Sunday, November 28, 2021

Dancing With Salome - Nina Antonia

Wormwood contributor Nina Antonia earlier explored the life and work of Decadent poet Lionel Johnson, and has now published a book about “the dark magic of the 1890s”. Dancing with Salome – Courting the Uncanny with Oscar Wilde and Friends, is a collection of interlinked essays on Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and the fin-de-siecle period, with a particular focus on the esoteric.

This new publication “unmasks the occult aspects of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, while exploring how the unseen manifested not just in the author’s life but in that of his love interest, Lord Alfred Douglas”. It notes that Aubrey Beardsley would not have Wilde’s books in his rooms because he sensed there was a curse upon them, and investigates the origins of this sense of a doom upon Wilde. The book also discusses the mingling of eroticism and mysticism that pervaded the Decadent movement, and traces the influence of the Order of the Golden Dawn.


Friday, November 26, 2021

Wormwood 37

Wormwood 37 has just been announced. This issue includes:

John Howard on the many dimensions of Fritz Leiber

Tom Sparrow on Henry Mercer, author of antiquarian ghost stories

Oliver Kerkdijk on Dutch fantasist Henri van Booven

Colin Insole on the modern ghost stories of Robert Westall

Adrian Eckerseley with a new view of Machen’s The Hill of Dreams

Mark Valentine on the figure of Arthur in the 1970s

In our review columns, Reggie Oliver discusses books where the past haunts the present, and John Howard looks at books with settings ranging from Atlantis to Zurich.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Bernard Sellin and David Lindsay

Of the small number of books ever written on David Lindsay (1876-1945), author of A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), I wrote about the first one in Wormwood no. 36 (Spring 2021), "David Lindsay: The Forging of a Literary Reputation." This covers the multi-authored volume The Strange Genius of David Lindsay (1970), by Colin Wilson, E.H. Visiak and J.B. Pick. 

The next important appraisal of Lindsay came out in 1981, The Life & Works of David Lindsay (Cambridge University Press), by Bernard Sellin, translated from the French by Kenneth Gunnell. This was a reworking of Sellin's thesis at the Sorbonne, David Lindsay (1878 [sic]-1945): sa vie, son oeuvre (1977). I learned of Sellin's book via a review by Humphrey Carpenter in the TLS of 19 June 1981. I was then in regular correspondence with Humphrey, and mentioned my interest in Lindsay in my next letter to him.  By transatlantic return mail, came his review copy of the book (with a short presentation inscription, "Doug-- hope it's of interest! Humphrey"), and I was very grateful. If not the foundation of my forty-plus years of David Lindsay obsession, it was certainly a milestone, a bedrock book with lots of new information on Lindsay's life (and a rare photograph of Lindsay on the dust-wrapper), and an extensive analysis of his writings. In 1981, the book was priced £17.50, which seemed exorbitant, but it quickly went out of print and became a sought-after item in the rare books trade. Finally, in February 2007, a print-on-demand trade paperback facsimile (also priced high at £25.99) was made available.  

I had some contact with Professor Sellin, beginning in 2005, when he had heard about the publication of Lindsay's "A Christmas Play" in my anthology Tales Before Tolkien (2003), and wrote to me asking for details. We swapped books and articles over the next few months. Sadly, I just learned that he passed away in August of this year, so I post this as a small memorial to him for his work on Lindsay. 

Photo from article here.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Sime Again?

Another Sime-related reference that has proven elusive over the years is to a novel by Arnold Golsworthy called Death and the Woman, published by Laurence Greening in 1898. Sime is supposed to have done the cover design. Of course the story is more complicated that this. 

Arnold [Holcombe] Golsworthy (1865-1939) is probably best remembered as an editor, though he also published a number of books, mostly in the 1890s. He co-founded and co-edited with Leonard Raven-Hill the literary magazine The Butterfly, which emphasized art and humor. It ran for ten issues in 1893-1894, and was resurrected for another twelve issues in 1899-1900. His fiction all appeared from smaller, off-trail publishers, and included  Death and the Women (1895); Hands in the Darkness (1899); A Cry in the Night (1899); and The New Master (1901). Two further novels appeared under the pseudonym Arnold Holcombe, The Odd Man (1910) and A Little World (1913), before his final book, The Fanatic: A Drama in Verse (1925) appeared as by Golsworthy. 

The bibliographically attentive may note that I date Death and the Woman to 1898 in the first paragraph, and to 1895 in the second. This is not a mistake, even though the British Museum Catalogue does not list any 1895 edition. However, the English Catalogue of Books notes the October 1895 release of the book (2s 6d from Simpkin), and this edition was reviewed in the Glasgow Herald for 24 October 1895.The Greening edition, co-published with the Favourite Publishing Company, came out in June 1898 at 1s, and was noted as a "New ed." in The English Catalogue of Books. This edition has the Sime cover, but it was not original to the book. Death and the Woman was also serialized in the short-lived magazine called Eureka, which was founded in 1897 and for a time co-edited by Sidney Sime.  Sime's illustration appeared with the serialized Golsworthy novel. 

Death and the Woman is a rare book today, in any form. Below is the cover.  Credit goes to The Bookseller on Safari blog, where there is very interesting posting about the book and author, under the title "A Very Shocking Shocker" by Laurence Worms of Ash Rare Books.  Read it here

Friday, November 19, 2021

Is this a Sime illustration?

Some years ago, I found a cryptic reference in "The Published Drawings of Sidney Sime," a bibliography by Geoffrey Beare and Martin Steenson, to a cheap edition of The Lunatic at Large by J. Storer Clouston that supposedly has a color dust-wrapper design by Sime. This edition was reportedly published by Blackwood, ca. 1916, and it was "subsequently issued with the dust-wrapper design in black and white." 

J[oseph] Storer Clouston (1870-1944) was a prolific Scottish author. The Lunatic at Large was originally published in 1899. A recent edition was published by McSweeney's in 2007.  The publisher's blurb describes the book as follows:

McSweeney's is pleased to announce the return of a much-loved Victorian comic masterpiece—the anarchic novel that ushered in the age of Wodehouse and Waugh. Meet Francis Beveridge, the newest resident of Clankwood, home of "the best-bred lunatics in England." At least, Beveridge seems to be his name, as it's the one sewn into all his clothes. But rather than attending his asylum's Saturday dances, Beveridge prefers to go on the lam in London, attendants in red-faced pursuit. So when the traveling German noble Baron Rudolf von Blitzenberg finds himself at the luxurious Hotel Mayonnaise without a guide to this strange land's customs, who better than the amnesiac Englishman who materializes by his side—a splendid tutor in bringing rail stations to a standstill, the best way to fake a rabies attack, and how to crash London's most exclusive clubs, quite literally. 

It hardly sounds like a book that Sime would have been chosen to illustrate (or to have chosen himself). And though I have observed a number of editions, none of the covers looked at all like they might have been by Sime. Until now. Here is a black-and-white dust-wrapper, apparently from the 1910s and published by Blackwood. Could this be by Sime?  Maybe. Something about the figures seem Sime-like, but I'm not entirely convinced. Thoughts? 

Friday, November 12, 2021

An Interview with Peter Bell

In August, Sarob Press announced Sacred and Profane, a new collection of seven supernatural stories by Peter Bell, and in September the Swan River Press published a paperback edition of his 2012 collection Strange Epiphanies. 

We’re pleased to present an interview with Peter about his work.

Q Do you think your background as a historian influences the themes of your stories? For example, do you see the hauntings in your fiction as metaphors for the way history continues to resonate?

Inevitably as a historian many of my stories draw on a deep fund of historical knowledge and understanding; but it is very much on an instinctive or subconscious level, rather than due to an intention to write a ‘historical’ tale―as M.R. James likewise employed his antiquarian erudition. Moreover, I see my historical expertise as part of a wider spectrum, embracing folklore, literature, culture and general knowledge. A historian’s skills however―researching and interpreting a complexity of fact and opinion―are crucial.

In Sacred & Profane empathy with the cruel events of Irish history infuses ‘Lullaby’, but it is equally a tale about ‘second sight’, omens and legends, as well as being an account of an ancient shrine I visited, hidden away in the Blue Stack mountains of County Donegal. ‘The Strange Death of Sophie van der Wielen’ addresses the most notorious atrocity of the last century, but its motive force is broader: a quest into the ancient, violent heartland of Europe, land of the vampire, a meditation on the persistence of evil―thus an exploration of the book’s central theme: the dubious boundary between sacred and profane. Stephanie, in ‘Stigmata’, is haunted by echoes of the Albigensian Crusade, but the story has broader relevance as a fantasia upon religious angst and her crisis of faith, with an ending that can be seen as serendipitous or ironic. In ‘The Ice House’ historically authentic cruelty and moral bigotry are apprehended through psychic phenomena. Indeed, most of the best stories in the supernatural canon are about the shadow of the past menacing the present, and I work myself within that accommodating framework.

One thing I have learned from History is that there is no such thing as absolute truth, only different versions, mediated through layers of fragmentary, erroneous, tendentious or otherwise unreliable narrative. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is, of course, a constant of fiction. In my story ‘Haunted’ the personal history of its tragic heroine, Virginia, cannot be ascertained, even in her own mind: the narrative moves through a series of potentially defective accounts: her friend, narrator Pauline’s testament; a mother’s gossip; news reports of varying credibility and veracity; the local history booklet’s fusion of fact and fable; the man who invents his own urban legend; Virginia’s incomplete, half-remembered or misremembered, account of her experiences; the speculative hearsay relayed by a third party; and the inconclusive verdict on Virginia’s fate. ‘Haunted’ can equally be interpreted as a ghost story or as a tale of psychological trauma. Structurally, I was influenced by the novels of Phyllis Paul, especially Twice Lost, wherein the same pattern of evidence can furnish several, mutually inconsistent, ‘explanations’. This kind of ambiguity permeates many a historical controversy. Truth is subjective, not objective.

Q Many of your stories are notable for a strong sense of place. Do you find that particular places seem, when you encounter them, to call out for a story?

Genius loci is central to my stories, typically arising from a landscape seeming to invite a weird tale, not so much its physical reality as its mood. This also encompasses internal space, like the church in ‘The Shadow of the Cross’―encountered one stifling day last year in the Yorkshire Wolds―or the abbey in ‘The Ice House’, which I visited one chilly day on a university ‘away-day’. The church in ‘Strange Death’ was partly inspired by an uncannily vivid dream, in which I witnessed an Orthodox service in all its panoply: years later, entering such a church in Germany, the interior, disconcertingly, replicated my dream!  An eerie sense of place underlies ‘Haunted’ where a mysterious ‘unadopted road’, beside a Liverpool park used to fill me with a strange disquiet. ‘A Wee Dram for the Road’ evokes the moors of Aberdeenshire, depopulated by the hunting estates, grimly inhospitable in winter, where a friend ran aground as described―fortunately finding rescue amid more worldly Highland hospitality!

A few of my tales are set in places I have never been: the Pyrenees in ‘Stigmata’; Eastern Europe in ‘Strange Death’. And in my first book, Strange Epiphanies (now reprinted in paperback by Swan River Press): the Italian Apennines in ‘The Light of the World’; and Transylvania in ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’. By extrapolation from more familiar landscapes, and some basic research, my imagination is left free to extemporise and complete the picture.

Certainly, I would testify to a nuance of the uncanny in some places. In Strange Epiphanies I have a story ‘M.E.F’ based on a true tragedy, which I was inspired to fictionalise as a result of a strange atmosphere possessing me while searching the wild moors of Iona. Many a writer and traveller have recorded similar. Level-headed John Buchan recounts in his memoirs how he fled in inexplicable panic from a woodland in Bavaria; intrepid nature writer, Roger Deakin, tells of shunning a deserted church in the Ukraine, similarly menacing. Such is the essence of Pan, a myth much to do with genius loci..              

Q Your stories also draw convincingly on genuine folk traditions, still surviving in modern times. What role do you think such traditions still have – what need do they meet?

Folklore affords a rich treasury of ideas for supernatural fiction, as numerous authors display, like Machen and Blackwood. Folklore is important for me, infiltrating many of my stories. Hebridean and Celtic lore fascinate me: the fearful ‘Washer at the Ford’ and the eerie ‘Selkie’ legend infuse a favourite tale ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’ in Strange Epiphanies. And the setting for this story was critical: a remote cottage on a private island in western Scotland that had its own strange atmosphere, which demanded a tale. Indeed, folklore cannot be divorced from a sense of place. Nor from the historical context. After all, what is folklore but the oral record of a more ‘primitive’ community? It should not be sniffed at indulgently as mere ‘fairy tales’ as if its originators were childish or stupid. And there are many aspects of folklore still respected in the Celtic fringes, which even if regarded as metaphor, hold enduring significance. There is much sense in the ‘old wives’ tales’. Folklore has always been a way of apprehending a world which―despite  the conceit of our contemporary era―is, in Machen’s phrase, ‘still all mystery’.