Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Library Wants Everything

Collectors of supernatural fiction may sometimes see in the catalogues of fantasy book dealers the notation ‘Not in Bleiler’, meaning that the book is not in E F Bleiler’s magisterial Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983), with its 1,175 entries, a sure sign therefore of rarity or obscurity. This is thrilling enough for the collector of fantastic literature, but there is an even more rarefied notation: ‘Not in the British Library’.

If you issue any publication in the UK, you are required to send one free copy, of the best quality, to the British Library: they say this has been part of English law since 1662. To illustrate how comprehensive this requirement is they currently have a cartoon reading ‘The Library Wants Everything’ with a purple-haired youth asking ‘What, even my Cthulhu fan comic?’

You are also required, if requested, to send free copies to five other libraries, those at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. These five usually have an agent to act on behalf of all of them. When I was first publishing booklets, the agent was the slightly sinister-sounding A T Smail, the sort of name a seedy private investigator in a Gerald Kersh or Derek Marlowe novel might have.

The six together are sometimes called ‘copyright libraries’, but in fact they do not really relate to copyright at all: the technical term is ‘legal deposit libraries’.

It was only when I pursued my book-collecting into ever more obscure byways that I came to realise that not every UK publication is in fact held by the British Library, or the other five libraries. There were two titles in particular where I first noticed this. One was A Book of Deadly Sonnets (1909) by ‘N.B.’, no imprint stated, which I had picked up in Richard Booth’s at Hay-on-Wye.

This is by the rather wonderful Edwardian fantasy and nonsense poet Norman Boothroyd, and I think it is almost certainly self-published. Most of the contents were included in a later volume, Apes and Peacocks, Verses in Varied Vein (Erskine Macdonald, 1913). But there is no copy of the first book in any of the legal deposit libraries.

The other title was a thriller, The Golden Snake by Donald Campbell, a Sax Rohmer pastiche issued by the Federation Press, a pulp publisher. I had found a very tatty copy and noticed that, as well as the title story, there was a breathless filler in which one of the characters was clearly based on Aleister Crowley, so I got it mostly on the strength of that. I included this story, ‘The Necromancer’, in my anthology of occult detective stories, The Black Veil (2008). There is a copy of The Golden Snake in the British Library, but not, so far as I can see, in any of the other five.

What sort of books eluded the great libraries? Well, I alluded to them in my story ‘The Scarlet Door’ (Supernatural Tales 35, 2017, collected in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things). The protagonists are trying to track down and hide books that have not yet been digitised: they want to keep some works secret and offline. ‘Poetry, pornography and prophecy’ says a character, those are the sort of books that escape. Another wants to add pottery – ‘crack-pottery’.

The kinds of books that may not have been sent to the British Library include those that are self-published, where the author did not know of, or care about, the requirement. These are often of poetry or of apocalyptical utterances or of eccentric ideas, or even, treasured tome, of some admingling of all three.

Another reason for absence is that it may not have been well understood that the requirement doesn’t only apply to books, but to every form of publication, including booklets, leaflets, guides, maps, programmes, brochures etc. I have certainly found that eg church guides, theatre programmes, local town maps, printed cricket scorecards and similar are only haphazardly represented, and the same will no doubt be so for many zines of all kinds, Cthulhu or otherwise.

 It therefore adds an enjoyable extra zest to book-collecting expeditions when the rummaging produces certain items that look as if they might not have found their way to the vast holdings of the British Library. A quick check later, surrounded by the spoils, soon reveals whether this hunch is right or not. There are just enough not there that it’s possible to imagine a collection comprised entirely of such publications. It would certainly make for interesting reading. 

(Mark Valentine)


Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Twelve Maidens - Stewart Farrar

The Twelve Maidens by Stewart Farrar (1974) is a very mid-Seventies cauldron of Cold War technology, ESP, sociology, black magic and white magic, experimental science and standing stones, secret radar and satanic rituals, whirring aerials and wild moors: a seething potion of Wyndham and Wheatley.

It now has the added pleasure of being very much of its long-haired, flared-trousered, large-collared time, a genuine creation of the period both celebrated and mildly parodied by the Ghost Box record label, The Haunted Generation blog and the fields of folk horror and hauntology. 

At a low-key military establishment in a country house on Dartmoor, run in uneasy alliance with civilian boffins, a team is working on 'biodar', a discovery which can detect and track movement, like radar, but of living beings. It is still in the development stages and is being explored alongside other possibilities such as telepathy, auto-suggestion and heightened perceptions. 

But something strange happens when the biodar is focused on a nearby tor and ancient stone circle: there are no readings. Could this possibly be anything to do with the workings of a witchcraft coven up there? Well . . .

The author was a campaigning pagan and practising witch at a time when neither were easy things to be: he wrote a number of books about aspects of the Wicca religion, including What Witches Do (1971) and, with his wife Janet Farrar, The Witches' Way (1984).

He also wrote a series of SF or occult thrillers, or both combined, and in particular a set publised by Michael Joseph and Arrow paperbacks, beginning with The Twelve Maidens and continuing with The Serpent of Lilith (1976), The Dance of Blood (1977), The Sword of Orley (1977) and Omega (1980). 

With their mingling of technology and the occult they have affinities with William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and his Electric Pentacle, and with the Quatermass novels and films of Nigel Kneale. Stewart Farrar's novels are inventive and vigorous, plot-driven, well-informed and with an inner plausibility. They would make great retro-futurist radio plays.

(Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

An Empty House & Other Stories - Ron Weighell

In his introduction to the revised, Sarob Press, edition of his major collection The White Road (2017), Ron Weighell mentioned that his stories fall into four categories: ‘pastiches of M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Conan Doyle’ and material in his own voice. Of course, all the stories carry his own voice in one way or another, not least in revealing his remarkable knowledge of the history of ancient religion, ritual magic and hermeticism.

Ron was the author of about 55 stories and they are a substantial contribution to the supernatural fiction field, and of notably high quality.

His first published story was ‘Bishop Asgarth’s Chantry’ (Ghosts and Scholars 8, edited by Rosemary Pardoe, 1986), and it shows that he had already perfected the M R James tone, in particular the dry sense of humour (very difficult to get right) and the sly trick of the occasional withdrawal of the narrator’s reach, as when he says that he does not quite know some aspect of the story.

The plot is also in vintage Jamesian terrain, indeed it is essentially a variant on ‘ “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” ’, with a fussy scholar on holiday who unwisely takes a talisman away from an old ruin. We are treated, in addition, to a scruffy second-hand bookshop and indeed bookshop-owner. The climax of the tale is adroitly handled, with just the apt amount of gruesome detail seeping out from a seemly reticence. All in all, here is a story very close to the James ideal.

Following this story, Rosemary Pardoe issued a booklet of four stories, An Empty House and Other Stories from her Haunted Library imprint (1986). The title story concerns the investigations of an academic among the papers of a young curate who had corresponded with the 17th century alchemist Elias Ashmole. These are in the library of an old rectory, and the story nicely evokes the draughtiness of such a place in a bleak December, and the character of the amiable if bumbling incumbent. This plot is also about the unwisdom of disturbing ancient relics, but in this case enriched by a sort of treasure hunt, following a series of recondite clues. The skilfulness of the clues, and the artful use of magical symbols, gives an extra dimension to the story.

‘Diminish Like the Word’ is a variation on ‘Casting the Runes’ in which there is more bookish pleasure in the contemplation of a catalogue over breakfast, though on this occasion it leads to the purchase of a fateful work and the ire of an occultist. Unlike in most James stories, there is a resourceful and determined female character, a welcome development in the exclusive bachelordom of the Jamesian mode. The denouement is neatly devised.

‘The Box Parterre’ pays tribute to ‘Mr Humphreys’ Inheritance’: the mild-mannered protagonist unexpectedly inherits a manor house with a neglected landscaped garden, including topiary and a croquet lawn. The gardener he employs to restore this uncovers a classical statue, which is re-erected. Meanwhile, a visiting friend finds some curious speculations in a strange old book in the library. The reader can soon make a pretty good guess at what is to transpire, but nevertheless we enjoy the sinister unfolding of the tale, which is achieved with nice touches of humour, some highly recondite scholarship, and even sidelights on the devilries of croquet.

‘The First Turning of the Second Stair’ is, as the narrator remarks, a story based upon the suspiciously ill-favoured house which turns out to have a sitting tenant of a particular sort, and it is notable for having a persuasive transcript of a 17th century trial similar to that in James’ ‘Martin’s Close’, full of the vigorous language of the time and some singular evidence, recounted with Pepysian panache and humour.

What these stories establish is that Ron Weighell was from the beginning a very capable Jamesian votary, better indeed than some of those authors of the mid-20th century who were thought of as followers of James. He is much closer to the Jamesian qualities than they often are, there is a good deal of delicately-deployed arcane scholarship on matters both major and minor, and the tales make for most agreeable reading.

Ron Weighell was one of a group of highly accomplished contributors to the early issues of Ghosts & Scholars who excelled at the Jamesian style – others include Roger Johnson, A F Kidd, David Rowlands and Peter Shilston – resulting in a late 20th century flourishing of the antiquarian ghost story, guided by Rosemary Pardoe, which was better in total than anything in this way since James himself.  

(Mark Valentine) 

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Centenary of 'Memoirs of a Midget'

It must have been around this time of year, one hundred years ago, that Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget was on the bookstalls. It was his longest prose work and was to be his last novel. The original inspiration, according to Teresa Whistler’s biography of him (2003), was a visit to a circus as a schoolboy, where he was fascinated by a performer who was a dwarf, and began to imagine his world.

He also always liked miniature objects, and saw them as symbols of a world, dream-like in quality, similar to our own yet different to it. The biographer also suggests there are many aspects of the protagonist of his novel that apply to de la Mare himself, particularly the slightly old-fashioned, reserved character, and the sense of being not quite wholly in this world.

I have to admit to not being previously especially devoted to the book, because it is just a bit too leisurely in pace, too intricate about details, to quite hold the attention over a fairly long narrative. It certainly has some enjoyably eccentric characters and some beguiling episodes, but it requires a certain steadfast patience from the reader as it slowly unfolds. However, I also think it will always reward a fresh look, to discover its thoughtful and curious perspectives.

Though they all have attractive qualities, none of his longer works quite succeed as novels. Henry Brocken (1904) is really a series of episodes, The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910) a children’s story. The Return (1910) is the nearest to working well, though the idea is perhaps a bit over-stretched. The short story form was clearly de la Mare’s true metier. Perhaps he eventually came to accept this. Teresa Whistler reveals that he began, but abandoned, two further novels, Mr Fox, and Mr Cat, in both of which a creature has animal and human traits.

The Memoirs has certainly had its admirers, though. In thanking de la Mare for a copy of the book in a letter of 9 August 1921, Thomas Hardy said that he ‘liked the story very much’, that many parts ‘have so subtle a beauty’, but he thought that it might be wasted on ‘the tribe of ordinary novel readers’. Forrest Reid thought it: ‘Surely the quaintest, curiousest and most enticing romance ever imagined’. The book was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for the best novel of 1921, and it did find some delighted and sympathetic readers, some of whom sent de la Mare exquisite miniature objects in thanks. Katherine Mansfield wrote a letter to the Midget herself, though it went astray.

Doris Ross McCrossan, in her 1966 study of de la Mare in the Twayne’s English Authors series, devotes a whole chapter to the Memoirs, sub-titled ‘The Self Surprised’. She traces some probable literary precursors for the character, particularly Gulliver’s Travels, a ‘very tiny woman’ in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, and the Alice stories, which de la Mare much admired: he wrote a monograph on Lewis Carroll.

But this critic also makes the perceptive point that it is not the fact of its heroine being physically diminutive that is the essence of the book. That is just a device to take the reader at one remove from the everyday world. Rather, it is a story about ‘any sensitive, perceptive individual’, ‘an odyssey of a soul in search of itself in the world of no particular time or place’. This, I think, is an enriching insight into the true quality of the Memoirs, and suggests that the book does have affinities with de la Mare's elusive and enigmatic short stories.

However, that is not to say it is simply a dreamy fairy story or a mystical reverie. Michael Dirda, in discussing the Memoirs in the ‘Everyday Magic’ section of his Classics for Pleasure (2007), observes that it is ‘a book containing a considerable amount of death, violence, madness, and grotesquerie’ if only the reader is alert to what is implied between the lines. He also detects the influence of Henry James. 

The insights of both these critics suggest that, as with de la Mare’s stories, there are several hidden dimensions to this novel. In his oblique, diffident way, de la Mare offers us in Memoirs of a Midget sharp reflections on passion, cruelty, unrequited love, suffering and mortality, as well as his more ethereal themes of strangeness, beauty and wonder. 

(Mark Valentine)