Monday, October 22, 2018

Wormwood 31

Wormwood 31 (Autumn 2018) has just been published.

Reggie Oliver on Robert Aickman:

“Aickman might be said to be exploring not so much Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” as the evil of banality.”

Doug Anderson on Phyllis Paul:

“What does keep the reader going is the eccentric cast of minor characters . . .”

John Howard on Mack Reynolds:

“In Reynolds’ utopias an element of subversion—revolution—is also necessary . . .”

Colin Insole on Hope Mirrlees:

“The ghosts parade and strut on the streets and bridges”

Ibrahim Ineke on book-collecting in Den Haag:

“My passion has a slight resemblance to the rawer and aesthetically less satisfying habit of gambling”

Paul M Chapman on the Decadent Conan Doyle:

“His work often echoed Poe's ‘love for the grotesque and the terrible’”

Tony Mileman on the golden age of Czech fantasy:

“What if reading were a dangerous activity? What if you could, literally, disappear into a text?”

Mat Joiner on Jocelyn Brooke:

“And who are the other lot? ‘I only wish I knew’”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Cricket in Babylon - W W Masters' Murder in the Mirror

In W W Masters’ Murder in the Mirror (Longmans, 1931), a young man finds himself at the wicket in a village cricket match, suffering from a complete memory loss. He is bewildered, but plays on (as if he had been trained to such a priority, he notices), says nothing to anyone else, and begins to piece together a few fragments.

After his innings finishes, he finds out the date by looking over the scorer’s shoulder (9 July – the birthday of Mervyn Peake, Barbara Cartland and Thomas Ligotti, amongst others).

He hopes also to discover his name, but it emerges that he is a passing stranger, who had been roped in to the side to take the place of a missing player. He is therefore shown in the scorebook, as is the usual practice in cricket, under the name of A N Other. Yet when he finds his clothes, a tobacco pouch also has the initials ‘A.N.O.’

The scene shifts to a parson in the East End, who is being threatened by a mysterious oriental figure somewhat in the tradition of Dr Fu Manchu and Dr Nikola: and we then follow the priest to a holiday with three friends in Dorset. Some of them are strangely drawn to a book of Babylonian legends in the library. And then, one by one, they begin to disappear. Clues seem to lead to a sinister figure living in a caravan parked inconspicuously in the downs.

Allen J. Hubin in ‘The Golden Age of British Mystery Fiction’ notes: “W. W. Masters and his only work Murder in the Mirror . . . are about as obscure as they come. But the story is not without merit. The theme is psychic or supernatural menace, with which battle must be waged; I was reminded of the later books by Jack Mann. And quite a nice surprise climaxes the story . . . Babylon, magic, mind control and murder are all effectively worked into the story.”

The tone is quite like Buchan’s, as is the framework: the style is brisk and forceful. The surprise ending delivers a fundamental twist , subverting much of what has gone before: this will appear clever and audacious to some, or a bit too contrived for others, depending on taste. Charles Williams, in one of his detective fiction reviews (21 January 1931), says, “The actual method of the mystery ought, I think, to have been explained a little more; it is hardly intelligible as it stands.” I think that is a little severe, but it is true that the reader is left at the end to infer quite a lot.

Nevetheless, Williams goes on: “The book, I want to make clear, is a good idea, which just fails to get across.” That, I think, is a fair summation. It is original and clever, but a bit too much so; some subtle preparation for what is to come would have been better.

This was not, as Hubin thought, Masters’ only book. His first publication seems to have been Air-Ways, A Story for Boys and Girls, issued by the subsidy publisher Stockwell of Ilfracombe, Devon, in 1927. But more interestingly he was also the author of an earlier occult thriller, Eleven (Chapman & Hall, 1929).

In this, a group of bored young men are interrupted one evening by a stranger who steps into the room from the garden, bearing in his hand a vial of poison. He challenges them to a deadly game. His task is to eliminate them all, one by one: theirs is to outwit him and avoid extinction. The general idea might have been suggested by aspects of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, although the atmosphere is again more like Buchan’s chase thrillers.

I have been unable to find out anything about W W Masters. When I was looking for his books, the only other copy of Murder in the Mirror I discovered was in a bookshop in Kathmandu, which seemed strangely appropriate for so elusive a figure. It isn't there now.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Lost Art Deco Author: Geoffrey Moss

Little Green Apples: the Chronicle of a Fallen Man (1930) by Geoffrey Moss, with art deco illustrations signed ‘Lapthorn’, is the story of an undergraduate with the unlikely nickname of the title. He becomes unexpectedly attracted to strange beauty when, helping a gang of hearties to ransack an aesthete’s room in college, he catches sight of an Aubrey Beardsley print and is at once captivated by it.

Alas, this promising premise isn’t fully pursued. After university, a job as a golf course manager in the South of France proves illusory, part of a faintly shady set-up run by a rather louche character. Marooned and out of funds, the protagonist drifts among the margins of Riviera high life as a gigolo, but finds that this career subsequently deprives him from securing his real love. In a fairly perfunctory denouement, he and an artist friend join a travelling circus.

Geoffrey Moss was the pen-name of Major Geoffrey Cecil Gilbert McNeill-Moss (11 December 1885 – 13 August 1954) of Ford Place, Ford, Sussex. Moss went to Rugby and Sandhurst and was an officer in the Grenadier Guards from 1905 until he left in 1919. He retired in order to write full time. While in the army he wrote on aspects of military training.

He had some success in the interwar period with Jazz Age romances somewhat after the manner of Michael Arlen and Evelyn Waugh. His first work of fiction, Sweet Pepper, however, was set in the decaying Austria-Hungarian Empire, and his second, Defeat, a collection of stories, sympathetically portrayed post-WW1 Germany. This was filmed as Isn’t Life Wonderful? by D W Griffith in 1924.

Of his other novels, Whipped Cream (1926) has been described as a “romance of an intensely modern girl struggling in the vortex of unconquerable passions and strange desires", while New Wine (1927) chronicles the somewhat hectic life of a cabaret dancer in Bucharest.

His work consists of eight novels, three books of stories, a history book for children, and non-fiction works on military matters, including two accounts of episodes in the Spanish Civil War. He seems to have published nothing more during the fifteen years from 1939 to his death. Though it is not clear why, his fiction may have been out of favour in the new realism of the Forties and Fifties. Since then, his books seem to have been largely forgotten.

Books by Geoffrey Moss

Sweet Pepper (Constable, 1923)
Defeat (Constable, 1924). Reprinted as “Isn’t Life Wonderful”: Defeat & Other Stories (Constable, 1925).
Whipped Cream (Hutchinson, 1926)
New Wine, A Nocturne in Tinsel (Hutchinson, 1927)
The Three Cousins: Short Stories (Hutchinson, 1928)
That Other Love (Hutchinson, 1928)
Little Green Apples, The Chronicle of a Fallen Man (Hutchinson, 1930)
Wet Afternoon: Stories (Hutchinson, 1931)
A Modern Melody (Hutchinson, 1932)
I Face the Stars (Hutchinson, 1933)
Thursby (Hutchinson, 1933)

Notes on Elementary Field Training by ‘Grenadier’ (Sifton Praed & Co, 1915), (Hugh.Rees, 1915). Attributed to Moss.
Notes on Outposts (Hugh Rees, 1915). [Extracted from the above].
A Box of Dates for Children (Cobden-Sanderson, 1934)
The Epic of the Alcazar: A History of the Siege of the Toledo Alcazar (Rich & Cowan, 1937) [as Geoffrey McNeill-Moss]
The Legend of Badajoz (Burns, Oates, 1937)
Standing Up to Hitler (Michael Joseph, 1939)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Second-hand Bookshops in Britain, and in Fiction

Last year, I discussed what I described as The Rise in Second-hand Bookshops in Britain. I offered factual, indeed statistical evidence, that their number has grown over the past thirty years. This was contrary to my own expectations: and several readers still found it hard to credit. But I haven’t seen any other figures refuting the analysis.

To recap, in 1984, Driff’s Guide to the Second-hand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain listed 942*.

By comparison, thebookguide doughtily run by the Inprint Bookshop, listed 1187 as at August 2017. Of these, 287 were charity bookshops.

Thus, there was a 25% increase in second-hand bookshops in the UK over the 33 years since Driff’s guide.

Even if you decide not to count charity bookshops, in Driff or The Book Guide, there has still been an increase in all other bookshops, though smaller. Either way, the steep decline readers think they have seen simply isn't supported by the numbers.

I can now report, thanks to a kind update from Inprint, that the position this year is broadly unchanged. In August 2018 (after deducting those in the Republic of Ireland), there were 1183 second-hand bookshops listed in the UK, with a similar number to last time run by charities. And within a few weeks, the number opening or newly identified was running slightly higher than those closing.

I sympathise, however, with those who still can’t really believe this continued clear evidence. And I was amused to notice that even as early as 1926 the idea that such bookshops were in decline was already abroad.

In Cynthia Asquith’s excellent anthology The Ghost Book of that year, one of the stories, ‘The Lost Tragedy’ by Denis Mackail, is a gently humorous piece (which was very much his style) set in a London second-hand bookshop. The narrator says: “Mr Bunstable’s book-shop represents a type of establishment which has pretty well disappeared from our modern cities.”

(Incidentally, that might indeed be true today too: the evidence suggests they are now more likely to be found in small towns rather than in high-rent cities).

The piece is also comical for its description both of the dusty, labyrinthine bookshop, with teetering piles of titles everywhere, and for its observations about the proprietors of such places: “As all who have considered the subject must agree, the principal object of any book-seller is to obstruct, as far as possible, the sale of books . . .”

Does anyone have their own favourite fictional descriptions of second-hand bookshops?

(*Note: For reasons best known to himself, Driff did not use numbers 802-824 in his listing. On the other hand, he sometimes throws in a few premises which he doesn’t number, so probably “about 940” is still near enough.)

Mark Valentine

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Incurable - The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson

Strange Attractor Press have just announced Incurable - The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel, edited by Nina Antonia, the author of the excellent Eighteen Nineties romance The Greenwood Faun, and dedicated expert on Johnson.

It is to be published in mid-October in a special hardback edition limited to 100 copies, and an unlimited paperback edition. Pre-orders may be placed now.

The announcement notes: "A lost poet of the decadent era, Lionel Johnson is the shadow man of the 1890s, an enigma “pale as wasted golden hair.” History has all but forgotten Johnson, except as a footnote to the lives of more celebrated characters like W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. . ."

This very welcome volume includes "a detailed biographical essay, illustrations, rare and unusual material including previously unseen letters, poetry, and essays" and "Incurable pays tribute to this enchanting and eccentric poet while providing fresh insight into an era that continues to fascinate."

This is just the sort of sympathetic selection of Johnson's work and reconsideration of his life and key place in Eighteen Nineties circles that has long been needed. All enthusiasts of the fin-de-siecle, the Decadent movement, Cavalier poetry, and the rare and recondite in fine literature will wish to possess a copy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Ghost Story Newly Attributed to Mary Shelley

We have covered in the past Withnail Books’ well-designed booklets of rare pieces by Saki and T E Lawrence. Their latest announcement is, however, even more remarkable than these.

The press is offering The Ghost of the Private Theatricals, a terror tale by ‘M.S.’ originally published in ‘The Keepsake’ (London, 1844) edited by the Countess of Blessington, which the editor, Adam Newell argues should be attributed to Mary Shelley.

In an afterword, he explains the details of the original publication of the story and the reasons for thinking this might be by the author of Frankenstein. If this can be established, it is a highly significant literary find which will add to our understanding of Mary Shelley’s work in the Gothic form.

But readers of supernatural fiction will in any case want to read and enjoy this previously overlooked spectral story from the earliest days of the form, and decide for themselves.

Each copy includes an original, hand-printed linocut by Sharon Newell, inspired by the story, and the 36p A5 format booklet is printed on good quality paper and card covers. It in a limited edition of 100 copies and there is sure to be a high demand.