Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Mark Valentine's Essays on Little-Known Authors


Peter Cooper writes in the new issue of The Book Collector (Summer 2022):

The four collections of essays by Mark Valentine published by Tartarus Press in Yorkshire contain some of the best writing on books of the last twenty years. It is unsurprising that his name is not cited alongside Basbanes, Dirda or Gekoski, for Valentine’s chosen subject is, more often than not, the rediscovery of a neglected author or lighting a candle at the shrine of an author who had no wide audience in life.

As Cooper suggests, Mark Valentine's four volumes of essays, Haunted by Books (2018), A Country Still All Mystery (2017), A Wild Tumultory Library (2019), and Sphinxes and Obelisks (2021) discuss, in the main, relatively obscure authors. It is Mark's genuine enthusiasm for these writers and their books that makes his essays so readable. The essays are by no means academic in style--Mark has a lightness of touch, always with an elegant turn of phrase, that is very compelling.

The first collection, Haunted by Books, went under the critical radar, although it sold out very quickly in its first hardback printing, and the paperback reprint continues to sell well. It contained essays touching on authors such as Robert Aickman and Michael Arlen, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Walter de la Mare--none of them particularly widely known. Mark also discussed Mary Butts, H.A. Manhood and Peter Vansittart, authors known to an even smaller coterie of readers. How many, who consider themselves well-read, will have come across the books of Claude Houghton, Charles Welsh Mason, L. Furze Morrish or J.C. Snaith? In every instance Mark makes a strong case for hunting out the works of these writers, explaining just what they still have to offer a modern reader.

A Country Still all Mystery continued in a similar vein, but when Mark discussed a book as widely recognised as The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, he viewed it from an alternative, personal angle. Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions and Sarban were also considered, as was M.R. James. Other recommendations included the thrillers of R.C. Ashby, and the books of C.R.J. Carstairs. Mark also ventured, compellingly, into other outre territory, such as Extra-Parochial Districts and The English Catalogue of books. 

Rosemary Pardoe wrote, in the Ghost and Scholars Newsletter 32, that "Mark's easy, elegant and erudite style, and his vast knowledge of books, places, forgotten legends and folklore, ensure that every single essay is an enjoyable read."

Ian Holloway at Wyrd Britain posted online that the book was "A hugely recommended read for anyone with an interest in the roads less travelled and in the words spoken with a quieter resonance."


A Wild Tumultory Library was described in Publishers Weekly as: "This delightful collection . . . Valentine’s essays brim with fascinating insights and details . . . Book lovers will find this volume’s contents compulsively readable and will almost certainly be driven to seek out the many books and authors cited with whom they are not already familiar."

Michael Dirda wrote in The Washington Post "A Wild Tumultory Library . . . is just as enthralling as its predecessors, Haunted by Books and A Country Still All Mystery. Against all reason, I devoured this latest collection in one night, unable to stop myself. Actually, that’s not quite true. I did pause occasionally to search online for some of the titles Valentine writes about so infectiously."

Michael Dirda's last comment echoes that of several readers who have been using Mark Valentine's essays as a reading list, and it is noticeable how copies of books that he recommends often disappear from online bookselling sites within a couple of weeks of the publication of his volumes of essays!


Sphinxes and Obelisks, Mark Valentine's fourth and latest volume of essays, has been just as well-received. Who would not want to know about Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins or H.M. Vaughan in ‘The Interplanetary Jacobite'?, and thereafter the recommendations become even more esoteric and colourful. Mark Valentine is a delightful guide through what he describes as the "undergrowth" of litertaure, the forgotten and usually unremarked writers whose strange and curious qualities have languished in the back rooms of secondhand bookshops for far too long.

It should be noted that all four of Mark Valentine's volumes contain a great deal of original writing, and also collect essays from otherwise fugitive, often small press publications. Several essays also appeared at the Wormwodiana blog, where Mark continues to post, and which we heartily recommend.

Mark Valentine, frontispiece, A Wild Tumultory Library.

Mark Valentine's volumes of essay can be bought as paperbacks by following these links:
 

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

All the Different Editors

 
Tartarus Press books on the shelves of Watkins Bookshop, London

In the world of book publishing the term ‘editor’ covers a multitude of different responsibilities, all requiring unique creative skills. Every publisher will have their own way of working, but in a small publishing house like Tartarus Press the first role is that of the ‘commissioning’ or ‘acquisitions’ editor, whose job is to recognise the quality in manuscripts that have been submitted. Recognising literary merit is one part of the editor’s job, along with knowing what will be enjoyed by readers and might be, hopefully, commercially viable. It is a judgement call that begins the publishing process.

Next there is then the traditional role of what might be called the ‘developmental’ editor, who works with the author to get the very best out of a manuscript. Sometimes a book will be submitted that requires no additional work at all, but for every manuscript like this there will be another that requires further development to realise its full potential. Every book is different and the relationship between the author and editor can be a very personal and intense one. Some writers will insist on thanking an editor in their acknowledgements because they know that the book bearing their name would not have been as good without the editor’s input. Traditionally, the editor goes quietly about their business unacknowledged, but influential editors such as Diana Athill have recently become recognised for their work in shaping not only individual books, but the careers of writers, and even the direction of a publishing house.

All the above applies equally to novels, single author short story collections and individual short stories destined for new anthologies by contemporary writers.

There is a quite different editorial role when ‘curating’ an anthology or collection of previously published writing. Our collected editions of classic writers from Arthur Machen to Oliver Onions, from Edith Wharton to Walter de la Mare, require editors who know the author’s work well and can make informed decisions on what to include, and what to leave out. When we have used ‘external’ editors such as Mark Valentine and Richard Dalby, they will often provide an ‘Introduction’ to the book, and are credited as the editor. When the books have been curated ‘in house’, we have not always credited ourselves.

Once the book is as good as it can be in creative terms, a ‘copy editor’ has a vital role to play. It is inevitable in a manuscript of 70,000 words or more that there will be simple mistakes, ranging from slips in spelling or punctuation to statements of fact. These are easily missed while so many other creative matters are being considered, especially when the text has been read and reread many times. Added to these may be changes so the text conforms with a ‘house style’ (single or double quotation marks, Oxford comma or not, etc.). And then there is the requirement for consistency.

Finally, proof-reading should not be overlooked as a part of the editorial process. At Tartarus Press all books are proof-read in-house, and then we have Jim Rockhill proof-read them again. We don’t always attain the perfection we aim for, but a reprint is a good excuse for a further proof-read.

 
Rosalie Parker and Mark Valentine at the Brotherton Library, Leeds

Our ‘editor’ at Tartarus Press is Rosalie Parker, and we use the term in such a way as to cover all the roles outlined above. Apart from the award-winning Strange Tales series, her creative input into most Tartarus Press books goes without being noted. Our authors, however, realise the importance of her role, because publication is not just about seeing their writing in print, but in it being offered to its best possible advantage.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Robert Aickman at the Barbican

 


Robert Aickman moved into 530 Willoughby House in the central part of the Barbican (one of the larger flats), in May 1973. The residential complex of 2,000 flats, maisonettes, and houses was still being built in central London, on land flattened by bombing during the Second World War. It is a massive exercise in Brutalist architecture and appears, in many respects, an unlikely choice for a man with not just a passion for the past, but a profound dislike for most aspects of the present day. This kind of innovative new housing was greeted with almost universal approval when first built (it often replaced appalling slum housing), and the many subsequent social problems associated with such devel­opments can usually be attributed to a lack of ongoing invest­ment. The Barbican, however, is still considered desirable because it has been well maintained, no doubt because it has remained rental housing for the middle and upper-middle-classes.

 

Aickman had to move not only his furniture, but also his books, his waterways archive, his literary and personal papers, his very large collection of theatre programmes (3,000 were accepted by the Victoria and Albert Museum after his death), and a huge reference archive of newspaper and magazine clippings. He employed Harrods to move everything for him, although he never forgave them for losing a knob from an item of furniture. His new accommodation was on two floors, overlooking the lake, but he hated it from the start. Moving to the Barbican was originally the idea of his friend Felix Pearson, who admitted to David Bolton ‘that it turned out to be an unfortu­nate choice’. Robert Aickman lived there for only three years, and his main complaint was that noise from the nearby telephone exchange distracted him from his writing. 

 

Aickman tried to make the best of his time at Willoughby House. Visitors remember it being furnished like a stately home, with old-fashioned furniture and books. Ramsey Cambell wrote:

 

[Robert] was now living in the Barbican, an apartment com­plex whose functional exterior concealed, in Robert’s case, a home from an altogether more genteel age.

 

Under the headline ‘A chill wind in the Barbican’, Carol Dix interviewed Aickman for The Guardian in 1976 and entered into what she considered the spirit of the meeting by likening the Barbican to a castle from a Gothic novel. She wrote:

 

The modern, square box of a Barbican apartment has been skilfully arranged to look like the wing of a minor country house. His writing studio is lined with old books, editions of ghost stories, and velvet curtains where mysterious draughts can blow.


 

Barbican exterior, 2021

Rosalie Parker and I visited The Barbican in June 2021. Access is for residents only, but we fell into conversation with one of them, and he kindly let us into the building. He was interested to know about Aickman, and in turn told us that his flat had been previously owned by the actor Roger Moore. There is something quite soulless about the various corridors, despite the fact that they are carpeted. The uniformity makes it a rather Kafkaesque.


 Robert Aickman's front door

It does seem to be a very unlikely environment for Robert Aickman. His next flat, at Gledhow Gardens, was smaller, colder, and up several flights of stairs, but as a period property it better suited his taste and style.


12 Gledhow Gardens, London SW5

 

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Robert Aickman and Winifred Wagner

Winifred Wagner

In Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, I discuss the author’s admiration for the actress and film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. I show how Aickman had an uncomfortable appreciation of figures associated with Fascism, and how he was happy to overlook what might seem obvious faults if he considered them to be great artists. Riefenstahl was not the only instance of this.

In a letter to Ramsey Campbell dated 29th November 1976, Aickman wrote:

Have you seen the Winifred Wagner film? Though not up to much cinematographically, it is, as The Times said, ‘Spellbinding’.

The film is The Confessions of Winifred Wagner, essentially a five hour interview given by Wagner in 1975 to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Aickman is likely to have seen the 105 minute version edited for cinema release in the UK.

Wagner was an interesting woman: born in Hastings in England in 1898 and orphaned by the age of two, she was brought up in a series of Sussex children’s homes. Aged ten, she was adopted by relatives of her mother and moved to Germany. Her adopted parents were friends of Richard Wagner, the composer, theatre director, polemicist and conductor, best known for his operas.

Wagner’s son, Siegfried, ran the successful Bayreuth Festival, which had been passed to him by his father. Siegfried was secretly bisexual and it was arranged that seventeen year old Winifred Klindworth (as she was known at that time) would meet Siegfried (aged forty-five), and a year later, they married. The Wagner family hoped that the marriage would shield Siegfried and the family from scandal, and also provide heirs. Winifred and Siegfried dutifully had four children before he died in 1930, when Winifred took over the running of the Bayreuth Festival.

Siegfried and Winifred Wagner

In 1923 Winifred met Adolf Hitler, an admirer of Richard Wagner’s music, and became devoted to him. When Hitler was jailed in 1923 for his part in a failed Nazi Party coup d’état, Wagner not only sent him food parcels, but also stationery on which Mein Kampf may well have been written. In the 1930s she served as Hitler’s translator and their relationship grew so close that by 1933 there were rumours of impending marriage. The Wagner home in Bayreuth became Hitler’s favourite retreat. (He was there so frequently that after the war the Americans assumed it had been his property.)

 
Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner

Winifred Wagner remained personally loyal to Hitler throughout her life (she died in 1980, aged 82), and never admitted any error in their relationship. She insisted that she only ever experienced an immensely positive side of Hitler's personality, and could disassociate that from his (reported) darker side. Hitler was known in her family as 'Wolf'.

In Syberberg's film, Winifred claimed to be absolutely 'unpolitical', but she also admitted she was an ardent National Socialist. Such contradictions are a thread in the film. Another example is that at Bayreuth, Hitler was apparently able to forget affairs of state and consider only music, yet Winifred describes how great political decisions were made there. (She was excluded from her own living room when discussions took place about the exact position of Siegfried Line.)

Winifred was consulted by Hitler about important artists who might be exempted from military service. She also appears to have successfully interceded on the part of a number of Jews and homosexual men who were being persecuted. One particular letter she wrote in the late 1930s to Hitler seems to have prevented Hedwig and Alfred Pringsheim (whose daughter was married to the author Thomas Mann) from being arrested by the Gestapo. It is interesting that this letter should have surfaced when the vast majority of her two-decade long correspondence with Hitler, which has been preserved, has never been made available to researchers. One important motivation for her itercessions (which were generally successful) was to give the Bayreuth Festival access to the best artists.

 
Winifred Wagner at the train station of Bayreuth, 1941

Winifred Wagner argues at the end of the film that contemporary critics cannot possibly understand how ordinary Germans felt about Hitler at the time. Her own children, however, were able to see him for the monster he was. In 1939 Winifred's daughter, Friedeland, became an outspoken critic of Hitler and left Germany. After the war Winifred's son Wieland, a favourite of the Fuhrer, condemned Hitler. In the film Winifred refuses to admit that she did anything wrong, and even acts as an apologist for Hitler by stating that he allowed himself to be too much influenced by others around him. She also does her best to 'humanise' Hitler by offering information such as his enjoyment of 'liver dumplings, despite usually having a vegetarian diet.

After the defeat of Germany, a de-Nazification court banned Winifred from the Bayreuth Festival, the running of which was passed to her sons Wieland and Wolfgang. She complained to Syberberg that she was accused of being a 'beneficiary' of Nazism, but pointed out that her own son ended up being allowed to run 'her' festival and was therefore even more of a beneficiary, and that he was essentially ungrateful considering the favours Hitler had bestowed on him.

By the 1950s Winifred Wagner was once again a successful political hostess. Her grandson has written,

. . . the first lady of right-wing groups . . . received political friends such as Emmy Göring, Ilse Hess, Adolf von Thadden [co-founder of the National Democratic Party], Gerdy Troost, the wife of the Nazi architect and friend of Hitler Paul Ludwig Troost, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, the German NS-movie director Karl Ritter and the racist author and former Senator of the Reich Hans Severus Ziegler.
Gottfried Wagner, Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult  (Cologne, 1997)
 
 

Winifred Wagner interviewed in 1975

Given his views, it is perhaps not surprising that Aickman thought the interview given by Wagner was ‘spellbinding’ (others may reasonably consider it an over-long exercise in self-justification and a display of what we would now call 'entitlement'). However, in his letter to Ramsey Campbell, Aickman also wrote:

Winifred Wagner emerges unmistakeably as a Great Soul.

It is difficult to understand this statement unless one takes Winifred's claims at face value and ignores the obvious contradictions. She insists that she was a scapegoat, and one assumes that her devotion to music and her passionate loyalty to her friend, 'Wolf', commended her to Aickman. Were these qualities, for Aickman, more important than the fact that she was devoted to the dictator responsible for World War Two, who had perpetrated the Holocaust? It is very difficult to understand in what way Aickman could have thought her ‘a Great Soul’.


The above is an expansion of material from Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Gary Couzens, Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement. 

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Robert Aickman: The Six Best Ghost Stories


In The Third Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (Fontana/Collins, 1966) Robert Aickman wrote:

 
Of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ [by Oliver Onions], it must be said that it is one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field; constellated here with Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Wendigo’ in the first collection, and Robert Hichens’s ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ in the second.

 

Having mentioned three of the six (possible) masterpieces in the ghost story genre, Aickman tantalisingly refuses to tell us which are the other stories. It seems reasonable that they are not to be found elsewhere in the first three volumes of the Fontana books he edited (otherwise he would have mentioned them.) This rules out stories that connoisseurs of the genre might have thought strong candidates, including Walter de la Mare’s ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the three remaining stories are to be found somewhere in Aickman's five subsequent Fontana volumes, although we must allow for the possibility that Aickman was unable to obtain copyright permission for them.

Another clue is Robert Aickman’s own library, which was catalogued after his death when it was sent to Bowling Green University. A large number of ghost story writers we know he read are not to be found among these books, so it is very possible that in his later years, having downsized from his large flat at the Barbican to smaller rooms at Gledhow Gardens, Aickman ‘pruned’ his collection. There is a strong possibility, I would argue, that he would have retained those three remaining ‘masterpieces’ on his shelves. I suggest that it is in the over-lap between the Fontana collections and his library that we will find the remaining three stories….

Possibilities from the 4th Fontana volume are:

‘The Sphinx Without a Secret’ by Oscar Wilde
‘The Wolves of Cernogratz’ by Saki
    ‘When I was Dead’ by Vincent O’Sullivan
 
from the 5th

‘The Firmin Child’ by Richard Blum
‘A Question of Time’ by Elizabeth Walter
‘The Great Return’ by Arthur Machen

from the 6th

‘Sorworth Place’ by Russell Kirk

from the 7th

    ‘Dearth’s Farm’ by Gerald Bullett
    ‘Esmeralda’ by John Kier Cross
    ‘The Visit to the Museum’ by Vladimir Nabokov
    ‘Where the Woodbine Twineth’ by Davis Grubb

from the 8th

‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev

All of the above stories were in collections that Aickman retained. Of course, it is possible that he didn’t need to keep a copy of all the ‘masterpieces’ in their original publications, as they were in his own copies of the Fontana volumes.

The only story other than the initial three which Aickman called a masterpiece (actually, an ‘unqualifiable master­piece’) is Turgenev’s ‘Bezhin Lea’. It is, perhaps, the most likely addition to the list which would now comprise:

‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions
‘The Wendigo’ by Algernon Blackwood
‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ by Robert Hichens
‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev

That the remaining two are to be found in the other stories mentioned in this blog is likely, but who can say which they are…

 

Oliver Onions (left) and Algernon Blackwood (right)

Robert Hitchens (left) and Ivan Turgenev (right)

Mark Valentine's Essays on Little-Known Authors

Peter Cooper writes in the new issue of The Book Collector (Summer 2022): The four collections of essays by Mark Valentine published by Ta...