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R. B. Russell, Fifty Forgotten Books

— R. B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. With numerous illustrations. 255 pp. Sheffield : And Other Stories, 2022.

Sometimes, all it takes is one book. When Mr. Brookes, who kept a bookshop in Brighton, gave handsome young Ray Russell a Corgi paperback copy of Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907), how could Mr. Brookes have known where it would lead? Not perhaps where he thought. As proprietor (with Rosalie Parker) of Tartarus Press, Russell has championed and published Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sarban, and other early authors of supernatural fiction, and developed a consistently excellent list of new authors in the field.  Fifty Forgotten Books is Russell’s engaging memoir of how that came to be, in a braided succession of chapters  (and discussing many more than 50 books).

The two best qualities of Ray Russell’s memoir are the eclectic nature of his list of titles and the delight a reader has in walking around in his library as the collector pulls volumes from shelves to tell stories of books, and of the booksellers, friends, and authors summoned in memory in the telling.  First things first: this is an eclectic chronicle of a curious reader from his teenage years to the present, so after a bit of second-hand existentialism by way of Colin Wilson, we get to it. The Hill of Dreams, “better written than anything I had previously read. [. . .] When I went back to Brighton two weeks later, it was to hunt for more Machen, but I was sorely disappointed. Machen’s books were hard to find at the time.” Another early stage in his reading was French literature in translation, with Baudelaire, André Gide, and Raymond Radiguet, and Le Grand Meaulnes (which Russell would himself translate from the original in 1999). Learning of Oscar Wilde and the 1890s led to Ernest Dowson’s Dilemmas (1895) and M. P. Shiel. Russell writes of his quests in used and antiquarian bookshops up and down England and Wales, on an architecture student’s budget. The intellectual generosity of some booksellers is sometimes exceeded by the wiliness of others, such as the late  George Locke.

It always comes back to Machen: a copy of the Knopf compendium, Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, bought on his American trip to see buildings and the manuscripts of H. P. Lovecraft, reaffirms his esteem for the Welsh author. Things really get going when Russell attends a meeting of the Arthur Machen Society and meets enthusiasts who become lifelong friends. The delight of Fifty Forgotten Books is in the stories of convivial encounters — a certain amount of drinking is sometimes involved — and in seeing the life of these communities of readers and writers described: books and friends* and landscapes to ramble in, what more could one ask?  Russell’s first publication was a stapled pamphlet, but two years toil in a dodgy local vanity press schooled him in the logistics of book production, and Tartarus books have since then had both a consistent design style and a pleasing feel in the hand.

Russells recounts the enthusiasms for Machen and Robert Aickman that shaped the early output of Tartarus, and how these led to other interests. Through Janet Machen, Russell became interested in the writings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, and eventually founded a literary society devoted to her. After his friend Mark Valentine, suggested reading Sarban, their researches led to a genuine rediscovery and to the preservation of that author’s archive. The accounts of visits to the author’s daughter are great fun.

Russell’s earlier collection of essays, Past Lives of Old Books (2020) touched upon many of the same authors, but here he is telling of his own life and his friends and the tone is different. I note that 13 of the 50 chapters in Russell’s memoir are about books by women authors. I mention this as the early history of the literature of the supernatural is pretty much a men’s club, but during the past several decades, editors in the supernatural (as in science fiction and fantasy), have opened up the field to a greater diversity of authors. In writing of The Old Knowledge  (2010) by Rosalie Parker, Russell makes it clear that his partner’s editorial vision has shaped the contemporary list published by Tartarus Press, which includes N. A. Subway’s Rupetta (2013) and Rebecca Lloyd’s The Child Cephalina (2019).

In Fifty Forgotten Books Russell is not defining a canon, rather issuing a good-natured challenge to the reader ‘to determine how many of these works they remember’. While you may have read many of these books, some of which are hardly forgotten (The Quest for Corvo, for example), you won’t have read all of them: my own tally was 16, with two or three more that I have handled but not read.  Like two other recent stellar examples, Godine at Fifty (2021), and Bill Reese’s Narratives of Personal Experience (2016), Russell’s memoir earns a place on the shelf and suggests future reading: I am looking forward to The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s (1931) by Rachel Ferguson, and several others. Pick up a copy of Fifty Forgotten Books and see for yourself.

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* I first met Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker in person at the inaugural Halifax Ghost Story Festival in 2010, but I had known of their Tartarus Press ever since I came across an irresistible title,  The Smell of Telescopes, in Ev Bleiler’s essay on Rhys Hughes a decade before; I had bought a copy the Tartarus Press re-issue of The Hill of Dreams from an American specialty dealer’s list when it appeared. At that same festival, I met Mark Valentine, a longtime penpal, and several other of their friends.

 

books received – october 2022

— Frank Malmsteen. Recondite Oblivion. [Columbia, South Carolina : Published by Professional Printers, copyright 2021]. Pp. [6], ii, 171, [1, blank], [1, A Note on the Text]. Brown rexine titled in gilt, pictorial dust jacket after art by Christian Guerrero. Presentation copy inscribed on the flyleaf and signed by the author on the title page “Frank Malmsteen 9/25/22”; signed by the artist on the copyright page. Loosely inserted two-page Foreword dated Columbia, South Carolina, August  2020, signed “FM”in ink, with text differing from the printed Foreword. Received 4 October in a box postmarked Columbia, South Carolina.

“This is an ornamental book and should only be used for that purpose.”

The sentence above comprises the complete text of the book, repeated with varying punctuation throughout. At first I was horrified at this unreadable book object (in a binding that almost qualifies for the Death of the Book Award), and then I started laughing at the weird elaborate jest, and wondering about the source. From the typescript Foreword:

Years later, I wrote in my Ideas and Notes journal the words, Recondite Oblivion. It was the most pretentious title I could think of for an ornamental book. A book written, not to be read, but to serve as furniture.

Well played, Frank Malmsteen, whoever you are !

The typescript Foreword also notes, “The book is a mirroring of The Maltese Falcon”, and a cursory glance at my copy of The Maltese Falcon suggests that paragraphing and punctuation are indeed constrained to follow Hammett’s text.

The title, RECONDITE OBLIVION, is unknown to the goo search :

Author and title are unknown to OCLC/WorldCat:

   

 

P.S. I couldn’t really file this under the recent reading heading, could I?

Undergrowth (1913)


— F. & E. Brett Young. Undergrowth [1913]. Cassell, [Popular Edition, 1925].

Undergrowth is a brisk, interesting novel of the subjective experience of the uncanny in a remote landscape. It is the first book by doctor and novelist Francis Brett Young (1884-1954), written with his brother Eric and published just before the first world war. The influences are plain to see: Algernon Blackwood and, explicitly, Arthur Machen. Undergrowth is formally a club story and begins with a frame setting as mundane and chummy as the opening of a John Buchan yarn (I’ll circle back to those three names on occasion), when the unnamed narrator walks through stinking, “devitalized” Soho streets to the Étoile gleaming amber through the fog. The table talk turns to “pagan” landscapes in England and “cheap literary revivals” dismissed by the narrator, but his companion proposes a remote mountain valley where, despite sunshine and a jolly little brook, he “left in a deuce of a hurry” after an uncomfortable half an hour.

Undergrowth is the story of Forsyth, a construction engineer who comes to rural Wales to supervise the completion of a dam and reservoir which will flood the sparsely populated Dulas valley. The manager is a cockney named Hayward. Forsyth’s lodgings are in the house of an unlettered Welsh shepherd, Abel Morgan, who functions as the Celtic other and stands as a mirror of the moods of Forsyth and Hayward. Forsyth has an uneasy dream his first night in the house:

It seemed to him that he was stifled with the green which surrounded the house; that the trees of the woods which climbed the mountain above, and the tangled thickets that tumbled to the river, were robbing him of his breath. On every side green multitudes hemmed him in — gnarled monsters with twisted arms for branches, sappy climbing things, relentless parasites, like snakes. He could not breathe for the oppression of this hostile vegetable life.

Morgan spends more time out of doors than in his house. He offers laconic remarks on the hills and vales, and recounts the significance of a Neolithic standing stone, the Dial Careg: one man’s deep-rooted oral history is another’s quaint folklore. Forsyth sorts through the books of his predecessor, the late Mr. Carlyon (a Cornishman who “read his head off”), found in a heap in one corner of the house: six-shilling novels, geology and engineering texts, books from Mudie’s circulating library, worm-eaten calf, and Arthur Machen. Forsyth begins reading a diary kept by Carlyon, the core of the novel, and this second frame becomes entangled with the story it encloses.

Undergrowth is a deft chronicle of sensations: the oppressiveness of the Mynydd Llwyd and Pen Savaddan, the mountains looming over the valley, and the menace of the tangled undergrowth filling its lower reaches, contrast with the tone of liberation in Carlyon’s diary and in the kinetic descriptions of climbing to the high ridges of Pen Savaddan and mountain meadows. The account of makeshift nursing during an epidemic in the work camp is rich in specific details of kindness and delirium. In Carlylon’s diary and in the latter portions of the novel the traces of Blackwood and Machen show clearest; the transcendent function of landscape in narrative anticipates Buchan, and the weather, too (I’m thinking of Richard Usborne’s observation in Clubland Heroes).

It’s not a perfect novel. There are unexplained shifts and the substrand of Morgan the shepherd is essential to the larger arc of the story, but he suddenly vanishes after uttering his curse. and sometimes it feels like the narrative escapes from the authors’ control (maybe not a bad thing, but occasionally puzzling). Undergrowth introduces the notion of older settlements and histories being drowned beneath the waters of a reservoir for a distant city (prefiguring “The Colour out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft). The Elan Valley in Powys, with its “drowned villages”, is often mentioned as a possible setting for the Dulas valley of the novel.

Undergrowth is a book I had been seeking for some time, repeatedly recommended by Mark Valentine, and I can see why. Valentine’s essay, “A Landscape At the End of the World: The Supernatural Terrain of Francis and Eric Brett Young”, gives an excellent overview of these writers an can be found in A Country Still All Mystery. Francis Brett Young was also author of Cold Harbour (1924), praised by Lovecraft.

The last chapter of Undergrowth is a rush of enthusiams and terrors and ambiguities.  I think that one must read the story literally and join Forsyth in the snow on the Savaddan ridge to witness the vast lake “emptying itself in foaming masses above the broken masonry of the dam.”

how I spent my summer vacation (part two)

view of Vesuvius and the Golfo di Napoli from the walls of Castel del Ovo

Publication day for NAPLES by Avram Davidson, 11 September in Castel del Ovo, Napoli

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on the way up Monte Epomeo, Ischia
the view from the top : Vesuvius at far left horizon, Sorrento uplands, Capri (click for larger image)

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Mandrakes, in Dioscorides (ca. 590), Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, Ms. Vind. Gr. 1

Dante Alighieri, La Commedia, [Napoli 12 IV 1477], Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli
P. Francesco Lana, La Nave colante, dissertazione, [S.l., s.d., post 1470], Biblioteca dei Girolamini Coll. C F 3 19

Giacomo Leopardi, manuscript poem, L’Infinito, (1819), Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, M.S. C.L. XIII.22
decorative initial (white vine), in Museo Diocesano Salerno MS.9

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Vico room, Biblioteca dei Girolamini
throne with mermaids and gryphons, Reggia Caserte

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fascio ti sfascio, graffiti, Salerno

fascio ti sfascio : the writing on the wall, Salerno

———

Naples by Avram Davidson

just published : NAPLES by Avram Davidson

NAPLES is a fine press edition of one of Avram Davidson’s darkest tales, originally published in the first Shadows anthology edited by Charles L. Grant. NAPLES won the World Fantasy award for short fiction in 1979, the same year Jorge Luis Borges was named the recipient of the World Fantasy Life Achievement award ; Davidson received that award in 1986.

Publications of the Avram Davidson Society, number six.
Edition of 160 copies, designed by Jerry Kelly and printed by hand at the Kelly-Winterton Press from Hermann Zapf’s Aldus type. Stitched in yellow Hahnemühle wrappers printed in burnt siena. [16] pp. 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches.

Ten copies, numbered i to x, were reserved for presentation; 125 copies for distribution to members of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie (AIB), on the occasion of the congress in Napoli, September 2022. Twenty-five copies are available for members and friends of the Avram Davidson Society.

Published in Napoli on 11 September 2022.

Details and subscription price at the order page :
https://temporary-culture.com/books/naples-avram-davidson/

recent reading (march through august 2022)

current reading :

— Marcel Proust. La Prisonnière [1923]. À la recherche du temps perdu III. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. [still climbing the mountain].

— R.B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. Sheffield : And Other Stories, [forthcoming, 13 September 2022].

recent reading :

— Marcel Proust. Sodome et Gomorrhe [1921-2]. À la recherche du temps perdu III. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
This was tough going at times, but there was always a remarkable passage or narrative surprise to quicken interest — and what a crack of the whip at end, rooted in earliest beginnings. 
Deep in volume III of the Pléiade edition, an aside points ahead to something I should perhaps have inferred and now the full arc of this whiny wallowing hilarious satiric narration comes clear. Proust is sufficient argument against fleeting worries over “spoilers”. He gives the game away himself a few times (from the outset, in fact); but more importantly, reading Proust affirms that literature is experiential. The dance of words performs itself upon the page and in the reader’s awareness, each time new, or else it’s nothing.
— — —
— Tom Lecky. Quarrying [Cover title]. One story and fifteen photographs. Understory Books, [2021]. Edition of 100 copies.
The story, “A Walk”, is subtle and minimalist, oblique and suggestive of the long consequences of family traumas.
— — —
— Ivy Compton-Burnett. Manservant and Maidservant. Gollancz, [1947]. Late Victorian household drama, in the conversations of a family and their servants, on the surface a very small world but the novel presents, unspoken but apparent, a dispassionate and clear-eyed indictment of the British class system and economic structure. An unexpected pleasure.
— The Herman Melville Collection of William S. Reese. Christie’s, [August 2022]. Illustrated auction catalogue, 100 lots, including many rarities, up at auction on 14 September.

Ngaio Marsh. Night at the Vulcan [1951]. Pyramid Books, [Second printing, December 1974].

— — —

— Robert Scoble. Raven. The Turbulent World of Baron Corvo. Strange Attractor Press, 2013.
— —. The Corvo Cult. The History of an Obsession. Strange Attractor Press, 2014.
Two well written, engaging, and thoroughly documented overviews of the Frederick Rolfe phenomenon: the people surrounding him and the evolution of the cult of the author.
— Guy Davenport. The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard [1967]. [Jordan Davies, 1982].
.  .  . and everyone is there, in this kinetic Blakean procession, to be animated from Stanley Spencer’s giant painting .
— — —
— Eileen Gunn. Night Shift plus Usual and the Author plus Promised Land and much more. PM Press, [2022].
A volume in the excellent Outspoken Authors series, with Terry Bisson’s  interview of Eileen Gunn, “I Did, and I Didn’t, and I Won’t”, including this observation about an early job as a advertising copywriter :
“They taught me how to understand subjects I’d never studied and how to work with capitalists without becoming one.”
— Julian Symons. The Immaterial Murder Case [1945]. Penguin Books, [1954].
— Corina Bardoff. Food Restrictions. 2020.
Nimble, funny, literate Oulipian explorations of food and words. [Gift of WW].
— — —
— Michael Swanwick and Gardner Dozois. In His Own Words. Dragonstairs, [2022].  Edition of 60 copies.
Legendary editor Gardner Dozois interviewed by his friend.
— — —
Elizabeth Hand. Hokuloa Road. Mulholland Books. Little, Brown, [2022]. Another unsettling and gripping book, and a new place in our psychic geography (just maybe you can get there from Kamensic). This reader trusts Elizabeth Hand with his life and readerly attention, and is always rewarded Wherever her books lead, the narrative path is fascinating and the destination is beautiful and often frightening : that is to say, the classical elements of the sublime.
— Undefined Boundary. The Journal of Psychick Albion. Volume One / Issue One. Edited by Cormac Pentecost. Temporal Boundary Press, 2022.
Reading this, one has the sense that somehow England will find a way through the present mess.
— — —
— Alice Elliott Dark. Fellowship Point. A Novel. Mary Sue Rucci Books |Scribner, [2022].
Rich, beautiful exploration of friendship, place, and time (the Maine setting is  deeply rooted), with turns and surprises worthy of Dickens ; a notable feminist interrogation of privilege and expectations.
— — —
— John Clute. Sticking to the End. Beccon, 2022.
Essays and addresses, with book reviews from Strange Horizons and New York Review of Science Fiction; memorials of Gene Wolfe, David G Hartwell; and more.
— Hervé Le Tellier. L’Anomalie. Roman. NRF Gallimard, [2020].
Science fiction à l’Oulipo, witty and nimble.
— — —
—[Margaret Cavendish,] Duchess of Newcastle. The Description of a New World called the Blazing World. 1666.
— — —
— Mark Valentine. The Fig Garden and other stories. Tartarus, [2020].
Excellent new collection, with several original stories.
— — —
— Nicholas Daly. Ruritania. A Cultural History, from The Prisoner of Zenda to The Princess Diaries. Oxford University Press, [2020].
Interesting fun, with some odd gaps or omissions (such as John Buchan’s The House of the Four Winds and Avram Davidson’s Doctor Eszterhazy stories).
— — —
— Marius Kociejowski. A Factotum in the Book Trade. A Memoir. Biblioasis, [2022].
When the Romanian singer started in on « Un dimanche après la fin du monde » I was engaged ; and then the first pages of Chapter 13, The Man Collecting Names is a remarkable sequence of reflections. [Gift of DS].
— — —
— Eric G. Wilson. Dream Child. A Life of Charles Lamb. Yale University Press, [2022].
Read with great interest, Wilson is excellent on Lamb’s connections to the main literary figures of the day (Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others), and on the tragedies of his life.
[Bought in March but misshelved and only found in early June.]
— Michael Swanwick. The Once and Future Rye. The Whiskey That Was America. [At head of title:] The Proceedings of the American Martini Institute. A Report of the American Martini Laboratory. [Dragonstairs, 21 May 2022]. Edition of 80 copies.
— — —
— Christelle Téa. Bibliothèques. Dessins 2018-2021. Librarie Métamorphoses, [2022]. Exhibition catalogue, with introduction by Michel Scognamillo, “Christelle Téa, ou la stratégie de l’araignée”.
/ above : in the Bibliothèque Mazarine
— — —
— This World and That Other. [Stories by] John Howard [and] Mark Valentine. Sarob Press, 2022.
— Algernon Blackwood. The Lure of the Unknown. Essays on the Strange. [Edited with an introduction by Mike Ashley]. Swan River Press, 2022.
Collection of nearly two dozen essays, talks, and vignettes about the uncanny, spanning almost the entire career of supernatural writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). The earliest, “The Psychology of Places” (Westminster Gazette, 30 April 1910), seems almost a gloss on his story “The Willows”; the majority of the pieces are from the late 1940s and were often delivered as radio or television broadcasts. Ashley notes Blackwood’s general reticence about any of his own psychic experiences. The essays “collected here reveal his views on the world and the occult, show his diverse reading and experiences, and his appreciation of the experiences of others.”
— Bruce Barker-Benfield. The Glossed Luke with the Letter A. A manuscript from St. Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury with an essay on the binding by Andrew Honey  and an introduction by William Zachs. Blackie House, 2020.
Illustrated history of a notable twelfth-century manuscript Gospel which survives in its original binding.
— — —

— Mark Tewfik. The Pirate King. Illustrated by Josh Grotto. Full color illustrations throughout. [40] pp. Chicago : Lanterne Rouge Press, 2022. Edition of 100 copies.
The text of The Pirate King resembles a children’s bedtime tale, while the collage illustrations suggest a very different story. A remarkable tension arises between the visual and verbal references.

how I spent my summer vacation (part one)

with Rudy Rucker, while packing his archive for delivery to the Eaton Collection, Rivera Library, University of California at Riverside (mid-June) [Photo by Sylvia Rucker]
palm trees in an undisclosed location (mid-June)
Diana (1893) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, newly regilt, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (16 June)
on the Feather river, Plumas county, California (late June)
on Hampstead Heath (late July)
Stanbury, near Haworth, Yorkshire (late July)
the reason for the visit : A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Brontë, 1829, is now in the Bronte Parsonage Museum
at The Hawthorn, after delivery of A Book of Ryhmes on Yorkshire Day (1 August)

‘all the castles he had ever heard of in songs’

Dust Jacket of Flint and Mirror by John Crowley

— John Crowley. Flint and Mirror. Tor, [2022].

Stories are told again and again. It is the telling that haunts us, and which we remember in our ears and hearts. Flint and Mirror is unlike any of John Crowley’s earlier novels, for it is a closely constrained historical novel of the life and times of Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), who almost succeeded in overthrowing English rule in Ireland in the 1590s. If the legend of King Arthur is the Matter of Britain, the Tudor invasion of Ireland is the monstrous and chiefly unacknowledged truth that fixed the pattern of English adventurism around the world for centuries to come. The invasions continued under Queen Elizabeth I, and in Ireland as elsewhere, English policies fostered disunity among those who might have resisted the expansion of settlements. As one of the heirs to Gaelic lord of Tyrone, the young Hugh, Baron Dungannon, was fostered with the family of Sir Henry Sidney, Elizabeth’s deputy in Ireland (and father of the poet). Hugh was presented to the English court, and Elizabeth later referred to him as “a creature of our own”. Hugh O’Neill returned to Ireland and was appointed to various lieutenancies in Ulster. While his “position then resembled that of the many English captains serving in Ireland, he was more adept in advancing his interests because his Ulster origins allowed him to operate within two competing worlds” (ODNB). The English thought perhaps they had shaped a useful pawn, but having been “raised from nothing by her Majesty”, O’Neill soon put his own ideas into action.

The “two competing worlds” at the heart of Crowley’s novel are not, however, those of the historian, or not quite. To the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland is always added the fifth, the domain of those who live under the earth and in the lakes and rivers. The evening before Hugh is sent to England, the blind poet of his uncle’s castle takes him out to a tumulus at twilight, and the boy is presented to “a certain prince” who gives him tokens of a promise and a commandment. And later, one of his tutors is the wizard Doctor Dee, who also gives the boy a small secret object binding him to Queen Elizabeth.

This is not Pavane, Keith Roberts’ beautiful book which rewrites technology to articulate a backward-looking alternate history, for Flint and Mirror is an account of how the English victory rewrote the nature of Ireland. Three centuries would pass before Patrick Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic and invoked “the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood”.

And yet. The entire novel is closely entangled with all the notions Crowley has always written about: liminal places, objects of power, consequences, Shakespeare, Doctor Dee, the fearsomeness of the Shee, imaginary books, and the changes of the world.

Hugh O’Neill’s childhood visit to the Earl of Desmond in squalid exile in London moves to a rich, astonishing image as the chapter concludes. And John Dee’s vision of the powers leaving Ireland in “no ships men sail, ships made out of the time of another age, silvered like driftwood, with sails as of cobweb” recalls the insubstantial armies and inconclusive battles of the war in Little, Big. Flint and Mirror is a beautiful book, sometimes elegiac in tone, and full of surprises.