Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

IMG_1828I’ve long been a fan of checklists, indicies, bibliographies, literary guides, and genre studies. From Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature to E.F. Bleiler’s Guide to Supernatural Fiction, and many more besides. One can spend hours immersed in these books, discovering new avenues for exploration and making mental notes on obscure titles to look out for. My shelves groan with these sorts of volumes, and despite severe bowing in some places, I don’t regret it one bit.

Those of you who regularly peek at this blog might also recall the poster I designed with Jason Zerrillo a couple of years back featuring “Irish Writers of the Fantastic”. It was a reaction to the all-male “Irish Writers” poster and the subsequent all-female response. The goal of the exercise was to promote genre writers from Ireland. Naturally with posters there are some restrictions, and for one reason or another we couldn’t include everyone we would have liked without turning a simple poster into a city block-length mural.

finalWell, I decided to do something about that. For the past few months I’ve been in the early stages of assembling an “Encyclopaedia of Irish Writers of Fantastic Literature”. Loosely inspired by E.F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers and Jack Sullivan’s Penguin Encyclopedia to Horror and Supernatural, my first step was to compile a list of authors who I felt in some way contributed to Irish fantastic fiction. This list includes obvious writers such as Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bowen, but also writers who are less well known, or whose contributions might not have had such a detectable effect on their peers.

Naturally any such list will be highly idiosyncratic. I have chosen to focus primarily on fiction. Generally I’ve erred on the side of inclusion (if only because someone once told me that the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon “wasn’t really Irish, now was he?”). On the whole I have shied away from oral tradition, mythology, and folklore. No doubt these modes have had a profound impact on Irish literature, but to include them would make scope of the project unwieldy.  I am also keeping away from Irish science-fiction, not only due to my lack of knowledge on the subject, but because Ireland’s contribution to that genre could easily fill a book on its own. That said, do expect occasional overlaps.

While I have contributors for most of the entries on my list, there are a handful of yet unclaimed authors who need to be written about. This is where you come in. If you’re interested in and have the ability to write such an article, I would love to hear from you. I’ve currently got a list of 75 writers, with a growing roster of contributors that currently numbers around 25.

Enquiries are welcome. gothicdublin[at]gmail[dot]com

I do appreciate enthusiasm, but when writing please tell me a bit about your background qualifications and interest. I’ll be glad to tell you more about the project and which entries are available. Generally speaking, the deadline for articles is 1 December 2017 and the article length should be around 2,000 words depending on the author. There is payment involved.

If you have any suggestions for authors to include, I would be happy to hear them, along with rationale as to why they should be included. And if you’re interested in writing about your suggestion, all the better! I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Finally, anyone with an interest in Irish genre fiction might like to know that Swan River Press publishes a twice-yearly journal called The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. You might find something of interest!

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Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

Dictionary of Religion

“Ce qu’on aime le mieux dans Yeats, ce sont ses vers. Mais le chef-d’œuvre d’A.E., qui est un grand artiste, c’est encore lui-même.” – Simone Téry

The poet, painter, political philosopher, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935)—better known as “A.E.”—was no stranger to divine visions and secret wisdom. Often he oracled out of his shadow these revelations to friends and fellow writers: how he bore witness to a “dazzling processions of figures, most ancient, ancient places and peoples, and landscapes lovely as the lost Eden”; or how in his youth the “rock and clay were made transparent so that I saw lovelier and lordlier beings than I had known before and was made partner in memory of mighty things, happenings in ages long sunken behind me”. Even Russell’s pen-name—“A.E.”, an esoteric sigil imbued with cosmic mystery as much as it is a nom de plume—came to him in a moment of transcendental significance.

In his Memoir of A.E. (1937), John Eglinton—pen-name of William Kirkpatrick Magee, who worked for the National Library of Ireland from 1904-1921—recounts the origin of A.E.’s pseudonym:

He began to paint his visions, and had been attempting an ambitious series of pictures on the history of man, in one of which he “tried to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man”, when, as he lay awake considering what legend he should write under the picture, something whispered to him “call it the Birth of Aeon”. Next day the entire myth “incarnated in me as I walked along the roads near Armagh”.

George_William_Russell_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19028A.E. continues his story of self-genesis in his chapter on “Imagination” in The Candle of Vision (1918), describing the effects of this epiphany:

The word “Aeon” thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me.

That day an awareness embedded itself in the fervent mind of the adolescent. Not long after, Russell experienced another event that would transform the young man from Lurgan into Ireland’s visionary poet of the Celtic Revival:

I returned to Dublin after a fortnight and it was a day or two after that I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal. I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume. There was a book lying open there. My eye rested on it. It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye cause was “Aeon” and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings. I trembled through my body.

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Unfortunately neither Eglinton’s account, nor A.E.’s are given dates. However, that Russell initially requested an art journal is not surprising. From October 1883 until the summer of 1885, he was enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in Kildare Street; and from 1885 until 1887, he attended evening sessions affiliated to the Royal Hibernian Academy. The building that housed the Metropolitan School of Art, now non-extant, at the time stood across the road from the library. The National Library of Ireland currently (and appropriately) houses a substantial archive of A.E.’s manuscripts, letters, and artworks—all accessible to the public. Go see A.E.’s papers if you have the opportunity.

At the time of A.E.’s now mythic revelation, the National Library was located in Leinster House, presently occupied by the Houses of the Oireachtas. In September 1890, the collection was relocated to the north wing of Leinster House, an extension added to the central structure in the late-nineteenth century, where it remains to this day. This is where I found myself one afternoon doing research for Swan River Press’s anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems.

While the old catalogue remains available—tall, tattered books with pleasantly loose hinges lining the shelves just inside the reading room—the modern catalogue can be accessed online or via the computer terminals adjacent their analogue ancestors. That afternoon I had a revelation of my own. It seemed a reasonable assumption that not only would A.E.’s “dictionary of religion” still be in the library’s collection, but I should also be able to call it up from the stacks.

I conducted a search for book titles containing the words “dictionary of religion” published between the years 1780 and 1890. Among the results I found two possibilities.

The first was A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion (Trübner, 1879) by John Dowson. Given A.E.’s life-long reverence for the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Theosophy, and the eastern religions, this book seemed a sound likelihood, and so I put in a request to see it. There is, however, no entry for “Æon” to be found in this volume.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The other option was the aptly titled Dictionary of Religion (Cassell, 1887) edited by the Rev. William Benham, B.D., F.S.A., Canon of Canterbury; and Rev. J.H. Blunt (the latter editor indicated only in the preface and by an emendation lightly pencilled in on the title page). This book is described in the library’s catalogue as “An Encyclopaedia of Christian and other Religious Doctrines, Denominations, Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Terms, History, Biography, etc. etc.” I scribbled the call number (203 b1) onto the slip and waited for the book to arrive. I took a desk in the reading room and switched on the green-shaded Emeralite lamp.

What the porter brought out was a thick octavo, cleanly bound in black leather with gold lettering on the spine. I thumbed through the leaves until I reached page sixteen. The first bolded-black word that my eye rested on was at the very top of the page. I trembled through my body:

Æon.—An “eternal being”; the name given to the “emanations” from the Supreme Being in the Gnostic system.

Could this be not only the book that Russell chanced upon, but even the actual copy? The entry for “Æon” was there, the definition similar to what he later recalled, and it was published in the late-1880s while Russell was still an art student—this all seemed to fit my theory. But what other information could I find?

The National Library’s copy of The Dictionary of Religion bears three purple stamps, two of which are topped by a royal crown. The first bears the date “26 AUG 87”, an accession stamp indicating the library acquired the volume on 26 August 1887. The preface by Benham is dated March 1887, and so the book was probably published during late spring or early summer of that year.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The second stamp, also under a crown, reads “BOUND 22 APR 92”; while in the downward horseshoe design of the third stamp is printed “BOUND 25 JUN. 1900”. A duty librarian confirmed that these latter two stamps indicate the book was twice rebound.

I left the library that afternoon pleased that I had found and held in my hands a unique volume, one that rested inconspicuously in the stacks of the National Library for well over a century. A book which I hoped might be removed from the general collection and re-catalogued with the A.E. manuscripts in special collections. A book that seemed to me most definitely a literary relic. Alas, this elation would last only until I got home to my own library, and from these otherwise faithful volumes a single uncertainty emerged . . .

A.E.’s own recollection in The Candle of Vision wasn’t published until 1918, but that evening I found a reference to a more contemporary account of the burgeoning artist’s chance discovery in a letter to fellow esoteric explorer Carrie Rea:

I was thinking of what would be the sound for the most primeval thought I could think and the word “aön” passed into my head. I was afterwards surprised at finding out that the Gnostics of the Christian Era called the first created being “Æons” and that the Indian word for the commencement of all things is Aom.

This extract is from a letter dated December 1886, and appears as a footnote on page fourteen in Henry Summerfield’s highly-recommended biography of A.E., That Myriad Minded Man (1975). If the date on this letter is correct, then it predates the publication of Benham’s Dictionary of Religion by some five or six months. Although A.E. does not mention a “dictionary of religion” in this extract, or even the arcane happenstance in the National Library, he does imply that he was already familiar with the definition of the word “Æon”.

wby017What to make of this?

My wholly unsubstantiated intuition tells me that A.E. did in fact consult Benham’s Dictionary of Religion, and that later recollections were an intentional conflation of events for the purpose of self-mythologising—something of which his kindred soul W.B. Yeats was also guilty. It is also perhaps significant that A.E. became acquainted with Yeats in mid-1884 while attending the Metropolitan School of Art. The two became deeply imbued with esoteric thinking—cf. Summerfield, “The two young men would discuss such subjects as the nature of the cosmic sounds that stimulated the growth of mushrooms.” Such an embellishment of one’s own origin of character, as detailed by A.E., must have seemed natural and indeed even appealing.

But as evidenced in the letter to Rea, A.E. must have come across the word “Æon” much earlier than he would lead us to believe thirty years later in The Candle of Vision. His happening upon Benham’s Dictionary of Religion in the National Library, while still possibly by chance, might nevertheless have led to an intentional, if idle, looking-up of “Æon” while waiting for that art journal.

I hasten to add, if I am correct, that this does not dismiss in any way the epiphany or inspired choice to focus on “Æon” as his true name. After all, Æon seems to have been embedded in his psyche much earlier, and should not diminish A.E.’s National Library experience in any way.

So perhaps the recounting in The Candle of Vision was a conscious attempt at streamlining or telescoping a personal mythology? I have not yet been able to locate the original manuscript of the Rea letter—but I wouldn’t mind verifying the date and reading the rest of it just to be sure.

Curiously this letter to Rea is not included in Letters from A.E. (1961) edited by the meticulous scholar Alan Denson. The earliest missive collected in Denson’s book signed as “AE” (instead of “Geo. W. Russell”) was written to Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which A.E. later formally joined. Though dated 6 November 1888, it appeared in the December 1888 issue of Lucifer, the society’s monthly journal edited by Blavatsky, and is generally considered the first time Russell used his new identity in print.

A second letter to Blavatsky signed “A.E.”, apparently written in December 1888, appeared in the January 1889 issue. But Summerfield notes that it wasn’t until February 1893, following his admission to the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section, that Russell started using his pen-name regularly, perhaps then recognising fully the power and significance of his two chosen letters.

Although Russell initially preferred the diphthong—“Æ”—typesetters persistently divided the letters—“A.E.” Ultimately Russell accepted this easier transcription. He both signed himself with the letters separated, and published the majority of his books using the latter rendering.

Russell’s first volume of poetry, Homeward, Songs by the Way, appeared in 1894 under the name A.E. So too did his second collection of verse, The Earth Breath (1897), his social commentary The Dublin Strike (1913), his political volume The National Being (1916), and so on. A.E. continued to use this sacred identity, his “true face”, not only to sign his poetry, but also his paintings, books, political pamphlets, letters to newspaper editors and friends alike, etc. etc. Whatever may or may not have occurred in the National Library in the 1880s, one thing is for certain: George William Russell had become A.E.

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By 1925, the prescient French journalist Simone Téry observed:

Have you doubts regarding Providence, the origin of the universe and its end? Go see A.E.—Are you seeking information on Gaelic literature, the Celtic soul, Irish history? Go see A.E.—Are you interested in painting? Go see A.E.—Do you want to know the exports of eggs . . . or how best to cultivate bees? Go see A.E.—Do you find society badly run, and want to better it? Run to A.E.’s . . . You doubt yourself? Find life insipid? A.E. will give you confidence, will comfort you.—Do you need a friend? A.E. is always there. (L’Île des bardes, trans. R.M. Kain)

But by the close of the twentieth century, A.E. had been reduced in popular memory to little more than a footnote in Ulysses. In episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis”, Joyce refers to Russell as “A.E.I.O.U.”, a playful allusion to the bearded sage of Dublin as much as to Joyce’s debt to A.E. for publishing his first stories in The Irish Homestead, stories which were later collected in Dubliners.

Yet despite all this, the name A.E. is still imbued with a certain magic, a presence that gathers around it the like-minded, drawing with a natural magnetism, ears straining to hear old traces of the new songs of Ireland. And just as they did during his lifetime, readers, historians, writers, mystics, activists, poets, students, journalists, organisers, politicians, artists, and the open-minded are still discovering kinship in A.E. and his works.

As for me, I still have one lingering question: Did I find the right book in the National Library? I have further theories, and you’re more than welcome to ask me about them some day. But if you’re looking for an answer now . . . Go see A.E.

This article originally appeared on the Irish Times website on 10 April 2017.


Selected PoemsSwan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Selected Poems, in celebration of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.

If you’d like to read more about A.E., please see our previous post here.

You might also be interested in A.E.’s short essay, “The Making of Poetry”, which you can read here.

And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured A.E. and his work.


Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

16110271661_2The following article by Fred Henderson was first published in the Eastern Daily Press (Norwich) on 19 July 1935, just two days after A.E.’s death. We reprint it here on the cusp of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary.


Most of the papers to-day, in announcing the death of the famous Irish poet, George Russell—better known to the lovers of beauty in literature all the world over as “A.E.”—make some appraisement of his work, and most of them might easily convey to the reader an impression which is quite inaccurate. It is probably not intended, but when we are told that “fairyland was Russell’s spiritual home, and in his edition of collected poems there is reflected a spirit of calm, perfect in its serenity,” the ordinary reader might very easily take “fairyland” to indicate the ineffectual dreamer in literature. And nothing could be further from the truth about Russell than that. Of the calm serenity of his outlook on the future of humanity there is no question. I have never met any man more serenely confident about the assured triumph of beauty in human life and human associations, or less perturbed by all the evidence to the contrary which our present squalors and the ugliness of a world spending its resources on providing itself with teeth and claws for its barbarian quarrels presents to us. But his serenity was not the vague hope of a poetic dreamer. It was based on a profound philosophy and knowledge of the deeper things stirring in the world’s life “under the measureless grossness and the slag.” Russell was a practical man, if ever there was one; practical as only the man with a great vision and purpose can be. His work with Horace Plunkett in the building up of the co-operative movement in Irish agriculture should be sufficient evidence of that.

I had the great privilege recently of spending a fortnight in seclusion with him on his return home from America. I missed him by only a few days at Washington where he had been visiting the Agricultural Department of the Federal Government and studying the projects which were being worked out there under the Roosevelt administration; and I had no idea when I went on board the Aurania homeward bound that he was returning by the same boat. But we came across one another before we got out of New York Harbour, and my remembrance of the rest of the voyage is mainly a remembrance of George Russell. It was a voyage of incessant storm, thirteen days out from New York before we landed in London. There were few passengers on board; and for the three most violent days of storm we had the deck pretty much to ourselves, watching the magnificence of the great seas, and talking together over the whole range of human interests and world affairs. The charm of the man; his soft musical Irish voice; his genius for discerning the tidal movements in human affairs under the foam and uproar of the surface—I treasure the remembrance of those days, and more than ever now that one knows that it was the last period of spiritual expansion in the setting of the elemental natural movement of the wild sea and sky which he loved that life was to give him. I wonder whether if now he knows the word which we spend an hour trying to discover one afternoon when a great sunburst, with a hundred shafts of light moving with the movement of the scattering clouds, turned the welter of the mountainous seas into a wild glory, and we flung line after attempted line at one another in the effort to picture it and express its movement, and found it inexpressible.

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Courtesy of Martin Hayes

I am happy in having not only the memory of that fortnight of a great companionship, but a tangible evidence of Russell’s infinite variety in pursuit of the beauty which he loved. On the morning of our landing at London he brought me a copy of one of his books. “Let me,” he said, “inscribe it in my own way as a remembrance of the time we’ve had together”; and thereupon sat down in a deck chair, took a box of coloured crayons from his pocket, and in about ten minutes sketched in on the title page a drawing of a piece of mountainous sea coast, “The coast at my home in Donegal.” His last piece of work, I imagine, as an artist in colours as well as in words.

It was easy to understand, on such an intimacy with him, the deep and almost devotional affection in which people of all parties in Ireland regarded George Russell. It was not only what he wrote or what he painted, nor even what he did in the active movements of Irish life; the man himself was an inspiration.


IMG_1604Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Selected Poems, in celebration of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.

If you’d like to read more about A.E., please see our previous post here.

You might also be interested in A.E.’s short essay, “The Making of Poetry”, which you can read here.

And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured A.E. and his work.

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

Our Haunted Year: 2016

img_1462Here we are on the first day of 2017, and I realise that Swan River Press hasn’t had a single publication since August 2016. But the end of summer was certainly busy enough: we not only published one collection and two anthologies, but also helped run a festival. I’d feel a little more guilty about it had I not spent most of my holiday working on no less than three forthcoming publications (erm, one of them being the now overdue issue of The Green Book, I admit!) But I thought it would be worth the moment to have a look back at what we accomplished this year.

12829209_1296539113694623_2572341596649588490_o.jpgThe first half of the year was overshadowed by Ireland’s 1916 Commemoration. Hundreds of events throughout Dublin and beyond marked the one hundred-year anniversary of the Easter Rising. Our first contribution to the occasion was issue seven of The Green Book, a themed issue that featured writings by genre writers who were affected by or even directly involved with the Rising. As I said in the Editor’s Note, the idea of doing a 1916-themed issue started tongue-in-cheek  – especially given the country’s saturation in all things Easter Rising – but the result included pieces by AE, James Stephens, Arthur Machen, and Dorothy Macardle. One of the more poignant elements of the issue, something that makes the Rising seem much closer than a distant 100-years, is the intimate cover image: an x-ray of Lord Dunsany’s skull with the shrapnel embedded from a skirmish near the Four Courts. We reprinted in the issue his vivid recollection of the Rising from his autobiography Patches of Sunlight. For me the issue was a gratifying exploration of the Republic’s early beginnings.

img_0003Our second contribution to the national spirit of Ireland was a never-before reprinted collection from 1924 by Dorothy Macardle. The stories in Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales were written while Macardle was incarcerated in Kilmainham and Mountjoy after being arrested at the Sinn Fein offices in 1922. While better known in Ireland for her political writings, and in the rest of the world for her novel ghostly The Uninvited (1941), I was pleased to make her collection of ghost stories available to readers again. And to the original collection we added numerous other tales and poems that Macardle wrote in the 1920s, making this one of the most complete collections of her short supernatural work. Once again, assembling this collection was an absolute pleasure as I got to work with Peter Berresford Ellis (who genre readers might also know as Peter Tremayne). Peter is a long time supporter of Macardle’s work, and his excellent introduction to our edition of Earth-Bound drew on his own archive of Macardle’s personal papers, including the rare photograph of Macardle standing beside a fireplace that we used for the author photo on the jacket. Needless to say, the whole experience was a pleasure, and I hope people enjoy the book.

IMG_0022.JPGThe next book we did was another dream project: Fritz Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing, which is an earlier version of his classic novel Our Lady of Darkness (1977). Not only did this book provide a great excuse to re-engage with one of my favourite novels of the supernatural and occult, but it also gave me the opportunity to work with the Californian poet Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald has proven to be a enjoyable correspondent as well, in addition to being a fine writer of poetry. But his friendships with Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and others provides us with an important and direct link with the our literary heritage. Donald is a fascinating gent and if you’re interested in learning more about him, I suggest you pick up his recent autobiography, Hobgoblin Apollo. Finally, in an unexpected twist, I was able to visit San Francisco this December and made the pilgrimage to the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street – where Leiber both lived and used as the setting for The Pale Brown Thing/Our Lady of Darkness – and of courseI also  climbed to the peak of Corona Heights where Franz Weston first spies the pale brown thing . . . I’m a sucker for literary tourism. (Here’s my earlier post about Donald and The Pale Brown Thing.)

img_0006Next up is a book I feel most privileged to have published: Lynda E. Rucker’s second collection, You’ll Know When You Get There. Lynda’s fiction is the sort of stuff I love to read. I’d been hoping to work with her for a long time now, and this was the year. Supernatural fiction is the sort of thing that’s sometimes read with half a mind for nostalgia – who doesn’t love M.R. James? – but Lynda’s stories are fully modern, atmospheric and, above all, disquieting. True, she reaches back to the past masters (one of the best stories in the collection is “Who Is This Who Is Coming?”, a not-so-subtle nod to James), but you’ll also find stories like “The Haunting House”, an inexorable drive into loneliness and darkness. I’m looking forward to what Lynda does next, and even if I hadn’t had the pleasure of publishing this collection, she’s a writer I’d recommend keeping an eye on. Steve Duffy interviewed Lynda just before You’ll Know When You Get There came out this summer. You can read the whole interview here. And when you’re finished, if you haven’t already, pick up a copy of this book. You won’t regret it.

crsuzphvuaa_5zt-jpg-largeAlso published in August were a pair of books I’d been working on for well over a year. I’m happy to introduce the first two volumes of Swan River Press’s anthology series, Uncertainties (Volume 1 and Volume 2). As with some of the other books we did this year, it was a good excuse for me to work with a number of authors who I’ve admired and wanted to work with for a long time now. And since I’m limited by how many books I can realistically publish in a year, this was a good way to cover some ground, self-indulgent though it may be. With these books I wanted to show where the supernatural genre is at now – a modern and still evolving literary style – and showcase the writers exploring themes of the uncanny in all its myriad guises. You’ll find in these volumes some of my very favourite writers, including Emma Darwin, Reggie Oliver, Rosalie Parker, Timothy J. Jarvis, V.H. Leslie, and others. I was also fortunate to have an introduction by John Connolly in Volume 1. How cool is that? If you want to read my introduction to Volume 2, you can find it online here. And I hope Lynda E. Rucker won’t mind if I announce here that I’ve asked her to edit Volume 3, due out in 2018. (She said yes.)

14067858_1791641691070597_6099664786091069340_oAnd this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Dublin Ghost Story Festival held at the Freemason Hall on Molesworth Street this past August. Here’s a short piece I wrote for the Irish Times about the genesis of the festival; you can read it here. I co-organised the event with John Connolly, and without his help I don’t think it would have happened at all, or certainly not as successfully. The vibe was casual and intimate, with 170 registered attendees, and for one solid weekend we got to indulge in  our mutual passion: the ghost story. Our guest of honour couldn’t have been better, so special thanks is due to Adam Nevill for charming Dublin. Other guests included Sarah Pinborough, David Mitchell, Angela Slatter, John Reppion . . . I could list more, but there were so many people who contributed I’d undoubtedly miss some. Suffice to say I’m grateful to absolutely everyone who helped out, attended, or cheered us on from other countries. The Dublin Ghost Story Festival was a real highlight of the year. Although there are no firm plans just yet, we’re looking at the possibility of doing another festival for 2018. Stay tuned. Or better yet, join our mailing list.

A Flutter of Wings.jpgSo there you have it. Those were the Swan River Press highlights of 2016. Let me know if I missed something. The schedule for 2017 is already shaping up to be an intimidating and ambitious enough project. While I wouldn’t want to say too much, I will say that the first book of the year will be Mervyn Wall’s 1974 short story collection A Flutter of Wings – this reprint will  additionally include Wall’s play Alarm Among the Clerks (1937) and the opening chapter of an abandoned novel. Our new edition will feature an introduction by Val Mulkerns and illustrations by Clare Brennan (who is Mervyn Wall’s granddaughter).

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who made 2016 such a successful year, both for myself and Swan River. Running a small press is a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m grateful to all for it. I’d like to wish everyone a happy new year and I hope to hear from you all soon.

Brian J. Showers

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Our Haunted Year: 2016

Uncertainties II: Foreword

by Brian J. Showers, August 2016

grande_uncertainties1Uncertainties is an anthology of new writing — featuring contributions from Irish, British, and American authors — each exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, and when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


We think we know the world we live in, but we don’t — we very much don’t — and stories of the supernatural and strange, of the weird and the uncanny serve as a reminder of that.

Let’s talk about uncertainties.

Many years ago, before I moved to Dublin, I lived in one of those turn-of-the-century wooden houses that still line the streets of downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where I’m from originally, you see. The house was large with clapboard siding and two broad and spacious front porches, one upstairs and one downstairs. Perfect for the barbecue, which during the summer months always seemed to be smouldering and ready to go. There was hardly an evening when someone’s friends weren’t over, because back then we knew just about everyone. If you’ve been to Madison you’ll know the sort of house I mean, and if you attended university there — which is what the eight of us were partly occupied with all those years back — you’ll no doubt share with me some level of nostalgia.

Anyway, the house was shabby when we moved in: cracks in the plaster, weird stains on the carpet, gouges in the front hall banister, and a kitchen floor that sloped gently to the south-east. Proper student digs, like. It had certainly housed generations of undergrads before us, and probably a good few families before that.

I knew every inch of that creaky old house. Going down the basement steps you had to duck your head to avoid the overhang — or risk concussion. The house’s foundation was limestone, the basement walls were exposed; bare lightbulbs hung in each of the three dank rooms. This is where Mike and Ben’s band practiced, no doubt the bane of all the mice living down there. At the front of the house was Jeff and Max’s room, which I suspect at one time served as the parlour but now contained a bunk bed. John had his own small space off the living-room, while my room was at the rear of the house with a second door to the back staircase. Upstairs was another kitchen and hidden in a sort of walk-in closet off the second-floor sitting room was a small stained-glass window. Kurt, Erika, and Mike had rooms up there as well. And above them was the attic.

The attic was empty and unfinished with a slanted ceiling; if you weren’t careful you’d get a good scratch from one of the nails poking through from the tar-paper shingles nailed to the roof. All manner of late night madness went on under that roof. On certain nights, and after enough drink, we’d sometimes illuminate the attic with candles and get the Ouija board out. It was never me moving the planchette, I swear, but I’m still certain we never once pierced the veil of the other world. We all loved that stuff, by the way. Urban legends, bad television, good science fiction, and cheap beer.

So one day in the late spring I was sat there studying at the desk in my room, when I was interrupted by Max calling for me to join him outside. Out the door I went, down the front steps, and around the corner to the narrow gravel drive-way that ran between our house and the neighbours’. That’s where I found Max, arms folded, head tilted back, scrutinising the upper-storey. He didn’t say anything at first, so I took a step back to get a better view of what he was looking at. It was just the side of the house, nothing odd that I could see.

“What’s that window?” Max finally said.

“Which?”

“That one up there,” he pointed. “The one there on the left is the kitchen. And those two on the right are for the upstairs dining room. But what’s that one there?”

I looked up to the window he was pointing at. I didn’t see what he was talking about so much as felt it. That window. There was no room up there that either of us could account for; the windows simply did not tally with our intimate recollections of the space in which we dwelt. I knew the house same as Max, and now we shared that same sense of uncertainty.

grande_uncertainties2We rushed inside and up the staircase to the second floor. We both counted the windows and then dashed back to the drive-way to count them again from the outside. The discrepancy remained and neither of us had the answer. What had once been a familiar space was now suddenly quite strange. Our home had become, in the truest definition of the word, unheimlich. However, there was one thing we were absolutely sure of: we were less certain about our house than we were before. And that’s essentially what this anthology is about, that occasional shift in perception that can leave us with an overwhelming sense of the incredible. Uncertainties is, to be exact, a volume of uncanny tales.

*       *       *

The uncanny often gets lumped into the broader genre that is horror, but perhaps does not entirely belong there. While I admit there is much overlap, I see the traditional horror story as primarily seeking to elicit from the reader a sense of revulsion or shock or fear, whereas tales of the uncanny attempt to disrupt one’s innate understanding of the natural order. Sometimes the result instils a sense of horror, as in Lovecraft, but this is not always the case. This is a crude argument, I know, but I hope you understand my meaning anyway.

Take for instance Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, two authors regularly claimed by the horror camp. While no one would argue that they both wrote superb tales of horror, their respective bodies of work also segue into more subtle examinations of ontological disruption, often eschewing horror entirely. If you want examples, read Machen’s ‘N’ or Blackwood’s The Centaur, both of which survey preternatural shifts in world-view.

In some ways the uncanny tale is the antithesis to the classic detective story, which relies on a mystery that usually is solved by the end of the narrative. What begins as a tale of the unknown is inevitably explained; there’s a satisfying catharsis when you find out whodunit. On the contrary, the uncanny tale revels in the mystery itself. These stories start out in the recognisable world, the every-day, and slowly move into less familiar terrain. And instead of requiring the satisfaction of a solution, the connoisseur of the uncanny tale appreciates that lingering sense of wonderment, awe, and, yes, sometimes dread. Explanation is anathema and the preservation of the unknown is paramount for such a story’s success. It ignites the imagination. The stories gathered in this volume (and its predecessor) celebrate this notion.

I suppose you’re still wondering what that window in my old house was. A secret room of which Max and I were unaware? An alternate space with its own curious laws and secrets? Had we finally pierced the veil to other world? You might like to know, but to be overly concerned with the answer is to miss the point — what mattered in that moment was the mystery. And sometimes it’s far more interesting to let uncertainties linger.

Brian J. Showers
4 July 2016
Rathmines, Dublin


Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.

Order Uncertainties Volume 1 here and Volume 2 here.

Uncertainties II: Foreword

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Conducted by Steve Duffy, July 2016

Author Photo 1Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and now living in Europe. Her stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. She is a regular columnist for Black Static, has had a short play produced on London’s West End, and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published by Karoshi Books in 2013.


Steve Duffy: So first of all, congratulations on the Shirley Jackson award!

Lynda E. Rucker: Thank you! Congratulations on yours as well! I was really surprised to win.

SD: Thank you! I wasn’t at all surprised that you won. Will the winning story be appearing in the new collection?

LER: Not in this one, no: these are all stories that were published around 2012-2013, plus two new unpublished stories.

SD: (Studies table of contents) Ah, there are some great stories here. I see “The Wife’s Lament”, which I remember from Supernatural Tales. Are there, I wonder, a few autobiographical elements in that story, which has for its protagonist a woman from Portland moving to the UK?

LER: Actually, there really aren’t, not in that one! I talk about this more in the story notes, but that one really arose from wanting to build a story around the Old English poem of the same title.

I do often draw on autobiographical elements in the fiction that I write, but I think by the time it is shaped into a story, it is often unrecognisable from what it once was. Often it’s a matter of taking many different bits and pieces and putting them together: like almost anyone who’s spent a lot of time in other countries, I’ve had the feeling of culture shock and homesickness, but rarely in the specific ways or over the specific things my characters do. (In fact, people often think my characters have terrible times in certain locations because I hated those places myself, which is just not the case at all.) And I tend to write about places I’ve been, so, for example, most of my characters are, like me, either from the American South or the Pacific Northwest.

Another element of using autobiography in fiction is exaggeration. So, for example, I think it’s a very common experience, when you’re as young as Penny, the protagonist in this story, to get caught up in an unrealistic infatuation with someone – whether it’s a real relationship, an unrequited crush or even a celebrity obsession – in which you build them up in your head and imagine that by osmosis you will become someone else as well. In a way it’s kind of part of the process of finding your identity. For many young women, as well, there can be a kind of fascination with older men as Ian is in this story – a sense that their interest in you somehow empowers you, but that can also quickly turn to insecurity in an actual relationship because, well, you’re still just barely done being a kid, you haven’t had time to accomplish anything particularly exciting or to really become who you are going to be. So there were a lot of dynamics I wanted to exaggerate and write about in that story, but I was drawing more on broad and generic experiences than anything particularly concrete – there are other stories in the book that are more specifically autobiographical.

You'll Know When You Get ThereIt only occurs to me just now, as I’m answering this question, that in a way this story has a lot of parallels to the book Rebecca, which is one of my favourites, in that a naive young woman is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a much older and more sophisticated man who may or may not be a sinister figure. Really, though, the genesis of this story is embedded in my translation of the poem itself, which people will have to buy the book to read more about in the story notes!

SD: Quite right! I’m always really pleased when a writer includes story notes. The vibe I get from that story, and from all of yours, I think, is bound up with this wonderful combination of characterisation and sense of place. Both have a reality about them, which I think really helps to “sell” the story, in the sense of making it work for the reader. The feeling of real people, in real situations, and then the fantastic or uncanny element working its way through . . .

LER: Yes! It’s what I love best in fiction, really, is reading about real people in well-grounded settings. Last year, Gary Fry wrote a really insightful review of my first collection on his blog that opened with this line: “My overriding impression after reading Lynda Rucker’s first collection of short stories is that of a writer who loves both horror fiction and mainstream literature.” He’s absolutely right, and I think it’s one of the elements that makes horror fiction such a strange, hybrid beast. It’s often lumped in with science fiction and fantasy – and I do think it belongs there, in part; I love and feel a part of those genres and it’s why I get very angry when I hear people moan about things along the lines of “What are all these icky horror people doing mucking up our nice fantasy conventions/awards” (sentiments I’ve heard more than once expressed regarding both the World Fantasy convention and awards and the British Fantasy Convention and BFAs, to name names).

SD: “Ugh! I simply wouldn’t have them in the house, dear!”

LER: However, I also think horror fiction has equally powerful roots in mainstream fiction as well, and I consistently find that many horror writers, and generally the ones I consider the best, often cite at least as many mainstream influences as straight-up “genre” ones. Nina Allan wrote a terrific piece on her blog several years ago called “The Trouble With Horror”, and in part, it’s about how in order for horror stories to work, they must be powerful stories first and foremost. It’s a wonderful article that I return to periodically and agree with completely.

To continue reading, please click here.

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Fritz Leiber’s “The Pale Brown Thing”

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This is my first UK edition; also ex libris Joel Lane.

My earliest exposure to Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was via the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as they fought and drank and caroused their way through Lankhmar (City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes!) and realms beyond. I’ve still got my old Ace pocket paperback too, a prized item in my biblio-treasure hoard. Ill Met in Lankhmar was a thrilling tale set in some far-away land, but it wouldn’t be long before I discovered a work by Leiber that took its cue more from the real world – though was no less a stunning feat of imagination.

Few would contest Our Lady of Darkness‘s status as a modern classic. It picked up the World Fantasy Award for best novel of 1977, and rightfully so. It’s been described as both Jamesian and Lovecraftian – and it is, but it’s also wholly Leiber. Just as I had visited Lankhmar, becoming familiar with its dark alleys and byzantine guilds, so too would I visit San Francisco – or at least Leiber’s version of it – from 811 Geary Street to the Corona Heights; a city filled with occult conspiracies, horrifying “paramentals”, flamboyant poets, and an illustrious pedigree of pulp fiction past.

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Fritz Leiber in 1978

Our Lady of Darkness is a marvellous supernatural meta-fiction. A fantastical novel rooted in realism (it’s semi-autobiographical) with references to H.P. Lovecraft (with whom Leiber had corresponded), Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, George Sterling, and Clark Ashton Smith. To this real-world cast of characters Leiber added pulp fictioneer Franz Westen (a version of himself), the magnificently circumscribed Thibaut de Castries (author of the ultimate occult manifesto Megapolisomancy – how’s that for a title!), and of course Jaime Donaldus Byers . . . more on him in a moment.

Our Lady of Darkness remains one of my favourite novels, a carefully constructed and fully realised fictional world. So, yeah, you could say I’m a fan.

A few years back I learned that Our Lady of Darkness was originally published under a different title: The Pale Brown Thing, and not only that, but it was a different version than the novel I’d come to know and love. A shorter version. The Pale Brown Thing was originally published in the January and February 1977 issues of F&SF. You can see below that it was the cover story of the January issue as well. That painting there is by the great fantasy artist Ron Walotsky.

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Anyway, I was intrigued. I wanted to read The Pale Brown Thing. And so I did, having tracked down those two issues of F&SF (because it’d never been reprinted anywhere else). Reading The Pale Brown Thing was a way to re-engage and re-discover Our Lady of Darkness. Familiar, yet different; more briskly paced. I came to understand that The Pale Brown Thing isn’t so much an earlier draft of the story as it is a different version. I later learned that Leiber felt “the two texts should be regarded as the same story told at different times. If Franz’s story is longer in Our Lady of Darkness, the reason is that he recalls more the second time he tells it.” And so both versions stand as valid tellings. John Howard expands on this idea in the afterword of the Swan River Press edition.

I love literary artefacts, multiple versions of the same story, and the idea of a published evolution of a story. It didn’t take long for me to realise I wanted to publish a new (first, I suppose!) edition of The Pale Brown Thing. However, I didn’t want to simply slap a cover on it and get it on the shelves. I wanted to explore the work and properly celebrate the book.

I found a number of great resources online, including:

The first people I spoke with about the project were John Howard and Jason Zerrillo. John is a long-time scholar of the weird and had often written about Leiber. His analysis of the evolution of the story from The Pale Brown Thing to Our Lady of Darkness was a natural choice for the afterword. Jason was also a fan of the story and eager to get to work on a cover, a new piece that would pay tribute to Walotsky (below). Jason also did an illustration of the Scholar’s Mistress for the the printed boards, but I’ll let you discover that horrifying visage on your own.

Leiber dustjacket 8 copy

So then what about an introduction? Surely not a job for just anyone. Enter the Californian poet Donald Sidney-Fryer, who was introduced to me by Scott Connors. Sidney-Fryer was not only a good friend of Leiber back in his San Francisco days, but also counts Clark Ashton Smith as one of his early mentors. More importantly, though, he served as the inspiration for the flamboyant poet Jamie Donaldus Byers in both The Pale Brown Thing and Our Lady of Darkness. I couldn’t think of a better candidate to write an introduction . . . unless Thibaut de Castries decides to manifest himself.

Sidney-Fryer is an accomplished author whose poems and essays are available from Hippocampus Press – you should really check them out. He’s also lead a fascinating life, and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming autobiography, Hobgoblin Apollo.

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DSF in the early ’90s

In any case, Donaldo – which is how he signs his letters – was more than happy to write an introduction. He wrote about his friendship with Leiber and his place in the novel. My correspondence with Donaldo has been a privilege. It’s really for opportunities like this that I enjoy publishing so much. This on-going conversation with Donaldo is as important a part of creating this new edition of The Pale Brown Thing as is the text itself. He is a connection to ghosts of times past: Leiber to Lovecraft and Smith to Bierce. He is a portal to a classic work of fiction that I have enjoyed many times over the years, and I am grateful for the opportunity to explore again.

If you want to read a bit more about Donaldo, John Howard was kind enough to interview him about The Pale Brown Thing, his writing, and his friendship with Leiber for our website. You can read it here. You can also have a look at Alan Gullette’s website, a wonderful resource for all things Donald Sidney-Fryer – the Last of the Courtly Poets!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the new Swan River Press edition of Fritz Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing. It will be out in July 2016.

Order a copy of The Pale Brown Thing here.

 

Fritz Leiber’s “The Pale Brown Thing”