recent reading : november 2021

— Roger Luckhurst. Gothic. An Illustrated History. Princeton University Press, [2021].
Massive full color account of the Gothic, as it has evolved “beyond its origins in architecture and the printed page to become fully transmedial”.  The discussion of architectural gothic makes clear how utterly transgressive the literary Gothic is, right from the get go. Wendy Walker discusses this in her afterword to Sexual Stealing. In Longsword (1762), the Historical Tale starts with shipwreck, imprisonment, betrayal of trust, and the eponymous earl is reported dead by a scheming rival who seeks to marry the countess. In The Castle of Otranto (December 1764; 2nd ed., April 1765), the giant black iron helmet crashes into Prince Manfred’s orderly world, killing his heir and unfettering his desires.

— Avram Davidson. Beer! Beer! Beer! [Novato, California : Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing, November 2021]. Pictorial wrappers with a cover drawing by Avi Katz.

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— Paul Theroux. Facing Ka‘ena Point. Privately printed [by Jesse Marsolais], 2021. 100 copies, signed by the author.

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— William Blake. Songs of Innocence and Experience with other poems. Basil Montagu Pickering, 1866

— Gilbert K. Chesterton. The Man Who Knew Too Much. Harper & Brothers, 1922.

— Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. PM, [2021].

— Brendan C. Byrne. Accelerate. [Moonachie, New Jersey : for the author, 3 November 2021].
A smart, dazzling book, a hurtling cross-country drive — west to east, for a change — powered by language and attitude.

— [Walpole, Horace]. The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. The Second Edition. London: Printed for William Bathoe in the Strand, and Thomas Lownds in Fleet-Street, 1765.

this most important thing

this most important thing

“I cannot think why the whole bed of the ocean is not one solid mass of oysters, so prolific the creatures seem.”

— Sherlock Holmes

Ever since moving to the yellow house some seventeen years ago, I have thought about the cluster of sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styracuflua) along the block, some of which are plainly older than our house (built 1896 and one of the oldest on the street, which dates to when Montclair was still partly an agricultural town). The oldest sweet gums are tall, with boughs spreading in a high canopy and producing an abundance of biomass at each season: flowers; leaves, which fall in mid-November; and the spiky globes of the pods which typically fall at the end of December. I have raked and gathered bushels of the pods, and thought about them: aesthetically, as Christmas-tree ornaments (spray-painted gold), and as sources of literary inspiration (see The Windhill Bequest). I am not, however, anything more than an amateur botanist and sometime alumnus of the San Francisco Weedwalks. So it was only last year that I noticed another aspect of the plant’s cycle. I brought indoors two early fallen pods, still sheathed in a greenish pink husk, and put them in a small bowl. And promptly forgot them for a few days. They dried out, and opened, and at the bottom of the bowl I found hundreds of tiny seeds. Outside, I saw doves scratching amid the fallen pods, I thought of vanished forests, and the passenger pigeon.

And today while raking leaves (that ridiculous suburban dance, a little late this year), I paused for a moment. Off in the distance there was a rumble of a passenger jet taking off from Newark. Looking up, I saw a tiny, almost invisible fall of golden seeds from the gum trees overhead, turning silently until, with a noise of unseen raindrops, they hit the leaves I had raked. The sweet gums cast billions of seeds each season. In all the preceding years I had never noticed this most important thing.

I looked up in other trees, and noticed birds, sparrows and doves, moving among the pods and not waiting for the seedcast. When I saw that a layer of the seeds covered parts of the terrace, I put down a sheet of paper at random and after about two hours I collected half a teaspoon of the seeds, each one barely the size of a mustard seed. That amateur conjecture about the passenger pigeon does not now seem so unlikely. The trees here were probably young saplings when the passenger pigeon went extinct.

I suppose I had been thinking about life cycles of plants and their rôle in an interdependent ecosystem after reading an essay by Chris Brown on the industrial agricultural countryside: “what I remember is the paradox that all that vast green countryside was so completely devoid of wild nature”. And having read “Or All the Seas with Oysters” by Avram Davidson, I should of course have been primed to pay more attention to the reproductive abundance of organisms as an inherent aspect of competition in those interdependent systems.

The pods will come down, empty, a month from now (usually around the first snow). By that time, I will have looked in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau to see if he has written on the sweet gum; and I will have read William B. Mershon’s book, The Passenger Pigeon (1907), and possibly something a bit more up-to-date. I wonder if the seeds are edible for humans.

Forget that old saw, from tiny acorns great oaks: when it come to small beginnings, the sweet gum outclasses the oak.

[This essay took half an hour, and seventeen years, to write.]

All this desert

— Charif Majdalani. Dernière oasis. Roman. Actes Sud / L’Orient des livres, [2021].

Dernière oasis is an excellent novel of menace, in which a cosmopolitan art expert describes his descent into uncertain territory (somewhere northeast of Mosul, in the summer of 2014):

Le plaisir de la découverte des objets clandestins, mon déplacement jusqu’aux lieux où on me les dévoile et, après ça, l’aventure que représente leur rocambolesque transport, chaque fois suffisent à mon bonheur.

The setting is exotic, the prose is beautiful and musical, the pacing is deft, and things are just falling apart.

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[A few days later]

Tout ce désert, c’est la faute des hommes qui ont gouverné la région, dit-il. Des irresponsables et des bandits.

And now, having experienced the full arc of the narrative arc of this very present and cosmopolitan novel (which encompasses old Lebanon, the fission of Iraq, the international art market, and the onset of the coronavirus), I remark upon how beautifully and precisely and evocatively Majdalani’s prose turns upon memory and place. There are many sly doublings of image and mood, intense conversations in unusual settings in this contemplative thriller. In his own head and with others, the narrator engages in a recurring discussion of history and its agents. Having since listened to a conversation between Gil Roth and Charif Majdalani when his earlier novel, Caravansérail (2007), appeared in English translation as Moving the Palace (New Vessel, 2017), it is clear that reflection upon historical decline is an important aspect of his work.

À chaque nouvelle catastrophique parvenant d’Irak ou de Syrie durant les années qui suivirent, ou de n’import quel coin de la planète en rapport avec les événements de cette région, j’ai resongé à l’affair du convoi du du général Ghadban et de son changement d’itinéraire, à cet embranchement, et à cette autre voie qui, si le convoi l’avait prise, aurait peut-être conduit non pas seulement Ghadban mais le monde entier ailleurs que là où ils ont été.

The reader shares the narrator’s experience of teetering at the edge of an abyss of time and incident. I am thinking about why, suddenly, in reading the opening passages of this novel, it was the mood of Ernst Jünger’s Auf den Marmor-Klippen (1939) which came up in memory (I am not going to re-read that one just now). Majdalani intimates, subtly and not with a sledge hammer, what we know in our hearts: that to be anywhere in the world — not only during the collapse of order in north Iraq in late summer 2014 — is to sense the increasing entropy of a closed system. And how beautifully the story is told.

I look forward to reading other books by Majdalani.

the new route

[Walpole, Horace]. The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. The Second Edition. London: Printed for William Bathoe in the Strand, and Thomas Lownds in Fleet-Street, 1765. ESTC T143237. Summers, A Gothic Bibliography, p. 265. Published 11 April 1765 (500 copies).

title page of the second edition of The Castle of Otranto : the first to call itself A Gothic Story

from the OED :

definition of the Gothic in the OED

Labels and categories are invariably assigned retrospectively, for the authors are walking into new territory. The first of the “Gothic tales”, Thomas Leland’s  Longsword (1762), has the subtitle, An Historical Romance. The title page of the first edition of Otranto (published in December 1764) reads: The Castle of Otranto, A Story Translated by William Marshall, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.

The Gothic was in the air, hence the new subtitle for the second edition, naming the craze which spread across Europe for the next sixty years. The second edition also includes a preface by Walpole discussing some of his aims :

it was an attempt to blend the two kinds of Romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability : in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes is, copied with success. [. . .] The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.
The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the bundles realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability ; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women might do in  extraordinary positions. He had observed, that in all inspired writings, the personages under the dispensation of miracles and witnesses to the most stupendous phenomena, never lose sight of their human character ; whereas in the productions of romantic story, an improbable event never fails to be attended by an absurd dialogue. [. . .] As the public have applauded the attempt, the author must not say he was entirely unequal to the task he had undertaken : yet if the new route he has struck out shall have paved a road for men of brighter talents, he shall own with pleasure and modesty, that he was sensible the plan was capable of receiving greater embellishments than his imagination or the conduct of the passions could bestow on it.

To which one might add: and women of brighter talents, too : for later authors in the Gothic include Anne Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

commonplace book

‘Pardon this intrusion’

The Richard Manney copy of the first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) in original boards sold at Christie’s last month for more than a million dollars. It is remarkable to see Mary Shelley’s book in original condition. I have seen two others: a beautiful, tragic smoke-stained wreck (since rebound), and a fabulous copy in pink boards (the lottery of the binder’s stock of materials) in the Pforzheimer collection at the New York Public Library, exhibited there in 2012 along with the presentation copy to Lord Byron. When I looked at the Manney copy before the auction, I turned to a certain page (not the first time I have done so). This is the page, deep in the story, where we hear the first words spoken aloud by the monster:

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even the spadgers go back to London when the ’op pickin’s over

a remark from the mouth of Magersfontein Lugg
in Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning

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never one to claim that his goose was his swan

— Robert Aickman

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Getting rid of “Tom Lecky” allowed the work to be free to play and experiment without the burden of attribution.

— Tom Lecky, interviewed by Kim Beil for Bomb

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In a totally unrelated field, one in which the writer had gained some international recognition, he had discovered that through the long years of activity, experimentation and study, the further one progressed from the status of the beginner to that of the “expert” (horrid word!), the less one was able to recall the outlook and needs of the beginner. [. . .] Briefly, he had become a specialist — to his great detriment, in many ways.

— Eugene V. Connett

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recent reading : september & october 2021

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [August 2021].

— John Crowley. Engine Summer [1979]. Illustrations by Michael Cope. Subterranean Press, 2021. One of 250 numbered copies signed by the author.

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— Joseph J. Felcone. New Jersey in Print 1693-1855. Selections from the Collection of Joseph J. Felcone. Princeton, New Jersey, 2021. Catalogue of a ghost exhibition [95 items]: Laws, scandals, novels, the first American card game, the origins of American drug culture, &c., &c. One of “a small number of copies for bookish friends”.

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— Robert Aickman. Compulsory Games and Other Stories. Edited by Victoria Nelson. New York Review Books, [2018]. Read this, even if you think you know Aickman’s work. “The Coffin House” goes somewhere utterly unexpected, all in 5 pages, remarkable. Also includes stories such as “The Fully-Conducted Tour” and “The Strangers” (not published in his lifetime).

— Margery Allingham. Crime and Mr. Campion [Death of a Ghost, 1934. Flowers for the Judge, 1936. Dancers in Mourning, 1937]. Doubleday, [n.d., ca. 1960].

That Left Turn at Albuquerque

— Scott Phillips. That Left Turn at Albuquerque. Soho Crime, [2020].

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— Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential. Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly [2000]. Harper Perennial [2007]. Revised edition, with a new afterword. A fun, gritty account. Your correspondent worked variously as a line cook, waiter, and catering jack of all trades in mid-1980s, and the absurd swagger and mania rings true. Don’t know why I didn’t see this when it first appeared.

 

The world whispers to you if you listen

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [2021].

Fantastic Americana gathers 21 stories, with “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” and “In the Teeth” original to this volume, the others published in magazines and anthologies between 2006 and 2021. The twin lines of this wide-ranging collection are Rountree’s riffs on contemporary popular music and his dark, deep-rooted tales of Texas fantastika. There is also, as in Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA (1997), the pleasure of messing with history. These aims do not necessarily exclude each other.

“February Moon” is  the concise narrative of an immigrant mother who knows well that the dangers of the old world have come with her family across the ocean to backwoods Texas. She knows how to deal with the werewolves and the ineligible bachelors. “In the Thicket, with Wolves” starts with a single mother in a contemporary setting and moves into primal folkloric territory. “Rewind” and “Rattlesnake Song” suggest the world is larger than we think while playing with the dead media tropes of video store and movie theater. In “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” a young boy recounts the flight of his mother from a stifling situation into the mesquite, for him as for us there are no answers, we can only experience another order of reality at odds with our own.

Among the unspoken concerns of this collection is what an earlier age would have call the domestic manners of the American family. Rountree will sometimes, as in “February Moon”, use a simple declarative sentence to suggest a monstrous situation that has nothing to do with shape-changers. The women know what’s what, the best of the guys try to put it together. And the worst of the men deserve what unfolds.

Your correspondent reads ventures into critical fiction sympathetically and yet with clear eyes. In “Chasing America”, where Paul Bunyan collides with Wild Bill Hickok, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac, and the Kennedy assassination, the nature of American myth and myth-making is deftly illuminated. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the Merry Pranksters and far future space war in “Intrepid Travelers” doesn’t work thematically or structurally for this reader, and is less fruitful. A few of the stories didn’t to compel this reader, but then there is “Escaping Salvation” where  unexpected supernatural phenomena define a post-collapse world and a new ecological order seems to hold sway.

The best stories are without question tales in which all these topics play with and against each other to make things happen. “Best Energies” plays with country music, Albert Einstein, and “old splinter teeth” — George Washington rendered immortal by control of the fountain of youth — and adds an independent Republic of Texas at odds with Washington, to create a fissile situation. “Fury Road” turns the songs of The Clash into a revolutionary toolbox, analogous to some of the transformations of popular culture in Michael Swanwick’s “The Feats of Saint Janis” or Jack Womack’s Elvissey. And “The Guadalupe Witch” is really something, a haunting river tale, the telling of which dismisses any epistemological ambiguities.

Fantastic Americana justifies its bold title. It’s worth looking for.

A singular interview with Mark Valentine

Henry Wessells: Mark, this question, which comes from Charles Lamb*, you have already answered more than once in a fictional mode, but perhaps there is still a candidate or two whom you might wish, as Lamb suggested, to encounter “in their nightgown and slippers, and exchange friendly greeting with them”: which literary figure from the past would you like to meet ?

Mark Valentine: I spend a lot of very agreeable hours rummaging in second-hand bookshops looking for the book I do not know I want until I find it, the one I have never heard of until it calls to me from the shelf. There is something about the title, or the author’s name, or the binding that makes me curious, so I ease it from its niche and look inside. Then I seem to know at once if it is for me, because of a certain elusive quality of the prose or the highly recondite contents, or both.

And so, resisting the urge to ask Dickens about the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to absorb a grape or two with Ronald Firbank, to risk the wrath of Baron Corvo, to ask about that remote inn The Dog at Clambercrown with Jocelyn Brooke, to sip cautiously at a glass of Dog & Duck punch with Arthur Machen, or a cocktail with Michael Arlen, to discuss the Holy Grail with Mary Butts, or Anne Ridler, or Charles Williams, or Sally Purcell, to ask Walter de la Mare whether there is anybody there, or to tell so many neglected writers that their time will come, has come, I shall opt instead to meet the yet-to-be-found, the discovery-to-be, the patiently waiting presence, the spirit that haunts all second-hand bookshops, the Unknown Author.

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Mark Valentine is author of, most recently, Sphinxes & Obelisks (Tartarus, 2021), and many volumes of fiction, including The Collected Connoisseur (with John Howard) and The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things. He is author of a monograph on Sarban and editor of Wormwood.

* in an essay by William Hazlitt : Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826).