Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Lost Art Deco Author: Geoffrey Moss

Little Green Apples: the Chronicle of a Fallen Man (1930) by Geoffrey Moss, with art deco illustrations signed ‘Lapthorn’, is the story of an undergraduate with the unlikely nickname of the title. He becomes unexpectedly attracted to strange beauty when, helping a gang of hearties to ransack an aesthete’s room in college, he catches sight of an Aubrey Beardsley print and is at once captivated by it.

Alas, this promising premise isn’t fully pursued. After university, a job as a golf course manager in the South of France proves illusory, part of a faintly shady set-up run by a rather louche character. Marooned and out of funds, the protagonist drifts among the margins of Riviera high life as a gigolo, but finds that this career subsequently deprives him from securing his real love. In a fairly perfunctory denouement, he and an artist friend join a travelling circus.

Geoffrey Moss was the pen-name of Major Geoffrey Cecil Gilbert McNeill-Moss (11 December 1885 – 13 August 1954) of Ford Place, Ford, Sussex. Moss went to Rugby and Sandhurst and was an officer in the Grenadier Guards from 1905 until he left in 1919. He retired in order to write full time. While in the army he wrote on aspects of military training.

He had some success in the interwar period with Jazz Age romances somewhat after the manner of Michael Arlen and Evelyn Waugh. His first work of fiction, Sweet Pepper, however, was set in the decaying Austria-Hungarian Empire, and his second, Defeat, a collection of stories, sympathetically portrayed post-WW1 Germany. This was filmed as Isn’t Life Wonderful? by D W Griffith in 1924.

Of his other novels, Whipped Cream (1926) has been described as a “romance of an intensely modern girl struggling in the vortex of unconquerable passions and strange desires", while New Wine (1927) chronicles the somewhat hectic life of a cabaret dancer in Bucharest.

His work consists of eight novels, three books of stories, a history book for children, and non-fiction works on military matters, including two accounts of episodes in the Spanish Civil War. He seems to have published nothing more during the fifteen years from 1939 to his death. Though it is not clear why, his fiction may have been out of favour in the new realism of the Forties and Fifties. Since then, his books seem to have been largely forgotten.

Books by Geoffrey Moss

Sweet Pepper (Constable, 1923)
Defeat (Constable, 1924). Reprinted as “Isn’t Life Wonderful”: Defeat & Other Stories (Constable, 1925).
Whipped Cream (Hutchinson, 1926)
New Wine, A Nocturne in Tinsel (Hutchinson, 1927)
The Three Cousins: Short Stories (Hutchinson, 1928)
That Other Love (Hutchinson, 1928)
Little Green Apples, The Chronicle of a Fallen Man (Hutchinson, 1930)
Wet Afternoon: Stories (Hutchinson, 1931)
A Modern Melody (Hutchinson, 1932)
I Face the Stars (Hutchinson, 1933)
Thursby (Hutchinson, 1933)

Notes on Elementary Field Training by ‘Grenadier’ (Sifton Praed & Co, 1915), (Hugh.Rees, 1915). Attributed to Moss.
Notes on Outposts (Hugh Rees, 1915). [Extracted from the above].
A Box of Dates for Children (Cobden-Sanderson, 1934)
The Epic of the Alcazar: A History of the Siege of the Toledo Alcazar (Rich & Cowan, 1937) [as Geoffrey McNeill-Moss]
The Legend of Badajoz (Burns, Oates, 1937)
Standing Up to Hitler (Michael Joseph, 1939)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Secondhand Bookshops in Britain, and in Fiction

Last year, I discussed what I described as The Rise in Secondhand Bookshops in Britain. I offered factual, indeed statistical evidence, that their number has grown over the past thirty years. This was contrary to my own expectations: and several readers still found it hard to credit. But I haven’t seen any other figures refuting the analysis.

To recap, in 1984, Driff’s Guide to the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain listed 942*.

By comparison, thebookguide doughtily run by the Inprint Bookshop, listed 1187 as at August 2017. Of these, 287 were charity bookshops.

Thus, there was a 25% increase in second-hand bookshops in the UK over the 33 years since Driff’s guide.

Even if you decide not to count charity bookshops, in Driff or The Book Guide, there has still been an increase in all other bookshops, though smaller. Either way, the steep decline readers think they have seen simply isn't supported by the numbers.

I can now report, thanks to a kind update from Inprint, that the position this year is broadly unchanged. In August 2018 (after deducting those in the Republic of Ireland), there were 1183 second-hand bookshops listed in the UK, with a similar number to last time run by charities. And within a few weeks, the number opening or newly identified was running slightly higher than those closing.

I sympathise, however, with those who still can’t really believe this continued clear evidence. And I was amused to notice that even as early as 1926 the idea that such bookshops were in decline was already abroad.

In Cynthia Asquith’s excellent anthology The Ghost Book of that year, one of the stories, ‘The Lost Tragedy’ by Denis Mackail, is a gently humorous piece (which was very much his style) set in a London second-hand bookshop. The narrator says: “Mr Bunstable’s book-shop represents a type of establishment which has pretty well disappeared from our modern cities.”

(Incidentally, that might indeed be true today too: the evidence suggests they are now more likely to be found in small towns rather than in high-rent cities).

The piece is also comical for its description both of the dusty, labyrinthine bookshop, with teetering piles of titles everywhere, and for its observations about the proprietors of such places: “As all who have considered the subject must agree, the principal object of any book-seller is to obstruct, as far as possible, the sale of books . . .”

Does anyone have their own favourite fictional descriptions of second-hand bookshops?

(*Note: For reasons best known to himself, Driff did not use numbers 802-824 in his listing. On the other hand, he sometimes throws in a few premises which he doesn’t number, so probably “about 940” is still near enough.)

Mark Valentine

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Incurable - The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson

Strange Attractor Press have just announced Incurable - The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel, edited by Nina Antonia, the author of the excellent Eighteen Nineties romance The Greenwood Faun, and dedicated expert on Johnson.

It is to be published in mid-October in a special hardback edition limited to 100 copies, and an unlimited paperback edition. Pre-orders may be placed now.

The announcement notes: "A lost poet of the decadent era, Lionel Johnson is the shadow man of the 1890s, an enigma “pale as wasted golden hair.” History has all but forgotten Johnson, except as a footnote to the lives of more celebrated characters like W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. . ."

This very welcome volume includes "a detailed biographical essay, illustrations, rare and unusual material including previously unseen letters, poetry, and essays" and "Incurable pays tribute to this enchanting and eccentric poet while providing fresh insight into an era that continues to fascinate."

This is just the sort of sympathetic selection of Johnson's work and reconsideration of his life and key place in Eighteen Nineties circles that has long been needed. All enthusiasts of the fin-de-siecle, the Decadent movement, Cavalier poetry, and the rare and recondite in fine literature will wish to possess a copy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Ghost Story Newly Attributed to Mary Shelley

We have covered in the past Withnail Books’ well-designed booklets of rare pieces by Saki and T E Lawrence. Their latest announcement is, however, even more remarkable than these.

The press is offering The Ghost of the Private Theatricals, a terror tale by ‘M.S.’ originally published in ‘The Keepsake’ (London, 1844) edited by the Countess of Blessington, which the editor, Adam Newell argues should be attributed to Mary Shelley.

In an afterword, he explains the details of the original publication of the story and the reasons for thinking this might be by the author of Frankenstein. If this can be established, it is a highly significant literary find which will add to our understanding of Mary Shelley’s work in the Gothic form.

But readers of supernatural fiction will in any case want to read and enjoy this previously overlooked spectral story from the earliest days of the form, and decide for themselves.

Each copy includes an original, hand-printed linocut by Sharon Newell, inspired by the story, and the 36p A5 format booklet is printed on good quality paper and card covers. It in a limited edition of 100 copies and there is sure to be a high demand.

Sunday, September 30, 2018


Most of us are aware of lycanthropy, the mythological ability of a human to transform into a wolf.  Such shape-shifters are usually called were-wolves, but there are a host of other were-creatures that pop up now and then in folklore and in supernatural literature. Perhaps the oddest is the were-rhino, which shows up in John Metcalfe's story "The Renegade."  Here, though, in this novel we encounter leanthropes, or were-lions.

The book is Lion-Man: An Easter's Tale (1928) by A.S. Cripps. It is a short novel of one hundred and twenty-some pages. It is told by Walter Ayling, aged 58, who is a total abstainer and vegetarian. He has gone to southern Africa with his wife Florence to finish his book on the History of Animistic Beliefs. As they arrive in Cape Town, they are summoned by Florence's brother Cyril to come at once to southern Rhodesia, where a native youth has turned into member of the lion-folk by eating of a pumpkin that had only one seed in it. According to local legend, this causes leanthropy. The youth, and others, terrorize the locals by killing and eating their oxen.  Ayling, though a man of no faith, proposes that he and the local minister eat of the pumpkin themselves, proclaiming "I don't believe there is any more vice in a meal made on a one-seeded pumpkin than there is virtue in the partaking of a Missionary's Sacraments."  So they eat of the pumpkin, and soon Ayling alone is altered by the meal. He becomes feral and disheveled and seeks out the other were-lions.

It's a promising beginning to the book, but I'm afraid the promise is short-lived. The were-lions have no desires other than to kill and feed on animals, and the plot meanders. As the author starts seeding his story with references to the approaching Easter, the story becomes completely predictable and and one loses all interest.  Ayling is saved and returned to normalcy because of his conversion to Christianity at Easter.  A look for information on the author confirms what one has suspected from reading his book.  Arthur Shearly Cripps (1869-1952) was for many years a missionary in Africa, though he conflicted with Church authorities and the British government over injustices performed on the native Africans. He was also an acclaimed poet (Oxford University Press published a selection of his best poems, Africa: Verses, in 1939, with an introduction by Cripps's friend John Buchan), and wrote other novels and collections of short stories, like Magic Casements (1905) and Faerylands Forlorn: African Tales (1910). Cripps's great-great-nephew, Owen Sheers, traced the legacy of his relative, and published The Dust Diaries; Seeking the African Legacy of Arthur Cripps in 2004.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

ReInvention - Gryphon

For a few years in the Seventies I was a member of a would-be progressive rock band called Ruins, named after the crumbling, mist-wreathed towers and wheel-houses of the old tin mine workings in the far west of Cornwall, where the group of us took holidays. We had a badge made depicting these. Unfortunately we only mastered two tunes: 'Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun' and the theme to the TV police show Z Cars, souped up with Hawkwind-ish sound effects and called by us 'Z Cars in Space'. The reason in both cases was that they were easy to play. We did, however, compile a tape recording of a Cornish foghorn, 'The Sound of Pendeen Watch', which proved slightly more interesting to intrepid listeners then anything else we ever did.

Nevertheless, progressive rock seemed to me then to be all of a piece with my pursuit of fantasy fiction, largely through the Pan Ballantine paperback series. The imagery, lyrics and ambience often seemed similar, and the penchant for very long tracks seemed to match the epic grandeur of the novels.

Gryphon were one of the more unusual and fantastical progressive rock bands of the Nineties Seventies, with a sound mingling folk, jazz, parlour music and rock, and the use of historic instruments that sometimes led them to be described as “medieval rock”. On their self-titled first album (1973), 'The Unquiet Grave' is one of the most eerie renditions of that ghostly song, particularly enhanced by the mournful winding crumhorn.

Their songs, and the titles and flavour of their instrumental pieces, often draw on the tradition of English whimsy, complete with self-consciously awful puns. If you can imagine Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, William Morris and Henry Newbolt selecting sundry semi-forgotten instruments from the abandoned summer-house and playing together under the light of the moon, you’ll have some idea of Gryphon’s sound.

I was delighted to learn that the band have just released their first album for over forty years, featuring three original members together with others new to the ensemble.

ReInvention is a great treat, nicely representative of their various styles, and still peculiar enough to keep up their reputation for off-centre originality. It includes ‘Haddocks’ Eyes’, based on Alice’s encounter with the White Knight; ‘Rhubarb Crumhorn’, a pastoral instrumental that is both jolly and wistful; and ‘Hampton Caught’, a Tudoresque fancy; while the meandering, slightly whoozy ‘Ashes’ has oblique lyrics alluding to cricket, summer afternoons, plums and crystal streams; and ‘The Euphrates Connection’ is a brief triptych that begins with a lovely haunting melody and then goes off on several strange tangents.

Now, where did I put that Ruins badge and that foghorn tape?

Mark V

Image - Cover of ReInvention sleeve notes by John Hurford.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Devil in Crystal - Louis Marlow

The Devil in Crystal (1944) by Louis Marlow is a timeslip novel in which the protagonist (a man about town and satirist rather in the shape of the author himself) is projected back from 1943 to 1922. There, he is in the body of his younger self but his mind is that of the 1940s man and he is fully aware he is back from the future. He is, however, mostly compelled to go through the same actions and say the same things that he originally did then, which he finds tedious, as if he were just a piece of clockwork: but occasionally, with fierce effort, he seems to be allowed to say or do something out of place.

Quite a lot of the novel is about the personal tension involved in this situation, and there is also a certain amount of sombre reflection on the difference between the (for him then) quite sybaritic existence of the Twenties compared to the Forties wartime restrictions and exigencies he has come from. In some ways the later, more stringent and insecure, time compares better in its human qualities, but he is able to relish the luxuries he could no longer get in the later time: wine, brandy, fruit, cigarettes.

The thinking-through of his position and testing-out of just how much he can deviate from his original script is shrewdly conveyed, and the book is quite philosophically interesting in its meditations on time, chance and free will, but does sometimes become a bit dry: we share the character’s frustration a bit too much. At last, he discovers another who seems to share his knowledge, a young woman who when he first knew her then, in the Twenties, had an uncanny reputation, and seems to him now to see the nature of things more clearly than he.

Louis Marlow (whose surname was Wilkinson - Marlow was a pen-name) was a colourful figure known to his friends as The Archangel on account of his imperious looks and manner, and as a young man was sent down from Oxford for blasphemy but accepted, in a retort to its fustier rival, by Cambridge instead. He is most known as the friend and biographer of the Powys family, but he also wrote a number of brisk, satirical novels which have mostly receded from view. Aleister Crowley was quoted as saying of one of these, 'In all literature I know no pages so terrifying as those in Louis Marlow's Mr. Amberthwaite.' There is a helpful discussion of the novels in W J Keith's 'Reading the Fiction of Louis (Marlow) Wilkinson' (The Powys Journal, Vol. XXIV, 2014).

Louis Marlow's Seven Friends (1953) is a lively account of Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, Aleister Crowley, John Cowper Powys, T F Powys, Llewelyn Powys and Somerset Maugham. Perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the Powys connection, his own quite different work is due more attention. Maybe there really ought to be a Louis Marlow Society.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Essential New Book on Weird Tales Magazine

front cover
There is a new book, out this summer, that takes pride of place on the small bookshelf of essential scholarship on the famous Weird Tales magazine. This is John Locke's The Thing's Incredible: The Secret Origins of Weird Tales (Off-Trail Publications, hardcover and trade paperback).  It clocks in at around 300 pages, and surprisingly, the coverage centers on the first two years of the magazine's existence.  It discusses thoroughly the first owners, including J.C. Henneberger, and the first editors, including Edwin Baird, Otis Adelbert Kline (editor for one issue), and Farnsworth Wright, who ran the magazine from 1924 through 1939.  The story of how H.P. Lovecraft nearly became the editor is told here in more detail than anywhere else.  Many authors who contributed to Weird Tales are also discussed, ranging from C.M. Eddy, Jr., to Arthur Burks, and even Houdini's involvement with the magazine is detailed.

The appendices reproduce some good rare stuff too, including a 1923 article by Edwin Baird titled "What Editors Want" and a story and a poem by Farnsworth Wright.  The poem is called "Self-Portrait" and it begins:

"The editor's a gloomy guy, who fusses, fumes and frets;
He puts in all his cheerless life expressing his regrets.
And you should see the things he sees when perched upon his Eyrie;
The shuddering shapes and eldritch forms, and dim things out of Faerie. . ."

("Self-Portrait" originally appeared in Fantasy Magazine for April 1935.)

Order via with these links:  $35 hardcover,  or $24 trade paperback.

Order via with these links:  £27.09 hardcover, or
£18.42 trade paperback.

rear cover

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Eric, Count Stenbock: A Catch of a Ghost

The Public Domain Review has a fascinating essay by David Tibet (with photographs) on "Eric, Count Stenbock: A Catch of a Ghost"--adapted from his introduction to the new Stenbock volume Of Kings and Things, published by Strange Attractor Press.  Read the essay here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Life, Be Still! - H A Manhood

I think it would be fair to say that in all my reading and book collecting I have rarely come across so individual, so curious and so enigmatic a writer as H A Manhood. Much praised by his mid 20th century contemporaries for his piquant tales, he eschewed the literary life and lived in a railway carriage in a field in Sussex, growing his own food and brewing his own cider. His tales usually have rural settings and characters, yet they also have a strong folkloric and semi-mythic aspect. Most of all, their style, vocabulary and in particular imagery are like those of no other writer.

After a period of some acclaim and the respect of eminent authors such as John Galsworthy, Henry Williamson, Hugh Walpole and H. E. Bates, Manhood's work went out of fashion and by the Nineteen Sixties he had pretty much given up trying to sell new work. He settled down to continue his life of near self-sufficiency. That neglect has continued for some decades since, until a small number of readers began to talk about his work and quietly look out for it.

Life, Be Still!, just published by The Sundial Press of Dorset, is a selection of twenty-nine of his finest stories, which should give new readers a good sense of his work. This volume aims to introduce readers to a craftsman-writer with the skill to surprise and delight even the most jaded connoisseur, through the freshness and succinct aptness of his phrasing; and to celebrate an author who had the human insight to present the tenor of entire lives in miniature, in the telling of a single incident.

The Sundial Press also hope to publish, over time, each of Manhood's original seven story collections.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Weird Fiction in Britain 1880-1939 - James Machin

Weird Fiction in Britain 1880-1939 by James Machin has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. The author is the co-editor of Faunus, the journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen and also has a keen interest in the wider literature of the Eighteen Nineties and beyond.

The publishers describe the book as “the first study of how ‘weird fiction’ emerged from Victorian supernatural literature, abandoning the more conventional Gothic horrors of the past for the contemporary weird tale.”

It discusses “the British writers who inspired H. P. Lovecraft, such as Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan” and “focuses on the key literary and cultural contexts of weird fiction of the period, including Decadence, paganism, and the occult.” There is also discussion of more liminal writers such as Count Stenbock and R. Murray Gilchrist.

We invited James to discuss his book with Wormwoodiana:

What drew you to this particular period - do you see it as a time of transition?

I would say it was most definitely a time of transition … in fact, a very long-running academic journal focused on the period is called English Literature in Transition. There’s a book I particularly like by John A. Lester, called Journey Through Despair, 1880-1914, originally published in 1968 - the title nearly sums up the shift from the old religious and social certainties to a new sense of modernity; scientific, social, cultural. This all played out in the literature of the period. The Education Act of 1870 is quite key here: before that, literature was the preserve of a cultural elite. It was a sort of priestcraft. By the end of the nineteenth century, the reading public had expanded exponentially because of the higher literacy rates. And all these new readers wanted something to read … hence the explosion in journals and magazines. Importantly for weird fiction, the short story was the perfect form for this newly vibrant market. Poe was by then regarded as the master of the short story form, so it was inevitable that he was widely imitated.

Do you think these writers haven't had the attention they should, because they're in the Weird Fiction field?

The short answer is yes, I do. John Carey wrote a mildly controversial book in the 1990s called The Intellectuals and the Masses, in which he argues that literary modernism was an attempt by the cultural elite to distance themselves from the dismal little clerks reading Tit-Bits on the Clapham omnibus. Now that nearly everyone could read, the literary elite needed to invent an intentionally inaccessible literary language, in order to demonstrate their superiority to the riff-raff - hence Ezra Pound, Eliot’s The Waste Land, etc. This is quite a crude gloss on Carey’s argument, but there is at least an element of truth in it. In the light of so much being published, there was an intense self-consciousness at the fin de siècle about how to police the line between good and bad literature. Machen, for example, claims that he never got invited to contribute to the Yellow Book because he was once at dinner with its editor and expressed an admiration for the Sherlock Holmes stories.

One of the methods of policing this line - which I think emerged at the time, and is still very much with us - is through genre. The ‘Romance’ (more associated with imaginative literature) was deemed déclassé, whereas the modern ‘novel’ was high art. It’s telling that Machen insisted on describing his novels as ‘romances’- he was sensibly recusing himself from the argument. I don’t really go into this in the book, but I think that, with regard to weird fiction, this was all compounded by the fact that as the twentieth century progressed the assumption that ‘good’ writing could be identified by its stylistic minimalism and spareness also worked against the fervid extravagences of e.g. M. P. Shiel. I’m no doubt in the minority when I say I would prefer to read Shiel’s deranged Carlylean prose rather than Hemingway or Carver any day of the week, but even so, I think the puritan zeal with which the ‘rules’ of ‘good’ writing are enforced to this day probably make for a duller literary terroir. People certainly seem to have it in for adjectives.

When researching the book, it was occasionally quite moving to see a now-obscure author like R. Murray Gilchrist being described by contemporary critics as one of Britain’s finest writers. Of course, myriad bestselling Victorian authors languish in almost total obscurity today (often for good reason), so it’s difficult to lay this entirely at the door of genre snobbery. It’s also worth noting that when ‘The Great God Pan’ was lambasted by critics, it was usually because it was deemed to have transgressed the bounds of good taste, just as Arthur Morrison’s East End tales transgressed the bounds of good taste. The latter was considered no more acceptable than the former on the basis of its social realism. However, genre snobbery is of course still very much with us: I’m amazed at the contamination anxiety, and the pains some prominent contemporary writers will take to insist that their science fiction or fantasy novels aren’t science fiction or fantasy novels. They endlessly tie themselves up in knots, desperate to avoid the stigma of genre. It’s all a sort of desperate casuistry.

Did you see certain affinities between the writers you discuss?

There are certainly thematic affinities regarding a resistance to reductive, materialist accounts of the universe. This can involve an interest in recrudescent paganism, the occult, and so on. The one thing I really lit on is the foundational and persistent influence of literary Decadence … Brian Stableford remarked somewhere that the Decadence of the 1890s never really died, it just moved to the U.S. with Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. This observation really struck me, and in a way the entire book is more or less built on Stableford’s insight here.

What writer's work surprised you among those you studied?

First off, something of a disclaimer: this book is by no means a comprehensive survey, or even a survey, of the weird fiction of the period. I hope I’ve covered my bases in terms of at least mentioning the key players, but- as perhaps suggested by my answers above - the book is very much a cultural history, with a distinct argument about the literary and publishing fields of the time. I've focused on specific writers in service to my central argument, rather than due to their current prominence as a weird writer of the period. It also leaps to the US at the end, to look at how some of the issues discussed then play out in Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s.

This caveat aside, I was quite surprised to spend so much time on John Buchan - this is partly the result of me becoming fascinated by him and his writing, but also because he so neatly demonstrated my central argument. He fell, and still falls, between all sorts of different cracks. He was a hugely talented writer, and there was a frustration among his contemporaries that he didn’t apply these talents to more purist literary ends. He happily positioned his writing as ‘high lowbrow’, but this really only applies to his thrillers. He emerged as a writer in the 1890s and was, barely in his 20s, right at the epicentre of British Decadence, being a contributor to the Yellow Book and a reader for John Lane. One of his first works, Scholar-Gipsies, even has a faun on the cover! By the beginning of the twentieth century, he had a reputation as a master of the weird tale - Lovecraft was a big fan. This of course was overshadowed by his huge wartime success with The 39 Steps. Even so, he was still writing wonderfully weird novels through the 20s and 30s: Witch Wood, The Dancing Floor, and Sick Heart River, for example, all now underread and underrated.

Two other writers spring to mind: Ernest G. Henham’s novel Tenebrae and R. Murray Gilchrist’s short story ‘The Crimson Weaver’ are both superb, and I’m not sure I would’ve encountered them were it not for writing this book.

Fantasy is often seen as a traditionalist form. Did you find that too or did you see some modernist and experimental elements?

As perhaps suggested above, attempting to neatly disentangle genres and modes of writing is a fairly hopeless endeavour. For every rule that someone puts forward, numerous counterexamples usually spring to mind. One thing that makes this especially tricky concerning the period under discussion is that the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ were far from clearly demarcated in real life, let alone literature. I don’t much discuss Blackwood in the book, alas, but he’s a good example - when he was writing about nature spirits etc., this wasn’t straightforward fantasy. As Machen averred, he actually believed in such things. Nobody really falls into line with one’s expectations, either: Machen, for example, was in many ways a thoroughgoing sceptic while numerous prominent scientists of the day were members of the Society for Psychical Research and, with the benefit of hindsight, seem embarrassingly credulous about such things.

In terms of fantasy as a genre - in my introduction I set out my stall in terms of the kind of fiction that I see as most indicative of the term ‘weird fiction’ at the time: not the fully fledged fantasy of Dunsany and Eddison etc., ('secondary world' fantasy) but rather fiction that doesn’t settle upon itself as either realism or fantasy; fiction which in many ways is self-consciously non-committal, but which because of this has a unique ambiguity and a particular frisson, which engages with the numinous as much as the horrific. Having said that, writers like Shiel and Lovecraft aren’t exactly known for their quiet subtlety - again, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to generalise. The term ‘weird fiction’ is incredibly slippery and has always been fairly capacious. The book is about ‘my’ weird fiction, which I see as being very much tied to literary Decadence.

In terms of modernist and experimental elements: Machen and Shiel both anticipated the 'stream of consciousness' usually associated with later modernism. Later works by Machen, ‘N’ and The Green Round for example, are effortlessly experimental in their disregard for straightforward narrative (as was ‘The Great God Pan’, of course). I didn’t manage to get to Mary Butts in the book, but I think a story such as ‘Mappa Mundi’ is a great example of the weird mode and literary modernism operating in seamless tandem. Of course, this all depends on how we define our terms. It’s been argued that Decadence was the beginning of modernism and it should be seen as a whole, which of course includes Machen and Shiel as key participants in a movement subsequently developed by Joyce and Woolf etc.. If Baudelaire was the first modernist, then Poe, again, has a good deal to answer for in terms of both weird fiction and modernism. In fact, in the context of the book, Poe is pretty much to blame for everything.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Through the Valley of the Wolves

The road to Tartarus is over a high bare moor. You get first to the Dales village of Kettlewell, which was the retirement home of C J Cutcliffe Hyne, author of the Atlantis fantasy The Lost Continent (1900), and creator of the nautical rascal Captain Kettle, who in his day was, it is often said, as popular as Sherlock Holmes.

The proceeds from this conniving skipper’s doubtful activities were usually sent back care/of the Particular Baptist Church, Wharfedale, and it was doubtless this dale and village the author had in mind. His grave, and that of his family, is in the form of a rough-hewn stone in the peaceful graveyard.

Cutcliffe Hyne also wrote a tale about a prehistoric lizard that comes alive in a cave near Kettlewell, and you can well believe it as you gaze up at the looming limestone crags above the road, with their curious fissures.

The other thing for which the village is noted is its annual Scarecrow Festival when the inhabitants display stuffed effigies outside their doors, in their gardens and in public places. One year a circle of scarecrow-children were tied by their hands to the ribbons of the maypole. When the wind rose, and the pole swivelled, their arms were lifted up and their bodies swayed as though in an eerie dance. At least, I hope it was the wind that was doing that.

The route is ideal for those who like to contemplate the scenery, graced as it is on this occasion by a phalanx of cyclists, a behemoth of a tractor, several sorties of sauntering pheasants, and a flock of sheep out for a stroll, with the languid sheepdog hitching a ride on the shepherd’s quad bike and observing with only indifferent interest the progress of his fleecy charges.

Beyond Kettlewell the road, really no more than a narrow track, rises steeply and in blind curves, and you emerge, you hope, on plunging hill slopes. For most of the way there is not a sign of human habitation to be seen, and nothing much in the way of trees. I was once caught up here one evening when a mist suddenly came down in pale tendrils and I had to proceed at walking pace through these swirling wraiths. I expected The Hound of the Baskervilles at any moment.

But in fact the beast in the mist might have been worse even that. For the first settlement (barely that) to which you eventually descend after traversing the moor is called Woodale, and consists of half a dozen houses. It is too small even to have a post-box. The name of this hamlet means “the Valley of the Wolves” and this is one of the places where the last wolf in England is said to have stalked. Or possibly may be stalking still.

A small village a little further on is called Horsehouse and I will leave you to speculate on where that name may come from. However, what I can tell you is that the landlord of the local inn bears an uncanny resemblance to the portrait of L. Sprague de Camp on the back of the dustwrapper of his biography of Lovecraft. I’m quite prepared to believe there is a firkin or two of Old Arkham Ale secreted in his cellar.

But this is not the only quaintly named place, for you are now in Coverdale, where most of the villages and hamlets sound like characters from Mervyn Peake’s fiction: Swineside, Fleensop, Gammersgill and Scrafton could all be furtive conspirators among the gloomy passages of Castle Gormenghast.

The village of Carlton-in-Coverdale itself, our destination, is usually fairly safe ground for the traveller, so long as it is not Foresters’ Day, when the inhabitants garb themselves in green and process up the street brandishing arcane objects and accompanied by the call of horns. The wicker-work classes in the village hall are very popular for a few weeks beforehand.

We have timed our arrival with discretion when it may be possible to slink into the village unobserved, and draw up near the elegant house, with its fine topiary, that is the temple of Tartarus. A rattle on the talismanic brass elephant door-knocker echoes in the stone-flagged passage beyond. The door swiftly opens. Our hosts, Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, immediately fortify us with bracing draughts of coffee. There, below an ornate rococo mirror and two tall baroque angels (named, we learn, Denton and Eric) the table has been prepared for the ritual.

Our fountain pens, charged with vials of exotic ink, are placed reverently upon the table, with Parisian blotting paper to hand. Tottering boxes seem to outdo even the beetling cliffs of Kettlewell. To encourage us to make good progress, a selection of soothing ambient and drone music proceeds from the gramophone secreted in an ancient aumbry (“is that an aeroplane going over?” enquires Mr Howard). And thus begins the ceremonial signing of three hundred copies of Inner Europe.

Mark Valentine

Monday, September 3, 2018

. . . a disembodied female head of unutterable malignancy . . .

A note here on some recent posts at my Lesser-Known Writers blog.

First, I note Elizabeth Bowen's review of Donald Macpherson's Go Home, Unicorn from the 28 September 1935 issue of The New Statesmen, which was reprinted last year in a collection of her book reviews and essays, The Weight of a World of Feeling, edited by Allan Hepburn: 
Go Home, Unicorn is an excellent thriller, in which biology and the occult mix.  I found it too frightening to finish late at night. The scene when a disembodied female head of unutterable malignancy, followed by a wisp of ectoplasm, trails down an upper-class Montreal dinner table between the candles is particularly good.  And I got very fond of the unicorn who embarrassed the intellectual debutante so much. Unless you are too nervous, certainly read this book. 
Does the book itself live up to such hype?  See my view in my write-up of Donald Macpherson here.

And can anyone help clear up a final point about the involvement of Harry Ludlam (the first biographer of Bram Stoker, and author of The Coming of Jonathan Smith) with the works of ghost-hunter Elliott O'Donnell?  I've got it mostly figured out here. [Update: this point has now been settled, and the Ludlam entry updated.]

Read here about the Fairfields, the most ill-fated literary family that I know of.

Finally, here's a link to my write-up on Bob Leman, whose 1980 short story "Windows" was filmed as a 2001 episode of the television series "Night Visions," starring Bill Pullman.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Arcana in Gloucester

In a chapel of Gloucester Cathedral there is a set of modern stained-glass windows to two of the shire’s gentler sons, poet Ivor Gurney and composer Gerald Finzi. They depict scenes from their work in deep glowing colours. The rainy light coming in through the panes still gleams in crimson and blue, gold and indigo. You hold your breath at the beauty and radiance of it, and almost expect the Grail to appear.

Only a week or two before I had found in a charity shop several Finzi records, with insightful sleeve-notes by Diana McVeagh and endearing photographs of the composer, a rough-tweed, thoughtful-looking pipe-smoker; and I had been thinking about his delicate, melancholy songs. I did not know of this memorial chapel then, and it is heartening to come across it.

At the bookshop near the harbour I had earlier found a book published by The Faith Press, the imprint that published Machen’s Grail novel The Great Return. He once found unsold columns of this, and was given a few by the bookseller, who, learning he was the author, did not have the heart to charge him for them.

Whether this volume, Adventures Among Churches (1928) by Donald Maxwell, fared any better, I don’t know, but it is in some ways akin in spirit. The author (and artist), like Machen a High Church Anglo-Catholic, has wandered by diverse ways to lesser-known churches, made drawings of them, and written about what he found there. Often the parsons at these places share his liturgical sympathies too.

There are alluring chapter titles: ‘The Chapel of the Green Lagoons’; ‘The Black Belfry of Brookland’; ‘A Parish of Riddles’; ‘The Fishpools of Melford’; ‘The Canopy of Honour’. It might be a bit in the tradition of the dreaming, incense-scented verse of Wilfred Rowland Childe; or the sprightly glee of Richard Blake Brown, the satirist in the soutane, though Mr Maxwell’s book is distinctly more decorous than he.

It is a charming enough idea, and it works well: both the prose and the artwork are evocative. It is perhaps the sort of thing Machen himself might have essayed, among the lonely churches of the Welsh hills or the remoter temples of unknown London, had a publisher thought to commission it: but if so I think we might also have heard somewhat of certain inns and alehouses.

“Are there any other bookshops in Gloucester?” I had asked. “You might try the antiques centre. They have a few.” They do, but none I need. However, I seem to emerge with a pair of neo-cubist Nineteen Seventies cuff-links whose unearthly geometry would do credit to any Lovecraft story.

At the public library there is also a book sale, though this too yields nothing. But there is an exhibition by a local artist who has made her own interpretation of the Tarot. Free copies of the cards depicted had been offered to visitors, but have now all gone.

This means that the Major Arcana are now processing through the city in people’s pockets, wallets, purses, shopping bags. Who knows what this might do to the psychogeography? The Fool unleashed in the Mall. The Hierophant haunting the Discount Stores. The High Priestess a-loose in the Pedestrian Precinct. It looks like the last desperate throw of the Powers. They’ve been reading Charles Williams again.

As it happens, we have other plans. We have also been having our Adventures Among Churches, accompanying these bookshop expeditions, and on the way back from the city we call in at a church by a Severn-side wharf, which formerly had a ferry boat and still has an inn. Here there is a rare Edward VI Royal Coat-of-Arms (possibly, though, it might be of Elizabeth I).

Such older Arms are notable because instead of the Scottish Unicorn we are used to companioning the Lion (which anyway should really be a Leopard— see my fascinating monograph on this subject), there is a Dragon.

Mr Howard obligingly swarms up several precarious vantages to take a picture of the ancient painting so that we can send it to Rosemary Pardoe, the doyen of Royal Coats of Arms. She’ll be able to advise just how dangerous this Dragon is.

For the Dragon has understandably been Consumed With Wrath since it was banished from its high place by the heralds, to gratify the Scots King. It is suspected by certain visionaries of stalking the British psyche ever since. Nothing good, they say, will prevail until the Beast of Wings and Scales is restored. We leave surreptitiously, in case we should see its forked tongue flicker.

There is a last quick dash to the splendid Abbey Bookshop, Malvern and then this browsing expedition has come to an end. We have been able, just, to outwit all the obstacles, and find some choice volumes.

Indeed, we have been fortified by breakfasting daily on crumpets, toast, and a Church Marmalade which we found offered for sale at one of the remote and mysterious sanctuaries we visited. The spell of this sacred amber preserve, with its peel coiled like the luminous offspring of numinous Gnostic serpents, might well have been the only thing holding back Those Who Would Thwart Us in our quest for the rarest and strangest books.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Plums in Pershore

It’s like trying to browse next door to a demented dentist. The road closures to Hay-on-Wye and the narcotic charm of Ross having failed to stop us finding books, they resort to more drastic measures when we get to the pleasant Georgian town of Pershore. Here, they actually dig up the roads. There’s a pneumatic drill right outside the window of the first bookshop.

It’s hard to concentrate, you can’t summon up that elusive state of mind that guides your fingers to the unsuspected volumes. But you don’t give up, even if after fifteen minutes all you’ve got to show is a Geoffrey Household thriller set in the Levant: “I had a hasty breakfast in Beirut”. Might have been quieter than here though. But Mr Howard has found a slim leaflet on old churches, and is on the trail of an antiquarian parson (of which more, by Mr H, in another place, in due course).

There’s something I keep going back to and looking at again. Fenland Poems by Peter Barnett. Biba-like Nineteen Seventies title lettering. No imprint, no date. I’m bemused by the bookshop’s note: “4/12. Scarce. £3.50.” The first bit probably means it’s been lingering here over six years. The second part doesn’t quite chime: if it’s so scarce, why so cheap?

Let’s see. Self-published. Aha. So, while it might be scarce in Pershore, it won’t be in Wisbech, where it was printed. The author probably gave copies away to his friends. And enemies. Or any passing strangers who didn’t put both hands firmly in their pockets fast enough. But in fact I have sometimes found things of singular interest in such personal pamphlets.

The author says: “the following pages only try to ease open an invisible door leading to a realm that can only be outside the understanding of reasonable minds. . .If the Fens are to offer anything to us it is to be the same magical qualities that one finds on an Autumn afternoon in the Cotswolds, a Winter’s evening in London’s Soho or a glimpse of some church spire in the morning mist.”

And there is something eerie and entrancing about some of these poems. There are ghosts and loners, attic rooms and empty marshes. And a poem about a disused M&GN (Midland & Great Northern) station “Bewitched in the trance/Of faded posters and jaded times”; and another ‘From Liverpool Street to Diss—On An Eastbound Train.' Sort of John Betjeman tinged with hints of M R James. For a moment even the noise of the workmen excavating to Gehenna fades away.

The other bookshop says it opens at 11.45. This is a very precise and slightly peculiar time. And it’s not quite that now. So, a walk to the bridge at the end of the town, where there is a tollhouse with Gothick windows and a bowed tree that has just started to drop amber fruit, some of the plums for which the town is famous (they even have a Festival for them).

I pick one up: the bloom is still upon it. I’m tempted to try it, but there might be a by-law against plum-plundering, even of windfalls, and a beadle in a tricorn hat waiting to pounce. Besides, should one eat tollhouse fruit? I decide not to risk some mystic taboo, or the Prebendaries of the Plum Cult.

Inside the second bookshop, the proprietor has got two radios on in the one room, tuned to different talk stations. It’s as if he’s determined not to be outdone by the first one’s pneumatic drill. There’s a copy of John Cowper Powys’ The Brazen Head and I half expect it to join in with the hubbub, uttering prophecies.

Between the babble I’m just about able to focus on Echoes in Cornwall by C.C. Rogers. John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd. 1926. With A Glossary of Cornish Words. By the Same Author: Cornish Silhouettes.

Chapter XI, 'The Spirit of Tregeagle', offers the recollections of a Professor of Folklore visiting Cornwall for his study of Celtic Survivals: “I wanted to hear the real thing from living lips, superstitions that linger and are potent now, legends that wield an influence on the lives of to-day and leave their mark on men of flesh and blood.”

Yes, well, I can’t help thinking he ought to have read Mr Machen’s account of the fate of Professor Gregg in ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’ first. That might temper his ardour for flesh-and-blood Celtic Survivals a bit. But no: I see that he has to walk over the moor to The Haunted Pool and sit by its waters on a Prominent Stone. Unwise.

There is also later a wandering poet, the author of Bagdad to Barcelona (I like made-up books in books), who has come to Pandora, an inn and a cove, to get a bit of local colour before moving on. But the place has its own witchery and it is not so easy to leave. These two yarns alone are good enough for me, and I decide to risk the wizened rustics and phonetic dialect that I also glimpse as I skim through.

And so with these two volumes I see that there are indeed rare plums to be had in Pershore, and with a curious bloom upon them.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Perichoresis in Ross

“You feel this. Go on. Feel it.”

I turn in some trepidation from my examination of the shelves.

We’re in an unrecorded charity bookshop, not long open. A customer carrying a heavy rucksack with a week’s worth of camping gear is eyeing with misgivings the pile of fat paperbacks his wife is accumulating.

“I don’t think I can carry them, dear. Not with everything else. Go on, feel the weight of that.” “Well, perhaps we can take the bus. Ask the man.” He turns to the manager. “Is there a bus?” His interlocutor contemplates this question. After a long pause, he says. “I think there are two buses.” The hiker brightens. “When?” More rumination. “I don’t recall for sure. But they might be April 25th and September 6th.”

Mr Howard, browsing undisturbed, is deciding on a beautifully-printed old devotional book. He may know something I don’t. I used to have a picture of Ross-on-Wye on the back of an old tea packet. The Towns of England. Felixstowe, I remember, too. Scenic sketches. Ross was a tall spire, a winding river, and a scribble of trees. And that’s how it still is.

Sterner measures having failed, and the warning of Warner gone unheeded, they’ve decided to lull us. Ross-on-Wye is a lovely, picturesque place. We won’t get into mischief there. A stationery shop still sells manilla newspaper wrappers, long ledgers with marbled edges, fountain pen ink in Bank Teller's Black. Compasses and protractors, set squares. You expect to see a slide rule somewhere. Or Forms of Address for letters to a Dowager Duchess, a Writer to the Signet, a Colonial Bishop, or to Portcullis Pursuivant.

We’d seen a sign on a wall by rusting railings. Lord Nelson may have passed through the garden that was once on this site, when he visited the town. We linger for a bit, wondering whether by some perichoresis, as in Machen’s ‘N’, the pleasaunce used for the Admiral’s constitutional might shimmeringly reappear. It doesn’t, but then you realise why. You’re already in a sort of perichoresis. The coarse and sordid has been charmed away in this place of quaint civility. It’s overlapped by the Olde Worlde.

But in the charity shop, I haven’t found anything yet, whereas Mr Howard’s zeal is sustaining his interest longer. So I take another look. What’s this? The Call of the Past. By Fflorens Roch. London & Edinburgh: Sands & Co. 1913. Flicker, flicker. Crumbs. A Welsh reincarnation fantasy. Jane Austen meets Joan Grant. ‘No, Mamma, I cannot marry the squire, for I am foresworn to a Druid priest, and am waiting for his return.’ ‘O, I never heard such nonsense. There’s no prospects in a parson.’ That sort of thing.

I turn the pages in awe. Why didn’t I think of that before? I could have cast Miss Bennet as Cleopatra, Mr Darcy as Mark Anthony, Mr Bingley as Octavius, reaching across the ages. Wait, wait, what’s this. It gets better. ‘It is true, I can tell it only to you,” says another suitor, “I am from the island of Hy Brasil.’ So, there’s a mythic realm thrown in too. The lost paradise, the Eden over the seas, the Celtic Elysium.

Earlier, in the town’s Old Books, I’d found a volume enticingly called A Lost Roman Road, A Reconnaissance in the West Country, by Bernard Berry, 1963. Maps in the back. The author is in quest of the missing route between Bath and the Dorset coast, walking fields and footpaths, hills and hollows, looking for faint traces of straight lines, unexpected embankments, and more ethereal signs too.

He goes where he wants, not worried about trespass. The locals think he’s from the Ministry, seeing about the electricity pylons, registering the footpaths, inspecting the land use. He doesn’t disabuse them.

“Many of those reading his highly original account of open-air detective work on almost a grand scale, and poring over his photographs, will probably be finding themselves tempted to set out on similar amateur ventures of their own—and why not?”

“Highly original”, eh? That sets my whiskers twitching. Publisher’s code for visionary, eccentric, idiosyncratic. Excellent. Just my sort of thing. File with ley lines, terrestrial zodiacs, genii loci, Black Horse inn signs. The author’s only book too, I later discover.

Something about the atmosphere of it reminds me of those tales of strangers wandering in remote countryside who become benighted, or lost in mist, or caught in a storm. And there’s a lonely house, with a square of amber glimpsed across the fields. A knock at the door, a long wait, and then a pale face, or a sort of a face. “I’m terribly sorry, but I seem to have lost my way. I wonder if I might . . .if I might . . .”

There is an affinity with Sarban’s ‘A House of Call’, also about a journey along a conjectured Roman road; and a touch of Buchan’s ‘The Wind in the Portico’. Yes, it’s strangely addictive, this journal of a wanderer in a Lost England after ancient ways. And he seems to discern the old signs so clearly too. Perhaps Mr Berry was a Roman surveyor in a former life.

The town of Ross-on-Wye itself seems to be “taking part in an old rite and so bringing back, by the rite’s magic, the virtue of an older time,” as Sarban puts it in his story, about a circle of ghost-story-tellers. But you wonder how long the perichoresis can last. These two curious books are amulets of its lingering spell.

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Escapade in Hay

Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day. Not so far as secondhand bookshops being open, anyway. But we should be all right making for the border, to the town of books.

Except by now they’re getting wise to us. Beyond Hereford, they’ve closed off the road. And a roulette of minor roads nearby. They don’t even make a pretence of it, there’s no sign of work, not a fluorescent vest in sight. No warnings given, no diversions, just no way through to Hay-on-Wye.

Luckily we’ve come prepared. There’s a truckers’ road atlas on the back seat. Asterisks for sleazy caffs, shading for shady fuel depots, warning signs where the Ministry of Transport wardens lurk. Full of illicit side roads, short cuts up doubtful tracks, concealed entrances into No Man’s Land.

The keen bookman alongside, Mr Howard, is soon on the case, and we’re plunging through Machenesque high-hedged lanes, narrow and full of blind corners. An old timber tollhouse lets us into unknown terrain. It looks like it’s still collecting something from you, but it’s not clear what. You might find out years from now.

New ‘road closed’ signs begin to spring up on all sides. They know we’re out there, but they’re not sure where. And surely, surely, they reason, no-one would go past the toll-house. No-one. So we’re staying just ahead, and get to Hay the long way, claiming sanctuary in the enclave of the car park at the Old Cinema Bookshop.

Phew. Not much they can do now we’re in Hay. It’s an outpost of Inner Bohemia. Risky to offend the Kingdom. They’re radical in Radnor. An independent lot.

The metal boxes outside the entrance have their lids open, and the dampest, shabbiest, obscurest books are looking for new owners, like sad-eyed abandoned pets in the animal shelter. £1 each, no questions asked. We offer shelf-room to a few, trusting this might appease the inscrutable god of the toll house.

Inside, the shop is so vast that there are browsers that have never escaped, or maybe never wanted to. In tattered robes, with sickle nails, and with hair to the knees, they make Ben Gunn look like a Carnaby Street dandy. They’re still staring at the forty foot long shelf labelled General Literature JA-JE. Been at that nineteen days already.

The ones that get too dessicated, it’s rumoured, are taken away at night and pounded down for book pulp, come back here in a different form. It’s what they would have wanted. Don’t touch the recent bestsellers, the word is.

But we’ve been here before, and know the score. Whatever you do, don’t read any titles. Just let your gaze skim swiftly. Subliminal browsing, that’s the trick.

The shadows move, and there’s a book by Rex Warner. The most dangerous man in the South West, the papers called him. As wing three-quarter for Gloucestershire, admittedly. Deft in bars at darts and shove ha’penny too. Destined for a career as an Oxford philosophy don until “he saw the Absolute walk in at his door” (said Cecil Day-Lewis) and had a breakdown.

His The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is about characters who set off from a small-town to travel beyond “the frontier” in search of the eponymous bird, a symbol of freedom. We should have read it before we started.

With The Aerodrome (1941) he came to be called the English Kafka. The sprawling, spasmodic and often sordid goings-on in “the Village” are contrasted with the order and efficiency of an air-base established nearby, ruled by a ruthless and visionary Air Vice-Marshal. Chillingly acute on the lure of authoritarianism, frank about the frequent shabbiness and imperfection of its liberal alternatives. Other solemn novels followed, a book on cricket, a meditation on the Cult of Power, translations from the Greek.

But this is a later, lighter work. Escapade, A Tale of Average. The Bodley Head, 1953. In jolly dustwrapper by Osbert Lancaster. “It has been written especially for the enjoyment and entertainment of the reader—and for no serious reason. No lesson is expected to be drawn.” Hmmm, maybe.

One Summer’s day in an English village that might be anywhere. Cricket. A Pageant. A Dotty Old Lady Distributing Patriotic Pamphlets. A Colonel whose Butler is a Philosopher. A Canon Vexed by the Shakespeare Authorship Question. A Gardener quoting Doubtful Folklore about Birds and Flowers. The shades of E F Benson, Lord Berners, Ronald Firbank gliding through the plot. And a Rumbustious Finish. Splendid stuff. A Frolic, a Fancy, a Whimsy. And Yet.

Later on, in an undisclosed location in the town, Mr Howard finds a cache of obscure British B-movie Science Fiction paperbacks. There’s one about a super-computer that directs all activities across the country, even the most trivial, and always, as it sees it, for the best. It’s Warner crossed with Orwell. People think they are making free choices, but they aren’t.

An Advanced Intelligence directing the affairs of England. What a bizarre fantasy.

Mark Valentine

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Book Fair in Churchdown, and an Upper Room in Cheltenham

Churchdown is marooned, cut off between the dual carriageway and the motorway. You see roads to it soaring above you on bridges, but you can’t take them, there’s no escape route. At the roundabout there’s a sign to Gloucester Airport. It’d be easier to take a trip to Paris or Rome than to get to Churchdown.

The only way through is to go in the wrong direction and then double back when no-one’s looking, sneak through the more loosely-guarded leafy outer environs. You drive up slowly, try to look as if you’re visiting relations. You notice it’s got all the facilities: shops, a school, a post office, a pub, a church. No wonder, observes fellow-browser Mr Howard. You’ve got to be self-supporting when it’s so hard to get in or out. They’re stocked up for a fortnight here.

And when you’re beginning to feel a bit too breezy, you find they’ve hidden the village hall. Classified. Concealed. No eavesdroppers at the whist drive. Strangers not welcome at the knit-and-natter. Outsiders shunned at the over sixties tea-and-scones. But by now you’re starting to get the knack of it. This case is like a Golden Age crime novel, and you head for the least obvious route.

They try to deceive you with a sign pointing to the wrong road, but you’re past that kind of ruse now. Head straight for the dead end where it looks like the village gives out, and gives up. Just before the pale and solemn bollards, twist the wheel. Mission accomplished. You park under the trees and walk nonchalantly into the foyer, like you’ve lived here all your life. After that, the admission procedure, roughly equivalent to an Albanian border crossing under the First Republic, is taken coolly.

And then you find out why. Hiding in the £2 box at the end of a table, there’s an early edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. A. Wessels Company, USA, 1907. Yet where the silhouette of the Great Detective should be, against the sunlit windows, there’s a smear of green. It looks as if the waters of Reichenbach really had fallen over him all those years. Might be an alternative version. The Green Face of Baker Street. The Detecting Spectre. The Weed Thing on the Violin. Verdant Holmes.

Yet you reckon this is just a feint. There’s something else here. Try the ephemera stall. There’s an album of old visiting cards. 25p each. Obviously every furtive browser should have at least four or five identities in his pocket book, so he can purport to be something other when required. Pick a card, any card. There’s one for a conjurer from Southampton and another for a pastor in Portuguese East Africa. With a bit of practice you can surely pass for either of those.

A clutch of used Paris Metro tickets, 50p the lot. Certainement. These can be placed between the pages of suitable books to give a casual air of chic, and mislead future cataloguers. “A chance bookmark in a copy of Under the Volcano shows that he must have read this while visiting the French capital in 1979.” When really he was working in Milton Keynes.

You think about offering a service to the aspirant arty. Cosmopolitan Ephemera. Impress Your Friends. Matchbooks from Trieste cafes, creased invitations to very private views, tickets to the cubist ballet, with signatures in Cyrillic.

But the stallholders are beginning to get restless, eyeing you narrowly. You’ve been round twice and you still haven’t succumbed to industrial history, country pursuits, the line of later Iris Murdochs. Time to get out before the spirit fails and they sell you The Message to the Planet. With a few sly swerves you might just make it.

There’s only one bookshop open on a Sunday near here and it’s in the back-streets of Cheltenham. It’s crammed with stock. The passages are guarded by citadels of Scandinavian noir, fortresses of conspiracy theories, tottering watchtowers of celebrity chefs, grinning with their gleaming machetes. It makes even navigating Churchdown look simple.

Upstairs, there’s a failed New York style speakeasy, with its scarlet banquettes, a decommissioned coffee machine like an outstation of Government Communications Head Quarters. Beyond, there’s a hidden room with a narrow opening. You enter it sideways. This is where the old stuff sleeps, mostly undisturbed. A mausoleum of the musty, an archive of the archaic.

Here’s Arthur Symons’ Cities of Italy, the vignettes of a weary aesthete, a Geo VI Civil Service Notebook with cryptic policy proposals at the front, the rest blank, and a book on the second move in chess, which you sense must be an elaborate cipher. But you know that they aren’t it, the reason why you’re here. What is?

In the grey light from the cobwebbed windows, you find it. Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. A chronicle of lost messiahs, Hasidic prophets, inspired scholars. Fervent and vivid, the world of Rabbi Loew, Bruno Schulz, Martin Buber. It will take its place on your shelves between Rodinsky’s Room and The Zohar in Muslim and Christian Spain by Ariel Bension, Ph.D. This must be it, that’s what you weren’t supposed to find.

The coffee machine blinks as you’re on the way out. It knows.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Monographs in Tewkesbury, and M R James' Centaur

“I came out to see why you were laughing,” she said.

I was riffling through the pamphlets box on the pavement outside the curio shop in Tewkesbury. All along the High Street were heraldic banners, as if King Arthur’s knights were assembled here for a tournament and a meeting of the Table Round. Next item on the agenda; the appearance of the Holy Grail.

I showed her the brochure. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The World of Legumes. Recipes from the exhibition.

“Oh. You might know more than me about that. I don’t know what legumes are.”

“Beans,” I said, not exactly correctly.

All the recipes had titles taken from the Latin botanical names of the legumes used. It would certainly make restaurant orders more interesting. Arachis hypogaea turns out to be Peanut Soup from the West Indies. It has Tabasco, Angostura Bitters and Dry Sherry in it. This sounds promising.

The booklet is from a more innocent time. Hands-across-the-world, we’re-all-in-this-together, human beings each with our own beans, let’s share them. Recipes for Red Beans from Cuba (what else?), Black Beans from Brazil, Peas and Lettuce from France, Dwarf Beans from Turkey.

But I was already resuming my search. Always look at the pamphlets. A motto for book collectors. Especially those of an antiquarian disposition. You never know what you’ll find. I’ve got hundreds of them back at home, in the staunch cardboard boxes of the Imperial Tea Company of Lincoln, still redolent of Yunnan Gold, Sikkim Temi, Georgian O P, Rain Garden Darjeeling.

A few more things come to hand.

“Those historical ones,” the lady says, “will have to be £2 each. They’re quite old.” I nod. Why not? What can you get for £2 these days?

The Sculptures of the South Porch of Malmesbury Abbey, A Short Guide, 1975. By M.Q. Smith. You rather wish you had Q as an initial. It’d look good on a cricket scorecard. England vs the Rest of the Universe, in the year 2525. M.Q. Valentine, 159 not out. I wonder what it stands for? Must be Quentin, surely. Quintillian might be pushing it, Quincy best reserved for Western gunslingers. MQS worked at the History of Art, Bristol University. He’s got form: an earlier monograph on The Medieval Churches of Bristol, 1970. What happens when you join all those churches up?

Two epigraphs on the inside cover. Psalm LXXXIV, i. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God; than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.” And “Oh enter then his gates with praise! Approach with joy his courts unto . . .”. W. Keithe, 1561.

The modest monographist also quotes from “the red-haired man in Pickwick Papers” in his preface: “I am not fond of anything original; I don’t like it; don’t see the necessity of it.” He intends to rely on earlier writers without repeating their mistakes, or, as he affably notes, in correcting them, making new ones

My book-browsing companion Mr Howard points out to me that M R James is cited as one of those earlier sources, as the author of On the Sculptures of the South Portal of the Abbey Church At Malmesbury. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society X (1900-1901).

So what is it about the South Entrance that has drawn MRJ and MQS to it? Richly carved emblems all around the Romanesque arch. Adam and Eve and The Fall. The Expulsion from the Garden. Noah and the Flood. The Prophets. The Three Magi. The Psychomachia, or The Virtues Conquering the Vices.

But, better still for the antiquarian, there are others that are weathered, blurred and cannot be discerned. We can’t be quite sure what they mean, what they portend. Signs of the zodiac and the calendar is one theory, but “on no very sure evidence” says MQS. John Aubrey in the 17th century said “on one side is the Sagittary and on the other the Griffin.”

MRJ, we are told, also “identified the Centaur, for Sagittarius” and “hesitantly suggested that the three roundels of the arch might be a man feasting, December or January; a man with buckets; Aquarius; slaughtering a beast, December.” MQS observes that “Cycles of the Labours of the Months and of the Signs of the Zodiac are not frequently encountered in surviving English Romanesque art” and if this is what they are, the source might have been “a calendar in a psalter or other manuscript.”

The monograph provides a fold-out key at the end which suggests interpretations for some of the other symbols. There might be Fishes for Pisces, a Seated Figure With a Viol, a Dancer, Peacock, Somersaulter, Two Rams. But five signs seem quite irretrievable and many are uncertain. A lost English Almanac of the seasons and the stars, perhaps. There is much else of singular and curious interest in the booklet.

In his conclusion, the author notes that “the Malmesbury master seems to have founded no “school”; he was one of the last exponents of the Romanesque in this part of Britain.” After him, for example at Glastonbury and at Wells, the Gothic. “The whole world of the Romanesque disappeared in a half century of artistic revolution.”

Is This Your First Visit to Avebury? asks another pamphlet in pleasing sage-green wrappers. By D. Emerson Chapman. Second Edition, Incorporating the results of the 1938 Excavations. A spurt of English bloody-mindedness at once leaps up. Mind your own business, you want to say.

But it’s worth looking inside. It’s written with breezy confidence, the avuncular assurance of the Public Information Film, perhaps with that jolly Puffin’ Billy tune playing in the background. And it’s published by The Morven Institute of Archæological Research (that conjoined a and e so reassuringly archaic), which sounds like something that might have been set up by Professor Quatermass.

The prose is beautifully lucid and straightforward and says exactly what we know pretty certainly, and what we don’t know at all, and probably never will. I once stayed in a bed and breakfast in the village of Avebury, inside the circle. The tranquil night was torn by eldritch shrieks; the peacocks in the manor gardens. This succinct and readable piece of Old Aveburyiana is certainly worth having.

Following the curio shop, it’s into the backstreets. There’s a sign for a ferry. And flood-marks on the walls, shoulder-height. Very soon you’re up against the Severn, lapping complacently in the hot sun. There’s a sort of serpentine murmuring, in an unknown tongue, older than Avebury. But its meaning is clear enough. "I know the signs," it seems to say, "I know the seasons."

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Phyllis Paul in paperback

Hardcover editions of the eleven novels of Phyllis Paul (1903-1973) are increasingly elusive, and increasingly costly.  All eleven came out in British editions, while four appeared in hardcover in the U.S.  These four include her first novel, We Are Spoiled (William Morrow, 1934), and three of her later and more characteristic novels, Twice Lost (1960), A Little Treachery (1962), and Pulled Down (1965), all published by W.W. Norton. Two of these latter titles achieved publication in U.S. mass market paperback editions, though one was retitled. These paperbacks serve nowadays as more affordable reading copies for those interested in sampling Phyllis Paul.

The paperback publisher was Lancer Books of New York, a firm founded in 1961 which went bankrupt in September 1973. Lancer Books is notable for its many science fiction and fantasy titles, including Robert E. Howard's Conan stories.

In 1966, Lancer launched a series of Lancer Gilt-Edge Gothics, presumably so-called because of the gold-colored edges on the books.  The first two books in this series were by Phyllis Paul, Twice Lost  and Echo of Guilt, the latter being a retitled edition of Pulled Down

Here are the covers of these two books. Note the glowing reviews from the Springfield Republican on the rear cover of each book. And note the series numbering (1 and 2) near the top of the spine. The cover art is uncredited.

Twice Lost had a second printing in March 1973, some months before Lancer's bankruptcy.  Here it is just labelled a Lancer Gothic, though the page count is much higher than in the 1966 printing because of the larger font used in the "Easy Eye" series.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Reading Walter de la Mare Conference, Cambridge

The programme and booking details for ‘Reading Walter de la Mare, 1873-1956: “a voice which has no fellow”’are now available. The conference takes place from Thursday 20th - Friday 21st September, 2018 at the Faculty of English and Newnham College, University of Cambridge

Giles de la Mare is a special guest, and talks include Gillian Beer on Henry Brocken, Walter Wootten on “Questions, Riddles and Mysteries” in de la Mare, Christopher O’Shaughnessy on “Liminal Worlds and Horror Thresholds” in the work, and a discussion of “Ghosts” by Peter Davison and Peter Scupham. There will also be an exhibition and an evening concert of de la Mare inspired songs. Booking is open until 19 August and the registration fee is £5.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

In That Look the Unicorn Stood & Other Dreamt Books

"People do tell their dreams," said Arthur Machen, in conversation with Morchard Bishop, "but . . ." and there was a world of doubt in that 'but'. But undaunted by that very judicious 'but', this post is about dreams of books, by which I mean not daytime longings for great rarities or lost volumes, but unknown works encountered in sleep.

For I occasionally dream of finding books that do not seem to exist (yet), and sometimes remember their titles. In a way, this is hardly surprising given the amount of time I spend in bookshops, and reading, or writing about books. The titles are usually quite authentic-sounding: for example, I once found in a dream a slim volume called My Cricket by Lord Dunsany, a book he never wrote, alas; but he did write the short story ‘Autumn Cricket’, and a book called My Ireland, so one can see how my imagination might have combined the two. But others are not quite so obviously explained. Here's some notes on others I have dreamt.

7 September 2008

I handled a small piece of pale turned wood which had a lid which delicately screwed off. Inside was the impress of a device used to make a mark upon paper. I learned that this was a “Tuddington chess seal”. The picture it made would represent, heraldically, a chess piece, which would be used in some way to play the game over a distance. I knew that I was dreaming and that I had to remember the name of this artefact. At a later stage, I was in a temporary structure at the end of a street, which was selling books for a pound each. I only found one I wanted, Further Essays by Sir Francis Younghusband, and I wrote “Tuddington chess seals” on the rear blank endpaper in pencil. But then I remembered this was also a dream, so I still hadn’t ensured I would remember it. Meanwhile, I was distracted by someone else buying a fine illustrated book on The Basilisk, which I knew was worth much more than a £1.

1 November 2009
I was at a book auction. I had not registered to bid but as I looked at the catalogue I saw books I should certainly want. It seemed too late, but as the ceremonials went on, I darted down to the office, run by a couple of practical old ladies. I was permitted to register without even giving full particulars. One book I especially wanted was an early study or memoir of Percy Pilcher, the aviation pioneer who was killed at Stanford Park, on the Northants/Leics border: there is an obelisk memorial to him. The book was Edwardian, with its spine missing, exposing the newspaper lining underneath, and grey boards with crumpled corners: I think there was an inset vignette. I find that Pilcher was a pioneer of gliding rather than powered flight, and the inventor of four different craft, picturesquely named The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk.

18 October 2010
I had discovered a paper-covered monograph written by a colonial district officer on a Pacific island which posited a link between earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He had discovered this through his own observations of natural upheavals on the island. Though this link was now widely accepted, it had not been known at the time he wrote, making him a scientific pioneer. I was working out how to tell his story and publicise my find.

5 August 2015
I was going through the papers of a progressive public school, in some advisory capacity. These included a school magazine with a piece of highly ornate fantastic fiction, which I noted was in the style of Mervyn Peake, and very accomplished. I thought, I must make a note of the name of the author and follow up to see if they went on writing. The surname was distinctive and would be easy to trace: but I have not remembered it. I have a vague sense of chivalry, medievalism. The surprising thing is that in the dream the page of writing was perfectly clear before me and I was reading it just as I would if awake. If I could have remembered it, I’d have a segment of strange prose.

29 December 2015
I found a copy of Astral Travel in the Edwardian Age, a book which certainly ought to exist, but doesn’t yet (or at least not here). It was an exploration of the work of occultists and visionaries on what they conceived to be the astral plane, with descriptions of their journeys, and quotations from their writing. As soon as I awoke, I remembered the title and wanted either to find it or to write it. Again, because I have written and read about early 20th century writers of supernatural fiction, and such groups as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, it is easy to see why such a book title might occur to me.

16 August 2016

I had a dream of a war poet whose effects, few, were being preserved and I was allowed to handle them. They included a wooden shelf whose span showed all the books he was allowed to have (in barracks, I suppose, or a camp): they had to fit in its short gap. It was empty and the books he had chosen were not known. The hollow space seemed to convey the absence of the poet too, the gap he had left. The wood was rough, makeshift, unplaned, unvarnished, full of grain and knots and splinters.

20 September 2017
I was in an Oxfam bookshop in a pedestrian arcade which, unusually, had a lot of vintage hardback fiction, some with picture covers and spines and promising titles, but they were often about adventures in the colonies, typically in the forests of Canada. However, there was one book that was quite different: the title was in one long column in art deco style, one word to a line, shaped like a staircase which seemed to stand out from the cover. It was called In That Look the Unicorn Stood.

A glance inside suggested an adventure among fictitious countries, set perhaps (something about the incidental details suggested this) in the interwar period. The author’s name was not given or at least it was not obvious, yet I knew that it was by a woman. It was priced very modestly—something like 40p. I took it and held it and at that point must have entered into lucid dreaming because I knew that this was a dream of being in a bookshop and I must remember the title of the book. I kept telling myself over and over what the title was, and trying to keep the look of the volume in my mind. And when I came out of sleep I had remembered it and could still to a certain extent see it. I hastily spoke it aloud and then wrote it down. There is no such title in the British Library catalogue.

Two days later, I dreamt in my second sleep in the early hours of the morning that I found in a bookshop Jack Kerouac’s playing cards. They were in a white paper bag with a transparent film front and a label saying what they were. There was a postcard from him which told his correspondent to address him in reply as ‘Jack [ ]’ and then a surname I forget, which meant ‘cut’, and then a postal address. The price was £50. I thought, in the dream, this was quite reasonable. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay it because I am not a Kerouac collector or reader, but decided I probably should.

28 January 2018

I had found a book which was the first full edition of a fantasy work by a woman writer (like, but not, Mary Butts or Hope Mirrlees). Inside, on the front free endpaper, was a brief note stating “exactly as in the manuscript” (this wasn’t the phrase, but the meaning was similar) and an ownership signature: Sybil Vicky Javasco. There may have been another name between the second and third. When I woke up I remembered the name and kept hold of it until I could write it down. I don’t think, in the dream, I knew the title of the book, and I haven’t remembered one.

* * *

I have never yet dreamt of a book and then found it, and if I did, I would consider it rather eerie. It is very tempting (and cheering) to wonder if there is some alternative plane where these dreamt books and many others like them do indeed exist: and, presumably, where there are also other dreamers elusively half-remembering Flower Phantoms, say, or British Rainfall, 1910, or A Voyage to Arcturus, or Arthur Machen’s The Dark Lantern And The Mask.

Mark Valentine

Image: Cover by Jo Valentine for Litanies for the First Quarter of the Moon by Jules Laforgue.