Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Drug and Other Stories by Aleister Crowley, Wordsworth Editions

The ‘Mystery and Supernatural’ series of Wordsworth Editions could (were I at all religious) be considered a Godsend.  Over the past five years’ a skeleton staff (naturally) have, admirably, been scouring those lists of 18th, 19th and early 20th Century authors many of us are only familiar with as names from our own scouring of charity bookshops.
  Haven’t we often wondered, half-curious eyes glancing across the shelves over the stained, dusty spines of red, green and blue, what lies behind such ambiguous names as F. Marion Crawford, J. H. Riddell, or the unintentionally humorous Oliver Onions?  All are now available as collected ‘Wordsworths’ to easily discover for ourselves. 
  The argument in favour of releasing such versions is clear.  Bringing to the fore cheap, collected editions of unfairly neglected authors, circumventing high expenditure on POD mock-up, first edition facsimiles for the buyer, can only be applauded.  Yet, occasionally, too much of a good thing can apply.  Such is the case with this new collection of very rare Aleister Crowley.
  Being no authority on The Beast – long ago submerged under mystical bullshit from supporters and detractors alike - I approached with some caution.  Yet, what we find is revelatory.  The best of these tales are short, tightly plotted, character studies where the Baudelaire-tinged, deprecating wit is controlled and not undermining of the stories focus.  Here, Crowley has nothing to declare but the story itself.  These include the title tale, one of the earliest accounts of a hallucinatory trauma; ‘The Testament of Magdalen Blair’; a tale of personality transference akin to ‘The Exorcist’ but grounded more in early psycho-science than Catholicism.  ‘The Bald Man’ is a quite superb, and, for Crowley, surprisingly emotional, World War One horror story; and ‘Black and Silver’; a positive depiction of a woman with strong sexual control over men, sears into the brain its highlighted, contrasting shades.  
  This last is worth noting since Crowley’s depiction of women elsewhere is otherwise shamefully misogynistic.  Usually, one is introduced only to be just as swiftly despatched to bolster the uneventful plots of the other, more inferior tales; too often the staple of much pre-1940s’ supernatural fiction.  We might expect this from Western short stories of the time, where the ‘Indians’ only appeared over the horizon to be casually and horribly slaughtered.  But to treat fifty-per-cent of the human population with such contempt, even in 1913, points to, at best, a lazy immaturity.
  Despite the back cover accolade, it is also one other reason I had little patience for ‘Atlantis’; an overlong, plot-forsaken inventory of satirical pastiche that takes the mystical joke too far and for too long.  Others, such as ‘The Three Characteristics’ and ‘The Stone of the Philosophers’ are of a similar, fantastical setting, equally obscure, and, being more mystifying than mystical, also unlikely to appeal to anyone but the Crowley collector.
  Elsewhere in the collection, and more to his credit, there is the strong sense that Crowley is playing up his contemporary reputation as the ‘wickedest man in England’ as another lampooning target.  This is something of a revelation considering he was still only in his early thirties at the time of their writing.
  Other tales with a contemporary setting, such as ‘The Soul-Hunter,’ ‘Every Precaution’ and ‘The Mysterious Malady,’ turn to insanity as the theme, and enjoyable for all that.  Each foreshadows William Burroughs’s subsequent depictions of science’s faceless amorality; depiction without judgement.  In ‘Felo de Se,’ Crowley suddenly, and pleasingly, appears as himself, (albeit unnamed), justifying encouragement to a prospective younger disciple who intends taking his own life.
  A word on the Foreword by David Tibet and Introduction by William Breeze.  Each is crucially informative and vital for readers coming to this author for the first time to gauge where Crowley himself was coming from. (Somewhere few others had been in England at the time). Not always great, but never less than intriguing, the best of these forty-nine tales (nineteen of which are published here for the first time) may yet fulfil the label, ‘a classic release.’


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Rise of the POD People / A Pan Review Welcome

The rise of print-on-demand is proving a double-edged sword.  The best of these print-packaging companies can be seen to offer decent quality releases of rare and hard-to-find titles.  The worst too often peddle incomplete or even manually type-copied texts with generic covers wholly unsympathetic to the material within.   Invariably, it is these you find clogging-up more deserving book-finder sites such as Bibliofind.
  The socialist in me is less concerned about POD's lack of worldwide regulation, and a lot more troubled by the ease with which these poorer companies compete with the best on an apparent equal footing.  Thus, to the eye, no clear differentiation for the hopeful but unwary punter with his or her debit card.
  When you buy from Penguin, Little Brown, Harper Collins, or whoever, you don't first consider the physical quality of the book itself.  'Is the book gonna be any good?' you ask yourself.  Or, you might just wonder if you can afford it right now, or wait for some later date when you are more flushed.  The first question is rarely, 'will I be happy with the production?' as it is when you ponder on POD.  Again, you are, naturally enough, divided.  If you can't purchase the book any other way than second hand, from an antiquarian store abroad, and for a three-figure sum, you might convince yourself it is worth putting up with the odd imperfection you could put down to the book being POD.  Alternatively, you will just have to take your chance and hope, blind, a refund might be as forthcoming from them as from Waterstones.  Yes, well, don't hold your breath...
  Yet the temptation harbours its own irresistible challenge to the self.  For on receipt there still remains a guilty pleasure in opening your cardboard package, finding the new - otherwise rare - copy inside you decide you can be happy with, and, on the back fly-page, the print date of just four days before; a small but definitive confirmation it is somehow personal to you.  The new 'printer's devil' has arrived.

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So, welcome all.  What do I intend with PAN REVIEW?  The hope is I will be book-critiquing, about twice-a-month, specialising in genre and cult short fiction, old and new, undeservedly overlooked or best-forgotten.  I am in a proud minority that sees the novel as overrated as an art form in 2011.  Nowadays, life is too short to immerse oneself in a single story averaging 200 - 600 pages.  I hear the usual arguments.  'But I need time and space to get to know the characters and get under their skins.'  As comedian Brian Conley used to say to his audience, enthralled by one of his props; "It's a puppet!"  In other words, it is a fictitious creation like any other, and, if the story is well written, does not require excess length.  If a good (as in convincing) character cannot be liked or even grudgingly approved within fifty pages, that character is leaving something to be desired in execution.
  Any character worth the candle can always be re-introduced in a sequel story anyway, as also occurs in the episodes of long-running TV series.  This is the point for me.  The snobs of the BBC's 'Late Review' may sneer at manuscripts being clearly intended as screenplays-in-waiting.  I embrace that.  There is something woefully precious and anal in this day and age about a novel that refuses to cite the wider medium in which it is a likely part.  The Media - for better and worse - is neither anal nor precious.  For an intellectual treatise (some of which I gladly have on my own shelves) there is always non-fiction.
  Am I anti-novel?  Certainly not.  I just believe it doesn't serve the heart and the head in the way it once did through the last two-hundred years.  The short story may never supplant it.  But it shall return in popularity; of that you can be certain.