Friday, December 8, 2023

RIP Mark Samuels [by R.B. Russell]

We are very sorry to hear that the author Mark Samuels passed away peacefully in his sleep on the night of 2nd/3rd December, aged 56 (writes R B Russell on behalf of The Friends of Arthur Machen). We would like to pass on condolences to the family and friends of Mark, who will be known to many as the author of a number of books in the weird fiction genre, beginning with his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales in 2003.  More recent fiction has been scheduled for what will now be posthumous publication.

Mark was a member of the original Arthur Machen Society in the 1990s, and would later become active in its successor, the Friends of Arthur Machen, becoming Secretary for two different terms. He will be remembered from many meetings of the Friends (from annual dinners, to more ad hoc pub crawls), as great company; he was a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for writers such as Machen, Lovecraft and Ligotti, as well as enjoying, like Machen, good conversation, drink, food and tobacco.

I first met Mark in the 1990s through the Society and we met many times in London and Wales, sharing an interest not only in weird fiction, but authors of the 1890s. I remember having a long conversation with Mark about Edgar Allan Poe’s philosophy of ‘unity of effect’ in the short story, and published his essay on the subject, ‘Brilliance beyond Darkness’ in 1994. Mark’s own fiction was often at its best when he employed Poe’s philosophy: Mark was not particularly interested in writing stories set in recognisable and benign present day settings into which the weird or uncanny might slowly intrude.

From the outset, Mark’s stories take place in a strange and decaying world—one that is often blighted, if not diseased. This gives his fiction a bleak vision and an intensity that has been admired by many readers as well as fellow-authors, since the first magazine appearances of his stories in the 1980s. Apart from in his own books, his stories have been published in such prestigious anthologies as The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, A Mountain Walks, and The Weird.

Mark’s first great literary influence was H.P. Lovecraft, but Machen was to become an equally strong influence. Mark wrote:

'Machen had a significant advantage over Lovecraft for me, in that he was a Londoner like myself. So I could immediately identify with the locales he describes in much of his fiction in a way that I couldn’t with Lovecraft’s Providence and Rhode Island. Machen’s vision of London as some interminable labyrinth of mysterious wonder and horror took firmer hold of my imagination, since I experienced it on a daily basis. Now one could argue that this is just an accident of birth and has no bearing on their respective literary merits, which I think is true. In terms of their contribution to the literary weird continuum, I would place them on an approximately equal level. I don’t think Machen’s work is, overall, necessarily superior to Lovecraft’s. . . . Both men were remarkable prose-stylists who recognised that the creation of atmosphere in a supernatural horror tale required a language of heightened sensitivity.'

Mark Samuels was not averse to controversy. I had a couple of bust-ups with him (I was not without some degree of blame both times) and we had some profound disagreements, but we always managed to put those things behind us, sit down over a drink, and resume our friendship. I was delighted when (post disagreements) he dedicated his 2011 Chômu Press edition of The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Stories to me.

Mark had become a Roman Catholic in his mid-twenties, and discussed his faith in relation to his literary interests and writings in a fascinating interview with Matt Cardin in 2000. On his death, Mark received, as was his request, Last Rites.

In recent years Mark had moved to King’s Langley, just outside of London. He was living close to his partner, Madeleine Harrison, with whom he planned his future. When The Friends of Arthur Machen meet in Hay on Wye in March, in the midst of the bookish and Machenian talk, he will be sorely missed, and we will raise a glass to him. In the wider world of weird literature, he will continue to be read.

A Mark Samuels Bibliography


 A Pilgrim Stranger, self published 2017

Witch-Cult Abbey, Zagava, 2021


The Face of Twilight, PS Publishing, 2006, reprinted self published 2016

Glyphotech, PS Publishing, 2008

Short Story Collections

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, Tartarus Press, 2003 (translated as Die Weißen Hände und andere Geschichten des Grauens)

Black Altars, Rainfall Books, 2003

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Stories, Ex Occidente Press, 2010, reprinted as The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Chômu Press, 2011

Written in Darkness, Egaeus Press, 2014, Chômu Press, 2017

Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes, self published 2016

The Prozess Manifestations, Zagava, 2017

The Age of Decayed Futurity: The Best of Mark Samuels, Hippocampus Press, 2020


Prophecies and Dooms, self published, 2018

(R B Russell)

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Arthur Machen: Mist and Mystery

Darkly Bright Press recently issued a volume of stories, essays, and book reviews by Arthur Machen, most of which had not previously been reprinted.  Edited and with an informative introduction by Christopher Tompkins, the book includes three main sections, plus some appendices.

The first section is that of fiction, though it contains only three items:  “Scrooge and the Spirit” (a light satire),  “Many Tower’d Camelot” (also known as “Guinevere and Lancelot” in the rare 1926 volume Notes and Queries), and “Out of the Earth” (an early version of the story which appears in a few Machen volumes). The second section contains seventeen articles and reviews, while the third section consists of extracts from Machen’s “Literary Week” columns from T.P.’s Weekly from 1908 through 1910. Some appendices highlight shorter pieces and cover bibliographical matters.

Rather than analysing the contents, I’m going to let Machen speak for himself, and include a number of quotations that struck me as nice observations, or as ideas nicely worded. The book is available from the usual sources as a trade paperback (US$ 15.00), ISBN  9798986390413.

“I have always been convinced of the fact that Poe’s work is supremely great, that the charm of it is unique in letters.” (pp. 65-66)

“George Bernard Shaw is, in fact, an instance of the most brilliant intellect exercised chiefly on false premises, and Mr. Chesterton shows, it seems to me, how such an antinomy became possible.” (p. 71)

“And behind all this there is, in my opinion, the last and fatal objection: that literature is finally to be judged by literary canons, and that the social or religious opinions of men of letter are not of importance.” (p. 73)

“It is long, I think, since I have read a sadder book than this biography, by Charlotte Fell Smith, of ‘John Dee,’ the famous ‘magician' of the Elizabethan age. . . . It stands to me, I confess, as a symbol, as a concrete illustration of infinite waste and folly and delusion, of the certain and melancholy doom that awaits the men who adventure forth in that quest which is called ‘occult.’” (p. 86)

“This I will say, that anyone who has really taken one of the great undoubted masterpieces to his heart, who has read and re-read it, so that it has become a familiar inhabitant of his mind, will never admire rubbish.” (p. 115)

“Many years ago a brilliant essayist said that Mr. James wrote as if writing were a painful duty. There is truth in the criticism, but it is not all the truth. Personally, I like Mr. James’s best work in spite of his manner, rather than because of it; but his best is certainly very good indeed. . . .  Mr. James is at his happiest in dealing with personalities of men of letters. But his ‘Turn of the Screw’ is one of the very best horror stories ever written.”  (p. 116)

“I have not read ‘John Silence,’ but if it is anything like ‘The Listener,’ by the same writer, it must be very good indeed. I should place that story of the men on the island amongst the whispering, mysterious voice of the willow lushes in the very first rank of tales of terror.”  (p. 116)

“All fine art is essentially and necessarily symbolical.  Art is the presentation of images which symbolise ideas or emotions. A Turner picture is not the mere likeness of a certain scene; the mere likeness could be more perfectly achieved by the camera. It is rather a symbol of the artist’s emotion on beholding a particular landscape, expressed in paint. And poetry, too, is symbolical: it is a collection of sensuous images which are really ‘words’ in the secret language of the spirit.” (p. 130)

“The mass of criticism and cross-criticism already called forth by the event of Edgar Allan Poe’s Centenary would perhaps have been spared were it generally realised that Poe, whose grandfather was a native Irishman, displayed, in life and work, simply the traits which make the Irish always the subject of misunderstanding. . . .  His characteristic mood is eminently Celtic. He was ever brooding on a faint and haunting dream of a past splendour, and he allowed his life to be directed by his dreams. He responded to the moods of Nature, but he saw the world chiefly in its autumn humour. He was oppressed by fear of some impending disaster, conscious of Fate, whose remote trafficking seemed ruthless to the individual, but he sometimes rose to a spiritual exultation that was almost prophetic.”  (p. 137)

Monday, December 4, 2023

Raymond Chandler's Fantasies

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) is renowned for his seven hard-boiled detective novels, published between 1939 and 1958. He also wrote twenty-five longish short stories, only three of which were published after 1941, and two of these appeared posthumously (one less than two weeks after Chandler's death; the other published seventeen years later). 

In a letter written on 19 June 1956, Chandler wrote:

I love fantastic stories and have sketches of perhaps a dozen that I should love to see in print. They are not science fiction. My idea of the fantastic story--possibly a little out of date--is that everything is completely realistic except for the basic impossible premise. Both of those I have mentioned are concerned with vanishing or invisibility. I have one about a man who got into fairyland but they wouldn't let him stay. Another about a princess who traded her tongue for a ruby and then was sorry and it had to be retrieved. One about a young society novelist whose father was a magician and kept making a duke disappear so his son could make love to the duchess. I may add that the duke took it with good grace (a joke) although he was rather annoyed. That sort of thing. Quite rare nowadays.

The two stories that Chandler referred to as "concerned with vanishing or invisibility" are in fact the two fantasy stories he finished and published. 

 from Unknown, November 1939
The first is "The Bronze Door," in which a man purchases an odd antique bronze door, and when anyone passes through it, they disappear. It is the best of Chandler's fantasies, told in his typical terse and understated style. It first appeared in the short-lived fantasy pulp Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell, in the November 1939 issue, with one illustration by Frank Kramer (who is known for illustrating two Oz books by Jack Snow in the 1940s).

The second is "Professor Bingo's Snuff," a kind of fantastical locked room mystery in which the murderer uses invisibility to depart a locked room after the police have arrived and broken in from the outside. Sadly, Chandler lost focus on the story and it is not as effective as it might otherwise have been.  It was published in Park East, for June-August 1951, but Chandler had written a slightly better (less sprawling) precis of the story, titled "Bingo's Snuff",  on June 3, 1943, which is published in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler (1976). The story was certainly fully written before June 1950, when it was rejected by Cosmopolitan magazine. On 31 October 1951, Chandler wrote of the story to James Sandoe:

I think possibly it was a little too grim for a fantastic story and a little too fantastic for a grim story. But when you say why in hell would Joe [the main character and murderer] bother, I don't get the point. Why wouldn't he? Anyhow I had fun writing the story, although it didn't turn out quite the way I expected. I started out to do a burlesque on the locked room mystery and somewhere along the line I lost interest in the burlesque angle and became preoccupied with the thought that a miracle is always a trap. As you know, good fantastic stories are extremely rare, and they are rare for a rather obvious reason, that in them it is almost impossible to turn the corner. Once you have exposed the situation, you have nowhere to go.

A third story of interest is "English Summer: A Gothic Romance," and it is primarily because of the sub-title that one is drawn to the story. Yet, beyond the closed society of an English household, together with sexual intrigue and a murder, there really isn't much "gothic" about it. Again, Chandler had plotted it as early as 1939 (see The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, p. 9), but the story is usually dated to 1957 because that is when Chandler re-wrote it. To Helga Greene, he wrote on 31 January 1957 that "many years ago I wrote a story about an American at an English country cottage. I haven't looked at it for twenty years, but I came on it while looking boxes in the storeroom here." He announced that he would make "a few changes, not many" to it; and by 30 April 1957, he had finished and was sending it to Greene, noting, "it may not be commercial at all, but I enjoyed writing it and rewriting it very much. It's a rather exquisite bit of writing, possibly a little too exquisite, but, hell, can't a man spread himself once in a while?" Chandler hoped to write a play from it, but never did.  The story remained unpublished until 1976 when it was included in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, with a small number of illustrations by Edward Gorey.

 An Edward Gorey Illustration for "English Summer"

Chandler had included "The Bronze Door" in The Finger Man and Other Stories (1946) but withheld it  from his collection The Simple Art of Murder (1950), in which included the stories he most wanted remembered. As that book was being compiled, Chandler wrote to his agent Bernice Baumgarten on 8 November 1949: 

I'd like to leave off The Bronze Door because I'd like to do a group of fantastic stories in which it would belong, if they ever got published (or written, you will add). These stories, about ten of them, longish short stories, would all be about murder in some sense, or the elimination of some annoying person, all more or less fortuitously through the happening on a magic means of doing it, all realistic in tone, with a dash of humor, and all in the nature of a spoof on some type of murder story.

Chandler's ambivalence about the idea of a collection of fantasies shows up in a letter from 27 September 1954 to his friend and British publisher Hamish Hamilton, where he wrote:  "If you really want to know what I should really like to write, it would be fantastic stories, and I don't mean science fiction. A dozen of so of them have been rattling around in my head for a great many years, pleading to be put done on paper. But they wouldn't make a thin worn dime. That would just be a wonderful way to become a Neglected Author."

We know little about these other fantasies, beyond what Chandler wrote in his 1939 notebook, evidently not long after "The Bronze Door" had been written. Then he envisioned:

a set of six or seven fantastic stories, some written, some thought of, perhaps one brand new. Each a little difference in tone and effect from the other. The ironic gem The Bronze Door, the perfect fantastic atmosphere story The Edge of the West, the spooky story Grandma;s Boy, the farcical story The Disappearing Duke, the Allegory Ironic The Four Gods of Bloon, the pure fairytale The Rubies of Marmelon. (p. 9)

Chandler hoped to have enough money on hand so as not to worry if such a volume sold. Perhaps that expectation kept him from writing most of the fantasies, for all we have to read are the two described above,  the haunting titles from his notebook, and the small descriptions quoted from a letter at the beginning of this essay. I for one want to know more about "The Four Gods of Bloon" and "The Rubies of Marmelon," both of which sound almost like Dunsany titles.  

Friday, December 1, 2023

A Time It Was - Godfrey Brangham

Godfrey Brangham is the co-editor of Arthur Machen’s Selected Letters (with Roger Dobson and R A Gilbert, 1988), and of a selection of Machen’s introductions and forewords, The Day’s Portion (with Nigel Jarrett, 1991). He also edited Purefoy Machen’s memoirs, Where Memory Slept (1991) and is the leading researcher of Machen’s first wife, Amelia Hogg.

For some years Godfrey has also been regaling friends with his stories and vignettes inspired by episodes in Machen’s life or work, as well as other uncanny and mysterious fiction.  

Now fifteen of his more general stories have been gathered in a new paperback, A Time It Was and Other Tales (Saron Publishers, 2023), available from the usual online outlets. The announcement for the book advises: ‘This deeply satisfying collection of short stories by a master storyteller ranges from the Knights Templar through a most unusual antiques shop to fishing in the River Usk. Many of the stories have an other-worldly hint about them while others explore snapshots of the ordinary every-day.’

At the launch for the book, Godfrey recalled: ‘Many of the stories in A Time it Was came about because of characters I have met over the years who stayed in my mind, sometimes intermingled with everyday events that nevertheless can change what happens to people.’ As this suggests, the characters in his tales have an appealing authenticity to them, giving even more impact to the strange experiences that come their way.

Local newspaper The Abergavenny Chronicle describes the book ‘as a delightful set of short stories just right for reading on a winter’s evening by the fire.’ Chess, books, a converted church, an old journal, a Victorian painting, a mysterious island, all add picturesque interest to the tales. The stories are succinct and briskly told, and are particularly deft at the unexpected and often ironic final twist.

(Mark Valentine)