Monday, December 10, 2018

A Forgotten Precursor of 'Watership Down'


In the mid 1960s, Richard Adams made up a story about rabbits for his daughters Rosamond and Juliet aged six and eight to while away a long car journey to the theatre from London to Stratford-upon-Avon (as recalled in “'True meaning' of Watership Down revealed ahead of TV revival”, Mark Brown, Arts Correspondent, The Guardian, 10 December 2018). They then persuaded him to write a book on the same lines, which became the bestselling, much-loved animal fantasy Watership Down (1972).

It recounts how a group of rabbits go on an epic journey across dangerous country to find a new home after their burrows are destroyed. A new animated version is to be broadcast by the BBC on 22-23 December 2018. But was there an earlier source for the story which up until now has remained unknown?

In 1946 a book called The Wind Protect You (Collins) by Pat Murphy was published. In that year, Adams was demobbed from his wartime posting in the Army, had returned to England and had resumed his history studies at Oxford. ‘Pat Murphy’ seems to have been the pen-name of Edmund Patrick Joseph MacMorough Murphy, about whom very little information is to hand. He was born in 1897, according to one source, and, to judge by an inscribed copy of his book, lived at one point in St Mawes, Cornwall. This was his only book, at least under that name. And it is a remarkable precursor of Adams’ novel, with several distinct similarities.

“Rabbits are the characters in this story—rabbits as the centre of their own universe,” explains the dustwrapper. The treatment of the rabbits has the same unusual approach later adopted by Adams. They are not semi-humanised, as in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, but neither are they described as if by a human observer, as in Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, a sort of fictionalised natural history book. The rabbits in Murphy’s book have the instincts and behaviours of real rabbits in the wild, clearly based on keen observation of, or reading about, how the creatures actually live, but they also have speech and imaginative thought. Watership Down has the same distinctive perspective.

There are other parallels. The earlier book is a story of rabbits making a long, risky journey, seeking refuge: “the survivors set out again on their eternal cycle of pilgrimage”, we are told. This is the plot line also followed by Watership Down. In Adams’ book, there is an enthusiastic young rabbit, Hazel, tempered by an experienced old veteran, Bigwig: in Murphy’s there is a similar pairing of Lynx, a domesticated rabbit who escapes from his hutch, and Albert, who is “very old and very wise”.

Murphy’s book depicts hostilities between two rival sets of rabbits, as does Adams: and there are allusions to a terrible disease which wipes whole settlements out, as in Watership Down too. Another striking, and very specific, similarity is that in Murphy’s book the rabbits are assisted by deer, just as the doe Hyzthenlay helps the rabbits in Adams’ book. And the final scene in Murphy’s book is a mystical vision of the dawn sun, while in Adams the rabbits worship the sun-god Frith.

It is of course perfectly possible that Adams knew nothing whatever of Murphy’s book and simply happened to alight on the same elements independently. Perhaps, it might be thought, there are only so many plot lines available when writing of the rabbit world. And it must be said that Adams' is in many ways the better book—more complex, more poetic, and with an original element in the hints of the rabbits' own language and more developed mythology.

But given the numerous similarities, it is reasonable at least to wonder whether Adams might have read it and drawn it vaguely to mind on that tiresome car journey twenty years later, perhaps even without being fully aware he was doing so. He may have forgotten the original source of his inspiration and was not conscious of this apparent debt when he then went on to create his own much richer and deeper version.

In any case, Pat Murphy’s The Wind Protect You, which has so far passed into almost-complete oblivion, surely ought to be better-known. At the very least it has some of the interesting ideas and appealing qualities which were to prove so perennially popular in the later book.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Green Book 12 - Irish Writers of the Fantastic


Just out from The Swan River Press, Dublin, is The Green Book Issue 12 which is devoted to essays on Irish writers of the fantastic and supernatural, the first in several planned volumes on this theme. This covers not only the well-known leading luminaries in the field, but also neglected, obscure and overlooked figures.

The contents include: Albert Power on Jonathan Swift and Charles Maturin; Gavin Selerie on Brinsley Le Fanu; Reggie Chamberlain-King on Robert Cromie and Herbert Moore Pim; Mike Ashley on Clothilde Graves and Arabella Kenealy; Martin Anderssen on Lord Dunsany; Derek John on James Stephens; Darrell Schweitzer on Mervyn Wall; and my own notes on H de Vere Stacpoole and Vere Shortt.

Each piece provides a summary biography, a discussion of the author's work and notes on further reading. This is sure to be a fascinating survey and a useful guide to readers who would like to explore further in Ireland's rich literature of the strange and wondrous.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Cropton Lane Farm Murders - Rosemary Pardoe


The Cropton Lane Farm Murders by Rosemary Pardoe is a new booklet just issued by the eminent editor of the M R James journal Ghosts & Scholars, in a similar format. And it is a James connection that begins this engrossing account of an obscure Victorian mystery.

As Rosemary explains, “In his 1926 memoir, Eton and King’s, M R James, the famous writer of ghost stories, tells of a trip to Yorkshire in the Easter vacation of 1885, when he was aged 22.” Staying at a moorland inn, James noticed a mourning card commemorating the double murder of a father and son at a farm about eighteen miles away to the east, some thirteen years earlier. This included a brief verse about the affair, which James says he memorised, and reproduces in his account.

James was, as he admitted, often “absorbed” by real-life murder mysteries, and it is not surprising this curious memento mori caught his attention. But what was the story behind it? Although it was for a time of some local notoriety, Rosemary discovered that the case is one which is now largely unknown, and so decided to look into it further. Her fascinating study expertly unravels what proves to be a quite peculiar matter, a bleak rustic tragedy that would not be out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel.

This clear and detailed account of a rather bizarre sequence of events covers the initial “disappearance” of the victims, the grisly discovery of (some of) their remains, the inquest, the police investigation, the trial, the verdict and the aftermath. Rosemary also gives her own considered verdict on the case, in a fair and judicious conclusion.

This thorough study of a grim episode will be of great interest not only to those who want to know more about an unusual M R James anecdote, but to all readers who relish Victorian mysteries and macabre history.

Copies are available from Rosemary Pardoe at 36 Hamilton Street, Hoole, Chester, CH2 3JQ for £3.50 including postage (cheques payable to R A Pardoe). For overseas orders, please email dandrpardoe[at]gmail[dot]com, replacing the words in square brackets with the appropriate symbols. The edition is very limited.


Mark Valentine

Thursday, November 22, 2018

At the House of Dree - Gordon Gardiner


A few years ago, I noticed a reference in the London Mercury (April 1928) to At the House of Dree by Gordon Gardiner (Sampson Low, 1928), described by the reviewer Edward Shanks as “one of the best “thrillers” I have read for a considerable time”. It is set on the north east coast of Scotland and narrated by a retired Scots policeman, and involves German spies and the Thugee cult.

I sent for a copy (which turned out to be inscribed by the author) but it had a steady start so I didn’t then carry on with it. However, upon trying again later, I found it is indeed an excellent thriller, in the mode of John Buchan, with the thematic influence of Kipling too. The two main characters, the pawky Scottish Inspector Catto, and an insouciant English spycatcher, are well-realised and nicely contrasted, and their working relationship is conveyed adroitly.

The espionage element is overshadowed by an occult dimension. The aged and wizened local laird and his Indian servant are sinister figures, living in a semi-ruinous manor on the coast, the House of Dree of the title, near a secret research station, and practising an elaborate form of ritual sorcery. They win the confidence of a visiting American-German professor, supposedly studying fishing, but suspected of spying, and invite him as a guest to the house. The two threads begin to converge.

This is a colourful, well-paced, enthralling yarn with a strong supernatural element. Gardiner (1874-1937) seems to have written three other novels: The Reconnaissance (1914), The Pattern of Chance (1929), and The Man With a Weak Heart (1932) and appears also to be the author of Notes of A Prison Visitor (1938), a posthumous publication.

Image: ontos blog.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Why the net is not a good guide to book prices


Readers who spend any time in charity bookshops will quite often hear the manager or volunteers explain, when a customer queries a price, that they “value” their collectible books “using the internet”. In practice, this probably means consulting one or more of two or three well-known listing sites.

This is usually presented as if it were a serious, reasonable practice and a clinching argument. And of course it's understandable that busy volunteers will turn to what seems to be a handy ready reckoner. But it always makes me groan inwardly and I've seen or heard other collectors express similar dismay. Because it doesn’t take very much thought to see that this approach doesn’t work at all.

Let’s first dismiss any argument that the books should be cheaper because they’ve been donated. No: people gave the books to help the charity and it’s the charity’s job to make as much money as they can from them for their cause. (Conversely however, the charity shouldn’t expect readers to pay more for a book just because they are a charity. If people want to donate, they donate. That’s a separate matter.)

It equally doesn’t work to argue that the books in a charity shop should be cheaper because the charity gets certain privileges—lower business rates, tax relief etc. Again, these policies are designed to make the most of the income for their worthy cause and are entirely separate to the question of book pricing.

We’ll also set aside the question of the condition of books. It is true that many amateur booksellers, and this includes charity shop volunteers, don’t seem to grasp the great difference this makes to the value of a book. They see, for example, a book in Very Good condition priced at £25 and think they can ask the same for it in Good or even Fair or Poor condition. Or they just don’t look closely enough and miss defects, such as missing pages, which make the book virtually valueless.

This is indeed one good reason why some charity bookshop pricing can be what is euphemistically described as “ambitious”, but we will suppose generously for the present that the volunteer “valuer” is indeed comparing a book in front of them and a book on the internet of similar quality.

No, the real reasons that charity bookshops (or indeed anyone else) should not price books using the internet (or at least not without a lot of discernment) are all strictly business-related. We might identify at least four reasons why this approach doesn’t work.

The first is that if I can buy a book from the internet at a similar price to yours, why should I get it from you? Yes, I’ve got to pay postage on an internet book, but I’ve also got costs in coming to your shop – petrol and parking fees, or train or bus fares. So your shop is not offering me any enticement. What’s your added value, your selling point?

The second, and strongest, reason ought to be obvious, but apparently isn’t. Any book listed on the internet is an unsold book. All right, yes, it might have been only recently listed, but that’s a marginal point. The fact is that this is a book that has not sold at that price. So if you want your copy to sell, you’ve got to go below it.

Some might argue that actually you’ve got to go quite a way below it. If no-one will buy a book at £20, will they at £19 or £18? Maybe, but probably not. You might have to go to, say, £16 before you see a difference. The market price of any book listed for a while on the net is, we might reasonably argue, at least 15-20% below that internet price.

A third reason not to rely on internet book prices is that some of them appear to be highly speculative. Indeed, it’s even been suggested (possibly a bit tongue-in-cheek) that some money laundering is done in this way. A book is listed at a ludicrous price: a buyer pays it; shady money is transferred in a seemingly innocuous transaction. Who could possibly suspect second-hand bookselling of involvement with dark money? It’s also been explained that certain algorithms may push book prices up to vast amounts, with some well-publicised examples of not especially collectible works soaring into four figures solely owing to the inner workings of these calculations.

But the fourth reason is a more subtle point that shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It’s about mood and ambience and customer behaviour. Internet book-buying is largely impersonal. Click, click, click, wait for the book. May never use that bookseller again. Wouldn’t know them if I saw them. But a physical bookshop is a different experience. I might be local, and you might want me to pop in often. Or I might be a visitor and you might want me to tell everyone about the lovely bookshop I found. So, do you want me to think “sheesh, these prices are high, what a rip-off” or “ooh, these are very fair prices”?

And indeed I may not actually spend any less if your prices are lower. Why? Well, if I go into a bookshop and the prices are all quite high, I am straightaway put on my guard and not in a mood to buy. I might grudgingly get one, if I really want it. Whereas if the prices are moderate, I lower my guard and start assembling a pile. I might actually end up spending more than if I’d just bought one expensive book. But even if I spend the same, the point is that I’m happier, and I’ll come back.

The practice, incidentally, is by no means confined to charity bookshops. I've had several experiences in ordinary secondhand bookshops when a book was unpriced (and even once or twice when it was!) when the proprietor has turned to the net to “value” a book.

But for the reasons given above, the net should only be used as the broadest sort of guide for valuing a book, and will never be a substitute for judgement, experience and commercial acumen.

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The 1919 Proserpine Prize


Readers in obscure byways of outré literature may from time to time bring to mind the Prosperpine Prize founded by Mr Basil Lamport, the proprietor of the Luminous Gamp Company, whose phosphorescent umbrellas played their part in keeping wayfarers safe during murky or foggy conditions.

Not unmindful of the possibilities for drawing attention to his excellent wares, Mr Lamport endowed an annual award for the British novel that most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light. The founder recalled fondly his youthful reading of the romances of Lord Lytton. Beginning in 1901, the prize is reported to have been won by such eminent titles as Mr Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Dr Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is true that a certain notoriety has attached to the title chosen in at least one year, as recounted in an episode (“The 1909 Proserpine Prize”) in Seventeen Stories (The Swan River Press, 2013). Nevertheless, it is evident that the prize continued to be awarded and there has recently come to light a manuscript note which appears to be the shortlist compiled for the year 1919.

Ten years after the 1909 award, matters seem to have been restored to a more regular footing and the year was propitious for good literature in the field. Some of those chosen were evidently intended to commend solid literary worth, while other titles suggest it was hoped to arouse a certain amount of controversy. There was thus strong competition for the 1919 shortlist, but the seven selected seem to have been:

E F Benson, Across the Stream. A young man with psychic gifts who comes into contact with an evil spirit.

Stella Benson, Living Alone. A modern young witch with magical powers which bring confusion to those she meets. Told lightly but with an undertow of melancholy.

Gerald Biss, The Door of the Unreal. A thrilling yarn about a werewolf prowling the London-Brighton road, told with all the author’s accustomed gusto and brisk style.

Leda Burke, Dope Darling. The startling story of the drug culture among bohemians and artists in the more sordid quarters of London. (It is curious that the judges preferred this to Mr Sax Rohmer's Dope, similar in theme.)

Clemence Dane, Legend. A poetic account of an author who dies young but pervades her friends’ memories: there is a brief apparition, which may be illusion.

William De Morgan, The Old Madhouse. The last novel of the respected Victorian author, a mystery of a sinister house, and peculiar characters haunted in more ways than one.

H. Rider Haggard, When the World Shook. Ancient worship on a South Seas Island, reincarnation, sorcery and a struggle to prevent apocalypse.

Research continues to discover which of the shortlisted titles secured the favour of the anonymous judges. But did they overlook any which should have been on their list? And which of the seven should they have chosen for the 1919 Proserpine Prize?

Mark Valentine

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bookmonger Podcast Interview with Dale Nelson

There is a new short (around ten minutes) interview with Dale Nelson, talking about his short story collection Lady Stanhope's Manuscript and Other Stories (2017) and the M.R. James tradition.  The interview is part of the Bookmonger podcasts at The National ReviewLink here.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Wormwood 31


Wormwood 31 (Autumn 2018) has just been published.

Reggie Oliver on Robert Aickman:

“Aickman might be said to be exploring not so much Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” as the evil of banality.”

Doug Anderson on Phyllis Paul:


“What does keep the reader going is the eccentric cast of minor characters . . .”

John Howard on Mack Reynolds:


“In Reynolds’ utopias an element of subversion—revolution—is also necessary . . .”

Colin Insole on Hope Mirrlees:

“The ghosts parade and strut on the streets and bridges”

Ibrahim Ineke on book-collecting in Den Haag:


“My passion has a slight resemblance to the rawer and aesthetically less satisfying habit of gambling”

Paul M Chapman on the Decadent Conan Doyle:

“His work often echoed Poe's ‘love for the grotesque and the terrible’”

Tony Mileman on the golden age of Czech fantasy:

“What if reading were a dangerous activity? What if you could, literally, disappear into a text?”

Mat Joiner on Jocelyn Brooke:

“And who are the other lot? ‘I only wish I knew’”

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Episodes of Cathedral History - An M R James Conference in 2019


Following their highly enjoyable M R James Conference, ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ in September 2018, the organisers, The Friends of Count Magnus, have announced a similar event next year.

‘Episodes of Cathedral History’ will be held over 3 days this time, from 24-26 September 2019 in York. The theme will be James’s connection to the glass and manuscripts of York Minster. The conference will also celebrate the centenary of the first publication of James’ collection A Thin Ghost and Others.

More details are to follow before too long, with the aim of opening for bookings before Christmas. Meanwhile, the Friends will be revamping their website, which may therefore be temporarily unavailable for short periods.

For those who could not attend this year, a podcast about the conference, including interviews with the organisers and some speakers, is available at A Podcast to the Curious.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Cricket in Babylon - W W Masters' Murder in the Mirror


In W W Masters’ Murder in the Mirror (Longmans, 1931), a young man finds himself at the wicket in a village cricket match, suffering from a complete memory loss. He is bewildered, but plays on (as if he had been trained to such a priority, he notices), says nothing to anyone else, and begins to piece together a few fragments.

After his innings finishes, he finds out the date by looking over the scorer’s shoulder (9 July – the birthday of Mervyn Peake, Barbara Cartland and Thomas Ligotti, amongst others).

He hopes also to discover his name, but it emerges that he is a passing stranger, who had been roped in to the side to take the place of a missing player. He is therefore shown in the scorebook, as is the usual practice in cricket, under the name of A N Other. Yet when he finds his clothes, a tobacco pouch also has the initials ‘A.N.O.’

The scene shifts to a parson in the East End, who is being threatened by a mysterious oriental figure somewhat in the tradition of Dr Fu Manchu and Dr Nikola: and we then follow the priest to a holiday with three friends in Dorset. Some of them are strangely drawn to a book of Babylonian legends in the library. And then, one by one, they begin to disappear. Clues seem to lead to a sinister figure living in a caravan parked inconspicuously in the downs.

Allen J. Hubin in ‘The Golden Age of British Mystery Fiction’ notes: “W. W. Masters and his only work Murder in the Mirror . . . are about as obscure as they come. But the story is not without merit. The theme is psychic or supernatural menace, with which battle must be waged; I was reminded of the later books by Jack Mann. And quite a nice surprise climaxes the story . . . Babylon, magic, mind control and murder are all effectively worked into the story.”

The tone is quite like Buchan’s, as is the framework: the style is brisk and forceful. The surprise ending delivers a fundamental twist , subverting much of what has gone before: this will appear clever and audacious to some, or a bit too contrived for others, depending on taste. Charles Williams, in one of his detective fiction reviews (21 January 1931), says, “The actual method of the mystery ought, I think, to have been explained a little more; it is hardly intelligible as it stands.” I think that is a little severe, but it is true that the reader is left at the end to infer quite a lot.

Nevetheless, Williams goes on: “The book, I want to make clear, is a good idea, which just fails to get across.” That, I think, is a fair summation. It is original and clever, but a bit too much so; some subtle preparation for what is to come would have been better.

This was not, as Hubin thought, Masters’ only book. His first publication seems to have been Air-Ways, A Story for Boys and Girls, issued by the subsidy publisher Stockwell of Ilfracombe, Devon, in 1927. But more interestingly he was also the author of an earlier occult thriller, Eleven (Chapman & Hall, 1929).

In this, a group of bored young men are interrupted one evening by a stranger who steps into the room from the garden, bearing in his hand a vial of poison. He challenges them to a deadly game. His task is to eliminate them all, one by one: theirs is to outwit him and avoid extinction. The general idea might have been suggested by aspects of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, although the atmosphere is again more like Buchan’s chase thrillers.

I have been unable to find out anything about W W Masters. When I was looking for his books, the only other copy of Murder in the Mirror I discovered was in a bookshop in Kathmandu, which seemed strangely appropriate for so elusive a figure. It isn't there now.

Mark Valentine

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

Fiction
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)

Other
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

Leanthropy

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 Amazon.com with these links:  $35 hardcover,  or $24 trade paperback.

Order via Amazon.co.uk 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