Monday, June 30, 2014

A View of Dunsany, 1923

Lord Dunsany, by Bohun Lynch

The Selling of the Emerald Idol*

The beginnings of this tale are black with age, and they are to be found in the Infinitely Ancient Archives of the Mysteries. Strooth of the House of Rhot dwelling beyond the Hills of Bhosh set down the later happenings on a papyrus, and they keep it in the monasteries of Gloob. But the end is not yet.

When Sili Boob inherited from his father the secret of the Emerald Idol, how it had stood since the dawn of the world in the golden shrine among the lotus blooms and orchids of Sloosh, giving peace to the faithful, he went to the shrine with his wife Oogly Moog, and gave it fair speech, but it made no sign. Then taking it from the shrine, he wrapped the Emerald Idol in the skin of a newly slain goat, and brought it to Lord Dunsany in Go-by Street, who, being wise, counselled Sili Boob to take back the idol whence it had been brought.

But Sili Boob and Oogly Moog his wife had prayed daily to the Emerald Idol, and it had made no sign; and they prayed again, and still it made no sign, and their prayer remained unfulfilled; and on the following morning they took it to Mr. Bern­stein, whose other name is Fortescue, and sold it to him. Whereupon returning home they found their prayer had been granted in their absence, so that they had wronged the Emerald Idol. They sat all night awake expecting death, but it came not.

This story I related to Fujjh and Hang Mee and Sozzle, laughing as I told.

And they only answered, “This is a damn silly yarn.”

But I replied, “It is no worse than the others.”

And I said truth.

*from Decorations and Absurdities (1923), by Bohun Lynch and Reginald Berkeley

Friday, June 27, 2014

Robert Aickman Centenary

One hundred years ago today, June 27th 1914, Robert Fordyce Aickman was born at 77 Fellows Road in London.  Aickman is primarily remembered for two things:  his campaign to save the English waterways, and his "strange stories".

In Aickman's honor, I plan to re-read one of his strange stories tonight, but the question is which one?  There are forty-eight in number, spread out over some seven collections. Shall I chose a favorite?  Or a less often re-visited tale?

I think I shall select from Powers of Darkness, solely because it's been a while since I have perused this volume.  Shall it be the old favorite, "The Wine-Dark Sea"?  Or maybe "The Visiting Star"? Or maybe both.  I'll decide later. 

Anyone else up for honoring Aickman by reading one of his stories?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

TOUCHSTONES - Essays by John Howard

John Howard’s new book Touchstones (Alchemy Press) offers twenty-two essays on aspects of the fantastic in literature, including some previously published in Wormwood. His subjects include Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, August Derleth and Arthur Machen. John is a long-time reader and student of the genre and has been a regular contributor to the journal since the beginning. He is a discerning but not uncritical enthusiast of the American weird fiction tradition and classic British supernatural fiction: and also, of course, a writer of fine short stories and novellas in the field.

John explains why he compiled the book: “I wrote these essays because their subjects interested me – or in some cases came close to obsessing me – and I wanted to get my thoughts on them into some order, and hopefully interest others too. Often I wished to communicate my enthusiasm. For example, although Fritz Leiber died over twenty years ago, I still consider him to be one of the finest and most distinctive writers of horror fiction. It seems unlikely that Arthur Machen will ever fall back into obscurity, but if he does I’ve had my say. My debt to these and other writers, whose work has remained with me and become a part of me in some cases, never goes away. Touchstones is a small way of saying ‘Thank you!’”

His essays on Carl Jacobi, William Sloane, Günter Eich and Francis Brett Young, amongst others, celebrate the literature of authors who do not always get their deserved attention. John comments: “These works simply should be better known.”

Of particular interest is his comparison of some rarely-considered fantasies of future societies, in ‘The Ninefold Kingdom and Others: Four Fictional Visions of the Political Future’, which examines novels by Frederick Rolfe, R.H. Benson, M.P. Shiel and Nevil Shute, finding illuminating parallels, and differences, in their work. Bridging his American and British interests, ‘Old England, New England: M.R. James, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett’ takes praise by James for the writers across the Atlantic and notices subtle shared interests and insights between them. In discussing Machen, John tackles his literary study Hieroglyphics, one of the Welsh author’s more abstruse but also essential works, helping the reader understand the secrets at the heart of the book.

John has always been keen to champion the original work of an author whose reputation has often lain under the long shadow of a friend from Providence. He told me: “August Derleth is best known for his promoting of H.P. Lovecraft and his own frequently merely competent horror stories, but he also wrote ‘serious’ regional fiction that drew the praise of the major literary figures of the time, and which would occasionally, and memorably, straddle the boundary between the two aspects of his work. I wanted this to be better known. Writing about a neglected author or work also appealed to me. Derleth’s Sac Prairie fiction is one example.”

Touchstones is essential reading for any reader of fantastic literature, uniting the zest of a genuine enthusiast, the clarity of a writer of subtle fiction in the field, and the sound judgement of a discerning scholar.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

An Experiment with Allan Quatermain

The title of Thomas Kent Miller’s Allan Quatermain at the Dawn of Time (2013) might lead the reader to expect a Rider Haggard pastiche. And there would be nothing wrong with that – Rider Haggard’s strong storytelling qualities, ranging ideas and bold plots made him a perennial success in late Victorian and Edwardian times, on a par with Conan Doyle, Kipling and Bram Stoker.

But as Thomas Kent Miller explored in an essay for Wormwood (included in this book) there was rather more to Haggard – as there was to Kipling – than simply an imperial swashbuckler. His books show a sensitive man who was moved by close human relationships, whether of love or comradeship, respectful of the codes and customs of other peoples, and with doubts about aspects of colonialism.

However, this is not the only way in which Allan Quatermain at the Dawn of Time is more unusual than a conventional pastiche. For it is actually a highly postmodern creation, conveying its narrative through many different sources, each inflected with different shades of irony or doubt. The author has structured the work as in one sense an “epistolary novel” (perhaps “documentary novel” might be a better term, provided it does not connote anything too dry or factual). One outer document leads to another, and these to further, inner documents, so that the reader experiences the book as if going through a series of doors in a labyrinth of secret passages. This approach is supported by the pleasing design of the book, which gives each document a charming verisimilitude.

This approach is complex – the reader must keep their wits about them – and allusive. It asks for an alertness and constant curiosity. An impatient reader might be daunted by the layers of what appear to be preamble at the outset, but these are in fact essential to the way the book works.

This experimental approach is accompanied, however, by a thorough understanding of the enthralling themes found in the mysteries and romances of the Haggardian tradition: ancient secrets, hidden adepts, enigmatic heroes, strange sects, resonant spiritual symbols, a quest across time and space. They are all there, even if not always laid out plainly in a linear plot. Instead, we must regard the book as like a curious crystal, which reveals some new dimension as each facet is caught in the light of our understanding.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Robert Aickman and H B Creswell

One quality ever-present in Robert Aickman’s stories is a sense of heroic futility. Many of his characters lead lives that appear, properly considered, absurd or meaningless. Some of them even know this, either directly or dimly. And yet they carry on as they are. Aickman often has a certain amount of fun at their expense, but his attitude is nevertheless one of a bitter sympathy. He is not an inhuman writer: he recognises the little tragedies of so many lives limited by character, upbringing or circumstances.

One of his favourite authors, whose books perhaps cast a light-hearted relief upon this attitude, was H B Creswell. “I learnt to appreciate,” Aickman writes in The Attempted Rescue (1966, p. 143), “the extremely instructive and entertaining architectural novels of H. B. Creswell, of which the best are the two Honeywood books and “Jago versus Swillerton and Toomer”, cumbersomely entitled but brilliant.”

His books are not very well known now. They are comical farces, usually relating to litigation about a building project that has gone wrong. Creswell was himself a working architect, designing a range of buildings, from churches to factories. His writing career began with stories for children, but where he is read today at all it is for his humorous books drawing on the vicissitudes of his profession.

Harry Bulkeley Creswell (1869-1960) is an elusive author. The few facts about him are mostly found in Alistair Service’s Edwardian Architecture: A Handbook to Building Design in Britain, 1890-1914 (1977). This records that Creswell was educated in Bedford and at Trinity College, Dublin, articled as an architecture student in 1890, and set up his own practice in 1900. His notable designs included the Parthenon Room in the British Museum, the Law Courts in Sierra Leone and the College of Agriculture in Mauritius.

The best-known of his books, still occasionally revived and cited with appreciation in architectural circles, is The Honeywood File (1929), an epistolary novel containing the correspondence between a young, keen architect, and his patron, a knight of the shires who has his own ideas about house-building. The letters originally appeared as a series in The Architectural Review, and the book has been regularly reissued by The Architectural Press since. In this, and its sequel, The Honeywood Settlement (1930), Creswell created a minor masterpiece of under-stated, slightly Wodehousian humour.

Less noticed, but equally droll, is the similarly-devised book that followed, Jago versus Swillerton & Toomer (1931), an account of litigation between a country squire and the architect and the builder he commissioned to erect a village hall, which fell down during a rather rumbustious dance. We observe the proceedings of the case, overseen by an expert adjudicator, through the evidence of a range of witnesses, each of them with very distinct foibles and prejudices. If just occasionally the details are a little technical, the dialogue is superb: sly, spirited, individually inflected, and at times enlivened by vividly reconstructed slapstick.

Aickman appreciated these books particularly because his father, as he recounts in Chapter Four of The Attempted Rescue, was himself a working architect, though of indifferent success. He had hoped his son would follow him into the profession but, Aickman recorded, “His main professional preoccupation at this period was the installation of lavatories in…public houses.” The few other clients he had were “of the type Creswell describes” – that is to say, idiosyncratic, single-minded and unwilling to be thwarted.

However, there may be more to his admiration of the books than his recognition of their acute satire. Aickman rarely himself deployed humour so overtly, but he was adept at implying his character’s self-delusions through their own thoughts and voices, and I suggest he may have learned some of this allusiveness from Creswell’s books. Lives may be markedly affected by untoward events: and the fine historical novelist Peter Vansittart, after long and liberal study, concluded that history was far more a matter of chance and confusion than of intent and plot. Creswell’s funny books, in their modest way, make exactly this point: things happen, quite dramatic things, because of a bumblesome sequence of unintended consequences. And that is often the implication of Aickman’s stories too.

We may sense that his characters could sometimes have taken more control of the rather desolate course of their existence. But it is rare in Aickman’s stories for his figures to take such decisive action: limits to their imagination or energy seem to prevent them. And there is also often a rather fatalistic implication that, even though things might have happened differently, his characters don’t know at any given moment what is the lever they should pull to avert the fate they do not want. In H B Creswell’s Jago book, the pulling of a few levers – well, wedges – might have made all the difference.

Checklist of Books by H B Creswell

Thomas (Nisbet, 1917)
Thomas Settles Down (Nisbet, 1918)
Marytary (Oxford University Press, 1928)
The Honeywood File: An Adventure in Building (Faber, 1929)
The Honeywood Settlement: A Continuation of The Honeywood File (Faber, 1930)
Jago versus Swillerton & Toomer (Faber, 1931)
Diary from a Dust-bin - Pre War (Faber, 1935)
Johnny and Marytary (Faber, 1936)
Grig (Faber, 1942)
Grig in Retirement (Faber, 1943)

Mark Valentine

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dr Freud's Cabaret - Charlotte Greig

"Dr Freud’s Cabaret is a set of songs, Studies in Hysteria, in the voices of Freud’s early patients. All of the songs are based on the actual texts of Freud’s case studies, often using exact the words and phrases that he’d noted down as he listened to his patients – tales of chimney sweeps, white wolves in walnut trees, crumpled giraffes, lost pince-nez, waltzing women, caged birds, burning houses, blackened breasts, and fountains of snow. He tried to make sense of what they told him – with mixed results – but he was revolutionary in that he actually listened carefully to what they said."

The songs were mostly written by Charlotte Greig, some co-written with Anthony Reynolds. They are performed with the help of a number of other musicians, playing piano, clarinet, melodeon, violin, viola and guitar accompaniment. Strange listening indeed, with echoes of interwar European cabaret culture, and a surreal poetry, conveyed with delicate respect. Available as a download or as an album, packaged with casebook, appointment card, postcard.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Battered Books No 2 - Penny Bloods

Taking my cue from Mark's last post, I thought I'd add to the "battered books" series by looking briefly at Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls.  They represent something of a challenge to the collector as they were published in weekly penny parts, and sometimes monthly parts for 6d.

Collectors of Penny Bloods, often being an impecunious and resourceful lot, would take it upon themselves to bind these into convenient volumes or rebind volumes that had fallen apart.  Here is John P. Quaine, the Melbourne Bloods collector and bookseller, mentioning some examples he had bound himself in letters to Stanley Larnach:

May 12 1952:
"I have another fierce item – Dashing Duval the Ladies Highwayman, last reissue approx 1895, full of illus, some very sensational.  150 pages, wrapper, perfect copy, but towards the end evidence of dirty-fingered printers.  My own cloth binding.  There is an awful semi human creature in it called Vaughan the Vampire.  One of the cuts show him being buried with a stake stuck in his little Mary.  I have had this fifty years, but will sell it now for two quid."

May 25 1952
"Susan Hoply; or, the Trials and vicissitudes of a Servant Girl.  A Tale of Deep Interest.  By the author of Kathleen, Hebrew maiden, etc. 56 Nos, each illus in the usual bloodcut style, lacking three leaves, fierce front of a midnight murder, cloth binding (by myself) £2."

"I think the same chap will sell me back Mabel, or, The ghouls of the Battlefield and The love Child, by the author of ‘Varney’ both Lloyds.  Can’t tell how much till I make the purchase.  “Mabel” is in 2 small vols (again my binding) and one vol I think I described once to you as being badly cracking in places.  This I patched with transparent paper as well as I could, but it still needs careful handling."

13 June 1954
"Remember I told you how I had made an off to a chap early last year for The Old House at West St?  I gave him up in despair, but yesterday he rolled in with it!  Took my offer.  The two vols, bound as I had em (my own work, cloth and gold lettered labels) not improved by usage since they left me, but still good."

Some years ago I bought a bunch of Penny Dreadfuls from a dealer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.  I can't recall his name, but he was a trusting old time dealer who sought payment when the requested books were received, sometimes even asking me to make an offer when I received them.  The books came from a Dreadfuls collector who had passed on, and who had bound up some of them himself. Here's a fine example:   

Here's another, acquired from the Internet, the margin of the first page taped, with the collector's notes on the front pastedown:

One of the annotations implores future owners, "Do NOT ERASE NOTES."  Poorly bound, taped, annotated, incomplete, this one of my favourite books.

Here is a fierce cut from a Christmas number of Young Men of Great Britain.  The bloodcurdling caption reads: "The door flew open and disclosed a ghastly skeleton."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Battered Books No 1 - Lost England

Some book collectors always strive to find the titles they want in the most perfect condition possible. I like nicely kept books too, but I also enjoy battered books marked by the exigencies of time: the wear, damage, bumping of corners, fraying of edges, the blots, stains, blemishes, the fading from sunlight, the darkening from grime, the greying of dust and the blurring from hands upon the grain. They seem to me to have character, and to tell a story aside from the one told on their pages.

In a few cases, the effect almost begins to look like a work of abstract art. I have volumes whose curious colouring and strange markings I can look at for many moments, like regarding the dark light in a pool of rainwater, or the creeping stains of ochre and lichen upon a stone, or the sea’s pale chisellings on driftwood. Such books may only be found by looking and touching, by the physical quest in dim corners and crumpled boxes, by attention to the shunned, and the semi-discarded. One of them, Lost England, The Story of Our Submerged Coasts by Beckles Wilson, revised by W.J. Wiltshire, B.A., was published by Hodder & Stoughton in their Useful Knowledge series.

The book is about the lost lands and submerged settlements of the English shoreline, and ironically it has also suffered depredations. There is a scoop taken out of the bottom of the pages, and the friable paper is chipped and crumbling, almost as if it were meant as an image of the waves taking bites out of the coast. Moreover, there is a scorchmark on the back board, an archipelago of stains, and the cover, once perhaps a bright aquamarine, has become the slate-blue of the sea under winter skies.

There is an ownership signature in browned ink inside: E H Marsh (Horsham Station) 25/3/1916. The date makes me wonder what the book and its owner went through.

Mark Valentine