Monday, June 4, 2018

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations by Rosemary Pardoe

The Black Pilgrimage & Other Explorations, essays on supernatural fiction by Rosemary Pardoe is a much-anticipated collection of her non-fiction by a leading authority on the Jamesian ghost story.

The author is often much too diffident about her contribution to the supernatural fiction field and to the small press world, but, as David Sutton notes in his introduction, which gives a useful summary of the author’s writing and publishing work, Rosemary has been active in fanzines for nearly fifty years, and has edited Ghosts & Scholars, the highly respected M R James periodical, in various forms, for nearly forty years.

This volume is therefore the fruit of a lifetime’s devotion to the traditional ghost story (and allied themes), and offers a very generous contents list, with twenty-nine essays on aspects of James, eight essays on his followers, including E G Swain, Arthur Gray, A P Baker and Fritz Leiber, and nine shorter pieces on various subjects which originally appeared in contributions to the postal discussion group The Everlasting Club.

This promises to be an erudite, lively, lucidly written and fascinating book, with unexpected and illuminating insights into aspects of M R James’ stories, and a great deal of other out-of-the-way information.

Who could possibly resist such titles as “Scrying and the Horse-Demon”, “The Magic of Maps”, “’Fluttering Draperies’: The Fabric of M R James” and “The Night Raven”? Here the reader will find pagans and magicians, demons and hobby horses, arcane grimoires, sequestered places, and many other strange byways, all explored in a robust and refreshingly direct way by an author who has quite rightly ignored all the warnings and is perfectly willing to be curious about almost anything, particularly if it is shadowy or peculiar.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Following the Old Ways: Flush As May by P M Hubbard

The tone of P M Hubbard’s first novel, Flush As May (1963), is not dissimilar to the donnish detection novels of Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes: it has the same wit and intelligence and breezily extravagant plot. There are also some conventional figures of the crime novel – a retired Chief Constable, a shrewd older woman, a vague vicar, and several cranky rustics. The plot, involving a missing body, is also fairly familiar. The young woman and her suitor who stumble upon the mystery, and are undaunted by the dark undercurrents when they begin to look into it, are bright, well-developed characters, rigorous in their thinking.

But although the two main protagonists of his book are Oxford undergraduates, town and gown scarcely feature. The setting is mostly in an obscure country village, which seems to be in the Wiltshire Downs, and there are hints from quite early on that this place still observes some clandestine pagan practices. This is again not all that unusual in the field: Gladys Mitchell often features witchcraft, folk customs and ancient sites in her books, and others have done so too.

However, P M Hubbard’s depiction of the village secrets is subtle. Flush As May shows, especially for its time, a surprisingly deep understanding and a certain sympathy for the older religion, and this was to become a hallmark in several of his subsequent novels. There are several ways in which this shows in this book. The first is that it describes very closely a traditional, hereditary witch coven, with its Maid (the matriarchal head), and observance of seasonal customs – Beltane, Lammas and Hallowe’en are specifically mentioned.

I think it is likely that the author drew upon Gerald Gardner’s books on witchcraft, such as Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), which were published not long before, although not all that well-known. It is now not generally accepted among historians that any witchcraft coven survived in Britain from pre-Christian times, though there is evidence that particular pagan practices may have done so: it is therefore unlikely Hubbard had personal knowledge of any such group. However, he was clearly well-informed, and this is evidence of a more than passing interest.

The second is that Hubbard describes a network of ancient pathways radiating from a high prehistoric earthwork, The Beacon, and his heroine follows step by step one of the alignments converging on this, starting at a church on a mound, and walking the line through other significant landmarks, such as an ancient wood, a ford, and the north door of another church, up to the hilltop. It is perfectly clear that he is describing a ley line and indeed a character refers, without naming him, to Alfred Watkins and his book The Old Straight Track: its mounds, beacons, moats, sites, and mark stones (1925), the work that began the ley theory.

This again reveals a marked esoteric knowledge on the part of the author: ley hunting did not become better-known until the mid-Sixties, when books and journals began to appear about it; the first issue of The Ley Hunter journal was in April 1965. The author evidently knew about leys before then, and sufficiently well to describe them compellingly, six years before John Michell’s milestone book The View Over Atlantis (1969) made them better-known. Further, he even anticipated the mystical dimension to leys that the sixties brought. This is not to the fore in the Watkins book at all; he thought of them as traders’ tracks. It is possible, therefore, that P M Hubbard is a previously unacknowledged pioneer of the idea that leys had a sacred dimension.

Taken together, these themes from Gardner and Watkins suggest that P M Hubbard had at least looked into these matters quite keenly, and thought them through for himself. There are also some minor clues about the extent of his interest. He alludes to an incident in the history of the Avebury stone circle that later forms the fulcrum of another, also highly pagan, novel, The Dancing Man (1971): this shows that he was thinking about this some time before he wrote that book. In Flush As May, he describes the ancient mound on which the village church stands as “the green round” – a phrase used by Machen for the title of one of his books, involving fairy lore: and we are also told one of Hubbard’s characters has “fairy blood” in her. He may have got these ideas from somewhere else, but since The Dancing Man shows an even stronger likely Machen influence, we may have here a clue that he was already reading him at this stage.

There is therefore not much doubt at all that the author had a strong respect for the pagan old religion he describes. Indeed, he even upends the usual expectations of the detection novel, so that the secret faith of the village may continue undisturbed. He is not an overt apologist for this faith, but clearly understands its allure. P M Hubbard’s book is, for its time, a remarkably sophisticated and shrewd portrayal of modern paganism, and it was to be followed by others equally rich in their use of archetypal images.

Mark Valentine

This note originally appeared in a contribution to a mailing of The Everlasting Club, a postal discussion group for supernatural fiction.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Finding books in out of the way places

It has sometimes chanced that I have found myself in some out-of-the-way place without a book. This is a disconcerting experience for the keen reader, and recently, in a hotel on an industrial estate, not within obvious reach of any purveyor of literature, I was obliged to read the only thing to hand in the somewhat functional room, namely the breakfast menu. This, though not without interest in its way, did not stretch very far (in terms of reading, I mean: the breakfast itself promised to be, and was, extensive, if unsubtle).

However, on other occasions a chance find in a lonely place has proved to be a solace enhanced by its unexpectedness. Once on a rainswept holiday in Cornwall, and desperate to find something diverting to read, I considered without too much enthusiasm the single creaking plastic carousel of paperbacks in the leaking beach shack which was the only shop for miles around. But what was this? The Adventures of Solar Pons by August Derleth. Some splendid Sherlock Holmes-like detective yarns, just the thing to enjoy while the grey gusts swept against the cottage windows.

Since then, I have to confess to a sort of idle delight in the game of finding something interesting to read somehow, wherever I chance to be. And it is one of the incidental delights of even the smallest, obscurest places in England that it is surprising how often, one way or another, suitable reading matter may be found. Arriving early to meet friends in a minor Shropshire village, for instance, I looked in at the church and found not only one or two paperbacks I could quite enjoy, but also a guide to local ghosts. Later I was able to stroll around in the dusk regarding the apparent haunts it described with an enhanced appreciation, not to say apprehension.

Very few churches are without a printed guide of some sort, and these often make for diverting reading, with unusual anecdotes, snatches of local history or genealogy, diversions upon heraldry, and snippets of little-known folklore. Whether they are simply one sheet folded, or more compendious booklets, it is rare to find one without some points of singular interest, often several.

However, another practice which has begun to become more widespread is that of offering an assortment of second hand books, usually towards the back of the church, to raise funds. One church half an hour from here makes quite a point of it and has several hundred, along with recordings. (Its other attraction is a former Viceroy’s silk dressing-gown, now used as an altar cloth.) Sometimes, admittedly, this may lead to incongruity: one sacred edifice harboured several Dennis Wheatley novels of racy satanism, while in another a biography of Rasputin was prominently displayed.

On another occasion, visiting friends in a little Suffolk village and arriving ahead of time, we went first to look at the church. Here we found in the porch a large cardboard box full of jumbled books for sale, which afforded a most agreeable rummage. Indeed, we were still rummaging when the verger (or was it the churchwarden? A redoubtable lady, anyway) arrived to lock up. Observing the small pile we had accumulated, she invoked the Almighty and declared she had only put them out a few hours before, just to see if anyone would be interested. When we turned up at our friends’ house carrying the spoils, they exclaimed that only we could find a place to buy books in such an obscure nook of the country.

Nor is it only churches that can sometimes oblige the bookless. Another occasional source of reading matter may be found in repurposed telephone kiosks. These elegant scarlet pavilions, no longer required due to the spread of personal phones, have been ingeniously reused by some villages variously as miniature museums, art galleries, greenhouses – or book exchanges, where there might be a few dozen titles available. You may borrow or take one and leave another later.

Some shops now have a selection of books for sale for worthy causes. On one occasion I had walked along the canal to a village from which I proposed to get the train back. There are only half a dozen trains on its almost-forgotten branch line, and, as I had slightly miscalculated, I had an hour and a half to while away before the next one. I recalled, however, that the village florist usually has several trays of books on sale for charity and hoped I might turn up something worthwhile there. I was in luck: it yielded Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of An Infantry Officer, certainly absorbing enough to take back and enjoy on the wooden bench at the little wayside halt, while reflecting that the quiet scene, full of birdsong, might have appealed in its rural tranquillity to the author of the book.

It’s also possible to get second-hand books at some railway stations. When I similarly allowed too much time to catch my train at Oxford station, I was gratified to find that in one of the waiting rooms there were a dozen shelves of books on sale for charity, including no less than five volumes of Jacobean tragedy. These (I admit) I passed over in favour of a history of English glass, a subject that had caught my interest after reading P M Hubbard’s splendid grotesque novel, A Hive of Glass, about the quest for a very rare goblet. Thus it is that, when a suitable occasion arises, I shall be able diffidently to mention, “Ah, yes, Early English Glass. Studied it at Oxford.” “Balliol?” “No, Great Western.”

Mark Valentine

Friday, June 1, 2018

Copsford - Walter J C Murray

In the early Nineteen Twenties, just after the war, a young man tired of living in a back room in the city persuaded a bemused Sussex farmer to rent him a derelict cottage. It stood alone on a hill, had no water or electricity, and was full of rats. Many of the window panes were broken and it was damp, dirty and dingy.

He bought a brush and pail in the village and cleaned it up, fought a war against the rats, then put in some rudimentary furniture. The local postman found him a dog for company, somewhat improbably claimed to be a Shetland collie. Then he started to explore his domain, surrounded on three sides by a stream often all but impassable when in spate.

He lived for a year at Copsford (the name of the house), through all the seasons, while he tried to make a living from collecting, drying and selling the herbs he could find locally, such as foxgloves, agrimony, meadow-sweet, tansy , eyebright and yarrow. He came to know the natural surroundings intimately, alert to the living and growing things around him.

Together with modest payments from occasional journalism, he just about made ends meet (he will share his sparse accounts with us), but it was hard and mostly lonely work. However, he had a friend in the village, whom he calls The Music Mistress, and we’re soon delighted to gather that he and she (and the dog) will be forming a new way of life together there. And some years, and another war, later, he wrote a book about his experiences.

It seems a simple enough story, appealing because of the young man’s doughty integrity, but part of the potency of the book is due to the author’s sensitivity to the unseen. Walter Murray doesn’t only tell us about the practical aspects of making the cottage (just about) habitable, and garnering, drying and packing the herbs. He is also frank about the impressions he received from this haunted site, such as the bleakness he encountered when he first stood alone inside the house:

“And then in an instant the chill loneliness of the place swooped down on me; the cold hand that had rested upon my shoulder now clutched me violently by the throat and the appalling dreariness which so many years’ solitude had fashioned, held me motionless. Those few seconds of my life are graven so deep in my memory that I think nothing can ever efface them . . .”

It’s hardly surprising that an encounter with a desolate empty ruinous house might affect even the hardiest soul, but Murray works hard to convey precisely what it was he sensed. However, it is not only this eerie atmosphere that he evokes: like the protagonist of a Machen or Blackwood story, he is also alert to moments of mystical glory, as in this glimpse one early morning in June:

“It sometimes happens, at rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an altogether new world, different completely from that in which we commonly live. We feel as though we stand on the threshold of an undiscovered kingdom; for brief moments we understand life interpreted, we perceive meaning instead of things.”

Although his account is firstly a personal memoir and secondly a natural history study, it is also, in its subtle, diffident way, a record of such fleeting visionary experiences.

Copsford (Allen & Unwin, 1948), the book he wrote about his experiences, was an unexpected success and was reissued in 1950 in a popular edition by the Readers' Union. It has become something of a quietly sought-after book since. People who encounter it are apt to be unusually impressed by its fugitive qualities, its curious mood, and by the compelling honesty of the account. Early copies are surprisingly hard to find, even in the RU edition, though there was a HarperCollins reprint in 1986 that is now more readily available.

One devoted champion of the book has recorded The Copsford Project, a short film of a visit to the site of the house, now demolished, where only the front door step and a few other half-buried signs remain. Local historian Tom Wareham has written a biography of Murray, The Green Man of Horam, The Life and Work of Walter J C Murray (2017), and also explores his nature mysticism, which he suggests has elements in common with the work of Richard Jefferies, author of The Story of My Heart (1883).

Murray went on to start a school in the village of Horam, with The Music Mistress, and also wrote about a nature sanctuary he founded there, and published other books of natural history and topography, some in collaboration, and a guide to Romney Marsh. But with Copsford he created one of those singular books, haunted by elusive qualities, that leave the reader wistful, in a mood of mingled joy and melancholy.

Mark Valentine