Friday, July 24, 2015

The Library of Babel

At the Paris Review, author and programmer Jonathan Basile describes his fascination with Jorge Luis Borges' story 'La Biblioteca de Babel' ('The Library of Babel'), which contains every possible combination of letters ("some call it the universe"). Fascinated by this, he had the idea one night "of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site."

"For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios," he continues,"I’ve made, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now."

Basile's machine is perhaps a potentiality rather than an accomplished project. But it is surely an extrapolation of the world we are in now, where gradually all already existing texts, all books ever written, are being made available online or (for those who still prefer the book as an object) as print-on-demand.

Already, the rarest and most precious books are those that have not yet been captured, that no library holds, that no corporation has scanned or digitised: typically, the work of amateurs whose books slipped (and are still now slipping) through the net.

And it cannot be long before this industry understands the opportunity of creating texts that have not yet been written.

I think I know, therefore, how the idea behind Borges' library, and Basile's machine, ends. No longer a story, this work of the imagination ends by ending the expression of imagination. It ends like this:

"It was no longer possible to tell stories or make poems. They had all been written already. And the Babel Corporation held the rights to them all. Whatever combination of the world’s letters, numerals, signs you could imagine, in any language, already existed. Babel had also extended its mission to all possible combinations of musical notes and all possible combinations of colours and shapes. No conceivable work of art, literature or music could be created that was not already possessed by Babel. That included ourselves. We were all characters in Babel’s brain."

"But there was one exception to its vast capacity. Any suggestion that books, art and music were once made by individuals, not generated by Babel, was carefully filtered out. There must be nothing not made by Babel. Nothing ever had been made but by Babel."

Which is why, the human spirit being what it is, there already exists, offline and offgrid, the secret characters. The Secret Characters are individuals creating the secret characters. These characters, these new signs in an unknown alphabet, do not exist in print and never will, if the code of the Secret Characters is honoured. They are sometimes made in sand for the waves to erase, sometimes made with leaves for the wind to seize, and sometimes formed with stones and pebbles that look like they lie there by chance. They may sometimes be seen briefly, daringly, in chalk or charcoal daubed during a rainstorm, gone in a few moments.

They express, in their subtle and strange shapes, all the dreams and desires we have in common, and those visions we know alone. If you look for them, you will see them. It would be as well to begin to learn the secret characters. When Babel comes, we will need them. They will be all that we have left.

(c) Babel

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Sesquicentennial of M.P. Shiel

A rare photo of Shiel in 1908
A quick post to let us all reflect upon the 150th anniversary of the birth of Matthew Phipps Shiel, who was born in Montserrat on 21 July 1865.  Author of such classic works as Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes in the Fire (1896), The Purple Cloud (1901), and many others, Shiel settled in England in the mid 1880s, and died in Chichester, Sussex, on 17 February 1947.

Harold Billings is the author of M.P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years (2005), and M.P. Shiel: The Middle Years 1897-1923 (2010).  We look forward to the third and final volume of this definitive biography

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

ASTERCOTE - The Heartwood Institute

A recently released recording on the Reverb Worship label is Astercote by The Heartwood Institute. I was entranced by the subtle way the music conveys a haunting narrative involving a holy cup kept in an English country house. It's a story told in brief musical segments, like the soundtrack to a half-forgotten Seventies tv mystery episode, each piece illustrating a key scene. There's the same adventurous use of early electronic or radiophonic textures, together with wistful, pastoral pieces using woodwind and other acoustic instruments. Individual tracks aptly conjure the image suggested by the titles and the plot-line, such as the shimmering surrounding "The Chalice" and the sense of hovering and swooping accompanying the hawk.

I hadn't realised until after I had listened to this resonant, delicately-crafted gem that it is an "imagined soundtrack" based on a 1970 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, entitled Astercote, which I didn't know before and would now like to read. The label says: "The music on this cd is influenced by some favourite 1970s soundtracks : The Wickerman, Get Carter...that kind of thing, but also the more out-there TV soundtracks like The Changes, Children Of The Stones and the original Tomorrow People." I think it achieves the atmosphere of that time and those programmes perfectly, while also having a fine, yearning fragility all its own. This edition of Astercote is limited to 40 copies.

Mark Valentine

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab

This new book by acclaimed writer/researcher, Lucy Sussex, will be of interest to Wormwoodians.  Blockbuster! is the biography of a book - Fergus Hume's crime novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an instant bestseller when it was published in 1886.  And a fascinating history it is too - from Hume's childhood in Dunedin, New Zealand, where his father managed the lunatic asylum, to his move to Melbourne and the writing of Hansom Cab following unsuccessful attempts to break into the Melbourne theatre scene, to the extraordinary success of the novel resulting from Frederick Trischler's ultramodern marketing campaign, and then on to London and mixed success as a prolific novelist.

There is a lot of new material in this book, including the record of Hume's famous selling of the copyright of Hansom Cab for ₤50 found in the copyright registers at the National Archives of Australia.  There are excellent chapters on the publisher, Frederick Trischler, and on the ongoing life of early editions of the novel in the rare book market - only four copies of the first edition are known to exist, and only one copy of the third edition.  

Hume becomes a ghostly, insubstantial figure after he settles down in Thundersley in Essex to write books - but writing 140 books probably didn't leave much time for anything else.  He was a lifelong bachelor and there are hints of homosexuality in his work, which were stated explicitly in an article on him by rare book dealer Jeremy Parrott in the late, lamented Book & Magazine Collector, drawing off the recollections of a distant relative.  It would also be interesting to trace his involvement in occult circles - he had a genuine interest in theosophy and mysticism, reflected in various novels and short stories, as did other literary antipodean expats of the time - Rosa Praed, H.B. Marriott Watson, and Reginald Hodder. 

This is a fine book about a novel that defined the burgeoning  genre of crime fiction, full of wit, important discoveries and fascinating insights - like its subject, a real page-turner.

Monday, July 6, 2015


Mark Simmonds is an author and designer who runs Alma Matters, “a micro-press publishing books on quotidian magic”. The first publication from this imprint was an edition of Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, which he describes as “a veiled treatise on reading the urban landscape and uncanny customs of the modern world.”

Mark published the book as a homage to Machen, whose work he discovered when he was writing a book of wanderings around Arnhem, where he was studying typography. His own work has the same keen eye for observing out-of-the-way and overlooked things, and for interesting digressions.

The Alma Matters edition of The London Adventure is both a practically designed pocket-book for the city wanderer and a subtly crafted artefact for aficionados of the arcane.

It is available from Alma Matters (scroll down) or enquire at info[at]almamatters[dot]biz.

Friday, July 3, 2015


Why did W.B. Yeats want a hair from the head of Aleister Crowley, and how did the artist Althea Gyles get it for him? What was the terrible lesson learned by scholar and demonologist the Reverend Montague Summers? Why was Sherlock Holmes reticent about his college years? Which unlikely chronicler of the decadents numbered among his friends Christine Keeler, Sir Oswald Mosely, Colin Wilson and an assortment of beat poets?

The answers are to be found in The Library of the Lost by Roger Dobson, just published by Tartarus Press and Caermaen Books. This finely produced volume offers twenty illuminating essays on classic authors of the fantastic such as Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel and Jocelyn Brooke, and such strange and outré figures as the Reverend Montage Summers and the artist Althea Gyles. There is a foreword by the eminent Spanish novelist Javier Marias reflecting on his friendship with the author.

Here is an extract from my introduction:

“Roger Alan Dobson was an author, journalist, actor, and bookman who loved to explore the stranger margins of literature and its most outré characters. He wrote with learning and enthusiasm about the lost souls of the Eighteen Nineties and those writers who moved among the ways of magic and mystery. He liked nothing better than to visit the old haunts of these arcane characters, walking among obscure streets and overgrown graveyards to find their homes and their tombs. When he was not out on such pilgrimages, he liked to be writing, working prodigiously at essays, radio and television scripts, letters and contributions to newspapers and periodicals. He also enjoyed bookish conversation, always ready to share his latest discoveries or to learn more from other bibliophiles and scholars.”

This is a book brimful of Roger's journeys among the byways of books, which will appeal not just to connoisseurs of the fantastic in literature but also to all those who enjoy the quest for the rare and recondite.

Mark Valentine

Update 12 July - now out of print. Thanks to everyone for their interest in Roger's book.


The Swan River Press have announced the publication of a collection of stories by Joel Lane. The Anniversary of Never offers thirteen stories (one with Mat Joiner), with an introduction by Joel's long-time champion, Nicholas Royle.

The announcement tells us: "The Anniversary of Never is a group of tales concerned with the theme of the afterlife,” observed Lane, “and the idea that we may enter the afterlife before death, or find parts of it in our world.” These stories of love and death, sex and solitude, decay and dementia will burrow deep into the reader’s mind and impregnate it with a vision often as bleak as the night is black."

It was a great privilege to know Joel and to publish some of his early stories in Aklo, the journal of the fantastic I co-edited with Roger Dobson. So I can't pretend to be objective here. For me, Joel Lane was one of the most thoughtful and questioning authors in the supernatural fiction field. Deeply versed in the traditions of the form - he contributed remarkably original and perceptive essays on many of its major figures to Wormwood - he also understood the need to give it a contemporary resonance.

His stories have all the brooding power of the most memorable classics, while also having an extra edge because they are about the world we live in now. They always make us think about that world, gently and allusively showing just how wrong things can be. But they are also movingly written meditations on perennial human concerns, in which fully real characters experience love, longing and loss. Joel's ghosts are the spirits of dust, empty houses, abandoned places, wastelands. Anyone who cares at all about modern dark fiction - or about our society today - needs to read his work.

Mark Valentine