Friday, July 14, 2017

Supernatural Tales 35

The latest issue of the long-running and much-relished journal Supernatural Tales, edited by David Longhorn, has just been announced. Issue 35 offers seven stories both from stalwarts of the field and newer names, "covering every possible topic from ancient legends to weird local customs to entities from beyond our mundane realm. And then some." These are:

'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson
'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine
'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett
'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner
'The House at Twilight' by John Howard
'Gold' by Helen Grant

In 'The Scarlet Door', three keen book-collectors decide to search in dusty old bookshops for any books that are not on the net, not in any digital catalogue, never caught by any corporation, unknown to the online world. They want to keep them secret, so that some words will always remain free in the wild. Books of this sort, they find, generally come into three categories: poetry, pornography and prophecy. Each choosing one as their specialism, that's where they concentrate their efforts.

But what if certain books have their own defences?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Did Branwell Write 'Wuthering Heights'?

In Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), Mr Mybug (portrayed as somewhat eccentric) is writing a book to show that Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights:

‘“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff…”’

His further theory is that it was Branwell’s sisters who were drunkards, not he, and that they passed the books off (he had written Shirley and Villette too) as theirs so they could get money for drink. Flora, the heroine, raises some not unreasonable objections, but Mr Mybug has answers for each of them, at least to his own satisfaction. '“There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights,”' he avers.

Most readers have probably assumed this was all Stella Gibbons' entertaining invention. But in fact there were indeed real Branwellians. The idea had already been put forward before the publication of her comic satire, though lacking the picturesque extension that he had written any other Bronte books.

The main champion of the Branwellian hypothesis was Alice Law, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. Her book Patrick Branwell Bronte (London: A M Philpot, no date, but c. 1924) offers a short biography of her subject, and a selection of his poems, but its main purpose is to advance the idea that Wuthering Heights was largely his work. Chapter V is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Emily?” and Chapter VI is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Branwell?”.

I had in fact come across this proposition before, in a copy of John O’London’s Weekly, the popular book magazine. A correspondent had written to their letters column to give a circumstantial account of Branwell reading chapters from Wuthering Heights to a circle of local gentlemen whom he knew, and presenting it as his own work. Even if the anecdote is authentic, it is not very strong evidence of his authorship. The listeners may have simply assumed it was his; he might have represented it so because he thought they would give it more attention; he and Emily may have both been involved in presenting it as his for the same reason, or are as a mild joke.

Alice Law was already a published poet before she put forward the Branwellian theory. Her Songs of the Uplands appeared from T. Fisher Unwin in 1908, and Cupid and Psyche, and Other Poems from the Nineties publisher Elkin Mathews in 1919: she also put lyrics to music. She later issued volumes from what looks her like her own Old Parsonage Press at Altham, Lancs, in the Twenties and Thirties, and a further volume in the Branwellian campaign, Emily Jane Bronte and the Authorship of Wuthering Heights, came out from this imprint in 1928.

Wuthering Heights first appeared in 1847 under the pseudonym of ‘Ellis Bell’. Rumours, says Law, circulated that the book was by Charlotte. The author of Jane Eyre did not want the stormier book associated with her, so she asked Emily and Anne to accompany her on a visit to their publisher, to convince him they were three separate authors. Anne agreed: but Emily would not. The book must only be known as by ‘Ellis Bell’. In fact, avers Law, she insisted that Charlotte write to Mr Williams, the reader at their publisher Smith, Elder, now denying that each of the three sisters had written a book.

The origin of the idea that Branwell was the author comes largely from a book written by a friend of the Bronte family. This was Pictures of the Past. Memories of Men I Have Met and Places I have Seen by Francis H. Grundy (London and Edinburgh: Griffith and Farran, 1879). The author recalls a visit he made to the Parsonage at Haworth in 1846, when Charlotte was away but Branwell, Emily and Anne were present. Alice Law quotes from the book:

“Patrick Bronte declared to me, and what his sister said bore out the assertion, that he wrote a great portion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ himself. Indeed, it is impossible for me to read that story without meeting many pages which I feel certain must have come from his pen. The weird fancies of diseased genius with which he used to entertain me in our long talks at Luddenden Foot reappear in the pages of the novel, and I am inclined to believe that the very plot was his invention rather than his sister’s.”

Law states that the first attribution of the book to Emily was in Charlotte Bronte’s preface to the 1850 edition. Charlotte, she argues, genuinely thought Emily was the author: she had not been present when Mr Grundy visited in 1846. Her main further argument against Emily’s authorship, apart from the curious episode of the letter to Smith, Elder and the recollection (over 30 years later) of Mr Grundy, is that Wuthering Heights is not mentioned in the surviving letters between Anne and Emily – they are full of the secret history of Gondal, the fantasy world the two had invented.

So much for the evidence against the full authorship by Emily. What is the evidence for any authorship of the book by Branwell? Law quotes from a September, 1845, letter by him to his friend Leyland Smith: “I have, since I saw you at Halifax, devoted my hours of time…to the composition of a three-volume novel, one volume of which is completed”. This, he hopes, gives a “vivid picture of human feelings for good and evil…the conflicting feelings and clashing pursuits in our uncertain path through life.”

Further evidence is put forward by another friend of Branwell, William Dearden, in a letter to the Halifax Guardian of June, 1867. He recalled that he and Branwell met at an inn with Leyland Smith to read their poetry in a spirit of friendly rivalry: but when Branwell pulled his manuscript from under his hat, he found he had brought part of a novel “by an annoying mischance.” His friends pressed him to read this instead and he “riveted our attention for about an hour…”. It was a scene from Wuthering Heights. Dearden adds that Branwell had also read passages from the book to another friend, Edward Sloane, who recognised them at once when Ellis Bell’s book appeared.

Alice Law’s proposal is that Branwell had written significant parts of the book, that “Emily urged him to continue, and offered to help him with the copying or with the more tedious parts of the composition,” discussed it with him, and helped him to finish the work. That was why she compelled Charlotte to deny she had written it, and wished to retain the Ellis Bell attribution. But following Emily’s death, Charlotte, who had been estranged from her brother, promoted Emily as the author, in defiance of her sister’s express wishes. When the evidence of Branwell’s contemporaries emerged, much later, the image of him as a dissolute failure had already taken hold, and so the book could not be seen as his.

Just as the Shakespeare authorship controversies often begin with the assumption that a glover’s son could not have written such works, and their author must have been a sophisticated courtier, so the Branwell theory is influenced by the prejudice that a young woman could not have written so stark and powerful a book as Wuthering Heights. In both cases, of course, the premise is quite wrong. But whereas in the Shakespeare case the alternative arguments rest on very thin evidence, sometimes involving improbable ciphers, the Branwell case does at least have some curious aspects to it, in Charlotte’s behaviour and the evidence of his friends.

And it raises the question: was there ever at least part of a now lost novel by Branwell Bronte, the one Mr Grundy mis-remembered, the one he told Leyland Smith about, the one from which his other friends heard him read?

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Paymon's Trio - Colette de Curzon

Paymon's Trio by Colette de Curzon is one of two newly published booklets from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press. I had the opportunity to read this story beforehand, and I provided the message of encouragement to readers on the front cover.

This is what I said: "A story of music and the dark arts to compare with The Lost Stradivarius. Resonant with the allure of the forbidden, this is a tale told with distinction and grace. Enthusiasts of the great tradition in supernatural fiction will be delighted."

As my comment suggests, the theme of music and the supernatural has been explored before by some experienced hands. I touched on some of these when I wrote an introduction to the Tartarus Press edition of J Meade Falkner's The Lost Stradivarius. I said:

"...the theme of music and the soul was in the air. Edward Heron-Allen, an expert on violin-making and on the history of the instrument, had published the sardonic A Fatal Fiddle in 1890; Madame Blavatsky’s posthumously collected Nightmare Tales (1892) included a somewhat crude precursor in the supernatural field, ‘The Ensouled Violin’; Count Stenbock’s morbid tale ‘Viol d’Amor’ had been included in his collection of decadent fantasies, Studies of Death (1894); Stanley J. Makower’s The Mirror of Music, about a tragic young pianist, appeared in 1895, in John Lane’s fashionable and faintly scandalous Keynotes series; and in the following year F.W. Bourdillon’s exquisitely delicate Nephele depicted an enervating spiritual bond between a young man and woman, formed when they play a piece of haunting music together

....the reader of the day would not have been surprised to find that the rare, beautiful and magically-charged instrument of Falkner’s novel was not only physically lost, but lost also in the sense that a soul is lost: damned, that is. The idea of a macabre affinity between the violin and a damned soul is old in Romance. The most flamboyant and feverish masters of the instrument have often been linked to the powers of darkness: such legends clustered around Tartini, Sarasate, Paganini, and others."

So does Paymon's Trio compare well when it follows in such a rich tradition? Yes: it certainly does. Indeed, in many ways it is an advance on those somewhat hectic and decadent tales. This is a reflective, modern version of the theme. The story is subtle and assured, introducing us to characters we find engaging and interesting, in a prose that is observant, nuanced and calm: I was put in mind, indeed, of the writing of Elizabeth Bowen. This is just such a story as Robert Aickman, alert to the ghost story or strange story that is "akin to poetry" would have chosen for his Fontana anthologies. Part of the reason why this is so is because of the background to the story, which appears from the brief biography of the author:

"Colette de Curzon was born in 1927. The daughter of the then French Consul General, she wrote ‘Paymon’s Trio’ in 1949 in Portsmouth, at the age of 22. Having no knowledge of available routes to publication, she tucked it away in a folder of her work, where it remained until 2016. Now recently widowed, she is the mother of four grown-up daughters and has three grandchildren. She lives in a rambling Victorian house in Hampshire."

It is surely to be hoped that the encouragement of this publication might prompt some other stories from the author, soon.

Just a word finally about the second publication from Nightjar in this season's offering, The Automaton, a story by David Wheldon. This author achieved success with his first novel, The Viaduct (1983), and a second, The Course of Instruction (1984), both of which impressed me a good deal at the time. He was then described, as I recall, as an English Kafka, and in fact there was a lot of justice in this claim.

I remember that I was actually on a course of instruction when I read this second book in the rather dreary digs where I was staying. This was possibly not a good move, as I started to feel that the book and what then passed for reality were beginning to overlap a bit too closely. Nevertheless, I got each one of the following books as they appeared, each getting stranger and somehow more remote, until they seemed to stop altogether. So it is good to learn of this thoughtful author's return to publication, and I will seek the story out with a keen appreciation, not to say apprehension.

Mark Valentine

Friday, June 23, 2017

Arkham House reprints from Neville Spearman

Books published by Arkham House (founded 1939) have long been collectible. In the first half of the 1970s, the small British publisher Neville Spearman Limited reissued a number of Arkham titles in hardcover, in their British first editions. Neville Spearman as a publisher was founded in 1955 by Neville Armstrong (1914-2008), who ran the firm until 1985, when he sold it. Neville Spearman published between five and six hundred books, many of which were very eclectic in subject matter. I have listed the twelve Arkham reprints below, chronologically (noting the geographical movements of the publisher at that time), and below that, alphabetically by author (which notes the one title which went into a second Neville Spearman printing). The Neville Spearman reprints aren’t nearly as rare as the Arkham House originals, but at least they allow readers to access those titles at more reasonable prices. Neville Spearman published a number of other titles of interest to readers of supernatural literature, including James Dickie's anthology The Uncanny (1971), and the George Hay-edited spoof, The Necronomicon (1978).


[Neville Spearman based in London]

September.  Clark Ashton Smith, Lost Worlds 
            Clark Ashton Smith. Out of Space and Time

September. Clark Ashton Smith, Abominations of Yondo
            Clark Ashton Smith, Genius Loci

 [Neville Spearman moved to Jersey, Channel Islands]

April. Robert Bloch, The Opener of the Way
            Rober E. Howard,  Skull-Face and Others
            Henry S. Whitehead, Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales
August. August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu  
            August Derleth, The Trail of Cthulhu
December. Carl Jacobi, Revelations in Black
            David H. Keller, Tales from Underwood

April. Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents
Cover art by David L. Fletcher
[Neville Spearman moved (partially) to Sudbury, Suffolk]

Alphabetically by author:

Bloch, Robert. The Opener of the Way (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1974) Arkham, 1945

Derleth, August. The Trail of Cthulhu (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [August] 1974) Arkham, 1962

----. The Mask of Cthulhu (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [August] 1974) Arkham, 1958

Howard, Robert E. Skull-Face and Others (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1974) Arkham, 1946
            2nd printing 1975  

Jacobi, Carl. Revelations in Black (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [December] 1974) Arkham, 1947

Keller, David H. Tales from Underwood (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [December] 1974) Arkham, 1952

Leiber, Fritz. Night's Black Agents (Jersey: Neville Spearman, [April] 1975) Arkham, 1947

Smith, Clark Ashton. The Abominations of Yondo (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1972) Arkham, 1960

----. Genius Loci and Other Tales (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1972) Arkham, 1948

----. Lost Worlds (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1971) Arkham, 1944

----. Out of Space and Time (London: Neville Spearman, [September] 1971) Arkham, 1942

[Two other Smith reprints were announced but not published by Neville Spearman, comprising Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964) and Other Dimensions (1970)]

Whitehead, Henry S. Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (Jersey: Neville Spearman,
            [April] 1974) Arkham, 1944

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Frolic Wind - Richard Oke

'Richard Oke' wrote four novels, and a study of Frederick II. He won some esteem, and notoriety, for Frolic Wind (1929), his first novel. It is highly mannered, very precious, and full of the sort of extravagant characters to be found in the fantasias of Ronald Firbank and Lord Berners.

A contemporary critic, Ralph Straus in The Bystander said: “It is one long gorgeous lark – the most brilliant bit of fooling that I have read since [Evelyn Waugh's] Decline and Fall, and with a scholarship which is not to be found in that amiable macabre experiment”. Another reviewer, St John Ervine, compared it to Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas, and Compton Mackenzie. In its style and panache it also reminded me of the work of Patrick Carleton.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the mystery of the uppermost chamber in a tower in the garden of a country house, closely guarded by its eccentric chatelaine, Lady Athalia. A cavalcade of aesthetes, dandies, furtive personages and delicate recluses inconsequently drift through the gardens and the house. Dorothy L. Sayers alludes to the tower in her Gaudy Night (1936), evoking it as "the home of frustration and perversion and madness".

She was probably recalling a theatre adaptation of the story. Under the pen-name ‘Richard Pryce’, Oke wrote a play in three acts based on Frolic Wind, which seems to have won passing fame. It was published in 1935. He had been involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in a production of James Elroy Flecker’s exotic verse play Hassan, for which he designed the sets and costumes.

Oke’s second novel, Wanton Boys (1932) seems to have been an attempt to emulate the success of Frolic Wind with similar devices. It has also a set of jestingly-named characters in an opulent setting, this time a villa in Corsica. The arts patron Mrs MacKansas has invited an array of writers and artists to a creative holiday there, where they can devote themselves to work undisturbed and well cared-for. The mild satire is not as outré and does not have quite the same bizarre charm as its predecessor.

India’s Coral Strand (1934) is a fantasy in which stout, middle-aged Mrs Yarlove, setting the tea-table one day, swoons, then finds herself plunged into another world, a savage society where a feather-cloaked high priest conducts sacrificial rituals, evidently based on those of the Aztecs. To this strange race she appears as a goddess. For some years, while her original comatose body lies in her bedroom upstairs (and visitors pay to see the sleeping lady), she leads a dramatically different existence in this world of barbaric magnificence. The idea, though odd and gaudy, is perhaps not quite artfully developed enough to sustain interest over a novel length.

One of the few descriptions of the author is found in an excellent essay, ‘Requiem for a Minor Author’ by Fred West (The Antioch Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 318-324). Richard Oke was the pen-name of Nigel Stansbury Girtin Millett (1904-1946). Oke and his father (a barrister by profession) went to live in Mexico in 1937, where they ran a cantina. This unusual move must presumably have had some particular stimulus behind it, possibly the delicate health of the son. Richard Oke died in 1946 in Guadalajara of tuberculosis, and his grave is in Mexico. His father died the following year.

Oke has also been credited with a collaboration with a friend, Peter Lilley, on Village in the Sun (1948), under the joint pseudonym of Dane Chandos. There were further books under the same pen-name, such as House in the Sun (1950) and Journey in the Sun (1952). The British Library catalogue credits these books to Peter Lilley and Anthony Stansfeld. These two also collaborated on at least two books as ‘Bruce Buckingham’, Three Bad Nights (1956) and Boiled Alive (1957).

Frolic Wind at least deserves a discerning following for its languorous, inconsequential but strangely alluring prose: it is certainly one of the few plausible emulations of the dragonfly wit and imagination of Ronald Firbank.

A Checklist of Books by Richard Oke

Frolic Wind (Gollancz, 1929)
Wanton Boys (Gollancz, 1932)
India’s Coral Strand (Faber & Faber, 1934)
Frolic Wind: A Play in Three Acts [by ‘Richard Pryce’] (Gollancz, 1935)
The Boy from Apulia (Arthur Barker, 1936) (on Frederick II)
Strange Island Story (Arthur Barker, 1939)

Mark Valentine

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Le Visage Vert no. 28, February 2017

I've been too busy to study deeply the latest issue of Le Visage Vert, even to the point of being remiss about calling attention to its publication some months ago.  So here's a belated notice.  Ordering details can be found here (scroll down), and a full table of the contents of this issue here. The lead story is by  Perceval Landon, "Thurnley Abbey". Lafcadio Hearn is represented with an article (from 1875) on spirit photographs.   François Ducos contributes a study of the occult detective in France, 1930-1960. There are some older materials by Kirby Draycott and Gustave Guitton, as well as contemporary stories by Jean-Pierre Chambon and Achillèas Kyriakìdis. All in all another fine issue.

 The Kirby Draycott story is additionally given in its original English, as "The Clock Face of Schaumberg", in a supplementary booklet, reprinted from The Royal Magazine, November 1898, with the intriguing original illustrations. The story concerns a sixteenth-century historical figure, Goetz of the Iron Hand, who wore an iron prosthetic after losing his right arm in battle.  Michel Meurger contributes an article about the historical Goetz, to complement the fictional treatment by the mysterious Draycott, about whom very little is known beyond his authorship of a small number of tales. 

The above is from the opening pages of the supplementary booklet.  The illustration shows the interesting use to which a clock tower is put in the story

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Buried Shadows - John Howard

Egaeus Press have just announced the publication on 17 June 2017 of Buried Shadows, a collection of ten stories by John Howard. Anyone who is interested in modern, character-based supernatural fiction with a strong European sensibility will want to have a copy.

Readers will find in these stories that the element of the uncanny is always subtly deployed: we can never be quite sure where the events of this world end and the influences of other forces or other planes begin to overlap.

They will also find stories that do not just rely on the supernatural dimension: they have credible, vulnerable, humane characters coming to terms with the doubts and dilemmas integral to our existence. The settings, often in European cities and provinces, and sometimes also in lesser-known historical tableaux, are unfamiliar but soon important to us: we are drawn into them.

These qualities are all achieved in a clear, concise prose that is both contemporary but also timeless: we recognise the succinct, chiselled style of the modern short story but we also hear echoes and resonances from the great tradition in fantastic literature. And most of all, John Howard’s thoughtful stories are perceptive explorations of how people respond when they face difficult questions about love, courage, trust, and society.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Love All Dressed in White - M. Villa-Gilbert

“It was a deeply superstitious place but he was used to it and it didn’t worry him at all. On the contrary, he liked to be here and he came here often. To be by himself, to take off his clothes and get himself drunk on the strange atmosphere, the subtle eroticism of the place. Because it worked upon him, caused him to bloom like some exotic but evil-smelling flower.”

Is it possible to commit murder by ghost? That is the question posed by M. Villa- Gilbert’s My Love All Dressed in White (1964). A public schoolboy has returned to his family home to meet his new stepmother: his father, who should have joined them too, is detained on business. Remarkably self-possessed, the youth does not actively dislike the woman his father has chosen, but considers she will be an inconvenience, and an intrusion on the semi-abandoned manor and garden he wants all to himself. He treats her efforts to win him over with a disdain barely masked by a formal politeness.

The boy has a secret hideaway, a broken fountain with a decayed statue of Narkissos which now stares at its ruined reflection in a stagnant pool. There is a suggestion that this young man might be under the baleful influence of this idol: he has consciously adopted its attributes. This is a subtle and sophisticated study of a character with all the amorality, arrogance and poise of a young demi-god. He resents it when his stepmother finds him there, where he has stripped to admire himself and to pursue languorous erotic thoughts.

The shabby Jacobean house, with its overgrown ornamental, Italianate garden, has a ghost, or so he says, a pale young woman, and in a desultory way he mentions her to the newcomer and occasionally returns lightly to the legend. She is said to have died on her wedding day and to resent any newly wed in the house. In a memorable scene, he dances with the ghost in the disused ballroom, his hands full of the rotting white of her gown: but he dare not look upon her face. Is this his imagining, or is the apparition real? Or could it be another reflection of his own corrupt soul?

Later, as he walks in the garden with his stepmother under the moon, there is a white apparition: startled, she falls through a wicket gate and down some steps, and does not rise again. From then on we observe and fully accept the young man’s confidence that his exact role in the affair cannot be discovered and could not be brought home to him even if it were.

The writing does not depend upon mystery or suspense: we know what has happened from the very beginning, when the boy telephones the police to report the incident. The prose is cadenced, sensuous, attentive to delicate impressions of moonlight, rustling leaves, the call of the nightjar, scents, gestures. It seems imbued with the spirit of the Eighteen Nineties, and its decadent youth might have been created by Wilde or Machen or drawn by Beardsley. Its fraught atmosphere and the intense relationship also suggest the influence of The Turn of the Screw, and indeed this is specifically invoked in the enticements to the French edition, Mon amour tout habillé de blanc (Albin Michel, 1970), translated by Colette-Marie Huet, as is the shade of Poe.

This was the author’s second novel of six in the period 1963-1970: her full name seems to be Mariana Soledad Magdalena Villa Gilbert, born in 1937. Her first novel, Mrs Galbraith’s Air (1963) also suggests the noted James novella. It won some notoriety for its somewhat humid depiction of a passion between an aesthetic adolescent boy and a mature woman school-teacher, in the setting quite literally of a hothouse, where the boy also caresses the orchids and fingers the tendrils of exotic growths. It was well-received: the Times said “Miss Villa-Gilbert writes extremely well, and she has a cool eye for wickedness”, while other critics spoke of it as delicate, sensitive and imaginative. A review in The Spectator thought the book was “extraordinarily well-written” though with too much artifice, the work of a mind “inflamed by literature”.

There were four more novels after My Love All Dressed in White and, after a long gap, a collection of four stories, The Sun in Horus, which appeared from Hamish Hamilton in 1986. One of these, “Smoke”, has a theme and an adolescent character not unlike those of her first two novels, a boy trying to prevent his widowed mother in wartime falling for a raffish and unreliable suitor. But after that, there were apparently no more publications. None of her exquisite, artful novels, meditations on the mingling of evil and innocence, seem to have had much attention in all the decades since. It seems strange and unlikely that prose of such style and intelligence, and an imagination so fervid, could have been so soon subdued: perhaps there may be manuscripts.

A Checklist of Books by M Villa-Gilbert

Mrs Galbraith’s Air (Chatto & Windus, 1963)
My Love All Dressed in White (Chatto & Windus, 1964)
Mrs Cantello (Chatto & Windus, 1966)
A Jingle Jangle Song (Chatto & Windus, 1968)
The Others (Chatto & Windus, 1970)
Manuela: A Modern Myth (Chatto & Windus, 1973)
The Sun in Horus (Hamilton, 1986)

Mark Valentine

Saturday, June 3, 2017

This Wounded Island - J W Böhm

Whether in a café with murky coffee, staring at a plastic tomato with a congealed nozzle, or sitting in an obscure corner on a wrought-iron bench whose supports are in the form of a fork-tongued serpent, or passing through the stale clouds of furtive smokers crouched in the dank corners of anonymous office blocks, I have sometimes wondered what became of J W Böhm, the Berlin topographer and traveller.

Even among the few who have heard of his writing, there is no agreement about its qualities. It might be likened to the work of a more laconic Sebald or a less barbed-wire Sinclair. The austerity of his observations on urban landscapes, the wastelands of Europe, the unregarded edges, have led some to regard him as a gnomic visionary, while others believe he is simply a bewildered naïf.

The debate will not be ended by the unexpected publication of a welcome new work by him, This Wounded Island, Volume One: The Condition of England (Institute of Liminal Landscape Studies, 2017), translated by Michael Randolph and with an introduction by Frederic Stiller.

The book consists of terse accounts, each of a paragraph or so, of visits to towns in Southern England, together with black and white photographs. The observations are often tinged with melancholy, and sometimes – possibly inadvertently – brittle with a dry wit. The photographs alone are eloquent of the England he found, and the text, sometimes plaintive, at other times elliptical, conveys succinctly his sense of a country “haunted by uncertainty”.

These measured insights would alone be enough to make the book a valuable record of a certain time and place. But that is not its only resonance. For Böhm thinks that something has happened to the country he is traversing, and records the clues and signs, the rumours and murmurs that seem to hint at what it might be. He even believes he may have found some sort of a solution to the mystery of this vague malaise. While I do not think it will surprise seasoned Böhmians to learn that this is not how things end, they (and not only they) will certainly want to seek out this work of uncanny genius.

Mark Valentine

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Visit with Pegana Press

Mike and Rita Tortorella run Pegana Press from their home near Seattle, Washington. I have written about their Dunsany publications before (here and here).  I’m pleased now to offer a brief Q&A with Mike about how they got started with Pegana Press. I also recommend that you browse around their website, which has lots of photos and text describing their operation and publications more fully.  (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Tell us a bit about yourselves:

Well, when we're not printing or binding books we have other businesses we run. Rita is an energy medicine practitioner and is also deeply involved in Permaculture design, trying to create a self-sustaining environment here on our property.

I have an audio production studio and engineer and record music, which is what my formal training and career has been. I've begun to combine my interest in books and recording sound by creating an audiobook of Lord Dunsany stories, The Vengeance of Thor, that are a blend of music, narration and radio drama woven into the tales, really fun and satisfying to do.

How did you get started in the fine press field?

That grew out of collecting nice books and gradually growing more curious about how they were made. Knowing about and reading William Morris had a lot to do with it because of his printing at Kelmscott. That led me to a Roycroft edition of a Morris book and I explored the printing career of Elbert Hubbard. I was also collecting Clark Ashton Smith at the time and tracked down some of the letterpress chapbooks that Roy Squires had printed in California and that was a big eye opener as well. Strangely, I had talked with Squires years before this and bought Kai Lung and Lord Dunsany first editions from him as a bookseller without knowing that he was a well respected printer in the Fantasy/Supernatural field.

Around this time, a local college was offering letterpress printing and bookbinding classes and Rita encouraged me to take one. I found the process extremely interesting and satisfying and began to get curious about the different printing presses and their function. At some point I just decided to go for it and buy a press and begin printing. I started with a broadside of Lord Dunsany's first published poem Rhymes From A Suburb. I then ran into some information about other works by Hope Mirrlees, the author of Lud-in-the-Mist, and discovered she had written a long surrealist prose poem Paris in 1919 that was now almost totally forgotten. It had been printed by Virginia Woolf and exhibited extremely interesting typesetting to support the text. I spent a year printing it, measuring and duplicating the spacing from scans of the original.

Tell us about your interests in fantasy literature, and how that developed.

Well I suppose growing up in the late 60's and early 70's my exposure to comics (and having them mailed to me) and fantasy based cartoons may have been the start. I somehow (like many of us) found paperbacks, primarily the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series put together by Lin Carter. This introduced me to many of the authors which in turn led to many other authors and collecting began in earnest. I was also exposed to the wildly fantastic progressive rock music happening in the early to mid 70's, Yes and Genesis and the amazing artwork and lyrics going on. At some point I began looking at hardbacks rather than paperbacks in bookstores and began seeking finer editions; being in Spokane at the time there was never much to see in rare fantasy books though so I began to purchase through catalogs. I moved to Seattle to work in a recording studio and walked into a used bookstore that had an almost complete collection of Lord Dunsany first editions, books I had only dreamed of, that was a day to remember!

Why Dunsany?

Dunsany is my favorite author, an amazing man and a visionary who wrote much of his work with little, if any editing. He wrote almost nonstop, and there are stories of his scattered everywhere that haven't seen the light of day. He cared about the design of his books and also had custom bindings done for himself so I think it's appropriate that his work has a beautiful vehicle to carry it.

I began with the grandiose idea (since shelved) of doing a deluxe velum version of The Charwoman's Shadow which would have taken almost 3 years of typesetting by hand to complete but I had contacted the Dunsany Estate for permission and established a dialogue with Lady Dunsany. At some point I ran into a list of uncollected Dunsany stories and began to track down the magazines they had been published in and that started the Lost Tales series of books. Lady Dunsany is very supportive of craftsmanship and art and has been extraordinarily kind enough, with the Curator's invaluable assistance, to provide us with unpublished stories and rare artwork from the Castle.

Part of what I try to do with Pegana Press is add to the canon of fantasy with something lost, rare or unusual as opposed to just redoing what has been done before. I think it's important to share these Dunsany gems to those who will appreciate them.

Describe the development of a book idea over time, from conception to publication.

I usually come at each book from a different direction. I begin by choosing an author or work I'd like to have in my library and that no one has else has done. Then I have to decide on the design and physical structure of the book to determine what kinds of paper and type will be used. One of the Clark Ashton Smith books we did utilized Golden Rectangle proportions for everything and we used an ancient looking Lokta paper from Nepal as endpapers, I really wanted the book to feel prediluvian in nature and magical as the stories are about Necromancers in Poseidonis. The Lovecraft Edition was based on the proportions of a James Branch Cabell book I own that I really like the look and feel of. I also do chapbooks that require less structural decisions. After the design concept is clear in my mind, I start thinking about art and how to get something cool for the book. The great thing about the internet is it allows me to have worked with artists in Germany, Fiji and France to realize some of these books.

From here the real work begins of typesetting each letter by hand and then laboriously printing a page at a time. This is where our books are totally unique in the genres of Fantasy and Supernatural, no one else that I know of is doing fine edition letterpress like this. All the paper and materials are cut by hand. Once printing is done all the sheets are folded by hand and Rita begins the sewing and binding. All the binding and sewing is done by hand. Some of the binding is also done by Ars Obscura in Seattle. From there it's a matter of marketing the book and finding collectors interested in what we do, a full time occupation by itself.

Any authors you want to do but haven’t got round to yet?

There are so many, Robert W. Chambers, E.R. Eddison, Ernest Bramah, Donald Corley, William Morris, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert E. Howard, Eden Phillpotts. I still have more unpublished Lord Dunsany to get through as well. I'm just finishing a Fritz Leiber chapbook so he's off the short term board.

I also like to hear from people what they think I should print, I thrive on feedback and enjoy finding out what they want in their own libraries.

Thanks, Mike!