Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A BOOK OF WHIMSIES


It’s a quarto album bound in white linen, with gilt titles glinting on its spine. The design on the front depicts a creature in a suit, with a long snout: a sort of human aardvark, hanging in the air rather like a question mark. Above him are the words “Don’t Care”. What can it mean? The volume is called A Book of Whimsies, and it is by Geoffrey Whitworth and Keith Henderson, and was published by Dent in 1909. It could claim to be one of the earliest examples of British surrealism, though it has never been credited with that. At the time, both the perpetrators were 22 years old.

There are twelve tales, and each has a picture. Who did what we are not told. Geoffrey Whitworth later issued some poems, not, it must be said, particularly remarkable or unusual, worked for Dent, his publisher, and was also a theatre administrator. He wrote The Art of Nijinsky in 1913, one of the very first studies of the Russian ballet dancer. He translated a book on Flemish towns in 1916, no doubt as a gesture of solidarity with war-torn Flanders, and The Legend of Tyl Ulenspiegel, in an edition in 1918, both from the French. Father Noah, and Other Fancies, his book of poems, came out the same year. His other books are on aspects of the theatre.

Keith Henderson achieved perhaps rather greater renown. He is most known now as the artist who illustrated the wonderful epic fantasies of E.R. Eddison. Henderson published some of his Great War correspondence home, as Letters to Helen: Impressions of an Artist on the Western Front, 1917.

In 1908, just the year before the whimsy book, he had exhibited at the Carfax Gallery some water colour illustrations that he and another artist, Norman Wilkinson, had severally done for Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose. A contemporary critic (one “G.R.S.T.” in the New Age) praised them highly, saying “one is in a dream-world spun by imagination which never lets the onlooker down, by a false touch, to solid earth with a sudden jar. These young artists have a certainty of expression, in form and colour and thought, that is quite unusual. If their technical skill is unusually great, still greater is their knowledge of the realms of poesy”.

Replace “poesy” with “whimsy” and much the same may be said of A Book of Whimsies. Henderson went on to illustrate books by W.H. Hudson, including Green Mansions and The Purple Land, Thomas Hardy and Neil Gunn, and in 1924 published Palm Groves and Humming Birds: An Artist’s Fortnight in Brazil. He was an official war artist in the Second World War.

Presumably, therefore, in A Book of Whimsies, Whitworth did the words and Henderson did the pictures. I rather fancy they each had a hand, though, in the inventions, the wild imagination of each piece. The volume has the air of a youthful jeu d-esprit. Connoisseurs of dedications will enjoy its tongue-in-cheek address to various respectable persons: “To the middle-aged of heart we dedicate this book – to all thoroughly dependable persons – to thin persons – to all persons in any way fitted for legal or parliamentary activity – to the Lord Mayor – to the Episcopate – and to all vergers – upon whose souls may God have mercy.”

And the authors say by way of preface that while whimsy is elusive, surely we have all had “moments in our lives when we have felt neither noble nor useful nor anything but just simply, may we say it, ODD – when the most dining-room chair, the most hopelessly penny bun, may have appeared quite improbable?” Though the tone is facetious, their credo is quite clear and consistent and is not remote, in its way, from that of Arthur Machen, seeing romance and the inexplicable in the world before us, in the purlieus of Stoke Newington, for example, or the high road of Holborn. These younger authors assert that what we call whimsy “depends on a recognition of the ultimate oddness of all phenomena”. And, to those who ask about the meaning of their book, they retort, “what, pray, is the meaning of You?” We must admit it is not an unreasonable question.

The stories perhaps draw on the English tradition of whimsy most known through the work of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear: but they are also quite different to those: more modern, perhaps a little harder in the eye, certainly quite remorseless in following their own odd logic. The word “whimsy” has drawn to itself connotations of the fey but originally it was more robust than that, and could be used to describe most peculiar and original ideas. This book is in that stranger, more startling and rather unnerving tradition.

The tales are often, in their exuberance, about breaking free of convention, or a quest for meaning, even if the meaning itself remains elusive and obscure. In ‘Frenzy’, a parson preaches upon the colour purple, throws off a false beard, pounds out a Bach fugue on the organ and then scampers up the spiral staircase of the church and throws himself off the tower: his vestments act as a parachute (but for how long?). In ‘Palsy’, a little miniature satire of the fad for books about future wars, we learn, “England was doomed”: its last ship sunk, invasion fleets are on their way. There is one man only, Mr McCabe, who can save the country, as he sits watching the coast. He need only send a certain telegram – “a message to Portugal’s Foreign Minister”. But he was quite enjoying the hush fallen over the land; the next moment would do just as well; his mind ventures “at a tangent into eternity”. The smoke of the invading ships hazes the horizon.

‘The Golden Monocle’ begins: “The dark-eyed youth wore a monocle”. The eyegelass is further evoked: it is golden, hypnotic, sometimes clear as water, or “as a moon gleaming”. Two young women golfers conceive an attraction – no, more, a lust – for the dark young man – or is it really for his monocle? The “terrible disc” haunts one of them, and she decides she must have it, and will stop at nothing to get it. With admirable succinctness, the course of her obsession is delineated and consummated. There is a touch of the tales of Saki about the brittle insouciance of the piece.

Equally sardonic is “Clarification”, in which Miss a Becket wakes with the certainty of a message from God – “a solution to the riddle of the universe”. It is that there is only “one prime element”: Light. And Darkness is a mistake. So illuminated, she lights two candles. But it is not enough. There are still dark corners. She forages for every form of light she can find in the house: lamps, candles, a bicycle lamp. And then she finds the fireworks. Soon she is dancing on the wet lawn of the morning in an ecstasy of flame and light.

In another episode, the character of Montagu is at first more calmly possessed. We are told he is recently freed from a lunatic asylum, and wishes to acquaint himself with the nature of sanity. So, naturally – to him – he enquires of the booking clerk at the railway station where he might find “the sanest men in the kingdom”. The clerk gives him a second class return to Melton Mowbray – a small town in Leicestershire chiefly known for pork pies. Montagu finds in his freedom all aspects of the station thrilling – the steam engine, even the little green ticket, token of his release. At his destination, a policeman kindly takes him to seven old men with long white beards sitting in a courtyard under a sycamore tree: “The Seven Sane Men of Melton Mowbray” of the story’s title. But Montagu does not get an answer about sanity, only a weak mumbling. The story has something of the fateful, fantastic mood of a Lord Dunsany tale.

The piece entitled “Nodules” gathers much peculiarity into a few pages. The narrator and Mr Bailly have come “in search of greyish-mauve objects”. They might be botanists or mycologists. The terrain is dry and cracked, the heat smelting. Mr Bailly shows signs of restlessness, yet the quest cannot be ended so soon. The narrator consults his compass, set always “N.E. by W.” and calculates their next course: “And so, at owl-time, we departed from that place”. The absurd and the futile mingle freely here, and yet there is also a sense of some unsaid mystery.

In ‘Nice Feeling On the Part of Two Young Men’, a slightly Wodehousian sketch, the youths in question have mistaken each other’s intentions regarding “the lady in yellow alpaca at no. 5”, each supposing the other of wanting to be her amour: once this is cleared up, they speak rather flippantly of their devotion to each other. The theme returns in the more bizarre ‘Portmanteau’, in which two nude young men live together in a large trunk, solely for the pleasure of the moment when they can get out and stretch their limbs. There is a picture of them doing just that, lithe, slender and flame-haired. One is bound to wonder a little if these vignettes were a coded statement of the affection felt by the authors for each other, two in a shared world who long to be able to reach out further.

The colour plates are beautifully done, with all the gloss and finish of the society portrait, yet depicting such strange scenes. The parson in ‘Frenzy’ is shown in giddy, world-tilting leap above dun fields, his white vestments in full billow, his orphrey a banner of purple. The ‘Nice Young Men’ are studies in pink and fawn in a white room, in slippers and smoking jacket. In the picture for ‘Palsy’, the grey clouds from the invading ships are mere pencil smudges: the burden of the scene is the back of Mr McCabe’s head, stiff and slightly bowed as he sits in his wooden chair watching through the window. Among the pink jackets and gowns of the Hunt Ball, the eye of the dark young man with the golden monocle in the story of that name stares out at us, rather fiercely, and haughty young women are shown trying hard not to look at it, turning away defiantly or dreamily. In the dreary brown landscape of ‘Nodules’, the gleam of Mr Bailly’s top hat, and the thrust of his impatient unfastened umbrella capture the tension of the fruitless quest.

It does not matter how often I turn the pages of this curious volume, I always find some new diversion, in the turn of the prose or the fine detail of the illustrations. Yes, I sometimes think that if I stare long enough at one of these pictures of deeply strange dreams, I might be drawn into some world beyond, where all is changed, and our own selves become strange genii, capable of many shapes, fleeting and aetherial.

Mark Valentine

Monday, March 30, 2015

THE GHOST STORY AWARDS

We are pleased to announce the winners of the inaugural Ghost Story Awards, sponsored by the literary society A Ghostly Company, and the journals Ghosts & Scholars and Supernatural Tales. The awards are for the best ghost story and the best ghost story book published in English in 2014.

The winners are:


Story – "Shallabalah" by D.P. Watt, The Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter no 26, Haunted Library

Book – Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers, Swan River Press


Our warmest congratulations to the winners, who will each receive a specially commissioned statuette, and a year’s complimentary subscription from each of the three sponsors.

Mark Valentine
Secretary

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Leslie Barringer's Lost Book

A "Late Review" from Wormwood, no. 23 (Autumn 2014), newly illustrated:
The 1946 dust-wrapper

Cartmell, Esmé. Rescue in Ravensdale (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, [February 1946]). Illustrated by Drake Brookshaw.
This is a children’s book, telling of a fortnight-long family holiday in Yorkshire in August 1939, just before the start of World War II. (One suspects that the book might have been written around that time, with paper shortages delaying publication until after the war.) The plot is minimal. It centers on the Levington family, father and mother, their four daughters (the youngest are twins), and cousin Roger who joins them. The father, Brand, is an author and publisher’s reader of books for older children, and the whole family is rather bookish, making their conversation one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. Brand brings home some manuscripts for the opinions of his children, and even their evaluative banter is amusing. When one child complains of the “very dull beginning of very dull Ivanhoe,” the father responds: “Scott wrote Ivanhoe for grown-ups . . . He had to describe everything so carefully because no one had tackled the Middle Ages like that before.” His daughter sensibly replies: “M’m. I see. But I wish he wouldn’t make his people say Hark ye, villain, I’ll give ye a bonk on thy nose, and things like that” (p. 106).
The 1955 dust-wrapper
            The family holiday includes a good amount of hiking and sight-seeing, attractively described, but a tone of seriousness comes in when they find a supposed German spy—actually a sculptor and artist who had come to England via Denmark to flee Hitler—who is hunted by a local figure the Levingtons have christened Oswald Poop. Oswald Poop ends up having a sinister agenda (assisting the Nazis), and the Levingtons are able to save the artist and thwart his adversary. 
            The book has an added interest because Esmé Cartmell was a one-time pseudonym of Leslie Barringer (1895-1968), author of Gerfalcon (1927) and its two sequels, Joris of the Rock (1928) and Shy Leopardess (1948). Besides being an author, Barringer was, like Brand Levington, a publisher’s reader of books for older children, and the father of four daughters (the two youngest being twins). One suspects that the physical description of Brand may also apply to Barringer (of whom I know of no published photographs): “He is tall, thin, mild, with bushy grey hair, grey eyes, horn-rimmed spectacles (the whitish kind), and tweed clothes” (p. 12). Rescue in Ravensdale was reprinted once, in February 1955, in the “Triumph Series” by published Thomas Nelson and Sons. 

The title and frontispiece to both editions
           

Friday, March 6, 2015

R.I.P. J.B. Pick (1921-2015)

Though his passing six weeks ago seems to have been ignored by the London press, there are two fine obituaries of John Barclay Pick in the Scottish press, one in The Scotsman and the other in the Herald Scotsman.

Here I wish to praise two particular aspects of Pick's literary work. He was the first critic to champion the greatness of David Lindsay (1876-1945), and for his work on Lindsay we should all be very grateful. His first article on Lindsay appeared as long ago as 1951, and he had several important articles and introductions appear in the 1960s through the 1980s.  I think Pick's last writing on Lindsay appeared in his story of the metaphysical tradition in Scottish fiction, The Great Shadow House (1993), which contains two chapters on Lindsay, and which takes its title from a variant of a passage in chapter eighteen of the manuscript of Lindsay's The Witch, referring to the universe as "the vast shadow-house of earth and sky" (later referred to by Lindsay more simply as "the great shadow-house").

Besides Pick's work on Lindsay, I'd like to call attention to one of his novels, published in the UK as The Fat Valley (1959) and in the US as The Last Valley (1960).  Not only is it a fine and haunting novel set in the 1637-38 in southern Germany during the Thirty Years War, it is, as C.P. Snow suggested, "an excellent example of the historical novel used as a symbol of our present condition."  It has only a very slight literary tinge of Lindsay, but it shares its roots in each writer's dissatisfaction with reality. It was also made into a fine film, under the US book title, starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, directed by James Clavell, and released in 1970. It's well worth watching, a fine adaptation of the novel. 

I exchanged a few letters with Pick back in the early 1980s. He was very kind and helpful  to me, and in response to one of my queries about other writers whom I should read (besides Lindsay and Neil Gunn, about whom Pick had also written), he recommended John Cowper Powys, beginning for me another enthusiasm. I've felt grateful to him for many years. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ligotti in Polish

The striking cover by Serhiy Krykun
Just a quick look here at the new translation of Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco into Polish from the publisher Okultura. Not only is there a new three-page Preface to the Polish Edition by Ligotti himself (translated by Mateusz Kopacz), but there is a fourteen page foreword by Wojciech Gunia and Slawomir Wielhorski and a very extensive Ligotti bibliography by Wielhorski.* Congratulations to all involved on this fine production!

*Note: Wielhorski also did an excellent interview with Ligotti that first appeared in Polish in 2012, and has now been collected in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti (2014), edited by Matt Cardin.  Weilhorski's interview, with an extra bonus answer at the end, also appears at Matt Cardin's blog, The Teeming Brain. Click here to see it.  

The table of contents

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New Walter de la Mare work


The latest issue of The Walter de la Mare Society Magazine (Number 16) includes several treats for enthusiasts of this most subtle and enigmatic of writers in the supernatural fiction field. Giles de la Mare introduces 'The Idealists', a previously unpublished continuation from the original manuscript of Walter de la Mare's story 'A Beginning'. He explains that the piece (about six pages long in the magazine) was probably intended to be included in the collection A Beginning and Other Stories (1955) but in the end not used. He adds that it "can more or less stand up on its own" but only makes full sense if you have read 'A Beginning'.

The piece, as so often in de la Mare, achieves a finely shaded mingling of interior and exterior landscapes, in which the narrator's keen observation of natural forces reflects also their own reveries and emotions: "Wind and rain, and my heart is lost under the low grey clouds, when the trees hang their heads and the water calls in the hollows. I grow dark and sullen and tomorrow seems but the ashes of a burned out hope...It is to you I turn as one in a far country turns towards home".

The magazine also includes three stanzas omitted at the proof stage from de la Mare's celebrated poem 'The Traveller' (1945), and a letter from T.S. Eliot about the poem, a transcript of a spoken introduction de la Mare made to a set of 78rpm records, Some Recent English Poetry (1946), and a previously unpublished letter by de la Mare.

In addition to this rare and original material by de la Mare, the 48pp magazine includes studies of his work: a survey of 'The Concept of Time in Walter de la Mare's Work' by Giles de la Mare; and a companion essay by Joe Griffiths on 'Time's Winged Chariot'; 'Alice on Wheels' by Richard Lowndes, which looks at de la Mare's links with Lewis Carroll; and my own essay 'Whisperings and Mumblings', an exploration of 'Seaton's Aunt'.

Mark Valentine



Sunday, February 8, 2015

'Strange is the Gift of Visiak' - Ernest Marriott's Poetic Tribute


E.H. Visiak (1878-1972) was a dedicated man-of-letters who is known now mainly for three things. He was an early champion of the work of David Lindsay, whom he befriended, and wrote about him (with Colin Wilson and J.B. Pick) in The Strange Genius of David Lindsay (1970). He was the author of a seafaring fantasy, Medusa (1929), frequently reprinted, and a few fantastical short stories. And he was also an eminent Milton scholar and editor.

However, earlier in his literary career, Visiak was known, if at all, as a poet. He published five volumes of verse: Buccaneer Ballads (1910, with an introduction by John Masefield); Flints and Flashes (1911); The Phantom Ship (1912); The Battle Fiends (1916); and Brief Poems (1919). As most of these titles suggest, Visiak often wrote swashbuckling pieces about pirates and the high seas, and these and other verses also had a gleefully macabre aspect to them.

Visiak was a conscientious objector during the Great War, and his views are expressed in the latter two of these poetry volumes. When a worthy on a tribunal considering his case for exemption from military service queried why he wrote about bloodthirsty naval fights if he were really a pacifist, Visiak pointed out that Milton wrote about demons but was hardly a diabolist.

The delight in Visiak’s pirate verses and grim themes is expressed in a poetic tribute to him, ‘The Verses of Visiak’ by Ernest Marriott, which has perhaps not been noticed before. This was published in the modernist magazine The Egoist: An Individualist Review, Vol 2 No 12, December 1st, 1915, edited by Harriet Shaw Weaver.

The author was probably the Manchester librarian and essayist Ernest Marriott (1882-1918), whose life and work has been commemorated in a monograph, ‘A Tricksy Sprite’ by Bryan Haworth (with Stewart Platts) published by the city’s Portico Library. This records that “Marriott was only twenty when appointed Librarian at the Portico in March 1903” and worked there until 1912.

Ernest Marriott was an artist, who illustrated an edition of stories from Don Quixote and wrote an early study of the art of Jack B. Yeats. He also wrote travel essays, published in Manchester journals, on wanderings in the Low Countries. After he left the Library, he joined the theatre director Gordon Craig in a tour of Europe, helping to design sets, and writing about some of their performances.

The Portico monograph describes how Marriott returned to England at the outbreak of the Great War. He became a quartermaster at the Brabyns Military Hospital, near Marple, Cheshire, where he also taught and gave talks on art to the troops. He died of heart failure on March 8, 1918.

E.H. Visiak lived in Manchester for a while when he was a clerk in the Indo-European Telegraph Company, and seems to have been there at more or less the same period that Marriott was the Librarian at the Portico. He would certainly have mingled in the literary circles in the city, as he was already a highly bookish young man trying to write. The likelihood is, therefore, that the two got to know each other and that ‘The Verses of Visiak’ is a homage to a friend. Sources show that Marriott had a lively wit and imagination, and enjoyed irreverent pastiche, and this piece is another charming example of that.

Ernest Marriott also contributed two more poems to The Egoist (Vol 3 No 10, October 1916), both with a late-decadent flavour: ‘Slain Roses’ and ‘Tædium Vitæ’, both somewhat in the vitiated style of Ernest Dowson or Arthur Symons. His poems in the magazine have not been noticed before, and, though perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the work has a wistful piquancy which adds to our picture of this spirited individual.

Here are the three poems by Ernest Marriott:

The Verses of Visiak

Drops of poetic essence
Distilled in queer little jars,
Dusky blossoms from gardens
That burn under lunatic stars.

Impish magical fiddles
Sobbing in dream-bazaars
Where boggle-boes and hobgoblins
Ramp in Rococo cars.

Blazing beaches and coral
Fifes and tum-tummy guitars
Fleering hints of the horrible lives
Of pirates and gashed old tars.

Strange is the gift of Visiak
When singing of sailors and spars ;
Strange is his talent for garnering
Such rummy particulars.

Tædium Vitæ

Sodden yellow leaves
Drift all about the town
I slink under the eaves
And smirk like a foolish clown.

I am deep-soaked in dolour
I rejoice in the fall of the leaf
These murky roads of squalor
Pander to my grief.

Gur-r-r, you’ll see me jut out my tongue
With a swollen purple grin when I’m hung
To the lamp with my neckerchief.

Slain Roses

Pale roses
From the green brier scattered
Your moist young petals are flung
Broken in creamy snow among
The undergrowth.
I see you torn and slain,
Dashed from the flexible stems
By the silver diagonal rain.

Your perturbing dim odour floats by
Returns and vanishes
Lingers, advances again,
Then surrounds me, almost—
Hesitating and doubtful—
Like a chaste
Shy ghost.


(Mark Valentine)