Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Ghostly Company

A Ghostly Company is a small, friendly and informal group of ghost story enthusiasts who meet two or three times a year for weekends involving talks, story readings and visits to ancient places, but most of all good company.

Pilgrimages have been made to towns and cities linked to M R James and his successors, to William Hope Hodgson, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The next two gatherings will be in Hereford in October and Chester in late March 2020, and the group is always open to suggestions for other places to visit.

Although most of these excursions are in Britain, the group has also had and is planning European weekends, and has overseas members who enjoy its publications.

The society also shares messages about relevant books, films and events, issues a newsletter and publishes The Silent Companion, a journal of new original supernatural fiction. New members are welcome. If you would like to share your enjoyment of ghost stories with like-minded enthusiasts, this could be just the group for you.


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Wormwoodiana: The Tenth Anniversary of This Blog

Yes, it's hard to believe it, but the first two posts on this blog date from 22 June 2009, ten years ago.  Since then we've had some 575+ posts by Mark Valentine, myself, James Doig, and a number of other people (including guest posts).  So herewith a hearty thanks to all of the contributors to Wormwoodiana, and to our readers and commentators. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Guest Post - Outsider Literature, Part 2, by R B Russell

Part One of this post suggested that Outsider Literature might follow rules set down by Art Brut and Outsider Art, which would mean that an Outsider Writer should be self-taught, compelled to write without thought of publication, and should not have been recognised by the literary establishment. Additionally, Outsider Writing should be at pains to keep itself free from writers who have simply failed to make the grade.

However, very few candidates for Outsider Writer status fulfil all of these requirements. Take, for example, the American Joseph Gould (1889-1957) who claimed to have written the longest book ever, An Oral History of the Contemporary World (only fragments of which have been found and published.) Gould was eccentric and often homeless, but he worked for the New York Evening Mail, and had his work commented on by both Edward J. O’Brien (editor of Best American Short Stories) and Ezra Pound.

These connections make him much less of an Outsider than, say, the Australian Sandor Berger, a character well-known in Sydney for walking around wearing placards and handing out leaflets with the message ‘Psychiatry is Evil’. (He arrived in Sydney in 1952 and died, aged eighty-one, in 2006.) During his time in Sydney, Sandor was driven to self-publish countless books and booklets, including poetry and his letters to newspaper editors. He doesn’t appear to have had any connections, or success, but nobody has seriously suggested that his work ‘makes the grade’.

The appreciation of any art is subjective, but in defining Outsider Literature a certain quality threshold is required, unless the writing is to simply be laughed at. This would suggest that Outsider Literature should exclude an author like the Irishwoman Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), who published at her own expense and who is described by the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature as ‘Uniquely dreadful’. She might be seen as the literary equivalent of the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919) whose major self-published work presented the theory that man is descended from frogs.

A better candidate might be the British writer Anna Kavan (1901-1968), but, despite a troubled life, she was published several times by the very reputable publishing house of Cape, which, surely, makes her a literary establishment insider. Kavan is a good example of the problem facing Outsider Artists generally — they are often associated with unconventional life-styles, left-field ideas, elaborate fantasy lives and sometimes serious mental health problems. This gives rise to the suspicion that the writers/artists and their problems are more important than their work, and that there is a ‘freak show’ element to any interest in them.

The Pepsi-Cola Addict
by June Allison Gibbons, for example, is a self published novel that sells (if you can find a copy) for a very high price, but interest in the book stems mainly from the fact that its author was one of the ‘silent twins’ who were sentenced to indefinite detention in Broadmoor Hospital (for a few petty crimes) purely because of the girls’ refusal to communicate with others. By any standards, The Pepsi-Cola Addict is not very good, and surely the writing needs to be more important than the story of the writer (no matter how related these are.)

The authors above fulfil certain requirements of Outsider Writing, although not all of them. It is tempting to allow some leeway, not least in terms of the desire for publication. A compromise might be to allow within the classification books that are self- or vanity-published.

All of the above authors have had the term Outsider applied to them retrospectively by third parties, but what should we make of contemporary authors who claim, themselves, to be Outsiders? I am inclined to believe that an ambition to be an Outsider Writer is one of the qualities that should preclude inclusion within the classification.

I have come to few definite conclusions about the validity of the terms Outsider Writer or Outsider Writing, not least because there are some potential candidates who appear to break all the rules. A case in point may be Colin Wilson himself, whose book The Outsider is in some ways a progenitor of the nascent Outsider Writing movement. Famously, The Outsider was written in the British Museum Reading Room at a time when Wilson was sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but publication by Gollancz, critical acclaim and best-seller status brought him firmly within the precincts of the literary establishment. (For a short time he was considered one of the ‘angry young men’, alongside John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.)

However, Wilson’s career thereafter saw him move slowly into Outsider territory. He was driven to write and was widely-published, but fiction and non-fiction on subjects such as true crime, mysticism and the paranormal damaged his reputation as literary critic and philosopher. Books such as The Occult, A Historyy (1971) sold very well, but the critics generally disliked his work — Philip Toynbee described Wilson as ‘much battered by reviewers’. Critics have even gone back to find fault with The Outsider. Colin Wilson was slowly pushed to the margins, published by more and more specialist and esoteric publishers, and by the end of his life in 2013 he had become a cult figure, as far from the establishment as can be imagined.

To be taken seriously, Outsider Writing must establish what its requirements are. But, perhaps, its own rules will have to be broken, especially by genuine Outsiders.

R B Russell

Monday, June 17, 2019

Guest Post - Outsider Literature, Part 1, by R B Russell

A few years ago any use of the term Outsider with reference to literature would probably have been an allusion to Albert Camus and his 1942 novel L’Étranger, often translated as The Outsider, or to Colin Wilson’s 1956 study of existentialist literature of the same title which explored the idea of outsiders and their place in society. Of course, definitions vary widely, and outsiders have featured in all forms of writing down the ages, but Outsider Literature has recently become a term that some have applied not to characters or themes in books, but to certain authors.

One blog online has a post about Outsider fiction that describes it as: ‘. . . a cool new genre that we’re hoping will take the world by storm' (, 12th August 2014). Lyndall Gordon’s book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (2017), was widely reviewed and has led to some discussion of what really constitutes Outsiders. (After all, three of the writers—Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf—were well-published in their time.)

Of more interest to readers and collectors of genre or non-mainstream writing is the use of the term Outsider with reference to curious books from the past that have gone unappreciated, especially when their authors have often lived non-conventional lives. Wormwood contributor Adam Daly has recently published two volumes of The Outsider-writer with The Paupers' Press, containing essays about authors whose obvious similarity is simply that they are not well-known in the mainstream. The term Outsider Writer is applied on Wikipedia to Jean-Pierre Brisset, although it does not yet hyper-link to a dedicated entry on the subject. However, an Outsider Literature/Writer page is inevitably on its way . . .

These different applications of the terms Outsider Literature or Outsider Writer appears to have been inspired, in part, by the Outsider Art movement, which has become a successful marketing tool promoted by specialist galleries, art fairs and magazines, and while it is still contentious, it has become widely accepted. It would appear to be a good model for assessing what constitutes an Outsider in literature, and it is worth offering a little background.

Outsider Art was a term first used by the critic Roger Cardinal (Outsider Art, Praeger Publishers, 1972) when searching for a synonym for Art Brut (itself coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet (‘Place à l’incivisme’, Art and Text, No. 27, December 1987–February 1988, p. 36), referring to art undertaken outside the purview of the art establishment. Dubuffet provided a definition of ‘art brut’ that is instructive, recognising only:

‘Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.’

Dubuffet argued that true art brut was ‘more precious than the productions of professionals,’ and the idea was taken up by the Outsider Art movement. However, appreciation of all art is to some degree subjective and the movement claims to be at pains to keep itself free of artists who have simply failed to make the grade. In the tradition of the established art world, certain respected galleries and critics have become gatekeepers, but that is itself problematic: it can be argued that the very term Outsider Art when conferred by this new establishment offers recognition to favoured artists and must therefore mean they have been gathered ‘inside’.

Outsider Literature does not yet have its gatekeepers, although there are some commentators, collectors, and book dealers who are beginning to recognise the classification. There is, as yet, no manifesto or definition, but, perhaps Outsider Literature can take its cues from Outsider Art (while recognising that they are not completely analogous—for example, the long tradition of Art Schools is not replicated in contemporary creative writing classes.)

One celebrated Outsider Artist who should be able to help us define the Outsider Writer is Henry Darger (1892-1973), because his drawings and watercolour paintings illustrate his posthumously discovered fantasy manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls . . . —if he was an Outsider Artist, then he must also have been an Outsider Writer. Another recognised Outsider Artist who also wrote is Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), and the examples of Darger and Wölfli suggests that the Outsider Writer should be defined by work that is self-taught (naïve), driven by a deep-seated need to write rather than publish, and it should not have been recognised by the literary establishment at the time of composition.

In addition to these considerations, to be taken at all seriously as a classification, Outsider Writing should be at pains to be like the Outsider Art movement and keep itself free from writers who simply fail to make the grade.

(Part Two of this blog post will consider a number of writers who might be considered Outsiders.)

R B Russell

Monday, June 10, 2019

Faunus - Arthur Machen Essay Prizes

The Friends of Arthur Machen have announced a competition for essays on Machen submitted to their journal, Faunus. There will be a £200 prize for the best essay, and two runner-up prizes of £100 each. All three prizes will also include a year's free membership of the Friends. It is open to non-members: anyone except Committee members of the Friends may contribute.

Essays should be a minimum of 4000 words, and may concern any subject likely to be of serious interest to members. The Faunus Editors, James Machin and Timothy Jarvis, will be the judges, and submissions should be made to:

faunus(dot)editor(at)gmail(dot)com (replacing the words in brackets by the relevant symbols)


Saturday, June 8, 2019

The True Story of Lord Jim - Petronella Elphinstone

Turnstile One (1948), edited by V S Pritchett is an anthology of contributions to the New Statesman and Nation, mostly from 1931 onwards. It contains, under ‘Essays and Reviews’, a piece entitled ‘Tuan Jim’ by Petronella Elphinstone, from 1932.

This is an unusual piece of Conradiana. The five page sketch is an alternative version of Lord Jim (1900) in which the title character did not, as in the original story, abandon a ship full of pilgrims, but instead steered it safely into port, won praise for his coolness, continued his career in the merchant navy, and eventually settled on shore to run a ship’s chandler’s. It concludes, ‘This is the true story of Tuan Jim, as told me by himself.’ It is very nicely done.

The mystery is, who was the author? There is no Petronella Elphinstone in the catalogues of the major public libraries, so she probably never published a book. Her surname is that of an eminent line of Scottish nobles: but she does not seem to appear in the extensive peerage records for that house.

Her name, however, does occur in an unexpected context. A poem by Guy Davenport, ‘The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard’, on Stanley Spencer’s celebrated painting of that scene (1924-7), lists in resonant phrases some of the supposed figures emerging from their graves. It includes the beautiful lines: ‘In pleated light and diamond bone/Comes Petronella Elphinstone.’

Most of the other characters in Davenport’s poem are well-known: they include the Tudor judge Sir Edward Coke; Karl Marx; John Ruskin; and Edward Lear. But no annotator, to my knowledge, is able to explain where he got the name of Petronella Elphinstone. Spencer’s painting does include portraits of some friends and contemporaries, and possibly Elphinstone was one of these. Or perhaps Davenport had read the New Statesman piece or some similar literary work and decided to make use of the author’s memorable name in his poem.

I have a feeling I am missing something obvious either about the author or her enjoyable piece of Conradiana. Any information or speculation will be welcome.


Monday, June 3, 2019

Carcosa Revisited

In the early 1980s, I discovered to my liking a number of recently published stories bylined "Galad Elflandsson." I'm not sure which exact story I first encountered, but it seems likely to have been "Night Rider on a Pale Horse," published in The Phoenix Tree (1980), edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski.  The blurb about the author told me of other stories to look for, in various (often Canadian) small press magazines, and also of the short novel The Black Wolf, published by Donald M. Grant in 1979, and illustrated by Randy Broecker.  I picked up the stories as I could find them, exchanged several letters with the author (who kindly supplied more information and more stories), and I looked forward to more publications in the future. But around 1987 Elflandsson ceased writing and publishing.

One of his early projects had been a series of stories (and a few poems) based on Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow.  He had submitted the collection to Donald M. Grant in 1978, and from it Grant asked him to rewrite and expand one longer story, "The Cave of the Hill Beast." Minus the Carcosa references, and adding some Lovecraftian ones, it became The Black Wolf.  Some of the other Carcosa tales appeared in various magazines.

Late last year, Graeme Phillips with his Cyaegha Press resurrected most of the Carcosa tales in an elegant trade paperback volume, Tales of Carcosa, with a cover and interior illustrations by Steve Lines.  It contains two poems and five stories (one a previously unpublished short, "An Augury") and a new "Afterword" by the author.  The edition is small (four lettered and fifty numbered copies), so act quickly if you are interested.  There is no web page specifically for Tales of Carcosa, but the Cyaegha magazine web page (hosted at Glynn Owen Barrass's Strange Aeons site), with contact email for Cyaegha in the short introductory paragraph, can be found here.  Send Graeme an email for ordering details. 

Update 6/28/19: Tales of Carcosa is now officially out of print.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Guest Post - 'The Dangers of Nostalgia' by R B Russell

Nostalgia is not necessarily one of the worst vices. It is possible to fondly recall aspects of the past without resorting to romanticism and inaccuracy. In book collecting, nostalgia often manifests itself in re-acquiring much-loved volumes from childhood, which means that the most avid collectors of children’s books are often adults. However, ‘nostalgia’ isn’t quite the word to describe grown-ups buying children’s books that they never owned or read themselves. Perhaps this phenomenon deserves another name? The Brazilian/Portuguese ‘Saudade’ comes close (a melancholic longing for something absent), as does the German ‘Sehnsucht’ (a yearning for an ideal, alternative experience), but neither are quite adequate.

I understand the power of nostalgia: re-reading the blurb from an Armada paperback edition of one of Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings and Derbyshire’ books is enough to transport me into the past—to the pleasures of sitting in my bedroom on sunny summer days when I should have been outside playing. However, re-reading such books usually fails to recreate for me any of the pleasure I experienced as a child—exposing villains with the Five Find Outers and the Hardy Boys, or going on adventures in foreign lands with Biggles.

Among the books I had as a young teenager I can still re-read Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ books with (a guilty) pleasure, but Leslie Charteris’ ‘Saint’ books now seem terribly dated. Likewise, H.P. Lovecraft’s overwritten stories do not hold my interest as they once did, although the cover art on those Panther and Ballantine paperbacks still promises eldritch horrors. How, though, did I ever read the appalling ‘John Carter of Mars’ books by Edgar Rice Burroughs? (Perhaps, the cover art was an incentive.)

Some of the books of my childhood have come back to me through my family, and I am pleased to give up a little precious shelf space for Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars by Terrance Dicks and The Tomorrow People in The Visitor by Roger Price and Julia Gregory. To make sure they don’t lose their power, I don’t attempt to read them. They are all later printings of tatty paperbacks and have no value to collectors, but I can’t see the point in upgrading them to pristine first editions (in dust jackets, where appropriate.) To do so would be to own copies of books that were not really a part of my history—it was those particular paperbacks that I knew and loved.

At book fairs I often see copies of old Rupert annuals that I had as a child. I occasionally flick through them, receive the nostalgic ‘hit’, and replace them on the shelf. (I know that dealers are annoyed by customers doing this!) One good reason for not buying them is the price, but I have noticed that they are not quite as expensive as they once were. There also seem to be more examples on offer. Perhaps they are going the way of books and comics by Frank Richards.

When I first started compiling my Guide to First Edition Prices in 1996, I valued Richards’ ‘Bunter’ books at between £20 and £75, and was immediately taken to task by a number of dealers who said I had undervalued them. (The Times Literary Supplement called me ‘Parsimonious Russell’ in a review.) Perhaps the Bunter books were usually priced a little higher by dealers than I had suggested, but over the various editions of the Guide, dealers admitted to me that Richards’ books were becoming more and more difficult to sell because those who remembered them from their youth were becoming increasingly elderly. Not only was the demand diminishing as collectors died, but the supply was increasing as their collections were sold by uninterested heirs.

Prices have continued to increase for serious rarities by Richards in pristine jackets, presumably by collectors nostalgic for a childhood they never experienced, but those collectors can expect to cut a better deal now that much of the committed competition has left the scene. Basic economics ought to mean a fall in prices, but dealers are always unwilling to reduce the pencilled price on the front free endpaper, even though a book may have been on the shelves for year after year.

Until recently even later issues of Rupert annuals were commanding a great deal of money, but the market is not what it was. Despite periodic and half-hearted revivals, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are not collected like they used to be. Next to fall in value will be early issues of 2000AD comics. (For over a decade Prog. 1 has been stuck at a value of £100 for the first issue—with the free ‘space spinner’, of course.)

Nostalgia is all very well, especially for those who can afford it, but it is a dangerous investment. The most financially rewarding answer is to invest in books that have more than just a nostalgia value, but collecting children’s books is about a sense of wonder and excitement that has little to do with literary merit or cultural significance. Their qualities cannot be easily defined, and it is impossible to put a monetary value on their importance to us. However, if you really want to indulge, a dealer will always have a specific price in mind. Just remember to point out the jam stain on the boards, the gift inscription on the title page, and the fact that the word-search has been inexpertly filled-in. Considering these faults, the dealer ought to knock off at least ten percent.

R B Russell