Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Two Novels by Joel Lane

Influx Press have announced pre-orders for the welcome republication of two novels by Joel Lane:

From Blue to Black 

Birmingham, early 1990s. Triangle are a cult act on the post-punk scene, led by brilliant and troubled vocalist Karl – a man haunted by past violence and present danger, torn between fame and oblivion, men and women, music and silence. 

With a new introduction by Kerry Hadley-Pryce.

The Witnesses Are Gone

Moving into an old and decaying house, Martin Swann discovers a box of video cassettes in the garden shed. One of them is a bootleg copy of a morbid and disturbing film by obscure French director, Jean Rien. The discovery leads Martin on a search for the director’s other films . . . drawing him away from his home and his lover into a shadowy realm of secrets, rituals and creeping decay. 

With a new introduction by M. John Harrison. 

The novels share the qualities of his strongly-imagined short stories of urban decay, uncanny desolation and the poetic macabre. 

Joel Lane's writing is informed by his thoughtful understanding of the weird fiction tradition, as in the essays collected in This Spectacular Darkness. As Phil Baker noted in the Times Literary Supplement, 'Joel Lane . . . was an exceptionally astute and sympathetic critic of supernatural horror . . . For Lane, worthwhile supernatural horror is always about something more: a displacement and distillation that crystallizes human situations in a moment of of metaphorical truth'.

(Mark Valentine)

 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Centenary of The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

After David Lindsay's first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, was published in 1920, his next novel was serialized in The Daily News newspaper of London from the 30th of August 1921, through the 23rd of September.  Thus today marks the centenary of the completed serialized publication of The Haunted Woman

An extensive analysis of "The Haunted Woman in The Daily News" appears at The Violet Apple.org.  (Direct link here.)  

A brief announcement of the serial, together with a photograph of Lindsay and his baby daughter, appeared in the newspaper on 29th August. 



Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Mysteries of The Tempest - A Note on Colin Still

Names & Natures: Memories of Ten Men (1968) is a volume of autobiographical essays by Richard Heron Ward, told through his encounters with friends and acquaintances, in a similar way to Frank Baker’s I Follow But Myself (1968) and Julian Symons’ Notes from Another Country (1972). This is an approach I always find attractive and interesting.

Richard Heron Ward (1910-1969) is probably best known now for his The Powys Brothers: A Study (1935), written in his early twenties. He became a versatile writer, playwright and broadcaster, with over thirty titles to his name in the British Library catalogue. His A Drug-Taker’s Notes (1957) records his experiments with LSD.

One essay in Names & Natures is on Edgar Jepson, whom he knew as an old man in Chesham Bois, Bucks, an affectionate portrayal of this worldly, witty novelist, who was also interested in the esoteric. There is a brief vignette about Jepson’s friend Arthur Machen, with further testimony to his lethal punch drink, as concocted and freely dispensed on the occasion of Amersham Fair.

As is often the case in memoirs, it is the minor figures who prove unexpectedly interesting. Ward has a chapter on Colin Still, who described himself as a ‘literary journalist’, which Ward rather unkindly translates as ‘hack’. He did editing, of the anonymous sort, for publishers, and was a reader for publishers too, and also wrote articles and reviews. Ward describes the somewhat frowsty and shabby top floor flat that Still and his wife Ella occupied in London, with their cat. Ward, who regarded himself as an aesthete, thought it was furnished and ornamented in garish taste, and that Still himself only just avoided this in his tailoring.

As will be gathered, Ward presents himself as a frank writer who sees and describes his subjects, including himself, ‘warts and all’. Another chapter gives a harsh critique of Charles Williams, whom he barely knew. He found Williams physically repellent because he ‘writhed’ so much and had a ‘common’ accent. These points say more about Ward than Williams, who ‘writhed’ because of a childhood illness which left him with a hand tremor, and whose accent was that of his upbringing in lower-middle-class London. 

His portrait of Still's lodgings is intended as a contrast to the majesty and wonder of Still’s ‘one book’, The Timeless Theme: A Critical Theory Formulated and Applied (Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1936). Ward is astounded by the contrast between the man he knew, and his surroundings and circumstances, and the beauty of thought and breadth of scholarship in the book. 

There had in fact, he explains, been an earlier volume, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (Cecil Palmer, 1921), but the later one was an elaboration of this, and incorporated within it, so he regards them as one work. The earlier title in some ways gives a better sense of his theory, essentially that The Tempest is closely shaped in the form of an initiation into the Greek Mysteries.

Still’s work is in type quite like those of the Renaissance scholar Dr Frances Yates, in that he follows in illuminating detail the development of a system of symbolism. He proposes that the influence of the  initiatory rites of the Greek Mysteries pervades much great literature, and he illustrates this with examples, culminating in his study of The Tempest. The book is informed by a deep understanding of mythology and of occult or esoteric ideas: another comparison might be with Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Both of Still’s books, which came out from relatively small publishers and perhaps not in great numbers, are now very uncommon in their original editions, although photocopied reprints of the first one may be found. The later book, in particular, seems still to have admirers and a word-of-mouth reputation. It is perhaps necessary to add that it does not belong to any of the more peculiar byways of Shakespeare scholarship, but is closely and thoughtfully argued, and won respect from scholars such as G. Wilson Knight and Northrop Frye.

According to the British Library catalogue, Colin Still was born in 1888. Ward reports that he went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham (and had a faint Birmingham accent). Presumably this would have been around the years 1899-1906, when he was 11 to 18 years old. If so, he would have been a near-contemporary there of J R R Tolkien, four years his junior, and Eric Brett Young, five years his junior, the brother of the Worcestershire novelist Francis Brett Young, and also an author. After leaving school, Still seems to have made his way as a jobbing journalist and man-of-letters, but all the while meditating his real work on the Tempest theme.

Ward relates that he met Still’s wife by chance in the street in the early years of the Second World War and learned then that his former acquaintance was dead, but he does not say when, and perhaps did not find out. Nor does he say why, but he had earlier noted that Still seemed to have indifferent health, so presumably it was due to some long-standing illness.

In fact, Still died on 7 May 1940 at University College Hospital, London W1. He had been living at The Goodwins, St Margaret’s Bay, Kent. This cliffside settlement near Dover was also the home at various times of Peter Ustinov, Noel Coward and Ian Fleming. His fairly modest effects of about £2,000 were left to his wife, whose full name was Ellen Jessie Eugenie Still. There is no record of her death under that name, though she may have remarried

Ward frankly admits that, though he admired the Tempest book greatly, he did not feel any personal loss— he had not known Still all that well— but at least we must be grateful to him for this personal portrait of an otherwise largely forgotten figure, and in particular for drawing attention to his interesting and profound theory, his 'one book'. The story of Colin Still is also emblematic of the devoted and inspired scholar working away in obscurity on a singular work, never properly acclaimed, yet never quite forgotten.

 (Mark Valentine)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Mushroom Man - A Note on E C Large

Professor Roger Smith at literary conferences liked to tell with impish humour of improbable authors such as Dame Lalage Ferris-Fermor, the expert on Byzantine architecture and author of rococo novels.

And so when he spoke of E C Large, the author of Sugar in the Air, about a scientist who discovers how to distil a sweet sap from the atmosphere, and Asleep in the Afternoon, where whole communities suddenly succumb to slumber, we suspected these were his inventions.

Ah yes, March of the Mushrooms, he added, that was another of his: they’re taking over you know, they’ll be here when we’re long gone. This with a slow thoughtful nod.

The first two titles turned out to be true. They are excellent 1930s scientific romances, imaginative and enjoyably eccentric, which both reflect the inevitable influence of Wells but also look forward to the 'cozy catastrophes' of John Wyndham.

But it was a while before we found out about the third, which sounded plausible, yet proved to be curiously elusive. This was because it was really called The Advance of the Fungi (1950: the Professor’s title was better). And it is not a novel, but a text book, thought it must be conceded that the dustwrapper of the US edition (illustrated) does have a distinctly Wyndham-ish look to it.

There is a diagram in it of the millions of years when the fungi ruled all, with just a sliver of human time afterwards. Great arrows then show the fungi overleaping this and triumphing once again. The spores are everywhere, that is clear.

The tree-stump saprophytes like pale Gothic lords wait in their dank abodes, sating themselves on decay; the creeping crimson vampire rust lingers on leaves, sucking out lives; the dandy toadstools pose in masquerade. These are their days, as the book explains.

And there was a third novel, Dawn in Andromeda (1956), about humans surviving on another planet as part of a cosmic experiment. It turns out that humans will be humans, for good or ill, wherever you put them. One copy available online has tipped-in to it “a fragment of the original rhubarb papyrus” (presumably as featured in the story) with a dedication from Large to a friend. There is a discussion of the book, and early wireless and SF fans, by Charlotte Sleigh, at the Science Museum Journal.

Large was a plant scientist specialising in the enemies of vegetation: he was also the author, with A E Cox, of Potato Blight Epidemics Throughout the World (1960). The Large completist may be tempted even by this.

An excellent celebration of him, God’s Amateur: The Writing of E C Large edited by Stuart Bailey and Robin Kinross, was published by the Hyphen Press in 2008 (they have also reprinted his first two novels). 

It includes a study of his work, a bibliography, a selection from his essays and papers, some reproduced in facsimile from his typescripts, and the author’s own biographical note, which begins: ‘My concern with the fungi began when I was a schoolboy . . .’

(Mark Valentine)
 

Monday, September 13, 2021

James Branch Cabell: Literary Life and Legacy

The Virginia Commonwealth University has just announced a major new resource for the promotion and study of the works of James Branch Cabell. This digital project has a wealth of material. The main link is here,  but it's worth reading the press release as well, here, from which I quote the two introductory paragraphs:

VCU Libraries has launched a digital hub focused on the literary work, impact and life of Richmond writer James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), who was the author of 52 works of fiction and nonfiction and is the namesake of Virginia Commonwealth University’s library on the Monroe Park Campus.

The site, James Branch Cabell: Literary Life and Legacy, aims to serve scholars, general readers and fans of Richmond and Virginia history. It includes sections on Cabell’s biography; his books, essays and short stories; scholarship and criticism; illustrations, adaptations and other art inspired by his work; and Cabell at VCU.


Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Two Versions of THE THING IN THE WOODS

It was back in 2000 that Stefan Dziemianowicz revealed here that the 1913 UK-published novel The Thing in the Woods by Margery Williams was “modestly revised” to be the 1924 US-published novel of the same title by “Harper Williams.”  And since that time I have wondered just what the differences amount to between the two editions.  So has my friend Russ Bernard, who recently compared the two versions closely, and with his permission I summarize here what he discovered. 

Margery Williams (1881-1944) was a British-writer who spent much of her early life in Pennsylvania, where she was educated.  Her most famous work was The Velveteen Rabbit (1922). The pseudonym “Harper Williams” was an amalgam of her mother’s maiden surname (she was Florence Emily Harper) and her father’s surname (he was Robert Williams).

The 1913 book has twenty-one chapters; the 1924 version has twenty-two.  The chapter titles are pretty much the same for the first 18 chapters (save for chapter 14, which was first “The Call in the Night” and was subsequently altered to “The Cry in the Night”).  Chapters 19 through 21 in the 1913 version (“A New Clue”; “The Thing in the Mill”; and “Conclusion”) are expanded into four chapters in the 1924 book (“The Mill Dam”; “What We Found in the Saw-Mill”; “The Thing in the Woods” and “The Silver Bullet”).

In the first eighteen chapters, the text has been lightly revised, sometimes replacing British terms (tyre, petrol) with American equivalents (tire, gasoline). But there are a number of other changes that are stylistic in nature.

The major changes begin with chapter 19 of the 1913 book. Three chapters have been altered, rewritten, and expanded to become four chapters in the 1924 edition. According to Russ, the US version adds some chase scenes to heighten the suspense, and to establish  that the “thing” has unusual strength and endurance. The “thing” itself is not called a “werewolf” but appears to be intended to be thought of as one. Russ found the 1913 ending somewhat standard for the monster books of the period, and while the 1924 version ends basically in the same way, it makes for a better reading experience for most readers.

 


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Can You Hear the Worms Laughing?

Just a quick note to recommend a magnificent audio performance of James Prideaux's short play, Laughter in the Shadow of the Trees, directed by Stephen Jarrett, with an excellent three person cast. It tells of a well-known critic whose mind is nearly gone, and how it affects him, his wife, and their daughter. It is a macabre meditation on ageing, life, and the end of life.  

It's 38 minutes long, and as it is hosted by Broadway on Demand for the month of September, there is a small fee (I think it is US$5), and can be found at this link.  

James Prideaux (1927-2015) was an America playwright who also wrote film scripts.  Katharine Hepburn starred in three of his films. 

Laughter in the Shadow of the Trees was originally produced in 1995 by the BBC World Service, with a cast of Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, and Elizabeth Bell.

Friday, September 3, 2021

On the Trail of an Early Lost Dunsany Publication

Lord Dunsany's first known publication was an eighteen-line poem, "Rhymes from a Suburb," which appeared in The Pall Mall Magazine for September 1897. It is signed "Edward Plunkett" because the title of "Lord Dunsany" did not pass on to him (Edward) until the death of his father in 1899. ("Rhymes from a Suburb" was republished as an attractive broadside by Pegana Press in 2009, for ordering information see here, and scroll down the page.) 

But recently I came across a new-to-me reference to what appears to be another very early publication. It comes in a letter from 1897 by Dunsany's uncle, Horace Plunkett (1854-1932), to Lady Betty Balfour. It reads:

See in the next Homestead, or September Pall Mall Magazine, p. 135, some lines by a nephew of mine, aetat 18. They are a happiness to me. If you knew the boy and his parents you would marvel at the product of his brain. He has a talent for chess and for upsetting things. He can draw a nightmare, but that he can write simple and rather musical English is a revelation which gladdens the avuncular heart. (quoted in Horace Plunkett: An Anglo-American Irishman (1949), by Margaret Digby, p. 152)
We don't have the exact date of the letter (beyond 1897), and young Edward Plunkett would have turned 19 on 24th of July 1897. Since Horace give the page number of the September Pall Mall Magazine, it was evidently already published (perhaps in August), and The Irish Homestead was a weekly newspaper founded in 1895 by Horace Plunkett (and edited by others). So, evidently the next issue after this letter was written was to have something in it by "Edward Plunkett." This would likely be circa August to October 1897. I don't have easy access presently to The Irish Homestead to look for it. Perhaps someone reading this does, and can look for whatever it is and share the result, which I'd be happy to post here.