Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guest Post: False Memory Syndrome in Arthur Machen’s “The Children of the Pool” by Dale Nelson

Published by Hutchinson in 1936, “The Children of the Pool” is the title story in Machen’s late six-tale collection.  Vacationing in Wales, the story’s narrator (hereafter “Machen”) unexpectedly finds himself the guest of an old friend, James Roberts, who is staying in a cottage somewhere “on the Welsh border.” 

Their first conversation is a cheerful one. However, when they meet again, “Machen” finds Roberts looking wretched and dismayed.  Roberts soon explains that he’d visited the “ugly” pool, and later had taken a walk in the woods, when he heard a nasty, accusing, though feminine voice call to him. 

It spoke to him of wickedness he’d committed many years before.  Roberts remembered his iniquitous conduct as something “‘done with very soon after it was begun.  It was no more than a bad dream.’”  But now “‘it all flashed back on me like deadly lightning,’” with plenty of circumstantial detail.  Moreover, that same night, after he went to bed, Roberts again heard the voice, which promised that Roberts would be compelled to confess his vile behavior to all his friends.  He heard the voice yet again the following night.  However, when “Machen” stays at the cottage with him, Roberts sleeps peacefully.  “Machen” convinces Roberts to continue his holiday in a resort at the other end of England, and Roberts is no longer troubled.

The narrator, in the story's penultimate paragraph, finds the key in something said by the psychologist Koffka (a real person, 1886-1941), as expressed by a reviewer of his Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).  Kurt Koffka, the reviewer observed, insisted "that the 'sadness' which we attribute to a particular landscape is really and efficiently in the landscape and not merely in ourselves; and consequently that the landscape can affect us and produce results in us.” 

“Machen” adds that “Poe, who knew many secrets, knew this.”  One recalls Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher."  In its long first paragraph, we read: "beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of...affecting us" -- although it's beyond us to analyze this power.

So it isn't that people project onto things some notions that they bring to the act of perception, but that the objects may project into us some influence that, combining with our memories and imaginations, produces emotional and imaginative effects.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Morgan, knows that other people have had some sort of bad experiences associated with the pool.  This underscores the reality of its malign influence.

“Machen” comes to believe that his old friend received from the unpleasant-looking pool and its immediate surroundings an "effect" that worked upon his memory of an entanglement that occurred many years ago, when Roberts was a naïve young man living in London for the first time.  He learns that Roberts was staying with a family named Watts, which included two sisters -- Justine, who was his own age (and evidently attracted to Roberts), and Helen, who was a few years older. 

Roberts was detected, by the younger sister, behaving with Helen in a way that got him into trouble with Helen's father when Justine told him about it.  I suppose Roberts was kissing and cuddling with Helen, or perhaps had proceeded to more intimate relations, and that he had been led on to this by Helen herself ("there were extenuating circumstances in his offence, and excuses for his wrongdoing").**   Whatever happened, Mr. Watts was enraged at first and expelled Roberts, but did not end up telling Roberts’s employer about it, apparently because his daughter was much at fault.

What Roberts suffered at the time was intense embarrassment, likely enough a sense that he had known better than to get involved with the older sister all along, and perhaps guilt, if he actually had had sexual relations with her – and expulsion from his lodgings. 

Many years later, then, after Roberts saw the unpleasant pool, its configuration of objects, of light and shadow, etc., evoked in him false memories -- i.e., real memories entangled with imagination – so that he felt a terrible sense of guilt over wicked acts that had, in fact, never occurred, but seemed to Roberts really to have happened – even “a sin before which the sun hid his face.”

The voice that seemed to speak to him was, presumably, that of Justine.  We are told that she had a voice like a peacock’s, and Roberts says that the accusing voice he heard was “‘shrill, piercing,’” a “‘scream,’” and certainly that of a girl.

The story’s narrator associates this bizarre experience with de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  In that book, a favorite of Machen's, there are reflections on dreams, distorted memories, etc.  For example, under the influence of the drug, the "Eater" has dreadful impressions of crowding faces, which were derived from the daily encounter with London's multitudes, but made dreadful by the agency of the drug. 

The pool acts on Roberts somewhat as opium acted upon the Eater.  Consider the Eater's suffering abysmal guilt: "I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at” (my italics).  In both cases, we have someone's guilty hallucinations.

“Machen” thinks of an unnamed author who described how Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came to be written, the poet “unconsciously” drawing on his “vast reading.”  This author is assuredly John Livingston Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu (1927).  Since Poe, de Quincey, Coleridge, Lowes, and Koffka worked together, with other elements, in Machen’s imagination, “The Children of the Pool” is akin to “The Rime” in Lowes’s account, as a literary work whose author is indebted to earlier writings, but who has made something new.
Unlike Coleridge, “Machen” says (or like the fantasist Machen himself), Roberts lacked poetic imagination and hadn’t made a poem or a story of his experience.  Instead, it had gone on living in his mind, getting uglier and uglier till it was brought suddenly into startling consciousness.  Like the “‘rank-looking [plant by the pool], covered with dull crimson blossoms, all bloated out and speckled like a toad,’” it grew and swelled “in the darkness” of his mind till it burst into light.

By the way, while I don't agree with all that Julia Shaw says in her recent book The Memory Illusion (indeed, I've read only parts of it), there are things in it pertinent for Machen's story of memory here.***  Julia Shaw argues that “there are hundreds of books, TV shows and movies that portray hypnosis as a key that can allow access to hidden memories.  Unfortunately, this is completely untrue” (The Memory Illusion, p. 128).  She finds that “if used during therapy, suggestive and probing questions combined with hypnosis have the potential to generate complex and vivid false memories of trauma” (p. 129).  As Machen's story suggests, "recovered memories" are likely to be false. 

Machen's story, I suppose, is not a story of the "supernatural" but of the preternatural -- and it can be, for us, a cautionary tale about the use of "memories" in legal contexts.  Machen's narrator acts basically as an attorney who gathers evidence to defend his client from the prosecution – only, in the story, it was Roberts's "memory," his response to the pool, and his conscience that together had become the prosecution!





Notes


*It seems that the name "Helen"  was still one that Machen's imagination associated with an attractive, dangerous woman -- cf. "The Great God Pan," written many years earlier.

**See the similar predicament of Johnny Eames, in Victorian author Anthony Trollope's popular novel The Small House at Allington.  Country-bred Eames gets entangled with Amelia Roper, who lives in the same London lodgings and leads him to compromise himself.

***Shaw is worth reading indeed given our culture's fascination over the past several decades with so-called "recovered memories."  If one remembers the "satanic ritual abuse" panic, or the fat book of "recovered memories" of UFO experiences by John Mack called Abduction, etc. – to say nothing of some more recent high-profile news stories -- one will find parts of her book intriguing. 


© Dale Nelson, 2019.  This article is based on a comment posted to the Eldritch Dark Forums on 12 August 2019.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Man in the Battered Silk Hat – A Prophet in Bronte Country


The mid-20th century novels of Howard Spring are I suppose not much read now, but they were once very popular. Perhaps his greatest success, Fame is the Spur (1940), will still be recognised, but few of his score or so other titles may jog memories. The present neglect seems to under-value his work, which has sound story-telling qualities and picturesque characters, and draws on his own varied experiences. He was born in unpromising circumstances, had little schooling, and made his way in writing the hard way through provincial journalism, book reviewing and slowly crafting his own fiction.

In the third volume of his memoirs, And Another Thing (1946), Spring recalls his days as a journalist in Bradford, Yorkshire, in his early twenties. One day, when he was in the neighbouring Pennine town of Keighley, he relates, he came upon ‘a knot of people surrounding a speaker in an open place. He was a cadaverous person, wearing a battered silk hat, calling himself Dr Nikola, and he made a habit of going from town to town belittling the Bible by reciting a garbled version of its folk-lore . . .’ (p.185). What the Pennine prophet preached was not just atheism but also republicanism and other firebrand beliefs, and after a while the authorities became so perturbed by the crowds he was gathering that they decided he must be made to desist. But on what charge could they arrest him?

Dowager duchesses who refused to pay National Insurance stamps for their servants, as required by new Liberal welfare legislation, did not face charges, Spring notes, yet a way was soon found to silence this eccentric character: “he was arrested soon after under the Blasphemy Acts and sent to prison”. Spring, himself a man of pious faith, adds that he pities “this trivial half-wit.” But if he was just that, simply deluded, why was it deemed so important to put a stop to his activities?

Now this episode struck me as somewhat singular. Dr Nikola was the hypnotic occult mastermind created by Guy Boothby in several late-Victorian thrillers, a sort of forerunner of Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu. The adventures started in A Bid for Fortune (1895), which is sometimes entitled Enter, Dr Nikola!, and continued just a year later in the next book in the series, Dr Nikola (1896), also known as Dr Nikola Returns. There were three further books in the series, all separate adventures: The Lust of Hate (1898), Dr Nikola’s Experiment (1899) and “Farewell, Nikola” (1901). His adventures were enormously popular, though by the time of the itinerant speaker that Spring recalls, circa 1911-12, they may have faded from view a little. What made Spring’s visionary choose this name?

Well, there are frequent hints throughout the books that Dr Nikola has subtle occult powers. He is a mesmerist, certainly, and can cause his victims to see visions. He pitches his heightened mind into unknown realms and undertakes astral journeys that allow him to see scenes distant in space and time. He has a strong sense of his own destiny, which forces him on in his remorseless quest for hidden knowledge. None of these powers are used to excess, however, for they evidently require great concentration and will.

There may be more to the visionary vagrant's chosen name than was obvious to his chronicler. Keighley is a valley town, but there rises from it on almost all sides the bare hills that are known to literary fame as ‘Wuthering Heights’: the Bronte village of Haworth is four miles away over these moors. Despite some fine Arts & Crafts public buildings, it is not a town that presently seems suggestive of the mystic. But this was not always so. As Kai Roberts recounts in an excellent essay on ‘The Victorian Occult Revival in West Yorkshire’, the West Riding settlement was once a thriving centre of esoteric thought.

Indeed, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was specifically founded in London in antipathy to rumours of a similar order in Keighley which was regarded with disfavour by the metropolitan mages. Further, the great Austrian occult writer Gustav Meyrink, author of The Golem, corresponded with an ancient sage who lived near Keighley, and his Vienna circle the Order of the Blue Star drew upon this savant’s teachings. The Yorkshire town was also among the first where Spiritualism took hold in Britain, and later Anthroposophy. So the itinerant Dr Nikola that Howard Spring encountered, as a young Edwardian journalist, must be seen in a much wider and unusual context.

But thereafter this ‘Dr Nikola’ seems to have vanished and I have found no other record of him, or what became of him after prison. And though he may not have fully grasped what The Man in the Battered Silk Hat was about, and nor can we quite grasp it all now either, we must be grateful at least that Howard Spring preserved some memory of him.

MV

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Margaret Enid Griffiths - Early Vaticination in Welsh

I was pleased to pick this up the other day, a study of medieval Welsh prophecies.  It was a favourite book when I was studying years ago and draws from a huge amount of manuscript material from Peniarth Manuscripts and Llanstephan Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales.  There is also a lot on Welsh folklore and, as you would expect, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the four ancient books of Wales, which are replete with prophetic material.  My interest was the later medieval period, particularly prophecies relating to the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, which Shakespeare had Hotspur joke about in Henry IV Part 1:

I cannot choose: sometime he angers me
With telling me of the mouldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies,
And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clip-wing'd griffin and a moulten raven,
A couching lion and a ramping cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
As puts me from my faith.

This gets the flavour of Welsh prophecy quite right and must have been amusing to Shakespeare's audience.

The author of Early Vaticination in Welsh is Margaret Enid Griffiths about whom I knew nothing except the note in foreword that the book was based on her MA thesis and that she had died tragically aged 26.
Searching through digitised newspapers uncovers a few more facts about her life.  She was a gifted student at Aberystwyth (not surprising, then, the use of all that manuscript material at the National Library of Wales), who gained a double first and a MA.  A short notice in the Western Mail & South Wales News of 4 July 1930 provides more information:

"Miss M. Enid Griffiths, who died suddenly at the early age of 26 years at the residence of her parents, Mr John Griffiths, M.E., and Mrs Griffiths, Tremle, Treorchy, was a distinguished student at Aberystwyth University College, where she a achieved a "Double First" and later took her M.A. degree with distinction. A host of old college friends deplore her death.  For the last four years she was the English mistress at Porth County School and was exceedingly popular both with the staff and pupils.  Her dramatic ability was outstanding, and the Welsh drama movement has lost by her death one of its most promising devotees.

A representative gathering assembled for the funeral on Thursday, the burial being in Treorchy Cemetery.  The funeral was among the largest every seen in the district, and sympathisers lined the streets to pay a tribute of esteem."


One wonders what might have been.  

The book was edited by her thesis supervisor T. Gwynn Jones and published by the University of Wales Press in 1937.  It remains a landmark volume and is still cited today.

The book itself is a nice association copy as it is Gwynn Jones' own copy.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

DULCIE DEAMER - THE DEVIL'S SAINT

First published in 1924, Dulcie Deamer's witchcraft novel, The Devil's Saint, has recently been reprinted by Ramble House with my 2014 Wormwood article about the author as the introduction.  Deamer was a writer, occultist and all-round Bohemian, a fixture in the Kings Cross literary scene in the 1920s, 30s and beyond.  Certainly her occult interests are highlighted in this book, which includes all sorts of magical lore from her wide reading on the subject.  It's also a racy love story that ends on an up-beat note.  A portion of it was reprinted as a short story in an Australian literary magazine illustrated by Norman Lindsay, and previously posted on Wormwoodiana.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Off Finisterre - Horton Giddy


Reading in old copies of The Listener, the BBC wireless magazine, from the 1930s, I found, in the issue for 11 November 1936 (Vol XVI, No 409), a half-page review by Grace Wyndham Goldie, a regular columnist, of a radio play by the splendidly-named Horton Giddy. The drama was entitled ‘Off Finisterre’: and it was a ghost story.

The review begins by praising previous plays by Giddy, entitled ‘In the Shadow’, ‘Congo Landing’, and ‘Mary at Lochleven’. Goldie describes him as ‘that rare and valuable phenomenon, a genuine radio dramatist’, presumably as distinct from stage dramatists or short-story writers who adapted their works for the wireless. Each of the plays listed is good, she says, but more impressive is that each is a vast improvement on the one before, the sign of an increasing ‘mastery of radio technique’. But he is not solemn or pompous: ‘He is an entertainer, a teller of stories which have some thrill or excitement in them’. The first of those listed was about ‘ships waiting for a declaration of war’, the second about ‘an aeroplane crash in the jungle’ and the third about the escape of Mary, Queen of Scots, from a castle.

‘Off Finisterre’, however, is about the spirit of a young bride who died aboard ship as it was in the coastal waters of the title. Each time the vessel passes the same point, a fog seems to descend (not unusual in those parts) and her ghost is seen. Some misfortune always follows. She is seen in the play by ‘an impressionable young poet’. The story, says the reviewer, was ‘gripping and exciting’, and she praises too the production, by Peter Cresswell, which conveyed an ‘atmosphere of eeriness’, with a ‘very skilful handling of background noises, particularly . . . [the] balance of fog-horns and silences’, with the passengers wandering about the fog-bound ship, and their hushed conversations, fading in and out. Also impressive, she says, was the sparing use of the spirit’s voice, and the scene when her husband, returning from the East on the same ship, goes to meet her.

I do not think many radio plays from that period have survived as recordings or even as scripts, so this description of the spectral drama may well be all we have to remember it. Sometimes they might find published form, adapted as plays for amateur theatrical groups, but this does not seem to be the case for ‘Off Finisterre’ or indeed any other play by Giddy. His only publication in The British Library catalogue is a novel, Interval Ashore (1936), about a young naval officer rescuing White Russians from Odessa after the collapse of the Tsarist cause in the Russian Civil War.

Giddy was writing about what he knew because as a young officer, aged 19, he had taken part, as the second-in-command of a motor boat, in a daring raid of August 1919 to sink a Bolshevik battleship and other vessels off the coast of Finland. He was at first presumed killed in action, but had in fact been taken prisoner and was eventually released some months later. Probably therefore he also took part in the Black Sea episode described in his novel, or else knew officers who had.

Osman Cyril Horton Giddy was born on 24 April 1900 to Osman Horton Giddy (1867-1938) and Ruby Margaret Giddy (1876-1921) of Long Ditton, Surrey. His father was a solicitor. He attended Shrewsbury House Preparatory School, Surbiton, until 1912 and went from there to navy colleges until 1916, when he joined HMS Minotaur as a midshipman, and saw action at the Battle of Jutland. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the 1919 action. He served in the navy in the Second World War too, and died on 7 January 1980, when he was living at The Esplanade, Worthing.

As well as his radio plays, Horton Giddy also wrote a few short stories and his stage play, Contraband, with a Ruritanian theme, was made into a 1934 Elstree Studios film, The Luck of A Sailor. Other radio plays, as well as those mentioned in the review, include a crime mystery, ‘My Life With Ernest Rule’, about a poisoner; and ‘Nobby Clark and the Parrot’ (1939), a nautical comedy. He was evidently a fairly prolific professional writer with a vivid imagination and a versatile pen.

‘Off Finisterre’ was first broadcast on 28 October 1936, with a cast of fifteen, and the programme note reads: ‘The entire action of the play takes place on board a liner crossing the Bay of Biscay, on the return voyage from the East.’ The characters include General Sir George Colley and his wife Lady Colley and son Derek, Dr Cameron, the ship’s doctor, a passenger called Ross (who may be the sensitive young poet mentioned), and various crew and stewards, plus a role simply described as ‘A Voice’, presumably the disembodied tones of the ghost. I‘m not sure how they got the sounds of fog-horns in the studio: they may have had recordings, but I like to think they rounded up a few itinerant tuba players to let loose at appropriate intervals.

There was a different performance of the play on Christmas Day 1948, in the Mystery Playhouse series, an interesting example of the association of ghost stories with the midwinter festival. Grace Wyndham Goldie’s keen description of the play and the production (she was not always so impressed by the radio dramas, and did not hesitate to say so) make it seem distinctly a loss if indeed nothing of the work has survived.

MV

Photograph of Horton Giddy: Shrewsbury House Roll of Service.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Faber & Faber: A Biased History

The old saw goes something like this: History is written by the victors.  And if that isn't precisely correct, history, as written, is at least shaped by various prejudices. This is particularly true of literary history, and a newly published example is Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Fisher.

This book purports to tell the story of Faber & Faber from its founding in 1924 as Faber & Gwyer (it became Faber & Faber in 1929) to 1990.  It is basically an anthology of extracts from the publisher's (private) archive, compiled by Toby Faber, the grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber. In one sense it does just that, but it tells a very slanted tale, highlighting Toby Faber's view of Faber as "the home of literary Modernism" (104).  So if you're interested in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, W.H. Auden, etc., you'll find much of great interest in this book.  If you are interested in the dynamics of literary publishing in the 1920s onward (the coverage of the early years through the Second World War is especially good), ditto. And it's nice to recall the days (now extinct) when an editor had the autonomy to publish almost anything, whereas nowadays everything is overseen by timorous editorial boards which are in turn dominated by the number-crunchers and marketing zealots obsessed only with immediate enlargements of the bottom line.

But if you are interested in the eclectic books that Faber published over the decades you won't find much here to satisfy your appetite.  Fantasy and supernatural literature, and science fiction, are given short-shrift.  If Faber's early fantasy novel Elnovia (1925) hadn't been written by founder Geoffrey Faber himself, I doubt it would even have been mentioned. (I reviewed Elnovia in my "Late Reviews" column in Wormwood no. 15, Autumn, 2010; my review is reprinted in my 2018 collection Late Reviews.)  Despite Richard de la Mare's central involvement with the firm for over four decades, the numerous Faber & Faber publications by his father, Walter de la Mare, are barely mentioned. (There is no mention at all of his brother Colin's single book, They Walk Again (1931), the anthology of weird stories that re-introduced William Hope Hodgson to the reading public.)

From scanning my own shelves for Faber titles I would have loved to read more about in this book, I find most aren't even mentioned at all.  There is a sort of shadow history of Faber & Faber that is completely neglected.  For example, I'd love to know more about the publication of Kenneth Morris's signal collection, The Secret Mountain and Other Tales (1926), beautifully illustrated in an art-deco style by K. Romney Towndrow.  Or of the publication of E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses (1935), of Donald Macpherson's two intriguing novels (see here), or of the last two novels of Charles Williams.

There is virtually nothing about science fiction in this book, though Faber & Faber had a long history of publishing good science fiction since the 1950s.  None of the many such writers they published are covered: Brian Aldiss, James Blish, Robert Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, or Christopher Priest, not to mention anthologists like Basil Davenport or Edmund Crispin.

So what we are left with in Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is a perfectly readable but heavily slanted and partisan book. Intriguing in some ways, yet disappointing in other ways.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Electricity Sub-Stations of Stoke-on-Trent - Anwyl Cooper-Willis


One of my earliest poems, for which I even got paid, was about an electricity sub-station, contrasting its well-manicured lawn and cypress trees to the run-down estate where it was situated.

These little buildings, which usually sit in their own fenced enclave, with grass, gravel or paving slabs, and neat shrubs, are often met with on walks in strange or familiar places, and despite their outwardly functional character seem to exude an air of quiet mystery.

It is somehow hard to avoid the notion that they are not quite what they seem: that there might be something else other than electricity manifestation going on inside them. You wonder whether they emanate curious colours at certain times of day or night, or if sometimes sinister figures emerge from them and engage in enigmatic transactions.

So I was just the right sort of reader and collector to appreciate a find at an artists' book fair: Anwyl Cooper-Willis’ A6 booklet of photographs and captions portraying some of The Electricity Sub-Stations of Stoke-on-Trent (scroll down to view: to order use the contact page).

The electricity sub-stations of Britain are to be found in a pleasing array of architectural styles – Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, Tudorbethan, Modernist, Brutalist, and simply Downright Odd. They are often now rather scruffy and neglected, adding a further element of decay and semi-dereliction to their appeal.

This engrossing publication reflects pretty much the full range of these styles and adroitly captures their curious character, and rather lonely beauty.

MV

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Old King Cole - Edward Shanks


Edward Shanks was a poet, reviewer and essayist associated with J C Squire at the London Mercury and part of the Georgian coterie known as ‘the Squirearchy’. But he was also a novelist, noted for his fantasy of a future Britain after a revolution, The People of the Ruins (1920), and for his long saga of Bohemian life, Queer Street (1933) and a sequel, The Enchanted Village (also 1933). What is less well-known is that he was also the author of an occult thriller.

In his last novel, Old King Cole (1936; The Dark Green Circle in the USA), a young retired Major (a stock figure of many English thrillers of this period) named Laver has a personal aircraft, an auto-gyro, rather like a helicopter. Hovering above the countryside one day, he notices a great green circle marked out in the ground below, and supposes it must be an ancient earthwork. Landing, he finds an enormous recumbent monolith, but the green embankments cannot easily be discerned.

This scene reflects contemporary developments in historical field-work. The archaeologist O G S Crawford, who had carried out reconnaissance in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and was now working for the Ordnance Survey, was among the first to realise that aerial photographs taken by the RAF and amateur fliers could reveal previously undiscovered prehistoric, Roman or later remains: and he commissioned further, specialised aerial surveys. Shanks had evidently heard about this new approach.

When Laver investigates further, he finds a seemingly tranquil, idyllic little village, Temple Overroads, nearby, but it has a ‘curious’ atmosphere. It seems watchful, and does not welcome strangers. He learns that the local squire, Cole, claims very ancient descent and is obsessed by the Romans, still regretting the 5th century withdrawal of the legions from Britain.

But he is no quaint antiquarian, for he also admires their rule, and is himself an autocrat: ‘You see, he directs everything and the people are so dependent on him that if his attention were to slacken they would be helpless,’ says the parson, a cousin of his. He is talking about the village sports day, but it is clear a wider application is meant. Later we learn that a 17th century journal describes the village as ‘the one piece of Britain that was never conquered after the Romans went, not by the Angles and the Saxons nor yet by the Normans, so that it is still verily a kingdom itself and its lord admits it to be a part of England only by courtesy . . .’

The village, including the vicarage and church, is rich in images of the classical gods, and there is a mosaic in the garden of the manor house with a sinister sacrificial scene. ‘It is believed,’ says Cole, ‘to represent Agamemnon giving his daughter, Iphigenia, to be offered up as a sacrifice’. And he adds that there is a tradition one of his ancestors did something similar on the great stone on the hill to win victory in battle.

The pilot involves Dr Dyson, an archaeologist acquaintance of his, in looking into the matter. Dyson is excited by the discovery. ‘Bigger than Avebury,’ he proclaims, and posits a buried stone circle beneath the banks. We are bound to recall the Mr Dyson who was Machen’s antiquarian savant in The Three Impostors (1895) and other stories, though Shanks’ character is rather more like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, a boisterous, bluff individual. Still, the name may well be a nod to Machen’s fiction, because Shanks’ story indeed soon echoes one of his themes, surviving pagan practices in secretive country.

There are implications of the supernatural in Shanks’ book: premonitions, the baleful hold the squire seems to have over the villagers, and the uncanny atmosphere. But he draws back from following Machen in making these more overt, and he does not have the Welsh author’s lyrical, evocative prose when invoking lonely country. Even so Old King Cole clearly draws on stories of antiquarian horror. Hints suggest that a young woman, effectively a ward of the squire, might soon be involved in a re-enactment of the ritual in the mosaic, to safeguard the village's independence. There is a thrilling Buchan-esque climax when Laver, Dyson and their allies pitch themselves against this.

His novel is also, though, a harbinger of allegories involving autocratic conspiracies in the English landscape that appeared in the next two decades, such as Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) or Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950). In all three books, there are authority figures who talk about preserving order against an approaching darkness and chaos, and who exercise a sinister influence over their followers: the analogies to the politics of the period are obvious. In Shanks’ book this theme is allied to an ancient but revived cult involving old gods and rites.

It may also be seen as a forerunner of another noted work. A local squire who rules over a secluded community; an interfering stranger who arrives by air; an aversion to outside interference; signs of continuing pagan practices; preparations for a sacrifice. Aspects of Edward Shanks’ Old King Cole seem to presage a well-known 1970s film with a similar plot, though there is no mention that his villagers are accomplished in wicker-work.

MV

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Ghostly Company


A Ghostly Company is a small, friendly and informal group of ghost story enthusiasts who meet two or three times a year for weekends involving talks, story readings and visits to ancient places, but most of all good company.

Pilgrimages have been made to towns and cities linked to M R James and his successors, to William Hope Hodgson, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The next two gatherings will be in Hereford in October and Chester in late March 2020, and the group is always open to suggestions for other places to visit.

Although most of these excursions are in Britain, the group has also had and is planning European weekends, and has overseas members who enjoy its publications.

The society also shares messages about relevant books, films and events, issues a newsletter and publishes The Silent Companion, a journal of new original supernatural fiction. New members are welcome. If you would like to share your enjoyment of ghost stories with like-minded enthusiasts, this could be just the group for you.

MV

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Northern Lighthouse Board


The Northern Lighthouse Board is a self-titled eighteen track CD album of instrumental pieces on the always interesting Reverb Worship label (scroll down to the 5 June announcement), whose releases are often inspired by the uncanny and macabre.

The album is described as “a rather wonderful and mysterious disc of recordings which features soundscapes for victorian séances and nocturnal forest gatherings. Abandoned lighthouses, possessed goats, occulted moons and haunted doll houses.”

The two brief opening tracks use M R James stories for their titles, ‘After Dark in the Playing Fields’ and ‘The Haunted Doll’s House’, and other pieces have similarly eerie references, invoking the moon, haunted woods, witches and revenants. The music involves sinister synthesizer swathes, doleful, doomy and slow-moving. Bleats, birdsong, tolling bells and distorted voices occasionally intrude.

It is all splendidly like the half-preserved soundtrack to a forgotten low-budget Nineteen Seventies (oc)cult film. To be enjoyed while perusing your well-thumbed, luridly-covered paperbacks of Blackwood, Machen and Hope Hodgson.

The CD is in a limited edition of only 40 copies. Some of the pieces are also available digitally via bandcamp.

MV

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Wormwoodiana: The Tenth Anniversary of This Blog

Yes, it's hard to believe it, but the first two posts on this blog date from 22 June 2009, ten years ago.  Since then we've had some 575+ posts by Mark Valentine, myself, James Doig, and a number of other people (including guest posts).  So herewith a hearty thanks to all of the contributors to Wormwoodiana, and to our readers and commentators. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Guest Post - Outsider Literature, Part 2, by R B Russell


Part One of this post suggested that Outsider Literature might follow rules set down by Art Brut and Outsider Art, which would mean that an Outsider Writer should be self-taught, compelled to write without thought of publication, and should not have been recognised by the literary establishment. Additionally, Outsider Writing should be at pains to keep itself free from writers who have simply failed to make the grade.

However, very few candidates for Outsider Writer status fulfil all of these requirements. Take, for example, the American Joseph Gould (1889-1957) who claimed to have written the longest book ever, An Oral History of the Contemporary World (only fragments of which have been found and published.) Gould was eccentric and often homeless, but he worked for the New York Evening Mail, and had his work commented on by both Edward J. O’Brien (editor of Best American Short Stories) and Ezra Pound.

These connections make him much less of an Outsider than, say, the Australian Sandor Berger, a character well-known in Sydney for walking around wearing placards and handing out leaflets with the message ‘Psychiatry is Evil’. (He arrived in Sydney in 1952 and died, aged eighty-one, in 2006.) During his time in Sydney, Sandor was driven to self-publish countless books and booklets, including poetry and his letters to newspaper editors. He doesn’t appear to have had any connections, or success, but nobody has seriously suggested that his work ‘makes the grade’.

The appreciation of any art is subjective, but in defining Outsider Literature a certain quality threshold is required, unless the writing is to simply be laughed at. This would suggest that Outsider Literature should exclude an author like the Irishwoman Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), who published at her own expense and who is described by the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature as ‘Uniquely dreadful’. She might be seen as the literary equivalent of the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919) whose major self-published work presented the theory that man is descended from frogs.

A better candidate might be the British writer Anna Kavan (1901-1968), but, despite a troubled life, she was published several times by the very reputable publishing house of Cape, which, surely, makes her a literary establishment insider. Kavan is a good example of the problem facing Outsider Artists generally — they are often associated with unconventional life-styles, left-field ideas, elaborate fantasy lives and sometimes serious mental health problems. This gives rise to the suspicion that the writers/artists and their problems are more important than their work, and that there is a ‘freak show’ element to any interest in them.

The Pepsi-Cola Addict
by June Allison Gibbons, for example, is a self published novel that sells (if you can find a copy) for a very high price, but interest in the book stems mainly from the fact that its author was one of the ‘silent twins’ who were sentenced to indefinite detention in Broadmoor Hospital (for a few petty crimes) purely because of the girls’ refusal to communicate with others. By any standards, The Pepsi-Cola Addict is not very good, and surely the writing needs to be more important than the story of the writer (no matter how related these are.)

The authors above fulfil certain requirements of Outsider Writing, although not all of them. It is tempting to allow some leeway, not least in terms of the desire for publication. A compromise might be to allow within the classification books that are self- or vanity-published.

All of the above authors have had the term Outsider applied to them retrospectively by third parties, but what should we make of contemporary authors who claim, themselves, to be Outsiders? I am inclined to believe that an ambition to be an Outsider Writer is one of the qualities that should preclude inclusion within the classification.

I have come to few definite conclusions about the validity of the terms Outsider Writer or Outsider Writing, not least because there are some potential candidates who appear to break all the rules. A case in point may be Colin Wilson himself, whose book The Outsider is in some ways a progenitor of the nascent Outsider Writing movement. Famously, The Outsider was written in the British Museum Reading Room at a time when Wilson was sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but publication by Gollancz, critical acclaim and best-seller status brought him firmly within the precincts of the literary establishment. (For a short time he was considered one of the ‘angry young men’, alongside John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.)

However, Wilson’s career thereafter saw him move slowly into Outsider territory. He was driven to write and was widely-published, but fiction and non-fiction on subjects such as true crime, mysticism and the paranormal damaged his reputation as literary critic and philosopher. Books such as The Occult, A Historyy (1971) sold very well, but the critics generally disliked his work — Philip Toynbee described Wilson as ‘much battered by reviewers’. Critics have even gone back to find fault with The Outsider. Colin Wilson was slowly pushed to the margins, published by more and more specialist and esoteric publishers, and by the end of his life in 2013 he had become a cult figure, as far from the establishment as can be imagined.

To be taken seriously, Outsider Writing must establish what its requirements are. But, perhaps, its own rules will have to be broken, especially by genuine Outsiders.

R B Russell

Monday, June 17, 2019

Guest Post - Outsider Literature, Part 1, by R B Russell


A few years ago any use of the term Outsider with reference to literature would probably have been an allusion to Albert Camus and his 1942 novel L’Étranger, often translated as The Outsider, or to Colin Wilson’s 1956 study of existentialist literature of the same title which explored the idea of outsiders and their place in society. Of course, definitions vary widely, and outsiders have featured in all forms of writing down the ages, but Outsider Literature has recently become a term that some have applied not to characters or themes in books, but to certain authors.

One blog online has a post about Outsider fiction that describes it as: ‘. . . a cool new genre that we’re hoping will take the world by storm' (www.patricialynne.com, 12th August 2014). Lyndall Gordon’s book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (2017), was widely reviewed and has led to some discussion of what really constitutes Outsiders. (After all, three of the writers—Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf—were well-published in their time.)

Of more interest to readers and collectors of genre or non-mainstream writing is the use of the term Outsider with reference to curious books from the past that have gone unappreciated, especially when their authors have often lived non-conventional lives. Wormwood contributor Adam Daly has recently published two volumes of The Outsider-writer with The Paupers' Press, containing essays about authors whose obvious similarity is simply that they are not well-known in the mainstream. The term Outsider Writer is applied on Wikipedia to Jean-Pierre Brisset, although it does not yet hyper-link to a dedicated entry on the subject. However, an Outsider Literature/Writer page is inevitably on its way . . .

These different applications of the terms Outsider Literature or Outsider Writer appears to have been inspired, in part, by the Outsider Art movement, which has become a successful marketing tool promoted by specialist galleries, art fairs and magazines, and while it is still contentious, it has become widely accepted. It would appear to be a good model for assessing what constitutes an Outsider in literature, and it is worth offering a little background.

Outsider Art was a term first used by the critic Roger Cardinal (Outsider Art, Praeger Publishers, 1972) when searching for a synonym for Art Brut (itself coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet (‘Place à l’incivisme’, Art and Text, No. 27, December 1987–February 1988, p. 36), referring to art undertaken outside the purview of the art establishment. Dubuffet provided a definition of ‘art brut’ that is instructive, recognising only:

‘Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.’

Dubuffet argued that true art brut was ‘more precious than the productions of professionals,’ and the idea was taken up by the Outsider Art movement. However, appreciation of all art is to some degree subjective and the movement claims to be at pains to keep itself free of artists who have simply failed to make the grade. In the tradition of the established art world, certain respected galleries and critics have become gatekeepers, but that is itself problematic: it can be argued that the very term Outsider Art when conferred by this new establishment offers recognition to favoured artists and must therefore mean they have been gathered ‘inside’.

Outsider Literature does not yet have its gatekeepers, although there are some commentators, collectors, and book dealers who are beginning to recognise the classification. There is, as yet, no manifesto or definition, but, perhaps Outsider Literature can take its cues from Outsider Art (while recognising that they are not completely analogous—for example, the long tradition of Art Schools is not replicated in contemporary creative writing classes.)

One celebrated Outsider Artist who should be able to help us define the Outsider Writer is Henry Darger (1892-1973), because his drawings and watercolour paintings illustrate his posthumously discovered fantasy manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls . . . —if he was an Outsider Artist, then he must also have been an Outsider Writer. Another recognised Outsider Artist who also wrote is Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), and the examples of Darger and Wölfli suggests that the Outsider Writer should be defined by work that is self-taught (naïve), driven by a deep-seated need to write rather than publish, and it should not have been recognised by the literary establishment at the time of composition.

In addition to these considerations, to be taken at all seriously as a classification, Outsider Writing should be at pains to be like the Outsider Art movement and keep itself free from writers who simply fail to make the grade.

(Part Two of this blog post will consider a number of writers who might be considered Outsiders.)

R B Russell

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Tea With Mrs Goodman - Philip Toynbee


In Vol XVI, December 1947, of his literary journal Horizon, Cyril Connolly published the replies he had received to a questionnaire asking recipients to name the three best books of that year. ‘The replies are not to be taken as a vote of popularity,’ he said, ‘but as an indication of which books some of our best critics have derived real satisfaction from . . .’ He notes a tendency to choose those later in the year and so fresher in the memory, and also that the response to a book may be influenced by mood and circumstances: holiday books might fare better than ones read in a cold spell.

This last is an interesting observation, although it might be that a book enjoyed by the fire in wintry conditions is relished equally as well as one on a beach. To take an extreme example, Apsley Cherry-Garrard recorded in The Worst Journey in the World (1922) the glee with which the Antarctic expedition he was part of encountered a book “encased in ice” in a previous foray’s hut. It was ‘an incomplete copy of Stanley Weyman’s My Lady Rotha; it was carefully thawed out and read by everybody, and the excitement was increased by the fact that the end of the book was missing’. The book, subtitled, A Romance of the Thirty-Years War, is one of the author’s popular swashbucklers: he was compared to Stevenson and Dumas in his day.

Some of Connolly’s respondents declined to play by the rules. T S Eliot said, ‘I do not get round to reading books so quickly as that’ and instead nominated two, both non-fiction books on Christianity, from the previous year. George Orwell said, ‘Writing this in bed—very unwell. Have read a lot this year but nothing of any value except old books . . .’: and so he nominated classics by Conrad, Henry James and Trollope instead. Of fiction that was published in 1947, L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda was chosen by a few, while Hartley himself included in his choice Connolly’s own The Rock Pool and Elizabeth Jenkins’ Young Enthusiasts.

The book chosen most often, however, by four respondents (Lord Berners, Arthur Koestler, John Russell, and Edward Sackville-West), was Philip Toynbee’s Tea With Mrs Goodman. Koestler added a parenthetic comment: ‘(It breaks the ice, or rather the polished parquet floor, of the contemporary English novel).’ This title was published by Connolly himself at his Horizon imprint.

It is an experimental novel, which includes on page 5 an explanatory ‘Notation of the Book’, with a tiresome diagram showing the plan of the book along a vertical axis (lettered a to g) and a horizontal axis (numbered 1 to 11). This, I think, has the unfortunate effect of suggesting a sort of game, like three-dimensional chess, and the note has the plaintive but still rather opaque quality often found in instruction booklets for board games or household devices, where the writer knows what they mean but can’t quite get it across.

In fact, all the preamble is trying to explain is that the novel presents the same scene, a tea table, from the perspective of seven different characters in turn. The first section is from the viewpoint of, and inside the thoughts of, a cautious, almost timorous professor; the second that of his bolder, decisive explorer brother; and other parts follow a rather fey young woman, a dingy low comedian, a greedy little boy and a religiose spinster. The seventh overlaps two figures, a dancer, the brother of the young woman, and a priest: they perhaps epitomise Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter.

The introductory apparatus is likely to daunt the reader, and that would be a pity because the prose itself, once you get past the diagram, is resonant and rich. We are offered a sequence of scenes which seem infused with rare significance, using timeless symbols and fresh, startling imagery. Read simply as an album of prose episodes the book is an exquisite creation, alternating lyrical charm with pungent grotesquerie. I suspect this was what attracted the aesthetes Berners and Sackville-West to it, rather than its avant-garde structure.

But there is another dimension to Toynbee’s work which also makes it worth perseverance from all its angles: it is an exploration of the Grail legends. That is made more explicit in its American title, Prothalamium: A Cycle of the Holy Graal (New York: Doubleday, 1947), and on the dustjacket flaps of the British edition, which tell us: ‘But behind the conventional scene of this extraordinary book lurks an older story, of a siege perilous, a land laid waste, a sick Fisher King and his jester, a dead knight in a chapel, another who fails in the quest, and a hero who at last refreshes the land, marries the King’s daughter and receives the long-sought Graal.’

Without doubt, Toynbee must have been influenced in his choice of theme by Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, but I suspect two other books may have been known to him too: Charles Williams’ War In Heaven (1930), a metaphysical thriller in which the Grail is discovered in a quiet country church and pursued by a suave diabolic villain; and Armed With Madness (1928) by Mary Butts, a modernist novel involving a group of quarrelsome bohemians on the Dorset coast who fish out an agate cup from an old well. He also uses Arthur Machen’s preferred spelling of ‘Graal’ to ‘Grail’, and may have known the Welsh mystic’s writings on the holy vessel.

In Toynbee’s book the breaking of a tea cup, a surrogate for the Grail, seems to let in demonic forces which possess almost all the characters, and expose their brutish aspects: and this is mingled with images that hint at Merlin and Nimue, and explicitly reference Prospero and Caliban. We are things of darkness and light, we are reminded, and must seek to balance these instincts and forces within us. I like the fact that the Grail is a tea cup, not an ancient holy relic, because, as Mary Butts particularly knew, it must be understood as a presence, a spiritual force, rather than a particular object. It can be contained in one small thing, certainly: or it can descend on a whole tract of country, as she thought it was descending on Sancreed.

Philip Toynbee later wrote an equally poetic and provocative prose experiment, this time using the myth of Eden, in The Garden By the Sea (1953), and this redeploys three of the archetypal figures from Tea With Mrs Goodman, as aspects of Adam: the dancer Noel as ‘the Voice of his Innocence’; the explorer Tom as ‘the Voice of his Fall’; and the comedian Charley as ‘the Voice of his Punishment’. This was followed, amongst other things, with Pantaloon, or, The Valediction (1961), a novel in verse. There were several sequels to this. His work is always original and rich in symbol and both personal and universal myth, and beautifully crafted.

MV

Monday, June 10, 2019

Faunus - Arthur Machen Essay Prizes


The Friends of Arthur Machen have announced a competition for essays on Machen submitted to their journal, Faunus. There will be a £200 prize for the best essay, and two runner-up prizes of £100 each. All three prizes will also include a year's free membership of the Friends. It is open to non-members: anyone except Committee members of the Friends may contribute.

Essays should be a minimum of 4000 words, and may concern any subject likely to be of serious interest to members. The Faunus Editors, James Machin and Timothy Jarvis, will be the judges, and submissions should be made to:

faunus(dot)editor(at)gmail(dot)com (replacing the words in brackets by the relevant symbols)

MV

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The True Story of Lord Jim - Petronella Elphinstone


Turnstile One (1948), edited by V S Pritchett is an anthology of contributions to the New Statesman and Nation, mostly from 1931 onwards. It contains, under ‘Essays and Reviews’, a piece entitled ‘Tuan Jim’ by Petronella Elphinstone, from 1932.

This is an unusual piece of Conradiana. The five page sketch is an alternative version of Lord Jim (1900) in which the title character did not, as in the original story, abandon a ship full of pilgrims, but instead steered it safely into port, won praise for his coolness, continued his career in the merchant navy, and eventually settled on shore to run a ship’s chandler’s. It concludes, ‘This is the true story of Tuan Jim, as told me by himself.’ It is very nicely done.

The mystery is, who was the author? There is no Petronella Elphinstone in the catalogues of the major public libraries, so she probably never published a book. Her surname is that of an eminent line of Scottish nobles: but she does not seem to appear in the extensive peerage records for that house.

Her name, however, does occur in an unexpected context. A poem by Guy Davenport, ‘The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard’, on Stanley Spencer’s celebrated painting of that scene (1924-7), lists in resonant phrases some of the supposed figures emerging from their graves. It includes the beautiful lines: ‘In pleated light and diamond bone/Comes Petronella Elphinstone.’

Most of the other characters in Davenport’s poem are well-known: they include the Tudor judge Sir Edward Coke; Karl Marx; John Ruskin; and Edward Lear. But no annotator, to my knowledge, is able to explain where he got the name of Petronella Elphinstone. Spencer’s painting does include portraits of some friends and contemporaries, and possibly Elphinstone was one of these. Or perhaps Davenport had read the New Statesman piece or some similar literary work and decided to make use of the author’s memorable name in his poem.

I have a feeling I am missing something obvious either about the author or her enjoyable piece of Conradiana. Any information or speculation will be welcome.

MV

Monday, June 3, 2019

Carcosa Revisited

In the early 1980s, I discovered to my liking a number of recently published stories bylined "Galad Elflandsson." I'm not sure which exact story I first encountered, but it seems likely to have been "Night Rider on a Pale Horse," published in The Phoenix Tree (1980), edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski.  The blurb about the author told me of other stories to look for, in various (often Canadian) small press magazines, and also of the short novel The Black Wolf, published by Donald M. Grant in 1979, and illustrated by Randy Broecker.  I picked up the stories as I could find them, exchanged several letters with the author (who kindly supplied more information and more stories), and I looked forward to more publications in the future. But around 1987 Elflandsson ceased writing and publishing.

One of his early projects had been a series of stories (and a few poems) based on Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow.  He had submitted the collection to Donald M. Grant in 1978, and from it Grant asked him to rewrite and expand one longer story, "The Cave of the Hill Beast." Minus the Carcosa references, and adding some Lovecraftian ones, it became The Black Wolf.  Some of the other Carcosa tales appeared in various magazines.

Late last year, Graeme Phillips with his Cyaegha Press resurrected most of the Carcosa tales in an elegant trade paperback volume, Tales of Carcosa, with a cover and interior illustrations by Steve Lines.  It contains two poems and five stories (one a previously unpublished short, "An Augury") and a new "Afterword" by the author.  The edition is small (four lettered and fifty numbered copies), so act quickly if you are interested.  There is no web page specifically for Tales of Carcosa, but the Cyaegha magazine web page (hosted at Glynn Owen Barrass's Strange Aeons site), with contact email for Cyaegha in the short introductory paragraph, can be found here.  Send Graeme an email for ordering details. 

Update 6/28/19: Tales of Carcosa is now officially out of print.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Guest Post - 'The Dangers of Nostalgia' by R B Russell


Nostalgia is not necessarily one of the worst vices. It is possible to fondly recall aspects of the past without resorting to romanticism and inaccuracy. In book collecting, nostalgia often manifests itself in re-acquiring much-loved volumes from childhood, which means that the most avid collectors of children’s books are often adults. However, ‘nostalgia’ isn’t quite the word to describe grown-ups buying children’s books that they never owned or read themselves. Perhaps this phenomenon deserves another name? The Brazilian/Portuguese ‘Saudade’ comes close (a melancholic longing for something absent), as does the German ‘Sehnsucht’ (a yearning for an ideal, alternative experience), but neither are quite adequate.

I understand the power of nostalgia: re-reading the blurb from an Armada paperback edition of one of Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings and Derbyshire’ books is enough to transport me into the past—to the pleasures of sitting in my bedroom on sunny summer days when I should have been outside playing. However, re-reading such books usually fails to recreate for me any of the pleasure I experienced as a child—exposing villains with the Five Find Outers and the Hardy Boys, or going on adventures in foreign lands with Biggles.

Among the books I had as a young teenager I can still re-read Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ books with (a guilty) pleasure, but Leslie Charteris’ ‘Saint’ books now seem terribly dated. Likewise, H.P. Lovecraft’s overwritten stories do not hold my interest as they once did, although the cover art on those Panther and Ballantine paperbacks still promises eldritch horrors. How, though, did I ever read the appalling ‘John Carter of Mars’ books by Edgar Rice Burroughs? (Perhaps, the cover art was an incentive.)


Some of the books of my childhood have come back to me through my family, and I am pleased to give up a little precious shelf space for Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars by Terrance Dicks and The Tomorrow People in The Visitor by Roger Price and Julia Gregory. To make sure they don’t lose their power, I don’t attempt to read them. They are all later printings of tatty paperbacks and have no value to collectors, but I can’t see the point in upgrading them to pristine first editions (in dust jackets, where appropriate.) To do so would be to own copies of books that were not really a part of my history—it was those particular paperbacks that I knew and loved.

At book fairs I often see copies of old Rupert annuals that I had as a child. I occasionally flick through them, receive the nostalgic ‘hit’, and replace them on the shelf. (I know that dealers are annoyed by customers doing this!) One good reason for not buying them is the price, but I have noticed that they are not quite as expensive as they once were. There also seem to be more examples on offer. Perhaps they are going the way of books and comics by Frank Richards.

When I first started compiling my Guide to First Edition Prices in 1996, I valued Richards’ ‘Bunter’ books at between £20 and £75, and was immediately taken to task by a number of dealers who said I had undervalued them. (The Times Literary Supplement called me ‘Parsimonious Russell’ in a review.) Perhaps the Bunter books were usually priced a little higher by dealers than I had suggested, but over the various editions of the Guide, dealers admitted to me that Richards’ books were becoming more and more difficult to sell because those who remembered them from their youth were becoming increasingly elderly. Not only was the demand diminishing as collectors died, but the supply was increasing as their collections were sold by uninterested heirs.


Prices have continued to increase for serious rarities by Richards in pristine jackets, presumably by collectors nostalgic for a childhood they never experienced, but those collectors can expect to cut a better deal now that much of the committed competition has left the scene. Basic economics ought to mean a fall in prices, but dealers are always unwilling to reduce the pencilled price on the front free endpaper, even though a book may have been on the shelves for year after year.

Until recently even later issues of Rupert annuals were commanding a great deal of money, but the market is not what it was. Despite periodic and half-hearted revivals, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are not collected like they used to be. Next to fall in value will be early issues of 2000AD comics. (For over a decade Prog. 1 has been stuck at a value of £100 for the first issue—with the free ‘space spinner’, of course.)

Nostalgia is all very well, especially for those who can afford it, but it is a dangerous investment. The most financially rewarding answer is to invest in books that have more than just a nostalgia value, but collecting children’s books is about a sense of wonder and excitement that has little to do with literary merit or cultural significance. Their qualities cannot be easily defined, and it is impossible to put a monetary value on their importance to us. However, if you really want to indulge, a dealer will always have a specific price in mind. Just remember to point out the jam stain on the boards, the gift inscription on the title page, and the fact that the word-search has been inexpertly filled-in. Considering these faults, the dealer ought to knock off at least ten percent.

R B Russell

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Brick Index


It is possible that it has never occurred to you before that you might like a book consisting of pictures of bricks. But if this is so, I invite you to reconsider. Brick Index (from Centrecentre) offers 155 full scale photographs of bricks arranged from the palest through to the darkest, processing therefore from cream and beige into ochre, amber, rose, scarlet and crimson, shading into purple and dusk and ending almost at charcoal.

Nor is this the only visually appealing aspect. For each brick has incised lettering giving the name of the manufacturer and sometimes its place of origin, and occasionally a motif or motto. These inscriptions are in various types, from the purest Roman to the most floral Gothick. The finely-grained texture of the bricks and the vicissitudes of their history (such as dents, crusts, accretions) are fully brought out by the images (the work of Inge Clement), so that each is like looking at the battered, worn visage of some ancient sage or poet.

The names of the brick-makers are sometimes brisk, sometimes quaint: and the places where they plied their trade are also varied, and often obscure. As the book observes, the brevity of the text has a certain terse appeal, like a sort of brick haiku.

The accompanying text in the book is also brief, but sufficient, and it tells us that surreptitious collectors of old bricks are flourishing in numbers, haunting sites of dereliction and demolition for rare finds. It also predicts that readers of the index will soon find it difficult to resist becoming one of them.

I suspect there may be a sort of sub-sect of the brick collectors in which the qualities of the brick itself are not the only motive for their obsession. I speak of those who seek for bricks from curious or recondite edifices, whose walls may have witnessed mystical or momentous matters. These bricks may be sought simply as historical mementos, certainly: but also in case they should still possess, caught inside their staunch forms, secrets.

MV

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Guest Post - 'Revelations' by R B Russell


Literary research can reveal information about writers that some of them might have preferred to remain hidden. For example, it was recently discovered that Bernard Heldmann (1857-1915) started to use the pseudonym Richard Marsh only after he spent eighteen months in prison for passing forged cheques. (It had previously been assumed that he adopted a pseudonym to hide his father’s German-Jewish origins.)

The conviction doesn’t really affect his posthumous reputation as the author of the Victorian blockbuster The Beetle (1897), but it must now become a part of his biography, and critics will have to bear it in mind when considering his many books. For example, does the author’s experience affect his treatment of crime and criminals? The revelation of his conviction will inevitably alter the way we appreciate the man and his writing, but it does not lessen his achievement in The Beetle. We do not overlook the crime, but, on the whole, it will have little bearing on his work — the prime interest for most readers.

Of course, there is no reason why authors should be any more honest, or dishonest, than any other section of society. A number of great writers have committed crimes and many will have served time, while others, of course, have been convicted for political reasons, or for activities that are not recognised as crimes today. A criminal past may have as much, or as little, bearing on creative writing as the author’s gender, sexuality, political views, etc: after all, we are discussing fiction. But even in composing works of ‘high fantasy’, authors inevitably draw from their own experience, offering viewpoints that are consistent with their understanding of the world.

Fraud might not be too problematic for an author’s reputation (even though they may have caused others anguish through their actions), but other crimes may call for a more uncomfortable revaluation of an author. For example, it has recently been discovered that M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) spent time in prison not for fraud (as had previously been assumed), but for ‘indecently assaulting and carnally knowing’ his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Such a conviction inevitably leads us to question our appreciation and understanding of the man and his writings.

It ought not to make ‘Xelucha’ or ‘The House of Sounds’ any less effective as wonderfully over-wrought tales of horror, but it is understandable that some readers will not want to read fiction by a convicted paedophile. Nobody can now consider The Purple Cloud and not question the author’s thought processes when he describes the relationship between Adam Jeffson and the young girl who appears towards the end of the novel. But despite our new knowledge of the author and the fact that we abhor his crime, The Purple Cloud remains powerful and innovative writing.

It can be difficult for long-time admirers of an author to come to terms with unpalatable revelations. H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, for example, has caused a great deal of debate in the last decade, although his views were always present in certain published stories if one was looking for it. In ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ it is overt, but in other stories such as ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ aspects of the story we now find problematic had previously been open to legitimate multiple interpretations. Some commentators have defended Lovecraft, using the ‘man of his time argument’; that he was merely echoing widely-held beliefs of his era, but in the 1920s not everyone was racially prejudiced. Moreover, Lovecraft cannot be excused for ‘unthinking’ or lazy prejudice, because he appears to have considered issues of race in some depth.

Lovecraft’s undeniable racism was a facet of his personality and illuminates both his character and his writing. He was much more a ‘man out of time’ than a ‘man of his time’, suggesting that he would have been far happier as an eighteenth-century gentleman who was able to devote himself exclusively to literature. His inability to come to terms with many aspects of the modern world probably influenced his fiction just as much as it fueled his racism, and there are parallels between both. Lovecraft is an endlessly fascinating subject for study, not least because of the contradictions in his views, and the fact that he may well have been ameliorating them in the years before his early death at only forty-six.

It is entirely natural that some readers will not want to read Lovecraft because of his racism, just as others will shun Shiel. Readers often tend toward writers whose beliefs, attitudes, etc accord with their own, but we can still appreciate the work of those with whose world-view we fundamentally disagree. One does not have to be a High Church Tory to appreciate the writing of Arthur Machen, or a Communist to enjoy Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work. Finding interest, even enjoyment in a writer does not necessarily mean we endorse all of their views. But when one is forced to look again at an author, as Lovecraftians have had to, it makes as little sense to completely turn one’s back as it does to insist that there is nothing to discuss. Admitting to problematic aspects of an author’s biography and allowing for discussion has to be preferable to either censorship or denial.

R B Russell

Illustration: from a dustjacket design for 'The Beetle'.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Faunus - The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen edited by James Machin


Strange Attractor Press have just published Faunus - The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen, edited by James Machin, an anthology selected from over twenty years of issues of the journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen, with a new introduction by Stewart Lee.

This handsomely produced book surveys many of the Gwent master's range of interests, including the legends of the Great War, the Celtic Church, the “real” Little People, the occult, the byways of London, and a myriad other investigations into Machen’s life and legacy. The contents include rare pieces by Machen himself as well as items from the Faunus archive by writers including Tessa Farmer, Rosalie Parker, Ray Russell, Mark Samuels, and Mark Valentine.

(Picture: James Machin)

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Lawrence Durrell's Cricket by the Book



The smugglers, at their risky work, were waiting at the rendezvous, an obscure harbour with an old abandoned jetty. Some slept, some darned socks, some played cards. But the skipper was consulting the Bible.

In Lawrence Durrell’s lesser-known novel Judith, begun in the early Sixties but not published until 2012, his old sea-captain Isaac Jordan is often seen with his Bible, making notes. He has been through it twice, ‘but without actually reading a word’. This is because he uses the holy book to play a form of pencil-and-paper cricket:

‘He had contracted a schoolboy passion for playing county-cricket in this fashion, letting each letter stand for a number of runs scored. The life of each batsman was determined by the emergence of the letters “O” (out), “B” (bowled), “C” (caught) and so on. . . . He was in the middle of Judges now. It looked as though Surrey was going to beat Kent.’

Durrell’s character is an engaging rogue: a decorated Royal Navy Great War veteran, he now runs a desperate old ship smuggling contraband, but also arms, through the British blockade, for Jewish settlers in Palestine. As the novel begins, the crates he loads in the deserted bay prove to contain more than he expected: in two of them are hidden refugees rescued from Nazi Germany, including a religious scholar, and Judith, a scientist with important knowledge.

Durrell had originally written this as a screenplay for a film to star Sophia Loren, but the actor thought the title part was too intellectual for her audience’s perceptions of her, and the plot was refashioned by other hands. He then turned his idea into the novel.

This brief vignette of Isaac at his book-cricket, learnt or devised in prep school days, conveys a lot with beautiful succinctness. For one thing, it suggests the character’s insouciance in a time of danger. But it is also a neat hint by Durrell that Captain Jordan cannot quite shake off, despite his rather raffish, exotic existence, his English origins.

The author himself, born in colonial India, lived most of his life abroad, either in the Greek islands or in France, and used to refer to his ostensible homeland as ‘Pudding Island’. But there were many aspects of his character which kept their English traces, and he is perhaps obliquely alluding to that in his portrait of old Issac. The irreverence of using the Bible for this playful purpose would also have appealed to the pagan and freethinking Durrell.

There were various forms of cricket in England that did not involve a bat or ball. Schoolboys used dice or six-sided pencils to score, and a popular trade version of this, Howzat!, offered specially-designed metal dice. It is possible to play cricket using playing cards: the novelist and literary scholar Timothy d'Arch Smith once sent me a version, which he used to devise matches between teams of decadent poets.

Pub or inn sign cricket, played on long car journeys, awards runs for the number of legs (eg four for the Red Lion, two for The Green Man), but other types of sign mean the batsman is out. There are also rumours of a sort of chess cricket, perhaps originating in the cathedral city of Lincoln, the home of The Circular Chess Society.

A simpler form of book cricket is apparently still current among young enthusiasts in India and Pakistan, where it involves a sort of bibliomancy. A book is opened at an unseen random page-spread and the page with even numbers is consulted. In these games, though there are probably all sorts of local attributions to the numbers, they might typically be as follows. Numbers 2,4 and 6 count as those number of runs, 8 counts as 1 or as 0 (a ‘dot ball’, no run) and 0 means out. In some versions, to make 6 less likely, as it is in cricket, it has to be scored twice in a row before it counts.

But Durrell’s version of the game is different. It does not involve opening the book at random nor scoring with page numbers. It relies on working through a book from beginning to end and deriving outcomes from the letters, either one by one or at given spans (eg every sixth one). This game was reportedly outlined in an issue of the boys’ magazine The Eagle in the Nineteen Fifties, and that will have made it better-known, but most likely it had been played for some years previously in various versions known in particular schools, clubs or youthful gangs.

Its virtue is that it more closely approximates to the actual run of play in a cricket match than all the other types of games outlined above, which are apt to be (no doubt intentionally for bored young spirits) both quicker and more eventful than the real thing. To achieve this, the rules can have an almost algebraic complexity, roughly aligning the frequency of letters in English to the likelihood of outcomes in a typical four- or five-day cricket match.

Hardly surprisingly, Durrell does not interrupt the thrilling beginning to his book to give a full account of the rules of this ‘cricket by the book’, which could of course equally be played using any other book. But he gives perhaps just enough information for us to work out how it could proceed, so that we might if we wish try to emulate his disreputable skipper in his unusual devotions.

Mark Valentine

Monday, April 29, 2019

Sentences - Philip Trussell


Sentences by Philip Trussell. Arranged by Bradley Ray King. Cuneiform Press 2019. An edition of three hundred copies.

'In 2012, he started writing discontinuous sentences as a daily practice. He soon began arranging them into sequences on postcards and mailing them out.'

A book of barbed aphorisms with something of the atmosphere of Kafka, Walser, Cioran, Ligotti, strange, sardonic, sometimes sharp, sometimes oblique. Each provides a jag, a jolt, one of those forks of lightning that eerily illumine a scene, so that for a moment it seems utterly other.

A pocket notebook in appearance, a slim volume, austerely designed with black covers and silver lettering. This discreet form is pleasing: it seems as if you are holding something clandestine, to consult when you need it, on train journeys, in waiting rooms, while out wandering, or in backstreet cafes. It is like a bible-black tract from some obscure sect, full of singular interpretations and prophecies. Chiselled flakes of obsidian.

MV