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The five previously unpublished stories are, by date of composition, “The Book of Flowery Tales” (written 25 July 1917); “The Tale of the Men of Baldfolk” (written 14 December 1925); “The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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

King John's Treasure

If you had a history teacher, like mine, with a fondness for bad puns, you will have been told that King John lost his treasure in the Wash, “and I don’t mean he left five pounds in his trousers pocket when he sent a pair to the laundry, mha, mha, mha.” But at least this, and the romance and mystery of the lost treasure, made me remember the story.

King John’s baggage train was lost on 12 October 1216 during an attempted crossing of the tidal estuary over the Wash. Magna Carta had been signed the year before, but by this time the barons were in revolt again, and had invited the Dauphin, Louis of France to invade and seize the throne. The country was in the throes of civil war. John devoted himself to pillaging the estates of those barons, and it must be said some bishops and abbots too, who opposed him. It is generally assumed that the loss included a vast hoard of precious objects from these plunderings and John's own treasury. They have never been found.

We know the exact date of the loss of the treasure because records of the time were thorough, thanks in part to the king’s own keen interest in administration. This was in contrast with his flamboyant but feckless brother and predecessor Richard, an absentee ruler who had spent much of the country’s money on crusades. John at least took an interest in his English realm, and not just in restoring its finances, for he also devoted a lot of time to hearing cases and dispensing justice. Yet his reputation has always been sinister: he was after all the scion of a line said to be descended from the devil.

There has not been all that much use in fiction of the curious story of the King's great loss. One notable example is an excellent novel for young adults, King John's Treasure (1954), by R.C. Sherriff, most known for his haunting World War I play, Journey's End (1928). In his book, two schoolboys resolve to discover the lost hoard, and there is a brisk, breathless plot with a quite plausible solution to the mystery of the treasure, which even includes the romantic idea of a secret line of succession to the throne.

But I was also interested in the local stories of the treasure, the folklore. There was, I soon found, a quite wonderful array of these tales. This remote corner of the country, where the furthest extremities of Norfolk and Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire meet, this land of lonely marshes reclaimed from the sea, is prolific in yarns. I began to make a sort of catalogue of all the places where people said the treasure might be, or had even, it was claimed, been glimpsed – though never actually produced. And in particular I began to wonder what exactly that treasure was...

'The Fifth Moon', the story that came from these wanderings and wonderings, is due to be published in late March from Sarob Press in From Ancient Ravens, a shared volume of long stories with John Howard and Ron Weighell.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Desperate Art - John Rosenberg

“I entered the morning room, which I had had darkly furnished with heavy, carved chairs, a dark, immense table whose polished top stretched deep and vast (a night sea), and far, dim in a corner, an old harpsichord with a most sad voice. The stone floor, which had no rug, made footsteps ring hollow and mournful. My footsteps now tolled for my coming in….”

When I was browsing in Books, The Journal of the National Book League, no. 294, June-August 1955, I noticed a brief advertisement for a book called The Desperate Art by John Rosenberg. It was described as a first novel in “a distinguished style of writing, unusual yet not eccentric”. I thought to myself that if you have to deny a style is eccentric, then it very probably is, or at least will seem so to some: and so I sent for a copy.

The book is set in 1810 and at the outset we hear the voice of an impoverished baronet, hard-pressed by his creditors, including an old rival. He hopes his son, auburn Ion, delicate, melancholy, will save the house with an advantageous marriage. Thus far, this seems a most conventional plot, and the book’s dustjacket does not shirk that: “John Rosenberg has taken what may appear to be an old story for his novel.” But, it goes on, still I think rather struggling to convey the book’s particular quality, he “has created a novel of outstanding freshness and beauty, transforming the characters, the situations and the conclusion by the originality of his writing.”

I am not sure I shall do much better at trying to convey the book’s highly individual, mannered, obsidian prose. The nearest I can get is to suggest it is a form of modernist Gothick, or that it is has the oblique, glancing verve of Ronald Firbank melded with the neo-Romantic vision of Mervyn Peake. The passage quoted above is one of the more conventionally phrased in the book: much else is quicksilver. It is a book of pale hands, flickering fans, tall candles and cold mirrors, winter sunlight, bare trees, a sickle moon, carriage-rides by night.

There is another sense in which the book is unusual, in that it is told by ghosts. The baronet tells us in the first sentence that he is recollecting the events of one hundred and forty five years ago, ie from the date of the book to the year 1810: and later he remembers keenly a song his wife would sing: “For no grave ever/In quiet lies:/The human heart/Not so easily dies.” There are other narrators in the book, which is told in alternating chapters, and they also are haunted, by thwarted desires, doomed love.

The book’s note on the author tells us of a young American, born in New York, “who has made his home in England since 1953”, first for a year as a schoolmaster in Yorkshire, then as an editor for a publisher. It says he “has been writing continuously since the age of fourteen” and this, his first book, took him five years to write.

John Rosenberg went on to write a handful of other books: A Company of Strangers (Hogarth, 1959); Mirror and Knife (Hogarth, 1961); The Double Darkness (Hodder & Stoughton, 1967); The Savages (Michael Joseph, 1971); and Dorothy Richardson: The Genius They Forgot (Duckworth, 1973). I do not think any of his other fiction is quite like his first book.

The book is embellished by the fine Gothick drawings of Felix Kelly, an exquisite counterpart to the curious and delicate dark prose. I would certainly place The Desperate Art in the niche of the bookshelf kept for other strange fantasies of the Regency, alongside Robert Nichols’ Under the Yew and Hugh Edwards’ All Night At Mr Stanyhurst’s. It is a book that seems almost to have vanished from view, and yet I think it could become greatly admired, even if only by a few.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui - Affleck Gray

I recently found at a flea market in a nearby village an absorbing account of a Scottish legend. The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui by Affleck Gray (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1970) collates accounts of strange experiences on the slopes or summit of the second highest mountain in Britain. These tend to resolve into three sorts of encounter: hearing unexplained footsteps; seeing a very tall figure; and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread.

Affleck Gray’s book is an important study of the matter. However, it is chiefly arranged thematically by the type of experience reported, and also includes similar material from further afield. It also, in aiming to be comprehensive, does not distinguish between the differing qualities of the accounts.

There is some evidence, as Gray shows, of earlier folk-lore about a figure on the mountain, known in Gaelic as Am Fear Liath Mòr, but the first recorded account of the specific type of experience was given in 1925 by Professor Norman Collie, a distinguished scientist and climber. He was recalling what had happened to him some 34 years earlier: and it is a feature of many of the accounts that they are only told many years later.

The chronology I have compiled below lists encounters and reports in date order and includes only those in or near the Cairngorms, chiefly on Ben Macdhui itself. Only first hand accounts from named individuals are included.

1891 Professor Norman Collie, alone on Ben Macdhui, experiences a “crunch, crunch” sound behind him, not his own footsteps, and is “seized with terror”.

1904 Hugh D Welsh, climber, hears at the summit of MacDhui unexplained “slurring footsteps” and has “an eerie sensation of apprehension”

1914 George Duncan, advocate and mountaineer, sees “a tall figure in a black robe” that he identifies as the Devil, in September of “about 1914”. He reports his sighting in a letter to The Scotsman in 1941

1923 Dr Ernest A Baker tells in The Highlands With Rope and Rucksack (London: H F & G Witherby, 1923) of an “eerie feeling” on Ben Macdhui

1923 Norman G. Forbes hears a mysterious clanking noise while climbing with two companions. He has just been telling them a ghost story, and the sound puts them on edge. Forbes investigates and disturbs a pair of deer. He notes that the Cairngorms “have an uncanny power of inducing a feeling of eeriness.”

1925 Collie tells his experience to the AGM of the Cairngorm Club (November) and it is reported in the local press. The Aberdeen Press and Journal subsequently (December) publishes responses, including from Forbes (above), some sceptical, others offering explanations or similar experiences.

1926 Hugh D Welsh recounts to the Press and Journal (January) experiences of ghostly music frequently heard while camping in the Cairngorms

1928 Joan Grant, later a writer on reincarnation, hears the pounding of hooves from an invisible but malign being, and experiences panic and terror. She reports this in her book Time Out of Mind (London: Arthur Barker, 1956)

1930 In her book The Secret of Spey (Edinburgh: R Grant & Son, 1930), Wendy Wood recounts that she heard a loud unnatural voice, and footsteps behind her, and succumbed to terror

1937 Donald Stewart, stalker, after listening with friends to a BBC radio broadcast about the Big Grey Man, which he discounts, hears unexplained footsteps in his lodge

1940 R Macdonald Robertson, folklorist, hears on Macdhui a “crunch, crunch”, “the footsteps of a heavy man”, as recounted in More Highland Folktales (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. 1964)

1942 Syd Scroggie, soldier and climber, sees a tall figure which left no footprints and “merged with the…blackness”, causing him unease and making him hasten from the scene

1943 Alexander Tewnion, mountaineer and naturalist, hears footsteps and sees “a strange shape”. He fires at it with his revolver. He recounts his experience in The Scotsman (June 1958).

1945 Peter Densham, a mountaineer and rescue worker, hears “a crunching noise” and is “overcome by a feeling of apprehension”

1948 Richard Frere, a climber, writes in Open Air, a magazine, about his sense of “a Prescence, utterly abstract but intensely real” and hears “an intensely high singing note”

The figure of the Big Grey Man has been linked, especially in studies of the paranormal, to similar unknown mountain humanoids elsewhere in the world, such as the Yeti. On the other hand, an explanation has been suggested relating to the natural phenomenon of the Brocken Spectre.

But this survey of the first hand accounts shows that most of the reports are not predominantly visual: it is the footsteps and strong feeling of trepidation that are most to the fore. The subtlety of the haunting and the effect on the protagonist, a strong sense of inexplicable dread, place the accounts in similar terrain to the literary ghost story.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Two Early Novels of Phyllis Paul

Phyllis Paul (1903-1973) published eleven novels, two in 1933-34, and nine others between 1949 and 1967.  Her first novel was We Are Spoiled, published by Martin Secker of London in July 1933. It was followed ten months later in May 1934 by The Children Triumphant. Paul later felt her first two novels were of a different type than those she wrote afterwards, but they have many core similarities.
London: Martin Secker, 1933
We Are Spoiled is the story of the childhood and adulthood of several children brought up in Hammersing in slightly-rural England. The children include Christian Lauria, his two cousins Nancy and Louise Cloud, and neighbours Barbara Morrison and, most importantly, Jael Lingard. Jael is the central figure—an imaginative girl whose life is under the control of a Mr. Llewellyn (how he became guardian to Jael is never made clear), a distant and depraved figure who takes Jael to his life in Paris, where treats her quite openly as a cynical experiment. Though Llewellyn is a thorough rake, he is beyond sexual interest in Jael, yet he makes her take a vow of chastity. Another figure involved in the drama is Llewellyn’s son Hallam. Some years pass and Jael returns to Hammersing, now under the leash of Hallam. Old friendships, loyalties and rivalries are reignited, and the effects of growing up are shown to have taken a heavy toll on most of the children, leading in the end to madness in one case, and death in another. The underlying theme of the book is probably best expressed by Jael, who thinks: “was there any reason why life should not become quite unbearable? Considering that by the progress of its mental development humanity was enlarging its capacity for suffering, then why should not life become quite unbearable, not merely to the individual, but to the race? Why should not humanity at length utterly reject the curse of life and die away, another scrapped experiment in ‘evolution’? . . . But the mind of humanity showed signs of sickness. It was not the mind of a child at all, but a clever, self-conscious mind, tormented, and growing sicker every day” (pp. 238-239).

New York: William Morrow, 1934
To find such attitudes expressed in a first novel is unusual, but the book is especially worth reading not for such modern cynicism, nor for the characters (who are not always convincing), but for the unusually assured prose style and deft wit. The reader is pulled into the narrative by the very first sentence:

The Laurias came to Hammersing heath in the very bleakest of springs, and Mrs. Lauria, her urban spirit altogether failing at the sight of the place, went upstairs a few days after the removal with the suitable last words, “I am going to rest,” and lay down and died. (p. 7)

This odd but fresh style continues throughout the rest of the book. While there is nothing of the fantastic about the story, the manner of its telling and its moods are fairly gripping and enchant the reader. As the Times Literary Supplement noted, while “many effective chords are struck, it is not easy to discern a dominating harmony. There is music here, angelic or devilish, but hardly earthly” (6 July 1933).
London: Martin Secker, 1934
The Children Triumphant begins in December 1917 in the fictional hamlet of Rushmile in Kent. It tells the story of two girls, Edith Coventry and “Jemmy” [Jemima] Lacey. Edith’s father had been well-paid doing aircraft industry work for a period during the war, and the money allowed Edith to get some education.  Her friend Jemmy was not so fortunate, and both seem unlikely to marry owing to the shortage of men after the War.  Edith is soon further burdened by the death of her step-mother, after which she must raise three younger step-siblings by herself, as well as care for her father.  Edith never warms to the children, and believes “they were born to be stoned” (p. 57).  Jemmy is a curious character who seems to love Edith in a more than merely friendly way (though lesbianism is never stated), professing that she is uninterested in marrying and hopes to move away sometime with Edith.  Edith, on the other hand, grows into a cold and incommunicative woman.  She ends up surprising Jemma by marrying above her station.  Her husband, Arnold Race, is the older brother of Harriet with whom Edith had become slightly acquainted when attending school as a girl.  Jemma feels abandoned, but Edith is described (in phrases typical of Phyllis Paul) as looking “like a person in love with her own damnation” (p. 218), and it is noted that “the blaze of feeling she had had for him [her husband] at first had burnt itself out in a few weeks” (p. 221).  Eventually Arnold comes to understand Edith’s “startling disregard of other people’s feelings” (p. 252), and when, against Edith’s will yet with her consent, he brings home to raise the young orphaned son of his dead friend, the results turn tragic, as Edith feels trapped again in an impossible situation as she had been before.

An Ad from The Observer, 24 June 1934
Comparing The Children Triumphant to its impressive and self-assured predecessor, it seems a slight step downward in quality. The structure is halting and uncertain, particularly in the first half of the book, while in the second half both the writing and the narrative flow are much more carefully worked out.  One wonders, then, if The Children Triumphant, might actually have been the first novel Paul wrote, even though it was published second, for some of its flaws seem typical of an author finding their way in the process of composing a novel. Whether this is true we will likely never know. Still, the book was well-received on publication, with the Times Literary Supplement noting that “Miss Paul writes with an icicle, in a fine and distinguished way that is quite her own, concerned with a misfit in life . . . the effect is sombre, impressive, moving” (31 May 1934); and Graham Greene in the Spectator noted that Paul has “a serious claim to be judged as an artist” (14 June 1934).  It would be fifteen years before Paul published her next novel. 

NB: This text reworks a “Late Review” of We Are Spoiled that originally appeared in Wormwood no. 22 (May 2014).  The review of The Children Triumphant has not been previously published.