Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Paymon's Trio - Colette de Curzon

Paymon's Trio by Colette de Curzon is one of two newly published booklets from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press. I had the opportunity to read this story beforehand, and I provided the message of encouragement to readers on the front cover.

This is what I said: "A story of music and the dark arts to compare with The Lost Stradivarius. Resonant with the allure of the forbidden, this is a tale told with distinction and grace. Enthusiasts of the great tradition in supernatural fiction will be delighted."

As my comment suggests, the theme of music and the supernatural has been explored before by some experienced hands. I touched on some of these when I wrote an introduction to the Tartarus Press edition of J Meade Falkner's The Lost Stradivarius. I said:

"...the theme of music and the soul was in the air. Edward Heron-Allen, an expert on violin-making and on the history of the instrument, had published the sardonic A Fatal Fiddle in 1890; Madame Blavatsky’s posthumously collected Nightmare Tales (1892) included a somewhat crude precursor in the supernatural field, ‘The Ensouled Violin’; Count Stenbock’s morbid tale ‘Viol d’Amor’ had been included in his collection of decadent fantasies, Studies of Death (1894); Stanley J. Makower’s The Mirror of Music, about a tragic young pianist, appeared in 1895, in John Lane’s fashionable and faintly scandalous Keynotes series; and in the following year F.W. Bourdillon’s exquisitely delicate Nephele depicted an enervating spiritual bond between a young man and woman, formed when they play a piece of haunting music together

....the reader of the day would not have been surprised to find that the rare, beautiful and magically-charged instrument of Falkner’s novel was not only physically lost, but lost also in the sense that a soul is lost: damned, that is. The idea of a macabre affinity between the violin and a damned soul is old in Romance. The most flamboyant and feverish masters of the instrument have often been linked to the powers of darkness: such legends clustered around Tartini, Sarasate, Paganini, and others."

So does Paymon's Trio compare well when it follows in such a rich tradition? Yes: it certainly does. Indeed, in many ways it is an advance on those somewhat hectic and decadent tales. This is a reflective, modern version of the theme. The story is subtle and assured, introducing us to characters we find engaging and interesting, in a prose that is observant, nuanced and calm: I was put in mind, indeed, of the writing of Elizabeth Bowen. This is just such a story as Robert Aickman, alert to the ghost story or strange story that is "akin to poetry" would have chosen for his Fontana anthologies. Part of the reason why this is so is because of the background to the story, which appears from the brief biography of the author:

"Colette de Curzon was born in 1927. The daughter of the then French Consul General, she wrote ‘Paymon’s Trio’ in 1949 in Portsmouth, at the age of 22. Having no knowledge of available routes to publication, she tucked it away in a folder of her work, where it remained until 2016. Now recently widowed, she is the mother of four grown-up daughters and has three grandchildren. She lives in a rambling Victorian house in Hampshire."

It is surely to be hoped that the encouragement of this publication might prompt some other stories from the author, soon.

Just a word finally about the second publication from Nightjar in this season's offering, The Automaton, a story by David Wheldon. This author achieved success with his first novel, The Viaduct (1983), and a second, The Course of Instruction (1984), both of which impressed me a good deal at the time. He was then described, as I recall, as an English Kafka, and in fact there was a lot of justice in this claim.

I remember that I was actually on a course of instruction when I read this second book in the rather dreary digs where I was staying. This was possibly not a good move, as I started to feel that the book and what then passed for reality were beginning to overlap a bit too closely. Nevertheless, I got each one of the following books as they appeared, each getting stranger and somehow more remote, until they seemed to stop altogether. So it is good to learn of this thoughtful author's return to publication, and I will seek the story out with a keen appreciation, not to say apprehension.

Mark Valentine

Friday, June 23, 2017

Arkham House reprints from Neville Spearman

Books published by Arkham House (founded 1939) have long been collectible. In the first half of the 1970s, the small British publisher Neville Spearman Limited reissued a number of Arkham titles in hardcover, in their British first editions. Neville Spearman as a publisher was founded in 1955 by Neville Armstrong (1914-2008), who ran the firm until 1985, when he sold it. Neville Spearman published between five and six hundred books, many of which were very eclectic in subject matter. I have listed the twelve Arkham reprints below, chronologically (noting the geographical movements of the publisher at that time), and below that, alphabetically by author (which notes the one title which went into a second Neville Spearman printing). The Neville Spearman reprints aren’t nearly as rare as the Arkham House originals, but at least they allow readers to access those titles at more reasonable prices. Neville Spearman published a number of other titles of interest to readers of supernatural literature, including James Dickie's anthology The Uncanny (1971), and the George Hay-edited spoof, The Necronomicon (1978).


[Neville Spearman based in London]

September.  Clark Ashton Smith, Lost Worlds 
            Clark Ashton Smith. Out of Space and Time

September. Clark Ashton Smith, Abominations of Yondo
            Clark Ashton Smith, Genius Loci

 [Neville Spearman moved to Jersey, Channel Islands]

April. Robert Bloch, The Opener of the Way
            Rober E. Howard,  Skull-Face and Others
            Henry S. Whitehead, Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales
August. August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu  
            August Derleth, The Trail of Cthulhu
December. Carl Jacobi, Revelations in Black
            David H. Keller, Tales from Underwood

April. Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents
Cover art by David L. Fletcher
[Neville Spearman moved (partially) to Sudbury, Suffolk]

Alphabetically by author:

Bloch, Robert. The Opener of the Way (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1974) Arkham, 1945

Derleth, August. The Trail of Cthulhu (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [August] 1974) Arkham, 1962

----. The Mask of Cthulhu (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [August] 1974) Arkham, 1958

Howard, Robert E. Skull-Face and Others (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1974) Arkham, 1946
            2nd printing 1975  

Jacobi, Carl. Revelations in Black (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [December] 1974) Arkham, 1947

Keller, David H. Tales from Underwood (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [December] 1974) Arkham, 1952

Leiber, Fritz. Night's Black Agents (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1975) Arkham, 1947

Smith, Clark Ashton. The Abominations of Yondo (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1972) Arkham, 1960

----. Genius Loci and Other Tales (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1972) Arkham, 1948

----. Lost Worlds (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1971) Arkham, 1944

----. Out of Space and Time (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1971) Arkham, 1942

[Two other Smith reprints were announced but not published by Neville Spearman, comprising Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964) and Other Dimensions (1970)]

Whitehead, Henry S. Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (Jersey: Neville Spearman,
            [April] 1974) Arkham, 1944

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Frolic Wind - Richard Oke

'Richard Oke' wrote four novels, and a study of Frederick II. He won some esteem, and notoriety, for Frolic Wind (1929), his first novel. It is highly mannered, very precious, and full of the sort of extravagant characters to be found in the fantasias of Ronald Firbank and Lord Berners.

A contemporary critic, Ralph Straus in The Bystander said: “It is one long gorgeous lark – the most brilliant bit of fooling that I have read since [Evelyn Waugh's] Decline and Fall, and with a scholarship which is not to be found in that amiable macabre experiment”. Another reviewer, St John Ervine, compared it to Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas, and Compton Mackenzie. In its style and panache it also reminded me of the work of Patrick Carleton.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the mystery of the uppermost chamber in a tower in the garden of a country house, closely guarded by its eccentric chatelaine, Lady Athalia. A cavalcade of aesthetes, dandies, furtive personages and delicate recluses inconsequently drift through the gardens and the house. Dorothy L. Sayers alludes to the tower in her Gaudy Night (1936), evoking it as "the home of frustration and perversion and madness".

She was probably recalling a theatre adaptation of the story. Under the pen-name ‘Richard Pryce’, Oke wrote a play in three acts based on Frolic Wind, which seems to have won passing fame. It was published in 1935. He had been involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in a production of James Elroy Flecker’s exotic verse play Hassan, for which he designed the sets and costumes.

Oke’s second novel, Wanton Boys (1932) seems to have been an attempt to emulate the success of Frolic Wind with similar devices. It has also a set of jestingly-named characters in an opulent setting, this time a villa in Corsica. The arts patron Mrs MacKansas has invited an array of writers and artists to a creative holiday there, where they can devote themselves to work undisturbed and well cared-for. The mild satire is not as outré and does not have quite the same bizarre charm as its predecessor.

India’s Coral Strand (1934) is a fantasy in which stout, middle-aged Mrs Yarlove, setting the tea-table one day, swoons, then finds herself plunged into another world, a savage society where a feather-cloaked high priest conducts sacrificial rituals, evidently based on those of the Aztecs. To this strange race she appears as a goddess. For some years, while her original comatose body lies in her bedroom upstairs (and visitors pay to see the sleeping lady), she leads a dramatically different existence in this world of barbaric magnificence. The idea, though odd and gaudy, is perhaps not quite artfully developed enough to sustain interest over a novel length.

One of the few descriptions of the author is found in an excellent essay, ‘Requiem for a Minor Author’ by Fred West (The Antioch Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 318-324). Richard Oke was the pen-name of Nigel Stansbury Girtin Millett (1904-1946). Oke and his father (a barrister by profession) went to live in Mexico in 1937, where they ran a cantina. This unusual move must presumably have had some particular stimulus behind it, possibly the delicate health of the son. Richard Oke died in 1946 in Guadalajara of tuberculosis, and his grave is in Mexico. His father died the following year.

Oke has also been credited with a collaboration with a friend, Peter Lilley, on Village in the Sun (1948), under the joint pseudonym of Dane Chandos. There were further books under the same pen-name, such as House in the Sun (1950) and Journey in the Sun (1952). The British Library catalogue credits these books to Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld. These two also collaborated on at least two books as ‘Bruce Buckingham’, Three Bad Nights (1956) and Boiled Alive (1957).

Frolic Wind at least deserves a discerning following for its languorous, inconsequential but strangely alluring prose: it is certainly one of the few plausible emulations of the dragonfly wit and imagination of Ronald Firbank.

A Checklist of Books by Richard Oke

Frolic Wind (Gollancz, 1929)
Wanton Boys (Gollancz, 1932)
India’s Coral Strand (Faber & Faber, 1934)
Frolic Wind: A Play in Three Acts [by ‘Richard Pryce’] (Gollancz, 1935)
The Boy from Apulia (Arthur Barker, 1936) (on Frederick II)
Strange Island Story (Arthur Barker, 1939)

Mark Valentine

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Le Visage Vert no. 28, February 2017

I've been too busy to study deeply the latest issue of Le Visage Vert, even to the point of being remiss about calling attention to its publication some months ago.  So here's a belated notice.  Ordering details can be found here (scroll down), and a full table of the contents of this issue here. The lead story is by  Perceval Landon, "Thurnley Abbey". Lafcadio Hearn is represented with an article (from 1875) on spirit photographs.   François Ducos contributes a study of the occult detective in France, 1930-1960. There are some older materials by Kirby Draycott and Gustave Guitton, as well as contemporary stories by Jean-Pierre Chambon and Achillèas Kyriakìdis. All in all another fine issue.

 The Kirby Draycott story is additionally given in its original English, as "The Clock Face of Schaumberg", in a supplementary booklet, reprinted from The Royal Magazine, November 1898, with the intriguing original illustrations. The story concerns a sixteenth-century historical figure, Goetz of the Iron Hand, who wore an iron prosthetic after losing his right arm in battle.  Michel Meurger contributes an article about the historical Goetz, to complement the fictional treatment by the mysterious Draycott, about whom very little is known beyond his authorship of a small number of tales. 

The above is from the opening pages of the supplementary booklet.  The illustration shows the interesting use to which a clock tower is put in the story

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Buried Shadows - John Howard

Egaeus Press have just announced the publication on 17 June 2017 of Buried Shadows, a collection of ten stories by John Howard. Anyone who is interested in modern, character-based supernatural fiction with a strong European sensibility will want to have a copy.

Readers will find in these stories that the element of the uncanny is always subtly deployed: we can never be quite sure where the events of this world end and the influences of other forces or other planes begin to overlap.

They will also find stories that do not just rely on the supernatural dimension: they have credible, vulnerable, humane characters coming to terms with the doubts and dilemmas integral to our existence. The settings, often in European cities and provinces, and sometimes also in lesser-known historical tableaux, are unfamiliar but soon important to us: we are drawn into them.

These qualities are all achieved in a clear, concise prose that is both contemporary but also timeless: we recognise the succinct, chiselled style of the modern short story but we also hear echoes and resonances from the great tradition in fantastic literature. And most of all, John Howard’s thoughtful stories are perceptive explorations of how people respond when they face difficult questions about love, courage, trust, and society.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Love All Dressed in White - M. Villa-Gilbert

“It was a deeply superstitious place but he was used to it and it didn’t worry him at all. On the contrary, he liked to be here and he came here often. To be by himself, to take off his clothes and get himself drunk on the strange atmosphere, the subtle eroticism of the place. Because it worked upon him, caused him to bloom like some exotic but evil-smelling flower.”

Is it possible to commit murder by ghost? That is the question posed by M. Villa- Gilbert’s My Love All Dressed in White (1964). A public schoolboy has returned to his family home to meet his new stepmother: his father, who should have joined them too, is detained on business. Remarkably self-possessed, the youth does not actively dislike the woman his father has chosen, but considers she will be an inconvenience, and an intrusion on the semi-abandoned manor and garden he wants all to himself. He treats her efforts to win him over with a disdain barely masked by a formal politeness.

The boy has a secret hideaway, a broken fountain with a decayed statue of Narkissos which now stares at its ruined reflection in a stagnant pool. There is a suggestion that this young man might be under the baleful influence of this idol: he has consciously adopted its attributes. This is a subtle and sophisticated study of a character with all the amorality, arrogance and poise of a young demi-god. He resents it when his stepmother finds him there, where he has stripped to admire himself and to pursue languorous erotic thoughts.

The shabby Jacobean house, with its overgrown ornamental, Italianate garden, has a ghost, or so he says, a pale young woman, and in a desultory way he mentions her to the newcomer and occasionally returns lightly to the legend. She is said to have died on her wedding day and to resent any newly wed in the house. In a memorable scene, he dances with the ghost in the disused ballroom, his hands full of the rotting white of her gown: but he dare not look upon her face. Is this his imagining, or is the apparition real? Or could it be another reflection of his own corrupt soul?

Later, as he walks in the garden with his stepmother under the moon, there is a white apparition: startled, she falls through a wicket gate and down some steps, and does not rise again. From then on we observe and fully accept the young man’s confidence that his exact role in the affair cannot be discovered and could not be brought home to him even if it were.

The writing does not depend upon mystery or suspense: we know what has happened from the very beginning, when the boy telephones the police to report the incident. The prose is cadenced, sensuous, attentive to delicate impressions of moonlight, rustling leaves, the call of the nightjar, scents, gestures. It seems imbued with the spirit of the Eighteen Nineties, and its decadent youth might have been created by Wilde or Machen or drawn by Beardsley. Its fraught atmosphere and the intense relationship also suggest the influence of The Turn of the Screw, and indeed this is specifically invoked in the enticements to the French edition, Mon amour tout habillé de blanc (Albin Michel, 1970), translated by Colette-Marie Huet, as is the shade of Poe.

This was the author’s second novel of six in the period 1963-1970: her full name seems to be Mariana Soledad Magdalena Villa Gilbert, born in 1937. Her first novel, Mrs Galbraith’s Air (1963) also suggests the noted James novella. It won some notoriety for its somewhat humid depiction of a passion between an aesthetic adolescent boy and a mature woman school-teacher, in the setting quite literally of a hothouse, where the boy also caresses the orchids and fingers the tendrils of exotic growths. It was well-received: the Times said “Miss Villa-Gilbert writes extremely well, and she has a cool eye for wickedness”, while other critics spoke of it as delicate, sensitive and imaginative. A review in The Spectator thought the book was “extraordinarily well-written” though with too much artifice, the work of a mind “inflamed by literature”.

There were four more novels after My Love All Dressed in White and, after a long gap, a collection of four stories, The Sun in Horus, which appeared from Hamish Hamilton in 1986. One of these, “Smoke”, has a theme and an adolescent character not unlike those of her first two novels, a boy trying to prevent his widowed mother in wartime falling for a raffish and unreliable suitor. But after that, there were apparently no more publications. None of her exquisite, artful novels, meditations on the mingling of evil and innocence, seem to have had much attention in all the decades since. It seems strange and unlikely that prose of such style and intelligence, and an imagination so fervid, could have been so soon subdued: perhaps there may be manuscripts.

A Checklist of Books by M Villa-Gilbert

Mrs Galbraith’s Air (Chatto & Windus, 1963)
My Love All Dressed in White (Chatto & Windus, 1964)
Mrs Cantello (Chatto & Windus, 1966)
A Jingle Jangle Song (Chatto & Windus, 1968)
The Others (Chatto & Windus, 1970)
Manuela: A Modern Myth (Chatto & Windus, 1973)
The Sun in Horus (Hamilton, 1986)

Mark Valentine

Saturday, June 3, 2017

This Wounded Island - J W Böhm

Whether in a café with murky coffee, staring at a plastic tomato with a congealed nozzle, or sitting in an obscure corner on a wrought-iron bench whose supports are in the form of a fork-tongued serpent, or passing through the stale clouds of furtive smokers crouched in the dank corners of anonymous office blocks, I have sometimes wondered what became of J W Böhm, the Berlin topographer and traveller.

Even among the few who have heard of his writing, there is no agreement about its qualities. It might be likened to the work of a more laconic Sebald or a less barbed-wire Sinclair. The austerity of his observations on urban landscapes, the wastelands of Europe, the unregarded edges, have led some to regard him as a gnomic visionary, while others believe he is simply a bewildered naïf.

The debate will not be ended by the unexpected publication of a welcome new work by him, This Wounded Island, Volume One: The Condition of England (Institute of Liminal Landscape Studies, 2017), translated by Michael Randolph and with an introduction by Frederic Stiller.

The book consists of terse accounts, each of a paragraph or so, of visits to towns in Southern England, together with black and white photographs. The observations are often tinged with melancholy, and sometimes – possibly inadvertently – brittle with a dry wit. The photographs alone are eloquent of the England he found, and the text, sometimes plaintive, at other times elliptical, conveys succinctly his sense of a country “haunted by uncertainty”.

These measured insights would alone be enough to make the book a valuable record of a certain time and place. But that is not its only resonance. For Böhm thinks that something has happened to the country he is traversing, and records the clues and signs, the rumours and murmurs that seem to hint at what it might be. He even believes he may have found some sort of a solution to the mystery of this vague malaise. While I do not think it will surprise seasoned Böhmians to learn that this is not how things end, they (and not only they) will certainly want to seek out this work of uncanny genius.

Mark Valentine