Thursday, December 31, 2015

A few last books of 2015

I'd just like to add a few recommendations for two nonfiction titles from 2015, and one translation.

It was very gratifying to see Harold Billings's third volume of his M.P. Shiel biography come out, An Ossuary for M.P. Shiel (Bucharest: L'Homme Recent, 2015). It slimmer than one could have hoped for, and limited to only 85 copies, but it covers the most important aspects of Shiels last years, and serves as an epilogue to Billings's two much more substantial volumes on Shiel's life. And it commemorates the 150th anniversary of Shiel's birth. 

The table of contents

Another outstanding non-fiction title from this past year is Richard J. Bleiler's study of Arthur Machen's 1914 fictional newspaper story, "The Angels of Mons", being taken up as a real event. The Strange Case of "The Angels of Mons": Arthur Machen's World War I Story, the Insistent Believers, and His Refutations (McFarland, 2015) is a kind of casebook which reprints a great deal of the original documents from around one hundred years ago, and puts them in their appropriate context. 

Finally, a small plug for the new French edition of Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), translated by Julie Petonnet-Vincent as Lud-en-Brume (Editions Callidor, 2015), with very nice pencilled illustrations by Hugo de Faucompret.  I wish all the illustrations had been in color, like the cover (see below).  The book includes translations of Neil Gaiman's Preface from 2000 and my own Introduction from 2005.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books of the Year - R J E Riley

R J E Riley, Wormwood 25 contributor and Cambridge academic, writes:

"This year I've found myself catching up on books I should have read a long time ago. An invitation to speak on Gothic literature allowed me to finally tick off Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1983). I'd seen the film like everyone else, but found the novella to be extremely effective. Haunting in every sense of the word. Hill clearly knows her M.R. James and makes witty use of her framing devices. Plus, the book is a great addition to the field (no pun intended) of landscape-based horror.

Another long-intended was Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985), a startling piece of posthuman science fiction. Great ideas, brilliant execution. I very much enjoyed John Higgs's biography of Timothy Leary, I Have America Surrounded and I was also pleased to see Andrew Collins's "cult classic", The Black Alchemist back in print. Unrelated as regards subject matter, but connected in terms of paranoia, is Robert Guffey's Chameleo. A terrifying and vertiginous descent into the covert strategy of "gang-stalking", Guffey's study-cum-memoir rightly deserves the many plaudits its received thus far."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Books of the Year - Mark Valentine

A highlight for me was Malcolm Lowry’s previously-thought-lost novel In Ballast to the White Sea. Dense, strange, laced with occult imagery, a high modernist classic, its survival in the attic of his former mother-in-law is a minor literary miracle, and the book forms an important bridge between his youthful novel Ultramarine and his masterpiece Under the Volcano.

On holiday on the Isle of Harris, we stayed in a cottage by the sea where we could watch seals and a sea otter. For the rainy days there were a few shelves of good books, all linked to the island in some way, to read by the fire. Here I discovered Island Going, a book about two young men in the Thirties who go vagabonding and birdwatching in the outermost islands of Scotland. The author, Robert Atkinson, was a naturally graceful and engaging author, his words so good I had to read them aloud.

Another discovery was The Island Is Full of Strange Noises by Angus Heriot. I haven’t been so astonished by an overlooked book for some time. This novel is an extraordinary mixture of Firbank, Corvo, Norman Douglas and Simon Raven, set on an Italian island owned by a wealthy English milord and full of fabulous architecture. To the island goes a young author, and it his writing we mostly see, but we are never sure if he is writing fancy or fact. The writing is assured, cultured, audacious, adventurous, the pace is brisk, the imagination scintillant.

Geraint Goodwin’s Call Back Yesterday, very well written, ardent, slightly experimental, shifts scenes quickly and without explanation, and mixes contemporary narrative with memories of youth. There are some parallels with Machen, in that he came to London from Wales (near Newtown) to become a writer, and was for a while a journalist. There are lyrical descriptions of his home country, and good character drawing. The semi-autobiographical story darkens as the narrator (like the author) gets TB, but the hospital scenes and fellow patients are depicted pithily and even with hilarity.

At the Richard Booth Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye I found by chance a copy of Broken Images by John Guest, a journal of the Second World War. I suppose it must have been the title that drew me to it, as I caught sight of it leaning at the end of one of the long bookcases. I was attracted to the writing straightaway: it was frank, self-aware, observant. He doesn’t avoid the drudgery and absurdities of his army life (he was conscripted to the artillery), but shows how these make him more alert to fugitive beauty and to minor but much-relished pleasures. And his prose is fresh and vivid: the nearest comparison would be the journals of Denton Welch, though he is less precious. He later worked for Longmans and Penguin, and edited a few books, but never published another thing of his own: a pity.

Among contemporary books, I particularly admired Erith by Quentin S. Crisp (Zagava), a compelling study of inner and outer geography. The description of the drab and semi-derelict Thames-side town is precisely observed, unerringly finding the things that represent larger truths about the place. But it is not simply a slice of urban noir: the author finds mystery, even the mystical, in the unlikeliest scenes: a tree at the end of a subway ramp, a hidden and closed church, the sweep of a staircase in a forlorn civic building. Alongside these outer landscapes, however, he also conveys an inner terrain with unflinching integrity. In unpromising circumstances, there are passages of dejection and bewilderment, the more telling because they are told with quiet objectivity. But the book also records moments which, as he says, if not exactly of epiphany or revelation, still seem to offer some form of assuaging. The writing is so good that even the bus and train timetables are made to seem significant, their uncertainty charged with meaning.

Finally, an independent publisher whose books I am enjoying: Little Toller, who offer both original work and classics in the field of landscape, nature and topography. I like the design of their books, which seems to draw on Forties and Fifties Neo-Romanticism, and the clear, crisp typography. Two volumes in particular were distinctive and deeply composed: Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton, a meditation on the stones, walls and fells around a remote Cumbrian hillside, and Black Apples of Gower by Iain Sinclair, a characteristically elliptical survey of the South Wales peninsula where he grew up, and its artists and writers.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Books of the Year - Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda, whose most recent book is the thoroughly engrossing Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, writes:

As a freelance journalist, I live by my pen, so nearly all my reading and writing this past year has been, in some way, work-related. Still, some of the past year’s journalism may be, loosely speaking, of Wormwoodian interest. For instance, I wrote a 3,500 word piece about Algernon Blackwood (pictured) — with considerable attention to his mystical novels, The Human Chord, The Centaur and Julius LeVallon —and it should soon appear, after a long delay, in the New York Review of Books.

Very early in 2015 the Times Literary Supplement brought out my longish—though still trimmed by a quarter of its original length—appreciation of the unduly maligned H.P. Lovecraft; it looks at his essays and correspondence as well as his fiction. This year, too, I introduced Mervyn Wall’s wonderfully amusing, if sometimes bitter-sweet novels, The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, for the Swan River Press, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for the Folio Society, an omnibus of the four Sherlock Holmes novels for Penguin, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for Gollancz’s Masterworks of Fantasy.

For all those introductions, I was able to enjoy what is for me a rare pleasure—rereading. While most of Blackwood’s short stories were already familiar (and held up nicely), the novels and some of the famous novellas, such as “A Descent into Egypt,” came as revelations — overwritten and overlong, but powerful and original, nonetheless. I was particularly amused, though, by the campiness of the early werewolf tale, “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York” and the Grand Guignol of that story—the title escapes me at the moment - in which Jesus Christ appears at a society dinner party.

I suspect that the Penguin introduction will be the last substantial thing I write about Sherlock Holmes for a long time. I’ve done essays for various magazines, blog pieces, a little book titled On Conan Doyle, and even a couple of pastiche short stories, so I’ve pretty much gleaned my teeming brain as far as the great detective is concerned. Besides, Holmes’s new teeny-bopper popularity - largely due to Benedict Cumberbatch, but not excluding Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr. - while very welcome has at the same time made the sleuth of Baker Street somewhat offputtingly trendy.

Lately, I’ve been reading (or rereading) a lot of adventure and detective fiction from the 19th and early 20th century and so this year produced appreciations, long and short, for different periodicals, of Guy Boothby, E. Nesbit, Baroness Orczy, and P.C. Wren. I spent part of my summer vacation, such as it was, immersing myself in Talbot Mundy — I’m in love with the witchy-revolutionary Yasmin — and Sax Rohmer, about whose work I hope to write a piece linked to Strange Attractor’s collection of essays, Lord of Strange Deaths.

The who-and-howdunits of the far more respectable R. Austin Freeman I found wittier than I’d been led to believe and I was bowled over with sheer pleasure by Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men — I didn’t realize how amoral a book it was. I’m going to read more Wallace, including The Crimson Circle and The Ringer and reread The Green Archer, a particular favourite of the polymath Martin Gardner. I also enjoyed Anna Katherine Green’s pioneering detective novel, The Leavenworth Case, which was far better than you might think—and also crueller: To protect himself a murderer tricks a woman with every reason to live to kill herself. I even enjoyed, albeit to a lesser extent, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. Rinehart was, for a period, the most popular writer in America.

Of the all-too-few decadent/horror titles I reviewed for The Washington Post the most memorable was certainly The Beetle, reissued by Valancourt Books. I wasn’t sure what to expect and found Richard Marsh’s novel, aside from a slight falling off in its finale, astonishing, disorienting and disturbing on multiple levels. I can now understand why it was as popular, or even more popular, than the contemporaneous Dracula, which contains many of the same themes.

Early in the year I also wrote about the anonymous collection, somewhat reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, known as Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. A number of friends have since recommended I read Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which I have obediently acquired in both the complete Penguin translation by John Minford and in the old, but stylistically much admired version by George Soulie, titled Strange Stories from the Lodge of Leisures.

As the year ends, I’ve just spent much of November poring over Edgar Allan Poe, and hoping to come up with something new or mildly interesting to say about his quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. Just before Christmas I’ll be exploring J.M. Barrie’s plays and fiction other than Peter Pan. I have vague memories of reading Shall We Join the Ladies? in a high school English textbook, and thinking it neatly spooky, but I’m also looking forward to the time displacement dramas, Mary Rose and Dear Brutus, as well as the short novel Farewell, Miss Julie Logan.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Books of the Year - Mike Barrett

Mike Barrett, Wormwood contributor and author of Doors to Elsewhere, writes:

The best book that I read this year was science fiction, a genre that I rarely bother with these days, but Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky reminded me of what so attracted me to imaginative literature several decades ago. A book that is exciting and thought-provoking, one where you really do want to keep on reading to find out what is going to happen next, and which maintains its momentum throughout the whole of its 600 pages.

The basic premise of spiders being subjected to accelerated evolution on a remote and isolated planet may sound unpromising, particularly when they develop space travel, but the author brings it off with style and aplomb and the climax where spiders and humans have their inevitable clash is gripping and gratifying. Tchaikovsky is a fine writer - his multi-volume Shadows of the Apt series is excellent, as is the stand-alone fantasy Guns of the Dawn, but Children of Time is unquestionably his best book to date.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Books of the Year - By Diverse Hands

Chris Mikul, editor of Biblio-Curiosa, writes:

The first few months of this year were taken up by a plunge into the complete works of Guy Endore for my article about him in the latest Wormwood. The diversity and quality of his work surprised me, and I would particularly recommend Babouk, his flawed but scarifying book about the slave trade, and his hallucinatory thriller Methinks the Lady

I’ve just returned from six weeks overseas, and as always when going on holiday took a lengthy book which I should have read long ago but never found the time to (for alas, I’m a slow reader). This year it was The Woman in White. I’d never read anything by Wilkie Collins before (apart from his story ‘The Terribly Strange Bed’) and I was so enthralled by it I immediately went on to The Moonstone. On the strength of these two, Collins has joined the small list of writers (including Wodehouse and George MacDonald Fraser) who I can read for pure pleasure.

Rebekah Brown, Wormwood 25 contributor, writes:

Tempting Fate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
The author has written a series of vampire novels about Count Saint-Germain. Each one is set in a different historical period. I wanted to sample the series and chose this one because it is set in Germany/Austria during the late 1920's, a period of time with which I am intimately familiar.

The historical research is impeccable, the writing is both excellent and the characters are well developed and convincing. i will certainly read another book in this series.

Ironically, since the central character is a vampire and the novel is by any definition supernatural, it would be possible, without a great deal of trouble, to remove the supernatural element and retain a excellent historical novel

Emily Foster, Wormwood Contributor, gothic horror aficionado, writes:

The Darkest Hour - Barbara Erskine (2014)
Erskine’s most recent novel is a dual-time narrative that interweaves everyday modern life with the legendary summer of the Battle of Britain. It unravels the history of a highly complex family whose secrets are gradually revealed by young protagonist Evie Lucas. Erskine combines moments of heart-wrenching sadness with episodes of tension-filled mystery in this epic tale of love, war and bravery.

Dolly - Susan Hill (2012)
This deeply disturbing novella is littered with the tropes of a classic ghost story. A bleak, secluded house, a dreary graveyard and an eccentric aunt make this story an instant spine-tingling success. It is a wonderfully dark tale, perfect for winter nights by the fireside.

Colin Insole, author and Wormwood contributor, writes:

The Lost Language of London
First published in 1935, The Lost Language of London by Harold Bayley is subtitled 'A Tale of King Cole, Founded in Folklore, Fieldnames,Prehistoric Hill Figures and other Documents'.The author analyses the street names of the city, finding links with
ancient history, mythology and shared symbolism. The prevalence of the word 'Cole' in London and throughout Britain is extensively researched and traced back to biblical and pagan stories from around the world.

There are fascinating speculations about the figures of horses, carved on chalk hills, the Pied Piper legend and tantalizing accounts of lost manuscripts from pre-Roman Britain. Surprisingly, one variation of the piper tale is located at Newtown Creek, on the Isle of Wight, where 'the river Weser, deep and wide', is the Solent. The chapters covering London areas like St Pancras and Maylebone, are copiously illustrated with drawings of the symbols and imagery of various designs of crosses, flowers and birds.

I found that Mr Bayley advances his theories in an expansive and anecdotal manner; the wealth of detail encouraging further researches. The choice and range of poetry quoted - both well-known and obscure, is admirable. A London adventure, with many detours and unexpected diversions, I feel that readers of Arthur Machen will find much of interest.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Books of the Year - Jane Jakeman

Jane Jakeman, historian and author of In the Kingdom of Mists and other atmospheric mysteries, writes:

Marc Pastor: Barcelona Shadows, 2014, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, Pushkin Press. Set in Barcelona, this is a brilliant, literate and original vampire (not giving anything away here) story of missing children and a splendidly dissolute detective.

John Ajvijde Lindqvist: Let the Old Dreams Die, 2013, translated from Swedish by Marlene Delargy, Quercus. Collection of eerie stories by the author of ‘Let the Right One in’, including a glimpse of our sanguinary heroine in ... Barcelona, where else?

John Boyne: This House is Haunted, Black Swan, 2013. Victorian governess takes up post in deepest Norfolk, with appropriate strange happenings. A full-length ghost story, probably genre devotees will find it a bit predictable, but still solid festive reading. No trips to Barcelona.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books of the Year - Robert Eldridge

Robert Eldridge
, Wormwood contributor, and vintage fantasy bookseller (ask for his catalogues at rfx51[at]charter[dot]net) writes:

Contemporary fiction usually flies below my radar, but a review by Michael Dirda of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C. D. Rose (Melville House) intrigued me enough to make me order a copy. It's a slim volume (on whose tribe be blessings!) of 52 miniature biographies of imaginary authors. Its theme is the variety of paths by which diverse literary efforts can all arrive at the same destination: Oblivion. These outlandishly foolhardy assaults on Parnassus come to life for the reader as Rose's flood of meticulous detail lifts them out of dry-dock. Then come the torpedoes, the running aground, the running out of steam. Almost every story provoked laughter at some point as I helplessly witnessed bad ideas collide with bad luck. Most impressive, though, for a project that would seem to imply ridicule, is its compassion. A note of plangent dismay reverberates through these accounts. Rose shows a sympathetic understanding for the kind of artistic infatuation over which its author is powerless. He understands that allowing any writing to proceed from such a temperament is both unwise and inevitable.

I've only read about 1% of it so far, but a book I discovered this year has become a constant companion at my bachelor's dinner table. The Reader's Encyclopedia, edited by William Rose Benét, lies open there, just beyond my plate. (It came out first in 1948; I have the second edition, from 1965.) I use it as an intellectual tapas bar, flipping the pages at random or following some unexpected skein. The entries cover authors and specific literary works, but also themes, movements, genres, characters, plus notable figures from other fields and historical events. On page 434, for instance, can be found entries on haggadah, Haggard, Otto Hahn, haiku, Haile Selassie, The Hairy Ape, hajar-al-assad, Hajji Baba of Ispahan, and Richard Hakluyt. (I left out the obscure ones.) Entries might run to a page or more but most confine themselves to a paragraph. Brevity can feel peremptory but it comes across here as modest, and it's that combination that invites one into unfamiliar subjects.

These were diversions from the staple of my reading diet: 19th and early 20th century weird fiction. I'll mention four quite different novels that impressed me for one reason or another. These should not be taken as recommendations but as descriptions. Experience has made me aware of the blind spots and obsessions that shape the tastes of readers, myself included. In reverse chronological order:

Strange Awakening by Dorothy Quick (1938). A story of fantastic adventure set on Venus, told within the conventions of inter-bellum pulp fiction. Weird Tales and Unknown were the author's main markets but she also published in romance pulps, slicks and little magazines, producing not just fiction but poetry and expository prose, including a reminiscence of her friendship as a young girl with Mark Twain, who encouraged her writing. The present novel centres on a young Earth woman who is magically transported to a habitable Venus where she is fought over by the two most powerful men on the planet. The author understands the requirements of romance/adventure writing: bold-stroke sketches of character, attention to pacing (short chapters ending on a cliff-hanger, switching between two or more narrative threads), and a focus on spectacle and action. While keeping the psychological element of the story on an archetypal level, the author provides novelty through scenic details. There's a nice twist at the end about the immortality belts that everyone wears on Venus, which is colour-coded into four adjoining kingdoms, their central meeting point presided over by a notoriously lecherous super-king. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel, given my usual antipathy to pulp magazine fiction of this period. All works of art obey the conventions of whatever genre they occupy. So why do some examples carry conviction while others -- the great majority -- just carry a sense of dumb submission? Fortunately, the conventions of this Year-End-Roundup prevent me from entering into such a swamp of controversy.

The Devil's Mansion by Rex Jardin [i.e., Robert F. and Eve Burkhardt] (1931). A weird Gothic thriller set mostly in a rural part of British Columbia. The authors teamed up to write several commercial-grade detective stories, and the final portion of this novel does move it into that direction when the hero, a writer, has to exercise powers of deduction in order to find and rescue the heroine, abducted by a nefarious dwarf. But the bulk of the novel places it more accurately in the category of the weird (as attested by its presence in the 1948 Bleiler Checklist). Certain aspects of the story are indisputably fantastic, including just about every resident of the mansion: the owner, a wealthy old misanthropic woman, Morelle, who can't walk; her servant, Nita, who can't speak; the pet chameleon that roams about Morelle's neck and bosom on a slender golden leash; the vicious dog, Rajah, who wears no leash and obeys the commands of neither woman, though he keeps his distance from the chameleon. The captive heroine, Janet, lured to the mansion by the offer of employment as a paid companion to the old lady, soon discovers that her predecessor, who failed to make the grade, has been locked up in a turret. And there's another resident. The mansion's true master is Morelle's offspring, a fantastically deformed freak with dreadful powers of mesmerism. The real position for which these woman are auditioning is his mate.

The Star of the Sea by N. Ter Gregor (1897). A highly imaginative, if eccentric and rough-hewn, fantasy melding very different kinds of material: mythological fantasy, fairy tale motifs, heroic adventure, roman à clef allegory, carefully researched historical fiction, sensationalistic tales of banditry, as well as earnestly utopian and apocalyptic visions. The setting is 6th century B.C. Persia. The main story is the obstacle-strewn romance of two lovers. The key word in that summary is "eccentric." I confess to a soft spot for these passionate, and often clumsy, outpourings of crotchety obsession and visionary fancy. The vigor of Gregor's imagination compensates for much of his stylistic awkwardness. What makes the story a slow read are its startling juxtapositions, but this is also what makes it interesting. The author drops gems of macabre horror and humour in his erratic path like a thief fleeing in the night with an overstuffed bag of loot. You want an off-handed reference to inter-marriage between humans and monkeys? You got it. Chinese nobles who believe pearls are fragments of petrified fish who ate a star that fell into the sea sixty centuries ago? Ditto. Zoroastrian dualism? Well, obviously. The loud snoring of the Buddha? Yes. Subterranean demon soldiers made of glass? Yes. An evil magus who finds growing out of his shoulders huge serpents that must be fed with human brains, after which they sprout wings and take him to the moon, where he decimates all life. Yes, of course: did you doubt it?

In Both Worlds by W. H. Holcombe (1870). Another piece of fantastic historical fiction, this one set in the Middle East around the time of Jesus, and written with more than average skill. Unlike the other three novels mentioned here, In Both Worlds was published by a prestigious literary firm (J. B. Lippincott of Philadelphia). Not the least of its virtues is resisting the temptation to shove archaic second-person pronouns and adjectives into the story to piggy-back on the authority of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible. The frame narrative establishes the discovery of a manuscript written by Lazarus, a quarter of which describes his experiences while dead (in a purgatorial "stomach of the universe"). Before and after this interlude, the novel adroitly introduces one Biblical figure after another including the sisters of Lazarus (Mary and Martha), John the Baptist, Mary Magdalen, Jesus, Barabbas and Pontius Pilate. All are treated from a fresh perspective. The portrayal of Jesus is notably restrained. The story’s arch-villain is Simon Magus (not mentioned in the Scriptures but a historical figure described by many early Christian writers as the most powerful sorcerer of his day). That power is vividly demonstrated in several scenes. Holcombe expresses unconventional views. One of his heroes is a wealthy Zoroastrian. St. Paul comes off as a bit of prig. In a period (c. 1870) not exactly brimming over with sympathetic portrayals of black characters, two enslaved Negro brothers in this story act with extraordinary dignity. Most of these famous Biblical characters -- the first-generation Christians -- feel romantic longings that are frustrated by circumstances. The final paragraph of Lazarus’s memoir, presenting his vision of a future paradise, emphasises the fulfillment of these longings.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Books of the Year - James Doig

James Doig, Wormwoodiana contributor, and author of Friends of the Dead, writes:

I can't recall buying many new books this year, and mainly dipped into the past, though not necessarily the distant past. A couple of novels that made an impression were James Long's Silence & Shadows (HarperCollins, 2001), about a man coming to terms with his past while leading an archaeological dig in a Cotswold village, Hannah Kent's Burial Rites (Pan Macmillan , 2013) an assured first novel about a woman condemned to death for the brutal murder of two men in northern Iceland in 1829, and Kersten Ekman's Under the Snow (Vintage 1997), a short crime novel first published in Sweden in 1961 and presumably translated after the success of Blackwater.

A lot of literary non-fiction appealed - I blogged here earlier in the year on Lucy Sussex's Blockbuster!, about Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which went on to win the History Publication Award funded by the Victorian state government. Other books that made an impression were Martin Edwards' Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins, 2015), a fascinating account of members of the Detection Club, Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder (Harper Collins, 2011), which shows the intersection of real life crime and popular crime fiction in Victorian England, and John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists (Yale 2011) a thick book of 300 biographical essays.

Favourite magazines include Justin Marriott's Paperback Fanatic (Justin has recently launched a new colour magazine called Pulp Horror) and Chris Mikul's Biblio-Curiosa. I also dipped into a lot of fan magazines of the 1970s and 80s which came my way, including CADS, The Armchair Detective, The Paperback Pulp and Comic Collector, and Paperback Parade amongst others - all great sources of obscure information.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Books of the Year - John Howard

John Howard, our Camera Obscura columnist, and author of Touchstones, Essays on the Fantastic, writes:

This is a selection of the books I encountered during 2015, and which I particularly enjoyed.

The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen
Fiction and reality flow together in a constantly entertaining and compulsively readable outpouring of self-examination and satire built upon a foundation of human virtues and humane values – and the necessity always to nurture and stand up for them.

The Aegypt Cycle by John Crowley
In the four novels of the Aegypt Cycle – Aegypt (later retitled The Solitudes), Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things – a historian slowly becomes aware of the world’s possible secret history, hinted at in multiple interlocking narratives.

Soliloquy for Pan
edited by Mark Beech
This is an anthology of new and reprint stories, poems, and essays ‘in praise, in awe, in fear of the great god’.

The Confidential Papers of Admiral Horthy

These documents provide a glimpse behind the scenes of the government of Miklós Horthy, Regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944.

The Magus by John Fowles
An evocative novel where nothing and no-one is as it seems. Unreliable witnesses form a queue here!

Julian by Gore Vidal
During the two years Julian was Roman Emperor (361-63) he tried to put the clock back with his restoration of paganism and promotion of classical virtues. Vidal’s novel is a witty and sympathetic look at the life of the man since known as ‘the Apostate’.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Books of the Year - Doug Anderson

Douglas A. Anderson, our Late Reviews columnist, and proprietor of Nodens Books, writes:

The best book I read in 2015 is a late-in-the-year entry: Gypsy Plus (PM Press) by Carter Scholz, just out in November. Scholz has been one of science fiction’s best kept secrets for more than three decades. His first novel, Palimpsests (1984), co-authored with Glenn Harcourt, made me a huge fan, and I’ve followed his trickle of high-quality publications ever since. Most have been short stories—the early ones (real shorts — deliciously done) collected in a chapbook Cuts (1985), and others in The Amount to Carry (2003), with a small book of stories inspired by Kafka, co-authored with Jonathan Lethem (two stories by each author, plus one collaboration), Kafka Americana (1999). A solo novel, Radiance, came out in 2002.

Gypsy Plus contains a new novella, “Gypsy,” plus two reprinted short stories, and a new essay and a new interview. “Gypsy” is the near future story of a starship journey to Alpha Centauri made by some fifteen people to escape the corrupted and dying earth and thereby allow humanity to survive. Technically it is hard science fiction, but that fact shouldn’t scare anyone away. Scholz’s intelligence and humanity shines in every sentence, and his vignettes of the starship occupants, as each of them awake to deal with some emergency, includes their back-stories of how they got there.

The essay in this collection, “The United States of Impunity,” is a devastatingly analysis of the recent politics in the United States which, extrapolated forward, could serve as an explanation for the state of the world in the novella “Gypsy.” Of the other two stories, “The Nine Billion Names of God” is a meta-fictional riff on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic story of the same title (which you needn’t have read to enjoy Scholz’s story), and “Bad Pennies” is written as though it were testimony before Congress defending corrupt financial and security policies, a fitting companion piece to the essay. For me, “Gypsy” is the shining story of 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Books of the Year - James Machin

James Machin, editor of Faunus, the journal of The Friends of Arthur Machen, writes:

Discovering John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) was one of the high points of my reading this year. Gross’s lively account of ‘English literary life since 1800’ is almost endlessly enjoyable and enlightening. By turns perspicacious and gossipy, it is as impressive stylistically as it is for Gross’s exhaustive knowledge of his subject.

I’ve recently been dipping in to some of the less-celebrated contributions to Weird Tales and, intrigued by mention of it in Robert Weinberg’s The Weird Tales Story (1977), thoroughly enjoyed Allison V. Harding’s ‘The Damp Man’ (1947). It surpasses its pulp guilelessness to become rather more than the sum of its parts, mainly through the sheer peculiarity and relentlessness of the eponymous antagonist, and its stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere. There were two sequels, but it’s perhaps time for the Damp Man to rise again.

Image: Lesser Known Writers (Doug Anderson)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Books of the Year - Avalon Brantley

We’ve been asking Wormwood contributors and friends what books they’ve enjoyed this year, old or new. We’ll be posting replies throughout December.

Avalon Brantley, author of Descended Suns Resuscitate, writes:

This year has witnessed my continued immersion in the history and literature of Russia, from her nebulous legendary origins to the bloody maelstrom of the 20th century. A relevant enough digression from this was my reading the entirety of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve): a Gothic-tinged Romantic epic in the form of a poetic drama, as deftly translated into English by Charles Kraszewski. Many would contend that Mickiewicz was and remains Poland’s greatest poet.

This reading connected for me a number of serendipitous threads: the known associations between the various stand-alone “Passages” of Dziady and Pushkin’s ‘monumental’ “Bronze Horseman”; certain tenuous yet insistent correspondences between those associations and Gogol’s “Overcoat” (itself in many ways an echo in prose to Pushkin’s poem, which was itself a response to Mickiewicz’s verses), particularly the persistent leitmotif of coat(s) in the same section of Dziady; the drastic dichotomy between Mickiewicz’s vision of an abused and partitioned Poland as the Christus of Europa, and the shocking appropriation of Jesus at the head of “The Twelve” Red Guards evoked by Russia’s other greatest lyric poet alongside Pushkin, he another Aleksandr—Blok.

Dziady should be of particular interest to those with a penchant for the foundations of the Romantic movement in Europe, or for Gothic literature of the early 19th century.

Image: Culture.PL

Monday, November 30, 2015

Books of the Year - Brian J Showers

We’ve been asking Wormwood contributors and friends what books they’ve enjoyed this year, old or new. We’ll be posting their replies throughout December. Here’s our first.

Brian J Showers of The Swan River Press, Dublin, writes:

"I wake up on a damp pillow. My dreams must have leaked." One of my most pleasant reading experiences of 2015 is a novel called Eggshells by Caitriona Lally (Liberties Press). Of all the new writing coming out of Ireland, the whimsical and slightly depressed surreality of Eggshells grabbed my attention within the first few pages - probably due to the sheer oddness of the book's main character Vivian.

The story starts in mid-action. Vivian, adrift of mind, is searching for a way to dispose of the ashen remains of her Great-Aunt Maud (three weeks' deceased). Putting a pinch in each envelope, she decides to post them off to people listed in her Great-Aunt's address book. "There are a few 'A's and 'C's, a couple of 'G's, an 'H' and some 'M's, but my great-aunt seems to have stopped making friends when she hit 'N'."

Vivian also likes to make lists, and the book is filled with such poetic litanies of the commonplace. Chapter on chapter the narrative wanders as Vivian reads the streets of Dublin and encounters the awkward social challenges that arise therefrom. And she grafts her Oulipian navigations of the city onto a street map of Dublin with edges frayed, chewed at by mice and silverfish. A neat metaphor for sure.

Lally's novel doesn't reimagine Dublin, as some critics have asserted, but rather views it differently, reading the geographical marginalia while others, less adventurous, are content traversing the main text. I'm looking forward to Lally's next.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Haunted By Books - Mark Valentine

Haunted By Books, just out from Tartarus Press, is a selection of twenty eight of my bookish essays which have mostly only appeared before in fugitive publications.

In my introductory title piece, I explore the ways in which book collectors have sometimes experienced the uncanny when looking for books: for example, knowing a book is there for them, feeling a heightened ability to find rare titles, or being led to a book.

The other pieces discuss the marginal and minor, the eccentric and elusive, the obscure and outré, in my wanderings in the further reaches of English literature.

And there are six new, previously unpublished pieces. These cover:

* The curious case of J C Snaith, the Edwardian-and-after novelist who was always being told he had almost written a masterpiece, but died faded and forgotten

* Four reviews of unwritten books, including Sir Aleister Crowley’s account of the ascent of Everest and Father Frederick Rolfe’s book on his church in the western isles;

* A visit to the lost chapel of the last Johnsonians

* The acclaimed short story writer H.A. Manhood, a recluse who lived in a railway carriage and lived off the land, brewing his own heady cider

* New Zealand poet and wanderer Geoffrey Pollett, who vagabonded around Southern England in the Thirties, selling his poems door to door

* What books the literary connoisseur of the Thirties might choose from the latest London Mercury, and what other temptations were on offer

Many of the essays have grown from glorious discussions with literary friends, in person or by postal or online correspondence, over many years, and from years of assiduous browsing in quest of the rare, the odd and the unobvious.


Update 16 December 2015 - out of print.

More Smart & Mookerdum

Thanks to Wormwood reader Dave Kurzman, who has sent us these pictures of another book with a Smart & Mookerdum marking, this time a rubber stamp imprint on a copy of E F Benson's Spook Stories. This shows a different address for the bookshop, 72 Merchant Street, Rangoon, to the one noted in our earlier post. The book also has a nice Rangoon ownnership signature.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Smart & Mookerdum, Booksellers, Rangoon

It wasn't the content of this book, a political history of India, that first made me take it off the shelf, but the resonant title, The Lost Dominion. However, what made me want to keep it was the elegant label, in royal blue ink, of Smart & Mookerdum, Booksellers and Stationers, of Rangoon (Burma) pasted to the title page.

There are collectors of booksellers' labels, but their quarry must be hard to find: only by looking inside books can you discover them. They often add history and romance to the story of a particular volume, and should always I think be left inside.

This bookseller has a minor literary interest, because their shop is mentioned by George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days (1934), based on his own time there as a colonial policeman. “Oh, the joy of those Rangoon trips!” his doomed protagonist Flory says, “The rush to Smart and Mookerdum’s bookshop for the new novels out from England, the dinner at Anderson’s with beefsteaks and butter that had travelled eight thousand miles on ice, the glorious drinking-bout!”

The name of the book's author, Al. Carthill, was, according to the British Library, a pseudonym for Bennet Christian Huntingdon Calcraft Kennedy, a District Officer in India. He wrote half-a-dozen or so other titles, either of politics or of poetry.

There is another book for sale bearing a Smart & Mookerdum label, a copy of D H Lawrence's Women In Love (Secker, 1921), but this one must be a different version, because it includes the bookseller's address, 58 Barr Street, Rangoon. I should imagine this was a most keenly sought-after title by the jaded Burma hands Orwell evokes.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Karl Edward Wagner and Book Collecting

Karl Edward Wagner's lists of best horror novels which appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983 have been a favourite of book collectors and KEW fans alike.  Browsing through some issues of fan magazines from the late 1970s throws some light on how his lists germinated.

Wagner wrote a column "On Fantasy" in Fantasy Newsletter for a number of years along with Fritz Leiber, and in the September 1980 issue he wrote a fascinating article about a visit to the United Kingdom.  He speaks about visiting friends like Steve Jones, Jo Fletcher, Carl Hines, and Ramsey Campbell amongst others, but also mentions bookhunting visits to book dealers such as John Eggeling's Phantasmagoria Books, Ted Ball and Dave Gibson's Fantasy Centre, the acclaimed Martin Stone, former lead guitarist for Savoy Brown, George Locke's Ferret Fantasy.  He also mentions in-print bookshops Dark They Were and Golden Eyes and Forbidden Planet and he visits collectors such as John Hale and "the infamous" Charles Peltz.

Also revealing is this wants list from the June 1978 issue of the late, great Xenophile, which shows Wagner is looking to acquire R.R. Ryan and Mark Hansom books, some of which which eventually appeared in his favourites lists in 1983.

Wright & Brown - top 20 authors 1934 - 1940

For bibliophiles out there and fans of 1930s popular fiction, here is a list of the 20 most prolific Wright & Brown authors by year between 1934 and 1940, based on British Library data.  The total number of books published is the figure in brackets next to the year, and the figure after the author's name is the number of books they published during the year.

1934 (143)
  1. VERNER, Gerald. (7)
  2. DANIEL, Roland. (7)
  3. Sutcliffe, Halliwell, 1870-1932. (7)
  4. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (5)
  5. EASTWOOD, Helen. (5)
  6. SISCO, J. Samuel. (4)
  7. EVANS, Gwyn. (4)
  8. WEST, Alroy. (3)
  9. BARRE, Jean. (3)
  10. TRENT, Paul, pseud. [i.e. Edward Platt.] (3)
  11. JONES, M. Sheridan. (3)
  12. Swan, Annie S., 1859-1943 (3)
  13. STUART, Donald, Novelist. (3)
  14. HARVEY, Marion. (3) 
  15. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (2)
  16. MACGRATH, Manda. (2)
  17. PICKFORD, Margaret. (2)
  18. BAXTER, Olive, pseud. [i.e. Helen Eastwood.] (2)
  19. KAYE, Louis. (2)
  20. HALES, Alfred Greenwood. (2)
    1935 (200)
  1. Swan, Annie S., 1859-1943 (12)
  2. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (8)
  3. DANIEL, Roland. (7)
  4. TRENT, Paul, pseud. [i.e. Edward Platt.] (6)
  5. VERNER, Gerald. (6)
  6. TREVOR, Ralph, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (6)
  7. Oxenham, John, 1852-1941. (6)
  8. Rees, Rosemary, 1876-1963 (5)
  9. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (4)
  10. MACGRATH, Manda. (4)
  11. CULLUM, Ridgwell. (4)
  12. MILLER, Elizabeth York. (4)
  13. EVANS, Gwyn. (4)
  14. APPLIN, Arthur. (3)
  15. BARRE, Jean. (3)
  16. PICKFORD, Margaret. (3)
  17. STUART, Donald, Novelist. (3)
  18. HARVEY, Marion. (3)
  19. GOULD, Nat, the Elder. (2)
  20. MILTON, Elizabeth, pseud. [i.e. Elizabeth Lusk.] (2)
    1936 (172)
  1. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (8)
  2. VERNER, Gerald. (7)
  3. DANIEL, Roland. (7)
  4. Lowndes, Marie Belloc, 1868-1947. (6)
  5. BRANDON, John Gordon. (6)
  6. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (4)
  7. BARRE, Jean. (4)
  8. CULLUM, Ridgwell. (4)
  9. Swan, Annie S., 1859-1943 (4)
  10. EASTWOOD, Helen. (4)
  11. EVANS, Gwyn. (4)
  12. MILTON, Elizabeth, pseud. [i.e. Elizabeth Lusk.] (4)
  13. CONDÉ, Phillip. (4)
  14. MANN, Jack. (3)
  15. CARLYLE, Anthony, pseud. [i.e. Gladys Alexandra Milton.] (3)
  16. Hocking, Joseph. (3)
  17. HALES, Alfred Greenwood. (3)
  18. JOHNSTON, Frank. (2)
  19. DARK, Rex. (2)
  20. WALLACE, Trevor. (2)
1937 (161)
  1. Snow, Charles H. (Charles Horace), 1877-1967. (9)
  2. APPLIN, Arthur. (7)
  3. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (6)
  4. Marshall, Gary, 1877-1967. (6)
  5. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (6)
  6. HALES, Alfred Greenwood. (6)
  7. VERNER, Gerald. (5)
  8. BRANDON, John Gordon. (5)
  9. DANIEL, Roland. (5)
  10. Ballew, Charles, 1877-1967. (4)
  11. TRENT, Paul, pseud. [i.e. Edward Platt.] (4)
  12. CULLUM, Ridgwell. (4)
  13. WALLACE, Trevor. (4)
  14. CONDÉ, Phillip. (4)
  15. EASTWOOD, Helen. (3)
  16. TREVOR, Ralph, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (3)
  17. EVANS, Gwyn. (3)
  18. DARK, Rex. (3)
  19. WEST, Alroy. (2)
  20. PICKFORD, Margaret. (2)
    1938 (136)
  1. BRANDON, John Gordon. (7)
  2. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (6)
  3. CONDÉ, Phillip. (6)
  4. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (5)
  5. VERNER, Gerald. (5)
  6. TREVOR, Ralph, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (5)
  7. Snow, Charles H. (Charles Horace), 1877-1967. (5)
  8. WALLACE, Trevor. (5)
  9. Marshall, Gary, 1877-1967. (4)
  10. PICKFORD, Margaret. (4)
  11. DANIEL, Roland. (4)
  12. TURK, Frances. (3)
  13. EASTWOOD, Helen. (3)
  14. EVANS, Gwyn. (3)
  15. Manton, Peter, 1908-1973. (2)
  16. WOOD, Eric, Writer of Fiction. (2)
  17. Garnett, Roger, 1905-1986. (2)
  18. BOLTON, John, Novelist. (2)
  19. MILN, Crichton. (2)
  20. FRAZER, Martin. (2)
    1939 (107)
  1. Ballew, Charles, 1877-1967. (5)
  2. DANIEL, Roland. (5)
  3. Marshall, Gary, 1877-1967. (4)
  4. BARRE, Jean. (4)
  5. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (4)
  6. TREVOR, Ralph, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (4)
  7. BRANDON, John Gordon. (4)
  8. Snow, Charles H. (Charles Horace), 1877-1967. (4)
  9. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (3)
  10. Manton, Peter, 1908-1973. (3)
  11. VERNER, Gerald. (3)
  12. WOOD, Eric, Writer of Fiction. (3)
  13. COOK, William Wallace. (3)
  14. EVANS, Gwyn. (3)
  15. BAXTER, Olive, pseud. [i.e. Helen Eastwood.] (3)
  16. WYNNE, Pamela, pseud. [i.e. Winifred Mary Scott.] (2)
  17. DORIAN, Anne. (2)
  18. EASTWOOD, Helen. (2)
  19. DARK, Rex. (2)
  20. KENT, Pete, pseud. [i.e. Gladwell Richardson.] (2)
    1940 (74)
  1. RICHMOND, Mary, pseud. [i.e. Kathleen Lindsay.] (6)
  2. TREVOR, Ralph, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (5)
  3. BRANDON, John Gordon. (5)
  4. VERNER, Gerald. (4)
  5. Snow, Charles H. (Charles Horace), 1877-1967. (4)
  6. BARRE, Jean. (3)
  7. Brame, Charlotte M., 1836-1884. (3)
  8. DESMOND, Hugh. (3) [ie Kathleen Lindsay]
  9. DANIEL, Roland. (3)
  10. Riley, Tex, 1908-1973. (2)
  11. Ballew, Charles, 1877-1967. (2)
  12. WOOD, Eric, Writer of Fiction. (2)
  13. EASTWOOD, Helen. (2)
  14. Westland, Lynn, 1899-1986. (2)
  15. BAXTER, Olive, pseud. [i.e. Helen Eastwood.] (2)
  16. STEWART, Frances, pseud. [i.e. James Reginald Wilmot.] (2)
  17. FRAZER, Martin. (2)
  18. CONDÉ, Phillip. (2)
  19. CROMWELL, A. G. E. (1)
  20. WALKER, Rowland. (1)