Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lionel Sparrow (1867-1936): An Unknown Australian Writer of Gothic Horror

Below is an article I wrote in 2008 on Lionel Sparrow, an obscure Australian writer of horror stories.  In the meantime Lionel Sparrow's daughter, Julie Thompson, a retired journalist, and her son, Adam Beams, got in touch with me. Julie wrote:

"[I] grew up knowing of Lionel and his connection to "The Grenville Standard" but very little else about him except vague references to his work being published in "The Bulletin" alongside that of writers such as Banjo Paterson.  It is only in the past 20 years or so that I have discovered his poetry (he published, or someone else did) a slim volume called rather unimaginatively Poems, of about 24 of his verses. I certainly, until now, had absolutely no idea of his "dark side" as the author of gothic and horror stories.  These poems were written under the pseudonym of "Ignotus" and then pen names (not the ones in little volume mentioned).
From all accounts, Lionel was a quiet, self-effacing man.  Small in stature (about 5 ft 4 ins) but big hearted.  He was very involved in the life of Linton as, among other things a vestryman and church warden at St Paul's Anglican Church and as a founding member and president of the Linton Dramatic Club.  At the time of his death in 1936, he was described by one of the locals in "The Grenville Standard" as a "go ahead little man" always in the van of progress.

Lionel arrived in Linton in 1911 after working on "The Riponshire Advocate" for 6 years.  Before that he had been associated with newspapers in Newcastle where he began his apprenticeship at the age of 14, Sydney, Melbourne and Sunbury.

I know even less about Lionel's earlier life.  It is only (again) in recent years I discovered his father Isaac was American born in Minerva Essex County in Upper New York State.  He was a miner, aged 37, when he married Lionel's mother Louisa Helena Brown, a domestic aged 25, who was born in London in Turleigh on October 6th, 1866.  I am trying to find out more about Isaac who died in Walls End, NSW.  Louisa died in Melbourne.  She was described a a "dressmaker" and is buried in a Pauper's Grave at St Kilda Cemetery.  Lionel seems to have then been living with her at St Kilda."

If anyone has any more information about Lionel Sparrow and his family we would be glad to hear it.

Here is the original article, which appeared in the first volume of Studies in Australian Weird Fiction, now out of print and hard to find:

Lionel Sparrow wrote more than two dozen horror and adventure stories for the Australian Journal between 1887 and 1910.  This article provides a brief overview of his life and work, and the literary magazine in which all of his known stories appeared.

The Australian Journal
The Australian Journal began as a weekly in 1865 and became a monthly in 1869.  It was a highly successful and long-lasting literary magazine that contained a mixture of imported and home-grown fiction.  The fiction tended to be sensational romance or adventure stories.  The most prolific author was Mary Fortune, who as Waif Wander penned the “Detective’s Album”, which appeared in each issue for over 40 years.  The series included supernatural tales that were often published for the Christmas edition of the magazine.  

The Australian Journal published a good number of gothic romances and horror stories over the years, many of them from European and American sources.  Fitz James O’Brien’s famous supernatural tale about an invisible monster, “What Was It?”, appeared anonymously in the magazine in 1866.  A translation of Gustave Toudouze’s “The Demon Clock” appeared in the February 1892 issue, a supernatural tale about a Jewish merchant’s bizarre suicide in the pendulum chains of his clock.  George Arthur Walstab’s “The House by the River”, published in June 1885, is a fine ghost story set in India.  The anonymous “Grey Woman of the Moor”, published in May 1885, is a comfortable Victorian ghost story about a Christmas visitor to a lonely Dartmoor inn in 1840 who encounters a mysterious woman – the ghost of a lady disappointed in love 140 years before.  Mary Fortune’s over-the-top vampire story, “The White Maniac”, was published in July 1867.  “The Sculptor’s Warning” by Frank Watson is a tale of a ghostly warning set in Michigan.  There are several haunted house tales, including Robert Criteur’s “The Haunted House” (July 1879), set in country Victoria; “The Haunted Inn” (April 1885), an anonymous American tale set in Pennsylvania; and “The Haunted Manor” (March 1897), a better than average English ghost story by George Downing Sparks.  Several gothic melodramas were also serialised, such as the anonymous The Demon of Brockenheim; Or, The Enchanted Ring (April-October 1877), and Mary Fortune’s Clyzia the Dwarf.

Given this interest in gothic, supernatural and crime stories it is not surprising that Lionel Sparrow submitted his tales of horror to the Australian Journal.  

Lionel Sparrow
Very little is known about Sparrow’s life.  He did not publish a book during his lifetime, and consequently he does not appear in the usual histories or bibliographies.  He was born in 1867 in the small Murray River town of Wahgunyah, located 272 km north-east of Melbourne, and was the eldest of six children, one of whom died in infancy.  He lived most of his life in Linton, Victoria, a gold mining town 149 km east of Melbourne.  At some point he bought the local newspaper, the Grenville Standard, and retained it until his death.  He married Alice Eliza Miller, and they had one son, Geoffrey Sparrow, who followed his father into journalism and became Federal President of the Australian Journalists Association.  Sparrow was a founding member of the Old Lintonians Association, which first met on 9 October 1913.  He died on 9 April 1936.  

It is a probably fruitless exercise to attempt to recover anything about Sparrow’s personality and interests from these bare facts.  However, judging from his stories, he must have been a precocious and widely read young man with a taste for the macabre.

Sparrow’s first story, “The Jewelled Hand”, appeared in the August 1887 issue of The Australian Journal, when he was nineteen.  This story is a typical grand guignol gothic horror story featuring an ingenious decapitation machine that would not look out of place in a Roger Corman film.  A series of gothic melodramas followed, which were published in quick succession in 1888.  It seems reasonable to assume that Sparrow wrote the stories as a group and then sought publication – certainly they are very similar in theme and style.  What is particularly striking about them is their excessiveness – we have violent murder, mutilation, disfiguring disease, and torture (both physical and psychological).  Take for example, the following description of a swordfight in “In the North Wing”, which occurs after the mad Sir Phillip Margrave has plucked out the eyes of Lady Alice Tremaine:

It was a fight of madmen – a mutual butchery.  There was no attempt at defence on either side.  Each struck blindly at the other, and every blow, every thrust, took effect.  In a few seconds both combatants, pierced in twenty places and bathed in blood, rolled on the marble floor.  Sir Phillip Margrave, as he fell, breathed his last.  But Cyril Verehurst lived some moments; that is to say, long enough to feel the last embrace of Lady Alice, who had seized the Damascus sword which her hand, groping about, had touched, and had plunged it into her breast.  And then, falling upon the body of her lover, she mingled her last sighs with his.

Others may have been influenced by the decadent literature of the day.  Consider the following paragraph from “Irene”:

I looked upon her as she lay, still, and white, and cold.  Her beauty had always been great, but now there seemed in it a very pronounced, though indefinable, weirdness that rendered it almost superhuman to my eyes, and I shuddered as I thought how soon would this matchless handicraft of nature be the food of the worm.  For many minutes I stood gazing at the motionless face, the closed lids, the heavy raven hair, the slender but exquisitely moulded arms, the delicately perfect outlines of the bosom.  I had been suffering acutely, and my nerves were highly strung by excessive draughts of laudanum.  It may be that I uttered some wild words, for I have an indistinct remembrance of an agitation of some sort within the room; however, I was led away, and found myself next morning in my own chamber.

He published stories regularly throughout the early 1890s, but after 1895 his output slowed considerably. The Grenville Standard was founded in April 1895 and it may be that Sparrow worked for the newspaper from its inception (though it was little more a newsletter, usually about 2 or 3 pages in length, and reporting such local news as council proceedings, sports news and social chit-chat).

Almost from the start of his writing career Sparrow mixed his gothic stories with adventure and crime stories, some of which had an Australian setting. The first of these was “The Glass Dagger”, a crime romance about a woman who falls in love with the brother of a convicted forger who is transported to Australia. Some of these stories, like the gothic tales, have exotic locations – “A Tale of Tokio”, for example, is a strange story about a failed Japanese wrestler's obsessive hatred of the narrator, a westerner, who only manages to escape his murderous intentions through the intervention of an earthquake.

His later stories were published at irregular intervals in The Australian Journal. He abandoned the excessive gothic trappings of his earlier tales and introduced occult/psychic elements from Eastern religions, perhaps influenced by Theosophy. Sparrow's florid prose style is just as evident, however. In “The Strange Case of Alan Heriot”, the narrator's spirit is left to drift in the ether after his body is taken over by another spirit:

Losing the mental balance so essential to the dweller in that realm of spectres, I abandoned myself to the agonies of despair.  This left me a helpless prey to all the horrors of Pretaloka.  I was instantly surrounded by a host of grinning demons - foul and loathsome shapes, such as not even the diseased imagination of a mediaeval hermit could have conjured up.  In my normal state I could easily have willed away such base creatures, who are the mere refuse or scum of the lower levels - souls of debased savages and of criminals, degenerates, etc; but now, given over to terror, I fled - a disembodied Tam o'Shanter - before the horde of my goblin persecutors. Through sulphurous clouds, down flaming cataracts, into more than volcanic gulfs of living fire, I was harried - fearful hells, the illusive but all too realistic thought-forms created by my own senseless terror and their hateful exultation - hells such as Dante saw in his immortal vision, and such as only he could have described.  I fled in vain.  Horrible eyes glared into mine; great mouths, with red vampire lips, hovered hungrily about me; I shrank from beast-like fangs and talons, from hands armed with gigantic weapons.  Forgetting that no injury could be inflicted upon me save that of terror, I became a fitting object for the mocking sport of these degraded beings.

His last horror story (at least, the last I have so far discovered), “The Vengeance of the Dead”, is a vampire story set in Melbourne, which again has a strong flavour of Eastern mysticism.

How were the stories received by the readership?  That the stories continued to be published suggests they were well received and that there was a demand for them.  Nevertheless, at least one of the stories prompted a critical letter to the editor.  The editor, William Smith Mitchell, responded to the reader’s comment on “The Torture of the Clock” as follows:

We regret that you [W. Neale] could discover neither “sense nor meaning” in the story “The Torture of the Clock”, of a recent issue of the journal.  The tale appeared to us as complete, to thoroughly explain itself, and to be of a highly interesting character.  The abrupt commencement to which you probably refer – where the incident is at once related without introduction – appears to be a characteristic of the author.  It is suggested that you have not read the tale with care, especially as regards the opening.

Mitchell was the editor of The Australian Journal throughout Sparrow’s literary career, and it may be that he encouraged Sparrow’s writing and directed him into other genres, styles and plots.

During the 1890s Lionel Sparrow also wrote stories and serials for the Sunbury News and Bulla and Melton Advertsier. Some of these are reprints from stories published in the Australian Journal, such as "The Wrestler of Tokio" and "The Mystery of Mervale," but others appear to be first and only publications, such as "Shadows of the Past" and Miss Waysmith's Poems." The serials include "The Tragedy at Waritungah" and "The Loss of the 'Black Swan.'"

Annotated bibliography of the gothic tales of Lionel Sparrow, from the AUSTLIT database

1.  “The Jewelled Hand”, The Australian Journal, August 1887, pp. 658-660 (reprinted in Australian Gothic).
Gothic tale set in Spain.  The narrator reveals his increasing obsession with decapitation and whether or not will remains in the mind after severance.  This leads him to construct an ingenious decapitation machine, which he uses to murder his closest friend, Don Alvaro, a man of great mind and will power.  An unusually brutal tale that develops an increasing sense of obsession.

2.  “The Torture of the Clock”, The Australian Journal, January 1888, pp. 253-255.
Gothic tale set in underground vaults, presumably in Europe.  It tells of the fiendish torture of the narrator by the evil Zaroni who is himself destroyed by the fate prepared for his victim.  Includes an account of the terrible deaths of the narrator’s parents and the ingenious employment of their remains in the narrator’s sufferings.

3.  “In the North Wing”, The Australian Journal, February 1888, pp. 312-313.
Gothic tale set in a castle.  The narrator, recovering from a fever, experiences a vision of the terrible deaths of three earlier inhabitants of the castle in 1465.  A violent costume horror in which Margrave’s hereditary madness expresses itself in “a passion for the distortion and mutilation of the human frame.”

4.  “The Veiled Woman”, The Australian Journal, April 1888, pp. 423-426.
Overlong but atmospheric. A dispatch courier wounded in battle against Spanish guerillas is rescued and nursed to health by a mysteriously veiled woman.  She rescues him from being immured and leads him through secret passages until she is killed by their pursuers and he sees the mutilations his captor had inflicted on her.  

5.  “The Tenant of the Third Cell”, The Australian Journal, July 1888, pp. 588-590.
Convoluted revenge tale.  A father’s thirst for vengeance against the rejected suitor who poisoned his daughter and nephew the week before their wedding is more than satisfied by discovering the murderer mouldering in a San Francisco house – a leper!  

6.  “Irene”, The Australian Journal, August 1890, pp. 672-673.
Gothic romance, fin de siécle in style.  An English couple living in Italy both share ill-health.  The wife apparently dies of epilepsy, but a spirit visits the husband while affected by laudanum and he digs up her grave at its direction.  He finds she is still alive, and cured of her epilepsy.

7.  “The Curse of the Emerald: A Tale of the Sea”, The Australian Journal, December 1890, pp. 196-200.
A brilliant emerald stolen from an Aztec temple carries a curse of death for its possessors.  A passenger and the entire crew of a ship traveling from Singapore to Manila and die a succession of terrible deaths as greed and murder take their toll.

8.  “Vanstein”, The Australian Journal, June 1891, pp. 532-535.
Horror romance.  English narrative of love discovered too late, of leprosy contracted in Benares, and of the traveler Vanstein’s suicide when his beloved insists on marrying and nursing him until his death.  She, the narrator, is to die soon too.  

9.  “The House in the Suburb”, The Australian Journal, October 1891, pp. 71-72.
Horror tale of accidental fratricide.  A brother’s plot to murder their blackmailing uncle goes wrong when wine leads the narrator to murder the wrong man – his own brother – and terrible dreams torment him.

10.  “Mervale Abbey”, The Australian Journal, February 1892, pp. 313-315.
Gothic tale set in England.  A young girl, orphaned by her invalid mother’s death and her father’s suicide after he is bankrupted.  Soon after she hears of the death of her beloved from the neighbouring estate of Mervale Abbey.  Recovering from an illness she goes to live with his mother there, but learns after several months that he is not dead but dying slowly of a gunshot wound that blasted away half his face.

11.  “Seagram’s Manuscript”, The Australian Journal, October 1895, pp. 44-45.
Opium tale.  A manuscript is obtained from a former friend within a few weeks of his death in an opium den.  It reveals his intense depression after his sister’s death and the terrible dreams haunting him – to murder his closest friend who has been possessed by grief at her death, for he was her fiancé.  In an obsessed dreamlike state he kills him – finding relief for a time in the cessation of the dreams.  But an awakening to his act and conscience haunt him by day – opium gives him ease and the sleep which is now comforting.

12.  “The Lady With The Veil,” The Australian Journal, June 1903, p. 336.
Bizarre story in which the narrator, a wealthy man, has a hereditary disease that manifests itself in an abhorrence of perfumes, particularly patchouli.  He marries and for a time all is good, and his wife eschews all perfumes.  However, a financial crisis causes the loss of all his wealth and part of hers, and his wife turns against him.  She torments him by sprinkling patchouli on him and, in an uncontrollable rage, he disfigures her with a shard from the broken perfume bottle.  He escapes and builds a new life in the country, adopting a young child who was orphaned during a bush fire.  His has her revenge, however – she tracks him down and gives the unsuspecting child a bottle of patchouli; the narrator kills the child in a rage when she sprinkles it on his handkerchief.

13.  “The Purple Death,” The Australian Journal, August 1906, pp. 472-475.
Set in Melbourne.  The narrator makes the acquaintance of the brilliant and saturnine Dr Wainwright, a scientist and rival for the affections of Marie Seymour.  Wainwright kidnaps him and attempts to drive him mad through an experiment where he is locked in a room and continually exposed to the colour purple.  A fortuitous house fire enables the narrator’s escape.

14.  “The Strange Case of Alan Heriot”, The Australian Journal, July 1908, pp. 412-416 (reprinted in Australian Nightmares).
Occult romance. Alan Heriot, a student of the occult, is in search of mystical knowledge in the East, as is Gregory Hawke, his rival for the affections of Alison Grant. Hawke has learned the "Words of Power", a mantra that allows the spirit to travel free of the body He teaches the words to Heriot on condition that he will not pursue the woman. While Hariot is spirit traveling his body is taken over by another being, but he is able to regain it through the help of a Japanese wise man. Realising that Alison loves Hariot, Hawke plans to take over Heriot's physical body, however he is killed in the San Francisco earthquake, and Heriot wins the girl.

15.  “The Vengeance of the Dead”, The Australian Journal, July, 1910 (reprinted in Australian Gothic)
Vampire tale set in Australia.  Martin Calthorpe, an occultist, dies mysteriously as does his wife soon afterwards of a wasting disease.  Before long, the narrator’s sister, Winnie, falls ill and dies, and his other sister, Connie, starts to decline.  The narrator and Connie’s fiancé, Harry Thornten, an adept in the mystical arts, seek the help of Ravanna Dâs, a Hindu Brahman, who reveals that Calthorpe was a black magician whose spirit leaves its physical remains to pray on the living for sustenance.  The narrator’s father commits suicide and reveals in a letter that he had murdered Calthorpe.  The narrator and Thornten, with the help of Ravanna Dâs, discover Calthorpe’s body and decapitate it.  Overlong with much explanatory material.


  1. I don't suppose you have any more of the original magazines on hand ? The North Wing's brutality managed to make it rise above mere conventional drivel and reminded me somewhat of W.C.Morrow. This made me especially curious to see how Sparrow would have treated "The Torture of the Clock".

    However these stories are impossible to find anywhere, beyond the three reprinted in Australian Gothic and it seems no one has digitised the Australian Journal in a way that makes it easy for most people to access.



  2. Good day, I have found and compiled ten stories by Lionel Sparrow from the "Journal" published between 1887 and 1892 into a PDF file I have uploaded online, for anyone interested.

    I've also discovered another story attributed to Lionel Sparrow, volume 25 of the Journal, pages 126-129, titled "The Red Chamber". From a cursory glance it appears to be a cryptographic tale about finding a hidden fortune, which does remind me of Poe and his won strange fascination with cryptograms.