Sunday, September 28, 2014


At artist John Coulthart's blog feuilleton, always a cornucopia of the strange and wonderful, he mentions his design for the cover of a new work of modern experimental music by Watch Repair. "The perfect accompaniment to an Autumnal afternoon reading a good book", according to Matt at Piccadilly Records, Manchester, where the release may be found.

I've been able to listen to these recordings as they developed and have certainly been impressed by their stark and austere beauty. This is fragile music that requires close listening, drawing on barely-touched guitar strings and echoes and shimmers from treated clock chimes augmented by the subtlest possible electronic treatments. There's a sense of a chiselled work, whittled to its purest form so that it exists close to the margins of silence. In my experience, the compositions bring a brittle sense of otherness for the listener, which lingers long after the work has come to an end.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, September 25, 2014

CAERMAEN - Ian Watson

Some of the finest electronic music I've heard in recent years has come from Brian Lavelle, the Edinburgh composer and musician whose work is influenced by some of the themes in the classic writers of supernatural fiction such as Machen and Blackwood, as well as having a distinctive aura of its own.

Brian also runs the Dust, Unsettled label (named from a Robert Aickman story), and has just announced the release of an album of modern Machenesque music, Caermaen by Ian Watson:

"The Cardiff based artist's latest album revels in a deliberately quiet sense of brooding menace; Ian's use of textural layers gets right to the heart of the otherness in Arthur Machen's best writing. Composed of cymbals and feedback and cymbals feeding back and who-knows-what-electrickery, the album's four pieces create a fog of otherworldliness, augmented by some truly stunning/unnerving artwork by Ian for the front cover and colour disc print."

The album includes a piece entitled "The Three Impostors". It is due to be released on Monday 29 September but pre-release orders have already taken up many of the copies.

Mark Valentine

Battered Books No 3 - The Epic of Hades

I was looking at Jean Lang’s Book of Myths, a school prize book with Art Nouveau-ish pictures of the gods and heroes in pastel colours (the one of Diana and Endymion is particularly fine, she glimmering in moon-white with her hounds, he supine in mauve robes). Lang uses quotes from the poets in her stories, and I was struck by the resonance of those from Sir Lewis Morris, the whiskered High Victorian bard from Carmarthen.

I knew him as the author of The Epic of Hades (1877) and a candidate for the poet laureateship after Tennyson. He, Sir Edwin Arnold and the eventual victor Alfred Austin were thought to be the three most in the running. They were popular, sonorous and sound. The more obvious contenders (to our time) could not be appointed: Swinburne because he was considered unsuitable owing to his lush and rather pagan verse, and William Morris because he would refuse.

It is not certain why Austin, probably the lesser poet, was preferred over Lewis Morris. It has been suggested the latter's friendship with Wilde told against him, or whispers about his domestic arrangements: he lived with a common law wife. His work is probably now largely unread, deterring readers by its length and a certain even-ness (less charitably, ponderousness) in its narration. But, as the phrases selected by Jean Lang had shown me, there are moments of vision and inspiration perhaps worth seeking.

Literary dictionaries now dismiss him as an imitator of Tennyson. He seems to have attracted derision even in his own day: George Saintsbury called him a Tennyson for children; George Meredith, “the Harlequin Clown of the Muses”; and Katherine Bradley “the grocer of Parnassus”: Edith Cooper said “one is patient” with him “out of pity” because “he is dimly conscious he belongs to darkness” (source: Amy Cruse, After the Victorians, 1938). We might suspect a writer arousing such vituperation probably did have something worth scorning: and indeed there is much excellent reading in Morris.

His Hades poem, almost 300pp long, is divided into three Books: Tartarus, Hades and Olympus, and is a vast supernatural narrative, peopled with pale ghosts and portentous gods. It has an epigraph quotation from the Welsh Triads: "The three excellences of Poetry: simplicity of language, simplicity of subject, and simplicity of invention", presumably intended to be Morris's own ambition for his work. There is a certain honest plain-ness in the book. The language is consciously elevated and archaic, but sometimes achieves a stately grace; the story is measured, yet has a cumulative force.

I like this battered copy of The Epic of Hades, which was his great classic, because of the way the dark boards have faded. They now seem to suggest both the green-black depths of the underworld and, on the verso, the veil of light that glimmers at the end of its passages to the earth.

Mark Valentine

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


For some time I have greatly admired the music and writing of Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, who together comprise Corbel Stone Press. They produce rare compositions and publications, works of austere beauty, with delicate attention to detail and a fine sense of form and of space. Drawing on time dwelt in landscapes they study and inhabit with care, their work is infused by melancholy and loss: but it also makes an affirmation in the way it records and memorialises the things we have lost.

The latest project from Richard Skelton, available now for pre-order and to be released in early October, is Nimrod is Lost In Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre, an album and book inspired in part by the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, some of the most elaborate and arcane in the English language (Arthur Machen, amongst others, was a great appreciator of his work).

Here is part of the description by the Press:

"Richard Skelton's first solo album in two years is preoccupied with 'the great volume of nature', its delicacy and violence, light and dark, solace and psychological burden. The music hovers between the empyreal and the subterranean, and - framed by the accompanying book of texts, art and photography - offers what Skelton describes as a 'picture of a wood through which slanting light dimly traces other forms'."

Mark Valentine

Monday, September 22, 2014



Sidney Hunt is Britain’s lost art deco experimental poet. An artist, engraver, designer and fervent spirit in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, he worked always on the boldest, most outré edges of art and literature. He contributed to many of the leading modernist journals of interwar Europe, and was known amongst the radical artists and poets of Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and London. Yet until recently he has been almost completely overlooked.

This new handmade edition offers the first British publication of three works by Sidney Hunt from Contimporanul, the Romanian avant-garde magazine, in 1927-8. They are probably amongst the first “sound poems” and “visual poems” by a British poet. The three typographically adventurous pieces are reproduced in a paper chapbook with black linen card covers, together with an introductory note by Mark Valentine. The design, by Jo Valentine, also includes a hand-produced thermofax silk screen print, in white on black, of one of the poems, ‘Sea on Jetty’. This is housed in a black Canson paper envelope with Nineteen Thirties cambric reinforcers and black hemp cord. The print, envelope and booklet are presented in a hard cover binding in black buckram, tied with black grosgrain ribbon.

This is the sixth handmade publication from the Valentine & Valentine imprint. It is in a limited, numbered edition of 25 copies only (and 3 not for sale). All copies have now been taken.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE SURVIVOR - Dennis Parry

The Survivor (1940) by Dennis Parry, newly reprinted by Valancourt, is a distinctive novel of the supernatural that has been too long overlooked. As I say in my introduction, "it is surprising that it has not gained a greater reputation among enthusiasts of supernatural fiction. It is true that the near-omniscient E.F. Bleiler does give it qualified praise, noting the book’s “many good touches and flashes of wit”..." but very few other readers or critics seem to have noticed it.

It is a story of possession set in the wintry fens around Ely during a virulent epidemic. The haunting is not a matter of fine shading and ambiguities. The spirit that returns is arrogant, boisterous and cunning: it exercises a sardonic sway over a remote village just as it had in life. Dennis Parry presents us with a cuttingly modern ghost story inflected with irony and Saki-like wit. At the same time, in the remorselessness of the fatal plague afflicting the country, he creates a chilling dystopia that adds to the bleakness of his work.

It seems to me that Parry achieved with The Survivor a strikingly different and contemporary kind of supernatural story and it is a pity he did not continue to extend the possibilities of the form. I can imagine him working towards a smilar achievement as Robert Aickman or Elizabeth Bowen. As it is, this book is well worth our attention as an impressive contribution to the field.

My introduction provides some detail about the author, but briefly (from Valancourt's announcement), "Dennis Parry (1912-1955) was the author of ten critically acclaimed novels but fell into an undeserved obscurity after his untimely death in a car accident at age 42. His third novel, The Survivor (1940), a classic story of the supernatural, earned rave reviews from critics, who ranked it alongside Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and the works of Algernon Blackwood."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

THE WANDERER - Timothy J Jarvis

A lost writer, an old manuscript (partly in unknown tongues), a sinister puppet show, a timeslip into the far future, and a bitter understanding of what lies behind the façade of the world.

It’s a brave writer who could take those ancient rituals of the dark fantastic and make them work in a fervid new form. But that is the achievement of The Wanderer by Timothy J Jarvis, an astonishing debut novel deeply infused with the traditions of supernatural and metaphysical fiction.

It has been devised with a subtle understanding of the motifs and mechanics of the strange and visionary in literature. The skilful use of stories within stories suggests Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors, while the scenes of a ruined city after a catastrophe, bring to mind images from M P Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or Edward Shanks’ People of the Ruins. And there are also suggestions of a wider cosmic tragedy such as we encounter in Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and even of the serene realm of Shangri La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

It is an unusual meditation on the nature of fantasy, that shunned half-brother of literature, which also astutely exemplifies the form: a book essentially about the mainsprings of the macabre that works itself as a significant new coiling of the dark. But it is far from an academic treatise. The book shifts between sordid pubs and smeared rooms, evoked with grimy authenticity, and weird horizons in worlds of dream or hallucination.

Most of all, though, The Wanderer is that rare thing, a thoroughly engrossing and exhilarating story, laced with playfulness, which also glimmers with intelligence and audacity. We should be wary, though. The book itself reveals a force seeking out certain artists, poets, and others, as prey it can pursue forever through the underworld – an infinitely dark and cruel game of the kind hinted at by Sarban in The Sound of His Horn, but vaster still in its remorselessness and terror. How do we know it isn’t one more lure in that labyrinth?

Don’t read this book unless you’re ready to defy the gates of Hell.

Mark Valentine