Saturday, October 24, 2020

'The Earth Wire' and 'Scar City' - Joel Lane

 

Two short story collections by Joel Lane are to be reprinted in stylish new paperbacks from Influx Press on 29 October - The Earth Wire and Scar City. 

Joel was a master of urban noir whose stories also have a brittle poetry and a deep humanity. We may find ourselves among wastelands of disused factories, derelict houses and shuttered shops, but we also encounter there an uncanny beauty. And we are drawn to his thoughtful characters, with their fragile friendships, tentative affinities, fraught allegiances. 

This is fiction that is not afraid to look the world as it in the face but is also willing to seek for the things that can help sustain us, such as friendship and care for each other, art and literature,  and a certain existential defiance.

In 'The Paper Ghosts', my essay on five early stories by Joel, I suggested they sought for: 

'Some headier dimension to the world, a promise of the uncanny, the radically different. Alone, we are not quite enough: we need our strange other. In just such a way I, and many others no doubt, have needed Joel and his rich, mysterious stories: and still do.' 

Joel was also a perceptive critic on supernatural and macabre fiction, and a valued contributor to Wormwood. He wrote for us on H P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman and others. His insights are always acute, original and inspired by deep attention to the work. 

These and other essays by him may be found in This Spectacular Darkness (Tartarus Press).

(Mark Valentine)



Thursday, October 22, 2020

Unknown to the Post Office

When I was reading The Witch by David Lindsay, in the version edited by J B Pick and published alongside The Violet Apple (1976), I was struck by a curious phrase about Morion House, the dream or visionary place seen by Ragnar, the novel’s protagonist. It read:

“Morion House—unknown to the Post Office, since nobody lives there, as it possesses neither roof nor walls, is unnamed in any book . . .”

‘Unknown to the Post Office’ was in one way a serviceable sort of expression, stating a simple everyday fact. Yet it put me in mind of the standard but somehow quite ominous terms used by the Royal Mail on returned letters: ‘Not Known’; ‘Gone Away;’ ‘Refused’; ‘Not Called For’ and so on.

These have always seemed to me to have a terse poetry about them. They might be the titles of Walter de la Mare stories.

Anyway, a while ago I decided it would be worth finding out if Morion House was indeed unknown to the Post Office, so I addressed a letter to Urda Noett, the Witch of the title, at the address given, such as it is, by Lindsay in his book.

I then wondered what I would do if I got a reply. Fortunately, perhaps, I did not. But the Post Office did its duty. It tried to deliver the letter, but it could not find the town of Swayning, putting a question mark against it (Lindsay doubtless meant Steyning). The letter was returned. 


So David Lindsay was quite correct. And Morion House, it seems, remains unknown to the Post Office.

But that was a few years ago. And now another idea occurs to me. The Royal Mail has just introduced a new Home Collection service for parcels from private houses, the biggest change in their services, they aver, since the introduction of post boxes.

What if I were to ask them to collect from Morion House?

For it must be there, if anywhere, that holds in keeping the lost pages of Nightspore in Tormance . . . and of course the full, final manuscript of the work that Lindsay said was, ‘as to its material, one of the world’s greatest books’— The Witch

(Mark Valentine)

Bibliomancy


At Pamenar Online Magazine, three mysterious images from old books: 

ESS; A Study of Magic; Fall of Numbers

With a sketch portrait by Jo Valentine. 

The incidental markings found inside second-hand books are sometimes as strange as the printed text.

(Mark Valentine)


Monday, October 19, 2020

The Doomsday Blues of Beelzebub Jones

There’s a whole smoky mythos involving playing cards, gamblers, and the Devil, and it is the sinister theme of Doomsday Desperado!, a new, raw-throated blues album from the evocatively-named Beelzebub Jones.

With titles such as ‘The One of Four’, ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’, ‘The Ferryman’, and ‘The Final Showdown’, you know at once the strange terrain we’re travelling in. The husky, whispered, hard-bitten songs are haunted by hacienda guitar, and there are plangent echoes of Ennio Morricone’s melancholy spaghetti western soundscapes.

The album is accompanied by a storybook written by Richard Wall, author of Hank Williams’ Cadillac and other short story collections. Sadly the special edition, with specially-designed poker cards has already sold out.

Two previous albums by Beelzebub Jones are A Good Day to Be A Bad Guy (sold out) and The Forsaken Territory (still available). 

Strike a match, light up a foul black cheroot, gaze into the orange haze of sunset, tilt your fedora and walk out to meet that dark stranger . . .

 (Mark Valentine)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Philip K Dick's First SF Story


Withnail Books of Penrith, well-known for finding literary rarities and publishing them in fine limited edition pamphlets, have just announced The Slave Race by Philip K Dick. 

As they outline, this is the author's 'first published science fiction story. It appeared in his local newspaper in 1944, and has been largely forgotten since—it does not feature in any edition of his Collected Short Stories.'

The story is described as 'an astonishing piece of work, an epic in miniature, dense with ideas and concepts to which Dick would return again and again.' 

The rediscovered story has now been published in a limited edition chapbook of 250 hand-numbered copies with a frontispiece illustration based on a linocut by Sharon Newell.

No PKD or early SF enthusiast will want to miss this.

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Lost Lord of Byzantium

 

In a Cornish churchyard, at Landulph, there is a memorial to a 17th century individual, Theodore Paleologus, who claimed descent from the last Byzantine Emperors, whose surname he bore. This line is generally thought to have died out in the 15th century after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, though there were, hardly surprisingly, a number of claimants to the imperial throne. The Landulph lineage has often intrigued antiquaries and romancers, and over the years the story has been periodically revived and researched. The question of how genuine this claim was, and how the heir came to end up in Cornwall, has often been explored. 

It seems almost to belong alongside those recondite traditions summed up in a little pamphlet I have, entitled Did Our Lord Visit Britain as they say in Cornwall and Somerset? by Cyril Comyn Dobson (Glastonbury: Avalon Press, 1938), which suggests that Christ came to the West Country when young accompanying Joseph of Arimathea. There are also legends of course linking King Arthur to Cornwall, including the idea that the Dark Age leader lies sleeping there waiting for the time when he will be needed once more to rescue Britain (round about now would be quite handy). 

However, the Landulph legend is not the only example of a reputed Byzantine heir in Cornwall. I have a battered old copy of Notes and Queries Vol X in a smoky purple binding in which a correspondent, under the pen-name ‘Video’, reports a similar, but entirely distinct tradition. In the issue of Nov 18, 1854, p.409, under the heading ‘Cornish Descendants of the Emperor of Greece’ he explains that more than thirty years ago he was owed money by an old farmer by name of John Cossentine: 

‘But poor as he was, he informed me that he was the high lord of a very considerable estate in his own neighbourhood, which was in the parish of St Veep’ and would soon come into money from his rights to some timber about to be felled. ‘On inquiry how this could possibly be, he went on to inform me that his family, from which he was lineally descended, were formerly Emperors of Constantinople; that their name was Constantine, and that it had been softened into Cossendine by vulgar pronunciation. When the Turks took the city, his family made their escape, and came to England, bringing with them great wealth, with a portion of which they bough the property of which he was still the high lord; and a large sum was also deposited in the Tower of London.’ 

The antiquarian relates that he made inquiries of the steward of the gentleman who sub-letted the land, who confirmed the old farmer’s title to a share in the proceeds from the timber. He also heard from the latter’s son, who was of either St Veep or Lanreath, he cannot now recall which, and who confirmed the story that was in their family. They had once owed a large estate but now retained only the High Lordship of it, which could not be sold as it was entailed. ‘Video’ adds: ‘This family still exists in the same neighbourhood; and there is, in the neighbouring parish of Lantegloss by Fowey, another family of the same name and, I have no doubt, of the same descent, whatever that may be . . .’ 

Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’) wrote a romance, Sir John Constantine (1906) which follows the Paleologus of Landulph story and imagines some later descendants, now Cornish squires, but uses Constantine as their surname: and another of his books, The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem (1900) has a young woman also called Constantine and of the imperial descent . It’s not clear if ‘Q’ knew both the St Veep Constantine tradition and the Landulph Paleologus one, and merged them, or only the latter, which he elaborated on his own account. 

But Q also wrote stories about the survival of Ancient Greek customs and deities in Cornwall, such as ‘Phoebus on Halzaphron’ and ‘Not Here, O Apollo’. They are clearly the work of a man who wants to celebrate two of his greatest loves – the place he chose to live and the idea of Classical Greece—and to indulge a fantasy that they might once have touched. They are reflective, refulgent stories. Q is a traditional storyteller, evocative and companionable, who evidently enjoys his tales, and this comes across warmly to the reader. The volume of Q’s Mystery Stories (1937) is an excellent selection, which includes those two stories. 

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, October 12, 2020

'Conor Sands' - Elisabeth Kyle

All along the coasts of Britain there are lost places that have succumbed to the sea, sand or silt. The North Sea in particular is a fierce assailant of the land, and in winter storms cliff-falls, moving dunes, shifting river courses are still known. The most renowned example of a largely destroyed settlement is the medieval city of Dunwich, Suffolk, once a thriving seaport but now reduced to a small village: however, there are other East Anglian harbours and sea-havens that have a similar, if not quite so notable, history. The shores are haunted by drowned settlements, and in legend their church bells still toll beneath the waves.

Elisabeth Kyle’s Conor Sands (1952) is set in a fictional version of just such a place. There is a town on the headland which is reasonably secure, though it is swept by sea-gales and sandstorms several days a year and the grains get into the houses and grit the streets. But below, where there was once the beginnings of a fashionable beach resort, there are now mostly just huge sand drifts, half-covering the abandoned houses and chalets. It is still possible to wander with care among these if you know your way, and you may find lost gardens with haggard trees and sagging fences, and the crumbling ruins of the empty residences. Dreamers and loners go there.

A last few surviving houses of this settlement still straggle along the road to the main town, and the novel partly follows the lives of some of the inhabitants of these, including a valetudinarian and lovelorn young man and the sassy, sardonic young woman whom he admires. Both they and their homes seem to be living on a short lease, and there is a tense, doomy, brooding atmosphere in the book, which never quite tilts over into the fantastic but which still gives it a haunting quality.

There are several interweaving strands in the story, essentially each about people with secrets, but no one of these dominates to the extent that the plot can be summarised as being about them. One thread concerns some fairly genteel blackmail, another a mysterious disappearance, a third offers nicely observed satire of small town chatter and gossip, of the dull constraints of social convention. There is also a keen interest in the rebellious and unconventional, where the author’s sympathies perhaps mostly lie.  

The storm does come again: there is a further vast invasion of the sands, and the story of a tragedy, and for a while the town enjoys a sort of celebrity because of this, with small coach parties coming to view the scene and hear the thrilling tale. Yet all is not quite what it seems. 

Elisabeth Kyle was a pseudonym of Agnes Mary Robertson Dunlop, a prolific professional author of numerous books, including popular biographies, historical romances and stories for children. But this book and just a few others of hers seem to be, from what I can tell, quite different to these, and written from a different impulse. Others from her in the same period which seem to have similar qualities include Mally Lee (1947) and A Man of Talent (1948). The second of these has points in common with Conor Sands: it takes place at a decayed resort in Normandy, again with sinister aspects.

These books are devised to compel, certainly, but not quite so overtly as her other work to be pleasantly pleasing: they are sombre, austere, pessimistic, and even have aspects in common with the fiction of Phyllis Paul, say, or Elizabeth Taylor, or Kathleen Sully. Indeed, a few were published in the same ‘Gothic’ paperback series as one or two of Phyllis Paul’s, in both cases somewhat incongruously. These typically have cover artwork of long-tressed heroines in nightgowns fleeing a lowering mansion.

The publisher of the original hardback editions of this group of Elisabeth Kyle's books was Peter Davies, doomed always to be known as 'the original of Peter Pan', since he was as a boy a leading inspiration for J M Barrie's perennial character. But he should be better known for his career as an imaginative and discerning publisher.

He was himself drawn to the uncanny, as he explained to the diplomat and fantasist Sarban, whom he published about the same time as Conor Sands, and I can imagine that he admired her work in this vein because he saw in it just that sort of elusive strangeness he relished.

But how to explain it to readers? The dustwrapper description of Conor Sands tries to get across its unusual, complex mood. It says it is not a crime story nor a thriller, though it has elements of both. It adds: ‘Miss Kyle’s growing public has come to expect from her a blend of suspense and realism, a heavily charged atmosphere . . .’ You can sense a struggle here to convey just what it is about the book that is so morbidly compelling, but this it certainly is.

I think it may come down to a sense of fatefulness: the book is pervaded by a strange, inexorable quality. Whether her characters acquiesce in their destined role or try to defy it and claw out their own way of life, that other remorseless sandfall, the running hourglass of time, will diminish them all in the end.    

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, October 10, 2020

'The Goat and Compasses' - Martin Armstrong

Martin Armstrong’s The Goat and Compasses (1925) is set in a decayed south coast town which is being eroded by the sea and now seems isolated from the rest of England. There are summer visitors but few outside the season, except the odd artist. The title refers to the pub which is the hub of the little community. Armstrong is a clear, concise prose stylist who swiftly sketches in the leading characters of the fallen town, many of whom have quirks and obsessions. 

One, a dilapidated charwoman, visits the churchyard regularly to converse with her late husband, and steals flowers from other graves to put on his, to appease his spirit, which knows a secret about her. The other dead call to her as she passes. Another, an impoverished gentlewoman, communes with an unknown sailor whose body had been washed ashore without any clue to his identity: she invents his character and conversation, and imagines trysts with him.

The flavour of the local characters is similar to that of a John Cowper Powys or even T F Powys book, but Armstrong preserves a slightly greater artistic distance from them. It is not that he is aloof exactly: he clearly finds them interesting, even endearing, but there is a touch more ironic observation in his approach. 

According to Cecil Gray, the friend and first biographer of the composer Peter Warlock,  D H Lawrence wrote a work c.1916 with a similar title, Goats and Compasses, 'a bombastic, pseudo-mystical, psycho-philosophical treatise'. He entrusted the manuscript to the musician, but when the two fell out Warlock put the pages to 'a humble but necessary' use, probably not as kindling.

Armstrong's work could not be further from this. It is a precise, succinct, observant, and evocative book, carefully crafted. The way in which the living are influenced by the presence of the dead is presented matter-of-factly, and in one delicate, ethereal scene in the middle of the book the spirits of the living dreaming sleepers of the town are interlaced with the phantoms of the churchyard. But the author is not striving after a macabre or even particularly eerie effect: these are ‘naturalistic’, everyday ghosts.

It is notable that the parson and the Church (as distinct from the churchyard) are almost completely absent from the book and play no part in the characters’ lives. Instead the townspeople are influenced by a sort of informal folk religion of superstition and personal belief. Similarly, politics, education and the professions do not seem to impinge much on them. They have their own hard-earned wisdom.

Apart from this folkloric theme, the novel mostly concerns the awkward love affairs of a handful of the inhabitants, who face practical and emotional obstacles, though in the end, mostly, the author rewards loyalty in his characters. As for the little settlement itself, we have been warned early on that it will inevitably be inundated, but Armstrong resists the tactic of making this a dramatic conclusion to his book. 

There is indeed a fierce storm at the end, as foreshadowed, which leaves much damage, but it is not a finally devastating one, so that he leaves the town and its characters still a little more time to thrive. The Goat and Compasses is a well-rounded, mature, nuanced work, but perhaps lacking just that spark of real difference and individuality which would mark it out more. Nevertheless, it offers a gallery of characters, well-portrayed, whose fates we find gently compelling; the forlorn town itself is fully-realised so we feel we know its streets and shoreline well; and the presentation of the restless, rather querulous spirits is unusual and oddly convincing. 

Martin Armstrong was at first mostly known as a poet in the Georgian mode of the 1920s, published alongside Edmund Blunden, Francis Brett Young, Walter de la Mare and others, and indeed his prose shares some of their qualities too. The Goat and Compasses was his first novel, issued when he was in his early forties. He went on to publish others, often of decent people negotiating complicated relationships, as well as short stories (some with a macabre or uncanny aspect), essays and anthologies. 

His writing is always clear, lucent, distinguished but has a sort of modesty and restraint about it which perhaps prevents his work being better-known compared to more vivid and eccentric authors. He was well-regarded and respected in his time but does not seem to have all that many keen collectors now.

Note

The Goat and Compasses is one of the many curious inn signs in England whose origin is unknown. I used to collect and research these as a teenager and am still looking into them now. This example has been explained as deriving from a colloquialising of the motto ‘God Encompasseth Us’, but this may be more ingenious than likely.

Another explanation given is that the sign derives from the arms of The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, a City of London livery company. Their badge depicts three goats’ heads between a golden chevron, which it is suggested came to be taken as an open pair of compasses. But while that might possibly account for a few signs in central London, it does not explain those in the provinces, where the Company had no sway.

A third view is that the Goat (alone) is known as an agricultural inn sign, in the same way as the Bull, the Ram, the various hued Horses, and so on: and to this might have been added the compasses by Masonic landlords. But this again sounds a bit contrived and does not anyway explain why there are no examples of a Bull & Compass or Horse & Compass. The sign itself therefore remains enigmatic, suitably for Armstrong’s obscure little town.

 (Mark Valentine)

Sunday, October 4, 2020

'The Unclean Spirit' - Humphrey Gilkes


In Humphrey Gilkes’ The Unclean Spirit (1937), Peter is the thirteen year old son of an unworldly clergyman and an ambitious mother. The father is also a composer, whose work is published and performed, and Peter too has musical ability, enjoying playing the violin. But a bicycle accident and a later uncanny shock make him an invalid, paralysed in one leg and morbidly in fear of having fits in public.

Sent to Brighton for his health, he encounters Lady Bending, a redoubtable old trout somewhat in the manner of Bertie Wooster’s fearsome aunts, who improves his condition by a brusque approach, and encourages positive thinking. His mother is pleased to become acquainted with a titled lady, even when it emerges she is not a peeress but the widow of a knighted tradesman.

Lady Bending is associated with a group called the Theogonists, who believe that ‘women are God’, and that they can exercise a compelling psychic influence on their sons, thus directing public affairs by unseen, unknowable means.  This is no mere metaphor, nor an expression of social roles, but a sort of occult teaching, a craft. The society has its origins, or at least inspiration, in the Himalayas, and it seems likely it is intended as a mild spoof of the Theosophists. The book is dedicated to ‘Millicent Gilkes, who laughs at the Theogonists’: it is not clear whether because she does not believe in them, or finds the idea all too true, but I suspect an implication of the latter. 

But this is not the only idea advanced by characters to cure the boy: by the end of the book there is a converging array of them. The gardener remembers an old herbal remedy of his mother’s, who sounds like she might have been a witch; the parson carries guilt from a youthful indiscretion and thinks the boy is possessed by demons as a result. He consults an old book for clergymen on how to tackle evil spirits and prepares for an exorcism. Meanwhile, his brother has come on a visit from Africa, where he was a tobacco-planter, and remembers a ritual used by witch doctors there.

Gilkes adroitly manoeuvres all these schemes together in a deft conclusion that leaves open which, if any, of them might be responsible for healing the boy. As he was himself a senior medical man, we might assume that he intends to mock these alternative and rather outré practices. But that is not quite what comes across. The doctors themselves, despite some common sense and patience, are not shown to be particularly effectual, and come in for some trenchant remarks from Lady Bending, who had been a hospital matron.  The Theogonist workings seem to have at least a temporary effect and a fortifying influence. Any one of the other cures might have played their part. The novel treats all the possibilities with a certain respect, even if tinged with irony, and their advocates are shown to be sincere. 

The book therefore deals with uncanny and supernatural elements at face value but without definitely endorsing their reality. Similarly, the title is subtly ambiguous. It appears to be a phrase from a rite of exorcism, implying a psychic malaise or spiritual possession, but might also be taken to refer to ‘unclean’ in a strictly hygienic sense, or be deployed sardonically as a critical description of the sort of mental atmosphere that can generate such nostrums.

According to a draft biographical notice online, the author seems to be Humphrey Arthur Gilkes MC & Three Bars (13 October 1895 – 11 July 1945), a British soldier and doctor, one of only four men to be awarded four Military Crosses, in his case because of dangerous and daring reconnaissance work beyond the front line. Like the boy in his story, he was a keen amateur violinist. 

He had attended Dulwich College, where his father, Arthur Herman Gilkes, was the Master (ie headmaster): an affectionate description of the school appears in the early pages of the novel. P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler were students here while his father was Master, while C S Forester would have been a younger contemporary of his there, four years his junior.  His father, in addition to educational textbooks, was also the author of several novels for boys.

After the war Gilkes read medicine at Oxford and qualified as a doctor at Bart’s, and later joined the Colonial Service as a Medical Officer, first in Northern Rhodesia then in Trinidad. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in WW2, serving in East Africa, and was killed in an aeroplane crash at Djibouti. An earlier novel, Black (1935), draws on his colonial experiences.

The writing in The Unclean Spirit is assured, the characterisation shrewd, the insight into the boy’s mind sensitive, and the development of the plot plausible. There is a certain breezy scepticism about human affairs, too blithe to be outright cynicism, but with the tone of a man who is well-accustomed to observing a range of foibles. At the same time the author understands and sympathises with less worldly yearnings such as the love of music and the love of nature.

In some ways the mood is not unlike Denton Welch’s later A Voice Through A Cloud (1950), the autobiographical novel about the aftermath of his bicycle accident, and the flurry of his friends and relations around his recovery. It also seems probable that Humphrey Gilkes was exploring in the book contrasting aspects of his own character: and it offers, alongside its inventive satirical drive, a certain pensive, inward quality. 

(Mark Valentine)