Sunday, February 28, 2016


It perhaps goes without saying that after I had acquired The English Catalogue of Books for 1937, my thoughts next turned to the volumes for other years. In no time at all, I had decided I also needed the Catalogue for 1919. This volume was somewhat slimmer than its successor of eighteen years later.

The year was still affected by the exigencies of war. Indeed, despite the exact timing of the Armistice, the dates of the war were not settled for quite a while. It is still possible to see war memorials in Britain which give it as 1914-1919, possibly because some soldiers were still engaged in conflicts in that later year. There were little-known military episodes such as the Allied Intervention in Russia, a disguised attempt to aid the Tsarist forces, and skirmishes with German freebooters, not least in the Baltic. J C Squire, surveying 1919 in an editorial in the London Mercury for January 1920, said that he thought it might in future be regarded as a war year.

The number of books published in Britain and Ireland in 1919 was, according to the catalogue, 7,327 new titles and 1,295 new editions (reprints). This represented an increase of 906 from 1918, which the editor regarded as a satisfactory indication of the return of peace. The volume was, however, still sufficiently slim for me to skim all the way through it, making notes of those books I would have been tempted to buy had I been around then.

Difficult to resist, for example, White Snow, by “A Young Actress” — who probably wasn’t – the confessions of a cocaine-taker, or Dope Darling by Leda Burke, who certainly wasn’t – she was David Garnett – or indeed Dope by Sax Rohmer. Clearly novels of the white powder were en vogue that year. Connoisseurs of apocalypse might, however, be more drawn to The Sixth Vial by L Argyle (which at least makes one wonder what happened to the seventh vial, perhaps still to be spilled).

It was quite a good year for novels of fantasy and the supernatural. If the Proserpine Prize for such books that I outlined in my account of the 1909 awards (see Seventeen Stories) was still in existence despite the shady transactions of that year, there would certainly be a number of titles in contention.

Stella Benson’s Living Alone, for example, the story of a young woman with powers of witchery, would rightly have its champions, as would Ronald Firbank’s exotic romance Valmouth. In the brisker style of the popular thriller, Gerald Biss’ werewolf yarn The Door of the Unreal might be on the shortlist, together with the hard-to-resist title The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J Rees. The more reflective pleasures of A P Barker’s A College Mystery, so well constructed a ghost story that it has often been taken for real, certainly ought to be under consideration, together with Madeleine by Hope Mirrlees, which I have never read since it is so hard to get, but which must surely have some of the imaginative qualities later found in the author’s Lud-in-a-Mist.

The 1937 catalogue, you will recall, suggested that readers need not be daunted by the number of new books, since they could simply concentrate on the “outstanding” books in the various literary forms. As it happens, Squire’s January 1920 editorial was quite forthright about what these were, at least for the novel. Of the acknowledged old masters, he said only two had produced books of note: Joseph Conrad, with The Arrow of Gold; and H G Wells, with The Undying Fire, “an imaginative, an exciting, and an eloquent book.”

Of books by less established hands, Squire singled out five for particular mention: Romer Wilson’s If All These Young Men; Clemence Dane’s Legend; The Mask by John Cournos; What Not by Rose Macaulay; and The Young Physician by Francis Brett Young. It would be fair to say that few if any of the seven in total he named have much survived: maybe just the Conrad.

Two unlikely and peculiar books from the same time have perhaps fared rather better. It’s hardly surprising that war memoirs, both fictional and factual, soon began to appear in this year. One of the strangest was certainly The Road to En-Dor, by E H Jones, the story of an escape from captivity. It achieved success as soon as it was published, was constantly reprinted, and still attracts fascination today: there have been various proposals to make a film of it.

The secret of its appeal is the very unusual way in which the two heroes of the tale tried to get out of their Turkish prison – by faking ghostly spirits using a ouija board, and convincing the commandant that these could lead him to a hidden treasure – and, incidentally, mastery of the world. Eventually, mostly by pretending to have gone mad, they were indeed released – just weeks before the end of the war. Like the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, the exotic locale, bizarre story and sheer high spirits and ingenuity of the protagonists caught the public imagination.

The second unusual title of 1919, which still has its admirers, me included, is The Journal of A Disappointed Man by W N P Barbellion, the pen-name of Bruce Cummings. He was a British Museum naturalist suffering from multiple sclerosis, who gives insouciantly his date of death on the last page of his book (in fact, he survived a further two years). His diary consists of nature observations, but more to the point observations about himself – his moods, hopes, worries and the gradual understanding that he has a fatal illness. Aphoristic and audacious, it is not a sombre book, despite the tragedy: the author’s keen intelligence, self-awareness and terse style give it a lasting interest.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The English Catalogue of Books for 1937

The Commercial Road bookshop, Kirkstall, Leeds is closing in early May when the lease comes up – the shop itself has already been relet. It stands near a busy junction: and almost opposite, up the hill, is the derelict Kirkstall Liberal Club, all too obviously symbolic, a Seventies or early Eighties edifice which even when built seemed to consist of an accidental collision of plunging rectangles. Now, surrounded by crushed and rusting beer cans and the tattered shrouds of fast food, it is boarded up and slowly disintegrating. Even the planks over the windows sag, as if it is too much effort even to sustain its decay.

In the shop, I found half a dozen books. The nicest was a third edition of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, his sequel to Three Men in A Boat, in a pictorial dustwrapper. This account of a bicycling tour has never had quite the popularity of the riparian adventures, even though (or perhaps because) the formula is similar. Loosely inserted part way through was a cutting probably from the Radio Times about a performance of the book featuring Naunton Wayne and two other “silly ass” character stalwarts. A book of WW2 poems by Alan Rook that I took to the counter had been in the shop, said the owner, since he had taken it over, many years ago, as he could tell by the handwriting of the price, which was not his own, but that of a previous owner. It seemed somehow odd and apt that the book should escape almost at the last moment.

A particular delight, however, was a copy of The English Catalogue of Books for 1937, in bottle-green binding, a list of every book known to have been published in Britain and Ireland (note the somewhat cavalier use of “English”) in that year: some 12,209 of them, to say nothing of a further 5,077 reprints.

The introductory matter is brisk and opinionated. Under the heading, “Are There Too Many Books?” it observes that “since the economic depression of 1929-30 there has been a progressive increase each year”. The reason, it suggests, is that there are now more human crafts and sciences than ever before: “A few years ago the information relating to aeroplanes, the cinematograph, or radio transmission could be (and was) contained in a handful of books”: now, it says, there are even sub-divisions of these subjects.

It is idle, it avers, to say that this number of books is too many for any reader to comprehend. Most of them are technical and only of interest to the specialist. And of the rest, we surely only want “the outstanding books in the various other classes of literature. . . So for the ordinary individual reader, the flood of books shrinks to a mere trickle.” This breezy confidence that the reader can identify the best books and not bother with the others seems somewhat misplaced. As Arthur Machen pointed out, the thumping successes of his time, such as Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, were in not too many years soon forgotten and unread.

If, however, like me, you are more interested in the peculiar and unusual than necessarily the books judged at the time to be the best, the Catalogue still offers many hours of happy browsing in search of odd and promising-sounding titles or authors . I knew this would be an endless source of fascination for me, and so it proved even on the very first browse. Opening it at random my gaze at once alighted on a book by Terence Greenidge that I did not even know existed: Tinpot Country: A Story of England in the Dark Ages, no doubt a political satire. The author was a friend of Betjeman and Waugh, a railway enthusiast, who wrote a book of poems paying tribute to his two chief preoccupations, Girls and Stations. A reputed companion volume, Boys and Stations, by another hand, may be mythical.

On the other hand, the spirit of bibliomancy should not be invoked too often. The next mystic dip neatly illustrated the editor’s argument by offering me R S Morrell’s Synthetic Resins And Allied Plastics, no doubt a worthy volume in its own way, but not quite in my field.

At the end of the book is a list of publishers, not enumerated, but at a quick calculation possibly about fifteen hundred of them. These also have their fascination. What titles, for example, issued forth from the Actinic Press of Featherstone Buildings, Holborn, WC1? What precisely were the aspirations of the World Dominion Press, Founder’s Lodge, in the deceptively-named Mildmay Park, N1? Who were Lomax’s Successors at The Johnson’s Head, Bird Street, Lichfield, Staffs? What were the Essential Services (1918) of the imprint of that name at Balham High Road, SW12?

What quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore came from The Raven Press of 1 Whitefriars Drive, Harrow Weald, Middlesex? What went on behind the windows, supposing there to be any, of Messrs Hallows & Slaughter, Ltd, of 121, Victoria Street, SW1? There is surely something about each of these concerns suggestive of The Red-Headed League or The Absent-Minded Coterie, The Lost Club, or the other singular institutions we encounter in Victorian detective stories.

I am coming to believe that there may be more mysteries in the English Catalogue than just the annual dozen or so issued from the hand of Edgar Wallace. What better place to hide codes and secrets than in its close and seemingly harmless bookish print? Perhaps if, in the style of Mr Dyson in The Three Impostors, I were to go to one of these addresses and give the title on the thirteenth line of the one hundred and twenty-ninth column, I might find myself admitted to some inner chamber where is revealed at last, by flickering candle-light, the true, long-hidden mission of the Jehovah Syndicate.

Mark Valentine

Friday, February 26, 2016

Notes on Contributors

How many of us read the ‘About the Author’ section, or the Notes on Contributors, those short biographies given on dustwrapper flaps, or front free endpapers, or at the back of books? They are perhaps the sort of thing, along with the blurb, that the casual browser glances at when deciding whether to buy a book. And, when the book is bought, they are apt to be perused before the reader settles into the text itself. These Notes, we may think, are generally read, whereas the book may sometimes be put aside.

I must admit to finding them diverting, often for the wrong reasons. In an anthology I once received and soon jettisoned (mercifully I’ve forgotten its title), each piece was preceded by a whole two pages about the author. By the time I’d got to the end of these, I had next to no energy left for the stories. In one, an author thought it important to tell us that he owned not one, but two, holiday homes in, let us say, Moldavia (it wasn’t, but I’m trying to be discreet). I could not help thinking that at least one of these might have been better used as the home of a Moldavian. On the other hand, a note I recently saw in the Times Literary Supplement (the TLS), advising us that “X is a freelance writer living in London”, and no more, might be deemed somewhat laconic.

Quite a few writers (me included) sometimes opt, in their notes, to give an idea of quantity, as if the sheer volume of their output might reassure the reader. We learn that Y has written several hundred stories, and Z has appeared in over forty publications. “Oh yes: how many good ones?” seems the only suitable retort. Sometimes we appear to be caught in the middle of a bizarre bidding game, as each author tries to trump the next with the weight of their output.

I am reminded of the old story about the impressively prolific and long-lived romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who boasted she had written “over 200 books”, to which a weary commentator drawled in reply, “Oh, really? One a year, then.” Although Barbara and I share a birthday (not, I hasten to add, in the same year), I don’t actually know myself how much I’ve written, and I have a sort of superstition about not counting. This is partly because early on I thought that, like the Decadent writers I so much admired, a “slim oeuvre” of a few wan volumes was all one needed. The puzzling yearning to continue writing has, however, rather put paid to that idea by now.

My own approach when asked for biographical notes is generally just to list recent publications so that, if readers like my stuff they know where they can find more, and, if not, they know what to avoid. Occasionally, however, editors ask for “something more personal”. Yet even the briefest of personal revelations has its pitfall. Each year, the TLS gossip column ‘N.B.’, on its back page, conducts a campaign against the proliferation of gift books for Christmas, because of their vacuous content and vulgarity. One year their chief fulminator noticed that the authors of such books seemed always to live in the country with cats. Ah.

But I have at least, I hope, largely managed to avoid two other practices that have caused special vituperations amongst the tetchy. One is the would-be jollified potted biography, where for example we learn the author is “the third most dangerous tiddlywinks player in Chichester”. The other is the author with a sequence of improbable jobs: “Westward Penge has been a carver of ship’s figureheads, artichoke juggler, and unsuccessful gigolo and for a while made his living as an itinerant sword-swallower in Central Europe.” I don’t think my own crust-earning sequence of “paper boy, petrol pump attendant, archaeology assistant, filing clerk, civil servant” has quite the right ring, somehow.

Still, supplying a few hundred words about yourself is certainly better than being asked for a photograph.

Picture: Shadow and Shimmer, our cats.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Guest Post: "Arthur Machen: The Railer’s Failure in THE GREAT RETURN" by Dale Nelson

Sir Thomas Malory tells how King Arthur’s Round Table knights set forth to achieve the vision of the Holy Grail.  In the end, only Sirs Bors, Percival, and Galahad fully achieved it, while, conversely, the violent and lustful Sir Gawain became disgusted with the quest, unable to find even the tenth part of the adventures he would have expected to have (Caxton version, XVI: 1), and many other knights died fruitlessly.

In Machen’s 1915 Faith Press novella, the Grail returns to our world, from “the spiritual place” of Sarras, as Malory called it (XVII: 20).  The three glorious men who accompany it might be the three best Grail knights.  Even if the Grail itself isn’t clearly seen, its manifestations bring freely-given blessings to a Welsh coastal town, supernal joy and healings of body and soul, especially the miraculous restoration to radiant health of a consumptive girl at the very point of death.

The story’s London-based narrator has got wind of strange things in Llantrisant,* a town that he has visited before.  Can it be that the rector really has taken to High Church ritualistic practices?  The narrator cannot believe that, so curiosity impels him to visit the seaside town again.  He discovers that far more remarkable things have evidently occurred there.

He eventually learns much -- but it’s at second-hand.  He himself doesn’t see the marvels.  He realizes eventually that, despite his knowledge of languages, history, and obscure lore, “the clue had been offered to me, and I had not taken it, I had not even known that it was there.”  The “right way” to perceive “was outside all my limits of possibility” (Chap. 3).   It isn’t Machen’s intention to make the narrator’s failure the chief thing in the story, and so he cannily reveals it early on, in order that the story may culminate instead in the greatest wonders, before a few bemused concluding lines let us down gently in our familiar world.

The folk who did experience the wonders may have been squabblers and their religion may have been (up till then) a Low Church Anglicanism or Methodism.  But in these and in their legends they retained a living connection with the ancient Celtic Church.  For the story’s narrator, that church has been the object of antiquarian study, but, it seems, not an abiding presence in his life.  But indeed, it is suggested that in the church the sacrament of the altar has not failed throughout the centuries -- however lacking in beauty the celebration may have become, to the exasperation of aesthetical observers.

Where in Malory the failed knights were likely to be rebuked for their sins by holy hermits, this story’s narrator is challenged by the elderly Llantrisant rector: “’I know you are a railer.  You are a railer and a bitter railer; I have read articles that you have written, and I know your contempt and your hatred for those you call Protestants in your derision….You see nothing but the outside and the show.  You are not worthy of this mystery that has been done here.’”  The narrator acknowledges that he has been “rebuked indeed, and justly rebuked” (Chap. 2).  On the Sunday after Olwen Phillips’s healing, the whole town had turned out for the Mass of the Holy Grail (Chap. 7).  And then the Grail was again withdrawn, and the narrator halfheartedly offers rationalistic hypotheses for what he has heard as having happened in Llantrisant.  He has always arrived on the scene too late.  The closest he came (Chap. 5) to the glorious manifestation of the Grail was to catch, in the “typical example of a Welsh parish church,” the lingering scent of the Paradisal incense.

*The name means “Church of Three Saints,” and David Mills’s Dictionary of British Place-Names identifies the three as Dyfodwg, Gwynno, and Illtud (p. 303), but perhaps Machen thought too of Bors, Percival, and Galahad.

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Guest Post: "Arthur Machen and Other Walkers" by Dale Nelson

The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience” – Werner Herzog, in Herzog on Herzog, ed. by Paul Cronin

I recently read again my favorite story by Arthur Machen, "N."  It was written some time after the Great War, so several decades after the composition of his well-known horror stories.   It exhibits Machen the Londoner and writer of familiar essays. 
It begins with leisurely and delectable pages evoking a few old friends sitting snug around a fireplace with drinks at hand, while beyond the drawn curtains a cold, dry wind is at work in the dusty streets.  The men are at their ease as they reminisce about old eating-places, shops, and once-common prints of pictures – not of masterpieces but things such as a cheerful scene of medieval life, Landseer’s Bolton Abbey in Olden Times, or a portrait of a good-looking housemaid offering Sherry, Sir? 
Machen’s gentlemen are sedentary as the story begins, but their conversation is largely about things they saw when they went walking (a situation to be found in other Machen stories too).  Now one may cite Herzog again, who in his travels on foot found that “when people take note of how far you have walked, they start telling you stories they have bottled up for forty years.”  Thus one of Machen’s gentlemen confides the story of a country cousin’s strange experience while walking in the city.  One of the clues that Machen’s tale of perichoresis or visionary “interpenetration” provides is an imaginary book by a Victorian clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Thomas Hampole, A London Walk.  That book must have had, as it were, innumerable unwritten prequels and sequels thanks to countless other walkers.

I found myself wondering if Machen ever learned to drive.  My sense is that he did not.  I thought about the Inklings.  Tolkien was -- I gather, only for a short time -- a driver, and an erratic one.  C. S. Lewis, as I understand, tried to get a driver's license but didn't succeed.  So far as I know, Charles Williams didn't drive.  Conversely, all four were confirmed walkers, in town, country, or city, though they didn't shun rail travel at least.  I won't attempt to run down a list of all the major fantasy writers, though Lovecraft would be another walker who, so far as I recall, didn't drive. 

Many stories of the fantastic let us pass an agreeable half-hour or so, but some of them offer more than a small measure of amusement, and get under our skins and become lifelong favorites.  I suspect that such stories were typically written by walkers, and that Herzog’s comment at the beginning of this piece has something to do with the matter.

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Isis Unveiled and R.H. Benson

The Lifeline Bookfair in Canberra must be the largest charity bookfair in Australia, or very close to it.  It was on again over the weekend, and I dutifully lined up early Friday morning  for a 9am start.  Sunday morning the "distressed" books are lined up on a table and sold for a dollar or two each and it was there that I found the 2 volume set of Isis Unveiled pictured above for $1 each, the 1891 Bouton edition.  I've no idea why they were there amongst the damaged books as there isn't a lot wrong with them.

Both volumes have the following signature and date on the title page - they look like "R.H. Benson", though the "H" looks a bit dodgy.  Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was interested in theosophy for a time, though the signatures don't look much like the few signatures I've found online, which spell out his whole name.  Still, signatures can change over time and this would be quite an early one - if anyone has any information one way or the other, please let me know.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Thinking Horror

Recently I happened upon a new journal, Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror Philosophy, "created to address the void of a critical journal focused away from reviews and trivial interviews . . .  it is a bridge between the academic journal and the fanzine." Thus we have volume one,  "Horror in the Twenty-first Century," a one-hundred and seventy-five page journal of text without illustrations (save on the cover).  Editor S.J. Bagley has several lengthy interviews, with Simon Strantzas, Nathan Ballingrud, Michael Kelly, Nate Southard, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Molly Tanzer.  Critical articles are by Michael Cisco, Gary Fry (on a Ramsey Campbell novel), Helen Marshall, Jeremy R. Smith, J.T. Glover, Andrew P. Williams, and Kurt Fawver.  There is some good stuff in here, and I look forward to volume two, which is announced as covering "The Horror Boom, 1979-1992, What Went Right and What Went Wrong".  (My one minor design complaint is the overuse throughout the text of a thick bold font, which is distracting from the first encounter, and increasingly so the more you read.)  Order via (US$12.84) or (£9.99).

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bells in England

When I did my recent post on Tom Ingram at Lesser-Known Writers, I left out any illustration of Ingram's first book, Bells in England (1954). My copy lacks a dust-wrapper, and searching online produced examples of variant bindings and variant dust-wrappers.  The book has some interest beyond the subject of campanology, because Robert Aickman wrote two appendices for the book (see the Table of Contents, at bottom).  How did he come to do this?  Besides an acknowledgement to Aickman in the book, Miss Ray Gregorson (i.e., Aickman's wife) is also acknowledged for giving generous help. Another Aickman associate is Barbara Jones, the book's illustrator, and coincidentally, the illustrator of Gregorson's second book, Timothy Tramcar (1949).  Thus this book seems to be a product of the Richard Marsh Agency, the firm of literary agents run by Aickman and Gregorson. 

There seem to be at least three bindings for the book (green with gold bell, brown, and plain green), no priorities known, and at least two dust-wrappers (the color variations may be due to scanner settings). I have gathered most of these scans from the internet.  My own copy is shown at bottom, with the plain green boards.  It was apparently distributed to the American market, for the copyright statement is inked out on the copyright page, with "PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN" rubber-stamped underneath it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

R.I.P. Murray Tinkelman (1933-2016)

Artist Murray Tinkleman died January 30th 2016, just two weeks after his wife Carol passed away.  There are some good overviews of his life and career in a few places, at File770 (scroll down past the header) and at a short-lived blog from 2011 (which  has lots of examples of his artwork).  Here I'd like to showcase the covers here did for the 1978 Del Rey printings of four titles by E.R. Eddison:

Monday, February 1, 2016

New and Revised Entries at Lesser-Known Writers

Just a quick note to say that (after an unplanned too-lengthy hiatus) I've revived my Lesser-Known Writers blog, adding new entries (with more scheduled), and revising some old ones.

Of the revisions, I'm pleased to have added some new information and a photograph to the Maximilian J. Rudwin entry, and now to have a new entry on the previously elusive David T. Lindsay.

New entries include (among others):

L.A. Lewis (with a photograph!)

H.B. Gregory

Gertrude Dunn

Tom Ingram  (with mention of Aickman)

I've also started a new blog called A Shiver in the Archives, which has revealing posts on Dunsany, Kenneth Morris, Lovecraft, Eleanor M. Ingram (with a photograph), and others.  Have a browse.