“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!

Irish Writers of the Fantastic

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I’m sure you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Irish Writers” poster around Dublin. It depicts the usual suspects: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, et cetera. A while back the Irish Times published a reply to that poster, again entitled “Irish Writers”, but this time featuring only women (as the original featured only men). You can view both posters here.

Despite the strengths of these two posters, I felt there were still a few conspicuously absent faces.

As Swan River Press is Ireland’s only publishing house dedicated to what might broadly be termed “literature of the fantastic”, I felt it up to us to submit our own entry into the cavalcade of Irish literary posters.

As our treat to you this Halloween, I’d like to present Irish Writers of the Fantastic.

The poster was designed to give an overview of these worthy and often overlooked Irish authors. Some you will recognise, others you will not. Some, such as Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany, have had a profound impact on international literature. Others, like Fitz-James O’Brien and Dorothy Macardle, will be more obscure. But each one is worth discovering or revisiting this Halloween season.

Ultimately I hope you will find something of interest among them. There are both men and women included in our poster. Writers who are world renowned and those who are less well known. There’s horror, fantasy, science fiction, supernatural, satire . . . You’ll find here writers from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and their contributions to literature span the better part of two centuries.

However, as is the nature of lists, I hope you will disagree with this one. With any luck, you’ll be only too eager to point out someone that deserves to be included, but was not. And I hope you do. And when you do in the comments below, tell us why you think they should be included (and might they bump someone off the list?) Don’t grunt, elucidate! That second part is the most important bit. Because, above all, this poster is meant to get people talking about these writers . . . and then running to the nearest bookshop or library to read their works. In the meantime, Swan River Press will continue to lead the way in their rediscovery.

Anyone with a further interest in Ireland’s contributions to the genre might want to check out our twice-yearly journal The Green Book, which features commentaries, articles, and reviews on Irish gothic, supernatural, and fantastic literature. Until then . . .

Happy Halloween from the Swan River Press!


Some Reading Suggestions from Swan River Press

large_reminiscences1large_gb1Insect Literature

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Irish Writers of the Fantastic

Sorry, lads! Dracula’s Not Irish . . .

11870726_1169355833079619_2823073069956155397_nA few doors down from where I work is a boarding house in which Bram Stoker once lodged for a few months before permanently relocating to London, where he would work for much the rest of his life for the celebrated actor Sir Henry Irving. Other than that, the house is notable as being the only building in Dublin with a plaque on it dedicated to Stoker—and, by the way, some think it might not even be the correct building. But that’s a rant for another day.

Anyway, numerous times per day, tour guides passing on buses proclaim from their crackling loudspeakers that Stoker got the name “Dracula” from the Irish phrase “droch fhola“, meaning “bad blood”. Unfortunately this is complete rubbish and little more than a coincidental homophone. A nice one, I’ll admit that, but . . .

draculabritishfirstissuefirstedition-e4ecce78I usually hear the false “droch fhola” claim repeated in locally-produced documentaries or in pamphlets focused on labouring the well-established biographical fact of Stoker’s Irish origin. I’m guessing this is probably a vain attempt to hitch (and therefore legitimise?) Stoker’s best-known novel to the national identity—as if Stoker simply being a Dubliner isn’t enough, he needs to have written a thoroughly Irish novel, apparently. (By the way, if you’re looking for an Irish novel by Stoker, check out his first book The Snake’s Pass published in 1890. It’s a cracking read!)

As a rule of thumb, however, beware anyone who tells you they know what Dracula is really about. That it is, for example, a veiled commentary on the nineteenth-century Irish absentee landlord system. It’s a fair reading of the novel, sure, but that’s different from declaring such an interpretation as Stoker’s own clever and intentional encoding.

I’d also discard immediately any genealogist who makes the claim that Dracula was inspired by Stoker’s distant relative, the sixteenth-century Irish lord Manus “the Magnificent” O’Donnell. While I won’t dispute that Stoker and O’Donnell share DNA—many of us on the island probably do anyway, not to mention said genealogist also certified Barack Obama as Irish—but I do have a problem with someone making the further claim that this, of course, must then be the true inspiration for Dracula. Notice a trend here? (Cue Carly Simon: ” . . . you probably think this song is about you.”)

Stoker_Dracula_Notes_PersonalFor all of the confusion and misinformation that obscures Stoker’s novel like a thick Victorian fog, there is one primary resource we do have that’s really quite amazing: Bram Stoker’s own working notes for Dracula. The notes were published in a beautiful facsimile edition with transcriptions and annotations by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller. Dr. Miller, by the way, also wrote a book called Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. She wrote it to dispel the enormous mountains of bullshit and fabricated mythologies that have accumulated over the decades and now obstruct the popular perception of the original novel. Crab-induced nightmares, anyone?

But let’s get back to this “droch fhola” bullshit and Stoker’s working notes for Dracula. It’s a fascinating collection of documents and if you’re at all interested in Stoker you might want to have a look at it. Among the extensive notes, Stoker tells us exactly where he got the name “Dracula”. And it’s got nothing to do with Ireland at all. Sorry, lads! Here, have a look for yourself:

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I’d say Stoker’s own notes are a lot more convincing than all that wishful speculation and naval-gazing, don’t you? And just for good measure, here’s the page from Wilkinson’s Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia (courtesy of the John Moore Collection) that Stoker is referring to in the above note. It’s even the very same edition he would have looked at in the Whitby Library in August 1890 :

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If you’re really interested in Stoker and Dracula, here’s a core list of books I’d suggest you read. The first one might seem a little obvious to state, but when I first read Dr. Miller’s Sense & Nonsense, I noted how many times she upended a spurious assertion simply by quoting directly from the novel. So, first up:

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. Archibald Constable, 1897.

Next we have some immediate works about Dracula. Anyone serious about investigating the novel needs to borrow these from the library:

  • Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula. Annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller. McFarland & Co., 2008.
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Critical Feast [a collection of contemporary reviews] edited by John Edgar Browning. Acryphile Press, 2012.
  • Dracula: Sense & Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller. Desert Island, 2000 (rev. 2006).

These next two are vitally important because they’re the main documents where Stoker gives us any real personal insight, and even then there’s not much:

  • The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years. Edited by Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker. Biteback Publishing, 2013.
  • Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving by Bram Stoker. William Heinemann, 1906.

And see, that’s the main problem. Stoker never really wrote that much about himself. Most of what we know about Stoker is inferred from other sources. That’s why making claims about Stoker’s “true” intentions is problematic. As for biographies, until David J. Skal’s Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker comes out later next year, I will refer you to:

  • From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker by Paul Murry. Jonathan Cape, 2004.
  • “Mr. Stoker’s Holiday” by Christopher Frayling in Bram Stoker: Centenary Essays edited by Jarlath Killeen. Four Courts Press, 2014. [A dazzling investigation of Stoker’s time in Whitby.]

On the other hand, if you’ve got access to some primary source of information that indicates Stoker was familiar with the phrase “droch fhola“, or even that he knew some Irish, you really ought to share it with the rest of usbecause it would be a major literary discovery.

Next week, we’ll be discussing whether or not the mummies of St. Michan’s church were the inspiration for Draculaand the further assertion that the young Stoker used to play amongst the tombstones there as a child. How a child who was an invalid until the age of seven could play in a churchyard is beyond meand why his mother allowed the fragile boy to travel to the other side of Dublin, when there were perfectly good churchyards much closer to the house, is probably a matter for the Department of Child Welfare and Protection. One might as well head to Transylvania on an expedition for the “real” Castle Dracula. (Hint: try the first four chapters instead.)

Until then, class dismissed!


For those with a further interest in Bram Stoker, Swan River Press has recently published a hitherto unknown ghost story by Stoker. It appears in print for the first time since its original publication in 1873 in issue six of our flagship journal The Green Book. You can order a copy here.

Green Book 6

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Sorry, lads! Dracula’s Not Irish . . .

Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature

Insect LiteratureI’d like to write about our forthcoming book, Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature. Actually, I don’t want to write about Insect Literature so much as I’d like an excuse to tell you how a Swan River Press book gets put together. I’m inordinately proud of this one too, because it has so many meaningful features worked into its design. I’ll just start at the beginning.

For a long time Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) had been on my mental list of Irish authors I’d like to showcase. But I’d always hesitated as much of his work is already widely available and in inexpensive editions. I wanted something special, a project that was unique and interesting. A book only Swan River Press could publish. Enter Anne-Sylvie Homassel.

Anne-Sylvie brought Insect Literature to my attention a good while back. The earliest reference to it in our correspondence that I can find dates back to November 2013. After our initial conversation, the idea sat at the back of my brain until sometime in 2014 when I learned from my friend John Moran that the Little Museum of Dublin would be mounting a major exhibition on the life and works of Hearn in the autumn of 2015. Work promptly started on the project so that the book would be ready in time for the celebrations.

So what is Insect Literature? Very briefly: Insect Literature is a posthumous collection of Hearn’s essays and stories on insects originally published by Hokuseidō Press in 1921. It was edited by one of Hearn’s former students, Masanobu Ōtani, as part of a multi-volume bilingual (Japanese/English) “Hearn Memorial Translations” series.The original volume contains ten insect-related texts—for Swan River’s new edition Anne-Sylvie has added another ten. You can buy a copy here, if you’d like!

IMG_0057The first order of business was track down a first edition copy. The reason I wanted to at least see a copy was because I like to incorporate elements from the original publications as part of Swan River’s designs. Apparently, as I quickly learned, Insect Literature is a rare enough oul’ book. I could find mentions of it in online catalogues and it is listed in P.D. & Ione Perkins’s bibliography (and in the collections of two university libraries—one in Australia, the other in Kentucky), but nowhere could I find copies for sale, or even evidence of copies that had been for sale.

There’s an interesting reason for the scarcity of this book though. On 1 September 1923, Tōkyō was devastated by the Great Kantō Earthquake. The destruction was total and the subsequent fires engulfed much of Tōkyō, destroying Hokuseidō’s warehouses and stock in the process. But that didn’t stop me from occasionally trawling the internet, hoping a copy might turn up.

As luck would have it, one evening in early spring 2015, about seven or eight pages deep into a Google search, I found an entry for Insect Literature on a French auction website. The listing, which had no bids, had been posted in 2013. What were the chances it was still available? But it was the first lead I’d seen, so I had to try. I promptly wrote to the auctioneer, fully not expecting a reply. Or if I got a response, that I would be told it had already been sold. Or had been lost. Or . . .

But I did get a reply, the book was still available, and after a nervous two-week wait for something to go wrong, Insect Literature arrived safely here at our offices in Dublin. (If anyone else finds another copy, I’d love to know.)

Hearn SealIt’s a beautifully designed book with English on the versos and Japanese on the facing rectos. The blue buckram cover bears Hearn’s personal seal stamped in gold. It’s a heron. Get it? But let’s move on to what I really want to talk about: the design of our new edition.

So the text first. The original edition features Japanese translations by the editor Masanobu Ōtani. While I couldn’t reprint the translated text as in the original, I felt it important to preserve the sense of the bilingual in our edition. The best way to do this would be to print the Japanese titles for each story above their English counterparts. The resulting layout looked pretty good, but we had one slight problem. While Ōtani provided translated titles for the original ten texts in Insect Literature, we had to go searching for translations for the additional titles. For this I went to Rebecca Bourke and my old friend Edward Crandall. They first checked for any existing title translations (which they found for the likes of “Gaki” and “The Dream of Akinosuké”). But when no existing title could be found, new translations had to be created.

IMG_0062In addition to the translated titles, we also included M. Ōtani’s brief forward; perhaps not particularly illuminating, but it felt an intimate part of the original book, and thus warranted inclusion. Another interesting element in the first edition is the reproduction of a handwritten letter from Hearn’s friend Mitchell McDonald praising the late author. (McDonald also served as Hearn’s literary executor; unfortunately he died in the Great Kantō Earthquake.)  In the end we decided to leave the letter out of the book because it didn’t add much to the immediate context of Insect Literature. However, we did make the text available on the website, which you can read here.

Which brings us to the dust jacket. Here it is in full view. You can click on the image below if you want to get a better look at it.

Final-Insect Literature Jacket copy

The first time I saw Takato Yamamoto’s “Bug”, I knew instantly that I wanted it on the cover of our new edition. I don’t think I ever really had a second choice. Very much in the spirit of Hearn, this project was destined to be international. Anne-Sylvie’s in France, I’m in Ireland, Ken is in England, Xand is in Germany, Jim and Meggan are in America. All I had to do now was track down Mr. Yamamoto in Japan. It took some doing, but I eventually managed to get in touch with his agent, who kindly allowed for its use. And there it is buzzing beautifully on the cover.

IMG_0056Now have a closer look at the jacket. See the title and the author’s name there on the front panel? Our designer, Meggan Kehrli, lifted that font from the original title page of Insect Literature. (This is a trick we also did for the cover of our edition of Thomas Leland’s Longsword, which she lifted from the title page of the 1762 edition). The same font gets used again on the spine as well as on the front flap. It’s subtle and not everyone will notice, but I like knowing it’s there anyway. It somehow adds something to the book for me.

FirefliesWhile doing bibliographic research on the original publications of the various texts that comprise Insect Literature, I consulted a number of other first editions, many of which contained illustrations. While we didn’t use all of what was available, we certainly included a good sampling of the more impressive ones. There are four really lovely ones by Genjiro Yeto that originally appeared in Kottō (1902). Originally I wasn’t going to include any illustrations, but the more I looked at them, the more I wanted them there in our new edition.

1PTDC0034My favourite, though, are the two little guys on the title page. I found them among the pages of Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), where they originally appeared as illustrations for the sublime essay “Insect-Musicians”. (Another insect-musician appears on the spine of the PPC pictured below.)

The title page could have been different though. I very nearly put Hearn’s heron there instead. Much as I liked the idea, and it would certainly be in keeping with the first edition, it seemed vaguely silly to put a bird on the title page of a book called Insect Literature. The heron will have to wait until the next Hearn book we do.

On the rear flap of the jacket you’ll see a photo of Hearn standing beside a seated school boy. This rare photo appeared as the frontispiece in Insect Literature, and therefore made perfect sense to use for our edition’s author photo. The school boy also happens to be Insect Literature‘s original editor and translator, Masanobu Ōtani, making this photo even more appropriate and special.

And then there’s the PPC. As with the jacket, you can click on the below image to get a closer look.

CQGaH7VXAAAhT7v.jpg large

This is the image that’s printed directly onto the boards underneath the dust jacket. The printed PPC has been a feature of Swan River Press books since the beginning. I always thought that space under a dust jacket was a bit wasted, especially on mass market hardbacks, which tend to just reprint the jacket design. That’s boring. I like giving the reader something to discover.

So the above composite image for the PPC was created by Swan River’s long-time designer Meggan Kehrli. (When I say long time, I mean she’s had a hand in every book right from the start.) The pale cream field on which the insects sit is Meggan’s own handiwork with paper, brush, and dab of watercolour. The dragon-flies are illustrations from “Dragon-flies”, which appeared in A Japanese Miscellany (1901). The cicadae were taken from “Sémi” in Shadowings (1900), while that grasshopper fella and the little guy on the spine are both “Insect-Musicians” from Exotics and Retrospectives (1898). I love how they’re arranged as if a Victorian entomological display. Meggan has created something entirely new with these specimens from the past.

And now for the calligraphy on the spine, which was provided by Yaeko Crandall. The top bit says “Insect Literature“, while the bottom is “Koizumi Yakumo” (Hearn’s Japanese name). Normally on PPCs I don’t like to include any text. But because I wanted another nod to Insect Literature‘s original bilingualism, I thought we could bend the rule just this once. I think it looks great.

Finally, see that little red butterfly on the spine?  It just fell into place there, mirroring the ornament we use on all Swan River jacket spines. Anyway, that little butterfly is from the very last page of Hokuseidō Press’s edition of Insect Literature.

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And that’s about it. At least all I wanted to write about the sort of things that can go into a Swan River Press book design. Not all our books are as extensively layered with meaning as Insect Literature, but for Hearn we had such a wealth of resources available, why not make use of them?

Of course other work went into the making of this book too, less visible, but no less important: Ken McKenzie’s meticulous typesetting (for this book he had to deal with three languages!), Xand Lourenco’s transcribing (again, in three languages), Jim Rockhill’s proofreading (Jim’s another one of Swan River’s secret weapons—he keeps the words classy), not to mention Gentleman John Moran, who lent his Hearn expertise at nearly every turn (he’s also involved in the Little Museum exhibition). And of course Anne-Sylvie Homassel, who not only netted this whole project, but provided a fine introduction for our new edition.

Lafcadio Hearn is an author whose work you can immerse yourself in. His talent as a prose stylist is such that nearly any topic he decides to put his pen to is rendered fascinating and otherworldly. Immersing myself in Hearn’s world is exactly what I did as we put this book together. Through the whole process I read biographies about Hearn, scoured bibliographies, consulted books in the National Library, and just sort of snooped around to see what might turn up . . . it was really good fun!

As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m quite fond of this book. Many hours of work went into making our new edition of Insect Literature. I hope people enjoy it. Thank you for reading.

Purchase a copy of Insect Literature here.

Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature

Lafcadio Hearn and Mitchell McDonald

grande_insect1A reproduction of the following holographic letter was printed at the front of the first edition of Insect Literature (Hokuseido, 1921). It was written by Mitchell McDonald, a paymaster for the United States Navy and also the principal owner of the Grand Hotel in Yokohama. In addition to their close friendship until Hearn’s death in 1904, McDonald also served as the author’s literary executor. Mitchell McDonald perished in the Great Kanto Earthquake in September 1923.

The letter is addressed to R. Tanabe, T. Ochiai, and M. Otani, commending their efforts on the bilingual “Hearn Memorial Translations” series, of which Insect Literature was a part. Otani, who was also a former pupil of Hearn, translated the book into Japanese, which appeared beside Hearn’s original English texts.


Grand Hotel, Yokohama

Jan. 21, 1921

IMG_0055Dear Mr. Tanabe, Mr. Ochiai, and Mr. Ōtani,

As a friend of Lafcadio Hearn’s, and for that and other good reasons, a friend of yours, I am taking the liberty of saying that in your “Hearn Memorial Translations” you are “running true to form”—a thing to be confidently expected of course—in the proof you give that his whole-souled affection for his Japanese pupils and associates was not at all misplaced, but on the contrary was strikingly warranted in the hearty return to him in full measure of a like affection.

I want to say further that to have had as your teacher a literary star of first magnitude (now blazing alone in the literary firmament as yet without schools or satellites) is a distinction to be exceedingly proud of, but that which is something still more to be proud of is the service you are, yourselves, now in the way of rendering those of the present and rising generations of Japan, who have room in their hearts for love of country—and who are they that have more room in their hearts than the Japanese have for love of country?

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Hearn and McDonald

In that matter, Hearn must have been Hearn—sent to Japan that with his mighty pen he could acquaint your own intellectuals as well as the outside world with the virtues of the great People of that time a newly recognized member of the Family of Great Nations. Your people have long been made familiar enough with those who looked only for Japanese vices and finding, of course, some that are common to all mankind—now let them become intimately acquainted with the man who looked for, found, could see and could tell what was to be applauded in them—much more, in fact, than they themselves were even faintly aware of—to their glory be said!

The time has come when Japan should learn what it means to “know thyself” as seen in the study of Hearn’ s writings—and at the same time thus to learn English at its best, for, after all, a wide and intimate knowledge of English is a practical consideration of utmost importance. In fact, not the least important feature of what you are doing for your people is making it possible for them to participate with you in the work of the man of whom it was said by the distinguished Associate Professor of English at the Columbia University, New York—John Erskine, Ph.D.—that his (Hearn’s) lectures were “criticisms of the finest kind”, unmatched in English unless we return to the best in Coleridge, and in some ways unequaled by anything in Coleridge!

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Hearn and his pupil M. Otani

Your familiarity with the language—thanks to Hearn—qualifies you to put his incomparable English into Japanese as nearly as it can be done, but the greatest service you are doing your fellow scholars lies in giving them Hearn’s English, at the same time that you make it accessible to the Nation at large.

To speak only of the very beginning of your “Hearn Memorial Translations”—every one of the five books a gem of first water—is to invite attention to what stirs the emotions to the depths of the soul, and, any fair-minded man, having read it, who wouldn’t at once resent an unkindness—much less an injustice—to the kind of people there described, is unimaginable.

The time is bound to come when present day insanity wherever existing will be made to give way to soundness of mind, and in that time the benevolent influence of Hearn’ s work and that of his disciples will be keenly felt and fully appreciated. Haste the day, dear good friends, and believe me

Always faithfully yours,

Mitchell McDonald


IMG_0056Swan River Press’s new and expanded edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature is available to order here.

As Lafcadio Hearn observes in his essay “Insects in Greek Poetry”, “the capacity to enjoy the music of insects and all that it signifies in the great poem of nature tells very plainly of goodness of heart, aesthetic sensibility, a perfectly healthy state of mind.” And to this, one might add a keen sense of wonder.

Insect Literature collects twenty essays and stories written by Hearn, mostly in Japan, a land where insects were as appreciated as in ancient Greece. With a witty gentleness bordering on the eerie, Hearn describes in these pieces the song of the cricket, the spectral fly of dragon-flies, quotes the entomological haiku of classical Japan, and recalls Buddhist tales in which the souls insects and men are never far one from the other.

Lafcadio Hearn and Mitchell McDonald