Our Haunted Year: 2019

2019b Christmas

It looks as though 2019 was our most ambitious year to date. I had a suspicion this time last year that it might be and I wasn’t wrong. I had originally planned nine publications for 2019—alas, we only managed seven. But they’re seven of the best books we’ve done and results of which all involved can be proud. So let’s have a look at what we got up to these past twelve months.

53717333_775664036154255_1018230587174944768_nThe first book was a long time in coming: Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women edited by Maria Giakaniki and Brian J. Showers. The anthology came together over many years, after much searching for tales that were not only good, but also infrequently reprinted, if at all. The original publications of these tales range from 1847 to 1914. There are names you might already be acquainted with, such as Lady Jane Wilde and L. T. Meade, and those that will certainly be less familiar to most, such as Katharine Tynan and Clotilde Graves. Darryl Jones, in his review of the this volume for the Irish Times, notes a particularly exciting aspect of this book: “Bending to Earth is full of tales of women walled-up in rooms, of vengeful or unforgetting dead wives, of mistreated lovers, of cruel and murderous husbands . . . ‘The De Grabrooke Monument’, a previously uncollected story by Charlotte Riddell [ . . . ] is a significant coup for Giakaniki and Showers.” Bending to Earth also marks the first time we worked with Dublin illustrator Karen Vaughan, who did an excellent job on the cover. We hope to work with her again sometime! You can read some more reviews and even an extract from the introduction if you wish.

2019-01-25 Final PosterOn a related note, some of you will recall the “Irish Writers of the Fantastic” poster that I designed with Jason Zerrillo in 2015. The poster was later issued by Dublin City Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature—I hope some of you managed to get a copy. Well, Jason and I created another poster this year: “Strange Stories by Irish Women”. It’s meant as a sort of illustrative companion to Bending to Earth, showcasing portraits of each author in the anthology and featuring suitably unsettling quotes from each of their stories. I believe the library still has plans to issue this as a poster at some point. I’d love to see it in libraries across Ireland and beyond.

IMG_20190426_144126_190Our next book was Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time and Other Strange Stories by Rosa Mulholland. As an Irish author Mulholland, of course, also featured in Bending to Earth, so those who liked her story in that anthology may wish to explore her other gothic offerings. There is something of a faerie tale quality to Mulholland’s stories, or as David Longhorn pointed out in his review for Supernatural Tales, “Mulholland also draws strongly on her Irish heritage, and this gives the tales an extra dimension, that of the looming Celtic Twilight.” Not to Be Taken at Bed-Time was originally published by Sarob Press in 2013 and swiftly went out of print. With an introduction by the late Richard Dalby, I’m pleased to bring this title not only back into print, but also under Swan River’s wing. An extract from Richard’s introduction can be read here. Our edition was given a vibrant new cover by Irish artist Brian Coldrick. Fans of the ghost story will want to check out Coldrick’s Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories, a marvellous collection of illustrations perfectly capturing that moment of a pleasing terror.

67143631_1806947816074520_6074629506683895808_nAfter Mulholland we published a new collection by John Howard: A Flowering Wound. This is the third book we’ve worked on with John, having previously published Written by Daylight in 2013 followed by The Silver Voices in 2014. Once again, David Longhorn of Supernatural Tales weighs in on this marvellous collection: “John Howard’s tales seemed to me like suitable summer reading. Many of the stories concern overlit urban landscapes not unlike those in the stories of J. G. Ballard, though the mood is very different . . . . There are also some stories that recall Arthur Machen’s approach to London, his insistence that the great metropolis is a place of magic and mystery.” The cover, perfectly evocative of John’s writing, was provided by our long-time collaborator Jason Zerrillo. If you’d like to read more about A Flowering Wound, check out this wonderful interview with John Howard conducted by Florence Sunnen.

ECGhq8pWkAAOvArThe Mulholland book was not to be our only Sarob Press reprint this year. We also reprinted “Number Ninety” & Other Ghost Stories by B. M. Croker, originally published in 2000. This volume, like the Mulholland, was also long out of print, and being written by an Irish writer, we were keen to bring Croker’s stories to our audience. Unlike Mulholland, who wrote often about Ireland, the majority of Croker’s stories are often set further afield. In his review for Wormwood, Reggie Oliver writes: “[Croker’s] Indian stories evoke colonial life vividly and there is no imperial condescension towards the native characters who are treated with the same respect and sharpness of vision as her British ones . . . . What makes them all readable are the well-observed characters and settings which, besides India, include Britain, Ireland, Australia, the South of France and the American Deep South.” You’ll find Croker also represented in Bending to Earth; likewise, Richard Dalby has provided us with another excellent introduction. The expert cover for “Number Ninety” is by Alan Corbett, who also provided the illustration for The Green Book 2—a panel from his excellent Cork-set graphic novel The Ghost of Shandon.

IMG_2173Next up was quite a special project, an opportunity that could not be missed: a 150th anniversary edition of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea, which was originally published in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round in October 1869. “Green Tea” stands as one of my favourite ghost stories; it’s the world at its cruellest, Le Fanu at his bleakest. To create something really special, we put together a great team: Matthew Holness (writer/director of Possum) is a long-time admirer of Le Fanu’s work, and provided an introduction to Reminiscences of a Bachelor back in 2014. We also called in Alisdair Wood, who provided illustrations for our edition November Night Tales by Henry C. Mercer. For Green Tea, Alisdair not only fully illustrated the story, but designed the cover as well. We then teamed up with Reggie Chamberlain-King of Belfast’s Wireless Mystery Theatre to produce a dramatic recording of Le Fanu’s masterful tale of paranoia and fear—you’ve got to hear it!

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Finally, the book is rounded out by a pair of essays, written by myself and Le Fanu scholar Jim Rockhill, exploring the background and publishing history of “Green Tea”. The entire edition is signed by Holness, Wood, Rockhill, and Showers—and includes a facsimile signature of Le Fanu. Just to make the occasion even more special, I took the pile of signing sheets to Le Fanu’s grave here in south Dublin, where they rested for a while with a cup of strongly brewed green tea before I sent them off to the printer to be bound. Praised by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post as a “beautiful keepsake volume”, I’m confident our new edition of Green Tea is book Le Fanu himself would be proud of.

IMG_2312Our last book of the year arrived just a few short weeks before the holidays: The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats edited by Mark Valentine. Stories of magic and myth, folklore and fairy traditions, the occult and the outré, inspired by the rich mystical world of Ireland’s greatest poet, W. B. Yeats. The Far Tower is something of a tribute anthology, similar to The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray (2017), and Mark invited many of the same collaborators to the project, including cover artist John Coulthart, who really gave us something special this time. As the calendar draws to a close, I hope readers will enjoy this final offering of the year somewhere warm and relaxing. If you’d like, you can read Mark’s introduction as well!

67063061_715995905509991_3361863342883864576_nMoving on to The Green Book. Some might have noticed that there was only one issue this year. This was quite unintentional, and one of the two books I had hoped to publish, but simply didn’t manage. However, The Green Book 13 did see the light of day last spring. Much like the previous two issues, issue thirteen contains a number of entries on obscure Irish writers of the fantastic, including Dora Sigurson Shorter, Cheiro, Oliver Sherry, Stephen Gilbert, and others. Issue fourteen will likely appear around the same time as issue fifteen, so don’t fret. Apologies for the delay!

Uncertainties 4The other book I was hoping to publish this year, but was unable to complete in time, is Uncertainties 4 edited by Timothy J. Jarvis. However, I am happy to say that the book is now finished, with a remarkable selection of stories, and will go to print in early 2020, complete with a fantastic cover from the painting “Night Beach” by B. Catling. This is the first time Swan River has worked with Catling, and won’t be the last . . .

A lot of publishing takes place in isolation, with me sitting here in Dublin at my desk tapping away at the keyboard: answering emails, updating accounts, editing, or simply reading. Occasionally I also have the opportunity to leave the house. This year Swan River Press attended Worldcon here in Dublin. It was my first Worldcon: slightly overwhelming, but loads of fun to meet people and talk about books. In October I made my way up to Glasgow for Fantasycon. Although smaller than previous years, it was still great fun to see friends. I’m very much looking forward to Stokercon in 2020—Scarborough is such a fun city to visit. I hope to see you all there!

dublin logo final copyJust because I’ve been asked lately, it does not look as though we’ll be hosting a Dublin Ghost Story Festival in 2020. The event is not permanently cancelled, so don’t despair just yet, but the idea does need to reach a certain momentum before I’m comfortable committing myself. The events in both 2016 and 2018 were great fun, guests of honour being Adam Nevill and Joyce Carol Oates, respectively. So I do hope we’ll be able to do another one when the time is right. If you want to keep abreast of any announcements, do join our mailing list or follow us on Facebook.

While much of publishing can take place in isolation, it is by no means a vacuum. There’s a reason Swan River books look so good. Jim Rockhill continues to proofread all of our volumes, offering his sharp eye and invaluable advice; Meggan Kehrli once again designed all our covers, keeping the look of the Swan River books uniform and exciting; and Ken Mackenzie, who typesets all our books, often a less noticed contribution, but one of great importance. I’d also like to thank Alison Lyons of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature for her constant support of fine literature.

Lastly, thank you to everyone who supported Swan River Press this year: with kind words, by buying books, donating through our patron programme, or simply spreading the word—I’m grateful for it all! If you’d like to keep in touch, do join our mailing list, find us on Facebook, follow on Twitter and Instagram. I’d like to wish you a restful holiday season, and hope to hear from you in the New Year!

 

 

Our Haunted Year: 2019

The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats

Stories of magic and myth, folklore and fairy traditions, the occult and the outré, inspired by the rich mystical world of Ireland’s greatest poet, W. B. Yeats. We invited ten contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, drawing on his work for their own new and original tales. Each has chosen a phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric. Alongside their own powerful qualities, the pieces here testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds and the talismans of old magic.


tower 3Introduction by Mark Valentine

“All Art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is symbolic, and has the purpose of those symbolic talismans which mediaeval magicians made with complex colours and forms . . . ”

– A Book of Images

The artist had a hawk-like face and dark garments. I could imagine him turned into an effigy, some allegorical image, an Edwardian sphinx. There was a pallor which suggested he was already halfway to marble. The long fingers were like white candles. The black eyes seemed to be regarding something that none of the rest of us would ever see. He was staring from the frontispiece of a book. It had a linen spine that was now as grey as cerements, and its lettering was worn away. I try always to look at a book whose title cannot be read. Since others may have passed it over, it might be worth finding. In any case, sometimes it seems such books might be waiting in secrecy for you.

388After I had stared at the figure in the frontispiece a little while longer, I turned the pages. There were black and white drawings in bold sweeps. A cloaked figure moved through a bare plain. A bearded god stared from a ziggurat. Castles and citadels ramped on top of each other in dream cities. A sibyl held her forefinger to her lips. Unlike the worn and stained coat of the book, the pages inside were a pure cream-white and the black ink still sombre and crystalline, as if fresh from the artist’s pen.

This was the way I made the acquaintance of the artist Will Horton, or, to give him his full measure, William Thomas Horton. And this Will Horton was a chosen friend of W. B. Yeats, who penned an introduction to his A Book of Images and spoke of him in the same breath as Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts. “Even the phantastic landscapes, the entangled chimneys against a white sky, the dark valley with its little points of light, the cloudy and fragile towns and churches, are part of the history of a soul,” wrote Yeats, understanding that whatever Horton did came from strange spiritual sources. “His art is immature,” he admitted, “but it is more interesting than the mature art of our magazines, for it is the reverie of a lonely and profound temperament.”

Yeats.jpgFor some time the poet and the artist saw each other almost every day and when they did not meet, or even when they did, they wrote letters to each other every day too. Yeats persuaded Horton to join for a while the Order of the Golden Dawn but the haggard, hawk-faced man decided it was not for him, for he had a different vision. Yeats always remembered Horton even when, especially when, he had outstripped him by far in fame, for Horton’s work never quite won acclaim and he died in obscurity.

The reason these two souls were drawn together was because they shared an understanding of the power of the image to say the things we cannot otherwise express, to suggest the presence of overlapping worlds and haunted figures and the working-out of fates and destinies. Though they did not always agree on the mechanics of occult science or on the outer details, yet they had the same respect for the magical art of the image. Indeed, looking at their own two portrait images, they might almost pass for brothers of some mystical consanguinity, each imbued with an aspect of Thoth-Hermes. And in the last part of his great work A Vision, “All Souls Night: An Epilogue”, Yeats summoned the image of his friend to him: “Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought . . . ” It seems to me that we may see the real Yeats, and discern what mattered to Yeats, from this ardent friendship.

So the Yeats of old age, the senator, the grand old man of letters, the panjandrum of preposterous causes, the grey eminence of the marching men, is not, because it was the last of him, by any means all of him. It is not at all the whole of who he was. We must look instead at the young man with the raven’s wing forelock and the dark frock-coat and the loose flowing tie and the glinting pince-nez, that fervent youth of the Nineties, the votary of the Rhymers Club, acolyte of the Hermetic Order, firm Irish Republican, friend and keen counsellor to poets, artists, actors, prophets, mystics.

At the age of twenty-six he published a book in stately royal blue with gilded lettering, The Wanderings of Oisin, which told of heroes, heroines, giants, demons, fairies. It was his tribute to the rich folk traditions and epic poetry of his own country, and it revealed an imagination dwelling in a world and a time when magic was understood as naturally interwoven with the more visible order of things.

IMG_0170.JPGIn that same year, however, his fellow Rhymer Arthur Symons published his poems of cosmopolitan ennui, Days and Nights, and Amy Levy, in A London Plane-Tree, offered subtle Symbolist lyrics of melancholy and loss. These were more modern, daring and fleet-footed than his own traditional verse, and they, or others like, must have helped him see how he must make his own work new too. In time he would come to seem one of the few figures who were able to construct a bridge between the traditional and the modern.

But one of the singular aspects of the work of the modernists is how they drew on ancient myths for inspiration: Ezra Pound on Chinese philosophy; T. S. Eliot on the legends of the Holy Grail; H.D. on the classical gods. Yeats, too, enriched his modern work with ancient sources, and immersed himself fully in them. He practised astrology and ritual magic, researched folklore and fairy traditions, and was deeply interested in theosophy, spiritualism, alchemy, hermeticism, and the Kabbalah. He was a dedicated student and scholar who took these subjects utterly seriously and used them to guide his life. The excellent exhibition on The Life and Work of William Butler Yeats at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin illustrates this powerfully with its cabinets containing the poet’s magical equipment, robes, horoscopes, astrological notebooks, and other relics.

Yeats postcard 1-1 copyYet for a long time in the twentieth century it was the critical fashion to ignore or diminish these abiding interests, as if they were somehow embarrassing and incompatible with his status as a great poet. This refusal to acknowledge the role of the mystical and mythical in the human imagination was pervasive amongst the arbiters of English Literature then. It was part of a consensus in favour of “realism” in literature, which also saw almost any aspect of the fantastic or visionary banished from considered study, an attitude which still lingers in some quarters today.

The same patrician disdain meant that the supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood; the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Peake, and Eddison; the tales of magic and witchcraft by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stella Benson, Mary Butts, and others were largely ignored. Original and challenging work, such as David Lindsay’s visionary novels, Claude Houghton’s metaphysical thrillers, Naomi Mitchison’s historical epics, had little chance of acceptance. The effect on some of these writers was not minor: for some it meant poverty, neglect, marginalisation, disillusion.

It is only in comparatively recent times that it has been acknowledged fully how crucial occult interests were to Yeats’s work. A few studies began to appear towards the end of the old century, such as George Mills Harper’s critical anthology Yeats and the Occult (1975); his explorations of the poet’s central role in the Eighteen Nineties magical order, Yeats’s Golden Dawn (1974); and indeed his account of that friendship with the visionary artist in W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: The Record of an Occult Friendship (1980).

Other important studies followed: Yeats the Initiate: Essays on Certain Themes in the Works of W. B. Yeats by Kathleen Raine (1986); Leon Surette’s 1994 study The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and the Occult; and Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats by Brenda Maddox (1999).

But although this new recognition of the deep sources of Yeats’s inspiration has been an important corrective, it should not now stop us from admitting that many aspects of his beliefs still seem hard to take, even under a sympathetic scrutiny. Arthur Machen, a fellow-member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, tells an anecdote about Yeats and another hierophant debating what his star sign was: they were both wrong. He admired Yeats’s work and enjoyed his company, but he added, “and yet the great poet was one of the silliest men I knew”.

S4820339Machen, who later dismissed the Hermetic Order as a sort of hoax (as indeed, in its claimed origins, it almost certainly was), soon came to diverge from its teachings and worked his way instead to a faith in a lost Celtic Church with its own distinctive ceremonies, the loss of which he thought perhaps haunted legends of the Holy Grail. This was quite a beguiling idea, but really not much more convincing than the Rosicrucian-style foundations of the Golden Dawn.

So we can acknowledge the power of the myths that guided and enriched the lives of both Machen and Yeats without necessarily subscribing to all the elements of these. And that ambiguity is itself a fertile borderland.

We invited some contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, by drawing on his work as the starting point for their own new and original stories. Each has chosen a resonant phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric.

The nine stories we present respond both to the allurements of the mystical and occult in the poet’s writings, and also to the doubts and misgivings that these must sometimes arouse in us. Caitriona Lally’s would-be contemporary hermit thinks he might quite like the “bee-loud glade” and the peace that “comes dropping slow”. But how will he find it and would it really be for him? In Reggie Oliver’s story, a risible mystic of our time shows a surprisingly material cast of mind about some matters, while a worldly sceptic finds his own fairly settled beliefs jolted, and we may detect a suggestion of Yeats’s “impossible hope”. Timothy J. Jarvis’s prose reverie is a sardonic meditation on aspects of Yeats’s posthumous fate which also “casts a cold eye” on the darker undercurrents of his occult interests.

In Rosanne Rabinowitz’s portrait of one of Yeats’s oldest friends in old age, we see that the psychic automatic writing he and his wife Georgie pursued is not without its potential abuses and perils. Derek John imagines the dire consequences of vaunting spiritual pride among the shabby séance rooms of suburban Dublin. D. P. Watt’s story envisages just what the “terrible beauty” that Yeats once evoked might mean in all its power, while Lynda Rucker meditates on how the apocalyptic vision of Yeats and more particularly his wife Georgie might indeed drop upon the world. Ron Weighell reminds us of the Irish poet’s abiding interest in the fairy mythology of Ireland, showing how this is often linked to otherworlds and chillingly different ways of being. John Howard, in his study of a tower built on the base of an old one by an avant-garde architect, adroitly suggests Yeats’s development from traditional to modernist forms in his work.

And, to end our volume, Nina Antonia contributes an essay meditating on Yeats and the world of faery, which guides us beguilingly through a realm that was always vital for him.

Alongside their own powerful qualities, we hope that all the pieces here will testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds which he shared with a forgotten artist whose images he was one of the few to recognise were really talismans of old magic.

Mark Valentine
September 2019

Buy a copy of The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats.


Mark Valentine is the author of about twenty books, mostly of ghost stories or of essays on book collecting and obscure authors. He also edited The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray for Swan River Press. His fiction collections include The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things (Zagava) and, with John Howard, Secret Europe and Inner Europe (Tartarus). He also edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic and supernatural

The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats

Introduction to The Scarlet Soul

Final CoverI was staying once in a cottage on the downs, remote from anywhere, one of a pair. The other was unoccupied. The next nearest place was a lighthouse. There was no road. You got to the cottage by a track across several fields, flint-riddled and full of unexpected slopes and hollows. The gaunt gorse bushes were bent by the sea-winds. For a while it was a keen delight to be so on our own, the few of us gathered together there. We would walk in the fields, along the cliff paths, down to the coves, and in the evening we would make food, talk, read, listen to the dim music barely discernible from the wavering wireless signal. But by the time it came to the evening before we were due to leave, perhaps these things had begun to pall a bit, or maybe something in the mood of the place made us want to mark in some way its mysteries.

The cottage, which was rented from an ancient estate by a friend, had a number of curios arranged on its old wooden shelves or in alcoves, some of them things picked up on the downs, some of them things brought back from further afield. There was a cluster of sharpened flints that might have been arrowheads, bigger flints that had perhaps been kept because they looked like something else, there was a corroded sheep’s bell, maybe medieval, with tints of green and bronze about it, there was a blurred coin whose head and emblems and lettering could not be discerned, and there was a small ossuary of beast and bird bones bleached by the sun and scoured by the winds, picked up on walks from where they had fallen. Idly, desultorily at first, we began to arrange some of these things on the mantelpiece, trying to get the effect of strange juxtapositions.

I had with me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the edition issued by The Unicorn Press of 8 Charles Street, St James’s Square, in 1945, Martin Secker (Director), one of several imprints that discerning bookman ran in his time. The leaf before the title page read simply: OSCAR WILDE / Born 1856 / Died 1900. And that stark statement was all the introductory matter there was, apart from the writer’s own preface of elegant maxims, beginning, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” But not only beautiful things, surely? Grotesque things too, even ugly things, curious things and uncanny things, as the book itself surely showed. Still, Secker had done the best he could under the exigencies of war-time to make this a lovely object. There was a white buckram spine, with gilt lettering and ornaments. Certain letters in the titles had long laces to them, like golden flourishes. The paper over the boards was a muted, memorial sort of colour, like gravestone moss, somewhere between grey and green.

Well, possessed by I don’t know what languid devilry, I placed this book on the shelf above the fire, and I put a horned ram’s skull from the little informal ossuary on top of it. Then I moved next to it a bronze cobra candlestick, in which a white candle guttered above the hooded head. We had turned off the lights and the room was illumined only by the smouldering fire and a few candles. In the dim glow of the serpent flame the hollows of the skull looked eerie, full of a curious light, and there was a glimmering on the gilt titles of the book. Our shadows played upon the white walls, the wood smoke pervaded the air.

DPQG4S2XcAAMq1_.jpg large
Courtesy of John Coulthart

We moved the pieces of this macabre composition around, trying to work out what looked right—or wrong, as it may be. We took some black-and-white photographs of these arrangements, conscious that this was all quite perilously close to a sort of ritual. Surely all we were doing was making “artistic” effects, there could not be anything else in play. But that was not quite how we felt. At last, this stealthy uneasiness prevailed. With a certain edge to my movements, I carefully put things back where they had originally been, and picked up the book. But still influenced by the sense of a spell in the air, I tried a piece of bibliomancy, opening it to a page and reading out aloud the first words I found. They were: “Pray, Dorian, pray.”

That night, a storm raged in from the sea and swept in fierce gusts over the downs. The windows and doors rattled, the roof-tiles clattered, and there was a moaning through every crack and crevice in the place. The electricity cut out. A tree by the gate cracked. In low voices—though who was there to hear?—we made light-hearted but uncertain comments to each other about what it was we had raised, grinning ruefully. Of course, we did not really believe there was any link between the idle sorcery with the book, that book, and the fury of the elements. The angle of the thorns and the gorse bushes showed how often and how fiercely there were storms along this coast. But, even so, we were subdued in the morning as we moved around the cottage, trying to clear up as best we could, without any power, and raking out the ashes of the grate in the cold and the grey of the early day.

Later, always drawn to it, as if some leftover from that minor rite remained with me, I found for myself other editions of the book. One of the most poignant is perhaps the one that proved once and for all that Wilde’s reputation was now redeemed, that he was part of the literary canon: the copy in the “uniform edition of Wilde’s authentic works” edited and compiled by Robert Ross. This “popular five-shilling edition” was issued by Methuen, but the volume of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the series bore instead the imprint of “Paris / Charles Carrington / Publisher and Bookseller /1910 / And at Brussels, 10 Rue de la Tribune.” At the back of the book, Carrington offers some of his other titles, including The Sorceress, a Study of Superstition and Witchcraft by Jules Michelet; and Escal Vigor, “a novel from the French of George Eekhoud”, which “has been compared to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray”.

This unusual publishing arrangement was because Carrington, like Ross a loyal champion of Wilde in the darker days, owned the rights to Dorian Gray: but both he and Ross thought that the fantastical novel must not be omitted from Wilde’s collected works, and so came to an accommodation. Ross provided an editorial note to explain this, and Carrington a brief publisher’s note.

“The practice of adding introductions to thoroughly well-known works,” remarked Ross trenchantly, “for the benefit of an already well-informed public, has become almost ridiculous. Only in rare instances have the works been illuminated . . . ” However, he wished to take the opportunity to assert that “the characters of this novel were entirely imaginary, in spite of assertions to the contrary by claimants to the doubtful honour of being the original of ‘Dorian Gray’ ”, though he added that Wilde, “consciously or unconsciously . . . has put a great deal of himself into the character of ‘Lord Henry Wootton’.”

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

We certainly should not essay what Ross himself disdained to do, by saying very much further about Wilde’s book, except to note that its influence was to resonate throughout the literature of the late-nineteenth century and into the Edwardian years and beyond. It may be seen in the decadent horror fiction of Arthur Machen and M.P. Shiel, and even in the often arch and precious character of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Walter de la Mare, later noted for his ethereal and dream-like poems and stories, began as an aesthete in the Wildean manner, and once planned a periodical, to be called The Basilisk, which was to be printed in purple ink. The black humour in the tales of Saki owes some of its brittle wit to its example, and the lush verses of James Elroy Flecker and Rupert Brooke reflect the book’s dandyish style. Even the cadences of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, despite its austere story of desert warfare, can be seen to bear the impress of Wilde’s prose.

But while the book belongs in style to the mannered prose and the languid pose of the Eighteen Nineties, it has endured because its themes are perennial. It asks fundamental questions about our inner selves. Are we a noun or are we a verb? Are we one or are we many? The assumption, heavy as lead upon our thinking and our custom, has always been that an individual is a single entity that can be categorised, defined, commanded and held to account. That belief marches in step with a monotheistic faith, a single version of truth, and in many other often unquestioned orderings and mores. Yet it is not the prevailing wisdom in other societies and cultures. While no-one can doubt there is (for the time being, until science comes up with other offers) a single physical shell for each of us, the “identity” within that shell can be seen as fluid, flexible, a stream of thought and actions, not a constant. We are nearer to racing cheetahs than we are to stolid statues.

And in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a number of writers began to see this, to prise open the hermetically-sealed box of the self and peer inside. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) suggested the existence of at least two selves: the respectable, ethical, dignified public face and the savage, wild, inner demon. It took only a chemical change to release the darker creature. Readers uneasily understood that this was not merely a satire about the risks attendant upon the advance of science. Indeed, its author, from a family of lighthouse engineers, had a healthy respect for what modern invention could do. No: the chemistry was incidental, a device. This was really a book about our secret selves. But Stevenson’s remarkable work was not the only study of that question in its time. For, similarly, Dorian Gray suggests several selves: the beautiful, alluring outer self; the wracked and doubt-ridden inner conscience; and, of course, the symbolic “thing in the attic”, the representation of all that is darkest and ugliest about us.

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Courtesy of John Coulthart

So, because it deals with the deepest questions of what it means to be a human individual, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not simply a book of its time, and not merely a witty entertainment with gothic trappings. Thinking about this, it seemed likely that its questions about art, love, lust, obsession, and the uncanny could still have significance for writers today. And so we asked ten contemporary writers to respond to the book with their own “stories for Dorian Gray”. We were confident that in these hands we could expect strong responses, and we were not disappointed. Some of the stories here are set in Wilde’s time and milieu, others in fantastical realms, and some in our own time, taking us into some of its darker recesses. Whatever their setting, each of them takes some key element of Wilde’s story and offers a bold re-imagining.

And, though they are each strikingly individual, these stories all suggest that we can never quite know when a simple choice, a word spoken, a leap of desire, a curious allure, a blaze of emotion, an encounter with a stranger, maybe even just playing around with an old book, might lead us on and on into terrain we cannot explain, where we and all the things we thought we knew can never be the same.

Mark Valentine
31 August 2017


Mark Valentine is the author of studies of Arthur Machen, and the diplomat and fantasist Sarban. His essays on book-collecting, folklore and the uncanny have been gathered in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017) from Tartarus Press. He edits Wormwood, a journal devoted to literature of the fantastic. His books of fiction include Selected Stories (2012) and Seventeen Stories (2013), both from The Swan River Press.

The Scarlet Soul is now available as a limited edition hardback from Swan River Press. Edited by Mark Valentine, with stories by Reggie Oliver, Caitriona Lally, Lynda E. Rucker, John Howard, D.P. Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, Timothy J. Jarvis, John Gale, and Derek John. Cover illustration by John Coulthart.

Introduction to The Scarlet Soul