Monday, May 9, 2022

The Last Wormwood

Wormwood 38 has just been announced. It includes:

The Wormwood Interview - Rosemary Pardoe, Jamesian scholar and founding editor of Ghosts & Scholars, responds to seven questions about the books in her life

J W Brodie-Innes – Peter Bell discusses the leading figure in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and author of novels on witchcraft and Scottish folklore 

Forrest Reid and Jocelyn Brooke – John Howard explores the landscape of childhood in these two lyrical writers

Charles Dickens and the ghost story – Thomas Kent Miller on Dickens’ role in creating a strong demand for festive and wintry ghostly yarns

The Seeds – Iain Smith discusses the music of the Sixties psychedelic band who made vivid use of Gothic and fantastical imagery

Laidlaw Books – Douglas A Anderson presents his original research into the publisher of Donald Armour, as well as books by Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis

Marcel Proust – Henry Wessells reminds us that the author had affinities with the Decadent movement, particularly in his persona as the contemplative dandy

Reggie Oliver reviews a new translation of work by a late 19th century French occultist; R B Russell’s biography of Robert Aickman; an illustrated history of the Gothic; and a novel with an M R James-inspired title

John Howard reviews five books from independent presses, illustrating the willingness of smaller publishers to take on stranger work

This is the last Wormwood, and we’d like to thank all our contributors and readers for their support over the years.

(NB: Wormwoodiana is not affected)  

(Mark Valentine)


Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Shipley Canal Fantasy Mural

Anyone walking along the canal towpath from the Victorian model village of Saltaire to the neighbouring town of Shipley will soon come across an unusual sight. 

Under a gloomy tunnel at Fox Corner, with pigeons nesting in the eaves, mellifluously cooing to each other, there is a colourful mural full of fantasy motifs - a jester, a dragon, a fairy-tale castle, courtly ladies, a knight, a tree-woman. 

It looks for all the world like the album cover for a 1970s progressive rock LP, or the design for a Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback. We wondered when we first saw it if it indeed dated from those heady times.

There isn't all that much about it online but one of the five participating artists, Dave Cogan, has posted a couple of comments (scroll down the link to see this one) which explain the background. He recalls that it was a project in February 1993 led by mural artist Tom Cousins.

The latter's website explains that he once lived and worked in Bradford (the nearest city to Shipley) and did other murals there, but is now based in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, still creating murals. 

Tom had got permission from the waterways board, and a local firm provided the paints, but even so there was some opposition from councillors and the press. Despite that, the mural is now one of the sights of the canal walk and, as Dave Cogan says, certainly brightens up a rather grim, dingy tunnel. 

The mural is in a fairly inaccessible position and this has probably helped save it not only from busybody killjoys but also from the depredations of the elements, and from the attentions of urban graffiti artists, although a few tags have been added on top of one or two of the scenes.

It is just the sort of eccentric, fanciful, delightful, bizarre and cheering public art that ought to be cherished and preserved. 

(Mark Valentine: Photographs: Jo Valentine)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is an exhibition of black & white images hosted by Bower Ashton Library, Bristol, for World Book Night 2022. Contributors were invited to create an image responding to the theme and also to name a favourite ghost story.

These included stories by M. R. James, Shirley Jackson, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Pierre de Ronsard, Fritz Lieber, Toni Morrison, Jan Pienkowski, Pu Songling, Astrid Lindgren, Aoko Matsuda, Stanisław Herman Lem and Daphne du Maurier.

There were 93 spectral contributions from participants in Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Sweden, Taiwan, UK, and the USA.

My own contribution, ‘Phantoms’, is one of a series of manipulated pages from The English Catalogue of Books for 1937, edited by James D. Stewart (London: The Publishers’ Circular, Limited, 1938). I nominated Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser.

The exhibition runs from Weds 13th April – Weds 29th June 2022 and the complete set of images is available as a free PDF (scroll down the Ghosts in the Machine page for the link).

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Star-Land - A Guest Post by John Howard

Recently I met a friend for congenial conversation and ale. Much of our talk centres around books: my friend is as much a searcher after strange and odd volumes as I am – if not more so. As the walk to our public house of choice would take us close to one of a chain of shops run by a well-known medical charity, we thought we would we try our luck and examine the stock on the small set of shelves reserved for ‘collectable’ books. I was not hopeful, as several previous visits had yielded nothing; but I agreed to our small detour. It was well that I did.

The stock had certainly grown in quantity, and the shelf was crowded. We leaned in and got to work. Many books had faded spines with lettering not easily readable or even visible, and I picked these out one by one, just in case. Most seemed to be the histories of engineering companies or shipping lines: of specialist interest to some, no doubt. Then I spotted a faded turquoise spine on which words could just be discerned. Knees cracking, I squatted to read, printed in worn gold capitals: STAR-LAND. Beneath, between two small five-pointed stars also in gold, was the name of the author: Sir Robert Ball. 

I thought of an adventure novel set under the open skies, or a lost-world story set in a high, hidden valley. Perhaps it was an early interplanetary romance? The front cover did, after all, bear like a hieroglyph a representation of what was clearly the sun, together with a comet or shooting star. Opening the book revealed it to have a subtitle: Being Talks with Young People about the Wonders of the Heavens. Star-Land is a collection of six lectures, beginning with ‘The Sun’, going on via ‘The Moon’ and through the Solar System to ‘The Stars’ and a concluding chapter on ‘How to Name the Stars’. I had indeed found an interplanetary romance of sorts: one of space and time, of astronomers and the diffusion of science.

Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913) was born in Dublin, attending Trinity College in his native city where he gained honours in natural science and mathematics. But it must have been astronomy, the observation and study of the objects to be seen in the heavens, that Ball wished to devote his life to understanding and explaining. He worked for Lord Rosse, who had built the largest telescope in the world; he became a Professor of Astronomy and Royal Astronomer of Ireland; a knighthood followed in 1886. And Sir Robert Ball was appropriately recognised when the asteroid 4809 Robertball was named after him. I was pleased to see that he also had a connection with Birmingham, having served as President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, which apparently still holds many of his books in its library. The shop in which I found Star-Land is just a few hundred yards from the attractive Victorian red-brick premises that the Institute now occupies.

As well as a being a highly-regarded scientist and author of astronomical texts, Ball was also a very popular lecturer, especially for young people – he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on several occasions. I hope that Ball was in reality the jovial and avuncular teacher that his photographs seem to show, for the texts of his lectures are lively and jaunty – he is never condescending or trite. Ball starts with basic scientific principles and rigorously builds in new discoveries and theories: Star-Land is full of everyday analogies that his audience and readers, children and young people of the day, would have recognised and understood. 

I must confess that I bought Star-Land primarily for the frontispiece photograph of the author (clearly going about his work) and the illustrations showing basic experiments that were presumably demonstrated to the young audiences and which could also be repeated at home. There are also numerous drawings of astronomical equipment, including Dunsink Observatory and its telescope, which I hope the busy Sir Robert still found time to gaze through while Royal Astronomer. There are also many atmospheric drawings of the planets and other ‘heavenly bodies’ such as meteors and comets. In any case, Star-Land seems to have been a popular book. The copy I found states that it was first published in 1889 and reprinted ten times, with a Revised Edition appearing in 1899 and reprinted for the third time in 1905. It seems to have been a favourite school prize: there are several images online showing copies that were richly bound or bear ornately printed labels especially inscribed. 

Because Star-Land was a product of the Victorian age, as I glanced through the text I expected, despite the author’s evident belief in empirical science, to be confronted at any moment by reverent and pious commentary – inevitable moralizing that our Earth, the planets and stars are there because they were created by etc etc, and so we – and you, boys and girls, should etc etc. But no. Sir Robert Ball seems to have had no ulterior motives. Planets, stars, and nebulae simply exist: they are to be discovered and understood by us, but not to show forth the power (or any other attribute) of a creator. If anything, Ball seems to have wanted to emphasise to his audiences the overwhelming vastness of the universe and the smallness of humanity and all its works:

After allowance is made for the imperfections of our point of view, we are enabled to realize the majestic truth that the sun is no more than a star, and that the other stars are no less than suns. This gives us an imposing idea of the extent and the magnificence of the universe in which we are situated. Look up at the sky at night – you will see a host of stars; try to think that every one of them is itself a sun. It may probably be that those suns have planets circulating round them, but it is hopeless for us to expect to see such planets. Were you standing on one of those stars and looking towards our system, you would not perceive the sun to be the brilliant and gorgeous object that we knew so well. If you could see him at all, he would merely seem like a star, not nearly so bright as many of those you can see at night. Even if you had the biggest of telescopes to aid your vision, you could never discern from one of these bodies the planets which surround the sun. No astronomer in the stars could see Jupiter even if his sight were a thousand times as good or his telescopes a thousand times as powerful as any sight or telescope that we know. So minute an object as our earth would, of course, be still more hopelessly beyond the possibility of vision.

And, in his final lecture:

No doubt it is a noble globe which we inhabit, but I have failed in my purpose if I have not shown you how insignificant is this earth when compared with the vast extent of some of the other bodies that abound in space.

I wonder whether Sir Robert Ball could be considered as the Patrick Moore of the time. Although as a youngster I was rarely allowed to stay up to watch The Sky at Night, I did avidly look out for any other appearances by Moore on television. I had been given several of his books. I used to take my binoculars and star-map or planisphere out into the back garden where, light pollution permitting, I would scan the sky for the notable stars, planets, and nebulae that should be visible. I was caught up by Moore’s breathless enthusiasm, and the feeling he conveyed that anyone, even a teenage boy, could develop a skill, enjoy astronomy and lose himself in something special and marvel-filled through learning the constellations and finding out about the objects to be discovered in the depths of space – and could even, perhaps, with dedication and hard work, turn a hobby into a career.

I am also led to wonder about another boy who was a keen and expert amateur astronomer. Ball’s outlook brings to mind the tremendous distances and vistas of time that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) would later evoke in his greatest stories. The young Lovecraft frequented the Ladd Observatory in his home city of Providence, published little scientific journals for his family and friends, and wrote columns on star-gazing and planet-spotting for newspapers in Rhode Island: a copy of Star-Land (perhaps a present from his beloved grandfather) would surely have enchanted the boy – and helped maintain in the man his enduring fascination with cosmic themes. To the end of his life Lovecraft never lost his interest in astronomy. And now Star-Land has helped rekindle something of mine.