Thursday, March 16, 2017

The "Books for the Imagination" Series

I first learned of the Henry Holt and Company series of “Books for the Imagination” via an article by A. Langley Searles in his fanzine The Annex #7 (Winter 1989-1990).  Searles noted that the series began shortly before World War II, and encompassed books such as Past the End of the Pavement (1939) by Charles G. Finney, Windless Cabins (1940) by Mark Van Doren, The Survivor (1940) by Dennis Parry, and Lest Darkness Fall (1941) by L. Sprague de Camp. 

A little research shows that the situation with this series is rather more complicated.  The first book labeled as part of the series was in fact Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter (1941).  The earlier titles are listed in the description of the series on the rear cover of the dust-wrapper, even though they pre-dated the series itself.  The series lasted for only one more book, Land of Unreason (1942), by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp, which has an advertisement of the series on the rear flap of the dust-wrapper. I give the full advertisement from The Incomplete Enchanter below, followed by an extract from the slightly re-written advertisement on Land of Unreason. Finally, I give details, chronologically, on the six books that make up the entire series.

From the rear cover of The Incomplete Enchanter
The publication of a book like The Incomplete Enchanter is a somewhat unusual experience. In theme, in plot, in treatment, it falls clean outside the ordinary patterns of contemporary fiction; this very fact is one of the reasons for putting Mr. Pratt’s and Mr. de Camp’s story between book covers. For we believe, as publishers, that there is a substantial body of readers today who welcome books which don’t “conform.” The rare and priceless quality of imagination is a sort of reading vitamin—without it no diet of books is really complete. Too much contemporary fiction seems to us to lack this very quality: the moribund products of historical research, the novels with plots as standardized as the appeals of mass advertising, the books of reportorial sociology dressed up as fiction crowd the booksellers’ tables. Only occasionally is there a story written which is alive with the vitality with a fresh imagination and impact for narrative.

We are on the constant lookout for such manuscripts, and it is part of our policy to publish them when they can be found. Already there have been several in our past lists. Mark Van Doren’s Windless Cabins, for one, Dennis Parry’s The Survivor for another. L. Sprague de Camp’s  Lest Darkness Fall was a third. The experiment has been a successful one. No project has brought in to our offices so many unsolicited letters—or so many manuscripts. One of the most interesting aspects of the publication of this group of books is the way in which people continue to buy and read them long after the usual life-span of a modern book of fiction. They have proved to be stories worth reading long after their initial publication.
The Incomplete Enchanter is, we believe, a book for the imagination, for what an earlier day would have called the “fancy.” It is not like any of its predecessors except in this one fact, for the imagination is not a stereotype. Our expectation is that some readers will be wildly enthusiastic, some entertained, and some, perhaps, uncomprehending. But it’s worth trying, just to see whether it doesn’t supply you with a form of reading pleasure you may have been missing . . . .
 An extract from the rear flap of Land of Unreason:

Books for the Imagination is the informal title we are giving to a series of books we have been publishing for several years. They represent a somewhat unusual enterprise; in theme, in plot, in treatment, they fall clean outside the patterns of contemporary fiction. That is why we publish them.

The Complete “Books for the Imagination” Series

Past the End of the Pavement, by Charles G. Finney. Published 16 November 1939.  It was retitled This is Past the End of the Pavement for the December 1942 reprinting, with a newly designed dust-wrapper.  This novel, though nonfantastic, is perhaps Finney’s best work. 

The 2014 reissue
Windless Cabins, by Mark Van Doren.  Published 20 February 1940.  Also a non-fantasy.

The Survivor, by Dennis Parry.  Published on 21 May 1940. First published in London on 17 April 1940. A supernatural novel, reissued in 2014 by Valancourt with anew introduction by Mark Valentine.

Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp.  Published 24 February 1941.

The Incomplete Enchanter, by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp.  Published 25 September 1941.

Land of Unreason, by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp.  Published 15 June 1942. 

The December 1942 reissue

Monday, March 13, 2017

Borges and a Forgotten Book

As a long-time reader of forgotten books, I should know better than to let myself get my hopes up.  Many obscure books are forgotten for one of a great variety of reasons—it’s not that they are irredeemably bad books, or that they aren’t worth reading for some qualities, but they are often flawed in some ways. 

Yet when I read a review written by Jorge Luis Borges of Of Course, Vitelli! (1938) by Alan Griffiths (1899-1950), I did get my hopes up. Of Course, Vitelli! was the fourth and final novel by Griffiths, the first three of which are Thorne Smith-type books, comedic farces of a type which has never interested me. 

Here’s what Borges wrote, as a contemporary review of the book:

The plot of this novel is not entirely original (it was anticipated by Jules Romains and more than once by reality), but it is extremely entertaining. The protagonist, Roger Diss, invents an anecdote. He tells it to a few friends, who don’t believe him. To persuade them, he claims that the event took place around 1850 in the south of England, and he attributes the story to the “famous cellist Vitelli.”  Everyone, of course, recognizes this invented name. Encouraged by his success, Diss publishes an article on Vitelli in a local magazine. Various strangers miraculously appear who point out mistake in the article, and a polemic ensues. Diss, victorious, publishes a full-length biography of Vitelli, “with portraits, sketches, and manuscripts.”

A movie company acquires the rights to the book and makes a technicolor film. The critics declare that the film has distorted the facts of Vitelli’s life. … [sic]  Diss becomes embroiled in another polemic, and they demolish him. Furious, he decides to reveal the hoax. No one believes him, and people hint that he has gone mad. The collective myth is stronger than he is. A Mr. Clutterbuck Vitelli defends the affronted memory of his late uncle, A spiritualist center in Tunbridge Wells receives direct messages from the deceased. If this were a book by Pirandello, Diss would end up believing in Vitelli,  (El Hogar, 18 November 1938)

The sad truth is that Borges has simplified and altered the details of the plot. Diss’s anecdote involves the imaginary Vitelli, whom no-one recognizes initially. Diss doesn’t write an article in a magazine, but publishes a letter in a local newspaper requesting further information on Vitelli. It’s only in a weak moment that Diss considers revealing the hoax, but he is dissuaded by one friend who is also a participant in the hoax. In fact Diss ends up being put on trial for perpetrating the hoax. There is no nephew of Vitelli, and there is no character named Clutterbuck Vitelli. Whether Borges kept bad notes or deliberately altered the details is anyone’s guess. 

Of Course, Vitelli! is basically just like Griffith’s three previous novels. It is an extended farce—a farce of the local Suffolk gentry, of spiritualism, of tabloid newspapers, of publishing, and of modern film making. Diss’s biography, Vitelli, the Magyar, tells of Michel Vitelli, castrated as a young boy in an attempt to stop his voice from falling, and his ill-fated love for Miss Amy Folkard. Diss’s book is being made (quite appropriately for a farce) into a modern musical film starring current celebrities as The Loves of Vitelli, which plays as loose with the book’s facts as Diss played loose with his own imagination.  Production on the film is halted when Diss is put on trial “for conduct subversive to the public interest,” and the trial ends after Mr. Raffelo Vitelli shows up and claims that Vitelli was his mother!   

Of Course, Vitelli! is not, as Borges said, “extremely entertaining.”  It is an improbable farce that is carried on long beyond the reader’s threshold for boredom. Perhaps it was Borges's joke to make it sound more interesting than it is.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Memoirs of a Ghost - G W Stonier

Seventy years ago, G W Stonier (1903-85) wrote a short experimental novel called The Memoirs of a Ghost (1947) which is one of the more unusual attempts to devise a modern, contemporary ghost story. It was published by the Grey Walls Press, an independent imprint set up by the poet and editor Wrey Gardiner from his mother’s house in Billericay, Essex.

Stonier was a versatile journalist, writing and reviewing mostly for the serious periodicals, such as the New Statesman, and also for BBC Radio. He also translated books from the French, and later in his career wrote travel books. His thoughtful, rather bleak ghost story sometimes gets brief mentions in studies of the field, but it is not widely known. E. F. Bleiler, while finding it not fully successful, evidently respected the book. He commented that it was “nicely imagined in detail, stylistically superior, but unclear in intention. It is possible that the author is simply discussing problems of readjustment during and after the war.”

The narrator, we lean early on in the novel, has been killed in the Blitz. But he continues to exist. We witness his halting re-emergence after the bomb blast, confused and assailed by pursuers. Then, in a scintillant, lyrical set of soaring pages, he appears to rise above the earth and to witness the vital forces of nature in all their majestic shapes and contours. But this episode does not last. Soon he is back in the dingy, semi-derelict streets of the city, and surrounded by rough, very definitely down-to-earth characters. He is never able to rest, eat or drink properly, though he still feels the need to do so.

The narration is fractured, spasmodic, frequently shifting scene, as it might be in a dream, or nightmare. However, very gradually he resumes a similar life to the one he has supposedly left. But it requires considerable psychic effort to continue to cohere. Sometimes he becomes spiritually exhausted, and begins to lose his hold on the recreated life: at others he feels on the brink of a fundamental revelation.

I think Bleiler was right to detect some element of social allegory in play. However, this does not seem to me the main thrust of the book. It is perhaps foremost a genuine attempt to explore what a certain sort of after-life might be, with a worked-out sociology and psychology of the ghost. His narrator is scornful of the traditional type of ghost, “wearing armour or clanking chains, and extending a luminous claw”. We should be looking instead, it is implied, at the figures we see every day on the street.

The narrator tells us that “The ghost is gregarious and a creature of habit”, but he is also limited: “Habit, I found,” he tells us, “restricts his imagination to the experience of a lifetime.” He cannot suddenly depart from the parameters of his previous world. Also, his existence is tenuous: “The ghost, unhappy wretch, lives on his immediate energy; he must draw the lines of every perspective, mould every curve, distribute form, animation and colour". It is an “unremitting” struggle: “I lived by inches,” he tells us. Perhaps we see here an allegory about how we sustain our own individuality and continue our search for meaning in this world, seen as a perilous task requiring constant energy and vigilance.

Stonier’s book belongs in the sphere of modernist literature. The restless, allusive, splintered response to the city has qualities in common with T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, for example, or ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, with its nocturnal exploration of memory “through the spaces of the dark”. It also has some similarities to the modernist short stories and novels of Mary Butts, particularly in the mingling of the mortal world with other dimensions, and the displacement of time and space.

As a fantastical evocation of the Blitz, one of the few works with which Stonier’s distinctive book has some points in common is Rex Warner’s Why Was I Killed? (1943). This book is sub-titled “a dramatic monologue”, and this suggests both its strength and its weakness. As a searching discussion of the causes and effects of war, it has an earnest authority to it which compels respect. But as a work of fiction it is less successful. There is, nevertheless, a strange atmosphere to Warner's book which makes it worth perseverance.

Stonier’s work is much less didactic than this, but belongs to the same tumultuous, charged atmosphere of the Blitz years, and has an equally evident serious purpose. It is more ambiguous and exploratory, and gains from this less closed approach. It is also more focused, since we are in the presence of the single narrator throughout. Stonier’s work is more successful than Warner’s in establishing a plausible, compelling new plane of existence.

As well as the short novel, he also wrote a short story with the same title which appeared in The Second Ghost Book (1952) edited by Cynthia Asquith. This appears to be a variation on an extract from the book: however, as Bleiler notices, there are several divergences in detail from it. Possibly Stonier may have thought the longer work had not quite had the notice it should, and reworked part of it for this new readership.

Otherwise, the author of The Memoirs of a Ghost never wrote anything else quite like it. Much of his other work is largely that of the professional writer, willing to try out publishers with various ideas. He did also write about London and the bombing in Shaving Through the Blitz (1943), a memoir, and Round London With The Unicorn (1951), a pub crawl. Perhaps the nearest to the supernatural Memoirs is The Shadow Across the Page (1936), a sort of commonplace book of isolated brief paragraphs recording unusual sights, facts, overheard conversations, impressions. Some of these have a strange, eerie or macabre quality similar in tone or perspective to The Memoirs of a Ghost.

There are still many dimensions of the ghost story yet to be explored, and I think that Stonier’s book gives some indications of where there is still room for a dramatically different approach. It certainly will not be to everyone’s taste, particularly those who prefer a more traditional style and an antiquarian theme. But I hope that the integrity of the work, its thoughtful dimensions, and the illumined quality of its prose experiments would be recognised even by those not naturally drawn to it.

A Checklist of the Principal Books by G W Stonier

Gog Magog and other critical essays (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1933)
The Shadow Across the Page (Cresset Press, 1936)
Shaving Through the Blitz (Jonathan Cape, 1943)
My Dear Bunny (Home and Van Thal, 1946)
The Memoirs of a Ghost (Grey Walls Press, 1947)
Pictures on the pavement / illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (Michael Joseph, 1955)
Round London With The Unicorn (Turnstile, 1951)
The English Countryside in Colour (B T Batsford, Ltd., 1957)
Off the Rails, A Book of Personal Adventure (Travel Book Club, 1967)
Rhodesian Spring (Hutchinson, 1968)

(This is an edited version of a note that first appeared as a contribution to a mailing of the correspondence society The Everlasting Club. New members are welcome.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Last year Pegana Press issued the fourth volume in its series reprinting, and publishing for the first time, rare stories by the classic fantasist Lord Dunsany. I’ve previously written about the first three volumes, as Dunsany’s Lost Tales.

This volume, The Men of Baldfolk and Other Fanciful Tales, is not designated as part of the “Lost Tales” series, but in many ways it represents a continuation. The book presents nine stories/essays and one poem, all by Dunsany, and as frontispiece, a color illustration by S.H. Sime. The poem, “At Sunset,” is reprinted from Dunsany’s collection Wandering Songs (1943). 

Of the stories/essays, four were previously published: “Gondolas” (The Saturday Review, 26 September 1908); “Pens” (The Saturday Review, 13 March 1909); “The Cup” (Punch, 16 June 1948); and “A Taste for Strategy” (Weekend Magazine, 1 October 1955). 

The five previously unpublished stories are, by date of composition, “The Book of Flowery Tales” (written 25 July 1917); “The Tale of the Men of Baldfolk” (written 14 December 1925); “The Vengeance of Thor” (written July 1929); “Absurd” (written late 1939); and “The New Look” (written late 1953). 

The Sime illustration is reproduced from the original artwork at Dunsany Castle. This illustration previously appeared in The Graphic, Christmas 1926, where it illustrated the Joseph Jorkens story, “The Abulaheeb.”

The Graphic, Christmas 1926
Like the three volumes of “Lost Tales,” this is a miscellaneous collection, without a common theme or organizing principle. I read the book slowly, one or two tales a day, with a gap of a day or more between readings. Thus I was able to savor the stories more than if I gulped them in a single sitting. My favorite tales are “The Book of Flowery Tales,” which is most like the classic Dunsany stories written before 1920, being a struggle for mastery of the world between the Wise Men of the North and the Wise Man of the West; and the title story, “The Tale of the Men of Baldfolk,” a short tale of two wise men, one a poet, the other a man who burns the first’s man’s poetry.  A sardonic decree alters their roles in an unexpected way.

Of the other tales, “The New Look” shows Satan’s view of creation, and in “The Vengeance of Thor” the weakened Norse gods have a reunion. “Absurd” tells of a ghost named Hurrip who worries about judgment. “The Cup” is a kind of moody joke-story. All of the tales are worth reading. 

The presentation in book form is stunning. This volume is hardcover only, in an edition of eighty copies, with a black cloth backstrip with a label giving the title and author, and elegant boards covered in a design of flowers with a green background (see illustration at top). All in all a beautiful example of fine press work. Mike and Rita Tortorella should be commended for such beautiful and appealing work.  

For further details see the publisher’s blog, and look around at their other offerings. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guest Post: The David Rajchel Arkham House Archive, by Boyd White

Recently cataloged by Lloyd Currey and John Knott, the David H. Rajchel Arkham House Archive is one of the most impressive and important collections of material related to fantastic fiction to ever be offered publicly for sale.  Consisting of over 4,000 individual items, the 95-page calendar of the archive, available for download at L. W. Currey, Inc., is a virtual who’s who in fantasy, horror, and science fiction.  David Rajchel purchased the materials in the archive over the years from April Derleth, August Derleth’s daughter, and in some cases, he prevented important documents in which the Wisconsin Historical Society took no interest from being recycled or thrown out.

August Derleth’s contributions to the field of weird fiction as an editor and publisher are well known.  Derleth and his business partner, Donald Wandrei, preserved the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft with the publication of The Outsider and Others in 1939 and did the same for Robert E. Howard with Skull-Face and Others in 1946.  In addition to publishing the first collections of short fiction by such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, and Fritz Leiber, Arkham House brought the work of William Hope Hodgson to an American audience with the publication of The House on the Borderland and Other Novels in 1945. Derleth’s practice of introducing writers of weird fiction from the UK to a broader audience continued throughout his career and included Marjorie Bowen, J. S. Le Fanu, Margery Lawrence, M. P. Shiel, and H. R. Wakefield.

Even a cursory glance at the items contained in the David H. Rajchel Arkham House Archive quickly demonstrates that Derleth’s influence extended well beyond Arkham House.  His landmark science fiction and fantasy anthologies of the 1940s and 1950s, many published by Pellgrini and Cudhay, brought Derleth into contact with most of the major authors of fantastic fiction of his day, such as Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, Frederik Pohl, Clifford Simak, and  Theodore Sturgeon.  The archive also extensively documents Derleth’s work with the TV and film industry, including properties that Derleth developed for Revue Productions, including H. R. Wakefield’s “Farewell Performance” and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki story “The Whistling Room.”

While no summary can do justice to the scope and depth of the archive, notable highlights include

·         H. R. Wakefield’s handwritten manuscript for “A Man’s Best Friend,” a story which would not see the light of day until the 2000 Ash-Tree Press collection Reunion at Dawn
·         38 poems by Clark Ashton Smith, all typewritten, most signed with corrections in Smith’s own hand
·         Page proofs for H. P. Lovecraft’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia
·         Letters to Derleth from Robert Aickman, Marjorie Bowen, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, L. P. Hartley, Fritz Leiber, Margery Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, John Metcalfe, and M. P. Shiel
·         Photographs of the members of the entire Weird Tales circle, including a snapshot of Robert E. Howard signed in pencil “R.E.H” on the back.

Anyone interested in gaining more insight into Arkham House and August Derleth is strongly encouraged to visit L. W. Currey, Inc. to read Lloyd Currey’s introduction to the archive and to download the complete calendar of the archive.  The archive is illustrated by a number of fascinating photographs of select material.  We will not see its like again.