Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Count Stenbock in the TLS

It's nice when mainstream reviews like the TLS pay some attention to our small corner of the literary world, and nicer when they sincerely appreciate a landmark volume of the weird. This has happened in a recent issue of the TLS, with Kate Hext's review of Of Kings and Things by Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock. Published by Strange Attractor and magnificently edited by David Tibet, it collects the bulk of Stenbocks known literary output, comprising some fifteen stories and over thirty poems, and an essay and a play.  A number of these were available previously only in limited edition fine press volumes, so it is especially good to have an affordable assembly in one volume, with an introduction of about thirty pages (amply illustrated with photos and manuscript writings) by Tibet, and an afterword by Timothy d'Arch Smith.

The TLS review begins:
The life of Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock was short and enigmatic. Born into the European aristocracy in 1860, he spent his early life in England and Germany. By the mid-1880s he was an Oxford dropout: living off his vast inheritance while writing poems and stories, with a pet monkey in the crook of his arm and a snake draped about his neck. In the 1890s opium took hold; he died aged thirty-five in 1895, earning his place in the “Tragic Generation”.

Though now almost forgotten, Stenbock was arguably “the most decadent of the decadents”, as David Tibet suggests in his introduction to this new and most welcome volume of his work, Of Kings and Things. Actually, Stenbock’s seeming embodiment of the decadent as author belies his singularity. Almost always, as with Oscar Wilde, this image is a carefully cultivated sham: a languid pose masking industry and ambition, not to mention a want of capital. Whereas Stenbock seems to have been the genuine article, drinking only champagne and bruning bank notes if they became soiled. (23 & 30 August 2019, p. 5)

Of Kings and Things is available in both the UK ( link) and in the US (distributed by The MIT Press; link).  This is one of the most essential volumes of the year.


  1. FWIW: I wrote briefly about "Of Kings and Things" last December in the Washington Post, in a kind of 1890s round-up review, along with the Tartarus edition of The Quest for Corvo, the Grolier Club catalogue of an A.J.A. Symons exhibition, a biography of artist Pamela Colman Smith (of Rider-Waite Tarot fame), Nina Antonia's life of Lionel Johnson, and James Machin's Weird Fiction in Britain,1880-1930.
    Obviously, none of these books could get more than a paragraph or two--the Post is exigent about 975 words being my limit. Since I write for a newspaper audience, I can't expect any of these writers and artists to be known to my readers, so I do try to make their work sound enticing. It can be frustrating when I'd like to write more or more deeply. Anyway, here is what I said about Stenbock:

    What can one say about the decadent’s decadent, Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock?
    At last his poetry and prose — never easy to find — is readily available in “Of Kings and
    Things,” edited by David Tibet and published, again, by Strange Attractor Press.
    Stenbock was an Estonian aristocrat, educated at Oxford, homosexual yet devoutly
    Catholic, and a seriously addicted opium-eater. His work comprises the morbid and
    romantic stories collected as “Studies of Death,” a dark fairy tale of blue flowers and
    E.T.A. Hoffmannesque transformations called “The Other Side,” and three volumes of
    melancholy verse:

    Eyes! That I dared not look to,
    Lips! That I dared not touch—
    Would you pray for me a little,
    Who prayed for you so much?

    Stenbock’s most anthologized prose work, “The Story of a Vampire,” is less a tale
    of terror than an oblique description of a homosexual or Uranian—the period’s preferred
    term--Liebestod: the tormented Count Vardalek must kill the thing he loves, the faun-like
    boy Gabriel. Just before his own death at 35, Stenbock was said to travel with a child-
    sized wooden doll which he treated as if it were human and referred to lovingly as his son
    and heir.

  2. Sad that Michael says "a newspaper audience" can't be expected to have heard of Stenbock and other decadents. It may well be true, of course, but it is worrying that we've grown to accept that those who read the MSM are likely uncultured drones.