Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

Dictionary of Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

wby017What to make of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By 1925, the prescient French journalist Simone Téry observed:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

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


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

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

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Courtesy of Martin Hayes

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

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


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

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

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

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

A.E.—An Appreciation and a Remembrance

Our Haunted Year: 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian J. Showers

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Our Haunted Year: 2016

The Passing of J. Sheridan Le Fanu

28 August 1814 – 7 February 1873

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18 Merrion Square
Dublin
Feb. 9th /73.

Dear Lord Dufferin,

I write a line to tell you of our terrible loss. My darling father died on Friday morning [7 February] at 6 o’Clock. He had almost got over a bad attack of Bronchitis but his strength gave way & he sank very quickly & died in his sleep. His face looks so happy with a beautiful smile on it. We were quite unprepared for the end. My brother Philip & I never left him during his illness & we were hopeful and happy about him even the day before he seemed to be much better. But it comforts me to think he is in Heaven, for no one could have been better than he was. He lived only for us, and his life was a most troubled one. I know you will feel this Dear Lord Dufferin. He loved you very much and very often spoke of you.

Ever your affectionate,

Emmie L. Le Fanu


The above note was sent by Le Fanu’s daughter, Emma Lucretia, to his cousin, Frederick Temple Blackwood, 1st Marquis of Dufferin and Ava. It was written in a long flowing hand on card with a heavy black border. According to the diary of Le Fanu’s brother, William, the author breathed his last at “½ past 6”. He was interred in a vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin on 11 February, where he joined his wife Susanna. A stream of obituaries followed, lamenting the loss of Dublin’s “Invisible Prince”.

Le Fanu had many admirers, among them ghost story writer M.R. James, who famously observed that Le Fanu, “succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer”; and Henry James who wrote that author’s novels were, “the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.”

E.F. Benson’s brief laudatory essay on Le Fanu, published in The Spectator (1931), is available here.

In 1880 an anonymous reviewer of Le Fanu’s posthumous collection The Purcell Papers opined that, “The genius of the late Mr. Sheridan Le Fanu (the author of Uncle Silas and other romances) was also of a chill and curdling nature. No author more frequently caused a reader to look over his shoulder in the dead hour of the night. None made a nervous visitor feel more uncomfortable in the big, bleak bedrooms of old Highland houses.”

To celebrate the life of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, take the time today to read one of his most notable and chilling tales, “Green Tea”, available to read online here.

His vampire tale, “Carmilla”, which almost certainly influenced his fellow countryman Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, can be read here.

Or if you’re in the book buying mood . . .

In celebration of Le Fanu’s 200th birth anniversary, Swan River Press published two books: Reminiscences of a Bachelor, a brooding gothic novella not reprinted since its first publication in 1848; and a tribute anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, which won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014.

MEMORY
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

One wild and simple bugle sound,
Breathed o’er Killarney’s magic shore,
Awakes sweet floating echoes round
When that which made them is no more.

So slumber in the human breast
Wild echoes that will sweetly thrill
Through memory’s vistas when the voice
That waked them first for aye is still.

Oh! memory, though thy records tell
Full many a tale of grief and folly,
Of mad excess, of hope decayed,
Of dark and cheerless melancholy.

Yet, memory, to me thou art
The dearest of the gifts of mind,
For all the joys that touch my heart
Are joys that I have left behind.

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The Passing of J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Irish Writers of the Fantastic

Final

I’m sure you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Irish Writers” poster around Dublin. It depicts the usual suspects: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, et cetera. A while back the Irish Times published a reply to that poster, again entitled “Irish Writers”, but this time featuring only women (as the original featured only men). You can view both posters here.

Despite the strengths of these two posters, I felt there were still a few conspicuously absent faces.

As Swan River Press is Ireland’s only publishing house dedicated to what might broadly be termed “literature of the fantastic”, I felt it up to us to submit our own entry into the cavalcade of Irish literary posters.

As our treat to you this Halloween, I’d like to present Irish Writers of the Fantastic.

The poster was designed to give an overview of these worthy and often overlooked Irish authors. Some you will recognise, others you will not. Some, such as Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany, have had a profound impact on international literature. Others, like Fitz-James O’Brien and Dorothy Macardle, will be more obscure. But each one is worth discovering or revisiting this Halloween season.

Ultimately I hope you will find something of interest among them. There are both men and women included in our poster. Writers who are world renowned and those who are less well known. There’s horror, fantasy, science fiction, supernatural, satire . . . You’ll find here writers from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and their contributions to literature span the better part of two centuries.

However, as is the nature of lists, I hope you will disagree with this one. With any luck, you’ll be only too eager to point out someone that deserves to be included, but was not. And I hope you do. And when you do in the comments below, tell us why you think they should be included (and might they bump someone off the list?) Don’t grunt, elucidate! That second part is the most important bit. Because, above all, this poster is meant to get people talking about these writers . . . and then running to the nearest bookshop or library to read their works. In the meantime, Swan River Press will continue to lead the way in their rediscovery.

Anyone with a further interest in Ireland’s contributions to the genre might want to check out our twice-yearly journal The Green Book, which features commentaries, articles, and reviews on Irish gothic, supernatural, and fantastic literature. Until then . . .

Happy Halloween from the Swan River Press!


Some Reading Suggestions from Swan River Press

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Irish Writers of the Fantastic

Sorry, lads! Dracula’s Not Irish . . .

11870726_1169355833079619_2823073069956155397_nA few doors down from where I work is a boarding house in which Bram Stoker once lodged for a few months before permanently relocating to London, where he would work for much the rest of his life for the celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving. Other than that, the house is notable as being the only building in Dublin with a plaque on it dedicated to Stoker—and, by the way, some think it might not even be the correct building. But that’s a rant for another day.

Anyway, numerous times per day, tour guides passing on buses proclaim from their crackling loudspeakers that Stoker got the name “Dracula” from the Irish phrase “droch fhola“, meaning “bad blood”. Unfortunately this is complete rubbish and little more than a coincidental homophone. A nice one, I’ll admit that, but . . .

draculabritishfirstissuefirstedition-e4ecce78I usually hear the false “droch fhola” claim repeated in locally-produced documentaries or in pamphlets focused on labouring the well-established biographical fact of Stoker’s Irish origin. I’m guessing this is probably a vain attempt to hitch (and therefore legitimise?) Stoker’s best-known novel to the national identity—as if Stoker simply being a Dubliner isn’t enough, he needs to have written a thoroughly Irish novel, apparently. (By the way, if you’re looking for an Irish novel by Stoker, check out his first book The Snake’s Pass published in 1890. It’s a cracking read!)

As a rule of thumb, however, beware anyone who tells you they know what Dracula is really about. That it is, for example, a veiled commentary on the nineteenth-century Irish absentee landlord system. It’s a fair reading of the novel, sure, but that’s different from declaring such an interpretation as Stoker’s own clever and intentional encoding.

I’d also discard immediately any genealogist who makes the claim that Dracula was inspired by Stoker’s distant relative, the sixteenth-century Irish lord Manus “the Magnificent” O’Donnell. While I won’t dispute that Stoker and O’Donnell share DNA—many of us on the island probably do anyway, not to mention said genealogist also certified Barack Obama as Irish—but I do have a problem with someone making the further claim that this, of course, must then be the true inspiration for Dracula. Notice a trend here? (Cue Carly Simon: ” . . . you probably think this song is about you.”)

Stoker_Dracula_Notes_PersonalFor all of the confusion and misinformation that obscures Stoker’s novel like a thick Victorian fog, there is one primary resource we do have that’s really quite amazing: Bram Stoker’s own working notes for Dracula. The notes were published in a beautiful facsimile edition with transcriptions and annotations by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller. Dr. Miller, by the way, also wrote a book called Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. She wrote it to dispel the enormous mountains of bullshit and fabricated mythologies that have accumulated over the decades and now obstruct the popular perception of the original novel. Crab-induced nightmares, anyone?

But let’s get back to this “droch fhola” bullshit and Stoker’s working notes for Dracula. It’s a fascinating collection of documents and if you’re at all interested in Stoker you might want to have a look at it. Among the extensive notes, Stoker tells us exactly where he got the name “Dracula”. And it’s got nothing to do with Ireland at all. Sorry, lads! Here, have a look for yourself:

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I’d say Stoker’s own notes are a lot more convincing than all that wishful speculation and naval-gazing, don’t you? And just for good measure, here’s the page from Wilkinson’s Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia (courtesy of the John Moore Collection) that Stoker is referring to in the above note. It’s even the very same edition he would have looked at in the Whitby Library in August 1890 :

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If you’re really interested in Stoker and Dracula, here’s a core list of books I’d suggest you read. The first one might seem a little obvious to state, but when I first read Dr. Miller’s Sense & Nonsense, I noted how many times she upended a spurious assertion simply by quoting directly from the novel. So, first up:

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. Archibald Constable, 1897.

Next we have some immediate works about Dracula. Anyone serious about investigating the novel needs to borrow these from the library:

  • Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula. Annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller. McFarland & Co., 2008.
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Critical Feast [a collection of contemporary reviews] edited by John Edgar Browning. Acryphile Press, 2012.
  • Dracula: Sense & Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller. Desert Island, 2000 (rev. 2006).

These next two are vitally important because they’re the main documents where Stoker gives us any real personal insight, and even then there’s not much:

  • The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years. Edited by Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker. Biteback Publishing, 2013.
  • Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving by Bram Stoker. William Heinemann, 1906.

And see, that’s the main problem. Stoker never really wrote that much about himself. Most of what we know about Stoker is inferred from other sources. That’s why making claims about Stoker’s “true” intentions is problematic. As for biographies, until David J. Skal’s Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker comes out later next year, I will refer you to:

  • From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker by Paul Murry. Jonathan Cape, 2004.
  • “Mr. Stoker’s Holiday” by Christopher Frayling in Bram Stoker: Centenary Essays edited by Jarlath Killeen. Four Courts Press, 2014. [A dazzling investigation of Stoker’s time in Whitby.]

On the other hand, if you’ve got access to some primary source of information that indicates Stoker was familiar with the phrase “droch fhola“, or even that he knew some Irish, you really ought to share it with the rest of usbecause it would be a major literary discovery.

Next week, we’ll be discussing whether or not the mummies of St. Michan’s church were the inspiration for Draculaand the further assertion that the young Stoker used to play amongst the tombstones there as a child. How a child who was an invalid until the age of seven could play in a churchyard is beyond meand why his mother allowed the fragile boy to travel to the other side of Dublin, when there were perfectly good churchyards much closer to the house, is probably a matter for the Department of Child Welfare and Protection. One might as well head to Transylvania on an expedition for the “real” Castle Dracula. (Hint: try the first four chapters instead.)

Until then, class dismissed!


For those with a further interest in Bram Stoker, Swan River Press has recently published a hitherto unknown ghost story by Stoker. It appears in print for the first time since its original publication in 1873 in issue six of our flagship journal The Green Book. You can order a copy here.

Green Book 6

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Sorry, lads! Dracula’s Not Irish . . .

Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature

Insect LiteratureI’d like to write about our forthcoming book, Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature. Actually, I don’t want to write about Insect Literature so much as I’d like an excuse to tell you how a Swan River Press book gets put together. I’m inordinately proud of this one too, because it has so many meaningful features worked into its design. I’ll just start at the beginning.

For a long time Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) had been on my mental list of Irish authors I’d like to showcase. But I’d always hesitated as much of his work is already widely available and in inexpensive editions. I wanted something special, a project that was unique and interesting. A book only Swan River Press could publish. Enter Anne-Sylvie Homassel.

Anne-Sylvie brought Insect Literature to my attention a good while back. The earliest reference to it in our correspondence that I can find dates back to November 2013. After our initial conversation, the idea sat at the back of my brain until sometime in 2014 when I learned from my friend John Moran that the Little Museum of Dublin would be mounting a major exhibition on the life and works of Hearn in the autumn of 2015. Work promptly started on the project so that the book would be ready in time for the celebrations.

So what is Insect Literature? Very briefly: Insect Literature is a posthumous collection of Hearn’s essays and stories on insects originally published by Hokuseidō Press in 1921. It was edited by one of Hearn’s former students, Masanobu Ōtani, as part of a multi-volume bilingual (Japanese/English) “Hearn Memorial Translations” series.The original volume contains ten insect-related texts—for Swan River’s new edition Anne-Sylvie has added another ten. You can buy a copy here, if you’d like!

IMG_0057The first order of business was track down a first edition copy. The reason I wanted to at least see a copy was because I like to incorporate elements from the original publications as part of Swan River’s designs. Apparently, as I quickly learned, Insect Literature is a rare enough oul’ book. I could find mentions of it in online catalogues and it is listed in P.D. & Ione Perkins’s bibliography (and in the collections of two university libraries—one in Australia, the other in Kentucky), but nowhere could I find copies for sale, or even evidence of copies that had been for sale.

There’s an interesting reason for the scarcity of this book though. On 1 September 1923, Tōkyō was devastated by the Great Kantō Earthquake. The destruction was total and the subsequent fires engulfed much of Tōkyō, destroying Hokuseidō’s warehouses and stock in the process. But that didn’t stop me from occasionally trawling the internet, hoping a copy might turn up.

As luck would have it, one evening in early spring 2015, about seven or eight pages deep into a Google search, I found an entry for Insect Literature on a French auction website. The listing, which had no bids, had been posted in 2013. What were the chances it was still available? But it was the first lead I’d seen, so I had to try. I promptly wrote to the auctioneer, fully not expecting a reply. Or if I got a response, that I would be told it had already been sold. Or had been lost. Or . . .

But I did get a reply, the book was still available, and after a nervous two-week wait for something to go wrong, Insect Literature arrived safely here at our offices in Dublin. (If anyone else finds another copy, I’d love to know.)

Hearn SealIt’s a beautifully designed book with English on the versos and Japanese on the facing rectos. The blue buckram cover bears Hearn’s personal seal stamped in gold. It’s a heron. Get it? But let’s move on to what I really want to talk about: the design of our new edition.

So the text first. The original edition features Japanese translations by the editor Masanobu Ōtani. While I couldn’t reprint the translated text as in the original, I felt it important to preserve the sense of the bilingual in our edition. The best way to do this would be to print the Japanese titles for each story above their English counterparts. The resulting layout looked pretty good, but we had one slight problem. While Ōtani provided translated titles for the original ten texts in Insect Literature, we had to go searching for translations for the additional titles. For this I went to Rebecca Bourke and my old friend Edward Crandall. They first checked for any existing title translations (which they found for the likes of “Gaki” and “The Dream of Akinosuké”). But when no existing title could be found, new translations had to be created.

IMG_0062In addition to the translated titles, we also included M. Ōtani’s brief forward; perhaps not particularly illuminating, but it felt an intimate part of the original book, and thus warranted inclusion. Another interesting element in the first edition is the reproduction of a handwritten letter from Hearn’s friend Mitchell McDonald praising the late author. (McDonald also served as Hearn’s literary executor; unfortunately he died in the Great Kantō Earthquake.)  In the end we decided to leave the letter out of the book because it didn’t add much to the immediate context of Insect Literature. However, we did make the text available on the website, which you can read here.

Which brings us to the dust jacket. Here it is in full view. You can click on the image below if you want to get a better look at it.

Final-Insect Literature Jacket copy

The first time I saw Takato Yamamoto’s “Bug”, I knew instantly that I wanted it on the cover of our new edition. I don’t think I ever really had a second choice. Very much in the spirit of Hearn, this project was destined to be international. Anne-Sylvie’s in France, I’m in Ireland, Ken is in England, Xand is in Germany, Jim and Meggan are in America. All I had to do now was track down Mr. Yamamoto in Japan. It took some doing, but I eventually managed to get in touch with his agent, who kindly allowed for its use. And there it is buzzing beautifully on the cover.

IMG_0056Now have a closer look at the jacket. See the title and the author’s name there on the front panel? Our designer, Meggan Kehrli, lifted that font from the original title page of Insect Literature. (This is a trick we also did for the cover of our edition of Thomas Leland’s Longsword, which she lifted from the title page of the 1762 edition). The same font gets used again on the spine as well as on the front flap. It’s subtle and not everyone will notice, but I like knowing it’s there anyway. It somehow adds something to the book for me.

FirefliesWhile doing bibliographic research on the original publications of the various texts that comprise Insect Literature, I consulted a number of other first editions, many of which contained illustrations. While we didn’t use all of what was available, we certainly included a good sampling of the more impressive ones. There are four really lovely ones by Genjiro Yeto that originally appeared in Kottō (1902). Originally I wasn’t going to include any illustrations, but the more I looked at them, the more I wanted them there in our new edition.

1PTDC0034My favourite, though, are the two little guys on the title page. I found them among the pages of Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), where they originally appeared as illustrations for the sublime essay “Insect-Musicians”. (Another insect-musician appears on the spine of the PPC pictured below.)

The title page could have been different though. I very nearly put Hearn’s heron there instead. Much as I liked the idea, and it would certainly be in keeping with the first edition, it seemed vaguely silly to put a bird on the title page of a book called Insect Literature. The heron will have to wait until the next Hearn book we do.

On the rear flap of the jacket you’ll see a photo of Hearn standing beside a seated school boy. This rare photo appeared as the frontispiece in Insect Literature, and therefore made perfect sense to use for our edition’s author photo. The school boy also happens to be Insect Literature‘s original editor and translator, Masanobu Ōtani, making this photo even more appropriate and special.

And then there’s the PPC. As with the jacket, you can click on the below image to get a closer look.

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This is the image that’s printed directly onto the boards underneath the dust jacket. The printed PPC has been a feature of Swan River Press books since the beginning. I always thought that space under a dust jacket was a bit wasted, especially on mass market hardbacks, which tend to just reprint the jacket design. That’s boring. I like giving the reader something to discover.

So the above composite image for the PPC was created by Swan River’s long-time designer Meggan Kehrli. (When I say long time, I mean she’s had a hand in every book right from the start.) The pale cream field on which the insects sit is Meggan’s own handiwork with paper, brush, and dab of watercolour. The dragon-flies are illustrations from “Dragon-flies”, which appeared in A Japanese Miscellany (1901). The cicadae were taken from “Sémi” in Shadowings (1900), while that grasshopper fella and the little guy on the spine are both “Insect-Musicians” from Exotics and Retrospectives (1898). I love how they’re arranged as if a Victorian entomological display. Meggan has created something entirely new with these specimens from the past.

And now for the calligraphy on the spine, which was provided by Yaeko Crandall. The top bit says “Insect Literature“, while the bottom is “Koizumi Yakumo” (Hearn’s Japanese name). Normally on PPCs I don’t like to include any text. But because I wanted another nod to Insect Literature‘s original bilingualism, I thought we could bend the rule just this once. I think it looks great.

Finally, see that little red butterfly on the spine?  It just fell into place there, mirroring the ornament we use on all Swan River jacket spines. Anyway, that little butterfly is from the very last page of Hokuseidō Press’s edition of Insect Literature.

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And that’s about it. At least all I wanted to write about the sort of things that can go into a Swan River Press book design. Not all our books are as extensively layered with meaning as Insect Literature, but for Hearn we had such a wealth of resources available, why not make use of them?

Of course other work went into the making of this book too, less visible, but no less important: Ken McKenzie’s meticulous typesetting (for this book he had to deal with three languages!), Xand Lourenco’s transcribing (again, in three languages), Jim Rockhill’s proofreading (Jim’s another one of Swan River’s secret weapons—he keeps the words classy), not to mention Gentleman John Moran, who lent his Hearn expertise at nearly every turn (he’s also involved in the Little Museum exhibition). And of course Anne-Sylvie Homassel, who not only netted this whole project, but provided a fine introduction for our new edition.

Lafcadio Hearn is an author whose work you can immerse yourself in. His talent as a prose stylist is such that nearly any topic he decides to put his pen to is rendered fascinating and otherworldly. Immersing myself in Hearn’s world is exactly what I did as we put this book together. Through the whole process I read biographies about Hearn, scoured bibliographies, consulted books in the National Library, and just sort of snooped around to see what might turn up . . . it was really good fun!

As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m quite fond of this book. Many hours of work went into making our new edition of Insect Literature. I hope people enjoy it. Thank you for reading.

Purchase a copy of Insect Literature here.

Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature