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, save for the precise nature and contents of one book:  Elliott O'Donnell's Ghost Hunters (1971). If anyone has the book, and can share a scan or photo of the table of contents, I'll be grateful. 

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.