Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Le Fanu

Just published by The Swan River Press of Dublin is My Aunt Margaret's Adventure, an unsigned mystery story from The Dublin University Magazine of March 1864, first attributed to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu by M. R. James in the introduction to his edition of overlooked Le Fanu stories, Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923). Though James mentioned the tale, he excluded it from his collection, so this marks the first reprinting since its original publication. This attractive booklet includes informative additions---an Introduction by Jim Rockhill, an Afterword by Gary W. Crawford, and the reprinting of a relevant old ballad, "The Maid of the Moor" (1797) by George Colman the Younger. For ordering information, click here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Twisted Clay

Australian author Frank Walford's novel Twisted Clay has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.
Walford himself bragged that the novel was applauded by the London Times as 'the best book ever written with a lunatic as a central character'. Twisted Clay, first published by Werner Laurie in 1933, was banned in Australia for nearly thirty years before the Australian paperback publisher Horwitz reprinted it in the early '60s. They cashed in on its notoriety, declaring on the back cover: 'Just Released From The Banned List!'
The narrator and anti-heroine of Twisted Clay is Jean Deslines, a precocious fourteen year old in every way. Her mother died giving birth to her, which took place during a terrible storm, and she lives with her loving father and tyrannical grandmother in a “bleak old house on the crest of the Blue Mountains.” Jean delights in causing trouble and innocently denying that she has done anything wrong. Early on in the book she describes how as a twelve-year-old she led on a clergyman, drawing his hand around his waist and kissing him, knowing that her grandmother is spying on them through the window. She also enjoys sharing a bed with the buxom maid, but it is only when her savvy, university-educated cousin, Myrtle, tells her to read psychology textbooks that she realizes she is a lesbian. At first she is appalled, regarding herself as “something unhealthy, a gross abnormality which should have been strangled at birth”, and she tries to kill herself by boiling herself alive in the laundry tub. The textbooks inform her that lesbianism is caused by a deficiency of female hormones, and that she might excite her suppressed femininity by consorting with the opposite sex. She hits onto the bank manager’s son and manages to get herself pregnant; confessing all to her long-suffering father she has an abortion and dumps the perplexed boyfriend. Soon afterwards she has a dream that recurs through the novel: Jean, dressed as a slave girl witnesses the stabbing murder by barbarians of a Roman centurian who, when examined by a doctor, turns out to be a beautiful woman. Events take a turn for the worse for Jean when she eavesdrops on a conversation between her father and the doctor who performed the abortion; they plan to take her to Europe to undergo experimental hormone treatment that they hope will cure her lesbianism and improve her personality. The only way she can see to avoid the treatment is to murder her father; one night she takes him to the local cemetery where a grave has been freshly dug, kills him by smashing his skull with a shovel, and buries him in the grave. Although the doctor suspects her of the crime, she is able to convince the local police that she is an innocent victim who is beaten and abused by her grandmother and the doctor. When it seems that she has escaped all suspicion, she starts to experience intermittent bouts of insanity in which her father appears and implores her to perform specific tasks; her first task is to dig him up and stop up the hole in his head because his brains are slipping out! She accomplishes this over a couple of nights, and when suspicion falls on her she manages to deflect it onto the doctor. Meanwhile, her cousin Myrtle appears on the scene again and becomes infatuated with Jean; the two attend a fancy dress ball, Jean dressed as a slave girl and Myrtle as a centurian, seemingly suggesting that Jean’s dream was clairaudient. The doctor employs a detective to investigate the case and he sees through her charade of innocence; when in another fit of insanity she digs up the corpse of her father he is on hand to apprehend her and she is placed in an asylum. Jean escapes from the asylum and finds that easy money can be made as a Sydney prostitute; however her hatred of men and her intermittent bouts of insanity compel her to become a “Jill-the-Ripper” serial killer as she ruthlessly dispatches her clients. She is able to live in an apartment undiscovered until she murders Myrtle, with whom she has resumed a relationship, in the flat. Once again she takes on a new identity and sets herself up as a beautician; she even seems to be “cured” when she is seduced by “scar-face” Harry Lees, a rough, masculine criminal and drug-dealer. The two go into business together and the partnership prospers. Unfortunately for Jean the detective reappears and she is forced to kill him; when she tells Harry what she as done he is horrified and deserts her. Disillusioned once and for all she gases herself in the kitchen, leaving behind her diary for posterity.
So there you have it! Classic 1930s pulp. Sad to say Walford's other works don't live up to the promise of Twisted Clay. His collection of short stories, The Ghost of Albert and Other Stories, includes a couple of supernatural tales, but they are fairly bland humorous efforts with little to recommend them.
And what of Walford himself? Born in Balmain, Sydney, in 1882 he led an adventurous life in his youth, going to North Queensland as a buffalo hunter and crocodile shooter and living with Indigenous people to learn bush survival techniques. He sailed a schooner between Townsville and Broome with an Aboriginal crew. He settled in Katoomba in 1919 to work for the Blue Mountains Echo newspaper in which he published poetry by Eleanor Dark and Eric Lowe.
His first novel, Indiscretions of Iole, evidently sold 20,000 copies in Britain, and his short stories we regularly broadcast on Australian radio. In 1942 he won 200 pounds in a Woman's Weekly short story contest. He was active in the local community at Katoomba, NSW, where he settled in 1919. During World War Two, he joined the Volunteer Defence Corps and roamed the Blue Mountains seeking out strategic locations for ammunition dumps and bases for guerrilla fighters in the event that Australia was successfully invaded. He died in 1969.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dunsany as Jorkens

The first volume of Lord Dunsany's tall tales of Joseph Jorkens, The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, appeared in 1931. Unlike many of Dunsany's books, which were often illustrated by Sidney Sime, this volume has no illustrations at all. However, Sime did illustrate the first two Jorkens stories, "The Abulaheeb" and "The King of Sarabh", when they appeared in the Christmas number of The Graphic for 1926. Sime, best-known for his exquisite work in black-and-white, uncharacteristically contributed five color illustrations: three for the first story, and two for the second. The best and most characteristic of the illustrations is the headpiece, which seems to depict the Van Dyked Dunsany as his own famous character. (Click on the illustration to see a larger version.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sidney Sime

In my column "Late Reviews" in Wormwood no. 6 (Spring 2006), I reviewed favorably the rare shilling shocker A Curious Case (London: Digby and Long, 1891) by one Sidney Sime. Whether this author was also the famous artist Sidney Sime is uncertain, but based on stylistic traits I suspect they are the same Sime.

Recently I happened upon a short review of the book, contemporary to its original publication, and thought I'd share it. It appeared in The Academy, 5 September 1891, and was written by William Sharp, who is better remembered as "Fiona Macleod."

Mr. Sidney Sime's Curious Case is a sufficiently sensation return for the shilling demanded for it. It is, indeed, better than most books of its kind; and the social problem involved in Dr. Hart's ethically justifiable if legally reprehensible and punishable action is one that is all the better for being brought before the attention of thinking men and women in all manner of ways.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mark Hansom

One writer of supernatural thrillers who remains unidentified is Mark Hansom. Hansom wrote seven novels for the publisher Wright & Brown between 1934 and 1939. The novels are fairly crude but quite entertaining and invariably include sorcerers, magicians and Black Magic, as well as the inevitable girl in distress.

The accepted wisdom is that ‘Mark Hansom’ was a pseudonym, as no eligible person with this name has turned up in genealogical records. The 1911 English census website, now complete and which allows a free name search, has no Mark Hansom though there are several dozen Hansoms listed.

The usual way of tracing author identity is via publishers' records. Unfortunately, the records of Wright & Brown were destroyed along with its offices in 1940 during the Blitz. Ward Lock went up with it. W&B survived the war and continued to publish popular novels, particularly romance, until it wound up in about 1969/70. No one seems to know the whereabuts of the W&B archive following its dissolution and it may have been dumped or destroyed, a great shame if true. A number of W&B authors moved on to Robert Hale, but inquiries there revealed no connection between the two publishers.

Interestingly, all of Hansom’s books were reprinted by Mellifont, which specialised in cheap, abridged reprints. A Canadian book seller has a copy of the Mellifont The Shadow on the House for US$550, a fair whack for a 96 page abridgment. Mellifont had offices in London and Dublin – its entry in the 1953 Writers and Artists Year Book says, “Cheap editions of novels…also cheap edition rights of books previously published.” I’ve no idea if a Mellifont archive survives somewhere, or who, if anyone, acquired the company. Interesting that all the Hansom books were reprinted by Mellifont, at least one as late as 1951. Perhaps he/she was hard up and sold the rights cheaply?

Anyway, without contracts or letters or other documentation Hansom seems doomed to obscurity. Can we tell anything about him/her from the books? Not a lot, I think. He may have been well educated. Hansom includes a Latin quote in Beasts of Brahm, a fun horror tale reprinted by Midnight House in 2001. Arthur and Jeremy break into the evil Count’s house and find a book from which Jeremy reads: "Cum animi e corporum vinculis, tamquam e carcere evolaverint", which is from Cicero's Somnium Scipionis: “Immo vero inquit hi vivunt, qui e corporum vinculis tamquam e carcere evolaverunt.” He had a liking for black magic plots. Probably English.  He knew London well, and was acquainted with the theatre scene.

Why did he stop writing in 1939? Called up to fight? Possibly, though it may well be that he was cut from the W&B list as a result of war time paper restrictions. There is at least one Mark Hansom story in a popular magazine of the day, so he must have had a certain popular profile.

Ascribing authorship is a fun game to play over a pint, but in reality a complete waste of time. So let’s have a go. Are there any obvious contenders? There were dozens of thriller/mystery writers around at the time who churned out novels for W&B, Herbert Jenkins, Jarrolds, Ward Lock etc etc for the circulating library market. What about E. Charles Vivian, born Charles Henry Cannell in 1882? He wrote a celebrated series of supernatural thrillers for W&B under the name Jack Mann - there were 8 Gees novels published between 1936 and 1941. Vivian wrote an Inspector Head novel called Shadow on the House, which was published in the same year as Hansom’s The Shadow on the House. Was he playing games? It’s possible, but the learned opinion of experts is that Hansom’s writing style is less polished than Vivian's.

Who else? The execrable Sydney Horler? Walter S. Masterman, author of some off-beat thrillers? The equally mysterious "Rex Dark" whose Wright & Brown career coincided with Mark Hansom's and whose books were similarly reprinted by Mellifont?  Alan Grant (Gilbert Alan Kennington) of It Walks in the Woods (1936) fame, which was also published by Mellifont. The prolific John Robert Stuart Pringle, who wrote crime thrillers under the name Gerald Verner, amongst other pseudonyms, under which name he edited the anthology of witchcraft stories, Prince of Darkness? Certainly, one of his pseudonyms was "Nigel Vane", which is playfully self-referential, as is "Mark Hansom".  J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose short stories and novels appeared in many of the same places as Hansom's, such as the Australian Woman's Weekly and the Weekly Times, and who published some novels with Wright & Brown? Brenda Cecilia Hopwood, who under the name Patrick Leyton wrote mystery thrillers like Haunted Abbey? Gilderoy Davison, who wrote the Twisted Face novels for Herbert Jenkins? Gret Lane, Francis Duncan, Wyndham Martin, etc etc?

What about Frank King (1892-1958), a doctor from Halifax who turned to writing in the late 1920s? One of his early books was The Ghoul (1928) which was turned into the classic Boris Karloff film in 1933. He also wrote Cagliostro: The Last of the Sorcerers (1929) and the ‘creepy’ Terror at Staurs House (1927). Later he turned to rather innocuous detective stories featuring “The Doormouse”, a Raffles style private detective. He was educated at Rishworth and Bradford schools before studying medicine at Leeds University. He also wrote for Windsor, Story Teller, Cassells, New, Passing Show, amongst others magazines. An interesting guy, worth reading. Is he Mark Hansom? Probably not. In all likelihood Hansom is a complete unknown, someone who turned to writing to make a quick buck in straitened times and managed to do okay for a short period before the war intervened.

"Late Reviews"

Adcock, A. St. John. The World That Never Was: A London Fantasy (London: Francis Griffiths, 1908). Illustrated by Tom Browne.

Arthur St. John Adcock (1864-1930) was a literary gadfly of the early twentieth century, for many years the editor of The Bookman, and an acquaintance to a large number of literary writers, including Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson. He is remembered today chiefly for his two volumes of impressions of contemporary authors, Gods of Modern Grub Street (1923) and The Glory That Was Grub Street (1928), but one of his more enduring volumes should be his study For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War (1918; revised 1920).

Amongst his diverse output is one fantasy novel, The World That Never Was. It is actually a children’s fantasy, about young Olive and her brother Tony, and their adventures in London at night. They meet various characters, some from folklore and legendry like Bluebird, Dick Whittington, Mother Hubbard, and the law-breaking Bill Stickers (known from the common sign “Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted”), before returning home the next morning. The children are cloying to the modern reader, and the story never casts a spell. The book is unremarkable and eminently forgettable.

Pain, Barry. Three Fantasies (London: Methuen, 1904).

The title of this elusive book makes it sound much more desirable than it actually is. The short story which opens the book, “Cheevers and the Love of Beauty,” is the best in the volume. A local busy-body businessman is accused of having no love of beauty, and the remark rankles him. Soon afterwards he encounters a gypsy who reads his palm, and remarks upon this fact. For a small sum of silver, she gives him a love of beauty for seven days, during which time he neglects his business and spends his days at the National Gallery, much to the bewilderment of all who know him. After seven days, he returns to his normal self. The two novellas in this book are romance stories, neither of which really count as fantasies in the modern sense.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Drolls From Shadowland

From The Bookman, April, 1896, pp. 13-14




MR. J. H PEARCE is, I believe, a novelist. He has published two or three Cornish novels, one of which has received Mr. Gladstone's imprimatur. I do not know his work as a novelist, though I can well believe that something of the vague, shadowy, elusive poetry which is the very breath of his short stories might escape from a long book. I ought perhaps to apologise to Mr. Pearce for calling the two books named above neglected. They must have reached the ears of the small audience which is ever alert for new voices in literature. A good many of his critics at the time of their publication were enthusiastic. But the outer public the books scarcely reached at all; and my complaint is that, instead of taking their place in the body of literature which is always in demand, they have seemed to disappear with their season, as a drop of rain in the sea, so quickly and silently. It might be easy to explain this by saying that the public adores, with a comprehensive passion, the trite and the commonplace; but it would not be an explanation. The great body of circulating-library readers who make a worthless book go for a season or two, have no power to grant fixity of tenure. There is a stronger public opinion on literature which in the end, after blunders and injustices, is always right. Nothing that is really of literature is lost and forgotten; it is acknowledged and honoured at last; and this is the thought which comforts one when one is wroth at seeing fine work pushed down and trampled out of sight by the vulgar and the obvious.

“Drolls from Shadowland” appeared in 1893, “Tales of the Masque” the following year. Their effect on my own mind was so deep and abiding that at any time since, without consulting the books, I could tell the story of “The Little Crow of Paradise, or Joanna,” or “the Calling of the Sea,” or the yet earlier “Man Who Talked With the Birds,” or “The Man Who Met Hate,” or “The Unchristened Child,” or “A Pleasant Entertainment,” or “The Man Who Wished to be a Tree.” The quality of imagination in Mr. Pearce's work is extraordinarily fine and subtle. There is no imagination in young poetry at present which can stand beside his in prose excepting that of his brother Celt, Mr. W. B. Yeats. Between the genius of these two there is a certain kinship, but Mr. Pearce sees life whole as Mr. Yeats does not. To make his glamour, Mr. Yeats uses gold, and grey, and purple, mists of fairyland and splendour of legend; to make his, Mr. Pearce takes more homely material. He is something of the sage and philosopher, and, elusive as he is, he is a student of life and his fellow-men. His is a genius at once aerial and intimate.

There is a depth of human feeling in "The Unchristened Child." The Cornish fisherman had refused baptism to his child, and it is the superstition that an unchristened child, whether he die on the land or the water, becomes a creature of that element. The little lad, when out fishing in a punt with a playfellow, falls overboard and is drowned. "His companion, leaning over, could see him sinking down slowly into the crystalline depths, with his hands stretched up and the hair on his head tapering to a point like the flame of a candle.” A few days afterwards the father is out fishing when he sees a little seal emerge from a cave and come swimming towards him.

“’Why dedn'ee ha' me christened, faather?’ asked the little seal piteously.

“’My God, are'ee Silas?’ said John, trembling violently.

“’Iss, I'm Silas,’ said the little seal.

“John stared aghast at the smooth brown head and the innocent eyes that watched him so pathetically.

“’Why, I thought thee wert drownded, Silas!’ he ejaculated.

“’I caant go to rest 'tell I'm christened,’ said the seal.

“’How can us do it, now?’ asked the father anxiously.

“’Ef anywan who's christened wed change sauls weth me,’ said the seal, ‘then I wed go to rest right away.’

“’Thee shall ha' my saul, Silas,’ said the father tenderly.

“’Will'ee put thy mouth to mine an' braythe it into me, faather?’

“’Iss, my dear, that I will,’ said the father. ‘Rest thee shust have ef I can give it to’ee, Silas. Put thy hands or paws around me neck, will'ee, soas?’

“And John leaned over the side of the boat till his face touched that of the piteous little seal.”

It has the profound simplicity and tenderness of genuine folklore. Indeed, of all the Cornishmen in love with Cornwall, Mr. Pearce seems to have come nearest to the secret of the Celtic magic which is in the haunted moorlands, and on the wild cliffs over the sea, and in the hearts of the primitive people. "The Little Crow of Paradise" might have come from the times when faith was so ardent that imagination centred about the things of faith, embroidering them with lovely accessories. The Robin, says Mr. Pearce, because of its kindness when Christ hung on the Cross, is permitted once a year to visit Hell, bearing a drop of water in its beak for some poor sinner it had loved while on earth. But the crow is the bird of the devil, because he mocked Christ on the Cross, and he has a cinder for a heart; yet one little crow for ever sits on the wall of Paradise. His friend was dead and in hell, "in the awful Pit of the Great Thirst, with the lidless eyes of Satan fixed unsleepingly upon him," and the crow had in vain implored the robin to bear him a drop of water. The robin is the only bird that can go scatheless near the fires, but the crow, moved by pity and love, took the drop of water in his beak and flew down to Hell.

"In the Black Pit of Thirst his friend moaned helplessly his throat and lips parched into horrible blackness, and the sharp brine running through his veins instead of blood. ‘Water! give me water!’ he gasped to the crow. The crow sank down, and alighting on his shoulder, poured the cherished drop of water between the black, parched lips. ‘A hundred years of agony have rolled away from me!’ gasped the man. ‘Now, caw once, that I may remember the woodlands. . . .' ‘Caw,’ cried the little black crow, ‘Caw! Caw!’ But at that moment the Ancient One, who is of stone and without a heart, thrust his huge claws forward and the crow was in his palm. Then God who seeth all things was moved to compassion, and as His thought became a deed, Satan's huge claws opened, and up flew the little crow straight to Paradise; alighting, singed and panting, on the vast, gold walls. Except the dove, no bird has ever entered heaven. The crow might not be admitted to the shining streets of pearl, but within sight of heaven he should dwell for ever, said the Merciful One. And on the great gold walls against which the Water of Life ripples musically, the Little Crow of Paradise still builds his nest.”
This is the very spirit of fantasy, but Mr. Pearce is not always so remote. Most of his allegories are indeed fraught with deep human meaning. Tragedy and pity, and cynicism and scorn, the "saeva indignatio," and wit and tenderness are in each tiny masterpiece. Elusive as they are, they are artistically satisfying, and one would no more wish anything away or anything altered than one would with “Tanglewood Tales” or "Mosses From an Old Manse."

Monday, July 13, 2009


A short Q & A I did with Adam Smith at has just been posted, and I thought some cross-mention between there and here would be in order. The interview is here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Claude Houghton

Some years ago I read some very ardent reviews of Claude Houghton novels in 1930s volumes of The Bookman, which claimed that spiritual archetypes stalk his books, bringing us substantial profundities and a clear, strong vision of the mystic destiny which is shaping for humanity. Not long after, I D Edrich books sent me a catalogue devoted only to Dunsany, Ernest Bramah and Houghton, and from this I bought a good stock of his work, which (with others I had picked up) numbered well over 20 titles.

However, I was at first disappointed in them. Firstly, his most noted, I Am Jonathan Scrivener has a trick ending that seemed unworthy of the high endeavour attributed to him. Secondly, for reasons I cannot understand, he had done a novel version of Jerome K Jerome’s cloying and religiose play The Passing of the Third Floor Back. Thirdly, there seemed to be a marked tailing-off in his late work, which enmeshed itself in themes of marital discord with no obvious mystical import. And finally even the promising books of the Thirties - Julian Grant Loses His Way, Chaos Is Come Again, This Was Ivor Trent - seemed, on dipping in, to have a rather painfully solemn tone, ponderous with portent and peopled with Big Characters. The books never seemed quite to deliver. In short, I disposed of the lot to a more patient friend.

I rediscovered him, when, desperate for something to read while on holiday in Galloway, the cottage we rented had only a shelf of leatherette condensed novels, all adventure thrillers: or a History of the Scottish Music Hall. The salvation, as soon as the Wigtown bookshops opened, was Claude Houghton’s This Was Ivor Trent (1936). Whether by force of contrast or not I cannot say, but I was soon utterly engrossed in this.

It has a very effective opening on the Embankment in a London fog, where the majestic author of the title, haunted by the potentiality that man might evolve into another form of spiritual being, suddenly comes face to face with a hooded figure which seems to be just such a being: the image precipitates a nervous collapse and we do not see Trent again until the last section of the novel. But we do see a swarm of characters, lonely and damaged by the world, who talk about their encounters with Trent and the inhuman power he possesses over others. There is one highly memorable character, a valetudinarian misanthrope with utter contempt for virtually all he meets, whose brittle conversation and mannerisms are brilliantly portrayed. Others include a vaguely Buchanesque main protagonist, a hollow-eyed artist’s model, a young woman in flight from her boorish family, a vain and self-pitying critic lamed in the war, a youth who thinks he is a reincarnation of Nietzsche. Their lives hold a morbid interest for the reader but we are waiting as we witness them for the re-emergence of Trent and a resolution of the hooded figure vision.
This we do not quite get, but Houghton just about manages to hold the novel back from anti-climax.

Though ultimately unsatisfactory, I thought This Was Ivor Trent had a bitter and brooding power which seemed to convey well the disillusion, the weariness of the Thirties, and the expectation that something massive was needed to shatter the dismal order of things. When the Common Sense Englishman characters puts in a half-hearted defence of the masses against the vituperative invalid’s contempt, the latter hisses, “Oh, so you’ve think they’ve advanced as far as the brink of 1914 do you ?”, prophetic words. Claude Houghton’s work requires perseverance and is not easily assimilable to familiar terrain in the sf, fantasy or supernatural fiction spheres, but a handful of his novels may well be worth trying.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

New Volume of Tolkien Studies

Volume VI of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, which I co-edit along with Michael D. C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, has just come out. For those with access to the (subscription) database Project Muse, the contents have been online for a few weeks. (You can see the table of contents, via Project Muse, by clicking here.)

A thorough index of all six volumes of Tolkien Studies was compiled by André Gand of the German Tolkien Society and can be seen here, or a nice pdf can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Not at Night" No. 12

Anyone interested in British horror from the 1920s-30s will be familiar with the eleven volumes of the "Not at Night" series, edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and published by Selwyn and Blount. I recently was reading Arthur Compton-Rickett's Portraits and Personalities (Selwyn and Blount, 1937). Interestingly, there is a Spring 1937 Selwyn and Blount catalogue, bound in at the rear, which lists twelve books in the "Not at Night" series, the twelfth being a Coronation Omnibus. Clearly a mistake, of course. A WorldCat search turns up no book with such a title, though with George VI's coronation on 12 May 1937 it would seem to have been a possibility. But was there a prankster involved who thought that the idea of a Coronation Omnibus clearly deserved to be marketed as horror?

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Late Reviews"

Dupont, Inge, and Hope Mayo (eds). Morgan Library Ghost Stories (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990). Wood engravings by John De Pol. Reprinted from the limited edition published in the same year by The Stone House Press of Roslyn, New York.

A collection of seven original tales, plus an introduction by Hope Mayo—the results of a ghost-story writing competition, the conditions for which being that the stories be in the style of M.R. James, and that they be in some way related to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. The connection with M.R. James is facilitated by the fact that James (from Cambridge) worked on the cataloguing of the large number of medieval manuscripts and early printed books from the years 1902-1907, before the collection made its way across the Atlantic.

The seven stories, one of which is in verse, were all written by people associated at some time with the Morgan Library, or who were then professional librarians at other institutions. As a result, it is not surprising that the stories, while mostly competent and amusing, are not particularly original or in any way outstanding. The most interesting item in the volume (outside of the excellent illustrations) is the “Introduction”, which tells the story of the beginnings of Morgan’s Library, and of M.R. James’s connection with it. We learn that Belle de la Costa Greene, who was for many years in charge of Morgan’s library, exchanged letters with James (some of which are quoted in the book). She was also a fan of James’s ghost stories, and even requested new ghost stories from his pen. In 1933, James wrote her that “I am afraid that the vein of ghost stories has run rather dry.” After James’s death, the manuscript of “A Warning to the Curious” was purchased and presented as a gift to the Morgan Library in 1942, where it remains to this day.

Wuorio, Eva-Lis. Escape If You Can: 13 Tales of the Preternatural (New York: Viking Press, 1977)

Wuorio (1918- ), at the time of publication of this book, is described as a Canadian citizen of Finnish descent who has been living and writing in Finland for the last several years. Most of her novels are for young adults.

This short story collection, also marketed for children, has a deftness to the writing and a cosmopolitan feel overall. There is little questioning of the supernatural, or shock at the experience of it: it merely is. Some of the stories are from a child’s perspective, while others are more adult. All are somewhat unconventional, and even when using familiar tropes (like werewolfery) Wuorio creates a story that is uniquely her own, moody and introspective, with a distinct sense of place and setting. I wouldn’t expect these stories to be popular with many children, but some will like them. More adults should read them, despite their being packaged as for children.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

13 Spook Stories

In 1941 the landmark collection 13 Spookverhalen (13 Spook Stories) was published in the Netherlands. Landmark, as before that time to my knowledge no other collection had appeared in the Netherlands, devoted to supernatural and ghost stories and including translations of short stories by E.F. Benson. M.R. James, H.R. Wakefield, W.F. Harvey, E. Nesbit and W.W. Jacobs. Also included were short stories by H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Edith Wharton and others, thirteen tales in all.

E.F. Bensons 'Caterpillars' and M.R. James 'Casting the Runes' were found in this collection. In 1941 the Netherlands were occupied by Nazi Germany; one would think the Dutch had more realistic horrors on their minds than this splendid collection of supernatural tales. But perhaps the publication of this collection was a subtle act of literary resistance, as in the collection all the featured authors were English.

The design on the dustwrapper and the quite nice interior black and white illustrations were drawn by J.M. Prange.

Seven Phantoms

Another peculiar title in the small, pre second world war list of Dutch language supernatural stories, is Zeven Fantomen (Seven Phantoms) by Dutch author Ben van Eijsselsteijn (1898 - 1973).

I once inspected an early edition of Gustav Meyrink's Der Golem that had belonged to Van Eijsselsteijn.

If mentioned at all these days, Zeven Fantomen is a curiosity as its contents - short stories in the Poe/Hoffman vein - are original in theme but unfortunately quite forgettable in execution. Zeven Fantomen was published in 1934 and it is chiefly remembered owing to its striking cover design and its very effective interior black and white illustrations. These were drawn by artist Hein von Essen (1886 - 1974) who was a friend of Van Eijsselsteijn.

Before and after midnight

The Dutch fantastic literature tradition is virtually nonexistent. Instead of an influx of Edwardian and Victorian ghost story influences, the Dutch opted for a no less dark subject; that of the 19th century grave poetry, earmarked by an all pervading melancholy, ennui and sorrow.

Although never establishing itself firmly, the Dutch supernatural tradition took off in the 1920's with F. Bordewijk's three collections of his short stories (published in 1919, 1923 and 1924), entitled Fantastische Vertellingen, with in one particular gruesome short story, 'Talamon of Ye Old Bowe' a nightmarish description of an abandoned house where a woman sits with her bare legs in a tub, filled with maggots.

As to collections of supernatural stories translated in the Dutch language, two can be considered pioneers: 13 Spookverhalen, published in 1941, and Voor En Na Middernacht, published in 1949.

While we will return to 13 Spookverhalen some other time, Voor En Na Middernacht was a particularly beautiful production for such a relatively unknown genre in the Netherlands. A Large sized hardcover volume with gold on the back and blind stamped motif on the front, it was printed on quality paper with haunting interior illustrations by Dutch artist Eppo Doeve who also drew the dustwrapper with its design spanning the frontside, the back and the backside of the wrapper. The collection features tales by August Derleth, H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Henry Russell Wakefield, W.W. Jacobs, Saki, John Collier, Francis Marion Crawford, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe and the like.

The collection was assembled by Amsterdam bookseller Jessurun Lobo, and even today, dustwrappered copies are scarce. This collection saw a number of reprints, but never again such opulent production standards.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Devil's Drums and Veils Of Fear

My knowledge of Vivian Meik, author of the two horror story collections Devil's Drums (1933) and Veils Of Fear (1934) went, until today, no further than an entry on pages 362-363 of Shadows in The Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820 - 1950 (review here), the entry found on the online Guide to Supernatural Fiction, and having read the two volumes mentioned above.

Meik (1894 - 1955), it turns out, led a fascinating life, at one time returning to the United States with as "One outstanding feature... when he arrived in the US was that he was missing his left eye", according to the very detailed online biography with a wealth of other details The Complete Vivian Meik.

Meik, who died in California, not only wrote the horror story collections mentioned above, but also The People of the Leaves (1931), reviewed in one entry on the Complete Vivian Meik as " absorbing account of the obscure Juang or Patuas (meaning people of the leaves or leaf-wearers) tribe located in Orissa. How he fell in love with this extremely shy, withdrawn people makes for fascinating reading..."

A view that was not shared by this contemporary review, published in 1931 in Texas state newspaper San Antonio Express that I found.

The Water Wolf

Who today remembers Leon Lewis (1833 - 1920)? A prolific Dime Novel author in the 1860's and 1870's, he penned novels as The Silver Ship, The Web Of Fate, The Reef Spider and many others, serialized in publications as The New York Weekly and New York Ledger.

While researching something else I found this advert for his novel The Water Wolf: or The Demon Of The Bermudas, published in an 1866 New York state newspaper, the Roman Citizen. The advert also provides some insight into the plotlines and characters in Lewis' story and makes for some interesting reading.

To appreciate this form of literature since long gone, spend some time at Albert Johannsen's site The House of Beadle & Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels, the story of a vanished literature.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Recent Acquisition

Harris Merton Lyon (1883-1916) published only two books, both collections of short stories from off-trail publishers, Sardonics (1908) and Graphics (1913). Theodore Dreiser called him "De Maupassant, Junior" and H. L. Mencken was a fan. When O. Henry realized he was too ill to finish his story "The Snow Man", he asked Lyon to do so for him. Carl Sandburg was a fan too, so it's surprising that Lyon has so disappeared from modern literary awareness. A small revival was begun by his daughter Zoe Lyon (1915-1976) in the late 1960s, but since her passing, his works have slipped back into literary oblivion.

Sardonics (1908) is a collection of sixteen sketches, plus three poems. The cover is gloriously ornate---a skull in a jester's cap, surrounded by orange poppies. The quotation (from the Book of Job) printed on the title page reads: "Cannot my taste discern perverse things?" The stories I've read so far aren't macabre, but written with a gritty realism and a distaste for sentimentality. One sees why Dreiser and Mencken liked them, and Dreiser's epithet "De Maupassant, Junior" is particularly apt.

Ghost Stories

The Author's and Writer's Who's Who (1934) mentions the following chap:

BRUCE, Rev. Archibald Reid Turing. b: London 1873. e: Burneys Naval Acad, Gosport, Tonbridge Sc & Salisbury Theo. Col. m: Dorothy Elisabeth Crick. Publ: Scourge of the Moors. c.t. Blue Mag. s.s.: Boys' books, ghost stories. Rec: Archae. a: Sixpenny Handley, Salisbury.

Anyone come across his ghost stories?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Phantom Clutch, Final Part

J.P. Quaine didn't take kindly to Bill Loft's claim that he had taken credit for inventing what were in fact genuine titles. Writing to Stan Larnach at the end of 1955 Quaine wrote:

"I repeat that in a moment of exuberance I invented the two titles, despite what our expert says. The trouble is that all my four witnesses are dead, Jay, Ono, Steele and Medcraft...The affair occurred in this way. About 1926 I wrote a short article for the Melbourne Herald called Varney the Vampire, and, to pep it up, I created the two titles under discussion. As I usually sent over sea to the pals copies of any articles I had done on Bloods, I posted one to Jay, Ono and Steele. I did not know Medcraft then. I pointed out to all of em my little joke, never dreaming that I was laying a pitfall for the unwary."

In fact, the article appeared in the Melbourne Herald in October 1927, and in the interests of laying this ghost forever, here is the article in full:

Varney the Vampire, by J.P. Quaine

It has been asserted that at one time the whole human race were cannibals, and through various stages of evolutionary development we have arrived at a period when we reject as unbecoming the flesh of our fellow man. This may be a debatable point; but the fact remains; we are now so overwhelmingly submerged in mawkish sentiment that we speak disparagingly (just as if we were all greengrocers or vegetarians) of those whose ideas are not strictly in accord with our own. After all, diet is a matter of taste! Thank heavens, one of the bygone scribes of the “penny blood” school immortalised on at least three occasions, those heroes who held unconventional views upon diet. Thomas Peckett Prest, the talented author of The Maniac Father, The Blighted Heart, and The Skeleton Clutch; or, The Goblet of Gore, wrote also first of all an elegant narrative entitled Varney the Vampire; or The Banquet of Blood. This was, as you may suppose, crammed with unforgettable thrills. Most lamentable, however, poor Varney, just as we are beginning to love him, meets with an end which is compatible with his life. ‘Twas ever thus! Just as you are commencing to appreciate the worth of a really strong character in action, he is accelerated from this world of woe! The second effort in this line by Mr Prest was Sawney Bean the Man-eater of Midlothian. Now, Sawney was worth writing about; besides, it is said, he was an actual character. He lived during the reign of “The Scotch Solomon” James the First of England, when the demand for food exceeded the supply. But Sawney proved himself no mean economist, and, withdrawing to a cave by the seaside, he, though embarrassed with a numerous and ever-increasing progeny, manfully supported himself. High cost of living problems, which engender so much misery midst moderns, had no terrors for him; they dwelt in cherub-like innocence till the many strange evanishments of travelers from the Galloway road led the officious authorities to investigate. Then the secret of Sawney’s cuisine was laid bare.

He and his wife, eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons, and 14 grand-daughters were apprehended, and the cave searched. It was immediately evident to the meanest mentality that Sawney understood not only the management of a family, but the principles of domestic economy. With remarkable thrift and foresight, imitating in his humble way the ant and the bee, Sawney had kept his larder well stocked. Innumerable left-over remnants of the givers of the feast, who had formed the staple article of diet in Sawney’s menu were found hanging nicely dried in anticipation of a severe winter!

Prest’s greatest success was Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet-street. This gentleman, now said to be a myth, combined the art of the perruquier with that of the pie-maker. Through a trap in the floor of his shop, Mr Todd send down all those of his customers whom he imagined would not only bear transforming into pasties, but would probably, through the depths of their pockets, repay him for the trouble and undue risk he was taking. There is no evidence that Todd himself partook of these toothsome delicacies, but he and his lady love, Mrs Lovett (who presided over the pie emporium) were responsible for a generous proportion of Londoners reverting to cannibalism. Even the Bow-street Runners were extremely partial to those pies, and so attached did the great body politic become to the succulent dainties that on one occasion when Sawney had been unable to keep up the supply of raw material and Mrs Lovett had used mutton, there was a general outcry by the customers who declared that the quality of the pie had deteriorated!