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

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”