Fritz Leiber’s “The Pale Brown Thing”

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This is my first UK edition; also ex libris Joel Lane.

My earliest exposure to Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was via the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as they fought and drank and caroused their way through Lankhmar (City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes!) and realms beyond. I’ve still got my old Ace pocket paperback too, a prized item in my biblio-treasure hoard. Ill Met in Lankhmar was a thrilling tale set in some far-away land, but it wouldn’t be long before I discovered a work by Leiber that took its cue more from the real world – though was no less a stunning feat of imagination.

Few would contest Our Lady of Darkness‘s status as a modern classic. It picked up the World Fantasy Award for best novel of 1977, and rightfully so. It’s been described as both Jamesian and Lovecraftian – and it is, but it’s also wholly Leiber. Just as I had visited Lankhmar, becoming familiar with its dark alleys and byzantine guilds, so too would I visit San Francisco – or at least Leiber’s version of it – from 811 Geary Street to the Corona Heights; a city filled with occult conspiracies, horrifying “paramentals”, flamboyant poets, and an illustrious pedigree of pulp fiction past.

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Fritz Leiber in 1978

Our Lady of Darkness is a marvellous supernatural meta-fiction. A fantastical novel rooted in realism (it’s semi-autobiographical) with references to H.P. Lovecraft (with whom Leiber had corresponded), Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, George Sterling, and Clark Ashton Smith. To this real-world cast of characters Leiber added pulp fictioneer Franz Westen (a version of himself), the magnificently circumscribed Thibaut de Castries (author of the ultimate occult manifesto Megapolisomancy – how’s that for a title!), and of course Jaime Donaldus Byers . . . more on him in a moment.

Our Lady of Darkness remains one of my favourite novels, a carefully constructed and fully realised fictional world. So, yeah, you could say I’m a fan.

A few years back I learned that Our Lady of Darkness was originally published under a different title: The Pale Brown Thing, and not only that, but it was a different version than the novel I’d come to know and love. A shorter version. The Pale Brown Thing was originally published in the January and February 1977 issues of F&SF. You can see below that it was the cover story of the January issue as well. That painting there is by the great fantasy artist Ron Walotsky.

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Anyway, I was intrigued. I wanted to read The Pale Brown Thing. And so I did, having tracked down those two issues of F&SF (because it’d never been reprinted anywhere else). Reading The Pale Brown Thing was a way to re-engage and re-discover Our Lady of Darkness. Familiar, yet different; more briskly paced. I came to understand that The Pale Brown Thing isn’t so much an earlier draft of the story as it is a different version. I later learned that Leiber felt “the two texts should be regarded as the same story told at different times. If Franz’s story is longer in Our Lady of Darkness, the reason is that he recalls more the second time he tells it.” And so both versions stand as valid tellings. John Howard expands on this idea in the afterword of the Swan River Press edition.

I love literary artefacts, multiple versions of the same story, and the idea of a published evolution of a story. It didn’t take long for me to realise I wanted to publish a new (first, I suppose!) edition of The Pale Brown Thing. However, I didn’t want to simply slap a cover on it and get it on the shelves. I wanted to explore the work and properly celebrate the book.

I found a number of great resources online, including:

The first people I spoke with about the project were John Howard and Jason Zerrillo. John is a long-time scholar of the weird and had often written about Leiber. His analysis of the evolution of the story from The Pale Brown Thing to Our Lady of Darkness was a natural choice for the afterword. Jason was also a fan of the story and eager to get to work on a cover, a new piece that would pay tribute to Walotsky (below). Jason also did an illustration of the Scholar’s Mistress for the the printed boards, but I’ll let you discover that horrifying visage on your own.

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So then what about an introduction? Surely not a job for just anyone. Enter the Californian poet Donald Sidney-Fryer, who was introduced to me by Scott Connors. Sidney-Fryer was not only a good friend of Leiber back in his San Francisco days, but also counts Clark Ashton Smith as one of his early mentors. More importantly, though, he served as the inspiration for the flamboyant poet Jamie Donaldus Byers in both The Pale Brown Thing and Our Lady of Darkness. I couldn’t think of a better candidate to write an introduction . . . unless Thibaut de Castries decides to manifest himself.

Sidney-Fryer is an accomplished author whose poems and essays are available from Hippocampus Press – you should really check them out. He’s also lead a fascinating life, and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming autobiography, Hobgoblin Apollo.

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DSF in the early ’90s

In any case, Donaldo – which is how he signs his letters – was more than happy to write an introduction. He wrote about his friendship with Leiber and his place in the novel. My correspondence with Donaldo has been a privilege. It’s really for opportunities like this that I enjoy publishing so much. This on-going conversation with Donaldo is as important a part of creating this new edition of The Pale Brown Thing as is the text itself. He is a connection to ghosts of times past: Leiber to Lovecraft and Smith to Bierce. He is a portal to a classic work of fiction that I have enjoyed many times over the years, and I am grateful for the opportunity to explore again.

If you want to read a bit more about Donaldo, John Howard was kind enough to interview him about The Pale Brown Thing, his writing, and his friendship with Leiber for our website. You can read it here. You can also have a look at Alan Gullette’s website, a wonderful resource for all things Donald Sidney-Fryer – the Last of the Courtly Poets!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the new Swan River Press edition of Fritz Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing. It will be out in July 2016.

Order a copy of The Pale Brown Thing here.

 

Fritz Leiber’s “The Pale Brown Thing”

Dublin Ghost Story Festival 2016

dublin logo final copySo this is pretty exciting news.

For quite some time I’ve been pondering the idea. Is it even possible? The question kept me up nights, brain scheming. I remember a while back now – a year and a half ago, maybe? – talking to John Connolly on Dame Street after a chance meeting. I asked him if he thought it could be done, if it should be done. “Yes. Definitely,” he said. No hesitation. And who am I to argue? So this week we made the final arrangements.

Ladies and gentlemen: Do you like ghosts? Do you like books? Do you like Guinness? If the answer is yes to one or more of these questions, then I’d like to formally invite you to the first Dublin Ghost Story Festival.

While we’re still putting together some of the details, I wanted to make the announcement straight away so people could mark their calendars and think about making arrangements. Here are the facts so far:

Guest of Honour: Adam Nevill

Master of Ceremonies: John Connolly

and Robert Lloyd Parry performing the ghost stories of M.R. James

When: Friday, 19th August -Sunday, 21st August 2016

Where: The Grand Lodge of Ireland, Molesworth Street, Dublin, Ireland

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So there you go. Hopefully that will tide you over until I can put together the website and a way for people to book membership. I’m very excited about the venue – the rooms at the Freemason Lodge will make the perfect backdrop for our event, in particular to Robert Lloyd Parry’s one-man show that will kick-off the weekend.

Saturday will feature panel discussions, readings, and plenty of time have pints with attendees. There will be a dealer’s room too, of course. Sunday is still being planned, but will include a guided tour. That’s all I can say about that for now.

If you have any questions, or want to leave any comments (we’d like to hear from you), we have a Facebook page here. In the meantime, please help us get the word out.

Over the next month there will be announcements. Other guests, panels, attendees… Needless to say we’re eager to host this event and share a pint with you. So please consider joining us in the city of Bram Stoker, J.S. Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, and Lord Dunsany!

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Dublin Ghost Story Festival 2016

Our Riverine Head

IMG_0002I never intended for Swan River Press to have a formal logo. But the stony-faced image used on the website – the visage that’s made its way into some of our publications, on postcards, tote bags, and of course at the top of this blog – has inadvertently become the press’s logo. In this post I’d like to tell you about where it came from and what it means.

Back in 2003, I published the first Swan River Press chapbook: The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man. I put “Swan River Press” on it mainly as an afterthought as I never intended to publish more. You see, I was living in a flat on Leinster Road at the time (number ten), about thirty seconds’ walk to the Rathmines town centre. Having lived in Rathmines since I moved to Dublin, I wanted to give the press a name that would resonate with the area where I’d made my home.

At some point prior I’d come across Clair L. Sweeney’s excellent book The Rivers of Dublin (1991) and realised that, like many big cities, Dublin is riddled with rivers and streams – only now the majority of them are underground, culverted and buried. The Swan River was one of these subterranean waterways; moreover, it passed by my house, beneath Leinster Road, just behind our fine Carnegie library. And even though I never intended for the press to last this long, what name to give it became obvious.

Apart from the bloated verdigris dome of St. Mary’s Church, one of the most recognisable buildings on the Rathmines skyline is the red brick clock-tower of the town hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and built in the early 1890s. The clock is sometimes called the “four-faced liar” as it’s four sides rarely seem to be correct or even in synch with each other. (I can actually hear the bronze bells tolling as I write this post. Also the rain against my window.)

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For those of you who don’t know, Rathmines is a neighbourhood in south-central Dublin, just over the Grand Canal. However, Rathmines developed as an independent township from 1847 until it was incorporated into the City of Dublin in 1930, which is why I believe the area still maintains a distinct identity. If you want a fictionalised tour of the neighbourhood, check out my short story collection The Bleeding Horse (2008) and the follow-up novella Old Albert (2011), two attempts at building an uncanny mythology for Rathmines.

Spot 4But back to the Swan River Press logo. Should you ever visit Rathmines, or if you’re lurking about here already, have a look at the keystone just above the main entrance of the town hall. It depicts a serene face with a seashell crown. In reality this is probably just Saint James, who is commonly associated with scallops. But in my own mind I’ve always considered it to be the personification of the Swan River. This made perfect sense to me. After all, the Custom House on the Liffey is bedecked with similar riverine heads, each one evoking a different river in Ireland. And the Rathmines town hall’s sandstone mascaron gazes out to where the Swan River still secretly flows. I have to say, I prefer my more fanciful notion to the Christian one.

The image was drafted by my friend and colleague Duane Spurlock. I believe it was originally intended as an illustration for Old Albert, though maybe Duane remembers more. Anyway, Duane had illustrated some of the chapbooks I did after The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man (a few copies of The Snow Came Softly Down and Tigh an Bhreithimh are still available in the shop). We also worked together on Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), for which he did illustrations. Gothic Dublin is now sadly out of print.

Duane’s pen and ink rendering of the mascaron is perfect. It reminds me that, though the river may be buried, it is certainly not dead. If you stand in the middle of the intersection of Mountpleasant Avenue and Richmond Hill, you will even hear the Swan River flowing beneath your feet on its way to the sea. Try it sometime.

The think the best images are imbued with grand meaning, and for me this one holds much. I’ve come to identify the face, this personification of the Swan River, not only with the press, but also with Rathmines, where I still live and take inspiration and publish books. A few years back I was fortunate enough to acquire Duane’s original artwork (thanks, bud!), and it now hangs proudly in the Swan River Press office.

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Our Riverine Head

The Passing of J. Sheridan Le Fanu

28 August 1814 – 7 February 1873

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18 Merrion Square
Dublin
Feb. 9th /73.

Dear Lord Dufferin,

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

Ever your affectionate,

Emmie L. Le Fanu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMORY
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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

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

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

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

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The Passing of J. Sheridan Le Fanu

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You can order a copy here.

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

Happy Birthday, Mr. Stoker!

11011020_1328033650556286_727792310309265260_nToday is 8 November 2015Bram Stoker’s 168th birth anniversary. To celebrate both his birthday and the launch of the Bram Stoker Bronze Bust Project, we are selling today only for a special price our Complete Bram Stoker Series. That’s all seven hand-sewn booklets for €30.00. (The booklets normally sell for €10.00 each. You can do the math, I’m sure.)

If you’re itching already, you can click here to buy it. Otherwise read on.

The Stoker Series was originally published from 2009 to 2011. We launched the series as a means to investigate some of the more obscure but no less interesting corners of Bram Stoker’s life and literature. The sort of fragments that might otherwise not find their way into publication.

The first booklet is a brief history of Dublin’s Bram Stoker Society, founded by Leslie Shepard in 1980. Among other accomplishments, the Stoker Society paved the way for the installation of the memorial plaque that can still be seen on Kildare Street to this day.

IMG_0008The second booklet, Four Romances by Mr. Bram Stoker, features a quartet of previously uncollected short stories. Don’t be put off by the titlesome of the “romances” are quite startling. The booklet is introduced by Stoker biographer Paul Murray, and features illustrations from the stories’ original magazine appearances.

The third booklet, fully illustrated with first edition book covers and newspaper reviews, is Stoker’s Other Gothics. As the subtitle “Contemporary Reviews” suggests, scholar Carol A. Senf looks at how Stoker’s other Gothic novels (the not-Dracula-ones) were received by the public when they were first published: Lair of the White Worm, Lady of the Shroud, Under the Sunset, etc. The booklet also reproduces the rarely seen dust jacket for The Jewel of Seven Stars.

Booklet the fourth was edited by world-renowned Stoker scholar Elizabeth Miller, who chose extracts from Stoker’s Reminiscences of Henry Irving, in which Stoker details his encounters with luminaries of the day including Ellen Terry, Tennyson, Richard Burton, Buffalo Bill, Franz Liszt, and Walt Whitman. There’s a rare photograph of Stoker in this one too, on board a transatlantic ship. And I think he’s wearing a flat cap.

The fifth booklet is not unlike the secondit features contemporary reviews, only this time you get your Dracula fix. With an introduction by Leah Moore and John Reppion (who wrote a fantastic Dracula adaptation for Dynamite Comics), this booklet aims to explore the myth that Dracula was ill-received on first publication. As with Bram Stoker’s Other Gothics, it features first edition cover reproductions.

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The sixth booklet, To My Dear Friend Hommy-Beg, was edited by legendary anthologist Richard Dalby, and explores the friendship between Stoker and novelist Hall Caineyou’ll recall that Stoker famously dedicated Dracula to Caine. This booklet features reproductions of inscriptions from Stoker to Caine, including a facsimile reproduction of the inscription Stoker wrote in Caine’s own copy of Dracula. The series is worth it for that alone.

The final booklet is another dream come true. For this one we worked with Hellboy scribe and artist Mike Mignola on a definitive edition of Stoker’s haunted house story “The Judge’s House”. Mike not only wrote an introduction to the volume, but also provided an original illustration. How cool is that?

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We’re quite proud of the Bram Stoker Series and hope you’ll take advantage of the special price we’re offering on Stoker’s birthday. The goal of the series was (and remains) to get people to explore Bram Stoker’s life and works in a broader context. We hope we’ve achieved that with these publications.

Oh, and the first ten orders will also receive a special bonus gift (I’ll let you know what that is when you order). Click here to order. And if you’re looking for another unique Stoker item, we’ve also reprinted a newly discovered ghost story by Stoker in issue six of The Green Book. You can order a copy of that here. It’s pretty cool cause it’s not been reprinted since 1873.

And if nothing else, we hope tonight you’ll pull your old copy of Dracula down from the shelf and raise a glass to the memory of Mr. Stoker!

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Stoker!