Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Recent editions of old books

 A couple of recent books I've edited and introduced that may be of interest to readers.

H.T.W. Bousfield, The Unknown Island, collects eight of Bousfield's short stories that appeared mostly in the 1930s in the slick magazines of the day.  He's an interesting English author, best known for 'The God With Four Arms,' which Richard Dalby reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories 2.

The book is available from Ramble House.

The Vampire is a rare novel published by occult specialists Rider, and appeared in 1913, the year after Rider published the 9th edition of Dracula.  Presumably The Vampire was conceived to cash in on the success of its famous predecessor.  The author, Reginald Hodder, was a New Zealander, a relative of the Hodder family of publishers, and the introduction looks in some detail at his life.

Also published by Ramble House, this one is available from Amazon.

Finally, a reprint of Australian Nightmares, part of an anthology series I put together some years ago.  Wildside/Borgo has reprinted the other two books in the series, Australian Gothic and Australian Hauntings, and this is the last.

This one is also available from Amazon.  And here are the contents, slightly revised from the previous edition:

Mary Fortune - The Blighted Meadow
Charles Junor - The Silent Sepulchre
Ernest Favenc - What the Rats Brought
Ernest Favenc - On the Island of Shadows
Hume Nisbet - The Odic Touch
J.A. Barry - Told in the 'Corona's' Cabin on Three Evenings
Rosa Praed - The House of Ill Omen
Morley Roberts - A Thing of Wax
James Edmund - The Prophetic Horror of the Great Experiment
James Edmund - The Precipitous Details of the High Mountain and the Three Skeletons
Lionel Sparrow - The Strange Case of Alan Heriot
Beatrice Grimshaw - The Blanket Fiend
James Francis Dwyer - The Phantom Ship of Dirk Van Tromp
Dulcie Deamer - The Devil's Ball
Helen Simpson - The Pledge
Vernon Knowles - The Watch
Vernon Knowles - The House That Took Revenge
Roger Dard - The Undying One

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Finest Quality Old English Yarns - A Choice of Twenty

In one of Michael Innes’ very enjoyable detective novels he has a character who is, like him, the author of fairly popular thrillers and she feels rather the ill-concealed disdain for her work by fellow-writers who have more literary aspirations (though fewer readers).

I have not to hand the exact quotation, but there is a passage where we may suppose Innes was speaking on behalf of his own books too when his character says, in effect, that good yarns do have their merit, particularly as a solace for people in tricky times or as a pleasing diversion from hard realities, and so on. It is these books readers turn to when they need reading most, she avers.

I was reflecting on this, and thinking the other day which ‘yarns’ have given me the most pleasure so that I look back upon them, and indeed re-read them, with fondness. I then tried to come up quickly with as frank a list I could of such titles. Not the ones I thought I ought to include, not necessarily ones that mark particular points in my life, but those that I read, and still read, with the most enthusiasm and delight.

I have of course done various versions of this list, which changes almost every time I look at it, but here it is just now:   

The Man Who Was Thursday – G K Chesterton (1908)

Undergrowth – Francis & Eric Brett Young (1913)

The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)

The Rector of Maliseet – Leslie Reid (1925)

Cups Wands Swords – Helen Simpson (1927)

Armed With Madness – Mary Butts (1928)

War in Heaven – Charles Williams (1930)

Look to the Lady – Margery Allingham (1931)

The Place of the Lion – Charles Williams (1931)

Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham (1933)

The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L Sayers (1934)

Old King Cole – Edward Shanks (1936)

The Dark Frontier – Eric Ambler (1936)

Picture of Nobody – Philip Owens (1936)

The Secret Vanguard – Michael Innes (1940)

The Devil in Crystal – Louis Marlow (1944)

Appleby’s End – Michael Innes (1945)

The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin (1946)

Conor Sands – Elisabeth Kyle (1952)

The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham (1953)

What, no Arthur Machen? Well, no: because I prefer his short stories, and though his novels (or romances as he called them) have many fine qualities, they are not exactly yarns, except for The Three Impostors, and that is really an album of linked short stories. Perhaps I ought to include The Great Return though. And what about Sarban's The Doll-Maker? Choice of 22, anyone?

The Buchan will cause no surprise, but the Ambler is not so well-known and is an excellent chase thriller too, and with a Ruritanian dimension, much to my taste. I was surprised by how quickly the two Allinghams came to mind – she can be uneven, but one of these has a madcap Ruritanian element too, and the other concerns a Grail-like holy cup and ritual, another great interest, as do Armed With Madness and War in Heaven. I might almost have added Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke also, which has some richly bizarre scenes, but it is for me just a bit too crowded with picturesque incident.

The Chesterton is the only novel of his that I thoroughly enjoy, and also has a very extravagant plot, which continues to be great fun even when you know the secret of it, and it has a sublime final scene.

There are several other Michael Innes I might have chosen (eg The Journeying Boy) for their sheer story-telling gusto, but Appleby’s End has a darkly comic Gothic dimension which I regard with affection and The Secret Vanguard is another great chase thriller, and with eccentric characters too. There might equally be more by Edmund Crispin, but to my mind The Moving Toyshop is his classic performance, and also includes a madcap chase scene.

Naturally, since I enjoy occult and supernatural fiction so much, several choices feature this strongly. The Dark Tower might have been my Francis Brett Young choice, but Undergrowth has pagan worship and bookish elements for extra pleasure: and several other Charles Williams novels could easily be added to the two here.

There are some where I have to admit my affection may be enhanced because I think I “discovered” them. But that is never the only reason. Leslie Reid’s The Rector of Maliseet has so many ingredients I relish: a train  journey to unknown regions, a scholar visiting a remote place, an ancient secret, haunted country. The Helen Simpson has a subtly-handled Tarot theme, and is both eerie and well-crafted. 

Likewise, Old King Cole by Edward Shanks, about the survival of Roman paganism in a secluded village, also has many of the elements I like, including archaeology and an undiscovered ancient monument. Philip Owens’ Picture of Somebody, a portrait of a Shakespeare-like poet in Thirties London, starts as a neat literary conceit, but then launches into turmoil and insurrection.

The Sayers is not supernatural, but its atmosphere is very similar: and I like it for its fine evocation of the Fen country in winter.  which I think enriches her work more than those which are more plot-driven: Five Red Herrings, set in Galloway, would be another close runner. Similarly, the Elisabeth Kyle book gains from its setting in an East Anglian coastal town threatened by sea and sand.

I am not a great follower of SF generally, but I am a devotee of John Wyndham’s work, which also often has an ambience similar to that of the classic otherworldly tale. The Kraken Wakes is the one that I find has the most human qualities and the surest understanding of how things work out in a prolonged crisis. And the Louis Marlow is there for its very deft handling of a timeslip theme.

A kind colleague at work one said to me, bemused by some of my more archaic traits, “it’s always 1936 in your world, isn’t it, Mark?” And I notice that there are no less than three choices from that very year. It’s a fact that the fiction I most enjoy is from the interwar and mid-20th century period, which is near enough to us to seem modern, but sufficiently far away to have the charm of distance.

My particular preference, reflected here, is for stories that are based in our world but have an overlap from an otherworld, or glimpses of other dimensions. I am not now so much attracted to works of pure fantasy, and equally find it hard to get interested in entirely mundane matters.

From the ones I have chosen, I can see other characteristics that attract me: well-evoked landscape, a real sense of place; a mystical dimension or if not some distinct peculiarity;  a madcap or bizarre plot; eccentric, unconventional protagonists; and colourful minor characters.

Now I look again, there should be one or two by P M Hubbard. 

And . . . well, any others?

(Mark Valentine)                                               

Picture: A 1980s library campaign badge.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Beer and Cheese with Charles Williams

In reading some of the fascinating interviews by Raymond H. Thompson with Arthurian authors at The Camelot Project, I was surprised to find one with Christopher Fry, the writer of blank verse plays very popular in the Fifties (A Phoenix Too Far, 1946, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1948 etc), though these are now well out of fashion.

But one of his earliest plays includes Merlin as a character, rather oddly (as he concedes) linked to Norse adventurers. He explains that he always wanted to create an Arthurian play but could not get the shape of it, though he still hoped he might (he didn’t, so far as I can see).

Fry took his surname in tribute to the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, and was himself a Quaker and a non-combatant in World War 2. He recounts in the interview how he knew Charles Williams well in the early years of WW2 and they would often meet in a pub in Oxford:

‘At the beginning of the war, in 1940, just before I was directing at the Oxford Playhouse, the Oxford University Press moved from London to Oxford because they were expecting air raids. I used to meet with Charles Williams and Gerard Hopkins, who was Gerard Manley Hopkins' nephew. They both worked at Oxford University Press. Basil Blackwell came too, and we used to meet every Thursday at a pub in Oxford to have a beer and cheese.’

Fry, as he himself makes clear, was not then all that well-known, but Williams was already himself writing verse plays: perhaps that was how they became acquainted.  Fry was impressed by the erudite and vivacious conversation of his companions. It seems likely that he may have been given guidance and encouragement by Williams about his verse plays, as he also was by T S Eliot: all three were part of a mid-20th century renaissance in the form.

Basil Blackwell was of course the well-known Oxford bookseller and publisher, but what of the fourth member of the beer and cheese party? Gerard Hopkins (1892-1961) was, like Williams, a novelist alongside his day job at the Press: and, again like Williams, was the author of seven novels. The last four of these were published by Gollancz. They are not much akin to Williams’ metaphysical thrillers, though they share a rather beady-eyed perception of human foibles. There is, of course, no reason why two colleagues at the same Press and with the same publisher should write books in any way similar, and I suspect Hopkins thought his were of a different literary timbre to those of Williams.

They were close though often combative friends. Grevel Lindop, in his recent biography of Williams, explains that Hopkins’ final published novel, Nor Fish nor Flesh (1933), contained an unmistakable caricature of Williams, which the latter found hurtful, leading to a distinct coolness between them, though there may have been later a sort of rapprochement. This book is now very hard to find, perhaps because Williams enthusiasts are alert to the link.

However, I have been able to pick up a few of his other titles. His books are perhaps best described as solemn comedies of manners. I found those I have tried a little studied and rather over-absorbed in the personal relationships of his characters. There is much leisurely conversation, little in the way of incident. An ambience of sophistication and cultivation prevails, but one wishes for some of the vigour and panache of Williams. A certain stateliness about them puts me in mind of the novels of L H Myers. Like those, Hopkins’ books sometimes contemplate speculative thought in an abstract manner, but, unlike those of Williams, do not venture into the more vivid realms of the occult.

Gollancz tried to give Hopkins’ penultimate novel, An Angel in the Room (1931), a determined push, claiming ‘it will certainly come as an unexpected delight to thousands and, we venture to think, tens of thousands of readers’ (it does not appear to have done so). His previous novels were ‘interesting, serious in the best sense, and of high intelligence’ but this new one ‘is, within its own compass, an almost perfect thing, instinct with rare and moving beauty’.

It takes place almost entirely within a Chelsea dinner party: most of the chapters are named after the dinner courses. The conversation, and the inner thoughts of the characters, reveal significant changes in the shape of their lives and their relationships, and in some cases a new self-realisation of their ‘essential being’, their finer purpose. While there are none of the strong supernatural incursions in Williams' novels, there is a sense of higher reality, a hint of the numinous and celestial.

‘There are certain descriptions – of the nights and smells of London, of Oxford – which affect one with the nostalgia one feels for a gracious thing that one has had and lost,’ the notice suggests. And it is true that Hopkins does have a feel for the fine evocation of the amenities and the courtesies of civilised existence. Inevitably, his books may now seem as outmoded or faded as the verse dramas of Williams, Eliot and Fry now do: yet they also share some of the masque-like and mythic qualities of those.      

A Checklist of the Novels of Gerard Hopkins

A City in the Foreground (Constable, 1921)

An Unknown Quantity (Chatto & Windus, 1922)

The Friend of Antaeus (Duckworth, 1927)   

Seeing's Believing (Victor Gollancz, 1928)

Something Attempted (Victor Gollancz, 1929)

An Angel in the Room (Victor Gollancz, 1931)       

Nor Fish nor Flesh (Victor Gollancz, 1933)

(Mark Valentine)