Sunday, July 29, 2018

In That Look the Unicorn Stood & Other Dreamt Books

"People do tell their dreams," said Arthur Machen, in conversation with Morchard Bishop, "but . . ." and there was a world of doubt in that 'but'. But undaunted by that very judicious 'but', this post is about dreams of books, by which I mean not daytime longings for great rarities or lost volumes, but unknown works encountered in sleep.

For I occasionally dream of finding books that do not seem to exist (yet), and sometimes remember their titles. In a way, this is hardly surprising given the amount of time I spend in bookshops, and reading, or writing about books. The titles are usually quite authentic-sounding: for example, I once found in a dream a slim volume called My Cricket by Lord Dunsany, a book he never wrote, alas; but he did write the short story ‘Autumn Cricket’, and a book called My Ireland, so one can see how my imagination might have combined the two. But others are not quite so obviously explained. Here's some notes on others I have dreamt.

7 September 2008

I handled a small piece of pale turned wood which had a lid which delicately screwed off. Inside was the impress of a device used to make a mark upon paper. I learned that this was a “Tuddington chess seal”. The picture it made would represent, heraldically, a chess piece, which would be used in some way to play the game over a distance. I knew that I was dreaming and that I had to remember the name of this artefact. At a later stage, I was in a temporary structure at the end of a street, which was selling books for a pound each. I only found one I wanted, Further Essays by Sir Francis Younghusband, and I wrote “Tuddington chess seals” on the rear blank endpaper in pencil. But then I remembered this was also a dream, so I still hadn’t ensured I would remember it. Meanwhile, I was distracted by someone else buying a fine illustrated book on The Basilisk, which I knew was worth much more than a £1.

1 November 2009
I was at a book auction. I had not registered to bid but as I looked at the catalogue I saw books I should certainly want. It seemed too late, but as the ceremonials went on, I darted down to the office, run by a couple of practical old ladies. I was permitted to register without even giving full particulars. One book I especially wanted was an early study or memoir of Percy Pilcher, the aviation pioneer who was killed at Stanford Park, on the Northants/Leics border: there is an obelisk memorial to him. The book was Edwardian, with its spine missing, exposing the newspaper lining underneath, and grey boards with crumpled corners: I think there was an inset vignette. I find that Pilcher was a pioneer of gliding rather than powered flight, and the inventor of four different craft, picturesquely named The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk.

18 October 2010
I had discovered a paper-covered monograph written by a colonial district officer on a Pacific island which posited a link between earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He had discovered this through his own observations of natural upheavals on the island. Though this link was now widely accepted, it had not been known at the time he wrote, making him a scientific pioneer. I was working out how to tell his story and publicise my find.

5 August 2015
I was going through the papers of a progressive public school, in some advisory capacity. These included a school magazine with a piece of highly ornate fantastic fiction, which I noted was in the style of Mervyn Peake, and very accomplished. I thought, I must make a note of the name of the author and follow up to see if they went on writing. The surname was distinctive and would be easy to trace: but I have not remembered it. I have a vague sense of chivalry, medievalism. The surprising thing is that in the dream the page of writing was perfectly clear before me and I was reading it just as I would if awake. If I could have remembered it, I’d have a segment of strange prose.

29 December 2015
I found a copy of Astral Travel in the Edwardian Age, a book which certainly ought to exist, but doesn’t yet (or at least not here). It was an exploration of the work of occultists and visionaries on what they conceived to be the astral plane, with descriptions of their journeys, and quotations from their writing. As soon as I awoke, I remembered the title and wanted either to find it or to write it. Again, because I have written and read about early 20th century writers of supernatural fiction, and such groups as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, it is easy to see why such a book title might occur to me.

16 August 2016

I had a dream of a war poet whose effects, few, were being preserved and I was allowed to handle them. They included a wooden shelf whose span showed all the books he was allowed to have (in barracks, I suppose, or a camp): they had to fit in its short gap. It was empty and the books he had chosen were not known. The hollow space seemed to convey the absence of the poet too, the gap he had left. The wood was rough, makeshift, unplaned, unvarnished, full of grain and knots and splinters.

20 September 2017
I was in an Oxfam bookshop in a pedestrian arcade which, unusually, had a lot of vintage hardback fiction, some with picture covers and spines and promising titles, but they were often about adventures in the colonies, typically in the forests of Canada. However, there was one book that was quite different: the title was in one long column in art deco style, one word to a line, shaped like a staircase which seemed to stand out from the cover. It was called In That Look the Unicorn Stood.

A glance inside suggested an adventure among fictitious countries, set perhaps (something about the incidental details suggested this) in the interwar period. The author’s name was not given or at least it was not obvious, yet I knew that it was by a woman. It was priced very modestly—something like 40p. I took it and held it and at that point must have entered into lucid dreaming because I knew that this was a dream of being in a bookshop and I must remember the title of the book. I kept telling myself over and over what the title was, and trying to keep the look of the volume in my mind. And when I came out of sleep I had remembered it and could still to a certain extent see it. I hastily spoke it aloud and then wrote it down. There is no such title in the British Library catalogue.

Two days later, I dreamt in my second sleep in the early hours of the morning that I found in a bookshop Jack Kerouac’s playing cards. They were in a white paper bag with a transparent film front and a label saying what they were. There was a postcard from him which told his correspondent to address him in reply as ‘Jack [ ]’ and then a surname I forget, which meant ‘cut’, and then a postal address. The price was £50. I thought, in the dream, this was quite reasonable. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay it because I am not a Kerouac collector or reader, but decided I probably should.

28 January 2018

I had found a book which was the first full edition of a fantasy work by a woman writer (like, but not, Mary Butts or Hope Mirrlees). Inside, on the front free endpaper, was a brief note stating “exactly as in the manuscript” (this wasn’t the phrase, but the meaning was similar) and an ownership signature: Sybil Vicky Javasco. There may have been another name between the second and third. When I woke up I remembered the name and kept hold of it until I could write it down. I don’t think, in the dream, I knew the title of the book, and I haven’t remembered one.

* * *

I have never yet dreamt of a book and then found it, and if I did, I would consider it rather eerie. It is very tempting (and cheering) to wonder if there is some alternative plane where these dreamt books and many others like them do indeed exist: and, presumably, where there are also other dreamers elusively half-remembering Flower Phantoms, say, or British Rainfall, 1910, or A Voyage to Arcturus, or Arthur Machen’s The Dark Lantern And The Mask.

Mark Valentine

Image: Cover by Jo Valentine for Litanies for the First Quarter of the Moon by Jules Laforgue.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Alison Lurie's Ghost Stories

Alison Lurie (b. 1926) is best known for her ten novels, which include The War Between the Tates (1974) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984).  She has also published the popular sociological study The Language of Clothes (1981), and two books on children's literature, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever (2003). Lurie also edited The Oxford Book of Fairy-Tales (1993), and wrote three volumes of children's stories, The Heavenly Zoo (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981).  The Black Geese (1999) is an illustrated book of the tale of the Baba Yaga from Clever Gretchen.

Lurie has written very little short fiction, but in 1994 she reminisced:

I finished a novel and didn't have a really good idea for the next one. I have a folder full of notes and ideas that I've accumulated for many, many years, so I looked through it. One note was about how my sister and I were sorting my mother's furniture and possessions after she died. I looked at one antique and said, 'How come you're still here and our mother's gone?' I felt irritated about it and thought, 'You don't even care. All you care about is if we take good care of you.'  A woman just having this thought isn't very interesting, but then I thought, 'What if this piece of furniture really did have feelings?' It's easy for me to think in this way, because I've read a lot of children's literature in which everything is anthropomorphized, and I've read a lot of ghost stories. Then I began to look at other ideas in the folder and realized that if I allowed the supernatural, suddenly there were all sorts of possibilities. (The Washington Post Book World, 23 October 1994). 

The novel she had just finished was The Truth about Lorin Jones, which was published in 1988. Her collection Women and Ghosts was first published in England by William Heinemann in June 1994; the U.S. edition, published by Nan A. Talese of Doubleday, appeared in September 1994. Both editions contain nine stories, five of which first appeared in magazines between 1989 and 1991. (The Avon trade paperback of October 1995, adds a tenth story, "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," but it is short and the least effective in the book.  It first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in 1994 under the title "The Satin Slip.")

To another interviewer, Lurie noted that "these aren't 'boo' stories. They are not like Stephen King, with horrible creatures living in the cellar of a hotel."  She also said that "ambiguity is part of the charm of ghost stories. We seem to like not being sure whether something is imagined or supernatural. The gray area between reality and the imagination has always been intriguing."  Lurie cited among her favorites Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green Tea" ("That story, which I read when I was 8, scared me so much that I've always tried to avoid green tea") and Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," and works by Edith Wharton, M.R. James, and Roald Dahl ("I've probably read all of Dahl's ghost stories. He has a wider mean streak than I do.  I'm more interested in amusing readers than frightening them.") [Quotes from The Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1994]

And Lurie's ghost stories are not wholly different from her novels of relationships between academic men and woman, though she has added aspects of the supernatural.  Some concern hauntings from the past, or hauntings of a room or even a pool. The best story in the collection concerns a poet who find that a doppelganger is apparently impersonating her at appearances across the U.S. Settings range from Key West to England (including an intriguing tale of the sheep in the Lake District) to India.  All are well told, and Lurie's characteristic style make them stand out as different from even the best of the usual fare.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Outgoing Tides - Mary Tyrwhitt Drake

Mary Tyrwhitt Drake’s Outgoing Tides (John Long, 1924) is sensationalist fiction pitched strong. An ex soldier, a VC, is now a starving artist, languishing in attic digs with an exiled Russian prince who makes a sort of living as a parlour pianist. The artist has been forced to sell his Scottish ancestral home — he is, of course, descended from French courtiers of Mary, Queen of Scots.

He bumps into the man he saved in Flanders, who feeds him and funds him for a bit. This chum has a sultry lover, who agrees to pose for the artist’s Gothic portrait of Persephone, ‘The Queen of Hell’. Complications ensue. Meanwhile, the woman in the neighbouring garret dies, leaving him the solemn charge of her 18 year old daughter, a working-glass girl of faultless morals. Complications ensue. Anthony, the artist, decides to abandon the high calling of his art in favour of pictures that will sell, and to marry his ward. The pianist prince is unconvinced. At this point, the new owner of the old Scottish chateau, a pleasant young woman of faultless, etc., devoted to good causes, appears upon the scene. Complications ensue.

This, note, is only the first third of the book and there is a lot more to come. An uncanny element is implied from the dark influence of the painting of Persephone and its effect on those who posses it, or are possessed by it. What I like about this book is its thoroughgoing melodrama. We have met such characters before – the down-and-out Great War veteran encountering a pal in the murk of London, the impoverished aristocratic White Russian, the sinuous femme fatale, the orphaned ward, but seldom all flung together at once and at such pace. There’s a sort of extravagant gusto about the whole shebang which fills the reader with bemused awe.

Sometimes we need such a bracing change from more cautious and considered literature: if only she could have met Henry James. We are in M P Shiel terrain, though without his rhodomontade, or perhaps perilously close to the extravagant plots of William Le Queux, but in prose more vivid and vivacious. Under the pen-name ‘M.A. Sylvestre’, the author had earlier published Valencia Varelst (S.C. Brown, Lanham & Co, 1903) and The Light-Bearers (John Long, 1912).

In an obscurely pleasing sort of way, the pale green boards of my copy (illustrated) have a series of salt-crust surges across them, as if indeed marked by outgoing tides.

Mark Valentine

Friday, July 13, 2018

Faunus 37

The latest issue, number 37, of Faunus, the hardback journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen, has just been published. Edited by James Machin and Timothy J Jarvis, it offers a cornucopia of fascinating material by and about the great Welsh master.

From Arthur Machen himself there is a rare and significant essay, ‘Folklore and Legends of the North’, surveying several books in the field and discussing his own views on lycanthropy, witchcraft, metamorphosis and the fairy world. This is an important and interesting account of these traditions which will illuminate his own fiction.

Also from Machen is ‘The Way of the World’, one of his typical companionable rambles through a loosely-linked set of anecdotes, which here covers The Panacea Society, The Foundling Hospital, Bulrushes in Baker Street, Nursery Names and much else. There’s also Machen’s report on an exhibition of dolls, ‘The Angel of the Toys’: he characteristically describes them as “puppets that will enact for [the child] mystery plays and miracles.”

This issue also includes a review by Aleister Crowley of Machen’s The Terror, and an introduction to this by James Machin reflecting on the mage’s admiration (usually) for Machen’s work, and the circumstances of this particular notice.

The editors also include a fine tribute to Machen by the Irish novelist Norah Hoult, in her 1951 review of The Autobiography of Arthur Machen.

John Llewellyn Probert continues his series on ‘Machenesque Moments in Cinema’, Nicolas Granger-Taylor reviews a recent modern opera inspired by Machen, by Ross Crean, and Nick Louras discusses the recipe for Machen’s lethal Dog & Duck punch.

Members of the Friends should receive their copy in the next few weeks, complete with Machenalia, the newsletter edited by Jon Preece. To join, and receive these splendid publications, consult the link above.