Monday, July 6, 2015


Mark Simmonds is an author and designer who runs Alma Matters, “a micro-press publishing books on quotidian magic”. The first publication from this imprint was an edition of Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, which he describes as “a veiled treatise on reading the urban landscape and uncanny customs of the modern world.”

Mark published the book as a homage to Machen, whose work he discovered when he was writing a book of wanderings around Arnhem, where he was studying typography. His own work has the same keen eye for observing out-of-the-way and overlooked things, and for interesting digressions.

The Alma Matters edition of The London Adventure is both a practically designed pocket-book for the city wanderer and a subtly crafted artefact for aficionados of the arcane.

It is available from Alma Matters (scroll down) or enquire at info[at]almamatters[dot]biz.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Why did W.B. Yeats want a hair from the head of Aleister Crowley, and how did the artist Althea Gyles get it for him? What was the terrible lesson learned by scholar and demonologist the Reverend Montague Summers? Why was Sherlock Holmes reticent about his college years? Which unlikely chronicler of the decadents numbered among his friends Christine Keeler, Sir Oswald Mosely, Colin Wilson and an assortment of beat poets?

The answers are to be found in The Library of the Lost by Roger Dobson, just published by Tartarus Press and Caermaen Books. This finely produced volume offers twenty illuminating essays on classic authors of the fantastic such as Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel and Jocelyn Brooke, and such strange and outré figures as the Reverend Montage Summers and the artist Althea Gyles. There is a foreword by the eminent Spanish novelist Javier Marias reflecting on his friendship with the author.

Here is an extract from my introduction:

“Roger Alan Dobson was an author, journalist, actor, and bookman who loved to explore the stranger margins of literature and its most outré characters. He wrote with learning and enthusiasm about the lost souls of the Eighteen Nineties and those writers who moved among the ways of magic and mystery. He liked nothing better than to visit the old haunts of these arcane characters, walking among obscure streets and overgrown graveyards to find their homes and their tombs. When he was not out on such pilgrimages, he liked to be writing, working prodigiously at essays, radio and television scripts, letters and contributions to newspapers and periodicals. He also enjoyed bookish conversation, always ready to share his latest discoveries or to learn more from other bibliophiles and scholars.”

This is a book brimful of Roger's journeys among the byways of books, which will appeal not just to connoisseurs of the fantastic in literature but also to all those who enjoy the quest for the rare and recondite.

Mark Valentine


The Swan River Press have announced the publication of a collection of stories by Joel Lane. The Anniversary of Never offers thirteen stories (one with Mat Joiner), with an introduction by Joel's long-time champion, Nicholas Royle.

The announcement tells us: "The Anniversary of Never is a group of tales concerned with the theme of the afterlife,” observed Lane, “and the idea that we may enter the afterlife before death, or find parts of it in our world.” These stories of love and death, sex and solitude, decay and dementia will burrow deep into the reader’s mind and impregnate it with a vision often as bleak as the night is black."

It was a great privilege to know Joel and to publish some of his early stories in Aklo, the journal of the fantastic I co-edited with Roger Dobson. So I can't pretend to be objective here. For me, Joel Lane was one of the most thoughtful and questioning authors in the supernatural fiction field. Deeply versed in the traditions of the form - he contributed remarkably original and perceptive essays on many of its major figures to Wormwood - he also understood the need to give it a contemporary resonance.

His stories have all the brooding power of the most memorable classics, while also having an extra edge because they are about the world we live in now. They always make us think about that world, gently and allusively showing just how wrong things can be. But they are also movingly written meditations on perennial human concerns, in which fully real characters experience love, longing and loss. Joel's ghosts are the spirits of dust, empty houses, abandoned places, wastelands. Anyone who cares at all about modern dark fiction - or about our society today - needs to read his work.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Before he became the illustrator of work by Lord Dunsany (principally), Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson, the fantastic artist Sidney Sime provided artwork for various periodicals, notably comic journals, such as The Idler (which he owned and edited for a short period) and Pick-Me-Up. The latter was a weekly penny journal of about eight flimsy pages containing satirical cartoons and light humorous prose.

The magazine generally had a theatre review column, ‘Through the Opera Glass’, and the issue for September 5, 1896, contains a two page notice of a comedy called The Mummy. Sidney Sime provided portraits of the four leading players. These included Lionel Brough, by then a veteran comic actor, as the Mummy, and Elliott Page, who often performed in Wilde’s plays, as Hattie von Tassel-Smythe, the young woman who reanimates the ancient king. Sime's picture of the Mummy includes his rendition of the hieroglyphics on the papyrus used as a backdrop.

The review says: “The Mummy is a thoroughly enjoyable farce, and it has had the advantage of being written by two gentlemen who appear to have a very good grip of the subject”. However, it neglects to name the authors.

The Mummy was in fact by George Day and Allan Reed, and originally produced at the Comedy Theatre in London, from 11 August 1896. It was later performed at the Garden Theatre, Broadway, from November 1896. It is barely mentioned in theatre histories and then only briefly, as a failure. There seem to be few further traces of the two writers. A copy of a poster for a touring production of the play, by the artist Hassall (1868-1948) is held by The Victoria & Albert Museum.

The comedy had no doubt been produced in response to the contemporary vogue for Egyptology. The archaeologist E A Wallis-Budge had published his study The Mummy: chapters on Egyptian funereal archaeology in 1893. Theo Douglas’ fantasy Iras: A Mystery, in which an Egyptologist is haunted by the spirit of a mummy he has excavated, was published in the same year as the play. Other novels and stories involving mummies followed thickly through the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, but the play seems to be amongst the earliest yarns involving a revivified mummy.

Day & Reed’s farce does not seem to be discussed in The Mummy’s Curse by Roger Luckhurst (2014), the most recent study of the mummy in popular culture. The Pick-Me-Up review, by ‘Jingle’, gives an account of the plot. Professor Garsop “conceives the brilliant idea of putting his antiquity under the influence of a galvanising battery with the view of restoring it to life”. But before he can complete his work, “a mischievous girl, who is staying with the Professor on a visit, sets the machinery going for a lark, and the lark goes on all the evening in a very delightful manner”.

The revivified pharaoh, inevitably called Rameses, relishes his new existence, and the rest of the play seems to revolve around mistaken identities, with the mummy thought to be the Professor himself throughout most of it: under this illusion two young journalists take Rameses out for a drink or several, with comic consequences. The play concludes with a piece of stage conjuring: the mummy climbs back into his casket and when the lid is opened again nothing is left but his cerements.

(c) Mark Valentine 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Earlier, we looked at Fanfaronade, a timeslip story. Timeslips, and resonances across time, are also found in the novels of the curiously forgotten mid-20th century author Vaughan Wilkins (1890-1959). His books, with strikingly designed dustwrappers, were nearly all issued by Cape. They are mostly historical fictions, with a rather Dickensian air, full of rumbustious characters and picturesque incidents. He seems to have been particularly interested in Victorian times, and wrote a textbook on the Industrial Revolution.

An exception is Valley Beyond Time (1955), a fantasy in which a legendary island appears off the coast of South West Wales. This is lyrically described and the book has a lightly-touched mystical dimension. The American tycoon in the story is a bit too much of a conventional casting, but Wilkins is not the only author to have used this improbable stock figure. Otherwise, the young family caught up in the miraculous geography are freshly and appealingly drawn. His other fantasy work includes City of Frozen Fire (1950), a lost race novel.

Once Upon A Time, An Adventure (1949), is an historical fantasy described on the dustjacket flap (illustrated here) as “this most exuberant and eventful of all Mr Vaughan’s books”. It certainly crams in a great deal of invention, starting with a secret discovered in the Prince Consort’s study by the newly acclaimed King Edward VII. It then moves to contemporary times (the Forties) where Warrack, described as “a sort of Robin Hood” and “a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel as well”, the leader of a gang of European outlaws, is in pursuit of the lost treasure of the Grand Duchy of Ehrenburg and is up against renegade Nazis as well as the police.

Until recently, even the bare facts of Wilkins’ life were not easily discovered. But a reading group connected with “Reading 1900-1950”, the Sheffield Hallam University special collection of popular fiction, tackled his work in November 2013, and one of their number researched his background. This revealed that Wilkins was not, it seems, Welsh, despite the Welsh settings of some of his books, and his Welsh-sounding name.

The official sources say he was born in Camberwell (London) in 1890. His father, a parson, was born in Nottingham and his mother, a singer and music teacher, was born in London. Wilkins seems to have been a working journalist most of his life, and his novels did not begin until his maturer years, when he was 47. It's not clear why his books have fallen from view. They may have seemed somewhat older than their time when they were published: quite long, with a strong delight in storytelling for its own sake, full of the unlikely and extravagant,and mostly romantic adventures. Has anyone else read him: which of his books do you recommend?


Sidelights on Industrial Revolution (Jarrolds, 1925)
And So – Victoria (Cape, 1937)
Endless Prelude (Routledge, 1937)
Looking Back To See Straight (Individualist Bookshop,1942)
Seven Tempest (Cape, 1942)
Being Met Together (Cape, 1944)
After Bath, or, if you prefer, the Remarkable case of the flying hat… (Cape, 1945)
Once Upon A Time, An Adventure (Cape, 1949)
The City of Frozen Fire (Cape, 1950)
[Introduces] Hermsprong; or, Man as he is not…by Robert Bage (Turnstile Press, 1951)
A King Reluctant (Cape, 1952)
Crown Without Sceptre (Cape, 1952)
Fanfare for a Witch (Cape, 1954)
Valley Beyond Time (Cape, 1955)
And So – Victoria (Revised edition, Pan, 1956)
Lady of Paris (Cape, 1956)
Dangerous Exile (Retitled film tie-in edition of A King Reluctant, Pan, 1957)
Husband for Victoria (Cape, 1958)

Friday, June 26, 2015


There is a long tradition of unofficial or fantasy stamps, known to collectors as “cinderellas”. They are distinct from those issued by the official authorities, usually sovereign nations or dependencies, who are members of the splendidly-named Universal Postal Union, which always gives the impression that it expects its services one day to reach to Mars or even Neptune.

The design and form of these cinderella stamps varies. Some betray their impromptu or amateur origin: but many look just like “proper” postage stamps: they are gummed, perforated, with a value, a notice of origin and artwork often at least equal to the conventional issues.

Examples in Britain include those issued for use by offshore islands, such as Lundy, in the Bristol Channel off North Devon, which do not have a Royal Mail service, and therefore offer a local post to the mainland. I wrote about a fictional local post of this kind, for one of the Islands of Fleet off Galloway, South West Scotland, in my story “The Prince of Barlocco” (available in The Collected Connoisseur).

For a while, experiments were made in sending post to remote islands by small rockets, such as to Scarp in the Hebrides. These were not always successful, and singed examples of such Rocket Post stamps, letters and cards are now highly collectable. Railways in Britain were also allowed to carry parcels, and letters (between stations only), alongside the Royal Mail monopoly, and some therefore issued their own “railway letter stamps”.

Most such stamps, however, are not used to pay for carriage, but are more like a form of miniature art or fiction. From Victorian times onwards, advertising stamps were issued to publicise exhibitions and trade fairs: these are often known as “poster stamps”. As well as these, however, there has also been a thriving tradition of purely “fantasy” stamps.

The most notable of these are the Wonderland stamps designed and issued by artist and philatelist Gerald M. King. This came about when he was dismayed that the Post Office declined to honour the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1965 with an official stamp. He therefore decided to celebrate the occasion himself, and imagined what sort of postal service Wonderland might have.

The result was a charming and beautifully made series of stamps featuring characters and scenes from the book, some involving nice puns (eg "Hare Mail", and the Dodo Dead Letter Office). These also appeared in an illustrated album, Alice Through the Pillar-Box: A Philatelic Fantasy (1978). Mr King has gone on to create further stamps set in imaginary worlds, including a mingling of Wonderland with Lundy, and others that contemplate several alternative histories.

These are the talismans of untold stories, and Gerald M King's marvellous work is well worth celebrating in the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Update: Gerald M King has produced some excellent new stamps and covers to commemorate the 150th anniversary. Enquiries to:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

IN FAIRY LAND - Tessa Farmer

A new exhibition of the macabre and fantastical work of Tessa Farmer opens on 28 June 2015 at The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History, and continues until 13 February 2016. Her pieces combine forms from the insect world with legends of the fairies in a way that is original and unsettling: they look like creatures that you might just see fleetingly on the wing or crawling up the walls of your room at dusk. The gossamer picturesqueness of Edwardian fairy books is usurped by a starker entomology that places the little people in a more authentic niche in the natural world, a world of predator and prey.

I saw Tessa's creations in the gardens of Belsay, the Northumbrian manor house, where they were hidden in glass cases amongst the grottoes and hollows of the rock formations, or shaded by the green arches of giant ferns. I was certainly glad they were behind the glass.

"Since her student days at The Ruskin in Oxford," the exhibition announcement tells us, "Tessa Farmer has inhabited a world that is not our world and, to some degree, is not even a human world. It is Fairy World and whereas she started out by making the fairies, increasingly it seems to be the other way around....Now an increasingly sinister and hostile force seems to have taken hold, resulting in work that hovers between violence and taunting, haunting humour." Tessa is the great-grand-daughter of Arthur Machen, no stranger to the little people himself.

A highly illustrated book on Tessa’s work, In Fairyland: The World of Tessa Farmer, will be published by Strange Attractor in the Autumn.