Monday, February 27, 2023

Wormwood - Last Chance to Order

Tartarus Press have announced that they will stop selling back-issues of Wormwood, the paperback journal of the fantastic, at the end of March. This is therefore the last chance for readers to acquire copies from the press. 
Wormwood included regular columns from Douglas A Anderson, John Howard and Reggie Oliver, as well as contributions by authors such as Nina Antonia, Peter Bell, Avalon Brantley, Colin Insole, Joel Lane,  Brian Stableford, Lisa Tuttle and Henry Wessells. 
Among the rare items included in the journal were the first publication of a Mervyn Peake picture (no 4), a Sarban fragment (no 7), and a Leonard Cline card game (no 12). There was a brief but exclusive interview with Muriel Spark (no 1),  Glen Cavaliero discussed Phyllis Paul (no 9), and there were illuminating interviews with David Tibet (no 36) and Rosemary Pardoe (no 38).

There are a wealth of other essays, reviews and features covering a wide range of fantastic and supernatural literature, including some of the first surveys of certain overlooked writers or books, as well as fresh perspectives on classic authors. Many contributions will not be easily available elsewhere. 

If you are interested in multiple copies, Tartarus can offer a discount to reflect postage savings. Please contact ray[at]tartaruspress[dot]com

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, February 24, 2023

Behind the Thicket, by W.E.B. Henderson: Guest Post by Steven Mayes

Last year Steven Mayes sent me a recommendation for a forgotten novel by W[alter] E[dward] B[onhote] Henderson (1880-1944), who published two volumes of poetry (1908-1913), and three novels (1915-1922), while at the same time he was an outstanding athlete, twice in the Olympics (for the standing high jump) and in 1912 the holder of the UK record as discus thrower. Henderson’s first novel was Behind the Thicket (London: Max Goschen, 1915; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917).  With Steven’s permission, I give his email below.  –DAA.


The dust jacket flap fairly summarizes the book's plot. That being said, the author can't seem to make up their mind if they're writing a realistic novel of British family life circa World War I or a fantasy novel. Readers expecting a realistic novel would certainly have found the last third of the book fantastic and perhaps incomprehensible. And someone wishing to be swept into a strange fantasy world is certainly going to find the overlong build up of a family's social dramas and disintegration a rather tedious slog before the fantasy element takes over.

Philip and Mary have enjoyed eleven years of happy married life in London when their family doctor tells them that their six year old son Michael must be moved to the country and a more hospitable climate. Along with his sister Sylvia, the family finds a country home in Wokeborough with well-timbered grounds and surrounding woods. 

After walking with Philip every morning to catch his train to work, Mary wanders back home through the woods which are mysteriously calling her. Her rambles become longer and more frequent. She feels the woods are waiting to share something with her -- a vision, a revelation? She has a vein of sensuousness and modern day Pan worship underlying her small town social life. She distrusts these feelings, but they seem to be carried on in her sensitive son Michael. 


As he grows older, he too is attracted to nature and the woods. Aside from feeling unknown presences and rejoicing in the solitude of the natural world, his life remains little changed.

The family's new life in the country with all its joys and trials are meticulously depicted. Philip the father has a long mental breakdown from unknown causes  with embarrassing public scenes. Eventually he has to be committed. Sylvia, now eighteen, yearns for the city and more excitement, and leaves to make her way in London. Michael heads to university and for the first time finds friends and new horizons. He takes long walks into the nearby woods after dark and starts sleeping under the stars. His college friends good naturedly tease him about it, but something is calling him . . .

Sylvia falls in with a bohemian crowd. One of the poet's is named Dagon! She's drinking and missing work and eventually turns to prostitution to survive. Michael knows nothing of this until Mary the mother, and a widow by now, asks him to find out what's become of Sylvia. He finds her barely surviving in a slum, ill and destitute. He nurses her, they reconcile, but she dies.

If you've managed to read this far, you would be forgiven for wondering how Michael finds his true calling and puts all this misery behind him. Here is where the novel becomes compelling. On one of his college rambles Michael stays away for days, missing classes, sleeping out at night in the woods, worshipping pagan gods, foraging for food, and asking handouts at lonely farmhouses. One older woman who shares her food, with second sight sees a physical transformation in Michael taking place harking back to creatures out of pagan belief. 

Michael has now become a faun. He meets a nymph, invisible to humans, a spirit of the place in the woods, and she tells him of her life and the other pagan creatures. They fall deeply in love in their idyllic existence, although she is frightened and cautions him permission to stay together must be sought from the god who rules over them all, presumably Pan. Michael's transformation into a pagan creature is almost complete, and he seeks to find, overcome and replace Pan as the new god of the woods and take the nymph as his mate. Running swiftly through the trees, he feels strong and invincible . . .

Meanwhile Mary has asked Philip's old boss, George Gresham, a close family friend,to try to find out what's become of Michael. George has watched Michael grow up and always wondered about his different ways. George with local trackers traces Michael to the woods, finds pieces of old discarded clothing, hears a shriek in the night, and the next day discovers Michael's faun body lying dead with an arrow in the throat. He brushes aside his hair and finds horns. He brushes the bracken aside and finds hoofs at the end of his brown legs.

He tenderly pulls out the arrow and hears half human wailing on the breeze. He whispers to himself in broken, awed words -- "Early Greek! --Ah, dear, this is what I wanted to prevent -- and yet -- I never really believed -- So hard dear, so hard you tried to return -- so nearly there -- But these things cannot be -- The anger of Dionysos -- Alas, the anger of Dionysos -- !"  

I believe the last third of the book is compelling and the descriptions of the wood and pagan creatures are fascinating. There is more momentum as you follow Michael's pagan journey in modern times. 

Steven Mayes

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Seven from the Attic

Seven books from a box in the attic. How many must be retained? Well, here is a duplicate of Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water (1986), about the middle part of his youthful journey from the Hook of Holland towards Istanbul. It is a Book Club Edition and I already have an earlier copy. That can go.

Now, what's this? The Albatross by David Langstone Bolt (1954) in a slightly battered Biro dustjacket. This was Bolt’s first book: he was 26. It has an epigraph from Baudelaire. The publisher, Peter Davies, was discerning: it was just before this that he had issued three books by Sarban.

‘To the artist,’ loftily remarks the flap, ‘nothing ultimately matters except his art’. Aesthete alert! Christopher Howard (a writer), is, we are assured, ‘an entirely convincing figure’ who is ‘profoundly studied’. He does look rather studied, it is true, sporting a floppy white collar and cravat at his typewriter. Advice to Aspiring Authors: Always Look Dapper At Your Tapper. Flaunt Chic Clothes to Compose Your Prose.  A Floppy Collar Suggests a Scholar.

The pencilled sigil on the front free endpaper encircling a price of £2.50 tells me that this book came from the Old Dispensation at Richard Booth’s, Hay-on-Wye. At that price I would have scooped it up on the off-chance. Mr Howard proves to be a somewhat louche individual who mingles with post-war Forties bohemians but is not quite unusual enough. The book is betrayed by a brusque, melodramatic ending.

Even so, I like the look of his second book, also from Peter Davies, A Cry Ascending (1955), because its dustjacket features a young woman in a churchyard beneath a looming tower, clutching at the curtilage fence and gazing beyond. Looks atmospheric, might there be a hint of the eerie? Worth a try.

The next item from the box is a mimeographed pamphlet, Holt Junction (1966), produced locally to commemorate the closure of the railway station, with anecdotes from villagers. Mr Earl, for example, remembers the bitter winter of 1940, with the icy rain so hard that it tore his umbrella to shreds before he reached the yard gates. It took him three-quarters of an hour to struggle to his nearby home, protected, as he said, only by the spokes. There are several such vivid vignettes.

I got it because I thought it was about Holt, Norfolk, a town I like, where I once found a rare book of mystical essays by G R S Mead (the author of Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, about the Gnostics). This, unfortunately, is one of those Books I Have Moved On That I Ought Not to Have Done. They will keep haunting one. However, the Junction in question is in Wiltshire. This village was (incidentally) the home of Esme Wynne-Tyson and J D Beresford, co -authors of half a dozen mystical novels. There is no copy of Holt Junction in the British Library: so, of course, it must be preserved.

Here now is a slim volume issued by the Golden Head Press of Cambridge, who sound like they must have some connection with alchemy or possess a gilded talking skull. It is A Railway Rubaiyyat by Henry Maxwell (1968), an elegy in rhyming quatrains to the days of steam trains. The verses are highly atmospheric.

In one scene our narrator comes unexpectedly at dusk to a lonely level crossing in the West Country. There are distant lights glowing up and down the line, and he hears the faint thrum of the rails. But no train passes, and he feels as if he is caught in an enchantment. Crossing-places (fords, footbridges, toll-bridges) are often mysterious in folklore: why not level crossings too? For this scene alone the book must be kept.

The next book from the box is Liars and Fakers by Philip W Sergeant (1925). ‘Who are you going to leave out?’ asked his rather jaundiced publisher. But only four such are discussed because the author found they all needed ample room. Sergeant was a friend and neighbour of Arthur Machen in St John’s Wood: Machen later introduced his Witches and Warlocks (1936). And to my delight Machen proved to have some hand in Liars and Fakers too, because it was he, Sergeant explains, who suggested one of the four subjects: Psalmanazar, the faux Formosan prince befriended by Dr Johnson. This minor Machen link must be treated with respect.

Now, the next to hand, a stout red Routledge volume entitled A Legal Practitioner, by Christian Tearle (1907), I picked up because I wondered if it had any early crime fiction interest. It does, in a mild-mannered sort of way. The five short stories about a London solicitor’s clients also involve liars and fakers, but this is light comedy and they are picturesque impostors. Tearle was the pseudonym of Edward Tyrell Jacques. He had a minor success with his series of travel sketches Rambles With An American (1910) and sequels. 

But probably his most interesting book now, under his own name, is Charles Dickens in Chancery, being an account of his proceedings in respect of the “Christmas Carol” with some gossip in relation to the old Law Courts of Westminster (1914) which sounds worth it for the title alone. He tells of Dickens’ case against several pirates of his celebrated Christmas story, one of whom put up a lively defence. That had better be looked into.

The seventh from the box is A Soldier’s Tale (1976), a war romance. I got it because it is by the New Zealand author M K Joseph, who wrote an SF novel, The Hole in the Zero (1967), which starts like a typical space opera but soon becomes highly speculative. However, this is not SF: could it be Moved On? Hmmm. I now see that Joseph also wrote a time travel novel called The Time of Achamoth (1977) about a plot to thwart the apocalyptic power of a Gnostic demiurge. That ought to be investigated, but all copies seem to be in NZ. In the meantime, better not be Too Rash.   

Well, one book out of seven isn’t too bad.  What’s that? But I’ve also bought another one? And I also seem to have added two more to my Wants list?  Ah, well, yes, but, you see . . .

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, February 16, 2023

In the Attic

The attic is full of boxes and crates. The boxes and crates are full of books. Every so often I haul out a dozen or so books with the intention of moving them on to a new home. A minority of the titles do indeed find their way into a bag to be taken away. Some of them then find their way out of the bag when I decide that they are after all quite interesting.

However, most of the books do not even get so far as the bag. This is because I have turned some of the pages. And I am now murmuring to myself such phrases as, “oh yes, I remember this, now that would be worth looking into further”; or, “what’s this? Quite forgotten I had it”; or “this really belongs with another book that is further in, though I don’t quite know where. I will put it aside until I find that.”

Sometimes I say to myself that it is no good having books in the attic. I can’t see them or find them when I want them. On the other hand, on those disagreeable days when for one reason or another I cannot get to a second-hand bookshop, it is consoling to know that I can go and browse among these and the number of surprise finds will be almost as good. The attic is a serendipity engine. Since the books are in no particular order, any clutch of them may lead me almost anywhere.

It is true that a certain number of the books are duplicates or indeed quintuplicates. A duplicate, I tell myself, is a good idea because what if the first copy gets lost or damaged? And then other copies are useful to give away to friends. Also, each of the copies may well have a certain individual interest.

This one, for example, bears the bookseller’s label of the Bechuanaland Book Store, and who would not want to keep that? This other has a single-word sprawling signature, which appears to be ‘Gandar’. Who was Gandar? It is worth retaining this copy until we find out. This third has a smeared red back board which looks exactly like The Scarlet Door as envisaged in my story of that title. In other words, though the books tell ostensibly the same story, each copy in fact has a story of its own too.

Then there are the books whose qualities I appreciate but which might not easily find an equal welcome elsewhere. This oil-stained ironmonger’s catalogue, for example, has a certain fascination in its diagrams of nuts and bolts and its trade lingo. The Postal History of Tibet ought to have a specialist interest, but philately is not what it was. The novels of Maurice Baring have a certain urbane, fastidious charm but to how many others? No, no. Booksellers will purse their lips, charity shops will eye the pulp skip, friends will politely demur. It is better to keep giving them a home here.

And then of course there is the memory of the Books That I Have Moved On That I Ought Not to Have Done. There are probably in fact, were I to count them, which would be too painful an exercise,  no more than two dozen of these, but it is two dozen too many. Each one of them hovers in the bibliophilic ether like a reproachful ghost. It is true that some have been replaced by Another Copy. But it is not the same copy, the one that has gone to some fate unknown. These Cautionary Spirits lurk in the background in the attic, arguing against any Too Hasty disposal of any of their comrades. If in doubt, don’t.

These are not the only ghosts. There are also the Books That Have Disappeared. Some of these may in fact belong with the former category in that I have Moved Them On and forgotten I have done so. But there are others where I am pretty certain I could not have done that. So they must still be here. But where? There have even been concerted campaigns, stretching over numerous weary dusty cobwebby hours, of checking every single box and crate and still they have not surfaced. This is very peculiar. Of course, lots of other things have emerged instead, many of which it is gladsome to find. But even so they are not the sought-after thing. And if only I had fewer titles and they were better organized, it would surely turn up. I had better try to winnow them down a bit. Let’s take this dozen or so here . . .

(Mark Valentine)

Image: An Attic in Wales

Monday, February 13, 2023

Today the Book I Ordered Seventeen Years Ago Actually Arrived

I kid you not. The book was to be published in 2006, as the 25th Anniversary Edition of its original publication in 1981. Now it has appeared in 2023, the year of the book's 42nd Anniversary.  I won't go into the long (looong...) history of the delays, but will merely thank those involved for their perseverance to finally see this book published.  

The book is Little, Big, by John Crowley. This version contains the author's preferred text, illustrations by  Peter Milton, and an essay by the late Harold Bloom, one of a number of people who have died in the interim since the book was announced. 

The book itself is oversized (about 8 inches by 10 1/4).  It weighs over five pounds. It is not an easy book to handle, or to read from. But it is out. And I will not repeat the idiotic phrase (which I have always hated, and thought inaccurate) that it was worth the wait, because it isn't.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Big Bearded Bookseller's Guide to Indie Bookshops

Big Bearded Bookseller has performed an invaluable service to readers and bibliophiles by devising, using his own volunteer time and ingenuity, an interactive map of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. Wherever you are in the country, you can pinpoint the address of your nearest indie bookseller, along with other useful details.

He is even expanding the information internationally, and also has a blog in which he interviews some of the bookshop proprietors. 

For the UK, the guide lists 670 bookshops in England, 104 in Scotland, 54 in Wales and 10 in Northern Ireland. Even the Crown Dependencies get a listing (Isle of Man, 2, Guernsey 1). The bookshops listed mostly sell new books, not second-hand, so this list is complementary to The Book Guide, which lists only second-hand bookshops. However, there is some overlap between them, since some shops sell both. The dedicated browser on a bookshop expedition will want to consult both guides.

Indie bookshops deserve our support and have attractions even for the dedicated delver in musty tomes. Sometimes, unexpectedly, there is a shelf or two or even a case of second-hand books. They may also have specialisms where hitherto unknown and unexpectedly arcane books can be found. They can also be a good source of information on nearby sources of second-hand books. But additionally they are the ideal place to find obscure, locally-published books and chapbooks which you will not find in the major chains. Several privately-produced books of ghost stories, for example, have first been offered in just such local bookshops. 

Big Bearded Bookseller provides this service for free, but if you find it useful he's always pleased to receive a coffee

(Mark Valentine)