Tuesday, September 29, 2020

St Clair Harnett’s 'The Chain of Ob'


In the opening of The Chain of Ob (Andrew Melrose, 1913) by St Clair Harnett, two Chelsea bohemians travel to a remote Cornish ruin one of them has inherited, a cobweb-hung hall with creaking doors, mildewed furnishings and vast shadows. The farmer who takes them there through narrow lanes as dusk approaches admits that “they do say as how” it is haunted, and is anxious to be away. This is the sort of beginning to a supernatural yarn that I really relish, and things continue to be splendidly rustling and creepy.

They are told by a nearby cottage goodwife: “There’s a very wicked woman in that ‘ouse!”. This irresistibly makes you picture Leslie Phillips stroking his toothbrush moustache and murmuring, 'Ding dong!' in suave tones, but it's not quite that kind of book. It emerges the place is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a witch. The pair discover a portrait which one of them, a connoisseur, recognises as by the 17th century court painter Peter Lely. It depicts “a female form in shimmering satins stood before a sylvan scene of rocks and greenery.” The face is haunting. “Was there,” asks our hero, “some link between those painted eyes, those canvas lips, and that strange sympathy that floated round me in the darkness of this house?”

Reader, there was, and before you know it the narrator has time-slipped into the 17th century and encounters this beautiful witch. Here he learns that “there are divers souls that are ever subjected to unseen powers. When they are born they bear a badge upon their persons, the Chain of Ob.” He too bears the symbol. He continues to cross over between his contemporary time and the era of his spectral lover, as they both try to avoid the baleful influence of the mark upon them.

There was in the interwar period a cluster of enjoyable novels about timeslips, such as Fanfaronade (1934) by Ivo Pakenham and Lovers’ Meeting (1940) by Eleanor Smith. But The Chain of Ob seems to be a quite early example, and is very satisfyingly full-blooded. You have the sense the author was enjoying it to the full and this engages the reader. In some ways, in both its theme and its somewhat artless style, the novel is quite like Lord Kilmarnock’s Ferelith (1903).

Air Commodore Edward St Clair Harnett (b. 1881) served in the RAF in Iraq in WW1 where he knew Gertrude Bell: he wrote an article, "Gertrude Bell and the Iraq Museum" in Views and Reviews, Vol.22 No.3, 1927-1928, In civilian life he was a barrister who wrote, under his full name, A Handbook on the Law of Mortgages (1909): we are reminded that Bram Stoker was also the author of a legal textbook.

An earlier novel, Rusted Hinges, A Novel On a New Plan (Andrew Melrose, 1912), is also about lives connected across time (that is apparently the ‘new plan' element of it). A third and apparently final novel under his name, The House of a Thousand Lamps (Selwyn & Blount, 1927), is set in Baghdad and seems to have mystical elements.

Harnett's first wife, Dorothy Grace Harnett (b. Co. Cavan, ca. 1891) wrote as “D. G. Waring” a series of eight novels in the 1930s, giving rise to the suspicion (I forget where I read this) that she may have written her husband’s books too. She served in the Red Cross during the First World War and they married on 15 April 1916. But in fact St Clair Harnett’s first two novels were published a few years before they were married, and presumably written even earlier, when she was 21 or younger: so while still possible, this does not seem likely. They might, of course, have collaborated in some way.

The couple had one son, Denis Henry Waring (1917–1964), but the marriage ended some years later, and in 1927 St Clair Harnett remarried. He donated to Birmingham City Museum forty two Near Eastern seals collected in Baghdad and died c.1964-5 at the age of 83.

An unusual dimension to his career is that Harnett filed a patent application on 21 July 1910 for a board game based on horse-racing, which he described as follows:

“A race game, which may be used for advertising, is played with model horses which are moved over a board (a), divided into a number of spaces (d) representing the course, two or more spaces (y), (h), and other spaces (i) marked with the odds against the pieces in use. The names of the pieces are shown in spaces (m), and other spaces (n) may be provided for the reception of the cards to be dealt to each piece.

The number of spaces (d) over which each piece has to travel to reach the winning post varies with the odds against the piece. In playing the game, a player stakes counters on a piece, and each piece has a card dealt to it by the banker. The piece that receives the highest card is moved forward one space, and another hand of cards is dealt. The banker pays out counters to those players who have selected the winning pieces and colour according to the odds marked on the board. Portions of the front and back of the board may be utilized for advertising purposes.”

Although a variety of horse racing games involving cards or dice have been marketed, there does not seem to be one exactly like Harnett’s game. Clearly it is time for some enthusiastic amateurs to do a mock-up of the board and play the game for the first time, no doubt, in over a hundred years. Who knows whether as the cards fall and the toy horses move, there might be a queer flicker and the players will find themselves in evening dress, smoking Sullivans over a green baize table in that last Edwardian summer?

 (Mark Valentine)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Corduroy Velveteen Velvet


In an earlier post, I explained that most of my stories had been published in limited editions of about 300 because, not to put too fine a point on it, that seemed to be the extent of the readership for them.

However, some writing has achieved rather larger audiences. For a while I worked in a government publishing unit as what I suppose would be called a ‘technical’ author and editor, and during this period, c.1990, I was asked to write a leaflet explaining the importance of National Insurance numbers. These are the unique personal identifiers used for employment, taxation and social security purposes and it was felt that people didn’t quite realise how useful they were for getting business done with the various government services.

The slim pamphlet I came up with was printed in some 20,000 copies in just the first edition and I entitled it Not Just a Number, which was incidentally a sly allusion to the watchword ‘I Am Not a Number’ from the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. I was not unaware of the irony. It was printed in the corporate livery of blue and orange. I may have a copy somewhere, but otherwise I should think it unlikely any have been treasured, unless by collectors of public information ephemera.

There might be a collection worth pursuing of unexpected books by more celebrated authors. For example, when Eric Ambler began his career as a writer of top notch spy thrillers he was for a while short of money, so his publisher gave him some work editing a book in their ‘Teach Yourself’ series. Despite its theme—Clear Thinking—the volume, written by ‘a red-brick university don’ was (Ambler recalled) a ‘good book’ but a muddle. Although Ambler does not name the book, it was probably Teach Yourself to Think (1938) by R.W. Jepson, so this ghost-edited title is really part of Ambler’s bibliography.

William Gaddis (The Recognitions; Carpenter's Gothic etc) in his early days did technical writing to earn a living. The Letters of William Gaddis edited by Steven Moore (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) thus reveals that his second published book is strictly not the novel JR, but A Pile Fabric Primer: Corduroy, velveteen, velvet (Crompton-Richmond, New York, 1970).


Obviously, this was difficult to resist, and I was able to track down an ex library copy, discarded by The Art Institute of Dallas, where, sure enough, the small print on the copyright page confirms it was ‘edited by William Gaddis’.

‘Pile fabrics are distinguished from other textiles by their surface, an infinite number of threads standing erect from the foundation structure of the cloth like blades of grass in a well-kept lawn’ begins the section entitled ‘What Are Pile Fabrics?’, a not unreasonable question under the circumstances. 

An infinite number of threads! This sounds already like the evocation of a Gaddis novel. And what about that homely but somehow still slightly sinister image of the bristling well-kept lawn?

The secret of successful pile fabric production, we are several times told, in a somewhat Orwellian mantra, is ‘men, management, machinery.’ You can imagine it being chanted by the first of these components as they march into work or between the production lines. Or it might be the chorus to a piece by Cabaret Voltaire or Kraftwerk. We notice that it echoes the three word incantation of the sub-title too. All together now; Corduroy Velveteen Velvet|Corduroy Velveteen Velvet|Corduroy-

The ending of the 55 page primer opens out to a vision: ‘Even  the recent installation of electronic data-processing has done nothing to change this [men management machinery], though it does signal another important milestone on the long road that began in that hamlet called Stone Village in 1807, a road with still no end in sight.’

But it’s hard not to detect a Sisyphean sigh in those last words. 

(Mark Valentine)




Thursday, September 24, 2020

Strange Selectors

You know how some music makes you feel strongly nostalgic for something that never actually was? Not in your life, not in anybody’s, but still strangely real. Somehow certain music seems to be a soundscape to a whole set of encounters and experiences that have never yet happened but which seem to haunt your imagination. It’s as if there’s a set of episodes, as in a novel a story or a film, that you once participated in, and you seem to ‘remember’ the scenes quite deeply, and in fact you might even still be playing them out somewhere else than here, on some other plane.

I’m not talking here about the music that actually is nostalgic to you, the soundtrack to your life, the sunshine and rain songs of your youth, your love, your friendships, your holidays, your visions, maybe your angers and your joys and your sorrows. No: this is the music that comes from nowhere, that is new to you, and yet suddenly you are dreaming those scenes that never were.

It doesn’t have to be music played on the most obviously evocative instruments such as the cello, piano, cor anglais, acoustic guitar. And I guess we all get triggered differently. The most recent perpetrators of it for me emanate from a new Edinburgh label called Werra Foxma who offer what might be approximately described as ambient electronica with a hauntological quality, as heard, for example, in their recent release of The Loop Union's Serendipity album.

Their sound is a bit more nova- futuristic than the retro-futuristic sound of, say, Ghost Box: situated perhaps somewhat later than the vintage 60s/70s SF mood of the latter label. More Blade-Runner than Quatermass.

The earlier Werra Foxma releases were mostly for download but with a few highly limited CDs. But if you want to get a sense of their style, they’ve just released Strange Selectors, a compilation album of tracks by 16 various artists, all of them absolutely worth getting to know.

I once had a K-Tel album in the 70s called (22) Electrifying Hits, not all of which (such was the way of such budget jamborees) were in fact hits nor indeed all that electrifying. But Electrifying Hits would be a good tongue-in-cheek sub-title for Strange Selectors. It comes with collectors’ cards and stickers too:  and the proceeds go to Médecins Sans Frontières. It’s in a limited edition of 100. Seems to me like it could be the perfect soundtrack for your journey out to metaphysical adventures.

 (Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Night-Cap on Chanctonbury

The Mysteries of Arthur J Rees 

Arthur J Rees was the author of 22 books, all in the period 1913-40. Most of them are thrillers, often with a macabre or supernatural dimension. But usually the apparently unearthly turns out to be a false lead, or is not focal to the plot: though in some a certain amount of doubt is left, and in others the uncanny is more fully in play.

The books make good use of local folklore and singular history. Some are set in Sussex, where Rees lived in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, beneath the crests of legend-haunted Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings: but there are also atmospheric settings in Norfolk, Cornwall and Wales. A few titles will give a flavour of his work: The Shrieking Pit; The Hand in the Dark; The Threshold of Fear; Cup of Silence.

Not all of his books are thrillers. His first, The Merry Marauders (1913) is a light-hearted tale about a theatre company touring New Zealand. He also wrote romances, and compiled a book of passages from Sussex diaries. Two of his early books were written in collaboration with a John Reay Watson, about whom even less is known than about him.

Rees has somehow mostly evaded recognition and revival, possibly because his books can be a bit over-long, or because they do not always involve pure crime and detection, as some aficionados prefer. For a while his books were not too difficult to find second-hand, but recently there has been a moderate increase in interest in them.

A few years ago, a local historian recorded some memories of Rees from a resident who had known him when she was young. He lived with his wife in the hamlet of Nepcote, near the village of Findon, four miles north of Worthing, West Sussex. His bungalow, Nettledown, was on the lane leading to the ancient hill-fort of Cissbury Ring. It was in fact not much more than a shanty, with wooden walls and a corrugated iron roof that used to resound heavily whenever rain fell, matched only by the clatter of his typewriter as he worked assiduously at his books. After a hard day’s work, Rees would take a ‘constitutional’, over the downs. His home has long since been demolished and the property incorporated into the garden of another house, Thistledown.

Rees clearly had a genuine interest in the landscape and lore of the Sussex downland, and further afield. He describes sinister terrain with real gusto and can invoke foul weather with dark allure. In Cup of Silence: A Romance of the South Downs (1924) we are told that when clouds settle on the top of the ring of trees on its summit, the shepherds say it is “Chanctonbury putting on its night-cap,” an omen of bad weather: and the storm that follows in the book is vigorously evoked. In a short preface, Rees notes that “the hand of man has already wrought its changes upon a part of the downs” in the story, adding that modernity may yet “finally invade and destroy the inviolateness of the downs around Cissbury and Chanctonbury, which as yet remain the “cup of silence” of the story and the dream country of the book.”

Researcher Sean Williams compiled as much information as he could about Rees from various sources  in a 2009 post. As this shows, even in the age of the internet it can be hard to trace definite details about a figure whose work has been long out of the limelight: sometimes even basic facts are contradictory and there remain gaps.

Arthur John Rees was probably born on 23 September 1872 in St Kilda, Victoria, Australia, but other years have been given. He seems to have worked as a journalist on Australian and New Zealand newspapers, then emigrated to England and continued in the trade in London. As an Australian, he would not have been subject to conscription in WW1, and he probably carried on as a working writer. At some point he moved to Findon and his later years were spent at nearby Worthing, where he died on 22 November, 1942. His age was then given as 67. 

Rees wrote on average one book a year, mostly for John Lane, but occasionally for other well-established houses such as Heinemann and Hutchinson. Some were translated for French, Italian and German editions, evidence of their wider attraction. His books have the melodramatic and improbable staples enjoyed by readers of the day. In Cup of Silence, for example, we have two orphans, two sets of dying words, a sea voyage, a lost inheritance, a mysterious heirloom, the glimpse of a possible spectre, a light seen at night in a ruined house, and a thundering great storm, all in the first forty pages.

He evidently understood the appeal of the strange and supernatural to readers. The Threshold of Fear (1925), sub-titled A Sober Fantasy starts with a demobbed officer from the Great War out of work and out of funds, who answers an enigmatic advertisement in The Times for a chauffeur. This type of situation is quite common in Buchanesque thrillers and adventures of the post-WWI period: it reflected the acute reality of widespread unemployment.

The client is an invalid young man, a recluse in the far west, at St Bree, “the loneliest and highest place in Cornwall, where four parishes meet by a holed stone, and all slope down to the moors and the sea”. The protagonist knows Cornwall, and reflects on “the last stronghold of Ancient Britain”, with its “cromlechs, logan stones, black cairns and giants’ caves.” Rees evokes the lonely, brooding country well, and builds up the mystery about the sensitive patient, who only emerge in darkness and will not allow himself to be seen. He is driven across the moors at night to walk on the shore.

The book takes a surprising turn when the chaffeur wins the confidence of his passenger, a war veteran  like himself, and learns that his condition was caused by experiences in an expedition to “one of the last unexplored areas of the world”, deep in Peru. It seems likely that this theme was inspired by the contemporary expeditions of Colonel Percy Fawcett in search of a pre-Inca civilisation.

Arthur J Rees’ yarns have the positive qualities to be expected from a busy professional writer: they are pacy, colourful, full of twists and turns, with satisfying heroes and villains. Since the supernatural events are mostly rationalised, his books do not exactly fit the “metaphysical thriller” form, and in any case the thriller element is much more to the fore than any metaphysics.

However, his inscription in my copy of Cup of Silence may suggest another dimension to his character. This is dated ‘Findon, Sussex, 1925’: “To The Very Reverend Dom Wilfred Upson OSB/Prior of Caldey/With the Author’s affectionate/remembrances and regards.” Caldey was a Benedictine community on an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

The copy also has the bookplate of the library at Prinknash, Gloucestershire, where the community moved in 1928. Upson (1880-1963) was from 1938 the first Abbot of Prinknash. We do not know how Rees made his acquaintance but this and occasional clues in his books perhaps suggest that he had a deeper interest in the mystical than simply as a vivid backcloth for his books. 

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Old Sarum

There is a good deal of interest to be found in old guide-books to ancient monuments, and in particular those issued for the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and its successors by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, in roughly the period 1950 to 1980. 
(One of my stories in Powers and Presences (Sarob Press) features a clerk who works in this Ministry: it’s non-stop glamour in my tales.)
These monographs, usually sold from ticket offices by stalwart custodians, were written in a brisk and breezy, uncompromising style by authors who were often redoubtable local antiquaries. Their task was public education, and they tackled it with zest. 

I acquired some of these during my assiduous visits to ancient monuments from the mid Seventies onwards, in the days when they usually were still staffed, often by ex-servicemen with a sort of on-parade air about them. I thought then that this must be quite an enjoyable job, especially at one of the less popular or more remote sites. Though it would hardly be well-paid, there would no doubt be plenty of time for rumination and reading. However, these modern castellans also often doubled as groundsmen, mowing the lawns, weeding, litter-picking, carrying out minor repairs. 

I remember once walking one hot shadeless day in the far west of Cornwall to the remains of a prehistoric village far from any main road and only found by many winding byways. I expected there might be informative sign-boards and not much else. But even here there was a lonely wooden cabin with a custodian, who seemed a bit like a signalman in his box among the birdsong on a quiet branch line. I hadn’t thought much about where to eat or drink and there had been no pub or café on the way. The sympathetic keeper in his kiosk made me a cup of tea and sold me a slab of souvenir chocolate. 

A good example to hand is the 1965 guide (4th impression, 1971) to Old Sarum, the original site of the city of Salisbury. This seems to have been part of an experiment to have more colourful covers: they were usually a regulation plain blue, with a touch of the RAF hue. On this one, however, a flourish of cirrus clouds hovering above the silhouetted citadel almost seems to suggest aery sigils. 

The impressive-sounding name of the author is augmented by a reassuring string of scholarly initials: H. de S. Shortt M.A., F.S.A., F.R.N.S. Hugh de Sausmarez Shortt also wrote The Giant and Hob-Nob, under the perhaps understandably abbreviated name Hugh Shortt, issued by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum in 1972, and in a revised edition by other hands ten years later. I should imagine it is a child’s guide to local antiquities. Another publication the same year was Salisbury: A New Approach to the City and Its Neighbourhood, ‘with photographs by Sir Cecil Beaton’, which might make it a bit collectible. 

I only had to turn to the verso of the front cover of the HMSO guide before I came upon an alluring phrase: ‘The key to the lapidarium, which contains the stones mentioned on pages 5, 22 and 40 may be obtained from the custodian on duty in the ticket office.’ In the first place, The Key to the Lapidarium undoubtedly sounds like it ought to be the title of a late Victorian thriller. And secondly, you at once want to know about those stones. They turn out to include gargoyles with bulging eyes, cat-eared humans, and various grotesques with impressive rows of teeth. 

Because of its long history, Old Sarum gets quite a staunch guide, of some 50 pages. The chronology and archaeology of the site is carefully explained, with just sufficient glinting detail to ensure the account is not too dry: coins of Cunobelin (though suspicious); the gold ring of Ethelwulf of Wessex; the effigy of Bishop Jocelin; the stained glass window of the angel appearing to Zacharias; the porphyry paving imported from Italy; the old leper hospital. You feel as though you are wandering among notes made by M R James for stories still to write. 

The map at the back of the book showing Old Sarum in its neighbourhood has a range of place names all of which sound like the titles of songs from a semi-forgotten folk-rock album: Figsbury Ring, Grovely Wood, River Nadder, Ackling Dyke. I can almost hear the tunes and imagine the lyrics, full of allusions to pagan rites, shape-shifting and fairy ceremonies: ‘As I walked out on Figsbury Ring/I thought I heard the Good Folk sing’ and so forth. 

Moreover, earlier in the text, after explaining the various ancient routes to the old city, Mr de S. Shortt tells us: ‘A fourth road reaches Grovely Wood to the west from the Severn via the lead mines, so important to the Romans, in the Mendips. But it is lost in the wood and no one has ever traced its course over the last four miles to Old Sarum’. Lost in the wood! Never discovered! Who could resist such a thrilling mystery? It reminds me of a very beguiling book I found in Ross-on-Wye, A Lost Roman Road, A Reconnaissance in the West Country, by Bernard Berry (1963), the quest for a missing route between Bath and the Dorset coast. 

A slight disappointment is that there is only a paragraph or so about Old Sarum’s role as a Rotten Borough. The site began to diminish in the 13th century when a new cathedral was built in the plain, and by Tudor times there was said to be not one dwelling there. Despite this, it continued to send representatives to Parliament until the Great Reform Act of 1832: William Pitt the Elder was one of its MPs. The elections were held under a venerable Parliament Tree, alas ‘cut down in 1905’ says the guide. I’d like to think souvenirs were made from its ancient wood. Perhaps when polished in the right way on a quarter day they might emit the spirit of a Wise Statesman with sage advice.

The Old Sarum monograph seems to me to possess much of arcane interest and fortified me in my notion that such guides are well worth perusing.

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020


One hundred years ago today, on 16 September 1920, the most remarkable novel of the twentieth-century was published by Methuen of London:  A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay.  The recognition of this novel's special qualities was slow to come. It was not reprinted until 1946, the year after its author's death.  

In the August 1946 reprint, publisher Victor Gollancz noted that "of the small [first] edition that was printed, 596 copies were sold and 834 'remaindered'."   The statement is nearly correct, but it has often been misinterpreted to imply that the first edition sold only 596 copies, and no more.  Methuen initially printed 2500 sheets, but only ordered 1000 to be bound.  The book sold so minimally that by February of 1921 Methuen wasted 1000 copies of the sheets, and the other copies were bound up and sold over the next five years.  In all, 1,500 copies of the first edition were sold before the book went out of print. 

Victor Gollancz reprinted another new edition in June 1963, and finally the first American edition was published by Macmillan in October 1963, but for this edition the entire novel was line-edited, resulting in thousands of changes to Lindsay's text, ranging from re-punctuation on to alterations of more significant words and phrases. Unfortunately this corrupted text became the base text used by many publishers, in England as well as in America.  The corrupt text also turned up on the internet, and as a result most of the reprints done over the last few decades replicate the flawed text.

The first paperback edition came from Ballantine Books. It had five printings in the US through 1977 (two with the Unicorn masthead of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series), and two printings in the UK from Pan/Ballantine in 1972 and 1974.  A further UK printing from Sphere appeared in 1980.  

The novel began to receive real recognition in the 1960s, following a radio dramatization that had been done on the BBC in 1956. Since then, it was made into a student film by Bill Holloway in the early 1970s (watch it here, where it is misdated to 1979); appeared as an opera in Los Angeles in 1985; and last year was made into a strange heavy metal musical in Australia (see the website here). [For more on Bill Holloway, see this old Worwoodiana post here.]

Here follows a cover gallery of some of the editions of A Voyage to Arcturus

The first edition. Image from L.W. Currey's listing here.

 The 1946 Gollancz edition.

The 1963 Gollancz edition.

The 1963 Macmillan edition.
The 1968 Ballantine edition. Art by Bob Pepper.


The 1980 Sphere edition. Art by Peter Jones.

Added (9/17/20):  The Texts in Various Editions of A Voyage to Arcturus

The Best text:

UK Methuen, 1920.  The only edition proofed by Lindsay himself.  I have noted six typos in the text. The US Gregg Press, 1977 edition is reproduced photographically from the 1920 original edition, and thus contains the exact same text.

Good text:
The text was reset for the UK Gollancz, 1946 edition. Inevitably, there were some minor alterations (e.g., in chapter one “She [Mrs. Jameson] received him gravely” is mistakenly altered to “She received him bravely”), but the text remains fairly sound. The UK Gollancz, 1963 edition is reproduced photographically from the 1946 edition, as are its reprints (1968, 1971 and 1978).  The US Citadel Press, 1985 edition is also photographed from a Gollancz text.

Other editions reset from the Gollancz edition include: the UK Canongate, 1992 (and a 1998 reprint); and the US University of Nebraska, 2002 edition.

Corrupted text.

The US Macmillan, 1963, edition was line-edited introducing many hundreds of changes throughout the novel.  Some are merely punctuational, but many are stylistic, altering words, phrases and word order.

This corrupted text has proliferated in many editions, including all five printings (1968-1977) of the (reset) US Ballantine Books edition; both printings (1972 and 1974) of the UK Pan/Ballantine edition; the UK Sphere, 1980 edition and the UK Allison & Busby, 1986 edition (which is in fact photographed from the Sphere resetting); the UK Savoy Books 2002 edition; the UK Fantasy Masterworks, 2003 edition; and the US Dover 2005 edition. Most POD editions use the corrupt text from the Gutenberg file.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Edwardian Esoterics

There has not, so far as I know, been any full study of the Metaphysical Thriller form. However, I was heartened to find, after I had formed my own sense of the field, one essay that had earlier noticed that these books belonged together. In the late Nineteen Forties the poet Peter Russell edited a quarterly magazine called Nine. It seems to have been a last flourish of the aesthetes and mystics against the kitchen sink realism which took over in the Fifties. Number Nine of Nine (Summer/Autumn 1952) included a long, thoughtful and well-informed essay on the novels of Charles Williams, by Antony Borrow. 

This begins by noting that, ‘In the last few decades a number of novelists have used a magical or supernatural background for purposes of spiritual allegory, as distinct from grotesquerie or deliberate arabesque, although that is often an ingredient.’ He then lists Mary Butts, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, David Lindsay, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. This was not far from the list I had at first come up with, though I have since added others. Borrow, an interesting figure of the Neo-Romantic movement of the Forties and after, did not, however, go on to study any of these authors other than Williams. 

Most of the authors of metaphysical thrillers all belonged to the same generation. They were typically born in a fifteen-year time-span from the mid-1880s to the early Edwardian period, most of them indeed within four or five years of each other. Some of them knew each other, or of each other, but I am not in the least suggesting they make up a movement, with organised aims: they are more illustrative of a tendency. Their childhood years were spent in the Victorian twilight, the fin-de-siecle, and their formative youth and early adulthood in the Edwardian first decade of the twentieth century, both periods now understood as having marked characteristics. Though their books mostly appeared in the interwar period, their outlook was formed in the new mood of the Edwardian era.

They include Charles Williams, born in 1886; Ronald Fraser, 1888; Claude Houghton, 1889; Michael Maurice, 1889; Dion Fortune, 1890; Mary Butts, 1890; John Metcalfe, 1891; Geoffrey Dennis, 1892; Muriel Jaeger, 1893; Gerald Bullett, 1893; J M A Mills, 1894; Edwin Greenwood, 1895; C S Lewis, 1898; Alfred Gordon Bennett, 1901; Lewis Grassic Gibbon 1901. They were also contemporaries with some of the more reflective crime fiction writers, who also grappled with problems of good and evil and sometimes used a mystical dimension, such as Dorothy L Sayers, 1893; Josephine Tey, 1896; and Margery Allingham, 1904. 

There were, of course, authors working in a field similar to this, born in a somewhat earlier period, the 1860s and 1870s, such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, May Sinclair, G K Chesterton, Evelyn Underhill. Although these were important precursors, they were not part of the same generation, and therefore culture, as the interwar group. However, David Lindsay and Walter de la Mare, though they belong chronologically to this earlier generation, did not publish their major work until later in life, and were therefore working in the same milieu as the later group. Borrow’s timescale, of books ‘in the last few decades’ before 1952, seems to be broadly right, but it also raises the question whether the form continued into the Forties and Fifties. I can’t yet think of many obvious examples but this seems worth a look. 

The background to the metaphysical thriller form was the growth of interest in beliefs other than those offered by the mainstream churches in Britain, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Non-conformist. This took many forms: an exploration of Eastern Religions, eg from India and China; new movements such as Spiritualism and Theosophy; artistic trends with mystical aspects such as Symbolism, Decadence or the Celtic Twilight. Some of these influences will be seen either subtly or overtly influencing the ideas explored in metaphysical thrillers. 

Others draw on the congeries of beliefs now known as the Western Mystery Tradition, a perspective or movement in ritual magic that draws on systems of symbols such as the Kabbalah, the Tarot, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, the Grail, Astrology and others. Williams, for example, used many of these in his books, as did Fortune. Some of these authors it is true, while rejecting the tepid conventionality of the churches, were attracted to the more ritualistic aspects of their ceremonies. They often came to this after first exploring the esoteric. 

Charles Williams, for example, was to become a High Church Anglican, but he developed some unusual ideas of his own and was earlier a member of orders practising ritual magic, the successors to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His latest biographer, Grevel Lindop, finds some evidence that Williams continued in esoteric orders alongside his theological work. This element in his life and work is sometimes considerably underplayed, even denied, by his more devout champions, but his thrillers are absolutely rich with occult ideas, and these are not always those of his villains. Some of the protagonists with whom he most sympathises, even identifies, are attracted to them too. 

Similarly, Mary Butts navigated to a High Church Anglican position under the influence of Hugh Ross Williamson and Father Bernard Walke, a priest in Cornwall, but she was earlier associated with Aleister Crowley’s occult orders, and indeed Crowley recognised that she taught him much: and she never abandoned her deep interest in esoteric ideas. Her journals frequently invoke the unorthodox (and indeed semi-pagan) symbol of the Grail. 

Not all of the ideas explored in these books can be precisely defined. Sometimes there is a form of nature-worship or pantheism, at others a kind of secular mysticism (the development of secular mysticism is another area that could do with further study). Perhaps there may be a sense sometimes, too, of the possibilities of the arts as a passageway to the unseen, especially music. Others are about the spiritual absence at the heart of our lives, and a consequent longing for, reaching out to, some experience or dimension other than the world we know. Sometimes other dimensions are elusive, just beyond reach: there is the sense of a brink, which we approach, but from which either we draw back, or which draws back from us. 

But what these books have in common, even if they use different symbols and argue for contrasting beliefs or ideas, is a keen questing imagination. These writers were not content to describe the outer reality of the world presented to them, but wanted to go beyond that. They were still, usually, interested in the lives of their fellow creatures, but they did not suppose those lives consisted only of their families, their jobs, their leisure (if they had any), their vices and their virtues. The authors of metaphysical thrillers thought that we move in a world which may reflect or refract a greater reality, and it was this and its profound effect on us that they wished to explore. 

Part 1 of this note was The Rise of the Metaphysical Thriller.

(Mark Valentine)


Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Rise of the Metaphysical Thriller

In the interwar years in Britain a new type of novel appeared that has not been much discussed as a form: the metaphysical thriller. Like most literary terms, this is not entirely satisfactory, but it conveys what is involved reasonably well. I originally thought of using the term ‘occult’ thriller, but I saw that the novelist and short story writer M John Harrison alluded to them as ‘metaphysical thrillers’, and this seemed a sound authority to follow. 

Other adjectives might also do: perhaps we might call them supernatural, mystical, magical, or spiritual thrillers. But the major characteristic of these books is that their authors wanted to discuss what to them were urgent questions about the nature of reality: and they wanted to use a popular form to do this. 

The combination of a metaphysical theme and a thriller format is unusual and may appear incongruous: but in fact it often works surprisingly well. Both parts of the term are important. These authors chose to use the thriller format mostly because it would appeal to larger numbers of readers than a theoretical work, but also sometimes because they needed the money. That was because they were not part of the mainstream, an important distinction; they were not in the church, did not have academic posts, were not journalistic or general men- or women-of-letters. 

Most of these authors were independent and original in their beliefs or else, where they were associated with an organised faith, they were unconventional. Some were for a while involved in occult or esoteric orders, and several went on to found their own, but mostly they were individual seekers and thinkers. Their spiritual work was largely unsponsored and to explore it and to express it they needed some form of income, which the writing of thrillers might help to provide. 

These books are not, in style, like the often rather turgid or earnest ‘non-fiction’ tomes on esoteric matters which also appeared in numbers in this period, though they may have some passages of exposition which are perilously similar. Sometimes they draw on the tradition of realism in the novel, as seen in the work of John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, to depict in faithful detail the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, including their difficult emotional lives and personal circumstances. But where they depart from this dominant form is in permitting their characters also to have a spiritual or mystical dimension. This is indeed, properly regarded, an enhanced form of ‘realism’ which takes a broader account of the human experience, not limited to material and outward appearances. 

At their best these novels offer the same reading qualities as the really good crime or detective yarn or ghost story, but with that extra dimension of ideas and images concerned with the nature of things, often excitingly explored. The prime exemplar of them is probably the seven supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams: other prominent titles include Armed With Madness and Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts (who admired and corresponded with Williams); Dion Fortune’s six occult thrillers (she and Williams were both involved in various esoteric orders); several of Claude Houghton's novels; Aleister Crowley's Moonchild; Sax Rohmer's The Orchard of Tears and others; David Lindsay's The Haunted Woman, Sphinx and Devil's Tor; and Walter de la Mare's The Return

Lesser-known ones include Ronald Fraser’s The Flying Draper (though that also has a Wellsian dimension); Geoffrey Dennis’s Harvest in Poland; Louis Marlow's The Devil in Crystal; and Muriel Jaeger’s sceptical Hermes Speaks. A friend of Dorothy L Sayers and the dedicatee of the first Lord Peter Wimsey book, which she had encouraged, Jaeger is often overlooked, though some of her novels  have recently been revived. In some other instances the thriller element might be thought rather more dominant than any metaphysical dimension, as perhaps in the work of Dennis Wheatley.

There are sure to be others that readers know about. But a few distinctions must be drawn. The first is that in this form of thriller things do not get ‘rationalised’. There was quite a fashion for embellishing crime thrillers with occult, supernatural or folkloric motifs, for extra frisson—Gladys Mitchell particularly relished this—but the golden rules of detective stories demand that all such apparent incidents must be explained away at the end, often (it must be said) somewhat unconvincingly, as in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though they may have quite a lot of incidental interest in their occult themes, and some genuine learning, these novels are not in the same category.

The second difference to draw is with fantasy. By its nature the metaphysical thriller belongs in the wider definition of ‘fantastic literature’. But it does not take place in a fantasy world, such as those, for example, of William Morris, E R Eddison, Hope Mirrlees and, later, J R R Tolkien. Those authors also often had spiritual ideas to convey, and there may well be thrilling episodes in their books, but they wrote about elaborate, invented worlds inspired by ancient epics or fairy tales. The essence of the metaphysical thriller is that it takes place in the contemporary, more-or-less everyday world. It involves the effect of spiritual forces, images and incidents in that world.

For that reason, I also think, thirdly, that historical novels with metaphysical elements are in a different category. There was, in this same period, a linked but distinctive development. Mary Butts, in reviewing Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and The Spring Queen, drew attention to a new form in fiction, which was attempting to recreate the culture and imagination of ancient civilisations, influenced by recent archaeology, James Frazer's The Golden Bough and the Greek studies of Jane Harrison. 

This was a shrewd insight: Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote in this form too, as did Robert Graves; and a later example is Mary Renault. Mary Butts herself wrote novels of Cleopatra and Alexander. A lesser-known example is Perilous Grain by Una Broadbent, who wrote to Butts noting their affinity. Even some romances of ancient Atlantis may belong here, since the society described in them often has Greek elements. And as for lost race tales of Greeks, the heirs of Alexander, in Central Asia - but we digress. Suffice to say all these seem a different, but parallel, development.

At least two of the authors in the occult thriller field have been quite widely studied by readers interested in their ideas and in some cases identifying as their followers: Charles Williams and Dion Fortune. However, often the focus of these commentaries has understandably been on the authors’ ideas, but not on the wider context: their contemporaries, or the form they chose, that rather strange beast, the metaphysical thriller.

(Part 2, to follow, will explore this theme further)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: L W Currey

Friday, September 11, 2020

Strange Tales - Tartarus Press at 30

Tartarus Press has just announced Strange Tales—Tartarus Press at 30 edited by Rosalie Parker. It is celebrating thirty years in publishing with this anthology of completely new fiction by both some of its recognised authors and by new hands. 

Long known for offering beautifully designed books of classic supernatural fiction from Poe and Hawthorne, through Stevenson and Machen to de la Mare and Aickman (and others not so well-known), the press has also been a consistent, dedicated champion of contemporary writers. Several authors have had their first books published by Tartarus, and the editor, Rosalie Parker, has always been open to original and distinctive new work. 

The new anthology includes stories by: Rebecca Lloyd, Mark Valentine, Andrew Michael Hurley, N.A. Sulway, Stephen Volk, Inna Effress, Ibrahim R. Ineke, Eric Stener Carlson, Jonathan Preece, Tom Heaton, J.M. Walsh, Angela Slatter, John Gaskin, D.P. Watt, Karen Heuler, John Linwood Grant, Reggie Oliver and Carly Holmes 

My contribution, ‘The End of Alpha Street’, is about a sociology textbook: I hear pulses racing already. But it is also about the strange influence on us of that everyday private folklore we all have, even if sometimes we do not fully recognise it, or want to acknowledge it. 

‘But if you found the fourteenth stair? I bantered on. Well then I wouldn’t be here, I suppose, she countered, this time swiftly. We laughed together then but I thought that we had shared something mysterious.’ 

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Cafe Irreal


The Cafe Irreal is 'a quarterly webzine that presents a kind of fantastic fiction infrequently published in English. This fiction, which we would describe as irreal, resembles the work of writers such as Franz Kafka, Kobo Abe, Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges.’ It is edited by G.S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg.

Issue 75, August 2020, includes my text ‘So, About Hats’, a revised version of a piece published in infra noir (Zagava, 2014).

‘The reader of a successfully written irreal work will be confronted with a piece of literature that cannot simply be translated as a fantasy or a satire, or as a symbolist work of one sort or the other. Thus cut off from their familiar mooring in the possible, or the conventionally (and ultimately explainable) impossible, they will be left alone, so to speak, with the absurd. Thus a tension is created in the work, one that the physics of the work will not allow to be resolved (as, indeed, the tensions and anxieties it is reflecting are not resolvable).’  G.S. Evans.

Also available from the website is The Irreal Reader, an anthology of fiction and essays about this form. 

 (Mark Valentine)

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Serpent Calls

Ulric Daubeny was a young antiquarian who published a book on Orchestral Wind Instruments, Ancient and Modern (1920) and another on Ancient Cotswold Churches (1921), both charming, well-illustrated works which exhibit the author’s keen interest in his subjects.

However, they had been preceded by a more unusual volume: The Elemental, Tales of the Supernormal and the Inexplicable (1919), a rare book. The stories in this perhaps have a Jamesian inspiration but also have original elements and an enthusiastic brio

One of the more unusual of these stories, entitled ‘The Serpent’, does not derive its plot from some legendary demonic wyrm slithering over the land, but from a medieval musical instrument, also discussed in his book on the woodwind family. The device takes its name from its shape, a sinuous polished wood cone with a brass mouthpiece.

Inevitably, with a name like that it has attracted a certain amount of lore. Readers of the tale, or the study, might well have speculated upon what it sounded like. There is an extensive website dedicated to the Serpent (the source of the illustration above), edited by Paul Schmidt, at serpentwebsite.com, which gives its history, construction, a discography, filmography and bibliography and offers back-issues of its serpentine newsletter.

Now, however, there is the opportunity to hear the call of the serpent in an appropriately eerie setting. The Dutch musician Rutger Zuydervelt, known as Machinefabriek, has released a CD and digital album, Luchtwezen (‘Creature of Air’), where he coaxes deep emanations from a church organ while avant-garde jazz musician Berlinde Deman augments this with eerie vocals and the long lonely groans of the serpent.

Originally they had planned to perform this together at the Oude Kerk Charlois in Rotterdam, but when this was not possible they recorded the piece remotely. It is a strange and haunting composition, the perfect complement to Ulric Daubeny’s tale. 

(Mark Valentine)


Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Fan-Painter of Florence

Among the most delicate and exquisite creations of the Eighteen Nineties were the painted silk fans of Charles Conder, often depicting elegant 18th century figures in terraced gardens, or Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine and Scaramouche in masquerade, or nymphs and satyrs at sport. 

There is a remark attributed to Oscar Wilde about ‘poor Conder’, a diffident soul, trying hesitantly to get clients to part with some beggarly sum for a fan for which they would willingly pay far more. The impoverished painter spent some time in Dieppe and other French harbour towns, where the living was cheap and he could just about get by.

I had thought that this art was, though not unique to him, at least rare and not essayed by many others. But recently I found a reference to ‘Collingwood Gee, the fan-painter’, who is mentioned in passing in Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop by Joy Grant (1967) as one of the English expatriate community in Florence.

Here, he was an acquaintance of D H Lawrence, and is depicted by him in Aaron’s Rod (1922) as Louis Mee, ‘little Mee, who . . . sat with a little delighted disapproval on his tiny, bird-like face’, an artist who has existed on meagre means but has recently come into money. 

In 1933 Gee painted from memory a portrait (not on a fan) of Lawrence reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Norman Douglas, the bookseller Giuseppe Orioli, and the Wildean aesthete Reggie Turner, the author of King Philip the Gay (1911) and other rococo fantasies. According to some sources, Gee was also a musician, who once gave performances in the English provinces.

I was so struck by the idea of a fan-painter in Florence, and the aura this suggested, that I wrote a poem on this theme, now boldly published, in its first issue, by a new online poetry magazine edited by Colin Bancroft, 192 (named after the former telephone directory enquiries line in Britain). You'll find it under the fan. 

This poem is not directly about either Charles Conder or the splendidly-named Collingwood Gee, but evokes an imagined fan-painter, rather in the Aubrey Beardsley mode, sauntering in the Renaissance city.

This is not the only poem in this premier issue with an uncanny theme. Juleigh Howard Hobson, in the wonderfully eerie ‘Bailiwick’, dedicated to Yeats, evokes ‘A blurry shape in the driveway, motion/In the falling twilight . . .’ and ‘Rippled shadows where there is no wind’, among other spectral resonances.  Emily Barker’s ‘Still Life With Writing Desk’, is a subtly inflected portrait of a recluse in Autumn, also conversant with ghosts.

And there are other hauntings here, of a discarded mirror in a skip, of a pale doll-like ballerina, of the call of a waterfowl in an icy lake, even the contents of a handbag. We can't quite be sure of figures, forms, memories, movements, many of these poems seem to say: look more closely.    

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

2018 Grolier Club Exhibition "A Conversation Larger than the Universe"

From 25 January through 10 March 2018, the Grolier Club in New York City hosted an exhibition: “A Conversation Larger Than the Universe”: Science Fiction and the Literature of the Fantastic from the Collection of Henry Wessells. Those unable to visit the exhibition (like myself) were able instead to view and read the similarly-titled book published in association with the exhibition, A Conversation larger than the Universe: Readings in Science Fiction and the Fantastic (The Grolier Club, 2018), by Henry Wessells and with a Foreword by John Crowley.  Not only is the book illustrated with a goodly number of items that were exhibited, but it is also full of a book-length text of Wessells writing about the books he has collected.  

Now comes a new variation: on online exhibit, which includes nearly all of the books and items that were on view (with the exhibition labels), plus more illustrations than could be displayed, or could be included in the published book. It is hosted at Wessells's own Temporary Culture website, and you can check it out here.  

The book and the web exhibition nicely make up for not seeing the original exhibition. Well, almost.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Last 'True King' of England


There has rarely been a shortage of claimants and pretenders to the throne of England. The succession was not always smooth. Neither William nor Harold at Hastings had a good claim to be king and indeed were not at first chosen by the Witan, the Anglo-Saxon Council of Elders who, at least nominally, presided over king-making. And neither William Rufus nor Henry, the Conqueror’s sons and next two successors, had an undisputed claim: there was an elder brother, Robert, and a candidate from the Royal House of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling.

The civil wars between Stephen and Matilda; the various Plantagenet intrigues; the Wars of the Roses; the Tudor struggles between Catholic and Protestant; the Civil War; the Monmouth Rebellion; the Glorious Revolution; the Act of Succession; the Jacobite cause and the wars of 1715 and 1745; all these and other historical episodes amply demonstrate that the path to the throne was never, as it might now seem, part of any settled order of things.

Even in the late 19th century there was a Jacobite conspiracy to seize the throne whenever Queen Victoria’s reign should come to an end (it is satirised in Allen Upward’s Lord Alistair’s Rebellion, 1909). The queen, in her long years of mourning, had become less popular, and there were doubts about the raffish character of her son, the future Edward VII. Certainly this Jacobite scheme was a quixotic, rather whimsical affair, but for a time the movement had its own newspaper (The Whirlwind – Arthur Machen was a contributor) and issued other publications, there was a cycle of clandestine meetings, and even Parliamentary candidates, some from a fiery Huntingdonshire family of innkeepers and artists. Some Nineties figures, such as Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson and Macgregor Mathers, also embraced a Romantic Jacobite nostalgia.

If this Jacobite Twilight was all a rather cavalier escapade, tinged with Scottish and Irish nationalism, it still had just enough adherents to be not entirely dismissed. J B Priestley’s first novel, the Stevensonian romance Adam in Moonshine (1927), depicts just such a Stuart conspiracy involving a mysterious prince in the Yorkshire moors. It admits the comic-opera absurdity of it all while admiring its glamour and panache. But The Old Cause had in fact received something of a knock. By most (but not all) Jacobite reckonings, the correct monarch was the Duke of Bavaria who had, unsurprisingly, fought on the side of Germany in the Great War. This made presenting him as the proper English king a somewhat tricky proposition.

However, this was not the last flourish of the trumpets in the long story of those who put forward an alternative claim to the throne. In the early Thirties another candidate emerged, from a different line, with a strange story to tell. Anthony William Hall (1898-1947), who called himself Anthony Tudor, claimed to be the true king of England, descended from a son of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, prior to their official espousal. This son had been brought up by a farmer named Hall. The subsequent state marriage of the pair, it was claimed, legitimised the line. Hall sent “a lengthy epistle of eleven foolscap pages” to “George Windsor” at Buckingham Palace, requiring him to “relinquish the Imperial Crown”. Elaborate genealogical information was submitted in support of this claim.

Hall had been born in Chiswick: his father was a seafarer. His family had some Welsh Border links and he joined the Shropshire Constabulary as a police constable just after World War I. By the early age of 28 he had risen to the rank of Inspector, one of the youngest in the country. But, according to a police history study, “His meteoric police career came to an abrupt end in the mid-twenties after a disagreement with his chief constable. On leaving the force, he went to North America, returning to this country some time in late 1930, when he went to live at Hereford” (Douglas J Elliott, Policing Shropshire 1836-1967, 1984).

It seems to have been after this that he began his rather Ruritanian campaign for the throne. The same source says he spoke to large crowds in Castle Square, Ludlow and St Peter’s Square, Hereford (which he planned to make his capital), and “it is said that in a six year period he addressed 1,000 meetings”, attracting a largely tolerant and sometimes sympathetic audience. In the Thirties of the Depression some of his policies, such as having a Ministry of Pleasure, abolishing income tax, increasing the strength of beer and building many more homes, won light-hearted approval among the populace, and this support began to trouble the authorities. But he also railed against George V as a German impostor and this began to cause even greater consternation.

Official government records of correspondence from the Palace at the time, expressing royal concern, were released in 2006 and gave the daily papers a passing novelty story. At first, it had been suggested that perhaps Hall might be detained on mental health grounds. However, the doctors disobligingly found that, though eccentric, he was not legally speaking of unsound mind. One of them thought his policies were quite sensible. So instead other measures were adopted. The soi-disant King was frequently arrested, and charged with obstruction, breach of the peace and similar public order offences.

He was repeatedly fined, bound over, and eventually imprisoned for short spells. But this did not work. He did not regard the court’s findings as binding upon him. This was on the understandable grounds, from his point-of-view, that the proceedings were brought against him in the name of the Crown (as are nearly all criminal prosecutions in England) but, since he was the Crown, they could not be valid. The prosecutions also increased sympathy for him and made it look as though there could be something in his claims, else why pursue him?

He was still campaigning in the late Thirties. The poet and essayist Derek Stanford, a champion of Eighteen Nineties writers, gives a sympathetic vignette of King Anthony in London, circa 1937, in his memoir Inside the Forties (1977):

‘On the steps of the war memorial seat beside the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn grounds, Anthony Tudor would stand and address the lunchtime strollers on his own unimpeachable claims to kingship. He was a fair-haired mass of a man, a young middle-aged bull in his prime, whose features showed a memento or two of that bluff, polygamous King Henry in his heyday. Bluff and amiable was [Anthony] Tudor, happy to answer questions about the predicament of England today . . . ’

Stanford added, ‘On the credentials of his line of descent, I would not care to pronounce; but I thought he evinced a pragmatic approach such as characterised Henry VIII. To me, a collector of lost causes, this seemed refreshingly unusual.’ Stanford at the time regarded himself as a philosophical anarchist in the Kropotkin tradition, but was also a dandy and aesthete. He reports with delight the stance taken by the poet Fred Marnau, who came from an Austro-Hungarian background. Attracted (like Joseph Roth) by both the old Double Monarchy, and by a louche, bohemian lifestyle, Marnau declared himself ‘an anarcho-monarchist’, thereby enjoying, as Stanford puts it, ‘the best of all impossible worlds!’    

It seems a pity, in a way, that King Anthony was not so prolific a writer and publisher as Count Potocki of Montalk, a contemporary claimant to the Polish throne, even more colourful, with whom he was sometimes compared. The British Library catalogue only has a pamphlet, Prince Anthony’s Manifesto, Revised programme of national reconstruction, attributed to ‘Anthony TUDOR, calling himself Prince Anthony’, 1932, and the National Library of Wales has something similar published in Ebbw Vale. He also printed his own currency, signed Antony I. All this ephemera connected with him is now vanishingly scarce.

He died, aged 49, in the quiet village of Little Dewchurch, Herefordshire, once the family home, about five miles from his intended capital, and is buried in the churchyard there. He is not known to have left any heir to continue his claim.

Though the historical lineage was no doubt fanciful or somewhat over-elaborated, the general idea that the country awaits a New King, the True King, has mythic resonances and is often found in literature and legend. It may be that, as well as his flamboyant personality and agreeable policies, King Anthony appealed to his Thirties audiences because of just such a romantic yearning. 

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Esoteric in Britain, 1920

Annie Winifred Ellerman, 26, a bohemian in Paris, published under the name of ‘W. Bryher’ (citing an island in the Scillies she liked) an autobiographical novella, Development, about the artistic and spiritual progress of a young woman.

Walter Whately Carington, 28, a former pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, founded The Psychic Research Quarterly. Vol. 1, no. 1 was issued in July 1920 (later entitled Psyche). He also published in 1920 The Foundations of Spiritualism and A Theory of the Mechanism of Survival. He tended to favour the possibility of telepathy.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, 31, composer, wrote incidental music for string quartet to accompany John Webster’s The White Devil, and also, for a chamber orchestra, for Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Betrothal, a fairy play. He also set spectral verses by Walter de la Mare and Thomas Hardy to music.  

Herbert Stanley Redgrove, 33, a chemist and founder of The Alchemical Society in London, issued Roger Bacon: The Father Of Experimental Science & Mediaeval Occultism and Bygone Beliefs: Being a Series of Excursions in the Byways of Thought, discussing Mediaeval Magic and Alchemy. 

Florence Sarah Conway Williams, 34, the wife of the publisher’s editor, mystic, poet and novelist Charles Williams, issued Christian Symbolism, With seventy-seven illustrations as by ‘Michal Williams’ (the name given to her by her husband).

The poet and Ministry of Labour clerk Frank Stuart Flint, 35, issued his Otherworld: Cadences, in which he imagined another version of himself living on a far star, and described a neighbour, a carpenter, who saw a zodiac of roses in the night sky.

J S M Ward’s A Subaltern in Spirit Land, a sequel to Gone West (1917), recounted the author’s contacts with the war dead on the spirit plane. John Sebastian Marlow Ward was 35 years old, became a leader in the recondite Orthodox Catholic Church, and issued a series of apocalyptic prophecies.

Gilbert Eric Cannan, 36, a promising modern novelist praised by Henry James published The Release of the Soul, an attempt to explain the states of spiritual insight he experienced living on a remote farm in Africa, ‘like Eden’. Cannan spent the last thirty years or so of his life in asylums.

Arthur Sarsfield Ward, a 37 year old from Birmingham, who wrote as ‘Sax Rohmer’, published a mystery thriller using Ancient Egyptian imagery, The Green Eyes of Bast, and, in The Dream Detective, a set of episodes about a detective who solves crimes using his psychic powers. Ward claimed to have been an initiate in occult orders.

Mary Gladys Webb, 39, from Shropshire, novelist, published The House in Dormer Forest, the chronicle of a peculiar, stormy family in a brooding dark house.

The composer Cyril Meir Scott, 41, issued the pseudonymous The Initiate: Some Impressions of A Great Soul (as by ‘His Pupil’), a probably fictional memoir of a contemporary English mystic, Justin Moreward Haig, with a discussion of his ideas.

Joseph Charles Holbrooke, composer, 42, from Surrey but with strong Welsh affinities, produced ‘Taliessin’s Song’ for voice, piano and clarinet, and possibly also in this year Caradoc's Dream, for string orchestra.

David Lindsay, a former insurance officer worker from Blackheath aged 42, issued his vision of a journey from Starkness, North East Scotland, to a star, Nightspore in Tormance. The publishers preferred the title A Voyage to Arcturus. It sold 596 copies, many apparently bought up by a few sympathetic admirers.

Evelyn Underhill, 45, mystic and spiritual counsellor, published The Essentials of Mysticism and Other Essays, discussing spiritual experiences and focussing on practical, as distinct from historical, study.

James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence, a 46 years old Scot from the county of Angus, author, journalist and folklorist, issued An Encyclopaedia of Occultism: A compendium of information on the occult sciences, occult personalities, psychic science, magic, demonology, spiritism and mysticism. He also wrote about Atlantis.

Anne Douglas Sedgwick, 47, an American-born author resident in England from the age of nine, who had served in the Red Cross in France during the war, published The Third Window, an ambiguous Henry Jamesian ghost story about a war widow who imagines the spectre of her husband haunting the walled garden at their home.

Walter John de la Mare, 47, a former oil company clerk from Kent who had been awarded a government pension in recognition of his poetry, published in the January issue of the new literary journal The London Mercury a story of an encounter with strange children in a remote location, ‘The Creatures’.

Elizabeth Arnold, 52, issued Great Ganga The Guru Or How a Seeker Sought The Real under the name Kavta Kaumudi, a poetic meditation on the role of the Divine Mother in Hindu thought.

Granville Ransome Bantock, 52, composer, premiered The Great God Pan, a Choral Ballet for solo voices, chorus and orchestra at the Sheffield Festival, and composed ‘The Cloisters at Midnight (New College, Oxford)’ for piano.

Ralph Shirley, 55, the editor of The Occult Review, published Occultists & Mystics of All Ages. The book discusses Apollonius of Tyana, Plotinus, Michael Scott, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, Cagliostro and Anna Kingsford.

A play by James Matthew Barrie, 60, Mary Rose, was first produced in April, in London. It depicts time-slips in which the eponymous heroine twice disappears when on a Scottish island, then reappears years later, unaged.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, M. D. LL.D., 61, (representing Spiritualism) conducted a public debate with Joseph McCabe (representing the Rationalist Press Association) at The Queen's Hall, Langham Place, London on March 11. An account was published as A Public Debate on the Truth of Spiritualism.

Henry Rider Haggard’s The Ancient Allan was issued, a story of Isis worship and reincarnation. The 64 year old, living as a country squire in Norfolk, a churchwarden and farmer, was already well established as a popular author of occult fantasies.

Charles Webster Leadbetter, 66, former Anglican priest, co-founder of the Liberal Catholic Church, Theosophist, issued The Monad and Other Essays Upon the Higher Consciousness and The Science of the Sacraments.

Mary St Leger Kingsley, the novelist who wrote as ‘Lucas Malet’, 68, published The Tall Villa, a ghostly romance of ‘love and the unseen.’

Jesse Laidlay Weston, 70 years old, poet and folklorist, published a monograph on the Holy Grail, relating it to ancient rites of fertility and kingship. From Ritual to Romance had a profound influence on poets and esoteric thinkers, most notably in providing a major theme for T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.  

Charles Montagu Doughty, aged 77, renowned as an explorer and as the author of Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), issued his poetic epic Mansoul, or The Riddle of the World, the culmination of his philosophical and mystical thought.

Alfred Percy Sinnett, 80, author and Theosophist, published Tennyson An Occultist as His Writings Prove, arguing ‘Tennyson was individually put into touch with teachers on a level far above that of ordinary humanity,’ as shown by ‘veiled hints’ in his work, and revealing that the poet was Edmund Spenser in a previous incarnation.

Edward Clodd, 80 years old, a retired banker, folklorist, and leading rationalist and sceptic, who had settled at Aldeburgh, Suffolk after a career in the City, published Magic in Names & Other Things.

(Mark Valentine)