Monday, February 18, 2019
Guest Post - 'The Passing of a Legend' by R B Russell
I am very sorry to hear that the legendary bookseller George Locke has died. In my memory he will always be one of those characters I can’t quite believe I ever met, or had dealings with. He always seemed like a character from Dickens, although I would be hard pressed to say which one.
When I first encountered him in a cellar room in a bookshop in Cecil Court he was dozing in a chair with his stock piled up about him—books appeared to have drifted around his periphery in that way they do in some bookshops, blurring the edges of a room, even hiding smaller items of furniture, or customers. I had to wake him up to ask the price of a jacketed copy of Beresford Egan’s But the Sinners Triumph.
‘Sixty-five pounds’ he declared, but I had nothing like that much money to spend, especially as I didn’t know whether I would enjoy the book or not. I loved Egan’s drawings in The Sink of Solitude and Policeman of the Lord, but by the time of his first novel, Pollen, the deft, cruel line of Egan’s artwork had deteriorated, and the illustrations in But the Sinners Triumph looked even less convincing.
I quickly realised that Mr Locke was a mine of information on supernatural, strange and weird literature. He talked very knowledgably about William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. I proudly admitted that the large parcel I was carrying contained five copies of the newly published Tartarus Press first edition of Ritual and Other Stories by Arthur Machen. I was hoping to drop them off at Mr Smail’s Legal Deposit Office on Euston Street (to save the postage, which was considerable).
George then proposed I exchange those five copies of Ritual (which, as editor and publisher, I would sign) for the book by Egan. For some reason I found myself agreeing, even though he explained that I would have to give him a generous discount because he was in the trade. Additionally, he was buying in bulk, and on top of this, he was saving me the postage of sending him the books. I, however, was not entitled to any discount because I admitted that I was buying the Egan for my own collection.
When I later paid to have another five copies of Ritual bound up and posted to Mr Smail I realised just how out of pocket I had been in my deal with George. To add insult to injury, he was selling my copies of Ritual at more than the retail price because (as he explained in his Ferret Fantasy catalogue), it was rare to find copies signed by the editor/publisher!
Somehow George managed to get the better of me on a number of subsequent occasions, such as when I acquired his wonderful Spectrum of Fantasy volumes by trading Tartarus Press books of a much higher retail value. (To be fair, his reference books are still a delight, and I have completely forgotten what books he had in exchange.) I always grumbled, but usually admired the way he would end up with the better part of any deal. Of course, I should have known better than to agree to co-publish The House of the Hidden Light with him.
Arthur Machen and A.E. Waite’s incredibly rare volume existed in only three copies, and had never been properly published. Machen’s daughter, Janet, had given me permission to publish the book on behalf of Machen’s Estate, and Bob Gilbert said that he could arrange for the rights from the Waite Estate, and would, additionally, write an Introduction and Notes (which were vital if anyone was to understand the book.) Bob, himself, owned one of the only three copies of the book, but it was in the hands of George Locke, who had an option to buy it from him. I told Bob that we didn’t need George’s input because Newport Reference Library had made me a photocopy of their photocopy (several generations old, so I couldn’t quite make out Aleister Crowley’s scribbled annotations.)
However, it was politic not to mention my copy of the text to George, and to acquire Bob’s work and the Waite rights, we would have to co-publish. And so, after a convivial lunchtime meeting in The Plough on Museum Street, it was agreed that I would produce the book and add George’s Ferret Fantasy imprint to my own. George did discover that I had a photocopy of the text, but it proved to be no problem, and I ended up transcribing it myself, designing the book, and overseeing production. I was pleased with the book ‘we’ published—what should have been the first edition of The House of the Hidden Light.
However, a few days before publication, while our edition was still at the bindery, George announced the publication of his own very limited edition variant of the text. Not only had I been beaten to issuing the first edition, but Ferret Fantasy’s version was a stapled booklet badly photocopied on dark brown paper that even George admitted in his catalogue was unreadable! It was also more expensive than our own properly printed and bound edition.
When I asked George why he had done this, he apologised, claiming that he assumed our edition would have been published before his. And he asked me to take pity on him, saying that his mailing list was miniscule compared to mine and pointing out that his own publications never sold more than a half a dozen copies anyway. He did have sixty copies of ‘our’ edition (at cost price because, after all, he was co-publisher). He didn’t make any effort to sell these until after Tartarus had sold out, and then he offered them at twice the price, claiming the book was out of print. (A few years later I discovered that he had not bought Bob’s original copy of The House of the Hidden Light after all.)
It wasn’t long after this that George phoned me and, rather than announce who was calling, opened the conversation with the question, ‘Do you suffer from mould?’ He admitted that some of the books stored in the shed in his garden had been damaged by damp, and I recommended buying a dehumidifier. I asked if any important books had been made unsaleable, bur he said no, fortunately—only a few boxes of his own publications.
We had various dealings over the years, and I eventually ended up with George’s manuscript and typescript of Arthur Machen’s The Green Round. He never did get around to selling me A.E. Waite’s own copy of The Great God Pan, but I recently acquired it from another source.
George could be awkward, difficult and drove a very hard bargain, but my grudging respect for him turned into something close to admiration when a very unpleasant character in the book world attempted to blackmail me. This person threatened that unless I made public certain comments I knew to be untrue, he would send George Locke a private email from me that was very rude about George.
I phoned George and told him everything. Of course, he wanted to know what I had written about him.
I had been so indiscreet as to suggest that George put vast amounts of research into third-rate authors and then published the results in badly produced booklets for which customers were charged unreasonably high prices.
George laughed heartily, and agreed that my description was entirely accurate.
R B Russell
Photograph: George Locke at the World Horror Convention, Brighton, March 2010 (R B Russell).