Posts tagged October special
As an addendum to the “October Special,” here’s an interview with writer and book collector Mark Valentine.
Vincent James O’Sullivan (1868-1940) was an American-born writer of macabre stories and Decadent poetry. Oscar Wilde, after having read O’Sullivan’s poems, commented: “In what a midnight his soul seems to walk! and what maladies he draws from the moon!”, and such a remark aptly characterizes most of O’Sullivan’s oeuvre.
It was in Montague Summers’ The Supernatural Omnibus (1931) that I first noticed O’Sullivan’s artistry. His stories—even in a collection that includes such figures as J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, Vernon Lee, and, one of Crowley’s cronies, William Seabrook—immediately stood out for their delivery, if not their content. O’Sullivan’s prose is vivid, flowing, and capable of deathly sudden twists. His most widely anthologized story, “When I Was Dead”, was described by Robert Aickman as a “spasm of guilt”, “sudden and shattering”; Aickman included it in The Fourth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1967), a long-running series he edited. However, that story is quite mild in comparison to some of O’Sullivan’s others. A few of my favourites are “Hugo Raven’s Hand”, “My Enemy and Myself”, “The Bars of the Pit”, and the novella-length “Verschoyle’s House”.
For more about Vincent O’Sullivan, see:
- Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s essay, “A Fallen Master of the Macabre”; it is from the introduction to Master of Fallen Years: The Complete Supernatural Stories of Vincent O’Sullivan (London: The Ghost Story Press, 1995). (Note: the book is very hard to come by, only 400 were printed, has a creepy cover, and it contains his rarest story, “The Monkey & Basil Holderness”, which I am desperate to read.)
- “Vincent O’Sullivan: Unstrung Second Fiddle”, an essay that compares him to other Decadent poets, and discusses in detail his story collection A Dissertation Upon Second Fiddles, which is said to read like an English Léon Bloy.
- Archive.org has the story collection Human Affairs, and the Decadent “prosetry” of The Green Window. Unfortunately, their scan of Sentiment, his second of two novels, is the edition without the stories, and they don’t have his first novel, my favourite, The Good Girl. (I hope to add some of his other works to Archive.org.)
- Horror Masters is a good resource for stories of the supernatural, of Vincent’s, it has: “Will”, “The Business of Madame Jahn”, “The Interval”, “Master of Fallen Years”, “When I Was Dead”, and “The Burned House”.
(Image: the frontispiece was done by the talented Aubrey Beardsley; the drawing does not look to be his most inspired work (see Stanley Weintraub’s Beardsley for why =]), but do take a look at this collection.)
Stefan Grabinski (1887–1936)—“the Polish Poe”—has been picking up fans since China Miéville’s 2003 Guardian article bemoaning the lack of translations of his work. Miéville wrote that
…reading The Dark Domain by Stephan Grabinski is such a revelatory experience. Because here is a writer for whom supernatural horror is manifest precisely in modernity—in electricity, fire-stations, trains: the uncanny as the bad conscience of today.
I first read about Grabinski in Gilbert Alter-Gilbert’s long review of Dark Domain in Asylum Annual 1995 (probably my first exposure to Alter-Gilbert too!):
Again and again, these stories attain a crescendo of sustained hysteria, while, for their invocation of primordial powers, their penetrating psychological insights, and their brooding, misanthropic pessimism, one might liken the ensuing effect to sitting in the company of Madame Blavatsky, escorted by Arthur Machen and Guy de Maupassant, and chaperoned by Arthur Schopenhauer, screaming at the top of their lungs on a runaway roller coaster.
Translator Miroslaw Lipinski is working on two more story collections.
Karl Hans Strobl (Iglau, Moravia 1877–Perchtoldsdorf 1946): A fertile and popular writer (he published over 100 books) who was one of the leading figures in the fashion for fantasy literature in the first thirty years of this century, both through his own novels and stories, and through his activities as editor of anthologies and of a periodical called Der Orchideengarten (The Orchid Garden). Probably the best-known of his magic novels is Eleagabal Kuperus. He also wrote historical novels of an increasingly German nationalist tone and ended as a National Socialist hack. [Ed.: somehow I saw that coming]
The anthology includes two of his stories, “Die arge Nonn’” (The Wicked Nun) and “Der Kopf” (The Head) from 1911 and 1921.
For now I want to include de la Mare in the “October special” feature on masters of the macabre. I wrote about his story “Seaton’s Aunt” for a feature on horror at The Second Pass. (I had no idea John Crowley would also be part of that feature!)
Image: actual cigarette card via nypl digital.
(Note: I work for Paul Dry Books, who publish reprints of Memoirs of a Midget and de la Mare’s Desert Islands. Hence I sadly speak from a position of authority—brooding over sales figures—when I claim him to be a Writer No One Reads.)
From the flaps to the 1975 Neville Spearman edition of The Fiery Angel (a reprint of a 1930 edition, now in print from Dedalus):
Valery Briussov’s historical novel, written in 1907, is a dramatic re-creation of a sixteenth-century world in which forces of demonology and witchcraft are real and powerful.
The story of the soldier, Rupprecht, captivated by a lady called Renata, who is tormented by demons, and their subsequent struggles, is an archetypal tale of horror and possession. The set piece of the witches’ sabbath—an authentic description—is particularly powerful, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand what witches were supposed to do on these occasions.
For a writer of the pre-Freudian era, The Fiery Angel is a remarkably convincing tour de force of abnormal psychology. Being a poet Briussov had an inkling of the strange truth about witches: that the powers of the human mind are far greater than we understand, and that they can be released by symbols.
Prokoviev’s opera, The Fiery Angels, was based on Briussov’s novel.
The back flap of the dustjacket reveals that Neville Spearman were doing a lot of Arkham House reprints in the 70s.
Colin Wilson called Fiery Angel ”one of the most remarkable novels ever written on the subject of magic and witchcraft.” From his intro:
By the age of twenty, Briussov had totally absorbed the gospel of decadence, as encapsulated in Huysmans’ A Rebours and Villiers de Lisle Adam’s Axel , with its famous line: “Live? Our servants can do that for us.” In 1894, when he was 21, he was part-author of a book called Russian Symbolists, which achieved a success de scandale. In the following year came his Chefs D’Oevres, which was greeted by the press with sneers and derision. In fact, Briussov was fighting in Russian the battle that Swinburne, Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelites had fought in the 1860s; and, as in England, there were plenty of conservative critics to denounce the “fleshly school of poetry.”
Jacket designed by Laurence Cutting
10/30/2011 update: I realized Briussov is featured prominently in The Dedalus Book of Russian Decadence: Perversity, Despair and Collapse.
Both M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft spoke highly of the weird tales of Erckmann–Chatrian, James writing (in ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’) that ‘I should feel myself ungrateful if I did not pay a tribute to the supernatural tales of Erckmann–Chatrian. The blend of French with German in them, comparable to the French–Irish blend in Le Fanu, has produced some quite first-rate romances of this kind. [Some of their stories] have for years delighted and alarmed me. It is high time that they were made more accessible than they are.’
Emile Erckmann (1822–99) and Louis Alexandre Chatrian (1826–90) began their writing partnership in the 1840s, and continued working together—producing plays, novels, and short stories—until the year before Chatrian’s death. At the height of their powers they were known as ‘the twins’, and their works proved popular in England, where they began appearing (in translation) as early as 1865. After their deaths, however, they slipped into obscurity; and apart from the odd tale reprinted in anthologies, and the ill-fated collection of their weird tales published by Millington in 1981, their work has remained difficult to find.
In The Invisible Eye, Hugh Lamb has collected together the finest weird tales by Erckmann–Chatrian, adding several stories to those which he assembled for the Millington volume (the fate of which he discusses in the appendix to the present work). The world of which Erckmann–Chatrian wrote has long since vanished; a world of noblemen and peasants, enchanted castles and mysterious woods, haunted by witches, monsters, curses, and spells. It is a world brought to life by the vivid imaginations of the authors, and presented here for the enjoyment of modern readers who wish to be transported to the middle of the nineteenth century: a time when, it seems, anything could happen—and sometimes did.
Best Tales includes these 10 stories: The Crab Spider, The Murderer’s Violin, The Invisible Eye, The Child Stealer, My Inheritance, The Mysterious Sketch, The Owl’s Ear, The Three Souls, The Wild Huntsman, The Man Wolf.
The Ash-Tree volume—I do not own one of the 500 copies printed—adds The White and the Black, The Burgomaster in Bottle, Lex Talionis, A Legend of Marseilles, Cousin Elof’s Dream, and The Citizen’s Watch.
No one reads Aloysius Bertrand (1807–1841). Bio courtesy of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
French writer generally acknowledged as the progenitor of the prose poem, as elaborated in his posthumously published volume Gaspard de la Nuit (Rat About Town or Fly-by-Night). Bertrand’s creative vision was shaped, to a great extent, by his admiration for painters, and he dedicated his ground-breaking Gaspard to the artists Rembrandt and Callot. Bertrand is noted for recreating medieval milieux and for vivid, highly-colored evocations of settings and scenes. A tubercular wretch, Bertrand reached the end of an existence made miserable by ill-health and impecuniousness at the age of thirty-four. His funeral expenses were borne by his friend, the sculptor David d’Angers. Bertrand was designated, in a famous essay by Paul Verlaine, as a charter member of the circle of “cursed poets,” and his influence has been emphatically acknowledged by such Symbolist poets as Charles Baudelaire, Tristan Corbiere, Jules Laforgue, and Stephane Mallarme, and by the Surrealist group as a whole.
Read Gilbert’s translations from Bertrand’s “Scarbo Suite”
Image: Jacques Callot, from the series Gobbi, circa 1621
Bio by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
Charles Nodier (1780–1844) was the literary “pilot of French Romanticism.” Director of the Arsenal Library and grand panjandrum of an epochal Parisian salon, he was a prominent cultural arbiter of the post-Napoleonic period. A multi-faceted author, Nodier is best remembered for his elaborate fantasies Luck of the Bean-Rows; Trilby; and Smarra, or The Demons of the Night. Nodier’s Infernaliana or Anecdotes, Histories, Tales and Accounts Concerning Revenants, Spectres, Vampires and Demons, a catalog of clichés of the supernatural, the spectral, and the chthonic which Nodier helped to make fashionable during Romanticism’s heyday, is the source from which The Bloody Nun [read it on 50 Watts] has been drawn, to be presented here for the first time in English translation.
Writing about John Metcalfe (1891–1965) in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, T. E. D. Klein said that the author’s work “is marked by a rare artistry, wit, and intelligence—and by a restraint too often lacking in the genre”… E.F. Bleiler, in his Guide to Supernatural Fiction, refers to them as “tense, cryptic stories of brooding supernaturalism” which are now “unjustly forgotten.”
John Metcalfe’s tales of the macabre and the supernatural are amongst the finest in the genre, and are comparable to the stories of such authors as Walter de la Mare, L. P. Hartley, and Robert Aickman. The horrors in his stories are insidious and unnerving, frightening by stealth rather than violence as they intrude into the quiet lives of ordinary people, who find their worlds shaken by forces they can neither understand nor control. Like the best horror tales of Poe and Le Fanu, Metcalfe’s narratives are often disturbing accounts of excursions into the “bad lands” of the subconscious mind.
This volume collects seventeen stories, a biography, and an afterword by Maldoror translator, novelist (no one reads?), and Jean Rhys-chronicler Alexis Lykiard (Metcalfe’s wife Evelyn Scott was among Jean’s earliest supporters). Grimness from his afterword:
The sparse details of this singular author’s sad decline are as grim and affecting as anything he himself wrote. Widowed and virtually helpless, he collapsed, was committed to a New York mental hospital and, through friends’ efforts, finally discharged and repatriated to England. Alcohol, tranquilizers, and a fall down the stairs of a shabby London boarding-house saw him out. It was not long before Metcalfe’s books and papers too were disposed of piecemeal. This occurred when his drinking crony and, alas, literary executor, John Gawsworth, met an even more destitute alcoholic end.
Image: cover by Douglas Walters for Nightmare Jack and Other Tales
[I must have bought this when it came out. It’s already going for big bucks, sorry to say. Eventually the napster of books will spread it around.]
From the back cover of Dover’s pairing of Meyrink’s Golem and Paul Busson’s Man Who Was Born Again:
The Man Who Was Born Again by Paul Busson (1873–1924), Tyrolean and Viennese journalist and author, is well-known as perhaps the finest adventure fantasy in early twentieth-century German literature. The story of reincarnated memories in eighteenth-century Germany and France, it offers a fine integration of supernatural powers, ghosts, witchcraft, black magic, demons, and evocation of the dead; it is unique in its combination of wild imagination and realism.
E. F. Bleiler’s intro to this 1976 paperback is pretty thorough. He ends his section on Busson with a paragraph contradicting the back cover text:
Today Paul Busson seems to be forgotten in the Germanic world except as a journalist in the memory of a now very old generation. He was never known at all in English. The translations The Man Who Was Born Again and The Fire Spirits went almost unheeded, even though they appeared at a dearth-time of fantasy [late 20s]. Yet these two novels offer inimitable universes, where fantasy assumes such strong actuality that it achieves its own reality. Even after fifty years, in another language, these universes remain viable.
As an indication of obscurity, even I—Jujutsu master of book search—cannot locate a copy of The Fire Spirits.
Ramsey Campbell actually included an entire novel—The Hole of the Pit—in his 1992 anthology of supernatural fiction, Uncanny Banquet. He tells why:
Adrian Ross was the pseudonym of Arthur Reed Ropes (1859–1933), a Cambridge don. In 1891 he began a new career by writing the libretto of an opera in the Savoy vein, Joan of Arc. In the next thirty years he wrote over two thousand lyrics and produced almost sixty musical plays and farces. None of this prepares us for what appears to have been his only work of fiction, The Hole of the Pit, published as a novel in 1914 by Edward Arnold and never reprinted until now. While it is dedicated to the author’s friend and colleague M. R. James, it owes at least as much to William Hope Hodgson, but it is its own book. Only its extreme rarity has prevented it from being acknowledged as one of the first masterpieces of the novel of supernatural terror.
For the two weeks leading up to Halloween, I’ll try to highlight some under-appreciated writers of ghost stories/horror/weird fiction. As a preteen I would read a book per day by big names like King, Straub, Barker, and Campbell. After a couple decades away from the stuff—except for a Machen phase in my early twenties—I dug a little deeper and found the true masters of the form (M.R.James, Blackwood, Ligotti) and actually read Lovecraft for the first time (we all have blind spots!), in the process encountering hundreds of forgotten writers.
Robert Aickman (1914–1981) may be my favorite out of the bunch. While he’s read more than most of the writers on this tumblr, Aickman should be a household name. His wikipedia page contains two quotes that sum up his appeal:
His literary gifts were of an extremely high order. His prose style – supple, urbane, sophisticated, restrained, yet capable of surprisingly powerful emotive effects – never falters from the beginning to the end of his work. There are few writers who are as purely pleasurable to read, regardless of their subject matter or the success or failure of their actual work, as Robert Aickman. His major literary influences (it might be better to say analogues) appear to be M. R. James and Walter de la Mare, yet he excels the former in richness and variety of texture and the latter in the sustained intensity of all his literary work.—S. T. Joshi,The Modern Weird Tale
I think that Aickman is one of those authors that you respond to on a very primal level. If you’re a writer, it’s a bit like being a stage magician. A stage magician produces coin, takes coin, demonstrates coin vanished… That tends to be what you do as a fiction writer, reading fiction. You’ll go, “Oh look. He’s setting that up.”…Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully. Yes, the key vanished, but I don’t know if he was holding a key in the hand to begin with. I find myself admiring everything he does from an auctorial standpoint. And I love it as a reader. He will bring on atmosphere. He will construct these perfect, dark, doomed little stories, what he called “strange stories”.—Neil Gaiman
Tartarus Press has published limited hardcovers of many of the collections, while Faber is doing print-on-demand paperbacks. Here’s a link to an Amazon search for “Robert Aickman.” Really you can’t go wrong; start anywhere.