Today marks sixteen years of the Endless Bookshelf, and the past year was an eventful one to be “simply messing about in books”. To have played a part in the long history of The Book of Ryhmes (1829) by Charlotte Brontë, now at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, was a signal delight. It was a good year to be a reader, too.
The Endless Bookshelf book of the year, The Silverberg Business by Robert Freeman Wexler (Small Beer Press, 2022), is a work that affirms the utility and possibility of fiction, and it’s a weird, fascinating story.
Your correspondent is an optimist by temperament and looks forward to what the year ahead will bring. I’m still working my way through Proust in the Pléiade edition, with pleasure. I lost momentum during the crazy, circling jealousies of La prisonnière, which rewards with flashes of humor (and the short sudden passage on the heat death of the universe); I am currently at the stage of Albertine disparue. A few pieces of writing are forthcoming in the Book Collector and elsewhere, and others are in progress on the desk. 23 April 2023 is the centenary of the birth of Avram Davidson.
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In February, I expect to be at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena, booth 514 (James Cummins Bookseller) at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Friday 10 February through Sunday 12 February. If you are in the vicinity, come by and say hello (and please let me know in advance if you would like a pass). I will have a handful of Temporary Culture publications on the booth.
In 1923, a century ago, Welsh author Arthur Machen was at the height of his literary reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. It had been a long path from his “horrible” juvenile poem Eleusinia (1881)(1881) and such early books as The Anatomy of Tobacco (1884) and the numerous translations of the 1880s and early 1890s. But with The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Imposters (1895), Machen produced a small group of supernatural tales that shocked upon their first appearance and then proved to be enduring. The other great work written in the late 1890s, The Hill of Dreams, Machen’s “‘Robinson Crusoe’ of the soul” depicting the aesthetic visions of young Lucian — and the tensions between pastoral and urban life —remained unpublished until 1908. Literary success was never easy for Machen and indeed he spent an interval as an actor with a provincial repertory company before returning to literary journalism and newspaper work, during which he created a modern myth of the first world war, The Bowmen. This is the barest outline of Machen’s career, and more detailed accounts can be found in Mark Valentine’s 1995 monograph or The Life of Arthur Machen, John Gawsworth’s biography (begun during Machen’s lifetime but published only in 2005). But that is to get ahead of things.
In 1923, Machen had many books in print: the year before, his edition of the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova (1894) had been reprinted in twelve volumes; his London publisher, Martin Secker, had brought out a new work, The Secret Glory, as well as signed large paper editions of Far Off Things (a collection of wartime essays) and The Hill of Dreams (the latter on blue paper, illustrated at top and below). In 1923, Henry Danielson published a Bibliography of Machen’s works through 1922, with retrospective “annotations” on each work by Machen, and with a deluxe issue signed by Machen. Secker published the Caerleon Edition of the Works of Arthur Machen in nine volumes dated 1923; in New York the enterprising Alfred A. Knopf brought out an attractive series of Machen’s books: The Hill Of Dreams, The Three Imposters, Far Off Things, The House of Souls, Things Near and Far, and Hieroglyphics; with others to follow in 1924: Dog and Duck, Ornaments in Jade, and The London Adventure. It really was peak Machen.
What else was going on at this time? It’s useful to look at Machen in the context of other books published and contemporary literary currents around 1923. One notable work of fantasy was William M. Timlin’s The Ship That Sailed to Mars, illustrated by the author; lush and imaginative, it had little in common with Machen’s themes. The Club Story and the told tale showed itself alive and well with Sapper’s The Dinner Club; and master of the uncanny Algernon Blackwood published his curiously incomplete autobiographical work, Episodes before Thirty. Aleister Crowley’s The Diary of a Drug Fiend was fiction rooted in the author’s own experience: transgressive, but again in a manner unlike Machen’s. If Ornaments in Jade, Machen’s sequence of prose poems, seems almost a harbinger of modernism, such was the conservatism of English letters that it is to the early modernism of Baudelaire that these point. When one considers works such as Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Hemingway’s Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923) and the sudden emergence of the modernist aesthetic (in both minimalist or encyclopedic modes), it becomes quickly apparent that Machen achieved his greatest popularity at a moment when the world changed. “By the time he was rediscovered in the 1920s he was near retirement and no longer capable of producing high-calibre material” (SFE). This position of being somewhat at odds with the dominant modernism points to an explanation of the near obscurity of Machen’s work well into the 1980s when a revival of interest in the writings began, with the formation of an Arthur Machen Society, and later the Friends of Arthur Machen.
As a bookseller, I had three Machen items of great interest, sold long ago: the manuscript of his late essay “The True Story of the Angels of Mons” (1938); an extended autograph quotation from The Hill of Dreams (almost certainly written out for a collector in the mid 1920s); and a signed photograph of Machen in costume as Doctor Johnson from a film shoot circa 1922, which was reproduced as the dust jacket illustration when the Friends of Arthur Machen and Tartarus published The Life of Arthur Machen. His is a household name only within the literature of the fantastic now, but the books are more readily available and sometimes read. Machen’s work is always worth exploring.
‘You wake up feeling wonderful. But also, in some indefinable way, strange’
The other day Tom Lecky handed me something he found while tidying up his shop, Riverrun, or more precisely tidying up old stuff from its earlier existence when Chris Stephens ran it as a street-level open shop in Hastings on Hudson. Mr. Lecky (whom I call Tom but in a moment you’ll see why the usage remains formal) knew I’d be interested because when he first took over, I had bought the proof copy of On Wings of Song (1979) marked by Thomas M. Disch with corrections for the Gollancz publication of the novel. What Mr. Lecky handed me was a pictorial printed sleeve for Tom Disch’s early interactive fiction, Amnesia, empty except for a printed map of Streetwise Manhattan (copyright date 1984) with a curious gold sticker on it, “compliments of the Sunderland Hotel” (not a hotel I had ever heard of). The sleeve is undated and bears a Harper ISBN 0-06-668006-9, and is signed by Disch with his formal signature.
This a trickier object than it might seem at first glance, for it is a bibliographic ghost: the Harper and Row Amnesia by Tom Disch never existed.
In Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, vol. 4 (Gale Research, 1986), Tom wrote:
I’ve completed a computer-interactive novel, Amnesia, which should appear from Electronic Arts in May of 1986. For a while it was touch-and-go whether Amnesia would ever exist. Harper and Row Software contracted for it in the fall of ’83, and then a year later, when the project was halfway to completion, Harper and Row dissolved their software department before it had put a single product on the market, a decision dictated by considerations of accounting [. . .] and then when Electronic Arts took over Amnesia I returned to work on that. And now that’s done [. . .]
He was indeed a pioneer in this new field and Amnesia is a text of branching paths, beginning when the “player” awakens in a hotel room in the Sunderland Hotel somewhere in Manhattan with, as the Harper sleeve copy says, “no idea of who you are, with no clothes, with no money — and with fifteen minutes until you have to check out of your hotel room.”
The text adventure was published by Electronic Arts in 1986. Interviewed by Larry McCaffery in Across the Wounded Galaxies (1990), Tom observed
When you’re working on this kind of text, you’re operating in an entirely different mode from when you’re writing other forms of literature. [. . .] In a very literal sense, any computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it’s always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden in fiction because, of course, you don’t normally show choices that are ruled out — though in every novel the choices that are not made are really half the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures, these unfollowed paths.
The history of the Harper ghost is also well known. In the fall of 2008, Stephane Racle, a specialist in computer games bought an example of the Harper sleeve and a typescript of Amnesia, the Script for my U-Dun-It, Disch’s text for the interactive adventure.
More recently, Rebooting Electronic Literature:Documenting Pre-Web Digital Media, volume 1 (2018), from the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University, Vancouver, includes a section on Disch’s Amnesia with a “traversal” or demonstration of the 1986 Amnesia, with a critical essay and links to reviews and earlier articles.
— Robert Freeman Wexler. The Silverberg Business. [vi], 269, [1, blank], [1, about the author], [5, blank], [4, ads]. Small Beer Press, . Wrappers with illustration by Jon Langford.
The Silverberg Business follows Shannon, a Jewish private detective who has come to Victoria, Texas, in late October 1888, in search of information about a missing man and the large bank draft he carried, representing funds raised on behalf of a Romanian Jewish refugee settlement plan. Shannon, a Galveston native with a talent for finding bodies, uncovers fraud and murder, and indications of concerted sinister activity in and around southern coastal Texas. We get a clear sense of the “feel of a frontier town” in Victoria, and the people living there. Shannon gets knocked over the head on several occasions. He works for a Chicago agency and has considerable autonomy. The detective talks, and listens to people from all walks of life, bankers and bank clerks, railroad conductors and bartenders, laundresses and rooming-house owners, marshals and horse dealers, gamblers, whores, and rabbis. In the course of his narration, Shannon drops elements of his own history and character. His tenacity of purpose leads him into strange places, and the reader goes with him, out into sparsely populated terrain, and elsewhere.
Shannon’s first-person narrative voice is matter-of-fact, smart and aphoristic, and keenly observant of his surroundings. He is Hammett’s Continental Op on the ground in 1880s Texas, which would be interesting enough, but Wexler also reappropriates the Western as a literary domain, and goes farther even than William S. Burroughs did in The Place of Dead Roads. Wexler’s achievement is to have created a formally innovative fiction that moves seamlessly, and beautifully, from dream to waking to sensory hallucination and then back to the mug of coffee the waitress has set before Shannon in the dining room at the Delmonico Hotel. He soon discovers that Silverberg, an Easterner, was seen in the company of a well-dressed Westerner with bad teeth and a gambler named Stephens. A conductor describes Stephens: “whitish hair, somewhat taller than average, red-brown eyes, a tendency toward fancy dress.”
Was Stephens the man who walked past the hotel restaurant and stared in at me? White . . . blond . . . storm of white-capped waves gouged the coast . . . an oak that had stood for centuries screamed and gave up its life . . . nothing remained, nothing but naked earth twisted into shapes of the dead and dying. I cried for the land, but what use are tears?
Stephens wears an onyx ring with a Greek god carved into it, and demonstrates a capacity to come and go as he pleases. There is often a stench of sea rot as the mark of his passage.
Pursuing the gambler, Shannon saddles up his horse, Blue Swamp, and rides out of Port Lavaca towards the ruined town of Indianola, which had been flattened by an earlier hurricane. He spends a couple of nights camping, fishing and shooting ducks for his meals, befriending a one-winged bald eagle, and has strange dreams. The next day as he gets near Matagorda Bay, the noon sky turns dark. “Reddish light washed the salt-cedars and cactus.” When his Blue Swamp refuses to move further, Shannon goes ahead on foot and finds an unexpected sand hill on the barrier island.
Sand hills form, blow apart, re-form, eventually becoming immobilized by growth of sea oats, goateed, and other plants. This one was crusty, bare, more like sandstone than sand, and the front looked sculpted, carved into features . . . curl of lip, open mouth, deep eye holes. A rotting animal festered in the mouth.
Then I found the body.
It is the murdered Silverberg. When the weather turns inclement, Shannon passes the night at the farm of Ratface Conroy. Out in the tumble-down barn, “a lean-to strung together from broken parts of other structures,” Shannon’s sleep is interrupted when his hosts attempt to murder him. Shannon shoots the husband and goes after Mrs. Conroy, who is armed. Pushing through a curtain in the sod farmhouse, Shannon enters a giant, ruined stone mansion. He shoots her dead, and returns to find a zombie “skull-head” Conroy armed and awaiting him. Shannon is faster at the draw, and sets the house ablaze as he leaves. This is not the last of the skull-heads Shannon will encounter.
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Though I wasn’t playing poker, the same rules applied — watch, wait, calculate the odds.
There’s a lot of poker in The Silverberg Business, stud poker where only the first card is dealt face down to each player, and all the other cards are visible upon the table as they fall. This is emblematic of Wexler’s narrative method, for the reader sees what Shannon sees, and patterns are deduced from evidence visible and from inferences about what remains concealed.
Time is a hill, a hill that grows as you climb, grows to mountainside. Wind and rain alter the mountain, exposing rock, minerals. Looking back the way you came gets harder. Sometimes, all you can see is the rising path ahead of you. You get to the top. Everybody does. Sometimes sooner than we expect. The journey is what matters. Here in skull-head land, time means nothing.
These fugues and hallucinations and strange dreams are integral to the way Shannon gains knowledge of the strange world he enters. And the reader enters with him, for his voice is supple enough to take in this space outside of time, poker-playing zombies, and a daring escape in the Flying Kestrel, a contraption from the Sonora Aero Club, across a landscape of perpetual intertemporal war. Abandoned in a Louisiana swamp by the pilot of the Kestrel, he finds that months have passed.
The measure of Shannon’s persistence is seen in the way he makes his return to Victoria and resumes his investigation of the gambler, no matter the cost. Among further clues are strange manuscript account in Spanish recording the indigenous culture of the region, and a pattern of inexplicable land purchases on barrier islands. On a visit to the prison in Huntsville. Shannon finds the prisoner he expected to interview has been murdered. Chasing Stephens down a stairway that couldn’t exist, Shannon finds himself again in the land of the skull-heads, and the poker-playing begins in earnest. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
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In a review of an exhibition of paintings by J. M. W. Turner, critic Jackie Wullschläger useful articulates the notion that Turner’s work began to push “beyond realistic description”. As readers and writers, all we have are words, but sometimes that is sufficient. The Silverberg Business is a book that demonstrates what fiction is all about.
Continuity is a convenient illusion. The discontinuities of Shannon’s subjective experience — dream, beautiful maritime interludes, fugue states, hallucination, or return to consciousness after getting clobbered on the head — are as cut-up as anything from Burroughs, and the psychological and geographical terrain of the novel are vast spaces, but Shannon is unflappable, no matter how weird it gets. The Silverberg Business is linear and direct in its narrative line even as the words dance across time and space from sentence to sentence within a single paragraph.
I wasn’t sure I would be able to function . . . I . . . Stephens, looming gigantic , his red eyes roasted my flesh. Shriveled strips floated on the waves, adhered to the sides of the boat, and the ocean, all its weight above, squeezing me into nothingness. I swam into a cave, a cavern so vast it held the world, and beyond, the sparkling Mediterranean of Salonica’s harbor. Captain Bellis gave the order “Moor ship!” and our boat thumped into the remnants of a Galveston pier.
Wexler’s prose is shocking, funny, and vivid, and can go anywhere, and he goes to some very strange places (the summary above leaves off about halfway through the book, so buy the book and read it).
In The Silverberg Business, there are also countless playful allusions to elements of American literature high and low, among them Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo; Dashiell Hammett and William S. Burroughs, as noted earlier; and, though his name is nowhere mentioned, H. P. Lovecraft, especially in the sense of menace and the notion that human actors would be serving malign powers and non-human entities. The Silverberg Business is also a notable evocation of Jewish life in late-nineteenth century Texas. Wexler’s narrator unifies all these many fissiparous elements, and the concluding passages are tragic, deeply earned, and very moving. An outstanding work, the best book I’ve read this year.
Henry Wessells: Were you already living in Massachusetts during the writing of Little, Big?
John Crowley: The first part of the book — the first third, approximately — was written in New York. I can’t remember whether that first part was titled Edgewood or not.Not long after that — 1976 or so [dates are slipping from me] — I moved to Lenox in the Berkshires, where I took up where I’d left off — basically at the beginning of Part Two, though I think it hadn’t got a title either.
I did complete the book in the Berkshires, a hefty MS.I had just finished the draft when I was going on a trip to Vermont, and it occurred to me that the MS might be lost if the house where I was living then were to burn down while I was gone.I decided to put the MS in the(unplugged) refrigerator, which seemed a safe place even in fire.When I returned after a few days I found that the MS was safe, no fire, but the unplugged fridge had also melted its ice in the summer heat and the box — but not the MS— was soggy.No harm done.
When the Bantam edition came out in 1981 I was living in a little house on the grounds of a large old Berkshire mansion.I held a celebration there — Matt Tannenbaum, Laurie, my Bantam editor, my long-ago girlfriend Mickie up from NYC, Tom Disch,and Annulf Conradi, who was publishing the German edition. (Were you there? I can’t remember). We sat out on the grass — it was high summer.A great day, a great moment.
[5 November 2022]
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John Crowley is author of Little, Big and many other books, most recently And Go Like This and Flint and Mirror. He recently celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Sometimes a gift shows up unannounced. This interview came about as a result of David Godine asking me to participate in a panel discussion, organized under the auspices of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, on influential books printed, published, written, or conceived in Massachusetts. Naturally enough, one of my first thoughts was whether Little, Big could be added to this list. I found that another participant, Matt Tannenbaum of The Bookstore in Lenox, also holds the book in high esteem.
Peter Straub, who died on 4 September 2022, was the smartest of writers and a truly fine man. He was one of the few magicians I have ever met: that rare real thing, a writer who starts a tale in a recognizable place and enables the reader to go somewhere unexpected and unsettling. I didn’t know him well, but saw him regularly over the years in New York and at Readercon, and I treasure his work. It was always a pleasure to hear him read from works in progress.
It was a signal honor and delight to moderate the panel discussing his writings when he was guest of honor at Readercon 23 in July 2012. It was a wide-ranging, zigzag conversation between Gary K. Wolfe, Mike Allen, John Langan, and your correspondent, discussing character, place, and story in Straub, as well as a host of other topics. In one exchange we drew attention to connections between minor characters across the decades. Peter was in attendance and we could witness his pleasure at the seriousness (and sly humor) with which we brought the vivisection of the Works . . . . In my introductory remarks I observed, “What is a book but the record of the struggle of a story to tell itself?” and I had been thinking of Shadow Land in particular, but all of his works grappled with the relationship between story and form. Just take a look at the intensity with which he read Henry James: The Process (Is a Process All Its Own) (2017), contributes an episode in the life of the Master which no other author could have conceived and told. The Dark Matter (2010) is another fascinating work.
In September, his daughter, novelist Emma Straub, wrote a succession of posts on twitter, beginning here , and a very moving memoir of her father, This Time Tomorrow, Today.
That Readercon panel was followed by a convivial dinner gathering — not a table of doom — with many (but not too many) luminaries. Peter inscribed my copy of Shadow Land, which I included in A Conversation larger than the Universe.
The photograph at the top was a rare late public appearance, when Peter attended the birthday celebration organized by Derrick Hussey of Hippocampus Press for critic S. T. Joshi in June 2018.
As my friend Liz Hand (present at that Readercon dinner) remarked after learning of Peter’s death, “count none but sunny hours”. Peter Straub was a Mensch, with a big heart, and I am glad to have known him.
“His experiments in watercolour and rapid adoption of the new, glaring pigments of chrome yellow, chrome orange and pale lemon chrome had brightened his palette. He had already given ordinary subjects a sense of the sublime through dramatic lighting — the fishermen cleaning and selling fish in the National Gallery’s ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’, for example. But from the 1820s, his high key colour and transparent, luminous effects began to push beyond realistic description.”
— Jackie Wullschläger
reviewing an exhibition of J. M.W. Turner in the FinancialTimes
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‘in a tête-à-tête there is no shuffling’
— from The Charles Lamb Day Book
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‘publishing as the last refuge of the grasshopper mind’ — David R. Godine
David R. Godine in mid-tale, at a celebration of the publisher and his fabulous memoir, Godine at Fifty, in NYC 26 October.
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“What is the Midwest, after all, but a long, straight superhighway to the past, a place where suicidal farmers and homicidal cops and polite fanatics in dad pants are phantasms of the frontier’s original settlers?”
— Caroline Fraser,
on My Three Dads by Jessa Crispin in the New York Review of Books
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“neat, nasty, and natural as breath. They come from all over the country and they write all over the universe, just as if it was their own private subway and the guards had all gone home.”
— Chip Delany
from the jacket copy for the Mirrorshades anthology, 1986
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L’émotion dont je me sentais saisi en apercevant la fille d’un marchand de vins à sa caisse ou une blanchisseuse causant dans la rue était l’émotion qu’on a à reconnaître des Déesses. Depuis que l’Olympe n’existe plus, ses habitants vivent sur la terre.
— Marcel Proust
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“. . . and some things you can only think of in the dark”
— Marcel Proust. Albertine disparue . Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
— C. P. Curran. James Joyce Remembered. Edition 2022. With essays by H. Campbell, D. Ferriter, A. Fogarty, M. Kelleher, H. Solterer. Collection presented by E. Roche & E. Flanagan. Illustrated. x, 224 pp. UCD Press, 2022.
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recent reading :
— Stephanie Feldman. Saturnalia. A Novel. Unnamed Press, . A dark celebration of the mysteries in the streets of a Philadelphia shattered by climate change, epidemics, and political manipulations. Not since In the Drift by Michael Swanwick has the threatening power of the city’s social clubs been summoned so palpably. Though the novel treats with matters of alchemy and magic, the narrative strategy is strongly anchored in mimetic realism.
— George Sims. The Rare Book Game. Holmes Publishing Company, 1985. Collection of essays by English bookseller and mystery novelist George Sims. With the companion volumes, More of the Rare Book Game (1988) and Last of the Rare Book Game (1990). Sims had remarkable access to archives of A. J. A. Symons, Oscar Wilde, Eric Gill, and others, and his discussion of the authors and the materials he handled makes for fascinating reading.
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— Margaret D. Stetz. Aubrey Beardsley 150 Years Young. From the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. 44 illustrations, 69 items. 85 pp. Grolier Club, 2022. Excellent record of the fabulous, witty, and nimbly erudite descriptive labels from the Beardsley exhibition (8 September to 12 November 2022). The translation from Catullus illustrated above suggests that a classical education was not without its rewards. Not being a Latinist, your correspondent is glad that Beardsley could knock out such a poem.
— Rick Moody. Surplus Value Books. Catalog Number 13. Illustrated by David Ford. Unpaginated,  pp. [Santa Monica]: Danger Books!, . Edition of 174 copies signed by the author. An acerbic jeu d’esprit, a pitch perfect catalogue of imaginary books compiled by an obsessive romantic stalker. Originally published in wrappers in different format in 1999.
— Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
— George Pelecanos. The Night Gardener. Dennis McMillan, 2006.
— Marcel Proust. La Prisonnière . Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I have been reading my way through Proust for the last year, slowed down but still going. One thing that has emerged, to my surprise, is how funny the narrator is at times.
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— Mark Valentine. Arthur Machen. Seren, . Concise biography with an excellent account of the Gwent landscapes of Machen’s youth and their influence upon him.
— Kij Johnson. The River Bank. A sequel to The Wind in the Willows. Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. Small Beer Press, .
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— The Bart Auerbach Collection. Dedication Copies; Books, Letters & Manuscripts; The Book Trade; Poets, Philosophers, Historians, Statesmen, Essayists, Dramatists, Novelists, Booksellers, Humorists, &c., &c., &c. Riverrun Books, . An illustrated memorial catalogue of the private collection [500 items] of the dean of New York antiquarian book appraisers.
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— H. P. Lovecraft. Fungi from Yuggoth. An Annotated Edition. Edited by David E. Schultz. Illustrated by Jason Eckhardt. Hippocampus Press, . [re-read].
— Francis Brett Young. Cold Harbour. Collins, [3rd ptg, 1926].
— Giuseppa Z. Zanichelli. I codici miniati del Museo Diocesano “San Matteo” di Salerno. Lavegliacarlone, 2019.
— Curzio Malaparte. The Skin. [La Pelle, 1949]. Translated from the Italian by David Moore. Introduction by Rachel Kushner. NYRB paperback.
Singular Interviews, by Michael Swanwick. Tenth in an Occasional Series
Henry Wessells is not only a writer of fiction, criticism, and critical fictions but a bookman as well — a professional dealer in rare books and related materials. It is in this latter capacity that this question was posed.
Michael Swanwick: If you could own one essentially unobtainable rare genre book, what would it be?
Henry Wessells: I would like to own Erasmus’ own copy of Utopia (Louvain, 1516); or, failing that, More’s own.
But you know me very well, Michael, to ask such a question, for I (or a character calling himself “I”) have answered your question twenty years ago in the pages of NYRSF, when I summoned into being an imaginary book “I” needed to know in order to write about the work of Don Webb. That book is Irimari, ou, la reine zombie de la Guiane (Brussels: Auguste Poulet-Malassis, 1866) by Gérard de Kernec, and its English translation by Swinburne, Eurydice in Guiana, published anonymously in 1871 by John Camden Hotten. In “Book becoming power” (NYRSF, March 2000), D. owned Lester Dent’s copy of that book, and even now I wouldn’t mind owning a copy of either edition myself.
That was easy; there was no hesitation, for I have been thinking about the literature of the fantastic ever since I was seven years old. Not that I read Utopia at that age. I have seen the copy of Frankenstein which Mary Shelley inscribed to Lord Byron (one genius to another), but I never felt I needed to possess it.
I did, of course, answer your singular question in a concrete sense, by thinking about a book which did once exist, for a key aspect of our mode of literature is the literalization of metaphor.
— 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.
* 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.