Introduction to The Scarlet Soul

Final CoverI was staying once in a cottage on the downs, remote from anywhere, one of a pair. The other was unoccupied. The next nearest place was a lighthouse. There was no road. You got to the cottage by a track across several fields, flint-riddled and full of unexpected slopes and hollows. The gaunt gorse bushes were bent by the sea-winds. For a while it was a keen delight to be so on our own, the few of us gathered together there. We would walk in the fields, along the cliff paths, down to the coves, and in the evening we would make food, talk, read, listen to the dim music barely discernible from the wavering wireless signal. But by the time it came to the evening before we were due to leave, perhaps these things had begun to pall a bit, or maybe something in the mood of the place made us want to mark in some way its mysteries.

The cottage, which was rented from an ancient estate by a friend, had a number of curios arranged on its old wooden shelves or in alcoves, some of them things picked up on the downs, some of them things brought back from further afield. There was a cluster of sharpened flints that might have been arrowheads, bigger flints that had perhaps been kept because they looked like something else, there was a corroded sheep’s bell, maybe medieval, with tints of green and bronze about it, there was a blurred coin whose head and emblems and lettering could not be discerned, and there was a small ossuary of beast and bird bones bleached by the sun and scoured by the winds, picked up on walks from where they had fallen. Idly, desultorily at first, we began to arrange some of these things on the mantelpiece, trying to get the effect of strange juxtapositions.

I had with me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the edition issued by The Unicorn Press of 8 Charles Street, St James’s Square, in 1945, Martin Secker (Director), one of several imprints that discerning bookman ran in his time. The leaf before the title page read simply: OSCAR WILDE / Born 1856 / Died 1900. And that stark statement was all the introductory matter there was, apart from the writer’s own preface of elegant maxims, beginning, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” But not only beautiful things, surely? Grotesque things too, even ugly things, curious things and uncanny things, as the book itself surely showed. Still, Secker had done the best he could under the exigencies of war-time to make this a lovely object. There was a white buckram spine, with gilt lettering and ornaments. Certain letters in the titles had long laces to them, like golden flourishes. The paper over the boards was a muted, memorial sort of colour, like gravestone moss, somewhere between grey and green.

Well, possessed by I don’t know what languid devilry, I placed this book on the shelf above the fire, and I put a horned ram’s skull from the little informal ossuary on top of it. Then I moved next to it a bronze cobra candlestick, in which a white candle guttered above the hooded head. We had turned off the lights and the room was illumined only by the smouldering fire and a few candles. In the dim glow of the serpent flame the hollows of the skull looked eerie, full of a curious light, and there was a glimmering on the gilt titles of the book. Our shadows played upon the white walls, the wood smoke pervaded the air.

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

We moved the pieces of this macabre composition around, trying to work out what looked right—or wrong, as it may be. We took some black-and-white photographs of these arrangements, conscious that this was all quite perilously close to a sort of ritual. Surely all we were doing was making “artistic” effects, there could not be anything else in play. But that was not quite how we felt. At last, this stealthy uneasiness prevailed. With a certain edge to my movements, I carefully put things back where they had originally been, and picked up the book. But still influenced by the sense of a spell in the air, I tried a piece of bibliomancy, opening it to a page and reading out aloud the first words I found. They were: “Pray, Dorian, pray.”

That night, a storm raged in from the sea and swept in fierce gusts over the downs. The windows and doors rattled, the roof-tiles clattered, and there was a moaning through every crack and crevice in the place. The electricity cut out. A tree by the gate cracked. In low voices—though who was there to hear?—we made light-hearted but uncertain comments to each other about what it was we had raised, grinning ruefully. Of course, we did not really believe there was any link between the idle sorcery with the book, that book, and the fury of the elements. The angle of the thorns and the gorse bushes showed how often and how fiercely there were storms along this coast. But, even so, we were subdued in the morning as we moved around the cottage, trying to clear up as best we could, without any power, and raking out the ashes of the grate in the cold and the grey of the early day.

Later, always drawn to it, as if some leftover from that minor rite remained with me, I found for myself other editions of the book. One of the most poignant is perhaps the one that proved once and for all that Wilde’s reputation was now redeemed, that he was part of the literary canon: the copy in the “uniform edition of Wilde’s authentic works” edited and compiled by Robert Ross. This “popular five-shilling edition” was issued by Methuen, but the volume of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the series bore instead the imprint of “Paris / Charles Carrington / Publisher and Bookseller /1910 / And at Brussels, 10 Rue de la Tribune.” At the back of the book, Carrington offers some of his other titles, including The Sorceress, a Study of Superstition and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet; and Escal Vigor, “a novel from the French of George Eekhoud”, which “has been compared to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray”.

This unusual publishing arrangement was because Carrington, like Ross a loyal champion of Wilde in the darker days, owned the rights to Dorian Gray: but both he and Ross thought that the fantastical novel must not be omitted from Wilde’s collected works, and so came to an accommodation. Ross provided an editorial note to explain this, and Carrington a brief publisher’s note.

“The practice of adding introductions to thoroughly well-known works,” remarked Ross trenchantly, “for the benefit of an already well-informed public, has become almost ridiculous. Only in rare instances have the works been illuminated . . . ” However, he wished to take the opportunity to assert that “the characters of this novel were entirely imaginary, in spite of assertions to the contrary by claimants to the doubtful honour of being the original of ‘Dorian Gray’ ”, though he added that Wilde, “consciously or unconsciously . . . has put a great deal of himself into the character of ‘Lord Henry Wootton’.”

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

We certainly should not essay what Ross himself disdained to do, by saying very much further about Wilde’s book, except to note that its influence was to resonate throughout the literature of the late-nineteenth century and into the Edwardian years and beyond. It may be seen in the decadent horror fiction of Arthur Machen and M.P. Shiel, and even in the often arch and precious character of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Walter de la Mare, later noted for his ethereal and dream-like poems and stories, began as an aesthete in the Wildean manner, and once planned a periodical, to be called The Basilisk, which was to be printed in purple ink. The black humour in the tales of Saki owes some of its brittle wit to its example, and the lush verses of James Elroy Flecker and Rupert Brooke reflect the book’s dandyish style. Even the cadences of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, despite its austere story of desert warfare, can be seen to bear the impress of Wilde’s prose.

But while the book belongs in style to the mannered prose and the languid pose of the Eighteen Nineties, it has endured because its themes are perennial. It asks fundamental questions about our inner selves. Are we a noun or are we a verb? Are we one or are we many? The assumption, heavy as lead upon our thinking and our custom, has always been that an individual is a single entity that can be categorised, defined, commanded and held to account. That belief marches in step with a monotheistic faith, a single version of truth, and in many other often unquestioned orderings and mores. Yet it is not the prevailing wisdom in other societies and cultures. While no-one can doubt there is (for the time being, until science comes up with other offers) a single physical shell for each of us, the “identity” within that shell can be seen as fluid, flexible, a stream of thought and actions, not a constant. We are nearer to racing cheetahs than we are to stolid statues.

And in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a number of writers began to see this, to prise open the hermetically-sealed box of the self and peer inside. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) suggested the existence of at least two selves: the respectable, ethical, dignified public face and the savage, wild, inner demon. It took only a chemical change to release the darker creature. Readers uneasily understood that this was not merely a satire about the risks attendant upon the advance of science. Indeed, its author, from a family of lighthouse engineers, had a healthy respect for what modern invention could do. No: the chemistry was incidental, a device. This was really a book about our secret selves. But Stevenson’s remarkable work was not the only study of that question in its time. For, similarly, Dorian Gray suggests several selves: the beautiful, alluring outer self; the wracked and doubt-ridden inner conscience; and, of course, the symbolic “thing in the attic”, the representation of all that is darkest and ugliest about us.

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

So, because it deals with the deepest questions of what it means to be a human individual, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not simply a book of its time, and not merely a witty entertainment with gothic trappings. Thinking about this, it seemed likely that its questions about art, love, lust, obsession, and the uncanny could still have significance for writers today. And so we asked ten contemporary writers to respond to the book with their own “stories for Dorian Gray”. We were confident that in these hands we could expect strong responses, and we were not disappointed. Some of the stories here are set in Wilde’s time and milieu, others in fantastical realms, and some in our own time, taking us into some of its darker recesses. Whatever their setting, each of them takes some key element of Wilde’s story and offers a bold re-imagining.

And, though they are each strikingly individual, these stories all suggest that we can never quite know when a simple choice, a word spoken, a leap of desire, a curious allure, a blaze of emotion, an encounter with a stranger, maybe even just playing around with an old book, might lead us on and on into terrain we cannot explain, where we and all the things we thought we knew can never be the same.

Mark Valentine
31 August 2017


Mark Valentine is the author of studies of Arthur Machen, and the diplomat and fantasist Sarban. His essays on book-collecting, folklore and the uncanny have been gathered in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017) from Tartarus Press. He edits Wormwood, a journal devoted to literature of the fantastic. His books of fiction include Selected Stories (2012) and Seventeen Stories (2013), both from The Swan River Press.

The Scarlet Soul is now available as a limited edition hardback from Swan River Press. Edited by Mark Valentine, with stories by Reggie Oliver, Caitriona Lally, Lynda E. Rucker, John Howard, D.P. Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, Timothy J. Jarvis, John Gale, and Derek John. Cover illustration by John Coulthart.

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Introduction to The Scarlet Soul

Mervyn Wall (1908-1997)

12 Wall“In Ireland anything may happen to anyone anywhere and at any time, and it usually does.”

The Unfortunate Fursey (1946)

Mervyn Wall (1908-1997) was born in Rathmines, Dublin. He was educated in Belvedere College; Bonn, Germany; and the National University of Ireland where he obtained his B.A. in 1928. After fourteen years in the Civil Service, he joined Radio Éireann as Programme Officer. In 1957 he left Radio Éireann to become Secretary of the Arts Council of Ireland, a position he held until 1975. Widely known during his lifetime as a broadcaster and critic, he is best remembered now for his plays and novels, among them two satirical fantasies set in medieval Ireland, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and The Return of Fursey (1948). His book Leaves for the Burning won Denmark’s Best European Novel award in 1952.

Unfortunate CoverNovels and Collections

The Unfortunate Fursey (1946)

The Return of Fursey (1948)

A Flutter of Wings (1974)

Short Stories

“They Also Serve . . . ”

“The Demon Angler”

“Cloonaturk”

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


A Flutter of WingsWhile our deluxe hardback editions of Mervyn Wall’s most beloved novels, The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, are now out of print, we still have available a new hardback edition of his short story collection A Flutter of Wings.

You’ll also find Mervyn Wall in The Green Book. In Issue 2 is Richard Dalby’s “Mervyn Wall: Irish Author and Satirist”, while in Issue 5 there’s an extensive, career-spanning interview with Wall.

Then, of course, there’s our previous blog entry on Mervyn Wall; a short piece on the origins of The Unfortunate Fursey; an article on Wall’s encounter with the founder of modern day witchcraft, Gerald Gardner; and finally a video of a commemorative event held at the National Library of Ireland to celebrate the life and works of Mervyn Wall: Appreciations and Reminiscences.

Mervyn Wall (1908-1997)

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

11 Bowen“In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return.”

 – “The Demon Lover” (1941)

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was born in Dublin. In 1930 she inherited the family estate in Bowen Court, in Co. Cork, where she entertained the likes of Virginia Woolf and Eudora Welty. Her novels, non-fiction, and short stories—such as those in The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934) and The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945)—continue to be read and appreciated today. Her ghostly fiction, which made regular appearances in the anthologies of Cynthia Asquith, is akin to that of Henry James in its psychological probity, but briefer, wittier, and more ironic, with a streak of feline cruelty.

demon loverCollections

The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934)

The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945)

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1980)

Short Stories

“The Cat Jumps” (1929)

“The Apple Tree” (1931)

“The Demon Lover” (1941)

“Pink May” (1945)

“Hand in Glove” (1952)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


Green Book 09Elizabeth Bowen has featured numerous times in various issues of The Green Book. The first was Issue 4: “Who’s Afraid of ‘The Demon Lover’?: Ireland and the Supernatural in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction” by Megan Kuster.

Issue 9 contains two pieces by Bowen. The first is her introduction to The Second Ghost Book, a fascinating essay that reveals Bowen’s own thoughts on supernatural literature. the second piece is “Big House”, in which Bowen discusses landed estates in Anglo-Irish literature. In the same issue is Bernice M. Murphy and Edwina Keown’s “Uncanny Irish-American Relations: Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Jackson”.

Finally, in Issue 10, which is an issue devoted to Lord Dunsany, you’ll find Bowen’s not-so-gentle review of Dunsany’s One Ireland.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

10 Lewis“If ever they remembered their life in this world it was as one remembers a dream.”

– The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) is widely considered a titan of twentieth-century fantasy, due largely to his “Chronicles of Narnia” novels (1950-56), which commenced with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Though born in Belfast, Lewis is more often associated with Oxford, where he joined the Magdalen College English faculty, and associated with J. R. R. Tolkien and other members of the Inklings literary group. Lewis also explored science fiction in his “Space Trilogy” novels (1938-45), while Christian themes permeate works such as The Screwtape Letters (1942). Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, Oxford.

9780061715051_1_slideshowNovels

Out of a Silent Planet (1938)

The Screwtape Letters (1942)

That Hideous Strength (1945)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)

Prince Caspian (1951)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.

 

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958)

9 Macardle“It would be strange, indeed, if the vigour and content of the living could not banish the lingering sorrows of the dead.” – The Uninvited (1941)

Dorothy Macardle—historian, playwright, journalist, and novelist—was born in Dundalk, Co. Louth. She was educated at Alexandra College in Dublin where she later lectured in English literature. She is best remembered for her seminal treatise on Ireland’s struggle for independence, The Irish Republic (1937), but also wrote novels of the uncanny, including The Uninvited (1941), The Unforeseen (1946), and Dark Enchantment (1953). She died in Drogheda and is buried in St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton.

Earth-Bound Novels and Collections

Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales (1924)

The Uninvited (1941)

The Unforeseen (1946)

The Dark Enchantment (1953)

Short Stories

“Samhain” (1924)

“The Prisoner” (1924)

“The Portrait of Roisin Dhu” (1924)

“The Venetian Mirror” (1924)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


Green Book 09In 2016 Swan River Press reprinted Dorothy Macardle’s debut collection Earth-Bound—ghost stories written in both Kilmainham Gaol and Mountjoy Prison—in a lavish, limited edition hardback. This is the first time the book has been reprinted since 1924. With a new introduction by Peter Berresford Ellis, and the addition of stories uncovered in the archives, Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales is the perfect way to rediscover the work of an extraordinary writer.

We’ve also featured Macardle quite extensively in various issues of The Green Book. Issue 7 not only includes a lengthy article on the life and works of Macardle, “A Reflection of Ghosts” by Peter Berresford Ellis, but the same issue reprints two of her poems, “Easter” and “The City”.  In Issue 8 we reprinted a hitherto unpublished short story by Macardle called “The Boys’ Room”, which includes a fascinating introduction by scholar Terri Neil.

Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958)

James Stephens (1880-1950)

8 Stephens“What the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow.”

– The Crock of Gold (1912)

James Stephens was born in Dublin in 1880. Like many young Irish poets of the early twentieth century, Stephens started his career under the tutelage of A.E.; he dedicated his debut poetry collection, Insurrections (1909), to his mentor. In Irish Fairy Tales (1920, illustrated by Arthur Rackham) and Deirdre (1923), Stephens explored the myths and legends of Ireland. His best remembered books are his Dublin novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912) and the philosophical fantasy The Crock of Gold (1912). He died in England in 1950.

136e52e37fb2b8e75873c34b7de2c8d8--wolves-art-illustration-artistsNovels and Collections

The Crock of Gold (1912)

The Demi-Gods (1914)

Irish Fairy Tales (1920)

In the Land of Youth (1924)

Collected Poems (1926)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


Like Lord Dunsany, James Stephens was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising. His visceral account was later published in a riveting volume called The Insurrection in Dublin (1916), an extract of which was reproduced in Issue 7 of The Green Book. Stephens was also a reader of fantasy literature, and his review of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroborous (1922) can be found in Issue 8.

James Stephens was also celebrated for his superb poetical recitations, which he did often for BBC Radio. Numerous recordings still survive.

James Stephens (1880-1950)

Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)

7 Dunsany“A man is a very small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders.”

– The Laughter of the Gods (1917)

Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett; 1878-1957) published his first collection, The Gods of Pegāna, in 1905. He followed this with more than sixty volumes of critically acclaimed stories, novels, plays, poems, and translations. A big-game hunter and a sportsman, Lord Dunsany was also a soldier and a highly ranked chess-player; and was the Byron Professor of English Literature in Athens in 1940-41. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

fc9dc8e8b83c8ce8df3a96b15f7835daNovels and Collections

The Gods of Pegāna (1905)

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908)

Plays of Gods and Men (1917)

The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924)

The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933)

Short Stories

“The Highwayman” (1908)

“Idle Days on the Yann” (1910)

“A Night at an Inn” (1916)

“The Three Sailors’ Gambit” (1916)

“The Two Bottles of Relish” (1952)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


Green Book 10If you’re interested in Lord Dunsany, then you’re in luck! We’ve devoted the entirety of Issue 10 of The Green Book to Dunsany. If you’d like to read the Editorial Note and peruse the contents, please head over to our website.

Issue 7 of The Green Book also featured Dunsany, in particular his role in the 1916 Easter Rising via an extract from his autobiography Patches of Sunlight.

And finally, in Issue 2, we’ve an article from Nicola Gordon Bowe, “Lord Dunsany: Portrait of a Collector”, discussing his contributions to the Irish Arts and Crafts movement.

Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)