"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, September 18, 2017

A taste for old, forlorn things: Haunted by Books by Mark Valentine

I read Mark Valentine's 2015 non-fiction collection Haunted by Books over the weekend. By the time I closed the ebook, I had reserved 59 of the mentioned book  titles from the Cleveland Public Library's online catalogue. That is the best testament I can give to the power of Valentine's perspicacity and enthusiasm as a writer and critic.

Most of the books and writers discussed in this collection of articles are new to me. Most have roots (physical or intellectual) in the aesthetic and esoteric world of 1890s UK bohemian books and publishing. Valentine recalls and beautifully memorializes the fallen, the forgotten, the overlooked. Many authors he extols were simply also-rans in the remorseless world of capitalist publishing; others were never-rans. Some ended as suicides, exhausted by the poverty and sheer hard work of trying to live by one's pen.

The excerpts below will suggested the strengths of this collection better than my words.


17 September 2017



....if you look long enough and often enough at many shelves of books, some wonderfully unexpected finds are likely to come your way. But is that all that is in play? Do book collectors develop a mysterious extra sense? Or do some books call to them, as AE suggested? It may never make the headlines, but I suggest there is at moments a strange and subtle sorcery in the art and craft of book collecting.

Studies of Sad Beauty: Robert Aickman, Philip Steegman & Arthington Worsley

....In writing of W.H. Mallock’s book The New Republic — or Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in an English Country House (1877), a favourite of his from school-days, Aickman said it was ‘much more than the clever satire on a group of famous men that it appears to be’ because ‘behind the follies and light caricatures which are the ostensible subject-matter, one feels, though in the most delicate way, the tragedy, futility, and sad beauty of man’s aspirations, especially at their highest.’

In virtually every character study Aickman gives us in his memoir, these qualities are present. There is, in these brief examples, the ‘sad beauty’ of writing books (whether on Monism or a visit to India); the futility of ‘picking up’ a medal or marrying the marketer of a tomato cure; the tragedy that, after all such activities, all lives are only ‘solved’ by dying. Most notable, though, is that phrase ‘in the most delicate way’. Aickman also said of Mallock’s book that it had ‘a subtle and unique poetry, underlying but ever glimmering through’. And he famously said that the ghost story at its best was ‘akin to poetry’. We may see from these remarks that to Aickman ‘poetry’ was a term of high praise, and meant something elusive and luminous. So in The Attempted Rescue he does not choose to tell us all he can about the people he knew — of how Philip died, for example, or of how he might earlier have died, had it not been for two strange twists of fate. He seeks a poetic brevity. As in his stories, we have to find our way, if we can, to the unsaid and unseen — for he prefers reticence, allusiveness, and mystery.

A Dandysme of the Soul: Michael Arlen

....The strikingly-entitled Hell! Said the Duchess (1934) was closer to Arlen’s usual territory and did indeed achieve more success. Arlen catches some of the contemporary turmoil of the 1930s, with the unemployment marches, Fascist and Communist demonstrations, social upheaval and a ponderous, stagnant National Government. But this forms the background to a bizarre thriller about a series of ‘Jane the Ripper’ murders perpetrated by a young, unknown feminine killer on working class men. The beautiful Duchess of Dove is suspected, but Scotland Yard cannot bring themselves to believe that an aristocrat could be responsible, especially in view of the sexual nature of the crimes. As agitation to arrest the irreproachable Duchess increases, a private detective begins to find discrepancies in the case against her. In a strong and rather daring

climax to the novel, we learn that the Duchess’s semblance is seized and misused at intervals by an evil spirit of sin incarnate whose real form is closer to that of the serpent or dark slime. There are echoes of Jekyll and Hyde or Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan.

Inner Bohemia: The Mystical Fiction of Mary Butts

....Armed with Madness , in my view [Mary Butts'] most fully-achieved work, gathers a group of impoverished bohemians in a house hidden in a hollow of the Dorset coast, like Salterns. Some of them, staying in a neighbouring farm, have fished out an agate cup from a spring, and they speculate that it might have attributes of the Grail. The talisman divides and challenges them, some treating it with reverence, others with disrespect. Their shifting relationships also become tense. Mary Butts believed, or was prepared to believe, that sometimes events and emblems in this world are a mirror of far greater movements in higher dimensions, and that is the sense we gain from this book. The actions of her characters are on one level to be seen as the fractious, creative, unconventional, wayward deeds of a group of slightly spoiled people, but there is more here, for it may be that they are aspects of the ageless, amoral deities: what she identified in her journals as ‘the beautiful interesting potencies that acknowledged no human values,’ known and understood most by the Greeks.

(n.b. Shades of Simon Raven! - JR)

With Whisperings and Mumblings: Walter de la Mare’s ‘Seaton’s Aunt’

....[Forrest Reid] concludes by ranking ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ very highly, with The Turn of the Screw and a few of Poe’s tales, and notes that this is because of ‘the very absence from it of a visible ghost’, for ‘It is not the ghost but the person who sees the ghost that matters’: the writer who can convey to us convincingly the deterioration of a mind succumbing to invisible presences will succeed far more, and at a higher level, than he who bodies forth the ghastly being itself, no matter how tactfully done. This is a lesson which could usefully be studied by all who write in this field.

....It is a characteristic mark of de la Mare’s craft, in his poetry and his anthologies and his stories, to provide finely deployed, delicately expressed, timeless and dreamlike images which work old, old spells in the reader’s mind. It is to our rarer, inner senses that de la Mare’s writing appeals, and that is why it is so hard to fix to his highest stories any one simple meaning in the outside world.

The Stranger Who Opens the Door: The Novels of Claude Houghton

....It was their duty to harness this power, but without losing their essential humanity—he had no time for the idea that such visionaries were superior beings; they were still fully human, and vulnerable. It’s important to note that Houghton's philosophy did not draw him towards any of the noxious political movements of the 1930s, proclaiming the advent of the Overman. His sight seems to have been fixed well beyond the politics of the day. And in his books, where a figure has achieved higher (mystical) powers, it is a matter for humility and care, for these are elusive and potentially perilous: ‘The soul in each of us is like a seed in that only in silence, in darkness, and in secrecy can it begin its ascent towards perfection.’

Goodbye, Mr Fothergill: James Hilton’s Knight Without Armour

....An Englishman abroad is plunged into a maelstrom in a foreign country where anarchy and chaos are in play. He is kept prisoner, assimilates himself to the new society he finds, has to make his escape, falls in love with a woman of the country, but finds it is a love that cannot survive beyond the boundaries of her world. Of course, the differences are more striking than these similarities. Undoubtedly it was the mystical element and the more exotic setting in Lost Horizon that won the hearts of readers. Yet one can see how in a certain sense Knight Without Armour is a precursor, a preparation and exploration of what was to come. It may not be stretching things too far, also, to see some qualities in the Russian book in common with Hilton’s other remembered classic, Goodbye, Mr Chips. Both books centre on an unassuming hero, apparently towards the twilight of unremarkable lives, who both in fact have strong and moving stories to tell.

‘A Demon in Reverse’: Cosnahan’s Magical Influences

....Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was foremost a writer of supernatural fiction and stories of wonder in nature who had, by the time of Lowry’s story, earned a reputation simply as ‘the Ghost Man’, from his yarns told to BBC audiences. His books are suffused with lyrical evocations of pantheistic awe. He was for a while in the 1890s, a member, with Yeats, Arthur Machen, Florence Farr and others, of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His work continued to draw upon the order’s teachings and rituals, in veiled form, for some years afterwards.

Under This Strange Grey Sky: The Fantasies of Vernon Knowles

....His second book of short stories, Here and Otherwhere , followed swiftly at the end of 1926. It has a dedicatory note to a friend in Australia, John Jeffreys, ‘as an earnest of my love’, trying to lure him to

England, where (he says) happiness might be found, if only one looks for it ‘by the cunning method of glancing from out of the corner of one’s eye’. This jocular note does, however, hint at a sense in many of his stories that what we seek for should not be too directly addressed, for fear it will disappear—a superstition that we again may feel has its origin in a childhood so full of wonder, and wonder so suddenly lost, that the author will never quite trust any semblance of it ever again.

....In two other stories, ‘The Painter of Trees’ and ‘The Road to Tolbrisa’, Knowles conveys with economy the power and otherness of trees, somewhat from the same angle as some of Algernon Blackwood’s stories, though without that author’s pantheistic ardour or (it must be said) diffuseness of expression.

Perhaps the most successful accomplishment in the book is the four tales in ‘A Set of Chinese Boxes’, which may suffer from its title. The story is nothing to do with orientalia, and the title only indicates that the tales fit one inside the other (like a Russian doll). The central conceit is of a close friend of the author who is dying in part because he has lost the will to live: his doctor urges the author to think of some scheme to stimulate this lost verve. The narrator brings four strangers to the patient’s room, each with a highly curious and improbable encounter to tell, illustrating the strangeness and eccentricity of our existence. The cure works: the patient is baffled, intrigued, uncertain about what he is hearing from visitors who tell him in all studied seriousness these incredible things. He recovers: the secret is revealed; he has been hoaxed; the strangers were actors coached by the author to tell convincingly stories he invented. His friend’s laughter is evidence of his health restored. This play upon the treachery of tales told belongs in the same tradition as the tall tales in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors, or the paradoxes—true but in an oblique, unexpected way—of Chesterton in The Club of Queer Trades and others.

....Certain recurring themes, familiar in the literature—searching for wonder from within a humdrum world, the separation of selves, the sinister twists that come from wishes—suggest to us an author who has a vision to express that he has not quite fully made his own.

The Writer in the Railway Carriage: H.A. Manhood

....It was A.E. Coppard who noted that the short story should not be seen as a cut-down version of the novel: it was a different (and older) form with its origins in the folk tale and fairy tale, the fireside yarn, the pub anecdote. These sources influence our expectations: we look for evidence of the universal in the local, of the general lot in the particular fate. At the same time, we also seek to hear of the exception: the curious, the strange, the untoward; because they are an inevitable part of our existence too and perhaps what gives it spice.

....Cape saw and tried to convey this dual achievement too: the publisher advised readers that he ‘pleases the connoisseur who likes something out-of-the-way and well composed’: yet also ‘the general public which demands to hear a tale intriguingly told’.

....He went on, however, to stress, with some diffidence, that the incidental inspiration for a tale then needed significant work before it was fit for a story of his: ‘As a rule the shape is co n ceived quickly, flowing naturally and inevitably, as a day, our human day, may be said to flow, to be shaped between dawn and dusk; a large comparison perhaps, but then the matter of a story, spaced over many days in the writing, is a large matter for the writer at the time, however trivial the result may seem to a reader without patience or imagination.’

....If there is a theory of life in his stories, it is a rough-and-ready one, that relishes most its irony, the way things often work out differently to our plans, all in spite of our intentions. But there is no sense of any hidden order, nor any mover of fates, however implacable and inscrutable (as, for example, in the stories of T.F. Powys). If there are any lessons to be drawn (although Manhood’s work does not insist upon them), then they are purely about human conduct, and do not exemplify any particular moral framework. They are the shrewd observations one might expect from the way he led his own life: that it is unwise to poke our noses into others’ affairs, even if we think we are intent on doing good; that help and hindrance may still come from where we least expect it; that people can be both cruel and tender, or (as his own title had it) fierce and gentle. Gods, ghosts, spirits, devils are mostly (though not entirely) absent: at any rate, they are not active intruders. Far more of good and evil is worked by humankind, Manhood’s stories tell us. But perhaps most of all what they suggest is that there is material for a good story, rightly observed—and properly told, by a master craftsman—in the lives of almost anyone.

And I’d Be The King of China: The Strange Life of Charles Welsh Mason

....There was a long tradition in British India of young army officers taking ‘shooting leave’ to go on convenient private expeditions incognito in unmapped Central Asia, often returning with valuable intelligence. If caught, they could of course be disowned.

....Looking back on his scheme to seize power in China, in his Confessions , Mason was rueful but unrepentant, and convinced he still had some special destiny: ‘I am supposed to have had many “adventures” of a romantic sort,’ he wrote, ‘but in my own mind the only adventure of my life has been the obstinacy with which I have adhered to an insane resolution of my youth. Not only did it expose me to a cruel and instant punishment, but the chains of its aftermath have clanked at my heels in every step I have taken during the subsequent thirty odd years. Through the hardships, sufferings, struggles and defiances of all those years in many lands that resolution has been my guiding star; and it remains so still when I am now an old man, apparently a bit of damaged goods on the edge of the scrap-heap, but in my own secret and dour heart still the same young man, and still believing that I have another life before me in which I shall yet achieve the preposterous ambitions which haunted me....

Masks in Flanders: Major Morris’ Lost Classic

....W.F. Morris’s books have a distinctive quality: he was not content to write just a mystery, just a spy thriller (though he was very deft at both of those forms, as Ambler had attested), but he put into his books also understated humour, observant realism, thoughtfulness, a cast of well-bodied characters. Morris understands perfectly well his duties as a story-teller, and he holds and compels the reader: and he refuses also, because of this, to put up great high signals of solemnity and portent about his book, though that does not mean we should not take it seriously as good literature.

Offerings to Mercury

....the fascination of finding out how books were received when they first came out: and wondering what you would have bought for your bookshelves then.

Viper in the Temple: The Novels of L.H. Myers

....As the sequence [The Near and the Far] is by far Myers’ most major work, it is probably important to say what it is not. It does not comprise a set of ‘historical novels’ with the main purpose of exploring events and characters of the Moghul period. Nor is it an occult thriller drawing on the theosophists’ fascination with the mystic East. It is not an allegory of British imperialism in India. But what it is, most of all, is a novel of ideas. Myers wanted to choose a setting sufficiently remote so that his readers would not be distracted by any social preconceptions. He also wanted characters who could be more contemplative and concerned with spiritual realities than is common in modern Europe. And it is clear he also wanted a world where dramas of power, ritual, love, corruption and faith could be played out on a magnificent scale. ‘It was my object to create a world that I liked better than the existing one,’ he wrote to L.P. Hartley in 1929 and, to another friend, he said the work ‘does assert a dignity in the human mind that is truly there.’ But readers need not fear that the books will be overly dry or theoretical. Although Myers never visited India, and the incidental detail in the work is drawn from books, he does succeed in evoking a vivid, living world which the reader trusts; the characters, landscape, palaces and temples are far from being an abstract allegorical framework.

Lost Radiance: The Fiction of Lewis Grassic Gibbon

....he perfected a way of writing that captured the rhythm and current of Scots speech without relying on the condescending literary convention of showing dialect phonetically, and full of apostrophes. It was a remarkable fusion of lucid English prose with the authentic voice of his homeland. The success of this experiment was well-recognised by his compatriots. Fellow-writer Neil Gunn noted that you could hear the very earth speak in his prose, and critic Ivor Brown claimed, ‘It was the voice of Scotland’s past, almost of all antiquity . . .’

The narrative of the novel, too, won acclaim. Mitchell was writing now of what he really knew, the land and the people of his upbringing. The character of the socially and spiritually awakened young woman, Chris Guthrie, is unforgettable, and her progress through the three novels that comprise A Scots Quair, has spoken intensely to many readers. Sunset Song was quickly recognised as a distinctive and significant work by literary professionals, but just as important for the author must have been the many warm and grateful letters he received from ordinary readers. It remains the best-loved of his books. Though not an outright fantasy as such, the celebration of a closeness to the land and a sense of the ancient powers latent within it has echoes of the work of earlier pantheists such as Algernon Blackwood, though without his overt occultism.

Jerusalem in England: A Note on the Work of L. Furze Morrish

....Perhaps one of the more curious elements of what is indeed a very curious book [Bridge Over Dark Gods] is its adherence to the legend of ‘the English Jerusalem’, the belief that Joseph of Arimathea brought the young Jesus to Britain for a period, and returned, after the Passion to seed the new faith in that far island. His sanctuary was said to be at Glastonbury, where the legend of the holy thorn that grew where he planted his staff in Wearyall Hill, is still prevalent. The Somerset town, with its strange high tor, has been the focus of considerable spiritual activity in a revival now over a century old, and in the 1930s it was described as ‘the English Jerusalem’. The legend is immortalised, of course, in the William Blake poem beginning ‘And did those feet, in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green?’, put to stirring music by Hubert Parry, and sung on patriotic occasions.

....The type of fiction exemplified by Bridge Over Dark Gods is not often highly regarded by commentators on, or readers of, fantastic literature.

....Books such as Bridge Over Dark Gods and its peers help to illumine recurring motifs in spiritual history that are often held, in varying degrees and forms, by many thoughtful people. They merit sympathetic, if not unreserved, reading, and will repay this with their qualities of originality, ardour and strangeness, seldom found in more conventional or commercial work.

‘I Walk Through the World’: The Writings of Geoffrey Pollett

....I found a copy of Song for Sixpence with a press cutting about his death. It reported that he took his own life by gas (like the mercurial composer Peter Warlock) aged twenty-nine in May 1937 ‘in his poorly furnished room in Long Acre, W.C.’ because he was at ‘the end of his financial tether’. The report says he left a poem to a ‘mystery girl’ and quotes the last verse. A friend, the artist Milton Lucas, said she had paid a visit to the poet on the day of his death. There is a picture of the poet striding along in jacket and tie and bags. Given the strong character and friendly disposition that comes across so engagingly in his book, this seems a tragic ending.

Mr Shakespeare’s Gunpowder Plot

....For some people, thirty-seven has never been enough, and there has grown up a whole side-study of ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’. As well as some plays where there are genuine causes for debate, because of the conventions (or lack of them) of authorship in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century stage, there have also been numerous hoaxes, forgeries and examples of wishful thinking. The earliest major survey of all the unaccepted candidates for the canon then known was by C.F. Tucker Brooke in 1908 ( The Shakespeare Apocrypha ). One internet checklist identifies over forty examples now.

....in the apocrypha, people are trying to show that Shakespeare wrote rather more than is currently acknowledged.

....the complete extent of the canon has never been universally agreed at any time since Shakespeare’s death, and fresh admissions even now cannot be ruled out.

The Fifth of November, or, The Gunpowder Plot, by ‘William Shakspeare’ (sic) is a five act play, 100pp in text, portraying two interlocking groups—King James I and his courtiers, and Robert Catesby and the conspirators.

They stride across the stage in fine set-pieces, sharpening their wits and their swords. It opens on Westminster Bridge, with Catesby and Percy regarding Parliament and envisioning its fate—‘This night, my Percy, we will light a blaze/To shame the torch of Phoebus—’ and continues in the cellars of the Palace with some dark repartee with Guy Fawkes, who is readying the fuses. The second act introduces the King, and shows the betrayal and discovery of the Plot. In the third act, the conspirators are shown in escape and flight, and in the fourth act they do battle with their pursuers. The final act shows their capture, imprisonment, and the verdicts of the King. In this most masculine of plots, love interest is contrived through the fears and bravery of wives or lovers.

An anonymous introductory note tells us the play was ‘supposed to have been written by Shakspeare during the short period between his retirement into the country and his death, in 1616, and about ten years after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot’.

The James I of The Fifth of November is depicted as vain, over-familiar with his favourites, foolish in adversity, unintelligent in strategy and without magnanimity in victory. No such play could have been performed during the King’s reign, nor was it likely to have been written.

....The author was in fact George Ambrose Rhodes, and it is believed that he owned up to it not longer after the play appeared.

The MS in a Red Box

....The mystery manuscript was a great historical romance in the tradition of Stevenson and Scott, about the seventeenth century struggle between the proud and independent people of the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire and the Dutch drainage lords who had come to change their world forever, and drive them from their lands. It was a gripping, twisting and turning, swashbuckling, yet also thoughtful and sometimes eerie book, with the isolated marshlands of Axholme so strongly evoked that the reader almost felt they had lived there themselves.

....there are weird visions and curses, and the sense of an inexorable working-out of fate.

....The Isle of Axholme was, until the Dutch drainage in the seventeenth century which the book depicts, a real inland island, surrounded by three rivers at their widest span, and enterable only by ferry. Even within the land that the rivers coiled around, much of the terrain was inhospitable marshland, whose narrow and uncertain tracks only natives knew thoroughly. Islonians, as they were called, would even use stilts to get around the murky, water-logged wastelands. Axholme was, in fact, a series of islands: one long ridge in the middle, bearing four villages upon it, some outlying outcrops with smaller settlements, and a few ferry cottages by the river crossings. The dominance of the rivers is well documented in a local history book, G. Dunston ’ s The Rivers of Axholme (c.1909).

Axholme was also the scene of a mysterious conflagration in the Dark Ages, recorded by a monkish chronicler, which denuded it of vegetation, burned trees down to their roots and even scorched stone and rocks. It is thought that this must have been caused by a fireball.

....Might the author have been Allan Fea (1860-1956)? So far as I am aware, this theory has not been put forward before now. A historian of the seventeenth century, he was fully versed in the period of the book. His study of the Sedgemoor rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth, which Lane had published the year before, has many parallels: an armed uprising against the authority of the King, set in a marshland domain with its own traditions and pride. And Fea was already a John Lane author. A historian and antiquary, he might not want to be associated with a work of fiction, a romance. So he could have either sent the book to Lane anonymously, in the red box, just as Lane recounted: or collaborated with him on an elaborate hoax.

The Mysteries of the Pomegranate: Sax Rohmer’s The Orchard of Tears

....A counterpoint to [The Orchard of Tears' hero Paul] Mario comes from his bluffer, kindlier college friend, Captain Donald Courtier (whose name perhaps suggests one of Michael Arlen’s dashing modern cavaliers). Flamby’s father saved his life in the trenches, and he has appointed himself her unofficial guardian. He also acts as a calming influence on Mario, warning him of false friends and bringing a lightness to Mario’s otherwise fervent, fevered visionary life. When Mario is expatiating upon the mystic resonance of certain names (‘the phrase “cherry blossom in Japan” bears me upon a magical carpet to a certain street in Yokohama and there unveils to me all the secrets of Japanese mysticism’), Courtier wryly deflates the bombast: ‘I quite see your point . . . I have never ceased to regret that I was not born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. The possession of such a euphonious birthplace would have coloured all my life’.

....Does The Orchard of Tears therefore merit very much attention nearly a hundred years later? I suggest that it does, because Rohmer uses the book to explore and propound his own beliefs, and these are interesting both for what they tell us about him, and for their reflection of a certain trend of thought in his time. They would not have been novel to a segment of his readership, versed in Theosophy or the early New Age, but Rohmer ev i dently thought his more general readership would find his ideas startling, and takes pains to justify them through his characters. In his The Romance of Sorcery (1914), he had already outlined on the opening page the framework that later informed his novel:

Today is notable for a curious change in Western thought, or properly, in a phase of Western thought, more appreciable by churchmen, theosophists, and other students of the Unseen than by the laymen. I refer to a growing discontent with, and a falling away from, revealed religion. It is an age of groping; and whereas one who stumbles onwards in the mist nearly always strays from the broad highway into the bypaths that lead to the mere, some may strike a fair and narrow road and emerge upon the mountain top....

....The first hint of the spiritual ambitions in the book comes in Chapter X, when Mario is wandering in the heaths near his purchased mansion. Rohmer’s prose rises almost to the heights of Arthur Machen’s in his description of an occult terrain. There is just a shade less poetry and incantatory sorcery than in the Welsh master, but he is certainly writing at a higher pitch than is usual in his thrillers. He even includes a Machenesque swipe at Puritans, the dour Roundheads who, ‘with their pitiless creed, had failed to destroy the fragrant sanctity’ of a little village church in the valley, a sanctity ‘which lingered in these foot-worn aisles like the memory of incense’. But Mario’s wandering culminates in a vision of a stark spiritual terror:

In the emotional vision of Paul, horror rode the tempest. Man, discarding the emblem of the Cross, and prostrating himself at the feet of strange idols, now was chained to a planet deserted by God, doomed and left to the mercy of monstrous earth spirits revitalised by homage and made potent again. . . . Fear touched him, because the Divine face was turned from man. Awe wrapped him about, because the Word had failed to redeem, and a new message must be given. The Prince of Darkness became a real figure—and seemed to be very near him. ( The Orchard of Tears, 1918.)

....Rohmer summaries its contentions: ‘the systems of Hermes, Krishna, Confucius, Moses, Orpheus and Christ were based upon a common primeval truth. . . . All of them had taught that man is re-incarnated, and because Western thought had been diverted from the truth and the fallacies of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory substituted for simple Rebirth, Western thought had become chaotic’. Rohmer is here following the Theosophical teaching of the universal religion, and Theosophy was already over forty years old, with a worldwide following of thousands: its ideas had permeated more widely still. But his plot depends upon the reader believing that the ideas of reincarnation and the universal religion would be received by the contemporary public as remarkable revelations, provoking scandal, opposition and hot debate: and this Rohmer never really succeeds in demonstrating.

....Rohmer is struggling hard to explain profound esoteric thinking as clearly as he can, but the result may have left many of his readers, hoping for a jaunty thriller with an exciting occult seasoning, somewhat bemused and perplexed. He was not the only author of occult romances to come up against this difficulty: Algernon Blackwood and Charles Williams, for example, also resorted to capitalised concepts to try to convey spiritual truths, but with no greater success. When all three use poetic metaphor instead, their work catches light, and the reader is given glimpses of far vistas, secret domains, living nature and the signs and symbols that lay all around us.

....like Holmes’ case of the Giant Rat of  Sumatra, it is a story for which the world is not yet prepared. Mario had told Courtier that ‘there are . . . wonderful things at Thessaly’s house’, hinting that there will be further revelations derived from the ancient and mystic trove that the wealthy collector has assembled: and Rohmer unveils some of the idols that Thessaly has loaned to Mario to keep in his studio. Prominent among them are the goddesses of love and desire: Kali, Venus Urania, Ashtaroth, daughter of Sin, ‘a wonderfully preserved ivory figure, half woman and half fish, of Derceto of Ascalon’, and ‘the tainted Isis whose lascivious rites were celebrated in Pompeii’. Here the author is hinting at the erotic complications that will eventually destroy Mario’s vision. His wife, neglected by Mario because of the intensity of his work, has taken a lover, a bohemian artist; Mario himself has a suppressed, sublimated love for Flamby, in unconscious rivalry with Captain Courtier, his closest friend. Rohmer intertwines these relationships with deft skill, showing how their deceptions and frustrations must undo the higher task Mario has set himself. The book ends with the conclusive abnegation of his vision, at least in this life.

Possible Masterpieces: The Novels of J.C. Snaith

....Like M.P. Shiel and Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, who also both did not go to a university, Snaith’s work was streaked through with an idiosyncratic personal vision and an extravagance in language and plot.

The Ultimate Oddness: A Book of Whimsies

....The volume has the air of a youthful jeu d’esprit . Connoisseurs of dedications will enjoy its tongue-in-cheek address to various respectable persons: ‘To the middle-aged of heart we dedicate this book—to all thoroughly dependable persons—to thin persons—to all persons in any way fitted for legal or parliamentary activity—to the Lord Mayor—to the Episcopate—and to all vergers—upon whose souls may God have mercy.’

....Though the tone is facetious, their credo is quite clear and consistent and is not remote, in its way, from that of Arthur Machen, seeing romance and the inexplicable in the world before us, in the purlieus of Stoke Newington, for example, or the high road of Holborn. These younger authors assert that what we call whimsy ‘depends on a recognition of the ultimate oddness of all phenomena’.

....The word ‘whimsy’ has drawn to itself connotations of the fey but originally it was more robust than that, and could be used to describe most peculiar and original ideas.

Secret Names: The Hermetic Fiction of Peter Vansittart

....He sees history as most often formed by muddle, chance, fickleness, fraud, failure of understanding. His perspective is mostly pessimistic yet leavened by a fascination with the sheer sprawling denseness of life and by a delicate handling of that last refuge, irony.

‘Or Opaline Algol’: A Lost Edwardian Poet

....we may never know who wrote all these rather swooning Swinburnean lines in the brittle beige paper wrappers. That seems a loss, but it must be a fate the poet foresaw when they refrained from putting their name or even a pseudonym to the pamphlet. There is a pessimism about human vanities in most of the verses, and several times the poet, perhaps in their own person and not as a posed character, speaks of a doom upon their destiny. They must, however, have hoped the verses themselves would find appreciative readers....

A Small Place of Worship: The Last of the Johnsonians

....When the housing estate where I grew up had been built, a part of the land had been left as a park or rather, in the parlance of the times, a recreation ground. We called it The Field. It was surrounded on all sides by houses: one of these sides was our road, and our house backed onto it, divided by a hedge, through which, when small, I could crawl, using a hollow that closed after me as I passed through. My bedroom window looked out upon The Field. Opposite, at the far end of my view, was a large house guarded by a pine tree and a fir which, darkly etched against the sunset, often seemed to me solemn and mysterious.

....I began to cycle out to the villages lying beyond where I lived, in the segment of the county to the south and west: it was rarer for me to go north or east, as that would mean a long ride through the town at the start, and I wanted to be quickly out in less-used roads and among trees and fields. It was not easy at first to find out where I should go: I would choose a village and simply see what was there, often finding it unremarkable, and wishing it was more mysterious, like the country I read about in books. After a while, however, I began to go to places guided by pieces of information I had found, which had some suggestion of promise.

....I was always hoping, when I went on these lonely forays, to encounter some hint of the eerie, such as I had read about in the ghost stories I was already enjoying. I could not honestly say I found anything precisely of that kind here, except that I was certainly conscious of the presence of sadness, and a sadness that did not seem wholly due to the dull weather or the desolate little spot. I wanted quite soon both to go away, for the sadness seemed to bear down upon me, and to stay, for I wanted to know if anything else would reach out to me.

....the peculiar teachings of John Johnson, a Cheshire preacher. His most important belief was that faith may only be received as an act of grace from God, and cannot be earned or cultivated. There was perhaps an implication—and this was what must have scandalised contemporaries—that people were therefore free to go their own way, in the knowledge that none of the usual pious duties would make any difference. Certainly, Johnson seems to have been an original thinker in many other respects, often questioning conventional views. He asked the awkward, and unanswerable, question, of whether there would have been any need for redemption if man had never sinned. He was unconvinced by the doctrine of the trinity.

....There is something of a tradition of hatters and radical nonconformity, and indeed one source for the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ derives it from Roger Crabbe, a seventeenth-century prophet and hatter, the author of The English Hermite, or Wonder of the Age (1655), an autobiography, and Dragons Downfall, or The Great Idol Digged Up (1657).

What Became of Dr Ludovicus: Ernest Dowson & Arthur Moore’s Lost Shocker

....Their first collaboration [The Passion of Dr Ludovicus], enticing-sounding to the connoisseur of the curious and fantastical in literature, seems to have disappeared. There have been rumours of the manuscript: but no part of it has ever been produced, or published. We do, however, have Dowson’s description of it in letters to his collaborator, Moore: and there is enough in these to give us a very good idea of what we have lost. The Passion of Dr Ludovicus , which they began while at Oxford, was, it seems, meant to be a ‘shocker’, as the Victorians called them, an exciting and outré tale with macabre and bizarre elements. The plot, as Dowson discusses it, seems quite Stevensonian: we are in a similar realm to his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), a great success just three years before they worked on their book. It seems surprising that the authors could not find a willing publisher for it, despite several attempts. After all, this was the period of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski (1895), and other strange and extravagant romances.

....The two collaborators composed their joint books by each writing alternate chapters in a shared notebook which passed between them, usually by post.

Wraiths: Some Lost Poets of the 1890

....there is perhaps a borderland even beyond these strange and beautiful books, and even more keenly evocative of their dying era. This pallid margin is haunted by the poets whose poems are lost utterly, or seem to be. We know that they wrote, we have descriptions of their work, we know a little of their life, but nothing whatever, or nearly nothing, has survived of their art. There are just chance references to them, buried in obscure letters or memoirs, and we are left to imagine what their work might have been. To have written poems that no longer exist, that never knew even the embrace of a volume’s vellum boards or the delicate caress of paper wrappers: in that ultimate obscurity, that aery evanescence, is there not something even more fin-de-siècle, more fleeting and fugacious yet, than the slim volume? That is, to be the author of a volume so slim as not even to exist.

The Piccadilly Goat

....G.F. Monkshood, author of a volume of decadent verse, Nightshades , privately printed in Paris (1899) and a later book of aphorisms, The Cynic’s Posy (1904), wrote a vignette for The Unicorn around this time which celebrated The Piccadilly Goat as a ‘pale-cloaked, cloven-hoofed lord’, fork-bearded and opaline-eyed, and suggested he might be a reincarnated magus observing sardonically the vanities of mortals.

Reviews of Unwritten Books

....For a few moments, when I chanced upon such words, I found myself imagining an alternative world where Father Rolfe was known, not for his works of devotion, not for his fine church, nor for his near-sainted qualities, but as the carver of quaint intaglios of prose, his coinages adopted by admirers for knowing exchange, perhaps in cloister or common room, with a sly look in the eye, as if of the code-words for the initiates of a secret order. If I should be found one day murmuring to myself ‘diaphotic,’ ‘maleficial’, ‘sufflavian’, ‘evitate’ and ‘pompadouring’ you will know that I have been admitted to this arcane cult.


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