Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Witch of Kings Cross and Her Macabre Stories

The new documentary, The Witch of Kings Cross (2021), is a short film (75 minutes) tracing the life of the talented occult artist and bohemian Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979), a New Zealand-born Australian resident. Norton suffered under the toxic censorship in the 50s and by the idiotic sensationalism of the press, who dubbed her "The Witch of King's Cross" (Kings Cross being the area in which she resided in Sydney). Norton responded by playing up the role for the tabloids, though her brazenness certainly came at a cost. The documentary is fascinating.

One lesser-considered aspect of her art is the weird fiction she wrote in her youth. Such stories were only nebulously known until tracked down and republished in 1996 by Typographeum Press in a small limited edition (150 copies) as Three Macabre Stories. An attractive reprint (expanded with some ancillary materials) came out from Teitan Press in 2010, in an edition of 666 copies. Both are expertly curated by Keith Richmond, whose introduction and commentaries are meticulous and highly interesting. Richmond sees Norton's influence on two 1944 stories by one of her lovers, Beresford Conroy, published in Pertinent magazine, and these stories are helpfully included in an appendix. 

Richmond also notes that Norton was an early fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and of Weird Tales magazine, unusual for someone in Australia at that time. This is apparent in her three stories, all published when she was sixteen, and in the same magazine (Smith's Weekly).  The first, "The Story of the Waxworks" (6 January 1934), recalls A. Merritt's Burn Witch Burn (Argosy, 1932), while the second, "The Painted Horror" (27 January 1934), is clearly a take on Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" which had appeared in Weird Tales in October 1927.  The third story,"Moon Madness" (21 July 1934), has again some of the feel of A. Merritt's stories of the reemergence of forgotten rituals. None of Norton's tales are lost masterpieces, but she had some stylistic flair which makes the stories interesting and readable, and her imagery is as exotic as that found in her paintings. It's a pity that she abandoned the writing of weird fiction so early. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Centenary of Cabell's FIGURES OF EARTH

On this day, February 26th, one hundred years ago, James Branch Cabell's fantasy novel Figures of Earth was published. Here's a sample of cover illustrations over the years. The dust-wrapper of the first edition is rather drab.

 But the dust-wrapper of the 1922 first British edition is more intriguing.

Here is the first illustrated edition (UK 1925).

And here is the Ballantine mass market edition of 1969.

The 1971 UK mass market edition.

The 1979 Ballantine mass market edition.

And finally the 1983 UK Unicorn paperback.

Some of these images come from The Silver Stallion: The James Branch Cabell Website.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Star Maker Fragments

Star Maker Fragments by Taylor Brook is a new release on 3 March from TAK Ensemble, a contemporary chamber music group from New York. The album is inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s far-reaching cosmic visionary novel Star Maker (1937), and responds to specific episodes in the book in seven passages and a postlude, with recitations from the text. 

The music beautifully conveys the utter othernesss of the author’s imaginings through the unearthly winding timbres of flute, clarinet, voice, violin, percussion and electronics. Sometimes the work is slow and contemplative, at other times brusque and brooding.There is the probable influence of Stockhausen and Penderecki. The effect on the listener is to deepen thought and induce speculation and wonder. It is a strange, compelling journey. 

The album is available as a CD in a limited edition of just 55 copies or as a download. 

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Voynich Assistant

E. Millicent Sowerby was a young Edwardian student at Girton College, Cambridge, who had acquired a great love of old books, especially from her grandfather’s well-appointed library at his house in Bridlington on the North Sea coast in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

At the end of her studies she was not sure what to do next. She wanted to work with books but she did not want to be a librarian, which she thought largely involved filling in index cards. By a series of, as she herself admits, very lucky coincidences, she was introduced to a well-established antiquarian bookseller in Shaftesbury Avenue (previously at Soho Square), and after a slightly peculiar interview with its eccentric proprietor was taken on there as an assistant cataloguer.

Her job there only lasted two years because the outbreak of the First World War meant the business was largely moved to the USA and she was no longer required. But nevertheless she was to remain a book cataloguer for the rest of her working life, over forty years. She was next taken on at Sotheby’s to fill a war-time vacancy but in peacetime found that prejudice against women cataloguers in the old-school English book trade prevented her getting work.

She therefore took up professional appointments in the USA, where there was no such prejudice (quite the reverse) and during a distinguished career was entrusted by the Library of Congress with a five volume catalogue of Thomas Jefferson’s library (1952-59). Earlier, while there she resumed her friendship with her first employer, who was still now based in the USA.

In 1967 she published her memoir Rare People and Rare Books, which is told in a lively style full of light humour and breezy anecdotes and suggesting a personality that must have been forthright, dauntless and high-spirited, alongside her serious devotion to her work. But it is no reflection on her book to say that it might now be of interest mostly for keen bibliophiles and fellow professional cataloguers were it not for an unusual significance.

The bookseller that Millicent Sowerby first worked for as a young woman was none other than Wilfred Michael Voynich. This remarkable and in some respects controversial figure is renowned for his discovery of what is now usually called “the Voynich Manuscript”, a strange medieval work handwritten and hand-painted in what appears either to be an unknown language or an undeciphered code or both. Further, it has many curious designs of hybrid humans, beasts, plants, stones, stars, planets and chimera.

Though there have been various theories about the codex and every so often a scholar claims to have worked out what it is, it remains enigmatic and has therefore excited a considerable amount of commentary and speculation. One theory is that it is a very clever forgery and that Voynich must have been involved in this in some way, although this is now thought unlikely following scientific tests and because of the sheer complexity of such a task. Partly this idea was fuelled by Voynich’s own colourful past.

The bookseller of Shaftesbury Avenue was originally a scion of the Polish aristocracy in Lithuania who had been imprisoned as an agitator for Polish, and peasant, freedom by the Tsarist Russian authorities then occupying that land. He had escaped from imprisonment and made his way to join other exiles in London where, in due course, he started his bookselling business. 

He specialised in finding impossibly rare books, and indeed once issued a catalogue consisting entirely of books once thought completely lost or not to exist. Perhaps one of the reasons for his success, apart from his energy and resourcefulness, was that he spoke numerous European languages (“all badly” he modestly said) and so could negotiate directly with sellers and sources, unlike his monoglot or at best vaguely duoglot English counterparts.  

Millicent Sowerby’s book includes a 40pp appreciation of Voynich, and it is one of the few detailed descriptions of him, a vivid first-hand testimony. She gives a frank, affectionate portrait, not glossing over – in fact, rather relishing – his sometimes stormy temperament, but also emphasising his generosity, kindliness, old-world courtesy and integrity. This depiction has perhaps been too little regarded among theorists of the Voynich MS and ought to carry more weight. It is not uncommon for writers about the MS to overlook her book altogether.

And yet his young cataloguer does refer directly if briefly to the famous MS, which she refers to as “the Roger Bacon cypher”. This is because it was originally thought to be associated with the medieval friar and magician. She tells us quite definitely that it was found in “a castle in Southern Europe” by Voynich himself on a book-buying expedition in Europe in the Summer of 1912. (To an English person then, ‘Southern Europe’ would include Southern Italy, which is probably where indeed the MS was obtained).

She knows this because she had in fact written to him to ask for a job while he was away on this trip, and he replied on his return, despite being busy with all the interest in the cipher. She started there in December 1912 and witnessed the many connoisseurs and scholars, including astronomers and botanists, calling in to look at it. It is useful to have this personal, first-hand evidence of the origins of the MS from someone who was there, in direct association with Voynich, and who was accustomed to being meticulous.

Of course, it could always be argued by those who want to that Voynich had misled her and everyone else as to what the MS was and where he got it, but any reader of Millicent Sowerby’s book will recognise her as a remarkably shrewd and canny individual. Furthermore, her account of the stream of experts coming to look at it does not suggest that Voynich thought he had anything to hide.

Millicent Sowerby’s book is of interest for its recollections of the antiquarian book trade in the early part of the 20th century and  her monumental work on Jefferson’s library,  and for her own vivacious character. But it is also valuable for its vignette of Wilfred Michael Voynich and the milieu in which he presented the strange and elusive MS that now bears his name. 

(Mark Valentine)


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

RIP Jeffrey Dempsey (1959-2021)

I was greatly saddened indeed when I learned in January that my old friend Jeffrey Dempsey had died. Jeff was the co-editor of the 1980s journal Dark Dreams with David Cowperthwaite, a friend since school-days. The two had begun by publishing chapbooks on an old duplicator.

Dark Dreams ran for 9 issues from 1984 to 1992 and published the early work of many writers who went on to publish more widely, including Simon Clark, Joel Lane, Ron Weighell, Mark Morris, John Howard, A F Kidd and D F Lewis. Jeff and David also published my own first story, ‘The Grave of Anir’.

Jeff also ran his own Crimson Altar Press and published a booklet of fantasy poetry edited by John Howard and booklets of ghost stories by Mary Ann Allen and David Rowlands, as well as my own 14, Bellchamber Tower. Jeff was later a co-founder of The Ghost Story Society.

I first met Jeff at a Fantasycon along with David, John Howard, the artist Colin Langeveld, Joel Lane and others. We soon started an informal group, The Doppelgangers, and for many years some of that group have enjoyed bi-annual weekend gatherings for book-collecting expeditions and good company.

Jeff was quite simply a lovely man:  kind-hearted and thoughtful, and with a characteristic Liverpool sense of humour. He had enormous enthusiasm for the supernatural fiction field, especially M R James, Lovecraft and Machen, and a particular fondness for the Jules de Grandin stories of Seabury Quinn, whose cod-French catchphrases he would quote with relish. He also greatly enjoyed the Mapp & Lucia novels of E F Benson and had their arch phraseology often on his tongue too.

Another great enthusiasm of Jeff’s was the music of the glam rock years, particularly Marc Bolan and T Rex, and The Sweet, and in their teens he and David were in a band, The Wounds, in emulation of these favourites. I remember Jeff wincing as he recalled peeling off the shiny stars that he used to paste on his face.

He also relished tales of occult detectives and was in theory the creator of one himself, Mr Chaucer Wills, whose adventures we shall now most unfortunately never know. No meeting went by without us asking when we should at last hear of these, but Jeff would merely look enigmatic.

I owe to Jeff, and David, several lifelong friendships, my first ever story publication, and lots of shared pleasures. It is deeply sorrowful that Jeff is no longer with us. As my colleague Mr Howard would say, quoting Mapp & Lucia, au reservoir!, old friend. And, in Mr Bolan's fine phrase: Ride a white swan!

(Mark Valentine) 

Photo: courtesy of Colin Langeveld

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Sphinx and The Book Collector

Another author celebrated by the American bibliophile and ardent collector Paul Jordan-Smith in his For the Love of Books (1934)— see the earlier post on Jan Mills Whitham— is Norman Davey (1888-1949), now also a mostly forgotten figure. His novels are high-spirited romances with a tinge of the tone of Michael Arlen to them, though not quite so insouciant or with such a distinctive style.

Unusually, his first two novels were both censored. His first, Perhaps – a Tale of Tomorrow (1914), a fantasy about a revolt on the Isle of Wight, was suppressed when it appeared at the beginning of the First World War, in case it might be construed as being a satire about Ireland and so discourage enlistment. The entire edition was pulped. Consequently it is very rare indeed, but Jordan-Smith managed to get a copy that had been taken home by one of the publisher’s staff. It was later issued as Yesterday (1924).

Davey’s second novel, The Pilgrim of a Smile (1921) is probably the best place to start. It is a Stevensonian, or Chestertonian, type of adventure which opens at the Curio Club in London, an establishment that only admits as members those who are, or have done, something unusual (though not necessarily useful). Here a poet, an artist, and an actor are the last to leave the bar, accompanied by an apparent nonentity who describes himself as an ‘agent’, though not for what.

In their somewhat cheery state they go to the Embankment and address the Sphinx couched at Cleopatra’s Needle, each craving a boon. The first three seek from her respectively love, vision and fame, but their modest companion asks instead to know the secret of her smile. A series of vivid episodes ensue. However, an entire chapter had to be excised when it was considered somewhat racy. It was later published on its own as The Penultimate Adventure (1924), and a 1933 edition of the novel reinstated the chapter.

The novel does have its fantastical dimensions – for example, the three inebriates and their solemner companion think at the end of this episode that they see the Sphinx take to the air to fly over the city, and this is quite an eerie scene: and the ending of the novel also has a sardonic, almost sombre quality.

Davey's third novel, Guinea Girl (1921), seems to play a bit safer in its depiction of a demobbed officer’s ill-fated fascination with a blonde who likes to play the tables at Monte Carlo. It is exuberantly written but cannot avoid seeming somewhat inconsequential.

This and several of the following novels that I have tried are always full of high spirits and lively invention and they are not quite like anything else being written then: I can see why Jordan-Smith was interested in him. Indeed, Davey was by training an engineer, and such was Jordan-Smith’s devotion that he even tracked down Davey’s first book, on gas turbines, and another on tidal power.

But my own interest in Davey was as much stirred by a different piece of writing. Davey was himself a book collector and wrote, while on service with the Royal Engineers in France, a narrative poem in Byronic rhyming couplets to a friend, reminiscing about their book-browsing expeditions in London.

It is dedicated ‘To A.H.C.’, dubbed Bibliophilos, and we learn from the first line that the surname of his friend is Christie. With its yearning memories of his own books waiting for him in his study, and of old shops on and near the Charing Cross Road, it is a charming piece that will readily be appreciated by all bibliophiles

The recollections include an occasion when he and a friend chanced upon an obscure bookshop with rare, much-desired volumes (‘. . . such a case/Of books as stood in view beside the door/Never in book-shops had we seen before . . .’). Furthermore, they were remarkably cheap (‘All ticketed in shillings; five, six, seven’).

But they happened not to have much in the way of funds with them (‘ . . .we had no cash to hand,/Save just enough to pay our homeward fare,/And not a solitary sou to spare’).  When they tried to return with replenished funds, they simply could not find the shop again (‘nor sign nor trace . . . t’was very odd’).

This piece may be found in his book of poems Desiderium MCMXV-MCMXVII (Cambridge: Heffer, 1920). An earlier volume of Poems (1914) is scarce, and he also had four poems included in Cambridge Poets 1914–1920: An Anthology (1920). Perhaps even those not naturally drawn to poetry may still enjoy this light-hearted but also wistful evocation of the joys of book-collecting written in very different circumstances on active service.

A Checklist of the Books of Norman Davey

The Gas Turbine (Constable, 1914)

Poems, with a Prefixed Essay (Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, 1914)

Desiderium MCMXV-MCMXVII (Cambridge: Heffer, 1920)

The Pilgrim of a Smile (Chapman & Hall, 1921)

Guinea Girl (Chapman & Hall, 1921)

Studies in Tidal Power (Constable, 1923)

Good Hunting (Chapman & Hall, 1923)

Yesterday: A Tory Fairy-Tale (Chapman & Hall, 1924)

The Penultimate Adventure (Elkin Mathews, 1924)

Babylon and Candlelight (Chapman & Hall, 1927)

Judgment Day (Constable, 1928)

The Hungry Traveller in France (Cape, 1931)

The Pilgrim of a Smile, restored ed (Chapman & Hall, 1933)

King, Queen, Knave (Grayson & Grayson, 1934)

Pagan Parable (Grayson & Grayson, 1936)

Cats in the Coffee (Chapman & Hall, 1939)

The Ghost of a Rose (Chapman & Hall, 1939)

(Mark Valentine)

Image: ‘A 1916 Sphinx Drawing by Charles Ricketts’  (

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

A Purple Thread - Nina Antonia

 A Purple Thread by Nina Antonia is an elegant prose meditation on the sense of the fateful in Oscar Wilde’s life and work. The supernatural pervades his writing and The Picture of Dorian Gray alone places him with Machen and Stevenson as a leading figure in the decadent macabre. 

But there is also often a particular fascination with the idea of destiny, even if it is sometimes at first treated flippantly, as in the palmistry reading in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, which the title character feels he must fulfill.

In a blog post on her publication, Nina explains that it was inspired in part by an often-unregarded memoir, Aspects of Wilde (1936) by Vincent O’Sullivan, and comments: ‘One paragraph in particular, where the author notes that Aubrey Beardsley was amongst many who believed that to own any of Oscar’s books was unlucky, stayed with me, just as the music from a song does, playing over and over.’

And this thought prompted the theme explored in the chapbook, the sense of a tragic doom in Wilde’s career, which is reflected also as a preoccupation in his fiction and drama.

The chapbook is characterfully illustrated by Nathaniel Winter-Hébert and is a special publication of the Fiddler’s Green imprint, whose by-line is ‘Art & Magic for Tea-Drinking Anarchists, Convivial Conjurors & Closeted Optimists.’ 


Friday, February 5, 2021

Some Notes on Some Recent Books

Here are some recent, and less-recent, books I'd like to call attention to. This column has been rather delayed, for various reasons, and I haven't had the chance to read some of these titles yet, much though I'd like to.

First, early on in Covid times, David and Daniel Ritter released The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, Volume One: The 1930s. This came out as a lavish (and expensive) hardcover, since reprinted, but also as an affordable Kindle ebook. I can't say enough of praise for this book, so will recommend a visit to the publisher's webpage here, where you can also click on a digital sampler of some 52 pages from the book. What a picture of fandom in the 1930s!

Next up, is David Tibet's latest anthology, There Is A Graveyard That Dwells in Man (Strange Attractor Press), a follow-up to his 2016 anthology (from the same publisher) The Moons at Your Door. Good and eclectic selections in both.  See the publishers webpage here, and here.
The third and fourth volumes of Jean Ray's horror tales, translated by Scott Nicolay, have come out in the Wakefield Press series.  I don't know how many more volumes are planned, but I hope there might be several more. The third is The Great Nocturnal, containing 5 tales; and the fourth is Circles of Dread, with nine stories. 

Snuggly Books has published the second volume (of two) of fiction by Montague Summers, The Bride of Christ and Other Fictions, including eight stories, all but one of which are newly published. Introduction by Daniel Corrick. 

On the magazine front, there was a new issue of Chris Mikul's Biblio-Curiosa, on unusual writers and strange books. Issue 9 is "The Autobiographies and Memoirs Issue" and covers E.W. Martell, Seamus Burke, Mary MacLane, G.  Gordon Liddy, and Crook Frightfulness by A Victim, and a review of a recent autobiography by Sir Edmund Backhouse.  Inquiries to the author/publisher chris<dot>mikul88<at>gmail<dot>com. 

 And there was a new issue of Le Visage Vert (no. 31), with stories by Arthur Machen, Maurice Renard, Mark Valentine, Camille Mauclair, Pascal Malosse, Pascal Mulot, and Sophus Bauditz. For a contents listing see here. There is also a companion volume of stories by Maurice Renard, Celui qui n'a pas tué, edited and with a preface and bibliography by Claude Deméocq. Ordering information for both books (and many others) can be found by scrolling around here

And finally, Tartarus Press publisher R.B. Russell collected his own bookish essays, a handful of which first appeared here on Wormwoodiana, in Past Lives of Old Books and Other Essays. It first came out in hardcover, but is now also available as a trade paperback and an ebook.  Details here.