Introduction to The Scarlet Soul

Final CoverI 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.

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

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’.”

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

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.

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

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.

Mark Valentine
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.

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Introduction to The Scarlet Soul

Charles Maturin (1782-1824)

1 Maturin“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.

Melmoth_the_Wanderer_1820Notable Works

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

“Leixlip Castle” (1825)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.

 

Charles Maturin (1782-1824)

Remembering Richard Dalby

brighton4The 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.

IMG_1844But 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.

bss5Richard 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”.

IMG_1843The 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 though.

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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.

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.

Remembering Richard Dalby

Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

Our Haunted Year: 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian J. Showers

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Our Haunted Year: 2016

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Conducted by Steve Duffy, July 2016

Author Photo 1Lynda E. Rucker is an American writer born and raised in the South and now living in Europe. Her stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. She is a regular columnist for Black Static, has had a short play produced on London’s West End, and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was published by Karoshi Books in 2013.


Steve Duffy: So first of all, congratulations on the Shirley Jackson award!

Lynda E. Rucker: Thank you! Congratulations on yours as well! I was really surprised to win.

SD: Thank you! I wasn’t at all surprised that you won. Will the winning story be appearing in the new collection?

LER: Not in this one, no: these are all stories that were published around 2012-2013, plus two new unpublished stories.

SD: (Studies table of contents) Ah, there are some great stories here. I see “The Wife’s Lament”, which I remember from Supernatural Tales. Are there, I wonder, a few autobiographical elements in that story, which has for its protagonist a woman from Portland moving to the UK?

LER: Actually, there really aren’t, not in that one! I talk about this more in the story notes, but that one really arose from wanting to build a story around the Old English poem of the same title.

I do often draw on autobiographical elements in the fiction that I write, but I think by the time it is shaped into a story, it is often unrecognisable from what it once was. Often it’s a matter of taking many different bits and pieces and putting them together: like almost anyone who’s spent a lot of time in other countries, I’ve had the feeling of culture shock and homesickness, but rarely in the specific ways or over the specific things my characters do. (In fact, people often think my characters have terrible times in certain locations because I hated those places myself, which is just not the case at all.) And I tend to write about places I’ve been, so, for example, most of my characters are, like me, either from the American South or the Pacific Northwest.

Another element of using autobiography in fiction is exaggeration. So, for example, I think it’s a very common experience, when you’re as young as Penny, the protagonist in this story, to get caught up in an unrealistic infatuation with someone – whether it’s a real relationship, an unrequited crush or even a celebrity obsession – in which you build them up in your head and imagine that by osmosis you will become someone else as well. In a way it’s kind of part of the process of finding your identity. For many young women, as well, there can be a kind of fascination with older men as Ian is in this story – a sense that their interest in you somehow empowers you, but that can also quickly turn to insecurity in an actual relationship because, well, you’re still just barely done being a kid, you haven’t had time to accomplish anything particularly exciting or to really become who you are going to be. So there were a lot of dynamics I wanted to exaggerate and write about in that story, but I was drawing more on broad and generic experiences than anything particularly concrete – there are other stories in the book that are more specifically autobiographical.

You'll Know When You Get ThereIt only occurs to me just now, as I’m answering this question, that in a way this story has a lot of parallels to the book Rebecca, which is one of my favourites, in that a naive young woman is swept up in a whirlwind relationship with a much older and more sophisticated man who may or may not be a sinister figure. Really, though, the genesis of this story is embedded in my translation of the poem itself, which people will have to buy the book to read more about in the story notes!

SD: Quite right! I’m always really pleased when a writer includes story notes. The vibe I get from that story, and from all of yours, I think, is bound up with this wonderful combination of characterisation and sense of place. Both have a reality about them, which I think really helps to “sell” the story, in the sense of making it work for the reader. The feeling of real people, in real situations, and then the fantastic or uncanny element working its way through . . .

LER: Yes! It’s what I love best in fiction, really, is reading about real people in well-grounded settings. Last year, Gary Fry wrote a really insightful review of my first collection on his blog that opened with this line: “My overriding impression after reading Lynda Rucker’s first collection of short stories is that of a writer who loves both horror fiction and mainstream literature.” He’s absolutely right, and I think it’s one of the elements that makes horror fiction such a strange, hybrid beast. It’s often lumped in with science fiction and fantasy – and I do think it belongs there, in part; I love and feel a part of those genres and it’s why I get very angry when I hear people moan about things along the lines of “What are all these icky horror people doing mucking up our nice fantasy conventions/awards” (sentiments I’ve heard more than once expressed regarding both the World Fantasy convention and awards and the British Fantasy Convention and BFAs, to name names).

SD: “Ugh! I simply wouldn’t have them in the house, dear!”

LER: However, I also think horror fiction has equally powerful roots in mainstream fiction as well, and I consistently find that many horror writers, and generally the ones I consider the best, often cite at least as many mainstream influences as straight-up “genre” ones. Nina Allan wrote a terrific piece on her blog several years ago called “The Trouble With Horror”, and in part, it’s about how in order for horror stories to work, they must be powerful stories first and foremost. It’s a wonderful article that I return to periodically and agree with completely.

To continue reading, please click here.

Why Can’t You Write Something Nice? An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

“A Fantastic Shower of Books” by Des Kenny

10431464_10203672790317915_8866375727946965071_n[The following article appeared, extensively shortened, in the November/December 2015 issue of Books Ireland. It appears here in full by kind permission of Des Kenny of Kenny’s Bookshop & Art Gallery in Galway.]

He emerged from the stacks of books. It seemed as if he had resided there forever waiting his moment to join the human race again. In his hands were two books, a collection of short stories Ivy Grips the Steps by Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer from Bowen’s Court, Co. Cork, and a copy of the Bucknell University Press book on the esoteric poet AE, George Russell, two apparently dissimilar writers. But far from being too disparate, these writers, as I was soon to learn, had a common interest in the supernatural, the unknown, and the fantastic.

It was immediately apparent that the man approaching my desk knew his way around books and so it proved. He was able to tell me that Ivy Grips the Steps was the American edition of The Demon Lover, though he believed that there was a slight variation in the contents.

As is wont to happen in a bookshop, a conversation ensued during which we discussed various aspects of the Irish book world and somehow or other Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey was mentioned. This resulted in a fascinating discussion of fantasy books in Ireland during which he disclosed that he had indeed recently republished both Fursey novels.

On further questioning it turned out that man who had emerged from the stacks of books was also a publisher who, in 2003, set up an extraordinary imprint, the Swan River Press, which specialises in limited editions of books relating to the fantastic, the gothic, and otherworldly, with a particular interest in promoting Irish fantastic writers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

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Brian J. Showers, for that is the bookman’s name, is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. In 2000 he came to Ireland simply because he wanted to live in Europe for a while, and as he only spoke English his options were limited. After briefly considering Edinburgh, Showers took up residency in Rathmines, where he has lived ever since.

Although he had written his first book at an early age (“I have a ‘book’ that I wrote when I was seven or eight years old. A bunch of one page stories – all having to do with ghosts and robots and dinosaurs – that I also illustrated. The whole production was stapled together. Lots of staples!”), it wasn’t until he moved to Dublin that he began to take writing more seriously. “An awful lot of opportunities presented themselves to me when I moved here, including the people I met and the resources available to me, so I consider myself fortunate in that way”.

Since then he has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for several magazines. His short story collection The Bleeding Horse (Mercier Press) won the Children of the Night award in 2008. His has also written Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (Nonsuch Press, 2006) and Old Albert – An Epilogue (Ex Occidente, 2011).

However, it wasn’t just the writing of books that interested Showers. Soon he became fascinated in the whole process of producing a book, from the putting of words on paper to the putting of the finished book into the reader’s hands:

“All these roles are connected. I think most writers who are published commercially usually get some sort of insight into the publishing business, which is everything from editing to cover design to marketing. I really find that process enjoyable and integral to the creation of a book as a whole.”

His development from writer to publisher was a gradual process. At first he began to create hand-bound chapbooks of his own work: “The chapbooks were elaborate Halloween and Christmas cards that I made to send to family and friends. Only this time I didn’t attempt the illustrations. Those were done by various friends, including Meggan Kehrli, Duane Spurlock, and Jeff Roche. A lot of work went into making these chapbooks—the pages were hand-cut and the volumes assembled by hand—so I only published one title per year. I think the biggest single print run was three hundred, which took at least a month to produce . . . Anyway, I put ‘Swan River Press’ on each chapbook because my house at the time was on the ‘banks’ of the (now) subterranean Swan River. And they proved popular enough that I figured I’d sell off the remainder. After all, postage and materials aren’t cheap!”

Soon other writers began to ask him to publish their work, but chapbooks proved to be too labour intensive and so such collaboration was impractical. The solution was to produce simpler booklets, which soon gave way to professionally printed hardbacks. The word paperback does not seem to be in Showers’s vocabulary. He found that he enjoyed the whole process, especially working with other authors. He sees himself as sticking to the hardback format although at one stage, at the back of his mind, is the idea of doing a deluxe hand-bound edition of AE’s poetry for the sesquicentenary of the author’s birth. Despite the work involved, he had devised a new way to bind booklets, and was looking forward to giving it a go “just for the fun of it”.

The books that carry the “Swan River Press” imprint are a sheer joy to hold. The love and care that goes into their production from the time the first word is written to the final touches of design and illustration is infectious and they are a sheer joy to hold. In fact, there is an irresistible urge to open them and immerse oneself in the magic of the story.

Hopefully before Brian J. Showers merges back into the book stacks, there will be many more wonderful publications for booksellers to sell and readers to read.

 

 

 

“A Fantastic Shower of Books” by Des Kenny