Monday, February 28, 2022

J Sheridan Le Fanu - Irish Master of Mystery - Talk

Editor, author and Wormwood stalwart Jim Rockhill will be giving an illustrated Zoom talk on J Sheridan Le Fanu, Irish Master of Mystery on 28 August 2022 at 2000-2130 BST. 

It is in association with The Viktor Wynd Museum and the Last Tuesday Society. Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland, will host the event. 

The announcement reminds us that M R James was a great enthusiast of Le Fanu:

' In the “Prologue” to Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1925), his invaluable gathering of Le Fanu’s hitherto uncollected stories, no less a practitioner of the form than M. R. James pronounced: “Le Fanu stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories. That is my deliberate verdict, after reading all the supernatural tales I have been able to get hold of. Nobody sets the scene better than he, nobody touches in the effective detail more deftly.” '

Jim is a deep scholar of Le Fanu who has edited collections of his supernatural stories and of essays on the Irish visionary, and (with Brian J Showers) an anthology of stories inspired by him, among many other important editions.

Please follow the link for full details and to book.

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Egg Language

One of the effective devices used in Arthur Machen’s renowned short story ‘The White People’ (Horlick’s Magazine, 1904) is the use of words which apparently mean something important to the nurse and the girl of the story but are not from any known tongue. These include ‘Dôls’, ‘voolas’ ‘the Aklo letters’. Elsewhere, Machen uses in his stories what at first appear to be harmless child-like signs, a hand drawn on a wall, an arrangement of flints, or games, a version of hopscotch, or being counted ‘out’: these prove to have a sinister import.

In this interest in the peculiarities of children’s rhymes, games and lore, even though he was using it for fictional purposes, Machen was ahead of his time. Though it occasionally interested Victorian folklorists and anthropologists, it was not until The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie (1959) that the subject of children’s playground and street culture received significant attention. And Machen’s idea of a child’s secret language, albeit of uncanny origin, was also shrewd, for they do exist.

In one of his journals, the architectural historian James Lees-Milne mentions a private language used by the children of a particular family he knew, noting they were still proficient in it as adults. He refers to it as 'eggy-peggy'. This consisted of adding ‘egg’ before every vowel, or more specifically before the vowel-sound in every syllable. Children could easily become so fluent in it that it was incomprehensible to anyone not in the know. 

A blog post by the romantic novelist Elizabeth Hawksley is the best source I’ve seen on the subject. She calls it Ag, not egg, slang, and gives an example: ‘dago yagou spageak agag slagang’ – do you speak ag slang. She can and does still speak it, as can her brothers and cousins. She says it’s best learnt aged 7-9, as her mother taught her, and she taught her children over a car journey, but is almost impossible to learn as an adult.

From her mother’s use of it she dates it to the interwar period, the 20s and 30s. She notes that it is referenced by Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love (a novel about the Bright Young Things) and is therefore sometimes viewed as a ‘posh’ argot but stresses it is very much not: her own family’s background was lower middle class. [It is actually in Love in a Cold Climate - thanks to a reader for spotting this].

People commenting on her post say they used something similar but used ‘ab’ or ‘ga’. Other versions elsewhere say ‘ig’ or ‘ug’ were used. It is suggested it was primarily a schoolgirl playground language: however, sometimes boys also learnt it. One online forum says it was still in use by school children of all ages in the mid-1960s. It was a word-of-mouth tradition passed on especially between siblings and schoolmates and still used, though not very much spoken about, by some into adulthood.

Speculatively, this made me wonder if the phrase ‘I am the eggman, they are the eggmen’, followed by the nonsense syllables ‘goo goo’ajoob’ in the Lennon/McCartney song ‘I Am the Walrus’ (1967) could be an allusion to the Egg language: the song does use other direct quotations and adaptations from the playground rhymes of John Lennon’s childhood.

But then there is always Humpty Dumpty, the patron saint of private languages: ‘ “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 1871).

There have been other ‘secret languages’ in Britain. A now quite celebrated and well-studied one is Polari, used in gay and theatrical circles in London (mostly) in the Fifties and Sixties, and deployed with comic effect by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as the camp couple Jules and Sandy in the Sixties radio programme ‘Round the Horne’. Another I have caught passing references to is Cockalorum, which seemed to derive from harbour-side argot.

The comedian Stanley Unwin perfected a unique patter involving mangling and rearranging English words into picturesque neologisms, and contributed interludes in this style to the Small Faces’ album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968).

But I suppose in specialist circles the Egg language isn’t technically a ‘language’ as such, since it doesn’t have its own words or private meanings, but is rather a masking or obscuring of an existing language. Elizabeth Hawksley quotes the Oxford Companion to the English Language, noting ‘it’s pretty hazy about the subject – not to say snooty’. The OCEL calls this technique ‘Infix’, a term dating back to the 1880s, which is where ‘the speaker inserts a nonsense syllable before a vowel sound to make it difficult for non-infix speakers to understand what’s being said.’

I have chanced across other infix variations. One is Ssssh, which involved mixing hushing and x sounds in with usual words to get a sibilant effect: another, similarly, involves inserting ‘z’ between syllables. As well as insertions, there may be some versions that use omissions. In Violet Trefusis’ Echo (1931) she mentions that the twins of her story ‘communicated solely with each other in a private language utterly devoid of consonants’: much of her book is semi-autobiographical and this idea is possibly derived from some authentic similar tradition.This would presumably be an 'Exfix'.

There does not seem to be, so far as I can tell, any full study of these practices, as distinct from other informal forms of language, such as slang, jargon, dialect or cant, but some are referenced in Paul Beale, updating Eric Partridge, A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1990). Do any still survive as a living tradition anywhere among children today? How would we know? They are supposed to be a secret. But it could be the case that generational social media jargon, abbreviations and private meanings now perform the same role.

(Mark Valentine)



Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A New Magazine "History, Index and Bibliography" and a New Issue of Biblio-Curiosa

I've written previously about Chris Harte's series of magazine histories, first of The Captain here, and more recently of The Badminton Magazine (and the fascinating associational anthology of Strange Stories of Sport) here. Just published is a new one in the series:  Fores's Sporting Notes & Sketches: 1884-1912: A History, Index and Bibliography (2022). 

Fores's Sporting Notes & Sketches is a journal new to me.  It ran for 116 issues from April 1884 through December 1912. 

This history includes the usual item listing for each issue, as well as sample illustrations and a large number of author photos.  Plus an index of names (including authors, illustrators, etc.).  Familiar names who contributed include Edwin Arnold, Frank Aubrey (also known as Fenton Ash, and Francis Henry Atkins), Frederick Furnivall (an original editor of what has become known as the Oxford English Dictionary),  Coulson Kernahan (an early enthusiast and friend of William Hope Hodgson), and Arthur Quiller-Couch, among many others.

And a new issue of Chris Mikul's zine Biblio-Curiosa has just come out, and though it has only five articles in this issue, all five are unusually interesting. First is a discussion of The Master of the Macabre (1946) by Russell Thorndike.  This is followed by a discussion of an extremely curious book Doctor Transit (1925), by I.S. [Isidor Schneider], which concerns a married couple, each of whom goes through a transformation into the opposite sex.  The third essay is the longest in this issue, and covers the career of Edgar Mittleholzer (1909-1965), remembered for his M.R. Jamesian novel, My Bones and My Flute (1955). Mittleholzer died of self-immolation, dousing himself with petrol before striking a match. 

The final two essays cover two lesser-known books and writers, The Death of the Fuhrer (1972) by Roland Puccetto and Gwenllean (1823) by Mary G. Lewis. This issue is highly recommended.

As usual, inquiries/orders to the author/publisher: chris<dot>mikul88<at>gmail<dot>com.


Sunday, February 20, 2022

This World and That Other

Sarob Press have just announced pre-orders for This World and That Other by John Howard and Mark Valentine. This new volume offers two original novellas influenced by the supernatural and metaphysical thrillers of Charles Williams:

‘In All the Times of the City, John Howard evokes resonances across time and alternate realities in a London that is by turns familiar and unfamiliar. Caught in a strange spiral, his characters move in a changing City threatened by amoral plotters driven by greed and ambition. But visions of alternative possibilities, of what might have been, still haunt their City too. This is a deeply imagined story that immerses the reader in a tense and troubling drama.

In Armed for a Day of Glory, Mark Valentine’s narrator tells us: “The Archdeacon thinks I should begin with the Byzantine cloak, the King of Moab with his shewstone, the young archer with the old yew bow, the Dame with the Great Horn, the laird with his lost banner, and Kate with the escaped dragon. They all have their merits and will have their due turn.” And so they do, in a rip-roaring thriller about an occult conspiracy that only a band of antiquarians and eccentrics can thwart.

This World and That Other follows the duo’s Powers and Presences, also inspired by the work of Charles Williams. The book is a Hand Numbered Limited Edition to Sarob’s usual high standards and publication is currently scheduled for late March/early April 2022.'

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Fitz-James O'Brien Once More

The Diamond Lens, Ferdinand Huszti Horvath 1932

This is the third in a series of three posts questioning the attributions of some short stories to Fitz-James O'Brien. The first was  "Removing a Story (via misattribution) from Fitz-James O'Brien's oeuvre", linked here; the second was "Taking Out another Story from the Fitz-James O'Brien Canon", linked here

"The Diamond Lens" is O'Brien's most famous story. It has been designated as a plagiarism twice, from two very different directions. 

The story appeared anonymously in third issue, January 1858, of the recently founded Atlantic Monthly. Immediately it was attacked, and there was an extensive correspondence about the situation in the New York press in February and March. 

The gist of the controversy is that some friends of William North claimed O'Brien had plagiarized a story by North, who (like O'Brien) had come to America in the early 1850s, after which he and O'Brien had become companions and friends. North killed himself by drinking Prussic acid on 14 November 1854, a little over three years before the publication of "The Diamond Lens." North's friends claimed vociferously that O'Brien had plagiarized an unpublished tale by North called "Dew Drop" or "Microcosmos."

On North's side, one said:

Among other things which he [North] wrote, was a delicious little fantasy called the 'Dew Drop' in which he saw a fairy-like and beautiful city; soon in this city he distinguished a house, in the front of the house a balcony, upon which the form of a beautiful girl, whom he watched until he became intoxicated with love for her. By and by, an elegant young man comes along, who is received with favor by the lovely maiden, whereupon the poor imaginary lover became so jealous that he dashed his dew drop to pieces, thus destroying his whole castle in the air at one blow. 

This story was circulated only in manuscript among a few intimate friends, and the idea has been wholly transferred to the "Diamond Lens," in which Mr. O'Brien sees everything that Mr. North saw in the "Dew Drop." It is mixed with some German diablerie, but all the touching, tender poetic beauty of the original is retained. (J.J, the New York correspondent of the New Orleans Delta, 7 February 1858, quoted in The New York Times, 26 February 1858)

O'Brien leapt to his own defense:

I assert, without any reservation whatever, that I am the sole author of the story called "The Diamond Lens," which was published in the January number of the Atlantic Monthly; that I am indebted to no one for any portion of the plot or language; and that previous to its composition I never had any knowledge, direct or indirect, of any similar story, whether by Mr. North or any other person. (quoted in The New York Times, 5 March 1858)
Then O'Brien curiously states:

I am very well aware that a story called "Microcosmos" was sent by Mr. Wm. North to the editor of a leading Magazine in this City. This tale was promptly rejected on account of its incoherence. The editor of the Magazine in question has a distinct recollection of Mr. North's story and states that it did not bear the slightest resemblance to "The Diamond Lens." (quoted in The New York Times, 5 March 1858)

And the controversy continued, but it could never come to any resolution, then or now, one hundred sixty-odd years later, for no manuscript of North's tale survives. We are left merely to wonder about the controversy. 

A more recent charge of plagiarism has also been levied against "The Diamond Lens." In The Literary Fantastic (1990), Neil Cornwell remarked on the similarities between Vladimir Odoevsky's "Sil'fida" ("The Sylph") and O'Brien's tale. His subsequent discovery of a translation, from an 1855 French edition of Odoevsky, attributed to O'Brien (and discussed in the second part of this series), heightened his suspicion into a charge of plagiarism, for Odoevsky's "Sylph" also appears in the French translation from which the other story certainly derived. 

In comparing the two stories, Cornwell wrote:

Both stories feature sylphs, observed with the naked eye in a vase of water (Odoevsky) or through a microscope in a drop of water (O'Brien). In both the sylphs are surrounded by poetic worlds of great beauty; the protagonists fall in love with their sylphs and lapse into madness when they lose contact with them. ("Piracy and Higher Realism: The Strange Case  of Fitz-James O'Brien and Vladimir Odoevsky" in Vladimir Odoevsky and Romantic Poetics: Collected Essays, by Neil Cornwell, 1998, p. 157). 
Which sounds damning, but reading the two stories in succession, Odoevsky first and then O'Brien, I found the style and content extremely different in the two tales, and feel that Cornwell has centered on a few almost insignificant points of similarity. But for O'Brien's use of the word sylph (once), the stories are very different, and O'Brien grounds his sylph in alchemy in ways that Odoevsky does not. It is not (to me) plagiarism.  The worst (legitimate) charge one could make against O'Brien is that he might have used one idea from Odoevsky as a springboard for an entirely different story. 

Cornwell's own translation of "The Sylph" from the Russian into English is available in The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales: Eight Stories by Vladimir Odoevsky (1992). Try it  yourself. I think "The Diamond Lens" is the superior tale, wherever O'Brien got some of its ingredients from (North or Odoevsky or both). 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Soanyway Magazine

Soanyway is an independent online magazine, edited by Derek Horton and Gertrude Gibbons, interested in work that tells stories using any combination of words, images and sounds. Volume 2 Issue Eleven, with the theme of redux, includes my piece ‘Qx’, a brief book-collecting episode, hovering between fiction and non-fiction.

This issue also includes work by Sean Ashton, Nicol Allen, Sophie Bouvier Ausländer, Fiona Glen, Sara Kleib, Rebecca Lowe, Navid Memar & amata Studio, Yukako Tanaka, Franco Troiani, Fred Tschida & Richard William Wheater, Joshua Whittaker, Mark Wingrave, Luka Savić, Frank Wasser, and a cover image by Joyce Treasure.

(Mark Valentine)