a pair of Swanwicks

— Michael Swanwick. Red Fox, Blue Moon. [16] pp. Dragonstairs Press, 2023. Edition of 69 copies. Stitched in blue wrappers with a photo on front wrapper.
Another world in miniature from the deft and prolific Mr. Swanwick, a history of the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, replete with fox lore and subversive whimsy from what archy would call the “under side”.
[Swanwick is a master of the short short story and more than fifty of these have appeared in the ephemeral Dragonstairs books (the tally of fiction is more than 30 titles to date).]

— Michael Swanwick. The Best of Michael Swanwick. Volume Two. 530 pp. Subterranean Press, 2023. Edition of 1,000 copies, signed by the author. Evergreen cloth and pictorial dust jacket by Lee Moyer.
Includes the beautiful and devastating “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again”, the oh-so-tricky homage of “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin”, “The Beast of Tara” (“a story idea I came up with in the mid-seventies and finally wrote last year. So if you’re wondering how long it takes to write one of these things  and many other fine tales”), and many more. “Libertarian Russia” is filled with  a sense of wonder and loss and deep nostalgia and reads like a despatch from another lifetime though it dates from 2010.
[The Best of Michael Swanwick, “predecessor to the current volume” (as the jacket panel notes), was published by Subterranean in 2008 in an edition of 150 signed copies.] 

a few pamphlets (new and old)

a few pamphlets that have come across the desk of the Endless Bookshelf in recent months :

Old apple tree, old apple tree
Keep the secrets that you see

— Cardinal Cox. The Folk Show 3 : Fan Mail for a Film [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2023]. Edition of 100 copies, (to be given away at the 2023 Whittlesea Straw Bear festival*). Self-wrappers.
——. From the Hercynian Forest [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2019]. Edition of 100 copies. Self-wrappers.
——. London Particular [Cover title]. [16] pp.  [Peterborough: Starburker Publication, 2019]. Edition of 100 copies. Self-wrappers.
These three chapbooks of poems and vignettes of English folklore draw from deep wells, mixing gritty observation of daily life with literary allusion, wit, and punk pop culture tricksters. Cox, who invokes the name of John Clare more than any other living writer, I suspect, was poet-in-residence for the Dracula Society, and seems to share a fascination with The Wicker Man. These resulted in a good old fashioned ’zine exchange (I sent alonga couple of the productions of Temporary Culture).

* Plough Monday in January, “between Christmas and fen-skate party”,  is the traditional date of the Straw Bear festival, one learns from an aside in From the Hercynian Forest. This reminds me of the excellent exhibition of modern British folk art at the Barbican in May 2005, and the accompanying book, Folk Archive. Contemporary Popular Art from the UK, by Jeremy Delter and Alan Kane (Book Works, 2005), which I lent to a friend or otherwise I would do more than wonder if I can bring back some photos from the dark age and a cheap plastic cell phone, such as this label (the photograph of the object described won’t migrate) :

— — —

— [Bernadette Mayer]. Midwinter Marie. [16] pp. [James Walsh, 2023]. Second edition, one of 25 copies. Wrappers.
Selections by James Walsh from Midwinter Day (1982).

— — —

— Meghan Constantinou. The Daniel Press. Pioneer of the Private Press Movement. Illustrated. 26, [2] pp. The Grolier Club, 2021. Card covers, printed grey wrapper. Design by Kerry Kelly.
Catalogue of an exhibition of the Daniel Press, the print shop of  Charles Henry Olive Dance (1836-1919), who printed some 50 books (chiefly poetry) between 1874 and 1906, and revived an early type face (the catalogue is set in the Fell type). Daniel is described by Colin Franklin as “an independent figure, outside fashionable taste and movements”. The books are generally small and handsome, and the press  “has had a rich afterlife in multiple sense of the term”.

— — —

three black cats

— Christopher Barker. Plagiarism & Pederasty : Skeletons in the Jamesian Closet. In which the source for ‘The Ash-tree’ by Montague Rhodes James is identified. By Christopher Barker. Together with The Three Black Cats. By the Rev. A.D. Croke. Illustration of a George Cruikshank plate. Unpaginated, [28] pp. The Haunted River, 2003. Edition of 100 copies. Printed wrappers.

“The Three Black Cats” is a short antiquarian tale of horror published in 1888 in a collection of stories by A.D. Croke. Barker notes very strong similarities between the nucleus of Croke’s tale and “The Ash-tree”, which appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), and takes James to task for plagiarism and hypocrisy and more..

It is sometimes fruitful to knock two ideas together to see if something new arises. Not in this instance, however. I know nothing of Barker, but this little book seethes with such resentment and outrage at the “honeyed images of the man as presented by Jamesian scholars” that a moderately interesting insight drowns under a bubbling hostility.

— — —

— Timothy d’Arch Smith. Montague Summers. A Talk. 25, [2] pp. The Tragara Press, 1984. One of 25 copies (edition of 110).
Talk presented to the Society on Montague Summers as bibliophile and aesthete.


recent reading : february to june 2023

current reading :
— Marcel Proust. Albertine disparue (1925) & Le temps retrouvé (1927). À la recherche du temps perdu IV. Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

— M. John Harrison. Wish I Was Here. An Anti-Memoir. [Serpent’s Tail, 2023]. Signed by the author 23 May 2023. [Gift of MLV].

— — —

recent reading :

— S. Barkworth. The Nijmegen Proof. Holmes Publishing Co., 1988.

— George Sims. The Terrible Door. The Bodley Head, [1964].
— —. The Last Best Friend [1967]. Carroll & Graf pbk., [1988].
— —. Hunters Point. Gollancz, 1973.
— —. The End of the Web. Gollancz, 1976.
— —. The Keys of Death. Macmillan, [1982].
George Sims (1923-1999) was an antiquarian bookseller, specialist in literature and literary manuscripts, and author of The Rare Book Game (1985), a memoir in the form of essays, and its several sequels. His crime novels are full of the most granular detail of the byways of London in the early 1960s, and Hunters Point is partly set in a San Francisco observed with similar care. Sims was a long-time friend of Julian Symons (I have his Death’s Darkest Face inscribed to Sims), which sparked my interest. H. R. F. Keating  included The Last Best Friend in his  Crime & Mystery The 100 Best Books and noted that the “exactitude of the poet” and “peripheral elaborations” are “simultaneously his triumph and something like his downfall” and mark him as an amateur writer. Sometimes the digressions are the voyage.

— — —

— Robert Sheckley. The Game of X [1965]. Jonathan Cape, [1966]. Excellent send-up of the espionage genre and a love letter to the city of Venice, with Sheckley’s characteristic wit bubbling up at odd moments and with perfect timing.
— —. Crompton Divided. Holt, Rinehart and Winston,  [1978]. Scent and memory and an interplanetary question for personal integration made literal. Expanded from an early novella, “Join Now” or “The Humors”, with a cock-eyed nod to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

— — —

— Julian Symons. The Man Who Killed Himself. The Crime Club, Collins, 1967.
— —. The Man Who Lost His Wife. The Crime Club, Collins, 1970.
— —. The Players and the Game. The Crime Club, Collins, 1972
— —. The Detling Murders. Collins, 1982. The Detling Secret. Viking. 1983.
— —. Something like a Love Affair. Macmillan, 1992.
I have long enjoyed the crime novels of Julian Symons which also serve as examinations of middle-class British life. I had read one or two of these a long time ago, and re-reading them was as interesting as charting new territory.

— — —

Dorothy L. Sayers. Clouds of Witness [1927]. Bourbon Street Books paperback.
— —. Strong Poison [1930]. Bourbon Street Books paperback.
— —. Gaudy Night. Gollancz, [1936].
— —. Busman’s Honeymoon [1937]. Bourbon Street Books paperback.

— James Clarke. Sanderson’s Isle. Serpent’s Tail, [2023].

— — —

— Arthur Machen. Far Off Things. Martin Secker, [1922].
— —. The London Adventure. Martin Secker, [1924].

— Iain Sinclair. Agents of Oblivion. Swan River Press, 2023.
Four short stories on Blackwood, Machen, Ballard, Lovecraft.

— Paul McAuley. Fairyland [1995]. Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback.

— Avram Davidson. AD100. 100 years of Avram Davidson. 100 Unpublished or Uncollected Stories. Volume I [II]. [xii], 635, [9]; [xii], 548, [8] pp. [Or All the Seas With Oysters, 2023].
A monumental collection of tales, for the Avram Davidson centenary!

— — —

— Christopher Fowler. Seventy-Seven Clocks [2005]. Bantam Books pbk., 19th ptg.

— Nicola Upson. Nine Lessons [2017]. Faber pbk., [2021]. Crime story rooted in adolescent privilege, with reference to the ghost stories of M. R. James.

— Mark Valentine. The Peacock Escritoire with At Dusk. Tartarus Press, [2024]

— — —

— Herman Melville. Moby-Dick ; or, The Whale. University of California Press, [1981]. Illustrations by Barry Moser. California edition, reproduced from the Arion Press edition.

— Ling Ma. Bliss Montage. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2022]. WInner of the Story prize.

— Janwillem van de Wetering. The Japanese Corpse [1977]. Soho paperback, [1996].

— Michael Swanwick. Transits of Venus. Dragonstairs, 2023.

— — —

— Lord Dunsany. Lost Tales Volume VI. Illustrations by S. H. Sime. [Foreword by Randall, baron Dunsany]. Pegana Press, 2022 [i.e., 2023].
Finely printed collection of 7 stories, including an unpublished Jorkens yarn! Concluding a decade-long project, the first volume of which was the Endless Bookshelf  book of the year in 2012.

— John Crowley. Little, Big or, The Fairies’ Parliament. Art by Peter Milton. Afterword by Harold Bloom. Incunabula, 2021 [i.e., 2022].

— Joanna Russ. The Adventures of Alyx. Timescape | Pocket Books, [August, 1983].

Tales from Gavagan’s Bar. Frontispiece by Tim Kirk

— L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt. Tales from Gavagan’s Bar (Expanded Edition). Owlswick, 1978.
“rhymes with ‘pagan’”

— Peter Kafer. Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic. Univ. of Penna Press, [2004, i.e., POD 26 Dec. 2022].

— Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Mexican Gothic. Del Rey [pbk, 7th ptg, 2021]

Brief Essays on Genre by Michael Swanwick

— Michael Swanwick. Brief Essays on Genre. [Dragonstairs Press, 2023]. [16] pp. Stitched in wrappers. Edition of 75 signed copies.

Michael Swanwick is a trickster and a master of concision. In “A User’s Guide to the Postmoderns (1986)*, he danced his way through a discussion of contemporary science fiction and the apparent divide between the cyberpunks and the humanists, exhibiting familiarity with the work and the writers, all without ever quite planting a foot on either side of the fence.  He was a skeptic of movements and manifestos back then; and when Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) seemed to chart a structure and laws, Swanwick set out to write a work that violated all of them and yet was unmistakably fantasy. So he has a playful side. He performed several rigorous, extended virtuoso sequences of short short stories, with Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary for The New York Review of Science Fiction (2000), The Periodic Table of the Elements for Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction (2000-2003, collected in 2005), and The Sleep of Reason, riffs on Goya’s Los Caprichos for The Infinite Matrix (2002-2003). His Christmas cards are a blast, short shorts that sometimes wrench your heart.

And now Swanwick has returned to nonfiction, with Brief Essays on Genre, which collects 25 sharp observations on writing and the literature of the fantastic. He knows how to get right to the heart of the matter. There is not a word of excess. The conclusion of the Brief Essay upon literary movements reaffirms his earlier position. “By the time you’ve heard of somebody else’s, it’s over.” If this approaches aphorism, nonetheless it rings true. Of course the difficulty in writing about these essays is that one find oneself in the situation of Avram Davidson writing his editor about  “The Last Wizard”, in a letter of explanation as long as the story.  I can’t, however, help citing this essay:

On Defining Genre
The problem with defining a genre — science fiction, for example, or fantasy — is that once you’ve declared what it is, you’ve also declared what it can’t be. And if it can’t be anything but what it has already been, it’s of no interest to any serious artist.

This approaches, from a different angle, William S. Wilson’s observation, “Writing within conventions of language, and of genre, is like swimming in society rather than in a pond under a waterfall.” It is often at the edges or boundaries where interesting things happen.

Don’t be fooled by the brevity or levity of Swanwick’s essays, this is a notable book.

Brief Essays on Genre sold out upon publication but you may read the essays as they appeared serially on Flogging Babel, beginning here.

* collected, with “In The Tradition” (1994), a cruise through the disputed waters of Fantasy, in The Postmodern Archipelago (1997).

The Avram Davidson Centenary

Sunday 23 April 2023 is the centenary of the birth of Avram Davidson.

On this occasion, worthy of celebration wherever the readers of this website may find themselves, it is worth looking back at origins. I count myself fortunate to have discovered the work of Avram Davidson, when in late 1992 I first read a battered but intact copy of The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy paperback. I was surprised, again and again. The rambling sentences and digressions impressed me, but most of all it was the way in which Davidson integrated obscure and bizarre knowledge into these stories: knowledge that in anyone else’s hands would be dusty and uninteresting or an info-dump that strangled or squashed the flow of language. Davidson was genuinely learned, as even a single sentence taken at random will reveal. There is a healthy measure of irreverence to temper this erudition, too, so that a reader is never oppressed by the weight of information imparted. I know that I was re-reading the Enquiries in late April or early May 1993, for when I decided to order the two books then in print and called up George Scithers, publisher of the Owlswick Press (and Weird Tales), in King of Prussia*, Penna., he answered my inquiry with the statement, “Avram Davidson died last week.”

portrait of Avram Davidson (1923-1993), American science fiction author and essayist

Over the next several months and years, the quest for other works by Davidson, at first to read them, but soon I began preparing lists in an attempt to understand the range of his work. I corresponded with or met folks in and out of science fiction, many of whom I still count as friends. The rest is history, some of it chronicled in back issues of The Nutmeg Point District Mail newsletter and in the archives of the Avram Davidson website. From small seeds and many friendships, the Avram Davidson Society (largely imaginary but important for all that) has fostered interest in the writings of Avram Davidson.

In recent months, I have been re-reading lots and lots of Avram Davidson with great pleasure, the Eszterhazy stories (a perennial favorite), but also “Lord of Central Park” and El Vilvoy de las Islas (if Naples is the most elegant book I have published with the imprint of the Nutmeg Point District Mail, El Vilvoy is the most important). And then there is The Avram Davidson Treasury (1998), the great triumph of Grania Davis and her efforts in the first wave of posthumous publications. And if the Treasury unaccountably omitted three essential stories, “Lord of Central Park”, “The Dragon Skin Drum”, and El Vilvoy de las Islas, well, all three appeared in collections within the next few years, in The Investigations of Avram Davidson and The Other Nineteenth Century. And Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven gathered together material relating to Avram Davidson as an American Jewish writer; the biographical essay by Eileen Gunn remains the most important survey of Davidson’s life and work. These are solid foundations upon which all else has built.

And now, for the Avram Davidson Centenary year, there will be a century of stories, AD 100. 100 Years of Avram Davidson. 100 Unpublished or Uncollected Stories, a two volume collection assembled by Seth Davis and forthcoming in 2023 from  Or All the Seas with Oysters, the publishing arm of the Estate of Avram Davidson. Your correspondent had an early look at the table of contents and it is a fascinating assembly: early writings, some of which I have never seen, and stories published in a variety of periodicals and anthologies — within and without the genres— many of them ephemeral, fleeting, and extinct. Once upon a time, dear reader, it took fantastical amounts of luck and patience and effort and, above all, TIME to trace these stories, simply for the pleasure of reading them. Now, this pleasure will be yours, as you peruse two thick volumes. I look forward to doing so myself.

The preparation of AD100 is a colossal accomplishment and a landmark in the posthumous career of Avram Davidson as significant as publication of The Avram Davidson Treasury in 1998. Here’s to the next twenty-five years!

On the occasion of the Centenary, I acknowledge, in memoriam, a short list friends and correspondents who were instrumental in promoting the legacy of Avram Davidson: Grania Davis, Guy Davenport, Reno W. Odlin, George Scithers, and David G. Hartwell.

* King of Prussia, named for an eighteenth-century crossroads tavern, is the wonderfully named town near where I spent much of my youth. I suspect Avram Davidson took a certain amount of pleasure in the unusual name of the town where his friend and long-time editorial champion George Scithers (1929-2010) lived for many years.

[This essay appeared in slightly different form as part of The Nutmeg Point District Mail, vol. XXI, no. 1, archived at http://avramdavidson.org/nutmeg48.htm.]

sixteen years of the Endless Bookshelf

24 January 2023

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 yearThe 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.

There were plenty of other recent books of note:
— John Crowley. Flint and Mirror. Tor, [2022].  Reviewed here.
— Alice Elliott Dark. Fellowship Point. A Novel. Mary Sue Rucci Books | Scribner, [2022]. Noted here.
— Elizabeth Hand. Hokuloa Road. Mulholland Books. Little, Brown, [2022]. Noted here.
— R. B. Russell. Robert Aickman. An Attempted Biography. Tartarus, [2022].
— R. B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. With numerous illustrations. 255 pp. Sheffield : And Other Stories, 2022. Reviewed here.
— Christelle Téa. Bibliothèques. Dessins 2018-2021. Librarie Métamorphoses, [2022]. Exhibition catalogue.
— Mark Valentine. The Fig Garden and other stories. Tartarus, [2022]. An excellent new collection, with several original stories.
— David R. Whitesell. A Curator’s Wunderkammer. A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia. Exhibition Catalog. [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library], 2022. Reviewed here.
— Eric G. Wilson. Dream Child. A Life of Charles Lamb. Yale University Press, [2022].
— Paul Witcover. Lincolnstein. A Novel. [Hornsea:] PS, [2021]. Reviewed here.
I found one antiquarian title I had been seeking for many years  :
— F. & E. Brett Young. Undergrowth [1913]. Cassell, [Popular Edition, 1925].
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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

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.”

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].

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— 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].
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— Michael Swanwick and Gardner Dozois. In His Own Words. Dragonstairs, [2022].  Edition of 60 copies.
Legendary editor Gardner Dozois interviewed by his friend.
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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. Also notable for having a decent working class guy as protagonist.
— 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.
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— 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.
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— 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.
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—[Margaret Cavendish,] Duchess of Newcastle. The Description of a New World called the Blazing World. 1666.
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— Mark Valentine. The Fig Garden and other stories. Tartarus, [2022].
Excellent new collection, with several original stories.
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— 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).
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— 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].
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— 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.]
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— 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.
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— 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
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— 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.
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— 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.

fifteen years of the Endless Bookshelf

24 January 2022

Your correspondent celebrates fifteen years of simply messing about in books on this website (it started here, but of course the mischief and fun and seriousness go back much further). There are a few regular readers of the ’shelf, and perhaps once in a while a new reader will come across something in the archives which cannot be found elsewhere. I continue to read Proust in the Pléiades edition, with great interest and pleasure; I am now at the stage of Le Côté des Guermantes, and there is no stopping. There are also other books which come to hand, as I usually have a second or a third book which I am reading, or at least reading at. Some of them are noted below. I omit the names of several bibliographies I have been consulting as these fall under work in progress.

I have written a few essays recently where the lead time for publication is rather longer than for the Endless Bookshelf: I received Paul Witcover’s new book late last week, read it, and finished the review a couple of days later; and even had time to look at it in the cold light of day before posting it. That flexibility is one reasion why I figure I will keep writing these chronicles of small beer for a while longer. Perhaps you will want to read them.

I am very much looking forward to reading Robert Aickman An Attempted Biography by R. B. Russell (Tartarus Press); I have read some of Aickman’s stories but by no means all of them.

tattered remains of front wrapper of Ulysses, 1922

Wednesday 2 February marks the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published as a book in Paris on the author’s fortieth birthday in 1922. This is the darkened and tattered remains of the front wrapper of one of the 750 ordinary copies of the first edition, one of those scraps of paper which demand to be saved.

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In February, I expect to be at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland, booth 504 (James Cummins Bookseller) at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Friday 11 February through Sunday 13 February. If you are in the Bay Area, come by and say hello (and please let me know in advance if you would like a pass).

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recent reading

— Henry C. Mercer. November Night Tales [1928]. [Introduction by Peter Bell]. Swan River Press, 2015.
Supernatural tales by the Pennsylvania polymath archaeologist, ceramicist, and polymath Henry C. Mercer (1856-1930), who was educated at Harvard (Class of 1879) and as a ceramicist played a key part in the American Arts and Crafts movement. His poured concrete mansion, Fonthill — named for William Beckford’s Gothic folly — is a turn of the century wonder; and his collections of American tools and vernacular objects pioneered the preservation of what is now called material culture. These stories range from rural Pennsylvania folklore to a forgotten treasure in the Italian Alps. The best of them is “The Wolf Book”, a tale of werewolves in the Balkans and an ill-starred book.

— Richard Thompson, with Scott Timberg. Beeswing. Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2021.
Memoir by one of the founders of Fairport Convention; his fabulous 1968 dream of Keith Richards and south London is worth the price of admission. Thompson played a solo acoustic show at a local Montclair venue not too long before the pandemic, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was one of the great moments of that evening. Thompson’s songs express — like the late novels of Russell Hoban — the curious notion that loss is the great creative well for literature and song. Sad and beautiful can be triumphant at the same time, because the song outlasts the sorrow.

— T. Frank Muir. Hand for a Hand. Soho Crime, [2012]. Crime novel set in St. Andrews, Scotland.

— Sara Gran. The Book of the Most Precious Substance. A Novel. Dreamland Books, [2022].

— Michael Shea. Mr. Cannyharme. A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror. Foreword by Linda Shea. Edited by St. Joshi. Hippocampus, [2021].
San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, with interdimensional beings, written by Michael Shea circa 1981. I found the first half of the book interesting, with well grounded scenes around the Tenderloin hotel managed by the writer-protagonist, and some choice, weird secondary characters. My interest waned as the supernatural elements unfolded.