Friday, May 27, 2016

Slightly Foxed 50

“We had walked the white sands of Luskentyre in a wild wind that left grains in our hair and salt on our lips. The shadows of clouds skimmed across the face of Taransay, indigo over the water. Somebody had scuffed the word ‘Scotland’ with their shoe on the shore. We added ‘Atlantis’, with an arrow pointing west.”

This is the beginning of ‘The Islands Beyond’, my essay on the books of Robert Atkinson, just published in the Summer 2016 issue, number 50, of Slightly Foxed, the ‘Real Reader’s Quarterly’.

I discovered his Island Going while on a visit to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides last year, and at once knew that here was a natural writer. The book is about expeditions that he and a friend, floppy-haired, pipe-smoking John Ainsley, made to remote islands in search of ‘Leach’s Fork-Tailed Petrel’ in the Nineteen Thirties.

But it isn’t simply a birdwatching book. It’s also about the sea, about isolated communities, friendship, and the zest in life of the two adventurous youths. It’s about determination, curiosity, hardship, and a humane interest in everything around us. Even if the avian world holds little interest for you, the book is worth reading for the graceful prose, the sheer gusto, and the fine company it offers.

This issue of Slightly Foxed also includes fifteen other essays by readers writing about books they’ve enjoyed: “books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal.”

Thursday, May 26, 2016


“[Devils’s Field?] Well, there are several versions of it I’ve seen in various folklore collections. They all tell of a cliff top settlement that converted to Christianity when the first missionaries came through sometime in the 4th century. The Devil, it’s said, enraged that they’d abandoned their pagan ways, struck the ground with a lightning bolt so fierce that there was a landslip, which created the field….”

We reported earlier in Wormwoodiana on Morrow, a recording inspired by the novels of Phyllis Paul. One of the duo involved in this atmospheric work was the musician and composer ‘Ghostwriter’. He has also written five non-fiction books, including The Sound of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury, 2012), which explores early commercial electronic music.

Now, under his own name of M.R. Brend, he is seeking support for Undercliff, “a supernatural thriller set in the 1970s,” offered from the crowd-sourcing publisher Unbound. Set in Devon, in the aftermath of the counter culture of the 1960s, it explores the influence of a sect, The Vine, whose work seems to involve dark secrets: but the strange happenings around them are ambiguous.

Supporters of the project can choose from a variety of formats, and music augmenting the book is also available.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Pagan Triptych (Sarob Press) brings together three new long stories by Ron Weighell, John Howard and Mark Valentine, inspired by the supernatural fiction of Algernon Blackwood.

The authors explore, respectively, the Blackwoodian themes of ritual magic, nature worship and reincarnation. Each contributor also provides an afterword about their admiration for Blackwood's fiction.

Ron Weighell's "The Letter Killeth" is a tale of ancient secrets, a book of shadows and dark magic; John Howard's 'In the Clearing' tells of the mystery of trees, new beginnings and the truth of things; and Mark Valentine's 'The Fig Garden' is an account of a childhood game, strange rituals and pagan worship.

Pagan Triptych is a Hand Numbered Limited Edition Hardcover, with a tipped-in signature page on fine ivory parchment paper signed by all three authors.

Copies of the book have arrived from the printer and are shipping now. Already, pre-orders mean that there are very few copies left of the print run of just over 300.

Reality Within 'Supernatural' Tales - John Gaskin

“Without saying anything about the truth or falsity of what we may believe, it is clear that the normal and unexamined ways in which we speak give a structure within which talk about a world different in kind from the world of ordinary experience is possible. In Dante’s phrase towards the end of The Divine Comedy, we talk about two worlds: ‘The earthly and what lies beyond’.”

John Gaskin’s essay on 'Reality Within 'Supernatural' Tales' in Wormwood 26 argues that the ghost story form assumes a distinction between the natural world we live in and another, super-natural world separate to this. But, as he points out, many people today operate on the assumption that there is a material world and nothing else. Faced with this rationalistic culture, can the ghost story still be effective?

In answer to that challenge, the author (himself an eminent practitioner in the field) identifies six ways in which it can. There are sufficient gaps and shadings in our knowledge and experiences, he suggests, for the ghost story still to achieve its shadowy work.

John Gaskin was a Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, where he held a personal chair in philosophy. He has published three volumes of ‘Tales of Twilight and the Borderlands’, The Dark Companion (Lilliput Press, 2002), The Long Retreating Day (Tartarus Press, 2006) and The Master of the House (Tartarus Press, 2014).

Monday, May 23, 2016

D K Broster - Mike Barrett

D K Broster is most known in the field of supernatural fiction for her excellent story of an ageing Decadent and an animated feather boa, ‘Couching At the Door’. But, as Mike Barrett shows in his survey of her short stories in Wormwood 26, she contributed other ghostly tales to periodicals and these are often quietly accomplished. A frequent theme is supernatural vengeance across the ages, but there are also stories of obsession and of uncanny qualities locked into ancient objects.

Though they may start venerably enough, for example in an old house with a suspiciously low rent, she develops her plots with a remorseless assurance, sometimes spiced with touches of black humour. As Mike writes, “her admittedly few genre contributions were consistently interesting, and some of them were excellent. They represent a very different, darker side of an author who attained renown for her fast-paced historical adventure novels, and such diversification in style stands as a testament to her capabilities.”

Mike Barrett's articles appear regularly in the New York Review of Science Fiction, The British Fantasy Society Journal and Wormwood. His first book, a collection of essays on fantastic literature entitled Doors to Elsewhere, was published by The Alchemy Press in 2013 and was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction title of the year.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Guest Post: Snug Conversation in Machen’s “N” and Other Stories, by Dale Nelson

Tolstoy somewhere recalled the opening of an unfinished novel by Pushkin: “The guests were arriving at the country house.”  Tolstoy said: That’s just how a novel should begin. 

Yes, a novel -- but let’s consider some other story openings, from memorable short stories and novellas of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Like this one: “Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days” (M. R. James’s “A School Story”).  In innumerable tales, two gentlemen have a chance encounter on a London pavement and slip into the club to which one of them belongs for a long evening’s talk, or there’s a party of men sitting around a big fireplace in a country house, or a man boards a train and seats himself opposite a stranger and they start talking after a while. 

In one story – Kipling’s “On Greenhow Hill” – the men are soldiers, hunkered down quietly in ambush late one afternoon, passing the time by telling anecdotes till their sharpshooter can pick off an insurgent deserter.

Chekhov wrote a little trilogy of stories in which men tell one another accounts of their lives  – “The Man in a Case,” “About Love,” and “Gooseberries.”  Stories are told on two successive evenings and during a rainy afternoon in between.  Wells’s Time Machine begins in a “luxurious after-dinner atmosphere” replete with fireplace and drinks.

Generally in the stories I have in mind, the location is snug and the evening ahead can give way imperceptibly to night as people talk.  There’s no hurry and there are no serious distractions.  The characters are almost always men -- bachelors, widowers, or husbands away from their wives. 

Eventually one of the men tells a long story (or hands over a manuscript that another man takes with him for the night or till next week).  In Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” Pozdnyshev makes his painful, protracted confession of sexual jealousy and murder on a train journey in a compartment shared with a stranger.

When we are reading “The Kreutzer Sonata,” we don’t object that Pozdnyshev holds forth at such length.  Conrad’s Marlow possesses astonishing stamina as he relates the story of Heart of Darkness during a long night on a boat anchored in the Thames estuary, but we don’t demur.  Nor are we troubled by these narrators’ ability to recall long-ago conversations verbatim.  In fact, the situation is irresistible and we relish it. 

The framing scene invites us to be receptive to the gradual development of a mood and to become well-prepared for the main story’s final catastrophe.  During the Christmas holidays, the guests eagerly listen as Douglas reads them the governess’s eerie and ultimately tragic memoir of Bly (The Turn of the Screw).  Or recall the delectable opening of Machen’s wonder-tale “N” (from as late as 1936!):

“They were talking about old days and old ways and all the changes that have come on London in the last weary years; a little party of three of them, gathered for a rare meeting in Perrott’s rooms.”

They talked, and all through their evening no one fetched out his phone from his pocket or checked his iPad. 

Most of the stories I’ve just mentioned, be they fantastic or realistic, deal with love, in some way and in some sense or other of the word.  Well-bred people believed those love-topics were meant for private occasions.  When we read stories from 125 or even 80 years ago in which gentlemen talk about women and lust or love, we may feel a special interest as we listen in (something different from the voyeuristic interest of hearing people talking casually and explicitly and coarsely of sex).   

In our time, such conversation as theirs must seem to be as rare as some Atlantean art. 

© 2016 Dale Nelson

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Latterday Henry Ryecroft - Mark Samuels

Although it only ran for three issues (and a ghostly fourth issue, prepared and announced but not published), The Lost Club Journal, which I edited with Roger Dobson, soon attracted enthusiastic readers keen to learn about forgotten authors and to propose their own favourite neglected figures. We have certainly tried, in Wormwood, to carry on the work of celebrating the under-appreciated, alongside studies of the major figures in our field.

Roger also much enjoyed pilgrimages to the former homes and haunts (and gravesides) of lost authors, and was not averse to knocking on the doors of the usually oblivious current occupants to tell them about their house’s illustrious past, often with mixed results.

The home of H G Wells was one of the goals of a Lost Club Weekend organised by Roger Dobson, memorably evoked in Wormwood 26 by Mark Samuels, who was, as it turned out, the only other participant. The two soon found they had other literary tastes in common, such as the work of George Gissing (pictured), and some of the run-down rackety aspects of Grub Street were certainly in evidence in the town of Folkestone, where they were based. But a foray into lonely country by double decker bus – and the influence of strong Kentish ale – soon bestowed a wondrous, Machenesque glow upon the occasion.

Mark’s memoir of the weekend is a fine comic episode also full of a wistful delight at these impromptu adventures in the company of Roger Dobson, who was, as he suggests, a modern day version of Gissing's mellow literary scholar, Henry Ryecroft.

Mark Samuels is the author of several books of weird fiction and is now working on an “interminable” full-length novel that might be described as a cross between A Confederacy Of Dunces and Brideshead Revisited. He is a past Secretary of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and has always lived in London.