Thursday, April 18, 2024

Lost Estates - a new short story collection

Swan River Press have just announced pre-orders for my new short story collection Lost Estates and Other Stories. This collects twelve tales, four of them previously unpublished, with several others now only available in this volume. In all the stories, scholarly, bookish or bohemian characters encounter the uncanny or otherworldly,

The new stories depict a book-collector who follows a sign to Brazen Serpent Books; the secret of a lost pamphlet and the man who sang ‘The Laughing Policeman’; a scholar of inn signs who finds some have escaped into the English landscape; and the reunion of The Perpetual Motion Machine Company.

Two long stories, first published by Sarob, evoke antiquarian mysteries: a manor held on condition of playing a king at chess (but which king?), and the secret of King John’s treasure, which may not be quite what it seems. 

The remaining stories, mostly out of print, first appeared in anthologies and journals. They explore the patterns seen in the sands of a great estuary; an eerie street game in Paris; the secret lore of a quiet cul-de-sac; the strange volumes received at the ancient Chaplain's Library; and an episode in the youth of Arthur Machen, involving the figure of General Gordon and the byways of London.  

Lost Estates and Other Stories is in a signed, limited, hardback edition of 450 copies, the first 100 of which are embossed and hand-numbered. Cover art by Jason Zerrillo; jacket design by Meggan Kehrli.

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Music and Metaphysics: 'The Trend' by William Arkwright

The protagonist in The Trend by William Arkwright (1914) is a young man of private means who is a composer. He has written a cantata on the life of Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance hermeticist. He cannot find the right singer for this: some are proficient enough, but lack soul and do not appreciate the work. Then one evening, walking home from his club, he hears a voice singing an old folk tune and hastens to find its source. It is a ragamuffin of 19 years old or so, from an obscure background. The youth agrees to be coached as a singer and the two go off together on a Derbyshire farm holiday.

The novel is in that rather overblown late-Victorian style where sentiment is never far away. The singer doesn’t quite say ‘Cor blimey guv you’re a gent and no mistake’, but that is the general effect of his everyday diction. The author cannot, in short, get away from the popular taste of his time. His interests and ideas, however, are much more unconventional. The figure of Bruno has gained in historical recognition ever since Frances Yates’ magisterial work Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), but at the time of Arkwright’s novel, some fifty years earlier, he would have been more remote. The author’s choice of him as a subject suggests a deep interest in the esoteric. This is also evident in his evocation of the uncanny power of the music.

Though there are differences in detail, it seems possible the author or his publisher may have had in view the great success of Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) the year before,  which has a similar gentleman-and-cockney pairing involved in mentor-and-learner roles. But, unlike the play, the novel is not at all blithe. After various vicissitudes, both in the relationship of the composer and his protégé, and in the quest to stage the cantata, there is a highly melodramatic, operatic and tragic ending.

And it would appear the main inspiration for the novel was more personal. There is a foreword to the novel, not part of the fiction: it seems to be the author in his proper person. In this he tells us that the story is true. But he clarifies this by explaining that the characters are true, whereas the setting has been changed. He also tells us he was in love with one of them, though he will not say which. The implication might be that the originals were either involved in a different sort of music, or perhaps a different art, such as painting, poetry, theatre.

William Arkwright (1857-1925) was the author of a book of essays, Knowledge and Life (1913); a prose fantasy, Utinam: A Glimmering of Goddesses (1917), notable for its illustrations by Glyn Philpot; and of His Own Soul (1920), aphorisms in verse and prose.  Rather oddly compared to these, he was also the author of a classic work on the Pointer breed of dogs. 

He was the heir of the fortune of Richard Arkwright, the inventor and cotton industrialist, as a cousin of the last of the direct line. The family owned a palatial Georgian residence, Sutton Scarsdale Hall, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, which he sold in 1919, and for a long time it stood as an empty ruinous roofless shell, until purchased in 1946, for preservation as it stood, by Osbert Sitwell, who lived 8 miles away at Renishaw Hall. Sutton Scarsdale is now in public ownership.

The Trend (not a very good title) is a strange and stormy book with startling ideas that doesn’t quite outstrip its creaky vocabulary and clanking plot. But it has a certain volatile power and Dickensian vigour, and is of particular interest because of the Giordano Bruno theme and its esoteric dimensions.

(Mark Valentine)

Portrait: William Arkwright, c.1890. Picture: Sutton Scarsdale Hall.