Death Makes Strangers: An Interview with R. B. Russell

Death Makes Strangers of Us AllConducted by Michael Dirda, © February 2018

R.B. Russell is the author of three short story collections, three novellas, and a novel, She Sleeps. With his partner, Rosalie Parker, he publishes classic works of curious and macabre fiction under the Tartarus Press imprint.


Michael Dirda: Death Makes Strangers of Us All must be your sixth or seventh published book. Is that right? What is this book’s place in your oeuvre? How does it differ from your three previous short-story collections? Is there a common theme to the stories?

R.B. Russell: This will be my eighth book, which means that anybody who has read more than one will probably have noticed recurring themes that I am unaware of myself. I know that different interpretations of reality and of memories are preoccupations of mine, and this appears in several of the stories in the new book. This collection mainly offers recent work, although the title story is a re-telling of something that I first tried to write more than thirty years ago.

I did my best not to set too many stories in bookshops, but yet another one has crept in.

MD: Is your fiction inspired by any previous writer or writers? More generally, do you think there’s a recognisable English — or should I say British — tradition in the ghost story and weird tale? What defines it? Do you feel part of that tradition?

RBR: An old friend of mine, a gifted songwriter, says that it is easier to come up with original work than try to sound like somebody else, and I find the same with writing. However, I know that I am indebted to just about every writer I have ever read. I go out of my way not to write like the authors I most admire because the results would be hollow imitations.

I’m not sure that in the West there are any true national literary traditions in the gothic/ghostly/weird genres — since Horace Walpole we have all been influenced by writers overseas. The British have obviously assimilated writing from America and Europe, just as Americans have been influenced by Britain and Europe, etc, etc. And, of course, we have all taken on board ideas from non-literary disciplines, such as scientific and philosophical thinking, from wherever it has emerged. Individual writers reflect their own regional background, naturally, which enriches the whole tradition.

As for being a part of a tradition myself, I’m just another writer who has been inexorably drawn towards The Weird.

outside oscar'sMD: I think all readers are interested in the writing and reading habits of favourite authors. Are you a quick study either as reader or writer? Your prose is remarkably clear, eerily effective, but seldom flamboyant. Does it come easily to you or is it the result of determined polishing and buffing. For instance, can you tell us about the gestation and development of the new collection’s first story, “Night Porter”? Aspects of it reminded me of L. P. Hartley’s classic, “A Visitor from Down Under”, while its ending is almost as enigmatic as one of Aickman’s stories.

RBR: I tend to write quick first drafts, enjoying where a story is taking me, trying to get down ideas and atmospheres as they occur to me. And then I edit and re-work stories a great deal. I have heard it said that no piece of fiction is ever “finished”, it is merely abandoned when it is published. I could probably edit forever, which is why I never re-read any of my published writing — I would notice alterations I would want to make.

I am wary of being over-descriptive or lyrical — a simple adjective is often enough to give complexity to a scene. And there is the danger with over-description, of coming into conflict with the images that a reader has already conjured for themselves.

The set-up of the “Night Porter” was inspired by a contemporary film, the title of which I cannot remember. Changing the background and creating my own central character gave me a completely different story with its own impetus. I didn’t know how it would end until I arrived there myself, and the denouement seemed to me to be the most frightening I could imagine. It wasn’t meant to be enigmatic — it ought to mean that the central character has to re-think everything that has happened in a fundamentally different light.

MD: Speaking of Aickman: You recently told me that you had sold a number of books from your library in order to fill out your Robert Aickman collection. I gather that you now own most of his books in dust jacket and several of them signed. A couple of years back you also made a short documentary about Aickman. And, as all readers of supernatural fiction know, Tartarus has long been a champion of that writer’s “strange stories”. What is it about Aickman that draws you to him? How do you compare him to, say, Arthur Machen, the other supernatural fiction writer you have published in extenso?

RBR: First and foremost Aickman is a great storyteller, but at his best he wrong-foots me as a reader, and shocks me. Just when I think I might understand him, and perhaps sympathise with his characters, he reminds me that we are fundamentally very different. The fact that the stories, and the author, are so open to (mis)interpretation makes me go back to him, time and time again. I want to understand him, although it is probably best that I don’t.

The Dark Return of TimeMachen is very different. He is a magician with words. His love of the countryside and his fascination for the city both resonated with me when I left rural Sussex aged eighteen for the city of Sheffield, and his work still moves me profoundly. He has his faults as a writer (characterisation, mainly), but this is more than made up for by the depth of his vision and the power of his lyricism. There is an inherent humanity in Machen that I don’t find in Aickman.

MD: With Rosalie Parker, you share the publishing work demanded by the highly active Tartarus Press. You also compose music, produce artwork for books (your own and those of others), devote time to the Friends of Arthur Machen, produce wonderful short films, and I don’t know what else. How did you manage to get so good at all these activities, while also keeping up an active literary career as well? Would you rather be writing fiction full-time? Or is it somehow beneficial to switch back and forth among all these enterprises? Do they somehow enrich your imagination or keep you fresh?

RBR: There never seem to be enough hours in the day! I tend to have enthusiasms for my various (non-Tartarus) interests, and when I am not inspired to write, for example, I will have been itching to compose music and I can immediately move on to that. By the time I get stuck with the music, then something else has been demanding my attention.

My various interests feed into each other, as with my fascination for shortwave radio numbers stations. As I was researching them I was starting to write some new music, and was thinking of the individual compositions as soundtracks to stories that might lie behind some of the transmissions. At the same time I was putting together videos to accompany the music. And then, half way through this process, I realised that I wanted to write an extended piece of fiction about the broadcasts, and I now have a draft of a novel inspired by the strange world of these strings of numbers that bounce endlessly around the ionosphere.

MD: Speaking as both a writer and a publisher, what led you to Swan River Press for Death Makes Strangers of Us All? What is it you like about the books that Brian J. Showers has been bringing out? They are quite handsome but quite different from Tartarus publications in their appearance. What is gratifying about being published by a small press such as Swan River or Tartarus?

RBR: I share many of Brian’s tastes in literature, and, like Tartarus, Swan River mixes classic authors with contemporary writers, based on the publisher’s own enthusiasms. It also helps that I like the aesthetics of his book production. With his designer, Meggan Kehrli, and typesetter, Ken Mackenzie, they publish very handsome, well-made books.

MD: In the title story, “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”, you seem to be almost Kafkaesque, as Katherine wanders through a mysteriously empty city covered with fine dust, tries to retrieve her disjointed memories, and is confronted by threatening policemen. But the story takes an unexpected turn near its end and the ending itself comes a short, sharp shock. Can you comment a little on “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”? Is there a reason you chose to name the collection after it?

RBR: I am not sure I can comment without offering spoilers! There is an idea that underpins the story, but I am afraid that it would diminish the tale if it was spelt out. What I will say is that the idea was first expressed in an attempt to write a novel in the late 1980s. It did not succeed then because it should really have been a short story. And in the novel version I made it very clear exactly what was happening, which undermined it. The original was written at the same time that I was reading European authors in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and reading Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Machen.

MD: What are your current projects?

RBR: I am working on what I fervently hope is the final draft of a second novel. If it is not published then I will probably continue to rewrite it ad infinitum. A third novel, inspired by shortwave radio numbers stations, is in an early draft, but requires a great deal more work. I have been writing a great deal lately, and I am starting to feel the need to compose music soon . . .

MD: Thank you, Ray, for taking the time to answer these questions.


Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post. His own books include Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, the Edgar Award-winning On Conan Doyle, and several collections of essays. He is currently at work on a book about late 19th and early 20th-century popular fiction in Britain. He holds a Ph.D in comparative literature from Cornell University and received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

Order Death Makes Stranger of Us All here.

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Death Makes Strangers: An Interview with R. B. Russell

Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

Uncertainties II: Foreword

by Brian J. Showers, August 2016

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


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

Let’s talk about uncertainties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which?”

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

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

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

*       *       *

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

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

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

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

Brian J. Showers
4 July 2016
Rathmines, Dublin


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

Order Uncertainties Volume 1 here and Volume 2 here.

Uncertainties II: Foreword

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”

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

“Henry C. Mercer’s Fonthill” by Jonathan Eeds

NNT Front CoverOver the summer I had the pleasure of visiting Fonthill, the astonishing storybook mansion designed and built by Henry C. Mercer. Fonthill’s eccentric architecture draws thousands of visitors a year, but scant few can claim any knowledge of Mercer’s other extraordinary achievement: a slim volume of strange stories called November Night Tales. I can thank Peter Bell for my literary adventure to Fonthill — a journey of over 3,000 miles from my home in Oregon. I had not heard of Mercer until I read Peter’s article about NNT in Wormwood (issue 22). It was here that Peter extolled the originality of November Night Tales and cited it as a great lost book that begged for rediscovery. Actually, it would be more correct to say: discovery, because very few copies of the original book were printed and sold, and until Peter wrote about it nobody really gave it much thought. Always on the lookout for new discoveries in weird fiction, I immediately began my search for Mercer’s book. I was so excited about finding a copy with dustjacket on eBay for only $230 that I completely forgot that I was shamefully surfing the net at work and shouted for joy . . . loudly. After gulping down the stories, I contacted Peter because I was thinking that my company, Bruin Books, could publish a paperback version. The situation became immediately more interesting when Peter connected me with Brian J. Showers at Swan River Press. A limited run hardback would be a more fitting tribute to this elusive gem of a book. One thing led to another and a few months later I found myself walking the Mercer Mile in Doylestown. November Night Tales was securely fastened in my mind. Now it was time to immerse myself in Mercer’s physical world.

Fonthill plaqueLocated in Doylestown, about an hour outside of Philadelphia, Fonthill was Mercer’s personal residence. It is situated a mile from the Mercer Museum, which Mercer also designed and built and filled to the rafters with relics of early American farmers and craftsmen. I visited the museum first, hoping to get a glimpse of the famous Lenape Stone, a carved relic discovered in a newly ploughed field in 1872. The stone, now broken in half, depicts a tribe of Native Americans taking down a Wooly Mammoth with spears. Mercer wrote an entire book about the finding, but it is now regarded as a forgery that was probably scratched out by a bored farm boy. When I finally found the stone at the very top level of the museum, I was disappointed by its size. It was more like a skipping stone than a tablet. Yet, forgery or not, I still want to believe in the Lenape Stone, because a carving of Indians and Mammoths struggling for supremacy in ancient America is how it should have been.

The rest of the museum is a packrat’s delight. Its many levels and multiple stairways encircle a single room that stretches from floor to rafters. It reminded me of a castle’s great room — no stretch of the imagination, considering Mercer’s lifetime fascination with castles. The vaulted ceiling, mounted with crates and miscellaneous contraptions posed upside down, gave the overhead spaces a strange mirrored look, creating the illusion that I was gazing into the bottom of a grotto strewn with cargo spilled from a shipwreck. There are only so many weeding hoes and one-horse buggies a person can handle in an afternoon, so I made for the exit after an hour of exploring the museum.

Fonthill with GarageThe stretch of road between museum and house is known as the Mercer mile, and there is a firm connection, both physically and spiritually, between the two massive structures. The quirky collection within the museum makes for an intriguing afternoon, but Fonthill is the true gem of the Mercer Mile. The house stands like a giant sand castle atop a gentle sloping hill. Mature columns of gnarled sycamore trees align a narrow asphalt road up to the house. I was there on an oppressively hot and humid day in July. A native of the west coast, I naturally associated any gray day with cooler weather, but here in Bucks County the overcast served as a pressure cooker, creating a stifling steam bath that felt more like the Florida Everglades than Amish country. The slightest movement had me panting for water. The comfy air-conditioning in the museum had weakened my resolve. I wasn’t ready for this. Mopping my head as I climbed the gravel path, it was hard to imagine the heavy snowfall that would blanket the grounds in winter.

Walking up to Fonthill, two things popped into my mind: Dr. Seuss and Sandcastles. Okay, three things: add Gormenghast. The many wings, turrets, balustrades and chimney pots of Fonthill could have been shaped by a child on the seashore. This impression is due to Mercer’s use of molded cement — not just the walls and pillars: he used cement for everything. The stairs are cement. The beds, bookcases, sinks and window pane casings are cement. The exception is the roof, which is composed of red ceramic tiles made in his own kilns.

Moravian Tile WorksTossing aside the idea of using blueprints or even taking measurements, Mercer began work on Fonthill in 1910. All he worked from was his own sketchbook. He sculpted his castle straight from his imagination using a revolutionary reinforced cement molding process. It is an artist’s creation and bears Mercer’s fascination with Moravian ceramics. He studied the process firsthand while traveling in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now encompassing a large part of the Czech Republic. (A number of the stories in November Night Tales are situated in this ancient cauldron of myth and superstition — Stoker and Blackwood territory.) He returned home to establish the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works just down the grassy slope from Fonthill, and as my wallet will tell you: the kilns still operate today producing traditional tiles from Mercer’s original molds. Fonthill was designed to feature Mercer’s Moravian tiles. He wanted something to show potential customers. In that sense, Fonthill is a mad kind of factory showroom. Every wall, floor, ceiling and arch is a canvass for the Mercer tiles.

Fonthill on a sunnier dayThe only way to see the interior of the house is to pay for the guided tour. Sorry, no interior photography allowed. (Had Mercer been alive he would have met you at the door, provided lunch, good conversation and a place to spend the night before returning to Philadelphia — all out of genteel generosity and good salesmanship.) The foyer features a diminutive gift shop and, thankfully, a free-access water cooler. The house was so hot that day that the shop clerk encouraged all the visitors to drink some water before the tour began. Good advice, because despite what the official guidebook states on page nine, “the cool concrete surfaces” do not “give cool respite from the summer sun.” Judging by the number of books he owned, Mercer was clearly a book lover who enjoyed natural lighting to read by. The house has dozens of enormous windows that fill the interior with warming sunshine. At the height of summer with its insufferable humidity, however, the house became a Medieval bread oven. The labyrinth of passageways and twisting staircases, intriguing as they are, don’t allow for good air circulation. Our tour guide, who entertained us with Mercer facts spiced by a droll sense of humor, had the good sense to wear shorts and sandals, and to be conveniently bald. I had on a long shirt and pants, needed a haircut and had the Starbucks’ sweats.

Inside the Fonthill WellThere are forty-seven rooms in Fonthill, no two alike. One of the first rooms we visited was Mercer’s Library. The shelves were stuffed with leather-bound books; the walls were adorned with tiles, ornate mirrors, and old photographs. The ceilings and windows were high, allowing the daylight to brighten the room. Mercer’s writing desk was one of the few wooden objects in the house. It was a simple sturdy table built into a cement alcove that was filled with cubbyholes and bookshelves fashioned of the same dark-stained wood. It was here that Mercer must have written November Night Tales, and given the fantastic nature of the book, I like to think the creaks and moans the house emitted were more inspiring than derisive to the task.

Moravian Tile Works gift shopMercer used Fonthill to entertain the potential buyers of his tiles and pottery, and so all forty-seven rooms are smothered in decorative tiles. One room may appear to be aesthetically balanced and reassuring to the eye, only to find the adjoining room a jarring swirl of colors that makes you want to cry out, “Man, this is crazy.” Some rooms, particularly around the fireplaces, featured large tiles arranged in tableau so that they told a story in picture and form. One might find a tale from Shakespeare, or Dickens or a fairy tale. The Columbus room is distinctly beautiful with its vaulted ceiling supported by classical pillars and positively splattered with hundreds of tiles telling the story of Columbus and his adventures in the New World (but no mammoths). One of the nicer guest rooms has the story of Bluebeard encircling the wide, muscular fireplace. How pleasant, I think, to lay in the guest-bed and drowsily study the many murdered wives of Bluebeard. Another bedroom features the mischievous antics of primitive cannibals, including slow-turning spits and bone-crunching ’round the campfire. My favorite tiled tableau is from the Pickwick Papers. When I build my dream house with its wide muscular fireplace I will purchase this set from the Moravian Tile Works down the hill.

Mercer’s technique for building Fonthill’s vaulted ceilings was to build platforms and pile mounds of earth on which the cement would be poured in a reverse mold. A layer of sand capped the earthworks, and into this Mercer positioned his tiles. Once the cement cured, the platforms were removed and the sand washed away. In one hallway there is a pair of hands pushing through the ceiling, undoubtedly placed there by Mercer himself. The effect is delightfully creepy.

Many of the rooms were inspired by Mercers world travels. The little tour group descended one staircase that was overhung with an authentic Chinese pagoda roof. The sloping roofline and stone dragons jutting from the high wall presented an impressive if supremely odd effect.

bchs-archives-photographs-hcm-9_henry_dog_archival_1To build Fonthill, Mercer only had a few loyal workers to help him and one very loyal horse named Lucy, who was paid $1.75 per day, the same as the other workers. Lucy’s job was to hoist the cement up the upper levels with a rope and pulley. She is buried on the grounds, along with Mercer’s many beloved dogs. Rollo was Mercer’s favorite dog, and he is buried just beyond the wall of the Tile Works, near and old wisteria vine. His footprints can be found in cement at both Fonthill and the Mercer Museum. A life-sized bronze statue of Rollo greets visitors as they enter the museum.

Maybe it’s my age — or the heat and dehydration — but I had a lot of difficulty working the artifact door knob on the Tile Works entrance. Somebody from inside the shop had to let me in, and once in I immediately started making the two ladies very nervous by picking up and examining all the tiles on display. One of them approached and struck up a conversation, most likely to keep a close eye on my fumbling fingers. It was during the course of our conversation that I learned that Mercer had burned all of his papers before he died. When I said, “Why? Why on earth would he do that?” She gave me a slant-eyed look and whispered, “Some things are better not known.” Whatever Mercer’s secret was would be laughable by today’s standards, and so I just nodded knowingly. Since I was hitting it off so well with her I asked if Fonthill was haunted. Expecting to brush the question aside she instead offered quite a bit of information. Regrettably for all of us, most notably the Tourist Bureau, it appears that Fonthill Hill is not haunted. Museum workers who have spent the entire night have not heard a peep, a creak or seen a wisp of ectoplasm. To be sure they brought in a famous medium who thoroughly studied the house and found no paranormal activity. The house is clear. How boring. It appears that Henry was a good natured soul and was well cared for during his final days. No angst or misery hangs over the Fonthill. Ironically, one of the many names Mercer considered for his house was Overlook, the namesake of the intensely haunted hotel in The Shining. Well, I couldn’t afford the Pickwick Papers Tableau this trip, but I did leave with a bag-full of Mercer tiles — “gifts for my wife.”

The Mercer GraveMercer’s love of animals, his desire to surround his mansion with an arboretum, his innovative use of recycled materials to build Fonthill, his artistry, his whimsy, his kindness and philanthropy place him good standing with the people of Doylestown, and with me. As I trudged down the hill to my molten rental car that was ready to welcome me with its 1,000 degree vinyl seats, I felt I knew Dr. Mercer a great deal more than when I started the day. On the back cover of the Bucks County Historical Society pamphlet entitled Henry Chapman Mercer, there shows a flattering full-length photo of the older Chapman, no doubt taken near the time of his writing The November Night Tales. The back-of-the-book blurb states that Mercer was “A Renaissance man of the early 20th century.” He was “a historian, archaeologist, collector and ceramist. He was born, lived and died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. To many, however, his legacy is as a scholar and visionary.” Nice, but nowhere is mentioned that he was the writer of the wonderful little book of weird tales called November Night Tales. It was a great honor to work with Brian J. Showers of Swan River Press and author Peter Bell, who contributed an introduction to our new edition, to correct that omission.


A deluxe hardback edition of Henry C. Mercer’s November Night Tales is now available from Swan River Press, with an introduction by Peter Bell, and fully illustrated by Alisdair Wood.

You can order a copy here.

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“Henry C. Mercer’s Fonthill” by Jonathan Eeds