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.


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.


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.


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.


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