Saturday, December 31, 2022

A New Look at a New Year's Eve Ghost Story

At the Cambridge University Library Special Collections website, Clarck Drieshen discusses the authentic medieval magical document, held by the library, which was deployed by M R James in his New Year's Eve 1931 ghost story 'The Experiment'. A fresh look at the manuscript identifies it as one known in other collections of 15th and 16th century magical texts and, by comparing these and re-examining the text, he reveals that James may have mis-read the name of the presiding spirit. 
As he observes: "This changes the nature of the ritual from an angelic to a demonic one". The misinterpretation sounds itself like an incident that might have occurred in a Jamesian story, no doubt with drastic consequences . . .

(Mark Valentine)

The Oldest Pub in Britain

At History Extra, archaeologist and architectural historian Dr James Wright investigates the various claims to be "the oldest pub in Britain". Some of these claims are rather more in the realm of folklore or fantasy than history. He finds several are not what they seem, others' claims are anachronistic, and some lack evidence. 

He next examines both the physical evidence from the structure of the buildings (eg the age of the woodwork) and the documentary evidence (eg from deeds, charters and wills). He thus identifies two mid-15th century examples, still in use as pubs, that he suggests have the best evidence. Naturally, one of the two oldest is called . . . the New Inn. 

(Mark Valentine)

Image: George Inn, Norton St Philip, Somerset.

Friday, December 30, 2022

English Almanacs

Once printing became a recognised trade in England it was of course monopolised by the state and censored by the church. But the monopoly was farmed out to the Stationers’ Company who were, though jealous, also corrupt, and it could therefore be subverted: while the censorship work was tiresome and so was delegated to a fairly lowly functionary, who often did it without enthusiasm. The opportunities for profit inbetween the cracks were therefore sufficient, and numerous authors and printers took advantage of them.

The most popular printed items outside devotional works were almanacs. They sold in their thousands. The wise almanac-makers gave their products an air of piety by including saints’ days and church festivals in their calendars, and an air of utility by offering practical hints on agriculture and medicine. But what their readers most wanted was their prognostications. It was the astrology that sold. Further, the stormier this was the better.

Nobody seemed to care very much whether the cryptically-couched forecasts came true or not: what mattered was that they were vivid and vigorous reading. Mysterious wording was an advantage to the drafter, as it left room to manoeuvre: but it was also relished by the reader who could see in it what they wanted, as in an obsidian mirror. Almanacs appealed to the perennial lust for wonder and weirdness in the world. They were the fantastic literature of the day.

As Bernard Capp describes, in his engrossing study Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (1979), from the early 17th century onwards, almanacs poured from the press. There were occasional skirmishes: some of the more incautious or belligerent prophets and printers got themselves into trouble; sometimes the Stationers or the Archbishop’s Chaplain would stir. But among cobblers and hatters, and pedlars and signwriters, and blacksmiths and wheelwrights, prevalent among the artisans and the independent trades, there was a strong appetite for this sort of literature and it had to be appeased.

This literature was by its very nature subversive. It provided an alternative form of knowledge and speculation to the church. The person who was obliged to sit in a pew on Sundays and listen to scripture readings and sermons could in their own home or workshop or at the inn peruse an entirely different way of looking at and interpreting the world.

It was one in which the stars had influence on earthly affairs, comets and meteors portended great things, dragons could be seen in clouds, prodigies might at any moment appear, rulers (usually, though not invariably, abroad) might be overthrown, and there were rumours about the Sultan of Baghdad, the Czar of Muscovy and the Emperor of Cathay. It would be too much to call astrology and prophecy a rival religion, but it was certainly a rival spirit.

And it was hard to contain. The church could hardly condemn astrology outright without implicating the Magi of the nativity story, who had become popular saints, with their shrine at Cologne a fervent focus for pilgrimage. It had to content itself with a fitful petulance about its privileges which the cannier astrologer and printer could easily avoid disturbing.

The upsurge in this sort of prognostickatory and apocalyptic literature grew even higher in the Civil War period. The War itself prompted many more effusions, both political and religious. But it also meant that both the monopoly and the censorship were ragged. They could not be enforced where the King’s writ and the church’s influence no longer ran.

It is true an alternative authority issuing from the puritan divines and military commanders of the Roundheads might sometimes exert itself, but they were busy with the war. Further, this side was itself an uneasy alliance of several different persuasions, and could not afford yet to separate the sheep from the goats: that could come later. Thus, from about 1640 to 1650 there is a marvellous eruption of eccentric publications from all sorts of prophets and visionaries.

Once unleashed, the almanac and the prophetic work could not easily be suppressed, and they continued to be produced in numbers after the Restoration and beyond. The first dedicated scholar of the subject, the splendidly-named Ernest Fulcrand Bosanquet, wrote in 1917: ‘For three and a half centuries the Almanack has been the most popular book in the English language; and together with the Bible has been the basis of practically every household library in this country; in fact in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these two books were probably the entire library of many families.’

The work of visionary writers such as Christopher Smart and William Blake may be better appreciated when understood within the context of this world of both the Bible and the Almanac. The symbolism of astrology, as perpetuated by the almanacs, infuses Yeats’ poetry (and practice), and also the work of other modernists such as T S Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Joseph Macleod.

By the time of the mid-19th century the number of different almanacs had become concentrated into a few highly popular ones (Old Moore’s, Zadkiel’s, Raphael’s), some locally printed ones, and a few occasional interlopers. The trade name of the major almanacs became a valuable incorporeal property and was passed on from one astrologer to another in a sort of sidereal apostolic succession.

Despite this, almanacs have received very little attention. They feature in accounts of the Civil War and of the various sects that arose from this, and sometimes are noticed in discussions of later prophetic movements, but they are rarely studied as literature in their own right. Acres of academic exposition have been devoted to the Gothic novel, which was the preserve mostly of a coterie of the wealthy, but barely anything upon the popular Gothic of the almanac (or, for that matter, the chapbook, broadsheet and ballad). It is as if only the bored rich matter.

The world of the almanac offered to the common reader a different dimension to their everyday lives. It was an alternative to the church’s solemnities. It depicted volatility, strangeness, magic, upheaval. It proclaimed that kings could fall and priests be confounded under the wheeling of the stars.


Eustace Fulcrand Bosanquet. English Printed Almanacks and Prognostications. A bibliographical history to the year 1600. London, 1917.

Bernard Capp. Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800. Faber, 1979.

Deborah M. Valenze. ‘Prophecy and Popular Literature in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History Volume 29 Issue 1, January 1978, pp. 75-92

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Recent Offtrail Releases

Here are a couple of offtrail new books that I want to call attention to. 

First, is the doorstop-sized anthology, Bruin's Midnight Reader (2022), the uncredited editor being Jonathan Eeds of Bruin Books. Over 760 pages, this anthology contains a host of worthy older  materials plus a goodly amount of licensed and still copyrighted items. Similarly there are illustrations by classic artists and new ones made for this volume. One highlight is the 1924 version of The Thing in the Woods, a novel by Margery Williams (author of The Velveteen Rabbit), published as by Harper Williams. (The complicated differences between the original 1913 edition and the 1924 revision are described in a previous Wormwoodiana post, here.) 

The subtitle of the book is "strange and engaging stories for the curious"--a remit the book certainly fulfills.  Besides familiar classic authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Ralph Adams Cram, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, and Clark Ashton Smith, the more modern writers include Brian Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, Stanley Ellin, T.S. Eliot, Reggie Oliver and Paul Theroux. There is also a story by the editor, and a recent translation of a Hanns Heinz Ewers story too. All in all a nice amount of reading material for the price (US$ 22; ISBN 9781737210610). 

Another new release comes from Gabbro Head Press, in the form of a first novel by Charles H. Fischer, titled The Eunuch.  It tells the secret history of court life in an imagined ancient Babylon, through the stylus of a eunuch named Nergal, formalized in twenty two cuneiform tablets (represented as modern chapters). There is a learned mock-introduction credited to one Harris Bigg-Wither, discussing the (imaginary) translator of the work, Henry Poole. Bigg-Wither calls The Eunuch "more than your typical 6th century BCE, end-of-the-world sex novel" (which is true) and concludes that it is "not a piece of pornographic doggerel composed by a dead castrate and translated by a disaffected academic. On the contrary, it is art as magic, a ritual appeasement of the gods."  

The publisher gives a concise but very apt description too, as follows:

The Eunuch is a laugh-out-loud funny narrative that begins as an effort to extirpate the lies of the hagiographic official history of Babylon, becomes a story of a very peculiar love triangle between a King with mental health issues, an alluring and manipulative concubine, and an obsessive eunuch slave-scribe, and then ends by describing the fall of an empire. 

Available in trade paperback from the usual sources at US $18.95 (ISBN 9781732579941)

Monday, December 19, 2022

A New Illustrated Edition of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS

Recently published in the US by Beehive Books of Philadelphia  is a new, lavish illustrated edition of David Lindsay's classic 1920 novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. The illustrations are by Jim Woodring, brightly colored and striking in an individualist style. Whether this psychedelic surreal style is appropriate for Lindsay's novel is a matter of personal taste. But the production quality of this new edition is very high. Here I share a few highlights to showcase this new edition. 

First, the oversized book comes in a box:

Opening the box you see the slip-cased book:

And pulling the book out of the slipcase, one sees:

Opening to some random pages, there are double-spread illustrations, and pages mixing illustration and text:


And finally, an illustration of Sullenbode, followed by the facing page of text:

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Straw Bear and Wicker Man


Cardinal Cox, the Peterborough punk poet with a strong penchant for the uncanny, has just published a new booklet, Fan Mail for a Film. It is a tribute to cult horror film The Wicker Man (1973). The eleven texts each allude to local folk customs from Peterborough or not far away, and have the authentic phrasing of popular ballads and traditional rhymes.

In ‘Slight Gods’, the poet considers the modern fates of ancient deities lingering in edgeland spaces: Andraste in ‘a corporation sports ground’, Erriapus in ‘an overgrown orchard’, Viridios in ‘a thicket on the by-pass’, Abandinus at a bridge over a litter-infested river. In a note, the author tells us: ‘They’re lumps of rock, disregarded in display cases at local museums . . . waiting for a chance to crawl back into our rituals’. This is a thoughtful re-imagining of original local gods in the contemporary world.

‘Dance’ is a chant which invokes the mystery of the miz-mazes, or Troy Towns, the labyrinths carved into turf in British villages or lonely places, and it links these to modern mazes created in the city, in playgrounds, gardens, and sanctuaries. The poem reads as an authentic children’s rhyme of the sort collected by the Opies and others, which often seem to suggest some half-understood ritual survival: ‘Pale ghost girl dances with me/In the middle you can’t see’. It is from the same world of spells and incantations known to the strange children in Machen's stories.

Also included is ‘Some Mummery’, the imagined text of a mummers play such as that partly recorded by John Clare from an old actor. In these and the other pieces, it is evident that Cardinal Cox has a deep understanding of local traditions, but also of how folklore works and how it is still an active force today, not only in the boisterous honouring of old customs, but also in new urban myths.

The booklet also includes a short essay on David Pinner, the author of Ritual (1967), the novel on which The Wicker Man was in part based, who was born in Peterborough.

Fan Mail for a Film is being released to coincide with the odd and uproarious Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival, a possible inspiration for the novel, which will next take place on 13 and 14 January 2023, but copies can be obtained now.

They are available free for an SAE from Cardinal Cox at 58 Pennington, Orton Goldhay, Peterborough, PE2 5RB or by email at cardinalcox1[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk

(Mark Valentine)

Image:, which also has information on the custom.

Monday, December 12, 2022

That Black-Edged Light: A Note on H M Tomlinson

There are some authors who are feted and acclaimed in their lifetime but whose work falls dramatically from favour soon afterwards. As their books were issued in large numbers, they often turn up in second-hand bookshops and the reader in search of rarer fare learns to skim over them. But occasionally, the thought occurs: is there something there? What did all those readers see all those years ago?

H M Tomlinson’s titles are, or at least have been, ubiquitous upon the shelves. His books can be picked up cheaply enough today. But he’s not often discussed, and I wonder whether many people read his books now. There may be a few quiet enthusiasts.

His prose is precise and observant, sometimes luminous. He requires a slow pace, a contemplative reading: it takes time to adjust to his unrolling thoughts. A literary acquaintance, Frank Swinnerton, noted, however, that it was incorrect to suppose his prose was ‘studied’, worked-over: anyone who knew Tomlinson and heard him in conversation would see that this was just how words flowed naturally from him.    

There can be a sort of odd orotundity in some of his phrases, true, which will make his writing seem ‘old-fashioned’, though it can also seem graceful and strange. However, he also peppers it with punchier lines (derived from his journalism, no doubt) so its stately pace never quite overwhelms. He is particularly observant of the effects of light, from a struck match to the sun on the waves, and his style sometimes suggests De Quincey:

"I turned up the dull and stinking oil lamp, and tried to read; but that fuliginous glim haunted the pages. That black-edged light too much resembled my own thoughts made manifest . . ."

This is from his first book, The Sea and The Jungle, with its descriptive sub-title Being the narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Santa Maria de Belem do Grao Para in the Brazils (1912). It is the account of a two-year voyage in 1910-11 on a steam-ship from South Wales across the Atlantic and up the Amazon, deep into the South American interior. He was in his late thirties, a busy Fleet Street journalist, when his friend, ‘the Skipper’, invited him to come along, nominally as the purser. He is not sure about it at first, but there is a neat scene where whimsically he allows chance to decide for him, and his friend twists matters to make sure he goes.

None of his people, he says, have ever had, or taken, such a chance before, and he means not only the family of his clerkly parents in Poplar, East London (a similar background to Charles Williams), but also more broadly his class. Tomlinson knows that he is writing for those left behind on the dim drizzly grey island, who wish they were coming with him, and he doesn’t stint the contrast. So we are with him from the beginning.

The book is not written as an adventure yarn or a nautical saga. It’s a vision of the sea and the stars, of sunset and clouds, of the loneliness of the boat in mid-ocean, far from any news, intent on its own mission and routines, a vessel in the infinite. The contrast between this sort of existence and the drudgery of the city is stark, and it transforms his way of thinking. With no landmarks, with nothing familiar, it is as if his mind is also set free. He wonders what it would be like if our minds were able to go travelling on their own, or with just our eyes, untrammelled by the body: it is like that, he says, on the sea. 

It could not be said this is a fantastical book, but it has qualities in common with that kind of literature, in the refulgent prose, metaphysical speculation, sense of otherness and separation from everyday life. Above all, his books often have a curious atmosphere, hard to define, which separates them from works of social realism. The author was, I sense, a studious, dreaming sort of fellow and his books reflect that.

Tomlinson’s books did well in their time. His novel Gallions Reach (1927), about a man who commits what will look like a capital crime and escapes by joining a ship bound for the East Indies, was well-respected, and might be summed up as a Hope Hodgson seafaring yarn rewritten by Walter de la Mare. His World War One novel, All Our Yesterdays (1930), was seen as one of the major works on the conflict.

Nevertheless, he was always conscious that he was never quite “one of us” in the literary mainstream, partly because of his background. In an essay on reading in bed, he recommended avoiding the stately accepted classics: "Midnight is the time when one can recall, with ribald delight, the names of all the Great Works which every gentleman ought to have read but which some of us have not. For there is almost as much clotted nonsense written about literature as there is about theology."

He was a working writer and journalist, dedicated to his craft and without any other sort of private or professional income. Inevitably, perhaps, some of his publications may seem written to order, including variations on earlier successes. The same is true of other fine writers who needed the money, including Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. But, as with those, his work never lacks character and conviction.

Kenneth Hopkins, a fervent admirer, edited a useful selection from his writings in 1953. But Tomlinson’s work seemed largely to fade from view in the second half of the 20th century. There were, even in his own time, readers who could not take his rather conscious craftsmanship and his slow, contemplative narrative. But others thought him one of the best there was: and I can see why, and think his work is worth getting to know. That black-edged light is always there. 

(Mark Valentine)