As it turned out, Issue 15, which was comprised entirely of fiction, proved to be quite popular. So I had a look in my files to see if I could put together another such issue of refugee writings that did not fit elsewhere in our publishing schedule.
Let the curtains rise on Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House”, first published in The Dramatic Review (11 April 1885), which publisher Leonard Smither’s notes is “not included in the edition of his collected Poems”—I assume a reference to the volume issued by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in 1892. While “The Harlot’s House” has since become available, we would like to present it here as Leonard Smithers had in a portfolio edition in 1904: with five “weirdly powerful and beautiful” drawings by Althea Gyles, known for her lavish cover designs for Yeats’s poetry collections, including The Secret Rose (1897), two covers for The Wind Among the Reeds (1899/1990), and Poems (1900). We will explore more fully this remarkable artist in a future issue of The Green Book.
H. de Vere Stacpoole’s “The Mask”, a deft little shocker set in the Carpathian Mountains, had previously a couple of outings in 1930s anthologies, including My Grimmest Nightmare (1935) and Not Long for This World (1936). While de Vere Stacpoole is best known for his popular novel The Blue Lagoon (1908), his career is sprinkled with tales of the macabre. A profile of his life and writings can be found in Issue 12.
Next is Herbert Moore Pim’s “The Ravished Bride”, a gothic narrative in verse set in the north of Ireland, and quite unlike the stories found in his oddball collection Unknown Immortals of the Northern City of Success (1917). You’ll find his story, “The Madman” in Issue 15, while a full profile of this quixotic author is in Issue 12.
After this we have two stories by Katharine Tynan, neither of which have been reprinted before. We considered both when compiling The Death Spancel and Others, which Swan River published in late 2020, but ultimately decided they wouldn’t strengthen that volume. We rejected “The Heart of the Maze” because it is simply not a supernatural tale; however, it does possess dream-like and faerie tale-type qualities not atypical of Tynan’s work. The second story, “The House of a Dream”, while it does contain psychical elements, we deemed far too similar in plot to “The Dream House”, the latter of which we did include in The Death Spancel. As a commercial writer, Tynan reused plots and themes to keep up with the demands of the fiction markets. Despite this pace, her writing remained of the highest quality: elegant, descriptive, and a pleasure to read.
Following the two stories by Tynan you’ll find three poems by Dora Sigerson Shorter, all of which were selected by Margaret Widdemar for her anthology The Haunted Hour (1920), a volume that also included contributions from Yeats, Tynan, and Walter de la Mare. Widdemar takes for her strict definition of a “ghost-poem” as “poems which relate to the return of spirits to earth”. Sigerson Shorter’s poems deftly evoke a night-time Ireland populated by revenants and other wandering ill-omens, such as the fetch and the banshee. If you want to learn more about Sigerson Shorter’s life and work you can read about her in Issue 13; her remarkable story “Transmigration” can be found in Swan River’s Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women (2019).
Finally we have “To Prove an Alibi” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, a tale of mystery and terror reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852). This story is one in a series to feature John Bell, later collected as A Master of Mysteries (1898). Bell is a “professional exposer of ghosts” whose business is to “clear away the mysteries of most haunted houses” and to “explain by the application of science, phenomena attributed to spiritual agencies”. More on Meade can be found in The Green Book 16; we will be seeing more from her soon.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, another issue of weird, gothic, and macabre poems and stories from Irish writers. I write this on Saint Patrick’s Day, under a clear blue sky in Dublin; and I hope some of the convivial cheer and goodwill of the day reaches you as you read this issue.
“Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” – Douglas E. Winter
“That didn’t scare me.” This level of criticism grates my sensibilities. That didn’t scare me. It’s the sort of comment you overhear when leaving the cinema or that you might witness among a torrent of social-media posts, not generally known for their insight or elucidation in the first place. It’s not even the brevity of this comment that bothers me, but rather that this grunt seems to convey a shallow understanding of horror: “That didn’t scare me.”
As a life-long connoisseur of horror, I seldom experience genuine “fear” while reading (or viewing)—that adrenaline-fuelled dread termed “art-horror” by Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. It does happen to me on occasion though, this sense of frisson: I remember the worrying, childhood anxiety of the doomsday clock in John Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that horrible cosmic grandeur I experienced the first time I turned the pages of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, or the overbearing sense of inexorable supernatural fate in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
But if invoking this feeling of fear is such a rare experience—a sort of holy grail of reader reaction—then you might rightly wonder why I carry on exploring this particular section of the library? Am I not effectively one among the crowd, professing with a sneer, that didn’t scare me? It’s a reasonable question. Put another way: If horror doesn’t get you scared, then what are you getting?
In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil (1988), editor Douglas E. Winter makes an observation, often repeated, what he calls “an important bit of heresy”: “Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” This is a good place to start: horror is an emotion, and so the success or failure of horror literature is predicated on eliciting an emotional sensation in the reader. Similar to how a joke might be deemed a success or failure depending on the laughs. But there’s got to be more to it than that.
Consider a grand piano, onyx black, appropriately festooned with cobwebs and candelabra bedecked with dripping red candles. Imagine being allowed to play only one note, probably down the far left end of the instrument where the theme from Jaws is usually played. Now imagine that the sole way to enhance the effectiveness of this note is to hammer that one key harder and harder. For many, this is horror. Hammering that single key. Lots of people love that one pounding note too, and feel cheated if they don’t get that adrenaline rush; that didn’t scare me. Sure, that single note might be novel for a moment, sometimes even effective in a particular context, as the musician changes speed or intensity. But you’ll forgive me if I tend to feel overwhelmingly bored with this sort of concert.
“Horror is an emotion,” Douglas E. Winter tells us. I would respectfully like to amend that assertion. Horror is a range of emotions. And each of these moods, if they are to be successful, must be cultivated differently. We know that good horror is rarely just a single note. There are far more keys on that piano—and they’re all elegantly tuned. To borrow the subtitle of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the genre is eine Symphonie des Grauens—a symphony of horrors.
There seems to have been a proliferation of horror-related literary descriptors in the early- to mid-twentieth century (or at least an increasingly formalised awareness of them): cosmic, weird, numinous, uncanny, strange, among others. I believe these words are of merit, not because they define sub-genres, but because they reflect attempts to describe particular nuances of affect (emotional responses) to be found in the “ghost story”—the dominant mode of horror in the late nineteenth century, itself rooted in the gothic tradition. Despite the common trope of the wailing bedsheet, the ghost story has always been quite diverse and adaptable. As is occasionally observed, the “ghosts” in the works of M. R. James are often not ghosts at all, but demons and other such denizens; while the stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James practically beg for the qualifier “psychological” so as to set them apart from the less imaginative chain-rattling fare. And yet, even though Algernon Blackwood himself called “The Willows” a ghost story, that attribution would seem a wholly inadequate description for the troubling sentiments that masterful tale evokes. Who can blame Lovecraft for writing an entire treatise pondering the aesthetics of the weird or Robert Aickman for labouring the strange?
This attempt to describe dominant effects found in horror storytelling continues apace; sometimes these descriptions are celebrated, other times they’re inelegantly stated, occasionally there’s some sort of backlash. Current nomenclature includes “quiet horror” or “elevated horror”, “horror adjacent”, “new horror”, and the ostensibly respectable “thriller”. But surely horror means horror. It doesn’t need your fancy terms. Perhaps the worry is that defining a “sub-genre” will limit creativity, possibly that it’s just a marketing ploy, or, worse still, a declaration of vogueishness, a demonstration of an otherwise unspoken desire to be au courant. Or maybe outsiders discovering good horror ruin the mystique of the insular and supposedly marginalised horror geek who has been reading Thomas Ligotti this whole time anyway.
As someone who thinks often about the mechanics of horror storytelling, it makes sense to me that we recognise and try to describe the wide-ranging nuances of emotional sensations available to writers of horror. I believe understanding this diversity makes horror literature a stronger, richer, and more enjoyable pursuit.
Over the years I’ve written down some words that I’ve come to associate with the various emotional resonances found in horror literature. Take a moment to read through them. Think about stories you’ve read that evoke these sensations to varying degrees of success, and how these ideas differ from one another:
I have not attempted to arrange these words in any sort of order. I’m not sure I would know how. Nor would I feel confident to state that this list is complete; no doubt you can think of more. Call these words what you’d like—sub-genres, modes, atmospheres, moods, sensibilities—but they all describe, directly or indirectly, discreet emotional sensations that a skilled writer can elicit from a reader. It also stands to reason that this variety of effects requires a broad range of appreciative sensibilities—though I understand that not everyone will respond equally to each of these words. Still, there are plenty of emotional sensations available to the skilled writer, the adrenaline rush of fear being only one of them. And this sensation alone is insufficient to judge the vast scope of horror. So much for “That didn’t scare me”.
Numerous essayists over the centuries have attempted to define some of these modes, to delineate their core attributes and limits. Anne Radcliffe made an early attempt at that classic bifurcation, differentiating terror and horror: “the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”; to these twin poles, Stephen King added revulsion (the “gross-out”, he called it). Thomas Burke gives us the sublime, when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it”; while Freud sets out a reasonable starting point for the uncanny (“that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”).
Though the weird is often associated with Lovecraft’s examination of supernatural horror in literature, I like Mark Fisher’s more recent philosophical definition in The Weird and the Eerie: “that which does not belong”; and of the eerie: the “failure of absence” or the “failure of presence”. (Fisher also helpfully tells us that the weird and the eerie need not necessarily be aligned with fear either, thank you very much.) The well-known rules for the ghost story proper were set out by M. R. James; so too does Edith Wharton give insight in her preface to Ghosts: “What the ghost really needs is continuity and silence”—although she also notes, “the more one thinks the question over, the more one perceives the impossibility of defining supernatural events”.
It’s true that many have tried to put words to these nuanced facets of horror. Certainly, some overlap or work in tandem, while others command entirely recognisable sub-genres on their own. We can look to Arthur Machen for the mystical (“Omnia exeunt in mysterium”), to Aickman for the strange (“it must open a door where no one had previously noticed a door to exist”), or to Joyce Carol Oates for the grotesque (“a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise”). There are whole books written on the subject by Dorothy Scarborough, Montague Summers, Peter Penzoldt, Devendra P. Varma, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Glen Cavaliero, S. T. Joshi—you may not always agree with their conclusions (isn’t that half the fun anyway?), but all are attempting to give names to the various effects a “horror” story can elicit.
Which brings us to the present volume, the fifth in a series of unsettling tales. Believe it or not, Uncertainties is a themed anthology. The remit was nothing so superficial as vampires or zombies or folk horror or Cthulhu (only in dustbowl Oklahoma this time), but rather to exhibit horror’s myriad nuances, to open up strange vistas of unsettling possibilities and other-worldly ideas, to commune with intrusions from the outside and those disquieting gestations from within. “Ghost stories,” as Elizabeth Bowen observed, “are not easy to write—least easy now, for they involve more than they did.” But these twelve writers take up the challenge, each in their own way, with expert awareness of the genre’s limitless possibilities.
Algernon Blackwood put it well in “The Willows”, a story that’s caused me many sleepless nights in terrible awe of the unknown: “ ‘There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’ ”
So you can call these stories whatever you’d like: weird, strange, eerie, uncanny . . . I call them Uncertainties.
Brian J. Showers Rathmines, Dublin 24 February 2021
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, and Supernatural Tales. His short story 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 (2006), the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011), and the editor of The Green Book. Showers also edited the first two volumes of Uncertainties, and co-edited with Jim Rockhill, the Ghost Story Award-winning anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
Previous volumes of Uncertainties are also available:
Those sensitive to mild spoilers may wish to avert their eyes. – Ed.
In a ‘blurb’ for its new edition of Ethel Mannin’s novel Lucifer and the Child, the Swan River Press claims that this book was for many years on the list of ‘banned books’ in Ireland. If so, it was with good cause. This is a book that glamorises the Devil, irreligion and pursuit of the path of wickedness. It is an insidious book. It draws one in. It is a book that exerts a quiet and ensorcelling, but not a wholesome, power. Like Jenny Flower herself, it gives off, in spots, a heady whiff of ‘gutter panache’ in spite of its often exquisite penmanship. A discerning reader should run no risk to his or her immortal soul, but the same cannot be said of enduring peace of mind.
Among his aromatic armada of apothegms in the Preface to the second and expanded version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde memorably avouched: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Advance extenuation perhaps for the work that lay before the reader to read. Wilde need not have worried. But Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child puts one on uncomfortable proof of this maxim; or else goes to refute it. The book is certainly well written, emphatically so, and sparked up, at times, with passages of striking beauty. But is it a ‘moral’ book? Well . . . As Lucifer might have said within, ‘it all depends on what you mean by moral.’
The principal character, and the ‘child’ of the title, is Jenny Flower, ‘a thin, dirty, under-sized wisp of a gutter-kid,’ who may or may not be of the family of two sisters burned for witchcraft in the early 1600s. She is the natural daughter of Nell Flower, a barmaid at the Seven Bells in London’s docklands, and is brought up as the child of her mother’s brother Joe and Joe’s wife Ivy. Joe is a handsome if sparely spoken sulker, his wife a disappointment-bitten shrew. They have two sons. Home life is not especially happy.
Jenny was born at Hallowe’en, 1924, one of four witches’ sabbaths in a year. On another of these, Lammas, 1st August, 1931, during a school trip to the countryside, Jenny gets lost in a wood and meets a dark and handsome stranger, with horns, who befriends and introduces her to the natural wonders of the woods. When she grows tired, he takes her back home to London by train. If she needs him, he says, she will meet him again.
Returned to ordinary life, Jenny befriends an ancient witch-like woman, who purports to be in fact a witch, and who lives in a filthy novel in the evocatively named Ropewalk Alley, a rickety tumbledown place near the Thames. This is Mrs. Beadle, to whom Nell Flower had applied for a herbal mixture to induce abortion, when she got pregnant with Jenny. More often than not, Mrs. Beadle’s cauldron-concocted remedies don’t work, but people keep coming back and send their friends, ‘on the principle that what doesn’t work in one case might in another – the old Ropewalk Alley principle that you never knew’. Mrs. Beadle’s house is a trove of witchcraft lore and demonology – and cats.
There is a young school teacher, Marian Drew, daughter of a somewhat unconventional clergyman in Wales, who befriends Jenny and tries to reform her. Her efforts towards friendship at least seem not wholly unavailing, until Hallowe’en, 1931, Jenny’s seventh birthday, when at an annual fair in the docklands waste ground, the high point of which is a huge bonfire re-enacting the Great Fire of London (a deft authorial touch, which prefigures the climax of the novel during the London ‘blitz’ in 1940), the dark stranger, sans horns, reappears. Off a ship, perhaps. From this point on, the dark stranger, whom Jenny thinks of as Lucifer, is a recurrent element in the girl’s life, though he appears seldom, in the first year only on witches’ sabbaths, and thereafter less often still. Marian meets him and finds herself attracted to him, even as she tries to persuade him to stop acting the part of the Devil and seeks to wean Jenny from his influence.
The stage is set for a drama among vividly drawn personalities, of whom hardly one of them is especially likeable. Mannin divides her novel into halves of unequal length. The first, and longer, depicts Jenny’s life from her first encounter with Lucifer on Lammas of 1931 to her fourth – following, in addition to Hallowe’en, Candlemas: 2nd February and May Day: 1st May – on Lammas of 1932, when Lucifer takes Jenny and Marian Drew on a day-long excursion by train to the country. By this stage, Jenny has already, in an eerie invocation scene at Mrs. Beadle’s, received a witch’s mark above the heart and a familiar, a black kitten called Satan.
The second part – just over a hundred pages in the Swan River Press edition – in effect touches, in a kind of saltant style, on key events throughout the remainder of Jenny’s life. It culminates in an incident that reaches genuine tragedy, during the London ‘blitz’, on 7th September 1940. We discover how Marian prevails on the dark stranger to keep out of Jenny’s life for, first a year, and then for over three years. She also persuades him to encourage Jenny to stay for a summer holiday with Marian’s rector father’s family in the Welsh countryside. None of this avails, because, as Lucifer, rather gloatingly tells Marian, ‘ . . . you can’t put anything into a child, you can only bring out what is there.’
Jenny advances apace along the downward path to witchcraft. Her trip to the rector’s house in Wales is a failure. She practices spells, none of especial malignancy until late in 1939, and then the intended end of her enchantment is very bad indeed; and worse because it actually works. At times, this second half of Lucifer and the Child suggests a sequence of randomly linked set-pieces to prepare for the denouement of tragedy. But though the journey may strike one as haphazard in places, the hand that guides is assured. The end, when it comes, cannot leave a sensitive reader unaffected. And well before that end arrives, Marian recognises that she has lost the battle. Partly it is her own fault: ‘Some people would say that you had gone to the Devil – you, the professing Christian, with your illicit love.’ (This invites a question as to the inducement that Marian had used to persuade the dark stranger to leave Jenny alone for so long.) But, at the last, perhaps it is just a human thing, never quite to achieve that which one has it within one’s gift to achieve. ‘One means so well and does so badly; always this sense of personal failure,’ muses Marian. The spirit of Arthur Machen infuses and broods over much of this work, both in the nature scenes and in London. With Marian’s resigned recognition of fatalistic insufficiency, one can, perhaps, hear in echo the Welsh-born author’s bleaker and even more terse acceptance of inability to scale anything near the heights that one perceives, whether in truth or in fancy, to be recorded: “I dream in fire but work in clay.”
In a short introduction, Ethel Mannin posits the possibility that the question of whether the stranger was really the Devil and the child really a witch can be predicated on either natural or supernatural bases dependent on a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. But to the mind of this reader, here we have special pleading which is quite implausible. One is put in memory of Ann Radcliffe’s herculean efforts in her gothic romances to introduce a natural cause for incidents that up to then had seemed the effect of ghostly intervention: but the natural explanation is so contrived that it would have been easier to believe in the ghosts. With Mannin, there are just too many coincidences heaped on coincidences for anything like a ‘natural’ explanation to ring remotely true. In the case of Jenny, she believes and that is the prime ingredient to her acquiring the witch’s power and, later, the ‘asexual passion of loving’ which she feels for Lucifer. As Lucifer tells Marian in one of their disputatious yet cordial exchanges, if he had sought to persuade Jenny that everything that had befallen her in the regard of him, including their first encounter in the forest when she saw him with horns, was liable to natural explanation, she would not believe it – even coming from him. ‘That for her would be the make-believe! She has been touched by the fatal lightning. She knows! She has seen the stranger in the forest with horns on his head . . . ’ That is amply sufficient to make miracles of evil occur; and occur they do.
Ethel Mannin’s novel drips with frequent delightful jewels of poetic beauty – not least in many passages devoted to description of life in the London docklands and the more irenic if sometimes darkly enticeful charms of the countryside. At one point the author takes time to show her social conscience side, as she expatiates on the manifestations of loneliness in the sexual realm and the futile attempts by impoverished humanity to improve its lot. ‘Lucifer at least has looked upon the face of God, known Infinite Beauty, whereas these, grunting and guzzling in their human sty, what do they know of heaven or of hell?’
In the final analysis, Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child is – to cite the author’s own words in the penultimate chapter – a tale of ‘ . . . two worlds, the material, and that strange phantom world beyond the bounds of the material, that invisible world for which there is no name, since to call it fantasy, or dream, or imagination, does not suffice, emotion being involved in experience of it, and its phenomena charged with such meaning that the whole texture of the real world is changed, such commonplace things as a curtain blowing out in the wind, or a second glance from a stranger in a crowd, becoming endowed with diabolic significance, exciting, terrifying, sinister, or possessed of a fatal and terrible beauty.’ As Rosanne Rabinowitz points out, in her partly elucidatory, partly biographical introduction, that sensibility which can recognise the innominable character of the effect of sometime strangeness on the humdrum human world of everyday affairs, bodes well for overdue recognition of Mannin’s remarkable novel as a classic in the literature of the weird.
There are few books of which it justly can be said, that having read it will leave a reader changed. Thought-provoked, conscience-smitten, challenged. Lucifer and the Devil is one of them. So, give succour to thy soul with the balsam of goodness – then read.
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!
Here we are on the first day of 2017, and I realise that Swan River Press hasn’t had a single publication since August 2016. But the end of summer was certainly busy enough: we not only published one collection and two anthologies, but also helped run a festival. I’d feel a little more guilty about it had I not spent most of my holiday working on no less than three forthcoming publications (erm, one of them being the now overdue issue of The Green Book, I admit!) But I thought it would be worth the moment to have a look back at what we accomplished this year.
The first half of the year was overshadowed by Ireland’s 1916 Commemoration. Hundreds of events throughout Dublin and beyond marked the one hundred-year anniversary of the Easter Rising. Our first contribution to the occasion was issue seven of The Green Book, a themed issue that featured writings by genre writers who were affected by or even directly involved with the Rising. As I said in the Editor’s Note, the idea of doing a 1916-themed issue started tongue-in-cheek – especially given the country’s saturation in all things Easter Rising – but the result included pieces by AE, James Stephens, Arthur Machen, and Dorothy Macardle. One of the more poignant elements of the issue, something that makes the Rising seem much closer than a distant 100-years, is the intimate cover image: an x-ray of Lord Dunsany’s skull with the shrapnel embedded from a skirmish near the Four Courts. We reprinted in the issue his vivid recollection of the Rising from his autobiography Patches of Sunlight. For me the issue was a gratifying exploration of the Republic’s early beginnings.
Our second contribution to the national spirit of Ireland was a never-before reprinted collection from 1924 by Dorothy Macardle. The stories in Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Taleswere written while Macardle was incarcerated in Kilmainham and Mountjoy after being arrested at the Sinn Fein offices in 1922. While better known in Ireland for her political writings, and in the rest of the world for her novel ghostly The Uninvited (1941), I was pleased to make her collection of ghost stories available to readers again. And to the original collection we added numerous other tales and poems that Macardle wrote in the 1920s, making this one of the most complete collections of her short supernatural work. Once again, assembling this collection was an absolute pleasure as I got to work with Peter Berresford Ellis (who genre readers might also know as Peter Tremayne). Peter is a long time supporter of Macardle’s work, and his excellent introduction to our edition of Earth-Bound drew on his own archive of Macardle’s personal papers, including the rare photograph of Macardle standing beside a fireplace that we used for the author photo on the jacket. Needless to say, the whole experience was a pleasure, and I hope people enjoy the book.
The next book we did was another dream project: Fritz Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing, which is an earlier version of his classic novel Our Lady of Darkness (1977). Not only did this book provide a great excuse to re-engage with one of my favourite novels of the supernatural and occult, but it also gave me the opportunity to work with the Californian poet Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald has proven to be a enjoyable correspondent as well, in addition to being a fine writer of poetry. But his friendships with Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and others provides us with an important and direct link with the our literary heritage. Donald is a fascinating gent and if you’re interested in learning more about him, I suggest you pick up his recent autobiography, Hobgoblin Apollo. Finally, in an unexpected twist, I was able to visit San Francisco this December and made the pilgrimage to the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street – where Leiber both lived and used as the setting for The Pale Brown Thing/Our Lady of Darkness – and of courseI also climbed to the peak of Corona Heights where Franz Weston first spies the pale brown thing . . . I’m a sucker for literary tourism. (Here’s my earlier post about Donald and The Pale Brown Thing.)
Next up is a book I feel most privileged to have published: Lynda E. Rucker’s second collection, You’ll Know When You Get There. Lynda’s fiction is the sort of stuff I love to read. I’d been hoping to work with her for a long time now, and this was the year. Supernatural fiction is the sort of thing that’s sometimes read with half a mind for nostalgia – who doesn’t love M.R. James? – but Lynda’s stories are fully modern, atmospheric and, above all, disquieting. True, she reaches back to the past masters (one of the best stories in the collection is “Who Is This Who Is Coming?”, a not-so-subtle nod to James), but you’ll also find stories like “The Haunting House”, an inexorable drive into loneliness and darkness. I’m looking forward to what Lynda does next, and even if I hadn’t had the pleasure of publishing this collection, she’s a writer I’d recommend keeping an eye on. Steve Duffy interviewed Lynda just before You’ll Know When You Get There came out this summer. You can read the whole interview here. And when you’re finished, if you haven’t already, pick up a copy of this book. You won’t regret it.
Also published in August were a pair of books I’d been working on for well over a year. I’m happy to introduce the first two volumes of Swan River Press’s anthology series, Uncertainties (Volume 1 and Volume 2). As with some of the other books we did this year, it was a good excuse for me to work with a number of authors who I’ve admired and wanted to work with for a long time now. And since I’m limited by how many books I can realistically publish in a year, this was a good way to cover some ground, self-indulgent though it may be. With these books I wanted to show where the supernatural genre is at now – a modern and still evolving literary style – and showcase the writers exploring themes of the uncanny in all its myriad guises. You’ll find in these volumes some of my very favourite writers, including Emma Darwin, Reggie Oliver, Rosalie Parker, Timothy J. Jarvis, V.H. Leslie, and others. I was also fortunate to have an introduction by John Connolly in Volume 1. How cool is that? If you want to read my introduction to Volume 2, you can find it online here. And I hope Lynda E. Rucker won’t mind if I announce here that I’ve asked her to edit Volume 3, due out in 2018. (She said yes.)
And this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Dublin Ghost Story Festival held at the Freemason Hall on Molesworth Street this past August. Here’s a short piece I wrote for the Irish Times about the genesis of the festival; you can read it here. I co-organised the event with John Connolly, and without his help I don’t think it would have happened at all, or certainly not as successfully. The vibe was casual and intimate, with 170 registered attendees, and for one solid weekend we got to indulge in our mutual passion: the ghost story. Our guest of honour couldn’t have been better, so special thanks is due to Adam Nevill for charming Dublin. Other guests included Sarah Pinborough, David Mitchell, Angela Slatter, John Reppion . . . I could list more, but there were so many people who contributed I’d undoubtedly miss some. Suffice to say I’m grateful to absolutely everyone who helped out, attended, or cheered us on from other countries. The Dublin Ghost Story Festival was a real highlight of the year. Although there are no firm plans just yet, we’re looking at the possibility of doing another festival for 2018. Stay tuned. Or better yet, join our mailing list.
So there you have it. Those were the Swan River Press highlights of 2016. Let me know if I missed something. The schedule for 2017 is already shaping up to be an intimidating and ambitious enough project. While I wouldn’t want to say too much, I will say that the first book of the year will be Mervyn Wall’s 1974 short story collection A Flutter of Wings – this reprint will additionally include Wall’s play Alarm Among the Clerks (1937) and the opening chapter of an abandoned novel. Our new edition will feature an introduction by Val Mulkerns and illustrations by Clare Brennan (who is Mervyn Wall’s granddaughter).
Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who made 2016 such a successful year, both for myself and Swan River. Running a small press is a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m grateful to all for it. I’d like to wish everyone a happy new year and I hope to hear from you all soon.