Our Haunted Year 2020

We can probably safely say that few could have guessed what 2020 would have in store for us. I haven’t quite decided yet whether or not I take comfort in the fact that this can be said at the start of any given year. Anyway, here at Swan River Press I had to adjust quickly: I started to work my day job from home last March, which then blurred daily into the evening hours that I put into the press. Time is a bit elastic in this room, and it isn’t uncommon to find myself wondering what day of the week it is.

Whenever I write one of these annual reviews, it seems that the most recent passing year is the “most ambitious yet”. This year feels no different, if only because most of my free moments—for better or for worse—were given over to Swan River. I suppose one must keep oneself distracted, right? I admit, I enjoy the indulgence in work. At least this sort of work.

But here we are at the end of a difficult year, and it’s time for me to take stock of what we’ve accomplished on the publishing front. I say “we” because, though it’s just been me in this room for the majority of the year, Swan River is far from just myself as you’ll quickly see.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Our first book of the year was the fourth instalment in our ongoing anthology series, Uncertainties, our showcase of new writing—featuring contributions from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines—each writer exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. This year’s volume was edited by Timothy J. Jarvis, and included an impressive line-up of stories from fourteen contemporary writers such as Lucie McKnight Hardy, Camilla Grudova, John Darnielle, Brian Evenson, and Claire Dean. I was particularly delighted to feature on the cover a painting by B. Catling, who we’ll return to in a moment. David Longhorn of Supernatural Tales had some kind things to say about the anthology: “[Uncertainties 4] has, for me, illustrated yet again the broad range of Gothic fiction, and more than hints at a genre revival in this century far more impressive than anything in the last. Perhaps this is because, like the Victorian era, ours is one of uncertain peace, irrational fads, scientific progress, and deeply unstable societies that are mirrored in confused personal identities and relationships. And people still like spooky stuff a lot.”

(Buy Uncertainties 4 here.)

Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin felt like one of our biggest discoveries of the year, something to be truly excited about: the first Irish edition of an overlooked novel once banned in this country. An atypical book from Mannin, Lucifer and the Child was originally published in 1945, then reviewed in the Irish Times as “a strange, but gripping book”. Our new edition of this extraordinary novel features an introduction by Rosanne Rabinowitz, and was given favourable notice in the Dublin Inquirer: “It is not surprising that this book was deemed unsuitable for 1940s Ireland. The allure of Lucifer and the occult would certainly have been deemed inappropriate, as would the depictions of female sexuality.” (Although no records exist that give reason, I personally suspect it wasn’t the occult themes that got the book banned, but rather the mention of abortion.) Despite the challenges it poses to conservative pearl-clutchers, this book was warmly received as evidenced by the many emails I got from delighted readers. The cover is by Australian artist Lorena Carrington—she did a wonderful job of depicting the dark faerie tale within its pages.

(Buy Lucifer and the Child here.)

Our next title, Munky, allowed us not only to work with artist and novelist B. Catling RA, author of the Vorrh trilogy, but for the cover art the opportunity to team up with artist Dave McKean. This project started as a submission to Uncertainties 4, but after some consideration, we decided it stood better on its own. Munky is a quirky novella that illustrates an English town and its inhabitants, as ridiculous as they are quaint, evoking an atmosphere that “might be called M. R. James with a soupçon of P. G. Wodehouse and a dash of Viz” (The Scotsman). We had also arranged for this edition to be signed by both author and artist, making this book one helluva package. Once a book is published, I tend not to go back and read it (yet again). Not so with Munky. Over these past months I found myself picking it up on occasion to revisit Catling’s charmingly cracked world.

(Buy Munky here.)

Our fourth book this year was also our fourth by Irish author Mervyn Wall: Leaves for the Burning, originally published in 1952. We’ve been championing Wall’s work for quite some time now: The Unfortunate Fursey (2015), The Return of Fursey (2015), A Flutter of Wings (2017), and in a few issues of The Green Book. A mid-century portrait of Ireland, Leaves for the Burning is rich in grotesque humour and savage absurdity, depicting a middle-aged public servant who works in a shabby county council sub-office in the bleak Irish midlands, mired in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and petty skirmishes with locals. Although we stray from our typical fantastical themes with this one, we hope you’ll still give it a chance. With an introduction by Susan Tomaselli, editor of gorse, we are proud to make available again Mervyn Wall’s great “half-bitter book”—as it was judged by Seán O’Faoláin—surely now just as relevant as it was over half a century ago. The cover art for this one is by Niall McCormack, whose work will be recognisable to those who read Tomaselli’s gorse.

(Buy Leaves for the Burning here.)

Continuing with our “recovered voices” of Irish women writers of the supernatural, this year we published The Death Spancel and Others by Katharine Tynan. Research for this project started over three years ago—though you’ll recall we featured Tynan in Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women (2019) and in various issues of The Green Book. Consisting of fifteen stories, seven poems, three appendices, and an introduction by Peter Bell, The Death Spancel is the first collection to showcase Katharine Tynan’s tales of the macabre and supernatural. It is also the only volume of this once-popular Irish author’s work currently in print, perhaps making this book all the more important. The Death Spancel was reviewed in Hellnotes by Mario Guslani to be “of remarkably high literary quality . . . a great collection recommended to any good fiction lover.” Brian Coldrick, who is quickly becoming one of our favourite artists to work with, did the cover for this one. You might recognise his work from the cover of Rosa Mulholland’s Not to Be Taken at Bed-time (2019).

(Buy The Death Spancel here.)

The final hardback of the year was Ghosts of the Chit-Chat, edited by actor and scholar Robert Lloyd Parry. The book is as much an anthology of stories and poems as it is a work of scholarship. Lloyd Parry introduces each author with a short biographical sketch, building a portrait of those in the orbit of M. R. James, who debuted his own ghost stories on the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, Cambridge University’s Chit-Chat Club. Like many of our books, this one was long in the works. In addition to reprinting numerous rare and only recently discovered pieces, Ghosts of the Chit-Chat also features earlier, slightly different versions of James’s “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” (here titled “The Scrap-book of Canon Alberic”) and “Lost Hearts”. We also had a Zoom launch for Chit-Chat, and though it wasn’t recorded, we’ve got a video of Lloyd Parry reading Maurice Baring’s “The Ikon”. The volume was published on 8 December, and proved to be so popular that the already extended edition of 500 swiftly went out of print on 20 December, breaking some sort of record for us. Reception has been encouraging, with James scholar Rosemary Pardoe noting, “People who’ve missed out on it should be kicking themselves.” But don’t worry. We have plans for a paperback edition next year—sign up to our mailing list if you want advance notice.

(Buy Ghosts of the Chit-Chat here.)

We also published three issues of our journal The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and the Fantastic. Issue 14, outstanding from 2019, was published simultaneously with Issue 15. Based loosely around the theme of memoir and biographical sketches, Issue 14 contained pieces by or about Dorothy Macardle, Fitz-James O’Brien, Rosa Mulholland, among others. Issue 15 was a departure from our standard practice: we decided to feature fiction, and so reprinted rare pieces by Conall Cearnach, Herbert Moore Pim, Robert Cromie, and others. Issue 16 featured ten entries from our (still tentatively titled) Guide to Irish Gothic and Supernatural Fiction Writers project, including profiles of Edmund Burke, L. T. Meade, Forrest Read, Elizabeth Bowen, and more. Our issues for 2021 are already coming together nicely.

(Buy The Green Book here.)

And there you have it!

So is anyone interested in the final tallies? I’ve got my nifty spreadsheets set up to spit out some figures. We published 8 new titles this year, totalling 1,584 pages, 2,950 copies, and 462,763 words.

Naturally we attended no conventions this year, either online or in person. I think the last might have been FantasyCon in Glasgow. But I look forward to seeing everyone again soon!

Perhaps the biggest Swan River development over these past twelve months was a long-mooted foray into paperbacks. We’ve dipped our toes in the water so far with Earth-Bound (Dorothy Macardle), The House on the Borderland (William Hope Hodgson), and Insect Literature (Lafcadio Hearn). We’ll be doing more in 2021, so it will be your chance to read some of our out-of-print books at a more reasonable price than what you’ll often find them for on the secondhand market. The reason it took so long is because I wanted to make sure we were doing paperbacks as best we could given the myriad challenges I had to consider and balance. This not only includes the books themselves, but also the behind-the-scenes admin work they create. But I’m happy we’ll been able to make available again some great stories. If you want to read more about our paperbacks, I wrote an entire blogpost about it.

(Buy Swan River Paperbacks here.)

Next I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Timothy J. Jarvis, who will be joining (actually, already has) the Swan River team. I’ve known and worked with Tim for a good many years now. I’ve always found both his fiction and writings on supernatural literature to be nothing but insightful; and I, as I am sure do many, value his generosity, passion, and friendship highly. If you want to check out Tim’s work, I suggest starting with his novel The Wanderer (2014). Tim also edited Uncertainties 4 this year, and his short fiction and articles can be found in innumerable anthologies. He is also co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen (to which you should subscribe if you don’t already). Welcome, Tim!

Not forgetting the Swan River team, who make sure that I’ve not sat alone in this room for the year: Meggan Kehrli, who has once again done a superb job designing and laying out all our titles (including the various other ads and graphics I occasionally need); Jim Rockhill, who is always at the ready to provide proofreading and sage editorial input, always backed with his thoughtful scholarship; and Ken Mackenzie, who takes care of all our books’ insides, always patiently putting up with my dithering until things are just right. And finally, Alison Lyons and the team at Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, who continues to give their support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for our on-going work, allowing us to reach just a bit further than we might otherwise be able to.

(Don’t worry, I’m nearly finished.)

This year has been difficult for many, and I’ve had a lot of books and media to keep me company lately. I’d like to give a shout out to the creatives whose work I’ve been enjoying lately. Maybe you’ll find something new and interesting too: Tartarus Press, Zagava, Ritual Limited, Egaeus Press, Sarob Press, Side Real Press, Supernatural Tales, Hellbore, Nunkie Productions, Eibonvale Press, Undertow Publications, Nightjar Press, Friends of Arthur Machen—all of these people are doing the sort of things that I love, so be sure to give them your support if you find something you like. Not to mention the many booksellers out there who stock our books—and even if they don’t, be sure to support your favourite local, independent booksellers anyway. Choose to put your money into their pockets instead of Am*zon’s, because it really does make a difference.

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. We’ve got some exciting projects for next year that I’m looking forward to sharing with you all. Until then, please stay healthy; take care of each other and your communities. I’d like to wish you all a restful holiday season, and hope to hear from you in the New Year!

Our Haunted Year 2020

In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling

Portrait of Brian Catling's Candleye by David Tolley
Portrait of B. Catling’s “Candleye” by David Tolley

Conducted by Timothy J. Jarvis

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?

H0157-L28374391
Landlord of the George Hotel

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?

unnamed
Harry Price, Ghost Hunter

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.

Munky TeaserTJJ: 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.

landlord
Image by Dave McKean

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?

hires_munky1BC: 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.

Order a copy of Munky.


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

In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling