This rule, the first in the founding charter of the Chit-Chat, was not always strictly observed during the thirty-seven years of the club’s existence. It’s true that membership was only ever drawn from undergraduates and staff of Cambridge University, but the name was subject to variation, and it was for an evening of supernatural storytelling rather than rational conversation that the Chit-Chat has earned its modest place in the history of English literature.
On the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, members past and present ought to have been enjoying a dinner in celebration of the club’s recently held 600th meeting. The secretary, A. B. Ramsay, had failed to make the necessary arrangements, however. So instead, ten current members and one guest gathered in the rooms of the Junior Dean of King’s College and listened—with increasing absorption one suspects—as their host read “Two Ghost Stories”.
Ghosts of the Chit-Chat is not the first book to celebrate this momentous event in the history of supernatural literature, the earliest dated record we have of M. R. James reading his ghost stories out loud. But it is the first to look more widely at the contributions that other club members made to the genre. The authors whose works appear in these pages are not a diverse group: they were the privately educated sons of bankers, lawyers, schoolmasters, and clergymen, who would themselves go on to careers in academia, journalism, the army and the church. But they were also men of imagination, curiosity, and wit, and the variety lies in the different approaches to supernatural fiction: here you’ll find tales of ghostly retribution and black magic; spatterings of gore and glimpses “beyond the veil”. You’ll read stories written to edify schoolboys, and poems composed to tickle undergraduates. You’ll encounter allegory, satire, and mysticism.
And while all the writers invoke ghosts in their work, many are also shades themselves; men whose remembrances have faded, whose voices are but faintly heard today. M. R. James and E. F. Benson remain in the mainstream, it’s true. But while names like Maurice Baring, Desmond MacCarthy, and J. K. Stephen may still ring faint bells with the book-loving public, their works are long out of print. Whereas the writings of Robert Carr Bosanquet and Will Stone are found only in the pages of unread memorial volumes.
Each of the works selected here is preceded by an account of the author’s life and his relationship to M. R. James and—except in one case—formal membership of the Chit-Chat Club is a prerequisite for inclusion in this volume. Celebrated Cambridge supernaturalists like Arthur Gray, E. G. Swain, R. H. Malden, and others find no place here for the simple reason that they never made the commitment to attend a meeting every Saturday evening at 10 p.m. during term, take a pinch of snuff, and listen to one of their friend’s read a paper. Or perhaps they were never asked.
The designations of the Chit-Chat as a “club” and a “society” were interchangeable from the beginning—both appear in the first set of rules. The minute books, and the letters and memoirs of past members, variously render the name as “Chit-Chat”, “Chit Chat”, or “Chitchat”. Except when quoting other sources, I shall follow rule one from the first set of rules, quoted above, and use Chit-Chat Club.
So we’ve decided to publish a line of paperbacks. Yes, I know, we’re as shocked as you are. But this new publishing stream only has emerged after much consideration and planning.
Our long-time readers will know Swan River Press primarily focuses on limited edition hardbacks. Sometimes these print runs disappear quickly, leaving some readers paying large sums for second-hand copies. Similarly, it is unfair to our authors to allow their works to languish out of print. We hope, also, that these paperbacks will help new readers find our books.
And so we’ve decided to reissue as paperbacks a selection of our out-of-print back catalogue (or those nearly out of print).
But there were some decisions that we had to make along the way too.
First, we’ve decided to go the print-on-demand route. There are two main reasons for this. The first being storage—we simply cannot stock more books outside of our hardback selection, which remains our priority. A full print run would also tie up money, something we are not in the position to do. But rest assured, the design quality of our paperbacks is what you’ve come to expect from Swan River. We think you’ll be pleased.
Second, we will very likely not reprint our anthologies or issues of The Green Book. While we would like to ideally reissue all of our out-of-print books, too many rights and royalty payments would be involved, and I don’t want to become a full-time accountant. So you’ll want to make sure you get our anthologies during their initial hardback issues.
Third, we’ve decided to go with IngramSpark. In doing this, Swan River paperbacks, unlike our hardbacks, will be available across a number of platforms, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, plus others. However, while you could order through Amazon, et al., if you’d like to more directly support independent publishing, you can order the paperbacks from us. They will be dispatched via IngramSpark.
Finally, our focus will continue to be on the hardback front list. This means we will not be inclined to produce paperback originals.
Here we are, after a brief hiatus, with the continued serialisation of the Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature, which I am co-editing with my long-time collaborator Jim Rockhill. (How many years has it been now, Jim?)
This is a project we started work on sometime in 2017 — although it’s something we had talked about for longer than that. Our goal is to create a resource for both readers and scholars, not unlike E. F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (1985), showing the rich extent of Ireland’s contributions to supernatural literature and its related genres. The first entries appeared in Issue 11, back in 2018, and continued through Issue 12 and Issue 13. In the “Editor’s Notes” for those issues you’ll also find more details on the background of this project, plus how we as editors have set about defining the criteria to guide us through such an enormous task.
It’s been three years now, and, near as I can reckon, we’re somewhere over the halfway mark. When we initially embarked on this journey, neither Jim nor myself quite realised the scope of the undertaking. Perhaps it’s good that we hadn’t as we might have been instilled with a deep sense of daunting fear and put off entirely. But that’s not what happened, and so here we are with another issue filled cover to cover with more fascinating entries on an array of Irish authors whose lives and works span the better part of three centuries.
I have to say, I’m grateful that we have The Green Book as a venue in which to serialise these entries, otherwise they might have temporarily languished as we continue to work towards (with luck) a collected single volume. It’s been a long road so far, and, just now passing the midway point, we’ve still a long way to go.
On the plus side, as I’m working on these entries, I’ve personally been learning so much, finding new connections, asking more questions, making lists of things I ought to read and explore. For me, our Guide is already doing what it’s supposed to do?
With that in mind, I hope you’ll enjoy this issue. Some big names in this one, including J. S. Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, and Elizabeth Bowen; along with some names that might be less familiar, but I hope all the more thrilling for it.
I would also like to welcome some new contributors to this issue, including Janis Dawson, Paul Murray, and Nicola Darwood. We’ll be hearing more from each of them in future issues.
In the meantime, I hope you and your communities are staying safe, healthy, and happily reading.
Bradbury’s work has been with me my entire life. I suspect my earliest encounter with his writing was through the television anthology series, The Ray Bradbury Theatre (1985-92); “The Banshee” was then, as now, one of my favourite episodes: Peter O’Toole starring as cocksure director, Charles Martin Smith as the precocious writer, terrified—like me, then as now—of what wailed in the grounds outside the big house. In middle school I read The Martian Chronicles, and my head cracked open with a sense of wonder for the Red Planet and beyond. I spent my adolescence scouring second-hand bookshops for as many collections as I could find; each of Bradbury’s stories were, to me, compact marvels, precise and alive with metaphor.
It wasn’t until university that I read Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical reverie of Ireland. I admit, it might in part have played a role in my moving to Dublin a few years later. In fact, The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980) was one of two books I brought with me when I moved. These marvelous stories still keep me company to this day.
Based in Rathmines these past twenty years, I now find myself editing The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. For Issue 2, I commissioned Steve Gronert Ellerhoff to write an article on Bradbury’s time in Ireland. Like me, Steve is a Midwesterner with a passion for Bradbury, delighting in exploring the author’s many Dublin connections. Clearly Bradbury’s love for Ireland never left him, and over the subsequent decades he penned a number of stories inspired by his time here. He later gathered together these stories and wove them into the novel Green Shadows, White Whale. For the day that’s in it, here is a reprint of Steve’s article exploring the composition of that book, a celebration of the life and work of Ray Bradbury, not Irish, but very much one of our own.
– Brian J. Showers
The Long Reach of Green Shadows: Ray Bradbury’s Memories of Ireland
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff
“What was I? I was a bag of potatoes that grew up in Ireland finally.”
– Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)—born one hundred years ago today—was a connoisseur of nostalgia, an artist who drew again and again from his own longed-for past. His Orphean gaze often looked over shoulder to his Illinois childhood, culminating in cycles of Midwestern stories written from an agreeable adulthood exile in Southern California. Dandelion Wine (1957), his third novel, brings together tales about Douglas Spalding of Green Town, both boy and community bearing autobiographical dimensions. Green Town stood in for his hometown of Waukegan, while Douglas was a fictionalised composite of his childhood self: his middle name was Douglas, while Spaulding had been his father’s and grandfather’s middle name. As Bradbury lived and experienced life, this alter ego appeared in short fiction, inspired so often by actual events. So it was that when Bradbury spent six months in Ireland adapting Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) for the silver screen, Doug was sure to follow.
Bradbury’s term in Ireland came along with the screenwriting job. His boss, film director John Huston (1906-1987), was then renting a Georgian country house in County Kildare called Courtown and wanted the writer working nearby. So it was that in early October 1953, Bradbury, his wife Maggie, their two daughters, and a nanny arrived in Dún Laoghaire from the UK by ferry. Huston put them up at the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in Dublin and Bradbury set to work, adapting Melville’s whaling epic for the man famous for directing The Maltese Falcon. Many nights were spent being driven by cab to Courtown to review his progress with Huston, who vacillated between praising and belittling the writer, whose sensitivities, in turn, gave way to anxieties. The Irish winter and professional pressures proved a toxic combination. “I was suicidal,” Bradbury said, “for the first time in my life” (Weller, Chronicles 222). On 1 February 1954, he sent his family to Sicily so they might find some relaxation following the stress and stayed on alone to do battle with the white whale. During this time he revised the final two thirds of his screenplay, his relationship with Huston deteriorating beyond true reconciliation. He left Ireland at the beginning of April from his point of entry, Dún Laoghaire Port, never to return for an extended stay.
Despite the grief and depression, Bradbury would, as he did with his childhood and trips to Mexico, cultivate nostalgia for Ireland. Biographer Sam Weller writes that “as painful as many of the memories were, there was something undeniably romantic about the loneliness he had felt there” (239). Bradbury recalled this tug in 2009 when introducing a performance of one of his Irish plays, Falling Upward: “When I got home a voice said in my mind, ‘Ray, darling.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s your cab driver that drove you out along the Liffey three days a week to meet with John Huston. Do you remember that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Would you mind puttin’ it down?’ ”. “The First Night of Lent”, the first of his fictional shapings of his Irish experiences, was published in the March 1956 issue of Playboy, two years after he left. More Irish stories would follow over the next thirty-five years, culminating in his eighth novel, Green Shadows, White Whale (1992).
Bradbury fraternally twinned his title to screenwriter Peter Viertel’s roman à clefWhite Hunter, Black Heart (1953). Written shortly after his adaptation of C. S. Forester’s The African Queen for Huston, Viertel’s novel depicts a screenwriter struggling with film director John Wilson, who nearly sabotages his own film with an obsession for hunting elephants. Green Shadows, White Whale, pieced together nearly forty years after Viertel’s book, depicts a screenwriter struggling to adapt Melville for John Huston, this time named outright. Bradbury quilted his novel from many, but not all, of the Irish stories written over three decades, adding material as needed to pattern his own semiautobiographical account. Of the twelve previously published stories used, nine debuted in magazines before 1970, setting composition of much of the book’s content well before its publication. “The Hunt Wedding”, an essay that appeared in The American Way (May 1992), is also incorporated. Three of the stories were also published by Dial Press in 1963 as one-act plays in The Anthem Sprinters & Other Antics, and in 1988 Bradbury pieced two of these one-acts together to produce the play Falling Upward. Also worth noting is the fact that leading up to the novel, Bradbury adapted several of the Irish stories for his television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater, which ran from 1985 to 1992 (“The Banshee”, starring Peter O’Toole; “The Haunting of the New”; and “The Anthem Sprinters”). And yet even more, the story “The Better Part of Wisdom” (1976) and the one-act “A Clear View of an Irish Mist” (1963), which fall within Bradbury’s Irish work, did not become parts of the novel. Their exclusion indicates that Green Shadows is more than a cut-and-paste effort.
When the stories were initially published, Bradbury’s alter ego, Douglas, was sometimes named as the screenwriter who has arrived in Dublin to work on a film. He narrates “The First Night of Lent” (1956), “The Anthem Sprinters” (1963), and “Banshee” (1984, as Douglas Rogers). Though not identified by name, it can be assumed that Douglas also narrates “A Wild Night in Galway” (1959), “The Beggar on the O’Connell Bridge” (1961), “Getting Through Sunday Somehow” (1962), and “McGilahee’s Brat” (1970). When these stories occur in Green Shadows, there is no mention of Douglas—or the name Ray Bradbury. Bradbury-as-narrator allows Huston to call him H. G., short for H. G. Wells. Later, a fictional former flame, Nora (Barnacle perhaps?), calls him William, Willy, Will, flattering him with a pet name alluding to Shakespeare (In the original short story, “The Haunting of the New” , he is Charles, Charlie, Chuck, carrying no literary allusion). Bradbury remains reluctant to identify himself fully in the text, even though the dust jacket blurb on the first edition underlines his biographical connection to Ireland and the story contained.
Perhaps his distancing comes down to the mechanics of fiction-infused memoir. While Bradbury is happy to admit that the novel is inspired by actual events, whereas he even names John Huston and Huston’s fourth wife Ricki, he has all but excised his own family from the Irish experience. Bradbury depicts his time on the island as spent alone, even though his wife, daughters, and their nanny were actually with him for four of the six months. Also absent from the novel are the Hustons’ children Anjelica and Tony. We can speculate any number of reasons for these choices, from the idea that Bradbury was protecting the innocent, so to speak, to the possibility that practicality won out, as populating a narrative with full-fledged families brings considerably complicating factors. The only certainty is that when fusing his life and prior fiction into the novel, Bradbury left certain people out of the story, much the same way he cut fire-worshipping Fedallah from Moby-Dick when writing his screenplay. The familial exclusion has a profound effect, in particular on chapter 13, revised from “The Beggar on the O’Connell Bridge”. When initially published in the Saturday Evening Post (14 January 1961), the narrator’s wife plays his foil; in Green Shadows, the wife is simply replaced, often with dialogue intact, by the saturnine Huston.
In his final years, Bradbury often credited his experiences in Ireland as having established him financially secure as a writer with a respected reputation. Whereas Viertel rushed to express the trauma of working for John Huston in his own novel, Bradbury waited decades, until he was on the other side of adulthood, to put it all together. Biographer and scholar Jon R. Eller has said that the novel “offers a balanced view of events, tempered by the passage of time” (55). The screenwriting job forms the basis of his narrator’s focus, though it often slips out of the narrative as episodic events emerge. While Huston is cast as Ahab to Bradbury’s Starbuck, Ireland and the Irish repeatedly interrupt their self-imposed and often frustrating work together. That is not to say Ireland and the Irish are used merely as comic relief, though there is plenty of comedy and the narrator often takes relief in their company. The question they repeatedly pose the screenwriter is asked upfront in the book’s opening scene by the customs inspector in Dún Laoghaire: “Your reason for being in Ireland?”
“Reason has nothing to do with it,” he answers (2). There is no tie to Moby-Dick that would make adapting it on Irish soil pertinent. Indeed, these Americans are in Ireland simply because they can be. In Melville’s novel, Ishmael asks, “What to that redoubted harpooner, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish?” (310). According to whaling rules, “A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it” (308). John Bull stands in for England in Ishmael’s statement, but the same could be said about John Huston. Huston’s choice of Ireland was his simply because he felt entitled to it. Bradbury offers fox-hunts and horse riding as Huston’s main draw to the island, not the people, the culture, the history, or even the common American lure of ancestry. There is not a single good reason for the narrator to be brought far from his home in Southern California, the capital of American filmmaking, where screenwriting is an industry. Huston’s irrational choice of work setting carries the effect of making every encounter Bradbury’s narrator has with Ireland a twinkling of serendipity.
For Bradbury, who proudly sentimentalised whatever he loved, Ireland receives his signature nostalgic treatment. Stereotypes of the land and people abound. Ireland is green: “Not just one ordinary sort of green, but every shade and variation. Even the shadows were green” (1). Rain abounds, as does fog, the weather played up in a typical fashion. But where many narratives of a stranger in a known land will use local landmarks to excess, Green Shadows remains innocent of that literary misdemeanor. Dublin is largely limited to Grafton Street, St. Stephen’s Green, and the O’Connell Bridge. When dealing with Huston, the setting typically shifts to the grounds of Courtown in County Kildare and, to recover from the stress, Heeber Finn’s Pub in Kilcock. There are no side-trips to kiss the Blarney Stone, sheep-gaze at Tara, or walk the Giant’s Causeway in the North. Green Shadows does not stand as a traditional travel narrative, and while the narrator is conscious of his own naiveté—“ ‘Kind to Dogs’ is writ on my brow,” he claims (90)—this is not The Innocents Abroad.
“The greatest temptation for a writer in dealing with the Irish,” wrote Irish critic Bruce Cook in his 1966 article “Ray Bradbury and the Irish”, “is to be taken in by their quaintness” (225). Coming from the Midwest, the region most stereotypically equated with quaintness in the United States, Bradbury plays up this quality in the Irish while also playing it up in his narrator. It is difficult to fault him with it when he so readily makes it a foundational aspect of his alter ego. His folksy, hail-fellow-well-met manner harmonises with that presented by the Irish characters and forms an in-road to their lives; friendliness meets friendliness, and there relations remain. There are no intimate connections made, though casual friendships are plentiful. Cab driver Nick and publican Heeber Finn receive the most attention, Finn even taking over narration in chapters 12 and 18, telling tales published earlier as “The Terrible Conflagration Up at the Place” (1969) and “One for His Lordship, and One for the Road!” (1985), and chapter 26, in which he relates a story about George Bernard Shaw visiting his pub. These are the only instances where the narrator yields to an Irish character and show Bradbury’s effort to represent a sustained Irish voice. He does not attempt to render brogue through phonetic spellings, apart from the odd “Jaisus”, and this is to his credit. While the characters’ speech may not always ring true to an Irish reader, it can hardly offend.
The pub stories are often humorous, focusing on playful conflicts between locals and gentry, represented here as Lord Kilgotten. One of Finn’s tales recounts an episode from the revolution where their intention to burn down the lord’s house is foiled by Kilgotten’s gentle appeal that they spare his artwork, which all appreciate. In the other, old Kilgotten has died, his departure “like the Normans’ rowing back to France or the damned Brits pulling out of Bombay” (129), and his intention to take his wine collection to the grave with him is circumvented by a crowd of thirsty villagers all too happy to make sure that his last wish come true. “And bless this wine, which may circumnavigate along the way, but finally wind up where it should be going,” they solemnly swear. “And if today and tonight won’t do, and all the stuff not drunk, bless us as we return each night until the deed is done and the soul of the wine’s at rest” (139). These tales are not so much parody of Ireland’s fight for independence as they are Bradbury’s pastiche of the stories he heard told in pubs by the people he met.
Another demographic that receives attention is the urban poor of Dublin, beggars being central in two distinct episodes. Bradbury, a survivor of the Great Depression, was not ignorant of hardship. His father was out of work for long periods during his childhood and lack of money dictated that the suit he wore to high school graduation came from an uncle who had been shot dead wearing it. But in the early fifties he was also getting to know American prosperity, making his living as a writer in the postwar years. His anxieties about money and the potential lack of it are present in his fixation on Irish beggars. In the first episode he resolves to help a blind concertina-player, often seen on the O’Connell Bridge, by buying him a cap to keep his head dry, only to discover the man committed suicide the day before by jumping into the Liffey. A rare Dublin snow falls and the narrator, standing outside the Royal Hibernian Hotel where he is staying, looks up at the lit windows wondering what it is like inside. This is his private, conscious attempt to put himself in the beggar’s place. Later in the novel, he does interact with some beggars he recognises from his first trip to Ireland, fifteen years in the past. The catch is that the woman’s infant has not grown in all that time, the narrator discovering that the babe is actually her dwarf brother, McGillahee’s Brat. His attitude to the beggars this go around has him unmasking the ruse before adopting a conspiratorial stance, promising to keep their secret and not write about it for thirty years. The siblings’ hope is to save enough money to immigrate to New York, a Tír na nÓg wish the narrator supports. And so Bradbury’s Dublin is home to beggars both despondent and hopeful. Their presence provides a contrast to the bored wealth displayed by Huston and his acquaintances among the foxhunting class.
Bradbury’s summation of the Irish people in the end is based on the observations not of a Hibernophile, but a working visitor. Finn asks him, at his departure and the close of the novel, “On the Irish now. Have you crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s? How would you best describe . . . ?” (269). The narrator’s insight, for what it is worth, comes down to his appreciation for the people’s imagination:
“Imagination,” I went on. “Great God, everything’s wrong. Where are you? On a flyspeck isle nine thousand miles north of nowhere!! What wealth is there? None! What natural resources? Only one: the resourceful genius, the golden mind, of everyone I’ve met! The mind that looks out the eyes, the words that roll off the tongue in response to events no bigger than the eye of a needle! From so little you glean so much; squeeze the last ounce of life from a flower with one petal, a night with no stars, a day with no sun, a theater haunted by old films, a bump on the head that in America would have been treated with a Band-Aid. Here and everywhere in Ireland, it goes on. Someone picks up a string, someone else ties a knot in it, a third one adds a bow, and by morn you’ve got a rug on the floor, a drape at the window, a harp-thread tapestry singing on the wall, all starting from that string! The Church puts her on her knees, the weather drowns her, politics all but buries her . . . but Ireland still sprints for that far exit. And do you know, by God, I think she’ll make it!” (269-70)
A portion of his declaration echoes Shaw from Finn’s earlier story: “The Irish. From so little they glean so much: squeeze the last ounce of joy from a flower with no petals, a night with no stars, a day with no sun” (197). And while his narrator’s exposure to Shaw in the novel amounts to what Finn has told him, Bradbury actually attended a performance of Shaw’s play St. Joan while living in Dublin. The production marked the beginning of his love for Shaw, which intensified as he aged. In 1976 he published a tribute, “G.B.S.—Mark V,” the story of a lonesome astronaut who befriends the robotic George Bernard Shaw installed on his rocket. And of Shaw’s collected play prefaces, Bradbury in his eighth decade would say, “That book is my bible” (Weller, Listen 162). Shaw was his favorite writer in the second half of his life, making it deliberate that the narrator in Green Shadows should in the end turn to Shaw-via-Finn in his attempt to understand the Irish.
The men at the pub do not react to his summation of them. They do not stand or see him out as he leaves for good, making for a most casual farewell. There is no Lion, Tin Woodsman, or Scarecrow to embrace, the many acquaintances he made remaining just that: acquaintances. The novel is dedicated in part “to the memory of Heeber Finn, Nick (Mike) my taxi driver, and all the boyos in the pub . . . ” Memory of his cab driver spurred Bradbury to write his first Irish tale and it is to memory that he offered a novel nearly forty years later. Scholars Eller and William F. Touponce believe “Bradbury’s Irish ultimately turns out to be a reflection of his own concerns . . . about affirming the life of the imagination even in the presence of overwhelming negativity” (426). It is also his way of giving thanks to Ireland for providing the ground upon which he crossed the threshold into his own maturity.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.
Weller, Sam. The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Weller, Sam. Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010.
About the Author
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff holds a PhD in English from Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of Mole (Reaktion Books) and Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut: Golden Apples of the Monkey House (Routledge). Honouring Bradbury’s centenary in 2020, he co-edited Exploring the Horror of Supernatural Fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (Routledge). Currently he is writing Jung and the Mythology of Star Wars and a novel. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far Tower, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.
Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.
In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?
Timothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.
And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.
Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.
LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?
TJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”
Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.
I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.
LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?
TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.
I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.
LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?
TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.
LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?
Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.
LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?
TJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.
LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?
TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.
Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.
Peopled with richly drawn Dickensian grotesques and filled with bizarre and comical incident, Munky is as compelling as it is antic. Catling transports the reader to an interwar England in the throes of change. Part bizarre ghost story, part whimsical farce, part idiosyncratic literary experiment, it could be described as P. G. Wodehouse collaborating with Raymond Roussel, with a dash of M. R. James, if it weren’t so uniquely its own thing.
B. Catling, RA, was born in London in 1948. He is a poet, sculptor, filmmaker, and performance artist, currently making egg-tempera paintings and writing novels. He has held solo exhibitions and performances in the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Iceland, Israel, Holland, Norway, Germany, Greenland, USA, and Australia. His Vorrh trilogy and recent novel Earwig have drawn much critical acclaim. He is also Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.
Timothy J. Jarvis: Munky is many things, a novella that covers a staggering range of modes and styles. But at heart it is a ghost story. Do you enjoy supernatural tales? Any favourite writers?
Brian Catling: Supernatural tales and all the enigmas of life, which get seen in the periphery of normal vision, are a great fascination to me and always have been. Poe is the base of all things. Then the rest of the usual suspects: Arthur Machen (do you know the compelling story of Tessa Farmer?*), M. R. James, Lovecraft, etc., and I have a fondness for Blackwood who I think is often under ranked.
[*Tessa Farmer is sculptor who is Machen’s great-grandaughter, and whose extraordinary work, made from insect carcasses and other natural materials, depicts malevolent fairies that resemble in some ways those in certain stories of her forebear’s, though she was unfamiliar with his work when she started making them. – Ed.]
TJJ:Munky is also a comedy of manners, in a very British vein — there are some really memorable comic scenes, including one hilarious and acerbic treatment of the social and class niceties of the taking of high tea. What inspired you to bring together the two quite disparate modes of the ghostly tale and the farce?
BC: I never plan my writing in any academic or system-based control. It is all a flowing out. Its momentum gathering images and bits of storage on its way. So to answer this question: I was spending more time in and around Dorchester Abbey, hearing the church and village stories about the living and the dead. Then I found myself face to face with the pencil drawing of the publican of the George Hotel, who claimed to be the heaviest publican in the UK, in the 1950s. Two pints later in the empty bar, the ghost monk walked in, and the story started. How else could it be anything other than it is? It’s England. Farce is only a separate subject when it’s French. And humour is staunched in the mouths of the American ghost writers until it reaches Ray Bradbury.
TJJ: As a follow-up — Pulborough, the setting for the story, is on the one hand a quaint English village of a recognisable type, and on the other, a place built on the banks of the once great river Tysmundarum and surrounded by ancient earthworks haunted by “elder brooding forces”, the influence of which the village’s abbey was established to ward off. What role does bringing together the mundane with the liminal and numinous play in this story? And in your work more generally?
BC: The liminal and the numinous are my natural haunts. Amplifiers to the imagination and buffers to the dreary description of everyday life. The very air buzzes in the space between them.
I feel it as a constant in most places that give you time to stop and listen. A village history (stories told backwards). Always seems more alive at twilight and dawn. When all the other animals walk abroad. Churches often become the resounding chamber for the very thing they are built to suppress.
TJJ: You often make use of figures drawn from history in your writing. There’s a certain resemblance between Munky’s “Ghost-Finder General”, Walter Prince, and the real-life ghost hunter, Harry Price. Is Price a figure you’re interested in? What led you to put him into your story?
BC: Harry Price keeps getting in. Have you seen the film of him talking his “lab”? A twitching, snobbish, born liar, whose own personal form of womanising removes him from a Carry On cartoon, into a grotesque Uriah Heep/Jimmy Saville hybrid. His books groan with inflated importance and wasted opportunity. The Return of Miss Stella C. and The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap being the most blatant. Most psychical investigators treat him as an embarrassment because how far he dragged down the credibility of the subject. He is a perfect and demanding character who will always have something else to tell me.
TJJ: The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap tells the story of the investigation into the Dalby Spook, the talking mongoose, Gef, who lived behind the wooden panelling of a farmhouse on the Isle of Man in the 1930s. I know you have a fascination for this phenomenon. Gef’s “haunting” was characterised by a puckish nature, not dissimilar to that of the ghostly monk in Munky. Are you drawn to mischievous spirits of this kind?
BC: Have you seen Vanished! A Video Séance, the Gef story Tony Grisoni and I made? A mischievous spirit seems to offer more than a terrifying one. Because it demands instant reflection between two worlds and hold its presence in comparison. We smile as much out of nervousness as we do out of joy. The transcendent entity also tests and illuminates the gateways of reality, which evolves our perceptions. Much in the same way that the Khidr, the Islamic green man, and the Celtic Trickster do. Its enigma is active in perversity and therefore not in the declaration of death.
Gef had a cameo part in my new book Hollow. But upstaged it to become an almost major character (I should have guest!). He shuffled in and out of a fleet of Bosch creatures that somnambulistically stumble into agreed reality to find out what they are.
TJJ: There seems to be an enigmatic linguistic ritual behind the narrative of Munky that is reminiscent of the oeuvre of Raymond Roussel, a writer who has been a character in other work of yours. And your literary poetics has its roots in innovative and playful poetry. How does experimenting with language feed your fiction practice?
BC: Again, I am afraid it’s difficult for me to answer your question, because I am not conscious of literal and linguistic streams, and experiments in my writing. This must come from early dyslexia and an art school education, rather than an academic literary one (thank God). My poetry is constant and in deep league with my visual imagination. This much I know.
So the critical and editorial surgery always occurs after the accident of writing has happened, which might seem pathological. Raymond Roussel is a typical example. My first and significant influence came from the visualisation of the tableaux and machines he invented in Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus. Not from the convoluted experiments in the structure of language that he devised to create them. That was never my concern. When it comes to poetic language I grasp the opposite terminals of Beckett and Kipling to recharge my batteries. With bit of J. H. Prynne, Flann O’Brien, and Yeats thrown in to confuse the voltage.
TJJ: Are there any other important precursors or contemporary influences on Munky?
BC: I don’t think Munky would have existed if I hadn’t read The Third Policeman and The White Hotel in my youth.
TJJ: Since you began publishing fiction, you’ve worked with publishers both large and small. How have you made radical practices work in the mainstream? And is there something freeing about working with small presses?
BC: I greatly enjoy working with presses of different size. Being given an agent was the only thing that shifted my writing from small presses to mega ones. I personally did very little to make that occur. And intend to continue working between the international and the intimate and love the quality of a press like Swan River.
TJJ: Is there anything you’re currently working on you’d like to share with us?
BC: Last year, Only the Lowly came out with Storr Books, a small press who wanted to do it as their second publication. And Earwig, which was published by Hodder & Stoughton, soon to be made into a feature film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic.
The final edit of Hollow has just gone back to Random House/Penguin, NYC, for publication next year. Think of it as Peckinpah meets Bruegel, on the snow-covered mountain which was once the Tower of Babel. With lots of escapees from Bosch paintings getting in the way.
And I am now working on a ghost story set in stone called Transi. Which is the name given to cadaver effigies, in tomb sculptures, in the late Middle Ages. Not a lot of knock-about comedy in this one.
TJJ: And lastly, I know that William Blake is an important figure for you. To what extent do you think a Blakean visionary approach to art is possible in the early twenty-first century?
BC: Blake is another Khidr, he won’t go away. It’s not his visionary approach that fascinates me. It’s his down-to-earth need to get things on paper. For me he is not a frocked dreamer wafting about and talking to angels. He is a grafter, a working man, whose small factory was crowded with other beings while he daily had to make crappy prints for other artists. His own work sandwiched between his bread-and-butter labour without ever becoming infected or diluted. For me that is a much weirder picture than the hippy poster of him. Gawd knows about his work in the art of the twenty-first century . . . I never understand or care to place art in those restriction. All my tenses are continually jumbled. A constant joy to my editors.
Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, Uncertainties I, and The Far Tower, among other places. In 2020 he edited Uncertainties IV for Swan River Press. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. timothyjjarvis.wordpress.com
Those sensitive to mild spoilers may wish to avert their eyes. – Ed.
In a ‘blurb’ for its new edition of Ethel Mannin’s novel Lucifer and the Child, the Swan River Press claims that this book was for many years on the list of ‘banned books’ in Ireland. If so, it was with good cause. This is a book that glamorises the Devil, irreligion and pursuit of the path of wickedness. It is an insidious book. It draws one in. It is a book that exerts a quiet and ensorcelling, but not a wholesome, power. Like Jenny Flower herself, it gives off, in spots, a heady whiff of ‘gutter panache’ in spite of its often exquisite penmanship. A discerning reader should run no risk to his or her immortal soul, but the same cannot be said of enduring peace of mind.
Among his aromatic armada of apothegms in the Preface to the second and expanded version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde memorably avouched: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Advance extenuation perhaps for the work that lay before the reader to read. Wilde need not have worried. But Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child puts one on uncomfortable proof of this maxim; or else goes to refute it. The book is certainly well written, emphatically so, and sparked up, at times, with passages of striking beauty. But is it a ‘moral’ book? Well . . . As Lucifer might have said within, ‘it all depends on what you mean by moral.’
The principal character, and the ‘child’ of the title, is Jenny Flower, ‘a thin, dirty, under-sized wisp of a gutter-kid,’ who may or may not be of the family of two sisters burned for witchcraft in the early 1600s. She is the natural daughter of Nell Flower, a barmaid at the Seven Bells in London’s docklands, and is brought up as the child of her mother’s brother Joe and Joe’s wife Ivy. Joe is a handsome if sparely spoken sulker, his wife a disappointment-bitten shrew. They have two sons. Home life is not especially happy.
Jenny was born at Hallowe’en, 1924, one of four witches’ sabbaths in a year. On another of these, Lammas, 1st August, 1931, during a school trip to the countryside, Jenny gets lost in a wood and meets a dark and handsome stranger, with horns, who befriends and introduces her to the natural wonders of the woods. When she grows tired, he takes her back home to London by train. If she needs him, he says, she will meet him again.
Returned to ordinary life, Jenny befriends an ancient witch-like woman, who purports to be in fact a witch, and who lives in a filthy novel in the evocatively named Ropewalk Alley, a rickety tumbledown place near the Thames. This is Mrs. Beadle, to whom Nell Flower had applied for a herbal mixture to induce abortion, when she got pregnant with Jenny. More often than not, Mrs. Beadle’s cauldron-concocted remedies don’t work, but people keep coming back and send their friends, ‘on the principle that what doesn’t work in one case might in another – the old Ropewalk Alley principle that you never knew’. Mrs. Beadle’s house is a trove of witchcraft lore and demonology – and cats.
There is a young school teacher, Marian Drew, daughter of a somewhat unconventional clergyman in Wales, who befriends Jenny and tries to reform her. Her efforts towards friendship at least seem not wholly unavailing, until Hallowe’en, 1931, Jenny’s seventh birthday, when at an annual fair in the docklands waste ground, the high point of which is a huge bonfire re-enacting the Great Fire of London (a deft authorial touch, which prefigures the climax of the novel during the London ‘blitz’ in 1940), the dark stranger, sans horns, reappears. Off a ship, perhaps. From this point on, the dark stranger, whom Jenny thinks of as Lucifer, is a recurrent element in the girl’s life, though he appears seldom, in the first year only on witches’ sabbaths, and thereafter less often still. Marian meets him and finds herself attracted to him, even as she tries to persuade him to stop acting the part of the Devil and seeks to wean Jenny from his influence.
The stage is set for a drama among vividly drawn personalities, of whom hardly one of them is especially likeable. Mannin divides her novel into halves of unequal length. The first, and longer, depicts Jenny’s life from her first encounter with Lucifer on Lammas of 1931 to her fourth – following, in addition to Hallowe’en, Candlemas: 2nd February and May Day: 1st May – on Lammas of 1932, when Lucifer takes Jenny and Marian Drew on a day-long excursion by train to the country. By this stage, Jenny has already, in an eerie invocation scene at Mrs. Beadle’s, received a witch’s mark above the heart and a familiar, a black kitten called Satan.
The second part – just over a hundred pages in the Swan River Press edition – in effect touches, in a kind of saltant style, on key events throughout the remainder of Jenny’s life. It culminates in an incident that reaches genuine tragedy, during the London ‘blitz’, on 7th September 1940. We discover how Marian prevails on the dark stranger to keep out of Jenny’s life for, first a year, and then for over three years. She also persuades him to encourage Jenny to stay for a summer holiday with Marian’s rector father’s family in the Welsh countryside. None of this avails, because, as Lucifer, rather gloatingly tells Marian, ‘ . . . you can’t put anything into a child, you can only bring out what is there.’
Jenny advances apace along the downward path to witchcraft. Her trip to the rector’s house in Wales is a failure. She practices spells, none of especial malignancy until late in 1939, and then the intended end of her enchantment is very bad indeed; and worse because it actually works. At times, this second half of Lucifer and the Child suggests a sequence of randomly linked set-pieces to prepare for the denouement of tragedy. But though the journey may strike one as haphazard in places, the hand that guides is assured. The end, when it comes, cannot leave a sensitive reader unaffected. And well before that end arrives, Marian recognises that she has lost the battle. Partly it is her own fault: ‘Some people would say that you had gone to the Devil – you, the professing Christian, with your illicit love.’ (This invites a question as to the inducement that Marian had used to persuade the dark stranger to leave Jenny alone for so long.) But, at the last, perhaps it is just a human thing, never quite to achieve that which one has it within one’s gift to achieve. ‘One means so well and does so badly; always this sense of personal failure,’ muses Marian. The spirit of Arthur Machen infuses and broods over much of this work, both in the nature scenes and in London. With Marian’s resigned recognition of fatalistic insufficiency, one can, perhaps, hear in echo the Welsh-born author’s bleaker and even more terse acceptance of inability to scale anything near the heights that one perceives, whether in truth or in fancy, to be recorded: “I dream in fire but work in clay.”
In a short introduction, Ethel Mannin posits the possibility that the question of whether the stranger was really the Devil and the child really a witch can be predicated on either natural or supernatural bases dependent on a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. But to the mind of this reader, here we have special pleading which is quite implausible. One is put in memory of Ann Radcliffe’s herculean efforts in her gothic romances to introduce a natural cause for incidents that up to then had seemed the effect of ghostly intervention: but the natural explanation is so contrived that it would have been easier to believe in the ghosts. With Mannin, there are just too many coincidences heaped on coincidences for anything like a ‘natural’ explanation to ring remotely true. In the case of Jenny, she believes and that is the prime ingredient to her acquiring the witch’s power and, later, the ‘asexual passion of loving’ which she feels for Lucifer. As Lucifer tells Marian in one of their disputatious yet cordial exchanges, if he had sought to persuade Jenny that everything that had befallen her in the regard of him, including their first encounter in the forest when she saw him with horns, was liable to natural explanation, she would not believe it – even coming from him. ‘That for her would be the make-believe! She has been touched by the fatal lightning. She knows! She has seen the stranger in the forest with horns on his head . . . ’ That is amply sufficient to make miracles of evil occur; and occur they do.
Ethel Mannin’s novel drips with frequent delightful jewels of poetic beauty – not least in many passages devoted to description of life in the London docklands and the more irenic if sometimes darkly enticeful charms of the countryside. At one point the author takes time to show her social conscience side, as she expatiates on the manifestations of loneliness in the sexual realm and the futile attempts by impoverished humanity to improve its lot. ‘Lucifer at least has looked upon the face of God, known Infinite Beauty, whereas these, grunting and guzzling in their human sty, what do they know of heaven or of hell?’
In the final analysis, Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child is – to cite the author’s own words in the penultimate chapter – a tale of ‘ . . . two worlds, the material, and that strange phantom world beyond the bounds of the material, that invisible world for which there is no name, since to call it fantasy, or dream, or imagination, does not suffice, emotion being involved in experience of it, and its phenomena charged with such meaning that the whole texture of the real world is changed, such commonplace things as a curtain blowing out in the wind, or a second glance from a stranger in a crowd, becoming endowed with diabolic significance, exciting, terrifying, sinister, or possessed of a fatal and terrible beauty.’ As Rosanne Rabinowitz points out, in her partly elucidatory, partly biographical introduction, that sensibility which can recognise the innominable character of the effect of sometime strangeness on the humdrum human world of everyday affairs, bodes well for overdue recognition of Mannin’s remarkable novel as a classic in the literature of the weird.
There are few books of which it justly can be said, that having read it will leave a reader changed. Thought-provoked, conscience-smitten, challenged. Lucifer and the Devil is one of them. So, give succour to thy soul with the balsam of goodness – then read.
In our previous issue, we focused on the lives of writers, featuring as we did reminiscences, interviews, and memoirs. For this issue I’d like to do something different. While we have featured occasional pieces of fiction in previous issues, including “Saved by a Ghost” by Bram Stoker in Issue 6 and “The Boys’ Room” by Dorothy Macardle in Issue 9, I’ve decided this time around to turn over the entire issue to fiction.
Consider this issue a special anthology issue, and an eclectic one at that. There is little to tie these pieces together, save for the fact each author grew from the soil of the same island at the edge of Europe, which is to say they are all Irish by birth. Perhaps, instead, to state the obvious, one might find that each story reflects more so its author than any affinity with one another — and yet they are here between these covers. I hope most, if not all, of these stories will be new to you.
Rosa Mulholand’s “A Priest’s Story” is certainly informed by her own Catholic beliefs, the supernatural elements driven by faith more than fear. Similarly, “The Story of a Star” is a fable that could only have flowed from the pen of the mystical poet and painter A.E.
Robert Cromie is best known for his novel The Crack of Doom (1895), which contains what is thought to be the first description of an atomic explosion in fiction. Published here is his supernatural short story “Squire Grimshaw’s Ghost” — decidedly more gothic than the scientific fiction for which he is now remembered.
Herbert Moore Pim’s “The Madman” is indeed a mad bit of writing from his singular collection Unknown Immortals of the Northern City of Success (1917). Whether the madman in question is based on a real person known to Pim is anyone’s guess. Beatrice Grimshaw’s “Cabin No. 9” is a ghost story set on the high seas, full of the adventure and incident one expects from Grimshaw. Unfortunately it is also marred by her racism, but I hope you will enjoy the tale nevertheless. Cheiro’s “A Bargain Made with a Ghost” purports to be based on true events — insofar as any tale told by Cheiro can be trusted as true. But the story is ably told and certainly entertaining.
Dorothy Macardle’s “The Shuttered Room” was originally broadcast on Radio Eireann on 13 September 1957. It was the sixth and last talk by Macardle in her Days and Places series. The other pieces in the series are reminiscences of her travels and experiences in post-war Europe and her sole trip to America. Though the “The Shuttered Room” was the story’s original title, on the manuscript this is crossed out, and a new title given: “A World of Dream”. This new title is then crossed out with “stet” written beside the original. This is the first time “The Shuttered Room” has appeared in print.
Finally we have Conall Cearnach’s “The Fiend That Walks Behind” from his sole (and slim) volume The Fatal Move and Other Stories (1924); a mixed bag as a collection, this tale of revenge from beyond the grave is perhaps the best of the lot.
And there you have it: I hope an entertaining crop of stories that will keep you amused for an evening. If you enjoy this all – fiction issue, maybe we’ll do another sometime?
We encounter and enjoy authors mostly through their writing, forgetting sometimes that there are personalities behind their words, some astonishingly well-known in their time, often now relegated to small press rediscoveries. With sufficient spans of years, these authors and their personalities pass out of memory, becoming less familiar to us as people and more so as names on title pages. But it is important to remember that these authors lived and worked, had careers and relationships; some of them died while relatively unknown, others were widely celebrated for their creations. With this in mind, I’ve decided to focus the current issue on reminiscences, interviews, and memoirs in hopes of summoning the shades of these writers and to show that in some ways their lives were not always so different from our own.
To that end, you will find a number of texts I have been collecting these past few years, now nestled here comfortably beside one another. Each one, I hope, will give you some insight into the lives of these authors, who they were, and a past that is not necessarily so far distant.
There are first-hand accounts by authors with whom I hope you are now familiar. Rosa Mulholland, Cheiro, and Dorothy Macardle all relate anecdotes of their own experiences with the psychical and supernatural. Elsewhere in this issue, you can spend an entertaining evening with Mervyn Wall. In this talk, given to the Bram Stoker Society in 1987, he delves into witchcraft and details the origins of his best-loved novel, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946).
We have a few interviews — “chats” — with those who worked as professionals, and whose names were familiar to the broader public on a weekly basis, as their stories were published and novels serialised in magazines of the day. Among these sketches you’ll be invited to spend agreeable afternoons with L. T. Meade, Charlotte Riddell, and Katharine Tynan. While they may not discuss strictly ghastly material, I hope these interviews bring us that much closer to authors whose works still find admiration of a modern readership.
You’ll also find some brief memoirs, including litterateur William Winter’s reminiscence of his fallen comrade Fitz-James O’Brien, who died in the American Civil War; and Samuel Carter Hall, who conjures two of Dublin’s gothic greats: Charles Maturin and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu — perhaps reminding us that these authors existed in a wider social world.
However, the issue commences with Albert Power’s appraisal of George Croly’s Salathiel (1828), a novel which Stoker biographer Paul Murray posited as an influence on the composition of Dracula. Although, a tale of the Wandering Jew, Salathiel might have more in common thematically with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, than Bram Stoker’s more famous book. Power aptly leads us through the life of Reverend Croly and how his book fits into the literary milieu of the dark fantastic.
If you would like to read more about some of these writers among these pages, you’ll find lengthier profiles in earlier issues of The Green Book. In Issue 9: Rosa Mulholland; Issue 12: Mervyn Wall; Issue 13: Cheiro and Beatrice Grimshaw. While this issue and the next will serve as an intermission in our Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural, and Fantastic Fiction, fear not — we will return with more entries in future instalments.
Earlier this year, our friends over at Tartarus Press announced a call for submissions for their forthcoming 30th anniversary anthology. (Wow! Thirty years!!) The submissions window ran from 10 January until 10 April—a clean three months. Editor Rosalie Parker said on Twitter the other day that in that time, she received over five hundred stories. Five. Hundred. Stories. Yikes!
In a previous “Thoughts on Small Press #2—What to Publish?”, I briefly talk about submissions. I mention that I’m generally not open for submissions, fearing I would be unable to handle the deluge. Looking at what Rosalie Parker has to sift through, I suspect I’m not wrong.
I also wrote in the aforementioned post that I believe it’s the duty of small presses to nurture new writers, as these are the writers who are pushing literature into innovative and exciting places. Of course, I fully realise that being closed for submissions, generally, is at odds with being open to discovering new writers. This is an issue with which I have been struggling since I started Swan River Press. As you might have guessed, this is something of an issue of time or, rather, a lack of it.
So that’s what I want to talk about in this post: submissions from an editor’s point of view—or at least from my own point of view.
Although I’ve already given my background elsewhere, it might be worth doing so again here for context. Much as I’d like it to be, Swan River Press is not my day job. I’ve got a job at which I work regular full-time hours. Swan River tends to gobble all other hours in between—I daresay that, though it is not a day job, Swan River is certainly a full-time job. (If you really want to irritate me, try referring to Swan River as my hobby.)
Through Swan River, I publish on average maybe four books per year, plus two issues of The Green Book—again, I talk about some of this in the post I mentioned above. Six titles per year keeps me plenty busy. It might not sound like a lot to you, but in addition to editing and other more obvious jobs associated with publishing, there are myriad other tasks in running a small press (such as a horrific amount of admin), the bulk of which I perform on my own. In any case, I’ve learned six publications is more or less my limit with the resources I currently have available.
So let me talk about a specific submissions example. One of Swan River’s main venues for publishing contemporary writers is the Uncertainties anthology series. The series was conceived, in part, as a way to work with writers who I might not otherwise be able to accommodate by publishing something book-length. I edited Uncertainties volumes one and two myself (and am working on the fifth). The third and fourth instalments were edited by Lynda E. Rucker and Timothy J. Jarvis, respectively. (Incidentally, if you want to read Lynda’s and Tim’s thoughts on assembling these anthologies, you can do so here and here.)
Now I also readily admit that I’m a slow reader. Realising I wouldn’t be able to handle open submissions for the first two volumes, again, due to time restraints, I approached contributors directly. I was in the fortunate position to know enough writers who I wanted to work with—and, more importantly, enough who would indulge me by submitting a story. I approached only the number of authors I needed to fill the two books. I was pleased with how the process went, and feel both volumes turned out well. This is, of course, one way to assemble an anthology; not necessarily a wrong one either. However, I realise that most of the writers included were already established, with most names familiar to those who read within the small press. But how could I reach even more writers? I came up with a pretty good work around: Allowing others to edit Uncertainties would be a neat way of introducing fresh voices that I might not otherwise have published. My only editorial stipulation for the series is that an author can only be published in the series once—no repeats. This is another self-imposed restriction to keep from returning to familiar voices.
When it came time for Lynda and Tim to edit their instalments, I broached the idea of open submissions with each. I hope they don’t mind my saying, but both opted to solicit stories privately—the same as I had done, and I suspect for similar reasons as my own: there were certain authors they knew they wanted to work with and the time commitment of ploughing through an open submissions slush pile would likely be overwhelming. And, like me, both Lynda and Tim have day jobs.
For Uncertainties 5, I’ve taken a slightly different tack. This time I’ve invited around fifty writers to submit stories—I figure I’ll have space to include stories by around ten or twelve depending. I’ve still mainly approached writers I know I want to work with, but am now opening up more widely to a limited number of submissions. Ideally I would like to assemble a future volume of Uncertainties with a completely open call for submissions. We’ll see.
Let’s get back to Tartarus Press’s five hundred submissions. There are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, every writer who submits will be a hopeful individual, dreaming that their story will be accepted for publication. When they submit, they will have every right to expect a prompt response. This is really my biggest fear as a publisher: that I would not be capable of processing that many submissions, that I would likely become known in the small press community for my abysmal response times. Or worse, for my dead silence.
Looking at this from an editor’s point of view, would anyone care to estimate how long five hundred submissions might take to process? If stories are on average 5,000 words, that’s a total of 250,000 words. Certainly not every word of every story will be read in its entirety. Some will be given a few pages before being discarded, while others might be set aside to be read a second, third, or even a fourth time. (Remember, I’m a slow reader too.)
Reading is not the only task here either. Submissions must be logged. Writers will also likely appreciate an acknowledgement of receipt, and eventually expect a response, be it an acceptance or rejection. Some might want to know why they were rejected, request a critique, or otherwise desire to enter into a convivial correspondence. There is nothing wrong with this on an individual level, but you can see how it might turn into an administrative nightmare, especially for one person, especially if the anthology isn’t their sole task. And that’s all before the publication process even begins.
Meanwhile the various anxieties of each individual writer will grow. And let’s face it—most will be disappointed. And then there’s always the risk of negative social media reaction, despite best intentions. (Note: Writers out there who have taken to the megaphone to publicly chastise editors and publishers—rightly or wrongly—I’ve read your tweets and posts and would not like to suffer your wrath. I wonder how many publishers keep writing opportunities private for this very reason?)
So that’s basically it. This post is more an admission of failure rather than a prescription for success. I just wanted to mull over in the open the challenges I face as an editor and publisher. I’ve been thinking about this submissions issue for years, coaxing myself to perhaps fully throw the submissions doors open for some future project.
Were I to venture into the open submissions arena, what are some ways I might protect myself from an unmanageable deluge?
Some of you might be thinking: ask for help or find an intern. To that I would say: People should be paid for their work. Anthologies incur the highest production costs of all Swan River projects, often times not capable of earning back the money or time invested. While I have no regrets, I still wouldn’t be able to pay someone to do this work for me.
Perhaps I could have a very short period in which to submit? Really, though, this merely limits the amount of time people have in which to click “send”. Ideally you’d want to give people notice, sufficient time to write something suitable for the anthology. The last thing you’d want is for people to send you any old thing they have on their hard drives just so they can feel they submitted something by the deadline. (Believe me, even though I am not open for submissions, people still send me book proposals completely inappropriate for Swan River. In fact, recently, someone pitched an anthology that pretty much described exactly the remit of Uncertainties. See “Thoughts on Small Press #4—Author and Artist Payments” in which I advise prospective writers to research, at least a little, the venues to whom they’re submitting.)
Hopefully I’ve outlined above some of the challenges an editor faces, especially when that editor works for a small, independent publishing house. Or perhaps I’m just whinging? Still, I can’t help but to feel sometimes that there are more writers than there are readers.
If you’re a publisher or editor, how do you face the challenge of submissions? I’d love to hear from you, about your processes and concerns—how do you approach the deluge of submissions? Or do you err on the side of an invite only system?
My inaugural post for this series of posts is here. As always I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!
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