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 Carylon’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 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 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

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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 .
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— 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.

a vitrine at the Book Fair

The most striking vitrine I saw at the recent New York Antiquarian Book Fair was this display of the artist books of Heide Hatry and related botanicals at the booth of Sanctuary Books. Hatry’s transformations are playful and  provocative, and gorgeous to hold in the hand.

[Opium Book, with poppy seed text.]

[Book of Seeds]

[A prickly text.]

[Secret library in a pomegranate.]

A Wunderkammer in Virginia

cover of A Curator’s Wunderkammer— David R. Whitesell. A Curator’s Wunderkammer. A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia. Exhibition Catalog. [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library], 2022. Illustrated throughout. [iv], 105 pp. Edition of 500 copies [in fact, 310]. $25.00.
David Whitesell’s Wunderkammer exhibition is a retirement party in material form, a late career greatest hits selection of sixty-four books, manuscripts, and ephemera he bought for Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library during a decade at as curator at the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia (previously he was at the American Antiquarian Society for many years). The exhibition runs through July but information seems meager on the UVa website, so I will treat this catalogue as my invitation to the party (complete with a transcript of all the speeches!) and write about it.
A Curator’s Wunderkammer includes is divided into five broad categories: Jefferson, Virginia, & American History (23 items); English Literature (5 items); American Literature (7 items); Printing, Publishing & Book Arts (19 items); and Omnium Gatherum (10 items). Boundaries are usually a lot  fuzzier than people think, and here, too: many of the items in the Omnium Gatherum have an Americana flavor.  This is only a tiny selection from some 15,000 items Whitesell purchased, but they document the curator’s energies and the range of materials that he has seen.  The items include a Jefferson manuscript and the diary of a young lady growing up in Virginia during the Civil War (this is after all, Jefferson’s university);  the first novel by an American-born author; a rare Boston imprint of Meat out of the Eater and Day of Doom; the decorative wrapper for  a ream of paper from a Hartford Mill; a memoir of a Bavarian soldier in the first world war; a private manuscript anthology of the poet Chatterton; and a fragment of Washington Irving letter, just before his career took off with The Sketch Book.
Whitesell pays attention to poetry (he was editor of Roger Stoddard’s  monumental  Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 through 1820). Notable here are a family copy of an early American utopia in verse, The United Worlds (1834), which conclusively identifies the author, and The Eucleia (ca. 1865), a nonce collection of the works of William Cook, mendicant poet and self-publisher in Salem, Mass., reflecting Whitesell’s interest in “nineteenth-century non-canonical verse”. And then there is the rare and remarkable and potent America and other poems by James Monroe Whitfield (Buffalo, 1853).
America by James Monroe Whitfield, 1853
The last item in the catalogue is the manuscript of an essay, “La biblioteca total”,  written by Jorge Luis Borges for Sur (August 1939), which is identified as a precursor of the story, “La biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel), published two years later in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. No wonder he describes this as “the prize, and if I must choose, my favorite UVA acquisition”.
In this catalogue Whitesell names the booksellers from whom he purchased materials (this aspect of the history of the object is usually omitted); and so this catalogue becomes a an account of relationships between the antiquarian trade and a knowledgeable institutional buyer. He writes discursively on his selection process and the constantly changing nature of the book trade. This is a fun catalogue.

[Note: The colophon states 500 copies printed, but due to paper shortages only 310 were in fact printed. If you want one, best to act soon.Details: https://at.virginia.edu/wunderkammer]