Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

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Conducted by Lynda E. Rucker

Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far TowerMurder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.


 

Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.

 In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?

28535979_10212960569946601_193795878_nTimothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.

And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.

Rabbits-lynch

Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.

LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?

UncertaintiesVol3_DJ_CoveronlyTJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”

Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.

I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.

LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?

TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.

130780I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.

LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?

TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.

LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?

Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.

LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?

51dZ3jMujFLTJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.

LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?

TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties IV


Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.

Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling

Portrait of Brian Catling's Candleye by David Tolley
Portrait of B. Catling’s “Candleye” by David Tolley

Conducted by Timothy J. Jarvis

Peopled with richly drawn Dickensian grotesques and filled with bizarre and comical incident, Munky is as compelling as it is antic. Catling transports the reader to an interwar England in the throes of change. Part bizarre ghost story, part whimsical farce, part idiosyncratic literary experiment, it could be described as P. G. Wodehouse collaborating with Raymond Roussel, with a dash of M. R. James, if it weren’t so uniquely its own thing.

B. Catling, RA, was born in London in 1948. He is a poet, sculptor, filmmaker, and performance artist, currently making egg-tempera paintings and writing novels. He has held solo exhibitions and performances in the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Iceland, Israel, Holland, Norway, Germany, Greenland, USA, and Australia. His Vorrh trilogy and recent novel Earwig have drawn much critical acclaim. He is also Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.


Timothy J. Jarvis: Munky is many things, a novella that covers a staggering range of modes and styles. But at heart it is a ghost story. Do you enjoy supernatural tales? Any favourite writers?

Brian Catling: Supernatural tales and all the enigmas of life, which get seen in the periphery of normal vision, are a great fascination to me and always have been. Poe is the base of all things. Then the rest of the usual suspects: Arthur Machen (do you know the compelling story of Tessa Farmer?*), M. R. James, Lovecraft, etc., and I have a fondness for Blackwood who I think is often under ranked.

[*Tessa Farmer is  sculptor who is Machen’s great-grandaughter, and whose extraordinary work, made from insect carcasses and other natural materials, depicts malevolent fairies that resemble in some ways those in certain stories of her forebear’s, though she was unfamiliar with his work when she started making them. – Ed.]

TJJ: Munky is also a comedy of manners, in a very British vein — there are some really memorable comic scenes, including one hilarious and acerbic treatment of the social and class niceties of the taking of high tea. What inspired you to bring together the two quite disparate modes of the ghostly tale and the farce?

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Landlord of the George Hotel

BC: I never plan my writing in any academic or system-based control. It is all a flowing out. Its momentum gathering images and bits of storage on its way. So to answer this question: I was spending more time in and around Dorchester Abbey, hearing the church and village stories about the living and the dead. Then I found myself face to face with the pencil drawing of the publican of the George Hotel, who claimed to be the heaviest publican in the UK, in the 1950s. Two pints later in the empty bar, the ghost monk walked in, and the story started. How else could it be anything other than it is? It’s England. Farce is only a separate subject when it’s French. And humour is staunched in the mouths of the American ghost writers until it reaches Ray Bradbury.

TJJ: As a follow-up — Pulborough, the setting for the story, is on the one hand a quaint English village of a recognisable type, and on the other, a place built on the banks of the once great river Tysmundarum and surrounded by ancient earthworks haunted by “elder brooding forces”, the influence of which the village’s abbey was established to ward off. What role does bringing together the mundane with the liminal and numinous play in this story? And in your work more generally?

BC: The liminal and the numinous are my natural haunts. Amplifiers to the imagination and buffers to the dreary description of everyday life. The very air buzzes in the space between them.

I feel it as a constant in most places that give you time to stop and listen. A village history (stories told backwards). Always seems more alive at twilight and dawn. When all the other animals walk abroad. Churches often become the resounding chamber for the very thing they are built to suppress.

TJJ: You often make use of figures drawn from history in your writing. There’s a certain resemblance between Munky’s “Ghost-Finder General”, Walter Prince, and the real-life ghost hunter, Harry Price. Is Price a figure you’re interested in? What led you to put him into your story?

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Harry Price, Ghost Hunter

BC: Harry Price keeps getting in. Have you seen the film of him talking his “lab”? A twitching, snobbish, born liar, whose own personal form of womanising removes him from a Carry On cartoon, into a grotesque Uriah Heep/Jimmy Saville hybrid. His books groan with inflated importance and wasted opportunity. The Return of Miss Stella C. and The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap being the most blatant. Most psychical investigators treat him as an embarrassment because how far he dragged down the credibility of the subject. He is a perfect and demanding character who will always have something else to tell me.

TJJ: The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap tells the story of the investigation into the Dalby Spook, the talking mongoose, Gef, who lived behind the wooden panelling of a farmhouse on the Isle of Man in the 1930s. I know you have a fascination for this phenomenon. Gef’s “haunting” was characterised by a puckish nature, not dissimilar to that of the ghostly monk in Munky. Are you drawn to mischievous spirits of this kind?

BC: Have you seen Vanished! A Video Séance, the Gef story Tony Grisoni and I made? A mischievous spirit seems to offer more than a terrifying one. Because it demands instant reflection between two worlds and hold its presence in comparison. We smile as much out of nervousness as we do out of joy. The transcendent entity also tests and illuminates the gateways of reality, which evolves our perceptions. Much in the same way that the Khidr, the Islamic green man, and the Celtic Trickster do. Its enigma is active in perversity and therefore not in the declaration of death.

Gef had a cameo part in my new book Hollow. But upstaged it to become an almost major character (I should have guest!). He shuffled in and out of a fleet of Bosch creatures that somnambulistically stumble into agreed reality to find out what they are.

Munky TeaserTJJ: There seems to be an enigmatic linguistic ritual behind the narrative of Munky that is reminiscent of the oeuvre of Raymond Roussel, a writer who has been a character in other work of yours. And your literary poetics has its roots in innovative and playful poetry. How does experimenting with language feed your fiction practice?

BC: Again, I am afraid it’s difficult for me to answer your question, because I am not conscious of literal and linguistic streams, and experiments in my writing. This must come from early dyslexia and an art school education, rather than an academic literary one (thank God). My poetry is constant and in deep league with my visual imagination. This much I know.

So the critical and editorial surgery always occurs after the accident of writing has happened, which might seem pathological. Raymond Roussel is a typical example. My first and significant influence came from the visualisation of the tableaux and machines he invented in Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus. Not from the convoluted experiments in the structure of language that he devised to create them. That was never my concern. When it comes to poetic language I grasp the opposite terminals of Beckett and Kipling to recharge my batteries. With bit of J. H. Prynne, Flann O’Brien, and Yeats thrown in to confuse the voltage.

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Image by Dave McKean

TJJ: Are there any other important precursors or contemporary influences on Munky?

BC: I don’t think Munky would have existed if I hadn’t read The Third Policeman and The White Hotel in my youth.

TJJ: Since you began publishing fiction, you’ve worked with publishers both large and small. How have you made radical practices work in the mainstream? And is there something freeing about working with small presses?

BC: I greatly enjoy working with presses of different size. Being given an agent was the only thing that shifted my writing from small presses to mega ones. I personally did very little to make that occur. And intend to continue working between the international and the intimate and love the quality of a press like Swan River.

TJJ: Is there anything you’re currently working on you’d like to share with us?

BC: Last year, Only the Lowly came out with Storr Books, a small press who wanted to do it as their second publication. And Earwig, which was published by Hodder & Stoughton, soon to be made into a feature film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

The final edit of Hollow has just gone back to Random House/Penguin, NYC, for publication next year. Think of it as Peckinpah meets Bruegel, on the snow-covered mountain which was once the Tower of Babel. With lots of escapees from Bosch paintings getting in the way.

And I am now working on a ghost story set in stone called Transi. Which is the name given to cadaver effigies, in tomb sculptures, in the late Middle Ages. Not a lot of knock-about comedy in this one.

TJJ: And lastly, I know that William Blake is an important figure for you. To what extent do you think a Blakean visionary approach to art is possible in the early twenty-first century?

hires_munky1BC: Blake is another Khidr, he won’t go away. It’s not his visionary approach that fascinates me. It’s his down-to-earth need to get things on paper. For me he is not a frocked dreamer wafting about and talking to angels. He is a grafter, a working man, whose small factory was crowded with other beings while he daily had to make crappy prints for other artists. His own work sandwiched between his bread-and-butter labour without ever becoming infected or diluted. For me that is a much weirder picture than the hippy poster of him. Gawd knows about his work in the art of the twenty-first century . . . I never understand or care to place art in those restriction. All my tenses are continually jumbled. A constant joy to my editors.

Order a copy of Munky.


Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, Uncertainties I, and The Far Tower, among other places. In 2020 he edited Uncertainties IV for Swan River Press. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. timothyjjarvis.wordpress.com

In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling

Thoughts on “Lucifer and the Child” by Albert Power

Swan River Press 2020Those sensitive to mild spoilers may wish to avert their eyes. – Ed.

In a ‘blurb’ for its new edition of Ethel Mannin’s novel Lucifer and the Child, the Swan River Press claims that this book was for many years on the list of ‘banned books’ in Ireland. If so, it was with good cause. This is a book that glamorises the Devil, irreligion and pursuit of the path of wickedness. It is an insidious book. It draws one in. It is a book that exerts a quiet and ensorcelling, but not a wholesome, power. Like Jenny Flower herself, it gives off, in spots, a heady whiff of ‘gutter panache’ in spite of its often exquisite penmanship. A discerning reader should run no risk to his or her immortal soul, but the same cannot be said of enduring peace of mind.

Among his aromatic armada of apothegms in the Preface to the second and expanded version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde memorably avouched: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Advance extenuation perhaps for the work that lay before the reader to read. Wilde need not have worried. But Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child puts one on uncomfortable proof of this maxim; or else goes to refute it. The book is certainly well written, emphatically so, and sparked up, at times, with passages of striking beauty. But is it a ‘moral’ book? Well . . . As Lucifer might have said within, ‘it all depends on what you mean by moral.’

The principal character, and the ‘child’ of the title, is Jenny Flower, ‘a thin, dirty, under-sized wisp of a gutter-kid,’ who may or may not be of the family of two sisters burned for witchcraft in the early 1600s. She is the natural daughter of Nell Flower, a barmaid at the Seven Bells in London’s docklands, and is brought up as the child of her mother’s brother Joe and Joe’s wife Ivy. Joe is a handsome if sparely spoken sulker, his wife a disappointment-bitten shrew. They have two sons. Home life is not especially happy.

Jenny was born at Hallowe’en, 1924, one of four witches’ sabbaths in a year. On another of these, Lammas, 1st August, 1931, during a school trip to the countryside, Jenny gets lost in a wood and meets a dark and handsome stranger, with horns, who befriends and introduces her to the natural wonders of the woods. When she grows tired, he takes her back home to London by train. If she needs him, he says, she will meet him again.

1945-09-02 Observer AdReturned to ordinary life, Jenny befriends an ancient witch-like woman, who purports to be in fact a witch, and who lives in a filthy novel in the evocatively named Ropewalk Alley, a rickety tumbledown place near the Thames. This is Mrs. Beadle, to whom Nell Flower had applied for a herbal mixture to induce abortion, when she got pregnant with Jenny. More often than not, Mrs. Beadle’s cauldron-concocted remedies don’t work, but people keep coming back and send their friends, ‘on the principle that what doesn’t work in one case might in another – the old Ropewalk Alley principle that you never knew’. Mrs. Beadle’s house is a trove of witchcraft lore and demonology – and cats.

There is a young school teacher, Marian Drew, daughter of a somewhat unconventional clergyman in Wales, who befriends Jenny and tries to reform her. Her efforts towards friendship at least seem not wholly unavailing, until Hallowe’en, 1931, Jenny’s seventh birthday, when at an annual fair in the docklands waste ground, the high point of which is a huge bonfire re-enacting the Great Fire of London (a deft authorial touch, which prefigures the climax of the novel during the London ‘blitz’ in 1940), the dark stranger, sans horns, reappears. Off a ship, perhaps. From this point on, the dark stranger, whom Jenny thinks of as Lucifer, is a recurrent element in the girl’s life, though he appears seldom, in the first year only on witches’ sabbaths, and thereafter less often still. Marian meets him and finds herself attracted to him, even as she tries to persuade him to stop acting the part of the Devil and seeks to wean Jenny from his influence.

Arrow Books 1964aThe stage is set for a drama among vividly drawn personalities, of whom hardly one of them is especially likeable. Mannin divides her novel into halves of unequal length. The first, and longer, depicts Jenny’s life from her first encounter with Lucifer on Lammas of 1931 to her fourth – following, in addition to Hallowe’en, Candlemas: 2nd February and May Day: 1st May – on Lammas of 1932, when Lucifer takes Jenny and Marian Drew on a day-long excursion by train to the country. By this stage, Jenny has already, in an eerie invocation scene at Mrs. Beadle’s, received a witch’s mark above the heart and a familiar, a black kitten called Satan.

The second part – just over a hundred pages in the Swan River Press edition – in effect touches, in a kind of saltant style, on key events throughout the remainder of Jenny’s life. It culminates in an incident that reaches genuine tragedy, during the London ‘blitz’, on 7th September 1940. We discover how Marian prevails on the dark stranger to keep out of Jenny’s life for, first a year, and then for over three years. She also persuades him to encourage Jenny to stay for a summer holiday with Marian’s rector father’s family in the Welsh countryside. None of this avails, because, as Lucifer, rather gloatingly tells Marian, ‘ . . . you can’t put anything into a child, you can only bring out what is there.’

Jenny advances apace along the downward path to witchcraft. Her trip to the rector’s house in Wales is a failure. She practices spells, none of especial malignancy until late in 1939, and then the intended end of her enchantment is very bad indeed; and worse because it actually works.  At times, this second half of Lucifer and the Child suggests a sequence of randomly linked set-pieces to prepare for the denouement of tragedy. But though the journey may strike one as haphazard in places, the hand that guides is assured. The end, when it comes, cannot leave a sensitive reader unaffected. And well before that end arrives, Marian recognises that she has lost the battle. Partly it is her own fault: ‘Some people would say that you had gone to the Devil – you, the professing Christian, with your illicit love.’ (This invites a question as to the inducement that Marian had used to persuade the dark stranger to leave Jenny alone for so long.) But, at the last, perhaps it is just a human thing, never quite to achieve that which one has it within one’s gift to achieve. ‘One means so well and does so badly; always this sense of personal failure,’ muses Marian. The spirit of Arthur Machen infuses and broods over much of this work, both in the nature scenes and in London. With Marian’s resigned recognition of fatalistic insufficiency, one can, perhaps, hear in echo the Welsh-born author’s bleaker and even more terse acceptance of inability to scale anything near the heights that one perceives, whether in truth or in fancy, to be recorded: “I dream in fire but work in clay.”

Mannin 3aIn a short introduction, Ethel Mannin posits the possibility that the question of whether the stranger was really the Devil and the child really a witch can be predicated on either natural or supernatural bases dependent on a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. But to the mind of this reader, here we have special pleading which is quite implausible. One is put in memory of Ann Radcliffe’s herculean efforts in her gothic romances to introduce a natural cause for incidents that up to then had seemed the effect of ghostly intervention: but the natural explanation is so contrived that it would have been easier to believe in the ghosts. With Mannin, there are just too many coincidences heaped on coincidences for anything like a ‘natural’ explanation to ring remotely true. In the case of Jenny, she believes and that is the prime ingredient to her acquiring the witch’s power and, later, the ‘asexual passion of loving’ which she feels for Lucifer. As Lucifer tells Marian in one of their disputatious yet cordial exchanges, if he had sought to persuade Jenny that everything that had befallen her in the regard of him, including their first encounter in the forest when she saw him with horns, was liable to natural explanation, she would not believe it – even coming from him. ‘That for her would be the make-believe! She has been touched by the fatal lightning.  She knows! She has seen the stranger in the forest with horns on his head . . . ’  That is amply sufficient to make miracles of evil occur; and occur they do.

Ethel Mannin’s novel drips with frequent delightful jewels of poetic beauty – not least in many passages devoted to description of life in the London docklands and the more irenic if sometimes darkly enticeful charms of the countryside. At one point the author takes time to show her social conscience side, as she expatiates on the manifestations of loneliness in the sexual realm and the futile attempts by impoverished humanity to improve its lot. ‘Lucifer at least has looked upon the face of God, known Infinite Beauty, whereas these, grunting and guzzling in their human sty, what do they know of heaven or of hell?’

Jarrolds 1946In the final analysis, Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child is – to cite the author’s own words in the penultimate chapter – a tale of ‘ . . . two worlds, the material, and that strange phantom world beyond the bounds of the material, that invisible world for which there is no name, since to call it fantasy, or dream, or imagination, does not suffice, emotion being involved in experience of it, and its phenomena charged with such meaning that the whole texture of the real world is changed, such commonplace things as a curtain blowing out in the wind, or a second glance from a stranger in a crowd, becoming endowed with diabolic significance, exciting, terrifying, sinister, or possessed of a fatal and terrible beauty.’ As Rosanne Rabinowitz points out, in her partly elucidatory, partly biographical introduction, that sensibility which can recognise the innominable character of the effect of sometime strangeness on the humdrum human world of everyday affairs, bodes well for overdue recognition of Mannin’s remarkable novel as a classic in the literature of the weird.

There are few books of which it justly can be said, that having read it will leave a reader changed. Thought-provoked, conscience-smitten, challenged. Lucifer and the Devil is one of them. So, give succour to thy soul with the balsam of goodness – then read.

Order a copy of Lucifer and the Child.


Albert Power is the author of Slaver Heap – A Gothic Novel and Georgian Gothic – A Novella Quartet. His short fiction is published by Egaeus Press. He has written articles for The Green Book.

Thoughts on “Lucifer and the Child” by Albert Power

The Green Book 15

Green Book 15EDITOR’S NOTE

In our previous issue, we focused on the lives of writers, featuring as we did reminiscences, interviews, and memoirs. For this issue I’d like to do something different. While we have featured occasional pieces of fiction in previous issues, including “Saved by a Ghost” by Bram Stoker in Issue 6 and “The Boys’ Room” by Dorothy Macardle in Issue 9, I’ve decided this time around to turn over the entire issue to fiction.

Consider this issue a special anthology issue, and an eclectic one at that. There is little to tie these pieces together, save for the fact each author grew from the soil of the same island at the edge of Europe, which is to say they are all Irish by birth. Perhaps, instead, to state the obvious, one might find that each story reflects more so its author than any affinity with one another — and yet they are here between these covers. I hope most, if not all, of these stories will be new to you.

Rosa Mulholand’s “A Priest’s Story” is certainly informed by her own Catholic beliefs, the supernatural elements driven by faith more than fear. Similarly, “The Story of a Star” is a fable that could only have flowed from the pen of the mystical poet and painter A.E.

Robert Cromie is best known for his novel The Crack of Doom (1895), which contains what is thought to be the first description of an atomic explosion in fiction. Published here is his supernatural short story “Squire Grimshaw’s Ghost” — decidedly more gothic than the scientific fiction for which he is now remembered.

Herbert Moore Pim’s “The Madman” is indeed a mad bit of writing from his singular collection Unknown Immortals of the Northern City of Success (1917). Whether the madman in question is based on a real person known to Pim is anyone’s guess. Beatrice Grimshaw’s “Cabin No. 9” is a ghost story set on the high seas, full of the adventure and incident one expects from Grimshaw. Unfortunately it is also marred by her racism, but I hope you will enjoy the tale nevertheless. Cheiro’s “A Bargain Made with a Ghost” purports to be based on true events — insofar as any tale told by Cheiro can be trusted as true. But the story is ably told and certainly entertaining.

Dorothy Macardle’s “The Shuttered Room” was originally broadcast on Radio Eireann on 13 September 1957. It was the sixth and last talk by Macardle in her Days and Places series. The other pieces in the series are reminiscences of her travels and experiences in post-war Europe and her sole trip to America. Though the “The Shuttered Room” was the story’s original title, on the manuscript this is crossed out, and a new title given: “A World of Dream”. This new title is then crossed out with “stet” written beside the original. This is the first time “The Shuttered Room” has appeared in print.

Finally we have Conall Cearnach’s “The Fiend That Walks Behind” from his sole (and slim) volume The Fatal Move and Other Stories (1924); a mixed bag as a collection, this tale of revenge from beyond the grave is perhaps the best of the lot.

And there you have it: I hope an entertaining crop of stories that will keep you amused for an evening. If you enjoy this all – fiction issue, maybe we’ll do another sometime?

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
19 April 2020

You can buy The Green Book here.

Contents

“Editor’s Note”
Brian J. Showers

“A Priest’s Ghost Story”
Rosa Mulholland

“Squire Grimstone’s Ghost”
Robert Cromie

“A Scrap of Irish Folklore”
Rosa Mulholland

“The Madman”
Herbert Moore Pim

“The Story of a Star”
A.E.

“Cabin No. 9”
Beatrice Grimshaw

“A Bargain Made with a Ghost”
Cheiro

“The Shuttered Room”
Dorothy Macardle

“The Fiend That Walks Behind”
Conall Cearnach

“Notes on Contributors”

The Green Book 15

The Green Book 14

Green Book 14EDITOR’S NOTE

We encounter and enjoy authors mostly through their writing, forgetting sometimes that there are personalities behind their words, some astonishingly well-known in their time, often now relegated to small press rediscoveries. With sufficient spans of years, these authors and their personalities pass out of memory, becoming less familiar to us as people and more so as names on title pages. But it is important to remember that these authors lived and worked, had careers and relationships; some of them died while relatively unknown, others were widely celebrated for their creations. With this in mind, I’ve decided to focus the current issue on reminiscences, interviews, and memoirs in hopes of summoning the shades of these writers and to show that in some ways their lives were not always so different from our own.

To that end, you will find a number of texts I have been collecting these past few years, now nestled here comfortably beside one another. Each one, I hope, will give you some insight into the lives of these authors, who they were, and a past that is not necessarily so far distant.

There are first-hand accounts by authors with whom I hope you are now familiar. Rosa Mulholland, Cheiro, and Dorothy Macardle all relate anecdotes of their own experiences with the psychical and supernatural. Elsewhere in this issue, you can spend an entertaining evening with Mervyn Wall. In this talk, given to the Bram Stoker Society in 1987, he delves into witchcraft and details the origins of his best-loved novel, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946).

We have a few interviews — “chats” — with those who worked as professionals, and whose names were familiar to the broader public on a weekly basis, as their stories were published and novels serialised in magazines of the day. Among these sketches you’ll be invited to spend agreeable afternoons with L. T. Meade, Charlotte Riddell, and Katharine Tynan. While they may not discuss strictly ghastly material, I hope these interviews bring us that much closer to authors whose works still find admiration of a modern readership.

You’ll also find some brief memoirs, including litterateur William Winter’s reminiscence of his fallen comrade Fitz-James O’Brien, who died in the American Civil War; and Samuel Carter Hall, who conjures two of Dublin’s gothic greats: Charles Maturin and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu — perhaps reminding us that these authors existed in a wider social world.

However, the issue commences with Albert Power’s appraisal of George Croly’s Salathiel (1828), a novel which Stoker biographer Paul Murray posited as an influence on the composition of Dracula. Although, a tale of the Wandering Jew, Salathiel might have more in common thematically with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, than Bram Stoker’s more famous book. Power aptly leads us through the life of Reverend Croly and how his book fits into the literary milieu of the dark fantastic.

If you would like to read more about some of these writers among these pages, you’ll find lengthier profiles in earlier issues of The Green Book. In Issue 9: Rosa Mulholland; Issue 12: Mervyn Wall; Issue 13: Cheiro and Beatrice Grimshaw. While this issue and the next will serve as an intermission in our Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural, and Fantastic Fiction, fear not — we will return with more entries in future instalments.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
15 April 2020

You can buy The Green Book here.

Contents

“Editor’s Note”
Brian J. Showers

“Who Marvels at the Mysteries of the Moon: George Croly’s Salathiel”
Albert Power

“Sketch of Fitz-James O’Brien”
William Winter

“Le Fanu and Maturin: Two Reminiscences”
Samuel Carter Hall

“About Ghosts”
Rosa Mulholland

“How I Found Adventure”
Beatrice Grimshaw

“A Biographical Sketch of Mrs. L. T. Meade”
Helen C. Black

“Sweet Singer from Over the Sea”
A Chat with Katharine Tynan

“A Chat with Mrs. J. H. Riddell”
Raymond Blathwayt

“Extracts from Confessions: Memoirs of a Modern Seer”
Cheiro

“They Say It Happened”
Dorothy Macardle

“Ghost Story of a Novelist”
Katharine Tynan

“Witchcraft and the Origins of The Unfortunate Fursey”
Mervyn Wall

“Notes on Contributors”

The Green Book 14

Thoughts on Small Press #6—Deluge of Submissions

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Earlier this year, our friends over at Tartarus Press announced a call for submissions for their forthcoming 30th anniversary anthology. (Wow! Thirty years!!) The submissions window ran from 10 January until 10 April—a clean three months. Editor Rosalie Parker said on Twitter the other day that in that time, she received over five hundred stories. Five. Hundred. Stories. Yikes!

In a previous “Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?”, I briefly talk about submissions. I mention that I’m generally not open for submissions, fearing I would be unable to handle the deluge. Looking at what Rosalie Parker has to sift through, I suspect I’m not wrong.

I also wrote in the aforementioned post that I believe it’s the duty of small presses to nurture new writers, as these are the writers who are pushing literature into innovative and exciting places. Of course, I fully realise that being closed for submissions, generally, is at odds with being open to discovering new writers. This is an issue with which I have been struggling since I started Swan River Press. As you might have guessed, this is something of an issue of time, or rather, a lack of it.

So that’s what I want to talk about in this post: submissions from an editor’s point of view—or at least from my own point of view.

Although I’ve already given my background elsewhere, it might be worth doing so again here for context. Much as I’d like it to be, Swan River Press is not my day job. I’ve got a job at which I work regular full-time hours. Swan River tends to gobble all other hours in between—I daresay that, though it is not a day job, Swan River is certainly a full-time job. (If you really want to irritate me, try referring to Swan River as my hobby.)

IMG_0019Through Swan River, I publish on average maybe four books per years, plus two issues of The Green Book—again, I talk about some of this in the post I mentioned above. Six titles per year keeps me plenty busy. It might not sound like a lot to you, but in addition to editing and other more obvious jobs associated with publishing, there are myriad other tasks in running a small press (such as a horrific amount of admin), the bulk of which I perform on my own. In any case, I’ve learned six publications is more or less my limit with the resources I have currently available.

So let me talk about a specific submissions example. One of Swan River’s main venues for publishing contemporary writers is the Uncertainties anthology series. The series was conceived, in part, as a way to work with writers who I might not otherwise be able to accommodate by publishing something book-length. I edited Uncertainties volumes one and two myself (and am working on the fifth). The third and fourth instalments were edited by Lynda E. Rucker and Timothy J. Jarvis, respectively. (Incidentally, if you want to read Lynda’s and Tim’s thoughts on assembling these anthologies, you can do so here and here.)

Now I also readily admit that I’m a slow reader. Realising I wouldn’t be able to handle open submissions for the first two volumes, again, due to time restraints, I approached contributors directly. I was in the fortunate position to know enough writers who I wanted to work with—and, more importantly, enough who would indulge me by submitting a story. I approached only the number of authors I needed to fill the two books. I was pleased with how the process went, and feel both volumes turned out well. This is, of course, one way to assemble an anthology; not necessarily a wrong one either. However, I realise that most of the writers included were already established, with most names familiar to those who read within the small press. But how could I reach even more writers? I came up with a pretty good work around: Allowing others to edit Uncertainties would be a neat way of introducing fresh voices that I might not otherwise have published. My only editorial stipulation for the series is that an author can only be published in the series once—no repeats. This is another self-imposed restriction to keep from returning to familiar voices.

IMG_0015When it came time for Lynda and Tim to edit their instalments, I broached the idea of open submissions with each. I hope they don’t mind my saying, but both opted to solicit stories privately—the same as I had done, and I suspect for probably the similar reasons as my own: there were certain authors they knew they wanted to work with and the time commitment of ploughing through an open submissions slush pile would likely be overwhelming. And, like me, both Lynda and Tim have day jobs.

For Uncertainties 5, I’ve taken a slightly different tack. This time I’ve invited around fifty writers to submit stories—I figure I’ll have space to include stories by around ten or twelve depending. I’ve still mainly approached writers I want to work with, but am now opening up more widely to a limited number of submissions. Ideally I would like to assemble a future volume of Uncertainties with a completely open call for submissions. We’ll see.

Let’s get back to Tartarus Press’s five hundred submissions. There are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, every writer who submits will be a hopeful individual, dreaming that their story will be accepted for publication. When they submit, they will have every right to expect a response. This is really my biggest fear as a publisher: that I would not be capable of processing that many submissions, that I would likely become known in the small press community for my abysmal response times. Or worse, for my dead silence.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeLooking at this from an editor’s point of view, would anyone care to estimate how long five hundred submissions might take to process? If stories are on average 5,000 words, that’s a total of 250,000 words. Certainly not every word of every story will be read in its entirety. Some will be given a few pages before being discarded, while others might be set aside to be read a second, third, or even a fourth time. (Remember, I’m a slow reader too.)

Reading is not the only task here either. Submissions must be logged. Writers will also likely appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt, and eventually expect a response, be it an acceptance or rejection. Some might want to know why they were rejected, request a critique, or otherwise desire to enter into a convivial correspondence. There is nothing wrong with this on an individual level, but you can see easily how it might turn into an administrative nightmare, especially for one person, especially if the anthology isn’t their sole focus. And that’s all before the publication process even begins.

Meanwhile the various anxieties of each individual writer will grow. And let’s face it—most will be disappointed. And then there’s always the risk of negative social media reaction, despite best intentions. (Note: Writers out there who have taken to the megaphone to publicly chastise editors and publishers—rightly or wrongly—I’ve read your tweets and posts and would not like to suffer your wrath. I wonder how many publishers keep writing opportunities private for this very reason?)

So that’s basically it. This post is more an admission of failure rather than a prescription for success. I just wanted to mull over in the open the issues I face as an editor and publisher. I’ve been thinking about this submissions issue for years, coaxing myself to perhaps fully throw the submissions doors open for some future project.

IMG_2365Were I to venture into the open submissions arena, what are some ways I might protect myself from an unmanageable deluge?

Some of you might be thinking: ask for help or find an intern. To that I would say: People need to be paid for their work. Anthologies incur the highest production costs of all Swan River projects, often times not capable of earning back the money or time invested. While I have no regrets, I still wouldn’t be able to pay someone to do this work for me.

Perhaps I could have a very short period in which to submit? Really, though, this merely limits the amount of time people have in which to click “send”. Ideally you’d want to give people notice, sufficient time to write something suitable for the anthology. The last thing you’d want is for people to send you any old thing they have on their hard drives just so they can feel they submitted something by the deadline. (Believe me, even though I am not open for submissions, people still send me book proposals completely inappropriate for Swan River. In fact, recently, someone pitched an anthology that pretty much described exactly the remit of Uncertainties. See “Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments” in which I advise prospective writers to research at least a little the venues to whom they’re submitting.)

Hopefully I’ve outlined above some of the challenges an editor faces, especially when that editor works for a small, independent publishing house. Or perhaps I’m just whinging? Still, I can’t help but to feel sometimes that there are more writers than there are readers.

If you’re a publisher or editor, how do you face the challenge of submissions? I’d love to hear from you, about your processes and concerns—how do you approach the deluge of submissions? Or do you err on the side of an invite only system?

(By the way, I am actually open to submissions for The Green Book!)

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #6—Deluge of Submissions

Thoughts on Small Press #5—Don’t Cut Corners

the old knowledgeMy involvements with small presses have so far been only as a customer, and I’ve yet to have a really bad experience in dealing with any of them—just the occasional delay in shipment, usually for production reasons. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or I just have good taste in small presses. 🙂

The most annoying issue I’ve had with some small presses (not SRP) is poor proofreading and typography. I’ve seen books where the text was obviously scanned and OCR’d but never proofread at all, with errors on nearly every page, sometimes making it difficult to be sure what the author actually wrote. I’ve seen books with such narrow margins that the text extended nearly into the gutter (which is particularly bad with paperbacks, since it requires putting stress on the spine to spread the pages far enough apart to read everything). SRP’s books, in contrast, are a pleasure to read: comfortable to hold, well designed, and proofread so well that in my entire shelf of SRP titles I think I have found only two or three typos.

The time-consuming labor of proofreading seems like it would be a huge burden for a one- or two-person small press. One question I have for you is, how would you characterize the time and attention you put into making your books as error-free as possible? Or does your typesetter friend Ken take on most of that work? – Craig Dickson


I apologise it’s taken me so long to get to your question, Craig, which is definitely a good one! Angie McKeown asked a related question:

Could you talk a little about this high-end finish as it relates to your planning and logistics (are there things that are different than if you were producing cheaper books for example), and how it has impacted on your up-front costs and if you pitch your brand differently because of it.

I’m going to take my usual meandering approach in my response. As with so many of these questions, the answer is intertwined with myriad other thoughts. But hopefully I’ll keep such crowding to a minimum and try to answer your questions as best I can.

I can’t remember now which book it was, but it was one of our earlier ones. It might have even been Rosalie Parker’s The Old Knowledge (2010), which was our first hardback. Anyway, I’d sent a review copy to a well-respected editor. They wrote me a nice response, generally complementing the book’s production values. But there was one element that they singled out for praise: running headers. For those who don’t know, the running headers appear at the tops of the pages and usually display the book title, story title, author’s name, or a combination of these things. Grab a book nearby and have a quick look to see if it has running headers. (See if you can find one without them—which do you prefer?)

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If you ask me, I think running headers in a book much improve the publication. Are they strictly necessary? Nope. Not in the slightest. You can read a book without running headers with no trouble at all. But do they make the book smart? Absolutely.

Let’s look at another example Craig brought up in his question: page margins. Have you ever seen a book that squashes as many lines onto the page as possible? You can delete the running header and gain a couple of lines. You could also expand the type area to the edges of the page and fit even more text in. Decrease the typeface and you can cram in still more text per page. Why do this? Well, for one, a book with fewer pages is cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to buy, right? But is the reading experience at all comfortable? Does it show the text the respect it deserves? Probably not. For me, margins frame the print area so that the text doesn’t overwhelm the eye. So while margins don’t have to be as wide as six-lane highways, just don’t skimp. It can look amateurish. (Sorry, but I think it’s true!)

Designing a book is a skill—one that not everyone who publishes books takes the time to cultivate or, sometimes, even consider. My own approach to publishing is this: don’t cut corners. So much work goes into these creating Swan River Press books. As a publisher, it’s part of my job to communicate to the author that I respect their words; and to readers that their time and experience are equally valuable. One doesn’t do that with the publishing equivalent of austerity measures. My goal is always to make the best book I can. Another way to put this, and to steer this answer more toward Angie’s question: in for a penny, in for a pound.

These days just about anyone can put text into a pdf and upload the file to a print-on-demand service provider. The effort required can be minimal. For some people that’s fine—so long as the words get out and into the world, the medium is of no concern. I’ve chosen to define Swan River a little differently. I want readers to feel that they’re getting something of quality, something that’s gone through a considered process in which deliberate design decisions have been made. I do this by investing money into production values. This includes things like sewn-binding, lithographic printing, and those lovely head- and tail-bands. My hope is when someone picks up a Swan River book, they will get a sense pretty quickly that it’s not a mass market production.

20200406_183818

There are other expenses too. As Craig mentioned, there’s also proofreading. And as Craig also hints, lack of proofreading is a common enough pitfall in the small press. Swan River is not a one-person operation. While I usually give all the texts a first-pass edit and proof, Jim Rockhill is our formal proofreader. Sometimes I’m embarrassed at what I miss when he returns a text to me, but that just makes me all the more grateful for his services and expertise. I’ve learned that a second set of eyes is crucial. A trained second set of eyes is indispensable—and will cost you. Oof, I know! But again, don’t cut corners. (Certainly the odd typo will sneak through—I spotted one the other day in The Green Book 13 that I hadn’t caught!! Let us never speak of it again.)

Similarly, Ken Mackenzie does all our typesetting—keeping those running headers in order and the margins pleasingly spacious; while Meggan Kehrli does all our design work, including choosing those head- and tail-bands. Ken is far better at typesetting than I ever will be. Meggan’s design sensibilities and training would run circles around my feeble attempts any day of the week. Of course it would be cheaper to do it myself, but, ladies and gentlemen, you do not want me designing book covers. A smart publisher will find good people to work with and pay them. It’s worth it in the long run. Trust me. Don’t cut corners.

75026090_10156236635282303_459789864083128320_oThis obviously has an impact on up-front costs, as Angie rightly points out. It’s definitely not easy, and one of my future posts will more directly address financing—a subject I’ve been dancing around since the start of this column. Finding readers and building a customer base is also extremely difficult. Suffice to say, I prefer long-term investment in quality as opposed to cheaper and faster. In fact, there are some titles in our catalogue that are losing money. Not because they don’t sell, but because I’ve decided to dump so much money into their production. Our recent sesquicentenary edition of Green Tea (2019) is an example of this. It’s illustrated, comes with a specially commissioned audio adaptation of the story, plus a bunch of postcards. I’ve no regrets about this at all—the book came out exactly as I wanted it to. Design is one of the things that sets Swan River Press apart from the others, and readers who do find their way to us appreciate that. Plus it’s also something of which I can be proud.

So I hope I’ve answered your questions, Craig and Angie. Thank you again for taking the time to ask, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to clarify. Naturally all of the above waffle is simply how I do things. It’s what has worked for me for the past decade or so. If you’re a publisher or self-publisher with a different approach or alternate goals, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

IMG_0003Finally, if you’re interested in Swan River Press’s design methods, have a look at this previous post in which I lay out how we put together Insect Literature (2015)—possibly one of my favourite books to work on.

If you liked this post, have a look at the rest of our Thoughts on Small Press series.

My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

Did you enjoy his post and want to support the press? Check our titles in print—you might find something interesting!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #5—Don’t Cut Corners

Our Numbered Editions

Numbered 1One of the things newcomers to Swan River Press might overlook are our numbered editions—and how they might go about getting one of them.

The first one-hundred copies of each new book is issued with an embossed stamp, hand-numbered by yours truly. Often the numbered edition comes with a similarly numbered postcard (or postcards; also usually signed by the author if that’s something I can manage, and also only while supplies last).

I believe the first book we did this for was Helen Grant’s The Sea Change & Other Stories (2013). By that point, I was casting around for ideas to make Swan River books just that much nicer for our readers, for them to be just a little more intimate and special.

20200405_143115I hasten to add that these numbered copies contain the same text as the “standard edition”—the sole difference is that I’ve gone at it with the embossing stamp and a bit of ink. Regardless of which edition you get, you’ll end up with the exact same text.

So the question is now, how do you get one of these numbered copies?

That’s easy! First thing you’ll want to do is join our mailing list. You’ll get notifications when we announce a new book. I simply allot the numbered copies on a first-come-first-serve basis, while supplies last. And I don’t charge any extra for them either—the pre-order price for numbered copies is the exact same price I would normally charge for an unnumbered copy. If I’ve run out of numbered copies by the time you order, I’ll simply send you an unnumbered copy.

20200405_143055However, if I have any remaining numbered copies after pre-order, when the book is actually in print, then I tend to increase the price for the remaining numbered copies by a fiver. Or something like that!

Do you want to collect a specific number? That’s no problem too. After you’ve ordered, just send me an email with the number you want. If it’s available, I’ll happily send that one to you, otherwise you’ll just get the next available in sequence. Keep in mind, many numbers, such as #1-15, are indefinitely claimed. But sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask and I’ll always do my best to get you the number you want.

As always, Swan River Press books in any edition are limited. In all cases, if there’s a book you want, I advise ordering it sooner rather than later, as second-hand prices on some of our books have become quite prohibitive for some.

I’ve a few numbered copies of various titles still knocking about the office at the moment—nothing extremely rare or much-sought after (just in case you’re hoping to dodge second-hand prices for books like Insect Literature or Earth-Bound). But if you’re interested in anything, do drop me a line.

 

Our Numbered Editions

Greetings from Plagueland

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Update 27 July 2020:

Hi Folks, another quick one here. I just wanted to let you know that, as of today, all the preorders of  B. Catling’s Munky are now in the post. Please allow for lengthier delivery times.

I’ll be working on contributor and dealer copies next, which will go out during the week.

Unfortunately I’m still not able to send books to Australia, Japan, or New Zealand, nor can I send packages over 2kg to the USA. As usual, you can keep an eye on postal service updates here. I’ll keep everything safe here and try to get everything into the post for you as soon as I’m permitted. I’ll make an update here when that happens.

A few of you have also noticed that the Swan River Press Twitter account is temporarily locked. Here’s what happened: I changed the “birth date” year to that of the press’s inception: 2003. Twitter automatically determined that I was under thirteen years of age when I started the account and was therefore in violation of their regulations. And so the account was locked. I submitted a scan of my ID, but that was over a week ago. In the meantime, I’ve made a new personal account, which you can follow if you’d like.

I’m getting ready to announce our next book. Just to tease you, it’s actually listed on a website (not Swan River’s), so maybe you’ll be able to find it? If not, be sure to join our mailing list to get the first announcement!

If you’ve any questions, feel free to contact me. As always, stay safe, look after yourselves, and your communities. – Brian


Update 17 July 2020:

It’s been over a month since the last update. I suppose there hasn’t been a huge amount to report. But I’ve got good news and bad news this time around. Let’s start with the bad news first.

Where posting is concerned, I’m still unable to send packages to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and any parcel over 2kg to the USA. There are also still some internal delivery delays in France. On the plus side, a few more countries have been added to the all-clear list (though admittedly nothing that affects any current orders). If you want to keep abreast of any updates, have a look at the An Post website. Keep in mind too that there may very well be some internal delays where you’re at. As always, if you have any questions, please contact me.

Next bit of bad news is the forthcoming postage increases in Ireland. A bit of background:

  • Last year, the Universal Postal Union agreed to allow the US to set terminal dues themselves. This met the Trump administration’s stated objective—to increase how much they charge other countries for delivery thus averting their threat to leave the global network established in 1874.
  • Additionally, as a result of Covid-19, there have been fewer air passenger flights and air freight is being used instead. This has led to a five-fold increase in conveyance costs.

As many of you are no doubt already painfully aware, these increases came into effect on 1 July 2020 in the United Kingdom, and has already affected a number of our colleagues. Postage prices to the USA have been increased by up to 100%. I’ve spoken with the Irish post office and am told that our rates in Ireland will remain steady until 2021, at which point we will very likely see similar such increases.

I’m not sure how I’ll be addressing these increases yet, but I’m keeping in touch with our small press friends in the UK and elsewhere in hopes of finding the best solution to a miserable situation. To say that it is of major concern in our community is an understatement. I suspect I speak for us all when I say that your continued support of small press is extremely appreciated now more than ever. Needless to say, if you’ve been eyeballing any of our books and don’t want to get caught paying more, place your orders before the end of the year!

If you’d like to read more about Donald Trump’s temper tantrums levelled against the United States Postal Services, there’s a good article in the Washington Post. As a native Wisconsinite and a firm believer in public and democratic institutions, I know how I’ll be voting in the forthcoming US elections. Need a hint?

Signing Sheet-MunkyOnward to the good news! So I’m expecting B. Catling’s Munky back from the printer on 21 July. I’ll be getting copies in the post in the days following. I’m happy to share another piece of good news that I’d been planning, but needed to be certain of before announcing: if you’ve pre-ordered Munky, you’ll be delighted to know that it will be signed by both Brian Catling and Dave McKean (who did the cover art). I didn’t announce this earlier because I wanted to make sure the signing sheets made it back to the printer without any issues. And would you believe FedEx had actually lost the package for a period of two weeks? But we got there in the end!

You might also be interested in reading an excellent recent interview with Brian Catling conducted by Timothy J. Jarvis. And of course if you want to pre-order Munky, there’s still time!

We’re already hard at work on the next Swan River volume. It’s a novel. It’s by an Irish author. It’s one of my favourites. I gave a first edition copy of the novel in question to Joyce Carol Oates when she was here in 2018. She said this about it: “I was much moved by the gently satirical, touching novel . . . a vivid portrait of an entire society. The ending is particularly unexpected—[with] quietly devastating prose.” Intrigued? Stay tuned!

Okay, folks. That’s it for now. As usual, please keep in touch if there’s anything you need. I’m on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and there’s the mailing list too. Until next time, please look after yourselves and each other.


Update 12 June 2020:

Another short update here, folks. First, I hope you’re all keeping well. Things in Dublin are easing up a bit, but there’s still the air of caution. At least around most.

So I’ve had reports of deliveries of Lucifer and the Child and The Green Books 14 & 15 in North America and further afield. There are still a few outlier and seemingly delayed packages, so hang in there and if you’re feeling anxious about delivery, drop me a line.

I’m still unable to send packages to Australia, New Zealand, and to America over 2kg. I’ve a small pile of orders (though not many) still waiting to be sent. As always, I’m keeping an eye on the postal services for the next available opportunity to get these out to you. Thank you for your patience.

hires_munky1In bigger news, I announced through the newsletter today our next book: Munky by B. Catling, for which I’m now taking pre-orders. It’s particularly exciting because Dave McKean agreed to do a cover for us–and knocked it out of the park! This is such a fun book and I’m eager to share it, as always. I’m currently looking at the very tail end of July for the print date for this one. Any updates I’ll post here and on social media.

Again, if you have any questions about anything Swan River related, please drop me a line. Until then, take care and look after each other. – Brian


Update 4 June 2020:

Hi Folks. I hope you’re all continuing to keep well. Here’s a brief update.

Issues 14 and 15 of The Green Book arrived last Tuesday (2 June 2020). I’ve been working during every available moment to get them packed up and ready for the post. I’m hoping to have everything posted by Friday.

I’ve received a few emails recently concerning delivery of Lucifer and the Child. Just to say, a large majority of the copies went out on 25 May. People in the UK are only just receiving theirs these past couple of days. If you haven’t received yours just yet, hang in there. It is on the way. In addition to my own delays in getting copies shipped (see below), there are still postal delays, so please take that into account as well.

Speaking of postal delays, the only items I still have here waiting to be shipped are packages to New Zealand, Australia, and those to the USA that are over 2kg (most of which are for dealers). I’ll continue to keep an eye on things and get these stragglers in the post as soon as I can. Until then, I’ll keep them safe here. More details regarding posting can be found here.

We’re getting ready to announce our next title as well. It’s one I’m very excited about as it’s got a fine team. The story (it’s a novella) is fun, the artwork is out of this world. If you want to be the first to know, make sure you’re on our mailing list.

Apart from that, if you have any questions, please drop me a line. In the meantime, stay safe and take care of each other.

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Update 26 May 2020:

Hello, Everyone. A quick post here to say that the remaining pre-orders of Lucifer and the Child went into the post yesterday. This included packages bound for Canada, United Kingdom, and Europe.

I apologise again for the delay, which was down to a slow restock of cardboard mailers, plus limited trips to the post office. Still, we got there in the end!

I’ve a few unsent items here at the moment: parcels bound for New Zealand, Australia, Greece, and packages over 2kg for our dealers in the US. I’ll keep an eye on regulations and endeavour to get these out to you as soon as is permitted.

In the meantime, I’m expecting delivery of The Green Book 14 and The Green Book 15 this Friday. Shipping of these should go much faster now that I’m well-stocked with mailers.

I hope everyone is still doing well. If you’ve any questions about books or orders, please by all means drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer. Until then, please continue to look after yourself and those vulnerable in your communities.


Update 21 May 2020:

Greetings Folks. I hope everyone is doing well. I just wanted to give you a couple brief updates.

First, I received today more cardboard mailers, which means I’ll be able to resume shipping more copies of Lucifer and the Child. Apologies again for the delay. Keep in mind that there will still likely be some delays in deliver as post seems to be running just a bit slower than usual these days.

Most of you will also have seen by now our recent newsletter announcing two news issues of The Green Book (Issues 14 and 15), both of which you can pre-order. Issue 14 is actually from Autumn 2019–a little late! The new issues are scheduled to arrive here in Dublin on Friday, 29 May. I’ll get them into the post shortly thereafter. Plenty of cardboard mailers now!

P.S. Anyone who orders the new issues of The Green Book will get a little surprise in with the books!

Very little has changed at the post office. Although I am now able to send again packages to Canada and Norway. (Greece, Australia, New Zealand, and packages to the US over 2kg are still relaxing downstairs).

If you’ve any questions, again, please do not hesitate to contact me. Stay safe and look after each other! – Brian


Update 11 May 2020:

Hi Folks, another quick update here. I got a batch of copies of Lucifer and the Child to the post office today. Most of them destined for the USA.

I’m waiting on more cardboard mailers (lighter than a stash I have on hand) before I can send more. The estimate I got today is that more mailers will be delivered in a week and a half from today.

Until then, I will continue to tip toe around the teetering piles of books on the office floor.

Orders for books other than Lucifer and the Child will continue to go out. I’ll be making another trip to the post office this coming Friday. Thank you again for all the orders. I’ll continue to get things dispatched as quickly as possible.

Drop me a line if you have an questions! -Brian


Update 8 May 2020:

Hi Folks, I hope you’re all keeping well–or at least enjoying the good weather sensibly. I’m writing to update everyone on where I’m at with shipping Lucifer and the Child.

The book tips the scales at the post office (it’s quite a jump in price too), so I’d been waiting on new cardboard wraps to see if I can bring the weight down by those few necessary grams.

As it turns out, getting cardboard wraps isn’t the easiest task these days. It took me three weeks to get a pack of twenty-five delivered. I think they’ll do, but I now need to order another few hundred. No telling how long it will take to get those.

I did manage to ship all pre-orders of Lucifer and the Child within Ireland, plus a few that were going as part of packages abroad. So if you see other people receiving theirs, but you haven’t, please do not worry. Suffice to say, I’m still filling orders as best and as quickly and safely as I can as resources allow. Please feel free to order other titles as well–I’m still making sure all other orders are getting out much faster.

I’ve had a look at An Post’s list of countries with suspended postal service. Among them are some countries we frequently send books to: Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia. Of course you can still place orders. We’ll just keep them safely here until they can be posted.  More information here.

So that’s about it! As always, let me know if you have any questions. If you’re not on our mailing list, you might want to sign up. You can keep in touch on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We’ve also posted the contents for the two forthcoming issues of The Green Book, although I don’t have just yet a delivery date.

Thank you again for your support and understanding. As always, stay home, look after yourselves and look after each other. – Brian


Update 30 April 2020:

Hi folks, I hope everyone is still keeping well and occupied. I’ve got a short update here.

I’m happy to say that Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin arrived a couple days ago. Today is the official publication day–Walpurgisnacht, which I think is apt, don’t you? It turned out beautifully as well, I’m really proud of this one and eager to get copies to you all.

So here’s where we stand with postage: I’m still getting things out as best and as quickly as I can while keeping within the social distancing guidelines. The postal limitations from the 7 April update (see below) are still in effect, so if you’ve ordered something and I can’t send it, I’ll hold onto it here until we get the all clear. If you’ve any questions, please let me know.

In the meantime, I’m going to be working through processing the order. It might take a bit longer for a few reason: the first is I’m running low on cardboard mailers. I’ve some on order, but as you can imagine, they’re in shorter supply than usual. I’ll prioritise as best I can though.

Also, it usually takes me around six to eight trips to the post office to get our pre-orders for a new book (I don’t own a car, so have to carry everything). At the moment I’m limiting myself to one trip to the post office per week. I’ll have to think through how best to do this. Many orders can be put into the pillar boxes (I’ve a supply of stamps here), but orders to the United States must be taken to the post office for further processing–the US government imposed new customs restrictions earlier this year that have proven quite onerous on yours truly.

In any case, if you’ve any questions, drop me a line as usual. In the meantime, I’ll just work through the orders as efficiently as I can. Oh, and some of you have discovered I’ve quietly announced the two new issues of The Green Book. Though I don’t have publication dates for either of them just yet. Join the mailing list if you haven’t already.

Thank you again for your support and understanding. As always, stay home, look after yourselves and look after each other. – Brian

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Update 7 April 2020:

Hi folks, I hope you’re all keeping well  and in good health. Another brief update here.

I made a trip to the post office today to get a few things out, buy more stamps, and, most importantly, to do some grocery shopping. I hadn’t left the house in over a week, so the cupboards were quite bare!

In any case, if you’ve ordered anything from me lately, it’s in the post. Delivery times are usually around a week, but do expect delays.

There are three packages I was not able to send: I’ve been in touch with ye already, you know who you are. I’ll keep the books safe here until we get the all clear.

I’ve had a look at An Post’s list of countries with suspended postal service. Among them are some countries we frequently send books to: Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia. Of course you can still place orders. We’ll just keep them safely here until they can be posted.  More information here.

I was also informed today at the post office that, for the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to send any packages over 2kg. In practical terms, that’s up to three books. If you want to order more, depending on amount, I can look into splitting the order. Just drop me a line. Any other guidance on post going to European/North American destinations can be found here, suffice to say the 2kg limit is currently the main one.

That’s it for now. If you’ve any questions at all concerning books or delivery, please contact me. And if you’d like, you can always subscribe to the mailing list. Or just fire away and order a book! As always, thank you to everyone for your support and patience through this. Stay safe! – Brian


Update 5 April 2020:

I hope everyone is still faring well and in good health. This is an update simply by way of checking in rather than having any news. But all going well here. Thank you for all the orders–I’ve been getting them in the post as I can. If you’d like to order something, but are unsure about one thing or another, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

I’m still hoping Lucifer and the Child will remain on schedule, but we’ll see. I’ve also been keeping busy by working on The Green Book 14, which was meant to be out in Autumn 2019. You never want to rush a good thing though, right? I’m also simultaneously working on The Green Book 15, which is the Spring 2020 issue. The plan at the moment is to have those ready to ship along with Lucifer and the Child.

If you’re not already on our mailing list, do consider joining. Fastest and easiest way to keep abreast anything new. Until next time, keep in touch!


Update 29 March 2020

A bit of good news! So it turns out I will be able to continue with some shipping during lock down. An Post have confirmed that they will still be making daily collections from pillar boxes–and as I have a pile of stamps here, I will still be able to post single book orders (because that’s all that will fit through the pillar box slot). If you want to order two books, they will ship as separate packages. There are numerous pillar boxes close by, and an isolated fella needs to stretch his legs at some point.

Although I am happy to take orders from anywhere in the world, I will still not be able to post to any country on the suspended postal services list issued by An Post. I will also not be able to post anything to the United States as all packets to that country need special customs forms that must be completed at the post office before posting. Keep in mind that delivery will ultimately always be contingent on your local service.

However, as I said, I am happy to continue taking orders from anywhere in the world–very gratefully so–and anything that cannot be shipped immediately will be kept safely here in the office.

If any one has any questions or concerns, please drop me a line. Until then, thank you again for your understanding and support. Keep well! -Brian


Update 27 March 2020

The Taoiseach has just announced a lock down for all of Ireland to last until 12 April 2020. This means I will be unable to go to the post office until then. I’m happy to take orders still, and will pack them and keep them safe, but will have to see when I can next get out to post them.

We will have to see where we are at with our forthcoming book, Lucifer and the Child, in two weeks.

Thank you for your understanding. Your continued support is appreciated. Look after yourselves! – Brian


Update 26 March 2020

Hi everyone.

I hope you are all keeping well, being sensible, and looking after both yourselves and your community.

All is well here at Swan River Press, or at well as can be expected. I am currently working from home (during the day now as well as weekends and evenings).

Everything here is continuing apace: we’re working on new publications and shipments are still being dispatched to those in need of reading material. Your support is appreciated now more than ever!

So just a few comments: the first is to say that I’ve taken the precaution of reducing my visits to the post office to twice per week, Tuesday and Fridays. I’ll reassess this if anything changes, but until then I’m happy to serve.

The Irish post office has advised that there are some countries with suspended postal services. For the time being, the United States and United Kingdom would seem unaffected. Do, of course, expect some delays, and be sure to thank your mail carrier should you see them!

Swan River Press 2020Our next book, Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, has just gone to print. There are no expected delays, and my printer ensures me that both they and their partners  have taken necessary precautions in order to continue work.

At the moment we’re expecting delivery of Lucifer and the Child to be towards the end of April; I’ll get them into the post for you as soon as I can after that. Of course, should anything change, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line.

Until then, do look after yourselves and let me know if there’s anything else you need.

Kind regards,

Brian

Greetings from Plagueland

Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child

Swan River Press 2020This is the story of Jenny Flower, London slum child, who one day, on an outing to the country, meets a Dark Stranger with horns on his head. It is the first day of August — Lammas — a witches’ sabbath. Jenny was born on Hallowe’en, and possibly descended from witches herself . . .

Once banned in Ireland by the Censorship of Publications Board, Lucifer and the Child is now available worldwide in this splendid new edition from Swan River Press featuring an introduction by Rosanne Rabinowitz and cover by Lorena Carrington.


Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) was a best-selling author who had written more than one hundred books but is virtually unknown today. Her output included fiction, journalism, short stories, travelogues, autobiography, and political analysis. All of her books have been out of print for decades — until now.

Born into a working-class family in South London, Mannin was a lifelong socialist, feminist, and anti-fascist. In the 1930s she organised alongside the Russian-born American anarchist Emma Goldman in support of the Spanish anarchosyndicalist forces and their struggle against Franco. Later, she agitated for the Indian independence movement along with her husband Reg Reginald. She was an advocate for African liberation movements and one of the few, even on the post-war left, who stood up for the rights of Palestinians. Iraqi critic and educator Ahmed Al-Rawi has described her as a post-colonial writer, which was unusual among British authors of the time.

In her lifetime Mannin was also known for her famous lovers, including Bertrand Russell and W. B. Yeats. In fact, it was the Yeats connection that had me trawling internet archives and second-hand bookshops while researching my tale “The Shiftings” — a ghost story exploring her relationship with the poet — for Swan River Press’s anthology The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats (2019). But I first discovered Ethel Mannin years ago, when I was a teenaged history obsessive with a special interest in labour and radical history. The figure of Mannin’s comrade “Red” Emma Goldman, described by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as the “most dangerous woman in America”, held a powerful fascination for me. In the course of my reading I came across a vivid description of Goldman giving a speech, which was an extract from Mannin’s historical novel Red Rose (1941). This brought me to my local library looking for Mannin’s work.

Ethel Mannin
Ethel Mannin (1930) by Paul Tanqueray

While I couldn’t find Red Rose or anything about Mannin’s political activities, I did discover old editions of Venetian Blinds (1933) and Lucifer and the Child, which was first published in 1945. Venetian Blinds is a realist novel about the price paid for upward mobility, starting with the excitement of market day on Battersea’s Lavender Hill and ending with loneliness in the suburbs. It reminded me of early George Orwell novels such as A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which were also about crossing class lines — albeit in the opposite direction.

After the relatively straightforward social narrative of Venetian Blinds, the ambiguous supernaturalism of Lucifer and the Child was a surprise. It is a story of witchcraft — or is it? I already had an interest in supernatural fiction but did not expect to find it in this context. Set mainly in the crowded streets of 1930s East London, the story begins when young Jenny Flower strays from a school outing in the countryside where she encounters a Dark Stranger. He could be Lucifer, or he could simply be a very imaginative and charismatic sailor.

In a passage reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894) Mannin portrays the wonder and absolute awe of a city child encountering the forest for the first time: “Sometimes there were breaks in the bird-song and then everything was very still, as though every leaf of all the millions was holding its breath and waiting, and you also waited and listened and heard your own heart beating.”

While observing a dragon-fly Jenny discovers that she is not alone. A Dark Stranger has also been watching; he steadies her as she reels in surprise at its take-off. All adults had been the enemy to her but this one is “the bringer of new things”. For the first time, she sees a life beyond her council estate, her school, and a family that does not know what to make of her. A new world opens up, one where she potentially wields power. Jenny is ushered into the “Goetic life”, a process that evokes another noted work by Machen: “The White People” (1904) in which a curious girl is initiated by her nurse into dark ceremonies and the “most secret secrets” of the countryside.

1945-09-02 Observer AdSimilarly, the Dark Stranger introduces Jenny to fairy rings in the grass and tells her how the Little People made them by dancing in the moonlight. He shows her a big yellow toad under a boulder. He reveals deadly nightshade, witches’ bane, hemlock, poisonous mushrooms. He spins her tales of tree-witches and wood-spirits, nymphs and dryads, fauns and satyrs. She also comes to learn that she might be descended from two sisters burned at the stake many centuries ago.

Jenny is a solitary child who joins in the noisy games of the other children but does not have any true friends among them. She would rather spend time with Old Mother Beadle in Ropewalk Alley. Regarded as a witch by the local children, Mrs. Beadle supplements her pension by telling fortunes and selling concoctions of herbs to induce abortions. And in this capacity, she also guides Jenny into a world of magic.

Meanwhile, Jenny’s family views Mrs. Beadle as a bad influence. So too does Marian Drew, a teacher who takes an interest in her pupil and aims to “save” her from a descent into the irrational and ultimately evil “Goetic life”. Though Marian is a vicar’s daughter she’s not entirely straitlaced. She holds progressive notions of educational freedom and creativity, perhaps reflective of Mannin’s interest in the Summerhill school of A. S. Neil, who advocated a libertarian education system in contrast to the more rigid teaching of the time.

Marian and the Dark Stranger form a relationship characterised by sharp physical attraction and equally intense debate. He asks Marian: “Do you really know where reality ends and fantasy begins? Are you quite sure that the images of your mind have no reality?” Indeed, themes regarding the transcendent and the commonplace run throughout the novel, and at one point he says to Marian: “Another drink and you may begin to understand that the supernatural is merely the natural plus.”

Lucifer and the Child is the only full-length work of speculative fiction from Mannin, who usually described herself as an atheist and rationalist. However, she was also a journalist, a seeker of curiosities and always keen to investigate. In one of her many volumes of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939), Mannin recollects a visit to a swami that Yeats admired. “For my part I was willing to try at least once my vibrations on a higher plane.” She gives a scathing account of her meeting with a well-fed, well-dressed individual expounding on the virtues of poverty. She had little time for mysticism or the pomp that often surrounded it.

Jarrolds 1946
First Edition, Jarrolds (1946)

Yet a powerful charge of the numinous and strange runs through Lucifer and the Child, despite its realism — or possibly because of it. Like Machen, Mannin also takes inspiration from London itself as well as the natural world. “Its interminable greyness and its high dockyard walls can make it as oppressive as a prison, but it has its moments — the occasional crumbling grace of a Georgian doorway, the sudden impression of a ship crossing the road as it moves into a basin, the unexpectedness of a lamp bracket jutting from a wall, of a capstan marooned in an alleyway, of funnels thrusting up at the ends of streets, and always the smell of the river with its faint, fugitive hint of the sea.”

Within this evocative cityscape we find a toad that is “strange and unknowable, like the moon” and step into Mrs. Beadle’s house: “Ordinariness stopped outside. The dilapidated door opened on to a new world. The world to which she belonged.” And in one of his arguments with Marian, the Dark Stranger suggests how the “spirit of the past” haunts people and places; a kind of spiritualism without the supernatural that would now strike a chord with modern psychogeographers.

The novel even touches on cosmic horror: “Enchantment was for her the deep forest through which she moved with deadly nightshade in her hand and an adder at her foot; it was her head upon the shoulder of the Dark Stranger, and starless night and the hunting cry of the owl; it was earth-light on the moon and no shade from the sun, and no living thing in the desolate volcanic wastes, and loneliness unutterable, the loneliness of space and dead worlds and infinity.”

Arrow Books 1964a
Arrow paperback (1964)

Meanwhile, a dry humour underlies much of the narrative. For example, Marian’s thoughts about two do-gooding colleagues: “She reached the point at which she felt that if either of them referred once more to ‘the paw’, when speaking of the working classes, she would scream . . . ” I also chuckled when reading about the pious antics of local “cadets” joined by Jenny’s brother Les, who dedicates himself to marching and playing trumpet with them. “At the hall the cadets learned ‘First Aid’ and ‘Signalling’; they also did ‘physical jerks’, and took turns on the parallel bars and the ropes. Before they left, Mr. Wilson, their group-captain, a pale young man who was the Sunday-school superintendent, gave them a little talk on manliness and uprightness, clean thoughts and tongues, and the avoidance of something vaguely referred to as ‘bad habits’, and then they marched home again.” Such light-hearted observations grow darker as in the story’s background fascism continues to rise and conflict engulfs the world in the “sinister year 1936, with the dress-rehearsal for the coming world-war taking place in Spain”.

Mannin had been active in groups such as Workers Relief for the Victims of German Fascism and the Spanish Medical Aid Society. Looking back from the mid-1940s — she finished writing Lucifer and the Child in 1944 — 1936 indeed must have seemed an ominous turning point. And though the novel is rooted in the everyday lives of its characters, Mannin shows us that world events are never far away. She makes this connection explicit when Marian tells the cadet captain that she disapproves of “encouraging militarism” and boys “playing at soldiers” instead of creatively expressing themselves as individuals. Marian warns: “It’s only a few steps further on in this direction before they’re wearing jackboots — actually and spiritually!”

Priviledged Spectator 1938b
Privileged Spectator frontispiece (1938) by Paul Tanqueray

Mannin was a contradictory woman shaped by contradictory times, a prolific writer who produced an odd and imaginative book so unlike her others. Lucifer and the Child remains a rich portrayal of inter-war London and an engaging story of a girl who sought to escape it through myth and magic. And at the end of the book, the reader is left with another question: is the Dark Stranger really so “dark” after all? Or is he instead the “bringer of light”, a source of new things and knowledge in a world beset by evil far greater than any mischief wrought by a mythological fellow with horns? In effect, Lucifer and the Child is a story about the desire for a different life than the one we’re allotted and the extraordinary measures some may take to move beyond it.

“There is never any name for the impact of strangeness on the commonplace, that je ne sais quoi that ripples the surface of everydayness and sets up unaccountable disturbances in the imagination and the blood,” Mannin writes. With this sensibility Lucifer and the Child will at last be recognised as a classic of strange fiction and a work to be enjoyed by contemporary lovers of the genre.

Rosanne Rabinowitz
March 2020

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Rosanne Rabinowitz lives in South London, an area that Arthur Machen once described as “shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words”. In this most unshapen place she engages in a variety of occupations including care work and freelance editing. Her novella Helen’s Story was shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award and her first collection of short fiction, Resonance & Revolt, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2018. She spends a lot of time drinking coffee — sometimes whisky — and listening to loud music while looking out of her tenth-floor window. rosannerabinowitz.wordpress.com

Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child