Saturday, 13 July 2019

Editorial: Firstly, it's great – and rare – for an indie writer's work to crossover, receiving public appreciation, and use, in another sphere. Therefore, huge congratulations to Eric Stener Carlson who's achieved this. Ray Russell of Tartarus Press, wrote: 'A metal band in Switzerland–Rorcal (they tour in Europe and Japan) are huge fans of books by Eric Stener Carlson. They have composed an album inspired by the seven scary stories from his excellent Muladona, (also on Tartarus) and invited the author to record some passages from the book. The result is the album Muladona.' Secondly, a personal plug. My first full collection of strange stories, No-One Driving, is due for publication in paperback and ebook this November. Ahead of this, in September, the sainted Tim Jeffreys is publishing the title tale in Dark Lane Anthology 8.

On Dark Wings by Stephen Gregory, Valancourt Books

Poor taste isn’t something which can be justifiably levelled at Valancourt; for, here again, we are presented with a seasoned, well-practised author whom I’d just recently discovered. Despite being labelled a ‘horror’ author, Gregory’s particular brand leans more toward the subtle and uncanny, where small, psychological breakdowns ultimately impinge. In prose, the antithesis of, say, Stephen King, in using as few words as possible to intimate so much. Bluntly; Gregory turns out to be very much my cup of tea.
  Featuring the original 1983 tale ‘The Cormorant,’ expanded into Gregory’s first novel three years later, consequently adapted for the big screen in ‘87 and reissued by Valancourt in ’13. Six further novels followed; most recently 2015’s Plague of Gulls. You will have gathered by now that Gregory’s field of interest is strictly avian; reflected in this long-awaited first collection of fourteen short tales. The prose is concise, polished, and a joy to the eye, describing encounters less supernatural than chilling in their ominous descriptions of small but scalding existential threats. Favourites include;
  ‘The Boys Who Wouldn’t Wake Up’ where an aged headmaster at a boys’ school – vacated for the Christmas holiday - feels the annual encroaching guilt from a wartime tragedy he believes he could’ve averted. By far, the most touching tale with an especially satisfying use of ghosts. In ‘The Theatre Moth’ an Am-Dram script-writer / actor is plagued by a phobia she’s unable to control.
  ‘The Drowning of Colin Henderson’ follows the ocean-driven journey of a crewman, swept off deck during a storm and described from a birds-eye perspective, beyond the death up to his discovery. ‘The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe’ features the harboured ‘gift’ of a disabled boy finally revealing itself as something rather less benevolent than darkly self-serving.
  A minority of the remainder feature no supernatural element at all, but still render a subtle serendipity. If you’re a fan of the taut approach of implication rather than lurid delineation, then you’ll find Gregory a master.

Children Of The Crimson Sun by Karim Ghahwagi, Egaeus Press (Keynote Edition V)

Karim Ghahwagi describes himself as a music video director, photographer and author of both Danish and Libyan descent, born in the United States, but spending most of his life in Europe. He divides his time between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. Basic biographical details, but perhaps useful in understanding the territory of his fiction.
  The title tale opens the fifth in Egaeus's occasional Keynote series, in 16th century Malta, where a young emissary is sent – on behalf of his Abbot – to investigate the unique and ‘distressing spiritual condition’ of a local fisherman’s daughter. Having recently turned Catholic penitent, a genuinely weird tale ensues of hidden motive and questioned faith as unforeseen forces conspire to expose personal revelations as to the emissary’s true purpose. A slow-burner of a tale that harbours depths that reward with re-reading. Some of the geographical and historical detail in the opening pages, perhaps more anticipatory of a full-length novel, eventually give way to a compelling tale of amoral purpose.
  This close-to-novella length title tale is paired with the slightly shorter, ‘A Haunting in Miniature.’ Posted to an obscure village in the Czech Republic, Izabel Jelinek – representative of the Moravian Church – seeks an interview with the local Commissioner to discover the cause of a series of alleged ghostly sightings in the area. Her researches lead her to the local Napoleonic Wargaming Society; a select club of historical re-enactments by painters of model soldiers. This scene is (also) beautifully rendered as we are introduced to its longest serving member, Maximillian Novak, and the silent commitment of its members and the club members’ room is delineated. Ultimately, it is the spirit of an abandoned soul, to which Jelinek can relate, that provides the denouement and quietly effective it is too.
  As with the protagonist of the previous tale, Jelinek’s true motive - and identity - at first appears ambiguous, until the relationship is – by the climax – joined. Again, local history has returned in the form of an unwitting victim and their harboured past.

Their Dark And Secret Alchemy, Edited by Robert Morgan, Sarob Press

Three longish short tales – Richard Gavin’s ‘Ten of Swords: Ruin,’ Colin Insole’s ‘The Dead of Maridunum’ and Damian Murphy’s ‘The Axis of the Lodestone’ – highlight three of my current favourite authors.
  Richard Gavin’s tale opens on two sisters’ – Desdemona and Celeste - waking in their temporarily abandoned, sprawling lakeside house to a day of what they perceive to be unpredictable, but inevitable, omens. When the younger, more curious, Celeste steals into their parents’ bedroom, she seeks, and finds, a hidden velvet pouch, shaking its contents onto their bed; a series of Tarot-type cards. Picking the cards ‘Ruin’ and ‘The Queen,’ Celeste, memorizing the ceremony once performed by her more expert mother, steals out alone to bury them in the family vault, much to her elder sister’s chagrin. Demanding she returns them before their parents’ get back, Desdemona fears the damage has already been done through her sister’s playful ignorance. Their absent parents – practising experts in the Occult – return to the house to arrange an evening meal as a particular ceremony requiring specific tenets. Unaware of Celeste’s earlier disturbing of fate, the family descend into the consequences of extreme horror.
  I particularly enjoyed the formative scenes with the ambiguity of era. Gavin clearly intended this, since its indefinability increases in significance towards the tale’s end as portals are disastrously breached. An impressive opener. Gavin’s sixth collection of ‘fear and sacred converging’ will be due 2020-21.
  Colin Insole needs no introduction from me. Having swiftly become one of the finest exponents of English folk horror he has, simultaneously, remained beneath its radar. This should – and must – soon change. Of his latest entry, suffice to say that it is so densely plotted – ranging in time from the 14th century to the 1960s’ - that if it were not for the sinister omnipresence of the ubiquitous trickster-clown, the reader could drown beneath the history. Since this ‘history’ is so knowledgeably utilised, you are ensured to remain afloat.
  Murphy’s first collection – Daughters of Apostasy, previously reviewed here – struck an excellent balance between the trajectory of plot, description and pace. With Murphy’s prose here, much product knowledge of his subject is on show, but – from midway - somewhat at the expense of the latter where description's the main focus. Its strongest suit is in the omnipresent enigma of the distant landed boat and the gradual revelation - to the discovery and unexpected significance - of the two-faced God. Greater forward momentum in its middle third may well have attained the tale a fifth star. On a personal note, it’s pleasing that, in a 2017 interview, Murphy cited Insole, John Howard and George Berguno as favourite authors, to which I wholeheartedly concur. You can’t go far wrong with such good taste.
  Collectively, Their Dark and Secret Alchemy showcases three of the best exponents of their genre.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Pan Review Of The Arts No. 11

Editorial: Welcome back to the latest PROTA, delayed due to an ailment that has also delayed research for other writing. But, enough about me. The latest collection by the enigmatic Thomas Phillips and a Q & A on translation with the necessary Brendan Connell feature this month. An 'Albertine's Wooers' round-up should - eventually - follow in time. (An intended Q & A with the effervescent Scott Nicolay has had to be delayed due to his own literary commitments, but I hope to follow this up in a future post). Til then...

And The Darkness Back Again by Thomas Phillips, Zagava Books

We have here – for this blog, at least - a different kind of writer; one who presents his subjects in the form of internal monologues; ruminations veering from mania-prompted obsession to remoter essay-like description. There are several 'Thomas Phillips' currently active in publishing. One first-timers might be most in danger of confusing him with is the mystery / suspense novelist of The Molech Prophecy, although that Thomas Phillips found God in 2003, including his worldview in his work from then. Despite one subtley amusing tale here bearing the title 'Christian Singles,' Zagava’s Thomas Phillips harbours more darkly astronomical concerns.

Phillips – born fifty years ago in Raleigh, NC – has an alter-ego as composer and musician, Tomas.
His biog states:

'Like most of his music, which draws on a range of electronic and modern composition genres, his fiction typically embraces a minimalist aesthetic not unlike certain contemporary French writers associated with Les Editions de Minuit.'

This is reflected in his writings emotional remoteness, prompting in the reader an almost fundamentalist sense of the uncanny. One might call him, Ligotti – with less blood. In one tale – 'First Light' – the importance of music is equal to that of the words, enabling us to catch a glimpse of his philosophy;

'....Light is consciousness requiring the dark milieu of abyssal black as juxtaposition, darkness for its own sake, given depth and pressure by the radiance of stars. Light first comes into being. The cosmic Dark Age brings light, space expansion, elements proliferating, the universe cools down until in one small quadrant it starts heating up again, forging illumined, grim ghosts, hauntings of dim minds and hearts.'

This follows a description of a jazzy CD playing as background to a Floridan family (the state in the grip of 'a lamentable inferno') congregating to prepare for dinner. Phillips had to have a second life in music, since his bias towards describing sounds is so prevalent. 'Pots clank, even the sound of words is jarring, though it’s always contained rather than a harsh meeting of metal.' (Opening line, Children of the Family). 'And it opened its mouth next to your ear...It sounded, starting low, low crackle fizz in the mouth...pitch-high noise that warbled thin wire, gravel guttural anger, and plateaued in volume as one long-drawn, cutting drone coursing into your canal...' ('Throatily').
  In other tales, such as 'Everything Was Explicable,' a character experiences and ill-translates an existential crisis. In their case, a well-healed couple play out their everyday routine, until she sees the shallow futility of her part in their relationship and what – rather than merely who - her husband is. In 'Firehouse,' strongest on narrative and jeopardy, a couple find themselves, late at night, unfathomably deadlocked in their bedroom, with no clues as to who, or what, might be prowling around the rest of their apartment. This could be a metaphor for the collection, which rewards patience with unnerving residues of alienation and quiet terror.


Q & A 

Brendan Connell 
(Translator & Author) 

 Brendan Connell (born 1970) is an American author and translator. Though his work often falls into the horror and fantasy genres, it has also often been called unclassifiable and avant-garde. His style has been compared to that of J.K. Huysmans and Angela Carter. Some of his shorter fiction, such as that contained in his collection Metrophilias, has been referred to as prose poetry. His work as author is currently published by Snuggly Books, for whom he also translates both classic and obscure European Decadent texts in partnership with his wife, Anna.

How did you get into book translation?

BC: Originally, as a young man, my idea was to become a translator of Buddhist texts, so I did studies of Tibetan and some Sanskrit with that goal in mind; and my first published translations were of Chinese poetry that a Chinese friend and I did together. But, thrown off course by unexpected winds, I next found myself in Europe, on the Swiss-Italian border, where I was somewhat cut off from the former opportunities, but presented with new ones in that I was able to have access to a vast wealth of Italian literature, mostly unknown or little-known to the English-speaking world.

What are your prime considerations when you proceed with a text?

BC: Mainly it has to be a text that interests me. Some people start on texts without reading them first, and experience them as they translate them. Most of what I translate, however, I have read years before, and it has stuck with me enough to decide to proceed. This isn’t always the case, but it usually is. A secondary, and not always necessary consideration, is if it fills a gap in what is available in English. Sometimes marketability also comes into play, but usually this is more of an afterthought than any sort of principal motivation.

Are there temptations to overly modernise a centuries-old text for a new audience and how might you avoid this?

BC: For me at least, there is not much danger of overly modernising. My approach is to, for the most part, restrict myself to the language of the time the original work was composed. Probably the only case where some modernesation is a good thing is in very old texts, such as those written pre-1700s. In such cases, however, I still would avoid modern terminology, unless for some reason it was apt. The place most to avoid modernesation, I think, is in dialogue, as nothing is more annoying than to read Aristophenes translated into chatty dialogue of the Southern United States or the great heroes of Water Margin cursing like cabbies. Undoubtedly there is a place for such experiments, but then what one is reading is not really a translation.

Are certain genres harder to translate than others? (Absurdism, for example).

BC: I am not sure that any genre of fiction is more difficult than another to translate, but generally 19th-century texts are considerably more difficult than 20th-century. Sentences tend to be much longer and oftentimes references are more difficult to clarify. Humour is, of course, harder to translate, just as it is harder to write and overreaching attempts have surely sunk more translations than they have saved. A good translation of poetry is more difficult to pull off than one of fiction.

What do you think makes a successful – as opposed to an unsuccessful – translation?

BC: It depends somewhat on the type of text. For a technical work, for example, meaning is paramount. For a work of fiction, or poetry, though meaning is of course also important, an almost equally important aspect is conveying to the reader an experience as close as possible to that of reading the material in the original language. In the past I used to think that the goal was to translate under the dictum: “How would the writer write this if they were writing in English?” And this, to a large degree, still holds true for me. But it is also true that there are all sorts of things in texts that would never be written in English, and in order to convey those sensations, one needs to be more creative. The translation sometimes needs to carry with it aspects of the original text--aspects which would never normally occur had it been written in English.
  In looking at translations, and comparing them to the original, one will often see cases where the translator has dumbed the original down. In other cases, something that might or might not be an error in the original, the translator has decided to “fix”, though more often than not they are actually introducing errors into the text. At other times, difficult lines or obscure references are struck out, the translator either not understanding them themselves, or presuming that the readers would not understand them. Furthermore, there are translators who push themselves into what they are translating and, instead of delivering the style of the original author, give us their own. All of these things should be avoided. Avoiding them will go a long way to producing a good translation, while the opposite will have the opposite effect.

Who are your favourite translators – past and present – and why?

BC: There have been so many accomplished translators that to choose the best is difficult. From the Chinese, the groundbreaking work of James Legge stands out, in the past, while more recently the work of Thomas Cleary is noteworthy, especially his translation of The Flower Ornament Scripture. From Chinese and other languages into French, the Belgian priest Étienne Lamotte was a scholar of great profundity, and his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, from the Chinese, is an amazing work.
  For present day translators of fiction, I have enormous admiration for Brian Stableford, who has translated such a vast number of texts that it is quite amazing. His great command of the English language and deep scholarship make his work in the fields of Science Fiction, Symbolism, and Decadence of an importance that is inestimable.

I'd like to thank Brendan Connell for sparing his precious time.


Albertine's Wooers

Sundial Press have reissued the MR James-inspired Ghost Gleams -Tales of the Uncanny (1921) by WJ Wintle; Swan River Press have collected Rosa Mulholland's equally forgotten tales for Not To Be Taken At Bedtime as well as Bending To Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women, co-edited with Maria Giakaniki; while coming soon from Valancourt will be a new translation of Felix Timmerman's Intimations Of Death (1910), described as 'psychological horror tales worthy of 
Edgar Allan Poe.'

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Blacker Against The Deep Dark by Alexander Zelenyj, Eibonvale Press / The Book Of Flowering – An Anthology, (Edited by Mark Beech), Egaeus Press

Editorial: Greetings all. PROTA 11 will be delayed until May's 'Pan' when - everything crossed - there should a Q & A with the talented author and translator of European texts, SCOTT NICOLAY (to actually justify it), alongside a first-time European release from Zagava. Meantime, a pair of seriously contrasting collections...

Incendiary is the adjective that best describes Zelenyj’s fifth collection, since, in so many of his tales, it is destruction which leads, in one form or another, to personal realisation for some, salvation for others. Some from a place of madness; others from love.
  In 'The Priests,' Siamese triplets approach a church seeking salvation from one willing to see beyond mere appearance and thirdhand reputation. Almost a John Carpenter-esque take on Frankenstein, 'their' story is told through key scene depictions of 'their' past treatment at the hands of others‘ that have led to this moment. Perhaps the most complete and satisfying tale here, since the contents could comfortably be expanded into a novella.
  Certain tales echo the feel, less of an 'R-rated Twilight Zone,' (as quoted on the cover) as episodes of The Outer Limits. 'We Are All Lightless Inside' is an example, where the sense of jeopardy holds you from an opening redolent of its pre-titles‘ sequences. A 'Science Research Division' in deep space traps and destroys rogue diseases of monstrous form in containment tanks. One capture proves as personal as it is impenetrable. Gripping stuff and an authentic sense of Sixties-era SF holds the attention throughout.
  Fans of both Blade Runner films should connect with the SF pulp-noir of 'Journey to the End of a Burning Girl.' A level of engagement between the characters, allied to intimations of a greater backstory, suggest a novel along similar lines wouldn’t be the author’s worst option. Elsewhere, 'The Terror Of Broken Places' sees an enigmatic portal beyond mortality offering hope of an afterlife in this short, but affecting, tale. 'Christ On The Sun' is one of the gentler tales where a dream-predicted ‚night of miracles‘ is faced with acceptance of the beauty delivered, rather than an unknown harboured. 'The Children Who Saw the Universe' – A childhood encounter of inexplicable alien activity within a forest joins two friends for life, influencing future life choices that dispelled all previously held notions. 'Engines of Forever' cleverly reverts to the incendiary, where the ‚young‘ protaganists harbour an innocence separate from their programming. The denouement confirms the reader’s suspicions without ever having been obvious at the outset. The uncanny aspect of these ‚nature‘ tales may just breast the craft of those inspired by familiar genres.
  Regular readers will know my view of long original (as opposed to retrospective) collections. To Zelenyj’s credit, he sustains interest through the majority of its thirty-one tales through breadth of emotion and sheer bravado.

 *    *    *
There is no introduction to this quite unique collection, the usual blank rear board meaning the tales alone must direct the reader to its theme. Those familiar with Egaeus should have no trouble discerning the literal nature of its title.
  Mark Valentine has long been a master of evoking much from some fantastical history with a modicum of lovely prose. 'The Pale Sentinels of Asphodel' is just the latest example where a mystical resonance effectively informs the climax. Sheryl Humphrey’s 'Flora's Lexicon' evokes Charlotte Gilman Perkins in time, place and denouement of lovely chills. A love story tainted by familial witchery and regret, it pleases on several levels.
  Ron Weighell’s 'Fugues of the Blue Lily': a collector of arcane literature on opiod addiction, recently bereaved, becomes obsessed in the belief of an ‚objective reality‘ which can be reached with the help of an aged occultist who, having initially indulged him as a student, begins to fear for his sanity as he pushes for ever more dangerous experiences. Reggie Oliver’s 'Lady With a Rose' – The enigma of the deep red rose in a famous painting by Titian hangs over the dilemma of the merits – and demerits – of fakery versus the admirable copy. We know Oliver as an excellent teller of the traditionally linear tale and, for fans, this is just the latest example.
  Colin Insole’s 'Gallybag' features a seemingly abandoned country village, a faded Edwardian photograph of the same, and the search for the featured ghosts of its defiant inhabitants successfully follows-up Insole’s superb second collection Valerie and Other Stories (Snuggly Books, 2018). In Alison Littlewood’s 'Down in the Dendrons,' denial and the awful hidden truth about the fate of the narrator’s late brother finds a strange resolution beneath the brambles of where they both used to play.
  Mat Joiner’s 'Belbyne's Lane': the site of a tragic accident plagues a man as denial and guilt surface, unresolved, as he seeks comfort in his new way of life. A more ambiguous tale that otherwise neatly partners Littlewood’s. Jonathan Wood‘s 'The Absence' is perhaps the most puzzling entry since, like a lot of Woods‘ pieces, it is more a rumination on thought, feeling and place than linear plot. He reminds me of the late John Fowles in his ability to portray detachment as something of ambiguous beauty. It – like a lot of his work - stands re-reading because of this. Again, I enjoyed the majority of the tales (bar one, to frustrate you...), while an unexpected pagan nature-poem from Charles Schneider also reliably delivered. Another high quality release in the Egaeus pantheon.


CM Muller's anthology, Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles, is now available, as is his own tautly-written debut, Hidden Folk: Strange Stories; Simon Strantza's debut Nothing Is Everything (Undertow) and - up for pre-order - This House Of Wounds by Georgina Bruce (also from Undertow). Two recent Tartarus releases worth a mention include The Clockworm and Other Strange Stories by Karen Heuler and Figurehead by Carly Holmes. Finally, a reissue of Jean Ray's 1925 debut, Whiskey Tales (Wakefield Press), features an excellent new translation by Scott Nicolay. More on this in the next 'Pan.'

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Pan Review Of The Arts No. 10 - Decadents Of Europe

Editorial: Too often, our Anglocentric culture overlooks the past glories of its surrounding environs. Consequently, English translations and, crucially, their unsung translators, are also its victims. Therefore, I hope 'Pan' can act as a modest corrective, enabling near extinct names to finally breathe fresh life. A topic I'll be returning to here on a semi-regular basis. One English name for rehabilitation has been curated by editor, Nina Antonia, who explains how those who proclaimed sensuality and individualism were, at the same time, attracted by the strictures of Catholicism.

*   *   *

Of Kings And Things by Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock, Edited by David Tibet / Incurable – The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era's Dark Angel, Edited by Nina Antonia, Strange Attractor Press

Back in the Spring of 2018, Snuggly Books released the first-ever paperback issue of Stenbock‘s Studies Of Death (1894). As something of a novice to the author, I was surprised by the existence of a second; The Child Of The Soul. So, now, thanks to the efforts of David Tibet, Ray Russell and Mark Valentine, the original seven tales have been joyously expanded to fifteen, alongside poems, songs, sonnets and a single essay.
  The engaging economy in Stenbock’s anecdotal approach informs every tale. Studies, as a whole, is a classic, less concerned about Death itself than the loss borne of others‘ greed ('The Egg Of The Alabatross' and 'The True Story of a Vampire') and self-realisation borne of sacrifice ('Hylas,' 'Narcissus' and 'Death Of A Vocation'). The second collection's content is, generally, less concise; however, gems abide. Highlights include 'The Other Side'; a fine werewolf tale, strong in its rendering of the uncanny, with a surprisingly modern sensibility. In 'Faust' – a satirical take on Marlowe and Goethe‘s classic fables – a monk receives a visitation from an 'angel' proclaiming light whilst ill-harbouring darkness. In 'The King's Bastard (or The Triumph Of Evil),' two power-hungry subjects infiltrate the court of a benevolent King and his two unwitting sons to achieve their own nefarious ends. 'A Secret Kept' – a tale of madness – harbours an intruiging backstory, being the real-life case of Jack the Ripper, a suspect of whom Tibet infers was a friend. A short, previously unpublished play – 'La Mazurka Des Revenants' – makes up for in proto-Ortonesque wit and panache what it lacks in innovation.
  The 'Poems, Songs and Sonnets' which make up the second half are a mixed bag. The songs and sonnets are enjoyable, but the initial poems leave much to be desired and very much for the already committed. Metre and rhyme scheme feel clumsy and inconsistent to say the least and you wonder – beside the quality of the other work, in the context of Stenbock’s eccentricities – if this was intended.
  In truth, it is the short tales that represent the beating heart of Stenbock’s philosophy; one of betrayal of the innocent and self-created, by those either with Establishment power or, at least, exploit access to it. Taken as a whole, Of Kings And Things is an important release in the annals of the fin-de-siecle. The richness of the majority of its contents make this a seminal contribution to the movement’s public archive.

I have often wondered quite why writers of the fin-de-siecle felt such an affinity for Catholicism. Considering their committed individualism, beside the religion‘s dictats and strictures, there seemed a paradox. On enquiry, Nina Antonia offered this explanation:
  “Catholicism, which is a cult of beauty as well as God, appealed to those with an aesthetic imagination. Christ as death other faith as far as I’m aware is quite as theatrical as Catholicism, it’s high drama all the way... Brompton Oratory for example is like a stage setting of death but it’s very beautiful and emotive. The Decadents sensed that we were tipping into an age of vulgar materialism – as creative beings they understood that the soul needs spiritual sustenance; or, at least, they did back then.”
  Antonia adds how Lionel Johnson, a little known poet of the era, was rebelling against his ‘rigid family piety’ for one ‘incense laden’ that ‘isn’t all English.’
  Antonia follows-up 2017's impressive debut novel, The Greenwood Faun (Egaeus Press) with this biographical offering from the source. Youthfully handsome and faun-like himself, Johnson adhered more committedly to Catholicism, so distancing himself from more his indulgent contemporaries. Like his drinking partner, fellow poet Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson refuted such labels as decadence in reference to himself, despite a life devoted to art, aestheticism and absinthe. Was this religious hypocricy, since he was hardly averse to the bottle or relationships with other men? More likely, it’s from the impression given of a reticence, a need for privacy, and a need to protect his conviction in the face of others' mere lip service.
  A student first of Winchester College, then of New College, Oxford, he retired to his latter rooms – - quietly fostering his alcoholism - emerging only for solitary walks – to pen the poems, on friends, contemporaries, melancholy and, inevitably, death, for which he'd soon become known. (Although heartening to read that he was as big a failure at Maths as myself, failing to pass his Oxford entry exam three times before being given a shoe-in by the authorities thanks to his, possibly exasperated, family connections).
  Sharing mutual acquaintances of the fin-de-siecle with Stenbock (but never part of this circle) Johnson was something of a loner and, unsurprisingly, reads as rather more conservative. He appeared no miserablist, however, also having an alleged 'extreme humour,' which intimates mood swings symptomatic of depression.
  The poems dominate the middle of Incurable – one-hundred pages worth - flanked by a few essays and 'ephemera,' making this the first major collection of Johnson's work in decades. Highlights include the essay, 'On the Appreciation of Trifles,' showcasing him at his most paradoxically Wildean. Similarly, among the poems, 'Summer Storm' (dedicated to Harold Child), is a direct hymn to Pan. Personal favourites include 'Light! For the Stars Are Pale,' 'The End,' 'Winchester' and 'Gwynedd.' Being non-theist, I'm less enamoured by the staunchly religious entries. Being an intrinsic part of who Johnson was, however, means these need to be objectively embraced.
“Have you ever head a Latin Mass?” adds Antonia, reflectively. “It’s exquisite; like an opera for the soul.”

* * *

Lilith's Legacy – Prose Poems and Short Stories by Renee Vivien, Translated by Brian Stableford / The Double Star And Other Occult Fantasies by Jane De La Vaudere, Translated and with an Introduction by Brian Stableford, Snuggly Books

Like Jane De La Vaudere – and most of the Symbolists – Renee Vivien is a self-reinvention. A Londoner, born Pauline Mary Tarn, her nursery education was in Paris, until the sudden death of her and younger sister Antoinettte’s father when, from the age of 9, they and her mother returned to the English capital. Longstanding friction between herself and her mother forced her solitary return to Paris in her early twenties, where she took up, first with American socialite Natalie Barney, then with the married Helene de Zuylen who became her muse and occasional writing partner.
  Lilith’s Legacy represents all Tarn’s short works, published under her best known pseudonym. (A second volume - Faustina & Other Stories – due from this publisher soon, will feature those penned with de Zuylen under the joint pseudonym, Paule Riversdale).
  The lesbianism as featured is very much out and proud, (you will find few contemporary British authors' getting away with the term 'gaping vagina' in print), despite the fact she was, publicly, rather more cautious and, according to Stableford, even ambivalent. This was surely due to the (to herself unexpected) ostracization from some part of Parisien society in the last few years of her young life. The image of her on the reverse cover, however, displays her individuality with asexual abandon.
Her prose is redolent with a benevolent relationship with death; like many of her contemporaries, a fate to be welcomed rather than feared. There is, however, an admirable lack of self-pity in tone; that it is not, necessarily, the worst of all worlds. In tandem, it relates her obsession with love (amour) and, clearly, how its autobiographical resonance impinged upon her own relationships, fictionalised here. You don't have to know of them in any detail to read in plain sight between its lines.
  According to her biog., burdened by debt and illness, Vivien took an overdose of laudanum in a failed suicide bid during a return visit to London in 1908. She died back in Paris the following year at the age of 32. Her biog. states the cause as "lung congestion" from a bout of pneumonia, complicated by anorexia, alcoholism and drug abuse.
  A word on the gorgeous cover, startling in its matching primary colours of green, yellow and blue. Utilising a painting by pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn de Morgan, it shows Clytie – the water nymph of Greek mythology - emerging from amongst sunflowers; a subject that directly references Vivien's personal take on sapphic love.

These are precious translations in that they represent the only collection of the author’s short tales available in English. Brian Stableford does a sterling job of extracting and interpreting the little information that exists on Jane De La Vaudere, somehow managing to make the lack of background material non-issues. (The back cover teases here, revealing a Gallic-looking woman of high cheekbones and sallow, forlorn eyes, curled hair pinned in the late-19th century style, wearing a kimono and holding an open parasol).
  Born Jeanne Scrive in 1857, in what Stableford refers to France‘s upper bourgeosie, the premature death of both parents suggests she - and possibly her sister Marie - were sent as orphans to the local convent. Scrive subsequently met and married one Camille Crapez who, having inherited the Chateau de la Vaudere, Sarthe, from his mother, styled himself Crapez de la Vaudere. An understandable aversion to publicly utilising her new husband’s prior surname, she followed in his stead, Anglicizing her forename to Jane.
  Like Renee Vivien, La Vaudere became as much art installation as author. Prior to the occupations of novelist and playwright for which she is most known, La Vaudere had focused upon a career as an artist, exhibiting at the Paris Salon.
  Openly influenced by Poe, these formative tales are also an advancement in reflecting La Vaudere's interests in new theories in psychology and mysticism; specifically sexuality and astral projection, which would go on to inform the fiction of Crowley. Thus, La Vaudere represents part of a near-forgotten tradition that bridges both. The nine presented here are all excellent. The first, 'Emmanuel's Centenary,' opens with a statement of her philosophy throughout: „we are certainly reincarnated...(and) the soul that animates us remains...govern(ing) matter in order to organize the living form of human beings. Everything changes, is counfounded and renewed, in the immutable law of amour that governs the world.“
  The hunger for love beyond the material form is the darkly romantic Poe-inspired theme, even down to a character in 'A Vengeance' named Berenice and the disguised preservation of a corpse. Elevating the tales above derivative cash-in is the quality of their telling as much as La Vaudere's primary readings and patent interest in the aforementioned theories, revealed in plain sight.
'Yvaine' – the longest tale here – harbours the delicious moral ambiguity of the best of the German imagination as a mad genius, down on his luck, relates a claim on the right of visceral revenge against a supposed 'wrong' perpetrated against him. In 'The Dream Of Myses,' an Egyptian priest, guarding the corpse of his late Queen in her tomb, has developed an obsession to reawaken her with the power of his love. When a local girl falls for him, he gradually feels compromised in his devotion, fostering a resentment which proves disastrous.
  The art of the possible, hidden among the short fiction of the past, still holds huge appeal. Recent reissues by the larger publishing houses of the work of Robert Chambers, Blackwood and others proves this. With this in mind, the intriguing 'Double Star' proved rather more accessible a range of adventures than anticipated. A warning to the curious; don‘t pass these by.

PROTA 11 will be here in March.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

A Book Review Bonanza

Editorial:  A book review bonanza this month. PROTA 10 - up in January - will be another, but with a running theme - ahead of that desperate 29th March deadline - of Decadents Of Europe. Consequently, Pan Himself is considering a return to his sylvan homeland of Greece where - being a feral creature - the state of the economy is of no concern to Him. Enjoy!
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Life, Be Still! & Other Stories by H.A. Manhood, The Sundial Press

Wikipedia states that Harold Alfred Manhood (1904-91) "lived in a converted railway carriage in the Sussex countryside, growing his own food and brewing his own cider." Mark Valentine, in his introduction, reveals in more detail how this occurred; a scenario sylvan – and out of reach - to most aspiring writers. His gift was considered so great by his interested publisher that he was financially sustained by Edward Garnett at Jonathan Cape to live out this idealised life, just so he could write. It is just as well then that this selection justifies the considerable delay in its appearance. (An occupational hazard for most publishers, negotiating with author estates).
  This first selection since the author's death showcases twenty-nine of the fruits of his labours; rural fables, described in unique similie. Punctuating prose of ominous beauty are intermittent shocks, their clarion being the attempted crucifixon of a wife deemed by her husband to have cheated on him. ('Three Nails'). Surrounding such moments, it soon becomes clear how the sheer beauty of Manhood's prose not only couches such hateful behaviour in context, but rivals most of his inter-war contemporaries, such as HE Bates and AE Coppard.
  Manhood appears skeptical of the supernatural. His own position on religion is at least agnostic, possibly atheist; not as strident as D.H. Lawrence, but a lot less convinced than, say, Dunsany. On ghosts, he offers dismissive explanations in the few tales in which they're referenced. ('No Ghosts' and 'Shall We Ghost?'). On the last of these, however, the pay-off line does at least leave open the possibility. As Mark Valentine states, referring to 'The Unbeliever': "(it) achieves the delicate balance between atmosphere and incident, indirection and conclusion...between belief and unbelief in vaster forces." If actual ghosts are deemed uncredible, still the uncanny pervades. Valentine rightly adds the comparison with Walter de la Mare and his 'advancing the short tale into tremulous new territory.' This is reflected in a pared down modernity to the prose, though a couple of contemporary references – uncontroversial in their time – might make the modern reader wince.
  Manhood – like Claude Houghton, recently excavated by Valancourt - is just the latest example of a writer undeservedly hidden by time and the prioritised urban upheavals of the Thirties. Sundial have done this author equal favour. All seven of Manhood's original volumes of short stories – from which these twenty-nine were selected – will be reissued throughout 2019-20. The first two - Nightseed and Apples by Night – are due to appear in paperback late Spring. Recommended.

Resonance & Revolt by Rosanne Rabinowitz, Eibonvale Press

Socialism is a subject rarely chosen as the main theme for a collection; rarer still in the slipstream of the uncanny. A gap in the market, ironically enough, filled in other media, such as with Mike Leigh's latest, Peterloo, but ill-served in new literature. It's therefore welcome – and timely in our age of particularly vile corporate monsters – that Rabinowitz has now had her short work collected. (Only her second standalone release after the well-received novella Helen's Story (PS Publishing, 2013), that gave voice to Machen's central character and 'victim' from The Great God Pan).
  Her Jewish heritage adds a second finger to the pulse of such currency, acting as historical backdrop to certain entries. First up though is 'In The Pines,' where the lyrics of an old blues number finds 'resonance' and deja-vu for a woman seeking the remnants of her dead husband at a crash site in a song beyond her memory.
  Subsequent tales of dissentient students coming together for protest are first highlighted in 'Return of the Pikart Posse' and 'Bells of the Harelle.' The latter is this collection's finest, most satisfying tale, deserving of future anthologising. Served mainly by its narrative's sense of urgency, the opening line alone pulls you in: "When King Charles's troops entered Rouen to put down the rebellion, the Harelle, the first thing they did was strip the tongues from the city's bells. I listened as they did so, hidden in the belfry tower with my two lovers, Christophe and Adrian." That's how you do it. 'Return of the Pikart Posse' finds an MA student with "a passion for the past" make tangible contact with the spirit of one with a long-harboured passion of her own. In 'Bells of the Harelle' we are in 14th century France and the burgeoning rise of self-determination under the age-old heal of organised religion.
  There are lesser tales. 'These Boots,' 'Keep Them Rollin' and 'Tasting The Clouds' are far smaller windows, rather than visions, into the writer's world and not of comparable quality; least of all of the first four. Two genuine weird tales – atypical presences here – at least reveal Rabinowitz's other abilities. 'The Colour of Water,' and 'The Turning Track' (co-credited with Mat Joiner) are standouts. Rabinowitz is in a position to connect with a readership currently untapped by her contemporaries. I hope she gets the chance to branch out and achieve it.

Revenants & Maledictions - Ten Tales of the Uncanny by Peter Bell / A Ghosts & Scholars Book Of Folk Horror, Sarob Press

On the 30th August 2012, I reviewed here Dr. Bell’s first collection, Strange Epiphanies (Swan River Press, 2012). Then, I wrote how 'Bell's historical knowledge lends an outsider's credence to the researcher-protaganist and her ultimate fate.' Fan-fiction only gives lip-service to this territory often, and derivatively, enough. (I’ve been guilty of this myself). Bell, however, like John Buchan before him – of whom he most resembles – also knows his from first-hand experience, rather than merging topographical fact with topographical fiction and hoping for the best. (Again, guilty). Surprisingly, in Bell‘s foreword, Buchan's is the one name as most likely influence left unmentioned. Such authenticity lent credence to his follow-up collections – A Certain Slant Of Light (Sarob, 2014) and Phantasms (Sarob, 2016) - and this, his latest and third with the same publisher.
  The outstanding tales – as ever, traditionally coastal in setting - utilise their central conceit, the encroaching inevitablility of fate, in unexpected directions. For this reason, 'The Virgin Mary Well,' 'The Island,' 'Blackberry Time' and 'The Robing of the Bride' are its gems, ending the collection on a dramatically Gothic precipice.
  In 'The Virgin Mary Well' a young daughter’s knowledge and curiosity appears greater than her scholar father’s during a week’s stay at a holiday cottage in the Isle Of Man. But, is this a tale of precognition – or possession? A long-harboured disease may have left a residual legacy when a lone visitor to the remote island of Eilean Beag is rowed ashore in 'The Island.' Less than eight pages long, it’s admirable just how much detail is communicated in its evocation.
  Nostalgia for a rural landscape painting that resonates into adulthood with a disturbing manifestation defines 'Blackberry Time.' A young housing agent, directed to photograph her next property for prospective sale, comes up against the possible madness of its faded grande dame owner and her obsession for Egyptian object d’art in 'The Robing of the Bride.' Very Conan-Doylish – at his best - its Gothic ending is a fine way to finish the volume. Amongst a quite crowded market, Bell is, without doubt, one of today's finest exponents of the traditional supernatural tale.


Just as Peter Bell’s traditionalist approach highlights Sarob’s preferences, so, inevitably, does this 'best of' selection from thirty-eight years of the Pardoes' well-respected journal, Ghosts & Scholars. In her Introduction, Editor Rosemary Pardoe posits what constitutes the term 'folk horror. ' Of interest in terms of the linkage to other texts, how useful is nailing a genre's definition remains arguable.
  I've chosen six-of-the-best here that succeed, based upon the following criteria: the first being, if the featured territory is especially traditional, does it succeed as a prime example of the genre? The second being, if it isn’t, does it fulfill its aim without overreaching itself?
  As is the convention in compiling, the first three tales are particularly strong. Michael Chislett’s 'Meeting Mr. Ketchum' sees a couple unwittingly seduced to a seemingly disused burial mound and the unknown presence it still harbours. Chico Kidd’s 'Figures in a Landscape' is the oldest entry, dating from 1980. Told in the second-person, a walking holiday in Ireland becomes an encroachment into a stone-tape re-enactment, which wastes not a line. Next comes Ramsey Campbell’s 'The Burning,' While not a fan of Campbell’s oeuvre, I've often found the short tales superior to the novels and this – in achieving its ambiguous melding of the objective with the subjective – is a fine example.
  The call of a bloodthirsty well is central to Carole Tyrrell’s 'Lorelei.' The most visceral entry and only true historical setting (circa 17th century), it’s well realised without lazy reference to dates and cliche. Christopher Harman’s 'Sisters Rise' sees a school-party whose local historian is roped in as attendant guide and the unwitting focus of the enigmatic Tall Maud. A narrative surprisingly cheery considering the subject. In the definitely downbeat 'Discontent of Familiars,' by John Llewelyn Probert, the neglected-looking home of a long-deceased solitary witch still harbours a 'life' that negatively permeates whatever – or whomever – resides there.
  At least two titles in the second half – in reference to criteria one - lacked the necessary impact through to the pay-off. A contributing factor may have been because of the tales they followed; but neither are they the authors' best. Chico Kidd and Carole Tyrell, however, were a revelation, enticing me to seek out their other work.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 9

Editorial: Welcome to PROTA 9 - the last PROTA of the year. (November's 'Pan' will be a book review extravaganza). In this issue, we focus on the great Regency author MARY SHELLEY; too often overshadowed by her even more famous poet husband, Percy Bysshe. First up is a Q&A with freelance artist and sculptor, BRYAN MOORE, who recently completed, in bronze, a noteworthy bust of the author on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the original publication of Mary's seminal novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Following this is an equally fascinating second, with Shelley scholar and President of Music Canada, GRAHAM HENDERSON. We end with a double-length review of FIONA SAMPSON's recent biography on Mary. Our fate is sealed where 'er the leaves may fall...


Creator of the Mary Shelley bronze bust on the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein

MA: What originally inspired your choice of subject for sculpting?

BRYAN MOORE: My choices for the author bronze bust series were always authors whose work that I particularly enjoyed, starting with Lovecraft, Poe, Stoker and of course Mary Shelley. Horror fiction would be nowhere today if it weren't for her Herculean efforts in realizing one of the most daring and original works of all time.

MA: How have you found the fundraising journey?

BM: Make no mistake, it's hard work and you can easily stop being an artist and become a full time salesman, but that goes part and parcel in the world of freelance art. My entire career has always been an exercise in selling in one form or another and while it's much easier to sell today with the advent of social media, it's also harder as many other artists are competing for the same dollars that you are. We all have to make our way through life and it's always a struggle no matter who you are or for how long you've been doing your art.

MA: The fundraising aside, what else did you find the biggest challenge in creating the bust?

BM: Time and scheduling. There's never enough of it. Also, nailing down a donor location. I get told 'no' far more often than I get told 'yes.' I also have to hear the endless (and quite useless) opinions of others. I tune it out and my attorney handles the rest.

MA: What reliable pictorial sources for the bust’s creation did you have to hand?

BM: With Mary Shelley, primarily one portrait by Richard Rothwell, which is the most recognizable image that comes to most folks' mind when they think of Mary Shelley. I also had the good fortune to track down the owner of the Camillo Pistrucci bust of Mary Shelley which was actually done in her lifetime. The owner graciously shot turnaround photographs for me of all the angles of the bust, thereby affording me a great opportunity to envison sides of her that were previously left to the imagination; her profile and the back of that mysterious Regency era hairstyle of hers. I'm very lucky to have had such astounding reference at my disposal. The hardest part was not to simply copy Pistrucci or Rothwell's work as those portraits are only another artist's impressions and not actual photographs. Did I nail Mary Shelley's likeness? I hope so but it's really up to the average viewer of my sculpture to comment on that. Time will tell.

MA: Your website reveals other bust-subjects with a link to the 'horror' genre. Is there something uniquely advantageous to creating the bust of a subject rather than by a painting or some other medium? If so, what do you think it is?

BM: As an artist, I could run with my personal passion and sculpt whoever I wanted, but this is a business for me and what is adventageous economically is what I go with most of the time now. I've often found that if an author that I'd like to sculpt is on a t-shirt or a coffee cup or some part of pop culture, then the project will quite likely fund. If it's not, then I don't do it. At this point in my career, there's very little glamour in spending six months of my precious time to end up broke, so I try and go with subjects that I think will fund. It's funny, my next bust is Rod Serling but I'm finding that when I ask anyone under 30 what they think, they have no idea who I'm talking about. I'm clearly a man of my time and who I might like isn't what millenials might like. Seems celebrating literary icons might be a generational thing now. I'd probably make more money if I sculpted a bust of Lady Gaga. Who knows?

MA: I was particularly pleased you chose Mary since a) busts of women still aren’t anywhere near as common as those for men and b) her own story isn’t really well known outside academic biography. What unforeseen outcomes – personal and / or professional - have you experienced since its completion?

BM: None at all with the exception of social media "likes" versus people throwing actual hard cash at it. I thought that the feminist and womens studies audience might rally around it en masse as I felt that it was celebrating a very brave, pioneering, female author, but they didn't, possibly because a man was sculpting her and not a woman. What matters at the end of the day is that there's an audience out there for everything and it's your job as an artist to find it and turn it into cash so that you can realize the work. I always chuckle when I hear artists out there claim that they don't do it for the money. That's true when you first pick up a paintbrush or a hunk of clay and do it because you genuinely love doing it, but if you want to be a professional artist, a solid business sense goes hand in hand with that success and it's very hard for a lot of artists to make that work for them. So many other artist pals often ask me for the "secret of my success.“ So, here it is: 
  Never stop selling until the lights are off on the midway and the ferris wheel stops turning. Never stop selling. Be enough of a carny to never stop until you turn the tip from the midway and into the tent and take the dime out of their pocket and put it into yours. Never stop seeing everyone as a walking twenty dollar bill. If you do, you don't deserve the money that others were smart enough to reach out and grab. Never stop selling. The lights on the midway are NEVER off. That may sound harsh to some, but the reality is that if you aren't a hard hustler in the world of art, you probably aren't cut out to be a professional artist. 

I'd like to thank Bryan for the giving of his time.

Check out BRYAN MOORE's work here:


GRAHAM HENDERSON is President and CEO of Music Canada, a trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators. Graham serves on the Boards of the Keats-Shelley Association of America, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the International Federation of Phonographic Industries, The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. He an officer of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Intellectual Property Commission and acts as Copyright Rapporteur. Graham is widely recognized as a thought leader for the creative sector. He is a prominent champion of creator’s rights to be fairly compensated, most notably through the 2012 passage of landmark copyright reform legislation by the Parliament of Canada. Graham is also an outspoken champion of music education in Canada and has written and spoken widely on the transformative power of music.

MA: What was it about Percy Bysshe Shelley, specifically, that first connected with you and what were the circumstances under which this occurred?

GRAHAM HENDERSON: My very first connection with Shelley was a poem my father gave to memorize. I would have been 10 or 11. It was part of a little binder of typewritten poetry that he had selected. If we were able to recite a poem without a mistake he would give us 50 cents. The Shelley poem he selected was 'Arethusa.' What astonished me then, and astonishes me to this day, was Shelley’s extraordinary mastery of the lyric – enjambment in particular. After that, I can’t say I thought much about Shelley until I encountered him again as part of Kenneth Graham’s “Introduction to English Literature” class at the University of Guelph (Ontario). Perhaps it was the seed sown by my father so many years before that made me susceptible to Shelley. Whatever it was, I plunged in pretty quickly. Without question what appealed to me then was Shelley’s politics. I loved that he was so radical, such a rebel. I also liked the idea that I was studying a poet who for decades had been treated with disdain by the university establishment. This was the Seventies, and Shelley was still living in the shadow of the stern and flawed judgements of Arnold, Eliot and others. It was like I was fighting for an underdog – I identified with him.

MA: I’ve long found it difficult to reconcile the privilege by which Shelley and his contemporaries lived with the revolutionary politics of their beliefs. (For me, the proof they were doing more than merely rebelling against daddy is in the quality of their subsequent work). This may be because there are no obvious modern-day equivalents. Or are there?

GH: Unlike many of his privileged contemporaries, I think PBS demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to “walking the walk”. A student of the classical Greeks through and through, he think he knew that words meant little if your actions don’t match. I think he took his poetry seriously – he attempted to undergo the sort of personal imaginative revolution which he believed was necessary for the world to become a better place. In other words he was not a hypocrite. Not sure you can say that about many political revolutionaries. As for contemporaries, surely the best modern example of this Shelleyan spirit was the great Paul Foot. Both would have been viewed by their contemporaries as class traitors – which is to me a badge of honour.

MA: What did you think of Fiona Sampson’s recent biography on Mary Shelley?

GH: I think Sampson’s book is a great disappointment in much the same way as was Haifaa al Mansour’s movie version of Mary’s life. In each case, almost everyone around Mary is denigrated in an effort to get Mary up on impossibly high pedestal. Biography becomes a sort of zero sum game. In order to, as she says, "find the girl that wrote Frankenstein," she apparently believes she must ferociously attack everyone around Mary. It feels like the sort of angry, adversarial tone which characterizes social media trolling is insinuating itself into mainstream biography. I always thought what made Mary so special was the fact that she was surrounded by brilliant engaged minds and that she matched them all. Let’s briefly take Sampson’s attack on Claire Claremont for example. Here’s what she writes: "[Claire Clairmont] isn't as gifted or as intelligent as Mary; but these are never the qualities that lever literary men into bed. Jane-Clara-Clary-Claire is much the more typical poet's girlfriend. She is no writerly rival but a nice little singer; her dark curls are obviously pretty; and she has no interests (or indeed pregnancy) of her own to get in the way of her continual availability....Claire...has no compunction about acting out, or at least acting up."
  The tone of this is shockingly condescending – written by a man it would be roundly condemned as nothing short of sexist. As for Percy, well, it is pretty obvious that she considers him to be a monster – and not only that, but she has almost no appreciation for the political dimension of his poetry (despite having undertaken Faber’s selection of Shelley’s verse). She writes, "I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist." This is called “telegraphing your punch.” It is also betraying your bias. Before a word has been said about Mary, Sampson places Percy in the trash bin of historically irrelevant writers. He is discarded as a bad, dated poet.
  In her interview with Andrew Marr, Sampson sums up Percy's character with these words: "he obviously liked the ladies, he was apparently a social revolutionary, he was part of a communitarian community." The words "obviously" and "apparently" were freighted with sarcasm and disdain when Sampson used them. Sampson went on to dismiss him as having no "political responsibility" and embracing revolutionary ideas solely for "personal and emotional" reasons. It as if this aspect of his character was somehow inauthentic, incidental and unimportant. This is Sampson's judgement of one of the great political thinkers of his or any era. The great Percy Shelley scholar Timothy Webb once remarked that "politics was probably the dominating concern" of his life. Another great Shelleyan, Terrence Hoagwood, believed that Percy was the greatest English political philosopher of his time. For Pete's sake, this is what Karl Marx had to say:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36. Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29 because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”

During the aforementioned interview, Marr says this: “Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most disreputable, disgraceful people I have ever come across on the page. I had no idea how awful he was. Almost everybody, certainly every woman, that comes into contact with him either dies or kills herself or is totally destroyed....The only thing that matters to him is Percy Bysshe Shelley."

Sampson does not say one word about this ridiculous characterization (all of which is based on Sampson’s biography), but she chuckles with evident satisfaction.The most irresponsible thing that Sampson does is to engage in armchair psychological analysis – with the patient having been in the grave for 200 years. Even James Bieri who was a psychologist stayed away from this. For example, Shelley, she suggests, “resembles a type of highly gifted young man who receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but remains high-functioning because manifesting only on the manic end of the spectrum”.
  As Professor John Mullan wrote in the New Statesman, “Those who like their biography to be austerely reliable will flinch at the frequent introduction of some piece of psychological guesswork with “it’s hard not to feel”, “it’s hard not to suspect”, “one can’t help feeling”, or “it is easy to imagine”.

I personally think Mary would roll in her grave were she to discover her friends and loved ones attacked in her name in such an ad hominem manner. At one point Sampson makes it clear that her biography of Mary is designed for the “MeToo” era. To make this work she needed to invent a super villain and she does so with gusto. This is not measured advocacy, it is advocacy with an axe. There is one extremely curious thing about this biography by the way – she has almost nothing but good things to say about Byron – even defending his decision to send little Allegra to a convent where she died. Go figure. I think Lynn McDowell in her review in The Herald summed it up nicely:

 “Biography is meant to be an objective art. Stick to the verifiable facts; maintain an authoritative tone; don’t invite conjecture and definitely don’t play armchair psychologist. Fiona Sampson, a prize-winning poet and editor, has eschewed all four rules as she seeks to get inside the head of Mary Shelley, so intent on seeing everything solely from her subject’s perspective that she becomes almost enthusiastic about attributing blame for what happens.”

MA: I have my own issues with the biography (reviewed below), but I do think her perspective on Mary’s treatment by her contemporaries, at least, is spot-on. What biographies on either Shelley would you recommend?

GH: My favourite full length biography of Percy is now James Bieri’s – though Richard Holmes was my go to for many, many years. I would also recommend Paul Foot’s 'Red Shelley' – it was breathtaking to read – a magnificent effort to reclaim the radical Shelley for our modern age. Then, of course there is 'The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical' by Kenneth Neill Cameron. The great Shelley scholar Neil Fraistat told me that he was “in awe of that book” – and with good reason. There is also a more recent book by Jacqueline Mulhallen: 'Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary.' It is extremely approachable and enjoyable. As for Mary, I think Anne Mellor’s remains the essential biography.

MA: What are your favourite PBS poems - and / or pieces of prose - and why?

GH: My favourite poems are the political poems: 'Prometheus Unbound' in particular. I also think 'Julian and Maddalo' is hugely underrated. From his prose, the 'Defense of Poetry.' And of course, his letters, they just sparkle with wit and erudition.

MA: For someone interested who may never have read PBS, or may be daunted by the prospect, which of his works might act as a good introduction?

GH: A perfect gateway drug to the works of Shelley is 'Ozymandias.' Here you see the exquisite lyricism for which he is so justly famous, but you also get (packed into a single sonnet), most of his politic philosophy. I would also suggest 'To Wordsworth,' 'England in 1819,' 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,' 'Ode to the West Wind,' and, of course, 'Arethusa.'

Many thanks to Graham for sparing his time.

To learn more, visit
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In Search Of Mary Shelley – The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson,
Profile Books

It is an occupational hazard for any biographer, faced with a subject who kept either a meagre or incomplete archive, as how best to fill the gaps. I know. One way is to delineate place in its historical context in which these gaps reside. Another is simply to confess the gaps in the text and move on. The first is clearly the preferable option. Then again, it isn't entirely satisfactory either. You ask yourself; what direct effect did these have on the subject? If none seem apparent, based on subsequent research, the biographical gap remains. This is an issue with the opening chapters. Neither of Mary's famous social revolutionary parents – William Godwin (known then for An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793)) nor Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)) are known to have left such relevant, personal reminiscences, certainly regarding their second daughter’s early years. Sampson, understandably, compensates. That compensation, however, reads as too assumption-heavy. The first two chapters are the issue. The first posits the possible scenario around little Mary Godwin’s birth: ‘this must be the scene Mary (Wollstonecraft) imagines as she sends a message for (her husband) William (Godwin) to come and meet his baby.’ Also, ‘what does William feel at this point?...I think he is hovering.’ (p.20). The second about the circumstances of their moving and her early years: ‘For she and Godwin can only approve of such child-centred books,’ and ‘it would be nice to think,’ etc. (p.32). There are other examples. Since subsequent chapters enlighten through academic skill and empathy with the subject, this surmising jars.
  Fortunately, as we reach the growing Mary Godwin’s own journals and work, the biography comes into its own. A profile of the subject swiftly emerges; a woman considerate, compassionate, independent, but publicly shy. In social contexts at least, she harbours a modesty and coolness as 'a devout but nearly silent listener,' she later confesses to holding her back professionally. It is during her impressionable early womanhood - from seventeen to the age of twenty-five - that she meets and falls in love with the simpatico poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She appears well aware of his failings, (including the casual affairs and seeming lack of concern for basic domestic upkeep), tolerating them to an extraordinary degree; presumably since she so admires what he represents, sharing - through her parentage - his dissenting beliefs.
  Now released in paperback, Sampson’s latest biography offers valuable re-evaluation of a writer, less in her husband’s shadow than that of her most famous creation. To its credit, it also reveals the callous disregard Mary experienced, once successful, of her husband’s (so-called) friends and contemporaries. Often claiming penury through excessive travel and, no doubt, gambling, the biography reveals how these rich men’s sons drained her of her own modest earnings for all they were worth to help sustain their formerly pampered lifestyles. Promises of future publication were just as easily disregarded once made.
  Among the guilty of Mary’s fair-weather friends are Thomas Medwin, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Hobbs, Jane Williams and Edward Trelawney. (Trelawney at least offered Mary initial support and is by far the most interesting personality of this group). Later in life, Mary would reflect on what she observed of them: ‘violent without any sense of Justice – selfish in the extreme – talking without knowledge – rude, envious and insolent.’ (p. 244) A twentieth century parallel of such a relationship might be seen in that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath; in that, despite the parallel talent of the wife, the husband is the one feted by the patriarchal establishment, virtually at her expense, while left to casually cheat upon her with other women, under its protection.
   PB Shelley is drawn as one whose idealism finds difficulty shoehorning itself into domestic life. His regular touring absences also suggest an instinctive avoidance of confrontation, with the inevitable consequence of occasional, eccentric outbursts. While Sampson often refers to him as ‘a dreamer,' it is a dearth in empathy by which he is painted; perhaps the very thing he rebelled against in his Tory grandee father, Sir Timothy. What isn't even glimpsed here, however, is the firebrand radical of Oxford so clearly rendered in Heathcote Williams's celebratory prose poem of 2012. Sampson by contrast, portrays an absconding figure who appears to cynically manipulate his own high ideals soon after tying-the-knot in this, his second marriage. This 'normalizes' him, certainly, but it also feels overly partial.
  Occasionally, he also comes over as Byron at his worst, although there is an irony here. Byron himself comes out of his relationship with Mary rather well. Admiring the MS of Frankenstein, and not questioning its authorship, he acts as patron for her as well as for Percy, sending and receiving publisher-related correspondence to John Murray (his own publisher) and others. After Percy’s tragic early death, he continues to advise and trust Mary as proofreader of his own new work, without – surprisingly – inevitable recourse to the bedroom. Clearly, he held more than just a candle for Percy and his oeuvre and his constancy here is admirable. If nothing else, Byron was no flippant, transient dandy and this instance is a further example of how he held fast to certain principles throughout his own short life.
  While the preponderance of biographer surmising takes up the first two chapters, Sampson subsequently unites the seeming contradictions in Mary’s character; from ‘the icily furious intellectual to pint-sized blonde in a fit of giggles’ portrayed in Richard Rothwell’s famous portrait of 1839, to she who believes ‘self-denial…disappointment, and self-control, are a part of our (self) education.’ (p.235). I was left wondering to what extent Mary was less a victim of her husband, than a victim of her own high level of trust and expectation. By the end, I felt I knew as much of Mary as a single biography could be expected to deliver. It is, however, a pity that Sampson didn't draw upon other existing sources to offer a fuller, less partial portrait of her husband.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8

Editorial: More by default than contrivance, PROTA 8 is strictly bookish. Our latest guest contributor is author, bookseller and long-term JG Ballard aficianado, STEPHEN E. ANDREWS. Here, he convincingly argues for greater, deeper coverage of literature and its creators across the media, where too often it is the poorest relation amongst popular culture. He ends with a related anecdote, both witty and telling. New releases from Tartarus and Egaeus Press get the regular 'Pan' dissection and we end with the all-too-occasional round-up under Albertine's Wooers. Enjoy...

Empire of the Scum:
J.G. Ballard meets the Pond Life Literati

By Stephen E. Andrews

There are more books in the world than there any other type of product. I don’t mean copies of books, but titles as in discrete and specific works. I’m also referring particularly to professionally published texts printed in codex form and deliberately excluding self-published and e-books. This has been the case for many, many decades. In any given year in the UK alone, around 100,000 new titles are issued, a similar number go out of print and there are usually around 600,000 different volumes available to order at any given moment. Globally, these numbers expand into millions. You might think there must be another consumer durable that is created and manufactured in greater numbers and diversity, but you’d be wrong. More than anything, printed books still define human civilisation.
   Despite this fecundity, books are invisible to many: in its fixation on sport as the opium of the people, the mass media’s coverage of literature is neglectful, tantamount to deliberate starvation. The paucity of book programmes on television and radio –those that do exist always focus on authors already famous or whatever the major publishers are currently hyping – is an international disgrace. Consequently, those of us who work in the book trade (whether writers, publishers or booksellers) are like the fish in M. C Escher’s print Three Worlds, barely visible beneath the surface of a murky pond, hardly ever breaking the meniscus above us into the oxygen of public awareness above.
   In the hierarchy of literary Pond Life, booksellers like me are the lowest of the low. Inhabitants of the Empire of the Scum, we can’t ever float like duckweed on the surface as authors who have ‘made it’ do. We speak to more readers than any editor or author ever does every single day. We are quietly influential, but in reality never actually make any work into a bestseller, except maybe in the town our bookshop resides in. There’s a rumour that a bookseller did this with John William’s Stoner, (an almost singular example of a novel becoming a bestseller some forty odd years after initial publication) but the fact is that this is a myth. NYRB Classics reissued Stoner over a decade ago before rights were claimed by Vintage in the UK some years later, but it was one of that imprint’s own surface floaters (the default English ‘literary zeitgeist’ novelist Ian McEwan) talking about the book on national radio that really got copies of Stoner selling en masse.
   Some writers recognise that the committed bookseller is more than an anonymous piece of software in the mainframe of literature. Instead, they treat us with respect as collaborators in bringing something special to individual readers for no more reward than a minimalist wage packet and the joy of sharing the revelation of neglected but striking art. For career booksellers, the most important perk of all is meeting one’s idols and enthusiastically evangelising their works.
   One of my favourite authors is J.G. Ballard. Despite early critical acclaim, Ballard didn’t cross over into mainstream acceptance from the ghetto of SF until his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984. Having entered the book trade in the autumn this event occurred, I can confidently state that if this shortlisting (and the press reviews that accompanied it) had not occurred, Ballard would have remained underwater for most readers for far longer, possibly eternally. After all, Steven Spielberg would never have filmed Crash, would he? Like most commentators and interpreters working above the surface, Spielberg doesn’t really engage with the obscure: all of his literary adaptations are of tomes that were already bestsellers.
   This is where my workmates and I come in. As a rare example of that mutant amphibian known as the Writer-Bookseller, I shamelessly promote work I find stimulating to like-minded readers both in person from behind a counter and in print. My work on guides such as 100 Must Read Books For Men bought me brief notoriety via Radio 4’s Open Book programme while my Amazon bestseller 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels led tangentially to my becoming a contributor to Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology, an (almost) annual collection of prose and visual works in honour of my icon published by Terminal Press.
   My first piece for this handsome full-colour illustrated trade paperback anthology was for the 2016 edition, a lengthy anecdotal essay on what it’s been like seeing Ballard break through the surface tension from my perspective as a thirty-year bookseller who had encounters with the great man himself. Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 was published very recently and features much enlightening and entertaining material by the likes of Paul Di Fillipo, Maxim Jakubowski, David Pringle (major veteran genre mavens all) and newer arrivals such as myself and James Reich (a nascent generation working at shaking up SF and slipstream writing). Although some of my magnificent peers have contributed startling short stories that homage Ballard in Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018, I’ve aimed to mesh travel writing with literary history in a Ballardian context in a piece entitled 'Me: Capri: Brigitte Bardot,' this heading reflecting JGB’s condensed novel 'You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe.'
   To give you an idea what my writing – and a bookseller’s life – is like, here’s an anecdote. Some decades ago, Ballard was doing a signing at a large Hampstead bookshop. Twenty minutes into his stint, no-one had turned up to get a copy of his new novel inscribed. Ever amiable and avuncular, Ballard suggested to the bookshop manager that he’d just be off, as the event clearly wasn’t a happening deal. Two minutes after the author had departed, a gleaming black sports car darted up to the pavement outside the shop. Out of the car stepped Bryan Ferry bearing a pile of Ballard first editions for signing; Crash almost met 'Re-Make: Re-Model.' Ferry had tried but, like the rest of us, he could not find a way.

Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 is published by Terminal Press.

Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele, Tartarus Press

Committed readers of indie press may be surprised to learn that Michael Eisele's latest short tale collection is only his second. You could be forgiven for assuming otherwise since another mature author by this name had previously self-published four collections and one novel. (Between 2005 – 2008). Another reason for forgiving such an assumption is the sheer assured accomplishment of ours. Add the fact he's made his three-quarter century having previously supported himself across a wealth of trades and temporary manual jobs that took in the America of his birth, Germany, Hungary, ending up in the Brecon Beacons, then such life experience has clearly stood our Michael Eisele in good stead.
   Tree Spirit is only Eisele's second collection - after The Girl With The Peacock Harp (Tartarus, 2016) - where even the 'lesser' tales harbour greatness. Again, we are in the folk-horror territory of fantasy, melding Hoffmann, Carter and Pullman. The opener, 'Mouse,' is a pleasingly fictitious account of the struggling, foundling years of Schalken the painter and the supernatural little familiar destined to immortalise his very soul. 'Sacrifice' drops us into the middle of one dark seeker's ongoing search for the Tablet of Suliman; one needful of a companion who must pay for its purchase with her life. The companion he so casually chooses he soon underestimates.
   'Come Not High' is a sole example of SF where an alien race parallel a Biblical rebirth upon another world. If hardly original in concept, its presence here is a not unwelcome surprise. The title tale, however, may become a classic. Aeons ago, a tribe's woodcarver receives a vision of a tree spirit. She commands him to use his skill to fashion, and so release, her here in the material world, from 'the great spirit tree of the forest,' so she may find renewed life upon the waters of the Great River. Ignorant of the fate such an 'honour' might bestow, his own, as a consequence, becomes all too clear. The tale's strength is its quiet sensuality, as the female spirit gradually draws out the simple woodcarver's love of his craft to ultimately command his fate.
   'The Wife' – along with 'Leshi,' where a wayward son is summoned back to take over his late father's mountain-top pile – is the entry most adhering to the Hoffmannesque Gothic; especially in the nature of the beast to whom she finds herself married. A welcome lightening of mood climaxes the book in a connected trio of gently humorous folk tales; 'Brown Jenkins,' 'The Gardinel' and 'The Black Man.' This three-tale arc is narrated by the semi-literate familiar of a rookie witch who encounters a house, home to one she is feted to replace. These are both amusing and needful of further sequels' should Eisele ever have the yen. 'The Nun's Tale,' ending the collection, focuses on the topic of transfiguration as an elderly Catholic priest recalls his time as a novice, sent to the Amazon rainforest to seek out a missionary priestess lost to civilisation. What he found intimates madness – but in who?
   Amidst the human protaganists, I applaud Eisele for joining Carter and Pullman in updating the classic fairy tale characters of dwarf, giant and werewolf while firmly adhering to the tradition. With no appended credits page, this appears to be first publication for all fifteen tales. The broad use of the genre unified in the quality of feeling and mood. You could do no better than prioritising this title as your main summer read.

A Book Of The Sea, Edited by Mark Beech, Egaeus Press

The resulting submissions that cohere from disparate collection prompted by Mark Beech's call - enjoy two sets of linking themes. The first can be defined as the evocation and re-creation of lost art; lost for the personal spiritual 'benefit' and self-justification of the tales' protagonists. Good examples abound here from names both new (to me) and established.
   Stephen J. Clark's 'The Figurehead of the Cailleach' is Buchanesque folk horror seen through the filter of his artist's eye. As with the best tales here, it is served by an atmospheric prose that doesn't try too hard, but rather insinuates with a pace both encroaching and ominous. In Karim Ghahwagi's intriguing 'Sorrow of Satan's Book,' the Scandi-sea is haunting atmospheric background to a tale of an art-obsessed film scholar. He is en route to a pre-arranged meeting with a screenwriter to discuss the production of a screenplay for silent film director, Carl Dreyer; only to find, upon arrival, the police cordon of a crime scene. A metaphysical mystery, it hints upon the madness that can be borne of inspiration. Colin Insole's 'Dancing Boy' is a small dilapidated boat, the restoration of which becomes a labour of love for its new owner, ignorant of the curse of its dark past. Jonathan Woods' 'From Whence It Came' concerns an artist's growing obsession with elemental nature, the tides, and his attempts to find the secret, and match, his late feted artist uncle's 'perfection' in paint from the site where he'd once lived.
   The second linking theme utilises the more traditional angle of the protagonist-in-danger spawned by the sea itself. Rosalie Parker's 'Waiting' concerns a young woman – dockside in 18th century England - finding betrayal from the very love that had for too long sustained her. With no overt horror, the ending intimates another sense of loss in just how fickle can be an emotion so powerful. A more overt expression of intense emotion can be read in Tom Johnstone's full-blooded Lovecraftian 'In The Hold It Waits.' A crate harbouring an unknown terror, again in the inevitable century, feted to curse its possessor through events already dire, is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The tension-steeped prose never falters. Familiar territory, yes, but graphically rendered. A rare, very welcome treat is a new tale from George Berguno. (Lauded previously in these pages). The understated 'Woman From Malta' finds a visiting protagonist received with suspicion as a series of actions – in the stead of an unpopular seer - may be more than mere history repeating. It is, perhaps, the collection's most subtle and sophisticated entry.
   The high quality of the majority of submissions left an inevitable few that didn't quite match. The baroque prose-style of one – while committed and contemporaneous – also acted as an occasional obstacle to this more general reader's concentration. A second, interesting in its narrative perspective, lacked the standard of prose attained elsewhere. This may be Mark Beech's most consistently successful collection so far. As ever, the use of well chosen stock period paintings and engravings enhance, rather than overpower or submerge, the texts. The number of featured authors high on my unofficial list of current favourites, is also great.

Albertine's Wooers

Joyce Carol-Oates' Night-Gaunts & Other Tales of Suspense (Head Of Zeus) should harbour the uncanny. Snuggly Books have a whole raft of intriguing new releases, including Colin Insole's Valerie & Other Stories, a very long-awaited, first-time p/b reissue for Count Stenbock's Studies Of Death and new collections by contemporary Decadent-era authors, Renee Vivien and Jane de la Vaudere; Lilith's Legacy: Prose Poems & Short Stories and The Double Star & Other Occult Fantasies, respectively. Finally, for those with more traditional tastes, we have Black Shuck Books A Suggestion Of Ghosts: Supernatural Fiction By Women, 1854-1900; Victorian-era tales collected for the very first time, edited by J.A. Mains with an intro by Lynda E. Rucker.