Tuesday, December 30, 2014


One of the last but most welcome publications of 2014 is The Complete Stories of Mary Butts, issued by Mcpherson on 15 December. After a long time in the literary shadows, Mary Butts' work has seen a revival in recent decades, with reprints of her novels and the first publication of her journal, and several critical studies. This year alone has also seen Mary Butts and British Neo-Romanticism: The Enchantment of Place by Andrew Radford and A Fractured Landscape of Modernity: Culture and Conflict in the Isle of Purbeck by James Wilkes, in which she features strongly.

As I said in my essay in Sacrum Regnum 1 ("Inner Bohemia - The Mystical Fiction of Mary Butts"): "Mary Butts is sometimes invoked as an associate of Aleister Crowley and Jean Cocteau, and as part of the wild Parisian-bohemian “Lost Generation” set of the interwar years, with a story and a life fuelled by drink, drugs, sex and the occult. But she was much more than this picturesque figure. She was an avant-garde, modernist writer whose work was yet also infused with a deep sense of tradition and of the past. She was an enthusiast of the work of M. R. James, championing him in an essay for the London Mercury, one of the first critical appreciations of his work. And she was also an admirer of the mystical fiction of Machen, E.F. Benson, and de la Mare. Most of all, her own work succeeded in uniting these two strands, the modernist and the mystical, with a force only otherwise seen in such achievements as Eliot’s The Waste Land, the alchemical poems of ‘H.D.’, or Malcolm Lowry’s work."

I commented: "some critics consider her real forte was the short story, and her piece “Mappa Mundi” has been particularly praised for the way it mingles inner and outer worlds, the streets of Paris becoming also a terrain of hidden dimensions: it recalls her own genuine experiences. Her characters struggle to explain it: “An extraordinary, a unique sense of all sorts of mixed pasts, a sense of the ancient city and all the fury of life that went to make it…that and something else. Like something out of which they all came. A matrix, which is Paris and the secret of Paris.” This sense of overlapping realities was not only known in London and Paris, but in Dorset, in Cornwall, in the country: the implication is that it might be encountered anywhere."

This edition of her complete stories should at last see Mary Butts take her place as one of the most original, thoughtful and innovative writers of supernatural fiction in English in the 20th century.

Mark Valentine

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Michael Birch Collection Auction

Last weekend Sydney Rare Book Auctions sold the vast book collection of Australian academic, Michael Birch, in 700 lots, including many rare and interesting items of Wormwoodiana interest.  Here are a few:

About 60 issues of Pearsons Magazine from 1910 through to the 1930s went for $500.

 Four bound volumes of The Red Magazine, which published a lot of science fiction and weird fiction, comprising about 100 issues from issue one (1908) sold for $300.

About 20 issues of Weird Tales, estimated at $200-$500 sold for $325, while a lot comprising three issues of Terror Tales and seven issues of Horror stories went for $160.

 A number of Penny Dreadfuls and Penny Bloods went under the hammer.  A nice two volume copy of James Rymer’s Edith The Captive, or the Robbers of Epping Forest, published by John Dicks, sold for $180.

There were four lots that included Edward Lloyd Bloods.  The first included Prest’s The Maniac Father, Rymer’s The Lady in Black (with the signature of Melbourne book dealer John P. Quaine), and a volume containing Sylvester the Somnambulist and The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, sold for $80.  Another lot containing two Prest titles, Ela the Outcast and The Love Child, and Charles Lever’s St Patrick’s Eve, went for $550, while a lot of Prest titles – Ernnestine de Lacy, Gallant Tom and two copies of The Old House of West Street went for $400.  A copy of the Lloyd title, The Bottle, or the First Step to Crime, sold for $50.

A first edition, later issue of Dracula with the 16 page advertisements at the end, made $1,600.

Five novels by Bram Stoker, four of them in nice dust jackets, estimated at $100-$400, sold for $925

A second edition triple-decker of Jane Webb’s The Mummy achieved $2,300, while a four volume first edition (1818) of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion made $5,200.

A couple of Wilkie Collins triple deckers went under the hammer – No Name, volumes 1 and 2 lacking the front end paper, sold for $90, while Man and Wife, with the bottom part of a letter with his signature pasted on to the fep if the first volume, made $900.

The first Dublin edition (1794) of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho made $800, while a four volume edition published in 1799 sold for $120.

A nice 1st of Richard Marsh’s Tom Ossington’s Ghost made $55, while his scarce novel, The Devil’s Diamond (1893), estimated at $100-$400, did not sell.

A nice 1st edition of Gerald Kersh’s collection, The Horrible Dummy, sold for $30.

Five nice jacketed volumes of Christine Campbell Thomson’s Night at Night series sold for $2,000.

There were also bulk lots of vintage crime and science fiction paperbacks, dust jacketed crime novels of the 1920s and 1930s, Edwardian crime novels and Victorian novels that were picked up for bargain prices.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


The public library at Newport, Gwent, houses a splendid Arthur Machen collection, including rare items, some donated by his admirers, friends and family over the years. It is the best public collection of his work in the UK, and an argument can be made for its international significance. The library is now under threat of closure. The local council are considering a plan to replace it with a few much smaller local hubs.

The Friends of Arthur Machen literary society is very concerned about this and is joining the campaign against the closure. Please add your voice to those urging the local council to protect the library and collection. A national and international response may help them rethink plans or at least safeguard the collection.

A local consultation is under way. No final decisions have yet been made either about the Library or the Arthur Machen collection, but the danger is that it may not be accessible in the future to either scholars or the general public. The worst case might even be that it is sold.

Please consider following this link to Newport City Council’s online consultation document. The first page asks where in Newport you live, but you don't have to fill this part in and can go to the second page where you can leave comments.

You may wish to explain that the Machen collection is of national and international importance. Do let them know where you are in the world, and how vital it is for Newport to continue to make this internationally important collection accessible to literary scholars and the general public.

You may also wish to write courteously to the leader of Newport City Council, Bob Bright:

Bob Bright
Leader of Newport City Council
80 Allt-yr-yn Road
South Wales, NP20 5EF

Or via this electronic form (scroll down to view).

Thank you for your support for this priceless collection devoted to one of the towering figures of fantastic literature.

Mark Valentine

Friday, December 12, 2014


A popular novelist and raffish man-about-town, whose novels are rarely read today, Edgar Jepson was also a loyal friend of writers less beloved by the public, including Ernest Dowson, Arthur Machen and Richard Middleton. He is a significant figure in the Realm of Redonda, for it was he who witnessed the document in which Shiel bequeathed his throne to John Gawsworth. He is listed as the Duke of Wedrigo in Gawsworth’s State Paper No. 1.

Years earlier, it is possible Shiel had honoured Jepson by deriving the name of his extraordinary character Adam Jeffson, in The Purple Cloud (1901), from his friend, with perhaps some of Jepson’s colourful, devil-may-care character too. This was not Jepson’s first association with the Caribbean: after Oxford, he spent a year at Barbados as a schoolmaster, a time recalled with mixed feelings in Memories of a Victorian (1933), the first volume of his entertaining autobiography.

Jepson wrote over seventy books, many of them formula thrillers of jewel thieves, smugglers and debonair villains; Ruritanian romances; or society amusements about charming aristocrats. A sportive and ingenious member of The Detection Club, he was amusingly candid about the commercial nature of much of this fiction. He achieved some early notoriety with Sybil Falcon (1895), a garishly violent West Indian adventure yarn, but had followed this with a more “serious” novel, The Passion for Romance (1896, from the daring publisher, Henry & Co.), which was well received by the artistic but did not sell well. The illustration above is of an inscription by Jepson to Gawsworth in a copy of this book.

He then made a conscious decision to give the public what they wanted, recalling that he “wrote The Dictator’s Daughter, and have gone on writing it ever since with considerable pleasure”. Years later, as Jepson drily observed, John Galsworthy (the Forsyte Saga man, not to be confused with John Gawsworth), “from the lofty height of a comfortable private income”, reproved him for giving in to mere storytelling. “I felt the truth of his words,” he conceded, but, had he tried to live on the proceeds of the higher art, “I could not see how...I could have contrived to be there to hear them.” Until the public began to reward him for his stories, he lived for a few years as a poker player.

Jepson was brought up near Leamington Spa, the town which also gave us Aleister Crowley and William Westcott, a founder of the Order of the Golden Dawn, besides other mystic luminaries (it must be something in the water). Beneath his bluff exterior, Jepson too was an explorer of the realms of the spirit, but in youth he formed his own philosophy derived from Schopenhauer and, more especially, Henri Bergson, whose theory of the élan vital he celebrated in The Religion of the Life Force (1922, under the pseudonym R. Edison Page).

His interest in mysticism also found expression in several of his novels. The Horned Shepherd is a particularly elusive work first published by A.E. Waite in Horlick’s Magazine, the unlikely forum which also featured several of Machen’s writings. Jepson later issued a hundred copies of the novel under the imprint “the Sons of the Vine” (1904) and this is exceedingly scarce. There was a later American edition which may still be found. Inspired by Frazer’s The Golden Bough the book deals with Pan worship in late classical times. Another work, Number Nineteen (1910), shows the influence of Machen’s The Great God Pan, as a black magician falls prey to a force of high evil which possesses a statue of the goatfoot god. Jepson returned to fantasy late in his career with Lucy and the Dark Gods (1936) and with his contributions to John Gawsworth’s Thrills anthologies, including, in collaboration with King Juan, the flippantly bizarre surgery story “The Shifting Growth”.

It was probably due to Gawsworth’s good offices that Jepson was able to place his second vivid volume of autobiography, Memories of an Edwardian and Neo-Georgian (1937), with The Richards Press. This provides important recollections of Dowson, Machen, Ford Madox Ford, Richard Middleton and Edith Nesbit, as well as the best chronicle we have of that splendid drinking and debating fraternity, the New Bohemians. Jepson’s sympathies are large and his enmities are expressed with sardonic understatement, so the book has all the vigour and freshness of his earlier work.

There is nothing about Shiel by name, which suggests that Jepson could not recall anything significant of their previous association and only renewed acquaintance with him in these late years, via Gawsworth; but there is a brief footnote: “Only a few weeks ago, on his attention being called to the beauty of my writings by the young poet, John Gawsworth, Matthew I, the exiled King of Rodundo [sic], created me Duke of Wedrigo.” This is useful third party evidence that Shiel did use his title (and interestingly that it was his first name, Matthew, he used, not Felipe), and did create some peers in his lifetime, albeit in this instance at Gawsworth’s instigation.

Edgar Jepson’s work does not seem to be much collected or appreciated today, perhaps because so much of it is frankly commercial. Yet it has a certain lively zest and wit, and his autobiographical volumes are certainly worth reading. Though by no means prepared to devote struggle to the perfection of literary craft or the expression of an original vision, as had Machen and Shiel, he was not wholly the professional purveyor of undemanding yarns that he liked to affect to be. The vivacity of his style and provocativeness of his opinions are always diverting, while in his excursions into fantasy and the macabre he is the equal of many better-known exponents.

Image: nonsolusblog.wordpress.com.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE CORVO CULT by Robert Scoble

Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled (for a time) "Baron Corvo," lived from 1860 to 1913 and published a  handful of unusual books that did not sell well but which found some fervid devotees. Aspects of his life and experiences frequently tower over his literary work. And over the years there have been three full-length biographies concentrating more on the man than on his writings--the first being A.J.A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo (1934), an "experiment in biography" (as its subtitle states) which is more a detective-story quest for information than a straightforward biography.  This first biography was followed by Donald Weeks's Corvo: Saint or Madman? (1971) and Miriam J. Benkovitz's Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo (1977). Last year, Strange Attractor Press published Robert Scoble's Raven: The Turbulent World of Baron Corvo (2013), which is not a full biography but a collection of fifteen essays on various aspects of Corvo's life.

Now, also from Strange Attractor Press, comes Robert Scoble's The Corvo Cult: The History of an Obsession (2014), which tells the story of Rolfe and his followers from the very beginning to the present. A wonderful volume that fills in the blanks and backgrounds of the earliest Corvines to those of the present day. These people include Hugh Benson, the publishers John Lane and Grant Richards, all three biographers, as well as significant associates such as publisher and bibliographer Cecil Woolf, Brocard Sewell, and many others.  It wouldn't have occurred to me beforehand that this was a book we need, but very quickly after I started reading it I realized how wonderfully it pulls together all the threads of previous interest in Corvo, and puts them in a fascinating context.  I'd call it a thoroughly brilliant book, save for some serious missteps at the beginning of the final chapter, "The Anatomy of a Cult," which attempts to generalize about literary cults and reputations. (Scoble is excellent with details, but not with erratically defined generalizations.)

Basically this book is the history of a small elite literary fandom. I expect we'll see more books like this in the future.

BIBLIO-CURIOSA - Unusual writers/Strange books

is a new zine devoted to “unusual writers and strange books”. Chris Mikul, the editor, kindly sent me the first four issues, and they certainly live up to the journal’s aims. They feature some distinctly eccentric and peculiar titles and plots, chiefly in the field of popular thrillers, occult romances and the fantastic, with striking colour illustrations of the often equally bizarre book covers and dustwrappers.

The first issue, for example, features The Fangs of Suet Pudding (1944) by Adams Farr, set during the German invasion of France: Chris calls it “idiosyncratic and strangely endearing”. But two other titles he covers, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, and Hodgson’s Tales of Medical Students, are not far behind in the somewhat unusual category, while a longer essay on the life and work of Hanns Heinz Ewers covers more recognised literary ground.

Amongst the mysterious but fairly recently rediscovered authors surveyed in Biblio-Curiosa are Todd Robbins (issue 3) and Mark Hansom (issue 4), and this last issue also offers an excellent study of what is arguably Richard Marsh’s second greatest novel, The Joss. Connoisseurs of the truly recondite and outré, however, will also enjoy reading of Zalma by T. Mullet Ellis (issue 2) and in particular The Ferocious Fern (1943) (issue 3) by C.B. Pulman, a book of stories with a Triffid-esque theme.

is available from Chris Mikul at P O Box K546, Haymarket, NSW 1240, Australia, or via cathob[at]zip[dot]com[dot]au.

Monday, December 1, 2014

MORROW - Ghostwriter and Michael Paine

Here’s an unusual and unexpected work: music inspired by Phyllis Paul. Until about ten years ago, the novels of this austere and enigmatic author were lost amongst the dustiest bookshelves. But then Glen Cavaliero of Cambridge University began to write about her work, and continued with calm persistence to champion her wherever he could. It was a footnote in his study of Charles Williams that first alerted me to her. Since then, he has written about her in Wormwood 9 ("Mysteries of The Thirteenth Hour: The Enigmatic World of Phyllis Paul"), spoken of her to The Powys Society and others, and introduced a reprint of her A Cage for the Nightingale (Sundial Press).

I particularly remember listening to Glen tell about the phrase used by the motorcyclist involved in the accident that led to her death. She was blown across the street, he said, just like a sheet of paper. Her books remain hard to find and second-hand copies disappear as soon as they are discovered. A few titles have eluded searchers for years. And there remain mysteries about her life and work which several researchers are still trying to fathom. Doug Anderson has recently discovered that she probably had an earlier career as an illustrator of children’s books (see earlier post here).

Ghostwriter and Michael Paine have now released an album, Morrow (on Time Released Sound), which is inspired in part by Phyllis Paul’s books. Her readers will recognise some overt references in the titles (‘Cooling bay’, ‘Pulled down’) and less obvious ones alluding to her life or conjuring scenes and phrases in her work. The two musicians describe their work here as “English pastoral noir, drawing variously on folk, evangelical hymns, jazz, Debussy and Maurice Deebank.” (The latter was the guitarist on the smouldering songs and instrumentals made by the band Felt, a great favourite of mine.)

The music is on the surface gentle, with hints of musical boxes, fairground organs, grandfather clock chimes, and graceful ballet scores. But there are also more sinister sounds – disembodied voices, stray incursions of curious noise, off-key notes, cymbal splashes like footsteps pounding through damp streets. I was reminded of the theme and incidental music to the Seventies TV series “Thriller”, or such haunting Sixties tunes as “Windmills of Your Mind”. Morrow succeeds wonderfully in creating a pensive atmosphere of genteel peculiarity, where at any moment toys might start talking or the door of the nursery cupboard could swing open upon the abyss.