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The Green Book 18

Editor’s Note

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This issue is another selection of profiles from our tentatively named Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. The keen-eyed will spot one name that might seem out of place: Harry Clarke (1889-1931). Clarke, of course, was not a writer, but an artist who worked in watercolour, pen and ink, and stained glass. As an illustrator, Clarke put his indelible mark on literature of the macabre and fantastic. His best-known illustrations are those accompanying Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919/23), though his illustrations for Andersen, Perrault, and Swinburne also bear hallmarks of the strange. So too do goblins and grotesques leer from the corners of his stained glass work. Writing in The Irish Statesman on Clarke’s illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, the poet A.E. was clearly taken with the artist’s power:

“Nothing in these drawings represents anything in the visible world: all come from that dread mid-world or purgatory of the soul where forms change on the instant by evil or beautiful imagination, where the human image becomes bloated and monstrous by reason of lust or hate, the buttocks become like those of a fat swine, and thoughts crawl like loathsome puffy worms out of their cells in the skull. Shapeless things gleam with the eye of a snake . . . Here the black night is loaded with corrupt monstrosities, creatures distorted by lusts which obsess them, which bloat out belly or thighs, suck in the forehead, make the face a blur of horrid idiocy or a malignant lunacy. We shiver at the thought that creatures like these may lurk in many a brain masked from us by the divine image.” (14 November 1925)

It is all the more pitiable that Clarke never illustrated an edition of Dracula—he was unable to come to an agreement with Bram Stoker’s estate. What we are left with is not only a remarkable body of work, but also hints to what might have been: other unrealised projects include Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Huysmans’ À Rebours.

Clarke is rightfully listed in Jack Sullivan’s Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), and so I felt, given his impact on macabre literature, it was only proper to feature a profile of this remarkable artist among our own pages. Naturally, you’ll find a Clarke illustration on the cover of this issue, and his “Mephisto” can be found on the cover of Issue 6.

This issue also features profiles on George Croly—whose Salathiel may well have borne influence on Stoker’s Dracula (see also “Who Marvels at the Mysteries of the Moon” in The Green Book 14)—and a much-anticipated entry on Fitz-James O’Brien, who is surely a pillar of Irish genre fiction; while Yeats and Lady Gregory invoke in their words the long shadow of the Celtic Twilight. As always, I hope you’ll discover writers who might be lesser known, like the Banims and the Barlowes, or those whose contributions to genre might be unexpected, such as the Longfords and Iris Murdoch. Whatever the case, I hope you find new and exciting avenues to explore.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
1 August 2021


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Contents
“Editor’s Note”
    Brian J. Showers

“George Croly (1780-1860)”
    Paul Murray

“Michael and John Banim (1796-1874/1798-1842)”
    James Doig

“Anna Maria Hall (1800-1881)”
    James Doig

“James William Barlow (1826-1913)”
    Jack Fennell

“Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)”
    Richard Bleiler

“Lady Gregory (1852-1932)”
    James Doig

“Jane Barlow (1856-1917)”
    Jack Fennell

“W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)”
    R. B. Russell

“Harry Clarke (1889-1931)”
    R. B. Russell

“Christine and Edward Longford (1900-1980/1902-1961)”
    Reggie Chamberlain-King

“Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)”
    Miles Leeson

“Notes on Contributors”

THE GREEN BOOK 17

EDITOR’S NOTE

As it turned out, Issue 15, which was comprised entirely of fiction, proved to be quite popular. So I had a look in my files to see if I could put together another such issue of refugee writings that did not fit elsewhere in our publishing schedule.

Let the curtains rise on Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House”, first published in The Dramatic Review (11 April 1885), which publisher Leonard Smither’s notes is “not included in the edition of his collected Poems”—I assume a reference to the volume issued by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in 1892. While “The Harlot’s House” has since become available, we would like to present it here as Leonard Smithers had in a portfolio edition in 1904: with five “weirdly powerful and beautiful” drawings by Althea Gyles, known for her lavish cover designs for Yeats’s poetry collections, including The Secret Rose (1897), two covers for The Wind Among the Reeds (1899/1990), and Poems (1900). We will explore more fully this remarkable artist in a future issue of The Green Book.

H. de Vere Stacpoole’s “The Mask”, a deft little shocker set in the Carpathian Mountains, had previously a couple of outings in 1930s anthologies, including My Grimmest Nightmare (1935) and Not Long for This World (1936). While de Vere Stacpoole is best known for his popular novel The Blue Lagoon (1908), his career is sprinkled with tales of the macabre. A profile of his life and writings can be found in Issue 12.

Next is Herbert Moore Pim’s “The Ravished Bride”, a gothic narrative in verse set in the north of Ireland, and quite unlike the stories found in his oddball collection Unknown Immortals of the Northern City of Success (1917). You’ll find his story, “The Madman” in Issue 15, while a full profile of this quixotic author is in Issue 12.

After this we have two stories by Katharine Tynan, neither of which have been reprinted before. We considered both when compiling The Death Spancel and Others, which Swan River published in late 2020, but ultimately decided they wouldn’t strengthen that volume. We rejected “The Heart of the Maze” because it is simply not a supernatural tale; however, it does possess dream-like and faerie tale-type qualities not atypical of Tynan’s work. The second story, “The House of a Dream”, while it does contain psychical elements, we deemed far too similar in plot to “The Dream House”, the latter of which we did include in The Death Spancel. As a commercial writer, Tynan reused plots and themes to keep up with the demands of the fiction markets. Despite this pace, her writing remained of the highest quality: elegant, descriptive, and a pleasure to read.

Following the two stories by Tynan you’ll find three poems by Dora Sigerson Shorter, all of which were selected by Margaret Widdemar for her anthology The Haunted Hour (1920), a volume that also included contributions from Yeats, Tynan, and Walter de la Mare. Widdemar takes for her strict definition of a “ghost-poem” as “poems which relate to the return of spirits to earth”. Sigerson Shorter’s poems deftly evoke a night-time Ireland populated by revenants and other wandering ill-omens, such as the fetch and the banshee. If you want to learn more about Sigerson Shorter’s life and work you can read about her in Issue 13; her remarkable story “Transmigration” can be found in Swan River’s Bending to Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women (2019).

Finally we have “To Prove an Alibi” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, a tale of mystery and terror reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852). This story is one in a series to feature John Bell, later collected as A Master of Mysteries (1898). Bell is a “professional exposer of ghosts” whose business is to “clear away the mysteries of most haunted houses” and to “explain by the application of science, phenomena attributed to spiritual  agencies”. More on Meade can be found in The Green Book 16; we will be seeing more from her soon.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, another issue of weird, gothic, and macabre poems and stories from Irish writers. I write this on Saint Patrick’s Day, under a clear blue sky in Dublin; and I hope some of the convivial cheer and goodwill of the day reaches you as you read this issue.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
17 March 2021

You can buy The Green Book here.

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Contents

“Editor’s Note”
    Brian J. Showers

“The Harlot’s House”
    Oscar Wilde with Althea Gyles

“The Mask”
    H. de Vere Stacpoole

“The Ravished Bride”
    Herbert Moore Pim

“The Heart of the Maze”
    Katharine Tynan

“The House of a Dream”
    Katharine Tynan

“All-Souls’ Night”
    Dora Sigerson Shorter

“The Fetch”
    Dora Sigerson Shorter

“The Banshee”
    Dora Sigerson Shorter

“To Prove an Alibi”
    L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

“Notes on Contributors”

“That Didn’t Scare Me”: Thoughts on Horror Fiction

“Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western
. . . Horror is an emotion.” – Douglas E. Winter

“That didn’t scare me.” This level of criticism grates my sensibilities. That didn’t scare me. It’s the sort of comment you overhear when leaving the cinema or that you might witness among a torrent of social-media posts, not generally known for their insight or elucidation in the first place. It’s not even the brevity of this comment that bothers me, but rather that this grunt seems to convey a shallow understanding of horror: “That didn’t scare me.”

As a life-long connoisseur of horror, I seldom experience genuine “fear” while reading (or viewing)—that adrenaline-fuelled dread termed “art-horror” by Noel Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. It does happen to me on occasion though, this sense of frisson: I remember the worrying, childhood anxiety of the doomsday clock in John Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, that horrible cosmic grandeur I experienced the first time I turned the pages of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, or the overbearing sense of inexorable supernatural fate in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

But if invoking this feeling of fear is such a rare experience—a sort of holy grail of reader reaction—then you might rightly wonder why I carry on exploring this particular section of the library? Am I not effectively one among the crowd, professing with a sneer, that didn’t scare me? It’s a reasonable question. Put another way: If horror doesn’t get you scared, then what are you getting?

In his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil (1988), editor Douglas E. Winter makes an observation, often repeated, what he calls “an important bit of heresy”: “Horror is not a genre like the mystery or science fiction or the western . . . Horror is an emotion.” This is a good place to start: horror is an emotion, and so the success or failure of horror literature is predicated on eliciting an emotional sensation in the reader. Similar to how a joke might be deemed a success or failure depending on the laughs. But there’s got to be more to it than that.

Consider a grand piano, onyx black, appropriately festooned with cobwebs and candelabra bedecked with dripping red candles. Imagine being allowed to play only one note, probably down the far left end of the instrument where the theme from Jaws is usually played. Now imagine that the sole way to enhance the effectiveness of this note is to hammer that one key harder and harder. For many, this is horror. Hammering that single key. Lots of people love that one pounding note too, and feel cheated if they don’t get that adrenaline rush; that didn’t scare me. Sure, that single note might be novel for a moment, sometimes even effective in a particular context, as the musician changes speed or intensity. But you’ll forgive me if I tend to feel overwhelmingly bored with this sort of concert.

Uncertainties 4, painting by B. Catling

“Horror is an emotion,” Douglas E. Winter tells us. I would respectfully like to amend that assertion. Horror is a range of emotions. And each of these moods, if they are to be successful, must be cultivated differently. We know that good horror is rarely just a single note. There are far more keys on that piano—and they’re all elegantly tuned. To borrow the subtitle of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the genre is eine Symphonie des Grauens—a symphony of horrors.

There seems to have been a proliferation of horror-related literary descriptors in the early- to mid-twentieth century (or at least an increasingly formalised awareness of them): cosmic, weird, numinous, uncanny, strange, among others. I believe these words are of merit, not because they define sub-genres, but because they reflect attempts to describe particular nuances of affect (emotional responses) to be found in the “ghost story”—the dominant mode of horror in the late nineteenth century, itself rooted in the gothic tradition. Despite the common trope of the wailing bedsheet, the ghost story has always been quite diverse and adaptable. As is occasionally observed, the “ghosts” in the works of M. R. James are often not ghosts at all, but demons and other such denizens; while the stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James practically beg for the qualifier “psychological” so as to set them apart from the less imaginative chain-rattling fare. And yet, even though Algernon Blackwood himself called “The Willows” a ghost story, that attribution would seem a wholly inadequate description for the troubling sentiments that masterful tale evokes. Who can blame Lovecraft for writing an entire treatise pondering the aesthetics of the weird or Robert Aickman for labouring the strange?

This attempt to describe dominant effects found in horror storytelling continues apace; sometimes these descriptions are celebrated, other times they’re inelegantly stated, occasionally there’s some sort of backlash. Current nomenclature includes “quiet horror” or “elevated horror”, “horror adjacent”, “new horror”, and the ostensibly respectable “thriller”. But surely horror means horror. It doesn’t need your fancy terms. Perhaps the worry is that defining a “sub-genre” will limit creativity, possibly that it’s just a marketing ploy, or, worse still, a declaration of vogueishness, a demonstration of an otherwise unspoken desire to be au courant. Or maybe outsiders discovering good horror ruin the mystique of the insular and supposedly marginalised horror geek who has been reading Thomas Ligotti this whole time anyway.

As someone who thinks often about the mechanics of horror storytelling, it makes sense to me that we recognise and try to describe the wide-ranging nuances of emotional sensations available to writers of horror. I believe understanding this diversity makes horror literature a stronger, richer, and more enjoyable pursuit.

Over the years I’ve written down some words that I’ve come to associate with the various emotional resonances found in horror literature. Take a moment to read through them. Think about stories you’ve read that evoke these sensations to varying degrees of success, and how these ideas differ from one another:

Strange
Weird
Dread
Uncanny
Eerie
Wonder
Awe
Decadence
Terror
Occult
Despair
Numinous
Epiphany
Nihilistic
Cosmic
Psychical
Mysterious
Gothic
Melancholy
Unreal
Surreal
Disquietude
Morbid
Oneiric
Mystical
Supernatural
Sublime
Grotesque
Unease
Paranoia
Revulsion

I have not attempted to arrange these words in any sort of order. I’m not sure I would know how. Nor would I feel confident to state that this list is complete; no doubt you can think of more. Call these words what you’d like—sub-genres, modes, atmospheres, moods, sensibilities—but they all describe, directly or indirectly, discreet emotional sensations that a skilled writer can elicit from a reader. It also stands to reason that this variety of effects requires a broad range of appreciative sensibilities—though I understand that not everyone will respond equally to each of these words. Still, there are plenty of emotional sensations available to the skilled writer, the adrenaline rush of fear being only one of them. And this sensation alone is insufficient to judge the vast scope of horror. So much for “That didn’t scare me”.

Numerous essayists over the centuries have attempted to define some of these modes, to delineate their core attributes and limits. Anne Radcliffe made an early attempt at that classic bifurcation, differentiating terror and horror: “the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”; to these twin poles, Stephen King added revulsion (the “gross-out”, he called it). Thomas Burke gives us the sublime, when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it”; while Freud sets out a reasonable starting point for the uncanny (“that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”).

Though the weird is often associated with Lovecraft’s examination of supernatural horror in literature, I like Mark Fisher’s more recent philosophical definition in The Weird and the Eerie: “that which does not belong”; and of the eerie: the “failure of absence” or the “failure of presence”. (Fisher also helpfully tells us that the weird and the eerie need not necessarily be aligned with fear either, thank you very much.) The well-known rules for the ghost story proper were set out by M. R. James; so too does Edith Wharton give insight in her preface to Ghosts: “What the ghost really needs is continuity and silence”—although she also notes, “the more one thinks the question over, the more one perceives the impossibility of defining supernatural events”.

It’s true that many have tried to put words to these nuanced facets of horror. Certainly, some overlap or work in tandem, while others command entirely recognisable sub-genres on their own. We can look to Arthur Machen for the mystical (“Omnia exeunt in mysterium”), to Aickman for the strange (“it must open a door where no one had previously noticed a door to exist”), or to Joyce Carol Oates for the grotesque (“a blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise”). There are whole books written on the subject by Dorothy Scarborough, Montague Summers, Peter Penzoldt, Devendra P. Varma, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Glen Cavaliero, S. T. Joshi—you may not always agree with their conclusions (isn’t that half the fun anyway?), but all are attempting to give names to the various effects a “horror” story can elicit.

Which brings us to the present volume, the fifth in a series of unsettling tales. Believe it or not, Uncertainties is a themed anthology. The remit was nothing so superficial as vampires or zombies or folk horror or Cthulhu (only in dustbowl Oklahoma this time), but rather to exhibit horror’s myriad nuances, to open up strange vistas of unsettling possibilities and other-worldly ideas, to commune with intrusions from the outside and those disquieting gestations from within. “Ghost stories,” as Elizabeth Bowen observed, “are not easy to write—least easy now, for they involve more than they did.” But these twelve writers take up the challenge, each in their own way, with expert awareness of the genre’s limitless possibilities.

Algernon Blackwood put it well in “The Willows”, a story that’s caused me many sleepless nights in terrible awe of the unknown: “ ‘There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,’ he said once, while the fire blazed between us. ‘We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.’ ”

So you can call these stories whatever you’d like: weird, strange, eerie, uncanny . . . I call them Uncertainties.

Brian J. Showers
Rathmines, Dublin
24 February 2021

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Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Ghosts & Scholars, and Supernatural Tales. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006), the co-editor of Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011), and the editor of The Green Book. Showers also edited the first two volumes of Uncertainties, and co-edited with Jim Rockhill, the Ghost Story Award-winning anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.


Previous volumes of Uncertainties are also available:

Uncertainties Volume 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis

Uncertainties Volume 3, edited by Lynda E. Rucker

Uncertainties Volume 2, edited by Brian J. Showers

Uncertainties Volume 1, edited by Brian J. Showers

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat

“This Society shall be called the ‘Chit-Chat Club’, and consist of Members of the University, and have for its object the promotion of rational conversation.”

“Preface” to Ghosts of the Chit-Chat by Robert Lloyd Parry

This rule, the first in the founding charter of the Chit-Chat, was not always strictly observed during the thirty-seven years of the club’s existence. It’s true that membership was only ever drawn from undergraduates and staff of Cambridge University, but the name was subject to variation, and it was for an evening of supernatural storytelling rather than rational conversation that the Chit-Chat has earned its modest place in the history of English literature.

On the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, members past and present ought to have been enjoying a dinner in celebration of the club’s recently held 600th meeting. The secretary, A. B. Ramsay, had failed to make the necessary arrangements, however. So instead, ten current members and one guest gathered in the rooms of the Junior Dean of King’s College and listened—with increasing absorption one suspects—as their host read “Two Ghost Stories”.

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat is not the first book to celebrate this momentous event in the history of supernatural literature, the earliest dated record we have of M. R. James reading his ghost stories out loud. But it is the first to look more widely at the contributions that other club members made to the genre. The authors whose works appear in these pages are not a diverse group: they were the privately educated sons of bankers, lawyers, schoolmasters, and clergymen, who would themselves go on to careers in academia, journalism, the army and the church. But they were also men of imagination, curiosity, and wit, and the variety lies in the different approaches to supernatural fiction: here you’ll find tales of ghostly retribution and black magic; spatterings of gore and glimpses “beyond the veil”. You’ll read stories written to edify schoolboys, and poems composed to tickle undergraduates. You’ll encounter allegory, satire, and mysticism.

Artwork by John Coulthart

And while all the writers invoke ghosts in their work, many are also shades themselves; men whose remembrances have faded, whose voices are but faintly heard today. M. R. James and E. F. Benson remain in the mainstream, it’s true. But while names like Maurice Baring, Desmond MacCarthy, and J. K. Stephen may still ring faint bells with the book-loving public, their works are long out of print. Whereas the writings of Robert Carr Bosanquet and Will Stone are found only in the pages of unread memorial volumes.

Used with permission from the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Each of the works selected here is preceded by an account of the author’s life and his relationship to M. R. James and—except in one case—formal membership of the Chit-Chat Club is a prerequisite for inclusion in this volume. Celebrated Cambridge supernaturalists like Arthur Gray, E. G. Swain, R. H. Malden, and others find no place here for the simple reason that they never made the commitment to attend a meeting every Saturday evening at 10 p.m. during term, take a pinch of snuff, and listen to one of their friend’s read a paper. Or perhaps they were never asked.

The designations of the Chit-Chat as a “club” and a “society” were interchangeable from the beginning—both appear in the first set of rules. The minute books, and the letters and memoirs of past members, variously render the name as “Chit-Chat”, “Chit Chat”, or “Chitchat”. Except when quoting other sources, I shall follow rule one from the first set of rules, quoted above, and use Chit-Chat Club.

Read more about John Coulthart’s Cover.

Uncertainties 4: A Chat with Timothy J. Jarvis

IMG_2365

Conducted by Lynda E. Rucker

Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Volume 1, The Scarlet Soul, The Far TowerMurder Ballads, and Uncertainties 1, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.


 

Lynda: E. Rucker: First, I want to say how much I enjoyed this volume of Uncertainties! I love the direction you took the series in here.

 In your introduction, you write about how it’s less the traditional ghost that’s disconcerting to you as a reader these days then the bizarre juxtaposition of certain settings and events. Even more than any particular contemporary writer, I associate this with the filmmaker David Lynch. It also makes me think of something I come back to often, Arthur Machen’s definition of “sin”, as described by Cosgrove in “The White People”: “What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror . . . And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?” Can you say a little more about this approach to storytelling and how the stories in Uncertainties 4 achieve this unsettling affect (either individually or as a whole)?

28535979_10212960569946601_193795878_nTimothy J. Jarvis: Thanks Lynda! It was somewhat intimidating to follow the powerful set of stories you assembled for Volume 3. I loved the work in that anthology, and sought more tales that contained those “little slips of the veil” you discuss in your introduction. That notion — that our general sense of reality is complacent, needs undermining if we are to see more clearly — is one I think really important.

And I completely agree — I also think first of Lynch’s work in relation to this kind of aesthetic. There’s something compelling and unique about the filmic language he’s developed. It’s often called surreal, and it does, it’s true, tap into that same rich vein the surrealists found when mining dreams in the early twentieth century. But I think there’s something else going on too . . . The surrealists used free-associative techniques drawn from psychoanalysis to quarry the startling imagery of works like Un Chien Andalou or Story of the Eye. But it seems to me the twentieth century has to an extent defanged the strange of the inner life of the mind — partly because we are now so familiar with it, due to the prevalence of psychiatric and therapeutic discourse in everyday life, but mostly because culture has pumped the collective unconscious full of banality — ecstatic dream states feel very far away just now. Lynch uses transcendental meditation, a technique ostensibly similar to the automatism of the surrealists, to trawl for the fish swimming in the abyssal depths of consciousness, but the result somehow opens our collective eyes once more (if we let it). This is partly, I feel, because he brings tawdry and plain dull aspects of contemporary culture into his work, and not as parody or détournement, but without any ironic distance, something that gives rise to juxtapositions which produce extraordinary effects. The everyday is estranged, the strange made commonplace. His series of web films, Rabbits, sections of which appear nightmarishly in Inland Empire, perfectly demonstrates this. Actors wearing rabbit-head masks and dressed in ’50s-style suits or housecoats pace about an impersonal living-room or sit on its red-leather couch. The camera is static. The presentation is remarkably close to a sitcom, and as such feels very familiar. There is even canned applause and laughter, though the reactions of the ersatz audience bear little relation to what’s happening on set. The characters talk in banalities, non sequiturs, and gnomic utterances. The soundtrack is ominous industrial drone, thunder, and train horns that sound like mournful whale song. There is singing and moments of demonic intensity. It is very very wrong. A particular kind of wrongness that opens the modern viewer up to something very much like that which the surrealists found when prospecting in the unconscious. Or, for that matter, like the proximity to the numinous medieval mystics felt when in the throes of a visionary experience. It was this kind of affect I was looking for when soliciting stories for the anthology.

Rabbits-lynch

Arthur Machen is a writer whose work is really important to me. His worldview, with its mixture of the esoteric and neoplatonist, is all about the search for an ecstatic that is both outside and within the quotidian. I’m fascinated by that definition of sin from “The White People” and I think must have been unconsciously applying it to my editorial approach. And Machen’s emphasis on the ecstatic in art, which he outlines in his literary treatise Hieroglyphics, was also a significant influence — the idea that contact with a strange outside might not necessarily involve horror. A lot of the tales in Uncertainties IV do evoke dread, but not all. Camilla Grudova’s “ ‘A Novel (or Poem) About Fan’ or ‘The Zoo’ “ and Nadia Bulkin’s “Some Girls Wander By Mistake” are among the stories that evoke much more the melancholy that a haunting can give rise to, a sense of loss become almost cosmic.

LER: Your casting of this approach as a twentieth and particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, and your choice of an epigram — “We live in Gothic times” — made me think of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1970s that science fiction is the only form of fiction that is truly relevant, that can describe the world as it is. Do you think the weird/strange story or the Gothic are especially relevant modes for contemporary times, and if so, why?

UncertaintiesVol3_DJ_CoveronlyTJJ: I do think the strange story, through the Machenian ecstatic, offers a particularly incisive way of flensing the mundane from the weird heart of things, and especially now, at this historical moment. What I particularly like about that Angela Carter quote is the idea that fiction is a means by which we can interrogate the world, and that we need, as writers, to ensure our tools are fit and honed for the task. I believe that when, in the western world, left-brain, rational modes of thinking became the predominant means of asking important questions, sometime in the seventeenth century, something was lost. There is always something that escapes reason, always something ineffable, but we tend now to ignore it. Kant divided the world into the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal and humankind choose to live in the former, in our heads, in the realm of the senses. Realist fiction is largely tied to this empirical mode, but the fantastic, the Gothic, connects more to the right-brain, to the imagination, and can offer us glimpses of the inaccessible real world out there. John Clute puts in brilliantly when he writes, in The Darkening Garden, “The Fantastic is the Enlightenment’s dark, mocking Twin . . . Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.”

Till recently there was still good faith on the empirical side and the imagination was allowed its demesne, but in our post-truth, post-facts world, things are a deal more confusing . . . The imagination seems now to be actively supressed, to be seen as dangerous. I think, therefore, it’s more important than ever that the Fantastic expose that lie.

I think this kind of investigation works across all the modes that are descended from the Gothic, and there are stories in Uncertainties IV that are recognisably science fiction — Marian Womack’s “At the Museum” and Aliya Whiteley’s “Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion” — which use that mode to open up to the nebulous and weird. There are stories which powerfully use the strange to crowbar open the mundane and show us its horrors, stories such as Gary Budden’s “We Pass Under” and Anna Tambour’s “Hand Out”. In other tales, intimate hauntings spiral into terrifying brutality, as in Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Birds of Nagasaki” and Charles Wilkinson’s “These Words, Rising From Stone”. And in yet others, the weird irrupts into the everyday to disconcert and derange, as it does in Brian Evenson’s “Myling Kommer”, D. P. Watt’s “Primal”, and Claire Dean’s “Feeding the Peat”.

LER: Since you assembled the anthology and it was published, times have taken a turn for the very strange indeed as we, along with much of the rest of the world, are locked down during a global pandemic. More than ever, it feels very much like a backdrop for an Uncertainties setting! Any thoughts on how destabilizing this sudden change is for us and how it might affect the fiction we write and read?

TJJ: This ongoing season of the plague definitely feels like something drawn from stranger fringes of supernatural fiction, perhaps from Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”, Tanith Lee’s Paradys books M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, or M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. There is something of that weird apocalyptic mood, on the intimate scale of short fiction, in Uncertainties IV — in tales such as Rebecca Lloyd’s “I Seen Her”, Kristine Ong Muslim’s “The Pit”, and John Darnielle’s “I Serve the Lambdon Worm”. It’s a tone I like very much, though its real world counterpart feels very bleak.

130780I think the pandemic can be seen as the world out there, that Kantian noumenal, reasserting itself, reacting against a particularly venal geopolitics. It forces us to encounter the vainglory of our anthropocentric perspective. In this way, the weird tale has a particular affinity for the current moment — this is something it’s been doing all the way back to, and beyond, Algernon Blackwood’s stories such as “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. I think fiction generally has been getting odder for a time, and will continue to do so — and the strange story is in the vanguard of this movement.

LER: Your table of contents is exciting — I can’t think of a better word. It’s because of both the writers you’ve chosen and the juxtaposition of writers — some we might anticipate seeing in an anthology like this, like D. P. Watt or Nadia Bulkin, some are very new voices, like Lucie McKnight Hardy, and still others might be new to readers of this type of fiction, like Claire Dean. How did you select the authors that you did for inclusion?

TJJ: When Brian J. Showers at Swan River invited me to edit Uncertainties IV, I was thrilled. I’d loved the previous volumes, and the series’ unconventional approach to the supernatural tale anthology was one that really appealed. So when I was soliciting and reading stories, I wished to do justice to that unique take on the ghost story. I also had in mind a particular mood that I wanted. There are incredible anthologies that have a diverse array of kinds of tales, but I felt I wanted a consistent tone for Uncertainties IV. My choices tended to be driven by this aesthetic. I wanted stories that were dark, yet not necessarily conventionally horrifying, and I wanted to see an experimental, risk-taking approach to prose. Speculative narrative and innovative writing can be uneasy bedfellows, but I was looking for authors and stories that brought them together naturally. I think this has meant the anthology is on the borders of a number of different literary modes, and hopefully will introduce readers to writers new to them. In this approach, I was influenced by the excellent Nightjar Press series of chapbooks (which is where I first read both Lucie and Claire) where what might be termed a more literary sensibility (though I personally dislike the use of “literary” in this way) coexists with themes more usually found in genre work. I do find this really exciting, and, of course, I was really fortunate that some of my very favourite writers in the field sent through such powerful stories.

LER: One thing that struck me is that most of the writers you chose are those who have risen to prominence during the last decade. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, why?

Not especially — it was largely coincidence, really. But Brian and I wanted to bring some new authors to the press, so that partly guided the choices — none of the writers whose stories appear in Uncertainties IV have appeared in any other volumes of the anthology. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was really keen to include writers not perhaps that well known to readers of weird tales, but whose voices I found compelling. So it ended up being a mixture of authors in the field who’ve not appeared in Uncertainties before, and writers whose work might not be known to genre readers. Outside of the consistent tone, I wanted to be eclectic, and have my choices guided by stories I loved. It was great to be able to bring a slightly different set of voices to the strange tale anthology; writers like Camilla Grudova, whose sui generis fictions sit on the fringes of genre, but whose style nestled in nicely with the other stories here, and John Darnielle, who is best known for two powerful novels, that mix realism and genre fiction, and his elegant and poignant songwriting with the Mountain Goats. It was great to have John, whose work I’d been a fan of for many years, give me a disconcerting flash fiction for this — I discovered he was a lover of small-press supernatural tales when I hosted a Q&A with him on the release of his novel, Universal Harvester.

LER: While reading this particular incarnation of Uncertainties, I kept thinking of the brilliant anthology Black Water edited by Alberto Manguel. To me, this feels very much like a worthy successor in that vein (albeit about 700 pages shorter!) Was this on your mind as an influence as you assembled this? Were any other anthologies an inspiration or influence?

51dZ3jMujFLTJJ: The eclecticism of that mammoth tone, along with that of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo’s Anthology of Fantastic Literature, and that of their modern day successor, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which is such a wonderful treasure trove, was definitely an influence. But I also wanted that consistent mood I mentioned before, and in that I was influenced by the previous volumes in the Uncertainties series, having really admired what you and Brian had done with those, and also by the wonderful flourishing of small press anthologies there has been of late — other titles from Swan River Press, and from Egaeus, Tartarus, Zagava, and Undertow, to name only a few. I think we’re currently in the midst of a really great era for the experimental supernatural tale anthology.

LER: Is there anything else you want to say to potential readers to encourage them to order a copy of Uncertainties IV?

TJJ: Uncertainties IV is an anthology of haunted stories, but traditional revenants do not appear (there are ghosts in some of the tales, but, like wilful poltergeists, they overturn the conventions). Instead, the volume is haunted by a sense of disquiet. Within its pages, what you’ll find is irresolution and ambiguity, the strange or eerie or ecstatic, and beautiful, risk-taking prose. These stories play on the flickering inkling that what is present to your senses is perhaps not all there is, and they will put you into tremulous contact with something unknowable, hidden out in the world or buried within yourself.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties IV


Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016, for whom she also edited Uncertainties III.

Thoughts on “Lucifer and the Child” by Albert Power

Swan River Press 2020Those sensitive to mild spoilers may wish to avert their eyes. – Ed.

In a ‘blurb’ for its new edition of Ethel Mannin’s novel Lucifer and the Child, the Swan River Press claims that this book was for many years on the list of ‘banned books’ in Ireland. If so, it was with good cause. This is a book that glamorises the Devil, irreligion and pursuit of the path of wickedness. It is an insidious book. It draws one in. It is a book that exerts a quiet and ensorcelling, but not a wholesome, power. Like Jenny Flower herself, it gives off, in spots, a heady whiff of ‘gutter panache’ in spite of its often exquisite penmanship. A discerning reader should run no risk to his or her immortal soul, but the same cannot be said of enduring peace of mind.

Among his aromatic armada of apothegms in the Preface to the second and expanded version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde memorably avouched: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Advance extenuation perhaps for the work that lay before the reader to read. Wilde need not have worried. But Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child puts one on uncomfortable proof of this maxim; or else goes to refute it. The book is certainly well written, emphatically so, and sparked up, at times, with passages of striking beauty. But is it a ‘moral’ book? Well . . . As Lucifer might have said within, ‘it all depends on what you mean by moral.’

The principal character, and the ‘child’ of the title, is Jenny Flower, ‘a thin, dirty, under-sized wisp of a gutter-kid,’ who may or may not be of the family of two sisters burned for witchcraft in the early 1600s. She is the natural daughter of Nell Flower, a barmaid at the Seven Bells in London’s docklands, and is brought up as the child of her mother’s brother Joe and Joe’s wife Ivy. Joe is a handsome if sparely spoken sulker, his wife a disappointment-bitten shrew. They have two sons. Home life is not especially happy.

Jenny was born at Hallowe’en, 1924, one of four witches’ sabbaths in a year. On another of these, Lammas, 1st August, 1931, during a school trip to the countryside, Jenny gets lost in a wood and meets a dark and handsome stranger, with horns, who befriends and introduces her to the natural wonders of the woods. When she grows tired, he takes her back home to London by train. If she needs him, he says, she will meet him again.

1945-09-02 Observer AdReturned to ordinary life, Jenny befriends an ancient witch-like woman, who purports to be in fact a witch, and who lives in a filthy novel in the evocatively named Ropewalk Alley, a rickety tumbledown place near the Thames. This is Mrs. Beadle, to whom Nell Flower had applied for a herbal mixture to induce abortion, when she got pregnant with Jenny. More often than not, Mrs. Beadle’s cauldron-concocted remedies don’t work, but people keep coming back and send their friends, ‘on the principle that what doesn’t work in one case might in another – the old Ropewalk Alley principle that you never knew’. Mrs. Beadle’s house is a trove of witchcraft lore and demonology – and cats.

There is a young school teacher, Marian Drew, daughter of a somewhat unconventional clergyman in Wales, who befriends Jenny and tries to reform her. Her efforts towards friendship at least seem not wholly unavailing, until Hallowe’en, 1931, Jenny’s seventh birthday, when at an annual fair in the docklands waste ground, the high point of which is a huge bonfire re-enacting the Great Fire of London (a deft authorial touch, which prefigures the climax of the novel during the London ‘blitz’ in 1940), the dark stranger, sans horns, reappears. Off a ship, perhaps. From this point on, the dark stranger, whom Jenny thinks of as Lucifer, is a recurrent element in the girl’s life, though he appears seldom, in the first year only on witches’ sabbaths, and thereafter less often still. Marian meets him and finds herself attracted to him, even as she tries to persuade him to stop acting the part of the Devil and seeks to wean Jenny from his influence.

Arrow Books 1964aThe stage is set for a drama among vividly drawn personalities, of whom hardly one of them is especially likeable. Mannin divides her novel into halves of unequal length. The first, and longer, depicts Jenny’s life from her first encounter with Lucifer on Lammas of 1931 to her fourth – following, in addition to Hallowe’en, Candlemas: 2nd February and May Day: 1st May – on Lammas of 1932, when Lucifer takes Jenny and Marian Drew on a day-long excursion by train to the country. By this stage, Jenny has already, in an eerie invocation scene at Mrs. Beadle’s, received a witch’s mark above the heart and a familiar, a black kitten called Satan.

The second part – just over a hundred pages in the Swan River Press edition – in effect touches, in a kind of saltant style, on key events throughout the remainder of Jenny’s life. It culminates in an incident that reaches genuine tragedy, during the London ‘blitz’, on 7th September 1940. We discover how Marian prevails on the dark stranger to keep out of Jenny’s life for, first a year, and then for over three years. She also persuades him to encourage Jenny to stay for a summer holiday with Marian’s rector father’s family in the Welsh countryside. None of this avails, because, as Lucifer, rather gloatingly tells Marian, ‘ . . . you can’t put anything into a child, you can only bring out what is there.’

Jenny advances apace along the downward path to witchcraft. Her trip to the rector’s house in Wales is a failure. She practices spells, none of especial malignancy until late in 1939, and then the intended end of her enchantment is very bad indeed; and worse because it actually works.  At times, this second half of Lucifer and the Child suggests a sequence of randomly linked set-pieces to prepare for the denouement of tragedy. But though the journey may strike one as haphazard in places, the hand that guides is assured. The end, when it comes, cannot leave a sensitive reader unaffected. And well before that end arrives, Marian recognises that she has lost the battle. Partly it is her own fault: ‘Some people would say that you had gone to the Devil – you, the professing Christian, with your illicit love.’ (This invites a question as to the inducement that Marian had used to persuade the dark stranger to leave Jenny alone for so long.) But, at the last, perhaps it is just a human thing, never quite to achieve that which one has it within one’s gift to achieve. ‘One means so well and does so badly; always this sense of personal failure,’ muses Marian. The spirit of Arthur Machen infuses and broods over much of this work, both in the nature scenes and in London. With Marian’s resigned recognition of fatalistic insufficiency, one can, perhaps, hear in echo the Welsh-born author’s bleaker and even more terse acceptance of inability to scale anything near the heights that one perceives, whether in truth or in fancy, to be recorded: “I dream in fire but work in clay.”

Mannin 3aIn a short introduction, Ethel Mannin posits the possibility that the question of whether the stranger was really the Devil and the child really a witch can be predicated on either natural or supernatural bases dependent on a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. But to the mind of this reader, here we have special pleading which is quite implausible. One is put in memory of Ann Radcliffe’s herculean efforts in her gothic romances to introduce a natural cause for incidents that up to then had seemed the effect of ghostly intervention: but the natural explanation is so contrived that it would have been easier to believe in the ghosts. With Mannin, there are just too many coincidences heaped on coincidences for anything like a ‘natural’ explanation to ring remotely true. In the case of Jenny, she believes and that is the prime ingredient to her acquiring the witch’s power and, later, the ‘asexual passion of loving’ which she feels for Lucifer. As Lucifer tells Marian in one of their disputatious yet cordial exchanges, if he had sought to persuade Jenny that everything that had befallen her in the regard of him, including their first encounter in the forest when she saw him with horns, was liable to natural explanation, she would not believe it – even coming from him. ‘That for her would be the make-believe! She has been touched by the fatal lightning.  She knows! She has seen the stranger in the forest with horns on his head . . . ’  That is amply sufficient to make miracles of evil occur; and occur they do.

Ethel Mannin’s novel drips with frequent delightful jewels of poetic beauty – not least in many passages devoted to description of life in the London docklands and the more irenic if sometimes darkly enticeful charms of the countryside. At one point the author takes time to show her social conscience side, as she expatiates on the manifestations of loneliness in the sexual realm and the futile attempts by impoverished humanity to improve its lot. ‘Lucifer at least has looked upon the face of God, known Infinite Beauty, whereas these, grunting and guzzling in their human sty, what do they know of heaven or of hell?’

Jarrolds 1946In the final analysis, Ethel Mannin’s Lucifer and the Child is – to cite the author’s own words in the penultimate chapter – a tale of ‘ . . . two worlds, the material, and that strange phantom world beyond the bounds of the material, that invisible world for which there is no name, since to call it fantasy, or dream, or imagination, does not suffice, emotion being involved in experience of it, and its phenomena charged with such meaning that the whole texture of the real world is changed, such commonplace things as a curtain blowing out in the wind, or a second glance from a stranger in a crowd, becoming endowed with diabolic significance, exciting, terrifying, sinister, or possessed of a fatal and terrible beauty.’ As Rosanne Rabinowitz points out, in her partly elucidatory, partly biographical introduction, that sensibility which can recognise the innominable character of the effect of sometime strangeness on the humdrum human world of everyday affairs, bodes well for overdue recognition of Mannin’s remarkable novel as a classic in the literature of the weird.

There are few books of which it justly can be said, that having read it will leave a reader changed. Thought-provoked, conscience-smitten, challenged. Lucifer and the Devil is one of them. So, give succour to thy soul with the balsam of goodness – then read.

Order a copy of Lucifer and the Child.


Albert Power is the author of Slaver Heap – A Gothic Novel and Georgian Gothic – A Novella Quartet. His short fiction is published by Egaeus Press. He has written articles for The Green Book.

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

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Uncertainties is an anthology series — featuring authors from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines — each exploring the concept of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on putting together the fourth in Swan River Press’s series of contemporary supernatural and strange tale anthologies, Uncertainties. It’s the first time I’ve edited a fiction anthology and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in writing. It’s been great seeing the thing take shape — as it started to come together, it began to take on a life of its own. Brian J. Showers at Swan River was incredibly helpful throughout the process, sharing his wealth of experience. He pretty much gave me free rein, his only brief being that I bring in some writers who hadn’t featured in the series before, and who might be new to the press. It has long been my feeling that innovative writing can enhance the uncanniness of a supernatural tale, so I solicited contributions from writers who I thought would be playful and experimental with their tales. And as cohesion was really important to me from the outset, I also asked writers whose work I thought would share points of similarity. As the pieces came in, I saw this had worked better than I’d dared hope and that there were lots of potent synchronicities between the stories. But there was also a lot of variety, so I starting thinking about how certain juxtapositions might work and also how to ensure an overall flow. The tales are all experimental in some way, but run the gamut from melancholia, to outright horror, to comedy. I wanted to balance and shift between tones in a hopefully satisfying way. It took me back to the days of making mixtapes for friends, and thinking about flow, moving between moods, and setting up a kind of loose overall narrative from disparate parts.

This was an incredibly satisfying process. It was also really satisfying to work with the talented Swan River team of Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill, whose design and editing skills ensured the finished article looks superb. And it was a real privilege to have for the cover a powerful piece of art by modern surrealist, Brian Catling, from a series of paintings inspired by the writing of M.R. James — it mingles the ghostly and the bizarre in much the same way as the tales within.

The section below is taken from my introduction to the volume. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the stories and illustrate my thesis about the contemporary supernatural tale, and did so by relating a couple of incidents that had been much in my thoughts, and which seemed to me to show what I conceived to be the difference between the traditional ghost story and the tale of uncertainty.

Timothy J. Jarvis B&WI have twice, in the last year, visited a supposedly haunted site not far from where I live in rural Bedfordshire: Old St Mary’s, a derelict fourteenth-century church on a hill above Clophill, a picturesque village about thirteen miles to the north of Luton. Old St Mary’s gained a sinister reputation in the 1960s following a spate of desecrations — over a period of several weeks, on moonless nights, graves were broken open and bones disinterred, and the ruins were daubed with disturbing graffiti. It was thought to be mostly aimless vandalism, the work of bored young people aping, but the original violation apparently bore clear signs of a knowledge of the occult and of the practices of dark rites. That time, the skeleton had not been just scattered but deliberately laid out inside the ruin in a pattern associated with the Black Mass, and a Maltese Cross had been daubed on the floor in what was thought, from feathers found strewn about, to have been cockerel’s blood. Afterwards the place became a bugbear for locals, with teenagers from Luton daring each other to visit it at night. Now it is a heritage site and well maintained, but it still has a charge.

The first time I went up to the church, it was dusk, following a grey late autumn day. There were two of us out walking. As my friend and I approached the ruins they were thrown into stark relief when the sun, setting behind them, a ball of orange fissured with red, like the blood-threaded yolk of an egg, dropped below the cowl of cloud. The effect was Gothic. My friend and I wandered about the churchyard for a time, took in the views, then went back down the path towards Clophill. Between Old St Mary’s and the village, the path passes through copse, and as we walked under the canopy of reddening leaves, where all was gloom, my friend and I saw, out of the corners of our eyes, a hand reaching between us. We startled, looked round, but there was of course no one there.

The second time I climbed up to Old St Mary’s, there was a group of us. It was a warm summer’s afternoon, the sun bright and high in a clear sky, the only clouds frothy white streaks, like cuckoo spit. As we approached the top of the hill, a blue van towing a low trailer heaped with junk drove past and pulled up in front of the gates to the churchyard. Two nondescript men, one balding, the other tall, both middle aged and dressed fairly smartly in chinos and linen jackets, like stockbrokers in weekend attire, got out of the cab, leaving the engine idling, and began circling the vehicle. After some moments stretching their legs they wandered off among the graves.

As we neared the van — which spluttered on, the smell of diesel exhaust acrid in the air — we saw, atop the pile of broken things in the trailer, an old cathode ray television, screen smashed, with, in the body of the set, a Murano glass sculpture of a clown, of the kind popular in the ’70s, which now, as the generation that bought and cherished such things dies off, floods charity shops. The clown was set there in that wrecked TV like statues of the Virgin are in roadside niches in southern Europe.

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Rounding the van, we saw that the men who’d got out of it were cavorting strangely in the churchyard. The balding was flailing his limbs in some kind of jerky dance and the tall was darting hither and yon. Then he stopped running about and stood before a headstone. We realized a moment later that he was pissing against it. The other kept on dancing. We decided then, without a word between us, not go on up to the church. We were halfway back to the village again, just emerging from the copse, when we heard the van’s engine revving behind us, and it careered past, kicking up clouds of dust, forcing us into the ditch. As the trailer went by, I could swear the glass clown turned its head to look at me and grinned.

I’ve exaggerated some of the details here for effect (though not actually by very much). Two incidents that gave rise to the uncanny. But the first, closer in tenor to the classic Victorian ghost story, was far less disconcerting than the second, which has more in common with the stories of uncertainty found in this volume. We almost expect to see ghostly hands at haunted sites — there’s no real ontological rift. Preternaturally animated Murano glass clowns, we do not anticipate. The other key difference is that in the second story, the actual moment of the supernatural is not as important in creating the effect as the bizarreness of what led up to it — tales of uncertainty often show us a world always already off-kilter.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 4.



Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties I, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.

A Flowering Wound by John Howard

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John Howard was born in London. His books include The Defeat of Grief, The Lustre of Time, The Silver Voices, Written by Daylight, Cities and Thrones and Powers, and Buried Shadows. Secret Europe and Inner Europe are joint collections written with Mark Valentine. Howard’s essays on fantastic fiction and its classic authors have appeared in Wormwood and other places, and many are gathered in Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic.


An Interview with John Howard Conducted by Florence Sunnen

Florence Sunnen: Although the stories in A Flowering Wound are consistent in tone and sensibility, your writing is difficult to pin down to a genre. How do you find your writing categorised most often, and how do you feel about these categories?

John Howard: As an unashamed long-time reader of genre fiction (especially science fiction) I’ve never had a problem with being identified with genre. But yes, as you say – which ones, if any? I think most of my work has appeared in places which are clearly genre, but which don’t worry overmuch about exact labels. I suspect my stories are most often characterised as supernatural, fantastic, strange, weird, dark fantasy, horror (and once or twice as sf). I like Robert Aickman’s term “strange stories” – but I’m not bothered by these or any other labels, because that’s all they are. As a reader I know that I want first a good story, and if it’s genre I tend not to feel the need to over-analyse and trouble myself about further subdivisions.

FS: The uncanny often crops up in this collection as a sort of sensory haunting; in “We, the Rescued”, for instance, the protagonist experiences a romance gone wrong as bouts of unseasonal heat. Is the sometimes inexplicable misfiring of the sensory apparatus something that unsettles you?

070608_07JH: Yes, I’m sure it would unsettle me a hell of a lot – and if me, then others. However, I think the main impetus behind the heat was that I wrote the story in the depths of winter and was trying to imagine myself warm! As I get older I find extremes of temperature more and more tiresome to have to cope with, even if unavoidable. When it’s hot I get lethargic and want to lie down and sleep; when it’s very cold I want to go to bed!

FS: Do you feel affected by ghost stories? Is there a ghost story (or uncanny story) you have encountered recently that particularly resonated with you?

JH: I don’t find the term “ghost story” very helpful. For me the term is too restrictive – or vague. But yes, a good ghost story (or uncanny story, a much more helpful term) will always be welcome. For a start I try to keep refreshed in the classics: the best of the likes of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Fritz Leiber, Robert Aickman, both Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Thomas Ligotti, Charles L. Grant, Clark Ashton Smith, and so on and on.

Recently I re-read Machen’s The Three Impostors, which always gives me a kick (although usually a different one each time). Inspired by James Machin’s recent book on weird fiction in Britain I’ve been reading my way through John Buchan’s uncanny stories, many of which I’d heard of for years but never read – such fine tales as “The Wind in the Portico” and “Skule Skerry”. I’ve read Francis Brett Young’s Cold Harbour (1924) and To Walk the Night by William Sloane (1937) several times each over the decades, and their chill and subtle otherness has never let me down.

Written by Daylight.jpgCurrent writers whose new collections and novels go straight on the to-read pile include Christopher Priest, Nina Allan, Peter Straub, Rosalie Parker, R. B. Russell, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mark Valentine, and Colin Insole. Mark Valentine is one of my oldest friends (and we have collaborated on several stories) so I might be biased, but I think his story “The Fig Garden” is one of the finest evocations of the strange and numinous that I’ve read in years. Stephen Jones reprinted it in his Best New Horror #28, so I’m not alone!

FS: Longing to the point of obsession seems to be a theme in a number of your stories. I’m thinking here of “A Glimpse of the City” and “Ziegler Against the World” where protagonists fall prey to obsessive delusion which lapses into haunting. What does it take to write about obsession, be it with another person, a pattern, an object, or with an action that must be performed?

JH: I think you’re right in noting the recurring themes of longing and obsession. I suppose what it takes to write about them must come from the writer’s personality (however it was shaped, and continues to be). I know that if I am particularly interested in something or someone, then I want to know as much as possible about it or them. I have a strong collecting instinct, and like to seek out and gather things I’m interested in (or obsessed by). Unfortunately for my bank balance and shelf space this applies especially to books by authors I admire!

It seems to me that action is a good way of helping to secure memory. If you meet someone and have a good time, the place is important, and returning there could help to ensure it happened again.

Near where I live there’s a short road lined on both sides with trees which meet overhead, so when the trees are in leaf there’s a tunnel effect. One August evening I was walking past the end of that road. The low angle of the sunlight, the glow of the sky and cloud effects, the shadowy interior of the “tunnel” all went to create a marvellous effect. I experienced what Lovecraft called “adventurous expectancy” and I had to detour for a few minutes and walk along the road under the trees. Then I came to make a sort of ritual of it and went out for a walk at the same time each evening for a week or so in order to try and relive the experience again. And every year since, at about the right time, I’ve done the same. Of course, I never have quite relived those feelings – but it doesn’t matter. And I’ve seen many new things too: you never know what you might come across while out walking in an ordinary suburb!

FS: Do you apply a similar ritual to your writing process? Do you try to write in the same place when working on a story, or are you one of those lucky people who can immerse themselves in their stories no matter where they are?

JH: I get story ideas at any time or anywhere. When I’m working on a story, I often get ideas for plot developments, dialogue, and even endings at the most inopportune times – for example while I’m walking to work. When I get there I have to go straight to my desk and jot things down.

Otherwise, in order to actually get on with producing a story, I find it best to attempt to be disciplined and try to be in front of my laptop at home at roughly same time each evening. If I can write five hundred words or more between about nine and eleven then I’m pleased. It’s the same when I’m revising a story.

FS: In stories like “Portrait in an Unfaded Photograph” and “Twilight of the Airships”, how do you approach story research, especially when they have a particular historical setting? Do you base your research around this, or do the story ideas come to you while researching?

The Silver Voices.jpgJH: With “Portrait in an Unfaded Photograph”, as that was written for submission to a theme anthology (a tribute to Gustav Meyrink) the extent of my research was to read up on details of his life, looking for any odd or interesting happenings, anecdotes, etc that I could then hang a story on. Thank you, Wikipedia! I think I also did a little research on settings while writing the story – but only to ensure that basic details were right. I was writing a story rather than a travelogue.

“Twilight of the Airships” was set in my fictional town of Steaua de Munte. Since I am its creator, as far as the setting was concerned I didn’t really have any research to do! I just did the usual thing of trying to ensure consistency. So the railway station is always on the north side of the river, Castle Hill is to the east of the town centre, Bruckenthal Square is located in the New Town and not the old walled town, and so on. Early on I drew a basic sketch map showing the river, the major streets, the railway etc. That helps me to maintain consistency, but doesn’t prevent me from adding things and places as and when I think of them.

I have read quite a bit of Romanian history, so when I write I am confident about the background – but when necessary I always double-check dates and the chronology of events. I read up a little on the airship programmes of Germany and the Soviet Union, but as my airships were made-up I did pretty much as I liked. I have been fascinated by the colossal rigid airships of the interwar years since childhood, and was glad to be able to use them in a story.

I’m somewhat wary of research. I think it can be used as a tactic, an excuse, for not getting on and writing the story. So I tend to jump in and get started after minimal (if any) research. I will check facts as I go (as I think I need to) or as part of the revision process. Most times when I begin a story I’m not at all sure how it will end. I trust that the ideas will continue to come.

FS: How important is visual thinking to your writing process? Do you imagine scenes in visual terms, rather than through language?

JH: The visual is highly important. In the first instance at least, a scene or incident or object often comes to mind visually, as a sort of mental snapshot or film clip, and I then have to try to use and build around it in terms of language.

FS: Do you prefer writing about cities and places with which you are very familiar (such as Berlin, in the case of this collection), or places you’ve only come into passing contact with, and whose description makes more demands on your writerly imagination?

JH: If I’m writing about real places, I tend to prefer those I’m familiar with (or think I am). If I’m using a certain location there may well be facts to get right – for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral has a dome, not a spire – and I dread making factual errors. Otherwise it’s a case of writing in general terms – letting the imagination run free. Not making any definite “commitments”, but just the intention to create a sense of a real and definite place.

As a reader, if someone writes a story set in a city I don’t know, or hardly know, as long as it feels right, they’re safe from me. But if I spot an error, that will throw me off-balance for a moment, and I’d be wondering why the author didn’t do a little more research or double-check what they thought they already knew.

FS: Which are your favourite cities to write about? Are they the same as your favourite cities to be in?

JH: I’ve set many stories in London and Berlin – and I’m sure I will continue to do so. London will always be first in my heart, if I can put it that way! And I like being there: I know my way around, speak the language(!) and understand the Tube. I feel at home in London.

In many ways Berlin reminds me of London. It’s a collection of separate places grown and stuck together, it sprawls, a river runs through it, it has a train system with a colourful map as complex as the Tube (but which is really quite simple to use). It’s been some years since I was last there, so even though English is widely spoken I’d want to hope that my German would return!

Steaua de Munte is largely based on aspects of Sibiu and Sighisoara, and those are two cities which, together with Bucharest, made a strong impression on me. Unfortunately time in them was limited, so I was not able to see and explore very much. I would love to return and linger in all three.

Otherwise, unfortunately, I’m not at all well-travelled. In England my favourite cities to be in are places such as Liverpool, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Shrewsbury . . . In particular, Liverpool is always a pleasure to go to. It’s lively and refreshing, and its setting is magnificent.

A Flowering Wound.jpgFS: The stories in A Flowering Wound all amble along a similar path, one evocative of loneliness, difficult communication, sensory distortion, and obsession (with buildings, with people, with patterns). Do you feel that the first and last stories are start and end points of a journey, spanning several decades and countries?

JH: I feel that publishers and editors are better than I am at discerning links and themes. Readers too. The publisher suggested that those particular stories lead-off and conclude the book, and I was happy to agree. I think the notion of reading a collection of stories as also being a journey is a valid one – and am glad that in this instance particular stories helped to create and sustain that idea.

Buy a copy of A Flowering Wound.


Florence Sunnen was born in Luxembourg City and has lived and studied in Germany and the UK. Her academic background is in philosophy and creative writing. Her stories and collages have appeared in The Learned Pig, Mud Season Review, a glimpse of, Datableed, and Brixton Review of Books. Her story “The Hook” was published by Nightjar Press in 2018. She blogs at interiordasein.wordpress.com

The Green Book 11

Green Book 11EDITOR’S NOTE by Brian J. Showers

Our previous issue saw a fabulous array of reminiscences of Lord Dunsany — and also some contemporary assessments of his works — written by his Irish colleagues, including Yeats, Bowen, Gogarty, Tynan, A.E., and others. Issue 10 was fascinating to assemble and the process gave me a better understanding of and more insight into Dunsany’s literary standing in Ireland during his lifetime. If you’ve not yet had a look at our Dunsany issue, and you are in any way interested in this important author, I urge you to track down a copy.

The focus on Dunsany’s contemporaries in Issue 10 was an approach that evolved during research and production. However, during that time I also received a handful of modern appraisals of Dunsany and his work that I simply couldn’t fit into that issue. That’s why I’d like to start this instalment with just a bit more Dunsany.

First up we have Dunsany bibliographer Darrell Schweitzer’s career-spanning survey of the fantasist’s considerable body of work — where a new reader could start, what aficionados might have overlooked, and which titles can, perhaps, be left until later. Next, Martin Andersson, co-editor of the posthumous Dunsany collection The Ghost in the Corner (also reviewed in this issue), explores a lesser-known episode in Dunsany’s life: his Nobel Prize nomination. Finally, novelist Mike Carey offers an appreciation of Fifty-One Tales (1915), a collection not as widely celebrated as Dunsany’s other titles, but maybe one that should be given another read.

The remainder of this issue sees The Green Book in a little bit of a transition.

I’ve long had a penchant for bibliographies, indices, literary guides and encyclopaedias: I frequently take down from the shelf E. F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers (1983), wander the pages of Jack Sullivan’s Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), and of course Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic (2000) can keep me captivated for hours. I could go on . . .

Last year I commissioned a series of short articles for a book tentatively entitled A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction. Over the past twelve months, Jim Rockhill and I have been working with a range of literary scholars, each exploring an Irish author that has in some way contributed to the broader literature of the fantastic. The results have been nothing short of captivating.

Therefore, in addition to the usual essays and reviews, I’d like to present, for the remainder of this issue, a selection of eight entries—some names you will recognise, others won’t be as familiar — but I do hope you’ll discover new writing to explore.

You can buy The Green Book 11 here.

Contents

“Editor’s Note”
Brian J. Showers

“How Much of Dunsany Is Worth Reading?”
Darrell Schweitzer

“Lord Dunsany and the Nobel Prize”
Martin Andersson

“Appreciating Fifty-One Tales
Mike Carey

“Regina Maria Roche (1764-1845)”
Albert Power

“B. M. Croker (1848-1920)”
Richard Dalby

“Edmund Downey (1856-1937)”
Gavin Selerie

“Conall Cearnach (1876-1929)”
Reggie Chamberlain-King

“C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)”
Reggie Oliver

“Denis Johnston (1901-1984)”
Reggie Chamberlain-King

“Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)”
Reggie Chamberlain-King

“Conor McPherson (1971- )”
David Longhorn

“Reviews”
Bram Stoker’s Powers of Darkness (Albert Power)
Lord Dunsany’s The Ghost in the Corner (Jay Sturner)

“Notes on Contributors”

Death Makes Strangers: An Interview with R. B. Russell

Death Makes Strangers of Us AllConducted by Michael Dirda, © February 2018

R.B. Russell is the author of three short story collections, three novellas, and a novel, She Sleeps. With his partner, Rosalie Parker, he publishes classic works of curious and macabre fiction under the Tartarus Press imprint.


Michael Dirda: Death Makes Strangers of Us All must be your sixth or seventh published book. Is that right? What is this book’s place in your oeuvre? How does it differ from your three previous short-story collections? Is there a common theme to the stories?

R.B. Russell: This will be my eighth book, which means that anybody who has read more than one will probably have noticed recurring themes that I am unaware of myself. I know that different interpretations of reality and of memories are preoccupations of mine, and this appears in several of the stories in the new book. This collection mainly offers recent work, although the title story is a re-telling of something that I first tried to write more than thirty years ago.

I did my best not to set too many stories in bookshops, but yet another one has crept in.

MD: Is your fiction inspired by any previous writer or writers? More generally, do you think there’s a recognisable English — or should I say British — tradition in the ghost story and weird tale? What defines it? Do you feel part of that tradition?

RBR: An old friend of mine, a gifted songwriter, says that it is easier to come up with original work than try to sound like somebody else, and I find the same with writing. However, I know that I am indebted to just about every writer I have ever read. I go out of my way not to write like the authors I most admire because the results would be hollow imitations.

I’m not sure that in the West there are any true national literary traditions in the gothic/ghostly/weird genres — since Horace Walpole we have all been influenced by writers overseas. The British have obviously assimilated writing from America and Europe, just as Americans have been influenced by Britain and Europe, etc, etc. And, of course, we have all taken on board ideas from non-literary disciplines, such as scientific and philosophical thinking, from wherever it has emerged. Individual writers reflect their own regional background, naturally, which enriches the whole tradition.

As for being a part of a tradition myself, I’m just another writer who has been inexorably drawn towards The Weird.

outside oscar'sMD: I think all readers are interested in the writing and reading habits of favourite authors. Are you a quick study either as reader or writer? Your prose is remarkably clear, eerily effective, but seldom flamboyant. Does it come easily to you or is it the result of determined polishing and buffing. For instance, can you tell us about the gestation and development of the new collection’s first story, “Night Porter”? Aspects of it reminded me of L. P. Hartley’s classic, “A Visitor from Down Under”, while its ending is almost as enigmatic as one of Aickman’s stories.

RBR: I tend to write quick first drafts, enjoying where a story is taking me, trying to get down ideas and atmospheres as they occur to me. And then I edit and re-work stories a great deal. I have heard it said that no piece of fiction is ever “finished”, it is merely abandoned when it is published. I could probably edit forever, which is why I never re-read any of my published writing — I would notice alterations I would want to make.

I am wary of being over-descriptive or lyrical — a simple adjective is often enough to give complexity to a scene. And there is the danger with over-description, of coming into conflict with the images that a reader has already conjured for themselves.

The set-up of the “Night Porter” was inspired by a contemporary film, the title of which I cannot remember. Changing the background and creating my own central character gave me a completely different story with its own impetus. I didn’t know how it would end until I arrived there myself, and the denouement seemed to me to be the most frightening I could imagine. It wasn’t meant to be enigmatic — it ought to mean that the central character has to re-think everything that has happened in a fundamentally different light.

MD: Speaking of Aickman: You recently told me that you had sold a number of books from your library in order to fill out your Robert Aickman collection. I gather that you now own most of his books in dust jacket and several of them signed. A couple of years back you also made a short documentary about Aickman. And, as all readers of supernatural fiction know, Tartarus has long been a champion of that writer’s “strange stories”. What is it about Aickman that draws you to him? How do you compare him to, say, Arthur Machen, the other supernatural fiction writer you have published in extenso?

RBR: First and foremost Aickman is a great storyteller, but at his best he wrong-foots me as a reader, and shocks me. Just when I think I might understand him, and perhaps sympathise with his characters, he reminds me that we are fundamentally very different. The fact that the stories, and the author, are so open to (mis)interpretation makes me go back to him, time and time again. I want to understand him, although it is probably best that I don’t.

The Dark Return of TimeMachen is very different. He is a magician with words. His love of the countryside and his fascination for the city both resonated with me when I left rural Sussex aged eighteen for the city of Sheffield, and his work still moves me profoundly. He has his faults as a writer (characterisation, mainly), but this is more than made up for by the depth of his vision and the power of his lyricism. There is an inherent humanity in Machen that I don’t find in Aickman.

MD: With Rosalie Parker, you share the publishing work demanded by the highly active Tartarus Press. You also compose music, produce artwork for books (your own and those of others), devote time to the Friends of Arthur Machen, produce wonderful short films, and I don’t know what else. How did you manage to get so good at all these activities, while also keeping up an active literary career as well? Would you rather be writing fiction full-time? Or is it somehow beneficial to switch back and forth among all these enterprises? Do they somehow enrich your imagination or keep you fresh?

RBR: There never seem to be enough hours in the day! I tend to have enthusiasms for my various (non-Tartarus) interests, and when I am not inspired to write, for example, I will have been itching to compose music and I can immediately move on to that. By the time I get stuck with the music, then something else has been demanding my attention.

My various interests feed into each other, as with my fascination for shortwave radio numbers stations. As I was researching them I was starting to write some new music, and was thinking of the individual compositions as soundtracks to stories that might lie behind some of the transmissions. At the same time I was putting together videos to accompany the music. And then, half way through this process, I realised that I wanted to write an extended piece of fiction about the broadcasts, and I now have a draft of a novel inspired by the strange world of these strings of numbers that bounce endlessly around the ionosphere.

MD: Speaking as both a writer and a publisher, what led you to Swan River Press for Death Makes Strangers of Us All? What is it you like about the books that Brian J. Showers has been bringing out? They are quite handsome but quite different from Tartarus publications in their appearance. What is gratifying about being published by a small press such as Swan River or Tartarus?

RBR: I share many of Brian’s tastes in literature, and, like Tartarus, Swan River mixes classic authors with contemporary writers, based on the publisher’s own enthusiasms. It also helps that I like the aesthetics of his book production. With his designer, Meggan Kehrli, and typesetter, Ken Mackenzie, they publish very handsome, well-made books.

MD: In the title story, “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”, you seem to be almost Kafkaesque, as Katherine wanders through a mysteriously empty city covered with fine dust, tries to retrieve her disjointed memories, and is confronted by threatening policemen. But the story takes an unexpected turn near its end and the ending itself comes a short, sharp shock. Can you comment a little on “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”? Is there a reason you chose to name the collection after it?

RBR: I am not sure I can comment without offering spoilers! There is an idea that underpins the story, but I am afraid that it would diminish the tale if it was spelt out. What I will say is that the idea was first expressed in an attempt to write a novel in the late 1980s. It did not succeed then because it should really have been a short story. And in the novel version I made it very clear exactly what was happening, which undermined it. The original was written at the same time that I was reading European authors in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and reading Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Machen.

MD: What are your current projects?

RBR: I am working on what I fervently hope is the final draft of a second novel. If it is not published then I will probably continue to rewrite it ad infinitum. A third novel, inspired by shortwave radio numbers stations, is in an early draft, but requires a great deal more work. I have been writing a great deal lately, and I am starting to feel the need to compose music soon . . .

MD: Thank you, Ray, for taking the time to answer these questions.


Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post. His own books include Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, the Edgar Award-winning On Conan Doyle, and several collections of essays. He is currently at work on a book about late 19th and early 20th-century popular fiction in Britain. He holds a Ph.D in comparative literature from Cornell University and received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

Order Death Makes Stranger of Us All here.