The Darkening Garden (review)

The Darkening Garden.  A Short Lexicon of Horror by John Clute.
Cauheegan; Seattle: Payseur & Schmidt, [2006].
Illustrated. [xii], 162, [4] pp. $45.00
reviewed by Henry Wessells
[First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 19:7, no. 223 (March 2007). All rights reserved.]

The Knowledge at the Heart of the Labyrinth

The Darkening Garden is a brilliant, irritating book, a dark little jewel of a grenade tossed into the cocktail party of genre criticism.  Its subtitle, A Short Lexicon of Horror, is Clutean misdirection deftly understated. What we have here is a philosophical engine, an encyclopedia in miniature (assuming a certain degree of knowledge on the reader, author entries can be found elsewhere or simply imagined) and, most importantly, a record of how John Clute thinks. This last is no small matter.

FUSTIAN by Jason van Hollander

The Darkening Garden is a collection of thirty short essays on topics relevant to the horror sort of fantastic literature. No particular affinity for horror literature is required. The terms that Clute defines will be of interest to all readers, just as the critical approach these terms articulate bears upon all sorts of fantastic literature. (I use the neutral term sort — less charged than flavor or variety — here, precisely, in place of genre or mode because definition of genre is one of the concerns of the book at hand.) 

[ To read the complete review essay, click here : ]

The illustration at top is Jason van Hollander’s FUSTIAN portrait of John Clute. The complete text of The Darkening Garden is available in Clute’s Stay (Beccon, 2014).

Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages (review)

Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages. [Introduction by Neil Gaiman]. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007. x, 210 pp. $14.95 (trade paperback)

reviewed by Henry Wessells

[Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 19, no. 12, August 2007.]

Portable Childhoods arrived with a small note, Thought you’d enjoy Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians”, and an illegible signature. I knew some of Ellen Klages’ work from the Infinite Matrix website and from F&SF; and Eileen Gunn once or twice told me funny stories of road trips they had made together. I was utterly unprepared for the energy and nimbleness of this collection of sixteen stories. Klages treads the invisible line between wonder and the mundane with total control, and her insights into  the betweenness of childhood and the nature of becoming — becoming human, becoming adult — are fully earned and devoid of cuteness. After reading three or four stories, each with distinct characteristics (As one of her characters says, “It’s different every time.”), the range and subtlety of Klages’ prose made me think about how it is I look at short stories: to define just what are some of the yardsticks I use to recognize interesting work.

“In the House of the Seven Librarians” is a playful, feminist mirror to “The Library of Babel”: a tale of an almost wholly self-contained universe of books, but a library whose librarians have names, and who are competent to deal with eruptions of the unexpected into their routine, such as an infant girl returned in payment of overdue book fines. Klages’ story engages the idea of the library in America and the recent shift away from the book as central to the mission of the library. It’s also a great deal of fun, teasing us all with our fancies of what goes on after hours, or when the expected rules are changed: her list of “10 Things to Remember When You Live in a Library” is a recipe for mayhem and laughter, “Do not drop volumes of the Britannica off the stairs to hear the echo.”  “In the House of the Seven Librarians” is also the story of a young person learning how and when to assert herself, to move from the familiar into the new.

The precise, rippling sentences of the ten vignettes of  “Portable Childhoods” are the muscles of a neurosurgeon’s hands at work, not those of a boxer. Klages evokes the close focus of the child’s world at the same time as we learn of the longer perspective of the narrator, her mother. Each of the sections of “Portable Childhoods” contains the seeds of the others, and here as elsewhere Klages demonstrates an economy of words that brought Lydia Davis to mind. I am thinking of the careful observation of family life in “Our Kindness” from Almost No Memory (1997); Klages is a lavish maximalist by comparison, yet not one word is superfluous. No one who reads “Portable Childhoods” will thereafter view croutons and photons as unrelated.

The handful of short shorts in this collection proves Klages to be up to the demands of this perilous form. “Ringing Up Baby” (published last year in Nature) is snappy and worth of Fredric Brown in its closing ironies. From the famous passage in the writings of J. S. Haldane about an “inordinate fondness” for bugs, “Intelligent Design” goes after root causes rather than secondary effects, thereby surpassing even Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them” (1985): “Creeping things covered every surface, legs and claws and pincers scuttling and  skittering.” Postmodern pulp is deftly skewered even as its essence is savored in “Möbius, Stripped of a Muse”.

Klages reminds us that childhood is an unsettled time, and that children are often bereft of power to respond to what the adults around them are doing. The opening story of the collection, “Basement Magic”, takes place in suburban Detroit. Klages describes the stepmother in terms one will not encounter in Snow White. “Kitty, the new Mrs. Ted Whittaker, is a former Miss Bloomfield Hills, a vain divorcée with a towering mass of blond curls in a shade note her own. In the wild, her kind is inclined to eat their young.” Mary Louise is a quiet child, unable to defend herself against Kitty until she makes friend with Ruby, a transplanted conjure woman from the deep South. There is a flavor of Avram Davidson’s “Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?” in the dynamic of Ruby and her employer, but I was surprised at how carefully Klages kept Mary Louise in the center of the story, and the magic that unfolds is ultimately hers. The transformation Mary Louise makes is analogous to that of the unloved child in the Paul Bowles story “Kitty” in Midnight Mass (1981). I must assume the name of the stepmother is chosen with deliberate irony, for Klages works an identical effect in “Flying over Water”.

”The Green Glass Sea” is a haunting account of a picnic at the original ground zero in 1945. Klages allows her narrator to describe events whose portent the reader comprehends far more clearly than the young girl who is experiencing them. There is no condescension or denial of dignity, only (only!) the evocation of loss and the space in which our harrowing present begins to unfold its true shape.

“Time  Gypsy” is a tale of time-travel, love, and reinventing of the history of science. Carol McCullough is sent back in time by Chambers, the head of the physics department, a Nobel laureate whom she suspects of having designs on the fourth, unpublished paper of Sara Clarke, a brilliant scientist who died untimely. McCullough finds herself ill-prepared for the intolerance of 1950s California and meets an unexpected ally in Clarke. History unfolds according to the known record, but McCullough has planted evidence of the false pretenses by which Chambers published the work that won him the Nobel prize. “Time Gypsy” is the longest story in the collection, but Klages writes just as deftly at this length as in her shorter pieces. The overt critique of the male hierarchies of science in the 1950s is inseparable from the love affair and the time-travel aspects of the story; I am reminded of the Cambridge scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to unlocking the structure of DNA was largely overshadowed by her colleagues Crick and Watson.

In the course of reading and thinking about Portable Childhoods, I found myself questioning the nature of my comparative processes. It is not about yardsticks to measure a given length, nor about fixed landmarks that I am seeking as I move through the forest of story. Both notions are much too inert to describe the experience of coming upon familiar signs from a fairly broad universe of stories that I draw upon to orient myself.* It is not that seeing X means Y must be near. Absolutely not, for Klages is not a derivative writer: these stories convey her own voice and sure pace. It is much more that the stories of certain authors serve me as a descriptive language, as an allusive choreography: when reading something new, I recall similar incidents and images and effects in the dance of story. 

So when I say that “A Taste of Summer” makes me think of Robert Sheckley, it is not entirely the same Sheckley I think of when I read Rudy Rucker. In this story, Klages works her best science magic: an episode of childhood — a walk to the crossroads ice-cream parlor — is rigorously observed in its fabric of small resentments and the way these suddenly fall away. 

Mattie considered her options and decided that a walk with a popsicle at the other end was probably the best of them. [. . .] It was definitely going to rain, and she didn’t think it was going to wait until dinnertime. She though for a minute about going back, but decided that maybe being wet on a sort-of adventure was better than being dry and bored for sure.

And then Klages works a twist of events that opens possibilities to Mattie and to the reader. Crossing the yellow lines on the road, and seeking shelter from a sudden storm in the ice-cream shop, Mattie meets Nan Bingham, who gives her a scoop of a new flavor: apple pie à la mode ice cream. There is electricity in the air, and they seek refuge in the storm cellar — Mattie herself making the comparison to The Wizard of Oz. Nan tells about her hobby, “painting with flavors”, and is suitably inarticulate. Nan gives Mattie a bit of pure flavor, an experiment. “She tasted a fuzzy sweetness, then coconut and a salty tang then a different, sharper sweet and a bit of burnt and smoke and way in the back of her mind she thought about her father mowing the grass.” Klages then empowers Mattie to put the unspoken into words: “this was more like a movie that went from my tongue to my brain.” It is these descriptions of the flavor chemist’s hobby that invoke Sheckley for me: in Crompton Divided (1978), Sheckley plays with smells that elicit landscapes and memories. But where Psychosmells, Inc. is a corporation that sells a commodity to rich, elderly men for whom its use is a demonstration of power, in “A Taste of Summer”, the wealth of sensation that Nan Bingham creates is a secret gift to a child, “like toffee made on another planet. [. . .] It’s different every time.”

Portable Childhoods is a complex and rewarding book. Tachyon and publisher Jacob Weisman are to be commended for publishing it. Ellen Klages is indisputably a writer whose work arose within the science fiction mode; yet even as science fiction is part of the weave of her stories, she turns the garment of genre inside out to remind us that her universe (and ours) is wider than literary commonplaces.  

Henry Wessells lives and read in Montclair, New Jersey. His latest whimsy is the Endless Bookshelf, simply messing about in books:

*  The review as written included a short list, omitted in the published version and repurposed for the ’shelf as Yardsticks ; or how to compare Apples & Oranges.

Copyright © 2007 by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.

Dream Fox

— Rosalie Parker. Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories. [vi], 239 pp.  Tartarus Press, [2023]. Pictorial boards, dust jacket.
A new collection of 18 stories from this talented author, presenting a variety of modes and settings, plus a fabulous book-within-a-book, “Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences”. The stories also display a remarkable range of voices and a change of register from one story to the next, the oppressive tone of “Home Comforts”is followed by the quiet austerity and sense of the inescapable at the heart of “The Decision”. “Pebble” is a dark fable of modern slavery; it takes a sudden, darker turn that speaks of liberation.

The first story, “Beguiled”, starts as a glimpse of an aristocratic young lady’s privilege and confinement in Imperial Russia, with a flavor of some of the tales of Saki. The narrative moves with concision and perfect pitch to an icy conclusion and a devastating last line. The effect is breathtaking ! and all in eight pages of the most lucid prose.

The title story, “Dream Fox”, a variation on the Reynard tales, is deeply subversive of the patriarchy and the county landholding class. It is the rebellious imagination of the adolescent girl that powers the transformation. The outcome is utterly that of “Kitty” by Paul Bowles.

“Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences” is a collection of nine stories of ghosts and uncanny experiences in contemporary Britain, a book “chanced upon in  a remainder outlet or a charity shop, rather than a bona fide bookstore”, published by a vanity press for “the crazy old woman who own all those millions in the National Lottery” and who wants to share her belief in the paranormal. The frame story is told in an introduction and the headnotes to each account. It is hilarious (is it a cameo self-portrait of the author?): in “The Dating Game”, Mary Belgrove tells Scott, “Perhaps we need to recognise that in this case  ‘Alive’ and ‘Dead’ may be relative terms.” The experiences (each narrated in a distinct voice) are dislocating and defy reductive explanation.

A beautiful book and a notable collection.

The Silverberg Business : the Endless Bookshelf book of the year – 2022

‘I can’t explain it and I don’t try’

— Robert Freeman Wexler. The Silverberg Business. [vi], 269, [1, blank], [1, about the author], [5, blank], [4, ads]. Small Beer Press, [2022]. Wrappers with illustration by Jon Langford.

The Silverberg Business follows Shannon, a Jewish private detective who has come to Victoria, Texas, in late October 1888, in search of information about a missing man and the large bank draft he carried, representing funds raised on behalf of a Romanian Jewish refugee settlement plan. Shannon, a Galveston native with a talent for finding bodies, uncovers fraud and murder, and indications of concerted sinister activity in and around southern coastal Texas. We get a clear sense of the “feel of a frontier town” in Victoria, and the people living there. Shannon gets knocked over the head on several occasions. He works for a Chicago agency and has considerable autonomy. The detective talks, and listens to people from all walks of life, bankers and bank clerks, railroad conductors and bartenders, laundresses and rooming-house owners, marshals and horse dealers, gamblers, whores, and rabbis. In the course of his narration, Shannon drops elements of his own history and character. His tenacity of purpose leads him into strange places, and the reader goes with him, out into sparsely populated terrain, and elsewhere.

August Miller Store, Victoria, Texas. Courtesy of Victoria Regional History Center.

Shannon’s first-person narrative voice is matter-of-fact, smart and aphoristic, and keenly observant of his surroundings. He is Hammett’s Continental Op on the ground in 1880s Texas, which would be interesting enough, but Wexler also reappropriates the Western as a literary domain,  and goes farther even than William S. Burroughs did in The Place of Dead Roads. Wexler’s achievement is to have created a formally innovative fiction that moves seamlessly, and beautifully, from dream to waking to sensory hallucination and then back to the mug of coffee the waitress has set before Shannon in the dining room at the Delmonico Hotel. He soon discovers that Silverberg, an Easterner, was seen in the company of a well-dressed Westerner with bad teeth and a gambler named Stephens. A conductor describes Stephens: “whitish hair, somewhat taller than average, red-brown eyes, a tendency toward fancy dress.”

Shannon muses:

Was Stephens the man who walked past the hotel restaurant and stared in at me? White . . . blond . . . storm of white-capped waves gouged the coast . . . an oak that had stood for centuries screamed and gave up its life . . . nothing remained, nothing but naked earth twisted into shapes of the dead and dying. I cried for the land, but what use are tears?

Stephens wears an onyx ring with a Greek god carved into it, and demonstrates a capacity to come and go as he pleases. There is often a stench of sea rot as the mark of his passage.

Indianola, Texas after the August 20, 1886, hurricane that destroyed the city. The residence of Peter Clement showing driftwood against it. Courtesy of Victoria Regional History Center.

Pursuing the gambler, Shannon saddles up his horse, Blue Swamp, and rides out of Port Lavaca towards the  ruined town of Indianola, which had been flattened by an earlier hurricane. He spends a couple of  nights camping, fishing and shooting ducks for his meals, befriending a one-winged bald eagle, and has strange dreams. The next day as he gets near Matagorda Bay, the noon sky turns dark. “Reddish light washed the salt-cedars and cactus.” When his Blue Swamp refuses to move further, Shannon goes ahead on foot and finds an unexpected sand hill on the barrier island.

Sand hills form, blow apart, re-form, eventually becoming immobilized by growth of sea oats, goateed, and other plants. This one was crusty, bare, more like sandstone than sand, and the front looked sculpted, carved into features . . . curl of lip, open mouth, deep eye holes. A rotting animal festered in the mouth.
Then I found the body.

It is the murdered Silverberg. When the weather turns inclement, Shannon passes the night at the  farm of Ratface Conroy. Out  in the tumble-down barn, “a lean-to strung together from broken parts of other structures,” Shannon’s sleep is interrupted when his hosts attempt to murder him. Shannon shoots the husband and goes after Mrs. Conroy, who is armed. Pushing through a curtain in the sod farmhouse, Shannon enters a giant, ruined stone mansion. He shoots her dead, and returns to find a zombie “skull-head” Conroy armed and awaiting him. Shannon is faster at the draw, and sets the house ablaze as he leaves. This is not the last of the skull-heads Shannon will encounter.

— — —

Though I wasn’t playing poker, the same rules applied — watch, wait, calculate the odds.

There’s a lot of poker in The Silverberg Business, stud poker where only the first card is dealt face down to each player, and all the other cards are visible upon the table as they fall. This is emblematic of Wexler’s narrative method, for the reader sees what Shannon sees, and patterns are deduced from evidence visible and from inferences about what remains concealed.

Time is a hill, a hill that grows as you climb, grows to mountainside. Wind and rain alter the mountain, exposing rock, minerals. Looking back the way you came gets harder. Sometimes, all you can see is the rising path ahead of you. You get to the top. Everybody does. Sometimes sooner than we expect. The journey is what matters. Here in skull-head land, time means nothing.

These fugues and hallucinations and strange dreams are integral to the way Shannon gains knowledge of the strange world he enters. And the reader  enters with him, for his voice is supple enough to take in this space outside of time, poker-playing zombies, and a daring escape in the Flying Kestrel, a contraption from the Sonora Aero Club, across a landscape of perpetual intertemporal war. Abandoned in a Louisiana swamp by the pilot of the Kestrel, he finds that months have passed.

Schultz tank at the O’Connor Ranch on Copano Bay. Courtesy of Victoria Regional History Center.

The measure of Shannon’s persistence is seen in the way he makes his return to Victoria and resumes his investigation of the gambler, no matter the cost. Among further clues are strange manuscript account in Spanish recording the indigenous culture of the region, and a pattern of inexplicable land purchases on barrier islands. On a visit to the prison in Huntsville. Shannon finds the prisoner he expected to interview has been murdered.  Chasing Stephens down a stairway that couldn’t exist, Shannon finds himself again in the land of the skull-heads, and the poker-playing begins in earnest. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

— — —

In a review of an exhibition of paintings by J. M. W. Turner, critic Jackie Wullschläger useful articulates the notion that Turner’s work began to push “beyond realistic description”. As readers and writers, all we have are words, but sometimes that is sufficient. The Silverberg Business is a book that demonstrates what fiction is all about.

Continuity is a convenient illusion. The discontinuities of Shannon’s subjective experience — dream, beautiful maritime interludes, fugue states, hallucination, or return to consciousness after getting clobbered on the head — are as cut-up as anything from Burroughs, and the psychological and geographical terrain of the novel are vast spaces, but Shannon is unflappable, no matter how weird it gets. The Silverberg Business is linear and direct in its narrative line even as the words dance across time and space from sentence to sentence within a single paragraph.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to function . . . I . . . Stephens, looming gigantic , his red eyes roasted my flesh. Shriveled strips floated on the waves, adhered to the sides of the boat, and the ocean, all its weight above, squeezing me into nothingness. I swam into a cave, a cavern so vast it held the world, and beyond, the sparkling Mediterranean of Salonica’s harbor. Captain Bellis gave the order “Moor ship!” and our boat thumped into the remnants of a Galveston pier.

Wexler’s prose is shocking, funny, and vivid, and can go anywhere, and he goes to some very strange places (the summary above leaves off about halfway through the book, so buy the book and read it).

Galveston beachfront after the 1900 hurricane. Courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library.

In The Silverberg Business, there are also countless playful allusions to elements of American literature high and low, among them Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo; Dashiell Hammett and William S. Burroughs, as noted earlier; and, though his name is nowhere mentioned, H. P. Lovecraft, especially in the sense of menace and the notion that human actors would be serving malign powers and non-human entities. The Silverberg Business is also a notable evocation of Jewish life in late-nineteenth century Texas. Wexler’s narrator unifies all these many fissiparous elements, and the concluding passages are tragic, deeply earned, and very moving. An outstanding work, the best book I’ve read this year.

The Endless Bookshelf book of the year 2022.

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.


‘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 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: Some copies were issued with an added presentation leaf (inscribed to the individual booksellers identified as sources).  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:]

Literature and the Matter of America

Lincolnstein dust jacket

— Paul Witcover. Lincolnstein. A Novel. [Hornsea:] PS, [2021]. 155 pp. Pictorial boards, dust jacket after Carl Pugh.

Paul Witcover’s Lincolnstein is a concise and nimble critical fiction, an original and moving work expressed from the collision of historical incident and literary texts. It is a novel of ideas in motion, from the headlong rush of the kidnapping of a Confederate military surgeon by two spies from Pinkerton’s Union Intelligence Service to the shocking purpose behind their deed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is invoked upon the title page, but within the story the allusions emerge organically. President Lincoln has been assassinated and Stanton intends to put to use the theories of the brother of the doctor, one Victor —. “What brother? I have no brother.” is the response of the Confederate doctor who squeaks like a “Dutchman”, and yet he recognizes the apparatus assembled in the train-car laboratory. After warning, “Your President is dead […] If you loved him you would leave him that way”, the surgeon agrees, under duress, to perform the task. This conceit is bold enough, and then with the turn of a page the reader makes one more heart-wrenching discovery, and learns the other literary text with which the novel converses. Go read the book and experience it.

— — —

The resonances of Frankenstein are a stratum of bedrock, the earlier novel visible in the revulsion at the success of the process, in the flight of the monster, in the prodigious strength of the revived Lincoln and the polished oratory (Lincoln’s speeches rather than Milton’s Paradise Lost), and Mary Shelley’s novel propels the arc of the novel towards its conclusion. And yet, equally organically, the biggest and boldest of Witcover’s moves is to have Captain Finn lift the sheet from the face of another corpse in the laboratory, and in that act reveal who he is, and what his loss is. Finn’s initial disbelief yields to cold rage and he announces, “There has been a slight change of plans, Doc.”

That had been a life fit for kings. Catfish for supper, pipe always full, easy conversation all day as the shore slipped by in endless green unfurling, the river adding its voice to their own. He would have stayed there forever if he could.

A novel, like life, is motion and change, not stasis. The electricity stored in the laboratory revives the body of the president, and everything changes. Instead of the brain of the dead white bumpkin intended to render the president compliant, Lincoln’s skull now contains the brain of Jim Watson, who had been fatally wounded while helping Capt. Huckleberry Finn kidnap the doctor. Lincoln bursts from the train, and Finn pursues him, with orders from Pinkerton but with his own sense of mission. If Frankenstein impels the novel into action, the energy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shapes the subsequent course of events as Jim travels stealthily through the ruined landscape of war in search of his enslaved wife and children. Witcover writes short monologues, crisp vignettes of people who encounter the errant Lincoln and aid him on his way. These many supporting voices are one of the pleasures of the book.

— — —

Did you really think the Matter of America leads to a happy ending? If the legend of King Arthur is the Matter of Britain, fraud and race are the Matter of America. The other day, I came across a pamphlet on racial equality and equal suffrage from 1865, in which the pretense of America as a “white man’s country” is dismissed by the black writers of the pamphlet: “Every school-boy knows that within twelve years of the foundation of the first settlement at Jamestown, our fathers as well as yours were toiling in the plantations on James River.”

Since Pinkerton has told Finn of the Mississippi plantation where Jim’s kin are being held, Finn dogs the reanimated Lincoln’s footsteps and they soon find each other. It is not an easy reunion, and Witcover deftly brings home blunt truths, in ways Clemens could only hint at in Huckleberry Finn and in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins (1894). Jim as Lincoln is articulate about the relations between black and white in America:

There ain’t nothing you white folks like to believe in more than the idea of your own goodness. You will ignore all evidence to the contrary, just to make yourselves feel better about all the evil that you have done or allowed to be done in your name. Sure, white folks pity a blind man. But that ain’t nothing compared to the pity you feel for the real victims of this misbegotten world: your own damn selves. It’s a story you don’t never get tired of telling, nor of hearing.

This is very direct, perhaps I have not chosen the best passage, for the discussions of Huck’s black rage and Jim’s quest are natural and seamless and the infodump is nowhere to be seen.

Jim says of his Lincoln memories, “I can feel the tug of all that was dear to him. And hateful too. Everything that touched him, for good or ill. It’s like I’m a big old spider sitting at the center of a web he spun in life.” Huck remarks on the revived president’s “steady pumping heart”, but the voice and heart of the novel are Jim Watson coming to terms with the world and the body he now inhabits.

Witcover has found the appropriate mode to convey a common usage in the world of the novel, in simply writing n——, as profanity was once elided in Victorian fiction: every one knows the word, but we don’t, can’t use it the way it was used in 1865 (or in St. Petersburg, Missouri, in 1845, or in the novel published in 1885). That is the only concession made to current discourse, and there is no evasion of the brutality of the slave system or its intertwining with American life in North or South.

In Huck and Jim’s march to the banks of the Mississippi, Witcover’s novel converses or collides with aspects of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (the brain swap), the recent novel by George Saunders, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. These are not merely allusions but are integrations and transformations of that material which advance the plot and present a critical response to the precursor texts. And the key text remains Huckleberry Finn. Disguised as a blind veteran and his loyal bondsman, Huck and Jim reach Terra, the vast, prosperous De Spain plantation, which remains untouched by war and emancipation. The gross, bloated Major de Spain has made sure of his accommodations with those in power. All these elements of deceit and cozying up to power and selfishness are discernable in Clemens’ novel. The deceptions are monstrous, far more appalling than the idea of reviving the corpse of Abraham Lincoln, and the rotten structure cannot withstand the monster’s rage. And then, in a beautiful concluding passage which links both Frankenstein and Huckleberry Finn, Jim leaves the burning plantation, carrying the corpse of the person inseparable from him — just as the monster carried Victor’s corpse out into the endless Arctic wastes, so Jim lowers Huck’s lifeless body onto a timber flatboat and joins the flowing river: “The raft receded, his upright figure silhouetted in the gleam of reflected flames. Then the current took him, and he was lost in darkness.”


Beer! Beer! Beer! by Avram Davidson

— Avram Davidson. Beer! Beer! Beer! [Novato, California : Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing, 2021]. [xiv], 218 pp. Pictorial wrappers with a cover drawing by Avi Katz.

Beer! Beer! Beer! is the first printed book by Avram Davidson to be issued by Seth Davis and Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing: last year he began commissioning audio versions of Davidson’s works and producing the monthly series of interview podcasts, The Avram Davidson Universe.
Beer! is a tale of the intrusion of bootlegging into the Hudson river town of Yokums, New Jersey, a looking glass idealization of Yonkers, where Avram was born and where, incidentally, gangster and prince of bootleggers Dutch Schultz was based. If you want a brisk account of the facts, you may read “Beer Like Water” in Crimes and Chaos (1962). Beer! gives a broad cross section of daily life in the riverside town during the late phase of Prohibition, with some recognizable Davidsonian types: newspaperman Bill Bomberg has something of the questing energy of Bob Rosen in “The Sources of the Nile”, and Captain Clack of the packet boat Sadie Howell is stamped from several Avramish patterns. Beer! includes a wealth of digression — on Dutch settlements in the Hudson, newspaper publishing, and a catalogue of urban life in Depression America through the eyes of a young boy — and numerous interesting minor characters (always one of the charms of Davidson’s work). The corruption generated by the beer trade pervades the town, and the narrative ambles from City Hall to the office of the Fourth Ward Glagolitic-Slovatchko-Ukrainian Improvement Association, from the sewers to the packet boat wharf on the Hudson waterfront, and from to the National Cereal Company to the mansions along Upper Bluffs Avenue. There are some fine comic moments and the book progresses to a choreographed and convulsive ending.

It is, however, in looking at the principal clues to the dating of the manuscript that the real significance of this book emerges. Among the town’s principal ethnic minorities are the “Slovatchkos, whose homeland, sundered by the break-up of the Scythian-Pannonian-Transbalkanian Empire, was now divided between two other — and larger — nations” (32). This allusion to the setting of The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (1975) clearly situates the composition of the manuscript in the late 1970s and points to one of the great themes of Davidson’s work, immigrant life in America (and what Michael Swanwick has identified as “the loss of ethnicity”).

The source of this previously unpublished novel is a typescript of some 240 pages, known variously as Beer  . . . That Makes You Want to Cheer or The Day Beer Flowed like Water (one copy of this typescript is preserved in the Avram Davidson Collection at Texas A&M University). Beer! Beer! Beer! is Davidson’s preferred title and comes from his correspondence. The text is manifestly an early or even first draft manuscript, presented here with a very light edit and not altering the invented phonetics with which Davidson sought to capture the hard, distinctive Yonkers accent of his childhood. As with the selective use of profanity to create a heightened reality rather than the bludgeoning repetition of real life, it is a question of balance. Davidson would later write in “El Vilvoy de las Islas”, “In the opinion of some people (in fact, lots), a little of such style goes a long way.” And at the same time he ensured that “some more of the original from time to time seeps through.” This is a print on demand book (your correspondent saw an uncorrected proof printed in Columbia, South Carolina, on 2 November 2021).

Beer! stands between Davidson’s miniature, “The Last Wizard” (published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mystery Magazine for December 1972) and his long masterpiece “The Slovo Stove” (1985), and one can trace turns of phrase from Beer! to later works. A passage in Beer! where Bill Bomberg reminiscences about his love life (177) is a trial run for a key incident when Jack Limekiller discovers evidence of Bathsheba’s inconstancy in “There beneath the Silky-Trees and Whelmed in Deeper Gulphs Than Me” (published in 1980). By that time Davidson must have understood that Beer! was going nowhere, and so he reused a good phrase to greater effect. Yokums has something of the feel the town of Parlour’s Ferry in “The Slovo Stove”, a story with none of the rosy nostalgia or Depression-era clichés of Beer! The effect is not unlike reading one of the “mainstream” novels Phil Dick wrote in the 1950s in the vain hope of leaving the science fiction treadmill of the paperback original market (think Confessions of a Crap Artist and its parallels to Time out of Joint, for example). Davidson had attempted to do this himself in the 1960s, with Dragons in the Trees, a non-fiction account of his travels in British Honduras, material he would later transmute into the Limekiller stories. Aspects of life in Yonkers rose up again while Davidson composed his zigzag plotted Adventures in Autobiography in the 1990s. In addition to the many pleasures of the story, Davidson’s Beer! is notable as an intermediate station on the road to “The Slovo Stove”.     [HWW]

First published in The Nutmeg Point District Mail,  vol. XX no. 1, for 12 December 2021.

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.

— — —

[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.