Friday, January 12, 2018

A Conversation Larger Than the Universe - Henry Wessells

A Conversation Larger Than the Universe - Readings in Science Fiction and the Fantastic by Henry Wessells is to be published by The Grolier Club in January, with an introduction by John Crowley. Henry is a Wormwood contributor, antiquarian bookseller and founder of The Avram Davidson Society, who writes thoughtfully and lucidly about the history of these two linked literatures, from Frankenstein through to cyberpunk and beyond.

The major figures are discussed with particular clarity and a thoroughly informed understanding of the significance of their work. However, this study also looks at some less well-known books and authors in the field, and considers SF and Fantasy not just as enclosed genres, but in the wider context of contemporary culture. Engrossing and informative as history, the book is also a pleasure to read because of Henry's personal style and perspectives.

The publication will be accompanied by an exhibition open to the public at New York's The Grolier Club from 25 January to 10 March 2018, which will include rare books, magazines, manuscripts and ephemera.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Postcard from the Tower of Moab

In a previous post we discussed the likelihood that L A Lewis’ story ‘The Tower of Moab’ was based upon Jezreel’s Tower, Gillingham, Kent, and in another post reported on a local history group’s account of the demolition of the tower. Before it was destroyed, however, the tower was very much a local landmark, and it was depicted on several designs of postcard.

Quite a few of these survive. The example illustrated here, printed by Thornton Bros of New Brompton, Kent, is postmarked August 16 1905, and has a message from the anonymous sender with a couple of interesting allusions.

It reads: “This is the Tower that was supposed to hold 144,000 persons at the End of the world it is just up close to us and is being pulled down to be turned into a factory this card will be a novelty of the future.”

The author’s last comment was prescient. But it is also interesting to see a first hand report of the lore associated with the Tower, and also to learn that it was thought locally to be about to be demolished as early as 1905. In fact, demolition did not begin for another 55 years and it was not finally destroyed until 1961.

The recipient of the postcard lived in Cookham, Berkshire which, curiously enough was the birthplace and home village of Stanley Spencer, the artist most known for his visions of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Last Steamer & Other Strange Tales - Bob Mann

The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales by Bob Mann has recently been published by Longmarsh Press of Totnes. The author is a well-known figure in Arthur Machen circles and a writer on South Devon history, folklore and mysteries, and this new book collects some of his fine supernatural stories, originally shared with family and friends at Christmas.

Bob Mann understands that some of the best ghost stories are rooted in a strong sense of place, and his succinct but vivid tales set in the mysterious byways of a certain corner of Devon gain from his deep knowledge of local history and legend.

He also knows that the strangest experiences can be those that don’t quite cohere: they result from hazy glimpses, passing encounters, things we are not quite sure we saw, and he is adept at suggesting just enough, and no more.

So here are compelling accounts of an “ancient and terrible” steam boat that simply shouldn’t be there, a horned ceremony in a churchyard at night, the alluring modern manifestations of femmes fatales at a haunted castle, a citadel that hasn’t existed for centuries, the figure of a redoubtable teacher in an organ loft, and even – what a wonderful idea! - a phantom brass band.

Arthur Machen enthusiasts will also delight in finding sly allusions to the Gwent master and his work.

With each of these highly relishable yarns we feel a strong sense of the past still resonating in our time, while also enjoying the author’s wry sense of humour and light touch.

Mark Valentine

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things

The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things: Stories is available for pre-order from Zagava. Twelve previously uncollected stories, and an unpublished journal.


To the Eternal One
The Key to Jerusalem
Listening to Stonehenge
Goat Songs
In Cypress Shades
The Mask of the Dead Mammilius
Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore
The Scarlet Door
Vain Shadows Flee
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things
as blank as the days yet to be
Notes on the Border

Mark Valentine

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Season's Greetings to all our readers

Look into my eyes, look into my eyes.
You are feeling sleepy. Very sleeeepy.
You need Wormwood.
Yes, Wormwood . . .

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Harp in Llanidloes, and A Twist in the Stair

It was a grey, wet day at the end of September in the remote little town of Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, which lies among the Cambrian Mountains in the middle of Wales. But our spirits were lightened as we entered the Great Oak second-hand bookshop by the echoing notes of a harp. In the mezzanine room at the back of the shop, a friend of the owner was rehearsing delicate old melodies. Along with the lute, the sound of the harp always conveys to me a sense of the ancient past, the days of court bards and wandering minstrels.

A favourite album of my youth was Alan Stivell’s Renaissance of the Celtic Harp (1971), which was doubly magical because its pieces drew upon Breton folklore, such as the stories of the sunken kingdom of Ys, and indeed one piece was accompanied by the slow wistful sound of waves upon the shore. Whether it was the influence of the spell of the harp, or whether it was because Llanidloes itself is a place of witchery, I certainly found some curious books there.

We had selected just a handful of titles of interest in the front of the shop, and in the two-storey outhouse reached through the back door, and were just about to take those to the counter when I noticed to one side a wicket gate at the top of some stone steps. These proved to descend into a cellar. There was a turn in the stair, and as I came to the last step, I saw ahead of me a few small bookcases with children’s books, but not much else, and I was about to return. But then I looked to my right and lo! – there were rows and rows of old hardback fiction, which is what I always want to find and, these days, often don’t.

The first book I encountered, right in front of my nose, when I began my eager browsing among these shelves was a mottled copy of Fanfaronade (1934) by Ivo Pakenham, which I have written about here before, a timeslip fantasy in which a scholar of medieval history finds himself transposed to a duchy perhaps not unlike Burgundy. And the curious thing is, and this only occurred to me a little later, that he reaches this realm by taking some stone steps downward from a secret door in the chamber of a French chateau, and following a turn in the stair. . .

Now clearly a turn in the stair of a French chateau and a turn in the stair in a Welsh bookshop are not the same thing. But even so, it still seemed slightly peculiar to find a book in the same way as the book itself begins.

Nor was Fanfaronade the only good find down in the cellar. Here were also three books by Claude Houghton, including a 1938 edition of his first novel, Neighbours (1926). There was also Arminel of the West (1909), a Devon romance, in pictorial boards, by the often distinctly odd John Trevena. Then there was a Yorkshire rural saga, The Cliff End (1908) by Edward Booth, in the Holderness edition of his novels, named after the coastal eastern corner of the county where his books were usually set.

This author was praised, and I had noted his name for this reason, by the American Machen enthusiast Paul Jordan-Smith in one of his volumes of bookish essays, probably For the Love of Books: The Adventures of An Impecunious Collector (1934). (That collector, incidentally, would have been much cheered by the prices of the books in the cellar, which were moderate indeed.) The dustwrapper flap of Booth’s book tells us it is “an unashamedly sentimental, old-fashioned, novel,” while J.B. Priestley (also a Yorkshireman) is quoted as saying it is “not unlike an interior by an old Dutch master doubly based on close observation and deep feeling.”

And my fingers also found their way to a desert adventure yarn tinged with occult elements, The White Knights (El Firsan El Bied) (1912) by T.G. Wakeling. Now, Wakeling was the author of a book I acquired a while ago because of its irresistible title, Forged Egyptian Antiquities (1912). Largely anecdotal, it gave interesting sidelights on the differences between forgeries and the genuinely ancient, and made the point that some of the fake artefacts were worth having simply as well-made art objects, even without their alleged antiquity.

But perhaps the most singular find, as is often the way, was a book I knew nothing about by an author I had never heard of. This was Pandora’s Shocks, A Humorous Adventure (Hurst & Blackett, no date, but 1927) by Laura Wildig. Its stark, dark art deco lettering was set in boards slightly faded to a pleasing rose-pink. A glance at the opening page reveals the heroine, Euralie Budd, “sitting cross-legged on a black divan, smoking a pipe,” surely enough to make any discerning reader wish to make her acquaintance further.

When we next learn that she is in conversation with Professor Boniface, who is searching for the secret of “creative energy”, “this innermost secret of the earth” which has “baffled the ancient alchemists”, our interest will naturally be quickened. And indeed the book proves to be a very high-spirited and inventive bohemian fantasy.

I have found out very little about the author, other than that she contributed short stories to Hutchinson’s Magazine in 1923-4, wrote a romantic West End play, Priscilla and the Profligate, and co-wrote with Brian Hill a children’s play, Ever So Long Ago. An engineering directory mentions that a Laura Wildig married in 1900 the splendidly-named Loughnan St. L. Pendered, M.I. Mech.E, (born 1870), of 33 Norfolk Street, The Strand, the editor of The Engineer from 1905 and the Hon. Editor of the Ministry of Munitions Journal during the First World War. We must regret that Laura Wildig apparently published no other novels.

As we made to leave Llanidloes, we noticed a most unusual architectural feature which at once took our fancy. An old red-brick shop had drainpipes in a pleasing shade of powder blue – but not only that, these were barley-twist drainpipes, a shape in rainwater columns neither of us had ever seen before, which gave them a distinctly eccentric, Gothicky look. Thoughts of a monograph on “Curious Drainpipes of Mid-Wales” at once began to take form.

Mark Valentine
Photographs: Jo Valentine

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Map of Old Dunwich, and Egypt in England

The county of Norfolk is well-blessed with second-hand bookshops, so I can’t now recall exactly which one led me to the book called Dim Corridors (Wymondham: Geo. R. Reeve, 1948), but surely no-one with an antiquarian cast of mind could resist such a title? It suggests at once hushed passages in some ancient hall, or wanderings at dusk in hollow-ways through lonely country. My interest was further quickened when I opened up the book and found the first page was a fold-out street map of Old Dunwich, the medieval city that is now beneath the waves.

This showed the town as it was in the 16th century, in an engraving from 1753 for the Society of Antiquaries. I like maps in books and a map of a lost world even better. The chart has neat letters marked on it, and on the reverse a key to these is a roll-call of the vanished: the Black Friars, the Grey Friars, the Temple, St James Hospital, the Maison Dieu, the Cock Hills and the Hen Hills, the Windmills, St Francis’ Chapel, and the Sea Fields. That last name was suitably ominous since sea was what so many fields indeed became.

In his foreword the author, R.D. Clover, says that though the articles in the book are “built upon a framework of history” they are “first of all, impressions” of the lesser-known parts of East Anglia. Places have different atmospheres, he notes, and he has attempted “to grasp something of this intangible thing “atmosphere” and put it down on paper.” This is perhaps an unusual idea for the time, at least so particularly stated, and Clover’s approach might be seen as a precursor of the “earth mysteries” writers of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, the psycho-geographers of slightly later and the “new landscape” writers of today.

But it must be said that Mr Clover does not stray all that far from the sort of sense that any keen visitor might get of the places he discusses. His essay on the lost town is entitled “Dunwich – A Place of Ghosts” and begins, “Dunwich is not an easy place to find.” He had to make his way through half-forgotten lanes to the last street left, and scramble around war debris, put here to deter invaders, to get to the beach. The atmosphere, it will not be surprising to learn, was distinctly melancholy. The author certainly conveys this mood convincingly enough: “I picked up a fragment of skull and looked at it. What sort of brain once lived within that bit of hollowed bone? . . . I looked up and down the beach; not a soul was in sight. Nothing moved but a little chilly wind and the restless sea. Dunwich was dead.”

In fact, the remaining village of Dunwich is not in the least dead now, as it receives quite a few visitors attracted by its mystery and romance, and has an excellent little museum and interesting ruins, quite apart from its long if often windswept shore with its beachside chip shop shack. A short walk will also take you to sighing pine woods and crumbling clifftop walks, to be negotiated with care, since the sea has not quite finished with Dunwich yet.

The other essays in the book discuss old abbeys, churches, castles and towns, often then little-known and not much visited. There is an aura of wistfulness. R.D. Clover was, so far as the sources show, otherwise only the author of local history monographs. One of these was St. Mary's Parish Church and College of the Holy Cross, Attleborough, Norfolk: A history with notes on famous Attleborough families, published by the author in 1960.

Another was Tales of an area : a village study and history of Croxton, Kilverstone, and Barnham and the infancy of Thetford (Thetford: the author, 1975), for which he also supplied pen-and-ink drawings. Dim Corridors has three articles on Thetford, the first describing it as “an ancient capital” of East Anglia, the other two entitled, somewhat surprisingly, “Egypt in England I and II”. This proves to be an exciting variation on the notion that the Phoenicians visited England in ancient times—I am a connoisseur in a small way of such theories—only here having Ancient Egyptian voyagers discovering these islands on the edge of the world instead.

In part I of the Egypt discussion, Mr Clover summarises the ideas of H J Massingham, in his book Downland Man (1926): “Mr Massingham believes Avebury was built by people or rather descendants of people from the Nile Valley in Egypt . . . He sees a kinship between Megalithic England and Egypt in . . . the terraced cult of the hills; study of the heavenly bodies in the orientation of megaliths; chambered barrows, and sun worship; the resemblance between a Trilithon of Stonehenge and the postern of the Lion Gate at Mycenae . . .” And so, Silbury Hill at Avebury, that great cone of grass-covered chalk, the largest human-made mound in Europe, might be “the memory of a pyramid.”

What has this to do with Thetford? Well, says Mr Clover, let us go by Spring Walk in the town, “that lovely quiet backwater beside the Little Ouse . . .and so on by Nun’s Bridge to Castle Lane (old Icknield Way) and so through the gate in the wall and on to the green where westward, up the slope half smothered by trees, stands Thetford mound.” And in Part II of “Egypt in England”, he considers the various ideas about this prominent earthwork. It is a place, he avers, “still carrying an aura of antiquity, a singular impressiveness begotten in remote times.” Could it be “the remains of a chalk pyramid”?

Curiously enough, another book I acquired not long after this one, Prehistoric London, Its Mounds and Circles by E.O. Gordon (London: The Covenant Publishing Co Ltd, 1932) is also concerned in part with the nature of sacred hills in Britain, particularly those which might be seen to be somewhat in the shape of a cone, and has speculations as to their ancient purpose. However, a distinctly sceptical annotator in my copy has noted that most of these are now thought to be Norman mottes: and indeed Thetford Mound is regarded as an early 12th century earthwork for a medieval castle.

But the story may not end there, for more recent archaeology has now found that some of these fortifications were built on much older mounds and banks. And Thetford Mound has certainly attracted legends: that it was made by the Devil, that there is a palace beneath it, or buried treasure, or six silver bells from the ruined priory. So perhaps, even if ‘Egypt in England’ is too picturesque a theory, R D Clover might, in pursuing his avowed intention of recording some of the atmospheres of places, have not been quite so far off the mark after all.

Mark Valentine