writer. The book is about expeditions that he and a friend, floppy-haired, pipe-smoking John Ainsley, made to remote islands in search of ‘Leach’s Fork-Tailed Petrel’ in the Nineteen Thirties.

But it isn’t simply a birdwatching book. It’s also about the sea, about isolated communities, friendship, and the zest in life of the two adventurous youths. It’s about determination, curiosity, hardship, and a humane interest in everything around us. Even if the avian world holds little interest for you, the book is worth reading for the graceful prose, the sheer gusto, and the fine company it offers.

This issue of Slightly Foxed also includes fifteen other essays by readers writing about books they’ve enjoyed: “books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Pagan Triptych (Sarob Press) brings together three new long stories by Ron Weighell, John Howard and Mark Valentine, inspired by the supernatural fiction of Algernon Blackwood.

The authors explore, respectively, the Blackwoodian themes of ritual magic, nature worship and reincarnation. Each contributor also provides an afterword about their admiration for Blackwood's fiction.

Ron Weighell's "The Letter Killeth" is a tale of ancient secrets, a book of shadows and dark magic; John Howard's 'In the Clearing' tells of the mystery of trees, new beginnings and the truth of things; and Mark Valentine's 'The Fig Garden' is an account of a childhood game, strange rituals and pagan worship.

Pagan Triptych is a Hand Numbered Limited Edition Hardcover, with a tipped-in signature page on fine ivory parchment paper signed by all three authors.

Copies of the book have arrived from the printer and are shipping now. Already, pre-orders mean that there are very few copies left of the print run of just over 300.

Reality Within 'Supernatural' Tales - John Gaskin

“Without saying anything about the truth or falsity of what we may believe, it is clear that the normal and unexamined ways in which we speak give a structure within which talk about a world different in kind from the world of ordinary experience is possible. In Dante’s phrase towards the end of The Divine Comedy, we talk about two worlds: ‘The earthly and what lies beyond’.”

John Gaskin’s essay on 'Reality Within 'Supernatural' Tales' in Wormwood 26 argues that the ghost story form assumes a distinction between the natural world we live in and another, super-natural world separate to this. But, as he points out, many people today operate on the assumption that there is a material world and nothing else. Faced with this rationalistic culture, can the ghost story still be effective?

In answer to that challenge, the author (himself an eminent practitioner in the field) identifies six ways in which it can. There are sufficient gaps and shadings in our knowledge and experiences, he suggests, for the ghost story still to achieve its shadowy work.

John Gaskin was a Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, where he held a personal chair in philosophy. He has published three volumes of ‘Tales of Twilight and the Borderlands’, The Dark Companion (Lilliput Press, 2002), The Long Retreating Day (Tartarus Press, 2006) and The Master of the House (Tartarus Press, 2014).

Monday, May 23, 2016

D K Broster - Mike Barrett

D K Broster is most known in the field of supernatural fiction for her excellent story of an ageing Decadent and an animated feather boa, ‘Couching At the Door’. But, as Mike Barrett shows in his survey of her short stories in Wormwood 26, she contributed other ghostly tales to periodicals and these are often quietly accomplished. A frequent theme is supernatural vengeance across the ages, but there are also stories of obsession and of uncanny qualities locked into ancient objects.

Though they may start venerably enough, for example in an old house with a suspiciously low rent, she develops her plots with a remorseless assurance, sometimes spiced with touches of black humour. As Mike writes, “her admittedly few genre contributions were consistently interesting, and some of them were excellent. They represent a very different, darker side of an author who attained renown for her fast-paced historical adventure novels, and such diversification in style stands as a testament to her capabilities.”

Mike Barrett's articles appear regularly in the New York Review of Science Fiction, The British Fantasy Society Journal and Wormwood. His first book, a collection of essays on fantastic literature entitled Doors to Elsewhere, was published by The Alchemy Press in 2013 and was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction title of the year.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Guest Post: Snug Conversation in Machen’s “N” and Other Stories, by Dale Nelson

Tolstoy somewhere recalled the opening of an unfinished novel by Pushkin: “The guests were arriving at the country house.”  Tolstoy said: That’s just how a novel should begin. 

Yes, a novel -- but let’s consider some other story openings, from memorable short stories and novellas of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Like this one: “Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days” (M. R. James’s “A School Story”).  In innumerable tales, two gentlemen have a chance encounter on a London pavement and slip into the club to which one of them belongs for a long evening’s talk, or there’s a party of men sitting around a big fireplace in a country house, or a man boards a train and seats himself opposite a stranger and they start talking after a while. 

In one story – Kipling’s “On Greenhow Hill” – the men are soldiers, hunkered down quietly in ambush late one afternoon, passing the time by telling anecdotes till their sharpshooter can pick off an insurgent deserter.

Chekhov wrote a little trilogy of stories in which men tell one another accounts of their lives  – “The Man in a Case,” “About Love,” and “Gooseberries.”  Stories are told on two successive evenings and during a rainy afternoon in between.  Wells’s Time Machine begins in a “luxurious after-dinner atmosphere” replete with fireplace and drinks.

Generally in the stories I have in mind, the location is snug and the evening ahead can give way imperceptibly to night as people talk.  There’s no hurry and there are no serious distractions.  The characters are almost always men -- bachelors, widowers, or husbands away from their wives. 

Eventually one of the men tells a long story (or hands over a manuscript that another man takes with him for the night or till next week).  In Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” Pozdnyshev makes his painful, protracted confession of sexual jealousy and murder on a train journey in a compartment shared with a stranger.

When we are reading “The Kreutzer Sonata,” we don’t object that Pozdnyshev holds forth at such length.  Conrad’s Marlow possesses astonishing stamina as he relates the story of Heart of Darkness during a long night on a boat anchored in the Thames estuary, but we don’t demur.  Nor are we troubled by these narrators’ ability to recall long-ago conversations verbatim.  In fact, the situation is irresistible and we relish it. 

The framing scene invites us to be receptive to the gradual development of a mood and to become well-prepared for the main story’s final catastrophe.  During the Christmas holidays, the guests eagerly listen as Douglas reads them the governess’s eerie and ultimately tragic memoir of Bly (The Turn of the Screw).  Or recall the delectable opening of Machen’s wonder-tale “N” (from as late as 1936!):

“They were talking about old days and old ways and all the changes that have come on London in the last weary years; a little party of three of them, gathered for a rare meeting in Perrott’s rooms.”

They talked, and all through their evening no one fetched out his phone from his pocket or checked his iPad. 

Most of the stories I’ve just mentioned, be they fantastic or realistic, deal with love, in some way and in some sense or other of the word.  Well-bred people believed those love-topics were meant for private occasions.  When we read stories from 125 or even 80 years ago in which gentlemen talk about women and lust or love, we may feel a special interest as we listen in (something different from the voyeuristic interest of hearing people talking casually and explicitly and coarsely of sex).   

In our time, such conversation as theirs must seem to be as rare as some Atlantean art. 

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Latterday Henry Ryecroft - Mark Samuels

Although it only ran for three issues (and a ghostly fourth issue, prepared and announced but not published), The Lost Club Journal, which I edited with Roger Dobson, soon attracted enthusiastic readers keen to learn about forgotten authors and to propose their own favourite neglected figures. We have certainly tried, in Wormwood, to carry on the work of celebrating the under-appreciated, alongside studies of the major figures in our field.

Roger also much enjoyed pilgrimages to the former homes and haunts (and gravesides) of lost authors, and was not averse to knocking on the doors of the usually oblivious current occupants to tell them about their house’s illustrious past, often with mixed results.

The home of H G Wells was one of the goals of a Lost Club Weekend organised by Roger Dobson, memorably evoked in Wormwood 26 by Mark Samuels, who was, as it turned out, the only other participant. The two soon found they had other literary tastes in common, such as the work of George Gissing (pictured), and some of the run-down rackety aspects of Grub Street were certainly in evidence in the town of Folkestone, where they were based. But a foray into lonely country by double decker bus – and the influence of strong Kentish ale – soon bestowed a wondrous, Machenesque glow upon the occasion.

Mark’s memoir of the weekend is a fine comic episode also full of a wistful delight at these impromptu adventures in the company of Roger Dobson, who was, as he suggests, a modern day version of Gissing's mellow literary scholar, Henry Ryecroft.

Mark Samuels is the author of several books of weird fiction and is now working on an “interminable” full-length novel that might be described as a cross between A Confederacy Of Dunces and Brideshead Revisited. He is a past Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and has always lived in London.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Apocalyptic Science Fiction of R H Benson - John Howard

In an earlier post, in 2014, we suggested that R.H. Benson was “the author of several volumes of fantasies and ghost stories, notable for their perfervid vigour and swashbuckling invention. For a while a friend of Baron Corvo, his writing has some of the Corvine style and personal ardour, while for wild imagination and world-shattering vision, he is in the same range as M.P. Shiel.”

In Wormwood 26, author and essayist John Howard provides the first part of an extensive essay studying Benson’s apocalyptic science-fiction novels, starting with Lord of the World (1907). He demonstrates that alongside the faith that drove these works, the author also exhibited a vivid imagination and far-reaching vision of technology and modernity. Perhaps, this essay suggests, R H Benson’s books ought to be better appreciated in the field of science fiction, where he might be seen as an interesting counterpoint to the rationalist work of H G Wells.

John suggests: “As is the case with the ‘supernatural thrillers’ of Charles Williams, there is nothing else quite like them – and, as with Williams’ novels, no doubt they are not for everyone. But whether or not the content and viewpoints are exactly to taste, they are certainly worth reading, more than a century after their first appearance.”

In the next part, in our Autumn issue, John Howard considers The Dawn of All (1911).

John Howard is the author of Numbered as Sand or the Stars and The Lustre of Time, as well as the collections The Silver Voices, Written by Daylight, and Cities and Thrones and Powers. He has published essays on various aspects of the science fiction and horror fields, and especially on the work of classic authors such as Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, August Derleth, M.R. James, and writers of the pulp era. Many of these have been collected in Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kipling’s Strange & Supernatural Stories – Colin Insole

Rudyard Kipling’s renown as the poet of Empire (in fact, often ambivalently), creator of The Jungle Book and Kim, and chronicler of the Raj, may have obscured his significant and lasting contribution to the supernatural short story. In Wormwood 26, admired writer of the fantastic Colin Insole draws attention to the range and power of Kipling’s stories of the strange and supernatural.

There are at least a handful that might stand among the most effective in the field. And as well as their strong traditional storytelling qualities, Colin notes that aspects of Kipling’s tales anticipate modern developments in the literature of the supernatural, later found in the work of Shirley Jackson or Robert Aickman. The stories explore states of dream or delirium and can also be psychologically acute.

Colin Insole’s first collection of stories, Elegies and Requiems, was published by Side Real Press (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2013. He has contributed to a number of anthologies, including tribute volumes to Bruno Schulz, Arthur Machen and Fernando Pessoa. His short novella, The Hill of Cinders was published in 2015, in the L'Homme Récent series.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Inner Rooms: A Weird, Ecstatic Cosmology - Daniel Watt

"Perhaps weird tales show us, more easily than most genres, the mystical heart of literature by leading us back to ourselves…revealing the inner unknown..."

In our opening essay in Wormwood 26, just published, acclaimed weird fiction writer Daniel Watt discusses a different dimension in fantastic literature than that most often seen, for example, in the work of H.P. Lovecraft or Thomas Ligotti. In their fiction we usually witness a cosmic threat from outside ourselves, in which humanity is insignificant, in an indifferent universe.

But, this essay argues, there is another, equally compelling approach to the weird, which explores our interior worlds. Daniel Watt examines in particular three stories from noted practitioners in the field that illustrate this: Robert Aickman’s ‘The Inner Room’ (1966), Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Doll’ (1937) and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ (1951).

And as this discussion shows, our inner worlds can be just as strange and troubling as anything that comes from without…

D.P. Watt’s An Emporium of Automata was reprinted by Eibonvale Press in 2013, and his The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications is available in paperback. A third collection, Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, is due from Undertow Publications soon. You can find him at The Interlude House.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ghost Story Awards

I'm pleased to report that this handsome creature arrived in the post today, in a specially sealed box marked with various occult protections, and now ensconced between a collection  of Victorian penny dreadfuls.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Arthur Machen - The Eighteen Nineties Notebook

Update, 20 May 2016: Following very keen interest, the Eighteen Nineties Notebook is now out of print and is no longer available to new members of The Friends of Arthur Machen. Copies will be sent to all existing members, including new members who joined before this date.

In the Eighteen Nineties, when he was writing his literary masterpieces, Arthur Machen kept a notebook of his ideas, plots, alternative endings and draft writings. Running to over 300 pages, it is a unique record of a visionary writer at work, compiled when Machen’s writing was at its peak. It includes many new insights into The Hill of Dreams, Ornaments in Jade, Hieroglyphics and other titles of the time.

The Friends of Arthur Machen, in association with Tartarus Press, has just announced an annotated facsimile edition of the Notebook, a landmark in Machen studies. It is sure to become a collector’s item as well as a fascinating resource for Machen readers and scholars. It will only be available to members.

A copy of the Notebook was kindly obtained for the Friends by eminent Shiel scholar Harold Billings, from the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas, and was initially studied by the late Roger Dobson. In the past year, a group of Machen researchers from the Friends, led by Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, have been transcribing and annotating the manuscript.

Arthur Machen's Eighteen Nineties Notebook is a sewn hardback of 347+viii pages, printed lithographically, with silk ribbon marker, head and tailbands, and d/w and decorated boards, and is limited to 300 copies.

Members of the Friends also receive two annual mailings of the hardback journal Faunus, full of Machen rarities and new scholarship, and the newsletter Machenalia. To join the Friends and receive both these and the Notebook, please subscribe here.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Guest Post: Machen, Kipling, and Two English Ladies at Versailles: Stories Not Quite Told, by Dale Nelson

Spiritualism is never a wise and wholesome business.  I think of the career of Israel’s King Saul or my family’s unpleasant Auntie Pete.  In Machen’s “The Exalted Omega” (1936), the cheating medium, Mrs. Ladislaw, with her “black and greasy hair done in a sort of structure on top of her head,” and her ever more downscale clients, are duper and duped; and then things get worse.  She writes without her will being in control and endures racking, shaming seizures.  The women of the séance group have to look after her.

However, “The Exalted Omega” is evidently not a weird story about spiritualistic “contacts from beyond the grave” although that’s how it might look to the casual reader.  It seems to me less interesting if that is how it is read.

For one thing, the story’s early references to the seemingly paranormal experiences of the two English ladies at Versailles become irrelevant, if we are to take it that “The Exalted Omega” is simply a ghost story in which the dead Mr. Mansel fumblingly tried to communicate a clue about a murder, based on things he had psychically overheard while alive, to the hapless fraudster Mrs. Ladislaw.  If Machen wanted to write a ghost story, Mansel’s own bizarre experiences prior to his death could have been replaced with one conventional scene in which he overhears the plotters.  And why should he, after his death, attempt to communicate with Mrs. Ladislaw?  If Machen had wanted to write a thriller about a ghost informing someone about a successful poisoning attempt, why emphasize that she is a fake?

It seems the story is actually about people having “transference” experiences that suggest ordinary ways of thinking about time and thought are inadequate.   At least for the purposes of this story, Machen took the experiences of the two English ladies to have been real apprehensions of a late eighteenth-century scene.

Four people engage our interest in “The Exalted Omega.”  The two English ladies walked into their disorienting episode at the Petit Trianon and saw Marie Antoinette and other elegant people dressed according to a bygone fashion; Mr. Mansel slipped from lonely reverie into “out of body” experiences that led up to a “glare of light” and a feeling of disorientation; and fraudulent Mrs. Ladislaw was wrung out by agonizing and evidently humiliating fits, during which she experienced a peculiar mental state.   It seems that Mansel’s inadvertent psychic eavesdropping on two people plotting murder is the content of thought that is transferred to Mrs. Ladislaw. 

This involves a garbled quotation from Shakespeare.  Why?  Here I speculate.  It appears that when Mansell “overheard” the plotters, he was reminded of something he’d read, “the potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit” (Hamlet V:2).  Mrs. Ladislaw, who though a bogus medium is, like Mansell, “receptive” to thought-impressions, receives something of his lingering thought-cluster, scribbles an approximation of the quotation, and draws the monogram, based on Greek Ω and perhaps resembling the Roman letter M for “Mansell,”  with which Mansell had marked his library of indifferent editions of good authors.  Perhaps the story suggests that strong thought-impressions may exist as data independent of the persons who originally thought them, and may register in the consciousnesses of others sooner or later, in a situation analogous to that by which radio waves that have left the earth continue to travel in space.  But I haven’t accounted for everything in this story, which is one that readers must work out for themselves.  Perhaps some Wormwoodiana readers will set out their own readings of “The Exalted Omega.” 

That Shakespeare-quotation element reminds one of Kipling’s well-known story “’Wireless,’” in which conditions, by accident, were just right for an unpoetic but lovesmitten and consumptive young man to tune in on Keats’s composition of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” written while the poet, infected with tuberculosis, was in love with Fanny Brawne.  Kipling’s Mr. Shaynor is a young drugstore chemist in love with the unworthy Fanny Brand.  He  begins to write down phrases, recognizable to readers of “The Eve,” but not to himself.  Most readers will prefer the sympathetic and clever Kipling story to Machen’s piece, which may owe something to it.  The perfunctory murder plot in Machen’s story, which involves ptomaine poisoning, seems like something borrowed from a mystery magazine of the time.

Had Machen picked up something of the elusive narrative style that Kipling occasionally employed (though not particularly in “’Wireless’”)?  C. S. Lewis (in “Kipling’s World”) said that sometimes a Kipling story may have been pared down too much, so that in its final form it is “not quite told.” As an example, Lewis cited the notorious “Mrs. Bathurst,” which appears shortly after “’Wireless’” in the Traffics and Discoveries collection (1904).  “I still do not know exactly what happened in ‘Mrs. Bathurst,’” Lewis confessed.  Readers of “The Exalted Omega” may agree with the narrator’s concluding reference to lingering “difficulties and obscurities,” some of which I haven’t mentioned.
An Adventure (1911 and subsequent editions) by the Misses Jourdain and Moberly (“Morison” and “Lamont”) was once a favorite of readers interested in the paranormal.  Their Versailles experience was subjected to gentle debunking in Dame Joan Evans’s “An End to An Adventure:  Solving the Mystery of the Trianon” in Encounter for Oct. 1976, pp. 33-47.  A noted historian, Dr. Evans knew the two ladies well and they gave Evans the copyright of their book.  After their deaths, she declined to authorize further reprints, although she was certain they had never intended to deceive their readers.

Intriguing use of an interpenetrating times-theme is made in Eugene Vodolazkin’s superlative Laurus (English translation 2015), which would be my nomination for a Mythopoeic Society award for adult fiction.

Evans’s article is available online here.  

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Julius Le Vallon - Centenary

This month marks the centenary of an unusual and original novel of the supernatural, Julius Le Vallon by Algernon Blackwood, which was issued by Cassell in May 1916. I remember finding this in a little compact cinnamon-coloured book, probably the Cassell’s Pocket Library reprint of 1929, on a shelf standing by the open door, in cracked white paint, of the lobby of a bookshop in Winchester.

At the time I was living in a bedsit in Southampton, and to escape from this I often went out at weekends to the old towns nearby. The ancient Saxon cathedral city was only half an hour away and a pleasure to stroll around, with its statue of King Alfred, cathedral and half-timbered buildings. Above the city was St Catherine’s Hill, with its turf maze carved into the green slopes (I was then researching and exploring these curious antiquities), and along the river the chapel and medieval hospital (almshouse) of St Cross.

I associate the finding of the copy of Julius Le Vallon with pale sunlight and some first hesitant warmth, so it was probably in Spring. I remember the great delight of the discovery because, although Blackwood’s stories were fairly easy to get in various collections and omnibus volumes, the novels were much harder, and I rarely saw them. I am sure I took it back to the green armchair with its snagged threads, thin flat cushion and long worn wooden arms, and started reading straightaway. The book reminded me quite a lot of Herman Hesse’s Demian, then a favourite of mine, and also a wartime novel. They were both about youth in the quest for the visionary and unearthly, which is how I liked to think of myself then.

I have been rereading and thinking about Julius Le Vallon fairly recently, as I tried to write a longish story involving a form of reincarnation, but in a different, less deterministic way than it is often presented in older fiction. This is due out shortly in Pagan Triptych from Sarob Press, along with other Blackwood-inspired long stories by John Howard and Ron Weighell.

It seems to me that in this and Blackwood’s other major “reincarnation” works, what he is actually writing about is the attempt to channel a cosmic power. His books have characters who are indeed reborn versions of previous figures involved in such experiments, but they are not from the historical past, so much as from other dimensions.

The two main protagonists of Blackwood’s book meet as schoolboys and recognise their mutual destiny, and he does well to balance their mystical adventures with the minutiae of ordinary school life. Later, though, he introduces a love triangle with a young woman also from their cosmic past, and I think he struggles to make these relationships quite as convincing. His characters are rather solemn, and sometimes speak portentously, and the book occasionally gets a bit weighed down.

Even so, there is no mistaking the ardour of Blackwood’s beliefs about unearthly powers, and his novel must certainly have been among the strangest and most original books to appear in those dreadful days of war one hundred years ago. It has certainly remained a talisman for me, a remembrance of a minor wonder, found when I needed it most.

Mark Valentine

Image: Tower Project blog.