This issue is another selection of profiles from our tentatively named Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. The keen-eyed will spot one name that might seem out of place: Harry Clarke (1889-1931). Clarke, of course, was not a writer, but an artist who worked in watercolour, pen and ink, and stained glass. As an illustrator, Clarke put his indelible mark on literature of the macabre and fantastic. His best-known illustrations are those accompanying Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919/23), though his illustrations for Andersen, Perrault, and Swinburne also bear hallmarks of the strange. So too do goblins and grotesques leer from the corners of his stained glass work. Writing in The Irish Statesman on Clarke’s illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, the poet A.E. was clearly taken with the artist’s power:
“Nothing in these drawings represents anything in the visible world: all come from that dread mid-world or purgatory of the soul where forms change on the instant by evil or beautiful imagination, where the human image becomes bloated and monstrous by reason of lust or hate, the buttocks become like those of a fat swine, and thoughts crawl like loathsome puffy worms out of their cells in the skull. Shapeless things gleam with the eye of a snake . . . Here the black night is loaded with corrupt monstrosities, creatures distorted by lusts which obsess them, which bloat out belly or thighs, suck in the forehead, make the face a blur of horrid idiocy or a malignant lunacy. We shiver at the thought that creatures like these may lurk in many a brain masked from us by the divine image.” (14 November 1925)
It is all the more pitiable that Clarke never illustrated an edition of Dracula—he was unable to come to an agreement with Bram Stoker’s estate. What we are left with is not only a remarkable body of work, but also hints to what might have been: other unrealised projects include Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Huysmans’ À Rebours.
Clarke is rightfully listed in Jack Sullivan’s Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), and so I felt, given his impact on macabre literature, it was only proper to feature a profile of this remarkable artist among our own pages. Naturally, you’ll find a Clarke illustration on the cover of this issue, and his “Mephisto” can be found on the cover of Issue 6.
This issue also features profiles on George Croly—whose Salathiel may well have borne influence on Stoker’s Dracula (see also “Who Marvels at the Mysteries of the Moon” in The Green Book14)—and a much-anticipated entry on Fitz-James O’Brien, who is surely a pillar of Irish genre fiction; while Yeats and Lady Gregory invoke in their words the long shadow of the Celtic Twilight. As always, I hope you’ll discover writers who might be lesser known, like the Banims and the Barlowes, or those whose contributions to genre might be unexpected, such as the Longfords and Iris Murdoch. Whatever the case, I hope you find new and exciting avenues to explore.
Despite her wide contributions to genre literature, Irish author L. T. Meade is now remembered, if at all, for her girls’ school stories. However, in 1898 the Strand Magazine, famous for its fictions of crime, detection, and the uncanny, proclaimed Meade one of its most popular writers for her contributions to its signature fare. Her stories, widely published in popular fin de siècle magazines, included classic tales of the supernatural, but her specialty was medical or scientific mysteries featuring doctors, scientists, occult detectives, criminal women with weird powers, unusual medical interventions, fantastic scientific devices, murder, mesmerism, and manifestations of insanity. Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures is the first collection to showcase the best of her pioneering strange fiction.
Mrs. L. T. Meade has probably written a greater number of stories than any other living author. A healthy tone pervades all her works, and her pictures of English home life in particular are among the best of their kind. Calling on the novelist (writes our Special Commissioner) at her City office, I found her at her desk hard at work. Her personality is like her writings—bright, fresh, vivacious; and to say that she is of a well-favoured countenance is to understate the fact. She retains much of her girlish appearance, though a rather worn look about the eyes suggests midnight oil and an ever-active brain. Knowing how Mrs. Meade values her time, I plunged at once into the subject of my visit by remarking that nowadays people take a very friendly interest in those who delight and instruct them by their writings, they like to know how their favourite books are written; and asked whether she was willing to satisfy this natural curiosity.
“I shall be happy to tell you anything you want to know,” she replied in a soft, musical voice. “As to how my books are written, well, I simply get a thought and work it out. I have no particular method of writing. My stories grow a good deal as I write them. I don’t think the plot out very carefully in advance. My children’s stories, for instance, before they are written, are, as a rule, first told to my own children to amuse them—at least, I have tried that plan since the children have become old enough to be interested in them, and I have found it very successful; as a rule, what one child likes, another child will like. I write my stories a good deal because the publisher wants the book; I simply write it to order, and, of course, if he asks for a girl’s story he gets it, and if he asks for a novel or children’s story he gets that. I may say that I am a very quick writer; I produce four or five books in a season. I have written in less than three months a rather important three-volume novel.”
“Do you ever take your characters from real life?”
“Yes, but not intentionally. I don’t deliberately say I will put such a character here or there; I take traits rather than a whole character. I find that deliberately setting my mind to delineate a certain character produces considerable stiffness, and the character is not so fresh. Authors are a good deal governed by their characters in writing fiction. If your book is to be successful, your characters guide you rather than you guide your characters; they are so very living and real that you have not complete control over them.”
“Your experience, then, is similar to that of Charles Dickens and some living writers, who have stated that their characters become their masters, and, as it were, take their destiny into their own hands?”
“Exactly. I find it a good plan, when a novel is in process, after a certain stage, to cut out every character that is not intensely alive. I am now speaking, of course, of my larger stories; in a short story there is not room for development of character.”
“May I ask how many stories you have written?”
“I am afraid to tell you—between fifty and sixty volumes, besides a great many short stories. I have been writing now constantly for fifteen years. An enormous quantity to have produced?—so it is; I don’t know any other author who has done so much work as I have done in that time. I will give you an example. I have recently brought out four volumes (none cheaper than 3s. 6d., which gives you some idea of the size) and a three-volume novel, not to mention a complete Christmas number of the Sunday Magazine, of nearly sixty thousand words. They have certainly all been written under two years. I write on an average every day in the year a little over two thousand words; on some occasions I wrote a great deal more.”
“Do you write everything with your own hand?”
“I write nothing with my own hand—I almost forget how to write. I employ a short-hand writer, and I revise the type-written transcript.”
“Do you write at regular hours or at uncertain intervals; in other words, do you wait for an inspiration, or do you sit down and write whether you feel inclined for it or not?”
“I never wait for an inspiration.” Mrs. Meade added, with a laugh, “I might never write at all if I did. I write every day at a certain hour, and it would be impossible for me to write in the way you suggest. I have a great many books promised against a certain time. I always write against time.”
“And you find that your work does not suffer from that somewhat mechanical method?”
“I don’t think it does. I believe that to write against time puts your work into a frame, and is improved by it. To have to write a certain length, and for a certain publisher, who requires a certain kind of work, is splendid practice; it makes your brain very supple, so that you can turn to anything. It is a matter of habit with me now, and I rather like it.”
“Are you never at a loss for ideas when working under such pressure? Don’t you ever feel impoverished?”
“Sometimes, perhaps; but not as a rule. I often sit down, my secretary has a blank sheet of paper, I say, ‘Chapter I’ and that is all I know when I begin. I suppose my ideas do flow very rapidly, for some writers who are very much beyond me in power can’t write quickly. They have to think out their subjects a great deal. I could not write if I gave much labour to my work.”
“But surely you must sometimes stop and think when you are dictating?”
“No; as a rule, I dictate straight ahead continuously, and never pause for an instant. I see the whole scene, and I talk on as I see it.”
I could not help feeling that, if Mrs. Meade dictates as rapidly as she was speaking to me, her stenographer must be exceptionally expert. Her readiness and fluency were such, that of all the people I have interviewed, not one covered so much ground in so short a time. To this hard-working novelist our conversation was but a momentary interruption.
“Then you create as you speak?”
“Yes. Of course all writers must feel they do better work one day than another, but there is no day I don’t write except Sunday. Atalanta takes up a great deal of time; more than half my days are occupied with it. I have a very large life outside my books.”
A portrait of a sturdy, happy-looking youngster in cricketing costume, which his mother showed me, was an illustration in point. Mrs. Meade told me that he was the original of Daddy’s Boy—one of the most fascinating of her numerous children’s tales.
“What do you think of our English fiction of to-day?” I next inquired.
“I think fiction is at a very low ebb just now. We have no giants; but the average writer has come to a much higher pitch of excellence than was the case ten or twelve years ago. I admire Barrie immensely. I think I like him almost better than Rudyard Kipling, but I have a great admiration for both in their way. Mr. Kipling has more sting than Mr. Barrie, but Mr. Barrie’s character-drawing is inimitable. Mr. Barrie, Mr. Kipling, and Mr. Stevenson ranks first of all.”
“Still, none of them, you think, are ‘giants’?”
“I would not put them on a level with George Eliot, or Thackeray, or Dickens. We have no Dickens now, no Thackeray, no George Eliot; we have not even a Bulwer-Lytton.”
“Would you put George Eliot at the head of all women novelists?”
“Yes. I don’t think anybody else has touched her. I think Charlotte Brontë has exceeded her in some things—she has more passion; but, on the whole, I think George Eliot is greater.”
“What is your opinion of the theological novel?”
“Frankly, I don’t care for it. Edna Lyall has made a great success, and done some very fine and noble work, but I think theology in a novel is a mistake. It might be introduced, but ought not to be overdone.”
“It is bad artistically, don’t you think?”
“Extremely bad; absolutely wrong. I think Mrs. Humphrey Ward is not at all artistic. She is a remarkably clever woman, but she is not a fictionist. A fictionist is in her own way a painter; she writes pictures instead of painting them. I think the art of fiction is not half studied by writers; there is so much in it.”
“Do you do most of your work at home, or here in the City?”
“I write in the morning at my own house at Dulwich. I do most of my original work at home, and my editorial work here, though I have done a great deal of original work here also. I don’t go by any fixed rule. The only fixed rule in my life is that I never can get a holiday.”
“I hope that is not to be taken literally?” “Well, we are going away to-morrow for three or four days. Such an event is so rare that I can hardly believe it is coming to pass. I never get more than about a fortnight’s holiday in the year. That is mostly because of my magazine work, which, of course, never ends.”
L. T. Meade (1844-1914) was born in Bandon, Co. Cork and started writing at an early age before establishing herself as one of the most prolific and bestselling authors of the day. In addition to her popular girls’ fiction, she also penned mystery stories, sensational fiction, romances, historical fiction, and adventure novels. Her notable works include A Master of Mysteries (1898), The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899), and The Sorceress of the Strand (1903). She died in Oxford on 26 October 1914.
Update: All pre-orders and most contributor copies will be in the post by Friday, 4 June. Thank you again for your patience.– Brian
First of all, please let me apologise for the continued delay in shipping our three recent titles: The Fatal Move, Uncertainties 5, and The Green Book 17, which were supposed to have been delivered here in Dublin by our UK printed at the end of April.
The story briefly goes like this:
Delay #1: Printer broke down Delay #2: Ran out of cloth for binding Delay #3: Cloth needs more time to dry Delay #4: I was informed I need an import number Delay #5: Printer mistakenly bound in the wrong head/tailbands Delay #6: Erroneously asked to pay import duty on VAT except items
At each of these delays I struggled no small amount to get the issue sorted. It’s taken me a week and a half to get these books out of customs. This is all mainly down to both Brexit and the printer in the UK putting down the wrong commodity code on the export paperwork. (I actually have to pay a new surcharge levied by the printer because of all the Brexit paperwork they need to fill out.)
So the good news is, the books arrived late this afternoon, despite the damaging hands of rough delivery.
What happens now? Well, I’m going to try to take off from work next week (I have a day job) so I can process your orders faster. I estimate it will take me a week and a half to get through everything and carry loads to the post office in batches (I don’t drive).
Please please please, I beg you, please don’t write to me asking if your book has shipped yet or to let you know when it does. I’ve quite a bit to juggle at the moment and such requests will slow me down in actually getting your book in the post as quickly as possible, which is my primary aim. And besides, knowing when your book was posted will not make it arrive any faster. On the other hand, if you’re going on holiday or something and want me to hold onto your book until you’re back to receive it, please let me know.
I’ve a lot of work ahead of me. Processing orders is an entire… well, it’s an entire process. I’ve got over 1,000 books here, each of which I need to first examine for defects, to weed out any that damaged or of lesser quality. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at what sometimes turns up. Take, for example, this copy of The Green Book 17, first out of the box, with torn pages. Then I have to emboss and hand number both The Fatal Move and Uncertainties 5, taking note of requests for certain numbers–as well as numerous other special requests such as tracking numbers. All this simply takes time and I will work through it as swiftly as time allows.
Again, I apologise for this horrendously long wait for these book. It is certainly not up to my own standards and I hope this does not reflect badly on Swan River Press. However, I fear it will not be until later in June that you’ll actually see your book(s) showing up in the post. If this proves to be an inconvenience to anyone (if a book was meant as a gift for an occasion that’s now long passed), please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to issue a refund in full. In the meantime, and much to my regret and dismay, in addition to this work I also need to find a new printer, preferably one within the EU, who can work up to the standards of quality and service we’ve come to expect.
On a more positive note, the new hardbacks are printed on heavier paper stock, and you can definitely feel this added weight in your hands. The boards of both are also printed on cloth binding, which I hope you will also like. And The Fatal Move‘s jacket is printed with a nifty metallic ink. So despite these delays, once you do get the books, I’m certain you’ll be pleased with them.
Thank you again for your continued patience.
Brian J. Showers 27 May 2021
Addendum: So I trundle into the post office today thinking, gosh, the hard part is behind me now. As it turns out, postal prices went up significantly as of yesterday. I will honour all pre-orders and absorb the extra costs, but the prices of our books may have to be reviewed in the near future. Once again you have my sincere apologies. I will do my best to come up with an affordable balance.
I’ve been spending the occasional odd moment assembling a Swan River Press bibliography. I started the press in 2003, so am getting to the point when I can no longer hold all the publishing details in my head. The bibliography (intended as a forthcoming publication) is meant as much a resource for me as I hope it will be of interest to readers, collectors, and bibliophiles. The book will contain my own notes on each publication as well as insights and reminiscences from authors, editors, and artists.
I think there’s a certain personality type that’s drawn to bibliographies; we possibly share some traits with list makers. Bibliographies can be highly personal things, how they’re compiled and arranged and organised. I love reading them and I love writing them. Bibliographies tell a different type of story than the ones we publish in our books. Bibliographies tell stories about the books and sometimes what happens off the page as well. If you’re of a sympathetic mindset, please leave a comment below. What information do you like to see in a bibliography? How do you like to see them arranged? Do you enjoy reading them as much as I do? Maybe you even consider yourself a serious Swan River Press collector? I’d love to hear from you all.
I’ll try to provide links to as many items as I can, though not every publication has it’s own page on the website, in which case you can find more information here (though you might have to scroll a bit to find the title in question). Or if you’re looking for The Green Book, then here.
In the meantime, I thought I would post this very basic publishing chronology. It doesn’t include any reprints or subsequent editions (although all those will eventually be noted in the bibliography). But this is the first time I’ve arranged all of the Swan River publications into chronological order. Reading between the lines, I can see the trajectory of my own life as well as the people and projects I have been privileged enough to participate in and publish. Sometimes it’s just good to take stock of these things, you know? For what it’s worth, I hope you enjoy this list.
001. The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man (Oct. 2003)
———— Brian J. Showers
002. The Snow Came Softly Down (Dec. 2004)
———— Brian J. Showers
003. Tigh an Bhreithimh (Oct. 2005)
———— Brian J. Showers
004. No. 70 Merrion Square: Part 1 (Oct. 2006)
———— Brian J. Showers
005. No. 70 Merrion Square: Part 2 (Dec. 2006)
———— Brian J. Showers
006. On the Apparitions at Gray’s Court (Dec. 2006)
———— Peter Bell
007. Blind Man’s Box (Jun. 2007)
———— Reggie Oliver
008. The Red House at Münstereifel (Jul. 2007)
———— Helen Grant
009. Quis Separabit (Dec. 2007)
———— Brian J. Showers
010. Brutal Spirits (Feb. 2008)
———— Gary McMahon
011. Ghostly Rathmines: A Visitor’s Guide (Mar. 2008)
A few years back I wrote a short piece on how we put together Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature (2015) from a design point of view. There are often embedded design details of significance in our books—the sort of things you might not notice until they’re pointed out and the various meanings explained. With the imminent publication of The Fatal Moveby Conall Cearnach, I thought it might be a good time to write another such essay looking at how we designed this particular book.
Irish author F. W. O’Connell (1875-1929)—who often published as “Conall Cearnach”—was brought to my attention by Reggie Chamberlain-King, probably sometime in 2017. Chamberlain-King had been pitching to me Irish writers to consider for The Green Book’s ongoing profile series “Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural, and Fantastic Literature”, and Cearnach was among them. You can read the resulting biographical overview in Issue 11.
During his lifetime, Cearnach was known as the author of two Irish grammar books, A Grammar of Old Irish (1912) and Irish Self-Taught (1923), as well as for his broadcasts on 2RN, Ireland’s first radio broadcasting system. (It’s these broadcasts that I suspect formed the contents of Cearnach’s three essay collections.) But the primary reason for Cearnach being considered an Irish fantasist in The Green Book is for a slim collection of short stories he published in 1924: The Fatal Move and Other Stories (M. H. Gill & Son, Dublin). Chamberlain-King describes the stories as “ranging from the darkly macabre, to the speculative, to the absurd”. I had to track down a copy.
When the slim volume arrived—the first edition is only 96 pages—I was even more intrigued by the story titles: “The Vengeance of the Dead”, “The Homing Bone”, “Professor Danvers’ Disappearance” . . . I found among them a supernatural thriller, a locked-room mystery, a conte cruel, and even a “delightfully comic dystopia” in which Bolshevik Russia had taken over England, wiping out the English language. Eventually I reprinted “The Fiend that Walks Behind”, a Jamesian ghost story, in The Green Book 15, where it drew a favourable response. I grew to quite love this quirky little book, perhaps not a lost classic, but certainly a quirky gem of Irish literature, which I decided was worthy of inclusion in our 2021 publishing schedule. Naturally, Reggie Chamberlain-King provided the introduction, greatly expanded from his previous profile in The Green Book, and probably the lengthiest piece written about Cearnach to date.
So back to the book itself: the first edition copy of The Fatal Move that I managed to track down was complete with a somewhat grubby (and fragile) fawn paper wrapper. Depicted on the cover in green ink were two weary chess players, one slumped over their game board, both overseen by the disembodied head of an Edwardian beauty with red pupils—all this being an illustration from the title story.
While the name of the artist is neither listed in the book, nor in any bibliography I could find, my own copy bore two interesting inscriptions on the front endpaper. At the top, in black ink: “To the Artist with the Publisher’s Compliments, Dec. 1923”; below that, in red ink: “From Tom Grogan, as a specimen of his productions, le hárd-cion [with great affection]”. Certainly this established the identity of the artist, but begged the further question: Who exactly was Tom Grogan? A “Father Thomas Grogan” is registered at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in 1919, and is a possible candidate, but apart from that the trail is cold. Any amateur art sleuths out there want to take up the challenge?
I noticed something else while putting together The Fatal Move. The eyes of the woman on the jacket are blank on all the other copies I was seeing for sale on the internet. Mine would seem to be unique with its crimson glare, which, until this realisation I had thought was part of the original design as opposed to added. Some of you might already have made the next leap in logic, but I confess, it took me a moment before I got there: the red ink with which Tom Grogan made his inscription is the same ink used on the jacket to enhance the eyes. In other words, the cover of my copy was embellished by the artist himself.
Usually when we reprint a book, I like to commission a new piece of art so as to modernise the edition—though always with sympathy to the text’s history, of course. But for The Fatal Move we decided to retain Tom Grogan’s original artwork, though not without a handful of minor alterations. First, you’ll notice that the letters in Conall Cearnach’s name are crowded together on the cover of first edition. I asked our designer Meggan Kehrli if she could fix this, which she did beautifully, rendering the author’s name more clearly. Next, we decided to print the image in a metallic green ink, which should give the jacket a striking look (Pantone PMS 8722C, for those who like knowing this sort of thing). The book isn’t back from the printer yet, but I hope it looks good. Finally, we decided, for our new edition, to retain Tom Grogan’s red eye embellishment, an indelible addition to my own original copy, now embedded in Swan River’s updated design. We hope Tom Grogan would approve.
As for the pattern we’re printing on the book’s case, Meggan lifted that from Cearnach’s essay collection The Age of Whitewash (1921). This also seems appropriate as Chamberlain-King wanted to include in The Fatal Move a selection of the author’s more outré non-fiction, hoping to give more insight into Cearnach’s life and milieu. Using the pattern from The Age of Whitewash is a subtle nod to this consideration.
And there you have it—a bit of insight into what goes into putting together the book as a physical object, readying the stories so that a new readership might discover them. I’m excited to see what the book will finally look like when it arrives back from the printer within the next few days. Our limited edition hardback edition will be the first time The Fatal Move has been reprinted since it’s first outing in 1924—nearly one hundred years ago.
So have you ordered a copy yet? Have you read Cearnach already? Or maybe there’s something else about this book you’d like to know more about? Drop us a line or leave your comments below.
If you liked this essay and want to support an independent Irish press:
As it turned out, Issue 15, which was comprised entirely of fiction, proved to be quite popular. So I had a look in my files to see if I could put together another such issue of refugee writings that did not fit elsewhere in our publishing schedule.
Let the curtains rise on Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House”, first published in The Dramatic Review (11 April 1885), which publisher Leonard Smither’s notes is “not included in the edition of his collected Poems”—I assume a reference to the volume issued by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in 1892. While “The Harlot’s House” has since become available, we would like to present it here as Leonard Smithers had in a portfolio edition in 1904: with five “weirdly powerful and beautiful” drawings by Althea Gyles, known for her lavish cover designs for Yeats’s poetry collections, including The Secret Rose (1897), two covers for The Wind Among the Reeds (1899/1990), and Poems (1900). We will explore more fully this remarkable artist in a future issue of The Green Book.
H. de Vere Stacpoole’s “The Mask”, a deft little shocker set in the Carpathian Mountains, had previously a couple of outings in 1930s anthologies, including My Grimmest Nightmare (1935) and Not Long for This World (1936). While de Vere Stacpoole is best known for his popular novel The Blue Lagoon (1908), his career is sprinkled with tales of the macabre. A profile of his life and writings can be found in Issue 12.
Next is Herbert Moore Pim’s “The Ravished Bride”, a gothic narrative in verse set in the north of Ireland, and quite unlike the stories found in his oddball collection Unknown Immortals of the Northern City of Success (1917). You’ll find his story, “The Madman” in Issue 15, while a full profile of this quixotic author is in Issue 12.
After this we have two stories by Katharine Tynan, neither of which have been reprinted before. We considered both when compiling The Death Spancel and Others, which Swan River published in late 2020, but ultimately decided they wouldn’t strengthen that volume. We rejected “The Heart of the Maze” because it is simply not a supernatural tale; however, it does possess dream-like and faerie tale-type qualities not atypical of Tynan’s work. The second story, “The House of a Dream”, while it does contain psychical elements, we deemed far too similar in plot to “The Dream House”, the latter of which we did include in The Death Spancel. As a commercial writer, Tynan reused plots and themes to keep up with the demands of the fiction markets. Despite this pace, her writing remained of the highest quality: elegant, descriptive, and a pleasure to read.
Following the two stories by Tynan you’ll find three poems by Dora Sigerson Shorter, all of which were selected by Margaret Widdemar for her anthology The Haunted Hour (1920), a volume that also included contributions from Yeats, Tynan, and Walter de la Mare. Widdemar takes for her strict definition of a “ghost-poem” as “poems which relate to the return of spirits to earth”. Sigerson Shorter’s poems deftly evoke a night-time Ireland populated by revenants and other wandering ill-omens, such as the fetch and the banshee. If you want to learn more about Sigerson Shorter’s life and work you can read about her in Issue 13; her remarkable story “Transmigration” can be found in Swan River’s Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women (2019).
Finally we have “To Prove an Alibi” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, a tale of mystery and terror reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852). This story is one in a series to feature John Bell, later collected as A Master of Mysteries (1898). Bell is a “professional exposer of ghosts” whose business is to “clear away the mysteries of most haunted houses” and to “explain by the application of science, phenomena attributed to spiritual agencies”. More on Meade can be found in The Green Book 16; we will be seeing more from her soon.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, another issue of weird, gothic, and macabre poems and stories from Irish writers. I write this on Saint Patrick’s Day, under a clear blue sky in Dublin; and I hope some of the convivial cheer and goodwill of the day reaches you as you read this issue.
“Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” – Douglas E. Winter
“That didn’t scare me.” This level of criticism grates my sensibilities. That didn’t scare me. It’s the sort of comment you overhear when leaving the cinema or that you might witness among a torrent of social-media posts, not generally known for their insight or elucidation in the first place. It’s not even the brevity of this comment that bothers me, but rather that this grunt seems to convey a shallow understanding of horror: “That didn’t scare me.”
As a life-long connoisseur of horror, I seldom experience genuine “fear” while reading (or viewing)—that adrenaline-fuelled dread termed “art-horror” by Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. It does happen to me on occasion though, this sense of frisson: I remember the worrying, childhood anxiety of the doomsday clock in John Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that horrible cosmic grandeur I experienced the first time I turned the pages of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, or the overbearing sense of inexorable supernatural fate in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
But if invoking this feeling of fear is such a rare experience—a sort of holy grail of reader reaction—then you might rightly wonder why I carry on exploring this particular section of the library? Am I not effectively one among the crowd, professing with a sneer, that didn’t scare me? It’s a reasonable question. Put another way: If horror doesn’t get you scared, then what are you getting?
In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil (1988), editor Douglas E. Winter makes an observation, often repeated, what he calls “an important bit of heresy”: “Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” This is a good place to start: horror is an emotion, and so the success or failure of horror literature is predicated on eliciting an emotional sensation in the reader. Similar to how a joke might be deemed a success or failure depending on the laughs. But there’s got to be more to it than that.
Consider a grand piano, onyx black, appropriately festooned with cobwebs and candelabra bedecked with dripping red candles. Imagine being allowed to play only one note, probably down the far left end of the instrument where the theme from Jaws is usually played. Now imagine that the sole way to enhance the effectiveness of this note is to hammer that one key harder and harder. For many, this is horror. Hammering that single key. Lots of people love that one pounding note too, and feel cheated if they don’t get that adrenaline rush; that didn’t scare me. Sure, that single note might be novel for a moment, sometimes even effective in a particular context, as the musician changes speed or intensity. But you’ll forgive me if I tend to feel overwhelmingly bored with this sort of concert.
“Horror is an emotion,” Douglas E. Winter tells us. I would respectfully like to amend that assertion. Horror is a range of emotions. And each of these moods, if they are to be successful, must be cultivated differently. We know that good horror is rarely just a single note. There are far more keys on that piano—and they’re all elegantly tuned. To borrow the subtitle of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the genre is eine Symphonie des Grauens—a symphony of horrors.
There seems to have been a proliferation of horror-related literary descriptors in the early- to mid-twentieth century (or at least an increasingly formalised awareness of them): cosmic, weird, numinous, uncanny, strange, among others. I believe these words are of merit, not because they define sub-genres, but because they reflect attempts to describe particular nuances of affect (emotional responses) to be found in the “ghost story”—the dominant mode of horror in the late nineteenth century, itself rooted in the gothic tradition. Despite the common trope of the wailing bedsheet, the ghost story has always been quite diverse and adaptable. As is occasionally observed, the “ghosts” in the works of M. R. James are often not ghosts at all, but demons and other such denizens; while the stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James practically beg for the qualifier “psychological” so as to set them apart from the less imaginative chain-rattling fare. And yet, even though Algernon Blackwood himself called “The Willows” a ghost story, that attribution would seem a wholly inadequate description for the troubling sentiments that masterful tale evokes. Who can blame Lovecraft for writing an entire treatise pondering the aesthetics of the weird or Robert Aickman for labouring the strange?
This attempt to describe dominant effects found in horror storytelling continues apace; sometimes these descriptions are celebrated, other times they’re inelegantly stated, occasionally there’s some sort of backlash. Current nomenclature includes “quiet horror” or “elevated horror”, “horror adjacent”, “new horror”, and the ostensibly respectable “thriller”. But surely horror means horror. It doesn’t need your fancy terms. Perhaps the worry is that defining a “sub-genre” will limit creativity, possibly that it’s just a marketing ploy, or, worse still, a declaration of vogueishness, a demonstration of an otherwise unspoken desire to be au courant. Or maybe outsiders discovering good horror ruin the mystique of the insular and supposedly marginalised horror geek who has been reading Thomas Ligotti this whole time anyway.
As someone who thinks often about the mechanics of horror storytelling, it makes sense to me that we recognise and try to describe the wide-ranging nuances of emotional sensations available to writers of horror. I believe understanding this diversity makes horror literature a stronger, richer, and more enjoyable pursuit.
Over the years I’ve written down some words that I’ve come to associate with the various emotional resonances found in horror literature. Take a moment to read through them. Think about stories you’ve read that evoke these sensations to varying degrees of success, and how these ideas differ from one another:
I have not attempted to arrange these words in any sort of order. I’m not sure I would know how. Nor would I feel confident to state that this list is complete; no doubt you can think of more. Call these words what you’d like—sub-genres, modes, atmospheres, moods, sensibilities—but they all describe, directly or indirectly, discreet emotional sensations that a skilled writer can elicit from a reader. It also stands to reason that this variety of effects requires a broad range of appreciative sensibilities—though I understand that not everyone will respond equally to each of these words. Still, there are plenty of emotional sensations available to the skilled writer, the adrenaline rush of fear being only one of them. And this sensation alone is insufficient to judge the vast scope of horror. So much for “That didn’t scare me”.
Numerous essayists over the centuries have attempted to define some of these modes, to delineate their core attributes and limits. Anne Radcliffe made an early attempt at that classic bifurcation, differentiating terror and horror: “the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”; to these twin poles, Stephen King added revulsion (the “gross-out”, he called it). Thomas Burke gives us the sublime, when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it”; while Freud sets out a reasonable starting point for the uncanny (“that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”).
Though the weird is often associated with Lovecraft’s examination of supernatural horror in literature, I like Mark Fisher’s more recent philosophical definition in The Weird and the Eerie: “that which does not belong”; and of the eerie: the “failure of absence” or the “failure of presence”. (Fisher also helpfully tells us that the weird and the eerie need not necessarily be aligned with fear either, thank you very much.) The well-known rules for the ghost story proper were set out by M. R. James; so too does Edith Wharton give insight in her preface to Ghosts: “What the ghost really needs is continuity and silence”—although she also notes, “the more one thinks the question over, the more one perceives the impossibility of defining supernatural events”.
It’s true that many have tried to put words to these nuanced facets of horror. Certainly, some overlap or work in tandem, while others command entirely recognisable sub-genres on their own. We can look to Arthur Machen for the mystical (“Omnia exeunt in mysterium”), to Aickman for the strange (“it must open a door where no one had previously noticed a door to exist”), or to Joyce Carol Oates for the grotesque (“a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise”). There are whole books written on the subject by Dorothy Scarborough, Montague Summers, Peter Penzoldt, Devendra P. Varma, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Glen Cavaliero, S. T. Joshi—you may not always agree with their conclusions (isn’t that half the fun anyway?), but all are attempting to give names to the various effects a “horror” story can elicit.
Which brings us to the present volume, the fifth in a series of unsettling tales. Believe it or not, Uncertainties is a themed anthology. The remit was nothing so superficial as vampires or zombies or folk horror or Cthulhu (only in dustbowl Oklahoma this time), but rather to exhibit horror’s myriad nuances, to open up strange vistas of unsettling possibilities and other-worldly ideas, to commune with intrusions from the outside and those disquieting gestations from within. “Ghost stories,” as Elizabeth Bowen observed, “are not easy to write—least easy now, for they involve more than they did.” But these twelve writers take up the challenge, each in their own way, with expert awareness of the genre’s limitless possibilities.
Algernon Blackwood put it well in “The Willows”, a story that’s caused me many sleepless nights in terrible awe of the unknown: “ ‘There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’ ”
So you can call these stories whatever you’d like: weird, strange, eerie, uncanny . . . I call them Uncertainties.
Brian J. Showers Rathmines, Dublin 24 February 2021
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, and Supernatural Tales. His short story 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 (2006), the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011), and the editor of The Green Book. Showers also edited the first two volumes of Uncertainties, and co-edited with Jim Rockhill, the Ghost Story Award-winning anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
Previous volumes of Uncertainties are also available:
We can probably safely say that few could have guessed what 2020 would have in store for us. I haven’t quite decided yet whether or not I take comfort in the fact that this can be said at the start of any given year. Anyway, here at Swan River Press I had to adjust quickly: I started to work my day job from home last March, which then blurred daily into the evening hours that I put into the press. Time is a bit elastic in this room, and it isn’t uncommon to find myself wondering what day of the week it is.
Whenever I write one of these annual reviews, it seems that the most recent passing year is the “most ambitious yet”. This year feels no different, if only because most of my free moments—for better or for worse—were given over to Swan River. I suppose one must keep oneself distracted, right? I admit, I enjoy the indulgence in work. At least this sort of work.
But here we are at the end of a difficult year, and it’s time for me to take stock of what we’ve accomplished on the publishing front. I say “we” because, though it’s just been me in this room for the majority of the year, Swan River is far from just myself as you’ll quickly see.
So let’s start at the beginning.
Our first book of the year was the fourth instalment in our ongoing anthology series, Uncertainties, our showcase of new writing—featuring contributions from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines—each writer exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. This year’s volume was edited by Timothy J. Jarvis, and included an impressive line-up of stories from fourteen contemporary writers such as Lucie McKnight Hardy, Camilla Grudova, John Darnielle, Brian Evenson, and Claire Dean. I was particularly delighted to feature on the cover a painting by B. Catling, who we’ll return to in a moment. David Longhorn of Supernatural Tales had some kind things to say about the anthology: “[Uncertainties 4] has, for me, illustrated yet again the broad range of Gothic fiction, and more than hints at a genre revival in this century far more impressive than anything in the last. Perhaps this is because, like the Victorian era, ours is one of uncertain peace, irrational fads, scientific progress, and deeply unstable societies that are mirrored in confused personal identities and relationships. And people still like spooky stuff a lot.”
Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin felt like one of our biggest discoveries of the year, something to be truly excited about: the first Irish edition of an overlooked novel once banned in this country. An atypical book from Mannin, Lucifer and the Child was originally published in 1945, then reviewed in the Irish Times as “a strange, but gripping book”. Our new edition of this extraordinary novel features an introduction by Rosanne Rabinowitz, and was given favourable notice in the Dublin Inquirer: “It is not surprising that this book was deemed unsuitable for 1940s Ireland. The allure of Lucifer and the occult would certainly have been deemed inappropriate, as would the depictions of female sexuality.” (Although no records exist that give reason, I personally suspect it wasn’t the occult themes that got the book banned, but rather the mention of abortion.) Despite the challenges it poses to conservative pearl-clutchers, this book was warmly received as evidenced by the many emails I got from delighted readers. The cover is by Australian artist Lorena Carrington—she did a wonderful job of depicting the dark faerie tale within its pages.
Our next title, Munky, allowed us not only to work with artist and novelist B. Catling RA, author of the Vorrh trilogy, but for the cover art the opportunity to team up with artist Dave McKean. This project started as a submission to Uncertainties 4, but after some consideration, we decided it stood better on its own. Munky is a quirky novella that illustrates an English town and its inhabitants, as ridiculous as they are quaint, evoking an atmosphere that “might be called M. R. James with a soupçon of P. G. Wodehouse and a dash of Viz” (The Scotsman). We had also arranged for this edition to be signed by both author and artist, making this book one helluva package. Once a book is published, I tend not to go back and read it (yet again). Not so with Munky. Over these past months I found myself picking it up on occasion to revisit Catling’s charmingly cracked world.
Our fourth book this year was also our fourth by Irish author Mervyn Wall: Leaves for the Burning, originally published in 1952. We’ve been championing Wall’s work for quite some time now: The Unfortunate Fursey (2015), The Return of Fursey (2015), A Flutter of Wings (2017), and in a few issues of The Green Book. A mid-century portrait of Ireland, Leaves for the Burning is rich in grotesque humour and savage absurdity, depicting a middle-aged public servant who works in a shabby county council sub-office in the bleak Irish midlands, mired in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and petty skirmishes with locals. Although we stray from our typical fantastical themes with this one, we hope you’ll still give it a chance. With an introduction by Susan Tomaselli, editor of gorse, we are proud to make available again Mervyn Wall’s great “half-bitter book”—as it was judged by Seán O’Faoláin—surely now just as relevant as it was over half a century ago. The cover art for this one is by Niall McCormack, whose work will be recognisable to those who read Tomaselli’s gorse.
Continuing with our “recovered voices” of Irish women writers of the supernatural, this year we published The Death Spancel and Others by Katharine Tynan. Research for this project started over three years ago—though you’ll recall we featured Tynan in Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women (2019) and in various issues of The Green Book. Consisting of fifteen stories, seven poems, three appendices, and an introduction by Peter Bell, The Death Spancel is the first collection to showcase Katharine Tynan’s tales of the macabre and supernatural. It is also the only volume of this once-popular Irish author’s work currently in print, perhaps making this book all the more important. The Death Spancel was reviewed in Hellnotes by Mario Guslani to be “of remarkably high literary quality . . . a great collection recommended to any good fiction lover.” Brian Coldrick, who is quickly becoming one of our favourite artists to work with, did the cover for this one. You might recognise his work from the cover of Rosa Mulholland’s Not to Be Taken at Bed-time (2019).
The final hardback of the year was Ghosts of the Chit-Chat, edited by actor and scholar Robert Lloyd Parry. The book is as much an anthology of stories and poems as it is a work of scholarship. Lloyd Parry introduces each author with a short biographical sketch, building a portrait of those in the orbit of M. R. James, who debuted his own ghost stories on the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, Cambridge University’s Chit-Chat Club. Like many of our books, this one was long in the works. In addition to reprinting numerous rare and only recently discovered pieces, Ghosts of the Chit-Chat also features earlier, slightly different versions of James’s “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” (here titled “The Scrap-book of Canon Alberic”) and “Lost Hearts”. We also had a Zoom launch for Chit-Chat, and though it wasn’t recorded, we’ve got a video of Lloyd Parry reading Maurice Baring’s “The Ikon”. The volume was published on 8 December, and proved to be so popular that the already extended edition of 500 swiftly went out of print on 20 December, breaking some sort of record for us. Reception has been encouraging, with James scholar Rosemary Pardoe noting, “People who’ve missed out on it should be kicking themselves.” But don’t worry. We have plans for a paperback edition next year—sign up to our mailing list if you want advance notice.
We also published three issues of our journal The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and the Fantastic. Issue 14, outstanding from 2019, was published simultaneously with Issue 15. Based loosely around the theme of memoir and biographical sketches, Issue 14 contained pieces by or about Dorothy Macardle, Fitz-James O’Brien, Rosa Mulholland, among others. Issue 15 was a departure from our standard practice: we decided to feature fiction, and so reprinted rare pieces by Conall Cearnach, Herbert Moore Pim, Robert Cromie, and others. Issue 16 featured ten entries from our (still tentatively titled) Guide to Irish Gothic and Supernatural Fiction Writers project, including profiles of Edmund Burke, L. T. Meade, Forrest Read, Elizabeth Bowen, and more. Our issues for 2021 are already coming together nicely.
So is anyone interested in the final tallies? I’ve got my nifty spreadsheets set up to spit out some figures. We published 8 new titles this year, totalling 1,584 pages, 2,950 copies, and 462,763 words.
Naturally we attended no conventions this year, either online or in person. I think the last might have been FantasyCon in Glasgow. But I look forward to seeing everyone again soon!
Perhaps the biggest Swan River development over these past twelve months was a long-mooted foray into paperbacks. We’ve dipped our toes in the water so far with Earth-Bound (Dorothy Macardle), The House on the Borderland (William Hope Hodgson), and Insect Literature (Lafcadio Hearn). We’ll be doing more in 2021, so it will be your chance to read some of our out-of-print books at a more reasonable price than what you’ll often find them for on the secondhand market. The reason it took so long is because I wanted to make sure we were doing paperbacks as best we could given the myriad challenges I had to consider and balance. This not only includes the books themselves, but also the behind-the-scenes admin work they create. But I’m happy we’ll been able to make available again some great stories. If you want to read more about our paperbacks, I wrote an entire blogpost about it.
Next I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Timothy J. Jarvis, who will be joining (actually, already has) the Swan River team. I’ve known and worked with Tim for a good many years now. I’ve always found both his fiction and writings on supernatural literature to be nothing but insightful; and I, as I am sure do many, value his generosity, passion, and friendship highly. If you want to check out Tim’s work, I suggest starting with his novel The Wanderer (2014). Tim also edited Uncertainties 4 this year, and his short fiction and articles can be found in innumerable anthologies. He is also co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen (to which you should subscribe if you don’t already). Welcome, Tim!
Not forgetting the Swan River team, who make sure that I’ve not sat alone in this room for the year: Meggan Kehrli, who has once again done a superb job designing and laying out all our titles (including the various other ads and graphics I occasionally need); Jim Rockhill, who is always at the ready to provide proofreading and sage editorial input, always backed with his thoughtful scholarship; and Ken Mackenzie, who takes care of all our books’ insides, always patiently putting up with my dithering until things are just right. And finally, Alison Lyons and the team at Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, who continues to give their support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for our on-going work, allowing us to reach just a bit further than we might otherwise be able to.
Lastly, thank you to everyone who supported Swan River Press this year: with kind words, by buying books, donating through our patron programme, or simply spreading the word—I’m grateful for it all! If you’d like to keep in touch, do join our mailing list, find us on Facebook, follow on Twitter and Instagram. We’ve got some exciting projects for next year that I’m looking forward to sharing with you all. Until then, please stay healthy; take care of each other and your communities. I’d like to wish you all a restful holiday season, and hope to hear from you in the New Year!
Mrs. Katharine Tynan relates a Weird Tale—May Be a Coincidence.
Mrs. Katharine Tynan, the well-known novelist, sends to the Daily Graphic the following weird story:
“This may be a coincidence. On the other hand, it may be a ghost story. It happened to one near and dear to me. It was in his college days, and it was a long vacation, during which he had elected to stay on in his college rooms and work. The rooms were at the top of one of the highest houses in the ancient foundation of Queen Elizabeth, T.C.D. [Trinity College Dublin]. There was not a soul in the house but himself, and the quads and buildings were full of echoing emptiness after nightfall. He was not nervous in the ordinary sense of the word, and did not object to his solitude in his eyrie, although an impressionable Celtic visitor calling on him one afternoon remarked that he would not occupy those rooms in the empty house in the empty college for a single night, no matter what inducement were offered to him to do it.
“It was a night or two later. The sole occupant of No. — awoke in the dark. He had been awakened by an unusual sound on the stairs. He heard the foot ascend and pause outside his door. He sprang out of bed, and fumbled for a light. By the time he had got it, he heard the foot going downstairs again. He hurried to his door, opened it and listened. All was silent as the grave in the empty house. He returned to bed mystified, and slept till morning. In the morning, as he made his own breakfast, and thought of his mysterious visitor of the night before, he glanced toward the door, and noticed something white half-way under the door—a visiting card. He picked it up. It was the card of a man he knew—a college acquaintance, whom we shall call Roland White. In the corner of the card was written in pencil, ‘Just passing through.’ The mystery was not cleared. Why on earth should Roland White have called in the dead waste and middle of the night? He had heard of him a few days before as enjoying himself thoroughly grouse-shooting in the west.
“A day or two passed. As he came into college one afternoon he was stopped by one of the porters. ‘Very sad about poor Mr. White, sir?’ ‘What about Mr. White?’ ‘Haven’t you heard, sir? It’s in the evening papers.’ It was the familiar accident of the trigger of a gun catching in a twig as the sportsman scrambled through a fence. Shot in the head, Roland White had died within a few minutes of the accident. The coincidence would have been if the card was an old one, and had been dislodged from somewhere or another to lie below the door on the very night following the day when the fatal accident had occurred. But then the foot on the stairs in the middle of the night! Ghost story or coincidence, it remains a mystery to this day.”
This rule, the first in the founding charter of the Chit-Chat, was not always strictly observed during the thirty-seven years of the club’s existence. It’s true that membership was only ever drawn from undergraduates and staff of Cambridge University, but the name was subject to variation, and it was for an evening of supernatural storytelling rather than rational conversation that the Chit-Chat has earned its modest place in the history of English literature.
On the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, members past and present ought to have been enjoying a dinner in celebration of the club’s recently held 600th meeting. The secretary, A. B. Ramsay, had failed to make the necessary arrangements, however. So instead, ten current members and one guest gathered in the rooms of the Junior Dean of King’s College and listened—with increasing absorption one suspects—as their host read “Two Ghost Stories”.
Ghosts of the Chit-Chat is not the first book to celebrate this momentous event in the history of supernatural literature, the earliest dated record we have of M. R. James reading his ghost stories out loud. But it is the first to look more widely at the contributions that other club members made to the genre. The authors whose works appear in these pages are not a diverse group: they were the privately educated sons of bankers, lawyers, schoolmasters, and clergymen, who would themselves go on to careers in academia, journalism, the army and the church. But they were also men of imagination, curiosity, and wit, and the variety lies in the different approaches to supernatural fiction: here you’ll find tales of ghostly retribution and black magic; spatterings of gore and glimpses “beyond the veil”. You’ll read stories written to edify schoolboys, and poems composed to tickle undergraduates. You’ll encounter allegory, satire, and mysticism.
And while all the writers invoke ghosts in their work, many are also shades themselves; men whose remembrances have faded, whose voices are but faintly heard today. M. R. James and E. F. Benson remain in the mainstream, it’s true. But while names like Maurice Baring, Desmond MacCarthy, and J. K. Stephen may still ring faint bells with the book-loving public, their works are long out of print. Whereas the writings of Robert Carr Bosanquet and Will Stone are found only in the pages of unread memorial volumes.
Each of the works selected here is preceded by an account of the author’s life and his relationship to M. R. James and—except in one case—formal membership of the Chit-Chat Club is a prerequisite for inclusion in this volume. Celebrated Cambridge supernaturalists like Arthur Gray, E. G. Swain, R. H. Malden, and others find no place here for the simple reason that they never made the commitment to attend a meeting every Saturday evening at 10 p.m. during term, take a pinch of snuff, and listen to one of their friend’s read a paper. Or perhaps they were never asked.
The designations of the Chit-Chat as a “club” and a “society” were interchangeable from the beginning—both appear in the first set of rules. The minute books, and the letters and memoirs of past members, variously render the name as “Chit-Chat”, “Chit Chat”, or “Chitchat”. Except when quoting other sources, I shall follow rule one from the first set of rules, quoted above, and use Chit-Chat Club.