Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child

Swan River Press 2020This is the story of Jenny Flower, London slum child, who one day, on an outing to the country, meets a Dark Stranger with horns on his head. It is the first day of August — Lammas — a witches’ sabbath. Jenny was born on Hallowe’en, and possibly descended from witches herself . . .

Once banned in Ireland by the Censorship of Publications Board, Lucifer and the Child is now available worldwide in this splendid new edition from Swan River Press featuring an introduction by Rosanne Rabinowitz and cover by Lorena Carrington.


Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) was a best-selling author who had written more than one hundred books but is virtually unknown today. Her output included fiction, journalism, short stories, travelogues, autobiography, and political analysis. All of her books have been out of print for decades — until now.

Born into a working-class family in South London, Mannin was a lifelong socialist, feminist, and anti-fascist. In the 1930s she organised alongside the Russian-born American anarchist Emma Goldman in support of the Spanish anarchosyndicalist forces and their struggle against Franco. Later, she agitated for the Indian independence movement along with her husband Reg Reginald. She was an advocate for African liberation movements and one of the few, even on the post-war left, who stood up for the rights of Palestinians. Iraqi critic and educator Ahmed Al-Rawi has described her as a post-colonial writer, which was unusual among British authors of the time.

In her lifetime Mannin was also known for her famous lovers, including Bertrand Russell and W. B. Yeats. In fact, it was the Yeats connection that had me trawling internet archives and second-hand bookshops while researching my tale “The Shiftings” — a ghost story exploring her relationship with the poet — for Swan River Press’s anthology The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats (2019). But I first discovered Ethel Mannin years ago, when I was a teenaged history obsessive with a special interest in labour and radical history. The figure of Mannin’s comrade “Red” Emma Goldman, described by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as the “most dangerous woman in America”, held a powerful fascination for me. In the course of my reading I came across a vivid description of Goldman giving a speech, which was an extract from Mannin’s historical novel Red Rose (1941). This brought me to my local library looking for Mannin’s work.

Ethel Mannin
Ethel Mannin (1930) by Paul Tanqueray

While I couldn’t find Red Rose or anything about Mannin’s political activities, I did discover old editions of Venetian Blinds (1933) and Lucifer and the Child, which was first published in 1945. Venetian Blinds is a realist novel about the price paid for upward mobility, starting with the excitement of market day on Battersea’s Lavender Hill and ending with loneliness in the suburbs. It reminded me of early George Orwell novels such as A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which were also about crossing class lines — albeit in the opposite direction.

After the relatively straightforward social narrative of Venetian Blinds, the ambiguous supernaturalism of Lucifer and the Child was a surprise. It is a story of witchcraft — or is it? I already had an interest in supernatural fiction but did not expect to find it in this context. Set mainly in the crowded streets of 1930s East London, the story begins when young Jenny Flower strays from a school outing in the countryside where she encounters a Dark Stranger. He could be Lucifer, or he could simply be a very imaginative and charismatic sailor.

In a passage reminiscent of Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894) Mannin portrays the wonder and absolute awe of a city child encountering the forest for the first time: “Sometimes there were breaks in the bird-song and then everything was very still, as though every leaf of all the millions was holding its breath and waiting, and you also waited and listened and heard your own heart beating.”

While observing a dragon-fly Jenny discovers that she is not alone. A Dark Stranger has also been watching; he steadies her as she reels in surprise at its take-off. All adults had been the enemy to her but this one is “the bringer of new things”. For the first time, she sees a life beyond her council estate, her school, and a family that does not know what to make of her. A new world opens up, one where she potentially wields power. Jenny is ushered into the “Goetic life”, a process that evokes another noted work by Machen: “The White People” (1904) in which a curious girl is initiated by her nurse into dark ceremonies and the “most secret secrets” of the countryside.

1945-09-02 Observer Ad1945-09-02 Observer Ad1945-09-02 Observer AdSimilarly, the Dark Stranger introduces Jenny to fairy rings in the grass and tells her how the Little People made them by dancing in the moonlight. He shows her a big yellow toad under a boulder. He reveals deadly nightshade, witches’ bane, hemlock, poisonous mushrooms. He spins her tales of tree-witches and wood-spirits, nymphs and dryads, fauns and satyrs. She also comes to learn that she might be descended from two sisters burned at the stake many centuries ago.

Jenny is a solitary child who joins in the noisy games of the other children but does not have any true friends among them. She would rather spend time with Old Mother Beadle in Ropewalk Alley. Regarded as a witch by the local children, Mrs. Beadle supplements her pension by telling fortunes and selling concoctions of herbs to induce abortions. And in this capacity, she also guides Jenny into a world of magic.

Meanwhile, Jenny’s family views Mrs. Beadle as a bad influence. So too does Marian Drew, a teacher who takes an interest in her pupil and aims to “save” her from a descent into the irrational and ultimately evil “Goetic life”. Though Marian is a vicar’s daughter she’s not entirely straitlaced. She holds progressive notions of educational freedom and creativity, perhaps reflective of Mannin’s interest in the Summerhill school of A. S. Neil, who advocated a libertarian education system in contrast to the more rigid teaching of the time.

Marian and the Dark Stranger form a relationship characterised by sharp physical attraction and equally intense debate. He asks Marian: “Do you really know where reality ends and fantasy begins? Are you quite sure that the images of your mind have no reality?” Indeed, themes regarding the transcendent and the commonplace run throughout the novel, and at one point he says to Marian: “Another drink and you may begin to understand that the supernatural is merely the natural plus.”

Lucifer and the Child is the only full-length work of speculative fiction from Mannin, who usually described herself as an atheist and rationalist. However, she was also a journalist, a seeker of curiosities and always keen to investigate. In one of her many volumes of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939), Mannin recollects a visit to a swami that Yeats admired. “For my part I was willing to try at least once my vibrations on a higher plane.” She gives a scathing account of her meeting with a well-fed, well-dressed individual expounding on the virtues of poverty. She had little time for mysticism or the pomp that often surrounded it.

Jarrolds 1946
First Edition, Jarrolds (1946)

Yet a powerful charge of the numinous and strange runs through Lucifer and the Child, despite its realism — or possibly because of it. Like Machen, Mannin also takes inspiration from London itself as well as the natural world. “Its interminable greyness and its high dockyard walls can make it as oppressive as a prison, but it has its moments — the occasional crumbling grace of a Georgian doorway, the sudden impression of a ship crossing the road as it moves into a basin, the unexpectedness of a lamp bracket jutting from a wall, of a capstan marooned in an alleyway, of funnels thrusting up at the ends of streets, and always the smell of the river with its faint, fugitive hint of the sea.”

Within this evocative cityscape we find a toad that is “strange and unknowable, like the moon” and step into Mrs. Beadle’s house: “Ordinariness stopped outside. The dilapidated door opened on to a new world. The world to which she belonged.” And in one of his arguments with Marian, the Dark Stranger suggests how the “spirit of the past” haunts people and places; a kind of spiritualism without the supernatural that would now strike a chord with modern psychogeographers.

The novel even touches on cosmic horror: “Enchantment was for her the deep forest through which she moved with deadly nightshade in her hand and an adder at her foot; it was her head upon the shoulder of the Dark Stranger, and starless night and the hunting cry of the owl; it was earth-light on the moon and no shade from the sun, and no living thing in the desolate volcanic wastes, and loneliness unutterable, the loneliness of space and dead worlds and infinity.”

Arrow Books 1964a
Arrow paperback (1964)

Meanwhile, a dry humour underlies much of the narrative. For example, Marian’s thoughts about two do-gooding colleagues: “She reached the point at which she felt that if either of them referred once more to ‘the paw’, when speaking of the working classes, she would scream . . . ” I also chuckled when reading about the pious antics of local “cadets” joined by Jenny’s brother Les, who dedicates himself to marching and playing trumpet with them. “At the hall the cadets learned ‘First Aid’ and ‘Signalling’; they also did ‘physical jerks’, and took turns on the parallel bars and the ropes. Before they left, Mr. Wilson, their group-captain, a pale young man who was the Sunday-school superintendent, gave them a little talk on manliness and uprightness, clean thoughts and tongues, and the avoidance of something vaguely referred to as ‘bad habits’, and then they marched home again.” Such light-hearted observations grow darker as in the story’s background fascism continues to rise and conflict engulfs the world in the “sinister year 1936, with the dress-rehearsal for the coming world-war taking place in Spain”.

Mannin had been active in groups such as Workers Relief for the Victims of German Fascism and the Spanish Medical Aid Society. Looking back from the mid-1940s — she finished writing Lucifer and the Child in 1944 — 1936 indeed must have seemed an ominous turning point. And though the novel is rooted in the everyday lives of its characters, Mannin shows us that world events are never far away. She makes this connection explicit when Marian tells the cadet captain that she disapproves of “encouraging militarism” and boys “playing at soldiers” instead of creatively expressing themselves as individuals. Marian warns: “It’s only a few steps further on in this direction before they’re wearing jackboots — actually and spiritually!”

Priviledged Spectator 1938b
Privileged Spectator frontispiece (1938) by Paul Tanqueray

Mannin was a contradictory woman shaped by contradictory times, a prolific writer who produced an odd and imaginative book so unlike her others. Lucifer and the Child remains a rich portrayal of inter-war London and an engaging story of a girl who sought to escape it through myth and magic. And at the end of the book, the reader is left with another question: is the Dark Stranger really so “dark” after all? Or is he instead the “bringer of light”, a source of new things and knowledge in a world beset by evil far greater than any mischief wrought by a mythological fellow with horns? In effect, Lucifer and the Child is a story about the desire for a different life than the one we’re allotted and the extraordinary measures some may take to move beyond it.

“There is never any name for the impact of strangeness on the commonplace, that je ne sais quoi that ripples the surface of everydayness and sets up unaccountable disturbances in the imagination and the blood,” Mannin writes. With this sensibility Lucifer and the Child will at last be recognised as a classic of strange fiction and a work to be enjoyed by contemporary lovers of the genre.

Rosanne Rabinowitz
March 2020

Buy a copy of Lucifer and the Child.


Rosanne Rabinowitz lives in South London, an area that Arthur Machen once described as “shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words”. In this most unshapen place she engages in a variety of occupations including care work and freelance editing. Her novella Helen’s Story was shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award and her first collection of short fiction, Resonance & Revolt, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2018. She spends a lot of time drinking coffee — sometimes whisky — and listening to loud music while looking out of her tenth-floor window. rosannerabinowitz.wordpress.com

Merely the Natural Plus: Lucifer and the Child

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

© Brian J. Showers, August 2018

Uncertainties 3Lynda 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.


Brian J. Showers: This is the first anthology you’ve edited, isn’t it? Given that there are already two instalments in the Uncertainties series, what were your initial thoughts as to how you wanted to approach this project?

Lynda E. Rucker: I’ve always wanted to edit an anthology, but yes, this is the first one I’ve ever done. Initially, I was really unsure whether I wanted to do one that was invitation only or whether I wanted to open it to submissions. I talked with a few other people and editors about it, and in particular had a couple of long conversations with Joe S. Pulver. Talking with Joe convinced me that editing an anthology for the first time was a big enough project without also drowning myself in a slush pile, so in the end I decided to go the invite route.

The idea behind the series was already in place, and I’d read both the previous books and had a sense of the shape I wanted mine to take — although what was interesting was that I ended up with something somewhat different from what I had envisioned. That’s the human element of assembling an anthology. Even when it comes to work by writers you’re familiar with, you can end up being surprised — that’s the mark of a good writer! So there were several instances in which I asked a writer to send me something and I expected a certain type of story and what I got was quite a bit different. I think that was one of the most exciting elements of the process.

Lynda Rucker 01BJS: The thing I love about, broadly speaking, the horror genre, is that there are so many nuances in the approach, each eliciting different sensations: the strange, the grotesque, the weird, the numinous . . . What sort of dark corners does Volume 3 explore? Anything unexpected or surprising?

LER: One recurring theme that emerged in about half of the stories is that of fraught sexual or romantic relationships. That’s a preoccupation in my own work, but it sort of surprised me that it ended up being a dominant theme in the stories writers sent to me. Within the broader remit of the Uncertainties series, which (as I interpreted it!) is to sort of show the world askew, I tried to include a variety of voices and styles and approaches to the uncanny, and I think the anthology really reflects that.

Just to give a few examples without giving away too much — the Matthew M. Bartlett story has a kind of lush decadent feel to it that I think situates it firmly in the realm of the weird; Ralph Robert Moore’s story is a mix of magical realism and a hardboiled American style of writing; and the S. P. Miskowski story starts off somewhere in the territory of mimetic lit-fic and veers off into something much more unsettling — actually it occurs to me just at this moment that there are elements of it that are almost Ballardian. So in all, I think it’s a book that really showcases the scope of the genre.

BJS: I believe you grew up, like so many of us, reading classic anthologies — tales of terror, stories to tingle the spine. Hitchcock and Karloff, Haining and Dalby. Which of those old anthologies (and their editors) were important to you as a reader?

kaddish copyLER: Yes, my grounding and my first encounters with horror fiction is absolutely in those old, classic stories. As for who was specifically important to me, in those days — pre-internet — it was largely a matter of access. I grew up in a small town with the nearest bookstore an hour away, and it was a fairly uninspiring Walden Books in a mall. So I sort of had to make do.

Fortunately, I also grew up in a house full of books and with a mother who liked horror stories, although sadly Haining and Dalby didn’t cross my path. Of the ones you mentioned — absolutely Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery is probably the first horror anthology I ever read. I still remember that F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” and A. M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork” in particular terrified me. I also had an anthology called Shudders, which is where I first encountered “The Monkey’s Paw” along with stories by William Hope Hodgson and Frank Belknap Long, among others. There were a few more — I can’t remember the titles or editors but I think they were all sort of generic packaged anthologies that reprinted classics. It was with that foundation that I went on to read more contemporary stuff — I almost said “moved on”, but that makes it sound like I left those old classics behind and nothing could be further from the truth.

Speaking of “more contemporary”, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some later editors, from the 1980s, who were hugely important in shaping my conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do — David Hartwell with The Dark Descent, Charles L. Grant’s Shadows, and Stuart Gordon Schiff’s Whispers anthologies along with “Year’s Bests” edited by Karl Edward Wagner, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and Stephen Jones & Ramsey Campbell. And of course, those two modern classics, Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil and Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces.

BJS: It’s funny how anthologies seem to be the gateway for so many! You mention your “conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do.” What are the limits to horror as a genre — if it has any?

REFLECTION+copyLER: My inclination is to say “there are no limits!” but that’s a bit disingenuous on my part — if we’re being very literal, obviously there are certain types of stories that can’t be told even within the broadest parameters of the horror genre. But I do resent narrow definitions of horror fiction, more so because they are nearly always formulaic and insulting. Most often, this comes in the belief that horror movies are movies where killers stalk people and kill them in explicit and inventive ways, or they are cheaply made junk with lots of jump scares, and that in literature, it’s adolescent, poorly-written, predictable tripe for the barely literate.

My view of horror is that it is a very broad church. It encompasses everything from the subtlest and most enigmatic of tales to the full-on Grand Guignol. It’s Halloween and Martyrs and The Hills Have Eyes, but it’s also Picnic at Hanging Rock and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Innocents. It’s Gothic literature, it’s ghost stories, it’s supernatural tales.

I think arguments about labelling literature are incredibly tedious, but it does bother me when people try to insist that something isn’t horror basically on the grounds that it is well-written or well-made, that it has depth and resonance and fine prose or is character-driven or has a political consciousness or whatever. And I loathe the fact that people keep throwing decades of amazing horror films and stories under the bus by coining new phrases like “post-horror” and “elevated genre”, and maybe the worst of all, “horror-adjacent” (what does that even mean?) What that says to me, quite simply, is that the person doesn’t know anything about the genre or its history. I also lean toward the idea that horror is really less a genre than it is a mode of literature, “an emotion” as Doug Winter once famously and controversially said.

Trilogy
Clearly, I could go on about this for a while but I probably should just go and write an essay instead. Nina Allan — a fine writer anyone with preconceived notions about the inferiority of the horror genre should check out — has written about this on her blog, and I’d urge anyone who wants to read further on the subject and get some great recommendations to check it out here and here and here.

BJS: I’m sure we could go on about the nuances of horror ad nauseum, and I know there have been a few late nights in the pub where we have — but this wonderfully illuminating exploration of nuance is really what the Uncertainties anthology series is about, isn’t it? So what else have you got in the pipeline these days?

LER: I have a few short stories on the go and a novella, and I’m working on a monograph for the PS Publishing imprint Electric Dreamhouse. I’ve also got a novel on the back burner that I hope to be able to move to the front burner once I get a couple of other projects out of the way. And beyond that, I’ve got a few more distant projects in mind — including an idea for another anthology, actually. Uncertainties 3 was a real pleasure to put together, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I did.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 3 here.


Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker