Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Sesquicentennial of M.P. Shiel

A rare photo of Shiel in 1908
A quick post to let us all reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the birth of Matthew Phipps Shiel, who was born in Montserrat on 21 July 1865.  Author of such classic works as Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes in the Fire (1896), The Purple Cloud (1901), and many others, Shiel settled in England in the mid 1880s, and died in Chichester, Sussex, on 17 February 1947.

Harold Billings is the author of M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years (2005), and M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years 1897-1923 (2010).  We look forward to the third and final volume of this definitive biography

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

ASTERCOTE - The Heartwood Institute

A recently released recording on the Reverb Worship label is Astercote by The Heartwood Institute. I was entranced by the subtle way the music conveys a haunting narrative involving a holy cup kept in an English country house. It's a story told in brief musical segments, like the soundtrack to a half-forgotten Seventies tv mystery episode, each piece illustrating a key scene. There's the same adventurous use of early electronic or radiophonic textures, together with wistful, pastoral pieces using woodwind and other acoustic instruments. Individual tracks aptly conjure the image suggested by the titles and the plot-line, such as the shimmering surrounding "The Chalice" and the sense of hovering and swooping accompanying the hawk.

I hadn't realised until after I had listened to this resonant, delicately-crafted gem that it is an "imagined soundtrack" based on a 1970 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, entitled Astercote, which I didn't know before and would now like to read. The label says: "The music on this cd is influenced by some favourite 1970s soundtracks : The Wickerman, Get Carter...that kind of thing, but also the more out-there TV soundtracks like The Changes, Children Of The Stones and the original Tomorrow People." I think it achieves the atmosphere of that time and those programmes perfectly, while also having a fine, yearning fragility all its own. This edition of Astercote is limited to 40 copies.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab

This new book by acclaimed writer/researcher, Lucy Sussex, will be of interest to Wormwoodians.  Blockbuster! is the biography of a book - Fergus Hume's crime novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an instant bestseller when it was published in 1886.  And a fascinating history it is too - from Hume's childhood in Dunedin, New Zealand, where his father managed the lunatic asylum, to his move to Melbourne and the writing of Hansom Cab following unsuccessful attempts to break into the Melbourne theatre scene, to the extraordinary success of the novel resulting from Frederick Trischler's ultramodern marketing campaign, and then on to London and mixed success as a prolific novelist.

There is a lot of new material in this book, including the record of Hume's famous selling of the copyright of Hansom Cab for ₤50 found in the copyright registers at the National Archives of Australia.  There are excellent chapters on the publisher, Frederick Trischler, and on the ongoing life of early editions of the novel in the rare book market - only four copies of the first edition are known to exist, and only one copy of the third edition.  

Hume becomes a ghostly, insubstantial figure after he settles down in Thundersley in Essex to write books - but writing 140 books probably didn't leave much time for anything else.  He was a lifelong bachelor and there are hints of homosexuality in his work, which were stated explicitly in an article on him by rare book dealer Jeremy Parrott in the late, lamented Book & Magazine Collector, drawing off the recollections of a distant relative.  It would also be interesting to trace his involvement in occult circles - he had a genuine interest in theosophy and mysticism, reflected in various novels and short stories, as did other literary antipodean expats of the time - Rosa Praed, H.B. Marriott Watson, and Reginald Hodder. 

This is a fine book about a novel that defined the burgeoning  genre of crime fiction, full of wit, important discoveries and fascinating insights - like its subject, a real page-turner.

Friday, July 3, 2015


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

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

Here is an extract from my introduction:

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

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

Mark Valentine

Update 12 July - now out of print. Thanks to everyone for their interest in Roger's book.


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

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

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

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

Mark Valentine

Thursday, July 2, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Mark Valentine 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


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

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

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

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

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


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