dateline : Paris

The Endless Bookshelf will be filing occasional despatches from Paris during annual congrès of the Association internationale de bibliophilie (AIB), and may lapse into French on occasion

the reader

[from an earlier visit, the mural of the reader, by Ferdinand Humbert, in the Petit Palais]

— Charles Dantzig. Encyclopédie capricieuse du tout et du rien. Grasset, [2009].

And, soon after arriving in a rooftop apartment in the 4e, well, yes, of course I opened this book, to this page (252), in the Listes des personnes [list of persons]

The Darkening Garden (review)

The Darkening Garden.  A Short Lexicon of Horror by John Clute.
Cauheegan; Seattle: Payseur & Schmidt, [2006].
Illustrated. [xii], 162, [4] pp. $45.00
reviewed by Henry Wessells
[First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 19:7, no. 223 (March 2007). All rights reserved.]

The Knowledge at the Heart of the Labyrinth

The Darkening Garden is a brilliant, irritating book, a dark little jewel of a grenade tossed into the cocktail party of genre criticism.  Its subtitle, A Short Lexicon of Horror, is Clutean misdirection deftly understated. What we have here is a philosophical engine, an encyclopedia in miniature (assuming a certain degree of knowledge on the reader, author entries can be found elsewhere or simply imagined) and, most importantly, a record of how John Clute thinks. This last is no small matter.

FUSTIAN by Jason van Hollander

The Darkening Garden is a collection of thirty short essays on topics relevant to the horror sort of fantastic literature. No particular affinity for horror literature is required. The terms that Clute defines will be of interest to all readers, just as the critical approach these terms articulate bears upon all sorts of fantastic literature. (I use the neutral term sort — less charged than flavor or variety — here, precisely, in place of genre or mode because definition of genre is one of the concerns of the book at hand.) 

[ To read the complete review essay, click here : https://endlessbookshelf.net/DarkeningGarden.html ]

The illustration at top is Jason van Hollander’s FUSTIAN portrait of John Clute. The complete text of The Darkening Garden is available in Clute’s Stay (Beccon, 2014).

a pair of Swanwicks

— Michael Swanwick. Red Fox, Blue Moon. [16] pp. Dragonstairs Press, 2023. Edition of 69 copies. Stitched in blue wrappers with a photo on front wrapper.
Another world in miniature from the deft and prolific Mr. Swanwick, a history of the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, replete with fox lore and subversive whimsy from what archy would call the “under side”.
[Swanwick is a master of the short short story and more than fifty of these have appeared in the ephemeral Dragonstairs books (the tally of fiction is more than 30 titles to date).]

— Michael Swanwick. The Best of Michael Swanwick. Volume Two. 530 pp. Subterranean Press, 2023. Edition of 1,000 copies, signed by the author. Evergreen cloth and pictorial dust jacket by Lee Moyer.
Includes the beautiful and devastating “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again”, the oh-so-tricky homage of “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin”, “The Beast of Tara” (“a story idea I came up with in the mid-seventies and finally wrote last year. So if you’re wondering how long it takes to write one of these things  and many other fine tales”), and many more. “Libertarian Russia” is filled with  a sense of wonder and loss and deep nostalgia and reads like a despatch from another lifetime though it dates from 2010.
[The Best of Michael Swanwick, “predecessor to the current volume” (as the jacket panel notes), was published by Subterranean in 2008 in an edition of 150 signed copies.] 

Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages (review)

Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages. [Introduction by Neil Gaiman]. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007. x, 210 pp. $14.95 (trade paperback)

reviewed by Henry Wessells

[Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 19, no. 12, August 2007.]

Portable Childhoods arrived with a small note, Thought you’d enjoy Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians”, and an illegible signature. I knew some of Ellen Klages’ work from the Infinite Matrix website and from F&SF; and Eileen Gunn once or twice told me funny stories of road trips they had made together. I was utterly unprepared for the energy and nimbleness of this collection of sixteen stories. Klages treads the invisible line between wonder and the mundane with total control, and her insights into  the betweenness of childhood and the nature of becoming — becoming human, becoming adult — are fully earned and devoid of cuteness. After reading three or four stories, each with distinct characteristics (As one of her characters says, “It’s different every time.”), the range and subtlety of Klages’ prose made me think about how it is I look at short stories: to define just what are some of the yardsticks I use to recognize interesting work.

“In the House of the Seven Librarians” is a playful, feminist mirror to “The Library of Babel”: a tale of an almost wholly self-contained universe of books, but a library whose librarians have names, and who are competent to deal with eruptions of the unexpected into their routine, such as an infant girl returned in payment of overdue book fines. Klages’ story engages the idea of the library in America and the recent shift away from the book as central to the mission of the library. It’s also a great deal of fun, teasing us all with our fancies of what goes on after hours, or when the expected rules are changed: her list of “10 Things to Remember When You Live in a Library” is a recipe for mayhem and laughter, “Do not drop volumes of the Britannica off the stairs to hear the echo.”  “In the House of the Seven Librarians” is also the story of a young person learning how and when to assert herself, to move from the familiar into the new.

The precise, rippling sentences of the ten vignettes of  “Portable Childhoods” are the muscles of a neurosurgeon’s hands at work, not those of a boxer. Klages evokes the close focus of the child’s world at the same time as we learn of the longer perspective of the narrator, her mother. Each of the sections of “Portable Childhoods” contains the seeds of the others, and here as elsewhere Klages demonstrates an economy of words that brought Lydia Davis to mind. I am thinking of the careful observation of family life in “Our Kindness” from Almost No Memory (1997); Klages is a lavish maximalist by comparison, yet not one word is superfluous. No one who reads “Portable Childhoods” will thereafter view croutons and photons as unrelated.

The handful of short shorts in this collection proves Klages to be up to the demands of this perilous form. “Ringing Up Baby” (published last year in Nature) is snappy and worth of Fredric Brown in its closing ironies. From the famous passage in the writings of J. S. Haldane about an “inordinate fondness” for bugs, “Intelligent Design” goes after root causes rather than secondary effects, thereby surpassing even Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them” (1985): “Creeping things covered every surface, legs and claws and pincers scuttling and  skittering.” Postmodern pulp is deftly skewered even as its essence is savored in “Möbius, Stripped of a Muse”.

Klages reminds us that childhood is an unsettled time, and that children are often bereft of power to respond to what the adults around them are doing. The opening story of the collection, “Basement Magic”, takes place in suburban Detroit. Klages describes the stepmother in terms one will not encounter in Snow White. “Kitty, the new Mrs. Ted Whittaker, is a former Miss Bloomfield Hills, a vain divorcée with a towering mass of blond curls in a shade note her own. In the wild, her kind is inclined to eat their young.” Mary Louise is a quiet child, unable to defend herself against Kitty until she makes friend with Ruby, a transplanted conjure woman from the deep South. There is a flavor of Avram Davidson’s “Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?” in the dynamic of Ruby and her employer, but I was surprised at how carefully Klages kept Mary Louise in the center of the story, and the magic that unfolds is ultimately hers. The transformation Mary Louise makes is analogous to that of the unloved child in the Paul Bowles story “Kitty” in Midnight Mass (1981). I must assume the name of the stepmother is chosen with deliberate irony, for Klages works an identical effect in “Flying over Water”.

”The Green Glass Sea” is a haunting account of a picnic at the original ground zero in 1945. Klages allows her narrator to describe events whose portent the reader comprehends far more clearly than the young girl who is experiencing them. There is no condescension or denial of dignity, only (only!) the evocation of loss and the space in which our harrowing present begins to unfold its true shape.

“Time  Gypsy” is a tale of time-travel, love, and reinventing of the history of science. Carol McCullough is sent back in time by Chambers, the head of the physics department, a Nobel laureate whom she suspects of having designs on the fourth, unpublished paper of Sara Clarke, a brilliant scientist who died untimely. McCullough finds herself ill-prepared for the intolerance of 1950s California and meets an unexpected ally in Clarke. History unfolds according to the known record, but McCullough has planted evidence of the false pretenses by which Chambers published the work that won him the Nobel prize. “Time Gypsy” is the longest story in the collection, but Klages writes just as deftly at this length as in her shorter pieces. The overt critique of the male hierarchies of science in the 1950s is inseparable from the love affair and the time-travel aspects of the story; I am reminded of the Cambridge scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to unlocking the structure of DNA was largely overshadowed by her colleagues Crick and Watson.

In the course of reading and thinking about Portable Childhoods, I found myself questioning the nature of my comparative processes. It is not about yardsticks to measure a given length, nor about fixed landmarks that I am seeking as I move through the forest of story. Both notions are much too inert to describe the experience of coming upon familiar signs from a fairly broad universe of stories that I draw upon to orient myself.* It is not that seeing X means Y must be near. Absolutely not, for Klages is not a derivative writer: these stories convey her own voice and sure pace. It is much more that the stories of certain authors serve me as a descriptive language, as an allusive choreography: when reading something new, I recall similar incidents and images and effects in the dance of story. 

So when I say that “A Taste of Summer” makes me think of Robert Sheckley, it is not entirely the same Sheckley I think of when I read Rudy Rucker. In this story, Klages works her best science magic: an episode of childhood — a walk to the crossroads ice-cream parlor — is rigorously observed in its fabric of small resentments and the way these suddenly fall away. 

Mattie considered her options and decided that a walk with a popsicle at the other end was probably the best of them. [. . .] It was definitely going to rain, and she didn’t think it was going to wait until dinnertime. She though for a minute about going back, but decided that maybe being wet on a sort-of adventure was better than being dry and bored for sure.

And then Klages works a twist of events that opens possibilities to Mattie and to the reader. Crossing the yellow lines on the road, and seeking shelter from a sudden storm in the ice-cream shop, Mattie meets Nan Bingham, who gives her a scoop of a new flavor: apple pie à la mode ice cream. There is electricity in the air, and they seek refuge in the storm cellar — Mattie herself making the comparison to The Wizard of Oz. Nan tells about her hobby, “painting with flavors”, and is suitably inarticulate. Nan gives Mattie a bit of pure flavor, an experiment. “She tasted a fuzzy sweetness, then coconut and a salty tang then a different, sharper sweet and a bit of burnt and smoke and way in the back of her mind she thought about her father mowing the grass.” Klages then empowers Mattie to put the unspoken into words: “this was more like a movie that went from my tongue to my brain.” It is these descriptions of the flavor chemist’s hobby that invoke Sheckley for me: in Crompton Divided (1978), Sheckley plays with smells that elicit landscapes and memories. But where Psychosmells, Inc. is a corporation that sells a commodity to rich, elderly men for whom its use is a demonstration of power, in “A Taste of Summer”, the wealth of sensation that Nan Bingham creates is a secret gift to a child, “like toffee made on another planet. [. . .] It’s different every time.”

Portable Childhoods is a complex and rewarding book. Tachyon and publisher Jacob Weisman are to be commended for publishing it. Ellen Klages is indisputably a writer whose work arose within the science fiction mode; yet even as science fiction is part of the weave of her stories, she turns the garment of genre inside out to remind us that her universe (and ours) is wider than literary commonplaces.  

Henry Wessells lives and read in Montclair, New Jersey. His latest whimsy is the Endless Bookshelf, simply messing about in books: endlessbookshelf.net.

*  The review as written included a short list, omitted in the published version and repurposed for the ’shelf as Yardsticks ; or how to compare Apples & Oranges.

Copyright © 2007 by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.

Deaths of the Poets

— Kit Reed. Deaths of the Poets. Designed and illustrated by Joseph Reed. Text within illustrated borders. [34], [2, blank] pp. [Middletown]: At the Sign of the Piratical Primrose, 1991. Second, revised edition (150 copies, initialled by the author and artist). Gilt leather-grained card wrappers with printed label. This copy was inscribed to Brian and Margaret Aldiss.

A poet’s life is like a breath
After which — you guessed it — Death
[. . .]
Now echoing down hills & valley
Comes our last word, it’s Hey, Finale!
Though taken out by fate’s sharp knife
We leave the verse, to signal: Life!

An abecedarium of dead poets :  Aeschylus, Byron, Crane, Donne, Euripides, Fuller, Goethe, Homer, Akhenaton, Johnson, Keats, Lovelace, Molière, Nerval, Ovid, Pope, Quasimodo, Rilke, Sand, Tennyson, Urban, Villon, Wilde, Xenophon, Yeats, and Zoroaster.
Kit Reed was a really nice warm person, and a sharp and funny writer. We read together at the KGB science fiction reading series in 2004, when Another green world had just appeared, and she was skewering many American obsessions with her Thinner than Thou (what could possibly go wrong if . . . ?!?).  It was the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, 16 June 2004, and to mark the occasion I read “A prayer for James Joyce” by James Blish. A lot of blank looks in the audience, but Kit and a few others knew what it was about. I used see her and Joe at Readercon (she was guest of honor in 2014). As always, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has some useful things to offer about her stealthy, explosive prose : https://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/reed_kit.
Deaths of the Poets  was first published in 1978 as a book of etchings in an edition of ten copies (only Yale and the Boston Athenaeum report copies).

Dream Fox

— Rosalie Parker. Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories. [vi], 239 pp.  Tartarus Press, [2023]. Pictorial boards, dust jacket.
A new collection of 18 stories from this talented author, presenting a variety of modes and settings, plus a fabulous book-within-a-book, “Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences”. The stories also display a remarkable range of voices and a change of register from one story to the next, the oppressive tone of “Home Comforts”is followed by the quiet austerity and sense of the inescapable at the heart of “The Decision”. “Pebble” is a dark fable of modern slavery; it takes a sudden, darker turn that speaks of liberation.

The first story, “Beguiled”, starts as a glimpse of an aristocratic young lady’s privilege and confinement in Imperial Russia, with a flavor of some of the tales of Saki. The narrative moves with concision and perfect pitch to an icy conclusion and a devastating last line. The effect is breathtaking ! and all in eight pages of the most lucid prose.

The title story, “Dream Fox”, a variation on the Reynard tales, is deeply subversive of the patriarchy and the county landholding class. It is the rebellious imagination of the adolescent girl that powers the transformation. The outcome is utterly that of “Kitty” by Paul Bowles.

“Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences” is a collection of nine stories of ghosts and uncanny experiences in contemporary Britain, a book “chanced upon in  a remainder outlet or a charity shop, rather than a bona fide bookstore”, published by a vanity press for “the crazy old woman who own all those millions in the National Lottery” and who wants to share her belief in the paranormal. The frame story is told in an introduction and the headnotes to each account. It is hilarious (is it a cameo self-portrait of the author?): in “The Dating Game”, Mary Belgrove tells Scott, “Perhaps we need to recognise that in this case  ‘Alive’ and ‘Dead’ may be relative terms.” The experiences (each narrated in a distinct voice) are dislocating and defy reductive explanation.

A beautiful book and a notable collection.

a few pamphlets (new and old)

a few pamphlets that have come across the desk of the Endless Bookshelf in recent months :

Old apple tree, old apple tree
Keep the secrets that you see

— Cardinal Cox. The Folk Show 3 : Fan Mail for a Film [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2023]. Edition of 100 copies, (to be given away at the 2023 Whittlesea Straw Bear festival*). Self-wrappers.
——. From the Hercynian Forest [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2019]. Edition of 100 copies. Self-wrappers.
——. London Particular [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2019]. Edition of 100 copies. Self-wrappers.
These three chapbooks of poems and vignettes of English folklore draw from deep wells, mixing gritty observation of daily life with literary allusion, wit, and punk pop culture tricksters. Cox, who invokes the name of John Clare more than any other living writer, I suspect, was poet-in-residence for the Dracula Society, and seems to share a fascination with The Wicker Man. These resulted in a good old fashioned ’zine exchange (I sent alonga couple of the productions of Temporary Culture).

* Plough Monday in January, “between Christmas and fen-skate party”,  is the traditional date of the Straw Bear festival, one learns from an aside in From the Hercynian Forest. This reminds me of the excellent exhibition of modern British folk art at the Barbican in May 2005, and the accompanying book, Folk Archive. Contemporary Popular Art from the UK, by Jeremy Delter and Alan Kane (Book Works, 2005), which I lent to a friend or otherwise I would do more than wonder if I can bring back some photos from the dark age and a cheap plastic cell phone, such as this label (the photograph of the object described won’t migrate) :

— — —

— [Bernadette Mayer]. Midwinter Marie. [16] pp. [James Walsh, 2023]. Second edition, one of 25 copies. Wrappers.
Selections by James Walsh from Midwinter Day (1982).

— — —

— Meghan Constantinou. The Daniel Press. Pioneer of the Private Press Movement. Illustrated. 26, [2] pp. The Grolier Club, 2021. Card covers, printed grey wrapper. Design by Kerry Kelly.
Catalogue of an exhibition of the Daniel Press, the print shop of  Charles Henry Olive Dance (1836-1919), who printed some 50 books (chiefly poetry) between 1874 and 1906, and revived an early type face (the catalogue is set in the Fell type). Daniel is described by Colin Franklin as “an independent figure, outside fashionable taste and movements”. The books are generally small and handsome, and the press  “has had a rich afterlife in multiple sense of the term”.

— — —

three black cats

— Christopher Barker. Plagiarism & Pederasty : Skeletons in the Jamesian Closet. In which the source for ‘The Ash-tree’ by Montague Rhodes James is identified. By Christopher Barker. Together with The Three Black Cats. By the Rev. A.D. Croke. Illustration of a George Cruikshank plate. Unpaginated, [28] pp. The Haunted River, 2003. Edition of 100 copies. Printed wrappers.

“The Three Black Cats” is a short antiquarian tale of horror published in 1888 in a collection of stories by A.D. Croke. Barker notes very strong similarities between the nucleus of Croke’s tale and “The Ash-tree”, which appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), and takes James to task for plagiarism and hypocrisy and more..

It is sometimes fruitful to knock two ideas together to see if something new arises. Not in this instance, however. I know nothing of Barker, but this little book seethes with such resentment and outrage at the “honeyed images of the man as presented by Jamesian scholars” that a moderately interesting insight drowns under a bubbling hostility.

— — —

— Timothy d’Arch Smith. Montague Summers. A Talk. 25, [2] pp. The Tragara Press, 1984. One of 25 copies (edition of 110).
Talk presented to the Society on Montague Summers as bibliophile and aesthete.


mail bag : late summer 2023

in today’s mail :

— Joanne McNeil. Wrong Way. [x], 272, [3] pp. MCD x FSG Originals [forthcoming, November 2023]. “Preview edition”.

/ so psyched to receive this (long anticipated) book for review ; I loved McNeil’s  Lurking (2020) and can’t wait to read this ! Nice cover design (by Abby Kagan?). Review TK

— — —

— An Appointment with the Wicker Man. The 50th Anniversary May Day, 2023. Compiled by Adam Newell. Frontispiece by Sharon Gosling, illustrated throughout. [20] pp. The Avellenau Press, 2023. Edition of 100.

Visual record of a May Day bonfire  at Burrow Head in Scotland and the burning of a new Wicker Man created by local artist Amanda Sunderland ; with a beautiful Lallans poem, The Borrowing Days, by Amy Rafferty

‘bold an rowdy as whittericks’

/ file under : British Folk Art

/ learned of this via Mark Valentine’s Wormwoodiana, and acted promptly to order ; it has since sold out

/ let us agree that The Wicker Man is one of those films which may serve as a litmus test . . . of something


Temporary Culture announces new editions of Wendy Walker’s beautiful and dangerous book SEXUAL STEALING, now also available as a full color paperback, printed digitally to the highest standard with all the original illustrations (distributed by Levellers Press), and in a DRM-free e-book (pdf) that retains all the power and beauty of Jerry Kelly’s design for the print editions (distributed by Weightless Books).


I have been a champion of the work of Wendy  Walker work since Temporary Culture was a photocopy ’zine and I reviewed The Secret Service; in 2011 I published her book My Man and other Critical Fictions. SEXUAL STEALING is the most important book that Temporary Culture has published. The new editions are available for immediate fulfilment. Please have a look. [HWW]