in memoriam : Peter Straub (1943-2022)

Peter Straub, with Peter Cannon and S. T. Joshi, New York, June 2018.

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.

Shadow Land, inscribed by Peter Straub


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.

— — —

The  Locus obituary here :

The Peter Straub Papers (MSS 185) are held at the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. The detailed finding aid is here:

commonplace book – autumn 2022

‘beyond realistic description’

Cologne by J.M. W. Turner

“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 Financial Times

— — —

‘in a tête-à-tête there is no shuffling’ 

— from The Charles Lamb Day Book 

— — —

‘publishing as the last refuge of the grasshopper mind’ — David R. Godine
David R. Godine in mid-anecdote
David R. Godine in mid-tale, at a celebration of the publisher and his fabulous memoir, Godine at Fifty, in NYC 26 October.

— — —

“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

— — —

“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

— — —

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

— — —

“. . . and some things you can only think of in the dark”

— F. & E. Brett Young, Undergrowth

— — —

Workers lose out

graph of the declining share of income from labour since 1980
graph of the declining share of income from labour since 1980 (from the Financial Times)

recent reading : september to december 2022

current reading :

— Marcel Proust. Albertine disparue [1925]. Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

James Joyce
James Joyce in the garden, 1904. Courtesy of UCD Special Collections, CUR P1.

— 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.

— — —

recent reading :

— Stephanie Feldman. Saturnalia. A Novel. Unnamed Press, [2022]. 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.

— — —

Beardsley translation of Catullus— 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, [40] pp. [Santa Monica]: Danger Books!, [2002]. 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 [1923]. 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.

— — —

— Mark Valentine. Arthur Machen. Seren, [1995]. 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, [2017].

— — —

— 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, [2022]. An illustrated memorial catalogue of the private collection [500 items] of the dean of New York antiquarian book appraisers.

— — —

— H. P. Lovecraft. Fungi from Yuggoth. An Annotated Edition. Edited by David E. Schultz. Illustrated by Jason Eckhardt. Hippocampus Press, [2017]. [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.

A singular interview with Henry Wessells, by Michael Swanwick

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.

— — —

First published in the New York Review of Science Fiction 355 (June 2021).
Copyright © 2021 Michael Swanwick. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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.

* 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


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


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 volante, 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


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


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 :