Hi folks, I hope you’re all keeping well and in good health. Another brief update here.
I made a trip to the post office today to get a few things out, buy more stamps, and, most importantly, to do some grocery shopping. I hadn’t left the house in over a week, so the cupboards were quite bare!
In any case, if you’ve ordered anything from me lately, it’s in the post. Delivery times are usually around a week, but do expect delays.
There are three packages I was not able to send: I’ve been in touch with ye already, you know who you are. I’ll keep the books safe here until we get the all clear.
I’ve had a look at An Post’s list of countries with suspended postal service. Among them are some countries we frequently send books to: Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia. Of course you can still place orders. We’ll just keep them safely here until they can be posted. More information here.
I was also informed today at the post office that, for the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to send any packages over 2kg. In practical terms, that’s up to three books. Any other guidance on post going to European/North American destinations can be found here, suffice to say the 2kg limit is currently the main one.
That’s it for now. If you’ve any questions at all concerning books or delivery, please contact me. And if you’d like, you can always subscribe to the mailing list. Or just fire away and order a book! As always, thank you to everyone for your support and patience through this. Stay safe! – Brian
Update 5 April 2020:
I hope everyone is still faring well and in good health. This is an update simply by way of checking in rather than having any news. But all going well here. Thank you for all the orders–I’ve been getting them in the post as I can. If you’d like to order something, but are unsure about one thing or another, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
I’m still hoping Lucifer and the Child will remain on schedule, but we’ll see. I’ve also been keeping busy by working on The Green Book 14, which was meant to be out in Autumn 2019. You never want to rush a good thing though, right? I’m also simultaneously working on The Green Book 15, which is the Spring 2020 issue. The plan at the moment is to have those ready to ship along with Lucifer and the Child.
If you’re not already on our mailing list, do consider joining. Fastest and easiest way to keep abreast anything new. Until next time, keep in touch!
Update 29 March 2020
A bit of good news! So it turns out I will be able to continue with some shipping during lock down. An Post have confirmed that they will still be making daily collections from pillar boxes–and as I have a pile of stamps here, I will still be able to post single book orders (because that’s all that will fit through the pillar box slot). If you want to order two books, they will ship as separate packages. There are numerous pillar boxes close by, and an isolated fella needs to stretch his legs at some point.
Although I am happy to take orders from anywhere in the world, I will still not be able to post to any country on the suspended postal services list issued by An Post. I will also not be able to post anything to the United States as all packets to that country need special customs forms that must be completed at the post office before posting. Keep in mind that delivery will ultimately always be contingent on your local service.
However, as I said, I am happy to continue taking orders from anywhere in the world–very gratefully so–and anything that cannot be shipped immediately will be kept safely here in the office.
If any one has any questions or concerns, please drop me a line. Until then, thank you again for your understanding and support. Keep well! -Brian
Update 27 March 2020
The Taoiseach has just announced a lock down for all of Ireland to last until 12 April 2020. This means I will be unable to go to the post office until then. I’m happy to take orders still, and will pack them and keep them safe, but will have to see when I can next get out to post them.
We will have to see where we are at with our forthcoming book, Lucifer and the Child, in two weeks.
Thank you for your understanding. Your continued support is appreciated. Look after yourselves! – Brian
Update 26 March 2020
I hope you are all keeping well, being sensible, and looking after both yourselves and your community.
All is well here at Swan River Press, or at well as can be expected. I am currently working from home (during the day now as well as weekends and evenings).
Everything here is continuing apace: we’re working on new publications and shipments are still being dispatched to those in need of reading material. Your support is appreciated now more than ever!
So just a few comments: the first is to say that I’ve taken the precaution of reducing my visits to the post office to twice per week, Tuesday and Fridays. I’ll reassess this if anything changes, but until then I’m happy to serve.
The Irish post office has advised that there are some countries with suspended postal services. For the time being, the United States and United Kingdom would seem unaffected. Do, of course, expect some delays, and be sure to thank your mail carrier should you see them!
Our next book, Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, has just gone to print. There are no expected delays, and my printer ensures me that both they and their partners have taken necessary precautions in order to continue work.
At the moment we’re expecting delivery of Lucifer and the Child to be towards the end of April; I’ll get them into the post for you as soon as I can after that. Of course, should anything change, or if you have any questions, please drop me a line.
Until then, do look after yourselves and let me know if there’s anything else you need.
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 Allmust 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.
MD: 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.
Machen 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.
The end of the 2017 is upon us and I’d like to take a moment to look back at the books we’ve published over these past twelve months. While I’ve always defined Swan River as an Irish press, this year all of our books were either by Irish authors or have a strong Irish connection.
The publication date of our first book was pre-determined: the Selected Poems of A.E. (George William Russell). Last April was the 150th birth anniversary of Ireland’s under-appreciated mystical poet. And as no other edition of his books were properly in print, I knew it fell upon us to do something to mark the occasion.
The genesis of this book dates a few years back. I was casting around for an A.E. project to mark the sesquicentennial year, and for a brief time considered assembling a collection of my own favourites. That’s when I acquired a first edition of Selected Poems, the dust jacket of which bore a request from the poet himself: “If I should be remembered I would like it to be for the verses in this book.” So that’s exactly what I did. On the boards is reproduced a painting by A.E., and rounding out the book is an excellent afterword by Ambassador Dan Mulhall. If you’re interested in learning more about A.E., we’ve a few past blog posts for you to check out.
Our next book was a real pleasure to work on. Following on from the success of Mervyn Wall’s beloved cult classics, TheUnfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey, I wanted to bring back into print his equally delightful short story collection A Flutter of Wings, which hadn’t been available for over forty years. To this new edition we added Wall’s nightmarish bureaucratic drama, AlarmAmong the Clerks, which had been out of print for an alarming seventy years.I hope people will like this book as much as the Furseys.
What makes this edition even more special are the illustrations by Clare Brennan. In addition to being an excellent artist and designer, Clare has the distinction of being Mervyn Wall’s granddaughter. If you like Clare’s illustrations for A Flutter of Wings, you’ll be delighted to know prints are available to buy from her website. And of course, with an introduction by Val Mulkerns, this book has become one of my favourites of the year.
In November we were happy to publish a new collection by Bram Stoker: Old Hoggen and Other Adventures. It’s not every day a new collection of short stories by Stoker gets published, which is what makes this book extra special. It brings together for the first time a number of adventure tales that have been rediscovered in recent years. You can read more about how the “lost” volume of stories was assembled, and its relationship to Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, in the Preface. Old Hoggen also provided a joyful opportunity to work with Stoker scholar John Edgar Browning, who has been leading the charge in all things Bram in recent years. The striking cover is by long-time Swan River conspirator Jason Zerrillo, who I’m sure we’ll see more from in the new year.
The final book of the year was The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, an anthology edited by Mark Valentine and including ten new stories of art, obsession, love, lust, and sorcery by Reggie Oliver, Caitriona Lally, Lynda E. Rucker, John Howard, D. P. Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, Timothy J. Jarvis, John Gale, and Derek John. In addition to this fine volume of tales, which I hope you will enjoy, this book is the first time I’ve worked with artist John Coulthart, who designed the front cover and boards.
Turning now to our journal, The Green Book, which has now entered the double digits! Issue nine focused on Irish women writers, with included, among other pieces, two essays by Elizabeth Bowen, an article on Rosa Mulholland by the late Richard Dalby, and an uncollected story by Dorothy Macardle called “The Boys’ Room”. Issue nine was one of the strongest issues we’ve had to date.
Issue ten, published in the autumn, was devoted to the fantasist Lord Dunsany, and comprised of writings about him by his contemporary Irish peers. With pieces by W.B. Yeats, Francis Ledwidge, Forrest Reid, Elizabeth Bowen, Katharine Tynan, and others, my intention was to remind readers that Dunsany once held a firm position in early-twentieth century Irish literature. I hope people read this issue from cover to cover as it illuminates Dunany over the course of his entire career.
While not a book publication, another project that came to fruition this year was the Irish Writers of the Fantastic poster that I designed with Jason Zerrillo a couple years back. The poster showcases twelve writers, spanning three centuries, each of whom made significant contributions to Irish literature.
While the poster was designed in late 2015, it wasn’t until this October that Alison Lyons of Dublin City Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature agreed to produce copies of the poster to distribute for free around Dublin, coinciding with the Bram Stoker Festival. Copies of the poster are still available, and I urge everyone (especially if you’re a teacher or librarian!) to pick up a copy. Absolutely free! For those living abroad, there are other ways of procuring a copy.
This post wouldn’t be complete without thanking Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, Maurice Healy, and Jim Rockhill for all the work they’ve done this year. For those who don’t know, these are the folks who make Swan River books look so good. Meggan handles all of our design, Ken takes care of the typesetting, while Jim looks after proofreading. Maurice only recently joined us this year, and has proven invaluable. On a sadder note, most will have heard by now that Richard Dalby passed away earlier this year. Richard acted informally as an advisor, as he did for many small presses, and the void that he leaves behind will be sorely missed.
So there you have it! That’s what we got up to this year, and I hope you found something to enjoy. There’s plenty to look forward to next year as well. We recently announced our forthcoming deluxe edition of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, which will be out for April 2018. I’ve spared no expense with this one, which will bear a cover and interior illustrations by John Coulthart, accompanied by a newly commissioned soundtrack by Jon Mueller. Not stopping there, Alan Moore contributed a new introduction, while Iain Sinclair is looking after the afterword. Everyone who participated in this project has a passion for Hodgson’s cosmic masterwork. As an added bonus, the book will be fully signed by all contributors.
And perhaps the biggest new for next year is the return of the Dublin Ghost Story Festival. I’m very excited that the guest of honour will be Joyce Carol Oates, with an opening night performance by Reggie Oliver. Even if next year’s festival is only half as fun as last year’s, we’ll be in for a huge treat. The event is already half sold-out, so if you’d like to attend, please don’t delay! We’ll be announcing further guests in the coming weeks. You’ll not be disappointed!
So that’s everything for now. Thank you again to everyone who contributed to the press this year, be it through buying books, supportive emails, or even coming out to see us at festivals and conventions. I’m looking forward to new books and hearing from everyone in the new year.
I was staying once in a cottage on the downs, remote from anywhere, one of a pair. The other was unoccupied. The next nearest place was a lighthouse. There was no road. You got to the cottage by a track across several fields, flint-riddled and full of unexpected slopes and hollows. The gaunt gorse bushes were bent by the sea-winds. For a while it was a keen delight to be so on our own, the few of us gathered together there. We would walk in the fields, along the cliff paths, down to the coves, and in the evening we would make food, talk, read, listen to the dim music barely discernible from the wavering wireless signal. But by the time it came to the evening before we were due to leave, perhaps these things had begun to pall a bit, or maybe something in the mood of the place made us want to mark in some way its mysteries.
The cottage, which was rented from an ancient estate by a friend, had a number of curios arranged on its old wooden shelves or in alcoves, some of them things picked up on the downs, some of them things brought back from further afield. There was a cluster of sharpened flints that might have been arrowheads, bigger flints that had perhaps been kept because they looked like something else, there was a corroded sheep’s bell, maybe medieval, with tints of green and bronze about it, there was a blurred coin whose head and emblems and lettering could not be discerned, and there was a small ossuary of beast and bird bones bleached by the sun and scoured by the winds, picked up on walks from where they had fallen. Idly, desultorily at first, we began to arrange some of these things on the mantelpiece, trying to get the effect of strange juxtapositions.
I had with me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the edition issued by The Unicorn Press of 8 Charles Street, St James’s Square, in 1945, Martin Secker (Director), one of several imprints that discerning bookman ran in his time. The leaf before the title page read simply: OSCAR WILDE / Born 1856 / Died 1900. And that stark statement was all the introductory matter there was, apart from the writer’s own preface of elegant maxims, beginning, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” But not only beautiful things, surely? Grotesque things too, even ugly things, curious things and uncanny things, as the book itself surely showed. Still, Secker had done the best he could under the exigencies of war-time to make this a lovely object. There was a white buckram spine, with gilt lettering and ornaments. Certain letters in the titles had long laces to them, like golden flourishes. The paper over the boards was a muted, memorial sort of colour, like gravestone moss, somewhere between grey and green.
Well, possessed by I don’t know what languid devilry, I placed this book on the shelf above the fire, and I put a horned ram’s skull from the little informal ossuary on top of it. Then I moved next to it a bronze cobra candlestick, in which a white candle guttered above the hooded head. We had turned off the lights and the room was illumined only by the smouldering fire and a few candles. In the dim glow of the serpent flame the hollows of the skull looked eerie, full of a curious light, and there was a glimmering on the gilt titles of the book. Our shadows played upon the white walls, the wood smoke pervaded the air.
We moved the pieces of this macabre composition around, trying to work out what looked right—or wrong, as it may be. We took some black-and-white photographs of these arrangements, conscious that this was all quite perilously close to a sort of ritual. Surely all we were doing was making “artistic” effects, there could not be anything else in play. But that was not quite how we felt. At last, this stealthy uneasiness prevailed. With a certain edge to my movements, I carefully put things back where they had originally been, and picked up the book. But still influenced by the sense of a spell in the air, I tried a piece of bibliomancy, opening it to a page and reading out aloud the first words I found. They were: “Pray, Dorian, pray.”
That night, a storm raged in from the sea and swept in fierce gusts over the downs. The windows and doors rattled, the roof-tiles clattered, and there was a moaning through every crack and crevice in the place. The electricity cut out. A tree by the gate cracked. In low voices—though who was there to hear?—we made light-hearted but uncertain comments to each other about what it was we had raised, grinning ruefully. Of course, we did not really believe there was any link between the idle sorcery with the book, that book, and the fury of the elements. The angle of the thorns and the gorse bushes showed how often and how fiercely there were storms along this coast. But, even so, we were subdued in the morning as we moved around the cottage, trying to clear up as best we could, without any power, and raking out the ashes of the grate in the cold and the grey of the early day.
Later, always drawn to it, as if some leftover from that minor rite remained with me, I found for myself other editions of the book. One of the most poignant is perhaps the one that proved once and for all that Wilde’s reputation was now redeemed, that he was part of the literary canon: the copy in the “uniform edition of Wilde’s authentic works” edited and compiled by Robert Ross. This “popular five-shilling edition” was issued by Methuen, but the volume of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the series bore instead the imprint of “Paris / Charles Carrington / Publisher and Bookseller /1910 / And at Brussels, 10 Rue de la Tribune.” At the back of the book, Carrington offers some of his other titles, including The Sorceress, a Study of Superstition and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet; and Escal Vigor, “a novel from the French of George Eekhoud”, which “has been compared to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray”.
This unusual publishing arrangement was because Carrington, like Ross a loyal champion of Wilde in the darker days, owned the rights to Dorian Gray: but both he and Ross thought that the fantastical novel must not be omitted from Wilde’s collected works, and so came to an accommodation. Ross provided an editorial note to explain this, and Carrington a brief publisher’s note.
“The practice of adding introductions to thoroughly well-known works,” remarked Ross trenchantly, “for the benefit of an already well-informed public, has become almost ridiculous. Only in rare instances have the works been illuminated . . . ” However, he wished to take the opportunity to assert that “the characters of this novel were entirely imaginary, in spite of assertions to the contrary by claimants to the doubtful honour of being the original of ‘Dorian Gray’ ”, though he added that Wilde, “consciously or unconsciously . . . has put a great deal of himself into the character of ‘Lord Henry Wootton’.”
We certainly should not essay what Ross himself disdained to do, by saying very much further about Wilde’s book, except to note that its influence was to resonate throughout the literature of the late-nineteenth century and into the Edwardian years and beyond. It may be seen in the decadent horror fiction of Arthur Machen and M.P. Shiel, and even in the often arch and precious character of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Walter de la Mare, later noted for his ethereal and dream-like poems and stories, began as an aesthete in the Wildean manner, and once planned a periodical, to be called The Basilisk, which was to be printed in purple ink. The black humour in the tales of Saki owes some of its brittle wit to its example, and the lush verses of James Elroy Flecker and Rupert Brooke reflect the book’s dandyish style. Even the cadences of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, despite its austere story of desert warfare, can be seen to bear the impress of Wilde’s prose.
But while the book belongs in style to the mannered prose and the languid pose of the Eighteen Nineties, it has endured because its themes are perennial. It asks fundamental questions about our inner selves. Are we a noun or are we a verb? Are we one or are we many? The assumption, heavy as lead upon our thinking and our custom, has always been that an individual is a single entity that can be categorised, defined, commanded and held to account. That belief marches in step with a monotheistic faith, a single version of truth, and in many other often unquestioned orderings and mores. Yet it is not the prevailing wisdom in other societies and cultures. While no-one can doubt there is (for the time being, until science comes up with other offers) a single physical shell for each of us, the “identity” within that shell can be seen as fluid, flexible, a stream of thought and actions, not a constant. We are nearer to racing cheetahs than we are to stolid statues.
And in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a number of writers began to see this, to prise open the hermetically-sealed box of the self and peer inside. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) suggested the existence of at least two selves: the respectable, ethical, dignified public face and the savage, wild, inner demon. It took only a chemical change to release the darker creature. Readers uneasily understood that this was not merely a satire about the risks attendant upon the advance of science. Indeed, its author, from a family of lighthouse engineers, had a healthy respect for what modern invention could do. No: the chemistry was incidental, a device. This was really a book about our secret selves. But Stevenson’s remarkable work was not the only study of that question in its time. For, similarly, Dorian Gray suggests several selves: the beautiful, alluring outer self; the wracked and doubt-ridden inner conscience; and, of course, the symbolic “thing in the attic”, the representation of all that is darkest and ugliest about us.
So, because it deals with the deepest questions of what it means to be a human individual, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not simply a book of its time, and not merely a witty entertainment with gothic trappings. Thinking about this, it seemed likely that its questions about art, love, lust, obsession, and the uncanny could still have significance for writers today. And so we asked ten contemporary writers to respond to the book with their own “stories for Dorian Gray”. We were confident that in these hands we could expect strong responses, and we were not disappointed. Some of the stories here are set in Wilde’s time and milieu, others in fantastical realms, and some in our own time, taking us into some of its darker recesses. Whatever their setting, each of them takes some key element of Wilde’s story and offers a bold re-imagining.
And, though they are each strikingly individual, these stories all suggest that we can never quite know when a simple choice, a word spoken, a leap of desire, a curious allure, a blaze of emotion, an encounter with a stranger, maybe even just playing around with an old book, might lead us on and on into terrain we cannot explain, where we and all the things we thought we knew can never be the same.
31 August 2017
Mark Valentine is the author of studies of Arthur Machen, and the diplomat and fantasist Sarban. His essays on book-collecting, folklore and the uncanny have been gathered in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017) from Tartarus Press. He edits Wormwood, a journal devoted to literature of the fantastic. His books of fiction include Selected Stories (2012) and Seventeen Stories (2013), both from The Swan River Press.
The Scarlet Soul is now available as a limited edition hardback from Swan River Press. Edited by Mark Valentine, with stories by Reggie Oliver, Caitriona Lally, Lynda E. Rucker, John Howard, D.P. Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, Timothy J. Jarvis, John Gale, and Derek John. Cover illustration by John Coulthart.
“I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain that world, would lose his own soul!” –Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Charles Maturin, novelist and playwright, was born in Fitzwilliam Street on 25 September 1782. In his youth he had a fascination for the gothic novels of Walpole, Radcliffe, and “Monk” Lewis. His early novel, The Milesian Chief (1812), won the praise of Sir Walter Scott; while his play, Bertram (1816), though successful, drew harsh criticism from Coleridge. A lifelong member of the clergy, serving as curate of St. Peter’s Church on Aungier Street, Maturin is now best remembered for his sprawling gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Maturin’s great-nephew, Oscar Wilde, paid tribute to the gothic novelist by adopting the name “Sebastian Melmoth” during his final years of exile in France. Maturin died in his home on York Street on 30 October 1824.
The first thing one learned about Richard Dalby as a person was that Richard didn’t use email. Or at least that was the first thing I learned. Communications came by typed letter, occasionally handwritten (especially the later ones when he was having eye trouble), and even, though less frequently for me at least, by telephone. But let’s face it, there’s something quaint and reassuring about getting correspondence in the post.
Last week I got out all the letters I could find that Richard had sent to me over the years. While I’m sure we started corresponding earlier, I couldn’t find anything dating prior to May 2010. There were no catalogues either—with that little gold return address sticker at the top—which I must have binned after placing my orders. I circled items in Richard’s catalogues the same way I circled toys in the Sears Christmas catalogue when I was a kid. The books always arrived wrapped in brown paper, then newspaper, then another layer of brown paper (this layer bound also with string, sometimes with an added layer of bubble wrap), then under that a plastic bag (carefully taped shut), and then the book. Books Richard sent were wrapped so well they had to be extracted from the packaging by meticulous operation. Nothing ever arrived damaged though. Not once.
Richard’s death last month startled more than a few. I remember exactly what I was doing just before the message came through on my phone. I was at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, flipping through an old issue of All Hallows, looking at the extensive interview I had done with E.F. Bleiler in 2006, thinking Richard would be an excellent subject for a similar career-length interview. The scope of his knowledge and decades of experience, as a scholar, as a book collector and bibliophile, as an editor, and later as a colleague and friend would have made for a fascinating exchange. That’s when my phone buzzed on the nightstand delivering the news.
I first met Richard in Brighton at the World Horror Convention on 27 March 2010. Thinking back now, we certainly must have corresponded before 2010 as conversation was immediately familiar and friendly. I don’t think I’d ever seen a photograph of Richard prior to meeting him in Brighton, so was struck by his boyish appearance. It conflicted with the fact that his publication history goes right the way back. Jesus, how old was this guy? Not that old at all as it turned out.
But Richard wasn’t just boyish in appearance; he had something of that youthful manner about him too. Maybe curiosity is a better word for it. He was inquisitive. After brief salutations and nice-to-finally-meet-yous, Richard immediately launched into questions. I’d been working on Stoker a lot in those days, and he wanted to know what I knew about “X” edition, or if I had ever been able to track down the exact publication date of “Y”. Of course I hadn’t. Sure, I know more than the average person does about Stoker, but Richard’s knowledge far exceeded mine and by no small amount. And yet he asked me questions anyway because that’s how Richard seemed to work. He probed, asked questions, compiled, collected, and collated. I think that’s one of the key qualities Richard possessed that made him such a good researcher, bibliographer, and anthologist.
That’s pretty much how our correspondence went too: Richard would ask me questions and I mostly answered with the written equivalent of a blank stare and a shrug. I asked Richard questions and he responded in more detail and depth of knowledge than I ever would have imagined. He was generous that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who benefited from his knowledge.
So there we were stood in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. He’d just asked me numerous questions on Stoker-related bibliographic mysteries, and what could I say? How could I respond? I opened my bag and took out my well-thumbed Bram Stoker: A Bibliography that Richard had co-written with Bill Hughes. I asked him to sign it. He did. As he wrote in my book, I kept thinking: “Why are you asking me these questions, Richard? You literally wrote the book on the subject.” But he treated me as a colleague right from the start. This Stoker bibliography—which I still consult—is one book of two that I now have in my collection kindly inscribed to me by Richard.
Richard was also kind enough to edit one of Swan River Press’s Bram Stoker Series booklets, To My Dear Friend Hommey-Beg: The Great Friendship of Bram Stoker and Hall Caine, which I published in 2011. Much of our early correspondence centred on Bram Stoker, but also Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and as the years went by an increasing number of more obscure Irish writers. By autumn of 2010, Swan River Press had shifted from publishing chapbooks and booklets to limited edition hardbacks. Not only was Richard enthusiastic about this, but frequently offered his advice and expertise.
I remember Richard was especially keen to see Mervyn Wall back in print, and in advance of Swan River’s reissues of The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey in 2015, Richard allowed me to reprint his article “Mervyn Wall: Irish Author and Satirist” in the second issue of The Green Book. He also sent me a photocopy of Dorothy Macardle’s rare ghost story collection Earth-Bound, which I eventually reprinted in 2016. So too did Richard help fill in my A.E. collection by sending me stray volumes that he accumulated over the years. He was eager to see the sesquicentennial edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems, which I published in early April 2017. I sent him copies of the book—I’d gotten into the habit of sending him a few copies of everything I published—but I did not hear back from him, nor would I. I knew he was still having eye trouble, but I hoped that he had time to open the package and that he liked the book.
Richard’s generosity continued over the years, and even as I look around my office here in Dublin, I see a great number of books he had sent me. He knew I was on the lookout for obscure volumes, mainly Irish, and occasionally Richard would send letters with lists of books he had acquired, offering them with the note “free to you”. I sometimes think he picked up spare copies just so he could send them to people who were looking for them. There are early editions of Stoker and M.R. James from Richard on my shelves, books by Cheiro, some Le Fanu, a cherished first edition of Blackwood’s The Bright Messenger, and an odd little volume, Thirty Stories by Elizabeth Myers (simply because he thought I might like it), among many others.
Not long before his eyesight became even more troublesome, I got another such letter telling me he would soon be “downsizing” his Dunsany and Blackwood collections. Although he never got around to sending me a list of those titles, he wrote that he would soon be getting rid of the first editions which he “no longer needed to keep”—“Free to you,” he added. Generous as always, no doubt, but even then there was an odd hint of closing-time about that handwritten letter. It was always “Free to you”. Richard was either a very good bookseller, or a very bad one—depending on your perspective, I suppose.
Earlier this year I asked Richard if he would contribute to an ambitious project I have embarked on. Inspired by Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers, Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic, and other similar reference books, I’d decided to put together an encyclopaedia of Irish supernatural and fantastical fiction writers. With his scope of knowledge, Richard was one of the first people I approached. I sent him a letter with my list of authors and waited. What came back was a half-page list of ten authors about whom he wanted to write—many on which he’d already written; authors who he had revived and got back into print; authors who were on my list because Richard had introduced me to their work in the first place. Apart from the date in the corner (January 2017), there was no further comment, just the handwritten list. A week or so later I received what would be a short, final letter: a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, a few brief but enthusiastic comments about the encyclopaedia project, and the hope that with regard to his eyesight “all will improve this year”.
The last time I saw Richard was at the Friends of Arthur Machen annual dinner in York on 5 March 2016. I didn’t know he would be there, but was glad to see him again. We chatted a bit about the then forthcoming Dublin Ghost Story Festival, he regretted that he couldn’t make it, but was hoping to attend if we decided to host another. Richard that day wore an oversized jumper and I remember watching him inspect books that were to be auctioned off before the dinner. He picked them up one by one, bringing each one close up to his eyes to read the titles before depositing them back on the table. Richard bought two or three odd volumes costing not more than a few pounds. I don’t remember what the titles were, but I do recall wondering what his interest in them was. As for me, I bought a copy of The Haunted Chair and Other Stories by Richard Marsh, which Richard had edited for Ash Tree Press back in 1997. Richard was sat beside me in his oversized cream-coloured jumper, his hair was whiter than I’d remembered. I asked him if he would sign the book. He did. It’s the second book in my collection inscribed to me by Richard.
He made a quick exit shortly after that. Said he had to catch a bus back to Scarborough. I wish he would have stayed for the dinner.
Richard Dalby has left his scholarly imprint on many hundreds of books and journals, not just those he edited or compiled himself, but those volumes that he shepherded into publication with the generosity of his knowledge and genuine love for supernatural literature. Back in 2014 Richard wrote to me: “I still have around thirty ideas for excellent collections and anthologies.” I suspect he was being modest. And it might be a selfish thing to write, but I hope hints of those books might still be discovered among his papers.
The loss of a friend and colleague is and always will be a horrible thing, and with someone like Richard that loss goes for double—along with him went a vast amount of knowledge. Commiserations regarding Richard’s death have been circulating the literary and small press communities these past weeks, and no doubt the void he left will not be filled any time soon.
I got an email from Peter Bell a few days ago. Like Richard, Peter also signed up to contribute to my Irish encyclopaedia, offering to write the entry on Katharine Tynan. Like many of us, Peter had looked to Richard for advice and assistance. Before he died, Richard gave Peter a copy of Tynan’s 1895 collection An Isle in the Water. “Some time ago,” Peter wrote to me in the email, “I’d asked Richard for more information about Tynan. With strange serendipity I opened the copy of Isle in the Water, and inserted I found notes on her Richard had sent with it . . . As if his spirit were still abroad!” Something tells me we are still in good ghostly company.
Richard, you are missed.
This reminiscence originally appeared in A Ghostly Company Newsletter 58, Summer 2017. Mark Valentine’s obituary for Richard can be read on the Wormwoodiana Blog.
I’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.
Well, 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.
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!